by Kris Katz
Brief spoiler-free entertainment reviews

Friday, November 30, 2007

The Triplets of Belleville (2003)

Also known as Les Triplettes de Belleville.
As enchantingly clever as it is impenetrably obscure, this is the kind of rare movie that can create both wonder and confusion in a single effortless breath. Strictly as a movie, it's difficult to describe even at its most basic elements. In a way, it's kind of a Pink Panther cartoon on some toe-tapping steroids, but there's a kind of mime-inspired craft at work here that's truly unlike anything else. The visual styles in play are a combination of 1940s pop art and comic book sketches that really jump off the screen and bring everything to life. The animation is just wonderful from start to finish. There's almost no dialogue—I counted about a dozen sentences total, almost all in French and not a one relevant to the story—yet still a full tale is told with some wonderful wit, peculiar twists, and very enjoyable characters including a humorously overweight dog with more expression and character than some entire movies. What sound is used is largely ambient, though peppered throughout the film are a few outstanding music numbers done in a jitterbug jazz style. Even with as much praise as I've heaped on the film, however, I cannot recommend the movie to everybody. The absolutely strange way in which the yarn is woven will very likely prove very slow and dull or confusing to some, and there's a subversive and viciously dark subtext throughout the entire production. Still, if you find pleasure in a bit of light bewilderment, solid if sparse tunes, and great art, you won't find many better ways to tweak your noggin than this.

8 out of 10.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Enchanted (2007)

Someone must have slipped something into my burrito this evening. As much a cynic as I am, as awful as the promotion of this movie was, and as contrite the plot devices throughout the film are, Enchanted still managed to be pure magic. How can this be? It starts by not sugar-coating the real world side of things. The vision of New York is certainly edited for a PG rating, but what's shown is pretty much as-is, and is sometimes quite brave for a family film. The satirically savvy script, while fairly predictable all the way through, still manages to throw a few smart curve balls while keeping the characters in tight focus. The gags never overpower the story, which is always a good thing. Likewise, the cast is solid from top to bottom. But I think it all winds down to Amy Adams as the ridiculously naive, eternally perky, and stunningly earnest Giselle. The entire movie rests on her performance, and Adams throws herself against it with a level of bravery and unabashed gusto not seen since Johnny Depp first put on a pirate's hat. There's really no reason why a film about cartoon contrivance running headlong into real world weariness should have been anything but another forgettable piece of family film fluff. Somehow Adams and crew managed the hat trick and put out one of the best Disney films in a decade. Happily ever after? You bet!

9 out of 10.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

No Country for Old Men (2007)

The thing about a Coen Brothers movie is that they're almost always totally unpredictable. Dark comedy is on display one minute, the next it turns into a horror/thriller with all the fixings. They're masters of their confused craft, but biting into one of their flicks can be like taking a leap of faith. Here we have what can best be described as archetypal, classic Coen. It's a darkly funny, violent, perfectly suspenseful, and flawlessly cast tale of a man on the run from a very eccentric hitman. It's a thriller with all the fat trimmed and while the end result is more than a little quiet, this is a roundly excellent movie. It's finely tuned and wonderfully paced, while maintaining an excellent focus on its characters and settings. About the only thing I have to say against it is that the second half doesn't quite benefit from the stripped down style as well as the first, but even that's only half-hearted criticism. The Coen Brothers have put on a great show, and further proved that they're simply among the best in the business.

9 out of 10.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Amelie (2001)

Also known as Le Fabuleux destin d'Amélie Poulain.
Curiously eccentric and irresistibly French, this is the kind of movie best enjoyed with a lover to share the joy and a bottle of wine to dull the cynicism. At points beautifully staged, utterly charming, and impenetrably goofy, this treat of a film leaves almost no real lasting impression aside from perky optimism and a sugar rush. It's like chocolate; it's tempting smell and delicious flavor only lasts till you swallow, and then like a wilting flower it's gone. Everything I can think of to say negative about the movie is simply countered with a firm “but it was cute!” counterattack. The structure of the film is flimsy, the characters are sometimes inconsistent, and why is it that everyone has sex before the first date (if it's a French thing I might need a change of address form)? The special effects were pretty nifty and went a long way toward telling certain moods, and I love the red-wine-in-a-green-bottle color scheme. And Audrey Tautou is deliriously adorable throughout. But really, it isn't the kind of movie that could stand up to serious criticism; it just tastes good and makes you smile. That's really all that matters.

