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O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)
Starring: George Clooney, John Turturro, Tim Blake Nelson
Director: Joel Coen
Plot: During the Great Depression, three bumbling Southern convicts escape from a chain-gang in search of a buried treasure only to find themselves on a long, convoluted journey filled with constant mishaps.
Review: From the basis of Preston Sturge's Sullivan's Travels' chain-gang set-up, the Coen brothers (Fargo) have come up with a clever, whimsical homage to the road movie and classic slapstick comedies of the '20s and '30s in O Brother Where Art Thou? (a title borrowed from the aforementioned film). It's a very loose adaptation of Homer's classic The Odyssey replete with a Cyclops-like charlatan played by John Goodman, a trio of sirens, etc., with a wink at other era pictures, all done with tongue-firmly planted in cheek. In fact, the film is best described as a loose collection of set-pieces full of offbeat events and a series of bizarre characters, full of Hollywood-ized Southern fare, such as low-breed politicians, bluegrass musical numbers, car chases, natural disasters and even semi-magical situations. As most of the Coens' other films, a weird sense of humor pervades throughout (who else could find the comic value in a KKK lynch mob / demonstration?), helping to evoke the Depression era with music and washed-out, saturated colors giving that feeling of dusty roads, of hazy summer days with images of the South as we've imagined it should have been, with a theme song alone will have you tappin' along within seconds. And yet, it doesn't quite all come together, as if the story couldn't quite sustain all these different, and imaginatively delirious, elements. Still, part vaudeville, part slapstick comedy, and all clever, it may not always come together but it works more often than not. The trio of lead actors deliver some great dialog with a good sense of comic timing as the good-natured, if downright simple-minded, blokes who are forever over their heads in an ever-increasing series of misadventures. Clooney in particular is simply terrific as the likeable, fast-talking con-man with an obsession with Dapper Dan hair care products. Entertaining and eclectic, if at times inconsistent, O Brother Where Art Thou? is a fine, funny Southern fairy-tale.
Entertainment: 7/10

Oceans (France - 2009)
Narrator: Pierce Brosnan
Directors: Jacques Perrin & Jacques Cluzaud
Plot: FIlmed thoughout the globe, the documentary captures some stunning scenes of the sub-aquatic world and its underwater inhabitants.
Review: Released in North America by Walt Disney's Nature label to coincide with Earth Day 2010, the French underwater documentary Oceans is a definite step up from the bastardization made of the BBC's Planet Earth series with Earth. The directors of the astounding Winged Migration have taken to the seas and it's immediately clear that their 8-year effort was worth it. Showcasing some of the world's most incredible (and little seen) wildlife from the Australian reefs, Alaska's orca feeding grounds and South Africa's shark-infested coves (among many other locations), the film is a buffet of majestic and bizarre creatures. Once again, thanks to the latest camera technology, stunning visuals are the order of the day, edited to get an emotional response from the audience - and for the most part it succeeds in giving a sense of wonder at the beauty, power and strangeness of Nature. Whales, dolphins, sharks and seals all make an appearance, of course, but so do protoplasmic jellyfish, a blanket octopus and a mountain of sea crabs among countless others. There's a sense of poetry here, and the breathtaking imagery is sure to impress even the most jaded viewers and their kids. The usual message of warning, of course, that mankind is too quickly destroying the delicate balance of the planet is captured in a brief foray into human pollution and over-fishing, but the real focus is on showing what we are losing. Narrated by Pierce Brosnan, the dialogue gives little added value to the imagery and the soothing tones will make adults nostalgic for Jacques Cousteau TV specials. But as a gorgeous travelogue of the world's seas and its inhabitants Oceans is a worthwhile effort.
Documentary: 8/10

Ocean's Eleven (2001)
Starring: George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Andy Garcia
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Plot: Under the leadership of a just-released master thief, eleven men from different backgrounds get together to do the heist of a lifetime - breaking into the vault of three Las Vegas casinos during one hectic night.
Review: First and foremost, this remake of the 60's rat-pack flick Ocean's Eleven is an ultra-cool exercise in style, with director Soderbergh (Traffic, Kafka) showing that he has things well in hand. The execution is more akin to his approach to mainstream Hollywood productions such as his own Erin Brockovich, and once again he impresses with his sense of storytelling and seemingly easy professionalism. Of course, the plot is as unbelievable as it gets, but that's OK: we're quickly taken into this game of cat and mouse, of planning and deceiving, and minor quibbles over such things as plot discrepancies or moments that stretch credibility are lost in this series of slick, fast-paced happenings. Sure, there's no real seriousness in evidence anywhere, and nobody gets hurt, everyone looks good, and the outcome is never in doubt, but that's just part of the fun. There are too many players, perhaps, to really get into any character development and, anyway, this is a caper film with its main push being the heist itself, from its set up to its execution. But what a robbery it is, a real Mission: Impossible type of assignment that is only helped by a terrific script full of sparkling dialogue and a great sense of amusement. What we get in the end is a suspenseful, engaging, and grin-inducing adventure. Apart from a terrific pairing of Clooney and Pitt as the two master thieves, the rest of the cast, including Julia Roberts in what amounts to a cameo role, is pretty much on screen as window-dressing, but seeing all these grade-A actors mingling, interacting and having what looks like a grand old time is just too contagious to resist. Ocean's Eleven is a guilty pleasure, a fluffy, smart popcorn movie with a large amount of star power that does everything in perfect step.
Entertainment: 8/10

Ocean's Twelve (2004)
Starring: George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Catherine Zeta-Jones
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Plot: Caught by one of their victims, a crew of thieves and con artists are forced to try their hand at one major heist to pay off their debt while trying to escape an expert Interpol investigator and competing against a French master criminal.
Review: Well the gang's all back for another outing both in front and behind the camera in Ocean's Twelve, the sequel to the delicious star-studded caper flick Ocean's Eleven, and they've brought friends along. Too bad the case of sequel-itis has struck again, and the fond memories of cleverness and charm are put to the test. Shot and paced like a French New Wave affair on steroids, it's all an experiment of style and moments. There's little substance to be had (and you'll forget the plot by the time the credits roll), but oh is there style to burn. Director Soderbergh (Traffic, Erin Brockovich) has an obvious mastery for the form, and here he lets loose with everything he can think of. Hats off to the filmmakers for trying something new; instead of a caper flick we have an ensemble comedy, one where the story is but an afterthought. In fact, in terms of plot it's a messy, rather lazy affair, and even then the con / double-con is stretched to ridiculous extremes. Still, it's a reason to get everyone back together for what comes out as almost a parody of the first effort, a bubble-gum of a movie that channels some of the great character interactions of the first effort. In terms of giddy, star-powered fun it has no rival: the cast on display would put any other half-dozen blockbuster to shame, from the charming Clooney and slick Pitt, the fumbling Matt Damon, to the comic turn by Julia Roberts (parodying herself) and the terrific presence of Zeta-Jones, with supporting players Vincent Perez, Bruce Willis, and more. With such a large cast and with such a deliberate effort to get everyone involved there's little time to focus on anyone, but with its affable cast and easygoing narrative, one can excuse the lack of real meat to the proceedings. Though admittedly it looks like a glitzy, bloated Hollywood vanity project, thanks to Soderbergh's touch Ocean's Twelve comes off as a breezy entertaining sequel. Trivial, perhaps, but fun.
Entertainment: 7/10

