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Hairspray (2007)
Starring: John Travolta, Nikki Blonsky
Director: Adam Shankman
Plot: In early '60s Baltimore, a plump teenager dreams of dancing on a local TV show but her chance at stardom is dampened by her size and rising racial tensions.
Review: An adaptation of the award-winning Broadway musical, itself based on the 1988 cult film by unconventional director John Waters, Hairspray is an ode to that rock 'n roll era and an homage at being different. To be sure, much of the sly political statements done by Waters in the original film have been "watered down" leaving a film that is pretty much a white-bread re-telling of the 60's racial integration movement. Still, the comedy finds its humor in the silliness of prejudice, be it for obesity or skin color and, if it's too obvious to quite hit the mark, the filmmakers know to keep the whole shebang lively and not-too-serious. Director Shankman shakes off his previous low-brow efforts (Cheaper By The Dozen 2, The Pacifier) and does it right by expanding the confines of the stage play yet keeping all the right elements in place, from the social message, comedy and the heart. The musical numbers are amusing and sometimes even rousing, such as a great song-and-dance number at a dress shop, or the local "sisters" singing on the show's "Negro Day". The issue is that none are very original or special in either the choreography or dancing; case in point, the "live" dance-off that brings everyone together feels like it drags on instead of being climactic. Thankfully, the cast is superb and the energy is downright palpable. Blonsky, as our plump teenage heroine really lights up the screen with enough chutzpah and bon vivant attitude to make the whole thing click. The rest of the cast is fun, too, and all of them, from Queen Latifah to Christopher Walken to an evil Michelle Pfeiffer, seem to be having a ball. Most surprising however, is Travolta taking on the role from transvestite Divine as the obese mom. Even in a fat suit, he does a pretty good job of convincing us and when he gets to dancing you'll forget it's a man in drag. This latest version of Hairspray may come off as a mainstream adaptation of Water's film but it's often exuberant fun and makes for one of the better musicals to come out of Hollywood.
Entertainment: 7/10

Half Past Dead (2002)
Starring: Steven Seagal, Ja Rule, Claudia Christian
Director: Don Michael Paul
Plot: An undercover FBI agent sent to a high-tech prison must stop a vicious, well-equipped team of mercenaries who have invaded Alcatraz to find the location of a $200M stash from a death-row convict.
Review: Half Past Dead lives up to its title - trying for a mix of The Rock and star Seagal's own Under Siege it comes off as just plain bad. But what's a year without a bad Steven Seagal film? Much like the superior Exit Wounds, the film tries to mix in Seagal with the hip hop / gangsta rapper clique but without the energy or efficiency of the latter. Just looking at an overweight Seagal strutting is enough to induce laughter. When we get a look at a female mercenary in short, skin-tight leather costume, we know where this film is headed, and the whole mess quickly turns into a silly comic book affair. And the "high-tech" revamp of Alcatraz looks downright flimsy and unconvincing at best, without speaking of the relaxed and ineffectual security. Apart from one decent Hong-Kong inspired fight between two supporting characters, the fighting sequences are rather lame, with too many close-ups and obvious use of stunt doubles. Even the gunfights are rather staid. The recurring action sequence, actually, is seeing someone get thrown through a glass partition which happens at least half-a-dozen times. This all gets pretty dull pretty fast, and though the film tries to up the ante in terms of carnage, it just never registers any actual interest. The script may want to squeeze in too many different things, including bad religious mumbo-jumbo, and bad character development that only comes out as filler. And let's not even talk about the ludicrous attempts at bonding between the gangsta with the heart of gold and the FBI mole with existential angst - it ends up just being annoying. Trying for too much and doing nothing well, director Paul (who's only other real contribution was Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man) just can't get all these elements to come together into an entertaining whole. The acting is just plain terrible too, but with dialogue like this there's no salvation. In the end, Seagal is just too bulky to still make a convincing action hero, and Half Past Dead is too silly and incoherent to deliver any visceral kicks. For Seagal completists only.
Entertainment: 3/10

Hamlet (2000)
Starring: Ethan Hawke, Kyle MacLachlan, Julia Stiles
Director: Michael Almereyda
Plot: The son of a deceased industrialist is haunted by visions of his father, the late CEO of the Denmark Corporation, who urges him to exact revenge after his uncle marries his mother and takes over the company.
Review: This most recent version of Hamlet is a modern-day adaptation of Shakespeare's greatest play. The interpretation by director Almereyda, and the way the film manages to bring up the situations and dialogue in a modern setting, is often quite interesting and well presented. Unfortunately, the film is kept low-key and is rarely engaging, something that ends up being quite surprising from such a powerful play. One of the reasons is that the most of the all-star cast doesn't seem at ease with such theatrical work (especially a miscast Bill Murray), and the dialogue is jarring in such a common, everyday setting. Other recent Shakespeare adaptations moved to the modern world such as the DiCaprio-starring Romeo and Juliette and the Ian McKellan Richard III depicted a surreal environment between fantasy and present-day where Old English seemed appropriate. Another problem is that the production seems to have been rushed and made on the cheap, with none of the style or dynamism of the other films. As usual, many passages have been cut as well, but none so jarring as the famous "poor Yorik" sequence. Still, there are some clever, powerful and vivid moments here and fans of Shakespeare willing to look past some minor flaws are in for a treat.
Drama: 6/10

Hancock (2008)
Starring: Will Smith, Charlize Theron, Jason Bateman
Director: Peter Berg
Plot: A public relations consultant tries to revamp the image of a sloppy, accident-prone and alcoholic super-hero after the man saves his life.
Review: With the present popularity of super-hero films, it's no surprise that the time was ripe for a cynical take on the genre, and Hancock is the first big-budget, star-studded effort out of the gate. Actor-turned-director Berg has amassed an interesting resume, starting from the enjoyable actioner The Rundown and the effective sports drama Friday Night Lights to the political thriller The Kingdom. Here he's taken another turn with a gritty-looking effort that's just as much in-your-face (there are lots of close-ups, and shaky-camera shots) as his earlier efforts but with a clearly higher production allowance. It's a generally dynamic, entertaining effort that doesn't lack for either or laughs or action and the script (once tagged as the best un-produced script in Hollywood) is better than one would have expected from the premise. The propulsive super-powered sequences are well done with some effective use of both real-life stunts, special effects and CGI making the super-powered flights somewhat more believable than most. No doubt, Smith is the movie's biggest asset, selling the concept and the character by getting the comedy, pathos and action bits pitch perfect. The film does take some chances with the material (for good and bad) that we'd never see without the pull of its charming leading-man - there's a silly sex scene, lots of crude humor and lots of wince-worthy daring-do, and an unsympathetic protagonist. With him in the spotlight, it would be hard to believe Hancock-the-asshole would not turn into a sympathetic good guy by the end of the film. But perhaps the biggest (and most enjoyable) surprise is the stellar Charlize Theron who ends up being more than just the pleasant housewife. The final act switches the film from comedy to Shakespearean tragedy, yet somehow the change of tone only enhances our appreciation of the effort. Alas, the short running time short-changes the film's more interesting twists and character revelations. Still, Hancock does take the challenge of deconstructing the modern comic-book hero, and if doesn't quite live up to its full potential it makes the grade as a satisfying-enough popcorn film.
Entertainment: 7/10

Hanna (2011)
Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Cate Blanchett, Eric Bana
Director: Joe Wright
Plot: A 16-year-old girl raised in the secluded woods by her father to be the perfect assassin, is sent on a mission to kill the CIA operative who destroyed her family but ends up on the run from her operatives when it goes awry.
Review: Hanna is an odd duck indeed: it could be alternately described as an action movie for the art-house crowd, a thriller where the characters come first and the action is secondary, or even Run Lola Run if it had been written by Jane Austen. And none of these is a bad thing, especially in the hands of director Wright, best known for such dramas as Pride & Prejudice and Atonement. Shot like a gritty indie with the occasional splash of colorful tableau, the blurred action is fast and frenzied but the movie's sensibilities are more in tune with a coming-of-age tale - only here the fish-out-of-water young heroine is more dangerous than the modern society she's been thrown into. Though the film's sometimes languid pace is broken up by the requisite, well-executed fight and chase scenes, as well as some more mundane, very human vignettes (the discovery of electricity, a first friend, an attempted first kiss) this off-kilter drama won't appeal to everyone. The narrative and story wants to follow the trimmings of a Grimm fairy tale, as told in the macho language of genre cinema - there's the innocent girl (a superb, frightfully effective Ronan, who carries the film eloquently) and the Bad Wolf (a delightfully bad-ass Blanchett), the trip through the dark forest (or in this case across Morocco and Europe), and the bizarre circumstances and eccentric characters which she meets along the way, from a hippie nuclear family to foppish hit men. You have to give credit for any filmmaker who even tries to upend the expected tropes of the action movie like this. And, despite some uneven bits, Wright for the most part succeeds in creating something that feels fresh and exciting, if not entirely new. If you're willing to give in to his world view, Hanna provides enough high-minded thrills to make for a satisfying good time.
Entertainment: 7/10

Hannibal (2001)
Starring: Anthony Hopkins, Julianne Moore, Gary Oldman
Director: Ridley Scott
Plot: The suave, cannibalistic serial killer Hannibal decides to come back into the limelight, playing a game of cat and mouse from Florence to the U.S. with both a female FBI agent and one of his previous victims out for revenge.
Review: Hannibal is a very different film from its Oscar-winning predecessor, The Silence of the Lambs, one that aims to be more entertaining and scarier by focusing on the exploits of its villain. Unfortunately, the strong psychological undercurrent and genuine creepiness of the original have been exchanged for depravity, gore, and shock value. Of course, Ridley Scott (Alien, Blade Runner) has a keen sense of style and story-telling and manages to provide a certain tension throughout, but even he can't save the unfocused plot, one that takes too long to get anywhere really interesting. Moore is a fine actress and she does her best to take on a role that she didn't create, but she just doesn't provide as convincing a turn as Jodie Foster did in the original. Even Hopkins' character, the very essence of the film, just doesn't seem as scary or impressive as he once did. Yes, Hannibal is still cool, calculating and dangerous to know, and Hopkin's performance is still fascinating, but by allowing him free reign he seems to have been reduced to a more typical serial killer and not the manipulative, almost supernatural force of the previous film. Gary Oldman though, in an un-credited role, is memorable as the powerful but disfigured victim out for revenge. In the end, the film's greatest downfall is that the story and character development don't match expectations. Hannibal is still a decent, stylish and entertaining thriller, just a disappointing one.
Entertainment: 6/10

Happiness (1998)
Starring: Lara Flynn Boyle, Dylan Baker
Director: Todd Solondz
Review: One of the more controversial films released in 1998, Happiness has won wide critical acclaim from many critics and has been placed in many year's top ten. It is a hard, uncompromising look at a very screwed-up family and the people around them. There's the office worker who fantasizes of raping his neighbor, the family man who is a pedophile, the woman who always ends up with losers… you get the idea. A twisted drama, or a very black comedy, take your pick.
Drama: 8/10

Happy Feet (2006)
Starring: Elijah Wood, Robin Williams, Brittany Murphy
Director: George Miller
Plot: Realizing that he cannot sing to attract a mate and that his amazing tap-dancing skills make him a mockery, a young penguin decides to go on a quest to prove his worth.
Review: Plugged as kid-friendly fare similar to the dozens of CGI flicks that came before it, the computer-animated musical comedy Happy Feet mostly fits the bill, with a few exceptions that make it stand out of the pack. Clearly taking a page from the documentary March of the Penguins, the film never hesitates to show off some majestic views of the snowy landscape and of its thousands of penguins braving the icy winter. These anthropomorphic animals, however, sing and dance something fierce, and even go on a dangerous trek to find the source of the fish depletion, taking them to face a powerful "alien" creature called Man. The adventure, which includes thrilling escapes from hungry sea lions, Orcas and collapsing ice clusters, braving the harsh climate, and a meeting with latino-influenced penguin cousins, is grand. Too bad too much time is spent on the familiar morale of "be yourself", with our penguin hero trying to prove his worth to the one he loves. Better known for his Mad Max trilogy, director Miller extends his recent forays into kids fare following the successful talking-animal flick Babe and its sequel, but can't stick to the formula. He eventually gives his children's tale a dark twist that will unnerve younger audiences, as human beings come into play - with their nightmarish machines - and force our young hero into a zoo. Of course, that doesn't last, and the ecological-minded feel-good resolution is predictable, as is the finger-pointing regarding the over-fishing of the world's waters, all of which has clearly been regurgitated for easy viewing. The animation is for the most part superb and almost photo-realistic - the penguins look great, the collapsing ice is eerily realistic, and the vistas are grand; the times it fails are minor. The impressive all-star voice cast including the likes of Hugh Jackman (doing a great Elvis impersonation) and Nicole Kidman as the penguin parents, both of whom get to stretch their singing abilities. But the most recognizable voice is that of funnyman Williams in a dual role, easily getting the most chuckles, if not outright laughs. Though perhaps too "cute" for some, Happy Feet does provide lots of toe-tapping fun, and even curmudgeons will have a hard time not getting into the swing of things.
Entertainment: 7/10

Hard Boiled (Hong Kong - 1992)
Starring: Chow Yun-Fat, Tony Leung, Philip Kwok
Director: John Woo
Plot: While investigating a vicious gang of arms dealers, a tough Hong Kong detective comes across a triad assassin who is actually an undercover cop trying to find the source of the weapons. 
Review: Hard Boiled, director John Woo's (The Killer, Face/Off) last film before leaving Hong Kong, is definitely his swan song - an excessive, stylized, big-budget action film that out-does everything he's ever done before, or since. The story can be a tad confusing, at least at first, and the underpinnings of a decent crime drama are filled with reflections that carry many of the themes from other Woo films such as honor, loyalty, friendship, male bonding, and even the fear of the 1997 Hong Kong changeover. But these moments soon appear to be mere exposition to the very meat of the film: the action scenes. This is the ultimate "Woo" film, with almost every one of the famed action director's trademark violent, frenzied filmmaking techniques evident on screen. The film is full of amazingly choreographed sequences and long takes filled with explosions, flying bullets, and general mayhem. In fact, the film boasts what are probably the most exhilarating, extensive, over-the-top gunfights ever put to film, from the first chaotic battle in a Hong Kong tea house to the grand, explosive 40-minute finale in a downtown hospital. The two main actors are in perfect form, with Chow playing his famous Eastwood character and chewing up the screen as the hard-nosed cop and Leung, given more depth and more character development, convincing as the undercover cop torn between loyalties. The story may be secondary, but in terms of audience expectations Hard Boiled is one of the most intense, violent and impressive action films ever made.
Entertainment: 9/10

A Hard Day's Night (1964)
Starring: John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr
Director: Richard Lester
Plot: Following the band The Beatles as they prepare for a live television broadcast, talk to journalists and try to take care of Paul's eccentric uncle.
Review: A mockumentary on a day in the (imaginary) life of The Beatles, A Hard Day's Night was a revolutionary, landmark musical comedy on its release, launched as the group's international success was still growing. Part rock-n-roll concert with the band playing such hits as "I Should Have Known Better", "Can't Buy Me Love", and "She Loves You", part irreverent screwball comedy, including a highlight following the over-cranked antics of the group as they play in an empty field, there's a lot to enjoy for fans and non-fans alike. A precursor to such films such as This is Spinal Tap and the concert movie, it was also the first of many films with the Fab Four. Full of that British wit, slapstick comedy, Monthy-Python like absurdity, and general improvised zaziness, there's much to enjoy here. True, some of the humor (especially concerning the semi-senile grandad) is more than a tad dated, but for the most part it's an amusing, sometimes self-deprecating look at the band that pokes fun at their own popularity amongst young teens while mocking the media and their own commercial success. Though this is was first foray into features, director Lester (who went on to produce Help! and How I Won the War with the band) shows a very imaginative flair throughout, experimenting with the medium to good effect with some inventive and daring camera work. Yet, though hailed as the best (or at least most influential) feature of its kind, the film hasn't aged very well and to most modern audiences it will come off more as a fascinating curiosity than an no-holds barred comedy. Still, as a window into that period of 60's Beatlemania A Hard Day's Night is a real classic that still enchants.
Entertainment: 6/10

Hard Target (1993)
Starring: Jean-Claude Van Damme, Yancy Butler, Lance Henricksen
Director: John Woo
Plot: After finding out that her homeless father was killed by a group of mercenaries hunting men for sport in New Orleans, a young woman teams up with a Cajun rogue to bring them to justice.
Review: Yet another take on The Most Dangerous Game, Hard Target's claim to fame is being Hong Kong action-meister John Woo's first foray into Hollywood as well as ending up being one of the better vehicles for star Van Damme. Coming after such masterpieces as The Killer and Hard Boiled means Woo's fans will undoubtedly be disappointed in this rather uninspired affair, yet it was also a springboard for bigger and better things such as Face/Off and Mission Impossible 2. His trademark imagery (including the flying doves and the slo-mo gunplay) do make appearances, but the script show none of his usual pet themes of brotherhood and religion. The story is slow going at first, made worse by a rather tepid story. Thankfully, the visuals are good and the pacing adequate enough to keep us interested. Once the action really begins around half-way through we finally see Woo's vaunted over-the-top, macho choreography, from an impossible motor-bike showdown to an explosive chase through the bayous climaxing in a mind-numbing (and tool long) display of slo-mo gunplay in a warehouse full of eerie parade vehicles (reminiscent of the hospital sequence in Hard Boiled). There's some appropriately inventive, high-powered stuff, a real kick to action fans looking for a non-CGI enhanced bullet ballet. Leading man Van Damme has his own brand of charm and is quite adept at the physical requirements of the role while Henricksen and Arnold Vosloo, by then pigeon-holed to one-dimensional roles, make for some adequately vicious villains and are always enjoyable to watch. Hard Target may be a lesser effort from its director, but it's a decent action fest for fans of the genre.
Entertainment / Action: 5/10

