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A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001)
Starring: Haley Joel Osment, Jude Law, Frances O'Connor
Director: Steven Spielberg
Plot: A boy-robot, an almost perfect replica, is programmed to love like a real boy, but when his foster parents desert him he goes on a quest through a bleak future to find an imaginary fairy that can turn him into the real thing.
Review: A.I. has been hailed as an ambitious undertaking, a combination of Kubrick's (2001: A Space Odyssey, Eyes Wide Shut) cold analytical style and Spielberg's (E.T., Close Encounters) emotional, optimistic fantasies. The film sets up mood and atmosphere with a slow, deliberate pace and, helped by the careful cinematography, incredible special effects, and lavish sets, takes you into a tantalizing world, yet keeps it all strangely distant. Unfortunately, the story sets its sights high, putting forward important questions but never fulfilling its promise of scratching past the surface of these issues. The film is made up of three very distinct acts. The first encapsulates the story on which the film is based on, Brian Aldiss' "Supertoys Last All Summer Long", and is closest to revealing the dark themes of the late Kubrick by bringing up moral and ethical questions, yet toned down with Spielberg's usual melodramatic touches. The second proceeds like a quest, something between Pinocchio and a dark Wizard of Oz, as the young mecha protagonist tries to find the means to become human in a world that fears and hates who he is. Here again, there are some traces of Kubrick's cynical view of mankind, showing us a fair where robots are tortured in front of screaming masses, or Rouge City, a high-tech Red District where humanity gets lost in the sexually impersonal. The final section however is pure Spielberg, changing the narrative gears to a childhood feel-good fantasy full of marmy sentimentality. The real disappointment is that the film sets itself up for a grand exploration of ethical and emotional questions of artificial intelligence, but ultimately fails to address them, falling back on the fantastic to tie all its emotional and intellectual ends. Taken as an adult fairy-tale, however, one can't fault Spielberg's approach, his need to end on a high note leaving us impressed by the audacity and imagination on display. Still, one can't help but feel cheated that the film has avoided its own ambitions, ending with a moral story more than a tad simplistic, its many interesting points unrealized. The young Osment makes the character of the child-robot believable, at times humanly vulnerable and at others as blissfully ignorant and wooden as any machine. The other real standout is Jude Law, brilliant, energetic and appropriately stoic as a charming male sex-bot gone rogue. Spielberg is a master storyteller and there is no doubt that A.I. is constantly engaging and extremely well done, but one can't help but wonder what Kubrick really had in mind for the material.
Entertainment/Drama: 7/10

About a Boy (2002)
Starring: Hugh Grant, Nicholas Hoult, Toni Collette
Directors: Chris Weitz, Paul Weitz
Plot: Trying to score dates with single mothers, a womanizing 38-year old British bachelor is caught in his own lies and is blackmailed into spending time with an odd, fatherless 12-year old boy.
Review: About a Boy is a different sort of animal than what people might expect from a Hugh Grant film, and it's all the better for it. Starting off with a hilarious characterization of its protagonist, the film is an engaging tale of an odd kinship that never falters thanks to a great, witty script that captures the essence of the original novel by Nick Hornby (the author of another great novel-turned-film, High Fidelity) without falling into the trap of easy sentimentality. The relationship between the two "boys", the immature Grant and the 12-year-old social pariah, avoids the usual melodrama and clichés, feeling completely natural and all the more endearing for it. Sure, the major plot points are mostly predictable, ending with Grant's character's eventual redemption thanks to his true friendship with the boy, but that's not the point; it's the situations, character development and terrific dialogue that makes it worth the trip. It's here that the directors, the Weitz brothers, redeem themselves after the terrible Down to Earth and prove that their sensibility for their characters and their finding humor in the most embarrassing situations so well shown in American Pie was not a fluke. What's really hilarious, though, is getting in on what these two characters are actually thinking about in a given moment, a voiced narrative that offers up some of Hornby's most clever (and accurate) statements. Grant, playing a role that he's always seemed suited for, doesn't stretch his acting chops, but he is as charming as ever; a little older, perhaps, but well-suited as the man who, against Milton's statement, thinks he really is "an island". Hoult, as the cynical young one, manages to make his performance both bizarre, smart, and naive at the same time. The supporting cast, led by Collette as Hoult's hippie mother, is excellent never over-playing the obviously eccentric parts and making them feel like real people. All told, About a Boy is a surprisingly engaging, well-done dramatic comedy that injects new blood in a tired genre, and one that is definitely worth catching in theaters.
Comedy / Drama: 8/10

The Abyss (1989)
Starring: Ed Harris, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio
Director: James Cameron
Plot: A crew of a mobile deep underwater oil rig is forced to help in the rescue of a drowned nuclear submarine and soon discover that they are not alone in the deep-ocean. 
Review: With The Abyss, director James Cameron (Aliens, Terminator 2) has once again brought to the screen a movie experience that is eminently watchable, fascinating, intelligent, suspenseful, and full of great characters, a film that never loses its momentum during its almost three hour run-time. The underwater locale makes for some interesting, original events and the attention to detail is terrific, the camera capturing the claustrophobia and the intimacy of the confined quarters superbly. The script is interesting and avoids most clichés, and the blend of edge-of-your-seat suspense and action is non-stop. Unfortunately, the Close Encounters-type creature effects are not up to par with the rest of the film, and the "gee-whiz" type ending is a bit of a let-down with its simplistic moral closure. Despite this, The Abyss is an excellent sci-fi thriller, one that proves once again that a great action movie does not have to rely on fights and explosions to be successful. Note: the extended version is the one to watch, as it includes an important sub-plot - without it the ending really makes no sense, as reflected in the theatrical version.
Entertainment: 9/10

The Accidental Spy (Hong Kong - 2001)
Starring: Jackie Chan, Vivian Hsu, Kim Min 
Director: Teddy Chen
Plot: After foiling a robbery, an orphaned salesman discovers his father is actually a dying North Korean spy who sends him on a chase to recover a deadly case of anthrax-like virus.
Review: There's a definite sense of fun in The Accidental Spy, superstar Chan's latest Hong Kong vehicle, but it does show how recent HK productions are aiming squarely at the Western market. Though its star is showing signs of age, Chan is still quite nimble, with the usual impressive acrobatics and well-choreographed fight sequences in evidence, with a good action-to-plot ratio, but one focusing more on the stunts than on the fighting. The story is rather typical Chan fare, mixing adventure with broad comedy antics, with the usual stereotypes and rather silly "thriller" situations. Showcasing its exotic Istanbul locations, the slick production values are evidently made to compete against American features, and some adept filmmaking from director Chen (Purple Storm, Downtown Torpedoes) makes this quite watchable as an amusing piece of fluff. One definite highlight is an extended sequence where Chan is chased through a Turkish bath and ends up streaking naked through a large market all the while battling the villains pursuing him and covering up his privates with any prop that's at hand - only Jackie Chan could get away with this! Unfortunately, the film isn't satisfied with a climax to its story, it has to add a completely unrelated (and rather ridiculous) 20 minute Speed-like sequence with a burning tanker truck that drags on a bit too long. To be fair, though, it's all well done and it's one of Chan's more entertaining films of the last few years. The Accidental Spy may not be as impressive as his classic works such as Drunken Master II or Project A, but it's got definite appeal for all action and adventure fans.
Entertainment: 6/10

Aces Go Places (Hong Kong - 1982)
Starring: Sam Hui, Carl Mak, Sylvia Chang
Director: Eric Tsang
Plot: A famed jewel thief must help a blundering Chinese / New York cop and his assistant in retrieving a stash of diamonds and capturing another, more notorious thief.
Review: Aces Go Places is the obvious inspiration for many of the comedy-action films that came in the '80s and early '90s, including many of the Jackie Chan flicks. The over-the-top acting, silly situations, and foolish characters has its charm and there are some genuinely funny moments. It seems, though, that the film tries to push the spy spoof a little too hard in the first 15 minutes and the ideas dry up quickly after that, ending up mixing genres and styles to make for it. The occasional misogynistic comedy is in poor taste and won't sit well with North American audiences. Still, there's enough creative ideas and goofy excitement to fill a few films, and a few good action sequences and an explosive ending make up for the otherwise uneven pacing of the film. Entertaining for those who like a lot of slapstick with their action.
Entertainment: 5/10

Aces Go Places 2 (Hong Kong - 1982)
Starring: Sam Hui, Karl Maka, Sylvia Chang
Director: Eric Tsang
Plot: An expert thief is forced to re-team with a bumbling cop to retrieve stolen diamonds before he gets killed by Hong Kong gangsters or a bunch of US criminals using robot assassins.
Review: The second entry in this popular series, Aces Go Places 2 doesn't change the successful formula of its predecessor. The first and last twenty minutes of the film are full of imaginative and impressive-looking car stunts, motorcycle stunts and general, improbable mayhem all done in the spirit of getting a "wow" and a laugh. The middle forty minutes seems to be mostly filler, though - it's occasionally amusing, but the buddy antics between the two heroes does become a tad tedious and repetitious, with the comic plotting falling into the silly and even juvenile. The fact that much of it seems to be an amalgam of skits doesn't help, either. Still, the paper-thin plot is really there just an excuse for slapstick laughs, non-stop action, and a bevy of gadgets. With its blend of physical comedy and imaginative stunts, Aces Go Places 2 is an entertaining bit of fluff.
Entertainment: 6/10

Aces Go Places 3: Our Man From Bond Street (Hong Kong - 1984)
Starring: Sam Hui, Karl Maka, Sylvia Chang
Director: Tsui Hark
Plot: A jewel thief is duped into stealing the Crown Jewels from heavily guarded locations in Hong Kong and must clear his name with the help of his police buddy. 
Review: Another installment in the classic series, Aces Go Places 3 provides more of the same as the previous installments, that is zany action sequences tied together by comic skits bonding the three main characters together. This time around the crew is spoofing the James Bond series not only with the typical gadgets and caricatures, but with some cameo appearances by recognizable actors as well such as Peter Graves and Richard Kiel. Director Hark's (The Lovers, Peking Opera Blues) touches are evident here and there, but apart from the intro sequence and two entertaining robberies, most of film only provides mild chuckles and minor thrills. The stunts are still impressive for the most part, but the use of scale models, extensive blue-screen special effects (which look mighty crude these days) and an inconsistent pacing mars the proceedings. The slapstick comedy is also hit-and-miss - there are some amusing moments, but it just seems repetitive towards the end. Still, though it may not be up to the previous installments, but Aces Go Places 3 is still an entertaining outing for fans of the genre.
Entertainment: 5/10

Adaptation (2002)
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper
Director: Spike Jonze
Plot: A lovelorn screenwriter has a frustrating time adapting a non-fiction book about a plant thief and the New Yorker journalist who makes him the focus of her articles.
Review: Adaptation is easily one of the more unpredictable films in recent memory because, just like director Jonze's other association with writer Kaufman Being John Malkovich, it just doesn't play by Hollywood rules. And it defies proper review. The story is supposed to be about the non-fiction tale of "The Orchid Thief", but turns to real-life screenwriter Charlie Kaufman's own attempt to bring Susan Orlean's book to the screen. In fact, there are some passages straight out from the book that do make it into the movie, along with others read out loud. Talking about real characters and situations, one would expect the story to follow some sort of truth, but the script seems to have ended with a life of its own and one quickly discovers that the end result has left the book behind and taken another path completely. It becomes more about Kaufman fighting his demons, about the bond between journalist Orlean and her subject (an imaginary sequence, one must think, that's not in the book) and creating a fantasy about the real people surrounding the story than any kind of real adaptation. With moments including drama, self-deprecating comedy, and the occasional stab at the movie industry, the movie may flirt with parody but always stays clear of it. Looking at it at face value, this is an exploration on the difficulty of grabbing the essence of a story, of writing, and of the self-reflexive nature of being a screenwriter. Or not; everyone might get something different from watching the film unfold, and the filmmakers aren't saying. Even more surprising, the last half hour veers into territory that verges on grand delusion. So where does fiction end and reality begin? Who knows, but that's nowhere near being the point. Kaufman has come out as being one of the strangest and most daring talents, and his co-conspirator Jonze (himself a maverick) knows just how to make a difficult script come off to perfection. It also helps that the three leads are terrific: Cage especially proves his acting mettle with a great dual portrayal of twin brothers, Streep does another fine, believable role, and Cooper (as the title character) worthily merits his Supporting Actor Oscar. One must also tip the hat to author Orlean who accepted to go along with such a fabulating script! Being a bit strange and unexpected, Adaptation will leave some people scratching their heads, but those willing to give it a chance will be amazed by the juicy and engaging narrative.
Drama / Entertainment: 8/10

The Addams Family (1991)
Starring: Anjelica Huston, Raul Julia, Christopher Lloyd
Director: Barry Sonnenfeld
Plot: Con artists plan to swindle a ghoulish, eccentric family of their fortune by staging the return of a long-lost older brother into their midsts.
Review: A lavish modern remake of the popular 60's TV comedy series, itself based on older Charles Addams comic strips, The Addams Family is a delicious, ghoulish delight for fans new and old. In his directorial debut, Sonnenfeld (as he does in Get Shorty and Men In Black) shows just the right ability and timing to make the high-concept premise work. There's a finesse and cleverness to his take and, though many of the beloved aspects that made the show a success return, he knows how to update the material to best effect, managing to provide the requisite laughs along with a truly affectionate portrayal of this strange family. Helping define the film, the production has a stylish visual look that's like the ultimate Halloween Haunted House with lots of imaginative, well realized gothic detail. Also on display are some targeted effects, terrific costumes and make-up work that work to the film's benefit - who can forget Thing, the bodiless hand that remains the family's most faithful companion? Though it involves strange and oddly macabre things, there's little no blood to be seen (save for a fake geyser or two in the kid's staging of Shakespeare), and most of the cartoon violence is left off-screen making this a family-friendly film even for youngsters. The plot itself is amusing, but it's the gags, the witty comebacks and fabulous cast that really makes this affair so special. Huston and the late Julia make a hilarious pair, and the rest of the cast is well chosen, too, but it's the young Christina Ricci, as the cold but sharp daughter, who's the real standout. In the end, The Addams Family bucks the trend of many failed TV-to-feature exercises and, thanks to a great cast and smart creative choices, makes for a solid success that's just plain fun to watch.
Entertainment: 8/10

The Adjuster (1992)
Starring: Elias Koteas, Arsinee Khanjian, Maury Chaykin
Director: Atom Egoyan
Review: Director Egoyan (Exotica, The Sweet Hereafter) has always created films for a more literate and patient audience, and The Adjuster is no exception. Interesting, weird, bizarrely engaging, very well-shot and intricately scripted, this is another careful meditation on relationships, sex, and the underbelly of our own social mores. Working on the theme of "adjustment", both financial, social, and psychological, this is a story driven by lust, fear, despair and voyeurism. Egoyan's body of work shows an ability to combine different plots into a whole while filling every scene with subtext and believable, flawed people all the while keeping things intimate. Indeed, the story is enlivened by some eccentric characters, brought to life by a solid cast, who's actions are, at first, shockingly bizarre, until the story unfolds or the camera zooms out and even the most surreal scene starts to make sense. Some may be put off by the moments that flirt with the overly "artsy" style of independent filmmakers, but the film also has its touches of humor, with the (admittedly heavy-handed) drama and insights into human nature keeping the narrative going. The script skirts with some profound questions, but ultimately not altogether successfully, with character motivations and development that is somewhat lacking. But though it lacks the finesse and subtlety of his later works, the dark rawness is at the same time much more provocative. Despite its flaws, The Adjuster is an interesting addition to a fine director's list of features.
Drama: 6/10

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1989)
Starring: John Neville, Eric Idle, Sarah Polley
Director: Terry Gilliam
Plot: An aging 18th-century adventurer goes off to some strange locales on and off Earth to find his lost companions, hoping to re-unite them all to stop the forces of a Turkish Sultan from destroying a poorly defended city.
Review: Exhilarating, bombastic, and positively over-the-top, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen has all the marks of its talented director Gilliam (Brazil, 12 Monkeys) such as incredibly lavish (and expensive) sets, intricate costumes, brilliant use of colors, and an imagination that knows no bounds. It's a tall tale of fantasy versus reason - from sailing to the moon and literally falling back to Earth, to being eaten Job-like by a whale, the old teammates are reunited one by one in a fashion that reminds one of the silliest, most heartfelt old fables, and it's hard not be taken away by the sheer inventiveness of it all. For sure, fans of Gilliam's excesses will be delighted, while others might come out of it perplexed, but it's a thoroughly enjoyable diversion, that's rich in texture and so full of surreal inventiveness that one can't help but be carried away. The decent (if slightly dated) special effects work makes the impossible look, well, still impossible perhaps, but definitely amusing. Though the pacing is unfortunately not quite consistent throughout, the directing is assured, and the ideas plentiful. The cast is also good, particularly Neville as the inimitable Baron while the rest is made up of familiar faces, from mad Moon-man Robin Williams and forging lord Oliver Reed to Uma Thurman as Venus herself, amongst others. Probably due to its irreverent attitude, manic narrative and obvious artistic sensibilities, the film was a disappointment at the box-office, but don't let that detract you: The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is a delightful fantasy / adventure for anyone who can suspend their sense of disbelief.
Entertainment: 7/10

The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle (2000)
Starring: Rene Russo, Robert De Niro, June Foray
Director: Des McAnuff
Plot: Two television characters from an old cartoon show get pulled into the present-day real world when their evil nemeses appear and try to enslave the American population with astoundingly bad TV programs.
Review: The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle continues the mostly ill-fated Hollywood trend of bringing old TV shows to life, as if the nostalgic content inherent in the characters is enough to bring in audiences. Truth be told, the story is actually quite entertaining, if predictable, and the outrageous, cartoon-like events all occur with a brisk sense of pacing. Also diverging from most recent popular comedies, the humor is clean and, though seemingly aimed at children because of the animated characters, a bit more mature and clever making more popular to adults. The problem is that it doesn't try to reach more than it could, and from a brilliant, funny start it mostly coasts on comedy and slapstick most audiences have already experienced. The cast, though physically perfect for their roles (Russo and De Niro especially), doesn't really leave anything special to their roles. Still, thanks to an intelligent script, good jokes, a zany cast and some occasionally quite imaginative sequences, The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle is entertaining for audiences with a "different" sense of humor.
Comedy: 6/10

The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl in 3-D (2005)
Starring: Cayden Boyd, Taylor Lautner, Taylor Dooley
Director: Robert Rodriguez
Plot: Finding solace in a make-believe world, a young boy is surprised when two of his imaginary super-hero friends come to life requesting his aid to save their fantasy land from destruction.
Review: A thoroughly zany, high-speed adventure into head-ache-inducing 3D, the Ritalin-exempt The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl in 3-D is fluffy family fare made for fast-food consumption. Though nowhere near as interesting as his family-friendly Spy Kids or his violent film noir Sin City, writer / director / editor / FX guru Rodriguez creates a thrilling, colorful paradise for kids, with its giant-sized cookie landscapes, jet-powered scooters, roller-coasters and volcanoes. The fully-computer-rendered fantasy world may not be up to the standards of the latest big-budget productions, but it provides lots of visual eye-candy, most of which was created purely for appreciation of the 3D effects. If the gimmick gets a bit tired after an hour of exploding rocks, flying fists, etc. at least young ones will find the situations amusing, the imagination clearly in ample supply and the young-character interactions enjoyable. The young teammates aren't exactly high-caliber actors, but Sharkboy and Lavagirl themselves are spirited enough to make do. An over-the-top George Lopez as the villainous Mr. Electricity steals the shows, however. If only the storytelling didn't falter mid-way through, or if there were a few clever jokes for adults, perhaps even parents could have been amused for the long run. But for its target audience (the under 10-year-olds) Sharkboy and Lavagirl should be a lively treat.
Entertainment: 4/10

