by Kris Katz
Brief spoiler-free entertainment reviews

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Children of Men (2006)

There's a point late in the film where, amidst incredible chaos and death and racism and persecution, the main character is given the slightest and simplest of favors. It's in this moment that you realize how perfectly realized, and utterly depressing, the world in the film is. Depicting a future where humanity has gone infertile, and not a single child has been born worldwide in eighteen years, the movie shows the sorry state of Britain as civilization slowly self-cannibalizes. It is very good at it. Every inch of the film is filled with a sense of decay, of society struggling with its own mortality. We soldier on, but tragically question why. It is all laid down with an incredible eye for detail, down to the most minute tweak, and framed with some truly noteworthy camera work. So it is a shame that a movie which expertly paints one of the most thorough swan songs for our species does such a poor job in developing its characters. Everyone involved puts in excellent work on camera, but the script is clearly focused on the bigger picture. You care little for what the characters are going through, but instead care deeply, desperately for the state of the film's world. The result is devastating regardless.

9 out of 10.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Inglorious Basterds (2009)

Quentin Tarrantino has a knack for pushing the progress of cinema backwards a few decades. With every film, he embraces the roots of today’s movies, creating a gleefully anachronistic throwback. Inglorious Basterds is his (intentionally misspelled) salute to the World War II movies of yore, embracing both the gung-ho camp and intricate conspiracies of that era. Seeing Brad Pitt strut around as a sadistic Nazi-hunter leading a band of angry Jews is delightful, gruesome fun, but the film’s heart and much of its plot belong to a revenge tale waiting in the wings. It makes for an awkward, though terribly interesting trip through Nazi-occupied France, with cheesy enthusiasm intercut with a deadly serious story of justice. Tarrantino’s ever-present talent for dialogue is at full strength as well, with brilliantly meandering conversations framing every move the story makes; it's especially interesting considering the vast majority of the film is in either French or German. As a whole, it is exactly what it sets out to be—the kind of film they just don’t make anymore, delivered with love from one of the best talents in the business.

8 out of 10.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Ponyo (2008)

Also known as Gake no ue no Ponyo.
Once again, legendary director Hayao Miyazaki shows us what's possible with animated films. Pitched similarly to the classic My Neighbor Totoro, Ponyo is a tale perfect for children, and a solid dose of enchantment for the inner child as well. The story is a familiar one, as it is based on the same book as Disney's classic The Little Mermaid. Miyazaki's take on the “fish-person wants to be human” story is significantly different however, even if the central conceit is the same. It's not a musical for one, and the entire production has a danger-less, carefree feel. The palette is full of warm blues and friendly yellows coloring characters that simply accept the situation in front of them with little question, and tied with a brisk pace that helps the whole thing go down easy, if ultimately inconsequential. It is pure escapism, crafted with a sure hand and obsessive eye for detail. Every moment of the film appears hand drawn, with Miyazaki's aversion to computer generated imagery in full swing. There may not be a single computer animated frame in the entire film—a true rarity in this age—and the result is a visual masterpiece. Even so, the story and childish tone may be a hard sell for demanding adults. If you have a playful inner child who can enjoy lush scenery with pretty colors and adorable creatures, you will definitely finish this with a smile.

8 out of 10.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Howl's Moving Castle (2004)

Also known as Hauru no ugoku shiro.
Seeing something completely, utterly new and unique in a movie is a rare thing. It's also Hayao Miyazaki's stock and trade. This tale of warring wizards and a young woman cursed into old age is so inventive, so eye-popping and fresh that there's hardly any room left for a coherent story. Make no mistake, at every turn and in every scene there is a new kind of magic or spell being cast that results in a careening trip through a dazzling array of color and lights, beautiful hand drawn landscapes, or a perfectly animated transformation effortless in its character and subtleties. There is genuine enchantment to be had. But the story itself suffers for it, with large leaps in character logic and a world absolutely begging for further explanation yet receiving almost none. It creates an interesting yearning, an expectation that all the answers the movie expertly baits you into anticipating lie just around the corner. In that way it's a mildly frustrating film, but while it may less of a Miyazaki masterpiece than its peers, this is still filled with that trademark wonder, and near perfect beauty.

7 out of 10.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

District 9 (2009)

Based on, and expanded from, the excellent short film Alive in Joburg, first-time feature director Neill Blomkamp soundly proves himself with one of the freshest, most thought-provoking science fiction films in years. The film depicts the plight a semi-intelligent, insect-like alien race stuck on Earth, segregated from the human population by the government, and forced to live in a ghetto. It works as an obvious parable to apartheid but the movie plays it smart, never issuing a heavy hand or an unwanted message. Instead you get a deeply fascinating look at a situation quickly spiraling out of control, seen through the eyes of a dopey, pencil-pushing bureaucrat who gets unwittingly snatched into the worst of it and intercut the retrospective of a documentary film chronicling the events. The result is a gritty, dark, often unsettling, but intensely interesting sci-fi drama thriller that asks nothing but difficult questions, all the while wowing with impressive effects. It has a few rookie mistakes in the presentation, but in almost every way this is one of the best films of its genre in almost a decade.

