by Kris Katz
Brief spoiler-free entertainment reviews

Friday, February 26, 2010

Downfall (2004)

Also known as Der Untergang.
f all the World War II films to come along over the years, so very few of them deal directly with Adolf Hitler, and rarely do they make any attempt to show the opposing force as much more than faceless targets, deserving of every bullet and explosive hurled their way. That is the very thing that makes this film unique and interesting. Depicting the final days of Hitler himself, as well as his closest military advisors and National Socialist Party leaders, the movie treads carefully. Every attempt is made to seem even-handed about its subject matter. Hitler himself is portrayed not as a monster but as a man, frustrated and frequently unreasonable, slowly caving to the stresses around him. Meanwhile some of those nearby are unwaveringly devoted to his ideals, while others seem less certain. The result is a conflicting set of emotions. You feel sorry for a lot of these people not because of what they are and what they did, but because of who they affected and the lives that it cost. For me, at no point did I feel asked to pity the Nazis (it's safe to say that they are beyond redemption), but I did pity the German soldiers and the German people, and the senseless waste that so few people ultimately caused. This is a challenging film because in some ways it humanizes one of the most arch enemies the world has ever known, yet in doing so it highlights just how absurd World War II was.

9 out of 10.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Cashback (2006)

This is pretty much what you would get if you took the camcorder kid from American Beauty, made him British, and stuck him in a sex-romp romantic comedy. Still if this is what passes for a casually stupid foulmouthed comedy in Britain, then I could do with more of it. Following the life of an art school student whose relationship has just fallen apart, the majority of the movie sees him coping with an extended bout of insomnia while trying to get himself back together. Meanwhile, he likes to draw naked women. As an excuse to show copious amounts of T&A there have certainly been worse. The artistic angle at least allows it to seem more sophisticated, and for a while in the first half you might even think the film has higher aspirations. And then it slowly slides into a more mundane romantic comedy, complete with silly, persistently one-note sidekicks and your standard off-kilter-in-that-perfect-way love interest. Still, as an artistic endeavor there's enough merit in the first half to sustain itself, and the comedy of the second half is decent.

7 out of 10.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Conan the Barbarian (1982)

Forged of few words, Arnold Schwarzenegger picks up a giant sword and swings it into one nameless drone's face after another. He's really at his best when he isn't talking. In this film, there isn't much but an angry man driven by age-old revenge pointed at a cult of snake-worshipers. Along the way a lot of men lose their heads and a lot of women lose their tops. The whole thing is manly brawn winning over all, but that's entirely its charm. There's a gleeful lack of political correctness to this era of action films and something like this drives it further home; women are often leverage while the bad guy is the only black person in the whole film. But then it's a throwback. It isn't condescending or mean-spirited, just a brutal ride through harsh territory, and a big, dumb, meaningless, lovable film.

7 out of 10.

Conan the Destroyer (1984)

How did they screw this up? The original was about as far from a masterpiece as a “good” film can be, but it at least knew the strengths of its cast well enough to have them keep their mouths shut and their swords out. Things were kept simple and violent. For this outing, pure simplicity is thrown out the window, replaced with more speaking parts, toned down violence, and a wise-cracking cowardly sidekick. As a result almost all of the charm present in the first film is lost. Conan once again dons his most formal loincloth to do battle with another crazy cult and their crazy sorcerers. More swords flash, more heads roll, more time is spent ogling Arnold Schwarzenegger's chest, and the audience yawns. Just watch the first one again.

3 out of 10.

Red Sonja (1985)

Despite taking place in the same pre-historic far east world of Hyboria as the Conan films, despite sharing the same director as the lesser of two Conans, and despite also starring Arnold Schwarzenegger as a sword-wielding mountain of muscle with the same hairstyle of Conan, this is not a Conan film. Or a good film, for that matter. Instead it's a disinterested cash-in on the other franchise, attempting a similar swords-and-sorcery style of epic but ultimately falling apart thanks to an unbelievably dull script and ridiculously atrocious acting. It's almost worth watching for the cheese-factor alone. Almost. To its minimal credit, it has a single decent action sequence, and some of the scenery looks pretty cool in a doodles-in-a-14-year-old's binder sort of way. And the poster is pretty exciting too. Honestly though, outside of the remarkable amount of fuel for cynical riffing, there's no reason to watch this movie. Go watch an actual Conan film instead.

