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I Am Legend (2007)
Starring: Will Smith, Salli Richardson
Director: Francis Lawrence
Plot: Three years after a devastating plague has killed most of humanity and turned the rest into savage monsters, the sole survivor left in New York City struggles to survive and find a cure.
Review: I Am Legend is the third adaptation of Richard Matheson's 1954 sci-fi novel (following 1964's The Last Man on Earth with Vincent Price and 1971's The Omega Man starring Charlton Heston) and is easily the most effective one. Though none have ever been completely faithful to the original source material, this one really hits the spot, capturing the fears and terrors inherent in the best horror films relating to vampires and zombies, and the instinct of survival when faced with a post-Apocalypse world. Director Lawrence has only one other film to his name, the stylish horror flick Constantine, but with this he's really made a name for himself. Though the script sometimes plays like a clash between Cast Away and 28 Days Later (and both themes are very much in evidence), the film manages to set out its own voice. Much of this is due to some phenomenal, detailed special effects, the film turns New York into a convincing devastated, desolate ghost town. The other part is due to leading man Smith, and it's obvious this is his movie: for one, he's the only person who really gets any screen time and he has an undeniable, sometimes self-deprecating charm that's irresistible. Though pigeon-holed into certain roles, he's good in them, and here he gets the added chance to delve into the psychological aspects of being the last man on earth. Unfortunately, it's not perfect: The first two thirds are terrific, setting up a great mood as Smith goes through the routine of surviving, the story leading to the events related in short flashbacks, then adding some tense action set-pieces. The last act, though, smells of forced Hollywood denouement, throwing in coincidence, God and fate to sort it all off, losing much of the power of the film. Another minor complaint is that, as convincing as the world is, the CGI creatures aren't up to par with the rest of the film. That said, I Am Legend is still two-thirds of a great film, working wonders with our fears of genetic mutation and isolation, making for an entertaining, smart, well-made disaster flick.
Entertainment: 8/10

Ice Age (2002)
Starring: Ray Romano, John Leguizamo, Denis Leary
Directors: Chris Wedge, Carlos Saldanha
Plot: During an upcoming ice age, a lone mammoth and a talkative sloth find a human baby but must rely on an unreliable sabre-tooth tiger to help them find the trail back to the infant's tribe.
Review: Another entry in the increasingly popular computer animated genre, Ice Age uses all the time-proven tricks to make for an amusing comedy effort. The story and plot twists are rather banal, but the dialogue is for the most part witty enough (if a little too "talky" and repetitive) and the characters engaging enough for audiences to be carried away. There's some inspired gags among the varied slapstick comedy and some great scenes, such as a roller-coaster ride through some ice caves, or the rugby watermelon fight against Dodo-bird doomsayers, provides relief from some of the slower bits. Unfortunately, the insistence on Disney-type sentimentality, including an overly-sweet conclusion, could have been left out. Another downside is that the computer graphics are solid, using its own blocky animated style, but isn't quite up to the standards set the previous year. A highlight, however, are the interludes showing the misadventures of the Neolithic squirrel trying desperately to hide his precious acorn are absolutely hilarious and is an obvious homage to the creations of Bugs Bunny creator Chuck Jones. Leguizamo as the chatterbox sloth is excellent and steals all the best moments, while the rest of the vocal cast is adequate but nowhere near memorable. Though the story may be geared more towards young ones, there's enough stuff here that even adults can enjoy, and as family entertainment Ice Age is a success.
Entertainment: 7/10

Ice Age: The Meltdown (2006)
Starring: Ray Romano, John Leguizamo, Denis Leary
Director: Carlos Saldanha
Plot: A ragtag group of prehistoric mammals attempt to escape a flooding as the ice age comes to a close.
Review: The inevitable sequel to the surprise computer-animated hit, Ice Age: The Meltdown ups the ante in terms of bang for the buck, but sticks to the familiar formula. Things are snappier this time around, the one-liners are quicker and more ferocious, the zings zingier, the animation cleaner and smoother. The main voice cast returns, bringing along the likes of Queen Latifah to the mix, and they're just as good as ever. For good measure, there's even a moralistic theme on the perils of planet-wide climate change, but anyone looking for a eco-message here is barking up the wrong tree. Yet its clear that any originality has passed, with its script written by committee. Not to say it's not enjoyable: there's a good dose of excitement that's suitable for younger kids, lots of throwaway humor for all ages, and even some adult-oriented stuff, like seeing a gaggle of vultures breaking out in a song-and-dance routine straight out of a 1940's musical. Sure, there's the inevitable potty humor, but by and large it's decent family fare. The most fun, however, are the half-dozen, interspersed vignettes following our poor, pre-historic squirrel and his on-going quest to save his lone acorn; it's hilarious in that sort of Looney Tunes slapstick sort of way, and quite imaginative. With more pizzazz and greater guffaw count, Ice Age: The Meltdown may be utterly forgettable, but it's a zippy good time while it lasts.
Entertainment: 7/10

Iceman Cometh (Hong Kong - 1989)
Starring: Yuen Biao, Yuen Wah, Maggie Cheung
Director: Fok Yiu-leung
Plot: A Royal Guard from the 16th-century Ming Dynasty follows a murdering colleague gone rogue only to be frozen for 300 years and thawed out in modern-day China where he meets a female con-artist.
Review: Iceman Cometh is a rather standard martial-arts time-travelling fantasy, mixing action and comedy to good effect. The romantic-comedy side of the film, with its typical fish-out-of-water jokes on our 20th-century society, and the romance that eventually binds these two beings from such different eras, is sometimes amusing but eventually comes out like a fun idea that's been stretched to the breaking point. The fight sequences, however, are pure Hong Kong - fast-paced, daring, full of well-choreographed acrobatic martial arts that really show off the skills of vastly under-rated action star Yuen Biao such as a fight on a jeep hanging in mid-air, or the trademark climactic one-on-one battle. Unfortunately, there aren't enough of them. The female con-artist / call-girl is played for laughs by Maggie Cheung, an actress who always looks too classy for these types of roles. Yuen Wah, the perennial '80s villain, play his role with sadistic glee, but a rape scene marking the change to action in the story seems quite rough for the otherwise light-hearted mood of the film. Iceman Cometh isn't a classic of the genre, but it's entertaining enough as a showcase for the talented Biao.
Entertainment: 5/10

An Ideal Husband (1999)
Plot: An influential young politician in 1895 England gets blackmailed by a woman of dubious past. Afraid his wife will leave him if she learns of his moral misconduct, he asks his playboy friend for help. Chaos and misunderstandings ensue as the characters try to resolve their problems in the proper British manner.
Review: Like many British period comedies, the script sparkles with witty repartee and the acting from the whole cast (which includes Rupert Everett, Cate Blanchett and Minnie Driver) is superb. A finely-made comedy that is worth much more exposure than it is getting in this summer of Hollywood blockbusters.
Comedy: 8/10
Entertainment: 8/10

The Ideal Man (L'Homme idéal) (Quebec - 1996)
Starring: Marie-Lise Pilote, Macha Grenon, Carmen Ferland
Director: George Mihalka 
Plot: On her thirty-fifth birthday, an hard-working magazine editor bets with her single female friends that she can find the right man to father her a child within three months.
Review: L'Homme Idéal is a comedy on what is quickly becoming a popular subject, that of thirty-something single women and the hardships of finding "the right guy". Many of the laughs come from the ridiculous dates and strange characters our heroine meets and becomes involved with, most of them being exaggerated male stereotypes (the womanizing charmer, the beautiful stud, the "perfect" doctor, the intellectual, etc.) played by a bevy of familiar Quebec faces. As farce, this works OK, but the ridiculousness of it all, plus the exaggerated silliness of the supporting characters and the story's penchant for the tired and predictable, makes it all pretty shallow entertainment. Yet despite the film's slim offerings, there are some truly hilarious moments (including one gross-out scene when she tries to hide from her mother her sperm-bank purchase inside a Chinese take-out container) that make up for a lot. L'Homme Idéal is low-brow Quebec comedy at work, and thanks to its charming lead actress and large cast of cameos, one that occasionally manages to be engaging enough, and funny enough, to make for a fun diversion.
Comedy: 5/10

Identity (2003)
Starring: John Cusack, Ray Liotta, Amanda Peet
Director: James Mangold
Plot: Trying to find shelter from a terrible storm, ten strangers with a mysterious connection become stranded in an out-of-the-way motel only to be killed off one by one by a seemingly supernatural entity.
Review: Another take on Agatha Christie's Ten Little Indians with a dash of Psycho thrown in, Identity is a decent little thriller that revels in red herrings and plot twists. The mystery is an interesting one while it lasts, and the script - paying more attention to providing a character-driven story than most, whle still providing some imaginative and gory death sequences - gleefully plays with its audience until we realize something is quite amiss. Careful viewers will have guessed the mystery well into the film, but for the most part it works rather well as a suspense even if you know the outcome. With both horror and suspense elements well in place, the film carefully balances between a serial killer thriller and a Friday the 13th style slasher, to good results. Director Mangold (Copland, Girl, Interrupted) keeps a tight control over his ensemble cast and plays it all close to the vest, cranking up the tension well. The ably claustrophobic cinematography only adds to the feel of a slick, well-made product. If the climax doesn't quite do the set-up justice, it's not for lack of trying. And what a cast: though all playing to type (or should we say stereotype), all the players are more than up to the task at hand. Cusack is just as amiable and sympathetic as ever, Liotta is full of contained rage, and Peet's a fine hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold. The rest of the cast of secondary players and familiar faces also do well. In the end, however, the script tries to be too clever for its own good. Once we're privy to what's really going on, it gets rather convoluted, only ending up feeling like it cheated the audience, especially after we've invested in these characters. Still, as high-concept medium-budget thrillers go Identity comes out as an above-average time-waster that's worth a watch.
Entertainment: 6/10

The Ides of March (2011)
Starring: Ryan Gosling, George Clooney, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Giamatti
Director: George Clooney
Plot: During the last frantic days of a Democratic primary, an idealistic young press secretary gets a crash course in dirty politics when he uncovers a scandal that threatens his candidate and his career.
Review: An adaptation of Beau Willimon’s play Farragut North, The Ides of March is a political drama that peels away the veneer of presidential campaigning to a simple matter of loyalty and trust, and some simple truths are exposed: this isn't a job for idealists or the faint of heart. The title - which eludes to the assassination of Caesar in ancient Rome - doesn't quite apply here, as the real victim is the system and not the candidates and their cronies, yet the message is that the game of politics requires so much compromise, so many lies and deceit that it taints anyone who plays "the game". In many ways, Clooney-the-director has delivered a slick, tight - if slight - drama that reminds one of 1970's fare like The Candidate, enlivened by more modern interpretations that owe to such materials as TV's The West Wing. If the pacing and dialogue don't quite pop enough to be particularly note-worthy or surprising, he's produced a finely crafted affair that moves along nicely, has vividly portrayed characters, and has some Machiavellian machinations that puts its protagonist into an ethical conundrum in which he can only fail. The focus isn't to show us that the system is broken, that we already know; the script instead scratches at the surface to reveal just how broken are the men behind the scenes. Clooney has also proven an able director of actors with his past efforts like Good Night, and Good Luck, and with a cast made up of himself (as the too-squeaky-clean-to-be-true candidate) and the likes of Ryan Gosling (always on the verge of stardom), and veterans Hoffman (as Gosling's hot-tempered mentor), Giamatti (as a savvy rival campaign manager) and Marisa Tomei (as a tenacious reporter) at his side, it's hard to miss. Though not powerful enough to be a classic, The Ides of March is a smart, scary political commentary that's worthy of post-credit discussion.
Drama: 7/10

I'll Sleep When I'm Dead (2003)
Starring: Clive Owen, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, Charlotte Rampling
Director: Mike Hodges
Plot: After retiring to the countryside to escape his past, a brutal gangster is forced to delve back into the London underworld to exact revenge on the people who led his younger brother to suicide. 
Review: Released at a time when the British gangster flick has been revitalized by slick films such as Snatch and Layer Cake, I'll Sleep When I'm Dead appears like a throwback to a more demure, 60's and 70's-like attitude and style. The cast, led by a mysterious, stoic Owen, is superb and Malcolm McDowell makes a great snob villain, but the relationships between the main characters are never quite clear, while others are brought into the story but soon forgotten. It doesn't help that the narrative keeps much of the tale's background history and the motives of its characters close to the vest, revealing small bits during the course of the film. Unfortunately, instead of creating suspense this technique only distances audiences with the what is on-screen. And don't expect a violent payoff: this is all drama and set-up - the problem is that there's lots of set-up and little payoff. The ending is sudden and leaves many things unresolved. Yet, though the film is very standard in terms of structure and themes, in terms of genre atmosphere director Hodges (who did the exciting Croupier a film that introduced his leading man to the world) knows what he's doing. With a fine, deliberate pacing and an air that's full of menace and suppressed violence, he keeps us intrigued and often fascinated as to what will inexorably (and predictably) follow. I'll Sleep When I'm Dead is a competent exercise in mood and menace, with capable actors and a jazzy score that goes well with the inner darkness of its denizens - too bad all the effort only makes for a minor entry in the genre.
Drama: 5/10

