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Cabin Fever (2003)
Starring: Jordan Ladd, Rider Strong
Director: Eli Roth
Plot: Deciding to spend a weekend in a remote cabin, five college friends struggle to survive after falling prey to a flesh-eating virus.
Review: Meant as a throwback to the era of low-budget, "relevant" 70's horror films and its disturbing (if hollow) social critique like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or The Hills Have Eyes, Cabin Fever is a hit-and-miss affair. It's obvious first-time writer / director Roth (Hostel) is a fan of the "lost-in-the-backwoods" sub-category of horror and he does pretty well with an obviously limited budget, producing a straight-to-video quickie that is blatantly wants to be an homage to the many exploitation horror films that came before it. As such there are the expected elements of gore, violence, genre clichés, and nubile nudity. Yet the film doesn't quite know whether to go for straight thrills or referential humor: Any tension following the cast's struggle for survival (a key, typical theme) and their growing paranoia is often deflated by a lame plot, dumb gags and stupid, unsympathetic characters whose acts garner more groans than suspense. In the end the real failure is that the filmmakers have crafted a film that is too limited and too self-conscious to be much fun. Sure, as a late-night B-movie Cabin Fever has enough going for it to entertain undiscriminating modern teens, but to others the film will only come off as cheap, amateurish fare. For a better entry, see the inventive B&W Evil Dead, a real highlight of the low-budget genre.
Horror: 3/10

Caché (Hidden) (France - 2005)
Starring: Daniel Auteuil, Juliette Binoche, Maurice Bénichou
Director: Michael Haneke
Plot: The host of a TV literary review and his editor wife are terrorized after receiving disturbing surveillance tapes of their Paris home forcing him to look into his childhood to reveal the secret of their anonymous stalker.
Review: An effective if surprisingly coy psychological thriller, Caché is a skillfully crafted cerebral affair as only Europe could produce. Written and directed by Austrian filmmaker Haneke, it completely ignores the classic and modern tricks of the suspense trade (the film doesn't even a music score!), never going for the obvious, yet manages to get under your skin with an escalating sense of paranoia. Nor does it spoon-feed viewers: the unsettling mystery of who is sending the tapes and why is somewhat methodically revealed (pay close attention to the closing shot) yet there is no resolution, and the answers we've been patiently waiting for aren't evident. Indeed, they may even bring up more questions. And it's not only the stalker who is hidden; long-forgotten secrets are revealed, a possible marital deception is alluded to, as are some painful memories of France's treatment of Algerian immigrants. But the political and racial implications are secondary to the personal disintegration of the well-off family unit, bringing to the fore a sense of middle-class guilt. In getting this across, Auteuil and Binoche are quite effective as the couple whose relationship feels the strain of a childhood secret and lost confidence in one another. American audiences will probably find this intriguing enough but slow going, especially with its lengthy, fixed-camera shots. Forcing viewers to pay close attention to nuances and half-dropped clues may also not be some people's idea of an entertaining time. True, it could have been edited to be tighter, but much of the note-perfect unease would probably have gone with it. And for those that can appreciate cinema that takes chances, Caché provides a moral tale with a particular punch. 
Drama: 7/10

The Call of Cthulhu: The Celebrated Story by H.P. Lovecraft (2005)
Actors: Matt Foyer, David Mersault, Noah Wagner 
Director: Andrew H. Leman
Plot: Left with a collection of documents pertaining to a mysterious cult by his dying uncle, a man becomes obsessed with piecing together the truth about an ancient, malevolent being.
Review: Written in 1926, The Call of Cthulhu - gothic horror writer H.P. Lovecraft's most famous story is an influential, terrifying tale of madness, obsession and monstrous, alien evil - was long considered "unfilmable" in modern cinematic terms. Lovecraft's tales have never been successfully put to film, simply because it's difficult to get that sense of dread, of terror of the unknown into such a visual medium where everything has to be "seen". Enter the HPPS, a club of Lovecraft devotees and film amateurs who, in this low-budget, independent production, has created what is easily the most valiant, most interesting, and most faithful movie adaptation to date. Realizing that no real dialogue was required to get the mood and terror across, they decided to present the classic tale in the form of a silent-era movie, and it's a terrific idea that works beautifully. Using a process that aged the high def B&W video to make it look like a relic of the 1920's, it's an authentic-looking affair made with mostly classic era techniques (theatrical set-up, brooding use of shadows) and effects (from model props to stop-motion), exaggerated acting (all to ensure the expressions of horror are intensified), bombastic score and - of course - title cards, that unexpectedly manages to bring the tale to life. The story itself - a globe-trotting adventure that moves back and forth in time, with tales within tales - uses many of the mythos to bring up a very intriguing mystery, of horror beyond human comprehension; as such there's no blood but there is a great feeling of creeping horror. The running time may be short at 42 minutes, there's a lot of stuff packed in here. Most modern audiences fed with the sort of slasher / effects-driven horror material spewed out by Hollywood won't be impressed, but amateurs of more classic horror fare will be mightily pleased by this exercise. The Call of Cthulhu is easily the best Lovecraft film ever made, and definitely the most lovingly rendered; it's great stuff by, and for, people ready to see something outside the usual movie grind. 
Entertainment: 8/10

Capote (2005)
Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener
Director: Bennett Miller
Plot: In 1959, inspired to write a definitive account of the butchering of a Kansas family, Truman Capote ends up developing a close relationship with one of the killers.
Review: A dramatized account of the creation of The New Yorker columnist Capote's masterwork In Cold Blood, Capote explores both the horrific events in the small town of Holcomb, Kansas and the relationship - of convenience, some would say - that he had with the imprisoned Perry Smith. Spanning the seven-year period between the murders and the book's publication in 1966, the film explores this very eccentric individual, his mixed motives, his larger-than-life ego and his obsession with the case. In the end it's a tragic view of the final toll the book had on its author, conflicted as he was between a strange compassion for Smith and his need for his book's closure. As directed by Miller, the film intimately focuses on its characters and the contrasts between Capote himself and his subjects while providing a visually sparse but attractive depiction of the '60s. The main attraction, as it were, is Hoffman who does a bravado performance that easily won him an Oscar, re-creating the flamboyant style and persona that have become legend, making what could have been caricature into a believable, fleshed out figure. Keener, as his ever-loyal assistant and friend shows she's only getting better with each role, much like Cooper, as the local sheriff. The popularity of In Cold Blood redefined non-fiction (Capote himself labeled it a "non-fiction novel"), and Capote goes a long way to explain the genesis of the book and the complexities surrounding its creation. For such an impeccable study in the creation of such a brilliant work, it deserves the attention. 
Drama: 8/10

Captain America (1990)
Starring: Matt Salinger, Scott Paulin, Kim Gillingham
Director: Albert Pyun
Plot: After thwarting the plans of an evil Nazi super-soldier to destroy the White House during WW2, an American superhero is frozen in the Arctic, only to be thawed out in the modern day to face his arch-nemesis once more.
Review: This adaptation of Captain America follows in the footsteps of the Z-movie treatment given to other Marvel characters in the 80's and 90's, before X-Men and Spider-Man revitalized the super-hero movie. In fact, it was deemed so bad that it was relgated to some international markets and direct-to-video. Surprisingly enough, for the first 20 minutes you'd think you were in good hands, what with the Origin Story, Cap fighting off commando-style a regiment of Nazi soldiers, Cap's first confrontation with his arch-nemesis The Red Skull, and Cap being tied to a launching rocket: it's all damn campy stuff, but also quick-paced and entertaining despite its desperately low-budget production values. Unfortunately, it seems the movie's limited budget was dried up by this point, meaning the rest of the film is forced to find ways to stretch out its running time. So we get lots of talky scenes, zero suspense, a downright ridiculous plot, minimal production values, and villains that look like rich European dilettantes. Scary! Worse, we have the "amazing" Cap running away from them in a bicycle! Talk about embarrassing. It's all similarly lame for another hour or so, as our hero and his new female sidekick end up in Italy to search for the Skull's "real name". And Cap's costume is nowhere to be seen until the last few minutes. Only then do we get any more quasi-super-hero action, as Cap does some flips, throws his shield at baddies and fights off the Skull. The climax, however, will have you howling. Director Pyun (known for the entertaining Nemesis, but mostly for his cheap direct-to-video work) has little sense of pacing and engaging direction but he does what he can with a very limited budget. The same can't be said of the script which, apart from the aforementioned beginning, fails to bring any of the rich comic-book material to the screen and even less regards for the character. It's not so much that it gets away from the comics (the Skull isn't a Nazi but an Italian crime lord, among the worst affronts) it's just that it's plain bad. Just in case it was worth mentioning, the acting is generally terrible from some familiar faces, and none more so than the hammy Paulin as the villain. Captain America delivers unintentionally cheesy and laugh-out-loud silly fare, and only die-hard fans of the genre should venture to watch.
Entertainment: 3/10

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
Starring: Chris Evans, Hayley Atwell, Hugo Weaving
Director: Joe Johnston
Plot: An army reject is given incredible power to fight Nazi Germany during WW2 but must prove himself against an even greater evil lurks in the shadows, a secret super-science organization named HYDRA.
Review: A good ol' fashioned action adventure film that has as much in common with Indiana Jones as it does with the comic books, Captain America is a boisterous, fun, engaging affair that will leave audiences clamoring for a sequel. Taking on the best aspects of Iron Man, the script delivers an interesting, sympathetic central character surrounded by a great supporting cast (including Atwell as a tough and lovely British officer, Tommy Lee Jones as the gruff Colonel and Stanley Tucci as the erstwhile scientist), making the action bits more relevant. Indeed, the comics have always been about the man behind the mask, and Evans - always at the forefront - continues to impress as a viable leading man. And the special effects to get the hulking Evans to appear as a short, 90-pound weakling in the first reel are uncanny. As his nemesis the Red Skull, Weaving chews the scenery with over-the-top gusto. Though the the star-spangled hero was actually created as a patriotic symbol in the 1940's, there's little American flag waving except for an embarrassingly entertaining musical number (yes!) where Cap is relegated to act as a mascot on stage to sell US war bonds. It's a priceless, ballsy sequence for a summer blockbuster, and it works wonders. This being an action tent-pole movie the action set-pieces are important, and they are indeed magnificent, from a race across 1940's New York, to the explosive attacks on enemy bases to the finale as Cap single-handedly brings down a massive bomber, they all provide a giddy, "wow" experience. The supernatural elements, Nazi sci-fi weaponry and costumes remind one of the opening sequence of Hellboy, but it makes the stakes that much greater (and more comic-book-y). Best known for Jurassic Park III and the cult classic The Rocketeer, director Johnston's second stab at super-heroes captures all the right elements wonderfully, making this one of the best four-color super-hero adaptations, period. Fans will squeal in delight at the comic references, from a quick shot at the original Human Torch to the anti-gravity device that will power future SHIELD vehicles, but all audiences looking for a good time will be pleased. Setting up its final hero ahead of 2012's The Avengers, Captain America is great pulp entertainment that will finally dispel the stigma of the botched 1990 adaptation. Here's for more to come!
Entertainment: 8/10

Carrie (1976)
Starring: Sissy Spacek, Piper Laurie, William Katt
Director: Brian De Palma
Plot: A teenager, raised by a God-fearing mother and ridiculed by her classmates, develops psycho-kinetic powers when she is emotionally distressed and uses them to exact revenge during prom night.
Review: Carrie, based on Stephen King's first novel, mingles teen angst, high school hell melodrama and supernatural revenge fantasies with the emergent female sexuality. This is pure exploitative schlock from director De Palma (Scarface, The Untouchables), something obvious from the get-go with the opening girl's locker room scene. . De Palma based many of his filmmaking techniques as an homage to Hitchcock but doesn't have the master's touch. There's some good stuff here, and, at his best, De Palma does manage a creepy, tension-filled atmosphere, makes her school life seem adequately terrible, and the confrontations between mother and daughter approach the nerve-racking - it's just unfortunate that these moments doesn't hold throughout. The climactic release of her powers at prom night is meant to be impressive, but is shot in such a haphazard way as to lose much of its emotional power. Worse, the comeuppance of its main villains is given barely an instant to be appreciated. Spacek, in her first screen appearance, is perfectly suited for the role of the pariah, evoking both naive innocence and, ultimately, the angry madness that consumes her. The rest of the cast doesn't fare as well, with Piper Laurie in a ridiculously over-the-top role as her Bible-thumping mother, and some other recognizable faces (including a young John Travolta) doing some perfectly wooden portrayals. Seen by many as a classic of the horror genre for its gory excesses and themes, the film may simply not have aged well. Some parts of Carrie still manage to be disturbing and even suspenseful, but it ultimately ends up as only a half-successful horror outing.
Entertainment: 6/10

Cars (2006)
Starring: Owen Wilson, Paul Newman, Bonnie Hunt
Director: John Lasseter
Plot: A cocky, hot-shot rookie stock car on its way to a big race gets waylaid in a small town on Route 66 where, forced to do community service, he learns the true meaning of friendship.
Review: A new Pixar movie is always an event and Cars is no exception. For one, it raises the bar on computer animation and it looks spectacular: gleaming, flashy, detailed and imaginative, and damned colorful to boot. Just check out the exciting opening and closing races! An homage of sorts to America's fascination with all things automobile, with the legendary Route 66, and with NASCAR of course, the film works thanks to its polished storytelling, fine characterizations, solid direction by Lassiter (Toy Story 2), and its sense of good fun. Sure, the story is familiar - big town hot shot gets dropped down in the middle of nowhere and learns the essence of life - and we get the "no one is an island", yes, but when well told it never grows old, and that's where the film stumbles a bit. Pixar usually has a way with stories that elevate them past the usual feel-good rubbish (see Finding Nemo) but here - a tale of the slow inward destruction of small towns by "progress" - it just doesn't gel into place, despite some good efforts and a longer-than-usual running time. Thankfully, there's a lot to appreciate: Fans of the sport will appreciate many of the in-jokes, and the kids - once they get past the slow-going, exposition-heavy first 40 minutes - will love the good-natured tom-foolery that these cars get into. The humor, too, though often more clever than funny (the night of tractor-tipping, the Rust-eze commercials, the endless blink-and-you'll-miss-it puns) lifts the film up and scenes with the goofy tow truck Mater (voiced by Larry the Cable Guy) do steal the show. The vocal performances are also bang on: Wilson is incredibly at ease doing comedy, Hunt breezes through her role, and there's a terrific performance by Newman as an ex-trophy winner who's disappeared into obscurity as the town judge. And don't forget to stay for the amusing end credits, too. If it's not quite as memorable as one would have hoped, the enjoyable Cars still has that Pixar charm, easily rising above the average CGI fare.
Entertainment: 7/10

Cars 2 (2011) 
Voices: Owen Wilson, Larry the Cable Guy, Michael Caine
Directors: John Lasseter, Brad Lewis
Plot: Race car Lightning McQueen and his tow-truck pal Mater compete in a world-spanning International Grand Prix race but soon get involved in international espionage when Mater is mistakenly taken for an American spy.
Review: An able, if rather generic spoof of many a globe-trotting spy film old and new, Cars 2 takes Pixar's least popular film and turns it into something new: a super-charged romp with tons of action, constant movement and loads of chuckles, if not outright laughs. More a spin-off than a sequel, it's a cartoon version of The Man Who Knew Too Little with old rust-bucket Mater - embodied by Larry the Cable Guy's hillbilly persona - the naive hero this time around. This all feels like a great idea for one of Pixar's Cars Toon 6-minute-shorts series, but one that has been bloated to 100 minutes. It's fun, for sure, but Pixar has settled on the film-making style of its competition, and it feels like a big, fat, loud excuse for a new toy line. On its own merits there's lots ot enjoy: the animation is once again flawless and extremely cinematic, taking advantage of the 3D technology; the visual gags come fast & furious and require a second viewing; the historical locations are superbly detailed; and the comedy, zany plot and characters will keep anyone entertained. Throwing in a James Bond super-car voiced by Michael Caine is a hoot. Yet despite all this attention to detail and the multiple writers, it's missing the elements that made Pixar films like Toy Story and Finding Nemo such hits, namely the old-fashioned story-telling, originality and heart. The morale of friendship seems like an afterthought, and it's impossible to get emotionally invested in any of it. As far as summer blockbuster action / adventures go, Cars 2 is fast-paced entertainment but it's not going to enter Pixar's Hall of Fame.
Entertainment: 7/10

*Classic* Casablanca (1942)
Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Claude Rains
Director: Michael Curtiz
Plot: An embittered American saloon owner in World War II Morocco is torn between rekindling with the woman he loves or saving both her and her influential husband from the Germans by providing them with stolen visas.
Review: One of the most beloved films of all time, and still a classic romance, Casablanca has quickly become a pop icon of North American culture. Combining adventure, suspense, stirring melodrama, an absolutely terrific cast including dozens of interesting, colorful supporting characters, and some of the most memorable dialogue ever put to screen, the film is a joy to watch over and over again. Even the filmmaking techniques, the use of shadow and light, the editing, the mise-en-scene, all enhance the experience. Sure it's pure Hollywood entertainment, but it's done right and the story, clever details, and endearing performances takes us into a delicious movie experience. From "Here's looking at you, kid" to the piano playing of "As Time Goes By", Casablanca has proven its staying power and its universal appeal as one of the old-time greats of cinema.
Entertainment: 10/10

Casanova (2005)
Starring: Heath Ledger, Sienna Miller, Jeremy Irons
Director: Lasse Hallstrom
Plot: In fear of being exiled from 18th-century Italy, the legendary womanizer Casanova is forced to choose a virginal mate to marry, but things get complicated when he falls for a fiancéed head-strong feminist instead.
Review: An entertaining period farce, Casanova plays like a romantic comedy that is more carefully constructed than it would normally deserve. The story revolves around a complicated setup featuring the classic themes of mistaken identity and all the slapstick that goes with it, and the film does milk all the usual jokes and situations. The sentimental trappings are minimal, with lots of sexual and erotic innuendo on hand if nothing quite exciting actually on-screen. Director Hallstrom is getting associated to cute, clever concoctions like Chocolat that are fanciful and enjoyable to watch but instantly forgettable. Oh, the decor and art direction are particularly lavish and beautiful, with particular attention given to the costumes, pageantry and lighting - nice stuff for a "simple" period comedy. There are also some nice fantasy-like touches, like a trip in a hot-air balloon and a lavish masquerade ball, and some exciting sequences like an escape on the rooftops of Venice and a sword-filled climax, but the whole isn't up to its individual parts. One thing is for sure, it's an about-face follow-up for star Ledger after his daring gay cowboy take in Brokeback Mountain, and he comfortably embodies the legendary character, giving a charming, sympathetic performance if never quite "owning" the role. The pretty Miller makes for a fine foil, and the rest of the cast - including Irons as the frumpy, conservative cardinal, a pompous Oliver Platt as the lard king, and more - does pretty well hamming up the humorous elements, clearly participating in the fun. Casanova ends up being a light-hearted confection to pass the time, but there's little to really distinguish it from the pack.
Entertainment / Comedy: 6/10

Casino (1995)
Starring: Robert De Niro, Sharon Stone, Joe Pesci
Director: Martin Scorsese
Plot: During the Las Vegas boom of the 1970's, a Mafia bookie gets on the fast-track to run one of the city's biggest casinos, but his success attracts an old mobster friend who wants in on the profits, no matter what it takes.
Review: Though not quite a modern classic, the sprawling crime drama Casino has a great epic drama feel to it, is packed with interesting characters and events, and proves to be another fine entry in the American gangster pantheon - it's another feather in director Scorsese's cap. Based on multiple influences, one of which is scriptwriter Pileggi's own true crime book Casino: Love and Honor in Las Vegas, the story documents the rise and fall of Mafia influence in Las Vegas through the eyes of mobster Sam "Ace" Rothstein. Though not to the level of his own GoodFellas, director Scorsese (Taxi Driver, The Departed) is a master storyteller, one of America's masters, and any movie he does is worthy of attention. Yet, though the direction is up to his usual standards, the production is top-notch and there's a lot of good material to be found, it much of it seems done by rote; the casino scenes are great, and the era is well captured, but something seems to be amiss, perhaps because we've seen all this before. Still, if it doesn't provide that extra oomph to make it truly special - and if the 3-hour film does have its slow moments - the strong ensemble cast, sweeping story-line of greed, moral corruption and violence - making its way into eventual redemption - are indeed note-worthy. If the film doesn't quite reach the mythical level of its ambitions, it sure looks the part. But the film is perhaps at its best when it delves into the intricacies and workings of running a casino, and the complex combinations of how the Mafia managed to "skim" off the top. And one can't fault the cast between whom all the tragic drama takes place: though typecast in another criminal role, De Niro is just plain terrific as a man whose hubris and ego drive him to ruin, Stone does a surprising, effective dramatic turn (which garnered her an Oscar nomination) as his ambitious trophy wife, Pesci does his trademark crazy-ass psychopath - much as he's done in GoodFellas, and a solid supporting cast including James Woods, Don Rickles, Alan King and Kevin Pollak. Despite its long running time, Scorcese's latest epic gangster flick Casino has some terrific acting, strong story and potent drama - and for most audiences that should be enough.
Drama: 7/10

Casino Royale (1967)
Starring: Peter Sellers, David Niven, Ursula Andress, Orson Welles, Woody Allen, Deborah Kerr, 
Directors: John Huston, Ken Hughes
Plot: The aging secret agent 007, Sir James Bond, comes out of retirement to organize a bevy of Brits to battle an international terrorist organization, hoping to pass on his mantle to a younger man. 
Review: Ian Fleming's original James Bond adventure Casino Royale was one of only two films of the franchise not owned by the Broccolis. Seeing a chance to amke their own mark, the producers decided (perhaps remembering the success of extravaganzas like Around the World in 80 Days) to avoid the more "serious" style of the popular franchise and go for a spoof of the genre... with disastrous results. Fron the get-go it's clear that the biggest problem is that the whole affair is a hodge-podge of badly edited, painfully inconsistent shorts glued together, no surprise considering the various helmers (five of them, at least) for the different segments, all of whom seem to have had a little too much "artistic" liberties. Indeed, everything about it screams "excess!", proving that even with some legendary directors like John Houston on the payroll, a huge budget, lavish productions and an all-star ensemble cast (a veritable who's-who of 60's-era actors from Niven, Sellers, Allen, Andrews and even Orson Welles as Le Chiffre) things can go awry pretty fast. The film delivers its "everything but the kitchen sink" craziness in a shotgun approach, and for the most part misses the mark. There are some clever, sometimes humorous bits of delirious invention to be had on rare occasions - Woody Allen as Bond's hapless nephew and Blofeld-inspired "master" villain is almost worth the admission, and the infiltration of a German school for spies that's shot as an homage to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is brilliant - but most of is downright tedious, with each segment over-staying its welcome. For those looking for a more palatable Bond parody, check the recent Austin Powers series, and even the Our Man Flint series of the 60's. For those forewarned, Casino Royale may garner a few giggles all others beware: it's a long, bloated mess that delivers few laughs and limited entertainment.
Entertainment: 4/10

