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V for Vendetta (2006)
Starring: Natalie Portman, Hugo Weaving
Director: James McTeigue
Plot: In a future totalitarian England, a mystery man with the code name of V tries to incite a rebellion among the populace by planning the destruction of the London Parliament building.
Review: Freely based on the 1980's graphic novel by Alan Moore and David Lloyd, V for Vendetta bases its tale on the exploits of one Guy Fawkes, a man who failed to blow up the London parliament in the early 17th century, in a near-future UK. Despite the impressions given by the movie's trailers (and its pedigree - the writers / producers are the Warchowski brothers of The Matrix trilogy fame), this is far from being an action film; oh, there are a few explosions and two or three nicely executed action sequences, but for the most part this is a political drama wrapped inside a mystery. With clear ribbing at the present US and UK governments and the limiting of freedoms for the sake of "protecting" the public, the adapted screenplay aims to be a scathing commentary on the lies and manipulation of Western governments, all masked as entertainment. Though in fairness it is more vicious and clever than some may expect, it never reaches the level of audacity of the original material, and as such some of the message regarding oppressive government gets drown in stylistic intent. Yet, a big-budget film that elevates its anarchic terrorist to hero status, using violence to promote change, may be ill-advised in the current world view and for that at least the filmmakers deserve credit. Also, director McTeigue does manage to get the mood and the look of the film just right, bringing in the shades of the dystopia and social paranoia of George Orwell's 1984. Wearing but a plastic Fawkes mask, Weaving tries his theatrical best to get the character's sensitivity across and make him a sympathetic character despite his motives of revenge, but it's not always successful. Portman fares better but her role - really only a placeholder through which audiences are lectured on V's ideology of awakening the masses - asks for too much; her shaven look may be drastic, but her actions are anything but. Still, despite some flaws V for Vendetta is an engaging tale with a message, and if it's not all it could have been at least it might engage some heated discussions.
Entertainment / Drama: 7/10

Valkyrie (2008)
Starring: Tom Cruise, Kenneth Branagh, Bill Nighy
Director: Bryan Singer
Plot: At the height of World War II, as the tide turns against them, German officers and disgraced politicians conspire to assassinate Adolf Hitler before their country is lost.
Review: Based on actual events, Valkyrie depicts the events leading to the July 20, 1944 plot by German army officers to assassinate their own leader, who they believed was driving the country to disaster. If the usual movie liberties were bound to be taken, the filmmakers do fundamentally justice to the spirit of the actual conspiracy and to the portrait of the conspirators themselves, men and women brought together by their patriotism to country, not to their fuhrer. Director Singer's early efforts (Apt Pupil, The Usual Suspects) proved he could get into the right intimate details with his characters, and his later, better known super-hero blockbusters like X-Men or Superman Returns showed he could also offer some smart, mainstream fare. If the film doesn't quite make it as a "best of both worlds" approach that many hoped for, there's a good deal of suspense and vivacity to the proceedings even if audiences already know how it all has to end. With Singer's solid cinematic sense and action pedigree, strong production values, and a sense of time and place only heightened by the use of actual locations (such as Berlin's historic Bendlerblock) it's a compelling take on the subject, even if the conventions - and required pacing - of the genre make it too shallow for anything other than a primer on the subject. Cruise himself plays the leading role of Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, one of the (if not the main) key plotters, with aplomb and vigor, though the complexities of the character are but alluded to, a necessity in making a mainstream thriller. Still, kudos to the script for juggling many of the real-life co-conspirators into the story and to the superb supporting cast that brought them to life despite limited screen time, including Kenneth Branagh, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson and Terence Stamp among other familiar faces. Meant more for entertainment than drama, Valkyrie does have its failings and may not provide the in-depth knowledge as to the real motivations or political machinations behind the plot, but it does ultimately satisfy as a solid, well-crafted historical thriller.
Entertainment: 7/10

