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(Reviews, Bl - Bz)

Baadasssss! (2004)
Starring: Mario Van Peebles, Joy Bryant, Nia Long
Director: Mario Van Peebles
Plot: Biopic on the making of the 1971 indie film Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, and the hardships on its director associated with making a film outside the Hollywood system.
Review: Both a making-of drama on the cult-classic Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song and an homage to his father's Herculean efforts to create a movie following his own vision, Baadasssss! is a fascinating look at the making of a legend. Sweet Sweetback, a movie about blacks meant for a black audience in a time when Hollywood only showed them in the worst light, it quickly became a huge independent success that took America by storm and single-handedly started the blaxploitation craze of the 70's. The original feature was in no way a masterpiece - done on a shoe-string budget with amateurs in front and behind the camera, it's a mixed bag. As this biopic shows, however, there was more to it than that: it was a turning point in black cinema, the first time a virile black man stood up to the white establishment and got away with it. And that's the success of this effort - though it's a docu-drama on the making of the film, and some of it has un-doubtfully been dramatized for effect, it's a revealing ground-eye view into the making of a phenomenon. To get a feeling of the real thing, clips of the original 16mm film intermingle with the recreation and the backstage drama while the narrative is interspersed with true-life accounts. Based on his own book and on his own childhood, this marks Mario Van Peebles' best writer / director effort since New Jack City first brought him to temporary stardom. Though it does meander a bit, helped by his first-hand account this is a satisfying tale well told that deals with the real-life hardships of making an self-financed movie at a time when such things were undreamt of. Playing his own father, he also gets a chance to reverse the roles and see it from the other side, and makes a startling impression. Though the script doesn't shy away from bluntly showing his faults as a husband, father and even collaborator, the film also shows a courageous man going against the tide of American filmmaking - and winning. Ultimately Baadasssss! is a portrait of a pioneer, an egotistical man with a dream, drive and confidence, that carefully turns him into something of a cinematic hero. Warts and all, that might well be the ultimate tribute.
Drama: 7/10

Baadshah (India - 1999)
Starring: Shahrukh Khan, Twinkle Khanna, Rakhee Gulzar
Director: Abbas Alibhai Burmawalla 
Plot: Trying to solve a kidnapping case for a diamond merchant, a suave but unlucky private detective is mistaken for a secret agent and gets mixed up in a plot to assassinate an Indian politician.
Review: Bollywood productions are made to satisfy mainstream audiences pure and simple, and Baadshah, an action / comedy, manages to do just that. Like most Indian mainstream films, the running time is quite long by American standards at almost 3 hours, but there's never a boring moment. Playing it all up for laughs, with a half-dozen plots and sub-plots all intersecting, all becoming suitably confusing for all involved, it sometimes crosses over the plain silly and becomes desperately exaggerated yet, manages throughout to stay quite colorful and enjoyable. There are three distinct acts to the film, each of which could have been a feature in its own right. The first is a straight action / comedy routine, the second a burlesque of mistaken identity, and the third a suspense thriller. Indeed, the last part takes a more serious tone, borrowing very liberally from the Johnny Depp flick Nick of Time, before finishing off the film with some added levity and a stunt straight out of Rush Hour. Throwing into the mix loads of comic relief, bizarre characters, some suspense, some Jackie Chan-like stunts, a dose of romance, extravagant musical numbers and even a few catchy tunes, the film has something for every taste. With so many elements, however, it's no wonder the pacing and direction sometimes suffers as the script meanders. Lead actor Khan is a charming, sympathetic rogue in the title role, and is quite a decent dancer and acrobat, too. The rest of the supporting cast ranges from eccentric to plain clownish (especially the villains), but it's all part of the game. Baadshah may be uneven but it's an entertaining piece of Bollywood fluff that never lets up.
Entertainment: 7/10

Babe (1995)
Starring: James Cromwell, Miriam Margolyes
Director: Chris Noonan
Plot: A heroic young pig, raised by an Australian sheep farmer's dogs, aspires to be just like them but learns there's more to sheep herding than he expected when he befriends the other animals on the farm.
Review: A surprise hit upon its release with adults who expected a kids' flick, Babe delivers a fairy-tale of spirit and friendship for all ages. The script never talks down to its audience, and the story often plays out like a family-friendly fantasy version of George Orwell's Animal Farm, most especially in its presentation of the social hierarchy of the farm with its amusing characters like a neurotic duck and some snobbish sheep (but without the four-legged rebellion and Russian politics, of course). Presented in bright colors with a lively cinematography, the tale is organized like a book, with a chorus of singing mice opening every chapter. Very British (or is that Australian?) in its approach, it even makes the "sport" of sheep rustling exciting in its climactic scene. The light-hearted humor and adventure is, however, balanced by moments of surprising darkness and tragedy, something we don't expect from a family film. Thank producer / director George Miller (yes, the guy who did the hardcore Mad Max films, here relegating the camera to Noonan) for giving such a film a dark twist. The animal direction is impressive, and one can only imagine the hardships and logistics required to make this all work so seemingly effortlessly. The use of live subjects, subtle computer effects and animatronics is almost seamless, and never has it been integrated so successfully - you'll actually believe animals can talk! Relegated to supporting roles, the human cast fares well as exaggerated caricatures, most especially Cromwell, as the often silent but wise farmer, who has few lines but managed to get an Oscar nomination for his fine performance. A stylish, witty, imaginative, and - yup - truly heart-warming tale, Babe is destined to be a family classic, and is worth watching over and over again - with or without the young ones around.
Entertainment: 8/10

Back to the Future (1985)
Starring: Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Lea Thompson
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Plot: While helping out a genius inventor with an experimental time machine built into a sports car, a California teen living in 1985 mistakenly gets thrown back into 1955 where he interferes with his parents meeting and then must try to get them back together.
Review: Incredibly popular even years after its release, the sci-fi comedy Back to the Future somehow manages to hit all the right notes to be a definite crowd pleaser. For first-time viewers, the beginning may seem a tad slow going to set up the necessary exposition, but once our hero hits the past things start falling into place and the pacing speeds up a notch. Working on the typical time-travel clichés, the premise is easy enough and the script doesn't bother too much with the possible mind-bending results of time paradoxes. But that's to its advantage: this is a straight-forward adventure and anything else would be too much detail. The 1950's are seen with the proper shade of nostalgia, with Fox's modern pop culture bias shaking things up (and no more so than in a memorable skateboard chase in the city square, and a rock performance in front of a startled audience). The special effects are effective, but thankfully they are few and far between; this is first and foremost a situation comedy and all the props and gee-whiz effects are there to help the story along, not just as eye-candy. This is a light-hearted affair, and these comedy elements are mostly good-natured, with a healthy dose of slapstick included for good measure. Even the touchy reverse-Oedipal complex (teenage Mom falling for future unborn son) is tastefully done and adds a definite spice to the comedy. Director Zemekis (Contact, Forrest Gump) straight off from his first hit Romancing the Stone, proved he was an important new presence in Hollywood, and manages to imbue the film with an infectious energy that makes the whole improbable thing vastly engaging. It also helps that he's got a terrific cast, and a great batch of characters even if they are a bit stereotypical. Fox was at the height of his TV popularity here, and he's got just the right amount of attitude and charm to pull the sympathetic teen role off. Lloyd, as the scientist, reprises his familiar Taxi persona to amusing effect. There's no question Back to the Future was a highlight of Hollywood's '80s blockbusters, and it's constant appeal makes for an always enjoyable experience even after repeat viewings.
Entertainment: 8/10

Back to the Future, Part II (1989)
Starring: Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Lea Thompson
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Plot: After traveling to the future of 2015 to save his son from jail, a teen from 1985 and a genius scientist find that someone has tampered with the past and must go back to 1955 to fix the continuum back to what they knew.
Review: Back to the Future, Part II's aims were to repeat the box-office success of the first while topping its inventiveness but doesn't make it on its own. While the first installment was undoubtedly light-hearted family fare, this one is much darker in tone and execution, especially in its depiction of an alternate 1985. It's obvious more money was thrown at this sequel, and the special effects and sets are more impressive. The plot is also a larger series of near-misses and escaping of impending paradoxes, and the script weaves a complex and often clever web of worsening temporal changes. That doesn't make it necessarily better: gone is the innocent charm and certain magic of the original, replaced by a rather cynical and sometimes unnecessarily complicated mess. The whole thing is a much more frenetic affair, with a greater play on the problems of time-travel, but it has so many logic holes that it gets rather silly. There's also a greater reliance on special effects, to the detriment of the characters. Even the humor has been turned down a notch in exchange for more action, which is too bad. There are still some good things to be had, however: series director Zemekis (Romancing the Stone, Forrest Gump) still has a fine touch for the material, the film moves along well and, though Fox is getting a little old to play the 17 year old kid, it's fun to have all the characters back on the screen. The script also knows well enough to provide many winks to the first film throughout, and in fact revisits the original for more hi-jinks. Made back-to-back with Part III, it ends with a cliff-hanger. Though nowhere near as original or memorable as the first, Back to the Future Part II is an enjoyable sci-fi comedy sequel. 
Entertainment: 6/10

Back to the Future, Part III (1990)
Starring: Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Mary Steenburgen
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Plot: After jumping around through time in a De Lorean time-machine, a teenager from 1985 finds himself in the Old West of 1885 where he must rescue a displaced modern scientist from a vicious gunman bent on putting a bullet in his back.
Review: Though a direct continuation of Part II (in fact the two were shot back-to-back to form a single story), Back to the Future, Part III moves along with a much easier going pace than the previous installment, one more akin to the original. Though plundering the themes and ideas of the first chapter as well as the sometimes formulaic elements of Hollywood Westerns, the material still seems fresh and our hero's period displacement still amuse. Limiting the time-travel hi-jinks and sticking to a single period (the Old West of 1885) allows the story to set up its situations with more leisure. It may not be as inventive as the last one, but it brings back some of the magic and charm of the first, and has its own share of adventure spiced up with a bit of romance. For one, the script manages to find plenty of excuses for winking at the Western genre, from obvious references to Clint Eastwood's A Fistful of Dollars, to Buster Keaton's silent classic The General, while always keeping the adventure light and engaging. Following its mainstream comedy roots, this Western world is rather clean and proper, though there are a few details to show our hero's displeasure with the times (brown water anyone?). Of course, the film also follows the logic of its predecessors - in other words the time paradoxes alone ask for a great suspension of disbelief, but then this is a comedy and one isn't supposed to look too closely. Series director Zemekis (Contact, Forrest Gump) returns to the easy-going style that made the original so enjoyable. Fox and Lloyd are back in action, and seem quite comfortable in the role. However, kudos has to go to Thomas F. Wilson, back once again as the perennial series bad guy, this time as "Mad Dog". The filmmakers have definitely milked this cash cow to its limit, but Back to the Future, Part III is a fine, entertaining way to end the popular series.
Entertainment: 7/10

Bad Boys (1995)
Starring: Martin Lawrence, Will Smith, Tea Leoni
Director: Michael Bay
Plot: A married cop must pretend to be his single partner to gain the confidence of the only witness to a murder which ties in a vicious thief with a huge drug deal.
Review: Bad Boys is another stab at the action-comedy that borrows heavily from other genre films (from Beverly Hills Cop to Lethal Weapon) but with more emphasis on the action, that misses the core fun of its predecessors by giving us something stylish but vapid. The comedy is pretty much limited to a mistaken-identity scenario, with married man Lawrence trying to pass for stud-muffin Smith; the one-liners fly by with regularity, and there are some funny moments to be had with the ridiculous situation, but some of it is just milked to death. The rest of the script is just as horribly derivative, narrow-minded and just plain silly, the same genre fare dumbed-down to its most basic elements. Heck, it wouldn't even be worth the mention if it weren't for the fact that it's a typically slick, fast-paced effort from action director Bay (Armageddon, The Rock). Bay has a definite visual flair, and he's made a second-rate cop-buddy movie into a blockbuster hit by giving audiences oodles more style than substance. In fact, he can provide scenes with flying bullets, macho action sequences and explosive fireworks displays with the best of them, and this is evident in the climactic 20 minutes - too bad the story isn't up to his talents. This is undoubtedly the film that put Will Smith on the map as a Hollywood star, and with good reason, shining far above head-liner Lawrence's performance. As for the supporting cast, Leoni has little to work with except playing the stereotypical bimbo and Tcheky Karyo does another one of his type-cast bad guy roles. It's quite energetic in its excesses, and there's a definite chemistry between the two leads, but the script can't seem to make better use of its premise or of its leads and ends up being nothing more than a by-the-numbers action flick. Still, if you're willing to put your mind on neutral, you could do far worse than Bad Boys.
Entertainment: 5/10

