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M. Butterfly (1993)
Starring: Jeremy Irons, John Lone
Director: David Cronenberg
Plot: In 1960's China, a French diplomat carries on a scandalous affair with a Chinese with someone he believes is the female star in the Beijing Opera but actually is a male spy.
Review: Based on the true story of French diplomat Rene Gallimard and the Tony Award-winning play inspired by these events, M. Butterfly is a sumptuous-looking but ultimately disappointing drama. Director Cronenberg (A History of Violence, The Fly) knows how to bring out the weirdness out of any text, and his pet themes of sexual confusion and mental delusion are very much present here; add to that his grasp of the medium (the scenes of Chinese Opera are beautifully staged) and we get a visually stylish, and often affecting effort that captures the real sexual tension of its leads. Though there isn't any of the truly bizarre and disturbing imagery that Cronenberg is so famous for, it remains a disconcerting drama and a successful, if not masterful, interpretation of the story that more often than not lures us into this strange tale. The real mystery is if this is a game from the beginning, or a sinister spy plot, or a true romance, elements of which are only slowly revealed among the commentary of Western "imperialism" and its naiveté of Eastern culture. Unfortunately, though the material is perfectly suited for Cronenberg's touch, the film moves too slowly, Iron's is a wholly unsympathetic character, and the suspense - and romance - aren't given the necessary energy. Even the "surprise" revelation just isn't, especially to anyone who's seen The Crying Game. There's no faulting the performances, however: Irons is at his acting peak here, and is perfectly suited in the role of the diplomat seduced by the exotic persona of the Opera star, and Lone makes that character completely convincing as the target of affection. And, indeed, a lot of the screen time is spent on peeling away Iron's character and revealing the man he is, obsessed with his new acquaintance, all the while setting him for the inevitable fall. In the end, M. Butterfly is an elegant but perhaps too deliberate an examination of love and self-deception to truly be revealing or engaging.
Drama: 5/10

Machete (2010)
Starring: Danny Trejo, Robert De Niro, Jessica Alba, Michelle Rodriguez
Director: Robert Rodriguez
Plot: After being betrayed by the mobster who hired him to assassinate a Texas Senator up for re-election, an ex-Federale organizes his fellow Mexicans for some brutal payback.
Review: The trailer for the non-existing movie Machete that made its appearance as a gag in the experiment that was Grindhouse was a highlight of that production - kicking on all cylinders, it showed the distilled essence of exploitation flicks: an ethnic anti-hero, political incorrectness, naked women, and over-the-top violence. Audiences quickly clamored for a movie to live up to the trailer. Unfortunately, the feature-length Machete doesn't. For sure, it's right up that alley in spirit of the exploitation flicks of the 70's, those cheaply made, low-production-valued, poorly-written efforts that offered up blood-soaked action and sex that sent the ratings board crazy. However, homage doesn't mean recreating the same boring fluff of the era, as Rodriguez' own Planet Terror proved - imagination and cojones are required. The script was basically built around the trailer. In fact, the best parts of the movie were cut directly from the previous short outing - worse, the trailer showed more personality and punch than the entire new product. Sure, this low-brow effort has lots of winks, with the political poking at US policies on Mexican immigration, but the on-going joke of the stereotypical "Mexican" gets tiring, pretty much like the Black-sploitation flicks of the past (but check out the pumped-out, pimped out cars!). The cast is definitely impressive for a B-movie: Alba and Rodriguez, two fine, kick-ass women who are asked to be nubile as well as tough, give the movie more oomph than the movie has a right to, and make it out of this unscathed. Not so much De Niro, Johnson and (egads) Lindsay Lohan, whose only funny moment is in a short scene when she appears in a nun outfit carrying a machinegun. And let's not forget Steven Seagal whose taken on so much weight it's embarrassing; he's relegated to a cameo role and silly ending fight. As for Trejo, he doesn't act so much as snarl through his lines, showing little charm or energy - Superfly this ain't. Watching with a posse of friends and laughing at the movie could make it more watchable, but that's making excuses of a movie that should have been more fun than this. Too bad, as Grindhouse proved that the filmmakers knew how to make an entertaining product, with some effort and good writing, something that's lacking here. Taken for what it is - and not for what we hoped it would be - Machete is fun enough and silly enough to keep genre fans amused, if not completely satisfied. It makes for a great trailer, though.
Entertainment: 4/10

The Machinist (2004)
Starring: Christian Bale, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Aitana Sánchez-Gijón
Director: Brad Anderson
Plot: A factory machinist who suffers from severe insomnia starts doubting his sanity after accidentally maiming a co-worker.
Review: A surprisingly good-looking indie film that really hits the mark, The Machinist goes beyond the usual slick, well-produced psychological thrillers thanks to a stand-up-and-take-notice performance from its leading man. Much like his earlier work in Session 9, director Anderson creates an atmosphere of impending dread, a feeling that Something Bad is just around the corner. Shot in a world of washed-out colors with minimal decor, the film creates a truly oppressing, nightmarish place. The mystery surrounding the protagonist may become evident by the half-way mark, but there's an uncanny similarity to the thriller Memento in terms of red herrings and audience confusion, only with more first-person deceptions and hallucinations to enhance its psychological twists. The final payoff may be somewhat anti-climactic, perhaps, but the film's feeling of constant tension is real. But the real standout is most definitely Bale: Losing over 60 pounds for the role of the sleep-deprived protagonist, he is simply unrecognizable; in fact his physical appearance - looking like a Holocaust survivor - is absolutely shocking. Yet his character is only enhanced by this drastic self-mutilation, and his performance is simply mesmerizing. His struggle to understand what is happening around him, his sense of creeping paranoia and his slow descent into insanity are all brought to the fore with such intensity that it belies the otherwise average script. Unfortunately The Machinist will probably be relegated to only cult status, but for those adventurous enough, this is a real head-trip that will remembered as a showcase for Bale's talents. 
Drama: 7/10

Madagascar (2005)
Starring: Ben Stiller, Chris Rock
Directors: Eric Darnell, Tom McGrath
Plot: When a zebra decides to escape New York's Central Park Zoo in search of Wilderness, his urban friends - a lion, a hippo and a giraffe - break out to find him, only to end up as castaways in unfamiliar Madagascar.
Review: Another anthropomorphic animal cartoon, Madagascar doesn't quite bring anything original to the table but, done completely for laughs and lacking any sentimentality, it's a fun and light-hearted affair that's sure to please. The zoo animals are forced into a life in the wild they're not prepared for, allowing for the familiar morality of friendship and the fish-out-of-water jokes. Much like Shrek and Ice Age before it, the very self-conscious story really is only an excuse for the laugh-a-minute script, pop culture icons and referential visual gags of its computer-animated brethren. The plot moves along nicely, taking a page from The Lion King, throwing in some stereotype characters, predictable situations, clever winks to such diverse material as Castaway, Chariots of Fire and The Twilight Zone, and some slapstick in equal measures. Of special note are the commando-like Penguins who, in the few scenes they have, really steal the show. If the CGI isn't quite Pixar quality - the characters are blocky and stylized with some pretty scenery thrown in - at least it's clean and colorful, giving life to the skewed humor. Good voice acting from the team, especially top-billed comedians Stiller and Rock, as the neurotic lion and fast-talking zebra, respectively, both working to their strengths. Though not quite charming or memorable enough to be a classic, Madagascar is a fun family affair that will keep adults entertained and kids distracted for a few repeat viewings.
Entertainment: 7/10

Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa (2008)
Starring: Ben Stiller, Chris Rock, David Schwimmer
Directors: Eric Darnell, Tom McGrath
Plot: In an attempt to return to the New York zoo from which they came, four animals crash land in an African animal reserve where they discover a family tie.
Review: A sequel to the successful CGI-animated adventure, Madagascar 2 keeps to the tried and true formula of its predecessor yet manages to please thanks to the effective characterizations of its animal denizens. The main plot involving Alex the Lion, a mish-mash of The Two Brothers, The Lion King and others - is far from original, but there's an endearing back-story among all the zany slapstick and action-heavy spectacle. Throwing in some catchy musical numbers, vibrant animation and a bunch of sub-plots for the other animals to keep things interesting, the swiftly-paced affair jumps from visual gag to goofy sentimentality and back again with ease. Oh, and the ever-loving penguins are back, too, and they're attempt at building a new plane is worth the price of admission. The voice cast is no push-over either, with the likes of Stiller, Rock, Schwimmer, Jada Pinkett Smith, Sacha Baron Cohen, Cedric the Entertainer, the late Bernie Mac and Alec Baldwin all taking part in the silliness. Funny and light on its feet, Madagascar 2 isn't classic material but it's fast, engaging and pretty darn entertaining. What more can one ask for in mainstream fluff?
Entertainment: 7/10

Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted (2012)
Voices: Ben Stiller, Chris Rock, Jada Pinkett Smith
Directors: Eric Darnell, Tom McGrath, Conrad Vernon
Plot: Pursued by Animal Control across Europe, New York zoo animals join a traveling circus as cover, hoping their success will get them a ticket back home to the Big Apple.
Review: Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted finds, basically, the Madagascar zoo animals under the Big Top. Where the previous installments were already engaging and fun enough as typical, frenetic CG family flicks, the third time's truly the charm. The story quickly dispenses with back story - and any sense of reality - to get right into the thick of things: Pursued by an unstoppable French policewoman who takes Animal Control to obsessive heights (amusingly voiced by Frances McDormand), the first Act is a hilariously madcap, physics-defying romp across Monte Carlo that puts most Hollywood action film car chase choreography to shame. Chases ensue, as does romance and slapstick, when the foursome and their penguin and chimp buddies meet up with a trainload of not-so-talented performers. But the film's highlights are in it's exuberant, absolutely surreal circus acts, including jet-propelled poodles, an over-the-top trapeze act, horses in rainbow-colored afros, a tiger who jumps through a ring of fire (one that fits your little finger) and finally a balloon rescue - think of it all as Cirque-du-Soleil on crack. Needing no less than three directors, the film makes for elaborate, zippy entertainment, with a colorful animation style perfectly suited to the tale, and 3D effects that are well thought out instead of tacked on. But what impresses - apart from the sumptuous visuals - is the wild & wacky script by writer-director Noah Baumbach; better known for strong indie dramas like The Squid And The Whale, he provides emotional heft along with humour aplenty for both adults and young ones to appreciate. All the previous characters are back in full form, headed by Stiller's Alex the lion, ready for a lesson that Home is not necessarily where the heart is. Heck, even an unlikely romance between the flamboyant lemur and a silent tricycle-riding bear works wonderfully. Indubitably, the first CG animated hit of the year.
Entertainment: 8/10

Mad Hot Ballroom (2005)
Director: Marilyn Agrelo
Plot: Documentary crew follows several New York public elementary school students as they prepare for an annual city-wide ballroom dancing competition.
Review: Forget all those heavily dramatized teen dance movies that Hollywood keeps on churning; for a truly engaging real-life drama look no further than the excellent documentary Mad Hot Ballroom. More than just a portrait of children in competition, with all that entails, the film captures a social microcosm. There's an innocence, self-consciousness and shyness in the way they prepare and practice, but there are also eye-opening, candid insights into 10-year old views of social issues and life in disadvantaged areas of New York, where drugs and crime are prevalent. Dancing has become more than an activity for both the multicultural students and their teachers - it's a means of social connection and discipline, transforming these urban kids into able dancers, team players and bringing them a sense of hope and accomplishment lacking in their everyday life. More surprising is that the filmmakers have managed to bring all these issues to the fore while providing an uplifting look at the competition and its young competitors that will keep audiences enthralled. By the time these teams vie for the trophy in the citywide competition finals, we're breathless with anticipation, cheering the children as they tango, rumba and swing through their numbers. An endearing, joyful experience from start to finish, Mad Hot Ballroom will give anyone over 20 optimism for the future generation.
Documentary: 8/10

Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (1985)
Starring: Mel Gibson, Tina Turner, Helen Buday
Directors: George Miller, George Ogilvie
Plot: After war has ravaged the Earth, a mysterious loner discovers a community of young children and tries to protect them from a vicious matriarch who runs Bartertown.
Review: A sequel to the smash Australian hits Mad Max and The Road Warrior, Beyond Thunderdome is a perfect example of how Hollywood involvement can break a film. The Road Warrior inspired a slew of post-apocalyptic action flick imitations, and this looks like one of those imitations. It feels like a derivative big-budget mainstream adventure, a re-hash of the previous films made for the family crowd. The violent tone of its predecessors has been toned down considerably, and gone is the gritty, gutsy filmmaking that made the first two so popular and that added a palpable tension to the proceedings. Mixing between campiness and melodrama, the story is weak and downright unsatisfying, lacking the suspense necessary to bring it to life. In fact, the ever-present humor is exaggerated and the events almost cartoon-like in their execution. The sets are grander and more lavish and the costumes detailed, but more money doesn't improve the look or the mood of the film, it just makes it look fake. Even the climactic battle, which simply retreads the action sequence of the previous film, lacks its exhilarating editing and feel. To be fair, there are some clever moments and inspired touches to be found, and the exciting, original fight sequence in a domed arena looks great. Gibson, as Max, is still fun to watch, however, and his performance of the character has the same quality as Eastwood had as the Man With No Name (a wink that's also alluded to in the movie). As for pop queen Turner, she's surprisingly good, and (off-screen) offers up two memorable 80's songs to the soundtrack. It doesn't mean it isn't occasionally fun in typical Hollywood fashion, but Beyond Thunderdome pales in comparison to the chapters that preceded it, and one can't help be disappointed by the concessions made to attract a younger crowd.
Entertainment: 5/10

Made in Hong Kong (Hong Kong - 1997)
Starring: Sam Lee, Yim Hui-chi, Lee Tung
Director: Fruit Chan
Plot: A youth, part of a local Hong Kong gang, has his life turned upside down when he finds the suicide note of a young girl who jumped off a building.
Review: Winner of countless HK and international awards, the low-budget independent film Made in Hong Kong is an intimate look at the problems of the city's under-privileged youth through the eyes of a well-meaning but moody young criminal. It takes a while to get going, but there is a lot to appreciate in director/screenwriter Fruit Chan's mesmerizing debut, especially during the gripping second half. Shot completely with a hand-held camera, it is a film that is accomplished both technically and stylistically, yet retains a certain grittiness that gives it a sense of cinéma-vérité, thanks especially to an excellent young cast. The well-rounded and dramatic story manages to avoid many of the clichés and use of melodrama of similar films, and vividly shows the dead-end life of these teens, the helplessness many of them face with few choices and no future on the dawn of the Chinese handover. A strong, and melancholic portrait of the glory and tragedies of youth.
Drama: 9/10

Magnificent Butcher (Hong Kong - 1979)
Starring: Sammo Hung, Yuen Biao, Kwan Tak-hing
Director: Woo-ping Yuen
Plot: A plump meat merchant studying under a famed kung-fu master gets into trouble with the son of a rival school, incurring the wrath of the formidable head master.
Review: An old-style kung-fu classic, The Magnificent Butcher prides in being the breakout film for plump star Sammo Hung. The familiar plot revels in the clichés of those low-budget Hong Kong kung-fu flicks of the late-70's: mistaken identities, kung-fu school rivalries and revenge, changing tones from brutal to slapstick with abandon. The sophomoric humor proves even Asian filmmakers worked to the lowest common audience, with fart and boob jokes on the menu, but on occasion they do hit the mark. And then there's the real attraction: the fights. Thanks to veteran Hong Kong director Woo-ping Yuen (who's best known for the action in The Matrix), the film showcases some finely-tuned kung-fu choreography that's both impressive in its complexity and intense acrobatics, all the more so in that there's no wires or special effects and only minimal editing allowing entire fight sequences to go about without interruption. If there's a downside it's that the fighting comes off as more of a rehearsed dance than actual combat, a fact only exacerbated by the limited camera work, something akin to many of the era's productions. Still, Hung proves to be an amiable star combining his martial arts skills and buffoon-like acting to good effect much like fellow student Jackie Chan, proving that even his wide girth has little impediment to his talents. As an added bonus to connoisseurs, there's some solid fighting turns from both a young Yuen Biao and the aging, but still formidable, Kwan Tak-hing proving his mettle in a deftly done battle of wills featuring calligraphy brushes. If the actual fighting isn't as eye-catching as it once was, or the theatrical plot as engaging, The Magnificent Butcher still proves to be an entertaining affair for kung fu fans.
Entertainment: 6/10

Magnificent Warriors (Hong Kong - 1987)
Starring: Michelle Yeoh, Derek Yee, Richard Ng
Director: David Chung
Plot: During the Japanese occupation of China during the 1930's, a female Chinese pilot joins a secret operative to stop an evil general from taking over a town and using it to manufacture a deadly gas.
Review: Magnificent Warriors is one of international star Yeoh's earlier films, and definitely one of her best action showcases. The script itself is usual for HK flicks, that is it has gaping holes, doesn't always make sense, and a very poor way of exhibiting some rather unnecessary (read poor) character development. But though the plot is typically minimal for the genre and occasionally prone to a certain drabness, it's also packed with rebounds and excuses for still more physical confrontations. Director Chung knows what audiences want in an action film, and delivers in spades. The whole affair is a continuous, impressive array of fights, stunts and general mayhem all impeccably choreographed and the limited wire-work means a generally more satisfying and enjoyable display. Indeed, a lot of work and special care obviously went into these sequences, and they're all top-notch. The main stumbling block is the usual forced comedy that leaves most North American audiences scratching their heads. There's a little too much of this sort of slapstick humor surrounding Ng as a bumbling cowardly con man, and it bogs down the pacing. Another sour point, surprisingly enough, is the climactic battle between the Japanese and the resistance forces inside the city walls which goes on for too long, and isn't that interesting; the gun battles, smarmy melodrama, and some explosions just can't compete with the energetic hand-to-hand combat that came before. At a time when female action stars were quite rare, Yeoh showed that women could hold their own in the martial-arts genre. Playing a mix of female Indiana Jones (she even uses a whip!) and no-nonsense Jackie Chan (minus Chan's slapstick), Yeoh's skills and athleticism are really given center stage. And that's when the film is at its best - and thankfully that's a large portion of the film. Though the whole isn't quite as good as its parts, Magnificent Warriors is another fine effort from the HK movie-making machine, high on entertainment and pure fun, one that really gives a chance for its star to shine.
Entertainment: 7/10

Magnolia (1999)
Starring: Tom Cruise, Julianne Moore, Ezra Buzzington
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Plot: Various down-and-out denizens of Los Angeles, including a grown-up kid-genius, a young addict, a dying patriarch and his trophy wife, a naive cop, and a self-help guru all find their lives inextricably mixed on a particularly eventful 24 hours.
Review: Magnolia, in both its contents and style, is very different from director Anderson's previous effort Boogie Nights, offering up a dark, bleak look at life Los Angeles. The story follows a varied collection of characters and how accidents and coincidences throw them together and change their lives. The film is full of multi-faceted characters, all of them psychologically scarred, with their intimate pains and sufferings laid bare. None of them are charming, indeed they range from the downtrodden to the pathetic, but even the vilest of them manage to somehow call up some sympathy. A lot of the credit for this is due to the impressive cast who all manage to give convincing performances, most surprisingly from Tom Cruise as a misogynistic motivational speaker. There's sometimes too many different stories going on at the same time, but the dialogue rings true and the events emotionally involving, and even though the film clocks in at over three hours, it always manages to keep our interest. The direction and production follows the bleakness of the storyline, with a great use of long takes and play of soft lighting and shadows. The ending, with its Act of God, manages to somehow break the spiral of self-destruction that they all have embarked on - it may seem out of place and surprising but it is in line with the type of coincidences and bizarre goings-on that are narrated throughout. In the end, Magnolia makes for a rewarding, and not slightly bizarre, ensemble drama.
Drama: 8/10

The Majestic (2001)
Starring: Jim Carrey, Laurie Holden, Martin Landau
Director: Frank Darabont
Plot: After an accident leaves him without memory, a blacklisted screenwriter finds himself amid townspeople who believe him to be a World War II hero missing in action years before.
Review: Though The Majestic wants to be a whimsical homage to legendary director Frank Capra, what the filmmakers have actually created is nothing but a bloated, self-indulgent fluff piece. To be fair, it's not bad fluff, and though it's languidly paced it's also never boring - it's just not that interesting either. Tackling small town life, McCarthyism, the suffering of World War II, Hollywood and 1950's nostalgia, the script takes on some important themes, but keeps the answers and character progression as clichéd and shallow as can be. Director Darabont, who impressed with other deliberately paced and long films such as The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile, seems to have gone overboard and lost his way in trying to capture our imagining of a bygone age that lived only on the silver screen. Indeed, everything looks and feels fake, from the one-dimensional characters to the impeccable sets. And the Mr. Smith Goes to Washington-type climax is as groan-inducing as it gets. For sure, it's capably directed and beautifully shot, and the cast is engaging and even charming, but if this was to be Carrey's third try at an Oscar, he's picked the wrong vehicle. There are some fun things, however, the best of which is the fake footage of the protagonist's efforts at a B-movie. In the end, The Majestic is quite watchable without being memorable but for better redemption stories, stick to the original Capra classics.
Entertainment: 4/10

*Classic* The Maltese Falcon (1941)
Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Sydney Greenstreet
Director: John Huston
Plot: After accepting a bogus missing-persons case from a classy dame that gets his partner murdered, a rough private detective becomes embroiled in the deadly search for a priceless black bird.
Review: The third adaptation of The Maltese Falcon proved to be not only the most faithful adaptation of mystery writer Dashiel Hammet's 1929 book, but one the most influential of American films. Huston's directorial debut shows the assured hand of the creator of such classics as The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and Key Largo, from the studied cinematography, the dark, claustrophobic atmosphere, and the composition of the scenes, all put to great advantage by the excellent camera work and his close attention to detail. More than its visual look, however, the film establishes the bleak cynicism, the moral corruption, the murderous greed, the double-crosses, and the violent flashes that became characteristic of the genre. Add to this some clever dialogue, the constant intrigues, the stylish look, and the production, though perhaps a little dated, still satisfies modern audiences. Bogart embodied the smart, cool, and dangerous hero, a role that formed the template for many a character that came afterwards, one that also happened to be his break-out performance leading him to become Hollywood's biggest star. All the stereotypical denizens - the cynical tough-as-nails private eye, the alluring femme fatale, the eccentric villain, the dangerous minions - are on hand, and with such a great cast including Peter Lorre as a sleazy, effeminate gangster, one can hardly see anyone else play the roles with equal panache. The one sore spot is in the quick attachment between Bogart and the lying Astor - do they really love each other or is this a game both are playing? Their final parting would be that much more powerful, and descriptive of Spade's character, if we were certain, but this is a minor point - plot is secondary to the moment. The Maltese Falcon doesn't stand up as well as some of the other film noirs, perhaps, but as the one that started the genre, and the one that helped push Bogart into stardom, this one is a definite classic.
Entertainment: 8/10

