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

No Strings Attached (2011) 
Starring: Natalie Portman, Ashton Kutcher, Kevin Kline
Director: Ivan Reitman
Plot: After waking up passed-out on the couch of an old flame, a yong man on the rebound accepts a no-strings-attached sex-only relationship with a girl he's been infatuated for ages, only to discover that keeping it simple is pretty complicated.
Review: An amusing romantic-sex-comedy that's slightly above the average Hollywood fare, No Strings Attached sneaks past our expectations and actually ends up being quite enjoyable and engaging. Having made his name with such successes as the classic Ghostbusters to the dud Evolution, director Reitman proves he can re-invent himself from his big-budget comedy past to helm a pretty good rom-com. Portman is in full cute mode as the smart-but-clueless young medical resident, and it's easy to see what she sees in Kutcher, whose likable klutz shtick is in full swing. The two actors actually have some pretty good chemistry together, including some more honest and raunchy scenes than usual, which makes all of this eminently watchable and on more than one occasion even intimate. Even more surprising, the script skims the usual genre clichés - from the eccentric, comic-relief supporting cast, to the boy-meets-girl-loses-girl-and-finds-her-again plot and everything that goes around it - yet still makes it look new. A subplot with Lake Bell, playing the neurotic, love struck co-worker adds a nice twist - she's so awkward but sincere that you're rooting for her as much as Portman. And Kline, as the egocentric, pot-smoking, aging-star dad who tries (disastrously so) to do right by his son, is just hilarious. No Strings Attached is ultimately quite forgettable, but it's frothy formulaic fun while it lasts.
Entertainment: 6/10

Troll Hunter (2010)
Starring: Otto Jespersen, Robert Stoltenberg, Knut Nærum
Director: André Øvredal
Plot: A group of students investigating a series of bear killings in Norway end up tagging along a mysterious hunter who claims to be going after rogue Trolls.
Review: Clearly inspired by The Blair Witch Project and its higher-production-value modern counterparts, the Norwegian horror / fantasy flick Troll Hunter was a big hit in its native Europe. Shot in college-level documentary style, the film is peppered with bizarre interviews, "candid" revelations as to the science that plays with the mythology, and tidbits on an overall government conspiracy at foot. In trying to keep the spirit of a BBC travel log, there's also a lot of nice shots of the Nordic countryside during the long trips down country roads hunting for signs of the beasts, something that occasionally bogs down the narrative. With the first revelations of the the gigantic, dangerous trolls hiding in the forests and mountains, the film shows roots more in dark fantasy than horror. The creature effects can be a bit unintentionally cheesy, but there are some really exciting moments, too as we get to watch how you put down such powerful beings (hint - UV light and a sledgehammer works wonders). However, the film succeeds best not when the camera tries to catch (and just as often escape) the giant creatures but when capturing the world-weary cynicism of its real subject, the veteran titular character, superbly played by Jespersen. The idea probably would work better as a shorter subject as the limitations become apparent when forced into feature-length treatment. Still, if the movie isn't quite "cinema-vérité" enough to pull you in as was the filmmakers intention, Troll Hunter is still an interesting high-concept flick to keep genre fans well enough entertained.
Entertainment: 6/10

Your Highness (2011)
Starring: Danny McBride, Natalie Portman, James Franco 
Director: David Gordon Green
Plot: The slacker, black-sheep younger son of the king must join forces with his heroic brother to save his future sister-in-law from a dark wizard, trying to find some redemption for his life along the way.
Review: Fantasy films are always a hit-or-miss affair, and combining them with comedy usually proves difficult. Case in point: the disastrous, immature and cheap Your Highness, a film that's a black eye in the career of everyone who's come in contact with it. The movie is intentionally vile and vulgar; in fact, it goes to great lengths to be so (cue in a scene where the hero's brother has to jack off a muppet-looking wizard, among other jokes). But where recent films with such a focus and audience have been successful by being honest (American Pie) or crazy (the Jackass series), this film is calibrated, mechanically stupid, its only raison d'être to lift up its pompous, useless hero (writer / actor / funnyman McBride, given too much leeway) to star status - it fails. Worse, it's just devoid of any laughs, and not even ones that would elicit chuckles from the MTV-era teens. Though the script is the main offender, the affair is also poorly executed and quite contrived; it's a shame that director Green, who showed so much promise as a dramatic director with George Washington and Undertow, has taken a right turn to this incompetent Hollywood junk. Apart from McBride's career-dive, the rest of the cast actually does OK: Franco gives even the corniest scenes his all, Portman proves she should be in a better movie, and Zooey Deschanels plays cute as the damsel in distress. It's a good cast in a poor movie, and their agents should be fired for letting them flail here. As for the fantasy-comedy redemption story (who cares?), the characters (you're kidding, right?), the production values (cable TV does better than this!), the effects (admittedly better than the movie has a right to) or any redeeming qualities (jobs were created?), well you sure ain't going to find them here. The only original part is the opening credit sequence, which has more energy and verve than the rest of the flick. Unwatchable.
Entertainment / Comedy: 2/10

Of Gods and Men (Des hommes et des dieux) (France - 2010)
Starring: Lambert Wilson, Michael Lonsdale, Olivier Rabourdin
Director: Xavier Beauvois
Plot: Under threat by Islamic fundamentalists during the Algerian civil war of 1996, a group of monks stationed with an impoverished community must decide whether to leave or stay.
Review: Inspired by the real-life disappearance of several French monks from an Algerian monastery in 1996, winner of the César for Best Film, and Grand Prize at Cannes, Of Gods and Men is a drama that comes with high acclaim and the promise of a short cinematic window into themes of religion, tolerance and faith. The inevitable clash between monastic Christians and their peaceful village neighbors against the incoming tide of Islamic fundamentalism (and "terrorists") takes small steps, with the unrest of the outside world abruptly intruding on their idyllic lifestyle. The cast - made up of some terrific French veterans, especially leader Wilson and aging medicine-provider Lonsdale - is impeccable, believably pious and camera-friendly. Alas, the pacing is so languorous and the scenes so repetitive that it's hard to stay focused on the message. Case in point, one of the final sequences is a "Last Supper", where the monks enjoy each other's company, silently, knowing of their inevitable doom, the camera lingering (and lingering) on their reactions as Swan Lake plays. It's supposed to a heavy, emotional scene, but it comes off as galling. The real disappointment is that director Beauvois (The Young Lieutenant) has crafted a deliberate, capable and well-intentioned film, that stresses the monks' simple life of devotion to God and their faith - something that's well captured but eventually tedious - but he misses providing a thoughtful view of the complexities of the culture clash. A more tightly edited feature would have made the point just as well, and would have made more of an impression. As it stands, Of Gods and Men is still a worthwhile drama, but it should have been more.
Drama: 6/10

Mars Needs Moms (2011)
Starring: Seth Green, Joan Cusack, Dan Fogler
Director: Simon Wells
Plot: After seeing his mom being taken away by Martians, a high-spirited kid stows away in their spaceship then joins forces with a lost grown-up and a rebellious alien teen to save her.
Review: Badly marketed and shunned by the public, the hugely expensive 3D sci-fi family adventure comedy Mars Needs Moms is unjustly maligned: adapted from the picture book by Bloom County creator Berkeley Breathed, it's a mish-mash of '50's drive-in movies, Star Wars and others, it's a familiar tale told with verve and heart that's eye-popping and fun, if never quite memorable. The tale has its harsh moments that might be disturbing for smaller kids, such as the fate of previous kidnapped moms (vaporized!), the dystopian Mars, the palpable fear of being caught in a strange place; on the other hand there's a cute robot, silly (and furry) male aliens and its share of slapstick. A lot of time and effort was spent on the motion capture technology to get the humans and aliens seem just right, a process producer Robert Zemeckis used on his own films like The Polar Express and Beowulf; the character movement is indeed smooth and life-like, but it's all overkill on such an escapist cartoon. Thankfully, director Wells (whose other sci-fi credits include the interesting but flawed recent remake of The Time Machine) balances the intense in-your-face action (with the best 3D effects coming in the form of tumbling from mile-high garbage chutes), the mostly clean humor (not a gross-out joke in sight!) and the melodrama in capable manner. It ends by delivering a gush of sentimentality as our young protagonist gains a deeper appreciation for his Mom - it's an unexpectedly wrenching moment after all the video-game action and '80s-references jokes. Thirty-something Green plays (if not voices) the 12-year-old youngster, and Cusack has the mom part down pat, but it's funnyman Fogler who really steals the show as the real hero of this tale. Deemed a massive box office bomb, Mars Needs Moms is much better than most of the kiddie fare out there and will hopefully find an audience on DVD.
Entertainment: 6/10

Battle Los Angeles (2011)
Starring: Aaron Eckhart, Michelle Rodriguez, Bridget Moynahan
Director: Jonathan Liebesman
Plot: A group of Marines, led by a veteran Staff Sergeant forced back into the line of duty and a young Lieutenant, are sent to recover a handful of civilians caught in the middle of Los Angeles as it's being overrun by alien invaders. 
Review: Pitched as a blend of Independence Day and Black Hawk Down, a soldier's street-level view of an alien invasion, Battle Los Angeles wants to be a gritty, serious take on battling an unknown enemy. The opening bits do provide some intriguing elements, as the aliens land in War of the Worlds fashion, CNN reporting their striking near cities like meteors, quickly driving out the unprepared humans. As the soldiers move in, they're confronted by E.T. foot soldiers, with nary a high-tech machine around. In fact, as presented, they're interchangeable with just about any international army - say the Russians or China invading LA, using similar weapon technology and tactics. Apart from the mystery of why they invaded (something never answered), the suspense and interest dies out pretty quickly knowing they're on equal footing - why have aliens at all? There's lots of activity, however, and director Liebesman does pretty well in giving the narrative a "you-are-there" feel of urban combat, capturing the chaos of combat with lots of medium shots, shaky cam and quick edits that pervaded the Bourne sequels. But we never get emotionally involved; the whole affair is so cliché, so predictable, that it feels like re-heated fare, a hodge-podge mix of better sci-fi and war movies. By the time the admittedly tense climax comes around, though, we've given up. It doesn't help that the grunts are all interchangeable, expendable fodder for the shallow script, and the character development is typically cardboard-thin, even in terms of an action film. The reliable Eckhart does his best with the squad leader role given to him, and Rodriguez once again plays to type as a no-nonsense soldier, but these parts could have been played by anyone. District 9 proved that solid, engrossing alien invasion films can still be made with a tight budget and big aspirations. There's some serviceable entertainment to be had but, sadly, Battle Los Angeles spent its big-budget money on the wrong stuff and doesn't have the smarts or the originality to be anything but an ably-made, cookie-cutter endeavor. 
Entertainment: 5/10

Red Riding Hood (2011)
Starring: Amanda Seyfried, Gary Oldman, Lukas Haas
Directors: Catherine Hardwicke
Plot: A young girl falls for her secret childhood friend, an orphaned woodcutter, but starts having suspicions of his identity when the werewolf that has haunted her village for decades starts taking victims that are closer to home.
Review: A modern take on the classic children's fairy-tale, Red Riding Hood promises a female-empowerment, coming-of-age horror story given the Twilight treatment. Alas, it mostly fails in garnering any interest save for the occasional striking visual. Director Hardwicke made a splash with her first feature, Thirteen, showing well-conceived young female characters dealing with real situations and hard choices. This latest effort couldn't be further from that auspicious beginning and comes off as a tired, clichéd medieval-era retread of her own vampire-led Twilight adaptation. The pacing is admittedly deft and the candy-colored visuals are pretty enough, but the film lacks for a better script. With the romantic vagaries of its dew-eyed heroine with two young beefcake beaus, the theater-worthy sets, the vacuous melodrama and the down-played horror elements, it's clear that its target demographic lies with pre-pubescent tweens. The B-list cast - including such thespians as Oldman, Hass and Virginia Madsen - play second fiddle to the young actors, whose looks and affirmations of love are meant to set hearts aflutter... at least between scenes of slick, big-budget horror and stylish amounts of gore, thrown into the mix in hopes of captivating the male audience. Unfortunately, the red-herring filled mystery of the werewolf`s human identity - and the atrocities committed to find it - is barely enough to hold our interest. Young adults may lap this up, but everyone else will remain non-plus.
Entertainment: 4/10

The Transformers: The Movie (1986) 
Voices: Orson Welles, Robert Stack, Leonard Nimoy
Director: Nelson Shin
Plot: Two warring factions of robots face off in a deciding battle when an evil mechanical planetoid approaches their home world, consuming everything in its path.
Review: The 1980's Transformers TV show was an obvious tie-in / commercial for Hasbro's line of toys, but it was such a success that a whole new set of toy models were created - and what better way to push these than with a full-length theatrical feature? Enter The Transformers: The Movie, a fast-paced, male-friendly space opera filled with battles, lasers, melodrama, silliness and more new robots than you can shake a stick at. The entire adventure is bizarre and disjointed, with sub-plots existing only to introduce new characters, or so it seems to anyone that isn't a fan of the 1985 series that spawned it, or to any adult not in the flux of nostalgia. Also bewildering is the reaction to the on-screen death of its heroic good guy Optimus Prime, an event early in the movie that sent kids crying, and many parents furious. A big feature needed a big villain, and so the planet-sized, planet-eating Unicron was created, voiced by no other than Orson Welles, in one of his last performances. Also worth a ponder is how the filmmakers got a voice cast that includes Robert Stack, Leonard Nimoy and Eric Idle. Ah, to be a kid again and see all this for simple entertainment instead of what it was meant to be: a crass commercial aimed to push more toys on hapless young boys. Still, if you can keep from losing your marbles mid-way through, there's some cheap thrills to be had. Kids will gobble this up, but adults have been forewarned.
Entertainment: 6/10

Sanctum (2011)
Starring: Richard Roxburgh, Rhys Wakefield, Alice Parkinson
Director: Alister Grierson
Plot: Caught in a massive underwater cave system by a flash flood, a team of divers and explorers must battle the elements and the unforgiving cave itself to escape.
Review: Very loosely based on real events, Sanctum was meant as a adventure into the unexplored cave system, an excuse to expand the use of the 3D digital technology that made Avatar such an immersive experience. Alas, meant to be seen in 3D, the tale loses some of its appeal when presented flat for home video, where there is no longer an excuse for the poor script and directing. The premise - that of a group of people joined, and then separated in survival - has always held filmmaker and audience interest, from Titanic to Lifeboat, but this feels more like a movie of the week - think a more gritty version of the family-friendly 3D Journey to the Center of the Earth - with none of the verve, polish or strong storytelling that we expect from executive producer Cameron. The actors - especially Roxburgh - give it their best, but get short changed by a script that is more interested in the experience of cave diving than in its characters, as cardboard-worthy as they get, leaving audiences without an emotional anchor to the tragedies. The poorly managed and clichéd melodrama doesn't help either, even as the script kills off its team members for added heft, nor does the obviousness of the well-lit Australian sets (yup, no real Papua, New Guinea caves here). Director Grierson can't portray the needed tension or claustrophobia required for this kind of film to work - for that, audiences would be better served with the horror flick The Descent, whose first, non-supernatural half beats the wetsuit off this exercise in missed opportunities. Not a bad piece of work, but a National Geographic or BBC documentary on New Guinea's incredible, eerily magnificent open cave is more trilling and more striking than Sanctum can hope to achieve.
Entertainment: 3/10

The Sanctuary (2009)
Starring: Michael B., Russell Wong, Intira Jaroenpura
Director: Thanapon Maliwan
Plot: A young seller of fake Thai antiques gets involved in saving true national treasures when he gets embroiled in a double-cross between American soldiers of fortune and a rebel general.
Review: Marketed as a type of Indiana Jones adventure meets Ong Bak, The Sanctuary starts right but skids off to typical B-movie pastures. The plot involving stolen Thai artifacts, villainous American mercenaries and some supernatural force aiding in our hero's martial arts training is just damn tired. Thankfully there's action galore to be had, and at a compact 80 minutes there's not too much filler to drive audiences to sleep through the banal plot and characters. If the editing doesn't allow for the wow factor we've come to expect from Asian genre flicks, the well-choreographed and ably shot fight sequences do show off some strong talent exchanging powerful blows. They may not be spectacular in the way Thai compatriot Tony Jaa impressed international audiences, but they'll keep most action aficionados entertained. Leading man Michael B. is a great stunt man and martial arts expert, for sure, but he has little presence, and his female sidekick isn't much better. The bad guys, on the other hand, headed by a swave, deadly Wong, know to elevate their performance to camp, and show more personality than all the more decent folk combined. The Sanctuary isn't a must-see by any means, but for fans of Thai action flicks or martial arts ones in general, it's a pleasant enough time-waster.
Entertainment: 5/10

Despicable Me (2010)
Voices: Steve Carell, Jason Segel, Russell Brand
Directors: Pierre Coffin, Chris Renaud
Plot: A criminal mastermind relegated to second-rate capers decides make his mark by doing the crime of the century: stealing the moon - only he needs the help of a trio of orphaned girls to pull it off, and being a Dad is harder than he ever expected.
Review: Looking on the side of the bad guy is refreshing and it can sure be fun especially if it's Despicable Me, the latest computer-animated feature from the producers of the Ice Age franchise. They've learnt a thing or two, more ably melding the funny business and the sentimentality without making it feel forced. Without stealing any thunder from Pixar, the computer animation and weirdly shaped characters are stylish and slick, and wholly adequate for the job, but it's the deft storytelling that makes it work. The film is full of exuberant silliness and comic-book antics, and scenes such as our anti-hero going against every expectation of his suburban neighbors is priceless, as are his desperate attempts to sneak into his rival's HQ. Throwing in such kid-friendly cartoon fare like shrink rays, squid shooters, and a multitude of bizarre, jelly-bean-like one-eyed minions and you've got a sure-fire family hit. And older ones will enjoy it too, thanks to a large dose of humor that flip-flops between clever and cynical, occasionally into the juvenile, yet somehow still gets more laughs than most animated features. The adopted girl scouts are impossibly cute and smart, and are great foils to the unlikely single parent, a real modern-day Grinch. The voice acting is also good, with the likes of Carell as the villain who discovers a heart, Segal as his new, younger nemesis, and Julie Andrews who surprises as the hero's criminally-minded, scary mother. It's not perfect, but Despicable Me is imaginative, well written, darn funny and even tugs at the heart-strings. That's a rare, and welcome, combination.
Entertainment: 7/10

Ong Bak 3 (Thailand - 2010)
Starring: Tony Jaa, Sorapong Chatree, Nirut Sirichanya
Directors: Tony Jaa, Panna Rittikrai
Plot: After being captured and beaten to near-death, a martial arts expert is saved by villagers who teach him the power of meditation and bring him back to health, preparing him for battle against a supernatural warrior who has taken over the region.
Review: Starting immediately after the previous chapter's cliffhanger ending, Ong Bak 3 concludes the two part period story started with Ong Bak 2. Together, they make for an ambitious, epic film of revenge and redemption that is unfortunately too concerned with tedious Buddhist philosophizing and melodrama, something that distracts from the intricate martial arts choreography. Indeed, this second act involves lots of mumbo-jumbo as our once-broken hero returns to the path of righteousness and wisdom - yeah, that may be a stretch, but not more so than the un-subtle camera shots hinting that he's the Buddha re-incarnated. No surprise, then, that the film was infamously marred by production issues, artistic disagreements and a leading man who decided to become a monk early on. But forget about all that - if you can put up with the all-too familiar plot, long-winded training / re-habilitation scenes and other vagaries, the real attraction are the riveting action sequences, and they're worth the price of admission. Martial arts prodigy Jaa (here also credited as co-writer, co-producer and co-director) once again shows off his incredible fighting skills, this time going up against his Thai action colleague Chatree (best known for Dynamite Warrior). The stunts - if not as jaw-dropping as the original - still impress and show that Jaa and company have not lost any of their prowess. The entire affair is also enhanced by solid production values and superb - often striking - cinematography, making even the boring parts look good. Better paced and executed than its direct predecessor, the capping chapter in the series still doesn't hold a candle to the ground-breaking modern-day-setting Ong Bak, but as a martial arts epic it delivers the goods.
Entertainment: 6/10

The Great Mouse Detective (1986)
Voices: Vincent Price, Barrie Ingham, Val Bettin
Directors: Ron Clements, Burny Mattinson
Plot: The greatest mouse detective of London investigates the kidnapping of a master toymaker, leading him and his comrades to a diabolical plan to replace the Queen and steal the crown.
Review: Based on Eve Titus's children's mystery book Basil of Baker Street, itself borrowing heavily from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes, The Great Mouse Detective has a promising premise but lack-luster execution. This was the last animated feature from Disney's "slump" years after Walt's passing in the mid-60's and its shows: there's imagination and dashes of daring, but the film still seems constrained by a mostly leaden pacing and dismal cartoon animation that marred the previous decade's output. Fans of Doyle's famous detective will get some small kick at the in-jokes regarding the literary character, but things don't really start moving until at least the half-way point when the chase is finally on, leading the heroes into a spooky toy store, an impossible-to-escape-from mouse-trap and Buckingham Palace. As for the voice acting it's OK, if mostly uninspired, but Vincent Price - as the dastardly Rat nemesis - does his usual over-the-top performance; too bad it's not with better material. This was a springboard for co-director Clements who went on to usher in Disney's animation revival with the way-more endearing, colorful and entertaining features like The Little Mermaid and Aladdin. The Great Mouse Detective has its moments of mystery and suspense, but it's no family classic: either too scary or too slow-going for kids, there's just not enough invention, thrills or laughs for repeat viewings.
Entertainment: 5/10

The Green Hornet (2011)
Starring: Seth Rogen, Jay Chou, Cameron Diaz, Christoph Waltz
Director: Michel Gondry
Plot: The playboy heir to an LA newspaper teams up with his late father's young assistant - a martial arts expert and mechanical genius - to fight crime as a masked duo in a souped-up car.
Review: Considering the Green Hornet's long history - first created as a 1930's radio serial, evolving to a color TV series - it's not surprising Hollywood decided to attempt another big screen franchise. With a surprising choice of director Gondry at the helm - best known for such quirky, intellectual fare like Be Kind Rewind and the masterful Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind - you also know it won't be standard fare. Gondry may not be in familiar waters helming a big-budget action comedy, but his quirky style and interesting visual choices adds some spice to the otherwise straight-forward adventure. Taking cues from all the recent Marvel superhero movies, the movie also impresses with its slick production values, muscular car chases, and lots of cool fist-fights and gunplay - and these all work just right, especially when the ultra-cool, tricked-out-a-la-James-Bond super-car aptly named Black Beauty gets the lion's share. Unfortunately, as co-written and starring its personable, loud-mouthed lead, it's a Seth Rogen movie that suffers from too much Seth Rogen - his slacker persona is perhaps the element that works the least here, and the pacing suffers from too much emphasis on him, either in his general antics, in a sub-plot involving his own father issues or in his miserable attempts at seducing new employee Cameron Diaz. Trying to combine genres, the film suffers by trying to be both an Apatow-styled comedy and a witty take on the comic-book genre, neither of which ends up being engaging enough to be truly special. More interesting is Chou as Kato (the Robin to Rogen's Batman) a role made famous by Bruce Lee in the 60's live-action TV series, but he's clearly kept in the sidelines. Some intriguing cast choices also pepper the film, such as a bland Waltz as a violent but un-threatening villain, Tom Wilkinson as Dad, Edward James Olmos as the onerous editor, Edward Furlong as a junkie and an un-credited cameo by James Franco as a criminal upstart in an amusing Tarantino-esque intro scene. The studio should be applauded for getting an unexpected team of filmmakers aboard, and The Green Hornet is still entertaining, but with Gondry at the helm one expected something more original, or at least more memorable than this.
Entertainment: 6/10

*Classic* A Night at the Opera (1935)
Starring: Groucho Marx, Chico Marx, Harpo Marx, Kitty Carlisle, Allan Jones
Directors: Edmund Goulding, Sam Wood
Plot: A con artist joins forces with two brothers to confront an arrogant opera singer bound for glory in Manhattan, using outrageous methods in an attempt to upstage him with a tenor living in his shadow.
Review: Comedy is subjective. What one person enjoys, another one will hate. What we appreciated as children sometimes doesn't live up to our fond memories. Such is the case with A Night at the Opera, the fifth feature film starring the classic trio of the Marx Brothers, a movie often cited as not only their best comic outing (having left behind their more absurdist shenanigans) but also one of the best comedies to ever come out of Hollywood. That it's B&W and was made in the 1930's shouldn't make a difference - funny is funny. When I was young, I remember almost pissing myself laughing each time the movie aired on PBS. The Marx Bros' were irreverent, eccentric and terribly funny, managing to show great wit in dialogue with one-line zingers and amazing physical skill in the slapstick and acrobatics. Alas, as an adult the film doesn't live up to the fond memories of my childhood. Perhaps it hasn't aged well - or perhaps I haven't. The scenes that I remembered are still there: Groucho and Chico tearing up a contract piece by piece as part of negotiations, the crowded shipboard stateroom, the gypsy-led song-and-dance to "Cosi Cosa", the hotel bed-switching sequence to elude the police, and the opera climax as the trio wreck an Opera performance with Harpo swinging on fly ropes to the tune of Verdi's Il Trovatore. There's romance, musical numbers, solid production values, and lots of poking at high society and high culture. It's still an entertaining, often amusing piece of filmmaking but instead of the roars of laughter I expected to have, I could only manage the occasional guffaw and smile. Film buffs and an older generation will still appreciate the zaniness on display, and A Night at the Opera is admittedly a classic, but I can't help but see the movie with a sense of nostalgia for a time when I truly thought this was the epitome of funny.
Comedy: 6/10

Megamind (2010)
Voices: Will Ferrell, Tina Fey, Jonah Hill
Director: Tom McGrath
Plot: After finally defeating his arch-nemesis, a super-villain faces his biggest challenge when he creates a new super-hero to relieve his boredom.
Review: An amusing, if uninspired, spoof on superhero movies - most especially Superman - Megamind milks the tale of a misunderstood Bad Guy with a heart of gold. But unlike the similar-themed Despicable Me (another 2010 release), this one lacks a distinctive style and true heart, feeling more like a mass-produced, cookie-cutter product than others of its ilk. Not that there's anything too wrong with that: the computer animated style is slick and very reminiscent to Dreamwork's own Monsters vs. Aliens; the voice cast, led by Ferrel and Fey, are terrific, and Brad Pitt - as the city's hero Metro Man - is just a great casting coup; and there's lots of super-powered mayhem and violence along with the gags. Perhaps the most interesting bit is the villain's sidekick - a sentient fish-in-a-bowl atop a hulking mechanical body. Too bad the rest of the movie - leadened by a predictable script - couldn't come up with something else just as good. And it's not a family film: there's too much violence for small kids, while the many talking bits - including a romantic interlude that actually wins our sympathy for the misunderstood "villain" of the piece - won't keep their attention all the whole way through. Megamind won't survive multiple viewings, but for a more mature audience there are chuckles galore if no real laugh-out-loud moments, and the movie's narrative - and execution - is witty enough, and characters surprisingly charming enough, to keep your attention.
Entertainment: 6/10

Love and Other Drugs (2010)
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Anne Hathaway, Judy Greer
Director: Edward Zwick
Plot: A charming, womanizing pharmaceutical salesman meets his match when he falls for a free spirit, a young woman suffering from Parkinson's who won't let something like love tie her down.
Review: Love and Other Drugs is a slick, well-paced affair that consistently engages despite its shift in tone. Indeed, what's starts off as a light drama ends up squarely in the romantic comedy genre mid-way through (complete with a comic-relief supporting cast), to veer again into relationship melodrama. It's a strange venture for Zwick, a director who's better known for such macho, politically charged adventures as Glory and Blood Diamond, until you remember his roots: the 1986 dramedy About Last Night. Updating his look at relationships of (and for) a new generation (or at least a new decade), the film also crams in a social commentary on the evils of the pharmaceutical industry and their underhanded schemes to make profits. The parallel commentary on the '90s attitudes of love and cutthroat sales don't necessarily fit into one another (except to give our hero a final life choice, perhaps), but they both make for entertaining stories. It's not a deep tale of love in the time of Viagra, by any means, but it still works. But the real heart of the film are the two absolutely charming and affecting leads; as good as they are separately, Hathaway and Gyllenhaal are even better together. In fact, it's rare to see such chemistry between two young stars, but these two just click. And we get to see quite a lot of them, too (nudge-nudge), as they frolic in bed or - shockingly for an American affair - just lie around naked to have a talk post-coitus. With its humorous touches, European sense of a adult sexuality and its two charming leads, Love and Other Drugs is a refreshing, consistently enjoyable entry in the romantic drama genre.
Entertainment: 7/10