Bad Boys II (2003)
Starring: Martin Lawrence, Will Smith
Director: Michael Bay
Plot: Things get complicated when two Miami detectives take on a drug cartel trying to bring in millions in designer drugs while laundering their money, and one partner's sister (a DEA agent) gets kidnapped and brought to Cuba.
Review: Though Bad Boys was nowhere near being a classic, it did put its stars on the map and gave action director Bay (Armageddon, Pearl Harbor) a huge career boost. Surprisingly, Bad Boys II is a sequel that surpasses the original by focusing more on the eye-popping mayhem than on the drab comedy. Bay is at his best when there's no dialogue, and the action sequences really do "kick ass", elevating blockbuster carnage up a notch. The film is infused with a gleeful need to top itself, and the slo-mo gun-fights, computer-aided crashes and window-shattering explosions - all aided by some distinctly excellent cinematography - will keep those willing to put their brain on hold enthralled. Some of the sequences will be familiar to movie-goers, from the chase sequence that reminds one of The Matrix Reloaded and Lethal Weapon 2, to the climax following a Hummer crashing through a Cuban shanty town, a sequence akin to Jackie Chan's Police Story. It's slightly less crass and oh so slightly less dumb than it's predecessor but for some, getting enjoyment out of a flick that definitely looks down on its audience, has more booty than a Playboy rag and whose jokes tend towards the misogynistic and homophobic is more guilt than pleasure. And the plot, well it's typically generic and easily crosses over the loud and silly genre. Of note: the long-running time for a movie of this sort (2h20min) and the incredible amount of product placements. Still, as dumb fun goes, it's an appropriately energetic thrill ride for the summer months. Smith and Lawrence are on top of their form - which may not be saying much these days, but they do have a definite chemistry together as the odd couple partners and they allow the non-action bits to fly by, even if the comedy is downright vulgar and lame. Even better, there are few of these "quiet" moments here, allowing Bay to do what he does best: blowing stuff up, as well as executing some of Hollywood's biggest and best stunt sequences. Bad Boys II is slick, idiotic entertainment that has no redeeming social value, but you'd be hard pressed to be bored.
Entertainment: 7/10

Bait (2000)
Starring: Jamie Foxx, David Morse, Robert Pastorelli
Director: Antoine Fuqua
Plot: A government agency uses an petty thief to lure a dangerous criminal out of hiding by surginacally implanting a tracer / bug in his jaw.
Review: Bait is a slick production from ex-MTV video director Fuqua (who went on to great acclaim for Training Day), a film that's well shot and decently directed, but still fails miserably. This is a blatant Enemy of the State wannabe, but director Fuqua is no Tony Scott (he's just not quite as energetic a director) and Foxx is no Will Smith (he's funny in spurts, but he just doesn't quite have the charm or screen presence to carry a movie like this on his own). It doesn't help things that the first hour and a half is as slow as molasses, with little comedy or action to liven things up. Instead, what we get is a ludicrous government plan (as bad in concept as in execution) showcasing bad high-tech junk, a bland one-dimensional villain, and a maddeningly ridiculous relationship melodrama that we never get to care for and that would have been better off left on the editing floor. Worse, the film just doesn't generate any suspense during its tired proceedings and little sympathy for any of its characters. The dialogue is trite, the plot exceedingly derivative, and the film so full of clichés we wonder if we haven't actually seen this movie before. The needed shot-in-the-arm action sequence is brought out in a decently paced 20-minute finale, but by then boredom has already set in. Foxx and Morse deserved a better shot, and hopefully they might still get it in a future film, but unless you're a huge fan of Foxx, or a Fuqua completist, there's no reason to see Bait, a cookie-cutter of a movie that really didn't need to be made.
Entertainment: 2/10

Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever (2002)
Starring: Lucy Liu, Antonio Banderas
Director: Wych Kaosayananda (Kaos)
Plot: A former FBI agent chases after a mysterious assassin who has kidnapped the son of a high-ranking black ops officer for revenge.
Review: If there was a turkey award winner this year, it'll go to Ballistic: Ecks vs Sever. It comes as no surprise that this is based on a video game, and it's formulated (and indeed very much plays like) a straight-to-video cheapie, except it probably cost much more than necessary to make. Indeed, this is action filmmaking at its most generic; there's no style in either camera work or cinematography, no substance to be had, and little to keep us interested. The excessively derivative plot is a farce, filled with stupid events, bad dialogue, and cheesy sentiments. It has so many plot holes you could drive a semi truck through them, and it's so full of inconsistencies one wonders how audiences are supposed to follow this hogwash. With so many gunfights, car chases (with no sense of speed) and explosions it's hard to believe it could be so boring but, with its tired and repetitious sequences, incompetent bad guys and general blandness, it is. Even the fighting is definitely sub-par and, if perhaps not badly choreographed, definitely badly shot. This would have been terrible as an episode of a television show, but for a film it's plain shocking. On the plus side, we do get to see Vancouver get blown up, something we haven't seen much before, but it's little consolation to sitting through this for 90 minutes. The most surprising thing might be the fact that two "name" stars actually agreed to do this. Liu is supposed to come out as a kick-ass heroine, but she's nowhere near the presence she was in Charlie's Angels. As for Banderas, he mumbles his way through and his usual charm is nowhere to be seen. First-time (and probably last-time) director Kaos tries many filmmaking tricks (slo-mos, CGI, etc) but it's all done so amateurishly one can only groan at the attempts, and the badly accompanying heavy soundtrack assails instead of helping. Maybe there's a director's cut somewhere that would explain this mishmash, but I definitely hope not. Unless you're drunk, or enjoy watching Hollywood-made disasters, Ballistic is a mess to definitely avoid.
Entertainment: 2/10

Ballistic Kiss (Hong Kong - 1998)
Starring: Donnie Yen, Annie Ng, Jimmy Wong
Director: Donnie Yen
Plot: Betrayed by his partner, an ex-New York cop returns to Hong Kong as a contract killer for the underworld and finally gets a chance to exact his revenge when his old friend resurfaces.
Review: With Ballistic Kiss, action star Yen, directing himself, had the ambitious idea of creating a film mixing the frenetic action of a John Woo with the artistic sense of Wong Kar Wai. In part, he does achieve what he aimed for providing a frenetic action film that feels quite different from the norm, with moody sequences and stormy emotional melodrama thrown in; but it's not a complete success. Fans of Hong Kong action cinema are used to over-the-top action sequences, but by trying to outdo his predecessors, the film's many gun battles achieve a sense of utmost absurdity. Though they're mostly fun to watch, some of them to get a little tiring (if not downright frustrating), going on for way too long and overstaying their welcome. It's also too bad that we don't get to see Yen's martial skills as much, or as well, as we have in other fare such as in Once Upon a Time in China II or In the Line of Duty IV. What we get are only quickly-edited kicks and speeded-up combat, though their inventive viciousness and blood-letting are a notch above the average. As for the "quiet" moments, they show that its novice director hasn't quite mastered the elements of filmmaking quite yet to go so far on a limb cinematically. It's also a film that screams style over substance, where everything is too cool for words, though it also tries its hand at trite wisdom ("No one is innocent", and stuff like that). As far as the script goes, well, if you've seen other genre flicks you've pretty much guessed this one, too, from the silly, macho sentimental melodrama to the ex-cop revenge plot. Still, kudos go to Yen for an inventive, well-paced affair - Ballistic Kiss may not be everyone's cup of tea, but for those willing to try some experimentation with their flying bullets, it's not a bad outing.
Entertainment: 6/10

Bandit Queen (India - 1994)
Starring: Seema Biswas, Nirmal Pandey, Manoj Bajpai
Director: Shekhar Kapur
Plot: A low-caste Indian woman rebels against her appointed fate as an object to be brutalized and joins a gang of outlaws.
Review: Retelling of the life and hardships of the popular real-life female outlaw Phoolan Devi, Bandit Queen takes us on a journey from her forced marriage at the age of 11 to her eventual surrender as the country's most wanted criminal. Controversial in its native India for its gritty portrayal of Devi, its many upsetting scenes of rape and graphic violence are not for the faint of heart. First time director Kapur (who went on to do the glorious Elizabeth) manages to bring a vitality and immediacy to the proceedings, never hiding the disturbing violence that was Devi's life (sometimes to almost exploitative excesses), while still making every scene look impeccable. A daughter of low class, Devi's existence is indeed a nightmare, and the story carefully, deliberately shows us how her life and actions might have been influenced by the multiple brutal rapes and abuses at the hands of men. When she finally takes a chance at starting her own criminal gang, she finds a way to vent out her urge for revenge against a world that has abandoned her. A village massacre, long attributed to Devis, is a cornerstone of the film, and rarely has cinema seen such a woman rage, and actress Biswas captures both the broken innocence and fury of her role. The story of Devi is entangled with India's own issues, a country where the caste system still dictates its people's social status for their entire lives, and where many women are barely viewed as human beings. For bringing these prevalent problems to the fore, at least, the film should be congratulated. True, the filmmakers take certain liberties to put their critical themes across, but in no way is any of this "romanticized"; indeed, it might actually seem even harsher than reality. And, though it puts perspective on its subject the film also shows how equally brutal she was in turn, killing, stealing, and otherwise raging against her lot. It may not be too surprising to believe that Phoolan became a folk hero to the downtrodden masses, rebelling against the system, a myth the film takes great cares to peel away. Though filmed in part like an adventure film, the material is too shocking and unnerving to be a mainstream offering, but those hearty souls will definitely come away deeply disturbed by the experience.
Drama: 7/10

Bandits (2001)
Starring: Bruce Willis, Billy Bob Thornton, Cate Blanchett
Director: Barry Levinson
Plot: Two escaped convicts become nationally famous with their peaceful methods of robbing banks but their plans hit a snag when they both fall for a bored housewife who decides to go on the lam with them.
Review: Bandits wants to be lots of things, offering up large doses of quirky romantic comedy, combined with a laid-back crime caper framed within a satire on "real crime" TV shows. Taking elements from movies such as It Happened One Night and relying heavily on the formula of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, nothing particularly original or exciting is brought to the table. Thankfully, there's a fine tongue-in-cheek mood throughout and some genuinely funny moments, such as when these "sleepover bandits" share a meal with a bank manager's family before robbing his workplace, or the interaction right after Blanchett almost runs over Thorton, and these make up for a lot despite the otherwise ho-hum script. The pace is at times a little too languid, the story lacks direction, and the running time is a little long for such a lack of substance, but Levinson (The Natural, Rain Man) gets his cast to play it up with an obvious sense of fun, and that makes all the difference. The three leads, especially the luminous Blanchett and Thorton as the best hypochondriac since Woody Allen, give splendid, endearing performances. Indeed, watching the actors work their charm and (quite self-consciously) mug the camera with a wide variety of wigs and silly disguises at every opportunity is the film's best part. Bandits is a light comedy that's ably shot and produced and, though it doesn't quite offer enough to be memorable, is still an entertaining diversion, especially for fans of its stars.
Entertainment: 6/10

The Bank Job (2008)
Starring: Jason Statham, Saffron Burrows
Director: Roger Donaldson
Plot: A small-time crook turned car dealer short on cash agrees to head up a bank heist for an old female acquaintance only to find himself and his crew the target of vicious mobsters and corrupt cops when they realize the safety deposit boxes contain some dirty secrets.
Review: Loosely based on the true-life 1971 robbery of a Lloyds Bank, The Bank Job is an energetic dramatization of the possible events behind the headlines. The film revels in its mix of corruption, scandals, undercover agents, and small-time gangsters - and hey, it's the 70's where sexual freedom, nudity and drug use are big as life on screen. The script does play fast and loose with some of the historical details, but it's all in the name of creating an energetic, fun heist film; that it has some basis in reality only makes it that more interesting. It's not the best fare that has come out of director Donaldson (No Way Out, Thirteen Days), but he creates a (mostly) light-hearted affair that actually feels at times like something out of 70's cinema - for good and bad. Following the daring (though surprisingly bland) robbery, the film gets progressively darker when the thieves get caught one by one by some very unsavory characters, giving the film's more harrowing, suspenseful instances. The least unsavory of these, of course, is Statham leading a bevy of colorful characters and crooks, played by some well-known faces of British TV. The occasional dollops of action and the assured pacing ensures there's never a dull moment, and the multiple story-lines and characters all get their time in the spotlight. In the end, The Bank Job is perhaps too reliant on getting standard mainstream thrills to truly shine - and it doesn't provide enough of these for action fans - but it's an easy-going affair that goes down easily.
Entertainment: 6/10

