Movie Review Library - N

Home / Latest Reviews / Review Library
Now Playing / Coming Soon / BLOG / Top 20 Lists
Hong Kong Cinema!Film Fests / FAQ / Favorite Links

Make sure you see the Latest Video Reviews page as well!

Nacho Libre (2006)
Starring: Jack Black, Ana , Héctor Jiménez
Director: Jared Hess
Plot: A young Mexican monk, direspected as the monastery cook, moonlights as a masked wrestler to earn enough money to provide for the orphans who live there... and gain the attention of a beautiful nun.
Review: Existing in the la-la land of Santo-style pictures so popular in Latin America in the '60s, Nacho Libre is a redemption comedy for anyone who's enjoyed the excesses of Mexican wrestling, or laughed at the bizarre comedy of Napoleon Dynamite, or find Jack Black amusing - or indeed for anyone who has a sense of humor that goes beyond the conventional. Though far from the dry, nerdy shtick that made Dynamite a cult favorite, director Hess - obviously working with a bigger budget - maintains the same quirkiness yet makes it more palatable for a mainstream audience and adds some surreal touches to the mix. Perhaps the most surprising, however, is that it's also warm-hearted, dynamic and even clever in its get-up. The slapstick and gags go beyond the usual "fat man in tights" jokes (though there are some of those, too) and, if it's never quite laugh-out-loud hilarious, it does constantly tickle the funny bone. The comic romance between monk and nun are a bit uneven but these are quickly forgotten as our hero seeks fame and fortune as a luchador. The fight sequences against some of the most bizarre wrestling adversaries are hilarious and giddily entertaining, a hodge-podge of straight made-for-TV confrontations and over-the-top shenanigans. Black may not quite be the "comic genius" some have said, but he's definitely in his element here as the clueless but determined underdog, letting loose with an exaggerated accent, facial gestures, physical silliness and mock dignity. The rest of the likable cast, from Jiménez as his street urchin teammate to de la Reguera as the attractive nun, also play it up with gusto. For those looking for something different from the usual comic fluff, Nacho Libre is sure to please.
Entertainment: 7/10

Naked Killer (1992)
Starring: Chingmy Yau, Simon Yam, Madoka Sugawara
Director: Clarence Fok
Plot: A young woman, escaping the law for a revenge killing, dumps her new-found boyfriend-cop and is taken in by a female professional assassin who trains her to be her partner in crime by killing men.
Review: This is exploitive Hong Kong filmmaking at its best, or worse, depending on your tastes: a mix of soft-core porn and violent action, Naked Killer offers up a stylish, low-budget tale of lesbian killers, incapable cops, and revenge. The acting is mostly sub-par, the story a complete mess, and the characters only half-realized, but the film is fast-paced, the action dynamic and the plot so outrageous that the whole proceedings grabs you with infectious fun. Silly, funny, entertaining, and quickly throwing political correctness out the window, Naked Killer delivers a truly bold, campy cult classic.
Entertainment: 7/10

Nanny McPhee (2006)
Starring: Emma Thompson, Colin Firth, Kelly Macdonald
Director: Kirk Jones
Plot: After his seven unruly kids have chased away every governess in town, a desperate widower hires a mysterious nanny with witch-like powers who promises to teach them five important lessons.
Review: A loose adaptation of Christianna Brand's 1960's Nurse Matilda children's book series, Nanny McPhee is an agreeable family fantasy that, unfortunately, comes up short. A send-up of the perfect-governess-wrestles-with-unruly-children territory successfully treaded by The Sound of Music and Mary Poppins, the film goes a darker route, eliminating the music, drama, and imagination that made its predecessors so enjoyable. Throwing in some unsympathetic kids, predictable twists, a talking baby and even a CGI-enahnced dancing donkey into the mix doesn't help matters. Perhaps the issue is that Thompson is no Julie Andrews; lost under a dollop of witch-like makeup (with buck-tooth, warts and all), she plays the titular nanny in what is probably her flattest, dreariest performance, making us wonder why she's in this picture at all. And it's even worse when you realize that she's credited with the script as well, and the writing is a long way away from her Oscar-winning talents. Yet despite it all, director Jones (Waking Ned Devine) still maintains a certain quirky British humor and a required stiff upper lip when going through the motions, and that's enough to keep it interesting up to its expected fairy-tale ending. Adding to the mix are some colorful costumes, solid production design, and a nice efforts from the supporting cast, including Firth as a likeable, if overwrought, dad (in what amounts to a spoof on his own stereotyped performances in Jane Austen adaptations), Celia Imrie as a busty old widow, and Angela Lansbury as the short-sighted wealthy old goat of an Aunt. Nanny McPhee is no classic, for sure, but for undemanding children and adults, this is a passable romp.
Entertainment: 5/10

Nanny McPhee Returns (2010) 
Starring: Emma Thompson, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Rhys Ifans
Director: Susanna White
Plot: At the height of World War II, a magical, hairy-warted nanny arrives at the doorstep of a harried young mother to help her deal with her three children, their two spoiled cousins and her conspiring brother-in-law while her husband is away at war.
Review: Moving things from Victorian times to the English countryside circa World War II, Nanny McPhee Returns amounts to a retread of the first film, with not much new to add to the tale. It's more of the same family-friendly slapstick and humor. McPhee herself is a mix of Mary Poppins and Wicked Witch, played over-the-top by Thompson. Just as mysteriously as her previous appearance, she pops up unannounced to give the unruly children and their hapless mother some valuable life lessons through hard love and a bevy of magical exploits. Directed with TV sensibilities by White from a ho-hum script by Emma Thompson - who really didn't need to dab at this particular would-be franchise - the film still moves along fairly well thanks to a kitchen sink approach of sub-plots. In look and feel, the film itself appears to be very much like something out of the Walt Disney studios storybook of the 50's and 60's... if Disney had a potty-mind to go with the usual family-friendly values and idyllic vision of rural life. With visual gags including kids falling in the mud, piglets doing synchronized swimming and other bits of silliness it should keep the young ones entertained. For the adults, there's an effective cameo by Ralph Fiennes as the authoritarian father / General and a silent Ewan McGregor whose presence is limited to a flashback and a happy final reunion with his family. Thankfully there's British comic star Ifans who knows funny and gets into loads of trouble, and American actress Gyllenhaal proves she can more than pass for a local with her flawless English accent. Whatever goodwill grown-up audiences had to the first Nanny McPhee however is bound not to endure following this aiming-for-average second installment. Kids will probably enjoy, but parents won't think it worth repeat viewing.
Entertainment: 5/10

*Classic* Nanook of the North (1922)
Director: Robert Flaherty
Plot: Silent documentary on the struggles of an Inuit family in the harsh landscape of the Arctic.
Review: A quasi-documentary look at the communal life and hardships of a small Eskimo family in North-Eastern Arctic Canada, Nanook of the North is a landmark silent film that almost single-handedly created the full-length documentary genre when it was first released. Flaherty, an explorer who had come to know and respect their ability to survive in such a harsh environment, decided to shoot a story surrounding one of them. The film is all the more impressive in that every shot had to be exhaustively prepared under what were probably difficult conditions, and all done with Flaherty on his own, acting as director and cinematographer. The film deftly captures the lives of this small community with an amazingly modern documentary style, describing in great detail the fishing, hunting and continual nomadic life of these Arctic hunters. Though originally touted as a "travelogue", it would be more accurate to call it perhaps a "recreation" of what life was like in the North. But though it's true that parts of what shows up on screen may have been staged (the family represented isn't actually related, the igloo was actually built in several takes, etc.), this is still an amazing document. Indeed, it's a fascinating look at a little-known people that includes some terrific footage such as the actual hunts for walrus and seal or the walk across the desolate, windswept landscape. The amazing black and white shots, the long takes and impressive cinematography belly the age of the film and Flaherty's comments which intersperse the scenes are interesting and sometimes even insightful. Though the pacing is sometimes a little slow, it shows with clear intimacy the patient, hard lives of these rugged people. A milestone of the silent era.
Documentary: 8/10

