by Kris Katz
Brief spoiler-free entertainment reviews

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)

Simply put, this is as appropriately named as a movie could possibly be. Films by Wes Anderson can be a hard sell to some people—his penchant for darkly deadpan delivery means that it can sometimes be too easy to take him seriously. Not so here, as the mix of whimsical stop motion, smartly written kid-friendly tale, and infectiously low-key characters create a sense of unexpected calm amidst the considerable chaos. This is not a film that goes for the big laughs and the big excitement, but rather nudges itself along with a sly wink and a charming giggle. It is at times both pedestrian and ironic, while simultaneously being impossible and straight-forward. This is a very smart film, fully capable of instilling wonder in adults and knowing smiles in children. There is not quite enough drive to push this excellent movie into classic territory, but in almost every way this is a beautiful, thoughtful, delightful ride for anyone who likes their entertainment with a touch of subtlety.

9 out of 10.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

JCVD (2008)

Jean-Claude Van Damme, the muscles from Brussels, is a washed up actor who's hard up for cash and credibility. Then he gets involved in a bank robbery. There's a strange thing going on in this mostly-French language film. With Jean-Claude playing himself, the fourth wall is but a plot device, and in fashion similar to Being John Malkovich there's the sense that the things going on behind the scenes are as important as the on-screen result. Van Damme seems to be trying to reinvent himself with this film, repositioning himself with a mea culpa for his reputation, and the result is surprising and compelling. Sadly, the same cannot be said for most of the remainder of the film, which is a largely standard trip through the genre. There's nothing particularly bad about the story being told, just that it doesn't really stand out. Yet still, there's a nugget here from Van Damme, a genuine showing that there's more to things than what usually makes the cut. While the film itself may not be much, there is still something honest to be appreciated.

6 out of 10.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Box (2009)

Someone drops a box off at your door. Inside is a button. You are informed that if you press the button someone you do not know will die, and you will be given one million dollars. You have twenty-four hours to decide whether or not to push the button. And from that, things get weird. What starts out as a great bit of mental torture and suspense quickly gives way to an extended episode of The Twilight Zone with all the trimmings. Unfortunately, it's just about as cheesy too. There's some excellent weirdness going on in this movie, but while the scope of events from one reveal to the next is spot on, the sense of mystery doesn't quite follow suit. Lots of things change for the cooler, but it's hard to really care beyond curiosity. That's a shame too, because with a bit more love and a lot less runtime this could have been a perfect popcorn muncher. The same Richard Kelly that brought us the excellent Donnie Darko does a very good job capturing the vintage 70s television vibe throughout, but alas it just doesn't quite come together in a way that does its far-out ideas justice.

5 out of 10.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Black Dynamite (2009)

Blaxploitation has to be a tough genre to revive in these over-sensitive times. For all the cheek we get out of other exploitation genres, it's hard not to cringe at the idea of making a film that “exploits” a racial culture. But then a riotous throwback like this comes along and you remember to ask “who cares as long as it's fun?” This film is as much about culture as Airplane! is about aviation. What this winds up being is a solid ninety minutes of smartly foul, hysterically absurd humor, poking fun at all the Blaxploitation tropes, from the sassy women to the giant afros to the ever-present fight against The Man. It's all here and it's all gloriously cheesy. Nunchucks are swung, asses are kicked, and fourth walls are broken, and by the end it's all a warm glow of fantastically trashy humor.

8 out of 10.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Das Boot (1981)

As far as harrowing scenarios go, it's hard to picture worse than being trapped in a metal contraption hundreds of feet below the surface of the ocean with every pipe around you creaking under the pressure, and enemy ships passing by above you determined to see you drown. Try to forget for a moment that his is a film about Germans in World War II; just focus on the human drama on display. The result in unbelievably tense and thoroughly nerve wracking. There is rarely a dull moment in the film, as each passing boat or each life-threatening trial perfectly ups the ante. Being that it is film about the unrelentingly tight quarters of a German U-Boat, the atmosphere of cramped quarters is sold to perfection. If you are claustrophobic, you may want to give this one a pass It may not be perfect, largely thanks to some transparent production whenever the boat surfaces, and an ending that feels either contrived, or bluntly honest, but even with those caveats this film is a masterpiece of total suspense, and a fascinating peek at a nightmare situation for many people.

9 out of 10.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009)

Somewhere along the way, the metaphor was completely lost. The stories in the X-Men comics and films have always been about persecution, alienation, and a thinly-disguised story about civil rights. This film isn't about anything, other than two hours you'll be happy to hang on to. It fails at almost every possible level. As cannon for the long-running X-Men series, it sabotages key relationships and white-washes plotlines. As an action-thriller it fails to be exciting or thrilling, instead plowing through one set of remarkably dull explosions after another, all of which are set up in ways that defy the film series's more grounded sense of continuity. As a chance to see some upper-tier celebrities have fun onscreen it seems like only Ryan Reynolds was able to squeeze out any personality, while everyone else simply can't push their talent through the awful script. Even as a showcase for big-budget special effects it flops, with more than a few moments of obvious matte lines, miscalibrated green screen effects, and generally poor integration throughout. It's sad to see the series brought to this. It used to have a message, it used to be about characters, and it used to at least be fun to watch. This is just boring, filler white-noise. Don't bother.