Faster (2010)
Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Billy Bob Thornton, Carla Gugino
Director: George Tillman Jr.
Plot: Tracked by a veteran cop and an egocentric hit man, an ex-con immediately sets outs to avenge his brother, murdered in a double-cross after a bank heist years before.
Review: For the most part a straight-forward, gritty and engaging revenge thriller, Faster feels more like a slick remake of a 70's movie than an ADD-edited action movie - and that's a good thing. In a very different type of outing from his Men of Honor, director Tillman avoids getting lost in camp, giving the right sensibility to the genre fare: sure there's tension as well as the mandatory brutal fighting and gunplay sequences, yet these are fewer and shorter than one would expect. In fact, there's more attention to providing depth to its characters, making the movie more involving and dramatic than your average, mindless B-movie. The mystery behind his crusade of revenge is uncovered in flashbacks as his list of victims grows, but it's predictable and eventually the script gets lost in less involving sub-plots - especially in the middle section - up until a tense confrontation with one of his targets, a man who has changed his life around. Surprisingly, Johnson has made few forays into the action genre, so it's a nice treat to see him properly cast as the unstoppable ex-con-of-few-words hell-bent on some bullet-ridden justice. And he sure drives a cool muscle car, too. Thornton brings the only real drama to the affair, slumming it as a dope-addled detective looking for one last break, and Gugino gives a nice supporting role as a fellow cop. As low-key action thrillers go, Faster fades from memory pretty quickly but while it lasts it's a welcome return for its leading man.
Entertainment: 7/10

Burlesque (2010)
Starring: Cher, Christina Aguilera, Stanley Tucci
Director: Steve Antin
Plot: A small town girl dreaming of the big time in show business ends up as a waitress in a burlesque club, waiting for her chance to join in as a dancer and singer on stage. 
Review: The latest cinematic musical, Burlesque, definitely has the right pedigree - two pop star divas, a bevy of dance numbers, and enough funny stuff (intentional and not) to make it work. Channeling Cabaret, however, doesn't mean it's a classic by any means; for that it's clearly missed the mark. The story of small-town-girl-makes-good-in-big-city is generic and more than banal, as is the story's required romantic plot (here it's channeling Showgirls!) - and the script gives some laughable dialogue. Thankfully writer / director Antin puts as much energy and humor in the production as he can muster and this, along with the double-dose of cheesiness, make up for much - and some of those one-liners are pretty good. If the choreography is not very inventive and the songs never quite catchy, the muscial numbers do have the glitz and naughtiness you'd expect from a burlesque revue. Head-liner Aguilera excels in the song-and-dance bits, and clearly her talents is on display during these sequences; the rest, not so much, though even a good actress might have struggled with the paper-thin characterization. The aging Cher looks as scary as ever, and it looks like she's had too much botox - her facial expressions are hard to discern - but she can still sing a storm. Tucci, however, is simply terrific and a joy to watch in every scene - sure he's repeating his stereotypical gay-man role he did so well in The Devil Wears Prada, but he gets more laughs than all the other characters combined. It's too shallow to make it enticing, but Burlesque has enough camp and pizzazz to make it a cult favorite. Too bad it feels like a missed opportunity.
Entertainment: 5/10

Inside Job (2010)
Director: Charles Ferguson
Plot: Starting from the housing bubble pop, a look into the corrupt Wall Street culture that led to the 2008 financial meltdown, a crisis that cost over $20 trillion, millions of jobs and nearly resulted in a global financial collapse.
Review: Most of us don't quite understand what exactly happened to cause the financial crisis of 2008 - the worst since the Great Depression of 1929. What exactly went wrong? Where were the government regulators? Didn't we learn from past mistakes, such as the S&L scandal of 1989? The Oscar-winning Inside Job has the answers, and it's a damning one. Following up on his 2007 doc No End In Sight (which slammed the Bush administration and made the Iraq war clear to many) director / provocateur Ferguson takes his righteous indignation (and whip-smart intellect) looking for accountability. Taking his search to the US, Europe, and Asia, he goes straight to the jugular during interviews with key experts and many of the people responsible for the current state of disarray. From detailing the financial instruments known as derivatives, to the increasing deregulation by successive governments in cahoots with rogue financial businesses like Goldman Sachs, to a detailed description of the deceptions and frauds instigated by an elite few, we get a terrifying picture of a global economic system that's - at best - so complex that no-one can determine the impact of singular events or - at worse - has become the playground for rich Wall Street bankers with no morals. With incredible access to the world economic experts, politicians and businessmen that shaped the current system, Fergusson gives us an unprecedented, absolutely horrifying look at Wall Street greed, excess and plain stupidity. Perhaps the worse part of all is that the people who got us into this mess are still walking free, their millions intact, and their stooges still set policy in high government positions. It's a travesty. A slick, fast-paced carnival ride into the biggest economic fiasco in history, Inside Job will leave you flustered and angry - as we should be.
Documentary: 8/10

Buried (2010)
Starring: Ryan Reynolds
Director: Rodrigo Cortés
Plot: After his convoy is attacked, a civilian US Contractor working as a trucker in Iraq is buried in a coffin and held for ransom, with a cell phone his only lifeline to the outside.
Review: A film where all the action takes place in a box, with only one actor on screen, probably doesn't sound very suspenseful. And so the surprise with Buried is that it's exactly that - a low-budget thriller that uses inventiveness to make up for its restrictions. Sure, the expected mainstream clichés do make their appearance - the cell phone has poor reception and a draining battery, there's dwindling oxygen, crawling critters... you get the idea. But what the script also has is tension brought on by a plot straight from Iraq headlines, one that's also a mystery, piecing together the clues to explain his predicament, how he go there, and why - and most of all, how is he going to get out. Unlike other films, or other directors' take, Spanish director Cortés ensures the camera and the audience never escape the confines of the coffin during the film's entire running length, a taunt 90 minutes of "real time" narrative; there are no flashbacks, cut scenes or anything that distract from the tight confines of the minimal set. There are lots of cinematic flourishes, of course, to keep things visually interesting: light plays a big part (coming from various sources such as flashlight, lighter, cell screen, etc), as does the sound editing (there's no score) and the use of some extreme close-ups. It's all to make sure the feeling of claustrophobia and panic is perfectly captured, and it does. At the heart, though, is Reynolds who proves his capabilities as an actor; no matter the direction, you need to believe his desperation to get taken in by the story, and he does a fine performance that gives the script its due. There's no easy resolution here, and the final twist - if not unexpected - is still a doozy. And that's perhaps the best thing of the film; despite its limited mainstream appeal, it's a smart take on the subject and a mostly original genre entry. It's not Shakespeare, but it's unflinching, edge of your seat entertainment.
Entertainment: 7/10

Carlos (France / Germany - 2010)
Starring: Édgar Ramírez, Alexander Scheer, Alejandro Arroyo
Director: Olivier Assayas
Plot: The real-life story of the Venezuelan revolutionary dubbed “Carlos the Jackal” whose operations of terror and assassination spanned the globe from the 1970’s to the late 80’s.
Review: From all counts, Carlos (his "nom de guerre") was a brazen, audacious - and finally egotistical - young man who spouted anti-imperialist ideology and joined the ranks for the Palestinian cause, quickly proving himself a smart, if rogue, operative who loved the media spotlight. Rising quickly through audacious missions of assassination and terror, the film intricately presents what is the highlight of the film, and of his career: the raid on the 1975 OPEC meeting and the ensuing political repercussions (and failures) for its captors. And that's where the film excels: it's not only a dynamite portrait of this international assassin but also a intriguing look at the Middle-Eastern political landscape, as he changed “handlers” and operations from Irak, to Libya, to anyone who would still pay for his services - no matter the cause. As directed by French director Assayas (Irma Vep), this audacious, globe-trotting adventure into the career of one of Europe's most wanted men is a standout; though Assayas presents the events surrounding his career with vivid, well-researched (and often scary) detail full of violence and sex, it's the script's sub-text and portrait of its subject, warts and all, that really grabs our attention. Though edited from the three-part, 330-minute TV series into a 160-minute theatrical feature, the film version loses nothing of its hypnotic allure. And the cinematography, from the washed-out, sun-drenched Middle-East to the 70's-era streets of Europe, is impeccable. At the center, though, is Ramírez who brilliantly portrays the infamous terrorist in each of his three stages of adult life – as a fearless young idealist, as a glory hound and, finally, as a pariah and political liability. Through him, we see the a young man full of spit and vinegar change into a sad middle-aged man who's been made irrelevant by the changing social and political landscapes. A bravura biography that is less dramatized than we care to believe, Carlos is his definitive cinematic biography.
Drama: 8/10

Let Me In (2010)
Starring: Chloe Grace Moretz, Richard Jenkins, Kodi-Smit McPhee
Director: Matt Reeves
Plot: As bizarre murders hit a small New Mexico town, a fragile, bullied 12-year-old boy finds a kindred spirit in his new neighbor, a strange young girl who just happens to be a vampire.
Review: A respectable American remake of the spellbinding 2008 film Let The Right One In, itself an adaptation of the Swedish novel of the same name, is for the most part a copy of the original - only made in English for local consumption. Much like its predecessor, this version is an atmospheric, very different take on the Vampire genre that makes careful use of its limited dialogue and special effects to help enhance the story. Though the vampire lore is left intact - there's murder, supernatural feats and lots of blood - the story is, foremost, a drama of an improbable friendship between a bullied, lonely 12-year old boy and a much older vampire, trapped in the body of a young girl. Balancing between terror and tenderness, the two child actors do well in their respective roles, and capture the required sensitivity and naturalism for the relationship to work. The sepia-tinted look proves to be visually adequate to the tone of the story, too, and director Reeves (Cloverfield) provides a slickly shot product in a manner that reminds one of recent remakes of 1970's horror. The downside to this version is that the pacing feels more deliberate (read "slow") than it should, the child actors aren't up to the mesmerizing quality of the original children, and the script insists on explaining things better left unsaid. Be that as it may, understatement is not a Hollywood forte, and for audiences new to the story Let Me In will prove to be an original experience that lives up to its tagline as a "dark and violent love story". For more adventurous audiences, a search through video store shelves to see the more exciting original, Let The Right One In, is definitely in the cards.
Entertainment / Drama: 6/10

A Night to Remember (1958)
Starring: Kenneth More, Ronald Allen, Robert Ayres
Director: Roy Ward Baker
Plot: A depiction of the events and the disastrous consequences of poor preparation that led to the eventual sinking of the Titanic on her maiden voyage in April 1912 from the perspective of the passengers and crew.
Review: Based on Walter Lord's meticulously-researched book, and the clear inspiration for James Cameron 1997 blockbuster Titanic, A Night to Remember is perhaps the most straight-forward and revealing depiction of the 1912 maritime disaster ever put to the screen. Where it may lack some of the technical and stylish flourishes of its successor, it makes up for in similarly lavish decors (it was one of the most expensive British films of the time) and a less melodramatic view of the events and of the era's social injustices - and it packs just as much of a punch for it. Like all the best disaster films, the movie presents a multitude of characters from different backgrounds and social standings, all thrown into a desperate situation. Sticking as close to the facts as possible and interspersing events with a multitude of true anecdotes, however, means the film rings of authenticity and proves that reality is more compelling than any drama. Working from a tight, suspenseful script by acclaimed thriller writer Eric Ambler, director Baker's no-nonsense approach provides a you-are-there feeling of urgency to the proceedings, and a better understanding of all the human failings - from pride and inexperience to the unprecedented industrial-age hubris from both the crew and passengers - that led to such an incredible loss of life. More than 50 years after its release, A Night to Remember is still the definitive account of the most infamous maritime disaster in history, an intelligent, vivid drama that is a strong antidote to the Hollywood attempts at its recreation.
Drama: 8/10

Winter's Bone (2010)
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes, Garret Dillahunt 
Director: Debra Granik
Plot: A teen living in a closed Missouri community is forced to find the whereabouts of her estranged father, a local meth maker, before a judge evicts her and her young siblings from their house.
Review: Based on the brutal 2006 novel by Daniel Woodrell, Winter's Bone is a potent, unflinching look at the poor rural families of the Missouri backwoods, a place where an unwritten law of silence keeps the community in check. The film grabs you from the very start with its stark, chilly cinematography and intimate portrayal of the closed community, a place where mistrust is prevalent. Director Granik doesn't shy away from the brutal realities of this society, one where inter-breeding, poverty and generations of secrets has poisoned all who live there. It's a violent, male-dominated world, clearly, but it's the power structure created by the women, working and manipulating behind the scenes, that is the most intriguing. The film is constructed like a murder mystery replete with suspects and dangerous situations, but our heroine is no detective. Indeed, our guide through this harsh landscape is a sharp 17-year old teen who's older than her years, and whose hard-headedness and perseverance - mostly brought on by desperation - pushes her to confront the criminal subculture, where questions can get you beaten up, or worse. The young Lawrence is simply spell-binding in a performance as rugged as her surroundings, showing only a few instances where her inner child breaks through her hard exterior. In the end, the tragedy is that she's not only a product of this society, but she's one of them as well. The rest of the cast is quite convincing, too, with her volatile, junkie uncle - vividly portrayed by John Hawkes - being the most memorable; he's her only support, but he's scary as the people she's going after. Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, and well worth the accolades.
Drama: 8/10

Power Kids (Thailand - 2009)
Starring: Nantawooti Boonrapsap, Sasisa Jindamanee, Pimchanok Leuwisetpaiboon
Director: Krissanapong Rachata
Plot: Four children tutored in Thai martial arts infiltrate a big-city hospital seized by well-armed rebels in order to retrieve a donor heart for their youngest member before he dies of cardiac complications.
Review: From the makers of such Thai action hits as Ong Bak and Chocolate, you could almost call Power Kids an "Ong Bak" for the pre-teen generation, with the expectation of a family-friendly martial arts comedy in the vein of 3 Ninjas... except that amongst the kid-friendly slapstick humor and melodrama is enough brutal fighting, bloody gun-battles and general viciousness - especially in the second half of the film, when the story turns serious - that the film would get slapped with a PG-13 before it ever got to local theaters. The production values are only so-so, and first-time director Racheta hasn't got the hang of proper pacing, but it moves along well enough to avoid looking around for the fast-forward button. The kid (and adult) acting isn't great by any means, and the plot and script are feeble at best, but the martial arts choreography featuring the four young, pint-sized Muay Thai pros is something to behold. Indeed, if not quite up to the incredible, intricate stunts of their older brethren, there's still more high-powered kicking, face-beating, and bone-crunching, window-shattering hand-to-hand combat than most Hollywood knock-offs can muster. With a running time shorter than most animated features (it's under 75 minutes) and enough fight sequences to keep genre fans entertained through the non-action lulls, Power Kids is an entertaining-enough genre flick for fans looking for a late-night action fix - just don't bring the kids.
Entertainment: 5/10

The Tourist (2010)
Starring: Johnny Depp, Angelina Jolie, Paul Bettany
Director: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
Plot: A mysterious woman whose boyfriend has stolen millions from a gangster takes up with a complete stranger, an American widower on his way to Venice, to shake off both Interpol and the criminals by making them think he's the thief.
Review: After making such an impression with the powerful East-German-set drama The Lives of Others, the 2007 Best Foreign Language Film of the Year, it's perhaps clear how German writer / director von Donnersmarck could have gone so wrong with a romantic-comedy-thriller starring two of cinema's biggest stars, Jolie and Depp. Based on the 2005 French thriller Anthony Zimmer starring Sophie Marceau, he clearly set out to modify his adaptation in order to do an old-fashioned Hollywood romantic thriller, replete with an easy pacing and retro-like stage lighting. We could almost see Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn playing this in the 1960's... Wait, in fact, they did: it was the 1963 classic Charade, a film that had more verve, cosmopolitan style and entertainment value than this latest "remake" could ever hope for. The limited action set-pieces don't help bring any needed excitement to the proceedings (the most impressive of which are a ho-hum chase through Venice rooftops in pajamas and a rather silly, speed-less waterbus race across the city's canals), and the cast of supporting, chasing characters - from the bulldog Bettany as a Scotland Yard inspector and Steven Berkoff as a Brit billionaire surrounded by Russian thugs - don't leave much of an impression. The real mystery isn't so much where Jolie's character's loyalties are as much as how von Donnersmarck managed to make two if the most glamorous of actors bring out so little chemistry on screen - it's a crime. Still, there's some residual charm in seeing these two beautiful actors spar and somehow fall for each other. And few can help but endear to Depp's character, a math teacher and widower who's caught up in so much more than he could possibly have expected. Unfortunately, any goodwill that has been amassed over the course of the film disappears with the final revelation; it's a complete cheat, dismissing all that's gone before and insulting its audience. Way to go, D.
Entertainment: 4/10

Collapse (2009)
Starring: Michael Ruppert 
Director: Chris Smith
Plot: Documentary explores the apocalyptic predictions spanning the crises in economics, energy, environment and more of cop-turned-reporter Michael Ruppert, who postulates that our dependence on oil - in all its forms - is leading us to social collapse. 
Review: Economic crisis, overpopulation, oil dependence and the fall of the world's industrial and economic infrastructure - all these subjects tie into one assured, eye-opening, frightening and all-too believable apocalyptic scenario offered by Michael Ruppert, the subject of the documentary Collapse. An ex-LA cop and self-titled 30-year investigative journalist, Ruppert claims to have predicted the 2008 financial crisis and has culled facts and analyses that supports his main claim, that we've reached "peak oil". The idea goes something like this: one, the products derived from oil are ever-present; two, our society is based on infinite (continued) growth and can only be sustained as long as oil production continues; three, we've reached the peak of oil production and reserves are now dwindling, no matter the efforts to find new reserves; conclusion: we have started a spiral into disaster, where our belief in infinite growth is colliding with the fact of finite resources. Worse, there's little we - or the governments - can do, or are willing to do, to prevent it. Doomsayer, alarmist, paranoid, prophet or thinker, whatever words used to describe him, his analysis is hard to refute, and it's shocking in its realization - forget An Inconvenient Truth: this is the true End of the World. Culled and edited from 15 hours of interview (in fact, mostly monologue), documentary director Smith (American Movie, The Yes Men) gives a no-nonsense portrait of the man in the headlights. Ruppert makes an impassioned, well-researched and well-thought out plea to wake up before it's too late for us as individuals - it's already too late for us as a society. When he's not ranting, he's chain-smoking and thoughtful and - as superbly, compellingly captured by the camera - he's incredibly vulnerable, too, an angry, lonely, broken man whose anger at the establishment belies his own isolation. Perhaps that's the portrait that Smith wants to invoke to downplay the words, but it's not the messenger that impresses, nor the movie despite its flourishes and montages, as much as the devastating message: The world establishment is one big pyramid scheme that's going to topple and bring us all down with it. What are we doing about it?
Documentary: 8/10

Fish Story (Japan - 2009)
Starring: Vincent Giry, Gaku Hamada, Atsushi Itô
Director: Yoshihiro Nakamura
Plot: In 1975, a punk-rock band records a ill-fated song that affects the lives of those that hear it changes and, 37 years later, changes the course of history as a comet hurls towards Earth.
Review: Adapted from the writings of Isaka Kotaro, Fish Story is the somewhat droll, multi-narrative tale of a pop song and how it saved the world. Bookended by a story of impending Armageddon (reference intended), as two music fans wait for the eventual end of the world, the film presents three different plot-lines in different eras, all with a sci-fi tone to them. The most interesting, and most realistic, is a dramatization of the creation process of the failed, amateur-league punk-rock band and their manager, culminating into a fateful recording session. The tale of the band and its members could have been enough to make a movie, but the reason for the rest of the disjointed stories isn't clear until the very end, when they all prove to be somewhat loosely connected by this one catchy tune. There's a good cast here all ably directed by Nakamura, and the occasional weirdness makes for quirky, humorous story-telling keeps it watchable. Alas, it's too leisurely paced to be fully engaging, and perhaps too off-kilter to make it to the mainstream. Still, perhaps music can save the world in the most unexpected of ways, and every act of resistance against greater forces (no matter what they are) defines us as human beings. Fish Story may not be up to that ambitious premise, but it's an easy-going, offbeat affair that's worth a gander.
Entertainment: 5/10

The Kids Are All Right (2010)
Starring: Annette Bening, Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo
Director: Lisa Cholodenko
Plot: Two teens conceived by artificial insemination and living with their two moms, a middle-aged lesbian couple, track down their biological father and bring him into their family life with dramatic repercussions.
Review: A sentimental, well written and well acted modern-day drama with indie roots, The Kids Are All Right may appear to be perfect fodder for high concept comedy. What's refreshing is that it's an exploration of sexuality, modern-day social mores, and the idea of the post-nuclear family with all its ups and downs - with a nice, balanced dose of humor, too. At the heart of the movie is the intricate relationships between the characters and most especially the pairing of Bening and Moore as, respectively, serious Family-Earner Mom and Stay-at-Home-New-Age Mom. The two actresses are splendid and convincing, and their pairing never feels less than authentic. In supporting roles, the teenage kids, especially Mia Wasikowska, are well-adjusted and endearing. Ruffalo, well, he's not really asked to make much of a stretch in playing the cad, and comes off as a tool to push the right buttons in this family's ties. Director Cholodenko (Laurel Canyon) takes some calculated risks with the subject matter and gets that extra effort from her cast, but by trying to appeal to mainstream audiences, she never quite reaches the potential in her material. In the end, the movie does a fine job of playing the heartstrings and manages to have a fresh viewpoint to boot, mostly thanks to its excellent star pairing and too-rare portrait of a stable and loving lesbian couple. It's not brash enough or revealing enough in its dealings with its characters to be Oscar material (no matter its nomination for Best Picture) but it's a nice, easy-going family drama that has as many laughs as it has tearful moments.
Drama: 7/10

Cargo (2009)
Starring: Martin Rapold, Michael Finger, Claude-Oliver Rudolph
Directors: Ivan Engler, Ralph Etter
Plot: A young medical officer, the only one awake on a cargo ship carrying building supplies to an unmanned space station, begins to feel that she is not alone on-board, raising questions as to what their cargo truly is.
Review: An independent Swiss sci-fi flick, the ambitious, epic-scaled Cargo is quite a rarity as far the European genre goes. The fact that it's a pretty darn good film is even more impressive. Doing well with its limited budget, the visuals of space-faring vessels and cold interiors allows the film to drip with the same claustrophobic atmosphere that has become standard fare ever since Alien first scared us silly back in 1979. Less an Alien clone, however, than an answer to the under-rated Sunshine, the film strives to keep its twists within the realm of believability. There's nothing supernatural here, and the monsters are of the human variety. Though the real "secret" conspiracy is pretty much telegraphed from the get-go - complete with modern-day concerns of terrorism and ecological collapse - the game of cat-and-mouse is well enough executed, and the mystery in engaging enough to keep our interest. If the over-plotted ending isn't quite as satisfying - there's too many coincidences added just to ratchet up some clichéd suspense during a space walk - most of the film does deliver the goods. And for that, Cargo is worth a look for discerning sci-fi enthusiasts.
Entertainment: 6/10

TRON (1982)
Starring: Jeff Bridges, Bruce Boxleitner, David Warner
Director: Steven Lisberger
Plot: After his body is forcefully digitized into a virtual world, a hacker joins forces with the emobidment of a security software to thwart the plans of a power-hungry, self-aware computer program.
Review: Hailed as the first true cyber-fantasy, TRON was somewhat of a flop on its initial release, though for tech-geeks everywhere (young and old) it was a glimpse at the future of movie-making. The story itself is pure Disney family-friendly hokum, and the actors - including a way-too-young Bridges, in complete nerd mode - clearly don't take any of this seriously, nor should the audience. It's the use of what was state-of-the-art computer graphics back in the early 80's (along with other more classic animation and effects) that really marked it as a watershed motion picture. The film also distinguished itself with its conceptualization of avatars interacting in a virtual world (an event that didn't become common-place until decades later) and its stylized vision of what that world would be. Sure, director Lisberger may have focused too much on these evocative, surreal visuals to the detriment of the characters, but there's a sense of wonder and adventure that remains as the "programs" fight their way to the Big Boss villain, even for us jaded 21st century audiences. The most memorable scenes, however, are those of the gladiatorial scenes of video-game combat, as our heroes are forced to fight to the death with light disks, get chased by virtual tanks, and - best of all - compete in light cycle races. This last one, in particular, became synonymous with the franchise and spawned its own popular video game. Even if TRON may feel somewhat quaint by current blockbuster standards, it's an important milestone in FX-driven cinema and still a hoot to watch.
Entertainment: 6/10

The American (2010)
Starring: George Clooney, Paolo Bonacelli, Violante Placido
Director: Anton Corbijn
Plot: After an attempt on his life, a veteran assassin hides out in the Italian countryside but his attempts at laying low are thwarted by an assignment to build a made-to-order weapon and his growing attachment to a local prostitute.
Review: An unexpected, mature thriller adapted from Martin Booth’s 1990 novel A Very Private Gentleman, The American is a small-scale Hollywood confection with a decidedly European flair. Structured like a Sergio Leone western (there's even an unsubtle reference to Once Upon A Time in the West), the film takes a "less is more" approach. Indeed, director Corbjin (Control) has created a film that looks and feels like a movie made in the '70s; it's perfectly, deliberately paced, and the atmosphere of constant paranoia and potential danger adds great suspense, with little explanatory (or otherwise unnecessary) dialogue. There's minimal use of music, too, allowing for the striking cinematography and editing to take the forefront. The sleepy Italian village, with its sinewy, barely lighted cobbled streets and rural feel, is a character on its own, adding to the film's down-to-earth feel. If your expectation is for spectacle or action, then stay away: the three action sequences are violent, powerful and quickly over; they exist more as a reminder of the overhanging danger than for their own sake. The real selling point, however, is the film's leading man. In a departure from his charming rogue persona, Clooney comes off admirably as the brooding hit-man looking for redemption, a man filled with coiled tension who must constantly look over his shoulder. Many comparisons have been made to Alain Delon's character in the Jean-Pierre Melville's French thriller Le Samourai, and it's a good one. There are only a handful of supporting characters, but they're well fleshed out: Bonacelli, as a friendly local priest who dispenses psychological platitudes, Thekla Reuten as a glamorous fellow assassin, and the ravishing, sweet Placido as his romantic liaison who has as much screen time topless as not. If there's a downside it's that the film is not commercially viable for the mainstream, meaning many audiences won't get a chance to see it. For everyone looking for a remedy to the fast, loud blockbusters of the summer, The American is just the ticket.
Entertainment: 7/10

Easy A (2010)
Starring: Emma Stone, Thomas Haden Church, Stanley Tucci
Director: Will Gluck
Plot: After faking losing her virginity to a fellow student to help his social standing, a clean-cut high-schooler becomes the focus of increasing gossip and enmity when she decides to perpetuate the rumors to advance her social and financial standing.
Review: Much like Clueless was a comic adaptation of Jane Austen's Emma made for teen audiences, so Easy A is for the classic Nathaniel Hawthorne novel The Scarlet Letter. But where the former wallowed in the silliness and naiveté of its central character, Easy A instead focuses on a young woman whose clearly smarter than the people around her, and whose well-thought choices showing off her girl-power are an affront to her peers - the humor is that, unlike the audience, they don't get the joke. Of course, the book's themes of adultery, religious hypocrisy and criticisms of social mores are somewhat diluted to fit under the auspices of a modern-day high school environment, where rumors can spread with just a few texted words and a student's reputation is easily ground to dirt. Referencing the original work often, the parallels are clearly established giving the film an added heft. Producer / director Gluck (whose only other directing credit is Fired Up!) proves adept at balancing the teen angst and comedy that seems to escape most Hollywood filmmakers, and he manages his stellar cast with aplomb. Indeed, the supporting players are a hoot with the likes of Church (the cool literature teacher), Kudrow (the bitchy student counselor) and the too-good-to-be-true pairing of Tucci and Clarkson as the smart, funny and way-too-understanding parents. The main attraction, however, is the oh-so-expressive Emma Stone who easily manages a winning, sympathetic performance. Smart, engaging and entertaining, Easy A is a superb example of a mainstream teen comedy. Now why can't Hollywood produce more of these?
Entertainment: 7/10