Baraka (1992)
Director: Ron Fricke
Plot: A purely visual exploration of the Earth and its people, showing the interconnections between Nature and Man.
Review: Spanning six continents and 24 countries, Baraka is a lush, vibrant exploration of the Earth and the diversity of cultures that inhabit it. With a soundtrack by members of Dead Can Dance that encompasses many different musical styles, the exquisitely photographed scenes of exotic landscapes and indigenous people are presented before us without a word. Images pass by of simmering volcanoes and ancient Thai ruins; of chanting Tibetan monks and dancing aboriginals; of poverty and funeral pyres; of Third World factories and abandoned concentration camps; and finally - thanks to some great time-lapse photography - of clouds and stars racing across the sky. As directed by Ron Fricke, the cinematographer for the similarly executed Koyaanisqatsi, there is no plot, no specific message if it's not an emphasis on Man's place in the world and Man's interconnection with Nature, and most specifically the locales we inhabit. As such, the film tries to find a "universal cultural perspective" by juxtaposing and comparing humanity's different aspects around the globe. The filmmaker's intention was clearly to revel in what we see and how we should feel more than reveal the where of its different locales, and in that it succeeds beautifully. The word Baraka itself means blessing in many languages, but this lofty cinematic feast transcends the need for words. For 90 minutes, it's a dazzling trip around the world in the confines of our own sofa.
Documentary: 8/10

Barefoot Gen (1995)
Director: Masaki Mori
Plot: A young boy and his mother desperately try to survive the aftermath of the Hiroshima bombing and face the fact that their family and friends have been decimated.
Review: Though Barefoot Gen is presented as an animated feature, this is definitely NOT for children. The film starts off as a light-hearted story of the young Gen and his family during the waning days of the war, facing the typical hardships of war-time rationing and fears. Once the bomb hits, though, it soon turns into an extremely graphic, violent, and unflinching look not only at the actual atomic explosion that leveled Hiroshima, but also of the after-effects on the survivors (the black rain, the radiation sickness, the scrounging for food) that made it so much worse. The film doesn't point a blaming finger at either side of the war, but works instead as a witness to the horrors and the atrocity of the atomic bomb, to its victims, and to the helplessness of a society dealing with an inhuman disaster. Presented in a crisp, uncomplicated anime style, with only occasional turns to the melodramatic, the film presents an image of life as close to hell as anyone would ever care to be. Despite its final positive, life-affirming message, Barefoot Gen is a harrowing tale of a dark day in human history.
Drama: 8/10

Basic (2003)
Starring: John Travolta, Connie Nielsen, Samuel L. Jackson
Director: John McTiernan
Plot: A DEA agent is asked by his old Army friend to debrief a Ranger who might have been involved in the death of his drill-sergeant and the rest of his team during an exercise in hurricane-struck Panama.
Review: Part crime drama, part military thriller, Basic starts with a great premise and quickly devolves into a nonsensical exercise that's best left to late-night TV. What could have been an interesting mystery ends up getting more and more convoluted, and quickly loses any semblance of logic or sense as it moves towards its climax. The lazy script ends up being but an excuse for a series of unexpected turns of events, and though it tries to imitate films like Courage Under Fire (itself a take on the classic Rashomon), the poorly staged turn of events just kills any enjoyment. The plot holes become gaping, and the final twist will leave audiences feeling cheated. After a career high with Die Hard and The Hunt for Red October, director McTiernan has been grasping for a comeback film after the dire Rollerball. Though his directing is never at fault, and indeed helps the film immeasurably creating some atmospheric jungle combat sequences and some tense interpersonal scenes, even his skills can't save this poorly-written exercise. Even the surprisingly talented cast put together (including Giovanni Ribisi, Jackson and Taye Diggs) come off as mere cardboard cutouts - we never care for any of them. If there's one redeeming thing, it's Travolta who, looking more buff than he has in years and though completely unconvincing in the role, does make for a charismatic interrogator. On the plus side the pacing is good, and it's relatively short - those with low expectations and uncaring of logic might get a kick out of Basic, but little else. 
Entertainment: 4/10

Batman (1989)
Starring: Jack Nicholson, Michael Keaton, Kim Basinger
Director: Tim Burton
Plot: Batman, a dark, mysterious and misunderstood caped vigilante, must protect Gotham City from a homicidal clown calling himself the Joker.
Review: There's no doubting that the real driving force of the film is director Tim Burton (Mars Attacks!, Sleepy Hollow) 's eye for the gothic, his play of lights and shadow that imbue the film with a strong, dark, visual style helped by some good production values, impressive sets, and some good special effects. The story runs along well, if sometimes unevenly, and is always interesting, even if the dialogue is especially hokey. The real attraction, though, is Jack Nicholson who easily steals not only every scene he's in, but the entire film as well, by playing with obvious gusto such an over-the-top villain. One of the reasons for his success may well be that Michael Keaton is a wimp by comparison. Keaton just isn't right for the role of Batman and seems ineffectual next to his co-star - he doesn't have the physique or the presence required for such a character who is supposed be strong, mysterious and inspire fear. Still, this is a minor distraction, as the comic-book feel of the film is strong, and closer to the modern representation of the Dark Knight than the '60s version. Of course, the new Bat-mobile and Bat-plane also make up for a lot of the movie's appeal! A good, entertaining adaptation of the comic-book character, that's more a brooding character study and a dark fantasy than a typical action blockbuster. 
Entertainment: 7/10

Batman Begins (2005)
Starring: Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Liam Neeson
Director: Christopher Nolan
Plot: Following the murder of his parents and with a thirst to fight injustice, a wealthy Bruce Wayne returns from training in Asia to take on the mantle of the Batman to save Gotham City from the criminal element.
Review: By far the most gritty, intelligent and faithful adaptation of the classic hero to date, Batman Begins successfully, and satisfyingly, reboots the series for a new generation. It's first and foremost the story of the damaged psyche of Bruce Wayne, his interior, psychological struggle, where guilt, anger, and fear, are more prevalent than mere theatrics. Even the bad guys - Ra's Al Ghul, Scarecrow - are rooted in reality, without the colorful costumes or super-toys of their predecessors. Not to say there aren't still some cool sci-fi gadgets none more so than the new Batmobile, a hummer-sized tank that can jump roofs, but these are secondary. The most striking thing is that the material is taken seriously, with no winks at the audience or silliness to break the mood. Oh, there are still the pithy one-liners here and there, but the angst is real, the pathos heart-felt, and the characters flawed and guilt-ridden. Even the cinematography, shot entirely in sepia tones instead of the traditional cartoon palette, reflects an atmosphere of shadow and darkness. Director / co-writer Nolan honed his skills at intimate character study under extraordinary situations in clever films such as Memento and Insomnia, and he gives Batman a dimension that's rarely seen in comic book adaptations. It's clear, however, that action is not his forte; there's enough to keep things interesting, but for one, the fighting is too frenetically edited to really appreciate. Also, the few large-scale action set-pieces are adequate and well-done but rather unimpressive. As for the climax, it retreads much of the usual blockbuster déjà-vu and it's a bit of a let-down after such a strong, dramatic showing. Bale is the most convincing Batman to date, slipping easily into both the rich-kid facade and his Dark Knight persona. A strong supporting cast of characters - from a terrific Tom Wilkinson, to Gary Oldman as Detective Gordon - unfortunately don't get much of a chance to do anything other than play stock performances. And who thought of getting the teen-looking Katie Holmes to be Wayne's childhood friend, a district attorney to boot? No matter: as a whole Batman Begins is a bold new direction for the franchise that will please a more mature crowd, one that takes the time to provide an engaging character study amidst the conventions of the genre, and keeps it exciting and entertaining for both kinds of audiences.
Entertainment: 8/10

Batman & Robin (1996)
Starring: George Clooney, Chris O'Donnell, Arnold Schwarzenegger
Director: Joel Schumacher
Plot: Batman and Robin, with a little help from Batgirl, face off against Mr. Freeze and Poison Ivy to prevent Gotham City from entering into another Ice Age.
Review: Far removed from the more dramatic character-driven installments that came before, Batman & Robin, the latest chapter in the series, is a veritable smorgasbord of colorful set-pieces and silly antics. The intricate, over-the-top action sequences are meant to be impressive and could have been if only they had been executed more convincingly. Worse, by introducing too many different characters, situations, and plot twists the film is forced to jump from event to event without focusing on anything. In fact it seems the film has decided that throwing eye-candy at the audience is more important than having a cohesive plot or an interesting story. It doesn't help that the film is full of corny dialogue, bad acting from the star cast, and never gets quite involving. Some good elements, namely the magnificent set design, some decent special effects, the frenetic pacing, and an interesting villain in Mr. Freeze, does save it from complete oblivion but it's nowhere near enough. More Saturday-morning cartoon that comic-book, Batman & Robin tries to deliver too much and ends up as a mildly entertaining, but mostly uninspired, mess.
Entertainment: 5/10

Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker (2000)
Voices of: Will Friedle, Kevin Conroy, Mark Hamill
Director: Curt Geda
Plot: In a future Gotham, a new Batman and an aging Bruce Wayne must face the apparent resurrection of their deceased nemesis, The Joker, as he terrorizes the city.
Review: Surprisingly violent, dark, and quite brooding, Return of the Joker is an inventive, action-packed feature full of the excitement and thrills one comes to expect from a Batman adventure. Just like the previous series, the animation is stylish, sleek, and above-average for television fare and the new world is depicted as appropriately grittier and stranger. A sore point, though, is that some of the events concerning The Joker are resolved in an unsatisfying manner considering this is the ultimate Batman super-villain. That aside, the story is deeply rooted in the original series and adds its own flavor as well, the narration moves along at a break-neck pace, the script and events are fun, the voice acting decent, and revisiting many of the original characters, now older, is a pleasure. Note that the film released for sale has had many elements toned down and a lot of the mature content removed compared to the promotional version - in fact, it comes out as a very different work. In either case, Return of the Joker is probably not suited for younger children, but for older kids and adults, it's a solid, entertaining diversion.
Entertainment (uncensored version): 7/10

Batman Forever (1995)
Starring: Val Kilmer, Tommy Lee Jones, Jim Carrey
Director: Joel Schumacher
Plot: Batman and his new partner Robin must stop a duo of deadly enemies in the form of the murderous Two-Face and the insane genius The Riddler before they can enslave the minds of the population of Gotham City.
Review: Batman Forever, the third of the series, takes a different route than the Tim Burton installments by providing a much more mainstream Hollywood-style blockbuster feel to the proceedings. In fact, the film is much more exciting, more visually intricate and colorful than its predecessors, full of thrilling action sequences, over-the-top theatrics, zany characters and situations, and more Bat-vehicles and Bat-gadgets than ever. Director Schumacher (8mm, Flatliners) imbues the much-more intricate and clever script with just the right amount of comic-book flair and visual style. Another reason for the success of the film is the choice of actors: Val Kilmer makes a convincing Batman, Kidman and O'Donnell make for an energetic supporting cast, and Jim Carrey's crazed antics and physical humor make for the best super-villain yet seen on the big screen. It's unfortunate that Jones, as Two-Face, is really relegated to a minor, ineffectual role. By far the most successful one of the series, Batman Forever is a wild, delightful romp into the Dark Knight universe.
Entertainment: 8/10

Batman Returns (1992)
Starring: Michael Keaton, Michelle Pfeiffer, Danny DeVito
Director: Tim Burton
Plot: Batman must save both Gotham and himself from the latest mayoral nominee, the deadly, deformed Penguin and his partner-in-crime, the intriguing but equally dangerous Catwoman.
Review: There is no doubt that Batman Returns, and its predecessor, are more products of Tim Burton's imagination than that of the original vigilante's adventures. The situations may be akin to the comic-books, but the brooding atmosphere and events are far from the typical comic-book type antics and, if anything, are darker and more downbeat than even the modern incarnation of the Dark Knight. There's still a few scenes of mayhem and action, but these seem badly staged and mostly forced. Burton's real strength is in the dramatic interactions between his neurotic, emotionally scarred characters, and here the film has its best moments. The massive, oppressive sets and good camera work convey well the depressing, nightmarish Gotham and adds much to the pervading sense of being in an extreme kind of film noir. Visually impressive though it may be, the film suffers from a confused, inconsistent plot and some bad pacing. As for Batman, he seems to be only a secondary character this time around but Keaton seems somehow more appropriate in the role he's given here. DeVito does a fine, convincing portrayal of the pitiful Penguin, but it's Pfeiffer as the sexy, schizophrenic Catwoman who really steals the movie. The erotic tension between ill-fated pair of Catwoman and Batman is, unfortunately, never played out as well as it could have been, but it does add much to the pleasure of the film. All told, Batman Returns is a stylish production with some great segments, but the whole just doesn't hold together well.
Entertainment: 6/10

