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Zathura (2005)
Starring: Jonah Bobo, Josh Hutcherson, Dax Shepard
Director: Jon Favreau
Plot: Two bickering young brothers find a board game that fantastically hurtles their house through intergalactic space and makes them face some death-defying adventures.
Review: Zathura, a thrilling kids adventure through the dangers of space, feels vaguely familiar and indeed comparisons to Jumanji will be inevitable half-way through the film. Taking the clichés of the space opera genre circa 1950's serials, the game puts its two youngsters through a myriad dangers, from a meteor shower that bursts holes in their living room, to a crazed robot, ending with an invasion by lizard-men. The narrative is surprisingly eager to revive some very '80s style of storytelling, reminding one of kids flicks like the The Goonies and Explorers, but of course the effects and polish of the film are quite superior. The retro feel of the film, including the beautifully created hand-cranked board game, the giant robot, and the artistic design of the house are simply grand. Director Favreau (Elf, Made) does well with the heavy CGI action bits and cranks the suspense on occasion, yet ensuring that the comic moments stand out amongst the adventure. Thankfully, there's also some clever moments that add some adult wit to the affair. If the dramatic elements are limited to the usual conflict and resolution of sibling rivalry, the final (required) emotional climax is a nice touch. The two child actors, as bickering young brothers, and Shepard, as a long-lost astronaut who drops in to save them, won't win any acting awards but they're well chosen for the roles. Though it may not be fast-moving enough for older kids, and some youngsters may stress over some of the creatures, Zathura is fun and engaging family fare in the best sense.
Entertainment: 6/10

Zatoichi Challenged (Japan - 1967)
Starring: Shintarô Katsu, Jushiro Konoe, Miwa Takada 
Director: Kenji Misumi
Plot: After promising a dying woman to return her son to his father, a blind masseur treks to a neighboring village only to find that the man is an artist under servitude to a Yakuza boss.
Review: One of the more popular entries in the long-running Zatoichi (Blind Swordsman) series, Zatoichi Challenged is another great entertaining feature. The Zatoichi films always managed to have broad appeal thanks to their mix of drama, humor, and action and this one is no different. Once again, the solid writing, able direction and fine cinematography easily elevates it above its kin, making it easily justifiable for any cinema amateur. The plot is slightly more complex than usual, involving the illegal trade of erotic artwork, forbidden romantic longings and more, but the story's most touching moments are the father / son relationship that ties the young boy to this strange, gruff blind man. The swordfights are still ultra-cool and lightning fast, with plenty to enjoy, especially the final confrontation between the blind swordsman and the mysterious samurai which is one of the best of its kind. The details on this period of Japanese history are also interesting. But the film's real success is still its lead actor: Even through the unlikeliest of scenes, Katsu remains believable as the blind masseur, gambler, and swordsman thanks to a haggard physique that makes him look rather inept despite his prowess and a vibrant, charismatic presence. The rest of the cast is also just right. Zatoichi Challenged is another chapter that makes for some terrific, well paced entertainment, and fans of Japanese samurai films (or film in general) shouldn't pass this one up.
Entertainment: 7/10

Zatoichi's Vengeance (The Blind Swordsman's Vengeance) (Japan - 1966)
Starring: Shintaro Katsu, Shigeru Amachi, Mayumi Ogawa 
Director: Tokuzo Tanaka
Plot: Following a dying man's request, a blind masseur / swordsman delivers stolen money to the man's family only to confront yakuza gangsters who have overtaken their village.
Review: Zatoichi's Vengeance, the thirteenth film in the popular long-running Zatoichi (Blind Swordsman) series, continues in the tradition of featuring some spell-binding swordfights along with the personal melodramas. The tradition of fighting overwhelming odds while keeping one's own sense of honor makes this samurai entertainment in the classic mold, such as its contemporaries Yojimbo or the Samurai trilogy. This installment focuses on the harm the master fighter can bring to those around him, and how a young boy's idolizing of his skills causes the hero to rethink his habitual instincts. In the end, however, might rules the day and the climax is one long, tense, body-ridden, and admirable confrontation between Zatoichi and the Yakuza clan. Apart from the finely choreographed, lighting-fast sword play, it is the writing that lifts the film above the average Japanese heroic cinema productions with a well-tuned script that is peppered with moments of humor and undertones of philosophical contemplation. After years of playing the role of the wandering blind masseur, gambler, and swordsman Shintaro Katsu's performance is downright impeccable and convincing in every one of its aspects. Well shot, attuned to the details of the times and finely paced, Zatoichi's Vengeance is a solid installment to this great series.
Entertainment: 7/10