Casino Royale (2006)
Starring: Daniel Craig, Mads Mikkelsen, Eva Green
Director: Martin Campbell
Plot: On his first assignment for MI6 as a "00", agent James Bond must face off against a terrorist financier at a high-stakes poker game in Montenegro.
Review: Casino Royale, the third and most "official" adaptation of the Ian Fleming novel that started it all, resets the popular 45-year James Bond franchise back to square one - quite literally - bringing to the screen the secret agent's first 00 mission. From the get-go, a brutal assassination in B&W, the film is claiming a change from the last fantasy outing, Die Another Day - this is a more intimate, exciting affair, and it's magnificent. The opening action sequence - a chase through a construction site - is mesmerizing, a death-defying set piece filled with impressive stunts that, for a dizzying 20 min, is simply exhilarating and is on its own worth the price of admission. And the action climax, as a building collapses in the Venetian waters, is pure 007. But between those two, there's little stunt work to be found. Indeed, gone are the gadgets, over-the-top action sequences, and self-conscious humor that have been the staples of the series. Instead, what we get is a delicious and surprisingly straight-forward spy thriller that culminates at a high-stakes poker table, of all things. Never fear, the usual Bond tropes are present: the tuxes, the impressive fighting, the expected clever dialogue and one-liners, the eccentric villains (in this case the scarred, villainous Le Chiffre, finance-man to the world's terrorists), the beautiful women (the slinky Eva Green), and the exotic locales from the Bahamas to Montenegro. Yet it's really a film of truly brutal, instant violence and conflicted characters, something that makes the familiar icon fresh and interesting again. Director Campbell (The Mask of Zorro), who also introduced Brosnan as the new bond in the 90's in GoldenEye, is in peak form here - the movie is dynamic, constantly moving, splendidly energized and, if it sometimes feels a bit calculated, it runs like clockwork with nary a dull moment. And the visual look of the film is impeccably cool and stylish. A lot of media attention has been put on the blonde (and buff) Craig who at first appears an odd choice but, vicious and cold when required, he's completely believable as both a killing machine and a super-spy, capturing the essence of Fleming's ideal. And yet on the flip side he's much more vulnerable than the classic Bond, and not infallible in his first major mission. He's still the suave ladies' man, but there's an edge to everything he does, and he actually beds only one Bond girl here. If the romantic entanglement reminds one too much of On Her Majesty's Secret Service, perhaps, it's an important segue way to the future of the character. Of special note is the clever, imaginative animated credit sequence, which surprisingly, has not a single nubile women to be seen. With Casino Royale, James Bond is truly ushered into the 21st century, and what a promising new step it is.
Entertainment: 8/10

Casshern (Japan - 2004)
Starring: Yusuke Iseya, Kumiko Aso
Director: Kazuaki Kiriya
Plot: In a future Japan, a resurrected super-soldier is thrown in a struggle between the fascist state and a new race of mutants in control of a robot army.
Review: A live-action adaptation of a minor 1973 Japanese anime series of the same name, Casshern belies its second-class roots to deliver an often entertaining, gloriously realized sci-fi flick mixing a totalitarian future with villains straight out of a video-game. Once again, more attention has been paid on the beautiful visuals than on characterization, but what a trip. In the vein of Sky Captain and Sin City, the actors perform over a blue screen with computer backdrops drawn behind them. Though not quite state-of-the-art, these visuals are colorful, inventive, and very stylized, providing lots of interesting eye-candy during the slower moments of melodrama and exposition. The dense story is interesting, involving politics, racial indifference and more but the convoluted plot tries to cram too many things into the pot (themes like War as Hell, the idea of being "human", of identity, Love, etc) and doesn't stir it well enough to make it work properly. It's clear that a lot of effort and attention was put to capture that anime feel but perhaps because it captures it so well, it also seems to be stuck with the medium's plot logic, logic that works on paper or in cartoons, but seems odd in a live-action film. Case in point, there's a case of literal "deus ex machina" when a steel lightning bolt from the heavens causes a vat of bio-engineered limbs to settle into intelligent beings (an odd ode to 2001: A Space Odyssey?), but it's never explained. But for many the real treat are the many robot battles (pure anime magic) and the final confrontation between a giant mechanized contraption and an army of tanks is what the word "climax" was meant to define. For action lovers, these moments are golden but sometimes slow in coming in what ends up being a somewhat bloated, overlong film. For others, the film's message of peace will feel somewhat lost among the many gleeful superhero-style fights and mechanized destruction. If Casshern isn't as good as the sum of its parts, a big hand has to go to the ambitiousness of the project; as pure entertainment it hits all the right spots.
Entertainment: 7/10

Cast Away (2000)
Starring: Tom Hanks, Helen Hunt
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Plot: A FedEx inspector finds himself stranded on a remote Pacific island where he must stave off hunger and loneliness after the plane he was on crashes and sinks in a terrifying storm.
Review: Kudos must go to both director Zemeckis (Contact, Forrest Gump) and actor Hanks for even contemplating doing the sort of film like Cast Away: watching a lone actor for an hour and a half with barely any dialogue should have been deemed ridiculous. And yet it works, thanks in large part to Tom Hanks' screen presence and a good script, making the hardships of being cast away from civilization fascinating and (mostly) realistic by eschewing on simple MacGyver-like solutions or easy emotional melodrama. Our obsession with time is put to the fore by contrasting between the Hanks' demanding and incredibly hectic schedule in our modern society and the one in his new locale, in an environment that never changes and where the passing of time has become irrelevant. The psychological impact of the event is also evident - the relationship between Hanks' character and a volleyball which he dubs "Wilson" ends in one of the most touching, and even heart-wrenching, moments of the film, and it's a nod to the film-makers' talents that it, and so many other scenes like it, work so well. The film ends on an interesting, open-ended note, one that is perfectly suited to the ordeals, and forced enlightenment, that our hero has faced. Cast Away ends up being an absorbing, at times terrifying look at loss and human survival, one that has the courage to see events in a mature and uncomplicated manner.
Drama: 8/10

Catch a Fire (2006)
Starring: Tim Robbins, Derek Luke, Bonnie Henna
Director: Phillip Noyce
Plot: After being unjustly arrested and tortured, a South African oil refinery foreman leaves his family to join militant organization to fight against his country's oppressive government.
Review: The true story of Patrick Chamusso, a peaceful man who turned guerilla warrior, Catch a Fire is a surprisingly mature and occasionally even powerful drama told under the auspices of a thriller. The first hour follows a deliberate set-up demonstrating how a decent man can decide to become a terrorist / freedom-fighter, with an intimate view of existence and the hardships under Apartheid in early 1980's South Africa. Of course, the parallels to the present Jihad and US war on terrorism is too easy to miss, but it may not have been intended. The ending, a suspenseful bombing attempt and ensuing manhunt, is straight out of director Noyce's previous thrillers. Indeed, Noyce, who did many smart entertaining vehicles for Hollywood in the 1990's (Patriot Games, Clear and Present Danger), has in recent years focused on smaller, more compassionate fare with Rabbit-Proof Fence and The Quiet American and he brings both extremes to his latest effort. The fact-based script avoids many of the clichés of apartheid-set films, keeping its focus on the disparate relationship between the two men and their strongly held beliefs of what's right and wrong, and it's clear they're on different side of the fence. In this, the leads are both convincing in what are difficult roles: The charismatic Luke is actually excellent in the title role as both father and unlikely terrorist and Robbins, as the conflicted white officer in charge of counter-terrorism, manages a delicate balance between being despicable and sympathetic. Though as a thriller or historical document Catch a Fire may only be average, it does make for an engrossing story with a message that will surely entice some debate as the credits roll.
Drama: 7/10

Catch Me If You Can (2002)
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hanks, Christopher Walken
Director: Steven Spielberg
Plot: A gruff FBi agent becomes obsessed with capturing a teen who ran away from a broken home and managed to pass himself off as a pilot, a doctor and a lawyer while cashing in forged checks to the tune of millions of dollars.
Review: Based on the real-life exploits of Frank Abagnale Jr., Catch Me If You Can is a merry thriller and at the hands Spielberg (Jaws, Saving Private Ryan), one of Hollywood's most popular directors, it becomes an exhilarating game of cat-and-mouse. Returning to much lighter fare than his recent outtings, the film doesn't take itself too seriously, with some unforced comedy and loads of humorous appeal to help things move along with fine efficiency. There are still a lot of Spielberg's trademark melodramatic and heart-tugging moments, but also evident are his finely balanced touches of drama and humor, all encompassed in a bubbly, engrossing crime caper. His favorite theme show up here as well: children going through hard times (once again, the separation of parents) and experiencing life, and ultimately growing up, through some extraordinary means (see E.T.). The film is both mature in its depictions and execution, and yet tickles our fancy so much that we can't help smile as we cheer the young protagonist along and marvel at his chutzpah and daring. Our hero discovers that the clothes really do make the man, and though he's just a kid in a costume, the rest of the world never hesitates to take him at face value. The premise may be absurd if it wasn't all true, and harking back to the naive days of the 60's when flying was still a glamorous affair and pilots were heroes, the film makes it easy to see why our unlikely hero could get away with impersonating so many professionals. A large part of the appeal is in fact the recreation of the innocent 60's, from the slick, stick-figure opening credits, the jazzy music by John Williams, the costumes and sets, to the very attitude of the cast, the sense of the times is deeply rooted into every aspect, every detail. DiCaprio is perfect for the role of a teen who looks older than his years; his boyish looks, his easy-going charm works wonders to convince us of the innocence, the ingenuity and, as his options ultimately run out, the loneliness of his character. Hanks plays the gruff FBI agent role to perfection, reaching a finely nuanced pitch in both a comic and sad portrayal. Walken does one of his better roles in years as the embittered, broken father. This being a Spielberg film, the ending is typically upbeat and optimistic, but for such an entertaining affair it would be remiss to find that a fault. At the hands of a master storyteller and with such fine leads, Catch Me If You Can is simply enthralling fun from start to finish.
Entertainment: 8/10

Cat People (1942)
Starring: Simone Simon, Kent Smith
Director: Jacques Tourneur
Plot: A young Serbian woman fears for her husband believing that she suffers from an ancient curse that could turn her into a murderous panther.
Review: A B&W horror classic on the genre-favorite topic of sexual repression, Val Lewton's Cat People works as a horror film thanks to some eerie atmosphere, decent suspense and a good script that is far superior to the 1982 exploitive remake. Though filmed with a typical B-movie budget and cast, the film makes good use of few sets, creating the mood with a fascinating play with light and shadow, some interesting edits, and introducing some techniques that have since become staples of mainstream horror/suspense films. Indeed, most of the horror scenes are filmed in a way as to leave the audience to imagine the worst, and keep us unsure if there are supernatural forces at work until the very end. Deemed one of the best horror films of the 1940's, Cat People may seem a little dated at first, but still manages to provide a few good thrills.
Entertainment: 7/10

The Cat Returns (Japan - 2002)
Voices: Anne Hathaway, Cary Elwes, Peter Boyle
Director: Hiroyuki Morita
Plot: After rescuing the life of a mysterious cat, a young girl finds herself lavished with strange gifts and whisked away to a magical world and involuntarily engaged to the King of Cats' son.
Review: The Cat Returns is another fine traditionally animated family adventure from the Japanese Studio Ghibli. It's a disservice to say that the film is not be as visually interesting or quite as imaginative as their better known works like the superb anime Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke; this is easily above the average big-studio fare. First time director Morita provides a feature that fulfills all the requirements for fine fantasy fare, imbuing the nice animation with charm, wistfulness and a nice dose of humor. Working from the popular manga, the Alice-in-Wonderland-like script is an enchanting change to the Hollywood fluff, giving us strong characters, bizarre situations and lively thrills (from a magical cat chase across night streets to the climax, as our heroes drop from the skies above Tokyo) that are sure to please young and old alike. Sure, there isn't the expected heady themes, but there's enough frantic action, comedy and light-hearted teen drama in its short 75 minutes to enliven any dull afternoon. The English dubbing is surprisingly effective, featuring the voice talents of Anne Hathaway, Cary Elwes, Peter Boyle, Tim Curry, and Elliot Gould. So, The Cat Returns is good clean fun for the entire family that isn't hard to recommend - and if you're a cat lover, all the better.
Entertainment: 7/10

Cats & Dogs (2001)
Starring: Tobey Maguire, Jeff Goldblum, Elizabeth Perkins
Director: Larry Guterman
Plot: A young Beagle is mistaken for a canine secret agent and is thrust into the age-old conflict between cats and dogs when an evil feline tries to steal the formula against dog allergies and kidnap his adoptive human family.
Review: Starting off with a great premise, Cats & Dogs is a family comedy, a James Bond-ish action / adventure that mixes live action pets with CGI and animatronics to great effect. The lighthearted silliness of the proceedings and the seemingly effortless execution bellies the impressive work involved - cats and dogs speak, perform martial arts, use elaborate high-tech gadgets, and even drive cars! There's a confrontation with parachuting Ninja cats, an evil conspiracy by a Blofeld-like white furball, a rag-tag team of dog agents, and even a sentimental sub-plot with the pup's new young owner. Director Guterman uses every trick in the book to make his canines and felines believable and "human", to keep things lively and entertaining, and to spoof as many spy / action conventions as possible. And he succeeds - the film is a dizzying diversion just by sheer quantity of material, witty dialogue, low-brow jokes, amusing twists and an efficient pacing. The film's wacky silliness may not be all for all tastes, but those willing to accept it will have a great time. The plot does lag a bit towards the end, as if the script was exhausted by all the imaginative energy it has had to put out in the first two-thirds, but then delivers a final over-the-top spurt for its climax. The human actors are decent enough, but the real heroes are the pets, the brilliant special effects that bring them to life, and the excellent voice acting talents by a bevy of Hollywood stars including Susan Sarandon and Alec Baldwin. Inventive and constantly enjoyable, Cats & Dogs is a hoot for kids and adults alike from start to finish.
Entertainment: 8/10

Catwoman (2004)
Starring: Halle Berry, Sharon Stone, Benjamin Bratt
Director: Pitof
Plot: After being killed for knowing too much, a shy advertising artist working for a cosmetic mega-corporation is brought back to life by an Egyptian Cat-God and uses her new-found powers to take on her old boss.
Review: Forget all the Batman movies, and forget Michelle Pfieffer's elegant turn as the title character in 1991's Batman Returns. Catwoman, as re-invented for the new decade, is a pastiche of everything that gave super-hero movies a bad reputation in the first place. This is just bland from start to finish - the sporadic action is edited too jarringly, the pacing is all over the place, and the plot simply uninteresting. The yawn-inducing setup and ludicrous origin story that dabbles in Egyptian mythology (and has nothing to do with the long-standing comic series) only gets worse as our heroine uses her powers to make up for past abuses by neighbors and ex-boss. It doesn't help that the romance between the two leads (something that takes too much on-screen time) is clichéd and without chemistry. There's a hint of the duality of her character, of psychological dilemma, but these quickly go by the way-side. The film never gets redeemed, as we get dragged through silly, uninspired set pieces and a rather lame climactic catfight. It's obvious this kitty has little to do with Bob Kane's creation, and there's no Batman to save it. French director Pitof squanders all the promise he showed in his previous outing Vidocq - thought that film had style, originality and smarts that seemed destined to fit the super-heroic mold, this one lacks any of those qualities. Though she won a Razzie award for her work here, Berry does as best she can as the schizo hero, playing both the timid girl and the criminal free spirit - it's unfortunate she doesn't get a chance to emote with better material. One thing's for sure, she looks great in the tight fitting S&M leather cat-suit, cracking a whip and slinking through tight spots - too bad the terrible CGI acrobatics can't do it justice. As for Stone, she chose the wrong role to get back in the limelight - though she still looks good, her role of villain is downright embarrassing. Though not the unmitigated disaster some have claimed, Catwoman is a great disappointment and really only entertaining for those desperate to see Berry slumming it after her Oscar win. Just don't expect a sequel - this Cat has run out of lives.
Entertainment: 3/10

The Caveman's Valentine (2001)
Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Aunjanue Ellis, Colm Feore
Director: Kasi Lemmons
Plot: A former piano composer, now mentally unstable and living in a city park cave as a vagrant, enlists his estranged daughter's help to solve the murder of a homeless teen.
Review: Based on a novel and script by Geroge Dawes Green, The Caveman's Valentine is a story with an interesting premise, but it devolves into a rather unbelievable and clichéd exercise. The protagonist is an interesting one, and there are some inspired elements brought from the mixing of the detective thriller with social commentary. It could have made for a captivating project, but by using easy genres conventions (red herrings, stock caricatures, etc), the film just isn't up to it. The main problem is that the motivations are unclear; it feels like a greater work has been truncated of all its psychological impact. The intrigue is forced and the personal relationships, though rife for development, aren't very engaging. Oh, there are some engaging aspects to the film, and some of the subplots (such as one where the genius hobo is taken in by a rich amateur of the arts into his lavish apartment for a quick makeover) make for interesting viewing. It's too bad that director Lemmons fails to bring the intimacy and careful drama that was in her first effort Eve's Bayou though the film does have a slick, visually interesting feel to it. Everything, though, revolves around the Jackson's decent performance who tries to imbue the dread-locked, schizophrenic piano composer with a soul; but when he sets off as a regular Sherlock Holmes to solve the case, it turns to being almost laughable. The rest of the cast is adequate for the material, though only Feore really shines as the elitist art photographer. The ending is far too tidy compared to the events and inter-personal tensions that came before, but even underdeveloped as it is The Caveman's Valentine is not a bad little mystery, it's just a disappointing, rather formulaic one.
Entertainment: 4/10

The Celebration (Denmark - 1998)
Starring: Thomas Bo Larson, Paprika Steen, Henning Moritzen
Director: Thomas Vinterberg
Plot: Disturbing secrets are revealed when an extended family and close friends get together in a country estate to celebrate the patriarch's 60th birthday.
Review: A family drama that takes no prisoners, The Celebration is a consistently clever, intriguing and altogether powerful film that packs a real punch. It's place in cinematic history may be secure by its expert use of the Dogma 95 style - a manifesto from a collective of Danish filmmakers led by Lars von Trier to use only natural lighting, and absolve from using any cinematic effects that would take away from the moment - but there's more to it than technique. True, shot directly on video with little of the expected frills audiences have come to expect may be off-putting to some. That the film manages past these restrictions to also be a startling, smart and often vicious family drama is an ode not only to director Vinterberg's talents but also to the tight, effective screenplay and the actors. The script deftly builds the tension and suspense as the family's dirty secret is paraded in front of a large variety of guests; tempers flare, emotions run high, and truths come out from unexpected sources. The story reveals its secrets slowly, and it's nice to see such an affair work so well without pandering to the audience or falling into any predictable trap. Indeed, the reactions from the crowd aren't expected, but they are very revealing and well-observed. There's also humor in some of the clan's more eccentric characters and the guests' attempts at denying the facts they are faced with. The film, however, never misses a beat between the darkly comic and the darkly revealing. To top is all off, the ensemble cast is terrific across the board and really make the best of the situations. It's a shame that The Celebration only had a limited release as it proves to be a grand calling-card of a definite filmmaking talent.
Drama: 8/10

The Cell (2000)
Starring: Jennifer Lopez, Vince Vaughn, Vincent D'Onofrio
Director: Tarsem Singh
Plot: Aided by a virtual reality-type machine, a child psychologist must enter the mind of a comatose schizophrenic killer to discover the whereabouts of his latest victim before its too late.
Review: The Cell starts off as typical FBI thriller, but goes into high gear mid-way through as it delves into the fantastic with the melding of minds between killer and therapist. At its heart the film is a sci-fi based psychological fantasy with some striking, artfully rendered, dream-like sequences, beautiful costumes, and bizarre events. Unfortunately, there's nothing memorable story-wise - all these magnificent, opulent visual treats are tied together by a second-rate serial-killer script and so much pop-psychology. The Cell tries to be another The Silence of the Lambs, but never manages to be as remotely compelling. The cruelty depicted seems to be pumped up as well, but thankfully most of it is off-screen. Jennifer Lopez is surprisingly well cast here, not for the "real world" sequences but for the part as the subconscious traveler. Not nearly as good is the rest of the cast, including D'Onofrio, who just seem to go through the motions of trying to flesh out their drab, one-dimensional characters. In the end The Cell is a visually arresting film with a good premise that could have done with a more compelling script.
Entertainment: 7/10

Cellular (2004)
Starring: Kim Basinger, Chris Evans, Jason Statham
Director: David R. Ellis
Plot: A young slacker races against time to save a mother and her son who have been kidnapped by unknown assailants after she manages to connect to his dying cellular by chance.
Review: Another high-concept suspense thriller from the mind of B-movie-meister Larry Cohen (who gave us a similar phone-related premise in Phone Booth), Cellular doesn't waste much time before plunging into the action. The story of bad cops and naive guy running against the clock isn't anything new, and the script doesn't try to add anything more than the most basic of trappings for the genre, but it's done with enough panache and energy to keep things moving along despite some obvious logic failings and laughable coincidences. Director Ellis (Final Destination 2) serves up some decent stunts and the occasional nail-gripping moments as he follows the breakneck chase and constant cell phone-based reversals. Many of the events and needed twists do get rather silly, but the film always manage to maintain a good degree of suspense and enough humor to make for a quick - if preposterous - 90 minute affair. We never get a good feeling for these stock characters, but star player Evans actually comes off rather well as the slacker turned reluctant hero, and he is helped well the his big name co-stars. Basinger's convincing (if over-the-top) damsel-in-distress performance, Statham's menacing bad guy, and William H. Macy's sympathetic, diligent cop - none of them stretch their acting chops, but they do elevate the material. It's not great entertainment, but with sufficient thrills and steady pace, Cellular is an efficient little number.
Entertainment: 5/10

Centurion (2010)
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Dominic West, Olga Kurylenko
Director: Neil Marshall
Plot: Stranded behind enemy lines in Roman Britain and chased by the blood-thirsty Picts, a handful of centurions try to reach the border after their legion is decimated.
Review: An adventure that borrows heavily from other, better films like Gladiator, Centurion promises to deliver carnage and action galore but stumbles mid-way through and ultimately fails to deliver the goods. British writer / director Marshall started off with a series of genre films that - if not original - understood the gleeful excess required for a successful entry; films like Dog Soldiers and The Descent showed both a sensibility for good storytelling, blood-and-guts horror and strong characters. Even his much-maligned Doomsday was a fine homage to 80's disaster flicks. Marshall, therefore, should definitely have been the man to give the swords-and-sandal deals a needed twist. The first half of the movie shows promise, setting up its characters and historical place, and the early, bloody massacre of the ambushed Roman legion are well executed. The second half, however, proves to be a middling tale of the small bruised and bloodied band of centurions get chased across British vistas in a series of almost-had encounters. The film is well-enough shot in steel gray and blue tones, but there's little suspense in the proceedings that are marred by a bland narrative, a forced romantic interlude and limited action. The film tries its hand at melodrama, trying to show the gray on both sides of the conflict (a parallel to our own involvement in the Middle East?), but with little in the way of character development save the usual clichés, all it does is make us lose interest. And the climax, as the remaining survivors make a last stand in an abandoned fort, just doesn't satisfy. If bland leading man Fassbender has the lion's share of the screen time, it's actor West as the charismatic and ill-fated general who steals the show along with actress Kurylenko who gets the best parts as the Pict she-warrior despite her stoic, mute performance; their presence at least adds some spice to the film. In the end, Centurion feels like a low-budget adventure film made for that era's straight-to-DVD wringer, an effort that's only meant for late-night viewing. And that's too bad - there's half a good movie in here.
Entertainment: 5/10

Chak De! India (India - 2007)
Starring: Shahrukh Khan, Vidya Malvade, Chitrashi Rawat
Director: Shimit Amin
Plot: A disgraced Indian hockey player finds one last chance to redeem himself in the eyes of the people around him by coaching a woman's hockey team and bringing them to the World Championship in Australia.
Review: It was only a matter of time before the story of women's hockey would make it to the screen, and the shamelessly mainstream Chak De! India seems just the vehicle to do it. The script is made up of a series of mainstream clichés, as if it was checking them off a list: Strife between teammates from different classes? Check. Coach with checkered past trying to redeem himself? Check. An untrained team going against world champions and winning? Check. Like in all its brethren, the key to victory is in finding team spirit; and how does it come about? Why, by beating up on a bunch of boys of course! Add a few well chosen words by their coach, and some only-in-movies moments, and the undisciplined team turns into a winning one. Easy! The core subject is the second-rate status of women in Indian sports and in society. We've seen these same ideas in Bend it Like Beckham, that also dealt with Indian social mores or, in a different way, with A League of Their Own, but here it's given an Indian perspective. When they eventually win, it's not just a victory but a blow for acceptance and independence, proving to the world - and themselves - that they are just as good as any athlete, male or female. Yet, though the story is eminently predictable to anyone who's seen any sports movies of the last 30 years, the young cast is earnest enough, and the film single-minded enough, that it passes quickly by. The real attraction may well be Khan, one of India's most popular and long-standing stars, who adds the required male anchor and star-power, breezing through a surprisingly low-key role with his eyes closed. The direction by sophomore helmer Shimit Amin is pedestrian perhaps but the story doesn't call for visual flourishes, just straightforward storytelling. Not surprisingly, there's a lot of hockey playing to be seen, especially in the second half of the film, and though the young cast went through a few months training to ensure they looked the part and the editing does its best to make it all exciting, the actual game isn't quite an adrenaline rush as it would like to believe. Finally, don't expect any musical numbers here, and at barely 2.5 hours it's a short film by Bollywood standards. Still, with its solid cast and efficient reveling in meeting its audience's expectations, chalk up Chak De! India to another decent, uplifting - if unrevealing - sports flick.
Entertainment: 6/10