The Illusionist (2006)
Starring: Edward Norton, Paul Giamatti, Jessica Biel, Rufus Sewell
Director: Neil Burger
Plot: In turn-of-the-century Vienna, an illusionist turns his skills to bring down the treacherous Austrian prince, his rival for the love of a woman beyond his social standing.
Review: There's a clear appeal to the period thriller The Illusionist, a film that delivers some nice, low-key intrigues yet never delves into more than the surface. Director Neil Burger (Interview With The Assassin) adapted Steven Millhauser's short story "Eisenheim the Illusionist" with the best of intentions, and does a fine job with a limited budget. The production values are gorgeous, nicely recreating turn-of-the-century Vienna; the cinematography warm and inviting; and the score from Philip Glass enhances the overall mood. It's an intriguing tale rife with potential - showmanship, romance, political intrigue - but the script never quite rises to the occasion. The set up is too straightforward and too obviously telegraphed; or perhaps it's due to our own own jaded perceptions - we expect a twist to the tale, and the one we end up with isn't much of one. The acting, though, is top notch, and even if Norton remains rather stoic throughout, Biel as his paramour shows some nice depth as does Sewell as what could have been another cardboard villain. Yet, though obviously not the hero, it's Giamatti who is the real anchor and soul of the film and he's simply fabulous as the working-class detective caught between duty and conscience, giving a dash of humor and pathos to his performance. In the end, there's really no faulting either the style or filmmaking, but The Illusionist ultimately fails by never creating a convincing enough mystery.
Entertainment: 6/10

I Love Maria (Roboforce) (Hong Kong - 1988)
Starring: John Sham, Sally Yeh, Tsui Hark 
Director: David Chung
Plot: A bumbling secret service weapons expert and an ex-gang member join forces to stop a villainous robot gang from taking over the city with the help of an android who happens to look like the gang's leader.
Review: Despite the deceptive title, I Love Maria (also going through the title of Roboforce) isn't a romantic comedy but, instead, a sci-fi action buddy-comedy that's surprisingly enjoyable. It's an ambitious undertaking, combining the high-tech elements of Robocop with equal parts MegaForce and Mannequin. The film moves along briskly with lots of action set-pieces including a fantasy gun-fight over tree tops, some good martial arts fights, and some great Japanese anime-style robot battles. There's also lots of slapstick irreverence amongst the serious violence and ample pyrotechnics, of course, and the mix of imaginative gadgetry, stunts and laughs makes it all very reminiscent of the popular early '80s Aces Go Places series. Using careful editing, clever camera shots, good visuals, low-tech special effects and the usual HK inventiveness, the filmmakers effectively make up for any obvious budgetary restrictions. Yeh does a good turn as the stoic android, actor / producer Hark makes a mark as a rather goofy ex-gangster, and watch out for young future star Tony Leung as a nebbish reporter. Some of the comedy is a little repetitive, perhaps, but all told I Love Maria is a well-realized whiz-bang sci-fi adventure that's funny and consistently entertaining.
Entertainment: 8/10

I'm Hungry! (J'ai faim!) (France - 2001)
Starring: Catherine Jacob, Michèle Laroque, Garance Clavel
Director: Florence Quentin
Plot: After being dumped for her boyfriend's new energetic, sexy co-worker, a woman decides to do everything in her power, including dieting, exercise and exacting revenge on her rival, to get him back.
Review: Partly a silly social commentary on women's obsession with "looking good", partly a satire on new dieting fads, I'm Hungry! is a pleasant, rather amusing relationship comedy. Events flow along well, and though the story is rather banal and doesn't bring anything new to the screen, it's all rather well put together. Though full of conventional stereotypes, the four women are still rather sympathetic and the evident camaraderie between them captures the real charm of the movie. Watching the way they exact their revenge on their imagined rival, and the bitter war of nerves that ensues, is a real guilty pleasure. The film's message may be that women shouldn't go through hell to look good for chauvinistic creeps, but it's secondary message still seems to say svelte is better. That's too bad, because its main actress is forced into intense dieting to thin-out for her beau, followed by a complete makeover, though her ample charms come from the fact that she is a little round and still attractive despite what the social standard is. I'm Hungry! is a light-weight, shallow effort from screenwriter Quentin (Tatie Danielle) in her directorial debut, but it allows her actors prominence in every scene, and the dialogue is sufficiently quirky to make for passable viewing.
Comedy: 5/10

I Married a Monster from Outer Space (1958)
Starring: Tom Tryon, Gloria Talbott
Director: Gene Fowler
Plot: A new bride suspects her husband isn't what he seems when he and his buddies start acting strangely.
Review: The film I Married A Monster From Outer Space has a title that screams exploitation and evident camp appeal. Yet it's a more subtle alien invasion tale than the usual monster film or flying saucer fare, one that reveals a more intimate sense of paranoia from its female protagonist. The film really takes a cue from the superior Invasion of the Body Snatchers, using the common B-movie scare-mongering theme, the thinly-veiled metaphor for a communist conspiracy as the aliens take over the townspeople and change even our loved ones into monsters. The script, in its situations and dialogue, surprisingly avoids the usual campiness of the genre, and although the acting isn't first-rate, the psychological angst come across pretty well. The film was made on an obviously low budget, using rubber-suits, wooden ray guns and limited sets, and some of the moments feel a little padded in places to fill out its requisite running time. Yet, there's a good sense of tension present, as well as a fluid, if rather straight-forward directing style and a definite compulsion to crowd-pleasing thrills that keeps the narrative interesting and entertaining. Though not as visually creative or as narratively interesting as other genre films of the era such as It Came From Outer Space or the aforementioned Body Snatchers, I Married A Monster From Outer Space remains an eminently watchable, classic '50s sci-fi B-movie.
Entertainment: 7/10

Immortal Beloved (1994)
Starring: Gary Oldman, Jeroen Krabbé, Isabella Rossellini 
Director: Bernard Rose
Plot: Beethoven's last will bequeaths his estate to his "immortal beloved" but without naming her, and so an old confidant sets on the road to do the composer's last will and unwrap the mystery of his life.
Review: Immortal Beloved, a dramatized view of the life and times of Ludwig Van Beethoven, captures both the genius and the helplessness of the man behind the such famous pieces. The title refers to a letter actually found at his death; from this the movie starts its story using a narrative approach à la Citizen Kane, uncovering a mystery through flashbacks as told by three different women (surprisingly each with the same perspective). The film looks at the life and passions of the great composer with the lavish production easing audiences into the story. Taking its cue from some of the salient points of his life, writer-director Rose (Candyman) takes some obvious liberties with the story, embellishes history and finds an answer to the mystery of who "my immortal beloved" was. But the answer isn't the point of the story, nor are the people who fill the tale - it's the music. Rose takes great efforts to provide audiences with a better understanding, a greater appreciation for the composer's work by embracing the classic, powerful music with rich visuals and strong sequences from a difficult life, and in that he succeeds magnificently. It's another greater-than-life, angst-ridden dramatic role for Oldman who seems at home in the most eccentric characters and once again he comes up with a terrific, show-stopping performance as he fights both his inner and outer demons, and manages to continue his career after being struck deaf. This is a terrific, if shallow, portrait of a tormented, passionate man, but the strong characterization still leaves the composer a mystery in the end. The rest of the cast is also admirable, if never quite up to Oldman's star turn. In the end, Immortal Beloved is an interesting, dramatized biography of one of our greatest composers that may not pierce the veil of mystery but that does provide some exciting musical moments.
Drama: 7/10

Impostor (2002)
Starring: Gary Sinise, Madeleine Stowe, Vincent D'Onofrio
Director: Gary Fleder
Plot: In the midst of an interstellar war with an alien race, a highly respected weapons researcher goes on the run when he is suspected of being an unsuspecting enemy clone on a mission to kill the chancellor.
Review: Another science-fiction adaptation of a Philip K. Dick story, Impostor shows promise as a thought-provoking and engaging SF thriller in its first 20 minutes, but then gets bogged down in the typical Hollywood requirements of the genre. Originally shot and slated to be a 40-minute segment of a three-part story trilogy, the film was later extended and new scenes added, and it shows. The padding - featuring lots of running around dark passages and chase sequences reminiscent of The Fugitive - changes the focus of the film and detracts from subtleties of the SF elements of Dick's original story and only touches briefly upon his favorite theme of what it is to be human (a subject that was so successfully addressed in the other Dick adaptation, Blade Runner). Thankfully, the plot holes are kept to a minimum, and though the double twist ending is predictable early on, the story runs along pretty well and keeps audiences guessing as to the truth. It's not as exciting or as suspenseful as it aims to be, perhaps, but it also never gets boring thanks to some decent editing, able direction, and a smattering of well-done action scenes. There's some nice visual effects, too, keeping the futuristic setting believable while the tone of the film is also done right. Though Sinise doesn't stretch his acting abilities here, he's quite convincing as the everyman desperate to prove his humanity. Stowe, as his doubting wife, is severely underused, while D'Onofrio, as the military expert hired to run him down, plays the villain of the piece as one-dimensional tough guy. Impostor is an entertaining enough bauble for fans looking for decent escapist fun, but as it stands the film is too long by half to make it anything more than that.
Entertainment: 5/10

In America (2003)
Starring: Paddy Considine, Samantha Morton, Sarah Bolger
Director: Jim Sheridan
Plot: After the loss of their 5-year old son, a young Irish couple and their two daughters struggle to forget their past and adjust to life in America after renting a run-down apartment in New York.
Review: Loosely based on the director's own experiences, In America is an endearing modern fable on coming to terms with loss. The story of Irish immigration isn't new, what with the family coping with heartbreak, a new social world, and poverty. What gives it an added level is the ever-present feeling of loss and bereavement that is underneath every moment. That, and the invigorating approach taken with the material, both sentimentally and visually. Irish filmmaker Sheridan (My Left Foot, In the Name of the Father) paints a bittersweet tale of despair and redemption, turning what could have been a depressing bit of filmmaking into a sort of luminous (some would say lyrical) urban fairy-tale. It occasionally borders on the melodramatic, but thanks to a tight control over his actors and situations, the narrative remains compelling throughout. Thanks also to the sublime and touching performances from the entire cast, we do believe in these people and feel for them as they face ever-growing difficulties. Considine and Morton create solid, multi-faceted characters who are haunted by the loss of their son, but even they are eclipsed by the Bolger sisters who play the two young daughters with definite verve and chutzpah. Djimon Hounsou, as the artistic neighbor who helps the family pick up the emotional pieces, is fine even if his role is never quite explored. The ending does take short cuts with a few easy resolutions, but the film captures its audience with its charms and the final moment is truly magical. Never truly wallowing in either gritty reality or false despair, In America is a heartfelt ode to America and the human spirit.
Drama: 8/10