Batman & Mr. Freeze: Sub-Zero (1997)
Starring: Kevin Conroy, Michael Ansara
Director: Bill Oddie
Plot: Batman and Robin must find and save a kidnapped Barbara (Batgirl) Gordon from being an involuntary organ donor for Mr. Freeze's cryogenically-frozen, terminally ill wife.
Review: Sub-Zero is another direct-to-video entry capitalizing on the popularity of the Batman cartoons and made to coincide with the release of Batman & Robin, which featured the same villain. The dark, atmospheric elements of the cartoon are still evident throughout, including the stylish cityscapes and character design. The story and execution, however, are sub-par compared to some of the other attempts at creating a feature from the series (Mask of the Phantasm, Return of the Joker), or even compared to the series itself. The film feels as if events are dragged out, as if the plot and events that would fit well in a single half-hour episode was extended past the time frame it required. The animation, usually crisp and stylish, are barely modern-day TV-quality here. The exception are the few seconds of computer animation that pepper the otherwise bland car chase sequence. The ending, as the characters battle it out on an abandoned oil rig bursting in flames, adds a little excitement to the film but even this ends up being a tad long. Freeze is an interesting, morally ambiguous villain but apart from a shallow presentation of his dilemma he's here only for threat value. For fans of the series, Sub-Zero is entertaining enough, but more than a tad disappointing.
Entertainment: 4/10

Battlefield Earth (2000)
Starring: John Travolta, Barry Pepper, Forest Whitaker
Director: Roger Christian
Plot: A thousand years after the near-extinction of the human race by an evil alien corporation, the last of the now-primitive human tribes stage a revolt against the technologically superior occupying force.
Review: Based on the huge space-opera novel by L. Ron Hubbard, Battlefield Earth is a perfect example of the worst of Hollywood film-making. The cast, story, dialogue, and execution is ridiculously over-the-top, and most of the audience laughs are at the silliness of the whole proceedings. In fact, this is the most un-subtle, patronizing script in years, an amalgam of the worst elements of bad Hollywood sci-fi productions and every bad cliché in the book. The cinematography even tries to be Matrix-like but ends up just being distracting and amateurish. In fact, most of the production values seem more appropriate to a syndicated made-for-TV movie than a summer blockbuster, and the occasional decent use of CGI effects is wasted by all the implausibility of the scenes. There's actually very little action during the whole, slow proceedings. The absurd climactic air battle gives a much needed entertaining 15 minutes, but it's far too little, far too late to save the film. The main focus is on Travolta's evil security officer and his machinations, and the increasingly plodding scenes with him hamming it up to the extreme are just wasted time. Whitaker, a usually thoughtful actor, is in an absolutely insulting role here as Travolta's assistant / punching bag. The aliens are made in the mold of evil '80s corporate dweebs and are portrayed as too lame and stupid to be any kind of threat, so any kind of suspense is quickly dispelled early on. Battlefield Earth may have had aspirations of being another Independence Day but it ends up closer to Yor, the Hunter from the Future as mindless, bad, banal sci-fi.
Entertainment: 3/10

Battle Royale (Japan - 2000)
Starring: Tatsuya Fujiwara, Aki Maeda, Takeshi Kitano
Director: Kinji Fukasakuas
Plot: In a near future Japan, a class of 9th graders are kidnapped and dropped on a deserted island, where they have three days to fight each other to the death - with only one survivor allowed.
Review: The highly controversial, blood-soaked Battle Royale is a special treat for fans of many genres from suspense thriller to sci-fi to slasher flicks: it's social commentary, black comedy, and action flick all rolled into one. Add a little teen romance, some surreal moments (a video game like scoring appears at the bottom of the screen), and some gorgeous cinematography and you've got an unpredictable film that's as much exploitation flick as it is social drama. This "survival of the fittest" premise isn't quite new perhaps, and the set-up sounds rather silly, but the film is exceptional in that it offers up all the thrills and chills one would expect as well as milking the themes and possibilities inherent in the material to the fullest. As such, it's a surprisingly intense experience, a mix of The Most Dangerous Game and Lord of the Flies, with an outcome all its own. The film regularly hits the gut and very effectively tears down the pretense of civilization, showing how such things as love, loyalty and camaraderie change to fear, mistrust, and savagery as the basic human instincts for survival come to the fore. It's a brutal game, all the more in that the participants in the slaughter are high school kids, but kids who represent the animal in all of us. Sure, much of the beginning sci-fi exposition (which includes a very Japanese pop instruction video to participants) has to be taken for granted, but once the kids are off on their own, it's amazing how realistic it all feels, and how so much more vicious and startling it is compared to Western films. The ending itself might be predictable, but the narrative sets up its characters quickly and well, and lets the animal instincts work on their own. The teen cast is for the most part excellent, and star Kitano, in a supporting role as the teacher-turned-Big-Brother-warden is plain terrific. Battle Royale is cruel, horrifying, violent, and absolutely terrific entertainment but more than that, it will leave audiences abuzz.
Entertainment: 8/10

*Classic* Battleship Potemkin (1925)
Starring: Alexander Antonov, Vladimir Barsky
Director: Sergei Eisenstein
Plot: Dramatization of the Russian mutiny of 1905 and the subsequent revolt and slaughter in Odessa.
Review: Created as a propaganda film, Battleship Potemkin is a landmark film, managing to go beyond its political roots in its stunning portrayal of a popular uprising. Eisenstein uses editing techniques that were quite revolutionary for the time to jolt audiences. In fact, some of the editing and shots may appear jarring to the casual viewer used to more modern fare, but the imagery is still as powerful today as it was when the film first appeared. Battleship Potemkin is full of shocking, memorable scenes, most notably the classic one at the steps of Odessa where the citizenry's uprising is met by the imperial soldiers in a violent, bloody clash. One of the greatest films of the silent era and still a powerful one.
Drama: 9/10

Battlestar Galactica (1978)
Starring: Richard Hatch, Dirk Benedict, Lorne Greene
Director: Richard A. Colla
Plot: After being almost exterminated by an evil, robotic race, the last human survivors take to the stars in search for a fabled place called Earth protected by a lone fighter carrier.
Review: Perhaps the most impressive thing about Battlestar Galactica is that it managed to become a cult classic over the years, despite all its failings. Heavily "inspired" by the success of Star Wars (if not to say "a cheap imitation of"), creator-producer Glen A. Larson stitched together the first three episodes of his 1978 on-going TV series and gave it the theatrical treatment prior to its network airing. A big-budget production in terms of television fare at the time, the film is hard to take seriously, what with its cheesy dialogue, horrible acting (even by Bonanza veteran Greene as Commander Adama) and languorous, ludicrous script - this is an ode to 1970's kitsch, and younger viewers may find it too hokey to be enjoyable. One thing does work in its favor, however, and that's the preponderance for lengthy, explosion-filled space battles that put most 80's-era space operas to shame; with some then-impressive special effects and fine model work, these sequences are still exciting enough to make for some enjoyable (if mindless) laser-filled action. Though it may still work for some as nostalgia, and a precursor to a much-better cable-TV revival in 2003, Battlestar Galactica is best left remembered than re-watched.
Entertainment: 4/10

The Beach (2000)
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tilda Swinton, Virginie Ledoyen
Director: Danny Boyle
Plot: While seeking adventure in Thailand, a jaded young American tourist and his two French companions follow a map promising a hidden beach on a secluded island housing a community living in seeming paradise.
Review: From the very beginning, as we see the hero wade through sweaty, stark of Thai urbanity, The Beach wants to show off that it ambitions are loftier than a mere triptych adventure, that this will be a journey into the very psyche of a lost generation. There is a kernel of social commentary that wants to shine through, a sort of Lord of the Flies with adults, a send-up of idealism caught against human weaknesses, but as the story unfolds these themes fail to resonate convincingly. The main problem is that it is sometimes painfully obvious that this is an adaptation of a difficult book: events and mental transformations of the main protagonist acceptable in the novel (ones that harken back to Sheen's metamorphosis in Apocalypse Now) are hard to swallow here within the limited confines of a movie narrative. DiCaprio (despite detractors) does a solid, even believable, turn in a difficult role and the rest of the cast is for the most part good, especially the cold Swinton, playing supporting characters that aren't well fleshed out. The best parts of the book are probably all here, and some of them are quite gripping, but without a cohesive whole the narrative flails about, especially past the two-thirds mark. Though the whole proceeding is quite competently directed, and there are some intriguing visuals and stylish moments peppered throughout, this is definitely not as accomplished, either creatively or cinematically, as director Boyle's masterpiece Trainspotting. One thing is certain, the magnificent vistas of Thailand's National Park are beautifully photographed, and the crew successfully captures that Paradise quality so important to the story. In the end, The Beach isn't quite as hard-hitting as it wants to be and comes off only as a shallow adaptation, but it's an interesting one nonetheless.
Drama: 6/10

Beast Cops (1998)
Starring: Kathy Chow, Anthony Wong, Michael Wong 
Directors: Gordon Chan, Dante Lam 
Plot: A dirty veteran cop teaches his new straight-arrow superior the methods of triad-busting in Hong Kong.
Review: Acclaimed in some circles as a new breed of police drama, Beast Cops is an uneven attempt at a more gritty, realistic look at the interaction between Hong Kong cops and the criminal triads. In fact, the film goes out of its way to distance itself from the popular crime / action films, with a slow, moody pace, flawed characters and some uninteresting relationship sub-plots. There is little action throughout the film, apart from the occasional violent murder or labored knife-fighting, until the climax, where the veteran cop goes face-to-face with the young up-and-coming triad leader in a long bloody sequence. Beast Cops ends up being a decent (if repetitive) cop-buddy movie with an interesting style but one that doesn't quite live up to its potential either as a drama or as an action film. 
Drama: 4/10
Entertainment: 5/10

A Beautiful Mind (2001)
Starring: Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Ed Harris
Director: Ron Howard
Plot: The true-life story of a brilliant mathematician who revolutionized modern economics and worked for the U.S. Government but whose eventual disturbed mental state forced him to be institutionalized.
Review: Based loosely on the biography by Sylvia Nasar, A Beautiful Mind is a compelling, if flawed, look at Nobel-prize winning mathematician John Forbes Nash. Director Howard (Apollo 13, Ransom) has an easy-going, engaging style that makes the film compelling and interesting even through some rough spots, and succeeds in conveying both the man's genius and thought processes in a simple visual manner. Howard also makes his mounting sense of paranoid schizophrenia understandable by making reality and his delusions hard to separate from the narrative. The story first follows Nash's university life and early career, and here the film is good enough. The third act is the real heart of the film, however, where both Crowe and Connelly shine: The usual Hollywood commercial veneer is still there, but the personal battle against his ever-present malady, his battle for normalcy, and the toll it takes on their relationship avoids the usual melodrama and makes it hit home. Unfortunately, the conclusion is as sweetly up-lifting and maudlin as this kind of biopic usually is, finding an easy way to "solve" Nash's mental problems and finally forcing the life of such an uncommon man into an easy-to-digest form for casual viewers. Of course, we expect the film to play with the facts, to condense and massage parts of Nash's life to suit the clean-cut, popular necessities of a big-budget production, but it's a tad disappointing. Though still sporting an inappropriate Gladiator-like physique, Crowe delves into the role of the eccentric, socially awkward, and obsessive character and makes it believable with his body language, small gestures and overall tone, much like he did in The Insider. Connelly, an actress that we haven't seen enough of, is simply radiant and almost a little too glamorous for the part but performs well in an important role. A Beautiful Mind is a fine film, one that occasionally reaches above the conformities of the genre, but one that eventually can't shed the trappings of its Hollywood roots.
Drama: 7/10

Beauty and the Beast (1991)
Starring: Robby Benson, Paige O'Hara, Angela Lansbury
Directors: Gary Trousdale, Kirk Wise
Plot: To save her father, a young woman accepts to take his place as a prisoner to a fearful magical beast, the victim of a curse, only to realize that within him lies a gentle being.
Review: Beauty and the Beast is Disney's effort at a modern retelling of the classic fairy tale, and a quite successful one at that. The look and design of the film, from the ominous castle to the beast itself, seems well inspired by Jean Cocteau's La Belle et la Bête and captures the necessary enchanted atmosphere. The filmmakers also knew that their romantic musical had to be a family affair and there's lots of amusing magical characters and enough depth to the story, along with some good animation (such as the grand ballroom scene, which showcases some of the first use of computer graphics mixed in to standard cels) and a good dose of humor, to accommodate and entertain both kids and adults. But the real wonder is the interaction and budding love between its two main characters, one that is better defined and much more enjoyable to watch than most other animated relationships. There are a couple of dazzling dance numbers, including some of the more memorable Disney songs including the theme and the flamboyant "Be Our Guest" with the twirling dinner ware which immediately reminds one of the old Fantasia productions. Surprisingly, however, some of the character drawings seem rough and sometimes even shoddy, something that becomes even more obvious when seen on a big screen such as the recent release on IMAX. As family entertainment, it's hard to beat Disney films, and Beauty and the Beast, though not as successful as Lion King or Aladdin, is still one of their best recent efforts.
Entertainment: 8/10

