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3/10
A sad casualty of what's mistakenly deemed bankable today.
12 June 2009
Yikes. This is definitely not the future my mother warned me about. This future is populated by cute kids, blood-free deaths, supermodels with perfect teeth and goofball terminators that shoot themselves in the foot. It is set in a sun-kissed Michael Bay desert landscape with high-tech military equipment and not the dirty sewers we saw in T1. Either Kyle Reese was laying it on real thick to get in Sarah Connor's pants, or McG et al were simply incapable of delivering the dark, post-apocalyptic future setting that they kept harping on about honoring before release.

This is no doubt a casualty of the scarlet letter that is the PG-13 rating, oft denied by the production while they dropped subtle hints along the way such as toy deals, Pizza Hut endorsements and McG noting how the PG-13 The Dark Knight was "made without compromise". In reality the rating was a fait accompli the moment they green-lit a $200M production. The implications of the rating are not just sacrifices to language, blood & gore or in the inclusion of a sidekick kid to instill the family friend image. It's worse. Now the Transformers audience is a major demographic for TS, and it translates in the light-hearted, gadgety nature of the movie, and obviously in its Harvester design (who deploys mototerminators from its kneecaps).

But quite honestly, massive mythology discrepancies aside, there is simply far too many wrist-slashingly bad/expository lines and heavy-handed metaphors in the script for this to even work as a standalone movie (thanks, Haggis). To its credit, much of the action is kinetically captured in a timely shaky-cam fashion. Lord knows I'm no McG fan (he's a snake-oil salesman) but I feel the major culprit truly is the script which spells everything out for the viewer with voiceovers and facepalm exposition. I'm sorry the writers were not able to give McG, at the very least, the kind of mindless action flick he was surely able to direct in a competent if forgettable manner.

Whereas acting is concerned Christian Bale shows up for 35-40 minutes looking real angry at the world and at being involved in this project, it is in fact Sam Worthington who is a breakout star, and such an effortless tough guy that you can feel the bass reverberate in your body when he throws a punch. Think of how hardass he could be in the right R-rated setting. I'm getting chills just thinking about it. Everything else reeks of an empty cash-in sequel with neither knowledge nor respect for the source material, vaguely "justified" by tagging on "this isn't the future my mother warned me about". No, McG, it most certainly is not.

Whatever. Pages could be spent arriving at the conclusion that this movie is, quite simply, abysmal. I'm giving it a 3 out of 10 based on Yelchin, Worthington and effort on the action side of things.
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2/10
The aborted fetus of fantasy adaptations
29 January 2008
The epic 'Dragonlance' quadrilogy along with its many future derivatives was Tolkien made hip for the teen generation. There was a more liberal leakage into RPG territory and as such was made easier to follow, more fantastical to imagine and let's be honest - far, far funnier than it had any right to be. Unlike Eragon/Stardust/whatever, it wasn't penned by some overenthused 15-year-old Star Wars fanboy, but jointly by two professional authors, Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman. With hindsight, it may have been a bit of a model kit assembled from greater works of fantasy, but it proceeded so briskly along a great story and without any delusions of grandeur that it was pretty hard not to get locked into the world of Krynn as a teen.

Having said that, the George Strayton (of Xena, *cringe*) penned and Will Meugniot (of... let's not go there) directed adaptation is the most mercilessly underwritten, underbudgeted and blemished film you will see this year. It was largely abandoned by studios to a most deserving fate of no marketing and with a youtube trailer that looked like my early aborted Windows Movie Maker projects. In the same visual vein, I have seen crisper animation in a 1990's Saturday morning cartoon. Toonz Animation India's very nature here of blending principal characters and backgrounds of 2D animation (does this even qualify as animation? Isn't it just... drawing?) with the bad guys -- dragons, draconians, etc -- of clunky 3D proportions meshes horribly where the resultant contrast in technique creates anachronistic and incongruous elements that move at different speeds, and it is just so ugly and flat you wish someone had drowned the poor thing at birth.

Storywise, a barbarian woman named Goldmoon (Lucy Lawless) seeks the help of a fellowship in protecting/escorting her as she carries a blue crystal healing staff awarded by the gods, as their very presence is hedged around by a war that is getting increasingly close to home. There is a marginal, half-hearted faith vs. secularism ploy operating recurringly in a few scenes, but to no discernible end. This is a far less recognisable element in the novel, and here Goldmoon the cleric clumsily comes across more as a bit of a crazed redneck with her "Faith is the answer" pearls of wisdom than the strong, proactive woman she is in the actual story on page. There are dozens more characters that – in a misguided attempt to kick-start the story – are introduced far too early and far too quickly. These are your dutiful fantasy heroes with their assigned quirks: a grumpy dwarf, a self-doubting hero, a beautiful bar-maiden and a mysterious wizard to name a few. The voice-over behind these characters are marred by contemporary American accents that invariably choke on silly exposition or sound downright uninspired as they plod along in the loose collection of sped-up scenes that comprise Strayton's puzzling screenplay.

The latter, I realise, I could spend all day picking apart and singling out elements and characters that did not correspond to my fangirl images of them from the books, but indeed this would be tiresome and I'm sure fans will all have their unique visions of characters that are now completely ridiculous. As an example, 'Tas', the sidekick kender, is in the book a creature more akin to someone like Gollum but here he looks completely human and purposely 'boyish'. So now hilarity stems from his appearance as an effeminate anime amalgamation. To their credit, I suppose, the rest of the characters don't look as 1980's high-haired and glossy as they did on the cover of my trilogy version, and generally the landscape is not too divorced from Weis' and Hickman's evocative descriptions. Although it is far too easy to criticize the outcome of personal preconceived notions like this, even new elements that I did not recognise or recall from the novel were pretty awful.

Lastly, I cannot help but wonder who the audience is here. Fans of the book might give it a watch when recovering from the shock that it is animated (or, "drawn"), but they are invariably going to hate it. Kids are clearly not the target here – ultimately it is a little bit too dark and surprisingly rated the same as LOTR (Ha!). I don't know how exactly the film could have been improved, except in every way, but locking up Weta Digital's Randy Cook, Jim Rygiel, Brian Van't Hul and Christian Rivers in a room for a few months and not letting them out until they have created acceptable draconians could be an idea. Hopefully this film will do to Dragonlance what Ralph Bakshi's The Lord of the Rings (1978) did to Tolkien - giving it a Peter Jackson type treatment twenty years later, because this is simply unacceptable. What a fate to befall Dragonlance.