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (2001)
Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Robbie Coltrane, Rupert Grint
Director: Chris Columbus
Plot: A young British boy is astonished to discover that, without his previous knowledge, he has been accepted to enter a prestigious school for wizards in a parallel world full of fantasy and magic.
Review: With such an internationally popular franchise, it was inevitable that J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, the first in a series of (soon-to-be) seven books and movies, would be adapted to the big screen. Surprisingly, not only is it faithful to the original material in tone and plot, it also captures the enchanting, whimsical fantasy world of magic mingled with school life quite well. Doubly surprising is that director Columbus, best known for low-brow fare such as Mrs. Doubtfire, actually manages to bring it all together. The film brings out a sense of wonderment that follows its protagonist, entering a world of wizardry, dragons, and spells, all elaborately brought to the screen with some top-notch production values and special effects. Some of the film's highlights include the high-flying Quidditch match on zipping broomsticks (which harkens back to the forest run in Return of the Jedi) and the life-sized wizard chess game. The real treat, however, is that so many smaller details that give the books their flavor are also included, from the random-flavored jelly beans, to the ghostly apparitions, to the living paintings, are also reproduced. Radcliffe, as Harry, and all his young friends, along with an impressive all-star British cast (including Richard Harris, Alan Rickman, John Hurt and even John Cleese amongst many others) all manage to bring the characters to life. Being so faithful to the original work does have some disadvantages, however - the film does tend to be a bit long for a family film (at about 2.5 hours), and some passages may be too dark for youngsters. However for old and new fans alike, Harry Potter is definitely a marvelously entertaining adventure for Muggles of all ages.
Entertainment: 8/10

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002)
Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson
Director: Chris Columbus
Plot: Three apprentice wizards investigate strange petrifications occurring on fellow students, leading them to a long-lost chamber deep inside the school and a mysterious adversary.
Review: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, the second book to be adapted from J.K. Rowling's beloved series, is a small step forward in maturing the series, but with such a fine predecessor, that's a compliment. The impressive costumes, sets and general production values are mostly the same as before (most of the same people did both), but the film takes a different approach to the narrative and director Columbus' style and visuals take on a darker tone. While the first film had the hard part of creating Potter's world and convincing us of it, the second can jump right into the action and adventure. This is a much more suspenseful offering than the first, with a real, more complex mystery playing out, though the final act does drag on a tad. The adaptation doesn't seem quite as literal this time around as the original work, which actually makes it better. Now that we know the characters, the magical workings of this world, and the many details populating the books. There's much more focus on the main story-line which allows for a film with much better pacing; it may be longer than the first, but it passes much more quickly. The book, and thus the movie, is much darker than the first and some scenes might not be suitable for kids (especially the "giant spiders" scene which may also freak out arachnophobes), but the humor is still there, as are all the elements that made the first one so endearing to audiences. Some intense sequences - a ride in a barely-controlled flying car, an attack by a giant tree, and a battle with a giant snake, and many more set-pieces from the book - are all splendidly captured with the help of first-rate computer effects, as is the creation of the completely CGI Dobby, the house elf. Even the (shorter) Quidditch match is actually more thrilling this time around. But what the film does best is depicting a world where magic reigns, and the weirdness and inventiveness of the book also make their way here and are, once again, well realized: the howling letter, the screeching mandrake roots, and more, and add much to the charm. As for the young trio, their performances are more relaxed and all the better for it, even through the occasional mugging. The rest of the returning cast (both young ad old) has grown into their respective roles admirably. Some new faces: Kenneth Brannagh, as the charming but inept Dark Arts teacher, is splendid and provides a good dose of comic relief and Jason Isaacs, typecast as the Malfoy's villainous father, also does a noteworthy appearance. There's nothing particularly new here, with fantasy elements being brought in from many different sources, but with its easy-going attitude and light tone it's definitely agreeable and quite entertaining. Fans of the books will not be disappointed, and even older kids (and adults) will be thrilled and charmed by this new chapter.
Entertainment: 8/10

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)
Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint
Director: Alfonso Cuaron
Plot: A young wizard returns for his third year of schooling only to find out an infamous murder has escaped prison and seeks to finish him off as his Dark Master tried to do when he was but an infant.
Review: Regarded as the best book of the popular series by J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is in many ways also the best adaptation. From the exciting double-decker bus ride of the opening sequence, we know we're in good hands. While the script leaves out much of the source material, it keeps the heart of the story in place. We can clearly see that the hero has grown up, the cast has matured, and so has the film. The film doesn't cut corners on the more complex plot and the details on Harry's roots, even adding a few creative interpretations of its own and the film is the stronger for it. Best known for his very adult-themed Y Tu Mamá También, director Cuaron probably got the job based on his terrific family film A Little Princess. But gone are the strong, fairy-tale colors of the previous installments replaced by more subdued colors and a more dangerous tone. Here he adds a darker atmosphere to the proceedings which is much in line with the book's very different, and sometimes downright scarier tone. Some of this creepiness is also accounted for by the new creatures involved, including the ghost-like entities the Dementors, animagi, and even a werewolf. Lots of new, different visual elements make an appearance, with the terrific computer effects really bringing the Hogwart's school to life, a place that is more magnificent ruins than enchanted castle. Of course, it also helps that we're given more of a chance to see the surrounding grounds (a lush Scottish setting). The stellar supporting cast is all here again (except for Michael Gambon replacing the late Richard Harris), and has been joined by what amounts to cameo appearances from Gary Oldman as the scary-looking villain and Emma Thompson in a hilarious turn as the flaky Divinity teacher. In fact, each of them feel more real and interesting this time around. Even at two and some odd hours, the film never fails to keep the pace. In fact, the reverse is true: the narrative actually feels somewhat rushed in places, which doesn't allow for much character development or interaction between the three young, likable leads and doesn't allow us to get a chance to appreciate the wizarding school life. That aside, in many ways, from the visuals, story and acting, this is the strongest of the three Potter films and fans and non-fans alike will enjoy it.
Entertainment: 8/10


Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005)
Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson
Director: Mike Newell
Plot: A teenage wizard is forced to participate in a dangerous tournament involving students from three different schools, little suspecting that his evil nemesis is about to rise again.
Review: The latest adaptation of the Harry Potter series, Goblet of Fire, shows that the series has matured well since its inception, and remains a giddily joyous fantasy adventure. Managing to condense the book's 700+ pages is no easy task, and the script judiciously makes away with the novel's many excesses (a long opening sequence, for one), though it also glosses over many of the things that brought the other films to life: the wizardry teachings, the comic-relief of the Dursleys, the antagonism with Malfoy, and other minor but enriching moments. Director Newell (Four Weddings and a Funeral) has chosen to keep a strong focus on the story, which is for the most part intact and very much alive, and ensures that things moves along at a good clip. It often feels like a struggle to keep the pace, but Potter fans (and those who have followed the films) will feel right at home. The tone continues to get darker, as does the violence (indeed, one of the characters even dies - a first for the series) and there are less lighter moments - this is no longer the "family" film of the first chapters. It does lack the shadowy style brought to the table by its superior predecessor, Alfonso Cuaron's Prisoner of Azkaban, but it remains a fine visual treat. More importantly, the main tournament has all the excitement we've come to expect, and the special effects are simply wondrous. Our heroes have now hit puberty with all that entails, and much amusement is had at their expense (romance has started to blossom and getting a date to the Ball isn't that easy, it seems!). Unfortunately, with the bulk of the film spent events, there's less emphasis on the characters, one of the very things that made all the magic and fantasy on-screen so compelling. Apart from the teen-age leads (yes the kids have all grown up), the rest of the stellar supporting cast - including new additions Brendan Gleeson as Mad-Eye Moody and a slithering Ralph Fiennes as Voldemort - all have the roles down pat. All told, the fourth installment might not add a great deal to the series, but it's still great fun while it lasts.
Entertainment: 8/10


Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007)
Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint
Director: David Yates
Plot: Disbelieving the return of the Dark Lord, the Ministry of Magic seizes the reigns of Hogwarts school forcing Harry to teach a small band of rebellious students enough magic to defend themselves.
Review: As the series grows progressively darker so have the films and the latest entry, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, is the darkest yet. The biggest book somehow leads to the shortest adaptation; Events and scenes need to go by so quickly it almost feels like a Cliff's Notes of the original material - newbies to the series may be a tad overwhelmed - yet so little of consequence occurs that it feels like a only a prologue to the final chapters. Still, though it might be impossible to condense all the details and events from almost 900 pages, the script properly (and quite efficiently) summarizes the main aspects of the overall story (especially the satire on the educational system) and keeps intact the important bits and major confrontations. Unfortunately, there are now so many characters to contend with that all but Harry must be given an all-too-brief treatment. For every film a new director has brought his own style to the material and here Yates takes a "down-to-earth" approach to the details of the magical surroundings, concentrating more on the psychological impact of the upcoming war on his charges. This means that the schooling and fantasy elements get pretty much short-changed and allowing for little of the humor that lightened up the previous entries. Even the color palette is drab and dull, akin to Harry's own mood throughout. Some exceptions include some quick scenes that well flesh out in grandiose scale the Ministry of Magic as well as the final special-effects-laden battle that reveals who much the kids are out of their depth, as the adults enter into magical combat that leaves them quaking. Our trio of heroes have clearly grown and (if it's a little difficult for audiences to accept that they're only 15) their acting abilities show great improvement, making the characters work with the slightest of quirks. Of note as well are Gary Oldman returning as Sirius Black and Helena Bonham Carter in a scary role as a newly-released Death-Eater. With all its doom and gloom Order of the Phoenix may not be quite the uplifting entertainment we've come to expect, and doesn't achieve the levels of the last two installments, but it's still a continuously engaging, ably orchestrated chapter that's sure to stand the test of repeated viewings.
Entertainment: 7/10

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009)
Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Michael Gambon, Jim Broadbent
Director: David Yates
Plot: As a Civil War brews among the wizard world, Harry Potter faces new challenges during his 6th year at Hogwarts, both from evil outside forces and from an attraction to girls.
Review: Based on the penultimate book of the immensely popular literary series by J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince sets up well the expected last installment (or two) of the story. Much in line with the previous one, the film is gloomy and dark to a fault, with cinematography that enhances the school's Gothic architecture and the tale's disturbing aspects of love and death, something that is at odds with the otherwise light-hearted puppy-love "snogging" of the adolescent characters. Returning director Yates gives all the individual aspects their due, but as a whole the film feels like a minimalist take on the book, one that's visually inventive and polished, but has little significance. The novel itself was less action-oriented and more anxiety-ridden, filled with soap-opera-worthy relationship issues, and timid comedy, all of which has been aptly adapted as a more atmospheric, sadder and deliberately languorous - and rather less satisfying - film. Oh, the main story is there, and many of the elements and sub-plots have been necessarily eliminated to keep the film at a relatively trim running length, but gone is the enchantment of seeing this fantastic world, with all its small details and magical features.  An exception to this is the final 20 minutes that combines the dark fantasy and tragedy we'd expect.  The young stars are growing up fast, and they make do. The superb, A-list supporting cast is a hoot, however - including the returning Michael Gambon, Helena Bonham Carter and Alan Rickman along with with veteran Broadbent, as the new teacher. All told, the familiar, now-comfortable elements we've come to enjoy in the franchise are still in evidence and it's still an intriguing-enough tale, but in the end the Half-Blood Prince feels like an overlong, moody prelude to the final climax.
Entertainment: 7/10

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 (2010)
Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint
Director: David Yates
Plot: As the evil Voldemort takes control of the Ministry of Magic, young wizard Harry Potter and his friends try to elude capture as they search for the rest of the Horcruxes to defeat the Dark Lord.
Review: As we come to the eight-year, eight-movie close of J.K. Rowling's insanely popular Harry Potter series, we get farther from the light, childhood fantasy adventures of the first installments. Case in point, The Deathly Hallows: Part 1 (of 2) is the darkest Potter yet, with death, doubt, betrayal, paranoia and tragedy taking front seat. As evidenced by an airborne battle on broomsticks and a selection of Western-like wand fights, there's always some grand special-effects action to be had along with some magical adventure, a highlight seeing the triumvirate shape-changing to middle-aged bureaucrats to infiltrate the Ministry. But all this is tempered with a dark, brooding indeed even desolate atmosphere. There are scenes straight from 1930's Germany, as Muggle-borns become the subject of injustices; there's the passing of another character; and any humor or levity is scarce (at least after a surreal opening scene where a half-dozen resistance fighters shape-shift into Potters to elude detection). In his fourth take on the franchise, returning director Yates strives and succeeds in bringing increasingly gothic visuals to give a sense of isolation and fear. If it's the most depressing of chapters, however, it's also the most intimate; the more quiet, introspective middle section - as the three frightened, desperate friends struggle to keep hidden from their hunters in the forest - show them struggling after being thrown into a world of (dangerous) grown-ups, their adolescent angst bubbling to the forefront with romantic tension and self-doubt. Unfortunately, it's this second Act that seems to drag on, with only a (superbly) animated sequence for the tale of the three deathly hallows to liven up the pace. Still, it's a necessary part of the huge book's solid adaptation, and we've learned to care enough for these young characters - ably portrayed yet again by Radcliffe, Watson and Grint - to want to see them take their final step to adulthood. Many of the previous entry's supporting characters make an appearance, of course, but they are very much secondary to the tale's focus; the psychological anguish of its young hero. It's a tad sad to know that it's all coming to an end, but each book's adaptation of the franchise has proven to be quality mainstream fun, something that's quite a rarity in movies. Deathly Hallows: Part 1 comes off as an entertaining set up for the inevitable confrontation between Harry and Voldemort in Part 2, and expectations are high for quite a finale.
Entertainment: 8/10

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 (2011)
Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Ralph Fiennes, Michael Gambon, Alan Rickman
Director: David Yates
Plot: As Harry and his young wizard friends continue their quest to destroy the remaining amulets that keep the Evil Lord immortal, a final confrontation brews between the forces of Good and Evil, and only one of them can survive.
Review: A decade after the first of J.K. Rowling’s acclaimed books graced cinemas, the insanely popular franchise comes to a close in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, adapting the second half of the last novel. This may be the shortest of the eight films, but it is definitely the most intense and densely packed one of them all. Indeed, this is all out wizarding war between Good and Evil, and the stakes are higher, the sacrifices greater, the creatures more dangerous and the special effects grander, all brought to the screen like only a multi-billion dollar series, consistent filmmakers and the best British cast, can bring. Director Yates (back for this fourth turn at the helm) keeps a firm grip on the reigns, and provides all the excitement, pathos and visual glory we've come to expect. The tone of the film is also darker than ever; if the first few films still passed as family fare, this one will give younger kids nightmares. The film dispenses with sub-plots, rushing breathlessly through explanations and revelations - sometimes too quickly. The frenzied pace means that there are few opportunities for subtlety, humor and the character interactions that made us care for these young heroes. Still, what came before was just set-up for this finale, and that knowledge makes us engaged in the many flights of daring-do, the head-to-head battle between Harry and Voldemort, and all the myriad events until the final repercussions. Radcliffe, Rupert and Grint may have started off as cute child actors but have matured into the role and give the film its emotional anchor, while the entire series' supporting cast - from Fiennes' Voldemort to Gambon's headmaster - all get a chance to make their mark on the story, most especially Alan Rickman's Snape, arguably the most mysterious and interesting of the bunch. Few film series have been so consistently entertaining and well-produced, and none have been so successful or enduring. Deathly Hallows: Part 2 doesn't disappoint and ends the tale on a high note. A fine send-off to the iconic series.
Entertainment: 8/10

Hart's War (2002)
Starring: Bruce Willis, Colin Farrell, Marcel Iures
Director: Gregory Hoblit
Plot: Captured and sent to a German prison camp, a US lieutenant is charged to defend a black pilot who has been accused of killing a fellow prisoner leading to a confrontation with his superior, an American colonel.
Review: Based on the novel by John Katzenbach, Hart's War has all the ingredients for a sure-fire hit: good leads, an able director, and a multi-layered story. The film starts off with an air raid on the train carrying US prisoners being strafed by P-51 Mustangs, followed by an exciting aerial dog-fight over the camp. The whodunit part of the story is engaging enough, as are the legal proceedings, but when it's all shown to cover up a greater secret the film loses some of its steam and is quickly replaced by typically manipulative drama. Director Hoblit (Primal Fear) shows a good control of the dramatic bits and overall pacing. There's also an appropriate dark, gloomy atmosphere here, and the cinematography both of the frozen landscape and claustrophobic camp are well achieved. It's too bad the script comes off as such routine. Willis plays to type and is quite acceptable as the uptight colonel, while up-and-coming star Farrell does OK swinging moods from beaten-dog prisoner to courageous lawyer. Iures, as the Nazi camp commander is the most interesting character, however, and pulls off his role well. In fact, the main personalities are moderately well defined, and some of the inter-personal conflicts, such as the battle of wills between Willis and Iures, had potential. Unfortunately, the character interactions and the issues at hand would have greatly benefited from a deeper exploration; instead what we get is a version that looks to have been adapted (or edited) for mainstream consumption, one that leaves in the more outwardly exciting bits but leaves out the necessary defining of the themes that came with them. Maybe it's because there's just too much the film wants to tackle, from the military courtroom suspense, to the POW drama, to the racial tensions in the barracks; instead of converging into a whole, each element comes off as ill-defined and shallow. In the end, Hart's War won't make you forget classics of the genre like Stalag 17 or The Great Escape, but it's still a passable war-time thriller.
Entertainment: 5/10

The Haunting (1999)
Starring: Liam Neeson, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Lili Taylor
Director: Jan De Bont
Plot: A researcher brings three test subjects into a seemingly haunted house under false pretenses to witness their reactions to fear.
Review: All the elements for a good ghost story are here, with great cinematography, a typical haunted house premise, and an incredible, oppressive mansion. The Haunting is beautiful to watch, with some incredibly lavish sets, but soon even the triptych becomes repetitious. The narrative is often leaden, and the story stretched out - instead of making us edgy, it makes us impatient for something to happen. When it does, one hour into the film, the constant computer effects are just too clearly defined and obviously fake to make any terrifying impact. The script sometimes gives rise to some good suspense and some spooky moments at first, but quickly becomes contrived. Instead of giving us a modern retelling of the classic haunted house story, the film seems content to rehash the old with some clever CGI effects. The one-dimensional characters don't really help either, though the actors do try to make the best of it. Director De Bont (Speed, Twister) attempts something different here, but it just doesn't live up to his previous films or even hold a candle to the original The Haunting (1963), a film that had better atmosphere and a tighter, scarier script.
Horror: 3/10

