by Kris Katz
Brief spoiler-free entertainment reviews

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.