Friday, October 31, 2008

Movies opening this week

Hear me chat about these movies with fellow Las Vegas Weekly film critic Matthew Scott Hunter in this week's Josh Bell Hates Everything podcast.

Changeling (Angelina Jolie, John Malkovich, Jeffrey Donovan, dir. Clint Eastwood)
I have mixed feelings about this movie. It's right in line with the sort of movies that Eastwood has been making lately: earnest, serious, socially responsible, kind of old-fashioned. Sometimes that works, but at other times I felt like this was the last part of Million Dollar Baby blown up into a feature. It's full of cut-and-dried, black-and-white morality; the heroes are sickeningly upstanding, and the bad guys are as awful and conniving as possible. Many have said that it seems like a movie not only set in the 1930s, but also that could have been made in the 1930s. And I like movies from the 1930s, but other things about this one are too modern for the throwback tone to completely work. Still, the plot is compelling, because the true story is just so full of weird twists, and some of the individual scenes are strong. Jolie basically just weeps through the entire movie, but even if she tries a little too hard it's not a bad performance. Sticking to the facts means that there's about four endings and 20 superfluous minutes, which left me feeling less than enthused. Overall, though, it's a worthwhile if flawed effort, but probably not one that's going to clean up at the Oscars. Opened limited Oct. 24; wide release this week

RocknRolla (Gerard Butler, Tom Wilkinson, Thandie Newton, Mark Strong, dir. Guy Ritchie)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
Despite his being hailed as the British Tarantino, I never even thought that much of Guy Ritchie when his first couple of movies came out. They were mostly empty flash, although mildly amusing, and clearly represented the full sum of Ritchie's talent. So here he unsuccessfully tries going back to the well, and it's obvious just how little he had to say in the first place. Frankly, I'm more interested in the directorial debut of his soon-to-be-ex-wife Madonna; it'll probably be terrible also, but almost certainly in a more interesting way. Opened limited Oct. 8; wide release this week

Zack and Miri Make a Porno (Seth Rogen, Elizabeth Banks, Craig Robinson, dir. Kevin Smith)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
Like Guy Ritchie, Kevin Smith is attempting a bit of a return to form here, but he achieves much greater success. This movie isn't as raw as his earliest work, and thus not quite as exciting, but it does strike a decent balance between that indie directness and a more measured Hollywood approach. If nothing else, Smith has finally learned how to shoot unobtrusively; he may not have anything resembling visual style, but at least now his crude anti-style doesn't distract from the story and the dialogue. I'm cautiously optimistic that he may one day be able to make a great movie again. In the meantime, this is entertaining enough. Wide release

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Movies opening this week

(Apologies for lateness; it's been a busy week.) Hear me chat about these movies with UNLV professor Katy Gilpatric, of Movies That Matter and Vegas Arthouse, on this week's Josh Bell Hates Everything podcast.

Flow: For Love of Water (documentary, dir. Irena Salina)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I know I say this a lot, but here again is a movie that doesn't need to be seen on a big screen. It's more educational than entertaining, and clearly slanted toward a certain point of view. That's not necessarily bad, but it means that the audience for this is very narrow and self-selecting. If the issue interests you, you're better off donating your $10 to an organization that brings clean water to underprivileged areas than spending it to see this well-meaning but didactic movie. Opened limited Sept. 12; in Las Vegas this week

High School Musical 3: Senior Year (Zac Efron, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Tisdale, dir. Kenny Ortega)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I have a certain affinity for pop culture marketed to tweens, which tends to get quickly dismissed by mainstream critics (and anyone over the age of 12). I'll gladly stand up for the Jonas Brothers or Aly & AJ or even Wizards of Waverly Place, and the High School Musical series has its moments. There aren't quite enough moments to make this movie worthwhile for anyone other than the diehard fans; a couple of numbers do showcase a bit of creativity, but overall the songs are bland, the acting is flat, and the plot is recycled. But I'm still happy to see entertainment for kids that pays attention to story and character (even in a simplistic way), and at least has a sense of cinematic history when it comes to its genre. This isn't great entertainment on its own by any stretch of the imagination, but it could very well function as a gateway to something better, and for that I have to give it credit. Wide release

Pride and Glory (Edward Norton, Colin Farrell, Noah Emmerich, Jon Voight, dir. Gavin O'Connor)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
This movie is so rote and predictable that I think it had already left my mind by the time we got to this week's podcast. Really, the only thing I remember at this point is Colin Farrell threatening to iron a baby. That certainly got my attention; the rest is instantly forgettable. Wide release