Zelig (1983)
Starring: Woody Allen, Mia Farrow
Director: Woody Allen
Plot: "Documenting" the life and times of a human chameleon who was amazingly able to look and act like the people around him and who astounded America in the 1920's.
Review: A fictional "documentary" of one Leonard Zelig and his impact on early 20th-century events, Zelig is one of writer/ director Allen's best, most inspired works and a smart precursor to the more popular Forrest Gump. Much more in line with Allen's comic early works such as Bananas and Sleeper, the film attains that silliness and surreal quirkiness that has since escaped him. He can't restrain himself from his usual neuroses of Jewish and romantic angst; thankfully these are limited, most of his script providing the wit and clever laughs (at himself and indirectly at much of 20's and 30's New York society) that are the trademark of his best published works. The absurdity of the premise only enhances the humor and though the film might well be a one-joke premise, this is one joke that is milked to the fullest - and it works beautifully within its short running time. Through "interviews" with real-life famous people including author Saul Bellow and psychologist Bruno Bettelheim (all playing the joke straight-faced), vast amounts of stock newsreel footage, faked era photographs and some clever editing, Allen wholly creates a universe in which the fictional Zelig captured pre-Depression era society's imagination (and pocketbook with a vast array of merchandise) while mingling with famous figures including Woodrow Wilson, W.R. Hearst, Charlie Chaplin... and escaped run-ins with the Pope and Hitler. The blue screen techniques that inserts the actors into the B&W reels work well, and are all the more impressive when considering this was all done before the advent of digital filmmaking. A few scenes don't work as well, namely the ones where the "true" Zelig is captured in therapy sessions and Allen's usual screen persona enters in, but these quickly pass. As period satire, the film has its moments but as pure comic fantasy Zelig really shines.
Entertainment: 8/10

Zero Dark Thirty (2012)
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Joel Edgerton,
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Plot: Throughout a decade of searching for leads through torture and patience, a determined young female CIA operative becomes obsessed with hunting down Osama Bin Laden.
Review: A dramatized chronicle of the "greatest manhunt in history", Zero Dark Thirty fuses journalistic facts, insightful speculation and the best thriller dynamics to produce a heady, smart and tightly woven account of the decade-long search for Osama Bin Laden, the man responsible for the 9/11 attacks. Fresh off their win for The Hurt Locker, director Bigelow and her screenwriting partner Mark Boal prove that lightning can strike twice with this relentless, in your face procedural. Dispensing with any kind of sentimentality, moral commentary or any discussion on Islam or its perpetrators - and thankfully of any Hollywood contrivances - this re-creation takes us from the secret Middle-East prisons to the halls of Washington; scenes of torture are common, mishaps abound, and any advancement is done with arduous, years of boots-to-the-ground work, the occasional influence and a small degree of luck. By the time the Navy SEAL team gets the go-ahead to break into a Pakistan compound and take bin Laden out with extreme prejudice on that fateful day in May 2011 - a somewhat overlong sequence shot in real-time through infrared sights - we're drunk on this compulsive brew of suspense, testosterone and gritty realism. As our guide into the covert operation through a decade of political struggles and setbacks, rising star Chastain makes us believe that her tough-as-nails agent really is a "motherfucker" dead-set on getting her man. Her final display of emotion - a single tear after the deed is complete - belies the question: where do we go from here? A powerful, intellectual thriller that's made more powerful thanks to its "fresh from the headlines" plot and meticulous narrative, Zero Dark Thirty is muscular filmmaking that's sure to incite discussion long after the credits roll.
Drama: 8/10

Zero for Conduct (Zéro de conduite) (France - 1933)
Starring: Jean Dasté, Robert Le Flon, Du Verron
Director: Jean Vigo
Plot: A group of young boys return to their French boarding school after the holidays, and end up staging a revolt against their tyrannical teachers.
Review: An influential film in France's Nouvelle Vague, Zero for Conduct is both a biting social commentary of the French educational system (and even the French bourgeoisie), and a dream-like fantasy, with many touches of light-hearted comedy and some memorable scenes of definite surrealism. Indeed, the slow-motion pillow fight, with the feathers falling as snow, is probably one of the best-known scenes of early French cinema. There are many intriguing characters (the Chaplinesque new instructor, the midget school principal, among others) that unfortunately never get a chance to develop in such a short film (which clocks at under 45 minutes!), but Vigo's purpose was in the poetic narrative of the film and in that he succeeds brilliantly, leaving the viewer entranced even after the film has ended.
Drama: 9/10

