Weimar World Service Kino

Battlestar Galactica
The Blind Side
Blood Diamond
The Bourne Ultimatum
The Chronicles of Narnia
The Curse of the Golden Flowers
Death at a Funeral
The Departed
The Devil Wears Prada
District 9
The Fountain
The Grudge (US)
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
The Host
The Illusionist
Jet Li's Fearless
Journey from the Fall
Julie & Julia
Kung Fu Hustle
Mrs. Henderson Presents
Mrs. & Mrs. Smith
Ocean's 13
Pan's Labyrinth
Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End
The Prestige
Running with Scissors
The September Issue
Shrek 2
Shrek 3

Spider-Man 3
The Thief Lord
V for Vendetta
War of the Worlds


Copyright © 2009 John Zipperer

Kino: Film & TV Reviews


Once upon a time, a laid-off magazine editor began writing a handful of movie reviews he'd seen while he was unemployed. He called them, The Unemployment Movies. After he got a new job, he repeated the exercise (albeit with different movies, of course) as The Employment Movies. Check out those two articles for earlier reviews. Below, find an ongoing report of my impressions of films and television programs that interest me for one reason or another. And, yes, I'm still happily employed.


Avatar (12.27.09): So after waiting a more than a week to see James Cameron's latest budget-busting movie spectacular and still ending up with a sold-out showing, we walked out with the feeling we usually get with James Cameron movies: Not so good with characters, a simple and familiar story line, amazing visuals and technology.

What stuck in my mind the most was the familiarity of the characters. The copter pilot who flies our heros into the aliens' territory? A lot like Private Vasquez from Aliens, no? And Giovanni Ribissi's Parker Selvridge character was certainly a lot like Paul Reiser's Carter Burke in Aliens, yes? The walking mecha that are used for heavy lifting and occasional combat ... also remind you of something in Aliens? The flying attack ships used by the company are reminiscent of the machines' flying attack craft in Terminator 2. And so on.

Sigourney Weaver's a great actor, but you wouldn't guess it from this movie. Cameron's a great filmmaker (especially see The Abyss, his best, IMHO), and it might take you a while to wade through all of the 3-D visual effects here to realize that you wouldn't guess it, either, from this movie.

Battlestar Galactica (10.23.06): By now, the word is out about this reimagining of the 1978-79 space opera series: It's fantastic, adult, high drama, addictive. I ignored it during its first season because I had been turned off by the Sci Fi Channel pilot movie. But I caught up on those first episodes during the second season and have been evangelizing for this incredible TV series ever since.

It's great television. Yes, it's set on a spaceship; yes, they have dogfights in space; yes, they say made-up words like frack. But it's a science fiction series that non-SF fans can appreciate, and they are doing so in droves. Do yourself a favor and watch a couple episodes and, once you pick up the storyline, see if you're not hooked.

The plot is indeed complicated. As in the short-lived original series, it concerns the 12 colonies of humans on a far-away star system that is attacked and destroyed by their long-time enemies, the Cylons. They flee with a small fleet of survivors, looking for the 13th tribe of mankind, which reportedly colonized a planet called Earth.

That's where the similarities end. There are many of the same characters, but their personalities, genders, and some of their roles have changed dramatically. There are a lot of standout cast members, from Mary McDonnell and Edward James Olmos (if only our political and military leaders were that good!) to Jamie Bamber and Katee Sackhoff and – don't forget – Grace Park and on and on. Again, this is adult television drama; people die, they make love, they fight, they swear, they have breakdowns, and occasionally they do stuff that makes you grin from ear to ear and say to yourself, Why can't all television be this good?

Watch it. It's that good.

The Blind Side (12.03.09): I liked it, the critics hated it, and families loved it. I'm right.

Blood Diamond (12.25.06): Leonardo DiCaprio continues to show us he's not just a pretty face (and body) to look at. As he's grown, he's also become a damn fine actor. In Blood Diamond, he plays a smuggler involved in the transfer of diamonds in Sierra Leone between vicious rebels and soulless diamond companies. If the plot sounds straight out of a 1970s made-for-tv movie, well, it has that aspect. Yes, you're supposed to root for some sort of redemption for Danny Archer, DiCaprio's character. Yes, who else sets him on the road to righteousness but a crusading reporter (Jennifer Connelly) and a noble and pure African (Djimon Hounsou) out to save his family. But it's okay. Hounsou and DiCaprio sell the story very well, and they're both real enough and strong enough in their roles that we forget about the preachiness of the storyline and instead let their characters show us what the story is about – which is a situation that is indeed appalling enough to stir men's hearts.