7 out of 10.

Friday, November 23, 2007

The Mist (2007)

Note: Since I deem myself incapable of being objective with regards to this movie, I have asked my regular guest contributor, Phineas Gopher, to write up a more balanced review of the film to follow mine.

a biased fanboy's review:
Had it not been for the short story upon which this movie was based, I would never have started reading. The story was the first ever in text that pulled me in to a point where I realized that words on a page had power. So there is no possible way I can review this movie objectively—reading it was a seminal moment in my development. What I can do is review it on its quality as an adaptation, and as a fan of the novella. Well it doesn't disappoint, but then again I went in already sold on its wares. For almost 120 minutes, this is as close to what was in the short story as could possibly be depicted, minus an unnecessary sex scene. It is slavishly loyal to its source, to interesting effect. The language is intact, the violence is nearly identical, people die in the right order and in exactly the same way they die in the book, and best of all the things that are left vague and fuzzy in the story remain so. Your imagination gets to run wild in the white in all the ways it needs to. Even the little bits that go off the page work, including the best homage to Aliens since Aliens. It's more unnerving than directly frightening, and has a lot more to say about human nature than was originally there, but it all serves to keep what's on screen intact. In the closing few minutes, it jumps off the source a little more, but even the new material here feels like what would have been written. Except the last sixty seconds, which pretty much just pisses all over everything. It's not that I have a problem with the style of ending it was going for, just that what had been built as a horrific journey for our hero ends on such a sour note. I won't spoil it of course (this is Zero Spoilers, after all) but it will leave you a bit miffed. So what does an unswerving fanboy rate a movie that is a deeply satisfying interpretation of a personal classic for 119 minutes, but absolutely awful for one?

8 out of 10.

Note: If it's available to you, grab the Black & White cut from the 2nd disc of the DVD release. It lets the movie be what it is--a throwback--without any problems whatsoever suspending disbelief. Most everything is made better by the lack of color; the ending is more believable, the special effects have some of their flaws glossed over, the creepy scenes are creepier, and the gore is less graphic while somehow being more disturbing. Even the acting is magically made better! For the black and white cut, I'd happily slop on another point. B&W cut = 9.

a more balanced review by Phineas Gopher:
First off, when a billowing white cloud of smoke rolls into town and covers everything in sight, what do you call that? I think the answer worth most points on Family Feud would be fog. I guess that name was taken. Stupid John Carpenter. Anyway, titular disputes aside, The Mist is a solid genre offering that has less gore, yet bigger cajones, than many of its horror-film peers. Drawing from Greek tragedy, H.P. Lovecraft, and oh yeah, the Stephen King story of the same name, it examines how people would react to being trapped by a completely unexplainable catastrophe. With jabs at the government, religion, and perhaps humanity in general, it is not a happy picture. But it is an emotional one, a cathartic one, and one that demands to be seen in theaters. The only glaring flaws are the special effects looked half-finished (or more likely, half-funded) in places... good enough to get you there but no cuddle afterward. Also, one of the main characters (the "villain" if there is one) is over-the-top in a way that stretches credibility. Sure, she had the theater audience voicing their hatred audibly throughout the film, but her vulgarity clashes with her piety in a way that is very black-and-white, amidst characters that are otherwise subtle and realistic. Despite this, The Mist is a well-crafted little nightmare of a film.

7 out of 10.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Hitman (2007)

Y'know, I actually kinda liked this movie, though I will be the absolute last to call it anything resembling good. Basically it's enjoyable crap, and if you go in with the expectation that it's not much more than a eurotrash explodathon featuring dozens of bald men and a gleefully miscast Timothy Olyphant as our heroic, gun-toting invincible badass, I would say there's a decent chance you'll feel you've gotten your money's worth. Otherwise, there isn't a lot to look at here. It tries its hardest to work a Bourne Identity angle but utterly fails in consistently amusing ways, and while there are some neat-o action sequences they're largely edited into undecipherable mash. So no, this is not a good movie. But if you're looking for something to zonk out in front of, or maybe in need of a flick to beat to death with a few drunk buddies, this is a perfectly decent way to blow a few bucks.