2 out of 10.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Wall Street (1987)

At the risk of dating this review and making it less relatable to future generations, within the confines of our current economic turmoil this entire thing feels almost like some sort of fable or fairy tale. Showing a man's meteoric rise to wealth under the wing of an entirely ruthless stock buyer, this is the kind of film that reminds a person of the reasons why our portfolios all droop and drag right now. The core of the film is simple rise-and-fall type stuff. It contains almost no surprises, but is still smart about what and how it shows you the machinations at play. Better than that, though, is Michael Douglass as the buyer. Every tiny piece of the character can best be described as “total bastard”, all the way from his suit to his “greed is good” speech. As a relic of a bygone era of infinite prosperity, it is behind the times, but it seems to know it was a snapshot and not a timeless yarn. For what it is, the bits and pieces are impressive, and Douglass is magnificent. Beyond that, it's almost depressing the things this film preceeded.

8 out of 10.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Soldier (1998)

There is a reason why the “hardened killing machine defends adorable children” genre died out, and this is as good an example as any. Supposedly taking place in the same universe as the film Blade Runner, we're introduced to an infant being raised to be an unstoppable terminator, who is then rendered obsolete right about the time he starts looking like an over-the-hill Kurt Russell. Maybe then he'll learn to love and care for people instead of ripping out their throats, teaching children valuable life lessons and helping a community of refuges squeak out a living. It's exactly as cheesy and stupid as it sounds, and worse yet it doesn't even have any badass action bits or good explosions to soften the blow. This is as by the numbers as these films can get, and aside from a halfway decent turn by an almost completely silent Russell offers nothing notable. Skip it, move on. Blade Runner's universe doesn't need this.

3 out of 10.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Casino (1995)

Ever the master of the the montage and the mob movie, Martin Scorsese here gives us the raw, bloody red belly of Las Vegas casino management in the late 70s. It's basically like Goodfellas but with more sand. And like Goodfellas, it's based on truth. Here you get all the Scorsese crime film staples: brutal, unglamorous violence, an absolutely pitch-perfect classic rock soundtrack, Robert De Niro being somber and awesome, and Joe Pesci throwing out hundreds of the most finely crafted f-bombs in cinema. The whole thing runs at a blistering pace as well, which is good because even at such a brisk jog it still runs just shy of three never-dull hours. The epic length begets a story that feels even bigger; the first hour alone has enough plot to bury a half-dozen other movies and things only build, beautifully, from there. Martin Scorsese is simply the master of this genre, and once again he shows us why. There isn't a weak part, a slow moment, or a wrong cue anywhere to be found in this film. About the only way in which it fails is in not giving more of the real life stories behind the mayhem.

10 out of 10.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Commando (1985)

As we all know, once upon a time Arnold Schwarzenegger was freaking huge, and every film he was in throughout the 80s and early 90s was built specifically to highlight that fact. Here we're introduced to him carrying a chainsaw and a tree over his shoulder, because being a half ton of solid badass somehow wasn't manly enough on its own. Soon after, his daughter is kidnapped by a third world military junta. Daring feats of improbable, ultra-macho manliness ensue. If disposable eighties cheese and gigantic guns being emptied into faceless bad guys are your thing, then you'll be in heaven from start to finish. This movie is what it is though: a one-off sequence featuring continuously rising body count. As far as these types of films go it's more archetypal than actually good. It laid groundwork for dozens of films to follow, but on the whole it simply doesn't have a lot going for it on its own. If you can turn your brain completely to “off”, then you may welcome the hair this film puts on your chest. Otherwise it's probably better to move on to bigger, more preposterously manly fare.

6 out of 10.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

American History X (1998)

Obvious message about racism is obvious. Between the heavy-handed slow-motion, and an overbearing score that's as subtle as a sledgehammer set on fire, this is a film that is so in service to its message that it nearly forgets about filmcraft. It's not that that message isn't worth hearing, or is any less relevant today than it was when the film was made, it's just that being beat over the head with one extreme after another has a way of disengaging the people who need to hear it. Still, taken for the heavy-handed monster that it is there is still some merit here. Seeing an ex neo-Nazi try to keep his little brother from following in his footsteps is a good opening salvo in the discussion, but ultimately the movie itself only ever feels like just that: an opening salvo in the discussion.

6 out of 10.
Might take some heat for this one...

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Iron Man 2 (2010)

While the first sailed by on a whip-smart script and a stellar performance by Robert Downey Jr., part 2 swings by on upped production values and a larger focus on things that aren't the metal man himself. It's a different approach that pays off in a completely different way, but it may bug you depending on what it was about the first that you enjoyed. Like any sequel, the budget is bigger and the cast flashier. There are more things to distract from genuine character building, and in some ways it seems drunk on its own success (at least one subplot could have been cut entirely without hurting the film). But the switch-up lets there be more variety. The moments with the stars have less to say, but feel more special for their rarity. The action sequences are bigger in scope and impact, and better integrated into the story. The new characters all fit in fairly well with the old. The most damning thing to say about the film is that it only does what the first did, but bigger. Yet still, that works for what is only meant to be fun and funny. By the end, less may feel accomplished, but it's a more impressive ride regardless.