Napoleon Dynamite (2004)
Starring: Jon Heder, Jon Gries, Aaron Ruell
Director: Jared Hess
Plot: An alienated nerd abused in his rural town high school helps a new Mexican friend win the class presidency while dealing with his jock uncle and nerdy older brother at home.
Review: An obvious labor of love for writer / director Hess, the low-budget nerd-centric slice-of-life comedy Napoleon Dynamite is something of an oddity. There is little plot to be had, the film relying mostly on a series of surreal comic sketches and odd vignettes describing the daily life of a dweebish, eccentric character. The pacing isn't very even, the camera work bland, and the art direction minimal. The surprise, however, is that this quirky, low-key effort is actually quite enjoyable - be it our witnessing of his denigration in high school, a life filled with peer pressure and bullies, his dealings with his eccentric family members and even weirder friends, or his complete detachment with a sad reality. Though much of the good-natured (and very deadpan) humor comes from laughing at them and not with them, there's a definite sympathy for these underdogs living in their own fantasy world. Though these nerds don't really get a chance at revenge, Napoleon's one skill suddenly redeems them all in a hilarious (and groovy) climactic dance number. Much of the success of this endeavor lies in the hands of newcomer Heder, as the titular character, who is simply a terrific find and utterly convincing as the ultimate geek, with his blond afro hairdo, buck teeth, perpetual dazed look and complete lack of social skills. The film might too unpolished and slow for some, but those willing to give a chance to a film that goes against current mainstream "coming-of-age" dramas, Napoleon Dynamite is worth a look.
Entertainment: 6/10

Naqoyqatsi (2002)
Director: Godfrey Reggio
Plot: Visual montage showing our contemporary, regimented society dominated by gobalized technology and violence.
Review: Four years in the making, Naqoyqatsi, the third installment from director Reggio's "Qatsi" series after Koyaanisqatsi and Powaqqatsi, once again presents images from our world in chaos using a musical foreground and no dialogue. The title is taken from the Hopi language meaning "war as a way of life" or "civilized violence", and the obvious aim is to show audiences the crazy pace of our modern, regimented daily lives and our reliance on a technology gone wild. But from the images on screen it's obvious Reggion has fallen prey to his subject and is actually embracing it instead of cautioning against it. Where the previous films defurled at a very leisurely pace, Naqoyqatsi's collage of images get thrown on the screen at breakneck speed with many of them using the very technology the filmmaker once (and still pertains to) demonize. This is an attack on the senses using documentary footage, computer-based animations, as well as sped-up and slo-mo photography involving a smorgasbord of subjects from military marches and nuclear blasts to crashing waves and close-ups of athletes and keyboards. Wanting to speak on the chaos of our world, the series of images are disjointed and themselves chaotic, with no continuation on ideas or themes making it difficult to grasp where the movie is going or what the point of it all really is. Perhaps this is meant to be appreciated when under the influence of a variety of chemicals, but for most of us this is way too esoteric to be understood as it's author intended. One thing that hasn't changed is composer Philip Glass' minimal score, this time with solos by cellist Yo-Yo Ma, which remains engaging and a worthwhile listen. Too bad the rest of the picture wasn't up to it.
Documentary: 4/10

National Treasure (2004)
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Diane Kruger, Justin Bartha
Director: Jon Turteltaub
Plot: Following in the obsession that captured his grand-father, an archeologist searches for a grand treasure from Revolutionary times through clues left in historical documents while trying to escape both the FBI and a dangerous competitor.
Review: National Treasure is the latest feature from blockbuster producer Jerry Buckheimer, and it has all the ingredients of his previous explosive efforts like Pirates of the Caribbean, but something's missing in the final tally - like any sense of real excitement. The premise is a fascinating one that could really have lifted the standard treasure-hunt caper, and the best times are the ones where the hunters do their best Sherlock Holmes imitations, searching for improbable clues and go about detecting 200-year old American history. It's all academically ridiculous, but it makes for a fun time, even when most of the "clues" end up coming in the form of sometimes rather silly items like Ben Franklin's 3D glasses (!). Unfortunately the script seems to have a certain schizophrenic aspect, as if a low-key historical mystery had been force-fed producer Buckheimer's need for loud, crowd-pleasing spectacle, to the detriment of the actual story. Not nearly as fun as we'd expect are the inept attempts at action; these sequences are completely unspectacular, to say the least, and feel tacked on and plain lazy. It doesn't help that director Turteltaub (Phenomenon) feels out of his depth in an action flick. Even the expected finale is quite the let-down, making this exercise more a take on an adult version of the Goonies channeling a Clive Cussler novel than a take on Raiders of the Lost Ark. Mind you, it's not a complete waste and for the most part the film is an enjoyable, if uneven, affair with highlights including the theft of the Declaration of Independence, and the occasional son-father disputes with Jon Voight here playing Dad. The real reason to see this for most will be the cast, and Cage, Kruger and Bartha never really show any stretch in acting skills, but they do have a solid camaraderie and some fine chemistry together; sparks don't quite fly, but their interaction is more entertaining than the adventure parts. Sean Bean, as the villain, has flashes of being a terrific character but ends up being criminally underused. There are some exciting, fun moments to be had in National Treasure, but the sum of its parts don't make for a satisfying whole.
Entertainment: 5/10


National Treasure: Book of Secrets (2007)
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Diane Kruger
Director: Jon Turteltaub
Plot: An esteemed historical expert and treasure hunter races through famous settings to clear his ancestor's name after a mysterious man uncovers one of the lost pages of Abraham Lincoln's assassin's diary. 
Review: Yup, just about everyone's back in National Treasure: Book of Secrets, the inescapable sequel to the hit historical adventure that brought The Da Vinci Code-like shenanigans to American history. Only this time everyone's clearly in it for the dough and all pretense of making an original, entertaining product is gone. In fact, the script seems to have used the exact same plot template of the first and that sense of dejà vu makes it awkward. To be fair, this is a Walt Disney-produced thriller, and as such made for family consumption - how intellectual, violent, witty or realistic can any of this be? Sure other films brought us ridiculous situations, logic be damned. This worked fine for the Indiana Jones series it so tries to emulate, and somewhat in the more juvenile first installment, but it's clear from the forced deliveries, dumbed-down script and predictable events that everyone's lost all steam here. Not to say it doesn't have its moments of gleeful silliness, with its mockery of security measures (a highlight is the kidnapping of the US president) and its attempts at ridiculously convoluted historical puzzles. Indeed, when it sticks to the amusing, if absurd, international trail of historical clues like breadcrumbs to the Lost City it has a definite energy and spunk. Too bad that it's all too often cut short by some bland plot element, familial melodrama done for laughs (most of which don't work), or a car chase through the streets of London that just isn't that exciting. The fact that Cage and Voight are relegated to hamming up cornball dialogue is made even worse this time around with the addition of Oscar-caliber stars like Helen Mirren and Ed Harris who are truly wasted here, making the affair all the more irksome. But perhaps the worst part is the final discovery and predictable Raiders-like struggle to escape some age-old traps - it's a dragged-out, boring climax that sucks all the good will left for the franchise. And yet, despite all its failings, Book of Secrets does offer some popcorn entertainment for undiscriminating adults and pre-teens. Just leave your brain at the door.
Entertainment: 4/10

Near Dark (1987)
Starring: Adrian Pasdar, Jenny Wright, Lance Henriksen
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Plot: Lured by a mysterious, pretty teen, a young man is changed into a creature of the night and falls into the clutches of a small band of vicious nomadic vampires who wander the West in stolen vehicles.
Review: A cult classic that deserves a bigger audience, Near Dark is one of the best vampire films ever put to screen. Period. Well-shot and slick, it's a terrific example of how a solid script and some low-budget inventiveness can evoke terrific sense of tension, unease, and all-out grittiness that we rarely see in much bigger efforts. Without ever uttering the word "vampire", and thus perhaps losing the inhibitions of previous forays, the film creates its own mythology to great effect. With strong influences from both the horror genre and the crime drama, with a healthy dollop of a modern-styled Western, it's a mix that works out beautifully, like a film noir of horror. A vicious bar brawl, a police shootout at dawn, and an explosive finale will ensure that action junkies are kept interested, and these are executed with a sure hand. But it's the smaller moments, the relationship between the two young leads, the intimacy with these killers, that makes this such a worthwhile effort. Going full-out into a male-dominated genre, co-writer and director Bigelow (who went on to bigger things with and K-19 The Widowmaker) made her mark with this film showing a real mastery of the darkness within and without. Caught between revulsion at his fate and desperate need, Pasdar comes off as a likable enough character who isn't marred by forced feelings of sympathy. Aliens alumni Henriksen, Bill Paxton and Jenette Goldstein make up a despicable group of renegade vampire desperados who have banded together as a makeshift (if very dysfunctional) family. Check out B-movie veteran Tim Thomerson, too, as Dad. A small scale horror flick it might be, but Near Dark has more to do with dramatic tension than shocks and gore, and that's only one of the reasons it still works so well today. A must-see for fans.
Horror / Entertainment: 8/10