Mambo Italiano (2003)
Starring: Luke Kirby, Ginette Reno, Paul Sorvino
Director: Emile Gaudreault
Plot: A young gay Italian man living in Montreal's Little Italy moves in with a lover, a childhood friend, but struggles in finding the best means to admit his sexuality to his conservative family. 
Review: Unoriginal but never dull, Mambo Italiano is an amusing comedy that milks its laughs by embracing all the Italian family stereotypes. Most people will come to this expecting an Italian version of My Big Fat Greek Wedding and its good-natured parody of the culture, and indeed it plays to that hype - think "My Big Fat Italian Family". Tackling both cultural heritage and sexual orientation, the film is meant as a story on love and acceptance. As such, the drama aspects are actually well played out and the characters are pretty sympathetic, and though there's the requisite happy ending it's not quite what you'd first suspect. As for the comedy, it's pretty much based on the expected reactions of the players more than on any situation. Obviously, none of this is meant to be taken seriously but like most parodies some of the caricatures are evidently extreme and might give offense. Cinematically-speaking, its theatrical roots are obvious and apart from the overacting there's a bright, surreal color scheme throughout which enhances the feeling of watching a sitcom. Still, it shows off a nice Montreal flair and for a low-budget local production it's actually quite accomplished. A possible stumbling block is that most of the "Italians" are played by French Canadian actors, yet to be fair they do a great job in terms of playing to the stereotypes, especially big-time singer Reno as the matriarch teaming with real Italian actor Sorvino. Another exception is Claudia Ferri as the neurotic, pill-popping sister. Despite its familiar storyline and exaggerated theatrics, Mambo Italiano ends up being an amusing and undemanding comedy.
Comedy: 6/10

Mamma Mia! (2008)
Starring: Meryl Streep, Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth
Director: Phyllida Lloyd
Plot: After finding an old diary, a young bride-to-be raised without ever knowing her dad on a remote Greek island invites her mom's three old lovers to her wedding, an event that causes much apprehension in her distraught mother and her entourage.
Review: A saccharine-sweet and ever-so-bubbly big-screen adaptation of the Broadway hit, Mamma Mia! proves that the influence of the popular '70s pop group ABBA lives on. Original playwright Catherine Johnson and stage director Phyllida Lloyd take on the reigns of the cinematic adaptation themselves, but it's not the out-of-the-park success it should have been. For sure, most of the song-and-dance routines are bubbly and lively, keeping the general choreography and settings of the musical, and only the most depressive audiences will avoid toe-tapping to the soundtrack. Some of the songs seem somewhat ill-fitting to the story, but who can resist "Dancing Queen", "Super-Trouper" or the title song? It's also a colorful concoction full of campy fun and mindful kitsch (stay for the end credits when all the stars do a reprise dressed up in spandex!). Yet there's clearly something missing to the proceedings, both in tone and style. The fault can be laid at first-time movie helmer Lloyd's feet, as her inexperience in the way movies diverge from the stage grows evident - the editing is choppy, the sound stages and sets look off-putting, the lighting is unflattering, and there's poor use of the Greek island setting. The A-list cast including Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, Stellan Skarsgård, Julie Walters and more are better actors than they are singers, but they make do, and it seems like everyone had a grand old time. But this is really Streep's movie, and here she shows she has all the spunk and energy to make just about any movie work - her rendition of The Winner Takes It All will leave a lump in your throat. Despite its faults, Mamma Mia! is buoyed by strong performances, a nostalgia for the 70's and (of course) lots of classic ABBA proves to be an enjoyable musical experience.
Entertainment: 7/10

A Man Apart (2003)
Starring: Vin Diesel, Larenz Tate, Timothy Olyphant
Director: F. Gary Gray
Plot: After seeing his wife killed by a vengeful drug cartel, an undercover DEA cop takes the war back to South America and tries to find the trail to the mysterious, ruthless leader only knows as "Diablo".
Review: A Man Apart is yet another generic effort from the revenge / action genre, and though it has a few redeeming qualities, is a film that just didn't need to be made. On the plus side, the action sequences are well orchestrated and appropriately chaotic, though some may get dizzy by the music-video pace and cutting. Director Gray, who made the tense enjoyable thrillers The Negotiator and The Italian Job, has a good grasp of the material and ensures the film is always quite watchable but it's obvious the script isn't up to the job. In fact, this is one of the more derivative efforts to come out of Hollywood in a while, and its desperation to provide some unexpected twists makes it, when the climactic revelation of who "Diablo" real is, just plain dumb and illogical. There are some good ideas hidden here that want to remind audiences of better films such as Traffic or Narc (including the same style of gritty cinematography and film stock), but without allowing for the dramatic moments to take effect. Maybe the real story got lost in the editing or, more likely, was remodeled as a purely action vehicle for its star. Whatever the case, the film does move along at a blistering pace and though there's little to recommend it, it's never boring. Vin Diesel comes out mostly unscathed from the effort and, though there's no real dramatic range here, shows off the macho persona that has made him a household name to good effect. Even apart from the gaping plot holes and uninspired premise, A Man Apart has little really going for it, but genre fans looking for some late-night kicks might still enjoy this redundant crime thriller.
Entertainment: 4/10

A Man Called Hero (Hong Kong - 1999)
Starring: Ekin Cheng, Shu Qi, Francis Ng
Director: Andrew Lau
Plot: A young Chinese martial arts master immigrates to America in the 1920's and goes to work in a slave mine before a tragic event convinces him to disappear for 16 years in preparation for a challenge with his old master's Japanese rival.
Review: Adapted from a popular manga, A Man Called Hero is the big-budget follow-up from the makers of the blockbuster The Stormriders but one that is dreadfully inconsistent. Those expecting another rousing tale will be disappointed. The story wants to be an ode to The Godfather, Chinese-style, from a tragic killing to a trip through Ellis Island, to common hardships, but these scenes (which take up the first half of the film) are so badly realized, so melodramatic and downright boring that the only real hardship is sitting through them. The script is simply atrocious, and the film requires some major editing to avoid putting its audience to sleep. Thankfully the film picks up mid-way through and goes off on a welcome tangent with an imaginative fight scene against supernatural ninjas. From this point on, the film offers what its audience expects - some comic-book style adventure, inventive magical fight scenes, and larger-than-life characterizations. There's also the exciting effects-laden finale atop the Statue of Liberty that precedes, and is far better, than the one seen in the X-Men. The leads are pretty wooden and rather unconvincing, but one definite treat are the extensive cameos, including ones by Anthony Wong, Francis Ng, Qi Shu and a welcome one by Yuen Biao. All said and done, A Man Called Hero does provide some excellent entertainment in the form of some impressive effects and amazing fight scenes in its second half, provided you can endure or fast-forward the mind-numbingly boring, talky filler.
Entertainment: 5/10


*Classic* The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
Starring: Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey, Angela Lansbury
Director: John Frankenheimer
Plot: After a hero's return from the Korean War, an intelligence officer realizes that his captain has been brainwashed into becoming an assassin under the control of Communist agents.
Review: Based on the novel by Richard Condon, The Manchurian Candidate is a terrific psychological thriller filled with layers of lies and deceptions, conspiracy, 50's McCarthyism paranoia and Cold War political intrigue. This is sophisticated, intelligent entertainment, with a first-rate script that's laden with traces of black humor and some disturbing elements, from the subtle hints of a incestuous relationship between Lansbury and Harvey to the ruthless assassinations. Director Frankenheimer's (The Train, Ronin) famous visual style is also clearly in evidence, from the unusual camera angles and fluid camera movements to the increasing tension and feeling of unease that permeates the narrative. There's a particularly riveting, imaginatively filmed sequence as the brainwashed American soldiers are put on display in front of their Communist controllers, even going so far as having one strangle another, yet hypnotized to see only a gathering of house-wives at a garden party. There's an additional level of deceit, perhaps, in the relationship between Sinatra and new love Janet Leigh, one that is never fully formed yet adds an interesting note to the proceedings. Clearly, this was a daring film for its time, both cinematically and in its controversial subject matter. Excellent performances from all involved also help bring all these well-defined characters to life. Suppressed for decades after the assassination of JFK before finally being re-released in the late 80's, The Manchurian Candidate is a true American masterpiece, a tantalizing, exciting thriller that shows its filmmakers at the height of their game.
Entertainment: 9/10

The Manchurian Candidate (2004)
Starring: Denzel Washington, Meryl Streep, Liev Schreiber
Director: Jonathan Demme
Plot: An Army officer has recurring nightmares of having been brainwashed while on duty in the Gulf War along with his then-subordinate, a war hero who has just accepted a Vice-Presidential nomination.
Review: A solid remake of the classic 1962 B&W thriller, The Manchurian Candidate gets the plot and paranoia down pat but misses the more interesting subversive elements and wit that made the first one special. Now only loosely based on Richard Condon's book, the feature zips through the original's details and provides a much more snazzy presentation. Despite the fact that the characters' parts have been altered (the mind-controlled son-in-law is now Veep himself, the hero's girlfriend is more than she seems, etc.) many of the main plot points are still remarkably faithful to its source material. To keep up with the times, the threat of Communism has been replaced with that of the 21st-century boogeyman, Terrorism and the villain is no longer the Manchurian nations but the rather faceless and powerful multi-national corporation Manchurian Global (a ruse simply to keep the film's title intact). The film still has the familiar jabs at the whole election showmanship that made the first so watchable even in the JFK era, but it's all rather muted. In fact, the film doesn't really have much more to say regarding the sell-out of the nation's politics or of mega-corporations' over-reaching powers other than what we've seen in other mainstream flicks. Gone as well are the dark satire that made its precursor so subversive, and its effective development that made its characters actions so shocking. What it does do well is create a very tangible, X-Files-like sense of paranoia and an occasional feeling of apprehension. If some of the more interesting artistic flourishes of the first one are abandoned here for the sake of a more straight-forward thriller (the brain-washing sessions come to mind) it does provide a tight pacing filled with the usual big-budget flourishes, while never quite upstaging the story. In fact, not since The Silence of the Lambs has director Demme been in such control of his material, and it's nice to see him back in form. Part of a limited main cast, Washington and Shreiber are impeccable and believable in their larger-than-life roles, though neither of them really garners much warmth from the audience. As the evil mother, however, Streep is delightfully diabolical and just steals the show. All told, it might not fare as well when compared to the Cold War classic, but taken on its own this new Manchurian Candidate is an effective Hollywood thriller.
Entertainment: 6/10

Man on Fire (2004)
Starring: Denzel Washington, Dakota Fanning, Christopher Walken
Director: Tony Scott
Plot: A burned-out, alcoholic former Special Forces operative goes on a rampage in Mexico City when the 10-year old girl he's been assigned to protect is kidnapped by organized crime and crooked cops.
Review: The latest version of Man on Fire, based on the novel by A. J. Quinnell, has much more fury and gritty violence than its predecessor, the 1987 version starring Scott Glenn, but it's the quieter, more dramatic moments that make up most the film that makes this special. Indeed, though the last third of the film is devoted to violent acts perpetrated by our "hero", one would be hard pressed to really call this an action flick. The "righteous" revenge that takes place, though filled with the usual ably handled explosions and gunfights, is not done so much for thrills as it is a means to an end - as such there's nothing to cheer or relish, only another deserving target to be checked off the list. And what a list: from organized crime to crooked cops to shady lawyers one would think Mexico City is a Den of Thieves. Yet the camera captures the city's exotic flair to give us a feel of a different place. But what makes this flick stand apart from the genre is the time it takes to set up its situation, to establish the father-daughter-type relationship that grows between the disillusioned soldier and his charming young charge. The filmmakers never miss an opportunity to manipulate its audience but it comes off as sincere enough thanks to the skills and screen presence of leading-man Washington and the surprising performance from the spunky young Fanning. It's this relationship that makes the rest of the film tick, and makes the events at the mid-way point believable enough to get by the story's more predictable moments. Thankfully the original tragic ending is also kept in place which on its own elevates the film from usual Hollywood fare. Director Scott is the epitome of slick filmmakers (Spy Games, Enemy of the State) and invigorates an otherwise banal plot with some terrific cinematography and an impeccable visual sense. Though it's involving enough, the script isn't particularly special and only Scott's flourishes and commercial direction ensures that the film always keep our attention and the narrative moves along at a brisk pace. If there's one thing to complain about, it's the insistence on the occasional frenzied editing of shaky, over-colored camera shots which are downright irritating. As a side note, character-actor Walken gets a chance to play a sympathetic role, for once, and its a pleasant surprise. Despite some issues, Man on Fire is a solid, engaging mainstream thriller - it might not hold any surprises but thanks to some slick camera work and some fine performances by its two protagonists it's a worthy blockbuster effort.
Entertainment / Drama: 7/10

Man on the Moon (1999)
Starring: Jim Carrey, Danny DeVito, Courtney Love
Director: Milos Forman
Plot: A dramaticized account of real-life eccentric comedian Andy Kaufman's roller-coaster professional career and personal relationships.
Review: Director Forman has a knack for choosing strange real-life characters as his subject matter (The People vs. Larry Flynt), and his choice of doing a biopic of avant-garde comedian Andy Kaufman seems even stranger. And yet in this portrait he meditates, as his subject must have done, on the very concept of comedy and entertainment. The creative narrative of the film plays out like one of his acts, with a great beginning that sets up the whole mood of the film and continues throughout. Kaufman was indeed more a performance artist than a stand-up comedian, and his form of humor wasn't for everyone, something that is also made quite clear in the film, making the audience privy to the inside-jokes behind his outrageous skits as well as to some of his disasters. As such, there are many moments that are hilarious, most especially the scenes of Kaufman playing his alter-ego Tony Clifton, a blazingly untalented lounge singer, while others simply fall flat. Funnyman Jim Carrey seems to hit the role right on the head, and it's hard not to see Kaufman instead of Carrey there on screen. This feeling is heightened by the use of the actual people who surrounded Kaufman's life in the film and the re-enactments of his public appearances such as scenes from Taxi, the sitcom that made him a household name, to the David Letterman interview where he got punched out by a wrestler. Many events have been fictionalized for dramatic purposes the point being that the film isn't looking to lay bare Kaufman's soul as much as show a perception of him, eccentricities and all, and find if indeed there was someone behind all those facades and illusions. Lunatic or comic genius, Man on the Moon is a touching and revealing description of a life cut short, and thanks in large part to Carrey's performance, well worth watching.
Drama / Entertainment: 7/10

Manhunter (1986)
Starring: William Petersen, Kim Greist, Tom Noonan
Director: Michael Mann
Plot: A psychologically scarred ex-FBI profiler is induced to return to the field to track a brutal, deranged serial killer with the help of a brilliant but dangerous inmate.
Review: Based on the best-selling novel by Richard Harris, Red Dragon, Manhunter's claim to fame is as the little-seen prequel to the Oscar-winning The Silence of the Lambs but it's a fine, if unimpressive, film in its own right. Director Mann, who was then at the height of his popularity with the hit TV show Miami Vice, shows the same production mode here with slick visuals, a surreal sense of tones and almost electric colors, and a definite preference for style over substance. The story is also more cerebral than most genre thrillers in that it plays a lot on the psychological aspects of the case, especially that of the FBI agent losing himself in the psyche of his prey. The main problem here is that the cat-and-mouse game being played in the background (the battle of wills between the cop and the imprisoned entity that is Hannibal) is much more interesting than the chase for the killer on the loose. The other problem is that while the film might have been slick and thrilling in the 80's, it will seem quite dated to modern eyes and, though the storytelling aspects are solid, it's never quite as engaging (or quite convincing) as it should be. The low-key approach to the material (and the undeniably lame climax), also just doesn't quite do it, especially compared with the more recent remake, Red Dragon. The cast is solid if uninspired, though Cox does a good turn in the skin of the genius villain Hannibal the Cannibal, a role made popular by his successor Anthony Hopkins. Another issue is that it all feels too impersonal, too stoic, the characters moving around like pawns instead of people, as if the emotional requirements were unnecessary to the film's thrills. All that said, there's still a good dose of suspense to be had, as well as some decent thrills and a mostly involving plot. And one can't help be taken in by the cool and now-retro 80's visuals. Despite its faults, Manhunter is an interesting take on the subject and an entertaining, stylish crime thriller from a showy director.
Entertainment: 6/10

Manners of Dying (Quebec - 2004) 
Starring: Roy Dupuis, Serge Houde
Director: Jeremy Peter Allen
Plot: Trying to decide whether to agree to a prisoner's last wish, a warden encounters difficulty when preparing a letter to the mother of the convict who has just been executed.
Review: Based on a short story by Yann Martel (who wrote the award-winning The Life of Pi), Manners of Dying is a low-budget effort that may feel very theatrical in its approach at first, but quickly captures us with morbid interest. The warden recounts, in flashback, the last twelve hours of one man's life, trying to decide what version to keep for posterity on his tape recorder. Going through the gamut of sometimes radically different versions, the film offers nine distinct variations on the prisoner's last hours and execution from dignified, to the impatient, to the downright vicious, with some absurd cases in between. Novice director Allen keeps the intimacy in the proceedings and makes sure that each re-telling adds something new to the overall story, something that ensures the narrative gimmick stays fresh. The details of the crime for which he is committed are kept under wraps; the idea behind the film seems to be on how a human being might approach his impending death more than a commentary on capital punishment like the powerful Thou Shalt Not Kill or the emotionally deft Dead Man Walking, films that tackled the same subject matter but had a more direct agenda. As the title implies, every individual will face his impending end in his own way. Capturing such varied personalities and the plethora of emotions that such a situation may engender - fear, anger, pity, desperation, denial - Dupuis shows off his acting skills like he hasn't in quite some time, making each case, each variation of events its own. He's lucky to play off Houde who, as the by-the-book warden, is the straight-man of the duo. All told, despite its modest means, Manners of Dying ends up being quite an effective exploration on human nature.
Drama: 7/10

Mansfield Park (1999)
Starring: Frances O'Connor, Hugh Bonneville, Jonny Lee Miller
Director: Patricia Rozema
Plot: In the early 1800's a poor young girl is sent to live with her wealthy cousins, in the hopes of educating her a finding her a position in high society. She grows up into an educated and very spirited young woman and is soon torn between the man she loves, and the man she is to marry. 
Review: Said to be Jane Austen's favorite novel, Mansfield Park starts off in a similar vein as other Austen stories such as Sense and Sensibility and Emma, describing a handful of high class, very British characters acting out their roles as forced upon them by society, each trying to garner an engagement to another. But this particular story has a little more bite to it, and bit more drama, dealing on its fringes with black slavery, class bias, and a touch of scandal that helps raise this adaptation above some of the more recent ones. The acting is superb, especially from Frances O'Connor, but the production, and the film itself, ends up seeming a little bland. 
Drama: 7/10

The Man Who Cried (2001)
Starring: Christina Ricci, Cate Blanchett, Johnny Depp
Director: Sally Potter
Plot: Escaping the Russian pogroms, a young Jewish girl joins an opera house in Paris in the early days of World War II in the hopes of making her way to America to find her father.
Review: The director of the brilliantly realized Orlando offers up a rather ho-hum saga with The Man Who Cried, one that's great to look at but is emotionally empty. The film wants to be an epic story of loss and a journey of redemption, one that wants to show that gypsy's were as persecuted as Jews, but it feels like a rehash of other movies and, though mostly well executed, it's never quite engaging enough to capture our full attention. There's nothing in the script to make us emotionally connect with anything going on-screen, with events simply falling on the protagonists as they are buffeted about by history. Even the final reunion feels like the worst kind of soap-opera catharsis. The dialogue is limited as well, Potter relying more on the visual impact of her settings and longing looks of her actors to convey mood. The splendid cinematography is about all that really keeps us going, and some of the scenes are indeed splendid. That, and the wonderful moments when the film bursts into music, with a mix of operatic bits, gypsy rhythms, and Eastern European ballads makes up for a lot. Unfortunately, the worst aspect of the film is Ricci; as the wandering heroine caught up between two worlds, she has the look for the role but appears mostly lost here and utterly unconvincing. Depp, after a wonderful performance as a gypsy in Chocolat, plays this generic one with silent panache. The two are supposed to make a statement on love lost, but there's little chemistry between Depp and Ricci and their final farewell is emotionally empty, as is most of the film. Blanchett saves much of the film, hamming it up for the camera as a displaced Russian dancer, but displaying the frailties of an old soul, but her relationship with Ricci seems forced and awkwardly one-sided. Cold and minimalistic, The Man Who Cried is best seen as a visually creative, but ultimately disappointing, melodrama.
Drama: 4/10

The Man Who Wasn't There (2001)
Starring: Billy Bob Thornton, Frances McDormand, Tony Shalhoub
Director: Joel Coen
Plot: In the early years after World War II, a taciturn California barber decides to blackmail his wife's lover to get the capital his needs for a dry cleaning business, but his plans soon devolve to murder.
Review: Director Coen, who shared the Cannes 2001 Best Director prize for his work here, and his brother have always been known for their clever, original, bizarre films (Fargo, Blood Simple), but with The Man Who Wasn't There, they have opted for an homage to Hollywood's noir era. In a terrific, quietly intense performance, Thornton, as the deadpan narrator and hapless instigator / victim, is as the title suggests something of a non-entity, an emotionally hollow man who suddenly, desperately needs a change and who, in typical noir fashion, ends up embroiled in a situation that goes from bad to worse. The story, full of blackmail, lies and murder, captures the essence of such genre classics as Double Indemnity and the early Hitchcock suspense, and then adds a very Coen twist with a touch of Lolita and UFO conspiracies. The pace may be slow and deliberate, but the narrative is always intriguing and surprising in its twists and turns. In true Coen fashion, there also many instances of dark humor throughout, especially in the form of Shalhoub as a slick, egocentric lawyer with a win-at-all-costs attitude. The real stand-out however is the beautiful, carefully composed black-and-white cinematography that transports us into the world of the film noir, with every new scene a wonderfully atmospheric production. There's no denying as well the tense dialogue, fabulous attention to detail, and great cast of eccentric characters (including a wonderful McDormand and a bullish James Gandolfini), but there's still a sense of formality present, a sense of cold focus that keeps us removed from the proceedings. Regardless, The Man Who Wasn't There is bent on evoking the essence of the dark, noir thriller, and in that it succeeds brilliantly.
Entertainment: 7/10

March of the Penguins (2005)
Narration: Morgan Freeman
Director: Luc Jacquet
Plot: A close look at the Emperor penguins of Antartica as they make their dangerous annual pilgrimage to their traditional breeding ground at the very height of winter.
Review: At times dramatic, in others just plain funny, March of the Penguins conveys the intensity of penguin life like few documentaries ever have. Shot over a period of a year by a pair of French cameramen who endured grueling conditions in one of the coldest spots on Earth, the film condenses the months long mating and breeding cycle into a spellbinding 80 minutes. It's simply an amazing journey into one of the planet's last untouched places, and most of the credit for its success goes to the stunning cinematography that superbly captures the wildlife in its habitat, up close and personal, as well as the incredible, otherworldly vistas. The penguins waddle, swim, eat and huddle together, facing natural perils from killer blizzards to terrifying predators in their treacherous task of protecting eggs and hatchlings. If the editing does, of course, dramatize and sentimentalize events it doesn't need to do so often for the fate of these social animals to be poignant. The Discovery-channel narration by Morgan Freeman actually elevates the film from its French counterpart, a version that straddled the animals with silly anthropomorphic dialogue. This is a true adventure that's right for the entire family and even as the credits roll the imagery will still linger.
Documentary: 8/10