Ocean's Thirteen (2007)
Starring: George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Al Pacino, Ellen Barkin
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Plot: After a vile Vegas casino owner double-crosses one of their own, a band of thieves agree to give him his come-uppance by having his casino lose big on its opening night.
Review: The latest chapter / remake of the Frank Sinatra rat pack Vegas caper, Ocean's 13 brings back its ensemble cast of thieves to Las Vegas for one last caper. Preparing for the ridiculously complex, Mission Impossible-like heist allows for some fascinating (if unlikely) gambling scams, cheats, and cons. The entire team is back, with new additions to the stalwart Eleven including Pacino as the egotistical casino owner and an underused Barkin as his Girl Friday, and a smorgasbord of other stars in supporting or cameo roles. The slick production is ably done - if not quite as light-on-its-feet or crackling as Ocean's Eleven - but one can't shake the feeling that everyone from director Soderbergh to the cast is now doing all this by rote. But they still pull it off - the camaraderie is clearly evident (something keenly lacking in the self-indulgent second installment) and the whole convoluted, silly enterprise feels comfortable, like meeting up with old friends. Each cast member is given a chance to shine: if the uber pairing of the easy-going Clooney and Pitt get the most air time, it's the secondary scenes that are the funniest, like Cheadle dressed up as a Knievel wannabe, or Affleck / Caan starting a revolution in a Mexican factory. There's no pretense of seriousness here, and everyone is having a blast doing the film - poking fun at themselves and each other, enjoying the scenery, etc - and much of that fun is contagious. This third time isn't quite the charm: the subterfuge, twists and double-crosses are now expected, and this series is on its last legs, but with its breezy charm it's a hoot to watch Ocean's 13 all play out.
Entertainment: 7/10

The Odd One Dies (Hong Kong - 1997)
Starring: Takeshi Kaneshiro, Carman Lee, Choi Fung-wah 
Director: Patrick Yau
Plot: A broke, down-and-out low-life accepts an assassination contract but when he wins big in a card game he decides to hire someone else to do the actual hit never suspecting that a just-released female con would be his only choice.
Review: The Odd One Dies is a rather bleak look at the underworld, something akin to Wong Kar-wai's Fallen Angels, but also much more an odd black comedy with a romantic twist than a drama. Though it takes its inspiration from the HK triad genre, the film is all stylized parody making use of the usual clichés of the genre and providing some entertaining winks at the audience. With minimal dialogue, and a story and narrative that is more inferred than explained, it draws out the major plot points in broad strokes as the protagonist drifts from one bizarre situation to another, from cheap hotels to seedy dives and gambling parlors. The story is hard to understand at first, and much of the film doesn't situate itself or its characters, but it's all pretty basic, and eventually predictable. The cinematography, full of distorted camera angles and a red-blue color scheme, makes the film feel like fake avant-guarde and ends up just being annoying. Thankfully it all unfolds at a decent clip and there are lots of interesting scenes peppered throughout to keep up interest. The action is minimal, consisting of a few beatings, one assassination, lots of running around, and three hilarious finger-slicing scenes, with the film relying more on the sense of gangster despair and the entertaining interaction between the two mostly dour leads. One particular item of note is the score which is perfectly incongruous with the happenings on screen, a blend of cheesy and ironically up-beat tunes that pop up at the most inappropriate moments, and does much to help create the sense of amusement we get from the proceedings. In the end, The Odd One Dies is really an exercise in style that's worth a look for its different take on the triad comedy and some cleverly realized moments.
Entertainment: 5/10

Oldboy (South Korea - 2003)
Starring: Min-sik Choi, Ji-tae Yu
Director: Chan-wook Park
Plot: After being kidnapped and imprisoned in a run-down apartment for 15 years, a man is released and given five days to uncover the true reason for his capture, days he hopes to use to exact proper revenge.
Review: Based on the Japanese manga of the same name, itself a sort of retelling of the classic Dumas tale The Count of Monte Cristo, Oldboy is a brutally violent, sometimes sadistic, but always unforgiving psychological thriller. The second installment in director Park's highly successful revenge trilogy (the first being Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, and the third being Lady Vengeance) is another finely tuned machine; balancing its gruesomeness with sadness and loss, it plays out like a film noir with elements of dark comedy, the tragic morality tale is a veritable treat to those looking for something different: it's dynamic, original, clever, and spins the genre in joyful new directions. Following an overview of fifteen years imprisonment defined by bouts of anger and madness, the second act is the definition of fury unbound, as Dae-Su embarks on a crusade of revenge, literally extracting teeth and dropping corpses to get answers; one highlight is a magnificently executed corridor fight scene where our hero fights off dozens of prison guards with nothing more than hammer, all done in a single take. Bloody revenge gives way to resolution, and the script cranks up the tension another notch until the mystery behind his abduction is revealed - it will keep you guessing, and most won't see the devastating final twist coming. The leads are well chosen, but the real winner here is Min-sik Choi who bites into the role like a true force of nature. A brilliantly conceived and produced thriller, Oldboy will have audiences (and especially genre fans) on the edge of their seats, grinning and grimacing in equal measure. Winner of the Grand Prix at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival.
Entertainment: 8/10

Old School (2003)
Starring: Luke Wilson, Will Ferrell, Vince Vaughn
Director: Todd Phillips
Plot: After splitting up with his girlfriend, a thirty-something bachelor and his friends decide to start a fraternity near a University campus and catch the ire of the hard-nosed Dean when they become incredibly popular.
Review: Gross-out comedies are nothing new, but ones that manage to plunge into real, universal humor and manage to do it with some redeemable sensitivity are a real find (think American Pie or There's Something About Mary). Enter Old School which can be classed in that very same category. Some might find it a sort of modern, grown-up (literally) update to Animal House, another frat-boy comedy that's as disgusting and raunchy as any, but there's also a surprising amount of clever and accurate humor to be found as well as more than enough charm to make it work on its own merits. More than not, the craziness that ensues as the 30-plus professionals revert back to their party days is just plain hilarious. As the writer / director of the popular teen comedy Road Trip, Philips is no stranger to uproarious and raunchy films, and here he's really topped it off in his warm-hearted look at three adults disillusioned by their lives and trying one last stab at the times they had. The three leads are perfectly chosen, with Wilson pervading a certain goofy charm and Vaughn a strangely unconcerned fatherly sensitivity. However the real find is Saturday Night Live alumni Ferrell as "Frank the Tank" whose shameless party-animal buffoonery epitomizes the Hollywood fraternity stereotype and adds an added layer of comic nuance. Sure, the plot is familiar and pretty much follows things by-the-numbers, but it's the situations, tight, funny script and the solid use of a great cast that makes Old School work surprisingly well.
Comedy: 8/10