2 out of 10
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4/10
One of the most malignant cases of blockbuster sequilitis I've come across
31 May 2007
I suppose this is where I insert a few lines of witty pirate jargon and then proclaim this film the fast-paced, explosive, commercial masterpiece of Disney that we had all hoped for as an end to the Caribbean trilogy! I should also be pooping my pants over Johnny Depp's performance. For certain this is prime fodder–a fangasm–for Deppoholics all over the world and I'm happy the films have found their audience, but for the rest of us – how fun can this type of hubris-infested, over-the-top mess be?

The answer is – well, sporadically fun. As a strong suit the aesthetics are something else: a regal buffet of ships against dramatic landscapes, drenched in absolutely top CGI. There are some vaguely cool lines, and the opening to the film is actually pretty classy. Regrettably, the can of story lines-worms clumsily opened by Dead Man's Chest presents At World's End with a troublesome, chock-full legacy that is bursting at the seems with characters and ideas, all of which Gore Verbinski shuffles into story lines like a Las Vegas croupier. He is not always apt however, and often (read: all the time) five or more different story lines are operating in the same scene, which is simply disorienting.

The cumulative effect is that when four ships align to fight (The Pearl, the Flying Dutchman, The Armada, and Chow Yun Fat's vessel), you have no idea who is on them, why, where they are going, where their allegiances lay or what will happen. The latter is the only good unknown in this case. The bottom line is that the writers (and I use "writers" in the loosest sense possible, more like 4th grade sketchbook dribblers) are so overzealous with At World's End that in the end you are so desensitized to action- and story elements that nothing keeps your attention. So basically it's a lot like Dead Man's Chest except longer, bigger, and more chaotically organized – for 3 butt-numbing hours!

It saddens me, lastly, what a commercial cash cow Johnny Depp has become in POTC. Every frame is milked its worth of Sparrow "goodies" (I've never found him funny, but I understand most viewers do). Not only does he occupy an unrealistically hefty slot of screen time, but his hallucinations following banishment has spawned mini-Jacks running around, often 10-15 at a time, all cracking one-liners and chewing scenery. Part of Sparrow's charm was his unique persona and consequently ability to stand out in a crowd, and with a screen that is awash with his clones, this feature severely wanes.

4 / 10
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5/10
The more we know about the monster, the less scary he becomes
27 April 2007
In the sole Oscar-grabbing horror epic "The Silence of the Lambs" Hannibal Lector was presented to us intelligently and sparsely in fleeting glimpses – covered in masks, behind bars and in the shadow. In "Hannibal Rising", he inhabits every single scene. This is his warped, twisted bildungsroman, his revenge story, and his background history. In short, the only things "Hannibal" shares with "Lambs" is its name.

It is one cash-cow of a name, too. Every frame in the film is milked its worth of Hannibal's evil nature, without much subtlety. Sure, there have clearly been half-hearted attempts to establish the kind of high-brow horror that Lambs achieved, but the film reeks of b-quality and unimaginative grotesqueness. There are only faint, dimmed traces of horror or genuine suspense, often washed away by pedestrian set-ups that make fans of the genre nod with tired recognition. For example, the dialogue feels unforgivably staged. In fact, there is no real exchange between the characters, only plot-propelling lines or rehearsed wisdom that slip through in between the torture games. But what is probably worse is that "Hannibal" never tips over nearly far enough or often enough into enjoyably hammy territory. It has absolutely no self-distance, the kind of spark in the eye of Anthony Hopkins, or any form of a sense of humour.

Onto casting, Gaspard Ulliel is clearly not a bad performer, nor is anyone's acting truly the root of the film's problems. However, Ulliel's gaze isn't the piercing, wise, twisted trademark look of Hopkins as Lector, but rather the sleazy eye of a teenage boy ogling a girl on the street. To add insult to injury, he is confident in a way that is much too cocky for Lector, who should rely on a sort of inherent calm and confidence that is only displayed subtly through his eyes. I will concede that a couple of scenes aptly showcases his acting skills though, such as the mental breakdown scene toward the end of the film. Rhys Ifans, a charming Welshman usually relegated to good-guy characters, gets his freak on in unnecessarily sinister ways. He has "the eyes of an arctic wolf" and throughout the film he shouts, murders, loots, rapes and generally acts badass to instill the 'baddie' image in his character. Which is clearly preaching to the choir given his opening crime – what prompts Lector's revenge. Nevertheless, nothing Ifans does is all bad, and again, acting is never the problem.

The fundamental problem is my titular assessment. It can stand repeating: the more we know about the monster, the less scary he becomes. I would not go as far as to say the story victimizes Hannibal, but here he inhabits the protagonist slot and elicits sympathy of sorts accordingly. Do we root for him? Not exactly. Do we wish he'd get caught? Not really. There are plenty of gray zones in the film -- perhaps intentional, perhaps not -- that have the cumulative effect of not really achieving anything tangible. Toward the end you almost feel a bit 'meh' about the whole story, and the not-hero-but-not-villain slot inhabited by Hannibal causes a stance of indifference toward his action, however outlandish they are.

5.5 out of 10
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Sunshine (2007)
8/10
To say there is nothing new under the sun is usually apt in sunny Hollywood, but not this time
22 April 2007
With a suitably international and diverse cast to simulate the equivalent crew onboard the Icarus II ("Icarus I" didn't fare so well), director Danny Boyle fledges a science fiction that gains momentum at its very first image – and does not halt until the end credits roll. To be perfectly frank, this is one of the most unbearably exciting films for whose entire duration I have ever squirmed in my seat for at the theatre.

On a mission to re-ignite the sun by detonating a bomb ("the size of Manhattan island", Cillian Murphy's physicist nods to American audiences and cause me to suffer horrible flashbacks to Armaggeddon's "it's the size of Texas" assessment) human lives are expendable and rationalized by rank. There are scientists, astronauts and various specialists on Icarus II who are all poised on the brink of sacrificing themselves for the greater good of mankind. Diverse in the sense that there are both men and women, and few characters are 'black or white' (morally, and physically), it does puzzle me that New Zealanders, Aussies and Irishmen have been arbitrarily converted into Americans. The crew is nevertheless highly impressive and professional, with a few minor exceptions for plot-propelling purposes, like when someone does something very stupid.

There is noticeably a tremendous visual sense throughout "Sunshine" with a screen that is awash with sparkling explosions and each frame saturated with bright colours and dimmed contrasts. There is no genre-transcending perhaps, and most probably its visuals are under the mercy of dating effects, but for now this is truly the crème de la crème of science fiction, take my word for it. Even the cinematography within the spaceship alleys and chambers is compelling and sweeps through Icarus II with great tracking shots. Amongst other films, Danny Boyle was inspired by Das Boot and certainly there are traces of the same claustrophobia underpinning the setting, but ultimately he opted for a more habitable environment to make it believable (like humanity would ship off its only hope with a crummy, crowded old vessel).