Changeling (2008)
Starring: Angelina Jolie, John Malkovich, Jeffrey Donovan
Director: Clint Eastwood
Plot: In 1920's LA, a single mother puts all her hopes on the police department to find her missing son, only to end up fighting the system when they return a boy that is not hers.
Review: The intimate yet large-reaching period drama Changeling aims to be nothing less than a layered condemnation of the political system of 1920's LA. The script from J. Michael Straczynski (better known as the creator of the cult SF hit Babylon 5) follows the real-life case of Christine Collins for six long years, from the disappearance of her young son, to her incarceration in a mental hospital, to the trial of the alleged killer and of the police officers involved in trying to silence her pleas for help. Any parent will shudder at the nightmare of lost children, but it's the theme of powerlessness in front of a system that is meant to protect the people that is truly horrifying. Not since L.A. Confidential has the ugly underbelly of LAPD's historical corruption been put so well to the screen. Kudos go to a story that sticks remarkably close to the recorded facts, with little embellishment in the telling a limited melodrama. But there also lies its fault as cinema: it's sometimes lacking in emotional resonance, and the lack of stylistic intent in the direction makes the film sometimes dull. Thankfully these moments are few, and even clocking at over two hours with seemingly multiple resolutions, the narrative stays on course. Actor-turned-director Eastwood (who made such a mark in recent years with films like Unforgiven, Mystic River and Million Dollar Baby) has always had an affinity for socially relevant stories. It's clear that he's put a lot of care in both the detailed recreation of the period (the production is absolutely sumptuous) and the more intimate measure of one woman's pain and determined struggle. Jolie is an interesting - if not perfect - choice for this mother-turned-activist role, and she's actually pretty convincing. The rest of the cast is also solid, with supporting roles from the likes of Malkovich as a radio preacher supporting her cause and Colm Feore as the police chief who just wants it to all go away. The only drawback are the kids who are more distracting than affecting. In the end, the personal anguish ends up a tad overwrought and the feeling of indignation expected from audiences won't quite hold up past the ending credits, but Changeling is still a powerful film that brings some disturbing events to light. 
Drama: 7/10

Changing Lanes (2002)
Starring: Ben Affleck, Samuel L. Jackson, Toni Collette
Director: Roger Michell
Plot: A New York City fender-bender leaves a recovering alcoholic family man going through child settlement and a young, affluent partner in a law firm in an escalating confrontation when neither one wants to give in.
Review: Changing Lanes is a small-scale drama focusing on these two very different men - one a down-and-out family man, the other a hot-shot lawyer - and how their pent up rage makes monsters out of them. And it's surprisingly effective. These two are flawed, but inherently good characters - their particular social situation on that miserable day is what's really driving them mad. Civility is only skin deep, the story seems to say, and it doesn't take much for us to go over the edge. All the events occur over the span of eight hours, with both protagonists trying desperately to beat the clock, or make up for lost time. Every time one of them is ready to follow their conscience and do a good deed, the other smacks him back down again increasing the stakes for both of them. Of course, the guilty pleasure is to see how far down these two otherwise respected individuals can go; blackmail, threats, destruction of property, under-handed shenanigans, everything goes in this escalating confrontation. There are sub-plots as well involving wives, legal courts, alcohol abuse, an ethics dilemma etc on both sides, forcing the two men to eventually see themselves and finally take account of their lives and what they have become. As such, there are other layers to the story, including briefs on spirituality and God, business ethics, and what we're willing to sacrifice to get ahead. The films wants to be a compelling moral tale, with a script that succeeds in riling up its audience. Sure, it sometimes gets moralistic and heavy-handed in its sudden monologues and outraged outbursts but what keeps it going are the observations on these two adversaries and the character development that sneaks through. Director Michell (Noting Hill) and his cinematographer make good use of the drab, gray city to show the impersonal, dog-eat-dog world of New York City, bleaching out all the colors and shooting alternately with grainy hand-held video cameras and jittery movements. This is definitely a slickly made production that moves along briskly. Jackson is brilliant as the underdog in a compelling, intense performance. The always affable Affleck plays to type once again as a cocky but conscience-stricken suit, but he's got it down to an art. As the father-in-law, Pollack plays a terrific, sleazy lawyer in an important supporting role, and William Hurt does a fine cameo appearance as Jackson's AA buddy. Half suspense thriller, half social drama, Changing Lanes is a compelling experience.
Drama: 7/10

Chaos and Desire (La Turbulence des Fluides) (Quebec - 2002) 
Starring: Pascale Bussières, Jean-Nicolas Verreault, Julie Gayet
Director: Manon Briand
Plot: A bitter seismologist living in Japan returns to her native French-Canadian village to uncover the reason why the tides have strangely stopped flowing all over the Quebec coast.
Review: Chaos and Desire starts off with a terrific science-fiction premise that unfortunately pecks too much into the X-Files type of story-telling. We meet some strange characters and unexplained events and, stranger still, nobody seems to be too impressed by the cataclysmic signs. The intense heroine, amid this community, is looking for a rational, scientific explanation, but there isn't one; this answer is purely emotional, one that has to be felt and believed, much like human relationships and our faith in a greater power. The parallels between the fluids of Nature and the ones that affect us, our desires, isn't exactly a subtle one, as evidenced here, as supernatural forces seem to control people's destinies and passions. This is first and foremost a story on the fantastic, one with a decidedly supernatural twist, but one that ends up feeling a tad hollow and artificial. Still, the story stands well as a New Age-type spiritual adventure, and there are enough poignant, droll, and heart-felt moments to keep audience interest. Director Briand made an impression with her first feature 2 Seconds, and this one is a step forward in her repertoire and a change of pace. This is a technically solid effort which includes some beautiful imagery of the Baie-Comeau landscape. The pacing is deliberate, even languid, but very smooth and eventually entrances. The human relationships are intriguing at first but kept decidedly superficial, which is really too bad as the characters aren't allowed to fully form; what we get are interesting, sometimes eccentric caricatures but the real motives are either simplistic or ambiguous. This is especially true of Alice, the protagonist, who is presented with a lot of inconsolable emotional baggage that isn't quite explained or revealed. The mystery aspects of the story are its best moments, though some might appreciate more the romantic sub-plot (which becomes the real focus of the film - large events shape the relationship of two lost souls, and vice-versa) thanks to some fine, low-key performances by both Bussières (pouting her way through events) and Verreault (mixing both machismo and sadness). Of the supporting cast, two are of note: an aging Genevieve Bujold gives a classy performance as the nun-turned-waitress, and young waif Ji-Yan Séguin, an adopted Chinese girl, is quite endearing. Skeptics and un-romantics may balk at some of the obvious coincidences and New-Agey conclusion, but Chaos and Desire is a fine little film for those willing to take a chance.
Drama: 5/10

Chariots of Fire (1981)
Starring: Ben Cross, Ian Charleson, Ian Holm
Director: Hugh Hudson
Plot: Two English runners from very different backgrounds train and compete in the 1924 Olympics for personal goals against the much-favored Americans.
Review: Chariots of Fire manages to transport us back in time to the 1920's in this sumptuous historical drama with a story that harkens back to a time when spirit, camaraderie, and good sportsmanship were the only measures of a true athlete. The film is not a "sports film" per se, as it does not focus on the competition or the race so much as on the individuals and their personal commitments, on the motivations, and sacrifices of these men. In fact, the final race is a relatively low-key affair, the drama focusing instead on the motivations of its characters, all well presented thanks to some excellent performances by its main actors. Some fine direction, good cinematography, catchy musical score, and a solid script that avoids standard melodrama all make for an intelligent, uplifting film. Best of all, Chariots of Fire is a fine drama that never loses sight of the humanistic element it set outs to display. Best Picture Oscar winner for 1981.
Drama: 8/10


Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005)
Starring: Johnny Depp, Freddie Highmore, David Kelly
Director: Tim Burton
Plot: Five children and their charge win a coveted tour of the world's most wonderful candy factory with the eccentric owner as their guide after finding golden tickets in a huge chocolate bar lottery.
Review: A big-budget remake of the 1971 Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, itself adapted from Roald Dahl's classic children's tale, the whimsical Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is in every way superior to its predecessor. The story itself remains very much the same, with the "rotten" children being eliminated one by one in inventive ways and the social commentary on the raising of the young intact. However, there are two particularly welcome additions: the flashbacks to Wonka's childhood, and a much more rewarding ending. If some of the original film's choice scenes will seem familiar, it is on the whole a new feature entirely with effects and art direction that are simply fabulous, every new scene a scrumptious visual delight, every moment a different flight of fancy. Of course, in the reigns of Gothic-attuned director Tim Burton (Batman, Beetlejuice), one would expect the story to take on added brilliance and heart-tugging pathos, and Burton keeps the darker aspects of the cautionary morale while adding his own blend of wild exuberance. Jabbing fun at pop-culture icons from 2001 to The Beatles, it manages to stay afloat throughout its an imaginative, candy-colored, and altogether surreal excursion, making for a fairy-tale adventure that's as fun for children as it is for adults. Of special note are the Oompa-Lumpa's who, all played to zany perfection by small-statured Indian actor Deep Roy, take every occasion to break into hilarious song-and-dance. But even the outlandish inventions on display wouldn't be half as much fun without the help of the two leads: Depp makes a great Willy Wonka - eccentric, childish, with just a touch of cruelty and innocence - making us forget all about Billy Wilder's own interpretation. It's the young Highmore, though, who's the real heart of the film playing the poor young waif with a heart of gold. With its smart humor, engaging direction and great decor, this new Charlie is sure to take over Willy as the one-and-only adaptation of Dahl's work.
Entertainment: 9/10

Charlie's Angels (2000)
Starring: Drew Barrymore, Cameron Diaz, Lucy Liu
Director: McG
Plot: Three crack female undercover operatives funded by a reclusive millionaire are hired to protect the founder of a high-tech software company and infiltrate the site of his competitor. 
Review: Based on the 70's TV series of the same name, Charlie's Angels takes all the kitsch that made its precursor so popular and runs with it. Full of silly dialogue, with a "female empowerment" theme running straight through, an appropriate rocking soundtrack and with more cleavage and bun shots than a six-pack of exploitation films combined, the film knows it's pure cheese and pushes that knowledge to the limit. Yes, the shallow, ridiculous plot is but an excuse to connect all the action set pieces and the silly romantic snapshots together. As for the comedy, it ranges from the clever but silly to the slapstick. All this is so slickly packaged, so fast paced, and so clever in giving exactly what the audience wants and expect, that one can't help but be taken in by the infectious fun displayed on screen. The action sequences in particular, taking their cues from Hong Kong films and the slow-mo techniques of The Matrix, are quite exciting and impressive. These three angels literally kick ass, and as pure entertainment goes, so does the film.
Entertainment: 8/10

Charlie's Angels 2: Full Throttle (2003)
Starring: Drew Barrymore, Cameron Diaz, Lucy Liu
Director: McG
Plot: Three special investigators chase after one of their own, an Angel gone rogue, who holds two rings that would help decrypt the complete list of the US's Witness Protection Plan.
Review: Basing itself more on its predecessor Charlie's Angels than on the actual '70s series, Full Throttle is full of flamboyant kitsch, outrageous situations, immature sexual innuendo, and a plot so predictable and paper-thin that it's instantly forgettable. But who cares? The action has been revved up, and every one of them is an ode to excessive comic-book fantasy, with impossible stunts that defy the laws of gravity, Matrix-like camera shots, and digitized effects. With an extended sequence of motocross acrobatics, some martial-arts ballet, and an insane opening sequence that out-Bonds 007, you know you're in good hands. Sure, its only smarts may be in the way it manages to jiggle and exploit its way into the mainstream, but what makes it all work is the fact that all of it is done with a definite wink to the audience, and tongue firmly planted in cheek. Director McG's music-video beginnings, slick directing style and flashy editing are still very much a part of the film, and once again uses it to good effect here. The three "girls" definitely appear to enjoy camping it up to extremes (posing as nuns, strippers, and everything in between), and play it all to the hilt. Striking poses, kicking butt in full CGI glory, and chewing the scenery, they're up for anything. Even the supporting cast, with cameos from a half-dozen top actors including John Cleese and Bruce Willis, adds to the fun. As for Demi Moore, making a re-appearance as an Angel gone bad, she can't really compete with all the exploits around her - oh, she still looks fine in a bikini, but she seems to be taking all this stuff much too seriously. Some moments, however, do seem to stop the zaniness dead in its tracks, and none more so than the bland, tired scenes with Bernie Mac. Puh-lease get us Bill Murray back! The film, though still as air-headed as its predecessor, also has lost some of its originality and surprise. Still, for audiences plagued with attention-deficit disorder, Full Throttle is definitely the summer blockbuster to beat.
Entertainment: 7/10


Charlie Wilson's War (2007)
Starring: Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, Philip Seymour Hoffman
Director: Mike Nichols
Plot: A small-time, skirt-chasing Texas congressman becomes involved in a massive covert operation to arm Afghanistan rebels to fight their Soviet invaders.
Review: Based on actual characters and events, Charlie Wilson's War is a rather tongue-in-cheek dramatization of how a rather ineffectual senator managed to lead the largest covert operation in US history. Though adapted from George Crile's book of the same name, much of the film's punchy attitude and ingenious charm goes to scriptwriter Aaron Sorkin, the creator of The West Wing. Sorkin is no stranger to the intricacies and pratfalls of the American political system, and his knack for depicting the gritty truths of Washington politicking are razor sharp. Here he's given a free hand at telling a story that uses all his skills, from humor to pathos, along with a healthy dose of whip-smart dialogue. Director Nichols (Closer, The Graduate) seems to be just the right kind of filmmaker to bring this script, and this larger-than-life character, to the screen in what first comes off as screwball comedy that turns into a scathing cautionary tale. As depicted here, Wilson is one of those stalwarts who's smart, charming, and completely self-centered, with little care for the world around him, until a passing report on TV turns his attention towards a far-off land. Soon, he consorting with Middle-East politicians and secret agents, buying the right weapons and sneaking them into the country - with a smile and a wink, War isn't Hell, it's fun! Yet, the rah-rah patriotism eventually fades, and the film ends up being a commentary on American politics abroad. The Cold War success story of this, the biggest covert operation in American history, is balanced by the ensuing missteps by the Americans to reconstruct the country and the present-day view that what was once "Russia's Vietnam" is once again our nightmare. It sure helps to get terrific turns by an A-list leading cast: Hanks was made to play this part and he gets into this role like a well-fitting glove, making the flamboyant Wilson a charming, well meaning cad; Roberts suprises in a role that's not all wholesome; and Hoffman is just a delight as the uncouth, undiplomatic CIA operative whose utter contempt for his superiors gets him in trouble, stealing every scene and proving again he's just stupendous in every type of role he takes. At barely over 90 min, the film zips by and still manages to be a pretty rounded take on American covert involvement in the war, a film with lots of black comic touches that stings with the ring of truth and tragic consequence in the last act. Engaging, fun, and relevant Charlie Wilson's War is another solid (if slight) mainstream political flick that should have people talking.
Drama: 7/10

Chasing Sleep (2001)
Starring: Jeff Daniels, Emily Bergl
Director: Michael Walker
Plot: A college professor fighting insomnia wakes up one day to find that his wife has disappeared under peculiar circumstances, but his search for answers make him question his own sanity.
Review: Chasing Sleep can be best described as a surreal updating of Edgar Allan Poe's famous short story "The Tell-Tale Heart". Director Walker opts for the bizarre here, and he's got the right touch for it presenting a narrative that is always more than a tad odd and provokes a feeling of uneasiness, of paranoia and entrapment. The camera also never leaves the house, making for a claustrophobic experience - the walls close in, the rooms feel like their spinning, and without a musical score, every sound becomes a frightful one. The effects are mostly low-key or, when the need or shock is required, blatantly low-tech, but all are effective to set the required mood. Though we might, at first, guess as to what has happened to his wife, the movie never allows us to be convinced one way or another; is it all a hallucination? what really happened to his wife? As for our anti-hero, the stress brought on by his missing spouse, his insomnia, and the people going in and out of his house, only increase his level of stress leading to paranoia, obsessive behavior, and wild hallucinations. Worse for him, the house is seems to be deteriorating around him, paralleling the collapse of his own sanity / psyche. This is a well realized, visually interesting feature, and often quite inventive in its handling of the story, but eventually too uneven in its pacing to really grab our attention. The tension builds, but then disappears, only to start up again, events sometimes tapering out. There's a peculiar sense of humor, too (particularly in the constant drug use), but it sometimes breaks the tone. Some scenes are particularly off-putting with the camera and narrative distancing, while some not-so-subtle symbolism abounds in every scene. The nonchalant, even-tempered Daniels is a good choice as the sleeping-pill addicted insomniac driving himself mad. Going against his popular comedy stereotype, he makes a good protagonist here, confused, depressive, and irrational, a man who has reached the point of despair and can no longer discern the difference between fevered dream and reality. Some other amusingly eccentric characters, well-played, populate the tale: the violent gym teacher, the perky student, the gruff inspector, the drug-pushing psychiatrist, all with their own little quirks. This is often a disturbing, creepy endeavor, but one that could have been more involving, especially in the dragged-out middle section. In the end, Chasing Sleep is an interesting exercise in Lynch-syle creepiness that won't advance the genre, but one that's clever enough to keep fans interested.
Entertainment / Horror: 5/10

Chicago (2002)
Starring: Renee Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Richard Gere
Director: Rob Marshall
Plot: Convicted and imprisoned for murder, a down-on-her-luck aspiring singer and a popular stage dancer compete for media attention as well as for the services of a hotshot defense attorney in 1920's Chicago.
Review: The movie version of Chicago gives the classic musical the big-budget movie treatment, and for the most part comes out a winner. Actually, this is a pretty faithful adaptation of the Broadway hit, in terms of plotting and the dance routines. Unfortunately, the musical numbers (explained away as Roxie fantasies) are often limited to solely recreating the stage version. These are engaging and well done, shot with abundant energy and flair, but one would have expected more from the jump into a more dyanmic medium. Still, choreographer-turned-director Marshall shows he has a good eye for capturing the dance elements on film, and these instances (which make up most of the film) are great fun to watch, though none quite match the vitality of the opening number "All That Jazz". As well, the production values are solid, the cinematography perfectly suited, and the story engaging enough to keep us occupied between dance sequences. As for the script itself - about the fickle nature of fame and the venal nature of the media - it isn't anything new, but it does allow for some cynical commentary. The casting choices are a mixed bag: Zellwegger does, for the most part, a decent (if unspectacular) job both in the acting and singing routines (though she never becomes sympathetic), and Gere (though not his best in the musical bits) is a good choice for the hack lawyer. The real treat of the film, however, is undoubtedly the remarkable, red-hot Zeta-Jones who sings and dances like a real cabaret girl, and who looks every bit the part; she's dazzling and charismatic, and the film wouldn't have been half as good without her. Queen Latifah, in an important supporting role, does a terrific singing number, and John C. Reilly, a top-notch actor always playing bit parts, also impresses. Though nowhere near as dazzling as Moulin Rouge, Chicago is still a class act that retains its own character, and if nothing else is a terrific showcase for its real star Catherine Zeta-Jones.
Musical: 7/10

Chicken Little (2005)
Starring: Zach Braff, Garry Marshall, Joan Cusack
Director: Mark Dindal
Plot: After an embarrassing cry-wolf incident turns the town against him, a young chicken tries to redeem his reputation any way he can only to realize he must save them all from a real alien invasion.
Review: The first computer animated feature from Disney following its break with Pixar, Chicken Little plays with the classic tale of The Boy Who Cried Wolf and proves to be more entertaining than one would have guessed. The visuals are clean and colorful with some well-realized anthropomorphic characters, lots of flash and action sequences that ensure the attention of even the most jaded viewer, and tons of comic wit and chutzpah. The sentimental father-son relationship makes for the chunkiest portions of the film but thankfully throwing in some X-Files into a mix of underdog sports clichés and a script fraught with high school peer pressures and childhood fears makes for some amusing, if convoluted, situations. Throwing in pop references, clever visual gags, and completing it all with a War of the Worlds-type invasion that is as chaotic as it is amusing ensures both parents and kids will go along for the ride. As voiced by Braff, Little is a worthy underdog whose friends include Ugly Duckling (a fine Joan Cusack) and Runt of the Litter (Steve Zahn in full form) but it's the silent, quirky Fish Out of Water that really steals the show, getting the most laughs from adults with some truly zany moments. If it's not quite a huge step above the average, like most CGI family features Chicken Little is fast, fun and imaginative enough, and the short running time ensures it never overstays its welcome.
Entertainment: 7/10

Chicken Run (2000)
Starring: Mel Gibson, Miranda Richardson
Directors: Nick Park, Peter Lord
Plot: After their villainous owners switch from selling eggs to selling chicken pies, a group of chickens hatch a plan to escape the coop led by a plucky American rooster.
Review: Chicken Run is the first feature-length production by the makers of the madcap Award-winning claymation adventures of Wallace and Gromit, and they've managed to keep their magic intact. Spoofing everything from the World War II P.O.W. movies such as Stalag 17 and Steve McQueen's The Great Escape to adventure films such as Indiana Jones, the film shows the same British sensibility and humor that made their earlier shorts such a treat, and adds some great action set-pieces to the mix. The film is an absolute joy to watch, with some of the more impressive aspects of the film including the incredible attention to detail found all the way through, the characters' design and expressions, the amazing sets and the impressive claymation effects. All these visual treats are held together by an inventive and witty screenplay that definitely makes this one of the best comedies of the year. There are a few slow moments, and even though the film's running time is quite short it doesn't quite have the same efficient pacing as the Wallace adventures, nor the same zany inventiveness. But no matter: Chicken Run is still entertaining, engaging and hilarious.
Comedy / Entertainment: 8/10

Children of Men (2006)
Starring: Clive Owen, Julianne Moore, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Claire-Hope Ashitey, Michael Caine
Director: Alfonso Cuaron
Plot: In a near-future world where women have become infertile and humanity is in decline, a former activist is charged with getting a miraculously pregnant woman to a secret sanctuary. 
Review: Adapted from the novel by author P.D. James, Children of Men transports audiences into a near-future fascist British where the apocalyptic ending of humanity comes as a whimper instead of a bang. Though infertility may the obvious cause, the film takes the opportunity to explore modern themes of terrorism, paranoia about illegal immigration and policies regarding refugees, all using shocking images of people locked in cages, violently rounded up in concentration camps and ghettos. In the hands of director Cuaron (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Y Tu Mamá También) it's a bleak vision that is brilliantly defined, capturing a sense of universal despair - what is the point of going on if there is no future? It's a world that feels uncomfortably close to our own. Yet what begins as a grim SF scenario transforms into what is essentially a chase movie, one filled with impressive, complex long shots involving dozens of extras, dangerous pyrotechnics, and multiple locations. If savvy viewers will be astonished at the technical expertise at play, the sure-handed cinematography never breaks the tension and immediacy we feel at their plight. One truly memorable scene happens in the middle of a pitched battle, where all guns are silenced by the simple sound of a crying baby; it's a haunting sequence that will linger much after the film has ended. Unfortunately for some, no explanations are given as to the cause of the infertility, and many interesting questions as to the state of anarchy around the world are left unanswered - even the glimmer of hope at the end of the film leaves one without any true resolution. As the world-weary former activist, a rough-around-the-edges Owen embodies both despair and hope, never losing his appeal - even in flip-flops. The supporting cast is also terrific, including a militant Moore and a charming pot-toting Michael Caine, but it's Ashitey, as the pregnant teen, that really shines. A thrilling, though-provoking picture, Children of Men falls short of greatness, but with its technical proficiency and emotional heft it's one of the best films of the year.
Drama / Entertainment: 8/10