1 out of 10.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Bandits (2001)

At about two-thirds through the movie, I just completely stopped caring. For all the money poured into the production, all the twists and turns the plot tried to take, and as amazing as Cate Blanchett looks as a redhead, there is barely anything in this movie that doesn't feel like it wasn't plucked from any number of made-for-TV movies. Almost every move the plot makes is telegraphed a half-hour in advance, and when something of interest does make an appearance the script trots out almost every cliché imaginable. It's a shame too, because watching bank robbers Bruce Willis and Billy-Bob Thornton squabble seems like it would be a fuel for more than a few laughs. And don't even get me started on the so-called comic relief character. This isn't an unbearable movie, it's just dull. It lacks drive and momentum, and often consistency.

3 out of 10.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Let the Right One In (2008)

Also known as Låt den rätte komma in.
Vampires have to eat. For all the romantic lilt and sway that this fact has received over the long decades of cinema, the simple fact is that a vampire's imperative is to drain a person of their blood. Perhaps better than any other film on the subject, Let the Right One In understands that this is grim business. Yet it isn't about the gore and spectacle, but rather about the extreme silence and loneliness from being a slave to the night. It's about alienation, and stillness. While it is a film in which people do die in bad ways it is not a horror film but rather a slow-burn drama with thriller elements, building a quietly mounting tension as each somber element falls into place. This really is a remarkable movie, delivered with a starkness and chill to match its snowy Swedish setting. Once you ease in to its atypical sense of momentum, this is an exceptionally engrossing ride.

9 out of 10.

Note: If you have access to Netflix Instant Streaming, it is recommended that you watch it there. Production and release of the film resulted in two different sets of subtitles for the film, and while both are certainly adequete, the more accurate translation is only available on Instant Streaming, or on discs which specificially list "Theatrical Subtitles" which are difficult to find. Again: you can't go wrong either way, but you can do better.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Across the Universe (2007)

You know going into this whether or not you'll like the music at least; it's all by The Beatles. Now, whether you will like the arrangement of those songs is another story. In its attempt to lend these classic songs a sense of context and fit them all into a plot, the results are incredibly mixed. In a lot of ways, this weird mix of iconic rock and sixties America comes off as pretentious and pointless, stretching favorite songs to an end they were never meant for. But even so, it has its moments. The setting and re-branding of Let It Be is beautiful and heartbreaking, Strawberry Fields Forever gets a decent send up, and even Hey Jude manages to wring out a few smiles. Sadly these are the minorities, and many excellent songs, including personal favorite Dear Prudence, just don't get a worthy interpretation or setting. As an experiment in reconfiguring such well-known music there is definitely merit, but whether or not you'll enjoy it probably depends heavily on your tolerance for reinterpretation and how (ahem) psychedelic your mood is.

5 out of 10.

Monday, February 1, 2010

National Lampoon's Loaded Weapon 1 (1993)

Were it not for Samuel L. Jackson's uncanny ability to give gravitas to just about everything he says, the vast majority of this film would be a wash. As one of the last legitimately notable National Lampoon films before they sunk into remaking the same sex-comedy over and over again, Loaded Weapon offers up a fair number of laughs. Each little bit of it does it's dead-level best to bring in that same level of Zucker Brothers zaniness, with a lot of whiplash inducing slapstick. Sometimes it works. The casting is laid on nice and thick too, with everyone from Corey Feldman to William Shatner eating some screentime. But it all comes back to Jackson, and his flavor of deadpan that's hard not to mistake for something far more serious. It isn't anything anyone will mistake for a classic, but for a bit of low-rent screwball comedy, you could do much worse.

6 out of 10.