To justify the occasional bouts of sci-fi clichés, I'd like to firstly point out that it's not like "Sunshine" traffics in stereotypes or resorts to formulaic elements, and secondly that I believe certain clichés have evolved for a reason – they quite clearly stand the test of time. There are within science fiction some staples that are simply necessary to define its genre, such as the dutiful human sacrifices to up the drama, the internal mutinies to instill the uncertainty in the operation, the nightmarish conditions onboard the ship to suck you in, the technical jargon of velocities and shield angles that spits like bullet-fire to give the film a firm scientific footing, and finally the epic music to elevate suspense. "Sunshine" incorporates and melts together all of the aforementioned, but in militantly non-formulaic ways that only add to the experience. As a potent example, there isn't just pedestrian classical tunes recycled from 2001 and filtered through {insert rote Hollywood composer here}'s score – it is puffed full of beautiful piano crescendos that are almost incongruous to the sci-fi vibe, and the cumulative effect is wonderful.

"Sunshine" is sporadically blemished by minor faults, such as when Murphy's Law is being followed a bit too rigorously to up the excitement. Luckily, all of this is washed away or camouflaged when Boyle serves up his next goosebumps-inducing, gasp-eliciting spectacle – be it a horror twist or an impossibly epic action stunt. On the topic of the former, and clearly the chiasma at which "Alien" comparisons have been drawn, there is a magnificently creepy horror/mystery vibe interlacing the story in space. On top of this, Danny Boyle also dabbles in existentialism (a little too much if you ask me), making this into one of the most ambitious sci-fi turns ever made. In this way, maybe "Sunshine" is not primed to collect awards or even serve as meat for mainstream Hollywood, but I think it's safe to crown it the "Alien" of the 21st century.

8 out of 10
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The Hitcher (2007)
5/10
Er... well, at least the soundtrack was good
19 April 2007
The Hitcher captures the unnecessarily sinister and sadistic nature of its titular character, a man on the ultimate quest of robbing someone of their innocence by getting them to experience the same high from killing as he does. There is this rather interesting storyline, and then a generic teen horror Spring Break storyline operating seamlessly throughout the film. Regrettably, the latter almost always takes the front seat in screen time as Sean Bean is presented to us rather sparsely while the dumb college couple inhabit nearly every scene with their fumbling presence.

Of course, as far as casting is concerned, bubbly Sophia Bush in all of her Abercrombie mini-skirt cuteness is prime meat for Hollywood. Sean Bean is something of a rentable bad guy in mainstream film but he typically plays calculating villains or traitors rather than full on psychos as opposed to Rutger Hauer from the original Hitcher who offered onslaughts of getting his freak on. For this reason, Bean is a bit of an unconventional choice for the role of John Ryder. Nevertheless, and in spite of struggling with an American accent, he mostly delivers.

The Hitcher (2007) is a film that greatly prefers climaxes to continuity, and repeatedly sets itself up in impossibly clichéd horror situations to milk every premise its worth of chills and thrills. In under barely 83 minutes, it is far too short to fully explore all that it attempts, be it foreshadowing, Ryder's psychotic torture or the college couple's fear. It feels very rushed as director Dave Meyers frantically seems to tick off each teen slasher cliché off the formula, and in the end we have a poor man's buffet of horror goodies, the kind you'd find in gas stations.

It gets flat-out ridiculous when John Ryder is trying to frame Grace and Jim for his killings and of course they do the wrongest of things to deal with it: start blaming each other, split up in dark alleys, steal guns and just about everything to prompt suspicion from the local police (who, too, do everything wrong to deal with Ryder). The Hitcher never gains momentum (probably because it's too short) and its flat, linear narrative and generic approach to every component of film-making ultimately pave the way for its downfall.

5 out of 10
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The Number 23 (2007)
5/10
An exhausting exercise in grasping at straws
11 April 2007
Joel Schumacher is one of the singularly most inconsistent modern day directors, with strongly watchable films such as "A Time to Kill", "Falling Down" and indeed even "The Lost Boys", but with relentlessly poor films that dilute the quality of his resumé. As if putting nipples on the Batman suit wasn't a severe enough offense, this man is guilty of advertising his upcoming films so well that every time I'm there. The Number 23 is such a film -- suspenseful in trailers and content -- but so tremendously, fearsomely, unbearably so-so when it gets down to business and the theatre is dimmed.

What the film is, more than anything, is blatant conspiricists fodder, a masturbatory love letter to those who seek a correlation in everything, and thus find a correlation in everything. The numerology obsession that Jim Carrey's character develops does not actually serve a significant point in the film, and is undoubtedly only present to instill the 'chill-factor' in audiences. It is a crying shame then that this is one of the least impressive features of 'The Number 23', as it's basically 2 very long hours of grasping at straws: "23! That's 2 and 3, and if you divide 2 by 3 you get 0.666! OMG!" It gets old soon: "What?! 14 plus 9? That's 23!" followed by shocked, horrified faces. Everything from buses, dates and names seem to conveniently adhere to this number pattern (oh, and this is Schumacher's 23rd directorial effort, dum dum dum!).

There are two story lines operating seamlessly throughout the film -- there's normal family father Jim Carrey, and then there's the dark detective Jim Carrey as Fingerling in the book that he is reading, called "23". Jim Carrey aptly balances drama, thriller and comedy, weaving all dramatic components into a layered and believable performance, as he usually does. The real pleasant surprise in the film -- and indeed it's only accolade -- owes much to the bold neo-noir edge in the book "23". It's as stylized as Sin City in dark damp urban alleys, although not as compelling.

Apart from the noir storyline, "The Number 23" reeks of b-movie quality and set-ups, like a bad horror movie in which Virginia Madsen actually goes out in the middle of the night to visit an abandoned mental institution with barbed wire and no light, and proceeds to run around the dark corridors looking for clues. Wow, let me just tick off the cliché from the formula. It is unforgivably far-fetched, featuring silly canine symbols to top it all off. Most plottturns and twists are predictable, as should they be to ground the audience, but the final payoff is thankfully not easy to anticipate.

5.5/10
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Alpha Dog (2006)
5/10
Sings notes we have heard before, and often out of tune at that
7 April 2007
Idyllic family footage melts into a dog-eat-dog teenage criminal underworld in Hollywood, documenting an unfortunate turn of events in the life of Johnny Truelove (Emile Hirsh), loosely based on Jesse James, the youngest man to ever grace the list of F.B.I's most wanted. Alpha Dog hedges its story around an unorthodox kidnapping, straying from its template, central characters and indeed point, until it has slotted itself in with the rest of forgettable crime teen romps.

