by Kris Katz
Brief spoiler-free entertainment reviews

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

'Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows' by JK Rowling (Book - 2007)

We would've also accepted Harry Potter and the End of the Franchise, or Harry Potter and the Novelization of the Upcoming Movie. If you've followed it this far, then you've probably already got your own thoughts on this book, having read it all in a single night like I know more than 2 of you did. Okay, here's my main issue with this book: Why shun most of the universe you've spent six novels building? It honestly wasn't till I read this one that I realized how much I enjoyed the familiar world that had been carefully crafted over so many years, which is why I found the majority of the book a minor disappointment. Make no mistake, I still think it's a grand read and a mostly-fitting conclusion to the biggest, fattest cash cow since Star Wars, but I had the damnedest time getting into this one. Everytime Rowling would cash a bit more of that emotional equity I just felt cheapened, or confused, or worst: nothing at all. That said, the last quarter of the book is the real deal, and some of the best writing to come out of that pen, period. I guess what I'm saying (or not saying, because I'm trying my absolute hardest to avoid spoilers) is that if you've been with it this long, go for it. Just don't expect another 'Order of the Phoenix'.

7 out of 10.
Or maybe an 8...

Apocalypto (2006)

I guess by number 10 they just slide right out (if you've seen it, you know what I mean). Well, for those of you wondering about Mel Gibson's post-zombie-carpenter oeuvre, you can rest assured that it has all the heart-ripping, face-chewing, and ball eating (yea, I went there) that you'd expect from Hollywood's most talented masochist. But is it any good? Honestly, it's a great big pile of 'meh'. While the scenery is nice (though somewhat ruined by first-gen HD cameras), the non-loincloth costumes impressive (jawbone pauldrons? I like!), and the language dead (and you thought Aramaic was hard to come by!), it just doesn't have a lot to offer. Sure there's a lot of violence, but the question I kept asking myself during the movie (and any time I start asking a lot of questions during a movie, there's a problem) is why? Why was this movie made? There doesn't seem to be any overall message I can discern. Sure the main character's struggle seems genuine, but just because you've got a solid reason to show two hours of jungle-running doesn't mean you can slack off on actual development. I have to say I was really disappointed in this film. I wasn't expecting Braveheart, but I still think if you're going go to the trouble of drudging up dead dialects, you could also put them around a thoroughly built movie. At least in Passion, we had some idea of who the main guy was, though even there it was no thanks to the movie itself.

5 out of 10.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

Right from the opening scene, you know you're in for something special. And the next two hours don't disappoint in the least, giving you what amounts to a two-hour chase scene that spans the globe, capping off with some of the most breathlessly intense auto action I've ever seen, and some damn satisfying narrative closure. With this entry, the Bourne trilogy as a whole actually manages to do something highly unusual: every film in the series is better than any of the ones that came before it in almost every way. Paul Greengrass' direction here is tighter than it was in Supremacy, which was itself more compelling than Doug Liman's work on Identity. With Ultimatum, the action is set at a blistering pace with some exceptionally unpredictable twists thanks to its adherence to a believable but exaggerated action, while the drama of Jason Bourne's identity comes to a head in unexpected ways. About the only complaint any reasonable person could have with it is how the camera work all has that shoulder-mounted, nausea-inducing look to it, but really it just makes everything feel even more spontaneous and plausibly improvised. Action films don't come any better, smarter, more interesting, or more intense than the Bourne films, and this is the best of the lot.

10 out of 10.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Babel (2006)

Probably the very definition of a movie that is not for everyone, this quiet drama manages to exist almost entirely in the space between "Oh" and "shit," as you watch each of the major characters in their own story arcs deal with, avoid, and run straight into one horrifyingly real catastrophe after another. It's the perfect movie for a film class to watch, since it's deeply layered so as to be analyzed a hundred different ways (is it about the people who have had contact with a fateful rifle? Or maybe about how hard and yet necessary communication is to our lives? Or just about the consequences of being a child in an world with ever-more-dire consequences?), but as for the individual viewer your mileage may vary. If you're curious about it, and open minded enough to watch a piece of fiction that feels more real than most documentaries, then it is worth watching; there is true quality here. But if what you're looking for is entertainment, just move along.