The Vampire Effect (The Twins Effect) (Hong Kong - 2003)
Starring: Charlene Choi, Gillian Chung, Ekin Cheng
Director: Dante Lam
Plot: An expert vampire hunter accepts a cute young woman as a new teammate, one who quickly comes to odds with his young sister who has fallen for a young vampire prince.
Review: The Vampire Effect is a teen romantic / action / horror / comedy that works well enough as a marketing tie-in for Asia's flavor of the month, the "Twins" (that is, it's two young stars), but misses the mark on everything else. Think of it as Hong Kong's answer to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, only not as clever or original. It is decently shot for a HK quickie and it could have been entertaining, in a brain-dead way. It tries hard to provide the HK fights we've come to expect from better movies, but the action sequences are just not well executed. It's depressing to think action-meister Donnie Yen actually was involved in choreographing this mess. On top of that the puerile comedy is groan-worthy, and the only funny moments are inadvertent, the acting laughable, the euro-vampires pretty ridiculous looking, and the story stupid. As for the climactic and long-winded fight sequence, it's rather tame, and the use of tepid computer effects and lame wire-fu doesn't help much. There's also a pretty embarrassing over-the-top cameo from Jackie Chan - what the heck is he even doing in here? All that said, this is an unabashed star vehicle, and everything revolves around that - you get lots of pouting, romantic trysts, the twins kicking vampire butt, and showing off how cute they are. This can be quite annoying for those looking for actual substance - your appreciation may vary. True, The Vampire Effect might be fun for young teens (and even young kids may get some mileage out of it), but there isn't enough meat or even camp value to be of much interest for anyone else.
Entertainment: 3/10

Vampyr (1931)
Starring: Julian West, Sybille Schmitz
Director: Carl Theodor Dreyer
Plot: While on a trip to the country, a young man uncovers strange goings on ultimately leading him to believe that vampires live in the area and are terrorizing the locals.
Review: From the very start, Vampyr foregoes any narrative and gets right into the crux of the film. In fact, there is little characterization here, very little actual story (most of which is actually quite ambiguous) and, as an early talkie, not even much dialogue, preferring to bring about the plot through texts and action on the screen. The film relies almost exclusively on the experimental, technically impressive cinematography, the ghostly, surreal imagery and the eerie atmosphere to bring about the slow, creeping horror that pervades every scene (the dream funeral sequence is particularly effective). There are no typical scares here, just an ever-increasing dread and a great sense of gothic horror. Vampyr strays between seeming very modern in its style and presentation to being very dated, but it remains a fascinating, classic vampire horror film.
Entertainment: 8/10

Van Helsing (2004)
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Kate Beckinsale, Richard Roxburgh
Director: Stephen Sommers
Plot: An agent of a secret religious society bent on ridding the world of evil travels to Transylvania to destroy the vampire Dracula and his wives while battling werewolves and the Frankenstein monster.
Review: A creature-feature to top all others, Van Helsing is another exaggerated, "leave-your-brains-at-the-door" summer outing. Yet while it's plotted to death, there's an undeniable exuberance that abounds, as every scene tries to top the one before it. From the black-and-white opening reminiscent of the 1930's genre classic Frankenstein, as Dr. F and Dracula face off in a darkened castle in the middle of a lightning storm, we know we're in the hands of someone who's going to play this thing to the hilt. And when the intro to our dark hero sees him fighting a giant Mr. Hyde atop the Notre-Dame Cathedral we just know this is going to be a tongue-in-cheek affair - and we'd be right. From the James Bond-like gadgets (19th century style) to the Indy Jones questing and exotic locales, to the constant hunting and fighting, this screams expensive but fun silliness. I mean, a cable-swinging Frankenstein? Writer / director Sommers isn't new to the monster genre, having given us The Mummy and its sequel. Here he's taken the treasure trove of classic Universal monsters and been allowed to let his inner child loose on the production, adapting the well-known mythos of these creatures. This has given way to an endless barrage of computer animated mayhem, fabulous-looking sets and breathless roller-coaster like thrills and camera shots. Unfortunately, like his own The Mummy Returns, the film lacks any sense of characterization or sensible plot-line and the endless over the top action gets a little wearisome. While Roxburgh's Dracula has a sort of campy evilness that works well given the world created here and the werewolves (or Wolf-Men) are dumbly ferocious CGI animates, the Frankenstein monster's character is surprisingly faithful to Mary Shelley's novel. The problem is that the stuntmen have more on-screen time than the entire cast, the actors having little to do but snarl, emote to blue screens, looks cool, and say a total of a dozen lines. As such, Jackman makes a dashing hero but he's terribly underused, as is the poor Beckinsale. Mind you, forewarned audiences and focus-audiences (that is teens) won't care the least. As the first blockbuster production of the summer of 2004, Van Helsing is an over-done chaotic ride, but it's nonetheless joyous in its excess and makes for a mindless, entertaining popcorn film that hits the spot.
Entertainment: 6/10

