by Kris Katz
Brief spoiler-free entertainment reviews

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

1408 (2007)

They really don't make horror films like this anymore. It's not sadistic, not particularly gory, nobody gets chopped up slowly into little pieces while they gargle their last scream—it's just a good, old fashioned scary picture. It's almost Hitchcockian. The sense of dread and unpredictability that the first half builds is almost balletic, reaching a perfect rolling boil that carries throughout the rest of the film, while the surprisingly thick plot (for a horror movie) has a few exceptional cards to play. It's not quite all good news, however. Samuel L. Jackson's overly insistent hotel manager character feels both under- and mis-used, while the occasional corny wink from John Cusack still manages to sneak in from time to time, and some of the plot's twists are overly elaborate and contrived. But for the most part the movie focuses on the character of the room itself, generating one nerve wracking situation after another to wonderful effect. It may not be the finest horror flick out there, but it's hard to argue when the haunted house scares on offer are this much fun.

8 out of 10.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Saw 4 (2007)

guest review by Phineas Gopher

The latest in a franchise that's become an October staple, Saw IV has the look and feel of the first three movies, but only three-fourths of the charm. The series is beginning to sag under the weight of a plot that has gone from likably eccentric to distractingly convoluted. Viewers who haven't seen Saws uno, dos, and tres will be lost, and even viewers who have would do well to bring a notepad if they want to keep up with who is who. Too many characters doing too many unbelievable things...hmm, sounds like your typical horror movie sequel. What makes Saw IV distinct is the same thing that made the series stand out in the first place: horrible, horrible deathtraps out of which (somewhat) innocent people must find a way. This isn't a spoiler: most don't. The film is never better than when it is making you ask, arms crossed nervously over your chest, "What would I do in that situation?" Unfortunately, it doesn't do this as often as its predecessors.

6 out of 10.

Gigli (2003)

guest review by Phineas Gopher

Oh, the dangers of putting your real-life romance into a Hollywood movie! Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck weren't universally liked in 2003, but they lost many of the fans they had when they headlined Gigli, a crime/drama/ romance that became the most reviled film of the year. And having sat through it recently this critic can say, it really is godawful. All the sarcasm, babytalk, and playful fighting you've ever loathed between couples you know is even harder to watch between two multi-million-dollar movie stars exuding as much charisma as a dog humping the leg of a dead body. Sorry, less. Gigli contains painfully bad dialogue like the infamous "I'm the bull. You're the cow." line, but has such high production values (and Christopher Walken!) that it manages to be entertaining as an example of Hollywood blissfully unaware of not wearing any pants to work. Plus, now is the perfect time of year to watch it, since it is both an unintentional horror film and a turkey.

1 out of 10.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Silent Hill (2006)

Perhaps the best of the videogame-to-film conversions yet, Silent Hill is still a movie at odds with itself. Some of the imagery at work, and the general mood of things when the lights go out are the stuff of beautiful Lovecraftian nightmare. The gore present is not only the gooey-bloody stuff, but also effective and disturbing; the way it ought to be. And the audio design is spot on (which it should be, since it's from the same person who made the games' soundscapes so damn frightening). It's scary the way a good horror flick should be scary. But the plot? Just sub-par. It's told in an overly simplistic, ham-fisted style that still manages not to make sense. To be fair, the games weren't much better, but that's not an excuse. This film has got the scare-factor down in spades, with thick atmosphere and excellent pacing, but it can't surmount its mismanaged script. I give it serious points for effort, but a bad story is still a bad story.

4 out of 10.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

BloodRayne (2005)

Start with a director who has a track record of Z-grade box office flops, add in an A-list cast who are clearly in need of a paycheck, digest, squat, and out squeezes this deformed monstrosity. Seriously, what were Kristanna Loken, Ben Kingsly, Michael Madsen, Michelle Williams, Meat Loaf, and Billy Zane's agents smoking?! How could an ultra-violent movie about a smoking hot vampire vixen turn out this awful? It's not even novelty bad! For the most part it's just boring, with occasional trips into painfully poor. Director Uwe Boll takes a lot of flack for being incapable of making movies with any redeeming qualities, and after four misbegotten failures I'm inclined to say that he should never be allowed to make movies ever again. If only it were that simple. The saddest part is that of his films, this is easily his best. And it's still intolerable! Everyone, do me a favor: if you come across a steaming pile directed by Uwe Boll, don't step in it.

