Home / Latest Reviews / Review Library
Now Playing / Coming Soon / BLOG / Top 20 Lists
Hong Kong Cinema!Film Fests / FAQ / Favorite Links

A Simple Life (Hong Kong - 2011)
Starring: Andy Lau, Deannie Yip
Director: Ann Hui
Plot: After suffering a stroke, an elderly maid is no longer able to perform her duties for her employer, a career-driven film producer, and is forced to move into an old people's home leading to a reversal of roles both are unprepared for.
Review: A Simple Life racked up all the major prizes at the Hong Kong Film Awards, including wins for director, actor, actress, script and Best Picture - and it's easy to see why. The focus is on the female Philippine workers who come in droves to Hong Kong to as maids, dedicating their entire lives to a family, people who usually only wish they would disappear when they've grown too old or infirm. With this premise, the story extends to being a window to things society shies away from discussing: aging. It's not just seeing our own twilight approach, the tragedy of being forced by social and economic necessity to an old-folks home, it's the knowledge of not being able to come back out, the mistreatment by their children, and the fear of being forgotten or discarded. Yet if it's not always pleasant material, the film maintains a gentle view of its two main characters, its roots firmly planted in the everyday. Director Hui, a woman director, is a rarity in HK cinema; her politically-driven films have always gone against mainstream expectations but have always been a barometer for local social consciousness. She as always shown a very humanistic approach to her films - along with the social critique - and this one is no different, capturing the vagaries of life, the tragedies and the hope without ever giving in to melodramatics. And she could not have found better actors to participate: Asian superstar Lau takes on a rare down-to-earth role that proves his acting chops, and Yip utterly convinces in a tough role as the maid, a performance that isn't about clichés but about respect, sacrifice and dignity. The chemistry between them is sometimes strange, sometimes awkward but always hopeful and true, especially as the roles of care-giver and care-taker switches sides. Oh, and there's a few local cinema in-jokes with HK icon Sammo Hung and Tsui Hark thrown in for fans, too. The film celebrates life, even a simple life, as one worth living, and made important through the connections one makes during its passage. A tender, worthwhile film.
Drama: 8/10

Cirque du Soleil: Worlds Away (2012)
Starring: Erica Linz, Igor Zaripov, Lutz Halbhubner
Director: Andrew Adamson
Plot: Entranced by an aerialist and desperate to save him from an impossible fall, a young woman stumbles into - and must brave - a dreamlike world filled with acrobatic wonders in order to find him again.
Review: Worlds Away isn't a movie, it's - surprise! - a sequence of the internationally acclaimed Cirque du Soleil circus acts. Filled with some of the best extracts from a half-dozen live shows, glued together with a paper-thin tale of a lost lovers, we get to amaze at hundreds of the world's best performers leaping, soaring, swimming and dancing amid some extravagant, imaginative sets and outrageous conditions. If you've been lucky enough to catch the world-re-known circus troupe Cirque du Soleil's act in Las Vegas, the movie doesn't quite bring anything new to the table. For those who haven't - or who won't be able to - this is a terrific chance to see what the fuss is all about. Backed by James Cameron himself, and given access to some nifty technology, the film's 3D occasionally allows the scenes to pop off the screen, but in many of the mid to long-shots it looks flat. Thankfully, the cinematography manages to encompass a sense of the large scale, the color and the spirit of the shows. In the end, Worlds Away doesn't make sense as an independent movie and should be seen for what it truly is: as a feature-length promo reel to entice audiences to see these Cirque du Soleil acrobats live, under the Big Top, as they're meant to be experienced.
Entertainment: 7/10

Godzilla vs. Space Godzilla (Japan - 1994)
Starring: Megumi Odaka, Jun Hashizume, Zenkichi Yoneyama
Director: Kensho Yamashita
Plot: Threatened by a military task force out to destroy him or control him, Godzilla once again proves a force for good when he battles - reluctantly aided by a giant UN-built robot - a space monster bent on conquering the world.
Review: For the most part, the Godzilla sequels have always made kids scream with glee with its cheesy, Saturday-cartoon type entertainment and sensibilities. Godzilla vs. Space Godzilla is no different, with the paper-thin plot is once again really only filler until the wrestling action - I mean monster action - kicks in. Two guys in monster suits bashing each other out, tons of papier maché cityscapes of Tokyo blowing up, extras running around and lots of energy beams shooting around - yup it's another typical Godzilla chapter. Throw in Mothra influencing a human psychic trying to control the big lizard, an appearance form Little Godzilla and the giant UN-built Godzilla-killing transformer robot Mogera and, well, how could it miss? Oh, and this probably is a solid contender for the most stupendously, ridiculously convoluted monster origin story ever - the fever-dream explanation is worth the price of admission! The movie does suffer from the usual series' overlong exposition, boring human subplots and over emoting actors. Fast-forward the first 45 minutes to get to the good stuff, when Godzilla finally makes his appearance. The kids in the audience will lap this up, and it's definitely slicker than the 70s installments we grew up with and (mostly) fondly remember watching on rainy Sunday afternoons. The special effects - mostly rear-projection and toy vehicles - haven't really advanced in 20 years, but that's just a silly criticism. Oh, and Space Godzilla actually looks pretty wicked, too. Fun, if you like this sort of thing - and I admit I'm still a sucker for it… as long as I'm watching it with the kids, of course.
Entertainment: 5/10

Premium Rush (2012)
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Michael Shannon, Dania Ramirez
Director: David Koepp
Plot: A New York bicycle courier gets handed a package that puts him in the line of fire when a crooked cop gets an order to recover its contents.
Review: A rather low-key urban action / thriller, the quick-paced Premium Rush is an amusing enough affair that wants to be clever but ends up gimmicky and falls shy of its potential. Much like Quicksilver tried in the 80's, the film tries to capture the Big Apple's bike-messenger culture, these men and women who live for the adrenaline rush of speeding through New York rush hour traffic. The action, enhanced on occasion with effective digital effects work, is made up of impossible bike chases across busy streets as couriers navigate traffic with wild abandon, and some fearless two-wheel stunts from a bevy of x-treme athletes. Better known for his scripts on Spider-Man and Mission: Impossible, writer / director Koepp's efforts behind the camera have always been middling at best (Secret Window, Ghost Town), and this one's no different. There are a few flourishes to be had, and the almost-real-time rush from downtown to Chinatown is a hoot, but the film seems to run out of gas (pedal-power?) early on. A more lunatic, or more serious take, would have worked better; as it is, it feels like a mix between TV show antics and serious crime drama, without capturing either. At least he knows how to tell a story, and - if the characters aren't exactly interesting - it's an entertaining ride while it lasts. The other selling point is up-and-coming actor Gordon-Levitt, making a big splash over the last two years. He's affable, charming in a no-nonsense manner and quite watchable. Not so the rest of the leads... As the villain of the piece, the Oscar-nominated Shannon definitely plays it over-the-top and looks off-kilter in appearance and mannerisms; you believe he could be a bad cop, but acts like a Looney Tunes character - you don't know if he's playing it straight or if it's a caricature. Bubbly but ultimately unimpressive, Premium Rush doesn't take chances but it's a cool afternoon treat. Just don't take anything here too seriously.
Entertainment: 5/10

21 Jump Street (2012)
Starring: Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum, Ice Cube
Directors: Phil Lord, Chris Miller
Plot: Two small time, odd-couple rookies get posted to an undercover narcotics unit, posing as high-school students to uncover a leading drug dealer but their own hang-ups over high-school soon make things problematic.
Review: A comedy reboot of the popular teens-in-crisis '80s TV series starring Johnny Depp, 21 Jump Street takes a chance at bringing the premise to a new generation via crude humor and - against expectations - it works wonderfully. From its hilarious opening flashback sequence, this is an aggressively formula-driven cop comedy with no redeeming social feature, it's an often daring, often hilarious wish-fulfillment fantasy to all us losers who'd love to have a re-do on our younger years. It's not for kids! There are enough drug-related humor from these swearing, boozing knuckleheads to make parents flinch; an amusing scene, when the two get high to prove their credentials and then go on a rampage in the school is embarrassingly funny, as is a house party that goes out of hand. The action sequences, including a couple of car chases - 'cuz there have to be some - are well realized and are as engaging as they are amusing, playing against Hollywood clichés. Co-directors Lord and Miller (the dudes behind the animated Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs) give their live-action flick a bit of the cartoon helter-skelter approach while still keeping an undeniable affection to the original material, not so much lampooning it as giving it a knowing ribbing. Indeed, the movie both pokes fun at the buddy-cop genre itself, their comic equivalents and our own expectations. There's nothing new here, but what is here is done with just the right amount of vulgar gusto to make it feel fresh - or at least be damn entertaining. Best of all, there's a surprising chemistry in the odd couple of Hill and Tatum, brainy, socially-inept nerd and muscle-head jock, respectively; Hill's career makes the comic role come effortlessly, but Tatum is the big surprise, staying on the mark even during the barrage of bromance repartee. A cheerfully manic send up of the original series, with a couple of left-field cameos - and lots of mayhem - to cap it off, 21 Jump Street is a guiltless pleasure.
Entertainment: 7/10

Life Without Principle (Hong Kong - 2011)
Starring: Ching Wan Lau, Richie Ren, Denise Ho
Director: Johnnie To
Plot: Moral principles are put to the test as a low-level gangster, a bank official and a cop end up in their own personal financial crisis in the face of the global economic crisis. 
Review: A cynical look at a cross-section of local society, Life Without Principle is a moral drama told in mainstream fashion, a sort of Asian version of Crash - with unrelated stories mashing into each other - with Hong Kong greed taking the place of LA racial tensions. This is director To trying to be relevant, trying to reinvent himself for a festival circuit; this is not the same filmmaker who made such entertaining and engaging films in the past like Expect the Unexpected or Running on Karma. For sure, some of his recent dramatic efforts, such as Election, were decent forays into the Hong Kong criminal society with a social undercurrent. Yet this minimalist, long-winded effort feels like a step back. The individual premises for each story are intriguing and potentially quite interesting, but the characters remain mostly undefined, the stories - set with the Greek financial meltdown in the background - never quite gel and the individual endings come off more as whimsical than tragic. So the film concludes with little punch, never reaching the exploration of the title's promised theme of a life without principle, of Hong Kong's obsession with money, of its denizens desperation and lack of basic morals when the going gets tough. Still, the cast is good and tries it's best with their limited dialog and script. Heck, Ching Wan Lau is good in just about anything, even here as an honorable, low-life gangster trying to do the right thing for his pals. Life Without Principle may not break new ground, but any To film is worth a look and this one is no exception.
Drama: 6/10

This Is Not a Film (Iran - 2011)
Starring: Jafar Panahi
Directors: Jafar Panahi, Mojtaba Mirtahmasb
Plot: Imprisoned in his own home, waiting sentencing in 2010, Iranian writer / director Jafar Panahi muses on his situation and the state of local cinema.
Review: Months after Iranian director Jafar Panahi was put in house arrest in march 2010 for "propaganda against the Islamic Republic", and awaiting a verdict by the appeals court, Panahi crafted This Is Not a Film and managed to get friends to smuggle it out of the country (via a USB drive in a cake!) to make its appearance at Cannes. As the title states, this is really not a typical film - there's no cohesive story (or seemingly a script), no actors and no sets. Partly, it is a political statement, a courageous act of defiance against a government that punished him to silence. But Panahi does more: stuck in house arrest with limited means and physical space, he has created a video blog that's many things, a mirror into Iranian life, a commentary on the Islamist censorship limiting the Arts and - most of all - a love letter to all things cinema. Yes, watching the director with his pet lizard, moping around his apartment, preparing tea or staring off into space may not be everyone's idea of entertainment but, typical of Iranian films, the starting premise grows organically through its deliberate narrative, the ending point something else entirely. An influential filmmaker often associated with the Iranian New Wave movement, Panahi won the 1995 Caméra d'Or at Cannes for The White Balloon and has international acclaim for The Circle, focusing on the hardships of women; yet his films were often banned in his home country, and he himself often persecuted. Panahi is not a man without fear, and his apparent stress over the impending verdict is founded - in Dec 2010, he was smacked with a six-year jail sentence and a 20-year ban on directing, writing or interviews. Reprisals for this stunt must have been severe, but a man with so much passion for his work can't be kept down. So is it a documentary? a monologue? an impassioned plea? Whatever, this may not be a film, but it sure is an important statement on contemporary Iran and its cinema.
Documentary: 8/10

Dredd (2012)
Starring: Karl Urban, Olivia Thirlby, Lena Headey
Director: Pete Travis
Plot: In an apocalyptic future where crime runs rampant, heavily-populated mega-cities are the norm and the few cops act as judge, jury and executioner, a tough lawman and a rookie get trapped in a building full of heavily-armed drug dealers, their only way to bring the vicious female leader some bullet-ridden justice.
Review: Hoping to start a franchise, the most popular character from the proudly pulpy weekly British comic 2000 AD, Judge Dredd gets a second cinematic outing, and this one's a keeper. Taking a note from Christopher Nolan's serious, noir-toned Batman update, this gritty, superbly violent - and surprisingly un-pretentious - adaptation will surely make everyone forget the big-budget excess of Stallone's 1995 Judge Dredd. Sure, the plot of the hero alone (almost) in a building full of bad guys, working his way through dozens of heavily-armed killers to the top floor climax has been done before - Game of Death, Die Hard, The Raid come to mind - but director Travis (Vantage Point) manages the tight corridors, the bleak atmosphere, the bullet-strewn action and revs up the tension, keeping it fresh enough to get the adrenaline running. The lean and mean script from novelist / screenwriter Alex Garland (Never Let Me Go, 28 Days Later), shows a solid appreciation for the comic-book character and situations, and an understanding of what made him so popular while also acquiescing the very different demands of the new medium. The stuff we know and love is here - the rocking firepower, the motorcycle, the craziness of the landscape and its denizens, the fascist undertones - only somewhat toned down to make it more palatable for the big screen. Urban (or at least his chin - we don't get to see much more of him) keeps it tight to the vest in a wry, effective performance as the dreaded, stoic super-cop. In the comics, Dredd was always the straight-man to a bevy of bizarre, over-the-top cast and Headey, as the ex-prostitute and all-around psycho drug kingpin Mama, does an admirable job of taking on the colorful villain role, a stark contrast to the unflappable Dredd. Thirlby, as the rookie psychic Judge Anderson, manages a tough second-fiddle role with zeal, even as we get an uncomfortable trip inside a sex fiend's mind. Though it is said to be making boffo business on DVD and PPV, the movie flopped at the box office so don't expect a sequel; that said, Dredd is definitely worth checking out for fans of the dark, tough cop and those just keen for a more R-rated, take no prisoners actioner.
Entertainment: 7/10

Taken 2 (2012)
Starring: Liam Neeson, Famke Janssen, Maggie Grace
Director: Olivier Megaton
Plot: During a stay in Instanbul on business, an ex-CIA operative and his family become the targets for revenge by the Albanian father of the kidnapper he killed while rescuing his daughter in Paris.
Review: Yet another Euro-trash thriller signed by hack-meister French writer / producer / director Luc Besson, Taken 2 is a slovenly, un-inspired sequel to the efficient, kick-in-the-nuts original outing. Director Megaton (Transporter 3, Columbiana) has taken a step back from even his limited genre outings, shooting the film with little vigor or interest. The cinematography is still nice, and the repeated shots of Istanbul are lovely, but there's no suspense or engagement to the proceedings. Bad guys get shot (repeatedly), there's a ridiculously dumb car chase with lots of cop cars crashing, and there are half a dozen street fights that are so quickly edited and poorly choreographed that they lack any urgency. But the real miss is the heavy-handed script that manages to dilute everything the first movie had going for it: poor drama, preposterous deductions, second-rate thrills, abusive clichés and - worse - it ends up being banal before the half-way mark. Casting the steely, imposing Neeson - an actor, not an action star - in the role was brilliant; too bad he's given little material here to show his stuff, limiting his performance to super-heroic marksmanship and a face of grim resolve. There's little of the intensity and feral violence that marked his original performance. He's still better than his supporting cast, including the wailing wife and daughter in the form of Janssen and Grace, actresses who merited a better movie. Here they just hamper any of the grittiness that came from having Neeson solo, and their air time - either as typical hapless female victim or unconvincing action heroine - makes the movie veer into PG-13 silliness. There's no excuse: Taken 2 is a clunky, barely-entertaining cash-grab with little brains, cleverness or raison d'être. Shameful.
Entertainment: 4/10

A Cat in Paris (Une vie de chat) (France - 2010)
Voices: Dominique Blanc, Bruno Salomone, Jean Benguigui
Directors: Jean-Loup Felicioli, Alain Gagnol
Plot: A Parisian feline leads a double life, by day the pet of a lonely girl whose single-mother is a detective gunning for her father's murderer, and by night an accomplice to a successful cat burglar... until the two worlds collide in an unexpected fashion.
Review: An animated crime drama from the point of view of a roaming black cat, A Cat in Paris is a short but terrific adventure for all ages. Drawing on Expressionist style for the visuals, the delightfully old-school, hand-drawn animation lends itself perfectly for the tale at hand. Buoyed by an often lightweight, almost whimsical story and a jazzy score, the narrative follows the basic template of the film noirs of old, with some modern references for adult viewers and lots of exciting rooftop chases, perilous situations and a climax atop the Notre Dame Cathedral to keep even younger kids thoroughly entertained. Humorous situations abound, too, balancing some darker and more dramatic elements of the story such as the emotional scars from the violent loss of a parent and husband, or the scares of a child kidnapping by a vicious gangster. These deeper aspects only make what could have otherwise been a simple story more palatable and engaging, the filmmakers keeping the film zipping along with clever ideas and capable imagery through its short running time. Easy on the eyes and thoroughly endearing, the distinctive A Cat in Paris proves that animated films don't have to be in CG or in 3D to be entertaining.
Entertainment: 8/10

Underworld: Awakening (2012)
Starring: Kate Beckinsale, Stephen Rea, Michael Ealy
Directors: Måns Mårlind, Björn Stein
Plot: After discovering the existence of vampires and werewolves in their midst, humanity mobilizes to eradicate them but one female vampire - awoken from cryogenic sleep - decides to take the battle back to them.
Review: After the two so-so outings focused on the vampire covens and a third on flashback into Lycan mythology, the Underworld series needed a bit of a shot in the arm - enter Awakening. Feeling somewhat like a reboot of the franchise, the story gets moved into a future where chaos and paranoia reign - a perfect setting for this kind of mindless fun. And this latest chapter is by far the most most mindlessly fun entry of the series. Thank co-directors Mårlind and Stein - taking the reigns from Len Wiseman - for bringing some fresh gusto, Euroflash-style visuals and continuous stream of badassery into the proceedings and focusing on the stuff that worked (and still works) best: the flat-out, slo-mo Matrix-styled fights and creature feature elements, as vampire battles werewolf, humans, and sometimes each other. Sure, there's still some of the one-dimensional, heavy-handed exposition of its predecessors, at least limited to past references to close the book on them. And no sooner has a plot element appeared that another well-choreographed action sequence starts - none of this story or character stuff gets in the way for too long. As the warrior-vampire, the returning Beckinsale still looks good in a leather cat suit and longcoat, and she sure is cool setting up a pose before beating someone (or something) down. She's given an unexpected daughter this time around to cast some dramatic heft, but this ain't no Aliens, and mother instinct here seems more of a stretch than all the other fanboy silliness present. The only other cast of note is Rea who, as the evil scientist, slums it to good effect. Sure it's pure drivel, but at least Underworld: Awakening is amusing drivel that does its mightiest to please its target audience and succeeds.
Entertainment: 6/10