The Adventures of Tintin (2011)
Voices: Jamie Bell, Andy Serkis, Daniel Craig
Director: Steven Spielberg
Plot: Stumbling onto a plot to uncover an age-old pirate's treasure, an intrepid reporter and his loyal dog embark on a series of globe-trotting adventures to get the hidden clues pointing to its location before a dastardly villain can reach it first.
Review: Based on the classic Belgian cartoons of the '50s - specifically two books The Crab with the Golden Claws and The Secret of the Unicorn - The Adventures of Tintin is a terrific, big-budget adaptation of Hergé's works. At the hands of two of the biggest names in movie entertainment, director Spielberg and producer Peter Jackson (both big fans), it's a wonder to behold. Going the motion-captured computer animated route seemed to have been the best way, too, to preserve the style of the original books while making it a very modern thrill ride. As put on the page by Dr. Who / Sherlock writer Steven Moffat and Hot Fuzz scribe Edgar Wright, the story takes some liberties with the stories but manages to impeccably capture the essence of the characters and the incredible sense of gee-whiz adventure, as it jumps around the world in search of items that will pierce the mystery of pirate's treasure. From the opening visual gag to the many references to other books in the series, from the retro look to the superb production design (and yes, we can talk about that in a CG film!) it all helps create a well-realized comic-book world that'll tickle long-time readers and impress newcomers. And while the plot is dense and complex for an animated film, the goal and narrative is always clear as the film moves from one carefully staged action set-piece (or broad comedy piece) to the next, this thanks in large part to Spielberg's keen cinematic sense. Yes, some of these latter are as over the top as only CG can, but they're oh so much fun, including a motorcycle chase through a crowded Arab market to chase a falcon, a flashback to a swashbuckling battle on the deck of a ship in flames and the finale, a fight between two dueling cargo port cranes. Lending their voices to the characters is a solid cast including Bell as Tintin, Serkis (of Gollum fame) as the drunken captain Haddock, Daniel Craig as the villain, and Simon Pegg as half the team of incompetent lawmen Thompson and Thomson, among others. It's clear that a lot of care, attention and love went into creating this, and fans of the boy reporter's adventures will lap this up. It's not as easy a sell to inexperienced American audiences but the solid pacing, loads of humor and well-done action sequences will surely keep everyone entertained.
Entertainment: 8/10

Aeon Flux (2005)
Starring: Charlize Theron, Jonny Lee Miller
Director: Karyn Kusama
Plot: In a world decimated by a virus where humanity is protected in a walled paradise, a rebel on a mission to overthrow the government by killing the city's ruler starts uncovering a centuries-old conspiracy.
Review: Based on a short-lived animated MTV series by Peter Chung, Aeon Flux is a nice blend of sci-fi and action that will please those looking for something different in their entertainment diet. Though unjustly maligned at the box-office, this is not another Catwoman mixed in with a 1984-like totalitarian regime. The film runs with its own logic, and even the slower exposition moments have some Ideas (with a capital "I") that are worth listening to. Yet though the mystery at the film's core is clever enough, the plot itself if rather familiar. Thankfully that doesn't keep from appreciating the film's other features. Foremost of these is Theron, of course: The heroine might well be described as a 21st century Barbarella - minus some of the cheese - and Theron is perfect for the role, taking this stretch as seriously as she would any dramatic performance: statuesque, showing off great poise, and proving pretty good at the action scenes, too. Those sequences aren't up to The Matrix sequences that we've come accustomed to, nor do they have the same punch, but (with the help of lots of neat cyberpunk gadgets) they're well done and quite stylistic. That sums up the main approach to the art direction of the film, too: production values are simply fabulous, stylish, almost bubble-gum-cartoon in its brightness - it's a nice change of pace from the usually gloomy SF affairs of late. This is quite a tangent for director Kusama whose claim to fame is the indie drama Girlfight, but keeping in the spirit of "girl power" the whole affair is pretty well directed and well shot, and the live-action adaptation zips through its runtime with ease. And in the end, isn't that all you can ask for from a mainstream sci-fi actioner?
Entertainment: 7/10

An Affair to Remember (1957)
Starring: Cary Grant, Deborah Kerr
Director: Leo McCarey
Plot: A playboy setting forth to meet his wealthy fiancée falls in love with a former night-club singer on a cruise ship headed for New York. 
Review: The usually charming Grant takes some time before hitting his stride here, but Kerr is superb from the start. An Affair to Remember is basically a '50s cliché-ridden romantic-comedy, with some delicious sight gags during the first half of the film, especially when showing the couple's vain tries at discretion. The second half is more of a drawn-out soap-opera, with some uninteresting sub-plots, but for audiences looking for this type of romance the tear-jerker ending makes up for everything. The film is probably most famous now for the classic lover's rendezvous atop the Empire State Building. In the end, the leads have a definite charm when they're together, and the dialogue is witty enough to make the whole exercise worthwhile.
Drama: 6/10

Affliction (1997)
Starring: Nick Nolte, James Coburn, Sissy Spacek
Director: Paul Schrader
Plot: A murder may have occurred in a small rural community. Nick Nolte plays a small town sheriff determined to find the culprit and bring him to justice. As events in his life turn sour and his paranoia grows, he soon alienates all the people around him. 
Review: A heart-wrenching portrayal of a man belittled by, and still coming to terms with, his father's abusive behavior. Excellent cast, well shot and well paced with a great script based on the novel by Russell Banks.
Drama: 9/10

After Life (Japan - 1998)
Starring: Sadao Abe, Natsuo Ishido
Director: Hirokazu Kore-Eda
Plot: Before entering the after-life, recently-deceased people are asked by counselors living in this purgatory to choose only one memory which will be staged, filmed, and finally viewed, to take with them for all eternity.
Review: After Life poses the philosophical question of what is human experience, memory, and how we measure our own lives. The plot is simple, relying on the heart-warming scenes of individual portraits of people from different backgrounds and ages as their lives are condensed into one final defining moment. Nothing on-screen relates to the after-life or to the deceased, but the minimal sets and normal-looking and -acting cast doesn't really bother our suspension of disbelief due to the fanciful script. The last third of the movie, though, when all the memories are being staged and filmed (yes filmed) as if being prepared by a low-budget production crew, seems a bit too down-to-earth. In the end, After Life is an interesting film that evades tripe melodrama and just presents affecting moments of other people's lives, with a slow pace full of quiet moments that let the audience reflect on their own memories.
Drama: 7/10

After the Sunset (2004)
Starring: Pierce Brosnan, Salma Hayek, Woody Harrelson
Director: Brett Ratner
Plot: After a daring heist, a master jewel thief retires to the Bahamas with his paramour, only to be tempted to go after one last caper by an FBI agent desperate to capture him.
Review: As easy-going romantic capers go, After the Sunset starts off beautifully setting up its premise and characters well, promising a visually dazzling entertaining vehicle for its stars. Too bad is quickly turns to mush with both its romantic bits and the comedy falling far short. One can't blame director Ratner for trying, though - with a solid screenplay he can be quite effective as evidenced in Rush Hour and Red Dragon, and he has lost none of his touch here, giving up another gorgeous commercial effort, a great tourist brochure for the island and its luxurious resort. Unfortunately, there's little action to be found apart from the opening heist, and so the movie rests on the script to deliver thrills, tension, or laughs. And that's the main problem - the damnably predictable script sucks. With a tone that's all over the place, juvenile humor that falls flat, a double romance that's awkward, a promising agent/thief cat-and-mouse relationship that goes up in smoke, and a twist ending that's just plain silly, it's hard to take accept any of it. Worse, the film calls on the spirit of the much more successful The Thomas Crown Affair, and even tries to associate itself (however loosely) with the classic To Catch a Thief but only ends up as a lame-duck crime comedy. Worse, audiences will feel short-changed on the caper aspect, especially the climactic jewel heist. Thankfully, the film has assembled a fine, watchable cast: Brosnan does the grizzled thief to perfection, and the ditzy Harrelson provides the occasional comic relief. Leaving all dramatic aspirations aside, Hayek is in vixen mode donning multiple bikinis and offering gratuitous cleavage shots, and she's even pretty good with the comedy bits too. Don Cheadle, however, is given the short end of the stick in a short gangster role. Despite its failings the pacing never falters and fans of the actors might find some enjoyment, but even that can't help After the Sunset bring a disappointingly banal, tired effort considering the people involved, and there's only the script to blame.
Entertainment: 4/10

Agent Cody Banks (2003)
Starring: Frankie Muniz, Hilary Duff, Angie Harmon
Director: Harald Zwart
Plot: A high-school student secretly trained as a CIA operative must overcome his shyness in front of a popular girl while on a mission to stop a villainous syndicate from stealing dangerous nanotechnology from her father.
Review: Obviously influenced by the success of such family fare as Spy Kids, the teen-spy thriller / comedy Agent Cody Banks is another amusing, if less inventive, take on the James Bond spoof. If Disney did Bond, this is what you'd expect. The film is much more a straight homage than its precursors and less a parody than a teen-aged version of the classic 007 adventures. The sleek cars, the dastardly villains, the impossible gadgets and yes, even the tuxedos, are all in evidence. There's even some winks to SPECTRE and the volcano-base of You Only Live Twice which dependably blows-up nicely in the climax. Note however that the action / adventure is pretty toned down for younger kids and the appeal of the film is really its comedy elements and, of course, the tribulations of its expert but tongue-tied protagonist taking his first step towards being an adult. Faced with smothering parents, a lack of self-confidence and a miserable school life, our hero has to prove his mettle and this is the mission to do it - if only he could get a break and (for the necessary romantic bit) charm his target's daughter. All this works well thanks to lead Muniz's amiable charm and, as his CIA handler, perhaps Harmon's tight-fitting costumes too. As a 15-year old boy fantasy, the movie is perhaps a few years too late to really make a mark but director Zwart balances well the different aspects of the story. Though none of this is particularly original, Agent Cody Banks does fine as light-hearted adventure for kids and even grown-ups.
Entertainment: 6/10

*Classic* Aguirre, the Wrath of God (Germany - 1972)
Starring: Klaus Kinski, Ruy Guerra, Del Negro
Director: Werner Herzog
Plot: A ruthless Spanish soldier rebels against his captain and takes control of an expedition into the heart of 16th Century South America in search of Aztec gold.
Review: An adventure film that's as intelligent as it is disturbing, Aguirre, the Wrath of God has become a classic entry of international cinema, and for good reason. Based on Joseph Conrad's 1902 novella Heart of Darkness, it's a timeless cautionary tale of the foolishness of colonialism and the descent into madness, one that also helped inspire Coppola's Apocalypse Now. The film is very realistic, gritty, yet has also a definite mythical quality to it, as the European's were swallowed up by the lush dense jungle. Though there's little that actually happens here - the voyage into the jungle is sometimes too deliberate and static to make it exciting - there's a dream-like quality to the narrative, and some surreal moments, that makes it all the more engaging. The scenes are simply fantastic, from the startling opening sequence to the final, tragic ending. There's also very strong imagery in place, helped by a scenic cinematography that is simply awe-inspiring. Writer / director Herzog (Fitzcarraldo, Grizzly Man) has a knack for these types of characters and stories, and though only loosely based on the true life figure of Aguirre, with many (if not all) of the events and characters pure fiction, one can easily believe that events turned very closely to what is depicted here. That Herzog managed to make such a film on such a modest budget (under $400,000) is an ode to his talents as filmmaker. Shot in rare chronological order, and filmed completely on location in the Peruvian rainforest, probably helped the cast to get into their characters, as did the minimalist story that allowed for a lot of improvisation from the cast, and even the true-life rigors of cast and crew - many of the hardships were, in fact, real - made it into the film. One can easily believe this is how the Conquistadors tried to conquer South America. It also helps that Kinski was absolutely insane in real life and therefore perfect for a role that required a powerful, charismatic - and completely megalomaniac - presence. As the title figure, he beats, chides and cowers his troops through an odyssey that can lead only to their death. If it fails somewhere, it's in keeping things moving, and many modern audiences may find it too slow-going; yet that's exactly what allows us to get immersed in the film. A must for any true cine-phile. On a side note, Herzog made a great documentary of his travails making the film and his constant fights with his lead actor in My Best Fiend.
Drama: 8/10

Air Force One (1997)
Starring: Harrison Ford, Gary Oldman, Glenn Close
Director: Wolfgang Petersen
Plot: The American president must save his family and his aides after a well organized group of Russian rebels hijack Air Force One in mid-air.
Review: Director Petersen, best known for his nerve-jarring submarine drama Das Boot, uses every trick in his book to make Air Force One a Hollywood action thriller, and in that he succeeds brilliantly. Not to say that this is a particularly great film, but it knows what it is and plays well with the formula. The film is a collection of impressive, if absolutely ridiculous, over-the-top action scenes and special effects sequences that will make audiences laugh in disbelief, and enjoy themselves as if in a roller-coaster ride. The suspense is good and the story fast-paced, and there's enough clever elements in the script to almost override the incessant (and downright annoying) patriotic flag-waving that's on display. Ford is convincing in the lead role, and Oldman is appropriately villainous, but the rest of the cast is pretty wooden. But all that doesn't matter: Air Force One delivers all the elements necessary for a typical, vapid action / adventure film and as an audience-pleasing experience, it knows to push all the right buttons.
Entertainment: 7/10

*Classic* Akira (Japan - 1988)
Director: Katsuhiro Otomo
Plot: A teenage motorcycle gang living in post-apocalyptic Tokyo try to stop one of their members who has been kidnapped by a government agency and has gained telekinetic powers that could destroy the city and himself.
Review: Often repeated but rarely equaled, the high-concept sci-fi anime Akira put the international animation scene on its ear with its dynamic animation, large scope, existential plot and intense, graphic violence. And let there be no doubt: this is a mature, hard-hitting affair, not intended for kiddies. Based on his own classic comic book ("manga") series, first-time director Katsuhiro Otomo took three years to write the script and design the look of the film, and it's time well spent: from the giant structures to the sleek, futuristic bikes, it's obvious a lot of attention was put into the conceptual aspects. The visuals are just as intricate and impressive, putting to shame most of the "cartoons" that came before it with its sense of kinetic energy during the many action sequences and its feel of epic scale when it comes to the spectacular finale. Thankfully just as much effort was put on a script that seamlessly tackles psychic powers, gang wars, theological themes, while giving us interesting individuals and intriguing concepts. As a distillation of the huge comic series, the story can't help but be filled to the brim with characters, ideas and fascinating details, and if most of them don't get a chance to really be presented with the depth fans of the original might wish, there's no doubt that there's an amazing sense of wonder and imagination in this feature-length version. As such, Akira is not just a great watershed in Japanese anime, it's pure poetry, a genre masterpiece that is still to be surpassed and is well worth its classic status.
Entertainment: 9/10

Aladdin (1992)
Starring: Robin Williams, Jonathan Freeman, Scott Weinger
Directors: John Musker, Ron Clements
Plot: A street urchin is forced to secure a magic lantern for the Sultan's evil vizier only to end up calling forth the Genie to grant him the necessary wishes to win the heart of a young princess.
Review: Though Beauty and the Beast initiated the popular revival of Disney's animation fame, it was Aladdin with its terrific action set pieces, enchanting musical sequences and (most importantly) more adult-oriented humor. No longer just a children's outing, animated features became a definite attraction for a wider (read teenage) audience as well. Very loosely based on the fantasy tales of the Arabian Nights, the story is a hodge-podge of the usual Disney romantic adventure - the dastardly villain, the humorous sidekicks, the young boy / girl longing for something new (and, surprise, falling in love) - which in itself is entertaining enough, if not altogether special. As for most Disney theatrical productions, the animation is smooth, stylish and well executed, the songs are all good to great, and both young kids and adults will thrill at the many adventures and cliff-hangers. What makes it a standout, however, is the addition of the incomparable blue Genie; creating animated sequences to follow Robin Williams' voice portrayal which includes his usual trademark manic energy and machine-gun comedy, he is spectacular and unstoppable providing impersonations from a vast array of movie characters, anachronistic spectacle and transformations, and lots of clever laughs. Clearly calculated to be a crowd-pleaser and with the giant boost that is Williams, Aladdin delivers high-spirited entertainment and really is fun for the whole family.
Entertainment: 8/10

The Alamo (2003)
Starring: Dennis Quaid, Billy Bob Thornton, Jason Patric
Director: John Lee Hancock
Plot: In 1836, a ragtag group of independent Texans led by William Travis and legendary Davy Crockett defend the fortress-like mission of the Alamo from the vastly superior and better trained Mexican army.
Review: A rather generic re-creation of a turning point in US history, the latest cinematic adaptation of the story of The Alamo aims to be The Patriot in its intention to retell history but only ends up as another tired historical epic. Though most of the historical epic elements are all there, from period costumes and sets to large deployments and realistic warfare, the whole thing feels rather pedestrian. The battle scenes are well-staged if un-impressive, and the cinematography is adequate for the large canvas the film tries to paint. Similarly to Pearl Harbor, the overrunning of the fortress is also not the end, with an additional half hour of Texans' rousing victory against the Mexicans to gain their independence. The film could have used a bit more trimming in the editing room: many scenes suffer from being long-winded, exhausting the energy that would have carried the film through its drier moments. Still, though it ends up feeling more like a workmanlike job, director Hancock (who worked with Denis Quaid in The Rookie) tackles a much larger template and comes out mostly unscathed, delivering an engaging human tale within the context of an otherwise text-book event. More so than re-enacting the events that led to the historical stand-off, the films aims at being a more realistic look at the historical figures that influenced the tale of the Alamo. As such, instead of making them larger-than-life, the script seems to go out of its way to portray them as human beings - drunkards, egotistical, vain - yet ends up showing off their patriotic courage in stereotypical manner at the end. Though the cast is only decent at best, Thornton is a real standout playing the legendary Davy Crockett as a down-to-earth political opportunist, a man actually at the mercy of his reputation trying to live up to it when things turn to disaster. "Remember the Alamo" might be the now-famous war cry, but though it's able enough fare as a revisionist history lesson, there's little that's really memorable in this version of The Alamo.
Drama: 5/10