9 out of 10. (what else would I give it?)

Friday, August 7, 2009

Terminator (1984)

Some classics don't age entirely well. Despite being the star-maker for The Governator himself, this is a film with some exceptional qualities held back by production that may have been trendy and cutting edge at the time, but today seems quaint at best. Set as a story of a cyborg assassin sent back in time to kill the mother of a future leader, the tale told is barely enough to fill a short story, yet the film plays this to its advantage by filling with lots of action and a few great character moments. The action scenes themselves are very well done, showing off a young James Cameron's aptitude for exceptional staging, but it's the moments of suspense that really stand out; the relentless finale especially is a heart-pounding chase of incredible intensity. What ultimately holds the film back, however, are the trappings of the era in which it was made. While the teased hair and garish neon culture of the early 80s can be forgiven as set dressing, it becomes increasingly difficult to overlook the sound mixing and film score, which frequently undercuts some of the best scenes. It's a damn shame too, as a little more longevity in this area would push this great film into the same league as its legendary sequel. For now it's a good film with some dated key elements—fun to watch, and exciting, but flawed.

7 out of 10.

Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991)

James Cameron has a knack for sequels. After turning the Aliens franchise from horror legend to action masterpiece, he returns to followup on his original film about a coming war between humans and machines. This time two robots are sent back in time both sent to deal with the future leader of the resistance. What plays out is a whip-smart action movie with incredible stunts and big explosions, yet more character and soul than most Oscar-bait. It is a remarkable movie, deftly bouncing between exceptional suspense and mega-budget effects, to thoughtful musings on the human condition, parenting, destiny, and the burdens of leadership. Arnold Schwarzenegger returns to his career-making role of the T-101 model terminator, almost perfectly finding balance between his trademark coldhearted stare and making him just human enough to be relatable. Linda Hamilton also does incredible work as the strong, though deeply troubled, Sarah Connor. The remaining cast does exceptionally well across the board. Once in a long while you get a film that comes along with everything: intelligent characters, quotable lines, iconic action, and a solid set of messages. There aren't really any areas to knock this film; it's about as good as this genre gets.

10 out of 10.

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003)

From a plot point of view, there really isn't much wrong with the film considering what was left to work with after the second: more robots are sent back in time, but now they are preparing for the coming nuclear holocaust as best they can for their side, rather than trying to prevent or ensure it. The problems with the film mostly lie in how it is presented and, often, scripted. A series begins to lose its impact when it starts to rely on sly, winking references to the previous films, and the first half-hour is largely one obnoxious sight gag after another. Similarly, the casting is all over the place. Arnold does due diligence to the role he made a movie icon, and Kristanna Loken does well as yet another new model of terminator. However Nick Stahl is a bit limp as future resistance leader John Connor, and Claire Danes, a fairly accomplished actress with considerable talent, is completely miscast. Still, there are a few highlights, including an obscenely destructive car chase, and an ending that remains remarkably effective. As a whole, the movie is competent, but just barely. There is nearly none of the sharp intelligence or pure suspense of the previous entries, but things still explode nicely and the plot still chugs along.

6 out of 10.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Funny People (2009)

One thing is for sure: you get your money's worth out of this one. Writer/director Judd Apatow has an exceptional talent for making honest comedies with a lot of heart, and more brains than is easy to give them credit for. Here the mind behind Knocked Up and 40-Year-Old Virgin introduces us to Adam Sandler playing a version of himself diagnosed fatally ill, lonely and depressed in his rich lifestyle, befriending an amateur stand-up comic. It's always an interesting experiment when someone takes a chance on Adam Sandler; he's known more for his incredibly juvenile and annoying characters, but just like with 2002's Punch-Drunk Love he proves quite capable of dramatic heavy lifting. What makes the film difficult, then, is how it is distinctly two films rolled into one. In the first half it's an effusive and hilariously foul musing on death and regret, while the distinctly different second half goes off into far more standard comic fare. Both halves are very well handled, but in the jump from one side to the other the story loses some traction and balance. Also the movie doesn't so much end as stop. The whole of it is still very satisfying tale, often laugh-out-loud funny and frequently quite touching. Its later uncertainty is easily forgiven for its early strength, its flaws deftly paved over by its surprisingly big heart. Two films in one, both of which are very good.

8 out of 10.