8 out of 10.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

After Last Season (2009)

As a four-minute short film about neuroscience students unraveling a murder plot, it might have made for a workable B-grade student film. Unfortunately, this film goes on. And on. And on. What might work as an in-and-out college-level short is instead stretched out to ninety joyless minutes. Where to begin? How about the constant sound of pipe drainage in the background of every scene, or how each set is just some corkboard over drywall, or the MRI made of construction paper? Yes, the film really is that cheaply made. But worse is the unbelievable amount of dead space in the film. The actors show a largely inoffensive blasé attitude, but with gigantic spans of time between each line and a script filled with acres of completely useless information the whole affair seems like glacial episode of Seinfeld without even an attempt at humor. From top to bottom, this is just bad. It's barely even ripe for ribbing. That said, there are still worse films out there. The worst tend to waste talent. For this, there wasn't any talent to begin with.

1 out of 10.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies (2006)

Also known as OSS 117: Le Caire, nid d'espion.
Among the many things that are amusing about this film, and the character of French special agent OSS 117, is that it not only predates Get Smart, but even beat James Bond to the punch. OSS 117, French spy extraordinaire, is as obnoxious as a terrible French stereotype, and as clueless as Maxwell Smart. This isn't the kind of film that is obviously hilarious. There are few big setpiece jokes. This is mostly a constant-grin sort of affair, with our hero accidentally doing just the right thing over and over again. Meanwhile the story acquits itself well enough. There's little remarkable about the film as a whole, other than the fact that the humor translates over fairly well, but the whole thing comes together quite well. As a comedy riff on spy films, there are some good chuckles to be had here.

7 out of 10.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Burn After Reading (2008)

Seeing the CIA's braintrust crash against the jagged rocks of clueless stupidity should be more fun than this. When the wrong information falls into the hands of a a batch of barely-competent fitness instructors, there should be some play on what 'government intelligence' is, or some laughs that play up a lack of preparation, or something. This is more of a drama about things that are difficult to get invested in than it is a straight up comedy. Deadpan presentation may be the Coen Brothers' M.O. but this one takes itself too seriously to be anything more than passing funny. Then as a set of twisting traps and back-and-forth entanglement it also comes up short. It has a few moments that stand out, and at least one excellent left turn, but largely this is a bit of well presented, interesting-but-not-compelling fluff. It's inconsequential and innocuous, too serious to be silly, too silly to be serious.

5 out of 10.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

L.A. Confidential (1997)

Police procedural films live and die by their plot twists. It almost isn't worth bothering if the movie's entire world isn't turned upside-down by the time the credits kick up. This tries to be a salacious movie, a kind of what-if scenario by way of taking a 1950s mystery and giving it a modern coating of grit. It starts off as it should with each of the cop archetypes present and accounted for, right down to the Irish-accented police captain. Then, yes, things get complicated. As a novel the story must have been a gripping yarn, but as a film things get out of hand in just the right way to make the plot hard to follow. That doesn't make it any less interesting, but it's hard to invest in the story when you aren't sure who's double-crossing who exactly. The second half of the film is a whirlwind of shake-ups, and while they are excellent moments, there's little here that lingers after its over. For all the star power, and as excellently staged as moments within the story are, there's little here of substance. It's a fantastic quick fix for the genre, but it's a bit hollow.

7 out of 10.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)

Homer's The Odyssey, rewritten for the deep south in the 1930s, and sprinkled with bluegrass and images taken from old photographs. That about sums it up. The thing is, if you try to apply any sort of critical thought to it the whole thing collapses like a thing that falls apart. One moment you're watching some slightly madcap comedy, the next it's some dark fable, the next it's jumped inspirations entirely and is trying to ape Gulliver's Travels. It's not a mess, but if you've got more in your head than what's being fed, the bridge starts to sway a bit too strongly. So what if you step away entirely and just approach with a blank stare? Then things go down fairly smooth. The comedy bits become funny, the non-sequitors become charming, everything else just lends to the glazed-over surreality that the brothers Coen have concocted. The music remains excellent either way. So its a mixed bag. Either you'll see straight through it and wonder what the hell you're watching, or it'll wash over you leaving a pleasant (if strange) aroma.

7 out of 10.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

12 Angry Men (1957)

Courtrooms always seem to get the glory—attractive lawyers passionately defending or prosecuting some complex case, snide remarks to a judge threatening contempt, and a resolution that feels hard-fought and just. Equally as important, yet often overlooked, are the juries who decide these cases. The story here is as simple as the title: a jury, retiring after the completion of a murder trial, deliberate and discuss the case to try to reach a verdict. What makes this story so damn interesting is how well chosen each of the twelve personalities are. Some just want to leave and get back to their lives, some genuinely want to discuss the case, some are convinced with solid thinking, some just go along with the prevailing crowd. It's fascinating to watch them bounce off of each other, arguing their perception of the facts, and slowly let a clearer view of their decision come together. The film doesn't play for some grander message about what is good and great about the justice system, merely that everything is more complicated than the surface tends to show.