The Omen (1976)
Starring: Gregory Peck, Lee Remick, David Warner
Director: Richard Donner
Plot: The American ambassador to England unwittingly adopts and raises the son of the Devil, a child who uses his evil powers to kill the people around him.
Review: Efficient in its thrills, The Omen is one of the better big-budget horror films to come out of Hollywood in the '70s and still holds quite well. Obviously playing off on the success of The Exorcist, The Omen returns the horror to the family, but tries to raise the terror a notch by relying much more on constant shock value for effect. The film has some creepy atmosphere (helped by an Oscar-winning soundtrack), and an effective, well paced script that keeps the audiences' attention. Some of the imaginative death scenes, especially the impaling of a priest and the now-classic window-pane decapitation, are still impressive. Gregory Peck adds a lot of class to the film, as well, and the rest of the cast is quite convincing. Followed by three lesser sequels.
Horror: 7/10

Omertà (Quebec - 2012)
Starring: Michel Côté, Patrick Huard, Stéphane Rousseau, Rachelle Lefevre 
Director: Luc Dionne
Plot: An ex-cop specializing in organized crime recruits a female agent to infiltrate the Montreal mafia, stumbling upon a conspiracy involving an ambitious gold heist between banks. 
Review: Based on a well-received and popular French-Canadian TV series of the 90's, Omertà is a new chapter in the on-going adventures of local cops and the organized-crime that has its hands in local society. The mafia is still at the center of the intrigue, with a plot straight from international headlines. The stakes are high, the premise sound, and the execution slick. The strong local cast, including Côté as the experienced ex-cop, Huard as an undercover agent who's gone too far, and comic Rousseau as an unrecognizable tough-guy criminal who oozes menace, add as much heft as they can muster. Unfortunately, the melodrama, the character interactions and the dialogue are not up to par for a big-screen outing. The actors get angry, lose their temper, have words to say, yet it's not as successful, interesting, or punchy as it should be, and the worst offender is Rachelle Lefevre who remains unconvincing as the expert undercover gal - at least until her final scene. And I'll try not to snort in derision as to why René Angelil (best known as Mr. Céline Dion) got a role as the local Brando-esque Godfather. Initially meant as a new TV miniseries, the film seems to rush through the more interesting parts of what made Omertà so successful as TV drama. The production is slick, the cinematography is capable, but creator / director Dionne just doesn't show the assurance needed to make this work: gone is much of the suspense and thrilling drama to be replaced by a rather pedestrian narrative - or perhaps this all just doesn't work as well in theaters, where expectations are blown up to big-screen size. The film's only highlight is a sub-plot revolving around the killing of a cop, - one that makes for an unexpected and appreciated jolt; it's the most interesting development, but what promises to finally give us some meat to chew on in this morality tale is not given it's proper due. As a crime thriller, Omertà has its good points; with a tighter script and editing, this may have been a contender. As it stands, though, it just disappoints.
Drama: 4/10

Once a Thief (1991)
Starring: Chow Yun-Fat, Leslie Cheung, Cherie Chung
Director: John Woo
Plot: Three care-free art thieves embark on a stealing spree across Europe, but are put into jeopardy when they must face their adoptive father, a Chinese crime lord, over a "cursed" painting.
Review: Once a Thief, a light-hearted dramatic comedy with action elements, is a slight departure for action director John Woo, more famous for his violent bullet-laden features (The Killer, Face/Off), but not much of one. The situations are amusing, the slap-dash sequences of thievery are fun, and the three characters are charming with Chow Yun-Fat especially putting out all his comedic fervor in the role, but it's all seems a bit uneven and sometimes even plodding and forced. Even the pre-requisite Woo action scenes, including some decent ones including car chases and gunfights, aren't as impressive as what we have come to expect from his other works. This is not to say that the film isn't entertaining - it is, and sometimes it's even quite funny and inventive in its silliness, but it just doesn't live up to its potential. The bizarre epilogue actually provides the biggest laugh! Once a Thief ends up being an enjoyable, if not completely successful, experiment from one of Hong Kong's best directors.
Entertainment: 7/10

Once Upon a Time in China 3 (Hong Kong - 1992)
Starring: Jet Li, Max Mok, Rosamund Kwan
Director: Tsui Hark
Plot: Martial arts master Wong Fei Yuk must stop an assassination attempt on the Chinese prime minister to take place during a nation-wide Lion Dance competition, all while fighting off a vicious gang bound on winning the event.
Review: Though seemingly more focused on rich, colorful pageantry than on outrageous martial artistry, Once Upon a Time in China 3 is a worthy continuation to the series. The story is a little more campy, a bit more smarmy, with an intrigue that is less politically-inclined, aiming squarely for more mainstream entertainment. The over-the-top fight scenes are imbued with a much greater dose of humor this time around and the action sequences are definitely above average and definitely entertaining but somehow not quite as impressive or original as those present in the previous films, though Jet Li is still in top form displaying his amazing fight and acrobatic skills. Director Hark (Peking Opera Blues, Once Upon a Time in China) shows off his usual cinematic flourishes and fine story-telling sense but one can't help feeling during the proceedings that the filmmakers were making a half-hearted sequel. The pacing sometimes suffers and the story lacks the urgency and energy on display in the first two. The film does however contain some beautifully mounted shots and some very colorful cinematography thanks to the brilliant traditional Lion costumes and extensive dance choreography featuring hundreds of martial artists. The climactic competition is an amazing production, if a bit too long to keep our attention focused, and the chaos on screen due to the many participants involved doesn't allow the audience to appreciate it. Still, all told Once Upon a Time in China 3 has a lot going for it and is a fine, enjoyable piece of Hong Kong martial arts / fantasy that only pales slightly in comparison to its predecessors.
Entertainment: 7/10

Once Upon a Time in China and America (Hong Kong - 1997)
Starring: Jet Li, Rosamund Kwan, Hung Yan-Yan
Director: Sammo Hung
Plot: The legendary hero Wong Fei Hung travels to the Old West to start up a clinic only to lose his memory, be taken in by an Indian tribe, and end up battling villainous cowboys.
Review: The sixth installment of the popular OUATIC series breaks the mold by combining the typical kung-fu film with a Western, and doing the "fish out of water" plot for laughs. The concept is interesting, but the execution, a mix of Sergio Leone type spaghetti western and Hong Kong action, doesn't quite work. The most interesting idea, that of Wong Fei Hung being taken in by a Native American tribe, is just not developed enough. As for the rest of the B-grade Western story, filled with typical snarling cowboy villains and terribly stereotyped Indians, it's just banal. Even the action sequences, the very crux of these movies, is mostly sub-par. Jet Li still does some impressive moves, but the action choreography is nowhere near the level one comes to expect from the series or the people involved. Entertaining enough, but ultimately disappointing.
Action: 5/10
Entertainment: 4/10

