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(Reviews, Sa - Sn)

The Social Network (2010)
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, Justin Timberlake
Director: David Fincher
Plot: Inspired to create Facebook while undergrads at Harvard, two best friends see their start-up quickly booming to a national phenomenon only to fall prey to conflicting ideas and venture capitalists.
Review: If you think that a movie about the founding of the Internet social networking website Facebook is bound to be either an affirmation of geek power or filled with boring technical detail, then you're sure to be pleasantly surprised by The Social Network, a gripping, intimate drama with a strong ensemble cast as well as enough twists and legal mire to make for a terrific thriller. In fact, this is one of the most compelling efforts of capturing the last decade, an origin story of the social phenomenon of Facebook played out over the jealousies, greed and obsessions of an eccentric handful of young men. Some of the motivations may be petty, but they're also very human. Now, how close this is to reality is anyone's guess - the real-life protagonists are denying it - but one can be sure the filmmakers have played loose with the biographical parts to make for a more dramatic presentation. And it is: Based on the 2009 book by Ben Mezrich titled "The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding Of Facebook, A Tale of Sex, Money, Genius, and Betrayal", West Wing creator and scribe extraordinaire Aaron Sorkin creates a screenplay that simply zings, capturing the smarts, drama and emotional immaturity of the participants with electrifying, 200-words-a-minute dialogue and keen perception, while still keeping it organized and the jargon simple enough for laymen to understand. With Fight Club and Seven under his belt, director Fincher is no stranger to strong story-telling himself; in his hands, the feature moves along with expert pacing from the dorm-room to the board-room. As Mark Zuckerberg, Eisenberg walks a fine line between the asshole and the pitiable as the genius creator and founder heavily influenced by charismatic Napster co-founder Sean Parker (a suave, sleazy Justin Timberlake); he's a single-minded, industrious and ultimately ruthless post-pubescent sage who's suddenly in the spotlight he so desperately craves, but whose condescending attitude and ambivalence to others hides a deep-rooted inferiority complex. The rest of the supporting cast is also excellent, notably Garfield as his former best friend who ends up suing him, and Armie Hammer playing both of the Winklevoss twins who were part of the Harvard elite and former partners who (surprise) also ended up in legal action. Though the focal point may be the (as portrayed) eccentric, anti-social Zuckerberg, the real story is about the internet phenomenon and the new economy, how one talented guy and one idea can turn the world upside down. Fincher and Sorkin make an often sly and always compelling case, one that is sure to mark the first decade of the new millennia. Excellent.
Drama: 9/10

Solaris (USSR - 1972)
Starring: Natalya Bondarchuk, Donatas Banionis, Yuri Jarvet
Director: Andrei Tarkovsky
Plot: Sent to investigate strange happenings, a cosmonaut arrives on a nearly-deserted space station in orbit around a mysterious ocean planet. He soon realizes that some alien power has the ability to take their most painful memories and give them physical form when his long-dead wife re-appears.
Review: More a philosophical and sentimental science-fiction journey than the typical space opera, Solaris (based on a novel by acclaimed writer Stanislaw Lem) is director Tarkovsky's answer to Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, a film which he deemed too cold and calculating. Here, Tarkovsky (The Sacrifice) has crafted a visually poetic tale of memory, loss, and longing, one that tugs at our own nostalgia and tries to involve us as much by what is said as by its long silences. The science-fiction elements (indeed, even the at times confusing plot) are there only to provide an output for the philosophical drama that plays amongst this handful of people, faced with their own subconscious. In fact, it is quite limited in its special effects, ones that are nonetheless efficient in creating a sense of alienation. For such a long running time, though, there's surprisingly little dialogue or activity of any kind, with Tarkovsky indulging in the cinematic, in the slow (at times dreadfully so) camera pans of Nature scenes and of communal life. It is intentionally languid, always well shot, capturing the characters' feelings of being lost from society and their slow desperation. It is as if the narrative focuses on the emotional and humanistic aspects of life, forcing a contrast with the stoic researchers and their quest for that immoral grail, Science. At odds with most genre films, this is a rather pessimistic view of man's efforts to reach the stars, one that asks: how can we explore space when we can't even understand ourselves? There are no answers to be had here, no heroics, and little of what Hollywood has entertained as "sci-fi"; this is a serious, if somber, meditation on Man's place in the Universe. It's not easy to sit through this glacially paced endeavor, but those with enough patience will be rewarded for the effort. Winner of the Jury Grand Prize at Cannes.
Drama / Science-Fiction: 7/10

Solaris (2002)
Starring: George Clooney, Natascha McElhone, Jeremy Davies
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Plot: Sent to investigate problems with the crew, a psychiatrist arrives on a nearly-deserted space station orbiting a mysterious planet and soon realizes that some alien power has the ability to take their most painful memories and give them physical form when his long-dead wife re-appears.
Review: Audiences going to see Solaris might expect an intricate or grand space opera, but will be shocked to see a film that's not meant for mainstream tastes. Though the story starts off with all the trappings of a possible SF thriller, this is really an existential, even metaphysical affair. This is a love story first and foremost, one encased in science-fiction trappings perhaps, but whose sci-fi elements are limited, focusing more on the psychological, emotional aspects of the story than on its setting. Based on the SF novel by Polish author Stanislaw Lem, and greatly inspired by the original, long-winded 1972 Russian adaptation of Solaris by director Tarkovsky, this big-budget remake is a thoughtful meditation on life, love and what makes us human. The impressive production values mixed in with the polished, sleek visuals make every scene beautiful to look at. In fact, in its desolate, cold steel surroundings, its casual glances at technology, with its terrific spectacular sci-fi imagery and intricately designed sets, the film reminds one often of 2001: A Space Odyssey, a bizarre trait since the original was deemed an anti-2001. Writer / director Soderbergh (Traffic, Erin Brockovich) goes for delicate mood, pervasive anxiety, and a certain intimacy, and mostly succeeds; though incredibly subdued and lacking the usual hysterics Hollywood is known for, this is a slick, watchable affair that slowly, deliberately gnaws at you. Much more ably paced than its forebear, the film also diverges from Tarkovsky's take in the last act and tries to throw in too many surprisingly predictable twists into the narrative. There are more questions than answers here but the mysteries are secondary; it's the ideas presented, even half-formed, that will bring about heated discussion. True to Soderbergh's usual flair and cinematic insights, it's a far more intelligent experience than we've come to expect from Hollywood, but even he has difficulty reaching the critical mass necessary to properly evoke the grander underlying themes or to bring the story to final fruition. Only a handful of actors make an appearance, but the cast is quite able to hold our attention; Clooney manages to convince in a performance where his dark side mingles with his usual charm, McElhone does a fine effort in a difficult role, while supporting stars Davies and Viola Davis (rounding up the whole cast of the film) provide some memorable, if cardboard-like, figures. To be fair, this is a difficult subject matter to pass on convincingly, but this new version of Solaris tries hard, and ultimately if it's a mild failure, it's an interesting, sometimes fascinating one.
Drama: 6/10

Someone Like You (2001)
Starring: Ashley Judd, Hugh Jackman, Greg Kinnear
Director: Tony Goldwyn
Plot: After losing her new boyfriend and moving in with a handsome womanizer, a television producer becomes famous by publishing anonymously an article that compares men's sexual behavior to that of bulls.
Review: Like most recent Hollywood romantic comedies, Someone Like You is a light, predictable affair with a heart of marshmallow. Based on the novel "Animal Husbandry" by Laura Zigman, the rather banal script seems to re-hash old battle-of-the-sexes themes without bringing anything new to play. It doesn't help that the film seems to lack any focus, and that, without a proper build-up, the obvious ending feels forced. Still, there are the requisite clever dialogue and snappy come-backs, and the parallel with the comic "scientific" bovine theories and cow scenes adds a little necessary twist to the proceedings. The saving grace for most films of the genre is the cast, and Judd and Kinnear are fine in their respective roles, if a little wooden and heavy, but Jackman as the womanizing co-worker and roommate who's trying to mend his own broken heart is simply the best thing in the movie, displaying an easy charm that makes the scenes with him and Judd work well. Marisa Tomei, who seems be popping up more and more in minor roles, again does wonders in a thankless role. Someone Like You is about what one would expect from another cookie-cutter romantic comedy, a sometimes tired, sometimes charming, and always predictable vehicle for its lead actress.
Entertainment: 4/10

Someone to Watch over Me (1987)
Starring: Tom Berenger, Mimi Rogers, Lorraine Bracco
Director: Ridley Scott
Plot: A New York detective puts his marriage in jeopardy when he gets intimately involved with the rich murder witness he's been assigned to protect. 
Review: The idea, perhaps, with the romantic thriller Someone to Watch Over Me was to create a modern film noir using the backdrop of the city than never sleeps - New York. Trying to expand his scope out of the SF genre that made him famous (Alien, Blade Runner), director Scott shows he's a great visual storyteller, and his keen eye for sumptuous visuals does the trick once again with the lavish parties and the excessive lap of luxury. No doubt, it's definitely an accomplished, professional looking work. Too bad the story isn't really very interesting and the characters purely one-dimensional - doing such a banal work just seems like a waste of Scott's talent. The main problem is that the romance between educated high socialite and raw detective is sudden and unexplainable. Not to blame Berenger, with his thick fake Queens accent and puppy-eye look, or Rogers, making the most of a limited script, but considering the whole story is really about their relationship and the issues with their class differences it's just not convincing, especially after such a loving setup with the cop's blue-collar wife and kid. The crime drama elements are present almost as an afterthought, and are really meant to take a back seat to the love story. In fact, the illogical, violent climax with the one-note villain is clearly only a poor excuse to get all the cast together for an emotional showdown. The direction by Scott does much to redeem an otherwise poorly conceived and wholly unoriginal story, but even so this can't help but be a disappointment.
Entertainment: 5/10

Something's Gotta Give (2003)
Starring: Jack Nicholson, Diane Keaton, Keanu Reeves
Director: Nancy Meyers
Plot: After suffering a heart attack while visiting his 30-year old girlfriend's beach home, a rich, aging swinger falls for her accomplished mother but must compete for her attentions with his young doctor.
Review: Something's Gotta Give is a rather standard romantic comedy with one very special twist: its two leads are over their prime, something that must have been a hard sell, considering Hollywood's stigma with showing older women as sexually active. Kudos, then, to the filmmakers for the courage to make a romantic comedy that doesn't pander to the usual young demographics and proves that even older couples can have relationships and affairs, and - more importantly - that even mature women can still be attractive. Jack Nicholson, more or less playing himself, manages to be sympathetic in the role almost as well as he did in As Good As It Gets, but it's Diane Keaton, as the playwright who believes herself past the dating age, who really shines here. It's no wonder, considering much of the script seems to have been written as a semi-autobiography by writer / director Meyers. If she can't quite match the sparkle of her last film, What Women Want, Meyers knows how to best work her actors and keeps it from ever getting theatrical. The supporting cast doesn't get much screen time - Reeves is only there as a plot complication and Frances McDormand is her sister's conscious - but then the charm (and the focus) is in seeing the film's star couple animosity towards each other at first, then their softening up as they discuss their dilemmas and finally discovering their mutual attraction. If the film does tend towards the melodrama and the plot towards the cliché, the script is down-to-earth and light-hearted, with dialogue that is full of barbs and wit. Though it's sentimentality is worn on its sleeve and it doesn't contain the same amount of gags as one would expect, Something's Gotta Give is an amusing and always engaging affair.
Entertainment: 6/10

Somewhere (2010)
Starring: Stephen Dorff, Elle Fanning, Chris Pontius
Director: Sofia Coppola
Plot: A hard-living, womanizing Hollywood actor re-examines his priorities and his life after his 11-year old daughter drops in for an extended visit.
Review: Somewhere fits squarely in the indie art-house drama category, which means it will be missed by most everybody, and that's a shame. Director Coppola, herself daughter to legendary Francis Ford Coppola - is no stranger to the vagaries of Hollywood life captures. Returning to some of the themes of her masterful Lost in Translation with her fourth film she captures with few words and little flourish a revealing look at the other side of fame, the one that isn't in the tabloids. Some audiences may be put off by how slow things move - indeed some may get impatient to get to a story - but the deliberate, European-influenced pace and narrative style allows for close observation and realization of the emptiness of a star's life and their isolation even as they're surrounded by luxury and people. Dorff plays to type and shows off some surprising dramatic chops as the selfish, ego-centric actor, living the stereotypical life of a star with his fast car, willing women, and jet-set travels. Yet even as he's adored by millions, no-one truly understands him, and only one person actually loves him for who he is. Indeed, his life is defined by his love for his daughter - played superbly by Elle Fanning - something he eventually comes to realize. At the heart of the film is their loving relationship, a down-to-earth sharing of experiences between two beings who are in on a larger joke. A bitter-sweet little movie that's well worth the effort.
Drama: 8/10

The Soong Sisters (Hong Kong - 1996)
Starring: Michelle Yeoh, Maggie Cheung, Vivian Wu
Director: Cheung Yuen-ting 
Plot: The three daughters of an American-educated Chinese revolutionary grow up to play pivotal roles in the history of modern China, each in their own particular way.
Review: As a historical-based epic co-produced by China, The Soong Sisters has met with heavy censorship and one wonders what the original film could have been. As is stands, the film is full of great scenes that are worthy of Hollywood epic productions, with some lavish period recreations, well-staged large-scale events, and some beautifully cinematography, all punctuated by a ponderous musical score. The story seems to force itself to keep a fast pace, which is detrimental in such a wide-ranging epic, never allowing us to get engaged with the happenings or the characters except through a series of blatantly theatrical instances. The film wants to portray the protagonists as political players on a large historical canvas, but it feels as if the characters are only buffeted by larger events. The filmmakers have even added some fictional moments to enhance the personal dramas, with only partial success. However, by turning the three sisters into respective embodiments of "money", "power", and "country", it delivers three barely rounded characters that act more as themes for the filmmakers than individuals. The film does try hard to juggle different elements, but by trying to reduce so much complex political history into mainstream melodrama it loses much of its power. The large cast gives some solid performances, especially Cheung who ends up being the main protagonist and manages to shine through by doing her best with the material. As for Wu and Yeoh, their parts are so small one wonders how they got primary billing. Despite its short-comings, this is an interesting film on one of China's most important periods and the impeccable larger-than-life stagings, as well as Cheung's performance, makes it all the more watchable.
Drama: 6/10

*Classic* The Sound of Music (1965)
Starring: Julie Andrews, Christopher Plummer, Eleanor Parker
Director: Robert Wise
Plot: An aspiring Austrian nun becomes the governess for a widowed captain's seven children and brings music back into their gloomy lives, but the imminent arrival of Nazi rule puts a shadow over their hopes.
Review: Loosely based on the true account of the Von Trapp's escape from Nazi rule, The Sound of Music is easily one of the most beloved musicals of all time, a joyous, uplifting film that has stood the test of time, as people who have seen the film every year of their childhood can attest. An adaptation of the hit Rodgers & Hammerstein Broadway show, the most memorable aspect of the movie, of course, are the songs, including "Do Re Me", "My Favorite Things" and, of course, the title track. The energetic, engaging musical numbers dispenses with a lot of dancing and instead focuses on more original choreography and editing to make them work. Director Wise, who also won accolades for another popular musical West Side Story, shows a deft handling of every aspect of the film. The beautiful widescreen cinematography of the Austrian scenery creates a terrific background to the plot, including a memorable long opening sequence as we fly across the mountains to reach a singing Andrews. As for the actual story, a rather flimsy melodramatic ensemble of family drama, romance, and World War II politics imbued with a dash of adventure, it's surprisingly quite effective and engaging in the best Hollywood manner and only adds to the charm of this rousing feature. In fact, it's a perfect example of the American family film, full of effervescent energy, overblown sentimentality, and expertly filmed and edited making the 3-hour running length just fly by. The performances of the seven way-too-cute kids are uneven, but the adults are excellent, and most especially the irresistible Andrews in a bravura role as the strong-willed but charming nun-turned-nanny. For all these things, The Sound of Music is a classic, going on to win Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director among other prizes, as well as a place in the heart of every child, both young and old.
Musical: 9/10

Source Code (2011)
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Monaghan, Vera Farmiga 
Director: Duncan Jones
Plot: A helicopter pilot repeatedly wakes up in the body of an unknown man on a Chicago commuter train minutes before it explodes, soon discovering he's part of a mission to find the bomber and stop an even greater calamity.
Review: What sounds like an odd mix of Groundhog Day and Unstoppable actually comes off to a solid effort in Source Code, a well-oiled high-tech thriller. There's a dual mystery that keeps things interesting - there's the search-against-time for the bomb and the bomber, and the even more compelling one of how our amnesiac hero got involved in this secret Army project in the first place. Director Jones, fresh off his critically acclaimed debut sci-fi drama Moon, proves he can successfully transition from the indie-movie world to the slick, fast-paced Hollywood blockbuster. The film has its own internal logic when it comes to time travel and parallel universes, one that requires a leap of faith, especially as the twists and turns of the plot progress. Thankfully, even if it eventually creaks under the weight of logic holes, the tight, smarter-than-average script allows for these interesting philosophical ideas amidst the action and suspense. Helping dismiss these inconsistencies is the strong performance from Gyllenhaal, who once again proves he's an engaging actor in just about any genre he tackles. As the train-bound love interest, Monaghan has the "cute" thing down pat, and Farmiga, as the army liaison, gives the military subplot some needed humanity. With it's clear mainstream sensibilities and crowd-pleasing conclusion, Source Code doesn't want to be anything more than an enjoyable diversion, and in that it succeeds.
Entertainment: 7/10

South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut (1999)
Starring: Trey Parker, Matt Stone
: Trey Parker, Matt Stone
: South Park first started as a politically incorrect animated TV show featuring four foul-mouthed young kids. In South Park: BLU, the four kids sneak into an R-rated Canadian movie and, imitating the actors, start swearing at every opportunity. The town parents are not too happy about this development, and, after a series of events, force the US to declare war on Canada.
Review: Just like the TV show, a lot of subversive material sneaks in amongst the crude jokes, and this is where South Park shines. The movie stalls on the last 25 minutes, though, and some scenes (especially the ones with Satan and Saddam Hussein) bog the movie down. As the title says, this film is more South Park, revisiting characters and gags already seen on the TV show. There are lots of new catchy songs and the foul language gets cranked up, of course, but in the end, South Park: BLU is just an extended episode. Of course, that's not necessarily a bad thing.
Comedy: 7/10
Entertainment: 7/10