Vanilla Sky (2001)
Starring: Tom Cruise, Penelope Cruz, Cameron Diaz
Director: Cameron Crowe
Plot: A rich, playboy magazine editor finds that he can no longer differentiate dream from reality, one in which he has been left horribly disfigured and the other where he's madly in love with a charming dancer.
Review: As a vehicle for its star Tom Cruise, Vanilla Sky, a remake of the Spanish film Open Your Eyes, succeeds only in showing that a film can't survive on ego alone. The original's story is still in place, and the idea behind it is sound, but the tone and execution lacks any originality and the hour and a half long setup fails miserably to keep our interest. The main fault is that, wanting to add more complexity to the story, the script has become down-right leaden, with dialogue that is nowhere near as sparkling or clever as it thinks it is. Another major problem is that the movie definitely requires not just judicious editing of most of its scenes but actually a massive slashing. Director Crowe, who did the wonderful semi-biographical Almost Famous, tries hard to keep this, his largest project, under artistic control but it's obvious he's in way over his head. There are some nice touches, and the hallucinatory narrative melding of dreams and reality is for the most part well executed (and provides the film's best scenes), but it all becomes more annoying than enjoyable as things progress. Sure, the Twilight Zone-type mystery at the heart of the film does generate some suspense and will keep most audiences guessing, but it's not enough to make this relationship drama enticing. To be fair, the cast does a decent job with Cruise coming off, well, like Cruise even when acting under a mask of deformed features and Cruz, returning in the same role she played in the former version, doing an appropriately charming turn. Dragged out to ridiculous and boring extremes, Vanilla Sky comes off as a pretentious and yes, rather immature drama that requires more than a little patience for its payoff and one that just doesn't hold up to the more deft original.
Entertainment / Drama: 4/10

Vanishing Point (1971)
Starring: Barry Newman, Cleavon Little, Gilda Texler
Director: Richard Sarafian
Plot: Trying to set a land record between Colorado and California and high on speed, a veteran race car driver with a checkered past evades state police in a souped up Dodge guided by a blind soul-station DJ.
Review: From a very simple premise, that of an inter-State high-speed chase across the back roads of America, Vanishing Point opens up into a portrait of a man beaten by fate. The first half of the film is a simply terrific old-style car chase, well shot and exciting, moving along with energetic pacing - quite a surprise compared to its 1970's peers. Some of these sequences - from road to off-road - even put some modern fare to shame. In comparison, the second more esoteric half just crawls. Here the film becomes much more introspective and deliberate in its pacing, even downright existential, showing (much like its contemporary Easy Rider) eccentric characters living "free" outside of contemporary society. Some of these scenes, show a snake wrangler, gay hitchhikers, and a naked woman riding a motorcycle - how's that for a metaphor? The rather straight-forward narrative is interspersed with flash-backs on this anti-hero's life, giving us a better view of the character. Some of it might offer up more than is necessary, but it rounds out the character. Indeed, high on speed, emotionally lost and in search of an unattainable freedom beyond the confines of society, the driver captured the feelings of a whole generation living for the moment while also being the poster-boy for a car-crazy culture. Shot on a low budget with grainy realism, this cult favorite may be low on dialogue and high on awkward subtext, but it's got enough thrills and imagery to satisfy. Vanishing Point is very much a product of its time and will feel a little schizo head-trip for most viewers, but those willing to give this one a chance should be amply rewarded.
Entertainment / Drama: 7/10

Vantage Point (2008)
Starring: Dennis Quaid, Forest Whitaker, William Hurt
Director: Pete Travis
Plot: A Secret Service agent has little time to untangle the mystery behind a presidential assassination attempt as witnessed by eight strangers.
Review: The political action thriller Vantage Point has a clever Rashomon-like concept at its core, and seems to promise to be both an engaging and smart effort - at least for its first half. The true story gets peeled away as the same twenty minutes get repeated from different viewpoints, each interconnecting to the same characters in what amounts to a clever, coordinated exercise to get the likes of TV's 24 to the big screen. The narrative gimmick gets old half-way through, though, and as the convoluted plot unfolds it gets more tangled up, ending up relying on logic gaps and unexplainable events as well as more typical thriller devices to wrap things up, making for a disappointing end to what was a promising thriller. Still, even if first time feature director Travis can't always shake off the small-screen dynamics, he's created a likable effort. For one, there's no denying that the film is well paced, throwing in explosions, gunfights, twists and double-crosses to keep things moving along. An exciting The Bourne Identity-inspired car chase across the city streets of an unnamed Spanish city, screeching tires, crushed cars and motion-cam all in play, is a real highlight. A capable international cast including the likes of Whitaker, Hurt, Sigourney Weaver and Matthew Fox gets little to do but follow an inadequate script, and they can't help but feel underused; the exception is perhaps Quaid, as the resolved Secret Service agent, who proves he can take on the action genre without batting an eye. Those expecting explanations as to why these events were set in motion or who is behind it will end up being disappointed, as there are no explanations to be had. In fact, the movie doesn't really care: the action thriller mechanics is really the main focus, and in that regards Vantage Point may end up being a loud and vapid effort, but it does keep the audience engaged.
Entertainment: 6/10