*Classic* Metropolis (Germany - 1927)
Starring: Brigitte Helm, Alfred Abel, Gustav Fröhlich
Director: Fritz Lang
Plot: In a Utopian future city divided by class, the son of the city's mastermind falls for a working-class school teacher-cum-messiah and joins the oppressed masses, only to fall victim to an evil scientist who has created a robotic duplicate of her to plunge the city into chaos.
Review: An epic masterpiece of German expressionism, Metropolis has been hailed as one of the crowning achievements of silent-era movie-making, and justly so. Mixing pulp fiction storytelling with an exploration of the dark side of human nature, it's a formidable piece of megalomania, filled with Art Deco design and imagination, and hundreds of extras - in fact, the colossal production almost ruined the studio. The story of utopias, future cities with flying vehicles, a mad scientist and his robot doppelganger, and more, was a revelation to audiences of old, and much of it is still as mesmerizing as it was on its debut. Indeed, using every cinematic trick in the book - and inventing new ones, including a process to place actors into miniature sets - legendary director Lang (M, The Big Heat) created a monumental piece of science fiction that paved the way for decades to come. And the themes of class struggle - or to quote, "the social crisis between workers and owners inherent in capitalism" - is as relevant now as it was over 85 years ago. The real surprise, however, is that modern audiences will discover not a staid, theatrical affair but a vigorous, exciting and enthralling movie experience that holds up to any classic blockbuster in terms of pacing and ideas. The shots of the city's massive gears, of the occasional hallucinatory sequence, of its juxtaposition to the Tower of Babel and the climactic riot are all memorable, attesting to Lang's visionary status. Metropolis isn't just a science-fiction classic, it's a classic of cinema that still impresses with its visual impact and themes. Grandiose.
Note: The movie was cut substantially shortly after its premiere, and for years only truncated versions have been available. The 2010 recent restoration - available on DVD - includes 30 minutes of previously lost footage, found in a vault in Brazil. It is the most definitive version and it's a revelation for anyone who has only seen previous cuts.
Entertainment / Drama: 10/10

Painted Skin: Resurrection (China - 2012)
Starring: Zhou Xun, Vicki Zhao, Aloys Chen
Director: Wuershan
Plot: Having been trapped for 500 years, a fox spirit in beautiful female form searches for a human heart, insinuating into the romantic entanglement between a betrothed, disfigured princess and her loyal captain of the guard.
Review: A blockbuster sequel-in-name-only to the 2008 martial arts historic epic starring Donnie Yen, Painted Skin: Resurrection has been touted as China's highest-grossing film, and we can see why. The over-the-top visuals are all beautifully shot, and the entire film shows gorgeous production values with some surprisingly effective special effects. The well-choreographed wire-fu action, as warriors face off the emperor's dark army of minions or in the climactic supernatural battle, will surely keep the young males in the audience entertained. But all its fights and opulent eye-candy are only trimmings to the film's romantic roller-coaster ride, one that only Asian films can provide without seeming silly or ludicrous. The tale of desire, forbidden passions, humanity, immortality, traded identities and demon hunting (the latter in the film's comic-relief subplot) is given serious treatment, no matter its Harlequin trappings, allowing for a more interesting morality play than expected. A big part of the success goes to the returning cast (less Donnie Yen) that is both handsome and ardent, no matter the melodramatic twists. As the two female beings in weird symbiotic relationship - one a pining princess, the other a sly, manipulative demon - Zhao Wei and Zhou Xun quite literally light up the screen and give powerful, sometimes even erotic, performances. Oh, and Aloys Chen does just fine as the virile male target of their obsessions, too. Director Wuershan manages to balance the multi-genre elements of romance, occasional humor, dark fantasy and martial arts sequences into a well crafted, slick mainstream package; if he doesn't do subtle well, it's still hard not to get won over by the effort. Painted Skin isn't a classic, perhaps, but it does remind one of the 80's Hong Kong hits like A Chinese Ghost Story. A nice, if forgettable, popcorn escape into romantic fantasy.
Entertainment: 7/10

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (2012)
Starring: Benjamin Walker, Rufus Sewell, Dominic Cooper
Director: Timur Bekmambetov
Plot: Having witnessed his mother's killing by a vampire as a boy, a young Abraham Lincoln makes it his life's work to track down and kill the vampires that are leading the country to chaos.
Review: A Civil War actioner with vampires, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is the kind of Hollywood-high-concept that promises to bring something new to the table, along with some crazed action bits. Basing the screenplay on his own novel, Seth Grahame-Smith tries to mesh typical vampiric cheesiness and lore with recorded events in Lincoln's life and career as the 16th President of the United State, though clearly historical accuracy wasn't really a primary concern. Alas, any sense of the book's complexity, of any political analogy, of commentary on the horrors of the Civil War and slavery have been excised from the adaptation, leaving only some basic ideas as a framework for the stunts. Director Bekmambetov (Wanted, Night Watch) seemed to have been a great choice to carry the material to fruition, and his flair makes the action sequences with Lincoln wielding an axe appropriately over the top, but the campiness doesn't gel well with his attempt at a kind of artsy-drama for Lincoln's "real" life. The cinematography, in all sepia tones and popping imagery, feels theatrical and cheap, and for all its efforts, the film lacks a strong sense of place. In the end, the filmmakers neither wallow in the campiness that's inherent in this mashup, nor take the time to fully flesh out this historical character and his times (a throwaway Gettysburg address doesn't cut it). The cast is solid, though; stage actor Walker sure looks the part of a young Lincoln, and can really swing an axe, and he's well supported by the likes of Cooper as his suave vampire mentor, and Sewell as the evil, Southern, slave-owning vampire lord. But it's Mary Elizabeth Winstead who impresses the most as Mary Todd, the sharp, loving fiancée. For a movie with such a loony concept, Vampire Hunter plays it too safe, making what could have been a distinctive cult favorite into just another forgettable summer entry. Fun enough, but it could have been so much more.
Entertainment: 6/10

Total Recall (2012)
Starring: Colin Farrell, Kate Beckinsale, Jessica Biel
Director: Len Wiseman
Plot: After trying to get a paid fix of alternate memories, a blue-collar worker realizes he's actually a special agent whose been brainwashed, but can't decide where his loyalties lie when he's caught up in a revolution.
Review: A PG-13 remake of the Schwarzenegger cult classic, Total Recall had the potential to be a real head trip of intriguing ideas beefed up with the latest of whiz-bang effects. For the first hour, it's an effective, well-conceived piece of sci-fi that updates the premise to a parallel to current fears of global terrorism. The premise is even well set up for a tale about reality, memory and what makes us individuals. Strong stuff, even if the basic premise is still somewhat a retread of the original film adaptation instead of being inspired by the short story We Can Remember It For You Wholesale by influential SF author Philip K. Dick. And the production design is absolutely superb, a high-tech re-creation of the sort of dystopian, ugly future that Blade Runner captured 30 years ago. All this, plus a well choreographed one-man-versus-an-army shootout, a race across buildings hanging in the sky, the first act climaxing with a thrilling hover-car chase. Unfortunately, things kind of sputter, story-wise, from then on, as the ideas get re-heated and the numbing, computer-effects-heavy action sequences take over - they're grandiose and well-done, but feel empty. While director Paul Verhoeven's vivid, over-the-top 1990 film was as cheesy as they get, it never ran out of steam or ideas, keeping you guessing as to what was real or not, and - surprisingly, amid the many over-the-top, R-rated shenanigans and blood-spattered stunts - even got you emotionally engaged. Not so for director Wiseman's remake; the man behind the vampiric Underworld series and the fourth installment of Die Hard knows action well enough but still lacks the touch to make it all emotionally click. The first-rate cast does its best, though: Farrell is a solid actor and makes for a great action hero - he might even be memorable given better material. With lots of experience starring as a vampire-killer in her hubby's Underworld series, the dependable Beckinsale is a real dynamo as the unstoppable special forces officer obsessed with killing the hero. Another smart, sassy actress, Biel definitely has the chops but doesn't get to stretch or make much of an impression, her role only to lead our protagonist around. This new version of Total Recall, in the end, wasn't really necessary, but there's a good time to be had as long as you don't look too closely, to demand too much.
Entertainment: 6/10

Universal Soldier 4: Day of Reckoning (2012)
Starring: Jean-Claude Van Damme, Dolph Lundgren, Scott Adkins
Director: John Hyams
Plot: Waking up from a coma after his wife and daughter were killed in a home invasion headed by a rogue super soldier, a man discovered he's a trained killer and becomes obsessed with revenge on the militia of genetically enhanced warriors that killed his family - or did they?
Review: The first surprise is that there's life left in the Universal Soldier premise; as the last entry proved, with a good idea and solid execution, there's no need for a big budget to make for solid entertainment. This new chapter is nowhere near as hectic, fun or boisterous as director Hyams previous entry in the franchise, feeling like it does a low-budget direct-to-video flick, the kind that hit shelves at video stores in the '80s. There are some veritable thrills to be had - some grueling fights, a superbly choreographed man-against-army sequence and a finale against Van Damme - just not enough of them to give us a real dose of wall-to-wall action. But Hyams is better than just a hack director - or at least he's trying to be; providing some real angst to the proceedings with an almost Artsy approach to filming, he wants to capture both a sense of gravitas and "import" in this tale of government conspiracies spattered with gore. His intention is clearly take the franchise into much grittier, darker territory, shaking off the cheesier, bloated Hollywood excesses from Roland Emmerich's 1992 flick. And he succeeds in that: the plot is pure Philip K. Dick, with a play on memories and what makes us human - think Total Recall and The 6th Day - with some clear reference to Apocalypse Now: Van Damme has even shaved his head for the part as Brando's messiah-like leader Col. Kurtz. And don't let the credits or poster fool you: Van Damme and Lundgren barely make a supporting appearance in the series they spearheaded 20 years ago, handed but a few scenes and a swan song fight to the death. The mantle of the series has been passed on to tough guy, a Brit kickboxing champion, Adkins. He's good, and he's got presence, but fans will surely miss the duo that made the previous entries watchable. All this bleakness is a bit much to ask from the franchise, perhaps, but Day of Reckoning does come off as a satisfying action-thriller that leaves you intrigued enough to see what the filmmakers are up to next.
Entertainment: 7/10

Red Lights (2012)
Starring: Robert DeNiro, Sigourney Weaver, Cillian Murphy
Director: Rodrigo Cortés
Plot: Two skeptic university physicists trained to investigate paranormal incidents start experiencing strange phenomena when a blind mentalist returns to the city to perform after 35 years of absence.
Review: A capable supernatural thriller that's smarter than most, Red Lights is an engaging battle of wits between celebrity spiritualists and academic skeptics. The opening sequence is great fun, as the protagonists gently debunk one haunted house, and amazingly enough the most fun isn't the horror aspects but the fight to expose the frauds, and the drama behind what drives the two scientists. Writer / director Cortés (who helmed the clever, inventive soldier-trapped-in-a-coffin thriller Buried) comes up with a great premise and, at least for the first hour, keeps us guessing and intrigued. Not set so much on scares but on a building a sense of unease that was so popular in the '70s, the talky script engages thanks to an unpredictable plot and some fine performances. The moody cinematography, with its stark contrasts and shadows, adds to the spookiness. In the lead, Cillian Murphy is the sympathetic but odd everyman who's thrown into a situation that's over his head, facing the (possibly) dangerous mentalist DeNiro, an actor who sure does creepy with gusto, verve and conviction. As for Weaver, playing the ingrained (one could say obsessed) skeptic, well it's great to see her in just about anything these days, and she gives the film its heart and soul. For the most part, this all makes for solid entertainment with smarts, and it keeps you guessing until the end. Alas, the final twist is a doozy, indeed, but lacking the proper groundwork for the ending's revelation means audiences will have a hard time swallowing it, especially delivered as it is in such an off-hand manner. Still, Red Lights is engaging and clever enough for a good three fourths of its running time, and for that it's worth a session of late-night viewing.
Entertainment: 6/10

Lawless (2012)
Starring: Tom Hardy, Shia LaBeouf, Jessica Chastain
Director: John Hillcoat
Plot: Set in a Depression-era Virginia county, a trio of bootlegging brothers is threatened by a new big-city special deputy who - backed by the local authorities - wants to cut in on their profits.
Review: Inspired by true-life tales of the infamous Bondurant Brothers and their stand against the city cops and gangsters during the Prohibition, Lawless is meant to be part Western and part gangster movie, and it's sure bloody and violent enough. However, the tagline states that these outlaws became heroes, but that "heroism" surely isn't evident here. Instead, we get a portrait of simple men - one tough, one savage and one too young to know better - from a peasant background whose bond just really gets them into trouble. Director Hillcoat, who made such a fine splash with the intense, beautiful Australian Western The Proposition, seems to be somewhat lost in the Virginia countryside. Using a very traditional style of filmmaking, along with a contemporary Country soundtrack, evokes some very 70's productions but it all somewhat feels remote. Even the the themes and parallels to modern life, such as the war on drugs, the spirit of American entrepreneurship and other stuff, get short thrift. One would think that Matt Bondurant's novel The Wettest County In The World, describing as he does tales of his grandfather, would have been more interesting, if not more lively. Sure, there are fast cars, Tommy guns, illegal liquoring and bloody revenge that are all part of the story, but it's all pretty dry. Hardy makes for an interesting hillbilly character, tough-as-nails, stoic and of few words, whose gander and look say wonders. LaBoeuf on the other hand, plays the youngest brother with the naiveté and spirit of a 16 year old; he's supposed to be the smartest kid, but he sure does some dumb things. Great performances from the supporting cast, however, such as Guy Pearce as a dandy but oh so violent special district enforcer, Gary Oldman as a big city crime boss, Chastain as the Chicago hooker looking to escape her life and Mia Wasikowska as the waif-like preacher's daughter looking to rebel. Truth told, it's a great cast, each of whom is terrific on their own but who never quite convince as an ensemble. The film's two romantic relationships and courtships are just bland and fail to get an emotional response. Ultimately, the story doesn't quite gel into something interesting enough to recommend it; the cast keeps things engaging but this rather pedestrian film just doesn't involve us enough to care.
Drama: 5/10

Expendables 2 (2012)
Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Dolph Lundgren
Director: Simon West
Plot: A band of mercenaries are hired to retrieve a computer from a downed plane, but when they're ambushed by a Russian cult, they're forced to stop them from finding a cache of stolen plutonium.
Review: With the success of Stallone's geriatric actioner The Expendables, it was only a matter of time before a bigger (if not better) sequel showed up. The main attraction of Expendables 2, of course, if the appearance of all these past-generation action heroes in a single movie; older fans will find this a hoot, but newcomers may be non-plussed. But then, expectations are clear: with an aptly ludicrous plot, this is pure 80's nostalgia, a place where heroes were superheroes, machismo reigned supreme, and a few men could take on an army of heavily-armed mercenaries with a quip and a large gun. Like Stallone's latest entries, the action is incredibly violent and bloody - heads literally get blown off, blood splatters, bodies get smashed, tanks get destroyed, planes get trashed - but it's done with such gusto it's hard not be amused. Just leave your brain at the door. With a clear knowledge of the testosterone required, director West - himself a veteran of Tomb Raider and the macho action flick Con Air - gives in to the silliness, giving audiences barrages of gunfire and explosions with some old dog camaraderie. The in-jokes are a dime a dozen, especially when making fun of their counter-parts' more famous cinematic one-liners ("I'll be back", "Yeah, we know", "Well, yippie ki yay", etc.), but these are the times when the movie stalls; for one, it feels these guys are having fun, but also just going trough the paces, and acting was never their forte. And with so many personalities compete in mugging for the camera, the pacing often drags. one highlight, though, is a hilarious moment when Willis and Schwarzenegger (who get more screen time this time around) drive in a tiny Smart car across an airport filled with gunmen. A scarily muscle-bound Stallone and a badly aging Lundgren head up the gang's return, including Terry Crews, Jet Li, Randy Couture, as well as new old faces like Chuck Norris, in a cameo. Statham is really the only stalwart action hero of the current era, and he's given sequences as good as any from his Transporter films. There are a few other beat-downs, one with Jet Li in a kitchen that still shows his stuff, and a fun mano-a-mano slugfest between Stallone and Van Damme, though the choreography can't hide the fact that they're not at their peak anymore. And that's pretty true for everyone here; when talking about an old plane, Stallone states "it should be in a museum", to which Schwarzenegger responds "so should we". Amen to that, but fans will still get a kick out of seeing these old guys kick ass.
Entertainment: 6/10

The Viral Factor (Hong Kong - 2011)
Starring: Nicholas Tse, Jay Chou, Andy On
Director: Dante Lam
Plot: After being shot in the head and given only weeks to live, a special forces operative decides to find his long-lost brother only to find he is neck deep in a terrorist effort to gain access to a biological weapon.
Review: Delivering larger-than-life emotions, impossible odds and an adequately large doomsday scenario in a rather intimate canvas, The Viral Factor mixes all the right elements to make an effective by-the-numbers action thriller that knows how to pander to its audience. Director Lam made his name with such Hong Kong mainstream fare as Beast Cops and Hit Team, recently churning out high-production, if forgettable, mainstream efforts such as The Beast Stalker and The Sniper; this is another one of the latter - but that's not a bad thing. Starting with an effectively violent and gritty opening in Jordan, the movie jet sets to Kuala Lumpur for more breezy, well-crafted set pieces, including expected car and helicopter chases, multiple shootouts and lots of high-caliber pyrotechnics. When it stays focused on the matter at hand - that is the chase against time and the biological weapon - it's an effective, well-paced affair that's quite entertaining. The entire plot, however - filled as it is with hugely improbable coincidences and logic holes - requires a large dose of suspension of disbelief; no emotional button is left unchecked to allow for the film's broken-family melodrama, propped up with themes of brotherhood and loyalty all of which makes this hard-nosed thriller less than perfect. As leading man, Jay Chou has the moves but surely not the acting chops; a pout does not an actor make. However Tse, as the older, conflicted criminal half, shows a constant intensity that perfectly appropriate and makes him believable; he's a guy who's always ready to explode. For a dose of high-octane thrills, The Viral Factor is a great example of an Asian blockbuster - as long as you're able to accept the typical genre melodrama that goes with it.
Entertainment: 7/10

Chaplin (1992)
Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Geraldine Chaplin, Paul Rhys
Director: Richard Attenborough
Plot: Exploring the troubled and controversial life of legendary silent screen comic Charlie Chaplin, from his lowly starts in impoverished England to his triumphant acceptance of a lifetime achievement award at the 44th Oscars.
Review: Charles Chaplin was arguably the most important movie icon of Hollywood's silent era. His shorts and movies made him the most popular man in the world and a very rich one, too. But behind his fame and fortune was a principled, troubled man whose love life and work ethic alienated many around him. Unfortunately, based on Chaplin's own not-so-factual My Autobiography and David Robinson's Chaplin: His Life and Art, the script from the trio of of writers including the legendary William Goldman shows only the occasional verve and wit, barely hinting at the man's complexity. It's as if the filmmakers have been blinded by its subject, giving but a shallow account of his life and times, with little real insight into what made him tick. The narrative, too, is rather too linear, though a Keystone Cops sequence as Chaplin and his editing crew try to escape police is a clever addition. Looking perhaps to recapture the success of his Academy Award winning Gandhi, director Attenborough provides for heart felt melodrama and an impressive production but the approach gives short-shrift to its subject. In the lead role, a young Downey Jr. plays it straight, even under loads of old-age make-up, and though he's definitely got the looks and moves when it comes to the physical comedy and acrobatics, he doesn't quite jump off the screen. A cavalcade of supporting stars makes for interesting star-gazing, including Anthony Hopkins, a jail-bait Milla Jovovich, Diane Lane, Kevin Kline (as a truly dashing Douglas Fairbanks), Dan Akroyd, Marisa Tomei, and more. As a dramatic biography, the movie breezes through easily, feeding us the details of his incredible life, but little more. It's worth a gander, but audiences will probably understand Chaplin better by what he left behind, namely silent films whose imagination, comedy and heart have made them classics. It's better that this neutered biopic.
Drama: 6/10