Space Chimps (2008)
Starring: Andy Samberg, Patrick Warburton
Director: Kirk De Micco
Plot: Three astronaut chimps are blasted off to an uncharted planet where they must retrieve a lost NASA drone that has fallen into the tyrannical hands of a local bully. 
Review: Produced by the same company that made the disastrous Valiant and Happily N’Ever After and made on the cheap with a patronizing by-the-numbers script, the low-rent CGI-animated Space Chimps is barely up to the standards of Saturday-morning cartoon fare and as a theatrical release falls pretty flat from the get-go. How these films get green-lighted is beyond comprehension, unless it was as a tax shelter or planned to be distributed in cereal boxes. Oh, there's the pre-requisite fish-out-of-water jokes, pop-culture gags, monkey puns, daring adventures, and the poking fun at much better films from 2001 to The Right Stuff, but none of it comes together and the pacing is just awkward. For adults and kids alike, the jokes and thrills are few and far between. Worse, though its clearly aimed at kids it isn't at all kid-friendly, nor will it retain their attention. The main character, a circus chimp with all the charm of a cactus, is definitely not a role model even after he realizes that being a selfish jerk isn't going to get him the girl. On the upside, the voice acting is actually pretty good, and there are amusing sequences with the geek NASA scientists, but ultimately there's really nothing here that's worth a gander. Pass.
Entertainment: 3/10

Space Cowboys (2000)
Starring: Clint Eastwood, Tommy Lee Jones, Donald Sutherland
Director: Clint Eastwood
Plot: 40 years after their dreams of space flight were cut short, a team of retired test pilots must fly the shuttle to stop a Russian communication satellite from crashing to Earth. 
Review: Calling Space Cowboys "Grumpy Old Astronauts" is tempting, but, thanks to Eastwood's usual laid-back and good directing sense, the film manages to avoid the usual pratfalls and low-brow comedy routines. Sure, there's the expected geriatric jokes and situations, and more of Eastwood's "growing old" sentimentality that was first in evidence in Unforgiven, but most of the film is quite a lot of fun on this drama / comedy level, never pushing too hard in either direction. The cast is solid, affably charming, well balanced, and has some good chemistry together, but it's Sutherland that has by far the most interesting role, and all the best moments. Seeing the characters go through the rigorous NASA training, face their past, and eventually beat their younger counterparts would usually be enough for a film of this type, but the film suddenly switches gears as the team starts their mission. Of course, everything that can go wrong goes wrong, and there's some thrilling moments here along with some first-rate effects, but the Armageddon-like situations, some of which had the audience howling in disbelief, seems too out of place with the rest of the story. In the end, the script tries too hard to play it safe and keep things a bit too simplistic (and predictable) to make the film really special. Still, the film is engaging and provides some good, varied moments, making Space Cowboys an entertaining summer romp.
Entertainment: 7/10

The Sparrow (Hong Kong - 2008)
Starring: Simon Yam, Kelly Lin, Ka Tung Lam
Director: Johnnie To
Plot: A gang of small-time pickpockets get oddly seduced and recruited by a gangster's mysterious moll to help her steal from him and otherwise gain her freedom.
Review: A frothy, playful and thoroughly appealing fluff piece from one of Hong Kong's leading directors, The Sparrow is a throwback to a simpler time, where cinema had a spring to its step and a song in its heart. Director To is more known for his tough, bullet-ridden crime dramas and action thrillers but with this film he does something completely different and seemingly more experimental - in fact there's little actual violence on display, and even the narrative asks audiences to be more indulgent as they piece the parts together, much like was down in his own PTU or The Mission. In style and pace, the film harkens back to the 1950's, more akin to Alfred Hitchcock's Cat Burglar or Bresson's Pickpocket than the usual Milkyway fare. And that's just fine; showing his trademark filmmaking care and visual verve, and even adding a touch of poetry to the mix of comedy and choreography of bumping men and stolen wallets, To makes the trip worthwhile. There's also a romantic element to the film, and not just the flighty stuff between the leads or the romanticizing of criminal deeds; Hong Kong itself gets a good polish and feels like a bright new city where anything goes. With a charming Yam and and a sensual Lin in the Cary Grant / Grace Kelly roles, the tale of these small-time criminals rogues flirts by with masterful ease. A final pickpocket duel under a dark, rainy cityscape is choreographed in slow-motion like two silent armies swarming in to battle - it's like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg meets Braveheart. The Sparrow may seem slight in comparison to some of To's other works, but it's a bubbly, alluring bauble that's a breath of fresh air in the present staid world of HK cinema.
Entertainment: 7/10

Spartan (2004)
Starring: Val Kilmer, Derek Luke, Tia Texada
Director: David Mamet
Plot: A military officer is recruited by the Secret Service to find the President's daughter who might have been kidnapped by an unsuspecting white slavery ring, only to uncover a conspiracy within the highest levels of government.
Review: Fast-paced, efficient and brutal, Spartan is a capable thriller that blends political conspiracy and special forces-like operations, and offers it up with an exemplary script. In the hands of writer / director Mamet (House of Games, The Spanish Prisoner), even the most common of plots turns into something interesting, and it's obvious he's trying to give the genre his own unique spin by playing a game of deception and double-crosses as much with us as with his characters. Though it occasionally falls for the common clichés and fortuitous coincidences, nothing is ever perfectly predictable and the violent, always gritty proceedings elevate it beyond the usual fare. Mamet is also a capable director, and with the help of a fine cinematographer makes the events immediate and the narrative engrossing. If there's one thing that nags it's his approach to the characters which distances audiences from the events. Just like the film, Kilmer plays it cool and clean with a tough-guy performance that is believable, if not quite sympathetic as a man ready to do anything to retrieve his target, never shying away from killing as necessary. The rest of the cast, with stalwarts such as William H. Macy and Ed O'Neill as the "heavies", are all exemplary with the little they have to work with. Though it's not as accomplished or clever as one would have hoped coming from the talented Mamet, Spartan remains a finely-tuned above-average thriller that's worth a look.
Entertainment: 7/10

Spawn (1997)
Starring: Michael Jai White, John Leguizamo, Martin Sheen
Director: Mark A.Z. DippePlot: Killed by his employer, an elite government assassin is given a new scarred body and supernatural powers after making a pact with demons to lead the hordes of Hell against Heaven in exchange for seeing his wife one last time.
Review: Spawn, based on the popular, brooding comic-book super-hero, has a premise with lots of potential for some mature drama and action (think a darker and more dysfunctional Batman). Unfortunately, the film just can't quite pull it off. Comic artist / creator Todd McFarlane acted as producer on the film and much of the story's feel still comes through, but it's evident that it was a battle trying to be as faithful as possible to the comic-book and to make it palatable to mainstream audiences, ending up being a tad confusing for non-genre fans. One of the most blatant casualties is the loss of the moral ambiguity of the "hero", which was one of the most interesting points in the original material, robbing the story from some necessary depth. Mind you, the script packs pathos, intrigue, and as much comic-book action and events as the budget allows into what could be deemed an "origin" story, and for that it's never boring. Visually, the film tries for an extravagant comic flair with its sets, production, and cinematography (in the vein of The Crow or Batman) and at times manages to appear gritty and gothic enough to pass muster. Though the effects by ILM are usually decent enough and effective, some of them come off a little flat (the computer stuff also looks a little dated) and it's obvious that they were done on a tight budget. Former effects guru-turned director Dippe does well with the action and SFX sequences, but only gives a workmanlike job with the rest. One bright point is the great, way-over-the-top turn by Leguizamo who plays the fat, demon clown with wise-cracking political incorrectness. The rest of the cast, however, is just going through the motions playing what add up to cardboard characters. There's some campy fun to be had with Spawn and it's a decent, dark super-hero flick, but without the required character development of the series it just comes off a little flat.
Entertainment: 5/10

Speed (1994)
Starring: Keanu Reeves, Sandra Bullock, Dennis Hopper
Director: Jan De Bont
Plot: In revenge for putting a stop to a nefarious bomber's attempt to collect ransom, a police officer must now save the passengers of a Los Angeles bus that has been rigged to explode if it slows below 50 mph.
Review: On the outside, Speed seems to be a typical summer-time action picture, promising the typical heroic characters, thrills and action. Surprisingly, it delivers much more: from a simple concept and straight-forward plot, the film evolves into a spectacular one thanks to a clever, intelligent script filled with great suspense, intense, fast-paced narration and amazing stunts. One gets caught into the story from the get-go, as one nefarious predicament follows another, and our heroes are thrown from one incredible situation to another. Sure, the plot twists and the exciting predicaments get elevated to almost ridiculous proportions, but thanks to a no-nonsense, serious-toned approach the proceedings still stay utterly convincing. In terms of filmmaking, first-time director De Bont (Twister) manages to use all the techniques he's learnt as an assistant in other productions, combined with some excellent, tight cinematography and editing to produce a film that knows exactly how to keep its audience at the edge of their seats. Though his acting abilities are often questioned, Keanu Reeves is particularly good in his first major role as the young, dedicated and focused cop. Bullock also does the best and most endearing turn of her career, a role that shot her to stardom, while Hopper does his typically convincing role as the dastardly villain. As pure, manic entertainment, Speed is easily one of the best and most satisfying American action films ever produced.
Entertainment: 9/10


Speed Racer (2008)
Starring: Emile Hirsch, Christina Ricci
Directors: Andy Wachowski, Larry Wachowski
Plot: After rejecting a contract offer from a villainous corporate sponsor, a young driver and his racing family face countless opposition on and off the track and must prove their worth to change the racing world.
Review: Based on the '60s Japanese cartoon television series, writer-directors Larry and Andy Wachowski (of The Matrix films fame) have created a giddy, gorgeous, glorious, over-the-top fun-fest that will leave most audiences either reeling in sensory overload or overjoyed by its sheer audacity. Critics have complained about chaotic and childish story-telling, and equated the film to nothing but a high-powered video game brought to the screen but that's somewhat unfair; the film set out to re-create that feeling of the original cartoon - candy-colored palette, black-and-white plot, easy-to-follow sensibilities, bubblegum-card characters, impossible action sequences and all - and have impeccably brought that world into the 21st-century. The ADD-type narrative, the extended breathless, gravity-defying races (where high-tech modified cars jump and cannonball across death-defying tracks) and hyper-realistic, CGI-created visuals raise the bar as to how crazy a film can be. In the hands of the Wachowski Bros this vividly realized retro-future world all makes sense, flows beautifully and provides a superb example of what can be done (and rightly so) when filmmakers with talent let loose. The anchor to it all is the '60s "Gee Whiz" sentiment on display, recalling a time when cynicism hadn't yet reared its head in our social conscience. There's also the tightly-knit bond within its nuclear family, and the cast does surprisingly well amidst all the eye-candy: Hirsh (as the titular character) carefully strides the line between being sympathetic and being a cartoon; the sharp-witted Ricci ably dumbs-down her usual self to portray the girlfriend; John Goodman and Susan Sarandon have great fun with what could have been narrow roles as the parents; and Matthew Fox, as Racer X, is pure cool. The world of Speed Racer has its own internal logic and little (if anything) to do with our reality; those that can sit back and get carried away by the spell-binding cinematics, the vivid pop-art visuals and Saturday-morning story-telling will be amazed and hugely entertained by the results. Go Racer Go!
Entertainment: 8/10

Spider (2002)
Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Miranda Richardson, Gabriel Byrne
Director: David Cronenberg
Plot: Newly released from an asylum where he's spent most of his life in, a mental patient is placed in a London half-way home where his childhood memories of his mother's violent death come back to haunt him.
Review: Winner of the Genie award for Best Canadian Film, Spider is a much more low-key than what we've come to expect from director Cronenberg, and some may say it is more mature than his more famous exploits (Scanners, Videodrome). Cronenberg has had lots of practice making disturbing films, and he does succeed in getting us into the mental state and world view of a disturbed man. The tight, oppressive atmosphere is ever-present, as is a certain sexual anxiety, and the film gives a decent feeling of a drab, depressing world, as seen through the eyes of the protagonist. This feeling is enhanced by the apt cinematography which is appropriately somber and claustrophobic. Adapted from his own novel, Patrick McGrath keeps the most relevant parts of the story perhaps, but one can't help feeling that most of the substance is missing. The scenes with Fiennes are well done; unfortunately, his character's childhood recollections, flashbacks with Byrne and Richardson, are mostly rather bland and uninteresting. Other sequences are startling and filled with uneasy tension (a flashback to an incident at the asylum is terrific) but for the most part, the film seems to drag along. The final revelation is predictable (and perhaps it's meant to be), and we never get an empathic feel for what is going on. In fact, the whole thing seems rather distancing. Fiennes' acting abilities are limited to bringing out the character through the sole use of body language and incoherent mumblings, but he manages to convince for the most part of someone lost in the torment of schizophrenia, even if it looks like he's playing a meticulously planned part. Richardson has a grand old time playing different characters including the prim housewife and the blonde floozy (a role she takes with wild abandon). As for the rest of the cast, Byrne as the father does a pretty shallow performance, Bradley Hall does a fine, tempered turn as the young boy, and John Neville, in a small supporting role as a fellow patient, is a pleasant addition. More mainstream audiences will come out simply non-plussed or bored by the proceedings - and that's really too bad. Those willing to give it the patience it deserves may be rewarded by the fact that Spider is an interesting exercise, but one would have hoped for better things from the talented individuals involved.
Drama: 5/10

Spider-Man (2002)
Starring: Tobey Maguire, Willem Dafoe, Kirsten Dunst
Director: Sam Raimi
Plot: After being accidentally bitten by a genetically-enhanced spider, a mild teenager exhibits super-human powers which he uses to fight crime and soon comes to the attention of a flying, costumed villain, the Green Goblin.
Review: Director Raimi (Evil Dead, Darkman) and screenwriter David Koepp (Jurassic Park) have crafted a great comic-book adventure with the long-delayed Spider-Man adaptation, one that manages to stay true to its roots and will please fans and non-fans alike. The script manages to cram a surprising amount of story into a mere two hours, from the necessary origin, to Parker's facing his responsibilities and his first villain, all the while throwing in many of the popular situations and characters (Aunt May, Flash, J. Jonah Jameson, etc.) that fans have come to know over the years - and that's no mean feat. Gone are the usually dark, brooding, or often campy elements that marred previous adaptations - this is a fun, humorous flick, to be sure, but it keeps an even-hand on the dramatic moments, too. Raimi uses his whole bag of tricks, from the cool visuals, the impressive choice of shots and the dynamic camera movements to get us into the swing of things, and it works. The big-budget is instantly obvious on-screen, from the terrific costumes, to the large-scale art direction - even New York has never looked so good! The action is grand, with the battles between the villainous Green Goblin showing off a cinematic quality that's amazingly brash and colorful. The CGI effects are a little too prominent and evidently fake during these moments, perhaps, often breaking the illusion, but then most of these stunts would be impossible without them. The film is at its best, however, when it focuses on Parker learning to adapt with his new powers and, of course, on Spider-Man as he web-slings across town stopping crime. The introspective, quite Maguire is a perfect choice for the nerdy, shy Peter Parker, and he takes the role with just the right amount of wide-eyed innocence and wit to make it work. Dunst, as Mary Jane, is OK, but seems to lack the right vibe. Dafoe, in the Jekyll and Hyde role as the Goblin, does a solid performance as the villain. Some of the quieter bits, while necessary to give a rounded view of the character, are a bit awkward and could have used some editing, especially the romantic interludes with Dunst. But this is quickly forgotten with the final 30-second wild ride through New York on Spidey's back; it's a parting treat that beckons us to the next chapter. As a first installment, Spider-Man works wonders in what is sure to become a successful franchise and it's an excellent way to start the Summer movie season.
Entertainment: 8/10

Spider-Man 2 (2004)
Starring: Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, Alfred Molina
Director: Sam Raimi
Plot: Torn between a life of fighting crime as a super-hero and his love for a childhood friend, a young man is forced to fight an evil scientist welded to monstrous mechanical arms over the fate of the city.
Review: Spider-Man 2 is more a continuation of the first film than a sequel, and fans of the first will be more than enchanted by returning director Raimi's efforts. Much like the first film, this is more a coming of age film than a balls-out action flick. In fact, for much of the middle portion, Parker doesn't even have any powers, with the bit of comedy the situations incur. In fact her goes through such a pathetically bad day that we can't help but sympathize. Not to say action enthusiasts will be bored - when the action scenes do come, and there's quite a handful, they're as dynamic and thrilling as any comic book adventure. And check out the amazing shots of our hero swinging across New York! The special-effects, especially the terrific mechanical appendages and the afore-mentioned swinging, are for the most part well done. The exception however is on the character CGI effects which, on the big screen, still look terribly fake, a case made worse in that most of the one-on-one battles make use of computer animation. Still, this is a minor point. One scene of note, the villain's wake-up in a hospital room as the arms maim all the surgeons around him, is a hilarious homage to Raimi's own Evil Dead 2, including zooming cameras, comic deaths and a chainsaw. There's no doubt that the film could have done with some editing to provide a tighter narrative but, just like the original, the movie is just as interested in the human aspect as it is in the "blockbuster-movie" sequences. The idea of the "super-hero with real-life problems" so inherent in the comics is much more fleshed-out here, as is the important theme of "with great power comes great responsibility" - the dilemma facing Parker becomes living his life as a normal man or living it as Spidey, and this is the real heart of the film. There are also some amusing moments relating to the New Yorkers' fascination with their home-grown vigilante - from adulating young women who want to swing with the Man, to a really poignant one as they defend their fallen hero. Various sub-plots, including his on-off relationship with Mary Jane, also keeps things interesting. Maguire and Dunst have an odd chemistry together, but it works, both growing into their roles. Like the Green Goblin before him, Doctor Octopus is a villain torn between two personalities, and Molina is a solid choice to make these two work. All the supporting characters are also back, from Jamieson, the editor you love to hate, to Aunt May, all a bit more fleshed out just as new ones are brought to the fore. Look also for a cameo by Raimi alumni actor Bruce Campbell as an annoying usher. The cliff-hanger ending preludes a definite sub-plot for the expected future sequels, and if Spider-Man 2 is any indication, we can't wait.
Entertainment: 8/10