Alex Rider: Operation Stormbreaker (2006)
Starring: Alex Pettyfer, Ewan McGregor
Director: Geoffrey Sax
Plot: Thrust into world of covert operations after discovering his uncle was a spy, a young teen must stop the diabolical machinations of a billionaire computer tycoon.
Review: From a script by Anthony Horowitz, based on his own book, Operation Stormbreaker is the first adventure of Alex Rider, boy spy. The film makes no excuses for being fluff entertainment for the young teen, or those that aren't supposed to be watching the "real" James Bond stuff. For sure, the Bond thriller / spoof is given the full kiddie treatment - gadgets disguised as toys, the nefarious (and silly) plot, the villain's lair, etc. The cookie-cutter narrative will also be familiar to just about anyone, especially the "homage" to Dr. No and its ilk, but it floats on some well-intentioned tongue-in-cheek. It even has a slew of cameos that makes for a who's who of familiar faces, from Silverstone, Nighy, Fry, McGregor, Rourke, Coltrane and more (so this is where they ended up in!). It's easy family fare for older kids, but adults won't really find anything exciting here. Pettyfer is a pretty boy, and makes for some nice eye-candy for the girls, but there's little real charisma. The directing is unimpressive and the few cinematic flourishes will be lost on most everyone. The stunts and the little action are as good as you can get with a limited budget and a clear limit on the thrills and violence to have the entire affair at G-rating levels. At least these are well enough done including a bike chase, a four-wheeler chase, and others - the one that stands out is a single fight scene that's well choreographed by HK star Donnie Yen, even if it's a repeat of a similar on in The Transporter. Considering the efforts and potential for another Harry Potter-like British franchise, it's a little disappointing to see Stormbreaker never reach its potential. For a better, more Americanized, version of the teen spy check out Agent Cody Banks or for even better family fun, try out the Spy Kids series.
Entertainment: 4/10

Alexander (2004)
Starring: Colin Farrell, Angelina Jolie, Anthony Hopkins
Director: Oliver Stone
Plot: A look at the life of Alexander the Great, the young Greek king who conquered most of the known world while still in his 20's but who succumbed to political pressures and ill health.
Review: Much maligned on its release, the lavish sword-and-sandal epic Alexander will most be remembered as director Oliver Stone's Heaven's Gate, and that's a shame. A staggering, impressive vision, it's meant to be a colossal epic that wants to humanize and demystify it's central figure. A throwback of older Hollywood historical epics such as Cleopatra and The Black Robe in its excesses and pageantry, the film even shares its penchant for ridiculous dialogue, and much has been said of the Scottish accents sported by the cast. Every scene is a vivid portrait of a long-gone era, full of lush scenery and fabulous production values, and the impeccable cinematography of frozen landscapes and desert vistas are a sight to behold. There are only two main battles, albeit long ones: his victory against a superior Persian army in the Southern deserts, and his defeat against the strange and frightening elephant armies of India in the jungle. These are incredible sequences that never feel staged or "spectacle"-ular like Troy - they're chaotic, vicious and terrible, where Death is mixed with the dust and blood. But the heart of the film is Alexander's internal struggles, the constant internal politics and power plays, all taking precedence over the conflicts and conquests he is most famous for. Shamefully, many key moments such as his victories over Egypt are only glossed over by ever-present narrator Anthony Hopkins. Yet going definitely against mainstream expectations and tastes, kudos to Stone for taking a chance on such a huge (and different) endeavor and giving it a personal, intimate look. He seems much more interested in focusing on his subject's downfall, and his obsession with Vietnam (as seen in such films as Platoon) seems to have pervaded his take on ancient times as well, as if making a parallel between the two eras. Yet by going so much to the other extreme with the character, the great leader is seen with derision rather than awe. And even filled with such intriguing ideas and concepts, it feels rushed and shallow despite its attentions and 3-hour running length. Farrell, sporting an outrageously bleached head of hair, wants to externalize the deep convictions, the pains, and the passions of the character and for the most part actually succeeds, though some scenes do get overly theatrical. Jolie, as mother Roxanne all draped in live snakes, steals every scene with an over-the-top (but deliciously enjoyable) performance. The rest of the cast only adds up to supporting roles, with the nubile Dawson as the conquered but defiant wife, a larger-than-life Val Kilmer as the father-King Philip, a bevy of cameos by the likes of Christopher Plummer, and Jared Leto as his confidante and male lover. Indeed, Alexander's bisexuality is never put in doubt here, what with the longing glances at the male servants and overly-loving camaraderie among the soldiers, yet this focus seems ultimately irrelevant. In the end, if Alexander is deemed a failure, then it's a worthy one. Flawed though it is, Oliver Stone has made something to remember.
Drama: 6/10

Ali (2001)
Starring: Will Smith, Jamie Foxx, Jon Voight
Director: Michael Mann
Plot: A biography on the life and times of world champion boxer Muhammad Ali focusing on a 10 year period between two of his most important fights.
Review: Following in the footsteps of both films and documentaries, Ali tries to bring the complexities of its subject to a new generation of movie-goers. There are some interesting insights into the life and times of Ali here, from his friendship with Malcolm X, to his romantic ties, to his Muslim beliefs, and these parts play well, but more than half of the running time seems to lack any momentum or direction, with few instances where one felt that the Champ's life was being recreated with total conviction. The camaraderie between Cosell and Ali is surprising, warm, and lively but the other relationships are all portrayed rather coldly. Most of the story focuses on two distinct periods in his career, with two of his more famous bouts taking up a good portion of screen time. The fighting in these scenes is well recreated and convincing, but seem to extend far beyond the point of drama or entertainment. The film is shot with the occasional choice cinematography, but little of the cinematic verve of Mann's past films such as Heat or The Insider seems to have been used, making the film feel more like a dragged out TV movie than a theatrical film. Worse, the film insists on inserting unbroken songs and irrelevant performances into the proceedings that only help to break the pacing. Smith tries hard to move, speak and act the part, even going so far as buffing up, but apart from the rare occasion, it's hard to shed the fact that it's Smith and not Ali on screen. The rest of the cast is solid, with Foxx and Voight impressing the most. Ali is a good introduction to the story of this legendary fighter and his place in American history, especially on the '60s racial issue, but one can't help feeling that a better, tighter script could have made this into a much better movie.
Drama: 6/10

Alien (1979)
Starring: Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skeritt, Ian Holm 
Director: Ridley Scott
Plot: A deep space cargo vessel is dispatched to answer an alien distress signal. Upon investigating, the crew unwittingly bring back on board a creature that starts preying on them.
Review: Seeing this movie again after more than 10 years shows that parts of it have aged well (the effects are still impressive, the script is suspenseful, the acting quite good), and other parts have not (the pacing is slow, the "horror" and gore scenes tame by today's standards). Still, high production values and a good script, combined with Ridley Scott's keen directorial sense, make this film a milestone in both the science-fiction and horror genre. (For a slightly academic take on the film, check out my essay on Modern Horror in Science Fiction written a while back.)
Entertainment: 8/10

Aliens (1986)
Starring: Sigourney Weaver, Michael Biehn, Paul Reiser
Director: James Cameron
Plot: Rescued and re-awakened from hyper-sleep 57 years after defeating a nightmarish creature, Ripley is forced to act as advisor to a group of marines sent to investigate the planet where the aliens first appeared.
Review: Writer / director Cameron (Terminator 2, The Abyss) broke into the big leagues with Aliens, his own take on the Alien franchise. Right off, the script has all the elements necessary to make it a classic of the sci-fi / action genre - tightly plotted events, thrilling action sequences, crisp dialogue, and a touch of humor - and his direction of the material is impeccable. Though the film takes a while to get going to allow for quite a bit of exposition, Cameron is adept enough, and the story interesting enough, to keep the audience's attention even during this extensive set up. The film really pays off at the mid-way mark, though, as it becomes a real adrenaline rush of action, horror, and edge-of-your-seat suspense. The characters jump from one desperate situation into another, with the tension never breaking and even invariably turned up a notch as events race to their inevitable conclusion. The action sequences are well executed, impressive and quite memorable, especially the two effects-laden action finales pitting Ripley against the Queen. The Alien designs are chilling and impressive, and the effects only help add to the dark atmosphere, such as when they uncurl from the walls, or when the Queen makes her appearance in her nest. The mother-daughter relationship is a strong theme throughout and adds an emotional connection to the story. The bond of "motherhood" is, in fact, the very motivation for both the heroine, fighting for an orphaned girl, and the alien queen, fighting to preserve her own young. Sigourney Weaver embodies the very essence of the Ripley character, intelligent, warm, but dangerous to cross, and single-handedly ushered in a new era of action heroines to mainstream Hollywood. The rest of the cast is also good, all well presented in a one-dimensional sort of way, especially Lance Henricksen as the dutiful android and Reiser as the scummy company man. Aliens is one of the most intense and relentless action films ever produced, and is only more proof that James Cameron is a master at sci-fi action thrillers.
Entertainment: 9/10

Alien 3 (1992)
Starring: Sigourney Weaver, Charles Dutton, Charles Dance
Director: David Finch
Plot: Series' stalwart Ripley finds herself crash-landed in a remote penal colony world dealing once again with some unexpected alien company.
Review: Alien 3 has been much maligned by critics and viewers alike. My first impressions were, as well, less than enthusiastic. The main reason for this reaction was probably the fact that audiences were expecting another action-fest such as Cameron's Aliens. Instead, Alien 3 has gone back to the series' roots and has given us a moody, finely paced film where suspense is placed over action, very much like the original Alien. Taken on its own merits, the film is mostly successful: it is superbly shot, well-paced, it has some good atmosphere, some great creature effects, and definitely provides some good chills and decent suspense. This first feature from director Finch (Seven, Fight Club) also proved that he was a director to watch. In the end the film is too similar in its plot to the first, and the ending, though adventurous for a Hollywood film, seems too contrived. Despite this, Alien 3 makes for an interesting installment in the series.
Entertainment: 6/10

Alien: Resurrection (1997)
Starring: Sigourney Weaver, Winona Ryder, Ron Perlman
Director: Jean-Pierre Jeunet
Plot: Bug-hunter Ripley (this time along with a group of self-proclaimed space pirates) and the Alien menace are back on the rampage in a huge Navy spaceship after a group of army scientists clone the deceased Ripley along with the Alien queen inside her.
Review: As the previous sequels did, Alien: Resurrection takes the stalwart series into a new direction. It definitely has the look and feel down pat: though less claustrophobic than previous installments, the settings and events are still as dark and dangerous as the rest of the series. The premise of the Ripley clone is an interesting one, and the story plays on it well - mean-spirited and a tad insane, this is definitely not the Ripley we're used to seeing! Though the film has its share of action sequences, it takes a back seat to the story and characterization, working more as a suspenseful take on the sci-fi/horror genre than an action flick. The plot allows for a few pleasant and bizarre twists and surprises, and the character interactions are great fun to watch thanks to some witty dialogue and a varied, top-notch cast. Best of all, the story takes chances and mostly succeeds, thanks in part to a good script with its underlying current of very black humor, to some good special effects, and to French director Jeunet's (Delicatessen, The City of Lost Children) attention to detail, style and good visual sense. A good, and very different, addition to the series.
Entertainment: 8/10

Alien vs. Predator (2004)
Starring: Sanaa Lathan, Lance Henriksen, Colin Salmon
Director: Paul Anderson
Plot: A group of well-armed archeologists find themselves in the middle of a war between two alien species when they discover an ancient pyramid below the Antarctica ice fields.
Review: The premise of Alien vs. Predator is silly but workable, getting sillier as the movie goes on, but it delivers as promised: it's cool, it's loud, it's overly stylish, and it's an entertaining sci-fi action mess for those not overly panicked by the liberties taken with the franchise. Obviously, the whole thing is terribly predictable, and there's no going around it that director Anderson is a Hollywood hack (Resident Evil, Event Horizon being his best), but the pacing is fine and, surprisingly enough, it works. He hasn't really taken any of the material too seriously, and just has fun with it - audiences should know better than to do otherwise. Menacing face-offs, lots of crowd-pleasing moments (almost to ridiculous excess, in fact - the temple art, the slo-mo leaping facehuggers, etc.) and lots of in-jokes only add to the amusement. Highlight, of course, is the final Act, as last-standing human and Predator mentor team up against the Queen. From a decent start, the thin plot becomes very staid and banal, but as an excuse for the match-up, it works, the writers even taking cues from The Keep and The Thing for good measure. There's even some interesting ideas and very well realized flashbacks into the far past. The humans are obviously one-dimensional, and the heroine is no Ripley. Henricksen has been cast to link to the previous Aliens installments, but we don't have much time to really get involved with the humans and we don't care an iota for any of them. Let's face it, they're just quick fodder for the two sides. In fact, the movie picks up once most of the humans are put out of our misery. The effects are surprisingly good, with all the various Alien creatures magnificently rendered with a mix of live action and CGI, and the Predators looking the part. The action is a mixed bag: some of the fights are so jumbled and frenetically edited that it's a confusing mess, while others really get it right. Also, the more gory Alien elements have been toned down. If there's a downside, it's that it feels really short. Of course, this is all going to be disappointing to anyone expecting the quality of the Aliens series, but those who can come in with lowered standards will come out having a decent time.
Entertainment: 5/10

All About Ah Long (Hong Kong - 1988)
Starring: Chow Yun-Fat, Sylvia Chang, Huang Kun-Husen
Director: Johnnie To
Plot: A struggling single father discovers that his young son has been hired to shoot a promotion film by the child's mother who left her abusive husband years ago to start a successful career in America.
Review: All About Ah Long, though often compared to Kramer vs Kramer, is more a Hong Kong version of the John Savage melodrama The Champ, from beginning to ending, with some added Asian sensibilities. Directed by Johnny To, better known for his action films and violent thrillers such as Heroic Trio and The Mission, the drama is delicately captured, especially the touching relationship between struggling down-and-out father Chow Yun-Fat and his son. The story then follows the hardships of reconciliation between the alienated parents, both of whom want to keep custody of their son but also want what's best for him. These moments don't quite work as well, but it's an interesting take on a re-hashed story. More interesting is Chow's slow redemption for his errors as a youth and the film's realistic take on the squalor of the average HK denizen's quarters. Unfortunately, the story takes off on a tangent with a gratuitous motorbike race that ends the film on a pointlessly tragic, melodramatic note. Thankfully the lead actors are usually excellent and convincing, and the child actor Huang Kun-Husen is quite endearing in his own way, that the story development, while mostly predictable, is still interesting enough. With a solid script and good characters All About Ah Long is a decent melodrama.
Drama: 7/10

All About My Mother (1999)
Starring: Cecilia Roth, Eloy Azorín, Marisa Paredes
Director: Pedro Almodóvar
Plot: After the tragic death of her son, a grieving single mother travels to Barcelona following his last wish to find her ex-husband and tell him about the son he never knew.
Review: Almodóvar has always been known for his blends of melodrama and absurd comedy spiced with liberal amounts of eroticism and sexual situations (Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, The Law of Desire, etc.). While still keeping his trademark characters, situations, and humor, he steps back from his usual over-the-top style and brings a more serious (some would say mainstream) drama. What makes it so watchable, of course, is the terrific ensemble cast portraying endearing, multi-faceted female characters and our experiencing the circumstances and solidarity that binds them all together. In fact, the film seems to be Almodóvar's ode to women characters, showing them as mothers, artists, lovers, workers, etc. All About My Mother is easily his best, most mature work to date, weaving both tragedy and comedy in an eccentric, charming film. Winner of the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.
Drama: 9/10

*Classic* All the President's Men (1976)
Starring: Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman, Jason Robards
Director: Alan J. Pakula
Plot: True story of two Washington Post reporters investigating the Watergate break-in who stumble onto a conspiracy that reaches the highest levels of the Republican government.
Review: Based on the government-toppling, Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post articles and follow-up book by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, All the President's Men provides a no-nonsense, intelligent movie adaptation of the fall of Nixon. Even thirty years after its release, the tale of political conspiracy and the wed of and of a political conspiracy web of deceits that surrounds it holds up well for the most part. The 70's-era pacing is sometimes slow going, but deliberately paced, intricately plotted and completely satisfying, the film plays out like a detective tale, with gumshoe journalists getting in over their heads to find the truth. Director Pakula's (Sophie's Choice, The Pelican Brief) approach to the material is just right, leaving the theatrics and easy resolutions behind, and the screenplay (adapted by Oscar winner William Goldman) shows the gritty reality of investigative journalism, from the interminable leg-work and frustrating dead-ends to that clinching right lead. The film is also as much a detailing of the Watergate investigation as it is about that obsessive need for journalists to get the story, and the ethics involved in keeping their contacts secret, in this case the identity of the anonymous, mysterious Deep Throat that steered their investigation in all the right directions. While the characters themselves aren't fleshed out - they really are secondary to the story - Redford and Hoffman, then at the top of their game, give a fine portrayal as the mismatched pair. Supporting star Robards earned an Oscar for his role, as did the smart screenplay. The ending, as the final outcome is summarized in a few short sentences typed out on screen, may be a bit of a let-down after such a long set-up, but it's the trip, not the destination, that makes All the President's Men a classic.
Drama: 8/10

All the Pretty Horses (2000)
Starring: Matt Damon, Penelope Cruz, Henry Thomas
Director: Billy Bob Thornton
Plot: In 1949, two young Texans ride across the border into Mexico to find work as ranch hands but get into trouble when one of them falls for the owner's beautiful daughter.
Review: With All the Pretty Horses director Thornton (Sling Blade) has made a credible, atmospheric, and readily interesting modern Western, one that had the making of a great film but ends up feeling surprisingly rushed. Indeed, what's left of Thornton's rumored four-hour epic adaptation of Cormac McCarthy prize-winning book is unfortunately too uneven, with scenes appearing rushed or slightly disjointed, jumping from one to another without the sense of mood and grand sweep that he was probably looking for. There's even a touch of much-hyped romance but the film never manages to show any real passion between Damon and Cruz - we accept it as part of the story, but it's not convincing. The story itself has less rebounds, and thankfully less clichés, than we'd expect, but by trying to cram in all the events of the book the narrative, which occasionally takes its time to set up its relationships, it appears hurried and rather uninvolving. It's as if the basic plot points are dramatized but at the same time neglecting the emotional and philosophical resonance that it craves. And that's too bad, because the film has much going for it - the beautiful cinematography, with its impressive vistas, some solid performances from its leads, an interesting tale to tell, and shows Thornton has a good mastery at directing. There are some good scenes, however, and the opening twenty minutes are a pleasure, as the boys cross the border and meet up with a young run-away; as is a particularly powerful scene as the boys are rounded up, taken to prison, and witness the revenge of a small town family. But this is really a coming-of-age story, and it's at its best when depicting the ranchers' existence, capturing the essence and attraction of their way of life. The horses also play an important part here, as much as the surroundings or characters do - the intro showing mustangs running in slo-mo across the screen is just beautiful to watch. One can only hope the extended version will one day be made available, but as it stands All the Pretty Horses is a film that doesn't live up to its great potential.
Drama: 6/10

Almost Famous (2000)
Starring: Billy Crudup, Jason Lee, Kate Hudson
Director: Cameron Crowe
Plot: A teenager sees a dream come true as he manages to get an assignment for Rolling Stone magazine to follow an up-and-coming rock band along their tour.
Review: With Almost Famous writer / director Cameron Crowe (Jerry Maguire) presents both a semi-autobiography of his youth and a portrayal of the '70s music scene, a time when many believe Rock 'n Roll was at its peak. It's obvious Crowe has a soft spot for the subject, as all of the characters and events are seen with a obvious sense of nostalgia, each with their own redeeming qualities, and all of them with a love of the people around them and of the music that got them together. The script manages to find the right mix of criticism, affection and comedy inherent in the subject matter and is buoyed by some great dialogue. The whole cast is perfect, but notable are Billy Crudup as the brilliant lead guitarist with a crush on a young groupie (or "band-aid" as these girls following the band called themselves), and Kate Hudson as the said groupie. Almost Famous manages to be a drama that is both interesting and entertaining, and harkens back to a time when music was a goal onto itself, and things were maybe a little more innocent.
Drama: 8/10

