by Kris Katz
Brief spoiler-free entertainment reviews

Thursday, January 31, 2008

The Best Films of 2007

A few months ago someone asked me why the scores on this site seemed to be skewing so high. Obviously they hadn't tried going to the movies in '07, or they would've realized that it was almost impossible NOT to see something spectacular onscreen. But while 2007 was a great year, it wasn't just movies that had a strong showing.

Videogames also saw perhaps their best year since 1998. Last year saw the release of Bioshock, Portal and Super Mario Galaxy, all genre-defining games in their own way. In the gaming circles, discussion rages on whether 2007 was the best year in gaming, period. Similarly, music may not have had a banner year, but it was a pretty good one, with exceptional offerings from the Foo Fighters, Radiohead, and the much-delayed US release of Amy Winehouse's debut album Frank. In books, we had the final Harry Potter book, which is pretty much the first and final word on successful franchises in that realm.

But what about film? If you ask a movie lover, they'll likely say it was the best year since 1999, which saw the action genre defined by The Matrix, suburbia done superbly by American Beauty, and the brilliantly twisted The Sixth Sense, alongside such films as Being John Malkovich, Fight Club, Magnolia, The Iron Giant, Toy Story 2, the first new Star Wars film in 15 years, the surprisingly great South Park: Bigger Longer and Uncut, and the American release of my personal favorite film Princess Mononoke. Any year that is capable of standing next to such an onslaught of greatness must have been something indeed. All told, no matter what you enjoy spending your time on, it was difficult not to be nearly flogged to death by quality.

Frankly, I had a hell of a time narrowing my list down to what you see here, and even then I had to start making serious decisions to whether to include movies based on how good they were, or how much I enjoyed them. Do I side with a deliriously fun popcorn muncher, or a deeply touching drama? Ultimately, I split the difference. To give you some idea, I meant for this to be a top 10! What you see here is a list of what left the biggest impression on me, sorted by how much I enjoyed watching them. I hope this spurs some of you out there to give the films on this list a peek.

Oh, two quick things! This list is based on movies released in theaters somewhere in America for a general audience at any point in 2007. And you can click on the titles or artwork to take you to the review of that film.


one
Eastern Promises
It takes a lot for me to think a mob movie is approaching Godfather status, but this complex tale of trust and betrayal in the Russian mafia is at least knocking on the door. David Cronenburg paints his film with a master's hand, and the result is a bloody game of intimidation that I simply couldn't look away from.


two
Screenwriter Diablo Cody's debut effort is as effortlessly wistful and as amusingly portrayed as I could have possibly hoped for. Every bit of this film drips quirky charm and wit, but at its core is a sweet story of puppy-dog love that, despite its plot's central premise, is delightfully young at heart.


three
There Will Be Blood
I enjoy a good challenge, and few things in '07 were as challenging as this. While the intensely focused style of the film is sometimes at odds with the overarching narrative, the result is the kind of movie that I may have a hard time liking, but still couldn't get out of my head.


four
Joseph-Gordon Levitt's strong-willed performance in this smartly intricate heist drama shows a sense of craft and presence unusual in actors his age. Couple that with an exceptional performance by Jeff Daniels as his blind roommate, as well as the absolutely brilliant last act, and you come out with something altogether unique and utterly compelling. Side note: if you want to do a great double-feature, rent Brick, watch it first, then see this.


five
Knocked Up & Superbad (TIE)
I don't like ties, but these two films deserve to be taken together as solid proof that director/writer/producer Judd Apatow knows what he's doing. Both of these movies are foulmouthed comedies that are so honest they're sometimes hard to watch. But at their core are real characters in real situations that people can relate to. It's this honesty and heart that makes them great.


