by Kris Katz
Brief spoiler-free entertainment reviews

Monday, December 8, 2008

Blade Runner (1982 / DC 1991 / FC 2007)

Hot off of the success of the horror classic Alien, Ridley Scott crafted this dark, stylish, and original sci-fi film noir. When a group of androids escapes into a dystopic future Los Angeles, it's up to Harrison Ford to play detective and track them down. But the androids themselves are fearful that their short lifespans are about to come to a close, and seek to find a way to prolong their lives. While the story remains simple, the questions raised are certainly not. Long thoughts on identity and reality, of mortality and fear and the uncertainty of being each get their time, and the result is a somber, melancholy movie that may ask more questions than it has answers for, but has a deep understanding of its subject matter. It's heady stuff; the kind of content that sticks with you long after the credits roll. It's dense, it's daring, and it's visionary. Blade Runner is a film that rightly deserves its place in the sci-fi pantheon.

9 out of 10.

Note: If you have the choice, the 2007 re-re-release, optimistically titled Blade Runner: The Final Cut, is definitely the one to see.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

007 Casino Royale (2006)

Start from scratch. Strip away the liscence to kill, the shaken martini and fast cars, and even the double-oh from James Bond, and you get a film about a man struggling with hard lessons on the path to become the world's greatest spy. This new iteration of the classic character isn't afraid of dirty work, and more resembles a thuggish assassin with delusions of style than the suave, invincible macho male fantasy of movies past. The humanizing reboot mostly works, focusing much tighter on characterization than explosions, which in turn causes the few action sequences and tricky situations to carry a heft almost unseen in the series. That said, at points the attempt to portray a more relatable, realistic Bond goes too far, especially in the final act which not only feels like a break from earlier parts of the film, but leaps unexpectedly into an entirely different genre. Despite all this, the wager to pick apart the cinematic icon was a wise one, showing a fresh version of Bond who is flawed and fallible, but more exciting as well.

8 out of 10.

Monday, November 17, 2008

007 Quantum of Solace

A first for the now 22 film strong series: a direct sequel! Picking up within an hour of the conclusion of Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace sees the apparent conspiracy from the first widened into a global affair, with key players in all places and Britain's best super-spy cum one man army out to tear it apart. It works almost every bit as well as the previous film, and has the advantage of not spontaneously changing genres in the third act. The focus is different however, preferring to build a larger, credible threat while a guilt- and rage-ridden Bond slowly works through the morass, killing his way to bigger and better leads. The action is remains solid if a bit over the top (though still mercifully shy of the ultra-silliness that much of the series is known for), and the characters stay as compelling as the last film. It's a fine effort all around, continuing the strengths of its predecessor, and while it really doesn't break any new ground it still remains some damn fine entertainment.

8 out of 10.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Batman Begins (2005)

Christopher Nolan's take on the Caped Crusader is worlds apart from the flashy and stylized works of Tim Burton's and Joel Schumacher's earlier Batman movies. In a way, it can be seen as the series dropping back to punt, abandoning all the good and bad that came before to start on fresh soil. The gambit pays off big, ultimately asking the question of what it would take to make a man risk himself as a vigilante. Essentially split into two films, the first half of Batman Begins shows the inspiration and training as a man turns tragic rage into motivation for action, while the second half becomes the tale of a city under siege in need of a savior. It's all portrayed in a darkly realistic, though still somewhat fanciful light, creating a grounded tableau for fantastic feats. It's helped along by some excellent performances, including Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne and Batman, Liam Neeson and his exceptional charisma as the enigmatic Ducard, and an excellent turn by Michael Caine providing the film's powerful heart as the Wayne family's butler Alfred. The end result is sometimes a little silly, sometimes a little overblown, but yet manages to feel important and earnest. By its end, there is a need for Batman, and a feeling of ragged hope that is admirable in and of itself.

8 out of 10.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Batman: Gotham Knight (2008)

With Christopher Nolan's triumphant revival of the Batman mythos, any attempt to add to the legend will inevitably be compared. Gotham Knight consists of six short, anime-style stories built around Nolan's films, but the link between the shorts and the films is so slim as to be irksome. Rather, these more closely resemble severely shortened episodes of the ongoing cartoon series. It doesn't help that the whole thing starts off on an extended weak note. The first two films are fairly disposable, nothing special. The third is decent. It isn't until the half-way mark that anything resembling real content starts to show up, but by the last short there's not a lot of quality left. The lasting impression is one of being underwhelmed. There are impressive moments, specifically the fourth and fifth stories, but as a whole there's just nothing here that can stack up to the real thing. If you're a diehard who just has to have as much Batman as is out there, go knock yourself out. Otherwise this is definitely not required viewing.

6 out of 10.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Dark Knight (2008)

For as many movies that have been adapted from the pages of comic books, I don't think anyone has ever even considered the possibility that one might someday be thought of as a masterpiece. The sequel to Batman Begins has a sense of scope and urgency that is so far beyond what the comic book genre typically deserves that the film becomes, without pretension, a legitimate “crime epic.” It's a sprawling work of remarkable depth and terrifying darkness, and a moral morass of the highest, murkiest caliber. That it's simply the story of Batman facing down his classic arch nemesis The Joker makes it all the more surprising. But The Joker is what elevates this film. The late Heath Ledger utterly loses himself in the role, creating a horrifically depraved lunatic determined to tear the world apart with pocketknives and gasoline. The plot's machinery moves forward at his psychotic whim, ultimately turning the tale into an incendiary allegory about the limits of justice, the sometimes gruesome consequences of doing the right thing, and the ultimate tragedy of true heroes. It's a cat and mouse game played by two sides of the same deranged coin, endlessly frantic, frequently explosive and, for two and a half hours, pushing the envelope in directions that should not be strictly possible. Only time will tell if it truly deserves the title of "masterpiece." For now, The Dark Knight will have to settle for being considered an absolute triumph of the art.

9 out of 10.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Heat (1995)

Nobody knows the crime drama better than Michael Mann. The former producer of Miami Vice and director of Collateral has made his name showing off criminals and the cops who chase them, and few films in his extensive ouvre are more iconic than Heat. The twisted tale of a heist mastermind and his legally opposing force is a winding ride down some very rocky roads. The key ingredient here is the film's fanatical focus on the personal lives of the key players; while there are certainly adrenaline-soaked gunfights and pitched stand-offs, the bulk shows the strife each of these men is facing at home. Marriages are ruined, personal lives thrust into jeopardy, and children neglected so these people can do what they do. It's carried off beautifully by lead actors Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, and Val Kilmer, as well as the expansive supporting cast. While the movie tends to drag on for a bit there is rarely a moment throughout that is less than interesting. The result is a fascinating look at the personal lives of those with dark professions.