8 out of 10.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)

That this film is about a man who ages backwards is almost entirely beside the point. As a central hook the idea is all but wasted beyond the introductory set-up, and is more an excuse for Brad Pitt to get progressively more attractive as the film goes on. What this really is, is a treatise on death and loss, on endless time and people that come and go. In that way, the story is a tragedy almost from the moment it starts. Yes it tries to play your heartstrings like a harp, but there is so much beauty to be found along the way. The production is lavish, with director David Fincher's signature eye for incredibly small detail pouring over every frame. The acting hits home as well, with both Pitt and Cate Blanchett turning in work that ages gracefully even when their characters don't. Coupled with the script and story, based on a short work by F. Scott Fitzgerald, the result seems a darker take on themes similar to Forrest Gump. This is a remarkable film for reasons that are difficult to entirely nail down. It is effective but obvious, beautiful, familiar yet new, and is the kind of experience that can sneak up on someone when they're not expecting it. If you could do with a bit of wistful melancholy, you'll find exactly what you need.

8 out of 10.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010)

Here, I'll make this simple: did you grow up playing videogames? Then you need to see this. Look, I won't lie: headlining star Michael Cera, playing his usual awkward, irrepressibly repetitive, lovable scamp self, is overexposed to the point of being obnoxious. At this point it's a given. What I'm saying is to get over it just this once. He's not the reason to see this movie. This is one about the presentation, the story that flies by at 200kph splashing geek humor all over everything, for seeing life bars and power-ups become character beats, and for seeing the gamer audience as more than a bunch of closeted dweebs living in their parents' basements. It's for anyone who's ever chased a high score, fought a dragon, or saved a world in their spare time with their spare quarters. Is it perfect? Certainly not. Seeing Mr. Pilgrim battle Ramona's seven evil ex-boyfriends does get a little long in the tooth, as almost every fight at least starts out identically, and often even ends the same way. But it's the moments in-between the kung-fu: the sly winks to a knowing audience, the solid delivery of joke after joke after joke, and the pervasive use of the soundtrack from Zelda: A Link to the Past, that keep things levelling up. Sure, if you didn't grow up with these influences, you'll either be lost or bored or just not see what the big deal is. Yet for those of us sitting pretty in the target audience, this is finally a movie that understands.

9 out of 10 (if you played a lot of games as a kid; otherwise 7)

Kick-Ass (2010)

Start with a goofy tale about an awkward, comics-obsessed teenager deciding to run out in brightly colored tights with a mission to save the world, toss in a mob plot, and a foulmouthed father/daughter crime-fighting duo. Stick it in a blender for two hours and out comes this weirdly lovable ultra-violent mess of a movie. Almost nothing here is by the numbers—the combat is bloody, the language extra salty, and the heroes aren't really that heroic. Unlike other comic adaptations, there isn't any overarching message, or a direct source to be ripping on, this is just a straight up violent popcorn-muncher. Largely this works. The momentum and build-up are spot on, the twists mostly obvious and fun, and the drama is light and breezy with just a slight edge to keep you invested. This isn't a grand filmmaking, merely some good, dirty amusement.

8 out of 10.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

The Expendables (2010)

Did you like the 80s? Did you like watching Arnold and Bruce and Sly kick ass and be macho? If the answer to both of these questions is yes, then you should probably see this. Otherwise, this ultra manly man-love letter to the action movies of yesteryear might fly right past you. Oh yes, it's all back: giant plot holes you can drive a truck through, high bodycount shootouts that erupt from nowhere, gigantic (albeit older) muscles flexing while being splashed with their enemies' blood, and long winded descriptions of how awesome a guy's weapon of choice is. Sure they added some of the newer faces in the genre, and sure a bit of CG enhanced carnage splatters its way onscreen, but this is about a simple-minded as you remember it. That includes some of the bad, too: the acting fails to live up to its camp potential, and the action sequences are nonsensical and comically violent. If films like Commando were your thing back in the day, you'll get a grin out of this.

6 out of 10.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Hangover (2009)

They say “what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.” Sometimes it doesn't even get that far. Such is the case when four hapless guys gather to give a friend the most amazing bachelor party they'll never be able to talk about. Thing is, the next morning none of them have any idea what happened the night before and the bachelor himself is nowhere to be found. For as wild and over-the-top as the film is, really the story itself is the best thing it has going. Piecing events together bit by ludicrous bit keeps even the frequently mediocre humor from being a turnoff. As a comedy, it has a few chuckles and keeps a fairly persistent grin going, but it never seems to leap into something genuinely hilarious. The fun is instead found in seeing the utterly ridiculous situations the guys find themselves in, and learning how the writers will backpedal to explain. In an exceptionally rare turn of events, a comedy's plot successfully overshadows its humor.

7 out of 10.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The Road (2009)

Quietly trudging through the wasteland after the end of the world, a father and son simply try to survive. Just as Cormac McCarthy wrote his silent story of desperation, so it is with this film. It is a surprisingly faithful adaptation, especially considering how devastating and cruel the remainder of the world is portrayed. There is no safety, no beauty, no kindness, nothing left in this setting. Still, for as accurately as the original vision has been fit to the screen there is a surprising, if slight, disconnect throughout. This may be a perfect example of something being lost in translation. Without the stream-of-conscious narrative of the book, the crushing weight of the main characters situation doesn't settle as heavily. Similarly, the few dangers the characters encounter feel less ominous, and far more direct. Yet still, despite the subtlety lessened impact brought about, there is more than enough gravity to circumstances, more than enough desperation to go around.