My Way (South Korea - 2011)
Starring: Dong-gun Jang, Jô Odagiri, Bingbing Fan 
Director: Je-kyu Kang
Plot: Two young rival marathon runners, one a paesant from Korea and the other a Japanese colonist, end up fighting together in the Japanese army before being captured by the Soviets and making their way to the shores of Normandy on D-Day.
Review: The most expensive Korean film ever made, the World War II action-drama My Way sure looks it every step of the way. Inspired by a real-life incident, a 1944 photo of a captured Korean soldier wearing a Nazi uniform captured right after D-Day, the film creates a wild story about a peasant boy who dreams of being a marathon runner but finds himself forced to battle for various armies on multiple fronts. From Korea's occupation by Imperial forces to warring on the Russian-Japanese front, to forced-labor in a Soviet gulag, to fighting against the Germans as conscripted Russian soldiers, to being on the German side during the invasion of Normandy, the movie gives us a triptych of WW2 through various conflicts. Yet this is by no wild means a "serious" war movie; despite all its earnestness this is mostly grand (if gruesome) popcorn entertainment, rough, tough and over-wrought, but superbly produced, with great cinematography and a relentless pace. To say the four main (and extensive) battle scenes are explosive is an understatement; taking notes from Saving Private Ryan, Stalag 17 and many other big-budget Hollywood war films this is grand spectacle in every way. Having helmed Korea's last "most expensive" movie, the vastly successful Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood of War, director Je-kyu Kang creates an epic feature that magnifies the horrors of war but doesn't otherwise bring anything new to the table. Though leads Jang and Odagiri are good as the rivals, they can't compete with all the bullets flying, leaving them - and the film - little time to focus on the adversity and eventual camaraderie between the two characters. What we get are formidable, loud battle sequences with only overly-sentimental melodrama to cling them together into typical mainstream fare. At least the dynamic visuals, glorious art direction and savvy editing will keep you glued to your seat, and that makes My Way definitely worth tracking down for action/war movie buffs.
Entertainment: 7/10

Brave (2012)
Voices: Kelly Macdonald, Billy Connolly, Emma Thompson
Directors: Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman, Steve Purcell
Plot: Determined to choose her own path, a headstrong Scottish Princess makes a deal with a witch to escape her fate and unleashing a curse that turns her mother into a bear, leading her on an adventure to right her wrongs.
Review: Any new movie from Pixar (Toy Story, Finding Nemo) is cause for awesome expectations and their latest, Brave, is no exception. While it's got charm, action and comedy in equal levels it also feels like Pixar has been coasting on its laurels the past few years (Toy Story 3, Cars 2). What starts off as a feminist tale of a young girl finding her place in the world becomes a movie about the bond between mother and daughter, with the usual Disney fairy-tale tropes of magic, witches and curses along for the ride, feeling like a retread of Disney's own Brother Bear. That movie put Disney's animation department in a 10-year slump; the tale wasn't successful then, and neither is it now, even with the luscious, top notch animation, buoyant humor and consistent pacing. Oh, it's a fun enough movie but it's a step back for Pixar to more common, B-rate morality and plot contrivances that the production company had otherwise shed. Perhaps due to the troubled production (the artistic direction changed hands mid-way through), the hands of multiple writers is evident, with storytelling more pedantic and predictable as the film progresses. At least there's colorful entertainment to be had in the first half as we gain insight into this Scottish royal family's dynamics, with some good laughs coming from mischievous triplets and the brawny King (superbly voiced by comedian Connolly), with loads of eccentric, stereotypical Scottish characters to help along the way, voiced by a terrific supporting cast including Julie Walters, Robbie Coltrane and Craig Ferguson. Be warned: there's some psychologically disturbing stuff for younger kids as mum-bear slowly loses control. Brave proves that even Pixar can misstep, but even with a disappointing entry they can still make a rousing, amusing film that's worth watching.
Entertainment: 6/10

Confucius (China - 2010)
Starring: Chow Yun-Fat, Xun Zhou and Yi Lu 
Director: Mei Hu
Plot: The highly-influential Chinese philosopher Confucius exerts his influence and teachings on the land, confronting enemies from all sides who want him exiled from government life.
Review: An epic costume drama on the life, times and influence of legendary Chinese statesman and philosopher whose influence changed the face of Asia, Confucius is a huge, expensive and expansive epic that's a not-always-successful blend of Chinese history lesson, mainstream melodrama and large-scale battles. Director Hui, better known for small-budget films and TV shows, shows a good grasp of the material and the visuals on both the intimate and the large scale. His aim may be for a more mature biopic than most, though the film clearly has mainstream audiences in mind, putting as much focus on the man as governing force as he does on his abilities as war strategist and man of action. The armed confrontations - giving opportunity to show off large deployments of extras and CG - are for the most part resolved with limited bloodshed thanks to diplomatic skill and misdirection. Even the scholarly discussions have a good sense of pacing, along with the many political machinations of his enemies, all of which keeps the affair engaging, at least for the first two thirds. Once the tale recounts his long exile and eventual return, though, things slow to a crawl not well-aided by melodrama and old-age makeup. Despite this, Chow Yun Fat shows terrific screen presence as the calm, long-bearded sage, even if he may have seemed like an unlikely choice for the role. Most of the supporting cast takes a backseat to its leading man, but Xun Zhou steals his thunder as the emperor's concubine, seat of real power and influence and temptress supreme. For all its apparent reverence, the filmmakers have missed an opportunity to understand the man's legacy; even as it comes off as a decent historical entertainment, Confucius is really a shallow portrait of a man whose influence still permeates.
Entertainment / Drama: 6/10

The Cabin in the Woods (2012)
Starring: Kristen Connolly, Chris Hemsworth, Fran Kranz
Director: Drew Goddard
Plot: Five college friends take a weekend break in a remote cabin, only to face zombie horrors out for their blood; but as they struggle to survive, they realize that there's more than meets the eye and something, or someone, is really pulling the strings.
Review: Originally famous for gathering dust since 2009 due to MGM's bankruptcy proceedings, The Cabin in the Woods was released with some fanfare and some trepidation into theaters. No need to fret, though; this tongue-in-cheek horror flick that ably balances its laughs and clever dialogue with scenes of terror is A-grade stuff. Leave it to screenwriter / producer Joss Whedon and his co-writer / first-time director Goddard to come up with a plot that starts off as Friday the 13th and proceeds to throw the typical slasher flick on its ass. The filmmakers are obvious fans themselves, and they've made quite possibly the best slasher / gore flick since Evil Dead 2, one that is brimming with just as much knowing mischief. It takes all the clichés of the genre - and all the movies for that matter, no matter where they come from (Japan, Norway, etc.) - and comes up with a demonically brilliant explanation for them. Stupid character decisions? explained. Promiscuity? reasoned out. Blood and guts? clarified. And horror fans will appreciate that all those elements are in grand display, too, the film wallowing in the gleeful excesses of the genre it pokes fun of; in fact the final Act is an over-the-top smorgasbord of supernatural horrors, with blood and bodies quite literally flying. And then it gets weird. The characters are typical slasher fodder: the jock (Hemsworth, in his pre-Thor career), the stoner (Dollhouse's Kranz as a drug-addled paranoid), the slut (Anna Hutchison playing it all out) and the virgin (a feisty Connolly), only they're supposed to be, at least for starters. Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford, playing two techies who seem to be observing them for sinister purposes, provide much of the humor and, surprisingly enough, pathos of the film. Think of it as a wildly gory, self-aware and comic Twilight Zone episode, and you'll get a hint at what's in store. It all adds up to hilarious, smart and bloody fun that's highly recommended for any fans of the genre. An instant cult classic.
Entertainment: 8/10

Starship Troopers: Invasion (2012)
Voices: Leraldo Anzaldua, Luci Christian, Melissa Davis 
Director: Shinji Aramaki
Plot: When a federation spaceship gets overwhelmed by alien bugs, a team of army grunts is charged to find it, board it and take back command.
Review: After director Paul Verhoeven's 1997 cult-classic Starship Troopers opened up to middling reviews and box-office, the sci-fi franchise has somehow limped along with two straight-to-DVD live-action sequels, a short-lived TV series and now a Computer-Generated animated feature, Invasion. Taking the same characters 10 or so years in the future, the plot hasn't changed much from past films and - honestly - it doesn't really matter much. All the exploitation stuff that made the first film notorious is makes an appearance (slow pans on naked female bodies, excessive violence, multiple dismemberments, rah-rah machismo) without the knowing satire that made the first outing so interesting - here it really is just done for fan-boy exploitation. Better known for his decidedly superior Appleseed OVA's, director Aramaki shows a good knack for the medium and the dynamic action set pieces - from the expected bug-busting and narrow escapes to spaceship battles - are as good as anything that would have come out from a big-budget live-action flick. It may be somewhat repetitive to see all these stereotypical characters blasting their way in and out of situations, but it does keep the intensity high. Best of all, thanks to the freedom allowed by having a fully CG animated feature, and the Japanese anime know-how of mecha, we finally get a chance to see the power suits that were part-and-parcel of Heinlein's original 1959 sci-fi novel. OK, so comparisons between this film and the Heinlein's classic is heresy, perhaps, but that doesn't stop it from being a slick, well-produced, motion-captured anime that's intent on giving us the goods. For audiences willing to sit down to a sci-fi actioner with very comic-book sensibilities and logic, Invasion is mind-numbingly entertaining, if not quite fresh.
Entertainment: 6/10

Rock of Ages (2012)
Starring: Julianne Hough, Diego Boneta, Tom Cruise
Director: Adam Shankman
Plot: Set in 1987 LA as they pursue dreams of stardom, a city boy falls for a small town girl on the Sunset Strip where they work for a down-on-its-luck Rock & Roll venue that happens to be the stage for a drugged-out Rock legend's farewell performance.
Review: Based on the hit stage musical of the same name, Rock of Ages is a sugary, nostalgic - and deeply satirical - concoction of mainstream Rock & Roll that is buoyed by an earnest, stellar cast. Director Adam Shankman (who did a great job with the musical adaptation of Hairspray) knows enough to downplay the often told tale of small town kids making it big in LA and stick to Sex, Booze and Rock & Roll. Their romantic entanglements is just an excuse to use a Journey song, perhaps, and more interesting is the tale of the un-dying spirit of R&R, and the all the various sub-plots. Sure, it's clichéd and un-original, but the energy is unmistakable. Best of all is the amazing A-list supporting cast that's been wrangled up: Russell Brand and Alec Baldwin as venue owners and aging rock groupies get the laughs, a superbly slimy Paul Giamatti as the money-grubbing producer gets our blood going, the always stunning Catherine Zeta Jones as the mayor's wife looking to close down the sinful strip (wish the movie had more of her singing and dancing!), and Mr. Tom Cruise. What can I say? Cruise is phenomenal, outright stealing every scene as the Rock idol, a completely nut bar diva, continuously drunk rock genius - and he can sure belt a tune. All these great actors just make the film's weakness that much more evident: the young leads just can't hold a candle to their star counter-parts, no matter how bright and bubbly they try to be. Hough and Boneta look the part and can sing, but acting is not in the cards. And that's perhaps a bit of the film's problem, as well: it's a hoot when the music's going, but no so much when it stops. Thankfully, with a bevy of defining 80s Rock & Roll hits from Def Leppard, Journey, Bon Jovi, Pat Benatar, Poison and Whitesnake (among others) those moments don't occur too often. For anyone who's lived through that decade, it's hard not to be swept away and rock along.
Entertainment: 7/10

Katy Perry: Part of Me (2012)
Starring: Katy Beth Terry
Directors: Dan Cutforth, Jane Lipsitz
Plot: A concert documentary chronicling Katy Perry's 2011 tour, onstage and backstage.
Review: As bubble-gum a documentary as 27-year old singer / songwriter Katy Perry's on-screen persona, Part of Me is a concert video capturing her year-long, jet-setting international 2011 tour, supposedly on and off stage. It's definitely colorful, indomitable and larger-than-life, and it's always slick, entertaining stuff especially when focusing on the show itself. It just can't help but also be pretty shallow. Like many of MTV's latest offerings - and any self-produced documentary - it's also a pretty vacuous portrait of its subject, showing the canned preacher girl to struggling artist to worldwide phenomena in a series of insider interviews and the performer's own home videos, playing like an extended infomercial for her fans. Ever the showgirl, this is the "part of her" that she's willing to share, and it's far from the eye-opening, honest account of Madonna's Truth or Dare. The very mediatized breakup with husband Russel Brand provides the only real on-screen emotion, adding to the pressures of the grueling tour schedule, as she fights depression, fatigue and tears to perform to a huge crowd in Brazil. And that's where she shines, in her element among a roomful of her adoring fans or on stage in front of thousands, singing a dozen catchy tunes like ''Teenage Dream'', "E.T." and ''Last Friday Night'' amid a cartoonish array of set decorations and dancer / acrobats, sporting a blue wig and multiple costume changes. Fans and non-fans have to agree that she's got talent and determination to go with her off-the-wall imagination and by the end of its running time, you can't help but be won over by her girl-next-door sensibilities, bubbly nature and willingness to laugh at herself. Marketing it may be, but it works.
Entertainment: 7/10

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1 (2012)
Voices: Peter Weller, Ariel Winter, David Selby
Director: Jay Oliva
Plot: After ten years of absence, an aging Bruce Wayne takes on the mantle of the Dark Knight once again to fight a new breed of criminal violence in a future Gotham. 
Review: Frank Miller's 1986 graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns was one of the most influential Batman comics of the 80s and 90s, and a clear template for Chris Nolan's epic film trilogy. It's was inevitable, then, that DC animation would adapt it for the direct-to-DVD market, in this case the first of a two-parter. While many of Batman's adventures are really about the villains and indeed Two-Face, the Joker, and a brand-new female Robin make an appearance, but this is all about the Bat. First thing of note: The adaptation is just as violent, dark, and as mature as the original work, or at least as much as can be done on screen. This isn't your typical Batman and it's *not* meant for kids. Indeed, if you thought the Batman was a symbol of fascism and vigilantism, you ain't seen nothing yet. This is a Darker Knight: using guns, prone to overriding violence, using all the gadgets at his disposal (including a bat-tank), this older, bigger Batman is a product of dark times. He's become a man who's ends justify the means. With Peter Weller voicing Batman (how cool is that?), the comparisons to Robocop's bleak, right-leaning future will be foremost in some people's minds. The animation style tries, as much as possible considering it's a limited-budget cartoon, to recreate Miller's distinctive drawing style. The adaptation also takes every opportunity to delve into the dark psychology of the Batman and the feelings he engenders in the people he's vowed to protect. Those new to the tale will have a grand old time with this reinvention of the character, while readers of the graphic novel will come out with an appreciation of the faithfulness of the adaptation. Whatever the case may be, those blasé about the latest Batman adventures will have something to get excited about.
Entertainment: 7/10

Bunraku (2010)
Starring: Josh Hartnett, Demi Moore, Woody Harrelson, Ron Perlman, Kevin McKidd 
Director: Guy Moshe
Plot: In a post-apocalyptic world where guns have been banned, a mysterious drifter bursts into a town looking for revenge on a vicious criminal leader and his nine deadly assassins.
Review: A mash up of kung-fu actioner, samurai movie, film noir and Western, Bunraku just can't figure out what it wants to be. From the get-go, it's clear this was made for people with short attention spans, the narrative moving from comic book sensibilities to class-warfare melodrama with heavy use of Hong Kong inspired action choreography. The art direction is bold and Expressionistic, the visual flourishes flamboyant - think of it as Technicolor Metropolis for the action crowd. Director Moshe wants to re-invent the genre film (but which one?), but by imitating so many movies it's a confused homage filled with too many clichés and mind-numbing sequences, all without having a voice of its own. This is a case of style over substance if ever there was one, with too much time taken on look and atmosphere to care about such silly things as characters and narrative cohesion. The B-list cast all have archetypal roles, including Moore as an aging whore, genre-veteran Perlman as an axe-wielding Godfather and Hartnett as the Man With No Name, but they're all pretty much wasted, with only Harrelson appearing to have fun as the "bartender". There's some fun to be had in some of its disjointed parts, and there's no denying the urge to fill every frame and moment with something new, but by trying too hard it ends up feeling like a music video that's gone on too long. Perhaps it's a movie that's too ahead of its time, or too far behind - whatever the case, Bunraku is a case of too much ending up being too little.
Entertainment: 5/10

The Hunter (2011)
Starring: Willem Dafoe, Sam Neill, Frances O'Connor
Director: Daniel Nettheim
Plot: Hired by a biotech company, a skilled mercenary is sent to the Tasmanian wilderness to hunt for a tiger long thought extinct, but the loner soon finds himself taking sides in local affairs, especially as he grows close to a local family.
Review: Based on the novel by Julia Leigh, the drama The Hunter has a premise straight out of a thriller with a structure to match, but don't be fooled going in: this is more of a Man vs. Nature drama, a deliberately-paced affair that demands attention and introspection from its audience. Indeed, the hunt for the elusive Tasmanian tiger is but an allegory to our own troubled times, a metaphor for our own hope and sins, the clash of technology vs. conservation, of our past and our future, embodied in the trials of a solitary hunter. Comparisons between hunter and prey are obvious, with Dafoe's character humanized by his interaction with a local single-mother and her children. Thankfully, it's all platonic, but the bond between him and her young, mute son is revealing. This all works thanks to a bevy of good actors, none more so than an aging but always magnetic Dafoe, easily convincing as the expert huntsman; Morgana Davies, as the rough-talking pre-teen daughter who runs the house steals every scene she's in. TV-director Nettheim's intentionally slow pacing works wonders for the film, capturing the slow burn of the situations and our rugged protagonist, alone in the beautiful landscapes of Tasmania. Here the nature cinematography, with long pans and wide shots, enhances the desolation and solitude. That said, it's not all just Artsy stuff - there's tension building throughout, suspicious characters around, and a pressure cooker conflict between loggers and environmentalists on top of the long, patient hunt. But what will stay with you is the implications of the hunter's decision at the moment of truth, something left for audiences to contemplate. There's lots of symbolism in the underbrush, but at 80-minutes, The Hunter never feels languid, nor any scene misplaced. A finely-tuned, mature effort.
Drama: 7/10

Starbuck (Quebec - 2011)
Starring: Patrick Huard, Julie LeBreton, Antoine Bertrand
Director: Ken Scott
Plot: Just as his on-and-off girlfriend tells him she's pregnant, a middle-aged slacker discovers he's the biological father of 522 children after donating sperm at a local clinic during his early 20's, and 142 of them have filed a class-action lawsuit to meet him.
Review: The high concept plot for the local French-Canadian comedy Starbuck sets up a perfect premise for jokes and syrupy sentimentality. That it delivers in the humor and melodrama is surely a plus but what really sets it apart is the often laid-back, consistently engaging narrative. The film tackles the theme of parenthood and ethics behind sperm donors, but stays neutral in the debate as to responsibility, keeping a fine balance between the serious issues and the laughs. We're in good hands: Writer / director Scott is no stranger to smart comedies, with the script for The Grand Seduction under his belt. All along he keeps even the most bizarre, tight spots light enough for the humor to bubble up while still delivering some poignant moments, especially in the middle part, where the focus turns to our hero secretly getting involved - guardian-angel style - in the lives of some of his progeny. Throughout, Patrick Huard plays the good-hearted, sociable slacker more convincingly and with oodles more charm than any of his Hollywood brethren. Thoroughly amusing, unabashedly sentimental and with a charismatic performance from Huard, Starbuck is a rare mainstream-minded comedy that hits all the right chords. Catch the original Quebec version before the American version with Vince Vaughn makes it a derivative comedy.
Drama / Comedy: 8/10

Mirror Mirror (2012)
Starring: Julia Roberts, Lily Collins, Armie Hammer, Nathan Lane
Director: Tarsem Singh
Plot: When an evil queen obsessed with keeping a youthful appearance drives her kingdom to ruin, an exiled princess seeks the help of a handsome prince and a gang of thieving dwarves to overthrow her.
Review: Yet another adaptation for 2012 of the classic Snow White tale, Mirror Mirror is definitely the silliest, and intentionally so. The filmmakers may have had the idea to attempted to recapture the spirit of The Princess Bride, but this high-camp retelling of the Grimm fairy-tale - with slapstick, romantic comedy, sword-wielding action and even a CG forest monster for good measure - doesn't quite have the smarts or the heart to make it so. The script plays with the elements of the original tale, and fairy-tale tropes in general with glee; the dwarves are thieves, the queen is a floozy, the mirror her subconscious, and the naive Snow White a young would-be-feminist (though nowhere that of 2012's other take on the material, Snow White and the Huntsman). Through it all, the comedy ends up mostly hit or miss, but it does manage a congenial atmosphere. On the plus side, director Singh (Immortals, The Fall) does show off some creative ideas on occasion, such as the villainous marionettes or the dark take on the magic mirror, and he knows his way around cinematic razzle-dazzle, and the gorgeous visuals attest to his strengths. The costumes by Japanese designer Eiko Ishioka, especially, are a marvel to behold. But beautiful imagery isn't enough; even as the bizarre, colorful characters run around amidst the music video backgrounds, it's clear something's missing to the proceedings to make it all gel. For sure, the entire cast seems game to anything, which comes in handy considering the movie never quite knows what it's aiming for. Julia Roberts, quite obviously, is the main reason this movie was ever undertaken. Her interpretation of the evil queen is, let's say, different, but she's clearly having a ball playing the narcissistic step-mother whose fear of wrinkles drives her kingdom to ruin. Nathan Lane, as her sniveling right-hand man, gets the short end of the comic stick, but at least Collins and Hammer, as the young princely couple, have enough charm to see even the worst moments through. Except for the surprisingly entertaining Bollywood style musical number during the end credits, there's really nothing quite remarkable here. Still, Mirror, Mirror is at least entertaining enough for family viewing, the eye-candy making it more palatable for more mature audiences.
Entertainment: 5/10