Once Upon a Time in Mexico (2003)
Starring: Antonio Banderas, Johnny Depp, Salma Hayek
Director: Robert Rodriguez
Plot: A mariachi / gun-slinger joins forces with a devious CIA agent to exact revenge for the killing of his wife on a renegade Mexican general and soon finds himself in the middle of a coup d'état planned by the local drug lord.
Review: A sequel to the cult classics El Mariachi and Desperado, Once Upon a Time in Mexico is an ode to the fanciful Sergio Leone epic westerns (hence the title), albeit one dipped in uppers and adrenaline, one more akin to the fanciful excess of Hong Kong than the spaghetti westerns. There's what might have been a complicated story here (there are enough characters and sub-plots going around, that's for sure!) but the whole mess eventually takes a back seat to the stylish coolness and outright playfulness of the often disjointed narrative. And out goes all possible "seriousness", too: it's often bloody, but it's all done in a very humorous, if sometimes cheesy, tone. Much like the previous two entries, the film is simply joyful excess, where well-conceived action and colorful visual style are the order of the day. Indeed, there's enough gunplay, double-crosses and outrageous comedy / thrills to fill two movies and though shot on a modest budget compared to most blockbuster fare, it looks good and plays out well. Writer / director and Jack-of-all-Trades Rodriguez (who "shot, chopped and scored" the movie, too) has come a long way from the humble beginnings of El Mariachi (reportedly done for a pittance, around $7,000) with films like Spy Kids under his belt. The star-studded cast is a mixed bag: Hayek has no more than a glorified cameo role, Mickey Rourke is forgettable, Ruben Blades is better than his material, and Willem Dafoe's attempt at a Mexican drug lord role is pretty horrid. However, Banderas once again shines in the hero role, all cold looks and sizzling charm, but it's Depp who really steals the show as a vicious double-crossing CIA agent, playing it to the hilt. It might not be perfect, but as an amusing (final?) entry in the series, Once Upon a Time in Mexico is a solid hit.
Entertainment: 7/10

Once Upon a Time in Triad Society 2 (Hong Kong - 1996)
Starring: Francis Ng, Roy Cheung, Cheung Tat-Ming
Director: Cha Chuen-Yee
Plot: Second-rate members of opposing Triad gangs, one morally-corrupt and looking for notoriety, the other a coward and desperate to avoid violence, are forcibly involved in a large-scale brawl in the streets of Hong Kong.
Review: Unsure if it should be a melodrama or a comedy, the film doesn't provide much of either. The story tries to take a different spin to the crime genre, showing "real" people behind the violence, but the story is not particularly engaging, and the characters, though interesting, aren't properly flushed out. It does have its moments, though, (especially the scene when the coward is pushed to kill the rival gang-leader) and ends up being passably entertaining fare.
Entertainment: 4/10

The One (2001)
Starring: Jet Li, Carla Gugino, Jason Statham
Director: James Wong
Plot: A police officer is hunted by an evil version of himself from a technologically advanced alternate-reality, one that possesses super-human strength and reflexes.
Review: The concept behind The One - the parallel universes, action star Jet Li, etc. - held the promise of providing a thrilling action / sci-fi flick. Unfortunately, this is shallow stuff from the veteran X-Files writer / director team of James Wong and Glen Morgan, a film that lacks their usual wit and imagination that tries to cover the occasionally excruciating plot with quick editing, annoying music, and loads of (decidedly impressive) special effects. The rather simplistic story takes its elements from other, better films such as Highlander and The Matrix as well as other duds such as Timecop and even Double Impact. The action scenes try to out-do The Matrix in its slo-mo choreography by Corey Yuen (Enter the Eagles, Fong Sai Yuk), but fans of Li will be disappointed that his real martial arts skills are buried under a large amount of wire-work and computer-enhancements. Thankfully the film is peppered with some cool special-effects-laden fight sequences, such as Li crushing an opponent with two motorcycles, or the film's piece-de-resistance, the climactic confrontation with Jet Li fighting himself. The movie's run time is really short (about 80 minutes) and what we do get is an efficient, fast-paced pulp sci-fi actioner by doing away with all the "fat" such as drama, suspense, character development, and even story. There's a lot of missed opportunities here for some interesting sci-fi twists, but as long as you don't take any of this seriously, The One is passable, dumb entertainment.
Entertainment: 5/10

One Nite in Mongkok (Hong Kong - 2004)
Starring: Daniel Wu, Cecilia Cheung, Alex Fong
Director: Derek Yee
Plot: With the help of a young, streetwise prostitute a teenaged hitman from the Mainland tries to locate his target, the leader of a criminal gang, but soons finds out he's been sold out by his boss as the entire Hong Kong police force closes in on him.
Review: Gritty and textured in its world view and characters, One Nite in Mongkok feels like a mix of the better "serious" HK crime dramas that came out of the 90's, but it just doesn't have enough personality or style to make it a serious contender. Derek Yee (who gave us Full Throttle and the romance Lost in Time) takes a more realistic approach to his filmmaking and gives a tale that's well enough done, production-wise, and quite deliberately paced. There's an obvious searching here for more than the usual stuff: the violence and gunplay are brutal, the players in this tragedy are tainted, and there's an emotional core to the situations. Unfortunately, the script is an amalgam of ideas and characters that can't help but remind one of other films, lacking any real substance of its own. As a cop drama or a crime thriller, it's all terribly familiar, from the cops going all-out on the streets to the lone-killer-with-a-heart-of-gold being double-crossed by his own boss. What makes it different is the addition of the drama of mainland teens facing the harsh reality of life in Hong Kong - but even that was already done better in Comrades, Almost a Love Story and Durian Durian, the latter even having a similar girl-prostitute as the lead. As for the cast, the male leads Wu and Fong are solid, if rather stoic, as the young hitman and the hardened cop, but Cheung plays it too ditzy to be sympathetic. All in all, One Nite in Mongkok has the ingredients to be an interesting take on the genre, but isn't quite engaging enough to make it anything but average fare.
Drama / Entertainment: 5/10

Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior (Thailand - 2003)
Starring: Tony Jaa, Petchtai Wongkamlao, Pumwaree Yodkamol
Director: Prachya Pinkaew
Plot: When a village's sacred buddha statuette in stolen, a young paesant embarks on a journey to the seedy side of Bangkok to recover it from underworld boss who deals in religious treasures.
Review: Bucking the trend of expansive, fantasy Asian action flicks of late, Ong-Bak is an unabashed, stalwart fallback to old-style kung-fu flicks we grew up with, ones where the star lead would do their own death-defying stunts with no wires and no special effects. Most everything we loved about those 70's flicks is here - including the paper-thin melodramatic plot - only updated for modern audiences, with better pacing and much slicker cinematography. Just like those films, the story takes its time to get going, even throwing in some rather unnecessary filler involving a fellow villager who has lost his way in the big city. But once our naive hero arrives in town, its almost non-stop action. And the stunts are literally jaw-dropping, from the flying (and in one case flaming) leaps and bone-crunching blows to the acrobatics displayed during a memorable chase scene on foot, including jumps between two panes of glass, and through a wreath of barbed wire - it's enough to make one gape in astonishment. The bloody, brutal climax, a fury of kicks and elbow blows to heads and groins, will satisfy any action fan. Director Pinkaew knows enough to throw in as much inventive, authentic-looking carnage as he possibly can in his one chance at international recognition - and it has worked admirably. True, the fighting does get a bit repetitive, but - despite having little real acting to do - there's no denying the impressive skills of its new martial arts star Jaa, showing off a local brand of martial artistry that will be new to movie-goers called Muay Thai. For any action fan, Ong-Bak is a treat not to be missed.
Entertainment: 7/10