Needing You (Hong Kong - 2000)
Starring: Andy Lau, Sammi Cheng, Fiona Leung 
Directors: Johnny To, Ka-Fai Wai 
Plot: A sales manager butts heads with a new recruit but both slowly gain respect for one another and finally fall in love just as his ex-girlfriend comes back into his life. 
Review: Managing to walk the fine line between two genres and adding some deliciously eccentric details, Needing You offers up a delightful blend of mainstream melo-romance and light-hearted comedy. The film doesn't so much break the conventions of the genre as bend them self-consciously, playing on the audience's expectations, setting up the story into a seemingly predictable direction and then taking a sharp, often hilarious twist. Director To, best known for his action thrillers such as The Mission and Expect the Unexpected, shoots this romantic romp just like a gangster film imbuing the proceedings with some unconventional elements for the genre including a fast pacing full of quick edits and interesting camera moves. The film is very "Hong Kong" in tone and its presentation of social mores, poking fun not only at the match-making and gossiping extremes of its society but also at itself and at the genre in general. The smart and savvy script, filled with lots of clever little moments, raises the film way above other mainstream offerings. As for the actors, Lau's serious and stubborn bachelor and Cheng's flighty and quirky character light up the screen and make a perfect match, something that only adds to the enjoyment of the film. A funny, engaging and light-hearted offering, Needing You is different enough to entice even jaded audiences.
Entertainment: 8/10

Negadon: The Monster From Mars (2005)
Starring: Takuma Sasahara, Masafumi Kishi
Director: Jun Awazu
Plot: Returning from Mars with a strange cargo, a spaceship crashes into Tokyo releasing a rampaging monster that can only be stopped by an aging scientist's moth-balled giant robot.
Review: A half-hour short feature, Negadon: The Monster From Mars is a grand homage to classic Japanese monster movies made for the 50th anniversary of "kaiju" films. Done with but a limited budget, amateur writer / director / animator Awazu has crafted a real treat for other fans to enjoy. The CGI animation is nice and flashy, and it's clear that much of this was an excuse to create a showcase for its artists. Yet, though the entire film is computer-generated, the filmmakers have abandoned the immaculate look of the digital medium and taken great pains to make it look like a 60's feature, including adding graininess to the footage, making the sets look like miniatures, and more. Thankfully, it's also a heartfelt tribute to the classic Toho films and lots of attention was made to create an appealing story for fans of the genre. Of course, with its short length, it has to zip through the usual routine of its full-featured brethren in short order, from the scenes of melodrama to those of mass destruction, yet it still manages to insert all the familiar themes of loss, sacrifice, mayhem, and giant robot action without detriment to any one aspect. If there's one disappointment it's that the final confrontation between behemoths - the perennial favorite moment for audiences of such movies - feels like it's over much too quickly, despite the impeccably-realized, intense battle moving from the Tokyo streets to outer space. Still, if it's perhaps too brief, Negadon is a real treat that brings a real sense of childhood nostalgia - a must see.
Entertainment: 7/10

The Negotiator (1998)
Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Kevin Spacey, David Morse
Director: F. Gary Gray
Plot: After being framed for murder, a hot-shot hostage negotiator goes up against his own teammates when he takes police hostages to clear his name.
Review: From an interesting premise and a standard mainstream plot, The Negotiator quickly revs up to make for a surprisingly entertaining ride. Though it has the usual gunfights, explosions and confrontations of a typical summer offering, the script is also solid and engaging in its own right, combining the sense of a lower-key Die Hard (especially in the confined spaces during the hostage sequence) with a slew of other cop films to good effect. One added plus is that it doesn't telegraph the real villains right off, and allows for some mystery as to what is really going on. Director Gray (The Italian Job) has a good sense of what provides tension and plays well with the suspense, thriller and action elements to make a cohesive whole that moves along at a brisk pace, and his touch adds a good deal to the success of the film. However, more than anything it's the terrific performances by Jackson and Spacey that really raise the bar up a good notch, and watching the two negotiators at one-another in an intense cat-and-mouse game is a delight. It's unfortunate that the ending is predictable and a tad too easy, relying more on conventions than was noticeable before, but the rest of the film is well worth it. All told, The Negotiator is an above-average mainstream thriller that's sure to please.
Entertainment: 7/10

Nemesis (1993)
Starring: Olivier Gruner, Tim Thomerson, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa
Director: Albert Pyun
Plot: A former LAPD cop who is half machine is brought back in to retrieve an important data disk and stumbles onto a conspiracy to replace all the world's humans by cyborg duplicates.
Review: A surprisingly successful cult classic, Nemesis is the kind of movie you always hope for when reading the description on the back of a video box for a film you've never heard of. In other words, being rewarded with just what's being promised: exhilarating thrills, decent low-budget special effects, loads of inventiveness, and enough action and explosions to fill multiple sequels. Sure, it's exploitative (check out all those babes with big guns), highly derivative (taking cues and themes from SF movies such as The Terminator and Blade Runner), and rather mindless, but it's such a stylish, no-holds-barred package that, if you're a fan of action flicks, you can't help but be taken in. The film is low-budget, for sure, but it makes the most of what it has, including superior production values that captures well the gritty, dark atmosphere of its noir future and some surprisingly good cinematography for this kind of thing. The only problem may be that it takes itself too seriously, but the banal but densely packed script provides some excellent pacing, all of it being an excuse to show off some relentless high-tech destruction. As for the cast they're pretty much second rate, with some familiar faces popping up. Leading man Gruner (a Van Damme wannabe) does OK in the minimal role and B-movie staple Thomerson does a fine supporting role as the ultimate bad guy. It's just too bad the rest of the series (Nemesis 2, Nemesis 3 also directed by Z-movie director Pyun) never lives up to this fabulous first installment. It's not always coherent, but for those in the mood for some B-movie type stylish, energetic sci-fi action fare you could do far worse than taking a chance with Nemesis.
Entertainment: 7/10

Nemesis 2: Nebula (1995)
Starring: Sue Price, Chad Stahelski
Director: Albert Pyun
Plot: Raised by a tribe in a war-torn African country, a genetically engineered woman from the future must escape both mercenaries and an unstoppable cyborg assassin sent through time to capture her.
Review: Director Pyun's original Nemesis was an entertaining B-grade effort that had energy and care-free inventiveness going for it, but this film, which is a sequel in name only, is a direct-to-video cheapie that just doesn't cut it. Starting with a lousy script that cannibalizes elements from The Terminator to Predator and manages to make them boring, the film follows up with some laughable dialogue and terribly caricatured characters. True, there's always something going on on-screen, and everything is an excuse for some badly realized tidbit of action (even if it consists of a lot of running around), but with such a banal, leaden plot and so little substance stretched thin, even the mindless gun-play and extensive use of meaningless explosions can't save it. Surprisingly, however, the cinematography showing off the vistas of Arizona (standing in for Africa) is quite good. The wooden acting from everyone involved, and especially the Amazon-built ex-body builder Sue Price as the genetically enhanced heroine, adds a welcome, if inadvertent, campiness to the proceedings. This isn't as bad as some of the '80s fodder, and with a little more effort and this might have been a passable time-waster but as it stands Nemesis 2 is just a bad B-grade movie.
Entertainment: 2/10