Monsieur Lazhar (2011)
Starring: Mohamed Fellag, Sophie Nélisse, Émilien Néron
Director: Philippe Falardeau
Plot: An Algerian substitute takes over a traumatized grade school class after their well-liked teacher commits suicide.
Review: Winner of the Best Canadian Film and a 2012 Oscar nominee, Monsieur Lazhar is an affecting and compelling drama without any of the typical Hollywood cloyness. Adapted by writer-director Falardeau (La moitié gauche du frigo, Congorama) from a one-man play, the movie is a blend of sadness and inspiration, blending the teacher's own secret tragedy with the school's undercurrent of sadness and torment. Among these themes of guilt, grieving and shame, the story explores issues of both immigration and education; heady topics, for sure, yet the film stays engaging and vivacious while avoiding melodrama or easy sentimentality. Indeed, there are no easy bridges between the two worlds - both teacher and students (and their parents!) have very different cultural expectations for the classroom - and the film does wonders in exploring these topics with both smarts and emotional relevance. As the heart of the movie, comic Fellag (himself an exile) gives a subtle, compelling performance as a rather mysterious Algerian immigrant trying to make his place in a new society. He's magnificently supported by some strong adult actors and a wonderful child cast, especially the young Nélisse and Néron, two childhood friends at a loss to explain their own pent-up feelings. There may not be a real happy ending here, but Monsieur Lazhar is an effective commentary on our social attitudes and expectations, but more than that it's a wonderful drama on human resilience and our ability to connect.
Drama: 8/10

Batman: Mystery of the Batwoman (2003)
Voices: Kevin Conroy, Kimberly Brooks, Kelly Ripa 
Director: Curt Geda
Plot: As the villainous Penguin is set to strike a big arms deal, the Batman gets unwanted help by a mysterious and ruthless new female vigilante who emulates him.
Review: A direct to DVD movie based on the popular 1990's Batman Animated adventures, Batman: Mystery of the Batwoman, plays like an extended 2-parter, for good and bad. The movie brings in some new characters along with some familiar ones, as well as villains The Penguin and Bane, thrown into a standard comic-book plot. As for the mystery surrounding the identity of the Batwoman, it will probably stump younger ones until it's revealed, though adults will probably figure this one out early on. Those familiar with the series will feel right at home with the dark cartoon tone, the stylized Art Deco animation and solid voice talent consistent with its small-screen TV ilk. No surprise there as director Geda's career has been immersed in the TV super-hero animated genre, having particularly helmed the gritty Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker. Here he's set out to make a light, fun feature and they've succeeded in making something pre-teens (and Bat-fans) will certainly get a kick out of. It's perhaps more run of the mill compared to previous animated releases that had the stamp of Paul Dini and Bruce Timm, the producers / writers who most heavily influenced the TV versions, which may explain why it's not as clever or engaging enough for more mature audiences. Still, Batwoman has enough adventure, action and the usual Batman stuff to satisfy fans, even if it won't make any new ones.
Entertainment: 6/10

Lockout (2012)
Starring: Guy Pearce, Maggie Grace, Peter Stormare 
Directors: James Mather, Stephen St. Leger
Plot: Wrongly accused of treason, a US agent is offered redemption if he goes on a suicide mission to rescue the president's daughter from violent criminals who have overtaken a maximum security prison orbiting Earth.
Review: A throwback to 80's action films - especially those with a dystopian future - with more than a passing resemblance to the John Carpenter's B-movie classic Escape from New York, Lockout could easily have been neglected into the Euro-trash bin if it weren't for the exploitation chutzpah of its directors and the presence of its leading man. The posters proclaim this is from the producers of Taken, and the similarities are clear - apart from the fact that prolific French director / screenwriter Luc Besson had a hand in the creation of both, they also have the same take-no-prisoners attitude. The special effects are more than occasionally cheesy - much like the dialogue, predictable one-liners and storyline, for sure - and it's often quite clear that this sci-fi actioner was made on a limited budget. The capable if unspectacular action comes in spurts, much like the suspense, but it's silly popcorn entertainment that's never boring. Pearce has always been a fascinating actor, from low-key dramas to scorching thrillers. Here he chews up the screen in his own version of the wise-cracking Snake Plissken character, and he's by far the best thing in the movie. As for the necessary foreign-accented villains, we get the cold-blooded Vincent Regan as the prison outbreak leader and the wiry Joseph Gilgun who plays the deranged inmate to the hilt, providing much of the film's tension and comedy on his own. Grace, as the damsel in distress, does OK, but barely registers among the testosterone. For those looking though video store shelves for the dumb thrills usually relegated to direct-to-DVD flicks, Lockout is a fun midnight movie to see with a bunch of guys. All others need not apply.
Entertainment: 5/10

Wrath of the Titans (2012)
Starring: Sam Worthington, Rosamund Pike, Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes
Director: Jonathan Liebesman
Plot: Perseus and his band of heroes brave the gods to find their way into the Underworld to rescue the god Zeus, taken prisoner by Ares and Hades who mean to unleash the mountainous Titan Kronos upon the world.
Review: Things go boom on a grand scale in Wrath of the Titans, the sequel to the Clash of the Titans remake. More so than its earlier sibling, the film is more dynamic, tighter in its narrative, and more interesting in its tale - it's not classic stuff, for sure, but it's certainly entertaining despite the clunky dialogue and cheesy plot. The computer effects go from effective to spectacular, especially the sequences when the mile-high Kronos, the Father of the Gods, a creature made of living magma, breaks from his mountain prison and lays waste to the land. We also get a bevy of mythological monsters throwing themselves into the fray, from huge Cyclops to an ugly-looking Minotaur. And what would a Titans movie be without some kind of Greek tragedy and melodrama to go with the kitsch, in this case revolving around the bonds of father & son and "daddy issues". Director Liebesman (Battle Los Angeles) actually gives the sword and sandals tale a new coat of paint, and the sheen at least looks pretty good. The only stumble, perhaps, are the scenes created as an excuse to flex 3D muscles; they try too hard and it's a miss, especially the overlong sequence of moving slabs of stone in the labyrinth protecting the entrance to Hades. As for the stellar supporting cast making up the pantheon of gods, including Neeson, Ralph Fiennes (both of whom get more face time this time around), Édgar Ramírez and Bill Nighy, they actually try to keep a straight face and at least seem to bring a little more passion than the previous outing. Especially enticing is Pike as the soldier-Queen who proves a match for any would-be hero. The only thing that is leaden, in fact, is Sam Worthington returning as the demi-god Perseus; he's an actor who has proven in the past to be better than his material but here, he's a hero in need of some emotive presence, and even giving him emotional baggage (hey, he's got a kid! in danger no less!) doesn't make him more than a cardboard cutout. Still, despite that Wrath of the Titans is a more epic and more entertaining sequel that surpasses the first in every way. It's still a forgettable popcorn flick, but it's fun while it lasts. 
Entertainment: 6/10

Battleship (2012)
Starring: Taylor Kitsch, Brooklyn Decker, Liam Neeson
Director: Peter Berg
Plot: Caught in an energy field along with the island of Hawaii during a naval exercise, an untested young officer and his crew must battle an advance alien invasion force using the few ships under their command.
Review: Call it Transformers on the sea: the big-budget effects extravaganza Battleship is probably more fun that one would have expected, but that doesn't make it very good. All the elements are there - cool computer animations, lots of heavy artillery, oodles of war equipment and some good looking stars. Alas, the lame, underwritten script takes pains to make the alien technology and actions compatible with the rules of the classic Hasbro board game. Shackled by these rules, the film just ends up both silly and aggravating - the ET's have the means to make mince-meat out of the humans, but something (honor? fair-play? bad writing?) stops them from doing so, giving our heroes countless chances to get back in the game. Not to say there isn't lots of summer popcorn fun to be had, especially as the ships battle it out: a handful of destroyers duke it out, eventually getting blown to bits in a naval cat and mouse game, giving everyone the excuse (er, opportunity) to take a real battleship and its original crew out of mothballs (the real-life ship-turned-museum USS Missouri) to a satisfying, big guns-filled climax. As for the story, characters and sub-plots, there's really not enough material for its bloated 2+ hours runtime; trimmed out, this would have been a more efficient 90-minute affair. Taking not a page but the whole book from the Michael Bay method of filmmaking, director Berg shows little of the smarts he did in The Kingdom or even Hancock, though he does show the slick visual flair we expect from Hollywood productions. The cast, led by a capable Kitsch and supported by the likes of Alexander Skarsgård and pop-star Rihanna, does pretty much what's expected of them, with Neeson's screen time amounting to almost a cameo appearance as the fleet admiral. A better script, better pacing or even some more mindful editing would have done wonders for the film. As it stands, Battleship can't make much of its simple premise and only occasionally rallies our interest.
Entertainment: 5/10

Spy Kids: All the Time in the World in 4D (2011)
Starring: Jessica Alba, Jeremy Piven, Joel McHale
Director: Robert Rodriguez
Plot: After discovering their step-mother is actually a retired spy called back into action to stop a villain from stealing Time itself, two young kids join a discontinued high-tech program to help her save the day.
Review: It's been ten years since the original Spy Kids leapt to screens, followed by sequels of ever-decreasing quality and effectiveness. Spy Kids 4, or Spy Kids: All the Time in the World in 4D (the theatrical presentation was in 3D and audiences were given a scratch-and-sniff card for the occasional ghastly smell) is not a movie for a mature audience. This is truly meant for kids, and the kids will absolutely love it. There's slapstick, potty jokes, a talking dog (voiced by Ricky Gervais no less), gadgets new and old, and other juvenile antics that will keep young ones in stitches. The dialogue abounds with puns regarding time and clocks, of course, such as "we're running out of time", "I'm gonna punch your clock", that sort of thing. There's also an easy to follow plot, including colorful over-the-top of villains, lots of green-screen and CG-enhanced action, and a morale of family togetherness. Writer / director Rodriguez (Sin City, Desperado) does well enough with a limited budget as he has done in the past installments of this series. This is not his forte, perhaps, but he does invest in the proceedings. Alexa Vega and Daryl Sabara, the original Spy Kids now all grown up, return along with actress Jessica Alba out for a quick paycheck. However, this is the time for a new generation of Spy Kids; as the female half of the pair, Rowan Blanchard just sucks, but Mason Cook is a real charmer. Kudos, however, to Jeremy Piven in a multiple role of good guy and villain(s), continuing the series' best asset, just as Alan Cumming and Sylvester Stallone before him. The spy shenanigans are getting old, and much of the film is a retread of the original, but there is still life in this series - at least for under-10 year olds.
Entertainment: 4/10

The Woman in Black (2012)
Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Ciarán Hinds, Janet McTeer 
Director: James Watkins
Plot: After losing his wife, a young lawyer travels to a remote village to close the deed to an old mansion, only to learn that it's home to a vengeful ghost that is terrorizing the villagers and their children.
Review: Based on Susan Hill's popular novel of the same name, The Woman in Black marks the welcome return of UK's foremost horror production house Hammer Films, an instigator of not-so-classic-but-oh-so-endearing genre fare in the 50's, 60's and 70's starring the likes of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. A period ghost story, the film foregoes gore (thankfully) for traditional chills and some good old fashioned scares. Director James Watkins knows he's doing an old-style Brit horror film, and he knows how to get the most out of the location and situations. The problem is that the scares, as creepy as they are the first time around, get quite repetitive - the image in the mirror, the figure caught in the corner of the screen, the face in the window - making for a final product that's not as tight as it could be, and eventually not as frightening or suspenseful, sometimes even bordering on the tedious during those lengthy "haunted house" moments. Mind you, the house itself is a thing of beauty, horror-picture-wise, and the interior sets are ravishing. Radcliffe, trying to part ways from his Harry Potter persona, does well enough but often comes off as expressionless, surprising considering the impossible, terror-filled situations he's in. Hinds does best in a supporting role as the only voice of reason in the village filled with superstitious folk. As a retro-horror flick, The Woman in Black keeps a familiar narrative with modern filmmaking techniques, and it's a nice, low-key effort for the genre.
Horror / Entertainment: 6/10

Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance (2012)
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Ciarán Hinds, Idris Elba, Violante Placido
Directors: Mark Neveldine, Brian Taylor
Plot: Trying to keep his demonic alter ego in check in Eastern Europe, a motorcycle stuntman is approached by a warrior-monk who requests his help to protect a boy from the Devil.
Review: The Marvel Knights comic emblem was meant to capture a world of anti-heroes, characters who lived in the grey zone of ethical and moral righteousness. Alas, just like the failed Punisher adaptations, Hollywood doesn't understand what made these guys tick and the audience's allure to the Dark Side. Case in point: Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance. The craziness and balls-to-the-walls, take no prisoners type of filmmaking the director team of Neveldine and Taylor showed off in the ADD actioner Crank and its sequel only occasionally shines through, like a shot of the Rider pissing like a flame-thrower or vomiting out molten lead at his gun-toting attackers. The rest of the film is dynamically (some would say erratically) shot but though the narrative is never quite boring, it's never quite interesting either. Some blame goes to the by-the-numbers plot about secret ancient cults in Europe and a child who is the Chosen One screams B-movie, and that's exactly what we get. The script - disappointingly, with scribe S. Goyer in Blade Trinity mode instead of The Dark Knight - never gels into anything interesting, despite touching on the character's main themes of vengeance versus justice and the Jekyll vs. Hyde conflict of its protagonist; the latter is visually captured with aplomb, but there's nothing else behind it. And the requisite super-villain courtesy of Blackout, an evildoer whose mere touch causes things (and people) to decay, never feels like a threat, though he does get some laughs. A sequence where the Rider takes over a huge drilling machine that bursts into flames akin to his motorcycle is a brilliant dash of inventiveness and chaos, but - apart from this and a rather tepid, CG-aided highway car chase with hero and villain fighting on the hood of moving vehicles - the action sequences mostly consist of the Rider dispatching swaths of Euro-trash. And that's exactly how this film feels like: a low budget Euro-thriller. At least the location shooting in Turkey and Eastern Europe is very cool looking and well used. As for the cast, Cage telegraphs his performance from somewhere else, surprisingly lacking the over-the-top intensity he usually carries around just for these types of roles. A cameo appearance by Christophe Lambert is poorly used, but Ciaran does make a great devil. The real highlight is Brit actor Idris Elba playing the French warrior-monk - the movie would have been better served with him as the focus. It's all entertaining enough for less discriminate viewers; too bad the parties involved couldn't come up with something better than this.
Entertainment: 5/10

Act of Valor (2012)
Starring: Alex Veadov, Roselyn Sanchez, Nestor Serrano
Directors: Mike McCoy, Scott Waugh
Plot: After recovering a kidnapped CIA agent, an elite Navy SEALs team scours the world to stop a terrorist cell and their plot against the US.
Review: What can best be described as a glorified Navy recruitment video, the low-budget Act of Valor has the great idea (and marketing ploy) of using real-life Navy SEALs to perform in its "straight-from-the-headlines" action thriller. And it uses this to its advantage: these guys get to show off jumping out of planes, helicoptering into fire zones, clambering onto a nuclear sub breaching the water, sneaking into countries, and do lots more cool stuff. Better known as stunt coordinators than men behind the camera, directors McCoy and Waugh excel at bringing the impulsive, tension-filled action set pieces to life, admittedly the real attraction of the film. It's during these moments that the film is at its best, showing off the skills, training and tactics of its real-life SEALs - and boy do we get to see bullets flying, bodies punctured and things blowing up in good old Hollywood fashion, including the too-familiar first-person-shooter POV. The cinematography is also quite impressive, mixing some beautiful scenery shots with the in-your-face shaky cam. Think of it as one giant cut-scene from a Call of Duty video game; it sure looks, feels and plays out like one, down to the easy-to-digest national terrorist threat. Alas, the dialogue - meant to ring true - is downright corny, with a lifeless delivery from these non-actors; the appearance of relationships is nothing but awkward, and the melodrama falls flat. And that's the film's real Achilles' heel - these guys are real Navy SEALs, not actors, and by getting them to open up on feelings of family, loss and honor the film just seems phony, wallowing on the machismo and gung-ho patriotism of these men; the truth is perhaps more complex than that. Surprisingly enough, the two villains are more compelling individuals than any of the commandos; sure, the idea may be that these soldiers are great as a unit, but as individuals they fall short. As an action flick, Act of Valor beats many similar action products hands-down and often provides a compelling look at the various battles faced by Navy SEALs; too bad it's packaged in such flag-waving muck.
Entertainment: 6/10

This Means War (2012)
Starring: Reese Witherspoon, Chris Pine, Tom Hardy
Director: McG
Plot: Two top CIA operatives, grounded for misconduct in an LA field office, compete for the affection of the same woman using their access to the Agency's surveillance resources.
Review: Clearly, the idea was for This Means War to follow the action rom-com road blazed by such entertaining flicks like Mr. and Mrs. Smith and True Lies. All we get, however, is a vapid, by-the-numbers comedy, where rom-com starlet Witherspoon is but an excuse for the bromance between spy experts Pine and Hardy - all three of them have more charm and personality than this clunker. As for the humour, it mostly relies on the misuse of CIA resources to get constant surveillance of the boys' love interest; they use the information to adapt their approach - to poor effect - but it's more creepy than funny. Director McG (Charlie's Angels, Terminator: Salvation) takes another misstep in his career; it's not bad, just depressingly pedestrian stuff that goes for the easy resolutions and easy laughs, never once trying to push it's potential as satire on dating and social media into anything original. For the most part it remains aloft thanks to a McG's ability to keep it bubbly, popping during the action set pieces, meandering through the situational comedy and floundering in the more intimate moments. Pummeling? Check. Humour and heart? Perhaps misplaced in another script. Another mass produced product to add to video store shelves.
Entertainment: 4/10

Safe House (2012)
Starring: Denzel Washington, Ryan Reynolds, Robert Patrick
Director: Daniel Espinosa
Plot: After unknown, armed assailants break into their Cape Town safe house, a young CIA officer is tasked to protect a rogue agent who has an agenda of his own.
Review: Safe House attempts to give its formulaic CIA-thriller script some pep, focusing on both the action and (simplistic) character study in equal measure, with the location shooting in and around the streets of Cape Town adding to the film's exotic atmosphere. Using lots of dynamic camera work and saturated visuals, director Espinosa provides a slick affair that's pretty capably put together. The first half hour is a frenzied, crackerjack popcorn flick as the pieces, characters and exposition all get set up, and - following a water-boarding torture scene and a first shootout - the men become fugitives, neither seeing eye-to-eye. The close-quarter fighting is predictably savage, and the action set-pieces involving the expected car chases and gun fights, with highlights being an escape through a packed soccer stadium and a rather ill-conceived race across shantytown rooftops on the outskirts of the city. It's no Bourne, but it works. Alas, the story loses steam two-thirds through, and plummets as its end-game is revealed, a zero-shock double-cross - and denouement - that makes the movie just another cliché. But we're really here for leading-man Washington: with a mischievous gleam in his eye and an ease in dealing death, he makes for a fascinating character, and the mystery surrounding him makes this creaky affair more palatable than most similar thrillers. Reynolds tries to keep up in the macho department, and mostly carries it off. Not so for the bevy of usually strong supporting actors like Brendan Gleeson, Sam Shepard and Vera Farmiga get uninteresting bit parts as CIA officers - they're here for the quick paycheck. A better script would have done wonders, but predictable as Safe House is it's still ably entertaining - it's just not a keeper. 
Entertainment: 6/10

