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The Pacifier (2005)
Starring: Vin Diesel, Lauren Graham, Faith Lord
Director: Adam Shankman
Plot: A decorated Navy S.E.A.L. finds that baby-sitting is the toughest job when he is assigned to protect the young family of a deceased scientist from terrorists looking to get their hands on a top-secret device.
Review: Probably a comic vehicle for leading-man Diesel looking for that change of pace from action to comedy that worked so successfully with Schwarzenegger in Kindergarten Cop, The Pacifier starts off with an amusing premise but is nothing less than a low-brow, vacuous effort. The action is G-rated and thrill-less, the humor (centered on diaper gags and facing off a family of seeming brats) juvenile, the sentimentality awkward, and the limp plot terribly predictable. It's also probably the worst, most maddeningly inept body-guard effort ever put to screen - but then, one shouldn't expect logic here. By insisting on diluting everything to the level of 5-year old mentality this "family" comedy turns into something that only young kids can really love. Not to say it's a complete waste: director Shankman has the right feel for slapstick kiddie fare, Diesel is likable as the unlikely father-figure trading his macho demeanor for softie baby-sitter, and there are some funny moments related to taking care of his young charges. Still, you can't help thinking that Diesel deserved better than this. There's better family fare than The Pacifier to be had, but at least this one won't kill off anyone's brain cells watching it. 
Comedy: 4/10

Panic in the Streets (1950)
Starring: Richard Widmark, Paul Douglas, Jack Palance
Director: Elia Kazan
Plot: A public health doctor and a police commissioner are in a desperate race to track down the killers of a stowaway who carried the plague before the dangerous disease can spread across New Orleans.
Review: A police thriller with some surprisingly relevant issues, Panic in the Streets tackles themes such as the freedom of the press and biological disaster. In fact, the tale of plague hitting American shores seems quite avant-garde for its day, if not in our own 21st century paranoia of biological warfare. Winner of an Academy Award for best script, the rather unnecessary household melodrama thrown in (with its dated 1940's mores and stay-at-home wife) slows the pace down considerably, just as the manhunt and terror are at its peak. Meant as a metaphor for the infiltration of communism in post-wear America, with the good guys being the military and government types, the theme isn't very clear but doesn't have to be to enjoy the rest of the film. One of legendary (and infamous) director Kazan's first features, it shows a good grasp of the noir style - from its stark camera angles and high-contrast lighting - and of the storytelling abilities that would be more fully realized shortly after in such classic films as On the Waterfront and East of Eden. Shot exclusively on location and using New Orleans locales and scenery, including the use of non-professional actors in numerous small parts, gives it a more realistic feel but one never gets a real taste or feel for the city. If the cast of familiar faces do an apt job of it, the film will probably be best remembered as Jack Palance's feature debut; he's vile, despicable and intense as the small-time criminal trying to escape detention, attributes that would see him become a character actor of no small repute. In the end, Panic in the Streets is just an average effort as far as thrillers or film noir goes, but there's enough going on - and enough Jack - to keep audience interest throughout.
Entertainment: 6/10

Panic Room (2002)
Starring: Jodie Foster, Forest Whitaker, Jared Leto
Director: David Fincher
Plot: Trapped in a fortified room in their large New York townhouse, a divorced single mother and her daughter play a dangerous game of cat and mouse with three burglars who broke in seeking a fortune locked in with them.
Review: More akin to his mainstream work on The Game than on his controversial productions of Seven or Fight Club, Panic Room is nonetheless a terrific little thriller from director Fincher. The script from writer David Koepp (Jurassic Park, Stir of Echoes) isn't terribly original, but it doesn't have to be - it knows how to create a good dose of claustrophobic suspense, allowing for some neat twists that only increase the mounting tension as the standoff reverses itself. It doesn't hurt either that, instead of feeling confined by the limits of a single location, the material is elevated by Fincher's excellent directing skills (and his plethora of technical tricks, including some impressive-looking computer-enhanced tracking shots through the house) and an aptly dark, atmospheric cinematography. As for the cast, Foster offers up another great performance, as does Whitaker as the thief with a conscience and the young Kristen Stewart as Foster's diabetic daughter. It's not perfect, though: the robbers are often bumbling enough that some of the tension is diluted by their almost slapstick antics and the pacing isn't always up to par, with some moments (especially towards the middle) that slow things down a little too much. Still, these are minor points for such a well-crafted film, and there's more than enough good stuff in Panic Room, from the original opening credits to the white-knuckle finale, to keep even jaded audiences happy. 
Entertainment: 8/10


Pan's Labyrinth (Spain - 2006)
Starring: Maribel Verdu, Sergi López, Ivana Baquero
Director: Guillermo Del Toro
Plot: In the fascist Spain of the 1940's, the lonely young stepdaughter of a ruthless army captain escapes the violence of the Civil War by entering a strange fantasy world.
Review: Audiences are warned not to be fooled by the premise, as there is no childhood innocence present in Pan's Labyrinth, a disturbing adult fairy-tale that would make the Brothers Grimm proud, and is bound to bring nightmares to younger viewers. The major portion of the film involves our young heroine's plight in the real world, facing up to her uncaring, sadistic stepfather and trying to comfort her mother from the pain of a bad pregnancy. To this familial strife is added the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War, a time when resistance fighters hid away in the mountains, escaping the Fascist regime. There are a number of violent, bloody and almost shocking scenes of confrontation between army and rebels, and little real escape in the dark fantasy world, a place inhabited by strange, cruel creatures that is equally dangerous. The two stories have many parallels as seen by our young heroine who is faced with certain despair on both sides, their plots merging in the final tragic scene. Mixing elements from his own low-key ghost story The Devil's Backbone and his big-budget Hollywood flick Hellboy, director Del Toro returns to the more personal, Spanish-language tales of his early career. The story itself may sound familiar - girl escaping a harsh reality into fantasy - but Del Toro gives it a terrifying twist all his own and presents it all with some terrific visuals. Though it may not be the masterpiece some critics seem to think, it does present a very human, very affecting portrait of a lonely girl trying to make sense of her difficult surroundings. If the dramatic elements regarding the civil war and the cast of spies, heroes and villains are perhaps too simplistic (sometimes devolving into melodrama), the dream sequences are low-key but vividly captured by the fine artistic design. López as the prideful fascist officer who really makes an impression as the incarnation of true-life Evil and the rest of the cast does some fine work, but it is the young, wide-eyed Baquero who really brings an sadness to the proceedings. For creating such an imaginative and affecting tale, Pan's Labyrinth deserves many of its accolades and comes very close to being a truly remarkable film.
Drama / Entertainment: 7/10

Paranoia 1.0 (2004)
Starring: Jeremy Sisto, Deborah Kara Unger, Lance Henriksen
Director: Jeff Renfroe, Marteinn Thorsson
Plot: A computer programmer becomes increasingly paranoid when mysterious packages start appearing in his apartment starting a series of dangerous events with his eccentric neighbors.
Review: A modestly budgeted experiment in sci-fi paranoia, Paranoia 1.0 tries to channel the works of Kafka, with parts 1984 and Brazil in its depiction of a bleak future society. Set in the style of a noir thriller, there's some clever attempts at playing with perceptions, and the sense of uncertainty as to what's going on that adds a sense of mystery to a film. Unfortunately most of the running time is used to set-up the dreary, dark world and setting-up its punchline. The social commentary of corporate control and the message regarding the dangers of technology are never very clear, even in the final act. By then, most audiences will give up trying to understand what amounts to a fevered dream. But what a nightmare it is: with its heavily contrasted color palette, off-kilter camera shots and grimy Euro-settings there's atmosphere to spare. In small doses, the film's minimalist approach and style are welcome, but making a feature-length effort out of very little material dooms it early, and even the tangents exploring the surrounding neighbors (an excuse to tackle different subjects from virtual-reality to AI) don't add to a cohesive whole. As the anti-hero, Sisto is convincing but never quite likable, though Unger is a treat as always even with limited screen time. Rounding out the cast of generic characters, genre veterans Henriksen and Udo Kier give the piece some added heft. In the end, Paranoia 1.0 is a visually slick attempt at high-end science fiction, but with its incohesive story and failed structure it all ends up as rather vapid.
Entertainment / Drama: 5/10

The Passion of the Christ (2004)
Starring: James Caviezel, Maia Morgenstern, Monica Bellucci
Director: Mel Gibson
Plot: Following the last twelve hours of Christ, from his betrayal by Judas and his judgment before Pilate, to his torture at the hands of the Romans and his long walk to his final crucifixion atop Golgotha.
Review: The hardest thing to do when talking about the harrowing The Passion of the Christ is to separate the obvious statement of faith with the movie itself. However once the theatrical-like set-up is done and the trial begins, the narrative moves along in quite an engaging manner, leading to the film’s focus, Christ’s suffering. The excruciating nine minute flagellation scene - involving barbed whips ripping flesh in vivid detail - is pretty gruesome and vicious. Despite this bloodletting and lots of outward viciousness from all Jesus’ tormentors (especially the caricaturally evil Romans), the trail of the Cross and the extended Crucifixion scene are so long, one feels as if it's played out in real time. Apart from the occasional flashback, there's little on the precepts of Christianity and only inklings of the rich Biblical story or its teachings come across. As such, it never allows the audience to appreciate why Jesus went though this ordeal. To be fair, the film is meant to operate on a visceral level and in that it succeeds brilliantly. In fact, the film was originally meant to be a purely visual, cinematic event with the dialogue in Aramaic and Latin. Sub-titles were an afterthought. It’s obvious that viewers will either hate the film or love it, and that distinction might well be a question of Faith. Yet looking beyond the substance, the production is appropriately grand and the cinematography is impeccable - nuanced, richly textured, and beautifully shot, it brings every bloody moment to vivid life. No matter opinions on Gibson's personal beliefs and despite his taste in melodrama or his over-use of cinematic tricks, he has proven here to be an accomplished director. Covered in cuts and blood, Caviezel in the title role doesn't so much act as react to the continual punishment and one must appreciate the performance for making these physically difficult moments feel real. The overriding theme is that of man’s inhumanity to one another and it’s frighteningly effective in showing that Christ suffered greatly – if only it was more concerned with why it all mattered. The Passion of the Christ is a gorgeous, gripping, powerful film, no doubt, but it's also a furiously shallow and manipulative one that drowns the message of Tolerance in blood (see extended review).
Drama: 6/10

Patch Adams (1998)
Starring: Robin Williams, Monica Potter, Daniel London
Director: Tom Shadyac
Plot: After a life-altering stay in a psychiatric ward, a down-and-out veteran finds his calling and enters medical school but must battle the university over his use of humor to connect to the hospital's patients.
Review: Patch Adams could have been both an interesting biography and a statement on the American hospital system. Instead, the filmmakers have opted for an entertaining, shallow film in the worst manner of Hollywood melodrama with obvious emotional manipulations throughout, switching between saccharine-sweet scenes to grand tear-jerking. Still, the lack of subtlety isn't new in productions of this sort, and a certain credit must be given to the way the problems of the medical field are described even in its simplistic manner. The main attraction is Robin Williams who plays another role that is tailor-made for his acting style and he is, as always, great fun to watch on screen even when the script and events don't bring in anything special or original. In the end, Patch Adams knows enough never to bore its audience and fans of Williams will most likely enjoy his performance, if not the film itself.
Entertainment: 4/10

The Patriot (2000)
Starring: Mel Gibson, Heath Ledger
Director: Roland Emmerich
Plot: During the Revolutionary War a heroic ex-officer, now a pacifist farmer and father, is forced to take up arms against the rule of the King of England after a cruel British officer kills one of his sons.
Review: The American Revolutionary War has never been a very interesting subject for summer movie-goers, but The Patriot, powered by the feisty Mel Gibson in a role reminiscent of his Academy-Award winning Braveheart, manages to change that. All the typical Hollywood conventions are alive and well here, of course, and many events are terribly predictable. But the team of producer Devlin and director Emmerich (Independence Day, Stargate) know how to grab the audience and give it what it expects, from over-bearing heart-tugging, to melodrama, to flag-waving patriotism - and they do it with professional efficiency. The film is also historically dubious, taking many liberties with actual events, but then this IS a summer "event" movie and plot should always be taken with a grain of salt. What it lacks in accuracy and dramatic integrity, though, it makes up with some impressive, violent, gut-wrenching fighting sequences, good cinematography, and a desperate need to entertain and impress - and in this The Patriot succeeds as well as any popcorn film could hope for.
Entertainment: 7/10

The Patriot (1999)
Starring: Steven Seagal, Molly McClure
Director: Dean Semler
Plot: A small-town doctor, who happens to be a martial expert, attempts to save his community from a biochemical attack and from the militant patriots trying to use his daughter as a guinea pig.
Review: Seagal quickly became an action star of some repute with offerings like Above the Law and Under Siege, which knew exactly what its audience wanted (i.e. action, tough guys and minimal plot) and offered it in spades. They weren't exactly great movies, but they were entertaining enough. Unfortunately, The Patriot marks the bottom of the barrel when it comes to Seagal's recent films: ridiculous plots, stupid characters, and - worse of all - almost no action. Trying to make gun-toting version of Outbreak seems like a good idea, but everything here falls flat. Let's face it, Seagal can't act, and trying to pass on the fact that he's a doctor is just too much, but with no martial arts to speak of this becomes unwatchable. A low-brow, boring, straight-to-video offering, The Patriot just should simply never have been made.
Entertainment: 2/10

Patriot Games (1992)
Starring: Harrison Ford, Anne Archer, Sean Bean
Director: Phillip Noyce
Plot: After interfering in an assassination attempt against a British royal by a faction of the IRA, an American CIA analyst and his family become the focus for the terrorists' revenge.
Review: Patriot Games was author Tom Clancy's least successful (and shortest) Jack Ryan novel, and all told the filmmakers have adapted it into a decent mainstream action movie. Yes, the whole exercise feels more like another action vehicle for Ford, but it's engaging enough, slickly made, and definitely entertaining. The script waters down much of the tacky plot of the original work, managing to keep the characters in the forefront while keeping enough of the high-tech spice of Clancy to make it interesting. Director Noyce (Dead Calm) has a good eye for the action sequences and captures the more personal interactions well. In fact, he used the experience he got here to make the superior next installment, Clear and Present Danger. Ford took the reigns over from Alec Baldwin (The Hunt for Red October) as intrepid CIA analyst Jack Ryan, and adds a much-needed maturity to the role and even convinces as a desk jockey forced into violence. Bean seems to have made a reputation as a cold-blooded bad guy lately, and here he's in typical form for what amounts to a one-dimensional role. Patrick Bergin, in another dastardly supporting role, also does fine. Though nowhere near as interesting as its counterparts, Patriot Games to come off as a fine action / thriller that will please fans of its star and of its character.
Entertainment: 6/10

Paycheck (2003)
Starring: Ben Affleck, Uma Thurman
Director: John Woo
Plot: After having the memory of his last three years erased, a freelancer specializing in reverse-engineering competitor's products realizes that he's being framed by the company who hired him for a final job.
Review: Based on a story by the late Philip K. Dick, the author who provided the inspiration for Blade Runner, Paycheck is a film that starts off with some high hopes to being an exciting sci-fi trip, wants to be an exciting action flick, and only ends up as a poor version of both. From the way the suspense is set up and the scenes are shot, it's obvious that the filmmakers are trying for a certain homage to Hitchcock, even going so far as trying to get Affleck to act like a Cary Grant wannabe. Sure - if Hitchcock had car chases, bo-stick fighting, and lots of explosions to go with his trademark touch, maybe it would be. In fact, the film should have stayed focused on the science-fiction aspects and stayed a thriller. Though other adaptations of Dick's work such as Total Recall were turned into action blockbusters and worked, here the schizophrenic tone from Hitchcokian thriller to SF action movie just destroys any believability. It's also a disappointment for fans of the director's previous stylish, flashy efforts as this is a new low for Woo, action-wise, after such extravaganzas as Face/Off and The Killer. The bland chases look made for TV (much like the rather uninspired overall production design) and the fighting scenes, though capably done, are rather unimaginative. Worse, all this action feels unconnected to the story and, given the potential of the premise, totally unnecessary. What we get is another good premise with some exciting possibilities that are just left unrealized. Not to say it's all bad: the final pyrotechnics sequence is impressive, it all moves along at a good clip, and some of the concepts are intriguing, if not quite logical (and sometimes plain silly). It's at its most fun when it concentrates on the sci-fi elements and on the MacGyver stuff, as our engineer hero outsmarts his opponents and gets out of jams using his wits more than his fists. But being an engineer wasn't enough - he had to be a martial artist, too... Affleck remains likable and convincing despite the flaws in the character and the script, but the usually buoyant Thurman is slumming it here and gives one of her worst performances. Considering the talent involved, Paycheck is only average in terms of entertainment, an effort that's completely forgettable but amusing enough for undemanding viewers.
Entertainment: 5/10