The Nest (2002)
Starring: Samy Naceri, Benoit Magimel, Nadia Farès
Director: Florent Emilio Siri
Plot: Attacked by well-armed criminals while transporting a dangerous crime lord, a special forces team seeks refuge in a warehouse to make their stand only to come face-to-face with small-time hoods trying to steal a container ful of laptops. 
Review: The French are not known for their output of action thrillers (with exceptions like the superb La Femme Nikita) but The Nest aims to change that. Too bad it seems to be targeting those fans of American blockbusters with an uninspired product that could have used some serious editing. The first half-hour set-up, all done with little dialog but a very 70's-style visual story-telling sense, plods on as the different parties convene on the warehouse complex. Then the action starts, and the story's real influences becomes evident: John Carpenter's Assault on Precinct 13, but without the sense of danger that imbued that film. Director Siri (who, after this, was invited to the US to shoot Hostage with Bruce Willis) seems to have taken many Hollywood action movie references, put them in a blender, taken the least interesting aspects and served them up cold. So much of it is just plain that for every clever idea there's a half-dozen derivative or half-baked ones. There's the faceless enemy soldiers (in this case, all wearing night-vision masks, making them look very much like insect drones) who are simple cannon fodder; there's a Hannibal-like central villain who ends up being more of a McGuffin (that thing everyone is chasing after) more than a character on his own; and there's the small-time hoods and cops who have to join together to survive but who are so vanilla-bland, character-wise, that there's no tension when they're at each other's throats. Oh, the cast is competent enough, if never convincing, but they're not given much to do. That said, the real attraction is the action, and for the most part it's limited to a veritable barrage of flying bullets (of note is a tedious 5-minute sequence where the warehouse is perforated by thousands of rounds), though there is a decent, chaotic climax to it all. There's no denying that the film is for the most part technically proficient and the action well handled, but one would have expected a little more smarts or at least a little better writing from a European production. Competently made but disappointingly familiar, The Nest is proof that French filmmakers can do generic action-fests as well (or as badly) as their counterparts over-seas.
Entertainment: 4/10

The NeverEnding Story (Germany - 1984)
Starring: Noah Hathaway, Barret Oliver, Tami Stronach
Director: Wolfgang Petersen
Plot: An imaginative young boy having a hard time dealing with his mother's death gets captured by the story of an odd fantasy book, a story that literally draws him into the imaginary world.
Review: The Neverending Story, adapted from the popular children's fairy-tale, has long been deemed one of the classic 1980's children's fantasy films, and it's easy to see why. This is a "quest" adventure, and some of the moments, conflicts, and trials are interestingly done and even memorable (such as the walk through the Swamp of Sadness or the meeting with the mountain-sized wise old turtle). As the tale (an obvious metaphor for what is going on in the boy's life) begins to interact with the reader, the two stories start to merge, but ultimately the book's real message of growing up and facing reality without forgetting about the power of imagination is changed. Oh, imagination is important (and reading is cool), but somehow the film misses the real point by providing an ending that is nothing more than wish-fulfillment. It doesn't help that the "real" world story of the misunderstood young boy is derivative and bland or that the characters are typically one-dimensional. But it's the special effects, and pretty production design, that are the real treat here. It's obvious that lots of effort went into creating the creatures, costumes, and sets, and the fictional world is populated by some very imaginative characters and locales, all of which are fairly well presented. Unfortunately, the effects now appear quite dated, and the large animatronics creatures (especially the dog-like Luck Dragon) look quite fake, but much of it is still excusable thanks to a rather engagingly-told story. Director Petersen (Air Force One, The Perfect Storm), still fresh off his critically-acclaimed 1981 war drama Das Boot, tried his hand at Germany's biggest-budget entry into the effects-laden blockbuster and mostly succeeds. Though it may not have done the book justice (only half the book was used), and some instances do stretch on a bit, for the most part this foray into childhood fantasy captures the magic of the story. As for the child actors, they are good, especially Hathaway as the young warrior Atreyu. In the end, The Neverending Story is not the ultimate presentation of the book, but it's certainly entertaining family fare for less discriminating (and nostalgic) viewers. Followed by two less successful sequels.
Entertainment / Family: 6/10

New Legend of Shaolin (Hong Kong - 1994)
Starring: Jet Li, Xie Miao, Chingmy Yau
Director: Wong Jing
Plot: Folk hero and rebel Hung battles the evil Chinese government with the aid of his young son to save five children who each have part of a treasure map tattooed on their backs.
Review: The action starts right from the get-go with a take-off on Lone Wolf and Cub and only stops for the occasional melodramatic moment. The martial arts / action sequences are top-notch and Jet Li is very impressive here, as are the skills of child kung-fu prodigy Xie Miao playing his son. The story is, as usual in this sort of film, just an excuse for action scenes and adolescent comedy but there's enough here to satisfy even the most jaded action fan. Not as good as Jet Li's other efforts like Once Upon a Time in China, but still great entertainment.
Action: 8/10
Entertainment: 7/10

The Twilight Saga: New Moon (2009)
Starring: Kristen Stewart, Robert Pattinson, Taylor Lautner
Director: Chris Weitz
Plot: When her vampire boyfriend decides to leave to protect her from further harm, a high-school girl living in a small town befriends a local teen who ends up being a werewolf whose clan has an uneasy truce with the vampires. 
Review: Droves of swooning girls will undoubtedly flock to New Moon, the sequel to the hit Twilight, both based on the popular novels by Stephenie Meyer, and it's easy to see why: First, there's the the high-school girl dilemmas that are given the supernatural twist as our heroine is forced to choose between two cute, irresistible guys who just happen to be a vampire and a werewolf, respectively, and both of whom make for an impossible-to-consumate love. What's a girl to do? Well, mope around in a funk, for one. Make lots of cool posturing while looking for trouble for another. Then make sure the audience knows the film is referencing Romeo & Juliette and do so repeatedly just in case we missed the analogy. Fans will sigh deep from their bosoms, while the rest of us sigh in disbelief. After helming the whimsical, interesting box-office-drubbed adaptation of The Golden Compass, director Weitz takes a step back in regards to filmmaking with this effort. To be fair, Weitz does a decently pedestrian effort here, but there's little visual flair or style to the proceedings. Whereas Catherine Hardwicke took measures to imbue the first chapter with some sense of sexual tension and dread, this installment feels toothless, and not just because of the PG-13 rating. With shades of the Underworld series - and countless other vampire series - there's some werewolf action (well, giant CGI wolf action, anyway) and some horror elements thrown in for good measure, but this is really a teen romance given some bells and whistles. The real culprit for the lack of verve is the script that sticks to having its characters emote on how tough love is, and never actually showing why they're in love in the first place. As the young leads, Stewart and Pattinson are the only ones who can make this work, but they've got zero chemistry here. Thankfully, the new rival suitor has plenty of charm to spare: as hunky as Stewart is skinny, Lautner steals the show and does a better turn than our heroine (or the film) deserves. There is one nice change of setting, as the non-action moves to the vampire epicenter in a small Italian village and we get to meet vampire "royalty", though Michael Sheen is the only who sticks out in a campy, delicious performance as the dangerous blood-sucking head honcho. Bloated, overlong and clearly made with the female teen and tween demographic in mind, New Moon won't convert any new fans to the series but it's quite watcheable fluff for those with fluttering hearts.
Entertainment: 4/10

New Police Story (Hong Kong - 2004)
Starring: Jackie Chan, Nicholas Tse
Director: Benny Chan
Plot: A veteran inspector, despondent over the loss of his entire team at the hands of five sadistic young master criminals, teams with a rookie cop to bring them down.
Review: Let it be said: with New Police Story, the Jackie Chan we all know and love is back in full form, and he's gone all-out to disprove nay-sayers saying his reign as top gun in Hong Kong was over. This is the kind of Police Story films that made a name for him in the first place, with enough action, intense martial arts, and imaginative stunt work (without the use of CGI) to appeal to both new and long-time fans. As directed by occasional film partner Benny Chan (Who Am I?), it moves along without missing a beat, even when clocking at almost two hours (a rarity in Asian mainstream cinema). If the melodrama is spread a bit thick, especially the intro scenes involving a drunk Chan wallowing in his failure, it's obvious that there's a more serious tone involved - and the stakes are higher, too, both for the protagonists and for the filmmakers, squarely aiming to compete with the local popularity of US movies. Sure, the story about pandered teenaged X-gamers out for cop-killing kicks, setting up traps and games à la Saw is rather silly, but then most HK action-geared film plots are just as lame - what matters is the wow factor, and this one's got it, from bullet-ridden gun fights and well choreographed fights, to a chase down a high-rise and after a runaway double-decker bus, to exploding buildings and a nifty mano-a-mano pummeling in a Lego store. Gone, however, is just about any trace of the usual humor, which actually makes for a nice change for an older, more mature Chan. So, welcome back Jackie - New Police Story isn't your best film, but it sure delivers the goods.
Entertainment: 7/10