Spider-Man 3 (2007)
Starring: Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, James Franco, Thomas Haden Church
Director: Sam Raimi
Plot: While getting adulation from the city for his super-hero alter-ego, Peter Parker must face deadly villains old and new just as his relationship with Mary Jane takes a turn for the worse.
Review: A summer blockbuster meant to upstage the first two chapters by every means, Spider-Man 3 delivers chills, thrills, incredible special effects and more personal tension than you can shake a web at. Three major comic villains are on-board this time around: the Hobgoblin, the Silver-Age Sandman and the more contemporary Venom. Director Raimi goes all out, yet maintains that comic-book center and gives it a vibrant, colorful cinematic adaptation. Using an incredible canvas he's managed to summarize years worth of comic-book stories into a little over two hours and for the most part it works, and geeks of all ages will adore it. Every bit of its $250M budget is on-screen - it looks fantastic, moves at a breakneck pace and, though this is the longest installment, there's always something new around the corner. The returning cast knows the drill and seem to coast through the grand melodrama of Parker’s struggles with his romantic life, work rival, friend-turned-nemesis, all leading him to be influenced down a darker path by the Venom symbiote. This last one brings up the best of the humorous touches sprinkled throughout, that of the dark Parker strutting his stuff on the NYC streets doing an earnest, laugh-out-loud rendition of Travolta in Saturday Night Live. There is, however, such a thing as too much of a good thing: there's just too may things going on - too many characters, too many villains, too many problems for the story to adequately (or satisfyingly) cope with in it's running time. Oh, it does a bang-up job trying to juggle it all, but ultimately it just doesn't connect in one cohesive whole, and cramming a resolution to the last 10 minutes (in a mushy, teary conclusion) makes it feel too abrupt. Still, where it lacks the grace and spontaneity of the first two it makes up in sheer spectacle: If the CGI effects aren't always quite right, they do give an exhilarating sense of speed and movement. The creature creations are amazing (especially Sandman in a scene where he turns into a giant fist in the middle of a construction zone). And the effects-laden fights are incredible, climaxing with a traditional super-hero / super-villain team-up that's worth the price of admission alone; this is the four-color medium given life. Despite some flaws one can't blame it for over-reaching, and Spider-Man 3 is a tremendously entertaining blowout of all things Spidey, and a great finale to one of the best comic-book franchises.
Entertainment: 8/10

The Spiderwick Chronicles (2008)
Starring: Freddie Highmore, Mary-Louise Parker, Sarah Bolger
Director: Mark Waters
Plot: After moving into a run-down country house with their mother, three siblings find themselves pulled into a conflict among fantastic creatures that live in the surrounding forest for their grand-father's magical book.
Review: Based on the five fantasy books that make up Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black's illustrated teen-novel series, The Spiderwick Chronicles doesn't quite hit a high-mark for movie magic. It's definitely got the right idea: throw into the fantasy mix some sibling rivalry, a nasty divorce, a strange spooky house, a secret book, a magical world of invisible creatures and you've got all the ingredients for what should be a successful affair. For those not too familiar with the novels, however, the film seems to have many slow spots even at a breezy 90 minutes. Despite some imaginative creature design and good effects, solid performances from the young cast - including an effective dual twin role by Highmore - and some decent adventure, the story has a feeling of been-there-done-that. Of course, any script that dilutes almost five books worth of story into a 90-minute adventure is bound to lose some of the beloved details for fans, but while it's for the most part engaging, it really doesn't get its stride until its final act, as the forest creatures make a move on the house - and the humans in it. Though clearly aimed at younger audiences, some of the scenes may not be suitable for kids under ten and the simplistic tale may be too shallow for adults. Nevertheless, there's some decent stuff in The Spiderwick Chronicles that will make for a nice escape for those into fantasy fare. Too bad it will probably be lost among other Harry Potter wannabes.
Entertainment: 6/10

The Spirit (2008)
Starring: Gabriel Macht, Samuel L. Jackson, Scarlett Johansson, Eva Mendes
Director: Frank Miller
Plot: Having mysteriously returned from the dead, an ex-cop fights the criminal forces in his city as the vigilante The Spirit and sets his sights on a criminal mastermind The Octopus, a man who is just as hard to kill.
Review: As campy as it is confusing, the big-budget adaptation of legendary cartoonist' Will Eisner's seminal comic series of the '40s and '50s, The Spirit is an occasionally entertaining, occasionally dull mess. As a graphic novelist, Frank Miller has some classic works under his belt, from The Dark Knight Returns to Sin City and 300, the latter of which he had a hand in getting to the screen in superb adaptations. It's no surprise that being a creator in a paper medium he put more emphasis on the visuals in his first effort as director, and it smacks of the minimalist, overly-stylized approach of helmer Rodriguez's adaptation of Sin City - a far cry from the richly detailed, 4-color world of Will Eisner's creation. The tone is intentionally over-the-top, and it's surprisingly in line with the irreverent tone of the original strip. If you can get past the slapstick, there's a decent exercise in style over substance here, with the film noir caricatures and comic-book structure. It's clear though that what Eisner would have been able to do in a six-page story, Miller takes 100 minutes to tell - and it's not better. No matter how close he may have been to legendary cartoonist Eisner, there's no doubt that this rendition would have had the creator turning in his grave. On the plus side, the supporting cast is one of the biggest selling points: there's the bevy of sexy femme fatales, including Mendes and Johansson who give it their all (or almost) and have obvious fun with the lines, but no more than Jackson who - as the villainous Octopus wearing everything from a pimp getup to a Nazi outfit - plays it over-the-top with proper ham-fisted glee. Also of note is the guy playing the myriad copies of Octopus' simpleton henchmen - a hoot. The only real miss in the casting is Macht who's too handsome, too young, too straight-laced and way too bland as the title character. The Spirit amounts to a visually dazzling but improperly campy B-movie. One can perhaps understand the reason for the approach, and it's not as bad as some critics have claimed, but it doesn't make for a very satisfying experience, either.
Entertainment: 5/10

Spirited Away (2002)
Voice Actors: Daveigh Chase, Jason Marsden, Suzanne Pleshette
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Plot: While on a trip with her parents to the suburbs, a young schoolgirl wanders onto a deserted fairground that ends up being the entrance to a magical world ruled by spirits and wizards, one where humans are not accepted lightly.
Review: Easily the most popular film in Japan history, Spirited Away is simply a wonderful fantasy adventure for all ages, one that bids you to enter a magical world full of wild happenings, humor and strange, mystical characters. Legendary writer/ animator / director Miyazaki has a way of creating richly textured, imaginative worlds where we can lose ourselves in (Castle in the Sky, Princess Mononoke) and here he's at his whimsical best, creating a fully-formed alternate reality. The animation, which retains the richness of hand-drawn artwork, is excellent, both colorful, fluid, and incredibly detailed in the tradition of the best anime. Like all of his works, Miyazaki inserts a strong environmental message into the main plot. As such, though perfectly suited for young ones as well, the overall story shows a definite maturity and a real sense of wonder (and even something of a dark side) that is lacking from most animated features. Indeed, even at over two hours (a rarity in animated films) this is a tale that never fails to enchant adults as well. One of the reasons this works so well is that the story's protagonist is based on Miyazaki's template for all of his heroines: a plucky girl who surmounts her fears and the hardships of her strange new surroundings; it's something that always has universal appeal. Another is that all the inhabitants are not straight stereotypes, and the story never strays into predictability. And there's always something interesting going on! Immensely entertaining and endearing, Spirited Away is another instant classic by Miyazaki to be cherished and watched over and over again. Winner of an Oscar for Best Animated Film.
Entertainment: 9/10

SPL (Hong Kong - 2005)
Starring: Donnie Yen, Samo Hung, Simon Yam
Director: Wilson Yip
Plot: Forced to retire due to a terminal brain tumor and anchored by a by-the-book replacement, a stubborn detective and his team decide to go for broke to get a ruthless triad boss behind bars before daylight.
Review: Along with the popular Infernal Affairs, SPL marks a much-anticipated return to form for Hong Kong thrillers after a disappointing series of bubble-gum-level flicks. Professionally shot and ably directed, writer / director Yip (Bullets Over Summer) provides a very "noir" crime drama that brims over with dark atmosphere and impending violence. The familiar tale focuses on the personal rivalry between cop and gangster but there's also a surprisingly effective underlying theme of fatherhood (indeed, every character has an issue being a father, or dealing with their fathers, and the film unfolds during - you guessed it! - Father's Day) and the attention given to the drama elevates the story a notch. It's all a set-up for a final showdown, however, and an ironic, tragic ending. Fans expecting wall-to-wall action will be mildly disappointed, as most of the film is limited to a few car crashes and quick pummelings, at least until the final act which is highlighted by a dynamic improvised fight between trained cop and a sadistic killer. But the real treat is the finale, and what HK fan isn't dying to see a mano-a-mano fight between the two kung-fu legends that are Sammo Hung and Donnie Yen? They may have past their prime, but their fighting skills remain impressive and they're still awesome to behold. As the triad boss, Hung does a rare villainous role, and - sporting hair extensions and beard - he's appropriately despicable. As for the heroes, Yen is in fine form and Yam proves again why he's been pigeon-holed in cop roles - he's good at it. Sure, there's nothing very new in SPL but more than other recent productions it does deliver the goods, and for that alone it's worth a look for fans of the actors and the genre.
Entertainment: 6/10

Spriggan (Japan - 1998)
Director: Hirotsugu Kawasaki
Plot: Using super-powered soldiers, two warring factions fight for control of what seems to be Noah's Ark, a device that can control Earth's weather.
Review: Katsuhiro Otomo, the animator best known for his classic Japanese anime feature Akira, shows off his talents by combining great imagery, pacing and impressive backgrounds with some great action and an interesting story-line. The scope aims to be grand, and mostly succeeds, but too much time is given to (admittedly impressive) battle scenes to the detriment of the more interesting mystery of the Ark itself. Fans of well-made anime, though, will not be disappointed.
Entertainment: 7/10

Spy Game (2001)
Starring: Robert Redford, Brad Pitt, Catherine McCormack
Director: Tony Scott
Plot: On the day of his retirement, a master spy goes against his CIA chiefs to rescue his young protege who has been captured while trying to break into a Chinese prison and faces imminent execution.
Review: Spy Game is another decent, entertaining thriller from director Tony Scott (Top Gun, Enemy of the State), one that fits somewhere between the mainstream Hollywood flick and the more morally ambiguous British spy thrillers. The present (1991) drama is inter-cut with flashbacks of their past operations, from Pitt's recruitment in Vietnam to their eventual ideological split in war-torn Beirut over a botched mission. Much of the tension is unfortunately dissipated by these tangents into the past, but they provide a good overview of the relationship between the two spies and are quite interesting on their own merits. There is little in the way of actual action, with the focus being more on the the behind-the-scenes manipulations of the craft, but Scott's efficient, kinetic camera-work and the rapid editing makes it all seem to fly by in a flash of cinematic style. And that's also the problem with the film: the suspense is well crafted and it's all great to watch, but there's not enough character development to understand anyone's motivations. There's the potential for a really excellent story here, and with the time- and planet-hopping of the narrative there's a lot of material as well, but the film never stops long enough for us to appreciate it fully. All that said, the slick, fast-paced production never allows for a dull moment, and it's all quite engaging. A sure plus is Redford who is quite convincing as the grizzled, cynical veteran and the scenes between him and Pitt are just plain fun to watch. In the end, there's enough entertainment value here, as well as a decently engrossing story, to recommend Spy Game as a solid espionage thriller.
Entertainment: 7/10

Spy Kids (2001)
Starring: Alexa Vega, Daryl Sabara, Antonio Banderas
Director: Robert Rodriguez
Plot: A married spy couple come out of retirement only to be captured by a toy creator and his silly bio-engineered henchmen leaving their two young kids as the only ones who can save them and the free world.
Review: Mixing light-hearted comedy and cartoon-inspired action, Spy Kids is a breath of fresh air in the family film genre that doesn't end up playing down to either generation. In fact with such a zany plot, large dose of humor, and incredible situations the film comes out as a sort of pre-teen James Bond adventure, and that's a good thing. The film is a surprisingly non-violent effort from a director who has made a niche for himself with blood-soaked action flicks (Desperado, From Dusk 'til Dawn). In fact Rodriguez has put on all the creative hats here from writing to editing, and has managed to create a fast paced, well thought-out vehicle that will please everyone, but with added on-screen touches and bits of humorous dialogue that will leave adults chuckling. The fabulous gizmos and gadgets themselves are worth the price of admission, with one imaginative creation after another only adding to the magic. The characters also break the mold for this type of film - the young heroes are cute, sure, but they're not perfect or cuddly, and they have a personality and enough eccentricities that kids and adults can relate to them. The grown-up cast, including cameos by a bevy of TV stars, play their comic roles well, with an especially fine turn by Alan Cumming as the Pee-Wee-type villain. It's unfortunate that the computer effects aren't well integrated, probably due to the relatively low-budget, but they are still effective in capturing the fantasy elements of the story and work well within the confines of the cartoonish goings-on. Fun-loving, light-hearted, smart and thoroughly amusing, Spy Kids is an entertaining adventure that's fast-paced enough for kids and clever enough for adults.
Entertainment: 8/10

Spy Kids 2: The Island of Lost Dreams (2002)
Starring: Antonio Banderas, Carla Gugino, Daryl Sabara
Director: Robert Rodriguez
Plot: Two under-age spies compete with another pair of young agents to recover a powerful technological marvel and discover the mystery behind an invisible island populated by genetically mutated creatures.
Review: Spy Kids 2: The Island of Lost Dreams is everything a sequel should be: fast paced, inventive, and able to build on the strengths of its predecessor without re-using the same elements or gags. The gadgets now are more far-fetched and intricate, the story more complex, and the pacing so much faster and energetic. The CGI effects are even more prominent this time around, and it's great fun to see such surreal fantasy elements running amok, including imaginative vehicles and a slew of bizarre creatures. Thankfully none of it takes over the heart of the film, which is full of intimate moments and surprising (if quick) character development, though the story itself is really just an excuse for some clever ideas and some slapstick fun. One thing that hasn't changed it's the strong sense of family, and the great tongue-in-cheek humor that's to be found throughout, making this a fine family-friendly adventure while spoofing all kinds of cinematic icons, from Indiana Jones and the classic stop-motion creatures of Ray Harryhausen, to James Bond (of course). It's obvious writer / director / producer and all-around doer Rodriguez (Spy Kids, Desperado) had a blast coming up with new ideas and creating a film that he would want to watch with his own kids, and it shows on every frame. The visuals are stunningly rendered, if obviously fake, and Rodriguez has a dynamic style that shines in every frame. Though it sometimes feels like you're watching a kid's show, there's so much packed in every moment, such a sense of fun, that it's hard not to be carried along. This is family fare that will excite young ones and adults, even ones with acute attention disorders. The kids are getting older, but they're still just right; though kid actor Sabara is a little stiff as an actor, Alexa Vega as his older sister makes up for it. As for the adults, Banderas shines outright here in a starring role and is both suave and amusing. The supporting cast makes for an excellent selection, including roles from fan-favorite weirdo Steve Buscemi, Bill Paxton, Ricardo Montalban and Alan Cumming in a returning cameo. With more of all the qualities that made the first a success, and with a infectious energy all its own, Spy Kids 2 is a very entertaining and worthwhile sequel.
Entertainment: 8/10

Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over (2003)
Starring: Daryl Sabara, Sylvester Stallone, Ricardo Montalban
Director: Robert Rodriguez
Plot: An under-age secret agent enters a virtual reality game to save his older sister caught in the clutches of a crazed programmer and tries to stop the game from taking over the minds of youngsters everywhere.
Review: A throwback to the '50s phenomenon with a modern twist, the release of this latest Spy Kids installment uses the 3D gimmick to make its mark, but fails to provide the enjoyment of its James Bond-ish siblings. Writer / director / producer / effects supervisor Rodriguez has let loose on a 3D premise and does a fine job providing some popcorn summer thrills on a relatively low-budget (by Hollywood standards). But the charm and inventiveness of the first two installments are missing; there are a few moments that remind us why the series has become so popular, but for the most part this is just nothing more than a movie version of a video game. Though it spoofs the arcade genre, it doesn't really push any envelopes. This is all just an excuse for Rodriguez to experiment with the 3D genre and enhance his CGI skills. The effects, for those who can stand the sometimes blurry visuals and the tinted view due to the provided red / blue glasses, are pretty good and the arcade sequences (including a speed race and some giant robot combat) are fun. It's just unfortunate that the age-old technique hasn't been enhanced with half a century of technology. The child actors aren't very convincing, but then no one here really has to be - they're all playing second-fiddle to the 3D stuff. Stallone doesn't really stretch his chops but he's actually OK as the comic villain and Montalban adds a touch of class to the film. Though Banderas barely makes an appearance there is, however, an impressive line-up of star cameos to be had. As a 2D sequel, Spy Kids 3D just isn't up to the smarts and chutzpah of the original, but thanks to the mostly effective 3D it gives some added life to the proceedings and makes this an enjoyable, clean family outing. Let's hope it doesn't start a trend, though.
Entertainment: 6/10

The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)
Starring: Roger Moore, Barbara Bach, Richard Kiel
Director: Lewis Gilbert
Plot: 007 must join forces with a female Russian agent to retrieve two hijacked nuclear submarines from a megalomaniac bent on destroying life on Earth and creating an underworld civilization.
Review: The Spy Who Loved Me is a terrific, high-flying Moore Bond film, and definitely one of the biggest in scope. The film is packed with inventive stunts, exciting and explosive action sequences (though some bring to mind the Connery installment You Only Live Twice), making good use of the trademark Bond gadgets, including some wonderfully dated '70s gadgets and a particularly imaginative and deadly underwater-car which gives Goldfinger's Aston-Martin a run for its money. The plot between action set-pieces is also lively and the strained relationship between the two Cold War spies keeps it interesting. Another one-dimensional megalomaniac takes center stage here, but it's his menacing, towering steel-toothed henchman, Jaws, who steals the show as a great, silent super-villain. Add to this some of the most beautiful, lavish cinematography of the series, some large, impressive sets, great production values, and many picturesque, exotic locales (including some wonderful shots of Egypt and Italy), and it becomes one of the more engaging outings of the venerable series. Mostly light-hearted and always entertaining, The Spy Who Loved Me comes up as one of the best of the Bond films.
Entertainment: 8/10

The Squid and the Whale (2005)
Starring: Jeff Daniels, Laura Linney, Jesse Eisenberg
Director: Noah Baumbach
Plot: Set in Brooklyn in the 1980s, two brothers must cope, each in their own way, with the separation of their parents and the events that follow.
Review: Sad, touching, irresistible and uncomfortably funny, The Squid and the Whale is one of the year's real surprises. Rarely has the issue of a parents' separation and its effect on their kids been dealt with in such fine manner, delineating the tensions, neglect, and resentment from all parties, with the kids torn in the middle. The film so easily captures the disintegration of this family that one can hardly be blamed for branding about words like gripping and affecting. Indeed, in less than an hour and a half we get to know this family so intimately - all the small things that unite them, and mostly what drives them apart - it's like we've known them for years. Based on writer / director Baymbach's own childhood experiences, the psychological trauma is sharply observed, perhaps because the semi-autobiographical nature of the film allows for some hard truths to come out. The cast is altogether excellent and make these characters all the more human for all their faults, including the under-rated Linney as the mom and Eisenberg as the disturbed elder son. But it's really Daniels who gets the most attention for his impeccable out-of-type performance as the inept, pompous father. There is no resolution to the film, no point where it all works out or the family is saved; this is a slice of life, a viciously precise portrait of how a divorce destroys a family. Done with only modest means, The Squid and the Whale manages to create a tone and pathos that puts many of the bigger-name American dramas to shame. Winner for best dramatic direction and screenwriting at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival.
Drama: 8/10

