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(Reviews, So - Sz)

Sahara (2005)
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Steve Zahn, Penélope Cruz
Director: Breck Eisner
Plot: Two ex-Navy SEAL marine salvagers looking for a Confederate warship get embroiled in an African Civil War when they try to help a beautiful doctor find the source of a deadly plague.
Review: Based on one of best-selling author Clive Cussler's Dirk Pitt adventure novels, Sahara is the second attempt at bringing the series to the big screen. Though far superior to the first disagreeable cinematic foray of the 70's, Raise the Titanic, this isn't the hit required. With a dastardly plot out of a Bond film, some exotic African locales, revisionist American history on par with National Treasure, uninteresting stereotype villains, and coincidences and scientific explanations often bordering on the absurd one shouldn't expect more than another derivative Tinsel town adventure. Despite all that's going on, the film's major issue is that the narrative and pacing feels leaden, as if director Eisner couldn't quite carry all these events with the energy level required. Thankfully there's a nice spirit of adventure and camaraderie throughout which buoys the film, especially when it focuses on the repartee between the two friends. And though they all feel a bit derivative, the actions and stunts are well-staged and adequately explosive, with the over-the-top climax - a desert showdown between a military helicopter and a Confederate ironclad ship - being a highlight. Acting like a macho, modern-day Indiana Jones, the cocky, confident Pitt would make a great hero on which to build a franchise. Unfortunately, McConaughey could make a fine, charismatic hero, but he has little screen presence here. Same could be said about Cruz who is never really convincing as either the doctor or the love interest. Stealing their thunder is Zahn as the able sidekick and comic relief: he might not be a true rendition of the gruff, muscle-bound character of the books, but he adds some much-needed spice to the proceedings and steals every scene. If Sahara isn't quite brave enough or engaging enough to spawn any sequels, at least it's an entertaining effort that might entice audiences to grab a copy of the far superior novels.
Entertainment: 5/10

The Saint (1997)
Starring: Val Kilmer, Elisabeth Shue, Rade Serbedzija
Director: Phillip Noyce
Plot: A professional thief, also a master of disguise, falls for a young female scientist while trying to steal her cold fusion formula for a rich, power-hungry Russian politician.
Review: There may have been a lot of potential in The Saint franchise, a part made famous by Roger Moore and one that was once paralleled to that of James Bond, but with what we have here, it's just dead on arrival. Director Noyce, who's proved he can make excellent, smart action thrillers with Clear and Present Danger and The Bone Collector, just can't seem to come to grips with the tired script no matter what he tries to keep our attention. Kilmer does a pretty good job through all the disguises and manages a rather sympathetic character, but when the role asks to put his heart on his sleeve, it just doesn't work. The fact that Shue, as the love interest, plays a ditzy physicist doesn't exactly engender any warm feelings, either. By focusing so much on the romantic angle, on the badly-drawn emotional problems of its hero, the story loses its only chance at keeping our attention. The fact that the rest of the plot is inane, banal and cliché-ridden, lacking any interesting action pieces or any suspense whatsoever, doesn't help its case either. The main fault is quite simply that it's all rather shallow and often just plain silly. As a thriller, The Saint never actually thrills, and can only be chucked up as a disappointing re-invention of the classic character.
Entertainment: 3/10

Salt (2010)
Starring: Angelina Jolie, Liev Schreiber, Chiwetel Ejiofor
Director: Phillip Noyce
Plot: A female CIA field operative goes on the run when a defector accuses her of being a Soviet sleeper agent charged with assassinating the Russian president on his visit to America.
Review: Salt could easily have been relegated to the usual summer fodder, a thriller with more pyrotechnics than smarts, sold on the basis of its leading lady. Thankfully, it's more than its parts. Take the script: it's so full of twists, turns and fake outs that it becomes somewhat ridiculous - but if the paranoid Cold War premise doesn't really hold water under scrutiny, the film's pacing is indeed relentless enough to grab one's attention and never let go. Slaloming between the story's rebounds, 90's action director Noyce - who juggled both the thriller elements with the explosive bits in Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger, and the manipulative spy bits in The Quiet American - proves he hasn't lost his touch at the art of mainstream nail-biters. The in-your-face action sequences come fast and furious, ranging from a chase atop moving trucks, numerous gunfights and not one, not two, but three Mission Impossible-type scenarios where our heroine's true potential is unleashed. Jolie - Hollywood's only bonna-fide female action star - plays the part straight and indeed looks like she could out-Bond James Bond, what with the blending into crowds, taking out a squad of trained Secret Service agents and blowing up a boat full of Russian spies. Doing most of her own stunts, and all without messing her hairdo, Jolie wins us over by ably balancing the tough-as-nails agent with an emotional conviction In supporting roles, Schreiber and Ejiofor hold their own but it's clearly Jolie's show from the get-go. The open-ended conclusion sets itself up for a sequel and audiences are bound to be looking forward to the next chapter.
Entertainment: 8/10

Salvador (1986)
Starring: James Woods, James Belushi, John Savage
Director: Oliver Stone
Plot: During the bloody civil war in El Salvador of the early 1980's, a cynical, down-on-his-luck American photojournalist slowly faces the reality of the carnage and chaos while trying to work both sides.
Review: Salvador is a semi-fictional account of real-life reporter Richard Boyle's experiences, chronicling the major events of the military junta's bid for power, its battle against its own people, and its (imagined?) fight against communism. But more than just a political drama, the film is also a character study of an amoral loser who's seen too much and done too little, who finds his priorities, his awakening conscious, and his big mouth have put him in a precarious, dangerous situation. Woods embodies this character to perfection: the laissez-faire attitude, the con-man approach, and the explosive diatribes, all feel perfectly natural for such a sleazeball personage. His rants may be driven by the filmmakers' need to make certain they get their political point across, but Woods manages to create a character whose sudden outbursts are actually expected and credible. Belushi's one-note character, following our anti-hero into one mess after another, seems to have been added purely for comedy relief, or maybe he's a thinly concealed metaphor for the American public - belligerent without having a clue, ready to accept anything. As for the rest of the cast, they are merely concepts, from the journalist looking for the ultimate picture to the military officers, innocent civilians and guerillas, only there for the story to play off of. Director / co-screenwriter Stone (Platoon, Any Given Sunday) took a big chance in producing such a gritty and anti-Reagan picture early in his directorial career, and his abilities as evident here still needed work, but thanks to a strong ideological sense, solid script, and a bravura performance by Woods, Salvador is an unpolished, hard look at America's foreign policies.
Drama: 8/10

Le Samourai (France - 1967)
Starring: Alain Delon, Francois Perier, Nathalie Delon
Director: Jean-Pierre Melville
Plot: A professional hit-man hired to kill a nightclub owner and double-crossed by his employer is relentlessly pursued by a hard-nosed police captain who refuses to accept his perfect alibi.
Review: French New Wave director Melville brings his ode to the Hollywood crime genre with Le Samourai, a minimalist thriller that is an atmospheric exploration of the genre. Obviously heavily influenced by the American film noir of the '40s, with the femme fatale, seedy underworld characters, and the dark, gloomy Paris streets and dimly lit interiors that reinforce the dark tone of the tale, it also has a European flavor all its own. There are some exciting moments, such as the veritable game of cat and mouse through the Paris subway, or the final assignment, but mostly the film manages to build its suspense slowly, almost nonchalantly. Melville's taut, methodically paced style leaves nothing but the bare essentials of the crime movie as its framework, eschewing any sense of empathy to the characters on screen, and even the usual emotive music, making the story almost an abstract study of crime and alienation. Indeed, even the instances of action are sparse, belying the feeling that violence and tension are ever present just beyond the corner. The dialogue is also kept to a minimum, concentrating instead on a narration based on visual cues, an emphasis on details and careful editing to further the story and give a feeling of entrapment, claustrophobia, and desperation. Delon's understated, ultra-cool performance as the mysterious hit-man was the template for the modern-day assassin, emotionless, living by his own code of honor, expertly traversing the moral wasteland of society. The rest of the cast is also perfectly suited as stoic, empty shells going through the motions of their existence. Though a little slow perhaps for those used to more modern fare, Le Samourai is an influential French neo-noir that's well worth the effort of locating.
Drama / Entertainment: 8/10

Sanjuro (Japan - 1962)
Starring: Toshiro Mifune, Tatsuya Nakadai, Keiju Kobayashi
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Plot: An unkempt, lazy Ronin reluctantly helps an inexperienced but honor-bound group of samurais expose corruption and help them dispose of their clan leader's usurper.
Review: Quickly following in the success of Yojimbo, the sequel Sanjuro brought back the popular fallen samurai character to the screen. For fans of Kurosawa, and for everyone else, this is another chance to see the legendary director at his funniest and at his most commercial. Film-making wise it may not be as refined as the director's other works such as The Seven Samurai, Ran, or even as Yojimbo, but it is still quite visually interesting and the clean, crisp cinematography we have come to appreciate from Kurosawa is still in evidence. The story is much more straight-forward this time around, wasting no time rushing into the action. The swordfights are much better staged and exhilarating, as the master shows off his skills and dispatches droves of lesser opponents. And though the finale isn't quite tense enough to really satisfy, the climactic battle of swords is well played out. The film is generally much more mainstream and much faster paced than its predecessor and much more "Westernized" than its contemporaries while keeping the flavor of the classic samurai flick. Gone is the deliberate, contemplative feel that made the original so prized, replaced by more thrilling set pieces and intense confrontations. Indeed, some of the satire elements of the previous chapter is lost as the once-anti-hero falls back to the traditional "reluctant good guy" role. Even the ronin's wrestling with his conscience, the moral struggle between good and evil, is never in doubt. Thankfully the character is played by actor Mifune who is always a force to be reckoned with, and his screen presence alone makes watching the film worthwhile. In the end, though it's not deemed a "classic" as the first installment was, Sanjuro is a light, entertaining mainstream effort from a Japanese master, and one that might be more palatable to American audiences.
Entertainment: 8/10

Saturday Night Fever (1977)
Starring: John Travolta, Karen Lynn Gorney, Barry Miller
Director: John Badham
Plot: As his only respite from his dead-end life, a suave young Brooklyn man finds a new partner to enter the local dance contest, a woman who is actively trying to break out of their working-class neighborhood.
Review: A definite Hollywood icon as well as a terrific look at the Disco era and teenage angst, Saturday Night Fever was a surprising cultural phenomenon on its release. It's true that much of the popularity of the film is probably due to the inside look at the disco era, with its extensive scenes of socializing young couples, the wacky outfits, and its talented protagonist gyrating over a multicolored dance floor. Yet the heart of the film is far from pretty, something which might have struck a chord with younger audiences. A product of 70's drama filmmaking, it's surprisingly gritty and unflinching for a supposedly "feel-good" film: there's a rape, a suicide, lots of casual sex and violence, and a horrid look at a broken down blue-collar Italian family. Indeed, playing on the idea of Rebel Without a Cause, the drama of desperate, disillusioned teens headed towards disaster is still relevant. With much of the character drama harsh and uncompromising, even our supposed "hero" isn't seen in a good light, as a case of machismo gone bad. That said, the young (and incredibly thin) Travolta is the very heart of the film, and it's hard to see anyone else bringing the necessary naiveté, self-assurance, swagger, and hurt to the role as well as he does here - and his dancing ain't bad either. Travolta repeated his success in the classic musical Grease, which proved his star power. Director Badham (Blue Thunder, WarGames) does an able job at capturing both the emotional underpinnings of his characters and making us feel the energy of the social dancing while capturing the claustrophobia of "real life", the family home and the petty paint store job. Any review would be remiss in not noting the soundtrack (including the era classic "Staying Alive" as the very intro to the strutting Travolta) which gave the film its energy and propelled the Bee Gees into the spotlight. Thanks to the familiar but depressing drama, the classic era disco score, the period dancing and the ever-so-suave pretty-boy Travolta, Saturday Night Fever still holds up pretty well, even for jaded modern audiences.
Drama: 7/10

Save the Last Dance (2000)
Starring: Julia Stiles, Sean Patrick Thomas
Director: Thomas Carter
Plot: After her mother dies in an accident, a young ballerina renounces her dreams when she is forced to live with her estranged father in Chicago and enroll in an inner-city school.
Review: Is Save the Last Dance be the Flashdance for a new generation? Yet another take on the classic Romeo and Juliet? Who cares: the hip-hop soundtrack and dancing are full of infectious energy that is well captured on screen, especially the final audition mixing ballet and a more modern choreography, and there lies most of the success of the film. The drama is less successful, with the usual fish-out-of-water storyline, and the typical melodrama associated with it. Black-white relations are also touched upon, but the moralistic attitudes of the secondary characters, and the shallowness of the script when it comes to the real issues, leaves one unimpressed. The film's real saving grace, though, is its two main actors who may not be completely convincing, but who still manage to light up the screen with their presence. To be fair, Save the Last Dance doesn't really care about being a drama so much as an entertaining look at Hollywood's idea of the hip-hop culture, and it works.
Entertainment: 6/10

Saving Private Ryan (1998)
Starring: Tom Hanks, Tom Sizemore, Matt Damon
Director: Steven Spielberg
Plot: After disembarking in Normandy during the D-Day invasion, a small squad is ordered by high command to wander the war-torn French countryside to find, and bring safely home, a private whose three other brothers have already died in the conflict.
Review: Saving Private Ryan starts with a bang, an overwhelming, harrowing first 20 minutes that evokes all the horror and terror of the Allied side of the Normandy invasion, an unrelenting, frightfully violent segment filmed at a combatant's eye view that brings the Hell of warfare square into our laps better than any war film ever made. The tone and cinematic style changes soon afterwards as the small squad take on their mission in the French occupied zone, only occasionally rivaling the same intensity, until the explosive, tragic finale. From short skirmishes in ruined villages to all-out assaults, the tension and events never fails to grip us. Apart from its well-staged and adrenaline-pumping battles, the film is also filled with more quiet memorable moments, from the soldiers' obvious camaraderie to the desperate buffoonery of a German prisoner begging for his life. Though there is an obvious current of patriotism throughout the narrative, there is also one of moral ambiguity, one tapered with a clarity of human behavior, from fear and despair, to courage and determination, that makes this one stand above similar films. Here, as he did with Shindler's List, Spielberg proves that he is a master filmmaker, and was justly awarded an Oscar for Best Director for his efforts. The camera never spares us the atrocities inherent to the battle, be they spectacular like a soldier being blown to bits by a badly-timed sticky bomb or another being engulfed in flames, or mundane like the friend beside you slowly dying from a sniper shot while everyone looks on, helpless. The Award-winning cinematography, from the claustrophobic, kinetic shots to the lazy spans of the countryside, only adds to the impact of the story. Hanks, once again, finds the perfect balance in his role, showing a convincing portrayal of a decent, normal man faced with extraordinary circumstances. The rest of the characters are well-formed and believable as distinct individuals, all played with perfect acuity by the excellent cast, making their sacrifices all the more relevant. An amazing testimonial to courage and the madness of war, Saving Private Ryan is an unforgettable experience and one of the best war films ever produced.
Drama: 9/10

Saviour of the Soul (Hong Kong - 1991)
Starring: Andy Lau, Anita Mui, Aaron Kwok
Director: Corey Yuen
Plot: Two bounty hunters in love must separate when a formidable assassin with incredible powers decides to extract revenge on the one who killed his master.
Review: Saviour of the Soul is a semi-entertaining mixed bag of fantasy action and tear-jerking melodrama done on the cheap. There are some efficient minimalist sets and some nice visuals here that use a very strong sense of deep colors to get us into the comic-book inspired style. In fact the comic-book roots and adapted elements are clearly evident throughout and it can be at times quite entertaining, especially the fantasy action sequences, full of super powers, wire-work enhanced flying sword fights, and some rather imaginative bits. No wonder since director Yuen is best known for his action choreography (Enter the Eagles, Fong Sai Yuk) and, though the film doesn't quite reach anywhere near his better films, these are practically the only interesting moments in a very drab film. The main problem is that the story vacillates badly between terrible melodrama, a painfully ridiculous love story, and lots of comic buffoonery, with the slapstick gags and silly situations undermining the occasionally semi-serious tone. Worse, there's not even enough action to really carry the film through these parts. Considering the fine actors involved, ones that usually light up the screen, this is a rather disappointing ho-hum effort. If you can sit through lots of barely amusing and downright silly filler, Saviour of the Soul can be a decent time-waster.
Entertainment: 4/10

Saw (2004)
Starring: Tobin Bell, Cary Elwes, Danny Glover
Director: James Wan
Plot: Two men wake up chained in a grimy, abandoned industrial bathroom with a dead body between them and realise it is only the start of a bizarre, dangerous game masterminded by a demonic serial killer.
Review: The latest low-budget serial-killer thriller to make it big, Saw relies on style, copious amounts of gore and inventiveness to dig its way through a multitude of other Seven-inspired flicks. This is a well executed (and efficiently edited) first feature from director and co-writer Wan who manages to sustain the mystery and the tension throughout. The narrative continuously jumps back and forth, giving us the story in flashback - a gimmick that doesn't always work well. Too, some passages are evidently amateurish and the script skids off-track when it tries to flesh out its characters. Speaking of which, once solid B-list stars, Elwes and Glover are evidently slumming it here and won't win any acting awards, but they get the job done. Most important though is that the thrills and chills are well done, and the visuals are much slicker than one would expect for a low-budget effort. But the best part of the film is the focus on the wickedly imaginative traps that amount to "life lessons", ones that require complete abandon of self (and oftentimes even self-mutilation) to survive. These make for truly gruesome sequences. The final scene brings a neat twist ending that aims to "Mean Something", yet the film stays pretty much a shallow piece of entertainment. Best to forget, too, any sense of sustained logic and just go with the flow - audiences who manage to do just that will appreciate Saw for what it is: a surprisingly efficient and stylish low-budget chiller.
Entertainment: 7/10

Saw II (2005)
Starring: Donnie Wahlberg, Shawnee Smith, Tobin Bell
Director: Darren Lynn Bousman
Plot: Serial-killer Jigsaw returns, dropping a bunch of young kidnapped criminals in a booby-trapped house along with the teen son of the cop who put them behind bars.
Review: Where the first, low-budget installment of Saw was intense and clever, the sequel is pretty much what one expects from Hollywood: up the body count, up the amount of gore, dumb down the script and rush it into theaters. Some things do return, like the sadistic scenarios meant to test a victim's will to live, the green-tinted grungy visuals and flashy editing, a flashback on Jigsaw's origins, plus a look at one of the locales from the original. But despite all intentions, the whole thing doesn't really hold up to close scrutiny - what with all the plot holes and vague Nietzsche musings - nor can one find any reason to care for any of the horrible characters, either. The only reason for the film's existence is to cash in on its precursor, providing a slick, low-budget excuse to kill off pretty people and show off how clever the filmmakers think they are. To be fair, there's a certain morbid fascination in seeing these people get knocked off in this house of horrors, and there's a neat twist ending, but for all that newfound director Bousman puts in maintaining the original's morbid exuberance and pacing, it's still a forgettable, calculated exercise in mass-produced media. For some, Saw II is a quickie sequel that might push all the right horror / suspense buttons; for most, though, it'll be a cheap, morally-vapid affair that's just not very entertaining.
Entertainment: 4/10