Eat Pray Love (2010)
Starring: Julia Roberts, Javier Bardem, James Franco
Director: Ryan Murphy
Plot: To recover from a divorce, a writer decides to take a year away from her New York home to travel to Italy, India and Bali in her quest for self-discovery.
Review: Based on the best-selling memoir of the same name by Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat Pray Love a portrait of a woman going through what amounts to a mid-life crisis. For some, the essence of the spiritual journey and the search for meaning will touch them personally; for others, the drama of a well-to-do white woman who has health, wealth and good friends feeling sorry for herself will pale in comparison with a world filled with far greater tragedies, and find her New Age attempts at redemption and meaning shallow and uneventful. But that would be missing the point. Basically, this is a movie about Julia Roberts taking us on her travels: discovering the pleasures of eating and living for the moment in Italy, the power of prayer in India and the discovery of "inner peace" and finally love in Bali (in the form of a too-good-to-be-true gentleman played to perfection by Javier Bardem). How close all this is to the book - and how close this was to the author's own real-life experiences - is secondary. As she hops around on her journey from country to country, meeting some delightful friends and acquaintances along the way (delightfully played by Billy Crudup, James Franco and Richard Jenkins), it's hard not to wish we could all be so lucky. Writer / director Murphy, fresh off his success on the TV-show Glee, offers up a well-paced fluff piece that's effectively bubbly, spiritually shallow and superbly, lusciously shot exotic locales, keeping its mainstream target audience (over-30 females) well in its sights, and never straying too far into any real substance. If there's nothing here that will offer any enlightenment or even food for thought, at least Eat Pray Love is a slick, well-made and adequately uplifting romantic melodrama that's sure to please any fan of the actress. And boy do those Italian dishes sure look good.
Entertainment / Drama: 7/10

Wild Target (2010)
Starring: Bill Nighy, Emily Blunt
Director; Jonathan Lynn
Plot: A solitary, middle-aged hitman sees his life turn upside down when he becomes attracted to his latest target, a bold thief who cheated on a small-time mobster, and decides to protect her - and a young passerby who could become his apprentice - at his country house.
Review: A British remake of the popular 1993 French comedy Cible Emouvante, Wild Target is a haphazard, low-budget affair that just misses the mark (pun intended). The original's plot is mostly intact, and for sure, this whole silly endeavor is all done for laughs, but while many of the small things that marked the original film have been translated, and some others added in, the whole affair feels cobbled together instead of cohesive, jumping from one joke to another. Director Lynn should have had the right experience for the mix of criminal activity and comedy, having made the early 90's flicks Nuns on the Run and My Cousin Vinny - unfortunately, he's had little success since, and this mostly inoffensive affair won't change that. The film does boast a solid UK cast, headed by the affable Nighy, but it's the irresistible, charming Blunt that keeps this bubbly concoction aloft - in fact, with her on screen, you'd expect somewhat more from the film. Their romantic attraction is rather incomprehensible; it's one of those stretches of logic required to accept the film for what it is: a standard-issue, forgettable rom-com-with-guns that's only occasionally clever and amusing.
Entertainment: 5/10

The Other Guys (2010)
Starring: Will Ferrell, Mark Wahlberg, Michael Keaton
Director: Adam McKay
Plot: Stuck with a new partner who loves only desk-work, a busted-down, manic detective tries to seize any opportunity to step into the shoes of the city's show-boating top cops when they meet an unexpected end.
Review: A parody of the once-popular cop-buddy action flicks, The Other Guys is comedy that's pretty much par for the course - it moves along well enough to be diverting but doesn't really impress. Not surprisingly, the humor are pretty much hit-or-miss and are rarely subtle, as you'd expect from the director of such Ferrell vehicles as Anchorman and Talladega Nights. There are some off-kilter swings at improvised and canned jokes (swipes at the recent economic crisis, for one, and a bizarre lion-vs.-tuna monologue) and even some attempts at some cleverness, but laugh-out-loud moments are few. As to the crime plot involving Wall Street shenanigans, paid security forces and unscrupulous brokers is paper-thin, well it barely keeps the movie afloat. But then plot is just an excuse for the two leads to show off some comic chemistry and play off each other. Ferrell himself stays close to his trademark shtick and fans or detractors won't change their opinion here. Unfortunately, Wahlberg was miscast as the straight-man partner whose temperament is (of course) diagonally opposed to Ferrell's; he does the action bits well enough, but the comedy seems terribly forced - if that was the intent, it backfired. The rest of the surprisingly strong supporting cast do pretty well, including Keaton as the stereotypical tough police captain, Steve Coogan as the slimy businessman and Eva Mendes as Ferrell's hot wife (an on-going joke is wondering what the heck she's doing with him). The real highlights are Samuel L. Jackson and Dwayne Johnson who make a brief collateral-damage-intro appearance as the cool-but-brainless super-hero cops whose bizarre death precipitate a competition for the top-dog spot in the force. One note-worthy item are the end credits, which double as a fact-and-statistics filled primer on the excesses of Goldman Sachs and AIG - it's the smartest thing going. The silliness is part of the charm of any Ferrell comedy, and The Other Guys is at its best when it allows him free reign and some riffing on cop clichés. Too bad there's nothing else of real note.
Entertainment / Comedy: 5/10

Babies (Bébé(s)) (France - 2010)
Director: Thomas Balmès
Plot: From birth to toddlers, a look at four infants from different parts of the world.
Review: For Babies, French documentarian Balmès travelled to very different parts of the world to capture the formative years of four babies raised in different cultures and economic backgrounds: two babies from urban First-World families in Tokyo and San Francisco, and two from rural (indeed, even remote) villages in Namibia and Mongolia. Shot like a wildlife documentary with no narration or dialogue, the camera balances the surrounding vistas of the locations with the intimacy of the voyeur when it comes to their day-to-day lives. Clear personalities emerge, even at this early stage in their development, and it's intriguing to watch them grow. The editing forms the only real commentary, presenting the coddled, frenzied life of the urban children and the more laidback, freeform of their rural counterparts; while one has to endure kid-friendly Yoga exercises, a plethora of books and overbearing parents, the other gets to eat dirt and sticks, run after wild stock and beat up on siblings with little parental supervision. For sure, as a mainstream examination of the contrasts between child-rearing philosophies the world over, Babies won't win any awards but if there was one for "cuteness", it would have that one in the bag. Your enjoyment of the film will depend on how much you enjoy watching young ones discover the world around them, with all the pratfalls, goo-goo eyes, blubbery squeaking and the like that it entails. For some, the family-friendly travelogue will be enough to intrigue. For most, it'll be hard to resist smiling and giving away an occasional "awww". Whatever the reason, the filmmakers know that any family visit is best left short - at a brisk 75 minutes, it's just the right length not to overstay its welcome. 
Documentary: 7/10

American History X (1998)
Starring: Edward Norton, Edward Furlong
Director: Tony Kaye
Plot: Following a stint in prison for manslaughter, a former leader of the neo-nazi skinheads returns home only to find his younger brother heading down the same path.
Review: Few films get a chance to explain the attraction of White Supremacy groups, and few show it with the ferocity that American History X conveys. Encompassing the 24 hours following the elder brother's release, the narrative unfolds with B&W flashbacks detailing some defining moments - the aftermath of their father's murder, the vicious killing of two black carjackers on the family lawn, the hardships of prison, and a fateful dinner conversation, among others. Through it all, we get a frightening, unflinching look on how an ideology of hate can attract alienated white teens to do violent acts against others, and self-destructive acts against themselves. Driving a fine line between sentiment and cliché, the script eschews many mainstream conventions and is smart enough to know that reality is more complicated than just a single person's self-realization. The tale is inevitably orchestrated for a final, predictable tragedy, but there's a message of hope - that if hate is learned, so can understanding. On its release, the film was the focus of much hype and controversy due to differences between its creative team, especially in post-production. In fact, British director Kaye, coming off of a stint helming music videos and commercials, publicly dissed the theatrical cut of his film and wanted to erase his name from the production. He needn't have worried: as it is, it's a bleak, powerful piece of social commentary that's dramatically shot and uncompromising. But it's the mesmerizing, charismatic Norton, in an Oscar-nominated performance, who brings it all home; completely immersed in the role, head shaven and baring swastika tattoos, he is downright scary. Both whip-smart and badass, he eloquently makes the tenets of white supremacy sound almost logical, and so much more horrible. As the confused kid brother following in his brother's footsteps, Furlong also impresses, bringing a down-to-earth quality to compare with his kin's legendary status. The rest of the cast is equally capable. In short, benefitting greatly from Norton's irredeemable presence, American History X is a powerful indictment to racism in any form, and the type of society that lets it flourish.
Drama: 8/10

The Last Airbender (2010)
Starring: Dev Patel, Noah Ringer 
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Plot: After being trapped in ice for 100 years and waking up to a world in conflict, a young boy whose destiny is to be a champion for peace uses his mastery of the elements to start a rebellion against the armies of the Fire nation.
Review: Based on the first "book" of a trilogy of the hit Nickelodeon cartoon series, the live-action adventure Avatar: The Last Airbender comes with a strong pedigree - dozens of well-plotted anime-inspired TV episodes to ransack, a slew of well-defined characters, a complex fantasy setting and the talents of noted writer / director Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable) at the helm. Alas, it is Shyamalan's hubris that must take the entire blame for the many failings of the film to live up to its source material, and for the anger of series' ardent fan base. Condensing 20 episodes into a single feature is always a daunting task, but some storytelling basics are still required to keep anyone interested in the story. The film was clearly made with the least common denominator approach - this isn't family-friendly fare, it's kiddie fare; anyone over the age of seven will simply groan at the failed attempts at things like depth, pathos, and character development, while the dialogue is absolutely horrendous. Indeed, much of the film feels just bland and downright amateurish - in his attempts at a visually spectacular, large-scale epic fantasy, Shyamalan has forgotten his own strengths as a filmmaker: the intimacy of the people taking part in the tale. The main protagonists are well set-up: Patel - as the angry, disgraced prince looking for redemption in the eyes of his father - does a good effort showing off his character's dramatic baggage , and the young Ringer - as the wise but un-tutored re-incarnation of the powerful Avatar - shows a delicacy and innocence that's right for the role. Unfortunately, worse than the poor storyline, they, and the rest of their cohorts, are the main reason the film flounders; they're badly written, and the entire cast is simply poorly directed. For sure, there are worse films of this type around, and as it stands it's not a complete loss: the special effects are good, the fight sequences are well executed, and, clocking at barely 90 minutes, it moves well enough to avoid being dull. The production itself is a mixed bag: there are some beautiful scenery and CGI-enhanced sets, but for the most part it doesn't partake the feel of a new, exotic world. Adepts will surely mourn the details taken out and the very essence of the original material, while newcomers will dismiss the series as another lackluster fantasy adventure. The filmmakers aspirations for a new franchise falls short, and we will likely never see the next chapters in the story; that's actually good news. A crashing disappointment.
Entertainment: 4/10

The Corporation (2004)
Starring: Jane Akre, Ray Anderson
Director: Jennifer Abbott, Mark Achbar
Plot: A look at the concept of the Corporation thoughout history, from not-so-humble beginnings 150 years ago to its spectacular rise into today’s dominant institution, affecting our social and political landscape.
Review: We all know about sweat shops and corporate greed, but how much more does it really extend? Are all corporations imperial, immoral and greedy? Broken down into its component people, perhaps not, but - as the documentary The Corporation demonstrates - as a legal entity with its own rights and mandates they may well be. Opening with a historical tour of the Corporation through some of the major legal changes and decisions of the past 200 years (such as the status change of being seen as a "person" under the law), the film takes a clear position in reporting on the pivotal events that shaped our society and the part played by industry. Using interviews with captains of industry, professors, economists, activists, lawyers and journalists on both sides we get a portrait just how far-reaching the influence of these entities goes and how social development and policies are affected by their never-ending quest for profit. The collusion of corporations and governments take center-stage, with disconcerting anecdotes showing the power Corporations hold over society (both citizens and politicians), and how they have shape the course of entire countries. It's a scary, eye-opening picture, with implications to our very view of democracy. Yet with the use of dramatizations and its no-nonsense, practical approach the entire thing is quite entertaining, too, in the manner of the best documentaries. If some of the narrative seems to skate through some of the morally gray aspects of these institutions, the film give a greater clarity to the dangers of letting them loose. A must-see.
Documentary: 8/10

Dobermann (France - 1997)
Starring: Vincent Cassel, Tchéky Karyo, Monica Bellucci
Director: Jan Kounen
Plot: A violent career criminal leads a crazed gang of bank robbers from one bloody heist to another until a ruthless, sadistic Parisian cop makes hunting them down his priority.
Review: Hailed as the French counter-point to Natural Born Killers, Dobermann is whacked-out attack on the senses that's bound to be excessive even to jaded viewers - and that's not saying it's actually worth watching. Misogynistic, crude and cruel, violent and morally bankrupt, there are little redeeming qualities to the film, apart perhaps for it's able cast. Indeed, Cassel and Bellucci - as the Bonnie & Clyde pair - are the only reasons to watch the movie and they get little to do but posture, pout and otherwise look bad-ass. Looking for characters? None here, apart from the sadistic comic-book caricatures that make up the criminal band, whom we're somehow meant to sympathize with. Director Kounen actually does prove capable of cinematic and stylish flourishes, and the film does look good for what could have been an extended music video. Alas, it's so chaotically edited and the script is such a poor mish-mash of events and general vileness that the narrative is never any fun. Kounen went on from this attack on good taste to re-team with his leading man for the Western Renegade (Blueberry) and his more restrained approach did wonders for that film. Too bad there's no "creative" restraint here. If the point was creating a ridiculous, over-the-top excess as a satire on Hollywood action flicks with heavy influences from much better Hong Kong influences, then some may find it's hit its mark - but it still doesn't make it an entertaining piece of cinema by any stretch. Though there are some sequences of serious mayhem - specifically a bank robbery gone wrong and the brutal finale in a cross-dressing nightclub - neither delivers in the action department. But perhaps the worse part is the usually reliable Karyo as the corrupt, gun-toting, drug-snorting cop - cursing, torturing and killing his way to his goals - who makes the amoral criminals seem positively saintly. Inevitably, Dobermann has become somewhat of a cult classic, but for most viewers, this is just a gratuitous, over-bearing actioner that works only as a warning to other filmmakers of what to avoid...
Entertainment: 3/10 

Jonah Hex (2010)
Starring: Josh Brolin, John Malkovich, Megan Fox
Director: Jimmy Hayward 
Plot: A scarred ex-Confederate soldier turned bounty hunter gets enlisted in the Union army to track down his family's killer, an ex-general with plans to destroy the US government.
Review: Admittedly, a big-budget movie adaptation of DC Comic's cult 1970's Western anti-hero Jonah Hex was a long shot bet for mainstream success. The original comics were influenced by the gritty, violent Spaghetti Westerns of the times, but the film takes its inspiration more from the campy Will Smith film Wild Wild West than the more seriously toned comics. For sure, the script makes short work of exposition, going for the jugular with lots of gunfights (with big guns), explosions, cross-country chases and the like. Throwing in a supernatural twist to the character (he can speak to dead people) and some flashes at Native American shamanistic powers, you'd think the filmmakers were taking on Blueberry, another (French) comic hero. An ex-animator for Pixar, helmer Hayward - in his first live-action foray - shows an eye for colors and movement, but not so much for story and directing his actors. The cinematography and production direction is hit-or-miss, too, some scenes looking like they're out of the cartoon page while others look like they're from a cheaply shot TV movie. All this would be OK if the script were better, but it's not. As a Confederate soldier, Hex could have been the focus of some interesting political commentary; instead, we get an anti-government, Tea-Party stance that is low-brow and throwaway - another missed opportunity. Then we come to the film's MacGuffin, a sci-fi WMD that can destroy nations; the effects are pretty and it blows up real good, but it just feels like it's in the wrong film. One can only imagine that much of the movie's dramatic bits, storyline and character development ended up on the cutting room floor; the final quick-and-dirty film (a bare 72 minutes) spurts along from one vignette to another. As portrayed by Oscar-nominated Brolin, the horribly scarred gunslinger is a non-entity, with the makeup inhibiting him from making any type of performance. Malkovich, as his nemesis Turnbull, makes little impression other than being a typically one-dimensional villain - his background rage at losing his son seems to be a guessed motivation; it surely isn't apparent that he has any emotion whatsoever, or reason to overthrow the Union other than pure malevolence. Finally, the always hot Fox plays a (surprise casting!) prostitute who has a thing for Jonah (why, we don't know) and can handle a gun - for this she skipped out on Transformers 3? Second-rate comic heroes seem to be getting the short end of the stick in recent adaptations, just as Marvel's The Punisher did (repeatedly), and if this isn't quite the misfire some critics have said, it sure is a short-sighted attempt at starting a franchise. A hodge-podge of half-baked ideas and general mayhem, Jonah Hex is a popcorn film that will keep one awake, but surely not satisfied.
Entertainment: 5/10

Written By (Hong Kong - 2009)
Starring: Lau Ching-Wan, Kelly Lin, Mia Yam
Director: Wai Ka-Fai
Plot: In order to cheer up her grieving mother, a young woman blinded in an accident that killed her dad decides to write a novel about her father stuck in a fictional world where he lived, blinded, and they died.
Review: One of the more interesting fantasy-dramas of recent memory, Written By is a very local film that shows the depth and story-telling risk-taking that is part of Hong Kong cinema. Writer / director Wai Ka-Fai (a long-time associate of, and co-director Running on Karma and Needing You with, Johnnie To) proves once again capable in this solo effort, managing to keep two alternative versions of the same story afloat (one "true", the other fictional) while keeping this boffo tale of guilt, tragedy and the healing effects of writing afloat with humor and sentimentality. And then he turns the plot all on its head by having the two realities leak into each other! The cast, led by sympathetic Hong Kong veteran Lau Ching-Wan, plays their roles to the hilt and makes even the sillier moments believable (at least within the confines of the movie's internal logic). This tale of grief and ghosts is definitely not for everyone - and the end product isn't up to Wai Ka-Fai's better films - but the mix of original subject, complex narrative, winning performances and multiple-handkerchief melodrama is sure to charm audiences that accept the supernatural premise.
Entertainment / Drama: 6/10

Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths (2010)
Voices: William Baldwin, Mark Harmon, James Woods
Directors: Sam Liu, Lauren Montgomery
Plot: The super-heroes of the Justice League must confront their Evil counterparts on a parallel Earth.
Review: Warner Bros' animation studios seems to be increasing the pace of their direct-to-DVD releases of super-hero tales, and continue to produce some decent efforts such as their latest, Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths. The end-of-the-universe scenario takes a back seat in comic writer Dwayne McDuffie's adaptation of a combination of original comic-book stories, putting a lot more focus on the physical confrontations between the Good vs. Evil versions of DC's iconic characters like Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman. And the movie is at its best during these battles - the fluid cel-animation is better than expected and even the extended brawls - with all its ensuing destruction - are actually quite fun. Too bad the same can't be said about the story itself; despite the attempts at a more adult take on the cartoon series. Even with the increased violence, stronger language and mature themes (heck, The Martian Manhunter even gets into a romantic tryst!) the script dilutes the potential of its mirror-universe premise to easy clichés and resolution by fisticuffs. Thankfully, there's enough of a story to hold it all together, and the oodles of action holds one's attention to the finish line. As an added bonus, those familiar with the DC Universe comics will discover lots of clever cameos by second-tier super-heroes and supporting cast. Another plus is the strong voice cast, including a surprising turn by James Woods, who make it all sound serious. It may not be on par with some of the better installments like Green Lantern: First Flight and Batman: Behind the Red Mask, but Crisis on Two Earths is another above-average super-hero fight-fest that's sure to please both teens and older fans.
Entertainment: 6/10

Cinderella (1950)
Voices: William Phipps, Eleanor Audley
Directors: Wilfred Jackson, Hamilton Luske
Plot: When her widower father passes away, a rich young girl becomes the household slave to her wicked stepmonther and stepsisters but her dreams of finding Prince Charming are granted one night with the unexpected help of her fairy godmother.
Review: Dozens of version of Cinderella have existed through the centuries, but it was Charles Perrault's popular version (dating back to 1697) that really captured the imagination. The tale got a family-friendly adaptation in Walt Disney's animated tale Cinderella, the first post-World War II production from the Mouse House (and the first since Bambi), a film that has influenced generations of girls and their dreams of finding "Prince Charming". A huge success on its release in 1950, and since deemed a "classic", it's hard to see the film with quite the same rose-colored glasses as it has been viewed in the past decades. The animation continued the fine tradition of Walt Disney, with the occasional visual flourishes and invention, but it's nowhere near as accomplished - or daring - as earlier productions like Snow White or Bambi. Nor was the original simple story enough to fill even a short feature-length production, so the movie has more drab exposition and comic filler than it can carry, starring the supporting cast of animals including her mouse friends and Lucifer, the cat. Even if the adventure is limited and the characters forgettable, it's one of the most endearing of Disney's canon, perhaps for those single moments engrained in our collective conscience: the sight of the wicked step-mother, the fairy god-mother's appearance, the pumpkin turning into a fabulous carriage and back again at the stroke of midnight and, of course, the glass slippers. No matter the failings, it's still golden-age Disney, and that means there's magic and innovation to be found; add to that some catchy tunes like Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo and most kids will lap this up. Unfortunately, revisiting Cinderella with modern sensibilities and adult eyes just leaves one disappointed.
Entertainment: 6/10

The Book of Eli (2010)
Starring: Denzel Washington, Gary Oldman, Mila Kunis
Directors: Albert and Allan Hughes
Plot: A mysterious stranger fights his way through a devastated America, protecting a book that may hold the salvation of mankind.
Review: The once-popular post-apocalyptic movie hasn't been very hip of late, but The Book of Eli, with its setting and plot akin to a mix of The Road Warrior and "The Man With No Name" spaghetti Westerns, wants to change that. It only partially succeeds. As is required from this action sub-genre, there's some decent bits of bloody, choreographed fights, some decent thrills and even some touches of dark humor. Yet despite its squalor, bleached colors, deserted landscapes and human savagery, the film never quite gels into a convincing tale. Having made their first real impression with Menace II Society and followed up with the overly-stylish Jack the Ripper thriller From Hell, the Hughes brothers direct the film with assurance and oodles of flair, focusing on the trials and tribulations of its mysterious protagonist. The more dramatic - and, in the end, decidedly spiritual - elements does give the tale a nice atypical feel and gives an otherwise generic production some added heft. There's also an interesting supporting case, including the likes of Ray Stevenson, Jennifer Beals (who doesn't seem to have aged a day since the 1980's), Michael Gambon and the ever-dependable Tom Waits. The real appeal, however, is Washington - facing against a typically maniacal Oldman - whose down-to-earth performance carries the movie beyond the furious, sword-wielding action bits. He's enough of a screen presence to make The Book of Eli notch up from forgettable late-night fare to decent mainstream drama.
Entertainment: 6/10

3:10 to Yuma (2007)
Starring: Russell Crowe, Christian Bale, Logan Lerman
Director: James Mangold
Plot: A down-on-his-luck rancher volunteers to deliver an infamous, cruel train robber to a train that will take the killer to trial, but the road is filled with danger and deception even as the two begin to earn each other's respect.
Review: A revamp of the classic 1957 Western of the same name, 3:10 to Yuma is a perfect showcase for two charismatic leading men, and a fine genre film on its own merit. Director Mangold (Walk the Line, Cop Land) knows how to play with the tropes and expectations of the genre - desert vistas, gunfights, train robberies, Civil War allusions, etc are all in play and uniformly well handled, only occasionally enhanced with more modern sensibilities and the mainstream demands for overblown action sequences. If the script goes a little overboard in its attempts to round out its characters with back-story and traits to make the discrepancy between them all the greater, Mangold knows what's needed to sell a character-driven drama, no matter the era, and still keep the pacing tight. His focus remains the interaction between Bale and Crowe and their developing relationship; helped by some terrific chemistry between the two leads, it's the real heart of the film, working as they do towards a grudging respect, even admiration, for one another despite their obvious moral differences. If the point at which the villain of the piece is willing to "play along" for the sake of a newfound friendship is a bit of a stretch, the final showdown still delivers in both suspense and pent-up tension. A short-lived revival of the Western genre helped push this into theatres, but taken with the adult-centered Australian Western The Proposition, 3:10 to Yuma shows a maturing genre that still holds promise and many an interesting tale to tell.
Entertainment / Drama: 7/10

Robin Hood (2010)
Starring: Russell Crowe, Cate Blanchett, Mark Strong, Max von Sydow, William Hurt
Director: Ridley Scott
Plot: An expert archer, Robin Longstride, and his small band of men return to England after the Crusades only to be swept into a brewing civil war.
Review: Let's be clear: this isn't the swashbuckling, men-in-tights Robin Hood of our youth. This modern re-imagining of the origins of the legend is minded to a more cynical time, with an attempt at adding a large dose of realism and grittiness to the proceedings. Gone is the joie-de-vivre and light-hearted derring-do of previous screen incarnations like the classic The Adventures of Robin Hood or the more recent Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves; there's little robbing of the rich to give to the poor, the merry men are mostly children, and even the Sheriff gets short-changed as a secondary villain. In fact, the tale revolves more around veterans of the Crusades returning home in disgrace, a brewing civil war and a French invasion than the usual shenanigans within Sherwood Forest. Not exactly the elements for a comedy. However, there is humor here, and romance, of course, among the royal intrigue and war-mongering. The film is also well-served by the able cast, led by the ever-worthy Crowe and Blanchett; even though the development of the relationship is predictable, it's nice to see two fine actors go through the motions. For sure, director Scott is too good a director to make anything less than a slick, engaging production, and the battles book-ending the movie are well staged and thrilling, as we'd expect from the director of Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven. Alas, the fine mix of politics and adventure that made of these previous efforts fails here; the script by Oscar-winning writer Brian Helegeland (L.A. Confidential, Mystic River) is a mixed bag, throwing in some promising historical elements and political maneuvering one moment, then cloying melodrama the next, especially in a key exposition that's as over-wrought as the finale of Braveheart. Still, if it's not as memorable as others, this version of Robin Hood is an entertaining effort nonetheless, a summer popcorn movie that has more smarts than most of its seasonal kin.
Entertainment: 7/10

Oblivion Island: Haruka and the Magic Mirror (Japan - 2009)
Voices: Haruka Ayase, Miyuki Sawashiro
Director: Shinsuke Sato
Plot: Feeling neglected by her workaholic single-father, a 16-year-old girl escapes to her grandmother's house where she discovers a path into a magical world where fox-like creatures hoard people's forgotten objects.
Review: The anime studio Production IG, best known for the classic Ghost in the Shell, has finally thrown its lot with the trend in computer animation with Oblivion Island, a family-friendly tale full of adventure, fantasy, cute creatures and sentimentality. It's no surprise that the main thing going for it are the gorgeous visuals, and the film is definitely a feast for the eyes with its imaginative, detailed settings and backgrounds, superb animation and fluid movements. The many kooky characters are engaging enough, as is the central tale about the daughter's obsession to finding her mom's forgotten hand mirror, mirroring as it does the story's main theme about loss. This being a children's tale - one clearly inspired by Alice in Wonderland - the proceedings has ample doses of charm, humor and thrills, and on some occasions even a hand at something a bit darker. Alas, whereas much effort and attention has been spent on the movie's looks, less has been spent on making this effort anything more than mainstream, easily-digestible fare. It's not a bad thing - kids will be enthralled by the sense of discovery and high-flying chases, while adults will appreciate the art direction and bizarre landscapes - but it's a little disappointing to find IG's first foray into CG such a toothless affair. With all the imagination on display, Oblivion Island is a charming enough concoction while it lasts and for that, at least, it's worth the trip.
Entertainment: 7/10