Saw V (Tobin Bell, Costas Mandylor, Scott Patterson, dir. David Hackl)
I actually sat through a marathon of the entire Saw series leading up to this movie (story forthcoming in next week's LVW), which served to highlight how particularly inept it is, even in comparison to the crappy earlier installments. I think Saw IV is the nadir in terms of convolution, but this one is just outright boring, with more contortions to fit in dead Jigsaw and another new accomplice, plus a death-trap scenario with random new characters who never have any bearing on the main plot. There are a bunch of scenes without any payoff that seem to exist solely to set up Saw VI; the prospect of that next chapter is the scariest part of all. Wide release

Friday, October 17, 2008

Movies opening this week

Hear me chat about these movies (well, mainly about W.) with Las Vegas Weekly Managing Editor Ken Miller (plus special guest construction noise!) in this week's Josh Bell Hates Everything podcast.

Max Payne (Mark Wahlberg, Mila Kunis, Beau Bridges, dir. John Moore)
Not quite max pain; only moderate pain, really (ha!). So, yeah, I'm not a video-game guy and have never played this game and thus can't say how well it's been translated to the screen. But it's not a very good movie, so my guess is if you like playing the video game, you'd be better off doing that. Wahlberg can be a good actor, but here he's awkward and stiff, with the same confused scowl on his face for the entire movie (plus, the whole time I kept waiting for him to say "Say hi to your mother for me"). The story makes little sense, the acting is weak, and the aesthetic is murky and borrowed from a number of better movies. It's better than Hitman, at least, but that's not saying much. Wide release

Sex Drive (Josh Zuckerman, Amanda Crew, Clark Duke, dir. Sean Anders)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
This movie has gotten a surprising number of good reviews; maybe I'm slightly biased against gross-out teen comedies, but I cringed through the entire thing, and found it easily one of the worst movies I've seen all year. I do like vulgar comedies when they're clever or have some heart to them (the Harold and Kumar movies, the first American Pie, Superbad, etc.), but this movie features neither. It's unfunny, relentlessly disgusting and consistently homophobic, and I found it pretty much worthless. Wide release

W. (Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Banks, James Cromwell, dir. Oliver Stone)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I'm about as apolitical as you can get these days, and I approached this movie with a bit of trepidation. But while it certainly has its flaws (many of which might have been ameliorated with a slightly longer production schedule), it's overall an interesting and effective take on a man who's been dismissed by a large proportion of Americans (and the vast majority of this movie's likely viewing audience). It's certainly far better than Stone's last movie, the treacly, impersonal World Trade Center, which probably plays better with conservatives but has nothing to say other than that rescue workers are great. Here Stone's idiosyncratic vision is on display, and even if this movie becomes dated I think it will always hold a unique place in his filmography (unlike World Trade Center, which is likely to just be forgotten). The movie might have been even better a few years from now, when Stone could have capped the story properly, but for the nature of the project, it's a more-than-modest success. Wide release

Thursday, October 16, 2008

More news

In addition to being back on the radio, I'm now also the Guide to TV Comedies. I'll be writing informational pieces, reviews and more, as well as blogging, all about comedy on TV. I'll still post about TV here, although probably a little less about comedy shows. Check out the result of lots of hard work over the last few weeks (and more to come) here.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Giving up

There's been barely anything new worth watching in the fall TV season, but there are still a lot of good returning shows, and my viewing schedule has been pretty full. Hence, a few shows have had to fall by the wayside, starting with Heroes, which was consistently dismal all through its second season. I actually have all of this year's episodes of Heroes still sitting on my DVR, but I seem to always have something better to do than watch them. As always, I like the idea of Heroes: a show thoroughly informed by comic-book superhero storytelling, and bringing those conventions to TV with a twist. The problem has been that there isn't much of a twist, that the show just repeats stale superhero-comics tropes with a somber tone and no colorful costumes. Everything I've read about this new season or heard from acquaintances who are still watching indicates to me that it's the same dull repetition and super-seriousness that made last year such a slog, so I'll probably just end up deleting those episodes unseen pretty soon.

I did make an effort to get into The CW's new version of 90210, since I have a weakness for soapy teen dramas, and I did watch the original for many years when I was in middle school and high school. But it's pretty abysmal and just as hokey and cheesy as the old series, and when it became clear that the nostalgia factor wasn't strong enough to keep me around (Shannen Doherty only appeared in a handful of episodes, and Jennie Garth doesn't seem to have anywhere to go with her character), I dropped it. None of the new characters came close to holding my interest, and I get my teen-soap fix much, much more satisfyingly on the still-excellent Gossip Girl.