Acting-wise, it is mainly obnoxious teens acting like adults acting like pimps and gangsters, recycling "fuck" in every sentence to instill the authenticity in the way in which things are run. A squeaky-voiced Justin Timberlake incongruously dons tattoos and wife-beaters by the bucketload, while Emile Hirsh gets his Mexican thug on, and Ben Foster shamelessly emulates Edward Norton's performance in American History X, often to surprisingly good ends. You'll know what I'm talking about. Bruce Willis makes an extended cameo, as does Sharon Stone, but blink in the midst of all the teenage party nostalgia (which is bound to happen) and you're likely to miss both appearances. In short, the acting side of the tapestry is nothing to write home about.

Nick Cassavetes makes no genuine attempt to communicate with the audience in Alpha Dog, unlike his earlier film "The Notebook" in which he milked every frame worth its emotional, aesthetic and dramatic appeal. There is plenty of the latter in this film as the testosterone-fuelled teenage gangsters plough through a checklist of almost clichéd scenarios (sex, drugs, drinking, fighting, kidnapping, swearing -- OK, you're criminal, we get it), but these events line up to the cumulative effect of having become routine in Alpha Dog. The script comprises of far too many uninspired, gratuitous "party shots" with no other purpose than to give the audience a feel for the protagonists' lifestyles. For that matter, we are presented with a very documentary-like presentation where Cassavetes just seems to station his camera and record the meanderings of juvenile delinquents.

Having said all of this, rabid fans of the crime genre might still be sporadically entertained, for Alpha Dog features Guy Ritchie undertones -- however pale and marginal -- and there are some quasi-ambitious attempts to insert a "cool MTV" style fit for the X and Y gen, mostly done by mixing and pasting several frames onto one. As another strong suit, its content matter is almost automatically engaging. We love teenagers in trouble -- and we love teenagers having sex, right?

5.5 out of 10
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9/10
I'm coming to the conclusion that this is the best biopic I have ever seen
28 March 2007
It is difficult to overstate the necessary calibre of a woman who was raised in a filthy whorehouse, sung and slept on the street, travelled with the circus, lost her child at 20, went blind for a time, was wrongly accused of murder, struggled with a drug addiction and lost other loved ones by the bucketload in her life, and still got up on stage at the end of her life to sing "Je ne regrette rien". La Môme documents each stage of Edith Piaf's life with creative direction and an intense performance by its lead actress, Martion Cotillard.

Ultimately it is a film that curiously enough does not come down to acting or story so much as it owes everything to its direction by Olivier Dahan. Audiences have been divided thus far on his efforts as they are somewhat unorthodox, but I believe he has truly done something magical with what could have fallen prey to a by-the-numbers biopic approach. In La Môme, the continuity is clipped and fragmentary at several points in the film, with scene 2 melting into scene 1 as opposed to vice versa. The story of Edith seems to fledge itself around two or three story lines simultaneously – her youth, her adulthood and her last days.

Marion Cotillard, a personal favourite of mine, is perfect at each of the aforementioned stages, having met the wonders of realistic make-up but also clearly having connected with the character of Edith Piaf. As a young singer she is fumbling and bird-like, but always with raw intensity behind her performance. As an old lady (although from what I understand she was never truly that old at the time of her death) she has transformed into something else – a kind of loud, hysterical diva who is alternatively self-depreciative and overbearing, her youthful humility having been quenched by years of alcohol abuse and her bird-like body and gait having been crippled by rheumatism. Only once does Cotillard vaguely emerge from her character, and it is toward the end when Edith is sitting on a beach in California giving an interview. The rest of the film she is wholly chameleon-like and indistinguishable from la môme.

Certainly this type of tragicomic drama with all of its poverty-stricken episodes and heart-rending tragedies is primed to elicit an emotional response, but Dahan goes the extra mile in polishing the story for audiences. It truly is a beautiful work of art, coated with sweeping tracking shots á la Paul Thomas Anderson or Martin Scorsese blended with shakycam to capture the fast, fickle pace of the business, endlessly creative intercutting of continuity and breathtaking scenes after another. When Piaf's beautiful hands have been noted, a muted performance is given in which the camera only focuses on her theatrics and hand gestures. Yet the best scene takes place in Piaf's apartment some 2/3s into the film in which she is waiting for her lover Marcel to fly in from Morocco. I shall give no spoilers. The film is momentarily gray and depressing, only to jerk the audience away from the misery and lose itself in a blossom-strewn pictorial style whenever Piaf goes on stage.

La Môme is a one-woman-show in all respects, with Cotillard shamelessly relegating every other cast member to the background with her emotional intensity. But in all fairness supporting characters are not given much screen time in the film, seemingly floating away from the central story eventually, or dying in some tragedy, illustrating the lonely life of its titular singer. La Môme needs to be seen to be believed, for it unexpectedly floors all other musical biopics of recent years – or indeed ever.

9 out of 10
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300 (2006)
7/10
The ultimate, raw fanboy-fodder
21 March 2007
The experience of watching "300" is much like unravelling a candy box of action goodies, glazed in pure testosterone. Certainly fanboys will hungrily lap it up – and although it is neither a very nutritious nor lasting meal, it'll give you a high of cheap thrills and gore galore for a solid and surprisingly swift 2 hours of runtime. I got to see the film at a preview in Paris and the demographic make-up of the theatre was some 98% men, 1.9% their girlfriends – and me.

Storywise, "300" does not throw the net wide: it narrowly zooms in on the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C. as led by Spartan king Leonidas (Gerard Butler) and his 300 elite soldiers against 1 million Persians led by Persian God-King Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro). Much has been sacrificed to pursue this sliced-down-to-the-bare-essentials trajectory, but the story is diluted by the dutiful formula ingredients of father-son relations, talkative politics and amour. These are all pitiful story lines woven together by the core battle – what we really wish to see. However, I will concede that they are highly necessary in the film in providing relief in between the epic attacks.

There is always a crux with primarily visual-driven films, and in "300" this problem is reality. Forget the actual events at Thermopylae – this is trivial to the story the film wishes to tell – the problem is that it lacks authenticity visually and dramatically. Owing to the narrow cleft by the beach in which all of the battle takes place, dramatic scenery is sparse by nature (unlike, for example, LOTR where landscape alone provided visual stimuli). To compensate for this, post-production has gone absolutely overboard with a throbbing CGI-overdose to fit Frank Miller's graphic novel format – even the sky is so über-stylized with sepia-tinted shades and shadowy contrasts that the cumulative effect is special effects gaping, swallowing and ultimately drowning "300". In the end, there is only a tiny shred of reality left, so distant that you need binoculars to make it out, and this is expected to ground the whole spectacle. Needless to say, this proves a wholly impossible task for director Zack Snyder.