6 out of 10.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Sicko (2007)

Chances are you already have an opinion on Michael Moore. Personally, I miss the happy-go-lucky, less agenda driven satirical truths of his TV Nation days, and while I find many points and politics in his presentations and documentaries that I agree with, more often than not the frequently dishonest methods he uses behind the scenes simply turn me off. With that out of the way, Sicko might be the finest piece of work Moore has done since the early 90s. Gone are the mixed messages of Bowling for Columbine and the blunt force trauma smear campaign of Fahrenheit 9/11. Here it's replaced with smooth and very entertaining storytelling that, while certainly slanted to a specific world view and advocating a specific issue (in this case, government run health care), is nevertheless an interesting examination into an argument that is sure to piss you off in a productive way. And it's not as politically charged as one would guess, either. He throws darts at both sides of the aisle; in the middle of taking down one right-winger after another, he saves the hardest hit for Hillary Clinton! But really it's all about the human stories in all of this, and whether fabricated or not (the lack of outrage in this department makes me side with “true”), what's here is effective and at times heartbreaking. Even his big stunt at the end comes off as a far more involving and soulful than expected, though still too saccharine. If you have an opinion on Moore, you already know if you're going to see this film or not. But for those of you who are neutral, or who just miss what he used to do before he became a his own punchline, Sicko may just surprise you, and may make you ask some good questions.

9 out of 10.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Beowulf (2007)

Once I got over this not being an adaptation of the classic poem, but rather an imagined “real” story that would inspire the classic bit of lit, enjoying this film became much easier. Otherwise, it was pretty much what you'd expect it to be: an ultra-macho guy fantasy tale of larger than life heroes and the demons that torment them. Hey, it worked for 300. What sets it apart are it's literary origins, and that it's an animated CG film. While it maintains a loose grip on it's source, Neil Gaiman and Roger Avery's script does a decent job of presenting a well fleshed out version of the tale. It has all the major plot points, characters, and items in one form or another. As to the animation and acting, it's a mixed bag. Trying to maintain a high level of realistic visual fidelity lands the entire movie deep in the uncanny valley, where things look close enough to real to feel distractingly fake. It's a step forward for the film making style, but still very far from perfect. The actors all did motion-capture to give their performances nuance and detail, but as good as Anthony Hopkins' Hrothgar, Ray Winstone's Beowulf, and especially the very nude Angelina Jolie look in the film, some characters just look wrong, most notably Robin Wright Penn's Queen Wealthow. Meanwhile the action and sets all look great, particularly the massive finale, which might be the best action scene of the year. The end result of all this is a film that's difficult to define, but extremely interesting to look at. It's not the poem it's based on, and the animation is both disturbing and beautiful at the same time, but as a whole there's enough good here to warrant the price of admission.

7 out of 10.

Note: If you can catch the film in 3D, do so. While it contains more than a few instances of obvious 3D silliness (swords and arrows flying at the audience, foreground fire and snow, etc), the film's finale is made all the more spectacular by seeing the action swoop all around the audience.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Into the Wild (2007)

Alternating between being an purposeful and thought provoking meditation on society's many ills, and being agenda driven snobbish tripe, this is a movie that's extremely difficult to love, but easy to admire. It's clear that a lot of passion and dedication went into the making of this film, but despite its real-life trappings, much of it comes off as a bit too idealistic. Director Sean Penn paints his scenery and characters in fairly clear black and white: Nature and hippies = Good. Cities and people with jobs = Bad. This is absolutely backed up by the score by Eddie Vedder, with folk tunes about wilderness and the supposed joys of being penniless. There's certainly merit to the thinking, but as it's portrayed here it comes off as too simplistic. On the other hand, Emile Hirsch puts on an amazing performance as the brash, and very real, Christopher McCandless. Likewise, the location scouts did an outstanding job of finding gorgeous locales to set the film in. While the central conceits of the film are a bit too basic, the excellent settings and great acting make this an interesting example of what happens when idealism crashes head-on with reality.