Contraband (2012)
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Giovanni Ribisi, Kate Beckinsale
Director: Baltasar Kormákur
Plot: After his brother-in-law gets in over his head with a drug lord, a reformed smuggler takes on another job smuggling millions in counterfeit bills from Panama into the US.
Review: Contraband is an entertaining enough B-movie crime thriller, and the filmmakers seem to be content on keeping it at that. Based on a well-received Icelandic thriller, this is a gritty, grimy and very Hollywood-clichéd adaptation, a surprise considering director Kormákur was the lead in the original version. It does try hard to be part Scorcese crime drama and part Ocean's Eleven, but it takes itself much too seriously without having a substantial script to go with it. For one, the movie spends too much time on the melodrama and inevitable double-cross we see coming a mile ahead. The caper, about moving in counterfeit bills from Panama to the US aboard a cargo vessel, is secondary to much of the movie, though it's the more interesting part. When they get to Panama things start hopping in a series of improbably silly events leading to a dynamic daylight armored car robbery and shootout. It defies belief, especially considering the massive coincidences, but it is entertaining. Alas, that sequence - along with an on-going joke about a priceless Pollock painting - is the high point of the film, and there's still another Act to go. Wahlberg sleepwalks through another tough guy role without stretching his acting abilities. Ribisi, however, seems to be pushing all the wrong buttons in the role of the tough guy drug dealer. As for Beckinsale, she has the weakest part, limited to playing the damsel / mother in distress. That said, Contraband never quite loses steam but neither does it actually ever get to be engaging. Made for late-night TV.
Entertainment: 5/10

The Grey (2011)
Starring: Liam Neeson, Dermot Mulroney and Frank Grillo
Director: Joe Carnahan
Plot: After their plane crashes in the remote Alaska wilderness, six oil workers led by a skilled hunter try to make their way to civilization but are dogged by the freezing elements and a pack of vicious wolves.
Review: The Grey is - for the most part - a pure and simple survival adventure film, the likes of which we don't see anymore. From a harrowing plane crash sequence to the final Man vs. Animal climax, it's a gritty, mostly realistic take that doesn't pull punches. Writer / director Carnahan has veered into more interesting territory here following his successes on Narc and The A-Team - and we're not just talking the striking, forbidding Alaskan landscape, superbly captured in all its snow-and-fir glory. Yes, there's a slasher-movie feel as the survivors perish one by one from the elements, various injuries and the wolf pack on their trail (the latter of which is ably done through a mix of effects and real animals), but it's also quite effective at creating real tension. Perhaps channeling The Edge, the tough, to-the-point script short-changes most of the characters for suspense, shocks and melodrama, yet occasionally veers into existential territory to tell the story of its main protagonist in flashbacks. Speaking of which, leading-man Neeson's recent career choices in the action genre - especially the B-movie ones like Taken and Unknown - shows that he can really rock as the silent, determined Alpha male (in this case, pun intended), bringing the tough-guy role a sense of fragility underneath the bravura. A brutally efficient little survival thriller, The Grey may be fast-food entertainment, but it's quite tasty stuff.
Entertainment: 7/10

Life in a Day (2011)
Starring: The YouTube community
Directors: Kevin MacDonald, The YouTube community
Plot: An amalgam of footage shot and sent in from people around the world capturing their daily life on a single day - July 24, 2010.
Review: How do you capture humanity's life on Earth? Well, one way is the ambitious attempt that is Life in a Day, a smorgasbord of everyday moments that tries to give a glimpse into what it is to be alive today. An experiment in social networking and global filmmaking, director Ridley Scott's production team asked YouTube users to send them their amateur videos chronicling a single day of their lives, July 24, 2010. They received 80,000 submissions totaling 4,500 hours of footage from 192 countries. Documentary director MacDonald (who did the Oscar winning One Day in September and the exceptional Touching the Void) then edited all these entries into a 90 minute feature capturing, chronologically, the day progressing from 12:01 am to midnight. There is no real narrative here except the passing of time and the common activities around the world (waking up, washing, preparing food, etc.). At the same time it's a sometimes marvelous, sometimes bland snapshot of the world we live in with its myriad of cultures. The goal is to connect people - it's amazing how anyone can understand the basic needs of another, or how we can empathize to each one's answers to simple questions - what's in your pocket? what do you love? what do you fear? The quality of the video ranges from grainy cell phone cam to gorgeous hi-def, but like anyone who has been captivated by the short-attention-span YouTube culture can attest, it's the content that grabs your attention. Perhaps by intent, perhaps by limitations, the film finds many quiet, intimate moments in people's lives without transcending the format or giving any real message. That makes Life in a Day less portentous and free-spirited, with enough rough gems to make it worth the trip.
Documentary: 6/10

Immortals (2011) 
Starring: Henry Cavill, Mickey Rourke, Stephen Dorff
Director: Tarsem Singh
Plot: A mortal man chosen by the Greek god Zeus must lead the struggle against the ruthless King Hyperion who is scorching the land in search of a fabled bow that can unleash the Titans and destroy the gods.
Review: A glorious example of style over substance, Immortals is a swords-and-sandals epic billed as coming from the "producers of 300", and it shows: the painterly computer-generated scenes, the larger-than-life characters, the grand emotions, etc. But where the latter was gruesome and bloody, this movie - based in part on the legend of Hyperion, the Minotaur and others - is more like a baroque painting come to life with monsters, scantily-clad virile men and young gods all clashing swords in fantastic battles captured in Matrix-styled slo-mo. Indulgent it may be, but director Singh (The Cell, The Fall) brings such an eager-to-please energy along with his trademark attention to arresting visuals, each scene filled with such sumptuous visual flair, that audiences will be hypnotized by the eye-candy... at least enough to forgive much of the clichés and failures of the convoluted script. As leading man, Cavill has the physique if not quite the charisma for the classic hero role, and he mostly stands his ground against the surreal backgrounds. The standout, however, is Rourke who truly chews the screen in a powerful (if over-the-top) performance as the ruthless King Hyperion. A thrilling re-imagining of Greek mythology, Immortals' tale may not last past the credits but the imagery will surely linger in the mind long after. Beautiful.
Entertainment: 7/10

Hop (2011)
Starring: Russell Brand, James Marsden, Kaley Cuoco
Director: Tim Hill
Plot: Reluctant to take on the mantle of Easter Bunny from this father, a teenage rabbit escapes to Hollywood to find fame as a rock & roll drummer, only to drop in on a very human slacker who's already in over his head.
Review: If the kid-friendly comedy Hop bears an uncanny narrative resemblance to Alvin and the Chipmunks (i.e. a by-and-large rehash, that is), it's because it was meant to: director Hill did both, and he's on automatic mode here, delivering another by-the-numbers affair meant exclusively for children. Pratfall, slapstick, broad humour, all get thrown into an Easter version of a bad Christmas movie as E.B. (Easter Bunny, get it? yes, that's the level of cleverness here) plays the sweet lovable slacker trying to avoid responsibility. It's all so straight and G-rated that Hallmark would have signed off on it - a surprising choice, then, for bad-boy comedian Brand to be asked to voice the bunny only to neuter him. Mardsen plays the slacker into pure silliness, and the rest of the cast is really only there to support the animated characters. A computer-animated candy-factory opening sequence exhausts the film's ingenuity, and the only character to root for is the villain of the piece, a Latino-sounding chick who organizes a coup to take over the Easter Bunny role. Hard to believe that this was written and produced by the same guys who did the witty, enjoyable Despicable Me. Shame. Hop probably has just enough action and silliness to keep young ones amused, but that sure can't be said of their parents who have to sit through this.
Comedy: 4/10

Paul (2011)
Starring: Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Seth Rogen
Director: Greg Mottola
Plot: Two British sci-fi geeks make a pilgrimage to America's UFO heartland in a rented RV only to get involved with an escaped alien desperately trying to get back home.
Review: Science-fiction nerds rejoice! Not since Galaxy Quest has a Hollywood movie better understood the humorous workings of the SF junkie, and never with such empathy. Written by and starring the Brit comedy duo of Pegg and Frost (the two responsible for the cult parodies Shaun of the Dead and the hilarious Hot Fuzz, and avowed sci-fi nerds themselves) with director Mottola (Superbad, Adventureland) on board, this is a road trip movie that plays up the laughs but still has its heart in the right place. References to sci-fi flicks are on the menu and clichés abound - we've got an non-kid friendly version of E.T. trying to get home while being pursued Starman-like across Roswell by Men in Black, to conclude in a Close Encounters like ending... with Sigourney Weaver in a cameo appearance no less! Surprisingly enough, all this melting pot of ideas works more often than it fails. What really keeps it afloat are the characters; Pegg and Frost have banter and chemistry down pat, making for a likable, if unlikely, pair of heroes; SNL star Kristen Wiig does a charming supporting performance as the kidnapped, country-girl love interest; and Jason Bateman proves effective as the tough-nosed, unstoppable special agent stuck with two incompetent assistants. The diminutive CG alien, voiced to perfection by Rogen, is supposed to get the biggest yuks, but that's not the case; he has some zingers, for sure, but he's more an excuse (or the glue) for everything else; considering the strength of the cast, that's actually a good thing. It's a little too slapdash in its shotgun approach to comedy to be a keeper, but as a good-natured spoof by people who care about the genre, Paul mostly hits the mark.
Entertainment: 7/10

Agora (2009)
Starring: Rachel Weisz, Max Minghella, Oscar Isaac
Director: Alejandro Amenabar
Plot: In ancient Egypt under Roman rule, a female philosopher leads a group of disciples fighting to save the wisdom of the Ancient World as violent religious upheavals between the pagan Romans and the new Christians spill into the streets.
Review: A big-budget swords-and-sandals epic that wears its anti-religion message on its sleeve, Agora wants for nothing in the matter of Hollywood production values. Alas, director Amenabar's latest effort is disappointingly missing the spark - and character depth - that drove his previous works like Open Your Eyes, The Others and his masterful The Sea Inside. Instead of the thought-provoking, subtle or stylish attention we've come to expect, he's resorted to melodramatic short-cuts and the same ham-fisted methods used in Hollywood to get his point across, something that does his film - and the audience - no favors. Loosely based on real people and incidents that took place in the 4th century AD - and most specifically the famed female philosophy professor and atheist Hypatia - the film plays out on a grand scale, with lots of opportunities to capture the decadence and architecture of ancient Alexandria. It's all an exploration of how religion - and specifically Christian imperialism - and mob mentality always bests reason, and how people are swept away as the tide of change overcomes loyalties. It's fertile ground for compelling drama; too bad the characters feel so one-dimensional, despite the efforts of its able cast, with a script that provides only wooden dialogue and irritating contrivances. At the heart of it all is Weisz as the brilliant astronomer Hypatia, but her performance - or perhaps the overall setting - lacks any soul, much like the rest of the movie. It all looks pretty, for sure, but it's all basted in such irritatingly condescending melodrama. Amenabar can't be blamed for reaching too high with Agora, but it's disappointing to see such a challenging idea come out so blandly in his hands.
Drama: 4/10

The Iron Lady (2011)
Starring: Meryl Streep, Jim Broadbent, Alexandra Roach
Director: Phyllida Lloyd
Plot: An aging Margaret Thatcher, the former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, recalls the highlights of her political life and the sacrifices she made to get there.
Review: Margaret Thatcher is undeniably one of the most important, interesting and influential personalities of the 20th century, and her life was rife for a expose and British drama. Surprise, then, that instead of the typical BBC made-for-TV affair the filmmakers have gone in a different direction, putting the focus on her decline and current state, a bittersweet tale on what happens after one is on top of the world. Even more unusual is asking an American actress to take the part. Then again, Meryl Streep is anything but a typical American actress; she's Hollywood royalty through-and-through, a consummate artist who can make any role her own. And once again she hits it way out of the park, disappearing into the part as if she was born to play it, deservedly winning her third Oscar for an uncanny, mesmerizing performance. The makeup and prosthetics are perfect, easing her transformation from fiery Prime Minister to a woman humbled by age. Unfortunately, the film itself isn't up to her performance. Director Lloyd (who worked with Streep on the very differently themed musical Mamma Mia!) carefully avoids an examination or commentary on her politics, seeking instead an affecting portrait of the strong-willed leader who led the nation through massive union strikes, draconian saving measures and the Falkland skirmish. Flying quickly through the major events of her political life in a series of flashbacks we get only a cursory understanding of her personality and accomplishments. Kudos perhaps for Lloyd trying a different kind of narrative from the usual straight-forward bio-pic; it's a well-written, sensitive affair that shows much empathy for its titular character but lacks the weight to truly capture the woman and her times. Streep's work here is worth the price of admission alone, however, and for that The Iron Lady deserves a strong recommendation.
Drama: 7/10

War Horse (2011)
Starring: Jeremy Irvine, Tom Hiddleston, Emily Watson
Director: Steven Spielberg
Plot: After raising a horse and losing him to fund his family's farm, a young Brit enlists to go fight in the Great War in the hopes of finding his steed.
Review: A sweeping, old-fashioned war drama, War Horse promises larger-than-life emotions on a grand tapestry. Based more on Michael Morpurgo's young adult novel than the award-winning theatrical adaptation, it follows the lives of different participants - farmers, soldiers and victims - on both sides of the conflict as touched by its titular animal. Intentionally, this looks and feels like a classic 1950's Hollywood epic, and there's no denying the visually arresting imagery and impressive craftsmanship that went into making the movie. Spielberg has always been a master at manipulating emotions and getting an audience reaction, but here it seems his bag of tricks fails him. Indeed, the film comes out like a mangled blend of All Quiet on the Western Front and The Black Stallion, its saccharine sentimentality and war melodrama leaving a bad aftertaste. And that's disappointing coming from the director of such superb dramas like Schindler's List and the gritty World War II drama Saving Private Ryan. In fact, this is probably the only Spielberg movie that's actually boring: the opening 40-minute Act's most exciting scene is seeing the horse plow a field and even an actress like Emily Watson can't make it any better. This is just not great drama. Things pick up as the Great War starts and the horse changes hands between different people who come and go, somehow interacting with the horse's life in war torn France in stories that are meant to convey a picture of the hardships from both sides of World War I. Alas, they are never quite engaging and fail to provide any real insight. That said, the horse is beautiful and his fighter spirit drives the movie, especially in a masterfully executed race through the devastation of No Man's Land, one of the only sequences that lifts up the movie from blandness. The other highlight is a memorable scene where an English soldier and a German officer walk out of their respective trenches and join efforts to free the steed caught in barb wire, then toss a coin to see who brings him back. These moments are much more humanistic than the main plot of a Boy and his Horse.
Drama: 5/10

Rango (2011)
Voices: Johnny Depp, Isla Fisher, Ned Beatty
Director: Gore Verbinski
Plot: After being thrown out of his glass aquarium in the middle of the desert, an ordinary chameleon winds up in a lawless Wild West town where his tall tales of daring deeds accidentally gets him nominated as sheriff.
Review: Pitching the elaborate piñata that is Rango must have been quite an exercise: see, it's a computer animated Western spoof that ransacks a handful of classic pictures like Chinatown, High Noon and Clint Eastwood's The Man With No Name series, throws in a dash of the French comics Lucky Luke and blends it into a cartoon world filled with anthropomorphic lizards. Producers must have been lining up (not!). Thankfully, the presence of director Verbinski, re-teaming with his The Pirates of the Caribbean lead actor Depp, must have helped give it the green light, and we're all the better for it. The stylish art direction, the zany characters (motion-captured, no less), the hilarious dialogue, slapstick comedy and energetic action sequences along with the super-slick animation and photo-realistic backgrounds from special effects house ILM (the Star Wars guys) sure give Pixar a run for its money. To this Verbinski - working off a clever, absolutely hilarious script that mines the deep-rooted fears of every actor - adds a layer of satire, orneriness and sophistication that's incredibly refreshing, moving from playful to the grotesque without missing a beat, channeling the gonzo artistry best described by Hunter S. Thompson (himself parodied by Depp in two films). And counting the Western references are a hoot, too, as is the damn catchy opening titular tune. Leading the cast of solid performers, Depp lends his voice to the thespian chameleon (or, in this case, quite a few voices, as his character improvises his way out of one mess after another) and he's terrific. All this helped make Rango the Oscar winner for Best Animated Film of 2011, and deservedly so, proving that Hollywood animated films aren't just for kids anymore. One of the funniest and coolest movies of the year, animated or not.
Entertainment: 9/10

Colombiana (2011)
Starring: Zoe Saldana, Michael Vartan, Callum Blue
Director: Olivier Megaton
Plot: After witnessing the deaths of her parents as a child living in Bogota, a young woman becomes a stone-cold assassin in order to find the drug lord who ordered the crime.
Review: Colombiana starts off with a bang: A suspenseful, stand-out opening act sees our heroine, as a child, eluding her pursuers through the hilly streets of Bogotá to make her way to her uncle in New York. You'd be forgiven to think that this might actually be carried throughout the film, but from there on, the film stumbles back to the clichés and the silliness of similar genre flicks written and produced by Euro action-mogul Luc Besson, whose output of B-movie action-thrillers like the Taxi and The Transporter series, delivers on the promise of a fun 100 minutes. Headed by a solid, B-list actress, it's slick and decently paced, with enough action to satsify genre fans. Indeed, much like Taken was a showcase for Liam Neeson, Colombiana is one for Saldana - in an acrobatic performance, she's asked to emote and look vulnerable on occasion, but mostly she's asked to fit in a skin-tight outfit and kick-ass, both of which she does with wild abandon. The handful of action sequences are well executed, highlights including a well-planned stealth assassination of a drug lord protected in a police station and the bullet-filled final showdown as she takes down a heavily-armed cartel - and their boss - single-handedly. Director Megaton at least shows less of the disjointed comic-book narrative that marred his last outing, the workable actioner Transporter 3, and allows for some breather between the action, at least enough for the script to throw in an unnecessary romance into the mix to - perhaps - give audiences an emotional attachment to the character. Nice try, but not in this film. Despite the cast's attempts, Colombiana just doesn't have anything new to bring to the table. It's a fast-food flick that's all empty calories: fun while it lasts but quickly forgotten.
Entertainment: 6/10

Bridesmaids (2011)
Starring: Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph and Rose Byrne
Director: Paul Feig
Plot: Attempting to fulfill her maid of honor duties for her best friend's wedding, an out-of-work, single pastry chef has to contend with a rich, popular rival bridesmaid and her own crumbling life, but her poor choices threaten to upend the entire wedding.
Review: Out to prove that women can be just as raunchy as their male counterparts, Bridesmaids follows in the footsteps of producer Judd Apatow's own male-centric comedies like Knocked Up and The 40-Year Old Virgin. As helmed by filmmaker Feig (best known for his TV series like Freaks & Geeks and Arrested Development), the film offers similar doses of R-rated dialogue, lewd comedy, zany slapstick and poignant melodramatic moments that we've come to expect, except from the female perspective. The stereotypes are all here: a giddy bride-to-be, a rich rival, a socially inept overweight step-sister, a naive young bride, a disenchanted mother... It's typical stuff, setting up multiple pratfalls and gross situations, each more embarrassing than the next. There's even a nice-guy, laid-back cop for some romantic interlude - one our heroine has to screw up, of course - but what really makes it stand out is the terrific chemistry between the actresses, giving their friendship an added authenticity, even as the actual events aren't. Foremost is Saturday Night Live alumni and co-scripter Wiig, in her first leading movie role, who breezes through the most embarrassing moments of dialogue and nonsense with ease. No matter how bad things get, life can always get worse, as her attempts to one-up her rival - or, in fact, just being herself - seems to cause disaster at every turn. Her breakdown at the pre-wedding reception is priceless, as all her own personal frustrations spew out in rage against her BFF. If there's one down side it's that the humor and situations are too similar to shenanigans we'd see in The Hangover and its ilk, with a melodramatic middle-act that could have been edited out for a smoother run. Still, Bridesmaids was a critical and box-office smash, and it proves that women can have just as much fun, and get into just as much trouble, on screen as their male counterparts. Hollywood, thanks for waking up.
Comedy: 6/10