The New World (2005)
Starring: Colin Farrell, Q'Orianka Kilcher, Christian Bale
Director: Terrence Malick
Plot: An early-17th Century settlement in Virginia is saved by a Native American's love for a British explorer, but her legendary life becomes more difficult when he disappears to find .
Review: The New World breathes new life to one of the oldest of American legends, that of the romantic bond between the colonial Captain John Smith and the "Indian Queen" Pocahontas. But more than that, it's an account of the founding of the American settlement of Jamestown, Virginia in 1607 - and in that it's simply astonishing. From its reconstruction of the original fort, to the re-enactment of the small community's hardships in its early years (colonialism was never meant to be this difficult!), the clash of cultures, and all the historic details that go with it, it's a superb window into another time. Though the story of Jamestown apparently follows written accounts, Malik blends history with American lore, dramatizing the myth behind the pair's relationship. As the lynch-pin of the story, their love affair is given the whole treatment. Writer / director Malick's films are usually epic re-tellings of human struggles (The Thin Red Line) and this affair is just as startlingly real, beautiful and downright haunting as his previous efforts. Even if the pacing is downright languorous, with little dialogue to break the mood, it's never plodding. In fact the film takes its time to show how the unprepared settlers faced severe trials from without (Nature, Native American locals) and from within (their own fears, greed and paranoia). The three leads are fine - Farrell shows his acting chops, Bale gives a fine performance as a decent man, and newcomer Kilcher, as Pocahontas, is the embodiment of a free spirit. The film's failing, however, is that it is too enthralled by its own dream-like qualities - it's true that the film grasps for a more emotional than intellectual reaction from its audience that patient viewers will admire, but there's something missing. An ambitious, lyrical affair, The New World is a haunting, gorgeous film that leaves a strong impression, but also leaves us with a feeling of longing for a more fulfilling engagement.
Drama: 6/10

Next (2007)
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Julianne Moore, Jessica Biel
Director: Lee Tamahori
Plot: A second-rate Las Vegas magician who can see a few minutes into the future is pursued by FBI agents who believe he can help them prevent a nuclear terrorist attack.
Review: SF writer Philip K. Dick seems to be cursed when it comes to Hollywood productions: his searing social stories have mostly been relegated to action-prone adaptations (like Total Recall and Paycheck) with little of the actual tale making the transition. The same is true for Next, the latest big budget effort to make the leap from the written page. Oh, there's some potentially intriguing stuff along with a terrific first act, as Cage makes a daring escape from casino security, using his precog powers to check all the future permutations and know where his pursuers will be. But the film only touches the surface of its theme of destiny versus free will, and is only brought up in what amounts to throwaway dialogue. The problem is that the film is schizophrenic: at its heart, it's a low-key boy-meets-girl film with a small-time loser trying to make ends meet, but thrown in is a parallel tale of Euro-trash terrorists, a race to stop a nuclear bomb, and some Fugitive-like chases. In fact the two major action set-pieces - one, a thrilling escape in an avalanche of logs and motorized equipment, the other a climactic gun battle to "save the girl" - seem at odds with the slower, more intimate moments. And this dynamic climax is nothing but an overlong, bullet-strewn affair that feels tacked on, with Cage imitating The Matrix's Neo in his super-heroics. Surprisingly, even the money-shots aren't very convincing, mostly due to some iffy CGI. Kiwi director Tamahori (Die Another Day) won't win any fans with this film, but it's really the script that's at fault. Indeed, the story is rife with plot holes, logical gaps and unanswered questions, something that usually happens in a script written by committee. Why do the bad guys want to detonate an A-bomb? why they are so dead-set on killing our hero? how did they even discover fo his existence? Audiences just have to accept all this stuff and go with the flow - sometimes, that's enough especially when sympathetic-loser Cage is trying to use his abilities to woo the beautiful Biel, but at others it's plain frustrating. And the leads - Cage, Moore and Biel - do a good effort to keep the human side of things engaging, but it's not enough. Perhaps the worst fault is the ending, a cheat that doesn't resolve much and makes for a rather unsatisfying end, especially for a mainstream action flick. Taken on its own, Next isn't such a bad piece of entertainment, but one can't avoid feeling that it's another fine concept that lost its direction.
Entertainment: 5/10

Night at the Museum (2006)
Starring: Ben Stiller, Carla Gugino, Robin Williams
Director: Shawn Levy
Plot: Hoping for some job stability, a newly-recruited night watchman at the Museum of Natural History soon discovers that an ancient Egyptian relic is bringing the displays and specimens back to life every single night.
Review: Based on Milan Trenc's illustrated children's book, the high-concept adventure-comedy Night at the Museum works wonders when it sticks to its premise. So while the adaptation can't help stumble when it's looking for pathos in its father-son relationship or romantic sub-plot, director Shawn Levy (The Pink Panther) keeps things moving and really hits his stride when everything goes haywire for our hapless hero on that first night. More often than not the film excels at bringing a giddy child's excitement when it brings to life characters like Roosevelt, Attila the Hun, a Pharaoh, cowboys, roman soldiers and excitable cavemen, throwing savage animals and even a bone-fetching T-Rex skeleton into the fray. With all that, it's no surprise that there's a lot of running around and screaming, all of which only helps make for a fast-paced, entertaining affair. Of course, even with the well-conceived CGI special effects and neat visuals, none of this would be half as much fun without the great supporting cast that includes Williams, Owen Wilson and Peter Coogan. Plus, seeing old Disney stalwarts like Dick Van Dyke, Mickey Rooney and Bill Cobbs back in action is always refreshing. Oh, and let's not forget our star: Stiller keeps to his stereotyped shtick but he's got the funny-man routine down pat, and his performance here is proof of that. The script itself squeezes what slapstick humor it can from the situations and, despite some requisite pandering or juvenile bits (mostly involving Stiller's confrontations with a monkey), keeps things for the most part amusing and light. Anything that will help pique a general interest in history is a worthwhile effort, and it sure helps that Night at the Museum is nice, mostly clean fun for the entire family.
Entertainment: 6/10

The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
Starring: Chris Sarandon, Catherine O'Hara
Director: Henry Selick
Plot: Tired of instilling fear into children, the Pumpkin King, ruler of Halloween, kidnaps Santa Claus and tries to be the bringer of Christmas joy but his spooky cohorts are unprepared for the spirit of the season and his happy plans turn terrifyingly awry.
Review: From the mind of Tim Burton (Batman, Edward Scissorhands) comes this delightful film that is a vastly entertaining animated feature, a catchy family musical, a classic Christmas tale, and a fabulous homage to old horror films to boot. The film is full of impressive sets and imaginative characters all brought to life with amazing stop-motion animation techniques. In fact, the sumptuous visuals on their own are worth seeing over and over again. The script was actually written around ten amusing and very catchy, entertaining songs by Danny Elfman that move the plot along. The dialogue is clever, the story lighthearted, and the events bizarre enough to make it all vastly entertaining. Mesmerizing, whimsical, and full of amusing details, with a great visual flair and some terrific musical numbers, The Nightmare Before Christmas is simply a joy to watch.
Entertainment: 9/10

Night on the Galactic Railroad (1985)
Director: Gisaburo Sugii
Plot: Two kittens from a cat village board a magical train that leads them to see strange, wonderful places and meet some peculiar passengers.
Review: The use of cats as the main characters may deter at first but don't be deceived: this is not a film for young children. This mature, slow-moving dark fantasy is full of haunting atmosphere, cryptic moments and very heavy on the Christian symbolism. The animation is not up to recent Japanese anime productions, but its simple style works well here. Aiming for a profound, mystical, almost religious experience, though, it tries too hard and with too little substance to bring drama to the proceedings and ultimately fails in its lofty goals. Still, Night on the Galactic Railroad remains a beautiful, thoughtful tale of almost theological discovery, and is seen as a true classic of Japanese animation.
Drama: 6/10

