by Kris Katz
Brief spoiler-free entertainment reviews

Monday, December 31, 2007

The Invisible (2007)

Needlessly tragic and scripted with the subtlety of a sledgehammer, there are a lot of reasons to dislike this movie, but enough good things going on to keep you from turning it off completely. If nothing else, this trippy tale of a kid's struggle to solve his own murder is at least original in both concept and execution, but for the most part it just gets used as a venue to vent gigantic gobs of teen angst. You've got your standard issue absentee parents, faux friends with confused alliances, and a soundtrack piled high with “no one understands me” alterna-rock. And all the voyeuristic wanderings where we see everyone's reaction to our protagonist's death makes it come off like a charmless retelling of It's A Wonderful Life. Still, the story is complex enough to not be dull and even includes an unexpected twist or two, and the scenery is wonderful in a wet and cloudy sort of way. One's enjoyment here probably depends on how sturdy your gag reflex is for typical adolescent melancholy. Neat story idea aside, what's here isn't much of anything special, but not particularly bad either.

5 out of 10.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Talk to Me (2007)

Occasionally touching, extremely well acted, but sadly lacking in the second hour, Talk to Me is a film at odds with itself. For the first half, watching Don Cheadle's take on 1960s Washington D.C. disc jockey Petey Greene is a master class in character acting. He utterly loses himself in the role, creating a caustic prophet for the black community during times of exceptional strife. You understand his pathos and though he can be tough to like, Cheadle's performance is flawlessly realized. Then the second half focuses on his manager Dewey Hughes, played with equal clarity by Serenity star Chiwetel Ejiofor. The problem is that while Petey Greene is a firebrand of controversy and hard living, Dewey Hughes comes off as a man of tempered ambition and moderation. While the oil-and-water chemistry and brotherly love between the two is readily apparent, when put on their own Hughes is by far the less interesting. This renders the film a mixed bag. While it portrays its era with fantastic skill and craft, it just can't overcome that the more involving story all but walks out halfway through the movie.

7 out of 10.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Juno (2007)

Human beings simply aren't this rational, but isn't the reason we go to the movies to see impossible things? Sure, it's fraught with the usual series of moral conundrums that would and should plague any film about teen pregnancy. But it's the totally level-headed perspective screenwriter Diablo Cody brings to bear that makes this one of the freshest, most charming, and charismatic movies of 2007. Credit also has to go to the perfect performance of Ellen Page as Juno; she takes the script's improbably earnest title character and turns her into a sensitive, beguiling, intelligent, and believable persona. Everything in this film is just marvelous, from the lighthearted yet honest way everyone deals with one another, the superb pacing that keeps you smiling sweetly from one moment to the next, down to the bizarrely enchanting soundtrack. It's funny, smart, original, and absolutely overflowing with insight. Impossibly sensible cast aside, it's one of the best ways out there to get the warm-fuzzies.

9 out of 10.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

AVPR: Aliens vs Predator - Requiem (2007)

After Paul W.S. Anderson’s failed attempt at bringing two of sci-fi’s most respected franchises together in the first Alien vs Predator, the mythology and prestige associated with both storylines was in ruins. Things fare much better this time out, and even though it continues the narrative from the previous film it manages to not only make up for the sins of its father, but actually repairs the damage done to both franchises’ respective sagas. Sure, it’s still just barely better a B-movie (thanks only to its pedigree), but the film is a fun little creature feature with enough of a brain not to offend its audience and fan base, and a body count so utterly ruthless it almost comes off as an apology for the previous film’s PG-13 rating. That said, the acting ranges from so-so to just plain bad, the editing is a bit spastic, and the cinematography is so dark in places you won’t be able to tell which horrible beast you’re looking at. But it’s still an improvement over the previous chapter. Perhaps it takes a lot of compromise to gladly accept such a low-brow entry into the company of these revered films, but if nothing else it’s nice to see these heavyweights on screen and not leave the theater angry. In short: it doesn’t suck.