Say Anything (1989)
Starring: John Cusack, Ione Skye, John Mahoney
Director: Cameron Crowe
Plot: In the summer before leaving for college, a young high school grad falls for a charmingly honest and rather disheveled fellow student, but it's a romance that doesn't fit her father's plans for her future.
Review: There's a good reason why Say Anything, writer/director Crowe's (Jerry Maguire, Almost Famous) first directing job, has been an enduring cult-classic romance: it's the writing, first, and leading man Cusack, a close second. As in other Crowe films, the natural dialogue shines and is peppered with some memorable lines ("there are enough guys in the world - be a man") and popular music tracks are used to set the mood. With just enough humor and smarts to break through the usual teen drama drudgery, it manages to slowly build a sense of real feeling between its characters. Cinematic-wise there's nothing really special here, but then everything takes second place to the story. proves he has an affinity for down-to-earth, vulnerable characters and respects them enough to portray them as both believable and familiar. Even more surprising than the development of the earnest young couple's relationship is the way the strong bond between father and daughter is played: Mahoney gets a chance to create a father figure who does the wrong things for the right reasons, but his love for his only child is heartfelt, and though he can't understand the attraction between his valedictorian offspring and the mess of a boy, he does try to understand. However, the very heart of the movie is without any doubt Cusack who embodies the on-screen good-guy character, and here he's at his likable best as an intense but gallant young man who's discovered that what he wants to do in life is simply be with his new love. The rest of the supporting roles are also strong, with performances from the likes of Lily Taylor and Joan Cusack (sister of John). There are the occasional hints that this is a definite product of the 80s, but by avoiding the usual clichés and pratfalls, Say Anything is heartwarming and intimate and finally brings at least one teen romance done right.
Entertainment / Drama: 7/10

Scary Movie (2000)
Starring: Marlon Wayans, Shannon Elizabeth, Cheri Oteri
Director: Keenen Ivory Wayans
Plot: A send-off of Scream, as an inept masked psychotic killer goes after a group of silly, stereotypically messed-up teenagers.
Review: The story of Scary Movie follows the plot of Scream quite closely (with some scenes from I Know What You Did Last Summer) and throws references from many popular films - The Matrix, The Blair Witch Project, The Exorcist, etc all pass through the blender. The Wayans Bros don't try to one-up their precursor in the script or wit department relying instead on exploiting and goofing off famous movie scenes and situations to make its mark. Much like Airplane, the film is more a collection of uneven skits than a full-fledged film, but one that knows, and provides, exactly what teenage audiences want to see. The problem is that the film tries so hard to be a crass spoof, a Farrelly Bros.-type gross-out film, and a teenage sex farce that it ends up feeling desperate and forced. All this doesn't mean the film isn't funny: though many parts fall flat and others are just plain stupid, there are also some hilarious scenes, including some jokes that are so dumb you'll be embarrassed to laugh at them. Scary Movie won't win any awards and may pass into oblivion on video, but if you can leave your brain and your sense of what's tasteful at the door, it's a mostly amusing, if juvenile, low-brow comedy.
Comedy: 4/10

Schizopolis (1997)
Starring: Steven Soderbergh, Betsy Brantley
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Plot: An office worker scrambles to write an important speech for a new age guru while his coworker's paranoia over a possible spy, and his wife's affair with his double, affects his perception of reality.
Review: Writer / director Soderbergh (Traffic, Erin Brockovich) makes his first fringe film with Schizopolis, and it's easily one of the best-looking and technically inventive basement-budget films you'll ever see. The film goes against all pretense at a mainstream production, presenting an inspired piece of absurdist comedy with some experimental bits, visual gags, and just plain weird stuff that's really only possible on small indie projects like this one. This is a veritable smorgasbord of gags, unshaped ideas, and unconnected sequences, one with constant winks at the audience, and an ever-present tongue-in-cheek humor. It's also a collection of sketch comedy routines featuring visual gags and slapstick, with some absolutely hilarious, laugh-out-loud moments, full of bizarre conversations that play on our movie expectations (either some characters partake in nonsensical dialogue, or talk in another language without the help of subtitles). There's some substance hidden beneath all this, an obvious satire on 20th century society beneath all the jokes and funny situations, as the film pokes fun at the media, at our own 9-to-5 existence, at the whole film-making process, and especially at religions and "new age" movements (Scientology in particular). Sure there's a story here, one that's convoluted, lacks sense and plays with our perceptions, but all of it is secondary to the ideas set forth. Soderbergh, also playing the main protagonist and acting for the first time, does a great job in front of the camera as well as behind, and shows some perfect comic timing as well as a carefree attitude towards his dual role. The schizo filmmaking evident in Schizopolis isn't going to be everyone's cup of tea, but those willing to come into this clever, lighthearted comedy with an open mind are in for a real treat.
Entertainment / Comedy: 8/10

Scooby-Doo (2002)
Starring: Freddie Prinze Jr., Sarah Michelle Gellar, Matthew Lillard
Director: Raja Gosnell
Plot: After a two-year breakup, a gang of young detectives reunite to help solve the mystery of a haunted amusement park on a vacation resort isalnd which is turning college kids into zombies.
Review: A nostalgic live-action spoof of the 60's Saturday-morning cartoon series, Scooby-Doo barely updates the original premise and keeps a surprising amount of the original's spirit and humor. All the characters are back, but of course there are some updates: the brainy and butch Velma is a lesbian, the daft damsel-in-distress Daphne is a martial artist (a nod to Gellar's Buffy persona). Yet the guys remain unchanged: there's pretty-boy leader Fred and of course the scared-buddy team of run-down Shaggy and slobbering Scooby. The cast is damn near perfect in their respective roles, and none more so than Lillard as the beatnik slacker Shaggy who gets the voice and body movements of his cartoon counterpart to an eerie T; his shenanigans with the digital Scooby are what made the show, and again the movie. Too bad the psychedelic van makes only a brief appearance. Director Gosnell takes great care to update the movie techniques to CGI bubble-gum style without changing what kept the premise so beloved by a generation of child fans. He also keeps things moving at a brisk pace, knowing that to stop for an instant would get audiences thinking of how paper-thin this affair really is. The story is derivative of the original episodes and fits well within the context: there's the nerdy villain (Mr. Bean actor Rowan Atkinson), the spooky voodoo bits and ghostly apparitions, and the dastardly mystery. The script pokes fun at the obvious stereotypes and if the humor is essentially of the slapstick variety, the laughs are genuine with the occasional clever bit created mostly for fans of the original show. The gag behind having an era-impaired cast isn't new - The Brady Bunch movie used the same idea to good effect years before - but it still works. With an appropriately short running time, and an over-the-top climax straight out of Indiana Jones, the film thankfully doesn't overstay its welcome. Scooby-Doo ends up as a silly but fun live-action adaptation that's colorful and lively, if clearly made to be a one-shot piece of fluff. Hanna-Barbera would be proud.
Entertainment: 6/10

Scoop (2006)
Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Ian McShane, Woody Allen
Director: Woody Allen
Plot: After a visit from the ghost a dead reporter, an American journalism student decides to go after a hot story involving a serial killer only to fall in love with the main suspect, a handsome British aristocrat.
Review: On the heels of the serious, moody Match Point, a film that has been hailed as a return to greatness for Allen, the lighter-than-light comedy Scoop seems a depressing return to recent form. Combining comedy and mystery isn't anything new for the writer / director, but he's far off his successes such as Manhattan or Hannah and Her Sisters. There's barely enough to hold one's attention; the occasional bit of intrigue, the trademark one-line zingers, and the pretty leads help audiences swallow this rather empty soufflé, but despite its efforts it ends up being vapid instead of charming - or funny. Perhaps the first inkling things don't click is the appearance of Allen himself as a second-rate magician - he gets the film's only laughs, but he's playing so exactly to type (the insecurities, the stuttering) that it gets annoying. Jackman plays his role as dashing aristocrat straight, and there's no denying the lusciousness of Johansson even in bookworm glasses, but there's little spark between them. This all just feels lazily cobbled together, the film drifting aimlessly until its predictable conclusion with plot holes left un-addressed. Allen is a good enough filmmaker to ensure it never gets boring, but one can't help feel this was a throwaway project. The premise could have been fun and there are some inklings of cleverness, but as executed here Scoop is nothing to write home about.
Entertainment: 4/10

The Score (2001)
Starring: Robert De Niro, Edward Norton, Marlon Brando
Director: Frank Oz
Plot: Seeking retirement, a professional thief reluctantly sets up a large-scale heist involving an expensive scepter kept in the Montreal Customs House with a young, hot-headed partner despite his many misgivings.
Review: The '70s style crime thriller seems to have made a comeback lately, and none are so indicative of this as The Score, a small-scale production with good intentions. Concentrating on the character interactions, the minutiae of the preparations, and the test of wills between the brash young Turk and the seasoned veteran, director Oz (In and Out) has managed a decent, old-fashioned heist flick for his first "serious" film. Surprisingly enough, there's not much tension throughout the set-up, the story instead concentrating on De Niro's character, his jazz club, and his misgivings for this particular job. Yet, even this lack of momentum doesn't deter much from appreciating the film: This is an actor's movie, and with a cast of this caliber, that's by far the best reason to watch this story unfold. Brando hacks it up to the extreme as a foppish go-between, De Niro plays with his usual cool, and Norton gives his performance just the right mixture of cockiness and control. In fact, De Niro and Norton play off each other well, an important element in such a dialogue-driven film. Mind you, these aren't Oscar performances, for sure, but there's a cool, calculated impetus that makes it all quite watchable. Only Angela Bassett, as De Niro's girlfriend, is grossly underused as a simple prop for its main character. The outcome is never really in doubt, but it's an entertaining, if sometimes slow-moving, ride to its final showdown, a well-executed extended robbery sequence that's actually quite suspenseful. On a last note, the production also shows off Montreal as Montreal (instead of another anonymous American city) to its best advantage, even if it sticks pretty much to the historical Old Port. The Score isn't a particularly memorable film, but as classy entertainment that shows off its leads in the best of lights, it works pretty well.
Entertainment: 6/10

The Scorpion King (2002)
Starring: The Rock, Michael Duncan, Peter Facinelli
Director: Chuck Russell
Plot: In ancient Egypt, an expert warrior paid to kill a cruel conqueror's sorceress becomes involved in a rebellion against the tyrant after the last of his kin are slaughtered.
Review: An update of Schwarzenegger's Conan that has over-the-top bravado, impossible odds, vile villain, right down to the female sorceress and myriad sidekicks, The Scorpion King is fast-paced, cheesy fun. Meant to be a sort of prequel to The Mummy series, it has really little to do with its precursors, and even the title character's story (a bit player in The Mummy Returns) doesn't connect with what was told before. Does it matter? The scenery is grand with some nice shots of the desert landscapes, but the scale epic on occasion only with the fights and confrontations being more of the multiple-on-one kind. Though we've gotten used to seeing similar stuff on TV with Xena and Hercules (including the vaguely anachronistic dialogue, visuals, and general contempt for history), a big screen version of the same sort of brawny adventure is always welcome, especially if it knows not to take itself too seriously. Though there's a strong feeling of "been there, done that" - the script milks every available cliché from a long line of similar films - director Russell (Eraser, The Mask) knows how to make it all look good, and keeps the sword-bashing action inventive and fun, while providing enough energy to the proceedings to keep it all running smoothly. A short running time also helps keep everything moving at a nice clip that doesn't overstay its welcome. The heart of the film, however, is it's beefy, charismatic star: wrestling phenom Duane "The Rock" Johnson is far more sympathetic than his '80s counterpart, and his trademark grin and effective quips make him just the right hero for this affair. The Scorpion King may not be very memorable, but as a time-waster this fantasy adventure is a grand old time.
Entertainment: 6/10

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010)
Starring: Michael Cera, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Kieran Culkin
Director: Edgar Wright
Plot: A Toronto-based slacker, a guitarist in a garage-band Sex Bob-omb, falls for a purple-haired American girl and soon finds himself forced to battle her seven super-powered evil exes.
Review: Based on Canadian Bryan Lee O'Malley's graphic novel series, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is a kick to the keister of the bland mainstream action / comedies of late, much like Kick-Ass did earlier in the year. The first half of the film is a rather sweet, well-observed character comedy where we meet our often clueless slacker, his social circle and the too-hot-for-him chick and her baggage (both emotional and ) - it's a sweet, platonic relationship, despite a few attempts at sex. Then the exes show up with a chip on their shoulder and it all gets crazy. Director Wright made the hilarious, zany genre-bending comedies Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz; he's always managed to create a likable atmosphere and protagonists, and here he's stepped up the irreverence and general mayhem, bringing a larger-than-life sensibility to the young romance, energy to the concert numbers and a dazzling knack for action to the CGI-enhanced, pyrotechnics-fueled battles. Indeed, with tongue-firmly-planted-in-cheek, characters suddenly sprout superhero powers without blinking, fighting in energetic Street Fighter-like sequences. Visual gimmicks abound, too - the video-game-like opponents turn into coins when defeated, captions of Pow! and Zoooom! accompany the action, flashbacks are done via comic-book-panels, etc. Michael Cena - who seems to be stuck in pre-adolescent mode - proves he has the proper chops for romantic comedy and Winstead, as his focus of affection, oozes cool and mystery. That they're slightly selfish, immature and a bit emotionally-challenged just makes them more interesting. The supporting cast is also great, from Culkin as the gay roommate, Ellen Wong as the high school girl with a crush, and the cast of bigger name stars as the evil exes, including Brandon Routh, Jason Shwartzman and Chris Evans self-parodying his tough-guy image - they're all in on the joke and they're clearly having fun. But more than the dazzle of the action bits or the off-kilter humor, it's the fact that the script manages to create a mash up of pop culture references and still keep its heart that makes the film so engaging. Clearly, this is not for everyone, but I couldn't help getting sucked in to the often ludicrous goings-on - it just tickled my funny bone and awakened the teen geek in me. You can't tell it's Toronto, really, but that's OK. Oh, and the soundtrack rocked. Joyous spectacle.
Entertainment: 9/10

Scream 2 (1997)
Starring: Neve Campbell, Courteney Cox, David Arquette
Director: Wes Craven
Plot: A college student and her friends are the object of obsession for a mysterious serial killer trying to imitate, and surpass, a similar murderous incident that happened to them a year before.
Review: As in the first installment, Scream 2 knows its another entry in the '90s teenage slasher movie genre, and plays well with the conventions, adding some originality and flair to the proceedings with the more-than-occasional winks to the audience. The film is everything a sequel is supposed to be: it has more dead bodies, a bigger setting, more characters, and more plot twists. Surprisingly, the blood and gore is kept mostly low-key, the script relying more on the suspense and mystery of the story. The suspense is often contrived and conventional, and the script knows how to push all the right buttons to be a crowd-pleaser - why break a successful formula? Still, the intrigue is first-rate and the climax, though a bit stretched, is still quite satisfying. A sequel that holds well to the original, and is surprisingly fun to boot.
Entertainment: 7/10

Scream 3 (2000)
Starring: Neve Campbell, Courteney Cox, David Arquette
Director: Wes Craven
Plot: Survivors of past serial killings must once again face the killer in the ghost mask, this time in the back lot of Hollywood where a production of "Stab 3", based on the original murders, is being filmed.
Review: Scream 3 continues the style of the first two, parodying the teen slasher genre to mostly good effect, with some good scares, some great cameos, and a few fun moments. The problem is that the film has started to cannibalize on itself, and it's clear that the makers are running out of ideas. The same group of characters are back, once again going through the movements and routines we've seen played out in Scream 2, only it seems they've mostly forgotten the lessons learnt in the last film. Scream 3 tries to one-up the first two installments, but by the time the "surprise" ending comes along, one which tries to tie it all up together and bring the trilogy to a close, it all just seems a little too stretched and unsatisfying. The series (and the genre itself) has all the indications of getting a little tired, but Scream 3 is still head-and-shoulders above its competition, and a decent ending to a good series.
Entertainment: 5/10

A Scream From Silence (Mourir à tue-tête) (Quebec - 1979)
Starring: Julie Vincent, Germain Houde, Paul Savoie
Director: Anne Claire Poirier
Plot: Two women, a director and her editor, set out to make a feminist film on the subject of rape by taking a real incident as their basis and can't help but react and discuss the implications of what they bring to the screen.
Review: Shocking when it was shown on Canadian TV in 1979, A Scream From Silence still holds much of its power even after more than 20 years. The opening half-hour sequence showing a woman being raped in first-person perspective is so disturbing that one cannot help but react with feelings of anger, hatred and even fear at the proceedings. Things are even worse after the event, when the victim's violation continues this time by society that now sees her as a Victim and treats her as if she was the one responsible. Produced by the National Film Board on what was probably a shoe-string budget, the film still tries to have a certain artsy appeal which, at the very end, hinders its final impact. Still, mixing a blend of cinéma vérité, documentary footage, and staged condemnation of male-dominated society, A Scream From Silence is a hard-hitting drama that will not soon be forgotten by the people who can stomach its subject.
Drama: 8/10

Scrooged (1988)
Starring: Bill Murray, Karen Allen, John Forsythe
Director: Richard Donner
Plot: A self-centered TV executive preparing a major TV event finds the true meaning of Christmas after being visited by the ghost of Christmas Past, Present and Future.
Review: A comic adaptation of the classic Dickens' story A Christmas Carol, Scrooged sticks to the major plot of the novel, while moving things up to the present day and adding a love interest to boot. The romantic angle allows for a bit of sympathy for an otherwise despicable guy, and actually works better than other aspects. Much of the action unfolds around the preparations for a hilariously cynical mega television event, a live international telling of (you guessed it) A Christmas Carol packed with the most tasteless elements possible. The three spirits (all of whom are quite interesting interpretations of the original tale's ghosts) provide some yuks by playing our stingy hero along from fond memories to future nightmares. Finally he understands the true meaning of Christmas live on TV, but his rant of redemption goes on for way too long and feels more desperate than sincere. Heck, this "feel good" ending is a little too sugary, sappy and moralistic even for a Christmas movie. Up to this point, however, Murray is at his curmudgeon best, and he gets lots of chances to show off his comic skills; it's not his best performance by far, but he is definitely the highlight of the film. Director Donner (best known for his action spectaculars like Superman and Lethal Weapon) doesn't quite have a grip on how to adequately handle either the comedy or his star, though he does get most of the melodramatic scenes right. This is obviously a big-budget affair, but it could have done with lesser production values and more heart. The script has its moments, however, and there are enough funny one-liners and irreverent zingers to make it worthwhile. Though too somber and vile to be family fare, Scrooged is an amusing enough broad comedy that makes for good counter-programming to the usual Holiday Season fare.
Comedy: 6/10