The Peacemaker (1997)
Starring: George Clooney, Nicole Kidman, Marcel Iures
Director: Mimi Leder
Plot: Trying to stop an Eastern European terrorist organization from devastating New York with a stolen A-bomb, a UN physicist and an Army officer follow its trail across the Globe.
Review: The opening salvo from new studio Dreamworks, The Peacemaker makes for fine Summer fare that's above-average for the genre, but doesn't quite put this action thriller effort out of the park. Still, it's got lots going for it: From a devastating opening sequence, the film dives into the requisite action, chases, double-crosses and suspense with great aplomb - a highlight is a chase down the streets of Vienna in a Mercedes - there's nothing particularly memorable, perhaps, but it all works and keeps things moving along at a steady pace. If much of the running-across-continents-to-find-atom-bomb plot is familiar - right down to the tension-filled climax where our heroes try to disarm the bomb in its final seconds - there's enough that's new and fresh to make it a worthy action thriller. For one, the cast is rather unexpected: this marked TV-star Clooney's entry into film (if you don't include Batman & Robin), and it's a fine calling card showing his winning charm, bad-boy smile, and some action acumen; Kidman, who was better known for her dramatic roles, flexing her acting repertoire; and Iures, a Romanian actor who avoids the usual trap of playing the heavy as over-the-top. For two, it's an action film from a woman director, Mimi Leder (Deep Impact) - it might not show off-hand, as she has great control and knows the required tropes, but there does seem to be a different sensibility to the material than Hollywood's usual "hammer-to-the-head" approach - and that's not a bad thing. For three, it eschews the typical bland villain for a man of conscience and strong moral fiber, and banal dialogue for a rather smart script, one where the action follows the story instead of the other way around. If there isn't quite enough to make it truly special, The Peacemaker is a thriller with above-average smarts that remains solid popcorn fun even after repeat viewings.
Entertainment: 6/10

Pearl Harbor (2001)
Starring: Ben Affleck, Josh Hartnett, Kate Beckinsale
Director: Michael Bay
Plot: A childhood friendship between two fighter pilots is put to the test when they both fall for the same woman during the early days of America’s entry into World War II.
Review: Trying to imitate the blockbuster success of Titanic, Pearl Harbor depicts one of the most infamous moments in US history within a love triangle between three photogenic young actors but with atrocious results. The first hour is painful to watch, with mind-numbingly slow pacing, as if the film-makers had to pad the story to fill out three hours. In fact, the dialogue is laughable and down-right embarrassing, the romance unconvincing and stupefyingly boring, and the main characters mere cardboard caricatures. The supporting characters are far more interesting than the main ones, but unfortunately barely have any screen time. The middle third is the only reason people will be interested to see this affair. The dramatic attack on Pearl Harbor is an absolutely spectacular hour-long, edge-of-your-seat, explosive piece of movie-making. Director Bay (Armageddon) knows how to deliver big, loud, impressive visuals, and thanks to the special effects, large sets and interminable explosions makes this one of the longest, most breathtaking depictions of WW2 carnage ever put to film. However, once the bombing has ended, the film goes back to its trite love story, reducing the dramatic, horrifying moments of the attack into just another bad plot twist. To finish off on a high note, the last third of the film turns into a decent rip-roarin' old-style war movie with flag-waving intact. As for the reasons for the conflict, or the factors that led to the Americans being unprepared, they are barely alluded to. Instead, too much of the screen time is used up by an awkward cliché-ridden melodrama that would put the worst Hollywood films to shame. The cinematography, however, is superb with many beautifully shot moments and some picturesque Norman Rockwell portrait scenes, all enhanced by the incredible attention to period detail. Indeed, the best way to see the film may well be with the sound turned off. Another plus are the exhilarating dogfights using original Luftwaffe fighters, Japanese bombers and American planes to best effect. Though the subject matter can only dubiously be termed as entertainment, as high-budget summer spectacle goes Pearl Harbor is hard to beat. It's just too bad that such an important historical event and such an epic-scale expenditure is all marred by such an uninvolving story.
Entertainment: 4/10

*Classic* Peking Opera Blues (1986)
Starring: Brigitte Lin, Sally Yeh
Director: Tsui Hark
Plot: In early 20th-century China, the fates of three women from different backgrounds and with very different goals are thrown together by a political conspiracy involving a powerful warlord and the democratic underground movement.
Review: With so much going for it, Peking Opera Blues can best be described as a visually dazzling and entertaining adventure film. The comedy ranges from the sly to the burlesque and works very well. The action is non-stop, with constant martial arts sequences, stunts and gun battles. The flamboyant display of costumes and settings also make their mark, especially the scenes of Chinese opera with their colorful and impressive acrobatics display. The break-neck pacing is pure Tsui Hark, a director who has repeatedly proven his mettle with some of the best Hong Kong cinema has to offer (Swordsman II, Zu: Warriors of the Magic Mountain). Brigitte Lin, one of the most popular and beautiful female leads of the late 80's and early 90's, takes center stage among many other talented actors, and once again plays the role of a woman dressed as a man, a role she has portrayed successfully in many films. Even the convoluted plot is interesting and the characters almost fleshed-out, but in the end it is really just an excuse for a myriad of humorous situations and marvelous action sequences. With an exhilarating combination of comedy, drama, action, and beautifully intricate stunts, Peking Opera Blues delights and entertains even after multiple viewings and is not only one of Tsui Hark's best, but definitely one of the certified classics of modern Hong Kong cinema. Highly recommended for all audiences.
Entertainment: 9/10

Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief (2010)
Starring: Logan Lerman, Brandon T. Jackson, Alexandra Daddario
Director: Chris Columbus
Plot: Accused of having stolen Zeus' lightning, a modern-day teenager discovers he's the son of the Greek god Poseidon and goes off on a quest to clear his name and save his mother from Hades.
Review: Greek mythology and the modern world collide in special-effects fantasy The Lightning Thief, an adaptation of the first book in the on-going kids series by Rick Riorda - and yet another in the slew of Harry Potter copies that miss the mark. looking to get on the ground floor of another set of fantasy-novels to turn into a successful film franchise, director Columbus (most famous for the first two superb Potter film adaptations) sets hopes high only to disappoint with a lackluster effort that's both inept and leaden, with the dearth of visual appeal making it more fit for the small-screen and not theater viewing. The elements are there, for sure: mythical creatures like Harpies, Centaurs and Minotaur all make an appearance in decent CGI, the supporting cast is impressive - including the likes of Pierce Brosnan, Catherine Keener, Chris Coogan, Rosario Dawson and Sean Bean, with Uma Thurman doing a show-stealing turn as Medusa - and there's a grand quest to be had, too. Alas the sense of place that prevailed in Harry Potter, the endearing characters, the sense of wonder and thrill of adventure are all missing, no matter how much the story tries to ape J.K. Rowling's popular works (and there are more than just a few similarities), or the producers wanted to make that connection (even the title boards harkens to those of the Potter films). Zooming from one effective, if derivative, action piece to another, there's little opportunity for dialogue or plot, or any real sense of urgency except the next set piece. It doesn't help that the teen heroes - Percy and his two demi-god friends - don't make for very interesting personalities, don't have any chemistry together and are relegated to the typical one-dimensional aspects that most mainstream fluff aimed at kids seems to rely on. And let's not start with the gaping plot holes, including the lack of explanation as to why everyone is so convinced Percy stole Zeus' lightning in the first place. With its lack of originality, banal storyline and limited appeal The Lightning Thief may be entertaining enough for younger kids but won't impress a wider, or older, audience. It's clear this franchise is dead on arrival, just as many of its companions that tried to emulate the Potter formula without truly understanding its true appeal.
Entertainment: 4/10

Perfect Blue (1997)
Starring: Junko Iwao, Rica Matsumoto
Director: Satoshi Kon
Plot: A young Japanese pop idol leaves her musical group to pursue an acting career, but is haunted by her reflection of the past and stalked by a psychotic fan.
Review: Perfect Blue is a good adult psychological thriller, well-paced, interesting, with enough plot-twists to engage even the most demanding mystery buffs. The rough animation is distracting at first, especially considering more recent productions such as Akira or Ghost in the Shell, but as the story progresses, the limitations of the anime is quickly forgotten as the clean cinematic style and intricate plot grab our attention. With winks to Hitchcock, Silence of the Lambs, and many other Japanese and Western references, it manages to successfully blend different genres, including  fantasy and even horror with some bloody, violent scenes of murder and moments of reality-distorting happenings. The climax is intense, but seems a little too easy and hollow compared to the ambitious reach of the film. That aside, Perfect Blue is suspenseful and intelligent entertainment for the adventurous viewer.
Entertainment: 8/10

The Perfect Storm (2000)
Starring: George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg
Director: Wolfgang Petersen
Plot: The crew of a small fishing boat fights desperately to survive the return home after being caught in one of the most violent sea storms to ever occur in the North Atlantic.
Review: Based on Sebastian Junger's best-selling non-fiction book, The Perfect Storm tries to be both a recreation of what could have happened to the true-life crew and a summer adventure film, and mostly succeeds. The story of "man against the elements" is quite intense, thanks in part to the attention of Das Boot director Wolfgang Petersen who is in familiar territory, and to the good special effects that turn the tumultuous sea into terrible spectacle. The moments on the boat are also emotional and the solid cast, wet, snarling and holding on for dear life, is quite convincing. Where the film disappoints is during the dramatic build up of the first half-hour, and the over-drawn focus on the nail-biting of the women waiting for their men. A bit of emotional heart-tugging would have been fine, but pouring it on turns these moments into melodrama that the story could have done without. Also, while the book had time to digress, explore different narrative and offer background details, the film drags on instead when it tries to do the same. There's suspense, thrills, and some awesome moments in The Perfect Storm, but by trying to use all the Hollywood conventions to make us feel for these people it ends up feeling a bit forced.
Drama / Entertainment: 6/10

The Perfect Weapon (1991)
Starring: Jeff Speakman, John Dye, Mako
Director: Mark DiSalle
Plot: Aided by his estranged brother, a cop, an American martial arts expert searches the alleys of Korea Town to avenge the death of his mentor who was killed by powerful drug dealers.
Review: Made as an intro feature to its star, The Perfect Weapon never found its audience but for decent kung-fu (or kenpo) thrills one could do worse. Cheaply made, this looks fake and feels fake, with the stiff actors all playing stereotypical roles regurgitating clichéd lines from tired melodrama that went on the wayside in Bruce Lee's time. Though he does display a certain charm, nobody said Speakman, a swaggering martial arts expert, could act out of a paper bag, but just like Van Damme and Chuck Norris before him, he can kick with the best of them. Thankfully, the film does show him off as a lethal weapon, and his combination hits are formidable and quite impressive. The fighting is generally more intense than the usual fare and make the rest of the derivative plot (almost) acceptable. Director DiSalle (Kickboxer, Bloodsport) has made his name with the fist-fight action genre and he does a workmanlike effort here as well. It's too bad the tired script can't seem to keep our attention between the (too far between) fight scenes, even throwing in a bland car chase to keep things moving. Using the Korean background could have made this entry a little more culturally interesting, but misses every opportunity for something to differentiate it from its Chinese siblings. Silent, imposing ex-wrestler Tanaka comes off as an unconvincing Terminator-type villain, but the explosive (literally) finale is kind of fun. Far from perfect, The Perfect Weapon is an agreeable exercise for undemanding action fans.
Entertainment: 4/10

*Classic* Persona (1966)
Starring: Bibi Andersson, Liv Ullmann
Director: Ingmar Bergman
Plot: A nurse becomes emotionally involved with her charge, a famous stage actress who has stop speaking and has seemingly withdrawn from the world at large.
Review: What may seem to be a minimalist character study of two women, one nurturing, the other the nurtured, quickly becomes a complex, involved psychological and philosophical tour-de-force. The title refers to what makes up a person's individuality, and as the story progresses the two personalities on screen open up to one another, one silent, the other constantly talking about her deepest feelings; then grow cold, put on masks, as their two personas slowly intermingle until we no longer know who is who. Using simple sets, two great, talented actresses, a fascinating use of light and shadow, and some inventive staging, Bergman has succeeded in making an eloquent, dream-like, thought-provoking film, full of now-famous sequences and interesting camera-work. One of Bergman's best works, and a truly great film.
Drama: 9/10

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999)
Starring: Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman
Director: George Lucas
Plot: Two Jedi Knights find themselves in the middle of a trade war invasion forced to protect a Queen from an evil plot, and encounter a gifted young boy and a Dark Lord while trying to bring her to safety.
Review: After 16 long years of waiting, Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, a new chapter in the most popular film franchise, hit the silver screen. This first installment of the new "prequel" trilogy is more akin in tone to Return of the Jedi, combining the rousing space opera and soap opera elements we've come to love from the series with a sense of humor sometimes more at kids than adults. The lavish special effects are however state-of-the-art and as an imaginative visual feast, the film delivers in spades, creating new worlds, new races, new settings that ups the ante for Hollywood. The action, be it the large-scale land battles or the brilliant lightsaber duels with the silent Darth Maul, are well executed and thrilling, as is the pod race through the rocky dunes of Tatooine. The cast is for the most part quite good, especially McGregor and Neeson as the Master / Pupil Jedi. On the negative side, the young Jake Lloyd comes off as utterly unconvincing as the future Darth Vader, and some of his character's heroic actions are more due to accidents or coincidence than skill. Worse, there is the matter of Jar-Jar Binks, a wholly computer-generated character who seems to have been added for pure comic relief and who often drags the film into infantile silliness. Thankfully, these are only occasional distractions, and one is quickly taken in by the fact that this is still the Star Wars universe, the characters are well-formed, the action always entertaining, and the story does have an appropriate epic feel to it, and even amidst the sometimes happy-go-lucky tone, there is a dark undercurrent of things to come. Once all is said and done, long-time fans may be divided over the film - it isn't as revolutionary as Star Wars was, or as giddily exciting as The Empire Strikes Back - but there's no doubt that The Phantom Menace is solid, engaging sci-fi entertainment.
Entertainment: 8/10

The Phantom of the Opera (2004)
Starring: Gerard Butler, Emmy Rossum, Patrick Wilson
Director: Joel Schumacher
Plot: In 1870, a disfigured musical genius living in the catacombs beneath the Paris Opera House terrorizes the musical company and its patrons for the benefit of a young soprano.
Review: An opulent film adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber's stage musical, this latest version of the classic Gaston Leroux story The Phantom of the Opera is grand in scale and pageantry, but lacks that spark to make it completely successful. Just like the original production, the exposition and story is almost entirely made up as songs, with little actual dialog. The choreography and staging is also similar to the stage version and the main scenes are appreciably grand in scale, none more so than the Masquerade sequence. The varied costumes, sets and art direction are appropriately detailed and lavish as befits the greater-than-life tale. One immediately thinks of a movie adaptation of this tale to need the flair of something akin to Moulin Rouge in its dizzying exploitation of the medium as rock-opera, but here it feels too much like the filmmakers played it safe and accepted a simple straight-forward adaptation of the original. As such, the staging is at times too theatrical and static, squandering its opportunity to present a veritable cinematic production. Not to say it's ever boring - director Schumacher, known for his excesses in such productions as Batman Forever, was probably called in to give the tragic romance an added air of mainstream mystery and horror, and he does give the show some cinematic glitz and able suspense. It just could have been more. Of course, the real attraction here is that Weber's original songs and music remain intact, and on their own they help carry audiences past the blander moments. The adaptation alters some of the chronology of the original work (such as the fall of the chandelier being kept to the end) while eliminating and adding others, such as a background story to the title character and some distracting B&W interludes in the future. The leads, and especially Rossum, are very good singers but not great actors: when the camera frames them into an extended close-up (such as during the romantic ballads) they just can't hold our attention on their own and, lacking the help of the surrounding sets to keep it engaging, the film loses steam. The exception is Butler who, as the Phantom, might not have been the first choice as a vocalist but has the character down pat and only gets better as things progress. Of note is the hilarious Driver who plays her Carlotta role way over the top, with a voice to match. In the end, The Phantom of the Opera is mostly enjoyable, especially for those who never had a chance to enjoy the live production.
Entertainment: 6/10