9 out of 10.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Hellboy (2004)

A demon, brought forth by occult forces whose gods are intent on the destruction of the universe, a harbinger of the end times, is among us. He enjoys candy, and has a soft spot for kittens. He's also working with a covert branch of the FBI to battle the things deemed too weird to deal with officially. So goes the setup for Mike Mignola's quietly successful comic series, as well as this Guillermo Del Toro film adaption. It's hard to knock if for originality; in two hours you get ancient gods, extra-dimensional conspiracy, a telepathic fish man, and a Nazi assassin who bleeds dust. If you can get past how utterly bizarre most of it is, it spins a decent yarn, too. The story is served with extra pulp, but in that framework live some surprisingly well-developed characters, a few interesting twists, and enough funny one-liners to fill something that would typically be full of funny one-liners. Where it falls short mostly have to do in the lacking explanations of what exactly is going on—the gist of it is present, but as utterly bizarre as some of this gets it would be nice to get the full monty. Assuming you don't mind just going with it, none of that should pose much of a problem. Ultimately, it's far from perfect, but what it may lack in craft it more than makes up for in sheer concept.

8 out of 10.

Note: If you have the choice, go with the director's cut. The extra scenes put a dent or two in the pacing of the film, but in trade you get more great character moments, as well as better explanation into the world and its concepts.

Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008)

Whether you wind up liking the film or not, there's no denying its creativity. At first blush the story is only so-so, telling the tale of a vengeful elf prince out to destroy all humanity, and the FBI-employed demon sent to stop him. The pacing is erratic at best, throwing out a few dud moments among a few good-to-great scenes. And somehow the characters, both old and new, don't have the same lively spark of the first. But then you find yourself staring at the screen, and you realize what you're looking at. For everything wrong with the movie, the sheer quantity of memorable, iconic character and creature designs in this film are staggering and awe-inspiring. There are more fantastic, genuinely fascinating critters in this fantasy than in an entire year's worth of cinema. One scene in particular rivals the cantina scene in Star Wars for simply bombarding you with bizarre and quirky sights. Ultimately, while much of the actual movie portion of the movie just barely eaks out a win, the utterly wild imagination of the designers makes this time well spent.

7 out of 10.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)

There are bad trips, and then there are bad trips. Based on famed gonzo-journalist Hunter S. Thompson's book about himself going on a mescaline- and marijuana-fueled trip to Sin City with his lawyer to cover a story, this move offers perhaps the most delirious depiction of crazed genius on a bender from Hell ever put to film. Every inch of it oozes a kind of nauseating style that is as off-putting as it is fascinating. Monty Python alum Terry Gilliam's directorial style here is skewed in the extreme, using enough crazy camera angles and intentionally erratic pacing to create a work as disturbing as the persons depicted. Every bit of the film, from the opening credits to the final fade, feel like an out-of-control hallucination teetering on the edge of unavoidable disaster. It's backed up beautifully by stellar work from Johnny Depp as Thompson, and Benicio Del Toro as his dealer/lawyer. What squirts out of this crazy binge is a piece of cinema both psychotic and unapologetic, sickening and enlightening, hilarious and melancholy, and perhaps as close as we can get to the mind of the madman himself.

9 out of 10.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Wanted (2008)

You can curve a bullet, but apparently not a character arc. Basically the film is Shoot 'Em Up, this time starring Angelina Jolie's Oscar-winning posterior. And the guy from Last King of Scotland. There are enough serious issues with this movie, structurally, that it's kind of hard to believe it winds up a positive experience overall. The entire first act is a flop, as we hear a whiny cubicle-biscuit narrate a miserable life, abused by his girlfriend and his boss, and basically do anything to avoid a fight. Then suddenly the movie abandons all logic and goes hellbound into one crazy action scene after another, slowly turning the whiner into a hardened killer. It's in this second act that the movie finds its footing, and it certainly leaves an impression. Each firefight defies physics in new and creative ways. There's no logic here, just the pure adrenalin kick of seeing the outrageously impossible. By the time the third act abruptly assassinates the second, the movie has so much forward momentum that it barely matters how the script has jumped completely off the rails. In the right frame of mind, the bullet-ballet on show here can be a thing of beauty, but anyone looking for more than the that is best advised to keep on walking.

6 out of 10.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Get Smart (2008)

Though generally opposed to the remaking and re-imagining of damn near everything that made my childhood dear, I find it hard to feel angry when the result is this much fun. Honestly this shouldn't be nearly as successful as it is, but the combination of a perfectly silly script and the utterly flawless casting of Steve Carrell as Maxwell Smart results in a delightfully hilarious romp. The sense of humor is squarely middle-brow, with surprisingly few cheap shots or overtly foul humor, and it all manages to hit home far more often than it fails. Carrell's bumbling secret agent is a pleasure to watch, with a sense of humor so perfectly dry and timed that you can't help but feel how proud Don Adams would have been. But as good as the humor is, there are deficiencies. When the action decides to ramp up a bit, it frequently leaves the laughs behind, and the action itself isn't anything all that great. Similarly, the prototypical spy gadget dispenser characters are woefully unfunny, and do a remarkable job of dragging down every scene they're in. But the focus of the film is kept mostly on Carrell, steering the tone toward just the right mood. Indeed, if Hollywood is going to continue to pilfer my formative years I could certainly stand to have more of this quality.

7 out of 10.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The Incredible Hulk (2008)

Let it be known that 2008 was the year that the unified Marvel Universe finally came into being. Completely throwing out Ang Lee's much maligned (though technically fascinating) Hulk film from 2003, this iteration of Bruce Banner's anger-driven alter-ego is more like an extremely hyper-kinetic episode of the classic TV show. That's not all it throws out, either; the film doesn't have a first act. It assumes you know that lowly super-scientist Bruce Banner was infected with radiation that causes his anger to manifest as a giant, green, pissed off behemoth. This works to its advantage, creating a film that's lean, mean and, of course, green. There are still significant problems, of course—Liv Tyler's character is essentially a damsel in distress, and Tim Roth's growling commando character lacks proper depth for the choices he makes. But for everything it shaves off the top, it packs in so much on-the-run action, so much fan service, and so much pure movie fun that it's hard not to come out of the theater smiling.