Seabiscuit (2003)
Starring: Tobey Maguire, Jeff Bridges, Chris Cooper
Director: Gary Ross
Plot: At the height of the Great Depressions, a rich widower takes a chance with a second-rate horse, an eccentric trainer and a beaten-down jockey, a team that will lead them into the championships.
Review: Adapted from a novel by Laura Hillenbrand, the true story of Seabiscuit is given the big-budget treatment. There's the usual "underdog" story and obvious rousing moments with that trademark Hollywood touch, staying reverent to its subject, bringing it's story as a larger-than-life event that takes on Hollywood's usual glean of legend. Yet never does it ever reach anything truly touching, staying emotionally distant like a story being retold to convince an audience of its greatness. The horse itself remains more object than character here as "the little horse that could". The races themselves however are exciting, capturing the tension, the strained muscles, the desperation to win. Director Ross (Pleasantville) has the classic cinematic touch, and the whole thing is definitely professionally executed and gorgeous to look at, and though it sometimes drags more than it should it remains engaging throughout. The production looks pristine - perhaps too pristine, considering the era, and the feel of the hardships of the times is missing. The film somewhat flounders when it tries to link their glory with a new found hope for the country, as if the filmmakers want to make a parallel between these races and the lifting of a nation's spirit. The protagonists' difficulties and setbacks in getting a horse to win seems small potatoes amidst the misery of the 1930's. Though Maguire takes the headline, this is a veritable ensemble affair, but the actors don't really get a chance to bring their characters to life; Maguire looks the part, and acts the part, but he doesn't own it, though it's obvious he is trying; Bridges comes off as a character actor; Cooper just does "wise" and gnarly but with no additional emotion. Of note, however, is William H. Macy who does a hilarious supporting role as the wacky local radio / track announcer. In the end Seabiscuit is too much of a generic product taken by its own sense of importance to really make its mark as something truly special, but it's well-enough done and engaging enough to recommend it.
Drama: 6/10

The Searchers (1956)
Starring: John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, Natalie Wood
Director: John Ford
Plot: After years of wandering, a Confederate soldier returns to his family home only to see his brother's family butchered and his young niece kidnapped by a Comanche tribe. Enraged and embittered, he spends the following years searching for her, and seeking revenge.
Review: Arguably the best of the John Ford / John Wayne collaborations, and one of the best of the genre. Director John Ford and his crew's long experience in westerns seems distilled into The Searchers, and it shows: the script is terrific, the action and confrontations tense, and the photography, the vistas, are absolutely beautiful. Wayne has one of his best roles here as the anti-hero, an Indian-hater, a loner, whose obsession for revenge drives him on a five-year long search. Much like most of the westerns from that era, none of the Native Americans are depicted in a good light and are barely given more than a one-dimensional exposition, but as the story of a man coming to grips with his own life, bigotry, and fears, it is a truly engaging story.
Drama: 8/10

The Sea Inside (2004)
Starring: Javier Bardem, Belen Rueda
Director: Alejandro Amenabar
Plot: Following an accident that leaves him paralysed from the neck down, a Spanish sailor wages a controversial campaign for 30 years for the right to end his own life in dignity.
Review: A biopic based on the real-life story of Spaniard Ramon Sampedro and his campaign for euthanasia, The Sea Inside goes way beyond its depressing premise by tapping into the life and soul of its subject. Sampedro's legal and social battle for suicide, aided by friends and activists, is also special in one way: his was not a request to end any physical pain; nor was it one of boredom or disdain - indeed, his life is seen as being as rich in company, music, and intelligent conversation as possible, with a doting sister-in-law and many friends. In his mind he had survived long enough without being able to truly experience the kind of existence he led prior to his accident, and he wished the right to end his torment with dignity. The story follows his relationship with three women, including an important, heartfelt romantic tangle he has with his lawyer, herself diagnosed with a debilitating disease, each one providing a pretext to examine different sides of the issue. In showing us this human being in all his aspects, in bringing a depth to a difficult subject matter and presenting his story so vividly, writer / director / composer Amenabar (Open Your Eyes, The Others) has succeeded brilliantly. Despite its heady topic it's a surprisingly buoyant narrative, the script showing a fine sense of humor and wit even if it never takes the easy way out. The visual aspect is also clean and bright, with some very literal, beautifully executed flights of fancy as he dreams of escaping his confinement and soaring above the countryside. As the bed-ridden Sampedro, Bardem is truly astounding in a challenging physical and emotional role, giving a performance that's tender, intelligent and very much alive - much like the film itself. Touching, immaculate and poetic even in its tragedy, The Sea Inside is a memorable, touching drama on a controversial subject. Winner of the Oscar for Best Foreign Film, and deservedly so.
Drama: 9/10

The Secret of Kells (2010)
Voices: Brendan Gleeson, Mick Lally, Evan McGuire
Director: Tomm Moore
Plot: When a celebrated illuminator arrives at a remote medieval outpost under siege by barbarians, a young monk discovers his true calling - to help finish illustrating the beautiful, precious Book of Kells. 
Review: It is a rare film these days that shows true artistic vision, and we're lucky to find one in the resplendent, independently created The Secret of Kells, winner of multiple European awards and nominated as best animated film at the Oscars. Inspired by Irish mythology and the real Book of Kells (a heavily illustrated rendering of the Four Gospels of the Christian bible dating back to the 8th Century), the movie is a smart, clever fantasy filled with wonder and magic, where mystical forest creatures (like the keen young wolf-girl) interact with Christian folk, and faceless, blood-thirsty barbarians are clamoring at the gates. It is a time of enlightenment and struggle for survival, with a strong theme of the power of imagination over human fears, as interpreted in the act of putting ink to paper. The stylized imagery, based on actual drawings in the Book, makes for some gorgeous hand-drawn animated sequences - the elaborate illustrations are brought to life in a kaleidoscope of colors and movement - that is a welcome departure from standard Saturday morning cartoons and the bevy of clever but heartless CGI animation features that clog theaters. It's a beautiful story with beautiful texture, and the voice cast is impeccable. Clearly, lots of care and dedication was put into the making of the film and it shows in every frame. Even with its short running time, timed at about 70 minutes, the Celtic feel of the place, of the forests, of the times, really shines through. Though the adventures of its young protagonist are intended for family viewing, this will probably be enjoyed more by discerning adults as the languorous pacing may be slow going for kids expecting action, and some parts (an encounter with evil spirits, the town massacre at the hands of invaders) are probably too scary and intense for the young ones. Glorious and gorgeous, The Secret of Kells is well worth searching for, and it will hopefully find a wider audience with its release on DVD.
Entertainment: 8/10

Secret Window (2004)
Starring: Johnny Depp, John Turturro, Maria Bello
Director: David Koepp
Plot: Going through a difficult divorce, a popular author hidden away in an isolated log cabin becomes the victim of a mysterious stranger who accuses him of plagiarizing his story and who demands violent retribution.
Review: Based upon a short story by popular horror novelist Stephen King, Secret Window is a rather tepid, non-supernatural thriller. The starting premise gets going quickly - and the test of nerves could have been interesting - but the film quickly sputters and meanders between the author's failed marriage, jealousy, and the growing, improbable violence that happens around him. This might be necessary to build a certain required tension, but it just feels like a warmed over rehash of other productions at best and plain lazy writing at worst. Coming from writer / director Koepp after his successful scripts for Spider-Man and Panic Room, as well as his directing turn on Stir of Echoes, it's easy to say this is a disappointment. It's ably directed and shot (the outdoor cinematography is wonderful), and there's an occasional sense of humor to be found, but there's little life in this tale to keep our interest and even less originality. Oh, it tries to play a bit on the suspense clichés but it telegraphs so much that most audiences will see the final twist coming miles away, and it ends up feeling like a cheat. On the plus side the inimitable Depp (looking both disheveled and depressed with a head full of unruly hair) is an amiable, sympathetic recluse that you can't help cheering for - right until the end. Fans of the actor will eat this up. Turturro has made a side career playing menacing, disturbing characters and here he excels once again. There's a nice Philip Glass score to add a bit of ambience, too. Unfortunately, the elements in Secret Window just don't come together well enough to overcome a sense of déjà vu and all that remains is another failed King adaptation.
Entertainment: 4/10

The Secret World of Arrietty (Japan - 2011)
Voices: Bridgit Mendler, Amy Poehler and Will Arnett
Director: Hiromasa Yonebayashi
Plot: Having lived for years in another family's residence borrowing small items to maintain their existence, the lives of a family of four-inch-tall people is thrown upside-down when their young daughter is discovered by a sickly boy.
Review: Based on Mary Norton's novel The Borrowers, The Secret World of Arrietty is another finely crafted cel-animated feature from Japan's number one anime house, Ghibli. Though the book has already been adapted a few times, latest being the 1997 live-action film with John Goodman, legendary filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki has adapted the story to suit his own recurring themes and meditative attention to Nature. Miyazaki gave the lead to first-time director Yonebajashi, his key animator on Ponyo and Howl's Moving Castle, and the pretty, watercolor-like visuals give a rich texture to the film, even on this more intimate scale. More in line with Ghibli's low-key fantasy works like My Neighbor Totoro, a quiet and deliberate pacing is established, recalling the long summer days of our youth. As a family film this pacing - only occasionally peppered by some intense, dramatic moments of clear danger - can be pretty slow going, and younger kids might well get restless. The film does a good job of making the familiar extraordinary as seen from the perspective of the borrowers, but this feeling doesn't extend past singular moments. Though moving around the house may well be exciting in their shoes, the film doesn't convey it as well for the audience, losing the necessary feeling of adventure required for us to be engaged. There's a good premise here, with strong characters and lots of potential, but the paper-thin story lacks any depth. Perhaps in the hands of Miyazaki this would have been just that much more appealing. As it is, this Arrietty is pretty but only half-baked.
Entertainment: 6/10

Security Unlimited (Hong Kong - 1981)
Starring: Michael Hui, Sam Hui, Ricky Hui
Director: Michael Hui
Plot: The comedic misadventures of three employees of a private security company in Hong Kong who try their best to fulfill the assignments they are given.
Review: The most popular installment of a series of films starring the same group of working-class characters. Security Unlimited is really a combination of short skits where we see the heroes either on a bizarre work assignment or at home in even more silly situations. The hilarious ending segment, though, brings many of the plot threads together. The Hui brothers are great at physical comedy, and have terrific comic timing. Many of the sight gags, in fact, remind one of American silent-era slapstick, though the humor itself is very Hong Kong. Some of the jokes work better than others, but the film is always fast-paced, amusing and very creative in its quest for laughs.
Comedy: 8/10

The Sentinel (2006)
Starring: Michael Douglas, Kiefer Sutherland, Kim Basinger
Director: Clark Johnson
Plot: Framed for an assassination attempt on the President and pursued by his former teammates, a veteran Secret Service agent must uncover the mole in their ranks to stop the real plot. 
Review: Based on the novel by former Secret Service Agent Gerald Petievich, The Sentinel is a predictable, by-the-numbers thriller that plays it too safe. Blame it on the shallow, unsurprising script; some promising sub-plots such as an affair with the First Lady, a grudge between former agents, the murder that opens the film, and the reason behind the traitor's actions are unfortunately too quickly discarded in favor of the usual chases, gun fights and revelations. Heck, even the reason for the assassination is tossed into the fray as another element with little importance. In the same way he did S.W.A.T., TV-director Johnson approaches the material and filmmaking chores with the required amount of vigor but little style, and can't help make it feel like anything more than a movie-of-the-week. What saves it are the occasional details into the everyday safety concerns of the agents surrounding the First Couple. The stars fare better: Douglas slips into the role like an old pro and the rest of the cast comes out reputation unscathed, even if the TV-worthy material doesn't allow for anything but brief characterizations. A far better effort involving the Secret Service and a presidential assassination plot was produced back in 1993; it was In the Line of Fire starring Clint Eastwood. The Sentinel ends up being another faceless addition to the video store counter, a suspense-thriller that's well enough made but completely forgettable once the credits roll.
Entertainment: 5/10

The September Issue (2009)
Director: R.J. Cutler
Plot: A documentary team chronicles preparations for the massive, all-important fall-fashion issue of the 2007 season, the largest in the publication's 114 history.
Review: Audiences should be excused for coming into The September Issue with thoughts of the Hollywood fluff piece The Devil Wears Prada dancing in their heads. Quickly, though, one notes that the characters (from strutting models to effeminate designers) and locations (from fancy photo-shoots to sumptuous restaurants) that were the basis for the Merryl Streep comedy are much more exotic in real life. Sure, the fashions on display will make most of us commoners guffaw or cringe but the glamour, egos and fancy digs all hide the cut-throat $300 billion business at stake. Peeling this particular onion proves quite an interesting surprise; it's at times enthralling or startling, a window into the fashion world, the influential Vogue publication, and - most importantly - the "Pope" of the fashion industry and its star, the editor-in-chief of the American edition of Vogue, Anna Wintour. Her legendary temper and coldness seem to be toned down, but you can see the calculating intelligence in her eyes, even as she opens up on her personal life in an intimate interview. More importantly, it gives a portrait of the dynamics between journalists, photographers, publicists, type-setters, wardrobe specialists and more working under pressure (if not downright fear) to get the famed publication out on time. None is more insightful than the love / hate relationship between business-savvy Wintour and artistically-minded Grace Coddington, Vogue's creative director, whose dedication and sensitive down-to-earth personality clearly makes her the unsung hero of the magazine. There's no denying the impact of Vogue and Wintour on society, and The September Issue gives us all an eye-opening peek at a very strange sub-culture.
Documentary: 7/10

Seraphim Falls (2007)
Starring: Liam Neeson, Pierce Brosnan, Michael Wincott
Director: David Von Ancken
Plot: Three years after the end of the Civil War, a brutal ex-Confederate soldier out for revenge hires a posse to go after a Union captain who has retired as a trapper in the mountains.
Review: Taking some inspiration from Eastwood's The Outlaw Josey Wales, Seraphim Falls is a Western of strong visual presence and minimal dialogue. The opening sequence is a 20 minute-long, almost wordless chase through a winter landscape, as five gunmen chase down their wounded prey, a prey that has a few tricks up its sleeves. The on-going chase goes through fits and starts, moving from the mountains to the desert, as the two Civil War adversaries encounter the usual eccentric and dangerous characters in the Western landscape, including bible-thumping Christians, wanted thieves, and even a wise old Indian, the cameos taken by a string of familiar supporting actors. Making his feature-film debut, TV-director Ancken shows a good storytelling sense, allowing the pretty vistas by Oscar-winning cinematographer John Toll to seep in, yet keeping the pace moving along at a good rhythm. Unfortunately, the should-have-been-made-for-TV script isn't up to par, never managing to be quite dramatically effective, with an ending that reeks of pretentious mysticism, even as Anjelica Huston - playing the Devil, perhaps - appears out of nowhere to sell the exhausted adversaries bullets for their final showdown. No faulting the leads, however: A grizzled, bearded Brosnan does a fine job wincing his way to relative safety, while Neeson, as the man out for revenge, is an effective foil even if the role isn't much of a stretch. Seraphim Falls doesn't bring anything new to the genre, but it is ably executed and will win over audiences with the solid performances of its two leads.
Entertainment / Drama: 6/10

Seraphin: Heart Of Stone (Séraphin: un homme et son péché) (Quebec - 2002) 
Starring: Pierre Lebeau, Karine Vanasse, Roy Dupuis
Director: Charles Binamé
Plot: In 19th-century rural Quebec, a young woman is forced to marry the avaricious village mayor to save her father's business from bankruptcy though her heart goes out to another man.
Review: Tagged as an epic French Canadian historical drama, Seraphin: Heart Of Stone has become the most popular local blockbuster, but some of that is more due to the subject matter than the actual presentation. Based on a Quebec literary classic by Claude-Henri Grignon, adapted previously as a long-running TV series, the original novel focused on the misdeeds and avarice of its title character. To bring the tale to a modern audience the filmmakers have decided to place more importance on the story between the two lovers, making this more of a romantic tragedy than a character study. Unfortunately, the film seems to have been edited for audiences already familiar with the story; those not in the know will be a tad non-plussed by some of the plot twists and, without knowing the background for some of the villagers' actions, befuddled by the story's progress. In fact it's sometimes difficult to get involved in the goings-on, no matter how melodramatic things get, and do they ever! With all its characters' failures and faults, the passions and resentments, the melodrama and reversals, this all amounts to a visually detailed soap-opera. There's an attempt at making the miser Séraphin into a more rounded, pitiable man (and actor Lebeau does a superb portrayal) but though his childhood pain and loss are alluded to in the film's opening sequence, he never really gets a chance to play out any emotional turmoil. Even his plotting to gain the heroines' hand in marriage becomes another excuse to place the two young lovers in a more difficult situation. On the plus side, the production values are superior for such a local effort, and the film does give some idea as to the hardships of rural life and the influence of the Church on even the most well-meaning people. For two, it's a terrific who's-who of French Canadian actors and actresses, with some potentially great roles which just never get a chance to rise up from the tepid plot. In the end, Seraphin: Heart Of Stone will please those already familiar with the story looking for a bigger-budget update, but for those not already invested in the characters the film is just another average period melodrama.
Drama: 5/10

Serendipity (2001)
Starring: John Cusack, Kate Beckinsale, Jeremy Piven
Director: Peter Chelsom
Plot: Two complete strangers spend a memorable New York night together but fate drives them apart until years later when, on the eve of their respective weddings, destiny once again plays its hand to bring them together.
Review: Serendipity provides a much-used premise - that some people are destined to be together and fate will interfere no matter the circumstances - and pushes it to extremes. Mixing this with a whole lot of pre-wedding jitters and the usual comic angst, along with the typical amusing supporting characters and some able (if uninspired) direction, makes for a polished, if assembly-like, product. The whole film revolves around these two "soul mates" trying to find one another, a race against time with very little to go on apart from first names and dumb luck; we know they'll end up together, but the convoluted schemes that destiny has in store for them is on occasion hoot to watch. Unfortunately, this is also where the uneven script runs a little ragged, and the constant coincidences and near-misses start getting irritating, as does the cloying sentimentality (all this effort seven years after a single date?!). What saves it from being a bland affair, however, is charismatic every-man Cusack, who since Say Anything has been pigeon-holed into this type of role but one which, admittedly, he does to perfection; it's hard not to feel sympathy for the guy. The rest of the cast is quite adequate, and Beckinsale does the female bit OK, but it's Piven, as the best friend and Best Man, who gets all the best lines and most of the laughs. In the end, Serendipity is another romantic-comedy in the Hollywood mold, but one that rises a bit above average thanks to a its charming lead. Cynics, however, should avoid.
Entertainment: 6/10


Serenity (2005)
Starring: Nathan Fillion, Gina Torres, Alan Tudyk
Director: Joss Whedon
Plot: A small crew running a run-down cargo ship on the edge of the law try to stay one step ahead of the Alliance hot on the trail of a young woman who has taken refuge with them, only to find themselves in the middle of a giant conspiracy.
Review: With its jumble of cowboy-western and sci-fi influences, great writing and fresh attitude, Serenity is one of the smartest, most sensitive, and downright entertaining of Hollywood space operas. Based on the critically-acclaimed but short lived series Firefly, creator / writer / director Whedon (best known for the Buffy The Vampire Slayer phenomena) was given a chance to finish off his series with bang, and this is its swan song. Though the usual blockbuster elements make an appearance - fight scenes, cool spaceships, and an impressive space battle - it's the human drama, character interactions and general sense of swashbuckling adventure that make the film so special. Unlike most big screen adaptations of TV, this is an organic extension of the series and would have been right at home on the small screen. In fact, for the most part, this looks and feels like the series itself, from the effective computer effects to the efficient art direction, which attests to the prime esthetics and art direction of the show. The original cast is back, and little has changed since we last saw them. However, the stakes are higher, as befits a big-budget outing, and the overall tone is more serious - though there's still the witty comebacks and Whedon's keen ear for dialogue is still obvious, it's missing the usual level of glib repartee. New viewers may be taken for a spin at first, and might have a hard time getting past the first half hour's densely packed background info, but it's worth the effort. Fans of the show, however, will be pleased to see the continuing adventures and curious to know that some mysteries are revealed (including the origin of the monstrous Reavers, the boogeyman of the galaxy). If there's one caveat, it's that the short feature length doesn't do the series justice. Yet in the end, Serenity is a fine conclusion to the original series, one that's consistently witty and engaging, and will surely win new converts to the cancelled show.
Entertainment: 8/10