Veronica Guerin (2003)
Starring: Cate Blanchett, Gerard McSorley, Ciarán Hinds
Director: Joel Schumacher
Plot: An impassioned, brash female journalist working for an Irish tabloid exposes criminal activities in Dublin and attracts the ire of a violent local gangster.
Review: Based on the true story of the award-winning Irish journalist who was murdered in 1996, Verconica Guerin follows its title character through her last major story. It's a story worth telling, on one woman's passion and her challenging the status-quo. Though the real-life story is arguably mainly there, especially the more salient and juicy bits, the spin and narrative remain that of a mainstream (read easy to digest) picture, with the good guys and bad guys clearly defined. Told in the manner of a crime drama more than a drama, the script has taken some obvious liberties with real-life events for "dramatic" purposes, none so evident as blending its many real criminal elements into a single, horrendous personality that audiences can easily vilify. And that's where it trips up, insisting on a rather by-the-numbers affair which piles on the more shocking elements of the tale. But for high-end schlock, there's no better than Schumacher (Phonebooth, Batman Forever): he's a very proficient, technically-savvy director and here he presents another slick, efficient, easy to follow production that's paced for his intended audience. Where he does succeed is in showing Guerin as a real risk taker, a woman who really did get in over her head but, because of principle, pride or plain stubbornness just couldn't back down. Yet though there's a worthy try at adding some depth to the central character and exploring her intentions, the film would have gained by searching more for an explanation for her desperate need to get to the bottom of her story. A few nuggets of character development (such as a glossed-over look at her family life and her career, and her obsession for speeding) just aren't quite enough. On the plus side, the film does know to focus on its most important asset: Cate Blanchett. She's a terrifically versatile actress, as she proves here in another fine turn. Too bad the film isn't quite up to her talents. The rest of the European cast is also notable, and check out the brief but fun cameo by bad-boy Colin Farrell in an amusing (if throw-away) scene. In the end, much like the reporter herself, Veronica Guerin is a sensationalist take on her life and death that would have benefited from a more down-to-earth presentation.
Drama: 5/10

Versus (2000)
Starring: Tak Sakaguchi, Yuichiro Arai, Hoshimi Asai
Director: Ryuhei Kitamura
Plot: An escaped convict trying to escape both his captors and a strange array of undead zombies discovers he is a resurrected samurai warrior returned to fight his evil brother from gaining untold powers.
Review: Versus is one of those films that bite you when you least expect it. To say it's a Japanese samurai / zombie movie, or a sword-and-sorcery tale, or a simple action flick would be like saying a souped-up roadster is just another car. Taking note from such films as Evil Dead 2, The Matrix and Highlander, while throwing in some typically Hong Kong excess and American zombie films, the filmmakers prove that sometimes energy and inventiveness make up for other limitations such as time and budget. Money constraints do force the film to take place in the forest, a setting that's pretty bland, but they make the most of it, with some very dynamic (almost excessively so) camera-work and super-fast editing. The general tone is one amused excess, and there are a lot of nice touches along with the slapstick, gross out comedy, but it also manages to balance out just the right amount of schlock value, elaborate wire-fu, standard martial arts, and humor to make it interesting and consistently engaging. In fact, there's not a dull moment to be had anywhere, and the film manages to keep the adrenaline running throughout (no easy feat). Sure, the dialogue is limited, the plot all rather confused, and the characters barely make a blip, but no matter; This is a definite exercise of style over substance, an excuse for some well-staged, energetic fighting, gun fights, posing, and blood-letting. The filmmakers are fans of the genre and it's obvious this is a work of love for the medium. Everyone involved seems way too cool and collected, somehow, for all the bizarre stuff that's going on, but they sure look good. The whole one-minded affair ends up with a frenetically edited, climactic fantasy swordfight that will leave your head spinning. As said before, there's a good deal of obvious influences from the flowing leather coats, to the crazed viewpoints but it's a very slickly done package, and one that's clever and highly entertaining. All told, Versus is a pleasant surprise, a real gem of a low-budget action fest that's sure to be a genre fans dream.
Entertainment: 8/10

