by Kris Katz
Brief spoiler-free entertainment reviews

Friday, July 31, 2009

(500) Days of Summer (2009)

At the start the narrator sets out to assure the audience that while this is a story of boy meets girl, it is not a love story. Instead, it is a complicated tale of a relationship too perfect to last, examining how it came to be, as well as the gruesome trainwreck it becomes. A lot of clever tricks are used to show this, the most primary of which is its nonlinear structure, flipping back and forth between the up and coming relationship, and the aftermath in equal measure. The script itself is wonderfully solid with many very funny moments, however this is as much a drama as anything else, and it's here that the cast and writing really shine. Zooey Deschanel is absolutely perfect as the titular Summer, managing to seem impossible and charming and appropriately maddening. That said, this is really Joseph Gordon-Levitt's movie and he completely owns it. For an actor who has never really hit the mainstream, he gives what may be the performance of his career as the aloof and idealistic Tom, providing the character's gradual breakdown an extremely impressive weight. It adds up to an exceptional commentary on the state of love and relationships today, and a beautifully heartbreaking trip for the audience.

9 out of 10.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Hurt Locker (2009)

About as taut a thriller as you could ask for, what The Hurt Locker may lack in depth of story it more than makes up for in pure filmcraft. Set in 2004 in Baghdad, the tale follows a trio of army bomb disposal specialists as they perform their incredibly high-risk daily duties. Every time they leave base, the tension becomes immediately palpable. The action and events are orchestrated with an excellent eye for the unexpected, keeping the viewer keenly aware of the ridiculous number of variables in play. It becomes relentless, as each mission wears the crew down along with the audience. The admittedly stereotypical trio is well fleshed out, while the screenplay avoids any attempt to portray the war in Iraq as anything but a tremendously difficult situation for all involved. Ultimately it's the ease with which the movie creates its incredible, visceral suspense that makes it a winner, with supporting details just deep enough to make it feel like it means something. It's shallow, but damn smart.

8 out of 10.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009)

You can tell a franchise has gone on long enough when you start to see the quality cycles in which it runs. James Bond fans will know what I'm talking about. Here is a series that began with a halfhearted nudge out of the gate, picked up speed by the third film, and was at a full-on gallop by the fifth. Someone must have hidden some Ritalin into everyone's morning coffee for this outing. Unlike the better entries, Year Six at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry feels lethargic and drowsy. It lacks the excitement and surprise and fascination with itself that made the third through the fifth movies so engaging and charming. This one feels detached, with acres of dead space between the characters and the events, sparse highlights of barely conveyed emotion, and moments of action that feel designed to distract the audience from nap time rather than contribute to the story. You could argue that maybe there's too much story to tell in this, yet the previous film did a fantastic job in the telling and the source for this is almost a third shorter. Whether or not the magic is gone, it seems to have skipped over this entry.

4 out of 10.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Spirited Away (2001)

Also known as Sen to Chihiro no kamikakushi.
One of my favorite scenes in all of cinema occurs late in this film—it's a quiet character moment on a train as the scenery passes by on a waterlogged horizon. Joe Hisaishi's excellent score slows to little more than a somber piano, and an attentive viewer is given a chance to breathe a bit, take in the entirety of the story to that point. Much of this tale of a girl lost in a world of strange spirits is filled with such verve and energy that for it to press on the brakes and weave this piece into the palette brings the magical absurdity of the story a sense of weight. A lot of strange things happen in this movie, but like all Miyazaki's films there is a patience in the telling, a casual lack of urgency. It doesn't need to shove you through one moment in its eagerness to get to the next weird thing, but relishes in the detail and the world. There are weaknesses however. As wonderfully bizarre as the events onscreen can be, there are barely any moments to flesh out the world in which they inhabit. And much of the ending feels like an attempt to solve a riddle that was never asked in the first place. But there is truth and beauty in this coming of age tale, and though it may have a few cracks on the surface it is no less touching or satisfying.

9 out of 10.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)

Every series deserves to have a bright, blinding high point; that moment or segment where even the most over-wrought morass of fiction has a chance to shine and be celebrated. The Wrath of Khan is just that. The story is kept simple and accessible: a man bearing a decades-long grudge against a now-retired starship captain escapes exile to exact his revenge. Very little of the series' signature baggage comes along for the ride in any prominent way. Instead we are presented with a streamlined narrative, solid and compelling characters, and an excellent cat-and-mouse game played between the two leads. There's even a substantial amount of risk taken with some key players, and a simply exceptional final showdown. Sure, some of the staple characters are underutilized, and there are certainly moments of very questionable acting, but for the popcorn-munching fun and adventure of it, this is a film that fans and non-fans can both enjoy equally.