Crazy, Stupid, Love. (2011)
Starring: Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Julianne Moore
Directors: Glenn Ficarra, John Requa
Plot: After his wife admits to having an affair and proclaims to want a divorce, a middle-aged, straight-laced man seeks to rediscover his manhood with the help of a suave ladies' man who teaches him how to pick up girls at bars.
Review: A romantic comedy for 40-somethings that has humour, heart, smarts and a dramatic center is a rare breed indeed, but add one stellar example with Crazy, Stupid, Love. Sure, the premise is contrived and the structure may be a tad formulaic, but by digging deeper and allowing its main characters their human frailties, it comes out as a funny shaggy-guy story, with entertaining (albeit embarrassing) situations - a perfect fit, indeed, for its leading man Carrell who plays vulnerable and appealing with sure-fire ease. Directors Ficarra and Requa (whose first collaboration was the bizarrely amusing box-office flop I Love You Phillip Morris) somehow keeps all the various plots and sub-plots involving different relationships, from Carrell's believable manhood makeover at the hands of alpha-male Gosling, to the puppy love of Carrell's 13-year-old son to their baby-sitter, who's actually infatuated with Dad. It all makes for a madcap comedy of errors, but the best part is that the film finds the humour in their situations despite the heart-ache not because of it. Alas, in true rom-com fashion, the level of coincidences goes to the extreme as the script insists on surprising us (and getting some final jokes in) by weaving everyone together in a "let's tie all loose ends" denouement - it's admittedly amusing, but it also makes the film too obvious in its resolution, something it had up to then avoided. No matter, strong dramatic and comedic performances from leads Carell and a reliably superb Moore, as the ex-married couple, the still-up-and-coming Gosling (sizzling as the ladies' man, and showing good comic timing to boot) and Emma Stone (cute as always), as well as supporting parts from Marisa Tomei and Kevin Bacon make for an engaging ensemble cast that you can't help rooting for, no matter what side of the fence they are on. A keeper.
Entertainment: 8/10

In Time (2011)
Starring: Justin Timberlake, Amanda Seyfried, Cillian Murphy
Director: Andrew Niccol
Plot: In a future where time is the only currency and the rich can live forever, a blue-collar worker gets an opportunity to mingle with the elite and decides to bring them and the system tumbling down.
Review: The Gen-Y sci-fi action thriller In Time feels like something from the 1970's, a movie about big ideas meant to reflect present woes presented in a slick, modern Hollywood package. The principal idea of living on earned time, the fear of knowing exactly when you're going to "time out" is intriguing and well thought out, a powerful metaphor of our current society's class struggles and the imbalance of wealth that is more immediate than many a drama. Following on his low-key sci-fi drama Gattaca and the under-appreciated Lord of War, writer/ producer / director Niccol engages in another high-minded effort with success - at least in the first half hour, as he sets up the plot. Unfortunately, it falls into B-movie tropes and clichés mid-way through. The insipid, banal story of the two lovebirds turned into an unlikely Bonnie & Clyde pair of bank robbing Robin Hoods never feels right, nor does their relationship, something additionally marred by a dead-end sub-plot involving a small-time local hood. Perhaps the producers thought the tale needed more action to make it into the mainstream but the seemingly after-though use of car chases, gun fights and lots of running - mostly in a last-second rushes - does the story further disservice. As a vehicle for Timberlake, it's actually not bad, proving that the young actor has the right chops to be a leading man. In supporting roles, Seyfried under-whelms as the rich-kid gone "savage" and Murphy comes off the best as an obsessive veteran "time cop". Whatever the reason, what could have been another sci-fi milestone in Niccol cap ends up no more than a tired, clichéd actioner. Heck, I can see the TV series on the Sci-Fi Channel now. Too bad.
Entertainment: 4/10

Margin Call (2011)
Starring: Zachary Quinto, Paul Bettany, Kevin Spacey
Director: J.C. Chandor
Plot: On the same day as a corporate-wide down-sizing, a financial firm discovers the world is on the brink of a crisis leading to an intense night of decision-making by the highest levels of the business that will stretch everyone's ethical *standard*.
Review: Inspired by the events that led to the 2008 financial meltdown, Margin Call is an even-handed look into the world of the Wall Street conscious, a world where greed, fear and cunning intermingle on a daily basis. Writer / director Chandor's script neither demonizes nor swoons as events unfold, and if he tries to clarify the complex mechanisms behind international funds, he refuses to pander to expectations nor to pigeon-hole the people who work in, or simply "work", the system. As the reality starts dawning and more higher-ups get called in, we see the struggles - both internal and external - that drives the final decision, and the tension is as palpable as any well-tuned thriller. Having an impressive cast sure helps: Quinto shows a certain naiveté as the risk analyst who's connected all the pieces and gets swept up in events; Spacey excels as the head trader wrestling with his conscience; Bettany is the alpha male who's seen it all; and Jeremy Irons is formidable as the amoral president who only concern is to save the company. They're also well supported by the likes of Demi Moore and the always dependable Stanley Tucci as high-end executives taking the fall, among others. All these characters are saved from caricature, each of them showing a certain vulnerability as the final decision gets made to protect the market or be the first domino that will drive it to the ground. A financial thriller seems an odd match of genres, but Margin Call succeeds in being one of the best mirrors into the world of Wall Street, and definitely one of the smartest.
Entertainment: 8/10

Tower Heist (2011)
Starring: Ben Stiller, Eddie Murphy, Alan Alda
Director: Brett Ratner
Plot: When the staff of a posh New York high-rise - and their pension - fall victim to one of its tenants, a sleazy Wall Street businessman, they conspire to rob his appartment for payback.
Review: The blue-collar comedy Tower Heist has lots going for it, including a timely revenge-against-Wall Street vibe, and a terrific A-list ensemble cast of comedians and Oscar performers. Any high aspirations are quickly dispelled, however: this is more like Ocean's Eleven younger, louder cousin, a movie that's addled with a bland, tired script that doesn't do it's A-list ensemble cast any favors. Still, the movie moves along at a decent pace, and the able cinematography and editing keeps it moving along without getting boring; it's just that even hack commercial director Ratner (Red Dragon, Rush Hour) should have been able to do better than this. That's especially true when it comes to the titular caper involving disguises, a double-cross, the usual humorous incompetence and a Ferrari dangling by a high-rise window; it has its moments, but in large it feels banal and rather long-winded. At least the leads do OK, with Stiller playing to type and Murphy channeling some of the spunk of his old 48 Hrs persona - or at least wwe can see it from a distance. On the supporting side, Matthew Broderick and Casey Affleck who are along for the ride aren't used well, though Alda, as the slimy, rich Wall Street crook comes off the best, followed by an able turn by Téa Leoni as the lead FBI agent assigned to the case. Tower Heist isn't a bad movie, and this gang of comics makes even the lousiest of jokes go down easily, but it's a contraption that plods when it should fly.
Entertainment: 5/10

TRON: Legacy (2010)
Starring: Jeff Bridges, Garrett Hedlund, Olivia Wilde
Director: Joseph Kosinski
Plot: 20 years after his father's disappearance, a young man stumbles upon his dad's old lab and gets transported into a virtual world where he meets an unlikely ally trying to stop an evil program that is 
Review: A direct sequel to the cult favorite Disney film, TRON: Legacy ups the ante in every aspect and comes up a winner. Sure, the plot is made up of head-bending mumbo-jumbo, but the eye-popping action sequences and the solid story-telling captures our interest from the exhilarating opening heist to the inevitable drop into the heart of the machine. And it's in the virtual world - crafted out of blue-tinged lines of light - where the movie really takes flight: we get an opportunity to re-visit the stuff that made the first one a stand-out, only enhanced with all the CG whiz-bang technology Hollywood fx houses could muster. Stand-out sequences include reckless light-cycle races, a trip on train flying on beams of information, a dogfight with impossible aircraft, and lots of other silly stuff that will have nerds of every shape dizzy with delight. And though the post-production 3D is unimpressive, the Oscar-caliber special effects are mesmerizing and as visually impressive as the 1982 original was in its heyday thanks in part to an aesthetic inspired by the original film, 2001: A Space Odyssey and countless modern video games. Director Kosinski, backed by the team that brought the first one to life, has easily bested his template, giving us a sci-fi adventure that's full of spectacle and thrills. He's also helped by a bang-on cast, led by the rebellious Hedlund and a grizzled old Bridges, with strong supporting efforts from a sexy Wilde as a scrappy virtual construct, Michael Sheen playing it over-the-top as a rogue entertainment program, Bruce Boxleitner returning in a cameo and, er, Bridges (or a freaky CG created younger version of him) as his ageless computer avatar gone bad. Grand, thrilling and visually stunning entertainment, TRON: Legacy is big-budget fun done right.
Entertainment: 8/10

The Guard (2011)
Starring: Brendan Gleeson, Don Cheadle, Mark Strong
Director: John Michael McDonagh
Plot: A seemingly laid-back, boorish Irish policeman is thrown together with an uptight FBI investigator to solve a brutal murder that may lead to a delivery by an international drug-smuggling ring. 
Review: Whatever category The Guard is squeezed in - offbeat buddy-cop comedy, Irish-flavored crime drama - it's a modest-budget, quirky affair with very British (sorry, "Irish"!) sensibilities that's just bloody good fun for mature audiences. And unlike the recent bevy of British Isle gangster flicks, this one plays it strictly (ok, almost strictly) for laughs, and it's great, smart fun. American audiences expecting that top-liner Cheadle is the hero will be surprised to see he's only got a secondary role. Sure, there are some amusing fish-out-of-water scenes, as his Yale-educated FBI agent comes to terms that this ain't Kansas anymore. But he's just added heft to the real centerpiece, the marvelous performance from Gleeson, a laid-back, Columbo-like cop who's into whoring, boozing and cursing but has a keen human instinct for his job. And yes, there's a lot of cursing to go around, best delivered with a thick Irish brogue. Playing to and against type of the naive, racist Irishman, Gleeson's unorthodox policeman is spirited, contrarian, amusing and easily worthy of his own TV series. The script - full of great dialogue, comebacks and witty zingers - plays this schizophrenic nature to best effect, and Cheadle as the straight-man in this comedy duo, is left (just like us) wondering if this local cop is "motherf* smart or motherf* stupid". Even the three vicious drug traffickers play it against type - they're crooks who quote Nietzsche and complain about the sad fact of cops on the take - led by an amusingly macho supporting performance from Mark Strong. The film plot itself involves a rather routine story about drug smuggling, murder, blackmail and rural police corruption, but it's delivered with Celtic flair and a tinge of melancholy. Writer / director McDonagh's first film shows a good grasp at the storytelling and getting his actors to perform their very unconventional characters. And with Gleeson at the center of a constant barrage of cynical, profane and sometimes screwball scenes involving the eccentric locals, even that routine feels somehow fresh and new. A pleasant, unexpected little gem.
Entertainment: 8/10

Endhiran (India - 2010)
Starring: Rajnikanth, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Danny Denzongpa
Director: S. Shankar
Plot: A scientist builds a super-powered android in his own image in the hopes of aiding humanity, but when a freak accident has it falling in love with his creator's bride-to-be, it falls for the machinations of an evil competitor who programs it for destruction.
Review: As the most expensive - and most lucrative - blockbuster in Indian cinema, the fx-heavy Endhiran (or Robot) proves that Hollywood isn't the only show in town for big, boisterous entertainment. Better still, you get two movies for the same ticket price: the first is a light-hearted sci-fi romantic comedy while the second is a much darker, Terminator-inspired thriller. Even with a running time of almost three hours (typical for Indian blockbusters), the film never overstays its welcome, mostly because the script throws just about every robot situation at us, from Asimov's laws to slapstick with a good dose of action and special effects, even including some interesting questions about God, Machines and the perplexity of humanity. Heady stuff, for sure, but it's never quite been so well wrapped up in mainstream entertainment, with fight choreography is by Hong Kong legend Yuen Woo-Ping, special effects from some big-name fx companies, and epic production values. And only in a Bollywood film can all this mixed in with such music-video interludes as "You're My Guinea Hen" with the leads and dancing troupe dolled up, gyrating at the site of Inca ruins (Machu Picchu, no less) or doing the Roboto in a glitz-laden stage show. For sure, the sometimes ill-advised, crude fx and stunts doesn't advantage our suspension of disbelief, but it's not for lack of trying by writer / director Shankar; there's more invention and whacked-out cybernetic action than most American fare would ever dare, such as a gang fight in (and out of) a moving train and - the real highlight - the 30 minute finale when the Robot and his duplicates magnetically attach and form various shapes to wipe out the attacking Indian Army. If this had come out 15 years ago, it would have been a hit even State-side. Clearly, it's meant as a vehicle for its star: In his dual roles as scientist and robot, Rajnikanth does pretty well, but Western audiences probably won't understand why the short, pudgy actor is such a "superstar" in his native India (yup, he's even billed as such). Not so surprising is the swooning male audiences will show in the screen presence of ex-Miss World Bachchan, herself an accomplished (and prolific) actress. Audiences will definitely appreciate the filmmaker's efforts to milk the gamut of its robot subject, and in truth it does all add up to some goofy fun, especially when viewing with a like-minded crowd.
Entertainment: 7/10

Killer Elite (2011)
Starring: Jason Statham, Clive Owen, Robert De Niro
Director: Gary McKendry
Plot: When an Omani sheik kidnaps his ex-partner, a hired Aussie killer is forced to assemble a team to assassinate the three SAS soldiers who killed the sheiks eldest sons.
Review: Moviemakers (and audiences) can't seem to get enough of go-to action guy Jason Statham it seems, and Killer Elite, his latest, is another thoroughly acceptable popcorn flick. Supposedly inspired by the true-life events depicted in Ranulph Fiennes' book, screenwriter Matt Sherring has crafted a cool action thriller that's smarter than the typical action thriller. There's probably little that's left of any "truth" save perhaps the original premise (and even then!) but in the capable hands of first-time director McKendry it's all testosterone fun. The film takes every opportunity to show the dirty deeds done, cheap or not, on both sides of the fence, as the game of cat and mouse between killers and the SAS team assigned to stop them plays out across Europe and the Middle East, amidst a background of political expedience, with the film showing a nice throwback '80s feel. Sure, the dialogue is a sometimes cringe worthy festival of clichés, but the action set pieces are finely executed and well integrated in the story, with some highlights including the opening assassination, fisticuffs in a hospital X-ray room and a three-way fight with Statham still attached to a chair, among a myriad of others. As the killer-with-a-conscience, Statham shows he's still definitely at ease with this type of role - no big stretch from the dozens he's done so far - and he's dependably charismatic and exciting to watch on screen. Owen - no stranger to action flicks after the over-the-top Shoot 'Em Up - also proves to have the right chops as the determined ex-SAS agent trying to stop him. Though getting top billing, De Niro only appears in the bookend sequences of the film as Statham's veteran partner, but it's a meaty supporting role. True, with such a triumvirate, a better, more believable movie should have been made, but it still delivers the goods. As long as audiences go in knowing that the "true" story is probably all pure baloney, Killer Elite is worth a recommendation, with enough action, suspense and cleverness to keep genre aficionados involved in the proceedings.
Entertainment: 6/10

Jane Eyre (2011)
Starring: Mia Wasikowska, Michael Fassbender, Judi Dench
Director: Cary Fukunaga
Plot: In 19th century England, a young governess falls for her handsome but rough, wealthy employer but must come to terms with a terrible secret that he's been hiding.
Review: How many times can Charlotte Brontë's 1847 classic novel Jane Eyre be adapted to the screen? If this latest version is any indication, as many times as filmmakers have something new to bring to the tale. Underlying Brontë's terribly romantic novel was the message that a strong, independent woman could make her own way in the world, a revelation when it was first published, and that theme is at the forefront here as well. On the flip side was also a story about madness and loss, and eventual redemption. In the hands of director Fukunaga both sides of the coin are captured in a vibrant, emotionally poignant film that resonates, filled with sumptuous visuals and a intriguing flair for the narrative. With masterful care, he enhances the tale's Gothic terrors to ghost story-levels, opening up the story and adding intrigue to pique the interest of a new generation. Most importantly, he also imbues the relationship between the young governess and wealthy nobleman with a palpable tension and, ultimately, dangerous passion that smolders under the Victorian veneer of "appropriate" social conduct. Much of the kudos for the latter surely goes to the two terrific leads: Wasikowska completely enchants as the titular, outspoken young woman and Fassbender thoroughly seduces as the mysterious, roughly charismatic rich bachelor. A vigorous, riveting drama, Jane Eyre is proof positive that there's always room for a new interpretation of old classics.
Drama: 9/10

Moneyball (2011)
Starring: Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill, Philip Seymour Hoffman
Director: Bennett Miller
Plot: Faced with a losing streak and not enough money to compete with the major baseball teams, the Oakland O's general manager Billy Beane attempts to put together a team an on a budget based on statists to draft his players.
Review: Loosely based on the true-life book by Michael Lewis entitled Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, Award-winning screenwriter Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillian have given their dramatic spin on the story and real-life personalities of the Oakland A's one-year shake-up. Much like Sorkin did for Facebook in The Social Network, some facts go by the way side in order to make for a better film, but the kernel of the truth is there, and what a story it is for anyone even remotely interested in baseball, or anyone interested in the drama of big-league microcosms. Director Miller's sophomore effort after the impressive Capote shows a deft touch at bringing the pressures, back-room culture and conflicts between intuition and statistics to the fore while still keeping a light touch to keep the narrative snappy and engaging, letting the sharp dialogue and effective, restrained visuals tell the story. It's also a ready-made vehicle for leading man Pitt, who also produced. He anchors the film with a soulful, relaxed performance with the occasional crack into explosive anger that shows the conflict of the central character, former ball-player and the team's general manager Billy Beane. He's surrounded by a solid cast, including Hill in a rare serious role as the young, naive assistant GM and Hoffman as the confrontational team manager. Put this one in the league with the better baseball films of the past decade - Moneyball certainly is the smartest.
Drama: 7/10

The Help (2011)
Starring: Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Bryce Dallas Howard, Jessica Chastain
Director: Tate Taylor
Plot: A young inspiring writer decides to write a tell-all book detailing the point of view of the African-American maids who work anonymously for their white employers.
Review: Based on the popular debut novel by Kathryn Stockett, The Help is an easily-digested, impossible to contest, and quite likable tale on the injustices that took place in the American South in the 1960's, just as the civil rights movement was spreading its wings across the lower states. The book riled a few critics, not so much by the content but by being a story about second-class citizens and black-empowerment as told by a young white female, told by a white woman, no less. Well, those critics won't be changing their tunes with screenwriter / director Taylor's adaptation, a typically mainstream affair that hits all the clichés on both sides of the fence. Yup, it's pure Hollywood melodrama, but it sure knows the right buttons to press to get viewers' reaction, setting up situations for its myriad of cardboard characters to expose the good and the bad of Caucasian house-wives and the hardships of the maids stuck with them. But what could have been a Hallmark movie-of-the-week ends up quite a bit more thanks to some solid performances: though the charming Stone headlines the movie's share of fine actresses, it's Oscar-nominated Viola Davis who stands out as the true heroine; showing the seething anger of her peers, she is the heart and soul of the story. Too bad, then, that the movie insists on taking the focus away from her and her peers to linger on the less interesting tale of its white denizens. Still, The Help may not be memorable, but its heart is in the right place, opening up a window into a time not so long ago that many have forgotten about, or - for younger ones - never really knew; for that, at least, it's a worthwhile endeavor.
Drama: 6/10

Confessions (Japan - 2010)
Starring: Takako Matsu, Yoshino Kimura, Masaki Okada
Director: Tetsuya Nakashima
Plot: A grieving school teacher sets into motion a hideous plan for revenge against the teenage students who murdered her four-year-old daughter.
Review: A stunning social drama hidden behind the auspices of a terrifying psychological thriller, Confessions is perhaps the most harrowing "mainstream" film you're likely to see all year. Based on Kanae Minato's novel, it's nasty piece of work, exploring the dark side of the country's youth culture in a bitter tale of "victimization, torture and reckless apathy", with the superb script ably capturing the story's complex narrative and layered characterizations. Indeed, our attention is grabbed from the very first scene, as the demure young school teacher explains to her restless, undisciplined class that she has infected them with HIV, and that attention is kept right through the flashbacks, confrontations, unraveling of lives and escalation of violence until the final act of revenge. It's a punch-to-the-gut picture of how Japanese society has devolved and how teens have lost their way, influenced by growing peer pressure in our Information Age. And it's a universal statement on ostracized youth, as American headlines can attest. Most impressively, everything here works to perfection: the slick, stylish visuals, the story structure, the cinematic techniques... and director Nakashima (Kamikaze Girls, Memories of Matsuko) hits it on every count, even getting some remarkable performances out of his young cast. Revenge is a plate served cold, and this is the proof. Truly remarkable edge-of-your-seat filmmaking with a story in place that will not leave anybody untouched. Smart, clever and important stuff that makes for a compelling and unforgettable experience.
Drama: 9/10