Haywire (2011)
Starring: Gina Carano, Ewan McGregor, Michael Fassbender
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Plot: After being double-crossed by her own boss, a former female marine now a black ops mercenary-for-hire goes after the people who set her up.
Review: A lean and mean little indie thriller that's more B-movie than blockbuster, Haywire is an action film with more smarts than a half-dozen Mission Impossible flicks. The story is typical genre fare, as the narrative zips through Barcelona, Dublin, New York and New Mexico - heroine is framed and goes after the people and conspiracy that set her up - but it's quickly evident that the plot and characters are secondary to the enjoyment of a masterful application of thriller mechanics. Re-teaming with screenwriter Lem Dobbs following their 1999 collaboration on The Limey, A-list director Soderbergh (Traffic, Ocean's Eleven) sets out - and mostly succeeds - to make a superbly efficient, gritty affair that's smart and exciting. His intention isn't to make a classic or look for deeper meaning, but he has created a throwback to '70s fare like Three Days of the Condor using twenty-first century techniques with a Grrrl Power undertone that is unmistakable and welcome indeed. In her first major film role, ex-American Gladiator Carano is a revelation, exuding an easy charisma that belies her power to make mince-meat of her opponents; and seeing her flip, kick and crush is awe-inspiring and thoroughly entertaining, in part thanks to the camera work and choreography that makes the fights look vicious and realistic, and a big part due to her own training as a martial artist. If Bourne had a female counterpart, it would be her. And what a superb cast of male supporting players surrounding her, all eager to get a beating - rising-star Fassbender as a suave, controlled and deadly agent; McGregor in a slimy villain role as her two-timing boss; and Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas and Bill Paxton rounding out the cast. A guiltless pleasure for genre connoisseurs and just about anyone who wants more from the usual meat-and-potatoes action fare, Haywire sure is a memorable good time.
Entertainment: 8/10

Hearts in Atlantis (2001)
Starring: Anthony Hopkins, Anton Yelchin, Hope Davis
Director: Scott Hicks
Plot: In '60s America a young boy raised by a resentful single mother befriends a mysterious stranger boarding in the attic apartment who displays some amazing precognizant powers.
Review: From a story by popular author Stephen King, adapted by legendary screenwriter William Goldman, directed by Shine filmmaker Hicks and starring none other than Anthony Hopkins, one would expect Hearts in Atlantis to be a sure-fire hit. But this is not to be: The film, beautifully realized and quite atmospheric in its intensely nostalgic depiction of 1960's childhood memories, often dips into easy sentimentality that is occasionally effective and affecting but more often feels empty. The fantasy / supernatural elements are kept to a ridiculous minimum, and what little suspense or tension that could have been generated here never materializes, partly because the threat of the dark government agents is kept so much at a distance as to go almost unnoticed, partly because we never really feel that the characters are ever in any danger. The real saving grace is the perfectly tuned performances from Hopkins and the young Yelchin, their relationship forming the bond that keeps the film moving. Also well done is the strained relations between mother and son, one that isn't usually displayed in such an honest straight-forward manner. The daily life of the young protagonist, and its execution, is well captured and these moments resembles another, more successful King adaptation, Stand By Me. And yet, apart from these moments, it's all a ho-hum script from Goldman that seems tired and excessively derivative. Hearts in Atlantis is a decent effort all around, but considering the talent involved, the original material and its potential it can't help but be a disappointing experience.
Entertainment / Drama: 5/10

Heat (1995)
Starring: Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Val Kilmer
Director: Michael Mann
Plot: After a well-planned armor-car robbery becomes bloody, a professional thief and his cracker-jack crew face off with an LAPD detective hell-bent on their arrest.
Review: Heat, director / writer Mann's (The Insider, The Last of the Mohicans) latest foray into the cops-and-robbers genre, is an experiment in character-driven action movies, with a hyped-up confrontation between two legends of modern American cinema. This great "meeting" between De Niro and Pacino on screen takes place in a short scene as the two adversaries sum each other up in a cafe and realize they're both sides of the same coin. Unfortunately, the two don't live up to expectations - Pacino is too over-the-top and unsympathetic, and De Niro is just stoic and cold, both seemingly doing only a workman's acting job, devoid of any energy. The supporting cast however, including some excellent B-actors, is solid especially Kilmer, Tom Sizemore and Ashley Judd as Kilmer's long-suffering wife. One of the main problems here is that Mann tries to develop too many characters, to the detriment of pacing and narrative focus. On the plus side, the script does show its protagonists as neither black nor white, aiming for a more complex introspection of its characters, desperately trying to avoid cliches. But though it tries to elevate the genre, it doesn't always succeed partly because the drama is a tad too over-blown, verging more on the melodramatic - there are some good scenes that make the characters more human, but way too many more that make them out as Hollywood styled greater-than-life embodiments. Still, even with its longer-than-necessary running time the story still manages to keep our interest, thanks to Mann's usual excellent cinematography and always stylish flair, full of bluish hues and dynamic camera movements. The film is at its best, though, when it focuses on the heists themselves - carefully planned, executed with cool, calculated expertise, showing professionals at work. These action scenes, including the introduction armor-car robbery and the extended bank caper gone awry, are excellent, brisk, and intense. Despite its rather formulaic premise and length, Mann manages to bring in some original, probing moments to the typical urban crime thriller, and thanks to a solid cast and brisk pacing makes Heat an entertaining action / crime drama as well.
Entertainment / Drama: 7/10

Heat Team (Hong Kong - 2004)
Starring: Aaron Kwok, Eason Chan, Hei-Yi Cheng
Director: Dante Lam
Plot: Two cops with very different styles are transfered to a special task force to help capture a violent jewel thief but they're constant bickering doesn't allow much police work to be done.
Review: A mostly amusing action comedy like HK churns out without too much effort, the generic buddy-movie Heat Team stands out thanks to a very slick production and a strong direction. There's a story here somewhere about a criminal mastermind, double-crosses, and other cop movie requirements but these seem more thrown in because they had to be. The main focus is on the half-friendly rivalry between the two leading detectives which leads to some funny scenes, including a showdown with paint guns and a bizarre hostage situation. It's like two scripts were blended together: one is a low-key screwball comedy involving an office romance and buddy-movie parodies, and the other is a capable (if derivative) action flick showing off some violent confrontations against a military-like gang. The actions sequences, mostly involving some neat gunplay, are well done, energetic and well-edited. But it's this schizophrenic switch in gears from the violent shoot-outs to the downright silly antics that makes it all hard to swallow. Director Lam (Beast Cops, Option Zero) knows his way around both adrenaline-filled cop flicks and has tried his hand at comedy, too. Doing both at the same time, however, isn't as easy, and neither extreme is enough of a stand-out. Still, he reaches an easy-going way about it, the pacing is sprightly, and there's no denying that the film is impeccably shot, giving the final product an added sheen that keeps even the slower moments interesting to look at. The two leads are also quite engaging, with pretty-boy Kwok playing the stoic but warm-hearted character to a T as straight-man to the womanizing, loose-canon Chan, and they have some decent moments together, especially when they're bickering. All told, Heat Team is a slightly above average action-comedy that's perhaps too formulaic to get a heart-felt recommendation.
Entertainment: 5/10

Heavy Metal 2000 (2000)
Starring: Julie Strain, Michael Ironside, Billy Idol
Directors: Michael Coldewey, Michel Lemire
Plot: After her community is brutally destroyed, a young female warrior sets out to get her revenge on a powerful ship commander obsessed with finding a fabled Chamber of Immortality.
Review: The original Heavy Metal was a daring experiment to bring the magazine's mature graphic stories to the big screen defying a genre dominated by Disney. With its multiple narratives, artists and styles it was inspired, if not always good. In comparison, Heavy Metal 2000 seems to have thrown out everything that made the first one so interesting and embraced the conventional, reverting to the basest, most bland elements of the genre. Producer Kevin Eastman, co-creator of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, probably wanted to shed his kiddie image here but he's failed miserably. What he has created is a tasteless, immature and often boring feature. All the trappings of a lame Saturday morning cartoon are in evidence, a childish rehash of various space opera conventions and clichés, with accompanying spaceship dog fights and lame sword fights. This is a production geared mainly for hormonally-challenged male teens, those raised on crappy cartoons whose idea of an "adult" production is the occasional shot of tits & ass, a bevy of degrading misogynistic scenes, some graphic disembowelments, and dialogue peppered with forced swearing. And let's not forget the mandatory, pointless nubile shower scene, too, just to set the mood. As for the look, the 2D cell animation is crude for anything but TV, and even the computer effects (used for the backgrounds and ships) are rarely startling or well done, looking even now as passé. How they got Ironside to voice the villain in this tripe is a mystery unto itself. With a little editing, Heavy Metal 2000 could pass for a decent animated adventure for kids 5-9, but for an older, more discerning crowd this is just a tired, unnecessary effort.
Entertainment: 3/10

Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2000)
Starring: John Cameron Mitchell, Andrea Martin, Miriam Shor
Director: John Cameron Mitchell
Plot: After her protégé steals her tunes and hits the big time, a transsexual from Communist East Berlin forms her own rock band and follows his tour, performing in small venues biding her time before getting back at him.
Review: Adapted from their own Off-Broadway show, Hedwig and the Angry Inch is a gender-bending musical / comedy that is fascinating, well-done, and displays an excess of energy that is quickly contagious. What with a bizarre musical adventure starring a transsexual rock star (from East Berlin, no less), comparisons with the cult classic The Rocky Horror Picture Show would be inevitable. But where the latter is pure camp excess, Hedwig, along with the terrific musical numbers, wickedly witty one-liners, and visual pizzazz, offers up a poignant, provoking drama as well. The rockin' songs by Stephen Trask are all excellent, catchy glam-rock tunes with inspired lyrics that help fill-in and advance the story (such as the track "6 inches forward, 5 inches back", explaining a botched genital operation and the origin of the title), with the more existential of them helped by some amusing, efficient animation. Visually, there are also some imaginative, surreal childhood flashbacks, as well as a dozen highly entertaining, fabulous music-video-like segments. The story moves along briskly, though two-thirds into the film, there is a detailing of the relationship between Hedwig and his / her young lover / nemesis which slows down the narrative and may have been better left unsaid, but it does add depth to a strangely emotionally captivating tale. This is also a fantastic showcase for its director / writer / star Mitchell who does an amazing, charismatic, and intimate portrayal as the bitter lead singer. The rest of the characters get short-changed, perhaps, but are only there to add more focus on its main protagonist. Dramatic and funny with some great musical numbers, Hedwig and the Angry Inch is a memorable musical that more than deserves cult classic status.
Entertainment / Drama: 8/10

He Got Game (1998)
Starring: Denzel Washington, Ray Allen
Director: Spike Lee
Plot: A convicted murderer is let out of prison for a week to try to influence his son, the number one rated basketball prospect, to choose the governor's choice of college to play for.
Review: The real story here isn't so much the father-son relationship between the convict and his up-and-coming son, but of the pressures of the college basketball recruiting drives and of the social pressures facing these once under-privileged black kids when they hit it big. Similar in many ways to Blue Chips, He Got Game is a much more successful film, and is more a dramatization of the themes brought into light in the stunning 1994 documentary Hoop Dreams. Unfortunately, many of the events are exaggerated and over-blown as if the script wanted to pound the realizations of its characters into the audience. These moments can be forgiven as it is obvious that the film is director Spike Lee (Do The Right Thing, Malcolm X)'s ode to the game of basketball, and his love of the game is obvious as the "hoop action" is brought to vivid life with slow-motion shots, montages, and great camerawork with some fine, rounded characters. Lee favorite Denzel Washington also offers up another great performance here, though real basketball star Allen is really the heart of the film. With He Got Game, Lee has delivered another fine drama that is definitely worth catching.
Drama: 7/10

Heist (2001)
Starring: Gene Hackman, Delroy Lindo, Danny DeVito
Director: David Mamet
Plot: A professional thief and his veteran team are forced back into one last big-time heist by a conniving fence but the presence of the fence's nephew creates deadly problems.
Review: Heist wants to be, first and foremost, an old-school type crime flick, like those 1970's crime-drama productions such as The Getaway. Writer / director Mamet has shown he can do twisty crime drama well (see The Spanish Prisoner), but by trying too hard here to give the story its hackneyed twists, turns and double-crosses he's created a routine film that's actually quite banal and slow-moving, one that lacks any sense of surprise. It seems as if he is too concerned with the sinewy plot to really take care of the drama or his characters. Mind you, it's great fun to watch the star-studded cast go through the motions, but the whole thing feels rather impersonal and unconvincing. We never get a feel for these characters and even their motivations (in particular Pidgeon as Hackman's cheating, younger wife) are vague, so that when events finally run their course we're left with a feeling of having been cheated. If it weren't for Hackman and Lindo, two fine actors who could give any picture a boost in believability even if they are playing to type, this movie wouldn't have had anything to go for it. Notice should also be given to DeVito in a menacing supporting turn as a small-time crime boss. For sure, Mamet has always had a good ear for dialogue and the script occasionally crackles, the barbed quips and cool conversations definitely being the main attraction of the film. Another main attraction are the two major heist scenes that are well executed, if a tad long. But the main problem is that very quickly we realize that each new problem that arises is just another set-up for a con and that no matter the situation our hero has a backup plan. Instead of being clever the plot soon becomes absurd, Mamet trying so hard to create a gritty, noir feature that it all just turns rather silly and predictable, never allowing for the necessary tension to build up. Heist might be professionally executed but it lacks the necessary energy and plotting to make it work and that's too bad considering the obvious talents involved.
Entertainment: 4/10

Hellboy (2004)
Starring: Ron Perlman, Selma Blair, Doug Jones
Director: Guillermo Del Toro
Plot: A young demon born out of a failed Nazi occult experiment and raised by an American agency to become the world's secret defender against dark supernatural forces must face the evil sorcerer Rasputin who brought him to to Earth.
Review: A surprisingly faithful adaptation of the cult comic series by Mike Mignolia, Hellboy manages to blend in the right amount of horror elements - from H.P. Lovecraft lore of powerful, alien creatures, demons, evil Nazi sorcerers - with actual character and story development. The opening sequence - the necessary origin story - is simply superb and captures just the right energetic and thrilling feel of the source material. The surprises and eye-candy keep coming, as we discover strange new characters such as the fish-like Abe Sapien who steals the show in every one of his scenes, or new slithering monsters to be pummeled and destroyed. You can sense a real passion from the filmmakers to bring every detail of the original printed work to the screen. The Gothic ambiance and sets, the eerie atmosphere, the stylish production design and costumes, the despicable villains and of course the dark mythology inherent in the work have all been vividly brought to life with a good balance of computer and standard effects. There's also a good deal of humor to be had, some of it an homage to other media (Alien, Perlman's own Beauty and the Beast TV series, of course), and some it a geeky ribbing at its own comic roots. Though the addition of a romance between Hellboy and Liz doesn't quite click, the script takes note from Spider-Man's sensibilities and gives the film an added layer. Of course, it helps that the entire cast puts a lot into the script, and none more so than Perlman as the title character who infuses the cigar-chomping Hellboy with a humanity and a soft side that bellies his dark side and raging temper. Writer / director Del Toro knows how to do big, loud action sequences that rely a lot on special effects (see Blade 2) but thankfully here he has also put in some of the attention to character he did in his first films (such as Cronos). The blend is superior to many other adaptation efforts. It's disappointing then, when the story becomes a bit derivative in the second half and the monster fights so thrilling at first soon become repetitive. Worse, by the time of the predictable climax the movie seems to have run out of steam and just coasts on its use of blockbuster-required CGI action. It's this loss in the narrative tract that stops the film from being a great one. Still, that aside, Hellboy is for the most part an inspired, entertaining effort that's definitely worth a look for fans of comic-book heroes, horror and Hollywood spectacle.
Entertainment: 7/10

Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008)
Starring: Ron Perlman, Selma Blair
Director: Guillermo Del Toro
Plot: A demon and his teammates working for a secret organization must help thwart a war between mankind and a hidden mythical world led by an Elf Prince bent on unleashing an unstoppable mechanical army.
Review: A sequel to the modestly successful adaptation of Mike Mignola's comic-book creation, Hellboy II is everything a follow-up is expected to be: bigger, louder, more effects-laden, and something it's not expected to be, namely better in just about every way. The terrific opening sequence, a fairy-tale telling of the war between Humans and Elves as a dark, violent (and epic scale) marionette show, promises the film won't be your usual summer blockbuster, and it holds on that promise. Fresh from his international acclaim on Pan's Labyrinth, director Del Toro returns to the world of Hellboy and brings added visual brilliance, style, and a bucket-load of mesmerizing creatures to the screen - notable are the disturbing Angel of Death and the gigantic Forest Elemental causing havoc (and a verdant paradise) in Manhattan. This is a dark fantasy that any adult can admit to enjoy. But that doesn't mean its tepid or Artsy stuff - there's lots of horrifying material, spectacular scenes of destruction, as well as some hard-hitting and (mostly) one-fisted action as Hellboy battles ever-increasing odds in some impressive CGI-enhanced sequences. All this is enhanced by a strong sense of humor, pathos and an engaging storyline about the death of fantasy and the human choices we must all make. Most of the cast returns, from the note-perfect Jones as the amphibian Abe Sapien to the not-so-tactful Blair as the human-torch-like love interest, along with an added teammate, a German boss made of mist. If there's one sour note it's Perlman who portrays the titular demon in a nonchalant, almost flippant manner instead of the more Clint Eastwood-type character of the comics. In a way that's perhaps due to the heavy penchant for comedy and goofy humor that seems to infiltrate even the most desperate of moments. Thankfully, Hellboy II never creaks: it flies, bounds and impresses with its breadth and imagination proving that the old popcorn movie formula can still find new tricks.
Entertainment: 8/10