8 out of 10.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

No one in their right mind would deny this as a classic. Or proof that a deus ex machina is just fine if you actually use a deus. I'm really not sure what I'm supposed to tell you here. Harrison Ford may have given life to Han Solo, but his work as Indy is just as iconic, if not more so. Scene after scene, shot after shot, line after line of this film is a part of both pop culture and the cinematic lexicon. In every way possible it holds up just as well, if not better today than it did when it was minted. It's action packed, funny, rousing, romantic, perfectly performed and flawlessly executed. And frankly if you haven't seen it by now, you're a fool. Go rent it, buy it, enjoy it, study it, love it. This, without question, is among the very tip top best of what film has to offer.

10 out of 10.

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)

Ah yes, the sophomore slump. It isn't that the film is bad. It's actually pretty good, retaining much of the whimsy of Raiders, but there's a surprising lack of ambition, and an uncharacteristically dark undercurrent going on here. Indiana Jones is supposed to be synonymous with fun, and yet there are moments in this picture that are more disturbing than they ought to be. Despite this, it still manages to captivate and thrill. The action is still loaded with great moments and impossible feats of daring. Ford still shows off an excellent mix of desperation and humor. But the laughs and combat feel more brutal, more fatalistic. The plot feels less like a fight against world-destroying evil and more like a humanitarian mission gone awry. Then there's Kate Capshaw playing a damsel in distress lacking any of the independence, pragmatism, and chemistry of her forbear. There remains plenty to like here regardless. It's still an adventure, still strange and foreign where appropriate, and rousing when it needs to be. It's a serious step back from Raiders, but then again what isn't?

7 out of 10.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)

You just can't go wrong using Nazis as the bad guys. Crusade represents a triumphant return to form, bringing back the excellent energy and spontaneity (and Nazis) of Raiders, throwing in some extremely ambitious action sequences, and Sean Connery giving his most watchable performance outside of the early James Bond films. It's fantastic and fantastical, everything fans of the fedora would want, from the farcical, physical comedy-laden action to the flawless chemistry between Connery and Ford. The very few places that the film falls short have to do with some uneven pacing in parts, and a somewhat stilted (albeit with justification) female lead. It also winds up treading some of the exact same ground as Raiders in terms of mythology and geography (and Nazis). In the end, it's delightfully unpredictable in just the right ways to make it a true follow-up to the first film. It's not an unquestioned classic, but the action and adventure and ridiculous fun (and Nazis) of it all are gleefully intact.

9 out of 10.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)

Damn it's good to have him back. After nearly two decades the fedora, the whip, and that iconic music returns! George Lucas has had mixed results with his revivals of old franchises, but fans needn't worry if this one is any good. It's not a classic, nor is it "merely" great, but what's here is just the kind of infectious fun you expect and crave. Fun is key here. Lucas and director Steven Spielberg know that these aren't serious movies; they're basically B-movie plots wrapped around amusing archetypes. And in fairness Crystal Skull skews surprisingly deep into that realm in often unexpected, frequently bizarre ways. It's all in cheesy, predictable revelry, though the film still falls a bit short of its pedigree. The emphasis seems to be set squarely on a sense of humorous impossibility. It makes for a few great laughs, but the cheerful seriousness and inherent danger of previous installments is all but gone here, replaced by Ford mugging for the camera with an “I'm too old for this,” look on his face. Speaking of which, Ford seems unfortunately past his prime here. He lacks his strength and rugged verve of yesteryear, instead seeming tired and almost disinterested. That's okay though, since almost all the characters surrounding him are done exceptionally well, especially a surprisingly capable Shia Lebouf as a plucky leather-clad biker, and the magnificent return of a character from an earlier film. In all, it's worth your time, and for the most part a worthy follow-up to its legendary namesake.

7 out of 10.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Iron Man (2008)

Play it all for fun and laughs and it's surprising how far you can go. There's barely a stitch of serious thought in this film; the plot is casually predictable, the storytelling cheesy, and the general logic of it goes against everything I spent entire seconds vaguely daydreaming through in film class. It's pure comic book pulp. But cast Robert Downy Jr. as the lead, with his caustic wit and utterly self-absorbed confidence, and you're guaranteed something narcissistically delicious. In this case, you get a hilarious two-hour improv reel gussied up all nice and purty with summer blockbuster noise and effects. Seeing him play a multi-billionaire arms dealer cum mechanical superhero gives his clearly giganti-large ego a lot of excellent material to play with. Unfortunately anything that isn't Downy Jr. is bulldozed straight off the screen, which is surprising of such talent as Jeff Bridges, Terrance Howard and Gweneth Paltrow. They wind up completely overpowered at almost every turn. In the end, that's not a bad thing—the filmmakers know where the focus needs to be, and mostly keep it there. Ultimately, some cool action sequences, wide appeal, and the fantastically neurotic antics of its lead manage to make this film far more entertaining than it ought to be. And if the after-the-credits sequence is any indication it can only get better from here.

8 out of 10.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

The Departed (2006)

Martin Scorsese just has a way with his craft; the film that finally won him long overdue honors and statuettes is a testament to that. Bursting with star power, crammed full of great lines and fantastic scenes, and with the unpredictably erratic pacing of a cocaine addict's heartbeat, The Departed is absolutely vintage Scorsese. You get drugs. You get violence. You get a great soundtrack. You get actors at their very best, from Dicaprio's clever undercover cop, to Jack Nicholson's throughly disgusting crime lord, to Matt Damon as his corrupt cop liason. Even Mark Wahlberg, who's every other word is an obscenity here, is worthy of Oscar consideration. The script gives the actors a lot of room to work with as well, playing up its cat and mouse game beautifully with a smart character focus and a sly sense of humor. Simply, this film is the complete package. It's brash, it's brainy, it's bloody, and it's damn near brilliant.

9 out of 10.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Starship Troopers (1997)

Jingoism meets soap opera meets war film. There's little here to latch any aspirations of “serious cinema” onto in this sci-fi combat flick. The script is barely above that of an after-school special, there's no science in the fiction, and it pretty much lays a log on of the novel upon which it claims to be based. But if all you're after is an amusing two hours with a gaggle of handsome people from a hilariously conservative future society, who ship off to war with giant bugs so they can add “rugged” to their résumé, then this is definitely your movie! All things considered, that's not such a bad thing. Seeing thousands of extras being melted, beheaded and several different kinds of impaled at the talons of their giant insect aggressors has a creative shock value that's hard to deny. The special effects, from the titular starships to the troopers to the arachnid race are extraordinarily impressive, matching up well to work done now more than 10 years since it was made. Also there's nudity, so it has that going for it. Simply put, it's a popcorn muncher violence-fest with an amusingly bent take on the definition of utopia. A perfect guilty pleasure.