Marebito (Japan- 2004)
Starring: Shinya Tsukamoto, Tomomi Miyashita, Shun Sugata
Director: Takashi Shimizu
Plot: Investigating a bizarre sicide, a freelance cameraman obsessed with discovering the meaning of fear slowly descends into madness and murder after bringing back a young mute girl from the depths beneath the subways of Tokyo.
Review: A low budget, shot-on-video Japanese horror flick, Marebito has some ambitious ideas but ultimately fails to deliver the goods. The familiar psychological and / or supernatural horror aspects are evident, of course, but what will pique audience interest is the focus on our protagonist's voyeurism. Indeed, our hero can only live through his camera, and even needs to film himself to believe he exists. Generalizing his affliction to our entire media-obsessed society, the theme of alienation, and how reality is shaped by what we see on film / TV is the driving force of the film, eventually blurring the narrative itself and leaving audiences wondering what is real and what is not. Unfortunately, the distinction is never made clear, even as the twist that occurs half-way through is not completely unexpected. But that's perhaps the whole idea, as we are looking at things through the eyes of a potential madman, or at least of someone who is clearly in over his head. The ending, however, is unclear - if it's supposed to hit us with a "gotcha" it misses the mark. One would have expected more of a creep-out from director Shimizu who gave us the effective Ju-On: The Grudge, but no dice. There are some effective moments, helped by expert video camera use and editing, and an occasional sense of something going awry, but the film's esthetic and "dream-narrative" makes it too artsy and too wordy, never making its intentions clear enough or rounding out its many interesting ideas and themes into a satisfying whole. On a positive note: In an interesting bit of casting, Shinya Tsukamoto - the director of the bizarre Japanese cult classic Tetsuo - plays the fear-obsessed cameraman, and he does a pretty good job of it. In the end, Marebito is an interesting but failed experiment, a film that too often gets wearisome even as it delves into its mysteries.
Entertainment: 5/10

Marie Antoinette (2006)
Starring: Kirsten Dunst, Jason Schwartzman, Judy Davis
Director: Sofia Coppola
Plot: In late 18th-century France, a young Viennese princess betrothed to the Dauphin moves to Versailles and soon becomes Queen but must contend with the disappointments of the French court.
Review: Inspired by Antonia Fraser's biography, Marie Antoinette is a surprisingly sweet portrait of the ill-fated French monarch ("Let them eat cake!"), from her marriage at 15 to her untimely beheading at the hands of French Revolutionaries. Director Coppola suggests that history has not been kind to Marie, and makes us feel the anxiety she felt being carted off from Austria to the bizarre, tradition-bound French court to wed the Dauphin, enticing gossip and stares as her marriage remains childless. As portrayed here she's a tragic, misunderstood historical figure whose life of ease and lavish parties was only a veneer, a young woman who had all the "normal" difficulties of growing up, albeit in a royal setting. The flowing gowns, fashionable shoes, sparkling jewelry, exquisite decor and the use of the actual Château de Versailles location all add up to what is a sumptuous-looking period piece, and it's easy to be transported into another era. Yet from the get-go you know it's not going to be a normal period piece, with modern credits splashed on the screen accompanied by a startling 80's post-punk song. Coppola uses contemporary dialogue along with the blaring soundtrack to go along with the narrative, begging the comparison between this version of Marie Antoinette and the superficial, young pop stars of our own media-crazed society, with all the possible excesses and scandals that come with unearned privilege, power and riches. There's also a good dose of sly humor when recreating the ridiculous royal traditions and the cold, impersonal aspects of the court and the requirements of her new position. Though the subject matter might seem very different from her previous films like Virgin Suicides or Lost in Translation, the theme of a woman lost and misunderstood is definitely still evident. As sympathetically portrayed here by an innocent-looking, charmingly agreeable Dunst it's hard not to forgive her excesses, even as Marie appeared immune to the struggles of the lower classes. With all the pomp, pageantry and decadence on display in Marie Antoinette the portrait sometimes falters, but if it never reaches the level of Coppola's earlier films it sure leaves an impression.
Drama: 7/10

The Marine (2006)
Starring: John Cena, Robert Patrick, Kelly Carlson
Director: John Bonito
Plot: A recently discharged Marine goes after a gang of murderous diamond thieves after they take his wife as a hostage.
Review: Created as a debut vehicle for wrestling star John Cena, and produced by his buddies in the WWF, The Marine is a low-brow exercise straight out of the 1980's handbook of action movie-making. It's the sort of vehicle that put lesser action stars on the map, with the same lack of logic, interesting characters or originality, but with a self-referential humor and enough bone-crunching madcap violence to merit a watch. The fight choreography appears to be something straight out of a wrestling set-up, with punches that don't even connect with even the sound editing being off - you'd think they'd have enough experience to make it work better. Ah, but the winning grace is the vast amount of excessive, ridiculous, unnecessary, unexplainable - but highly enjoyable - explosions, most of which see our hero jumping out of a boat-house, warehouse, and even a flying cop car in the nick of time, a fireball licking at his heels. There's also an amusing car chase that redefines the term "overkill" with such an excess of bullets flying without hitting their intended target. None of this will be taken seriously - heck, the actors don't appear to either - but there's an easy pace and attitude from first-time feature director Bonito that doesn't make it too hard to sit and watch. Though Cena is said to be one of the more "animated" performers in the arena and he physically looks the part, he portrays the military-cut hero as pretty much a humorless and one-note one-man army. Carlson, as our hero's wife, is nice on the eyes, and that's probably the only reason she got the gig - that and she delivers a mean right hook. Thankfully, the whacked villains make up for a lot with the quips flying fast, mostly from Patrick playing the heavy with easy devil-may-care abandon. Yup, it's over-the-top and ludicrous, the characters are dull and it's immediately forgettable but The Marine is still a fun throwback to that nonsense action era of the '80s.
Entertainment: 5/10

Mars Attacks! (1996)
Starring: Jack Nicholson, Glenn Close, Annette Bening
Director: Tim Burton
Plot: Martians invade and find Earth easy pickings for their war machines, as the inept White House staff tries to decide if the aliens are peaceful or not.
Review: Mars Attacks! is director Tim Burton's homage to science-fiction films of the '50s. Many of the more bizarre images of the film, and in fact the idea for the film itself, are actually inspired by the over-the-top 1962 Topps card series of the same name. Burton has also tried to capture the feel of those old '70s disaster movies by showing a huge cast of big-name stars involved in their own private dramas as the world is crumbling around them. The problem is that the characters, though fun to watch, aren't as interesting as the Martians. But things quickly get into gear as the Martians invade Earth, with many scenes of destruction and all-out war clearly inspired by The War of the Worlds and Earth vs. the Flying Saucers. The film is great fun, and full of wicked, often very twisted humor, and is definitely not to everyone's taste. With great special effects and a good cast, if you can take a little zest with your laughs then Mars Attacks! is sure to please.
Entertainment: 8/10

*Classic* Mary Poppins (1964)
Starring: Julie Andrews, Dick Van Dyke, David Tomlinson
Director: Robert Stevenson
Plot: Hired by stern parents to look after their two young problem children, a nanny with peculiar magical powers takes them on a daily journey into the fantastic.
Review: Even after over 40 years, Disney's classic musical Mary Poppins (based on the books by P.L. Travers) is still as enchanting and exuberant as it was on its release. Even if the predictable family tale itself isn't that exciting, the execution surely is, all an excuse for some memorable movie moments, such as the magical sequence where the entourage wander through an enchanted animated landscape filled with cartoon animals, or the rollicking rooftop chimney-sweep dance number. The pioneering blend of live action and animation, and indeed all the accomplished special effects such as the recreation of the 1910 London skyline, was state-of-the-art for 1964 and still holds up rather well. And the score is cheery and infectious, including such terrific tunes like A Spoonful of Sugar and the Oscar-winning Chim Chim Cher-ee. In her film debut, the always bright, appealing Andrews - even under high collars and ankle-length skirts - won an Oscar for her portrayal of the titular character. The endearing Dick Van Dyke, in one of his many Disney features appearances, also does wonders as the dance-happy chimney sweeper. Though it does lose some of its light-footedness towards the end, even at over two hours Mary Poppins still manages to spellbind all but the most cynical of audiences. Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, indeed!
Entertainment: 8/10

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1994)
Starring: Robert De Niro, Kenneth Branagh, Helena Bonham Carter
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Plot: Having been brought to life from dead body parts, a creature escapes his creator only to seek him out to take revenge after being misunderstood and mistreated by the townspeople.
Review: After his successful adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula, producer Francis Ford Coppola set his sights on modernizing another creature feature, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Despite the large budget, impressive cast, and having a Big Name at the helm, the film however is a disappointment. Trying to tread the material with his usual theatrical, Shakespearean-trained panache, actor / director Branagh (Hamlet, Henry V) actually creates a movie that is more high-brow camp than he probably intended. As entertainment, this will probably amuse those willing to sit through a lavish B-movie, though the film does have more to offer. Points definitely go for what is the most faithful adaptation of Mary Shelley's classic gothic novel to date, most importantly taking the monster as an intelligent creature who is pushed away from society and his maker, and seeks revenge on his creator. Unlike the popular lumbering Boris Karloff version, the monster here is quick, cunning, and has definite intelligence and real emotions. There are many things outright inventions but the middle part, where the creature hides in a shack and, hidden, helps a young family is a highlight. The book's themes of birth and death are hinted at, all shown here as graphic metaphor with lots of fluids, as is of course the one of Man's hubris at playing God, a theme that has been a staple of the genre. On the plus side, the film does try to play it all straight and serious, with little intentional humor, often delivering some solid horror-film moments. The opening and closing sequences in the Arctic, acting like book-end sections, adds a definite flavor to the story and are the best bits, really focusing on the relationship between creator and creation. On the down side, though it's a lavish production it all looks terribly fake. The narrative takes way too long to set up its confrontation, especially since most audiences know what to expect, and bringing Frankenstein's creation to life is also more detailed (and New Age-y) than is really required, though the sets and ideas to bring this about shows a genuine gothic sensibility. The acting is terribly theatrical from all involved, none worse than Branagh himself, though De Niro does an impressive job as the creature without the use of his trademark mannerisms, and Bonham Carter proves game for some required excesses. The film has also amassed some great actors in supporting roles such as Ian Holm, Tom Hulce and a surprisingly dead-pan, serious John Cleese as the doctor's mentor. All told, despite Branagh's good intentions and it being an interesting take on the classic character, this Frankenstein adaptation just doesn't quite cut it.
Entertainment: 5/10

The Mask (1994)
Starring: Jim Carrey, Cameron Diaz, Peter Riegert
Director: Chuck Russell
Plot: A shy, inept banker accidentally gains super-powers when he dons a strange mask which he uses to get the girl of his dreams, but a vicious gangster has ideas of his own for the mask.
Review: Based on the comic series by the same name, the green-faced human tornado The Mask is an unlikely film hero: anarchistic, chaotic and out for his own selfish benefit, and yet the premise works by imbuing its character with every person's dream: to hide their identity and become the extrovert they've always wanted to be. The real entertainment value, however, is in the Looney Tunes-esque world that he creates in his wake, from his impossible antics to the surreal, colorful set pieces in the Coco Club. Director Russell (Eraser, The Scorpion King) channels the manic energy and inventiveness of Warner Bros. cartoons to great effect, never missing a beat between the sad-sack's life and the crazy skits that make the heart of the film. It helps that the script does anything for a visual gag and they're quite successful in providing absurdist chuckles and slapstick laughs. The use of primitive computer animation still works the way it was intended: eyes bug out, tongue rolls out, and the impossible elastic body of our hero follows the expressive stretches of its star. Indeed, the film wouldn't be half as much fun without the inimitable Carrey. Coming off the popular Ace Ventura, he solidified his comic credentials here, playing both the sympathetic loser with a soft side and his frenzied alter super-ego, a creature who's a supernatural force for anarchy. As for Cameron Diaz, making her first major appearance, she definitely turns heads. A hoot-and-a-half while it lasts, The Mask is for the most part inspired crowd-pleasing lunacy.
Entertainment: 7/10

The Mask of Zorro (1998)
Starring: Antonio Banderas, Anthony Hopkins, Catherine Zeta-Jones
Director: Martin Campbell
Plot: After being imprisoned for 20 years, an aging California nobleman takes a bandit under his wing and trains him to be the masked vigilante Zorro to defeat a villainous governor.
Review: An energetic, light-hearted revitalization of the classic character made popular by Douglas Fairbanks and Tyrone Powers in the B&W serials of old, The Mask of Zorro is a fine mix of well-choreographed action, costume drama and tongue-in-cheek humor that is rarely seen nowadays. What's most impressive is that there's an easy-going charm to the proceedings amongst all the swashbuckling to be found, and the amusing training sequences (seemingly out of a Kung Fu movie) are worth the price of admission alone. Director Campbell (Goldeneye, Casino Royale) has a fine eye for the theatrics, swordplay and a sense of panache that goes well with the cliff-hanger fare. And if the plot and sumptuous production values have a sense of being a throwback to another era, the film itself is thoroughly modern and the execution is top-notch. It sure helps that there's a terrific romantic (and often adversarial) chemistry between then-revelation beauty Zeta-Jones and a cheeky Banderas; tying the "old" Zorro to the "next generation" is the stead-fast Hopkins, who seems to be having more fun here than he has in ages. A rousing tale in the style of the Hollywood adventures of old, The Mask of Zorro is contagious clean fun for the whole family that will sweep you off your feet.
Entertainment: 8/10

The Master (Hong Kong - 1992)
Starring: Jet Li Lian-Jie, Yuen Wah, Jerry Trimble
Director Tsui Hark
Plot: While visiting Los Angeles, a martial arts student becomes embroiled in a fight with an American master and his school after his Chinese teacher gets viciously attacked.
Review: The Master is a light-weight, rather low-budget kung-fu affair highlighting the first Hark / Jet Li pairing. The story is routine and just engaging enough to keep our attention between action scenes, immediately reminding us of the classic 70's Bruce Lee plots, one that occasionally veers towards the humorous bordering on the slapstick but that never lets the "dramatic" or silliness get in the way of good clean fun. This is not nearly as interesting, visually or thematically, as acclaimed director / producer Hark's other productions (Once Upon a Time in China, Legend of Zu) but it's still a Hark effort, and as such it's much better shot and more polished than the typical chop-socky fare, with some good dynamic camera work and cinematography, effective narration and fine pacing. Jet Li also plays his character with the affability and charm that were his early trademarks. Most importantly, the film includes some solid fighting sequences and more than almost any other, this is a terrific showcase for Li's amazing martial arts skills, unaided by the usual plethora of wires. Yuen Wah, in a rare good guy role (and acting as fight choreographer), also shows his impressive abilities as his master. The finale on top of a skyscraper will definitely not disappoint fans of the genre. It might be only a minor effort from director Hark, but The Master is a breezy, enjoyable kung fu flick highlighting its expert lead.
Entertainment: 6/10

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003)
Starring: Russell Crowe, Paul Bettany, Billy Boyd
Director: Peter Weir
Plot: Under orders to stop one of Napoleon's flagships from tipping the balance of power in the Pacific, a respected British Captain steers his ship and crew against a more formidable adversary despite having been damaged by their initial confrontation.
Review: An adaptation of the popular historical novels by Patrick O'Brian, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World is a not only a great, exciting and satisfying adventure, but it's also an intelligent and vivid depiction of another time and place. It's always hard to adapt beloved novels to the screen, but the script does a fine job of bringing these characters and the seafaring way of life to the big screen. Those expecting constant action will undoubtedly be disappointed as the middle portion is more low-key and deliberate in its pacing, but the amazing attention to detail, and the interaction between the officers and crew, makes the film absolutely enthralling. It helps that these moments also have their share of suspense as well, with the crew facing the brutal elements (including an impressive typhoon sequence) as well as the tensions created by men living in such close quarters, all the while playing a dangerous game of cat-and-mouse with a more powerful enemy. It should also be noted that the film is also bookmarked by two spectacular, exciting battle scenes. The first is a quick, one-sided affair, but the climax is spectacular - canons blazing, wood splintering, men battling in close quarters - and makes for a satisfying conclusion. Best known for smaller dramas such as Witness and smart crowd-pleasers such as The Truman Show, director Weir (who also co-scripted) brings all his dramatic skills to bear here and does a great job of bringing a forgotten era to life. This is one of those rare cases where substance beats over style - the solid visuals, editing and directorial approach never displaces the attention from its subject. Of particular note is the absolutely gorgeous production values, including a full-scale replica of the HMS Surprise and some appropriately gritty costumes and decor. As for its lead, just like his role demands Crowe is a very charismatic presence showing off both confidence and authority, as well as a definite elite Brit culture touched with humor. Brittany makes a fine foil as the ship's doctor with a penchant for being a naturalist, and the friendship between the two very different men, along with their fine dynamic repartee, adds a lot to the flavor of the film. Made for a more mature audience than those for a usual big-budget blockbuster, Master and Commander is nonetheless a rousing adventure yarn for those willing to be taken in.
Entertainment / Drama: 8/10

Master of the Flying Guillotine (Hong Kong - 1974)
Starring: Jimmy Wang Yu, Kam Kang
Director: Jimmy Wang Yu
Plot: Ordered to stop Chinese revolutionaries, a blind master executioner working for the Emperor swears revenge on the one-armed boxer who killed his disciples.
Review: Marketed as director Quentin Tarantino's all-time favorite kung-fu flick, Master of the Flying Guillotine is a deliriously absurd even by Hong Kong's kung-fu standards. In the golden age of kung-fu cinema (the '70s), actor / director / writer Jimmy Wang Yu made some of the genre's classics with the likes of Chinese Boxer and The One-Armed Boxer (of which this is a sort of sequel). Here, he gets a chance to create a pretty over-the-top affair, with lots of crazy fantasy stuff gets thrown in, and lots of video-game worthy fighters - the blind master executioner, the one-armed boxer (our hero, of course), the Thai kick boxer, the killer yogi with stretchable arms (yup), the Japanese ronin, and more. It does take a while to get going, with the first act (the required exposition) barely revealing its action intentions. The second act, an extended sequence of martial arts competition among the various characters, sets up the skills and abilities of each before they tackle their main target in some vicious - and sometimes funny - confrontations. The third act really puts things in gear, with some imaginative fight sequences in a burning hut, a chaotic aviary, all finally climaxing in a coffin-maker's shop as our one-armed hero takes on this strange cast of adversaries, culminating in a fight against the "flying guillotine", a weapon that might well be one of the weirdest put on film. Kudos, though, to the filmmakers for trying something different - from the cinematography, fight choreography and use of music, all building to a very Spaghetti-Western-type of atmosphere. It doesn't always feel right for a period piece, but then nothing else does, really, either. The whole thing might be convoluted and sometimes even silly (what plot! what dialogue!), but aficionados of old-style kung-fu shouldn't pass up the opportunity to see this master at work.
Entertainment: 6/10

The Matador (2005)
Starring: Pierce Brosnan, Greg Kinnear, Hope Davis
Director: Richard Shepard
Plot: A veteran hit-man going through a mid-life crisis in Mexico City strikes a strange friendship with a open-hearted down-on-his-luck businessman.
Review: The indie buddy-comedy The Matador is one of those easy-going films that unfortunately rarely see the light of day. For sure this is a low-key affair, as far as these things go - there's no action, no amazing sets, and no particularly exotic locales unless the few scenes of a Mexican hotel and a bullfight count. Even the humor is more good-natured than laugh-out-loud, something that was clearly intended and is quite refreshing. But where it really hits the mark is in its character study of a hit-man past his prime, and the unlikely camaraderie between two men who are far apart both socially and morally. Brosnan plays with his own movie image to portray a distinctly anti-Bond assassin, one that's unshaven, drunk, uncouth, immature and depression-prone, but he brings to the screen a performance filled with such zest and vitality that one can't help but be seduced by this strangely pathetic, sympathetic character. Kinnear, as his new mate, proves a great straight-man to Brosnan's excessive personality and Davis, as his understanding wife, often steals their thunder with just a few lines. Writer / director Shepard brings a note of humanity, sadness and surprising zest for life to the trio's friendship, and despite the swearing, the fucking and the off screen killings (all of which there are enough of to give the film its R rating), this is a surprisingly light-hearted flick. It may not be a cult classic in the making, but thanks to its two leads and a solid script, The Matador ends up being a surprisingly engaging comedy thriller that's sure to please.
Entertainment: 7/10

Match Point (2005)
Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, Alexander Armstrong
Director: Woody Allen
Plot: A former tennis pro turned instructor in a posh club befriends a wealthy young man and starts dating his perky sister, but things get complicated when he falls for his friend's luscious fiancée and must decide between love and social position.
Review: In a change of pace, Allen breaks his love affair with Manhattan to land in English territory with Match Point, a sordid tale of adultery and upper class society. The oft-repeated motto here is that being lucky is better than anything else, and the "match point" of the title is really the final outcome of fate. Hard to believe it's a film from writer / director Allen (Hannah and Her Sisters, Annie Hall): gone is the Jewish-centric humor (in fact all humor) and his usual nerdy presence. Instead what we get is a relationship-based romantic drama that succeeds in being an erotic affair, but whose characters remain rather banal (and unsympathetic) in a familiar situation. Familiar at least until the final act, when it effectively becomes a nasty thriller, playing on the themes of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. It’s always interesting, the film flows well, the dialogue is good, and the visuals are imbued with warm cinematography and nice locales, but it could have been edited down to make it more effective. As it stands, the film goes on a bit too long; while the ending is solid, everything that came before seems to be too long-winded for its final conclusion. The intended send-up of high society, how it’s decadent and in-bred, ends up looking at its subjects a bit too lovingly. Worse, perhaps, is that as played by Rhys-Meyers, the protagonist seems cold, shallow, and never quite honest making us doubt his motives even when he's conflicted between wife and mistress, but it’s an impression that is never brought to fruition. The sultry Johansson, however, is terrific as both seductress and deceived girlfriend. For those patient enough to sit through the first acts, Match Point can be an effective romantic thriller; it just could have gone there a little quicker.
Drama: 6/10

Matchstick Men (2003)
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Sam Rockwell, Alison Lohman
Director: Ridley Scott
Plot: On the verge of a major swindle, a con man suffering from anxiety and compulsiveness sees his life suddenly take a strange turn when his newly discovered 14-year old daughter makes an appearance at his doorstep.
Review: An interesting and (quite literally) rose-colored glimpse of the world of con artists, the sly Matchstick Men ends up being more a dramatic - if light-hearted - character study than another take on The Sting. Oh, the capers are almost as convoluted and the mechanics of the cons are fascinating to watch, the film capturing the nuances with care, but for the most part it's a clever comedy that's at times touching and bitter-sweet. Such a small-scale, light drama is not what one would expect from the director of such big budget effects-laden fare as Alien, Gladiator and Black Hawk Down, but Scott manages to expertly piece together the elements required to make for an intimate very much character-driven story. His slick cinematic touch is clearly evident in every scene and, like all his films, the cinematography is simply gorgeous. The growing father-daughter relationship is the real heart of the movie and Scott shows a startling control over his actors in such an intimate setting. In fact, this energetic and sentimental effort works so perfectly you won't know you've been so easily manipulated until the final wrenching resolution, as the final con plays out. In this very human, very vulnerable character Nicolas Cage has found another interesting, eccentric role and his performance is excellent and wholly believable as an obsessive-compulsive controlled by his idiosyncrasies. 21-year old Lohman plays the 14-year old daughter with perfection, infusing the role with just the right amount of whimsy, chutzpah and strength as to make her irresistible. Rockwell, as the partner, adds a dash of danger and mirth. Throughout the twists & turns and past the final revelation, Matchstick Men engages thanks to a strong script, its winning actors and slick production - and that's what counts.
Drama / Entertainment: 8/10