6 out of 10.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

The Star Wars Holiday Special (1978)

Before The Empire Strikes Back had a chance to solidify the series' place in cinema history, this catastrophe happened. There simply are not words for how absolutely awful this made-for-TV cash-in is and remains. That it continues to exist thanks to someone's 1978 VCR and the eventual advent of web-based video is nigh on an epic travesty, and under no circumstances should any loved one or trusted friend be made to watch any or all of it. Honestly it should come with the kind of warnings reserved for narcotics and a card with a suicide hot-line's number on it. That it has names like Art Carney and Bea Arthur attached to it just adds to the overall embarrassment of seeing a beloved classic turned into a low-budget musical. No amount of damage supposedly done by the Special Editions and the Prequel Trilogy can ever match the sheer abuse this two hour turd visits upon this universe. Star Wars creator and geek paragon George Lucas once said that if he had enough time and a hammer he would destroy every copy of the bloody thing. After having seen it myself, Mr. Lucas I am willing to buy you that hammer.

None out of 10.

With Rifftrax:
With that out of the way, fans of the now defunct Mystery Science Theater 3000 TV show and movie would actually be doing themselves a favor by heading over to and downloading the alternate audio track. Rifftrax are simple mp3 files that you play alongside a given movie, where three or more folks make snide comments basically tear the film a new one. In the case of The Star Wars Holiday Special, the Riff turns an intergalactic meltdown into two of the funniest hours you could reasonably ask for. Hosts Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett manage to pull together an absurdly hilarious miracle in turning the movie's dialogue (or lack thereof) against itself. While it certainly can't rescue an established cataclysm, it drags this Holiday Hindenburg up enough to make it something you won't bring up in therapy later.

With Rifftrax: 1 out of 10. (by the way, the version of the SWHS you'll want to use for this runs about 1 hour, 57 minutes or so, and still has the vintage commercials in it)

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Charlie Wilson's War (2007)

Charming might be the best adjective to describe this movie, and honestly it's a wonderful and wonderfully dirty little political drama through and through. As usual, Tom Hanks does a great job playing a likable bastard while Julia Roberts does her duty as a feminine force to be reckoned with, but it's Phillip Seymor Hoffman who winds up stealing every scene he's in as an exceptionally gruff and foulmouthed CIA agent helping the leads. The slow end to the covert side of the Cold War is depicted with a fantastic sense of whimsy mixed with hard-forged alliances that, while lacking punch in any visceral sense both emotionally and physically (it's a war movie fought from behind a desk), still manages to be satisfying. With great characters, and a heaping dose of Texas pragmatism, this light-hearted look at the business of war remains both relevant and fun on its own terms.

8 out of 10.

Sweeny Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)

Whatever his visual triumphs, director Tim Burton seems to have a lot of trouble pulling off a truly great film. He certainly has made a large number of very good films (and a decent pile of so-so ones), but for so prolific and iconic an auteur it's odd that his great movies only number three or four. Sweeny Todd falls into the very good, almost great side of things, mostly on the strength of the quirky musical it's based on, and Burton's strengths as a presenter of absurdly gothic delights. It is perhaps the best produced musical about murder-and-cannibalism to date, and it certainly has its ducks in a row as far as eye candy goes. But as much fun as listening to Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter sing about how delicious people might be, one wonders what might have been in the hands of more capable singers. The casting is competent (and in the case of Borat's Sacha Baron Cohen, inspired) but rarely excels largely due to Depp's almost complete lack of singing experience. He gets the job done much better than most would in his position, but the inexperience is still audible. That said, the music is witty and sharp (no pun intended), the sets and costumes fantastic, and the gore flows like thick, chunky water. It has enough going on to deem it a must-see for fans of both Burton and blood-soaked musicals, but lacks the final spark to make it a gruesome slice of brilliance.

8 out of 10.

Friday, December 21, 2007

National Treasure (2004)

Either enjoyably stupid, or cleverly harmless, this film fails to really deliver the goods but winds up being a great two-hour diversion. Basically it tries to simultaneously Da Vinci Code and Indiana Jones American history, while tossing in a few fun chase scenes and some preposterous plot twists to lead to some semi-important revelation, all the while spouting probably-true bits of obscure Americana. It's cheerfully brainless fluff, funny without being offensive, surprisingly family friendly, and almost immediately forgettable. All that's left behind as the credits roll is a pleasantly pink mist that tells you that you've enjoyed the film, but for no reason you can discern. You could spend your time on much worse.