When you couple this visual fantasy with antique, readily-molded speech dialogue, there is regrettably even less authenticity left. Everything feels unbelievably staged, from Lena Headley's impossibly rehearsed counsel to her husband to Gerard Butler's rallying tagline cries. It should however be noted that nearly all of the the cast perform well in their respective parts. Headley in fact finds a surprisingly firm footing in a character that is largely at the mercy of an underwritten nature. The damsel in distress? The tough-chick? The aloof queen? A concerned mother? A loving wife? She locates them all and merges them together in the character of Queen Gorgo. Gerard Butler manages to weave together good screams, nice abs, a fair authoritative presence and not much else into a performance. The most huh-eliciting actor's presence is by far David Wenham who may look amazingly good, but provides silly narration that is altogether incongruous to the steaming macho vibe of the rest of the film. Most of the time he sounds like a hobbled little magician, selling trinkets in the bazaar. The rest are something of one-dimensional goons, but the eerie, puzzling performance by Rodrigo Santoro deserves credit, resonating with Lawrence of Arabia undertones but blown so far out of proportion the whole affair becomes a theatric affair.

In spite of the aforementioned problems, "300" basically achieves what it set out to do. It is, in effect, an extended version of its adrenaline-pumping trailer, fit for fanboy worship and art-house cinema mockery. You have to admire the blatantly homo-erotic parade of well-oiled six packs, the dramatic symmetry in the epic battle visuals and the goose-bumps inducing scope of the spectacle. One of my favourite parts of The Lord of the Rings trilogy was the massive attack of the oliphants on Gondor, and "300" offers similar but even more OTT extracts with Persian invaders, who bear an eerie resemblance to the south Mordor recruits from the saga.

7.5 out of 10
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7/10
Harold Crick isn't crazy, he's just written that way
28 February 2007
Emma Thompson's impeccable, blunt narration treads inventively on the poetic excellence of the writing behind "Stranger Than Fiction", a Kaufmanesque attempt by Zach Helm. Here is a story about IRS agent Harold Crick, a calculating, lonely man whose favourite word is "integer", who for years has led a sedate and ordered life. One day his wristwatch tires of his existence and Harold begins to hear a woman narrating his life, disrupting the mathematical symmetry of the film which propels the film.

"Stranger Than Fiction" plays along a unique, inventive concept about the fickleness of identity as the author struggles to kill Harold Crick at the end of her novel with all of the morbid obsessions that this task entails. It is fact and fiction merging in a rotating scale of existential questions embedded in tragicomic dilemmas. It truly is a funny film masking as a comedy, but which becomes unexpectedly poignant toward the end, without dwelling too much on its poignancy like most Hollywood films fall prey to.

That is not to say it is an infallible film. Will Ferrell is unmistakably numb, almost as if he is actively struggling to curb his eccentric mannerisms and loud voice. Judging by the plethora of different situational comedy the film hedges around its protagonist, it becomes clear that it expects us to find his mere reactions side-splittingly funny, which is rather lazy writing and ineffective for non-fans of Ferrell. The humour is mostly in-tune in a classic sit-com kind of way – without the canned laughter – but it occasionally falls flat with a thud to the floor.

The characters' last names are undeniably significant – Crick, Pascal, Eiffel, Escher, Banneker, Kronecker, Cayly, etc. are all puns on mathematicians and scientists who devoted themselves to the innate order of things. To support them are a wide array of charismatic actors such as Maggie Gyllenhaal, Emma Thompson and Dustin Hoffman. Gyllenhaal plays a girl who is a militantly non-conformist, free-thinking tattooed girl around the corner whom Harold is set to audit. At times she feels too much of an obnoxious counterculture ploy to "set the protagonist free", but gradually she is given layers in the story. Hoffman is a worthy contribution as ever, playing a professor in literature who helps Harold identify the nature of the novel.

"Stranger than Fiction" should have been more entertaining, but its clever concept alone gets it a long way. Where characters usually struggle with inner demons in internal conflicts, Harold Crick's external conflict is just as important -- his impending death.

7 out of 10
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Eragon (2006)
4/10
Can you tell that this is written by a 15-year-old Star Wars/fantasy fanboy?
27 February 2007
The only way you could respond 'no' to the above is if you've never seen Star Wars. "Eragon", based upon the Christopher Paolini novel, begs the question of who greenlit this irrevocable dross. The story of a young dragonrider who has greatness thrust upon him in times of war hovers around iconic fantasy staples such as doomed mentors, fairy-tale princesses, the-uncle-who-is-soon-to-be-dead, rebel alliances and set-ups wholly 'borrowed' from the classics – and when you semi-plagiarize Star Wars, you are truly scraping the barrel.

Director Stefen Fangmeier is a CGI-guru of sorts, but his special effects skills never translate onto this product, possibly because there is always too much of it occupying one frame, and naturally only the most eye-catching, flagrant dross is visible, and a potent example of CGI-gone-wrong is Saphira the dragon. There are numerous sweeping, epic, aerial shots of dramatic fantasy landscape, but most of it is far too artificial after it has been filtered through this CGI process and as a result the whole spectacle is noticeably less captivating. The rare, fleeting moments of suspense and poignancy that sweep you up in the film are found in the dragon flying sequences but even they are nothing to write home about.

Not to generalize, but even as a fan of the genre I can say that fantasy rarely allows for subtlety. In "Eragon" this is unmistakably true. Expect no moral grey zones: here is altogether polarized black-and-white camps with golden-haired heroes and gruesome dark orc-like creatures in dungeons who randomly raid travelers. The one remotely layered character in the story is Jeremy Irons' doomed mentor role, but his fate is just as predictable as the others'. There is your usual stares-in-disbelief protagonist (Edward Speleers), the empowered-butt-kicking-yet-impossibly-womanly-and-fragile rebel warrior-princess, a well-oiled up specimen who finds herself in distress and lastly there are the unnecessarily sinister villain arcs.

One of the best parts in the film that kept me going was the rotating scale of shitty acting. When Rachel Weisz first appeared I was convinced her annoyingly in-your-face cutesy attitude was the singular worst thing about the film, but just as I established this my outlook was floored by Sienna Guillory (who I know is at the mercy of an underwritten character, but still), who seemingly reached new levels of unique ham. Then, curiously enough, appeared Djmoun Hounsou who yet again upped the suck-o-meter in acting. This may be a positive feedback loop, for as "Eragon" progressed, new, more terrible performances surfaced. In this way, I could not stop watching. I was mesmerized.