China Strike Force (Hong Kong - 2000)
Starring: Aaron Kwok, Mark Dacascos, Coolio
Director: Stanley Tong
Plot: Two young police officers meet up with a sexy Japanese undercover agent to bring down an international drug cartel.
Review: Produced exclusively to get HK films to penetrate the North American market - including some familiar US faces - China Strike Force is an unfortunate pilot effort, a lame, vapid effort that's too much talk too little action. The main attraction is the action, yet the fighting is for the most part badly staged, and the wire-fu is laughable due to some badly executed wire-work, but it does get somewhat redeemed thanks to three solid (if rather silly) set-pieces, including a Lamborghini / Indy Car chase in traffic, and a climactic fight as villain and heroes try to balance on a large, suspended pane of glass. Unfortunately, there's too little of it. As for the story, one should attempt to ignore it completely, though it's no easy task considering the script didn't takes extremes to pad the film with senseless dialogue. Director Tong (Supercop, Rumble in the Bronx) has hit bottom with this low-brow effort that moves in un-sustained spurts and stalls in the exposition. Even the acting is wooden: Pretty-boy Kwok is likable enough and does fine with the action stuff. Norika Fujiwara seems to have been chosen more for her generous cleavage than for her acting skills, but she is pretty to look at. As for the real star, this is a complete waste for Dacascos who really showed his considerable skills in Drive and Brotherhood of the Wolf. But the real aggravation is hip-hop singer Coolio who is a constant annoyance playing the gangster stereotype to ludicrous effect. All told, China Strike Force is a quickly forgotten effort for all involved.
Entertainment: 3/10

The China Syndrome (1979)
Starring: Jane Fonda, Jack Lemmon, Michael Douglas
Director: James Bridges
Plot: After witnessing what appears to be an accident at a nuclear power plant, a TV reporter and her cameraman entice the help of the plant's to a safety cover-up.
Review: Marketed as a socially conscious thriller, but really riding the wave of disaster films, The China Syndrome is probably best remembered for being released just days before the real-life events at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant caused a nation-wide uproar. The title refers to the inside joke that if an American nuclear plant melts down, it will melt through the Earth until it comes out in China. If the conspiracy tale is soft and makes little sense (the evil Company is at fault putting money before safety), it does capture well the issues of quality control and the pressures in building, and running, such a plant. And, though nowhere near the pokes taken by Network, it's also a capable satire on TV news and its so-called impartiality. Unfortunately, looking for a sense of realism, the film also bogs down in less important details. There's a tense scenes as the generator becomes unstable, but it takes its time getting there and ends with a sore use of melodrama to cap it all off. The veteran leads were nominated for Oscars, though it's not clear why: Lemmon, as the whistle-blowing plant controller, is so earnest he's almost a caricature; Fonda, as the opportunistic reporter, is rarely convincing; and Douglas, well, he's actually surprisingly young and pretty good in a supporting role as the activist-cameraman. Though dated and a little slow-going for modern audiences, The China Syndrome is still a capable, socially-conscious drama on the perils of nuclear power and its message of human hubris is never old.
Drama: 6/10

*Classic* Chinatown (1974)
Starring: Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, John Houston
Director: Roman Polanski
Plot: A hard-nosed private eye is unwittingly dragged into a complex mystery surrounding corruption, real estate fraud, and murder in 1930's Los Angeles.
Review: Chinatown is a modern "film noir", an ode to the 40s Hammett and Chandler stories of hard-boiled detectives, but with a modern touch adding more depth and character to the mix. Robert Towne's Award-winning script, full of little realistic touches and great dialogue, is the real driving force of the movie, grabbing our attention from the beginning and slowly revealing the mystery and the dark secrets surrounding the characters and the strange events that unfold. Director Polanski's European sensibilities only increase the sense of objectivity of the camera and of the cold, hard look at the people and the plot. The cinematography is excellent, and the pacing, the tension, the drama are all perfectly laid out. Nicholson does one of his best, most convincing performances here as the sleazy private eye and Dunaway is excellent as the "femme fatale". Also impressive is John Houston's supporting role as the charming, evil land baron. All said, everything works and that makes Chinatown one of the classic films of modern cinema.
Drama / Entertainment: 9/10

A Chinese Ghost Story: The Tsui Hark Animation (Hong Kong - 1997) 
Director: Andrew Chan
Plot: Travelling the countryside with his faithful dog, a broken-hearted debt collector falls for a beautiful ghost while trying to avoid getting caught between two dueling gostbusters.
Review: Tsui Hark has been one of the driving forces of modern Hong Kong cinema and with A Chinese Ghost Story: The Tsui Hark Animation, he has decided to enter the cartoon fray with an adaptation of a classic Chinese tale. The animation here is a blend of well-produced traditional character cel drawings similar in style to Japanese anime, and rather garish, coarse-looking computer generated backgrounds that makes for a colorful creation. As for the story, there's a good dose of mad-cap adventure and entertaining magic battles that anime is famous for, as well as a rather strong romantic angle of the original tale, but it's nowhere near as interesting as the popular live action film (also produced by Tsui Hark) it takes its inspiration from. The problem is that it's aimed more at the family crowd, with corny jokes, amusing characters and, yes, even some rather bland songs to make the Disney crowd happy, but it just doesn't make a cohesive, or engaging whole. Things do move along nicely, and there's a little something for everyone, but though the potential is there the execution just misses the mark.
Entertainment: 4/10

Chinese Super Ninjas (Five Element Ninjas) (Hong Kong - 1982) 
Starring: Chen Hui-min, Chen Pei-hsi, Lo Meng
Director: Chang Cheh
Plot: After his martial arts school gets decimated, a pupil teams up with a new teacher and take revenge on a group of murderous Japanese Ninjas. 
Review: Chinese Super Ninjas is another old school kung-fu classic from the prolific Shaw Brothers studio and from director Cheh, a man who almost single-handedly created the ultra-violent genre so popular in Hong Kong exports. The exposition is brief and the revenge story paper-thin, only meant to set-up the impossible feats to martial arts - but then audiences don't watch this stuff for the sparkling dialogue. One shouldn't dwell either on the poor production values and horrible soundstage sets. Apart from a slow-moving half-hour middle sequence that makes up the "drama" of the film (insert friendship, loyalty, and treason bits for good effect) the film is pretty much nothing but martial arts action bordering on the supernatural from start to finish. True, compared to more modern fare, the action doesn't flow naturally and is evidently staged, but it's still impressive in its choreography like an intricate, bloody dance enhanced by edits, zooms, and reverse footage. The Ninja tactics and gadgets, the very selling point of the film from the hypnotizing, knife-throwing hats to the tree disguises, are inventive and fun to watch as are the gruesome ways of killing and dismembering opponents on display. It's not quite a classic, but for fans of old-style kung-fu flicks, Chinese Super Ninjas is great stuff.
Entertainment: 6/10

Chocolat (2000)
Starring: Juliette Binoche, Johnny Depp, Judi Dench
Director: Lasse Hallstrom
Plot: In the winter of 1959, a spirited single mother and her child blow into town and stir up a quiet French village by opening up an irresistible chocolate shop during Lent. 
Review: With Chocolat, Director Hallstrom (The Cider House Rules) seems to have hit his stride in Hollywood. All the elements for a typical feel-good romantic-drama have been thrown into the pot: some pretty scenery in an exotic locale where everyone speaks perfect English, a bevy of one-dimensional characters with emotional baggage needing instant romantic help, a touch of humor, and a mesmerizing leading lady. Though some of the sentimentality is sickly-sweet and the outcomes of every situation predictable, the film has a way of manipulating its audience that is so constantly charming and light-hearted that one cannot resist the temptation of falling into its design. The script also adds a certain fairy-tale narrative sense, a mystical quality to the approach of the film - is the shop owner a witch putting a chocolate spell on the inhabitants? - that works well to put us into the fable-like tone of the film. And who can resist salivating at the sight of all those delectable confections being created and displayed on screen? Rounding out the film's success is the star cast who are all in good form, if altogether unexceptional, and of course Binoche who does a fine performance as the very center of the story. Good-natured and fun, Chocolat may not be very filling or memorable, but it is a delightful film while it lasts. 
Entertainment: 7/10

Chocolate (Thailand - 2008)
Starring: JeeJa Yanin, Ammara Siripong, Hiroshi Abe
Director: Prachya Pinkaew
Plot: An autistic teen with an amazing ability for martial arts seeks to recover all the debts left open during her ailing mother's old gangster days, which brings the attention of her mom's ex-boss, a man looking to settle a score.
Review: Keeping it to the basics, Chocolate is a satisfying classic-styled martial-arts action effort that's sure to please - once it starts really moving. The first half hour plays out like a standard Asian crime drama, then delves into pure melodrama as the vicious gangster becomes a single mom to an autistic child who grows up in her own little world content until mom gets cancer, and the bad guys find them out. As slow going as this exposition may be for audiences looking for some quick action - and it does occasionally get tedious despite the bizarre offerings like a gang of killer transvestites - the second half offers proper payoff that's worth the wait, with a half-dozen expertly staged and executed sequences, each very different from the other in setting and fight choreography. The impressive martial arts display, the wince-inducing blows and superb set-pieces where our heroine battles knife-wielding butchers in a market, swordsmen in a dojo and finally expert fighters along window ledges are all spectacular. Having helped put Tony Jaa on the map with such fare as Ong-Bak and The Protector, director Pinkaew has made a name for himself in the action genre, and has become one of the most interesting new exports from Asia. Sure, the production isn't as slick as other Asian flicks, the plot and characters take second fiddle to the action, but let's be clear: the movie is really a showcase for the latest, soon-to-be-international star JeeJa. Young, cute and bad-ass when she gets into "the zone", she need not envy any of her older, male role models; she's an awesome, kick-ass combo of Jackie Chan's acrobatics and fellow-Thai star Tony Jaa's hard-hitting elbow hits and lightning kicks. If Chocolate doesn't quite break new ground it's still a crackling actioner that's a great introduction to a new, up-and-coming action star.
Entertainment: 8/10

The Chorus (Les Choristes) (France - 2004)
Starring: Gerard Jugnot, Francois Berleand
Director: Christophe Barratier
Plot: Hired to teach music at a school for troubled boys in the years after the War, a teacher becomes determined to use unconventional methods to overcome both disciplinarian peers and his class' contempt to change his student's outlook.
Review: An inspirational tale that treads familiar ground, The Chorus is a warm-hearted, witty tale of one man bucking the strict school system. As previously explored in such movies as Stand and Deliver and Mr. Holland's Opus, the script is predictable - a well-meaning teacher faces ridicule and hardships, using music and understanding to win over his students and lift up the school's morale - but director Barratier uses the clichés of peer pressure and school rivalries, and all the usual character stereotypes, to perfection. And the film definitely has all the right elements, from solid production values that recreate an atmosphere of a bygone era, to poignant drama, to a touch of light-hearted humor. Barratier also has a knack for making the French location seem more exotic than it should, as well as an ability to use his cast to help move the story along in a way that feels completely natural. And there's some good solid acting from the kids and adults alike, but in the portly, balding Jugnot they've really found a perfect, likable underdog to play the mentor, the lone guy against the establishment who's trying to prove to himself and others that he's not a failure. But the real saving grace is the blend of cute, effective and sometime poignant musical arrangements; as sung by the Saint-Marc choir it elevates even the film beyond its humble nature. Though nominated for an Oscar for Foreign Language Film, The Chorus isn't an exceptional piece of filmmaking, but with its capable execution and uplifting vocals its an easy, winning formula for escapist fare. 
Entertainment / Drama: 7/10

Christine (1983)
Starring: Keith Gordon, John Stockwell, Alexandra Paul
Director: John Carpenter
Plot: A teenage nerd becomes obsessed with renovating a red 1958 Plymouth Fury, and soon his personality starts to change as the car's malevolent nature starts to take over.
Review: An adolescent's revenge on the pressures and cruelties of high-school are given a nice twist in this fine adaptation of Stephen King's horror novel Christine. Starting off with a horrifying assembly line accident, the film gathers steam, then ramps up the terror. In the expert hands of genre guru Carpenter (fresh off his successes Halloween and The Thing), the novel takes on a different, but no less impressive, form. Though for the most quite faithful to the book, the film makes it clear that the car is Evil, throwing out some the novel's sub-plot of possible possession and other supernatural elements. That doesn't make it any less suspenseful and frightening, or bloody entertaining. Done straight and with an eye for creating a dark tone that nicely builds up tension, Carpenter makes the events downright scary while limiting the cinematic tricks and effects so obvious in more recent films. Indeed, the atmosphere of dread and inevitable climax is expertly set up, enhanced by Carpenter's own eerie score that includes some apt rock classics like Bad to the Bone. Highlights include a sequence where a destroyed Christine supernaturally rebuilds itself after being trashed, and the gripping road rampage that follows as the town's bullies are taken down one by one in frightening manner. If the story lacks finesse, there's no denying that the set-pieces as the malefic car comes to life are pure gold. As the central character, Gordon does a believable transformation from shy teen to dangerous lad, and the supporting cast does well. But, filmed with just the right creepiness and craftiness to make it a character on its own, its the titular car that steals the show. Christine isn't the best King adaptation or Carpenter's best film, but by putting many of the pieces together so well it's - excuse the pun - a finely tuned horror vehicle.
Entertainment: 7/10

Disney's A Christmas Carol (2009)
Starring: Jim Carrey, Gary Oldman, Colin Firth
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Plot: In 19th century London, a grouchy miser gets visited by the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come on the yuletide night.
Review: Charles Dickens' classic Victorian novel A Christmas Carol has been adapted with countless iterations, most notably the classic 1951 version and even given the modern-comedy treatment in Scrooged with Bill Murray. So why another one? Well, the tale really doesn't require the CGI treatment, that's for sure, but director Zemeckis - whose been obsessed with the computer-generated, motion-capture animation with The Polar Express and Beowulf - seems to think the time is right for an adaptation using modern technology anyway. There's no denying how splendid the recreation of 1840's London looks, down to the cobblestones and hairs on the characters' noses, and the characters (all mostly performed live by the one-and-only Carrey himself in a surprisingly lower-key, less over-the-top performance than is his wont and then digitally translated) are surprisingly expressive. The fantastical elements of the story, as the three ghostly apparitions appear to take our miserly protagonist on the trip of his life, are also rife for the challenge and the film finds every opportunity to bring some impressively rendered roller-coaster rides through the streets and rooftops of London, an excuse for the use of the 3D technology. As to the adaptation itself, well there's no right or wrong to such a beloved tale of self-redemption and the power of Christmas, and the film does it all justice; perhaps too much, however, for younger kids who will be either bored by the talky bits or scared silly at the darker elements of the Christmas Yet to Come. Apart from headliner Carrey, the rest of the animated cast also does pretty well, including the likes of Oldman, Firth, Robin Wright Penn and Bob Hoskins. Their computer likenesses aren't perfect, but the likeness is pretty obvious. For those new to the tale, Disney's A Christmas Carol is a stylish, well-rendered adaptation that will keep even the most jaded viewers glued to the screen; for those already familiar with it, it's an interesting big-budget take that won't win any awards for drama but will surely impress with its visual extravagance.
Entertainment: 7/10

Christmas in August (South Korea - 1998)
Starring: Suk-kyu Han, Eun-ha Shim, Goo Shin
Director: Jin-ho Hur
Plot: A terminally ill shop owner falls in love with one of his regular customers, a young woman who is quite forward in her interest in him but who remains ignorant of his condition.
Review: Far removed from the passionate and emotive affairs that have been the stock of Hollywood fair, Christmas in August presents a romance that is quite ordinary in its development but all the more touching for it. The two competent actors play their roles in a convincing, understated manner embodying these characters with the joy, passion and frailties of common people. The love that blossoms between them is slow, careful, completely unspoken, rarely defined, and yet touches us far deeper than any Shakespearean sonnet. As the shop owner falls deeper and deeper into his malady, all the time refusing to divulge it to those around him (in a drunken stupor he finally only jokes about it to a friend), it is all the more precious because we know that these moments are limited and their love is ephemeral. The film is slow by melodramatic standards, there is no doubt, but it is also careful in shaping the existence of its protagonists, one where friendships, everyday events and small victories take all the importance in the world - just like in our own lives. Christmas in August is not a complex story by any means, but it is a sweet, endearing portrait.
Drama: 7/10


The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005)
Starring: Georgie Henley, William Moseley, Tilda Swinson
Director: Andrew Adamson
Plot: During the height of World War 2, four children travel through an enchanted wardrobe into a mythical land torn in a war between the armies of Good and Evil.
Review: Based on the first of the beloved allegorical Christian fantasy novels by C.S. Lewis, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is meant to compete with more recent family fare like Harry Potter. As fantasy adventure, it has the right elements in place - the heroic children, the fantastic creatures, the clash of armies - but that Disney insistence on commercialism seems to betray the best of intentions. As such, this impersonal affair lacks a sense of magic, adventure or fun. It's very much a children's film from a novel that went beyond being a simple children's book, and its Christian elements have been downplayed though the messiah-like Aslan the Lion is still a central focus, as is his death and resurrection. Kids will probably enjoy this, but adults will find it all somewhat dull after such rousing adventure as The Lord of the Rings, a film this one really tries to emulate. Some scenes, though, may actually be too much for youngsters, specifically a dark sacrificial scene and some of the (admittedly bloodless) combat. Even the engaging final battle between a gaggle of legendary creatures is full of detailed CGI effects that don't quite work. The exceptional highlight, however, is the aforementioned Lion who is not only exquisitely animated but, as voiced by Liam Neeson, is the most interesting character, radiating warmth and charisma. Director Adamson has lost sight of what made his popular animated film Shrek such a delight - gone is any sense of humor, and engaging story-telling. Even past the leaden first act, the rest of the film's pacing is languid at best, with only a few rousing moments to be had. The TV-quality directing doesn't help when watched on the big screen, and the sets look too much like 70's stages with little detail to get a feel for the place. The usually terrific Swinton gets to chomp the screen as the evil White Witch, but apart from the makeup and costumes, she has little to work with. The child actors are fine, if unexceptional, but their characters are rather drab. This first Narnia ends up being an awkward, overlong, workmanlike family fantasy that has little personality and one that can't sustain repeated viewings - and that's too bad as there's a decent movie in here somewhere. Hopefully the inevitable sequels will be leaner.
Entertainment: 5/10


The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian (2008)
Starring: Peter Dinklage, Anna Popplewell, Ben Barnes
Director: Andrew Adamson
Plot: Four British siblings return to the enchanted land of Narnia \to discover that an evil lord has proclaimed himself king and raised an army to eradicate the non-humans denizens.
Review: Based on the popular book series by C.S. Lewis, The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian continues the adventures of the box-office hit The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Originally written with an obvious Christian sub-text, the film adaptations of the Narnia tales have been adapted for a mainstream, pre-teen audience and have subdued much of its religious connotations. That might not be a bad thing, but the script seems to have also excised many of the other distinctive aspects of the work as well. Despite its faults, the first chapter had a certain old-fashioned charm and championed its own path away from modern dark fantasies, as its young British heroes led audiences into discovery of a land of enchantment and wonder. Unfortunately, there seems to have been a conscious decision to make the sequel darker and more "mature", perhaps in line with the trend setting The Lord of the Rings, while still keeping its Disney-required family-friendly PG rating - a sure road to failure. For sure, returning director Adamson has upped the action quota, but the bloodless, uninteresting battles and ponderous pace makes for an often dull film that lacks much of the magic, the emotional grip or the engaging narrative to make this flight of fancy work. It doesn't help that the story is rather banal and for the most part un-engaging; some exceptions are the first return to Narnia and the one-on-one sword battle between Kings in the third act, the only times that the film creates real excitement. Unfortunately, at almost 2.5 hours, the film is much talky and static for its own good and quickly overstays its welcome. Even the cinematography - so brilliant and colorful in the first film - is for the most part washed out and visually uninteresting. The young leads really aren't much better two years later, and the siblings are given little personality to speak of. The CGI characters (such as the mouse knight voiced by Eddie Izzard, or the noble Centaurs) easily steal their scenes. New addition Barnes, as the dashing titular prince, may have the young girls swooning but he's so stiff and bumbling that he doesn't make much of a hero. Perhaps some of the fault is that the story doesn't have a villain as interesting (or as dangerous) as Tilda Swinton's delightful White Witch (though she makes for a notable cameo appearance), or that the sense of the new is gone and replaced with a retread of familiar themes and plots. Even when Aslan, the Christ-like lion figure, makes an appearance it's too late to save the film from being a second-tier effort. In the end, Price Caspian is a passable, if never quite engaging effort that might be better at home on made-for-kids BBC TV than on the big screen. As it stands, its decent enough for family viewing, but more mature audiences will find it rather bland.
Entertainment: 4/10

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2010) 
Starring: Ben Barnes, Skandar Keynes, Georgie Henley 
Director: Michael Apted
Plot: Two teenaged British siblings and their cousin are pulled back into the fantasy world of Narnia to help the Prince uncover new evil, setting sail aboard the royal ship to the end of the world.
Review: Proving again that the popularity of cinema's original 2003 foray into the world of C.S. Lewis' beloved series was a fluke, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader finally arrives to theaters with a fizzle rather than a bang. This time, the story focuses on the younger heroes, now grown to teenagers and looking to become adults; the adaptation does little to advance their development or explain their struggles, and the the morale / lesson is lost somewhere, though traces of Lewis' Christian ideals (read sermonizing) on faith are still present. The poorly realized 3D, clearly thrown in as an afterthought in the post-production process, leaves its actors looking like cut-outs in a cardboard world. The mostly bland visuals and art direction, and complete lack of spectacle, don't help things either. As for the expected adventure in a magical land, well there's little really at stake this time around, except a search for trouble and adventure - they (and we) are still looking, even after such sequences involving a bloodless sword battle with Arab slave traders, the transformation of one of the party to a dragon, and the climactic confrontation with a hideous sea-monster. Oh, and Pirates of the Caribbean did the sea-monster thing much better. Director Apted is clearly not cut out for genre films - his talents in the action department are dubious at best and he's buried his skills at character drama, to boot. Kids might enjoy the mild adventure, amusing characters (specifically the relationship between the bratty cousin and the rat knight eager to convert him) and simple humor but adults will be wondering why a family-friendly fantasy means removing any teeth to the tale. If it's never quite boring, with its lack of scope and little real suspense, this Narnia adventure leaves one just plain un-involved in the proceedings. C.S. Lewis, and audiences, deserves better.
Entertainment: 4/10

The Chronicles of Riddick (2004)
Starring: Vin Diesel, Judi Dench. Colm Feore
Director: David Twohy
Plot: A dangerous escaped convict with a price on his head finds himself caught up in an interstellar conflict against a powerful sect that lives for War and is destroying all the planets in its path.
Review: A blockbuster-level sequel to the popular indie-level sci-fi flick Pitch Black, The Chronicles of Riddick takes on a much wider tapestry and gets to use a much bigger budget. Despite attempts to forge an "epic" in both story and depth, from the get-go this is all clearly cheesy space opera. As such, the computer effects are downright excellent, the artistic direction from the set design to the ships to the costumes makes one immediately think of David Lynch's Dune, and there's no doubt you can definitely see where the money went - sci-fi buffs will definitely gobble up the fabulous visuals. Though at first the story revolves around large-scale warfare, thrilling space battles and our "hero's" position in all of this, the film suddenly takes a tangent and throws our hero in prison, a plot that takes up a good half of the film with little to do with the overall story. When we cut back to our main story, it becomes just too simplistic with Riddick suddenly going head-to-head with the sect's leader. Apart from the opening battles, much of the action is limited to close-combat much of which is very well choreographed but so quickly edited that we don't really get a chance to experience it. Writer / director Twohy wanted to create the first part of an epic trilogy and tries to infuse the movie with enough material / background to sustain it. But though there are inklings and lots of possibilities, it almost feels like much of the real meat was left on the cutting room floor. There are lots of good ideas here, and the script could have been something more than run-of-the-mill, but it relies too much on ridiculous coincidences which mars its good points. And, apart from a few amusing one-liners, forget the dialogue, too. To be fair, the outcome is of course predictable, but the cliffhanger ending opens up some interesting possibilities. Most of the acting is about on par with this type of affair, meaning its pretty flat or overly theatrical, though Judi Dench adds a much-needed touch of class in a small supporting role and Colm Feore as the Necromonger leader make the role his own and - the real disappointment, however, is Vin Diesel who is obviously just reading the lines without any emotional resonance, thus offering up a very wooden performance. All this might be excusable, save for one thing: What was so great about the original character was that he was a true anti-hero, a callous murderer whose allegiances lay only in his own survival - this is what made the first film so different and engaging. Here he's been relegated to the role of reluctant hero, saver of children, and it just doesn't fit with the bad-ass we expected to see. Oh sure, there's attitude, but he's no longer the dangerous man he once was. Still, despite its faults, the whole thing looks great, is never boring, and makes for fine entertainment for those audiences that won't take any of this too seriously.
Entertainment: 6/10