7 out of 10.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Being John Malkovich (1999)

It starts off strange, but the head-tilting oddity of this film builds to such a weirdly comic expanse that I don't even know where to begin. In part, it's about a door that shunts you into the conscious mind of actor John Malkovich for fifteen minutes before spitting you out on the side of the road across town. But there's so much more going on here! It's about lust, it's about puppets, it's about fear of death. Charlie Kaufman's writing here is hysterically funny, off-kilter in such uniquely surreal ways, and yet the whole thing makes a warped kind of sense within its own little world. Just as peculiar are the performers, especially an extremely gracious and self-deprecating John Malkovich as himself. To say much more, even in such a short form, would probably spoil too much. Suffice it to say that this movie manages to be a true original, hilarious and bizarre like nothing else before or since. For better or worse, there truly is nothing else like it in all of cinema.

9 out of 10.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Adaptation. (2002)

Right, so the script is by Charlie Kaufman and the plot is about a screenwriter named Charlie Kaufman writing the script for the movie Adaptation. Yea, the same one you're reading about. As in, it's a movie about itself. Take a sec and let that sink in. No rush, I'll wait. Now, the real miracle of this film isn't just that it has an ending (which, logically, it shouldn't!), or the way it breaks every rule it sets itself up to have, but that it's actually quite good. It has this kind of clever, unashamed, narcissistic whimsy to itself that's easy to get caught up in. And it makes you ask all sorts of bizarre questions: is this really all true? If not, how much of it is? And what do the real people behind the (alleged) farce think of this? It's twisted, it's confusing, and yet it all makes sense by the end in the most peculiar ways. That said, the final act, where it caves to its own ideas, lacks the fun spark of the earlier bits of the film, and as good as the cast is (headed up by a surprisingly good Nicolas Cage), there's just enough going on underneath to yank you out of the non-fantasy. But maybe that's intentional? That's something the viewer will have to figure out for themselves. All you need to know is that by the time the credits roll, it's very likely you will be delightfully baffled.

8 out of 10.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

Just how much honesty are you comfortable with? Wrapped around the fantastical ideas and bent logic of Charlie Kaufman's script lie central truths that many of us have probably faced. What is the value of the painful events we endure? Does love really conquer all? The story here revolves around an unassuming Jim Carrey hiring an agency to pry into his sub-conscious and erase the memory of a relationship gone sour. In the process we see the the good, the bad, and the unbearable pain of love as he watches his recollections vanish into the aether. The central questions are up to audience interpretation, but the core clarity will speak to most everyone. It's not perfect; side plots have little-to-no real relevance to the big themes, and there seems to be an awful lot of comedians in the cast who aren't being funny. Even Carrey puts away his rubber face and wild-man antics for the entirety of the film, playing his part of the everyman to his best. The few moments of humor are honest, in other words—work of the script and the drama playing naturally. For those who choose to be a part of this not-quite-escapist fantasy, there's a lot of heart, a lot of truth, and maybe a lot to learn.

9 out of 10.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

A History of Violence (2005)

You can always count on director David Cronenberg to give you precisely what you weren't counting on. At any rate, he's certainly come a long way from Scanners and The Fly. Or maybe he hasn't. Hard to tell. This film is either the world's slowest action movie, or the most violent family drama since Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The only trouble with the movie comes from trying to define it; Cronenberg plays on more genre fringes than most, and yet the whole thing comes off fairly well in spite of itself. The script manages to weave in a decent plot amidst the irregular carnage, while Viggo Mortensen gives his doting father role his dead level best. Still, this is altogether for the more open-minded in the crowd, tolerant of both a saccharine-sweet depiction of idyllic country life, as well as some genuinely grotesque combat. If your stomach doesn't turn at gratuitous amounts of either then maybe a lesson in history will do you good.

8 out of 10.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Collateral (2004)

Unpretentious, slickly produced, and smartly directed, Collateral is a slightly flawed, character-centric thriller with star power glowing out of its ears and style to spare. Not much of a revelation here is the typically charismatic Tom Cruise as the darkly intimidating assassin Vincent. He's well cast, managing to dial down his usual wattage to an appropriate level of menace and icy intellect. But this film really belongs to Jamie Foxx as the unassuming cab driver who winds up with Cruise as his passenger. Foxx gives us a performance with a nervousness and verve to perfectly counter Cruise's cold confidence. And the uneasy chemistry between the two is flawlessly executed. Meanwhile, the style of the film gives a great feel for the rough-and-tumble, lending the crime-drama a gritty and realistic view. Any flaws present lie in the script, which doesn't seem to aspire to much aside from being good at what it is; it's somewhat predictable and there's a far-too-convenient development to set up the final act. However, most of what's here is solid (and pleasantly philosophical). There's little within this movie that will set the world on fire, but for what it is this is a ride that's worth the fare.

8 out of 10.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Yojimbo (1961)

Kurosawa often paints old Japan in very stark terms. His movies are almost always about desperate people forced to desperate acts in order to get clear of mortal danger. This film is no different, depicting a wandering ronin (masterless samurai) using his wit and superior skills with a sword to quell a gang war, and maybe make a few bucks in the process. If it sounds a bit like the Clint Eastwood classic A Fist Full of Dollars, or the 1996 Bruce Willis film Last Man Standing, that's because both are remakes of this film. However, despite is indisputable influence of Yojimbo, age and expectation have taken a lot from this film. The plot comes out fine for the most part, but the pacing and distance between its more memorable moments is hard to bear. Regardless, the cinematography, and the action make the movie great fun to watch, with some superb composition and suspense in the lead-up to the many sword fights. And lead actor Toshirô Mifune grumpy samurai is reckless and cocky in all the right ways. As a whole, the film is an imperfect piece of the cinema cannon but there's no denying that the high points are genuinely great. The years may not have been entirely kind to this movie, but if you can look past the dirt it's easy to see why it's held in such high regard.

7 out of 10.