Seven (1995)
Starring: Brad Pitt, Morgan Freeman, Gwyneth Paltrow
Director: David Fincher
Plot: A retiring police detective and his new partner work overtime to catch a methodic serial killer who is using his victim's sins as a template for their murder.
Review: Director Fincher (Fight Club, The Game) knows how to create a bleak, terrifying atmosphere and intense situations and it has never been more obvious than in Seven, a crime drama that pushes the limits of the genre and succeeds brilliantly. The excellent cinematography sets the mood throughout the film with shadowy interiors, stark contrasts, subdued colors and claustrophobic spaces as well as great camera shots and frame set-ups. As for the impeccable script, the twists and turns of the plot are never predictable, with a mounting tension and a constant sense of foreboding, of dread imbued in every scene. The themes of social alienation, of the pervasiveness of sin, are the main focus of the story, showing us a world drenched in wickedness and apathy to the cruelty present in our everyday lives. As such, there is no "evil" in the sense we usually expect to see in a Hollywood film, but only one of human failing, of "sin". In fact, the film never flinches from its depictions of gruesome scenes or events and yet the violence, though sometimes shocking, is never really gratuitous but necessary to give a rise from the audience's complacency. Bravura performances by all involved, including Freeman in a mesmerizing role as the cool, calculating veteran detective, but most especially by Pitt in what is probably his finest and most convincing performance. Intense, bleak, and always visually and intellectually fascinating, Seven is a dark crime thriller that goes beyond the usual Hollywood film noir entertainment to bring us a truly fascinating, and terrifying, experience. 
Drama: 9/10

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954) 
Starring: Jane Powell, Howard Keel
Director: Stanley Donen 
Plot: A rancher goes to town and decides to marry a local woman. Returning to his home in the mountains, she discovers he has six brothers all working and living together. She sets out to teach them to be proper gentlemen so they can find wives of their own.
Review: As is expected from one of the great American musicals of the '50s, the film is full of singing, dancing, and more than its fair share of silly plot. The storyline and attitudes of the men towards women are quite appalling for our more modern tastes, but the men slowly learn better as the film progresses. One or two songs are classics here, but the other ones are quite forgettable. The main reason to see this film is to watch the fabulous, classic barn-raising dancing scene, where the seven brothers face-off with the other men of the region - 20 minutes of pure Hollywood magic.
Entertainment: 7/10

Seven Swords (Hong Kong - 2005)
Starring: Donnie Yen, Leon Lai, Charlie Young
Director: Tsui Hark
Plot: Following an edict to outlaw martial arts in 17th-century China, seven warriors armed with powerful swords attempt to protect a village from a powerful warlord bent on destroying it.
Review: A fantasy adventure seemingly inspired by Kurosawa's Seven Samurai, Seven Swords was hailed as a return to form for director Tsui Hark. Though we might have to wait a bit longer for that, there's no denying that the maker of such masterpieces like Once Upon a Time in China or Peking Opera Blues still knows how to create an entertaining vehicle. There's a grandeur here, with the high production values, excellent cinematography, and extended cast of characters all fighting in their larger-than-life struggles. The main stumbling block is the script that, adapted from a popular Chinese novel, tries to cram too many things into the film causing problems with the pacing; some events are rushed, while other sub-plots are plodding. These might have been important aspects of the book but in the film they remain vague and only gorge the narrative. Some of the blame, perhaps, goes to the decision to chop the original four-hour running length by almost half to provide a cut deemed more "palatable" to theater-going. The action sequences have been left intact, perhaps, but to the detriment of the story (which has obvious gaps) and the characters, most of whom are never fleshed out. As such the cast never gets much of a chance to shine, and even headliner Yen does the strong and silent bit a little too convincingly. Still, for those looking for thrills, the film delivers some impressive, dynamic wire-work-enhanced martial arts and lots of the kind of swordplay we've come to know and love from Hong Kong films. In fact, these provide most of the movie's redeeming value: fast-paced and well orchestrated, they show Hark's consummate skill at this kind of action, like when each fighter gets a chance to show off their sword's abilities, or in the climactic battle. Too bad there isn't more of it to distract us from the unconvincing melodrama. Not quite the adventure epic audiences were hoping for, Seven Swords is nevertheless a solid piece of entertainment that's sure to please wu-xia fans.
Entertainment: 7/10

Shadow of the Vampire (2000)
Starring: Willem Dafoe, John Malkovich
Director: E. Elias Merhige
Plot: To produce the best vampire film ever made during the silent-era, a famed German director hires a real vampire as his star without revealing it to the rest of the crew who start dropping off one by one.
Review: German director F.W. Murnau's classic 1922 silent black-and-white Nosferatu, a barely disguised adaptation of Dracula, has long been deemed one of the most influential films in movie history. Enter Shadow of the Vampire, an homage to the art of film-making and an all-together fictional re-telling of the making of the horror classic, one where lead actor Max Shreck is not only playing a vampire, but really is a vampire. Tongue firmly planted in cheek, this is an artsy film from the get-go, an auteur film that will have film fans and people in-the-know chuckling, but that's also entertaining, humorous enough, and often almost campy to be enjoyable to all types of audiences. The tense, symbiotic / parasitic relationship between the actor / vampire and the director brings up some of the most interesting moments, but the confrontational duel of wills, the jabs at the similarities of the two "monsters", is unfortunately kept short. And therein lies the film's biggest disappointment: it touches on many interesting themes, but doesn't explore them deeply enough, keeping it all as smart, but light entertainment. The film is shot in both rich, dark colors and scratchy black-and-white of the original feature, recreating some of the classic Expressionist sequences of Nosferatu, then doing a prefect transition to the "present", giving the whole proceedings a stunningly surreal look. Malkovich does another over-the-top performance as director Murnau, but it's Dafoe who really steals every scene, if not the movie itself, with his low-key, mesmerizing performance as the age-old Nosferatu. Indeed his glaring at the camera, his clicking nails, his sad observations on the fate of vampires, and his witty one-liners all make for one of the most memorable vampires to grace the screen. The rest of the cast is also terrific, playing their roles with equal melodrama and campy edginess. Shadow of the Vampire is a delicious, clever outing that ends up seeming too short by half, but with so much going for it, length is a minor fault.
Entertainment: 7/10

Shaft (1971)
Starring: Richard Roundtree, Moses Gunn
Director: Gordon Parks
Plot: Shaft, the "great spade detective", is hired to track down the kidnapped daughter of a Harlem gang lord but finds himself in the middle of what could be a crime war between Harlem and the Mafia.
Review: Shaft is one of the "best" of the classic blaxploitation flicks (along with Dolomite and Superfly). It's badly acted, full of macho posturing, cheaply made, crude, with a silly plot and some terrible one-liners. So why was it so successful? Probably because of its main character, one of the first black action stars, a hard hitting, no-shit, "cool cat" aptly played by Roundtree. Combining that with the film's liberal doses of sex and violence, the immensely popular "us blacks vs. them whites" theme, and its able direction and pacing made Shaft eminently watchable. The finale is also on par with some of the better '70s caper flicks. The film has aged badly though, especially in its use of New York slang and bizarre treatment of a whole community, but as a send-back to an earlier time, it's an entertaining outing. Isaac Hayes' classic groovin' theme won an Oscar.
Entertainment: 5/10

Shaft (2000)
Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Jeffrey Wright, Christian Bale
Director: John Singleton
Plot: A tough, black New York police detective goes after a young, wealthy and racist killer and a psychotic drug dealer while trying to find the only witness to the murder.
Review: Whether intended or not, the film often feels like a '70s flick with a soundtrack to match. But where the original film was bold and different, this new incarnation is just more of the same, with less spirit and no energy. It's been modernized by the use of more violence, more swearing to replace the lack of good dialogue, and an absence of any sexual reference, which was one of the main selling points of the character. Still, like the original, this new Shaft is way-cool, has a bad attitude, disses like the best of them and has a slick wardrobe. Singleton (Boyz N' the Hood) proves he's an able director, and Jackson shows he's a good choice for the role, but neither of them really shines here. The film itself starts off well, with all the pieces seemingly in place, but the uneven and wholly un-original script, full of predictable twists just can't meld them together. Worse, the film is full of shallow stereotypical characters, tired action sequences, and a pair of interesting but underused villains. The film isn't without its moments, and undiscriminating viewers will be entertained, but if the producers are trying to re-establish a Shaft franchise, they're going to have to make the next one much better than this.
Entertainment: 4/10

Shake Hands with the Devil (2007)
Starring: Roy Dupuis, Owen Sejake, James Gallanders 
Director: Roger Spottiswoode
Plot: A Canadian general agrees to oversee the Unite Nations peace-keeping force in Rwanda, but must contend with uninterested politicians as the 1994 genocide ran its course.
Review: An adaptation of General Roméo Dallaire's personal account of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, Shake Hands with the Devil is a powerful retelling of events that have slipped out of our collective minds. Hotel Rwanda may have opened the topic to a more mainstream audience, but this is a much more personal, more detailed, and so much more revealing account of the events that led to the civil war. As such, the script provides a highlight of the salient events, people and political complexities involved. The film has no qualms in putting the blame squarely on the Western politicians (including the UN) who refused to provide aid or support when event clearly turned to genocide, revealing the downright criminal negligence that allowed such atrocities to occur. Filmed on location in Rwanda with many of the actual local participants and a Canadian crew, director Spottiswoode (more familiar as the helmer of action flicks as Tomorrow Never Dies and The 6th Day) surprises by doing an admirable job at capturing the chaos and the horror of the day. With a limited budget and large aspirations, he has made an affecting, vivid, and approachable film on a difficult subject with a gritty, you-are-there feel that beats most fictional fare. As the focus point for the film, an extraordinary, mesmerizing Dupuis carries much of the movie, portraying the much older Dallaire with strength and courage, his eyes showing a sadness and an uncertain despair. If it portrays Dallaire as a true hero, a title he shuns to this day, the film's only misstep is being too earnest and too involved in its protagonist's inner turmoil, cutting back between events in Rwanda and Dallaire's therapy sessions. But this is a minor quibble; in the end, Shake Hands with the Devil is a harrowing cautionary tale - let us never forget it.
Drama: 8/10

Shall We Dance? (2004)
Starring: Richard Gere, Jennifer Lopez, Stanley Tucci
Director: Peter Chelsom
Plot: Keeping his extra-curricular activities a secret from his family, a disenchanted lawyer faces his mid-life crisis by taking on ballroom dancing lessons with a beautiful instructor.
Review: A remake of the sweet-natured Japanese film of the same name, Shall We Dance? suffers from the usual Americanization of foreign material. Indeed, as a mainstream Hollywood production, it can't help but have a need to add eccentric characters for comedic effect to what could have been a touching drama, and can't either help making it all sentimental. The original was more low-key, less melodramatic and much more endearing, and removing the cultural context (the stiffness of corporate Japan versus the abandon of the ballroom) also dilutes the drama. Despite its attempts at bringing the pains of dashed hopes, of mid-life crisis that is the very basis of the story to the fore, it never quite captures either. More cynical viewers will also find some of it too sweet and calculating, making the life-affirming conclusion only mildly effective. Still, this adaptation has charms of its own; the dance numbers are fun and energetic (especially during the competitions), Gere is at his charming best, there's a simmering attraction between him and the otherwise one-note Lopez, and there's the over-the-top comic silliness of Tucci and the gaggle of eccentric supports. Some other light elements are thrown in, along with the story of a failing marriage, and it all adds up to an entertaining piece of fluff. It might end up feeling like a story about pretty people with petty problems, but it's an ably done confection that will please romantics.
Entertainment: 5/10

Shanghai Blues (Hong Kong - 1984)
Starring: Sylvia Chang, Kenny Bee, Sally Yeh
Director: Tsui Hark
Plot: Ten years after a chance meeting and promise under a darkened bridge during the World War II evacuation of the city, two Shanghai would-be-lovers become neighbors without realizing who the other one is.
Review: Shanghai Blues is director Tsui Hark's (Once Upon a Time in China) ode to a cinema of an earlier, more innocent time, one that often dips into nostalgia but who's bright tone always brings a smile. The romance and comedy is as much of the slapstick variety as not with the usual coincidences and mistaken identity skits, and there are a few good chuckles along the way. The silliness sometimes gets to be a little too over-the-top, as Hong Kong films sometimes go, but the cast is charming, the mood is delightfully engaging and the proceedings full of energy. Amongst all these shenanigans, however, Hark has inserted some rather thoughtful dramatic interludes as well, showing the anxiety and hope for the future that was Shanghai and its people after the war. The Western influence on the Chinese city is also ever-present, emphasized by the title song, and the story plays on this duality, a topic that was close to the director's heart. Hark's still-evolving style here still shows his eye for the medium that made him such a force in HK cinema, bringing about a bevy of color and motion to the screen along with some good cinematography to make for a well-paced endeavor, one that's consistently lively and amusing to watch. Shanghai Blues might have been only a blueprint for his masterful Peking Opera Blues, but it's wonderful, light-hearted entertainment in its own right.
Entertainment: 7/10

Shanghai Knights (2003)
Starring: Jackie Chan, Owen Wilson, Fann Wong
Director: David Dobkin
Plot: A former Chinese Imperial guard searching for his father's murderer and the stolen Emperor's seal in Victorian London teams up with his cowboy partner and ends up trying to stop the assassination of the royal English court.
Review: Shanghai Knights, a sequel to Shanghai Noon, is a fish-out-water comedy mixed in with lots of action and hi-jinks strongly influenced by Hong Kong flicks. There's a lot that's familiar to the last episode with even less story than the last time. Much of the humor comes from the culture clash between the two cow-pokes and all of English society, including the obvious jokes on Brit culinary experiences. Even the characters are caricatures and the villains appropriately despicable. So yes, the plot, jokes, and adventures are terribly clichéd, with the usual contrivances built-in to the script. That said, there are things that redeem the film completely. For one, finally here's an American film that exploits Chan's incredible athletic and martial arts skills to their fullest - he might be past his prime, but it sure doesn't look it here, taking a cue or two from his own early films such as Project A. For two, the buddy-flick elements are a tad stale, perhaps, but the two leads are affably charming and make for a fine duo with the quips and sparring coming off with great comic timing. There's also much more slapstick (indeed, there's even a Keystone Cops sequence for those into silent films) and an obvious influence from a few classic films. There's even an homage to Singing in the Rain as Chan repeats the dance steps, umbrella and all, while disposing of a half-dozen brawlers - one of the film's highlights. Dobkin, taking a directorial approach straight out of the HK filmmaking school, provides a finely paced effort and manages to capture some terrific action sequences. Of happy note for fans is the appearance of Donnie Yen as the supporting bad guy and would-be Emperor who makes for a fine foil to Chan thanks to his expert martial arts skills. A superior installment to its predecessor, Shanghai Knights is a pleasant diversion - it may not be memorable, but it's surprisingly quite entertaining.
Entertainment: 7/10

Shanghai Noon (2000)
Starring: Jackie Chan, Owen Wilson, Lucy Liu
Director: Tom Dey
Plot: A Chinese imperial guard is sent to the American West to rescue the Emperor's daughter kidnapped by a Chinese traitor and his cowboy cronies.
Review: Shanghai Noon is another cultural mismatch / buddy formula film in the vein of Chan's previous Hollywood outing, Rush Hour. Once again, Chan is the physical element of the duo while his partner, played to perfection by Owen Wilson, more than makes up for his little dialogue. The film isn't a blockbuster comedy, but it is a light-hearted romp through Western clichés, with its share of chuckles, some great chemistry between the two leads, some funny dialogue, and good pacing. The fish-out-of-water jokes seem a bit tired, but Chan always manages to goof it up enough to make it watchable. As always, there are a few good martial-arts sequences, but they don't even come close to the energy and originality of Chan's Hong Kong films such as Project A or Drunken Master 2. Lucy Liu is a very pleasant surprise, going beyond the standard woman-in-distress by appearing strong and capable, and even kicking high with the best of them. Owen Wilson really steals the show, though, with the best lines and some great comic timing. Unfortunately, the film reminds us of better ones, such as Maverick for one, and (the obvious basis for this script) the Sammo Hung / Jet Li production Once Upon a Time in China and America. In the end, Shanghai Noon is an enjoyable film, but nothing really special.
Entertainment: 6/10

Shaolin Soccer (Hong Kong - 2001)
Starring: Stephen Chow, Vicky Zhao Wei, Ng Man Tat
Director: Stephen Chow.
Plot: Deciding to put his Shaolin kung-fu skills to better use, a vagrant collects his old classmates and forms a soccer team to go up against their coach's nemesis at the national tournament.
Review: Shaolin Soccer is a definite hit for one of Hong Kong's greatest stars, an original mix of martial arts and soccer that will delight fans of both sports-themed stories and kung-fu flicks. The film starts with the typical creation of the underdog team, seeing them go through the necessary melodrama parody and some amusing training sequences. But the real payoff are the energetic, imaginative and definitely over-the-top soccer matches, full of excellent wire-work and some imaginative superhuman plays. Compared to present Hollywood offerings, the computer effects used in these instances are often rather poor, perhaps, but their inventive use is well integrated into the various scenes and only furthers the often hilarious comedy. If there is fault, and one found in most Chow films, it's the inconsistency between scenes, with the humorous situations sometimes feeling more like short skits instead of part of a continuous narrative. Like most of his comedies, the laughs are varied, from the slapstick and low-brow-vulgar to the clever and heart-warming, and some of the humor may not be everyone's cup of tea, but it's still some of the best stuff coming out of Hong Kong these days. In any case, though the pace and mood isn't always consistent, Shaolin Soccer is definitely a funny, vastly entertaining spoof on the world's most popular sport.
Entertainment: 8/10

Shark Tale (2004)
Starring: Will Smith, Renée Zellweger, Jack Black
Directors: Bibo Bergeron, Vicky Jenson
Plot: After making a deal with a vegetarian shark, a small fish lies about being a shark-killer which provides the adulation and fame he desires from his peers but also the ire of a mafia-like shark boss.
Review: Shark Tale, the latest computer animated spectacle from Dreamworks following their success with Shrek and Ice Age, can't help but be compared with the other fish-themed CGI flick Finding Nemo, but in a shootout it just can't compete. Made to be hip and street-savvy, the film has innumerable references to media fame and fortune, with a hip-hop soundtrack filled to the (exaggerated) brim. The flashy, lively animation makes for some great eye-candy and there's some clever stuff around, the small details making it worth keeping a keen eye on the backgrounds. Unfortunately even the obvious technical skill on display can't help a rather juvenile script and the lack of actual charm or feeling to the proceedings. In fact, the feel-good morality tale all feels so formulaic as to be almost stale. Thankfully, the gags are plentiful and some are even funny, as are some of the more eccentric characters (there's a pair of Rastafarian jellyfish and a puppet-toting lobster). Chances are that kids won't get all the gangster-flick or other cultural references, but there's enough here to keep them (and us) entertained. The star power in the voice casting is impressive, but it would have worked with just about anyone: as a cartoon, Smith just doesn't quite have the charm of his real-life personality, Jack Black is so demure as to be forgettable, and Robert De Niro once again parodies his wise guy (read Godfather) image. One particularly bizarre bit of casting, however, is that of director Martin Scorcese as Smith's manager, a choice that makes for some amusing moments between him and De Niro for those in the know. All told, though it's a generally engaging effort in the growing genre of CGI 'toons, Shark Tale ends up having little bite.
Entertainment: 6/10