Ong bak 2 (Thailand - 2008)
Starring: Tony Jaa, Sorapong Chatree, Nirut Sirichanya
Directors: Tony Jaa, Panna Rittikrai
Plot: To avenge the death of his parents at the hands of a regional lord, a young boy rises to become the feared leader of a group of bandits.
Review: A sequel in name only to the internationally acclaimed Thai action flick that made Tony Jaa a household name to action connoisseurs, Ong Bak 2 is a period action piece that promises epic scope, larger-than-life characters and (of course) lots of violent, amazing combat, yet ultimately fails to engage. The film does get kudos for its lush production values and art direction, but there's surprisingly little of the bone-crunching martial arts action we'd expect from the people involved in Ong-Bak and The Protector - at least until the terrific final act, in which our patience is rewarded with a series of escalating set pieces involving multitudes of expert fighters and climaxing in a brutal fight on top of (and involving) an elephant that must be a first in cinema. These scenes somewhat make up for the otherwise banal tale of revenge and melodrama, but it's clear that in trying to create a more involving storyline (and the key word is "trying") the filmmakers have forgotten the very reason most audiences have come to the theatre: that's to see a fast-moving thriller in which Jaa gets to give loads of ass-kickings while delivering some awe-inspiring stunts, something the films just simply lacks. Perhaps the failure is attributable because of the much-publicized breakdown in the relationship between leading man and director, or Jaa's infamous Marlon Brando-esque months-long disappearance into the jungle. In any case, most fans will come out disappointed, even if the unaided fight sequences are still impressive to look at, especially after the abrupt, awkward and - for a low-brow action flick - thoroughly unsatisfying ending. Still, there's hope that the inevitable Ong-Bak 3 will be better.
Entertainment: 6/10

On the Run (Hong Kong - 1988)
Starring: Yuen Biao, Pat Ha, Charles Chin
Director: Alfred Cheung
Plot: Accused of murder and on the run from the law, a small-time cop is forced to accept the help of his wife's killer to protect his young daughter from crooked detectives.
Review: First look would relinquish this is an effort derivative of many similar chase movies, but On the Run is a well-crafted, often nasty little action thriller. Though there's an amazing pole jump stunt early on, there are few stunts or fights that really show off acrobat extraordinaire Biao's excellent martial abilities - instead, the film is played straight, with a sense of realism to the gun battles and bloody, chaotic fist-fights. Biao does get a chance to extend his acting range as the troubled cop, and he's a terrific asset to any film, but he's just not Chow Yun fat material - relegating him to this sort of film is just a waste. Still, he does well here with Ha, as the cold-hearted female killer turned protector, and they make a good pairing. In fact, it's their bizarre relationship, one created out of necessity, that makes the film worthy of note as much as the relentless narrative. Much like the title, director Cheung is steadfast in keeping things moving along and as dark (both in the cinematography and in the pervading atmosphere) as possible, sucking all the possible humor out. The melodrama is also amped, of course, but it mostly works, especially during a touching, tragic scene with the young daughter we'd never see in a Hollywood film. The final confrontation is appropriately bloody for such a revenge flick, but as the villains try to save their skin, the acting gets a bit too over-the-top. Still, despite its flaws, On the Run is an efficient, gritty effort that's worth a look.
Entertainment: 6/10

Open Season (2006)
Starring: Martin Lawrence, Ashton Kutsher, Gary Sinise
Directors: Jill Culton, Roger Allers
Plot: After a series of mishaps, a domesticated bear is returned to the wild to fend for himself and must learn to work with the denizens of the forest to avoid ending up as a trophy during hunting season.
Review: The first computer-animated effort from Sony, Open Season is a great showcase for its animators, but not for its storytellers. Yes, it has the walking / talking animal thing down pat, the animation is on par with most of the latest CGI flicks - from Over the Hedge to The Wild - the required in-jokes are all in place, as are the expected eccentric characters, improbable situations, and final theme of friendship. Yet the tried-and-true formula has been passed through the blender, giving a product lacking the necessary touch of originality or magic that would make it memorable or entertaining. The script just can't keep audience attention, either with an engaging story or in that attention-deficient-disorder way some other films manage to do (like Chicken Little), especially now that we expect more from these films than eye candy. The CGI is well rendered, especially for the expressive bear, but the moment it opens its mouth Lawrence destroys any illusion. At least the energetic performance from Kutscher allows him to come off unscathed, and there's some decent stuff from the voice acting by the likes of Sinise, Debra Messing and Billy Connolly. All is not lost, however: the final attack against the hunters, a Braveheart-like affair pitting forest animals against armed hunters, is definitely the highlight of the film, and what the animals do to the poor, dim-witted bunnies is hilarious. Warning, though: The story of the nasty hunter is actually pretty dark, and could scare smaller kids. Open Season does miss the mark as a family film, being neither smart or clever enough for adults nor fun enough for kids, but it is passable fare for those in need of an animated fix.
Entertainment: 5/10

Open Water (2004)
Starring: Blanchard Ryan, Daniel Travis
Director: Chris Kentis
Plot: A young couple get stranded in shark-infested waters while on a scuba diving expedition when they accidentally get left behind by their tour boat.
Review: Loosely based on a true event, Open Water is a tense tale of Man at the mercy of Nature - and what little power we truly have. Some have compared it to The Blair Witch Project in terms of its creative, low-budget filmmaking but while both work from a high-concept premise and limited plot, the comparisons end there. Shot with only its husband-and-wife crew, writer-director-editor Chris Kentis (Grind) has kept only the very basics in place, and it works. Its minimalist, almost documentary-like film techniques and use of hand-held video cameras makes every scene more immediate. The use of real sharks for many of its scenes only enhances the realism. But the filmmakers make the most of what you don't see, making the suspense and tension tangible. Though the immediate threat may be sharks this isn't Jaws and audiences expecting a fast-paced popcorn flick will be disappointed. What it does bring to the table is a strong feeling of "you are there" as its lost couple cling to each other in desperation as the implacable sea - beautifully shot yet always with its hint of menace - takes its toll on them physically and psychologically. Indeed, more than the threat of bodily harm is the feeling of abandonment, of being lost and stranded, as all their hopes of being rescued fade away. Casting two unknown leads actually enhances the realism, and both Ryan and Travis convince as the workaholic couple. Starting off as two people who appear to have intimacy issues, they actually warm us over as their dire straits become a nightmare, and their all-too-human failings come to the fore. More than the thrills and scares, it is the script's success in showing the strong emotional bond between the two that makes the whole thing work. And the ending is just plain wrenching. Open Water ends up as perfect proof that a good concept, a smart script and a lot of ambition can make a film that can compete with any Hollywood product.
Drama: 7/10

Open Your Eyes (Abre Los Ojos) (Spain - 1997)
Starring: Eduardo Noriega, Penelope Cruz
Director: Alejandro Amenabar
Plot: A handsome and wealthy playboy gets his due when an old flame coerces him to take a ride with her and deliberately crashes her car leaving him terribly disfigured. Soon, he is being shunned by the people around him, is plagued by fierce nightmares that start invading reality, and is accused of a murder he can't remember anything about.
Review: Open Your Eyes is a romance, fantasy and psychological mystery rolled into one. Good suspense, decent acting, and nice camerawork help out a seemingly complex and "adult" story with some good plot twists and some occasionally thought-provoking moments. Unfortunately those twists become predictable half-way through the film and the story doesn't seem well-enough thought-out to make it all convincing. Trying to bring in too many different ideas into the same story, director Amenabar has produced an interesting, imaginative, but ultimately flawed film.
Entertainment: 7/10