Phantom, The Submarine (South Korea - 1999)
Starring: Jung Woo-sung, Choi Min-soo, Sol Kyung-gu
Director: Min Byung-cheon
Plot: The crew of Korea's secret first nuclear submarine turns against its captain and gets ready to launch its weapons against Japan with only a lone officer standing in their way.
Review: An amalgam of previous sub genre feature, Phantom, The Submarine is a straight-forward thriller given a healthy dose of local flavor. Starting off strong with a nail-biting first scene as our hero has a gun-toting show-down with his captain, the story quickly treads a familiar path. Opening with a La Femme Nikita-like twist on the secret organization seems a device only to explain away the fiction of Korea actually having a nuclear sub. What follows is a capable affair that retreads the internal officer struggles surrounding nuclear balance of Crimson Tide and the deadly cat-and-mouse sub chases of The Hunt for Red October - even the special effects are pretty decent. There are some surprises: for one, there's a harrowing scene as the officers ding into the cook's gut to retrieve a missing activation key, and the ending is definitely not typical Hollywood. Still, the most interesting aspect might be lost to most non-Korean viewers: There's a strong sense of patriotism (and downright jingoism) here, mingled with age-old resentments against Japan that Western viewers might not grasp. The rest of the back story - why politicians would destroy their own sub, why the entire crew is so dead-set to annihilate Japan - doesn't quite come across clearly, diminishing the impact of the sub-text. Despite a budget significantly lower than his American counterparts, director Min Byung-cheon (who went on to do the splendid Natural City) manages to keep a good sense of the claustrophobia and tension required in a submarine thriller. Though still learning the ropes of the trade, he keeps things moving along through the verbal stand-offs and the underwater battle scenes. Bathing every scene in single tones, mostly green and orange gets a little hard on the eyes, however. A capable cast of both heroes and villains, both teetering on the edge of reason, adds the required dramatic element. Though Phantom, The Submarine can't help but feel familiar, it's still an engaging exercise in Korean blockbusters that's worth a look.
Entertainment: 6/10

Phone Booth (2003)
Starring: Colin Farrell, Forest Whitaker, Kiefer Sutherland
Director: Joel Schumacher
Plot: A slick publicist finds himself at the mercy of a sniper when he picks up a ringing public telephone in a busy New York City street.
Review: The urban thriller Phone Booth takes a simple premise and runs with it, making for some satisfying entertainment. Writer Larry Cohen (best known for his B-grade exploitation flicks like It's Alive! and Q) wrings a nice scenario from the straight-forward premise, one that doesn't over-stay its welcome thanks to a very short running time. Though the narrative tries to follow events in seeming real-time there's some obvious cheating involved. Add to that some gaping logic holes and you could have a film that audiences could groan at. Yet there's still a definite tension that slowly creeps up on us and a good dose of suspense, and most audiences will quickly discard the film's minor faults. If there's one real disappointment, it's that the twist ending isn't much of a surprise, and the film's conclusion isn't quite satisfying in a mainstream sense, bringing up questions that mar the preceding 75 minutes. Director Schumacher (Batman Forever, The Client) seems to have redefined himself with smaller budgets, like he did with his star in Tigerland. No matter what is said of him, he's got a good eye and slick directorial style that keeps things alive and moving. As the main focus of the camera and the heart of the film, Farrell's performance is key to believing the scenario, and he's at his best here in a pre-stardom role as a proud conman breaking down bit by bit. Though we barely have a glimpse of Sutherland, it's his voice that connects us to the other half of this cat-and-mouse game, and he does a fine job as a man playing God. As for Whitacker, as the police chief, he doesn't exactly have a meaty role but does OK. Phone Booth may be a one-trick pony, perhaps, but it's an engaging and surprisingly effective one, making for a slick, efficient little suspense thriller.
Entertainment: 7/10

Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)
Starring: Rachel Roberts, Dominic Guard, Helen Morse
Director: Peter Weir
Plot: During a school outing on Valentine's Day in 1900 Australia, three female college students and their teacher disappear without a trace while climbing a large rock formation and the ensuing search provides few clues as to their fates.
Review: Director Weir's (Witness, The Truman Show) breakout film Picnic At Hanging Rock is a beautifully produced enigmatic drama with very Aussie sensibilities. Is it a question of foul play or is there more to this story? The multiple searches find nothing, and the film's intention is to ensure more questions are raised than answers given to the mystery of the disappearing girls, which makes the film that much more intriguing. Indeed, this mystery and the inclusion of just the right tone and details makes the story feel as though this is a recreation of an actual event, and many have mistaken this fictional account, an adaptation of the infamous novel by Joan Leslie, for just that. The story actually has all the required elements for a modern horror picture as well, including a closed, strict community, bizarre occurrences, pagan rituals, untimely deaths, repressed sexuality, and it does indeed play like one, though no evil entity or supernatural force is actually revealed. The hypnotic power of the titular rocks, however, is definitely implied from the hallucinatory camera shots of the omnipresent, stifling stone arches, the eerie music and the awed looks of the doomed girls. The power of the film is that it lets the atmosphere sink in with long, quiet takes, wonderful cinematography of the stark landscapes, some interesting editing, and the perfectly suited soundtrack. What's more, it allows us an intimate glimpse at the rather repressed lives of these upper-class female students, and envelops us in the contrast of the strict Victorian lifestyle faced with the hot, impenetrable Australian vistas. The only real downside are the girls' sometimes amateurish performances lack conviction, perhaps, but director Weir manages to work around them. Picnic At Hanging Rock is a peculiar tale without a solution, but in its deliberate pacing and subtle, eerie tone it's definitely satisfying. 
Drama / Horror: 8/10

The Pillow Book (1997)
Starring: Vivian Wu, Ewan McGregor
Director: Peter Greenaway
Plot: Seeking revenge on the publisher who ruined her father, a young Japanese woman becomes obsessed with recreating a childhood ritual of calligraphing on her body. She meets a young Englishman who is willing to share her obsession and who lets her use his body as a template for her scheme.
Review: As are all of director Greenaway's films (The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover), The Pillow Book is a wonderful production, full of beautiful scenery and arresting visuals bursting with vivid colors, with multiple scenes sometimes being played simultaneously on screen. The script is intricate and fascinating, using a minimal amount of dialogue and letting the story unfold through imagery. Greenaway never shies away from nudity and eroticism, and the film is full of intimate moments that at first seem shocking, but quickly show a certain intimacy that is important in the understanding of the characters and their motivations. What really steals the film isn't the actors or even the decor, though, its the incredible calligraphy, a mix of Chinese and Japanese symbols showing up on walls, pages, and a long series of bodies. A wonderful, mature film.
Drama: 8/10

The Pirates! Band of Misfits (2012)
Voices: Hugh Grant, Salma Hayek, David Tennant
Directors: Peter Lord, Jeff Newitt
Plot: A second-rate pirate sets out with his ecclectic crew of losers to nab the Pirate of the Year award, putting his hopes on Charles Darwin's infatuation with a dodo to attain untold riches and fame.
Review: If nothing else, the whimsical The Pirates! Band of Misfits allows audiences to bask in the fine, detailed artistry that is claymation - that is, stop-motion clay animation - in the same vein as the Award winning Wallace and Gromit shorts. It's nice to see a non-computer-animated family feature for a change! Since it's an Aardman Production, the first since Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit came out in 2005, we're also sure to get a good dose of clever English banter, visual gags and some ingenious action sequences. And it doesn't disappoint in the latter: a chase down a multi-level staircase in a bathtub and the climactic confrontation with a sword-wielding Queen Victoria on her flagship, reminds one of the best of W&G. Based on screenwriter Gideon Defoe's own series of books, the plot plays fast-and-loose with historical characters and timelines as par for the course to milk new situations for a laugh. The film is at its best when it goes for the absurd; the entrance of the pirate competitors in the opening act, the best of which strolls out of a beached whale, is a highlight. Veteran directors Lord (who helmed Chicken Run) and Newitt know how to keep the narrative pace, the invention going and the family-friendly humour clean getting a chuckle more often than not. On the plus side, veteran directors Lord and Newitt know how to keep the narrative pace and the family-friendly humour - if not laugh out loud - gets a chuckle more often than not. As for the voices, they are predictably good, with Grant leading the way as the Pirate Captain, followed by the likes of Hayek, Tennant and Martin Freeman. it's perhaps not up to snuff for being classic fare, but Pirates! is sure to please.
Entertainment: 7/10

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)
Starring: Johnny Depp, Geoffrey Rush, Orlando Bloom
Director: Gore Verbinski
Plot: A rogue pirate is forced to team up with a young blacksmith to regain his ship and rescue the daughter of a governor kidnapped by his mutineed crew who are under a curse, becoming living-dead until they retrieve a chest filled with Aztec gold.
Review: The pirate movie was thought to be dead after the misfortunate 1995 Cutthroat Island, but it seems that's not so: with Pirates of the Caribbean, based on a Walt Disney ride of all things, producer Jerry Bruckheimer (best known for such mindless action fests as Armageddon) has hit gold. Combining the feel of the rousing pirate adventure yarns of Errol Flynn and the supernatural thrills of a zombie movie (albeit a PG-rated one), the film manages to be quite entertaining. Though it never stretches much beyond the predictable Hollywood plot and contrivances, it does maintain its tongue firmly planted in cheek and does well with its limitations. The swordfights do go on for longer than necessary, and the CGI effects of the skeleton crew do get a bit tiresome, but these are ably executed. Add to this some nice pirate costumes, some beautiful period ships getting blown to bits, and some witty repartee, and you've got the makings of an engaging summer flick. Kudos to director Verbinski who seems at ease tackling very different genres after The Mexican and The Ring, and maintaining for the most part a good balance between the different elements. What really make the film a treat, however, is Johnny Depp as the charming, foppish, eccentric pirate who's out trying to get his bearings back. He easily steals every scene he's in and adds a much needed shot in the arm, and a large dose of the film's humor, to what would otherwise have been a rather average effort. The rest of the cast does OK, with the swashbuckling Bloom and damsel-in-distress Keira Knightley looking the part, and thespian Rush chewing the scenery as the evil, cursed captain. It may not be in the class of some of the old-time classics, but Pirates of the Caribbean is definitely one finely crafted and entertaining summer diversion.
Entertainment: 7/10

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest (2006)
Starring: Johnny Depp, Orlando Bloom, Keira Knightley
Director: Gore Verbinski
Plot: Trying to avoid a curse that would have him face damnation as crew of a ghost ship, a pirate becomes obsessed with finding a hidden chest that contains the heart of its captain.
Review: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, the sequel to the unexpected smash hit PotC: The Curse of the Black Pearl, is another grand swashbuckling adventure that takes the adage of bigger, madder sequels to the limit. Returning to the director's chair, Verbinski (The Ring) creates once again a delightful romp that, even more so than the first, comes off as the ultimate wish-fulfillment pirate film. Every pirate-movie cliché you can think of is exploited - pirate cove, ghost ships, curses, voodoo witches, cannibal tribes, buried chests, giant sea-monsters, and more. Thankfully the script balances this "kitchen-sink" approach well, and adds all the necessary self-conscious humor to keep it afloat. The slapstick comedy may not elicit outright laughs, but it does provide lots of good-hearted chuckles. The swordsmanship on display is still amusing, especially when mixed with some imaginative stunts like fighting on top of (and inside) an unhinged watermill rolling down the jungle. The creature effects are superb (squid-man, shark-man, etc.) and of course the extended sequence where the Kraken attacks the ship is one heck of a computer-generated thrill ride. The cast is back but it's quickly obvious that character development has taken a back seat to spectacle. The romance between Knightley and Bloom has pretty much disappeared and they're relegated to secondary characters. Even Depp's take as the foppish, quasi-foolish Captain Jack Sparrow, though once again one of the film's highlights, isn't nearly as enticing or amusing as before. Perhaps trying to compensate for the lack of originality, the film is an adrenaline rush from start to finish, with so much packed in two-and-a-half hours that some audiences may feel like they've been overloaded and come out of the film exhausted. But these are small asides; if you see only one pirate movie this year, this is it: clever, funny, and providing all the thrills and chills we expect from a summer blockbuster, PofC: Dead Man's Chest is swift adventure on a grand scale, leaving off on a cliffhanger for Part III.
Entertainment: 7/10

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End (2007)
Starring: Johnny Depp, Orlando Bloom, Kiera Knightley
Director: Gore Verbinski
Plot: A small band of privateers journey to a world between life and death to rescue a trapped pirate captain so he can help lead an uprising against a British Lord bent on conquering the High Seas.
Review: A frolic filled with big action sequences and dizzying special effects that has Summer Blockbuster written all over it, At World's End is the final chapter in the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy, and it's definitely going out with more than a few bangs. While the second parter was mostly set-up, this third installment is mostly payoff made up of the usual trappings of Hollywood sequels: bigger budget, bigger effects, more impressive money-shots... and less of that magic that charmed us in the first place. Gone is the quirky fun that made the original so special; oh, the humor is still apparent, and so is the adventure, but there's less interest in the interactions and nifty repartee between the characters that made their first pairing so much fun. The scene in Davey Jones' Locker as Depp starts to lose his mind, however, is a definite highlight that shows the promise of the series - too bad there aren't more of these peppered here. But at almost three hours it's a mighty, bloated affair filled with unnecessary exposition, with new plot points coming and going without being resolved in any satisfying manner (the Goddess Calypso makes an appearance and then vanishes, the Pirate Committee gets a single (if funny) scene, and Davey Jones' lovers quarrel gets forgotten), the script basically trying to tidy things up while still leaving the door open for further sequels. Yet somehow director Verbinski, returning yet again to the franchise, keeps things moving along, and if the film seems to sometimes lose its way, there's nary a dull moment to be had. Depp, the main attraction as the ineffable Captain Jack Sparrow, still steals the show but this shtick is getting old. As for Bloom and Knightley, there's really little to add to their roles, and they don't make much of an impression. The entire supporting cast is back, including a crabby, over-the-top Geoffrey Rush as a competing pirate captain, and they all get their chance to shine for a few moments before getting lost again in the shuffle. At World's End will undoubtedly make gobs of money and converts, and there's no denying there's some fun to be had - too bad it has so little heart or soul.
Entertainment: 6/10

Pitch Black (2000)
Starring: Vin Diesel, Radha Mitchell, Cole Hauser
Director: David Twohy
Plot: After a commercial ship crashes onto a sun-scorched planet, the survivors must band together and rely on a murderous convict to fight off the deadly creatures that inhabit it come darkness.
Review: Pitch Black's premise is nothing new in sci-fi / horror: a band of survivors being picked off one by one by creatures only half seen. Thankfully the film aims for more, offering up some clever twists to the conventions that manages to save it from being another Alien rehash. There's an intense, impressive opening crash sequence that sets up events but soon after things slow down and meander to provide exposition for the last act. The real problem with the film is that apart from having the bad guy as a threat / protector there's nothing really original in the plot, the proceedings, or anything but the typical Hollywood-type human conflicts. In fact, the B-movie script relies on too many coincidences, telegraphed plot twists and movie devices placed solely to create a paper-thin story to provide suspense. Not to say there aren't some terrific moments here - Diesel's rogue character really chews up the screen with his presence, and a scene where a soon-to-be-victim hiccups a fireball and we see him briefly surrounded by monsters before being enclosed in darkness once more is worth the rental alone. Another saving grace is that the film does offer some decent, low-brow entertainment and good creature effects, as well as some good washed-out visuals that give it more style than it deserves. As light, forgettable entertainment Pitch Black delivers what one expects.
Entertainment: 6/10

Planet of Blood (Queen of Blood) (1966)
Starring: John Saxon, Basil Rathbone, Judi Meredith
Director: Curtis Harrington
Plot: An expedition to Mars to rescue a downed alien spacecraft falls victim to the only survivor, a green-tinted queen who survives by drinking her hosts' blood.
Review: A definite B-grade cheapie that shamelessly recycled past movie footage, Planet of Blood is a trashy mix of silly sci-fi elements and minimal horror for those longing for the bad midnight selections of old. Surprisingly enough, the premise even seems to have influenced the 1979 Ridley Scott film Alien. The first hour spends way too much time on platitudes of space-ship travel and general mechanical misadventures, with long-winded, inane mumbo-jumbo dialogue, much of which could have been cut out to better effect. The remaining half-hour, as the silly-looking vampire queen stalks the crew, comes off as a bad 60's era Star Trek episode, with tacky plotting, straight-forward cinematography and cardboard sets. Here the horror elements could have been more interesting. Heck, only the music provides any real tension. The large-scale special effects sequences, all of which were actually swiped from the 1959 Russian science-fiction flick Niebo Zowiet (!), are quite effective for the time and makes one long for a dubbed version of the original feature. As for the remaining inter-spliced scenes, focusing on the American cast, these are horribly bland and show off some laughably bad production values. Classic actor Rathbone seems way too classy for this tripe, and even the rest of the cast takes all of this way too seriously. Of special interest is young supporting actor Dennis Hopper who makes a short-lived appearance here in his pre-Easy Rider days. Planet of Blood is watchable mostly for the fine Russian effects and the very big cheese factor of the story, and amateurs should get a kick out of it. Everyone else should avoid. 
Entertainment: 3/10