The Concert (Le Concert) (France - 2009)
Starring: Aleksei Guskov, Mélanie Laurent, François Berléand
Director: Radu Mihaileanu
Plot: Thirty years after being blacklisted and removed from his post by his Soviet superiors, a conductor decides to get his old gang of musicians back together for a one-night concert in Paris by passing them off as the Bolchoi Orchestra.
Review: Despite it's title and setting, The Concert is anything but a stale concert-hall melodrama; the surprise, especially coming from France, is that it's a mainstream crowd-pleaser, one that's been a real international hit. What sets it apart from its Hollywood brethren - apart from the European flair to the proceedings - is the fact that the main cast are Russians and that the caper - indeed, the movie is paced like one - comes to a climax not with a robbery but the titular concert (a rousing rendition of Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto) that brings as much emotional release and smiles as it does beautiful music. Director Mihaileanu (who had some success with Live and Become) unabashedly calls up character stereotypes, sentimentality, flashbacks to secret personal histories and much conventional filmmaking, poking easy fun at both the Russians and the French. In fact, there's little in the way of drama here, and we never get a portrait of post-Soviet life, apart from some clichés and some good good rubbing at one Cold-War-era communist (who's the manager for this little gang, no less). But then this is not meant to be anything grander than what it is: a farce, pure and simple, and there's a joy in the narrative even if we know things are going to turn out just fine despite the impossible odds. The cast is likable, especially the downtrodden Guskov as the cast-down maestro who longs to do one last concert and a kind-hearted Laurent who manages to convince she's a pro violinist. If there's nothing new in the film's theme of redemption - one that is carried over by the all the main participants in different forms - at least The Concert knows how to provide a light-hearted good time.
Entertainment: 7/10

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest (Millennium 3) (Sweden - 2009)
Starring: Michael Nyqvist, Noomi Rapace
Director: Daniel Alfredson
Plot: Recovering from an attempt on her life and incarcerated for attempted murder, a young woman must rely on an investigative reporter to uncover the mystery behind her past and stop a secret government agency from silencing her.
Review: The final chapter in Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, wraps up all the loose ends of the series but proves to be the least satisfying entry. The tale started off with a bang in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo but lost steam in the sequel when it got into a convoluted tale about her past and the mystery of her father. The last entry plays throws in plot points that would be better worked in a Robert Ludlum novel involving a conspiracy with a secret government agency, aging assassins and age-old family secrets. While the original won kudos for being a smart, slick European thriller, those things that made it stand out are now but a memory. Having taken over from Niels Arden Oplev, returning director Alfredson makes it feel too much like an Americanized thriller, and one made on a low budget at that, yet without the required drive and energy. And clearly the adaptation, made originally as a 4-hour TV mini-series and already criticized for having dropped too much of the book's nuances, was never meant to be chopped up for theatrical release. That said, the real attraction is the character of Lisbeth Salander, so brilliantly played by Rapace who made her one of the most interesting female characters to come along in a while. Too bad, then, that she gets little to do here but smolder, either stuck in a hospital room or taken off to court. Left to fend for himself is Nyqvist as the investigative journalist who takes the ball capably enough, running around trying to uncover the deceptions in her official files. Throughout, there's lots of attempts at mainstream suspense and thrills, but the film fails to really raise your blood temperature. Even the court drama ends up being shallow, pushing all the buttons to get an audience reaction. A mildly satisfying, if unimpressive, end to the series, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest is but average fare, an adaptation that disappoints with its lack of smarts and chutzpah.
Entertainment: 6/10

Gran Torino (2008)
Starring: Clint Eastwood, Bee Vang, Christopher Carley
Director: Clint Eastwood
Plot: A retired auto worker and Korean War vet, recently widowed and estranged from his sons and their family, reviews his racist attitudes towards his neighbors when the teens next door insist on getting him involved in the community after he stands up against a local street gang.
Review: An unassuming drama that surprised at the box-office and became Eastwood's biggest box-office success, Gran Torino is an unassuming drama that has a trick or two up its sleeve. Filmed in economically-depressed Detroit, with emphasis on suburban life in a non-white neighborhood, the film defined for many the state of the nation as of 2008, in terms of social attitudes and woes. Sure there's a rather simple message in here about understanding and friendship, but the real attraction is the mesmerizing, smoldering performance by its leading man. Like a fine wine, Eastwood (who took a break from his period piece Changeling to shoot the film) has aged gracefully and proves he's still got it both as an actor and director. In fact it's a hoot to see him play the old coot, especially when trying to cope with being unwittingly thrown into the good graces of his neighboring Asian family. As a character study with dollops of melodrama this could have been a forgettable movie-of-the-week, but the 78-year old actor knows a thing or two about being sly, channeling his Dirty Harry character and using audience pre-conceptions and expectations to flip the theme of urban vigilantism, thus creating one of his more memorable roles. If the rest of the cast of (mostly) unknowns can't compete, they do bring an air of down-to-earth realism to their performances which works well with the easy-going pacing. As a swansong to his hard-nosed persona, Gran Torino surprises not only for its unexpected ending but for its slow progression from simple drama to a more complex, almost tender movie. Eastwood should have been a contender for an Oscar.
Drama: 7/10

The Losers (2010)
Starring: Zoe Saldana, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Chris Evans
Director: Sylvain White
Plot: After being betrayed and left for dead, members of an elite Special Forces unit go undercover to even the score with the powerful CIA operator who double-crossed them.
Review: Obvious jokes aside, The Losers is a by-the-book Hollywood adaptation of the much-grittier (and more entertaining) DC Comics series by Andy Diggle and Jock. With a script from James Vanderbilt (who did Zodiac) and Peter Berg (Very Bad Things), this one showed promise but ultimately fails in execution, neither bringing the grit or political commentary of the books. Oh, the plot does look like it's been taken straight out of a comic book, with the '80s TV series The A-Team clearly having been an inspiration for the camaraderie and dialogue, but what works well on the page just comes out as flat on the screen. In fact, the entire movie seems to be trying too hard to be true to a comic book without understanding the mechanics of what makes a movie work. In fairness, the affair is rather bland but never quite boring: there's lots of gun play, Mission Impossible set ups, some welcome humor and winks at the audience, and lots of posing; it just also has so little substance that the movie feels dull when bridging the hectic, capable action sequences. For all its noise and fury, both the script and White's pedestrian directing turn what should have been a hard-hitting R-rated film into PG-13 mush. One of the bright spots is Evans, who gets the right balance of humor and bad-ass in the role of the team's tech expert. Not so for the rest of the otherwise interesting casting choices, including tough guy Morgan and a sultry, mysterious Saldana, who seem to be playing their parts so stiffly that you can't care about any of what's going on - they're cartoon characters in a comic book world. Case in point: Jason Patric, as the generic villain of the piece, who tries for an megalomaniacal performance but can't even manage to make it laughingly bad - more like frustratingly bad. The occasional inventiveness and hyper-kinetic touches to the action makes for decent late-evening action-movie watching, but ultimately The Losers is too silly to take seriously and not silly enough to be completely enjoyable.
Entertainment: 5/10

Hot Tub Time Machine (2010)
Starring: John Cusack, Craig Robinson, Rob Corddry
Director: Steve Pink
Plot: In an attempt to cheer up their suicidal friend, three failed forty-something buddies decide to spend a weekend in the mountain resort that brings back memories of their youth only to be transported in time to 1986 where they get to live it all over again.
Review: A mix of the teen sex comedies of the time like Hot Dog: The Movie with the "hey look how silly that era was" feel of Back to the Future for the fortysomething crowd, the latest in a series of crude dramedies, Hot Tub Time Machine (how's that for a title?) proves entertaining enough for its short running time but ends up feeling like a missed opportunity for something more memorable. Though the film does throw in a vast array of '80's iconic fluff (Reagan's on the news, spandex is in, Alf is funny and Poison is even doing a concert), and director Pink actually co-wrote some of Cusack's better films like Grosse Pointe Blank, the movie feels likes it's trying to channel the goofiness of Old School with the raunchy frat vibe of The Hangover but doesn't quite get what made those movies work. The situations go straight to the funny stuff, with multiple attempts at not-always-funny excess. The real downfall is that the script takes the short road to character development, and without interesting characters (or at least ones you can care an iota about) you can't get anything more than a snicker from its audience, and the occasional gross-out. With its ridiculous booze and drug use, cum joke, gross-out male-male blowjob gag and throwaway sex scenes it's clearly not for the whole family, but it just feels like the crude humor was thrown in for its own sake, without actually being funny on its own. Toss in those unconvincing stalwart of guy-movie themes like loyalty, friendship, etc and you've got a pretty derivative mess. Yet despite all that, the film is harmless enough and shows enough spurts of energy to keep our attention. And there are some high points, mostly in the zany comic energy of jackass Corddry who gets all the best lines and 90% of the laughs, and head-liner Cusack still shows an affable quality that's hard to resist, revisiting the rom-coms he used to star in 25 years back and playing to type as the sensitive, sympathetic, down-on-his-luck "nice guy". Lewd and crude with the odd flashes of smarts and heart, Hot Tub Time Machine is high-concept filmmaking that's fun enough for a short while, but doesn't have the legs to sustain itself to the end.
Comedy: 6/10

The Wolfman (2010)
Starring: Benicio Del Toro, Emily Blunt, Anthony Hopkins, Hugo Weaving
Director: Joe Johnston
Plot: A stage actor returns to England where his brother's wife begs him to return to the family manor to uncover the secret behind her husband's disappearance.
Review: From the film's pacing and shlocks, from the moon-filled forests and cobwebbed manor all the way down to the retro Universal logo, it's clear that dusting off the not-so-classic adaptation of The Wolfman wasn't intended to create a serious horror flick but a modern-day, tongue-somewhat-in-cheek homage to the 1940's horror genre. There's no denying that it does convey that sense of camp along with its chills and thrills, but director Johnston (who has had his share of hits and misses over his career, such as Jurassic Park III and Jumanji) seems to have struggled to find the right tone between the fantasy, dark humor, action and pathos. There are some father-son issues that would have anyone going into therapy, a run-in with gypsies, a stay in an asylum that goes as predicted, and a bewildering romance, all flailing about in the background of straight-laced 19th-century British society. As can be surmised, some of it works while some of it falls flat. Also of note, though the attention to detail is note-worthy, the were-wolf transformation gains little from the CGI and new makeup, even if legendary Rick Baker was involved - the one in An American Werewolf in London seems to have topped the genre for spectacle. The impeccable but wasted Emily Blunt and Hugo Weaving come out of this unscratched, and Hopkins (hamming it up to ludicrous extremes) will be forgiven. Not so for Del Toro who is just horrible in the main role; he can't even seem to get Hamlet right, and forget providing a convincing performance, try as he might to convey any romanticism under that pained expression. There's still some fun at seeing this sumptuous production recreate the Victorian-era and throwing some grand B-movie-level camp into the mix, but expectations were for a better, more engaging film. The Wolfman is good-enough fun for those nostalgic for the old days of the monster movie, and it still makes for some slick Hollywood entertainment.
Entertainment: 6/10

The Thief of Bagdad (1940)
Starring: Conrad Veidt, Sabu, John Justin
Directors: Ludwig Berger, Michael Powell, Tim Whelan
Plot: Blinded and cast off as a beggar by his powerful vizier, the king of Bagdad teams up with a young thief in a series of adventures to overthrow the usurper and win the hand of the Sultan's daughter.
Review: An elaborate remake of the 1924 silent film of the same name, and often mentioned as one of the more influential fantasy / adventure films from Hollywood's golden era, The Thief of Bagdad was surely grand spectacle for its day. Though nowhere near as enchanting or as impressive as the other era fantasy The Wizard of Oz, one can see how this would have surprised and delighted audiences in the early 40's - there's a flying carpet and a flying horse, a genie, a dastardly wizard and a love-torn couple all inhabiting an exotic Middle-Eastern land out of The Arabian Nights. The film won an Oscar back when for its special effects, color cinematography (in bold, radiant Technicolor) and art direction, though modern movie-goers will balk at some of the camera tricks and matte backgrounds. Sparing no expense, the producers hired no less than three directors (rumors had it even more had their hands in it) and the best composer and effects people money could buy. The production and sets, built and filmed on location and then on British stages once the war broke out, convey the storybook quality that the filmmakers aspired to. The set-pieces are also visually impressive for the time, and hold some thrills, such as the confrontation with a not-so-friendly giant genie or the escape from a monster-spider's web; the static pacing, however, leaves something to be desired and spoils the moments. Though the sentimental prince and his paramour are Caucasian stars, the real hero is teenage star Sabu as the titular thief - he may not be much of an actor, but he's got a charisma and infectious smile that leave his co-stars in the dust. A lot of this will feel familiar for most audiences and it should - Disney's animated film Aladdin uses pretty much the same elements. Unfortunately, The Thief of Bagdad hasn't aged well and feels long-winded instead of sprightly. Still, if it can't quite compete against later Arabian adventures such as The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad or modern fare such as The Prince of Persia, but it does have its charms and will remain one of the classic adventure yarn from Hollywood's golden age.
Entertainment: 5/10

Millennium 2: The Girl Who Played With Fire (Sweden / Denmark - 2009)
Starring: Noomi Rapace, Michael Nyqvist, Sofia Ledarp
Director: Daniel Alfredson
Plot: The publisher of a news journal realizes his investigation into sex trafficking in Sweden has become quite dangerous when his researchers are killed and a previous lover - a bright but disturbed young woman - is framed for the murder.
Review: Shot in short succession for Swedish television, the film versions of Stieg Larsson's best-selling novels arrive in cinemas for an international audience. But as much as the first film was brilliant and surprising, this second installment shows all the signs of a poorly realized adaptation. Gone is the smart, engrossing script that made the first Millennium (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) such a hit. With a larger focus on finding the action and thrills instead of the psychological character study of the novel, the sequel does stay loyal to the book's plot but does so without conviction, losing that spark that made the first outing so special. Some of the novel's themes are obliquely addressed, such as the issues of human trade, feminism and women's rights, the state of state-run psychiatric health care and others, but never quite bubble up enough to feel like anything other than filler. Taking the reigns as director, Alfredson sticks to the tried-and-true cinematography and narrative that audiences expect from a slick TV show, but nothing more - it's capably paced, but it's also pretty bland. Even Rapace, the whip-smart young bi-sexual woman who had made such an impression, seems almost demure here by comparison, rarely letting show any of the spunk and intelligence of one of the most complex female protagonists seen in genre films. Meanwhile, as the investigative journalist, Nyqvist seems to be sleepwalking through the film, showing little sense of urgency by the threats around him. Compared to its Hollywood brethren, Millenium 2 is still an interesting, entertaining enough thriller, especially during its first hour, and the cliffhanger ending will have most of us looking forward to the series conclusion. Fans of the book series or of the first film, however, will be grossly disappointed by this clearly inferior, lack-luster adaptation.
Entertainment: 6/10

Amelia (2009)
Starring: Hilary Swank, Richard Gere, Ewan McGregor, Christopher Eccleston
Director: Mira Nair
Plot: A look at the life of legendary American pilot Amelia Earhart, from her history-making flight across the Atlantic to her disappearance in 1937 while flying over the Pacific Ocean.
Review: Despite the pedigree and expectations, the capable cinematography and productions values, there are no awards bound for Amelia, the beautiful but vapid biography of legendary 1930's American pilot Amelia Earhart. Director Nair has made a name for herself doing intimate, thought-provoking dramas such as Salaam Bombay and Monsoon Wedding, but it seems that the pressures of a big-budget Hollywood production has subdued all her spunk to satisfy mainstream expectations, and so dilutes her subject's remarkable achievements. The film is at its best in the quiet, contemplative moments, mostly during the sequences with Swank looking into the distance or the grand vistas of the countries she is flying over, reading from Earhart's own travel diaries. When it gets to the actual tale of its heroine, the flashback-filled narrative fails to gel, relying as it does on too much emphasis on melodrama and dull recreations of events. Despite clear efforts from the cast audiences will feel little emotional bond or interest to any of it.. One of the culprits is a script that lacks any personality and insight into its subject, putting too much emphasis on her paramour and her failings as a wife and not enough on her exploits outside her solo flying adventures. And even these are short-changed, save for a suspenseful, if long-winded, re-creation of her last, tragic attempt in 1937 at flying around the globe. Swank, all bones, smile and attitude sure does look the part and sure tries out the accent, but she surely won't win any accolades for her dry-but-earnest performance. Same for Gere who does his usual charming take as her husband, editor J.P. Putnam. McGregor and Eccleston, as the only real supporting cast, are also wasted. Earnest and well-intentioned but depressingly bland, Amelia simply misses the mark as feminist manifesto, biography and drama.
Drama: 4/10

Tidal Wave (Haeundae) (2009)
Starring: Kyung-gu Sol
Director: Je-gyun Yun
Plot: Following a series of seaquakes, a mega tsunami builds up threatening the south coast of Korea and its millions of unknowing vacationers.
Review: Made on a fraction of typical American budgets, Tidal Wave, Korea's answer to 2012 was made to please. Comparisons to the Hollywood blockbuster are inevitable but unlike the action-packed (and often silly) 2012, Tidal Wave relies solely on the disaster movie tropes that were the template for the American disaster films of the 1970's like Towering Inferno and Earthquake - and that's not a compliment, as these didn't make for exemplary movie-making even at the pinnacle of its genre success. There's the expected ensemble cast all loosely tied up in soap-opera level melodrama but and unlike the critically acclaimed monster movie The Host (a fine South Korean example of how strong characters and development can enhance the most unlikely scenario), none of the protagonists are interesting enough to care about, even as they're struggling for survival amidst a flood. There's some rather unnecessary goofy humor thrown in and lots of instances of popular Korean culture to make the point to international audiences - your enjoyment will depend on how much you get into these people's lives, and how much you can take involuntary camp. And the languid pace as the inevitable final act builds up sure doesn't help, either. Unlike usual disaster flicks, the actual catastrophe occurs quickly then disappears, leaving only death in its wake - the real suspense should be on how these characters struggle to survive their plight, and with less than a quarter of the film's running time actually focusing on the disaster itself, there's little opportunity for real tension and thrills. The climax, as the titular tidal wave(s) hit(s) the vacationer-packed Haeundae, are filled with the special effects and panoramic shots of city-wide destruction we've come to expect, though it is a first somewhat for Korean cinema - the spectacle is as capable as any US production and manages some impressive shots amid the less effective ones. Flashes of the tsunami that hit South East Asia a few years back add some context, and the filmmakers work on exploiting real fears, but it never rises to anything beyond late-night TV-viewing. In the end, though this was understandably popular in its home country, Tidal Wave is pretty much a typical mainstream disaster flick that's lame on plot and big on spectacle.
Entertainment: 5/10

Valentine's Day (2010)
Starring: Ashton Kutcher, Jennifer Garner, Julia Roberts
Director: Garry Marshall
Plot: The lives of dozens of Los Angeles citizens, young and old, intertwine on Valentine's Day as couples hook up break apart and wonder about the meaning of Love.
Review: Let's get this straight from the get go: Valentine's Day is an unconcerned, unabashed romantic comedy that takes the "ensemble" idea to new heights. Anybody coming in to the film with expectations of drama, plot or a socially-relevant message is missing the point and the film's biggest attraction, and that's the incredible who's-who cast of Hollywood A- and B-actors amassed for our mainstream pleasure. Seeing the likes of Julia Roberts, Anne Hathaway, Queen Latifah, Jennifer Garner, Shirley MacLaine, Jessica Biel, Jamie Foxx, Ashton Kutcher (surprisingly sympathetic) and countless others clearly having fun under Pretty Woman director Marshall's assured direction makes for most of the amusement. There's a smorgasbord of intertwining plots and sub-plots, some funny, some sad, but there's something for every sucker, er, viewer who has a soft soft spot for the flower industry's most lucrative day. It's all zippy entertainment with no individual character getting anything but a perfunctory treatment, but that's OK. America's answer to Love Actually, Valentine's Day is a fluff piece, for sure, but like a chocolate the movie is a sweet concoction that that melts away quickly but is quite enjoyable while it lasts.
Entertainment: 7/10

Crazy Heart (2009)
Starring: Jeff Bridges, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Colin Farrell
Director: Scott Cooper
Plot: Moving from one small-town gig to another, an aging, boozing country star falls for a divorced local photo-journalist and her young son and tries to make amends for the last years of his life.
Review: Based on the novel by Thomas Cobb, Crazy Heart would probably not be worth noting if it weren't for the Oscar-winning performance by acting veteran Jeff Bridges. Actor-turned writer / director / producer Scott Cooper has an obvious appreciation for the soul of country music; it's all distilled into a single character. There's a feeling of authenticity to the proceedings captured by a slow, deliberate pacing that eases from despair into an amiable atmosphere, taking its characters through its tale of heartbreak and redemption with ease and limited melodrama. As the heart and soul of the picture, Bridges does a masterful, seemingly unforced turn as grizzled, down-on-his-luck country singer Bad Blake, a man who's past his prime, riding his beat-up pickup truck from bowling alley gig to bar, getting drunk, dying a slow death with nothing to show for his life but past successes. He makes even the most unlikable cad sympathetic. Gyllenhaal is down to earth as the local journalist and single mother whose love may make him a better man (or not), and Colin Farrell (cast way against type) impresses as the protege who has gone to bigger things - and he can sing, too. Oh, and there's some pretty good tunes on the soundtrack thanks to music by T-Bone Burnett, as one would expect. Audiences may not find anything particularly original in Crazy Heart, but it's clearly a loving tribute to troubadours everywhere and a nice, compelling character drama thanks to its leading man - and for that alone, it's worth a gander.
Drama: 6/10

Moon (2008)
Starring: Sam Rockwell, Kevin Spacey
Director: Duncan Jones
Plot: Only weeks before the end of his three-year solitary stint on the Moon coordinating the shipment of materials to a resource-starved Earth, an astronaut starts doubting his sanity when he gets an unexpected visitor.
Review: True science fiction films are a rarity these days, the genre being more relegated to action-oriented sci-fi flicks out for mainstream bucks in the blockbuster season. So it's a breath of fresh air to get such an intimate, smart, well-acted gem like Moon. Working from a smart script and using some careful visual choices, director Jones manages to set up a convincing setting and situation despite (or perhaps because of) a limited budget, without the need for elaborate special effects. In fact, the production feels surprisingly retro in its appearance and story - 2001: A Space Odyssey comes to mind in its desolate, artificial surroundings, as does Silent Running in its psychological isolation. With deliberate pacing, Jones allows the stark conditions, isolation and routine to take its toll, and - right before things start getting complacent - slowly increases the sense of paranoia and dislocation until the film's final revelation. Some unexpected plot-twists seamlessly transforms the film from intimate drama to a suspense thriller but, in the best manner of the genre, the script never loses sight of its science-fiction set-up to explore the human condition. In such a character-driven piece, the lead performance (in fact the only one, if you discount Kevin Spacey's voice as the station's computer and only other inhabitant) is of utmost importance, and the film's real lynch-pin is the compelling dual-role by Rockwell; even viewers who see through the film's mystery will be engrossed in the downward spiral of its protagonist. Clearly, those expecting a futuristic action flick will find Moon slow-going and tedious, but anyone looking for a smart sci-fi flick will find the movie completely engrossing.
Drama: 8/10

Fever Pitch (2005)
Starring: Drew Barrymore, Jimmy Fallon
Directors: Bobby Farrelly, Peter Farrelly
Plot: A Red Sox fan most come to terms with his life choices and decide between his obsession for baseball and his relationship with his new girlfriend, an up-and-coming businesswoman.
Review: Taking its inspiration from (there is no way one could say it was based on) Nick Hornby's acerbic British novel about a fan's obsession with a losing UK soccer team, Fever Pitch has turned a vibrant work into sanitized and generic Hollywood mush. The Farrelly brothers are far away from the outrageous, dangerous and wildly funny excesses of There's Something About Mary - in fact this sticks so close to the romantic comedy tropes that it's almost shameful, considering the pedigree of the original material. Sure, there's lots of slapstick and poking fun at these extreme fans, but the wit and verve of Hornby's other adaptations like High Fidelity or About a Boy (terrific movies both) is nowhere to be found. Shame on veteran screenwriters Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel who shoed a better understanding of baseball and relationships in A League of Their Own. Despite some bar-level philosophizing on the game of baseball and why "normal" people could end up obsessing over a dead-beat team, the script shies away from diving into the more interesting aspects of obsessive behavior over team sports. The movie took advantage of the unexpected turn in the Red Sox own luck, with it beating its decades-long losing streak during shooting, giving it an "underdog-wins-in-the-end" Hollywood ending, missing the point completely. What keeps the film from striking out (if one can pardon the pun) is the bubbly performance by Barrymore, a lady who could make a career in rom-coms. The chemistry is painfully lacking with her co-star, and there's no understanding the attraction, but she manages to even make a flat-footed Fallon seem somehow likeable by association. Sure, Fever Pitch has its moments and is no worse than most of the cookie-cutter comedies out there, but it could have been so much more effective if it actually had something to say.
Comedy / Entertainment: 4/10

Ninja Assassin (2009)
Starring: Rain, Naomie Harris
Director: James McTeigue
Plot: Having fallen out with his clan of assassins, a young man raised as a ninja from early childhood tries to take them down with the help of a feisty Interpol agent.
Review: A movie that would have been a god-send to teenagers everywhere if it had come out in the direct-to-video bubble of the 80's, Ninja Assassin mostly delivers the goods action-wise but can't really make it all interesting enough to care. Having come to his own following multiple assistant-director assignments with the Warchowski Bros director (they of The Matrix fame), McTiegue sure does the action justice, with some exciting, well-choreographed martial arts sequences freely enhanced by more CGI blood-letting that you can shake a stick at. Unlike his previous feature, V for Vendetta, there's really no sub-text or message here, just a straight-out homage to the genre - if you can even use the word to a sub-genre that brings back a bizarre sense of nostalgia the really terrible, B-movie martial action flicks of our childhood, movies that are better remembered than watched. Co-written by J. Michael Straczynski (the creator of Babylon 5), one would have expected a bit more intrigue and story, but this is pretty much a by-the-numbers effort, plot-wise. The addition of fan-favorite Sho Kosugi (star of such 1980's "classics" as Revenge of the Ninja and Nine Deaths of the Ninja) in his first appearance in years marks the most inspired casting choice of the film as the clan master; he's perfectly cast, and has lost none of his abilities or presence. Not so impressive is pretty much everyone else, from pretty-boy pop star Rain as the ninja prodigy to the supporting cast of throwaway characters. Still, for most of its running time Ninja Assassin does bring back that spirit of old school fun, and for that ninja geeks everywhere should be excited.
Entertainment / Action: 6/10

Capitalism: A Love Story (2009)
Director: Michael Moore
Plot: Filmmaker Michael Moore explores the impact of corporate dominance on working-class America, from repossessed homes in Middle America to the corridors of power in Washington, trying to find a reason for our continued reliance on a failed system - and how we got there.
Review: A documentary on the dangers and evils of the North American business model known as capitalism, Capitalism: A Love Story works - and fails - for the same reason savvy. rabble-rousing director Michael Moore's other films do: The choice arrangement of stock footage, eye-opening facts and soap-box rhetoric that made his work so palatable, entertaining and downright revealing in Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11 get derailed by an over-the-head message, long-winded working-class portraits, some gonzo journalism and a fair bit of weak arguments, the same things that unraveled Sicko. Focusing on an evicted family's tribulations and frustrations is one thing, but his attacks on the Capitalist system - checking in on the Constitution, asking priests for advice, and other bland attempts - are just ill-conceived instead of enlightening, despite Moore's usual bravado and flair for theatrics. The problem isn't the seeming split between Democracy and Capitalism but the excesses that are allowed to go on in the corridors of power, in the corporate boardrooms and on our very streets. Moore tries to bubble up the outrage we all feel in the face of recent events and rightfully decries how Western society has been duped into allowing Big Business to take advantage of society, but making it a battle between the rich and the working-class is just too easy a target, masking the problem of failed government, greed and social injustice that is at the core of the problem. Thankfully the film, and Moore, gets its chutzpah back when trouncing the people and the system behind the 2008 economic debacle and its recovery, based on the obscene $700B package railroaded through Congress to help those financial entities that got us into trouble in the first place, an event billed as "a financial coup d'état". All of it gets summed up in an in-your-face extract from president Carter's 1979 address to the nation to heed our own faults and greed: "Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns." If Moore had stuck to that, it would have been a much more worthwhile and potent effort. As it is, Capitalism doesn't have the teeth it should have had.
Note: The DVD includes an enlightening, scary interview with Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Chris Hodges as well as the Jimmy Carter's complete address, both of which are worth the price of the disk.
Documentary: 6/10