Shattered Glass (2003)
Starring: Hayden Christensen, Peter Sarsgaard, Chloë Sevigny
Director: Billy Ray
Plot: A young, leading journalist of an influential Washington political magazine arouses suspicions from his colleagues that some of his articles might be completely fabricated.
Review: Based on real events of how one young man brought the journalistic institution The New Republic to the border of ruin, Shattered Glass casts grave doubts on the profession itself and the role of a media more concerned with image than facts. The incisive script retells the events in carefully constructed, objective detail that believably renders the characters and situations while capturing the pressures of the job and office politics. Like a reversal of the classic All the President's Men, the story has become the journalists themselves. It's a fascinating look at the workings of a news magazine, of how a story is brought from idea to the printed page, and how tenuous the grip on truth really is. Eschewing stylish embellishments, first-time director Ray keeps his efforts straightforward and personal which suits the tale perfectly. But the surprise winner here is Christensen who brings an uncommon naiveté and perceptual anguish to the title role, one that fits him like a glove. He brings to the fore a fascinating portrait of the fallen, pathological liar that is Stephen Glass, and through the telling of some terrific, entertaining (and completely fabricated) stories and the everyday "nice guy" attitude we can see how he could have fooled everyone from editors to fact-checkers. It makes his fall from grace all the more shameful, and the easy lies he weaves to get out of his dilemma only get him deeper in trouble forcing him to act like a petulant child found out by his parents. These are strong, emotional moments that are perfectly captured. The rest of the cast, from co-worker Sevigny to mentor Hank Azaria and new head editor Sarsgaard (the man who had the difficult task of revealing the charade) is excellent. Shattered Glass might be "just" a low-key drama, but its penetrating commentary on the compromise of journalistic integrity for ambition marks it as a powerful film.
Drama: 8/10

Sherlock Homes (2009)
Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Jude Law, Rachel McAdams
Director: Guy Ritchie
Plot: In Victorian London, legendary detective Sherlock Holmes and his stalwart partner Dr. Watson take on a fiendish secret society and a conspiracy that threatens the country.
Review: Sir Arthur Conan Doyleís popular 19th-century character Sherlock Holmes has been adapted countless times for TV and the big screen, but never has the classic cerebral detective ever been re-invented as an action hero - until now. Enter director Ritchie, a guy who has done wonders to the British gangster genre with movies like Snatch and RocknRolla, infusing his films - as he does here - with his trademark blend of visceral violence, crackling dialogue and dollops of humour, all with an eye on style and quick editing to keep things moving along. Working with his first Hollywood budget, Ritchie gets a chance at a propulsive, large scale adventure in finely-detailed Victorian London, including a climax atop a CGI reproduction of the London Bridge. Despite the "sacrilegious" inclusion of typical action tropes in a Holmes story, such as fist fights, global conspiracies, secret societies and, yes, even explosions - things better suited for James Bond, in fact - there's also many opportunities to show off why Holmes is "the world's greatest detective"; through a series of quick-cut, narrated sequences we get an inkling of how his mind works, and what made him such an enduring fictional presence. Adding a despicable new villain, some apparently occult events and lots of the details from Conan Doyle's tales into the mix makes this - no doubt about it - all delectable fun. As played to eccentric perfection by Downey Jr., this version of Holmes is both master at observation and deduction as he is in physical combat, and Downey's own personal history makes his character all the more believable when heís battling his addiction. Adding to the fray, a"stiff upper lipped" Jude Law as his faithful companion manages to keep his own, and, though underused, McAdams gives the movie some romantic spice as Irene Adler, and does get some choice moments. Die-hard, literate fans of the classic hero will scream, but audiences ready to give the character a go as a mainstream blockbuster movie hero are sure to have a blast with this new Sherlock Holmes.
Entertainment: 8/10

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011)
Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Jude Law, Jared Harris, Noomi Rapace
Director: Guy Ritchie
Plot: Private detective Sherlock Holmes and his partner Dr. Watson go on a Europe-trotting journey to stop their genius nemesis, Professor Moriarty, from starting a World War.
Review: The 2009 film adaptation of Sherlock Holmes was a pleasant surprise, marrying Arthur Conan Doyle's popular character's deductive genius with the mainstream action blockbuster to exciting effect. The sequel, A Game of Shadows, is almost as much fun but the balance has tilted to action and humor, with less of the intellectual thrill that has made Holmes a household name. In fact skills of reasoning take a backseat to skills at fist fighting. As such, the visual pyrotechnics are even bigger, with buildings exploding, towers collapsing and our heroes in a chase to avoid mortar rounds; add the cloak-and-dagger aspects (and multiple disguises) and this is more a Mission Impossible for the 19th century than any Holmes adventure Doyle would have written. The production values are top notch and the period details are superb, really giving a feel for Victorian London (and Paris, and Germany, and...). Even the humor is ratcheted up, with an moving-train action sequence seeing Holmes in drag - quite funny, but Doyle is probably turning in his grave at that one. Returning director Guy Ritchie (Snatch, RocknRolla) uses all his bag of tricks to good effect: slo-mo sequences, frenetic pacing, gorgeous visuals and a keen ear for dialogue, making evey moment as entertaining as the next. Indeed, one of the highlights is the humorous banter between these modern-day-inspired Holmes and Watson (Downey and Law), showing an emotional bond much stronger than the stories ever did; the sequence of Holmes as best man is hilarious. The thrill of seeing both Prof. Moriarty (Jared Harris in a capable, evil performance) go up against Sherlock Holmes isn't as stimulating as it could have been, but the actors do quite well in their parts. Other characters make an appearance with various success: Stephen Fry as Holmes' smarter-brother Mycroft is played for laughs; Rachel McAdams as love-interest Irene Adler doesn't make it past the opening credits; and Noomi Rapace, who played the Goth heroine in the Swedish version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, is MIA as a gypsy character aiding in the men's quest. The script might have had teeth, alluding to the theme of industrial revolution taking its toll on Europe, with parallels to the military industrial complex of the 19th century and our own, however it's but an excuse for general mayhem. Still, if the sequel has even less to do with Doyle's literary sleuth, it's still a rousing adventure that moves like gangbusters, with nary a dull moment. As entertainment goes, it's elementary.
Entertainment: 8/10

Shinobi: Heart Under Blade (Japan - 2005)
Starring: Yukie Nakama, Jo Odagiri
Director: Shimoyama Ten
Plot: Two lovers from opposing ninja clans end up having to face each other in battle when a Shogun, afraid of their villages' fantastic powers, pits the best fighters of their houses against each other in a contest to the death.
Review: A live-action anime given a top-notch cinematic treatment, Shinobi: Heart Under Blade is perhaps the most beautiful and most effective Ninja flick ever put to film. Audiences will expect good action choreography between an imaginative cast of super-powered characters, and the CGI-enhanced fights are a blast. There might not be enough of it to make for a memorable battle-fest (in fact, the adversaries get killed off much too quickly), but the scenes are very well executed and imaginative and definitely worth a watch. What really elevates the film however is that it takes itself seriously, putting effort into creating a back story, never bumbling with its sentiments, and still managing to be affecting at its tragic ending. Taking a page from Romeo & Juliet, the film is a love story between two duty-bound lovers who really never have a chance at escaping their fate. Though the themes are familiar - from the dramatic aspect of an era coming to an end, to warriors that prefer to die in battle than to live free - there's a palpable sense of loss throughout, and of desperation as our two protagonists' attempt to save their villages from destruction. If the acting itself is perhaps too calculated, the film itself is simply beautiful to watch, from the longing, careful cinematography, to the costumes and pretty leads - it's almost enough to think of it as an Art book brought to life. When the credits roll, the impression is that the film went by too quickly and that more material could have fit in quite nicely, a compliment to a film with such fine ambitions. One of the better manga / anime adaptations out there, Shinobi will impress not only for its few dazzling action scenes but for its unexpectedly effective romantic melodrama. And that's something worth a bigger audience.
Entertainment: 7/10

Shiri (Korea - 1999)
Starring: Suk-kyu Han, Min-sik Choi
Director: Je-kyu Kang
Plot: Two South Korean agents track down a female North Korean killer who is involved in the theft of a new, devastating explosive intended to be used in a terrorist scheme to blow up a soccer stadium.
Review: A huge hit in Korea, Shiri can best be described as an action-thriller with very definite Korean sensibilities. The movie advances at a good clip, the action is well staged, there are some good plot twists, and the background political climate, that of continuing tensions between North and South Korea, is fascinating. The film also delves into a bit of melodrama to very good effect, making the struggle and situation personal. The problem is that in trying to do a Hollywood-style Cold War thriller, the film has fallen into many of the clichés of these Hollywood productions, including some weak plot points and some repetitive action sequences. That aside, Shiri is a good, intelligent thriller that puts most of the American ones to shame.
Entertainment: 7/10

Shivers (1975)
Starring: Paul Hampton, Joe Silver, Lynn Lowry
Director: David Cronenberg
Plot: A parasite infestation in a self-contained luxury apartment complex turns its residents into violent, sexually frenzied maniacs.
Review: Though an early effort for a writer / director who would henceforth be renown for his disturbing blend of horror and sexuality (Dead Ringers, Crash), Shivers is also a fine example of the 1970's golden age of horror films. Why? Because it is subversive in a way that modern genre pictures aren't anymore, bringing up our unconscious, repressed fears in a disturbing manner, in this case that of sexual terror (and pick your flavor!). Indeed, no sexual act is sacred, visiting hetero- and homo-sexual lust, pedophilia, incest, and even rape, presenting it all as one large orgiastic (and brutal) climax. It's an obviously low-budget effort, and some of the production values are dismal (as is the acting), but there's an obvious energy here with killings, nude bodies, sexually deviant acts, and even an impressive car crash to make it all intriguing. Cronenberg was still learning his trade with this film, and some parts seem a little rough, but his gory, depraved trademarks are all clearly in evidence. The creature effects, which amount to having a rubber slug move around, are rather crude and made up of various low-tech methods but with Cronenberg's twisted mind, it's actually quite effective. Some of the more gruesome scenes include slugs invading a woman taking a bath, or coming out of a man's entrails, and more, all accompanied by some pretty good splatter effects. There are shades of the zombie movie as well, as the single-minded inhabitants tear out, sexually, at the uninfected minority. As a side note, the film caused an uproar in Canada upon its release as it was partly funded by Federal grants! Like most of the filmmaker's other features, Shivers isn't for the squeamish but for those with the stomach for it, it's a real find.
Horror: 7/10


Shoot 'Em Up (2007)
Starring: Clive Owen, Paul Giamatti, Monica Bellucci
Director: Michael Davis
Plot: A mysterious homeless man with an incredible ability with guns protects a newborn from a vast array of criminals seeking to kill it.
Review: The outrageous, non-PC actioner Shoot 'Em Up really deserves the name - a cross between Die Hard and a Looney Tunes cartoon it's a vehicle that clearly wants to be the end-all of cinematic shoot 'em ups. You'll know from the get-go if this sort of hyperactive, way-over-the-top affair is up your alley or not: From the opening sequence as our hero dispatches dozens of bad guys while delivering a baby in a deserted warehouse, you know you're in for something different. The convoluted yet minimalist plot involving a dying congressman, FBI nannies, the firearms industry and more is really only an excuse for some ridiculous fun. Most of all this is an amalgam of great, demented action set-pieces: taking inspiration from the most daring of Hong Kong bullet ballets (John Woo's Hard Boiled, among others), there's a non-stop barrage of original gunfights (including one during a sex scene), car chases and even a superb sky-diving sequence. Nothing is sacred or serious here, and the violence is clearly not for the squeamish, but anyone with a sense of humor won't be able to help but smile or guffaw at the audacity and silliness of it all. Writer / director Davis may be commenting on our gun culture and family values but that's in passing; what he really does is find the right tone for an adult (if not mature) comic actioner, never allowing for more than a few seconds down-time. As to the cast, you have to give them credit for accepting to star in such a bizarre midnight movie with so little to work with; Bellucci, as a lactating hooker of all things, is always a looker; Giamatti (having a ball) chews up the scenery as the murderous gang leader with wife troubles; and Owen - our brooding protagonist of few words - shows all the intensity of the darkest of current action heroes. If there's little that's truly exceptional, there's clearly more than enough delirious action and mayhem in Shoot 'Em Up to satisfy even the most jaded.
Entertainment: 7/10

Shooter (2007)
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Michael Peña, Kate Mara, Danny Glover
Director: Antoine Fuqua
Plot: On the run after being framed for an attempted assassination on the president, a retired expert marksman plots revenge on those who set him up.
Review: Though it may not quite be classic stuff, Shooter is a an efficient Hollywood action-thriller that delivers in all the places that count: a twisted conspiracy plot involving cynical politicians and black ops agents, a wronged patriotic hero out for justice, a self-important social conscience, and lots and lots of firepower. In fact, based on the novel Point Of Impact by film critic Stephen Hunter, the plot feels like it would be right at home in the paranoia-filled thrillers of the 70's like The Parallax View - just with a lot more adrenaline-filled pyrotechnics and gun-play. After an Oscar-worthy crime drama (Training Day) and some not-so-impressive follow-up vehicles (Tears of the Sun, King Arthur) director Fuqua is back in the game here, showing a good sense of narrative pacing and offering up quite a bit of effectively executed action sequences. Not to be seconded, the productions values are also quite good, as is the cinematography, making for a visually pleasing affair. However, what sets it apart from the average action vehicle is its occasional attention to realism, especially when taking into account the training and mechanics of sharp-shooting - this adds a grittiness that makes the violence all the more visceral. Too bad, then, that following a slick double-cross and a suspenseful escape, the film turns our hero into a modern-day Schwarzenegger, straight out of Commando - gunning down dozens of well-trained opponents and an attack helicopter with nary a scratch. It's fun stuff to watch, but it spoils the realism that the film was first striving for. The film also can't leave its villains alone - they can't be just bad guys using the system for their own gains, they have to be Bad Guys who also like torturing and killing women and children. Wahlberg has the modern-day action hero bit down pat, playing the role with little humor, lots of angry energy and not just a little bit of swagger (funnily enough that's even his character's name: Bob Lee Swagger). He's helped along with solid support from Pena as a rookie FBI agent and Mara (who's easy on the eyes) as his ex-partner's widow. As for the villains, a creepy Glover hams it up terribly as the plot's mastermind as does Ned Beatty as his Senatorial ally. To be fair, the filmmakers know what they're doing and how to press all the right buttons to get an audience reaction - it was just supposed to be smarter than this. Still, for the most part Shooter is engaging action fare that has more brains than most of its fellows - and for that alone it's worthy of attention.
Entertainment: 7/10

Shower (2000)
Starring: Zhu Xu, Pu Cun Xin, Jiang Wu
Director: Zhang Yang
Plot: After having left his village for the big city, a man returns to his father and brother who run a public bath house, a social center for the male community, that is about to be torn down.
Review: A light-hearted comedy / drama on the culture shock between modern society and traditional Chinese culture, Shower is an amusing, unpretentious film. It is the portrait of a small community removed, if only temporarily, of the happenings of the world outside. The interaction between the colorful characters, all well interpreted, is what really makes the film enjoyable, each with their own story, and all grouped together solely because of the bath house that brings them together. This is not a deep film by any means, and the comedy elements far outweigh the dramatic moments, but the drama does prove to be touching in the end. A well executed, occasionally touching, crowd-pleaser.
Comedy: 6/10

Shrek (2001)
Starring: Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy, Cameron Diaz
Directors: Andrew Adamson, Vicky Jenson
Plot: To rid himself of unwanted fairy-tale tenants, a cranky ogre accepts the terms of the heartless ruler who put them there and goes off on a quest to save a princess from a fire-breathing dragon with the help of a talking donkey.
Review: The idea of cracked fairy-tales isn't new - The Princess Bride stands as a wonderful example of this - but Shrek, from the makers of Antz, takes it all to the levels of camp by being obsessed at throwing as many brazen stabs at conventions as it can possibly fit into its running time. The story is full of genre-bending twists, poking delicious fun at numerous fairy-tales, presenting our beloved childhood stories and characters (from the Gingerbread Man to the Three Blind Mice) in a whole new light. Disney, for one, seems to get a particularly good ribbing. The film is relatively "clean" as it pertends to being a family film, and there's plenty here to amuse both adults and kids, though the script does add many mature double-entendres and some clever visual cues. It all makes for an energetic, sometimes even hilarious romp into fantasy, with some obviously modern sensibilities. The computer animation sits between the "realistic" and the cartoony - the fantasy elements and environments are quite impressive, pushing the envelope in this area yet again, but the humans still look and move like plastic puppets. An important part of the film's success is the appropriate choice of the four main vocal leads, but it's Murphy, as the wise-ass Donkey that never shuts up, that really steals the show. The film does lose steam 2/3 into the film, as the story aims for the romantic "happily ever after" still required, losing as it does much of its charm and unpredictability. The final rousing pop song performance is meant to end the film on a high note, but it can't hide the fact that the whole proceedings seems to be missing some soul. Still, though the film isn't quite as original or as sharp as it would like to make its audience think it is, there are enough great scenes, inventive zaniness and clever visual gags to make Shrek a very entertaining outing.
Entertainment: 7/10

Shrek 2 (2004)
Starring: Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy, Cameron Diaz
Directors: Andrew Adamson, Kelly Asbury
Plot: Shrek and his new bride travel to the kingdom of Far, Far Away to meet her royal parents and celebrate their union, but not everyone is please the Princess married an Ogre.
Review: Perhaps knowing that the novelty of the first Shrek wouldn't work the second time around, Shrek 2 dispenses with the sly take on the cracked fairy-tale and deluges audiences with an exuberant show of cinematic references and a grab-bag of imaginative visual gags. Though it takes the familiar Meet the Parents approach to its main story, the narrative and main plot aren't the main focus - entertainment is. All the fairy tale characters are back, plus a few more, including Prince Charming (Rupert Everett), The (evil) Fairy God Mother (a terrific Jennifer Saunders), and the Zorro-like Puss 'n Boots (a zany Antonio Banderas, playing it to the hilt). More so than before, the laughs are quick and plenty, and the script is extremely lean and efficient, full of double-entendres, witty banter, funny one-liners and clever movie send-ups. In fact, most of the film's running time are made up of parodied moments from dozens of other famous productions, from Ghostbusters and Lord of the Rings, to Mission Impossible and "Cops". The filmmakers also take every opportunity to poke fun at Hollywood (the land of Far, Far Away is in fact a parallel LA) as well as their rival studio, Disney. And, of course, it all wouldn't be complete without some clever montages to popular tunes such as "I Need a Hero" and "Living La Vida Loca". The colorful computer animation has just the right "cartoon" feeling for this type of fare but, though it's mostly on par with the previous film, the amount of detail has been upped a notch. With all that's going on on-screen, it's a film that needs to be watched again just to catch all the jokes found in the backgrounds. All this said, if there's a fault it may be that so much effort has been done to make it energetic that none of it is truly memorable. Still, Shrek 2 is fine summer family affair - shallow though it might be, it makes for some fine, fluffy entertainment.
Entertainment: 7/10