Night Watch (Russia - 2004)
Starring: Konstantin Khabensky, Vladimir Menshov
Director: Timur Bekmambetov
Plot: Immortal forces of Night and Day live in precarious balance in present-day Moscow, but when a dark force starts ripping reality an open confrontation seems inevitable.
Review: Based on the best-selling books by Russian novelist Sergei Lukyanenko, there's really no surprise that Night Watch has been so popular in its Russian homeland. Mixing bits of sci-fi, fantasy, throwing in parts Ghostbusters, parts The Matrix, it's a blending of different elements that creates its own mythology / parallel universe with an interesting take on the familiar Good vs. Evil theme and the careful balance required. It's all tinged by a very dark, very "Russian" atmosphere of depression and loss, but it also looks like it was done in Hollywood with its solid production values, the slick cinematography and almost seamless well-executed effects. The story itself is interesting, with an added touch of the exotic in its pacing and narrative structure. The hero (some could say "anti-hero") is a relatively "normal" guy trying to do the best he can in a positively bizarre world, and his personal demons and moral choices come to the fore when he discovers his long-lost son. The film could be viewed as somewhat a parallel to the new social context of Russian life, part disintegrating culture, part Americanization, but one that's still very much its own. Though the budget may be not comparable to its Hollywood cousins, the film has an epic feel to it that doesn't make its limitations apparent: from the opening medieval battle, to planes falling from the sky, millions of crows circling around the crux of one woman's despair, invisible creatures appearing out of nowhere, trucks flip over pedestrians, and more. Of special notes are the creative use of the English subtitles that interact with the scenes themselves, drifting into existence, disappearing into walls, a touch that definitely adds to the experience. If there's one failure, it's that there are some pacing issues, going from intense heavy-metal-enhanced action sequences (and these are very cool, indeed) and emotionally charged scenes, to quieter exposition-heavy scenes and "everyday" encounters, some of which deflate all the tension that had been built up. But that's an acceptable fault for a film that delivers on its promises; Night Watch is a refreshing take to the usual American action / fantasy fare, and its locale and small cultural differences makes it exotic enough to be something special. Well worth a look.
Entertainment: 7/10

Nine (2009)
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Marion Cotillard, Penelope Cruz, Nicole Kidman, Judi Dench, Kate Hudson, Stacy Ferguson, Sophia Loren
Director: Rob Marshall
Plot: Desperate to find an idea for his new film, a famous Italian director struggles with a mid-life crisis and reviews his relationships with the women in his life.
Review: An adaptation of the stage musical, itself a remake and modernization of Federico Fellini’s classic 8 ½, Nine feels like an American’s dream of the classic era of ‘60s Italian cinema. Be warned, however: if you don’t care about existential angst – and it’s hard to love the focal character, an egotistical bastard whose lusts and infidelity ends up destroying him - then you won’t care about the story's emotional content, either. That said, the movie is still a fun look at a behind-the-scenes of creating a movie and all the people involved. The tale also takes lots of opportunities to reminisce on the Italian classics, with snapshots and scenes around Rome, as if getting a Coles Notes version of someone’s appreciation of them. With lots of flash, pizzazz, and abetted by luxurious sets, director Marshall plunges in a Broadway musical adaptation once again following his success in Chicago. For sure, it’s a more involving, affecting work dramatically speaking, but not as energetic or interesting as his previous work. Still, if none of the tunes are really catchy or the dance choreography that original, the dance numbers are varied and do entertain, balancing out the melodrama. The real coup is in the casting: As the self-centered director, Day-Lewis gets most of the focus and he’s as charismatic as ever, even in a rarely sympathetic role, and does OK in the few show bits. But it’s the actresses that take the cake; though most of them have little past musical credits, and none can outdo Catherine Zeta Jones in Chicago, they come out of it credibly, and they do seem to have had oodles of fun doing this. Of note, Kidman gets top billing and does well in an only minor part as the starlet, there’s a very sexy Cruz as the clingy mistress, Kate Hudson impresses in one of the show’s highlights “Cinema Italiano”, Dame Judi Dench plays wardrobe manager and confidante, and Italian legend Sophia Loren cameos as the mother. However, it’s Marion Cotillard who steals the show as the long-suffering, alienated wife, and she’s simply brilliant in the show's heartbreaking number "My Husband Makes Movies". If none of it is truly memorable, Nine does provide an entertaining hodge-podge of dancing and drama that’s sure to please audiences looking for a musical with more than the usual “razzle-dazzle”.
Entertainment: 7/10

The Ninth Gate (2000)
Starring: Johnny Depp, Frank Langella, Emmanuelle Seigner
Director: Roman Polanski
Plot: A cynical, shrewd rare-book dealer is drawn into the world of the occult when he is hired by a wealthy, eccentric collector to find copies of a banned satanic text.
Review: Based on the novel The Club Dumas, The Ninth Gate is a noirish horror thriller that oozes style over substance to great effect. Though this is nowhere near his more accomplished, classic works, director Polanski (Rosemary's Baby, Chinatown) knows his stuff, and the visuals, camera movements, careful cinematography painted in reddish hues, good production values, and impeccable mise-en-scene all add to the brooding, eerie atmosphere of the film to make the proceedings imminently watchable. The plot is for the most part intriguing, with a background set amidst the fascinating (if somewhat fictional or romanticized) world of rare book collectors, but the story-line is very much standard fare and meanders a bit towards the middle, occasionally even drifting into campy excess. Actually, there is very little in the way of supernatural happenings, leaving the audience uncertain as to the truth behind the books until the end. Eventually the film starts feeling a little drawn out but, like some of the best horror films, it's the mounting suspense and eerie feel to the proceedings that make the film so deliciously involving. It's just too bad the payoff at the end doesn't match the set-up - the final scene is just confusing and anti-climactic, an unfortunate turn for an otherwise entertaining, well-made little B-movie. The cast performs adequately enough, with a great hammy performance from veteran Langella as the obsessed collector. As for Depp, he is the very heart of the film, making an excellent, sleazy anti-hero turn. Despite the ending, The Ninth Gate is an interesting, well crafted supernatural thriller that's eerie and tension-filled instead of terrifying.
Horror: 6/10

Nitro (Quebec - 2007)
Starring: Guillaume Lemay-Thivierge, Lucie Laurier, Myriam Tallard
Director: Alain Desrochers
Plot: Desperate to find a heart for his terminal wife, a reformed car thief must delve back into the world of illegal drag racing and organized crime to get his hands on the requisite organ.
Review: A dramatic thriller with enough action to stand up to the summer Hollywood onslaught, Nitro proves that local French Canadian cinema can beat bigger-budgeted films at its own game. The back-story, told in flashback, tells the story of hard-and-fast-living bad-boy Max and his transformation into his present "new" self as loving husband and father - and how easily it is for him to cross back over to the "dark" side to save the only thing he holds dear. Surprisingly, these melodramatic moments are given as much care as the rest of the film and for the most part are quite effective in getting us engaged with the character and his predicament, making his choices all the more dire. But the film is never far from a more dynamic set-piece, and the action sequences are pretty thrilling, from a drag race in a parking lot and a parkour-type foot chase across Montreal streets. Throughout, Lemay-Thivierge (doing his own stunts) proving he's as capable an action star in a few quick, brutal fight scenes as he is an actor. But the real talk will be for in-vogue vixen Laurier as his old flame, a pole-dancer-turned-car-racer with an adrenaline craving - she may only have a one-dimensional role, but she's gloriously effective in it. As for the script, it has more smarts than most, as well as some clever twists that help it deviate from the familiar tropes. Alas, the film also seems stuck on occasion with the genre's conventions. There are also quick dips into the whole organ-donor controversy, into questions of morality and how far one is willing to go to save a loved-one's life, but these are pretty much glossed over. Still, even if these last points don't quite make the mark, just having them in an action film is impressive enough and TV-director Desrochers makes the most of it, providing a well thought-out, well-paced package that's sure to please the mainstream. With Nitro, Quebec cinema can chalk up another box-office success.
Entertainment / Drama: 7/10

(Quebec - 1998)
Starring: Anne-Marie Cadieux, Alexis Martin, Marie Brassard
Director: Robert Lepage
Plot: A theater actress learns she is pregnant while attached with a Canadian troupe performing at the World Fair in Osaka in 1970, while her boyfriend harbors three FLQ terrorists in their home back in Quebec.
Review: No, a play on words describing both the traditional Japanese theater and the Quebec sovereignty referendum, is Quebec theatrical genius Robert Lepage's third feature. The story switches back-and-forth between the Keystone-Cops antics of the boyfriend and his FLQ terrorist friends (shown in black and white), to the Feydau theatrical farce-like life of the girlfriend's last days in Japan (shown in color). The characters are flat at first but slowly manage to exhibit another more dramatic dimension, but their interactions are always comical, especially the energetic Cadieux who steals the show. All this is contrasted by the calm, introverted Japanese culture that surrounds her and the presentation of the Noh theatre itself which is a quiet meditative play at the antipodes of the one performed by the Quebec troupe. Interesting touches abound, of course, showing off Lepage's theatre roots. Is Lepage saying that Quebec society is silly? Who knows, but it all makes for a funny, and sometimes even poignant, image of a divided society and of a population battling with its own identity all the while exploring issues of independence versus collectivity and life versus art.
Drama / Comedy: 7/10