Vertical Limit (2000)
Starring: Chris O'Donnell, Robin Tunney, Scott Glenn
Director: Martin Campbell
Plot: After a terrible accident befalls a climbing expedition on K2, the world's second-highest peak, a volunteer rescue team is forced to make a speed ascent through extreme hardships and avalanches to reach them before their time runs out.
Review: Comparisons with the superior Cliffhanger are inevitable, but Vertical Limit keeps its action focus on the battle between man and Nature, made evident by the sweeping cinematography. The main problem of the film is the use of nitro by the rescue team, a ridiculous plot point necessary for the film to endanger its cast, increase the number of action scenes, and push the film from a mountain climber's nightmare to a B-movie thriller. Unfortunately there is no feeling of constant danger, the suspense coming in spurts but never lasting past the specific scene. There are some impressive cliff-hanging scenes where the stunt work and special effects blend impeccably, and director Campbell (GoldenEye) knows how to keep the audience on the edge of their seats, but there just isn't enough of them to keep the film consistently exciting. Worse, the script is disjointed full of emotionally shallow scenes, and occasionally interesting moral dilemmas that are easily swept away by the predictable plot. Scott Glenn is the only decent performance here as the grizzled mountaineer, though every other character does a fine, over the top job as their respective stereotypes. Contrived, unconvincing, slow going, Vertical Limit has its moments, but just doesn't meld it all together.
Entertainment: 5/10

The Vertical Ray of the Sun (Vietnam - 2000)
Starring: Tran Nu Yen-Khe, Ngo Vu Quang Hai, Le Khanh
Director: Tran Anh Hung
Plot: Three sisters living in Hanoi share their lives and love while working in and arround their cafe, but each holds a secret which will affect their seemingly idyllic relationships.
Review: With The Vertical Ray of the Sun director Hung manages to evoke the same feelings of tranquility and harmony as he did in The Scent of Green Papaya, but manages to make the narrative more warmer and much livelier. The film is but a month-long snapshot of the three sisters and the people surrounding them, a slowly moving but never static portrait of the caring for one another and the weight of their secret passions, fears and hopes. Once again the plot, about the fraying love life of the three sisters, is only the bond that links some beautiful imagery as the mise-en-scene takes first priority. Yet the narrative moves along a straight dramatic path, full of emotion and quiet melodrama. The bright, lush scenes of Hanoi fill the screen, painting life here as a surreal paradise in which the bohemian life of its characters is fully integrated. The delicate cinematography, akin more to photographs than the dynamism of film-making, captures the languorous movements and feeling of hot summer days as well as its characters' moods in intimate, carefully staged settings including the lighting and dazzling color scheme and the postures of its actors. The music is mostly soothing and appropriate for the rhythm of the narrative, but the occasional English pop tune seems jarring and intrusive. The cast is marvelous and expressive without ever going into the theatrical, exhuding a certain serenity even when faced with adversity. The story ends without clear resolutions, but then, this is more an observation of the sisters' loves and longings, one that doesn't judge yet treads softly on the measures of happiness and tranquility, leaving the audience feeling as if they have touched a world of almost perfect harmony.
Drama: 8/10

Victim (Hong Kong - 1999)
Starring: Tony Leung, Ching Wan Lau, Amy Kwok
Director: Ringo Lam
Plot: A hard-nosed detective is assigned to the case of a computer expert who was kidnapped and found dangling in an abandoned, supposedly haunted, house and must determine what actually happened during the kidnapping.
Review: The Victim jumps right into the action in typical Lam fashion with a violent, attention-grabbing opening sequence. Fifteen minutes into the film, though, the plot veers off from the crime genre into the horror-suspense genre and, taking obvious hints from Ring, some of the scenes are definitely eerie, and director Ringo Lam (Full Contact, City on Fire) does a good job of providing a sense of tension and fear. Unfortunately, as the film continues, it seems as if the story is uncertain as to which direction to continue on, and the crime elements come back to the fore, before finishing off on an ambiguous note. There is a constant theme of infidelity running through the film, as well as a sense of powerlessness when faced with greater powers, such as the modern, impersonal society or things beyond. The cast, though, is up to it, with great performances all around, particularly from the two, intense leads. Lam has decided on a new direction for his latest feature, but its obvious that he is more comfortable with the crime thriller elements than the supernatural ones, and The Victim shows the obvious problems inherent in mixing genres. There are some great plot twists here, and the film is interesting to watch, but the use of the hints of supernatural elements deters from what could have been a first-rate thriller.
Entertainment: 6/10