Chunhyang (South Korea - 2001)
Starring: Lee Hae Eun, Cho Seung Woo, Lee Hyo Jung
Director: Im Kwon Taek
Plot: A courtesan's daughter stays true to her departed love, a prince gone to his studies, and suffers silently through intense pressure from a vicious lord to become part of his household.
Review: Chunhyang is an immensely popular Korean tale (akin to the West's Romeo and Juliet) that has been repeatedly adapted to the screen, but never with such big-budget spectacle. The film uses the traditional folk art of pansori, a live storytelling that uses dancing and song, to help narrate and move the story along. Though the addition of the old pansori singer, his voice hoarse with feeling, and his contemporary audience may seem an odd choice, and may break the flow for some, this frame is important to the director to give us a connection to the unfolding story. The story itself is a typical fable, a simple story given the grand visual treatment, with pageantry, melodrama, and an undying, forbidden love affair at the very center. Like most great love stories, the film centers on the restrictions placed on the lovers by society (the lovers are secretly married, but separated by class). Is it a morality tale on spousal fidelity? an anti-feminist tract? perhaps, since the men and women play their traditional 18th-century roles, but her strength of character despite the odds has a definite honorability to it (above that of her mate), especially when embellished with such splendor. Famed director Taek proves that he has not lost his touch for the delicate and the grandiose, even on his 97th film (!), showing a true mastery of the visual medium. In fact, the real treat here is the imagery; it's beautiful to look at, to experience, with an exotic mise-en-scene, lavish costumes and sets, and gorgeous decors that makes each scene resemble an intricate, brightly colored painting. In fact, every scene, every frame seems to have been planned and executed with careful precision. Though some moments, especially the scenes between the love-lost pair, are passionate, much of the film is emotionally distant, and quite theatrical in nature. The cast is handsome, with leads that were probably chosen as much for their looks as anything else. In the end, Chunhyang wins mostly as a visually evocative fairy-tale brought to life - as cinematic diversion it's well worth a look.
Entertainment / Drama: 8/10

The Cider House Rules (1999)
Starring: Tobey Maguire, Michael Caine
Director: Lasse Hallstrom
Plot: A young man, raised since birth in an orphanage in Maine by a paternal doctor, decides one day to leave the only home he has known and discover the world outside.
Review: As an adaptation from his best-selling novel, John Irving (The World According to Garp) has managed to distill the essence of the story into film form. Taken on its own, The Cider House Rules is a wonderful, touching story, full of charming characters, and heart-breaking moments. Maguire and the rest of the cast are good, but Michael Caine steals the show in one of his best roles in years as the orphanage's paternal doctor. Though the story is light-hearted, the subject matter is not - our hero lives the life of a doctor's assistant, performing deliveries of unwanted children and witnessing countless abortions, giving some scenes that make one cringe. And yet, even in this milieu, their is a caring, sometimes even misty feel to the film. An American director may have gone for the shock or melodramatic value of the story, but director Hallstrom (My Life as a Dog) provides a restrained, very European flavor to the proceedings. A wonderful film.
Drama: 8/10

Cinderella Man (2005)
Starring: Russell Crowe, Renée Zellweger, Paul Giamatti
Director: Ron Howard
Plot: After four years fighting poverty following the Great Depression, an aging, broken New York boxer makes a startling come-back in 1935, going 16 rounds against the heavyweight champ despite all odds.
Review: An aseptic but rousing biography of the fall and rise of true-life boxer James J. Braddock, Cinderella Man is another successful teaming between lead actor Crowe and director Howard after their success on A Beautiful Mind. Much like Seabiscuit, Braddock is seen as an inspiration to the downtrodden American people, driven to abandon all hope following the difficult years after the Great Depression. As such, the clichés are all in place, the underdog getting a second chance, the upright community man fighting for his family, etc. The misery caught on camera is made to be immediate and believable, but the sense of the times isn't quite there. At the same time it's all overly dramatized - the cute, sick kids; the shabby dwellings; the larger-than-life feelings - as if the original tale itself couldn't carry the message or the movie through. Yet despite the fact that it's manipulative stuff, the story and the characters remain engaging throughout. As with any film of this sort, it's the confrontations in the ring that make it or break it, and the boxing sequences are supremely engaging, especially the final championship bout: the filmmakers have learnt all the cinematic tricks to make it visceral and in-your-face, and one can't help but cheer. Howard (Apollo 13, The Missing) might well be one of the Hollywood's best present-day directors, moving from one genre to the next with great bravado and once again this is a sleek, high-production affair that's impeccably shot and directed. Crowe has the character down pat, an affable and modest man taking a second chance at his destiny, and he's got the physique and limber movements to match. The overrated Zellwegger comes off as surprisingly decent in the role of dour wife and mother. If the two leads play it to the camera far too earnestly, perhaps, at least Giamatti, as the smart-mouthed coach, makes for a multi-faceted performance that's simply electric, easily stealing all the scenes from his co-stars. Most of the boxing stuff feels quite familiar, and even the story of the rags-to-winning rise of its everyman hero is nothing new, but it's handled with such verve and attention that even this oft-told story can seem shiny and new. Cinderella Man may not be an Oscar contender, but when the marquee has this kind of clout, it's worth taking notice.
Drama: 7/10

Cinema Paradiso (1989)
Starring: Philippe Noiret, Jacques Perrin, Salvatore Cascio
Director: Giuseppe Tornatore
Plot: In post-War Italy, a young boy grows up in his conservative small town's movie house, the community's social meeting place, where he befriends the gruff but warm-hearted projectionist.
Review: Few films are truly universally appealing, but Cinema Paradiso hits just the right formula to make it so, combining the drama and human comedy of small town life with the wonder of films. There are a few interesting themes here, and the script gives audiences ample time to take in all the nuisances and humor to be found, as well as the drama (admittedly more akin to melodrama) and poignancy in the characters and situations. Sure, it shamelessly delves into manipulative sentimentality, but it's so well done and so engaging that we can't help but be taken in by the palpable sense of nostalgia on display. The cinematography is excellent, as is the cast direction, the sets, and the beguiling atmosphere. Presumably at least partly auto-biographical, writer / director Tornatore (Avalon) ably captures the feel, the hardships of small town life in post-War Italy as well as the joy and wonderment of the early days of cinema. Though American films make an appearance, this is an homage to European cinema (and specifically Italian cinema) and as such, many classic clips and movie moments are shown to the packed on-screen theater, and their reactions are priceless. Cinema has always been an escape from the harshness of reality, a lesson the young boy learns very quickly. But more than just an ode to cinema, this is a fine little drama as well. The first half, however, is by far the most cherished of the film when we follow, with the young boy, the mysteries and joy of the movie house. Noiret and the young Cascio are absolutely terrific here, and there's a real, touching father-son relationship / friendship that binds them together. The second half, as the boy grows into a young man and eventually leaves his hometown, is more of a traditional coming-of-age story, of love lost, and of returning to one's roots. This part is interesting and touching, but nowhere near as compelling as the first. The last scene, though, will bring a tear the eye of any fan of cinema. All told, Cinema Paradiso is a heart-warming and delightfully engaging experience. Winner of the Best Foreign Film Oscar.
Drama: 8/10

Cinemania (2002)
Starring: Jack Angstreich, Eric Chadbourne, Bill Heidbreder
Directors: Angela Christlieb, Stephen Kijak
Plot: Documentary follows five New York cinephiles who relate their movie obsessions and bizarre lifestyles through candid interviews.
Review: From its Euro-pop intro song, to its snippets of classic movies and close-ups of enthralled faces glaring at the lit screen, the documentary Cinemania takes audiences on an entertaining trip into the lives of "real" cinema lovers. The film's five protagonists are extremists who run their lives around their movie-going experience, their obsession verging often to psychosis. But most surprising and scary is how much real film buffs will be able to see of themselves in these characters. When they talk about their love for cinema it's immediately evident that these are obviously smart people who have made a conscious choice to avoid reality as much as possible and escape into the fantasy worlds of film. Over the months of shooting, the filmmakers have managed to capture a surprisingly intimate and often un-flattering view of their out-spoken, borderline neurotic subjects such as the film's main focus, the well-educated Jack, whose eccentricities and philosophical musings quickly tag him as a Grade-A nerd. Yet, it's also obvious that they do so with no intention of ridicule; these are folks that live on the fringe of what we might consider normal, but who are very aware of their choices. Cinema is not just a hobby for them: as one of the intones, "film is a form of living", and their daily lives are counted by the amount of movies they can watch. We see them frenetically planning for festivals, annoying projectionists, expounding on their memorabilia collections, and more. Though focusing on five cinephiles, through its exploration into their lives the doc also extends its subject to our own collective passion for film, discovering the cinema venues in New York and providing an interesting look into the business and the art that goes into film-projection. For those who have little interest in cinema, there's little reason to watch Cinemania, but for adepts of cinema this is a fascinating, often joyous and sad look at our love - and on-going obsession - for the Silver Screen.
Documentary: 7/10

*Classic* Citizen Kane (1941)
Starring: Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten
Director: Orson Welles
Plot: After the death of an infamous newspaper tycoon, a journalist searches for the meaning of the man's life and of his final words through interviews with the people who knew him best.
Review: Writer / director / producer Orson Welles' first film, Citizen Kane, is often stated as being the best film of his illustrious career, and rightly so. The techniques brought to bear here, the use of ground-breaking cinematography, camera work, and sensitive use of lights and shadow, revolutionized Hollywood film-making. But the real power of the film is the sharp, powerful script, the original use of narrative, the amazing mis-en-scene and the fascinating, multi-faceted characters which make the film such a stunning achievement. In fact, the whole film is so rich in texture, story, themes, and details that it requires repeated viewings to fully appreciate the imaginative and artistic intricacies that went into its making. Vastly underrated at the time of its release, this fictional biography has since been lauded with praise the world over. A clear masterpiece on every level, Citizen Kane easily rates as one of the most (and arguably THE most) accomplished, fascinating films ever made.
Drama: 10/10

City Hunter (Hong Kong - 1992)
Starring: Jackie Chan
Plot: In this live-action adaptation of a Japanese anime, Jackie Chan plays the role of a private detective looking for a missing heiress on a cruise ship. The ship coincidentally gets hijacked and it's up to Chan and some fellow undercover agents to save the day.
Review: The film re-creates cartoon-style action and situations with usually good results, providing some good action set pieces and some goofy comedy, but sometimes gets marred by a little too much silliness. The high point of the film sees Chan and one of the villains get sucked into a video game and fight it out as characters of Streetfighter!
Action: 6/10
Entertainment: 5/10

City of Joy (1992)
Starring: Patrick Swayze, Om Puri, Pauline Collins
Director: Roland Joffe
Plot: A disenchanted young surgeon finds his way into Calcutta where, instead of losing himself, he tries to reach redemption by helping in a poor community hospice that is under the tyranny of a local crime boss.
Review: Based on the novel by Dominique Lapierre, City of Joy wants to be an exotic, heart-warming tale of life in India. Kudos must go to director Joffé (The Killing Fields, The Mission) for trying hard to bring the street life and some of the social issues of under-privileged city life in Indian communities to a Western audience. Unfortunately, by trying so hard to make it "comfortable", accessible and box-office-friendly, he ends up providing a formulaic, unconvincing mish-mash that quickly loses sight of both the original novel and the core of its own story. The biggest mistake by far is by trying to put the focus on the Caucasian doctor, portrayed by B-actor Swayze who exaggerates his character and swagger into a banal caricature of the American mentality and comes out as both unconvincing and silly. The Indian actors, on the other hand, are all fine, especially Om as the down-on-his-luck family man, but by insisting that they speak English amongst themselves, it breaks much of the atmosphere it so desperately tries to create. The final scenes are pure Hollywood, of course, and mar the film even more, but in its attempts to create a kind of trip-tych of Indian life, City of Joy does partly succeed. For a much better feeling of the teeming city life, and a much more convincing drama to boot, see Salaam Bombay.
Drama: 3/10

City on Fire (Hong Kong - 1987)
Starring: Chow Yun-Fat, Danny Lee
Director: Ringo Lam
Plot: An undercover cop is torn between his duty to the force, his friendships with the jewel thieves he must infiltrate, and the woman he loves.
Review: Director / screenwriter Ringo Lam (Full Contact, Maximum Risk) has produced a decent crime drama, with all the required elements for a story of this type, but one that also ends up being a tad uninspired and banal. The few action sequences are well-staged but typical, and the actual jewel heists are quite poorly realized. The two leads are always fun to watch on screen, except perhaps Chow Yun-Fat's silly performance at the beginning of the film which seems out of place with the mood of the story. In the end, City on Fire is a solid HK crime action/drama, but one that plays it a little too safe.
Entertainment: 5/10

A Civil Action (1998)
Starring: John Travolta, Robert Duvall, William H. Macy
Director: Steven Zaillian
Plot: A small-time personal injury lawyer becomes involved with his latest case involving a civil suit against two large companies who may be linked to toxic waste causing 
Review: Based on a true story, A Civil Action might at first be seen as an easy vehicle for its bankable star. Not so. Court dramas and David and Goliath stories, of "the little guy vs. the big company", have always been around, and for the most part have been popular because they reinforce our (naive) belief that justice will (eventually) prevail. One of the things that elevates the film from that pack is that events, and characters, aren't so clear cut and, though one of its characters could be deemed the "villain" of this tale, he plays a rather insignificant part in the legal battle that ensues. Even the few actual courtroom scenes aren't as energetic or melodramatic as we've come to expect, but they aren't meant to be. The real meat of the film comes from its cynicism: there is no real justice or truth in the system, there are only deals, counter-deals, and lawyers who benefit from these cases, cases that are taken for their cash value, not for their moral one. Duvall, as the veteran corporate lawyer, is a consummate actor, at the same time charming and tough, putting up a facade of the bumbling everyman that hides the wolf underneath. As for Travolta, as the more flamboyant, shoot-from-the-hip charmer, he plays his role well, never exaggerating and never cold, with the necessary amount of likability to make his gradual character development believable and always watchable. The rest of the cast is equally capable, especially Macy as the desperate firm accountant who's getting to the end of his rope. The film's technical merits should also be noted, showing off some good cinematography and some solid actor direction from Zaillian (the screenwriter of Schindler's List). The events of A Civil Action are dramatized, of course, and the social commentary doesn't pry deep enough, but as a well-produced court drama it's surprisingly effective.
Drama: 7/10

The Claim (2000)
Starring: Peter Mullan, Sarah Polley, Milla Jovovish
Director: Michael Winterbottom
Plot: A tough town boss must face his past when the wife and daughter he abandoned for a gold claim return into his life just as a young railroad engineer arrives to decide if the train (and its prospects) will bypass his settlement.
Review: Though historically situated in the American West of the mid 1800's, The Claim is more a drama of the building of a new country than a remake (or re-imagining) of the tried-and-true Western. Loosely based on "The Mayor of Casterbridge" by Thomas Hardy, it is a story of loss and attempted redemption using a recurring theme of the genre, how small communities dealt with the inevitability of change. Carefully filmed and sustained, and taking a probable cue from Robert Altman's classic Western McCabe and Mrs. Miller, director Winterbottom sets the right down-to-earth, gritty tone, depicting the harsh reality of life in a frontier town, full of interesting details that give substance to their hardships, and the fruit of work that comes from primal endurance and willpower. The film also eschews the usual desert setting for snow, making the production seem particularly exotic. The frozen landscape of the Sierra Nevada is grand and overpowering, a terrific setting for the evolving drama, expertly captured by some crisp, clean cinematography. The restrained emotions are more important than dialogue, and for this the cast is superb, with solid performances from Bentley, Nastassja Kinski and Sarah Polley. Special kudos should go to Milla Jovovish, as the tough bar owner, who proves she actually does have some acting chops. But the real surprise is Mullen as the central tragic figure, who not only carries the film's dramatic weight but also manages to provide a fully formed persona that engenders sympathy, pity and revulsion in equal parts. With so many important characters vying for story importance, only his is truly developed, but then this is really his story. As both internal forces (his guilt over abandoning his wife and daughter, fear of losing his hold on his town) and external ones (the collapse of the Gold Rush economy to that of the "modern" train) join to bring his downfall, his desperation mounts. As this happens, so does his rage and feelings of powerlessness against these forces of change, and here the film takes on the feel of an epic, almost Shakespearean tragedy (some have even compared it to King Lear). The Claim isn't a mainstream affair, and those expecting gunfights and Indians won't find anything to please them here. What there is, however, is a fine portrayal of the difficulties and personal dramas surrounding the conquest of the West.
Drama: 7/10

Clash of the Titans (1981)
Starring: Harry Hamlin, Claire Bloom, Laurence Olivier
Director: Desmond Davis
Plot: The Greek hero Perseus, half-son of Zeus, must save the city of Jarra and prove himself against such legendary creatures as Medusa and the Krakken.
Review: Clash of the Titans is a big-budget fantasy / adventure yarn in the grand Hollywood mould of old. The film's main selling point is the terrific special effects work by the legendary Ray Harryhausen, the guru of stop-motion creature animation. Of course, this is a long way from more modern computer-generated fare, but the creature effects are pretty good in a Saturday-matinee sort of way, and for the most part it works pretty well. Though the lengthy narrative sometimes feels much leisurely paced than necessary, and there's a certain amount of that '80s campiness to the proceedings, the story and adventure elements are engaging enough (and the production values nice enough) to keep the movie chugging along. Hamlin, as Perseus, is about as convincing as one of the film's plastic creatures, but then the movie's strong point isn't in its characterizations. Even the rest of the star-studded cast (including Laurence Olivier, Maggie Smith and Burgess Meredith) is only adequate for the job, and one can't help feeling that they're all kind of slumming it here. The Greek mythology is well presented, however, and some of Perseus' exploits are indeed thrilling (especially his encounter with the slithering Medusa) and in the end that's what audiences are here for. Clash of the Titans is an entertaining effort for those willing to accept the dated effects and one-dimensional characters, and it's a great showcase for Harryhausen's work.
Entertainment: 6/10

Clash of the Titans (2010)
Starring: Sam Worthington, Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes
Director: Louis Leterrier
Plot: The demi-god Perseus, the mortal son of Zeus, swears revenge for the death of his adopted family and embarks on a journey to stop Hades, god of the underworld, from unleashing a monstrous creature upon the Earth.
Review: The 1981 campy cult classic Clash of the Titans just begged to be re-imagined with a more modern blockbuster sensibility; taking lessons from the 300 playbook, enter the less colorful but more gritty, fx-laden remake. Though the story pretty much follows the same path as the original, director Leterrier (whose The Transporter 2 and The Incredible Hulk proved he knows how to produce entertaining spectacle) ups the thrill factor considerably. The real fun, of course, isn't the vague understanding of ancient Greek mythology, or the shallow plot but the epic Homer-inspired adventures and there's enough here to keep action buffs occupied, what with sword fights between super-powered beings, battles with giant scorpions, an encounter with Medusa and the climax as the gigantic, multi-tentacle Kraken threatens to overrun the city. In between, there's chest-thumping, bad dialogue and bland characters, but the pacing and editing is quick enough to make these elements only stepping stones to the real creature fun. If there's one caveat to the cool visuals and thrills, it's that the heavily-CGI'd backdrops and creatures are as well rendered as any recent big-budget extravaganza but lack much of the character that even Ray Harryhausen's original stop-motion creations had. Like the original, the producers have also amassed a superb cast to play the gods of old with over-the-top dramatic ardor most notably Neeson as Zeus and a scene-chewing Fiennes as Hades. Too bad the rest of them don't have anything more than a single line of dialogue between them. As for playing Perseus, Worthington (fresh off Avatar) does OK as the action hero but clearly shows limited dramatic range. Though nowhere near the level of cheese that made its precursor so popular, Clash of the Titans is a fast, fun popcorn film made in the Hollywood blockbuster mold; there's nothing original to be had here and it will be quickly forgotten, but for what it's worth it's pretty entertaining.
Note: Though purported to be in 3D, the technique was slapped onto a decidedly 2D feature as an afterthought - it isn't worth the extra effort.
Entertainment: 7/10

Clear and Present Danger (1994)
Starring: Harrison Ford, Willem Dafoe, James Earl Jones
Director: Phillip Noyce
Plot: After the assassination of a close friend of the president by a Colombian drug lord, a government analyst promoted to CIA head must uncover an illegal, far-ranging plot to send covert U.S. commandos into Latin America.
Review: An excellent thriller, and a damn fine action flick to boot, Clear and Present Danger is easily the best adaptation yet of a Clancy novel. Like previous efforts (The Hunt for Red October, The Sum of All Fears) the script takes liberties with its source material, but it dilutes it to make for a film that stands out on its own. It's a story about the corruption of American decision-makers and the back-stabbing going on in the corridors of power, with a mix of international drug cartels, presidential politics and double-dealings to go with it. There's a surprising amount of "grey" involved here, and even the bad guys make good points, adding a certain realism to the proceedings. It also catches and maintains the right tone, mixing the under-handed political maneuvering with some fine "gee whiz" type of high-tech gadgetry. Director Noyce (Patriot Games, The Bone Collector) did a bang-up job of fleshing out the narrative, creating a good deal of suspense, and (though there aren't many of them) delivering some very well executed, and quite exciting, action sequences to boot. Ford is quite believable as the "boy scout" Ryan character, though he never gets to be more than just another white-bread Hollywood hero. The rest of the cast is quite solid in their respective roles, with lots of familiar faces, though only Jones and Dafoe make any real impact. And that's the only problem here: the convoluted, intricate plot takes precedence over its characters, though to be fair, in this case it's not a bad thing. The climax, as Ford turns from pencil-pusher to action hero, is thankfully not too exaggerated (he never evens holds a gun) though the holier-than-thou final act, when a furious Ford takes it out on the President, is a little stale. Still, by then Clear and Present Danger has made its mark as a thoroughly enjoyable, well-made mainstream thriller.
Entertainment: 8/10

Click (2006)
Starring: Adam Sandler, Kate Beckinsale, Christopher Walken
Director: Frank Coraci
Plot: A workaholic architect comes into possession of a remote control that allows him to fast-forward through some of the rougher patches of his life but soon discovers he's also missing some of its best moments when the remote takes over.
Review: A shameless, comic version of the Christmas classic It's a Wonderful Life, Click is high-concept comedy done right. It's all a shallow, predictable and overly-sentimental concoction, a low-brow moral fable of family vs work with our hero being the embodiment of middle-class angst and work-related stress. And yet... there's a faint sign of something more, the big surprise being that the script allows the exploration of some of the premise's darker paths. As for the humor, amidst the expected fart jokes, oversexed dog gags, and prissy attitude of our hapless Everyman, there's some genuine laughs as we zip back and forth through his life, the remote even providing some nice DVD-like features (instant pause and mute, God-like commentary, and even language changes). In his third collaboration with his star, director Coraci (The Wedding Singer, Waterboy) balances the right mix of sentiment and laughs for mainstream consumption, creating something that's easy to sit through and that effectively uses the "charm" of his leading man. For sure, this is another in a series of comedy vehicles for Sandler and this is his movie through and through, his persona left intact as it's been in all his movies - and his fans won't be disappointed. The supporting cast is solid, too, including the criminally underused Beckinsale as the "perfect" housewife, a surprisingly playful Walken as the mysterious benefactor / angel, and a smarmy David Hasselhoff who makes great fun of him own image as the sexist, clueless Boss. Click won't make you forget its precursor but as a Sandler-fest it's one of his better achievements.
Entertainment: 6/10