Operation Condor (1991)
Starring: Jackie Chan, Carol Cheng
Director: Jackie Chan
Plot: A daring treasure-hunter and his three female partners search for an old cache of Nazi gold in the African desert.
Review: The story runs along from one vignette to another, like a series of cliff-hangers tied together but with little actual cohesion. But who cares? It's just an excuse for some amazing, death-defying stunts - especially a great bike / car chase at the beginning of the film, and the final 20 minute fight sequence against the plunderers. Jackie Chan is definitely at the peak of his form here. The intended laughs are at times misogynistic and juvenile, detracting sometimes from the enjoyment of the film. Despite that, the mix of silly physical comedy, hectic action and a large dash of Indiana-Jones type adventure makes Operation Condor a great, mindless action flick. 
Action: 9/10
Entertainment: 8/10

Option Zero (Hong Kong - 1997)
Starring: Julian Cheung, Anthony Wong, Carman Lee
Director: Dante Lam 
Plot: A cop from Hong Kong's elite Special Bureau branch has a hard time balancing life with his girlfriend who's just moved in and the tough, sometimes violent, requirements of his job.
Review: A sequel of sorts to First Option and Final Option, Option Zero is director Lam's (Beast Cops, Jiang Hu: The Triad Zone) first feature, trying to recreate the difficult lives of its Special Bureau protagonists. Unfortunately, apart from two intense action scenes, the rest of the film is dreadfully boring, worse so than the previous two. The story is, for the most part, completely antiseptic in its portrayal of these cops social lives. It all comes out as badly written filler, the soap-opera situations so badly drawn it's impossible to care for any of it. Worse, it takes up an inordinate amount of the film's running time. When it comes down to brass tacks, we don't even know who the bad guys are or why they are, and even the police procedurals leading to them barely register. What saves the film from being a complete waste of time are two superbly done, well-choreographed and well shot action sequences that show off a good sense of director Lam's true abilities. The first, an explosive confrontation with arms dealers, leads to a showdown with anti-tank missiles (!) that's excellent. The second, final one, is an exciting, extended fire-fight with Korean terrorists that dispenses bullets like no other. The cast is for the most part OK, with the terrific character actor Wong making up for much, but none of them are terribly convincing. In the end, though the few action sequences are expertly handled, it's all Option Zero has going for it, and it can be a chore to sit through the melodrama it takes to get there.
Entertainment: 4/10

The Order (2003)
Starring: Heath Ledger, Shannyn Sossamon, Mark Addy
Director: Brian Helgeland
Plot: After his mentor dies in a bizarre manner, a young priest heads for the Vatican to uncover the whereabouts of a mysterious, centuries-old Sin -Eater who can absolve the dying of their sins and allow entry into Heaven.
Review: From its rich visuals and uncanny resemblance in its themes and approach (both visual and narrative-wise) The Order seeks to imitate The Exorcist, but it's too slow going and flaccid to be a modern-era horror picture and too silly to be a theological thriller. Oh, the premise is a good one, but the story never quite reaches the heights of its ambitions. With dialogue that just doesn't cut it and characters that aren't interesting (or sympathetic) enough for us to care, the film is too talky and mundane at first, making it feel as if it would have made a good book, instead of a poor adaptation of one. It picks up a tad during the second half, and there's even a neat twist towards the end that perks up the film, but by then we've lost patience and appreciation for what the filmmakers might have been trying to do. There are interesting ideas here, such as the Sin-Eater himself (what good is the Church when anyone can enter Heaven?), or the internal struggle of a priest in search of God, or the difficulties of changing with the times - they're just not well developped. And the less we say about the nonsense romantic sub-plot thrown in, the better. Writer / director Helgeland (who actually won an Oscar for co-writing L.A. Confidential) reteams with his cast from the charming and energetic medieval fluff piece A Knight's Tale. Unfortunately, he's forgotten what makes for an interesting feature, showing none of the flair or energy necessary to make any of this really engaging or at least entertaining. The pacing is ponderous, the scenes overly theatrical and bland, with the supernatural elements (and SFX) seemingly thrown in for good measure. The three leads manage to avoid making fools of themselves, but it's not for lack of trying, especially during the troubled-love scenes between Ledger and Sossamon. Benno Fürmann, as the Sin-Eater, does a decent job of creating a character who is a sort of sympathetic villain, while the erstwhile Peter Weller plays it over-the-top as a Bishop with images of grandeur. There are some rewards to be had, but for the most part The Order is a tedious exercise in horror stylishness over theological substance, and one that will quickly disappear into the depths of video purgatory.
Entertainment: 3/10

Ordinary Decent Criminal (2000)
Starring: Kevin Spacey, Linda Fiorentino, Peter Mullan
Director: Thaddeus O'Sullivan 
Plot: A family man makes a career out of being a criminal whose extravagant exploits make him the most wanted thief in Dublin.
Review: Starting from the basis of true-life events, Ordinary Decent Criminal is more an amalgam of present-day, Robin-Hood type folk heroes. Comparisons to Boorman's The General, which more closely portrays the real-life adventures of Martin Cahill, may be hard to avoid, but it would also be ill-placed as the film is much more inclined towards the action and confrontational aspects of this fictional story than on any realism or drama. Spacey gives a mostly decent, charming performance as the thief loved by the public and hated by the police, though his accent sometimes wavers, and the rest of the cast is suitable for their roles. There are some clever moments, and some real poigant scenes, but the many capers, done with great style and humor, all seem a little too simplistic. More akin to a good TV movie than a feature film, Ordinary Decent Criminal still makes for an enjoyable, well-written and fast-paced rental.
Entertainment: 6/10

Ordinary Heroes (Hong Kong - 1999)
Starring: Lee Kang-Sheng, Rachel Lee, Anthony Wong
Director: Ann Hui
Plot: Dramatization of the plight of Hong Kong boat people in the 1980's who, due to a controversial law that left them stranded and their families divided, took to the streets in protest.
Review: Real-life dramatizations are always a difficult task, and more so if the subject is one that few people are aware of or care about. With Ordinary Heroes director Hui (Summer Snow) manages to portray these ordinary people fighting for social reform with a convincing sense of realism without the trite necessity for embellishment so typical of docu-dramas. There are a lot of subjects covered here, from the main focus on the plight of Hong Kong "boat brides", to a general sense of political activism in the 1980's, to the personal stories of its protagonists. The film even includes the real-life story of a local communist activist of the 70s told through a street theater monologue cut throughout the film. The protest footage is shot in an effective documentary style, blending the realism of the '80s activism with the carefully studied character drama that Hui is so good at capturing on film. The film also plays with the narrative's time-line, trying to give all the characters and events equal opportunity for exposure, but it doesn't always manage to keep events clearly delineated. The cast is uniformly solid, with a dramatic, low-key performance from character actor Anthony Wong as a priest willing to go on a hunger strike for the cause. Hui has always had a penchant for presenting real-life incidents and situations, giving breath to some very personal films. With so many different elements, Ordinary Heroes sometimes loses focus yet remains a delicate, revealing look at these everyday people trying to make a difference, and one that merits attention.
Drama: 7/10