7 out of 10.

National Treasure 2: Book of Secrets (2007)

The first film wasn't much more than a forgettably fun time-waster, and to its credit so is the sequel. It's the same Indiana Jones meets Da Vinci Code meets American “history” formula that made the first a good chuckle, except this time with a much bigger budget. Honestly there isn't much more to the movie than that. The exact same criticisms apply to this film that did to the first—it's funny without being offensive, surprisingly family friendly, and pleasantly inconsequential. It is perhaps a bit more patriotic than the first, but nothing here is really out of character. It should be noted that the central mystery and treasure hunt is a lot more elaborate and interesting this go around, though to balance that out the characters are a bit more bland. This remains a movie about the hunt, the clues, and the peculiar situations everyone constantly finds themselves in, and just like its predecessor there are far worse ways out there to spend your time.

7 out of 10.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Stardust (2007)

Patience is a virtue, or so they say. For those quick to judge, Stardust will come off as derivative, silly fantasy fluff with no hope of rescue. For those of you willing to endure an entire hour of world-building and meandering exposition, you will be handsomely rewarded. If you let this film work through the kinks, the second half is a spectacular success—imaginative, breathlessly charismatic, with a giddy kind of heart-warming romanticism that is never condescending. It's all bundled together with some competent, though intentionally cartoonish special effects, a morbid yet friendly sense of humor and some delightfully fun swashbuckling action sequences. All of this delivered by a ridiculous number of big names, including Claire Danes, Michelle Pfeiffer, Ruperet Everett, Peter O'Toole, with Robert De Niro as you've quite literally never seen him before, and fantasy mainstay Ian McKellen as narrator. If you have any love of goodhearted, fun-for-fun's-sake filmmaking, you owe it to yourself to see this. Overly-long first hour notwithstanding, I would go so far as to say that this is the most enjoyable, charming, pure entertainment bit of light fantasy cinema produced since The Princess Bride. It fights for and earns every bit of its wonder and admiration.

9 out of 10.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006 Ireland, 2007 USA)

The ridiculously protracted occupation and war(s) between the British and it's neighboring states, in this case Ireland, is barely taught in American schools, so I hope I can be forgiven for going into this movie improperly armed to judge it on historical grounds. What's here is a sometimes-stirring, always interesting, but strangely distant look at the Irish Republican Army's struggle to win Ireland some level of independence in 1920. Cillian Murphy (the guy from 28 Days Later, and Scarecrow in Batman Begins) does a decent job creating an idealistic, sympathetic guerrilla fighter, and the rest of the cast each do well in their parts. But while the story itself is fascinating in its scope and gives equal time to internal politics as much as battle tactics, it lacks a certain something to really draw in the audience. It seems to assume intimate knowledge and emotional sympathy with the struggle, rather than bringing the unaware into the fold. That said, it's still a well-made movie worth watching. If you're up to date on your Irish history, feel free to add a point onto my judgment.

7 out of 10.

Note: I'm almost ashamed to admit this, but the Irish accents and interspersed Gaelic were so thick I had to watch this with subtitles on. Just putting that out there.

Wild Hogs (2007)

More or less, this is pretty much just the middle ground between National Lampoon's Vacation and Easy Rider. A pile of men each going through a mid-life crisis use a cross-country motorcycle trip as an excuse to reclaim their younger selves, and along the way male bonding and amusing mischief occurs. It's a tried and true template, and this film never deviates from the formula, painting broad, crowd-pleasing gags using familiar faces and a few cameos. It stagnates a bit in the latter half when it suddenly remembers that most stories need conflict to drive them forward, but even what happens here causes a few grins and smiles. It's never anywhere near as iconic or hilarious as either of its most obvious influences, but on its own terms it's a passable bit of leather-clad comedy.