Initial D (Hong Kong - 2005)
Starring: Shawn Yue, Edison Chen 
Director: Alan Mak, Ralph Rieckermann
Plot: An 18-year old tofu delivery boy’s drag-racing skills are found out after he bests a professional driver in the curved roads of the hills near his home, leading to inevitable challenges and a renewal with his ex-racing dad.
Review: Based on a popular Japanese comic book and anime series of the same name, Initial D proved to be a smash hit in Asia, but it’s hard to see why. A sort of “poor man’s” Tokyo Drift, the occasional racing – mostly focused on the art of “drifting” cards sideways across tight corners at ludicrous speeds - is ably executed and a sense of movement is portrayed via editing and choice placement of cameras (including the front and back bumpers). But don’t be fooled – there’s not enough material to carry the monicker of “action” flick. Instead, a banal father-son tale is branded about along with the usual coming-of-age shenanigans. The comedy factor is limited to an annoying, overweight pal whose the polar opposite of Chou, and the (unnecessary) romantic element drifts (pun intended) into unexpected, out-of-the-blue territory in the last act for no apparent reason, leaving viewers hanging – perhaps for a sequel? Co-directors Lau and Mak made their mark with the incredibly popular and influential crime thriller Infernal Affairs, but much of the energy brought to that series is lacking here, as is the intense characters and situations. There’s little at stake, apart from bragging rights, and so the suspense is limited to figuring how our hero will beat his next opponent. Taiwanese pop star Chou, as the young, mostly stoic hero, seems zoned out and lacks any noticeable charm, but then so does most of the cast. Thankfully a dependable Wong – even as a perpetually drunk, sleepwalking tofu maker - manages to lift the dramatic bits out of its doldrums. All this is not to say Initial D is a bad film – the elements gel well-enough together to make it watchable, and the production values solid enough to make for decent entertainment for less discriminate viewers, or for fans of the original series.
Entertainment: 6/10

The Men Who Stare At Goats (2009)
Starring: George Clooney, Ewan McGregor, Kevin Spacey, Jeff Bridges
Director: Grant Heslov
Plot: While in Iraq looking for a story, a down-on-his-luck reporter stumbles upon a former U.S. military intelligence officer - a man who claims to be part of an Army division trained in New Age techniques and imbued with paranormal abilities - on a black-ops mission to stop a terrorist cell.
Review: Tongue firmly planted in cheek, The Men Who Stare At Goats is a strange satire indeed, and mainstream audiences will probably be scratching their heads at what the joke's about. Though the script and the direction is uneven - jumping around in time throughout the narrative and occasionally getting lost - there's still lots to enjoy here. For one, it's set in Iraq but isn't a commentary on that War or its soldiers - more, it's a bizarre portrait of men trying to find their true path in a complex world, and finding it in some absurd places. It's also a comic adventure as we follow soldiers trained in the art of New Age warfare dealing with real (and perceived) threats. And, as adapted from the bestselling non-fiction book by British journalist Jon Ronson, what's true and exaggerated is never made clear, making the military vs. the paranormal subject material all the more bizarre and unreal. Finally, it's buoyed by an A-list cast including an earnest Clooney (in his best Coen-brothers-comedy mode), a dopey-eyed McGregor, a far-out-and-groovy Bridges as the charismatic founder and a slimy Kevin Spacey, all of whom work up a lather (the frothing-at-the-mouth kind) and really give craziness a whirl. There's even an inside joke as Clooney's kooky character seriously describes McGregor's timid journalist as a "Jedi" in training. Alas, the film does lose steam in its final reel and in the end the story, jokes and surreal shenanigans don't really add up to a satisfying whole, but while it's going The Men Who Stare at Goats is amusing, off-the-wall entertainment.
Entertainment: 6/10

Astro Boy (2009)
Starring: Freddie Highmore, Nicolas Cage, Kristen Bell
Director: David Bowers
Plot: Created to replace his lost son, a scientist living in the futuristic Metro City rejects his creation forcing the young robot to search for his destiny among the polluted Earth surface and its abandoned denizens.
Review: The original '50s era comics by creator Osamu Tezuka are considered a classic of Japanese manga. The '60s cartoon show, adapted for Japanese tastes, bring fond memories to millions. Now Astro Boy gets a high-tech upgrade as a computer animated feature aimed squarely at American audiences. Die-hard fans will mope at the tale's inconsistencies with the original material, or on how long it takes for its diminutive hero to "become" the Astro Boy they know, but his awakening is all part of the fun. Sure, at face value it looks like any myriad of similar CGI tales, and its themes of destiny, family and social change are tired tropes, but something clicks here early on and helps things race along with infectious energy. Perhaps because it was produced outside the Hollywood system, or because... Whatever the reason, those of us who haven't been raised in its shadow, it's a mighty fine sci-fi adventure. There's pathos, humor and smarts on display in both the dramatic moments, be they of the father-robot-son relationship or our hero's crisis of identity, and the myriad of action sequences ranging from a flying chase through city buildings, gladiatorial battle between mechanized combatants or the epic climax where a Godzilla-sized robot smashes its way in city-wide destruction. The slick, vibrant animation, gorgeous backgrounds, the wit and slapstick, the engaging script all help director Bowers (Flushed Away) hide the fact that much of this Pinocchio-like tale does seem cobbled together from other CGI tales (Wall-E, Robots and Igor come immediately to mind). Highmore and Cage get top billing, but its the rest of the impressive voice cast, rounding out the package, that impresses including the likes of Donald Sutherland, Bill Nighy, Eugene Levy, Nathan Lane, Samuel L. Jackson - a casting coup if ever there was one. With lots of animated thrills and a whole lot of chutzpah, Astro Boy makes its mark in a cluttered family-aimed CGI market by ensuring both kids and adults will find something to enjoy.
Entertainment: 7/10

Dragonslayer (1981)
Starring: Peter MacNicol, Caitlin Clarke, Ralph Richardson
Director: Matthew Robbins
Plot: On the death of his mentor, a sorcerer's apprentice embarks on a trip to rid the kingdom of a fearsome dragon who has been feeding on virgins sacrificed through the king's lottery.
Review: A post-Star Wars fantasy, Dragonslayer's mix of comedy, adventure and special effects hasn't aged well - if it was even effective on its original early-80s release. The old adage that fantasy (and not comedy) is hard - as made obvious by multiple box-office bombs of the time - sure is relevant here. Like Excalibur, it provides the appropriate medieval setting and atmosphere, but the production values stop there. Director Robbins does a mostly pedestrian job in his first directing effort, but he does use the Welsh and Scottish locations to good effect. The real culprit is the hackneyed, clichéd script; though there are a few interesting bits, it is slow going through a "magician apprentice" plot, damsel in distress set-up and lots of other non-relevant stuff to fill-in the time slot, all of which is only mildly entertaining until it's inevitable climax, when young apprentice meets age-old, pissed-off dragon in a fight to the death. In this final act, the movie soars way above the rest of the ho-hum adventure - just too little too late. As to the SFX, they were probably quite impressive in its day, but now it seems outrageously fake. The giant fire-breathing dragon itself, however, is still a great piece of work when it is finally revealed in all its glory. The cast is mostly second-rate, but that would be OK if it was not that MacNicol doesn't make for a convincing, or sympathetic, young hero - no matter how maladroit, naive and big-hearted he is supposed to be. Surprisingly, Dragonslayer has been deemed a fantasy cult classic, but most audiences will just find a passable late-night offering here.
Entertainment: 4/10

Universal Soldier: Regeneration (2009)
Starring: Jean-Claude Van Damme, Dolph Lundgren, Andrei Arlovski
Director: John Hyams
Plot: When terrorists threaten to blow up a Russian nuclear power plant, the US Army re-commissions their original super-soldier to stop them and their hired help, a rogue scientist who has created a second-generation of unstoppable warriors.
Review: Like many of its ilk, Regeneration is a direct-to-DVD effort produced and shot in an Eastern block country to keep the budget small, starring a past-his-prime leading man whose hey-day was in the 80's, made with an eye to satisfy curiosity seekers, die-hard fans and late-night-TV watchers. The surprise, then, is that the movie not only surpasses low expectations but that it's a pretty darn good action flick on its own merit - it definitely bests the previous sequels and even the 1992 original. Of immediate note is how grittier this installment is: instead of the spectacular, explosive confrontations and stunts, the action is brutal, violent and very down-to-earth. The second is how able helmer John Hyams (son of genre director Peter Hyams, of Outland and Timecop fame, who here provides some excellent cinematography) is at the action set pieces. And there's a lot of action to enjoy, from small skirmishes of soldiers fighting against a new UniSol (played to the badass hilt by UFC Heavyweight Champion Andrei "The Pit Bull" Arlovski), to the many engagements by Van Damme himself (and his stunt doubles). The main plot isn't anything to write home about - it plays on familiar tropes to get our hero into trouble. Where it gets good is how it draws its characters with short but sharp moments, and even Van Damme gets his chance at a poignant instance or two; in fact, the movie is better than it's got any right to be, even touching at themes of morality and free will, proving that care on a script (even on a B-movie) can make all the difference. Some might be disappointed that Van Damme is only present half the time, but the film manages to make it engaging even with a half-dozen other characters. Not surprisingly, the real highlight is the appearance Lundgren as the uncontrollable "back-up" - his interaction with Van Damme is as unnerving as they're fight is vicious. It's only a 15 minute scene, but it makes an impression. With oodles of action, strong script and engaging directing, Regeneration is a real treat, even for those who have never seen the previous installments.
Entertainment: 7/10

Gamer (2009)
Starring: Gerard Butler, Amber Valetta 
Directors: Mark Neveldine, Brian Taylor
Plot: In a future where humans can control others in massive, live online gaming environments, a death-row convict - star of a brutal combat game - strives to survive to his 30th battle while a gang of rebels try to entice his aid to bring down the powerful mogul behind the games.
Review: A different take on the Avatar idea of, well, avatars, Gamer's premise and trailer scream a promise of mindless action and carnage for video game enthusiasts. The surprising thing is that it delivers on that and manages to get some story in as well as some well-realized ideas in, too. First, there's the real-life The Sims game, where people actually take control of other people's bodies - for a price - and where almost anything non-violent goes. Then, of course, there's the bloody, violent affair where convicts get dismembered and killed for millions of people's entertainment - think Death Race without the cars. In fact, the main story is awfully similar to that B-movie flick, and the "surprise" revelations really aren't. Directors Neveldine and Taylor proved their attention-deficit type of filmmaking style with the two way-over-the-top, cult-friendly Crank films. Shockingly, they've cranked down a notch (pun intended) from their previous excesses in their latest effort, giving way to some kind of character development and plot along with the in-your-face, first-person-shooter cinematography. Unfortunately, they're actually enjoying the mayhem too much, focusing all their energies into making the events and scenes way too cool that any social message gets drowned out - if there really ever was one. And, yup, there's even a musical number with our villain in center stage, just in case you thought anyone was taking this too seriously, but by that time, the conventions have set in and the conclusion ends up in all-too-familiar territory. Still, if nobody should expect Citizen Kane there are enough interesting ideas, action set-pieces and verve to keep it engaging until the final act. A big part of the success also lies in the hands of leading-man Butler who seems to be in every other film these days, from rom-coms to thrillers. His films may not be high-brow, but at least they're fun, and Butler has enough charisma to make a difference, and it shows again here. Hall, as Bill Gates' evil twin, chews the scenery with gusto and never looks back but he ends up being a one-note maniac. For sure, there's nothing subtle to Neveldine and Taylor's works, but in Gamer at least it works as they probably intended and that's a good thing.
Entertainment: 7/10

The Blind Side (2009)
Starring: Sandra Bullock, Quinton Aaron, Tim McGraw
Director: John Lee Hancock
Plot: A giant but gentle African American teenager, abandoned by an addict mother and with no family gets taken in by a wealthy white family and eventually wins a University football scholarship.
Review: Based on a surprising true story, The Blind Side is Oscar-bait material for a mainstream audience. Less a sports movie than a melodrama that aims at the heartstrings, its inspirational message and by-the-numbers approach fails to do this incredible tale justice. The decision to make it into a Bullock vehicle was probably the first mistake; as is, the story frisks the real story and gives it a thoroughly Hollywood approach, including the perfect family - wealthy, white, Conservative - taking in a hard case, the pint-sized younger "brother" thrown in for comic relief, the sappy moments, and the bite-sized anecdotes to make it all the more palatable. Heart clearly on his sleeve, director Hancock keeps the pacing required for any good popcorn flick but misses the deeper aspects of the situation and the many opportunities for social commentary. And though there's lots of quiet, reflective moments when it comes to explaining Oher's quiet, protective persona - and lots of flashbacks to his difficult childhood - we rarely get a sense of who he is. Even the football sequences - from typical Rocky-like training bits to the high school matches - are OK, but sports fans will be disappointed by the lack of action. The surprise, then, is that the movie is actually pretty engaging with its share of audience-pleasing moments and humorous touches, and Bullock (another surprise) is to thank for that in a tough-but-with-a-heart-of-gold motherly character. Playing the part to the hilt, Bullock does an admirable job with the Southern drawl and no-nonsense approach. Though the Christian Conservatives will love the message here, the filmmakers do the story a disservice by letting The Blind Side only scratch the surface issues and focusing so much on Bullock, leaving its main protagonist a secondary character and aiming for an easily-digestible film. An interesting double-feature with another Oscar nominee for 2010, Precious
Drama: 6/10

Fame (2009)
Starring: Kay Panabaker, Naturi Naughton, Charles S. Dutton
Director: Kevin Tancharoen
Plot: Talented students from different backgrounds and social status try to follow their dreams of fame at the New York Academy of Performing Arts.
Review: A out-and-out remake of the break-out 1980 film that inspired a generation of aspiring young artists, this version of Fame - updated for the times - is definitely more polished but also less affecting and less interesting. First-time movie director Tancharoen has had lots of experience on dance TV, and it shows - the moments of showmanship, dance, music and what have you are energetic and well staged - even the recreation of the cafeteria scene. The rest of the dramatic elements, not so much. Alan Parker, the director of the first flick, put the characters and their stories first, something that gave heft to the struggles and successes of its students. By denying them that, the new version just feels emotionally empty. The strong adult cast - including lots of famous faces from TV such as Kelsey Grammer, Debbie Allen and Charles S. Dutton - gets very little to do but play third-fiddle to the young talent and there's no doubt that these youngsters have lots of that - just not necessarily in the acting department. To be fair, the script doesn't do them any favors, sticking as it does to the usual clichés that were familiar even back whe the original was a hit. Unlike the original, few kids will see themselves in what amounts to a movie that's only inspirational fluff. As to the soundtrack, apart from a handful of re-tooled hits from the 80's, there's really nothing of note. Fame's muscial numbers are the real stars, but as a teen drama it gets a failing grade.
Entertainment: 5/10

Futurama: Bender's Game (2008)
Actors: David X. Cohen, Eric Kaplan, Michael Rowe
Director: Dwayne Carey-Hill
Plot: A quest to seek an alternate fuel source to replace anti-matter throws the hapless crew of an interstellar courier service ship into an alternate universe where dragons and centaurs inhabit a magical land.
Review: The lesser of the direct-to-DVD Futurama efforts (each meant to be played as a three-episode set of the animated show's adult-rated fifth season on Comedy Central), Bender's Game offers up a typically convoluted plot, some great zingers, slapstick and more giggles-a-minute than most comedy shows manage in a season. This time around, the minds behind the show have put their minds to skewering the Dungeons & Dragons phenomenon along with the typical fantasy movie clichés (The Lord of the Rings ends up getting the lion's share). The first third works wonders, possessing the same zany energy and inventiveness that has garnered many fans - a perfect example is the brilliantly animated opening Yellow Submarine sequence (priceless!). Unfortunately, when our hapless (and often inept) heroes find themselves in an alternate sword & sorcery universe for the second half of the film the humor and plot loses steam. Part of the problem is that making fun of elves, centaurs and shining knights has already been milked over the last 20 years, and it seems that this stone has little blood left in it, leaving viewers with the impression that a two-episode installment was stretched beyond its capabilities to accommodate three, but without the added laughs to go with the added running time - and no, lazy pop-reference gags don't always make it better. Still, fans of the show will be content to see more Futurama adventures and newbies will at least appreciate some of the more clever aspects.
Entertainment: 6/10

Vexille (Japan - 2007)
Voices: Toshiyuki Morikawa, Romi Park 
Director: Fumihiko Sori 
Plot: In 2077, a special forces agent is sent undercover to discover the illegal cyborg operations of an international conglomerate that is hiding behind the digital veil hiding an isolated Japan.
Review: The sci-fi action thriller Vexille continues recent tradition in Japanese anime to combine CGI and cartoon-like figures captured in stop-motion, and it's clear that this is a good blend for this kind of storytelling. The opening sequence - a commando-style raid against a castle with mechanized suits and robots - is thrillingly choreographed and shows off the impressive, super-smooth animation. There's also some beautiful design work and general art direction, as one would expect from the same production house that created the rebooted Appleseed films. The action is for the most part well handled, including a few short-lived mecha battles and an extended climax involving a rebel attack against an industrial despot's stronghold that has shades of Star Wars and giant mechanized sandworms straight out of Dune. But there's just not enough action during the first hour to really satisfy adrenaline junkies, especially since the downtime (the extended exposition) and final revelation of the "mystery" behind the impenetrable wall of silence around Japan don't seem to gel as well as it could have. That said, you have to hand it to Japanese filmmakers: they do put in some cool, over-the-top sci-fi stuff that wouldn't be swallowed by US audiences or distributors. It's just too bad they often can't follow-through with their interesting premises to the end without resorting to a deus ex machina or easy resolution, as is the case here. Still, Vexille is a slick, engaging piece of work and for the most part that's good enough to have audiences forget about the script's faults.
Entertainment: 6/10

Black Belt (2007)
Starring: Akihito Yagi, Tatsuya Naka, Yuji Suzuki
Director: Shunichi Nagasaki 
Plot: In pre-War Japan, three Karate disciples go their separate ways after their dojo is taken over by the military police and eventually cross paths again to find out who is most worthy to be their dead master's successor.
Review: Black Belt's tagline is "Real Fight, Real Karate, Real Japan", and it sure lives up to that promise. Just don't expect a slam-bang action movie to come out of this, a rather slow going, introspective portrait of the popular martial arts discipline. Director Nagasaki's languid pacing and bland direction is in keeping with the theme of moral reflection in pre-War Japan and feels like it would be more at home as an homage to the 1970's era of filmmaking, with shades of Zatoichi for good measure (minus the fun factor). Too cliched and too one-dimensional to be memorable, the deliberate narrative does get the point across and delivers some interesting perception on the era but its real focus is in the moral tension of its protagonists. To keep the realism to a maximum, the leads were chosen for their skills, not their acting chops; in fact, these are real Karate masters, which is perhaps why their performances are somewhat lacking. There is power in their stance and grace in their movements that doesn't require the usual wirework, special effects or rapid editing. This is probably one of the more thruthful representations of the art and tradition of Karate to make it to the screen and for that at least it is commendable. That said, realism doesn't make for entertaining spectacle and the final battle, as the two antagonists end up grappling around in the mud, exhausted, shot in B&W, doesn't really make for great cinema. For those who have been raised on any type of martial arts flick this is slow-going stuff while the banal story, cardboard characters and simplistic message just don't help in taking Black Belt seriously as an exploration of the human condition.
Drama: 5/10

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (Millennium: Part 1 - Men Who Hate Women) (Sweden - 2009)
Starring: Michael Nyqvist, Noomi Rapace, Lena Endre
Director: Niels Arden Oplev
Plot: A reclusive industry tycoon hires a veteran investigative reporter to find the murderer of his niece, a 16-year-old girl who disappeared almost 40 years before.
Review: Based on the first book in a trilogy of Swedish thrillers by writer Stieg Larsson, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was originally a made-for-TV mini-series that was later re-cut and edited for international release. And it still puts most recent so-called Hollywood crime thrillers to shame. For those who can only think of European cinema as static and boring, this will be a revelation. A surprisingly mature, smart feature, it is atypical for the genre in that - loyal to the source material - the characters are as important, and as interesting - if not more - than the actual mystery they're trying to solve. Case in point is the young female protagonist, a computer hacker and a smart, no-nonsense cookie who dresses and acts like a Goth punk and has a slew of dark psychological issues to deal with yet doesn't let anything get in her way. There's a sub-plot involving her case supervisor that's a horror onto itself. She's the film's most complex character, and it's a stunning performance from the otherwise unknown Rapace, who makes a strong counter-point to Nyqvist's defamed veteran investigative journalist. And the film makes no attempt to hide the ugliness of the novel; this is definitely R-rated, with its brutal depictions of rape, sexual deviances and ritualistic murders. Blending the gruesome nature of the events with the beauty and solitude of the snow-covered landscapes, director Oplev wisely avoids getting too fancy on the cinematography or directing, allowing the actors to take their place and the story to unfold with only a few necessary shortcuts from the source material. There's never a dead moment, even at almost two and a half hours, and the end comes too abruptly. In the end, the real suspense of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo comes as much from the dependable intrigue as it does from an attachment to the characters, and that's quite an achievement.
Entertainment: 8/10

Murderball (2005)
Starring: Joe Soares, Mark Zupan, Keith Cavill
Director: Dana Adam Shapiro, Henry Alex Rubin
Plot: The quadriplegic rugby players of Team USA prepare for competition at the 2004 Athens Olympics.
Review: A look at "wheelchair rugby", or Murderball as the fans call it, this isn't your typical inspirational sport documentary, in large part because the athletes portrayed all have some level of disability in all four limbs - and many of them aren't very photogenic. The premise doesn't sound like a very exciting one, but once you've had a chance at seeing these dedicated, tough, swearing and - in some cases - scary-looking guys on the court, any thoughts of them being "crippled" or deserving pity getes abolished. Sporting steel plates and bumpers, their modified wheelchairs have become tanks, chariots in full-contact combat, and the games themselves can get vicious as the players slam into each other at full speed, even overturning their opponents. This is an international, competitive sport, and these players and their fans take it very seriously; as one of the players states: "this is war!", and the emotions run high. But if the games themselves show their competitive nature, the film itself allows a lot of time to uncover each one's story - how accident induced spinal chord injuries or childhood disease left them infirmed - and how each of them (and their families and friends) coped with their new disabilities. The most refreshing part is that the movie potrays these otherwise normal guys for what they are without ever condescending or getting into bloated sentimen: There's the fierce, tattooed but sympatheric Mark Zupan, the spokesperson of the American team, and the bad tempered Joe Soares, kicked off of team and now coaching for Team Canada against his former teammates; from interacting with friends and family, to frank discussions on the challenges of having sex, to how their peers now see them and how they manage to prove their independence, the camera captures them at their best and their worst, providing a depth that's rearely seen. The climactic game at the Paralympic Games in Athens, Greece, in 2004 - with all its score-board tension - is a bit of a let down, but then that wasn't the point; what Murderball so capably provides is a look past both the disabilities and the gruff jock behavior to find the real people underneath.
Documentary: 7/10

Bedtime Stories (2008)
Starring: Adam Sandler, Keri Russell
DIrector: Adam Shankman
Plot: A hotel handyman sees his life change when he has to take care of his young niece and nephew for a week, especially when he realizes that the bedtime stories they tell always seem to magically come true.
Review: A mix of Sandler's personal comedy, Disney's family sensibilities, and some fantastical elements rendered in CGI, Bedtime Stories must have sounded like a sure Christmas hit. Is it any surprise that our shmoe saves the day, gets the girl and manages to embarrass his rivals in the same fell swoop? Probably not, but all of it would be so much more palatable if it wasn't so by-the-numbers. The idea of the bedtime stories coming true had some huge potential; written as an excuse to have Sandler prancing around on Western, Roman and sci-fi sets, the make-believe sequences (and their implications in the real world) are fun enough but are too few and far between, with too much time spent on the banalities of the depressingly familiar main story. Perhaps the worst offender is the humour: spoon-fed jokes, little wit, a lowest denominator type high-concept comedy like Hollywood can't seem to get out of and worse, audiences still accept... add it all and it's clear that laughs aren't on the menu. Oh, there's the odd smirk to be had, and there's the typical commercial energy to keep us engaged, but it's all somehow harmless and too "vanilla", with nothing really surprising except for the talent involved. Director Shankman (Hairspray, The Pacifier) has spent too much time doing easily-digested cream-puff films and he hasn't stretched his abilities or that of Adam Sandler's, cruising with the same performance he plays in every film - he has a certain infantile charm, but his shtick is getting old and boring. Russell plays the female romantic prop with just the right touch, but the rest of the cast doesn't come off as well: Cox looks like she's had one Botox shot too many; Pearce is downright embarrassing as the wannabe hotel manager, slumming it as the butt of jokes; and Lucy Lawless (she of Xena fame) as his doting assistant is criminally ill used. Let's face it - the filmmakers wanted to make sure Sandler didn't have any competition for screen time. The only thing that does win over him is a bug-eyed CGI hamster. Bedtime Stories promised Disney's fairy-tale fantasy and only half delivers. But who are we kidding - this is another typical Sandler vehicle, playing up his infantile charm in pretty much the same trademark character he's made a career out of; his shtick is getting old and boring, but his myriad of fans will eat it up.
Entertainment: 4/10

Fatal Move (Hong Kong - 2008)
Starring: Sammo Hung, Simon Yam, Danny Lee, Jacky Wu
Director: Dennis Law
Plot: Outside pressures and internal double-crosses threaten the criminal operations of a local triad boss who must turn to violent measures to avoid having his territory overtaken by rivals and his secrets handed over to the police.
Review: On the heels of the recent upswing in crime action dramas out of Hong Kong like SPL, Fatal Move baits audiences with strong production values, an impressive cast and what must have been a killer trailer. Alas, the end product is anything but memorable. Writer / director Law is clearly at ease with the action sequences, some of which are to the level we've come to expect from more recent high-minded productions out of HK, including one (and yes, only one) with legendary star Sammo Hung. The sword fights are vicious, with an uncommon ardour of showing off computerized spurts of blood-letting and body parts chopped with wild abandon; it's in these that martial arts star Jacky Wu stands out, as he does in the more tense dramatic moments, even if he's been given limited dialogue. Where the film fails is in the story and the telling - it's long-winded, convoluted, unconvincing and - worse of all for a HK flick - boring. It's a bloated parody of past crime flicks where everyone character is out to get ahead, where double-crosses are common and there's simply no loyalty among thieves. It's a bad use of a strong cast that also counts Simon Yam and Danny Lee amongst the many (too many) players. Yet even all this wouldn't be so bad if it all didn't come off so pretentious in swagger and execution. In the end, the action is good enough to make Fatal Move watchable, but it's a disappointment after a bevy of strong contenders in the genre.
Entertainment: 5/10

Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian (2009)
Starring: Ben Stiller, Amy Adams, Hank Azaria
Director: Shawnn Levy
Plot: A former security guard must infiltrate the Smithsonian Institute to rescue New York Museum exhibits that have been shipped out along with the ancient magical tablet that brings them to life.
Review: There was no doubt that the popularity of Night at the Museum was going to produce a sequel - the idea of a museum's exhibits coming to life was ripe for an upgrade with more special effects and a larger museum setting (aka, the Smithsonian, the world's largest). Unfortunately, the film smacks of sequel-itis, and is neither as original nor as amusing as its progenitor. The Smithsonian's pieces are put to good use (especially the Air & Space museum) to provide some needed thrills, but the jokes and slapstick humour don't have the same effect the second time around. The shallow script tries to divert attention from its failings by barreling from one set-piece to another and bringing in a half-dozen new personalities, from Abe Lincoln to Ivan the Terrible - none of whom make any real impression or bring any real humor to the chaotic party. On the plus side, director Levy gives the movie the required sense of urgency and movement, for the most part, and it's rarely dull. Stiller is still the main attraction as he battles extinct creatures, historical villains and gets into general trouble, and his welcome trademark shtick is just as evident. With all the characters thrown around, though, he's no longer the center of attention. As the pharaoh brought to life and looking to take over the world, Azaria gets to perform at his campy best, but the dialogue - especially in some tired repartee with Stiller - is un-funny at best. The rest of the gang make what amount to cameo appearances, including Owen Wilson, Robin Williams and Steve Coogan, but it's more to see their faces again than for any actual plot purposes. Thankfully the presence of Adams, as Amelia Earhart's wax figure come to life, brings a much-needed spark to the proceedings, and there's some nice chemistry between her and Stiller. An unfortunately lower-tier sequel to an amusing film, Battle of the Smithsonian has lots of sound and bluster but isn't nearly as entertaining as it should have been.
Entertaining: 5/10

Legendary Assassin (Hong Kong - 2008)
Starring: Jacky Wu, Celina Jade, Suet Lam
Director: Chung Chi Li, Jacky Wu
Plot: A young female cop befriends a mysterious martial arts drifter stuck on an island waiting for the next ferry, little doubting that he is a deadly assassin on the run from a gang of criminals out to retrieve their boss' severed head.
Review: Created as a starring vehicle for it's wannabe-leading man, Legendary Assassin is a decent enough action flick that has some solid fighting blended into a vapid tale. This is an action flick first and foremost - despite the attempts at some cute romantic fluff and broad comedy involving the often-blundering local cops and crooks, this film pretty much only works when the story finds its way to the next action sequence. Thankfully, there are quite a few opportunities for some brutal butt-kicking fights involving some varied foes - all of which are competently executed, wire-assisted or not - ending in an impressive 100-to-1 brawl under a downpour that feels straight out of a scene from The Matrix Reloaded (minus the terrible CGI). Doing double-duty both in front and behind the camera (along with fight choreographer Chiung Chi Li), Jacky Wu has the athletic chops and the look to be a martial arts super-star for a newer generation, but this isn't the movie that will get him there. Still, he's got modest charm and, along with the lively and winning presence from female lead Jade, it makes the story's filler at least slightly less annoying. A solid if unimaginative flick for those in need of a Hong Kong action flick fix.
Entertainment: 6/10


Blood: The Last Vampire (2009)
Starring: Gianna Jun, Allison Miller
Director: Chris Nahon
Plot: In post-war Japan, an age-old half-vampire warrior who still looks like a young girl goes undercover in an American military high-school to get rid of the demons that have disguised themselves among the soldiers.
Review: A live-action adaptation of Hiroyuki Kitakuboís popular anime of the same name, Blood: The Last Vampire oozes style but little substance - it's twice as long and half as smart as the 48-minute material it is based on. The film does start off great, the color palette and noir feel distinctly recreating the feel of the original anime. For sure, there's lots of blood-letting, sword-fighting, and over-the-top wire-fu sequences against a myriad of demonically-possessed people, but many of these feel lifeless. The filmmakers may have wanted to channel Azumi, but it ain't. An exception is a very Hong Kong-fantasy influenced flashback sequence where our heroine's mentor battles an army of ninjas in a bamboo forest - the scenes are effective and fun, but only make the rest of the film pale by comparison. Even the climax against the supreme villain, a female demon with incredible supernatural powers only provides a sequence that's short-lived and leaves us short-changed. Director Nahon proved his action chops directing Jet Li in Kiss of the Dragon (one of Li's best non-Hong Kong flicks), and here he's taken a step back. Perhaps its the fantasy element, or it's the pressure of adapting an animated film too literally, or it's just that he wasn't up to the task. Whatever the reason is, it sure doesn't help that the computer effects just look unfinished, from the spurting blood to the roughly animated demon beings. An international cast and production can't help things, either. The sole bright spot in the film is Korean actress Gianna Jun who plays the heroine, the half-breed vampire Saya - she livens up the screen when she's given half a chance, and she definitely looks the part, even if she looks a little too old to be wearing a Japanese school-girl outfit. In the end, Blood: The Last Vampire isn't completely lifeless and does have its moments, but for the most part it's a joyless exercise that can't hold a candle to the original animated film.
Entertainment: 4/10

Nosferatu: The Vampyre (Phantom Der Nacht) (Germany - 1979)
Starring: Klaus Kinski, Isabelle Adjani, Bruno Ganz
Director: Werner Herzog
Plot: A German businessman travels to Transylvania to advise Count Dracula on moving to his hometown, little suspecting the horrors that await him, his wife and the entire town.
Review: Director Herzog's remake of F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu, the classic silent-era adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula, ends up being both a tribute to the 1922 version and a very personal vision all its own. Hailed as one of Europe's foremost directors, Herzog (Aguirre, the Wrath of God, Fitzcarraldo) consciously creates a link to the German cinema of the 20's, creating a very stylized, very theatrical adaptation where symbolism and aesthetics reign. He even allows for some nice cinematic flourishes with light and shadow that enliven the film and harkens back to silent-era inventiveness. Unfortunately, made on a relatively low budget, the production values aren't what they should be and it doesn't look as lush or convincing as Hollywood's stylish Bram Stoker's Dracula, or even as atmospheric as the original silent-era version, where limited technology actually helped create a proper sense of gloom and doom. Still, it is an interesting take on the legend, with the Vampire a metaphor for the end of civilization, as the idyllic village is hit by an infestation of rats bringing the plague. And those scenes are impressive, considering the lack of special effects - as the vermin roam the streets by the thousands, undeterred, crawling into houses, festering over a banquet left out in the open. The combination of Ganz, a very young and ethereally beautiful Adjani, along with Herzog's favorite fiend Kinski makes for a terrific casting choice. As the titular vampire, Kinski is a bizarre actor, and that weirdness is perfectly suited for the role - he has few lines but his presence alone speaks oodles, bringing the hideousness and the melancholy of the character to bear on screen. Alas, there's little of the sexual tension we've come to expect from the genre except for a short, intense moment between Adjani and Kinski that reveals the potential of the Herzog's version, and the silent, erotic but chaste climactic scene where Adjani sacrifices herself to save them all. She ends up being the real hero, as the tale relegates Van Helsing as the man of science who refutes the supernatural - an interesting twist to the tale, where all the men are pretty much useless in the face of the mystifying terror. Modern American audiences will find this plodding stuff, especially in the first half as it takes too long setting up the stakes for little payoff. In the end, Nosferatu is very much an auteur film, and those willing to give have their horror served up with his own European flavor won't be disappointed with Herzog's take.
Drama / Horror: 6/10

UP (2009)
Starring: Edward Asner, Christopher Plummer, Jordan Nagai
Director: Bob Peterson, Pete Docter
Plot: After being widowed, a cranky 78-year old retiree sets out to fulfill his wife's dream of discovering the uncharted regions of South America by attaching thousands of balloons to his house, only to find he's got an inadvertent stowaway along for the ride in the form of a chubby young Wilderness Scout.
Review: Well, Pixar does it again. With Up, the computer animated pioneers have once again brought to life not only a wonderful animated adventure, they've managed to also bring a story about an old guy that's interesting to all ages - without the need for over-active editing and one-liners that seem to be the norm for the genre. Based on a theme of aging and loss - and how to recapture that spirit of youth - filmmakers Peterson and Docter have concocted a warm, humorous story full of flights of fancy (pun intended) and moments of real drama without pandering. The film takes risks, yes, but audiences are aptly rewarded for each and every one. It's no surprise that the vibrant animation is smooth and sharp, and the human characters are well stylized, but it's the story and personalities that really takes the forefront. From a silent, visually creative opening sequence that encompasses an entire life of a loving couple and their dashed dreams, the movie efficiently establishes its main character and makes us feel a man's grief and solitude. As the protagonist of the piece, the grumpy, 78-year-old widower (aptly voiced by acting vet Asner) is an unlikely hero but it's downright refreshing to see an elder presented in such a nuanced, endearing fashion. From this humble beginning, the movie moves to a more exciting, crowd-pleasing adventure as grumpy meets a young boy scout and other unexpected denizens in the South American jungle (including a pack of talking dogs), but among all the comedy and derring-do there's a core of emotional pathos that makes it all more affecting. A poignant, entertaining adventure full of life and imagination, Up once again proves that nobody does it quite like the Pixar team. Terrific, smart family entertainment.
Entertainment: 8/10

Dead Snow (Norway - 2009)
Starring: Jeppe Laursen, Charlotte Frogner
Director: Tommy Wirkola
Plot: While vacationing in a remote ski cabin in the Norway mountains, a mix of young medical students find themselves attacked by a squad of undead Nazis that have been buried in the ice for decades.
Review: There's probably nothing that defines the term "high concept" more than mixing Nazis and zombies together, and one wonders why an idea hasn't hit mainstream Hollywood yet. Thankfully, we get to see it in the unexpected Norway horror-comedy Dead Snow. Sure, there's been other flicks using the same idea (Zombie Lake comes to mind) but never has it been done with such chutzpah. Clearly influenced by its genre predecessors like Evil Dead and Shaun of the Dead, the film provides lots of black comedy and slapstick along with the usual flying heads, dismemberments and oodles of gore. In fact, its propensity for its myriad shots of disembowelments, such as having close-ups of entrails dragged along tree branches or having one of our heroines dangling from a cliff using an undead intestine, is exaggerated to pure silliness. The script plays with horror clichés, and the first half of the film is decent enough as it paints a quick portrait of its seven medical co-eds frolicking and getting spooked by their desolate, foreboding surroundings. The future victims are all one-dimensional (there's the horny guy, the nerd, the girlfriend, etc), which limits the tension, but the real fun is what comes after. Making great use of the snow-capped vistas of the Norway landscape, director Wirkola puts it all out on the screen to deliver on all audience expectations: you want Nazi zombies? you got them: rising from the snow in full SS regalia, they're fast, ugly, and boy are they pissed. The ensuing carnage, as victims are eaten alive, blood splatters across the snowy grounds and our heroes make mince-meat of their attackers with knives, axes, chainsaws and, yes, even a vintage machinegun, is as entertaining as this sort of film can get. A terrific B-movie given an A-movie execution, Dead Snow puts some much-needed life in the genre and stands nicely above the recent deluge of zombie flicks.
Entertainment / Horror: 7/10

Burn After Reading (2008)
Starring: George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Frances McDormand
Directors: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Plot: Things get chaotic when two middle-aged gym instructors find a lost disk with the memoirs of an ex-intelligence analyst and try to ransom it to help fund some plastic surgery. 
Review: The premise of Burn After Reading is simple - spy intrigue colliding with the gym sub-culture - but the real story is about dumb, middle-aged people all undergoing some kind of personal or professional meltdown, and that's something that the directors have lots of experience making fun of. There's slapstick, bizarre twists and general inter-personal mayhem as all these people end up sleeping with, cheating on or otherwise manipulating everyone else. Things get from bad, to complicated, to worse but then so do the laughs. The Coen brothers seem to split their films between serious (No Country For Old Men) and high-brow comedy, and this latest effort is definitely in that second category. It sure has their blend of dry humour and works in similar fashion to Intolerable Cruelty. The Coen's admit the script came about by throwing parts they wanted some favorite actors to play, putting them together with appropriate characters, and then writing a parody of spy thrillers around them to make it all work. And the ad hoc nature of the film and its twists seems to indicate exactly that, with the cast's subterfuges and ill-conceived actions all culminating to an off-camera conclusion. As such, the real attraction are the broad comic performances, and they're excellent across the board: Clooney wraps up his "moron" trilogy with the Coens as a suburban womanizer; Malkovich plays a potty-mouthed NSA analyst with anger issues; Pitt has embraced his internal dork and he's hilarious; McDormand as a lonely woman wanting to remake herself with elective surgery; and Tilda Swinton plays the cold bitch to perfection. But some of the funniest parts are from J.K. Simmons playing the CIA boss, whose trying to understand the "cluster fuck" of events that is getting everyone's attention and just wants to make it all go away. Burn After Reading is not one of their best efforts, perhaps, but it sure proves one thing: it's always fun to laugh at someone else's problems, especially when they're this socially and morally inept.
Entertainment: 7/10

Aelita - Queen of Mars (Russia - 1924)
Starring: Yuliya Solntseva, Nikolai Tsereteli, Nikolai Batalov 
Director: Yakov Protazanov
Plot: After receiving a mysterious message from Mars and growing increasingly jealous over his wife's apparent philandering, an engineer obsesses over building a spaceship to take him to the Red Planet and meet the woman of his dreams.
Review: Produced as Bolshevik propaganda, hailed as the first Soviet science-fiction film and a huge hit on its release in 1924, the silent B&W Aelita, Queen of Mars is a superb example of production and costume design, but hardly a classic tale. The first hour is slow going, with little in the way of sci-fi apart from the ominous message from Mars - instead what we get is a somewhat over-wrought melodrama about the protagonists' lives as set against the era of Russia's New Economic Policy. Yes, there's some stuff regarding a jealous bout with his wife that ends in him killing her and escaping by concealing his identity, but all this is just set up for our individualistic hero to build a rocket to get to Mars and hook up with his real obsession - Aelita, the daughter of the Martian ruler. The real selling point are the glimpses of the complex, Cubist-inspired futuristic sets on Mars, as hero and titular queen dream of each other across space. Things get more interesting when the earthmen reach Mars, meet up with the enslaved working class, and decide to overthrow the totalitarian regime in an entertaining sequence that reminds one of later Flash Gordon serials. Sure, it's pure propaganda, but it must have been agreeably entertaining stuff in its time. An influential silent-era film in its time, Aelita is often arduous viewing for our modern sensibilities, but it's an eye-opening window into the mind-set of 1920's Russia, and it's stylish design is indeed impressive.
Entertainment / Drama: 6/10

The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 (2009)
Starring: Denzel Washington, John Travolta, John Turturro
Director: Tony Scott
Plot: When armed men hijack a New York subway train demanding ransom, a veteran dispatcher on parole faces off with the criminal mastermind to save the hostages.
Review: Based on John Godey's 1973 novel - and previously adapted in the solid 1974 movie starring Robert Shaw - The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 is a slick crime thriller that's more an adaptation than a remake. The screenplay by Oscar-winner Brian Helgeland (L.A. Confidential, Mystic River) gives the 70's tale a more modern take, especially on the background of 9/11 and the Wall Street collapse. But where the original was a microcosm of New York's multi-cultural melting pot, the newer version keeps the hostages at arm's length focusing instead on the relationship - and eventual cat-and-mouse game - between criminal mastermind and civil servant. The film succeeds by giving Washington and Travolta (in a rare bad-guy role) the opportunity to play somewhat against type, giving their characters a nice roundness and making their exchanges that more dramatic. Director Tony Scott - here in his fourth outing with star Washington after Man on Fire and Deja Vu - knows how to make thrillers that move like a well-oiled machine. Sure, Scott's films have always been more about music-video-style editing, with style trumping substance, but there's no denying that they keep audience attention. The supporting cast, including Turturro as a veteran negotiator and James Gandolfini as the sharp, Giuliani-type mayor, gives some added heft to the film. The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 doesn't hold well when looking back on the actual proceedings but it's a diverting ride while it lasts.
Entertainment: 7/10

Ip Man (Hong Kong - 2008)
Starring: Donnie Yen, Simon Yam, Siu-Wong Fan
Director: Wilson Yip
Plot: An aristocrat and undefeated martial arts expert living the life of ease sees his whole world (and his fortunes) turn upside down as the Japanese invade China and must decide between his family's survival or his honor.
Review: An action vehicle for star Donnie Yen, Ip Man promises an action extravaganza and delivers in spades. What it doesn't quite succeed at is making the underlying tale one that has enough real emotional impact. The story has two very different acts, almost as if it were two different movies: the first half plays out like many of the light-hearted kung-fu comedies of the 70's and 80's, with a touch of slapstick; the second, as the Japanese invaders turn the town into a cesspool, is so grim that it feels oppressive. Both sides work just fine independently, with some impressive fight choreography and high production values, but the obvious conscious decision for contrast isn't too subtle. If the whole thing seems familiar in tone and approach, well it's because Jet Li's Fearless (along with countless other HK flicks from Bruce Lee's Fist of Fury on) have had pretty much the same storyline. That's not a bad thing, as director Yip keeps things moving along, and ensures there's some kind of confrontation just around the corner. The main disappointment is the white-washed, semi-biographical dramatization of Ip Man's life; the first martial arts master to teach the Chinese martial art of Wing Chun, and most famous for being Bruce Lee's mentor, wasn't a saint and a little bit more of an added dimension to the character would have done wonders to the film. Perhaps it was the idea of making a palatable mainstream action film, or the choice of leading man had something to do with it. Yen has made a startling return to form over the last few years, after being an up-and-coming star in the 80's and early 90's, and has become the new "go-to" guy for HK action flicks - and with reason. His dramatic range may be limited, but even in his 40's there's no doubting his martial arts skills. And what an opportunity the film is for him to show off just that in some giddy, acrobatic wire-assisted scenes that are masterful examples of the genre's exuberance and imaginative routines in the first half, and some bone-crunching, downright punishing fights in the second half. It's clear that all the "drama" and events are but a set-up for one action setpiece after another, and for that alone, Ip Man is the genre film to beat this year. Winner Best Picture at the HK Film Awards (a surprise), as well as Best Action Design for the work by fight choreographer Sammo Hung (well earned).
Entertainment: 7/10

Green Lantern: First Flight (2009)
Starring: Christopher Meloni, Victor Garber, Michael Madsen
Director: Lauren Montgomery
Plot: A test pilot gets recruited as a member of an intergalactic peace-keeping force armed with formidable power rings, but his training day ends up throwing him into the middle of a battle for the fate of the universe.
Review: In preparation for the expected live-action version of Green Lantern in 2011, First Flight provides an animated intro to the hero, and it's actually quite enjoyable. The story takes all the more galaxy-faring aspects of the Lantern mythology and simplifies it for mainstream viewers. Surprisingly enough, the "origin" story and exposition piece pretty much gets done within the first 10 minutes, allowing for some grand space opera-type adventure. It's also a more light-hearted version of the character than the one in recent memory in the comic books. Not that the story isn't dark at times, taking a Training Day type of plot and ending up with a double-cross and mass murders, but the sci-fi elements are well in place (check out Star Wars references and climax of colliding moons!), the humor is always close by (especially in our hero's choice of ) and the plotting is assured. Character development is cursory at best but in a 75 min feature that's not necessarily a bad thing, and most of the cast does a fine turn. What is disappointing is that the supposedly diabolical Sinestro doesn't come off as downright villainous, perhaps due to the bland voice acting by Garber. If the language and violence (aliens do die) may be too intense for some kids, grown-ups looking for some animated super-hero fare will eat it up. Green Lantern purists may balk, perhaps, but for casual fans First Flight is a solid effort that's a step above previous DC direct-to-DVD efforts.
Entertainment: 7/10

Infernal Affairs 3 (Hong Kong - 2003)
Starring: Tony Leung, Andy Lau, Anthony Wong
Director: Alan Mak, Wai-keung Lau 
Plot: Months after the tragic events that led to the death of an undercover officer, the cop responsible - a mole for the triads - is put back on active duty only to butt heads with another detective who he suspects is a mole himself.
Review: Following the surprise success of Infernal Affairs, the filmmakers have closed the loop on their trilogy with Infernal Affairs III, released a scant year after the first. As efficient and original as the original one was, this final installment feels pretentious and bloated, a poor excuse to rack in some money on the coattails of its predecessors. The narrative is made up of a confusing series of flashbacks and flashforwards that tacks on unrelated scenes to the original to create a brand new back-story, with the addition of new characters and untold events. In fact, this was the only way to get all the original's characters and actors back in a movie, considering how two important ones got killed off. This new plot just feels forced, and even if Lau's character gets his comeuppance it's neither cathartic nor interesting to watch. For one, there's little tension or suspense to be had, even as Lau's character spirals down into a psychological crash-and-burn, mostly because the only character left to care about is the bad guy, and even Lau can't make such amends to make audiences root for him. As such, the film keeps the audience aloof and rarely engaged in the proceedings other than to see how it all the loose ends get tied together. Mind you, it's always nice to see Lau, Leung and Wong, even thrown together in a below-average effort but one couldn't help but wish for more. A slick but bland entry into HK crime thrillers that can't help but disappoint fans of the original.
Entertainment: 5/10

The Fall (2006)
Starring: Lee Pace, Catinca Untaru, Justine Waddell
Director: Tarsem Singh
Plot: In the early 1920's, in an LA hospital, a young girl with a broken arm meets an suicidally-depressed, injured stuntman who regales her with a mythical story about five heroes bent on revenge.
Review: Independently produced and largely improvised over its three year shoot in a dozen countries, The Fall astonishes and impresses. There's an affecting tale here, but it's the fantasy aspect of the fairy-tale within the movie that is the real selling point, as the line between fiction and reality starts to blur, of course, as the fictional characters get influenced (usually for worse) by the events and moods of its suicidal story-teller. Music-video director Tarsem's second feature after the impressively shot but ludicrous The Cell is another splendid if perhaps over-produced affair. With a vivid imagination, strikingly beautiful visual compositions and backdrops from some of the most eerie places on earth - from exotic architecture to implacable deserts and lush vistas - he has made a fairy-tale of love and revenge that's polished to a bright shine. Better still, his dismissal of the use of CGI allows the scenes to jump out in a dazzling array of color and light, from a dash across castle ramparts to an under water swim with an elephant, and countless excuses for some wild imagery in-between. Yet if the exquisite photography is the most impressive thing of the movie, then Romanian-born child actress Untaru is a close second - she brings such an innocence and no-nonsense approach to her performance that it's easy to be completely disarmed. Her growing friendship with Pace, who at first only manipulates her to get drugs, is genuinely charming. With flamboyant style The Fall manages to sustain substance to its tale, and it's a pleasant surprise for all those who like cinema in its purest form; it's a surreal experience to be savored and enjoyed.
Entertainment: 8/10

The Thing from Another World (1951)
Starring: Kenneth Tobey, Margaret Sheridan, Robert Cornthwaite
Director: Christian Nyby, Howard Hawks
Plot: After finding an alien spacecraft and bringing an alien creature encased in ice back to their remote arctic outpost, scientists and air force officials are suddenly faced with a fight for survival when the monster comes back to life.
Review: One of a slew of "serious" sci-fi works out of Hollywood in the early 50's along with The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Thing from Another World comes off more like a communist-paranoia thriller than true sci-fi drama. A loose adaptation of the science-fiction story by John W. Campbell, Jr., its low-budget probably precluded the use of much of the tale's more enthralling points. Even if the familiar scientist vs. military debate isn't very noteworthy, taking as it does a large portion of the film's running time, for the most part the discovery and final battle between man and alien does provide for some pretty effective suspense. Legend has it that acclaimed director Howard Hawks of Red River and Rio Bravo fame (who's credited with producing the film) actually had a heavy hand in the actual helming of the film over credited TV-director Nyby. Whatever the case, the film does show Hawks' experience in the Western genre, what with all the running around, continuous over-dramatic dialogue and ensemble cast of relative unknowns whose actions and wisecracking bring some levity to the tale. All this helps smooth out the more obvious plot holes, as does some modest but effective special effects; that is, except for the creature itself - a Frankenstein look-alike - that fosters little actual fear when it is finally revealed. An influential piece of filmmaking whose premise and approach helped the creation of such films as Alien and its ilk, The Thing from Another World has aged pretty well though it's nowhere close to being a classic of the genre. For that, you need to see the masterful, effects-and-paranoia-driven 1982 remake The Thing by John Carpenter.
Entertainment: 6/10

The Days of Darkness (L'Âge des ténèbres) (Quebec - 2008)
Starring: Marc Labrèche, Diane Kruger 
Director: Denys Arcand
Plot: His wife ignoring him and his kids wanting nothing to do with him, a desperate, depressed civil servant serving a near-future Quebec government imagines himself the virile hero of movies.
Review: The third in director Denys Arcand's trilogy about western decadence and eroding values that started with The Decline of American Civilization and the Oscar winning The Barbarian Invasions, The Days of Darkness is a droll commentary on our 21-st century lives. Its themes are nothing less than the disintegration of human empathy and loss emotional contact, how fantasy has become our only refuge from such a complex, complicated and de-humanizing society. One of the country's finest directors, Arcand's works range from universally admired (Jesus of Montreal) to barely understood (Stardom), into which category this latest will probably fall. Though his productions have all the pacing and slick visuals of a mainstream affair, the content is anything but. Trying to throw in speculative fiction, fantasy, satire, social commentary and drama in this heady mix, the film does occasionally fumble and lose direction but one can't but admire the attempt at such haughty themes blended with slapstick. And the script takes every opportunity to mock present society, from the wastefulness of a narrow-minded governments to the staid social mores and aspirations of its population. Yet it also has a cold dramatic interior, especially in its portrait of this everyman drone, a man whose only pleasure comes from a retreat from reality in the form of lurid sexual fantasies of movie stars and co-workers, and bloody revenge on his boss. If Arcand's message that we're living in a modern-day Dark Age is none-too-subtle, at least he does bring the point home in a hilarious (if overlong) medieval weekend outing, in which similarly disenfranchised people dress up and pretend to be from a simpler era, and where our hapless hero ends up in a jousting match for the sexual favors of his date. His drab day job as a social worker gives an opportunity for an impressive who's-who / array of local Quebec talent to show up in supporting and cameo roles, but these just end up feeling repetitive and drag the middle section of the film down. Still, no matter the occasional failings of the over-written script, there's no denying the power of the central performance by Marc Labrèche: in one of his rare serious roles, he anchors the film, equally succeeding in keeping audience engaged in his struggles through his imploding reality and loss of individuality to his over-the-top dreams. All told, The Days of Darkness may be too high-brow for some and too unfocused and self-indulgent for others; but for those willing to give Arcand free reign, it's a smart, clever and engaging statement on modern society, and a fine satire to boot.
Drama: 8/10

Red Cliff (Part II) (China - 2009)
Starring: Tony Leung, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Zhang Fengyi, Chang Chen
Director: John Woo
Plot: As the ambitious Prime Minister turns his sight and his massive armies to the last remaining bastion of resistance, two of his rivals join forces to oppose his superior force in a final, decisive battle.
Review: Part two of an ambitious two-part film release, Red Cliff Part 2 is the second half of a 4 1/2 hour epic film based on the momentous historical battles that took place during the end of the Han Dynasty. The first part was good, but second one needed to be better - and on all counts it is. Not surprisingly as the two parts were shot at the same time, this part 2 has many of the same qualities at its predecessor: the massive deployments of armies, impressive displays of battle, grandiose art direction and high production values ensure the film is large in scale in all aspects. Legendary Hong Kong director Woo (Hard Boiled, Face/Off) has redeemed himself after a string of second-rate efforts, creating a terrific, glorious historical epic with sweeping scope that's smart, thoughtful and as accurate as we're ever going to get for being so entertaining. Sure his stalwart themes of friendship, loyalty, etc. are still in evidence, but it takes second fiddle to the re-construction of the fabled Battle for Red Cliff. The first 90 minutes detailing mostly the (supposedly) historically accurate military tactics that went into the preparation for the final confrontation is downright thrilling - rarely has a battle of wits and the strategy of generals been detailed with such bravado and verve. Not to fret, there's lots of lively back and forth between the camps, as both sides try to out-maneuver the other in a series of confrontations that set up the climax. The final battle is satisfyingly played out on a large canvas and is on par - and often better - than just about anything Hollywood has dished out in recent years. The extended clash of the two vast warring factions, one that lasts all through the night from a grand naval battle to an assault on the enemy's fortified camp, is superbly choreographed and edited, and has all the visual splendor worthy of China's most expensive movie foray. With all this in the background, as the foot soldiers kill and die by the hundreds, the film still takes the opportunity to throw in some wild martial arts as the generals get into the fray, too. A winning combination of melodrama and historical war, Red Cliff Part 2 is the culmination of decades of Asian period war flicks and a sure-fire classic.
Entertainment: 8/10