Stander (2003)
Starring: Thomas Jane, Deborah Unger, Dexter Fletcher
Director: Bronwen Hughes
Plot: Distraught over his involvment in Apartheid, a South African detective turns to robbing banks to defy the government and becomes one of the country's most notorious criminals.
Review: Based on the true-life exploits of Andre Stander and his criminal career in the early 1980's, Stander in an entertaining crime drama with a conscience. Of note is the opening recreation of a clash between police and blacks during a demonstration against Apartheid really hits home. What first starts as a moral justification for our protagonist soon becomes a lifestyle choice and the film leaves off the social commentary to focus on the many scenes of cleverly-executed (and often audacious) robberies. There's a definite playfulness during these capers, all of which are energetically staged. In the vein of Tony Scott films like Man on Fire, director Hughes (Forces of Nature) shoots the film with heavy color contrast, lots of close-ups and a sure hand, showing off a nice blend of mainstream stylishness and compelling storytelling. At its heart, though, this is a character study on Stander himself, a charming anti-hero seeking fame and money who hides his feelings of responsibility for his role in repressing the black majority by seeking notoriety. Early scenes with his soon-to-be-estranged wife are particularly effective. In the titular role, Jane's performance is just right as the irresistible crook, balancing a sense of seeming insouciance with one of constant personal anguish. Partners-in-crime Dexter Fletcher and David Patrick O'Hara aren't nearly as well-rounded, but play their parts well. All told, Stander is a pleasant surprise as both a crime drama and an entertaining yarn and is well worth a look.
Drama / Entertainment: 7/10

Stargate (1994)
Starring: Kurt Russell, James Spader, Alexis Cruz
Director: Roland Emmerich
Plot: A team of elite soldiers escort a young Egyptologist through an ancient portal onto a desert planet that is inhabited by humans ruled over by a despotic alien taking the guise of the Sun God Ra.
Review: From the get-go Stargate promises spectacle and there's some of that, but trying to mix epic Bible stories like The Ten Commandments with a sci-fi actioner doesn't quite pay off. What begins as an enjoyable pulp sci-fi adventure using the rich, ever-exotic setting of ancient Egypt turns into a tired mainstream flick as soon as the group arrives at their destination. Unlike the team's later efforts such as Independence Day and The Patriot, there's just not enough energy to lift the proceedings past the silly point and into the fun zone. Oh, there are a few cool moments, especially the setup and the alien technology on display, but it's not enough to sustain our interest throughout. A good premise, some admittedly decent special effects, good cinematography, impressive sets and mobs of extras still can't save the film from a bland script. Full of contrivances and lack of even it's own internal logic, it's just a disappointing effort, one that's further marred by poor character development and some truly groan-inducing incidences. Worse, the elements geared to create suspense aren't fleshed out enough and the attempts at humor fall mostly flat. Even the climactic battle as the human mob defies its oppressor seems too easy and rather unexciting. As for the cast, Russell comes out unscathed, playing a straight (if bland) army guy with a death wish, but Spader comes off more like a typecast, rather unsympathetic dweeb. Despite a good beginning and lots of potential Stargate just ends up as another silly, unmemorable Hollywood sci-fi effort. It's watchable enough, but it could have been so much better.
Entertainment: 5/10

Starship Troopers (1997)
Starring: Casper Van Dien, Dina Meyer, Denise Richards
Director: Paul Verhoeven
Plot: In a future where the military controls society, three young teenagers are whisked into an interstellar war when an insect-like race bent on destroying humanity destroys Buenos Aires.
Review: Very loosely inspired by the grim, depressing SF classic novel by Robert A. Heinlein, this Starship Troopers is wholly a Hollywood product, one that has its tongue-firmly-planted-in-cheek and comes off as slick, action-packed B-movie camp done on a big budget. As made by director Verhoeven, it's a fast-paced, in-your-face coming-of-age tale that follows its hero from boot-camp to quick promotion on the battlefield, mostly due to his superior meeting an untimely end. Verhoeven is no stranger to viciously entertaining sci-fi with his classic take on Robocop and the amusing Total Recall and, as expected, the graphically violent action sequences filled with maimed corpses, heavy artillery and grand destruction are sure to please even the most jaded of viewers. Despite the growing age of the computer effects, the Bug monsters still look terrific, especially as they swarm across the desert landscape, and the pitched battles between Man and Bug are aptly thrilling. Add to this a boatload of soap-opera-styled melodramatics amongst testosterone-laden, overly-handsome teens and you've got the makings of a cult classic in the making. What really makes it better than your average action flick, however, is the subversive attitude that's dropped into the proceedings, making it as much darkly humorous as it is rough-and-tumble. Indeed, below the obvious blockbuster-styled entertainment of space battles, military action, and bug fights is an over-the-top satire of fascist society involving a zany "might makes right" social attitude and a hilarious use of ludicrous propaganda. Though it might be an inescapably shallow (and even silly) adaptation that has little to do with its origins, Starship Troopers is a sci-fi blockbuster that's loud, boisterous and fun.
Entertainment: 7/10

Starship Troopers 2: Hero of the Federation (2004)
Starring: Richard Burgi, Colleen Porch, Bill Brown
Director: Phil Tippett
Plot: Seeking refuge in an abandonned outpost surrounded by giant alien bugs, a squad of soldiers fights to survive a new type of insect that is turning them against each other.
Review: A straight-to-video sequel to the entertaining blockbuster Starship Troopers, Hero of the Federation seems to forget everything but the story premise of its predecessor and cuts all ties to the novel by Robert A. Heinlein. Though he does a passable job, special-effects-guru-turned-director Tippett probably should have stuck to his guns before throwing himself head-first in this mess. Plagued by a restrictive low-budget, the production looks cheap, dark and constrained - except for those shots stolen from the first movie. Worse, the film takes itself much too seriously. Gone is the campy tone, the spectacular action, the fast-paced narrative, and the cynical fascist chest-thumping. Instead, we get a story that plays on the tired "enemy within" theme (ripping-off Alien and The Thing in its search for paranoia and horror) without bringing anything new to the table. The handful of action sequences and CGI scenes work very well, and a chilling last line seems to indicate that there might have been a more enjoyable film hidden somewhere. Throw in some violence and gore, a little tits-and-ass between the nubile young rookies for good measure, some icky creature effects, and you've got something that's watchable without being really enjoyable. Of note is the sympathetic TV-stalwart Burgi who, as the titular tough-as-nails hero, comes out of this unscathed. To be fair, considering the limited resources available, Hero of the Federation is a passable, mildly enjoyable mix of SF themes that delivers the goods for the midnight-movie crowd. If you can, though, stick to the original.
Entertainment: 4/10

Starsky & Hutch (2004)
Starring: Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson
Director: Todd Phillips
Plot: Two very different cops, one a hyper-tense loose canon, the other a laid-back slacker, pair up to go on the trail of a drug kingpin and his new strain of cocaine with the help of a trusted informant.
Review: With a plot that's an evident retread of other films / cop shows done just for laughs, this comic updating of Starsky & Hutch plays out as a prequel to the popular 70's cop show. Pretty much as clichéd and silly as they come, this spoof of the original show makes good thanks to a sprite pacing, a rose-colored retro look at the 70's and an easy-going cast. After the gross-out comedy Road Trip, director Philips aims squarely for broad, rather inoffensive comedy here. There are some hints at the crazy antics of Old School (Will Ferrell even does a zany cameo as an inmate with bizarre tastes), but these are few. The gags do come off easily, from a frenetic Starsky accidentally high on coke, to the duo playing undercover as mimes, but most of them fall flat. Still, things move along at a decent pace, and the story progression is amusing if terribly derivative. An overacting, uptight Stiller and a relaxed Owen play to type - they've done this kind of stuff countless times now, including their stint together in Zoolander, but they're good at it and have an easy chemistry together. Vaughn as the evil drug-lord sleep-walks through the comedy bits, and Snoop Dogg as the informant "Huggy Bear" is just stale. The best character, however, might well be the impeccably polished, super-charged vintage Ford Torino which flies almost as much as it drives. With enough laughs and overall goofiness to fill its length, Starsky & Hutch ends up a decent time waster, but not much more.
Entertainment/ Comedy: 5/10

Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)
Starring: William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley
Director: Robert Wise
Plot: The veteran crew of the Enterprise reunites years after their last mission to face a huge, destructive, artificial entity that is headed for Earth in search of its Creator.
Review: With Star Trek: The Motion Picture director Wise took the popular franchise into new, uncharted territory with mixed results. The filmmakers obviously approached the film with 2001: A Space Odyssey in mind, and more than any of the following installments, the film is a more cerebral exploration of sci-fi themes, and thus lacks the humor, action, and adventure that usually marks big-budget sci-fi movies. Indeed, the film flows at a very 2001-esque pace, with a similar sterile focus on the future, with its large sets and interminable displays of technology, though to be fair, the production values are quite impressive, and the Enterprise has never looked so good. The film has a solid beginning and a decent ending that bookmarks a rather slow, even tedious, descent into the heart of the alien ship to confront V'ger, one that is filled with gorgeous effects sequences, but after more than 20 minutes ends up as boring eye-candy. It's too obvious that the story was first and foremost created for a TV pilot - in fact it has large similarities with the original ST episode "The Changeling" - and the script can't sustain the lavish production values used on screen. The sense of wonder, however, is keenly crafted though the filmmakers were seemingly in awe of their own long-winded special-effects. Seeing all the old crew reunited is a treat for trekkies, but there's a lack of any character development and the obvious camaraderie between the characters, the very heart of the series, is mostly missing until the last third of the film, something that was quickly corrected in later chapters. Giving the venerated series a large-scale, ambitious send off into theatres, ST:TMP is a more sedate sci-fi endeavor than many expected, a step away from the warm, action-oriented series, but one whose ideas and visual splendor will appeal to sci-fi fans.
Note: 20 years after its first release, Wise was allowed to go back and re-edit the film, even going so far as adding new material, making the whole film flow much better.
Entertainment: 7/10

Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan (1982)
Starring: William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, Ricardo Montalban
Director: Nicholas Meyer
Plot: Captain Kirk, in command of the new USS Enterprise crewed only by cadets, is forced to face wits with an old enemy bent on revenge and who holds a powerful device that can reshape worlds.
Review: After the disappointing Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan aimed at breathing new life in the franchise, and provided a terrific installment that was more serious and darker in tone than any of the others before or after. In fact, of all the Star Trek films, Khan is probably the closest to the original series in terms of dramatic sci-fi, low-key humor, character interaction, suspense, and even action. The straight-forward script does its root material justice and is a treat for both new and old fans alike, delivering an interesting story full of the melodrama and adventure that the audience has now come to expect. The acting has never been a strong suit of the cast, but here they shine and show their best performances. A real surprise is Montalban as the vicious Khan who chews the screen with perfect aplomb. With good production values, great space effects, and a script that both brings a nostalgic pang and an avid sense of fun to the proceedings, Star Trek 2 is easily the best chapter of the series.
Entertainment: 8/10

Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984)
Starring: William Shatner, DeForest Kelley, Christopher Lloyd
Director: Leonard Nimoy
Plot: After the death of Spock, Captain Kirk and crew steal the decommissioned USS Enterprise to bring back the body of their fallen comrade from a Starfleet quarantine planet only to battle a Klingon warlord set on stealing the planet's secrets.
Review: The cast is back in another outing to face impossible odds once again. The actors all look older, of course, but they manage to pull off their roles one last time - after this one, they seemed at the end of their rope. Star Trek III: The Search for Spock is also the most emotional and melodramatic installment both for the characters and for the audience: what Trekker can avoid a pang of nostalgia as the valiant Enterprise is destroyed? Interesting, but silly, premise to bring Spock back to life is just the typical Star Trek excuse for a rousing good yarn. Pathos, engaging stories, a bit of action, and great character interactions in a sci-fi setting is what made the original series a hit, and Star Trek III delivers the same on a much bigger production scale with good cinematography and some decent effects. Best of the series after Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Followed by the campy Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.
Entertainment: 7/10

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986)
Starring: William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley
Director: Leonard Nimoy
Plot: To save Earth from an alien threat, the crew of the now-defunct Enterprise must go back in time to 20th-century Los Angeles to bring back two humpback whales.
Review: Besides the atrocious Star Trek V, this, the fourth installment of the film series, is the lamest of the bunch. Playing the whole thing as a comedy might have been interesting, but despite a few chuckles of the misplaced-people-from-the-future variety there aren't any laughs to be had. The aging cast members look lost, play their roles mechanically, and miss the mark on all their one-liners. The plot is ludicrous, the story un-interesting, the "save the whales" sentimentality saccharine-sweet and over-bearing, the action and drama non-existent and, worst of all, the usual spirit of Star Trek adventure is completely missing from the proceedings. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home ends up being a joke indeed.
Entertainment: 3/10

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)
Starring: William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley
Director: Nicholas Meyer
Plot: The crew of the Enterprise must stop a conspiracy to prevent the peace process between the Federation and the Klingon Empire while trying to find a saboteur in their midsts.
Review: Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country is another trip to the popular Trek universe, a decent mainstream effort that's fast enough and slick enough for all audiences. Director / co-writer Meyer (who made the pinnacle of the movie chapters, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan) is at the helm once more and delivers a well-paced, visually interesting effort, capturing all the beloved elements of the series with fine flair and distinct efficiency. The characters and situations are typical Trek stuff, and fans of the stalwart series will have many moments to wax nostalgic and enjoy more of the trademark verbal exchanges. There's also an appropriately large-scale plot to cap off the series, a story inspired by the end of the Cold War that sometimes forces the parallels with current politics a little too much. Oh, there are some rather silly moments, and some plot twists that are just too damn convenient, but this has always been par for the course and the mix of special-effect sequences and space-based adventure will still please fans of sci-fi flicks. The mystery sub-plot, which isn't always convincing, adds a little spice to the proceedings, as do the film's guest stars: Kim Cattrall as a young Vulcan, and an over-the-top Christopher Plummer who shines as a Klingon general who spews Shakespeare in its "native" language. As for the crew, Shatner and company do an honorable last big-screen turn in roles that they have portrayed for over 25 years. No matter how much fun it tries to be, however, it's obvious that this part of the franchise has lost its steam and is due for retirement, in large part because its characters (and actors) have grown too old for the kind of adventure audiences have come to expect. The final act, unfortunately, isn't as exciting or as dramatic as it should have been considering this is a farewell, but it does end with a sentimental ovation for its crew. Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country is a fine swan song for the series and for the original cast, and should be fun for non-Trekkies, too.
Entertainment: 6/10

Star Trek: First Contact (1996)
Starring: Patrick Stewart, Brent Spiner, James Cromwell
Director: Jonathan Frakes
Plot: The crew of the Enterprise must go back in time to Earth's first contact with an alien species in the middle of the 21st century to stop the Borg, an evil cyborg race, from assimilating the human race.
Review: First Contact finally pits the Enterprise with their most formidable enemies, the Borg, a perennial fan favorite. The film, in both topic and execution, is much darker than previous chapters in the series and much more action oriented. As expected, the special effects are well done, especially the opening space battle with the Borg cube. Once again, Picard and Data steal most of the show, while the other characters only play bit parts - a shame since Star Trek works as an ensemble cast and all of the characters deserve some time in the spotlight. The script touches on many beloved features and nuances of the series, and maintains a good level of suspense, action, and intelligence while still allowing for the occasional light moment. One of the most successful entries in the long-running movie series, and definitely the best "Star Trek: The Next Generation" feature.
Action: 7/10
Entertainment: 8/10

Star Trek: Insurrection (1998)
Starring: Patrick Stewart, Marina Sirtis, Jonathan Frakes
Director: Jonathan Frakes
Plot: The crew of the Enterprise turn against the Federation and their mysterious ally to stop a small community who hold the secret of eternal life from being displaced from their home planet.
Review: The long-standing joke amongst Trekkies is that the odd-numbered Star Trek outings have been rather dismal, and Insurrection doesn't dispel the theory. To people who have watched the TV series, this feels like just another typical episode, and not a great one at that, with added filler to make it feature length. The script is rather feeble, full of tired one-liners and dull dialogue. Even the special effects aren't very impressive and neither are the few moments of actual action, be it the short space battle or the repetitive laser turkey-shoots. The ethical dilemma that as at the core of the film (whether the greater good of billions is worth the livelihood of 600 inhabitants) is quickly disposed of and what we get is a rather bland display of righteousness and dewy sentimentality. For long-time fans, the expected Trek moments are in evidence, of course, with Data trying to learn to play like a child, Riker and Troi getting romantic again, and Laforge seeing a sunrise for the first time. New viewers, however, won't be taken in by any of this. The cast is as good as can be expected, not stretching the essence of roles they've played for almost 10 years with Oscar-winner F. Murray Abraham once again slumming it in the narrow role of the villain. To be fair, though the direction by actor-turned-director Frakes isn't up to his promise on First Contact, things move along well enough to make it, if not exciting, at least watchable. If Insurrection is any indication, the Next Generation franchise has run its course in terms of ideas and entertainment. One can only hope the next even-numbered sequel will be up to par.
Entertainment: 4/10

Star Trek: Nemesis (2002)
Starring: Patrick Stewart, Brent Spiner, Tom Hardy
Director: Stuart Baird
Plot: After a coup d'etat in the Romulan high command, the Enterprise and its crew are invited for peace talks but soon discover that there's a sinister conspiracy afoot.
Review: At first, it seemed that the even-numbered Star Trek: Nemesis, the tenth chapter in the sci-fi series, couldn't fail: a big budget, better special effects, a plot more geared towards action, high stakes, and those fan favorite villains: the Romulans. Unfortunately in all cases, what we end up with is a mess, and a horribly derivative one at that. Taking bits and pieces (and sometimes whole scenes) from previous movies, what we get is a drawn out, bland so-called "adventure" that loses everything the series has stood for. Even the character interactions feel strained and re-hashed. The tone varies wildly, from high-spirited silliness to strained seriousness, neither of which is very convincing. Worse, there's way too many static scenes (mostly useless posing and uninteresting exposition that moves along like molasses) and even the few "action" scenes are laughable. The last half hour finally brings back a bit of the fun factor with a well-done and pretty exciting starship battle; we've seen better, for sure, but it's much needed here. The cast does an adequate job of playing roles they've lived in for fifteen years, though Hardy as the young villain doesn't quite make it work. What a waste of a good premise, and what a waste of the Romulans, who we barely see at all. Be it the director's fault for not adding enough pizzazz, or the script which is howlingly bad, or the producers who no longer have a clue, it's pretty obvious that the filmmakers have all stopped taking chances: the ideas have dried up, and the series has run out of steam. It might be more fun than the previous installment Insurrection, and fans will want to see it, but considering the way it flopped at the box office Star Trek: Nemesis is a sad way to see what might well be the end of the franchise.
Entertainment: 4/10