Be Cool (2005)
Starring: John Travolta, Uma Thurman, Vince Vaughn
Director: F. Gary Gray
Plot: A disenchanted gangster-turned-movie producer becomes romantically involved with the widow of a dead music executive and gets hastily embroiled in the dangerous world of the hip-hop industry.
Review: A long-in-coming sequel loosely based on the Elmore Leonard best-seller, Be Cool may have the same shenanigans as its predecessor Get Shorty but lacks the easy playfulness. Director Gray showed a steady hand at solid commercial fare like The Negotiator and The Italian Job, but he stumbles here with the comedy elements - blame the script, perhaps, that provides only a smidgen of the real cool found in the original novel. The real harm is that there's too much conscious effort into making it seem clever and droll, with the gags aimed at the music industry often too broad to really hit their mark. Not to say it's a complete waste, as things do move along at a steady clip, and there are enough funny bits and moments of clever dialog to enjoy it for what it is: a light fluff piece produced as a vehicle for its floundering leading man that is easily digested and forgotten. The ensemble cast looks like a real winner, including supporting roles from the likes of Cedric the Entertainer, Harvey Keitel, The Rock (who easily has the best role making fun of his own image), Danny DeVito, James Woods and a jive-talking Vince Vaughn, but none of them have much to sink their teeth into, or try out their comic chomps. The real issue, though, is with the two leads: there's just no spark, Travolta is a bloated, vapid version of his former self, and Thurman really has little of interest to play with. Even a dance scene between them - a wink at their classic two-step in Pulp Fiction - only proves inept and dull. There's a lot of flash in Be Cool, and there's some fun to be had in the mish-mash that is the convoluted plot, but by trying so hard to be "cool" it misses the mark.
Entertainment: 4/10

Bedazzled (2000)
Starring: Brendan Fraser, Elizabeth Hurley
Director: Harold Ramis
Plot: A well-meaning but socially-inept loser enters into a contract with Lucifer and sells his soul in exchange for seven wishes hoping to capture the woman of his dreams.
Review: Bedazzled, a remake of the original 1967 version starring Dudley Moore, keeps the original's spirit but updates the situations the hapless hero gets into to more modern tastes for exaggerated effect. Director Ramis (Groundhog Day, Analyse This) knows what most audiences want from Hollywood comedies, and here he delivers what on expects. The story is predictable, but the script manages to play well with the limitations of this type of comedy to allow for some genuinely funny sequences throughout. What really makes the film, though, isn't so much the discovery of how our loser's wishes will be turned against him (and there are some clever moments here), but the interaction between the hero and this charming, mischievous Devil. Hurley vamps up her portrayal of female Satan admirably and adds a touch of devilish style to the proceedings. Fraser is likable enough in his loser role and does a good job in his different magically transformed personalities but one can't help thinking it would be nice to see him try on some more dramatic stuff (as he did in Gods and Monsters). Though it may be fluff, Bedazzled is a fun and engaging light-hearted comedy.
Comedy: 6/10


Bee Movie (2007)
Starring: Jerry Seinfeld, Renee Zellweger, Matthew Broderick
Directors: Steve Hickner, Simon J. Smith
Plot: Adverse to a life of mindless toil, a newly-graduated, disillusioned bee explores life outside the hive, discovers humans eat the fruits of their labor and decides to sue mankind.
Review: From the man who gave TV some of its best comic moments, the one and only Jerry Seinfeld co-writes, co-produces and stars in the computer animated Bee Movie, a big time vehicle marking his return to the limelight. Following in the familiar footsteps of Antz and A Bug's Life, with its themes of individualism and easy social jabs, the story adds some funny twists, moves along at a good pace and is graced with some fluid, colorful visuals - nothing that impresses, but its nice and clean. The affair is for the most part more casual and laid back than many of the ADD-type features that have plagued theatres, allowing some of the trademark Seinfeld humor to shine through, with a script that is more adult-oriented than most. Unfortunately, the film still maintains many of the usual genre shticks, all kept afloat with a genial charm and the occasional clever twist, but few genuine laughs, and none that will spark any cooler discussions. Still, if most of the jokes are instantly forgettable, it's an enjoyable time if one comes in knowing this isn't going to be a real laugh fest. And ith a voice cast including Zellweger, Broderick, Chris Rock, John Goodman, and a bevy of cameos from the likes of Ray Liotta, Sting, Larry King and more, you know you can't go too wrong. Despite its minor faults, Bee Movie is an amusing confection, one that gets extra points for aiming higher than most CGI affairs - just not high enough for some Seinfeld fans expectations.
Entertainment: 7/10

Before Night Falls (2000)
Starring: Javier Bardem, Olivier Martinez, Andrea Di Stefano
Director: Julian Schnabel
Plot: Portrait of the life and times of gay Cuban writer Reinaldo Arena under Castro's regime, from his early days as a young boy living in the slums to his exile in New York.
Review: Based on the memoirs of Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas, Before Night Falls is a beautifully-shot, compelling biography that immediately catches our attention and never loses hold. As with most biopics, there's quite a bit of artistic liberty to be found, but the dramatized (and heavily politicized) account actually helps transcend the expected limitation of the poet's literary works. The film manages to knit these into the narrative, making much of the story a kind of dark, lyrical tale that encompasses the best and worst of a startling life, not only as a gay man caught in a homophobic regime but as an artist brutally censored in his own country. Artist-turned-director Schnabel (who first flirted with cinema biography with Basquiat) seems much more confident with his sophomore turn and displays a much stronger sense of style here with a visual artistry that is simply superb, from the dirty slums and colorful streets of 1950's Cuba, to the fantasy-like sequences of escape. Throughout, the film captures the look and feel of Cuba and its recent history, and Arenas, elevated to a larger-than-life Jesus-like character, acts like a guide through the deep social upheavals following the Castro revolution. Yet, despite all the terrible moments including imprisonment, torture, exile, and even a battle with AIDS, their are many instances of outright humor and a quite undercurrent of hope and undeterred sensuality that runs through the film. In his break-out role portraying the gay poet, Bardem proves he's a world-class actor showing off a cool exterior that bridles with simmering internal emotional ardor, and he's utterly believable at every stage of his subject's life. French actor Martinez is also excellent in a much subtler role than he's used to as his close friend / lover. Also worthy of note despite the cameo-size dual roles is Johnny Depp who gets two very different, memorable chances, the first as the prison's flirtatious, flaming drag queen, and the second as a vicious prison interrogator. A thoughtful, always engaging biography, Before Night Falls is a rich portrait of struggle and anguish, and of the beauty that can be found in the darkest of places.
Drama: 8/10

Before Sunset (2004)
Starring: Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy
Director: Richard Linklater
Plot: 10 years after having spent an unforgettable night together in Vienna - and having missed a lovers' rendez-vous - two strangers meet up again by chance in Paris and discuss about their new lives and the lost opportunity together.
Review: Re-uniting his two charming leads from Before Sunrise ten years after their first, fateful meeting, director Linklater (Waking Life, School of Rock) has created a touching, engaging and surprisingly heartfelt romantic drama with Before Sunset, one that blends Western indie ideals with European sensibilities. Playing almost in real-time, the camera follows the two as they walk around a warm, Fall-colored Paris, getting re-acquainted and recounting their misspent lives and of the moments they've lost. Half scripted, half improvised, each scene feels like an organic outgrowth of what happened a moment before. The film-long conversation - touching on subjects of politics, love, and culture - seems completely natural, as do the two leads, who make a convincing performance as a love-lorn pair. There's nothing very exciting in terms of the story, no dark secrets, no psychological trauma to be uncovered, but it's amazing how the film make us feel witness to two people falling in love again with the smallest of details, with the most imperceptible of nudges. Just like the Hawke and Delpy themselves, the characters have matured, and each brings added emotional baggage to their performances. In fact it gets so comfortable that one might be disappointed by the too-short running time. Yet everything works, we're convinced of their bond, and the ending is just perfect. And who knows? Maybe we will meet them again in another ten years.
Drama: 8/10

Behind Enemy Lines (2001)
Starring: Owen Wilson, Gene Hackman
Director: John Moore
Plot: On a routine flight mission over Bosnia, a U.S. Navy pilot gets shot down and must run for his life to reach safe ground after having witnessed the Serbian army's cover-up of a mass grave.
Review: Behind Enemy Lines doesn't really pretend to be anything other than an entertaining gung-ho military action thriller and within these limits it's one that's rather enjoyable. First-time director Moore manages to add a certain cinematic flair to the proceedings with the help of some clever cinematography and quick editing that makes the film look a lot better than one would expect. Surprisingly enough, the story does try (if only in passing) to address the complex issues of the Bosnian conflict, but this is first and foremost a blow-things-up kind of exercise. Though the premise and development is typically absurd and simplistic in its depiction of the conflict and its characters, the action set-pieces are expertly done and, thanks to a brisk pacing and efficient script, the film maintains a decent level of fun. From an obvious awe of military hardware, to the well-realized explosions and pitched battles, this is an entertaining action flick and in that respect it doesn't disappoint. Wilson makes for a very different type of Hollywood hero; there's still the wisecracks, the superhuman feats and the impossible luck that follows him, but there's also a very definite wit and intelligence behind the macho veneer. Hackman, however, seems out of place and uncomfortable here. Like most of the genre, it's got plot holes the size of carriers, of course, but as a straight-forward action exercise, Behind Enemy Lines works pretty well.
Entertainment: 6/10

Behind the Blue (L'Enfant d'Eau) (Quebec - 1995)
Starring: David LaHaye, Marie-France Monette, Gilbert Sicotte
Director: Robert Ménard
Plot: Stranded on a Caribbean island after a plane crash, a feisty 12-year-old girl and a mentally handicapped adult grow closer while they await a possible rescue.
Review: L'Enfant d'Eau, a mature coming-of-age story mixed in with parts Robinson Crusoe, proves an interesting addition to Quebec cinema. Little is made of the two mis-matched survivors being cast-aways, even limiting the details of their necessities for survival. Instead, the film makes us feel as though they were stranded on a beautifully scenic, deserted beach resort, something which allows the film to focus on the dynamics between them. The very heart of the film is this interesting relationship between the head-strong young girl and the helpless man, switching the typical child / adult relationship from mother / child to "lovers", though the word might conjure up the wrong connotation here. Director Ménard often goes for the sentimentality evident in the subject but still manages to bring about a heart-warming, if finally tragic, tale with good results. If there's one disappointment it's the jumps in sensibilities of their relationship, including some of the more important turning points, which seem to occur without the necessary build-up. Since they are being recreated from journal entries, this is acceptable (and maybe even necessary for the story to maintain momentum), but it still feels abrupt. This is particularly evident regarding the young girl's sexual awakening and her decision to do something about it with someone who doesn't have the capacity to reciprocate emotionally. These scenes, which brings up some rather provocative material, is done with surprising honesty that only makes the film all the more touching. Both leads are convincing in their roles, with LaHaye winning a Genie for his performance as the simpleton, both managing some rather difficult scenes well. In the end, the film does shy away from some of the more risqué sexual implications, and the story comes off as rather simplistic, but with solid acting from its two leads and an interesting twist on the genre, L'Enfant d'Eau is a fine drama.
Drama: 7/10

Behind the Yellow Line (Hong Kong - 1984)
Starring: Leslie Cheung, Maggie Cheung, Anita Mui
Director: Taylor Wong
Plot: A young man straight out of college chances to meet a pretty woman just off from a difficult relationship in the subway and tries to woo her with the help of a rich heiress who has fallen for his naive charms.
Review: There's no doubt that Hong Kong could do romantic comedy as well as Hollywood, and the proof is in this sweet Shaw Brothers confection that follows the American template to a fault. The film is surprisingly straight-forward, following the formula of boy finds girl, boy loses girl, boy and girl finally get together. There's the love triangle, the quirky situations, the romantic ups and downs, and even the climactic reunion. The original title was "Destiny", but this theme doesn't come up until the end when, helped along by Mui's characters' connections, the two lovers unite after a long search through the subway system. Though there's nothing really memorable, the story moves along well with few slow moments, and genre fans looking for some light fare won't be disappointed. The biggest attraction to modern audiences however is the fact that the film stars three bonafide award-winning stars in one of their earlier roles, when they were still three fresh young actors. Cheung and Leung work well off each other, and Mui provides the necessary chutzpah and comic relief. And check out those 80's haircuts! An amusing, if generic little film, Behind the Yellow Line is pure average fluff that gets a nice boost from the talent involved.
Entertainment: 5/10