Sanjuro (1962)

Also known as Tsubaki Sanjûrô.
Seeing Toshirô Mifune take up the mantle as the ronin Sanjuro once again is just a treat. And though I'm sure I'll draw fire from the hardcore film buffs for saying so, I'll go out on a limb and call this the more entertaining of the Yojimbo-Sanjuro pair. This time the grumpy samurai helps a young man and his fellow clansmen rescue his uncle from an evil usurper. Much of Kurosawa's standard dark desperation is gone, replaced with a bent sense of humor. Meanwhile the action is more frequent and better choreographed, the pace is much more brisk, and the plot is significantly easier to follow. About the only place that falls short of its predecessor is the cinematography, but considering the pedigree, that's hardly a complaint. Sanjuro may not quite stack up to being the classic film that Yojimbo is, but as a popcorn muncher of old, this bit of samurai swordsmanship is genuinely sharp.

8 out of 10.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Firefly (TV series - 2002)

Dusty trails, tumbleweeds blowing in the wind, barroom brawls, corrupt sheriffs, a southern twang, heroes riding off into a blazing sunset, and... space ships? Laser pistols? One of the smartest shows ever put on television never even got to finish its first season. The mishandling and eventual cancellation of cult favorite auteur-writer Joss Whedon's third TV series is widely thought of as grievous sin. One good look and it's not hard to figure out why. It starts with the writing, which here is a slice of blinding brilliance at every turn. There's no predicting what will happen next or how it will play on the cast. Conversations are carried out in a cynical kind of double-speak that drips style and is home to a gloriously generous sense of humor. Plot lines build slowly, deepening your understanding of each of the ship's crew, creating a holistic and genuine attachment to the cast. And it's completely unafraid to toy with convention, causing things to happen, both good and bad, that have tremendous impact on the way events carry out. You never know if a seemingly disconnected episode might have some nugget of info into the greater conspiracies or maybe impact a character deeply and permanently in other ways. Then there's the cast of misfits themselves, led by the roguish and pragmatic-to-a-fault captain, his man-child pilot, the muscle, the engineer, the doctor, and so on, each flawlessly chosen. Not a one of the leads can be singled out because each simply does a perfect job. You'll be glad to laugh and cry with these people. The only season of the show, lasting a mere 14 episodes, is crammed full of more memorable moments than many multi-year runs of other programs. Perhaps not everything shines as brightly, but even the very few missteps are surrounded by so much good that you'll happily smile your way on through. It's a truly heartbreaking shame this show wasn't given the chance to flourish, though thankfully the plot was continued and left in an acceptable place by the movie Serenity (not to be confused with the show's first episode, also called 'Serenity'). In the end though, with or without the film sequel, what's here is so worthy that I don't think I have a number high enough to award it. I guess I'll just have to settle for the very best.

10 out of 10.

Serenity (2005)

What works to perfection as a TV series doesn't fare quite so well on the big screen. Firefly stands as simultaneously one of television's greatest moments and one of television's greatest failures. But the film continuation of the beloved show changes the expectations somewhat and the result, while still terrific fun, lacks it's progenitor's breathless brilliance. If you are a fan, however, there's nothing to worry about—you'll love it just the same. “Cowboys in space” is the name of the game, though it leans much further toward the science fiction side of the coin in this case. The dialogue is snappy, smart, and exceptionally funny, while the casting and acting all around is as close to perfection as this kind of material could reasonably ask for. Where it falls short, if anywhere, is that it really doesn't feel like much more than a mega-budget 'very special episode' of the TV show. Make no mistake though, the math turns that into an overall compliment. This film lets the fans get their jollies while at the same time welcoming newcomers into the fold with a well made, character-centric action-adventure. But in cinema the stakes are higher and the time is much shorter. On its own the movie can feel rushed or even isolated—a fun curiosity with little consequence; a little under-ambitious in some ways. At best, the movie will steer you to pick up the DVDs of Firefly, or, for the Browncoats, answer most of the burning questions left dangling in the series. At worst, it's a fun time in a different universe, and the probable end of something truly special.

8 out of 10.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

The Last Samurai (2003)

Now here's a conundrum: do I grade this movie based on how well it's made, or how it makes one feel for watching it. The thing is, the film has a pile of problems as thick as my thigh. It's a painfully predictable affair, flush so full of its big budget mindset that almost all creativity is lost. It's manipulative, dragging you into feeling an emotion without your say in the matter. It chews up history and spits out overly romanticized fiction. The climax, lavish and impressive though it may be, feels more like a plot distraction than a natural progression of the story. And the list goes on. Yet it manages to draw you in bit by bit, letting the slow introduction of ancient Japanese culture play as a driving force to keep you interested, helped along by an utterly superb performance by Ken Watanabe. Also, let's face it, it's hard to be bored watching expert swordsmen do their thing. Even Tom Cruise, as a 19th century American soldier held captive in an enemy samurai village, puts in some of his better work. Before you know it, in spite of everything, you're rooting for the good guys so hard you're ready to learn a new language just so you can turn off the occasional subtitles. Troubled though the movie may be, it simply works. By the end you feel like you've learned a bit about a culture, seen some impressive sights, and spent time with some fascinating characters. It's not a particularly good film, really. But it's a damn effective one.

7 out of 10. (but it's a very solid 7)

Friday, May 2, 2008

Groundhog Day (1993)

Ten years before he finally gained recognition as more than a comedic actor for Lost In Translation, Bill Murray crafted one of the most complex and endearing performances of his career in a movie that was never really built for more than a few cheap laughs. It's a simple plot: a weatherman is forced to relive the same day over and over again until, one assumes, he gets it right. Along the way, he faces confusion, desperation, depression, anger, and enlightenment all within the same twenty-four hour span. Murray plays it to the hilt, showing a surprising tenderness and gravity as a man realizing he's face-to-face with eternity itself. It's a truly remarkable showing and every bit as charming and manic as the script asks for. The rest is no slouch either; every bit of the film is of comparable quality. The writing takes advantage of its concept in almost every conceivable way (the death montage is darkly hilarious), while the expansive supporting cast offer near-perfect work across the board. In the end it isn't much more than a few memorable laughs and a single but potent shot of thoughtful musing, but for being a great idea put to great use thanks to a great performance, this is deservedly a comedy classic.