I've also given up on Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, which I watched during its first season primarily because the writers' strike meant there wasn't much else on TV to watch. But it was always pretty mediocre, and the longer it went on the more apparent it became that the writers would need to keep throwing in new contrivances just to postpone Judgment Day and keep the Connors on the run. You know they're never going to quite defeat Skynet, nor are they ever going to be captured by the Terminators, so the entire show is like one protracted chase scene, and I got tired of it. Since I stopped watching, there's apparently been a whole episode devoted to the history of Cameron the Terminator, which I would have liked to see, but otherwise I don't get the sense that this is going anywhere interesting. I sort of wish they'd just let the Terminator mythology and legacy alone, but even if this show gets canceled (and its ratings have been steadily dropping), there's still that fourth movie in production.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Movies opening this week

Hear me chat about these movies and more with Tony Macklin, film historian and author of Voices From the Set (and fellow curmudgeon), on this week's Josh Bell Hates Everything podcast.

Body of Lies (Leonardo DiCaprio, Russell Crowe, Mark Strong, dir. Ridley Scott)
I think the first hour or so of this movie is fairly effective in its exploration of the dynamic between DiCaprio's on-the-ground CIA agent and Crowe's callous, pragmatic handler back in the U.S. Then once DiCaprio meets the hot Iranian nurse and starts to fall in love, it pretty much devolves into standard thriller nonsense. Strong is also good as the head of the Jordanian intelligence service, and the movie seems genuinely interested in depicting opposing points of view, at least for a little while. But it all kind of falls apart in the last third, and Crowe never quite has enough to do even though his character is potentially interesting. Definitely not as good as it could have been, but more effective in certain ways than a lot of other recent politically conscious narrative films. Wide release

The Duchess (Keira Knightley, Ralph Fiennes, Hayley Atwell, Dominic Cooper, dir. Saul Dibb)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
Knightley is good at the whole period-piece thing, but this is a pretty dull, rote example of it. I generally like soap opera and bodice-ripping, but it seemed like there was a whole political and social story here that barely got told in favor of some tedious melodramatics. Opened limited Sept. 19; in Las Vegas this week

The Express (Rob Brown, Dennis Quaid, Omar Benson Miller, dir. Gary Fleder)
I am not the person to be forgiving to inspirational sports movies, and this is a straight-up by-the-numbers example of the genre. Brown is completely bland as Ernie Davis, the first African-American to win the Hesiman Trophy, the dialogue is one speech after another, the score is pounding and relentless, and the story goes on for far too long after the ostensible climax. Quaid does a nice job as the coach who has to deal with his own underlying racism; at least he has some emotional shades to play. Otherwise, this movie is completely superfluous. Wide release

A Man Named Pearl (documentary, dir. Scott Galloway & Brent Pierson)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
This is another one of those documentaries that there is no need to see on a big screen. It's perfectly likeable, and the subject is interesting, but you'd get just as much out of it watching it on PBS in a few months (gardener Pearl Fryar has already been profiled on PBS), or even on something like Snag Films. It's nice that these movies exist, but theatrical release for them is pretty much unnecessary in the current cinematic landscape. Opened limited July 18; in Las Vegas this week

Thursday, October 09, 2008

A return to the airwaves

Good news: After more than two months off the air, I'm back on Vegas' Xtreme Radio 107.5-FM tomorrow, at my new time of Fridays at 4 p.m. Pacific. I'll be chatting with DJ Greg Rampage about movies opening this week, and what's coming up on DVD. Tune in every week from now on at the station's homepage.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Movies opening this week

Hear me chat about these movies with my Las Vegas Weekly co-worker T.R. Witcher in this week's extra-long Josh Bell Hates Everything podcast (it's quite a packed week, as you can see below).

Appaloosa (Ed Harris, Viggo Mortensen, Renee Zellweger, Jeremy Irons, dir. Ed Harris)
It's nice to see a straightforward, old-fashioned Western, since so few are made these days, and many that are made end up being the sort of arty, deconstructive types (although I probably prefer those, really). There isn't anything remarkable about this movie, and if it were made 50 years ago it would probably not be noteworthy. But it stands out in 2008, and is solid enough for it to be worth seeking out for fans of the genre. Harris and Mortensen are effectively stoic tough guys, and Irons is a good menacing villain, even if he's a little underused. Zellweger has an odd role to play, and is a little too cutesy for it; the movie's whole "womenfolk ruin everything" message left me a little cold, but it's at least a slightly interesting wrinkle to an otherwise perfectly familiar story. Opened limited Sept. 19; wide release this week