The Matrix (1999)
Starring: Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss
Directors: The Wachowski Brothers
Plot: Neo, a small-time hacker, joins a small band of rebels after waking up to the realization that the world around him is a sham, a complex illusion created by an artificial intelligence that has enslaved humanity.
Review: Taking inspiration from comic books, Hong Kong films, cyberpunk, and conspiracy theories, The Matrix is full of incredibly impressive, inventive action sequences and in-your-face special effects. The real surprise, though, is its involving, complex storyline that is just as captivating. The actors (yes, even Reeves) do a convincing job of kicking and punching their way through the film, and give even the talkative scenes some genuine intensity. Filling every sequence with interesting camerawork and style to burn, the Wachowski brothers (who's only other work is the terrific indie film Bound) manage to mix different genres into one exciting package. A thoroughly entertaining movie experience.
Action: 9/10
Entertainment: 9/10

The Matrix Reloaded (2003)
Starring: Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss
Directors: Larry and Andy Wachowski
Plot: As the last human city is threatened by an army of war machines, a small group of freedom-fighters enters the virtual-reality world of an all-encompassing computer program to find a mysterious individual who can gain them complete access.
Review: The Matrix Reloaded has, ironically, become much like a machined product itself: slick and cool to watch, but cold and lifeless as well. Like all big blockbusters, it suffers from sequel-itis: everything is bigger - more action, more characters, more production values, but also more attention spent on the effects and the spectacle to the detriment of the story. Everything from the first film is taken for granted now, and the enchantment is gone, as is (it seems) much of the creative sense. As an action flick, though, this breaks the boundaries; the extended free-way car chase, the centerpiece of the movie, is a masterpiece of automotive choreography and editing and pushes the limits of the genre. In general, the action sequences are that much more impressive, frenzied, and spectacular, for sure, but gone is the emotional need for them. In fact, the martial artistry and fight scenes go on for much too long and quickly become repetitive. Most surprising is the dismal use of the famed "bullet-time" sequences, particularly during the Neo's fight scenes with the Smiths where the characters are badly rendered by videogame-worthy computer graphics. Without doubt, much attention has been paid to the visuals, and there are some beautifully structured and exciting set-pieces to be found. Yet something is clearly missing here, as the film lacks the urgency, imagination and story-telling abilities witnessed in the first installment. Worse, without an emotional bond to what's happening, it all just feels flat. Story has been replaced by way too much paperback meta-physical double-talk, and these moments just grind the movie to a halt. It all feels like half a movie that's been stretched out, like an unfinished product, which may well be the intent. As to the depiction of Zion, it feels like a bad Sodom and Gomorrah recreation. Most of the performers are back, but without any new characterization to help them out they barely hold their own. In fact, here they act more as props to the story than actual people. Audiences may be scratching their heads over the final revelations implied here but we'll have to wait for the sequel to see how it all comes out. As an action showcase The Matrix Reloaded shines, but for true smart entertainment, stick to its more successful predecessor.
Entertainment: 7/10

The Matrix Revolutions (2003)
Starring: Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Ann Moss
Directors: Andy Wachowski, Larry Wachowski
Plot: In a dark future where machines rule the world, the fate of the last human city rests on the powers of one man who can stop the onslaught.
Review: The Matrix Revolutions, the conclusion to the big-budget trilogy, wants to end with a pulse-pounding bang but only ends up as the weakest part of the series. Whereas The Matrix was a mature piece of filmmaking that managed to be smart, stylish and still provide an awesome action fix, this time around they've dumbed down the concept and aimed the film squarely at the teen crowd. Reeves' Neo is no longer the centerpiece, nor are any of the original characters who barely show up on screen - this may not be a bad thing as the acting has become mechanic. The real hero here is the computer effects which take over the concept and original plot completely (indeed two thirds of the film is pure animation) making this a completely artificial (and positively lifeless) construct. There's an obvious lack of story this time around, as if the whole film was but the climax to the second installment, The Matrix Reloaded. The film is a set up for two staggering, but long-winded action sequences: the first is the battle over Zion with mechanoids battling hordes of warbots, and the other an epic hand-to-hand fight between Neo and Agent Smith. Both are extremely well done, but both get monotonous after a good 20 minutes. Worse, the story even flirts with melodrama, but it just comes out laughably fake because there's simply no emotional resonance to be had in the proceedings. The dialogue is again ridiculous, and the characters and situations have become parodies of those in the first film. Indeed, it all comes out as pretty pretentious what with its high-school level philosophizing and self-importance. All this is not to say there isn't some redeeming value here: it's undeniably a triumph of techno-geek computer animation and seen on its own it's a marvelous visual feast, with some fantastic art direction and terrific effects. For the most part, it will keep one's attention until the climax. But the thrill is definitely gone, and all the promise of the Wachowski's original work has disappeared in a flurry of cool imagery. There's no denying the accomplishments of the technical team, and the visuals are indeed far out, but without a heart or a brain The Matrix Revolutions just comes out as a mundane epic with lots of empty eye candy, a video game looking for an audience. A disappointing ending to the series.
Entertainment: 5/10

The Mechanic (2011)
Starring: Jason Statham, Ben Foster and Donald Sutherland
Director: Simon West
Plot: Feeling remorse for having murdered his mentor under orders, an elite hit man teaches his trade to his victim's loose-canon son knowing that revenge may be just around the corner.
Review: Loosely based on the 1972 Charles Bronson B-movie thriller, The Mechanic updates and betters the original material - it's entertaining, but it's still not a hit. Director West takes a more subdued approach to the material than he's had it his more familiar hits such as the over-the-top action flicks like Con Air and Tomb Raider - at least in comparison. Action sequences are splattered along the narrative giving chance for close-quarter gunfights, strangulations and a handful of explosions, until the inevitable revenge-plot climax, the film's action highlight - it's executed with a fierce, propulsive pace that's worth the wait. Throughout, the violence is often startling in its depiction, and no more so than a bloody execution of a rival hit man mid-way through. Shooting in and around New Orleans and its bayous gives the film an exotic feel, but the film doesn't give much of an opportunity to establish place, time or even its characters. But so what: Playing the moral ambiguity of its protagonists' to good effect, this is an unapologetic tough-guy action / thriller, made with verve and style, with a script that's smart enough to know it. Statham is proving to be the most resilient, and most winning, of modern-day action heroes and even with multiple genre entries every year seems to have a natural knack to get points, no matter how bad the material may be. Better yet, Statham seems to find vehicles that are at least up to his standards. It also helps to have a side-kick the likes of Foster, whose dramatic talents are put to good use in a very angry role. A buddy movie for a large part of its running time, the two play off each other well, with a conviviality that feels genuine even as they're setting up (and executing) some violent plans... and as the film sets up the seeds for a final confrontation between the two partners in crime. At a tight, short 80 minutes, The Mechanic is a solid, above-average action fix that doesn't overstay its welcome.
Entertainment: 6/10

The Medallion (Hong Kong - 2003)
Starring: Jackie Chan, Claire Forlani, Julian Sands
Director: Gordon Chan
Plot: After being killed saving a young Buddhist child, a Hong Kong cop is resurrected and endowed with supernatural powers thanks to an ancient amulet, a relic that is also being sought by an evil collector seeking power and immortality.
Review: In terms of the talent that collaborated here, The Medallion should have been a slam-dunk what with Chan on-screen, Sammo Hung as the action choreographer, and Gordon Chan directing, but all that comes out is a tired mess that's a poor example of their usual outputs. Described as the most expensive Hong Kong film ever made, none of that budget appears on-screen, nor does any of the usual vigor and energy found in similar productions. Aiming for Hollywood-style high production values means it also works and moves like one, and all the flavor of a real HK film is lost in favor of reaching the widest audience possible. This means it's laughably derivative, silly, and boring. Indeed, five writers are credited with a lame plot that comes straight out of a timid cop TV show, which is never a good sign. Is there any doubt, then, to end up with a blend of all the bad elements of Eddie Murphy's Golden Child and Chan's own Police Story, without the humor of the first or the energy of the second? The film also doesn't know if it's meant to be taken semi-seriously (cue-in stoic Julian Sands as the villain) or as a comedy (see the uptight comic relief of Lee Evans). Worse, the romantic love interest is rather ill-conceived and the two leads lack any chemistry whatsoever. Chan might not do all his own stunts anymore, but those he does show he still has what it takes - his acrobatic and fighting skills are still good, it's just too bad his choice of material hasn't improved, Unfortunately, this is a sad use of Chan's talents and, in fact, there's little action to be had, barely three or four set pieces tied around lots of useless talk-talk and immature comic antics. All we get from The Medallion is a rather generic, slow-going and un-interesting action flick that only comes alive for its rare action sequences. For Chan completists only.
Entertainment: 4/10

Meet the Parents (2000)
Starring: Robert De Niro, Ben Stiller, Nicole De Huff
Director: Jay Roach
Plot: During a weekend at his girlfirned's parents, a male nurse comes at odds with her difficult ex-CIA father and finds himself in many embarrassing situations that promptly degenerate into catastrophe.
Review: With Meet the Parents, director Roach (Austin Powers) manages to imbue his latest comedy with a good blend of comic angst and mainstream slapstick. The comedy here is based on the innumerable, embarrassing blunders caused by Stiller's constant, increasingly outrageous lies used to extricate himself from ill-advised thoughtless comments, as well as the multitude of well-set-up household disasters. Though the events and situations are quite funny, if rather predictable, it's really the mounting tension between the two main protagonists (father and future son-in-law) that makes up the funniest and most interesting element of the film. Ben Stiller has now been typecast as the ultimate good-natured goof-ball, and his role takes a large cue from the one in There's Something About Mary. Faced with Robert de Niro, playing once again a slightly psychotic role but as the straight-man, the two butt heads in a battle of wits and wills in a nightmare version of a meeting with the in-laws. As comic adversaries, Stiller and De Niro are terrific, and make what could have been an otherwise bland effort into a rather amusing, good-natured comedy.
Comedy: 6/10

Melancholia (2011)
Starring: Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Kiefer Sutherland, Stellan Skarsgård
Director: Lars von Trier
Plot: The strained relationship of two sisters is exacerbated as a mysterious planet threatens to collide with Earth.
Review: Bad-boy director von Trier (Dancer in the Dark, Dogville) sets his sights on the sci-fi bastion of the apocalyptic movie with his latest, Melancholia. Set to the strains of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, the film start off with a sequence of surrealist imagery that foretells stolen moments of the story to come. The visual invention is mostly left to this opening, but it sticks. The story is told in two acts, each focusing on one of the sisters. The first, on Justine - played all-out by Dunst in a Cannes-winning performance - who clearly suffers from a malaise that makes her incapable of happiness, even on her - ultimately disastrous - wedding day. This is pure von Trier drama, akin to his Breaking the Waves, the type that gets under your skin. We focus on the implosion of the psychologically scarred Justine as she alienates everyone around her, from her misanthropic, long-divorced parents (portrayed by thespians John Hurt and Charlotte Rampling) to her absurdly sadistic boss (a repulsive Stellan Skarsgård), even as she disregards her new husband. It's a terrifying portrait of self-destruction. The second is on Claire - the always terrific Gainsbourg - who struggles to balance her attention to her depressed sister and her fear of the (possibly) approaching doom. This section comes off as an intimate look at people facing the end-of-the-world as the strange blue-planet looms larger in the day-lit sky. Though it's not quite as strong as the first part, it's perhaps closest to Andrei Tarkovsky's The Sacrifice, and it's no secret that Trier has tried to emulate the Russian director in his body of work. Whatever you say about the drama that unfolds and its rather languid pacing, however, one can't find fault on the gorgeous cinematography, nor in von Trier's ability to get his audiences wound up and involved in the lives of his characters, nor in the ease with which he can create such as depressing, oppressive atmosphere. Ultimately, the movie plays out on the opposite sisters, one who fears nothing because she stands to lose nothing and the other who succumbs to her fears of losing everything. It's a bit overblown perhaps, even for von Trier, but it lingers in the mind way past the credits.
Drama: 8/10

Memento (2001)
Starring: Guy Pearce, Carrie-Anne Moss, Joe Pantoliano
Director: Christopher Nolan
Plot: A former insurance fraud investigator suffering from chronic short-term memory loss searches for his wife's killer, compensating for his disability by relying on notes, Polaroids and tattoos.
Review: With his sophomore independent film Memento, director Nolan has brought to the screen a top-notch suspense thriller, a well executed murder-mystery, and an intriguing character study all rolled into one. Here it's the story that takes front seat, not only in its rebounds, twists and turns, but also in the way it is told. And in all these things, Memento pleasantly surprises and keeps us guessing. Progressing backwards from the end in 5 to 10 minute segments, where every scene starts where the preceding one ended, makes for a fascinating narrative style. Instead of lessening the impact it instead makes the events all the more interesting. We are in a sense as clueless as the protagonist, thrown into situations that we can't make heads or tails of, surrounded by new-found strangers who are never what they seem, and is all the more exciting for it. The film is also different from the typical genre in that it remains unpredictable, doesn't telegraph its answers and doesn't spoon-feed its revelations. This is a complex, well scripted film, and careful attention is required to get the most out of the sometimes convoluted situations, but the effort is well worthwhile. The main theme here, of course, is the treachery of memory and the manipulation of said memories, but it doesn't end with an exploration on our failed senses. Indeed, there are moments when the film almost turns into the surreal, with dabs of psychological horror and existential suffering. With so much focus placed on the characters and dialogue, the cast's performances are critical to the success and believability of the proceedings, and all of them do an admirable job, especially Pearce as the memory-handicapped husband, exuding that sense of vulnerability, paranoia and an edge of psychosis. Clever in structure, bold in execution, full of black humor, intelligence, and real suspense, Memento is quite simply a terrific neo-noir thriller.
Entertainment: 9/10


Memoirs of a Geisha (2005)
Starring: Zhang Ziyi, Gong Li, Michelle Yeoh
Director: Rob Marshall
Plot: Ripped from her peasant family, a young girl is taken in as a servant but is soon trained in the arts of the geisha, becoming the talk of the city.
Review: Based on the best-selling novel by Arthur Golden, Memoirs of a Geisha is nothing if not a beautifully realized adaptation, full of colored Kimonos, subtle sensuality, and warm interiors. Its reliance on spectacle and generalities, on splendor over substance makes it feel a little cold, but perhaps this is because of the absence of much of the ritualistic details that made this exotic world so rich, the texture and hidden emotions that made the tale so touching. Also director Marshall shows the same style and visual pizzazz he brought to Chicago - albeit more demure and fluid in its pacing - but he doesn't quite fare as well in presenting the culture, and the obvious sentimentality is approached in a way that Americans can easily swallow. Still, all that doesn't change the fact that this is an engrossing, visually magnificent coming-of-age tale, and though the film stops short of the final act of the novel, the main story is pretty much all there, from our heroines difficult beginnings to her training and ascension in social circles, all the while longing for a man she cannot have. The decision to use Chinese actresses instead of Japanese ones may have been controversial, but non-Asian audiences will probably not notice the change and it allows for a trio of fabulous Chinese actresses to work together: Ziyi is wondrous as the innocent heroine and Yeoh is dignified, but it's the acclaimed Li who really steals the show as the passionate and temperamental nemesis, showing poise, spite, and deep pain for a character that could have been easily dismissed. This romanticized adaptation of Memoirs of a Geisha may not be as intricate or heart-felt as its source material, but in its grace and splendor it does manage to carry us to another time and place.
Drama: 7/10

Men of Honor (2000)
Starring: Cuba Gooding Jr., Robert De Niro, Charlize Theron
Director: George Tillman
Plot: During the 1950's, a black Navy man decides to become the first African-American to become a Master Diver, but has to face military prejudice in the form of a violent, embittered trainer and the other trainees.
Review: A rather simplistic dramatic retelling of the true-life exploits of Carl Brashear, Men of Honor focuses on his battle against personal and institutional racism in the Navy of the '50s and '60s as he tries to train and become the first black Master Diver, and how he overcame these barriers as well as a debilitating injury. Yes, we've seen it all before in other military dramas, but director Tillman (Soul Food) manages to make the cliché-ridden script agreeable as well-paced entertainment and grand melodrama and keeps the narrative interesting enough to keep our attention. The highlight of the film is really the relationship between the two "men of honor", and any success the film has really rests on the solid performances by the two leads. Gooding Jr. is decent in the hero role, though his hard-headed nobility becomes irksome at times, but De Niro, as the bigoted, alcoholic master diver / trainer is consistently fascinating, playing an unsympathetic character and breathing life into him, making him a flawed but honorable figure. Of course, these two will end up with grudging respect for one another, and, of course, everything will turn out for the best - this is a "feel-good" drama after all. Theron, as De Niro's young wife, also does a great performance with the little screen time she has. Unfortunately, the last scene, a court battle for re-instatement, is manipulative in the extreme and leaves a sour taste after an otherwise acceptable story. Though Men of Honor isn't very original and way too predictable, it is captivating enough and does tread the fine Hollywood line between entertainment and drama well.
Drama / Entertainment: 6/10

Men in Black (1997)
Starring: Tommy Lee Jones, Will Smith, Rip Torn
Director: Barry Sonnenfeld
Plot: A young NYPD cop gets in way over his head after being recruited by a mysterious government organization that controls the secret flow of extra-terrestrial alien immigrants on Earth.
Review: Based on the comic book series of the same name, Men in Black is a fresh comedy that plays on the paranoia of secret government agencies and UFOs, stuff that has always made great fodder for this type of film. What really makes the film such a delight is the clever, fast-paced, tongue-in-cheek script full of funny (heck, even hilarious) moments, and for once the amazing special effects really help the comic elements and the story instead of hindering it. Sure, some of the proceedings are expected and some clichéd, but there's a lot of original, inventive details and there's no denying the candid energy displayed on screen. In fact, one can't help but think this is all going too fast and that the film only barely touches on the possibilities of the material. If there was ever a picture dying for a sequel, this is it. Of course, much of the success also lies in the cast and the team-up of Smith and Jones is a perfect match - Smith is at his peak here in both charm and comic timing, and Jones proves he can do comedy as well as everything else with a terrific no-nonsense performance. With its frenetic pacing and great mix of comedy, sci-fi and action, Men in Black rightfully deserves its Hollywood blockbuster entertainment status.
Entertainment: 8/10

Men in Black II (2002)
Starring: Will Smith, Tommy Lee Jones, Lara Flynn Boyle
Director: Barry Sonnenfeld
Plot: An agent from a secret agency charged with tracking aliens on Earth must find a way to get his old partner's memory back as he's the only one who has the knowledge to save the planet from a dangerous she-creature.
Review: Men in Black II suffers from the usual sequel-itis, where everything is bigger but not necessarily better: the stakes are higher, the aliens more dangerous, the alien-busting paraphernalia is slicker, but everything else is lacking. The story starts with an amusing, cheesy "In Search Of..." spoof and goes downhill from there, with a script that contents itself to going through the expected motions with a plot that is rather uninspired and is at a loss to fill it's abbreviated running time. Gone is the chutzpah and giddy amusement of its predecessor, and no matter what is thrown on-screen, the film can't recapture that sense of surprise and freshness. Even the easy camaraderie between the two leads, though still in evidence, isn't nearly as pronounced or as effective as before with Smith now playing the straight man to both a tired-looking Jones and a talking alien dog (who actually has some of the biggest laughs). As for Boyle, as the multi-tentacled villain, she plays the role without the necessary campy energy. Still, director Sonnenfield knows to move things along in good summer-blockbuster fashion, the familiar characters are all back in action, there are some great one-liners, a few witty moments, and of course there's always the fun Stan Winston creature effects. Men in Black II is light fluff that's instantly forgettable, but for those in need of an MIB fix it's an enjoyable enough time-waster that does offer a few good chuckles.
Entertainment: 5/10

Men in Black III (2012)
Starring: Will Smith, Tommy Lee Jones, Josh Brolin 
Director: Barry Sonnenfeld
Plot: An agent involved in controlling extra-terrestrial immigration must travel back in time to 1969 to stop a violent alien from assassinating his partner and changing Earth history.
Review: A step up from the first sequel, Men in Black III gets the series' mojo back - it's not going to achieve the classic status that the inimitable 1997 original did but as blockbuster popcorn fare, it's great fun. Much of the success of the series has been the strong chemistry and snappy dialogue between the odd-ball pairing of the excitable Smith and the deadpan Jones; the script knows it and the two actors stick to their strengths, and Smith's easy charm is always welcome. The real surprise, however, is newcomer Brolin who shows an uncanny skill in capturing a younger, more vital version of Jones' Agent K yet foreshadowing the craggy veteran agent to come, al this while maintaining the necessary spark when exchanging barbs with his partner from the future. The plot is, of course, formulaic but sending these men in black into 1969 opens up a new world of possibilities, an idea that's (fortunately, or unfortunately) not milked to its full potential - race relations, the space age, the funky dress code and hippy vibe all get their share of laughs, and not much more. The media has been all over the problems in the production, which suffered multiple rewrites, delays and a budget that ballooned to $215M; thankfully, these problems don't show on screen. Thank Sonnenfeld (Get Shorty, The Addams Family) who's back in the director's chair after a slew of less-than-stellar ventures; it's clear he's in his element here, dishing out action pieces, visual gags and melodrama (yes, there's some of that, too) without really missing a beat, the whole thing buoyed by Stan Winston creatures and whiz-bang special effects. Oh, and we also get a new meaning to the term "time jump" in one of the film's highlights. Men in Black III ends up being a joyful, if not quite memorable, outing at the movies and for the summer that's just fine.
Entertainment: 7/10

The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc (1999)
Starring: Milla Jovovich, John Malkovich
Director: Luc Besson
Plot: Haunted by divine visions, Joan of Arc leads French troops in the 15th century to push the English invaders from the conquered lands of France. But her victories are short-lived, and her faith is put to the test when she falls into English hands.
Review: Director Luc Besson (The Big Blue, The Fifth Element) takes his turn at adapting the story of Joan of Arc and has created a film that is more akin to Braveheart than it is to the classic The Passion of Jeanne d'Arc. Using artistic liberty in portraying historical events, the film tries to show how Joan of Arc was but a confused young woman with no divine inspiration who, by her strength of will and false faith, managed to inspire French soldiers to victory. Putting aside the constant anachronisms, as a grand "show" The Messenger succeeds admirably, using stunning, beautiful imagery and scenes of huge deployments and bloody battles. As a drama, though, it falls short. Milla Jovovich plays the title role convincingly, and the rest of the all-star American cast and the secondary French one do a fine job as well. Where it misses the mark is in its failure to keep the pace going: the battles become too long and the main character becomes secondary to the vast array of characters. The real problem arises two-thirds through, during the heroine's trial as a heretic, where the film tries to give us an intimate portrayal of Joan and ends up manipulating the audience's feelings, turning the picture into melodrama. A beautifully shot, exciting film that aims high, but ends up being a little long, and a little shallow.
Drama: 6/10