Zodiac (2007)
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, Robert Downey Jr.
Director: David Fincher
Plot: An array of cops and journalists become obsessed with catching the notorious Zodiac, a serial killer who terrorized San Francisco with a string of seemingly random murders during the 1960s and 1970s
Review: Based on the true-life account of San Francisco Chronicle cartoonist Robert Graysmith and his search for the notorious killer, Zodiac is not your typical serial-killer thriller. Evoking the San Francisco and Bay Area of the late 60's and 70's, the film captures the palpable tension as the Zodiac terrorized a population as a kind of "media-terrorist", forcing papers to print bizarre ciphers and goading the police to catch him before his next murders. The focus here isn't on the murders or even the murderer but on the obsession that drives a handful of dedicated journalists and detectives to search for the identity of a killer years (even decades) after the trail has run cold and public interest has died out. This isn't a story about people trying to beat the clock before the next crime but about the weight of an unresolved mystery and the few who just can't let it go. As such, there is little action, little actual suspense, no grand finale and no satisfying climax to be had. And yet it's fascinating to watch the story evolve, getting into the most elaborate levels of police procedurals, recounting the tale and events in minute chronological order. Squeezing all these details makes for a long running time, and it is a complete turnaround from the man who brought us Seven, one of the most gory, hard-hitting thrillers of the decade, but in the hands of director Fincher (Fight Club) there's never a dull moment. Though Fincher's trademark style and cinematic touches are still evident (like the camera following a taxi cab from a bird's eye view) they are also more subdued, keeping our attention focused on the players. In fact, the film comes down to a character study on three of the individuals that followed the trail to its (dead) end: Gyllenhall is both sympathetic and pitiful as the cartoonist / amateur who's so driven to finding the killer's identity that he loses his family and his job; Ruffalo is the crusty, persistent detective who plods through vague leads over the years; and a colorful Downey Jr. plays the crime reporter targeted by the killer. Don't expect closure; the truth is no one knows who Zodiac really was and if a theory is put forth in the film, it remains that: only a theory. But if you can forget the conventions of the usual thriller, Zodiac will prove to be a captivating real-life crime drama.
Drama: 8/10

Zoolander (2001)
Starring: Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, Christine Taylor
Director: Ben Stiller
Plot: A not-so-bright male supermodel suffering from the competition of a blonde newcomer is brainwashed by a clothing magnate into assassinating the Prime Minister of Malaysia.
Review: An easy-going, light-hearted spoof of action flicks and the New York fashion industry, Zoolander isn't a very deep or penetrating satire by any means, but it sure is amusing. Through its hilarious look at male models strutting on catwalks, "fashion-speak drivel", IQ-and-taste-challenged denizens, and mock magazine covers there's lots of winks and gags to be had. Based on a skit originally created for the VH1 Fashion Awards, it's all about how shallow, full of self-importance (and, well, dumb) these people are! As director, Stiller (Reality Bites, Cable Guy) brings a very Saturday Night Live approach to the humor, even going so far as getting fellow comedians in on the joke, and it's clear that everyone's joining in on the fun. From a plot out of a James Bond spoof with shades of The Manchurian Candidate, some soap-opera level melodrama, the silly humor is not to all tastes and the jokes don't always hit their target, but enough of them do to make for a consistently clever and often funny affair. Stiller is at his best in the kind of film that allows him to embody clueless characters from broad strokes, but he also gives lots of leeway to his Starsky & Hutch co-star Wilson who plays his vain, vapid competitor. Also of note is Will Ferrell who makes for a hilarious villain, and the supporting / cameo players - from the likes of Milla Jovovich, Jerry Stiller, David Duchovny, Jon Voight - is a blast. The sum total of the film's sketch-like parts don't quite add up to a completely satisfying whole, but there's enough slapstick and zany, quotable dialogue to make it fun. Though your enjoyment will greatly depend on how much you like Ben Stiller doing his shtick, for those tired of or who have a fine disregard for the fashion industry excesses, Zoolander will most definitely tickle and entertain.
Comedy: 6/10

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