Inception (2010)
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, Ken Watanabe, Marion Cotillard
Director: Christopher Nolan
Plot: A skilled thief expert in extracting the most secret of thoughts from his target's dream gets in over his head when the ghosts in his own sub-conscious begin to create havoc for his team, lost inside their victim's mind.
Review: An ambitious auteur film disguised as a summer blockbuster, Inception does everything right as a mind-bending metaphysical action adventure thriller - and what an emotional, visceral and intellectual rush it is. A simple dramatic story spins gets splashed on a large canvas, mixing dreams and reality, emotional quandary and impossible action sequences, as if taking the epic scope of the mega-production The Dark Knight and combining it with the ingenuity and gutsiness of his more indie-minded Memento. The narrative borrows heavily from the crime genre - there's the assembling of the crack team to do the heist, the careful planning, the deception, and knuckle-biting execution - and throws it into a science-fiction setting. Actions fans will be pleased by the superb physics-defying sequences, some feeling as if they'd be right at home in The Matrix while others just blow everything else away - the climactic sequence, involving (literally) split-second timing across many different levels of unconscious will leave you breathless. Best of all, there's none of the hand-holding and talking down to the audience that we're used to seeing in the season's most expensive productions - audiences better be awake to follow the tale. DiCaprio continues to impress and this is another in a long chain of successful leading-man roles, bringing tough and vulnerable elements to his performance as the expert taking a last desperate chance at redemption. Familiar faces from the Batman films make an appearance, but it's Marion Cotillard, as his (long-dead?) wife who really steals the show - her acting chops makes her a believable anchor to the tales dramatic core. The overall mechanism for dreaming within a dream won't hold to proper reflection after the fact, but it's a minor quibble for what is a thoroughly engrossing and satisfying movie. Not since Avatar has a movie had such breathless pacing, impressive visuals and sheer scope - and Inception trumps that film by having a clever, intriguing story to boot, one that leaves a lasting impression long after the film is over. The summer's must-see. (see extended review)
Entertainment: 9/10

An Inconvenient Truth (2006)
Starring: Al Gore
Director: Davis Guggenheim
Plot: Former US Vice President Al Gore does a compelling presentation on the impending dangers of global warming during his worldwide campaign to raise awareness about the issue.
Review: The only controversy surrounding the Oscar-winning documentary An Inconvenient Truth isn't on whether humans are affecting the environment, but why the public and world governments haven't listened to the scientific community's warnings of dramatic climate change that have occurred over the last generation. As engagingly presented by former US Vice President Al Gore, the film is basically one very slick Power Point presentation that picks at the public's apathy at the sudden increase of greenhouse gases (mainly CO2) in the atmosphere, and with telling examples (a series of before and after photos showing the retreat of numerous glaciers is devastating) and layman terms brings the issue of global warming to the fore. Throughout, Gore raises the problems we face of over-population, old habits + new technologies, industry lobbyism and core political skepticism, refuting along the way many of the opposing views, including the fact that we must choose between economic growth and the Earth itself. Though much the criticism is aimed at the present US administration and its policies, he insists - and rightly so - that this is an ethical prerogative for all of Humanity. If it does occasionally exaggerate the doomsday events (mainly in terms of water levels rising following the collapse of polar ice sheets), scientists have agreed that the facts are for the most part bang-on, and the risks involved for the climate are very real - and some are very immediate (within our life-time). TV-director-turned-documentarian Guggenheim decided to cut the presentation with a sort of personal chronicle of Gore's life including trips to his family ranch, his meetings with international communities, and shots of his subject looking earnest and noble to show his dedication to the issue; it's something that adds a very personal note to the film yet also distracts from the message, playing like a media salvo for a presidential bid. But that's a relatively minor quibble - An Inconvenient Truth is required viewing by everyone to increase social awareness of the crisis and to start prompting action where its needed most: at the personal and government levels.
Documentary: 8/10


The Incredible Hulk (2008)
Starring: Edward Norton, Liv Tyler, Tim Roth
Director: Louis Leterrier
Plot: A scientist fleeing a US Army special task force must cope with awakening his alter-ego, a huge, green-skinned behemoth of incredible strength.
Review: This latest Hulk film is a sort of re-boot of the Marvel hero's franchise after the lukewarm reception of the character's first big-screen adaptation by director Ang Lee in 2003, a film that was dismissed as too dramatic, artsy and "intellectual" by mainstream audiences. Back in Marvel's own creative hands, the producers have stuck closer to the original material and given a big wink to the Bill Bixby / Lou Ferrigno TV series of the 1970's. There are a lot of other neat references for comic fans (from Captain America to Hulk nemesis The Leader), and a final cameo that helps tie the future Marvel movie universe. Much like the recent Iron Man film, it's also clear that the filmmakers have given it their heartfelt all, giving the larger-than-life melodrama, characters and situations the geeky respect (and comic-book mayhem) it deserves while still imbuing the darker moments (and there are many) with some nice comic touches. Lee and Kirby's classic 1960's comic book character was a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde for the Pop age, and the script runs with that theme. Though there are rumors that over an hour of background and story has been excised to make the film leaner and more faster, the story still holds up well enough despite the occasional narrative jumps - we'll have to wait for the DVD "extended cut" to see any further exploration of the emotional toll on our hero. French director Leterrier (The Transporter 2, Unleashed) has a good sense of action and pacing, and here he really rockets to the big leagues, balancing the demands of the script and giving an emotional heft to all the CGI action and carnage. If the computer animated Hulk isn't quite perfect (he still looks like a cartoon), there's no doubt audiences will remember the half-hour battle royale between the Green Giant and The Abomination that turn a New York street into rubble. But surprisingly it's the more quiet, character-driven moments like the embers of romance between Banner and Betty Ross (played nicely by a mature Liv Tyler) that really make an impression. Much like what Robert Downey Jr. did for Iron Man, Norton embodies the conflicted hero Bruce Banner and it's his solid performance that holds the film together. Mind you, with a supporting cast that includes Tim Roth as a nasty special ops officer and an over-the-top William Hurt as the obsessive General Ross it sure helps. For many, this incarnation of The Incredible Hulk is what mainstream audiences have been looking for; it's heavy on the effects and expensive set pieces that make summer popcorn blockbusters so much fun. And let's face it, the character of our youth has always been distilled in our minds in two fighting words: "Hulk Smash!". And that he does. 
Entertainment: 7/10

The Incredibles (2004)
Voice Acting: Brad Bird, Holly Hunter, Samuel L. Jackson
Director: Brad Bird
Plot: A super-powered family, living undercover to escape lawsuits, struggle between their bland suburban existence and their past life as heroes only to be forced out of retirement by a new villain.
Review: With the high-powered computer animated comedy adventure The Incredibles the Pixar studios (Toy Story, Finding Nemo) once again proves their worth with another in a long series of hits. Inspired by everything from The Fantastic Four and Flash comic books (look at those amazing heroics!), '60s James Bond films (check out the villain's retro lair!), and even The War of the Worlds (look at the monstrous robot!), the look and flow of the on-screen happenings is mesmerizing. In fact, there's enough super-powered action to satisfy any kid at heart who's ever been captivated by Saturday morning cartoons. In another technological leap, the animation is simply spectacular, stylish and crisp, with enough detail and fluidity to require repeated viewings. The movie may not be as funny as some of the more recent ventures, but it's more consistently engaging and definitely a step-up in terms of overall writing. Thank writer / director Brad Bird (The Iron Giant) for such an amazing endeavor. What really makes the film shine, however, is that apart from the superior comic-book-like "POW"s and "BLAM"s (with all the action violence that comes with it), there's the underpinnings of a solid family story. As the perfect 60's-TV-like "nuclear family", the characters are engaging and have the usual dramatic predicaments, all enhanced by the fact of their special talents. And the voice cast, including Bird himself as the voice of Mr. Incredible, Hunter as Elastigirl, and Jackson as Frozone, is just superb. Add to all this some fine story-telling know-how (check the opening news reels of old super-hero interviews, or a myriad of other fine moments) and some adult themes (family responsibility, dead-end jobs, etc) that play with our perceptions of a "family" film, and you've got a movie that everyone can enjoy. To make it all this stuff as engaging as the dynamic fight sequences takes a fine script, and the movie has it in spades - it's witty, funny, poignant, and ever so creative without losing its sense of fun. Even at over two hours (a rarity in animated features) there's never a dull moment. All told, The Incredibles is simply a delight.
Entertainment: 9/10

Independence Day (1996)
Starring: Will Smith, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Pullman
Director: Roland Emmerich
Plot: A rag-tag team of American survivors fight back against an invading alien force after city-sized flying saucers appear over major populated areas and start destroying urban centers.
Review: Yes, the plot to Independence Day is so full of holes you could drive one of the huge flying saucers through them. Yes, the genre conventions are played predictably straight and narrow. But Emmerich and Devlin (the team behind Stargate and Godzilla) manage to stuff every scene with such rousing crowd-pleasing moments, such energy and pure "gee-whiz" inventiveness, that one can't help but be taken in by the proceedings. The first hour, especially, has the feeling of all those big-budget '70s disaster films with its dozens of characters and its constant, increasing peril, all updated with the latest special effects wizardry. It's such decadent, high-stakes fun that the film would deserve a high rating just for its scenes of world-wide destruction and some truly memorable SFX cinematography. It's unfortunate that the second half of the film relies so much on ponderous flag waving and inept science to save civilization, but by then most audiences will be under its spell. Dumb, yes, but a vastly entertaining blockbuster as well.
Entertainment: 8/10


Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)
Starring: Harrison Ford, Cate Blanchett, Karen Allen, Shia LaBeouf
Director: Steven Spielberg
Plot: In 1957, a greying Indiana Jones gets thrust back into action in the jungles of South American to stop Soviet agents from finding the famed City of Gold. 
Review: Almost 20 years since the mis-titled Last Crusade saw archeologist adventurer Indiana Jones ride into the sunset, Spielberg, Lucas and Ford re-team for one last hurrah in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. As the theme music swells, the opening sequence comes like a blast of nostalgia, as a grizzled Indy escapes Russian agents who have infiltrated Area 51 and ends up on Ground Zero of an A-bomb test - it's a great way to thrust our hero into a new world order. The rest of the film relies on the expected blend of archeological hokum, witty repartee, and lots of action set-pieces, including a car & motorcycle chase through college grounds and an extended army vehicle chase in the Amazon jungle, among others. It's all loads of fun, and series director Spielberg still has the touch when it comes to working with the tried-and-true formula of action and comic bits. Unfortunately, as the film races on, with its emphasis on the stunts and CGI-heavy, extra-terrestrial climax, some of the magic seems to be missing. The Cold War with its shades of McCarthyism and fear-mongering rears its head, but the chance at exploring our pulp hero in this more complex era are quickly dismissed. Without a more substantial anchor, the movie feels like one of its own fun but shallow imitations, like Tomb Raider or National Treasure. No fault, though, to our leading man: Though he's added more gray hair and more wrinkles since last we've seen him, Ford still has what it takes; from cracking the whip to taking (and giving) a fistful of beatings, this is the Indiana Jones we've all grown up with. And though there are lots of winks to the earlier films, from a glimpse of the Ark to a reminiscence to past characters, none are more welcome as the re-appearance of the buoyant, gutsy Karen Allen (the love-interest from Raiders) as his partner in adventure. LaBeouf seems to be the latest go-to guy for young heroes, and thankfully he acts as second fiddle to Indy as a Rebel-Without-A-Cause motorcycle "greaser". Finally, Blanchett, does the stereotypical cold-hearted, tenacious Soviet agent; she's a fine foil but is dreadfully underused. Still, despite its faults, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is an energetic, entertaining return to a stalwart action hero. There's nothing new here, but most audiences will be content to engage in this energetic, nostalgic return to the franchise.
Entertainment: 7/10

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
Starring: Harrison Ford, Sean Connery, Alison Doody
Director: Steven Spielberg
Plot: Archeologist / adventurer Indiana Jones must tackle Nazis once again to find the trail to his estranged father who has gone missing while pursuing the mythical Holy Grail.
Review: Having stumbled a bit with Temple of Doom, the blockbuster duo of Lucas and Spielberg have gone back to basics with the third installment of the Indiana Jones adventures, the Last Crusade. Indy is clearly more in his element fighting Nazis than Thugees, and they've got the successful Raiders template down pat, from the thrilling exploits, the daring stunts, fabulous set-pieces, the biblical mystery and (perhaps unfortunately) deus ex machina ending, easily recapturing the magic of the original entry. Even if the plot mirrors much of Raiders of the Lost Ark, series director Spielberg (Jurassic Park, Jaws) is in full form here and shows his usual knack for mainstream story-telling and adventure, and even the "slower" moments of exposition bits are fun and keep things moving along. As for those intense scenes of action, it doesn't disappoint, with two really worth mentioning: the opening sequence as a Young Indy tries to escape grave-diggers in a circus train (one that reveals how Indy got his hat, the scar on his chin and his nickname); and the gripping one as our hero tries to stop a German tank single-handed. There are many more, of course, as the quest leads us from Europe to the Middle-East, but what really adds the right spark to the film is the great chemistry between the two leads that adds an emotional heft to the story, as well as many amusing father-son moments. Ford is clearly at ease in the role and it's hard to imagine anyone doing a better job. To equal such a larger-than-life character, Connery is the perfect choice to play Indy's dad showing he's still an electrifying presence in any film; not only does he shows his vast charm as our hero's role model and occasional foil. With a great pacing and a myriad of entertaining situations, Last Crusade is a terrific way to end the trilogy - at least until no. 4 comes out.
Entertainment: 8/10