Vidocq (France - 2001)
Starring: Gérard Depardieu, Guillaume Canet, Inés Sastre
Director: Pitof
Plot: After a celebrated detective disappears battling a mysterious assassin with supernatural powers, a young journalist follows the trail of his unfinished investigations in 1830 Paris.
Review: French cinema is riding on another New Wave, and the latest surprise is Vidocq, an amalgam of period piece, Gothic fantasy and pulp mystery with its fair share of Matrix-like action thrown in. The story starts off brazenly with a flurry of action and continues with a frenetic pacing, masterfully effective visuals, and an engaging story. Some of the proceeding may sometimes be difficult to follow but it's always rewarding and one can't help but get caught up in this strange, mythical Paris slightly different from our own. The digital effects are often startling, giving first-time director Pitof (best known as France's top special-effects guru) an interesting, original vision of a gritty, grimy world. No matter what else is said, this is a technically impressive exercise, one that sometimes gets a little too flashy but never fails to impress. Shooting completely in digital video makes for a remarkable, slightly odd style to the film that only adds to the feeling of displacement, and makes the intense extreme close-ups that riddle the film all the more startling. Every scene has been worked on and retouched by computer in post-production, from the actors, to the terrific backgrounds. Even the lighting that bathes everything with a green-golden hue helps give every shot a highly stylized and surreal look. The narrative advances mostly in flashbacks as the interesting (and sometimes bizarre) people and situations come under the reporter's scrutiny under the backdrop of revolution. Depardieu plays a sort of French Sherlock Holmes, and he's well-suited for the role. The rest of the performances are adequate, if unexceptional, but then the visuals is the thing that takes center stage here. It's unfortunate that the script drags a bit towards the middle and that the climax fails to provide necessary closure, but it's a small price to pay for such a dizzying, entertaining ride. A brilliantly executed and fascinating pulp mystery-adventure, Vidocq breathes new life into the genre.
Entertainment: 8/10

The Village (2004)
Starring: Bryce Dallas Howard, Joaquin Phoenix, William Hurt
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Plot: Citizens of a small, remote Pennsylvania village start to fear for their lives when the unseen mythical creatures living in the surrounding forest appear to break a long-held truce.
Review: Always engrossing and intriguing, The Village is yet another success for its writer / director Shyamalan, a supernatural suspense that's intelligent, clever and impeccably made. From his first hit The Sixth Sense, he has shown a strong sense at story-telling and a fine control of his own visual style (and cinematic tricks) to compose an atmosphere of dread and tingling suspense. Even if audiences guess not one but the two twist endings for which he is now famous for, there's much to appreciate here. A blend of genres both horrific and dramatic, the feel is surprisingly more akin to The Crucible in the way it presents its closed community and the fear of the unknown. As such this may well be his most mature film, and his control of his cast has never been better. Headed by a surprisingly demure and brooding Phoenix, the actors include a lot of familiar faces such as William Hurt and Sigourney Weaver in supporting roles who help make it all that more engaging. But it's Howard, as the blind heroine of the piece, that really impresses and holds our attention. With too many questions left unanswered and a series of red herrings that aren't appropriately resolved, the resolution seems a bit of a cheat. But if The Village ends up feeling like something out of a Twilight Zone episode and does lose some steam at the end, at least it's a smartly made and appropriately eerie exercise that will keep you guessing and that's well worth the trip.
Entertainment / Drama: 7/10

Village of the Damned (1963)
Starring: George Sanders, Barbara Shelley
Director: Wolf Rilla
Plot: Women of a small English village all become pregnant at the same time and give birth to mysterious fair-haired children who have the ability to communicate telepathically. Soon the villagers start fearing for their lives as the children become increasingly more powerful and distant.
Review: A B&W UK classic, remade by John Carpenter in the 90's. Based on the SF novel "The Midwich Cuckoos" by John Wyndham. Good adaptation, decent acting by a solid English cast, but really cheesy special effects. Still, the suspense is good and the ideas behind the story are interesting, all presented in the clean, effective English manner.
Drama: 7/10
Entertainment: 7/10