*Classic* Planet of the Apes (1968)
Starring: Charlton Heston, Roddy McDowall, Kim Hunter
Director: Franklin J. Schaffner
Plot: After travelling 2000 years in space under deep sleep, astronauts crash-land on a strange planet where apes have evolved to dominate over Neanderthal-like humans.
Review: The original Planet of the Apes was a surprise hit when it first came out, creating a franchise that spawned four sequels, and remains an effective, entertaining science-fiction feature. Based on a novel by French writer Pierre Boule, the script by Michael Wilson and Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling may be one of the more potent social commentaries on the 60's; from the treatment of the human "cattle" by the superior apes (implying racism), to the satire on religious fanaticism, to its final anti-nuclear message, it passed its message to the viewer. Sure, it lacks subtlety but it's doubly impressive that it did so while wrapped around a rousing adventure that offered up as many thrills as cynicisms. Director Schaffner (who went on to do dramas such as Patton and Papillon) shows a good eye for both the epic scale of the story (witness the long shots of the ship sinking around the alien landscape) and the more pressing dramatics of the script with an eagerness, and a crazily dynamic camera, that gets us into the film. Not that modern viewers can't see much of the proceedings as pure camp fun, but the restrained, mostly serious tone, helped by the solid performances by the ape cast (even through the silly rubber costumes) and the carefree violence done to the human animals, makes this believable enough to accept this reversal of social roles and makes the ending all the more shocking. Indeed, the final scene which sees our astronaut hero faced with a sand-covered ruins of the Statue of Liberty, realizing that he's actually back on Earth is a powerful, haunting image, and a moment that is a definite highlight of American cinema. As for its legendary lead actor, Heston still generally overacts throughout but he has always had a solid screen presence and remains engaging even as he chews out his lines. Though a little dated, Planet of the Apes still holds up well as a fun and influential sci-fi flick.
Entertainment: 8/10

Planet of the Apes (2001)
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Tim Roth, Helena Bonham-Carter
Director: Tim Burton
Plot: After being sucked into a wormhole, a space jockey finds himself on an uncharted planet where evolved, talking apes rule over the uncivilized human population.
Review: Planet of the Apes is the latest in a bevy of Hollywood remakes plundering past stories, but here director Burton has tried to bring us a re-imagining of the cult sci-fi classic. But where is the mark of the director of such darkly comic, imaginative works such as Sleepy Hollow and Edward Scissorhands? Many of Burton's trademark touches are still evident, such as the dark brooding atmosphere, striking visuals, impeccable cinematography and great sets, but the whole films seems to play it safe, never pushing too far from the standard summer formula. In fact it plays off as an homage, with many winks to its predecessor, reprising the racial themes yet watering down the social commentary. But its greatest failing is the wholly uninvolving script, with its predictable plot, quick easy resolutions and downright simplistic story that makes one long for the campy, but much more interesting 1968 version. The latest one proceeds like a tired '50s B-movie with the latest, greatest special effects, but with none of the originality or clear story-telling of the original adaptation, even these can't keep the film afloat. Perhaps good portions of the film have ended on the cutting room floor - sure, we get the admittedly impressive effects, the snarling apes, the grand action sequences which would usually have been enough, but audiences have come to expect more. Worse, wanting so badly to top the surprise ending of the original, the film pushes its resolution one step further simply to bring us an unnecessary (and rather ludicrous) Twilight Zone-type ending. Wahlberg's John Wayne swagger doesn't convince, nor do any of the humans, all of whom are barely acknowledged and downright uninteresting. As a counter-point, the ape costumes and effects are absolutely marvelous, and the ape actors do a bang-up job emoting with all that makeup on, especially Bonham-Carter who invests her character with more personality than the film deserves, and Tim Roth who puts all the energy, bravado and glaring anger into the role of the obsessed ape general that he can muster. There are some redeeming qualities to this latest Planet of the Apes, and it's not without the occasional sense of fun, but it's still a huge disappointment for both the series', and Burton's, fans.
Entertainment: 4/10

Planet Terror (2007)
Starring: Rose McGowan, Freddy Rodriguez, Josh Brolin
Director: Robert Rodriguez
Plot: After an experimental bio-weapon gets loose from a military facility, a rag-tag group of survivors led by a one-legged go-go dancer and her ex-boyfriend tries to escape thousands of zombies and stop the infection from reaching the rest of the world.
Review: The first half of the trail-blazing double homage delivered in North American theatres as Grindhouse (and everywhere else as a stand-alone film), Planet Terror is a fabulously gory, dirty, silly, explosive sci-fi / zombie flick. Created as a gift to genre fans everywhere, it's definitely not for the meek or those uneducated in the sleaze-and-violence era of 70's and 80's exploitation flicks. For those connoisseurs prepared for a wink-filled, outrageous pursuit that embraces every familiar convention seen in movies like Day of the Dead or Assault on Precinct 13 - from the inane character drama and the twisted suspense to the flesh-eating orgies and bullet-ridden retribution - and pushes them all to extremes, writer / director / producer / composer / editor Rodriguez (Sin City, Spy Kids) offers up an energetic, kick-ass affair that's sure to tickle every immature, non-PC bone in your body. From the deliberately scratchy, burnt film stock, exaggerated performances, and even through a missing reel (!), it's all in line with faithfully re-creating the experience of watching a grind house feature. With its dose of T&A, bloody mayhem, obvious camp, and with a tongue-in-cheek script that smartly plays and delivers on our expectations - and always goes for the gross-out (squirting puss and disembowelments, anyone?) - the hyper-kinetic affair ends up being exhausting, if not exhausted, until it ramps up again in an over-the-top finale, with our one-legged go-go dancer heroine mowing down enemies with an automatic rifle attached to her stump, and a helicopter chopping zombie heads with its blades, among others memorable moments. The cast, made up of familiar genre faces from Michael Biehn and Tom Savini to Bruce Willis, are a hoot to watch, and even the unfamiliar leads make do with the over-the-top situations. As a delicious added bonus there's a fake trailer for the - unfortunately non-existent - "Mexploitation" film called Machete starring Danny Trejo and Cheech Marin, also helmed by Rodriguez. Not for the faint of heart or the humorless, Planet Terror is really meant for audiences that already know the drill; those that do will definitely get a rightful kick out of it.
Entertainment: 8/10

Play It Again, Sam (1972)
Starring: Woody Allen, Diane Keaton
Director: Herbert Ross
Plot: A dysfunctional film fanatic tries to get back into the social life after his divorce with the help of his best friends and an imaginary Humphrey Bogart.
Review: Woody Allen is at his dysfunctional best, not playing his more recent over-the-top hypochondriac, but simply exaggerating traits and situations that might well apply to everyone who's ever come back into the dating world. Play It Again, Sam is a small-scale, light-hearted comedy based on an Allen play, and the theatrical side of the story shows. There is no deep social commentary or even any inkling of drama here of the sort that imbue some of his later works, and the film is not as hysterical as his early works such as Bananas or Sleeper, but the comedy works, providing sufficient chuckles and reflective embarrassments at our dating habits. If you've seen Woody Allen films before, then this is just a low-key version of his trademark shtick, but it's still amusing.
Comedy: 6/10

Pleasantville (1998)
Starring: Tobey Maguire, Reese Witherspoon, Jeff Daniels
Director: Gary Ross
Plot: Modern-day siblings find themselves magically transported into the reruns of an idealistic 1950's B&W TV sitcom but their presence soon affects the complacent All-American values of the fictional society.
Review: A contemporary spoof on classic American sitcoms like Father Knows Best, Pleasantville gives its light-hearted humor some emotional and dramatic heft that places it above the usual feel-good fare. In his directorial debut, writer Gary Ross takes his trademark fish-out-of-water scenario (he did the script for Big and Dave) and turns it on its ear. Though it takes a little while to get going, the first half is pure, smart comedy as it explores the inconsistencies of sitcom life through its two 90's teens, especially when they realize that the "pleasant" town is in lack of many obvious things (it only has two streets, there are no toilets, and no-one has sex!). As the town opens up to new ideas, the black-and-white world slowly transforms into a brilliant Technicolor one, one piece at a time in some well-realized digitally enhanced sequences. The ensuing conflict between the conservative B&W characters versus the full-color ones (the "coloreds") is a clever metaphor on the race conflicts of the 50's, and even added to the other moralizing lessons on individualism and conformity it still comes out rather well if one follows the film's TV logic. The switch also allows the fine cast an opportunity to create some endearing characters that make you care about the outcome. The then-little-known Witherspoon shows a definite panache and charisma in the role of teen floozy, but it's first-timer Maguire that really steals the show with his sympathetic and wholesome performance. The supporting cast also shines, especially Joan Allen and William H. Macy as the perfect nuclear family parents who struggle with the new changes and Jeff Daniels as the soda-shop owner with repressed artistic ambitions. Well realized, imaginative, engaging and funny, Pleasantville is a rarity: a pleasant dramatic comedy that's original and satisfying.
Entertainment / Drama: 8/10

The Pledge (2001)
Starring: Jack Nicholson, Robin Wright Penn, Aaron Eckhart
Director: Sean Penn
Plot: A soon-to-be-retired detective swears to a despondent mother that he will track down her daughter's killer, a killer no one else believes exists, but as the seasons go by his pledge becomes a maddening obsession.
Review: With The Pledge, director Penn presents a somber, crime / psychological drama which tries to bring up the complexity of its main character's quest, and his slow fall into obsession. The film starts off as a somber, well-done police procedural, with some nice camera shots and gruesome murder scenes. Yet though the elements of a crime thriller are in place, there isn't much here that is typical to the genre. The story uses its crime beginnings only as the basis for its rumination on ethical and moral dilemmas, and its hero's plunge into madness. As a director Penn has always been fascinated with exploring what would seem typical situations with a new, disturbing eye, and he does manage to bring some of that here. The main theme is the question: is he protecting this child he loves or merely using her as bait to catch a killer? Yet, though the pacing is mostly deliberately slow and methodical, it also seems to take shortcuts to its character development and throws them into the mix without explanation. Why is this pledge so important? Why is he going mad? And why do all the symptoms suddenly conveniently appear to us only while he is talking to a psychologist? As a character study, the film does take some risks and does present some interesting moments but eventually only partly succeeds. The main reason for this is the final scene, in an ending that the filmmakers hoped would be an emotionally devastating blow. Unfortunately, without having properly set-up the protagonist's downward psychological spiral, and thus his eventual fall well enough, the climax only comes out as an interesting twist, but one that just doesn't convince either emotionally or intellectually. Jack Nicholson does a remarkably subdued performance as the ex-cop who can't let go of his last case, and right until the end he remains quite convincing. Penn's clout has also managed to bring in an impressive array of familiar Hollywood faces all playing bit parts throughout the film - Sam Sheppard, Vanessa Redgrave, Benicio del Toro and even Mickey Rourke in a short but intense one-scene performance. The Pledge is a promising drama with some fine performances but without the emotional tie to its final scene, the film just ends up as an interesting idea that misses its mark.
Drama: 5/10

Pocahontas (1995)
Starring: Irene Bedard, Mel Gibson
Directors: Eric Goldberg, Mike Gabriel
Plot: When English colonists looking for gold land in 16th-century Virginia, a handsome soldier is saved by the daughter of a Native American chief after he is taken prisoner for the murder of one of the tribe's warriors.
Review: Very loosely based on historical fact, the family-friendly re-telling of the story of Pocahontas is a strange twist on the usual animated Disney fare. Add to this a good dose of romance and a heavy-handed moral tale, and you've got a risky proposition. In fact, the film fails in its most important role, as children entertainment; even though the running time is short, most youngsters will have difficulty staying attentive to the proceedings, especially the slow-as-molasses first half. Pocahontas herself is depicted as Goodness incarnate, and her lines and features ensured that the media called her Poca-Barbie for the sterilized, beautified version of her character. Then again, the colonists are the obvious villains while the Native Americans are in-tune with the Universe, an easy simplification to ensure no possible confusion for 4-year olds. As such, this is American History passed through the Disney blender, something that might grate on adult viewers. The songs are good enough, including the Oscar-winning "Colors of the Wind", and these give the opportunity for some imaginative sequences. Unfortunately, the rest of the film's animation is clean but rather dull, lacking the style or colors of earlier films. Also missing is the wit and adventure of its more successful predecessors like Beauty and the Beast or Aladdin. The high point are the cute and clever animals, a Walt trademark, and the silent Meeko the Raccoon (constantly on the prowl for food) gives the film a much needed dose of humor. Pocahontas had good intentions, and for a slighlty older crowd this might actually work better, but it can't help but be a step backward for the studio following its many successes of the 90's.
Entertainment: 5/10

The Polar Express (2004)
Starring: Tom Hanks, Daryl Sabara
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Plot: On Christmas Eve a young boy who doubts the existence of Santa Claus takes an incredible train ride to the North Pole to meet him.
Review: It seems it would be akin to Scrooge to dismiss the computer animated Christmas tale The Polar Express as just an excuse to make money, and in fairness it's professionally executed spectacle. In fact, the detail and care that went into every CGI shot is exquisite, and the computer animated wizardry makes it a doubtless technological marvel now. But that "wow" factor will fade over the years reducing this winter tale to another failed attempt at creating a lasting classic. One big stumbling block is that though lots of work went into making the human characters as impressive-looking as possible, and they are, their plastic look and robotic-like movements (supposedly motion-captured) are completely unconvincing. At the price, it's an incredibly expensive production that would have been more effective as a live-action feature. The train trip itself, which makes up for half of the story, is a grand, roller-coaster of an adventure with enough action and excitement to a trip to the movie worthwhile. Here the innocent interactions between the kids speaks more about the true meaning of Christmas than does the pushy sentimentality of the rest of the film. For when they arrive at the North pole the script gets so hokey and dewy-eyed, and so in line with the blander aspects of X-Mas that any good will left for the film will disappear. Even as a retread of past efforts such as Miracle on 34th Street, this only attempts at the child-like wonder of Santa Claus and misses the heart. Like everything else, the emotions are way too calculated here to allow any soul to come out of the woodworks. It's a disappointing effort from director Zemeckis who managed to capture such great moments with diverse efforts as Back to the Future, Contact and Forrest Gump. By adapting and adding to Chris Van Allsburg's popular 30-odd page children's book, the filmmakers probably had good intentions, but what comes out of it is impressive to look at, but not very fulfilling. And the use of Hanks for a half-dozen different voices comes off as pure gimmick, and the general voice acting is on par with most similar productions. Still, it's a family film and children young enough to still believe in Santa will get a real kick out of this, but most every one else in the audience won't be able to follow the very precept of the film, and that's to "believe". There's no denying that The Polar Express looks great, and there's definite fun to be had in the first part, but with all efforts put into the eye candy it seems the Yuletide spirit was left behind.
Entertainment: 6/10

*Classic* Police Story (Hong Kong - 1985)
Starring: Jackie Chan, Brigitte Lin, Maggie Cheung
Director: Jackie Chan
Plot: After single-handedly capturing a drug lord, a Hong Kong cop is assigned to protect the female witness who could clinch the case but soon finds himself on the run when he's framed for a partner's murder.
Review: The action thriller Police Story is the film that really swung Jackie Chan into international super-stardom, and rightly so. Trying to showcase the talents that made him a household name, Chan produced, directed and starred in an affair that really couldn't be done in the States, replete with fabulous action set-pieces, death-defying stunts, great chases, and impeccably choreographed fighting sequences that would put most big-budget Hollywood productions to shame. And it's no wonder, after you see the outtakes and injuries incurred in the filmmaking. A few highlights: the opening sequence, with cars diving straight through a hillside shantytown is simply amazing; a superb chase as Chan runs after a double-decker bus that's straight out of Charlie Chaplin; the climactic act as Chan takes on dozens of bad guys in a bone-crunching, window-shattering fist-fight inside a shopping mall. Of course, Chan's trademark slapstick humor also makes an appearance and, if some of the plot and comedy is a little much to bear for an otherwise serious and violent affair, it's still a fun time. Sure, there's relatively minimal story and a lot of it is familiar, but it's the action that really makes Police Story the great, classic stuff it is, marking the new benchmark for which all contemporary HK films were measured.
Entertainment: 8/10