None out of 10.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005)

Family films simply do not get any better than this. Somewhere in this mixed up fable of giant vegetables and ravenous rabbits is a slice of purest entertainment. Neither condescending nor unnecessarily vulgar, this movie strikes the golden mean of being equally accessible for both children and adults thanks to exceptionally sharp writing and beautifully nuanced, hand crafted animation. Subtle, charming, and effortlessly hilarious from the very first frame to the very last, it's the kind of movie that reaffirms faith in the genre. The whole movie just works on every possible level, and the end result is absolute magic.

10 out of 10.

Friday, October 26, 2007

The Descent (2005)

Newsflash: avoid this film at all costs if you are even slightly claustrophobic. If you do not know if you are claustrophobic, you will by the time the credits start rolling. The combination of deep, dark cave diving and girl-power adventure gone awry turns this into something of a post-Saw version of Deliverance with all the trimmings. It's got pitch perfect tension, nerve destroying atmosphere and that deeply unsettling brand of the creepy-crawlies present in most of the best horror flicks. So basically it's a fine piece of pants-destroying terror; how is it otherwise? The story has a few vicious twists in it, while the decisions made by our heroines mostly make sense. Also, the lighting is fairly creative, being as it's almost entirely done with headlamps and flares. Meanwhile, the characters as a whole are mostly interesting, though a bit interchangeable. But you care when the chosen few meet their fates, and that's important. This movie is pretty much the complete package. If you're a fan of the horror genre, it could prove a new classic for you. For the rest, it's an extremely effective way to make you soil yourself.

8 out of 10.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

'American Gods' by Neil Gaiman (Book - 2001)

Don't take this as being anything more than a literal statement: this book successfully finds the middle ground between Stephen King and H. P. Lovecraft, making a successful, though flawed, entry into a genre that I will call “Horror Americana.” On the King side, this book has obscure music references, relatable characters in relatable circumstances, and that hard-to-identify straight forwardness inherent to his novels. Meanwhile on the Lovecraft end of things you've got horrific sacrifices, ancient deities, a delightful sense of constant unease, and the ever-present freaky dream sequences. There's nothing wrong with cribbing from the successful if you can add a new bend to it, and author Neil Gaiman keeps his twisted tale fresh by relying on the results of an abundance of research on middle-America, creating a remarkably honest and real impression of life in the “fly-over states.” It's not all sun and roses, however. Despite a few eerie moments, and a general feeling of danger throughout every chapter, there's hardly any real horror across its 600 pages. Likewise, the motivations for the larger struggle are hardly fleshed out in terms understandable by mere mortals, or at least to me. But I don't care. Maybe it's because almost every place described in the book is a place I've actually been to in my travels, but I say this is an excellent book for anyone looking to stray off the bloody, beaten path.

7 out of 10.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Black Sheep (2007)

guest review by Phineas Gopher

In the spirit of New Zealand horror/comedy hits such as Braindead and Meet the Feebles comes a genre-bending, tale...of docile sheep going stark raving, flesh-craving mad. Not to be confused with the 1996 Chris Farley vehicle of the same name, Black Sheep features a Kiwi cast on a rural farm trying not to become dinner for genetically-altered supersheep. Part vampire, part werewolf, part zombie flick, but mostly tongue-in-cheek splatstick comedy, this is best viewed with friends and alcohol, not in that order. The SFX are impressive, unsurprising since they are by Richard Taylor (of The Lord of the Rings fame). Not nearly as clever as other horrorcom imports such as Shaun of the Dead, Black Sheep is still a fun, if forgettable, novelty offering for the genre.

7 out of 10.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

30 Days of Night (2007)

For a movie that spends so much screen time developing our heroes it's amazing how little you care when they die. Here's another great concept for a horror flick—Vampires in the long night that is the Alaskan winter—wasted on a poor script, a few underrated actors, and a director with better past projects. Sure it's got its creep factor, but how hard is it to jump out behind something and yell boo? If you want to make someone leap out of their seat, that works fine, but that isn't what makes a movie memorable. And it's great that the film gives plenty of time for character development, but there's nothing there to develop. Oh, and don't even get me started on the vampires. They didn't even try to develop them! They're just sadistic dickholes who like to eat people. I've been more sympathetic to zombies! This movie just doesn't work. It's two hours of empty jump scares and blood-stained snow, and pretty much nothing more.