By now it's getting old hat to call this a great film, but it really is. The Coen Brothers have crafted a tightly paced thriller that I found absolutely hypnotizing and darkly funny . Every minute of its slow-burn chase kept me at the edge of my seat, while Javier Bardem and Tommy Lee Jones put up two of the best performances of the year.


seven
Hot Fuzz
A totally over-the-top action spoof with a superbly deadpan and ironic sense of humor that throws jokes, puns, visual gags, and sly turns of phrase at you so often and so subtly that it'd take several viewings to catch them all? Sign me up!


eight
I was totally bowled over by this film's true tale of tragedy and isolation, told through humor and self-parody. Add in the whimsical and utterly unique animation style, and you get something that isn't just genuinely touching but important as well.


nine
David Fincher said he set out to make the final word in procedural cop dramas. He succeeded. There's a sense of craft and methodical thinking here that is just breathtaking, and it's real-life trappings help eke out every single detail. It's a ballet of red herrings and red tape that is simply superb.


ten
The fiercely intelligent approach this film takes made it an exceptionally compelling watch. Director and star Denzel Washington manages to make an allegory for racial inequality without being preachy or condescending, and the debate angle gave the film a refreshing feeling of good sportsmanship.


Sometimes the story alone is enough to make a great film, but the avant-garde style on display in this French import only enhanced its merit. This is the kind of true story that made me think the impossible is possible, but also makes me ask “what would I do in that situation?”


twelve
Seeing something that is almost entirely a kid's film targeted directly at adults is truly unique (at least in America...). It's not at all the outright juvenile comedy I expected it to be, instead it's a comic drama about following one's passions and embracing change. I found it beautifully poignant.


thirteen
Usually over the course of a film series, the entries get progressively worse. Here, the final entry is one of the tightest, most intense action films I've ever seen! Not that any of the Bourne films are bad, but to end on such a strong note in this manner isn't just rare, but almost unheard of.


fourteen
Stardust
Once it sunk in, this film offered up such superb, pure entertainment that it had me smiling for days. Everything here is deliriously fun, though a good friend of mine rightfully pointed out that Robert De Niro pretty much makes this movie.


fifteen
The Mist
I'm horribly biased toward this movie, but I honestly think it's a fun exercise in claustrophobia, paranoia, and really scary monsters. Sure the "villian" lays it on thick (no pun intended), some of the effects sequences look less than stellar, and the ending leaves a lot to be desired, but for guilty pleasure fright-fests, this is the good stuff.


A fistful of Honorable Mentions: A Mighty Heart, Charlie Wilson's War, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Transformers, The Host (Gwoemul), The King of Kong: A Fistfull of Quarters, Fido, Randy & the Mob, Death at a Funeral, 3:10 to Yuma, The Simpsons Movie, Enchanted, Sicko, Into the Wild, and Michael Clayton.



Here's hoping 2008 even comes close. Though frankly with the writer's strike, I doubt it.


Phineas Gopher's Best Films of 2007

While I was cooking up my own list (which I admit spent a lot more time in the oven than it should have), I asked my good friend and regular contributor "Phineas Gopher" to toss me his list of favorites as well. Here's what he had to say:


one
Knocked Up
One of the smartest, most honest comedies about love and relationships I’ve ever seen, with just the right amount of exaggeration given to very realistic characters. Satisfying overall, but frequently laugh-out-loud funny.



two
A family film that dared to be smart and unconventional, disregarding product-placement and merchandising opportunities in favor of a fresh, consequently “clean”-feeling world (ironic for a tale about rats in the kitchen). Bursting with color and heart.


three
Grindhouse
Only Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino’s half of this double-feature, made a lasting impression on this reviewer, but the retro-themed package of two films plus faux previews made for one of our most enjoyable nights at the movies this year. A pity it did poorly at the box office. Experiments like this should be encouraged.



four
The Coen Brothers and the artists they employ demonstrate that they are among the best filmmakers working today, delivering among other things gorgeous cinematography and taut editing. Javier Bardem, Tommy Lee Jones, and Josh Brolin could carry separate films with the strength of their performances here, and their collective force is riveting.