Violent Cop (Japan - 1989)
Starring: Takeshi "Beat" Kitano, Maiko Kawakami, Makoto Ashikawa 
Director: Takeshi Kitano
Plot: Forced to take care of his psychologically handicapped sister, a detective with a bad temper and easy recourse to violence faces both a young new captain and a murder affair that might involve a friend and partner in corruption.
Review: Violent Cop has all the crime story elements in place: the vicious mob killer, the corrupt cops, the hero out for revenge, and the bloody climactic shoot-out. With a slow, methodical start to what first appears as a by-the-numbers crime drama dealing with police corruption and drugs, the movie evolves into a surprisingly rich and effective character piece. It's just not quite what you'd expect, and it's definitely not your typical Hollywood affair. The film is made up of long moments of silences and though it moves along at just the right pace, mainstream viewers might be surprised at how little actually happens for a crime thriller. The violence (be it fist-fights or gunplay) when it comes is surprisingly quick and brutal, coming in explosive spurts after long moments of deliberate everyday set-ups. In fact, most of the film is surprisingly subdued so that when these instances occur, they're doubly shocking, cold, fast, and unforgiving. There's a real feeling here that violence is just part of his life. Though there's limited dialogue, the cinematography and directing make up for it showing that sometimes less exposition can still make for effective story-telling. The script itself makes for a classic cop movie, and there's enough going here to entice even jaded viewers to give it a look. But the real reason to catch the film is, let's face it, that nobody does the tough cop quite like Kitano, leading some to describe him as Japan's answer to Dirty Harry. The actor doesn't so much act as provide a powerful screen presence as a man for whom violence comes with the job and has become second-nature, an old-school kind of cop who's at odds with his more "politically correct" chief. The role was a surprising departure for comedian Kitano, who also took over as director once the original helmer left the production. Though not as developed or as poignant perhaps as his later films such as Fireworks or Kikujiro, we can already see the auteur's style being formed in every scene. Intense and always engaging, Violent Cop is a solid dramatic affair that's all the more interesting to see its actor / director in his first foray into this grim world of cops and criminals.
Drama: 7/10

The Virgin Suicides (2000)
Starring: Kirsten Dunst, James Woods, Kathleen Turner
Director: Sofia Coppola
Plot: A group of neighborhood boys reflect on the mystery of five alluring sisters and their over-protective parents, and the events that led to the siblings' suicides.
Review: There's a great line at the beginning of The Virgin Suicides - when the youngest sibling is recovering from her suicide attempt, her doctor asks how someone so young could contemplate suicide and she replies "obviously, doctor, you have never been a 13 year old girl". The theme of destruction of innocence in middle-class suburbia of the 1970's is present in the grim atmosphere of the film and the apparent complexities of these young girls' lives, and at times these events tend to the comic, but more often to the depressing and even tragic. Unfortunately, as the drama unfolds only Dunst's character, jilted by her first lover and suffocated by her parents, seems to have any reason to end her life. The other sisters are shown as simple followers, even secondary characters, to her moods and attitudes. The reasons for their deaths also ring hollow, and are not adequately explained. The cast is solid, if unremarkable, as is probably required from the narrative perspective. In the end, Sofia Coppola's directorial debut is a respectable attempt at adapting the novel by Jeffrey Eugenides, but The Virgin Suicides just doesn't completely live up to its promise.
Drama: 5/10

Virtuosity (1995)
Starring: Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe, Kelly Lynch
Director: Brett Leonard
Plot: In a future LA, a jailed ex-cop is released to take on an artificial entity embodied in an android body who has been released from virtual reality and has taken a liking to spectacular killings in the real world.
Review: The serial killer thriller gets another high-concept Hollywood twist in the violent, cartoonish and ultimately amazingly derivative action flick Virtuosity. A rather interesting premise is completely torn apart by the insatiable need for some cheap thrills and lazy writing. Of course, the major logic problems, technological snafus, ludicrous plot and unexplained character motivations don't help either. Though there's the virtual reality theme at its center, director Leonard had already made a splash with the comparable but far more effective Lawnmower Man, and here the V.R. stuff and CGI effects are just gratuitous, not bringing anything new to the table. Action film clichés abound, of course, making it a dizzying mess of movies from Terminator to Demolition Man, but without any of the energy or wit of its models. The film ends in a scene that reminds one of the parody of "red wire, blue wire" from Lethal Weapon 3. At least the latter got a laugh - here it's done straight and it's just plain bad. Despite all that, Leonard manages to make this silly contraption move along rather well, keeping it all mildly entertaining thanks to the occasional self-parody, and his solid leads. Indeed, the always charismatic Washington and up-and-comer Crowe, playing the insane android way, way over the top, actually come out of this mess rather unscathed, showing that talent can shine through the most adverse of circumstances. In the end, the film can't help but feel terribly dated in terms of its sci-fi aspects and just can't compete in terms of action set-pieces, most of which add up to countless gunshots, lame chases and a climactic mano-a-machine fist fight. For those audiences looking for a no-brainer, Virtuosity makes for an acceptable, if easily forgotten, waste of two hours.
Entertainment: 4/10