Babylon A.D. (2008)
Starring: Vin Diesel, Michelle Yeoh, Mélanie Thierry
Director: Mathieu Kassovitz
Plot: A mercenary is given the chance to return to the US if he can deliver a young woman and her chaperone from Russia to America, but soon realizes that a religious cult has manipulated her DNA to startling results.
Review: Hailed prior to its release as the kick-ass Euro-minded sci-fi actioner that would revive leading-man Diesel's movie career, Babylon A.D. fails to live up to any of its pre-release publicity. Director Kassovitz (who impressed with The Crimson Rivers but failed in his first English-language effort, Gothika) has vocally complained that the theatrical version was severely cut from his vision, but one can't really see how this affair could have been saved by simple added tweaks or added violence. The real problem, like many of his French compatriots have faced in the past when trying to jump into the Hollywood band-wagon, is the weakness of the darn script. It's simple-minded, confusing, chaotic, and never plausible either from a logic or character stand-point. The stuff that Europeans should excel at are character development and story / ideas, but gone are any of that to be trumped by a half-baked science-fiction plot sustained by mildly entertaining action sequences that include a healthy series of explosions, gunfights and - alas, considering the use of Hong Kong martial arts star Michelle Yeoh - some lame fight choreography. The film means well, what with its slick production values, superb art direction, and interesting religious vs. genetics premise hiding somewhere within the convoluted plot, but the execution lacks focus, depth and flair to make for an engaging action or SF flick. Vin Diesel plays the part of the tough-mercenary-with-a-heart-of-gold pretty much by rote, and the film doesn't give him the chance to create an character nearly as interesting as his part in the Riddick series. Short supporting parts are delivered by a gruff Gérard Depardieu, and ice-woman Charlotte Rampling, probably more as a favor to its director (or a paycheck). A disappointing effort considering its potential, Babylon A.D. is a missed opportunity to show off a different kind of action film.
Entertainment: 4/10

Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs (2009)
Starring: Ray Romano, John Leguizamo, Denis Leary
Director: Carlos Saldanha, Mike Thurmeier
Plot: When Sid the sloth tries to adopt three baby dinosaurs he gets abducted by their none-too-happy T-Rex mother and its up to his friends to rescue him from a lost prehistoric land.
Review: Milking the successful CGI franchise for all its worth, Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs is another successful (if average) entry in the lucrative computer animated genre. The by-the-numbers script doesn't bring anything too original here, but on this, the third installment, the filmmakers have gotten the formula, pacing, character interactions and comic quotient down pat - it's mainstream, market-driven, audience-pleasing fare for sure, but it's also quite effective as packaged entertainment. Many of the scenes are clearly meant for 3D viewing but still make for some effective thrill-rides on TV, from monster chases through the blazingly colorful jungle setting to the dive-bombing of flying pterodactyls the un-missable lava-flow cliff-hanger, and a repeat of the tumbling-rocks sequence of the previous chapter. Throw in some themes of parenthood, friendship and loyalty, a boatload of clever sight-gags and slapstick, the return of the capable voice cast including Romano, Leguizamo, Leary and Queen Latifah and you've got a recipe for nice box-office returns. The Land of the Lost premise also gets a boost with the introduction of a deranged, Crocodile Dundee-inspired Tarzan-like weasel superbly voiced by Simon Pegg who gets not only the best lines, but also outshines all the original characters. Not to be forgotten is that rotten squirrel is still after his acorn, but now he's got some real competition in a foxy female; those scenes are still pretty imaginative but no longer as funny, which is something that can be said of the entire film - the familiarity makes it comfortable, but the charm is starting to thin. An amusing, sugar-coated affair, Dawn of the Dinosaurs main aim is to entertain - and it does.
Entertainment: 7/10

Battle for Terra (2007)
Starring: Brian Cox, Chris Evans, David Cross
Director: Aristomenis Tsirbas
Plot: A peaceful alien civilization is threatened with extinction when the survivors of the Human race sets their sites on conquering their world and terraforming it to suit their needs.
Review: A second-rate, teeny-bopper amalgam of Star Wars and Wall-E, Battle for Terra may arguably keep the kids entertained, but it sure won't keep their parents in their seats. The premise is alien invasion, but in this case, the aliens are us, and we're the villains to boot. As a downed human pilot and rogue alien teen come to terms with each other and the story of Earth's demise comes to light, it's clear that this is all done to ram an environmental and social "can't we all just get along?" message down our throats. The rest of the story - as the pair attempts to save the kidnapped inhabitants, being used for science experiments and end up being on different sides of a Death Star-like dogfight - is utterly predictable and clichéd. Even these thrills, when they finally come, are tiring after a few minutes. One short-lived exception is a nice scene as we follow the paraglider-like flying contraptions through the exotic world's landscape. Too bad it didn't stick to that. A more obvious offender is the choice of the visuals: The alien society isn't very appealingly rendered and the CGI animation feels years out of date - the machinery is slick, as are the off space sequences, but when it comes to the human and alien depictions it fails miserably. A surprising smorgasbord of talent lends its voice to the film, including Brian Cox, Chris Evans, Rosanna Arquette, Mark Hamill, Dennis Quaid, Luke Wilson, Evan Rachel Wood and Amanda Peet, to name but a few. What they saw in the script to make such a commitment is not clear (unless it was an easy paycheck), but they do a decent - if unceremonious - job. Clearly aimed at younger kids, despite some of the violence, Battle for Terra is too drab to be entertaining and too awkward to be a decent message-movie, only ending as another coaster to be left on the video store shelf.
Entertainment: 3/10

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009)
Starring: Shia LaBeouf, Megan Fox, John Turturro
Director: Michael Bay
Plot: The evil alien Decepticons return to Earth in search of a mythical icon that will destroy all life on the planet, and it's up to two teenagers and their Autobot allies to stop them.
Review: For those that enjoyed the mix of spectacular CGI machinery, massive destruction, and overall human silliness that was Transformers, the good news is that Revenge of the Fallen is better in every way to its predecessor. With generous dollops of giant robot-pummeling action, more sexy military hardware, a lowered dose of human shenanigans, more Autobots, more Decepticons... this is all-out war - what can boys ask for more? Is it a "good", drama-driven film? Heck, no. Is it an entertaining one? Hell, yes. This is a perfect example of all that is wrong with Hollywood: the poor attention to story, the lazy scripting, the one-dimensional characters; and all that is right: the epic scope, the stupendous special effects, the stellar production values, and the best technical expertise money can buy. And in many ways this is the ultimate summer movie: big, loud, splashy and super-slick, with no redeeming social value whatsoever. With Armageddon, Pearl Harbor and many others, director Bay has become synonymous with high concept, big budget action films, and this is his "masterpiece". It isn't great cinema, but one can't fault the choreography of the many battle sequences, the computer animation or the impeccable technical skill that went into each shot; the visuals are indeed spectacular. Though it never gets boring, the one downside is that it could have been edited to a more reasonable running length and most of the human back-story could have been eliminated. Indeed, the human cast is secondary, only there to bring about some levity to the proceedings, but at least LaBeouf is a bit less flaky this time around and Megan Fox just adds to the eye-candy. For those of us who still remember playing with toy robots when we were kids, Revenge of the Fallen is all our most loopy imagination put to the screen - and it couldn't have been better. Transformers won't win any Oscars, but it sure is the apex of the popcorn blockbuster and it's this year's biggest guilty pleasure. Serious moviegoers should stay clear.
Entertainment: 8/10

Disney Nature's Earth (2009)
Narrator: James Earl Jones
Directors: Alastair Fothergill, Mark Linfield
Plot: Documentary follows a family of arctic polar bears, African elephants, and humpback whales - as well as migratory birds, and more - for an entire year.
Review: A repackaging of the 2007 British film, itself culled from the vast footage available from BBC's award-winning 2006 TV-series Planet Earth, Disney's latest theatrical foray into nature documentary territory is a hit and miss affair. For sure, the visuals of humpback whales feeding, of thousands of migratory birds swirling in the air, and of young polar bear cubs taking their first steps in the snowy deserts of the Arctic are stunning, and the captured wildlife astonishing. but most audiences have already had the chance to experience the entire original, more enthralling and better narrated series on video. It's nice to see some of these scenes on the big screen, but condensed into 90 minutes it limits the depth of its exploration into our planet's various animal inhabitants and barely touches on the environmental issues facing our world. The narration from James Earl Jones is always good and lively, but the film's cloying plot device of following three "families" to make it more palatable for young audiences ultimately does the enterprise a disservice. As an easy, family primer to the epic BBC / Discovery series, Earth is a success, though its limited appeal to most movie-goers looking for some original material will undoubtedly play against it.
Documentary: 7/10

Polytechnique (Quebec - 2009)
Starring: Karine Vanasse, Maxim Gaudette
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Plot: A true-life recreation of events portraying the cold-blooded, murderous rampage of an unstable student who murdered 14 female engineering students in a misogynistic rage.
Review: A dramatization of the Polytechnique Massacre of Dec 3, 1989 in Montreal, Canada which occurred in an engineering university and shocked a nation that thought itself immune from such senseless violence, Polytechnique is as gut wrenching as it is mesmerizing. Director Gus Van Sant did a similar exercise in minimalism and dialogue-thin approach with Elephant, based on the events of Columbine; it would be almost impossible for critics not to make a comparison, but Elephant was nowhere near as powerful in execution or in its message. Director Villeneuve (who impressed with the stylish local flick Maelstrom) has taken a very different track from his previous works to depict events in an anxiety-filled, no-nonsense, black-and-white recreation using eye-witness accounts. He methodically recreates Mark Lepine's rampage as he targeted women who he deemed were despicable "feminists", women whose sole crime studying to become engineers. The clear misogyny of the man, the violence of his acts, will ensure Mark Lepine's name lives on in infamy, and the film never tries to depict him as anything other than a "normal" student, nor make any judgments as to the events; only the voice-overs, as the actor reads out his various media-publicized suicide notes, allow for an understanding of how calculating (and deranged) he really was. In focusing instead on the survivors of the tragedy, the film gives a voice to the unspoken victims, those who had to live with the consequences of his acts. Starting from the killer's perspective, the narrative diverges to follow the events as witnessed by two (fictional) students, one male one female (both ably portrayed by Vanasse and Gaudette), and the story choices taken are brilliant, implying that despite the killer's targeting of women, everyone - from both genders - was deeply affected by this unveiling of society's dark side. For those who lived through the grief and rage of that fateful day, and the days that followed it, the killings burn in our collective memory even after 20 years. A contemplative, thought-provoking tribute, Polytechnique ensures that the reason those women died - and the courage of the survivors - will not be forgotten by future generations.
Drama: 8/10 

Drag Me to Hell (2009)
Starring: Alison Lohman, Justin Long 
Director: Sam Raimi
Plot: A young loan officer evicts an old gypsy woman from her home to prove her worth to her manager only to find herself the recipient of a supernatural curse that will lead evil forces to drag her to Hell.
Review: Genre fans won't help but be excited by Drag Me to Hell, the Evil Dead writer / director's return to his genre roots after more "serious" mainstream fare such as A Simple Plan and the Spider-Man series. There's a few new-fangled CGI effects on display but the movie's spirit, narration and jolt-a-minute pacing is very much that of '80's "old school", something that feels like a breath of fresh air after the grim slew of current horror fare. The story is your basic morality tale and our heroine (aptly portrayed with dewy-eyed innocence by Lohman) should have known better than to screw with a gypsy. The gross-out factor is still there, what with the film taking great lengths to get her to open her mouth to gobs of worms, vomit, blood, and other bodily fluids. The trademark loopy camera shots are back, and the film does provide some decent tension and laughs amid its horrific moments - not too many directors can ably mix scares and cartoon slapstick in the same movie. Clearly, this is all made in good, unbridled fun as an homage of sorts to Raimi's own brand of horror, and much more enjoyable than many of the recent teen-slasher and torture-porn - heck, the movie has a PG-13 rating! Yet for all its comfortable, familiar elements, it lacks the crazy creativeness of Raimi's Evil Dead series, as if the big budget has limited the filmmakers' creativity on-screen. It's slick, silly and over-the-top, for sure, but something's missing in this stew. In sticking too close to the standard era fare Drag Me to Hell disappoints based on its pedigree and expectations, but it does what it was meant to do: to be an amusing roller-coaster ride of a horror flick, if only a forgettable one.
Entertainment / Horror: 6/10

The Proposal (2009)
Starring: Sandra Bullock, Ryan Reynolds, Betty White
Director: Anne Fletcher
Plot: To escape deportation to Canada, a tyrannical New York editor convinces her earnest assistant to marry her as a business proposition, but finds it might be harder than expected when she's forced to spend the weekend in an Alaskan town to meet his family.
Review: Cute, predictable and sappy, The Proposal is another high-concept "meet the parents" romantic comedy that sticks to the genre conventions and makes for a decent time-waster. Director Fletcher (Step Up, 28 Dresses) doesn't really add much visual pizzazz or flair to the screen or the narrative, but she knows to let her leads take over the scene. As a rom-com leading lady, Bullock isn't getting any younger (her age is butt of some of the jokes) but she's a veteran of the genre and ably manages both the tyrannical boss parts and the girl-with-a-heart-of-gold-deep-down. It helps that this is, in fact, pretty similar to her own Two Weeks Notice, except she's taking Hugh Grant's part as the boss. Paired with an irresistibly charming Ryan, who fleshes out his much more endearing character well with a few choice words and actions, the two make it work better than the movie deserves. Indeed, when they're bickering the movie hits its best comic moments. Predictably, though, they have to actually fall in love, and there's little to really redeem her in the eyes of the audience - or, one would think, to her assistant - even after the multiple sympathy cards are dealt (oh, she's an orphan, and she likes disco, therefore she must be OK). The cookie cutter script which throws in the usual ingredients including a dash of eccentric characters, fish-out-of-water situations (Big City girl in provincial town!), and many occasions of general embarrassment of its main characters (let's laugh at the awkwardness of the situation!). Still, despite some scenes that fall flat in the humor department, others are more successful and keep the movie afloat. If the ending gets to be a little too sappy, at least The Proposal goes down as one of Bullock's better comic vehicles.
Entertainment: 5/10

TMNT (2007)
Starring: Patrick Stewart, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Zhang Ziyi
Director: Kevin Munroe
Plot: With discord in their ranks, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles must find a way to save New York City from an evil industrialist bent on releasing terrifying monsters onto the world. 
Review: 15 years past their hey-day as a kids' pop phenomenon that included comics, three live-action movies, and a bevy of cartoons, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles return to the big screen in latest trend of computer-animated features. The production values make for a slick, cinematic effort, the animation is smooth if uninspiring, the tone darker than you'd remember, and the story... well, the story hasn't really changed much from its past heritage - bickering family dynamics, the ninja-on-ninja battles and the fantastic sci-fi / fantasy elements (you know, the monsters-of-the-week) are all on the menu. Meant for a slightly older crowd of pre-teens (this is a little too rough for family fare), there's ample opportunity for well-executed fights and intense, if bloodless, violence. With its straight-forward narrative and general seriousness, however, the film lacks the wit or winks to make it more palatable for adults who may quickly get bored of the repetitive nature of the conflicts and banality of the plot. Still, TMNT is ably done and makes for some above-average adolescent adventure fare that's finally on par with the original '80's-era comics by Eastman and Laird. And that's not bad.
Entertainment: 6/10

Monsters vs. Aliens (2009)
Starring: Reese Witherspoon, Seth Rogen, Kiefer Sutherland
Directors: Rob Letterman, Conrad Vernon
Plot: After a strange meteorite turns her into a towering 50-ft giant on her wedding day, a young woman is forced into teaming up with other government-controlled monsters to take on an impending alien invasion. 
Review: A high-concept mash-up of '50s horror and sci-fi B-movies brought to the screen with cutting edge computer animation and "Tru 3D" effects, Monsters vs. Aliens has all the kitsch, low-brow humor and silliness you'd expect and yet comes out as a better-than-average CGI flick thanks to some lively comedy situations and excellent action set-pieces. For those in the know, the flick is riddled with geek references from things Godzilla to The War of the Worlds, none more so than from which its monstrous heroes have been taken: The Blob, The Fly, The Creature From The Black Lagoon and, of course, Attack of the 50 Ft. Woman. If some of these obvious (or obscure) tid bits go way above most audiences' heads (especially the kids), that's OK, too - the movie relies more on a straight-forward plot to keep things moving along and engaging. The pacing isn't always balanced, but the script is for the most part pretty snappy, and the humor - both the in-jokes and the slapstick - as well as the loads of in-your-face action will keep both kids and parents thoroughly amused. And if the battle over the Golden Gate Bridge and on the alien spaceship are obviously meant to be appreciated in 3D, it's still quite a show even on TV. The voice acting is pretty good, too, with the likes of Witherspoon, Rogen, Sutherland and Will Arnet keeping the goofiness alive and kicking. Monsters vs. Aliens isn't nearly as memorable as its Pixar kin, perhaps, but within its lean running time it's both an appropriate thrill-ride and a decent comedy that's worth a gander.
Entertainment: 7/10

Born to Fight (Thailand - 2004)
Starring: Dan Chupong, Somrak Khamsing
Director: Panna Rittikrai
Plot: While visiting a local village, a special forces agent stumbles upon a terrorist plot to use a nuclear missile to destroy Bangkok and must pursuade the untrained villagers to rise up against their captors.
Review: Before the international popularity of Ong-Bak made American viewers take notice of Thai cinema, the action vehicle Born to Fight made its leading man Chupong a rising star. The opening sequence, as two undercover cops try to stop two eighteen wheelers from getting away, shows some impressive stunt work and decent ideas, but the execution is lackluster - there's little sense of peril or actual speed, even as it re-does the vehicle-through-a-shanty-town scene that was more effective in Police Story. From that semi-promising beginning, however, the movie screeches to a stop, pacing-wise, as audiences are force-fed an awkward, half-hour long lull to set-up the idyllic small-town life and its characters before it gets so violently invaded. The last act redeems the production somewhat, with a 30-minute non-stop series of stunts, gunfights and martial arts fighting exhibition. Most of it is just average fare, but there's enough impressive stuff on display - some of which really does look insane and life-threatening - to make for some decent Asian action entertainment. There's no doubt that the cast and crew were up to prove something here, and they've really tried to make an all-out showcase of local talent (leading man Chupong went on to Dynamite Warrior), but it's marred by somewhat poor post-production and an aggravating amount of jingoistic fervor that was once solely the mark of US filmmaking. Still, decent midnight fare for those ready to fast-forward the dull parts.
Entertainment: 5/10

The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008)
Starring: Keanu Reeves, Jennifer Connelly, Kathy Bates
Director: Scott Derrickson 
Plot: As an alien ship lands in Manhattan creating a global upheaval, the alien representative escapes government capture thanks to a biologist and single-mom, and must decide if humanity is worth saving.
Review: A remake of the beloved classic 1951 SF film, The Day the Earth Stood Still was doomed to cause the ire of many a critic. What's surprising is that it's actually quite an acceptable update, and that it's a pretty good sci-fi flick in its own right. Where the message in the 50's was atomic annihilation, the modern theme here is environmental collapse, a neat way to engage modern audiences. The real marketed point of the film - and the film's strong points - are the epic sweep of alien invasion / presence, the familiar (but well-done) bits of armed confrontation with the US Army against a gigantic robot, and the superb special effects set-pieces including some impressive scenes of city-wide destruction by a swarm of mechanical locusts. Though his previous experience amounts to helming low-key horror flicks like The Exorcism of Emily Rose and Hellraiser: Inferno (!) director Derrickson ably captures the spirit of the original story and knows the right way to present these aspects of the material. But while the script does well in the first two acts to set up the film and tension, the biblical parallels become awkward - there's the idea of the ark, the flood, the second coming and the plague of locusts - and there's little positive message in terms of how anyone expects us to deal with the global issues presented. And though the focus of the tale wants to be on the intimate story of how a single human manages to convince the alien emissary to stop the impending human genocide, the more personal segments don't really hold enough weight to make it believable. Oh, Reeves and Connelly actually do a pretty good job with their roles; Reeves' limited acting ability actually benefits the part of the alien, and Connelly is always compelling, but there seems to be chucks of interaction missing, as if the film were edited to keep the pacing on the thrills and SFX instead of the story... Not that it's a surprise, of course, coming from Hollywood producers... One sour note on the casting is Smith, as the whining step-son: he's the kind of character you just want to see killed off at the earliest opportunity, which was probably not the intention. The original tale is still more compelling, but 50-plus years after its release this SFX-laden version of The Day the Earth Stood Still ably updates the story for a 21-st century audience.
Entertainment: 6/10

Arsene Lupin (France - 2004)
Starring: Romain Duris, Kristin Scott Thomas, Eva Green
Director: Jean-Paul Salome
Plot: A dashing young jewel thief who only steals from high society gets involved with a mysterious Countess and sucked into a secret French royalist conspiracy to find a long-lost treasure.
Review: Based on Maurica LeBlanc's much-adapted French series of the gentleman thief, and more specifically on the 1924 novel The Countess of Cagliostro, the simply titled Arsene Lupin has high ambitions to be a mix of fantasy, adventure, drama, all in a turn-of-the-century setting. It almost holds together - almost. Following a disastrous adaptation of another European pop / fantasy classic, Belphegor, director Salome tries his hand at another beloved French creation, with much better results. France's answer to Sherlock Holmes, Lupin provides a strong sense of adventure and derring-do, a double-dose of mystery bordering on the supernatural, and production values re-creating France of the turn of the century that are well above-average. Unfortunately, some things just don't click: For one, Duris as the titular hero, doesn't quite have the necessary charm; for two, the pacing is uneven and the story borders on the schizophrenic; three, there's an unnecessary epilogue (or two) that drags things in a completely new direction that could have been kept for future efforts. Thankfully the supporting cast is worthy of note, especially a vampish Kristin Scott Thomas who gives the affair a dollop of much-needed class, and the delightful Green in one of her first film roles. A disappointment considering the efforts involved, Arsene Lupin is still a nimble, decent adventure yarn that's well worth a gander for audiences ready for a European twist to the familiar big-budget Hollywood fare.
Entertainment: 6/10

RocknRolla (2008)
Starring: Gerard Butler, Tom Wilkinson, Thandie Newton
Director: Guy Ritchie
Plot: The relationship between a Russian magnate and a London crime boss goes sour when a payment gets robbed and an expensive painting goes missing, implicating a local gang of small-time criminals.
Review: An immensely enjoyable entry in the British stable of gangster flicks by one of its best directors, RocknRolla is a relief from the staid, formulaic crime dramas of late. Writer / director Ritchie made a splash with Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and followed it up with the superior Snatch. Though his career has shown some ups and downs, any movie by Ritchie (save perhaps the comedy Swept Away with ex-wife Madonna) has action, humor, violence, wit and a convoluted set of disparate events all heading to a final confrontation that boils down to a terrific time. His latest proves he's lost none of his edge and is, perhaps, his best film yet. Yes, it's another tongue-in-cheek gangster flick that sticks to the director's tried-and-true trademarks of quickly-edited, fast-paced shenanigans, but with this much giddy energy, colorful characters, dark humor, viciousness, suspenseful twists and cracker-jack dialogue one can only ask for more. The ruggedly charming Butler continues to impress, here in the role of a cheeky thief, along with a slinky Newton as the femme fatale, with Wilkinson seemingly starting to make a career out of playing over-the-top crime bosses. The rest of the supporting cast is terrific, especially Tony Kebbell as the junkie rock-star son-in-law out for laughs and revenge. For fans of clever, fun crime flicks, you can't beat RocknRolla - it's gloriously entertaining stuff that will put a smile to anyone who enjoys this kind of cinema.
Entertainment: 8/10

Resident Evil: Degeneration (2008)
Voices: Alyson Court, Steven Blum
Director: Makoto Kamiya
Plot: After a plane full of zombies crashes into a crowded public airport, agents from different government bodies make their way to the source of the newly released virus, a research facility targeted by bio-terrorists that is storing a deadly, super-strong version of the virus.
Review: A proper mix of blood & guts and over-the-top action, the direct-to-DVD Degeneration is the first computer-animated feature based on the long-running Resident Evil video game franchise. Eschewing the live-action movies starring Mila Jovovich, the story involves a familiar tale of company greed, bio-engineering gone awry and lots of other needlessly convoluted plot elements that are more suited to video game cut-scenes than a film. Putting the silly notion of the target audience actually needing a plot, the film does add to the series' mythology and more than adequately delivers in bringing some larger-than-life zombie mayhem to the screen. Being a CGI affair, there's lots of grand set-pieces, from a plane full of zombies crashing into an airport, to the third-act showdown with a seemingly unkillable, monstrous zombie mutant that ends up destroying a well-detailed R&D facility. And there's no shortage of bullet-ridden gunfights, impossible escapes, and - all the stuff you'd expect from watching someone else play video games. The animation - from the plastic-faced characters to the epic-scale research facility - is actually quite good, adding to a trend also seen in the latest Appleseed flick. Too bad that too much time is taken away from the action for needless exposition and unnecessary sub-plots - when it tries for pathos or drama, the film's pacing just screeches to a halt with static, unconvincing dialogue and poor voice acting. Your enjoyment of Degeneration will likely depend on your appreciation of Japanese anime, zombie flicks, and video games - it's not quite memorable, but its paint-by-numbers approach still provides for some bloody fun.
Entertainment: 5/10

The Dirty Dozen (1967)
Starring: Lee Marvin, Charles Bronson, John Cassavetes
Director: Robert Aldrich
Plot: A US Army officer is charged to draft, train and lead twelve convicted murderers on a suicide mission to kill German officers stationed in a French castle days before D-Day.
Review: A World War II action flick that launched a thousand imitations, The Dirty Dozen is a classic example of the genre. The usual three-act storyline works well here: there's the setup as we're introduced to the tough bunch of malcontents (with rough but effective portrayals by the cast of character actors) as they try to face off with the no-nonsense Major; there's the familiar rigorous (and sometimes brutal) training to get the conscripts into a efficient, cohesive fighting unit, as they develop respect for each other; and finally there's the mission itself with its dose of suspense and its bullet-and-explosion ridden climax as the they storm the French castle and its dozen of armed guards in a daring night raid. If there's nothing particularly original to be had, director Aldrich at least knows how to deal well with the ensemble cast, combining violence and humor in equal doses, and his sly, cynical approach to the military (the top brass, headed by Ernest Borgnigne, don't care for the lives of the men under their charge) gives an added dimension to the film. There's little character development, for sure, but the all-star cast still has much to do with the picture's success, with such famous faces as Lee Marvin as the tough-as-nails officer, John Cassavetes (nominated for an Oscar for his rebellious performance), Charles Bronson, Donald Sutherland and Telly Savalas among others. A film that has stood the test of time, The Dirty Dozen isn't quite a classic, but as far as action flicks go it is just as enjoyable now as it was when it was first released.
Entertainment: 7/10

Tube (South Korea - 2003)
Starring: Seok-hun Kim, Sang-min Park
Director: Baek Woon-Hak
Plot: A lone detective takes on an ex-covert operative intent on exposing the truth hidden by government officials by taking control of a runaway subway train loaded with explosives.
Review: An undercooked smashup of Heat, Speed, The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3 and other familiar, better American flicks, Tube is big, dumb and loud. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but add the fact that it's hampered by a forced personal conflict, a narrative that has major pacing issues, and waaaay too long running time and you've got a flick that begs to be fast-forwarded. With the amount of twists and multiple endings (how much trouble can a subway get into? and don't they eventually run out of track?), the suspense turns into silliness. As for the action set pieces, the real selling point, they're are on par with Hollywood expectations, perhaps, but that doesn't mean they're good. For one, there's lots of gunfights but they're annoyingly one-sided for the bad guys - it wouldn't have taken much to make it at least somewhat believable. And there lies the main issue: in their obsession with making a "big" blockbuster, and the studio's risk-adverse policies keeping originality in check, the filmmakers have forgotten the main ingredient - a good script, one preferably that avoids logic pot-holes and groans from its audience. As for the actors, they do their best but they're hampered by the poor characterizations, posturing and forced melodrama. Still, Baek Woon-Hak is a capable director and the production values are as slick as we've come to expect from Korean cinema, and for some that might be enough. It's just too bad; with a bit more care into editing for length and with less intent on the dull human relationships, Tube could have been a cool, tight thriller.
Entertainment: 4/10