Pollock (2000)
Starring: Ed Harris, Marcia Gay Harden
Director: Ed Harris
Plot: A docu-drama on the last ten years in the life of esteemed painter Jackson Pollock, from his rise into prominence after years of depression, to his creative fall and sudden death.
Review: With Pollock, director / actor Ed Harris has tried to capture the energy, the genius of Jackson Pollock, the painter who Life Magazine has called "the greatest American painter of the 20th century". To be sure, the film does take certain liberties with the time frame of events as well as with the situations, but the film doesn't pretend to be an accurate biography as much as a portrait into the mystery that is Pollock. The script and narrative style are well done, if not memorable, and though well told, the film does seem to drag on occasion ending as a portrait of the artist may seem too conventional. But no matter the perceived deficiencies in the story or execution of the film, there is absolutely no doubt that Ed Harris is phenomenal, compelling and electrifying as Pollock, managing to convey the passion, the recklessness, the humanity and the torment of the man. The tempestuous relationship between Pollock and his wife is also well detailed and both Harris and Harden work off each other splendidly. Even more impressive are the extensive scenes of him painting, of creating his art on canvas, that makes the audience understand the thought and work process that goes into each piece. Though the secrets of Pollock and the origins of his inspirations may still not be revealed, Pollock does give us a glimpse at an incredible artist, and gives a chance for Ed Harris' vast acting talents to shine through.
Drama: 7/10

Poltergeist (1982)
Starring: JoBeth Williams, Craig T. Nelson, Beatrice Straight
Director: Tobe Hooper
Plot: The life of a suburban family is thrown in disarray when their youngest daughter is apparently kidnapped by malevolent supernatural entities living in their home.
Review: A decidedly different take on the typical haunted house movie, Poltergeist is a ghost story that has at times more to do with the fantastic than with horror, but whose clever mix made for a startling success. Director Hooper (who made a splash in the horror filed with his cult classic The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) revisits some of the themes close to his works (the unknown affecting the family microcosm), as well as some frightening imagery and not-too-subtle subtext. But this is a much more mainstream affair, and one more slickly made than most, showing the hand of co-producer and co-screenwriter Steven Spielberg (coming off of E.T. and Jaws) in much of the suburban-life set-up and in the more comic moments. As such, Hooper's usual blend of shocking violence and sexual reverberations are nowhere to be seen, giving a film that makes for fine (if scary) family fare. It's a strange pairing of two very different talents, perhaps, but it works, as evidenced by the popularity of the film. By keeping its focus on the story and divesting itself of the usual tongue-in-cheek humor found in the genre, it also remains engrossing throughout, and though there might be some instances that drag on a bit, these are easily accepted. Though not quite as frightening as it used to be, it's still a terrific story, well plotted, well scripted and, thanks to some ably-presented characters we can relate to, quite involving. The cast is also just right, with special kudos to Williams as the dedicated, despairing housewife and mother and to young, eerie Heather O'Rourke as the girl who hears voices from the TV set. The special effects (by George Lucas' ILM) are somewhat dated compared to more modern CG work, but to its advantage the film doesn't rely on these as much as more modern fare does; the story is the thing, as is the ever-present sense of dread, and the judicious use of effects still nails the strangeness just right. Poltergeist might well be the best mainstream horror film of the 1980's, and thanks to the talent involved, is still exciting for today's audiences.
Entertainment / Horror: 7/10

Ponette (France - 1996)
Starring: Victoire Thivisol, Matiaz Bureau
Director: Jacques Doillon
Plot: A four year old girl tries to cope with her mother's death in her own way, but is confused by the reactions and explanations of the adults and children surrounding her.
Review: If the low-key drama Ponette was solely an excuse to see the amazing young Thivisol on screen, it would have been worth it: she is absolutely extraordinary - convincing, charming and captivating in a performance full of child grief, innocence and hope. As it is, the plot is indeed minimal and yet director Doillon manages to capture the very essence of childhood with his young cast, with their confusion over religion, life, death, and other adult affairs. The film does break down in the final scene, as if the story doesn't know how to resolve Ponette's situation and needs a fantasy device for closure, one that seems a bit contrived and that dissolves the realism the film had managed so easily to attain. Still, until then its hard not to be moved by the emotions displayed, by the very anguish and dream-like quality of the proceedings. Thanks to the wonderful, heart-wrenching acting of its young star, Ponette is a beautiful, melancholy film that will leave everyone impressed.
Drama: 8/10

Porco Rosso (Japan - 1992)
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Plot: During the 1930's, a hotshot seaplane pilot - cursed to being a pig - works in the Adriatic sea as a bounty hunter using his plane and his skills to run down air pirates.
Review: Take some of the classic Hollywood air combat films, mix in some melodrama, romance, and fantasy, then add a heavy dose of slapstick and you'll get an idea of what Porco Rosso delivers. Much like anime legend Miyazaki's previous features such as Kiki's Delivery Service, the presented world is slightly different than our own, a place where an anthropomorphic pig isn't even a strange sight. Unlike his later, more mature films like Princess Mononoke or his mesmerizing Spirited Away, however, this one is much more of a straight-forward romantic adventure. Originally done as a short feature for Japan Airlines and later extended for full-length form, it's obvious that less care was taken to create any real plot. To get things clear: the animation isn't as fluid as his other films, the storyline is nowhere near as rich, nor are Miyazaki's usual themes alluded to here. But this being a Miyazaki film, even a minimal work is clearly above-average fare. What we do get is a grand adventure, filled with sleek-looking airplanes, dogfights, pirate scum, chases, honorable duels, and impossible love. Of note as well is a thoughtful, dramatic flashback retelling the day Rosso lost his squadron in WW1; it's a brief, beautiful sequence that lifts the film up a notch. Though not up to its creator's best efforts, with its sense of fun, easy comedy and engaging characters Porco Rosso is fine, light entertainment.
Entertainment: 6/10

The Portrait of a Lady (1996)
Starring: Nicole Kidman, John Malkovich, Barbara Hershey
Director: Jane Campion
Plot: In the late 19th-century, an independent but naive young woman inherits a fortune and decides to expand her horizons by travelling only to end up caught in an oppressive marriage.
Review: The Portrait of a Lady is a grim portrayal of a woman fallen from her own aspirations, whose hopes and expectations have been dashed by an oppressive marriage. This adaptation of the Henry James novel is much darker in tone and execution than most period dramas, and quite modern in its interpretation. There are some narrative passages that could even be called daring for a film of this type, especially the surreal sequences in black and white showing the protagonist's unconscious desires, adding much to the appreciation of the film. The sets and costumes, though typically lavish, are very secondary to the camera's focus, instead putting all its efforts on capturing the attributes and emotions of the characters, as it should, in dim lights and shadows. The start of the film is a tad slow and rather uninvolving taking its time to present the main characters but seemingly keeping them at a distance. A third into the film, however, the audience can’t help but become emotionally involved and drawn into the narrative. One of the main reasons for this is director Campion’s (The Piano) wonderful job in capturing the essence of the book, and making it relevant to our present society by adding her own feminist slant to the proceedings. The other is Kidman, who is absolutely fabulous in the role of Isabel and utterly convincing from start to finish, making her character’s distress and anguish apparent but never exaggerated. The rest of the cast is also excellent, from Malkovich’s calmly frightening take as her manipulating husband to Martin Donovan as her terminally ill cousin and confidant. With a fine script, some great performances, lavish sets and some modern sensibilities, The Portrait of a Lady is an emotionally powerful and fascinating adaptation of a classic novel.
Drama: 8/10


Poseidon (2006)
Starring: Joshua Lucas, Kurt Russell, Richard Dreyfuss
Director: Wolfgang Petersen
Plot: A smal band of survivors scurry to find an escape route when their luxury cruise liner is overturned by a massive tidal wave on New Year's Eve.
Review: A remake of the now-dated B-classic Irwin Allen disaster flick The Poseidon Adventure, Poseidon is a by-the-book exercise in creating a summer blockbuster. Gone are the tedious melodrama, the vacuous dialogue and the group interactions of the original. In fact, gone also are just about any kind of plot, character development and anything that resembles a story-line: this is a pure, stripped-down thrill-ride, and it delivers. Though Titanic has marked the high-point on creating the "sinking ship" experience, the filmmakers have gone all-out to go one step beyond. The prolonged large- (and small-) scale sequences of disaster and mayhem are big on impressive visual effects, intense cliff-hangers, suspense, and perilous deeds. As such, director Petersen (The Perfect Storm, Air Force One) uses all his skills to cook up an adventure flick that jumps quickly into the action and never lets up, placing its survivors in constant danger. Alas, while the aforementioned Titanic also had a solid script and some strong emotional resonance to add to the scenes of terror, this film can be blamed for being lean to a fault, everything revolving around surviving the on-coming water level - or the next explosion / falling debris - and not much else. As such, the solid cast is severely underused here, and similarities with the original is hard to see: head-liners Lucas and Russell do fine in the heroics, but none of the performances get much of a chance to make an impression. So, well-crafted but heartless, Poseidon is an effects-driven first-class popcorn movie that's just what audiences keen for summer entertainment are looking for.
Entertainment: 6/10

The Poseidon Adventure (1972)
Starring: Gene Hackman, Ernest Borgnine, Red Buttons
Director: Ronald Neame
Plot: After a massive tidal wave overturns a luxury ocean liner, a handful of trapped survivors led by a defrocked priest try to make their escape through the ship.
Review: Thrilling audiences and becoming a massive studio hit, the cheesy B-classic The Poseidon Adventure can now only be described as Titanic-lite. Arguably the best in a series of disaster-master Irwin Allen's flicks which included The Towering Inferno (a minor distinction) the film - with its 70's prodding filmmaking - is just dreadful by modern standards, with inadvertent laughs galore, second-rate effects, and a paper-thin plot. Despite the setting, the destroyed, water-sogged decks and the flame-filled rooms, there's surprisingly little adventure to be had, considering their predicament - something that was due, perhaps, to the budget restrictions of the film. Instead, the script puts much emphasis (and much of the running time) in exploring the one-dimensional, "everyman / woman" characters and the shallow dynamics between them as they head for safety. The acting from the all-star cast is generally awful, as if they were given little direction from Neame, a Hollywood veteran who proved his dramatic worth with such films as The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and Scrooge (though he also did Meteor, so...). Hackman, at least, telegraphs what ends up being only half-decent performance as a fallen priest leading his flock of survivors to safety. If not quite inept, a viewing of The Poseidon Adventure doesn't quite live up to the expectations set back in its time.
Entertainment: 4/10

Possible Worlds (2000)
Starring: Tilda Swinton, Tom McCamus, Sean McCann 
Director: Robert Lepage
Plot: A murder victim in one incarnation, a man travels through various parallel worlds simultaneously, always starting a relationship with the same woman but one with different personalities.
Review: Initially renown for his work in theater, LePage's fourth feature Possible Worlds is a visually splendid piece, an excellent, though-provoking work that is also beautifully, creatively rendered. An adaptation of a play on consciousness by John Mighton (who also provided the screenplay), it's a story that's part philosophical adventure, part romantic musing wrapped in a murder-mystery. Though this underlying mystery is intriguing, there's never any real suspense generated; this is purely an exercise in imagery formed around ideas, and it's often fascinating stuff. The film has high ambitions, for sure, asking more questions than it answers and the deliberate, slow pacing allows us to better appreciate the text and rendering of every scene. LePage flexes his abilities once more with a visually spell-binding look and feel, with a use of colors and cinematography that come off (intentionally) as more real than real. There are also some amazing cinematic (and blatantly Artistic) segue-ways from one act to the next, none more so than the one that starts with a panning shot of a darkroom chemical plate shimmering with exposing pictures slowly metamorphosing into a conference-room table - absolutely splendid! Though the film may seem cold (and it is more often than not) and its theatrical roots sometimes show, it quickly becomes strangely affecting in its exploration of its protagonist's odd theories and strange circumstances, and his final outcome. As for the leads, McCamus plays his dimension-tripping role with just the right amount of vacant emotional feel and Swinton is simply sublime, playing varied incarnations of the same person, each with its own style but all heartfelt, endearing and credible. Possible Worlds is a haunting, thought-provoking fable, and with LePage's visual brilliance it really shines.
Drama: 8/10

The Postman (1997)
Starring: Kevin Costner, Will Patton, Olivia Williams
Director: Kevin Costner
Plot: In a post-apocalyptic America, a drifter unwittingly becomes a beacon of hope and rebellion against an evil warlord when he dons the uniform of a deceased postal worker and delivers 15 year old mail.
Review: Based on the novel by David Brin, The Postman wants to be a big, epic Hollywood film with a message. Unfortunately it just falls flat. This is definitely not up to par with Costner's first directorial effort, the Academy Award-winning Dances With Wolves. Though some of his earlier style is quite evident here, as are the magnificent vistas and decent camerawork, the film itself is muddled and overbearing. One of the main problems isn't so much Costner's directing as it is the script which relies too much on bad dialogue, clichés, boring villains, and tired plot points to make it work. In fact, it seems more of a mish-mash of bad, cheap sci-fi films with a made-for-TV movie sensibility and length, droning on at almost 3 hours. The story itself could have been interesting, but it's drowned with a sense of simplistic sentimentality and misplaced patriotism. After saying all this, though, there are much worse movies than this and for all its flaws The Postman is, surprisingly, still quite watchable - as long as you're in the right frame of mind for some long-winded melodrama.
Entertainment: 4/10

Predator (1987)
Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Carl Weathers, Elpidia Carrillo
Director: John McTiernan
Plot: Sent to stop rebels in South America, a veteran military man sees special forces unit get decimated one by one, only to be left to face an alien hunter alone.
Review: A keystone in Hollywood's action roster, Predator is a perfect example of a high concept premise executed with verve and style to become a successful, and enduring, showcase for its star and director. And its lots of fun, too. Made in the footsteps of Aliens, the script - a sci-fi update to the oft-adapted story "The Most Dangerous Game" - might be full of logic holes, but never is it ever insulting to its audience, using the limited decor and premise to create an entertaining, engaging affair. Sure, it's all pretty silly stuff but as a low-brow action flick full of the necessary explosions, mano-a-mano fisticuffs, and cartoonish violence, it works admirably. Even the special effects, and sci-fi sprinklings (like the Predator's first-person point of view and his hi-tech weaponry), still hold up well compared to more modern, high-testosterone flicks. Action-meister director McTiernan (who went on to do Die Hard) cut his teeth with this film and his skills are eminently evident: tight pacing, solid suspense, exciting action sequences, and a solid flair for the genre. As the tough-as-nails soldier (Commando, anyone?) Schwarzenegger was at the peak of his popularity (and his bad puns). Indeed, after True Lies this is probably his best film, making good use of his greater-than-life persona and impressive presence. All told, Predator is nothing if not an extremely macho action movie that knows its intended audience and delivers the goods - in spades.
Entertainment: 8/10

Predator 2 (1990)
Starring: Danny Glover, Gary Busey, Rubén Blades
Director: Stephen Hopkins
Plot: A formidable, invisible alien hunter makes a future Los Angeles his playground, going on a killing spree aimed at both gang-members and cops in his pursuit of a tough cop.
Review: A high-powered (and more expensive) sequel to the successful Schwarzenegger vehicle Predator, Predator 2 succumbs to all the faults of those 80's sequels - originality, tension and storytelling give way to more frenetic action and less plot. The jungle setting has been replaced with an urban one - a fine idea - with a nihilistic future similar to that in Robocop, where cops are overwhelmed and citizens all carry guns. The action - for the most part an aggressive excess of uninteresting gunplay - is well staged, if rather bland. Oh, there's definitely more ultra-violent, bloody carnage brought to the table, but it all soon becomes relentless to the point of annoyance, and loud enough to be headache inducing. Those with short attention spans, however, will be glad there's little important dialogue to be had, and director Hopkins keeps it all moving along at breakneck speed, adding a touch of horror to the proceedings. Unfortunately, unlike Schwarzenegger's star turn in the original, Glover doesn't really seem to be a good match for this Predator, either physically or experience-wise, and never is it more apparent than in the over-long (and silly) climactic fight. Worse, Glover has a one-note acting style - on-the-edge, farcical intensity - which makes for a poor character. Thankfully, he has a trio of sidekicks (including Blades and Bill Paxton) to provide drama and comic relief, respectively. To be fair, Predator 2 is a surprisingly well shot affair that rarely wavers, the creatures are interesting, and there's an attempt to add more depth to the franchise (check the shot of the Alien trophy head at the end). Those longing for the brainless but loud productions so popular in the 80's will gobble this up - too bad it lacks any originality or true flair to make it special.
Entertainment: 5/10