Hellboy Animated: Blood & Iron (2007)
Starring: Ron Perlman, Selma Blair, John Hurt
Directors: Victor Cook, Tad Stones
Plot: A team of paranormal investigators, led by an imposing demon fighting for good, are led to a millionaire's haunted mansion where evil forces are trying to resurrect an ages-old female vampire.
Review: Continuing the comic-book and live-action adventures of Hellboy, Blood & Iron marks the second direct-to-DVD outing. Unfortunately for fans and non-fans alike, though director Guillermo Del Toro (Hellboy) and Mike Mignola (creator of the original comics) are noted as creative producers, there's little of the joyous pulp adventure and gothic horror one expects from the material. The movie cast is back doing the voice acting, but they're not helped by animation that is second-rate and barely on par with standard TV cartoons. The story itself feels like a half-hour show padded to "feature-length". The plot is typical gothic-horror stuff, but the vampire tale at its center is banal and (worse) the execution is bland, missing much of the pulp elements and wit of the original comic material. The "backward" flashback of Prof Bloom is an interesting narrative device, but little is truly revealed, making its use redundant. Even at a sparse 75 minutes, it's slow going when the gang isn't directly tackling the menagerie of ghosts, witches, wolves and the like. In fact, apart from some mild swearing, this is all decent pre-teen fare we'd expect from a direct to Cartoon Network production. That said, there is some definite redeeming value to be had: for one, this is Hellboy after all, and the sub-plot with the goddess Hecate trying to convince our hero to cast aside his good intentions and join the Old Gods is the kind of cool we expect - and the extended, ridiculous fight between the stalwart Hellboy and Hecate incarnated as a monstrous Iron Maiden is kinda fun. All said, however, this feels more like an attempt at family-friendly fare on par with the cartoon Ghostbusters than a "serious" attempt to add to the mythology of the character. Blood & Iron just doesn't do the franchise any favors. For a real taste of what Mignola's comic adventures could (and should) be as a cartoon adaptation, see The Adventures of the Fabulous Screw-On Head, available on DVD.
Entertainment: 4/10

Help!!! (Hong Kong - 2000)
Starring: Jordan Chan, Ekin Cheng, Cecilia Cheung
Director: Johnnie To and Wai Kai-fai
Plot: Three courageous, talented young residents team up to rebel against the inhuman hospital system, its egotistic uncaring doctors and the evil medical bureaucracy.
Review: Help!!!, the second collaboration between the directorial duo of Needing You is a very different brand of comedy. With loads of black humor, imaginative situations, clever cinematography and never-ending emergency room spoofs of medical soaps such as ER, it's sometimes easy to take the whole thing as just plain farce. But behind this entertaining facade is a rather biting satire and social commentary on the Hong Kong hospital system, one that can easily be generalized to the state of other countries as well. There's a ton of hilarious hi-jinks that have an undercurrent of something deeper - in fact, the delicate balance between fantasy and cynicism is for the most part maintained to great effect. The film does lose some of its verve at the end by changing tones and staging a rather "serious" large-scale accident that would be better suited to disaster flick. However, no matter the situation, there's a lot going on here that's worth a look, and there's never a dull moment. As for the cast, a who's-who of familiar HK faces of recent years, everyone hams up the over-the-top shenanigans to perfection. Help!!! ends up as a self-referencing parody that confuses its narratives and its message, but one that remains deliciously, cynically entertaining.
Comedy / Entertainment: 8/10

Hercules (1997)
Starring: Tate Donovan, James Woods, Danny DeVito
Director: John Musker, Ron Clements
Plot: The Greek hero Hercules must face challenges of strength, courage and heart, including a scheme by Hades, God of the Underworld, before he can be deemed a True Hero and rejoin his father Zeus among the Gods.
Review: The animation for Hercules is partially based on the drawing style of the classic Greek paintings and mosaics, and the end result is sometimes quite striking. The story itself, very loosely based on the actual legend, is the usual Disney comedy routine: hero must overcome himself, get the girl, etc. The humor, though, takes much more center stage than in previous films, and brims with tongue-in-cheek anachronisms (like the marketing extravaganza surrounding Hercules in the film that parallels the real one, including a pump action figure and Nike-styled sandals), slapstick humor, and even some good witticisms. Even most of the songs are fun! The voice acting is, as usual, excellent with fine character voices from Donovan, Egan, DeVito and the rest of the supporting cast, but it's James Woods, as the villainous Hades, who really steals the show, with the best lines, best delivery, and best comic timing. A good animated comedy that will please both children and adults alike.
Entertainment: 7/10

Hero (China - 2002)
Starring: Jet Li, Tony Leung, Maggie Cheung
Director: Zhang Yimou
Plot: After defeating three powerful assassins intent on killing China's future first Emperor, a master swordsman is invited to partake a meal with the grateful warlord, but the truth behind his exploits soon come to light.
Review: Made as an homage to the popular Asian fantasy genre, Hero is an amazing wuxia film in its own right, one that has been made in the grandest tradition. Helped by an enormous budget, it is a milestone of Chinese cinema, an epic in both scale and scope. Comparisons with Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon will be immediate for N.A. audiences, but Yimou's film is more an emotional experience, a visual wonderment that proceeds feel like a surreal fantasy. Writer-director Yimou is best known for his political, contemplative dramas (Raise the Red Lantern), films that have always been as beautiful to watch as they have been poignant. He reaches new heights here, and brings an ambitious fable to life. The wire-aided martial artistry and spectacular fight choreography are, of course, and these sequences can be marked as some of the best, most fluid wire-fu that have ever been put to film. The art direction is terrific, what with the amazing color palettes shifting with the changing flashbacks, all aided by some efficiently realized special effects and some wonderful costumes. Kudos must surely also be given to cinematographer Christopher Doyle (Ashes of Time) who enhances Yimou's already stunning visual style. The cast is just as impressive, combining some of the best acting and martial arts talents of China and Hong Kong. The strong chemistry between Leung and Cheung comes to the fore. Li also does his best turn in years as the main hero of the tale and shows off the skill we know him capable of. Special note should also go to the supporting cast including Donnie Yen and Zhang Ziyi. In the end, the film is best described as an "Artsy" Chinese film made into a mainstream action blockbuster, and it works. Being both incredibly dynamic and unabashedly poetic, Hero is also, perhaps, the best-looking martial arts film ever made.
Entertainment: 9/10

Heroic Trio (Hong Kong - 1993)
Starring: Anita Mui, Maggie Cheung, Michelle Yeoh
Director: Johnnie To
Plot: In a dark future, three women super-heroes from different backgrounds unite to stop an evil master from kidnapping babies that he wishes to turn into the Princes of a new Chinese empire.
Review: Heroic Trio is a mix of all that is exciting about Hong Kong action films. First is the fact that it features a fabulous trio of super-women characters, aptly played by three of Hong Kong's most popular actresses, high-kicking it with the best of them. Second is the inspired comic-book sensibilities throughout, including appropriately campy dialogue and situations, and a heavy dose of effective melodrama. Then there's the over-the-top, inventive, high-flying fantasy action full of amazing stunts and martial arts fighting that verge on the silly but are always impressive. Sure, the special effects are sometimes laughable by big-budget standards but it makes up for this with a great sense of style, in-your-face dynamic camera shots and break-neck pacing. The film also makes the best of what are obviously low-production values to create a world that is convincingly darker and grittier. All told, Heroic Trio manages to be an intense, vastly entertaining cult classic.
Entertainment: 8/10

Hero Never Dies, A (Hong Kong - 1998)
Starring: Leon Lai, Ching Wan Lau
Director: Johnnie To
Plot: Two expert gunmen from rival gangs form a bizarre friendship based on mutual respect. During an assassination attempt, both are badly injured in the ensuing gun-battle. Abandoned and left for dead by their respective bosses, they vow revenge against their former masters.
Review: Combining major gun battles with quiet, occasionally even poetic moments, A Hero Never Dies is a mixed bag of melodrama and over-the-top Hong Kong action. Re-treading the plot of A Better Tomorrow, director Johnnie To still manages to make the film seem fresh and interesting. Of particular interest is the scene where the two adversaries have a test of skill over (many) glasses of fine wine.
Action: 6/10
Entertainment: 7/10

Heroes Shed No Tears (Hong Kong - 1985)
Starring: Eddy Ko, Lam Ching Ying 
Director: John Woo
Plot: A rag-tag team of Chinese mercenaries kidnap a drug-dealing Thai general to bring him to justice but must first fight their way through two armies and a tribe of deadly hunters.
Review: One of director John Woo's (The Killer, Face/Off) least popular films, Heroes Shed No Tears is a typical Missing In Action - type foray with a dash of Dirty Dozen thrown in. Exploitive, uneven, badly-staged, low-budget, and at times even downright silly, the film is a mess that is partly redeemed by its constant action, explosions and trademark Woo gun-battles. Woo later returned to the Southeast Asia setting of this film in the terrific Bullet in the Head. Fans of the filmmaker may be disappointed with Heroes Shed No Tears, but low-brow thrill-seekers may want to give it a try.
Action: 6/10
Entertainment: 3/10

He's a Woman, She's a Man (Hong Kong - 1994)
Starring: Leslie Cheung, Anita Yuen, Carina Lau
Director: Peter Chan
Plot: A young woman dresses up as a man to win a talent competition and ends up entangled in a love triangle with her two pop idols.
Review: The film is a light-hearted romantic comedy, offering a humorous look at the Hong Kong popular music industry, with its flash-in-the-pan stars and crazed teeny-bopper fans. There's nothing very original here, but the engaging junk-food type plot, as well as the confusion and sexual hi-jinks that follow the gender mix-up provides some good-natured fun. In fact, He's a Woman, She's a Man could be called a Canto-Pop remake of Victor/Victoria, with some HK sensibilities. Some good tunes help the film along, and hearing "That's Amore" sung in Cantonese is particularly catching!
Entertainment: 6/10

Hidalgo (2004)
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Zuleikha Robinson, Omar Sharif
Director: Joe Johnston
Plot: In 1890, a dispatch rider for the U.S. Cavalry and his loyal horse travel to the Middle-East to participate in a legendary 3,000-mile endurance race across the Arabian Desert.
Review: Though said to be loosely based on the already tall (read exaggerated) tales of the very real Frank T. Hopkins and some historical events, it's best for audiences to go into Hidalgo without expecting anything related to a true account. What we do find is a fine adventure film that's entertaining and epic in scope, something like a 1930's cliffhanger series shot with the grandeur of Lawrence of Arabia in mind. Of course, the horse Hidalgo is the underdog; of course, his master is a has-been looking for redemption; of course, they face competition from a bevy of low-lifes and evil-doers; of course, they're going to win. But like all good films, it's the execution that counts, and even filled with the usual clichés the movie has a fine feel for the material and for a sense of thrilling derring-do. Director Johnston has the flair for well-made crowd pleasers (The Rocketeer, Jurassic Park III), and here he's at the top of his form. It also helps that the cinematography of the parched deserts is nothing less than breathtaking, that the story is engaging and that the race itself is exciting (with some CGI-enhanced obstacles like sandstorms and locusts along the way). Add to this a dashing, quietly appealing Mortensen as the leading man, the re-appearance of veteran actor Shariff as the noble sheik, and some beautiful horses including the hero's own uppity mustang Hidalgo, and the deal is complete. Though predictable, Hidalgo will win most people over with its grand scale, exotic locale, and sense of old-style adventure.
Entertainment: 7/10

The Hidden Fortress (Japan - 1958)
Starring: Toshiro Mifune, Misa Uehara, Minoru Chiaki
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Plot: In 16th-century feudal Japan, two cowardly, greedy peasants help a strong, fallen general and a princess passing off as a mute smuggle gold through occupied territory.
Review: The Hidden Fortress has gotten much attention lately for being George Lucas' inspiration for Star Wars, but more than this, it's a good example of director Kurosawa's golden period, one that also saw his classic works Rashomon and The Seven Samurai. The production benefited of the largest budget for a Japanese film to that day and it shows from the set design, lavish costumes and an impressive deployment, some scenes even using thousands of extras such as the sequence of the prisoner uprising that is a marvel to behold. Kurosawa is a master storyteller and filmmaker with great visual style that's apparent in all his works, here framing the action using the complete advantage of the widescreen format. In his hands the usual Samurai genre takes a much more dynamic turn with a style that makes immediately evident the influence of John Ford's Westerns on his work. Apart from the entertainment value, though, he also brings in important themes of class differences, of human weaknesses, of heroism and of sacrifice. The story itself does provide plenty of action and adventure including some intense sword fights and an impressive horse chase, and some of the bouts of humor that is found throughout are quite clever and amusing. The film does sometimes drag on a bit, and it doesn't always mix its elements of slapstick comedy, action epic and drama well. The main problem, however, is that the story wants to revolve around the two petty peasants, but whenever the narrative focuses on these two despicable, comic-relief characters the story loses all its momentum. Worse, the two peasants' greed is elevated to absurd proportions and turns the proceedings into pure farce. Another is the fact that, apart from Mifune's general, none of the characters are really sympathetic. All this said, when it gets to be serious The Hidden Fortress is quite interesting, and though it lacks the bravado and originality of his other works, it's still a fine picture from a legendary filmmaker.
Entertainment / Drama: 7/10

High Fidelity (2000)
Starring: John Cusack, Iben Hjejle, Jack Black
Director: Stephen Frears
Plot: After his latest relationship breaks down, a record-store owner and avid record collector sorts through his life's "top 5 breakups" to figure out why he has failed so often.
Review: Based on the novel by Nick Hornby, High Fidelity is a funny, self-depracating look at single life and failed relationships through the eyes of a non-committal narrator. John Cusack is perfectly cast here as the lazy, self-absorbed record geek. The supporting cast is also terrific, especially the two whacked-out store assistants who see the rest of the world as musically-ignorant and who have no qualms in letting you know about it. Some great cameos also sprinkle the film, including (among others) Tim Robbins as his lead rival and Catherine Zeta-Jones as one of his exes. With an eclectic pop/rock soundtrack spanning the decades, High Fidelity is as much a story of relationships as it is of the music that reflects (and even shapes) our moods and daily lives, and on both subjects it comes out a winner. Not to say that the film has any real deep significance (it doesn't really try to), but it is a smart, witty, and utterly charming romantic-comedy.
Entertainment: 8/10

High Crimes (2002)
Starring: Ashley Judd, Morgan Freeman, Jim Caviezel
Director: Carl Franklin
Plot: A corporate lawyer must fight in a military court after discovering that her loving husband is actually an ex-special forces officer accused of a mass-murder that occurred years ago in a South America village.
Review: Adapted from a novel by Joseph Finder, High Crimes is another ho-hum entry in Hollywood's courtroom thriller genre. There's a good starting premise here, involving a hidden military agenda regarding a mass murder in El Salvador that might have political implications, and the more personal fallout of family treason. None of this gets a chance to really develop outside familiar Hollywood territory, however, and though the script avoids the downright silliness of most, the rather predictable plot doesn't really help things. Oh, it's a decent enough mainstream thriller, with the typically calculated amounts of courtroom drama, surprising revelations, action sequences, dabbles of suspense and required twist ending, but it's just not original, shocking, or stylish enough to be memorable. In other words, it's nothing we haven't seen before done better in other films with the same military back story, such as A Few Good Men or Rules of Engagement. Mind you, any occasion to see Freeman is a good one, and he doesn't disappoint as the ex-drunk "wild card" lawyer, making even the most stale dialogue appear fresh. Judd, who's getting used to this kind of role, is also quite capable and quite sympathetic, and the chemistry between them is half the fun of the film. The rest of the cast are only plain-Jane caricatures with Caviezel, as the husband, playing his role with little emotion. Still, High Crimes is a well-paced and ably directed affair that delivers no more, no less than one would expect, with two fine star leads; for a quick rental on a cold night, one could do worse.
Entertainment: 5/10

Highlander: Endgame (2000)
Starring: Adrian Paul, Christophe Lambert, Bruce Payne
Director: Douglas Aarniokoski
Plot: Two immortal swordsmen from the same Highland clan must join forces to fight a powerful renegade who is bent on revenge and no longer follows their code of honor.
Review: For this, the third sequel in the Highlander series, the producers have decided to forget the previous sequels and focus on the extensive lore brought to life in the TV series. Christophe Lambert appears once again as Connor McLeod, but center stage goes to his descendant Duncan, the hero of the long-running TV series based on the Highlander mythology played by Adrian Paul. A lot of characters and situations appear here that are instantly recognizable by fans of the TV show, but are just not properly introduced to ones unfamiliar to the series. In fact, the plot tries to fit too much into an under-two-hour, including alluding to events of the first film, providing flashbacks over the centuries, and doesn't flesh out the present villain (played to the hammy best by Payne). The action sequences, including some extensive sword and martial arts fighting, are well executed and choreographed, especially the ones between Paul and Hong Kong star Donnie Yen. Apart from the occasional confusion for new viewers, and the fact that it may seem more akin to a bigger-budget episode than a feature, Highlander: Endgame is an entertaining, fast-paced piece of fluff and fun for both fans and non-fans alike.
Entertainment: 6/10

High Risk (Hong Kong - 1995)
Starring: Jet Li, Jacky Cheung, Chingmy Yau
Director: Wong Jing
Plot: When terrorists take over a luxury hotel, an ex-cop-turned-stuntman-and-bodyguard must protect a cowardly, prima-donna action star and rescue the hostages from a criminal mastermind who caused the death of his family years before.
Review: The premise of High Risk is a flagrant rip-off of Die Hard, but the execution is purely Hong Kong. From its straight, serious beginnings, the plot and story become ludicrous very early into the proceedings, but as an HK film, we've learnt to just sit back and enjoy the fireworks. Frenzied gun-battles, amazing action set pieces by action choreographer extraordinaire Corey Yuen (Fong Sai Yuk, Enter the Eagles), and some major destruction (as a helicopter crashes into the building, provided by some terrible special effects) are all par for the course. There are many in-jokes for fans of HK films, not the least of which is the (obvious) defamation of Jackie Chan by Cheung's character as the film idol who's a fraud. The movie tries to blend slapstick, melodrama and action in a weird combination, and eventually this schizophrenia takes its toll and makes High Risk feel like a bad mix of two completely different movies. Worse, Jet Li's talents are wasted: he's in few fights and has even less screen time than Cheung who's over-the-top caricature easily steals all the best scenes, including the climactic fight sequence. Still, there's a lot to enjoy, including a great scene when Li crashes his car into the hotel lobby, mows down the bad guys, then takes the car into the elevator to the penthouse to continue the mayhem! Good, mindless fun.
Entertainment: 7/10