Along Came a Spider (2001)
Starring: Morgan Freeman, Monica Potter, Michael Wincott
Director: Lee Tamahori
Plot: A grieving Washington detective and a young Secret Service agent team up to recover a politician's young daughter when the abductor calls him to share his exploits and fame.
Review: A "sequel" to the rather bland Kiss the Girls, Along Came a Spider is another installment of a popular book series, and another disappointing, bland Hollywood quickie from director Tamahori whose first feature Once Were Warriors turned heads. From the opening scenes, the audience is made to expect a clever game of cat and mouse between this brilliant, deranged kidnapper and the police profiler, but this match ends up being rather tired, illogical, and formulaic. Worse, it's practically non-existent as the supposed criminal mastermind, and his would-be convoluted plans, are quickly given short-change by the story. While these banal events proceed and we start to lose interest, there is an unexpected twist two-thirds in, but without a proper set-up this, and the rest of the film, just falls flat. The only suspense comes in the form of the young, spunky kidnappee's efforts to free herself which gives the film its only tense moments. The cast does their best with little and even Freeman, the only reason for the film, doesn't have enough screen time or things to do here to make a difference. As a thriller, Along Came a Spider is a by-the-numbers affair, one that fails to show any style, originality or sense.
Entertainment: 3/10

The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)
Starring: Andrew Garfield, Rhys Ifans
Director: Marc Webb, Emma Stone, 
Plot: Bitten by a genetically engineered spider, a teenager uses his newfound powers to fight crime and discover the true story behind the death of his parents, a path that sets him on a collision course with another super-powered being: The Lizard.
Review: Less than 10 years after director Sam Raimi's popular and critically acclaimed Spider-Man trilogy, Sony decided a reboot was in order. Is it entertaining? Yes. Was it necessary? No. Audiences are already familiar enough with the loner turned super-hero Peter Parker, and an extended origin story really wasn't necessary, especially an extended one. Apart from a new twist to the already-way-too-familiar tale (here, the allusion that Peter's father was somehow involved in genetic experiments) the only thing new was putting second-tier teen love interest Gwen Stacy (Stone surely makes a cute nerd) to the forefront, and coming up with a new villain. Unfortunately, The Lizard was never more than a two-bit villain, and the movie doesn't really make him any more interesting - in fact, the comics at least had him as a strong family man, conflicted by his Dr. Jekyll / Mr. Hyde personas, a struggle that isn't as obvious here despite a fine dramatic performance by Ifans. Director Webb, whose only other feature is the quirky romantic comedy (500) Days of Summer, may seem quite a strange choice to head an effects-laden summer blockbuster, until you realize the emphasis placed on the two young leads and the sentimental core of the film - the tale is, after all, a blend of coming-of-age tale, budding teen romance and wish fulfillment. It still doesn't quite resonate as well as it should, but it does add heft to the many high-flying - nay, high-swinging - scenes. And boy are there a lot of the latter, giving a thrilling sense of speed and danger as Spidey battles his foe above the city streets. The heavily-computer-aided action doesn't disappoint, but it's really Garfield who elevates the film from just ho-hum entertainment to something special; his Parker has just the right balance of shyness and arrogance to make it work. The supporting cast is strong, too, with the likes of Denis Leary as the police chief and reluctant ally, and Martin Sheen and Sally Field as Uncle Ben and Aunt May. It won't replace its predecessor, but The Amazing Spider-Man is good enough to make us look forward to the inevitable sequel.
Entertainment: 7/10

*HOT* Amélie (France - 2001)
Starring: Audrey Tautou, Mathieu Kassovitz, Dominique Pinon
Director: Jean-Pierre Jeunet
Plot: A shy and innocent Parisian waitress spies on her neighbors and the café's patrons before deciding to do what she can to lift the spirits of the people around her.
Review: How to explain the magic, the delightful, endearing romanticism and human comedy, the dazzling, dizzying imagination on display that makes up Amélie? Well, you can't, really; it has to be seen and enjoyed by each one individually. Director Jeunet (Delicatessen, The City of Lost Children) is best known on our shores as the creator of Alien: Resurrection, but here he returns to his roots and offers a delicate, memorable, heart-warming film. This is a fairy tale that works as well for youngsters who haven't lost all sense of innocence and for grown-ups who haven't forgotten what it's like to be a kid at heart. It's like a zany, surreal comic-book brought to life: visually inventive, every scene brings something new to admire set up like a dynamic tableau, all helped by the exquisite, careful art design. The film also presents a dreamy version of the Parisian district of Montmartre as it should be, the way fuzzy memories of a familiar place can leave us with pleasant memories, alive and larger-than-life. The palette of this place is tinged with green, with colors never subdued, sometimes bordering on the electric. Throughout we are introduced to a plethora of charmingly eccentric, well-rounded characters and amusing situations, all revolving around the radiant performance of Tautou a perfect choice as the kind but slightly mischievous waif, a role that has punctuated her career. Most impressive, however, is that the film maintains its tone throughout, never devolving into sappiness or melodrama, always staying fresh and lively. It's whimsical, and fluffy, and thouroughly enchanting; only a curmudgeon would find fault with the film, and only a grinch would not fall in love with Amélie.
Entertainment: 9/10

Amen. (France / Germany - 2002)
Starring: Ulrich Tukur, Mathieu Kassovitz, Ulrich Mühe
Director: Costa-Gavras
Plot: During the height of World War II, a devoutly Catholic SS officer, with the help of a young Jesuit priest, tries desperately to inform Pope Pie XII about the Reich's programmed mass extermination of the Jews.
Review: Based on Rolf Hochhuth's play The Representative, the historical thriller Amen is politically-minded director Costa-Gavras' (Music Box, Missing) denunciation of the Vatican under Pope Pius XII. Gavras doesn't need melodrama to make the tension apparent, alternating between the world of the SS officers grimly set to their horrifying deeds, to the immaculate corridors of the Vatican where the Roman Catholic authorities turn away from their obligations of moral condemnation. Indeed, more concerned about the threat of Communism than to the fate of "a few" Jews and worried about their own neutrality, the Vatican refused to speak out against the Nazis. The film doesn't show any of the atrocities directly (audiences have already had their fill), but alluding to them is just as powerful (the empty trains coming back from the camps, the crematorium chimneys billowing dark smoke, the powerful close-up reactions of the eye-witnesses). Though the realization that the world governments knew of the truth but did (or could do) little about it is not surprising, the film is at its most harrowing when showing the efficiency at which the task was taken by those involved, from the engineers to the bureaucrats, men whose conscience had been put on hold for their country. There are no Jewish characters in evidence here, those extras that we see limited to being powerless, anonymous victims of the Holocaust, a statement that is all the more terrifying by its blandness. The unlikely hero is the dramatized real figure of Kurt Gerstein, an SS officer who's testimony was crucial during the Nuremberg trials, superbly played by Tukur. As for the fictional young priest, played with intense idealism by Kassovitz, he is necessary to take us around the Vatican community, showing the urgency of the situation reduced to being politely dismissed. A powerful, well-acted true drama, Amen is an important testament to another side of a dark chapter in human history.
Drama: 8/10

American Beauty (1999) 
Starring: Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening
Director: Sam Mendes
Plot: Les, a middle class dad, hates his work, is irritated by his go-getter wife, and is estranged from his teen-age daughter but is too weak-willed to do anything to change his situation. Upon meeting his daughter's sex-pot friend, something awakens in him and he goes through a mid-life crisis that is more akin to a regression into his care-free adolescence, much to the annoyance of the people around him.
Review: The film blends some truly dramatic moments with its black comedy to show that Les' search for happiness is doomed from the start. Not since Happiness has there been two more dysfunctional families, and a more biting satire on American middle-class suburbanites. First-time director Mendes doesn't shirk away from showing, with great visual style, the maliciousness, and the occasional compassion, of his characters. Oscar worthy performances by Spacey (arguably his best to date) and Bening along with a strong cast, great script and artful cinematography make this easily the best American film to date this year.
Drama: 8/10


American Gangster (2007)
Starring: Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe, Chiwetel Ejiofor
Director: Ridley Scott
Plot: Given the opportunity to create his own vice squad, a small-time officer guns for the real source of the narcotics business in New York, a seemingly untouchable drug kingpin living in Harlem.
Review: The story of the rise and fall of real-life drug kingpin Frank Lucas is given the full Hollywood crime-epic work-out in American Gangster, the latest film teaming the director and star of Gladiator (and A Good Year). And it doesn't feel like a Ridley Scott film - the same man who gave us films like Kingdom of Heaven and Blade Runner - though it's slick, well shot, and as ably directed as ever. Taking a note on past crime dramas established in the 1970's, the movie plays out like a sort of Black Godfather mixed in with shades of Serpico with all the verve and surprisingly muted tension that the director can muster. The script, adapted and dramatized by screenwriter Zaillan (Gangs of New York) from an article that appeared in the New York Magazine, blends police corruption, fraternal loyalty, the NY drug trade, racial confrontations, and the criminal corporate mentality as "American Dream", all vying for attention against a backdrop of the Vietnam war. Thanks to a tight script that manages all the elements seamlessly and rounds out the two main characters without missing a beat, none of this ever gets tiring or repetitive even at over 2:30 hours. As for the leads, Crowe has the beefy-loser-cop role down pat, and you can feel the weight of things on his shoulders, but this is really Washington's show; he's been given a meaty role as the calculating, business-like gangster that exudes a veneer of charm and much simmering rage; yet while he's convincing enough, he seems to show only a limited range in his performance. The two stars are on-screen together only for a few scenes, but those moments are terrific thanks to the build-up that brings them together: The meticulous by-the-book police procedurals of the one contrasted against the larger-than-life exploits of the other, their paths ultimately leading to the final, surprisingly low-key confrontation as cop and crook face off each other across a prison table. Mind you, it also helps to have a stellar cast that includes the likes of Ejiofor and a despicably greedy Josh Brolin as a cop on the take, among other notables. All told, it may not be a classic in the making but as a sprawling, engaging crime drama, American Gangster is a fine example of the genre from some great name talents.
Drama: 7/10

American Movie (1999)
Starring: Mark Borchardt, Mike Schank
Director: Chris Smith
Plot: Documentary following the struggles of a down-and-out Wisconsin amateur filmmaker to produce his long-gestating slasher film with the help, and grudging financing, of family and friends.
Review: On face value, American Movie follows the attempts of a working-class, relatively uneducated slacker to make an ultra-low budget 8mm horror film, using family and friends, and the limited resources at his disposal, but it soon becomes an affectionate portrait of the filmmaking process, and of the people caught up in it. It's hard not to laugh at the many off-the-cuff moments caught on tape, and indeed that seems to be the documentary's intention. Yet, though they could easily have devolved into objects of ridicule, the documentary - all shot in B&W - manages to capture a surprising amount of pathos out of its subjects. Foremost, of course, is Mark Borchardt, a find unto himself, an unkempt, slightly disturbed 30-something guy struggling with bouts of alcoholism, the custody of three kids, limited job prospects (he delivers newspapers), impossible debt and a dream to make indie movies. He is a fascinating persona, a down-and-out slacker who's words of wisdom and captured real-life moments paint a picture of the depressed community around him. If his filmmaking skills are often questionable - the behind-the-scenes look at the filming of his B&W masterpiece Coven shows both great enthusiasm and a clear lack of practical expertise - it's clear he's a man with a purpose, stumbling, cajoling and intimidating his way to getting his project completed. Right away, there's a clear fascination in this voyeuristic, very personal approach at this Z-rate filmmaker, seeing his joy and glee-filled obsession of making movies, and taking a gander at his creation process, making it clear that not all indie films are worth their weight in salt, and not for lack of trying. No, the final product won't make it into wide release, or make for wide appeal, but that's not really the point. The real point is the surprisingly uplifting and inspiring theme of true American spirit, following dreams and making them a reality, even if it's just in the realization of an 8mm film that would only make Ed Wood proud. There's also the rest of the dysfunctional but ultimately sympathetic Borchardt family - Mom, Dad, and the seemingly disintegrating Uncle Bill, the begrudging financier of Mark's latest pipe dream - and whacked-out Schank, Mark's childhood friend and seemingly sole ally. By the end, it's hard not to admire Borchardt's conviction ; if he never gets a chance to get in Hollywood, American Movie at least gives us a fascinating look at one man's dream.
Documentary: 7/10

American Pie (1999)
Starring: Tara Reid, Jason Biggs, Chris Klein
Director: Paul Weitz, Chris Weitz
Plot: Four high school friends make a pact to lose their virginity by prom night, but must face some seemingly insurmountable odds first.
Review: There's nothing quite as funny as seeing other people in embarrassing situations, and there's nothing more embarrassing than teenagers trying to surmount the peer pressure of having sex. American Pie, then, succeeds brilliantly, with all the makings of a good teen comedy: you care for the characters, the story keeps taking funny turns, the situations are terribly embarrassing and hilarious, and there's more than a bit of self-referential humor. Yes, much like There's Something About Mary before it, there are some gross jokes (though very few), and most of the humor is definitely "low-brow", but the film never bottoms out in its humor and it's all fun to watch. What's especially refreshing for this type of comedy is that the female characters are smart, savvy, and know what they want. American Pie ends up being a sometimes daring, but always good-natured, comedy.
Comedy: 7/10

American Pie 2 (2001)
Starring: Jason Biggs, Shannon Elizabeth, Alyson Hannigan
Director: J.B. Rogers
Plot: After their freshman year at different colleges, five high school friends reunite during the summer holidays and rent a beach house hoping to throw wild parties only to realize that their relationship problems are just starting.
Review: As comedy sequels go, American Pie 2 is the best kind of follow-up - for those who liked the shameless and downright embarrassing sex-based shenanigans of its endearing teenage cast, what you get is more of the same... and that's a good thing. The story starts off with our hapless hero's parents bursting in his dorm room to surprise him naked in bed with a girl, and then being forced to make introductions while her parents come in - and it goes downhill from there, proving that they may be older, but not so much wiser. The reason the film works is that the script doesn't make fun of its characters but really believes in them, in all their geeky ways and slights, despite all the harrowing (and often just as touching) moments; the fun is in putting them in bad situations (scenes involving superglue and a camp band are highlights) and letting the cards fall in the most inopportune way. What follows is lots of goofy, slapstick-level bumbling about, but the characters do grow on you and the returning cast (led by a goofy Biggs trying to get into the pants of a very hot Elizabeth, and supported by the likes of Eugene Levy as his dad and Scott Thomas' Stifler) is earnest enough to win almost anyone over. If the surprise of the original is gone, the laughs and heart are still aplenty in the good-natured American Pie 2, and fans of the first will surely dig the sequel.
Comedy / Entertainment: 7/10

The American President (1995)
Starring: Michael Douglas, Annette Bening, Martin Sheen
Director: Rob Reiner
Plot: A widowed president falls for an energetic career-lobbyist and finds his affair with her spread out all over the news to the detriment of his political reputation.
Review: From the get-go it's obvious that The American President is a going to be a mostly light-hearted affair, and one that's expertly put to the screen by director Rob Reiner (A Few Good Men, When Harry Met Sally). This is a romantic comedy that's actually engaging and funny without reducing to the usual clichés (or at least not too often), and there's actually more romance than comedy to be found - and that's not necessarily a bad thing. Oh sure, realism takes second seat, and the dash of political maneuvering on display is there just to add some tension to the budding relationship. However, the dating game takes a very different meaning when one person is the President, and the film manages to milk the idea to good potential without going overboard. Some terrific dialogue, a bevy of amusing situations, and some aptly Capra-esque political moments (especially the requisite final address-to-the-nation) round-up an entertaining effort by all involved. Most of this is quite predictable, of course, but it's all done in such an easy-going manner that it's easy to be taken in. Much of the success, of course, is due to Douglas and Bening who have never been as charming as they are here, and actually have some great chemistry together. Add to this a solid supporting cast including a terrific turn by both Michael J. Fox and Martin Sheen as the president's advisors, and Richard Dreyfuss, suitably ornery as the Republican antagonist. In the end, the only thing to say is that, as far as more adult-oriented romantic-comedies go, The American President is an enjoyable romantic fable with a touch of class.
Entertainment: 7/10

American Psycho (2000)
Starring: Christian Bale, Chloe Sevigny, Willem Dafoe
Director: Mary Harron
Plot: A wealthy young executive in 1980's New York spends his days persuing the yuppie lifestyle and his nights as a morally bankrupt serial killer.
Review: Based on Bret Easton Ellis’s novel, American Psycho is a very biting satire on the soulless '80s, with a character that is the embodiment of the worst of the decade. Bale is excellent as a man totally desensitized to the world around him, portraying the deranged yuppie as shallow and morally corrupt with great gusto. There is no glamour in this character, and there is no way to see him as anything but twisted and desperate. The film ably, and often amusingly, shows this in almost every scene, from the detailing of the endless stream of beauty products he uses, to his taste in music and his minimalist anti-septic condo and, above all, his obsessions for cleanliness, one-upping his peers and getting a good seat in trendy restaurants. As the narrator, we only get a view of his thought processes, but actually all the people in his social circle seem to be exactly the same. Film-wise, some of the sex scenes may seem a little risqué for censors, but it's nothing explicit and is necessary to show the degradation of the character. As for the violence, it's always executed off-screen and left to the imagination, but because the whole film is shocking in its premise, and the deaths so horrifying in their banality, it appears worse than it actually is. The film takes on surreal connotations mid-way through, and ultimately turns the whole situation around, giving us an ending that can be interpreted in more ways than one. However one takes the ending, though, American Psycho remains a great black comedy on the "me" generation and the excesses of a decade.
Drama: 9/10

Amores Perros (Love's A Bitch) (Mexico - 2000)
Starring: Emilio Echevarria, Gael Garcia Bernal, Goya Toledo
Director: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
Plot: The fate of Mexico City residents from different social levels is linked to the relationship with their dogs as their lives become entangled after a violent, tragic car accident.
Review: Amores Perros, director Inarritu's first film, is an absolute gem, a passionate, mature film that forces its audience to stand up and take notice. The story grabs us from the opening sequence, depicting a terrifying car chase through Mexico City, then doubles back to focus on the events leading up to it, and shifts forward again to visit the aftermath. The first story is by far the most fascinating, giving up a piece of Mexico City that is violent, hectic, and in-your-face. Though the inescapable tragedy is predictable, the energy, cinematography and set-up on display are mesmerizing. The very different relationship between dogs and humans in each segment is almost as important to the film's perception of our human nature as the one between people, and allows for a much more interesting description of the dynamics between the characters and their own moral core. This is a film that is physically and emotionally brutal, and sparks the senses with its passion and its portrayal of a gritty reality. Yet there are moments of grace, beauty, and even touches of the surreal throughout, especially in the last segment. The colorful, interesting cinematography is at times startling and always atmospheric, inserting the viewer right into the lives of the protagonists. As for the cast, they all give fine performances, most especially legendary actor Echevarria as the decrepit hobo earning his life as a hit-man who longs to reconcile with his estranged wife and now-adult daughter. Well shot, well structured, and absolutely fascinating, Amores Perros is a powerful and down-right thought-provoking experience. (Check out the extended review!)
Drama: 9/10