five
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
The most satisfying film in the fantasy series so far, it is also the first to be directed by David Yates. All the child actors have grown and matured in their craft, but Daniel Radcliffe stands out as Harry, finally making the character strong enough to root for. The duel at the end between Dumbledore and Voldemort features some of the best visual effects of the year.




six
In Thailand there is a small community called King Cobra Village, where adults and children alike make a living “boxing” poisonous snakes for outsiders who pay to watch. This documentary illuminates the lives of several villagers, shows the many techniques they employ in putting on a show with such deadly participants, and shows the dangers and consequences involved.



seven
Randy and the Mob
Ray McKinnon’s unique blend of dead-pan dialogue and quirky characters makes for a comedy that has a bigger-than-normal share of brilliant moments.


eight
Bittersweet, achingly real, and easily the most romantic film of the year. Best viewed with no expectations about the plot, this quiet little love story uses music to show the loneliness and longing of its characters, taking you on a brief journey into their lives then gently drifting back out again.


nine
Day Watch
This second installment in a Russian fantasy series directed by Timur Bekmambetov is even more visually stunning than its predecessor, Night Watch. The plot is convoluted, but the special effects are reason enough to watch. Have you ever seen a red sports car drive across the side of a skyscraper? It does, in fact, look cool.




ten
Set in the 1950s of some alternate universe, Fido shows a world in which a zombie apocalypse has come and gone, and society has rebuilt itself with the help of a giant corporation that provides zombie-taming equipment to the public. Zombies are now used as household servants or pets, and owning them is a sign of doing well. Actually very clever throughout.


honorable mention
The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters
A documentary on the world of competitive arcade video gaming, this is a surprisingly interesting examination of sportsmanship, or lack of it, in a very unorthodox sport.




Originally published in the
Arkansas Democrat Gazette

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Night Watch (2004)

Also known as Nochnoy Dozor.
Here's a film so absolutely bursting with story ideas that the entire thing feels like one big setup for the sequel. Thankfully, it's also bursting with visual ideas, so if nothing else you get a eye full of impressive effects concepts. The story's central conceit about a shaky truce between conflicting sides of blood-drinking supermen (not necessarily vampires, though there are some here) is needlessly elaborate and told in such a way that feels both obtuse and pointlessly obscure. It still all makes sense when you look back at it, but getting to that point can be a chore. Couple that with a poorly explained set of apparently complex rules for the truce itself, and all you'll get here is a headache. But the visual side of this tale is remarkably inventive, enough so that the film is mostly redeemed. There are some really nifty effects sequences and action bits in place, and even some really cool ways to depict some of the more mundane details. The rest ranges from inoffensive to strangely spastic, such as the jarring editing that manages to keep a consistent pace despite itself. Calling it style-over-substance isn't quite accurate, since there's plenty of substance going on, but the style is just much more compelling. Either way it's an interesting, if troubled, ride.

6 out of 10.

Day Watch (2007)

guest review by Phineas Gopher

Also known as Dnevnoy Dozor
The follow-up to 2004’s Night Watch, based on a popular trilogy of modern Russian novels, is even more convoluted, involving secret societies of paranormally gifted beings – vampires, witches, and shape-shifters - existing in a shaky truce between good and evil. Think X-Men meets The Matrix. Once again filmed by visionary director Timur Bekmambetov, Day Watch continues the story with a budget that looks to be higher and visuals that are better than ever. Out of context the plot is silly, with the fate of humanity hanging in the balance over a piece of mystical chalk. But that really is beside the point. The film is like a comic book brought to life, with all the smoothed-over logic and emphasis on danger and destiny that implies. If the movie were any less explosive visually, this could be a problem. But the narrative rides a steady stream of wildly creative special effects like it was a new sports car, and the screenwriters serve up enough curious ideas—like body-swapping and deadly yo-yos—to keep it all interesting. The film is overlong at a 132 minutes, but the last act moves quickly enough for this to be forgivable.