7 out of 10.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

In July (2000)

Also known as Im Juli.
What to make of this strange little road trip flick. It's not perfect by any means, but it still a very enjoyable way to kill 90 minutes. Basically you've got your sort-of Oscar Wilde tangle of misplaced affection, a quasi-cross-continent road trip in which shenanigans ensue, and an almost heartwarming story of looking for love in many of the wrong places. Along the way you see a bit of somewhat nice scenery, and nearly a few lessons in both German and Turkish (Gurkish?). What doesn't work so well is an intentionally, but perhaps overly misleading story, and a generally miscast lead. Maybe it's my dumb-American sensibilities, but the lead male just never looked the part throughout the whole film. At least the acting is decent, if a bit overt. The road trip movie is well past its heyday, but a few gems peek through from time to time. In July is hardly a great film, but it serves very well to show the sweet and fun side of the genre.

7 out of 10.

Pan's Labyrinth (2006)

Also known as El Laberinto del fauno.
Guillermo del Toro said that crafting and directing this movie nearly killed him. Had he died to make this, it still could not have been a better film. Beautiful, thrilling, mysterious, uplifting, dark, haunting, depressing, and exhilarating, Pan's Labyrinth is as close to perfection as it could ever hope to be. At it's heart, it most resembles the original fairy tales, before they were edited for modern consumption, where evil and scary things happen, and the answer is always more involved than a simple moral, and where the endings weren't always wrapped in a neat package. This is an adult fairy tale, crafted with style and brutality, with sympathy and grace, and with the knowledge that sometimes what seems best isn't always what's right. This is the kind of story that sticks with you, that frightens you, and brings back bittersweet memories for the kid in all of us who sees a world of infinite, and sometimes terrifying possibility. You simply cannot ask for a better way to spend two hours.

10 out of 10.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Fido (2007)

Ladies and gentlemen, the first Zombie Satire! This is just a great idea done right. Take 1950s industrial enthusiasm, mix in domesticated undead, squeeze in some excellent script work that takes full advantage of a ludicrous concept, and pepper with just a dash of blood and guts. The result is delightfully twisted, frequently hilarious, and even just a little bit touching in a morbid sort of way. The deadpan (no pun intended) humor is spot on, while the acting takes full advantage of the very quirky nature of both the era and the concept, particularly Carrie-Ann Moss as the socially conscious mother and Billy Connolly as titular zom-pet Fido. If anything works against the film, it would be it's generally middle budget trappings. Some big ideas are tossed about but are either poorly realized or not shown at all. Still, that's no reason to bite into this great little flick about a boy's love for his reanimated best friend.

8 out of 10.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

The Lives of Others (2006)

Also known as Das Leben der Anderen.
Deeply melancholy, darkly methodical, and effortlessly compelling, this slice of German film craft is a beautiful piece of sympathetic cinema. It's got almost all of the earmarks of a good paranoia spy thriller and political commentary, in this case being critical of 1984 East Germany's policy of radically extensive surveillance of its citizens in order to ferret out dissidents. What unfolds is a brutally slow-paced, but remarkably interesting interplay between a government spy and his completely unwitting target. It works extremely well, in a kind of polite One Hour Photo sort of way. While its painstaking pace can make it at times a chore to follow, the end result is stoically touching, satisfying, remarkably topical, and well worth sinking in to.

8 out of 10.

The Motorcycle Diaries (2004)

Also known as Diarios de motocicleta.
Che Guevara has become a symbol of rebellion of late, but few people born after his death seem to know who he was. With Motorcycle Diaries, we get a glimpse into the man behind the ever-present t-shirt, and into the boy before the revolution. There's very little of the revolutionary here, merely the true story of Che's trip through South America with his good friend Alberto Grenado. Quiet, contemplative, and filled with character moments, Gael Garcia Bernal's portrayal of Che is both introspective and layered, playing a man who slowly gives up his boyhood to take on his mantle of responsibility, while Rodrigo De la Serna's take on Alberto is an exceptional foil to Che's burgeoning self. While it has almost none of what would make Che Guevara infamous in his final years, what's painted here is easy to interpret as the genesis of all leaders, for better or worse. Che eventually became an enemy and target of the United States, and perhaps that is a more interesting story, but the tale of the boy before the man is just as worthwhile.