Premonition (Japan - 2004)
Starring: Hiroshi Mikami, Noriko Sakai, Hana Inoue
Director: Norio Tsuruta
Plot: After losing their 5-year old daughter in a freak car accident, a couple torn apart by the tragedy try to discover the secret behind a supernatural newspaper that predicted the event.
Review: Less a horror film that a supernatural tale, the modest Premonition shows a fine grasp of the Japanese genre made famous by Ringu and Ju-On: the Grudge. The style is obviously influenced by its Asian horror predecessors, and much of the best scenes are familiar in their execution including the simple, clever cinematography and disturbing imagery. It's no wonder since director Tsuruta had a part in the Ringu trilogy himself with Ringu 0: Birthday. If the melodrama of the couple destroyed by tragedy feels a little warmed over and long-winded, he does well in creating some decent tension and a grim atmosphere using low-key elements and clever camera shots - all the better to cut a grisly scene or two into the proceedings. And the entire thing rests on an interesting premise - of people given the opportunity to cheat fate at a price - and the newspaper of doom which foretells grisly events is a spooky artifice that's well integrated in the film. Too bad, then, that the script isn't better, or at least would resolve why these people are targeted by what amounts to an evil spirit. As the alienated couple, the two leads do just fine but it's a bizarre-looking Mikami as a man who has lost the will to continue now plagued with visions of future deaths, who really makes events more believable. Even if the actual conclusion is rather predictable and bland, the final act is worth the entire movie as our hapless hero crosses over into nightmare, jumping back in time and confronting a tragic choice. In the end, Premonition is only an average chiller but there are enough proper thrills and goose bumps to make for a worthwhile entry in the genre.
Horror: 6/10

The Prestige (2006)
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale, Michael Caine
Director: Christopher Nolan
Plot: Professional and personal rivalry turns to obsession when two expert 19th-century illusionists try to uncover each other's stage secrets and to destroy one another's reputation at the same time.
Review: Adapted from a story by Christopher Priest, The Prestige is a tale of obsession set in the stylish, spectacular Victorian-era world of theatrical illusions. The narrative is set up very much like the formula for every great magic piece: a Pledge (the humble beginnings of the rivalry), a Turn (the up scaling of their obsession) and the Prestige (the shocking, impossible twist). And so there's a mystery here that both the audience and Jackman's character tries desperately to figure out, a trick that transports a man instantly across the room, and one that may well be true magic. Uncovering the clues and paying attention to the details is part of the fun, of course, but there are too many of them that unfortunately telegraph both mages' secrets way before the climax and, alas, makes it fail Nolan's own prestige; knowing the trick ahead of time spoils some of the surprise. Still, like any illusion, it's the ability to entertain and befuddle that makes watching magic so exhilarating, and there's no lack of showmanship flair in evidence. Throwing in fascinating mechanical contraptions and tricks, ciphers, puzzles, and even a dash of science-fiction into the mix with the appearance of real-life scientist Nikolai Tesla (a nice turn by aging pop-star David Bowie), and you've got a densely packed, dazzling and clever film that works like a thriller. Though it may not quite rival writer / director Nolan's (Batman Begins, Insomnia) most accomplished work to date (that remains the reverse-time thriller Memento), there's no denying the craftsmanship involved in this big-budget production and the careful attention paid to a script that takes some real chances with its audience, making it a surprise Hollywood production that is much smarter than usual mainstream fare. As the leads Jackman and Bale make terrific nemesis: one, a sleek stage hound, the other a master of his craft, each willing to sacrifice all to beat the other. Their lives have been taken over by their obsession, and even their relationships with wife or mistress seems to be only another part of the deception they do for their art. A stellar supporting cast helps bring that feeling home, with Caine, Piper Perabo, Andy Serkis and a very slinky Scarlet Johansson who does wonders with a corset as the stage assistant. So when the curtain falls, The Prestige feels like it was definitely worth the price of admission.
Entertainment: 8/10

Pride and Prejudice (2005)
Starring: Keira Knightley, Matthew MacFadyen, Brenda Blethyn
Director: Joe Wright
Plot: In 19th century England, five unwed middle-class sisters living in the countryside have their lives turned upside down when a wealthy young man and his snobbish, prideful friend arrive for a holiday in a local estate.
Review: Screen versions of Jane Austen's classic English novel are countless - one immediately thinks of the popular 1995 BBC mini-series - yet this latest entry of Pride and Prejudice is another fine addition to the list. If not always completely faithful, it is nonetheless a modern, good-looking adaptation. Indeed, its most impressive attributes are the gorgeous cinematography of the British countryside, castles and impressive properties, and the superb production values - costumes, art direction, and locales are well crafted. A big tip of the hat must also go to the fine cast; Knightley deserved her Oscar nomination as the head-strong sister and MacFadden makes a fine romantic foil, and they're well aided by an A-list support from the likes of Donald Sutherland and Judi Dench. Co-writer / director Wright does sneak in some nice cinematic touches to enhances the experience yet knows enough to keep the focus on the story, the dialogue and the characters making it a luscious looking, engaging film with nary a dull moment. The only hiccup is that the satire of the original work has been completely lost, to be replaced with a straight-forward Victorian-styled romance, perhaps because the filmmakers believe our modern-day outlook would find it otherwise too outmoded, or audiences just wouldn't get the joke. Some may wonder why yet another adaptation of Pride and Prejudice was necessary but when it's done this well and proceeds this pleasantly, there's nothing wrong with another version of what has become a timeless tale.
Drama: 8/10

Priest (2011)
Starring: Paul Bettany, Cam Gigandet, Maggie Q
Director: Scott Charles Stewart
Plot: In a world where vampires and Man have been at war for centuries and the last remnants of humanity live in fortified cities ruled by the Church, a warrior priest breaks his vows to go on a quest to find his missing daughter, kidnapped by a pack of murderous vampires.
Review: Based on a Korean comic book and meant to kick-start a blockbuster franchise, Priest is a post-apocalyptic action / horror movie that feels more like a network TV pilot than a theatrical feature. As quickly explained in a poorly-drawn animated intro, this is an alternate world where ugly, eyeless vampire creatures are at war with Man, and the Church is Big Brother. 1984 and Blade Runner influences aside, this sci-fi adventure is played out like a John Wayne Western (think The Searchers) with aspirations of The Road Warrior, and it's really just a melting pot of other, better movies - the fun may be in catching the references, but it doesn't work on its own merits. The bare sets, low-budget feel (especially for a summer tent-pole film), lazy 3D, poor characters and uninspired script all have to do with it, and director Stewart hasn't progressed much from his previous supernatural action flick foray, the critically-panned Legion. There's also disappointment that the potential for a more in-depth exploration of the influence of the Church is squandered with boring sub-plots and banal dialogue. There's the occasional bit of tension and atmosphere of dread, and Karl Urban as an unstoppable daywalker chews the scenery with aplomb, but for every interesting bit there's a boring bit - an interminable search in dark tunnels, multiple shots of motorbikes speeding across the desert, etc. Even at a bare-bones 80 minutes, the film has unnecessary stretches as if it didn't have enough meat to begin with, or all the more intriguing back-story was left on the cutting room floor. The cast, including a capable Bettany and Maggie Q as super-powered vampire hunters, and cameos by a bevy of genre actors like Christopher Plummer and Brad Dourif, can't really elevate this beyond B-movie aspirations. It's not a complete waste; there are a handful of effective action set pieces, especially an explosive climax aboard a speeding train full of vampires, but their not enough to recommend. Priest had the proper scope and potential for a franchise, but this uninspired, workmanlike effort is just a dead end for another potential franchise.
Entertainment: 4/10

Prime (2005)
Starring: Uma Thurman, Meryl Streep, Bryan Greenberg
Director: Ben Younger
Plot: A recently divorced 37-year-old career woman falls hea-over-heels for a much younger Jewish painter without knowing that her lover happens to be her therapist's son.
Review: Another "high-concept" romantic comedy based on a convenient coincidence, Prime sets out to provide more than yuks but never quite delivers. Though the usual rom-com staples are in place, including the broad comic structure, the eccentric supporting cast (the pie-throwing buddy on one side, the gay colleagues on the other), it all plays out more like a shallow relationship drama. The script has less to say about religion (though it gives us a retread of the usual Jew-Gentile clichés) than it does about the age gap with easy, if pointed, hits at the generation problems between Gen X and Gen Y. Writer / director Younger (of the critically acclaimed, tense Boiler Room) knows at least to care for his characters and, once the premise is set, keeps the plot going in a realistic, if predictable, direction. He also manages to balance between the humor and the sentimentality that, if never quite succeeding, keep things moving along throughout the film. The more interesting connection isn't between 37-year-old and 23-year-old, but between shrink and patient, and one that never rises to its potential. These scenes pretty much make up the entire comic section of the movie, with the therapist / mom's moral dilemma and occasional slapstick attempts at keeping her link between the two lovers secret, yet they seem to be nothing more than an afterthought. Streep, playing the stereotypical Jewish mother to the hilt, she isn't as effective or impressive in comedy as she has been in dramas, and this is a sad waste of her talents. As for Thurman, she seems to be stuck in these kinds of sappy roles, and she's good at them, but she could be doing so much more than this flaccid attempt. It doesn't help that the only real thing going with her and Greenberg is the fantastic sex - nothing else really seems to click between them. To be fair, the film goes by effortlessly and will appeal to many - it's just disappointing considering its potential. At least the plot runs its most probable course, leaving an ending that may not be "happily ever after" but is much more satisfying. It's still all terribly familiar, but Prime has its moments - there just aren't enough of them to make for anything but an average flick.
Entertainment / Drama: 5/10

Primer (2004)
Starring: David Sullivan, Casey Gooden
Director: Shane Carruth
Plot: Two fledgling engineers / entrepreneurs build a machine in their garage that might alter the world forever, but wrestle over how best to use it.
Review: A present-day time-travel thriller that relies more on story-telling than effects, the very independently-produced Primer is an impressive, thought-provoking first effort. A basement-level creation made on a shoe-string budget of $7,000, shot using mostly ambient lighting, the cinematography and general filmmaking isn't slick by any means. Yet amateur writer / director / actor Carruth has created such an intriguing tale, such vivid characters and situations, and such a mind-bending narrative that even it's minor means only adds a sense of immediacy and gritty realness to the events. Kudos as well for its ability to capture the way real engineers work - a series of successes and failures - and getting us excited as these two techies slowly realize the extent of their discovery. As the story progresses, ethical clashes ensue and dramatic events follow, the tension rises so naturally that you'll be caught unaware. Let's be clear, however: this is not an easy film to digest, and close attention is constantly required, especially when the story's ramifications come full circle, but it pays that investment in spades. With its able direction, stark originality and excellent script, it's no wonder it won top honors at Sundance. Primer is hands-down one one of the best hard-SF films of our generation; that it was done with such limited means only proves that necessity really is the heart of invention.
Drama / Entertainment: 9/10

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010)
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Gemma Arterton, Ben Kingsley, Alfred Molina
Director: Mike Newell
Plot: A dashing prince, framed for the murder of his adopted father the King, joins forces with a conquered princess to protect a powerful dagger that can reverse time for its user.
Review: Loosely based on the popular jumping-and-fighting video game series of the same name, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time is fast-paced adventure fare that's as much a throwback to films like Thief of Baghdad as it is to the current CGI-heavy fantasies. The similarities with action producer Jerry Bruckheimer's Pirates of the Caribbean are obvious - the light-hearted sense of adventure, the tongue-in-cheek humour, the terrific production values, and the swash-buckling narrative. As the film's roots will lead anyone to expect, our hero gets ample chances to jump rooftops, chase down busy city streets and get into loads of swordfights. The good news is that it's all great fun. Helmer Newell (best known for comedies like Four Weddings and a Funeral) seemed to be a strange choice for such an intense action flick, but he does quite well, taking some of the lessons learned from his last fantasy project, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Some gorgeous cinematography, art direction and sharp editing helps things, too, as do the well choreographed set pieces. A rather charming, pumped-up Gyllenhaal (in the role Orlando Bloom had in Pirates) surprises in his performance as an action hero and there is actual chemistry with leading lady Arterton that actually does create some nice sparks. Rounding out the cast is a scene chewing Alfred Molina (trying to capture some of the Depp craziness) and a rather bland Kingsley as the villain. The only disappointment, perhaps, is that it's all pretty shallow, mostly unoriginal stuff that's enjoyable while it lasts but quickly fades from memory. Still, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time is above-average summer fare loaded with derring-do and laughs - it's just what the season's blockbusters are all about.
Entertainment: 7/10

The Princess and the Frog (2009)
Starring: Anika Noni Rose, Terrence Howard, John Goodman
Director: John Musker, Ron Clements
Plot: When a beautiful young woman encounters a prince whose been cursed into a frog and is desperate to return to being human, her kiss sends them both to an adventure across the Louisiana bayou.
Review: In this market of CGI excesses, the classic cel-based animated feature The Princess and the Frog is a blast from the past. The problem is it is too much so - it all feels too familiar, and neither the story, characters, animation or songs are good enough to be successfully compared to the real golden age of modern Disney fare, when Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King ruled the roost. On the plus side, the directors of The Little Mermaid and Hercules have brought the New Orleans setting to life, there is the occasional verve and some pinches of wit, and the musical numbers with the villainous Voodoo doctor are vibrant and imaginative. As to the tale, Disney finally gives us its first African-American heroine, and she's a hard-working young woman who doesn't (thankfully!) have dreams of simply being swept off her feet as is wont of so many fairy-tale princesses. Alas, for the most part neither the film nor tale are inventive or exciting enough to impress children or adults alike. The main culprit may well be the very center of the film, that of the growing relationship between the two humans-turned-frogs as they cross the Louisiana bayou. There's a Jazz-playing alligator and a grizzled old firefly to keep them company and provide some comic relief, but the romance feels leaden. It doesn't help, perhaps, that we've got a strong-willed heroine teamed up with a vain, smooth-talking (and bland) Prince Charming. An amiable but forgettable effort, The Princess and the Frog doesn't really stretch animation bubble and makes it clear that Disney's traditional fare can't compete with stronger efforts from Pixar and company.
Entertainment: 6/10

The Princess and the Warrior (2001)
Starring: Franka Potente, Benno Furmann, Joachim Krol
Director: Tom Tykwer
Plot: A nurse working at a psychiatric ward tries to find the traumatized ex-soldier who saved her from certain death after indirectly causing an accident while trying to escape from a small-time robbery.
Review: Thanks to an intelligent script, some interesting characters, and a minimal use of melodrama The Princess and the Warrior makes for an adult experience that manages to combine both depth and entertainment. It captures the feel of a modern-day fairy-tale rendering of Cinderella, one with its roles reversed, with its hypnotizing visuals, full of heavily contrasted photography that bring out the vibrant colors of every scene. The camera really flows, alternating between delicate close-ups and large canvases and, thanks to some superb cinematography, the film takes you into a slightly surreal world that's better defined than our own, with picturesque scenes peppering the strong narrative. This is much more like the director's film Winter Sleepers, another deliberately paced effort, than it is his frenetically-paced breakout film Run, Lola, Run - but that's not a bad thing. Though it has more depth than his previous works, the story still delves into his favorite themes, that of fate, coincidence and love, and how it affects our lives. A very well conceived and executed metaphorical ending drives the point home. As portrayed by the terrific Potente and her co-star Furmann, these are two disparate people who learn and grow, whose relationship alters and changes as the film progresses. Their delicate performances suggest people who closed themselves off from everyday society but who long for a connection, and their characters are all the more sympathetic for it. Powerful, effective and quite affecting, The Princess and the Warrior is another invigorating work from a German director to watch out for.
Drama: 8/10