Osmosis Jones (2001)
Starring: Chris Rock, David Hyde Pierce, Bill Murray
Directors: Farrelly Bros., Tom Sito
Plot: A maverick white-blood cell / cop teams up with a tough straight-arrow 12-hour cold capsule to rid its human host, a beer-swilling junk food slob, from an attack by a deadly virus.
Review: A mix of live-action events and internal bodily-function animation, Osmosis Jones is as schizophrenic as the two different media can possibly be. The live-action portions, directed by the Farrelly bros. in their heart-tugging gross-out mode, is occasionally amusing but moves slowly, and doesn't come anywhere near being as hilarious as their classic efforts in There's Something About Mary. Sure, zits pop, vomit spews, farts abound but there's nothing particularly interesting here, though Bill Murray plays the slovenly, hygiene-handicapped, junk-food loving dad with appropriate grace. The animated sequences cutting back and forth and directed by Tom Sito (Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Antz) however are a joy to behold and seem to be created for another audience entirely. Presented in bold colors and efficient animation is a veritable teeming metropolis, a society that mirrors our own with cops, crooked politicians, and even discos. Basically, it's human biology made fun, in an enchanting and imaginative rendering of the inner workings of the human body. The script for these parts is full of pun-ny dialogue relating to human anatomy, while clever visual details abound. It loses a bit of steam at the end, but it's a wild ride until then. Rock and Pierce do a great parody of the standard cop-buddy fare as a they zoom through the broken down body and engage in the usual action / crime shenanigans with a very biological twist, battling mob germs in the armpit, driving down the Vena Cava freeway, battling pollen, escaping mucus mud slides etc. on their quest to rid the body of a slick virus (voiced by Laurence Fishburne). While the melodrama and crude humor of the real-world portion isn't worth the time, the animated world is brilliantly realized and worth a second look; it's too bad Osmosis Jones couldn't afford a longer look at its microscopic denizens.
Entertainment / Comedy: 6/10

The Osterman Weekend (1983)
Starring: Rutger Hauer, John Hurt, Burt Lancaster
Director: Sam Peckinpah
Plot: An influential TV show host is forcibly recruited by the CIA to attempt to turn his KGB-influenced college buddies during their annual weekend get-together.
Review: Despite a solid cast and legendary director, The Osterman Weekend, based on the short Robert Ludlum thriller of the same name, just comes off as a little too campy and forced to be a stand-out. Director Peckinpah made his name with a series of violent, bloody works such as The Wild Bunch and Straw Dogs. It's too bad that this, his last film, is a forgettable, second-rate thriller that fails to bring any suspense or any of his trademark action to the screen. In fact, the action is rather tame compared to more recent fare and, apart from a rather badly staged car chase towards the beginning, is mostly concentrated towards the end in a short brawl and a decent machine-gun vs. power-bow shoot-out. The film's R rating is more for the "adult" content than it is for any real violence, a surprising amount of unnecessary nudity to show, perhaps, Peckinpah aiming for a theme of surveillance paranoia and voyeurism. The script tries to build tension by pitting the group of friends against one another, but without making any of these characters sympathetic, or setting up an aptly dramatic build up, it's hard to get into the swing of things. This being a thriller, there's the usual game of cat and mouse, with an interesting (if predictable) twist and, to be fair, the film does have its moments of humor and dirty tricks. Like in most of his films, Hauer seems a little too aloof, and Hurt too off kilter as the veteran field agent. Burt Lancaster, as the head CIA spook, gets off the best, but even he doesn't have a very meaty role. Still, The Osterman Weekend is a thriller that has aged badly but one that's still passable as late night entertainment.
Entertainment: 4/10

Othello (1952)
Starring: Orson Welles, Michael MacLiammoir
Director: Orson Welles
Plot: Othello, general of the armies of Cyprus, marries the fair Desdemona but is taken in by the lies and intrigues of his jealous lieutenant Iolo who seeks revenge by destroying their relationship.
Review: Based on the classic tale by Shakespeare, Othello is a good abridged version of the Bard's text, though Welles does take some liberty with the order of some of the passages. The actors are all decent, but not terrific, except for Welles himself who plays the title character with a great theatrical sense of melancholy and despair. What really makes the film remarkable is the castle scenery, the cinematography, the incredible use of lights and shadows, making it as much a feast for the eyes as it is a striking feat of narration, breaking through the limitations of normal black-and-white films to create a style that could only be shown in black-and-white. Winner of the 1952 Palme d'Or at Cannes, Othello is one of Orson Welles' fascinating, but regrettably mostly unseen, masterpieces.
Drama: 8/10

The Others (2001)
Starring: Nicole Kidman, Christopher Eccleston, Elaine Cassidy
Director: Alejandro Amenabar
Plot: A British housewife cares for her two young photosensitive children in a large, forbidding mansion, and insists that the new servants keep the house hidden from sunlight but haunting presences in the house seem to have plans of their own.
Review: Though comparisons to The Sixth Sense may be inevitable, The Others by Spanish director Amenabar (Open Your Eyes) is a well-made, evocative supernatural thriller in its own right. In what appears to be a period piece akin to Henry James' The Turn of the Screw, this stylish, haunted house tale takes its time to create a pervading eerie atmosphere that provides more certified chills than out-right scares. Like a master craftsman, Amenabar uses all the classic techniques, the creaking floorboards, the strange whispers, the dark, brooding interiors that are so well captured by the excellent cinematography, and an effective musical score to great effect, providing an escalating tension through most of the film. The most interesting part is that the film leaves one unsure if there actually is a presence in the house or not - there are no special effects or sudden surprises here, to the film's advantage. And yet, there are some dramatic moments that are a bit too drawn out, and the suspense doesn't always hold fast. Thankfully at the very heart of the film is Kidman who does a wonderful, powerful performance as an over-protective, overzealous mother who slowly falls into hysteria, and seeing the narrative tract from her perspective adds much to the unease the audience feels. Her performance is definitely the pin that holds the entire movie together, her fears, longings and desperation so well expressed that they soon reflect our own. The rest of the cast, and especially the children, are convincing and all play well together. Unfortunately, though the twist ending is decidedly clever, it ends up feeling a tad too clever and abrupt, taking away some of the charm of the film. Still, The Others is a fine, scary ghost story that joins the likes of The Haunting and The Innocents as an entertaining, old-fashioned gothic tale.
Entertainment / Horror: 7/10

Our Hospitality (1923)
Starring: Buster Keaton, Jack Blystone
Director: Buster Keaton
Plot: A city-dweller goes down South to reclaim a family estate only to be thrown into a generations-old feud with a rival family.
Review: Our Hospitality is a classic comedy of the silent era, full of inventive sight gags and incredible stunts and (literal) cliff-hangers by one of the great comic stars of movie history, the eternally stoic Buster Keaton. The scenes of the waterfall escape, and the train ride down especially, are hilarious. Not as impressive or as large in scope as his masterpiece The General, this is still a whimsical, funny, and inventive film with enough comedy to make Our Hospitality worth searching for. A timeless, charming comedy.
Entertainment: 7/10