The Mexican (2001)
Starring: Brad Pitt, Julia Roberts, James Gandolfini
Director: Gore Verbinski
Plot: A hapless mob errand boy is forced to take an accident-filled trip into Mexico to recover an antique cursed pistol and ends up with relationship problems when his girlfriend is kidnapped as insurance.
Review: The Mexican, an obvious light-hearted vehicle for its two main stars, is a veritable mix of genres, combining romantic comedy, melodrama, and a crime caper. The story almost seems like two films spliced together, its two narrative tracts with very different flavors linked by the long-distance relationship struggles of its protagonists. Amazingly enough, director Verbinski (Mouse Hunt) manages to keep all these elements in play and find just the right balance of genres throughout the proceedings. Surprisingly, Pitt and Roberts share little screen time together, and they don't quite have the chemistry the audience might expect from them. Individually, though, they manage to capture our attention, especially Pitt who does a great turn as the likeable loser who always attracts trouble. Gandolfini, as the sensitive mob enforcer, is the only complex character and he does a fine job in the role. The budding friendship between Roberts and Gandolfini which make up most of the middle act of the film is typical Hollywood fare, well done and charming thanks to its two stars. But it's really Pitt's often hilarious misadventures, with its dash of action and an edge of black comedy, all shot in warm, sun-drenched colors, that really makes the film worthwhile. The script does show some excesses, and some slow spots, but with so much going for it one can excuse some of the meandering of the plot. It also provides a shocking turn of events at the three-quarter mark that raises its "offbeat" factor by a notch. Yes, it owes much to its star cast, but even without them The Mexican would still be a smart, funny and entertaining diversion.
Entertainment: 7/10

Miami Vice (2006)
Starring: Colin Farrell, Jamie Foxx, Gong Li
Director: Michael Mann
Plot: Two veteran undercover vice detectives infiltrate a vicious South American cartel but things get dangerous when one of them falls for the drug lord's wife.
Review: A big-screen and big-budget update of the trend-setting 1980's TV series, Miami Vice returns to the violent and tragic stories of old, mixing police procedural, sense-altering night-life, and doomed romance, a blend that the show was renown for. A surprising amount of the film captures the essence of the show, and some of the familiar themes of the show are definitely back: the allure of the jet-setting life with the fast cars and speed-boats, the steamy sex, the expensive suits, as well as the danger of falling into the life-style too deeply that you "don't know which way is up". But where the original was all about style over substance, this version is all about capturing a gritty, dark realism. Creator / writer/ director Mann returns to the fictional setting that made him a household name and shoots the film with the gritty video realism he brought to Collateral, but with the scope of Heat. Hat's off to him for producing a film that will defy expectations; this isn't typical summer action entertainment and some may be sorely disappointed by the dramatic drive of the story and how seriously the events are portrayed, or they might be pleasantly surprised at the down-to-earth approach and complex narrative. The climactic showdown though, a bullet-ridden gunfight to the finish, is as thrilling as anything we've seen and reminds one of the set-pieces in Heat. The problem is that there isn't anything new to add to the table that hasn't been better captured in Traffic or countless other films on the drug trade. The script does play with the idea of its hero getting lost into his role, but it doesn't go far enough. But the movie's worse offender is the pounding soundtrack; it might be another staple of the show, but here it's continuously jarring and ear-deafening. As the Crockett and Tubbs team, the leads are OK, if unimpressive - Farrell seems ill at ease in the role, and Foxx is just rather dull. Gong Li, however - in a surprisingly different turn from her usual art house pics - comes off best of all as the love interest torn between two worlds. All told, Miami Vice is an interesting, surprisingly mature adaptation of the original show that's perfectly crafted and paced - too bad Mann didn't have something more to say after 20 years.
Drama / Entertainment: 6/10


Michael Clayton (2007)
Starring: George Clooney, Tom Wilkinson, Sydney Pollack, Tilda Swinton
Director: Tony Gilroy
Plot: A burnt out high-priced fixer for a corporate law firm gets entangled in a conspiracy when a colleague, the top litigator for a bio-conglomerate, goes off the deep end.
Review: Taking its own tagline theme that "The Truth Can Be Adjusted", Michael Clayton is a nicely-paced legal thriller that doesn't provide many surprises but still manages to satisfy. For one, after such an array of films exploring the "good guys", here's an opportunity to see the other side of the coin. For once the "hero" is actually the villain of most of the legal-genre films (like A Civil Action or Class Action), the fixer who works for the big law firm that specializes in keeping Big Industry in business by hiding the nasty secrets from the public eye. The script and direction by first-timer Gilroy (the same one who penned the frenetic Bourne trilogy) is more adult than the usual fare and manages to capture some personal nuances that aren't usually seen in this kind of legal thriller. The cinematography and editing are also polished, making for a slick affair. With familiar elements of the "Evil Corporation" and its misdeeds that might have come out of a John Grisham novel or any of its film kin like The Rainmaker or The Firm, the tale itself comes off as rather banal and shallow. That's not to say its lengthy or boring, however: the pace is well set, and the script mines the right stuff. The big plus though are the fine, engaging performances from the main cast. Of course this is Clooney's show and he's perfectly cast as the suave but burnt out lawyer trying to pick sides. Just as effective are Wilkinson as the batty-but-brilliant litigator with a secret agenda, Pollack as the level-headed law firm boss, and a superb turn by Tilda Swinton as the insecure chief counsel for the mega-corporation who will do anything to defend her employer. These great turns add the needed heft to make the slick but otherwise average, mainstream Michael Clayton into something that's sure to please.
Drama / Entertainment: 6/10

Mighty Peking Man (Hong Kong - 1977)
Starring: Danny Lee, Evelyne Kraft
Director: Meng-Hwa Ho
Plot: A young hunter / explorer searches the Himalayas for a legendary giant, terrifying ape to bring it back to Hong Kong and falls in love with a jungle princess who was raised by the monster.
Review: Combining elements of Tarzan, the Japanese Godzilla / disaster movies, and (of course) King Kong, Mighty Peking Man was obviously made to capitalize on the success of the 1976 U.S. remake of King Kong. This is as cheesy a film as you'll ever likely to find, with bad acting, terrible dialogue, laughable extra-cheap special effects, and a story that will make you roll your eyes in disbelief. But this Shaw Brothers production knows it is pure kitsch and is more than happy to push it to the limits: there's a love story with a scantily-clad jungle woman with perfect make-up, there's elephant stampedes and leopard attacks, there's an earthquake scene, there's the greedy unscrupulous entrepreneurs, and there's a giant gorilla wrecking havoc on Indian villages and, finally, on Hong Kong itself, destroying buildings, crushing crowds, etc in the best monster-movie manner. What's not to like? A ridiculous, hilariously bad production, Mighty Peking Man has enough stuff blowing up and toy tanks blasting away to make any kid-at-heart nostalgic for the trash cinema of the '60s and '70s.
Entertainment: 5/10

Million Dollar Baby (2004)
Starring: Hilary Swank, Clint Eastwood, Morgan Freeman
Director: Clint Eastwood
Plot: An elderly boxing trainer with his share of personal demons reluctantly agrees to take a tough, determined woman under his wing to bring her to the international stage.
Review: Based on a series of stories from novelist Rope Burns, the premise of Million Dollar Baby might have one thinking of the indie flick Girlfight, but the film goes out of its way to make itself into a gritty, no-holds barred account of a woman with nothing to lose. Though not as masterful as his own Mystic River, actor / director (and composer) Eastwood (Unforgiven) brings another perfectly executed tale to the screen with an eye for each scene, a pacing that's just right, and a shadowy, green-tinged cinematography that's fabulous. In the end despite its attention to athletic details, the occasional genre clichés, the grueling training and the rousing (and very bloody) bouts, the boxing is only the medium for the story about two lonely, broken souls trying to connect with the world around them. Indeed, the father-daughter relationship between the two leads is splendid and never forced as the two slowly share their hopes but are confronted by their own inner demons. Swank seems completely committed to the role and is completely convincing in and out of the ring, though she doesn't get much of a chance to try out a lot of range. Eastwood and Freeman, however, as grizzled old veterans of the sport, are very comfortable together and the tight bond between their two cranky characters is terrific to behold. The rather unexpected tragedy in the final act, and the moral dilemma that goes with it, is perhaps the whole point of the picture - how far are they willing to trust each other when all the cards are down? Unfortunately, marring the tale is a jarring sense of emotional manipulation during these moments that does get a bit crude, such as the clash between our heroine and her white trash family or the constant reminder of her final fate. The story, narrated by Freeman, was powerful enough without these dramatic liberties, and it's too bad the script couldn't find a better way around them. Despite this, Million Dollar Baby remains another solid achievement for Eastwood, a strong drama that's worth the effort.
Drama: 8/10

Millionaire's Express (Hong Kong - 1986)
Starring: Sammo Hung, Yuen Biao, Cynthia Rothrock
Director: Sammo Hung
Plot: A shady businessman decides to derail a train carrying many wealthy people near his hometown to bring in much needed income. Unfortunately, a gang of thieves also targets the train forcing the villagers and the train passengers to combine their efforts to stop them.
Review: Millionaire's Express is a wonderful collage of many different movie genres: classic western, martial arts, adventure and slapstick comedy. Amazingly enough, it works! The action scenes are amazing, especially the ones with Yuen Biao, the story zips along, and there are enough zany characters to make your head spin. All in all, a very entertaining film.
Action: 8/10
Entertainment: 8/10

Millions (2005)
Starring: Alex Etel, Lewis McGibbon, James Nesbitt
Director: Danny Boyle
Plot: Following the death of his mother and his move to another community, a troubled young boy is surprised to have a bag full of pounds literally drop into his lap, forcing him and his older brother to spend the money in secret before the country switches to Euros.
Review: A light-hearted, gentle comedy, with a nice little drama at its core, Millions is a shining example of a family film done right. Based on the old moral that money doesn't solve everything, the film is told as a modern fable as narrated from the point of view of an 8-year old. Keeping that premise in mind, the film examines religious faith, loss, and the power of money with the imaginative and eye-opening logic turns only a child could come up with. Despite these many flights of fancy, the story remains surprisingly down-to-earth which means it stays believable enough to keep us grounded in the characters' plight. Sure, there's the usual sentimentality we've come to expect from family fare, but it's under-stated and well-placed in the context of the story. Who would have thought that the director of such hard-hitting, violent and often harsh films like Trainspotting, Shallow Grave or 28 Days Later could actually give us such a high-spirited and charming family film? Gone is the grim edge showing the worst of human behavior - what hasn't disappeared is the clever scripting, the clever ideas, the stylish direction and the impeccable cinematography. But much of the success also goes to young Etel who is just terrific as the boy who sees visions of the (very hip) Saints telling him how best to use the money to help the poor, with often hilarious results. A restrained McGibbon as the older, more capitalist-minded brother makes a fine straight-man and provides some pointed commentary on the state of present middle-class society. The main adult influence, made up of dad Nesbitt and new girlfriend Daisy Donovan, make do with broader performances, as does the supporting cast made up of school friends and some eccentric neighbors. All told, Millions brings together various elements into one nice package: rich visuals, warm sentiments, humorous touches and a smart script - what else could you want from a family flick?
Entertainment: 7/10

Mindhunters (2004)
Starring: Val Kilmer, Christian Slater, LL Cool J
Director: Renny Harlin
Plot: Dropped in an isolated island training ground, a group of FBI trainees discover that their practice session has turned deadly when it turns out that one of their numbers is actually a vicious serial killer.
Review: There's no real wonder the formulaic serial-killer thriller Mindhunters was left on a shelf for almost two years before being jettisoned into theaters. The B-grade high-concept affair could have been an interesting entry in the genre but the script is mired in a narrative that only lives for misdirection, keeping audiences guessing with continuous twists and mind games, all logic be damned. At least the method of each one's death is morbidly intriguing, but it's no Saw or Seven. And if these paranoid, uninteresting characters are the cream of the psychological profiling division crop, it's a pretty sad day for the FBI. In fact, it takes more than half the film for any of their training to actually kick in - and when it finally does it's presented in such a ludicrous manner that it would make even CSI viewers cringe. Still, commercial director Harlin (Die Hard 2, Deep Blue Sea) knows his stuff and can even make sub-standard material workable on a limited budget. The game of cat and mouse is more than a tad ridiculous, requiring as much coincidental events than "clever" planning from its killer, but there's a definite sense of urgency and suspense to the proceedings. Be warned: The two head-liners - Kilmer and Slater - are relegated to supporting players, and disappear from the film about 20 minutes in. Left to fend for themselves are the C-list players headed by a very buff LL Cool J. Mindhunters is a downright silly mainstream thriller but despite its many flaws it's adequately entertaining for audiences willing to put their brains on hold.
Entertainment: 4/10

Minority Report (2002)
Starring: Tom Cruise, Colin Farrell, Max von Sydow
Director: Steven Spielberg
Plot: In a future society where psychics can foretell murders before they occur, a veteran cop finds himself being chased by his own colleagues when he is accused of a murder he hasn't yet committed.
Review: Based on a 1956 short story by SF visionary Philip K. Dick, Minority Report is a well-conceived and masterfully rendered feature that combines Blade Runner type sci-fi with an old-style film noir crime thriller. Like all of director Spielberg's films (Saving Private Ryan, Raiders of the Lost Ark) the cinematography and filmmaking techniques are slick and well-executed, in this case making the city a gritty, sanitized, blue-tinged landscape, making the whole proceeding wonderful to watch. Spielbergian touches are evident throughout, of course, from the Americanized ideals of family, to the fantastic action sequences that will leave audiences breathless. Of these, there are quite a few good ones but two such scenes stand out: the first, a death-defying roller-coaster ride as our hero leaps from car to car, all careening on the vertical side of a building, and a second where he eludes his pursuers in a high-tech car factory. The film also brings an exciting, and sometimes scary, vision of the future with the details that fill this world both inspired and frightening, especially in its depiction of a society where media has run rampant and where technology has stripped the freedoms and privacy of its citizens. The special effects throughout are excellent and add much to the believability of the tale. Yet, the story itself is more akin to typical present-day (and even old b&w) whodunits with a sci-fi twist. Thankfully, that twist is a good one and allows the script to bring up philosophical and ethical questions on free will vs. fate, on society's rights vs. the individual, ones that will definitely cause debate even as the film ends. Unfortunately, for the sake of the murder-mystery's resolution, much of the futuristic brilliance of the film trickles down to nothing more than an over-dressed present world in the standard movie ending. As for its lead, it's evident Cruise has matured, and he's in fine form here. Farrell, as the FBI man charged to bring him down, is simply a revelation. The rest of the cast, including a patriarchal Von Sydow, is also good. An intelligent, complex SF film surrounded by the best trappings of the Hollywood genre, Minority Report is vintage Spielberg and as such is simply great entertainment.
Entertainment: 8/10

Miracle on 34th Street (1994)
Starring: Richard Attenborough, Mara Wilson, Elizabeth Perkins
Director: Les Mayfield
Plot: A young girl who doesn't believe in Santa is put to the test when a man claiming to be the real Kringle takes up a job in her mother's store and is driven to appear in court to prove his claim.
Review: A surprisingly faithful remake of the beloved 1947 B&W classic, this version of Miracle on 34th Street has its moments, but just doesn't quite cut it as perfect holiday cheer. For a man best known for his kiddie hits (Home Alone), this is a typical John Hughes hear-tugger as he and director Mayfield try to modernize the classic tale (including cartoon bad guys and corporate takeovers) and attempts to recapture the spirit of the original film, with only mild success. Oh, the script knows how to pull the heartstrings all right in this tale of a girl who wants to believe in Santa Claus and find a new dad (with all the predictable melodrama that ensues), but for every moment that brings a smile, there's another that brings a groan. And check out all those product placements! The cast though is quite good, and deserve a better film. Attenborough, especially, charms his way through thick and thin as the lovable old Kris Kringle, as does the likable Wilson as the cynical young girl. In the end, the film dumps cliché upon cliché into the mix, making it too smarmy, too sugary for its own good. Even the court scenes towards the end of the film don't hold up a candle to the original's clever resolution. This is a family picture, however, and in providing a spoon-fed Christmas tale that's easy to digest (and just as forgettable), this take works well enough, but for a real treat you better find the original.
Entertainment: 4/10

Miracles (aka Mr. Canton and Lady Rose) (Hong Kong - 1989)
Starring: Jackie Chan, Anita Mui, Dick Wei
Director: Jackie Chan
Plot: A poor mainlander is cheated out of his meager savings when he arrives in 1930's Hong Kong only to accidentally inherit the mantle of mob leader.
Review: Miracles is Jackie Chan's homage to the Hollywood films he loved as a child, choosing in particular to remake Frank Capra's A Pocketful of Miracles but giving it a Hong Kong flavor. While the comedy is broad and tends to the slapstick variety with a heavy dose of smarmy sentimentality, it is accompanied by Chan's trademark crazy antics, both in terms of unbelievable stunts and dizzying martial acrobatics. As a director, Chan avails himself quite well, especially in terms of placing the camera for best effect and keeping things moving. Production values are also quite high, and it seems no expense was spared for the colorful costumes, large sets, and antique vehicles to give the film the big-budget feel of the period. The film really focuses on the aspect of comic farce by focusing on the classic theme of chaotic mix-ups with a vast array of characters, played by many familiar faces of Hong Kong cinema. The energetic action sequences aren't as prominent as some of Jackie Chan's other films, but when they do arrive they are on par with some of his best works, especially the extended, jaw-dropping and energetic finale when, vastly outnumbered, he battles gangsters in a rope factory. Some parts do drag on, especially the moments of exposition or melodrama, but Miracles is a definite change of pace for its director / star, and thanks to a mix of very different elements it's fine entertainment for a more varied audience.
Entertainment: 7/10

MirrorMask (2005)
Starring: Stephanie Leonidas, Gina McKee, Jason Barry
Director: Dave McKean
Plot: Wracked with guilt over her mother's hospitalization, a teen finds herself trapped in a dream world of her own making and must find a charm that will return balance to the kingdoms of Light and Shadow.
Review: A coming-of-age tale told on a canvas of fantastical visuals and delicate whimsy, MirrorMask plays like a modern re-imagining of Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz. Quickly leaving the familiarity of other fantasy-for-kids fare, the tale brings both charm and an unsuspected edge to its intriguing blend of live-action and computer imagery. The self-imposed quest for a magical talisman takes our spunky protagonist (charmingly played by Leonidas) through the bizarre creative landscapes of graphic-artist-turned-director McKean, crossing Dark Lands, meeting with strange creatures and masked inhabitants. Unsurprisingly, considering the graphic-novel experience of the filmmakers, the art direction made up of a mix of 2D drawings and 3D animations is superb, the design of the creatures and the world imaginative and daring, and the CGI effects by the Jim Henson production team (those responsible for Dark Crystal and Labyrinth) brings it all to life. Though seemingly directed to young teens, this makes for fine family viewing, and adults will appreciate not only the splendid imagery but also the fact that the script, by famed fantasy novelist and comic-book collaborator Neil Gaiman, is more clever and engaging than one would expect. All told, MirrorMask is a lively, inventive diversion that's sure to please more grown-up audiences with its blend of amazing visuals and fine storytelling.
Entertainment: 8/10

Miss Congeniality (2000)
Starring: Sandra Bullock, Benjamin Bratt, Michael Caine
Director: Donald Petrie
Plot: A young unkempt female FBI agent gets a complete make-over to allow her to go undercover as a contestant in a Miss America beauty pageant and stop a deranged killer from bombing the event.
Review: Miss Congeniality starts with the high-concept idea and sticks with it, mixing up the usual fish-out-of-water comedies with a dash of action, but keeping the story dreadfully predictable. Bucking the recent movie trend of satirizing beauty pageants such as Drop Dead Gorgeous, the film pokes fun at the contestants and the people involved but ultimately revels in the female need to excel in this type of event. One can't help but shudder as the story shows the intelligent, feminist, "ugly duckling" having her life-altering experience as she's happily turned into a sputtering swan. Thankfully, the script remains mostly focused and the dialogue and situations amusing keeping the film from miring into blandness. Yes, this is a second-rate starring vehicle for Bullock who hasn't really made a good film in a while, but she manages to put on a good comic turn here, if a slightly unconvincing one, as the tough unmannered broad. The supporting characters are actually more interesting by the actors portraying them than by their actual roles, including Caine as a desperate foppish trainer, Candice Bergen as the hard-nosed bimbo-esque pageant organizer, and William Shatner as her bumbling Master of Ceremonies. For this effort it's obvious that none of the talent involved was aiming for anything high concept or original, but it is an efficiently made typical Hollywood comedy and for sometimes it is enough that Miss Congeniality is amusing, if desperately shallow, fluff.
Comedy: 5/10

Astérix et Obélix: Mission Cléopatre (France - 2002)
Starring: Christian Clavier, Gérard Depardieu, Jamel Debbouze
Director: Alain Chabat
Plot: Two Gauls, a Druid, and their magic potion are called upon to help an Egyptian architect who is under orders from Cleopatra to build the most magnificent palace for Caesar in only three months.
Review: Let me start by saying that Asterix et Obelix: Mission Cléopatre is simply some of the most fun I've had in ages. It's a rare event that a sequel surpasses the original, but A&O:MC manages to one-up its predecessor in every single aspect. With the biggest budget ever for a French film, the film is epic in proportions featuring a lavish production with fabulous sets, grand deployments, and superb decors and costumes. The script is anachronistic to the extreme, inserting modern social mores into the proceedings, and jumbling Egyptians, Romans with high-seas pirates (a recurring gag), all to great success. It's also full of witty dialogue, visual gags, exaggerated slapstick, and a constant tongue-in-cheek humor spoofing old Hollywood epics like Cleopatra to 70's Bruce Lee kung fu flicks and modern Matrix knock-offs. It's not without fault (one scene in particular seems to drag on past its welcome), but minor quibbles aside, it nears perfection as an adaptation of the classic French "bande dessinée" (comic strip) "Astérix et Cléopatre" from Goscinny and Uderzo while adding a flavor all its own. Director Chabat proves to be quite adept at making the various elements gel into a cohesive and amusing whole, always staying loyal to the text, the spirit and the look of the source material. He is definitely helped by a fine cinematographer and the dazzling use of special effects to recreate the cartoon world. The terrific star cast seems to be having fun, doing a great job in getting into their characters' skins, especially a frenetic, hilarious Debbouze as the pathetic architect. It's unfortunate for North American audiences that much of the finesse of the film which comes from the French word plays might be lost in the translation, but thankfully there's so much more to the film that will definitely cross over. Filled to the brim with action, romance, grand adventure, and more laughs and smarts than any two-pack of other so-called comedies, Mission Cléopatre is simply terrific entertainment. (Check out the extended review!)
Entertainment / Comedy: 9/10

Mission: Impossible (1996)
Starring: Tom Cruise, Jon Voight, Emmanuelle Beart
Director: Brian De Palma
Plot: Hunted after being framed for the deaths of his teammates, a secret agent goes rogue and decides to steal a contact list from the CIA itself to root out the mole in his agency.
Review: Based on the popular '60s Cold War spy TV show, the film version of Mission: Impossible modernizes and rethinks the series as a movie vehicle for its peculiar star. While the main focus is on Cruise and the script opts for some changes that may not sit well with fans, for the most part it keeps the feel of the original material with the disguises, the gadgets, and of course the "impossible" missions, from the theatrical opening sequence to the final double-cross. Perhaps the plot is a tad convoluted for a summer blockbuster, faring better on a repeat viewing. But its the film's handful of set pieces that are really memorable such as the escape from an aquarium-filled restaurant, or the nail-biting operation to steal the secret file off an impregnable computer system that sees Cruise dangling from the ceiling, or the film's only real action sequence where our hero escapes being chopped-up by a helicopter caught behind a high-speed train - it's all rather silly fun but it's also quite effective. Director De Palma (Carrie, The Untouchables) has a spotty record on suspense thrillers, but here he seems completely in his element delivering one of his most satisfying, professional efforts. Thanks also go to a tight screenplay from veterans Koepp and Towne that might confuse some and might feel like too much exposition to others, but that adds some nice touches in any case. There's little character development, of course, even when the story quickly dismisses the original team and concentrates on the three leads, but playing spies with such star talent as Cruise, Voight and Beart - and a supporting cast that includes Ving Rhames and Jean Reno - it's hard to mess it up. An effective, entertaining thriller, this Mission: Impossible is mission: accomplished.
Entertainment: 7/10