3 out of 10.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Ultraviolet (2006)

Vapid, ridiculous, self-important, and nearly indecipherable, Ultraviolet still packs enough visual punch and audacity to earn begrudging respect. Director Kurt Wimmer's follow-up to 2002's generally excellent Equilibrium serves as a cogent example of Style over Substance. When the action is piling on hot and heavy the film is at its peak but the moment the bullets stop flying you find yourself checking your watch and hoping the next poorly accented “thespian” walking around the corner is hiding a gun behind his back. The good news is they often are, the bad is that it's not nearly often enough. When the body count is rising there are an astonishing amount of things happening on screen, most of them further extensions of Wimmer's semi-brilliant “Gun Kata” martial art invention from Equilibrium, all wrapped around a color palette that pushes straight past nauseating into downright experimental. The film doesn't involve your brain in any way that matters, and when the loud techno music and gunfire lullaby stop the film is just plain awful, but when the film kicks into fight mode there's enough visual flair to warrant a watch.

5 out of 10.

Gracie (2007)

guest review by Phineas Gopher

Even though it is based on true events, Gracie doesn't ring true. It asks the viewer to look at the world (specifically the 70s) through the eyes of a teenage athlete who is denied the privilege of playing high school soccer because she's a girl. The politics behind this perspective get in the way of the story because the titular heroine isn't painted as a real person, but as a walking lump of stereotypical female rebellion. The cliches are so numerous, this almost becomes a sports movie parody. Its only effort to be unpredictable consists of making Gracie not really that good at soccer. What are we cheering for exactly? The inevitable triumphant ending is satisfying if you stick with the movie that long, but the feel-good fix is only a chaser to a pretty bland brew.

4 out of 10.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2006)

Gloriously offensive and delightfully hilarious, Sacha Baron Cohen's ad-lib performance is sure to make you howl with laughter and piss you off in equal measure. It's daring stuff, as Cohen and crew create credible characters and simply film them interacting with real people who have no idea there's even a joke to be in on. Borat was originally a skit on Cohen's Da Ali G Show, and here he takes a trip to America under the guise of researching to improve his own country, but in the process of making his documentary he portrays the United States as racist, paranoid, xenophobic, uneducated, and bigoted, among other things. The film is frankly very tough to watch but the thin line that Cohen dances keeping his character earnest and amusing while being violently insulting is possibly one of the most incredible comedic performances this moviegoer has ever seen. Even better are his unwitting costars trying to maintain being polite to this faux foreigner while filling him with their own views of America. The end result is a brutal train wreck, hilarious from start to finish, ridiculous and honest in the worst possible ways, and one incredibly funny ride.

10 out of 10.

Bug (2007)

guest review by Phineas Gopher

Don't be fooled by the marketing campaign for Bug. It may be "from the director of The Exorcist," but it is not the same kind of horror movie. It's scary, but the thrills are more brooding, and far more psychological. Ashley Judd puts in a riveting performance as a broken southern barmaid with an abusive husband. But her co-star Michael Shannon steals every scene he's in as her new friend who turns out to be a little paranoid. To say the least. The build-up of tension to a shattering climax may not scare the devil out of you, but it's strangely satisfying in its own way.

8 out of 10.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Rendition (2007)

Lately any time the genre of a movie has the world “Political” in it, one can automatically assume it has a thing or two to say about the so-called War On Terror. So it is with Rendition, a film about a loving husband and father spirited away by The Man because he may or may not have possibly had something to do with a suspected terrorist. I have to say that the movie was a good bit more interesting than I thought it would be. It approaches its subject matter with the understanding that sometimes horrible things must be done to keep even more horrible things from happening to other people. That said, even with its moral compass clearly pointing toward grey, it lacks the teeth to really dig into policy. Rather it's a personal story, a what-if, and for the most part it's quite effective, though far from gripping. It's got a solid cast doing their usual solid acting (Jake Gyllenhaal especially), while the tale tosses in a few unexpected curve balls amid a mostly predictable pile of plot points. It never manages to reach any soaring highs, but for what this film tries to do it succeeds.

7 out of 10.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

We Own the Night (2007)

Chiefly underwhelming is the descriptor that I would donate to this film's ad campaign. Here we've got a generic but inoffensive cop drama that plays by the numbers while trying its damnedest to ride the coattails movies like The Departed. You've got your generic drug deals, your generic mob connection, your generic undercover subplot, and your generic “it sucks to be a cop” melodrama. It's all here, and none of it is particularly good. That isn't to say it's a bad film. For instance the car “chase” scene is disproportionately good, and the overall production values and cinematography are excellent, but the movie as a whole just fails to impress.

5 out of 10.