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)
Starring: Harrison Ford, Kate Capshaw, Ke Huy Quan
Director: Steven Spielberg
Plot: To save a village from a diabolical cult leader, archeologist / adventurer Indiana Jones steps into darkest India in the catacombs of an ancient palace to recover a mystical stone and save the imprisoned children.
Review: Easily the weakest entry of the stalwart series, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is more in line with a dark fantasy / horror story than an adventure flick, as if the elements of what made Jones so exciting were inserted as an afterthought. Oh, the idea of the cliff-hanger is still in evidence as are the tongue-in-cheek humor, and some may say this end result is even more an homage to 40's serials. Made up partly of left-over scenes that didn't make the original, the sequel is a darker, more nightmarish chapter (a wee bit too dark, as it includes a pointless heart-ripping scene of ritual sacrifice and the like) but there's little of the energy and high spirits director Spielberg so aptly showed in Raiders of the Lost Ark. The well-staged, dynamic opening sequence promises great things, as Jones tries to recover a jewel in a colorful Shanghai night club, with all the chaos that ensures. Things quickly screech to a halt, however, as our party lands in India, giving rise to some extended exposition, throw-away cultural gags and unnecessary romantic comedy before the discovery of the inner cave temple, something straight out of an old Hollywood set. The production values are nice, as is the cinematography, but we're not supposed to have the time to concentrate on such things! The long middle act can't sustain the dynamic pace of the first one, and this reviewer admits to having fallen asleep in the theatre the first time around. Thankfully, this is still an Indiana Jones flick, and the last 40 minutes or so are pure fun and make up for a lot of the film's failings as Jones and associates get chased by sword-wielding cultists down shafts and across bridges. The memorable mining car sequence is a giddy roller-coaster ride that still works, even if the miniature effects are somewhat dated. Capshaw plays the petulant, spoiled lounge singer as a true damsel-in-distress - useless and ineffective. Quan as the Kid, is really there for comic relief. No complaints with Ford, however, who was at his prime and maintains the right amount of dash, self-awareness and machismo that he brought to all his tough-guy roles. Despite it all, the film still entertains and as a stand-alone it's a solid time-waster, but Temple of Doom just doesn't quite cut it as a follow-up. 
Entertainment: 6/10

Infernal Affairs (Hong Kong - 2002)
Starring: Tony Leung, Andy Lau, Anthony Wong
Director: Andrew Lau, Alan Mak
Plot: A deadly game of cat-and-mouse to reveal each other's identity is set in motion between a deep undercover cop high in the criminal hierarchy and a fast-rising police officer who is actually a criminal triad mole.
Review: A blockbuster in Asia, the serious-minded crime drama / entertainment vehicle Infernal Affairs may have single-handedly re-invigorated HK cinema. This is high concept movie-making involving that favorite of genres, the triad crime drama. Once you get past the rather convoluted premise it becomes an intriguing game of cat-and-mouse where loyalties are put into question and moral certainties blur. The film relies more on creating gripping situations than on typical bullet-ridden action, and some solid suspense and storytelling go a long way to make it work. The well-intentioned dramatic themes may not be quite convincing but the slick cinematography, stylish visuals and well-paced narrative keep the attention. More importantly, as the two adversaries pursuing each other's identity, each living a deep-rooted lie on each side of the law, losing themselves in their roles and bringing their entire existence into question, the suave Lau and intense Leung show why they're two of the most sought-after local actors. It's a razor-thin balancing act between doing their appointed job and blowing their cover for the sake of their allegiances and, always teetering over the edge, they make us feel the psychological tension of both characters. It's popularity and acclaim are perhaps a tad disproportioned to its rewards, but Infernal Affairs is a capable thriller that was worth the wait.
Entertainment: 7/10

Infernal Affairs II (Hong Kong - 2003)
Starring: Anthony Wong, Eric Tsang, Francis Ng
Directors: Siu Fai Mak, Wai-keung Lau
Plot: A young cop with ties to the Hong Kong crime syndicate goes undercover while a young triad member working for a rival crime boss joins the police department, both vying to bring down the new kingpin.
Review: A prequel to the acclaimed Hong Kong crime thriller Infernal Affairs (the basis for Martin Scorcese's Award-winning The Departed), Infernal Affairs II goes back in time before the hand-over of 1997 to tell the tale of how the protagonists got to where they are. Made hot-off the success of its predecessor, and forsaking its leads Andy Lau and Tony Leung for younger actors, returning directors Siu Fai Mak and Wai-keung Lau have produced a solid crime drama that's just as slick and well-shot as their previous effort. On the down side, it lacks the first's complexities and fine-tuned suspense, relegating the main actors to secondary-participant status in the main plot, one focusing on the rise of new crime boss (played with aplomb by Francis Ng). For those not familiar with the first installment, the character revelations won't mean anything; in either case, despite the attempts at depth and intricate plotting (and, yes, there's a lot going on here), the story is pretty straightforward stuff, acted out in the backdrop of the 1997 hand-over to China. On the up side, returning actors Eric Tsang and Anthony Wong get a chance to beef up their parts in the series, and the whole thing is engaging enough to satisfy both casual and more discerning viewers alike. Infernal Affairs II may not be quite the success of the first but it's a fine addition to setting up the mythology of the trilogy.
Entertainment / Drama: 6/10

Infinity (1996)
Starring: Matthew Broderick, Patricia Arquette
Director: Matthew Broderick
Plot: True-life story set in the 30's and 40's about young scientist Richard Feynman's love-affair with his wife who was diagnosed early in her life with a fatal disease.
Review: Infinity is a sweet, very low-key romance. It's clear that this film was a labor of love for Broderick, and it is successful in portraying the two lover's eccentric characters. Feynman's life was a fascinating one, and this was an important part of his life, but it would have been more interesting to see more of his story. A decent film for quiet moments.
Drama: 6/10

Inglourious Basterds (2009)
Starring: Brad Pitt, Mélanie Laurent, Christoph Waltz, Eli Roth, Diane Kruger
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Plot: A band of Jewish-American soldiers spread fear within the Third Reich as they brutally kill enemy soldiers in occupied France, soon setting their sights on a movie theater in Paris that is set to premiere a new German propaganda film.
Review: Writer / director Tarantino's (Death Proof, Kill Bill) audacious answer to The Dirty Dozen, Inglourious Basterds is a terrific re-invention of the World War II movie, a re-imagining of the War's events as revenge fantasy. Much like the characters in the film, there's a sense of bravado in doing things his way, no matter how preposterous - and sometimes it's all the better for it. A passing resemblance to the 1978 Italian B-movie of the same name is no coincidence, but Tarantino has much more up his sleeve. For one, the film plays out like one of Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns, with a series of amusing touches that make this affair all his own, like the introduction of German Lt. Stiglitz, a man who kills his own superior officers (complete with narration by Samuel L. Jackson, no less), or the cutting of old movies to explain the dangers of nitrite film stock, or the jabs at the film industry ("This is France! We respect directors, here!"). And despite the premise, this is by no means an action flick - Tarantino knows that the best parts are the build-up to the scene's inevitable climax. Instead of gunplay, the scenes emphasize suspense and tense dialogue. In his hands, every encounter is an interrogation where a single slip of the tongue can mean death. Much like the non-linear Pulp Fiction, the violence takes its time coming, but when it does it's pretty vicious and, in the final explosive sequence, quite cathartic. As for the impressive cast, Pitt admirably plays the Lee Marvin role with a Southern twang, horror director Eli Roth entrances as one of the Jewish soldiers called "The Bear", and Diane Kruger is divine as the German actress. But it's Waltz (easily winning the Cannes award for best performance) who really steals the show as the SS "Jew Hunter", a charming and cunning predator who shatters the stereotype of the evil Nazi and whose character will be remembered as one of the great villains of cinema. The movie isn't perfect, however; the narrative is disjointed, making it feel like the story was actaully built around the set-pieces isntead of the other way around, and the pacing occasionally suffers from elongated scenes. Yet, be it part homage, part stylish re-creation of 40's films, and large part pure fun, there's no doubting that we're in good hands. An impressive, thoroughly entertaining flick that puts the genre on its ear, Inglorious Basterds is another superior effort from a filmmaker that takes chances and wins, to the benefit of audiences everywhere.
Entertainment: 8/10

Innerspace (1987)
Starring: Dennis Quaid, Martin Short, Meg Ryan
Director: Joe Dante
Plot: A hotshot pilot agrees to being miniaturized as part of an experiment, but when industrial thieves try to steal the technology he is accidentally injected into a hypochondriac and must now save both their lives.
Review: Horror director Joe Dante (Gremlins) continued his push into mainstream Hollywood with Innerspace, an amusing blend of slapstick comedy and sci-fi. The premise, taking the idea from Fantastic Voyage and turning it into a comedy, is an interesting one, but though there are some imaginative bits the script never aims very far and fails to milk the real potential inherent in the material. Still, there are enough funny moments, clever touches and even some entertaining action sequences (thanks to some neat special effects inside Short's body that update its predecessor), to fulfill its goal as an entertaining outing. What really drives the film are the two main actors, with Quaid playing his The Right Stuff role as the cocky pilot and Short playing the type of role he is most famous for, the sympathetic nerd who's at his best when exhibiting his own brand of physical comedy. The two aren't on-screen much, but the script shows the different sort of odd-couple buddy relationship in an amusing light. As watchable family fare, Innerspace is a fun, light-hearted comedy / adventure.
Entertainment: 6/10


Inside Man (2006)
Starring: Clive Owen, Denzel Washington, Jodie Foster
Director: Spike Lee
Plot: A veteran detective faces off with a cunning criminal mastermind during a bank robbery in downtown New York that evolves into a tense hostage situation.
Review: A thriller that joyfully embraces and plays with the conventions of the bank robbery, Inside Man grabs our attention from the get-go and never lets go until its satisfying conclusion. This is a Hollywood product like they should be made, where the stakes are high, the visuals slick, the story intriguing, and the characters are given enough life to give it the added punch. Such a commercial effort comes as a surprise from director Lee (Malcolm X, Do the Right Thing) who for once isn't working off his own screenplay, but he lines things up like a professional, and the pacing goes like clockwork. There's even some delicious social commentary and human drama mixed in, some of which are true gold nuggets for this type of film. Yet more than anything, it's the caper that counts; many films promise "the perfect crime", but this robbery is one of the first to be truly brilliantly planned and executed. Sure, the cops are efficient and experienced, but the criminals are one step ahead of both them and the audience, providing some plot twists that are rarely predictable. Much of the success is clearly due to the well-crafted screenplay from newcomer Russell Gewirtz, a script that never falters during the cunning film-length cat-and-mouse game between the two adversaries, a game where the stakes - and the players - aren't always what they seem. There's little real action, but there's loads of tension between the characters, and their dialogue positively crackles with energy. It helps to have a plum cast to deliver the lines, too; as a leading man, Washington can be a charming actor, and here he is at his best. Owen, as the criminal master-mind, plays it cool and calculating, occasionally showing a human side that alters our perception. The supporting cast, which includes such veterans as Willem Defoe, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Christopher Plummer, and an icily efficient Foster as a ball-busting facilitator with few scruples, is terrific. That each one of them has enough material to make them into complex, interesting people is just icing on the cake. All told, Inside Man is cleverly executed, tense thriller that is a certified hit.
Entertainment: 8/10

The Insider (1999)
Starring: Al Pacino, Russell Crowe, Christopher Plummer
Director: Michael Mann
Plot: A researcher becomes one of the biggest whistle-blowers in the tobacco industry history by telling his story to the TV journalists of "60 Minutes", only to have the segment pulled by the network and his life destroyed.
Review: Based on an actual event, The Insider is a powerful, exciting, fascinating drama about the tobacco industry and the behind-the-scenes workings of the biggest network TV news program. The story runs along at a great pace, showing the viewers all the different forces and events that shaped the real story. Though the idea and execution might bring All The President's Men or even Network to mind, director Mann (The Last of the Mohicans, Heat) plays it straight with a fantastic sense of visual storytelling that captures all the human drama and keeps the audience riveted to the screen. Pacino and Plummer are impeccable as the segment producer and journalist Mike Wallace, respectively, portraying them as men of principle confronted with tough choices. But it's Russell Crowe, as the titular character who really outshines them both, managing to catch the nuances of the real-life personality (one that is heavier, older, and has a very different accent than the actor) in a thoroughly convincing, Oscar-caliber performance. Easily one of the most thought-provoking and successful dramas of recent years.
Drama: 9/10