Cliffhanger (1993)
Starring: Sylvester Stallone, John Lithgow, Michael Rooker
Director: Renny Harlin
Plot: Two mountaineers are forced to aid a gang of ruthless criminals find three briefcases full of millions that were lost during a failed mid-air hijacking over the Colorado Rockies.
Review: After a long series of duds, Stallone came back to the genre he's most famous for with Cliffhanger, a traditional, high-concept blockbuster that delivers exactly what audiences expect. Director Harlin, who showed that he had a good hand for this kind of film with Die Hard 2, proves that his success wasn't a fluke here by offering up a fast-paced, well-shot affair with a good amount of tension built in. Though the dramatic elements are mere filler and mostly unconvincing (the half loyalty, half hostility between the two mountaineers, the tepid love-interest) these moments add just the right amount of salt to the story, setting up the real meat of the affair: the action. These sequences are big, bold, and exciting, making good use of the mountain settings with vertiginous stunts overlooking the precipice and some spectacular set-pieces including the mid-air hijacking segment, multiple avalanches, some death-defying sheer-face climbs and jumps, and a finale atop a precariously held helicopter. Add to this a required amount of gunplay and explosions, and old-fashioned pummeling, and you've got a fun, well-made product. It's too bad Lithgow, as the psychotic ring-leader, is so bland and paint-by-numbers, his personality made up only of sneers, leers and a half-dozen quips such as "You want to kill me? Take a number and get in line." His henchmen are just as one-dimensional. Stallone, however, has never been better and has rarely been used better - though it's no stretch for his on-screen persona, this is easily his most satisfying film in a long time. In many ways Cliffhanger may be another derivative big-budget thriller, but as effective summer-type fun it has all the right stuff.
Entertainment: 7/10

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
Starring: Richard Dreyfuss, Francois Truffaut, Melinda Dillon
Director: Steven Spielberg
Review: Popular director Spielberg (Jaws, Saving Private Ryan) was at the height of his popularity when he decided to write and direct Close Encounters of the Third Kind, a big-budget tale of first contact. Spielberg has always been a consummate storyteller, and this film is no exception, managing to create a tale blending science-fiction, conspiracy, drama and suspense (and even a touch of Poltergeist-like horror) way before The X-Files was ever imagined. The special UFO and creature effects are still terrific, even awesome at the end, and really add a great deal to the overall enchantment, and who can forget the John Williams score and those memorable five musical notes? The hidden arrival and first inklings of alien encounters (the strange lights, kidnappings, etc) are absolutely thrilling, but soon the focus of the story diverts to our hero plodding his way to the appointed rendez-vous point. Ultimately, Spielberg meant the film as an optimistic and feel-good movie, going against the grain of the typically "evil aliens" rife in cinema. Dreyfuss is completely believable as an average guy faced with the extraordinary, but by trying to focus on the changes in his everyday life, the story dilutes some of the more interesting elements of the story. Director Truffaut makes a much more endearing and charming protagonist as the chief coordinator of the secret project. The sense of wonder however is always evident, and there are some powerful scenes as the secret international agency travels the globe in search of fantastic clues and events (the re-appearance of lost WW2 planes in the desert, or the crowds in India pointing to the skies) leading up to the final, climactic (if overlong) encounter atop a rocky plateau. All told, most of the film still holds well, and remains an important milestone in sci-fi films, but compared to more modern productions it is unfortunately no longer as impressive or as potent as it was on its release.
Entertainment: 7/10

Closer (2004)
Starring: Natalie Portman, Jude Law, Julia Roberts, Clive Owen
Director: Mike Nichols
Plot: The paths of two London couples clash through the years following a year-long affair that leaves them all grappling with desire and betrayal.
Review: Adapted from Patrick Marber's play of the same name, Closer is the very anti-thesis of a date movie, a dizzying blend of the worst moments of all human relationships served up with pretty faces. This is not a loving portrait of couples and their relationships, but a brutal look of the basest of sexual desires that drive us and the betrayals that so easily destroys any real happiness. As bequests a theatrical adaptation, the dialog is brutally honest and downright raunchy, and the straight-forward direction by director Nichols (The Graduate, Primary Colors) ensures the focus is on his actors. Indeed, such a close-knit tale of emotional suffering requires convincing performances and all four leads - there isn't a single supporting actor to be seen - do a fine job of getting into their characters and playing the scenes out, none more passionately and downright convincingly as Owen; he who owns the role, if not the movie. For that, look to Portman who, in a single stroke, proves just how much she isn't a child actor anymore - and not just because she plays the platinum-blonde stripper to the hilt. One must admit that there's a definite voyeuristic fascination at seeing these mostly unsympathetic, callous people playing such cruel mind games with their "loved ones", but the downside of it being a screen adaptation is that the movie feels stiff and rehearsed. All told, Closer is a gloriously cynical view of relationships, where love is a game best served cold. Too bad it might well leave most audiences feeling the same.
Drama: 6/10

The Closet (France - 2001)
Starring: Daniel Auteuil, Gerard Depardieu, Michel Aumont
Director: Francis Veber
Plot: A timid, boring accountant becomes the unwanted focus of his firm's attention when he circulates a rumor that he is gay to avoid being laid off.
Review: An amusing, and sometimes hilarious farce from the makers of The Dinner Game, The Closet is a screwball farce in the classic mold. The story takes a rather ordinary premise and skillfully adds complication after complication to the proceedings, handling a touchy subject with enough charm and smarts to avoid being offensive. In director Veber's capable hands (the man best known for the original 1978 version of The Birdcage), the pacing never drags, nor does it appear rushed thanks to his own lean, humorous script. The film is a send-up of latent homophobia, of the hypocrisy of political correctness, and the lengths some people will go to avoid appearing prejudiced to their peers. It also pokes fun at the way most people view homosexuals but without descending into the campy excesses of other comedies. In fact, even though he acts exactly as he has always done (without the usual flamboyant exaggerations depicted by Hollywood), Auteuil's character is still perceived as gay, partly because he seems so normal! The comedy stems from the misconceptions and false "signs" that the people around him think they see. In the end, his pretense actually allows him to become a man by showing him what's important in life and realizing his true mettle. The French cast is in great form, especially Auteuil as the nerdish protagonist, and Depardieu (who seems much more comfortable in comedy than he has in other roles), as a boorish, macho homophobe who is forced to play nice and eventually gets his comeuppance. With some well-written characters, a dash of melodrama and many funny situations, The Closet is a great example of classic French comedy.
Comedy: 7/10

Cloverfield (2008)
Starring: T.J. Miller, Michael Stahl-David
Director: Matt Reeves
Plot: As a monstrous creature creates havoc on Manhattan, four yuppie friends escape an apartment party and try to find their way to save an ex-girlfriend.
Review: It's The Blair Witch Project meets Godzilla in Cloverfield, a solid attempt that brings a ground-eye view of the mayhem and terror to the generic giant-monster movie features - America has finally gotten the Hollywood Godzilla it deserves, courtesy of Lost creator / producer J.J. Abrams. Having a YouTube-like, first-person account of the events (via one poor bystander's camcorder account) is a clever concept, and at 75 minutes, the film manages to sustain itself without too much trouble. Aside from the first act of exposition that includes a rather vapid romantic tale and footage of partying 20-somethings to set the stage and characters, the pacing surprisingly fast-paced with well-coordinated long takes, with the intrepid friends facing one terror after another, and inevitable death one-by-one, among the urban chaos. Sure the actual human story of these one-dimensional characters is banal but casting unknown actors helps create the illusion of realism required. Best of all, the scares and post-9/11 subtext are cleverly set-up, and the usual genre clichés are given a neat twist. The street-level destruction is brutal and terrifying, and the effects blended to the digital video (including a great shot of the head of the Statue of Liberty crashing into the street) are excellent. The creature itself is a complete mystery, its goals are unclear, and it's appropriately rarely on display, making it all the more frightening and unpredictable. The addition of an Alien type menace, as our heroes brave the deserted subway tunnels, adds some scares and immediacy to the horror but it also seems to be an unnecessary, and un-original, subplot. That aside, with an original take to the material, a clever script, strong production values and some capable execution - especially considering the film's B-movie budget - Cloverfield makes for a swiftly-paced entertaining affair that has a great "you are there" feeling.
Entertainment: 7/10

Coach Carter (2005)
Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Rick Gonzalez
Director: Thomas Carter
Plot: A tough high-school basketball coach turns his team's losing streak into a winning one but makes national headlines when he benches his undefeated team for poor academic performance.
Review: Inspired by true events, Coach Carter is an inspirational sports drama that has the best of intentions but can't help but feel familiar and shallow. Though the final outcome isn't the great win audiences might expect, the story itself is one we've seen countless times before and with no genre cliché left unused it ends up being predictable as well. Add to this the fact that the stock characters - troubled, disenfranchised young Black and Hispanic teens - aren't very well defined and that the basketball sequences are only decent at best, and you've got a TV-movie worthy film made on a movie budget. Still, the film is visually slick and director Carter keeps things moving along through the training sequences, knowing to focus on the more important narrative surrounding the battle to get the players to college. If there's one note-worthy aspect it's that the film has an important pro-education message, defining the token social dilemmas the players face off the court and their limited choices to get out of the Ghetto to a better life. The main attraction, however, is the presence of leading-man Jackson who plays real-life high-school basketball coach Ken Carter as a tough one-note trainer and teacher; it might not be a note-worthy performance, but it's one the actor has down pat. In large part thanks to him, Coach Carter ends up being an enjoyable enough sports melodrama.
Drama: 6/10

Code 46 (2004)
Starring: Tim Robbins, Samantha Morton
Director: Michael Winterbottom
Plot: In a bleak future where society is divided into highly-controlled casts, a married corporate investigator falls for a young permit forger while on assignment in Shanghai causing a severe code violation when she becomes pregnant.
Review: Set in a cold and lonely Shanghai, in a fascist-like world split by haves and have-nots, Code 46 takes on such diverse subjects as genetics, sex, class, and more while staying intimately focused on its two protagonists. In the minimalist vein of Gattaca, auteur-director Winterbottom (The Claim, 24 Hour Party People) has created a believable future with the most basic sets and effects, all beautifully framed and shot. Indeed, the art direction is almost Zen-like, giving the sense of isolation and displacement. The effective script blends ideas from The Handmaid's Tale with shades of Orwell's 1984 dystopia, with some clever ideas to create the sense of a different world - a detective who works on intuition thanks to an empathy virus, the use of various dialects in everyday speech, among others. Morton as the free-spirited waif brings something hard to define to the screen that makes her simply irresistible, and it's easy to see how Robbins' demure character could fall for her. The same can't be said for the other way around, but then if their attraction isn't very well defined, it's their struggle, their rebellious love in the face of adversity that is the real reason for the film. As such, the film takes its SF setting to explore some present issues of love and simple human longing in the face of increasing oppression. A moody piece of filmmaking that has more atmosphere than content, Code 46 avoids conventional melodrama making this low-key SF drama a very human tale that's a nice change of pace.
Drama: 6/10

The Cold Light of Day (2012)
Starring: Henry Cavill, Sigourney Weaver, Bruce Willis
Director: Mabrouk El Mechri
Plot: After mysterious foreign agents kidnap his family during a sailing trip in Spain, a young trader discovers his father works for the CIA and that his colleagues don't want a briefcase full of sensitive documents to get out of their hands.
Review: Meant as an action vehicle for its fresh-faced leading man, The Cold Light of Day is another derivative suspense-thriller that pleasantly surprises, especially when coming in with low expectations. The plot is usual fodder: conspiracy, double crosses, dirty agents and an everyman hero on the run. At least the filmmakers know this isn't stuff to be taken too seriously, limiting the exposition and quickly diving into the action. And the Bourne-styled action is pretty good; there's speed to the expected car chases, the daring rooftop escape is believable, and the limited gunplay works in the confines of the film. Having impressed international audiences with the clever suspense drama JCVD starring a very human Van Damme, helmer El Mechri gets his chance at the big time. Though this is probably not the best film he could have chosen, it's efficiently-directed and consistently engaging. Using an "exotic" European location - in this case Spain and especially Madrid - instead of the typical US setting is always welcome, too, and the warm cinematography helps. Sure, the involvement of very unprofessional Mossad agents is a hiccup and the logic sometimes go by the way side, but it's all above-average fun. Points, too, for not forcing a romantic tryst among its characters. Killed off early on, head-liner Willis doesn't get much of a chance to show off his Die Hard side, though Weaver, in a rare bad-guy role, is a real delight. But this is really a Cavill film; the up-and-comer gets to strut his stuff, proving quite capable to carry the movie; he may not have the charm or chutzpah of Jason Statham but he's got enough screen presence (and pecs) to carry it through. It might not be much more than a formulaic affair, but with the added grittiness, Spanish flavor and efficient story-telling, The Cold Light of Day is welcome late-night viewing.
Entertainment: 6/10

Cold Mountain (2003)
Starring: Jude Law, Nicole Kidman, Renée Zellweger 
Director: Anthony Minghella
Plot: In the last days of the American Civil War, a wounded Southern soldier embarks on a perilious journey back home to Carolina where he hopes to be reunited with an aristocratic young woman.
Review: Based on the best-selling novel by Charles Frazier, Cold Mountain returns to the classic Hollywood formula, an epic-scale Civil War movie playing background to a star-spangled love story. The main story will, of course, immediately bring memories of Gone With the Wind but from a spectacular and brutal opening battle scene, the film turns into both a romance and a road movie, the former of which just doesn't quite come off. From the get-go, the movie feels too self-conscious, as if it's every scene is meant to push it towards the Oscars - and indeed, this type of grand cinema has always been favored by Academia. Similarly to his two previous triumphs, both his masterful The English Patient and the smaller-scale The Talented Mr. Ripley, director Minghella infuses an ever-present visual quality to the tale thanks to some gorgeous photography. The vistas, of snowy mountains, of Carolina plains, are just plain superb. Much like Patient, the story is one of love shattered by War and even the narrative (much of it told in flashbacks) seems déjà vu. However here the film's main plot - that of reuniting its two lost lovers - is pretty thin (and flat) and will leave audiences cold. The goal of the film may be more a commentary on the devastation of a country, and the degradation of society in times of war than a Hollywood romance. Indeed, it's the journey that makes up most of the film and really makes an impression, as our hero crosses paths with the sufferings of the war-ravaged South. This long walk home is cut up into a series of vignettes, populated by sometimes eccentric sometimes desperate and vicious people all of which, though amply melodramatic and tragic, hit home the insanity and desperation of both sides. The main problem perhaps is the fact that film is populated by iconic characters: the main ones are the brave but tired soldier, the classy dame at a loss fending for herself, the willful laborer, all portrayed by A-list actors. Unfortunately, no matter how serious or emotional they try to be, it always feels like we're watching Actors-Playing-in-a-Movie. Much better is the supporting cast, counting a slimy Philip Seymour Hoffman and a fragile Nathalie Portman among the stand-outs respectively as a preacher obsessed with female flesh and a young single mother in need of company. Despite its flaws, Cold Mountain remains a beautiful work that will leave an impression on those that can suspend a certain sense of disbelief and get into the game imparted by its pretty cast.
Drama: 7/10

Collateral (2004)
Starring: Tom Cruise, Jamie Foxx, Jada Pinkett Smith
Director: Michael Mann
Plot: When an LA taxi driver discovers that his latest fare is actually an expert hit man, he becomes an unwilling accomplice in his latest contract: the execution of five different targets on a single night.
Review: A rather small-scale film compared to most summer releases, Collateral has nothing to envy its brethren - it's a solid, well-crafted thriller that packs a punch. A terrific character study of two highly professional men, the film is at its best when it maintains its focus on its two leads, at odds with each other. Though a bit slow in its first act, the smart script delivers some smart thrills and terrific dialogue mixed with an ever-growing tension as the night, and their nerves, start to unfurl. The filmmakers make the intimate setting of the cab just as tense as any of the quick-paced action sequences. And these latter are impeccably executed - swift, violent, and with precision - none more so than a hit gone awry in a packed nightclub. Director Mann (Heat, The Insider) knows how to mix atmosphere, slick visual style, and deft action set pieces with intimate characterization, and he does another masterful job here. The cinematography is once again expertly controlled, showing off the gloomy side of LA in bluish and grayish tones. However it's the escalating confrontation between the two men that is the heart of the film, and it's formidable to watch: both Cruise, as the amoral but honorable (and even charming) hit-man, and Foxx as the down-and-out but ethically conscious cabbie, are both just plain terrific and completely convincing in their respective roles. Some fine supporting roles from attorney Smith, cop Ruffalo and Javier Bardem as a slick drug lord, only add to the mix. The only stumble in an otherwise remarkable effort is the revelation of the final contract, a groaner of a coincidence made to push its characters into a climactic showdown, one that only feels forced. That aside, with it's mix of adrenaline rush and character study, Collateral is a rare thing indeed: an intelligent, mature thriller that's sure to please audiences of all types.
Entertainment / Drama: 8/10

Collateral Damage (2002)
Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Francesca Neri, Elias Koteas
Director: Andrew Davis
Plot: After seeing his wife and daughter killed in a terrorist explosion, a firefighter vows revenge on the Colombian terrorist who planted the bomb and travels to South America to stop him.
Review: Collateral Damage was hyped as being a "new kind" of action vehicle for Schwarzenegger, but in fact it's pretty much typical for its star lead. Oh, wait, here he's a fireman who comes off as a muscle-bound McGyver - that's different! Starting from the explosive beginning of a failed assassination attempt, the film takes us on a journey into the Hollywood version of Latin America. Occasionally, the story would seem to aim for more substance, but quickly the ethical dilemmas are thrown by the way-side to explode into one action scene or another. Trying to put a human face on the enemy is just not right for this kind of escapism, and after 9/11 American audiences aren't interested in knowing the enemy's motivations, only that they can be stopped. As such, the film eventually reverts back to the good guys / bad guys routine to predictable effect. Worse, the action sequences are rather few and far between, the story concentrating more on its hero's travels and dealings with some dangerous local characters than on stunts. The most disappointing thing of the film, however, is the short and thankless supporting roles by John Leguizamo as a sympathetic drug dealer who dreams of recording an album and John Turturro as a Canadian mechanic (!), both giving the film a touch of class only to be short-changed by events. But whatever the criticisms, this is first and foremost an Arnie flick and though the action star is getting a little long in the tooth, he still has what it takes to please his fans. Not that it's badly made, mind you; the film moves along rather well, the action scenes (apart from the lame opening fire sequence) are exciting enough to satisfy aficionados, it's ably handled directorial-wise, and it feels different enough from the usual fodder. Still, one would have hoped for something meatier from Collateral Damage than just another cookie-cutter exercise.
Entertainment: 5/10

The Color of Paradise (Iran - 1999)
Starring: Mohsen Ramezani, Hossein Mahjoub, Salime Feizi
Director: Majid Majidi
Plot: Despite the protests of his aging mother, a poor widowed farmer tries to offload his blind son which he sees as a burden and an impediment to his impending marriage.
Review: The themes of family and duty so popular to Iranian directors is alive and well in The Color of Paradise, a beautifully shot film with, at its heart, a full-formed portrait of a father-son relationship that is much more intricate that the usual mainstream fare. Though blind, the young boy appreciates the beauty of the world that surrounds him, and his sensitivity to the suffering around him (there's a fabulous scene where he senses his way to a young chick that has fallen from its nest) is easily contrasted with the gruff, almost heartless efforts of his widowed father to get rid of him. There's heart-wrenching melodrama here, and yet none of it ever feels manipulative. And though the straight-forward story doesn't present any unexpected twists, its contemplative, deliberate pacing shows off a touching, delicate fable. The final scene of deus ex machina may feel contrived to some viewers, but that is somehow appropriate to the fairy-tale aspects of the film. Startling in its depiction of such lush, green valleys, it gives a very different look at the Iranian countryside. This setting may make the narrative feel more exotic, but this is a truly universal moral tale that is as amazing in its depictions of rural Iranian life as it is in its visual splendor. The characters, from the doting, strong grandmother to the understanding teacher, are all finely drawn and believable. In this case it helps that all the actors are complete amateurs, especially the young blind boy, all delivering real, raw emotions. In particular, the scene that follows the children at play conveys a sense of timeless joy, and the scenes of the desperate father, facing what fate has left him, are powerful and vivid. The Color of Paradise is a perfectly low-key effort, and one not to be missed.
Drama: 8/10

Colour of the Loyalty (Hong Kong - 2005)
Starring: Eric Tsang, Shawn Yu, Suki Kwan
Director: Wong Jing
Plot: After rumors circulate that he is targeted for assassination by one of his colleagues, an aging Hong Kong triad boss who controls the gang's money assembles a young foursome to protect him behind the scenes.
Review: Following his success on Colour of the Truth, prolific Hong Kong filmmaker Jing (who also wrote the screenplay and produced the film) takes another rare stab at serious fare with the crime drama Colour of the Loyalty. Played straight, the narrative slowly starts to reveal a large double-cross, the plot becoming downright Machiavellian in its final twist. The whole bit of loyalty and honor among thieves is also played to extremes, with an attempt to subvert the genre clichés. The by-the-book script even tries to achieve a sense of respectability with its intended final revelation, limiting its attention on the action bits and keeping it big on melodrama. The problem is that there isn't really enough emotional involvement with the characters, and the whole affair lacks that added zest to make it gripping. Yu - as the intense young hero of the piece - does little but seethe and look intense. Thankfully, usual funnyman Tsang plays the heavy with aplomb, and veteran Lam Suet adds his bit as the conflicted detective. In the end, Colour of the Loyalty is well enough made and easy enough to watch but ends up being a rather bland exercise.
Drama / Entertainment: 5/10

*Classic* Come Drink With Me (Hong Kong - 1967)
Starring: Cheng Pei-pei, Yueh Hua
Director: King Hu
Plot: After bandits kidnap an imperial official and demand their imprisoned leader's freedom, the governor sends his daughter - a master sword-fighter - to negotiate his release. 
Review: Come Drink With Me is perhaps best known as the classic precursor to modern HK fantasy martial-arts fare. Indeed, the film was a revelation when it first appeared over 40 years ago, breaking the traditional bounds of the operatic and stylized sword fighting found in previous genre films. Even then, plots were formulaic and rather predictable but the real attraction has never been in the actual story; more important has always been spectacle and action, here interspersed with moments of quiet but no less suspenseful stillness. Indeed, the fight scenes are all poised tension, followed by a quick flurry of blades. One of the most memorable scenes is when bandits, surrounding our heroin in a tavern, test her skills but conceal their intent until the final open battle - an homage to this scene actually appears in the popular Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Though stilted and sometimes somewhat theatrical, one can't help but appreciate the then-revolutionary work here. This is a colorful production and legendary director King Hu knew how to make the most of the space available on a widescreen palette, and ensures that the period sets and costumes are put to best display. Even more impressive are the cinematic qualities of the film: bringing some clever editing, intricate choreography and some primitive wire-work, the film brought such a fast-paced, dynamic, and gravity-defying form that had up to then never been seen on the screen. From this first experiment, director King Hu continued to revolutionize the genre with Dragon Inn and Touch of Zen (his masterpiece), but all those polished elements have their beginnings right here. Though slower and less edited than what modern audiences are used to, Come Drink With Me is not only a classic for its fascinating look at the beginnings of a genre, it's also a fine film in its own right.
Entertainment: 8/10

