by Kris Katz
Brief spoiler-free entertainment reviews

Friday, January 29, 2010

Moon (2009)

Like a lot of the great fiction, Moon gives us a very small idea and just lets it grow. What starts as an ominous musing on loneliness as a single technician wraps up a 3-year solo tour overseeing an automated mining operation on the lunar surface quickly pushes in all sorts of odd directions, turning itself on its ear and becoming fascinatingly unpredictable. The tweaks that come in the story are the kind of stuff that make up the best of short fiction, expanded out to just the right size. At the film's core is an essentially one-man show by Sam Rockwell, who turns in a career performance while trying to sort out the increasingly bizarre circumstances of his job. For those who like a little more drama and a bit more concept in their sci-fi, this strange, manic tale hits all the right notes.

8 out of 10.

Monday, January 25, 2010

The Men Who Stare At Goats (2009)

Military psychics and a stable full of farm animals, together at last! There's a weird kind of wonder going on in this film. Seeing Jeff Daniels as a hippie military commander akin to The Big Lebowski's The Dude boss around an amusingly addled George Clooney has a charm all its own. Toss Kevin Spacey into the mix and suddenly the movie has a certain kind of affable charisma that's hard to resist. Shame, then, that the final act is such a mess. Still, rolling around in the desert as Obi-Wan Kenobi himself, Ewan McGregor, tries to uncover the truth behind these military “Jedi Warriors” is just good fun and good laughs. It may fall apart at the end, but what is here is enough to be a worthwhile day trip into the psychedelic.

6 out of 10.

Friday, January 22, 2010

The Wire (TV Series 2002 - 2008)

Years from now, when historians look to see what life in America was like in the early 21st century, The Wire is sure to come up. “Grim” and “gritty” don't quite cover the breadth of what's on display here. Unfortunately (or fortunately for the historian), neither does “honest.” As a portrayal of inner city malaise and the bureaucratic interference keeping the problems afloat there are few, if any, pieces of entertainment that even dare to come this close to the truth. What starts as a look at the drug trade of Baltimore and the cops chasing it soon expands beyond those borders, taking on one American institution after another, showing many for a sham, showing others as potentially useful but kneecapped by those in charge. But the show is as much a compelling drama as it is a bullhorn. The cops and the dealers and the politicians and the teachers are built and shown with a staggering amount of complexity, their relationships such that no character is ever a throw-away, and every move made can have immensely far-reaching consequences. It all lends itself to an amazing amount of authenticity, and topics that can and will make almost anyone uncomfortable. Make no mistake: this is bleak television. But for those with the stomach for it, it is unforgettably real, utterly compelling, and almost Shakespearian in its depths and its tragedies.

10 out of 10.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Primer (2004)

Watching this film is a bit like squeezing your brain through a cheese grater: by the end you're divided across several individual opinions, and most of them aren't quite sure what just happened. There's a tearing point near the halfway mark where the possibilities ramp up so dramatically, like tossing an extra zero on the end of an exponential number, that most people will lose track entirely. I did. This workman-like tale of garage physicists cooking up a plan to break physics entirely, and the ramifications thereof, becomes too heady to follow. But there's a certain freedom here—being outsmarted by a movie—that can be fun and interesting. When you consider the possibilities, and you will, there's a sense of awe. That the film is nearly impossible to follow works to its advantage. As far as indie films go there aren't many that at least feel smarter, but then there are many others that make better sense.

6 out of 10.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Preacher (Graphic Novel - 1995)

Packed with about as much action, dark humor, and outrageous gore as you could possibly fit into the format, Preacher is an epic graphic novel series that still manages to somehow skip the most compelling part of its tale. Depicting a Texas preacher who decides to go on a warpath against God, holding Him accountable for the sorry state of the world, you would think that a philosophical take on religion would stand at the forefront. Instead it's a humorous romp through one amusing religious conspiracy after another. Any heady takes on the subject matter are buried under waves of serial killers, western-style shootouts, and a constant current of pitch black humor. That isn't to say it's a failure, however. The series has a breathless sense of momentum as it moves from one action setpiece, storyline, or fascinating revelation to another. Yet still none of it scratches the itch, none of it takes itself seriously enough to examine the things it's proposing. As wide a pool, as many great twists and terrific moments as this series has, the water is still remarkably shallow. It's fun and funny, and unfortunately that's all.

7 out of 10.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Lord of War (2005)

Gallivanting across the globe, we watch a broke nobody slowly turn his life around on a foundation of gunpowder. Nicholas Cage playing an immigrated arms dealer seems like an easy enough story to buy into, but there's a strange disconnect going on throughout the film that keeps much of any of it from coming alive. Like a lot of lacking movies, though, it sure looks good, with highly stylized environments and some generally appealing camera work. And some of the situations our anti-hero finds himself in are certainly amusing. Yet though there are some good moments, between the odd start-stop pacing and a strangely apathetic performance by Cage himself, you simply wind up with too many missed opportunities.

4 out of 10.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Kung Fu Panda (2008)

With all due respect, Dreamworks is simply not known for delivering on the same level as Pixar. They always output very competent films, but the writing always feels more spastic, the storytelling more forced and less meaningful. Then along comes Kung Fu Panda, a movie that takes the studio's trademarked shallowness and turns it into an asset, delivering a light and breezy martial arts fable with just enough characterization, just enough action, and just the right kind of wit. It's a bout of perfectly pure entertainment, funny and exciting throughout. It is absolutely gorgeous too, telling its story of a goofy panda's quest to become a martial arts master with a sense of artistic flair steeped deep in Chinese iconography. For some solid laughs, a bit of time with fun characters, and some beautiful visuals, this is an excellent way to put a smile on.

8 out of 10.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Defiance (2008)

At this point, it's probably safe to say that World War II has more cinematic coverage than all the masses of fantasy wars combined. And yet, there are still a few untold stories out there that stand apart from the myriad gung-ho, war is hell majority. In this case we have the tale of two brothers, both Jews on the run from the SS, slowly building a home and society for themselves and other refuges in the woods of Belorussia. Schindler's List by way of Walden. And for the most part it attempts to tug on the right strings, showing the heartbreak and bleak reality of the struggle. Where the film's failings lie, unfortunately, is in how familiar most of the stories here feel. At every turn is another character or situation that feels liberally borrowed from other, better films. The whole comes off very predictable, with little deviation from expectation. Ultimately, it lacks danger and desperation. There is certainly merit and interest in the remarkable true story being told, but as a movie there just isn't much you haven't seen before.

6 out of 10.