High Voltage (Hong Kong - 1995)
Starring: Donnie Yen, Roy Cheung, Edu Manzano
Director: Andrew Kam
Plot: A cop, deemed a loose cannon by his superiors, is sent to the Philipines to bring back a key witness where he meets an old enemy, the man who killed his wife.
Review: High Voltage is the type of low-budget action flick that tacks on a rehashed gangster and cop-buddy plotline as an excuse for delivering "the goods". The acting is terrible across the board, and Yen, playing the hero as a Dirty Harry-type character, just doesn't have enough screen presence to pull it off. The film tries to imitate the gunfight-style of other, better films (Hard Boiled, A Better Tomorrow) but just succeeds in coming out bland. On the other hand, the fight sequences with Donnie Yen (Iron Monkey) are good, but though using the American style of rapid edits with Hong Kong type martial arts may look impressive, it just doesn't do his skills justice. A decent action exercise for undemanding viewers.
Action: 6/10
Entertainment: 4/10

The Hills Have Eyes (2006)
Starring: Aaron Stanford, Ted Levine, Dan Byrd
Director: Alexandre Aja
Plot: Taking a shortcut across New Mexico into an abandoned nuclear test site, a family is forced to confront a blood-thirsty clan of genetic mutants when their truck breaks down miles from civilization.
Review: Following a string of cult classic horror remakes, The Hills Have Eyes - an adaptation of the Wes Craven 1977 film - is a back-to-the-basics of the "socially relevant" flicks of the 1970's such as the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, albeit with slicker production values. The tale starts off with some disturbing imagery of nuclear test blasts inter-cut with pictures of deformed figures, all to a 1950's ditty, and promises shocks and social commentary galore. All good "modern" horror narrative confronts us with our own subconscious fears by showing us shocking transgressions to our everyday world, and writer / director Aja (best known for the French thriller High Tension) knows how to make the most of the breakdown of civilized order. After setting up the social structure of its typical suburban family unit in the first act, the film turns their world upside down in a shocking moment of "violation of normality" when the mutated killers breach the confines of the family's world by entering their trailer, raping the daughter, burning the father, killing the mother and kidnapping the infant - we're definitely not in Kansas anymore. From there, it's a bloody, savage confrontation in a ghost mining town between son-in-law and mutants for the life of a baby, where the family's German Shepherd proves to really be man's best friend. Filmed in the stunning deserts of Morocco, the low-budget approach provides an intimacy among the vistas that works well, with its dynamic, crisp camera work and the filmmakers know how to elevate the feeling of dread, twisting the knife (as it were) on an already ugly situation. Not to be shortchanged, the cast of B-list actors and relative unknowns ham up their parts well, and the villains, in full prosthetic makeup, make do. As an exercise in the creepy, the vile and the vicious this is right up there in the genre, easily getting an emotional response from the audience. The trip is a visceral, nasty one even if the final redemption seems somewhat of a cop-out. The real question on audience's minds however may well be what was the point of it all, exactly? The Hills Have Eyes isn't for the mainstream or the faint of heart, and it's not clear how such brutal fare can be passed on as "entertainment", but for those looking for non-supernatural horror - or fans of the 70's era genre - this is primo stuff.
Horror: 5/10


A History of Violence (2005)
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Maria Bello, William Hurt, Ed Harris 
Director: David Cronenberg
Plot: Praised as a hero after killing two thugs intent on violence in his diner, a small-town family man sees his world crumble when the event attracts the interest of New York mobsters who believe he is someone from their past.
Review: Adapted from the graphic novel by crime-noir author John Wagner, A History of Violence is a film that will likely polarize viewers but won't let anyone off the hook. The first half-hour of the film is rather slow and deliberate, establishing the quiet, small-town life, all to better show the eventual breakdown of trust and the disintegration of the family unit. Compared to such in-your-face works as Naked Lunch, Scanners and Dead Ringers, here Cronenberg's usual themes of identity and unraveling reality are given a surprisingly down-to-earth approach making it all the more powerful. His directing has never been more assured, and no better example can be given than the film's two opposite sex scenes - the first innocent and loving, the second cruel and unpleasant - filmed with such clarity and immediacy that they silently capture the collapse of the married couple. Mortensen gives a fine low-key performance as the quiet man forced into violent situations, having to face his own Heart of Darkness. Yet it's Bello who really shines getting the biggest emotional response as she slowly, unbelievably, realizes she doesn't really know her husband of 15 years. Her reactions are natural and her fear is real. Though really meant as a crime and social drama, the film works equally well as a suspense thriller with its sense of paranoia that creeps in as the lies and doubts pile up along with the bodies. The appearances of a disfigured Ed Harris as a New York mobster bent on revenge, or a mis-cast William Hurt in a surprise role only add to the sense of danger and uneasiness. The most shocking aspects, though, are the quick bursts of savage violence, as short and as viciously effective as they should be, delivered in such a matter-of-fact manner as to define the very brutality of its character. In the end, however, it is the repercussions of these actions that stay with us, and though it might well be Cronenberg's most mainstream fare yet, A History of Violence will definitely elicit a reaction.
Drama: 8/10

Hitch (2005)
Starring: Will Smith, Eva Mendes, Kevin James
Director: Andy Tennant
Plot: A so-called "date doctor" manages to help even the most desperate men find the woman of their dreams, but can't seem to be able to help himself when he falls for a tabloid journalist out to expose him.
Review: Though Hitch is yet another in a long stream of predictable light-hearted romantic comedies, the film almost feels like a breath of fresh air thanks mostly to leading man Smith, here at his smooth, charming best. Yes, the script is a modern spin on Cyrano de Bergerac with the twist that the man behind the scenes is himself quite a catch. If the rom-com plot is familiar - what with all the usual trappings of mistaken-identities, dating pratfalls, inevitable road to happy ending, et al - the direction by genre veteran Tennant (Sweet Home Alabama, Ever After) hits all the right notes, flows well, and gets good comic timing from the entire cast. Surprisingly enough, Mendes and the rambunctious James almost manage to upstage Smith in many funny scenes (the latter's travails to learning the right dance moves or when to kiss a girl are priceless) - that they all blend together this well is a testament to the savvy direction. Hitch isn't near being a classic by any means but with wit and charm it gets the job done, and that's all one can really ask from a date movie.
Entertainment: 7/10

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (2005)
Starring: Sam Rockwell, Mos Def, Zooey Deschanel
Director: Garth Jennings
Plot: After our planet is blown up to make way for a hyperspace highway, the last surviving Earth man hitches an interstellar ride with an odd collection of aliens in search for the answer to Life, the Universe and Everything.
Review: The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is the long-awaited big-screen adaptation of the popular radio show (and novel) by UK author Douglas Adams, a smart sci-fi comedy that spawned an acclaimed BBC TV mini-series in the 80's. The adventure starts as Earth blows up and its a trippy, amusing spoof at SF conventions as well as human foibles and beliefs (Man is the third most intelligent beings on the planet, the answer to Everything is.. 42). Sure, there had to be changes for world-wide (and teen) consumption to make it "mostly harmless": for one, there's too much reliance on the special effects, the overly cynical tone of the previous adaptations has been tuned down, there's a bevy of action sequences to spice things up, and the romantic triangle has been given a more prominent role this time around. For fans of the original material there's much to be happy about so, as the Guide says, "Don't Panic": though some favorite bits had to go by the way-side, they haven't mucked it up as fans feared. Though there are some problems with general pacing, first-time director mostly succeeds at making the movie palpable to non-initiates while being faithful to the irreverent humor. In fact, much of the films seems to come straight out of author Adam's original script used on the show. The film also makes the occasional wink to the BBC series, borrowing its theme song, its narrator, and even some of its props (see a brief cameo by TV's version of the depressed super-robot Marvin). For those who haven't been privy to the books, the narrative may seem too much like a series of comic sketches instead of a typical sci-fi adventure; the tone and dry Brit humor (reminiscent of Monty Python, perhaps) may seem a little too odd; the slapstick too brainy; and the main events amusing but never laugh-out-loud funny. However, those looking for something a bit different will enjoy the nonsensical stuff as pure, surreal spoof (with some hilarious scenes due to the ship's Improbability Drive - like when the crew turns into yarn puppets!). Plus, the varied animated explanations straight from the Guide are clever and funny. As for the actors, they're just right in their respective roles, particularly an over-the-top Rockwell playing the two-headed galactic president Beeblebrock to his usual manic form. For die-hards, it's nice to see the story getting the big-budget treatment even if this version comes off as incomplete and nowhere near as subversive; hopefully it will entice everyone else to get hold of the novels for themselves.
Entertainment: 7/10

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)
Starring: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage
Director: Peter Jackson
Plot: A Hobbit reluctantly decides to join a band of Dwarfs and a powerful wizard in their quest to reclaim their ancient Mountain home (and their long-lost gold) from a vicious dragon, escaping nasty Orcs along the way.
Review: Nine years after the epic The Lord of the Rings, the filmmakers are back to bring us more Middle-Earth goodness with their version of The Hobbit, author J.R.R. Tolkien's children's narrative written earlier, and set 60 years before the events of the LOTR trilogy. There's a quick, easy feeling of familiarity with the place and setting, and the dinner scene in the opening Act where we meet all our characters - hobbit, wizard and dwarfs - brings a lighthearted, entertaining exposition that captures the spirit of the original book. The production design is also exceptional throughout, with superb dwarf prosthetics, beautiful New Zealand cinematography, and eye-popping CG dwarf city and the needlessly-complicated orc underground layout. But while many of the elements of what made LOTR so enjoyable are here, it's all inferior; none of it is disagreeable - returning director Jackson is too good for that - it just feels lazy, with many instances repeating ones from the first LOTR chapter. Much of the blame is due to the attempt to turn a 200 page novel to another 9-hour, three-movie Hollywood experience, of which this is only the first installment. The previous films were dense with ideas, characters, mythology and events; trying to capture the scale of LOTR from Tolkien's milder, more intimate and especially shorter adventure makes for an awkward film. The script has been bloated with too many secondary sub-plots and large-scale, fx-heavy action sequences, with constant references to the original, better trilogy. The tone of the book was never meant to be as formidable, or grand as the Lord of the Rings, and these gratuitous additions do the story a dis-service. The cast is game, though: Freeman makes for a wonderful Bilbo Baggins, Armitage has royal presence as the Dwarf King, McKellen returns as Gandalf, Andy Serkis returns as Gollum in a fateful scene, and other familiar faces make a not-so-necessary appearance. But it's the camaraderie and goofy humor of the dwarf company that makes it all palatable. With this first part prequel-that-wants-to-be-a-blockbuster-sequel, Jackson tries to recapture the grandeur and complexity of The Lord of the Rings but just can't recapture the enchantment. On its own, An Unexpected Journey is fine, forgettable popcorn fantasy; overdrawn into plodding spectacle as it is, however, it just can't hold a light to what came before.
Entertainment: 7/10

The Hole (Taiwan - 1998)
Starring: Kang-sheng Lee, Kuei-Mei Yang
Director: Ming-liang Tsai
Plot: On the last week of 1999, as Taiwan is struck by a mysterious plague and the city is left almost deserted, two neighbors become aware of each other through a hole between their apartments.
Review: This entry in the "2000 seen by..." film series is reminiscent of Kafka's Metamorphosis, using almost no dialog, minimal sets and few characters to portray a civilization in decay and the loneliness of the city's inhabitants, piled into impersonal apartment buildings, as they all slowly fall prey to the mysterious disease that makes them scurry around like cockroaches. And yet they still try to latch on to some hope, as the woman fights off the incessant rain-water pouring into her apartment and fantasizes singing 1950's Hong Kong pop musicals (shown as terrific singing and dancing numbers all in bright colors to contrast the ugly blues of the real world) hoping to connect with the voyeuristic neighbor upstairs. The Hole is a quiet, delicate, slow-paced, well-acted and finely shot film full of long takes and some funny moments, one that eventually gets under your skin and leaves you wondering about our own society.
Drama: 8/10

The Holiday (2006)
Starring: Kate Winslet, Cameron Diaz, Jude Law, Jack Black
Director: Nancy Meyers
Plot: Looking for a change of scenery after their respective guy problems, two women meet over the Web and swap homes for the Christmas holidays - one in rural England, the other in LA - and end up falling for local guys.
Review: The romantic comedy is alive and well in Hollywood, as the better-than-average The Holiday easily proves. There's no startling revelation coming from its love-lorn denizens, nor does it manage to avoid the usual traps and clichés, but it does avail itself rather well with its rich, well-to-do, and mostly real-life-problem-free leads. Beautiful settings? Check. Gorgeous leads? Check. Perfect houses, cottages, and neighbors? Check, check and check. Writer / director Meyers (Something's Gotta Give, the hilarious What Women Want) knows a thing or two of what makes a chick flick tick (now say that 3 times fast!) and here she's playing the Holiday season cards just right, mixing in light humor, romantic gumption and melodrama in just the right amounts. Of course, the film requires everyone to wear their emotions on their sleeves, and thankfully Winslet and Law are simply radiant in just about any performance they take a mind to, even in this romantic trifle. The problem is that they are simply no match for the dreary, dopey-eyed Diaz and the insufferable Black. In fact, through some awkward interactions, it's tough to see what the former see in the latter. The supporting cast, including such solid vets as Eli Wallach, Edward Burns and Rufus Sewell do add a lot of heft to the otherwise bland script. Sure, this is a fluff piece, but in the hands of Meyers - and the help of her charming, A-list cast - The Holiday is a nice little piece of entertainment to cuddle up to.
Entertainment: 6/10

The Hollow Man (2000)
Starring: Kevin Bacon, Elisabeth Shue, Josh Brolin
Director: Paul Verhoeven
Plot: A research scientist tests an invisibility serum on himself and turns violently against his former co-workers as his megalomaniacal tendencies come to the fore.
Review: The Hollow Man is another revisit in the Invisible Man mythology, starting with the megalomaniacal premise of the original 1932 film but with themes and situations that bring the story into a more modern setting. The film is very slickly made, with excellent execution all around, and a tight script with some interesting story ideas, but it just doesn't go far enough with the potential of the story, limiting it to the usual summer fare full of predictable plot twists and events. True, director Verhoeven (Robocop, Basic Instinct) 's trademark sexual tension and violence are clearly evident and gives the film a bit of a backbone, but the more interesting themes of paranoia and morality that are ripe in the subject matter are just not fully realized. In fact, it's hard to shake the feeling that this is just a new sci-fi re-telling of the typical teen haunted house / slasher flick, albeit an original take on it. The real star attraction, though, is the absolutely stunning, and often gruesome, special effects especially the repeated invisibility process as we watch the living bodies slowly disappear layer by layer. It’s just unfortunate that the film was tailor-made around the amazing special effects, instead of the other way around. Hollow Man is a slightly disappointing high-tech ghost story, but one with enough thrills to make for an entertaining summer pop-corn movie.
Entertainment: 6/10

Hollywood Ending (2002)
Starring: Woody Allen, Tea Leoni, Treat Williams
Director: Woody Allen
Plot: A has-been director is given a picture that could bring him back to the spotlight from his producer ex-wife but when he succumbs to stress-induced blindness he feigns sight so as not to lose his last chance.
Review: Poking fun at Hollywood has long been a tradition, from Sunset Boulevard to The Player, passing by Allen's own misplaced Celebrity, and there's nothing new to be learnt on that subject in his latest New York production Hollywood Ending. Yet the director / writer / actor of such gems as Manhattan and Annie Hall still pours it on in an amusing, if not quite always successful satire on L.A. movie execs and The System. There are some funny moments, some great one-liners, the occasional witty banter, and even some slapstick to liven up the story about the director's ridiculous attempts to shoot a film blind (an obvious metaphor), and about his failed relationship with his ex. The main problem of the film, however, is Woody Allen himself. The hypochondriac, stressed-out, dirty old man shtick that has been his trademark for the last 35 years was getting long in the tooth years ago, and, though there are always moments of amusing self-deprecation in Allen's act, it's about time for him to try something else. The saving grace is Téa Leoni in what is probably one of her best performances as the aforementioned ex. She is by far the best thing in the picture, easily carrying every scene she's in with a great straight-man delivery, good comic timing, and real presence. The rest of the cast, from Williams as a hard-nosed producer, to the infamous George Hamilton as a flaky California executive, are good enough to make Allen's jokes and satire work. In the end, Hollywood Ending does go on a little too long, and there's not enough meat to carry it all through, but fans of Allen's work will appreciate his getting back to comic form.
Entertainment: 5/10

Hollywoodland (2006)
Starring: Adrien Brody, Diane Lane, Ben Affleck
Director: Allen Coulter
Plot: A small-time Hollywood private detective gets in over his head when he gets hired by a distraught mother to investigate the mysterious death of actor George Reeves, TV's first Superman.
Review: The '50s-era Hollywoodland is an intriguing, low-key affair that combines true-crime drama, biopic and a look at the not-so-glittering golden-age of Hollywood, and for the most part comes off rather well. Though police on the scene deemed his death a suicide when they found him dead from a gunshot wound to the head on June 16, 1959, Reeve's death remains one of those infamous inconclusive Hollywood deaths. From that starting point, the film retraces Reeves' life and career in flashbacks, from the late 1930s, starting with a small role in Gone with the Wind his most famous (and career-ending) role in television's Adventures of Superman. The story does take some liberties with actual historical events to enhance the drama, all the more to allow the fictitious down-on-his-luck private eye's own story to intertwine and parallel his subject's as the detective (and the audience) gets deeper into the sad realities of Reeve's off-stage life. The film presents several possible scenarios for Reeves' death - there were opportunities for murder as well as suicide - without actually focusing on any single one or, thankfully, trying to resolve it. With winks to such films as Chinatown and Sunset Boulevard, TV alumni Allen Coulter directs his first feature film with an eye to uncovering the dark side of Hollywood, showing that Tinseltown itself has all the elements for a film noir. He also brings a good feel for the era and the characters, especially when it comes to the two leads, both searching for that unattainable Hollywood glory in their own way. Affleck, putting on some weight for the occasion, impresses in the role of Reeve's and plays him with the gumption and charm that he lends most of his roles but allows a melancholy to seep in - it's easily his most successful, dramatic role to date. Brody, as the low-rent gumshoe looking for "an angle" to raise his own status - his character is a composite of real-life journalists, cops, and detectives who worked on the case - has the right wherewithal to be both sleazy manipulator and pitiful victim depending on the occasion, though his ultimate "moral awakening" seems rather forced. Reeve's story is a descent into a Hollywood nightmare - typecast as a children's TV show hero, relying on his rich mistress to keep his status and hating himself for it, the film evokes how the studios and their moguls controlled their actors' private lives. The whole thing may not be as cohesive as it could have been, but Hollywoodland has the right elements to be both tragic cautionary and effective film noir.
Drama: 6/10

