by Kris Katz
Brief spoiler-free entertainment reviews

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

NausicaƤ 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.