7 out of 10.

Note: One other aspect I enjoyed was the unique approach to subtitles, carried over from Night Watch. The titles are incorporated more completely than in most other foreign films. They shake when someone is angry, shatter when something breaks; they are an organic part of the scenery that adds an almost constant touch of whimsy, and calls to mind the endearing playfulness of Amelie. How many action films can say that?

Monday, January 28, 2008

A Mighty Heart (2007)

Forgive me, but before we begin I'd like to express a personal note. This film is based on a very well covered story from 2002, and what I am about to say spoils the end of a movie based on a true story. I am sorry for that. I'm not sure when exactly I saw it, but the tape described (but mercifully not shown) of journalist Daniel Pearl's gruesome beheading was shown to me on a friend's computer some months after it had happened. I was 21, and for the first time in my life I saw real, honest-to-God violence of a level that even experienced minds would find nauseating. To say it gave me nightmares for weeks is an understatement; it rattled me down to the bones. For all the talk of violence-as-entertainment that gets done on this site, I would simply like to say that if nothing else, seeing true death, true evil is a totally different realm. If nothing else, it taught me that despite whatever violent videogames, or violent movies I may enjoy and call great, that there is a genuine difference between what is played for entertainment and what is real suffering. I wish I had never seen the tape—I really do. And for what little it's worth, my heart goes out to the widow Pearl and her family. Please have a look at http://www.danielpearl.org/ and see the ongoing work of a man and a family upholding ideals to bring about peace so that such evil may hopefully someday never be known again. Thank you.


Hopefully this review is not too biased, and my apologies if it lacks my usual spark, but to travel back (even if it's only five years) to such an galvanizing moment in my life was personally cathartic in ways maybe others won't experience. As a film, this is a very competently made crime drama with the fat trimmed and the pace brisk. Angelina Jolie is nearly unrecognizable as Mariane Pearl, the wife of journalist Daniel Pearl, who was kidnapped in Karachi, and her performance is both strong-willed and fittingly vulnerable. It has some issue with it's latter moments; much of the final breakdown is overlong and drawn out. The supporting cast is well picked and honest, though except for the police captain they don't really stand out. As a whole, this is a smartly told story of a heartbreaking tragedy.

8 out of 10.

Kiss My Snake (2007)

guest review by Phineas Gopher

Before you jump to conclusions about its title, this is a documentary about cobra boxing in a small Thailand village featuring old men who make a living going head-to-head with some of the deadliest snakes on earth. The film examines their way of life, how they survive without antivenin when the inevitable bites occur, and how difficult it is to maintain interest in the art of snake boxing among the latest generation (kids these days! They can’t just stay home and put king cobras in their mouths like their father and his father. Have to go get all educated in the city). A fair amount of information is covered at a nice, brisk pace, but the film is never better than when it is showing the titillating ring-matches themselves. To misquote Jerry Maguire, “You had me at ‘Cobra Boxing.’”

8 out of 10.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Rambo (2008)

Man, they don't make them like this anymore! The minute the film starts it's like being back in the mid-80s, with all the good and bad that goes with it. The bad guys are all mustache twirlingly evil, and the people in jeopardy are literally a bunch of white bread, Colorado based, Christian all-American, naively idealistic missionaries complete with a token hot blond. Stallone is there too, or at least what's left of him. It certainly sounds like him—every time he tells someone to “go home,” it sounds like “ghoom.” But you don't watch Rambo for introspective commentary or warrior-philosophy, at least not beyond the 1982 original; you're here for the action, and it's here that this film delivers. Soon as the safety's off it's an absolute bloodbath. Flying body parts, people shot in half, and even a few gruesome scenes of land mine death all add up to a massive 236 on screen deaths (according to film writer John Mueller). While it's ridiculously obvious where the film's priorities are, there's still something to be said for putting on a show consisting of one unforgiving massacre after another. Between the action sequences you'll be checking your watch, but when the bullets start flying I dare you to be bored.