This Girl's Life (2003)

Porno! Now that I have your attention, let me tell you a bit about this neat little indie flick about an adult film star (played by Juliette Marquis), her disabled father, and her struggle to define herself beyond her body of work (bad pun). It pretty much manages to tick off every box that the promise of independent filmmaking provides. Unique moral perspective? The lead enjoys her line of work and has an interesting philosophical take on it. Unconventional topic? Well it is about porno! Content befitting its rating? We've got drug use, plenty of sex, and nudity (male and female). And how about piles of character actors? James Woods, Rosario Dawson, Michael Rapaport, Ioan Gruffodd, Isiah Washington, and Cheyenne Silver round out the cast. Meanwhile, the directing works, and the acting is likable all around, though really nothing special. The script is interesting and clever, but has trouble wrapping it's various threads toward the end. All in all it's a well made movie that has enough T&A for the guys, enough character for the ladies, and is sufficiently unique to keep the movie snobs off their collective soapbox.

7 out of 10.

Monday, October 15, 2007

An Inconvenient Truth (2006)

Unfortunately the biggest problem with movies espousing environmental change is that if you're not already of the mindset prone to that line of thinking then there's precious little chance of you ever seeing the film, let alone being persuaded by it. It really is too bad, since Al Gore's much politicized polemic on potential catastrophe is at the very least slickly presented and compelling throughout. The most remarkable thing to me about the way the argument is pushed is that it manages not to lay blame at anyone's feet. I admit to agreeing with the conceits listed in the film, but I am also just as guilty of helping along disaster as most anyone reading this. Never once did I feel as though I were being yelled at or made to feel bad for my behavior. Rather it seemed more like a laundry list of issues, and a much shorter list of possible fixes. I felt encouraged by its end, not guilty. So I say to those who read this who may think that Global Warming is a myth to give this doc a shot. The worst it could do is bore you for ninety minutes while giving you a pile of bullet points to disprove to us greenies.

8 out of 10.

Note: In the interest of a fuller discussion, it's worth pointing out that this film has recently caused further controversey in Britan.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Michael Clayton (2007)

Danny Ocean apparently moonlights as a high-powered attorney advisor person. Basically here we've got Erin Brockovich without the down-home country charm. The acting is excellent from top to bottom (especially Tom Wilkinson as a chief litigator/amateur stripper), the tale itself is compelling and involving from start to finish, and the directing is altogether solid. So what went wrong? Basically the audience knows the entire story by the start of the second act, while the characters have to play catch-up for the next ninety minutes. It turns what could have been an excellent legal thriller with a winding, complicated plot into over-simplified Oscar bait. It still manages to be interesting throughout but with most of the element of discovery removed so early, the film just isn't as good as it could have been.

7 out of 10.

300 (2007)

So that. Was. Sparta. Call me cynical, but I always pictured something a little less... digital. Make no mistake, whatever else the film may be, it sure looks good! The acting, meanwhile, is generally passable but more from the Michael Bay school of performance than, say, Shakespeare. Queen Gorgo probably comes out best, whilst the one-note King Leonidas injects some testosterone, dials his voice up to 11 and has at it. At the same time the script he shouts doesn't bother giving these fellows much reason to fight other than being generally indignant, so basically the whole film is an exercise in angry bloodbaths with a criminally dull side of toga politics. I guess it comes down to what you want out of your movies. If your idea of a good time is watching a few thousand things die in gruesome detail, while a king paradoxically screams about freedom and reason in front and inside of sublime visual canvases then this movie is everything you could possibly hope for and then some. But if you care why these people fight, or what these people fight for, or just want to see a toga debate given the same loving detail as a battle scene then your mileage may vary.

7 out of 10.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Open Range (2003)

For what it's worth, this is probably the best looking western I can recall seeing. It's just too bad that the rest of the film doesn't match up to the cinematography. That isn't to say the film is bad, but it isn't particularly good either. In trying to paint his wild west, Kevin Costner has tried to make a John Ford film. It's got the classic slow pacing, the great big scenery, and Costner himself trying to act like John Wayne with post traumatic stress disorder. The problem winds up lying somewhere at the bottom of a giant pile of clich├ęs. Everything that's supposed to be in a western is present and accounted for, but there's nothing here you haven't already seen in a better film. Meanwhile, the acting is best described as “fair” and the editing was probably done with a rusty butter knife. Short of that, it's got an okay script that can be at times compelling, but sadly never involving. It's really a shame that such great visuals didn't wind up in a better film.

5 out of 10.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Ong-bak: The Thai Warrior (2003 Thailand, 2004 USA)

When watching a martial arts movie, it doesn't matter how good the script is (in this case, awful), if the acting is good (nope!), if there's any character development (not here), or any emotional involvement whatsoever (none). All that matters is what happens when foot meets ass. When the fighting starts in Ong-bak, all is forgiven. For all of its considerable flaws, watching newcomer Tony Jaa effortlessly flip around, under, over, and through his opponents is still about as good as this genre can show. And the best part? It's all real! There are no wires, no CG, and he does all his own stunts. Who cares if the movie is as dull as North Dakota in winter when there's nobody fighting? Seeing such physical perfection is worth a little inconvenience.

