by Kris Katz
Brief spoiler-free entertainment reviews

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.