The Bourne Ultimatum (08.05.07): The third Bourne movie is more action than the other two in this series, and we still miss German actress Franka Potente, but it's still a well-done thriller that ... wait, I don't know if we can call it a thriller when we know the hero is always going to survive every attack. But unlike the James Bond films, which we're not supposed to even measure on the realism scale, the Bourne films have the pretence of some sort of reality, even though it is a bit of science-fictiony brainwashing to create super-spy killing machines.

Complain, complain, complain, right? Okay, I'll stop, because I do enjoy the Bourne films quite a bit, and star Matt Damon is always fun to watch. Probably the nicest thing about these films is that they mostly take place in other countries, and instead of being the fairy-tale version of Germany, Russia, etc., that you'd see in a Bond flick, they have the look and feel of taking part in a real Germany, Switzerland, Germany, France, Spain, etc. (I know that street! We were there on our vacation ...)

The storyline has a super spy killing lots of people while protecting the innocent and avenging a terrible wrong. Now where else will you see that in a movie?

Cars (07.08.07): You just can't anthropomorphize cars for me. Sorry.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (10.23.06): Having never read the books, I was, forgive the phrase, one of the unanointed. The religious terminology is apt because religious conservatives have latched onto this flick as representative of the invasion of Hollywood by the Religious Right.

Frankly, if the Religious Right could make more movies like this and produce less crap like the Left Behind series, I'd sign up right now. I'm Methodist and all; that's got to count for something?

The truth is that this is not a Religious Right film. But it does resonate with the honest religious conviction of CS Lewis, whose source material was the, er, source material for this movie, the first of a welcome series. But anyone who's not religious who has a problem with this movie – and there have been some – because there's shades of someone's faith in it is showing the same intolerance (and, frankly, lack of intelligence) of which the nonreligious often accuse the religious. I say, just shut up and watch the movie.

I won't recap the plot because it's highly probable that, unlike me, you have read the books. I just thought it was done well. It is an intelligent film for young people that doesn't insult and does tell a good story. And after the ending where an usher comes out and anoints all the moviegoers with holy oil? Just go with it, okay?

The Curse of the Golden Flowers (12.25.06): Director Yimou Zhang – who also brought us such Chinese epics as Hero, House of Flying Daggers, the incredible To Live, the super-incredible (I'm running out of words) Shanghai Triad, and many more – brings us the story of nasty secrets that are about to tear apart the emperor's family. Set in a surprisingly colorful Forbidden City, this film guides us through a very personal and ultimately very bloody confrontation between Emperor Ping (Yun-Fat Chow) and his second wife, Empress Phoenix (Li Gong). The era: Late Tang Dynasty, 10th century.

The empress has been having an affair with the crown prince (who is the son of the emperor's first wife, about whom we learn more later in the film). That same crown prince has been having an affair with the daughter of the chief physician (about whom we learn more later in the film). The film begins with the return of the emperor's second son, Prince Jie (played by the great pop/R&B singer Jay Chou), from the provinces, where he's been getting some real-world experience. The emperor plans to make him the crown prince, but if you think that would be the main conflict in this film, you're wrong. The existing crown prince gives up his claim to the throne very easily. Instead, it's all this sleepin' around and knife-throwing and various other killing methods that cause a problem in the multi-icolored palace.

And I didn't even mention the youngest son, who seems very pleasant and almost innocent but is also determined not to be left out of the blood-letting.

Yimou Zhang once again delivers a very colorful and visually striking film. The battle scenes in the Forbidden City courtyard are amazing to watch. But they are not what makes this film interesting. No, the quiet moments of interacting between the various actors is what's worth watching. There are some great actors in this film, and they almost always prove to be more interesting than the multi-colored palace walls and the staggering battle sequences.

Death at a Funeral (09.09.07): It is usually a great setup for laughter when you have awkward and inappropriate things happen at a solemn occcasion. It might be a student acting up during a school play. It might be a news anchor flubbing lines during a serious newscast. It might be someone breaking up at a funeral (remember Mary Tyler Moore and "Chuckles Bites the Dust"?).

This movie should have been the perfect setting for slow-building lunacy. The funeral of a patriarch brings together a family, with various secrets and unexpected developments coming into play. Should have been perfect, but it's a mess. Most of the characters are simply too uninteresting to be truly funny or screwups, so much so that the only way they could get one character to be a distracting cut-up is to have him take some strange drugs. (Hint to writers: If it's a drug that is causing the weird behaviour, it really isn't that funny because we all know why it's happening and there's no opportunity for triple or quadruple meanings in what the person says or does. It's just silliness for the sake of having someone act up.) But if that doesn't bother you, perhaps the bathroom humor (and it's very literal -- you'd best go to the snack bar when they start to wheel the incredibly unlikable and unfunny uncle into the bathroom) will. Or the direction of the film, which seems to think we'll just find it funny when unfunny people pull faces or overreact to unfunny things.