Tarzan II (2005)
Starring: Harrison Chad, George Carlin, Glenn Close, Ron Perlman
Director: Brian Smith
Plot: Having difficulty coping with the fact that he's different from his ape family, a young Tarzan tries runs away, meeting some excentric gorillas who help him learn that being different is not such a bad thing.
Review: Another direct-to-DVD sequel (or in this case prequel) effort from the B-team of Walt Disney's animation studio to cash in on the success of their theatrical releases, Tarzan II focuses on the growing pains of the young Tarzan. The TV-level animation reprises the original's style, and though it's not nearly as detailed or spectacular, it's decent enough; the soundtrack gets a small boost from a couple of new (though nowhere near as memorable) Phil Collins songs; the voice acting from the likes of Carlin, Close and Ron Perlman is effective; and there's enough adventure and slapstick humor to keep young ones entertained. Not so for adults, perhaps, who might get a few laughs from these mis-adventures, but will get tired on forced repeat viewings, even if the movie clocks at barely 70 minutes. Sure, there's lots of positive messages for the kids, but it's a formulaic effort that is quickly discarded. An amusing but ultimately wasted effort.
Entertainment: 4/10

House of Fury (Hong Kong - 2005)
Starring: Anthony Wong, Charlene Choi, Stephen Fung
Director: Stephen Fung
Plot: Two teens realize that their single father's bedtime stories of martial-arts and secret agents happen to be true when he's kidnapped and tortured by a rogue operative with a grudge, and it's up to them to stop him and his dangerous cohorts.
Review: Meant as a throwback to the Hong Kong action / comedies of the 80's, the bland, cartoon-like House of Fury is a continuing trend of forgettable bubble-gum entertainment. Despite fight sequences signed Yuen Woo Ping (the guy behind The Matrix and a slew of HK classics) the action is respectable but nothing to write home about, and the wire work is just plain shoddy - not to say it isn't fun, notably a sequence where Wong seems to embody the spirit of Bruce Lee, using a skeleton's arm as a nunchuck to dispose of four assailants, it's just for the most part unimpressive. At least there are enough of them to keep the movie running, and the combo of teen comedy and adventure is decent enough for an evening of low-brow entertainment. Where the pacing sputters is when the tale focuses too much on the sob story of single fatherhood; Wong is good, but even he's not good enough to keep these moments of fake pathos from being engaging. At least actor / writer / director Fung (Enter the Phoenix) doesn't embarrass himself in this, his sophomore effort, and - all things considered - manages a pretty decent, entertaining fluff piece. The cast itself is a mixed bag - Wong is invariably great, even when he's in trash like this; 30-year-old Fung, as his teen son looks goofy when required and is good enough in the kicking department; and Michael Wong, as the wheelchair-bound villain, has sunk to lower depths. The big surprise is the likable Choi as the sprightly teen heroine who really impresses with her fancy acrobatic skills and (albeit cinema-style) kung fu. Much like many such cookie-cutter products coming out of America, House of Fury has the occasional embellishment but for the most part is another average entertainment vehicle. Not exactly great stuff, but worth a look for undiscerning viewers.
Entertainment: 5/10

Where in the World Is Osama Bin Laden? (2008)
Starring: Morgan Spurlock
Director: Morgan Spurlock
Plot: Filmmaker Morgan Spurlock tours the Middle East searching for Osama Bin Laden, discussing local politics, America and the war on terror with the people he meets along the way.
Review: Documentary filmmaker Spurlock made an impression with the entertaining expose of the American diet in Super Size Me where he went on a 30-day McDonald's binge that nearly killed him. With his latest effort, he once again throws himself in harm's way, taking a trip to a dozen Middle East countries ranging from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Pakistan and even Afghanistan in search of the elusive terrorist leader. What starts off as silly comic schlock - including a video-game rendition of Spurlock fighting Bin Laden, Mortal Kombat-style - soon becomes a broader agenda: to get some understanding as to the Arab perceptions on Bin Laden, the War on Terror, America and their own governments. Despite its title, the movie really wants to lift the veil of behind mainstream perceptions of the Arab world, to show that despite cultural differences, these men and women really only want to live in peace, make sure their kids get a proper education and - for some - have some quiet time to watch some American wrestling. It's a worthy goal, entertainingly presented with the filmmakers hearts clearly on their sleeve. With repeated phrases in every country of "we like Americans, just not American foreign policy" and (sadly) hints only at more profound issues such as Palestinian's complaining that their cause has been used as an excuse for extremists' own agenda, the film rarely digs beyond the surface, despite some quick interviews with some local journalists and professors. Taking a hint from Michael Moore, Spurlock is as much part of the documentary as are his subjects, most of which are open, decent people - except perhaps the Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem; always trying to goad a reaction from the people he meets, Spurlock finally gets one from the most unlikely source, as they shove him and pelt him with verbal abuse. There's some other silliness, of course, like when Spurlock goes on a defensive training course before his trip, tries out a rocket launcher (screaming out "that's so cool!") or taking an armored expedition in Afghanistan to visit the cave where Bin Laden allegedly was hiding out, calling out for the terrorist to come out. Some will criticize this effort as edutainment, an low-brow Arab primer for the mainstream and miss the main point of the film - much like Everyman Spurlock, this is for general consumption, for those of us whose only impressions of Middle Eastern culture is the combat footage on CNN or the extremists chanting "death to America!". For those viewers, this will be an eye-opening look at the Arab people, far removed from the expectations set by Western media. And for that, at least, Where in the World...? is worth watching with family, friends and neighbors.
Documentary: 7/10

Invisible Target (2007)
Starring: Nicholas Tse, Jaycee Fong, Jacky Wu
Director: Benny Chan
Plot: Three young police detectives with different motives to bring a vicious band of thieves to justice team up and go rogue, but their quarry is far from easy to catch.
Review: Hong Kong cinema is in a clear funk - oh, the modern cinematic techniques and decent production values do apply, but it's clear that there are no new ideas to be had, and that all these movies are simply repeating the tried-and-tired formula. This is particularly true with Invisible Target, a film that aims to be a macho action flick worthy of both Hollywood and Hong Kong, yet feels too familiar despite providing the type of thrills that are getting rarer from HK productions. On the plus side, the film is a clear throwback to the region's silver age, taking every opportunity to provide action sequences that harkens back to better films from Police Story to Infernal Affairs. Though there's very little originality to be had it's a nice throwback to the stunt-heavy work of the past, delivering some solid martial arts choreography, spectacular explosions and some fine-looking set pieces (including a fight that quite literally takes place in fire, a kinetic chase over Kowloon rooftops and a showdown in a police station) - and true to 80's form, the actors actually do their own painful stunts. Now if only there was a little less broken glass to break the monotony: seems every time someone gets hit, they manage to drive through a pane of glass... Veteran action director Chan (Gen-X Cops, New Police Story) actually seems to be plundering his own cops & robber films, with the classic themes of brotherhood and loyalty thrown in, just in case you hadn't realized that the movie was an '80s homage. Giving the young cops a brief sob-story background doesn't much do for the audience, and the camaraderie between the three heroes is ill-defined though the young actors are decent enough. The real problem is that no HK thriller should clock at over 2 hours, as this one does - the pacing suffers and the plodding melodrama make one wonder what the whole point of it is. Clearly, a lot of effort, money and stunt time went into Invisible Target and as an action showpiece it's quite entertaining - with some effort on the script, this could have really stood out.
Entertainment: 6/10

*Classic* Paths of Glory (1957)
Starring: Kirk Douglas, Ralph Meeker, Adolphe Menjou
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Plot: To cover his own faults after a failed attack on an impregnable German position during World War I, a French general demands the court-martial of three men - randomly chosen - for cowardly conduct.
Review: Based on the novel by Humphrey Cobb and (not-unexpectedly) banned in France until the 1970's, the searing Paths of Glory is unanimously accepted as one of the best anti-war films ever made, and for good reason. A prelude of sorts to Dr. Strangelove, legendary director Kubrick (who went on to do 2001: A Space Odyssey and Spartacus) followed-up The Killing with this, his first major studio effort and one that firmly put his name on the map. Touching on themes of courage and loyalty in wartime, the story is split into two main parts. The first half of the film is a harrowing depiction of the horrors and carnage of World War I's trench warfare. With production values that bellie its modest budget, impressive tracking shots, crisp B&W cinematography and efficient visual narration, the film brilliantly presents the stark contrast between the troops and their superiors: on one side, the soldiers' constant fear, dire living conditions and psychological breakdown, trapped in mud and death; on the other the officers' scheming for personal glory in their lavish palace headquarters, far removed from the reality of the War. The second half is the preparation to the trial, as the terrified scapegoats try to come to terms with their inevitable death by firing squad, and then the trial itself, a riveting sequence that's a mockery of justice. Apart from its technical expertise, where the film succeeds is in its humanity, ably represented by charismatic Hollywood leading man Douglas, here at the top of his form. If the characterizations of the supporting cast are rather minimal, in this case it dilutes them to their most most basic human core - for good and bad. Gripping and emotionally powerful, Paths of Glory is quite simply superb, straight-forward filmmaking that still enthralls will and whose condemnation of war will always be relevant.
Drama: 9/10

Direct Contact (2009)
Starring: Dolph Lundgren, Michael Pare
Director: Danny Lerner
Plot: An ex-Special Forces soldier is given a chance at freedom from a Russian prison if he can help rescue an American girl kidnapped by a local drug lord but soon realizes that things aren't as clear as they first appeared.
Review: Watching the generically-entitled action vehicle Direct Contact, one can't help but be amazed to see that some filmmakers are still doing cheapo B-movies like they did in the 1980's: get an Eastern European location where it's cheap to shoot then concoct a clichéd story filled with lame dialogue, plots, characters (luckily we can fast-forward these parts) and lots of low-grade pyrotechnics to keep its very addled late-night-watching audience entertained. The special effects team (those guys who rigged all the multitudinous explosions of cars, trucks, buildings, and one body-sized squib) did a great job - there's more stuff blowing up here than in any six-pack of Norris or Seagal films. With all the efforts that went into the film, you'd think that they could have found some half-decent screenwriters to make it more palatable. As it is, despite the many action scenes and the constant chasing around of cars, humvees, helicopters and trains, none of it is even remotely thrilling, and not for the lack of trying. Perhaps director Lerner, who's been doing this type of action vehicles for ages (many with Lundgren), should give it a rest, or at least get some lessons on directing better, tighter action sequences. Oh, Lundgren is still half-decent, but then he isn't asked to do any more than he's been doing for the last twenty-odd years; same goes for Pare whose made a career of playing boring villains for these direct-to-video flicks. Direct Contact has been hailed as an above-average effort for Lundgren and company, a return to form for the veteran action lead; sadly, this probably has more to do on how bad the rest of his oeuvre is than on how effective this one was.
Entertainment: 4/10

The City of Violence (South Korea - 2006)
Starring: Doo-hong Jung, Kil-Kang Ahn, Seung-wan Ryoo
Director: Seung-wan Ryoo
Plot: Returning to his hometown to attend a friend's funeral, a detective starts to investigate the murder and soon uncovers a connection with another childhood friend and his growing criminal activities.
Review: A throwback to the macho, action-packed films of the 70's and '80's with a very Korean polish, The City of Violence doesn't beat around the bush - it's exciting, bold and kicks a lot of butt. There are some terrific fight scenes, sword fights and bone-crunching battles pitting two against hundreds in what harkens back to Hong Kong's golden age with dizzying martial arts choreography that's impressive across the board. Highlights include a brawl straight out of The Warriors and a climactic confrontation through a myriad of toughs through a traditional restaurant-cum-fortress. There's a decent flashback sub-plot about the protagonists and their teen-age years, giving the otherwise straight-forward crime drama some necessary exposition beyond the usual fighting. Here charismatic actor \ director Ryoo shows off some solid storytelling filled with one-scene homage to past thrillers and dollops of humor along with his solid grasp of the action, propelling the film from one confrontation to another. Of course, it also helps that the slick esthetics common to Korean mainstream cinema are evident throughout, with excellent visuals and production values. Sure, the character development is somewhat non-existent and the acting settles for some grand theatrics, especially from the villain of the piece but it's part of the fun. So fans of action films rejoice - The City of Violence lives up to its name as superior action entertainment.
Entertainment: 7/10

Man on Wire (2008)
Starring: Philippe Petit
Director: James Marsh
Plot: Documentary on Frenchman Philippe Petit's preparations to his daring, historical 45 minute tightrope walk between the World Trade Center Towers in New York in the 1970's dubbed "the artistic crime of the century".
Review: Winner of the 2008 Oscar for Best Documentary, Man on Wire's premise may not seem to have enough substance to carry a whole 90-minute feature, but don't be mistaken - it's a suspenseful, engaging doc that will make you hunger for more. Using stock footage, home movies, interviews with the accomplices and dramatic recreations, the film plays out like a crime caper, but one that's better than any bank heist thriller Hollywood could have imagined. It's a tale about doing something extraordinary with daring, invention and courage bound with a naiveté, a conspiracy not to do terror or commit a crime, but to do something nobody else would dream of doing. After the collapse of the towers on 9/11, the subject matter is, perhaps, an homage to the great New York landmarks, to what it represented to a select few. At the center, of course, is Philippe, and it's clear the filmmakers obviously love this character - even after 35 years, he remains boundlessly energetic and charismatic, a fabulous story-teller and a dreamer ... one can easily see how in his younger years his ambitions could become so contagious, how he could compel so many people to help him realize his dream by the power of his personality alone. The biggest question, of course, is why? Why do it? Just like people climbing Mount Everest would say "because it's there" perhaps Petit saw it as a challenge, or as a personal need to confront the impossible. No matter, the event made him an instant celebrity, but the catharsis of accomplishment also meant that the companions' relationships could never go back to what it once was, and the friends split apart. In a final note, Philippe says he doesn't look back, but it's a sad end to a fantastic achievement. Fascinating, enthralling, suspenseful and all true, Man on Wire is an exhilarating documentary of a beautiful, once-in-a-lifetime event that should bring a sense of wonder to everyone.
Documentary: 8/10

Appleseed: Ex Machina (Japan - 2007)
Starring: Ai Kobayashi, Jurota Kosugi
Director: Shinji Aramaki
Plot: In a future utopia where humans, cyborgs and engineered beings co-exist, three battle-hardened Special Forces officers must face down a cyber-terrorist plot that has put most of the world's inhabitants under its destructive control.
Review: Based on the manga from renown creator Shirow Masamune, Ex Machina is a follow-up to the 2003 CGI Appleseed, introducing a new storyline, better action and more impressive animation. The story involving politics, cyber-terrorism and even some awkward emotional moments involving clones (or bioroids) starts off well but devolves in the last act to typical anime fluff, never quite following up on the potential of its set-up. But whereas the Ghost in the Shell sequels pertain to be more cerebral (but really are just more dull), the Appleseed films stick to the summer blockbuster expectations of sentimental human drama, babes with guns, explosions, and lots of mechanized mayhem - and in this it works wonders, with the script engaging enough to keep us focused during the downtime between the kinetically executed action set pieces. Director Aramaki returns, but the fingerprints of producer John Woo are evident, from the intense gunfights to the inevitable flight of doves. But the real highlight is the stylish motion-capture computer animation; it looks like a mix of airbrushed 2D models in a 3D world, but the accurate human movements of the models makes it feel more real than in just about any CGI flick out there. And the structures, armored suits, vehicles et al look splendid, too. A visually impressive, entertaining anime / sci-fi / action flick. Ex Machina comes close to being great, only missing a more satisfying final act. Still, fun stuff that's worth repeat viewing.
Entertainment: 7/10

*Classic* The Godfather, Part II (1974)
Starring: Al Pacino, Robert Duvall, Robert De Niro
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Plot: Having taken the reigns from his dying father in the 1950's, a Mafia boss expands his empire to Cuba to the detriment of his family and his own soul.
Review: Continuing in the great tradition of its Oscar-winning predecessor and itself winning Best Picture, the acclaimed sequel Godfather II surprised just about everyone by keeping the same level of quality in its storytelling, production values, and performances. Not only does it expand the original story from Mario Puzo's best-selling novel, but it's even more sweeping in scope. The film opens with an extended flashback to the beginnings of the family business, with a superb DeNiro (in one of his first roles, one that led to an Academy Award) as the young Don Corleone. It's a fantastic slice of Americana, with the superb production values truly giving a feel for early 20th century New York and specifically Little Italy. As we move forward to the events following The Godfather, we realize that this is not only a tale of the Mafia in America but one of America itself as well, one involving Cuban casinos, sibling revenge and the violent realities of living a life of crime, elevating the crime drama to almost mythical proportions. The script provides some intimate moments and stirring drama along with the intense characterizations, which provides a strong audience connection to this family. The feelings of loss and betrayal, when they come, are all the more powerful for having witnessed the bizarre code of fealty that has led many of them to self-destruction - and we can't help but be fascinated at their spiral into damnation. Much of the success of the film comes from the masterful direction by returning helmer Coppola (Apocalypse Now) easily one of the most influential Hollywood filmmakers of the 1970's. Most of the original's cast also returns and though they are all solid in their roles this is really Pacino's film, definitely at his peak in a meaty, chilling, career-making role. Intense, thrilling, with a tragic ending that is unforgettable, The Godfather Part II is what every sequel should be - more, it's classic American cinema in its own right.
Drama: 10/10

Underworld: Rise of the Lycans (2009)
Starring: Michael Sheen, Bill Nighy, Rhona Mitra
Director: Patrick Tatopoulos
Plot: Created to serve a clan of aristocratic vampires and kept in chains inside their castle, a human-werewolf leads them to rise up against their masters.
Review: A Middle-Ages-set prequel to the modern action fantasy series Underworld: Rise of the Lycans fleshes out the story told in flashback in the first film. This time, the werewolves take front seat, as does another doomed Romeo & Juliette romance, and it's actually (slightly) better than the previous installments. Special-effects maven-turned-director Tatopoulos actually does a pretty good job helming his first project, wisely steering away from The Matrix-type slow-mo action used by director (and now producer) Len Wiseman and concentrating on keeping the straightforward, clichéd story of forbidden love and battle for freedom chugging along. The production values are still high for this sort of fare especially the castle settings, and the special effects involving numerous werewolves are good enough. Fans of bloody fantasy mayhem will have a blast at the final vampire / werewolf confrontation, and there's some energy to the proceedings even if it feels rather familiar and un-inspired. The stylishness is toned down a bit giving way to a better pacing and a half-baked tale of the origin of the werewolf clan and their uprising - it's still rather banal and predictable, but at least it keep audience interest. A large part of that is thanks to the leads; for one, there's weirdly cast dramatic-actor Sheen who tries his hardest to make us forget his previous tie-and-suit roles with a wild-eyed, tussled hair and bare-chested look; Mitra playing both the damsel in distress and kick-ass vampire love interest; and returning, over-the-top thesp Nighy as the vampire patriarch. Not great stuff, perhaps, but a decent time-waster.
Entertainment: 5/10

Kiki's Delivery Service (Japan - 1989)
Voices: Kirsten Dunst, Phil Hartman
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Plot: An enterprising 13-year-old witch decides to leave her home to do her one-year apprenticeship in a seaside town, where she opens a courier service using her flying broom.
Review: A somewhat meandering tale of one girl-witch finding her place in the world, Kiki's Delivery Service is not as full of imaginative ideas, dark fantasy elements or that sense of wonder that we're used to seeing from creator / director Miyazaki (Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke) but it has an easy-going, deliberate pacing that ably captures the routine of everyday life. What has not changed is the superb classic animation, one filled with postcard-worthy backgrounds of the seaside town, as well as the director's careful attention to good old-fashioned narrative. Miyazaki is also a master at creating new worlds that make you feel right at home, and this city out of time is indeed a comfortable place. A nice change is that there is little in the sense of conflict, with no villains or scary moments to be had, if it's not of taking that big first step away from home. This is really just a coming-of-age story, a slice-of-life tale of how one little girl's good attitude and big heart ingratiates her to those around her. It may be a little too talky for some, and younger kids will be easily distracted, but there are a few thrilling sequences to shake things up on occasion. The climactic act of saving the boyfriend in distress whose being dragged away by a dirigible is a nice role-reversal, too. As for Kiki herself (as voiced by Kirsten Dunst in the American dub), she's a great character and strong pre-teen role model - she's vivacious, open, resourceful, determined and above all independent. Her familiar Gigi the cat provides much (if not all) of the comic relief, and he's pure trademark Miyazaki. In the end, Kiki's Delivery Service is slow going for younger kids, but pre-teens might be better able to click with the main character and situations. A nice, light drama that's a nice change of pace from more familiar family fare.
Entertainment: 6/10

A Prairie Home Companion (2006)
Starring: Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin, Garrison Keillor, Woody Harrelson, Tommy Lee Jones, Kevin Kline, Lindsay Lohan
Director: Robert Altman
Plot: As the last episode of a live radio variety show is being broadcast, the artists and technical staff reminisce backstage.
Review: Based on Garrison Keillor's own long-running "down home"-style radio show, A Prairie Home Companion is a fictional swansong to his unabashedly old-fashioned program (the real one is still going strong). As written by Keillor himself, the film brings the show to life and is a perfect homage to his special blend of wit and story-telling, a surprisingly nostalgic, light-hearted and easy-going affair that is rare in this day and age of multiplex entertainment. There's no real story here, apart from the long-standing camaraderie of the troupe and their presenting the last hurrah live in front of a studio audience, with songs, jokes and anecdotes the camera following their amusing performances on stage and their bittersweet tales in the dressing rooms. Best known for his brainy, social comedies like MASH and The Player, this was legendary director Altman's last film and his mastery at working with large casts and inter-twined stories - as is his love for his actors and characters - is clearly evident and as light-footed as ever. And what an ensemble cast it is - there's Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin as a singing sister act with their own family issues, John C. Reilly and Woody Harrelson as guitar-stringing cowboy comedians whose bad jokes are full of innuendo, Kevin Kline as a gumshoe stuck in a film noire mode, Lindsay Lohan in a performance that's actually good, Tommy Lee Jones, and more. The mood and pace isn't for everyone, and a ghostly entity that hovers over the playhouse seems misplaced - even if it's part of the mix of "fictional" characters that reside around the show - but for everyone ready for a change of pace, this is a treat. Even as the credits roll, A Prairie Home Companion lingers in the mind as an affectionate celebration of collaboration and home-grown talent.
Entertainment / Drama: 8/10

Punisher: War Zone (2008)
Starring: Ray Stevenson, Dominic West
Director: Lexi Alexander
Plot: An ex-cop-turned-vigilante waging a one-man war on New York's mafia becomes the target of a ruthless mob boss looking for revenge on the man who left him horribly disfigured.
Review: Hollywood's been trying to get this dark, violent Marvel character properly on screen since 1989's horrid effort starring Dolph Lundgren, rebooting in 2004 with The Punisher and now, just a scant few years later, rebooting again with War Zone. Clearly, Hollywood should give the guy a rest. It's a shame, really, because making a movie out of the simple, straight-forward anti-hero should have been an easy undertaking: bad-ass uses a plethora of weapons to eradicate the criminal element. Period. Perhaps that's the stumbling block - he's too iconic and one-dimensional, and it's hard for writers not to add some sentimentality to the character to try to get audiences to connect to him. It doesn't help that he's an unstoppable killing machine in the two main action sequences that bookend the film and yet manages to get caught off-guard every time it suits the plot. Nor does the horrible dialogue help any. Worse, it's all amateurishly directed, a fact glossed over by the slick cinematography and editing, creating a world of shadow and brightly colored neon lights. It's sad to think that helmer Alexander actually made his mark with the much more engaging action / drama Green Street Hooligans - with a bit more of that movie's grittiness and panache and less of this one's over-stylized, cartoon approach, it could have been a mildly successful comic-book adaptation. As it stands, much of the banal action - a flurry of uninteresting firefights - and situations feel like a throwback to the low-budget efforts of the 80's, with the added benefit of some outrageous brutality. Straight out of casting as a messed-up Roman soldier in HBO's Rome, Stevenson's Punisher is all pent-up tension and cold stoicism, and he does look the part. The disfigured Jigsaw and his psychopath brother are plainly boring villains, even if West and company play them as completely over-the-top. War Zone is just plain bad, but it's the kind of bad that one can enjoy laughing at, when it's not laughing at itself.
Entertainment: 3/10

Lilo & Stitch 2: Stitch Has a Glitch (2005)
Starring: Tia Carrere, Dakota Fanning, Jason Scott Lee
Directors: Anthony Leondis, Michael LaBash
Plot: An unruly alien gets worried after prophetic visions that he will go on a rampage and hurt the Hawaiian family that has invited them into their lives.
Review: The straight-to-DVD sequel Lilo & Stitch 2 has many of the elements of its masterful theatrical precursor - the same characters, comparable themes, similar animation style and less-known Elvis songs - but somehow misses the mark. The good part is that there's a couple of laughs in the interaction between Lilo & Stitch, and the bond is still well in place. Also, at just barely over an hour, the film never gets boring even if the jokes are uneven and the drama pretty much focused on the young Lilo making it to her hula competition - not quite an attention grabber - and Stitch's programming getting faulty. The real downside is that the originality, verve and wit of the first film - ingredients that made it just as enjoyable to adults as it was to kids - has been abandoned for depressingly familiar kiddie-only fare. Still, as an on-the-cheap installment, Lilo & Stitch 2 is good enough to merit a view for anyone with small kids. Too bad us parents don't get a second helping of the original.
Entertainment: 5/10

*Classic* Night and Fog (Nuit et Brouillard) (France - 1955)
Narrator: Michel Bouquet
Director: Alain Resnais
Plot: A depiciton of the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps, shot ten years after the Liberation of 1945.
Review: Though many a film has been made on the Holocaust, the French essay Night and Fog is perhaps its most impressive and - at a brief 31 minutes - it is also startlingly efficient. The film relies on a stark contrast between the color footage taken in 1955 of the abandoned camps and the almost postcard-like stillness versus the horrific black-and-white newsreels, haunting stills and Nazi footage of rampant malnutrition, torture and death. The viewer isn't given time to put up any defenses as these scenes of sickening violence and brutality churn on, from the mountains of women's hair warehoused to be used as cloth, to the mutilated corpses piled high, as we are calmly told of the SS' ingenious depravity in first de-humanizing its victims and finally in exterminating them. The camps included inmates from 22 nations, from all religions, political parties and classes, and none were spared. Prior to his first success as a filmmaker with Hiroshima Mon Amour, noted French director Resnais was a short-subject documentarist, and none of his early pieces are as relevant or powerful as this, his reflections on the Holocaust. His screenwriter was novelist Jean Cayrol, a man who had actually been imprisoned in one of these camps, and his lyrical, dense, condemning text along with the horrific imagery speaks volumes of a true Hell of man's making. Even with the 60 years of documentaries and dramatizations that have come out from the Holocaust - from Shoah to Schindler's List - this remains one of the most powerful indictments of the Nazi atrocities perhaps because it doesn't pretend to understand or explain the reasons behind the genocide, or try to view events through the eyes of its victims. Instead, it is an unsentimental, almost clinical look at life in the camps with the narrator calmly, matter-of-factly pointing out all the otherwise indescribable atrocities that went on. A reflective, harrowing journey, Night and Fog is an unforgettable piece of filmmaking, lest we ever forget the Man's capability for inhumanity towards one another.
Documentary: 9/10 

Don't forget to check out the Video Review Library page for older reviews!

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