Cowboys & Aliens (2011)
Starring: Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Olivia Wilde
Director: Jon Favreau
Plot: A mysterious stranger walks into a frontier town immediately getting on the wrong side of the local sheriff and a hard-nosed rancher, only to join forces to save some villagers from kidnapping alien saucers bent on exploiting the Earth.
Review: More Bonanza than Unforgiven, the summer tent pole movie Cowboys & Aliens gives audiences exactly what the title promises, mixing the gunslingers of the Wild West with a bug-eyed-alien invasion, while the clichés of both genres abound. Coming from the director of Iron Man, you'd think there'd be a bit more humor, character development and care put into the big-budget, special-effects driven production. Alas, it's mainstream pedestrian fluff all the way. Gone are any indication of the original comic's sly parallels to the exploitation of the European settlers in America, all traded in for a no-risk approach to the film's high-concept idea. Alas, this is all concept and little content; despite the solid cast and big budget, the Wild West bits are tired and the sci-fi bits ill-conceived. Some of the action sequences are mildly fun, but there aren't enough of them, and the scrpt isn't interesting enough - dialogue-wise or ideas-wise - to hold our interest through the slower patches. Instead of zinging the odd clash of six-shooters and lasers just falls flat. Craig's Man With No Name routine is more akin to his James Bond role (he even gets a nifty space-age gadget on his wrist) but he does the strong, silent type just fine. Ford, as the tough-as-nails rancher with a heart of gold, doesn't quite come off as well. In fact, all the character set-up from the first hour seems to be squandered for naught in an under-whelming last act centering on an ill-conceived showdown that has lots of movement but few thrills. As a popcorn movie, Cowboys & Aliens delivers little on its expectations; with Favreau at the helm and his two leads, one would have expected more than just a pedestrian summer flick.
Entertainment: 5/10

The Devil's Double (2011)
Starring: Dominic Cooper, Ludivine Sagnier, Raad Rawi
Director: Lee Tamahori
Plot: A young Iraqi soldier dreaming of becoming an engineer is forced to become the double of Saddam Hussein's sadistic son, plotting the time when he can escape his fate.
Review: Based on the true-life story of Lastif Yahia, from his own book, The Devil's Double is a harrowing story of Hussein's eldest son and the regime that supported his every whim. If only half the account - dramatized or not - is true, this was indeed a terror-filled time. After a string of high-profile bombs, director Tamahori (Die Another Day) finally gets another stab at the first good story material since his debut feature Once Were Warriors brought him acclaim. In his hands, the tale comes off as a sort of Baghdad-centered Scarface, with a disgusting - if necessary - focus on the violence and degradations done at the hands of this untouchable sociopath. Just like Brian De Palma's cult classic, the tale vacillates between slick, entertaining theatrics and shallow drama - it gives a bloody depiction of unconscious cruelty and the climate of fear and decadence surrounding its titular "Devil". But though the story is worthy of cinematic treatment, by making its hero so upstanding and its villain so despicable it comes off as a shallow retread of history that misses an opportunity for a far more interesting character study and personality clash. Despite its limitations, the film manages to hook you in at a visceral level, and the pacing never lets up. At the center of it all stands the bravura double-performance from Cooper in both the unhinged, over-the-top role of the sadistic, psychotic Uday Hussein and the more controlled role of his double Latif Yahia. The special effects work to get his two halves to interact so well on screen is just as uncanny. Cooper's breakout dual role will probably be the real attraction down the road, but for trying to shed some light on its subject - no matter how modified for mainstream consumption - The Devil's Double is pretty powerful stuff.
Drama / Entertainment: 7/10

Legend of the Millennium Dragon (2011)
Voices: Ryuji Aigase, Satomi Ishihara, Kentarô Itô
Director: Hirotsugu Kawasaki
Plot: A young Japanese boy is magically whisked 1,200 years in the past, discovering he has inherited the ability to control a powerful dragon that can shift the tide in the war between humans and demons.
Review: Japan's animation industry continues to produce note-worthy cel-animated films, and the latest fantasy adventure Legend of the Millennium Dragon is worthy of note. Think of it as Princess Mononoke light. The story itself is pretty standard fare - young boy finds great power and courage facing incredible odds - and the themes of Man vs. Nature are typical anime fodder. But that's secondary to the grandiose settings, and its handful of epic battles, anchored as they are in typical, small personal moments, all presented with style and fluid animations. Following his first directorial effort, the interesting Spriggan, writer / director Kawasaki's roots as an animator (most importantly on Akira) are apparent: the character designs are interesting (especially the wispy demons, the Oni) and the visuals, using clean, minimal lines verge from picturesque to impressive, especially in the climactic battle where giant stone samurai confront the titular many-headed dragon. With a little more thought to the story, and a little more care on pacing and character interactions, the film could have been a real hit. As it stands, it's a nice example of the anime craftsmanship of its filmmakers, and that, at least, makes it an entertaining Japanese fantasy.
Entertainment: 6/10

Midnight in Paris (2011)
Starring: Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams, Marion Cotillard, Michael Sheen
Director: Woody Allen
Plot: While in Paris with his fiancée, a disillusioned Hollywood writer trying his hand at a serious novel magically embarks on a daily midnight trip to the roaring 20's, meeting a slew of famous writers and artists along the way.
Review: Much like auteur writer / director Woody Allen's later films embraced London and Barcelona, Midnight in Paris is a love letter to the amazing city that is Paris, with its meandering streets, cafés, and its aura of romance and magic. It's comic-actor Wilson's turn to take on the typical self-effacing, opinioned Woody Allen role; pining for a different life than what his status-conscious future bride wishes, his wide-eyed bewilderment and easy-going attitude immediately ingratiates him to the audience. Similar to his other fantasy film The Purple Rose of Cairo, our protagonist get transported - Twilight Zone-like - into another world. Hob-nobbing on a first-name basis with the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, and Salvador Dali, he (and Allen) gets a chance to wax nostalgic on this fantasy vision of Paris in its 1920's "golden age", a past that existed only in our imagination. But what a trip it is; buoyed by a superb cast including Michael Sheen as a fake intellectual yearning to bed his fiancée, a delectable Cotillard as the muse and cameos from Kathy Bates and Adrien Brody who go head first in their performances as Stein and Dali, the film is filled with snappy dialogue and humor. Add to that some strong production values recreating the parties, the old Folies Bergères and Maxim's, among others and you've got a travelogue into Paris' past and present that's sure to inspire further trips to this city of lights. If the morale is predictable - there is no better time than the one you live in - it's still a whimsical, entertaining affair from start to finish. It's not Allen's best, but it's probably his most mainstream and enchanting in a while.
Entertainment: 7/10

Jason and the Argonauts (1963)
Starring: Todd Armstrong, Nancy Kovack, Gary Raymond
Director: Don Chaffey
Plot: Legendary Greek hero Jason leads a band of soldiers and adventurers in his quest to find the fabled Golden Fleece, facing perils and monsters at every turn.
Review: The fantasy-filled Greek-based adventure Jason and the Argonauts gained popularity with the baby boomers and X Generation thanks to its many TV broadcasting in the 70's. As with many things of our childhood, nostalgia plays a big part in our fondness for old films, and viewing them in adulthood unfortunately dispels the magic. That's the case here. For sure, the film won't be remembered for it's clichéd script that dumbs-down the Greek mythologies for easy consumption, nor for the acting despite some fine cameo performances. The reason the film is considered a "classic" adventure film is for the still-impressive effects and stop-motion creatures provided by the master of the genre, Ray Harryhausen. The talking masthead, the flying harpies, the colossal bronze warrior are all wonderful creations and the climactic, intricately-staged battle with sword-wielding skeletons is a must-see. This may feel somewhat outdated by current computer-created or -enhanced special effects standards, but it's still a marvel to behold. Alas, the narrative is plain dull despite some campy fun, keeping our attention with some difficulty while we wait for the next special effect sequence. Director Chaffey will always be remembered for two movies, One Million Years B.C. starring the nubile Raquel Welch and this film, but his limited cinematic career (he went on to become a sought-after TV director) can be understood with this pedestrian helming effort. For a better example of Harryhausen's work in similar Greek settings see the original Clash of the Titans (1980) or, better still, the all-time classic The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, a film that - hopefully for my own childhood memories - will stand the test of time.
Entertainment: 5/10

Contagion (2011)
Starring: Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Laurence Fishburne, Marion Cotillard
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Plot: As an unprecedented, deadly epidemic sweeps the world, an international team of government agencies and medical staff race against time to find the origin of the disease and an applicable vaccine.
Review: As bio-thrillers go, Contagion is probably the slickest, most realistic one ever made by Hollywood. It's a slick, smarter, and slightly more terrifying version of Outbreak, with certainly less fun to be had, unless it's to try to guess who of the elite casting gets to bite it next. There sure are a lot of scares - grabbing a bus pole or bar nuts has never been this freaky - but the film eschews easy moral lessons and clichés in its apocalyptic scenario; in our hyper-connected world, a new disease can ravage the world population in no time at all. Are we ready for the consequences? Director Soderbergh (Traffic, Ocean's Eleven) knows how to grab our interest, and his storytelling abilities and directing prowess are clearly evident, giving the film some gritty realism. All of this is way plausible from Day 1 to Day 188, from the start of the infection, the quick spread, to the world panic and race for a remedy. It's a smart script that raises many questions and fears. Too bad, then, that it doesn't have more teeth as, ultimately, it doesn't quite come off as exciting or scary as it started out to be - millions die off-screen, and the horror, and the film, is presented in a way that's too cold and surgical, despite the quick windows into many different personal lives and stories. Plus too many characters, no matter their Oscar credentials or their good performances, means there's not enough time for any emotional attachment. That aside, Contagion makes good as an efficient, ensemble medical thriller that's rooted in reality.
Drama: 7/10

The Lincoln Lawyer (2011)
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Ryan Phillippe, Marisa Tomei
Director: Brad Furman
Plot: A slick for-hire lawyer who works from the back of his Lincoln sedan defending small-time thugs lands an easy, big-money case when a rich Beverly Hills playboy is accused of attempted murder only to discover his client has plans of his own.
Review: A pulp novel given the appropriately pulpy cinematic treatment, The Lincoln Lawyer is a no-nonsense Hollywood popcorn flick. There's little that's really unexpected here, and mystery buffs will have guessed the ending early on, but there's enough meat to make for a decent legal thriller, especially as defendant and lawyer come to odds in a deadly match of manipulation. Nothing too fancy on the direction side, but Furman keeps things speeding along with just the right amount of TV-level court procedural clichés and cinematic panache. Based on the first in a series by best-selling crime novelist Michael Connelly, you can see how this would have made a decent TV series with this movie as a pilot - at least if it weren't for the star power attached. And the latter is a good catch: McConaughey is perfectly cast as the suave, egocentric and slimy lawyer whose easy charm and legal smarts makes him a perfect advocate for criminal scum until he gets a crisis of conscience; the movie wouldn't be half as interesting without him. Solid supporting turns from Tormei as the ex-wife, Phillippe as the rich playboy defendant and William H. Macy as the P.I. help, among others, makes for easy viewing, too. An above-average time-waster for crime hounds.
Entertainment: 6/10

The Adjustment Bureau (2011)
Starring: Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, Florence Kastriner
Director: George Nolfi
Plot: Chance encounters leads to blossoming romance between a young politician and a ballerina, but mysterious forces keep them apart, until they get one last chance to escape Fate.
Review: Taking inspiration from a short story by acclaimed SF author Philp K. Dick, The Adjustment Bureau is a supernatural thriller that puts the theme of determinism versus free will front and center. The adaptation is a tale of coincidence-laden and ultimately forbidden romance, as threatening men in fedoras who have been controlling human achievement for millennia take notice of the couple and attempt to keep them apart. Writer / director Nolfi's minimalist but sumptuously shot vision of the tale is effective and intriguing, putting enough paranoia and sci-fi elements into play. The narrative falters somewhat in the middle but an off-kilter atmosphere to the proceedings keeps our interest. The supernatural mystery and a climax with a daring chase scene to keep it from being just a cute - and admittedly effective - romantic drama. For both parts, the real success rests on the two leads; as the ballerina and up-and-coming politician, the wonderful, radiant Blunt and an especially sympathetic, charming Damon truly make sparks fly, making you care for their relationship and attempts at escaping from a dire fate. Ultimately, the theological underpinnings and the film's thriller aspects devolve into preposterous silliness, but that doesn't change the perfect match-up and evident chemistry between Blunt and Damon, and for that love story The Adjustment Bureau is worth a look.
Entertainment: 6/10

Unknown (2011)
Starring: Liam Neeson, Diane Kruger, January Jones, Aidan Quinn, Bruno Ganz, Frank Langella
Director: Jaume Collet-Serra
Plot: Awakening in a Berlin hospital after a near-fatal car accident, a scientist discovers that someone else has taken on his identity and that no one, not even his wife, recognizes him, a traumatic event that forces him to uncover the mystery of who he is with his only ally, a young taxi driver.
Review: Much like his previous horror entries, Orphan, House of Wax, director Collet-Serra's Unknown is a slickly produced, rather one-note thriller that aims to please but not truly impress. It's a briskly-paced entertainment vehicle for its star, serving up a dollop of well executed action sequences including some brutal fights, a car chase and enough suspense to keep it engaging. And within those confines, Collet-Serra keeps the narrative revved up and the mystery going as long as the script allows. The film does hold our attention as it moves from a psychological (even metaphysical) thriller that gets more convoluted and violent as its hero's investigation unravels, thanks mostly to Neeson's everyman persona and screen presence. Comparisons with his other Euro-thriller Taken is inevitable, and he's clearly better than the shoddy thriller trappings around him, elevating the film from mere B-movie status. Some decent supporting actors, including Kruger, Jones, Aidan Quinn, Frank Langella and Bruno Ganz, playing an old Cold War investigator to perfection. If the main twist is pretty much telegraphed by the mid-way point, it's still an entertaining mystery while it lasts. Just don't expect Unknown to make a lasting impression.
Entertainment: 6/10

The Mist (2007)
Starring: Thomas Jane, Marcia Gay Harden, Laurie Holden
Director: Frank Darabont
Plot: As a mysterious fog drops down on a small town, a small band of citizens band up in a supermarket to fight for their lives against all kinds of deadly other-dimensional creatures hidden in the mist.
Review: Based on the Stephen King novella of the same name, The Mist is a high-priced sci-fi-horror B-movie made as political allegory, a gory exploration of Small Town America under siege. However you take it, writer / director Darabont, best known for his other King adaptations The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile, takes a much nastier tale this time around yet brings the same dialogue-heavy pacing, slick production values and neat special effects to the table. The story is more than just the fear of the unknown (though there's lots of that with varied, insect-like or tentacled monsters coming out of the inter-dimensional mist), it's also the study of mob dynamics under dire situations. Peeling away at the thin fabric of civilization brings up the dramatic tension between the survivors, stuck in a supermarket microcosm, when fear and mob mentality overcome good judgment; the real monsters aren't out there, they're us. Here the script pushes all the expected buttons, and Harden plays the religious fanatic with a bellyful of hellfire to the scary hilt as she influences the townsfolk to turn on one another. Alas, while King makes this work on the written page, it's not so easy on the screen, and much of it just doesn't click. Still, if the one-note characters - headlined by a strong turn by Jane as the unwilling hero out to save his kid - and the creature chills are often familiar, Darabont does use the fear of the unseen to good effect, and the suspense if often palpable along with the townsfolk hysteria. And if the thrills are limited to guessing who is going to bite it next, and by what manner of creature, it's all preamble for the real kicker, a final scene that may well leave an indelible mark on audiences; it's an evil, heart-wrenching twist that makes for a memorable - if depressing - payoff. It's rare to see smart horror films that have something to say, and rarer still to see a big budget Hollywood production attached to people like King and Darabont with such a nihilistic streak. Add that to the pulp entertainment value in its premise and The Mist comes off as a worthwhile effort.
Entertainment: 7/10

Super 8 (2011)
Starring: Joel Courtney, Elle Fanning, Kyle Chandler
Director: J.J. Abrams
Plot: While filming their own backyard zombie movie during the summer break, five high school friends witness a train crash that initiates a series of unexplained events in their small town, events that turn for the worse as the army barrels in.
Review: A throwback to the summertime fantasies of our youth, Super 8 is a joyful, exciting and splendidly executed mainstream monster movie that has more heart, and intelligence, than any half-dozen of this year's blockbusters. As directed by geekdom's favorite director of his generator, J.J. Abrams (Mission: Impossible III, the Star Trek reboot), this feels like an 80's movie through-and-through - and that's a compliment. Most particularly, this is an homage to vintage Spielberg, coming off as a modern combination of E.T. and Close Encounters with some Jurassic Park vibe (read scares and violence) thrown in. No surprise, then, that Spielberg has a producer credit. This is a work of love from director J.J. Abrams - who, just like Spielberg before him - was an avid young director of Super 8 movies in his backyard, and he's managed to bring back that nostalgia of a more innocent time with great attention. Themes of grief, family, father-son relationship, first loves are bound together in an adventure filled with heart, mystery and stupendous special effects. With a soundtrack filled with popular 1979 tracks, an energetic score, a good dose of humor, melodrama that tugs at the heartstrings in the best of ways and a young cast of characters that don't cloy at the audience, it's a film that holds to the best of a long tradition of Hollywood story-telling. An elegant, well produced and completely enthralling affair that will charm and thrill audiences, no matter their age, Super 8 is a wonderful addition to Abrams' canon.
Entertainment: 8/10

Merantau (Indonesia - 2009) 
Starring: Iko Uwais, Sisca Jessica, Mads Koudal
Director: Gareth Evans
Plot: A young martial arts trainee heads for the big city in hopes of opening a silat school but soon finds himself embroiled against the criminal element when he jumps in to protect a young stripper against her pimp.
Review: A national silat champion in 2005, Indonesian martial artist Iko Uwais was re-discovered by Welsh director Evans and asked to join his production company as his leading man. The result of their first association is Merantau, a capable, visually interesting Asian actioner with European sensibilities that does show promise for better features in the future. Structured like many similar films of the genre from the 1980's, the beginning is slow going as we're subject to dramatic exposition introducing the characters and situations; young man leaves rural town to make his way in the big city, meets young woman who's in trouble with criminal element, girl gets nabbed by nasty villain (in this case a powerful Euro-trash rapist) and you've got the set-up for a mostly satisfying final act of brutal mayhem. And the action here is pretty good, what with its Tony Jaa-inspired choreography and Bruce Lee inspired showdown, with each brutal, bone-crunching fight trying to top the previous one. Not quite as memorable (or quite as smooth) as the movies it imitates, perhaps, but eminently watchable. The failure, however, is everything leading up to the action. For one, there's too little of it for the first 45 minutes, with director Evans more inclined in bringing a moody, deliberately-paced picture of the working-class population's hardships, sequences that just ring fake no matter the intentions. Still, if the coming-of-age story isn't quite gripping, there's enough action in Merantau to satisfy most genre fans - at least until the next new thing comes out.
Entertainment: 6/10

Space Battleship Yamato (Japan - 2010)
Starring: Takuya Kimura, Meisa Kuroki, Toshirô Yanagiba
Director: Takashi Yamazaki
Plot: After an interstellar war with a mysterious adversary leaves Earth a ravaged radioactive desert, the crew of the last human warship take a journey of last hope to the enemy's home planet to secure a device that can heal our own.
Review: The live-action adaptation of Space Battleship Yamato is a surprising, FX-heavy Japanese production that's big on entertainment, if not logic, successfully capturing the grandeur if not the complexity of the original, popular 1970's animated series. A leap of faith is usually required in cinematic sci-fi, in this case how a WW2 battleship can be revamped for space flight, or how coincidences, blind luck and last-second chances (without talking about the deus ex machina plot points). It's a welcome return to the grand old space opera; in terms of visuals, the modern revamping of the Battlestar Galactica series comes to mind, with a large dollop of the typical melodrama required in Japanese anime flicks. The target are young adults and mainstream director Yamazaki knows the drill: likable but un-developed characters, hectic pacing, some off-the-cuff humor and as many action set-pieces as you can afford. Fact is, the special effects are actually quite good, with enough well-executed space battles and explosions, laser blast and miscellaneous other sci-fi shenanigans to keep audience interest during the 2 1/2 hour runtime. That the producers and filmmakers also managed to compress dozens of episodes into a single feature film is actually quite impressive, though rabid fans will complain about the missing details and subplots. The actors take all of this very seriously, no matter what silliness the script asks for or what blue screen creature or effect appears in post-production. The last act is a bit of a drag, as a small team of armed Earthers storm the technologically superior enemy planet, but that's a small quibble. Fans of the anime series or sci-fi flicks, and even audiences just looking for a good time will be entertained.
Entertainment: 7/10