Star Trek (2009)
Starring: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Leonard Nimoy, Eric Bana, Bruce Greenwood, Karl Urban, Simon Pegg, Ben Cross, Winona Ryder
Director: J.J. Abrams
Plot: On its maiden voyage, the USS Enterprise and its young crew face a rogue Romulan ship travels back in time to eradicate the Federation.
Review: Any follow-up to the disastrous Star Trek: Nemesis was bound to be an uphill battle. Enter director J.J. Abrams (TV's Lost, Mission Impossible III) who had the courage to actually return to the roots and create what is perhaps the best of the Trek movies, a big-budget, warp-speed-paced origin story. But there's a twist: to provide a new vision for the franchise without getting tied up to the existing mythology, the plot uses a time travel element to allow for a separate, parallel timeline to emerge, effectively rebooting the franchise. Any tweaking to a 45-year old series loved by millions of geeks worldwide is bound to be somewhat controversial, of course, but the filmmakers have ably managed to blend in all the "history" of the characters and events with a more pop sensibility to make them seem fresher than they have in years. For sure, the current state of risk-adverse Hollywood means the film has forced itself limits to the amount of creative risks and changes it takes, but there's enough to excite old, disenchanted, and new fans as well. It also helps that all the blockbuster trimmings that audiences have come to expect are in full force, from the brilliant special effects to superb action sequences, switching from intense space battles and cataclysmic events to a memorable high-altitude free fall. Thrilling stuff for any popcorn movie. But what has always made the Star Trek universe work is the stories and the characters. The smart script has given them proper treatment by adding some summary backstory to each, even setting up an initial rivalry between Kirk and Spock that makes for an interesting switch from their later friendship. The young cast ably picks up on the mannerisms of their forebears and make their characters immediately recognizable - the rebellious Kirk, the logical but emotionally-divided Spock, the cynical Dr. McCoy, etc. Oh, some of the character interactions (especially one romantic relationship) will definitely raise an eyebrow and may give Trek purists fits, but for the rest of us this is all in good fun. Plus, we get an extended cameo by Leonard Nimoy. The film isn't perfect, though - the Romulans have always been terrific villains in the series, but here they aren't really interesting enough, even if they're led by a ferocious Eric Bana; humor has always been part of Trek, but it seems downright jokey here diluting the more serious moments; the spectacular FX scenes are cut at blinding speeds; and the blatant, forced coincidences to get the cast together seems like sloppy scriptwriting rather than "destiny". But all that's nit-picking for a summer flick. Rodenberry's show portrayed an optimistic future, and it's a nice change to see that brightness back on screen. And with it's heavy doses of cosmic adventure, kinetic pacing and re-imagining of the popular universe, Star Trek boldly goes where the franchise hasn't been in a long while - and we can all be thankful for that.
Entertainment: 8/10

*Classic* Star Wars (1977)
Starring: Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Alec Guinness
Director: George Lucas
Plot: A young farm hand and his companions become the Rebellion's last hope to stop the evil galaxy-spanning Empire from using its most powerful weapon, the Death Star.
Review: "A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away..." With these simple words, the epic space opera that was Star Wars opened up a new world to moviegoers of all ages. Produced on a modest budget, it was a juggernaut that not only revolutionized the way Hollywood blockbusters were made, but created an unprecedented merchandising campaign. Though admittedly influenced by other, classic films such as Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress (with some obvious similarities between some of the characters and events) it goes beyond being a remake or even a copy of these movies. Referencing his own childhood favorites, Lucas hit all the right notes with his ode to pulp serials, creating his own modern mythology blended from existing, classical archetypes. In fact, the story made up of the elements of a typical fairy tale: good vs. evil, with heroes, damsel in distress, castle (the Death Star), etc. with a dash of New Age spiritualism (as presented by The Force) added in for good measure, and it works. The Award-winning special effects were poor by today's standards, but at the time they were state-of-the-art, and though done on the cheap, the scale models, rubber suits, and crude laser blasts still worked because they helped drive the story along, and efficiently evoked a whole new Universe. The acting from the then-unknown leads is rather poor across the board, verging almost on the camp, but the story and characters, are what really drive the film. The experienced supporting cast including Guiness and Peter Cushing fares much better. Even after so many years Star Wars remains a thrilling and entertaining experience. A milestone in Hollywood cinema, and a definite American classic. (Check out the extended review!)
Entertainment: 9/10

Star Wars: The Clone Wars (2008)
Starring: James Arnold Taylor, Christopher Lee
Director: Dave Filoni
Plot: As Civil War sweeps through the galaxy, the Jedi Knights and their valiant clone army are charged to find the kidnapped son of Jabba the Hutt in the hopes of receiving free passage through their trade routes.
Review: Sitting between Episode II and Episode III, The Clone Wars presents additional background story to the events in the final chapter of the prequel trilogy, with all the familiar characters back for more action. Unfortunately, the film won't attract new fans. The theatrical release, in fact, was an afterthought to the launching of the new Cartoon Network TV series, and it's made obvious by a narrative that is quite episodic in nature (not surprisingly, like 3 TV episodes spliced together). It gets some decent notes as spectacle - some of the battle scenes, from space battles to light-saber duels, are as impressive as anything from the movies - but there's just too much monotony to the never-ending sequences to allow us to appreciate them. True, any movie called the Clone Wars can't avoid fights, explosions and the like, but too much of them - without enough variety - just becomes boring. It's a video game put to the big screen, with little narrative to enhance our appreciation of the Star Wars universe. There's no faulting the choice or execution of the animation, however: the stylistic, cartoon approach to the characters is nice and the CGI work is superb. The movie finally does hit its stride as a "movie" when it finally takes a breather in the last act (bizarrely enough), adding bits of story regarding the Dark Side's conspiracy to kidnap Jabba's son. Yet none of this ever comes close to either the interest of the live-action films, or even to the level of the splendid cel-animated Clone Wars TV series of 2003 by Genndy Tartakovsky. There's lots of movement but no spark to the proceedings, and it feels way too much like a generic product, something that isn't helped by the banal script that's aimed for audiences under 10. Sure, fans of the series will no doubt want to check it out, but there's little in The Clone Wars to impress anyone else.
Entertainment: 4/10

State of Play (2009)
Starring: Russell Crowe, Ben Affleck, Helen Mirren, Rachel McAdams
Director: Kevin Macdonald 
Plot: A veteran Washington investigative reporter teams up with a young blog columnist to untangle the mystery behind the death of a Congressman's mistress, one that points to the dealings of a large security contractor.
Review: An Americanized adaptation of the well-received six-hour British miniseries, State of Play is a political thriller that has all the right elements but seems to flail in finding its own voice, or in being relevant enough to be anything other than an average entry in the genre. Not that the pedigree of the people involved isn't impressive: director Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland) has a keen eye for bringing to the screen the dark corners of conspiracy filmmaking; writers Tony Gilroy (The Bourne Identity) and Billy Ray (Breach) have successful experience in the subject matter; and the cast led by an intense Crowe and including Affleck, Mirren and McAdams bring the right note to their characters. The main problem is that the script tries to cover too much ground - Washington conspiracies, a commentary on the evils of the media and the internet, a melodrama, an ode to a dying breed of journalism and the survival woes of newspapers, all mixed into an affair that wants to be part Zodiac, part All The President’s Men. By staying as close to mainstream conventions as possible, it ends up feeling like a dumbed-down version of a better movie. Not to say it's a bad film: the pace is brisk, the mystery intriguing enough to hold our attention, and the production is generally well rounded. It's just that with a bit more urgency and a bit higher stakes, State of Play could have been so much more.
Entertainment / Drama: 6/10

Stealth (2005)
Starring: Joshua Lucas, Jessica Biel, Jamie Foxx
Director: Rob Cohen
Plot: When the on-board computer controlling an advanced stealth fighter goes rogue, it's up to three top gun pilots to bring it down before it continues its killing spree.
Review: A military sci-fi actioner based on the tried-and-true theme of "technology-gone-awry" mixed in with the hot-dogging of Top Gun, Stealth is a derivative, predictable, silly effort but one that's quite enjoyable. The first act sets things up and provides the expected foreboding, with the second act plays out the inevitable Frankenstein scenario that's the basis of the film as the HAL-like AI decides to attack his own targets. However there's an unexpected third act as one of the Navy fliers gets downed behind North Korean lines and tries to escape to the South (Behind Enemy Lines, anyone?). Sure, the politics are vague, as is the science, and the attempts at character development (even in the final act) are laughable, but once its in the skies the film is a well-tuned roller-coaster ride. Fans of technically savvy, grandiose explosions will also find much to appreciate here. Director Rob Cohen, best known for his over-the-top action flicks The Fast and the Furious and xXx, has a knack for keeping even the most shallow, mainstream affairs fresh and stylish. Toning down the real-life stunts and upping the effects content, he's created a film that plays out like a video-game, from the intense effects-driven hi-tech aerial combat to the puff-piece plot. In fact, there's so much CGI effects that it could almost have been done as an animated feature. As the leads, Lucas makes a fine action jock in the fly-boy role, Biel actually comes off better than this film deserves, and Foxx is slumming it in a short-lived starring role. In the end Stealth might be short on brains and quickly forgotten once the credits roll but it's solid popcorn fun while it lasts.
Entertainment: 7/10

Steamboy (2005)
Voice Acting: Anna Paquin, Alfred Molina, Patrick Stewart
Director: Katsuhiro Otomo
Plot: During Victorian England, a young boy-inventor is forced into the middle of a conflict between the British government and an American arms manufacturer over an incredible steam-powered discovery.
Review: Almost two decades after his revolutionary anime Akira hit the world by storm, animation director Otomo gives us Steamboy an amazing vision of an alternate-reality 19th-century England where meadows and gardens are soon to be overrun by a nightmarish version of the industrial age and a new arms race will change the world. Using a mixture of classic cel-animations and computer graphics, it's billed as the most expensive anime ever - the dazzling visuals of rattling gears and hydraulic pistons, the intricate care given every scene proves it. With the London Science Exhibition as the backdrop, it's all an excuse for a showcase of inventive steam-powered machines, from battle armors to planes and tanks, throwing us into a past-as-future world filled with awesome sights. It's a grand adventure, and all the classic elements are in place, including a stalwart young hero, lots of thrilling action set-pieces, and high stakes. Unfortunately, the film becomes overwhelmed by its focus on these huge machines and its insistence on rants about the state of Science, the whole thing climaxing in a numbing 30-minutes of chaos as a gargantuan Steam Castle plods over London, the Frankenstein creation of its two detracting parents. What the film really requires is a little editing to keep the narrative tighter, and a little more levity or substance to make it memorable. As it stands, it gets so chaotic, ludicrous and long-winded that much of our amusement is lost. Inhabited by heroic and villainous stereotypes, the film also never allows for emotional attachment to the proceedings. Even our ingenious child hero is aptly sympathetic but dull, a sounding board for his Darth Vader-like father's ramblings on the power of Science and his grand-dad's blubbering over Science improving all people's lives. The young American brat, aptly-named Scarlett O'Hara (a wink at Gone With the Wind) is actually the only interesting character. The end credit sequence - outlining further adventures of our young hero in a series of stills - is a nice touch. All told, there's still much to enjoy and admire here and as imaginative anime spectacle Steamboy is top notch, but for those expecting Ottomo's second stab at a classic it's disappointing.
Entertainment: 6/10

The Stepford Wives (2004)
Starring: Nicole Kidman, Matthew Broderick, Bette Midler
Director: Frank Oz
Plot: After a nervous breakdown, a high-powered female executive and her husband move to an upper-class neighborhood only to suspect something strange is happening to the female inhabitants.
Review: Loosely based on the book and movie adaptation of 1975, this remake of the The Stepford Wives is nothing but a squandered opportunity for both comedy and social commentary. The socio-political subtext of the original material was quite relevant in the 70's, as stay-at-home moms were slowly finding their way into the job market, and a contemporized version of the battle of this sexes might have made for some subtle satire for our current era as well. Unfortunately, the script keeps it all at a shallow level, trying to play it all for outrageous laughs but only providing the occasional chuckle. In fact, the film loses steam from the get-go, with its repetitive slapstick silliness, its simple-mindedness, and its over-the-top characterizations of servile women and dweebish men. Perhaps knowing the secret behind Stepford makes the whole exercise too predictable, and there's little inventiveness (apart from a twist ending) to make it interesting. And let's no forget the gaping logic holes which seem to stem from multiple re-writes while in production. It's all the worse in that director Frank Oz (The Little Shop of Horrors, Bowfinger) seems at a loss as to what to do with both the material and a really wonderful cast including Kidman, Midler and Glenn Close. The stars all do their best, but all seem to lose their way. In the end, this modern version of The Stepford Wives is watchable enough, but it's mostly just bland fare.
Entertainment: 4/10

Stigmata (1999) 
Starring: Gabriel Byrne, Patricia Arquette, Jonathan Pyrce
Director: Rupert Wainwright
Plot: A Jesuit, a special envoy of the Vatican, comes to investigate a young woman in New York who starts developing wounds similar to those suffered by Christ during his crucifixion. 
Review: Gabriel Byrne does a great turn here as a scientist/priest. The story concept is an interesting one, and the superb cinematography and editing make for some intense, disturbing scenes. That said, it's filmed and staged like a gothic rock video which takes a lot away from the mood justified by the story and soon becomes repetitive and very heavy-handed. The possession segments will undoubtedly bring comparison to the ones in The Exorcist, but they seem much tamer here. But all this has nothing to do with the message that the film-makers are trying to convey, that is the revelation that the Catholic Church is a fraud. This may be new to some viewers, and may be even shocking to others, but it doesn't quite have the punch necessary to carry the movie. In the end, Stigmata is a decent supernatural thriller that tries to aim higher than other movies of the same sort, but doesn't quite succeed.
Entertainment: 5/10

Stir of Echoes (1999)
Starring: Kevin Bacon, Illeana Douglas, Liza Weil
Director: David Koepp
Plot: During a block party, a blue-collar worker gets hypnotized on a lark and soon discovers that he has become psychically linked to the tormented spirit of a murdered girl who has been communicating with his son.
Review: Adapted from the 1958 Richard Matheson novel, Stir of Echoes is an engaging tale that starts with a sense of foreboding and builds to a scary, and tense horror film with great atmosphere and some downright creepy scenes. Kevin Bacon is excellent here, convincingly portraying a man who's losing touch with his surroundings and is obsessed with understanding what is happening to him. Unfortunately, two-thirds into the movie, the story shifts from a supernatural thriller to a more mundane, and predictable, murder mystery. A good horror film that came very close to being a great one.
Entertainment: 8/10

The Stormriders (Hong Kong - 1998)
Starring: Aaron Kwok, Ekin Cheng, Sonny Chiba 
Director: Wai Keung Lau
Plot: An evil and powerful warlord, obsessed by a prophecy told to him years before, raises two children he has made orphan to do his bidding and help him conquer the lands around him. 
Review: The Stormriders is a vastly entertaining fantasy-action epic that manages to mix comic-book sensibilities, a good story, and high-flying action with the help of amazing computer effects. The high production values are immediately obvious as the film is amazing to look at, full of beautiful sets, locales, and interesting cinematography. The high-flying CGI-enhanced fantasy sword-fighting and martial arts sequences are intense and inventive, more akin to video-games than movies. Actually, the film almost tries to put in too much into the plot (a love-triangle, revenge, empire building, a huge cast of characters), but the length of the film (much longer than most HK productions of this sort) is worth every minute. Though the push towards the middle to make it more character-driven slows it down a bit (including the use of a terribly melodramatic moment that is drowned out by a sappy song), it quickly kicks back into overdrive for an impressive effects-laden final battle. Stylish, colorful, and full of impressive action pieces, The Stormriders is just plain fun.
Entertainment: 8/10

Storm Warriors (Hong Kong - 2009)
Starring: Aaron Kwok, Ekin Cheng, Simon Yam
Directors: Oxide Pang and Danny Pang
Plot: The warriors Wind and Cloud seek the help of two martials arts masters to increase their skills, enabling them to take on a powerful Lord bent on taking over China.
Review: Ten years after the original Storm Riders awed audiences and became a cult favorite production has finally been completed on its sequel Storm Warriors, a technically superior but utterly disappointing fantasy / adventure yarn. Once hailed as the saviors of the Asian genre film with their eye for camera shots and acumen in delivering shocks, the Pang Brothers (The Eye, The Messengers), have stumbled of late with Re-cycle and the American remake of their own Bangkok Dangerous, and this latest effort doesn't reverse the downward trend. Left in their hands, there's no denying that the film is visually impressive and colorful, with every shot carefully carried out to be faithful to the stylish drawings of the original manga graphic novels; if not quite to the level of 300, the CGI backgrounds look very pretty indeed, if not particularly detailed. On the plus side, when it gets to the magically-enhanced fights it's dazzling, as proven in the spectacular opening and closing sequences full of special effects powers - two scenes that are worth the price of admission. Alas, so much thought was taken to how the movie looks that the filmmakers completely forgot about those little things called script, characters, emotion and pacing. Between the far-in-between action set pieces are dreadfully dull heroes dispensing platitudes and getting into no-spark romances. There's also a convoluted, overly-complex background story here that encompasses dozens of characters and sub-plots, none of which is made clear for those un-initiated in the original tales. Returning stars Kwok and Chen get by with a bit of brooding and lots of fierce looks, and the supporting cast is pretty decent including fan-favorite actor Simon Yam as the unstoppable villain and Lam Suet as the comedy relief. The film ends on a cliff-hanger, promising another installment in the future. Let's just hope it comes out sooner - and better - than this.
Entertainment: 4/10