Mission: Impossible 2 (2000)
Starring: Tom Cruise, Dougray Scott, Thandie Newton
Directors: John Woo
Plot: Elite special agent Ethan Hunt falls for a a beautiful thief who must help him stop a rogue spy from selling a new, extremely deadly, biological weapon and spreading it across Australia.
Review: After the box-office success, and critical panning, of the first Mission: Impossible film, it was inevitable that the formula be changed once again only this time any relation to the original series goes out the window. This is first and foremost an action film, and only has occasional forays into the suspense thriller. The main problem is that acclaimed Hong Kong director John Woo (Hard Boiled, The Killer) doesn't seem at ease doing romantic scenes or tackling the love triangle presented here, and many of the clichéd plot really plods along. Once the gloves are off and the bullets start flying, though, the film becomes a veritable ballet of stunts, explosions, and no-holds-barred ultra-cool action. Indeed, the action choreography is often top-notch, with many original, inventive, and eye-popping over-the-top sequences. Much has been said of Cruise doing many of his own stunts as if he had something to prove after Eyes Wide Shut, and he does look impressive doing them. It's too bad the script, from veteran scribe Robert Towne (Chinatown), is so full of holes, bland characterizations, laughable dialogue and a lack of consistent pacing. As it stands its more a series of great action pieces loosely tied together. Woo is obviously more comfortable tackling subjects of honor, betrayal, etc. with male leads, but he does manage to elevate the otherwise pedestrian plot, if not quite to the level of his previous Hollywood production Face/Off. In the end the real reason to watch M:I2 isn't the story or the cast, but that it's everything a summer blockbuster is supposed to be: loud, fast, and entertaining.
Action / Entertainment: 7/10


Mission: Impossible III (2006)
Starring: Tom Cruise, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ving Rhames
Director: J.J. Abrams
Plot: Super agent Ethan Hunt and his team face a dangerous, powerful arms dealer who has kidnapped Hunt's wife in exchange for a deadly weapon called The Rabbit's Foot.
Review: No doubt about it, Mission: Impossible III is the best entry in the film franchise, and one that starts the summer blockbuster season with a bang. The plot is definitely nothing new to avid filmgoers, but writer / director Abrams (better known for his genre TV shows such as Alias and Lost) shows his ability to mine the very essence of the material and make it feel fresh despite the preposterous nature of the beast, proving he's got a real talent for the big-screen, too. Much like his earlier small-screen work, Abrams also knows to give audiences an emotional connection to add tension to the situations, and none work better than the flash-forward opening sequence when our helpless protagonist is tied to a chair as the villain threatens his fiancée. The action sequences have always been a big part of this re-invented M:I series, and much of the running time is filled with enough stunt work and bullets to fill another two films. Thankfully, there's a fine wink to its TV show origins by way of a perfectly choreographed, suspenseful kidnapping in the middle of the lavishly re-created Vatican, one that uses all the abilities of its team members (and that fancy face-mask technology). The film brings another exotic locale in the form of Shanghai, where getting his hands on the Rabbit's Foot ends in a breathless nighttime leap from tall buildings. In-between, the story moves along at a brisk pace setting up the many action set-pieces of the film, all of which are impeccably executed and thrilling (a shootout on a bridge is a definite highlight). Cruise doesn't emote much, but does a fine turn as - well - Cruise, and that's usually enough. The rest of the cast, including the returning Rhames, Maggie Q and other familiar faces, all do well with the limited lines but are really only there as supporting characters to the leading man. Of special note, however, is newly-Oscared Hoffman who - as the absolutely creepy, smart, and cold-hearted villain - avoids the usual Hollywood bad-guy clichés, making him a great foil. Let it be said that the bar has been raised - clever, thrilling, and filled with damn good action, MI:3 is the blockbuster to beat in 2006.
Entertainment: 8/10

Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol (2011)
Starring: Tom Cruise, Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg
Director: Brad Bird
Plot: Implicated in the bombing of the Kremlin, a team of special agents are disavowed, leaving them without a plan, resources or backup to go up against a rogue Russian scientist looking to plunge the world into nuclear war.
Review: For its fourth installment, the big-screen adaptation of Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol goes for broke: over-the-top stunts are in the cards, as are the James Bond-like gadgets, the improbable plans, et al, yet it just doesn't feel like Mission: Impossible anymore. Gone are the intricate plans, every technology at their disposal is a bust, and they're all going by the seat of their pants. Even the re-heated plot of nuclear annihilation smacks of '60-era SPECTRE, as does the main villain, a criminally underused Nyqvist who inexplicably manages to give our hero a run for his money in each of their physical confrontations. The production values are high, the visuals slick, yet the pacing feels off even as we're jetted to various locations, from Moscow to blow up the Kremlin, to a con game in Dubai, to the streets of Mumbai to stop a Russian nuclear missile. It should all be more emotionally compelling than it is, especially from director Brad Bird whose computer-animated Pixar films The Incredibles and Ratatouille showed a keen sense of story, fully-formed characters and adult smarts in a kid-friendly genre. Any doubts in regards to his chops as he makes the leap to live-action films are quickly dispelled, but it's only a serviceable blockbuster, lacking the cleverness and smarts we've come to expect from him. The aforementioned sense of story and character from his earlier films are mostly lacking here; this is more of a cartoon than anything he's ever done. As an action flick, however, it more than holds muster; the stunt sequences are truly gripping, especially the film's center piece, Cruise's death-defying scaling 120-floors above ground on the world's tallest building, and a climax in an automated car park that plays like a Mario Bros. video game with BMW's. Though Cruise is pushing 50, he still looks and acts the part, even if there's little charm in his performance; we're meant to be impressed by his endeavors only. The rest of the cast is capable, if unimpressive: Pegg provides the needed comic relief, Paula Patton is the beauty and the brawn, and Renner adds a small dash of mystery that's, unfortunately, quickly dispelled. J.J. Abram's M:I 3 was a breath of fresh air, a tightly wrought action flick with a very personal core. Ghost Protocol takes a step back, giving audiences some superbly executed thrills but with little to tie them together. These types of movies have always been long on frenetic activity and short on logic, and asking for it - even from Bird - may be too much.
Entertainment: 6/10

Mission to Mars (2000)
Starring: Gary Sinise, Tim Robbins, Don Cheadle
Director: Brian De Palma
Plot: Four astronauts embark on a mission to Mars to rescue a previous expedition that disappeared under mysterious circumstances.
Review: The allusions to 2001: A Space Odyssey are inescapable, from the basic story-line to the amazing visuals. The problem is that where 2001 had a great sense of style, realism and downright thought put into it, Mission to Mars just contends to be another sci-fi flick with some impressive effects, paper-thin narrative, and cheap "character development" thrown in. Apart from a few stretched out sequences, the typical Hollywood mechanics are in ample evidence and work well, and the fine group of actors do the best they can with the material they're given. Mission to Mars is actually quite watchable, with a variety of De Palma's trademark suspense scenes, but the predictable plot feels like a plundering of various classic sci-fi films of the '60s and the ending (which comes out as a dumbed-down version of Contact) leaves one with the sense that all this effort could have been used elsewhere.
Entertainment: 5/10

Mississippi Burning (1988)
Starring: Gene Hackman, Willem Dafoe, Frances McDormand
Director: Alan Parker
Plot: At the height of the 1960's civil rights movement, two FBI agents get dragged into the dark heart of a small Mississippi town in the search for three activists presumed murdered.
Review: Loosely based on a true incident, Mississippi Burning is a powerful, engaging piece of drama sold as entertainment - or is that entertainment sold as drama? In either case, it manages to tread the issue of racism, and its historical context and attitudes, with often a sharp eye and always a good dose of pulp detective work. The script massages the real-life events and conclusions to make the whole a more satisfying experience for mainstream viewers. The ending, as the FBI turn to vigilantism to get things done, smacks of pure Hollywood, and waters-down the otherwise fine take on the subject. It's manipulative to the extreme, for sure, and yet it really knows how to push all the right buttons. Another point of contention, perhaps, is that the film never really cares for its victims, who get caught up in gradually more violent attacks, other than as props for the white heroes and villains of the piece. Racism is a vile thing, and all the worse because it is not as obvious as what's shown here. But audiences want to know who to root for, and the on-screen caricatures portrayed here make it easy to draw the lines. In terms of pure film-making, however, this is a superior effort, another slick, well-paced offering from director Parker (Angel Heart, The Commitments) - here he's actually on top of his form. The production values are excellent, as is the Oscar-winning cinematography, and the period details make one really feel the era. This is also a terrific showcase for Hackman, who easily becomes the heart and soul of the film and bites right into a meaty role. Dafoe, as a straight-arrow Hoover man, and McGovern as the key witness in fear of her racist husband, carry themselves off well, but remain pretty much one-dimensional creations. Whatever the case, Mississippi Burning deserves applause for managing to be a good mainstream crime-thriller and still providing a powerful (if finally diluted) message.
Entertainment / Drama: 8/10

A Moment of Innocence (Iran - 1996)
Starring: Ali Bakshi, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Maryam Mohamadamini
Director: Mohsen Makmalbaf
Plot: A chance encounter with an ex-police officer leads the film director to reenact a moment 20 years earlier when, as a young anti-Shah militant, he tried to steal the policeman's gun by stabbing him.
Review: Seen from both perspectives, from both "innocents" (the director/militant and the actor/policeman), the event takes on different connotations. The two men direct the teens, on camera, and end up trying to re-invent what happened on that fateful encounter. As the film progresses, the directors become actors, and the character's present lives and hopes intertwine with the past. As much of recent Iranian cinema, the film blurs the distinction between reality and fiction - how much of what is onscreen is real or improvised and how much is staged? In the end it doesn't matter, the message here is clear: Banned in Iran as being too anti-revolutionary, it is, instead, a message against violence, a film that may have been originally created as a form of therapy for both real protagonists, and ends up being a strong political and historical statement. Director Makmalbaf (Gabbeh) shows some western influences in the cinematography and pacing, but it is a film of truly Iranian sensibilities. A Moment of Innocence is an intimate, self-reflexive and often even funny film that stays in your mind long after the film has ended. Winner of the Director's Award for Documentary at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival.
Drama: 9/10

A Moment Of Romance (Hong Kong - 1990)
Director: Benny Chan
Starring: Andy Lau, Wu Chien-Lien, Ng Man Tat
Plot: When a robbery goes awry, a small-time getaway driver is forced to take a young woman hostage but can't face killing her as expected of him, starting a love affair between them that angers both his gangster colleagues and her parents.
Review: As the title implies, A Moment Of Romance is indeed a weepy, but nothing out of HK's hey days is as banal as that. Like many of the best Hong Kong films of the 80's and early 90's, the film is a hodgepodge of genres - bike culture exploitation film, overblown romance and bloody, violent triad crime drama rolled into one - all bent to the one golden rule, to entertain. The "bad boy meets good girl" storyline with decidedly Shakespearean tragic consequences is far from original and there's little restraint with the usual clichés of the genre. Yet though it treads familiar, predictable ground, there's an endearing, engaging quality to both the script and the way director Chan uses the HK cinema conventions that helps make it surprisingly appealing. It's hard to take any of the giddy melodrama and sentimentality seriously, of course, but cool, handsome leading man (and all around pop superstar) Andy Lau and the young, innocent Wu Chien-Lien do manage some decent chemistry together. The film has (for some reason) become a Hong Kong classic and has gained critical raves since its release. It may not be worth all the accolades, but it's a decent piece of cinematic bubblegum that's definitely worth a look.
Entertainment: 6/10

Mon Oncle Antoine (My Uncle Antoine) (Quebec - 1971)
Starring: Jacques Gagnon, Lyne Champagne, Jean Duceppe
Director: Claude Jutra
Plot: Set at Christmas time in the late 1940's, a young teen working in his uncle's general store comes of age in a small rural Quebec mining town.
Review: One of the most acclaimed works in Canadian film history, Mon Oncle Antoine is considered by many as director Claude Jutra's masterpiece. Clearly it's not fancy, it's definitely not stylish, and it moves at a deliberate, quiet (not to say "slow") pace but in its seeming simplicity it captures with vivid authenticity the 1940s Maurice Duplessis-era in a Quebec mining town. The bitter-sweet coming of age tale, from the innocent beginnings, the sexual awakening, the realization of the tragedies of life, are really all a metaphor for the larger context of the province. Even the rather stereotypical characters, from the lazy patriarch, cheating aunt, and the rag-tag customers (from miners and lumberjacks to housewives), all set up the drama well, representing the various facets of small-town life. The scenes look raw, almost documentary-like in their filming and set-up, and that's the authenticity the filmmakers were aiming for. If there's a single scene that stands out, it's the long sleigh ride as drunk uncle and young nephew carry the body of a dead boy through a blizzard - it's a poignant scene where innocence is forever lost. But if the languid pacing works in recreating a sense of time and place, it will most likely turn away many an audience. Yet Jutra's film is more ambitious; not only is it a stark portrait of the province's working-class, but it's also an examination of rural life and the social conditions in Quebec's old conservative and Church-dominated society, a time that set the stage for the dramatic social and political changes of the Quiet Revolution, an event that changed the face of Quebec society in the 50's and 60's. The film's politics aren't carried on its sleeve, and much of the telling details and tension of the era will be lost on modern viewers, but with its clear artistic approach and social commentary, Mon Oncle Antoine will remain for many a Canadian classic.
Drama: 6/10

Monster House (2006)
Starring: Steve Buscemi, Maggie Gyllenhaal
Director: Gil Kenan
Plot: On the eve of Halloween, three neighborhood kids discover that the house next door really is possessed and take it on themselves to destroy it. 
Review: More a throwback to the 1980's type horror / comedy features, Monster House aims to be a creepy family-friendly feature, with mixed results. From its mysterious beginnings, it has some clear potential as a Goonies-type adventure, as the trio of young Ghostbusters face countless dangers as they enter the haunted house, and there are some exciting bits. If the story is standard Saturday morning type fare (think the R.L. Stine Goosebump novels for young teens, or a kind of The Amityville Horror for kids) that's fine for young teens, it's still too scary for really young kids - and not scary enough for adults. The script also doesn't do any of it justice; the theme of suburban horror isn't really given much of a spin, the interaction between kids and adults is dull instead of suspenseful, and there's an obvious lack of originality on display. As for the animation, though there are some moments of cinematic invention, it intentionally plays out very much like a cartoon; the details are very well rendered but nowhere near photo-realistic, and the characters are very stylistic and odd even if their movements were supposedly motion-captured, something that doesn't help us connecting with the young heroes. The house itself is probably the most realized creation, character-wise, with its rug for a tongue, shuttered-window eyes and double-door maw, and you're not really meant to root for it. The climactic sequence where the house actually chases the kids is an appropriately exciting ride, but it's nowhere near as interesting as the spookiness of the first scenes. Monster House is entertaining enough for audiences that aren't too fussy with their CGI entertainment but this affair isn't up to repeat viewings.
Entertainment: 6/10

Monster-In-Law (2005)
Starring: Jennifer Lopez, Jane Fonda, Michael Vartan
Director: Robert Luketic
Plot: A free-spirited temp finds the man of her dreams - rich, handsome, caring - only to have to face their biggest challeng: his mother, a famous TV journalist who will stop at nothing to make sure the wedding doesn't take place.
Review: Monster-in-Law doesn't even try to pretend it's anything but another low-concept, rote romantic comedy. Its sole purpose is to get its two leading ladies at each other's throats and that it does, focusing on the under-handed confrontation between soon-to-be bride and future mother-in-law, as both up the ante (and the "bitchiness") to undoubtedly silly levels. There's a lot of set-up for little comic payoff, perhaps, but the predictably script does have its moments, and director Luketic knows his fluff enough to keep things moving along from the cat-fights, to the slapstick, to the Kleenex-filled conclusion. While Lopez plays her usual cutie trademark role by rote, the manically over-the-top Fonda (in her first appearance in ages) is intent on showing she's game for anything - and she's made to prove it. Those who remember her more for her Oscar-level performances may wonder how she could have tumbled so low - but then she also camped it out in Barbarella, so... As for the supporting cast, heart-throb Vartan is just a vapid stand-in as the bait for the fight between the two women, but thankfully comedian Wanda Sykes, as Fonda's wise-cracking personal assistant, gets the laughs. Monster-in-Law's only redeeming feature is obviously Fonda, but there's enough to keep most people awake throughout this throw-away concoction.
Entertainment: 4/10

Monsters (2010)
Starring: Whitney Able, Scoot McNairy
Director: Gareth Edwards 
Plot: A news photographer is cohersed to escort a young heiress back to the States, through a danger zone in Mexico contaminated with extra-terrestrial biological entities. 
Review: A low-budget, independent sci-fi effort, Monsters takes a page from District 9, surprising in its effectiveness and appeal. In typical road movie fashion, the emphasis is on the characters and how they are affected by their journey, and the script keeps the focus on these two lost souls. Predictably, some romantic entanglement soon follows the start of their trek, but this is secondary to the journey. There's as much paranoia and suspicion over those helping them cross the border as there is mounting tension over crossing paths with one of the hulking, alien beasts - it all gives a new twist to the term "illegal alien". The titular monsters are rarely seen, but their presence - or at least the fear of their presence - is a tangible thing. However this is nowhere near being either a thriller or an action piece; it's a character drama, a parable if you will, set on the background of an extraordinary event, bringing as much a sense of wonder as there is one of fear. TV FX veteran Edwards set out to make a theater-worthy, special-effects laden movie using only a video camera, a laptop, a pair of willing actors and a van. Created from off-the-shelf software, the special effects are adequate to the task, especially considering all the signs, flinging of vehicles, etc were all added post-production. But the most surprising is the effective use of actual scenes of desolation, shot in different locations in Mexico and Guatemala, among others. Some of the areas really feel like they're straight from a post-holocaust world. Most of the cast, save for the leads, was made up of locals with no acting experience. The improvised dialogue, including that from the two leads, makes it feel natural - there isn't any quotable quips, and it doesn't feel "written", because it wasn't. The impressive results is a low-budget monster movie with brains and heart, mixing drama and suspense in a way that's quite satisfying, especially for an indie film with such commercial aspirations. Only an indie movie could have gotten away with it, and Monsters surely does.
Entertainment / Drama: 7/10

Monsters, Inc. (2001)
Starring: John Goodman, Billy Crystal, Steve Buscemi
Directors: Peter Docter, David Silverman
Plot: Timid monsters from another dimension enter our world through children's closets, scaring them to provide energy for their scream-powered city but chaos ensues when a child makes the return trip with them.
Review: From the premise of the basic childhood fear of monsters lurking in the closet, Monsters Inc. is another feather in Pixar's already-full cap (A Bug's Life, Toy Story 1 and 2). The computer animation is, of course, fantastic raising the CG bar once again with some scenes, such as the wild ride down a snowy slope in a makeshift sled, actually bordering on the visually stunning. The art design as well, from the varied array of rather cute slimy, tentacled monsters, to the intricate, impressive virtual sets and backgrounds painted with candy-colored palettes, is quite imaginative in its rich detail. The story is less complex than previous Pixar outings, but it is still tightly plotted and consistently funny. In fact, the fast-paced script rarely slows down, mixing slapstick, witty repartee and tons of visual gags with a light-hearted satire of factory work and urban living. Especially amusing are the antics by the SWAT-like detox commandos running amok trying to find the little girl, and the climactic roller-coaster ride through the factory's automated warehouse of portals which is just exhilarating. The overly cute toddler that is at the heart of everyone's problems has all the moves and expressions down pat to tug on the heart-strings, but thankfully the sentimentality doesn't feel too forced. The voice actors are also all excellent, especially Crystal as the motor-mouthed wise-cracking partner, and Buscemi as the sly, nefarious villain. With its whimsical narrative, clever laughs and light-hearted adventures, Monsters, Inc. is definitely a delightful, entertaining treat, one that's lively enough for kids and witty and inventive enough for adults.
Entertainment: 8/10

Moon Over Tao (Japan - 1997)
Starring: Toshiyuki Nagashima, Hiroshi Abe
Director: Keita Amamiya
Plot: Seeking the secret of a mysterious sword, three adventurers are pursued by an evil sorcerer before making their last stand against a giant alien beast.
Review: A bizarre blend of kooky fantasy and effects-driven science-fiction, Moon Over Tao is the kind of fare that will take un-expecting audiences by surprise. Story-wise it takes quite a bit of time to get anywhere, coming off during these parts more as a children's film akin to Ultraman, filled with anime-styled characters like honorable samurais and evil wizards adding some vapid plot filler to make this into feature length. Though the film is mostly campy in its proceedings and lacks any real sense of plot or pacing, director Amamiya (who is an experienced hand at this sort of stuff) does makes sure that it's all visually pretty with colorful, stylish costumes, ample set design and some capable cinematography. All this is but an excuse to get to the extended climax which will satisfy those fans of fantasy-action: it's a half-hour of no-holds barred physical and special-effects mayhem as the team of hero-misfits take on a giant alien monster, a sequence that's surprisingly bloody and violent, quickly proving this isn't meant for kids. Sure, Moon Over Tao is cheesy but it's a relatively fun kind of Asian silliness for those looking for an action-fest that's not too serious.
Entertainment: 5/10

The Motorcycle Diaries (2004)
Starring: Gael Garcia Bernal, Rodrigo de la Serna, Mercedes Morán
Director: Walter Salles 
Plot: In the early 1950's, the young medical student "Che" Guevara and his close friend Alberto embark on a 10,000km, 6-month journey across South America on the back of an aging motorcycle.
Review: The main attraction to The Motorcycle Diaries may well be the fact that it's a re-telling of the real-life travels of a certain populist figure, Che Guevara, as a young man. It's a tale of friendship and adventure between two very different young men, both carefree and impetuous, and how their trip changes their perspective on life. Yet despite appearances, it's more than a simple coming of age tale. Indeed, it's first and foremost a road movie, the type that Jack Kerouak might have embarked on himself, a trip to discover the essence of the continent and its denizens. It's one that brings realization of the plight of the common people and life's many injustices, an experience that leaves a lasting effect on our heroes, and especially on the young Che. Though most of the film is rather apolitical, it gives a portrait of a young man and the moments that might have influenced him to evolve from medical student to militant revolutionary for his short adult life. And lest people's eyes glaze over at a pompous drama, let it be known that Brazilian director Walter Salles (Central Station) knows enough to imbue the tale with both a social conscience and a real passion for life, a passion that really makes the film soar. Plus, we get a vivid recreation of rural 1950's Latin America, with all its sights and sounds. It also helps to have some beautiful cinematography of the South American landscape to help us get into the mood of the duo's exploration and discovery of the continent. The mesmerizing Bernal has already made a name for himself in many Spanish-speaking films, and this one is another fine addition to his roles. And as his companion, de la Serna plays the role of "older brother" as well as charming rogue to perfection. The Motorcycle Diaries may be a sentimental adaptation of their real-life duo's memoirs, but it's one that leaves a lasting impression.
Drama: 7/10