8 out of 10.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Once Upon a Time in America (1984)

Grand and lavish, Sergio Leone's final film has almost everything you could hope for. It is beautifully produced, perfectly paced, wonderfully acted, and expertly scored. It's a damn shame the final cut, and the uneven writing, cut the legs out from under it all. Robert De Nero and James Woods turn in career performances, pouring in all they have at their considerable disposal, and yet even at almost four hours the number of loose ends and awkward jumps in time undermine the incredible good will brought on by virtually everything else. Watching the brutal rise of a group of street punks grow into their own brand of organized crime is incredibly fascinating, but even when the film is at its height there is always a sense that so much more is being missed. Ultimately, too many threads are begun and built up over several hours, only to be abandoned with no closure. The characters at least get their own sense of resolution, but too much is left unsaid. The dour finale unfortunately comes off as awkward. And yet there is still more than enough here to grip, to celebrate. It takes a story far to big to be a movie in the first place to finally topple Leone, but while it falters it still does so with undeniable style and care. This is a masterpiece, but a fatally flawed one.

6 out of 10.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)

Also known as C'era una volta il West.
Nobody does the western like Sergio Leone. Returning to the murky waters of moral uncertainty, this epic of revenge and perseverance shows off the very best of what the venerable director is can do. On the one hand you have a fairly straight-forward tale of a man out for revenge for an unspeakable wrong done to him, and on the other we follow a woman fresh off the train grimly determined to make it on her own as a homesteader. The dusty back and forth that ensues is every bit the director's exceptional trademark. There has never been another director who can characters doing so little seem so intensely interesting. While ultimately it is perhaps a less complicated film than some of Leone's other work, the more narrow focus lets the suspense grow beautifully, and allows the final payoff to have a lasting sense of satisfaction. Even when he sets out to make a more common western, Leone still delivers the best in the genre.

9 out of 10.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Inception (2010)

So few directors can orchestrate a mystery better than Christopher Nolan. Hot off of The Dark Knight, Nolen gives us an opus of a passion project, a film so cleverly intricate and expertly executed that there is little left to do in the end but marvel. At its core it is simply a grand heist movie, but when the goods are stored in a person's subconscious things start to get tricky. And surreal. Very surreal. What plays out is an incredibly labyrinthine story accented with mind-bending, well, mind-bending. It's unbelievably fascinating and expertly crafted. The sheer scale and breadth of thought that goes into some key sequences is enough to fill the imagination. Yet there Nolan is, confidently pushing along, and making the most complex of concepts sing and dance and comfortably layer on top of themselves. It's a total trip on a scale not seen since The Matrix. The only downside is that you'll spend so much of your brain coming to grips with its crazy ideas that the emotional side of the story has trouble staying potent. But for a film to fill the head with so very much, and successfully nudge the audience along down such a winding road, the few tiny flaws can easily be forgiven.

9 out of 10.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Sherlock Holmes (2009)

Director Guy Ritchie may have outgrown making stylish gangster flicks, but his talent for creatively smashing his way through British culture is very much alive and intact. Taking the grandfather of all super-detectives and giving him a heaping dose of modern cynicism may not do anything for purists of character continuity, but it makes something damn entertaining regardless. That it's the professional motormouth himself, Robert Downey Jr., as the man himself just makes things all the more fun. Meanwhile Ritchie's hyper detailed editing style lends itself perfectly to such a meticulous character. Series purists will of course lament the loss of his cocaine addiction and implications of invisible friends, or that he's more of a man of action than a dour riddle-solver. But this is a film that is aiming for pure, breezy, popcorn-munching entertainment, carefree and pleasantly complicated. About the only real knock against this film are the almost universally terrible CG effects. If you can get past that little tweak, and don't mind a few character liberties, there's very little to dislike in this hyperactive reimagining.

8 out of 10.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Tombstone (1993)

Westerns tend to fall into two camps. Either they present a difficult message about the morality of a time gone by, wistful recollections of lives and loves lost and a country that still had some mystery to it. Or they are simply about the a bunch of the manliest men doing the manliest thing a man could do in the manly Wild West: killing folk with six-shooters. Unfortunately, this falls into the later category. That doesn't mean it's a bad film, per se, but if you're going to show off famed lawman Wyatt Earp's handiwork at the O.K. Corral, it seems a waste that the lasting impression the movie tries to shove around is “look how awesome this was!” Still, the frontier town vibe, the optimistic, if simplistic, motives of everyone involved, and the presence of some of the most impressive facial hair in cinema history make this worthwhile if you're after a solid no frills western. Watching Val Kilmer chew on scenery as Doc Holiday for two hours is worth the price of admission alone. While it seems hard not to knock the film for what it ain't, what it is is generally pretty good.

7 out of 10.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

RocknRolla (2008)

For director Guy Ritchie, returning to the genre that helped him make his mark must be a bittersweet homecoming. The over-stylish British ganster genre really hasn't existed without him, and having him back ought to be enough to recharge the batteries in a single shot. But alas, no. The inventive grittiness present in both Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, and Snatch, is gone, replaced with the relative gloss of real estate extortion gone wrong. The style of filmmaking itself is still present, thankfully, with the ever-fun smash cuts and whip pan cutaways. It's never dull to look at. Though little of that matters when the script tries and fails to be funny as often as this one does. Winding and wacky as much of the film manages to seem, a lot of it still feels like a hollow shell, or a vain attempt to reproduce something that the director has simply grown out of.