No Country for Old Men (2007)
Starring: Javier Bardem, Josh Brolin, Tommy Lee Jones
Directors: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Plot: After stumbling upon some dead drug runners and $2M in cash in the Rio Grande desert, a hunter goes on the run from an implacably violent killer and a West Texas sheriff, both tracking him across the state.
Review: From a very standard crime thriller premise, No Country for Old Men quickly dismisses any doubts as to its true colors, that of bringing in a fresh take to the genre. The tone is as bleak and arid as the Rio Grande landscape, as are the characters, but the execution's the thing and this is indeed a film to remember. Though deliberately paced it's also quite efficient in its storytelling. Sure, the quiet moments are often interrupted by lots of violence, deaths and mayhem but what's stunning is the seething rage, impending violence and clear tension that's impeccably sustained throughout. There's little humor to be had in this dark exploration of Men, with the exception being Harrelson as the squeaky-clean hit man who gets his due. Surprisingly enough, there's also no musical score something that only increases the tension during the many silent - but terrifyingly intense - moments. Adapting to perfection Cormac McCarthy's novel, writers / producers/ directors Ethan and Joel Coen make a film that remains faithful to the book and also ably captures its very essence, making it as much McCarthy's as their own. This is their best crime drama since Fargo and perhaps even Blood Simple and, if it's not quite a masterpiece, it's understandable that some critics refer to it as such: the dialogue is scintillating, the script terrific, and every moment is calculated for its impact yet feels (and is) completely unpredictable. For some, the tangent the story takes towards the end will leave them feeling cheated, as the final confrontation never makes it to the screen. But it's this ability to take such major chances with its audiences and their expectations that makes this film worthy of attention. The three tough male characters are very much archetypes of the American crime film landscape, and they're written - and acted - exceptionally well. Brolin - who's career is surely on the rise - does a good turn as a Coen hero, and Jones hits just the right note as the reasonable but aging sheriff, the conscience of the film, lost in a world that has clearly forgotten his ilk. With Vietnam still fresh in the social conscience of 1980, the older characters (as embodied by Jones) carry a nostalgia for an era that was, perhaps, easier to understand. But it is Bardem - sporting a weird haircut - who will get the most notice: he is simply stunning as the relentless, psychotic killer who likes to play mind games with his prey, a bad guy that would give anybody nightmares; it's an Award-winning, controlled performance, and he plays it like a true force of nature. With all the depth and skill brought to play, the film manages to work as well at being a thriller, a drama and a social commentary. In fact, No Country for Old Men is so well executed that it begs for an Oscar for its directors. Whether that happens or not, this remains simply brilliant filmmaking.
Drama: 8/10

No Man's Land (Bosnia - 2001)
Starring: Branko Djuric, Rene Bitorajac, Filip Sovagovic
Director: Danis Tanovic
Plot: Two soldiers from opposite sides of the Serb/Bosnian conflict find themselves caught in a trench between enemy lines and can't trust each other, or the UN mediators, enough to put an end to the stalemate.
Reviews: Winner of the Oscar for Best Foreign Film, No Man's Land takes us to Bosnia in 1993, at the very height of a war that few people on our shores could understand. This is a very black satire, one that alternates between violent dramatic moments and biting humor, but one that never lets its audience off the hook with spoon-fed answers or easy sentimentality. The story goes against the grain of most other anti-war films where, as the cliché goes, if only these people would find something in common they would somehow bond and understand the futility of their ways; the two enemies realize they must rely on mutual aid to survive their predicament, but going against our expectations, these people really DO hate each other with a deep-rooted hatred, and there is no easy reconciliation, no easy answers to their conflict. It's a sober view of a people divided, and the absurdity of our own "neutrality" in the conflict as expressed by the UN views, hitting home the ineffectiveness of the UN troops, the political machinations that kept the war going on, and the Western world's media frenzy for sensationalism before the truth. First-time Bosnian director Tanovic actually shot footage of the war while in the Bosnian army, and his camera work often conveys that sense of "being there". The international cast, featuring some familiar faces, is good, but the real surprise are the three actors playing the men in the trench: their performance is intense, personal, and utterly convincing, both sides coming off as confused, fearful, and depressingly human. There is no heroism in this struggle, no honor or sense of victory, only a sense of hopelessness. The ending is both ironic and hard-hitting, a perfect metaphor that accurately sums up the Bosnian war. Once all is said and done, No Man's Land is a bleak, darkly humorous tale that presents all that is worse in human nature, one that asks hard questions and leaves a haunting impression.
Drama: 8/10

*Classic* North by Northwest (1959)
Starring: Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint, James Mason
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Plot: A handsome advertising executive gets mistaken for a government agent by a well-organized espionage ring. Framed for murder, he ends up being chased across the country by both the police and the spies.
Review: Deemed as one of Hitchcock's four best Hollywood works, North by Northwest is a much more light-hearted affair than the master of suspense's usual thrillers thanks in large part to its hero, the ever-suave and charming Cary Grant. Once again, Hitchcock plays with the themes of mistaken identity and survival as the innocent hero is forced into a situation he doesn't understand and can't control and has to deal with both the conspiracy surrounding him and an unsympathetic society. The film effectively builds tension and a good sense of suspense, relieving it on occasion with a good dose of humor. There are some famous cinematic moments here, including the one where our hero must flee a crop-dusting bi-plane trying to kill him, or the final chase across the faces of Mount Rushmore. True, the action sequences are a bit dated compared to more modern fare (especially the fake drunken car chase), but they are still exciting and well shot. Apart from Grant, the rest of the cast is decent if uninspired, but James Mason as the cultured, menacing villain is still a standout. Blending comedy, suspense and even a dash of romance, North by Northwest is a fine, entertaining picture from one of cinema's great directors and a true classic of the genre.
Entertainment: 8/10

North Country (2005)
Starring: Charlize Theron, Elle Peterson, Thomas Curtis, 
Director: Niki Caro
Plot: A single-mother decides to take legal action against the union and her employer, a Minnesota mining company, that allows its largely male workers to sexually harass and abuse their female colleagues with impunity.
Review: A heavily dramatized adaptation of a landmark 1980's sexual harassment case by a female worker against her employers, North Country has good intentions, but loses sight of them at the finish line. With a premise that screams Oscar-bait drama, the film takes much pains to make its small-town-America blue-collar world - from the abusive workplace to the economically depressed homesteads - somewhat believable. It's often a rather narrow view, where twisted moral values and the sake of appearances still allow dissenters to be ostracized by their peers. Still, writer / director Caro does pretty well with the more intimate family moments, sneaking in some heart-wrenching moments when facing both parents and offspring, and easily manipulating audiences to root for its underdog. It's unfortunate that he can't resist going overboard with the added, fictional melodrama to make a point that's clear from the outset, devolving into average Tinsel town fare. When the final act rolls around - with its courtroom theatrics, melodramatic martyrdom of its heroine, its "uplifting" climax - it seems tad excessive, if not overbearing. There's no faulting the earnest cast however: Theron comes off pretty well in another dramatic turn, and she's well helped by the likes of Frances McDormand, Sean Bean, and Sissy Spacek. In-roads still need to be made in many areas deemed "male" bastions before women can achieve equality in the workplace, and if nothing else North Country tackles with conviction a subject that is rarely spoken of in mainstream films.
Drama: 6/10

*Classic* Nosferatu (1922)
Starring: Max Schreck, Alexander Granach
Director: F.W. Murnau
Plot: A real estate agent helps the mysterious Count Orlock (Nosferatu) to move into his home town, only to realize that the Count is also the vampire that is causing a plague on the city's denizens.
Review: Nosferatu is a thinly veiled adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula novel, and the first such adaptation to be made for the screen. The script is mostly faithful to the book, with the vampire portrayed more as a rat-like creature than a bat, bringing a mysterious plague onto the city. Nosferatu quickly mesmerizes the viewer with its ingenious use of shadows, eerie visuals and the interesting, albeit primitive, use of cinematographic effects. Along with the fantastic imagery on screen, the dark mood, the pacing, and the suspense, it makes this film a silent-era classic of German expressionism, paving the way for many of the vampire and horror films that came after. The performances are, of course, exaggerated as is typical for early cinema, but the theatrics work here. Indeed, tall and thin, bald, pointy-eared, fanged, Max Shreck's portrayal of the vampire made him both sinister and fascinating. One of the great horror films of cinema.
Entertainment: 9/10