The Departed (10.22.06): Matt Damon. Leonardo DiCaprio. Jack Nicholson. Mark Wahlberg. Martin Sheen. Alec Baldwin. All of them star in this excellent  but bloody Americanization of the Chinese hit Infernal Affairs movies. For detail geeks, the Infernal Affairs movies themselves were reportedly inspired by the films of Martin Scorsese, who directed The Departed.

Still with me? Don’t worry. Knowing all of that will do you no more good than give you something to mention to friends at lunchtime, and even they won’t be impressed. But that shouldn’t stop your enjoyment of this film. The Departed tells the story of undercover cops — and undercover gangsters in the police organization — in Boston. People fight. People swear. They fight a lot. And it’s all done masterfully, with few glitches. Part of what has kept this movie in my head long after seeing it is realizing how much I enjoyed seeing all of these great actors work at such an intensity that every scene has something in it to make you stay focused. Here’s Wahlberg busting the chops of some cops at a surveillance site. There’s Sheen trying to save his undercover agent. There’s DiCaprio about to die – no, he’s saved by [censored] – no wait he’s in danger because of [censored]. And on and one.

The Devil Wears Prada (11.26.06): This film is worth seeing just to watch Meryl Streep go to town on a juicy role. Streep plays the editor of Runway magazine, a Vogue-like high-fashion magazine. Her character is bad; not quite as bad as Adolf Hitler (see Downfall review, below), but bad. Mean. Manipulative. Power-hungry and -abusing. And along comes li'l Anne Hathaway as her new assistant, unconscious of the fashion laws as dictated by Streep's character. An innocent led to slaughter.

The story itself is nothing terribly new or involving. Obviously the new assistant has to try to get up to speed to satisfy her new boss, and she must juggle her personal life with her all-consuming job. Eventually she must make a choice, but which will she choose? Who cares? We're not watching this for her. We're watching it for Streep, who really delivers.

District 9 (08.29.09): From South Africa comes this science fiction film about aliens who have been resettled on earth. I first heard about this film on Starlog.com's video list, and I had mixed feelings. It looked refreshingly original ... until the end of the trailer, which made it look like one big typical Hollywood-type shoot-em-up, which is my least favorite film genre. Boring. Seen that, done that. Predictable.

But then a co-worker told me she'd seen the film and liked it a lot. Knowing that she has a low tolerance for stupidity, I figured I'd be sure to catch the film ... when it came to HBO. But then, blessed global warming, we had a warm snap of 90-degree weather in San Francisco and I had to find air conditioned bliss. The documentaries about Anna Wintour and Hugh Hefner hadn't yet opened, so I decided to settle for District 9.

I'm glad I did. Yes, it ends with a lot of shooting and explosions, but when you watch it, you'll see there's a reason fo it that keeps you riveted. It features a somewhat stupid and innocent and unsympathetic idiot who must try to dupe these aliens to leave their shanty towns so their land can be used for more commercial purposes. Behind the scenes, his employer is tring to figure out how to use the aliens' weapons technology. He gets infected with something, and, well, things get icky.

If one knows anything about South African apartheid history, this film has wonderfully telling overtones that echo that time. And of all the films I've seen lately that suggest a sequel might be possible, this is the only one I'd like to see come to fruition.

Downfall (10.22.06): This German film of the very last days of Adolf Hitler is an excellent picture of what went on in der Führer's bunker as the Soviets closed in on Berlin at the end of World War II. It might seem to be oxymoronic to say a film is intense yet calm. But that's the eerie effect of watching Hitler eat his meals with his staff and friends or watching a mother kill her children so they don't survive the Nazi fall.

There was some controversy that this film humanizes a monster, but in my thinking, the key to trying to counter the rise of other Hitlers is to realize he wasn't a superhuman or an otherworldly creature but a human gone terribly wrong. Only then will we take responsibility for the children we raise, the culture we create, the politics we support, and the moral obligations by which we ought to live and die.

The Fountain (11.26.06): So it's not just rebel Catholics and Armageddonist evangelicals who can make nearly incomprehensible spiritual-based movies. In this case, it's the new film The Fountain, which tells a story about a man and a woman with a relationship that spans 1,000 years.