4 out of 10.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Unforgiven (1992)

You can't argue that Clint Eastwood didn't have a good teacher when it comes to putting together a good western. For the most part, those lessons seems have been taken to heart, as this tale of beat up brothel girls and the men hired to exact revenge manages to hit all the right notes. You've got your wide and untamed expanses, a tough-as-nails sheriff trying to keep order, hookers with hearts of gold, and Eastwood himself bringing the permanent squint. The devil, of course, is in the details, and this in many ways feels like Leone's (and Eastwood's) Man with No Name character a few decades hence, reformed and deeply remorseful. Everything has an air of melancholic sadness, every shootout feels like a hollow victory. There's an emotional depth here uncommon in the genre, in contrast to the usual fond nostalgia for a bygone era. This is a film that takes its time not to build suspense, but to build a point. The result is a feeling of heartbreaking loss at what time and sorrow can do to a man.

9 out of 10.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Hot Shots (1991)

A moment of silence for the good screwball comedy. There's something to be said for a good one-two punchline brought on by a throw-away non-sequitor and a terrible pun. In a lot of ways, it seems to be a lost art. While not up to the quality of the Naked Gun films, this little gem has enough great moments to cover up many of its failings. Choosing Top Gun as its inspiration, the primary problem is that the film tries to play it a bit more straight than most of its peers, making a slight attempt at giving the story an actual progression. The humor that drops in is largely incidental. Yet star Charlie Sheen, and the late Lloyd Bridges, still bring their A-game, hamming up the screen and giving clever winks to the camera. Bridges in particular is hilarious as a mumbling, senile, injury-prone navy admiral. In all, it's not the kind of film that anyone would mistake for a comedy classic, but it definitely is worth its share in fond memories.

7 out of 10.

Hot Shots: Part Deux (1993)

When it comes to sequels, the comedy that surpasses its predecessor is rare indeed. The first was far from a classic, but in making this follow-up it's clear the makers did everything in their power (and budget) to improve the formula. So here we are again, this trading in the open sea of Top Gun for Rambo: First Blood Part 2's jungle forest setting. The jokes are bigger and flashier, the writing more amusingly convoluted, and they had the great sense to throw Lloyd Bridges onscreen much more than last time. It all works, and though the ravages of time have not been kind to some of the gags and plot points, the level of outlandish creativity tossed about is simply delightful.

8 out of 10.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

City of God (2002)

Also known as Cidade de Deus.
Liked Goodfellas and don't mind subtitles? Then you absolutely need to see this. Detailing the life of a boy living in the slums of Rio de Janeiro as those around him grow up into a life of crime, each step forward in this twisted narrative shows off more fascinating wrinkles while the scope just keeps expanding. It's a film that enjoys taking frequent detours from the main plot, cleverly charting their way back to the core, and treats the unbelievable violence going on throughout almost with a kind of nostalgia. For these people, the chaos and danger is just a way of life. The result is epic yet intimate, and incredibly focused on its characters and culture. By the end it feels significant and essential, it's harsh realities shockingly relatable, and effectively unforgettable.

9 out of 10.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Big Trouble in Little China (1986)

When you get the right people in front of the right director with the right script, and then have them all pump out just the right kind of terrible, the result can be brilliant fun. This is not a good movie, but it is a damn entertaining one. The script is almost entirely made up of unceasing and pointless amounts of exposition while the acting wavers between bad and hilariously bad. And yet, it doesn't matter. John Carpenter's show about a truck driver battling an ancient Chinese sorcerer carves out a piece of work so bizarre, so knowingly off-kilter, that it all turns pleasantly surreal. Of course it doesn't hurt that the sets and effects are pretty great across the board. If you like your movies cheesy, your language salty, and your exposition extra exposition-y, there's a lot to love here.

7 out of 10.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Body of Lies (2008)

Although his visual sense has only grown with age, the same cannot be said of director Ridley Scott's consistency. This twisting tale of a pair of CIA agents butting heads over anti-terrorist operations in the middle-east is big on visual punch, but is too self-important to settle comfortably. Difficult names with complicated alliances are thrown around casually, and in ten minutes all the thinking committed to sorting out where they fit in the story is rendered irrelevant as they either die, or some difficult revelation switches up the playing field. Its eye candy is opulent throughout, but it lacks a pace slow enough to be understood or, sadly, cared about. By the time it's over and done there's no great message, no single “wow” moment, no lasting flavor. It's not a waste of time, but neither is it a particular good use of time either. But it sure looks good.