9 out of 10.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Memento (2000)

Jigsaw puzzles have a lot in common with this film. Both give you a pile of pieces and task you with sorting them into a coherent whole. In the case of Memento, it's one hell of a picture! Told starting at the end and backtracking to the beginning, it is essentially the story of a man searching for his wife's killer, but the problem is that he has short-term memory loss. He is incapable of remembering anything for more than a few moments. By telling the story backwards, we get to be part of his confusion as he comes to grips with, relearns, and deals with his situation. And throughout the gradual flashback you learn about the people he knows, the things he's done, and the full truth behind it all. Simply put, it's a brilliant device, keeping the audience constantly in the dark and wondering about why a thing is happening, but the best part is how it makes you reevaluate most, if not all, of what you know so far every time the narrative resets itself. The rest of it keeps up a high shine as well, with stellar performances all around, some good pacing, and an overall mystery complicated and layered enough to be worth figuring out. There's almost nothing about this film that falls short, and that which does is so insignificant that it really doesn't matter. In almost every way, this is a modern masterpiece of twisting logic and intelligent plotting. In short, it's unforgettable.

10 out of 10.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Donnie Darko (2001 & 2004)

Donnie's got problems. His past is a mess, he's on several kinds of medication, he sleepwalks, and recently he's started seeing a terrifying six-foot-tall rabbit named Frank who tells him the world is going to end in a few days. The thing is, assuming Frank exists, he might be right. So begins writer-director Richard Kelly's twisted treatise on metaphysics, philosophy, time travel, and high school. It's about as strange as it sounds, but it gets enough of a fascinating vibe going that it's difficult to look away. The high school angle of the film is blown appropriately out of proportion, exaggerating all the stereotypes you'd find within, from the overbearing, self-important busy-bodies to the completely unappreciated English teacher. The mystery, however, is how any of this has to do with a sleepwalking kid and a giant apocalyptic bunny. Sorting that out is no small chore. You won't find any easy answers here. It's a film that rewards a confident leap of faith into it's eccentricities, and an understanding that some of it can't be understood. The payoff, however, outweighs the risks for those willing to take the plunge. For all its thick strangeness, there's something smart, subversive, and delightfully confusing going on. If you're up for it then by all means dig in.

Note: There is a theatrical cut (released in 2001), and a director's cut (released in 2004) of the film. Both are equally good films, but significantly different. The theatrical cut offers a more even pace, a better soundtrack, and a more open-ended mystery. Meanwhile the director's cut has better character development, a much slower pace, and a more thorough examination at the science and critical thought behind the mystery. If you're planning to watch the film more than once start with the theatrical cut the move on to the director's, but if you're in it for the single serving then the director's cut might be more rewarding to you. That said, it's hard to go wrong with either.

8 out of 10 for both versions.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Apt Pupil (1998)

Seeing a feeble, elderly man being blackmailed by a ruthless teenager is one thing. When the elderly chap turns out to be a former Nazi prison camp officer in hiding, it's quite another. It's difficult to choose sides in this game of intimidation, mostly because both sides are utterly despicable. But those with a strong tolerance for darkly intense drama will find that Bryan Singer's follow-up to The Usual Suspects is a twisting, disturbingly compelling masterstroke. Ian McKellen does some brilliant work here as a fugitive criminal, but this is really the late Brad Renfro's show as the manipulative youth. And watching the two square off in their battle of wits is heart-stopping in its intensity. Much of the rest of the film manages to keep up with a little help from a subtle but effective score and a sure-handed, even pace. There's really very little not to like here, but it's certainly not a film for everyone. It's probably safe to say that folks who are offended by using such an emotional subject as Nazis and the Holocaust for the purposes of fiction should probably stay clear. But anyone else looking for some powerful, jolting drama should certainly seek this gem out.

9 out of 10.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Bubba Ho-tep (2002)

Honestly, how could anyone not want to see a movie in which a still-living, geriatric Elvis teams up with a black JFK to fight a mummy haunting a retirement home? There's no reason you can possibly come up with to pass this film over. I mean yea, the pace is a bit off at points, slow enough to keep pace with its protagonists, and the film's sense of humor comes and goes with the tide, but for sheer B-movie novelty alone this kind of film is gold. Bruce Campbell plays his caricature of Elvis with enough foulmouthed gusto and wit to make it a beautiful tribute to The King, while Ossie Davis does himself proud in one of his final roles. It may not be anything more than a bit of cheesy, low budget comedy-thriller fun, but for concept, for execution, and for the sheer gall of it, this is absolutely worth the effort.

7 out of 10.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Garden State (2004)

Some lessons in life are tougher to learn than others. Some you're not even aware you are being taught. Garden State is about a man, medicated into oblivion since age ten, going off his meds for the first time in fifteen years while returning home to deal with death of his mother. The film speaks to a lot of things, about moving on from old friends, about alienation with one's parents and about how, ultimately, you can't go home. For a debut, writer-director and star Zach Braff damn near knocks it out of the park, telling his story with heart and humor and an always surprising sense of quirk. It still smacks of amateur filmmaking at points: the pacing can be erratic and Braff's hand seems unsteady handling the older actors. Also the very end reeks of a last-minute rewrite. But on the whole it's an exceptionally competent and, I expect, personal film. It may not be everyone's cup of tea but it's probably safe to say many will find it a fitting and appropriate way to cathartic melancholy.

8 out of 10.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Dark City (1998)

Proof positive that it takes more than amazing art direction, fantastic camera work, and a stellar concept to make a great movie. Set in the tone of quasi-sci-fi film noir, wherein an amnesiac seeks to remember who he is and why the whole world seems to stop at midnight, the story winds and weaves around mind bending ideas that speak of memory, of humanity, and of reality. It's all heady stuff, but writer/director Alex Proyas doesn't quite seem to know how to get his exceptionally talented to sell it, nor his editor to preach it. Things smooth out some after an exceptionally rough first act, but the film's quality never quite matches up to its bold underpinnings. The eye candy and plot are still enough to keep you engaged through to the end, but many moments of the movie seem to fall flat for no reason. It's good fodder for film students or folks looking for a fresh narrative, but in the end it's just too uneven to recommend wholeheartedly.

5 out of 10.

Friday, April 25, 2008

American Psycho (2000)

On the one hand it's a whip-smart condemnation of the shallow mindset of late 80s yuppie culture. On the other, it features a banker who's only path to catharsis seems to be gruesome murder. The film is the crossroads between Wall Street and A Clockwork Orange, featuring a chillingly logical extension of Gordon Gecko's “Greed is good” mantra, amped up by too much caffeine and a homicidal inferiority complex. The result is an eerily fascinating ride with a man utterly devoid of humanity. It's not without its flaws: the early parts of the film are easily the strongest, illustrating the outrageously jealous nature of the anti-hero with a blazing, almost groundbreaking level of focus. The film falters, however, in a slower second act that seems to drag to an almost repetitive mosey in parts, and an utter failure to properly explain things at the very end. It's kind of a shame too. While the film is extremely watchable regardless, the flaws are a blinding blight on an otherwise mirror shined, razor sharp ax of a film.