If I had individual headlines for these reviews, this one would be "I Think." Not because the movie made me think, but because every sentence I write about this movie should end with "I think." As in, The movie is about a 1,000-year relationship, I think. Cuz frankly, I don't really know. The movie is a mix of Eastern and Western religion (kind of a misnomer, isn't it? I mean, Christianity came out of the East, so it's an Eastern religion too, right?) that includes a novel (read: incorrect) retelling of the Spanish Inquisition, possibly reincarnation (again, I think, because it ain't clear), and a tree that either grants eternal life or kills you with a plant sprouting out of your stomach.

It's a reasonably well-done movie, but largely incomprehensible. But a friend who saw the movie with me tagged it best as a movie equivalent of a tone poem. View it as a poem and you may enjoy it a great deal. View it as a traditional narrative story on film and you'll be eating the plastic covering of your theater seat in frustration.

Garuda (12.27.06): Once upon a time, the Thais decide they want to make a monster movie. Using the almost-latest in CGI and the oldest in by-the-numbers plotting, they created Garuda. The villagers came to see the movie – er, they rented or bought it, actually, because it was released here on DVD – and their shock and amazement could be heard throughout the province. Why? Because the movie offered nothing new and could have starred a certain Japanese nuked-lizard or flying turtle and it'd have lost nothing in the translation. The people did not live happily ever after, once they realized they could have seen this story free on any Sci Fi Channel Saturday-night movie.

I had hoped I'd get to see a Thai horror/science fiction film with Garuda, but there's nothing here that gives you Thai point of view or couldn't be transplanted to any number of other countries. No crime in that, of course, but if that's the case, then what's left to recommend about a by-the-numbers monster flick?

The Grudge (10.22.06): As long-time readers of this site, er, as the long-time reader of ... well, IF I had any readers of this site, they would know that I have little patience for Hollywood formulaic storytelling, where you can sit in the audience and anticipate each beat of the story. Boring. Tedious. And tiring, too. So I am always happy to see films from other nations, because they usually have different story-telling methods, tempos, and other details that make them worthwhile. 

Fans of horror films know that Japanese horror has become quite popular in the U.S. But mostly what they are getting is American remakes of Japanese horror films instead of the originals. Such is the  case with The Grudge, an American remake of the Japanese hit film Ju-on: The Grudge. But this version was made with the same director as the Japanese original, and the story follows the original quite closely. The funny thing is that it was released to American theaters within a short time of the limited release of Ju-on, so people got to see both of them and could make up their minds about which does it better.

Let’s face it: The Americans massacred Godzilla, taking a serious and quite good Japanese Gojira and turning it into kiddie fodder. But this American-Japanese hybrid The Grudge is very close to the original; the mood, the storyline (mostly), the pace. So, it’s quite good, right? It's as good as it is unnecessary. 

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (10.22.06): Teen wizard, Part IV. Books and films for young people were generally pretty dim-witted when I was growing up back in ancient times, the 1970s. But the Harry Potter books and the films made from them have been superb, and I expect the final book and the future movies to live up to that high standard.

In Goblet, Harry has to take part in a tournament of wizards, which is a bit complicated by the facts that, first, he doesn't want to take part in it, and second, someone is trying to kill him (again). Once again, the story gets darker, and the young actors get steadily better. This is the type of movie we'll point to when we're 60 and tell the young 'uns that, When we were young, they really knew how to make great movies for kids! Then we'll steal their hoverboards and fly off to our moon resorts.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (08.05.07): My personal favorite of the Potter films so far, Phoenix tells the story of the war between the general wizarding community and the Dark Lord, who has constructed a Death Star at the moon of Yavin from which he can unleash the ultimate terror on a galaxy ... oh, wait, that was a different Dark Lord. This Dark Lord is the guy who's name we're not supposed to speak, and he wants to rule the wizarding world so that he can attack muggles.

Potter is a bit older and so are his friends, and it's all to the better. The acting's good, the story's strong and drives you through the entire movie, and things get darker and darker for The Boy Who Survived. Very much recommended, unless you're one of those Potter-haters, in which case, tough luck, pal.

The Host (03.11.07): This fantastic balancing act of a monster movie from South Korea – wait, that gives away in the first sentence what I think about it. Let me be more circumspect. The Host is a Korean film about a family's struggle for survival against a man-made monster that is terrorizing the city and wildly entertaining the audiences. Hmmm, that also gives away too much. Let's try this: Balancing humor and horror is an act that Americans almost never pull off, but this Korean film does well, showing us endearing characters whose funny actions and reactions never sink to camp – even when they're rolling around on the floor fighting with each other at a little girl's wake.

