by Kris Katz
Brief spoiler-free entertainment reviews

Monday, June 29, 2009

Porco Rosso (1992)

Also known as Kurenai no buta.
Quietly understated, full of gentle grace and starring a group of pleasantly complex characters, this film manages the hat trick of being a true kids' film meant for adults. Taking place in the Mediterranean between World Wars, this story of a grumpy pilot cursed to live in the form of a talking, smoking, complaining pig strikes all the right notes. There is never a forced moment, it is neither condescending nor disrespectful of its audience. It is an easy, relaxed movie, filled with the wonder of the open skies and yet firmly grounded in the calm demeanor of the chain-smoking hero. It's also quite touching, subtly lamenting on the melancholy and stubbornness of middle-age, and times long gone. While this may be an animated film, filled with bright colors and happy, energetic people, any kids in the audience will likely find themselves restless. For the grown-ups in front of the screen, however, there's a sense of a calm hand and a knowing smile.

9 out of 10.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009)

Wow. What went wrong? Let's all be honest here: you shouldn't expect much from a movie based on a cartoon that was based on a series of toys. Still, somehow director Michael Bay managed to make magic happen with the first film, concocting a light romp in which giant robots beat the snot out of each other for our amusement. It was funny, exciting, quickly paced, and pleasantly inconsequential. This film, on the other hand, is a morass of terrible screenwriting on top of embarrassingly bad acting, and an air of over-inflated self importance. Even the exceptionally glossy sheen of absurdly good special effects can't overcome this half-cocked mess of gaping plot holes and horrendously irritating characters. Meanwhile the action, the one part you could hope to count on, is nothing but a few slow motion explosions splattered over a some confusing whip-pans. There are a pair of decent action sequences in here, but twenty-five minutes of awesome is not worth enduring two additional, excruciating hours of tripe. This film goes down about as easy as swallowing a cheese-grater.

3 out of 10.

Kiki's Delivery Service (1989)

Also known as Majo no takkyûbin.
Even when legendary director Hayao Miyazaki is at his least effective, his style is still quite enchanting. Here he tells the coming of age story of a young witch off on her own for the first time, learning the ropes of life's triumphs and failures. Nothing, and yet everything is charming. The most fantastic parts of its mildly supernatural plot are told without any effort, and the result is a feeling of everyday magic, of a normal grounded in the incredible. It's all framed in a summertime kind of beautiful, with lush greens, and deep ocean blues—the art here is exceptional. It does lose a bit of ground, however, as it moves into the third act. What little conflict there is feels appropriate, but the resolutions feel forced and cheap. Interesting characters are well developed, but under-used. But somehow it barely matters. Somehow it's just a few wrinkles in on a lovely package. It may not be perfect, but it is very satisfying.

8 out of 10.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

My Neighbor Totoro (1988)

Also known as Tonari no Totoro.
Sometimes the best things really are the simplest. Here is a film that essentially doesn't have a plot and barely makes any sense whatsoever, yet is absolutely full of effortless charm and childlike wonder. At every turn this movie seeks to delight and tickle the kid in everyone. And yet, this may not be for all audiences—the simplicity is both its greatest strength for many, but its greatest weakness for others. This is a very basic story: two kid sisters and their father move into a house next to a forest that may be haunted by very friendly, extremely adorable forest spirits. And that's it. That's literally the entire story. The following ninety minutes are merely the two sisters living their lives as children; one goes to school, they have arguments, they get in to innocent trouble. It's all extremely mellow and calming and filled with beautiful depictions of the Japanese countryside and pleasantly surreal encounters with the forest spirits. For those with a need for films with meat on their bones, this probably isn't for you. But for people who are strongly in touch with their inner child, or who are children themselves, this has a carefree innocence to it all that will bring nothing but smiles.

10 out of 10.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Castle in the Sky (1986)

Also known as Tenkû no shiro Rapyuta.
Grand and sweeping, with a score to match, this is an adventure in the tradition of the greatest of kid's films. The third movie by the legendary Hayao Miyazaki is so pure in spirit, so unpretentious, and so gleefully simple that it delights at every turn. It's frequently beautiful too, lending this tale of a mythical floating castle and the forces competing to find it a sense of summertime grandeur, from the intricately detailed mining towns to the titular castle itself. The characters within are almost all excellent as well, with the English dub of the film featuring stand out performances from James Van der Beek, and Cloris Leechman. The only real shame of it all is how derivative and predictable much of the plot is. You can see all the twists and turns coming a mile away, and while it removes none of the fun of actually seeing these things carried out, there isn't a lot of surprise to be had. Still, for the beauty, the expansive escapade, and just the sense of frivolity to it all, this one is tough to match.