Shrek the Third (2007)
Starring: Mike Myers, Cameron Diaz, Eddie Murphy
Directors: Chris Miller, Raman Hui
Plot: Fearing the responsibility of becoming king of the land, the ogre Shrek tries to convince a young Arthur to take his place all the while trying to stop an uprising by the jilted Prince Charming.
Review: The third installment in the money-making CGI franchise, Shrek the Third is a predictable, family-friendly entry that shies away from anything new to parade some sure-fire (read banal) crowd pleasers. The twist on our beloved fairy-tales is now expected, and the rather lazy script goes for the obvious instead of the inspired. Worse, the gags are amusing and clever instead of funny, and even the "clever" part is stretching it, with little of the energy that made the first two so appealing. Despite the lack of freshness, however, there are a few witty moments - the opening sequence showing just how far Prince Charming has fallen, facing the jeers of a dinner-theater crowd, and his eventual recruiting of fairy-tale villains come to mind, plus parents will probably appreciate the final gag more than the rest of the film. The entire voice cast is also back, and its clear they're having a blast at this. Add to this some good computer animation that retains its cartoon roots, some nice set pieces, and a brisk (read short) running time and you've got a satisfying-enough time waster. Too bad the usually hilariously obnoxious Shrek now plays second fiddle to the myriad of characters that surround him. Shrek the Third never overstays its welcome but it's clear that the franchise has run out of gas.
Entertainment: 6/10

Shrek Forever After (2010)
Voices: Mike Myers, Cameron Diaz, Eddie Murphy, Walt Dohrn
Director: Mike Mitchell
Plot: Taking advantage of Shrek's mid-life crisis, a villainous Rumpelstiltskin tricks him into erasing his existence, casting him in a world where he was never born, Rumpelstiltskin is king and Ogres are persecuted.
Review: The supposed last entry in the very successful fairy-tale wrangling franchise, Shrek Forever After shows signs of fatigue, but still manages the right amount of laughs, adventure and sentimentality to make it an appealing affair in its own right. Taking clear inspiration from It's A Wonderful Life, the story gives our hero a chance to re-introduce himself to familiar characters (giving the only real laughs for those familiar with the past films) while providing the necessary fairy-tale moral and the latest in 3D computer animation. For sure, the pop references (in this case a vast amount of which stems from The Wizard of Oz) and the general Shrek shtick are now-all-too-familiar. But if the quips aren't quite as zingy, the humor not so forthcoming, and the groove well-worn, once the necessary opening exposition is done with the pacing proves to be tight enough and the story engaging enough to make for an entertaining outing. The filmmakers also judiciously kept some of the twists and events pretty dark and creepy considering this is aimed at family fare, one of the elements (apart from the sarcasm and evident irony) that made the past entries more palpable to more mature audiences. And the cast and characters are back and in fine form - Myers, Diaz, Murphy, Banderas - but it's story editor Walt Dohrn that really surprises in a delightfully nasty turn as Rumpelstiltskin. He's clearly the series' most interesting villain, and he steals every scene from the big green guy. Too bad the movie wasn't about him. The lack of originality isn't surprising (why risk a winning box-office formula?) but with a little more care and risk-taking, it could have been a fine send-off. As it is, Shrek Forever After does get a big climax, but it all too soon fades from memory.
Entertainment: 6/10

Shutter Island (2010)
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, Ben Kingsley
Director: Martin Scorsese
Plot: In 1954, two US Marshalls are called in to seek out a fugitive and dangerous mental patient who escaped from a heavily-armed mental institution for the criminally insane built on an inaccessible island only to realize that there's more going on than just a disappearance.
Review: A superior production that oozes atmosphere, Shutter Island is a tense gothic psycho-thriller playing out in the background of the Cold War. There's an impossible escape from a locked room, a far-reaching conspiracy, hints at psychic warfare, suspense and more mind-bending stuff than you'd ever expect to see in a box-office success. Things get complicated quickly, and we're never sure which way the story's going to go, keeping things tense and the action cranked up. Through flashbacks we get the more serious bits of drama that tell the story of a haunting event during the liberation of Europe, eventually ending up with a truly devastating one that hits closer to home. If there's a downside, it's that the film is too much of a straight-forward adaptation of the novel by Dennis Lehane, making for a script that just isn't as tight as it should be - at times the scenes are riveting, at others it's way too talky for its own good, making it feel like the film could have done with a bit more thorough work in the editing room. If the entire mystery sometimes rests on a series of red herrings, ending with a heartrending if disappointing final revelation, the trip at the hands of a master storyteller is anything but bland. Director Scorsese (The Aviator, The Departed) and his cinematographer Robert Richardson deliberately play with the genre tropes and borrows cinematic tricks and visual panache from the old B&W horror films while adding their own to the proceedings - and it works, giving the film an ominous atmosphere of mystery and danger that Scorsese used to such good effect in Cape Fear. And the cast is good across the board: as Scorsese's go-to guy (this is their fourth picture together), DiCaprio is mesmerizing as a brilliant cop on a short fuse, even if here he seems to be wearing his emotions on his sleeve; Ruffalo, as his new partner, also does an excellent job, as do Kingsley as the cryptic director of the island facility and Max von Sydow as the psycho-analyst with possible ties to the Nazi regime. A Grade-A thriller that just misses the mark to being a true classic of the genre, Shutter Island is still a smart, rollickin' good time for those who appreciate a well-written - and impeccably realized - genre film.
Entertainment / Drama: 8/10

Sicko (2007)
Director: Michael Moore
Plot: An exploration on the state of the health-care system in the US and how it compares with other civilized nations. 
Review: Based on his previous efforts like Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11, no one can expect provocateur Moore to be even-handed in his approach, and it's clear he has an axe to grind with the Health care system in his latest, and even more relevant, documentary Sicko. What's surprising, however, is the fact that his focus isn't on the 40-odd million Americans who don't have coverage, but on those who do, and how the US system (and the profit-centered approach of the HMO's) aren't protecting them the way it should - or they would expect. Moore's social, center-left leanings are clear, especially when it comes to the disenfranchised, but the most eye-popping accounts are when he turns to educated, well-off insurance owners and lets them tell their horror stories of spiraling health care costs and their insurers' Machiavellian schemes to prevent their rightful pay-outs. Harrowing testimonies from victims and whistle-blowers abound, but most of the film sees Moore and his crew visiting countries like Canada, France, England and even Cuba to see how their system of universal health-care works. The US government, he states, has been practicing a policy of scare-mongering on the so-called "socialist" system, and he's out to dispel the many myths Americans have on how well these systems work (cue lots of questions and forced exclamations with out-going patients like "So how much did you pay for all these services?" "Nothing." "Nothing?" "Nothing!" "Wow!"). That the picture is perhaps too one-sided (all these places have their own set of problems, too) doesn't seem to be a concern. Black humor, cynicism, commented news footage, exaggerated situations (sending 9/11 victims to be taken care of in Cuba smacks of propaganda and publicity stunt) and other underhanded methods are all fair game for Moore to get his point across: pharmaceutical companies and the health industry are making too much money off of the status quo for politicians (many of whom have become paid lobbyists) to change present policies. For sure, a film on the problems facing the US Care system has its work cut out for it, so it's all the more interesting that Moore takes a different approach to capturing the systems real faults and culprits. If Sicko barely touches the real intricacies of the problems, at least it brings forward in a very watchable way the issues to the mainstream - and there's no better man than Moore to make it so.
Documentary: 7/10

Sideways (2004)
Starring: Paul Giamatti, Thomas Haden Church
Director: Alexander Payne
Plot: A recently divorced writer takes his shallow, womanizing (and soon to be married) friend on a road trip through the vineyards of California, but his friend is more interested in a last fling than wine-tasting.
Review: A charming, fresh comedy about love, friendship and regret, Sideways benefits from superbly balancing its laughs with heartfelt drama. The premise of college buddies who are complete opposites (one sensitive, the other life affirming) going on a road trip together with all the comedy and embarrassment that ensues is nothing new, but placing two middle-aged men on a trip through vineyards adds an interesting twist. For one, it allows for an amateur exuberance of the appreciation of fine wine, the script reveling in the details and analogies, both fascinating and humorous, that this entails. For two, it allows two mature actors to give us a very different portrait of manhood in a series of affecting character-driven moments. It's all wrapped in some nice, warm cinematography yet writer / director Payne (Election, About Schmidt) knows to focus his compassionate eye on his characters, their mid-life crises and their story without bringing any unnecessary flourish. Though Hayden got the Oscar nomination for his portrayal as the sympathetic cad on his last days of freedom, the movie's real success rests on Giamatti's capable shoulders; both funny and neurotic as the eccentric and ornery wine connoisseur, he's a man wound tight, filled with insecurities, dry wit and failed ambitions - a sort of Woody Allen for the new century - and a complete pleasure to watch. The rest of the lead cast including Sandra Oh and Virginia Madsen is also excellent, and the relationship between the four is given a ring of truth thanks to some down-to-earth dialogue and believable character traits. A fun-loving, adult-minded and good-natured film, Sideways rightly deserved its many accolades.
Drama / Comedy: 8/10

The Siege (1998)
Starring: Denzel Washington, Annette Bening, Bruce Willis
Director: Edward Zwick
Plot: When New York becomes victim of escalating terrorist attacks, local FBI agents run against the clock to find the remaining cells as the US military declares martial law on the city.
Review: From the very beginning, The Siege tries to be more than just an action film, or even a political thriller, as it admirably tackles more complex issues such as U.S. foreign policy, the weakness of our own defenses against this type of attack, inter-agency rivalry, and even the question of "what are we willing to sacrifice, how far can we go to protect ourselves?". Washington is the perfect choice for the role, tempering off professionalism and desperation as the liberal mouth-piece of the script. Willis, however, has the best multi-faceted role as a general reluctant to impose martial law but who is willing to go to extremes to do his job, playing the antagonist against his will. Bening, as the female CIA agent with personal connections to the events, has a difficult role and doesn't always appear convincing. Director Zwick (Glory, Courage Under Fire) deftly captures the intensity and difficulty of the situations at hand, from the personal interactions between agents and agencies to the military campaigns, never letting up on the suspense inherent in the material and the realism of the progressively desperate events. Some scenes play extremely well, and are quite powerful and chilling, such as the city bus exploding as the media watches on. Others, like the relationship between Bening and her Arab contact, seem more heavy-handed. Worse, after such a strong setup, the finale is quite anti-climactic, and the preachy speech at the end leaves a bad taste. Thankfully there's a lot of thought-provoking stuff in The Siege, as well as all the elements for a slick first-rate thriller, and it's hard to ask for more from Hollywood.
Entertainment / Drama: 7/10
Note: The film has become increasingly popular and timely in the wake of the events of Sept. 11, 2001 in New York, and is doubly chilling in its capture of the relevant topics and its realistic depictions of terrorist cells and rural destruction. Upon renewed viewing, its subject and events are only that more meaningful and scary.

Signs (2002)
Starring: Mel Gibson, Joaquin Phoenix, Rory Culkin
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Plot: After crop circles appear ominously in his corn field, a recently widowed priest who has lost his faith is at a loss to protect his two children from an other-worldly invasion.
Review: Rack Signs, the eagerly awaited follow-up to writer/director Shyamalan's The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, up to bad, tired sci-fi filled with the typical genre conventions and nary a new or original idea in site. The film starts off quickly and promises a War of the Worlds-type experience as seen from the point of view of a broken rural family. Things break down just as quickly, however: though the film provides a variety of decent cheap thrills (the jump out of your seat kind) it fails to bring out the required atmosphere, sense of dread or any kind of tension that were so impressive in the director's previous efforts. One of the main problems are the aliens, rarely seen until the end, who come off as bland, unresourceful and unthreatening. The whole exercise, we soon discover, is an excuse for bringing Shyamalan's theme of faith, something that's hammered into us with amazing lack of subtlety, the whole thing enveloped into a contrived and dramatically dull road to its main character's redemption. As the doubting ex-priest, Gibson does an acceptable turn, but he's actually the weakest link of the cast. Phoenix comes off well, however, as do the two eccentric kids. The real question is why such a small, simple story that would have been more appropriate (and excusable) on genre TV like The Outer Limits was made on such a big budget (which, by the way, doesn't show up on-screen); Signs occasionally shows some intriguing stuff, but it's a terribly disappointing effort that's just not worthy of big-screen implementation.
Entertainment: 4/10

The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Starring: Anthony Hopkins, Jodie Foster, Scott Glenn
Director: Jonathan Demme
Plot: A young FBI trainee is assigned to get the help of an imprisoned psychiatrist, a genius, manipulative psychopath, to catch a serial killer who skins his young female victims.
Review: The Silence of the Lambs plays well as both a detailed procedural thriller and as a modern horror picture, with a terrific, taut screenplay, full of good character development and great plot twists. The cinematography also enhances the superb script, presenting each scene with an unflinching look at the gruesome and the macabre, from the mutilated bodies, to the cold stare of Hannibal, to even the most bland daily events leaving the audience with a constant feeling of unease. Foster has picked another perfect role for her acting skills, and Hopkin's bravura performance has made of his character Hannibal "The Cannibal" Lector one of the most memorable villains in recent memory. Intelligent, riveting and exquisitely shot, and worthy of the many Oscar awards it garnered, The Silence of the Lambs is the model on which suspense thrillers will henceforth be judged.
Drama: 8/10
Entertainment: 9/10

Silent Hill (2006)
Starring: Radha Mitchell, Laurie Holden, Sean Bean
Director: Christophe Gans
Plot: A woman enters a strange, nightmarish ghost town in search of her young, adopted daughter and realizes that the dangerous events that are taking place have a bizarre link to her child.
Review: Based on the popular video game series of the same name, Silent Hill boasts excellent production design and incredible, note-worthy cinematography... and little plot. You can't blame director and video-game-addict Gans, who made the exciting genre-mixing Brotherhood of the Wolf, for not giving it the old school-boy try: the film looks fantastic and it's great at creating an atmosphere of dread and danger that ratchets up as the movie progresses. Unfortunately, there's more to a movie than that, something the editing doesn't seem to realize, as it basks in long, silent stretches of our heroine running across the ash-strewn village, as if to milk every bit of the careful mise-en-scène and the detailed sets - it's so much an exercise in eye-candy that one starts to appreciate the technical merits of the film in an objective way instead of being emotionally involved, and that's where the movie falters. Oh, the nightmarish horror bits are there, from the bizarre CGI creatures, to the surreal environment and the death-defying perils, and these are impeccably brought to life. But when the mystery of the town is revealed and the final act and climax play out, what little good faith audiences had will crumble. The script just doesn't have enough to say or do, showing the usual failings of using the limited story elements of an interactive medium to a non-interactive one. That's too bad, because the film really does have a lot going for it, and the horror elements are all in place to make it special. One highlight: Holden as the tough-as-nails policewoman - give this woman more work; she's terrific! Horror aficionados and fans of the games will find lots to like in Silent Hill - just not enough to make for a really memorable experience for everyone else.
Entertainment: 5/10

Silk (Taiwan - 2006)
Starring: Chang Chen, Bo-lin Chen, Chun-Ning Chang
Director: Chao-Bin Su
Plot: After capturing a ghost child with the help of an anti-gravity device, a team of scientists enlist a cop to discover the mystery behind the boy's demise in the hope of achieving mastery of life after death.
Review: The popular and over-used Japanese horror tropes make more than just a passing appearance in Silk, a rare Taiwanese offering mixing ghost story, police thriller and sci-fi in equal measures. Audiences will probably see more than a passing resemblance to Ju-On: The Grudge, in fact, with the same type of monster, mayhem and even makeup on display. On the plus side, there's some verve in the action bits, the production values (and effects) are pretty decent, the capable cast seems to believe in the tale, and the entire affair goes down smoothly as our intrepid ghost hunter (eyes sprayed so that he can see the otherwise invisible ghosts) follows leads, including the ghost child himself, to the film's predictable revelations. On the down side, however, there are few scares or thrills to be had for all the filmmakers' efforts. If the script does try to bring up heady philosophical questions of life and death through its two main protagonist and their melodramatic existence - one keeping an ailing mother alive, the other crippled since birth looking for a way out of a disappointing life - it never attempts to answer them. It doesn't help either that the entire premise's plausibility hinges on a fantastic sci-fi device that seems to be too powerful to be exploited for such nonsense - in fact the device itself is far more interesting than the rest of the film. Despite its obvious attempts to give the J-horror genre a scientific twist, Silk only ends up relegated to the stack of other similar films, no less and no more than the average genre fare.
Entertainment / Horror: 5/10

Silverado (1985)
Starring: Kevin Kline, Scott Glenn, Kevin Costner
Director: Lawrence Kasdan
Plot: Four gun-slingers meet up on their way to California in a Western town where they meet up with a land-grabbing rancher and his violent henchmen, including the town's sheriff.
Review: A mainstream affair meant to re-capture the era of the Western in 80's Hollywood, Silverado is a creampuff of a Western, a light but good-natured homage to those cliffhanger films of old. Everything you ever wanted in a western ends up being put on screen, and all the usual genre clichés make an appearance making this a real pastiche of Western films - the saloon brawls, the shootouts, the grand cinematography of Mexican vistas, the bombastic music, with a show of gambling, a kidnapping, an evil sheriff, and a final showdown to boot. But without re-inventing the genre in any way, it can't help but feel dated and simplistic. The villains are appropriately bad, the heroes are improbably virtuous, and there's so much plain-ordinary action stuffed into the 2-hour running time you'd think you were watching a condensed mini-series. Still, though it's not as serious or mature as future, dark re-imaginings would be like Unforgiven or Wyatt Earp, its easy-going, self-conscious attitude makes it easily accessible. Too bad, as well, that there's only the occasional moment or one-line zinger really gives witness to the talent of writer / director Kasdan who had provided some of the best scripts of the 80's including Raiders of the Lost Ark. Still, he knows well to ensure there's a nice macho camaraderie among these cardboard characters, played by a cast of stalwart actors that are affable and sympathetic, and enough quirky cameos to make movie-goers take notice. Silverado might not be a classic, but thanks to its stars and a judicious level of action and adventure it's still a popular diversion for un-discerning audiences.
Entertainment: 6/10

S1MØNE (2002)
Starring: Al Pacino, Catherine Keener, Benjamin Salisbury
Director: Andrew Niccol
Plot: Thrown off a studio lot, an unpopular director finally finds fame by creating a digital actress that he inserts in his films, but his creation starts having a life of its own.
Review: Simone (or S1m0ne) is another in that favorite of genres, a satire on the Hollywood concept of star-power that borders on (and sometimes falls into) the farce. The story is actually quite amusing, able to make fun of itself and its subject without too much malice. There's nothing terribly deep in anything presented here, but it does jab elbows to the commercialization of Hollywood stars and the typical problems of behind-the-scenes of movie-making (studio executives, prima donna actors, crazed fans, etc.). It never quite reaches the level of cynicism of other classic tales of Tinsel town excesses, but it does bring something new to the table by bringing the issue into the 21st century. If the film seems to repeat itself occasionally, or appears to drag on towards the end, the script from the writer of The Truman Show and Niccol's able direction still manage to keep audiences engaged. The funniest moments are, of course, watching our frazzled protagonist going through hoops and great lengths to protect his secret deception from an obsessed world, and here Pacino is terrific in a rare comic role, playing the "Artsy" director to perfection. Keener is, as always, a joy to watch, and the supporting cast, including Winona Ryder as a tempestuous diva, is just right. On another note, digital trickery isn't quite up to the film's requirements yet, so for a nice switch a "live" actress was used to fill in for the virtual one, and makes for pretty convincing situations. Despite the slick production, hilarious moments and good pacing, Simone feels too much like an independent-minded production to have real mainstream potential, perhaps, but this light-hearted, good-natured comedy deserves a wider audience.
Comedy: 6/10