5 out of 10.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Monty Python: Almost the Truth – The Lawyers Cut (2009)

Let's go ahead and assume you're already a fan of Python. Because if you are not, there is nothing in this documentary series that will change your mind nor, frankly, is their story remarkable enough to stand on its own. With that unpleasantness out of the way, it's probably safe to call this six-part documentary series absolutely essential for the fans. Covering everything, from each Python's early childhood, through college and meeting up, to Flying Circus, the films, Graham Chapman's death, and what they've been up to since it all came to a close, no stone is left unturned. Each sordid detail, every little anecdote, and the extremely candid nature of criticism and nostalgia that comes spilling out is utterly delightful for the devoted. Where available, it seems that almost anyone of significance in putting together and supporting the phenomenon makes an appearance. In other cases where it tries to show people who were influenced by the Pythons' work, it perhaps comes up a bit short. Despite this, for the pure breadth and scale of information provided, and for just being an excuse to geek out in remembrance for such an awesome pile of comedy, this series should not be missed.

8 out of 10.

Friday, May 7, 2010

The Brothers Bloom (2008)

Slick and suave, another group of con artists set out to swindle some loot from an unsuspecting mark. Abundant scheming and many a plot twist ensue. If you're going to try this old game on the screen again you'd better have something special up your sleeve. This film does. It has a fairy tale sensibility prevalent throughout which gives our dastardly heroes a misguided sense of whimsey, and the utterly ridiculous scenarios an unreal place to lay their foundations. The result is a madcap romp through one beautiful location after another, with a driving sense inevitability paradoxically mixed with the uncertainty of any traditional heist film. And it's all brought together with a visual sense that flows smoothly and is often quite striking. The movie may drag a bit in the second act, but on the whole it s every bit the pleasant surprise it sets out to be.

8 out of 10.

Monday, May 3, 2010

The Machine Girl (2008)

Also known as Kataude mashin gâru.
Any movie that plays the opening credits over a gang of highschool bullies being graphically dismantled by heavy munitions is bound to raise a few eyebrows. A fire hose-powered geyser of blood later, and this gruesome slab of modern grindhouse is off and running. Campy and violent in equally extreme measures, the sense of pure exuberant mania on display is infectious. Japanese entertainment has a history of throwing all sense out the window and yet still seeming logistically sound, but there's also spark of good old American cheddar thrown in for good measure. The result is simultaneously awesome and terrible and hilarious and utterly drenched in red. If you're in the mood for a grin and a bloodbath, this is definitely one to see.

7 out of 10.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Knowing (2009)

You get these sometimes: movies that start out pretty good, get about half way in, then start to fall apart. By the time you get to the last fifteen minutes of this film you'll want a refund on your time. In the early going, as the catastrophic numerology starts to pull things together, it feels pretty good—there's palpable tension as the disparate threads introduce themselves, the characters have interesting tweaks on familiar dynamics, and Nicolas Cage manages not to make a mess of himself. Then things swing into the second act. The more everything starts to make sense, the less interesting it becomes. There's a lot of potential carelessly discarded by the time the credits roll. The few effects sequences are still pretty decent, and the first act holds up well, but if you need a sci-fi thriller fix, you can do much better.

4 out of 10.

Monday, April 26, 2010

In Bruges (2008)

Straddling the line between comedy and drama is not an easy thing to do. Just ask the producers of this film, who manage to make a pretty decent drama-thriller, yet in the same turn almost entirely fail to make it funny. It certainly tries to be funny, but this tale of a pair of hitmen laying low in a quiet European hamlet after a job just doesn't have enough humor going for it. But even so, it's still a compelling film, with enough quiet turns and character moments to pull it through to the end. The assassins are both likable and interesting, if a bit off-kilter, the setting is quaint and pleasant to look at, and the script itself remains remarkably consistent. So no, it's not the black comedy it wants to be, but everything else seems to be on solid footing.

7 out of 10.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (Manga Series 1982 - 1994)

Also known as Kaze no Tani no Naushika.
When I wrote my review of the film I pointed out how I felt the narrative felt truncated and rushed. The truth is that no matter how large the fringes of the film's world may have seemed, they are nothing compared with the absolutely massive scope and story told in this manga series. It's still the same basic premise, showing a determined princess trying to end the wars between last tribes of humanity while a toxic jungle closes in around them, but here the scale of the conflict is escalated a hundred-fold. Massive battles sweep across the landscape, cultures and religions are touched on and detailed and irrevocably shifted, while the world itself, deadly and unmerciful, swallows up entire nations. Through it all, Miyazaki's impeccable sense of pace comes through on the page, and his iconic character art is filled with wonder and with horror. It's a darker piece than much of his other work, but so much is said and seen and done over the course of it all that there is little room for anything less than awe. Perhaps the only legitimate complaint is how the black and white drawings are sometimes difficult to follow, leading to minor confusion from time to time. Even so, the result is utterly biblical in scope and ambition, and though it falters at moments, it is nonetheless a staggering accomplishment.

9 out of 10.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Die Hard (1988)

When all is said and done, this is still just a typical 80s shoot-em-up. It just so happens to be possibly the best 80s action shoot-em-up. Watching Bruce Willis sneak around a terrorist-filled office building is a case study in how to make a great action film. The setting is mundane enough to be believable yet handled with a sense of geographical complexity that is always interesting, the villains are appropriately menacing and cut-throat, and our hero is a down to earth cop with terrible one-liners and an ever increasing number of cuts and bruises. All the tools are there, and director John McTiernan comes out in force to make full use of them, giving each scene an effortless sense of suspense and purpose. For every bit of cheesy action excess to come out of the 80s, this is one for the decade to be proud of.

