by Kris Katz
Brief spoiler-free entertainment reviews

Monday, February 23, 2009

Band of Brothers (TV Series - 2001)

Yes, war is hell. But it takes a lot more than two hours to explain why war is hell. Conceived of in the aftermath of the production of the iconic war film Saving Private Ryan, and serving as an adaptation of the Steven Ambrose biography “Band of Brothers”, this series tells the true story of Easy Company, a group of paratroopers known as much for their unbelievable bravery as for their unimaginable losses. Each episode is written and presented as a tribute to these men, showing as best as cinema can provide the triumphs and the failures, the beauty and the warts, of Easy Company's incredible trip through the war. Absolutely no expense is spared in creating as authentic a presentation as possible. Hundreds of extras in authentic costumes march and fight and drink and deal with their own realities of the war. Forests detonate with mortar fire and buildings explode into the countryside with genuinely frightening realism during the frequent battle scenes. And the cherry-picked cast is perfect down to the last man, giving each soldier their story and their struggle. And as each of its ten episodes opens, you hear it in interviews from the real men who the series is based on, who traded gunfire behind enemy lines on D-Day, who fought in Operation: Market Garden, and dug in during the Battle of the Bulge. It's heartbreaking and painful just as it is uplifting and enlightening, dramatic and intense, and for such a tremendous production as the series is, there is knowledge that watching it is only a fraction of the full tale. War is hell, and this provides some idea why.

10 out of 10.

The Room (2003)

There is just no way a person can stay quiet during this movie—it is so full of bad choices, awful acting, horrid writing, and repetitive dialogue that you'll be screaming in frustration before the end of the second scene. When even the several sex scenes fail to keep your interest, you know the rest will be torture. By intention, it was made as a deep, searing drama exploring the dark underbelly of a relationship gone sour. It was rightly panned at every festival and screening it was presented to. Director, and hilariously oblivious windbag, Tommy Wiseau, in perhaps the only reasonable decision made regarding the production, then opted to re-brand the same film as a dark comedy. Good luck with that, Tommy. If you've got a group of friends and a ready pile of your favorite decision-impairing substance, there may be some merit to viewing this catastrophe. If you're running solo, avoid it like cancer.

1 out of 10.

Idiocracy (2006)

Once upon a long time ago, writer/director Mike Judge dealt a blow for the common cubicle dweller with Office Space. Now he's back, this time telling the sci-fi tale of an extremely average joe flung into a future populated by the offspring of dozens of generations of society's lowest, dumbest, horniest common denominator. Much like the flawed but smartly wry Office Space, Idiocracy starts off strong with likable characters and some great laughs, but also like its forbear it becomes considerably less entertaining as soon as it decides to develop a plot. As pure satire it still manages to stay witty and clever throughout, but the funny bits become too rare to sustain more than passing interest. It really is a shame, as the first half hints at something truly special, and manages to present moments of sheer stupidity that have already become iconic. Too bad that pesky plot had to get in the way.

5 out of 10.

The Happening (2008)

Were he not already signed to another picture before the release of this film, it is perfectly reasonable to think that this movie would have ended director M. Night Shyamalan's career. The man who brought us The Sixth Sense and Signs is absolutely at the bottom of his game here. It starts off well enough, as people mysteriously stop in their tracks and start killing themselves en masse for no reason, while school teacher Mark Wahlberg leads a group of “survivors” on a tour of New England to escape the chaos. Things degenerate from tepid to nauseating in quick order from there. The rest is pointlessly graphic violence shoehorned into a script that is, at worst, rated PG and carried out by a cast with the enthusiasm of someone who lost a bet. And don't even get me started on the whole end sequence. This director was once the prodigal child of cinema, someone to look out for. Yet the more he does, the worse his films become. Maybe the mass suicides in this movie is him screaming out, wanting to quit the biz. More likely they're symptoms of a man who still has good ideas, but no longer has any notion of how to turn them into a functioning film.

3 out of 10.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Taken (2009)

For all of Liam Neeson's considerable acting talent, for the cinematic history he's made as a Jedi, a Batman villain, an Irish revolutionary, and Oscar Schindler himself, he just can't seem to pull off an American accent. Or smile, for that matter. Luckily, for this tale of a father on the rampage to retrieve his kidnapped daughter, he has little time to speak and almost no reason to smile. All told, this is very much a by-the-numbers action thriller, but there's a sense of uncomfortable awkwardness both in Neeson's performance, and the director Pierre Morrel's apparent inexperience in the big chair. The result is something far more spastic, and far less dramatic, than necessary. You're rarely, if ever, given the chance to buy in to the events going on. This holds true to the action as well, which frequently uses obnoxiously disorganized editing in place of actual choreography. Still, there's a nugget of fun to be had in its time—the situation presented is appropriately horrifying with or without the actor's help selling it, and when Neeson has to appear threatening and moody, well, history shows us he's quite good at that. The result is a film with a few decent high points among a mostly droning, passive spectacle. It'll scratch an itch, but it's quite forgettable.

5 out of 10.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

WALL·E (2008)

At points charming, thoughtful, and uplifting, WALL-E is that rare beast: a Disney film with a message. Earth is in ruins, humanity fled to the cosmos, and left behind to clean up the mess is a single, lonely robot, eternally doing its duty to clean up our mess. And the rest goes from there. It's a simple premise and, for the first forty minutes or so, carried with a sense of grace and presentation unusual in a the genre. The desolate world and its inhabitant are rendered with a sense of melancholy and sympathy that is simply beautiful to behold. This pitch-perfect storytelling doesn't last, however, and though the turn for the worse doesn't make a good film bad, it does take away a considerable amount of its character. Yet the movie going forward still has its message, and a few others too, including some that a few in the audience might even take offense to. But there's a sense of risk and verve in this work that feels truly honest, and frank, and even sometimes important. At its worst, it's a great film. For forty minutes though, it's a brilliant one.

9 out of 10.

Tropic Thunder (2008)

Let's get this out of the way: Ben Stiller is still not funny. Luckily, most everyone else in the film is. The setup is simple enough: a foursome of self-absorbed movie stars try to make an Apocalypse Now style war film, and the director decides it would be easier to keep his cast in line by sending them out into the tropic jungles of Indonesia. Broadly painted, R-rated hilarity ensues. By all rights, this is a film that tries way to hard to make us laugh, throwing hundreds of obvious, predictable punchlines shouted through a powerful surround mix while explosions dance around on the screen. It's frequently too much, however a sufficient number of gags penetrate the miasma of noise and still hit home. In particular, Robert Downy Jr. as a method actor in gloriously offensive black face for the movie's duration manages to send up both racial stereotypes in film as well as the practice of method acting in general. Also a delight is an extended cameo by Tom Cruise that shows the controversial actor still has his sense of humor. So it's a lot of pointless noise for it's own sake, and the leading man is pretty much dead on arrival—it really doesn't matter. There's enough charm left in its overblown production to make its two hours go down with a smile.

7 out of 10.