8 out of 10.

The Cat Returns (2002)

Also known as Neko no ongaeshi.
Finding an intelligent, thoughtful, and entertaining children's film can be quite a chore. There's a sense of whimsy in The Cat Returns, a childish sort of unimportance that's hard not to smile at. Essentially it's a kind of less trippy take on Alice In Wonderland, featuring anthropomorphic cats. Along the way there are acts of rousing heroism, some fun bits of occasionally dark humor, and a moral about believing in yourself to tie it all together. In other words: perfect fodder for the younglings in the house. The adults may or may not get a kick out of too, depending on how in touch they are with their inner child; unlike most American kid's films, this one lacks that additional layer of humor targeted at the grown-ups. Regardless, the animation is crisp and fluid, with some wonderful nuance added to the leads, and the English-language voice track is superbly translated and expertly performed by a cast of knowns. This isn't an exceptional film by any stretch, it's merely a good one to sit the kids in front of and, if the mood strikes, perhaps pop in for the kid in you. It's simply a slice of innocent fun.

7 out of 10.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Akira (1988)

The thing is, no matter what I say here this is still an anime classic. That much is absolutely indisputable. So when I say that it's starting to show its age, you can also interpret my meaning to say it's “maturing.” Back when it was first minted, this was to anime what 2001: A Space Odyssey was to sci-fi. They've even got similar plots, ultimately. Here we deal with a pair of punks from a biker gang who get wrapped up in a corrupt government's experiments to study superhumans, all within a future-Tokyo full-to-bursting with civil unrest. When it came out, the plot concept was quite new and fresh. That it's considered 'overused' these days ought to tell you something of this film's influence. The problem with the story though, is that it's taken from a long-running series of manga (Japanese graphic novels) and whittled down into two hours, so you wind up saturated with difficult concepts that don't have time to register, yet have severe consequences within the film. It's nearly incomprehensible unless you're in it for the long haul and watch the film several times. However, the rest of the film is rock solid stuff. The movie is an absolute miracle of cell animation—it is distinctive, colorful, detailed, gloriously fluid, and dazzlingly thorough in creating a gritty, violent future and the now-iconic characters that inhabit it. The action and pacing therein is also the stuff of legend. The opening fight between rival biker gangs remains one of the most recognizable moments in animation, and the grotesque, almost Lovecraft-ian finale is rife with unforgettable images. Akira's place in the pantheon of genre classics is deserved and, by now, solidified. But if you're a pair of fresh eyes coming to the party you'll have to understand that though there's still plenty to love here, the story's answers simply aren't available to first-timers.

9 out of 10.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

'Neuromancer' by William Gibson (Book - 1984)

Some say that technology is guided by the plot devices of science fiction. If that's true, then Neuromancer would most be like a prominent book in the Bible. For a book published in 1984, the level of predictive concepts and their implementation are such that even today, almost 25 years removed from its master's pen, it still feels ahead of its time. But from a practical level, this is a tough book to read. It is so caught up in its slang and interpretive concepts of advanced computing and future society that the reader's mind has to dig pretty deep to find the plot buried under the ideas. In simplest terms, it's the story of a drug addict hacker being hired by a mysterious benefactor to snoop around some shady systems. The tale is told with enough depth and heft that it remains interesting, but this is really a book about the world the characters inhabit. So many of the ideas in this book have come to pass, so many will soon, and some are far enough out that there's no telling, but all seem plausible (or at least feel plausible). The level of influence this book has had on science and science fiction is nearly limitless, and if the story weren't so densely concealed behind giant conceptual tomes, this might be an easier book to recommend. If you're up to the challenge, go right ahead. It's a rewarding read for the worthy. For many though, this may be a book better appreciated than read.

8 out of 10.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Heroes: Season One (TV series - 2006 to 2007)

Those steeped in comic book lore will find a lot of familiar ground being tread here. For the fellow geeks in the house, all you really need to know is that Season 1 is basically X-Men's central conceit (with particular elements of the “Days of Future Past” and "God Loves, Man Kills" storylines) with the focus similar to Alan Moore's Watchmen. Across 23 episodes, the show is essentially the story of a significant segment of humanity suddenly gaining superpowers. Some fly, some are psychic, some can stop time, some can recover from any injury. Many use them for good, others for varying interpretations of evil. And then there are the requisite shadow conspiracies, mere mortal helpers and antagonists, and the crazy, sometimes too-perfect machinations of any good comic soap opera. There's a lot to like here, pulpy though it may be. The focus is kept pretty narrow in spite of its “save the world” plotline, but this lets the writers really let us get to know the ridiculously huge cast, as well as keeping the drama at a strictly human level. Toward the middle and end of the series, there are some genuinely breathtaking moments that stand out head and shoulders above most of what's on TV. The downside of the focus, however, is that there is rarely a point where the full gravity of what is going on is explored. There are none of X-Men's civil rights metaphors, or really any message to the story at all. Instead it's more of a Dickens-ian confluence of intertwining threads, some of which are utterly fascinating (the Cheerleader and Hiro narratives), some just okay (the Petrelli Family tale), and one in particular that just never clicks (the Single Mother story). Similarly, the early going in the series is rough—the story doesn't really begin until about the fourth episode. Despite its flaws, the series features a decent pile compelling characters, some clever plotting, and moments of great drama. Better TV shows have come and gone, sure, but Heroes manages to stand on its own.

7 out of 10.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

'The Road' by Cormac McCarthy (Book - 2006)

Uplifting, desperate, hopeful, and honest, The Road is a triumph of intimacy and loneliness at the end of the world. In following a father and sun as they pick their way through the desolate wasteland of a nuclear winter, Cormac McCarthy's stream-of-conscious writing style plays a philosopher's narrative on the death rattle of humanity. There's little that's typical about this sort of story. There are no grand, Mad Max-esque battles for resources or trips through the piss-stained hovels of depraved, starving refugees. Instead, it is a book entirely consumed in the father-son relationship, their nomadic journey through a dying wilderness, and the pair's absolute trust and dependency on each other; the post-society setting merely provides a narrative context for absolute desperation. The tale is quiet and thoughtful, slow and uneventful, methodical and dangerous. And like the best of genre fiction, it rings true.