6 out of 10.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Alvin and the Chipmunks (2007)

From the director who brought us the second Garfield movie comes a movie adaptation of a cartoon show whose only redeeming quality is the innovation of taking Christmas carols and bumping them up two octaves. Wonderful. I question the wisdom of adapting an 80s toon that, at this point, is at least a generation removed from the audience this film is targeting. And what a train wreck it is! Sketchy CG chipmunks with high-pitched voices terrorize and warm the heart of a clearly-desperate-for-a-paycheck Jason Lee while “wacky” and “hilarious” “hijinks” ensue. There isn't a single moment when this cinematic catastrophe is either amusing or worthwhile. It's all a calculated attempt to repackage pop songs and sell albums, which is ironic since the movie is about fighting against that exact thing. I'll give that it may entertain small children, but the poor parents who will be escorting the only audience that could appreciate this turd will be lucky to make it fifteen minutes in before wondering if their time might be better spent getting a head start on their taxes.

2 out of 10.

Monday, December 17, 2007

I Am Legend (2007)

Great performances can come from just about anywhere, in any film. I Am Legend, I expect, didn't aspire to be much more than a mega-budget December release, eager to cash in on the crowds as many of them begin their holiday vacations. It has a so-so script that's big on set pieces but light on breadth, top notch effects (well, at least the deserted New York is top notch; some of the other effects don't fair so well), and a big name to headline it. And then Will Smith makes it magic. In the guise of a post-apocalyptic thriller, Smith's take on the day-to-day desolation and mania that comes along with longterm isolation is riveting, and for the most part it elevates this film from a generic seat-filler to a tightly-wound, often somber character piece. The film as a whole benefits from it, whether it's the exceptionally creepy darkness scenes or the quiet moments Smith shares with his dog. While in the final analysis, this movie lacks the depth and wide-ranging appeal to push this into must-see territory (not to mention that it has almost nothing to do with the book it's supposedly based on), what's here is a fantastic little genre pic, effortlessly carried on the shoulders of its star.

8 out of 10.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

A Very Long Engagement (2004)

Also known as Un long dimanche de fian├žailles.
My good friend and sometimes co-conspirator, alias Phineas Gopher, recently took it upon himself to give me an education in French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet, as the only films of his that I had seen at the time were Alien Resurrection, which was awful, and Delicatessen, which was difficult to watch in a high-school classroom. It's a good thing, too, as his films have a color and life and style to them that is unlike anything else in cinema. His films are far from perfect, but they excel at simply being themselves. Rightly (satirically) described as “Amelie 2: Amelie Goes to War”, this film is a sweeping, massive, absolutely epic love story set amidst trench warfare and post-conflict investigation in and after World War One. Audrey Tautou once again headlines the cast, and once again she proves exceptionally watchable, putting in a performance both charming and tragically optimistic. Meanwhile the sets and visuals are beautifully rendered and shot in that uniquely French kind of artistry that makes it both immediately relatable and disarmingly abstract. The plot doesn't quite fare so well, however. Though the pace and thrust of the story are riveting, the sequence of events—of who died, who should have died, who was murdered, and who was simply killed in battle—becomes almost impossibly complicated. However, while the confusion draws away from the narrative satisfaction of this film, it dulls none of its considerable emotional impact. It's a difficult film to follow at times, but the sweep and scope of this romance is exceptional.

8 out of 10.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Shotgun Stories (2007)

Having seen it firsthand, I can tell you there are few things like a deep south vendetta. In this film we have a homespun tale of old hatred drawn out with a sense of purpose and place uncommon in experienced directors, let alone first timers. Writer/Director Jeff Nichols has done an admiral job of designing a fascinating character study drama of familial hatred set in the tranquil nothingness of the US delta. The result is a patient bit of stoic cinema that is honest, meditative, and poetically tragic. Each performance is crafted with a very suitable kind of subtlety and nuance, especially Michael Shannon as the almost anti-heroic Son. If it has any faults, they have to do with how well it matched its subject matter. Rural Arkansas is an uneventful area by nature, and so the movie matches its snail's pace. Likewise some of the characters, while internally consistent, are difficult to like or relate to. But on the whole, this film is a surprisingly honest look at the American South, and a sound bit of tempered, skillful filmmaking.