8 out of 10.

Monday, October 8, 2007

The Heartbreak Kid (2007)

When was the last time Ben Stiller did anything funny? Not the last time he was in a funny movie (Meet the Fockers, by the way) but the last time he, Ben Stiller, actually did something that made you laugh. For all his supposed comedic talent, he always plays the straight man. Such is the case here, where the Farrelly brothers (who haven't done anything worthwhile since they struck it rich with There's Something About Mary) dirty up the screen with a witless, heartless, senseless exercise in false sanctimony and forced laughs. I can't even reasonably give it credit for trying, since this is just a remake of a well regarded film from 1972. I want the Farrellys to be funny again (and I want Ben Stiller to be funny at all). I absolutely love a good, filthy comedy with dirty surprises around every corner, but the way things are going for these folks we should probably start looking elsewhere.

3 out of 10.

The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2007)

guest review by Phineas Gopher

One of the funnest documentaries of the year, the film demonstrates that the world of competitive video gaming isn't so different from athletics; it just involves a different (and less widely respected) set of skills. Basically, it takes a look at what happens when the world record holder for the original Donkey Kong arcade game (an arrogant, wealthy hot sauce mogul) has his score challenged by an unknown contender (an average American family man). While it sometimes seems ridiculous how seriously everybody is taking themselves, the film does a good job showing that this is in fact human nature, not to be looked down on by anyone lest they be guilty of the very thing they're judging. You don't need to be an avid gamer to enjoy this battle of the thumbs, but it will have a special meaning to anyone who's ever left their initials on the screen of an arcade console.

8 out of 10.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Randy & the Mob (2007)

Good natured and fun, this is the rare comedy that could possibly win anyone over thanks to an earnest approach and some slick charm. In a way it reminds me of My Big Fat Greek Wedding: it has the same sort of avant garde crowd-pleasing vibe and a similar cultural twist. It's simply a smiling tale of family and small town stress set against the strangeness that is the deep south. While it's rarely uproarious, it keeps you grinning from the first shot to the last, relying on heart and a clever script to drive itself. It isn't a Hollywood comedy, doesn't have big stars or high-budget photography; this is just a down home, southern fried pile of delightfully bent laughs.

8 out of 10.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

The Game Plan (2007)

Standard issue heart-warmer. Comes with all the features—a charismatic lead, a cute kid, and a completely predictable dilemma that leads to general purpose shenanigans and goings-on. It's easy to be exceptionally cynical about so-called “family films” so just put these comments in comparison with other films of the genre. It goes where you want it to go, and doesn't come off nearly as annoying as you expect it will. The chemistry between The Rock and The Kid is solid, and the rest is just as contrived as almost every other movie of this type. It's a decent film with a few laughs but has nothing you haven't already seen in every one of these kinds of movies. It's just another Disney film, but that's not all bad.

6 out of 10.

Shooter (2007)

One word: overcooked. Shooter has all the markings of a decent action-thriller but despite its long range barrel, the film still manages to shoot itself in the foot. Stereotypes abound, from the morose protagonist, country-bumpkin lady person, too-green government agent, and villains lacking any sort of creativity or actual malice (to say nothing of character development). Still, the plot ducks and weaves in a feigned effort at being unpredictable, there's a pretty neat shoot-out toward the end, and overall the movie has some great camera work. If only it didn't crib so much from the Big Book of Standard Characters, there might have been some real meat here.

5 out of 10.

Monday, October 1, 2007

The Kingdom (2007)

I am honestly not sure if Chris Cooper can play anything but a government agent, but here he is again. This time he teams up with Ray, Alias, and Arrested Development to try to solve terrorism in the Middle East. What you wind up sitting through is an inconsistent, drastically over-produced, disingenuous piece of knotted storytelling that still somehow manages to be entertaining, but only barely. The culprit is ambition. It's a story about culture clash between the Mid East and ourselves set in the framework (and with the overall depth) of a 2 hour long episode of CSI. It wants to be about the similarities between Western and Muslim society, about what it will take to reconcile our differences, but at the same time be as idiot proof and consumer friendly as possible. It's got the visceral thrill and the witty banter to keep your attention, but subject matter like this has higher demands than watching things go boom. Sure the faces are familiar and likable, sure the subject is topical and important, and sure the editing keeps to a gallop, but it never manages to rally itself into the galvanizing force it aspires to be, despite a very poignant moral.

6 out of 10.