9 out of 10.

Die Hard 2 (1990)

Replacing terrorists in a nearly deserted office complex for terrorists in an airport in the middle of the holidays does wonders for the scale of the film, but sticking Bruce Willis' every-cop into the middle of such grandiose spectacle only seems to drive home just how perfectly restrained the first film was. Willis is just as strong as before, but the situation he's in is just too much to swallow. Worse still is how it tries to ape the first's sense of place and improvised geography. Yet despite that, there's still a bit of charm to be had. There's nothing wrong with the script itself, and the shootouts are both plentiful and exciting. Even the drama holds together fairly well. It's just that when you stick such an affable everyman in the middle of a far bigger slice of impossible than before, things fall out of balance.

7 out of 10.

Die Hard With a Vengeance (1995)

Tearing New York City apart bit by bit has rarely been this much fun. The triumphant return of the original Die Hard's director, John McTeirnan, means a move away from the too-convenient plot devices of the second, and the added megabudget means he's is free to destroy as much of the city as necessary. It really is spectacular what the filmmakers are able to get away with in this movie, plowing through one location after another with little but wreckage left behind. This piece of cat-and-mouse features a terrorist with a personal ax to grind with every-cop John McClaine, but it's Samuel L. Jackson's role that really stands out. It's fantastic to see how well the concepts of the series hold up when expanded out to a full city instead of a single setting. While it may be a more straight-forward action thriller than the first, the sheer scope of escalation easily gives it solid footing among the best in the genre.

9 out of 10.

Live Free or Die Hard (2007)

And here's where it falls apart. After an amazing start, a bit of a stumble, and a triumphant return, it is really sad to see such a grand series go out with such a whimper. It isn't that this is necessarily a bad movie in its own right, either. In fact at worst, taken on its own, it's merely a bog standard, bland summer action film. What makes this effort so sad is that it betrays almost everything that makes Die Hard what it is. Gone is the everycop, gone is plausibility, gone is the workmanship that seems evident in all the previous films. Instead we get a super-slick, damn near family friendly action film attempt at re-branding the series to seem more “modern.” Oh no! The terrorists are after the internets. All of them! And only superhero cop John McClaine, with his invincible bone structure and implausibly great luck, can stop them. I'm not buying it. Neither should you.

3 out of 10.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

American Beauty (1999)

Sometimes it's important to be reminded that the only rules in life are the ones you choose to follow. There's a playful sense of honesty to this film that is at once off-putting and awkward, yet compelling and liberating. Seeing the main character's trip from the deepest depths of his mid-life crisis onward has a lot to say about how much we all lie at our own expense to keep others happy. Its show of suburban dystopia is stark and rigid, but doles out nuggets of fundamental truths that are tragically earnest. The broad brush it paints with does not produce a pretty picture, but asks you to laugh and become comfortable with its own type of integrity. The end results in a feeling of heartbreaking tragedy, yet perfect understanding and perfect serenity.

9 out of 10.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Fight Club (1999)

Just as ballsy and brutal more than a decade since its release, Fight Club remains every bit the resonant anthem of apathy and despondency it was years ago. Watching Edward Norton's insomniac cum ringmaster utterly decimate and remake his life is still such perfect fuel for self-analysis, and the cathartic release of bareknuckle combat comes as a punchline whose joke is often too depressing to be spoken. Few movies in the last generation have said as much to the anger and disappointment and aimlessness of the times, and fewer still dare to propose such unrelenting purpose and planning as if it were a good idea. The times may have changed, but the message and its relevance have not, and while some may find its siren song of chaos horrifying, it is nonetheless seductive. Rare is the film that is as dangerous, or as right.

10 out of 10.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Choke (2008)

Much like Fight Club before it, Choke is a comedy about things that probably should not be funny. It shares a few other things with Fight Club as well: it is also about a mentally disturbed man whose scheme is uprooted by a woman, and it too is adapted from a book by Chuck Palahnuik. This tale gives us a sex addicted con-man whose mother is in the hospital and simply goes for a wild sprint from there. The raunchy humor comes at you sideways, catching you off-guard with a fantastically cruel sense of cynicism. Through it all Sam Rockwell's performance anchors things in a veil of ridiculous that fits the film like a glove. In the end it may lack some ambition, and a few scenes are somewhat dead, but the overall package is enough to keep you smiling from start to finish.

8 out of 10.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Watership Down (1979)

Respect for an audience can be a hard thing to come by in an animated film. For as many talking bears, singing princesses, and pieces of anthropomorphic silverware as have been drawn for the screen, few are given the chance to breathe and be part of something bigger than mere archetype. Watership Down is not a perfect film, but considering the time it was made and the general story, it's amazing that there was any consideration to make it more than just another kid's film, let alone a full-blown thriller. Seeing a group of rabbits strike out on their own to found a new colony wouldn't be this tense if it had been in more market-minded hands. But there's a confidence here, and a sense of respect enough for the laws of nature to show things maybe not as they really are, but as the could be. It's dark and it's violent sure, but it's honest, and doesn't let tragedy break its stride. Though at times it may seem more interested in how a rabbit moves about than in telling its story, there's definitely a sense of weight and intelligence to be appreciated.

8 out of 10.