6 out of 10.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

There Will Be Blood (2007)

Paul Thomas Anderson and I have the same agreement that Stanley Kubrick and I used to have: I don't like his movies, but that doesn't stop me from thinking they're brilliant. I think Anderson's directing style is so overbearingly character-focused that it becomes easy to forget there's a bigger picture at work. This is again the case with Blood, in which Daniel Day-Lewis plays an oil baron bringing up a new well in a quiet no-man's land where the closest thing he has to competition is the local preacher. The ensuing 160 minutes study him slowly unraveling as he deals with a populace having to choose between faith, family and finance. Day-Lewis plays his character to the hilt as the ruthless bastard that he is. Every inch of him is appropriately easy to hate, but in delving into the nature of evil within his fanatically capitalist extortion, the larger themes, and indeed the whole picture, become a nuanced portrait of a time, place and people. That might sound like intellectual avoidance, but the ideas at work here are deeply complex and as such difficult to divulge. It's the kind of film that will spark discussion regardless of the viewer's like or dislike of the film. It could be interpreted in a dozen different ways, and though I may personally have had difficulty enjoying the film itself, the onslaught of food for thought here tickles like only the very best of movies do. If you have it in you to be genuinely challenged by what cinema has to offer, then this is an absolute must-see.

10 out of 10.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Grindhouse (2007)

guest review by Phineas Gopher

More than a few people complained when Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill was broken up into two volumes which were then released months apart. Those people felt they were paying for the same movie twice. In a welcome twist, Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez have teamed up to deliver just the opposite: two movies for the price of one. Each director offered a full-length feature shot in the style of 70s exploitation cinema, billed jointly under the name Grindhouse, with hilarious fake movie trailers linking the films. Rodriguez's Planet Terror is an over-the-top take on the zombie and military disaster genres. The poster image of actress Rose McGowan with a machine gun for a leg sums up its gritty, campy tone. Parts of it are funny, a lot of it is gross, but the whole thing is wild and action-packed. Tarantino's offering, Death Proof is more meditative, and is this reviewer's favorite of the two. It starts as a buddy movie with a bunch of bar-hopping girls drinking and talking before introducing a unique serial killer in the form of Stuntman Mike (a perfectly cast Kurt Russell). The tone and genre shift several times, arguably offering the equivalent of two small films that happen to be related (take that, Kill Bill naysayers). Tarantino's culturally relevant dialogue is in top-form, and his CGI-less approach to the stuntwork gives us car-on-car action that seems straight out of the 70s (in a good way). It's a shame the two films were broken up and released separately in most places outside the U.S., but a special edition DVD (or Blu-Ray, or something) should correct this in the future.

8 out of 10.

Once (2007)

guest review by Phineas Gopher

Though the title doesn't tell you much, Once is a heart-felt little Irish film that deserves to be seen. Made on a shoestring budget, it plays that to its advantage, using natural light and handheld camerawork to create the feel of a documentary-with-benefits, where you get to watch the lives of two ordinary people collide as they literally begin to make beautiful music together. The realism extends beyond style; the plot never rings false and the performances seem fresh and honest. Much of the story is told through songs, almost all of which were written for the film by the lead actors. Once even scored an Oscar nod for one of them, the uplifting "Falling Slowly." Easily the most romantic film of the year.

10 out of 10.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Sunshine (2007)

Congratulations Danny Boyle, you've successfully remade Alien without the alien, and then tacked on 2001's ending. But at least you had the decency to do it well. Don't get me wrong, while this little sci-fi jaunt to a dying sun is compelling in its intricacies, the story is eerily conventional. I admit though, I am a sucker for those little tidbits. All the physics, the science, and the day-to-day routine, even down to the soporific and seductive power that sun gives off is shown with remarkable care, and it's absolutely fascinating for that. And the production and effects are wonderfully top-notch. However the characters and the plot are flat and familiar, respectively. It's really a shame, too. There's obviously a passion for portraying the impossible here, but the brightest spots of this film sit right where the devil is: in the details.