8 out of 10.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Up (2009)

One of the things that makes this film so interesting is how it shows that even at their worst, the beloved animation studio Pixar can still enchant. Much like Wall-E before it, Up is strongest in the first act. It quickly spins up and creates an absolutely incredible and emotional prologue, telling a complete and remarkably touching story in the opening moments. From this expert beginning, however, things have trouble maintaining that sense of quiet dignity. As the main character, a grumpy old man fed up with life and people, decides to make a grand escape in a house held aloft by balloons, quiet subtlety gives way to high adventure, and while the emotional underpinnings reverberate throughout the remainder of the film, the beginning feels at odds with what follows. As things become more and more ridiculous, what started in one form jerks its way into a new one that doesn't feel nearly as sincere. That said, even at its lowest points the movie remains completely likeable, with the surly protagonist giving a great contrast to the kid-centric Disney heroes of old. While the heart of the film may sputter and slow, even a sloppy hand can't take away the solid smile and fantastical whimsey that is signature in every Pixar production.

7 out of 10.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984)

Also known as Kaze no tani no Naushika.
Set a thousand years in the future, as the last pockets of humanity fight to survive in a world covered with a vast toxic jungle, this environmentally friendly tale of a pacifist princess's struggle to defend her peaceful home from warring neighbors is crammed full of imagination and excitement, but is perhaps a bit too ambitious for it's own good. To be fair, it's based on a very large series of manga. But even with the manga's writer/artist as the film's writer/director, there are just too many things brought up that either aren't resolved well, or lack development. Characters swing from one side of the fence to another without so much as a moment to reflect on why (one key character's climactic change of heart is hilariously explained by her simply saying “I've chosen the bloody path.”), while entire civilizations are encountered, and left to ruin in moments. Yet despite the short-changing of just about everything, there is still a lot of grand adventure and heartfelt drama going on. By the end, you really feel for the princess, and her people, and the giant killer insects threatening humanity. It's a good, family-friendly time, but still one in need of either far more time, or far less ambition.

7 out of 10.

Note: This film was also released under the name Warriors of the Wind in the late 80s, however the Warriors of the Wind version of the film is heavily edited, removing just over twenty minutes from the runtime, causing significant changes to the plot. Avoid that version.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Ghostbusters (1984)

Just something about that theme song! For much of a generation, this movie is required viewing, a piece of childhood canon without fault. There's a fairly good reason for that: the film is legitimately fun, featuring outstanding chemistry between the heroic foursome and an exceptional comic performance from lead Bill Murray. The special effects were great for their time and mostly stand up to the ages, and the script itself has just enough metaphysical mumbo jumbo to support it's plot about a group of ghost-exterminating quasi-scientists. It's light, funny, and filled with fun action with iconic set pieces. Sure, there are moments that drag, and a few gags which fall flat, but it all comes back to that exceptional chemistry, and the spontaneous mayhem that ensues whenever these guys leave the house. And that song.

9 out of 10.

Ghostbusters II (1989)

Following up on a runaway hit is never easy. Picking up five years later, the Ghostbusters are finding it difficult to maintain steady work since their actions in the first film. Then along comes a river of goo and the ghost of a long-dead warlord. As much as it tries, this sequel can't quite recapture the surprise and ease that the first one brought in abundance, instead feeling a little less lively, a little more stiff. That isn't to say it's a bad film—not at all. It just isn't as good as the first. The foursome still have that same flawless chemistry, the dialogue is still wonderfully witty and Murray still brings it all together with his never-serious attitude. But the story lacks the spark that turned the first into a mega-hit, causing hits to plausibility, and diminishing the feeling of threat from the villains. Regardless, there's still a lot of fun to be had, a lot of excitement, and some great laughs. It may not be it's predecessor, but it definitely holds its own.

7 out of 10.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Maus (Graphic Novel - 1986 - 1991)

Mixing biography and autobiography, Art Spiegelman tells the story of his father Vladek's life as a Polish Jew as the Nazis ground a nation into dust, intermingled with Art's own difficulty relating to his overbearing father. Smartly, Speigelman chooses the graphic novel as his format, and draws with an effective style: all the Jews are mice, and all the Germans are cats. It's simple, it's effective, and it lets the author create his own take on the horrible reality, and not become weighed down by what has already been seen in pictures. It is incredibly potent, and crosses the line between merely being told about history, to truly relating to it. Maus doesn't just provide an incredible account of one of history's greatest crimes, but presents it in a way that is simple, personal, honest, and appropriately devastating. A masterpiece.

10 out of 10.

Friday, June 5, 2009

The Fifth Element (1997)

Big budget action adventures aren't usually this whimsical, this unique, and this absolutely weird. Or polarizing, for that matter. This is the kind of film that you'll either absolutely love, or completely despise. As famed French director Luc Besson's pet project since his youth, it's lavished with incredible detail and flung at a smartly edited breakneck pace, but the story is frequently so far out of left field, the humor so bizarrely set, that audience approval is a total crapshoot. Still, this jaunty tale of doomsday prophecies, future cab drivers in flying cars, and an orange-haired semi-nudist martial artist, has so much originality it's difficult to dismiss out of hand. Ultimately, enjoyment is a calculated risk. You'll either be blissfully swept up in this eccentric bit of universe-saving, or rage-quit within the first thirty minutes.

8 out of 10.