Street Kings (2008)
Starring: Keanu Reeves, Forest Whitaker
Director: David Ayer
Plot: Demoted and inspected by Infernal Affairs when a former colleague-turned-informat is murdered, a brutal veteran detective - part of a task force that believes the ends justify the means - sets out to clear his name but only gets deeper into trouble.
Review: A surprisingly effective crime thriller, Street Kings takes you on a trip to the dark side of law enforcement where corruption, abuse and violence are all par for the course. Paranoia, fear, death are all around and you just never know who your friends, or enemies, are. It's a pretty darn bleak depiction of the men in blue from one of America's best crime novelists James Ellroy who provided both the orignal story and co-scripted. Ellroy delved into similar stuff in the more impressive, and more layered, L.A. Confidential but it's clear he hasn't had his last word on the matter. Audiences that are at all familiar with the crime genre will see the revelations coming waaaay before our "hero" does - in fact pretty much at the half hour mark. It's not so much that the film telegraphs its intentions as much as it doesn't really care to offer up any original (or substantial) view of the subject. What matters are the depictions of these men and their deeds, a place where morality is entangled in shades of gray. Director Ayer seems to have a fascination with the bad side of the police force, and its failed characters, having previously directed Harsh Times and written both Dark Blue and Training Day. Here he keeps things moving at break-neck speed, cranking up the intensity from the very first shot and inching further with each plot twist, from the taunt gunfights to the nerve-wracking stand-offs and through all the revelations in between. The cast works well, too: if Reeves doesn't stretch his acting much he seems just right for the role as an unpleasant guy doing unpleasant things - he is no hero; another pleasant surprise is Chris Evans as his partner of convenience. As the police captain heading the team, Whitacker, unfortunately, can't help but chew the scenery with wild abandon and his veering into what amounts to broad camp is keenly distracting. There's no denying that Street Kings is a stylish, effectively paced affair that provides all the hard-nosed thrills one would expect from its pedigree. If only it had gone more out on a limb it would have been somethign to behold.
Drama: 7/10

Street Trash (1987)
Starring: Mike Lackey, Bill Chepil, Jane Arakawa
Director: James Muro
Plot: A band of homeless men living in a junkyard are tormented by their leader, a vicious, crazed ex-Vietnam vet, and fall prey to a bad batch of toxic, mutagenic alcohol.
Review: Street Trash lives up to its title: it's a crude, bizarre, revolting, utterly fascinating and whacked-out film. Shot with a small budget, terrible actors, and full of multiple sub-plots, is seems more like an experiment in violent gore-comedy than an actual feature. There's definitely no mistaking the energy that went into this film, the originality in its exploitive excesses, and the visual, comedic, and visceral style of director Muro. There's also no way one can say any of this is any "good", but it's fast-paced and never boring. For those who are into well-shot, low-budget, indie cult horror flicks, this one is not to be missed. Everyone else, stay away!
Exploitation / Entertainment: 6/10

Stuart Little (1999)
Starring: Michael J. Fox, Geena Davis, Hugh Laurie
Director: Rob Minkoff
Plot: The story of an orphaned mouse who is raised by the Littles, a family of humans, as one of their own and the adventures he faces before learning the meaning of "home".
Review: Stuart Little succeeds in quickly making a preposterous situation, where animals talk and mice wear clothes, completely normal, thanks in part to some absolutely amazing computer animation of the titular character. The story is at its best when it's playing on the "fish-out-of-water" aspects with Stuart having to face the human household, along with some amusing cat-and-mouse slapstick comedy. But as soon as story shifts to an adventure outside this setting (Stuart has to find his way back home through a band of unfriendly cats) it becomes too dark for kids, and ultimately a little banal. There a lot of interesting situations, as well as some charming moments, but one can't help thinking that it could have been so much better had they stuck a little closer to the intent E.B. White's original story. Michael J. Fox is perfectly cast as the voice of the mouse, and the other voices (especially Nathan Lane as the voice of the scheming house cat) are also good. The live actors are OK, but Geena Davis feels terribly underused. Still, Stuart Little is cute enough and funny enough that one can accept the typical Hollywood plot and circumstances and enjoy the film for what it is: a fun family picture, with a straight fairy-tale story.
Entertainment: 6/10

Stuart Little 2 (2002)
Starring: Michael J. Fox, Geena Davis, Hugh Laurie
Director: Rob Minkoff
Plot: After being adopted by a human family, a friendly talking mouse learns about friendship when he meets a female bird on the run from a nasty falcon.
Review: The inevitable sequel to the surprise hit Stuart Little couldn't be long in coming, and it shows the obvious signs of a second serving. Visually, it looks even better than the first: the production values are top-notch, the vibrant colors light up the screen, and the finely done animal computer animation feels just right. Despite some new characters and an extension on the "little" premise however, there's nothing really new here and, though some of the charm of the original remains, it's no longer as impressive as it once was. The story, too, seems to have taken a step back from the previous one: M. Night Shyamalan's script (he of The Sixth Sense fame) had a surprisingly strong emotional and sentimental core to it and relied more on some fine dialogue and interesting situations to move the narrative along. Unfortunately, gone is all the finesse and wit of the first, replaced by a derivative kids' -show plot, obvious life lessons ("friends are important", "believe in yourself"), debatable humor, and some admittedly efficiently made toy-plane sequences. Director Minkoff is back for the sequel, as is the rest of the cast playing up the "Meet the Beavers" parody to good effect. Praise is due for the solid voice casting, with the likes of Nathan Lane, Melanie Griffith and the inimitable James Woods as the "heavy". In the end, 4 to 8 years olds may be thrilled by the exploits, but older kids might find this all too corny and syrupy to swallow. Still, Stuart Little 2 is all light-hearted fun, and for those who can accept its limitations, it's a breezy enough outing that (thanks to a short run-time of 70 minutes) doesn't overstay its welcome.
Entertainment: 5/10

Stunt Man, The (1980)
Starring: Peter O'Toole, Steve Railsback, Barbara Hershey
Director: Richard Rush
Plot: Running from the police, a Vietnam veteran takes the place of a stunt man in a large Hollywood movie production under the guidance of its flamboyant director, and soon starts to fear for his life.
Review: This film tries to have everything: drama, adventure, stunts galore, and comedy. Unfortunately, it just doesn't blend well: the drama is a bit stretched and made all the more unbelievable by the attempts at levity, the burlesque-type music and some long, uninteresting stunt sequences. It also doesn't help that the movie being filmed is being played as a terrible anti-war picture. Admittedly, the actors are all decent, the concept is promising, and there's a good movie in here somewhere for those who don't mind sitting through a lot of fluff.
Drama: 3/10
: 5/10

Suicide Club (2002)
Starring: Ryo Ishibashi, Akaji Maro, Masatoshi Nagase
Director: Sion Sono
Plot: The police investigate a rash of unexplained teenage suicides that seem to be connected to a mysterious web site but are baffled at every turn.
Review: The setup and style may be pretty standard for the genre, but Suicide Club is a well done Japanese horror effort that feels like its something straight out of a manga - for good and bad. It all starts off with a harrowing scene as 54 smiling Japanese schoolgirls join hands and throw themselves in front of a subway in an excessively bloody end. From there, we get lots more bodies splattering on pavement, windows and pedestrians; a mysterious web site that embodies all the fears of internet technophobes; a pre-teen pop group singing their sweet ditties on TV; teen killers; a bizarre belt made out of human flesh; and more gruesome bits. It's all encapsulated in what is meant as a social commentary on disaffected youth and teen suicide - not exactly comedy material, but as presented here, one never knows if it's to be taken as serious or satire. Unfortunately, what builds up as a creepy, atmospheric and compelling thriller with some decent twists and scares for the first hour gets kind of goofy as the mystery unravels. Are the perpetrators exiles from the Midwich Cuckoos or or are they a cult of cyberpunk Charles Manson wannabes, revealed in an over-the-top sequence in a bowling alley, clubbing animals (and people) to death? And how do all the clues left at the scenes add up? Stumbling its way to multiple endings, it gets less interesting and less satisfying as it goes. All in all, Suicide Club does deliver the usual goods: lots of horrific elements, a high body count and a delicious mystery - too bad it can't sustain it to the end.
Horror: 6/10

Sukiyaki Western Django (Japan - 2007)
Starring: Hideaki Ito, Masanobu Ando, Koichi Sato
Director: Takashi Miike
Plot: A lone gunman finds his way into a small western town split by two warring clans, both looking for buried treasure.
Review: A crazy, blood-splattered homage to Kurosawa's Yojimbo and the Westerns like A Fistful of Dollars and the 1966 versio of Django that spewed from it, Sukiyaki Western Django is a hodge-podge of clichés, archetypes and anime sensibilities all brought to life as only visionary director Miike can. Best known in the West for the films Dead or Alive and Audition, Miike has been making strange, disturbing pictures in all genres since the early 90's and each one is an experience. Thankfully, this is a more approachable (i.e. less a mind-trip) than his stranger efforts, and all done for fun. Mixing the legendary 12th century battle of Dannoura with the War Of The Roses, the film is an irreverent mix of classic samurai storytelling played as over-the-top spaghetti Western. The film revels in its clash of genres and styles, joyfully exploiting expectations, filling the story with melodrama, strange revelations, bloody mayhem, self-aware quips and general zaniniess. Case in point: the mostly Japanese cast was asked to speak English, phonetically; the costumes would be more appropriate in a musical; there's a sheriff who's taken a cue from Dr. Strangelove; and director Quentin Tarantino, a long-time fan of Asian cinema, gets included in a bizarre cameo as a legendary gunfighter. And that's just for starters. All of this only adds to the enjoyment of an exciting, fast-paced production that delivers exactly where it counts - lots of well-staged gunfights climaxing in a formidable showdown, tongue-very-firmly-planted-in-cheek humor, and oodles of style. Sukiyaki will probably be relegated to the video shelves as another Japanese cult movie, and that's too bad; it's a dynamic, well-crafted parody that - when it gets even half-serious - puts most Westerns to shame.
Entertainment: 8/10

The Sum of All Fears (2002)
Starring: Ben Affleck, Morgan Freeman, Liev Schreiber
Director: Phil Alden Robinson
Plot: A young CIA operative races to prove that a powerful Neo-Nazi group has gotten its hands on an atomic bomb which it plans to detonate in a U.S. city to push the superpowers into a nuclear war.
Review: The Sum of All Fears, the fourth Tom Clancy Jack Ryan adventure to reach theatres (following Clear and Present Danger) throws the past chapters out the window and starts the series afresh with a younger hero with mostly positive results. The complexities of the book are obviously gone, leaving behind only the most general outline of the plot and only the usual motions of the genre. Even less so than previous Ryan installments, this is not an action flick but rather an old-style Cold War thriller in the style of Fail-Safe with the U.S. and Russia escalating tensions until the brink of nuclear war. The film does take one big, surprising chance mid-way through by actually blowing up an atom bomb during the Super-bowl, an event that's extremely well done and provides the film's most gripping sequence in the 15 minute aftermath, something that is all the more frightening after the 9/11 events. Unfortunately, things slowly devolve into movie-of-the-week predictability, the proceedings marred by large and small inconsistencies towards an easy ending. The choice of retro-villains also spoils much of the necessary suspension of disbelief. Instead of the Middle-Eastern terrorists of the novel, the villains have been turned into aging Neo-Nazis, an evil that everyone can guiltlessly hate, but one that comes across as shallow and rather ridiculous. Director Robinson (Field of Dreams, Sneakers) does keep things moving along however, making both the human interactions and larger events convincing enough, and there's lots of exciting moments to hang on to. As for the leads, Affleck gets by with his usual affable charm but his character (heavily re-written when Harrison Ford jumped ship) isn't really allowed to evolve much or leave an impression. Freeman, as his CIA boss, gives another sober performance but gets short-changed on screen time. The rest of the cast, including Cromwell as the US President and Schreiber as CIA agent John Clark, are all well chosen. Though the political statements and general suspense often feel oddly muted, The Sum of All Fears remains an entertaining summer romp that's a step ahead of the pack.
Entertainment: 7/10

Summer of Sam (1999)
Starring: Adrien Brody, John Leguizamo, Mira Sorvino
: Spike Lee
: Summer of Sam follows events in New York during the summer of '77, the summer the serial killer the Son of Sam terrorized the city, and how they affected the lives of a group of Bronx natives.
Review: Director Spike Lee returns to some of the themes he visited in Do the Right Thing, showing us how paranoia and prejudice can easily destroy the thin fabric of society. The characters (played by a superb cast, particularly John Leguizamo and Mira Sorvino as a young married couple) all must face their own frailties, and none come out unscathed. It is a powerful, graphic, and disturbing film, well shot and well directed. A great come-back for Spike Lee.
Drama: 8/10

Summer Snow (Hong Kong - 1994)
Starring: Josephine Siao, Roy Chiao, Kar-Ying Law
Director: Ann Hui 
Plot: A working woman must take care of her husband's recently widowed father, a difficult, rude man who is in the throws of Alzheimer's disease and who is prone to wandering. 
Review: Director Hui has become a staple of Hong Kong cinema, and with Summer Snow she has once again proven her skills behind the camera as well as confirming her humanistic approach to her subjects. The narrative moves along at its own pace, with no real surprises or the usual melodrama associated with films portraying the ravages of the disease, or the theme of getting old. Instead, what we get is a story where the characters are real, with lives that are blandly ordinary and how they manage, for better or worse, to cope like any other family could with an elderly member. In showing such normality, detailing the everyday suffering as well as the occasional humor in the situations, the film manages to imbue the story with a sense of familiar charm and sincere warmth. There are some sentimental moments, of course, but these flow from the story and never appear forced. The main theme finally is that of respect for human dignity no matter the circumstances, age or condition, and it's one that has rarely been shown with such a realistic, clear approach. The two leads are admirable and clearly make the film the success it is. Veteran actor Chiao does an amazingly vivid and endearing turn as the grizzled, tough grand-father who may have lost his capability to function normally, but not his nobility. Siao also does a fabulous performance as the desperate wife juggling work, family and now an invalid in-law, providing the film not only with a well-formed and believable central anchor, but with a fully formed character the audience can readily associate with. A huge winner at the Hong Kong Film Awards, Summer Snow is a beautiful, low-key drama and a wonderful portrait of the human condition.
Drama: 8/10

Summer Wars (Japan - 2009)
Voices: Michael Sinterniklaas, Brina Palencia, Pam Doughtery
Director: Mamoru Hosoda
Plot: As a favor to a girl he likes, a young programmer agrees to pretend to be her boyfriend during her family reunion, but when a dangerous artificial intelligence tries to take over the Web, he an her family must oppose it at all costs.
Review: A critical and box-office hit in Japan, Summer Wars is a surprisingly effective - and endearing - family drama filled with high-tech adventure. Despite the familiar elements, director Hosoda (who did the award-winning The Girl Who Leapt Through Time) refuses to follow the typical clichés of the genre, and the plot is thick with ideas and opportunity. Taking notes from anime master Hayao Miyazaki in his care in portraying the the clan's family dynamics, yet gives it a life of his own; if there are too many characters to get into any depth on any one, they still feel more than single-dimension creations. The main theme here - the "War" of the title - isn't the one fought with bits and bytes but the disparity between the traditional and the digital; the 90-year old matriarch's home and well-kept gardens is in stark contrast to the modern world, and the cell phones and laptops seem to be an intrusion. But instead of losing their humanity in the Web, the people here keep their individuality, their sense of belonging, and fight for a common goal against an impending technical apocalypse. As for the frenetic, video-game battles in cyber-space, they're pretty much on par with the zaniest Mario Bros fare we've known and loved from the land of the Rising Sun - the zany avatars are scarily cute, the odds daunting and the battles impossible. They don't push the bar, but then the film's real focus, and winning element, is on the emotional bond between the living. Relying on cel-based animation throughout allows for broader strokes and more care to the story - silent moments in the "real" world are easier to accept when the images are not digitized to eye-blistering degree, while the computer-aided (not created) bouts in the parallel world are stylized and fluid. It might just have been a budget constraint, but the film is all the better for it. Fun, engaging and quirky like the best of the anime genre, Summer Wars is one of the best anime features of recent years. 
Entertainment: 8/10

*Classic* Sunset Boulevard (1950)
Starring: William Holden, Gloria Swanson, Erich von Stroheim
Director: Billy Wilder
Plot: An out-of-work screenwriter is sheltered by a faded silent-film star and her butler in exchange for rewriting a script she has spent years writing for her hopeless "comeback".
Review: By presenting a sly, dark and depressing behind the scenes look at the then-current film productions, director/writer Wilder (The Lost Weekend, The Apartment) has produced one big pointed criticism on the state of Hollywood after the silent era, as well as a grand tragedy on the fickle hand of fame by showing the decline of old Hollywood legends after the coming of sound. The relationship between the young screenwriter and the deluded older star is also fascinating to watch develop, as their lives turn into a grotesque existence inside the opulent, deserted mansion. Of course, this is all greatly helped by a terrific cast, especially (as an interesting bit of casting) Swanson as the aging silent film queen and acclaimed director/actor von Stroheim as the butler, as well as some great cameos by classic silent-era stars. Full of good, witty dialogue, a tragic script, strong character development, and interesting camera shots, Sunset Boulevard will always remains one of the great, classic Hollywood films. Winner of the Oscar Award for Best Screenplay and deservedly so.
Drama: 9/10

Sunshine (2000)
Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Rosemary Harris, Rachel Weisz
Director: Istvan Szabo
Plot: Three generations of a Hungarian Jewish family witnesses and is buffeted by historical events, both political and social, from the turn of the century through the rise of fascism and finally, communism.
Review: Sunshine is a drama about identity and belonging, a sweeping novel spanning 70-years that manages to keep its audience captivated throughout its intricate, fascinating story. It may have been a little too ambitious in its scope, perhaps, feeling surprisingly rushed even at three hours, the three narratives split into fast-moving segments that try to recreate a whole era in a single hour, but it works in giving us a feeling, with both instances of humor and despair, of time and place. On the surface, the epic-length story can be viewed as a vast, complex historical melodrama replete with romance, betrayals and redemption, all magnificently shot on location in Budapest. Indeed, from start to finish, the film is beautiful to look at. However, there is real depth here as well, and some moments are truly powerful. The main topic would seem to be oft-repeated one of Jews that can be assimilated into a culture, a society, but will never be accepted (none more obvious than during the War in Europe). But more than that, it's also a tale of a country divided, of a European nation trying to find its place in history. All these themes, however, eventually focus on the film's main one, that history repeats itself and that men in power never change, a point clearly shown by each succeeding Hungarian government, all repeating the mistakes of the past. The art direction is carefully detailed, the characters well fleshed-out, and the relationships delicately believable, giving it all a sense of real intimacy played out over a greater-than-life backdrop. Fiennes is truly excellent in the triple role of grandfather, father and son of succeeding generations, and is the very glue that holds the film together. The supporting cast around him is also impeccable enhancing the story with some engaging performances. Sunshine is, in all aspects, an epic undertaking, and despite its flaws it succeeds in giving an engrossing, complex portrait of a people and a country desperately searching for a sense of themselves.
Drama: 8/10