Being John Malkovich (1999)
Starring: John Cusack, Cameron Diaz, Catherine Keener, John Malkovich
Director: Spike Jonze
Plot: Out of desperation, a down-on-his-luck puppeteer takes a job as a filing clerk and blunders onto a doorway that allows him to enter the mind of John Malkovich for 15 minutes at a time.
Review: How to describe this strange, bizarre film? A surrealist, philosophical spoof of the New Age movement? A romantic-comedy with a weird ménage-à-quatre? Whatever Being John Malkovich ends up being pegged as, there is no denying that director Jonze has delivered an original, well-written, unpredictable, and hilarious piece of film-making. Cameron Diaz is almost unrecognizable as the demure pet-crazy wife with a permanent bad hair day, and Malkovich and Cusack are terrific, but it's Catherine Keener who really steals the show as the cynical sex-pot whom all the other characters lust over. If you're looking for a different kind of comedy, you can't get more off-the-wall than this!
Comedy: 8/10

Bend It Like Beckham (2003)
Starring: Parminder K. Nagra, Keira Knightley, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers
Director: Gurinder Chadha
Plot: An English teen is torn between her dream of being a professional soccer player and her loyalty to her traditional Indian family who would rather have her prepare for college and her sister's wedding.
Review: A combination sports drama, coming-of-age story, culture clash and ethnic comedy, Bend It Like Beckham would appear at first glance to tackle too many different ideas. Surprisingly enough, through domestic difficulties, romantic tangles and jealousies, and family rebellion, it all perfectly coalesces into a genuinely uplifting concoction. The parents on both sides are undoubtedly caricatures with their attitudes exaggerated to provide some laughs, but their caring nature is also on display giving them all a human face. Though rather too broad to be a real drama, only skimming at the depths of the issues raised, it's an amusing and joyful look at a displaced Indian culture with a very British slant. Some other situations may be contrived, but the film manages to avoid the usual traps and engages us emotionally while always finding the humor in its situations. Many of the familiar sports clichés make an appearance of course and the fairy-tale ending is never be in doubt, but by allowing us to feel for all these characters and giving us a genuinely warm glimpse at their lives the film transcends the typical limitations. Knightley, as the pretty Anglo-Saxon teammate, and Rhys-Meyers as the coach and the center of the girls' attention, are terrific, but it's charismatic, plucky young lead Nagra who really steals the show as the teen divided between family loyalty and soccer ambition. Touching on many themes and subplots, Bend It Like Beckham is a pleasant little picture that's ably directed by Gurinder Chadha (What's Cooking), perfectly cast, moves along well, and will have audiences smiling throughout.
Entertainment / Drama: 7/10

*Classic* Ben-Hur (1959)
Starring: Charlton Heston, Hugh Griffith, Jack Hawkins
Director: William Wyler
Plot: A Jewish nobleman is wrongfully accused and sold into slavery by a childhood friend now a Roman tribunal but manages, years later, to make his way back seeking revenge.
Review: A remake of the 1925 silent hit, Ben-Hur is foremost an old-style melodramatic Hollywood spectacle, an epic production shot on a huge scale that went on to win a record-breaking 11 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor. It's easy to see why the film was such a hit, with its rousing melodrama, historical background, evocative sets, religious underpinnings, glorious action sequences, and gorgeous cinematography that makes great use of the widescreen image to show off the large crowd scenes and huge resplendent Roman armies. Aiming so hard for epic scope, though, the film drags out a rather simple story - at just under four hours, it’s obvious the film could have used some editing to cut down on the interminable melodrama. The main culprit is the heavy-handed writing which suffers a lot from an approach not uncommon in '50s epics of the sort, where overly theatrical dialogue and acting abounds, making parts of the tale all the more "greater-than-life", while making others border on the plain silly. The insistence on the "biblical" aspect of the times, on the rise of Jesus and the Christian faith, and on a simplistic religious message, mires an otherwise rousing tale, making it feel as though it were included solely for the hero to ultimately find redemption and forgiveness in the meant-to-be "inspiring" (but oh so horribly deus ex machina) finale. Charlton Heston was perfect for the role, as the story requires more posturing, anger-filled tirades and hard-edged good looks than actual acting ability, qualities Heston gives off in spades. The rest of the cast, however, is rather wooden and often come out as mere caricatures. No matter, for the film also includes one of the crowning achievements of classic Hollywood cinema, the carefully choreographed climactic chariot race. It's a thrilling, rousing event, that puts the filmmakers' expertise in evidence - from the colossal sets, huge crowds, thundering horses, and death-defying stunts, it's all a mesmerizing feat and is worth the wait. The story and narrative may be somewhat dated and overly long, but in its inspired spectacle and lavish production, Ben-Hur never fails to impress.
Entertainment: 7/10


Beowulf (2007)
Starring: Ray Winstone, Anthony Hopkins, Angelina Jolie, John Malkovich, Brendan Gleeson
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Plot: The hero Beowulf must defeat the monster Grendel who has been terrorizing the local town, but must also face the wrath of Grendel's demon mother.
Review: A very modern adaptation of the Old English heroic epic poem (indeed, the first recorded piece of English-language literature), Beowulf is a surprise to anyone who had the text force-fed to them in high school. Though the main aspects, locations, characters and sequence of events are the same, the script from fantasy writer Neil Gaiman and Pulp Fiction scripter Roger Avary takes some liberties with the original text, giving the characters more substance and a sordid background story that ties king and she-demon together, a tie that was probably never intended but gives the tale more emotional heft and a definite psychological edge. The all-computer animation is simply amazing and some of the characters and creatures are almost life-like, especially during the close-ups. The selling point, however, are the powerful, pulse-pounding action sequences as our Hero takes on the huge, disfigured Grendel creature or fights against a Dragon in a thrilling climax. Director Zemeckis (Back to the Future, Forrest Gump) knows how to use the available tools to give audiences quite a ride, but also knows when to concentrate on the dramatic elements. The actors were filmed using a motion capture technique (a technique best used last for Gollum in The Lord of the Rings) and their characters altered for the screen, though they bear a remarkable resemblance. The movements are still not perfect, and some of the extras look a little clunky, but it's a clear step ahead from Zemecki's own Polar Express or even the last CGI-rendered hallmark, Final Fantasy. On the technical side, the most important success is that 3D has also finally come to its own and the effect on an IMAX screen is simply eye-popping. Objects poke or fly off the screen, perspectives make you lose balance, and the effect is just... wow. Definitely worthwhile to experience in the format it was meant to be seen in. But none of this would be very engaging if the story didn't catch us; effort has been put on character development, and even during the talking parts the camera work and dialogue keeps us interested. Even the monster Grendel has been given much more depth, along with a child-like demeanor despite his raging rampages that make him a pathetic figure. The voice acting from the likes of Hopkins, Winstone, Jolie, Gleeson, etc also sets the right tone for this type of fare. If there's a downside it's the decision to add a silly "hide the willy" sequence; done for laughs, it uses elbows, candlesticks, and anything else it can find to hide our hero's privates as he fights Grendel (and later takes credit for defeating him) naked. Still, Beowulf isn't meant to replace a college course on this, the oldest English-language tale, but if it had to be given the Hollywood treatment, this is a fine, entertaining facelift that will bring a classic tale to a wider audience.
Entertainment: 8/10

Beowulf & Grendel (2006)
Starring: Gerard Butler, Stellan Skarsgard, Sarah Polley
Director: Sturla Gunnarsson
Plot: In 6th century Denmark, a Norse warrior embarks on a journey to kill an ogre that has caused carnage on the King and his men.
Review: A re-interpretation of the first half of the Old English epic poem, Beowulf & Grendel provides a gritty, modern retelling of the legend that will please some and alienate many. For one, the stalwart hero a conscience. For two, depicted as a tragic figure, the monstrous Grendel is given the Frankenstein treatment, a creature that has been terribly wronged and now seeks revenge on the kingdom that killed its father. It's also clear that the screenplay aims at the cerebral, with not nearly enough action or tension to satisfy mainstream movie-goers. As such, director Gunnarsson maintains a somber atmosphere that prevails throughout, bringing to life a tale of classic adventure that keeps the bloodletting very much in check yet still captures the savagery inherent in the original text by being violent and bloody when it has to. Added to that, the panoramic vistas and shots of the Icelandic landscape are nothing short of spectacular and ground the film in a mythical other world. Yet, although the dramatic elements are very much present, the anachronistic dialogue, flailing at dark humor, and out-of-place commentary on the advent of Christianity don't help, and the limited budget doesn't do the production any favors either. As the muscular Hero of lore trying to balance honor and loyalty, a pre-300 Butler makes good without over-acting the part. Skarsgard, on the contrary, plays the cursed King to ridiculous extremes and the un-accented Polley, as the young, wise witch, breaks the flow with an uninterested performance. Still, while we wait for a better adaptation, Beowulf & Grendel is a decent introduction to the tale for movie-goers.
Drama: 5/10

Best in Show (2000)
Starring: Christopher Guest, Catherine O'Hara, Parker Posey
Director: Christopher Guest
Plot: A camera crew follows five different teams of Best-of-Breed dog owners from different corners of the U.S. as they prepare for, and compete in, a prestigious national dog show in Philadelphia.
Review: Best in Show, a comedy on the madness and obsessions behind a national dog competition shot in pseudo-documentary mode, excels in pushing the caricature of the dog lover, but somehow doesn't capture any of the sympathy. The first half of the film is made up of a bunch of short, intimate moments introducing the large variety of eccentric, rather brainless characters. These are occasionally funny, if a tad tired and repetitive. The real event, however, is the dog show itself with all the pageantry and melodrama expected, all presented by an insufferable parody of a host. Much of the humor in this section is supposed to be based on his incessant, naive chatter, and though some of his lines are hilarious in their stupidity, it soon becomes more annoying than entertaining. The cast is made up of quite an impressive list of good, B-list actors all playing their off-the-wall personalities to the hilt but without meatier roles, they all stay as cardboard cut-outs ready-made for skit comedy, not movies. In the end, all we get in Best of Show is a series of clichés showing how sad all these silly people really are. That's too bad; the premise was sound, but the script just wasn't up to the comedic potential.
Comedy: 5/10

*Classic* A Better Tomorrow (Hong Kong - 1986)
Starring: Chow Yun-Fat, Ti Lung, Leslie Cheung
Director: John Woo
Plot: A reformed ex-con tries to save his relationship with his brother, a rookie cop, who blames him for their father's death but his old criminal ties won't let him stay straight.
Review: When A Better Tomorrow first appeared on Hong Kong screens it quickly became more than just another action escapade, it single-handedly set the standard for one of Hong Kong's most popular genres and revitalized Woo's career (who went on to direct Hard Boiled and Face/Off). Of course, the action set-pieces, mostly limited to well-staged shootouts, is fast-paced and hard-hitting with all the trademark Woo visuals that would mark his later films: the two-handed gun-play, the cinematic bullet ballet, the slow-motion deaths, the splendid cinematography, etc. The final confrontation against droves of armed killers makes for a dizzying, memorable 20 minutes. More so than the bloody sequel, the story here is what's really important, with Woo's favorite theme of loyalty and brotherhood taking center stage, adding strong melodrama and imbuing the relationships with a dimensionality not usually seen in action films. The script is efficient and lively, presenting a violent, dark world where codes of honor and personal bonds are all that separates the living from the dead. Another important point is the level of the acting, all three leads creating believable characters, each desperate for personal redemption. That said, Cheung and Lung are as good as ever, but it's Chow, as the suave, cool enforcer that steals the show - his character, in sunglasses, trenchcoat, armed with a gun in each fist, is the template for many a future action star. Countlessly imitated since, A Better Tomorrow is ground-zero for the genre, a true Hong Kong classic, and a must-see.
Entertainment: 8/10