Inspector Gadget (1999)
Starring: Matthew Broderick, Rupert Everett, Joely Fisher
Director: David Kellogg
Plot: A bumbling security agent is recreated into a bionically enhanced detective to stop an evil robotics tycoon from creating an army of evil androids.
Review: Inspector Gadget does a great job on turning the cartoon antics of the British series into F/X laden live-action sequences, but by insisting on the usual Hollywood crude, childish, un-funny humor (the one now typically aimed at kids under 8 years old) and a dumbed-down script it loses much of the charm of the original animated show. There are some clever moments peppered throughout where the material becomes comically self-referential and pokes fun at itself and its audience, but its use is not consistent enough to save it. Though Broderick and Everett seem to try their best at hamming it up as is required by the material, it's actually the amusing Gadgetmobile that has the most personality. The short feature length attests to the film's desperation during the editing process to fill every moment with slapstick or eye-catching visual effects to keep the audience's interest. To be fair, the madcap adventures and imaginative CGI special effects are indeed entertaining, but with a ho-hum script, lame dialogue, and uninteresting performances by the cast, Inspector Gadget is certainly fun for kids and undemanding adults, but it just doesn't quite deliver on its promising concept.
Entertainment: 4/10

The International (2009)
Starring: Naomi Watts, Clive Owen, Armin Mueller-Stahl
Director: Tom Tykwer
Plot: An Interpol agent and a New York attorney race across the world to expose a massive arms-dealing business propagated by an almighty, ruthless Luxembourg bank.
Review: Inspired by the 1991 real-life scandal surrounding the Pakistani Bank of Credit, The International has its convictions in the right place but fails to execute to its potential. Choosing a bank as the film's faceless villain could not have come at a more opportune time but there's little in this paranoia-loving flick that is truly original. On the plus side, German director Tykwer (Run, Lola, Run, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer) does pretty well in his first mainstream English-language production, adding a certain cerebral, European flavor to an otherwise typical Hollywood thriller. What comes out is a narrative that would feel at home among the popular 70's conspiracy flicks such as The Last Days of the Condor and The Parallax View - and that's a good thing. The breakneck pacing is, however, much more in line with more recent fare, jet-setting from one exotic location to another, from the rooftops of Istanbul to the streets of New York, passing by Berlin and Milan, following leads that may, just as they may not, lead to the proof of the bank's wrongdoing. But fleet as it might, this is nowhere near an action movie, relying more on anti-corporate sentiment, skullduggery and dramatic moments to move the story forward. In fact, the film's only true action sequence - an elaborate, well-staged but over-long gunfight in the Guggenheim museum, of all places - feels out of place with the rest of the film as if it were thrown in as a requisite set piece to make the trailer more lively. The dependable Watts and Owen are strong performers and still do manage to keep our interest, but they're unfortunately grossly short-changed on the character development side as they struggle to chomp through the script. One highlight, though, is Armin Mueller-Stahl as the ex-Stasi handler for all the bank's dirty deeds, a man who is truly lost in the new world order. As Hollywood corporate thrillers go, it's a decent effort with all the right stuff but to those of us who know director Twyker's better works, The International is somewhat of a disappointment .
Entertainment: 6/10

The Interpreter (2005)
Starring: Nicole Kidman, Sean Penn
Director: Sydney Pollack
Plot: A veteran Secret Service agent is assigned to protect a United Nations interpreter after she claims to have overheard a death threat against a callous African head of state set to give a speech in New York.
Review: Though younger audiences may fidget at the lack of pyrotechnics on display, adults will have much to appreciate in the 70's-style thriller The Interpreter. Director Pollack (Out of Africa, Tootsie) is an accomplished story-teller and, from a harrowing opening scene in the heart of its fictional African country (standing in, perhaps, for Zimbabwe), to political intrigue in the heart of the UN, the film slowly builds to a solid climax without ever losing steam. Returning to a genre he excelled at in such films as Three Days of the Condor and The Firm, he proves that a mature, engaging thriller need not be all about fireworks and break-neck pacing, allowing the setting and plot to unravel in their own time. The one exception is a scene involving an assassination attempt aboard a bus unfolds with nail-biting, clockwork precision - taken with the rest of the narrative, it feels it was included solely for the trailer, but that's a minor quibble. Thanks to some beautiful cinematography and some able direction, even the many plot holes of the script seem to be quite acceptable. Not so, perhaps, the film's fumbling of its political message regarding the ethnic cleansing and genocide of the country, something that rings rather hallow. The film's real standout feature, though, is that it was shot inside the actual United Nations headquarters in New York giving it an added sheen of verisimilitude. To be given such permission (a first) meant that the message - of the UN's importance in providing a place for peaceful resolution to international issues - had to be a positive one, and it is. Pollack also knows how best to utilize his star actors: though they may not be utterly convincing as characters, Penn and Kidman (playing a white African who, once again, gets to speak for the tragedy befalling the entire continent) are attractive and wonderful, slowly allowing a (thankfully non-romantic) bond to draw them together in a manner that will keep even humbugs enthralled. If the end result isn't as fulfilling as the film's pedigree would have promised, The Interpreter is still an accomplished, engaging thriller that harkens back to some of the director's best work.
Drama / Entertainment: 7/10

Interview with the Vampire (1994)
Starring: Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, Kirsten Dunst
Director: Neil Jordan
Plot: Having a hard time dealing with being a vampire, an 18-th century plantation owner who has lost the will to live tries to escape his more-experienced progenitor by fleeing to Paris.
Review: Based on the huge horror bestseller by Anne Rice, Interview with a Vampire is a magnificent, bold and splendid film that brings horror and vampirism into the level of true cinematic art. In the capable hands of director Jordan (The Crying Game), the film is a stylish, efficient and wholly accomplished affair that provokes a strong emotional response, be it dread or awe, as well as the pathos, the drama, the sadness that teems in Rice's work. With his cinematographer, he also brings the intoxicating night world to vivid life, a world that always provides further curiosities and terrors around every corner (a sequence of the Parisian Theatre des Vampyres is a standout). The magnificent, gorgeous production and lavish art direction provide the required visual splendor. With never a whiff of camp (or, admittedly, almost never), the film delivers a good amount of thrills, chills and bloodletting as well, while keeping a focus on the philosophical implications of their fate, the longings and lost humanity of its main protagonist. And, indeed, the most important aspect is that the characters from Anne Rice's novel jump off the page - no surprise, perhaps, as Rice wrote the script herself. As the vampire "couple" Pitt and Cruise are at the top of their game and play their parts with the perfect amount of seriousness and "vamp", insinuating a homoerotic sexual tension; but while Pitt is the soul and conscience of the film, Cruise is given free reign to create a deliciously evil Lestat, giving one of his best performances. It's also a stunning debut for a very young Dunst who is darn impressive as the at-first-innocent, then-vicious vampire stuck in the seemingly-precocious body of a girl forever. Add a sublime Banderas, as an enigmatic older vampire, to the mix and you've got a tour-de-force cast. A classic tale simply brilliantly realized, the seductive Interview with the Vampire is another cornerstone for the horror genre, one that has rightfully garnered both critical and mainstream success.
Entertainment: 8/10

In the Bedroom (2001)
Starring: Tom Wilkinson, Sissy Spacek, Marisa Tomei
Director: Todd Field
Plot: A middle-aged New England couple must come to terms with the loss of their Ivy League son, killed by his older girlfriend's jealous ex-husband.
Review: In the Bedroom is one of those independent productions that takes chances, not by doing something original or strange but by allowing realistic emotional drama to come out from a terrible event without diluting it. Comparisons to Ordinary People or other such dramas will be inescapable, but this simple domestic drama turns to a wrenching tale of loss a third of the way through in a turning point that is as brief as it is shocking. The real success here is that the emotions ring true, be it anguish, joy, fear or frustration, and the vivid characters are all convincing thanks to a series of heartfelt performances from all involved. Wilkinson and Spacek especially capture the nuances of the dynamics a life-long relationship to perfection and their anger and grief are palpable. The script is also impressive in keeping an down-to-earth tone throughout, as is the able direction from first-time actor-turned director Field, unfolding the story with both moments said and unsaid. Best of all, the end doesn't provide the deus ex machina emotional catharsis that is so often typical of American films - the tragedy will never go away. Unfortunately, the last quarter of the film, when the father's feeling of powerlessness makes him embark on a desperate course, presents us with an event that just breaks the dramatic flow. This sequence is just not set up well enough to be believable, and seems so out-of-character that it ends up diluting much of the power the film so carefully maintained. The last scene, however, shows us that nothing they do will ever bring them back again. Apart from this short turn into melodrama, In the Bedroom manages to take us into these people's lives, feel their pain and their loss, and for the most part manages to make it as unbearable as if it happened to someone we knew.
Drama: 8/10

In the Line of Duty 3 (Hong Kong - 1988)
Starring: Cynthia Khan, Hiroshi Fujioka, Michiko Nishawaki
Directors: Arthur Wong, Brandy Yuen
Plot: A young Hong Kong female police officer teams up with a veteran Japanese cop to stop a pair of professional, vicious diamond thieves who killed his partner.
Review: Flippantly described as a "girls with guns" action feature, In the Line of Duty 3 offers much more than this moniker would allow. In fact, this is a bloody and ferocious action picture that doesn't let its shoe-string plot or occasional comic elements (or melodramatic ones) get in the way of a snappy pacing and some amazing, intense fight scenes. Some particularly brutal sequences include a one-on-one fight with the two male adversaries in a ship yard, and the two-on-one finale with Khan, but in fact the whole film is constantly peppered with great action set-pieces full of explosions, gun fights, and martial arts. The villains are also more complex than one would expect from a movie of this type and makes the proceedings all that more interesting. Cynthia Khan, in her breakthrough film, displays some impressive acrobatic skills, and the rest of the characters are just as good, especially Nishawaki as the passionate, murderous thief out for revenge. For action fans looking for something light and entertaining that delivers where it counts, In the Line of Duty 3 is it.
Entertainment: 8/10

In the Line of Duty 4 (Hong Kong - 1989)
Starring: Cynthia Khan, Donnie Yen, Michael Wong
Director: Yuen Woo Ping
Plot: A police woman must protect a Chinese immigrant who inadvertently witnessed a drugs-for-money exchange orchestrated by the CIA and is now targeted for assassination.
Review: The series that started with Royal Warriors and was followed by the impressive In the Line of Duty 3 once again ups the ante with this new installment, forsaking most of the usual stunts to bring to the table an even more jaw-dropping exchange of blows. The film is quite simply an amazing piece of martial arts action, with some stunning fight choreography from acclaimed director Yuen Woo Ping (Iron Monkey, action director on The Matrix). There's nothing particularly original in these one-on-one battles, but you certainly do get your money's worth in no-holds-barred fisticuffs. In fact, there are dozens upon dozens of excellent fight scenes and more blows per minute than just about any movie you can think of! Khan is simply terrific once again showing off some impressive skills, and the addition of martial arts master Donnie Yen, in absolute top-notch form here, is just more good news. As for the plot, it's a mostly straight-forward affair of CIA-agents-gone-bad patched together from other sources and good enough to keep us interested for the few minutes respite between battles, with just a dash of character development to make you root for the good guys. All told, In the Line of Duty 4 is a fabulous action-fest for fans of the genre, and a classic of '80s "girls with guns" HK flicks.
Entertainment / Action: 8/10

In the Mood for Love (Hong Kong - 2000)
Starring: Maggie Cheung, Tony Leung, Lai Chen
Director: Wong Kar-Wai
Plot: After discovering that their respective spouses are having an affair together, two neighbors in 1960's Hong Kong start up a platonic affair but fear the ensuing gossip it may cause.
Review: In the Mood for Love is director Wong Kar-Wai's (Chungking Express, Ashes of Time) most subtle and piercing drama to date. This is a wonderful, thoughtful, emotionally involving film that never takes things for granted and methodically builds events to get its audiences "in the mood" of this burgeoning, doomed relationship. The film captures the emotional undercurrents of the relationship between two lost souls, of the everyday lives and events that shape them and, most importantly, of the bond that draws them and links them together, as well as the social restraints that keep them apart. Using only limited dialogue, Cheung and Leung capture their required performances admirably with subtle gestures, body language and distant looks. As for the cinematography, not only does it frame each shot beautifully, contrasting intense colors and dark passages adding resonance to the scenes, but it also captures the claustrophobic, shadowy spaces of 1960's Hong Kong making us almost feel the weight of society bearing down on its denizens. Winner of multiple international awards, In the Mood for Love is a crowning achievement for one of HK's most innovative and interesting directors.
Drama: 9/10