Sunshine (2007)
Starring: Chris Evans, Cillian Murphy, Michelle Yeoh
Director: Danny Boyle
Plot: On their trip to re-ignite the dying Sun, a team of astronaut-scientists discovers the silent remains of the previous expedition, lost seven years before.
Review: On first glance, Sunshine's plot summary sounds like a mish-mash of sci-fi movie ideas from classic (and not-so-classic) films, but don't let that fool you - this is a beautiful, thrilling, superbly engaging affair. Though the premise feels like a retread of The Core, the script by novelist Alex Garland is (for a modern SF flick) well-written and well-structured, freely grabbing the mystery elements of Solaris, the sense of awe of 2001 and the environmental themes of Silent Running, and yet the plot still defies expectations. If the end feels a bit like a take on the sci-fi horror B-movie Event Horizon, it does provide a cool twist to the Alien theme (the Alien is alive and well and he is us). No matter how convoluted that might all sound, in the hands of director Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire) it's all magic. Boyle can do no wrong, no matter the genre he undertakes, and he infuses this hard-SF adventure with all the disturbing elements you'd expect from the man behind Trainspotting and 28 Days Later, namely brooding camerawork, sharp cuts, intense close-ups and a visual splendor aided by some stunning special effects that all make for an exciting, vivid experience. Best of all, the astronauts and scientists aren't dopes - these are smart, dedicated people under incredible stress. As played by an eclectic cast including genre favorite Murphy as the demure physicist, martial-arts legend Yeoh (in a rare dramatic role) as the biologist and Cliff Curtis as the ship psychiatrist who seems to need some help himself. But the real actor of note is Evans who surprises in a great turn as the Jack Bauer-like, no-nonsense technician who gets the job done. A suspenseful, thinking-person's adventure film, Sunshine is a rarity, a mainstream adventure that will leave you enthralled and satisfied way past the credits.
Entertainment: 8/10

Superman: The Movie (1978)
Starring: Christopher Reeve, Gene Hackman, Margot Kidder
Director: Richard Donner
Plot: Raised on Earth, the last survivor of a dying planet fights for the American Way as Superman against criminal mastermind Lex Luthor while hiding his identity as a mild-mannered reporter.
Review: Superman marked the start of Hollywood's big-budget fascination with cartoon heroes, and a lot of pressure was put on director Donner (The Omen, Lethal Weapon) to get it right. Though there are many silly moments, mostly in the form of the bumbling Kent and in the slapstick antics of the evil henchmen, the film manages for the most part to avoid the campiness of most of the comic-book adaptations of the period. This is meant to be grand-scale adventure, and though the action is clearly secondary, there's enough to satisfy fans of the genre. Where the film really succeeds, however, is in portraying the growing bond between Superman / Kent and Lois Lane, a romantic triangle that is important in understanding, and caring, for these characters. The main problem with the film, though, is the portrayal of the villains. Lex Luthor has always been Superman's nemesis, but here he is depicted more as an amusing buffoon than a genius megalomaniac. Because of this, because of the lack of challenge to such a hero, there's little suspense or tension in the proceedings. To be fair, the film was only the first part of a two-part set, produced more as an introduction setting up his origins and the groundwork for what was hoped to be a successful franchise. The real action was to happen in Superman II. Reeve, however, works the dual role to perfection, playing both with just the right amount of shyness and/or confidence, embodying Superman for a whole new generation. The rest of the cast is fine, if unexceptional, including a much-talked-about, expensive cameo by Marlon Brando as Kal-El's father. Though the story ends up feeling a bit simplistic, and some of the special effects have aged badly, Superman still manages to capture the characters and successfully brings an American icon to the big screen.
Entertainment: 7/10

Superman II (1980)
Starring: Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder, Terence Stamp
Director: Richard Lester
Plot: Accidentally released by a nuclear explosion, three super-powered Kryptonian criminals arrive to claim control of Earth at a time when Superman has decided to give up his powers for the woman he loves, Lois Lane.
Review: Though for many Superman II remains in their childhood memories as the best, most entertaining installment of the Reeves series, the nostalgia for the film doesn't stand up to a more recent viewing. Interestingly, the film was shot at the same time as the original, both meant to be a single entity, but the producers forced the filmmakers to make it into two separate films. Alas, they also wanted something more comic (not to say downright campy) for the series, something original director Richard Donner (Lethal Weapon) refused, and resigned over. Giving the reigns to Lester, best known for his Beatles spoofs (A Hard Day's Night, Help!) and Three Musketeers films was an odd choice; taking much of the footage left by exiting director Donner, he took the series in an unfortunate direction, one similar to those 70's disaster films where spectacle and groan-inducing character melodrama was the norm. Hence the first hour is terribly cheesy and tedious, be it from the dialogue, the silly situations, and the added filler instances that bring little of interest to the story. It's surprising, then, that the movie is remembered so fondly, most probably because the script keeps what fans love of the comic-books, namely the romance between Lois and Supes, and the no-holds-barred super-powered mayhem. Having them fight it out in Metropolis is a real treat and the fact that it's all "live" instead of CGI when characters get hurtled through buildings or use city buses as battering rams adds an added oomph that is lacking from more modern features. It also helps that there's lots of explosions, too. Yet the inconsistent special effects, be it during the flying sequences or any of the many super-instances, only enhance the feeling that the film is pretty dated. Reeves immortalized his name with the role, and he does make for a fine titular character even if the Kent sequences are tedious. The rest of the acting is pretty much terrible throughout, and Kidder's Lane isn't someone you'd care for. The exceptions are Hackman, back as Luthor, and Stamp who, as the villainous General Zod, simply chews the scenery with aplomb. Despite the campy tone and missed attempts at creating a new mythology, the big-budget comic adaptation of Superman II does have its moments, and if you can overlook its failings in the first half it's quite entertaining.
Entertainment: 6/10

Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut (1980 - 2006)
Starring: Christopher Reeve, Gene Hackman, Margot Kidder, Terence Stamp
Director: Richard Donner
Plot: Accidentally released by a nuclear explosion, three super-powered Kryptonian criminals arrive to claim control of Earth at a time when Superman has decided to give up his powers for the woman he loves, Lois Lane.
Review: Oddly enough, the Superman II of our youth wasn't the one originally intended. Shot at the same time as the original film, Superman director Donner (Lethal Weapon) left the production after having shot most of the required footage and a new director was put in his place to create the version movie audiences are familiar with. After much insistence by fans, the Donner cut of the film, once the Holy Grail of geeks everywhere, has finally been released. A blend of re-discovered footage, original reels, screen tests, and new special effects, this is for the most part the same film we're familiar with. Yet chopped, thankfully, is the stuff that doesn't work (the opening Eiffel Tower sequence, Lois' Niagara jump, etc) and most (if not all) of the camp-level silliness (Hackman's over-the-top Luthor still grates). Benefiting from a more modern style of editing and film / FX processes, this version is quite simply a revelation, one that enhances the original by providing a tighter-paced, more interesting one. New footage includes scenes shot with Marlon Brando that never made it to the screen for legal reasons, which provide an incredibly dramatic inner struggle (proving that Reeves can really act), and a moving father-son bond that was not apparent in the theatrical release. The romance between Lois and Supes also works better here; the attraction is still odd, but the scenes are more touching. The no-holds-barred super-powered mayhem in the streets of New York - with its characters hurtling through buildings, using city buses as battering rams and blowing cars around like leaves - has been enhanced to be grander as well, including the addition of a spectacular shot of Supes crashing into Lady Liberty's torch. On the negative side, the ending is the same cop-out used in the first film, the plot has some gaping holes when it comes to time paradoxes, and the product placement is still atrocious, but these are minor failings compared to its successes. All told, Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut is a vast improvement over the original release, one that's much more fun and less dated than the original, and one that will replace it as the most cherished of Reeves' entries.
Entertainment: 8/10

Superman III (1983)
Starring: Christopher Reeve, Richard Pryor, Robert Vaughn
Director: Richard Lester
Plot: A criminal billionaire with dreams of controlling the world's oil supply entices a computer genius to recreate the only substance that can destroy Superman - Kryptonite - with mixed results.
Review: While the previous installments felt fresh and gave the ultimate super-hero some epic adventures, the third installment of the popular Superman franchise is slow and uninspired. Part of the blame lies on the fact that the producers insisted on a more campy tone to the series, which director Lester (with his experience in '60s The Beatles comedies) provided. The Donner Superman movies had their share of humor, but this one literally dives head-first into slapstick comedy, with one of the era's funnymen and series newcomer Pryor taking the spotlight to the detriment of plot, character and much of the fun. In many ways this is also a rehash of the first film, with Vaughn taking over the role of Gene Hackman, followed by his paralleled henchmen and women and his nefarious get-rich schemes - and none of them are half as interesting. Still, despite its drubbing from critics and box-office alike, there's some good stuff here: Clark's return to Smallville, the scenes with the Evil Superman (a blast) and his confrontation / battle with himself, as the Light and Dark sides of his personality clash. As for the special effects, they seem even more dated than the original's - forget the tagline "you'll believe a man can fly". But the action and super-heroics are still fun for those who can accept the lack of maturity and comic-book logic. Unfortunately, even these promising ideas can't help a production that feels like so much filler, taking every opportunity to milk a lame joke or another and staying an inordinate amount of time focused on Pryor's un-funny antics. Reeve does an admirable try at reprising the character, but really only gets to be second-fiddle. Missing is the chemistry with Margot Kidder, relegated to a cameo appearance. A disappointing turn to the franchise, Superman III just can't hold a candle to its predecessors - and especially the dark, action-heavy Superman II - and basically killed the franchise for the next 20 years until Director Bryan Singer's Superman Returns.
Entertainment: 4/10

Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987)
Starring: Christopher Reeve, Gene Hackman, Margot Kidder
Director: Sidney J. Furie
Plot: Superman decides to rid the Earth of all nuclear weapons, but Luthor and his cohorts create an energy being to stop him from cutting on their profits.
Review: For all those that thought it couldn't get any worse after Superman 3, well, Superman 4 came along to prove it actually could. A pet project for star Reeves who insisted on having a plot preaching for nuclear disarmament, the film ended up in the hands of hack producers Golan and Globus (the team behind some of the worst cinematic efforts of the '80's) who relegated Superman to a low-brow, low-budget parody of its original glory. There's just no redeeming quality to the film, period. The blue-screen special effects are just plain bad, even considering the era limitations. The tired, dreadful script is horrid, yet not laughable enough for actual humor (or even cult status), and it's painful to sit through to the end of the film. Having a super-powered villain could have been fun - it worked great for the second installment - but it's such a lame effort with action that is so badly conceived and executed, that there's little entertainment to be had. As for the cast, Reeves and Kidder get many chances to swap some dialogue, but gone is any chemistry they may have had. Even Hackman, returning as Luthor, can barely hide his contempt for the film. And the idea of Luthor's idiot nephew tagging along? Sheer drivel. Coming from a comic-book medium, there's often some leeway given to adapting to the screen, but Superman 4 has no logic, no heart, and was obviously crafted by people who had little understanding (or care) of the character. For Superman completists only.
Entertainment: 3/10

Superman Returns (2006)
Starring: Brandon Routh, Kevin Spacey, Kate Bosworth
Director: Bryan Singer
Plot: After a five-year absence, Superman returns to Earth and faces not only a newly-released Lex Luthor bent on his destruction but the realization that Lois Lane has moved on and started a family.
Review: Judiciously forgetting the decidedly campy parts III and IV, Superman Returns works as a direct sequel to Superman II. Despite the modern movie techniques available and in ample evidence, this really IS your father's Superman. The production has taken into careful account everything we've enjoyed of the first two installments, and enhanced it. Even the style and art direction is very reminiscent of Richard Donner's original film. The story, however, aims for myth-making and tackles different themes, such as the the question "do we need a Superman?", and the idea of this powerful being as a God among mere mortals, a Christ-like figure brought to Earth for Man's Salvation. Weighty themes for a summer popcorn film, but director Singer has made a career of superhero films after the excellent X-Men and X-Men United, and he really knows how to balance the required action with the inherent humanity. The real center of the film is undeniably the awkward romantic relationship between Lois Lane and Superman, and the feeling of regret and loss that ensues; giving her a son and husband adds to the dramatic element of his return - and for once, a child character is quite sympathetic as well as an important part to the story. As for the Man of Steel's soul-searching voyage, little is said, an excuse to simply reboot the franchise. If there's one caveat, it's that the tale is a little too much like the first two, and even many of the ideas feel rehashed - Lex Luthor's plan for destroying part of the US to create a new land-grab, Lex's nitwit girlfriend (a terrible Parker Posey), the many scenes of Superman saving people from petty dangers, etc. There's no denying, though, that the effects are superb throughout and the action sequences are spectacular, especially a CGI-created save of a 747-and-shuttle that's made to land on a baseball field or Supe's stopping the Daily Planet sign from crashing into the street. Despite some concerns, newcomer Routh takes the role and makes it his own, imbuing the icon with sensitivity and underlying strength. As his nemesis, Spacey outdoes Hackman's Luthor and is sublimely, deliciously villainous - too bad he also provides some inappropriate laughs, acting part buffoon, part madman. If the film feels a little long, with many scenes stretching beyond the required length, it always remains engaging thanks to a solid script that gives ample opportunity for character and good dialog. In the end, if Superman Returns feels a bit like of a rehash of old, it's still a masterful, rousing tale that fans and non-fans will both enjoy.
Entertainment: 8/10

Superman/Batman: Public Enemies (2009)
Voice Acting: Clancy Brown, Kevin Conroy, Tim Daly
Director: Sam Liu 
Plot: Elected President of the US, eveil mastermind Lex Luthor uses the threat if an oncoming kryptonite meteor striking Earth to frame Superman, leaving both Superman and ally Batman on the run from a super-heroes and villains alike.
Review: Sticking pretty close to the popular comic book mini-series by Jeph Loeb and Ed McGuiness, the latest direct-to-video animated adaptation Public Enemies is another brief-but-fun cartoon from the DC Comics production house, following such successes as Green Lantern and The New Frontier. As expected, there's a plethora of villains and loads of super-powered battles in a surprisingly dense tale that makes creative use of the villains (the sequence with Metallo is a highlight). It's all brought to the screen in a stylish animation that's a step up from what's shown on TV. Teaming up DC's two most popular characters (and arguably the two most recognizable super-heroes) allows the story to also capture the unlikely friendship - and repartee - between the two polar-opposite heroes, giving the film an added interest beyond the action bits. Unfortunately, even if the dialogue and some sequences are clearly intended for an older audience, the plot gets too silly and the script loses steam in its last Act. Until then Public Enemies is a hoot for older kids and adults alike and, despite its faults, still ends up as an entertaining addition to the comic-book genre.
Entertainment: 6/10

Supernova (2000)
Starring: Angela Bassett, James Spader, Lou Diamond Phillips
Director: Walter Hill
Plot: The crew of a hospital starship answer a distress call in unknown space and retrieve a treasure hunter in possession of a dangerous alien artifact. 
Review: Neither good nor bad, Supernova is a very cliché sci-fi action film that is as generic in its take on the genre as one can get. There are some good ideas here, but they're never utilized, as if the story was edited to leave out anything but the very lowest of Hollywood's idea of the "fun factor" - macho strutting, impressive special effects, expensive sets, and one-dimensional performances (not surprising considering the film went through three directors and countless editings before being released two years late). The biggest disappointment is the terrible use of Bassett and Spader who manage to give the film a little class, but could have done so much better if given a better script. While not really recommended, Supernova isn't bad enough to be camp or boring, and does pass the time if you're in the mood for some mindless sci-fi. 
Entertainment: 3/10

Super Size Me (2004)
Director: Morgan Spurlock
Plot: To document the health dangers of current American lifestyle trends, director Spurlock took to eating all his meals at McDonald's exclusively for 30 days with dangerous results.
Review: Winner a the 2004 Sundance Festival, Super Size Me is a critical, eye-opening, chilling and often just as hilarious look at our fast-food society, one that manages to entertains as much as it educates. The center piece is evidently director Spurlock's surprisingly intimate video journal of his descent from fitness to appallingly poor health: as we see him gleefully and steadfastly eating away at his McMeals (and forcibly reducing his physical activity) he takes on 40 pounds, becomes prone to headaches and mood swings, and - as his girlfriend is quick to point out - even loses his sexual vitality. Worse, though under constant medical supervision, his cholesterol climbs to dangerous levels and his liver takes a beating which may not recover, pushing his alarmed doctors to urge him to stop. Though morbidly fascinating, this wouldn't be quite enough to sustain an entire movie and thankfully the doc is more than a one-trick pony, aiming its sights higher than just the giant McDonald's but at high-fat, high-sugar foods in general. Of course, critics will be quick to point out that no-one in their right minds will sustain a this kind of diet and that food companies aren't to blame for the public's poor choices. Yet, through interviews of smarmy corporation executives, obtuse cafeteria workers, sharp health officials and people on the street, the film forms a scary vision of how really terrible the current condition of our nation's health really is. Aided by some clever animated sequences and an upbeat narration (Spurlock was a one-time MTV host), the film never fails to put its point across. Indeed, after watching Super Size Me, you'd be hard-pressed to find yourself in a fast-food chain anytime soon.
Documentary: 8/10

Surrogates (2009)
Starring: Bruce Willis, James Cromwell, Ving Rhames
Director: Jonathan Mostow
Plot: In a world where robot surrogates have become the only means for people to interact in society, a veteran cop is forced to leave the confines of his home for the first time in years to investigate an unprecedented series of murders.
Review: Surrogates attempts to be meaningful sci-fi wrapped in a procedural thriller and action movie, all in one. One can see how this would have worked better as a comic book, on which this is actually based, where fantastic concepts are easier to accept. As a movie (or at least as this movie) it comes off as cheap and not well realized, and not only because of limited production values. The script itself never manages to convince us of the viability of this society, never even trying to excuse its logic gaps, throwing in two plot twists that annoy more than surprise. Even its musings on humanity and how modern technology have made us isolated are half-hearted at best. It all comes off like a version edited for a zippier, action-only crowd, a version that neither satisfies as a thriller (not enough action, suspense or surprises) nor as science-fiction (not enough new ideas or conviction). For a director whose got U-571 and Terminator 3 under his belt, Mostow is definitely not at his best - actually, it's all quite underwhelming. That said, it's not a complete loss - even if Cromwell and Rhames are severely underused in supporting parts, Willis comes through, and often seems to be better than the action vehicles he's been strapped to, even in his caricatural cop-with-a-conscience roles. And Mostow does provide a few (too few) slam bang action sequences, including a manhunt between super-powered surrogate and two-bit killer in a human ghetto, and a car chase after a runaway surrogate that do entertain. This would have made for an interesting Twilight Zone or Outer Limits episode, but the limited ideas and pedestrian execution can't sustain a full-length film. Too bad - Surrogates could have been an intriguing, thought-provoking SF thriller if it wasn't so concerned with meeting lowest-denominator standards.
Entertainment: 5/10