Winnie the Pooh (2011)
Voices: Jim Cummings, Craig Ferguson, John Cleese
Directors: Stephen J. Anderson, Don Hall
Plot: Eyeore has lost his tail, Pooh quests for a bellyfull of honey, and the friends of Hundred Acre forest mistakenly plan on capturing a fictitious monster "Back Soon".
Review: Disney's latest attempt at adapting the A. A. Milne's classic childhood tales of Winnie the Pooh to the big screen is a hit, and better in every aspect to the 1977 outing, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. The immediate realization is that this all feels like an old-school animated production, what with its hand-drawn animation, minimalist backgrounds, the languid pacing and friendly simplicity of its characters... and in this case that's a compliment, especially as it stands so far apart from the recent slate of dizzying, loud, 3D kid movies. Directors Anderson and Hall have made a strong literary translation here and brought back the laughs and whimsy of the original illustrated stories while imbuing the proceedings with things Milne would never have thought of: Pooh's dreams of honey have him swimming and singing in the golden stuff, and Milne's written words actually have a physical presence that interact with the characters, often to hilarious effect. Nothing really happens as the plot consciously meanders like a child's imaginary adventure, but there's enough slapstick to keep younger kids entertained, and enough tongue-in-cheek humor to keep their parents amused. Clocking at under an hour, it's hard to think of this as worthy of a "full length" theatrical outing, but it's a perfect length for home viewing, and the extra ten minutes of end credits are enlivened by further Pooh and friends shenanigans. An imaginative, intelligent and thoroughly charming family film that should be high on every family's viewing list. 
Note: To my surprise, my 6-year olds actually enjoyed and laughed more watching this than they did the recent Puss in Boots, and that's probably the best indication of a successful family movie. Kudos to Disney for taking a chance on going back to its roots!
Entertainment: 8/10

Tales from Earthsea (Japan - 2006)
Voices: Timothy Dalton, Willem Dafoe, Mariska Hargitay
Director: Goro Miyazaki
Plot: A prince, on the run for having attempted to murder his father, joins a wandering mage investigating the upheavals in the world balance of magic and ecology that forced dragons to reappear around the nations of Man.
Review: Loosely based on the young-adult fantasy series by award-winning author Ursula K. Le Guin, Tales from Earthsea could have been the start of a superior anime series adapting the author's tales of myth and magic, of wizards and dragons, for a broader audience. Alas, the film is more of a hit and miss effort, mixing in some strong ideas and sequences with what appears to be a thrifty production, and a haphazard script that leaves gaping holes in the plot. For his first animated effort, director Miyazaki clearly tries - as he can - to step into his father's shoes, the legendary Hayao Miyazaki. While its not up to the classic status of his dad's top-rated (and top-grossing) animated features like Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away, the Studio Ghibli aesthetic for the characters, pacing and crisp animation is undeniable, and the strong fantasy element combined with its very earthy approach makes for an entertaining effort - but it's not for everyone. While the first act takes it time to present a fully-formed, often beautifully rendered exotic world, there really is little that takes place; same for the second act, which meanders in a message of the simple pleasures of rural life. The languid pacing is a welcome departure from the hectic Hollywood films, but while this would usually work to create an emotional bond with the characters, it feels ill-placed on a fantasy adventure, especially when if feels like the feature lacks in the "adventure" department. And unlike much of the rest of the film, the climactic confrontation between young prince and dark wizard is rather vicious, scary and overlong, and clearly not meant for kids. There's no denying the exemplary choice for the voice actors, however, including Dalton and a menacing Dafoe as the two competing grand mages, or the conceptual ideas out in place - if never fully formed - or the promise of a more engaging tale. It's just disappointing that Tales from Earthsea ends up a missed opportunity, but perhaps future efforts will help find the younger Miyazaki's own voice.
Entertainment: 6/10

Death Note (Japan - 2006) 
Starring: Tatsuya Fujiwara, Ken'ichi Matsuyama, Asaka Seto
Director: Shusuke Kaneko
Plot: Upon receiving a mystical notebook that kills people whose name is written in its pages, an idealistic law student decides to rid Japan of criminals and becomes the focus of a manhunt as a young genius detective tries to help the police to identify and capture him.
Review: Based on the popular Japanese comic-book series (manga) of the same name, Death Note (part one of a planned-for two-movie set) is a supernatural thriller with a great concept: what if you were given the power of life and death? How would you use it? And what would you do to keep it? Director Kaneko, best known for his slick, modern reboot of the giant-turtle monster with the Gamera trilogy, keeps things moving along if a little stiff. His treatment of the material is more cerebral, perhaps, than most of the J-horror fare of the past decade with the usual scary atmosphere replaced by brightly colored scenes that are more akin to music videos; this is definitely more comic-book than horror movie. Indeed, the angel of death, a 10-foot computer-animated tall goth-demon in rock-star clothes, is more goofy than scary, playing second fiddle to his human "partner" and goading him to greater excesses. However, Kaneko knows to play up the cat-and-mouse game between the two intelligent teens, each trying to guess the other's identity through a series of schemes and deductions, with shades of Infernal Affairs. Adding some depth is the way society treats the mysterious vigilante, supportive at first just before things turn ugly; there's also a certain sense of impending anarchy, as the veteran cops struggle to discover the identity of supernatural killer who leaves no traces, no longer able to protect its citizen. The movie flails when it focuses on its protagonist, a non-too-sympathetic, idealistic young law student who quickly becomes drunk with his new-found powers. Though Fujiwara exudes teen cool, perhaps a better actor would have made him at least more appealing, especially in his descent to the Dark Side, or perhaps the intent was for him to be the villain of the piece; either way there's more frustration than suspense in having him elude the detectives on the case. Still, apart from some character-development scenes that miss the mark, Death Note is an entertaining enough romp that will keep audiences on its toes until the film's climax and inevitable cliff-hanger, setting the second, concluding part.
Entertainment: 5/10

Death Note: The Last Name (Japan - 2006)
Starring: Tatsuya Fujiwara, Takeshi Kaga, Shidô Nakamura
Director: Shusuke Kaneko
Plot: On the hunt by the law, a teenager given the power to kill anyone by writing their name in a mystical book conceives of a diabolical plan to throw off suspicions when he discovers a second teen with a similar power.
Review: Following right after the Death Note's cliffhanger, The Last Name is a direct continuation of the original adaptation of the 12-book manga series. The exposition has all been made before, so the sequel conjures up even more convoluted plans for its teenage villain to escape justice at the hands of the genius, eccentric detective. The focus remains on the anti-hero of the piece as he manipulates the angels of death and the people around him, including a cute, bubbly teen pop idol with a serious pathological problem regarding criminals who has gotten hold of another book. His descent into an ego-maniacal power trip is indeed scary, as his victims move on from hardened criminals to anyone who stands in his way. The filmmakers needed to raise the stakes for the second-go, and they've added more characters, more ludicrous but clever twists, and more bodies - of course - but somehow it ends up falling flat. The suspense of the first film fails just as the tale loses its originality. As the admittedly sprightly narrative goes on, there's more frustration than suspense in having him elude the detectives on the case. Still, director Kaneko (the Gamera trilogy reboot) does keep up the pace even if his treatment is rather pedestrian and more in line with a TV series than a movie, and he knows enough to let his cast ham it up as required by the script. Fans of the original graphic novel may get a hoot out of seeing the cat-and-mouse game play out on screen, but for the rest of us one Death Note movie would have been enough.
Entertainment: 5/10

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011) 
Starring: Johnny Depp, Penélope Cruz, Geoffrey Rush, Ian McShane
Director: Rob Marshall
Plot: Pirate captain Jack Sparrow embarks on a quest to find the fabled fountain of youth only to discover that the villainous Blackbeard and his beautiful daughter are after it too.
Review: Milking it for everything its got, the third sequel On Stranger Tides takes another stab at the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, and its clear this boat has little wind in its sails. Based on a story by novelist Tim Powers, this latest summer tentpole flick plays out like Disney's idea of an family-friendly remake of Aguirre: the Wrath of God. The film goes back to the original installment's less bloated storytelling style, yet the now familiar situations, paper-thin tale loosely connecting a series of swashbuckling or special effects sequences seem hackneyed, and there's something moribund in this latest adventure. The expected actions sequences are in full force, and the stunts still retain our attention, but the pirate action - waving cutlasses and all - gets repetitive, and there's a sense that we've all been here and seen that before. In fact, lots of elements are thrown in - a zombie crew, a legendary pirate, a romantic entanglement, a ship magically commanded by a cutlass, etc. - but all with little overall effect. Giving the reigns to an action comedy franchise to musical director Marshall may not be the worst idea ever - you need movement and pacing in both genres, and if nothing else Chicago and Nine had it - but it sure didn't work here; his theatrical roots are still too entrenched to make it out of the stage and into the open water. Ever since Barbossa this franchise has flailed in setting up its villains, and Ian McShane's Blackbeard comes off like a pushover. But the main attraction of the series is squarely on Depp's swaggering, foppish Captain Jack Sparrow, and he and Rush easily slip back into the skin of their respective single-note characters, and it's still fun to watch these actors ham it up. As a love interest, Cruz is a nice addition replacing Keira Knightley but she plays second fiddle to, well just about everyone, and we sure miss her usual sass. The original film proved that the pirate movie could be revived, and there's enough fun in On Stranger Tides to make it worth a look before it walks the plank. For sure, the resounding box office success of the film will ensure that more sequels will be made, hopefully with more verve than this one.
Entertainment: 5/10

Green Lantern (2011)
Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Blake Lively and Peter Sarsgaard
Director: Martin Campbell
Plot: After a dying alien confers to him a mystical ring that bestows amazing powers, an irresponsible test pilot realizes that he's now part of a universe-spanning peace-keeping force just as a cosmic evil force descends on Earth.
Review: Apart from Batman, DC super-heroes haven't had a good run recently in live-action cinema - the Superman reboot failed, Jonah Hex was DOA, and many other plans never took off. It's a galling comparison to Marvel's own comic-book adaptations that have seen constant success (Spider-Man, Iron Man, Thor, etc.). Green Lantern was to put DC back on the map, and indeed the sci-fi-based stories of Green Lantern and the GL Corps make for great blockbuster fodder: the comics balance the personal sacrifices and courage of its players with the grand, other-worldly adventures. Alas, whereas the special-effects driven storyline is appropriately cosmic, the more personal Earth-bound plot never really takes off. Blame it on a script that constantly vacillates in tone and can't get away from Hollywood clichés, or that doesn't make its central character interesting enough. A tired sub-plot involving a mad scientist who uses newly-gained powers to settle his jealousies regarding a love triangle with our hero and his girlfriend feels like filler and falls flat, while the main threat - a civilization-killing entity that lives off fear - is given little real treatment. The GL universe is also pretty confusing for audiences not in the know - years of back story are relegated to a one-minute narrated exposition. For sure, director Campbell was an inspired choice for the adaptation, having proven his chops on such terrific reboots such as The Mask of Zorro and the Bond thriller Casino Royale. And various parts work great, especially the galaxy-spanning adventures of the GL team, created with some marvelous, colorful special effects work. Yet though it's visually interesting Campbell can't get the rest of the film to mesh together, and there's no feeling of impending doom or real tension. Reynolds' charm is still in evidence, even if it's smothered by the demands of the script, and Lively makes for a smart romantic interest. Minor supporting roles by Tim Robbins as a sleazy senator and Angela Bassett as a government scientist barely register, but Mark Strong, under purple make-up, plays perfectly to type as Sinestro, GL's comic-book nemesis who is set up in a post-credit sequence as the sequel's villain. Green Lantern has its moments, and it's a decent attempt at an origin story, but it's finally a rather disappointing foray into the character considering the wealth of material and filmmakers involved. Hopefully a sequel is still in the cards - it's a worthwhile franchise.
Entertainment: 6/10

Sucker Punch (2011)
Starring: Emily Browning, Vanessa Hudgens, Jena Malone, Carla Gugino
Director: Zack Snyder
Plot: Institutionalized by her abusive stepfather, a young girl retreats into alternate realities to cope with her surroundings, eventually gaining the courage to plan an escape with her fellow inmates.
Review: The marketing campaign pushed Sucker Punch as being the ultimate male fantasy Girls-With-Big-Guns flick, a sort of "Alice in Wonderland with machine-guns", one filled with improbable situations, kick-ass action, incredible computer-generated flights of fancy and, well, girls in skimpy outfits. For sure, the film offers all of that in spades, and director Snyder (with the CG-heavy 300 and Watchmen under his belt) is the man to make it happen on screen, bringing his knack for stunning visuals to work once again. But what's going to get its target demographic audience in a tizzy (or at least mightily confused) is that there's also a tale of women in an insane asylum woven in amidst these hectic sequences, a tale that plays out like an nightmarish version of Girl, Interrupted, or a shallow version of Shutter Island. That all of this is going in various stages of alternate realities, with the narrative jumping out of its own internal logic by having scenes play out with its deranged heroine, makes for a mix that doesn't quite gel into a single cohesive movie. The standout moments are the fantasy sequences in samurai Japan and a bizarre steampunk-inspired WW1, both of which are compelling and fun, thankfully breaking the slick but manipulative melodrama. In these latter parts the film, blessed with a grunge remix of eclectic New Wave hits from the Eurythmics to Bjork, also takes certain cues from the heavily stylized Moulin Rouge, at least in the moments when "reality" is meant to set in. But while these moments elevate the first half of the film, the repeated nature of the action - albeit in a castle guarded by a fierce dragon and another on a distant planet - just makes it a tad tedious. The cast of hotties, led by the innocent-looking Browning, does well enough, with supporting actors Carla Gugino vamping it up to hilarious extremes and Scott Glenn adding a touch of class and cool in a minor Yoda-like supporting role. Perhaps it's just not consistently way over the top as 300 was, or perhaps the search for meaning and a stronger tale of grrrl power just doesn't work with the comic-book inspired premise. Whatever it is, Sucker Punch comes off as a failed experiment that's only half an entertaining film. For some, that may be enough.
Entertainment: 5/10

Fast Five (2011)
Starring: Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Dwayne Johnson
Director: Justin Lin
Plot: Trying to stay low in Brazil but ending up pursued by a ruthless local drug lord, a band of car thieves turn the tables on him by going after $100 million of his money - if only they can avoid capture by a relentless federal agent.
Review: After a dismal first sequel and a second that was in name only, the F&F franchise hit its stride with the fourth installment, Fast & Furious, and shows its legs with the latest chapter, Fast Five, encompassing the main elements that drove people into theaters in the first place, namely Vin Diesel, guns, jaw-dropping stunts and - oh, yeah - fast cars. When those are the focus, the film works wonders. The action - and there's a lot of it - is inventive and indeed fast & furious; the train robbery in the first act is thrilling, the few gunfights and foot-chases are good, showing off some good stunt work, but none are more over-the-top than the climactic heist sequence involving a chase through the streets of Rio de Janeiro with two muscle cars towing a 10 ton steel vault and leaving a carnage of smashed police cars and wrecked buildings in their wake. Completely silly, but also thoroughly entertaining. Most every character from the series - at least those left alive - make an appearance here; and while Vin Diesel and Walker sleep-walk through the whole affair, newcomer Johnson, as the elite federal officer set to take them down, chews the scenery with aplomb. Alas, when the film tries for emotional heft, it fails: The melodrama and yawn-worthy character interactions, meant to create a sense of family and bond with the team of outlaws, just pans putting the brakes on what should have been a nitro-fueled, 90-min ride from start to finish - instead it adds an unnecessary 30 minutes of tedium. The script just doesn't really care about its heroes; the dialogue is corny and the jokes are as flat as the characters. Still, if returning director Lin (Better Luck Tomorrow, Fast & Furious) can't make his ensemble cast click, he sure does have the knack for making it all big-budget slick and filling it with flashy action and superb cinematography, making the best of his Brazil location shooting. And that's why we keep coming back - it's broad, shallow, dumb fun. More please.
Entertainment: 7/10

Funky Town (Quebec - 2011)
Starring: Patrick Huard, Justin Chatwin, Paul Doucet
Director: Daniel Roby
Plot: In 1976 Montreal, the lives of eight people come together in their seach for stardom and relationships in the era when disco was king.
Review: A tale of the Quebec music industry, the cool Funky Town is a piece of 70's disco-era Montreal history as told through the eyes of a diverse group of denizens. Among them is the peacock TV host who's got it all but can't get enough; the Italian dancing sensation torn between coming out and his parent's expectations; the French-Canadian record producer looking for a way out and a quick buck; the gay Anglo queen lost in his own importance but desperate to find love; and the gorgeous but talentless supermodel worried that the gravy train has passed her by. And while all these poor souls try to connect, in the background is the political turmoil of an independent Quebec and the upcoming Referendum. Director Roby imbues the events and the overall movie with shades of Saturday Night Fever and Studio 54, but it's also a very Quebec endeavor, with its own flavor and appeal. It's also a pretty slick, well-paced drama of lives lost to the mistresses of fame, obsession, ego and money. The strong local cast is headlined by star Huard who's at his best when doing charismatic, sometimes pitiable bastards, and he's terrific here; his drug-induced, and ego-induced, crash-and-burn from king of the hill to scum is familiar but still packs a punch. Add to this a great soundtrack - covers of the popular originals - and you've got a winning combo that's both entertaining and engaging. If only it had something original to say, Funky Town would really have been an ensemble drama to stand up and take notice. As it is, it's still worthwhile but ultimately forgettable.
Drama: 6/10

Solomon Kane (2009)
Starring: James Purefoy, Pete Postlethwaite, Rachel Hurd-Wood, Max von Sydow
Director: Michael J. Bassett
Plot: Having renounced violence for fear of his immortal soul, a once-bloodthirsty privateer of noble birth is forced to return to his homeland and take up arms against an evil sorcerer who has kidnapped a young girl under his care.
Review: Based on the 1920's pulp magazine adventures by Conan writer Robert E. Howard, this first film adaptation of Solomon Kane makes for a splendid sword and sorcery epic. From the opening sequence as Kane storms a middle-east palace, evil glint in his eyes, and ends up confronting the Devil's Reaper, audiences know they're in for a treat. Writer / director Bassett (who first proved his chops on the capable WWI horror Deathwatch) doesn't disappoint, providing an origin tale of redemption that has its share of bloody, swashbuckling action and dark fantasy without short-changing the story or his main character. There's lots of imaginative bits here, especially in combining the supernatural elements with a gravitas that would be appropriate for a costume drama. Some highlights include a walk through a room filled with mirrors containing evil spirits, a flight from dark tunnels filled with vampire-like creatures and a climax against a giant fire demon, all of which mesh seamlessly into the tale and background. Filmed mostly in the Czech Republic, the gritty, atmospheric visuals capture an appropriately spooky version of 16th century England, and a feeling that evil is indeed lurking right around the corner. The charismatic Purefoy - dressed up in black, including flowing cape and distinctive black hat - makes for an intriguing hero, a man who knows the atrocities he's capable of (and done) and fears for his immortal soul, but forced to take up arms to save an innocent. You actually care for his internal struggle, even as we know that (and gleefully admire how) he will plunge back into a violent spree to get to his goal. It's lack of success at the box-office means we won't see further adventures of what could have been a fine franchise; that's to bad, but at least this is a fine effort that's worth looking for.
Note: For some unfortunate reason, despite the fact that the movie came out on DVD in Europe in 2010, the movie rights haven't passed on to the Americas. The only way to see this is on imported DVD. Shame.
Entertainment: 8/10

Check out both the Not-So-Recent Video Reviews and the Video Review Library pages for older reviews!

Home / Latest Reviews / Review Library
Now Playing / Coming Soon / BLOG / Top 20 Lists
Hong Kong Cinema!Film Fests / FAQ / Favorite Links