The PG-rating of the film should be a natural deterrent. It does not suggest that this movie is for kids as much as it suggests that it is not for adults. As such, it traffics in sentimental taglines such as "without fear there cannot be courage" and self-referential, recurring dialogue of wisdom. Stefen Fangmeier practices a kind of lead-footed direction here which stumbles along the silly storyline of learning from reluctant-yet-loving mentor, saving the damsel in distress and killing the bad guys, ultimately having fledged itself into the kind of incoherent fantasy outlet a teenager would resort to, sans delicate or layered elements. All good vs. evil.

Finally, I will concede that "Eragon" does not fully violate code 01 of film-making: it is never boring. On the other hand, it is not exactly gloriously entertaining either (it never reaches the kind of so-bad-it's-good podium its bastard-cousin "Dungeons and Dragons" brushed upon) but the sheer scale of the fantasy medium and the brisk pace with which the story moves rarely allows watch-glances or anything of the sort. I can safely tell you that I would not sit through this experience again, however.

4 out of 10
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The Queen (2006)
8/10
High-brow English humour and heart that subtly treads on the tragedy at hand
19 February 2007
From the unsurpassed deconstruction of social class by Stephen Frears comes a prudent slice of royal British history, spanning across little more than a week of events. The death of the "People's Princess" Diana hedges the story with the ill malaise of the people turned scornfully against the Queen and her family for not grieving or acknowledging the tragedy.

The thematic conflict takes place between the obsolete old school (the Royal Family) inside the walls of Buckingham Palace and the reformist new school (newly-elected Tony Blair and the Labour Party) at 10 Downing Street, hovering between the two polarized households with stately direction. There is a point of hair-dresser gossiping tendencies in enjoying a film like "The Queen" as a candy box of intrigue is waiting to be unwrapped behind the closes walls of the monarchy, but Frears makes the content accessible to all.

Of course, "The Queen" as a person and film are not wholly grounded in reality; "Last King of Scotland" screenwriter Peter Morgan has scripted a fiction-based account of the dialogue and relations that took place in 1997, but an admirably reasonable take it is. Reality ties are not completely severed, and Stephen Frears makes the decision to further ground his film with newsreel footage interjected at common intervals and majestic steadicam shots that seems to aptly snap up the stately atmosphere of Buckingham Palace.

But "The Queen" is undeniably a custom-tailored vehicle for Helen Mirren who captures the complex nature of the titular character with stoic, dignified, purse-lipped composure. The staunch refusal to publicly speak about the event of Diana's death—nor allow for a civic funeral, nor fly the throne's flags at half-mast all alienated her immensely from her people, even though she was one of the people who grieved the most. Needless to say, this is a challenging role to inhabit, but Mirren is superb in all of her conflicted sorrow. The sum of her performance is all the little stoic details, the suppressed emotions she bottles up with a lid but which sometimes bubble up and how natural she makes "staged" appear.

It is in a way a pity that Helen Mirren's fine performance casts such a wide-ranging shadow over the rest of the cast. The film on its own may be rather lovely, but the key figure who emerges most prominently and most nobly is undoubtedly Tony Blair as portrayed by Michael Sheen, and who regrettably received next to no buzz. The fact is that Sheen is just as credible as Mirren in his own right, creating a layered and conflicted young Prime Minister with pending allegiances. Stephen Frears will always remain an actors' director and as a result the success of "The Queen" rests squarely on the apt shoulders of its cast. It's delightedly humorous in tone, practicing an unmistakable high-brow British comedy that subtly treads on the tragedy at hand.

8 out of 10
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A Good Year (2006)
6/10
From the people that brought you... Gladiator? Huh?
17 February 2007
Under the unprecedented and unparalleled direction of Ridley Scott, Russell Crowe makes the transition from testosterone-fuelled Maximus the gladiator to Maximilian the stuffy British high-roller stock-broker. The father of two has now mellowed out into a low-key dapper romantic twit and let me be the first person to herald his departure from the heavy-handed, Oscar-baiting roles he usually commits himself to. Unfortunately, "A Good Year" is not the ideal outlet for these new tendencies, slotting itself in with the rest of forgettable romantic comedies.

It is a god-awful cliché for reviews to use the word 'romp' to label a film like this, but here I feel it is entirely justified. "A Good Year" contains all the light-hearted, sweet briskness of a 'romp', but regrettably also inherits the lack of depth. Quite desperately Ridley Scott attempts to add background and layers to the story by interjecting idyllic flashbacks with Albert Finney, nearly all of which end up meandering and time-consuming. It's all very nostalgic and talkative in the film, but ultimately a ploy like this means treading down a road we've all been down before.

Let's talk about Russell Crowe, his abominable English accent and his character Max the stock-broker. Max is a narcissist: he manipulates, makes money and womanizes all for self-aggrandizement. When he returns home at night, he is met by a gorgeous and empty apartment in London. One day he inherits a vineyard in Provence from his uncle (Albert Finney) and reluctantly he agrees to visit the area. Seeing ol' Max the stone-cold businessman become increasingly intoxicated by the local spirit, the local wine and the local girl, the audience can predictably tick off the lessons, messages and the heartfelt climaxes from the rote formula titled 'man learns from midlife crisis', a most snooze-worthy template.

Crowe is an actor who takes himself amazingly seriously and often gives wonderfully intense performances because of his devotion to the craft. In "A Good Year", his heart is not in it and he never captures the physical comedy that is necessary for the lead in a romantic romp. Most comedy undeniably stems from Tom Hollander's scenes with Abbie Cornish (who for the record is too lovely for words here) when he gives his all as a foppish, fumbling Brit-twit displaced in Provence, the performance Russell Crowe should have emulated as Max. Marion Cotillard chips in as the local café owner/waitress in the little village with nothing novel about her performance, except the sweetest French accent ever committed to a celluloid.

"A Good Year" is bound to evoke comparisons of "Under the Tuscan Sun" and even if it is not entirely similar, it is not really entirely different from any film like that either. The good news is that when it is poignant, it never dwells on its poignancy like many Hollywood films would do. Ridley Scott is far too no-nonsense to fall into that trap. There is no doubt that the film is also lovingly filmed on location with a Provence countryside that is unspeakably picturesque. Although some stereotypical images of ignorant Americans ordering food at a café and French bicyclists flash by, there is often remarkable sensitivity to culture and language to be found. Sadly, it is never enough to save this film from rabid fangs mediocrity.