Commando (1985)
Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Rae Dawn Chong, Dan Hedaya
Director: Mark L. Lester
Plot: When his young daughter gets kidnapped by a vicious overthrown Latin dictator, an ex-army commando must use all his wits and training to rescue her and exact revenge.
Review: One of the more successful Rambo clones of that decade, Commando is classic early Schwarzenegger fare. The movie doesn't take itself seriously and knows to limit the dramatics to a minimum, providing a breezy action / adventure flick that sometimes swerves into camp but also kicks butt - some of it is absolutely laughable, but for Arnie fans this is par for the course. Some great stunts, a few energetic hand-to-hand combat sequences, a car chase, gun battles, and more (the lot done with some tongue-in-cheek humor) propel the movie along with what seems the greatest of ease. The final act, as Arnie in full Rambo mode invades single-handedly a South American island, mowing down soldiers, blowing up jeeps, and generally sending bodies flying, is completely unbelievable but makes for some great fun. Thanks to the script by Steven deSouza (who went on to do Die Hard), the movie works amazingly well and moves along with a quick and assured pace that is usually missing from typical 80's action flicks. Sure, the plot is ludicrous and simplistic, but the point is to have fun with the genre and bring its audience some mindless, efficiently produced bullet-ridden mayhem and muscle-bound machismo, something the film delivers in spades. The film is probably most famous for kicking its leading man into stardom, introducing the building blocks of his future movie-hero persona, including his (in)famous cheesy one-liners, dead-pan humor, and invincible personality. As for Rae Dawn Chong as the frazzled female side-kick, she does the best comic performance of her career. There's nothing terribly original to be found here but Commando delivers what it promises, and that's to be an entertaining action vehicle for its star.
Entertainment: 6/10

Company (India - 2002)
Starring: Ajay Devgan, Vivek Oberoi, Mohanlal
Director: Ram Gopal Verma
Plot: An ambitious gangster takes a ruthless thug under his wing and usurps the crime syndicate from his rivals, but their quick rise to power ends in bitter rivalry and a bloody gang-war that threatens to bring the entire organization crumbling.
Review: Supposedly loosely based on actual local events and individuals, the epic-length Company is a grim but solid entry in the gangster genre that's worth a look thanks to its Indian perspective. It's a trip from the crime-infested streets and gang fights of the city of Mumbai to the penthouses of Hong Kong and back to the lost places in Africa. Alternating between the details of the rise of its protagonists to the top echelons of the Company, to the cat-and-mouse game with the syndicate's nemesis, a determined and incorruptible police chief (played wisely by Mohanlal), the story remains familiar, as are the characters and events. On the way we meet crooked cops and politicians, divided loyalties, a view at the politics and double-crosses that make up the inner workings of the business, and its fare share of melodrama. Yet even at close to three hours the film never runs out of steam, thanks to an efficient script and some mastered direction from veteran Verma. His camera work and dynamic, realistic action scenes always keeps things moving along. Of note as well are the impeccable cinematography and productions values which are on par with any gangster film from its Hollywood brethren. To its advantage, the film stays focused on the dramatic elements, and even the usual Bollywood breaks for musical numbers is kept to within the confines of the film - the opening / closing credits, a dizzy music-video-like number in a packed club - and there's no comic-relief slapstick in sight to break the mood. The performances are good from the ensemble cast, and most especially from leading men Devgan and rising-star Oberoi, two deadly serious men when it comes to the business and whose loyalty to one another causes jealousy with the other members. Though Company is made like a slick, entertaining product, at its core it's a tragic moral tale, one that's definitely worth the trip.
Drama: 7/10

Con Air (1997)
Starring: Nicolas Cage, John Cusack, John Malkovich, Ving Rhames
Director: Simon West
Plot: A former Ranger newly released from prison gets in the way of cunning, vicious convicts making a break for freedom while being flown from one detention facility to another.
Review: Another high concept affair from uber-producer Bruckheimer (whose name is associated to the likes of Armageddon, Pearl Harbor and more), Con Air is a big, loud blockbuster the way a bunch of Hollywood suits thought would be great. The biggest surprise is that what could have been another low-brow action vehicle actually works much better than your average testosterone-fueled thriller. From its doses of humor, thrills, stunts and explosions right down to the big budget, over-the-top climax as a plane crash-lands into a Las Vegas casino, the film is completely attuned to what makes for an effective summer hit. Sure, the plot and directing are straight out of the 80's style of story-telling, but with the added bravado of 90's movie-making. With some slick production values and enough self-conscious wit and hard-hitting action sequences to make it a mainstream staple, director West (Tomb Raider) plays on all cylinders and the pace moves along like a bullet train. Cage is excellent and showed that The Rock was not a fluke, increasing his action hero credo. But the real blast are all the villains, of course, most especially Malkovich as a really diabolical master criminal; he's ably supported by the likes of Ving Rhames, Dave Chappelle and indie maven Steve Buscemi as a mousy serial killer. This is a film that knows its target audience and gives no excuses; there's no subtlety or logic, but it's great dumb fun and if that sounds good, then Con Air is sure to be right up your alley.
Entertainment: 7/10

Conan the Barbarian (1982)
Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, James Earl Jones, Sandahl Bergman
Director: John Milius
Plot: An enslaved barbarian is set free after having been taught the ways of war and vows revenge against the evil cult leader who killed his entire village before his eyes.
Review: Adapted from Robert E. Howard's greatest pulp-novel creation, Conan the Barbarian is a surprisingly effective, muscular sword & sorcery tale. Let's be honest here, this is very much a male adolescent fantasy full of sex and violence: powerful, muscle-bound guys pummeling each other for superiority, lots of willing half-naked women, bloody sword battles, and just the right proportion of evil, strength-sapping magic. Co-writer / director Milius (Red Dawn) gives it all a mythical, even epic sense of adventure and has the macho inclination to do the original material justice, keeping the narrative straight without losing sight of a certain sense of humor. Surprisingly, though its success prompted many hack-n-slash imitations in the 80's, this effort seems to try hard to elevate itself beyond the exploitation realm (despite its many layovers) by exploring the mythology of its imposing character. The superb art direction recreates well the fantasy setting of this "Hyborean Age" and adds a great deal to the surprisingly high production standards. More than anything, however, the film will be remembered as the stepping stone for its muscle-bound lead, the vehicle that propelled Schwarzenegger into stardom; with his huge frame, steel gaze, and limited facial expressions, he's a perfect match for the title character. Adding a bit of star power, Jones seethes evil incarnate, while B-movie maiden Bergman plays the warrior-thief. Even after almost 25 years, Conan the Barbarian doesn't feel as dated as many of its successors and remains a guilty pleasure that still entertains.
Entertainment: 7/10

The Confessional (Le Confessionnal) (Quebec - 1995)
Starring: Lothaire Bluteau, Patrick Goyette, Jean-Louis Millette
Director: Robert Lepage
Plot: A young man returns to his family appartment in Quebec City to bury his father, only to be embroiled in his adopted brother's desperate search for his biological kin.
Review: Through the intense symbolism, half-truths and human commentary, stage star Robert LePage has created with The Confessional a first cinematic work that showed a lot of promise realized. Snippets of actual footage and hints at the plot of Alfred Hitchcock's suspense I Confess, being filmed in Quebec City as the family drama unfolds, drives parallels between the fictional frocked hero and the church's young priest, both condemned by their vow of silence after a confession. But the use of that film as reference runs deeper, the title alone screaming the one thing that would free its characters', but that they cannot dare do. Amidst its main theme of search for identity, there's a family mystery here revolving around lies told and secrets kept, a drama that basks in in destroyed lives like "a Greek tragedy", as the character of Hitchcock intones in the final act. With two seperate plots, one in 1952 and the other in present day, the story evolves with its denizens anchored in the provincial capital, re-creating both the social confines of 1950's French Canada which was under the thumb of the Church, and the dark underbelly of the modern city. Instead of simple flashbacks, there's an actual interweaving of the two stories, the two eras, each with a very different style. Not only is this mingling done narratively but visually as well, as scenes and uninterrupted camera shots jump the gap of time. These are the moments when LePage's new-wave theatrical experience shines, providing a surprising variety of imagery and directing savvy with some interesting mise-en-scène. Hard to believe this is the director's first stab at cinema, one that would progress with films like and Possible Worlds. The solid local leads are helped by some interesting supporting actors, including Kristin Scott Thomas as Hitchcock's assistant and newcomer Anne-Marie Cadieux as a topless dancer on the road to self-destruction. If the film itself may feel a bit too distant, there's no denying the power of the final product and the impressive visuals, and for that alone The Confessional is a worthy effort.
Drama: 7/10

Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002)
Starring: Sam Rockwell, Drew Barrymore, George Clooney
Director: George Clooney
Plot: At the height of his TV reign in the 70's, a game-show host gets trained as a CIA assassin and uses his popularity as a cover.
Review: Based on real-life TV host Chuck Barris' own "memoirs", Confessions of a Dangerous Mind is a surprisingly effective dark comedy and personal drama. Part of the film is straight biopic, exploring Barris' TV career, who's The Dating Game and The Gong Show helped give him the dubious moniker of "Ayatollah of Trash", and his inevitable psychological crash. Where it gets into surreal (and comic) territory is when the film - and the book - assert that he was actually a CIA assassin on the side. Following the sometimes silly, sometimes harrowing missions - all presented in almost slapstick manner - neither really admits to the truth one way or another. Are these events real or simple delusions? Are they a metaphor for his failed life? As adapted by demented screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation) it doesn't matter. What's important is that it's an involving trip into one man's wasted life and self-loathing, one full of morbid humor, deep sentiments, and one that gives a poignant glimpse at this desperate man and, in its modest way, at human nature. In his first directorial effort, popular actor Clooney surprises with a very professional-looking effort, one that shows capable execution in every scene. He occasionally goes a bit over-board and fills the film with a tad too many stylistic touches, but as the story is told from the protagonist's skewed perspective these cinematic flourishes actually work within this framework. Leading man Rockwell is simply terrific as Barris, getting both the mannerisms and the impetus of the man down just right, all the while finding his weaknesses and making him a very sympathetic character. There's also some fine performances by Barrymore as his long-suffering girlfriend and Clooney himself as his CIA contact, as well as guest appearances by Julia Roberts as the femme fatale and Rutger Hauer as a spook mentor. Poignant, funny and engaging, from beginning to end Confessions of a Dangerous Mind is a pleasant surprise.
Drama / Entertainment: 8/10


The Constant Gardener (2005)
Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Rachel Weisz, Hubert Koundé
Director: Fernando Meirelles
Plot: A Brtish diplomat stationed in Kenya uncovers a conspiracy involving government officials and a large pharmaceutical company's AIDS research after his wife, a human-rights activist, is found murdered.
Review: Based on master story-teller John LeCarré's best-seller, The Constant Gardener is a superb cinematic adaptation that ends up diluting the original material yet retaining the most prevalent aspects, making it a gripping, gritty, and uncompromising thriller in its own right. LeCarré is best known for showing the ugly side of the political and espionage worlds behind the glossy fictional images, and this is foremost in the film's presentation. Though billed as entertainment and calling upon some generic genre clichés from government conspiracies to "man on the run" suspense, more so than any Hollywood offering of recent memory the text is cynical towards the West's intentions in Africa, something that has as much to do with LeCarré's book-theme as it does with director Meirelles' slightly subversive stance. Indeed, Meirelles' aggressive style is evident in every part and every scene, with his special blend of cinematic and editing, but it's his ability to bring life to Kenya and its down-trodden people, much like he managed to do with the Brazilian poor in his breakout success City of God, that lifts the film up a notch. Also on the agenda is the lush, picturesque scenery is captured with a fabulous clarity and gives audiences a real feel for the country. Kudos as well for bringing a deeply-felt human tale to the fore, one with very human characters, and most especially for maintaining the book's emotionally rending ending. Pharmaceutical companies may be the villains of the day, but the blame is placed on a much broader target here, and it gives much room for thought: "the Western world only helps Africa to assuage their guilt". As such, there's a pervasive cynicism on the subject of international politics when it comes to Africa. As for the very British leads, it's hard to think of anyone but Fienne's being able to carry the film as well: bright but reserved, his anti-hero is fallible and sympathetic, naive and loyal, mild-mannered and, in the end, desperate; capable to show anger, contempt and sorrow with the most limited of facial expressions, he is downright terrific. Weisz, as his driven, politically-minded aid-worker, is also splendid in a difficult role. Combining all these elements transforms what could have passed into a pedestrian political affair into one that is at times gruesome, at times lyrical, but always compelling. Powerful, mature, smart, and brilliantly executed, The Constant Gardener is easily one of the best films of the year.
Drama: 9/10

Constantine (2005)
Starring: Keanu Reeves, Rachel Weisz, Shia LeBeouf
Director: Francis Lawrence
Plot: A man cursed with the ability to see demons helps a detective resolve the mysterious suicide of her twin sister only to discover her death is part of an escalation in the never-ending battle between Good and Evil being played out in LA.
Review: Based on the gritty, often bleak comic series Hellblazer, Constantine gets right into the action with a cool updating of a classic exorcism. Take that, The Exorcist! From then on what we get is a surprisingly moody, incredibly slick supernatural thriller that's part horror film, part action flick, and all cool. Despite the occasional one-liners, the superior script keeps things serious, presenting a sort of detective tale filled with Biblical characters and connotations. If there are some major changes for Hollywood reasons, many elements from the original material find their way into the story: the chain-smoking anti-hero looking for a sense of redemption caught in the middle of a battle between Heaven and Hell, the strange worlds behind our own, the eternal conspiracies of its divine participants using the Earth as their playground, and the fact that not everything ends happily ever after. Though not quite as dark or gritty as the original material, kudos still go to the filmmakers for giving us a film that has more depth and character than most effects-laden shows. In fact, the film makes it a point to be more than a sum of its admittedly spectacular CGI-enhanced set-pieces, concentrating more on the theological, and personal, implications on its characters. Sure, there's some nightmarish sequences such as a trip to a creature-infested Hell, a fight with an insect demon and more, but there's a sense that first-time movie director Lawrence kept his music-video roots at bay and actually took his time to present this world, carefully staging each scene to maximize an atmosphere of dread and foulness in which his heroes would wade through. Thankfully, too, the movie goes away from recent Asian-styled imitations, coming closer to that sense of uneasiness found in Angel Heart. Reeves has no problems continuing his string of stoic roles after The Matrix managing the requirements of the role with easy aplomb, and Weisz makes for a solid addition. Of note are the supporting actors who - from Djimon Hounsou as a voodoo doctor, to the incomparable Tilda Swinton as the angel Gabriel, to the scene-chewing and irreverent Peter Stormare as Satan himself - make strong scene-stealing impressions. It's been a while since such a dark fantasy felt and looked so tangible, and for that Constantine is an easy recommendation.
Entertainment: 7/10

Contact (1997)
Starring: Jodie Foster, Matthew McConaughey, James Woods
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Plot: After years of searching, a dedicated young scientist discovers radio signals of extraterrestrial origin, and is swept up by events surrounding her discovery. 
Review: Contact brings the late Carl Sagan's novel to the screen, and, for once, distills the ideas and the story to bring about a film that exceeds its source material. Jodie Foster proves again that she really is a great actress; you believe her, and feel for her. There is human drama here, and that is the base of all good science-fiction, not the special effects or the aliens, but simple, involving human drama. The questions raised here are beyond the personal lives of the characters, and touches on the tensions between science and religion, beliefs and faith. There are no answers in this film, no good or evil, just an interesting take on the changes that would occur in society during such a momentous event. The film does get a little syrupy towards the end, but it is nonetheless a wonderful, mature take on a possible alien contact, and one of the best science-fiction films ever produced.
Drama: 9/10

The Contender (2000)
Starring: Joan Allen, Jeff Bridges, Gary Oldman
Director: Rod Lurie
: After being nominated for the vice-presidency, a headstrong woman must face a vicious campaign accusing her of deviant sexual behavior aimed at undermining her confirmation.
Review: With The Contender director Rod Lurie (Deterrence) has managed to bring an excellent cast together for an interesting, and often even captivating, political thriller. The story of political manipulation in nothing new, but the degree shown here, along with the attentive details, great dialogue, Machiavellian scheming and some timely pointed comments on the separation of church and state, as well as the personal and political life of candidates, makes for some intelligent, mature viewing. The actors are also first-rate - from the defiant Allen and the presidential Bridges, to an almost unrecognizable Oldman as the thin, balding (!) congressional rat, to the rest of the supporting cast. The only sore point comes in the final scenes, first with a ending the film with a rousing, preaching final speech complete with chest-thumping and bombastic music, a Hollywood ending that leaves the sole discordant note for an otherwise well conceived and well executed film. Despite this, The Contender is a fine political drama with a solid script and a great cast.
Drama: 7/10

The Core (2003)
Starring: Hilary Swank, Aaron Eckhart, Stanley Tucci
Director: Jon Amiel
Plot: After an experimental weapon causes the Earth's core to stop rotating, a team of scientists must penetrate deep into the very center of the planet to jump start it before all life is destroyed.
Review: The Core is yet another take on the special-effects laden disaster movie which was popular a few years back, but one that thankfully doesn't take itself too seriously, planting its tongue firmly in cheek and delivering some amusing one-liners along with its thrills. The film is really nothing but an expensive B-movie reminiscent at times to Journey to the Centre of the Earth, a white-collar version of Armageddon, where the buff, good-looking scientists are the heroes and save the day not through brawn but brains. Though sometimes terribly derivative, it foregoes the usual melodramatics of similar films and concentrates on giving the audience a well-executed roller-coaster ride. It's perhaps a tad long for this kind of movie (clocking in at over two hours), but it never overstays its welcome, which speaks well of director Amiel; even the lamest, most predictable plot turns and ludicrous scientific invention is still quite enjoyable to watch. This is helped by the effective special effects and the grand scenes of destruction, both of which make for a great show. The fine cast of actors - which includes Oscar-winner Swank, a charming Eckhart and thespians Delroy Lindo and Bruce Greenwood - are obviously slumming it here and each tries their best to chew up the scenery in their one-dimensional roles (and none more so than Tucci as the egotistical scientist) but they're fun to watch. Like many of these Hollywood block-busters, the film requires a great dose of suspension of disbelief but if you're willing to put your brain on neutral and push logic aside, The Core makes for a thoroughly entertaining flick.
Entertainment: 6/10

The Corpse Bride (2005)
Starring: Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Emily Watson
Directors: Tim Burton, Mike Johnson
Plot: In a 19th century European village, a young man is mistakenly wed to a mysterious corpse bride and whisked away to the Underworld while his real bride awaits in the land of the living.
Review: A modern re-telling of a 19th century Russian fable, The Corpse Bride is a brilliant, old-fashioned animated tale that's clever, beautifully crafted and just plain darn fun to watch. It's a story of two opposite worlds: the land of the Living is very much based on stereotypical Victorian upper class society, with its silly etiquette and concerns over appearances. Indeed, they are more dead than the Dead, while the Underworld is more interesting, more colorful, more jazzy, making its appearance with a very lively musical number. Most impressive, the film makes what must have been absolutely pain-staking work look easy, and really shows off the amazing talent and imagination not only of eccentric director Burton (Batman, Sleepy Hollow) but of all the puppeteers and animators involved. Those that have seen The Nightmare Before Christmas, Burton's first foray into the world of stop-motion puppetry, will have an idea of what to expect from the style of the film as the animation is similar. Much like its predecessor, it's an imaginative, light-hearted frolic full of its director's trademark humor. With technical advances (and a greater budget) this latest effort has more lavish sets, more intricate effects and a greater control over its characters. Add to this some inspired song-and-dance routines from music by Danny Elfman, a affectionate romantic triangle, some truly zany denizens, and a flair for fantasy story-telling, and you've got a winner for the whole family. Of note is also the caliber of voice talent assembled: leads Carter, Depp and Watson are aided by the likes of Christopher Lee, Albert Finney, Tracey Ullman and more. At a time when CGI has become almost a standard it's nice to see some filmmakers still believe in "old-fashioned" physical animation, and as The Corpse Bride masterfully proves there's still life in them old bones.
Entertainment: 8/10

Cowboy Bebop: The Movie (Japan - 2001)
Voice acting: Steven Jay Blum, Wendee Lee
Director: Shinichiro Watanabe
Plot: A motley crew of bounty hunters hunt down a special-forces soldier turned bio-terrorist on Mars before he can kill everyone on the planet while being impeded by a large multinational's armed goons.
Review: Based on the hit Japanese show, Cowboy Bebop: The Movie is appropriately bigger in scope for its jump and fans of the original series will enjoy watching the big screen adventures of the crew. First thing to say is that this isn't really family fare, with a narrative aimed more at adults with some mature themes involved. Beside the usual story jumps, other moments may also be too slow-moving for kids and some teens (can we say padding?) but it gives that allure of depth of emotion that anime generally fakes so well. For those not familiar with the characters, however, there's little here to really give you a feel for them being anything more than typical anime constructs. The plot will feel familiar to anyone who's seen an action (or a sci-fi, for that matter) movie before but where the film promised to shine was in execution and in its personality, something evident in the original show. Unfortunately, the filmmakers seem to have decided on being as conservative as possible to reach a wider crowd. By going so mainstream they end up with a terribly clichéd storyline devoid of the series' craziness, thereby lose the very thing that made Bebop so enchanting. Not to say it's a complete waste: There are some well-done action set pieces and good doses of humor along with its thrills. Add to that some Noir elements, slick production values, some decent cel-animation, great cityscapes, and generally good visuals and you've got a feature that will keep audiences watching the screen until the end. Still, though Cowboy Bepop: The Movie is consistently entertaining and interesting (and some of the original charm shines through) there's not enough here to make it memorable, especially compared to the episode outings or to other readily available anime movies.
Entertainment: 6/10

CQ (2001)
Starring: Jeremy Davies, Angela Lindvall, Elodie Bouchez
Director: Roman Coppola
Plot: A young American film editor working on a Euro-trashy sci-fi picture in Paris is promoted to the director's chair and tries desperately to find an ending for the film while trying to do finish his own project.
Review: CQ is one of those difficult to put down semi-independent productions, mixing Art, drama, comedy, and nostalgia with a sort of adult coming-of-age story into a mainstream concoction. Though the obvious "homage" here is, of course, that fabulously trashy Italian sci-fi flick Barbarella and perhaps its American siblings, at its core the film actually pays tribute to the New Wave of European cinema, and to the '60s experimental cinema. Not only does it capture the essence of these movies with perfect aplomb (and with much better visual texture), it also captures the flavor of the late '60s and early '70s, a time when (on the screen at least) a definite optimism could still be felt in the air. The film makes a big distinction between the protagonist's stab at a personal, black-and-white cinéma-vérité type memoir and the colorful, kitschy, big-budget production he is thrown into. The script doesn't so much parody as playfully poke fun at the process of film-making, the people behind them, and the films themselves, a light-hearted affair that never takes itself too seriously and allows for an abundance of humorous touches. First-time director Coppola (son of Francis) does a fine job in presenting this world to our jaded eyes, and holds promise as a fine director on his own merits. Davies does his now-trademarked angst-driven bit to perfection, and Lindvall does the beauty with wide-eyed, and down-to-earth naiveté. The one-dimensional, but amusing characters are played with tongue-firmly planted in cheek by most of the able cast which includes Giancarlo Giannini and Billy Zane, among other recognizable faces. Depardieu does a brief, almost cameo outing as a troubled "avant-garde" French director. While nowhere as deep or successful as it might want to think it is, CQ is endearing and often quite charming in a nostalgic way, with a very slick production and appropriately zany sets that will definitely leave a knowing smile.
Entertainment: 7/10