An American in Paris (1951)
Starring: Gene Kelly, Leslie Caron, Oscar Levant
Director: Vincente Minnelli
Plot: A struggling American painter living in Paris is torn between his duty to his rich patron and his love for a young French girl engaged to one of his friends. 
Review: The otherwise banal romantic plot to An American in Paris is no more than an excuse for some light-hearted chuckles and as a springboard for the characters jumping into song and dance. The then-"exotic" Paris setting, the impressive sets, the colorful costumes, the engaging choreography, and the catchy Gershwin score make up for a well staged, classic musical. Gene Kelly is at his prime here and he and first-timer Caron are delightful to watch. The final, surreal sequence is worth the film, bringing about a cavalcade of wonderful, different dancing routines to the themes and backdrops of French impressionist painters. Not quite as original as Singin' In the Rain which followed by the same creative team, An American in Paris is still great entertainment. Winner of seven Oscars, including Best Picture.
Entertainment / Musical: 8/10

America's Sweethearts (2001)
Starring: John Cusack, Julia Roberts, Billy Crystal
Director: Joe Roth
Plot: An estranged celebrity couple is forced to act chummy for the press during the premiere screening of their latest film while pursuing new love interests.
Review: America's Sweethearts is a by-the-numbers Julia Roberts vehicle, a feather-light romantic comedy with moments of insider satire. The film pokes fun at showbiz (from the over-the-top press junkets to the diva-like stars and directors) while still keeping the comedy light enough, and the commentary shallow enough, to avoid offending anyone, setting it simply as a backdrop for a silly romantic triangle. The A-list cast plays their roles well enough, but the story doesn't allow for any real development, ending up with a set of characters that are barely formed and only a tad sympathetic. Crystal, as the cynical PR vet, has some of the best moments and all the good lines and constantly saves the film from falling into screwball trash - the rest of the cast is simply there as filler. In fact, the supporting actors, from Christopher Walken to Stanley Tucci, are more interesting than the leads. What's worse, the film suffers from a script that simply fails to engage. There are some funny moments, sure, but there aren't enough of them to make up for the rest of the ho-hum shenanigans. For biting industry satire, try The Player instead - America's Sweethearts only fits the bill as purely Hollywood fluff.
Comedy: 4/10

Amistad (1997)
Starring: Anthony Hopkins, Matthew McConaughey, Djimon Hounsou
Director: Steven Spielberg
Plot: In 1839, after a bloody revolt against their Spanish masters on a ship at sea, a group of 50 African slaves lands in America where they are quickly put on trial, a trial that has grave political repercussions.
Review: Based on the true story of a slave revolt, Amistad tackles a difficult period of American history, where the issue of slavery and creed divided a nation. It's a tale ready-made for Hollywood fare: earnest lawyer fighting the crooked political system to free imprisoned slaves. The story touches upon many different subjects, from the issue of slavery, politics, period law, and more, and adheres surprisingly well to historical facts, at least for its main plot points. Where it diverges is in all the details that make or break a film of this sort, and the end results are mixed: the scenes on the slave ships are clearly, brilliantly horrifying, and there are minor indications that the script attempts at a balanced approach to the subject, yet many more showcase only a shallow, re-imagined presentation of the material. As always, the production design and technical savvy on display is excellent, as is the cinematography, yet Spielberg's storytelling here has more to do with his manipulative, sentimental entertainment vehicles than his restrained dramas like Schindler's List. The stereotypes abound, from the naive young lawyer, boorish politicians to courageous, heroic slaves. Thankfully, the solid cast makes the best of it, most especially first-timer Hounsou showing a passion that crosses the language barrier, and Hopkins, playing the eccentric aging John Quincy Adams who defends him at the Supreme Court with a grand monologue. Seen for what it is and not what it could have been, the film comes off as a rather well-executed courtroom drama and there are enough powerful moments on display, and enough period detail, to make for an interesting lesson on American history - and an engaging one at that. Clearly meant for Academy nomination, Amistad has its heart in the right place but it's just too simplistic in its approach to make for a truly great film.
Drama: 6/10

An Autumn's Tale (1987)
Starring: Chow Yun-Fat, Cherie Chung
Director: Mabel Cheung
Plot: A young woman goes to New York to study acting and find her two-timing boyfriend. A distant cousin now living in the Big Apple helps her get settled in to her new life and falls in love with her.
Review: An Autumn's Tale is a charming, romantic drama with two wonderful, amiable characters played by a young Chow Yun Fat, and the beautiful Cherie Chung. The development of their relationship and the simplicity of the events surrounding it, without the usual over-blown emotional or soap-opera tragedies, are what make the film so enjoyable. By filming in New York, and especially in Chinatown, the film also adds some interesting local color to the story. Yes, at it's heart it's a typical boy-meets-girl story, with the usual romantic stumbling blocks to overcome. But the film adds more depth to its narrative. It's an examination of Chinese immigrants in America and how they cope with the change in culture and surroundings, of how their cultural identity is maintained in an alien place. It's also a film about class and social status, and how two people from different backgrounds can find a connection with each other. By the end, both must reconsider their lives and change their expectations before the class distinctions between them evaporate and allow them to start afresh. A finely done, disarming romance.
Drama: 7/10

Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004)
Starring: Will Ferrell, Christina Applegate
Director: Adam McKay
Plot: His position challenged by an ambitious female reporter, a top-rated local-TV anchorman n 1970's San Diego does all in his power to undermine her.
Review: Another quickly-realized high-concept comedy that follows the usual ex-SNL thespians, Anchorman is tailor-made as a star vehicle for funny-man Ferrell.. A battle of the sexes spoof of the '70's, male machismo, and local news coverage, it aims to mock much but only occasionally rises to the challenge: neither its silly plot nor its nutty characters can really save it from being mostly drab, if never quite dull. Ferrell - who co-wrote with director McKay - plays dumb and naive with perfection, and the addtion of ludicrous chauvinism and narcissism to the mix proves something that we can all laugh at. It's too bad the jokes are so limited, because there's lots of material here. In fact, the whole affair keeps its aim low, going after easy laughs and slapstick. There's little gross-out humor, thankfully, but it still won't be to everyone's taste - most of the comedy comes from the sexist attitudes of its male characters, and from the half-improvised antics Ferrell has become famous for. One particular scene does redeem most of the film: a funny, chaotic and completely surreal face-off between all the competing San Diego news teams that comes out as a mix of Gladiator-style combat and West Side Story gang strife. Some surprising cameos from the likes of Ben Stiller, Tim Robbins and nemesis Vince Vaughn only add to the fun. All told Anchorman is easy-going and well-paced, and though it's not particularly good it is worth a few laughs.
Comedy: 4/10

The Andromeda Strain (1971)
Starring: Arthur Hill, David Wayne, James Olson
Director: Robert Wise
Plot: After a village is wiped out by an extra-terrestrial virus brought to Earth by a downed satellite, a team of government scientists inside a high-tech research facility race against the clock to stop it spreading across the country.
Review: Working off the nail-biting scientific thriller from novelist Micheal Crichton, this faithful adaptation of The Andromeda Strain is top-level science-fiction, albeit a tad dated. The premise is still interesting, even after more modern bio-thrillers as Outbreak, and there's no faulting the extenuating detail and attention in doling out the decontamination process or the scientific methodology required. After such classics as West Side Story and The Sound of Music, director Wise goes back to his SF roots which he so ably presented in The Day the Earth Stood Still. He is a consummate story-teller whose old-school directing is more substance than style, and this works to present events and situations in convincing, matter-of-fact manner. There are some logic faults in the script, mostly done to add a dose of suspense at the end, but this is a minor quibble. Unfortunately, the computer and robotics technology that are so meticulously detailed and explained was wondrous in the early 70's, but from a modern perspective, this extended look at now-primitive tech just bogs down the pacing. Surprisingly, despite its love for all this high-tech stuff there's a note of pessimism that runs throughout the film: scientific methods may be at the forefront, but it's clear that our own overconfidence in technology brought about the disaster in the first place. Thankfully most of the film focuses on the mystery of the virus, unraveling it much like one would a detective story. Add to this some rising tensions between the team-members (all played with convincing seriousness by the cast), secret political agendas, and an anti-military-establishment stance, and you've got a well-rounded flick that's a true product of its times. Despite a few lengthy bits, The Andromeda Strain is still a smart and relevant, if slightly outdated, SF thriller.
Entertainment: 6/10

Angel Eyes (2001)
Starring: Jennifer Lopez, James Caviezel, Victor Argo
Director: Luis Mandoki
Plot: After being saved from a gun-toting criminal by a bizarre, quiet stranger, a lonely female cop falls for him and tries to discover his past, something he would rather forget.
Review: Though marketed as a drama with supernatural undertones, Angel Eyes is actually a pretty basic romantic drama, one that has loads of potential but that eventually succumbs to overly sentimental claptrap. The story's main surprise "revelation" (how does the film's opening crash scene connect them?) is pretty much obvious from the get-go to everyone but the characters, and if the whole exercise wasn't mostly tied up to avoiding the issue it would have worked better. Surprisingly, the relationship between the two damaged souls, the eerie loner who hides a painful secret even he has shut out from his memory, and the socially-inept cop who has been disowned from her family, is actually the film's high points and their delicate, fragile courtship is quite engaging. Things fall apart and veer to the maudlin, however, when they are meant to break through their shell to wrap things up for the film's ending. Caviezel, playing the part of the shell-shocked Catch with a frozen expression making him appear like one of the walking undead, actually fits the bill. To be honest, though, the film works almost solely due to Lopez's radiance evident in every scene - though she overacts the body language of the "tough female cop", her charm shines through even during the most excruciating scenes. Angel Eyes eventually plods through familiar territory, but there's enough Hollywood fluff, enough Lopez, and even some genuine heart-warming moments, to almost accept the heavy-handed script and direction.
Entertainment / Drama: 4/10

Angel Heart (1987)
Starring: Mickey Rourke, Robert De Niro, Lisa Bonet
Director: Alan Parker
Plot: Hired to track down a forgotten singer by a mysterious client, a sullen detective enters a strange world of voodoo and dark forces in 1955 New Orleans and realizes, as the bodies start piling up, that things are not what they seem.
Review: Dark, graphically violent, and genuinely disturbing, Angel Heart was one of the peaks of the 1980's horror genre. Both a hard-boiled mystery / thriller and a horror / suspense, it manages to successfully mix the two genres into one slick, well-paced product. This is a world on the edge of decay, one that is but a shadow of the 1950's, and one populated by bizarre personalities and the presence of a palpable danger. The story itself is a single-twist affair, and the whole film is much more of a "style over substance" type of experience, but the script holds its own for a genre piece. What really distinguishes it, however, are the fabulous production values, and cinematography that add an extra dimension to the chills. Parker has had lots of experience directing some bizarre, off-kilter films that make us feel like we're plunging into a different world (Midnight Express, Pink Floyd: The Wall) and here he uses the best of the horror genre techniques, as well as his own keen visual style, to provide a creepy atmosphere and a definite sense of dread. Rourke is at his best playing nervous, unkempt, desultory and shady characters, and here he's all four, easily taking the spotlight. De Niro does his bit with a trademark calculating menace as, what else?, "the bad guy". The rest of the cast, including a sexy Bonet (in some very risqué scenes that caused a furor at the time of the film's release) and the classy Charlotte Rampling, makes do with the limited lines they have. Taking a chance by integrating a story that's part Film Noir, part gory horror, Angel Heart still stands as a landmark of the genre, and one that's well worth checking out.
Entertainment / Horror: 8/10

Angels & Demons (2009)
Starring: Tom Hanks, Ewan McGregor, Ayelet Zurer
Director: Ron Howard
Plot: A Harvard symbologist runs against time, trying to find age-old clues hidden in ancient texts and churches, to prevent a terrorist act against the Vatican from an old secret society - the Illuminati - days following the death of the Pope.
Review: Based on the bestselling book by Dan Brown, itself a prequel to his international phenomena The Da Vinci Code, Angels & Demons is not only a better novel but also a superior movie adaptation. Though Da Vinci Code was a box-office smash, it wasn't great cinema: slow going, not very suspenseful and stuck with too much exposition. Returning director Howard (Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind) has taken a very different approach here - the pacing is propulsive and the script tighter in what amounts to a ticking-time-bomb thriller with nary a moment of downtime. Even the exposition involving some little-known facts and flights-of-fancy interpretations of historical events is all told while zooming thorugh tight streets from one church to another. For those unfamiliar with the book, the plot provides some neat twists and turns that are for the most part capably rendered, while the screenwriters have added the occasional touch of humor and religious commentary to the translation. And everyone should be impressed by the terrific production values and gorgeous cinematography of the Vatican and its numerous churches, catacombs and plazas, a kind of travelogue to the city's both famous and obscure sites. Hanks does a decent job as the Everyman / resourceful scholar caught in the intrigue, capably expounding on church traditions and religious lore, but neither he nor the rest of the capable cast that includes McGregor as the only standout as the ex-Pope's right-hand man are really anything more than cardboard cutouts to help play out the elaborate, well-constructed mystery. Alas, with all this running around some things had to go by the way side and don't quite hold up, and the final revelation - though not so predictable - isn't very satisfying. Still, it's a slick, well-made puzzle that keeps you guessing and keen on on seeing what comes next. So hail Angels & Demons for what it is: a grandly entertaining summer popcorn flick that's got more smarts than the season's other blockbusters all put together.
Entertainment: 7/10

Anna and the King (1999)
Starring: Jodie Foster, Chow Yun-Fat
Director: Andy Tennant
Plot: An English widow comes to Siam with her young son to teach the King of Siam's 58 children and soon gets caught up in the life and intrigues of the country and his court.
Review: A modern remake of the oft-told story, the most popular of which was the musical The King and I. Jodie Foster is excellent as usual, and so is Chow Yun-Fat, finally appearing in a decent American production, and the two are charming to watch as they grow closer to one-another. The story itself is probably as far from any actual events as is the norm for American productions, but the film still delivers some fine entertainment akin to the grand Hollywood productions of the '50s and '60s. The sumptuous decor, costumes, and lush scenery distract from the otherwise too politically-correct rendering of the story, and the script, though it avoids any difficult subjects and holds few surprises, still provides enough romantic, adventure, and dramatic interest to keep one involved. It may end up a bit unsatisfying, but Anna and the King is still worth a look.
Drama: 6/10

Anonymous (2011)
Starring: Rhys Ifans, Vanessa Redgrave, David Thewlis
Director: Roland Emmerich
Plot: In order to avoid ridicule, a nobleman hires an illeterate actor named Shakespeare to sign his plays and stage them in 16th-century London, unbeknown that his actions will affect the struggle for royal succession.
Review: Very loosely based on literary conspiracies regarding the "true" writer of Shakespeare's 37 plays, Anonymous theorizes that the Earl of Oxford was the actual scribe, the rather convoluted screenplay by John Orloff makes this an integral part of real-life royal struggle for the succession of Queen Elizabeth I and the Essex Rebellion. With hack action director Emmerich at the helm, it actually makes for an entertaining, pulpy, mainstream period piece, with murder, treachery and sex in the cards. Taking a very different direction from disaster flicks like Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow, Emmerich has taken lessons in modern retelling of court dramas, from Elizabeth to The Boleyn Girls, with the right amount of pomp, pageantry and enough intrigue to fill one of the playwright's own works. This makes for an interesting double-feature with Shakespeare in Love; whereas John Madden's film was brighter and full of life, Anonymous has a more gritty and much darker approach to a similar period and subject. Strong production values help set up the 16th-century period, and a some sweeping computer-generated fx shots of Old London proves he hasn't completely lost his sense of the type of mainstream spectacle he's famous for. Despite all the seriousness, however, it's hard to take any of this for anything other than ludicrous drama with some cinematic flair, especially with all the historical twists, flashbacks and the final reveals. Still, the cast of British thespians that's better than the film probably deserves elevates the proceedings, especially the superb Ifans as Edward De Vere, Earl of Oxford, torn between love, noble responsibility and his writing obsession. There's also Redgrave as the aging Queen Elizabeth, as well as Spall as the idiot actor known as Shakespeare, and David Thewlis & Edward Hogg as the villainous father-son team of William & Robert Cecil. If nothing else, Anonymous reminds us that the plays attributed to Shakespeare are some of the most powerful works in the English language, and the man is as compelling as ever.
Drama: 6/10

Antz (1998)
Starring: Woody Allen, Sharon Stone
Directors: Eric Darnell, Tim Johnson
Plot: A neurotic, individualistic ant searching for a better life tries to win the affections of the colony's future queen while getting implicated in a nefarious plot to destroy the worker force.
Review: One of the first full-length computer animated features out of the gate after the success of Toy Story, Antz is a daring example of the genre, an anthropomorphic comedy-adventure that has a very adult slant. The film got short-changed after Pixar's more family-firendly triumph A Bug's Life, the "other" ant adventure, which came out the same year. Yet this film has its charms, and it's nice to see one that is much more geared towards a grown-up audience than most present CGI fare, what with its Starship Troopers-like battle against termites (which will scare younger kids), its audacious wit, quick dialogue, and in-jokes. Poking great fun at both totalitarian / communist regimes and playing on the "workers unite" theme (funny socialist slogans abound), the film provides some political commentary that is exploited to amusing results, along with the usual ones of "one individual can make a difference" as our unsuspecting hero becomes the focus for social revolution. The hero of the tale is a part ready-made for it's dweebish leading-man as Allen is perfectly matched with the character, his age-old self-obsession and neurotic persona working wonders here as an ant with an inferiority complex. In fact, he hasn't been this good in his own movies since Hannah and Her Sisters. An all-star array of voice actors ranging from Stone as the pampered princess, Hackman as the callous general, to Sylvester Stallone, Anne Bancroft, Christopher Walken and Jennifer Lopez all do a fine job. Despite its brief running time, the film manages to be both breezy, lively, and quite funny. Though the then-impressive computer animation already seems rather primitive, it's stylish and good enough to work with the solid script and even allows for some beautiful scenery (especially the nature vistas or underground long shots). Kids might find only a modicum of repeat-viewing appeal in Antz, but adults will delight in a slightly more high-brow affair.
Entertainment: 7/10

Any Given Sunday (1999)
Starring: Al Pacino, Cameron Diaz, Dennis Quaid
Director: Oliver Stone
Plot: A football coach tries to keep his losing team together when his aging star quarterback gets injured and an up-and-coming rookie starts to take the spotlight.
Review: Director Oliver Stone doesn't hide the fact that this is an ode to the game of American football and to the modern-day gladiators that play the game. The story of the coach, players, owner and other associated people coming together and redeeming their lives thanks to the "purity" of the sport isn't anything really new, but the conflict surrounding the old coach and the new up-and-coming player is still good drama. The cast also brings in a fine, believable performance even through the hackneyed ending. But what makes Any Given Sunday special among other films of the genre is that Stone is truly a master of cinematography, rapid editing, imagery and manages to capture that bone-crunching intensity that is modern football. Any Given Sunday proves to be mostly style over substance, but it is still a mesmerizing, vastly entertaining drama.
Drama: 8/10