Holy Smoke! (1999)
Starring: Kate Winslet, Harvey Keitel, Julie Hamilton
Director: Jane Campion
Plot: After joining an Indian spiritual movement, a young headstrong Australian woman is forced to spend two days with an American counselor hired by her family to deprogram her.
Review: With Holy Smoke!, director Campion (Portrait of a Lady, The Piano) could have given us an interesting look at the appeal of cults and the failures of society, as well as an interesting character study, but only ends up offering up a bland effort. The story does start off well, with a promising premise and some excellently drawn visual flourishes, especially during the sequences in India. But as soon as we return Down Under (after barely 20 minutes), it goes downhill. The problem is that the confrontation and ensuing relationship between Keitel and Winslet, the film's very raison d'être, remains flat and unconvincing throughout the story's ups and downs. This macho expert regurgitating sacred texts is supposed to be an experienced deprogrammer when he gets so easily flustered and taken "for a ride"? And this strong-willed, intelligent young woman whose sense of self is beyond her entourages is supposed to have easily succumbed to a male-dominated Indian sect? Not likely. And there's some pretty bizarre stuff, too, whose context remains a mystery: a naked Winslet is seen peeing herself before Keitel, then promptly beds him; Keitel agrees to run around the desert in a tight-fitting red dress and falls apart; etc. To be fair, the actors, and especially the vivid Winslet, portray their respective characters well for this sort of semi-dramatic endeavor. The main culprit is really the script which, having delineated the characters, seems to throw them together in manners that doesn't add up. For humorous spice, the usual neurotic, eccentric Australian characters so prevalent in Hollywood productions fill the nooks and crannies left by the main plotline, but though they're given a sympathetic treatment, they never really fill any roles. Thanks to Campion and her cinematographer the film is never dull to look at, with some beautiful shots taking advantage of the majesty of the countryside. In the end, however, it just feels like there's something missing from Holy Smoke!, and that might well be heart.
Drama: 4/10

Home on the Range (2004)
Starring: Roseanne Barr, Judi Dench, Jennifer Tilly
Directors: Will Finn, John Sanford
Plot: Set in the Wild West, three mismatched cows decide to save their beloved owner's dairy farm by embarking on a quest to capture a notorious yodeling cattle rustler and collect the handsome reward.
Review: Going against the CGI features now in vogue, the latest (and perhaps last) traditional animated Disney feature Home on the Range is a surprisingly sprightly and fun-filled event. There's some terrific energy on display, and the dynamic animation will keep everyone glued to the screen throughout the short-running time. The familiar anthropomorphic animals are back, only this time it's cows with attitude - and they know kung-fu (!). The humor is harmless and light-hearted, poking fun at various Wild West clichés, and providing loads of sight gags for kids and some witty zingers for grown-ups, mostly in the form of pop culture references and puns. The score and songs are some of the best in a decade of animated fare. The highlight is a grand, psychedelic musical number as the yodeling villain charms the cattle into his secret hideout, though there are lots of amusing, and action-packed, sequences throughout. They've also managed to assemble a great voice cast including the lead trio of Barr, Dench and Tilly playing to stereotype (except, well, as bovine) as well as Cuba Gooding Jr. (in a hysteric performance as the over-zealous horse), Randy Quaid (as the enormous rustler) and even a cameo by fan-favorite Steve Buscemi. It's not on par to such classics as Lion King or Aladdin, but it's a welcome return to comic form for Disney after such disappointing fare as Brother Bear. As the traditional animation studio's last try Home on the Range is a keeper.
Entertainment: 7/10

Hong Kong 1941 (Hong Kong - 1984)
Starring: Chow Yun-Fat, Cecilia Yip, Alex Mann
Director: Po Chich Leong
Plot: Falling for the same woman, an unemployed actor and a small-time thief dabble in the black market and the resistance to ensure their escape during the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong in 1941.
Review: Made with obvious good intentions to be an epic look at a dark time in Hong Kong's history, Hong Kong 1941 suffers from comparison with other sweeping war dramas. As a history lesson for American audiences, it's an interesting view of the happenings in this part of Asia during World War II that we never really get a chance to see much. The filmmakers want to recapture the atrocities of the era while damning those Chinese collaborators who made things worse, and for the most part succeed - though some of the scenes are wooden and unconvincing, others (like the vicious torture scene involving firecrackers) are very intense. Of course, the dramatic themes of loyalty and friendship are predominant in both the romantic moments (as one friend denies his Love for the other) and the common goal that binds the three lost souls, that of escape. In fact it's all very melodramatic and theatrical at times, and the syrupy, tragic romantic triangle takes up as much time as the difficulties and tribulations of the Chinese population being stamped underfoot of the Japanese army. Still, considering the obvious budget restrictions the film does manage to give a good glimpse of life during these hard times, and the competent direction gets us through some of the story's slower moments. The three leads, and especially Chow Yun-Fat, make out pretty well, capturing a sense of gentle camaraderie quickly. But though it received many accolades for the acting, it won't pass muster with more critical viewers. Hong Kong 1941 is not a must-see by any means, but as an able war drama it does have its moments and fans of leading man Chow Yun-Fat will want to take a look.
Drama: 5/10

Hoodwinked (2006)
Starring: Anne Hathaway, Glenn Close, James Belushi
Directors: Cory Edwards, Todd Edwards
Plot: After furry cops stop a seemingly open-and-shut breaking-and-entering incident at Granny's cottage, clues lead to Little Red Riding Hood being the Goodie Bandit, a criminal who has been stealing fairy-land's recipes.
Review: The classic fairy-tale of Little Red Riding Hood, the Big Bad Wolf and Granny takes on a wild film-noir spin in Hoodwinked, a film that boasts no A-list actors, no chart-topping hits, and no big marketing push yet is surprisingly funny and consistently entertaining. The first thing to hit is that the CGI looks simplistic and a tad primitive compared to common fare by Pixar, and the style reminds one of plastic puppets. Yet, if the animation is more functional than eye-popping, the engaging story instantly grabs you, and the voice acting is spot-on. Taking some obvious notes from Shrek without imitating it, the script is excellent, filled with satire, jokes, jabs, joyful pop-culture and cinematic references, fairy-tale send-ups and more. Sure the plot and execution may not be terribly original, but there's definite chutzpah in the works and the gags come fast and furious. There are some pleasantly surprising additions, too, like the blind yodeling goat, a bizarre Schnitzel song-and-dance routine, and a Law-and-Order type criminal caper. With its short running time, the whole thing zips along through the unexpected background story of its four lead characters (set up as a seeming homage to Rashomon), sets up its whodunit mystery, and ends in a Bond-like finale, all without missing a beat. Though completely appropriate for family viewing, the narrative, witty dialogue and soundtrack (made up of new tunes filled with clever lyrics) are clearly meant to tickle an older crowd. All told, Hoodwinked is a rowdy good time, proving that inspiration and talent can more than make up for a limited budget.
Entertainment: 7/10

Horror Hotline ... Big Head Monster (Hong Kong - 2001)
Starring: Francis Ng, Josie Ho, Sam Lee
Director: Soi Cheang
Plot: A radio producer with the top supernatural call-in program joins an American journalist's attempt to uncover the secret behind a monster that seems to have hit a nerve with audiences.
Review: Apart from the hilarious title, the idea of a "big headed baby" monster as a premise for a horror film seems rather silly. However, by keeping the tone serious Horror Hotline avoid the pratfalls that would make it devolve into camp and gets quite involving. The beginning is rather slow, but by mid-way point the elements merge and provide some good creepy fun. Though it's all rather formulaic using the template of Ringu in style (we even get a glimpse of a Sadako-like presence that seems thrown in) there are a couple of good spine-tingling sequences. Most of the thrills come from the tension-filled atmosphere created by the camera work, cinematography and soundtrack, all of which are proficiently handled. If there's a problem it's that the film is a bit uneven, and the story doesn't mesh with plot threads left hanging, and characters disappearing from the story. The climax, taking a cue from the The Blair Witch Project, is quite effective but completely out of left field, as if it was cobbled together from another film. This ending is also pretty abrupt, leaving many questions unresolved. Mind you, these films are really made just to provide a good scare, and this one isn't very cohesive and more is left unexplained than we would prefer, it does deliver the goods. The cast is appropriate, especially Ng, and manage to round out their personas with the limitations of the material. Despite its faults, it's obvious that HK filmmaking has taken a cue from the new Asian horror trend, and Horror Hotline is a step in the right direction.
Horror: 6/10

The Horseman on the Roof (Le Hussard sur le Toit) (France - 1995)
Starring: Olivier Martinez, Juliette Binoche
Director: Jean-Paul Rappeneau
Plot: A young aristocratic Italian revolutionary gallantly tries to help a young noble woman find her husband during a cholera epidemic in 1930's France.
Review: The Horseman on the Roof is a sweeping epic that is part historical drama, part impossible romance, and all adventure. Director Rappeneau (Cyrano de Bergerac) has a deft hand for both the quiet moments and the action scenes as well as a keen eye for detail. The script, based on the popular novel, manages to keep all these various components flowing smoothly never missing a beat in pacing, and always keeping things interesting. The most impressive aspect of the film is its harrowing portrayal of the ravages of cholera on the small communities, from the madness of the terrified crowds to the feasting of the carrion birds on the dead, the film never turns its eye from showing the gruesome results. But this is only the backdrop upon which the rousing adventure story is played out, complete with sword fights, racing horses, a run through old rooftops, and danger at every corner. The cinematography is grandiose, never missing an opportunity to show the beautiful French scenic countryside and adds much to the feel of the film. Martinez, playing his character with a fiery temperament and an animal charm balanced with his righteous upbringing, makes a great leading man and Binoche also does well with her role, but its the great chemistry between the two that makes the platonic, brewing romantic angle work so well. Lavishly produced, well acted, and with a fine intelligent script, The Horseman on the Roof is grand entertainment on every level.
Entertainment: 8/10

The Horse Whisperer (1998)
Starring: Robert Redford, Kristin Scott Thomas, Scarlett Johansson
Director: Robert Redford
Plot: A tough big city editor drives to Montana to find a famed horse trainer after a traumatic winter accident leaves her daughter disabled and her horse in a state of shock, and ends up falling for him.
Review: The Horse Whisperer, an adaptation of the best-selling novel, immediately reminds one of another novel-turned-movie, The Bridges of Madison County. In the same vein, the film might easily be too long-winded and dull for some, but the laid-back, easy-going style goes a long way to provide a good feeling as to the rancher's lifestyle. It's a bit too sentimental and rose-tinted perhaps, and the clash of Big City vs. Old West a little frail, but the serenity found here is captured in a way that makes you long for these imagined better times. The script takes some liberties with the book, of course, the most striking of which is in the romantic entanglements between the big city wife and the charming horse trainer by cutting up, thankfully, the book's ending. Even better, the romance doesn't take too much of the screen time, most of which is allotted to seeing the healing process of both animal and daughter, a much more interesting subject. This part might have been a three-hankie drama, but thankfully it's not too geared on the sentimentality of its situation. But the film is at its best when it captures the intensity in the relationship between man and horse, and indeed the horse-training scenes are surprisingly gripping. Though it might feel a bit self-indulgent this would be worth seeing for the scenery alone. For one, the opening sequence is startling before soon easing into a much more leisurely pace. Second, actor / director Redford (Ordinary People) gives a heart-felt directorial effort here, and the cinematography of the plains and mountains of Montana are breath-taking. As an actor, Redford may be getting a little old for these roles, though his charm still shines through. Thomas, though, is quite convincing as is Johansson as the bitter teen. Sam Neill, in a supporting role as the hubby, doesn't get much to do, and neither does Dianne Wiest as the portly Rancher's wife. For sure, horse-lovers will find much to enjoy in The Horse Whisperer, but so will the rest of the movie-going audience who don't mind a leisurely ride.
Drama: 6/10

Dr. Seuss' Horton Hears a Who! (2008)
Starring: Jim Carrey, Steven Carell, Carol Burnett
Directors: Jim Hayward, Steve Martino
Plot: An elephant struggles to protect a microscopic town living on a speck of dust attached to a fragile flower from the other denizens of the jungle who refuse to accept that it exists and demand he destroy it.
Review: The beloved Dr. Seuss 1954 children's classic Horton Hears a Who! gets the big-budget CGI treatment, and - confounding expectations - it's actually pretty darn good. True, Dr. Seuss purists will be annoyed by the liberties taken by the filmmakers to "modernize" the dialogue and characters (especially when it comes to Carrey's interpretation of Horton), and they'll be scratching their heads at the necessity to add banal sequences full of pop culture references (the order of the day, it seems, for CGI movies) to pad the original story to feature length. But if the rhyming prose has been short-changed to only a sparse narration, the spirit of the work - with its themes of staying true to one's beliefs and persevering through adversity - is still intact, and most everyone will find much to enjoy in this rendition, if you've read the book a hundred times or not. For one, the colorful art direction, the sumptuous computer animation and the character renderings are all superb and stay true to the original, inimitable style of Seuss' works. For two, the added sequences fleshes out both the microscopic community and the Jungle of Nool's inhabitants, though it's clearly the imaginative rendering of the fantastic Whoville and the daily madcap life of its denizens that are really worth another visit. Despite some hesitation in seeing Carrey head-lining the cast, the voice acting is actually bang-on, with comedienne Burnett as the Kangaroo and self-proclaimed leader of the jungle, and Carell as the "boob" mayor of Whoville. One expects even Dr. Seuss would have approved; this Horton Hears a Who! is solid entertainment for the whole family. 
Entertainment: 8/10

Hostage (2005)
Starring: Bruce Willis, Kevin Pollak, Ben Foster
Director: Florent Emilio Siri
Plot: A former hostage negotiator, now a small town cop, must save the lives of a wealthy family held hostage by scared, trigger-happy teens only to have the situation escalate when his own family's lives are put in danger by a crime cartel out to retrieve a disk left in the house.
Review: Adapted from the best-selling novel by Robert Crais, Hostage is a high-concept suspense thriller that's for the most part involving but loses steam somewhere in the middle. The story starts off well, setting up the situation with assurance and giving the promise for some real payoff. The two parallel hostage crises makes for some complex interactions, and provides the moral dilemma to its central character. First-timer Siri also shows a fine ability to create a sense of suspense and provides some slick directing that sheens over some of the more convoluted and implausible plot twists. For good measure, the script even throws in some possibly violent sexual tension as one of the psychologically disturbed teens eyes the young female prisoner, and even gives a father-son bonding experience between negotiator and the youngest hostage. At this point it all begins to get rather pedestrian and even a tad silly as things evolve and resolve, climaxing in a free-for-all in a burning mansion. Though past his peak following the Die Hard series, Willis can still hold his own in a movie, even if his dramatic range isn't that extensive. Less impressive is the rest of the cast, especially the over-wrought teens who turn on each other. Still, as video-shelf filler, Hostage doesn't disappoint and it's an easy way to pass a few hours.
Entertainment: 5/10

Hostel (2006)
Starring: Jay Hernandez, Derek Richardson
Director: Eli Roth
Plot: Two sex-seeking Americans on a tour of Eastern Europe trek to a small village hostel where there dreams come true in the form of two willing, busty locals, only to find they've actually been targeted as tourists to be tortured and murdered.
Review: A film that got a lot of press when it first came out, the creepy and gory Hostel is definitely not everyone's idea of a good time. The intrigue makes it more a bloody thriller than a horror film, as there's really nothing supernatural going on; it's a perfect example of the modern filmmakers' fascination with threats to the flesh more than the spirit. There's little real mystery and limited suspense, as we all know what's going to happen - audiences just wait for the protagonists to catch up. Even if the film takes its time to set the background and characters up, all to make the inevitable blood-letting that much more effective, they're not really interesting enough to care about. There's some dark humor to be had, for sure, and the political subtext (American victims are more expensive because everyone has a beef with them) makes its ambitions clear, but though it's been praised by some for being a "subversively political film about American attitudes overseas", it's really just an excuse for a rather sadistic exploitation flick that delivers brutal scenes of torture and violence, and lots of soft core content to titillate young male teens. In that sense, it follows the recent horror sequels like the Saw series, where the current trend of torture-voyeurism is now passed on as entertainment. It's fair to say Roth has come a long way from his low-budget, freshman effort, the homage to 70's horror that was Cabin Fever and, with buddy Quentin Tarantino, he's managed to make a grind house film that's much more professional looking than his earlier effort and better paced. As for the story, such as it is, the premise is an intriguing one - that of foreign countries set up to provide torture victims to any paying customer - but it's a topic that's not given anywhere near its due, except in one particular monologue as an anxious customer rambles on the thrill of this new sport. The final act, a daring escape sequence, redeems the film, though it relies on coincidences to provide a "satisfying" ending. The young, good-looking cast of relative unknowns does an OK job of things, but they haven't been chosen for their acting skills. One saving grace: a brief, amusing cameo by Japanese director Takashi Miike. Fans of gory fare will be satisfied with Hostel's exaggerated savagery, T&A, and easily cobbled together story. Everyone else will wonder what the fuss is about.
Entertainment / Horror: 5/10