The Notebook (2004)
Starring: Rachel McAdams, Ryan Gosling. James Garner, Gena Rowlands
Director: Nick Cassavetes
Plot: Reading from an old hand-written notebook, an older man recounts the story of a young couple in love in the 1940's to a woman suffering from Alzheimer's.
Review: Based on the novel by Nicholas Sparks, the multiple-hankie tear-jerker The Notebook arrives in a time where general cynicism has pervaded the good old fashioned romance. Director Cassavetes seems to have gone mainstream after the punchy drama She's So Lovely, creating a tale that's both sweet and predictable, and can't avoid falling into cliché-ridden territory. Most of the film's running time is told in flashback, recounting the often-told story of two teen lovers separated by fate and class. Though neither original or truly convincing, the young couple are sympathetic enough as portrayed by McAdams and Gosling, their forbidden love exacting enough, the cinematography soft enough, and the directing even-handed enough to make it watchable, but little more. It's a tale Hollywood (and audiences) never seems to tire of, but as presented here it's nothing truly special. The one bright spot is the present-day tale of Garner reading to the Alzheimer-ridden Rowland in a retirement home, a return to present-day that occasionally interrupts the story in The Princess Bride style. The two create more spark and true emotion than the rest of the film can muster. Still, despite its failings, those longing to a return to a bygone era will likely be enchanted by The Notebook. Cynics, however, need not apply.
Drama: 5/10

Not One Less (China - 2000)
Starring: Minzhi Wei, Zhang Huike
Director: Zhang Yimou
Plot: A thirteen year-old peasant girl is hired by a small rural village to act as a substitute teacher, but has a hard time keeping her promise of keeping all her students in enrolled.
Review: Based on a true story (albeit slightly embellished) and featuring the actual characters in the drama playing themselves, Not One Less is another portrait of modern China, and the often blatant differences between its rural and urban areas. The story itself is simple and unpretentious, but there is a great affection for the characters, and though it may be a bit slow, the film is always interesting and captivating. This is quite a departure for director Yimou (To Live, Raise the Red Lantern), and is not nearly as captivating or as lavish as his other works, but it still has his touch for the dramatic. Not One Less may not be a great film, but it is a life-affirming and touching story, and an interesting comparison to another (though better) film with a similar subject, The King of the Children.
Drama: 7/10

Nouvelle-France (Quebec - 2004)
Starring: Noémie Godin-Vigneau, David La Haye, Gérard Depardieu
Director: Jean Beaudin
Plot: A strong-willed young mother and a dashing bourgeois adventurer living in 18th-Century Canada fall in love but are separated by treachery and larger historical events.
Review: The biggest budgeted Canadian film ever made, the lavishly produced Nouvelle-France seems to be caught between a European-styled period drama and a popular Harlequin romantic novella. The film is set against one of the most important moments of Quebec's history, the turbulent period in the mid-18th Century when France's abandonment of its far-away colony ended in the establishment of the British regime. Though bits and pieces of the events that led to the colony's downfall are shown in short scenes (easily the most interesting parts of the film), that aspect remains in the background, almost anecdotal. Always in the foreground, however, is the sense that the filmmakers want to channel the essence of that other Quebec success-story Séraphin with its clichéd impossible, tragic tale of lovelorn couple separated by outside forces. In fact, even the plot progression is eerily similar but here the love story feels fake and contrived amidst larger events. It doesn't help that the story is also populated by caricatures which, thanks to some often ludicrous dialogue, only makes the whole affair feel theatrical and distancing. For sure, visually-speaking the filmmakers have the "sweeping epic" down pat: it all looks great from the costumes to the set decorations, the cinematography is superb, and the period details are convincingly recreated. Unfortunately, all the money thrown into this production is for naught, as they've produced a huge endeavor that, at two and a half hour, feels heavy and stilted. Particularly annoying is the syrupy, downright intrusive music during the more passionate moments, often verging on the ridiculous. Director Jean Beaudin (Le Collectionneur, Souvenirs Intimes) tackles a production that's very different from his previous experience of making small, intense, almost claustrophobic films, and he struggles to make all this involving and fails to capture the sweep required of the subject matter. On the plus side, the two main protagonists are superb and show a definite chemistry together, with LaHaye as the heroic patriot and the radiant Godin-Vigneau as the liberated woman. The two other young lead actresses also make an impression - Bianca Gervais playing the fiery Native American orphan and Juliette Gosselin as the young daughter. The film also boasts an impressive all-star supporting cast with such names as Dépardieu, Colm Meaney and Tim Roth, but these only add up to brief cameos (in fact, a wigged Roth doesn't have two lines). Though the film has some deserving moments, there isn't enough of a historical aspect to Nouvelle-France to make it anything other than a lofty, failed romance.
Drama: 5/10

Nowhere to Hide (South Korea - 1999)
Starring: Joong-Hoon Park, Sung-kee Ahn, Dong-Kun Jang
Director: Myung-se Lee
Plot: A violent homicide detective makes tracking down a slippery, brutal assassin a personal obsession and tries to use the killer's girlfriend to bring him out into the open.
Review: Nowhere to Hide is a typical gangster / crime flick diluted to a minimalist interpretation of the genre, revised as an ode to filmmaking theory. A confusing, frenzied pre-credit intro leads to a wonderful opening sequence, as a murder is committed in slow-motion on a rain-drenched stairway. This is a world where cops are worse that gangsters, where the lead cop proves to be the ultimate anti-hero: violent, stupid, but doggedly determined, assisted by a straight-laced partner and a gang of keystone cops. But then it all falls apart, splitting between slapstick comedy when the narrative focuses on the police and then immediately switching to the hard-edged grimy, stylish hard-boiled thriller when it changes focus to the killer. In this bizarre blend of genres, which ultimately works only half the time, the pacing is the first casualty. The film is filled with comic-inspired action, violence and melodrama as many scenes and camera shots are straight out of panels from Manga books (Asian comics) - characters caught in frozen open-mouthed screams, or poised Mexican-stand-off style, or laughing uproariously, all highly exaggerated to convey a sense of unreality. It's all great to look at, but it looks as though it's all done for the sake of "Art", filling the screen with a smorgasbord of beautiful cinematography, clever and interesting shots and pans, with director Lee experimenting with various collages, camera techniques, lighting, bleeding colors etc. Yes, it's all quite original for a police flick, but the narrative takes back-seat to the visuals and without an engaging story the film simply drags. The second half of the film is more a straight, serious hard-boiled thriller and is much better paced, if only retreading similar tales of the genre. The finale, though, with its Hong Kong sensibilities and stylistic excess, is impressive. This is a perfect case of style over substance - all these scenes would make for a stunning trailer, but seen in context, it's terribly disappointing. It's too bad that all that comes out of the film is the filmmakers' technical virtuosity and a confused amalgam that doesn't know to be goofy or serious neo-noir - with a better script and better pacing, Nowhere to Hide would have truly been something exceptional.
Entertainment: 6/10

Nurse Betty (2000)
Starring: Renee Zellweger, Morgan Freeman, Chris Rock
Director: Neil LaBute
Plot: After the shock of seeing her husband brutally murdered, a deluded Kansas waitress heads for Hollywood where she expects to be united with the true love of her life, one of the characters from a popular TV soap opera.
Review: Indie director LaBute has been doing films that really push his audience's buttons, most prevalent in his first feature, the devastating In the Company of Men. With Nurse Betty, though, LaBute aims for a gentler, lighter, and more audience-pleasing comedy that pokes fun at small-town America and TV land and manages to blend madcap comedy and satire with various popular film genres. The real pleasure here is the twisted, amusing, and often even cynical script full of interesting dialogue and improbable situations. The first-rate cast, especially Freeman and Zellweger, manage to give a great comic sensibility to all the goings-on. Chris Rock is appropriately loud and obnoxious, and perfect for his role here. There are some slow parts, where the pacing doesn't stand up to the many rebounds of the plot, and the climactic scene is a bit of a letdown, but in all it always manages to entertain. From an intriguing, original idea, Nurse Betty ends up being a funny, charming little film.
Comedy: 6/10

Home / Latest Reviews / Review Library
Now Playing / Coming Soon / BLOG / Top 20 Lists
Hong Kong Cinema!Film Fests / FAQ / Favorite Links