In the Mouth of Madness (1995)
Starring: Sam Neill, Julie Carmen, Jurgen Prochnow
Director: John Carpenter
Plot: Hired to find a missing horror writer, a cynical insurance investigator travels to a town not found on any maps and slowly begins to lose his grasp on reality as the world around him starts imitating the author's fiction.
Review: Imbuing the film with a dash of horror mythology inspired from the classic works by H.P. Lovecraft along with the author's more important theme of madness when confronted with the unexplainable, In the Mouth of Madness ably works on creating a sense of unease and tension. In his last real attempt at something original, director Carpenter shows his hand as a real B-movie expert (much as he did with They Live and Prince of Darkness), and here he's done an effective job at creating a strange, gruesome and forbidding world with dark imagery and schlock visuals. Using effects used in his own masterpiece The Thing only sparingly, the film attempts at a higher-brow style of horror - there's little gore to be had, and the creatures themselves are seen in only brief glimpses as deformed, eerie monsters, but it's enough for audiences to feel unsettled by the atmosphere of dread and impending world-wide madness. Unfortunately, the film is too steeped in the exploitation tropes of the genre to truly be exceptional. There are some terrific moments, for sure, and the atmosphere of dread is just right, but in general it feels a little too cheap to be taken as anything more than popcorn entertainment. The real sticking point, though, is that the script doesn't quite get a good enough hold on its pet issue of fact vs. fiction, reality vs. fantasy - it's an interesting idea, but not well enough developed, culminating in an anti-climactic ending. As the only real protagonist, Neil feels like he's slumming it here (much as he did in another B-movie horror with a similar concept, Event Horizon), but he comes off well as a man fearing for his sanity. The rest of the cast, and especially Prochnow, ham it up to the extreme, though there's a nice cameo by Charlton Heston. As a B-movie type effort into the world of the Cthulhu mythos, In the Mouth of Madness decent, watchable stuff, but it could have been so much more.
Horror: 5/10

In the Realms of the Unreal (2004)
Narration: Dakota Fanning, Larry Pine
Director: Jessica Yu
Plot: Upon his death in 1973, the landlady of an elderly recluse discovers his apartment is filled with decades worth of writings and drawings, a 15,000-page illustrated novel about virtuous girls leading a child slave revolt against their evil oppressors.
Review: Social pariah Henry Darger, an elderly recluse who worked as a janitor and was a regular Churchgoer, was also an avid writer / illustrator who worked in isolation for fifty years on an enormous manuscript called In the Realms of the Unreal involving hundreds of paintings and thousands of illustrated text pages. Using stock footage, interviews with his neighbors and a handful of existing photographs, the documentary explores his life, from his tough early days as an orphan in an asylum for "feeble-minded children" through the hardships of his adult life. But most importantly it also defines his influences, from his very Christian upbringing and beliefs to the Civil War and Norman Rockwell magazine covers. A self-taught artist who practiced on any piece of paper he could find, he created some beautiful, some violent, and some particularly disturbing images as he put his imaginary epic to paper. Some of these have been cleverly animated, with Fanning and Pine reading passages of the tale behind its happenings, making Darger's world come alive. It gets a bit repetitive towards the end, much like the novel itself, and there's not enough substance to keep continued attention, but all told director Yu manages to find a certain dignity in the life of a lonely, eccentric figure whose imagination overflowed in the confines of his own mind. Too bad, as well, that there's very little exploration on the subject of mental illness and creativity, a debate that has raged ever since Darger's oeuvre has become exposed to the public. An uplifting or depressing film, it will depend on your point of view but In the Realms of the Unreal is a bittersweet retrospective of a strange, introverted life.
Documentary: 6/10

In the Shadow of the Moon (2007)
Director: David Sington
Plot: Through a series of interviews, the surviving astronauts from NASA's Apollo missions tell their story.
Review: Combining a mix of widely-seen and lesser-known archived NASA film footage with interviews of many of the surviving astronauts from the Apollo missions, In the Shadow of the Moon runs through a brief introduction to the space program of the 1960's to quickly focus on the Apollo flights. Between 1968 and 1972, there was a barrage of lunar expeditions tagged as Apollo 8 to Apollo 17. None, of course, were more famous than Apollo 11, the 1969 mission that first saw man step on another celestial body. The names are familiar to anyone who lived in the excitement of the young space age, or watched the superb Hollywood productions such as The Right Stuff and Apollo 13 - Jim Lovell, John Young, Buzz Aldrin - and their exploits are legend, their achievements larger-than-life. Yet through the relaxed discussions, the reminiscences and anecdotes, they come out as smart, funny, passionate, eloquent and very human - simple men who reached for the stars and, for the most part, made the dream a reality. The one obvious missing element is the reclusive Neil Armstrong who, unfortunately, couldn't be enticed to be a part of this. For anyone who has even a passing knowledge of the events, there is nothing new presented here save for the interviews, and perhaps a eerie look into president Nixon's un-aired "back-up" speech to the nation that was to be broadcast in the event of the death of the Apollo 11 crew. On the other hand, the film is very much an homage to these men, their bravery, their professionalism, and despite their age there's still a glint in their eyes, a giddy spirit of adventure that boils out as they talk. If there's a downside, it's that we only get a brief feel for the rich history of the American space program, or the thousands of people who so diligently worked to make it all a reality. If the film itself is only standard NASA documentary fare, these (possibly last) interviews with the Apollo astronauts is most definitely worth the effort.
Documentary: 6/10

Into the Blue (2005)
Starring: Jessica Alba, Paul Walker, Scott Caan
Director: John Stockwell
Plot: Four young divers seeking sunken treasure in the Bahamas stumble upon a crashed airplane holding millions in illicit cargo, a cargo that a local drug lord will kill to retrieve.
Review: No one will ever sit to watch the tropical thriller Into the Blue with expectations of a memorable experience. Yet, surprisingly enough, it's not such a bad movie; if one is willing to accept the opening coincidence (and its a wallop) the movie coasts along pretty well. It helps to have some eye candy to gaze at, of course. The brilliantly clear under-water cinematography of the Bahamas aquatic life sure helps, but most moviegoers will be better tempted by the promise of many Alba bikini shots (and the camera takes ample opportunity to do so) and Walker's abs (for the gals) as they drift along in this tropical paradise. Neither lead has much to work with in such a predictable script (and some of the dialogue they suffer through is atrocious), but then the actors were chosen for their looks, not for their skills at emoting. Thankfully director Stockwell (Blue Crush) keeps things afloat and the pacing going and - if the protagonists are sometimes too irritating to really root for - at least it all moves along effortlessly - and any film that throws in close encounters with man-eating sharks at every opportunity can't be all bad. Most surprising, what amounts to 90 minutes of build-up finally all come to a head in a satisfyingly brutal action finale that makes everything that came before almost worth the trip. Now if only the annoying Caan, as the ethically-challenged lawyer buddy, had bought it, it would have been a better picture. Sure, this is pure cinematic cheesecake, but those looking for a sexy, gorgeous creampuff of a thriller with beautiful scenery and a dollop of slick commercial filmmaking could do worse than diving Into the Blue.
Entertainment: 5/10

The Intouchables (2011)
Starring: François Cluzet, Omar Sy, Audrey Fleurot
Directors: Olivier Nakache, Eric Toledano
Plot: After being paralyzed from a paragliding accident, a rich Parisian unexpectedly hires an uncouth but life-affirming young black man recently released from pirson to be his caretaker.
Review: A huge, and unlikely, box-office hit in its native France, The Intouchables is a feel-good drama that may be terribly clichéd but still hits all the right notes. Loosely based on a true story, and surely less cloying than the inevitable American remake, directors Nakache and Toledano have taken the Hollywood dramedy template - the odd-buddy genre, the situational gags and the fish-out-of-water comedy - and infused it with something that those productions often lack: strong characters. And none of this would have worked nearly as well without the palpable chemistry between veteran actor Cluzet - limited to facial movements and expressions as a quadriplegic - and the energetic Sy, who won a César for Best Actor for his undeniably charismatic performance as the reluctant care-taker. Sure, overwrought sentimentality abounds as the two form an unconventional (and frowned upon) relationship, and much of the humor is based on having the low-brow Sy take easy potshots at high culture (modern art, opera and classical music all get ridiculed). Some may also wince at the obvious stereotypes, specifically the cultureless black man from the projects ending up as a servant to the filthy rich white man who needs help to re-learn about life. Yet, somehow the script manages to take us beyond these obvious pratfalls, delivering a heart-warming tale that's both funny and consistently enjoyable despite its predictability.
Drama / Comedy: 8/10

The Invasion (2007)
Starring: Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig, Jackson Bond
Director: Oliver Hirschbiegel
Plot: A psychiatrist begins to relaize that the world is slowly being possessed by an alien epidemic and that her son may hold the secret of stopping it.
Review: The fourth adaptation of Jack Finney's classic SF novella The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Invasion actually stands out for being the most ineffectual despite the A-list talent attached to it. Through the intriguing conversations on humanity and war, to the tired suspense moments, one can't help but wonder what director Hirschbiegel (who gave notice with the harrowing, character-driven Downfall) really had in mind with his first Hollywood production. One gets only a vague feel for the mature take that was originally intended before the Warshawski borthers (of The Matrix fame) and their colleague director James McTeigue (V for Vendetta) were asked by studio executives to "spruce up" the film for more mainstream consumption. From an appropriately creepy beginning, the film devolves more often than not to what looks like an artsy zombie movie (minus much of the scares) with little actual sense of the original work's disturbing paranoia, unease and social commentary. A final car chase is pretty well done when taken on its own, but the scene destroys the careful, often even thoughtful tone that seemed to be strived for. Worse, the quick, easy, off-screen "resolution" - including a miraculous cure by a think-tank of scientists - makes for an upbeat but disheartening ending. How much was actually altered from the first cut probably won't be obvious until the eventual "director cut" on DVD. There's no blaming the cast, which does pretty well with the script, and especially Nicole Kidman who rises to the occasion as the archetype mother who will go to any extreme to find her kidnapped son - indeed, the mother-son relationship with young actor Bond is quite affecting. To be fair, The Invasion isn't a bad film: it's a slick, decently paced thriller that makes fine late-night watching, but ultimately the blend of disparate elements from the different filmmakers make for a production that's only average, forgettable fare.
Entertainment: 4/10

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
Starring: Kevin McCarthy, Dana Wynter, Carolyn Jones
Director: Don Siegel
Plot: Mysterious alien plant pods land near a small town and slowly take control of the community by hatching human replicas of the inhabitants.
Review: With elements from both sci-fi and horror, a tense script, a creepy musical score, with the eerie, shadowy atmosphere and interesting cinematography to match, Invasion of the Body Snatchers still manages to illicit some good old-fashioned suspense, scares and a great sense of paranoia and unease. Deeming it too dark for average audiences, the producers forced Siegel to add a prologue and an epilogue to the film to lighten the film, but Siegel still managed to keep the tone he was looking for. The subtext is also intriguing as a theme of fighting against conformity, the film having been alternatively described as a paranoid warning of the "Red Scare" prevalent in 1950's America or, at the opposite spectrum, of the sweeping McCarthyism that was born from it. Whatever the case, Invasion of the Body Snatchers remains one of the great science-fiction B-movie classics of the '50s.
Entertainment: 8/10

