by Kris Katz
Brief spoiler-free entertainment reviews

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.