Cradle 2 the Grave (2003)
Starring: Jet Li, DMX, Mark Dacascos
Director: Andrzej Bartkowiak
Plot: When his daughter is kidnapped by a vicious international crime lord, a jewel thief and his small crew join a Taiwanese cop to retrieve defense-grade black diamonds before they can be sold on the black market.
Review: Cradle 2 the Grave is exactly what one would expect from looking at the poster: a lame, cookie-cutter, high-priced production aimed squarely at the "gangsta"-loving and martial-arts crowd, and one that fails in almost every count. Let's start with the obvious: the plot doesn't make any sense and doesn't even seem to try to, without talking about the coincidental events that are plain laughable, or the terrible roll-your-eyes dialogue. As long as expectations aren't too high, though, genre fans will enjoy the action sequences, which include Li battling numerous opponents, a handful of gunfights and a police chase featuring an ATV and some motorbikes, all effectively shot and edited. The climactic fight sequence between Dacascos and Li is a blatant remake of the one in Li's first US vehicle, Romeo Must Die, but it's at least ably choreographed. Mind you, whereas the former film had a certain style and emotional connection, these things are totally lacking here. Not surprisingly, director Bartkowiak did the afore-mentioned Romeo Must Die and the decent Exit Wounds. It's too bad this effort is a poor derivative mix of both of these (including very similar casts), a definite step back for the filmmaker with nothing like an inkling of style to be found. The real culprit though is the script which never really gives the whole affair a break: it's amateurish and ludicrous to the extreme, and never gets interesting or engaging. The hardest thing to watch, however, is how low once-action-superstar Jet Li has fallen since his move to Hollywood: Li barely talks here, and barely registers unless he's in the middle of a fight scene. In these moments he shines showing off fighting skills and an energy that has brought him many fans. It's unfortunate, then, that every other moment he's just denigrated to the sidelines. As for DMX's role, it's a paper cut-out of many similar "rap-star" cinematic try-outs, with the only emotional range being a show of varying degrees of coolness and seething anger. And let's not even start with the thankless female lead role, a stripper no less. The only real amusement lies in the two supporting players added in for comic relief: Tom Arnold as the fast-talking arms dealer, and Anthony Anderson as the con man of the team, both of whom liven up an otherwise dreary rehash of typical action flicks (the two also teamed up in Exit Wounds to good effect). From start to finish Cradle 2 the Grave is an assembly-line product that will get lost on the video-store shelves. Let's just hope it's not a death knell to Li's future.
Entertainment: 3/10

Crank (2006)
Starring: Jason Statham, Amy Smart
Directors: Mark Neveldine, Brian Taylor
Plot: After being poisoned and forced to keep his adrenaline high to keep from dying, a contract killer goes on a rampage for revenge while still trying to protect his girlfriend.
Review: A mix of both D.O.A. and Speed, Crank is pretty much what you'd expect from an action thriller by and for the video-game-frenzied Y-generation. What first hits us is that there's a definite attempt at a style here, but it feels more like neophyte writers / directors Neveldine and Taylor are more intent at using the opportunity to experiment with cinema than to provide a cohesive story (logic is NOT a strongpoint). Indeed, the stark colors, changes in camera stock, crazy angles, and over-cranked running speeds makes this the perfect vehicle for attention-deficient audiences, but everyone else might come out with a headache. The filmmakers have obviously been raised on Hong Kong films, what with the excesses, humor and occasional silliness that pervades an otherwise hard-nosed tale that also takes great pains to be gritty and violent. With its lot of chases, gunfights, pummelings, and other manners of crazed stunts (including a car chase inside a mall) - all presented with cutting-edge music-video editing - the film really does breeze by and there's always something going on; audiences could grow tired of it, but they won't grow bored. Of course, the testosterone levels are ridiculous in this adrenaline-pumped film (pun intended), and no matter the new-century cinematic sensibilities, the macho and the misogynistic attitudes remind one of the blaxploitation flicks of the 70's. Nevertheless, as a star-vehicle for up-and-coming star Statham, it's worth taking notice, as he's proving himself to be a fine B-movie action star after his turn in the The Transporter series. Smart, however, has a thankless role as the dumb blonde girlfriend. But forget all that; if you're ready for a mindless action frolic peppered with self-conscious humor, Crank delivers.
Entertainment: 5/10

Crash (2005)
Starring: Sandra Bullock, Don Cheadle, Matt Dillon, Terence Howard
Director: Paul Haggis
Plot: Over 36 hours, a ransom car accident in Los Angeles puts in motion a confrontation between dozens of people from different ethnic and social backgrounds.
Review: An ambitious drama on interracial tensions in the melting pot that is Los Angeles, Crash was bound to be a darling of the Hollywood elite long before its Oscar win for Best Picture. The many lives it embraces, the many cultural, racial and social clashes it so valiantly tries to capture - all of which intersect through a series of metaphorical traffic accidents - ends up allowing for only superficial character development, leaving an only perfunctory emphasis on the issues at hand and a limited emotional impact. Yet if the narrative feels too planned, too staged at times - the interlocking stories of cops, criminals, producers, politicians and blue-collar workers border on the theatrical - there's no denying the intelligence of the script. Some scenes are undoubtedly effective, like the memorable confrontation at gunpoint between an Arab storeowner and a Latino family man, or a rescue by a racist cop, among others, and these establish brilliantly how social stereotypes affect our everyday judgment. With such a sprawling template, there's little time for subtlety and if scribe and first-time helmer Haggis may not have the directorial techniques down pat, he does bring an energy and clear intention in what he's created here, and definitely gets its message of tolerance (or lack thereof) across. Solid performances across the board by an impressive cast, including stand-outs by Dillon and Howard, helps convince audiences of the script's set-up of its stereotypes and its unpredictable, human resolutions that break the easy stereotypes one by one. Crash doesn't always manage to avoid the occasional dramatic clichés and coincidences, but it's a smart, well executed ensemble drama that's bound to make you think twice about our own presumptions.
Drama: 7/10

C.R.A.Z.Y. (Quebec - 2006)
Starring: Michel Cote, Marc-Andre Grondin, Danielle Proulx
Director: Jean-Marc Vallee
Plot: Smothered by his older brothers and by his stern father, a young man tries to come to terms with his sexual persuasion in 1970's and '80s Quebec.
Review: Spanning three decades in the life of a troubled young Montreal man and his quasi-dysfunctional French Canadian family, C.R.A.Z.Y. is both a coming-of-age and a coming-out drama that's light on its feet, and inventively realized. First through the 70's and 80's, his "euphoric" music experience are metaphorically equaled to a religious one, highlighting the idea that, for many of the younger generation, pop culture took over the vacuum created by the weakening of the Church's influence on Quebec society. Later, he struggles with sexual confusion, something that adds even more strain on the family relationship, and particularly with his struggling Catholic father and rebellious, drug-dealing older brother, whom he idolizes. It may all sound heavy and clichéd, but that couldn't be further from the truth. Based largely on the actual experiences of co-writer François Boulay, director Vallee avoids the usual melodramatic pitfalls of this type of story. Some of that comes from a script that concentrates the different eras into well-defined moments and crystallizes the narrative to extract the essence of the character and his social surroundings; some from the telling, humorous details; some from the able direction and editing that makes it all seem fresh and light-footed; some from the richly textured, well-shot visuals; and some from the excellent cast, from Grondin as the teen / young-adult protagonist to Côté as his limited but well-meaning father, and to all the characters in between. Just like a visit to family, C.R.A.Z.Y. is filled with instances of warmth and of cruelty, making for a well-conceived and entertaining drama that lingers in the heart.
Drama: 8/10

Crime Story (Hong Kong - 1993)
Starring: Jackie Chan, Kent Cheng
Director: Kirk Wong
Plot: Placed in charge of investigating a vicious kidnapping, a tough by-the-book detective faces not only die-hard criminals but a conspiracy of highly placed government workers.
Review: Crime Story, hyped as a change of pace for its lead actor, is a movie that can't decide if it wants to be a Jackie Chan vehicle or a noir-ish crime thriller. The story, supposedly loosely based on a true account, is simply a plodding series of Hollywood-inspired clichés, from the disillusioned dirty cop to the by-the-numbers kidnapping case, that are all overblown into what is almost a parody of the genre. It's a credit to director Wong and the rest of his team that the film still manages to keep one's attention throughout most of narrative, thanks in part to the large production values that do show on screen. Discarding his trademark buffoonery, Chan tries on a dramatic role as a tough hard-boiled cop, but instead of a fully-formed character, here he only comes off as being morosely serious, holier-than-thou, and ridiculously unbelievable. There are some decent action scenes, including many a gun fight and lots of buildings blowing up, that are at odds with the darker dramatic elements of the story. These were seemingly put in to satisfy Chan fans, but are still not quite up to his usual standards. There's some passable, if forgettable, entertainment here and it's interesting to see Chan trying out a more serious character, but with its ho-hum script Crime Story just isn't quite up to it.
Entertainment: 4/10

The Crimson Rivers (Les Rivières Pourpres) (2001)
Starring: Jean Reno, Vincent Cassel, Dominique Sanda
Director: Mathieu Kassovitz
Plot: A veteran Parisian detective and a local maverick cop join forces to stop a brutal serial killer who is leaving a trail of mutilated corpses across the French Alps.
Review: Kassovitz made a name for himself with tales of the dark side of human nature such as Hate, and now he's proved he can stretch himself by creating a derivative Hollywood-styled thriller with Crimson Rivers that still manages to be imbued with a certain flair. This is a slick production, shot more as an American one like Seven and with surprisingly little European flavor, with its fair share of violence and imaginatively grisly deaths, provided in typically extreme detail. There's also good use of its exotic location, with some superb cinematography of frozen vistas, ice-capped slopes and quiet, creepy villages. Annoyingly, though, the music is omnipresent becoming frustrating with heavy "meaning". The plot moves along in spurts, but manages to keep the tension up and provides an interesting mystery full of dark conspiracies and shadowy pursuers even when the twists and events become more than a tad preposterous. Indeed, we're asked to accept instances that border on the silly, but it all makes for a well-shot, atmospheric production. The charismatic leads, Cassel playing a young, reckless cop, and consummate actor Reno in the role of the cynical veteran, both make the happenings on screen much more enjoyable than one would expect from the banal dialogue. Crimson Rivers may not be an original or surprising thriller, but it's a well-made one that keeps us involved until the end, one that delivers some macabre atmosphere filled with exciting, suspenseful moments.
Entertainment: 7/10

Crimson Rivers 2: Angels of the Apocalypse (France - 2004)
Starring: Jean Reno, Benoit Magimel
Director: Olivier Dahan
Plot: Two Parisian detectives face off against a mysterious Christian cult of monks who are ritualistically murdering modern-day versions of the twelve apostles as a precursor to the Biblical apocalypse.
Review: A sequel in name only to the genuinely disturbing and stylish French suspense thriller The Crimson Rivers, Angels of the Apocalypse is a prime example of an expensive, overly-written affair. Director Dahan knows how to stage a scene and has a great eye for composition, but what the film offers in terms of attention to visual flare and atmospheric cinematography it lacks in actual story. The script, by auteur-turned-hack Luc Besson (Nikita, The Fifth Element), makes for passable entertainment but is too convoluted and treads too many familiar devices to make it anywhere near memorable. What starts off as a bloody, atmospheric horror thriller soon ends up being a slick, over-produced supernatural action flick that throws in too many things in the pot. The main murder mystery ends up being a red herring (or should we say a "crimson" herring?) as the film turns from Seven-inspired thriller to Raiders of the Lost Ark wannabe. In fact, it gets rather comic-book level silly, as we discover that the Christian sect is actually in league with former Nazis hidden away in old French WW1 trenches trying to find a forgotten book of power, or something like that. Even the usually-dependable Reno and sidekick Magimel seem to only be going through the motions, and there's little humor or sarcasm to lighten up the mood. The handful of action sequences are well-staged and the silent, faceless monks are killing machines that make for some cool, dynamic chase scenes. It's also clear that no expense was spared to make this into a Hollywood-style blockbuster. Yet despite the slick production values and intriguing ideas, the lack of decent explanations and its schizophrenic narrative will leave audiences with a bitter taste.
Entertainment: 3/10

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Taiwan - 2000)
Starring: Chow Yun-Fat, Michelle Yeoh, Zhang Ziyi
Director: Ang Lee
Plot: The theft of a magical jade sword brings together the destinies of a myriad of characters as a Wutang warrior and his powerful comrade finally track down the female assassin who killed his master and tries to turn her skilled disciple to the forces of good.
Review: Comparing Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon to Ang Lee's own Sense and Sensibility with some added martial arts wouldn't be too far off the mark, considering the romance and drama evident in the story, mixing the mythical story full of beautiful vistas and personal emotional turmoil with very quick-footed and high-flying action. There are a lot of terrific moments in the film, but somehow it doesn't always seem to flow properly, with the transitions between the slow-moving dramatic moments and the sudden action sequences often jarring. The script itself is interesting, but seems to keep most of the events very impersonal, except for the unrequited love between its two main stars. The cinematography, though, cannot be faulted: sweeping from desert vistas to cloud forests, it gives the film an epic feel that is lacking in the actual story. The lavish sets and costumes, as well as the attention to detail evident throughout, only add to the beauty of the film. Zhang Ziyi does a wonderful performance as the disciple caught between two sides, but its Yeoh who shines in her most dramatic and affecting role of her career. The gravity-defying martial arts action by choreographer Yuen Woo Ping (The Matrix, Iron Monkey) is, for the most part, incredibly kinetic and exciting, especially the fights between Ziyi and Yeoh, the chaotic bar fight, and a chase above a bamboo forest, though there are occasional moments where the obvious difficulties in producing these sequences leaves the audience unconvinced. CTHD has garnered many awards the world over and has been lauded as a magnificent adaptation of the original wuxia pian Chinese novel and though it may not be the best film of the genre or the last word on martial arts films, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is still an impressive accomplishment and a very entertaining film. For another, more impressive film of the same type, see Ashes of Time.
Entertainment: 8/10

Croupier (1998)
Starring: Clive Owen, Alex Kingston, Gina McKee
Director: Mike Hodges
Plot: A writer looking for inspiration for a new novel takes a job as a croupier, a casino dealer, and re-enters a world of gambling, immorality and addiction which he though he had left behind.
Review: Director Hodges, who's best claim to fame was the 1971 gangster flick Get Carter, brings another exciting piece with Croupier, a tough, gritty look at gambling from the other side of the table. Part film noir, part thriller, and part psychological drama, the film goes against the grain of mainstream productions and takes chances with its audience's intelligence and patience, to great effect. There are no easy answers or simple resolutions, nor is there any typical "action" or artificial suspense (though there is a sub-plot about a potential hold-up at the casino), and the film is the better for it. For one, the characters (and even the protagonist) are vaguely formed and remain mysteries even as the credits roll which provides the film's most unpredictable element. The film is truly at its best, however, when it delves into the world of the casino and allows the protagonist to reveal his interesting observations into the world of the croupier and the casino's mostly unlucky denizens. Though done on an obviously small-budget, the film captures the essence of its subject well thanks to a razor-edged script, efficient directing, and some solid performances. Owen especially is a revelation here as a stoic loner, a veritable anti-hero who slowly walks the path of immorality, who's search for a book subject brings him his own brand of addiction, that of observing people lose. Unfortunately, without enough of a build-up, the ending comes off as a bit of a throw-back and is rather unsatisfying, with one event especially feeling forced. Still, Croupier is an absorbing exercise, one that's emotionally distant and, therefore, comes off a little dry, but one that's still fascinating and engaging for those looking for something different.
Drama: 7/10

The Crow (1994)
Starring: Brandon Lee, Ernie Hudson
Director: Alex Proyas
Plot: A murdered rock musician comes back from the grave as a supernatural entity to exact revenge on the vicious gang members who brutally murdered his fiancee.
Review: Though the dark action flick The Crow will perhaps best be remembered (infamously) for being the last appearance from its young star Brandon Lee (who died during a gun accident during the shoot, much like his father Bruce did in the 70's), there's more to be had than mere exploitation. The story, adapted from the bleak comic-book work by James O'Barr, explores the desolation and emotional angst of loss while adding some classic supernatural heroics to the mix. It's no Batman, however: the un-dead protagonist is an avenging angel, and woe be those in his way, as the ever-more-gruesome deaths reveals. The film manages to capture the feel of the comics well, in its characters (good and evil), in its punk-like social anarchy and in its various violent action sequences and street justice, some of which are pure Lee. Despite this, there's too much down time and simmering unease to be taken as a simple action flick and yet, playing out as a straight-out revenge story, there's not really enough meat to make it particularly original. What makes it special is the intense atmosphere of urban decay that pervades the screen. Video-director Proyas made his feature debut here and the dark Gothic-like tones and multi-layered visuals (which he would later use to great effect in Dark City and I, Robot) offer an interesting texture to a slickly made, energetically cut product. This was to be Lee's breakout role, one that would take him away from the B-movie action flicks and start him on the road to stardom. It's obvious that some scenes were shot or re-arranged using existing footage, clever camera-work and digitizing the actor to allow the filmmakers to complete and release the film, but there was enough to make it into a cohesive whole and to prove that Lee could have made a decent actor. The Crow is very much a case of style over substance, but with great visuals and it's pervasive sense of the macabre (both on and off the screen) it's a worthwhile effort.
Entertainment: 7/10

Crying Freeman (1995)
Starring: Mark Dacascos, Julie Condra, Rae Dawn Chong 
Director: Christophe Gans 
Plot: While in the middle of a turf war with the Japanese mafia, an accomplished, emotionless assassin for a Chinese secret society falls for a beautiful woman who was a witness to one of his kills.
Review: Crying Freeman, a slick enough adaptation of the popular Japanese comic, is brought to the screen with enough visual flair to please fans of the strip. The story follows standard comic-book exposition and stays quite faithful to the original material. Yet by trying to put too much in, the film feels somewhat disjointed. Though not nearly as visually interesting as his later Brotherhood of the Wolf, Gance's flair does show through and, despite the production's small budget and obvious made-for-TV sensibilities, he makes the most of it. Scenes that appear to come straight out of a comic strip abound, and it's obvious Gance tries hard to recapture the feeling of the original Manga on the screen. As such, there are some decent enough action sequences peppered throughout, including a Rambo-like climax. Many of the killings are a little too bold and excessive to be taken seriously, showing its cartoon roots and the influence of Hong Kong cinema on the first-time director. Unfortunately, the film never manages to flow well between these sequences and the rest of the terminally simple-minded romanticism of the story. Dacascos plays the killer with stoicism bordering on the bland, which one would argue is the whole point, as Freeman is shown as a force of Nature, with no emotional involvement. It's too bad that Dacascos doesn't get enough of a chance to show off his skills and punch and kick a little more. Surprisingly, there's an ambiguity to the secondary characters, the villains of the piece, which make them better formed and more interesting than the leads. In the end, it doesn't quite catch the intensity and energy necessary to make it really work, but though it's a tad inconsistent, it's definitely worth a look as casual, entertaining fare.
Entertainment: 5/10

The Cup (1999)
Starring: Orgyen Tobgyal, Jamyang Lodro
Director: Khyentse Norbu
Plot: During the World Cup competition, a handful of Tibetan monks living in a monastery-in-exile in India decide to pool their ressources to rent a television dish to watch the final game.
Review: Remarkably light-hearted and enjoyable The Cup is a funny, warm drama about monastery life and the shared things that make us all come together. Like any good story, it's about different people joining for a common goal; it just happens to be for the same obsessive interest for soccer as millions of other sports fans around the globe, an interest that is well defined and seems odd, at first, in such a desolate locale. The film has the added benefit of giving us an inside look at a little-known and often misunderstood community, catching our curiosity in its exotic locale and people, showing the everyday existence of these young Buddhist trainees. And like normal kids around the world, they tease, laugh, skip classes, and yes, play soccer with a used Coke can. As Tibetan monks, their daily routine consists to communal tasks and studying - it's a simple life, maybe, but a seemingly full one as well for these male children who may not have any other recourse. Some political comments still seeps through, of course, but then these lives have been disrupted by the Chinese invasion and it would be remiss not to show their longing to return home and how those events have marked every aspect of their lives. The scenery is appropriately enchanting and delicately shot. First-time writer / director Norbu, himself a Buddhist lama, managed to get the support of a whole, actual monastery-in-exile for this endeavor and he does a fine job in setting the stage, and gets some startling performances from the real-life monks turned amateur actors. It's too bad that most of the characters are drawn as typical, endearing caricatures, and only the main protagonist is given any real depth or room to grow, but then this is a minor failure. In the end, The Cup is a simple story well told, one that is universally affecting in its message.
Drama: 7/10

Cure (Japan - 1997)
Starring: Koji Yakusho, Masato Hagiwara, Anna Nakagawa, Tsuyoshi Ujiki
Director: Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Plot: A wave of gruesome, identical murders sweep Tokyo. Each time, a different murderer is found near the victim and can't explain the reason for the crime. The detective assigned to the case is baffled until the police come upon a young man suffering from amnesia who has a strange effect on everyone who comes into contact with him.
Review: Cure combines different film genres into a true "mystery", captivating the audience with its images and its subject matter. What starts off as a typical crime drama slowly evolves into a tense, intelligent and often even frightening psychological horror film. The acting is top-notch, especially by Koji Yakusho (seen in The Eel) who plays the conflicted detective. The film was the winner of the 1997 Japanese Critics award, and its easy to see why. Highly recommended.
Drama: 8/10
Entertainment: 9/10

Curious George (2006)
Starring: Will Ferrell, Drew Barrymore, David Cross
Director: Matthew O'Callaghan
Plot: To save the natural history museum in which he works, a young curator travels into the jungle to find an ancient idol only to befriend a lonely, mischievous monkey who follows him back to his New York apartment.
Review: A big-screen animated adaptation of the classic children's book by Margaret and H.A. Rey, Curious George is a charming adventure and a nostalgic throwback to pre-CGI features. In fact the animation, a blend of 2D cel drawings and some computer enhancements, is smooth and good-looking, with warm colors that would be perfectly situated in a children's book. Sure, the plot about saving the museum and that goes with it feels like a retread of many other kids flicks, but a pleasant surprise is that the story maintains the light-hearted spirit of the original work, eschewing the awkward modern sensibilities forced on many a children book adaptation (such as the sinking The Cat in the Hat or Horton Hears a Who). There's an adventure in the jungle, a daring escape on rooftops, a visit to the zoo, a balloon ride over the city, a virtual King Kong-like rampage through the streets, and more as George gets into his usal innocent troublemaking - and throughout a touching storyline of friendship. The soundtrack, a series of hum-worthy, kid-friendly Jack Johnson songs, sets the mood for the different scenes. The unexpected casting of Will Ferrell, starring as The Man in the Yellow Hat, actually works well, Barrymore plays the dowey-eyed, passive love interest effortlessly, and there's Joan Plowright and Dick Van Dyke in supporting roles. And stay for the closing credits, a nice, nostalgic montage of the original book drawings. Sure, some of it may be formulaic, but this big-screen adaptation of Curious George is a winner for young kids and their parents.
Entertainment: 7/10

The Curse of the Jade Scorpion (2001)
Starring: Woody Allen, Helen Hunt, Dan Akroyd
Director: Woody Allen
Plot: In 1940's New York, a shabby, blundering insurance investigator is hypnotized into committing daring jewel heists around town but suspects his company's female efficiency expert of being implicated in the crimes.
Review: More mainstream than some of his previous efforts, writer / director / actor Allen's latest effort The Curse of the Jade Scorpion shows signs of wear. The story, a mix of 1940's screwball romance and cops-and-robbers comedy, is decent enough to hook a full-length feature on, but somehow the narrative often loses steam and misses some great opportunities. There's some humorous slapstick thrown in, and some amusing twists, but there's just not enough of them. The biggest joke is how anyone, hypnotized or not, can still find the aging, nerdy Allen "irresistible" something that makes the romantic aspect of the story hard to swallow. Easier to handle and much more enjoyable is the bickering and put-downs that fly between the two leads, and the terrific, break-neck-paced dialogue that flows between them, a trademark Allen item that's nice to see in evidence. The sets and art direction are reminiscent of golden age Hollywood movies, and the classic jazz soundtrack is quite effective in setting up a light mood. This is nowhere near his best works such as Manhattan and Hannah and Her Sisters, or even his more modern farces such as Bullets Over Broadway, but the Allen touches are unmistakable and fans will enjoy seeing him again. Hunt seems lost here, and isn't always seen in the best light. The rest of the cast is able, but Ackroyd, as the cheating boss, is awful. In the end, The Curse of the Jade Scorpion makes for a vacuous but amusing little effort from an able creator.
Entertainment: 6/10

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