Invictus (2009)
Starring: Morgan Freeman, Matt Damon, 
Director: Clint Eastwood
Plot: Having just been elected as the President in apartheid-torn South African, Nelson Mandela enlists the captain of the national rugby team to help unite the country by winning the 1995 Rugby World Cup.
Review: An adaptation of John Carlin’s book Playing The Enemy: Nelson Mandela And The Game That Made A Nation, Invictus has all the makings of a sports movie, with its underdog team facing impossible odds, sympathetic star athlete and social . But what makes it special is the political significance of the endeavour for South Africa's image, and the real focus of the pitcure is really on the legendary figure of Mandela. Running a country still suffering from post-apartheid after himself emerging from almost 30 years as a political prisoner is a daunting task, and the film magnificently evokes the hardships required to lead and heal a people (both black and white) who have nothing but distrust for one another after the decades of apartheid policies. Better yet, director Eastwood (still going strong after such recent dramas like Letters from Iwo Jima) proves he's a director with a conscience who deftly balances the expectations of social drama, biography and mainstream sports flick into a cohesive pacakge. Yes, there are some cliches in the script, and some patches seems to be pretty slow going, even repetitive, but if it plays often to typical genre fervor it just as often shows that its heart in the right place. The downside is that the historical and political upheavals of Mandela's years in power are marginalized to keep the story fixed on the game of rugby, simplifying his administration's successes (and failures) to winning another match on the road to the World Cup. As the Mandela, Freeman imbues the character with quiet dignity, humility and - when he's doing one of his rousing speeches - the necessary gravity and a stubborn lack of showmanship. In contrast, Damon's team captain isn't a very inspirational leader, preferring to lead by example, but it's clear that both are kindred spirits. Invictus may not be subtle and it's not up to the standards of Eastwood's best work, but for mainstream palates it's a fine way to get some insight into this influential and inspiring figure.
Drama: 7/10

I, Robot (2004)
Starring: Will Smith, Bridget Moynahan, Bruce Greenwood
Director: Alex Proyas
Plot: In a future Chicago populated by robotic servants, a homicide detective tries to unravel a murder that might have been perpetrated by a robot only to uncover a plot that may mean the end of society as we know it.
Review: "Suggested by" rather than "based on" the works of science-fiction grand-master Isaac Asimov, I, Robot focuses more on the action than on any real rumination on artificial intelligence. But whereas it might be a real take on the hard SF material that its author was famous for, the film is nonetheless a smart, incredibly entertaining effects blockbuster. The plot does have the germ of the ideas that made the classic short stories so intriguing, making clever use of the Three Laws of Robotics to create a well-paced and intriguing detective mystery (or is that conspiracy thriller?). Some might see a relationship with Spielberg's futuristic thriller The Minority Report, however the film is a much grander exercise and one much more geared towards an action flick. As such, the action set-pieces (and there are quite a few) are exhilarating, enhanced by some very well done CGI special effects. But even more of a standout is that the effects create a convincing future society and help the art design, from the cars to the cityscapes, to be slick and believable. Director Proyas, best known for his quirky, dark tales like The Crow and Dark City, does a surprisingly effective turn in the big-budget genre, keeping a fine balance between the presentation of ideas and the requisite showy moments. The characters may only play second fiddle to the whiz-bang machinery on display, but there's just the right amount of development to make them interesting protagonists. Leading man Smith, as the smart-mouthed homicide detective with a chip on his shoulder when it comes to automation, starts off a little too flippant but soon invests the character with the charm we've come to expect. The rest of the cast, including a strong Greenwood as a Bill Gates-like CEO and James Cromwell as the murdered scientist, are good, but they can't hold a candle to the real show: the robots, most of which are fascinating to watch, expressive and eerily human-like. For fans of the original stories I, Robot might be seen as a travesty, but anyone who can look beyond that will find much to enjoy in this downright thrilling summer hit.
Entertainment: 8/10

Iron Giant, The (1999)
Featuring Voices of: Eli Marienthal, Vin Diesel, Jennifer Aniston, Harry Connick Jr.
Director: Brad Bird
Plot: In 1957, a giant metal-eating robot falls from the sky and is befriended by a young boy. Hiding him from the townspeople and an Army investigator proves impossible and they both must face soldiers bent on its destruction.
Review: Boosted by an interesting animated style and a good script, Iron Giant is an entertaining science-fiction adventure. Though aimed at kids, the film is probably better appreciated by adults. The "bad government agents" angle may be repetitive, but it is used to good effect and it doesn't encompass the film. Instead, the film focuses on the friendship between the young boy and the similarly innocent and child-like robot, and some scenes between them are genuinely funny. Iron Giant is an animated film like they should always be made: fun and well-executed.
Entertainment: 8/10


Iron Man (2008)
Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Jeff Bridges, Gwyneth Paltrow, Terrence Howard
Director: Jon Favreau
Plot: After being captured by Afghan rebels, a wealthy playboy industrialist builds an armored suit to escape, deciding to stop his company's arms manufacturing and building himself a more advanced suit to right some wrongs.
Review: Iron Man, the latest in a series of successful Marvel adaptations, sets the bar for the 2008 summer season as a sleek, smart and mightily entertaining super-hero film on the level of the original Spider Man and X-Men movies. Taking a page from these films, actor / director Favreau (who made a name for himself helming the acclaimed Swingers and Elf) keeps the pathos, character drama and humor at the forefront, making sure that his great story-telling skills aren't drowned out by the special effects and pyrotechnics. Not to say that these aren't on display, on the contrary: from a tag game with two jetfighters to a climactic battle with a modified mechanical behemoth, among other impressive set-pieces, the action is never anything but thrilling. The script is also sharper (and more sly) than most summer blockbusters, and the non-action parts are just as interesting, sneaking in some commentary on the "military-industrial complex" and our armed presence in Afghanistan, as well as keeping away from the usual clichés and predictable "twists". As good as the production, effects and narration are, the real heart of the film is the brilliant Robert Downey Jr, a perfect casting choice as the philandering genius Tony Stark; his real-life baggage of boozing and drug use makes the flawed character all the more believable, and all the more sympathetic for it when he gets his "awakening". But the best moments are perhaps the ones where we see him tinkering away at his suits, from the crude first attempt to the sleek red-and-gold version, allowing for most of the film's humor as he and his robot helpers test the systems out (there's one big "ouch!" among them). And the suits are things of beauty - the lumbering first will bring great nostalgia to those familiar with the 1960's version of the character, while the second is a cool blend of design and CGI. A hand also goes to the rest of the A-list cast: the affable Bridges makes a terrific corporate villain and Paltrow does a gutsy Girl Friday as his assistant and confidante. Only Howard's colonel rings false as Stark's college buddy. Fans of the original comics will be pleased to know that the main trappings they've come to love are intact (if given a modern treatment), and audiences going into it fresh will be impressed by the vibrant, fun proceedings. In summary, this Iron Man is pure gold. Note: Stay for the end credits for a potential, interesting direction for the (for once, thankfully) inevitable sequel.
Entertainment: 8/10

Iron Man 2 (2010)
Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Don Cheadle, Scarlett Johansson, Gwyneth Paltrow, Sam Rockwell, Mickey Rourke, Samuel L. Jackson
Director: Jon Favreau
Plot: A billionaire industrialist has made world peace a reality thanks to his powered suit, but now must contend with a weapons-manufacturer competitor, a Russian physicist looking for revenge, the US government and his own mortality.
Review: There was surely lots of pressure to top the crowd-and-critic pleasing comic-book adaptation Iron Man, and the filmmakers set out to do just that. But where the original won kudos for its superb pacing and characterization, Iron Man 2 does fall victim to Hollywood sequelitis in wanting to deliver bigger, louder, faster set pieces and new, more colorful characters, something that also plagued Spider-Man 3. Indeed, the film is crammed with so much plot, sub-plots and ideas that it threatens to teeter into mush, leaving no lasting impression at the film's best parts, that of the brilliant, narcissistic Stark coming to terms with his own limitations and inner demons. For sure, the three main action set pieces are impressive and fun: a terrific, scene-chewing, Russian-speaking Mickey Rourke as Whiplash makes a splash chopping race cars on a Monaco race track; buddies Stark and Rhodes (this time around played by a no-nonsense Don Cheadle, replacing Terence Howard) battle it out in different Iron Man suits; and then there's the over-wrought, over-long chaotic finale as Iron Man and War Machine (a suit filled to the brim with Army weaponry) decimate a battalion of evil robots. Returning director Favreau is still the right choice for the material, giving all the high-tech gadgetry and tons of CGI a human face, but he has succumbed to the "more is better" mentality, putting the pacing on overdrive. Despite some pathos and comic-level melodrama, short-changed is the film's character study exploring the triangle between Downey as flamboyant genius / captain of industry and the villains, the equally-brilliant orphaned scientist Rourke and slimy arms manufacturer Rockwell (in an amusing turn), playing flip sides of the same coin. Rounding up the rest of the cast, Paltrow, as trust-worthy girl-Friday Potts, and Johansson as super SHIELD agent Black Widow really don't get nearly enough screen time. At least Johansson does get the chance to take down a building's worth of security guards in one of the film's cooler sequences. Thankfully, the script is clever, humorous and intense at the right moments, and the dialogue just clicks. But the real heart of the film is still the performance by Downey Jr., giving his character's rampant egotism and vanity such joyous insouciance that he's both mesmerizing and disarmingly charming. He's got a lot of competition with all the supporting characters and a new guy in a suit to contend with, but Iron Man 2 - with all its gee-whiz adventure and high society elbowing - just wouldn't be the same without him.
Entertainment: 7/10

Iron Monkey (Hong Kong - 1977)
Starring: Chen Kwan Tai 
Review: Popular martial arts film remade in 1993 by Yuen Woo Ping. Typical plot excuse for finely choreographed fight sequences (man's family gets killed, vows revenge on killers), but, like many kung fu movies the period, looks a bit long in the tooth. Decent production values for a 70's film, but there are many other better flicks of this type out there.
Action: 6/10
Entertainment: 4/10

Iron Monkey (Hong Kong - 1993)
Starring: Yu Rong Guang, Donnie Yen
Director: Yuen Woo Ping
Plot: An herbal doctor becomes a masked hero to the oppressed local population during the Chinese Qing Dynasty and must face an evil Manchu official and his Shaolin monks as well as local officials.
Review: Directed by Yuen Woo Ping (best known as the action director on The Matrix), Iron Monkey features a very straightforward Robin-Hood-type story as the background for fast-paced, wall-to-wall action. The film features some incredibly imaginative choreography and great camera-work making it quite possibly the quintessential wire-work / martial arts extravaganza of the '90s. Some of the wire-enhanced acrobatics may look a little fake at times, but it rarely detracts from the stunning, inventive fight scenes that fills the screen. Especially entertaining is the final battle atop a court-full of burning wooden poles! Each one of the main characters are top-notch martial artists, and the film gives them all a chance to show just how good they really are. For pure jaw-dropping, no-holds barred fantasy / action, nothing beats Iron Monkey.
Entertainment: 9/10

The Island (2005)
Starring: Ewan McGregor, Scarlett Johansson, Djimon Hounsou
Director: Michael Bay
Plot: In a future where contamination has forced survivors to remain secluded from the world, two residents question the truth of their surroundings and plan a daring escape to the outside.
Review: The latest sci-fi action thriller from action-meister director Bay (The Rock, Bad Boys 2), The Island isn't so much a film per se as it is a slick, overly-stylized product. It all starts off as a decent SF tale, as a man starts questioning a seemingly Utopian future society (think 1984-light) and slowly discovers the real horror behind his fate. Though previews give away the more interesting story points, the film is much more effective if you don't know the plot twist of the second act. The story also brings out an interesting moral dilemma but before we can get into that, the film takes a sudden turn into more familiar territory. Meant as a summer action blockbuster, it soon turns into a testosterone-packed action flick complete with requisite multiple explosive car chases and Fugitive-like escapes. Yet you have to hand it to Bay, an expert commercial filmmaker who specializes in fast, muscular stunt sequences, as he once again offers up a vehicle for more inventive, energetic and absurd action set-pieces stringed by a narrative that's far more engaging than his previous outings. Dramatic actors McGregor and Johannsen are obviously slumming it in this type of flick, but it's fun to see such thespians in a different type of movie, and they play along well. The imposing Hounsou as a high-paid bounty hunter is severely underused, but stereotyped bad guy Sean Bean gives a sly, smart performance, and fan-favorite Steve Buscemi makes a fun cameo. One downside is the look of the film: the production budget was evidently large, but the future as presented isn't quite convincing and seems mostly intended for ludicrously in-your-face product placement. Still, with its attempt at a concrete story amongst the heavy-handed action, The Island is one of Bay's better films, and that makes it a worthwhile popcorn outing.
Entertainment: 7/10