7 out of 10.

P.S. to anyone who's seen it: BACON MAN!

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Dragon Wars: D-War (2007)

Now, I have to say I didn't have very high expectations for this movie. At best I figured on a dull, half-serious attempt at a flick featuring dragons destroying Los Angeles. What it winds up being is one of the best comedies I've seen in a long while. Which is great and all, except it bills itself as action-fantasy. Oh yes, the cheese is runny here, that's for sure. Epic cheese. Uwe Boll-shaped piles of smelly Limburger cheese. At least the effects are pretty good. Actually they're surprisingly good for such an awful and obscure movie, and the action scenes in the last half hour are strangely alluring. But it doesn't excuse the rampant lapses in logic exhibited by the screenwriters. How does evil-dragon always know where hero-chick is? Why doesn't anyone seem all that surprised to see a dragon (and his offspring, and his armies) stalk the city? And who the hell tells someone, in a collapsing building, “don't take the stairs, take the elevator. It's safer!”? More importantly, who would listen? I don't know what kind of super-grass the cast and crew must have been passing around but I'd wager nobody came out of it till well after their careers were dead. Fact is, there's enough unintentional hilarity going on here to wind up with a contact high.

1 out of 10.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The Savages (2007)

Watching someone take the slow boat to crazy town is almost always a great way to spend two hours. Here Laura Linney does a fantastic job refusing to believe that her father is old and dying while brother Philip Seymor Hoffman just tries to keep everything afloat. It makes for some good drama alongside a decent number of amusing gags, but as common an experience as death is the film never quite finds a perfect stride, instead settling for a hearty pile of excellent scenes on top of dull scenes, sprinkled with outstanding performances all around. It's a very earnest film about a parent's declining heath's effect on the children, and the chemistry and neuroses that Hoffman and Linney keep in common create a very believable sibling relationship. What you get is a film that is compelling from start to finish, but through some flaw or trick of the screenplay still manages to keep you at arm's length. That's probably just fine, as more vicious bickering and in-fighting might have spoiled Linney's exceptional work here as a woman in denial. All said, this is a great film about one of life's hardest trials.

8 out of 10.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007)

Also known as Le Scaphandre et le papillon.
Just at the surface, the true story told here is genuinely remarkable: Jean-Dominique Bauby, an editor for Elle magazine, has a stroke which renders him completely and permanently paralyzed except for one eyelid. He then goes on to write a critically acclaimed novel describing what everyday life is like for someone unable to communicate, move, eat without tubes, smell, or feel. Just as a concept it's staggering, and certainly a tale worth telling. This film, based on his memoirs, offers a beautifully rendered and deeply heartfelt story of depression and mania, and eventual acceptance of a condition nearly too horrible to imagine. Director Julian Schnabel moves this tale around with a sense of time and progress, but also an almost balletic sense of imagination, reflecting the mind of the protagonist. Much of the film is done from a first-person perspective, showing things through our Jean-Do's eyes, and the effect is a crushing level of sympathy. It's frequently a difficult film to enjoy simply because it's basic structure is so sad. But like many difficult things, there is catharsis here, and if you're looking for something different and powerful and meaningful, you will find it all here.

9 out of 10.

Death Sentence (2007)

Perhaps the lesson here is that anyone can become an expert killer. Family man Kevin Bacon starts out fumbling his way through revenge-murder but by the end he seems pretty damn good at it. Fact is, you've seen this movie before, be it Death Wish or The Brave One, so your tolerance for this film mostly hinges on how much you're into justifiable homicide. To be fair, Bacon's bloodstained white collar persona has a decent evolution to it, and his opposition in the form of an unrecognizable Garrett Hedlund is appropriately slimey, though it's really John Goodman as the foulmouthed weapons-and-drugs dealer who leaves the biggest impression. The rest is a lot of white noise interspersed with the occasionally good-to-great scene, including an impressive and exhausting chase sequence. If nothing else it shows that original Saw director James Wan's filmcraft skills are improving. It's nothing special, but if you need a quick fix of violence then you could do much worse.