There, that didn't give away the fact that I found this film incredibly endearing and immensely entertaining, did it? It's a difficult thing for a writer to do, at least this writer regarding this film. The Host is a B-movie, make no mistake. Though it makes some side-swipes at political allusions, it's really a film about a family trying to rescue a little girl from a monster. The actors do great jobs giving us characters who are imperfect yet for whom we root nonetheless (or even moreso, considering that they can be sort of stupid at times). And it's a pleasure to watch each of them on screen.

This fantastic balancing act of a monster movie from South Korea is awesome fun and shouldn't be missed. If a theater near you doesn't show it, then thank God for DVD.

The Illusionist (10.31.06): The main thing to remember when reading about, viewing, or even thinking about The Illusionist is this: It is not The Prestige. That's a different 19th-century film about magicians.

The Illusionist is a film about ... dear lord, I'm not sure I remember. I keep remembering the plot of The Prestige, a film in which two magicians compete with deadly consequences. That was a good film. Go see it. But The Illusionist, well, give me a minute here.

Oh, yeah. It stars Edward Norton as (wait, let me consult the film's Web site to refresh my memory) ... oh, yes: This is a love story. Edward loves a noble woman, he doesn't get her, he comes back to get her, and there's magic involved. Or slight-of-hand.

Actually, I rather enjoyed this film. Norton is good as the driven magician, and someone is good as his love interest (I forget her name and I'm sick of switching back to the film's web site, so you'll just have to figure it out for yourself). A lot of other actors walk around and act. A very act-y movie. Good

Jet Li's Fearless (12.27.06): I am sooooo sorry. I really don't remember anything about this film. Why am I still including it on this review page? Because I remember things about movies I saw on the second bill of late-night drive-in fare from the early 1970s. I remember entire episodes of the original WKRP in Cincinnati. I remember details of short stories I read in science-fiction anthologies in 1978. But I don't remember a darned thing about this movie, which I saw sometime in the previous 12 months. Doesn't that really tell you all you need to know about this movie?

Journey from the Fall (05.13.07): An oustanding film about a family's flight from Vietnam following Saigon's fall to the communists. Like To Live – about survival in China's revolutionary upheaval – Journey from the Fall tells us a lot about the inhumanity going on in the world by focusing closely on a family and its struggles and successes.

Julie and Julia (08.29.09): See this movie for the Julia portions, which feature the incomparable Meryl Streep and Stanley Tucci. There's another whole story (the Julie story) that is cute but not up to snuff. But the Julia portions are great. Because Streep and Tucci are great. Even for people like me, who don't know a heck of a lot about Julia Child.

In short, this film retells how Child got her start as a famed chef who popularized French cooking for Americans. You see her as a human, as a leader, as an inspirer, and as a damn great actor. Oh, wait, that's Streep. I don't care. She's great. Tucci as her devoted husband (who's a bit busy himself fighting against red-baiting wingnuts in Washington -- he's a diplomat or somesuch) is great. Great. Great. Great. Both of them. So great, I kept feeling let down every time the film switched back to the Julie portion of the story. Maybe they thought younger audiences needed the Julie story to identify with the story, but that's ridiculous, really. Streep and Tucci can sell a story. Have confidence in your top stars in a film. And this is an enjoyable film. Most of it.

Kung Fu Hustle (10.22.06): Uh, I think this was about some folks trying to defend something against some bad guys. Sort of a wacky martial arts flick, Kung Fu Hustle doesn't try to be profound or draw on literary antecedents, like Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. It just tries to provide some fun. That it does.

Mrs. Henderson Presents (10.22.06): Judi Dench. 'nough said for me. I'll go see pretty much anything with Dame Judi Dench in it. I still think she should have received the Academy Award for Mrs. Brown, not for her supporting role in Shakespeare in Love, but I'll let bygones by bygones with the movie industry and just enjoy her fine work.

This isn't her finest work, but it's enjoyable and Dench and the rest of the cast appear to have fun making this film about an upper-class widow who opens a theatre featuring lotsa pretty ladies with few clothes. Based on a true story, this film chronicles the widow's battles with government authorities and her theatre's strong-willed manager, played by Bob Hoskins. This is not deep stuff and it won't change your life, but again: Judy Dench.

Mr. & Mrs. Smith (11.11.06): Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie play two international hotshots who adopt a third-world baby that turns out to hold the keys to the future of sustainable life on the planet! Oh, wait, that's what they do in real life. In this flick (and it's a flick, not a film), they portray two secret agents/hitmen (hitpeople?) who end up being assigned to kill each other.