Viva Erotica (Hong Kong - 1996)
Starring: Leslie Cheung, Karen Mok, Hsu Chi
Director: Derek Yee
Plot: A failed young filmmaker finds himself forced to do a porn film to make ends meet, but is saddled with more professional and personal problems than he ever expected.
Review: Viva Erotica never hides the fact that it is a farce, a satire on the HK film industry, on porn films, and on directors forced to make ends meet. There are some interesting bits here, and the inventive cinematography and constant comic jabs at filmmakers and filmmaking is for the most part quite entertaining, if not very insightful. As a comedy, there are some funny moments but there's a lot of unused potential that elicits more smirks than laughs. The cast performs with farcical exaggeration as required by the material, and Cheung is quite sympathetic as the director losing his nerve. Where the film really fails is in the occasionally clumsy script which moves along in fits and starts, never really pushing the envelope. Still, Viva Erotica is quite amusing and well done, if a little low on substance.
Entertainment: 6/10

Volcano High (Whasango) (Korea - 2001)
Starring: Hyuk Jang, Min-a Shin, Su-ro Kim
Director: Tae-gyun Kim
Plot: A young student is transferred to a high school devoted to the magical and super-powered, finding himself tipping the balance of power between the student sports clubs and the teachers, all of whom are in the race for a secret manuscript.
Review: A very comic-book amalgam of super-hero, fantasy and high school hi-jinks taken to ludicrous extremes, it helps to think of Volcano High as Korea's answer to both X-Men and Harry Potter, in one. Emulating Asian comic-book sensibilities it's all silly fare, throwing in seriousness and slapstick in even amounts, mixing the teenage clichés and peer pressures with the grander tale of dueling sorcerers' power grab. The ludicrous yet engaging storyline does get a little confusing, and it takes some time to get into the action, but those willing to enter the film's crazy logic will find it an entertaining ride. It's no surprise that the comic elements are so prevalent considering that director Kim had his starts in romantic comedies. He also ensured that the slick commercial cinematography, energetic camera-work, and blue-tinted color scheme all enhance the Manga aesthetic. If the gravity-defying wire-fu fantasy showdowns are perhaps a tad long, they are never anything but thrilling and fun, and the special effects and production values are excellent, bringing to life the combatant's magically-enhanced fighting skills. As the goofy but powerful hero, Hyuk Jang does well in the martial arts portions and the more comic moments, and so does the rest of the cast, all of which are obvious way-over-the-top stereotypes. Volcano High is not for everyone as some might find it too ridiculous - some of the humor is too much, and it could have been edited to make the pacing a little tighter - but it's an entertaining, big-budget affair that's sure to please action fans. 
: MTV has produced a cut version dubbed with rap stars, and it doesn't do the film justice. Stick to the Korean version.
Entertainment: 7/10

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1961)
Starring: Walter Pidgeon, Joan Fontaine, Robert Sterling
Director: Irwin Allen
Plot: A scientific expedition to the North Pole aboard a high-tech experimental nuclear sub becomes a race to save the Earth after the Van Allen belt catches fire.
Review: There might be quite a bit of nostalgia for older audiences in regards to the big-budget but low camp sci-fi adventure Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, but be warned: seen through the eyes of childhood this was more fun that it actually is. Irwin Allen is better known for producing some of the most popular disaster films of the 70's like The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno, and it's clear why he left the director's chair after seeing this affair. Not that it's completely bungled, but it plays like a poor-man's TV show with a plot straight out of a 1950's B-movie filled with groan-inducing dialog. Only kids might accept some of the pseudo-scientific silliness of the material and enjoy the cheap thrills, and many of them will be suitably bored during the long-winded gobble-dee-gook monologues. Using some expensive though bland-looking sets filled with flashing lights, with a narrative filled with cheesy special effects like rubber sea monsters and Styrofoam rock avalanches, the real problem is that it's neither remotely exciting nor are there aren't enough inadvertent laughs to be had to make for even brainless fun. How they got this cast together - including Pidgeon and Oscar winner Fontaine - is anyone's guess, and they should have saved the money spent. But none are as sad as the wasted performance from the usually ham-fisted Peter Lorre. At least there's the cool score and the fine looking sub miniatures to prevent it from being a total waste. With its childish spectacle, mindless storyline and wooden acting it's clear that eminent Apocalypse has never been this dull.
Entertainment: 3/10

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