9 out of 10.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Hero (2002 China, 2004 USA)

Also known as Ying xiong.
Heavily steeped in oriental warrior-philosophy, filled with love triangles and betrayals, and blessed with a visual style of stunning beauty, this is the kind of movie that puts the art back into martial arts. Taking cues from Akira Kurosawa's masterpiece Rashamon, director Yimou Zhang builds this story around telling the same snippets of story over and over again, each time from a different perspective, resulting in a tale of wonderful clarity and color. The acting here is a bit overcooked, but if you've ever watched opera, it comes off in much the same way: broad strokes of emotion meant to fill a canvas with each line, instead of the usual subtle nuance we're used to seeing. What really strikes home with this film, though, is its visual style. Picking a primary color to base each version of the story around makes for an interesting and exceptionally accessible symbolism that gives the audience the chance to sort out the true meaning of each story. It's a brilliant tweak that just makes watching the film much more interesting and attractive. If you're not big on warrior philosophy and foreign films, your mileage may vary. But for everyone else, regardless of whether they consider themselves fans of martial arts epics, Hero is absolutely worth seeing.

9 out of 10.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Casshern (2004 Japan, 2007 USA)

Either it's a soulful meditation on the agony of loss and the state of father-son relationships in the world today, or a live action anime featuring a superhuman facing off against other superhumans and their robotic armies. I really have no idea either way. I will say this, though: damn it's a gorgeous movie! Every frame of this film drips with one kind of artistry or another, and the end result is two continuous hours of scene paintings of incredible fidelity. The action sequences benefit the most from this, though some erratic editing keeps the violence from being immediately understandable. Meanwhile, the plot that guides the imagery is meandering and unfinished. By the conclusion, you're not sure of the kind of logic the narrative was trying to follow, or what exactly it was trying to say. Clearly there's a powerful message in the film, but it's buried under confusing conspiracy plots and typical anime existential melodrama. That being said, there are moments of startling clarity and tender emotion peppered throughout. Maybe some folks will watch this and see something huge and meaningful. Maybe I missed something that kept me from fully enjoying this film. I wish I could see what that is, because what little got through was quite touching.

6 out of 10.

Monday, November 5, 2007

V For Vendetta (2005)

Making a movie about a future version of Guy Fawkes has got to be risky stuff, especially in these paranoid times. Certainly one man's terrorist is another man's folk hero, and Guy Fawkes does have his own holiday in Britain (remember remember the fifth of November), but with the word “terrorist” having become as taboo as the “N” word here in the States, it's difficult to say how a film like this flies in this country. Personally I find it liberating, though too easy to romanticize, admiring a man who's gunpowder plot to blow up Parliament in 1605 is seen as symbolic that an inadequate government will not be tolerated. But how does that adapt to film? How does that translate to a science fiction drama about a terrorist who is fed up with government, and who resolves to galvanize an apathetic populace into taking action? Pretty well actually, as long as you ignore the movie itself and focus instead on the trickle of violently seductive ideas present. In the right hands, this is a dangerous film. As a movie, though, it has some serious issues. Hugo Weaving's performance is almost V for vaudevillian in it's overcooked elocution, while Natalie Portman flounders trying to maintain a British accent. The rest of the story is mostly white noise, but it's punctuated with moments of absolutely staggering power that only the heartless could ignore (the "Autobiography" scene is one of my favorite in all of cinema). These heartstopping moments drive forth an agenda, and it's here that the film finds its footing. Guy Fawkes is a tough person to idolize, but the very visceral way in which he tried to give power back to the people is inspiring in its own way. So too, is this movie: tough to like, but packed with ideas.

7 out of 10.