Yes, a high-concept film. Someone pitched this film – I mean, flick – to the film studio with something like, Husband-and-wife hitmen (people?) are assigned to kill each other! Hilarity ensues.

Hilarity didn't ensue, though a few cute scenes did. So did a lot of shooting, as the two try to deal with who's trying to have them killed and try to figure out their stale marriage. (She has a stale marriage with Brad Pitt? You're. Just. Not. Trying. Hard. Enough.) Much formula ensues.

Ocean's 13 (07.08.07): Ocean's 13 is another caper flick with an engaging cast of favorites (Damon! Clooney! Pitt! Gould! Other Guys!) that doesn't seem to try too hard to do anything other than remind us that we're seeing another omnibus star grand slammer. But whereas Ocean's 12 had us enjoying the stars and the twisty, surprising plot, this film gave us a twisty plot in which all problems were solved too easily and never really placing our heroes in the sort of danger they faced in the previous film.

Still, the actors are fun to watch and I'd welcome a fourth installment. But it would be nice if they brought back Julia Roberts.

Pan's Labyrinth (01.15.07): Billed as an adult fairy tale, this is still kid's stuff. Well-done, beautifully rendered kid's stuff, but written with a child's ability to comprehend. Rated R, quite violent kid's stuff, but presented with a child's idea of clear-cut good and evil.

Pan's Labyrinth follows Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) as a 10-year-old girl dealing with her widowed mother's new husband, a cardboard caricature fascist captain tasked with ruthlessly destroying the remainder of the resistance to Franco's dictatorship in 1944 Spain. Problem is, Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez) reduces the story to an over-the-top bad guy (he enjoys torturing people, he kills suspected partisans and then shows no remorse when they turn out to be innocent) and an overly romantic view of the anti-fascists. Yup, Franco was a baddie; no argument there. But how much darker, more disturbing, and ultimately frightening could this movie have been if director Guillermo del Toro had managed to show humans on both sides who made human and flawed decisions to choose a side in that horrible conflict. And Ofelia's mother doesn't count, for she plays a nonpolitical role in the movie.

Still, cool special effects and an amazing acting job by young Baquero make this a movie worth watching. It's just a disapointment because it could have been much better and its political statement could have had much more power if it had really been an adult fairy tale.

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End (07.08.07): Eh.The first Pirates was such a surprise enjoyment, and the second one did quite well at expanding on the first one. This third one mainly had me checking my watch and thinking, Is it over yet? That is, the movie and the franchise. It's not awful, but there's no great film here.

Poseidon (10.22.06): Big ship goes to sea, people party, then something happens, and ship goes blub-blub-blub. People run around ship, yell at each other, swim, die, survive, and things blow up. Nothing original here, and no one in this is going to be on the Oscar’s short list. I’m almost ashamed to write that I enjoyed it quite a bit. 

The Prestige (10.23.06): So this is based on a book, see? I didn't know that until I saw an article on it in a favorite li'l magazine of mine called Starlog. How much it hews to the book, I haven't a clue. But this tale of a magician and another magician and their quite brutal feud in the 19th century will entertain you and keep you interested (even though you'll likely figure out part of the puzzle long before the film is over). Three stars – Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale and Michael Caine – tell us the story of a rivalry that leads to murder and maiming and betrayal. Not exactly a Merchant-Ivory period film, it nonetheless is a game attempt to take you to another time and place and play with your mind. Enjoyable.

Running with Scissors (11.11.06): Based on Augusten Burrough's memoir of the same title, this film tells the hard-to-believe story of the child of a mentally ill mother and an alcoholic father as his parents split up and he eventually is taken into the home of his mother's nutty psychotherapist. Hard to believe, but apparently true.

I suspect this would be a strange enough film to see if you were prepared for it and knew something of what it was about. We, however, went to see it thinking it was a different film, so it was extremely unexpected. But don't let the oddness of Burrough's childhood turn you away. It's still an engagingly told story that includes some hopeful moments for the young man. But you'll never have nostalgia for the 1970s again.

Robots (07.05.07): Eh.

The September Issue (09.12.09): Judging from the clothing on the other audience members at the Kabuki Sundance Cinema crowd with me this afternoon, most people who paid to see The September Issue were there because it highlighted the fashion industry. I, however, was there for the fun of seeing just how they put together the magazine. Magazines 'R' my business, and my interest.