Moulin Rouge (2001)
Starring: Ewan McGregor, Nicole Kidman, Jim Broadbent
Director: Baz Luhrmann
Plot: In 19th-century Paris, a struggling poet is enticed by his bohemian cohorts to offer his creative services to the cast of the Moulin Rouge where he meets, and falls madly in love with, the show's star, a courtesan promised to a jealous duke.
Review: With Moulin Rouge, director Luhrmann (Ballroom Dancing, Romeo + Juliet) has set about to create the ultimate musical romance, and he may well have succeeded. He has created a sumptuous, delightful fantasy version of what we have always imagined turn-of-the-century Paris and the real Moulin Rouge to be but probably never was, showing the under-currents of debauchery which were rumored to be its claim to fame. Our introduction to the Moulin Rouge is a deliriously fast-paced, breathless sequence of song, dance and visual excess presented with such wild abandon and frenetic energy that one is bowled over by it all. Not enough can be said about the deliciously imaginative surreal sets, mesmerizing cinematography, and lavish production values that makes the whole proceedings a visually spell-binding, dazzling rush of colors, costumes and computer-enhanced sets. The dialogue is mostly comprised of love songs from modern 20th century pop classics, ranging from The Beatles to U2, sometimes combined as a duel of words, and often used as the inspiration for the plot turns themselves. The story is obviously secondary, and is as minimal as any staged musical ever made, with instantly-categorized characters that wear all their emotions on their sleeves. The narrative, however, moves along at a break-neck pace, barely slowing down to give a little exposition before running off once more into a terrifically choreographed musical number. The cast does a very decent singin'-and-dancin' job for untrained actors. Kidman, as the object of affection, can exude both haughtiness and despair on cue and McGregor, as the lovelorn poet, manages to be utterly convincing even when spewing out the most ludicrous, silly lines. Broadbent, however, is the real star, his performance embodying the essence of his ring leader role with the cunning, energy, and appeal of a real showman. In fact, his rendition of Madonna's "Like a Virgin", accompanied by a myriad of dancing valets, oozes the explicitness of the lyrics and is easily one of the highlights of the film. Moulin Rouge is an amazing visual delight, a real feast for the eyes, one made with such panache and flair that it elevates the simple romance into a wonderfully entertaining experience that will leave it's audience exhilarated and drained.
Entertainment: 9/10

Mr. and Mrs. Smith (2005)
Starring: Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Vince Vaughn
Director: Doug Liman
Plot: A glamorous but unhappily married young couple soon realizes that they're both highly trained assassins working for competing agencies when they're contracted to kill each other.
Review: There's nothing new in Hollywood, as the action comedy Mr. and Mrs. Smith shows, but that doesn't mean it can't make a splash. Take the idea of True Lies and Prizzi's Honor, give the reigns to the director of such gritty thriller fare as The Bourne Identity, put together two of moviedom's sexiest people, blend, sparse with a heavy dose of flying bullets, and what you get is a sizzling, entertaining summer blockbuster. Mixing some kick-ass fighting sequences and some over-the-top high-tech stunts makes it all quite unrealistic, but they're all flawlessly executed, giving multiple excuses for the occasional one-liner to further the couple's marital tensions. And let's face it, the real fun of the film is seeing these two gorgeous, expert assassins play a very dangerous, and very personal, game of cat-and-mouse, mixing marriage counseling with some serious head-bashings. Mixing violence and slapstick, both the script and the directing both squeeze out laughs out of typical "wedding bliss". And check out the redecorating! After Tomb Raider, Jolie feels right at home in such action fare, and Pitt doesn't do that bad in the action department either. What really helps, though, is their evident chemistry together which adds some emotional credibility to the situations. If there's one disappointment it's the final climax, a mind-numbing, overlong display of gunfire in a decoration super-store that reminds one of the excesses of Hong Kong films like The Killer. That aside, Mr. and Mrs. Smith is at times loud and silly, other times slick and sexy fare that makes for great mainstream entertainment.
Entertainment: 7/10

Mr. Vampire (Hong Kong - 1985)
Starring: Lam Ching Ying, Chin Siu Ho, Ricky Hui
Director: Ricky Lau
Plot: A Taoist priest and his bumbling assistants must stop a rich man's departed father from returning as an elder vampire and find it a decent burial place before its hunger for blood creates more victims.
Review: Produced in response to films such as Ghostbusters, Mr. Vampire is the ultimate "hopping vampire" movie, the one that single-handedly started a new horror / comedy genre in HK and inspired a slew of imitations. The film is full of zany material, supernatural hi-jinks and amusing situations, constantly changing tone and never letting up. Indeed, comedic mishaps abound as the goofy assistants come to terms with this master vampire while a bevy of other problems, including a lusty lovelorn ghost that shoots its head when attacked, come their way making this exercise both funny and exhilarating in its imagination. While the idea of "hopping vampires" may seem silly (they hop because rigor mortis has set in and they can barely move), this Oriental twist on the mythos is actually quite original and intriguing and allows for some highly amusing and fast-paced entertainment as only Hong Kong films can get away with, blending horror, slapstick humor, romance, cheesy SFX and some impressive kung-fu acrobatics to great effect. The cast is simply wonderful, playing out the light-hearted silliness with great aplomb and energy. Mr. Vampire is great stuff and is a real treat for any fans of original comedies and Hong Kong insanity.
Entertainment: 8/10

Mrs. Brown (1997)
Starring: Judi Dench, Billy Connolly, Geoffrey Palmer
Director: John Madden
Plot: Depressed and inconsolable after the death of her husband, Queen Victoria disappears from public view only to be brought back to good spirits by the scandalous friendship with her Scottish manservant.
Review: Mrs. Brown is a period drama based on real events that shocked proper English society, a tale of friendship, of affection, that went beyond social classes. The script is very theatrical at times but in a good way, with crisp dialogue and vivid character interactions. This one may not be as intense or dramatic as other similar historical features, but events are allowed to take their time over minutes, months and even years, to make the budding relationship between such unlikely friends seem natural and believable which allows for some poignant, touching moments throughout. Adding sub-plots of political machinations, the potential fall of the monarchy, and the tearing apart of the royal family all play a part in the story and add flavor to the story. The pervasive, chilly atmosphere at the start of the story is almost palpable, and director Madden does a good job of portraying the stifled surroundings of the Queen's castle and entourage and her eventual bloom. The production is also full of the typical sumptuous settings, richly detailed costumes and decor that we have come to expect from a British historical drama. As for Judi Dench, she is wonderful as the Queen, showing anguish, grief, pleasure without ever making us forget that this is the monarch of the empire, with the responsibility and decorum required of her position. Connolly does a good performance as the arrogant Highlander who is completely devoted to his Queen, and his very different personality makes his initial clashes with his charge, and their eventual camaraderie, all the more satisfying. Romantic, affecting, and well acted, Mrs. Brown is another wonderful low-key period piece.
Drama: 7/10

Mulan (1998)
Starring: Ming-Na Wen, Eddie Murphy, B.D. Wong
Director: Jeff Tracha, Barry Cook
Plot: As Huns invade China, a young woman, aided by her ancestors' tiny dragon, decides to take her ailing father's place in the Chinese army to prove herself and to bring honor to her family.
Review: Finally, Disney has provided audiences with a strong-willed, intelligent female character whose exploits are truly heroic. The adventure is grand and differs from the usual Disney re-hashed-plot variety. The animation this time is based on Chinese art and writing style, and some short scenes imitate it well enough to be quite beautiful. Computer graphics are also more prominent, and helped the artists do some incredible battle sequences. With some memorable music numbers, a large cast of great, often zany characters (including a great turn by Eddie Murphy as the wanna-be guardian dragon), and great animation, Mulan proves to be one of Disney's best, and most entertaining, productions. Highly recommended.
Entertainment: 8/10

Mulan II (2004)
Starring: Ming-Na Wen, Pat Morita
Director: Tony Bancroft
Plot: On the eve of their engagement, Shang's and Mulan's relationship is put to the test when they are sent on a secret mission to escort the emperor's three daughters to get married-off in a remote kingdom. 
Review: A direct-to-video sequel of Disney's superb Mulan, Mulan II continues on the "follow your heart" theme as our heroine must once again defeat adversity with courage and conviction. The effort was obviously produced by Disney's B-team, but it all moves along nicely and the stylish, semi-exotic touches are for the most part still present. Despite the apparent perils to the kingdom, the tale is drastically smaller in scale than its predecessor and there's far less drama (and little in the action department) this time around. Instead of going for the wide appeal of the original, the script opts instead for slapstick romance that's clearly directed at young girls. The laughs may be far between but there's a batch of catchy, well-executed songs that make up for the story's silliness, and a strong female role in the film that's worth something in this Barbie-filled market landscape. Along with new cast Lucy Liu and Sandra Oh, most of the original voice cast returns, with the most obvious exception being Eddie Murphy who's replaced by similar-acting Mark Moseley as the wise-cracking guardian dragon Mushu, the character who gets most of the laughs. As for the animation, it' superior to most direct-to-DVD fare with the occasional use of CGI to enhance the stylish cel drawings, but it doesn't compare to Disney's theatrical releases. Decent, unexceptional family entertainment.
Entertainment: 5/10

Mulholland Falls (1996)
Starring: Nick Nolte, Chazz Palminteri, John Malkovich
Director: Lee Tamahori
Plot: A group of violent detectives goes up against the U.S. Energy Commission and a powerful general to unravel the murder of a young woman in 1950's Los Angeles.
Review: It's quite obvious in the opening scenes that Mulholland Falls wants to both a thriller / drama with modern day sensibilities and still harken back to the Hollywood production of the 40's and 50's, and in trying for both it ultimately fails miserably. The film has a good sense of the film noir style, including all the typical characters and situations, including the femme fatale, the anti-hero dick, etc. but it lacks any originality or any style of its own. Director Tamahori (who did the critically-acclaimed drama Once Were Warriors) tries to make the story into more than a standard homage, but doesn't succeed. The script is the main culprit for the film's failure - too much banal, expositionary dialogue, unnecessary details and events, and, finally, an uninteresting narrative drags the film down. The film has managed to round up a good cast, but they're mostly unconvincing, seeming to go through the motions and delivering their lines with little aplomb or emotional involvement. Mulholland Falls starts off as a promising thriller, but ends up more as a plodding, badly paced mess.
Entertainment: 3/10

The Mummy (1999)
Starring: Brendan Fraser, Rachel Weisz
Director: Stephen Sommers
Plot: An ex-foreign legion adventurer agrees to join an archeological expedition in 1930's Egypt only come face-to-face with an age-old cursed sorcerer when a mummy's tomb is disturbed.
Review: Part Indiana Jones, part modernized remake of the original Boris Karloff horror classic, The Mummy harkens back more to the old pulp serials than the Universal monster films, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. The horror aspects have in fact been mostly played down, though the typical scares are still in evidence, preferring to accentuate the more the fantastic elements as well as the rousing adventure inherent in the plot. The story itself is predictable and mostly unoriginal but the script knows how to provide audiences with what they expect in this type of film and adds a large dose of comedy to the proceedings. The characters are all caricatures, from the mousy but spunky female archeologist to the immoral, greedy sidekick, but they work well for the story. Fraser especially makes a good, charismatic action star with a touch of the goofy personality he's been niched into. The special effects, though sometimes quite spectacular, are too obviously of the computer-generated variety and by taking too much center stage, they end up costing in some of the necessary believability factor to properly keep us emotionally involved. The film ends up more as a showcase for the wonderful sets, exotic locale, and impressive visual effects than a well-plotted yarn, but the energy present on screen keeps it from sinking into typical Hollywood fare. Fun, humorous, and light, The Mummy is a well-produced and entertaining popcorn adventure film.
Entertainment: 7/10

The Mummy Returns (2001)
Starring: Brendan Fraser, Rachel Weisz, John Hannah
Director: Stephen Sommers
Plot: Two adventuring archeologists and their son face a horde of both present-day villains and age-old supernatural menaces as they race across 1930's Egypt to stop an Apocalypse from being unleashed.
Review: The Mummy Returns, the big-budget sequel to the 1999 sleeper hit The Mummy, has got many of the elements common to the typical Hollywood case of the sequel-itis: more villains, more wonderful stunts, more interesting characters, more incredible computer-generated effects, more tongue-more-firmly-planted-in-cheek humor and a non-stop roller-coaster pacing. Unfortunately, it lacks the one thing that would have brought it all together, and that's the original's sense of enjoyment. In fact, there isn't enough (heck, any) character development or enough of a story to keep all these scenes forming a cohesive whole. The increased production values, however, are quite evident in the visual splendor of the film, mostly in the depiction of the fantasy Egyptian settings. The script has some memorable moments as well, such as the mythical attack of the Anubis hordes, or the chase sequence in the British museum and on the London streets, as well as some clever, amusing shenanigans performed by Fraser and Weisz's genius 8-year old offspring, who thankfully comes off as more than just a "cute kid". However, the script also seems to simply throw the heroes, all of whom are back from the original, into the mix as an excuse for continuous action, leaving them as vapid one-dimensional caricatures of '30s-type cliff-hanger serial protagonists. Without caring for any of the characters, or even getting a chance to fully realize their motivations, the stunning action sequences leave us impressed at the effort taken to create them, but emotionally detached from it all. The main villain of the first film, Imhotep, is also greatly reduced in importance and villainous stature, something that greatly demeans the superior first installment. As for the new evil henchmen, they are intriguing but are presented as simple foils to our heroes with no time spent on rounding them out. There's no denying that this is a full-blown entertaining spectacle, a loud, intense and even dazzling summer popcorn film, but with so much effort put into the visual splendor and roaring action, its disappointing to see that the elements that made The Mummy so successful have not made their way here.
Entertainment: 6/10

The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (2008)
Starring: Brendan Fraser, Jet Li, Maria Bello
Director: Rob Cohen
Plot: Coping poorly with premature retirement, two adventurers return to action when their dashing son unearths the tomb of China's first Emperor and brings him back to resume his eternal life, deadset on returning to his days of conquest.
Review: Another stab at the successful franchise, Tomb of the Dragon Emperor is a nice blend of action, thrills, comedy... and supernatural entities (though we'd be hard pressed to call them "mummies"). Returning to the B-movie pulp type feeling of the original - and sticking close to the formula of the Indiana Jones movies - the film brings up a bevy of 1940's-era requisites, from Shangri-La to Yetis and Tommy guns, all updated with loads of CGI effects and present-era laughs. Director Cohen (The Fast and The Furious, Stealth) has made a name for himself as a decent mainstream director, and with a good script he could probably do better. Still, he makes do in creating a fun, tongue-in-cheek affair that shows off his expertise in fast-pacing and cool FX, from a pedestrian car race in Shanghai streets, to an exciting gunfight in a Himalayan monastery, to a massive (if banal) battle between undead forces that reminds one of Raimi's Army of Darkness. Sure, the film lacks some (ok, a lot of) originality, but taken on its own merits the film actually works pretty well as unpretentious (if obviously preposterous) and quite lively entertainment. And if the humor is sometimes a little forced - and the the movie does parody itself, with winks to previous installments - it's still light and engaging. At least more so than the first sequel Mummy 2, which seemed to collapse under its own frenetic pacing. Fraser does the hero bit by rote, but he's still got a certain charm and he's got a good foil in Bello (here replacing the not-returning Weisz); it's hard to believe they would have a 25 year old son, but that's par for the course. There's still some amusing camaraderie between the characters, but even the vague characterizations of the first film are now only a vague memory. As for the rest of the cast, it's nice to see Jet Li and Michelle Yeoh teaming up again - or at least fighting again - and if Li gets little chance to show off his skills, there's at least two good fight scenes against Yeoh and Fraser that make it worth the effort. An unapologetic popcorn flick, Tomb of the Dragon Emperor delivers exactly what it promises, and kids of all ages should be pleased enough with the results.
Entertainment: 6/10


Munich (2005)
Starring: Eric Bana, Daniel Craig, Ciaran Hinds
Director: Steven Spielberg
Plot: Seeking revenge for the slaughter of Israeli athletes during the 1972 Olympic games in Munich, a five-man hit-squad of Mossad agents track down the Palestinians who orchestrated the terrorist act.
Review: Based on true events, Munich is a rarity these days, a film that works on many levels - as thriller, drama, and political message - and succeeds on each one. It starts with a violent re-creation of the incident in Munich, a moment that not only shocked the world by its daring and viciousness, but by the fact that the brewing Israel-Palestinian conflict took a new turn and terrorism became a house-hold word. The story, however, is on what happens next, as Israel sets about the gears to what amounted to state-sponsored revenge. In both pacing and substance, it's a top-notch thriller: taut, suspenseful, fast-paced, with a growing feeling of paranoia as the stakes (and the assassinations) get increasingly more difficult, and more violent. Soon the hunters become the hunted themselves, their victims replaced by an even more violent leadership - the question becomes, when to stop? As a personal drama it's quite effective as well, focusing on the slow disintegration of an honorable man trying to do what is righteous and getting destroyed in the process: ideals are the first to go, innocents get caught in the crossfire, and the human cost of fighting comes at too high a price. Director Spielberg is in full Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan mode here, providing a dark, brooding, and exquisitely crafted tale that strives to bring about a sense of place, of horror and of despair. It helps, too that the production values are superb and the cinematography is impeccable, giving it all a veneer of gritty realism. Despite the context, the film tries to be even-handed in its approach to both sides - the agents are simple people caught up in events, while their Arab targets may have caused much suffering, but they are also very human, making them all the harder to murder. The cast is utterly convincing, especially the hot-headed Craig and Hinds as the clean-up man. But it's leading man Bana, in a brilliant, mournful performance as a man battling his conscience, who really is at the center of it all. Crafted like a exciting thriller, Munich is an immediate, powerful and relevant commentary on the war on terror.
Drama: 8/10

Muppets from Space (1999)
Starring: Dave Goelz, Frank Oz, Steve Whitmire
Director: Tim Hill
Plot: Gonzo, the bizarre, hook-nosed Muppet, believes his long-lost family is coming from outer space to take him back home but a covert government agency kidnaps him to stop a possible invasion.
Review: The latest Muppets film, Muppet From Space, wants to be a sci-fi parody of films like Men in Black or X-Files but fails to bring the charm evident in the previous installments. Those expecting Pigs in Space will be severely disappointed - apart from a Close Encounters-like ending, there's little space action at all. This one seems to have been churned out without much inspiration, lacking a good script. Though all the characters are back from Kermit to Miss Piggy, it's a new character, Pepe the Giant Prawn, who gets most of the laughs while others, like Fozzie Bear, come off as rather sad. The film is also peppered with brief celebrity cameos from the like of Ray Liotta and Andy McDowell, but these are universally silly. There are still some charming moments, and bits of tongue-in-cheek humor (especially when the plot focuses on the caged Rizzie the Rat caught in lab experiments), but there just aren't enough of them to make up for this tired effort. Some witty dialogue and some funny shenanigans will entertain children and fans of the series, but this rather plodding, banal Muppet caper has little of the usual charm or sly wit, and adults and more sophisticated kids might get tired of its message wrapped in 70s songs. 
Entertainment: 4/10

Murder by Death (1976)
Starring: Peter Falk, Peter Sellers, David Niven
Director: Robert Moore
Plot: A reclusive millionaire invites the world's five greatest detectives and their sidekicks to his mansion for the week-end to test their skills in solving a murder that has not yet been committed.
Review: The concept was sound: bring together mystery's greatest crime-solvers in an obvious spoof on famous literary and cinematic detectives, Miss Marple, Hercule Poirot, Sam Spade, Charlie Chan, and The Thin Man, make them all suspects in the crime about to happen, and see the sparks fly. Unfortunately, while the idea might have made for some hilarious stuff, or at least some enlivened exchanges, as written by Neil Simon (who also gave us The Odd Couple among others), this is contrived, silly stuff, comedy at its most bland, full of half-baked ideas, tired dialogue, un-amusing comedy, and downright embarrassing situations. It might try desperately to poke fun at the convolutions of murder mysteries, but without an engaging plot or mystery itself, this isn't very good. Oh, there are the occasional interesting twist, but just when it might pick up, it stumbles again giving us a whodunit without any tension or suspense. Heck, it doesn't even stay within its own logic; that may be the point, but it gets irritating fast. The main problem is that the script is not nearly as clever as it thinks it is, the jokes are obvious, and just fall flat. Worse, by minimizing the mystery and forcing the comedy aspects, it's failed to come up with an interesting whodunit that would have kept people watching. By the time the twisted conclusions appear we just don't care for any of it. As for the production, it's theatrical to the extreme and the direction downright bland. The only reason to watch this is to see the able attempt the stars make to keep this all afloat. Indeed, the fabulous A-list cast knows to ham it up as much as possible to create caricatures of their personas, and as ensemble comedy it had great potential. But even great actors need good material, and, marred by trite dialogue and uninteresting "revelations", even such greats can't keep it from floundering. If you want to see a fine mystery with a cast of stars do yourself a favor and see Murder on the Orient Express instead. Popular when it came out, Murder By Death is a parody that just isn't funny or even fun, one that makes disappointing use of some terrific talent, and some great characters.
Entertainment / Comedy: 3/10

Murder by Numbers (2002)
Starring: Sandra Bullock, Ryan Gosling, Michael Pitt
Director: Barbet Schroeder
Plot: A troubled female homicide investigator plays a game of cat and mouse with two amoral but gifted high school students who may have committed the perfect murder.
Review: Murder by Numbers is another in a long run of by-the-numbers (pun intended) pieces of Hollywood gunk, one that's not going to do its star lead any wonders for her flagging career. The idea of the "perfect crime" committed by rich, spoiled, and disillusioned teens isn't new (in fact, the premise originates from a 1924 true life event which has influenced previous films), nor is that of the psychologically scarred detective who won't play by the rules. And that's the story's main problem: the clichés abound and it's so damn predictable that one wonders why anyone would sit through another dumbed-down mainstream crime thriller that misses on actual thrills. Some of the annoyances include: a good 15 minutes of the last act is spent recapping the murder sequence for those who, what?, weren't paying attention; the climax is forced and terribly fake, and the final "surprise" revelation downright annoying; and what's with the unexplained baboon sequence?! Bullock plays, surprise, to type once again and her acting skills (?) isn't given much of a workout with such a thread-bare characterization. Much more interesting than her tired sufferings is the ambiguous relationship between the two young killers, ably played by Gosling and Pitt. It's just too bad that they never become more than mere caricatures. Considering most of the film centers on these two murderous teens, it's surprising that we never really get to know, or feel, what makes them tick. Oh, there are some hints, but the real motivations are barely explored and their bond is never clearly defined. The film focuses instead on the game of cat and mouse between cops and killers, and it's nowhere near as suspenseful or interesting as it should be. Worse, the killers are supposed to be brilliant, having planned everything to a T, yet allow for some ridiculous mistakes to occur that allow them to be connected to the case. Audiences may actually feel cheated coming out of seeing what amounts to a shallow, frustrating piece of work, one with cheap thrills and tired script that would have been better served in a TV movie. Director Schroeder knows how to create dramatic, powerful scenes as evidenced by his last project Our Lady of the Assassins, but his Hollywood work (Single White Female) still eludes his best touch; he may have been looking to do something similar here, but the end product amounts to nothing more than a workmanlike effort. For those looking for mindless crime fare, Murder by Numbers may be the ticket, but for others this film is to be avoided.
Entertainment: 3/10