*Classic* Apocalypse Now (1979)
Starring: Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Plot: During the Vietnam war, a Captain receives orders to seek out and assassinate a renegade Colonel in Cambodia, but ends up seeking catharsis to his own involvement in the conflict.
Review: Apocalypse Now is that rare breed of film that is harrowing, whimsical, and entrancing all at the same time. The cinematography is absolutely amazing, the colors stunning, each shot a magnificent composition. The lush scenery, the long shots, show a place that is both achingly beautiful and terrifying. All the actors are top notch, and perform flawlessly. The film often takes on mythical proportions, and the story can be described as a modern retelling of Ulysses' Odyssey, describing not only a trip down the river through the heart of Vietnam, but also through the horror and madness of the war, and the dark depths of the human soul. The pyrotechnics are also some of the most impressive ever put to film. In the end, Apocalypse Now is an epic in every sense of the word. It is one of the best war films, indeed one of the best movies, ever produced. (Check out the extended review!) 
Drama: 10/10

Apocalypto (2006)
Starring: Rudy Youngbloo, Dalia Hernandez, Mayra Sebulo
Director: Mel Gibson
Plot: After a vicious band of Aztec warriors burn his village and takes his people into slavery, a young hunter escapes being sacrificed to the Gods and is chased through the jungle as he desperately tries to return to his wife and child.
Review: Providing a nice change from the usual Conquistador view point, Apocalypto brings an indigenous perspective to the last days of an ancient empire. The obvious allegory paralleling the declining Aztec civilization of yore to our own modern one (and especially our exploitation of the world around us) is hard to miss, but the film's real success is in its ability to transport audiences to another time and place. The story itself isn't as original as one would have expected and never achieves an epic feel - and two Deus Ex Machina-like coincidences that save our protagonist are hard to swallow - yet as a veritable experience, it hits the right notes. While the small community life in the jungle village are well examined, it's the scenes of our enslaved protagonists entering a bustling, chaotic city that are truly astounding and visually spectacular. As director, Gibson makes use of many of the "manly" devices from his own Braveheart as well as the more impressive elements from his immensely popular Christ epic The Passion, namely preserving the original language of the times, paying great attention to historical and social detail (the costumes and art direction are superb), and showing off a capacity for capturing great pain and vicious blood-letting (including the infamous human sacrifices) on celluloid. Some of these scenes of brutality - especially the ravaging of the jungle village that provides much of the film's emotional tension - go on for way too long, and are not for the faint of heart. Despite its lofty metaphors in the end the movie is no more than a capably rousing adventure, and even if it involves all the usual clichés from quicksand, to waterfall jumps, to - yes - wooden booby traps, the chase sequence through the jungle that marks the second half of the film is superbly kinetic and exciting. The most admirable aspect of the film, however, is the cast: speaking the obscure Yucatec language throughout the film and straddled with stereotypical roles, the indigenous, mostly untried actors are darn impressive and utterly convincing in their performances. Apocalypto isn't great cinema by any means but it is effective cinema and, unlike what some might expect, its the scenes of high adventure more than the dramatic ones that make it a worthwhile escape.
Entertainment: 7/10

Apollo 13 (1995)
Starring: Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton, Kevin Bacon
Director: Ron Howard
Plot: A debilitating explosion early into the Apollo 13 lunar mission turns an otherwise "routine" space flight into a battle for survival for the three-man crew. 
Review: Apollo 13, is an incredibly engaging dramatization of the already inherently dramatic true-life events that was the near-disaster of the Apollo 13 mission back in 1970. Ron Howard (Backdraft, Ransom) is a good story-teller and this is his best film to date - he successfully creates excitement and tension in the scenes both in space (as the astronauts try to stay alive) and on the ground (as experts on Earth race against the clock for a way to bring the crew back safely) all the while bringing a feeling of nostalgia for the '70s and the NASA space program. The all-star cast give some convincing, riveting performances, with special kudos to Gary Sinise as the team member left behind. The script is intelligent, fast-paced, suspenseful, scientifically and historically accurate, and full of convincing details. The special effects, done by ILM, are top-notch and make the story all the more vivid, mixing in brand-new sequences with re-made ones that look vaguely familiar. The zero-G effects are particularly impressive, thanks to the use of the spacecraft sets in a real "zero-G" plane. With some well-developed characters, a great story, and some cool effects, Apollo 13 is an excellent re-enactment of one of the most terrifying moments of the American space program.
Drama: 9/10

Appleseed (Japan - 2005)
Starring: Ai Kobayashi, Jurota Kosugi
Director: Shinji Aramaki
Plot: In a future world where war rages between humans and clones, a female soldier is taken to a utopian city where both co-exist and becomes the center in a conflict for the future of humanity.
Review: Based on the popular manga by Ghost in the Shell creator Masamune Shirow, the latest version of Appleseed (the second animated attempt at re-creating the rich material of the original series) is an above-average realization, but one that falls short of expectations. Using motion-capture CG and other advances in computer-aided animation, the look of the film is appropriately cool, a blend of new and old styles that make it a slick-looking anime, though it doesn't quite reach the photo-realism of the likes of Final Fantasy. There are some well-executed action sequences to be found, from powerful gunfights with mecha battle suits to dizzying chases among the city's skyscrapers, but it's The Matrix-influenced opening, when our heroine takes on heavy odds, that stands out. Like many anime films, however, there is too much reliance on dialog exposition which often slows down the pacing. To be fair, it's easier for the books to insert its political and social commentary among hundreds of pages than to do so in a 90-minute film, but the adaptation's attempt at simplifying the text's themes makes it somewhat awkward and does a disservice to the original's story-line, too. Also unfortunate is that little of the comic humor (thrown in on occasion to liven things up in the graphic novels) makes its way here and the characters come off as cold, with little to differentiate them from the usual genre cutouts. Still, Appleseed is a solid effort that's nice to look at, with enough thrills and ideas to be enjoyed on its own basis - one just can't help but think it would have taken just a bit more to make it great.
Entertainment: 7/10

Argo (2012)
Starring: Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, John Goodman, Alan Arkin
Director: Ben Affleck
Plot: Months after employees from the US Embassy are taken hostage by Iranian revolutionaries, a CIA exfiltration specialist concocts a wild, risky plot to use a fake sci-fi movie as cover to extract six Americans who found refuge at the home of the Canadian ambassador. 
Review: A masterful, suspenseful and inspiring true-life thriller, Argo is one of the surprise hits of the year, both entertaining and smart, and one that may well manage to get mainstream crowds into theaters. The film careens straight into the events of the 1979 Iran hostage crisis that saw 52 Americans held captive for 444 days. De-classified in 1997, and based on Mendez' own memoirs, the tale recounts one of the most fantastical escape plans ever devised to get 6 people out of harm's way. A surprisingly even-handed exposition as to the political motives of the two countries and what led to the crisis, capturing the events of the time without blaming or taking sides, keeping its focus on the story of escape. It may be referenced as a book-perfect case of international cooperation between spy agencies and governments, but most of all it's a stranger-than-fiction story of Hollywood in bed with the CIA and how these strange bedfellows made it work. There's some knowing ribbing at Tinseltown and humour in the situation even as dire as this one, buoyed by great comic performances from Arkin (the stereotypical producer) and Goodman (as Oscar-winning makeup artist John Chambers). And the CIA gets a rare pat in the back, with a grounded Bryan Cranston as the CIA boss out to do the right thing. As leading man, Affleck has screen presence, undoubtedly, even as he underplays the CIA Agent with a plan and a conscience. More importantly though, he's remade his screen career as a great director (Gone Baby Gone, The Town), and here he's firing on all cylinders. Using lots of close ups for dramatic effect and shaky cam to impress the chaos, he keeps all the different elements - the drama, suspense, politics and, yes, humour - in play without stumbling on pacing, keeping the narrative always engaging. Some dramatic license is expected to make events more cinematic - the last reels' narrow escape feels tacky compared to the film's attempt at gritty reality - but the tension is real throughout, none more so than the scene where the six go out into the crowded Tehran Bazaar pretending to be a film crew our on a location shoot. Great movie-making that ends up explaining American-Iranian tensions more clearly than anything that's ever come out of Hollywood. 
Drama: 8/10

The Aristocats (1970)
Starring: Phil Harris, Eva Gabor, Sterling Holloway
Director: Wolfgang Reitherman
Plot: When a butler finds out his mistress is leaving her inheritance to her cat and kittens, he decides to strand her cat and kittens far from the mansion, leaving the felines to rely on an alley cat to lead them back home.
Review: One of Disney's better efforts of the 60`s and 70`s, The Aristocats has its charms but still remains one of the least interesting animated films from the Mouse House. Taking pretty much the same plot as The Lady and the Tramp, the filmmakers showed a lack of originality or inspiration. The narrative is also slow going, and kids will tune out until mid-way through. The adventures and animal animation is fine enough when it keeps up with the felines, but dawdles and loses steam when it shifts focus from the cats, such as when it goes off on a subplot regarding a pair of English ducks or the tribulations of the butler to remove the evidence of his deed from two dogs, a downright boring sequence. And except for one instance, the soundtrack is nothing to write home about, either. What keeps the film from being a banal entry in the Disney canon however is some decent visuals (using the unfinished-drawings style so effective in 101 Dalmatians), some strong cat characters (expertly voiced by Harris and star Gabor), and - easily the only memorable highlight of the film - an excellent musical number with Scat and his cool cats (presented with some hallucinogenic colors and era-influenced Jazzy tunes). The Aristocats is clearly not a classic but for younger audiences (and nostalgic adults) its few strengths may be enough to pass the time.
Entertainment: 5/10

The Aristocrats (2005)
Starring: George Carlin, Gilbert Gottfried, Robin Williams
Director: Paul Provenza
Plot: A hundred of America's most popular comedians share their version - and their thoughts behind - the dirtiest joke in showbiz.
Review: On the simplest level, the unrated documentary The Aristocrats is about the dirtiest joke of all time, a joke that's been told and retold privately since Vaudeville times inside the comedy biz, but one that has rarely been told to the public - until now. The joke itself involves incest, fecal matter, blood, and more vile details that are only limited to the imagination of the person telling the joke; the only real common point is the two-word punchline that makes up the title. As improvised by director Provenza and popular magician-comedian Penn, the film is a series of interviews that builds on the anecdotes, the careful analysis and the new renderings by its slew of entertainers - including mimes, magicians, stand-ups and TV actors. The punchline isn't funny enough to hold up to 100 different recountings - even by 100 of the most popular American stand-up celebrities like Robin Williams, George Carlin, Drew Carey, and many more, with some original depictions by, among others, a mime, a card shark, and cartoons - but there are such vulgar, original extremes to be found here that one can't resist listening in and, often enough relishing in the bawdiness of the idea, even as we're appalled by hearing it. Everyone gets a chance to explain why the tale has had such longevity, and it's obvious that there's a definite camaraderie involved between comics and a definite enjoyment on their part to impress their peers with their version of it. What comes out is foremost an inside look at the comics themselves as well as an exploration into the context, style and delivery of a joke. For the rest of us, The Aristocrats is an opportunity to see so many famous comedians letting loose with material that will never be shown on prime time.
Documentary / Entertainment: 7/10

Arlington Road (1999)
Starring: Jeff Bridges, Tim Robbins, Joan Cusack
Director: Mark Pellington
Plot: A college professor who teaches a course on terrorism suspects that his friendly suburban neighbor might actually be part of a terrorist conspiracy.
Review: Taking as a basis the terrorist bombing of a US federal building in Oklahoma in 1996, Arlington Road creates a conspiracy/paranoia thriller on American right-wing terrorism. The premise is an interesting one, but the script tries too hard to push all the right buttons to get an emotional reaction from the audience, relying too often on typical Hollywood coincidences and conventions. The story does have a few good moments, some decent thrills, and a "trick" climax, but nothing here is that surprising or terribly original. In fact, the ending is telegraphed half-way through the film. The trio of good actors doesn't really help the film either; though Jeff Bridges is always watchable and almost believable, Robbins and Cusack are stuck doing typical creepy characters with one-dimensional performances. Arlington Road ends up being a decent thriller, but one marred by a bland execution.
Entertainment: 5/10

Armageddon (1998)
Starring: Bruce Willis, Ben Affleck, Billy Bob Thornton
Director: Michael Bay
Plot: As humanity's last hope, a crack team of oil drillers is sent into space to destroy an asteroid the size of Texas which is on a collision course with Earth.
Review: Armageddon, the latest archetype of the big studio action film, is filled with lots of razzle-dazzle and efficient, lowest-common-denominator fun, but is mired by its gaping plot holes and its complete lack of heart. The film starts off well but gets mired in goofy, socially inept comedy, before half-convincingly revving up the high-tech action in a thrill ride that pulls out all the stops in its aim to beat its audience into submission. The conflict between the band of social misfits and the up-tight NASA scientists is sometimes amusing, with a training montage that plays like a spoof of The Right Stuff, but their nonchalance when faced with their dire mission is awkward. The many thrills, if one if able to suspend all disbelief and a great deal of logic, are of the grand tradition of silly Hollywood summer blockbusters, with first-class special effects, from the shuttle launch to the barren asteroid itself with the partial destruction of New York and the obliteration of Paris as particularly impressive highlights. Director Bay (Pearl Harbor, The Rock) is a magnificent technician, and the cinematography and directing are first-rate, but his over-bearing melodramatic and bludgeoning narrative style, with his usual blinding editing, is enough to make you roll your eyes at its excesses. Sure, there's plenty to deride here: a ludicrous story, a boring romantic sub-plot, unnecessary and unconvincing character interactions / development, science that's absolutely laughable (including one howling scene when fires rage in a vacuum). And yet it delivers exactly what it promises - SFX action galore, low-brow un-PC comedy, and out-of-this-world spectacle in a testosterone-filled rush. Eventually, though, the dumbed-down script makes the film seem dreadfully long, and the stark film-making makes it all a bit too dark, for this type of popcorn film-making. Willis is fine doing his cool, slightly distanced "action star" turn, and is helped out by fine ensemble cast (including thespians Thornton, Liv Tyler and the inimitable Steve Buscemi) that is unfortunately completely wasted by the silly, one-dimensionality of the characters. As pure entertainment drivel and dumb, loud fun Armageddon leads the pack - it's just too bad it didn't aim for something higher.
Entertainment: 6/10

Army of Darkness (1993)
Starring: Bruce Campbell, Embeth Davidz, Marcus Gilbert
Director: Sam Raimi
Plot: While battling supernatural forces, a store clerk is transported to the English Middle Ages where he must rally warring factions to battle an army of the dead and retrieve the Necronomicon that will return him home.
Review: The final installment in the popular horror trilogy, Army of Darkness is a direct sequel to that masterpiece in high-camp horror offerings Evil Dead 2, although one graced with real Hollywood financing. More money doesn't always mean a better movie, but thankfully director Raimi (Darkman, Spider-Man) still graces his final entry in the series with low-budget sensibilities, and many of the things that made the first such crazed, inventive comic forays into the horror genre are still very much in evidence. It's a rare mainstream treat and most of it is quite unexpected, full of imaginative stuff that renders homage to everything from Spaghetti westerns, to King Arthur epics, to Ray Harryhausen stop-action skeleton fights including some ideas all its own, all with its own blend of twisted almost slapstick humor and dark, brooding atmosphere. True, the outright horror elements have been toned down, but the comic-book styled humor and events have not - and that's a good thing. Raimi's frenetic camera shots are also on display, though not as obviously breakneck as previous incursions. Raimi favorite Campbell returns as the anti-hero Ash, and he's in top form, ready to kick ass and chew bubblegum - and he's all out of bubblegum. It's obvious Campbell is having a ball, and his snide remarks when faced with a 13th-century mob screaming for his head is classic stuff. If there's one miss it's the climax, a huge siege-battle with an army of the Undead that's fun stuff, but feels a tad like wasted energy. Though nowhere near the cult-classic status of its predecessors, Army of Darkness is more inventive and entertaining than most other flicks out of Tinseltown, and for fans of the genre it's a must-see.
Entertainment: 7/10

Around the World in 80 Days (1956)
Starring: David Niven, Cantinflas, Finlay Currie
Director: Michael Anderson Sr.
Plot: At the turn of the 19th century, an obsessively punctual English gentleman takes on a bet with his peers that he can travel around the globe in only 80 days aided only by his butler.
Review: Though an Oscar winner of Best Picture, Around the World in 80 Days is a terribly dated, disappointing adaptation of the classic Jules Verne novel, one that minimizes the adventure aspect (and the clash of cultures) of the original material. This is a tongue-in-cheek comedy, first and foremost and what we get is way too much emphasis on excessive, heavy-handed spectacle; from the bull-fighting stadiums of Spain to the Kali cults of India, these are all grand and impressive-looking but lack the energy necessary to keep our attention. In fact the movie seems to be an excuse to show off the costumes and sets from previous productions, perhaps. It doesn't help that the film feels overly extended and sometimes silly to our modern eyes. Undoubtedly, this is less impressive than in its heyday when such a display must have been impressive for those not reared on travel shows and documentaries. There's also not much of a plot here, instead relying on the huge production values, impressive scenery and its star-studded cameos to impress the crowds. Some qualities do come out, though: it's a fun frolic around the world with a very 19th-century (and very 1950's Hollywood) view of the world, and the light tone makes it an easy-to-watch family flick. It's also home to some pretty good cinematography, though the use of a camera attached to the different modes of transportation we see used here (from a bicycle to an elephant) seems oddly annoying. Spanish actor Cantinflas, as the jack-of-all-trades valet, is easily the best thing in the film, performing stunts, acrobatics and his acting bits with charm and innocence. Niven, playing to type as a shallow, uptight Englishman does fine, but he's obviously here only as a story anchor. A young, and unrecognizable Shirley MacLaine, as the Indian princess, also makes a starring appearance. As for the rest, the cast knows their minor roles are all included for comic relief and act accordingly. Still, the myriad colorful costumes, zany characters and exotic locales makes up a bit for the otherwise lengthy tale. Around the World in 80 Days is nowhere near being a classic, but it's an amusing, ambitious travel log of exotic lands as seen by traditional Hollywood filmmakers.
Entertainment: 5/10

Around the World in 80 Days (2004)
Starring: Jackie Chan, Steve Coogan, Jim Broadbent
Director: Frank Coraci
Plot: At the turn of the 19th century, an English gentleman-inventor embarks on a journey around the world with his new-found Chinese valet after taking on a bet to circumnavigate the globe in 80 days.
Review: A disappointing display of tamed, Disney-esque kiddy fare, Around the World in 80 Days is another high-concept idea gone through the Hollywood blender with poor results. Barely inspired by Jules Verne's classic novel, the script aims more at creating a modern remake of the 1950's film with David Niven. As such, this should have been a grand affair, a sumptuous travel diary of many continents, but unfortunately it lacks not only that film's charm or any type of scenery but it's sense of exotic adventure as well. With the use of ridiculous inventions, unimaginative narrative, colorful but simplistic art direction, and obvious stage-prone filming, this all plays out like a live-action cartoon version of the original story. Chan is still a talented acrobat (he even repeats a fight scene from Drunken Master II), but he's wasted here kicking and falling in his best slapstick mode, making a mess of his considerable talents. It's also a sad turn for Brit comic Coogan who is completely wasted here. The only one who survives intact is Broadbent, playing the villainous Englishman so over-the-top it's actually amusing. What the film does retain are the latter movie's use of star cameos, with the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger making fun of his own persona, Chan buddies Owen Wilson and Sammo Hung, and more. To be fair, there are some anachronistic gags to be had for the enjoyment of adults, and the whole affair is rarely boring, but despite the best efforts of the cast, this is only truly entertaining for very young audiences. In the end, 80 Days is a rather depressing array of commercial filmmaking and bland story-telling.
Entertainment: 3/10