The September Issue is the new documentary focusing on the creation of Vogue's mammoth September edition. We see the issue come together as editors plan photo shots, discuss which clothes to feature, meet with designers to see their collections, travel to Europe for photo shoots, and much more. Running the entire process is Anna Wintour, the much-feared and much-accomplished editor in chief, and heading up most of the photo shoots is Grace Coddington, the magazine's creative director. There are other characters -- other editors, magazine designers, clothing designers, photographers, ad sales reps, Ms. Wintour's daughter, and many others -- but it's when Coddington or Wintour are on the screen that the movie is at its best.

This film more than lived up to my expectations. Wintour shows herself to be an extraordinarily talented and clear-sighted leader. She knows what she wants, and she doesn't waste time dithering over what's right. When she makes a decision about a potential cover photo having too much teeth or a model in a billowing dress looking pregnant, she's quick with her decision -- and she's correct. That's her job. Such editors are very rare, and I'm sure she's worth every dollar of the reportedly multi-million dollar salary Condé Nast pays her.

Whether the audience likes her or not is likely to depend on the individual audience member's attitudes about quality, publishing, strong women, and whether they liked their boss. I've worked for bosses who were tough. Sometimes I could see the what and why of their behavior; other times, I could comfortably conclude they were just jerks. My feeling about Wintour (as is probably already more than obvious) is that she might not be the most touchy-feely boss, but she'll make you better and she's damn good at her job.

There's no villain in this movie. And there's no drama about whether or not they'll put together a successful issue of the magazine. We already know they will (it was the September 2007 edition, the fattest edition in Vogue's history) and we can clearly see that the magazine's staff is competent and professional. But for me the drama came from seeing exactly how they made decisions and exactly how the issue came together.

Though I was not like the large portion of my fellow audience members in that I was more interested in the magazine part of the story than the fashion part, I think there's a lot of similarity between the two topics. Readers of high-fashion magazines, or car magazines, get much of their pleasure from seeing things they'll never be able to buy or own, at least not completely. (They might not be able to afford the entire ensemble that the model is wearing, but they see in the photo layout how they can add a specific accessory to their clothing to get the desired effect.) For me, it was nice to watch how a magazine at the top of the market is put together. How they spend tens of thousands of dollars on photo shoots, have large staffs that can pull off anything they deem neccessary for an issue, how they can worry about doing the right thing and not just whatever they can afford.

The September Issue is worth picking up.

Shrek (07.08.07): Very good.

Shrek 2 (07.08.07): Even better.

Shrek 3 (07.08.07): Not as good.

Spider-Man 3 (07.08.07): For this third outing, the Spidey crew makes the typical superhero-film-mistake: Too many villains. It's enjoyable and well-done, but it has the rushed feeling any film would have when it's trying to tell essentially three different stories within the same running time. Can't be done.

Briefly, Spidey gets some alien goo on him that turns him bad. Black suit and all. This eventually is fought off, but it gets onto another photographer at The Daily Bugle, who then goes bad – well, badder. That should have been the story. It would have allowed the filmmakers to mix all the action they wanted with the personal tale of Peter Parker's struggle with fame, ego, and his family's history. But no, we also get Sandman, who's a man, er, made of sand. Oh, wait, like a Ginsu knife commercial, there's more! We also get the revenge and redemption of Harry Osborn. Again, another whole movie jammed into this one.

Less is more, especially with a superhero whose charm lies in his personal foibles and struggles. I hope they don't try to give us four villains in the next sequel.

Stardust (08.12.07): Based on a best-selling fantasy novel by the team of Gaiman and Vess, Stardust is the immensely entertaining story of a young man out to impress his love by bringing back to her a fallen star. Much ensues. Impossible to relate here. (For example, Robert De Niro as a tough-acting gay pirate captain of an airship. It just gets more complicated from there.)

Charlie Cox as the young hero, Tristan, has to carry the storyline on his shoulders, but he gets a lot of help from De Niro, Michelle Pfeiffer, Rupert Everett, Peter O'Toole, and a bucketload of others, all of whom appeared to have had a grand old time making the film. Often when the actors' enjoyment comes across on screen, the audience is left with a sense of wonder – wondering why we're not enjoying it as much as the actors. But this time, that's not the case. Much fun.

The Thief Lord (12.27.06): New Zealand's Peter Jackson is sometimes faulted for making films that are waaaaaayy tooooo loooooooonnng. The Thief Lord, directed by Richard Claus, could have used a little Jackson-action, because it's a reasonably good film marred by a sense that they cut out every single micro-second that wasn't absolutely crucial to advancing the plot. For a movie set in the staggeringly beautiful city of Venice, Italy, that's a crime.

Based on the excellent novel by German children's author Cornelia Funke, The Thief Lord tells the story of two orphaned boys from Hamburg who run away from their aunt and end up in Venice, where they try to escape their aunt's attempts to retrieve one of them (she doesn't much like the older child) and become involved in an enchanting scheme involving a merry-go-round that can reverse or speed up aging.