Blindness (Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo, Alice Braga, dir. Fernando Meirelles)
I was expecting some sort of horrible train wreck given the negative reviews of this coming out of Cannes and Toronto, but it's more an ambitious failure than an out-and-out stinker. The long middle section, in which people who go inexplicably blind are confined and left to rot in an abandoned mental institution, is overlong and overwrought, and lacks the scope to really convey the horror of the epidemic. But the beginning, as the sickness spreads, is suitably chilling, and the end, while subject to a few post-apocalypse cliches, also gives a good sense of a world that has collapsed. There are too many plot inconsistencies, and Meirelles' flashy style tends to overwhelm the story, but the acting is solid and the idea is at least intriguing. I wish it had been executed better, but it's still a respectable stab at intelligent science fiction. Wide release

Flash of Genius (Greg Kinnear, Lauren Graham, Dermot Mulroney, dir. Marc Abraham)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
There's nothing particular hateable about this movie, but it bugged me for its dull professionalism, its insistence on smoothing out a complicated story into every inspirational underdog drama ever. I like Greg Kinnear, and I think at times he elevates this movie into what it could have been - a character study of a determined but seriously flawed and possibly unhinged man - but for the most part he's just along for the ride. Telling this kind of obscure, offbeat story in such a slick, predictable manner robs it of whatever reason it had to be made into a movie in the first place. Wide release

How to Lose Friends & Alienate People (Simon Pegg, Kirsten Dunst, Megan Fox, Jeff Bridges, Danny Huston, dir. Robert Weide)
I've never read Toby Young's memoir, which this movie is based on, but I can guarantee it's more pointed and acerbic and funny than this limp adaptation. Weide can't seem to decide if he wants to make a stinging satire of the magazine industry (which I'm sure is more in line with what Young wrote) or a fluffy romantic comedy, and thus ends up failing at both. The Dunst love-interest character, invented for the movie, never feels like her own person, and Pegg's Sidney has a different personality depending on the demands of the plot. They're both likable enough, and there are a few mildly funny moments, but overall this is a toothless take on what could have been a biting, dark comedy. Wide release

Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist (Michael Cera, Kat Dennings, Ari Graynor, dir. Peter Sollett)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I am totally a sucker for these kinds of movies, and this one is done right. Cera and Dennings have great chemistry (and if I may drop the critical facade for a moment, oh lord is she hot), and the story is sweet without being sappy. The gross-out comedy bits didn't work for me, but the romance did, and the throwback-'80s feel hit the right nostalgia buttons. Others may not be quite so charitable, but I still think this is a good movie. Wide release

Religulous (documentary, dir. Larry Charles)
Bill Maher seems to be a very polarizing figure; I find him funny and am sympathetic to his anti-religion point of view, but I understand why people dislike him. And if you do dislike Maher, then this certainly will not be the movie for you. He comes at the subject from a very glib, confrontational position, and only occasionally engages with average religious people or with non-extremist religious officials. Most of the interviews consist of Maher letting the subject talk for a few seconds before interjecting with something along the lines of, "Your beliefs are really stupid, aren't they?" Now, the beliefs are most of these people are stupid, but they're also so far outside the mainstream that debunking them doesn't really mean anything. Still, the interviews are amusing, and Maher gets in some good points in other segments, especially in exploring his own religious evolution and in talking to some surprisingly frank Vatican officials. No religious person is going to be convinced of the fallacy of religion by watching this movie, although some agnostics or atheists may find it strengthening their convictions. I'll give Maher the benefit of the doubt for being funny and for tackling a difficult topic, but he certainly could have come at it in a much more effective way. Wide release

TV premiering tonight: The Ex List

This Ally McBeal-esque light romantic dramedy is a bit of a departure for CBS, but it's a pretty leaden offering, trying way too hard to be quirky and fun, and spewing a surprising amount of vulgarity in the process. Star Elizabeth Reaser is pretty bland as the flighty single woman looking for love, and the concept of her tracking down one ex per episode and seeing if he's actually the one will probably get old quickly. It's also not a good sign that creator Diane Ruggiero (who developed the show based on an Israeli series) has left after only six episodes. I liked Ruggiero's work on Veronica Mars, but this show definitely seems to be struggling between an established formula and something a little quirkier, and the result is kind of a tonal mess (and not likely to improve with the turmoil behind the scenes). CBS, Fridays, 9 p.m.