Island of Fire (aka. The Prisoner) (Hong Kong - 1990)
Starring: Tony Leung, Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, Andy Lau
Director: Chiu Yen-Ping
Plot: Trying to uncover clues to his mentor's murder, an undercover cop enters Hong Kong's worst prison only to face a conspiracy involving sadistic prison guards.
Review: On the outset, Island of Fire seems like a great marketing move: a star cast at the top of their form known for their stunning acrobatics in a crime drama pitting them against hard-core criminals, with the usual dash of Hong Kong insanity. But what starts off promisingly only ends up being a sorry, over-the-top mess with little originality or entertainment value. Though generally rather cheaply realised, the problem is really the schizophrenic script, a mish-mash of clichés from all the worst prison movies you can think of, especially the bad ones like Stallone's bomb, Lock Up or Van Dammes Death Warrant. It tries hard for a grim, gritty feel of prison life, where brutality, murder and revenge are the terms of the day but it only comes off as both unconvincing and rather ludicrous. The main issue is that the movie is neither as dramatic as it wants to be, bringing too many hokey, over-the-top elements, and not fun enough to be entertaining. The most depressing thing, however, is that it's all a big waste of talent considering the actors' pedigree. There's not even that much action to please fans. Though Chan does get a chance to show his moves, there's nothing here that he hasn't done ten times better in other films, and apart from an amusing cooking scene even Hung has little to do. The film takes a bizarre, silly tangent in its last act into a sort of Dirty Dozen-type of affair that makes even less sense that the rest of the film's plot and seems to have been attached to give the film some much-needed shot of HK energy - it just doesn't. For really undemanding fans, Island of Fire might be an amusing watch but if you want to see a decent HK prison movie, check out Prison on Fire done a few years before, and if you want some Jackie Chan action, catch anything else.
Entertainment: 4/10

Island of Greed (Hong Kong - 1997)
Starring: Andy Lau, Tony Leung
Director: Michael Mak
Plot: A triad boss decides to run for government office in Taiwan while a team of special investigators pursue him at every turn trying to uncover his criminal plots and foil his political agenda.
Review: The story is well written and interesting enough, though there's nothing we haven't seen before in other gangster movies. The film is also well directed, the actors are all good, and the high production values are quite apparent on screen. The problem is that Island of Greed is a film that does not seem to know what it should be aiming for, and tries to please everyone: it is a straight, serious crime drama interspersed with gratuitous sex scenes and several large-scale action sequences full of Hong Kong style excess that seem out of place with the otherwise determined pacing of the rest of the film. Still, it's an entertaining effort, worth watching especially for the impressive taxi-riot sequence and the over-the-top final vehicle showdown.
Entertainment: 7/10

Italian for Beginners (Denmark - 2001)
Starring: Anders W. Berthelsen, Anette Støvelbæk, Peter Gantzler 
Director: Lone Scherfig
Plot: The sometimes bleak, difficult lives of six thirty-something Danish denizens is brightened by their regular Italian classes which gives tham all a chance at putting aside their loneliness.
Review: With its wit, warmth, quirky characters, and romantic entanglements, Italian for Beginners has all the necessary ingredients for a fluffy romantic comedy. However, with its bits of caustic humor that come from mature situations, relationships that aren't glossed over or easily defined, and with its sometimes bleak human perspective the film has a darker, more dramatic (if sometimes bordering on the melodramatic) tone than one would expect. This is a story of friendship, of the longing for a sense of community, about real life hardships, struggle of the daily grind and the search for human companionship, that never feels forced with its emotions or its interactions. The charismatic, plain-looking cast embody characters that are more than stereotypes, ones that have all suffered from life's twists and carry with them an angst that runs deep. The script takes a little time to find its groove, but when it does about halfway through the film, it brings out the humor and tenderness in the most difficult situations, with a narrative that engages and makes us participants in the lives on screen. As for the production, it readily acknowledges being part of the Dogme 95 code, making it look like it's trying to document real life using only natural lighting, sounds, and almost improvisational acting all captured by a single handheld video camera. By avoiding the tired pratfalls of the genre, Italian for Beginners ends up being uplifting in the best sense.
Drama / Comedy: 7/10

The Italian Job (1969)
Starring: Michael Caine, Noel Coward, Benny Hill
Director: Peter Collinson
Plot: A slick, enterprising British thief organizes a large crew to steal millions in gold bars in Italy during the World Cup right from under the Italian Mob's nose using three small cars and some mis-direction.
Review: The original The Italian Job is an obvious British product of the '60s, a tongue-in-cheek affair that tried to be both hip for its time and entertaining. Two things it's been remembered for: the dapper Caine and the heist itself. As much a parody of James Bond as it is the crime caper genre, the film really pokes fun at English attitudes of the time. But any conscious subtext is quickly put aside, as director Collinson first concern is to create a piece of entertainment, a combination of light-hearted comedy and crime caper, and manages to get them right most of the time, right up to the literal cliff-hanger. Most of the film's length (and comedy bits) follows the crew's careful (and sometimes silly) planning in preparation for the robbery. This portion is a bit uneven though it gives Caine a chance to try out some funny one-liners. And the young Caine makes a fine, charming rogue here even though there's really little in terms of character development. The real reason the film has garnered a cult following, however, is for the actual heist which makes up the latter half of the film. It's still amusing to watch and makes up for many of the film's inconsistencies, from the improbable set-up to the long, daring and creative getaway chase sequence with the Minis in the streets of Turin (all done to some perfectly fluffy pop tunes) which still holds up well to modern viewings. Other parts haven't aged as well, such as the obvious misogynistic undertone and raunchy Brit comic Hill who, as the clownish computer expert, adds his usual dash of tasteless silliness to the proceedings. One notable stand-out is Coward who does a wonderful performance as overly-patriotic mob boss. There's a definite 60's charm to be had in The Italian Job, and those willing to overlook some obvious silliness will get caught up in this fine, if not quite memorable, little caper.
Entertainment: 5/10

The Italian Job (2003)
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Charlize Theron, Edward Norton
Director: F. Gary Gray
Plot: After being left for dead, a crew of thieves set up an elaborate heist to steal back $30 million in gold bars from one of their double-crossing associates.
Review: An updated and amped-up remake of the original 1969 film, The Italian Job is a breezy, fun little truffle of a movie. Without taking itself too seriously, or making a noticeable dent in the tried and true formula (or even trying to be as inventive as the original), it provides a series of very slickly produced and well edited capers. Sure, the plot usually quite predictable, and the whole affair may be nowhere near as clever or as sharp as Ocean's Eleven, but director Gray (The Negotiator) knows to focus on the criminal elements and the mechanics of the caper escapades to best effect. The action sequences are also well executed and adequately thrilling, even if much of their running time is taken up with what might well be one big ad for the new Mini-Cooper, with the tiny car going through a series of stunts and some amusing (if somewhat unoriginal) chases. The character development may be close to nil but the interactions and the witty dialogue between the supporting cast is quite fun. Wahlberg and Theron do a fine job of looking classy and cool (as does the rest of their crew including Seth Green and Jason Statham) and Norton makes a passable (if tired) effort as a sleazy double-crosser. Fast-paced and thoroughly enjoyable, The Italian Job isn't quite memorable, perhaps, but it's fine entertainment while it lasts.
Entertainment: 7/10

*Classic* It Happened One Night (1934)
Starring: Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert, Walter Connolly
Director: Frank Capra
Plot: A spoiled heiress escaping from her overbearing father and a down-on-his-luck world-savvy reporter have a love-hate relationship after meeting on the bus to New York and being forced to trek through the countryside incognito.
Review: The precursor to the screwball romantic-comedy and a huge hit on its release during the Depression era, It Happened One Night set the basic formula for the many films of the genre that came after it. Sure it's predictable, but the situations are amusing, and the play with the themes of class conflict and the nobility of the everyman (subjects dear to Capra's heart) are delightful. The real magic of the movie, however, is seeing the two sparring protagonists gracing the screen while exchanging barbs and witty dialogue. Director Frank Capra (It's a Wonderful Life, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington) directs his actors with the minimum of background frolics ensuring that our attention is focused on the two leads. And Gable and Colbert make it easy to do just that, showing off the charm and delivery that made them such stars. The film is also full of classic movie moments, the most famous being the scene where Colbert, hitchhiking, stops a car dead in its tracks by showing off her leg. It Happened One Night went on to win the five major Oscar awards including Best Picture and it's an engaging, classic '30s light-hearted romance that still holds up well even for today's jaded audiences.
Entertainment: 8/10

It's Alive (1974)
Starring: John P. Ryan, Sharon Farrell
Director: Larry Cohen
Plot: A normal American family gives birth to a murdering, mutant monster that escapes the hospital and terrorizes Los Angeles.
Review: The title It's Alive pays homage to Frankenstein (1932) where the scientist sees his monstrous creation come to life. In a similar manner, director Cohen tries to parallel the Frankenstein story with the killer baby, a "creation" of our modern way of life, ultimately looking for love and acceptance. As in most horror films, the social horror is turned into a physical one, and the film also tries to hit home the fact that even a "normal" family can, indeed, create a monster. There are some effective scares and surprisingly few "gore" scenes, Cohen preferring to have his terror imagined than on screen. Yes, the effects are cheesy, and the production values horrendous, but the actors (including a few recognizable faces) are surprisingly good, and the script manages to come out as quite a biting satire that's still interesting today. It's Alive is a true cult classic.
Horror: 6/10

*Classic* It's a Wonderful Life (1946)
Starring: James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore
Director: Frank Capra
Plot: An angel shows a compassionate but desperate and suicidal businessman what life would be if he had not been there to affect the people in his community.
Review: It's a Wonderful Life, is the ultimate North American family Christmas tale, and its modern popularity with public and critics alike comes with good reason. Easily elevated to classic status in American cinema, it made a mark by expounding small-town life and values such as hard work, sacrifice, friendship, family and the white-picket fence. It's like a Sam Rockwell painting come to life! Sure, every moment is sentimental, melodramatic to extremes and emotionally manipulative, but it's so cheerful and so engaging that one can't help but be taken in completely by its spell. In fact, it's such a blatant Hollywood feel-good film that one is constantly surprised to fall into its traps. With just the right amount of fantasy and good humor, it's just icing on the cake. However, some have also pointed out some of the darker elements (apart from the idea of the main character seriously contemplating suicide, there's also the harsh sequence when the protagonist views what could have been had he not lived) reminds one of a Charles Dickens novel, and indeed they do adding an extra layer to the proceedings. Legendary director Capra (It Happened One Night, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington) is a true master of the form, and though his usual optimism pervades every sequence, his visual and storytelling sense have never been better. Of great help is the charming cast, and none more so than its star, all-around stand-up guy Stewart, who plays the role with some cheerful and upright manner that you can't help but cheer. Indeed, he has always been the ultimate "everyman", a normal person trying to do what's right by himself and the people around him. Barrymore also makes a mark as the despicable Mr. Potter, the town's richest (and most vilely hated) man. Though critically canned upon its release because of its over-sentimentality, It's a Wonderful Life is simply a wonderful film, and one who's pleasure only increases with repeated viewings.
Entertainment / Drama: 9/10

It's Complicated (2009) 
Starring: Meryl Streep, Alec Baldwin, Steve Martin, John Krasinski
Director: Nancy Meyers
Plot: After finally coping with her divorce, a middle-aged woman ends up having an affair with her ex-husband during her son's college graduation and finds herself juggling to hide the fact from her children and a potential new love interest.
Review: Another frothy, light-on-its-feet, and light-on-content dramedy, It's Complicated wants to prove that young, good-looking lovers have it easy - wait until they get older, have a family, get divorced and need to handle more than they can chew! The film isn't really isn't that complex, but it does provide some pleasant, shameless entertainment at the relationships constructed over a full life, and more than its share of laughs, most of which are thankfully tasteful - all that is except for a nude scene involving web video-conferencing... Writer-director Meyers (What Women Want, Something's Gotta Give) is making a career of exploring the rom-com genre with older characters (that's 50+ people, folks), a demography that has rarely been given a chance to shine. It sure helps to have a spendid cast with impeccable comic timing to work with, including a scene-stealing, scarily overweight Baldwin as the ego-centric but charming ex, a way-too-down-to-earth Martin as the potential paramour (though a pot-smoking scene redeems the casting choice), and a delightfully funny Krasinski as the son-in-law who can't take keeping secrets. But through all the clichés, upturns and downturns, through melodrama and slapstick, it's the wonderous Streep that keeps it all afloat, proving she's the consummate actress for Oscar bait as well as mainstream fluff. Potraying a giggling, confused, exasperated and guilt-ridden mother and ex-wife, she's proven that she may well be the Queen of Comedy, too. Yes, the movie is unevenly paced, feels familiar and sometimes seems to drag, but It's Complicated is never dull and has enough gumption and energy to keep you smiling throughout.
Comedy: 6/10

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