Princess Mononoke (1997) 
Voice-Talent: Claire Danes, Minnie Driver, Billy Crudup
Director: Hayao Miyazaki 
Plot: An outlander journeys into the deep forests to find the spirit that can remove his curse but ends up embroiled in a struggle between animal spirits trying to protect the forest and an industrial town who are trying to exploit it.
Review: Legendary Japanese animator Miyazaki (My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki's Delivery Service) brings to the screen what is probably his most powerful, interesting and downright adult anime film to date. Princess Mononoke is entertainment on a grand scale, with heroic characters, epic struggles, grand adventure, and high melodrama. Based on a Japanese legend, the story is epic in scope, both enchanting and complex, and avoids the typical "good vs. evil" plot: it is a story of how human beings disrupt the balance of the old world around them for the benefits of industrialization. The characters, both man and animal, are all honorable in their own way, and struggle for their own beliefs and goals. The mature subject matter and violence easily make it a film for older viewers and definitely not for kids. The animation is beautiful, easily exceeding in color, scope and fluidity most other animated features, including Disney's. The voice-acting is also superb, with an array of well-known talent lending their voices (including Gillian Anderson and Billy Bob Thornton). Highly recommended.
Entertainment: 9/10

Prison On Fire (Hong Kong - 1987)
Starring: Chow Yun-Fat, Tony Leung Ka Fai, Roy Cheung
Director: Ringo Lam
Plot: Sentenced for manslaughter, a demure young man must learn the rules of prison life thanks to a veteran, easy-going con after getting off on the wrong foot with both an incarcerated triad boss and the facility's security officer.
Review: The story of Prison on Fire is the typical "innocent protagonist meets hard reality" plot, and in terms of plot, characters, and general story-telling, doesn't quite live up to director Lam's aspirations. The characters are quickly defined but have more depth than the usual caricatures, though the usual suspects are all here, among which are the violent crime boss, the con with the heart of gold and the evil warden. There are some powerful, exciting moments to be found, especially the final inmate confrontation, but though the script stays away from falling into exploitation, the narrative still often feels forced and manipulative, and there's nothing really new thrown in to the mix that hasn't been dealt with better elsewhere. Thankfully, Lam does know how to keep our interest focused with some efficient camera movements and a good pace, and the two lead performances are solid, if not always quite convincing. In the end, Prison on Fire is decent enough drama, but by staying within the confines of the most banal elements of the genre the film comes off as rather shallow.
Drama: 6/10

The Prodigal Son (Hong Kong - 1982)
Starring: Yuen Biao, Lam Ching-Ying, Sammo Hung
Director: Sammo Hung
Plot: After getting a beating at the hands of a Peking Opera player, the only son of a rich land-owner discovers that his father has been paying off his opponents to avoid him getting hurt and decides to seek out a real teacher.
Review: The Prodigal Son is another feather in actor / director / action choreographer Hung's long resume, and is a feisty little classic that captures the essence of Hong Kong's hey-days of kung-fu filmmaking. The plot, as usual for this type of film, includes bits of melodrama and likable characters that simply fill the moments between fights. The old-style kung-fu action without the use of wires or special effects, really shows off the award-winning fight choreography as well as the martial arts and amazing acrobatic skills of its cast, and Biao's especially. Amongst the furious combat sequences and the enlightening moments behind the Peking Opera-style theater group, there are also some original and amusing scenes, including old master Hung using his talents for a crazed display of calligraphy and painting, and some impressive ones, such as the burning of the opera house. As for the elements of comedy, they tend to the physical humor / slapstick, and some of it is pretty low-brow but still effective. The Prodigal Son is a solid, entertaining action / comedy and a superb example of Hong Kong's "old school" kung fu genre.
Entertainment: 7/10

The Professional (1994)
Starring: Jean Reno, Natalie Portman, Gary Oldman
Director: Luc Besson
Plot: A young girl weeds into the life of her quiet neighbor, a professional mafia hit-man, after her family is savagely killed by crooked cops.
Review: The Professional is director Luc Besson's (The Big Blue, The Fifth Element) first foray into American productions, but not his first try at mixing both character-driven plots and intense action sequences - his previous film, Nikita, showed he grasped the dynamics of the genre to perfection. Here, the relationship between the two main protagonists harkens back to the controversial story of Lolita, with a romantic (though platonic) bond forming between a 12-year old girl and a much older man. In other hands, this would probably have been trite or unconvincing, but Besson has both the European flair to make the relationship between these two vastly different characters not only vivid, but charming, and enough Hollywood know-how to provide the humor, pacing, and melodrama required for an international audience. The film is by no means an action film, but there are enough guns drawn, killings, and thrilling sequences (especially the explosive finale) to warrant a place in that category. The real attraction, of course, is the intelligent, witty script, full of clever moments and great dialogue. The acting by all parties is also top-notch, from Reno's stoic performance, to Portman's street-smart air, to Oldman's typical over-the-top portrayal, and together make the film all the more interesting to watch. A great blend of well-written and well-directed melodrama and action, The Professional is sure to please more discerning viewers ready for something different.
Entertainment: 8/10

The Professionals (1966)
Starring: Burt Lancaster, Lee Marvin, Robert Ryan, Woody Strode, Jack Palance, Claudia Cardinale
Director: Richard Brooks
Plot: A railroad tycoon hires four professional mercenaries to retrieve his young wife, kidnapped by Mexican revolutionaries.
Review: A precursor to Peckinpah's wildly popular The Wild Bunch that came out a few years later, The Professionals is a fine, and unjustly forgotten, Western that got blown away by the advent of the more spicy and entertaining so-called "Spaghetti Westerns" in the '60s. Surprisingly existential in nature, with its bleak philosophical musings and sense of nostalgia at a by-gone age, and writer / director Brooks (Blackboard Jungle, Elmer Gantry) seems to be bemoaning a greater loss than that of the "Old West". The crack team is made up of four world-weary veterans, all past their prime, disillusioned by their time in the Mexican Revolution, by their own failings and by lost hopes, whose ideals have turned to dust, and now all looking to just make a quick buck. But it's not all talk and cynicism, thankfully, or this would have been a painful experiment in neo-realism; the quieter moments flow well with the couple of effective gunfights and a rip-roaring attack on a Mexican fortress, one complete with lots of occasions for dynamiting it all to Hell. For much of the rest of the tale, it's also a pretty straightforward adventure, though a final chase to the US border with an old compadre at their heels seems downright languid. Leading them are Marvin and Lancaster who, though they may not be very believable, are terrific in that 60's-Hollywood-era way as the tough-as-nails mercenaries out for one last adventure. Top-listed Ryan and Strode as the other members really have little to do but support them, but Jack Palance, as the Mexican revolutionary, and Claudia Cardinale, as the luscious prize that's more than meets the eye, add some spice to the mix. Though not classic Western material, The Professionals is a fine effort with an A-list cast that anticipated the decline in the American genre and helped pave the way for the modern Western.
Entertainment: 6/10

*Classic* Project A (Hong Kong - 1983)
Starring: Jackie Chan, Yuen Biao, Sammo Hung
Director: Jackie Chan
Plot: A dishonored naval officer in turn-of-the century Hong Kong teams up with a police official and a good-hearted thief to stop a band of criminals and battle sea pirates causing mayhem in the South China sea.
Review: Project A is a no-holds-barred action-comedy full of amusing moments, amazing acrobatics, and incredible fight choreography with enough of a plot-line to keep things consistently interesting. The series of large-scale, chaotic, martial arts brawls are inventive and fast-paced, where everything from the flying furniture to the chandeliers become a part of the action. There's also a memorable bicycle chase in the winding, narrow streets where Chan expertly wields his bicycle as a weapon. Chan's near-fatal fall from a clock tower in one of the death-defying stunts in the film (a stunt made as an homage to the silent-era comedian Harold Lloyd) is heart-stopping. Though this is obviously a starring vehicle for Chan and he shows all the skill and energy that are his trademark, co-stars Biao and Hung's skills are just as impressive and bring a significant contribution to the success of the film. Lighthearted, fun, and a joy to watch, Project A is definitely one of the best (if not the best) Jackie Chan films and one of the pinnacles of modern Hong Kong filmmaking.
Action / Entertainment: 9/10

Project A II (Hong Kong - 1987)
Starring: Jackie Chan, Maggie Cheung, Rosamund Kwan
Director: Jackie Chan
Plot: In 1920's Hong Kong, a decorated sailor takes the post of police captain from a corrupt officer but soon finds he's got his hands full with crooked cops, vengeful pirates, Chinese revolutionaries and other assorted villains.
Review: Project A 2, the sequel to one of Jackie Chan's most impressive films (Project A) is an entertaining exercise for its star, but definitely not in the same category as his many classics. Leaving nothing to chance, the filmmakers throw everything they can think of onto the screen, and though the pacing is much slower, there's never a dull moment, but then neither is there a sustained interest to what is going on. The unnecessarily complex plot, with its multiple paper-thin threads and myriad characters, turns this into pure farce but also inhibits the story from drawing us in. There's little of the excitement, or the wit, that made the first such a landmark film. Still, it's obvious a lot more money went into this production, and the comedy, which ranges from the ridiculous to the absurd, works on its own merits. All this is an excuse for the usual pratfalls and blistering martial arts, and the trademark impressive, innovative stunts are on display including a re-working of one of Buster Keaton's most famous stunts. However, the action and situations appear forced and evidently staged, none of it flowing with the crazed energy so evident in the first, nor is it as consistent, either, limiting the real attraction to the last frenzied 20 minutes. The absence of Yuen Biao and Sammo Hung is also quite evident - where the three worked off each other beautifully before, here Chan is left standing on his own amongst a large cast of ill-defined characters, and even the terribly under-used Cheung and Kwan can't help dissipate that loss. To be fair, Project A 2 only disappoints when compared to the charm and inventiveness of the first installment, and as a Chan vehicle it still stands heads and shoulders above many similar offerings.
Entertainment: 7/10

Prometheus (2012)
Starring: Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender, Charlize Theron
Director: Ridley Scott
Plot: In 2093, a pioneering space expedition follows clues left on Earth to discover the genesis of mankind on a remote planet, only to be faced with a horrifying encounter with what an alien civilization left behind.
Review: 33 years after he brought the nightmarish, classic sci-fi horror flick Alien, its gloomy universe and its terrifying creature to our collective consciousness, director Ridley Scott (Blade Runner, Gladiator) returns to the franchise with the high-minded, slick-looking Prometheus, a film that delivers another dose of Alien mythology and some chills, but - despite its epic themes and impeccable execution - disappoints. The trappings themselves are familiar, from face hugger to chest buster, to the discovery of strange alien technology and the crew succumbing - one by one - to alien perils, with the evil company and its android tool there to screw things up. A less charitable reviewer could say Scott (à la Lucas) wanted to revisit his original film with better effects; what we get is a rehash of the original film, albeit with a more cerebral agenda. Indeed, perhaps this was all meant as an excuse to tackle, in mainstream fashion, heady themes of faith and Man's origins. Unfortunately the script's approach makes it all comes out like something from a pulpy version of The Chariots of the Gods. Our Creators come out just as petty and vicious as we are, but with little explanation as to why. In the end, the movie answers all the wrong questions, leaving audiences on an open-ended and unsatisfying note. It's made to be summer blockbuster material, yet it's not intense or action-oriented enough to be that, and not smart enough to be another 2001, no matter how much the filmmakers try. On the other hand, it's still an entertaining dose of sci-fi that at least has something different to say, and the art direction, still showing H.R. Giger's influence, is impressive. Also a big plus is the cast: Noomi Rapace is excellent in the Sigourney Weaver role; Charlize Theron, though she doesn't have enough to do, is also strong as the ship's boss; and the supporting cast, including Idris Elba (the no-nonsense captain) and Guy Pearce (in old-age makeup) are solid additions. But the real wonder, and the real soul of the movie, is Fassbender as an android modeling himself on Peter O'Toole in Lawrence of Arabia. As a robot trying to be human, his is the most human performance in the film, a creature awash with conflicting feelings for his creators; he's a superb actor stretching his acting abilities in a very calculated performance, and it's a wonder to behold. The overreaching Prometheus, alas, falls short in its portentous, epic grasp; we've waited a long time for this, but despite its popcorn thrills ultimately it's a film that didn't have to be (re)made.
Entertainment: 7/10

Proof of Life (2000)
Starring: Meg Ryan, Russell Crowe
Director: Taylor Hackford
Plot: A kidnapping and ransom specialist is called in to negotiate the release of an American engineer caught by Latin American rebels, but complications arise when he starts to fall in love with the victim's wife.
Review: Proof of Life starts with a potentially fascinating subject, the idea of kidnap brokers in hot spots around the world, but by trying to add more to the mix it ultimately fails to provide the promised goods. Though the story was sold as a thriller / romance, there's absolutely no chemistry or romantic interludes between the two leads. Russell Crowe is captivating on screen and is easily the film's greatest asset, but Meg Ryan is utterly unconvincing and vapid. The script tries to make for an intelligent thriller, and there are times when it does just that, mostly at the start as Crowe saves a target in Chechnya and starts the new job, and the ending of the film, reminding one of the various Vietnam MIA rescue movies. Unfortunately, everything in between just seems to drag on and end up being emotionally shallow or mostly inconsequential to the proceedings. There's a good thriller in here somewhere, and director Hackford (An Officer and a Gentleman, The Devil's Advocate) tries to bring the various elements to the fore, but it just doesn't click. Proof of Life isn't a bad film, per se, just a disappointing one.
Drama: 5/10

The Proposition (2006)
Starring: Ray Winstone, Guy Pearce, Emily Watson
Director: John Hillcoat
Plot: At the end of the 19th century, a sheriff trying to tame his little portion of the Australian Outback makes a proposition to a dangerous outlaw to have him kill his even more vicious borther.
Review: Though the genre has fallen out of favor with modern audiences, The Proposition is a sort of Australian Western that redefines it. Much attention has been brought to the fact that the script was penned by rock legend Nick Cave (who also contributed much of the , and he should deservedly get much credit for the lyrical tale that has as much in common with Crime and Punishment as it does to Sergio Leone. It's also a slice of life of early Australia that, as confined within its small town microcosm, deftly explores themes of racism and colonialism without preaching. The other responsible person for much of the success lies in director Hillcoat who knows to have his able actors, exquisite locales and many moments of completive silences do much of the work. The cinematography of the Australian Outback is superb, the desert, the sunsets, giving a great sense of place. Played out on the backdrop of such incredible vistas it's easy to be entranced by both the allure of the area, and the mores of the time that could have driven these people to such depravity and disconnection to their fellow Man. There are no "good" characters here, each of them facing their own faults and limitations - they are what they are, a product of their times and their environment, as morally barren as the landscape. The cast is terrific: Pearce playing the Clint Eastwood character, a savage man of few words fighting with his conscience and his even more savage brethren; Winstone, as the conflicted sheriff; and Watson as the perfect English housewife at a loss in the desolation of a foreign country. Also of note is the aging but always vital John Hurt as a cunning, hard-drinking bounty hunter, a role that uses his own brand of acting to perfection. At times poetic and brutal, The Proposition is a beautiful, powerful Western that easily rises above its peers. 
Drama: 8/10

The Protector (Tom Yun Goon) (2005)
Starring: Tony Jaa, Petchtai Wongkamlao
Director: Prachya Pinkaew
Plot: When his elephant charges are stolen, a Thai fighter travels to Australia to retrieve them from a dangerous criminal organization. 
Review: Much like Ong-Bak - the film that introduced it's star to the international scene - The Protector is a similar approach to an action extravaganza and if there's little to really surprise it's still a joyful, kinetic excess that we don't see enough of. Yes, the situations and set-up come off as rather silly, and the familiar minimalist story barely registers, but once it gets going it's all an excuse to showcase Jaa's amazing muay thai skills and athletic abilities. It's clear that he is the definite successor to Jackie Chan as he was in the early 80's, doing his own eye-popping stunts with no wires or special effects (there's even a wink of that in the film). Jaa may not have the charisma as an actor, but as stunt-man he has few equals - everything you see on screen was really done, and it's pretty darn awesome. In one prolonged sequence, Jaa literally leaves on the floor dozens of black-clad assailants, breaking arms and legs in short order. Technically, too, there are two very impressive sequences shot in a single take: the first, as Jaa battles an X-treme-sports posse on roller-blades and bikes through a deserted train warehouse, and an even more impressive one as he fights his way up the four floors to an elite restaurant, dispatching dozens of assailants along the way; it's a scene that probably demanded a huge amount of practice to pull off, and it's superb, an in-your-face challenge to Hollywood's blurry, edited set pieces. A speed-boat chase early in the film is thrown in for variety; it's not bad (if too choppily edited) but is out of place. Not coming off as well is a lame car chase across Sydney. Still, these are quickly forgotten - much like the plot, character development and intrigue (even more watered down in the American cut of the film which chops 30 minutes of story, but keeps such highlights as a mud bath striptease) - when Jaa is back on screen. If there's a fault it's the final climax against a band of huge wrestlers that gets a little repetitive, but that's a small price to pay. If you want to see martial arts combat the way it was always meant to be shown on-screen, you can't do better than this.
Entertainment: 7/10