Suspect Zero (2004)
Starring: Ben Kingsley, Aaron Eckhart, Carrie-Anne Moss
Director: E. Elias Merhige
Plot: A tormented FBI agent reteams with a former partner in his search for a strange serial killer, a troubled vigilante who can psychically see the misdeeds of others and uses his powers to hunt down other serial killers.
Review: Yet another serial-killer thriller heavily influenced by that darling of the genre Seven, Suspect Zero's main offering is a heavy dose of calculated, dark atmosphere and some disturbing scenes. It's nowhere near as accomplished as its template, for sure, but director Merhige (Shadow of the Vampire) does have a definite visual flair for the genre and with his penchant for a certain creative excess, one can excuse the fact that his style sometimes comes off as a tad show-offy (including the many nightmare sequences). The main issue is with the rather clichéd script: Despite its psychic premise, this is meant as more of a psychological thriller than a supernatural one, but its interesting premise - that of a killer hunting other killers - is never fully explored and the film ends up taking few chances. The narrative and passable plot thankfully gloss over the fact that there is little tension in the on-going investigation and allow for an engaging, if un-enthralling, entry. The dialogue might be a little beneath the solid cast, but Eckhart comes off well as the low-rung FBI man and Kingsley is reliably creepy as the tortured killer. Same can't be said of Moss who has little to do, really, as the side-kick agent. An ill-defined (and unconvincing) romantic back-story is meant to add some depth to the characters but comes off flat. In the end, Suspect Zero is an eminently watchable exercise that's visually impressive but that only adds up to an average thriller.
Entertainment: 6/10

Suspiria (Italy - 1977)
Starring: Jessica Harper, Stefania Cassini, Alida Valli
Director: Dario Argento
Plot: A willowy but head-strong American girl enrolls in a German ballet school only to find that it's being run by a frightening coven of witches. 
Review: Suspiria has been acclaimed as horror-master d'Argento's most engrossing and impressive film to date, and this "giallo" (as these intricately set-up Italian mystery / slasher flicks are called) is definitely a must-see for fans of the genre. From the first instant, we know that something sinister is going on, the film efficiently building tension at every turn. The camera continuously focuses on strange details, with every scene heavy with ominous intent, imparting a growing feeling of intense dread. The psychedelic color schemes that are used throughout helps make every scene delightfully hypnotic. There's also the occasional bouts of spectacular mayhem, of imaginative, horrific murders, such as the intricate double-deaths that start off the film, or the seeing-eye dog that rips its owner's throat in gory detail. Some of it may not be as convincingly gross as more modern fare, but it's still pretty vivid. The eerie, memorable music by The Goblins (assisted by d'Argento himself), with its murmuring chorus of "witch", is the perfect score for such a film, setting up the creepy mood perfectly. In sum, this is pretty disturbing stuff, with the colors, the music, the cinematography, the lighting, all magnificently staged to be an attack on the senses, to get the audience on edge. Sure, the film is ludicrous at times, but for the most part it stays away from the usual camp associated with this kind of cinema. The one painful thing, however, is that the dialogue is pretty bad, something made worse by the dreadful dubbing required (only the main characters spoke English, the rest of the cast was Italian!). Except for an innocent, wide-eyed performance by Harper, the acting is also pretty much second rate. But these are relatively minor quibbles for a film that takes you in with its distinctive visual style, its extravagant Gothic set design, its bizarre happenings and its constant sense of bloody fun. Stylish, innovative, Suspiria is a horror flick that transcends the low-budget genre with its artistic merits and creative, suspenseful atmosphere. A true horror classic.
Horror: 8/10

Suzaku (Japan - 1997)
Starring: Kotaro Shibata, Yasuyo Kamimura
Director: Naomi Kawase 
Plot: A tragedy brought about by a failed train development befalls the quiet life of a tight-knit family in a remote Japanese village.
Review: Suzaku is a quiet, contemplative little film that eschews the typical melodrama and instead combines real drama with a certain dream-like quality. The story is split into two time frames. The first presents a happy community living according to their traditional values in humble prosperity. The other, jumping fifteen years later, shows the signs of it losing the spirit and hope it first displayed, the economic recession slowly eroding the community. Director Kawase came back to her home town to shoot the film, and every scene shows off her feeling of nostalgia for the place as well as a real caring for her characters and their relationship to their land and to each other. The film's pacing flows like a summer stream, and the film is full of well shot static imagery, taking every opportunity to depict the surrounding beautiful, lush mountain scenery. The minimalist script uses very little dialogue, relying instead on unspoken emotions, which helps imbue every moment with a sense of familiarity and melancholy for this place lost in memory. The cast, made up of non-professional actors, are restrained in their showing of emotions, and the camera takes its time to embrace these people and become part of their everyday lives. Winner at Cannes for best first feature, Suzaku is a well-made, touching and melancholic picture of a community, and a way of life on the verge of disappearing.
Drama: 7/10

The Swan Princess (1994)
Starring: Jack Palance, Sandy Duncan
Director: Richard Rich
Plot: A desperate young prince must find his betrothed after an evil sorcerer turns her into a swan.
Review: The Swan Princess tries to imitate the Disney animated feature template but without any originality of its own, and very little charm. The animation is decent enough and there are some cute moments, but the characters are typical and bland, the story and situations very formulaic, and the songs quite forgettable. This decent but uninspired effort will probably amuse kids, but not more demanding viewers. For a very similar story, and one that delivers better entertainment, try Disney's Sleeping Beauty instead.
Entertainment: 4/10

S.W.A.T. (2003)
Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Colin Farrell, Michelle Rodriguez
Director: Clark Johnson
Plot: Leading a new S.W.A.T. squad, a veteran officer faces the worst gangs in LA after a detained drug lord publicly offers millions to break him out of their custody.
Review: Yet another film adaptation of a TV show, S.W.A.T. is very loosely based on the short-lived '70s TV series. What could have been a decent one-hour pilot drags past the breaking point in a feature-length exercise. Worse, though the name says Special Weapons and Tactics, what we get here is neither special nor very smart. Going from a possibly interesting premise, this ends up predictably generic and uninventive, with one-dimensional characters who lack any sympathy, a lame rehashed plot, and not enough action to really keep our interest for the running length. In fact, these sequences - the little there are of them - are tepid and lack any flair. In fact, the real movie doesn't start until we're an hour into the film, allowing for the extended "recruiting and training" sequences (heck, maybe this really is a TV pilot!). Even the climactic finish, as a Lear jet (that is, an obvious model of one) lands on a bridge and a loud firefight ensues, just doesn't cut it. Even the usually charismatic Jackson and Farrell go through the usual motions without much verve or interest, and it's hard for audiences to either. Rodriguez gets another typecast role, and a buff LL Cool J rounds out the gang. All this isn't to say it's boring - it's not, in that turn-your-brain-off kind of way - just completely forgettable. The one redeeming thing is the modernized version of the original theme song, which even gets sung by the cast. S.W.A.T. is the type of film that would have been at home in the 80's, but these days it feels just like a warmed-over retread.
Entertainment: 4/10

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)
Starring: Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Alan Rickman, Sacha Baron Cohen
Director: Tim Burton
Plot: Returning from a forced exile, a master barber returns to London intent on revenge against the Judge who destroyed his life, opening up a sinister shop with the help of a not-so-lovely fellow tenant. 
Review: Based on Stephen Sondheim's landmark Broadway musical, Sweeney Todd is no song-and-dance type of affair. Instead, it's a black comedy, a twisted, tragic tale of love and vengeance with the dregs of humanity where people sing about longing and killing and do unspeakable acts. With his experience in bringing gothic fantasies like Batman and Sleepy Hollow to life, Burton is a natural to bring the musical's depiction of 19th century London to the big screen. Bringing his own visual style to the proceedings, and helped by some fabulous art direction, it comes off as an Oliver Twist type of world given the Burton treatment. The storyline is not for kids, what with the cannibalism, the growing pile of corpses, the never ending buckets of blood, and the dark themes. The problem lies in the fact that a play (or a musical) is inherently less dynamic than the cinematic medium, and we expect them to be different. True, this ain't Chicago, nor is it meant to be, but as it stands, the movie is slow going, and the songs - though clever and witty, with music performed by the original's orchestrator and conductor - aren't enough to keep our interest at all moments. Not to say it's all tedious: many of the horrific moments are also quite amusing and it's all superbly crafted, climaxing in an appropriately bloody crescendo. As the Barber, a brooding Depp keeps a constant frown on and barely emotes, though he does impress with his singing voice. At least Carter gets a more interesting role and does a fine job as the murderous Ms. Lovett. They're not singers, but they do rather well. The excellent supporting cast includes Alan Rickman as the villainous Judge, Timothy Spall as his mousy assistant and the over-the-top Sacha Baron Cohen as a rival barber. A macabre tale done in the best Grand Guignol manner, Sweeney Todd is undoubtedly a solid adaptation; fans of the original stage production may get a kick in seeing it done as a big-budget affair with an A-list cast but mainstream audiences will be left wondering what the fuss was about.
Entertainment: 6/10

Sweet and Lowdown (1999)
Starring: Sean Penn, Samantha Morton, Uma Thurman
Director: Woody Allen
Plot: The life and times of a forgotten 1930's legendary jazz guitarist is recounted from bits and pieces of his relationships with two women, one a working-class mute and the other a social debutante.
Review: Sweet and Lowdown is one of writer / director Allen's better '90s films, a charming little love letter to his second favorite pastime, Jazz. The focus is on the legendary (and completely fictional) 1930's jazz guitarist Emmett Ray, a man who's egotism knows no bounds, who has a terrible inferiority complex when it comes to a certain European gypsy player, who prefers watching trains and shooting rats to playing music, and yet is blessed with an angel's touch. Penn is fabulous here as the genius musician, and single-handedly makes the whole experience worthwhile, getting under the skin of the character perfectly, with just the right mix of egotism, maniacal energy and musical passion. Morton, playing his mute one-time girlfriend, has a subdued performance that feels straight out of a silent film, using expressive eye and body movements to convey emotion. As for Allen, he is once again in fine form here after a few less-than-impressive efforts, mixing some touching dramatic moments with his usual trademarks of subtle and broad comedy. This is his ode to Jazz, and much of the film is made up of opportunities to seeing Ray and his entourage playing in clubs and improvised jam sessions filled with some fine tunes. These instances, as well as the rest of the film, are well photographed and well-produced giving the whole movie a nostalgic look at a New York that lives only in fiction. Fake interviews with experts in the field (including Allen himself) provides narrative for the film, setting up the series of sketches that make up the story from recounted rumours, appropriately aggrandizing facts that fit this larger-than-life character. Sweet and Lowdown isn't so different, theme-wise or comedy-wise, from Allen's many other features, but thanks to a clever little script and a terrific performance from Penn, this is a fine addition to his body of works.
Comedy / Drama: 7/10

Sweet Home Alabama (2002)
Starring: Reese Witherspoon, Josh Lucas, Patrick Dempsey
Director: Andy Tennant
Plot: Engaged to the New York mayor's son, a successful fashion designer heads back to her small home town in Alabama to get her final divorce papers from her estranged husband, but can she really forget her Southern roots?
Review: Following up immediately after the success of Legally Blonde, Sweet Home Alabama is an obvious follow-up for its star, offering up another light-hearted, and sometimes downright hokey, romantic comedy. There's no real effort to make something new here, and even the comedy isn't exactly memorable, though at least it's never mean-spirited or gross. Yet, through the usual array of tired Southern-themed jokes and North / South culture-clash there is some decent humor to be had and some genuine laughs. Though director Tennant (Ever After, Anna and the King) doesn't stretch his abilities, he does manage to imbue a certain bubbly energy to the happenings which makes the film easily watchable. The real attraction, however, is the cast (and most especially, of course, Witherspoon) who are affable and charming enough on screen that most mainstream audiences will accept the predictable formulaic plot, shallow sentiments, and saccharine feel good moments. Heck, it works well enough that when it's time for her to choose between the two men in her life, audiences will be cheering for both! And where would this kind of Hollywood product be without its eccentric supporting characters? As such we get the trademark closet gay guy, older Civil War re-enactors, the stereotypical Southern boys, and even Candice Bergen as a bitchy New York mayor. Still, though it's another cookie-cutter product off the assembly line, thanks to its leads Sweet Home Alabama comes off as an above-average effort.
Entertainment: 6/10

Swordfish (2001)
Starring: Hugh Jackman, John Travolta, Halle Berry
Director: Dominic Sena
Plot: To retrieve his young daughter, an ex-hacker is forced to join a group of well-connected paramilitary high-tech thieves who plan to embezzle billions from the FBI by using terrorist tactics.
Review: From the great opening monologue by villain Travolta and the spectacular slow-motion 360 degree digitally-enhanced explosion that immediately follows it, Swordfish announces that this is an action film won't take itself too seriously but that promises to be as entertaining as it can possibly be. This is a violent, high-tech thriller full of gadgets, guns and jet-setting people and locales where everything is spliced in for the sake of guilty pleasures. The story may be preposterous and downright silly, but the plot twists, sly dialogue, raunchy bits, and grand-standing characters keep everything proceeding at an accelerated clip in-between the event-level stunt-filled scenes. And these action sequences are first-rate: from a chase down a steep cliff to a city bus being lifted by helicopter over city high-rises, they are all as well staged and executed as big budget effects can be. The story actually contains a few genuine surprises that elevate it above the typical cookie-cutter action genre, as well as enough great throw-away comebacks and quips to fill two more similar films. Director Sena (Gone in 60 Seconds) keeps the suspense and adrenaline rush going with lots of pyrotechnics, dynamic camera shots and quick editing, all combined with perfect Hollywood flair. The cast is also irresistible, from rising-star Hugh Jackman's charismatic hero to Travolta's over-the-top villain and all the supporting actors in between. Swordfish isn't a great film by any means, but as a wicked, loud, fun-filled summer outing, it's hard to beat.
Entertainment: 7/10

Sword in the Moon (South Korean - 2003)
Starring: Min-su Choi, Jae-hyeon Jo, Bo-kyeong Kim 
Director: Ui-seok Kim
Plot: A master swordsman is oath-bound to protect the emperor and his government, but an old comrade-in-arms wants to exact his revenge by assassinating a series of high-ranking officials.
Review: There have been many terrific-looking genre pictures from South Korea recently (Musa the Warrior, The Legend of Ginko, etc) and Sword in the Moon is no exception, showing the high-budget production values and moody cinematography we've come to expect. Much like those, however, it comes off as another rather generic genre film, a classic tale of honor and loyalty that's just too derivative to make a mark. The narrative does try for something original, presenting the story in piece-meal flashbacks. There are also a few fantasy elements brought to play (some wire-work, some CGI), but for the most part it's old-fashioned sword-fighting - the many brutal, bloody battles are well-shot and well-choreographed, though the action is too blurred to appreciate. Even the stereotypical characters, varying from the stoic master swordsman to the villainous emperor, aren't very interesting or convincingly conflicted. In fact, none of this is stylish or inventive enough to make a mark on jaded audiences. Topping it all is the awkward direction and editing, as if the filmmakers were paying close attention to the dark, serious tone and immaculate visuals of the film without bothering with the fluidity required for proper cinema. In the end, Sword in the Moon is a good-looking period piece that delivers the goods but simply fails to engage.
Entertainment: 5/10

Swordsman II (Hong Kong - 1992)
Starring: Jet Li, Brigitte Lin, Rosamund Kwan
Directors: Ching Siu-tung, Stanley Tong
Plot: A master swordsman gets involved in the search for a powerful sacred scroll and is thrown in the conflict between two brothers and their clans each vying for power.
Review: Swordsman II is an intense, action-packed sword and sorcery epic in the grand tradition of the best of the Hong Kong fantasy epics and of producer Tsui Hark. A sequel to the first installment but with a brand-new cast, the plot is based on a huge, popular Chinese novel. Cutting it down to film-size, the story ends up quite complex and often confusing. But the great camerawork, good cinematography, beautiful use of color, amazing costumes and sets, all combine with a complex story and some truly stunning and inventive action sequences. Indeed, the imaginative choreography and high-flying combat sequences are absolutely mesmerizing. Jet Li is the main character here, and he does a wonderful job as the expert swordsman caught between two factions, but it is Brigitte Lin who once again steals the show, this time as the evil sorcerer who is being changed into a woman by her use of magic. The fast-paced narrative and striking visuals combine to make a terrific adventure yarn and make Swordsman II one of the pinnacles of early 1990's Hong Kong-produced movie entertainment.
Entertainment: 8/10


Syriana (2005)
Starring: George Clooney, Matt Damon, Chris Cooper
Director: Stephen Gaghan
Plot: A veteran CIA agent, the CEO of a petroleum giant, an American lawyer, a Muslim teen and an Middle-Eastern prince are all connected in a power-play for the oil rights of an Arab state.
Review: Inspired by true-life CIA agent Robert Baer's 2002 memoir See No Evil, Syriana is an ambitious political thriller that tackles the subject of America's oil interests in the Middle-East. Much like his script for Traffic did for the world (and underworld) of drug trafficking, Oscar-winning writer-turned-director Gaghan presents us with a carefully constructed narrative that weaves different characters and storylines together. Taking a cue from mentor Steven Soderbergh, the film uses different cinematic techniques to good effect to provide a "you-are-there" feel to the proceedings. It's an often complex, convoluted web that intends to show how everything is connected, from big-time company presidents and their high-priced lawyers to the once insignificant worker who becomes an Islamic terrorist for lack of options. It requires careful attention and the constant switch between these various strands, as the story bounces around the world, can sometimes be distracting if not bewildering to mainstream viewers expecting a nice, linear tale. Yet, if there's a real failure to the film it's that the script, as daring and smart as it is, might have been ambitious to a fault. Cramming so much covert operations, dirty business deals, political corruption, terrorist brainwashing and still trying to flesh out the people involved would require a mini-series. Cramped by a normal movie's length just doesn't allow the story and all the diverging subplots to breathe. On the plus side, the dialogue is sharp, there are some memorable (if harrowing) scenes, and the ensemble cast is impeccable. Indeed, Damon, Cooper and Plummer hit just the right notes but its Clooney, going against his typecast good-looks-and-charm as the world-weary field operative, who really makes an impression. Despite its rush Syriana is still a thoroughly engaging look at what goes on behind today's headlines, and it delivers a cynical, well-targeted commentary on the American oil industry.
Drama: 8/10

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