6 out of 10
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Venus (I) (2006)
8/10
Perhaps not O'Toole's swan song, but functions well as such
13 February 2007
What an understating and sensitive portrait of an aging man this is, never dwelling on emotional poignancy, but letting the cleverly written script and lead actor speak volumes. For me this is something of the epitome of a Brit-flick (however negatively-connoted the term has become): noble, talkative, subtle and funny.

Peter O'Toole lends his remarkably frail charisma to the role of Maurice, a veteran actor with a prostate condition who becomes smitten with his friend's 20-year-old niece, whom he affectionately nicknames Venus one day in an art gallery. She becomes something of an ethereal goddess to him, capable of filling the last days of his life with beauty and purpose simply by allowing him to touch her hand, smell her hair and watch her from afar. Their relationship, however kinky or difficult in nature, is one of the most tragically portrayed bonds you will see in film this year. Every scene they have together resonates tenderness on O'Toole's part, and is positively drenched in comic schoolgirl Lolita undertones.

For all its poetic and prose allusions in O'Toole's monologues and wisdoms as he stares into the distance, "Venus" never alludes to Lolita. It simply does not have to, for watching it is like opening a candy box of taboo notions, not to mention Jessie (Jodie Whittaker) is undeniably a lot like the titular character in Nabokov's novel: unlikeable, self-indulgent and spoiled, even if she eventually grows on you considerably. For all her brass teenage nature, O'Toole makes up for it with the same unique quality he brings to all of his characters, namely an intense emotional frailty embedded in his baby blue eyes. It breaks my heart to watch him in even remotely tragic situations now more than ever with an aging veneer and saggy parts, but even back in his Lawrence of Arabia days his emotional transparency never failed to touch me immensely.

That is not to say I crown O'Toole the best actor in the Academy category solely on sentimental grounds. Forest Whitaker, too, was excellent, but O'Toole gives the most nobly natural performance of the year (tied with Winslet perhaps). Although I enjoyed all supporting performances and technicalities of the film, "Venus" is something of a custom-tailored vehicle for Peter O'Toole, which is prime meat for the Academy and a rich source of enjoyment for me.

8 out of 10
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Volver (I) (2006)
6/10
No doubt well-crafted, but too sentimental for my tastes
11 February 2007
Multiple travesties, when blended with humour, form a farce. A pity it is that in "Volver" most of the comedy falls with a thud to the floor and the reemergence of dead people and buried secrets fledges into something altogether sentimental and melodramatic. The story centres on Raimunda (Penelopé Cruz), blossoming into a delicate portrait of domestic goddesses and echoing through three generations of women. The set-up is the kind of airport-novel-of-a-movie my mother would sit down to read on a rainy day, and certainly most women with lap up Pedro Almodóvar's flatteringly strong depiction of them, but will "Volver" it find an audience with men?

For all its wide-ranging and complex family tree that needs screen time, the film does progress at a rather sedated and patient speed, often lingering not on plot elements but on the working class-ness and the struggle of each woman, whether it be abuse or overwork. In the first scene of the film, we are told that in La Mancha men die young and women live to be much older, resuming all the work. The men in "Volver" are nearly all marginal set pieces, as is usually Almodovar's style. This is all sweet and sensitive to the fairer sex, but the director loses himself in the idolization and empowering of women. When her father tries to rape her and she kills him in with a knife self-defense, Paula spends the rest of the film smiling, overcoming and moving on. The absolute faith in the power of women makes the characters of "Volver" not nuanced persons, but unrealistic superwomen.

Raimunda played by Penelope Cruz, inhabiting the protagonist slot, elicits the most sympathy from the viewer and rightly so for she is both well-written and well-acted. I think most people will be happy to find her altogether unlike the stereotypical 'hot Latina' roles she is relegated to play in Hollywood, and often completely botches. In "Volver" Cruz is emotive, fluent and comfortable, and most importantly back to her old Spanish self, albeit amended with a prosthetic butt, a few extra pounds and pushed-up breasts. Raimunda, her friends and her sisters all passionately bicker with Latina moods that shift with the breeze, but at the end of the day they all care immensely for each other.

I never bothered to recap the plot, partly because it is complex and confusing even for me, and partly because it does not seem wholly relevant to the story Pedro Almodóvar is trying to tell. His naked intention is to give us a portrait, not a finely-sketched out plot outline. Meanwhile, the portrait is truly wonderfully achieved in technicalities. Every scene resonates a kind of quaint spirit and melodrama embedded in Spanish culture, often to comical effect such as the over-dramatization of the kissing custom (3-4 times on every cheek for every woman). Each frame is lushly saturated with colour and blossom-strewn to the point of art. A pity it is that the formalities cannot overcome the director's blind fascination with women.

6 out of 10
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7/10
"It's a funny thing being taken under the wings of a dragon – it's warmer than you think."
11 February 2007
The above quote is not from "The Last King of Scotland", but from "Gangs of New York" as said by Leonardo DiCaprio – but it might as well be, for doctor Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy) experiences the same deceitful tour into the African elite. It starts with mafia-like showering of gifts and status under the great dictator and ends in political world of kidnapping, mass-murder and torture. "The Last King of Scotland" is a nuanced, well-told portrait of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin from the naive perspective of his personal physician.

James McAvoy captures the idealist nature of his newly-examined physician with apt conviction. Back in dreary Scotland he spins the globe and lands his finger first on Canada, says "Eh" and decides to spin it again, this time ending up in Uganda. Cut to Nicholas riding on a loud bus in Africa and meeting the joyous, colourful Idi Amin (Forest Whitaker). As the film progresses, he has trapped himself in a self-spun cocoon of complex love stories, political questions and lavish gifts and suffers moral qualms accordingly.

Although in screen time and narrative the film centres on our doctor, the film is not about Nicholas Garrigan. Indeed, the BAFTAs deemed James McAvoy 'supporting', and Forest Whitaker 'leading' as have most awarding bodies. Whitaker's inventive, bold and off-colour performance is primed to pick up awards and almost certainly also the big one with the Academy. As Idi Amin, he is an entertainer, dictator, mass-murderer, torturer, husband, father and bully all rolled into one and all operating seamlessly within the same large, intimidating man. The result is unspeakably captivating and the walleyed Whitaker brings unusual baggage to the complex character, creating a fully-fledged artist.