10 out of 10.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Sin City (2005)

Hyper-violent with a wicked sense of humor that could charitably be described as “gallows,” Robert Rodriguez's trip into the dark underbelly of graphic novel legend Frank Miller's imagination is an grisly, brutal triumph of artistic courage and a remarkable purity of vision. Adaptations simply don't come any closer to their sources than this—almost every shot in the entire film is ripped straight from pages it was born on. It even goes so far as to recreate the color scheme of inky blacks and dingy whites, interspersed with the occasional flash of vibrant color. It's an avant-garde feast for the eyes. But the story is all testosterone, blood, and guts as it depicts the dredges of Basin City rising up against the fascist, perverted powers of the city in their own gruesome way. This is truly a movie about bad people taking on worse people. If you crave a bucket of artistic blood-letting, or have an eye for an absolutely unique presentation, then this steroid-infused story of twisted morality is truly something to behold.

9 out of 10.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

House of the Dead (2003)

Don't get me wrong, I love bad movies. Not only do they remind you why you like the good ones, but sometimes there's enough camp value in trying to obliterate good cinematic taste that the whole thing comes off as an unintentional comedy. Not so here. Uwe Boll's first attempt at sullying the already troubled landscape of videogame-to-film adaptations is an abomination of poorly shot violence, superfluous plot mechanics, and Clint Howard. On the surface, that doesn't sound any worse than the average B-movie flop, but Uwe Boll takes himself so seriously with this steaming pile that almost all camp value is lost, giving you an disappointing “horror” movie that is neither interesting nor scary. I mean really, how hard is it to fail to at least be an amusing failure? Many other, less talented directors have done it, Dr. Boll, why can't you?

None out of 10.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Be Kind Rewind (2008)

There's a kind of giddy silliness going on here that you'll either be with and enjoy, or will simply strain your patience. Assuming you're in the first group, the result is still a mixed bag. Don't get me wrong, watching two moronic dropouts do their damnedest to remake big budget blockbusters using an old VHS camcorder and a budget that probably wouldn't pay for a pizza is a style of awesomely bad that rarely gets seen in cinema. But it's all the endless stuff in between that drags the film from inspired idiocy back down to earth. Between spoofs, the film simply can't decide what kind of comedy it wants to be: is it out and out slapstick, a situational farce, or just a Jack Black improv reel? And then there's the syrupy sentimentality toward the end which tries to pull in yet another genre. Still when the film is funny, it's hysterical. It's just a shame the rest is so disposable.

7 out of 10.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Shattered Glass (2003)

Sometime between recording the awful love dialog in Star Wars Episode II and becoming a one-man jedi barbecue in Star Wars Episode III, actor Hayden Christensen put in what was probably the best performance of his career. Shattered Glass depicts the downfall of real life reporter Stephen Glass, whose career ended in 1998 when it was discovered he falsified parts of, or outright created entire stories, which were then published as truth in the prestigious New Republic magazine. His was one of the most high-profile instances of journalistic fraud the industry had seen. The movie shows this eventual collapse with an unexpected air of objectivity. The way the narrative moves, it's difficult to blame any one person for wrongdoing, leading to a judgment call on the part of the audience. As far as drama goes, there's an air of tension and nervousness to reflect the characters, but the star of the show is really the plot itself. The few things that work against it mostly revolve around the objective nature of the film—if you're the kind of viewer who likes hand holding, this may not be for you—and there's an odd editing choice toward the end that is somewhat baffling. Still, in managing to make the viewer ask how such lies could filter through to publication in an industry that prides (prided?) itself on endless fact checking, this becomes a fascinating examination of how so much could have possibly gone so wrong.

8 out of 10.

Monday, February 18, 2008

The Spiderwick Chronicles (2008)

One could say that this is film is making the best of a bad situation. Basically you've got an awful script filled with every kind of kid's film stereotype, a trio of too-precocious youths who are having family trouble (side note: I used to think I was unique in growing up with divorced parents. If kid's films these days are any indication, it's frighteningly common nowadays), a disbelieving parent, and of course the token adult who's in on the conspiracy, played here by a curiously miscast David Strathairn. Yet, despite the generally terrible writing, everyone (except Strathairn) plays their part with such furious conviction that it's not hard to get swept up in the fun. Not only that, but (and this part genuinely surprised me) the action scenes in this film are truly intense! Much of the rest of this fairy tale is your basic kid's film fluff: tons of the now-standard fantastical special effects and “kids can overcome anything” proselytizing. So it all adds up to a mixed bag for adults; the action is great but there isn't a lot else here. But the film's target audience will likely be enthralled (and appropriately thrilled) for its entire runtime.

7 out of 10.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Persepolis (2007)

Heartbreaking and poignant, with an emotional and life-affirming sense of humor, Persepolis is a beautiful tableaux of survival and optimism in times and places of incredible civil strife. Telling the autobiographical story of Marjane Satrapi, the film depicts life for a woman in both pre- and post-revolution Iran as well as education abroad, done in an animated style that recalls French cartoons of the 1950s. The animation style helps accentuate the surreality of a world and idealism crumbling into dust, while a melancholy sense of humor proves a most endearing highlight. It manages to punctuate endless atrocities and the increasing awareness that comes with maturity with a sense of perspective that, despite everything, is fiercely unafraid. The result is uplifting, tragic, funny, endearing and hauntingly personal.

10 out of 10.

Note: In the spirit of revisionist history, I have posthumusly placed this film at number eight on my Top Films of 2007 list.

Jumper (2008)

Last time Hayden Christensen and Samuel L. Jackson were on screen together, Jackson got his hands chopped off with a lightsaber, while Hayden insisted everyone start calling him “Darth,” then went off to slaughter children. Shame to see they haven't quite patched things up. Also shame to see neither has taken an acting class since, as while the concept of a teleporting bank robber fighting a quasi-religious assassin seems like popcorn-munching heaven, both actors' performances are more wooden than a spruce. That isn't to say the film doesn't have its moments. The teleportation conceit is is utilized impressively, with action scenes and conversations leaping from Cairo to London to New York to Rome to Tokyo to Dubai and a dozen points in between with such regularity it almost becomes mundane. I would have hated to be working continuity on the film! And while the acting across the leads is pure B-movie fare, it still remains sufficiently amusing. I guess what I'm saying is it'll kill ninety minutes, but you'll have a hard time remembering what you saw.

5 out of 10.