A Simple Plan (1998)
Starring: Bill Paxton, Billy Bob Thornton, Bridget Fonda
Director: Sam Raimi
Plot: Three small-town men try desperately to keep their new found loot a secret after stumbling upon a crashed plane carrying a dead man and a bag with four million dollars in cash.
Review: The story is a depressing, suspense-ridden tale of greed, betrayal and small-town dreams. Bill Paxton does a decent job playing the straight man of the trio, and Billy Bob Thornton is excellent playing his dim-witted bumpkin brother. Director Sam Raimi (Evil Dead) extends his repertoire with this suspenseful tale based on the novel. Gone is his usual outrageous cinematography, opting here for more sedate shots. The film is well directed, the story, cinematography and actors good, and the ending devastating, yet all the pieces don't seem to gel into place to make a truly convincing, or memorable, film.
Drama: 7/10

The Simpsons Movie (2007)
Starring: Dan Castellaneta, Julie Kavner, Nancy Cartwright
Director: David Silverman
Plot: After Homer over-pollutes the town's river creating an environmental catastrophe, the EPA encases Springfield in a giant glass dome and pursues the fugitive Simpsons.
Review: Creator Matt Groening may not have expected the success and longevity of his adult-oriented series when it first aired on Fox TV, but almost 20 years since its first episode aired The Simpsons Movie is finally a reality. For long-time fans, and even for those who only caught short stints of the show during its long network run, there's a nice sense of familiarity to the proceedings, and that charm (if the word can be used) stays throughout. First, the good stuff: it all starts off with a insanely violent, Itchy & Scratchy skit; the classic animation has been bumped up a notch in terms of detail and computer modeling; there's some clever visual gags and plenty of jokes, and who can help but laugh at the hapless often clueless Homer trying to escape from his mistakes; and just about every (if not all) the supporting characters make an appearance, a fun way for fans to spend oodles of hours to count them all. Unfortunately, despite the years in development and the half-dozen writers who worked on the script, the film could never really live up to our high expectations and rarely rises above some of the better episodes of the series, a statement, perhaps, to the show's greatness than to the movie's quality. And while there's still some satirical bite left, it's clearly not to the level of its heyday. Still, if it's not the holy grail some expected, just for being "The Simpsons" and keeping the jabs and silliness we've come to expect, the movie automatically gets an easy recommendation as an above-average comedy that has more smarts than most of its peers.
Entertainment: 7/10

Sin City (2005)
Starring: Bruce Willis, Mickey Rourke, Clive Owen
Directors: Robert Rodriguez, Frank Miller
Plot: The story of three desperate characters - a retiring honest cop, a bruiser out for revenge, and a wanted man with a new face - play out in a vice-infested metropolis
Review: The gritty crime caper Sin City tackles three of the original hard-boiled stories by famed comic creator Frank Miller to create a single portrait of a grim underworld. And the city lives up to its name: it's a nihilistic, dangerous place where vice is the blood flowing in the streets, and the scenes are drenched in night-time shadows, brought to life using a distillation themes of Raymond Chandler mysteries and Hollywood movies of the 40's and bringing the essence to the fore. The goal is to be the ultimate B&W film noir: hard-boiled dicks, leather-clad losers, voluptuous femme fatales, crooked cops, armed hookers, corrupt politicians and clergy, all clash in a frenzy of strobe-like imagery and over-the-top violence. If the characters are nothing but exaggerated stereotypes - dark-as-night anti-heroes attempting impossible physical feats, whose lives hang on a thread - they are avatars of the film noire genre, the film itself basking in the over-the-top recreation of genre clichés. Much like the graphic albums, the scenes are incredibly stylized, the extreme violence cartoonish in its execution, the comic panels brought to life on the big screen with stunning fidelity to the original material. One of the reasons this might be so faithful is that writer / artist Miller worked alongside jack-of-all-trades Rodriguez (Desperado, Spy Kids) as co-director. Though shot on minimal sets against a green screen, the live actors become one with this bleak world. Bearing witness to the startling, crisp black-and-white cinematography enhanced by a myriad of computer effects, the stark contrast enlivened by the occasional touches of color - a hooker's red lips, a villain's sickly yellow skin - it's easy to see that digital filmmaking has come of age, and that Rodriguez has mastered it. The inspired cast is made up of a bevy of familiar veteran and up-and-coming actors, and though the performances from the triumvirate of Willis, Rourke and Owen as the leads of their own stories marks a highlight in their respective careers, the supporting cast is just as impressive including the very sexy Rosario Dawson and Carla Gugina, a hot Jessica Alba, a disturbing Elijah Wood, a despicable Benicio Del Toro, along with familiar B-movie faces like Michael Madsen, Powers Boothe and Rutger Hauer. Technically and artistically, Sin City is an impressive example of comic-medium adaptation with tales that are tough, gritty and relentlessly grim, but are so over-the-top that they're just damn entertaining.
Entertainment: 9/10

Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas (2003)
Starring: Brad Pitt, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Michelle Pfeiffer
Directors: Tim Johnson, Patrick Gilmore
Plot: Framed by the Goddess of Chaos, the charming swashbuckler and part-time pirate Sinbad must sail to the edge of the world to recover the Book of Peace, clear his name, and save his childhood friend from execution.
Review: Though the plot and happenings will feel terribly familiar to most, the animated adventure Sinbad is done with such giddy energy and love for the animated medium that it should appeal to any kid at heart. Taking cues from such TV shows as Xena and Hercules, the story takes huge liberties with the era setting and adds a large dose of swashbuckling adventure mixed in with quasi-Greek mythology. Indeed, the titular character has been displaced into a completely new fictional world with little to do with the original Arabian Nights. The movie is shameless in its eagerness to provide more fantasy adventure than any of its predecessors, and most of the film's length is made up of a series of thrilling rides, as our hero and plucky heroine battle huge, legendary monsters and go up against a Goddess no less. There's an undeniable joy and a vivid imagination at work here, all set to some fluid and stylish computer-enhanced animation - it's hard not to get swept away. The dialogue is also amusing, if rather bland and full of modern slang, all making sure that even the stories in-between move along at a brisk pace. Obviously made to please the largest demographic possible, it's all squeaky clean for family viewing, though there are the occasional sous-entendre for the more mature crowd. Pitt, Jones and Pfeiffer do a decent voice-acting job, but then anyone could have been suitable - it's the set-pieces and plot that really run this show. The lack of box-office success may well indicate that Sinbad is the last hand-drawn animation from the Dreamworks studio (who also did The Prince of Egypt and The Road to El Dorado). If it is, at least they've gone out with a bang.
Entertainment: 7/10

Singin' in the Rain (1952)
Starring: Gene Kelly, Donald O'Connor, Debbie Reynolds
Director: Gene Kelly, Stanley Donen
Plot: A group of famous silent film actors and their film studio in 1920's Hollywood must make the transition to sound by re-staging their swash-buckling production into a musical. 
Review: One of the best (if not the best) musical to come out of Hollywood, including the title sequence that may well be the most popular song from a musical ever to grace the screen. Gene Kelly is at his peak here, dancing with Donald O'Connor, Debbie Reynolds and the sultry Cyd Charisse - its just wonderful to watch. The story is just as much fun as the rest of the film and bridges the different musical numbers very well, on top of giving a light-hearted (if simplistic) look at an exciting time in Hollywood history. Mingling inventive choreography, beautiful sets, and an engaging story, Singin' in the Rain is just wonderful Hollywood entertainment.
Entertainment: 9/10

The Singing Detective (2003)
Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Mel Gibson
Director: Keith Gordon
Plot: A struggling novelist, bedridden with a severe case of skin-rot and paranoia, escapes the confines of his hospital room into the fictional world of one of his detective novels set in the 1940's.
Review: Based on the acclaimed 1986 BBC miniseries the feature-length version of The Singing Detective feels like an abridged version of a much-better story. The writer's angst and paranoia as a patient under the microscope and his belligerence towards his cheating wife make it through without a hitch, but gone is the colorful make-believe pizzazz that would have made it truly engaging. For one, the imaginary musical numbers are well produced and provided some much needed energy, but are edited to zip by way too fast. The fictional "gumshoe" scenes are entertaining but make up little of the running time - in fact, there's so little of it that it barely has a plot of its own, coming off as no more than a gimmick to enhance the feeling of displacement of its protagonist. Cameo appearances during these moments by the likes of Adrien Brody are too short to make an impression. Far more prevalent are the psychological issues of the author and his difficult mental rehabilitation. Scenes of the therapy with a balding Gibson are occasionally engaging but don't quite hit the mark. The problem may be that the semi-biographical script by the late Dennis Potter (who also did the original) focuses too much on the hospital doldrums and the character's worse elements, and not enough on the boyhood traumas that led him to be such a miserable failure. By staying too faithful to the original script, the filmmakers give us a rather tedious effort, with a disjointed narrative and a direction that feels almost amateurish in its need to recapture the TV-style of its predecessor. One redeeming element is Downey who, as the leading man, gives an intense performance that walks the fine line between sympathetic and despicable. The rest of the cast is made of really secondary, one-dimensional characters. Despite its failings and its marred execution, The Singing Detective has a good premise that might entice audiences to track down the original - and superior - series.
Entertainment / Drama: 5/10

Sissi (Austria - 1955)
Starring: Romy Schneider, Karlheinz Böhm, Magda Schneider
Director: Ernst Marischka
Plot: A young princess falls for her cousin the Austrian Emperor but their love is thwarted by his mother's insistence on an arranged marriage with the princess' older sister.
Review: The Austrian equivalent of a Hollywood family romance, Sissi is a lavishly produced, easy dramatization of the early life of the empress Sissi. This is more a fairy-tale rendering than an actual account, of course, and the plot and events turn out far more like a Harlequin romance than a period piece. Yet there is a certain charm here, most of which is provided by its young star Romy Schneider who takes the role to heart. The rest of the cast, however, is rather wooden by comparison in their exaggerated, theatrical performances. With a blend of history, little-girl romance and royal spectacle, Sissi ends up as fair family viewing.
Family: 5/10

Sissi - Empress (Austria - 1956)
Starring: Romy Schneider, Karlheinz Böhm, Magda Schneider 
Director: Ernst Marischka
Plot: Newly married to the emperor of Austria, Sissi slowly adapts to the demands of the court but has problems dealing with her interfering mother-in-law.
Review: Sissi - Empress, the second of three parts looking at the early reign of the Sissi of Austria, is more of the same fluffy drama. Sure, modern audiences may look at the film and scream "kitsch!", but older fans of the film have fond memories of the series, and for good reason: it is a pretty affair, focusing on the fairy-tale aspects of true events with politics taking a back-seat to the emotional melodrama. The nice vistas of Austria, of course, as well as magnificent sets and locales, heavily populated by regal subjects, are adequately grand as required by the story. Much attention is placed on the costumes as well, especially the flowing dresses. The main focus of this installment deals with Sissi's troubles with adapting to her duties as Empress, but especially of her rivalry with her mother-in-law - in these scenes she comes off as a spoiled child more than a sympathetic character. Yet, Shneider became an international star with these films, and its easy to see why: she has a gracious charm and terrific smile, and her bubbly on-screen persona excuses much of the film's simplistic view of events. The climax of the film shows the Emperor and Empress crowned king and queen of defeated Hungary amid much pomp and pageantry. This is history sanitized to its most basic aspects, but for those looking for family-focused retellings of European history, there might be much to like here.
Drama / Entertainment: 5/10

The 6th Day (2000)
Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Robert Duvall
Director: Roger Spottiswoode
Plot: A helicopter pilot returns home only to find that he has been replaced by a clone and that an evil corporation is set on killing him to keep the fact secret.
Review: The 6th Day is another cookie-cutter high-tech action / thriller, with one clever idea that isn't used to its full potential. The surprise, though, is that the action is disappointing, especially coming from Schwarzenegger and director Spottiswoode (Tomorrow Never Dies). It's not so much that the sequences are bad, but there's nothing really special or exciting, and they aren't as prevalent as past Arnie films. The time is taken instead to present a future where cloning is made possible and almost necessary, including some vaguely interesting (if simplistic) views on the controversy of cloning humans. Robert Duvall has a complex supporting role as the head scientist in moral conflict with his work, but his scenes seem to be from another movie. As for Schwarzenegger, his acting skills seem to be getting worse, and it's painfully obvious on screen that he's getting too old for this type of film. Despite this, the film does move along nicely, and there are enough throw-away lines, amusing touches, escapades and laser blasts to entertain fans of the genre.
Entertainment: 6/10

Six Days, Seven Nights (1998)
Starring: Harrison Ford, Anne Heche, David Schwimmer
Director: Ivan Reitman
Plot: A young New York fashion magazine editor on vacation in Hawaii ends up having to contend with a gruff older pilot after a short island hop ends up in a crash-landing on a deserted island.
Review: A somewhat labored throwback to The African Queen and (more recently) Romancing the Stone, Six Days, Seven Nights is a disposable romantic comedy whose only attraction is its leading man. Indeed, the story, plot and comedy are all completely predictable and laid out from the get-go, and nothing here will provide much in the way of laughs or adventure. Best known for his '80s comedies Ghostbusters and Twins, director Reitman has had a hit-or-miss (mostly miss) career ever since, and this is another of his half-hearted attempts at recapturing his past success. Still, in all fairness this is all just an excuse to get some romantic sparkles between the reliably charming Ford (in his best aging-Han Solo mode) and the feisty Heche. If there's little actual chemistry between the two, at least the two have some amusing repartee while trying to survive from some rather mean-looking (if ineffectual) modern-day pirates and each other. Of note is Schwimmer, as the ineffectual male love interest, who is just annoying in his trademark nerd role; the sub-plot of his growing infatuation with the scantily-clad Jacqueline Obradors is a bore. As depressingly formulaic as it is, Six Days, Seven Nights is comfortable in its own averageness, and for some that might be enough to have a good time.
Entertainment: 4/10

Sixth Sense, The (1999)
Starring: Bruce Willis, Haley Joel Osment
Director:M. Night Shymalman
Plot: After seeing the death of one of his patients, a child psychologist tries to redeem himself by helping a boy with his fears. The only problem is that the boy is constantly being haunted by dead people...
Review: Though it has all the makings for a horror film, The Sixth Sense plays more like a drama than a thriller. And that's not a bad thing. Taking a supernatural premise, writer / director Shymalman discards standard horror shocks and scares, bringing us instead a story of redemption and of overcoming one's fears. Bruce Willis plays his role of child psychologist well enough, but it is child actor Osmont who is the centerpiece of the film, easily stealing the show by convincingly portraying the terrified boy. A good drama that just happens to be a good supernatural tale, too.
Entertainment: 8/10

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004)
Starring: Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law, Angelina Jolie
Director: Kerry Conran
Plot: After giant robots attack Manhattan, a dashing young mercenary aviator and a strong-willed female reporter investigate the mysterious disappearance of world-reknown scientists.
Review: While Indiana Jones was a re-imagining of "classic" B&W pulp serials, Sky Captain is actually made to look like one too, from the sepia-colored look and shadowy atmosphere, down to the star's wooden but earnest performances. The easy thrills, dark tones, snappy repartee, and diabolical villains are all straight out of the pulps science-fiction and adventure books, just all grown-up. It's an affair that would make any boy-at-heart (no matter the age) agape at the retro wonders that make their appearances: building-sized robots, flying fortresses, gadget-laden planes, ray-guns and more - it's all here. This was all made possible by enabling the sets, props and surroundings - in fact the whole world these live-actors inhabit - to be made entirely by computer, allowing the filmmakers to create an experience we could never otherwise see. As such, this is probably the best homage to the Saturday adventure serials of old like Buck Rogers, done in utmost seriousness and love for the genre, with nary a cynical bone in its entire length. This is a vision of what those old serials were always meant to be if only they had had the budget and technology to let their filmmakers imagination loose. Even popular 30's and 40's locations make an appearance as a wink to past films, from Shangri-La to King Kong's monster island replete with CGI dinosaurs. Though a similar experiment in CGI world creation had already been done before in the French film Vidocq (no matter what the American media might say), it's still a remarkable achievement for first-time director / creator Conran who has spent years detailing and preparing for this chance. Amidst all this gadgetry and giant-sized toys, Law fits in well as the perfect debonair hero, suave and dedicated to his cause, and Paltrow, though a little more stiff, makes for an able foil. Jolie, in scene-stealing form even in her short-lived appearances, really makes an impression as the British flight commander. Yet the strangest aspect might well be the performance of a young Laurence Olivier, making an appearance years after his death in a TV-like exposition from the mad scientist. Considering the role, it was a stroke of genius. Though the pacing isn't perfect and the story barely on par with dime-store novels, people will remember the film as a technical marvel. But more than this, Sky Captain ably captures that giddy feel of excitement that we remember as kids, the one that made us watch those cliff-hanger adventures in the first place. And for that, it's worth experiencing.
Entertainment: 7/10

Skyfall (2012)
Starring: Daniel Craig, Javier Bardem, Naomie Harris
Director: Sam Mendes
Plot: A personal vendetta against M drives a rogue agent to attack MI6 just as Bond is rendered unfit for duty.
Review: Four years after the tepid Quantum of Solace hit screens, Skyfall arrives with much ballyhoo on the cusp of the franchise's golden anniversary. The script wants to be an homage to the 50 years since Dr. No hit theaters - lots of in-jokes and references for Bond fans, from music cues to casual references to the series' more well-known tropes of girls, guns and gadgets. The strong opening sequence feels more like a Jason Bourne entry than a Bond one - effective and thrilling enough, but somehow lacking real panache, segueing into Adele's suave opening credit song. For the most part, the action doesn't really get any better, until the climactic battle over an isolated Scottish manor, as Bond - M in tow - stands up against two dozen armed commandos and an attack helicopter; fun stuff, but a very un-Bond like situation (though seeing Connery's famous machine-gun toting Aston Martin in action is worth the wait). Critics have been overjoyed by this older, more human, more vulnerable Bond struggling in a world where loyalties are tested - it's just not the Bond we've grown up with. In fact, the narrative and plot is more akin to a revenge drama than a Bond adventure, with more emotional heft than previous entries. Altogether, this new, more vulnerable and grittier Bond just doesn't quite feel right with the series - gritty was just fine in Casino Royale, but this is too personal and revealing of Bond's formative years - we didn't need an origin story! Still, for that road director Mendes (American Beauty) does a fine job meshing drama and character development into the fast-cars and fast-women world of the franchise; and if it feels a bit like his work on The Road to Perdition (his first cooperation with Craig), that's probably intended. The production is also gorgeous, from the international settings to the backdrops of England. As for the cast, it's aces: Dame Judy Dench as the aging M battling with a younger Ralph Fiennes looking to take her place, Harris as the Bond girl with a secret link to the series, and Ben Whishaw as a very young, smart-aleck Q. And we can't forget the underused Bardem as a mad-dog rogue agent who makes for a classic Bond villain - over the top, nasty, dangerous, completely wacko and absolutely delicious. In the end, the film stakes that Bond's place in this New World - both in terms of real-life political realities and in a Hollywood era of fantasy and super-hero films - is still relevant. Judging by Skyfall, it is.
Entertainment: 7/10