Hot Fuzz (2007)
Starring: Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Jim Broadbent
Director: Edgar Wright
Plot: Jealous colleagues have a top London cop transferred to a quiet rural village, but things are more than they seem when a series of mysterious accidents start raising his suspicions.
Review: As a self-conscious comic spoof of just about every buddy-cop movie out of Hollywood, albeit with a very English twist, Hot Fuzz would already have been enough to recommend it. That it plays it rather straight and has enough up its sleeves to surprise and even make those other films envious is what really sets it apart. Writer / director Wright did a similar, successful mish-mash with the zombie comedy Shaun of the Dead, and he shows what can be done when a good comic script is given the budget it deserves. Poking fun at the British bastion of the picturesque village, with all its eccentric citizens and morally superior values, the film goes from fish-out-of-water humor (as our hero has a hard time adjusting to a community with little crime), to a Scream-like slasher flick (with a series of bloody deaths), to a Miss Marple-like whodunit, to a full-blown action movie complete with hilarious gunfights (including one in a supermarket) and a smattering of explosions. Yet through all its changes in tone it manages to maintain a zippy, good-natured spirit that is always engaging and always funny. Leading fellas Pegg and Frost - straight man and doofus - make a great odd couple cop duo, and their repartee is half the fun. Plus, there's a bevy of fine supporting actors the likes of Jim Broadbent and Timothy Dalton (both in fine comic form) as well as cameos from Martin Campbell, Steve Coogan, and Bill Nighy among others. The multitude of zingers and throwaway gags demands another viewing, and with such a refreshing, light-hearted comic romp that's not a problem. Hot Fuzz is one of those rarities that's sure to please a wide variety of audiences.
Entertainment: 8/10

Hotel Rwanda (2004)
Starring: Don Cheadle, Sophie Okonedo, Nick Nolte
Director: Terry George
Plot: A local manager of a prestigious Belgian hotel struggles to save his family and hundreds of refugees hoping to find asylum behind the walls of the resort during the bloody civil war that engulfed Rwanda in 1994.
Review: A true-life account of Paul Rusesabagina's efforts to save 1,200 refugees during the worse of the Rwandan genocide that left a million dead, Hotel Rwanda sheds light on events that have too long been forgotten by the Western world. Finally a US production that actually focuses on African characters, and not just a white hero like so many before it (Cry Freedom, A World Apart). Apart from Nolte, as the UN officer trying to maintain order with what little resources he has, the entire cast is made up of Rwandans fleeing for their lives amidst the horrors around them. And though events are limited to the point of view of Rusesabagina, these are continually immediate and harrowing as we see bits and pieces of a country descending into a hell of its own making. Though it might be criticized for not graphically showing the many atrocities committed by the Hutu majority on the Tutsi "elite", the film has its share of powerful, emotional scenes, such as French nuns scurrying with their orphaned charges through the hotel gates, or the drive over hundreds of Tutsi bodies in a fog-infested road. The filmmakers have obviously taken the subject to heart, and it shows. The direction and cinematography are well executed but unobtrusive, allowing the story to take center stage. Using Cheadle and Nolte as its voice, the script gives a succinct overview of the political situation and long-time resentment, and really hits home the world's indifference to the plight of millions and the uselessness of the UN peace-keepers (in one darkly comic moment, an American official is heard saying "there might be acts of genocide going on" to which a journalist replies: "how many acts does it take to make it a genocide?"). Cheadle finally gets a chance to shine, and it's a fine portrayal of a man whose belief in society is shattered and who's confidence in his own abilities is put to the test. The rest of the cast, including Okonedo as his Tutsi wife, all give some good performances, but there are too many of them to really focus on. Beyond the discussion of the good or the bad of the individual elements, there's no doubt that this is an important movie to be released - just like the Holocaust, these are events that should never be forgotten. And if the film occasionally falls to predictable stock moments, it's still a courageous effort for a mainstream studio production and one that deserves to be seen.
Drama: 8/10

Hotel Transylvania (2012)
Voices: Adam Sandler, Kevin James, Andy Samberg
Director: Genndy Tartakovsky
Plot: Operating a high-end monster resort free from humans, a mild-mannered and overprotective Dracula becomes hysterical when a back-packing teenager somehow finds his way into the castle and falls for his daughter.
Review: A 3D computer-animated monster movie geared to family-oriented fun, Hotel Transylvania gets together all the classic 1930's characters like Frankenstein, Dracula, The Invisible Man, The Werewolf (and then some) into a hotel, and milks the premise for every supernatural laugh it can get. After being the driving force behind the inventive and genre bending Samurai Jack and the lunatic Dexter's Laboratory, director Tartakovsky (the sixth to take over the reigns of the film) goes more mainstream in a tale that would have been at home in a Disney cartoon. He definitely knows to keep things bouncy with some bubbly animation and well-designed characters, lots of movement, bright colors and kid-friendly humor, making sure there's always something happening on screen to keep our attention. Alas, the inventive verve of the first 15 minutes quickly devolves into typical fare, especially when it's stuck expanding on its predictable plot, romance and contrivances around the theme of trusting one's kid to make their own way in life and "blah blah blah", as the movie itself is wont to say. Sure, the zippy pace, physical activity and visual gags will keep kids amused, and adults will have fun pointing out all some classic movie references, but we were hoping for something more to sink our teeth into. An all-star voice cast provides the funny voices, including Sandler trying to channel Bela Lugosi as Drac, but the real standout is Buscemi as a dead-tired werewolf-dad coping with a huge brood. Of note, there are few real scares but really young ones might freak on occasion - these are monsters after all. A fun but forgettable cartoon that may not really get much replay value.
Entertainment: 6/10

The Hours (2002)
Starring: Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore
Director: Stephen Daldry
Plot: The lives of three from different places and eras follows remarkable parallels over the period of a single day as they struggle to come to terms with their existence.
Review: The Hours is a deep literary drama that packs an emotional punch. The interconnected narratives come together as the lives of the protagonists become connected by Woolf's classic novel, Mrs. Dalloway: in the '20s Woolf attempts to write her most famous novel while battling mental illness, while an alienated suburban housewife is influenced by the reading of it in the '50s, and a middle-aged editor actually lives it in present-day New York while preparing an intricate dinner party for her dying ex-husband. This last is the longest, and most fully realized segment, one which also follows quite closely the progression of Woolf's novel. No matter the era, however, each one gives a moving story of strong-willed women who find themselves at the ends of their tether when faced with social pressures, disillusionment, and desperation. Director Daldry (Billy Elliot) and his editor overlap scenes, emotional tension and struggles to weave these disparate stories together. By doing so, the film profiles the parallels between the different places and eras joining them in their depression, alienation and search for identity. The vivid images, intimate cinematography and star-packed supporting cast (including a terrific Ed Harris) all help make the film not only a stylish affair that's easy on the eyes, but also a consistently engaging one. The narrative moves back and forth in time, at the same instant of each of their days, as the three women reach their ultimate dilemma (one tinged with the whisper of suicide) and come to terms with themselves. Of course, much of the complexity of the Pulitzer-Prize winning novel by Michael Cunningham had to be cut down, but the script captures the power and richness of the drama without losing its edge to typical melodrama. Some instances occur for purely theatrical convenience, perhaps, but one can't fail to be swept in by emotional undercurrent. The dialogue and situations feel real, peppered with small insights and bits of humor as well as pathos. The actresses each give a veritable stellar performance; a barely recognizable Kidman won a Golden Globe for her fine portrayal of Woolf, Moore does an interesting flip side to her role in Far From Heaven as a disillusioned '50s housewife, and Streep is better than she has been in years. Though often depressing, The Hours is ultimately uplifting and optimistic, a lyrical drama that sticks to you long after the movie is over.
Drama: 8/10

House of D (2005)
Starring: Robin Williams, Tea Leoni, Anton Yelchin
Director: David Duchovny
Plot: An American artist living in Paris recalls the events surrounding his childhood living with his single-mother in 1973 Greenwich Village, a year of many changes and tragedies.
Review: A coming of age tale meant as a very personal journey, House of D has good intentions, but simply misses the mark. From its very beginnings in present-day Paris to its "heart-warming" finale, the film comes off as false and forced. As a first-time director, X-Files actor Duchovny holds his own, showing a decent handle on the visuals and the narrative pacing. Unfortunately, his script is full of the exaggerated, unsubtle melodrama - and ultimate tragedy - that we would expect from a bad TV movie. Thankfully the individual moments make up for a tired whole: the easy relationship between young artist and his retarded friend, a blossoming puppy love, the unlikely advices from a detainee from the Women's House of Detention (hence the title) that only worsen his fate, and other such instances. As our young protagonist, Yelchin actually surprises and is easily the best thing here, keeping us interested in the events that he thrust into. Leoni comes out unscathed as the depressed parent, but funny-man Williams plays his best friend - the mentally handicapped delivery boy - with unconvincing bravado. Despite a relatively engaging middle section, House of D ends up feeling like a maudlin, amateurish trip into self-indulgent nostalgia. Too bad.
Drama: 4/10

House of Flying Daggers (2004)
Starring: Takeshi Kaneshiro, Zhang Ziyi, Andy Lau
Director: Zhang Yimou
Plot: During the Tang Dynasty, an undercover deputy saves an assassin masked as a dancer from prison hoping she will lead him to a revolutionary faction's hiding place only to fall in love with her during their travels.
Review: Romantic in terms of emotions, visual aspect and spirit, the action drama House of Flying Daggers proves to be another highlight in China's opening into modern mainstream cinema following such successes as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero. With its particular attention to character, lush scenery, and high-flying combat it's hard not see this as director Yimou's (Raise the Red Lantern) homage to the works of legendary Wu Xia director King Hu (Touch of Zen). The fighting sequences - and there are many - are inventive and make use of some terrific wire-fu choreography, yet though the film has enough action to make most martial-arts fans happy, the real focus is on the budding relationship between the two escapees and their pursuer. All attention is on the three leads and the complicated games they play; things are rarely what they seem, and only through an array of twists, half truths and changing loyalties - all climaxing to a final snow-bound showdown and a Shakespearian-inspired tragedy - will the real hearts of the players be revealed. It's a more intimate setting than Yimou's previous epic Hero with its epic scope, experiment in visual decor and martial artistry. His careful attention to the visuals is still very much in evidence and, though not as drenched in color as his previous films, the scenes are gorgeous thanks to the always-beautiful, exquisite cinematography. These never displace the story itself, a love triangle played out on the backdrop of civil unrest. Of course, the cast is primordial and Asian heart-throbs Kaneshiro and Lau work their charm once again, but it's Ziyi's performance that really centers the film. Despite its allure as either action or romantic fare, House of Flying Daggers is really first and foremost a thing of beauty that is as much seen as experienced.
Entertainment / Drama: 8/10

The House of Mirth (2000)
Starring: Gillian Anderson, Eric Stoltz, Eleanor Bron
Director: Terence Davies
Plot: A pretty, ambitious young woman's internal conflict between finding a rich husband and searching for love dooms her to society's disfavor bringing a worsening spiral of debt and dimming social prospects.
Review: The House of Mirth is a fine adaptation of the novel by Edith Wharton, whose other novels, such as The Age of Innocence have also been successfully brought to the screen. This is a tragic story of a woman being destroyed by the stifling conventions and expectations of her times, by her own pride, and, finally, her own naivete as to the Machiavellian workings of high society and their social cruelty to any perceived impropriety. Though the first half is slow and rather unevenly paced, once the characters are in place the film becomes quite involving. There is a definite claustrophobic atmosphere here, and the details of their lives, from the pervasiveness of money as status to the hypocritical morality, add much to the believability and interest of the tale. The production is beautifully filmed and so carefully photographed that it reminds one of luminous paintings, but by requiring such control the filmmakers have lost some of the reality by making the soundstage and camera work too obvious. At one point the credibility of the audience does become a bit strained after one too many poor decisions and yet another social disaster, but the story wants us to feel the same desperation as its heroine by showing her gradual disgrace and social downfall, and director Davies makes it work thanks in great part to his remarkable leading lady. Anderson does a wonderful performance and is, surprisingly, perfectly suited for the role, evoking a pathos and innocence that is surprisingly affecting. She does occasionally appear to have a hard time with the sharp dialogue, but these moments are rare. Unfortunately the rest of the cast is not as convincing. In the end, The House of Mirth looks and feels like a PBS production but, though not flawless, it's an unforgiving, tragic tale of New York society that still proves as powerful today as it did at the turn of the century.
Drama: 7/10

House of Sand and Fog (2003)
Starring: Jennifer Connelly, Ben Kingsley, Ron Eldard
Director: Vadim Perelman
Plot: What starts as a legal battle slowly turns into a violent confrontation when a recovering alcoholic, wrongfully evicted, becomes obsessed with repossessing her father's house from an exiled Iranian colonel who has moved in with his family.
Review: Based on the novel by Andre Dubus III, House of Sand and Fog is a superb heart-rending drama that hits where it counts. There's an unnerving sense of foreboding, pessimism, and downright depression that seeps into the story - we know something is going to go badly, we just don't know how it's going to happen. When the inevitable does, it's a statement on both the acting and directing that, though the final act pushes the film into melodrama territory, we're still hooked every step of the way and affected by the outcome. The main reason is that the script adaptation captures the complexity of the novel's situations and internal struggles and fleshes-out the characters well. First-time director Perelman does an excellent job of showing the internal struggle of its characters and makes us feel the pain, the longing, the loneliness, and the desperation of these characters. Best of all, we actually care for them with our sympathies going out to both sides in equal amounts; there are no "good" or "bad" characters, just well-rounded ones, each with their own hopes and pains and each on opposite sides of the "American Dream". The cinematography is also just right, conveying the right sense of warmth and color. As in most of these powerful, intimate dramas, the cast can make or break it and thankfully the acting is superb by all involved: Kingsley does a great portrayal of a proud man brought down by circumstances and Connelly is utterly convincing as a woman at the end of her rope. But the real stand-out is Shohreh Aghdashloo as Kingsley's bitter and desolate wife forced to flee her homeland and a life of luxury to set up in a strange and forbidding working-class America. Despite its minor flaws, House of Sand and Fog is a compelling, tragic, and very human drama that will leave a lasting impression.
Drama: 8/10

The House on Haunted Hill (1999)
Starring: Geoffrey Rush, Famke Janssen
Director: William Malone
Plot: Wanting to stage the ultimate terror for his despised wife's birthday, a rich eccentric stages a scare-filled night in a old, haunted psychiatric ward in the company of four strangers.
Review: Hill House starts off well, with a great set up that promises a campy take on the horror genre, but it doesn't quite deliver. The story loses steam half-way through the film and quickly gets mired in typical Hollywood horror conventions. The action is sparse, with many scenes of guests aimlessly roaming the hallways waiting for something to happen in a haunted house that doesn't seem very haunted. Great over-the-top acting from Geoffrey Rush and some inventive, genuinely horrifying and creepy moments don't really make up for the generally predictable plot twists and the disappointing special-effects-laden ending. It's a decent, entertaining effort, but not a memorable one.
Entertainment: 5/10

Howl's Moving Castle (2004)
Starring: Jean Simmons, Christian Bale, Lauren Bacall
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Plot: Caught in a confrontation between witches as war looms, a young woman is cursed and turned into a 90-year old woman, her only recourse to break the spell lying in the hands of a roguish, self-indulgent young wizard.
Review: Based on a juvenile novel by Diana Wynne Jones, Howl's Moving Castle is a wonderful fairy-tale of a determined teen's first real exposure to the Magic around her, one that Japanese anime director Hayao Miyazaki has made all his own. Already regarded as a master of the arts, he once again creates a wondrous adventure where the storytelling and pacing of the tale are just right, with characters that come alive and adventure always springs organically from the set-up to capture audiences in its spell. Though it might not carry us away quite like his latest masterpieces such as Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke, it's still miles beyond most anime works with its clever, good-natured humor, heart-felt drama, and passion for the material. Foremost among them is the rich, detailed hand-drawn animation that brings massive aerial battles, magic-filled villages and dream-like landscapes to life, easily standing out among the present over-abundance of CGI fare. And though only described in some broad strokes (and some careful, telling details) the fantasy world is a place filled with eccentric, wonderful people and places. The huge legged contraption that is the magical castle of the title is an amusing invention, but it's only one of the many imaginative creations of the film. The English-version voice talent is also superb, with the likes of Simmons, Bale, the legendary Bacall, and even Billy Crystal as the comic-relief fire demon who quite literally runs the castle. All told, Howl's Moving Castle is yet another anime classic, a terrific animated feature with real heart that will be enjoyed by the kids and adults alike.
Entertainment: 8/10

How to Train Your Dragon (2010)
Starring: Jay Baruchel, Gerard Butler, America Ferrera
Directors: Dean DeBlois, Chris Sanders
Plot: After downing a dragon in a lucky break, a young, misfit Viking who aspires to join his father as a dragon killer befriends the wounded creature and decides to help it return home before anyone notices.
Review: Vikings and dragons? In a computer animated 3D comedy? Why didn't anyone think of this before? Well, in a way they did - there was Beowulf, for one, which also got the 3D treatment, by the way. But for unadulterated family fun, How to Train Your Dragon - based on the novel by Cressida Cowell - is hard to beat. The animation is clean, stylish and inviting in that nice cartoon way that doesn't seek reality, meeting all our Pixar-level expectations. For thrill-seekers, there are spectacular scenes of battles with formidable looking dragons and an explosive climax with the biggest, baddest mother of all (no kidding); as such, some scenes are a little too intense for kids under 8. But it's the sequences of riding a dragon that really make the movie take flight (pun intended). Clearly created with 3D in mind, the smooth lush animation allows you to almost feel the wind in your hair as dragon and Viking boy soar into the skies - it's a superb rush. The humor itself is clever, smart and plays with the Viking / fantasy tropes but thankfully doesn't imbue the proceedings with the forced pop culture references of most CGI fare. It's also more cohesive as a story than any Dreamworks flick has been in recent memory, and it doesn't seem to try as hard to please making all the more appealing. It's no surprise, perhaps, that the movie works its charms with wit and exuberance despite its bare-thin plot as it's from writers / directors DeBlois and Sanders, whose last animated film was the funny, touching feature Lilo & Stitch, one of the highlights of the modern animated works from the Disney house. The scenes of bonding between creature and human (as they did for alien and girl) come off as affecting rather than cloying, a real feat for a kid's film. But perhaps that's what the real secret is - the heroes may be teens, but the film has adult sensibilities, making it a hoot for all ages. The voice cast is perfect, with Butler being a nice addition as the Viking chief, and Baruchel hitting just the right notes as his wimpy - but determined - son. Sure, the film wears its heart on its sleeve and we can see the end coming from miles away, but like the best stories the fun is in the telling, not the ending, and for that How to Train Your Dragon is the best guiltless pleasure you can have this year - at least until the summer movies roll in.
Entertainment: 8/10 