The book (Herr der Diebe in German or The Thief Lord in translation – it's worth reading in either language) was my first exposure to Funke's storytelling, and it made me a fan forever. The movie actually does quite well at capturing the attitude and sympathetic characters of the children and the adults. In fact, if they had let themselves add an extra 10 minutes to the 98-minute running time, they could have added some breathtaking slow shots of the city, some silent closeups of the main characters at crucial moments, and other touches that would raise this film to cinematic level. As it is, it seems to have been edited to serve the television crowd, and it's no surprise that it was released direct-to-video in the United States. That's a shame. It's a better film than that. But somewhere there's a Twentieth Century Fox movie executive who thinks he or she made the right move by forcing this movie into this straight-jacket. Hopefully, he or she is burning in ... well, I'll be nice. I just hope they're nowhere near as pretty as Venice.

Transformers (07.08.07): Sam Witwicky (Shia laBeouf) is an annoying "teenager" (yes, one of those high schools where all the students look like they're 25 years old) who gets a car that turns out to be a Transformer, from the planet Whateveracon, protecting him from the BadGuysaCons. Much stuff is exploded. Characters do stupid things for no good reason (why do they purposefully lead the BadGuysaCons from the Hoover Dam into a densely populated city downtown for the final showdown when they could have transferred the stupid cube along the highway?), Witwicky briefly loses his pants, his sorta girlfriend turns out to be a car nut, and every genuinely funny line (like the idiot secret agent who mistakes Nokia for a Japanese company) is passed over so quickly it left the audience with which I saw the movie completely silent.

2012 (11.14.09): 2012 is the latest (and allegedly final) disaster movie from Roland ("Independence Day," "The Day After Tomorrow") Emmerich, the German-born blockbuster director. His fans shouldn't feel left out, though. If you've seen one disaster movie, you've pretty much seen them all. World ends. Some people survive (usually). Much unlikely stuff occurs. Giant things crash into smaller things, some excellent special effects take place, and the heroes make some impossible escapes. Same thing here.

There are some nice touches. John Cusack does a good job with a pretty uninteresting role, as the divorced father of two who is forced to come to their rescue -- and to the rescue of his ex-wife and her new husband. Danny Glover is okay as the president, who has to decide whether to go with the chosen escapees or to stay behind with the vast majority of the American people to meet his doom from the planet-wide disaster.

That's a key choice, even if his particular decision isn't key to anything in this movie. Basically, 2012 sets up an unfair conflict, in which the audience is expected to share the moral outrage of one of the heroes about people who are not allowed onto the arks that will protect a small minority of the population. It's false, because if there are only a certain number of slots available on the arks (and the film offers no other option), then only a minority will survive in any case. It's Sophie's Choice on a vast scale in any case, but one of the heroes throws a hissy fit right at a critical time, causing a delay in the launch of one of the arks and nearly killing many more people.

But it's silly of me or anyone to expect a philosphical masterpiece in a film, much less in a disaster film. So if you can turn off your brain for two hours and 38 minutes, then you will likely enjoy this movie. Despite my qualms above, I was able to enjoy it as the brick-stupid movie it is.

But I have one question: What's the deal with Wisconsin? It crops up quite a few times in this movie. Did the moviemakers not like the state? Or are they doing a friendly shout-out to it? Then again, I'm from Wisconsin originally, so maybe others won't notice that.

V for Vendetta (08.05.07): Sorry, but I've got to agree with the right-wing nutcases on this movie. Vendetta is a love-letter for terrorists. People who hate the contras and al Qaida but wax romantic about the Baader Meinhoff Gang or other such idiots simply have no intellectual standing with me. Other than that, the movie's fine.

War of the Worlds (12.30.06): I'd like to avoid the trendy bashing of star Tom Cruise and instead talk about the film. The bashing is more fun than talking about the film and, well, the bashing is more fun than the film itself. But director Steven Spielberg deserves better than having his film receive such treatment. So here goes: A pretty well-made film, frankly.

You must know the story by now, this oft-filmed tale from writer H.G. Wells. Aliens land on earth, they turn out to be less than friendly, and they start blowing things up. With his personal beliefs, maybe Cruise thought he was making a documentary. Anyway, Cruise works hard to rescue his family despite all the blowing up, and Spielberg does his usual fine job of making things blow up well and making the people who are around the up-blowing things look well-lit.

So if you're in the mood for a no-brainer disaster film, War of the Worlds will do just fine for you.