Sky High (2005)
Starring: Michael Angarano, Kurt Russell, Kelly Preston
Director: Mike Mitchell
Plot: The underachieving son of a famous super-hero couple struggles to fit in to his new high school, but a training ground for future super-heroes is a difficult place when you don't have any serious super-powers of your own.
Review: The usual coming-of-age tale gets a high-flying update - quite literally - in Sky High, a family comedy that is a light-hearted take on the super-hero phenomenon. The usual high-school angst is alive and well, from the petty teaching staff, to the bullying peers and the social cliques only this time around, these usual clichés are given a comic twist, associating puberty (and self-esteem) with the gain of super-powers (and who didn't wish they could do this stuff when they were kids!). Apart from having a good feel for the usual teen issues, the script bubbles with clever winks, oodles of genre references and a comic-savvy knowledge of what makes a good super-hero movie. Sure the plot is obviously predictable but behind all the obvious ribbing and send-up of super-hero clichés there's an obvious love for the material, helping buoy the film beyond the usual high-concept (and usually bland) Disney film. Thank director Mitchell who keeps a good balance between the teen issues and the campy CGI effects. Throw in some well-executed action scenes (and a surprisingly energetic climactic fight), an evil plot to get rid of all the adult heroes, some necessary romance and an ultra-colorful production design and it all comes off as a heartfelt homage to those bright, fanciful super-hero comic-books of old, before they became all dark and serious. The kid actors are fine, as is top-liner Russell, but of real note is the terrific supporting cast including a teaching staff made up of genre veteran Bruce Campbell, comic Dave Foley and ex-Wonder Woman Lynda Carter as the principal. With its good mix of comedy and fantasy, Sky High is sure to please kids and older fans alike, and may even win over less demanding audiences, too.
Entertainment: 7/10

Skyline (2010)
Starring: Eric Balfour, Donald Faison and Scottie Thompson
Director: Colin and Greg Strause
Plot: After a night of partying, a young couple wakes up in the midst of an alien invasion in downtown LA, stuck in a high-rise and the target of murderous creatures.
Review: Trying to emulate the successful premise of Cloverfield with the large-scale effects of Independence Day, the sci-fi thriller Skyline focuses on street-level characters trying to survive something that is beyond their comprehension. Unfortunately, the film is far from the gritty realism of the former or the fun of the latter. There are occasional thrills to be had as the cast tries to escape varying alien shapes and monsters, and the special effects sequences (limited as they are) are pretty spectacular, considering the limited budget. In fact, the movie makes for a decent 10-minute video-game cut-scene (or theatrical trailer), and FX wizards Colin and Greg Strause (whose last effort was the panned Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem) know how to create cool visuals. Alas, the script sucks big-time; its' an amateurish, dizzyingly stupid affair that's never close to being engaging or interesting. In fact the characters are so damn annoying and the dialogue so bland that we're actually cheering for them to get killed off in spectacular fashion as quickly as possible - so much for suspense, then. Skyline is definitely B-movie type material, with the melodrama and action better suited to late-night TV. Only the exterior visuals are worth watching on a theater screen, and there aren't enough of them to validate the ticket price. Rent on DVD and fast-forward to the biomechanical aliens; they've got more personality than all the rest of the cast combined.
Entertainment: 3/10

Slap Shot (1977)
Starring: Paul Newman, Strother Martin, Michael Ontkean
Director: George Roy Hill
Plot: A failing small-town hockey team led by an aging coach turn to outrageous acts of violence and dirty tactics to win, much to the delight of their fans.
Review: Though hockey films have always been a part of Canadian culture (see Les Boys series) Hollywood has rarely taken a look at it despite its growing popularity. The exception is Slap Shot, a film that may be 25 years old, but hardly seems dated in its commentary on the sport. Director Hill re-teams with his leading man (as he did so well in The Sting and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) and once again gets some fine performances out of the very mixed cast while keeping things steadily rolling along. This may not be their best effort, but with its tongue-in-cheek humor, jibes at the sport, its players and its owners, as well as genuine feeling of camaraderie it manages to keep us engaged throughout. The plot displays the usual predictable dramatics of the genre, but its loser characters are all sympathetic in one way or another and we can't help but root for these underdogs, even as their tactics become abhorrent. The script also has more than its fair share of profanity-filled dialogue and violence, but it's surprisingly effective to convey the locker-room mentality of the team. Newman is just great as the veteran, over-the-hill hockey captain showing off his trademark charm mingled with a profound childishness. The rest of the cast is fine, but it's the Hanson brothers who stand out the most, absolutely hilarious and just as scary as the stereotypical "bad boys" of the sport, high-sticking and punching their way through every game. Which brings up another point: The film declaims the increasing violence in hockey (circa the 1970's) yet at the same time it revels in showing off some of the most exaggerated and mischievous offenses for purely entertainment purposes (and with fine bravado, too), so much so that the message comes out decidedly mixed. But then, maybe that's also the reason why the film has always been popular. Slap Shot is by no means a great movie, but by hitting all the right notes, it's a rough and rowdy comedy that deserves its cult classic status.
Entertainment: 7/10

Sleepy Hollow (1999)
Starring: Johnny Depp, Christina Ricci
Director: Tim Burton
Plot: At the turn of the 18th century, constable Ichabod Crane is sent to a remote village to solve mysterious decapitations said to be the work of a headless horseman.
Review: The eerie, almost nightmarish style of director Tim Burton (Batman, Edward Scissorhands) is perfect for such a dark fantasy, combining some disturbing storytelling bordering on the horror genre with a period mystery, and all wrapped with his usual wicked sense of fun. The great cinematography, unnatural sets, bluish colors, all blend in to make for a menacing, brooding look to the film. All the actors fit in with the style of the fairy tale, especially Johnny Depp who does his character justice, playing the part of the urban dweller faced with a supernatural threat with a charm and expressiveness that fit the mood of the film. Though the story itself is nothing special, as an interesting take on the classic legend by Irving Washington, and as far as pure entertainment goes, Sleepy Hollow is a wonderful, enjoyable film.
Entertainment: 8/10

Slumdog Millionaire (2008)
Starring: Dev Patel, Anil Kapoor
Director: Danny Boyle
Plot: To attract the attention of the woman he loves, a boy raised in the Indian slums around Mumbai finds his way as a contestant on a popular televised game show.
Review: Winner of the 2008 Academy Award for Best Picture, Slumdog Millionaire is an unlikely box-office success story. A melodrama on the depressing realities of Indian slums mixed in with a sweet, naive romance seems written for a select crowd. And yet not only does the movie manage to break down the barriers into the mainstream consciousness but it actually does so while remaining true to its roots. Enter director Boyle whose distinctive style and visual verve so well evidenced in films like Trainspotting and 28 Days Later make their way to the streets of India intact. Working with an Indian cast and crew, he manages to create a Western film with Bollywood overtones. And that's a good thing, making the film buoyant, dynamic and always very much in tune with the misery and hopes of its characters, even concluding with an obligatory song-and-dance number. Using a fancy (and effective) narrative trick to flash back and forth between past and present, our panicked protagonist getting his chance in a Hindi version of "Who Wants to be A Millionaire?" gets asked a series of questions that are coincidentally all related to peculiar events in his childhood. The story that emerges is one of ghastly realities - how as young orphans he and his older brother manage to survive on the detritus of the city, how they are abused and taken advantage of by the adults they come in contact with - and life-affirming moments, such as the love of a brother and a never-forgotten girl. This is where the film - and the book by Vikas Swarup on which it is based - truly is special; trying to encompass the many conflicting facets and of modern India, it shows to a Western audience both the bleak reality that 90% of the local population faces and yet still manages to find those moments that make life worthwhile. At the same time, the story seems to indicate that one's fate is written - if you're poor that may be your lot in life, so accept it. There's no surprise, then, at the flip-flop of critical accolades and outcry the film has received in India. The cast of relatively unknowns - if you exclude Bollywood superstar Anil Kapoor as the intimidating game show host - do well, with Patel making a sympathetic impression as the "slumdog" of the title. Despite its depressing subject, Slumdog Millionaire is a vibrant, sentimental romance that mixes reality and fantasy in equal parts, and one that leaves an indelible impression for this exotic land and its people.
Drama: 8/10

Snake Eyes (1998)
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Gary Sinise, Carla Gugino
Director: Brian De Palma
Plot: The secretary of defense gets assassinated during a highly televised boxing match and a corrupt police officer becomes the only one able to unravel the growing conspiracy.
Review: The film starts off with a bang, with an exciting premise, a great mystery, and an interesting anti-hero. But all the potential of the film soon fizzles out as the story develops turning Snake Eyes into a predictable second-rate conspiracy thriller. In fact, the film seems to have been shot in reverse, with the over-the-top crowd-pleasing climactic scene opening the film and the slow build-up coming at the end. It's especially disappointing considering the first-rate cast - Cage is terrific as the charismatic loser cop, and Sinise does his best with a poor script. With a good visual style, Snake Eyes is entertaining and quite watchable, but there's no real originality or suspense here, and it's just not up to the talents of Brian De Palma (Scarface, The Untouchables). Great epilogue, though!
Entertainment: 5/10

Snakes on a Plane (2006)
Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Kenan Thompson
Director: David R. Ellis
Plot: To ensure a witness to a brutal slaying remains silent despite his protective custody, a notorious drug kingpin lets loose deadly snakes on board a plane headed for Los Angeles.
Review: The title pretty much sums up the film: Take all the scares and familiarity of those classic (and not so classic) 70's airplane disaster flicks, set up a bunch of back stories for the potential victims, throw in a ton of computer-generated snakes, and this is pretty much what you get: Snakes on a Plane. There's nothing really new here; the film doesn't try to come up with any twists or deep drama to the B-movie concept, and the script obviously knows all the clichés, knows the familiar people-in-jeopardy routine. Yet it never takes itself too seriously, allowing for the comic and the melodrama to mesh helping to make the film surprisingly entertaining, if not quite fresh. Director Ellis (Final Destination 2, Cellular) knows what makes this kind of low-brow, exploitative thriller tick, and he's got the element of suspense down pat. The fun, of course, is guessing which passenger bites the dust next, and in what silly or demented way they'll get killed. Jackson, in over-the-top ass-kicking mode, adds a lot of heft to a film that has for the most part only B-list actors and that suits the movie just fine. Though the concept of Snakes on a Plane could have dumped it in the "camp" department, the filmmakers walk that tightrope between humor and thrills in perfect step and audiences willing to come on-board are sure to have a good time.
Entertainment: 7/10

Snatch (2000)
Starring: Jason Statham, Benicio Del Toro, Brad Pitt
Director: Guy Ritchie
Plot: A small-time London boxing promoter hits the big time when he gets involved with a fighting gypsy while every crook around him is somehow trying to get their hands on a huge stolen diamond.
Review: Snatch has some obvious resemblance to director Ritchie's first effort Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, true, but, apart from the much higher production values, more-familiar faces, and bigger scale, the film also has its own story to tell. Just like his previous effort, the film gives a one-two punch to British cinema - this is an energetic crime / comedy full of action and double-crosses that never shirks from the ridiculous, the slapstick, or the plain vicious, mixing its laughs with some very tense moments. With the use of frenetic editing, imaginative camera angles, and a constant darkly comic tone, Ritchie has created, if not an original endeavor, one that is at the very least very well conceived and quite entertaining. Hat's off to the script as well that manages somehow to make a complex plot with so many twists and turns, and so many different storylines, still relatively easy to follow and constantly engaging. One of the delights of the film is the interaction between its stars, a bevy of terrific A- and B-grade actors all doing some great comic performances as ludicrously shady, eccentric characters, from Pitt's gypsy boxer, to Del Toro's jewel thief, to Vinnie Jones' brutal, even-tempered mercenary. Some of their accents may be a little hard to understand at first (and Pitt's purposely unintelligible brogue absolutely impossible to decipher without subtitles) but it's worth the effort to catch the snappy back-and-forth dialogue between them. Stylish, fast-paced and irreverent, Snatch is a violent, hilarious, and extremely well-executed caper comedy that's well worth a view.
Entertainment: 8/10

The Sniper (Hong Kong - 2009)
Starring: Richie Ren, Xiaoming Huang, Edison Chen
Director: Dante Lam
Plot: A decorated police officer and his elite sniper team face off against their former teammate, a champion marksman who has gone rogue after a stint in prison and is now out to exact his revenge.
Review: An effective action thriller from a long-time Hong Kong veteran is always a welcome event, and The Sniper is just that. A victim of the real-life fallout of one of its leads (a sex scandal, no less), the film was delayed and cut, leaving a stripped-down story that on one hand gives an efficient, no-nonsense action flick but also leaves a lot of plot points hanging. Despite this, it's clear that director Lam (Beast Cops) is back in form, even if the movie isn't quite up to par with his classic efforts from the 1990's. There's a lot of style but little substance to the thread-bare plot, what with all its hyper-macho posturing and clichéd melodrama, but there's also lots of cool, stylish (and bullet-ridden) action set-pieces, plus Lam's always effective take on personal tensions, to keep us engaged. Chen, as the up-and-coming young hero of the piece, is actually the least effective character, and actually the most annoying, especially with his over-the-top bravado and ego. Much more interesting is the rivalry between the two estranged marksmen, one that has gone from being a professional one to being a much more personal one, and both Ren and mainland star Huang (who makes for one of the better villains of recent HK memory) show an intensity that can be cut with a knife. As the villain's revenge plotting goes into high gear, so does the film, moving from sniper training sequences and impressive shoot-outs to a suspenseful climax in an abandoned warehouse. The Sniper is to be enjoyed for what it is - a fine example of the Hong Kong actioner where entertainment value beats out character development every time.
Entertainment: 6/10

Snow Falling on Cedars (1999)
Starring: Ethan Hawke, Youki Kudoh, Max von Sydow
Director: Scott Hicks
Plot: Only a few years after the Second World War, a small-town journalist is entangled in the trial of a Japanese-American who is accused of having killed a fisherman.
Review: Snow Falling on Cedars tries to cover a lot of ground, and mostly manages to bring it vividly and compellingly to the screen. The film is, at its heart, the story of two young lovers separated by culture and by the War, and how their small-town community is destroyed by the Japanese - American deportation and incarceration in concentration camps during World War II, a subject that is rarely alluded to. Director Scott Hicks uses a different style here than his previous film Shine, providing some achingly beautiful, intimate moments, and some heart-wrenching ones as well. The court-room scenes act as a microcosm of the community itself, where emotions take the upper hand, and where the suspicion, fear, prejudice and guilt that have so long been left unsaid finally comes pouring out. The film, though, is at its best when it looks back at the characters' past, presented in almost dream-like sequences. Hawke is well suited for the part, and Kudoh is absolutely charming. As to Max Von Sydow, he is perfectly cast as the aging defense attorney. Though it has the trappings for it, Snow Falling on Cedars' strength is not as a murder-mystery, presented more as an excuse for the background story revolving around it, but as a delicate and touching drama of love lost and the slow road to redemption.
Drama: 8/10

Snow White and the Huntsman (2012)
Starring: Kristen Stewart, Chris Hemsworth, Charlize Theron 
Director: Rupert Sanders
Plot: After escaping imprisonment and joining forces with the Huntsman sent to kill her, Snow White attempts to raise an army to defeat the Evil Queen and retake her kingdom.
Review: A dark twist to the classic fairy tale of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs made so popular by Disney, Snow White and the Huntsman ends up a passable, if pretty standard, sword and sorcery adventure. Gone are the bright animated colors, humorous dwarfs and friendly animals, to be replaced - in good old fashioned summer blockbuster manner - with computer-animated creatures, violent hand-to-hand battles, epic clashing of armies and a Snow White that's more Joanne of Arc than princess. The movie makes the original premise much more gritty and realistic, and the Seven Dwarfs aren't so lovable when you finally meet them, yet there seems to be something missing in the translation to adult fare. It's not as clever or, perhaps, interesting as it could have been and that's the real shame considering the wealth of fairy-tale-bending inspiration available in other media. First time director Sanders spends more time on the PG-13 action set pieces, and the admittedly wonderful aspects of the magic and madness surrounding the Queen, than on the dramatic or surprisingly G-rated chaste romantic moments (i.e. forget a Prince Charming heartthrob). There is no denying, however, the production values of the film. The special effects are solid, the epic structure is there, and the artistic direction is splendid, the only downside being that most of the film is shot in a washed-out palette. The cast is good, especially the leads: Stewart, as the fair maiden, actually works out better and is more convincing than any role she's done on Twilight, and Hemsworth, playing the noble Huntsman, proves he's a rising star, and not just for his good looks. The real attraction, however, is Theron who gloriously vamps it up in the role as the Evil Queen in a grand theatrical performance. Of note is also the inspirational casting of the Dwarfs, with the likes of Ian McShane, Bob Hoskins, Nick Frost, Toby Jones and other recognizable Brit actors getting shortened by effective fx work; too bad they get so short-changed by a script that doesn't know how best to use them. Still, as predictable as it is there's never a dull moment, and the film is never short of ideas even if they aren't fully vetted out. And that makes Snow White and the Huntsman a worthy popcorn flick, at least for one viewing.
Entertainment: 6/10

*Classic* Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)
Starring: Harry Stockwell, Lucille LaVerne
Directors: David Hand, Perce Pearce
Plot: Pursued by a wicked, jealous queen adept in dark magical powers, the beautiful orphan Snow White hides in the forest where she finds refuge in the cottage of seven friendly dwarfs.
Review: The first full-length animated feature, in both color and sound, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was nothing short of a revolution upon its release in 1937 and its success started the road to the Disney empire, and is the basis on which all other were compared. Following some successful animated shorts, Walt Disney took a huge risk and brought the animation medium to the next level, starting a tradition that became a staple of 20th century American culture. Using brand new techniques such as a multi-plane camera for the appearance of depth and the use of live models to create its delicate character movements, it's a sumptuous display of talent from the Disney artists. Many of the elements that would become staples of Disney films for decades to come make their first appearance here: the cute, anthropomorphic animals, the enchanting locales, the humorous characters and the dreamy score. Based on the classic Grimm fairy tale, the story is a familiar one. The sexual and violent overtones of the original work have been sanitized in appropriate Disney fashion, though there are still elements that might frighten younger children - who can forget the suspense, and childhood horror, of the haunted woods or the delivery of the poisoned apple by the old witch! But for the most part, it's a family-friendly affair: The Dwarfs - with names indicating their individual mode such as Sleepy, Happy, Sneezy and Grumpy - are there for purely comic effect, each one presented with exaggerated slapstick. But more than them, it's the animal scenes that are the real winning aspects, as the forest denizens help her clean house or prepare dinner in a colorful flurry of feathers and tails. To be fair, in its deliberate pacing and mores the film can't help but feel slightly dated since its first release, but the fairy-tale story, score and gorgeous animation makes it easy to appreciate this revolutionary feature. All told, Snow White is an endearing classic for all ages.
Entertainment: 8/10

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