The Art of War (2000)
Starring: Wesley Snipes, Marie Matiko, Anne Archer
Director: Christian Duguay
Plot: A special agent working for the UN must clear his name and unravel the mystery behind the assassination of the Chinese ambassador before an important trade deal collapses.
Review: The Art of War is an action suspense film that wants to up the ante in the political thriller genre, and as smarter-than-average entertainment it works. Sure, the story is derivative of many other types of Wesley Snipes thrillers such as U.S. Marshals, and the clichés and Hollywood conventions mar an otherwise interesting, and complex, conspiracy-laden story. Thankfully director Duguay manages to imbue a certain elegance and substance to the film along with the slick visual style and fast pacing, that bring moments of his (vastly superior) low-budget effort The Assignment to mind. The action scenes are well done, including a few sequences showing off Snipes' martial arts skills, and some imitating both The Matrix and director John Woo's style in look and feel. The script is also tightly plotted, occasionally clever, and ensures that there is never a dull moment between the political machinations and gunfights. The Art of War may not be a memorable or original thriller, but it's a solid, entertaining effort. 
Entertainment: 7/10

Arthur and the Invisibles (Arthur et les Minimoys) (France - 2006)
Starring: Freddie Highmore, Mia Farrow, Madonna
Director: Luc Besson
Plot: To keep his grandparents' house from being seized by land owners, a ten-year-old boy gets shrunk to miniature size and goes on a quest for a fabled treasure hidden in the gardens, in a fantasy land of tiny creatures.
Review: Adapted from his own popular series of children's books, writer / director Besson has created a fun, if awfully familiar, frolic into the world of family-friendly movie-making. Better known for his films like La Femme Nikita and The Professional, Besson's first entry in almost a decade blends well some contagious amounts of energy and some easy sentimentality. The film was obviously made for kids, and it succeeds at keeping its audience's attention by making sure that things are always moving along with something new around every corner, creating a fantasy adventure (part Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, part Dark Crystal) without too many scary parts for young ones. Visually speaking, the land of the Minimoys is a beautifully computer-rendered fantasy, making its 1960's-era homestead a "reality" that just can't compare. Still, even if Highmore and Farrow play their parts a little too theatrically the live-action bits don't deter from the enjoyment. For adults, much of the predictable story and resolution may feel a tad too familiar - including some anachronistic references plugged into the movie version for "necessary" pop-culture in-jokes - but it's entertaining enough to keep even older viewers amused. It sure helps that some impressive names make up the voice acting credits including Madonna, Jimmy Fallon, Robert De Niro, Harvey Keitel, Emilio Estevez and David Bowie - from object of affection to humorous side-kick, without forgetting the suave and evil nemesis, they're fun creations. As a children's film, Arthur and the Invisibles makes for a nice, classically-told fantasy / adventure flick; adult enjoyment will all depend on how much you can accept a re-tread of other films.
Entertainment: 6/10

Arthur Christmas (2011)
Starring: James McAvoy, Jim Broadbent, Bill Nighy 
Director: Sarah Smith
Plot: On Christmas night, Santa's youngest son goes on an adventure to deliver one final, misplaced gift to a child missed by his genius brother's high-tech operation.
Review: The spirit of the holidays is alive and well with Arthur Christmas, a colorful 3D Yuletide adventure that's briskly paced and wonderfully amusing for kids and grown-ups alike. The second computer-animated feature from Aardman after Flushed Away, the British production company that brought us the zany claymation Wallace & Gromit and Chicken Run brings some creative explanations to every kids' question: "How does Santa get all the gifts to everyone in a single night?". Well, it involves military precision, timing and thousands of elves, for one, and the faith of at least one simple soul who promises that "no child will be left behind!". The storyline and some of the gags may be aimed for an older crowd, but everyone can appreciate the obvious warmth of its sentiments and its characters, along with the impossible escapades at the helm of Grand Santa's sleigh or Santa's new city-sized, super-fast flying craft (how else would he make it around the world so fast?). The film also mines the voice talents of an amazing array of actors ranging from superb English thespians like Broadbent, Nighy, Imelda Staunton, Hugh Laurie, Michael Palin and Robbie Coltrane among many others, making it all the more fun. Some Aardman fans may be disappointed by the lack of true innovation and the lack of all those little details that made us giggle in their Award-winning, hand-crafted shorts, but you'd be a Grinch not to be amused and touched by this bright concoction. A truly enjoyable family movie that's worth viewing again next Christmas.
Entertainment: 7/10

The Artist (2011)
Starring: Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Bejo, John Goodman, James Cromwell
Director: Michel Hazanavicius
Plot: Unable to make the transition with the advent of talking pictures, a dashing, silent movie star's popularity fades along with his fortune just as a young dancer is set for her big break.
Review: A black-and-white, silent film meant for mass consumption could not have been an easy sell, yet The Artist is a nostalgic throwback that manages to be flamboyant, clever and charming. Forget historical accuracy; this is a delightful homage to the glorious golden age of 1920's and 30's Hollywood and the actors who made its success, at at time when epic silent-movie productions and actors were being replaced by new faces with the advent of the "talkies". Think of A Star is Born mixed with Singin' in the Rain along with decades worth of Hollywood features all rolled into one big tender, melodramatic romantic comedy. As directed by Hazanavicius (who also teamed up with his leads on the spy parody OSS 117 and its sequel), what could have been a mere stunt actually plays out like a fine old-school film in its own right, a humorous, wondrous, heartfelt love letter to the movies that uses all the foregone cinematic techniques such as soft focus close-ups, inter titles and lively, constant musical accompaniment. Yet, looking at it with modern eyes, the filmmakers can't help but add many movie references and clever touches, playing on the fact of being both silent and B&W. To be sure subtle it's not, as the symbolism of his downward spin into oblivion and her rise to fame make evident, but neither were the films it emulates. All that said, it's the performances of the two leads that really make this an endearing, often emotional affair. Dujardin plays the dashing, swashbuckling Douglas Fairbanks-type character to perfection with a million-dollar-smile, capturing a panache that would make his '20's peers proud. Bejo, as the small-town girl who hits it big, is just a ball of energy and her smile gives Dujardin's a run for its money. Adding heft to the cast, vets John Goodman, as a producer, and James Cromwell, as the loyal driver, along with Dujardin's scene-stealing companion terrier. So embrace its nature: anyone with any love of film should be seeking The Artist out - in this case, silence really is golden.
Entertainment: 8/10

Ashes of Time (Hong Kong - 1994)
Starring: Tony Leung, Leslie Cheung, Brigitte Lin
Director: Wong Kar-Wai
Plot: In a mythical world set out of time, a series of lone mercenary swordsmen contemplate their lives between battles.
Review: Ashes of Time can best be described as an adult fairy-tale, full of fantasy elements and richly textured visuals. It is an fascinating collection of heroes, swordsmen and villains (played by some of the biggest Hong Kong stars) whose non-linear stories intertwine through the life of the narrator. There is little action in the film but what we do see is quite amazing, filmed in such a way as to remind one of a series of dynamic pictures, unfocused, darting, and confusing. Indeed there are quite a few quiet moments where the camera stares off into the desolate backgrounds, or at all these mythical characters, their internal turmoil shown hard on their faces, all longing for something they can never attain. The absolutely stunning, breath-taking cinematography by Christopher Doyle look like paintings, elevating the film to a piece of cinematic art; along with the beautiful musical score, they evoke the perfect atmosphere for the story. Director Wong Kar-Wai (best known for his low-budget dramas Chungking Express and Happy Together) definitely broke the bank here both financially and creatively to produce a beautiful, mature tale, full of dreamlike events and mythical characters that will haunt you long after the film has ended. Hong Kong Film Critics Best Picture of 1994. A must-see.
Entertainment: 9/10

The Assassination of Richard Nixon (2004)
Starring: Sean Penn, Naomi Watts, Don Cheadle
Director: Niels Mueller
Plot: Feeling betrayed by his family and country, a down-on-his-luck divorced salesman decides to give a blow for the underdogs of society by assassinating president Nixon.
Review: Loosely based the true story of would-be assassin Samuel Byck, who actually did plot to kill the president in 1974, The Assassination of Richard Nixon is an intimate character study of one man's disintegration, and the darker realities of working-class America. More than anything, it's a portrait of the meek in our society, the small cogs lost in the machine for whom the American Dream is a nightmare of disappointment and dashed hopes. Co-writer / director Mueller captures well the disillusionment of the period and, making sensible (if bleak) comparisons between the honest man, makes his intentions to destroy the lying president all the more compelling. It's unfortunate, then, that the building inner tension that promises to make him explode into violence is mitigated by such a slow pace. Some may say all the better, perhaps, to reveal how pitiful our protagonist is, but his disintegration is too calculated. If nothing else, however, the film is a career showcase for leading man Penn who manages to inhabit this pathetic, broken loser to a "T". There's solid supporting turns from Watts as his estranged wife and Cheadle as his only friend but this is really Penn's film. The real irony here is that, despite all his determination and rightful fury to leave a mark, Byck ended up being but a footnote. Thankfully, the film fares better, and it's a shame it has been relegated as such. 
Drama: 6/10

Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)
Starring: Austin Stoker, Darwin Joston, Laurie Zimmer
Director: John Carpenter
Plot: A well-armed and well-organized street gang lays siege to an almost-abandonned police station in a depressed part of Los Angeles seeking revenge for the death of one of their own.
Review: With its low-budget production, low-brow thrills and its take-no-prisoners attitude, Assault on Precinct 13 is a terrific, true B-movie without too much care for conventions or rules. There's little in terms of plot, the film zooming in to its exploitation roots without any extraneous set-up. Bodies pile up, bullets fly, and (horror of horrors for a mainstream film) a little girl gets offed on a whim. All of it is brought with a surprisingly engaging manner thanks to some efficient filmmaking and to some quickly-defined relationships between its stock cast of characters. Though the villains appear to be simple gangs, making them organized, nameless, and a silent, merciless threat, not caring if they live or die, throwing themselves at the precinct's barricades to be gunned down en masse, makes the events reminiscent of Night of the Living Dead. In fact, though intended to be an homage to the western Rio Bravo, it appears Carpenter has created a zombie movie without using a supernatural excuse for its creation. Carpenter's affinity for suspense and building of tension, though not as developed or expertly presented as his best features of the '80s such as The Thing or Prince of Darkness, are well in evidence here. Add to that a touch of humor and a catchy (if repetitive) electronic music scored by Carpenter himself and you've got a terrific debut for an under-appreciated director. As ruthless as the script is minimal, Assault on Precinct 13 is a certified cult classic.
Entertainment: 6/10

Assault on Precinct 13 (2005)
Starring: Ethan Hawke, Laurence Fishburne, Gabriel Byrne
Director: Jean-Francois Richet
Plot: On New Year's Eve, on the night a decrepit police station is to be decommissioned, its skeleton crew must protect a vicious crime lord from the wrath of a corrupt SWAT team bent on killing everyone who came in contact with him.
Review: A big-budget remake of the high-concept John Carpenter cult-classic from 1976, Assault on Precinct 13 keeps the basic premise in place - that of a cop station under siege - while updating the details to allow for more mainstream firepower. Whereas the original was limited in gunplay but long on tension, the latest version does the opposite providing lots of violent, requisite (albeit very effective) bullet-ridden fights and explosions. Much like the original, however, there's no predicting who's going to bite the bullet which adds a smidgen of suspense to the gritty proceedings. French director Richet has created an efficiently paced, stylish thriller here and there's no denying that it delivers the goods. The character dynamics, unfortunately, don't go much beyond the cliché and even the tension between the trapped cops and armed prisoners - and especially between haunted officer Hawke and cold-as-ice criminal Fishburne - feels forced and doesn't really make for interesting drama. The same could be said about the stereotype personas as well, from vixen secretary (a sexy Drea de Matteo) to red-neck cop (Brian Dennehey) but the strong cast of B-list actors - though never quite inspired - play their parts with aplomb. If you can disregard the occasional skips in logic, this new version of Assault on Precinct 13 makes for a fast-paced actioner that's smarter than most.
Entertainment: 6/10

Asterix and Obelix take on Caesar (Astérix et Obélix Contre César) (France - 1999)
Starring: Christian Clavier, Gerard Depardieu, Roberto Benigni
Director: Claude Zidi
Plot: Thanks to some magic potion, two Gaulois friends fend off the constant attacks on their tiny village from Roman troops who have conquered the rest of France.
Review: Based on characters and stories created by Goscinny and Uderzo, Asterix and Obelix take on Caesar is a fine adaptation of a beloved European classic and was one of France's biggest-budgeted productions. For those who aren't aware of the original comic books, the cast of colorful characters are a modern-day version of the Gaulois of old. All the characters are on display, as are some of the more familiar (and amusing) passages from the strips, recreating much of the energy, character interactions and pacing. Also in evidence are the grand sets, armies of extras, and bright costumes to help recreate the visual look of the source material. Not an easy job to adapt such a beloved work to the big screen, but though it's not perfect (for that, see the sequel, Operation Cleopatra), director Zidi manages to keep it surprisingly close to the feel of the popular European comic books, bringing all the different elements together. The humor and narrative ably capture the defining elements of its source material, with the effects-enhanced comic-type fight scenes (with the Roman infantry only fodder for our heroes) working well to bring the silliness to film. Fans will be mostly pleased by the results, yet for all its successes, it also never quite reaches beyond its origins to find a style of its own. The cast is good, with popular star Depardieu as the gargantuan Obelix and Clavier as the clever Asterix. We also get, as a marvelous casting choice, the inimitable funny-man Benini as Caesar's right-hand man. Despite some flaws, Asterix and Obelix take on Caesar is a lavish comedy-adventure that will please discerning viewers and fans alike.
Entertainment: 7/10

The Astronaut's Wife (1999)
Starring: Johnny Depp, Charlize Theron, Joe Morton
Director: Rand Ravich
Plot: Months after a bizarre accident in space left her husband in the void for two minutes, an astronaut's wife begins to suspect that her hubby and her unborn twins are not human.
Review: Trying for a low-key, high-concept sci-fi thriller, The Astronaut's Wife comes off more as a bland domestic suspense pic. Admittedly, the film's premise isn't anything original (see the superior 1950's I Married a Monster From Outer Space), but that would have been alright if at least there was something to provide some suspense, thrills, or some sense of drama. Unfortunately, most of the film fails to offer up anything but the usual cliché Hollywood chills, creating an oddly watered-down version of Rosemary's Baby. The linear, predictable story takes a while to get anywhere, and even then it's slow going. It's a stylish enough effort, with some quite decent photography, but somehow the whole production rings false, adding to the sense of detachment we get from the proceedings and eliminating any sense of tension we're supposed to feel. There are also some capably creepy moments and some neat sci-fi ideas, but these are lost amid the B-movie elements of the production. Though the film revs up in the last twenty minutes, by then we've lost any real interest. Two scenes, however, lift the movie up a notch: First, there's an impressively edited 30-second montage as Theron panics in a subway that pushes events to its climax. Second, the final confrontation, which probably used a good portion of the film's budget in a single special effect sequence, seems to be part of another, better movie. As for the twist ending, it's rather banal and unsatisfying. Depp hardly forces himself for the role as the possessed astronaut and isn't nearly as menacing as he should be to convince, but Theron does a fine job as a woman whose paranoia over her husband and her mysterious pregnancy runs rampant. Too derivative, too heavy-handed and too melodramatic to be really entertaining, The Astronaut's Wife may have been a fine Outer Limits or X-Files episode, but as a feature film, it's hardly worth the effort.
Entertainment: 4/10

The A-Team (2010)
Starring: Liam Neeson, Bradley Cooper, Jessica Biel
Director: Joe Carnahan
Plot: Framed for a crime they did not commit, an elite special forces team of Iraq War veterans escape custody to clear their names and stop a covert government agency from getting their hands on a currency-printing press.
Review: There's silly, there's over-the-top, and then there's The A-Team. The big-screen adaptation of the hit TV series of the 80's starring George Peppard and Mr. T has been long in the making, but it was worth the wait. With a bigger budget, the stunts, special effects and pyrotechnics have all been dialed-up a few notches to meet summer blockbuster expectations. As one character states: "they specialize in the ridiculous" and there's lots of improbable situations, like the scene where they're shot out of the sky, jump into a parachuting tank and end up "flying" it - ludicrous but hilarious. Having some experience in making frenetically-paced action / comedies with his last film, Smokin' Aces, director Carnahan (Narc) ensures that the typical double-crosses, predictable twists and turns don't mar the enjoyment of the film. Most importantly, he keeps the spirit of the show intact: the camaraderie, the snappy banter and the improbable situations leaves more of an impression than the solid action sequences that are sometimes marred by jumbled, quick edits. Head-liner Neeson is loads of fun as the team leader, chewing the scenery (and his cigar) with wild abandon, and the rest of the cast seems to be having a grand ol' time, but it's rising-star Cooper who proves to be the real hero of the film as the suave ladies' man and man of action Face. Though it loses steam in the convoluted finale, The A-Team ends up being the summer's best surprise, a joyous action / adventure romp that all comes together in the best Hollywood style. And fans of the original show all love it when a plan comes together.
Entertainment: 7/10

Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001)
Starring: Michael J. Fox, Cree Summer, James Garner
Directors: Gary Trousdale, Kirk Wise
Plot: Using an old book left by his grand-father, an intrepid young linguist joins a rag-tag team of mercenary explorers to find the mysterious lost civilization of Atlantis.
Review: Atlantis marks a very different direction from Disney's typical summer musical fare, an action film aimed more at the teen market (while still made acceptable for kids) that is akin to an anime version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea with a dash of pulp cliff-hangers thrown in for good measure. We are quickly taken into this animated adventure where spectacle is king, but while watching all this eye-candy and lavish splendor, one can't help but be disappointed by how shallow it all is. The story starts off well enough, and ends with a 20-minute climactic action sequence that is worth sitting through the longish center-piece, a half-hour excursion into the necessary teen romance and some tepid arcane Atlantean mumbo-jumbo. The story is also filled with an assortment of amusing, if rather stereotypical, throw-away characters. The real highlight, though, are the truly thrilling action scenes, from submarine chases to dizzying aerial dogfights, with plenty of Indiana Jones-type escapades thrown in. The combination of computer and old-fashioned cell animation is used to great effect, making the best moments of the film truly impressive to look at. The backdrops of Atlantis are magnificent, and the art direction conveys the sense of magnificence well. The characters however are drawn blocky, in a look that would seem more at home on a weekly Saturday morning cartoon than in a big-budget flick. Stylish and fast-paced it all is, yet much is of it is so derivative and emotionally simplistic (with a typically easy, morally drab denouement) that one can't help but yearn for a more mature outing from these creators. Atlantis is a "big" movie that ends up being entertaining, and even thrilling, but not quite satisfying - missing is the wit, charm and endearing characters that made other Disney features memorable.
Entertainment: 6/10

Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002)
Starring: Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Hayden Christensen
Director: George Lucas
Plot: As the forces of the Dark Side put their final plans to destroy the Republic in motion, a Jedi and his ill-tempered apprentice follow the trail of a mercenary assassin to an illegal operation creating a vast clone army.
Review: First off, let's say that Attack of the Clones is better than the last outing, with a storyline edging us closer to the end of the Republic, and with an even more pronounced use of computer wizardry. The film's mood is dark and gritty with a texture to match, a definite contrast with the colorful, cartoonish The Phantom Menace, with a well-defined sense of foreboding bubbling to the surface, be it from the political machinations, the large-scale death and destruction or Anakin's ill-temper growing to a murderous rage. The romance between the ex-queen and the young Anakin, which includes some of the most dreadful dialogue ever, drags the middle part of the film, but then Lucas isn't strong on human relationships unless it's to paint a canvas with broad strokes to push the story forward. There are, however, many instances for fans, from a young Bobba Fett's beginnings to an intro of the future Uncle Owen, that set the stage for the events of the original trilogy. But forget about all that: what we expect is space opera stuff and the film delivers in spades. The digital effects are usually quite impressive when used as backgrounds, filling minute details of a ride through the capital Coruscant, or bringing to life very alien creations, allowing the Star Wars universe a greater depth and feel than it's ever had. Of course, these effects are best used to allow superhuman Jedi feats, impossible moving camera shots, and breath-taking action sequences. An epic battle, grander than anything you've ever likely seen, filled with hundreds of droids, clone warriors, spaceships and laser blasts makes up the last half-hour, and they've obviously played all their cards to make it as exciting as possible. Even Yoda is now all CGI, allowing for a crowd-pleasing light-saber duel with the Dark Lord played by B-movie legend Christopher Lee in another sinister supporting role. McGregor gets a chance to shine as the mature Obi-Wan showing a true Alec Guiness-like presence. As for Christensen and Portman, they look the part though they won't get any acting awards for their work here. Oh, and on an important side note, Jar-Jar appearances are minimal, with most of the humor once again being directed to the pairing of C-3PO and R2-D2. Making comparison to the original trilogy is rather unfair; audiences have now become more blasé, and the new films have tried to be more sophisticated to compensate. Taken on its own merits, Attack of the Clones is a visually stunning, entertaining effects extravaganza that does manage to take you to a galaxy far, far away and enjoy the ride.
Entertainment: 8/10

August 32nd On Earth (Un 32 aout sur terre) (Quebec - 1998)
Starring: Pascale Bussieres, Alexis Martin, Serge Theriault
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Plot: After a near-fatal accident leaves her questioning her life and desperately wanting a child, a woman convinces a male friend to embark on a trip to the desert flats of Salt Lake City to impregnate her.
Review: Impressive, touching, funny, and always engaging, August 32nd On Earth is a pleasant surprise - a movie that has character, depth and yet is exceedingly watchable even to a mainstream audience. The film parallels its protagonist's outlook, at times distant and cold (but oh-so watcheable) and other times emotionally alive and resonant. Unlike most mainstream dramas, the plot here is - like life - quite unpredictable shifting from hope to chaos, the story turning in unexpected directions (and in some strange locales) that leaves us intrigued as to the final outcome yet without compromising its characters and set-up situations. There's a finely tuned, ever-present sense of humor on human relationships that sometimes skids into darkness, and a strong feeling of pathos to be found as well, all of these moments flowing quite naturally with the narrative. First-time director Villeneuve (who went on make one of Quebec's quirkiest and best films of the last 5 years with Maelstrom) shows a fine control and flair for his material. The cinematography is slick, well-done and shows some terrific production values. This is also beautifully shot, from the intimate moments to the spectacular desert scenes taken from up high as the two protagonists wander about trying to find their way. Yet despite its occasional lapse into the definitely surreal, the film always retains a deep sense of poignancy. Most importantly, it never loses the focus on its characters, something that doesn't seem hard to do with such well acted by both leads (though the terrific Bussieres easily steals the show). Though it concludes in fitting tragedy, the entire film remains a bitter-sweet portrait of a woman in search of something other than herself. Richly textured and thoughtful, August 32nd on Earth is a definite - if unfortunately little-seen - gem of a film that not only shows the promise of its director, but also that of modern Quebec cinema.
Drama: 8/10

Aurore (Quebec - 2005)
Starring: Marianne Fortier, Serge Postigo. Hélène Bourgeois Leclerc 
Director: Luc Dionne
Plot: In the early 1900's, a young girl faces terrible physical abuse at the hands of her new stepmother while her father and neighbors try to ignore the signs that could have saved her.
Review: A true tale of unimaginable childhood abuse and tragedy that has long been part of the local folklore, Aurore recounts the events that shocked the nation. Following her death and the media blitz that followed, the young Aurore Gagnon was elevated to the title of Martyr in the minds of the Quebec population collectively shamed by the incident, and the physical punishments she endured was given a Passion-like quality. The narrative, then, follows these established elements to the story, with events dramatized for emotional impact. Despite this, the story itself is well handled and close enough to reality to excuse its occasional foray into sensationalism. Surprisingly, many of the "punishments" don't make it to the screen, the film focusing as much on the psychological abuses as the physical ones. Writer / director Dionne, best known for his French-language series Omerta, brings a sense of familiarity to the times and touches on similar themes of group responsibility in his work. Here he makes it clear that the real culprits are the Church and the villagers, both turning a blind eye to the violence perpetrated in their community despite the clear signs and their own obvious misgivings. The local priest, especially, takes much of the blame for the lack of action, denigrating his flock and keeping them subjugated with fear, a theme that is often repeated in Quebec films, a backlash against the Church for having kept its followers under its thumb. Playing the much-maligned parents, Postigo and Leclerc do fine, helped by a strong supporting cast including Yves Jacques as the manipulative priest and Rémi Girard as the officer of the peace. But it's the two young girls who steal the show: Alice Morel-Michaud as the 6-year-old Aurore is terribly precocious, and Fortier, as the 12-year-old Aurore give a heart-breaking performance. A reminder to audiences of the horrors of household violence, Aurore is an effective melodrama that will grab hold of its target audience and will ensure that the tragic tale keeps resonating in the province's conscience.
Drama: 7/10

Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997)
Starring: Mike Myers, Elizabeth Hurley
Director: Jay Roach
A funny, original take on the James Bond / Secret Agent spoof, pitting Mike Myers as Austin Powers against Mike Myers as the villainous Blofeld-like Dr. Evil. The two enemies are frozen in the '60s and come back to life to create havoc in the '90s. A little slow at times, but fun.
Comedy: 7/10
Entertainment: 7/10

Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (1999)
Starring: Mike Myers, Heather Graham
Director: Jay Roach
If you've seen the first Austin Powers, then you have an idea of what to expect. Dr. Evil takes the spotlight in this one, and all his lines are hysterical. On the plus side, this one is funnier, faster paced, and has higher production values than the first. On the negative side, it's no longer original, some of the jokes are flat (maybe due to the fact that we've all seen the preview too many times!), and there are too many (unnecessary, and usually unfunny) "body-fluid" jokes. Not for everyone, but if you know what to expect, it's decent comedy.
Comedy: 7/10
Entertainment: 6/10

Australia (2008)
Starring: Nicole Kidman, Hugh Jackman, Bryan Brown
Director: Baz Luhrmann
Plot: At the dawn of World War II, a British lady travels to Australia's unforgiving North to sell off her husband's far-away ranch only to find him murdered and her property target of a takeover plot, and is forced to put her faith in a cattle driver to take lead her animals to sale.
Review: An ambitious, sweeping epic, Australia is a gorgeous attempt at defining the Land Down Under in the first half of the 20th century as a place filled with adventure and romance - alas, if it's heart is in the right place, there's something missing in the simplistic telling. Writer / director Luhrmann has shown a vivid imagination, a strong sense of style, and glorious energy in his earlier efforts Romeo + Juliet and especially the magnificent Moulin Rouge!. Trying to capture the essence of the old Hollywood films, he's crafted an homage to the epics of the 40's and 50's. And if you think you've seen some of this before it's because you have, with many a similarity in tone, narrative and straight-out scenes from Gone With the Wind with lots of references to The Wizard of Oz thrown in for good measure. For sure, the modern, surreal cinematography of the unforgiving landscapes and of its people - computer-enhanced to make it look like effects coming out of the era - is leaps better than those old films could ever get, and Luhrman has a keen visual sense providing oodles of eye-candy. The film is split into two parts - the first provides the expected shenanigans between the ladylike Brit and the rugged Aussie drover as they battle the elements (and the evil cattle ranchers) to get their livestock to town. Here the movie gets into a fine, easygoing groove that's an enjoyable romantic adventure. The second half, following the pre-and-post Japanese bombing of Darwin and a daring rescue, feels awkward and more than a tad forced. Points, however, go to the filmmakers for adding some dark historical issues like the "lost generation" of aboriginal children taken forcibly from their parents, even if the melodrama pushes the film over the edge into saccharine-sweet storytelling. Perhaps the real offender is the script itself that cannibalizes films of old yet somehow misses the mark, something that's all the more evident during its bloated almost-three-hours runtime. Not that it ever gets bland - Baz has too much mastery of the form - but the large canvas seems to have eroded the dynamism of his earlier efforts. Thankfully, at the center of all this puff are Kidman and a superb Jackman, both strong, appealing performers who easily provide the required theatricality to their characters' larger-than-life traits, ambitions and sentimentality as required by the script. Special note must be given to young, wide-eyed newcomer Brandon Walters, playing the boy of mixed-blood at the center of no uncertain controversy, who actually manages to steal scenes from his two more famous co-stars. Australia is meant to be grand entertainment that defines the rugged, beautiful country, but without a strong story even its images and story will fade away as soon as the lights come on.
Entertainment: 6/10

Autumn in New York (2000)
Starring: Richard Gere, Winona Ryder
Director: Joan Chen
Plot: A confirmed middle-aged bachelor sees his attitudes change when he falls in love with an enthralling, but much younger woman who he discovers is terminally ill.
Review: Autumn in New York is a decent romantic-drama, if not a very original one, and it does try hard to break the typical Hollywood conventions but only ends up reinforcing them. The script has some nice touches, but it rests on providing the typical, expected situations and never quite reaches the point of providing depth to any of the relationships. In fact, the whole exercise just seems a little too easy and way too melodramatic. The story and attitudes portrayed here are a big change of pace from director Chen's first feature, the beautiful and devastating Xiu Xiu, and her directing style also seems to have adapted to best fill the screen with her two main actors. And Gere and Ryder are quite watchable, if not very convincing. In the end, Autumn in New York is only a minor effort considering the talented people involved.
Drama: 5/10

Avalon (Japan / Poland - 2000)
Starring: Malgorzata Foremniak, Wladyslaw Kowalski, Jerzy Gudejko
Director: Mamoru Oshii
Plot: In the future, when a violent virtual-reality combat simulation is the only means of escaping a drab world, a master player obsessively searches for a rumored "special level" where her teammate may have once disappeared to.
Review: Filmed in Poland with a Polish cast and a Japanese crew, Avalon is first and foremost a very Japanese-styled sci-fi flick that ponders (in fine cinematic tradition) the new pop theme of "virtual" vs. actual reality. This is an ambitious effort from director Oshii, best known for the acclaimed animated adaptation of Ghost in the Shell, who proves himself a good director of live-action as well as anime. In fact, the feeling of a "live-action anime" are prevalent in every scene, and that's a good thing. The (unfortunately sparse) sequences that blend in the actors and the CGI shows the real promise of the genre with first-rate computer effects creating the feeling of a reality-bending computer game. There's no denying that this is all well filmed and visually interesting with some strong cinematography, especially in the sepia-toned computer-generated universe. The look of the real world is also terrific, the shadowy, somber world of decadent, grimy, rusted European cityscape made up of fading green-tinged colors conveying well the decrepit state of this future society. Color plays a strong part, with the only vividly colored sequence arriving in the reality-bending (and open-ended) finale. Foremniak is adequate for the all-too-one-dimensional role, all stoic business and ultra-cool inside the game, and an awkward loner outside of it. But just like the rest of the desensitized cast, even her motives are rather ambiguous. The simulation at the core of the film is but a simplified role-playing game, and the action sequences within it are well-done and exciting enough. There are moments that remind one of similar questions about the nature of reality and cyberspace that came to prominence with the mainstream hit The Matrix, but here these issues are more subtle, if not quite as interesting. Unfortunately, two things mar the film from being as good as it should have been; first off, the story is rather simplistic and derivative, if not downright amateurish coming off more like another shallow adaptation of an existing comic book. The second is the continual dragging out of scenes to make the film more "artsy", for lack of a better word - this might be acceptable in a European drama, but those looking for more thrills than ponderous dramatics will agree that a good half-hour might have been edited out. A decent, low-budget science-fiction endeavor, Avalon will thrill fans of Oshii's work and those looking for a sci-fi theme they can sink their teeth into; those looking for an action flick should abstain.
Entertainment: 6/10

Avatar (2009)
Starring: Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver
Director: James Cameron
Plot: A paraplegic ex-marine dispatched to a far-away planet adopts the guise of a 10-foot inhabitant to help a mega-corporation plunder the world's resources but as he gets accepted in the alien culture he starts having pangs of conscience.
Review: After gestating in the mind of writer / director James Cameron for 15 years, waiting for technology to catch up to his vision, the $300M production of the quintessential sci-fi epic Avatar is finally upon us. His follow-up to Titanic has been hyped so much that any film was bound to disappoint. The surprise, then is that it actually was worth the wait, proving that Cameron - the consummate craftsman - still has it. The premise feels like a simple mix of Dances with Wolves meets Aliens, but that would be doing the film a disservice. For sure the story of the evils of colonialism, of the battle between industrial excess and scientific knowledge, of the connectivity of all living things, is perhaps too familiar and broad. But where Cameron, the story-teller, excels is in involving us with his creations and characters, and in this the film soars. The film's brilliant, all-encompassing computer effects are believable, if not seamless. If the 3D is a tad distracting at first, it helps in the immersive experience that Cameron has set out to bring, giving both the action and the surroundings a you-are-there feel. Btter yet, half an hour into the film all doubts about the technology are forgotten as we're drawn into the gorgeously detailed, visually stunning and fleshed-out alien world where 10-foot tall blue-skinned inhabitants are the norm. The actors went through the motion-capture process to capture their performances, among them Worthington as the hero, Saldana as his Na'vi love interest and Sigourney Weaver (a pleasant addition to both the human and alien cast) among others. Even if they only get to play stereotypical roles, their characters are well fleshed out. The last act - a massive, superbly choreographed climactic confrontation between the firepower-leaden mechanized infantry and beast-riding tribal warriors - is grandiose, epic in scope and downright thrilling; but then we didn't expect anything less than a heightening of the bar from the creator of such action classics as Terminator 2 and The Abyss. As stupendous as the action sequences are, however, it is the world-building, the quieter moments of discovery and exploration - the first steps in our hero's Na'vi avatar, our first glimpses of the alien fauna and flora, the giddy Tarzan-like dangling from vines, the taming of flying reptiles as steeds - that really makes the movie so involving. Sure, there's an excess of sentimentality when it comes to aboriginals and their place in the world, and the explosions would put Michael Bay to shame, but Cameron aims for a sense of wonder, and anyone willing to take a leap of faith will embrace his ambitious vision. Some critics have thrown terms around like "ground-breaking" or "defining" for the film and its use of new cinematic techniques. For most of us, though, Avatar will be appreciated for what it was meant to be - an exciting and thoroughly immersive visit to a vivid new fantasy world.
Entertainment: 9/10

The Avengers (2012)
Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Samuel L. Jackson
Director: Joss Whedon
Plot: As Earth forces prepare for an alien attack led by a Norse god, six super-heroes are gathered to form a team to protect the world - if they can survive each other first.
Review: The Avengers is the culmination of five different Marvel super-hero movies, amassing the heroes and cast into one mega-production. The best part: it's the best one yet, a high-flying, witty, zippy, thoroughly enjoyable super-hero slug fest. Hollywood took a $220M bet on geek uber-meister Joss Whedon as writer and director, the guy responsible for genre bending TV like Buffy The Vampire Slayer, and it paid off beautifully. Whedon brings the massive, big-budget undertaking the heart and soul that summer blockbusters usually lack. Let's be clear: the production values are superb, the special effects second to none, the other-worldly threat dire, and there's enough rock 'em sock 'em action to fill half-a-dozen lesser film; from the super-hero on super-hero battles as the individual members confront each other, to the team finally gels as they try to save a flying aircraft carrier, right to the 30-minute all-out mayhem in Manhattan that reminds one of last year's Transformers: Dark of the Moon in its scope and destruction - except these guys have a Hulk. The best part of the movie, however, is what happens between the fighting and action bits; there's humour, pathos and drama in Whedon's script that's filled with one-liners, zingers and laughs, but also with a deep understanding of its characters. He's managed the difficult juggling act of creating a movie about individuals who develop into a team, while still allowing each to have their own voice as the film rushes along its 2h23 min runtime. And what a talented cast assembled: Downey Jr. excels as the narcissist Stark / Iron Man, Evans shows leadership charisma as Captain America, Scarlett Johansson gets a meatier role than her last outing, and Ruffalo (Hulk), Hemsworth (Thor), Jeremy Renner (Hawkeye) and Jackson (Nick Fury) all get their chance to shine. Kudos, especially, go to Tom Hiddleston whose multi-faceted performance as the megalomaniac Norse god Loki makes him a remarkable villain indeed. The Dark Knight may still be the best, serious adaptation of a comic book character, but The Avengers is the one to beat for sheer entertainment.
Entertainment: 9/10

The Aviator (2004)
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Cate Blanchett
Director: Martin Scorsese
Plot: Biopic depicting the early years of legendary entrepreneur Howard Hughes, focusing on his exploits as both a movie director and a aviation pioneer despite his debilitating psychological handicaps.
Review: Based on the latest biography of the legendary Howard Hughes, The Aviator focuses on the accomplishments of Hughes from the late 20's to the mid 40's. And what a life it was, from his stormy affairs with an array of silver screen stars to his film productions including Hell's Angels and the steamy The Outlaw, his business acumen on putting the TWA airline on the world stage, and his passion of building (and piloting) experimental planes. Capturing the excitement of such a life, the film is a terrific Hollywood spectacle with grand production values that seamlessly recreates the high society of the era and the political and corporate forces that surrounded him. DiCaprio does a solid performance as Hughes, portraying him as an energetic genius who was at times naive and inspired and who's often debilitating mind-set left him ill-equipped for society at large. As if to enhance this, there's little correlation with historical events here, the story instead focusing solely on Hughes as if his life was separate from the world around him. His relationships between era stars Katherine Hepburn and Ava Gardner are intimately portrayed, but these stay distanced from the man himself. The film rather works well in getting us into his head and showing us his psychological stress, however, much as was done in A Beautiful Mind, without getting carried away. With classics such as Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Goodfellas, and his recent hit Gangs of New York director Scorcese is a master at the art of movie-making, and his story-telling abilities are put to good use here. With the help of an ace crew he has created a sumptuous looking period piece that has nothing to envy any recent studio epic with sumptuous decors and costumes - this is the stuff Oscars are made of. Gone, however, is any of the grittiness that was prevalent in Scorcese's early works - what we get is an up-lifting and engaging narrative that is sometimes too slick and too Hollywood-prone (such as the final public inquiry). Yet the film always remains a fascinating biography that delves into the more famous moments of his life. Even more impressive is that even then the film only captures half the eccentricity and exploits of its subject. Much like Hughes colossal plane the Hercules (or Spruce Goose as it would become known) The Aviator takes flight despite its bulk and baggage, and it's an exhilarating ride while it lasts.
Drama: 8/10

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