6 out of 10.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Cloverfield (2008)

Break out the dramamine, this one's a winner! Mixing elements of Blair Witch Project, Godzilla and the Korean monster masterpiece The Host, Cloverfield provides a terrifying first hand, first person account of a giant monster's decimation of Manhattan, its inhabitants and the military sent in to stop it. Done entirely from the perspective of a survivor toting a camera, the shaky, improvised camera work gives the film an air of frightening authenticity, spontaneity, and intimacy. When an off-camera explosion causes a band of survivors to panic, the cameraman starts swearing and trying to see what's going on while everyone around him screams and flees, the sense of disastrous dread can be utterly chilling. You feel like you're there. The confusion remains intact as well, with the film only giving vague hints to the larger picture in between piles of molasses-thick suspense. What problems the movie has are almost all to do with the character holding the camera—his incessant nagging and na├»ve questioning can be grating at times, but when it hits the fan he mostly just shuts up and shoots. Also of concern is the way the film seems to make use of a similar kind of terror and hysteria from 9/11, which will likely have some people thinking “too soon.” Still, if you can put the parallels of real-life disaster out of your head, what's on offer is one hell of a wild ride.

9 out of 10.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The Kite Runner (2007)

At the points where this film soars, it is a poignant and touching story of childhood innocence ruined, and adult responsibility redeemed. There are a lot of exceptional moments, too: a fun kite flying competition over the streets of Kabul, a father and son's perilous flight from their home, and a tender, but rightfully brief, romantic plot. And seeing Afganistan turn from a piece of rustic desert beauty in the late 1970s into a land razed by Communist forces, then decimated by the Taliban's oppression by 2000 is quite dramatic. But the scope of events is never taken on, and the moments are islands in a sea of unexceptional events. The human drama is more than enough to get you from scene to scene, but the great parts of this film only serve to underline the bits where interest wanes. I liked this movie, and I liked what it had to say. But I wanted to like it more.

7 out of 10.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Waitress (2007)

Uncomfortable, unfunny, and at times even a bit uncouth, Waitress is an indie romantic comedy that tries its damnedest to win some lightheaded respect but is weighed down by its crushingly melancholy story. Though the resolution offers a bit of sugar, it's just too little too late to drag up the previous ninety minutes spent with miserable, insecure people bemoaning their respective situations. A big part of this has to do with its attempts at deadpan humor. If used right, this can result in wonderfully sly laughs and clever winks. Here the tone is so morose that almost all the good lines are sucked into a void. I give it credit for finishing strong, but as a whole the film is just too much bitter and not enough sweet. Good to see Nathan Fillion is still getting work.

4 out of 10.

Note: A bit of additional research turned up why this film might've fallen short: writer/director/supporting actress Adrienne Shelly was murdered in her New York apartment in November of 2006, before the film was complete. I stand by my review, but offer my condolences.

Monday, January 14, 2008

The Bucket List (2007)

Bring tissues. Honestly, I'm not sure what's here to spoil: it's a movie about two terminal geriatrics trying to go out for one last blast, and it's made well enough that you care about them. So basically it's very predictable, and the entire experience is like facing inevitability. That's not so bad really, and neither is the film. Freeman and Nicholson have great chemistry together, the supporting cast is strong, the jokes are funny and the sappy bits are appropriately touching. It's a good movie, but it's not a great one. While it's fun to watch, there's little if anything here that really stands out or makes it unique in any discernible way. This is a standard-issue slice-of-life drama with an exceptional cast and a predictable plot and while it could easily get lost in a crowd, there's really nothing wrong with that.