American Splendor (2003)

Before Sideways finally gave him his due, Paul Giamatti put in one of the most thorough, detailed, interesting, tragic, witty, and most of all thankless performances of his career. He plays Harvey Pekar, a blue collar file clerk, former regular on David Letterman, lovable curmudgeon, and author of the autobiographical comic book American Splendor. Meanwhile, the real Harvey Pekar makes regular appearances and comments throughout. It's not as convoluted as it sounds. It isn't really convoluted at all. What it is is a remarkably earnest, deeply touching story of a storyteller, made all the more authentic by the regular input and appearance of the real people behind the tale. Everything here is spot-on. Pekar's input is poignant and insightful, while Giamatti plays the role with courageous accuracy. The result is a quasi-biography/dramatization that becomes a quintessentially American story of life, loss, and a uniquely begrudging kind of love. It's deep and meaningful, funny and tragic, painful and joyous, and frequently all of those at once.

9 out of 10.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

American Gangster (2007)

Heroin kingpin Frank Lucas, played with stoic gusto by Denzel Washington, is a generous, loving, caring businessman. But he isn't likable. Neither is Russell Crowe's Richie Roberts, the investigator trying to break down Lucas' organization in this Vietnam era true crime drama. Sure, we can respect Lucas' consistent practices when it comes to managing his illegal operation, and understand Roberts' almost sacrificial boy scout mentality, but if you don't like the characters to begin with, what's here to enjoy? In spite of all this, what's here is still a pretty decent film, which is more a testament to a decent script and Ridley Scott's always superb world-building. The twists and turns are well organized and interesting, while 1970s New York and Vietnam are painted in an unflattering, if honest, light. It says a lot for a movie when it's good enough to make you want to like the leads, but you find that you can't. In trying to paint the main characters in a gritty, honest light, they just went too far. If you can get past that, there's some real meat here.

7 out of 10.

Hotel Rwanda (2004)

As horrifically sad as this film is, and as great the tragedies in Africa are and remain, the overriding impression I wind up getting from every movie trying to encapsulate these atrocities is of missed opportunity. So here again we have Rwanda 1994 at the eruption of civil war and genocide. Danger surrounds an upscale hotel while the UN turns its back on a massacre, and in the middle is the Schindler-like Paul Rusesabagina, played by Don Cheadle. It's concerning stuff, but the film very rarely manages to capture the bigger struggle, the desperate strife, and the titanic losses that this or any other similar conflict (and there are plenty) entails. With that out of the way, as a small-scale story of love and of fear it is fairly effective. Cheadle in particular puts on a career-defining show amid a cast of very consistent performances. If it weren't for the fact that this is a mostly true story about a tragically real predicament, the small scale of the story would be fine. Maybe it's because the worst of Africa's troubles are so epic they can't be captured in film, but though it's more effective than most, Hotel Rwanda isn't the galvanizing piece of work it ought to be. It's well made, but sadly not definitive. Crises this big need better.

7 out of 10.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Elizabeth (1998)

Part political thriller, part coming-of-age tale, and part costume drama, this film manages the near insurmountable task of making 16th century British politics interesting, if not absolutely enthralling. Depicting the Lady Elizabeth's ascension to royalty through her early period of rule, the narrative has all the twists, turns, and conspiracies of a mafia movie. Of course, if history somehow is made this fascinating, the natural concern is whether or not it's an accurate portrayal of the period. I am not qualified to say for certain, though given how well it all flows together I would say it should be taken with a grain of salt. That said, as a movie, as entrainment, and probably as a whiff of life during the times it is hard to argue with how deftly it keeps your attention. Nothing here breaks character, and very little is over the top. It cements with a sense of beauty, pageantry and British stoicism that is extremely satisfying. What it may lack in truth, it makes up for in everything else.

9 out of 10.

Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007)

While the first Elizabeth was a triumphant telling of the early days of arguably history's greatest woman, this is more like a depiction of her sophomore slump. Oh sure England had some great success during these days but the presence of the Lady herself, at least as it is presented here, is almost incidental. In short, a lot of events happen around her, but rarely if ever to her. In the process, much of the character and deeply personal nature gets left where the first film ended. What's here is mostly pleasant pageantry, regal melodrama, and the occasional bloodbath. It still looks great, it's still very well acted, but it lacks the cleverness and captivating nature of the first, instead settling on being merely interesting. The film is still decent, but after the miracle concoction of the first you can't help but feel a bit let down.

6 out of 10.