9 out of 10.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Brüno (2009)

Sacha Baron Cohen is easily one of the bravest performers in entertainment. He creates these incredibly convincing characters, says outrageously offensive things to large groups of people, and does it all without even so much of a wink to let the others on. Much like Borat before it, this outing sees Cohen speaking to senators, celebrities and random passerby, prodding then with wildly inappropriate questions and situations, and smartly skewering them to their face. It's cringeworthy stuff, but still remains impressively daring given the reactions he gets, and the people he talks to. The problems with this film, however, have a lot to do with the success of Borat, the most basic of which is that the character of Bruno is not nearly as likeable or endearing. Where Borat was naïve and shy, Bruno is arrogant and outlandish. At the same time it seems that more people were in on the joke this time, leading to more segments feeling either staged or at the very least insincere. The greater emphasis on trying to tell a story doesn't help things either. There are still specks of brilliance scattered throughout, but on the whole this just doesn't have the same caustic chemistry that the first had. Taken in full it's still funny, but not hilarious.

6 out of 10.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

The Evil Dead (1981)

You can just tell watching this film that the director was destined for bigger things. To be able to take so very little and, through the use of some extremely clever camera work and expert sound design, make something so near to a horror masterpiece is just incredible. At some point between the margarita toast and someone having their head lopped off with a shovel, this tale of teenagers in a haunted house goes from grinning B-movie cheese to legitimate horror with such ease and such simple grace that there's little to do but sit back and enjoy the gory spectacle. In many ways it's a perfect party movie; the silly and outdated stupidity is up front and ready for commentary, but just when the crowd runs out of things to say it's suddenly a legitimately scary movie. The origins, the movies that built the careers of both writer-director Sam Raimi, and B-movie staple Bruce Campbell, definitely stand the test of time.

8 out of 10.

Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn (1987)

Calling this a sequel is horribly misleading. Though it technically picks up with the final camera shot of the first film, the greater majority of this so-called follow-up contains scene after scene lifted and repurposed from the first. And you can't rely on the earlier movie for a bit of a leg up, either. All but the most basic premise of the first is immediately jettisoned by a heavily altered retelling of the plot so far. However all these transgressions are quickly forgiven when, out of the ashes of a horror classic, a terrific horror-comedy creeps its way out of hiding. It's still the same cabin in the woods and the same demonic ghost possessor, but now instead of accidentally falling in to B-movie cheese it revels in it, all the while delivering terrible acting and over-the-top blood and gore. The resulting mess of a movie is a manic trip into a nightmare, told with a wink and a smile and a friendly jab in the ribs. It's not the horror classic that the first is, but as a great non-sequitor and a bloody bucket of laughs it certainly holds its own.

7 out of 10.

Army of Darkness: The Medieval Dead (1992)

The Evil Dead trilogy is unique in that its films only barely attempt to maintain any consistency. Much like the second film, this third abandons its predecessor's tale, retells it differently, and goes on from what is essentially a new starting point. Here the last survivor of the first and second finds himself in medieval times, once again being called upon to fight undead demons. A big difference here compared to previous films is that the hero is largely on the offensive, exhausted and utterly pissed that no matter how many hellbeasts he destroys they just won't leave him alone. A bigger difference is that this film eschews all semblance of horror seen in the previous films, instead becoming an over-the-top action-comedy. The result is a frequently hilarious, endlessly quotable romp that is appropriately lacking in story and acting, while pouring everything it has into showcasing hero's cynical charisma. It's not nearly as violent or foul as the previous films nor is it as inventive, but taken for what it is, a B-movie trip through a haunted dark ages, there's a lot of fun to be had.

7 out of 10.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Princess Mononoke (1997)

Also known as Mononoke-hime.
Hayao Miyazaki darkest, most mature piece is also one of his very best. Framing the struggle between human progress and its adverse effect on nature as a war between the animals of a forest and a band of industrious outcasts fighting for their freedom, the story here offers no clear answers, no obvious morality, and no villain. Instead it's about shades of grey, where neither side is entirely right, and both fronts have a clear right to the others' stake. It's complicated and difficult, yet exciting and magical. Miyazaki paints his opus with impossibly massive landscapes and beautifully framed vistas, filled with bizarre and wonderful creatures, some quirky and some intimidating, all brought to life with painstaking detail. Every frame of it is pulled together and solidly personified with an incredible, sweeping music score. There aren't many filmmakers out there who can present something so delicately epic, and so deeply intimate. It feels personal and grand, urgent and sure-handed. From an artist whose every work is a thing of incredible beauty, this is a masterpiece.

10 out of 10.