Muse, The (1999)
Starring: Albert Brooks, Sharon Stone, Andie MacDowell
Director: Albert Brooks
Plot: Brooks plays a neurotic screenwriter who's lost his writing "edge" and finds a real-life muse to put the spark back into his work.
Review: Speaking of "edge", it's evident Brooks has lost his with this film. He tries to poke fun at Hollywood, but its mostly very light-hearted, a bit disjointed, and only occasionally funny. Brooks has done some fine films in the past (Lost in America, Defending Your Life), but this isn't one of them. Some interesting cameos from a variety of directors, and a good comedic turn by Sharon Stone just can't save this movie. For a better, more cynical take on Hollywood, see The Player.
Comedy: 4/10
Entertainment: 3/10

Music of the Heart (1999)
Starring: Meryl Streep, Aidan Quinn
Director: Wes Craven
Plot: An abandoned housewife uses her love for the violin to teach inner-city high-school students the beauty of music despite her family difficulties and an unsympathetic educational system.
Review: Music of the Heart is another entry in the recent series of "based-on-a-true-story" heart-warming melodramas, akin to Mr. Holland's Opus. This one would have passed unnoticed if it weren't for another wonderful performance by Meryl Streep and the peculiar choice of director. Indeed, director Wes Craven (best known for horror thrillers such as A Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream) manages to surprise with a deft hand at much more mundane material than is his customary. The story is uplifting and well done, with a fine cast of young violinists, but it's hard to shake the feeling that this should have been a made-for-TV movie and that Meryl Streep's and Wes Craven's skills could have been better used in more interesting fare.
Drama: 5/10

The Musketeer (2001)
Starring: Justin Chambers, Mena Suvari, Tim Roth
Director: Peter Hyams
Plot: In 16th-century France, a young swordsman wanting to join the King's Musketeers becomes embroiled in political machinations and faces the man who killed his parents.
Review: The high-concept idea that comprises The Musketeer had promise - modernizing the classic tale with a healthy dose of Hong Kong hi-jinks to appeal to new fans, but director Hyam (Outland, Timecop) just can't keep things from coming off as just silly, un-amusing camp. Thankfully, he knows to keep things moving along and, thanks to choreographer Xin-Xin Xiong the action sequences, though frenetically edited and cinematographically murky to really appreciate them, are sufficiently diverting and well-enough staged. The worst culprit, however, is by far the ridiculous script; the classic tale of Dumas' The Three Musketeers has never been so butchered, turning the swashbuckling adventures into a simplistic tale of revenge lacking any drama, adequate plot, or interest. Adding to that, the dashing, suave swordsmen of the title have been replaced by inept drunkards who play catch-up to d'Artagnan, a character who has been turned into a morose, acrobatic action hero, played with little charm by Chambers. The real question, however, is how such fine actors as Roth, Suvari, Stephen Rea and even Catherine Deneuve (who seem to go through the motions only) managed to be coerced into such claptrap. To be fair, the last two action set pieces are of particular interest, and make up for much. The first is a spectacular swordfight on the walls of a castle turret fought while dangling on ropes. The other is a duel that takes place while balancing on a series of ladders, an idea taken right out of the classic HK film Once Upon a Time in China (where it was also done better). As long as audiences know not to expect Dumas' vision, The Musketeer can be a dumb, amusing enough diversion.
Entertainment: 4/10

My Architect (2003)
Director: Nathaniel Kahn
Plot: The life and work of famed Philadelphia architect Louis I. Kahn, who died penniless and alone in a Penn Station bathroom in 1974, is reviewed from the perspective of his illegitimate son who takes a journey to understand his father.
Review: A tale of a son's affection for a father he never knew, My Architect is both and exploration of modern architecture and a personal globe-trotting journey to seek answers to one's own identity. What follows for two hours is an intriguing - if long-winded - series of observations on art, family and spirituality. The late, celebrated Louis I. Kahn is considered to have been one of the most important architects of the twentieth century. His works, visited and explored in more or less chronological order and expertly reviewed by various professionals for the camera, are studies in clarity. His personal life, however - leaving behind three families following his mysterious death - was a far cry from his professional one. Kahn's illegitimate son's personal journey to meet his father's "extended" family - not an easy, or often comfortable task - and attempts at better understanding a father he saw only part-time until the age of 11, at discovering part of his own identity, touches a universal chord. How many of us have wanted, as adults, to really understand our parents and who they are / were? Can a man's life be explained by his personal struggles, his artistic legacy? Though the conversations often seem to surround the seemingly self-centered son more than his father, a fascinating portrait of Kahn does coalesce through the various interviews of family members and professional peers, a portrait of a passionate, caring man who seeked truth in steel and concrete but who was so obsessed with leaving a mark that he did not have time for any of his families - or that he could not find a way to combine the two. The film ends with keen observations on his final, massive project, the Capital Complex at Dhaka, Bangladesh, a sprawling series of monumental buildings. As My Architect finally meanders to a close, there is a sense that one will never really know Kohn, but that for now at least, he is less of a mystery.
Documentary: 7/10

My Best Friend's Wedding (1997)
Starring: Julia Roberts, Dermot Mulroney, Cameron Diaz
Director: P.J. Hogan
Plot: When her ex-lover-turned-best-friend decides to get married to a perfect young heiress, a restaurant critic realizes she is still in love with him and desperately tries to sabotage the wedding.
Review: My Best Friend's Wedding is a romantic farce that may start off as typical fare for it's leading lady but quickly turns into much more, one that maintains genre conventions but adds an edge to the proceedings. Though the film never really tries to break from its commercial Hollywood roots, the story still manages to surprise with some clever moments and a high level of infectious, giddy energy, one with just enough smarts to help it from drowning in sickly-sweet sentimentality. A spontaneous musical number at the family lunch table, and am embarrassing karaoke stint are some of the more memorable scenes. One of the best qualities of the quick, well-paced script is that things are never clear-cut, and the ending is always in doubt. Roberts, in a tailor-made role, is perfect as the jealous ex-lover caught between her fear of losing her perfect mate and her conscience. Diaz does her best innocent, naive schoolgirl impression, and Mulroney is rather low-key, but Rupert Everett as her gay boss and confidante, however, steals every scene he's in and the chemistry between Roberts and him is much more interesting and believable than than the tepid one between Roberts and Mulroney (but then, maybe that's the point). In the end, My Best Friend's Wedding turns out to be a feel-good romantic comedy that won't make it's audience feel guilty for watching it.
Entertainment: 7/10

My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002)
Starring: Nia Vardalos, John Corbett, Michael Constantine
Director: Joel Zwick
Plot: A 30-year old woman finally steps out of the clutches of her domineering father and meets the man of her dreams but, because he's not Greek, has to fight with her family over his acceptance.
Review: My Big Fat Greek Wedding never tries to pass itself off as anything more than a light-hearted romantic comedy, and yet managing to break box-office records it evident it has hit the right note with audiences. There are some memorably amusing moments to be found, and lots of self-ribbing at the Greek ethnic background, with the clash between the white-bread WASP parents and the onslaught of the Greek family is a high point. The voice-over comments by Vardalos are by far the wittiest part of the film, and one can see where her original stage show must have been a blast. The story starts off as another fanciful Cinderella tale (the comely-looking old girl turning into a Swan), and ends (as all fairy-tales should) with a wedding - that the wedding is such a fuss should be evident by the title, yet somehow the script doesn't squeeze as much comedy out of the event as it should. The other problem is that it can't really maintain a decent pace between its drama and its comedy, and there are moments that just fall flat. The progression feels a tad too easy, and about as subtle as a, well, Greek wedding perhaps. It also never goes off the beaten path, and there isn't anything that hasn't been made fun of in other films - replace the Greeks with Italians or Jews and you'd get something pretty similar. Still, it's an easy going affair, and one that proves rather enjoyable in its exaggerated family portrait. TV director Zwick adds enough sparkle to the narrative mix, much of which is due to its two charming, affable leads. As for the surrounding characters they are, for the most part, caricatures but the able cast manages their stuff well. Why this indie film made sure a furor in theatres in more a sign of what's missing from the latest Hollywood films than on how good this one is; older audiences have found a romantic comedy that's safe, clean, and tickles without the immaturity and coyness that plagues recent fare. In the end, My Big Fat Greek Wedding isn't as packed with irreverent laughs and acute portrayals as one would have surmised, but it's amusing enough for those who have Greek relatives, or (to paraphrase the movie's patriarch) those who wish they had.
Entertainment: 6/10

Ma fille, mon ange (My Daughter, My Angel) (Quebec - 2007)
Starring: Michel Côté, Karine Vanasse, Dominique Leduc
Director: Alexis Durand-Brault
Plot: A cabinet minister tries desperately to get his daughter out of the internet porn industry before it's too late, but things get complicated when the body of her intended live-sex partner is found.
Review: Delving into the issue of cyber-sex, Ma fille, mon ange promises to peel away at the subject and expose dark secrets - shocks and deep personal revelations assured - but if it's never dull, it also never quite achieves that promise. First-time helmer Durand-Brault does a decent job overall; though nothing to write home about, the cinematography and camera-work are clean and professional, and the events move along well. The script avoids many of the expected clichés and melodrama, and it's a well-rounded affair relying on intertwined flashbacks to give its mystery a needed boost. Most importantly, perhaps, it's an excuse to explore society's taboo on video pornography in a time when everyone can access vast amounts of sleaze with a touch of a button. Most surprising is that it gives an even portrait of the different sides of the profession. Côté is the real protagonist, the real soul of the film and he's simply terrific as the conflicted father, a man who cringes at the idea of his daughter's possible exhibition on-line and obsessively follows her trail to stop her, yet is himself an avid porn surfer. It's an interesting idea that is never fully exploited. The real mystery however is what the appeal would be to an otherwise mousy well-off law student to expose herself and take such risks to her reputation. Though much ink has been spilled on 24-year old Vanasse's mostly convincing role as the 19-year old stripper and her change from a cerebral beauty to a sexy one (depending on your tastes), it's too bad we only get bits and pieces as to the Why of her actions. Yet if failure there is, it's that by trying to be too many things at the same time, the film is neither a terrific thriller, nor is it a potent drama; it's a bit of both, and neither stands out. A topical subject given a TV-movie-worthy treatment, Ma fille, mon ange is an intriguing window into the porn sub-culture that unfortunately falls short.
Drama: 6/10

My Left Eye Sees Ghosts (Hong Kong - 2002)
Starring: Sammi Cheng, Ching Wan Lau, Cherrie Ying
Directors: Johnny To, Ka-Fai Wai
Plot: After a near-fatal car accident, a young widow discovers that her left eye can see ghosts and her unusual ability attracts the attention of many departed spirits, including a former classmate who died at a young age.
Review: Take the plot ideas of The Sixth Sense and Ghost, add a rather cracked love story and buckets of goofy, slapstick comedy and what you'll get is My Left Eye Sees Ghosts, an off-beat sentimental supernatural romantic comedy that only Hong Kong could come up with. Though it takes a while to get into it - the main character is made so darn un-sympathetic, and the supporting players are ridiculously silly - it picks up half-way through featuring a story on pre-destiny, love and what Asian ghosts really do when they're out haunting. Such a schizophrenic film is on par with similar HK fare, with its broad comedy and expected touching moments (with a neat little twist in the end to make for a "happily-ever-after" to boot) but gone is the unpredictable nature of the genre that would have made it special. And, though there's many instances of funny moments and general silliness, like most Asian comedies the humor might not be to everyone's (read North American) tastes. Still, though it's a minor, almost throwaway effort from the writer / director team of Johnny To and Wai Ka-Fai (Needing You, Help!!!), their usual verve and energy is still apparent on-screen, making for some above-average entertainment. The special effects are minimal, allowing for some inventive, fun (and undeniably low-budget) ways of getting around the use of spirits. The cast is amiable enough, too, and even show some believable chemistry together: current female superstar Sammi Cheng does her trademark shtick while talented male star Ching Wan Lau, as the ghost, mugs for the camera and constantly leaps around the screen. Treading farce, ghost story and melodrama in even portions My Left Eye Sees Ghosts isn't great cinema, but it's a fun way to pass the time.
Entertainment: 6/10

My Life in Cinemascope (Ma vie en cinémascope) (Quebec - 2004)
Starring: Pascale Bussières, Serge Postigo, Denis Bernard, Michel Barrette, Johanne Marie Tremblay
Director: Denise Filiatrault
Plot: Confined by the small local scene and pushed by her ever-increasing ambitions, a young Quebec woman achieves international acclaim and hits the world by storm only to have her career cut short by a forced incarceration in a mental hospital.
Review: Ma vie en cinémascope is a gorgeous, straight-forward retelling of the salient points in 50's singer Alys Robi's early life. Her story starts off as a mesmerizing fairy-tale of Hollywood success filled with energetic cabaret performances, and world-wide acclaim, giving her almost mythical status. And in Quebec, no talent is more legendary than hers. The costumes, the club scenes and the music all evoke the 50's era in an unabashedly embellished manner and here the production really shines. Throughout, the narrative intercuts with scenes of her years in mental hospital, when a nervous disorder pushed her doctors and father to allow her to be incarcerated, and (in a series of harrowing scenes) lobotomized. During these scenes, and during the many bouts between her loves and family life, the film points the finger at the Church-run society and its antiquated, repressive mores that left many women confused, despondent and timid. Surprisingly, Robi did get better and continued her career, albeit never attaining her previous success. After many TV productions writer / director Filiatrault, herself a popular actress, finally got a chance to create her loving tribute to her idol. Yet despite having years to prepare the script, Filiatrault sticks to the well-known story and events, keeping the narrative standard and factual, making this seem more like a TV-movie than a feature film. Though we see the events we never get to understand her, as if there was something missing to make an emotional connection with the audience. However, there's one thing that makes it all worthwhile, and that's Bussières, a generally shy, reserved actress who simply astonishes in an extroverted performance that captures all the energy, confidence and talent of her subject, from the body-language to the attitudes conveying Robi to a "T". Even more surprisingly, Bussières sings all the singer's popular tunes herself, from "Tico Tico" to "Besame Mucho" with an impressively warm, sexy voice. In the end, there isn't that extra bit that makes some biographies fascinating, but to see Bussières in such a stunning performance makes Ma vie en cinémascope worth every minute.
Drama: 6/10

My Lucky Stars (Hong Kong - 1985)
Starring: Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung
Director: Sammo Hung
Plot: An undercover Hong Kong cop on a mission to Japan gets help from a childhood friend and his group of two-bit criminals to stop a society of Japanese criminals.
Review: My Lucky Stars starts off promisingly in Japan with some great action scenes with Yuen Biao and Chan but the two quickly disappear from the screen. Instead, the film tells the story of a gang of second-rate criminals from Hong Kong making their way to Japan, and an hour of puerile jokes and antics follows with no action in sight. The last half hour picks up again as Chan reappears and kicks gangster butt, including an especially entertaining sequence in a house of horror. The climax, a typical all-out martial arts blow-out for the whole cast, is full of the expected impressive stunts and acrobatics, but there's nothing we haven't seen done better in other films. There's a fun half-hour here, but it's marred by an hour of boring and stupid filler.
Entertainment: 4/10

My Neighbor Totoro (Japan - 1988)
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Plot: Two small girls move to the country and discover that some magical creatures called Totoros inhabit a large tree next to their property. 
Review: Good animation, charming script, and great characters. Though marketed in North America as a children's movie, it is a film that adults will also appreciate.
Entertainment: 8/10

The Mysterious Miss C. (La Mystérieuse mademoiselle C.) (Quebec - 2002)
Starring: Marie-Chantal Perron, Gildor Roy, Ève Lemieux
Director: Richard Ciupka
Plot: A ditzy-looking replacement teacher takes on a primary school's toughest class, frustrating the academic director by her unorthodox methods just as the change enchants her students.
Review: Based on two books by local author Dominique Demers which proved quite popular on its release, The Mysterious Miss C. is an adaptation more aimed for kids than adults that comes off as a rather generic made-for-TV film but does manage to be engaging enough for its intended audience. There's really two main stories here: The first (and more interesting) one is the moral tale of how one teacher with a non-standard approach can inspire even the most difficult students. There's a subplot about how she occasionally literally enters her favorite book and falls into a trance, allowing brief moments of a parallel fantasy world based on the Beauty and the Beast. These sequences don't really seem to have any connection to the rest of the story, but they're ably done. Not as effective is when the film tries to capture the emotions, fears, and hopes of a 6th grade class room, even going so far as adding a melodramatic subplot about a hospitalized mother. By keeping the kids as stereotypes, with dialogue filled with repeated expressions like "super cool!" and the like it doesn't convince. The second main storyline is a limp, exaggerated plot about an ambitious, villainous director out to defame the new replacement while aiming for government office. It's played to virtual campiness by Roy who knows that he's the required comic element. Youngsters might be amused, but more mature ones will be non-plussed. After his gritty crime drama Last Breath director Ciupka seems an odd choice to head this kid-friendly affair, but he does keep everything light and sprightly. But the real surprise is Perron as the titular character, who comes off perfectly as the very fruity, naive-looking but oh-so-knowing temp whose eccentricities capture the heart of the children. If nothing else, her glowing smile really livens up the screen. The Mysterious Miss C. doesn't really break new ground but it has a nice carefree air that will enchant those looking for some light family entertainment.
Family / Entertainment: 5/10

Mystery, Alaska (1999)
Starring: Russell Crowe, Hank Azaria, Burt Reynolds
Director: Jay Roach
Plot: A quiet, small Alaskan community becomes the center of national attention after their home-grown hockey team is challenged to play the New York Rangers in a demonstration match.
Review: Mystery, Alaska is a rather charming high-concept feature with its combination of Northern Exposure and Slapshot. Director Roach (Austin Powers, Meet the Parents) keeps a tight control over events and actors, and helps make the film a rather efficient, well-done production. What really weighs the film down, though, is its inability to focus on the main event, confusing and piling up half-baked, clichéd subplots (including a melodramatic court scene, a quickie father-son relationship, etc.). These may have been OK for an undemanding TV season, but scribe David E. kelley (best known for TV's Ally McBeal and The Practice) just populates the film with one-dimensional characters we've seen repeatedly before. Yet, thanks to two saving graces, this is far from being a bad film. For one, the script does contain some great dialogue, some engaging moments, and never lacks for humor or melodramatic pacing. For two, the cast, including as multi-faceted a performance by Crowe as possible for a one-note character and some solid character-acting from the likes of Ron Eldard and Colm Meaney, is, if not quite believable, at least very endearing. Though lacking any real tension, and being ripe with typical melodrama, the film also manages a real sense of camaraderie, and the passion for hockey comes through. The final "big game" confrontation is adequately entertaining and well-paced, a climax where everyone comes out unscathed and the better for it. Mystery, Alaska isn't a big hit, perhaps, but it's entertaining enough to be a feel-good event for the winter season.
Entertainment: 6/10

Mystery Men (1999)
Starring:Ben Stiller, William H. Macy, Geoffrey Rush, Janeane Garofalo
Director:Kinka Usher
Plot: A rag-tag team of third-rate super-heroes with dubious powers must save their city from the arch-villain Casanova Frankenstein when the city's true protector gets captured.
Review: Based on the quirky comic-book by Bob Burden, Mystery Men is an entertaining summer movie, spoofing the super-hero genre with a variety of tongue-in-cheek humor and slapstick comedy. The plot, of course, is deliberately formulaic, but the real strength of the film is in the first-rate cast who add a lot of flair to the roles. The pacing of the first half of the movie is a bit slow, taking its time to present these characters and their quirks, but goes into full gear in the second half when the team finally attacks the villain's fortress. In the end, it's silly, but great fun.
Comedy: 6/10
Entertainment: 7/10

The Myth (Hong Kong - 2005)
Starring: Jackie Chan, Kim Hee-Sun, Tony Leung
Director: Stanley Tong
Plot: An archeologist / adventurer is distraught when vivid dreams of another life, that of a Qin general in ancient China, lead him and his scientist pal on a quest for an ancient sword and a mausoleum that could provide immortality.
Review: More Tomb Raider than Indiana Jones, The Myth is another big-budget vehicle for international star Jackie Chan to re-invent himself for a new generation. Arguably a big-budget sequel to the successful Operation Condor series, this one isn't nearly as inventive or interesting - a lot more money went into the effects and production (including a fancy, high-tech pad for Chan), and the high-end concept is promising, but the execution is kind of drab. Blame the patchwork script that tries, with limited success, to blend the different genres like the period piece and the special effects driven adventure. It does give Chan the chance to play a double role: in the modern story, it's a role he's used to playing, a likable adventurer while in the past, he's a too stoic and uptight Qin general, both linked through a series of vivid dreams. Unfortunately, with excessive pageantry, the period moments are rather dull save for a typically Chan action moment and an over-the-top single-handed swordfight against an army (yup, there's even a mountain of bodies to go with it). We expect the story to be pretty ludicrous, and there's a big dollop of sentimentality served up (a first for a Chan film) - it's a nice try, but it just rings false. Thankfully, director Tong is an experience hand, having done the entertaining Rumble in the Bronx with Chan, but while their trademark action is intact, there's little of the usual humor, vying instead for a straight-forward adventure flick. Some exotic locations such as a Chinese desert and lush Indian scenery (complete with buxom Bollywood starlet thrown in for good measure) does provide for some nice cinematography. The fight scenes are still fun and well choreographed proving again that Chan's still got it, but it's obvious his best days are over. The airborne final act brings about a little too much wire-work, and one of the most impressive stunts is obviously done by CGI; having once prided himself to doing his own stunts and limiting his need for effects, Chan has finally succumbed to the times. At almost two hours, The Myth is a nice change of pace for its star and a decent time waster that's never less than entertaining - we just deserve more from a Jackie Chan film.
Entertainment: 6/10

My Wife Is an Actress (France - 2001)
Starring: Charlotte Gainsbourg, Yvan Attal, Terence Stamp
Director: Yvan Attal
Plot: A Parisian sports writer married to a popular movie star begins to feel jealous and paranoid when his wife leaves for London to shoot a film with a handsome, older co-star.
Review: Star marriages aren't easy - just look at the tabloids. But what does it feel to be a normal guy married to a famous film star? My Wife Is an Actress intends to show us just that, and as a rather easy-going and fluff comedy it does just that. Most of the humor to be had is in the everyday nuisances faced by the couple in public and most of the punch is that, quite possibly, all this is quite close to reality. The main story of the strained relationship, the wife's flirtation with the older co-star, the insanely jealous husband, all works out well and even allows writer / director Attal to jab at the pressures and sexist attitude of the industry. There's one memorable moment when the actress is asked to do a nude scene - the outcome is easily the funniest sequence in the film. But it seems that the main story isn't enough to pack a movie, so unfortunately other sub-plots are set up to the detriment of the movie - the stereotypical sister's arguments with her Catholic boyfriend over circumcising their newborn, for example, is just unnecessary filler and not an interesting one at that. Another promising track, however, as the husband takes on acting lessons perhaps to better understand his wife's vocation, simply fizzles out. Popular international actress Gainsbourg actually seems to just play herself, and Attal does an amusing European version of the neurotic Jewish character made popular by Woody Allen, the character that lives with constant guilt and insecurity, thinking of other men kissing his wife on screen. The two play off each other well, and make for the more interesting parts of the film. Stamp, as the heart-breaker, is adequately charming and rakish. There's nothing terribly surprising or deep in My Wife Is an Actress, and the film follows through quite predictably, but this European confection is engaging enough to be both charming and entertaining.
Comedy: 5/10

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