8 out of 10.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The Queen (2006)

An absolutely pitch-perfect perfomance by Helen Mirren, surrounded by solid work all around make this character examination of England's royalty's reaction to the end of Princess Diana's life a wonderful study of English culture itself. Michael Sheen shines as a newly elected Tony Blair. All good things aside, though, it lacks any kind of real emotional payoff for what is essentially a tragedy from the first ten minutes on. Your mileage may vary on the film itself, but the acting and scripting are definitely worth a watch.

8 out of 10.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Zodiac (2007)

Methodical, thorough, and exhausting, Zodiac is a film as extensive and draining as the true crimes its based on. Adapted from the novel by Robert Graysmith, which itself is a recollection of the case files of the Zodiac Killer of southern California, this film provides not only a superb resource for information on the case, but is as near-to-perfect a procedural cop drama as you could hope to ask for. Every “i” Is dotted, every “t” is crossed, and by the end you feel both educated and full. Director David Fincher is in rare form, stepping back from his usually rich visual style to provide the stark realities of investigative work, and his stars, particularly Jake Gyllenhaal as Robert Graysmith and Robert Downey Jr. as his confidant Robert Avery, provide an exceptional illustration of how obsession with the impossible can lead to ruin. The result is a film whose only flaw is its extensive level of detail, leading to something that feels longer than it actually is. In every way, this is a classic for the cop drama. It's smartly built, poignant, and honest, while maintaining a level of workmanship that remains absolutely fascinating from start to finish.

9 out of 10.

The Simpsons Movie (2007)

If the first 20 minutes of this movie had been made into an episode of the show, it would've been the funniest episode they ever did. Sly jabs at the hand that feeds the creators, as well as plenty of exceptional Simpsons tomfoolery takes place. The laughs here simply never stop. Unfortunately it slips from absolutely brilliant to pretty-damn-great for the next hour and 10 minutes as the location changes, and the film settles into its plot. Much of this is still quite amusing (with more than a few deep belly-laughs to be had), but the onslaught of the earlier portions of the film make the latter 2/3rds feel like a slight step back. It's all still very smart writing, though. The sometimes-vicious and often issue-driven humor of the show is readily apparent through the whole film, so even when things slow down it's still great fun to watch. Really, this is more an homage to what Simpsons used to be than what it currently is. The subversive spark that brought the series into so many homes in the first place is back, if only on the big screen.

9 out of 10.

Saturday, August 4, 2007

Flags of Our Fathers / Letters From Iwo Jima (2006)

Flags of Our Fathers:
Sadly, this is a mishandled movie about the costs of war, wherein we learn the history of the men who became famous because of the iconic Iwo Jima Flag Raising photograph. While the performances are generally solid, the movie manages to lack character, and appears to have been edited by sledgehammer. The narrative jumps all over the place, from modern day, to the battle of Iwo Jima itself, to the years following the war, to even further after the war, and it does so without any of the grace that good non-linear narrative films have, but rather just decides to spend 15 mintes here, 5 there, and sprinkle in a step-by-step double-flashback anywhere. It's point about the costs of building celebrity on the blood of one's friends is a poignant one, certainly, but the movie is just not up to the task.

6 out of 10.

Letters From Iwo Jima:
Telling the story of the Japanese defenders of the little island off the coast of Japan provides for compelling narrative with some real weight, and for the most part offers wonderful focus. Instead of leaping all over the 20th century like a chihuahua full of jumping beans, the entire movie stays fixed on the Japanese soldiers as they prepare their defenses, stage their battle, and ultimately give their lives. Eastwood has to be commended for creating not only a legitimately original war movie, but doing it in Japanese, and in the process making a movie that even holds to many of the tenets of actual Japanese cinema. It does have a bit of an acquired taste, however. Being an Eastwood movie means it's a slower, more ponderous excercise about the characters and less about the battle itself. Generally an excellent movie.

9 out of 10.

As a pair:
Taking the two together is more difficult than one would expect, given they were both shot at the same time, about the same battle, and even use a few of the same camera shots. In a way, you could say they're about the costs of war, where Flags is about the costs for the living, and Letters the costs for the dying. Or you could say the pair is about sacrifice to one's country and whether or not that's a good thing. The biggest problem, though, is that Flags is only an okay movie, whereas Letters is pretty damn good. My honest opinion is that a person watches Letters first, and either watch Flags only if you desperately feel the need to know more, or just skip it entirely. Letters is worth seeing, but being connected to the disjointed Flags just weighs it down.

Score for the pair: 7 out of 10.