How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000)
Starring: Jim Carrey, Taylor Momsen, Christine Baranski
Director: Ron Howard
Plot: A mean, nasty, furry green creature decides to ruin the town of Whoville's Christmas celebrations as well as their holiday cheer by stealing everyone's presents.
Review: Based on the children's book by Dr. Seuss and the classic animated short, How the Grinch Stole Christmas is an extension of the beloved story. It isn't easy to add an hour of "filler" to the story while still maintaining the feel of the original, but the script manages to add a certain depth to the tale by explaining the Grinch's antisocial behavior with flashbacks to his childhood, and by being a more pointed (and modern) take on the presents versus spirit of Christmas. It's also full of marvelous, fast-paced, zany antics, of Seussian extravagance, and of some great, funny lines. All this is enhanced by some impressive, colorful sets, great costumes and make-up, and decent special effects. Jim Carrey, for all purposes, is The Grinch and does a bravura performance as the title character, one that immediately brings the original cartoon to mind. Indeed, his "act" is the real heart of the film, and these types of crazy roles have become his trademark (such as his memorable take in The Mask) and here he delivers in spades. The supporting cast is forgettable, though, except for the precocious young Momsen and the Grinch's affable, loyal dog. Mind you the film isn't perfect, there are some slow parts and some scenes work better than others, but director Howard (Apollo 13) has managed to capture the most important elements well. With a funny, clever, and endearing script, How the Grinch Stole Christmas is sure to become classic Christmas fare.
Entertainment: 7/10

How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days (2003)
Starring: Kate Hudson, Matthew McConaughey
Director: Donald Petrie
Plot: A perky woman's magazine columnist set to write an article about how to get rid of a suitor in 10 days grabs the attention of a chauvinistic ad executive who has just bet his boss he can make a woman fall in love with him in the same time. 
Review: How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days is yet another high-concept romantic comedy that just doesn't offer up anything to sink your teeth into. The first half is a pretty straight battle-of-the-sexes comedy, one which occasionally works with its exaggerated "girlfriend-from-hell" routines (the incessant calls, temper tantrums, sugary cooings, freaky plants and pets, etc.), but the more serious romantic second half just doesn't pass muster. Oh, the requisite amounts of crazy scenes, comic situations and embarrassing moments are all carefully in place, but it all feels way too mechanic and uninspired. Thankfully the whole affair is directed by Petrie (Grumpy Old Men) with a pretty easy pace, with some occasional amusing banter and some fun amusing players to liven things up, helping to make the film pass mostly painlessly. The main problem however is that Hudson and McConaughey should be naturals at this, and individually they do show a certain charm here, but they have zero chemistry together. While trying to drive each other crazy this way, they just appear insufferable and bland - we're supposed to believe they fall in love? The film is just another piece of Hollywood fluff that might be enjoyable for die-hard fans of the genre, but is just too corny and clichéd for the rest of us.
Entertainment / Comedy: 3/10

Hudson Hawk (1991)
Starring: Bruce Willis, Danny Aiello, Andie MacDowell
Director: Michael Lehmann
Plot: A cat burglar is blackmailed by many sides to steal from an auction house and the Vatican precious Leonardo da Vinci art works in which are hidden pieces necessary for an ancient machine that can turn lead to gold.
Review: Voted Worst Movie of the Year, Hudson Hawk quickly bombed with audiences and critics on its release. Tagged as a a vanity project for its star, the whole film is a mess of ideas and pacing proving there was little creative control during filming. There's little sense in the convoluted plot involving the Vatican, the CIA, world domination, and more outrageous character than any pack of similar films, and the cat burglar sequences (with Willis and Aiello singing their way through the robbery) are ludicrous. It's also apparent that young director Lehmann, fresh off his low-budget hit Heathers, doesn't have the experience to reign in such a heavy production or Prima Donna cast. There's no denying that it's a ridiculous and totally silly adventure comedy, and in its exaggerated scenes lies its very attraction. This is high-budget camp whose many excesses are just surprisingly amusing, where the action scenes are totally off the wall and each scene milked for its slapstick or absurdist comedy. Aiello and McDowell give it their all but it's Willis himself, at his charming best, who really gives the picture the necessary boost. As for the supporting cast, Sandra Bernhard and Richard E. Grant, as the crazed, filthy rich villains play it delightfully over-the-top, as does veteran actor James Coburn as the CIA chief who longs for the Cold War. Despite some jokes falling flat and some ill-advised pacing, there's a definite energy and inventiveness behind this disaster. Audiences able to put their brains on neutral and lower their expectations should give it a second chance.
Entertainment: 5/10

Hulk (2003)
Starring: Eric Bana, Jennifer Connelly, Nick Nolte
Director: Ang Lee
Plot: After being accidentally bombarded by a lethal dose of Gamma radiation, a scientist discovers his mad father's biological experiments have awaken in him a monster of incredible strength that can't be controlled.
Review: This latest re-working of the Hulk is a a surprise: it's a much more literate (dare we say intellectual?) take on a comic book character that will shock some and delight others. Those expecting a series of "Hulk Smash!" moments might get terribly restless waiting for the effects-laden second half of the film, but patience will be rewarded. The film is many things more than expected: it's a character study, a father-son drama and even a sometime delicate love story; doing it all is a gamble that pays off for discerning moviegoers but definitely hinders its blockbuster-status chances. The adaptation takes liberties with the original material and at the outset it's certain that purists will definitely hate it, but the film aims for something more, and for the most part succeeds admirably; it's not perfect, but one can't help but give the movie points for trying. Kudos to director Lee (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Sense and Sensibility) for taking up such a project and giving it his trademark refinement and humanistic approach. The cinematography, the staging of every scene, the camera shots, the use of split screens, all evoke the comic panel format and it's an interesting (if not always successful) idea. A hand to the screenwriters as well for giving us a story with depth and such impressive amounts of pathos (something that's always short-changed from the comics), while ensuring that the expected Hulk action is satisfied. If there's one sore point, it's the over-use of CGI: the (perhaps necessary) decision to make the Green Monster fully computer animated has its ups (a cool battle with some tanks) and its downright silly (a battle with gamma-enhanced dogs). Too bad the climactic fight with a film version of The Absorbing Man (one spot where the CGI could really shine) is over too quickly. Of definite note, however, are the computer-enhanced cinematic cuts providing the segue from one scene to another is exceptionally impressive, and is one of the movie's biggest standouts: imaginatively cut and implemented, it gives an added edge to an already slickly-produced effort. There's an interesting choice of cast, too: Bana does OK in the starring role, but can't quite compete with his monstrous alter-ego, while Connelly is a real standout and gives the film some definite class proving her Oscar win was no fluke. As the father-figure turned villain, Nolte gives a performance that's WAY over-the-top, and Sam Elliott makes a perfect General Ross. Those willing to go out on a limb and enter the movie with an open mind (or few expectations as to the character) might come out of the experience with a definite appreciation for the efforts that went into making a film that is admirably devoid of camp (unless you count Nolte). In the end, Hulk is a surprisingly dramatic and engaging comic-book extravaganza that doesn't spurn either the action or drama inherent in the material.
Entertainment: 7/10

The Human Stain (2003)
Starring: Anthony Hopkins, Nicole Kidman, Gary Sinise
Director: Robert Benton
Plot: Months after losing his University position and his wife due to an innocent class remark misinterpreted as a racial slur, an aging professor starts an affair with a spirited younger cleaning lady which brings both their past secrets to the forefront.
Review: The challenge in adapting Philip Roth's complex, Faulkner Award-winning novel The Human Stain are obvious; how do you bring the non-linear prose and narrative, the delicate nature of the premise, and the intimate existence of these deeply damaged characters to light in a two-hour film? For one, shortcuts have to be taken on both the themes and situations, making some of the more important moments feel a bit hollow. Yet the drama is still strong, if not quite as resonant, the story and script keeping the most important aspects of its source material. Heavily referencing the tragedy of Achilles, the film jumps from past to present to parallel the lives of our protagonist in his youth and in his declining years, revealing the long-guarded secret that has brought him so much guilt. Director Benton - with the help of his cinematographer, the late Jean-Yves Escoffier - manages to create a hansom, often beautiful production, capturing the emotional strains of the text. Screen vet Hopkins plays this one well with his eyes closed, but it's Kidman who's the real standout as a psychologically bruised woman who gives the term "white trash" a good name in one of her more sizzling performances to date. Yet despite the steamy love scenes, their affair feels unconvincing. Ed Harris as the abusive ex-husband and Sinise as the writer friend and narrator are quite capable, too. Though The Human Stain can't quite compete with Roth's novel, it still retains much of what made it so enticing making it a worthy drama that's both sorrowful and tragic.
Drama: 7/10

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)
Starring: Demi Moore, Tom Hulce, Kevin Kline
Directors: Gary Trousdale, Kirk Wise
Plot: After falling in love with a gypsy girl, the deformed bell-ringer of Notre Dame Cathedral helps her against an evil judge who stalks 15th century Paris in order to destroy the secret lair of the gypsies.
Review: The original story by Victor Hugo is a dark, emotional tale of courage, love, inhumanity, religious hypocrisy and sexual obsession. It is a captivating story that has been adapted to the screen many times. The first real surprise is that the animated version has gone on a limb here to make it into both a family affair and still be true to its roots. Though the usual Disney touches are evident everywhere, from the colorful, impressive musical numbers, to the comic-relief side-kicks, there's also a definite brooding atmosphere, and a very adult undertone to the whole proceedings. Of course, the final events are pure upbeat fairy-tale ending, and much of the story has been altered to avoid conflicting with Disney's "feel-good" formula. But there are some scenes, most specifically the one where the evil bishop confronts his lust for the beautiful gypsy which conflicts with his religious zealotry, are surprisingly mature in their content and maybe too intense for younger audiences. The musical numbers, the very heart of these films, are a mixed bag, with some (especially the opening number) being quite moving and others only fair. No matter: The Hunchback of Notre Dame is another wonderful animated feature from Walt Disney, full of pageantry, great set designs, and a well-paced, entertaining story.
Entertainment: 7/10

The Hunger Games (2012)
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth
Director: Gary Ross
Plot: In a bleak future where class divisions means most of the country is struggling to survive, a young woman volunters to take her young sister's place in the yearly games that pitches a boy and girl from each district in a fight to the death on live television.
Review: Based on the first tome of the best-selling young adult series / phenomenon by Susan Collins, The Hunger Games promised to be a withering critique of our current media culture embedded in a daring, vicious vision of the future. From the opening sequences of despair and misery, director Ross (Pleasantville, Seabiscuit) captures the 1984-esque world well, as he does the Roman-inspired Colisseum mentality of the rich and powerful Capital with full Las Vegas glitz. And for half the film the events and social commentary are bang-on. This proves to be far more interesting than the competition; the Games themselves are a rather wimpy affair, despite the Truman Show references, especially after such an extensive set-up. The shaky cam is supposed to give it a more "you are there" feel, but just annoys, and the production values make this feel like something made-for-TV, despite some Hollywood flair. The filmmakers should have taken a hint from the 2000 Japanese cult flick Battle Royale, a grittier, bloody and unforgiving look at the teen microcosm of "survival of the fittest". Instead, they've taken a the Twilight Kool-Aid: hoping to make another hit franchise, the adaptation blunts the impact of events and takes few (if any) risks with the material to ensure a PG-13 rating and a mainstream appeal. 21-year-old Lawrence does a more than acceptable turn as the 16-year-old Tribute whose (coincidental) forest survival skills giver he an edge over the competition, and pretty-boy Hutcherson as her district teammate holds his own. The rest of the young cast - hired more for their looks than their acting abilities - doesn't convince as hard-nosed killers or even ones striving for survival; there's just little edge in these scenes and little suspense. Everyone here - Lawrence included - feels shallow and one-dimensional, with far too little time and effort spent on character development. The adult supporting cast, at least, is up to par: under heavy makeup and ridiculous costumes, there's an almost unrecognizable Elizabeth Banks as the District coordinator, a grizzled Woody Harrelson as the ever-drunk trainer, Stanley Tucci as the over-the-top show animator, and a short stint by Donald Sutherland as the President. The conclusion opens the door for the inevitable sequel, which promises to see the seed of revolution hinted at here take bloom; it's bound to be far more interesting. The Hunger Games makes for an entertaining and briskly-paced teen sci-fi flick, but it should have strived to be more; as it stands it fails to make a lasting impression.
Entertainment: 7/10

The Hunt for Red October (1990)
Starring: Sean Connery, Alec Baldwin, Scott Glenn
Director: John McTiernan
Plot: A rogue Soviet commander decides to defect bringing with him a highly prized submarine but the need for secrecy ultimately brings out both the Russian and American navies, both bent on destroying him.
Review: As a modern-day sub flick and one of the last true Cold War thrillers to boot, The Hunt for Red October, based on the best-selling novel by Tom Clancy, offers up both some decent action sequences and some fine cat-and-mouse thriller conventions. To make a mainstream movie of acceptable length, much of the complexity of the novel is only alluded to, but thankfully enough of the spirit of the original work still comes across, dealing with the political and strategic implications, the twist and turns of the material as we're taken through the corridors of power and decision-makers. For the most part, the script avoids the usual stereotyping and comes off smarter than most military thrillers. The production values are also adequately high and usually convincing enough, though some of the sub effects are somewhat sub-par. The tension inside the Russian sub between the crew and its commanding officers aren't quite made vivid enough, and the action is somewhat limited to a few sparse submarine encounters; these are ably shot and quite suspenseful, but somehow the film seems to have come up short in that department. Director McTiernan, hot off the first Die Hard, proves he knows what it took by offering up another finely tuned and well paced action flick, concentrating as much on the personal as he does on the large-scale encounters. Connery as always does a solid, noble performance as the Soviet captain, as does Sam Neill as his right-hand man, Scott Glenn as the gruff efficient American counterpart, and the James Earl Jones as the security advisor. Baldwin, then in his prime, comes off rather well and would have made a fine recurring lead. However Tim Curry, as the commie doctor, is completely miscast. The Hunt for Red October may not be the ultimate Clancy adaptation, but taken on its own merits it's a well crafted, suspenseful thriller that audiences will find easy to please.
Entertainment: 7/10

The Hunted (2003)
Starring: Tommy Lee Jones, Benicio Del Toro, Connie Nielsen
Director: William Friedkin
Plot: A ex-army survival trainer must help the FBI pursue one of his past charges, a Special Forces assassin who seems to have gone crazy and is butchering hunters in the Oregon woods.
Review: The premise / background to The Hunted is akin to a mix of the main elements of First Blood (with Benicio in the war-scarred Rambo role) and Jones' own The Fugitive, without what made them special in the first place. With barely a modicum of back-story, the plot focuses almost exclusively on the chase to the detriment of everything else. Sub-plots come and go half developed, characters appear briefly without making an impression, and none of it really grabs audiences emotionally. However, as a straight-forward action film, this is a pretty slick, efficient little effort, and it does make us believe that these people are trained killing machines. The cat-and-mouse game is propelled by some solid, energetic chases, of course, and the instances where the two leads battle it out knife-to-knife (especially the climactic fight) are well arranged. Some of it comes out as silly, mind you (especially the tracking stuff), and the plot holes are kept to a minimum only because of a lack of actual plot, but it's a tightly-paced film that does provide some well-made, mindless entertainment. Director Friedkin never quite reaches the heights of his classic thriller efforts such as The French Connection or the spooky The Exorcist here, but he does know how to deliver an entertaining effort. Though neither leads ever gets a chance to show their acting chops, the 56-year old Jones still proves he has what it takes, and Del Toro makes do just fine; it's just unfortunate that he doesn't get a chance to play the psychologically-wounded warrior a bit more. Predictable and shallow, The Hunted still provides some fun moments for undemanding viewers.
Entertainment: 5/10

The Hurricane (1999)
Starring: Denzel Washington, John Hannah, Liev Schreiber
Director: Norman Jewison
Plot: A prize-fighter wrongfully accused of murder and sentenced to a life sentence abandons all hope of ever being released until he is befriended years later by a teen-ager and his Canadian mentors who decide to fight for his release.
Review: Director Jewison has a reputation for making films that break the mold, and the idea of tackling the story of The Hurricane fits right up his ally. The choice of concentrating on the inward struggle of the main character, Rubin "Hurricane" Carter and the friendship between him and four strangers, instead of the legal battle makes for a much more intriguing story. Of course, the very heart and soul of the film is in Denzel Washington's solid and (as always) mesmerizing performance, and it elevates what is in most regards a decent TV-movie into an Oscar-nominated film. Unfortunately, the film follows the typical socially-conscious approach of many other films, without delving deeper into either the character or the social causes of the injustices committed. The simplification and downright revision of the true story for dramatic purpose is nothing new in Hollywood productions, and though some of the events ring false and don't mesh well together, it is still a worthwhile film, and an occasionally even inspiring one. In the end, The Hurricane is a good, solid, well-made film, but one with few surprises or tension all its own.
Drama: 7/10

Hypnosis (Japan - 1999)
Starring: Goro Inagaki, Miho Kanno, Ken Utsui
Director: Masayuki Ochiai
Plot: An old-school detective, helped by a young psychiatrist, investigates three bizarre suicides that occurred on the same day in Tokyo, only to realise that a massive case of hypnosis may be the cause.
Review: Complete with all the B-movie chills and strange Japanese stuff we've come to expect, Hypnosis comes off as one of the better horror-thrillers out of Asia. Based on a popular novel, there's a solid, often involving mystery in here that takes inspiration from an array of genres. It's too bad, then, that the film comes off like a hodge-podge of ideas and themes, with social shades of They Live, horror tropes from The Ring, and crime drama of Seven; as the story progresses and more characters start getting involved, confusion sets in. It isn't helped by the sometimes awkward storytelling, and there are a lot of instances where some of the player's actions and motivations confound, as if they were put in the situation just to provide the next cool tidbit. Still, logic aside, as an exercise in shocks and style director Ochiai delivers the goods: the deaths (and there are quite a few) are gruesome, the scares effective, and the eclectic camera movements keeps things moving. If the middle section is a little slow, the mind-bending ending - veering as it does towards the demented and supernatural - is completely over the top and has some solid scares. In the end, if Hypnosis isn't all it could have been, it's visually appealing, the Japanese setting and film style exotic enough for American audiences, and the case intriguing enough to keep audiences guessing. Note, the far more successful thriller Cure tread similar ground around the same time as this release. 
Entertainment: 6/10

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