Bewitched (2005)
Starring: Nicole Kidman, Will Ferrell, Michael Caine
Director: Nora Ephron
Plot: A vain but failing male star agrees to star in a remake of the 60's TV show Bewitched and unknowingly casts a real witch in the leading role.
Review: Most audiences will have a found memory of watching the original 1960's sitcom when they were younger, and so enter the contemporary re-invention of Bewitched, an affectionate and rather harmless homage to the show that's more fun than typical TV-to-big-screen adaptations. Co-writer / director Ephron (Sleepless in Seattle, You've Got Mail) knows about commercial comedies, and she does work both the nostalgia factor and the self-referential humor into the proceedings, adding lots of visual gags, in-jokes and winks at its audience (particularly the fans of the original show). There's also lots of ribbing on the entertainment industry which packs a few laughs despite its clichés. The problem is that it never takes any chances, preferring to keep it all safe as another piece of marshmallow fluff. There are moments of cleverness that seem to tend towards a genre-bending revelation to all the coincidences that pepper the film, but the story seems to have been cut short, and the pay-off left on the editing room floor. Still, it's a jolly, rose-tinted send-up and the two leads are terrific: Ferrell is a great physical comic actor, and his usual antics make the slapstick moments seem effortless. As his foil, Kidman proves she really can do even fluffy comedy, even though she's playing the role of "naive and perky" to the point of silliness - and she does get the nose wiggle down pat. There's also a nice sub-plot with her warlock father Caine and a hamming-it-up Shirley MacLaine. It could have been more fulfilling, especially considering the high caliber of talent involved, but Bewitched ends up as another bland but amusing romantic comedy.
Entertainment: 5/10

Beyond the Sea (2004)
Starring: Kevin Spacey, Kate Bosworth, John Goodman
Director: Kevin Spacey
Plot: The life and achievements of singer / movie actor Bobby Darin, how he met his wife Sandra Dee, and how his ambition helped him cheat death until the age of 37.
Review: Following the example of many an actor, Spacey tries his hand at what would normally have amounted as a perfect example of hubris - acting, writing, producing and directing the biopic Beyond the Sea. Though he shouldn't be quitting his acting stint, it's a surprisingly decent effort, a heartfelt, sweet homage to a not-quite-iconic crooner of the 50's, 60's and 70's from his rise from teen idol status to lounge singer. As a musical it's a success, full of color, dancing, and high-energy: The soundtrack including Spacey's rendition of Mack the Knife, among other era hits, is bubbly, the musical numbers are nicely choreographed and aptly shot giving them a nice '50s retro feel - and Spacey isn't too shabby in the singing department either. As a biography, however, it doesn't delve nearly enough into character to make us understand the man, or understand the real tragedy of his life and his ambitions, despite some nice narrative touches (such as Darin's internal monologue with his younger self) and some near-misses into melodrama and cliché. As his long-suffering wife, the sweet Bosworth gives a nice supporting role, as does Goodman. All in all, Beyond the Sea is colorful enough, giving a larger-than-life, rose-colored depiction of its subject, and Spacey is quite likable as Darin. There's just nothing to really make a lasting impression.
Review: 5/10

Bicentennial Man (1999)
Starring: Robin Williams, Embeth Davidtz
Director: Chris Columbus
Plot: A domestic robot realizes that, by accident, he is unique and spends the next two hundred years in his quest to find others like him, and to finally become human in both spirit and body.
Review: Bicentennial Man is very loosely based on Isaac Asimov's brilliant tale of the same name. This adaptation aims squarely for the heart strings, and isn't ashamed to show it. The story may have tried for lofty philosophical goals but by using every conceivable Hollywood cliché, shallow perceptions, and constant saccharine sweet melodrama it ends up being a tiresome, long-winded affair. The main problem is the dreadfully uninteresting and slow-moving script, one in which the few comedy elements seem to have been added as an afterthought and are mostly limited to silly one-liners. Not to say that there aren't a few fun moments on occasion, but it just doesn't live up to its interesting premise of what it is to be human, and is simply a waste of good original material. The role is not a stretch for Williams and this is one of his worst ones in a while, though he does a better performance under layers of plastic than without. In the end, Bicentennial Man is just a ho-hum sentimental film mired by a badly conceived sci-fi story.
Entertainment: 3/10

Big (1988)
Starring: Tom Hanks, Elizabeth Perkins, Robert Loggia
Director: Penny Marshall
Plot: A young boy's wish to be "big" finds him waking up one morning in the body of a thirty-year old forcing him to run away from home and eventually taking up a job in a toy company.
Review: Big is Hollywood at its best, taking a simple premise and running with it to create a smart, humorous feature that's appealing to all ages. The story is pure wish-fulfillment fantasy: a boy gets a chance to do anything he wants, away from the confines of his parents. Though surrounded by opportunities for fun, the adults around him have lost their inner child and have been taken in by the complexities and responsibilities of adulthood. Though the obvious moral of the story may be "don't grow up too quickly", the film never gets moralistic or overly sentimental (at least not until the very end) and remains light-hearted and engaging throughout. Director Marshall (Awakenings, A League of Their Own) hit on the right formula here, ensuring that her lead actor took most of the limelight, and letting the camera take in the colorful sets filled with everything a kid could want with a certain kind of childish awe. And who can forget that classic film moment when Loggia and Hanks dance a duet on a huge floor mock-up of an electronic piano at the FAO Shwartz toy store. But it's Hanks who really makes the movie work - his Oscar-nominated performance of a young boy in a man's body is sometimes exaggerated for comic purposes, but mostly it's bang-on: innocent, warm, shy, honest and terribly likable. Many of the funniest scenes are based on his character's misunderstanding of the adult world, especially with his co-worker Perkins, with the script poking fun at the usual relationship clichés. A special note should go to Jared Rushton as Hank's young best friend who manages to keep his own throughout and grounds Hank's persona in the reality of who he is. Entertaining and funny, Big is a sentimental comic fantasy on innocence lost (and regained) that anyone can enjoy.
Entertainment: 7/10

The Big Bounce (2004)
Starring: Owen Wilson, Morgan Freeman, Sara Foster
Director: George Armitage
Plot: A small-time crook trying to make ends meet in Hawaii falls for a beautiful young woman and gets entagled in a plot to steal $200,000 from her rich boyfriend's safe.
Review: The Big Bounce would appear to have all the ingredients for a fine movie outing: it's based on the book by best-selling crime novelist Elmore Leonard, it's got a terrific list of popular actors, and it's got a capable director who gave us such charming films as Gross Pointe Blank. So what went wrong? Well, just about everything. The script is in fact only "loosely" based on the book, the characters are appropriately eccentric losers but are all ill-defined, the crime and comedy portions are poor (if almost non-existent), and the pacing is all over the place (and mostly slow). This might still be adequate fun for late-TV-watching, what with the abundance of sex appeal, the laid-back narrative, the definite charm of lead man Wilson, and the great vacation locale - in fact, the cinematography of the Hawaiian islands might be the highlight of the film. As expected, everyone is playing one kind of con or another and double-crosses abound - it's just all so predictable, and the final act so quick and anti-climactic, that we're left with a feeling of having been cheated. The main problem is the script which has a few good lines of dialogue but just never quite manages to get out from under the standard conventions - and doesn't even do those well. The movie focuses mostly on the romantic entanglement between Wilson and Foster, playing small-time crooks who can't trust each other, but none of it feels right. Freeman doesn't exert himself in the few scenes he's in, and top-billed Gary Sinise, Charlie Sheen and Vinnie Jones barely show up on screen. Clocking in at less than 90 minutes, it may be that much of the film ended up on the cutting room floor. If the final result is any indication, this might have been a good thing. Director Armitage knows how to do good movies, and the author's other adaptations have been quite successful (Get Shorty, Jackie Brown), so those are no excuses for this mess. Whatever, The Big Bounce is one of those terribly disappointing efforts that's just inert, inept, and a waste of time and talent.
Entertainment: 4/10

Big Bullet (Hong Kong - 1996)
Starring: Lau Ching-Wan
Director: Benny Chan
Plot: A hot headed police officer is demoted to leading a ragtag team of Emergency Unit cops to stop a gang of drug dealers from stealing their confiscated $9 million back from Interpol.
Review: Big Bullet derives from the typical cop movie template, including an exaggerated mix of characters and slim plot, but it delivers exactly what it promises. Lau Ching-Wan is easily the best HK star at present, and his presence in any film makes it worth watching. Devoid of the seriousness of earlier films such as Expect the Unexpected, this one is made for fun, and it shows. Some impressive, Hollywood-style action sequences, high production values, good cinematography, and a script that zips along at a good pace are all the trademarks of yet another great Milky Way production that doesn't disappoint.
Entertainment: 7/10

Big Daddy (1999)
: Adam Sandler, Kristy Swanson
Director: Dennis Dugan
Plot: To impress his girlfriend, an irresponsible man decides to adopt a five-year old who's been left in his care by mistake. He soon realizes that there's more to parenting than he expected.
Review: I must admit I went into this film expecting to hate it. But Adam Sandler has a certain charm when he plays it straight (as he did in The Wedding Singer), and the second half of the film, even through its obvious pulling-of-the-heart-strings and predictable turns, is actually quite enjoyable. The biggest yuks are intended to come from the off-color humor, of course, but there are still some worthy chuckles.
Comedy: 3/10
Entertainment: 4/10

Big Fish (2003)
Starring: Ewan McGregor, Albert Finney, Billy Crudup
Director: Tim Burton
Plot: A journalist returns to his parents' home to reconcile with his dying father and tries to find the true portrait of the man behind all the incredible, exaggerated stories he has heard since childhood.
Review: Based on Daniel Wallace's novel, Big Fish is a fable about a man hiding, perhaps, behind a self-made imaginary life. The incredible adventures recounted seem to increase in exaggeration as this dreamlike biography unfolds. What audiences will leave with are blurs of colorful fancy - a car perched in a tree, a monstrous catfish, a lost village, a witch with a glass eye, a pair of Siamese lounge singers, and more. Yet Burton keeps the wondrous aspects alive and matter-of-fact, making these tall tales integral not only to the father's concept of himself but of others' view of him as well. What is the importance of truth when it just isn't very interesting? The film's conclusion, while being uplifting and sweet, unfortunately reduces the theme set forth - that of discarding one's banal life and finding a greater importance through fiction - to the realm of fact. The "real-world" father-son relationship is nicely affecting however, as the younger man finally discerns the kernel of truth that is his father, just as the talent for story-telling is passed on to the next generation. There's bound to be some disappointment, however: though strange, fantastic, and full of bizarre events and eccentric characters, this is all rather low-key from the man who brought us such surreal, dark tales as Batman, Beetlejuice and Sleepy Hollow. Oh, the production glitters and shines, and there's never a slow moment to be had, but it's nowhere near as visually interesting as his previous forays. Starry-eyed McGregor does a fine "fictional" character, showing the required naiveté and over-the-top theatricality required for the role. Jessica Lange makes a classy appearance as the older wife but, just like Crudup, are overshadowed by the real narrative. Then again, the story focuses on its main character and as such, it's only natural that veteran actor Finney make a mark as the charismatic, ailing father. Big Fish isn't particularly memorable, perhaps, but there's a certain affable charm to be had here and Burton fans will enjoy seeing the filmmaker's talents on something other than mythical characters.
Entertainment: 7/10

The Big Heat (Hong Kong - 1988)
Starring: Waise Lee, Joey Wang, Philip Kwok
Director: Johnnie To
Plot: After his partner is murdered by drug-runners, a cop suffering from nerve damage must put his life and resignation on hold to pursue the criminals.
Review: The Big Heat is a perfect example of the type of film that made Hong Kong movies so popular to action and entertainment fans. It's a hard-boiled crime thriller, with a heavy emphasis on riveting gun battles as the cops play a game of cat-and-mouse with the smart, influential villains. Genre conventions are still evident, and the story is a re-hash of many other similar films, including plot twists and clichés, but director To (Heroic Trio, The Mission) keeps the pace going strong, and the narrative constantly interesting with trademark camera angles and quick editing. The real heart of the film, however, are the constantly inventive, brutally violent, well shot action sequences that deliver a roller-coaster ride of non-stop thrills. Even the characters, played by some great HK B-movie actors, are interesting thanks to a script that efficiently sets up the different players and their personalities amidst the constant gun play. Surprisingly fun and furious despite its unoriginal subject, The Big Heat is one great action flick that makes it all look fresh and exciting.
Entertainment: 9/10