8 out of 10.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Futurama: Bender's Big Score (2007)

When I finally came around to actually liking this series it was about four episodes from being canceled. Since then, I've become a pretty loyal follower of this sci-fi satire thanks to reruns on [adult swim], and while I can say that this isn't their finest hour (snu-snu!), this little piece of straight-to-DVD cinema has more than enough warm-fuzzies to be labeled a triumphant return. Essentially it's ninety minutes of new material wrapped around copious amounts of TV-friendly nudity and staggering piles of fan service, gleefully shoved into a jumbo-sized, microwavable tray of reused plot devices and familiar faces. It's certainly not perfect—if you were never particular toward the show this won't change your mind, and the way that this is four to-be-aired new episodes of the program crammed back-to-back does make it feel more than a little drawn out. Still, it's just nice to have this world back, and speaking as a fan I loved how just about every side character from the series made an appearance, from Al Gore (voiced by Al Gore), to Hedonism-bot, to Zapp Brannigan. While it may not be much beyond what was winning Emmys on Fox years ago, if you've ever had any love of the series then there's a great chance the year 3007 can still make you laugh.

7 out of 10.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Ratatouille (2007)

It becomes obvious, once you break down what it's about, why this was almost the least profitable Pixar film released to date. Fine dining in a Paris kitchen that has a rat as the chef isn't the the most marketable concept for a kid's flick. Rats aren't exactly cute and cuddly, and fine cuisine isn't something that an 8-year-old is typically interested in. But who cares? This is superb filmmaking, and another example of why director Brad Bird (The Iron Giant, The Incredibles) is considered among the most talented artists working in animation today. While it contains little of the big budget adventure styling of previous Pixar efforts, the heart and story shine bright. The focus is intimate without being pretentious, and the humor is imaginative and intelligent but never in bad taste (beyond rats eating garbage, at least). It still has a few moments of typical kid's film silliness, though even here they had the good sense not to overdo it. Left field subject matter aside, as a smart movie that all ages can enjoy it will simply make you smile from start to finish.

9 out of 10.

Paprika (2006)

Peculiar, flawed, engrossing, confusing, beautiful, deep, strangely soothing, unique and familiar are all adjectives that could describe this weird little gem. On the surface, it's not much more than a mixed soup consisting of bits of The Cell, a heaping helping of Ghost in the Shell, and just a tiny smidge of A Nightmare on Elm Street. Being a crime-drama centering on the convergence of dreams and schizophrenia will cause those kinds of justified comparisons. But it's in how the borrowed details of these narratives are arranged and presented that makes this film so uncommon. Since this is an animated film, the quality of effects and the restrictions of reality are nonexistent, and so the filmmakers go nuts trying to depict the crazy non-sequitur logic of subjective reality. On the whole, the segments that bend perception of what's real and what's imaginary are stunning, and the way that the internal logic of dreams is depicted is largely spot on. Where the film finds fault is in the utterly baffling way its story unfolds. If you pay enough attention to every single tiny, minute detail you will be able to figure out most of what actually happens, but even then some bits remain in the dark. As well, some of the characters' relationships and choices are either poorly explained or just never quite palatable. Regardless, the conclusion still brings a satisfactory close to most of the plot. As a movie that runs on the logic of non-logic, and as a film that juggles its familiar elements in a novel way, it's a wonderfully eccentric approach to disorientation.

7 out of 10.

Note: For the sake of all that's holy, watch this movie in its native Japanese. The English dub is terrible. Also, for anyone thinking of watching this, you might want to know that anaphylaxis is an "exaggerated allergic reaction to a foreign protein resulting from previous exposure to it."