Protégé de la Rose Noire (Hong Kong - 2004)
Starring: Ekin Cheng, Charlene Choi, Gillian Chung
Director: Donnie Yen, Barbara Wong
Plot: A homeless alien and a brainy student both answer a job ad only to become the students of an aging female super-hero who seems to have lost her mind after the loss of her lover.
Review: Protégé de la Rose Noire can be resumed to three words: daft, ludicrous and tedious. A bad, uninspired parody of super-hero films, it's a sad homage to La Rose Noire, a character that many remember fondly. More so than usual Hong Kong fare, the story makes no sense whatsoever and seems an excuse for ridiculous antics and gags. Too bad even the humor is juvenile and just plain not funny, not even a crack-a-smile kind (with one exception, as the Twins imitate Jackie Chan's training from Drunken Master). The climactic 20 minutes, a grab-bag of female cat-fights, colorful comic-book-like excesses and plot points that come out of nowhere, tries to infuse some much needed energy into the proceedings and it is slightly more interesting than the tired story that preceded it, but ultimately fails just as miserably. Even the action scenes, an area that could have saved the film, are just plain uninspired. It's hard to believe that martial-arts master Donnie Yen (Hero, Shanghai Knights) could be credited with the lame martial arts choreography in such a sad affair. The main selling point of this affair are the Twins who seem to be the flavor of the year. They're charming enough, in a syrupy sweet sort of way and definitely cutesy, but they become just as grating in short time. Cheng, as the only male lead, makes a joke of himself and plays the part with gleeful silliness - especially when forced to wear a Robin costume. Protégé de la Rose Noire is not quite a stinker, but it's pretty close and only die-hard fans of the cast need take a chance with it.
Entertainment: 3/10

PTU (Hong Kong - 2003)
Starring: Simon Yam, Suet Lam, Ruby Wong 
Director: Johnnie To
Plot: To save face, an unscrupulous police officer seeks the aid of his follow cops to recover his stolen gun while trying to avoid internal investigators and getting closely involved in a potential gang war.
Review: PTU is an amazingly atmospheric film noir, an efficient crime drama, and a stylish - and weird, and cool - look at Hong Kong after dark. The acronym PTU stands for Police Tactical Unit, an elite civil security force that patrols the streets of Hong Kong. The film follows one such group across a single night shift, as they move along dark, deserted streets and cross the denizens of the underworld still up and about. The story itself is a mix of comedy of errors, violence and random events, all this surrounding the theme of silent aggression and corruption that comes from both sides of the law. The first thing that hits you is the cinematography: rich in shadows with the occasionally harsh, contrasting light, the production is just about the slickest you can find from Hong Kong cinema. It's a rather unusual production from the usually out-there HK fare, and audiences expecting another action flick may be be disappointed by the often slow-moving narrative, and the almost complete lack of any actual action, except for the climactic, slo-mo shootout. In fact in looks and feel this is very much akin to a European film, with its deliberate pacing, minimalist setting and plot. Akin to director To's The Mission than his more popular and mainstream films such as Heroic Trio, this is not necessarily a bad thing. The film give the chance for To to break out in international markets, and allows him to show a definite maturity in his filmmaking with his continuing strive towards a certain cinematic esthetic. As such, mood is all-important, making the whole thing seem like pure style over substance. Yet there are definite layers to what's happening on-screen, and To's visual storytelling skills really get you involved in the story despite the quite limited use of dialogue. And it looks great, the stylish visuals and directorial approach are impeccable, and the tension is sometimes palpable. The strange, dangerous denizens of this world are given only broad strokes to define them. Yet despite their rather one-dimensionality Yam, in a strong performance as the squad leader, and the buffoon-like Lam do surprisingly well with the little they have to work with and do a magnificent job of holding our attention, even when they're just walking around. Though there's nothing terribly original to be found in PTU, the whole ensemble is visually arresting and extremely well executed making it a treat to those willing to give it a chance.
Entertainment: 7/10

Public Enemies (2009)
Starring: Johnny Depp, Christian Bale, Marion Cotillard
Director: Michael Mann
Plot: A newly-formed FBI puts its best agent to lead a taskforce to bring down the most vicious bank robbers in the nation, chief among them being the elusive John Dillinger, tagged as Public Enemy No. 1.
Review: Public Enemies is an homage to the gangster epics of old that's a notch above its other modern contemporaries, and its pedigree is impressive. The film starts off with a bang as Dillinger masterminds a prison breakout and first major bank robbery, enticing a then-beleaguered J Edgar Hoover (amusingly portrayed by Billy Crudup) to set up a task force to capture "enemy no.1". The early-day FBI procedurals are fascinating, as are the hints at the political games being played by Hoover to create a federal agency (these, though, are all-too-soon get forgotten). Continuing his experimenting with digital filmmaking, director Mann (Heat, Collateral, Miami Vice) has created a visually impressive affair with many powerful scenes and the myriad of period details adds to the 30's-era flavor. With all the elements in place - from the subject matter to the superb period sets and dynamic gun battles - it's unfortunate, then, that as a whole the film feels like a missed opportunity to re-invent the gangster flick or provide some real exploration into these historical characters. Somehow the melodrama ends up feeling hollow at the end of what feels like an overlong 140 minutes, despite the denseness of events and a script that tries to summarize the original 600-page account on which it's based. What the films ends up being is more a romanticizing of the Dillinger legend instead of a a character piece, with lots of well executed but eventually numbing gunfights. The players are all sound, though: Depp is an interesting choice for Dillinger, playing him with a suave confidence and sympathy; Bale shows his usual solid screen presence as the G-man gunning for his prey, even if there's little to work with; and Cotillard is a breath of fresh air, making for a believable moll. Public Enemies is still better than most of the summer fare now out, and as adult entertainment it's worth a gander - it just could have been so much more.
Entertainment: 7/10

Pulp Fiction (1994)
Starring: John Travolta, Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Plot: A struggling boxer, set up for a fall, double-crosses a vicious local gangster and is forced to go on the run from two eccentric, trouble-prone enforcers who have plenty of problems of their own.
Review: With Pulp Fiction, director Tarantino (Reservoir Dogs) ushered in a new era for Hollywood gangster flicks and invigorated the standard crime drama. The film is really an anthology of different, interconnected stories about drugs, blood, violence, fixed fights and double-crosses presented in a non-linear, non-chronological order that intersect and overlap, and finally come full circle. The so-called "Tarantino-esque" style, which is actually an amalgam of styles from the director's favorite filmmakers', was coined to express this relentlessly paced, stylish, taut, engrossing series of offbeat vignettes all done with a healthy dose of wit, two-fisted violence, some great visuals, and some tongue-in-cheek shenanigans. The humorous character interactions and conversations between these interesting neo-noir low-lifes, full of crisp, zany dialogue, makes the whole thing fascinating and deliciously fun for admirers of black humor. In fact, this is a combination of pulp crime stories in the classic mold, told with a very modern twist and a good deal of energy, with some inventive situations where the protagonists are always escaping from the frying pan into the fire. It's all helped along by a grade-A cast, and allowed for a strong performance from Willis, made Jackson a true star, put Travolta back on the map and is filled with some bang-on supporting performances by a dream cast including Uma Thurman, Tim Roth, Christopher Walken and the inimitable Harvey Keitel. Mixing styles and adding an energetic nonlinear narrative that is as violent as it is unexpected, Pulp Fiction is an incredibly dynamic, wildly entertaining romp into the world of two-bit criminals.
Entertainment: 9/10

The Punisher (1989)
Starring: Dolph Lundgren, Louis Gossett Jr., Jeroen Krabbe
Director: Mark Goldblatt
Plot: After watching his family die in a mob car bombing, an ex-cop decides to wage a one-man vigilante war against the underworld but his efforts attract the Japanese Mafia to US shores.
Review: There's little of interest in The Punisher, except to look at how a bad comic-book adaptation can ruin a fan-favorite character, something that happened a lot with Marvel heroes until the advent of The X-Men. Worse, there's nothing even remotely akin to super-heroics here, coming off more like a tired by-the-book shoot-em-up like Raw Deal, including its own Rambo-esque torture scene and bad one-liners. The obviously low-budget production also comes off as rather amateurish, so there's no surprise why this was a direct-to-video effort. A better director and a better script were definitely called for. Still, the action scenes are usually pretty energetic and some are even fun to watch, though others are simply badly done and laughable; some better editing may have helped, but probably not much. These moments are pinned to a story that is as bland and clichéd as you can get filled with lame dialogue that passes for character drama. This is also a showcase for some hack acting by all involved. Lundgren has the physique and character for the part, but underneath so much bad makeup he looks (and sounds) constantly asleep. As for Gossett, who proves here that his one-time Oscar was a fluke, is involved in a rather unnecessary cop sub-plot. Blandly made, The Punisher means well but can't help but be a tired action flick that's only of interest to curious comic fans or those desperate for an action fix.
Entertainment: 3/10

The Punisher (2004)
Starring: Thomas Jane, John Travolta, Will Patton
Director: Jonathan Hensleigh
Plot: After his entire family is butchered and he's left for dead, an ex-FBI agent decides to devote his life exacting bloody revenge on the criminal element.
Review: Based mostly on the characters and events of Garth Ennis' recent comic series, this latest big-screen adaptation of The Punisher may be a tad better than the 1990 flick that featured Dolph Lundgren in the title role, but not much. Though the protagonist is part of the Marvel Comics universe that gave us Spider-Man, don't expect any kind of CGI-enhanced superheroics. This is a grimly violent, gun-toting anti-hero who is simply out for blood and revenge on the underworld. Too bad then that as directed by first-timer Hensleigh (who cut his teeth as screenwriter for Die Hard With a Vengeance) it plays like an 80's action flick without any flair or individual style. The opening sequence of his family being mowed down is a brutal, tragic sequence that promises a gritty effort. Unfortunately it devolves into camp; gritty camp, perhaps, but there's no way any of it can be taken seriously. Case in point, the second act begins with an El Mariacchi homage, as a guitar-swinging killer coming after our hero. Later on we get a villainous henchmen, the Russian, who's straight out of the comics and looks it; despite the one-sided pummeling, the fight sequence comes off more for laughs and just seems silly considering the tone of the rest of the film. Perhaps that's the point, but then this schizophrenic mix doesn't go overboard enough to make it memorable. It doesn't help that it's pretty slow going, with scenes that drag on with little on-screen energy and an added bit of melodrama with his new, downtrodden neighbors that slows things down to a crawl. The easy one-dimensional characterizations don't help make this any more than a by-the-numbers exercise. Worse, there's surprisingly little action to be had, except for the killing spree at the end that feels more like a retread of Shwarzenegger's Raw Deal and the climax of exploding parked cars which is just plain gratuitous. As the leading man, Jane isn't bad flexing his muscles and giving out pain and punishment, and given a better movie might actually have been pretty good. Travolta makes a decent enough villain, but he's completely under-used here and shows none of the over-the-top form we've seen in Swordfish or Face/Off, and even gets a very un-noble end dragged behind a running car. The Punisher might not be bad enough to be considered "punishing", but it's clear that this is a franchise that's already reached a dead end.
Entertainment: 3/10

Purple Storm (Hong Kong - 1999)
Starring: Daniel Wu, Kwok-Leung Gan, Emil Chau
Director: Teddy Chan 
Plot: While executing a major terrorist operation, a modern-day Khmer Rouge terrorist tries to regain his memory and decide on his loyalties while being played by both his father, the obsessive leader of his unit, and a clever special forces officer.
Review: Taking a cue from the big-budget Korean thriller Shiri it seems, Purple Storm doesn't try to hide the fact that this is a Hollywood-influenced thriller, with the expected good production values, fast pacing, and necessary action sequences, but with a group of failed characters that are more akin to anti-heroes than heroes. The main story idea is an interesting one, but it's not presented convincingly enough. There are also lots of good special effects but many of the explosions seem completely gratuitous, and the final "purple spreading" is ridiculous. The action sequences are decent but mostly limited to a myriad of extended straight gunfights and a car chase. The cast is solid, and Joan Chen does a cameo appearance if only in a throw-away role to entice video viewers. There's a lot of good ideas here, mostly about what makes an individual, some interesting character moments, and a political subtext. The problem is that the film tries for deeper meaning, but never manages to go beyond the shallow. Still, winner of multiple Hong Kong film awards, Purple Storm remains an entertaining, and very slickly produced, high-tech / disaster thriller.
Entertainment: 7/10

Pushing Hands (Taiwan - 1995)
Starring: Sihung Lung, Fanny De Luz, Bo Z. Wang
Director: Ang Lee
Plot: Family tensions rise when a lonely, widowed Taiwanese grandfather comes to America to live with his only son and his son's Caucasian wife.
Review: Director Ang Lee's (Sense & Sensibility) first feature Pushing Hands is also the first installment in his "Father Knows Best" trilogy which includes The Wedding Banquet and Eat Drink Man Woman. Presented with half-English half-Chinese dialogue this is a dramatic comedy on the cultural conflicts between changing Western values and traditional Chinese ones, as well as a well-observed one on the generational conflicts that occur in a society where the old are seen as a detriment instead of respected elders. The film is for the most part well realized, with heart-warming moments that are so through the portrayal of the characters and not from over-sentimental melodrama. Though not as polished or as well-rounded as his later efforts, the film does show the director's keen attention to domestic life, his apt direction of actors, a good sense of storytelling, and a healthy dose of humor. The title refers to a martial exercise of balance, one that comes to great effect in the metaphorical climax when, fired from his dead-end job as dishwasher and full of wounded pride, the old man refuses to leave a restaurant and finally requires twelve policemen to move him out! But beyond this one instance of grand-standing, the story maintains a low-key, revealing look at a man coping with change. Lung does a wonderful performance, one that very well carries the film, as the aging tai-chi master who has a hard time adjusting in a new land where he feels lost and lonely and where the family roles are no longer the same. The rest of the cast stays remote, however, especially De Luz as his Caucasian daughter-in-law, an important role that stays mostly one-dimensional. In any case, with a wonderful lead actor and good balance of drama and comedy, Pushing Hands is a well made first effort from a great director.
Drama: 7/10

Puss in Boots (2011)
Voices: Antonio Banderas, Salma Hayek, Zach Galifianakis, Billy Bob Thornton
Director: Chris Miller
Plot: The swashbuckling cat Puss in Boots retells his origin, just as he agrees to rejoin his old, double-crossing friend Humpty Dumpty and a new feline companion in stealing the golden goose.
Review: Having made a splash as a supporting character in the Shrek sequels, the swashbuckling feline Puss in Boots gets his own spin-off film, with nary a green ogre in sight. It's a mostly engaging romp in the Dreamwork's universe of cracked fairy-tales, with the story of Jack & Jill & the beanstalk getting the farcical treatment. It's also a buddy movie with Puss and Humpty Dumpty preparing an Ocean's Eleven type heist, with double-crosses, daring-do, silliness and inventiveness all on the menu. If unspectacular, the computer animation is nice, fluid and colorful, with the camera eye zipping through at impossible angles. The pacing, however, isn't as hectic as similar features, giving way to a melodrama involving loyalty and brotherhood. Not to say there's no action, as there are quite a few set pieces intended to use the 3D effects. And there's even an amusing "dance-to-the-death" segment thrown in. A strong voice cast helps out, especially reuniting Banderas and Hayek for the first time since Desperado. But if the likes of Galifianakis and Billy Bob Thornton add some spice, it's Banderas who clearly makes the titular character's swagger and charm feel genuine; you can almost imagine him in another Zorro adventure behind a cat suit. So with all this going on, why does it feel so staid and familiar? Why does it not work better? Perhaps it's that the film tries to be savvy enough for grown-ups and fun enough for kids, but can't decide on which audience to aim for. Also, the characters are pretty much one-dimensional vying for attention in a predictable plot that's low on logic. Take note that smaller kids will be either bored by the many talky parts or scared with the dark alleys and unseen monster (at least before it is revealed). Still, Puss in Boots has enough whiz bang to make for acceptable family fare, though few will take it home for repeat viewings.
Entertainment: 6/10

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