The Big One (1998)
Starring: Michael Moore, Rick Nielsen
Director: Michael Moore
Plot: Michael Moore's camera crew follows him on a whirlwind book tour of small-town USA where he speaks out against corporate greed and the myths of downsizing.
Review: Part Roger & Me, part TV Nation and part stand-up comedy, The Big One is Michael Moore's pointed look at corporate downsizing, at companies moving their facilities outside of the U.S. to maximize their profits to the detriment of blue-collar workers. Moore takes on a much broader socio-economic scope here and has many more political statements to make on the new style of "economic terrorism" instigated on the American work force. The best moments, of course, are when he takes his documentary style, guerilla journalism straight to the jobless communities, to management and press agents, and to government representatives, most of whom are completely unprepared for his in-your-face, below-the-belt anti-corporate pranks. Though some of the points made are familiar, The Big One is still an entertaining, and eye-opening, documentary.
Entertainment: 7/10
Documentary: 7/10

*Classic* The Big Sleep (1946)
Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, John Ridgely
Director: Howard Hawks
Plot: A tough private investigator is hired to protect a millionaire's daughter from a blackmail scam, but things get complicated when he is thrust into a complex scheme of betrayal and murder.
Review: Based on Raymond Chandler's 1939 novel that first introduced the tough, cynical detective-for-hire Marlowe, The Big Sleep is an excellent example of Hollywood's film noir period. By having our hard-as-nails hero on screen at all times, the narrative seems to unfold through his eyes, with the audience kept in the dark as to the mystery involving all these shady underworld characters. The intricate web of deception and betrayals, of all the motivations to be deciphered, sometimes gets so confusing even its authors were at a loss to explain it all! Yet despite its convoluted plot, the film has remained a classic of the hard-boiled genre with all the elements clearly in place (murders, corruption, tough guys, paranoia, suspense, etc.). This is above all an exercise in characterization and style, and the film has those elements in spades thanks to a very precise, clean direction from Hawks, and a sultry, intelligent script from famed American authors Leigh Brackett and William Faulkner which is full of snappy dialogue, sexual innuendo, great one-liners and cynical witticisms. Even the Max Steiner score helps provide the perfect mood as we explore the gloomy streets and shady characters that populate this LA underworld. A large part of the success of the film is also, of course, due to the great chemistry between Bacall and Bogart who do well in some pretty racy scenes, with Bogie as suave and cool as ever and the young Bacall playing the femme fatale to perfection. With its quick pacing, engaging characters, dark atmosphere and sharp dialogue, The Big Sleep is definitely required viewing.
Entertainment: 9/10

Big Trouble (2002)
Starring: Tim Allen, Rene Russo, Stanley Tucci
Director: Barry Sonnenfeld
Plot: The lives of a diverse group of Miami denizens, including yuppies, hippies, cops, killers and petty crooks, all clash together when a mysterious suitcase comes into the picture.
Review: Based on the novel by Miami humor columnist Dave Barry, Big Trouble is a breezy comic ride, both in terms of its shallowness and short running time, one that's reasonably entertaining but that's also a definite step back for all involved. The film has its share of laughs, and there's an obvious tongue-in-cheek enthusiasm throughout, but ensemble comedies are always difficult to do and this one doesn't fare any better than most. There are attempts at some cleverness, such as a hallucination of Martha Stewart crossed with a dog, but these are rare. Sonnenfield looks to be slumming it after his bigger hits (Men in Black, Get Shorty), and though the direction and pacing are there, the whole thing just tries a little too hard to be a big, chaotic farce; sometimes it reaches that height with some well executed slapstick and nonsensical sequences, but for the most part it just feels forced. The jokes and comic situations, of course, are put to the forefront from the get-go and take over from the characters. The able cast, however, does try to make up for the inconsistencies and deficiencies of the script; Allen and Russo do just fine in cruise control, Janeane Garofolo makes for a terrific female cop, and Tucci is suitably exasperating, among others. Much hoopla has been on the subject matter after September 11 and the final plane hijacking, no matter how goofy or inept in intent isn't quite as humorous to everyone anymore. Big Trouble is an honest effort for an ensemble farce, and it's light and short enough to make for a decent time-waster, but it's quite instantly forgettable fluff as well.
Comedy: 4/10

Big Trouble in Little China (1986)
Starring: Kurt Russell, Kim Cattrall, Dennis Dun
Director: John Carpenter
Plot: A wise-cracking truck driver tries to help recover his buddy's fiancé who has been kidnapped by a 2000 year old cursed sorcerer and taken underneath the catacombs of San Francisco's Chinatown.
Review: With Big Trouble in Little China, director Carpenter (The Thing, Escape from New York) has set out to create an over-the-top martial-arts fantasy in the style of early '80s Hong Kong films, one where zany stunts and campy goings-on are king. Unfortunately the allusion was lost on mainstream audiences at the time of its release for the sole reason that no-one had seen the films it lampooned. What remained was a light-hearted send off of the Indiana Jones type of supernatural high adventure, one that can best be described as the ultimate in B-movie kitsch, with some fabulously tacky sets, wacky characters and events, high-flying action, and decent F/X, all of which are used to great effect in Carpenter's ode to kung fu films, pulp serials, and all that stuff we loved when we were kids. Another good reason for its appeal are its two leads, Cattrall and Russell, who give off some perfectly hammy, over-the-top performances as required for such a spoof, delivering the snappy, corny dialogue without missing a beat and with great comic timing. This isn't meant to be a grand film by any means, but with some brisk pacing, great one-liners, and some great B-movie serial thrills Big Trouble in Little China has all the requirements for a veritable cult classic.
Entertainment: 8/10

Billy Elliot (2000)
Starring: Jamie Bell, Julie Walters, Jamie Draven
Director: Stephen Daldry
Plot: During a nation-wide miners strike in 80's England, an 11-year old boy dreams of being a dancer but must hide his taking ballet classes from his working-class family who would rather he concentrate on boxing.
Review: The British drama Billy Elliot tells a story that has been done countless times before but with a refreshing sense of place, an excellent script, and a whimsical take on the usual formula that focuses more on the people than on the dancing. The film has a hard time avoiding the many clichés of the genre, and indeed does fall into many of them, but there's a terrific visual wit, and a real passion throughout most of the film that makes it quite enchanting. A dash of social-conscious drama, and more than a dash of comedy, also help make up the difference. The background story of the grim fate and ensuing hardships of the mining town, vivid and always present, also puts a different spin to Billy's dream of rising up from his poor surroundings and adds depth to all of the characters' struggles. Best of all, these characters are well-rounded and their relationships complex and interesting, and the cast, though sometimes uneven, pulls it off well. The young Jamie Bell, however, is the real heart of the film, acting, dancing, and quite simply living the character with a passion that is quickly contagious. A gentle, tender film that occasionally falls into sentimentality, Billy Elliot surfaces as a well-made, feel-good drama.
Drama: 7/10

Bio-Zombie (Hong Kong - 1998)
Starring: Jordan Chan, Cheung Kam-Ching, Sam Lee
Director: Wilson Yip
Plot: A small group of shopkeepers try to fight their way out of a shopping mall when a bio-terror weapon disguised in a soft-drink bottle causes the occupants to become flesh-eating zombies.
Review: Bio-Zombie, a rare Hong Kong delving into an American-Italian bastion, is above all a horror-comedy as well as a low-budget zombie movie. Re-using the mall setting of Dawn of the Dead in a glass-encased Hong Kong mall, there's nothing terribly original, but it does display the necessary energy and aesthetics of the genre well. The first half is dreadfully slow going and often inane as the events and misfit characters are introduced. Thankfully, the movie picks up at the midway point into pretty fast-paced (if standard) zombie fare, including the ensemble cast of caricatures, multitude of slow-moving, rotting living dead, etc. The obviously minimal production values and amateurish effects don't mar the evident energy involved. The necessary amounts of fake gore and dismemberments also make an appearance, of course. The story is rater basic and clichéd, but it does poke good fun at the genre, with some silly humor and some clever tongue-in-cheek moments. The best of these is director Yip's (Juliet in Love) visual relations between the happenings and video games, with obvious cues peppering the proceedings such as the flashing "out of ammo" signs that appear when our hero picks up a gun or the characters being plastered with an electronic scorecard. The terrific ending makes a distinct social commentary, and it’s a nice twist. Using the standard horror template, Bio-Zombie is an amusing HK take on the genre but it's only recommended for fans of this niche cinema.
Entertainment: 4/10

The Bird People of China (Japan - 1998)
Starring: Masahiro Motoki, Renji Ishibashi, Mako
Director: Takashi Miike
Plot: A naive Tokyo businessman and an ill-tempered yakuza gangster travel across the Chinese countryside to find a remote village rumored to be the center of a huge jade exploitation.
Review: The Bird People in China is an entertaining, but strange little film. At first, it's a comic adventure buddy-flick as the two very different protagonists cross increasingly difficult terrain in rural China under worsening weather conditions with their absent-minded guide, causing increasing friction between the two travelling companions. Then they arrive at the village, a place untouched by political or technological change, and the film takes a much more melodramatic tone, turning into a rather eco-friendly fairy-tale. In less capable hands, this dichotomy might not have worked, but writer / director Miike (The Audition, Dead or Alive) manages to infuse both halves with just the right amount of humor, drama, and mysticism to make it all quite endearing. Thankfully, the film doesn't just regurgitate the typical theme of rural community versus urban alienation, and instead balances the reverential tone with some gentle mockery at its characters' sudden enchantment at their surroundings and their sudden change in attitude. The cast of quirky characters is excellent, knowing when to be serious and when to be silly as the script requires. The cinematography, showing the mist-covered mountains of China to best effect, is breath-taking. Taken as a fable for adults, The Bird People in China is a beautiful, heart-warming film that proves Miike is versatile no matter his choice of material.
Entertainment / Drama: 8/10

*Classic* The Birds (1963)
Starring: Rod Taylor, Tippi Hedren, Jessica Tandy
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Plot: Soon after the arrival of a young socialite, a small coastal town becomes the center of a series of increasingly violent attacks by a large number of birds.
Review: What starts off as a minor Hitchcock mystery slowly builds in tension until half-way through the film, when the narrative really hits its stride. The Birds is quite a departure from the director's usual crime stories and can be interpreted as an environmental disaster film or as a modern horror film, with its tearing down of normality and its open-ended outcome. Either way, Hitchcock's trademark suspense is clearly evident - he has produced another terrifying, tension-filled feature. Of course, the real surprise is the amazing cinematography, and that the impressive trick shots, though they look a little dated and fake compared to modern CGI effects, still hold up pretty well. Indeed, it's a testimony to Hitchcock's mastery and to Evan Hunter's script that even the worst effects do nothing to mar the pacing and the increasing tension of the story. Some memorable sequences include the flock of birds flying down on the running school-children, the birds trying to break into the barricaded farmhouse, and the claustrophobia of Hedren caught in the phone booth during the bird attack on the gas station, to name but a few. It is unfortunate, though, that Hitchcock preferred shooting in studios instead of on location as some of the scenes are clearly filmed on sets which occasionally breaks the illusion. Still, well shot, well edited and amazingly set up, The Birds is definitely a classic, first-rate thriller.
Suspense: 9/10

Birth (2004)
Starring: Nicole Kidman, Cameron Bright, Danny Huston
Director: Jonathan Glazer
Plot: After years of mourning, a young widow on the verge of re-marrying becomes convinced that a 10-year-old boy is the reincarnation of her dead husband.
Review: Though it has the premise and cinematic pinnings of a supernatural tale, Birth is really a melancholic drama on sorrow and loss. This is a film that relies on looks, subtle emotion, and quiet desperation, and the script goes beyond the dialogue. It also never gives in to sentimentality providing a mature, adult tale that consciously eschews mainstream expectations. Director Glazer (Sexy Beast) has crafted an understated affair shot in terrific sepia tones, giving it all a somber, sad atmosphere that still keeps our attention despite the deliberate pace and many quiet moments. Much press ink has been spilled on the bits that seem to steer towards the taboo - especially a bath scene between Kidman and the young boy - but these moments, all done in a very no-nonsense manner that evades any sense of exploitation, are the ones that really leave an impression. The film always keeps us guessing as to the validity of the child's claim, but the real focus is the unattainable hope felt by - and eventual breakdown of - Kidman's character and the relationship between adult and child. Kidman, as the still-grieving widow is the portrait of sorrow and is utterly convincing in a difficult role. The rest of the cast is quite capable as well, and it's always nice to see Bacall. The young Bright, however, is the real surprise, coming off as an old soul trapped in a young body. Unfortunately, the film doesn't go the distance, stumbling on its own convictions just when it reaches the finish line. The continual coldness and slow pace, though intended, also keeps us at a distance. Worse, however, is that we never understand what made her fall in love with her dead husband in the first place, and her attachment to his young reincarnation is all the more unexplainable. Still, despite these flaws, hats off to the filmmakers for crafting a tale that goes against the grain. Birth may not be a standout, but it is an interesting low-key affair.
Drama: 5/10

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