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Reno 911: Miami (2007)

The usual rules apply here: if you didn't like the Reno 911 TV show, you won't like the movie. However, if you've never heard of Reno 911 then keep listening. While it isn't much more than what's been on Comedy Central for the past few years, this sordid spoof of the show Cops still has enough bite and enough offensive gall to make its R-rated patrol worthwhile. It's often quite clever, consistently hilarious, and it has an off-the-cuff spontaneity that keeps the laughs coming in unexpected ways. This is all thanks to a very talented cast of miscreants who, in the making of both the show and the film, write up the skeleton of a script along with a few key gags then almost completely improvise each scene on set. At a trim 83 minutes, the movie features some of their best skits yet and by far their most raunchy gags ever, neatly wrapped around an appropriately disposable plot. Beyond that there isn't much to see here, and while the jokes are great while they last they, along with the film itself, are mostly forgettable. Still, whether you've seen the show or not, there's a lot to like and a lot to laugh at here.

7 out of 10.

Friday, December 7, 2007

The Golden Compass (2007)

Swing and a miss! When New Line Cinema bet the house on Peter Jackson's interpretation of Lord of the Rings, the result was an unquestioned masterstroke. Here, New Line is at it again with a less beloved, far more complicated tale of alternate universes and the churches that try to control them. The result is a mish-mash of uneven film making, incomplete exposition, and confusing ideals. Sure, the effects are spectacular, and newcomer Dakota Blue Richards has more acting chops than most Oscar winners (and she's 13 and this is only her first movie!), but it's tough to love the good in the movie when you can't understand what's going on. The concepts that run the fiction here are labyrinthine and far-reaching, but they're rarely given a good moment or two to properly sink in, and since the entire story is built on these imaginative ideas a lot of the drama suffers. It really is a shame because there is a good story being maimed here. If the movie had been given enough wiggle room to set the world and the story properly, New Line's gamble might have paid off. As it stands, for every triumph the film has, there are sparks of confusion and frustration to match.

5 out of 10.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

The Warriors (1979)

Roots are a funny thing sometimes. Everything has to come from something, sure, but some things just aren't indicative of what came before. Case in point: The Warriors. I'm sure that this was seen as a morally reprehensible, edgy, and hip movie back in 1979. Today, it merely looks back to a simpler time when we were naive enough to think gang violence took place between roving bands of themed tough guys using themed weapons in themed [parks?] locations; a time before every gang member was equipped with a red or blue bandanna and a Glock 9. What was edgy before, now simply comes off as silly, dull, irrelevant, and probably best enjoyed in the company of drunk friends. That isn't to say that it's a bad example of youth-targeted film making of its era. The characters are at least consistent, the world's internal logic is sound, and the story moves with predictable but interesting motion. By today's standards, it's a cheesy bit of over-serious fluff, awful music, and unintentional laughs. This film's many period triumphs have simply been washed out by the craft's natural evolution. Still, it has an endearing, remember-when quality that will tickle the nostalgia bone for some audiences. It's a relic, sure, but an amusing one.

6 out of 10.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters (on DVD!) (2007)

If you've ever seen the Aqua Teen Hunger Force television show on [adult swim], then there's really no reason for you to read this review. You will already know what it's like and whether or not it's your cup of tea. For the uninitiated, ATHF is a quasi-sitcom about a box of fries, a milkshake, and a lump of beef living together and fighting off leprechauns, dragons, aliens, sentient mold, demons, cursed club sandwiches, robots, their loathsome neighbor Carl, and each other. Weird doesn't begin to describe it. Neither does coherent, but that's one of its charms. It's foulmouthed, nonsensical and deeply niche stuff, but if you're tuned to the kind of oddities it offers it can be quite funny. The film pretty much follows suit, offering up ninety minutes straight of non-sequitur humor and the series' signature heroes and villains. While it goes a long way toward resolving some of the stranger questions viewers probably posed with regards to the show itself, the movie is so full of in-jokes to the series that most first-timers and even casual fans will likely be lost. Similarly, the breakneck pace of the program is lost with the expanded time frame, leading to long segments where little of anything worthwhile occurs. Aqua Teen is clearly aimed at the die hard fans of the series and while there is certainly the chance that newcomers will get a good chuckle out of its unique brand of silliness, this film never aspires to be anything more than what's been on TV for years.

5 out of 10.