Outbreak (1995)
Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Rene Russo, Morgan Freeman
Director: Wolfgang Petersen
Plot: An Army team of disease control specialists go up against a General with his own agenda when a U.S. ton gets infected with a deadly contagion.
Review: With a premise straight from today's headlines, and an opening sequence that literally starts with a bang, Outbreak promises to be a new kind of biological thriller. The premise and original progression of the story bring real fears to the forefront, and if the film had continued in this vein, it could have been a real tense (and scary) thriller. Unfortunately, half-way through it reverts to the standard, well-trodden formula of the predictable Hollywood genre. The suspense and biological thriller aspects that work so well in the beginning are too soon replaced by the typical action moments and stale suspense sequences. The ending is just too convenient and easy, with the final half-hour is more of the racing-against-the-clock hogwash with a ludicrous helicopter chase sequence, of all things. It's still an entertaining and lively exercise, but it could have been so much more enthralling and scary than it ultimately becomes. Director Peterson knows how to capture the inherent tension and drama in various situations (Das Boot, A Perfect Storm) and occasionally this comes out in the film, but some of his recent work in the U.S. has been mostly slick mainstream shlock (Air Force One, ...) just like this one ends up being. Oh, it's amusing enough, but it doesn't really leave a lasting impression. Russo and Hoffman are actually pretty good as the two scientists, even if the characters are pure Hollywood inventions and the relationship pretty clichéd. Freeman, however, is once again the best thing here, Sutherland does another staid bad guy turn, and Kevin Spacey and Cuba Gooding Jr. do fine supporting turns as research assistants. Despite its short-comings, the pacing is good, the actors are fun to watch (even when sprouting the silliest lines) and the script is well-enough rounded to make Outbreak a slightly above-average time waster.
Entertainment: 6/10

Outland (1981)
Starring: Sean Connery, Peter Boyle, Frances Sternhagen
Director: Peter Hyams
Plot: Fighting against the corruption that led to the death of dozens of workers, a marshall newly arrived at a mining colony on one of Jupiter's moons faces resentment from the miners as well as company goons out to kill him.
Review: Many an SF film has been dismissed as being a Western in space, and none more so than Outland, a pretty straightforward remake of the classic Gary Cooper flick High Noon. Indeed, the filmmakers don't try to hide the fact, going so far as creating the same kind of suspense (long takes of waiting for the train / shuttle to arrive), showdown (albeit using the setting to its advantage), and even throwing in a saloon and swinging doors to boot (!). Indeed, though there's lots of model effects, some space walking, etc to the film, there's little in terms of sci-fi. Indeed, some of the science aspect is ridiculous (no, our internal pressure would not make people explode in a vacuum), but that would be nit-picking a film that's really only intended as a thriller. On the plus side, much like the the more successful SF entries that came before it, the film is little on dialogue but long (sometimes too long) on atmosphere and the creation of a closed, bustling mining community; the production spared no expense to make the gritty colony look the part, and it's no surprise that it even looks at its precursor Alien for its sets and costumes. Writer / director Hyams (Capricorn One, 2010) creates a real sense of place, and if the film could have been edited to make for a tighter narrative (there's a lot of waiting for little happening), he does well with the few action scenes and keeps a nice level of tension going. The steady-cam chase sequence through the tight corridors and cafeteria, and the extended showdown inside and outside the colony quarters on their own might, for some, be worth the trip. But let's face it, the biggest reason to see the film is because Connery stars, and even if it's not his best role he's got enough charisma and rough humor to make even the most average of movies engaging. Though manager Boyle makes for an uninteresting villain, acting vet Sternhagen’s gives a fine supporting turn as the grizzled doctor. Outland may be a minor effort but as a straight-forward space-western it delivers the goods.
Entertainment: 6/10

The Outlander (Le Survenant) (Quebec - 2005)
Starring: Jean-Nicolas Verreault, Anick Lemay, Gilles Renaud 
Director: Eric Canuel
Plot: A handsome, mysterious traveler enters the life of a small tigh-knit rural community in the early 20th century Quebec and inadvertently causes resentment among the locals.
Review: Inspired by the popular 1945 novel by Germaine Guèvremont and the TV series of the '50s, Le Survenant is recast to the big screen as a period melodrama with quiet success. Turn-of-the-century stories about the hardships of living off the land and the closed rural mentality are becoming popular after the recent success of Séraphin, and local filmmaker Canuel (The Last Tunnel) shows an ease in getting into the era and the characters. The growing father-son relationship between outlander and his host is particularly touching, but the inhabitants are divided, of course, with their jealousies, resentments and the eternal fear of strangers rearing its ugly head. These moments are a little force-fed, especially since the outlying characters aren't well-formed, but they do get the films message of tolerance across. If the acting is somewhat theatrical, the film brings together a solid ensemble cast, and the charming Verreault makes a great impression as the hulking, handsome wanderer. Though we never really get to know his past or have a real look at his internal demons, he's a clearly conflicted man with a wanderlust that cannot be doused. Even the love of a good woman, and his clear attraction to her, can't convince him to stay put, providing a bitter-sweet resolution to their platonic affair. As for the look of the film, the vistas and cinematography are superb, and even the familiar surroundings, farms and rustic interiors look good for this sort of limited-budget effort. Le Survenant isn't a great film, perhaps, and it does tend to meander a bit, but all told it's a fine romantic melodrama to cozy up to.
Drama: 7/10

Over the Hedge (2006)
Starring: Bruce Willis, Garry Shandling, Steve Carell
Directors: Tim Johnson, Karey Kirkpatrick
Plot: With one week to return a huge amount of food to a murderous bear, a street-wise raccoon manipulates a group of park animals into stealing it from the human's suburban development on the other side of the hedge.
Review: A family-oriented version of a more caustic comic strip, Over the Hedge is another solid entry in the world of CGI features. Meant as a satire on suburban consumerism (with many easy jokes on SUVs, TV, and - of course - food) but watered-down for family consumption, the film is perhaps too self-aware, and too shallow, to really get any good barbs in on the subject. Like many recent computer animated features it's the zippy pacing, gag-ridden dialogue, and slapstick comedy routines that really make up the film - throw in some family-level sentimentality and American values and you've got a cookie-cutter crowd pleaser. Still, the animal animation is top-notch and the filmmakers make sure to keep the energy level high and the laugh quotient steady, if not plentiful, with enough wit and manically choreographed sequences to keep kids and adults amused. Willis and Shandling as the mischievous raccoon and stalwart, neurotic turtle, respectively, do a fine job, as do the slew of celebrities giving voice the the supporting characters (including Nick Nolte as the bear and William Shatner playing a possum who acts out lingering death scenes). The ensemble cast works well together, and the interactions between them are as funny as the predicaments they get into. If the film isn't going to be up to repeat viewings, at least Over the Hedge is a clever, entertaining concoction that's definitely above recent fare.
Entertainment: 6/10

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