6 out of 10.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

The Hoax (2007)

Had 2004's The Aviator not been made, would yet another movie whose antics center around Howard Hughes have been greenlit? With The Hoax, we get Richard Gere and Alfred Molina as real life authors Clifford Irving and Dick Suskind as they try to manipulate their way into publishing a biography about the eccentric and reclusive billionaire, but along the way the film seems to lose itself in its own lies and obscured truths. By that I mean precisely the self-defeating confusion that the characters experience also occurs to the film. In trying to adapt Clifford Irving's autobiographical book to the screen, important details seem lost or poorly elaborated on. I expect that if you were around and paying attention when a lot of this was actually happening you'll get a lot more out of it, but the rest might be left scratching their heads on a few bits. Still, Gere and Molina do a fun job portraying their grand-scale con. While it never pays off the way it feels like it should, there's little to directly poke holes in. If you know the story then chances are you'll be intrigued; if not it could go either way for you.

6 out of 10.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale (2008)

Calling this director Uwe Boll's best film yet is like calling something the best doctoral dissertation given by someone with an IQ less than 50. Simply put, if the best thing your movie has going for it is a camp-tacular performance by Matthew Lillard of all people, you ought to just give up. But no, Boll marches on. And in the case of King, you get two hours of feces that alternates between being laughably bad and a prescription strength sleep aid. Sadly, this is a step up from his previous work. How does this man keep getting funding? It used to be because of a loophole in German tax law, but with that closed there's no reason for this man to be employed. More importantly, how does he keep getting such notable actors to slum it? I can understand that Ray Liotta, John-Rhys Davies, and Burt Reynolds might be desperate for a paycheck, but Ron Pearlman and Jason Statham aren't exactly hurting for work lately. And how can Kristanna Loken have made this mistake TWICE?! This is an awful movie made by an awful director whose actors have made awful choices. Unless you like torturing yourself, or have a crowd of friends and enough mild-altering substances to change reality itself, do not give Uwe Boll any reason to release another atrocity.

1 out of 10.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Rescue Dawn (2007)

Mixing elements of The Great Escape and Platoon, this is a Viet Nam War flick that never really finds its footing but is interesting nonetheless. While it gets its setting and story from the experiences of real life war pilot Dieter Dengler, there are simple missteps in both plausibility and characterization. Christian Bale plays Dengler with such air-headed bravado that it's difficult to gain any sympathy for his exceptional plight beyond the general disgust Viet Cong torture merits. His plausibility is constantly chipped away due to his never-ending supply of brash optimism. Meanwhile the supporting pile of fellow castaways are all varying combinations of Stockholm Syndrome and dysentery, played either with broad character strokes or no personality at all. The second half is fairly dramatic however, though still a bit scatter shot. All told this is a take-it-or-leave-it film. If you're interested in the struggles of POWs it's worth a cursory inspection, but past that there isn't a lot worth going out of your way for.

6 out of 10.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Hairspray (2007)

As good an idea as sticking John Travolta in a fat suit and drag may seem on paper, the result is quite horrifying. In fairness, remaking the musical based on the film by cinema's most creative pervert, John Waters, should also be horrifying—it pretty much was for The Producers. Fortunately, the result is anything but! Catchy music and some ridiculously inspired casting decisions that include Christopher Walken, Michelle Pfeiffer, Queen Latifah, and James Marsden raise what could've been an another unnecessary exercise in remakes into something rather delightful. Part of it has to do with the plot, which pairs an upbeat 1960s sunny day with a pitch black subtext of ingrained racism and sexism, and the odd jab at the plus-sized crowd. Also, there's newcomer Nikki Blonsky as our overweight heroine, whose perky enthusiasm is infectious bordering on toxic. Basically the film is a fun little number that pours a pound of sugar on a sour little core of serious issues (and Travolta in drag making out with Walken). If that doesn't scare you off, there's a good chance you'll enjoy it.

7 out of 10.