"The Last King of Scotland" is shot on location with beautifully picturesque pastel-tinted African dance parties in one end and starving children and torture chambers in the others, inspired by true events and wholly grounded in reality, especially by including montages of live action footage and news paper articles on Amin's gruesome practices. Yet the film does not feel entirely realistic. The main problem is the hackneyed extra-template love-story between Nicholas and someone close to Idi Amin and predictably, it has severe implications. This feels quite redundant in the otherwise compelling film. All in all, however, Kevin Macdonald's "The Last King of Scotland" is a fine 2006 addition.

7.5 out of 10
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Apocalypto (2006)
6/10
Mad Max in the jungle
11 February 2007
Allow me to be perfectly frank and explain the film in the way that I interpreted it. Mel Gibson has no interest whatsoever in the Mayan culture. He does not want to explore their ways on film. He never gets down to explore the nature of violence between them. He wants to explore the violence of nature amongst them. Here is a director who is altogether mesmerized by bloodlust as seen in all of his previous directorial efforts, and it aptly translates into the gruesome gore seen in "Apocalypto". Over and over again.

In one of the first scenes of the film, a band of Mayan hunters track down and kill a tapir in the lush Yucutan jungle. When they sit down to feast on the prey, some of the guys convince a fellow hunter called Blunted to eat the animal's testicles to cure his infertility. Soon they all crack up and confess they were pulling his leg. Next comes a penis joke. Mel Gibson uses this type of locker-room humour to ground the otherwise alien Mayan culture and make us nod with recognition, clumsily telling us that "they are just like you and me". That is by far the most advanced anthropological angle taken in "Apocalypto" and it shows the laziness with which Gibson and Safinia approached the story.

The remaining depiction is of the decline of the Mayan empire due to internal rivalry between tribes, as told in the prelude by a Will Durant quote: "A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within." No satisfactory explanation as to why or how this happens is ever offered, for Gibson is too preoccupied with brainless bloodshed, other than the leering faces of the caricatures of villains in foreign tribes who go to great lengths to punish warriors and sacrifice humans for their gods.

One of these is young family man Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood) who is captured and brought to a warring city, ready to be made a human sacrifice in one of their temples. By what can only be described as a fluke and apt physique, he manages to flee and sets off into the jungle to save his pregnant wife and his son who hid themselves in a well near their home-town and cannot climb up again – and it's starting to rain. Inexplicably, the evil villains chase Jaguar Paw through the whole jungle, over waterfalls, across mudpits, etc.

Mel Gibson may be a crazed redneck, but when he finally divorces his highbrow introspective style from adrenaline-pumping cat-and-mouse action in the jungle, "Apocalypto" receives a well-deserved kick up the arse and switches to heartstopping manhunt mode. It becomes "Predator" or "Mad Max" in the Yucutan jungle, and is fully passable because of it. You could make a good case for the exploitation and over-dosage of blood & gore in the film and at the risk of sounding un-PC, this film made me pretty disgusted with Mayans. At one point, "Apocalypto" is almost disturbingly violent, brutal, gory and bloodthirsty for no other reason than to instill the "bad guy" image in our evil-laughing villains.

On the action side of the spectrum, "Apocalypto" succeeds very well. There is the usual no character development, only here is stretches across 2+ hours. The lead character is your usual gazes-in-disbelief protagonist, but it's all so lowbrow you cannot help but appreciate it. If you do not mind a bit of gaping wounds, internal organs being ripped out, piercing in the most random and painful places, human sacrifices, animals fights, gushing streams of blood, open arteries, bony freaks of nature, face-munching by panthers, gutting of animals, gruesome bloodbaths, torture games, rotting corpses, self-mutilation and last but not least, death by killer bees, this film may be for you.

My one regret with the film is that is cannot decide if it wants to opt for and clumsily pends between both: 1) hard-boiled action with superb crisp direction and exotic sets or 2) high-brow cultural/religious exploration of a civilization with lead-footed direction. Needless to say, "Apocalypto" fares infinitely better when Mel Gibson stick to the former approach, something that is true of all his films.

6 out of 10
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Dreamgirls (2006)
6/10
Rather hollow musical melodrama
10 February 2007
A trio of glitzy high-wigged divas are taken under by the slick management of Curtis Taylor (Jamie Foxx), gets assigned as backup singers from James "Thunder" Early (Eddie Murphy) and later set free as leads. Owing to her beautiful looks, Deena Jones (Beyoncé Knowles) is deemed more bankable than the "voice", Effie White (Jennifer Hudson) and assumes the leading position of the group accordingly, stirring up bitter rivalry in the trio and its behind-the-scenes management.

We follow our dreamgirls from age 16 when they are naive pop-stars on the rise to age 26 and over when they are washed-up overpriced divas arguing at Christmas, torn apart by intrigue, romance and prestige. As "Dreamgirls" makes the smooth transition from Motown blues to 70's soul to disco, the film makes a transition from charming to decent to tiresome. In short, it is frightfully unwise to stretch a light-hearted glammy musical over 2 hours of screen-time as the amount of likable characters and interesting set-ups wears increasingly thin.

Longevity is of course not its chief crux – its characters are. Although Jennifer Hudson is rigorously being lobbied for as 'supporting actress' by studios (and a wise political move it is to ensure accolades), she inhabits something of a lead role in "Dreamgirls", perhaps not in direct screen-time (Beyoncé should be crowned the winner here) but in heart and soul. The problem with the character of Effie is that she is an unlikeable fame-hungry diva who spits sass like bullet-fire if she does not get the coveted spotlight. The only likable thing about her emerges distantly over time – the fact that she didn't sell out like the rest. Wow, quite an accomplishment.

In spite of this, it should not be a gross overstatement to say that the success of "Dreamgirls" rests squarely on the shoulders of Jennifer Hudson. Eddie Murphy is fun, but ultimately forgettable and sparse in presence. Beyoncé is emotionally transparent in her performance, but not not particularly subtle. Jamie Foxx acts with cruel, success-driven intensity, but he is at the mercy of an underwritten character. In short, neither the the acting nor the wide montage of characters are anything to write home about.

Onto direction and editing, I must say I was rather impressed by both efforts. Director Bill Condon sews the film together with assured determination, even if it becomes too diluted toward the grand finale. The editing, which is not something I typically bring up or even notice, is beautifully inventive with a narrative structure that seamlessly intercuts future events/scenes in current scenes, such as one of the early sing-and-dancer numbers with James Thunder paralleled by the upcoming scene on the tour bus. I have seen this in films before ("Don't Look Now", 1973) but it is especially apt in Dreamgirls as the glittery trio cannot quite keep up with their own newfound success.

A source of annoyance with the aforementioned song numbers nevertheless becomes apparent. When the musical acts and drama are separated the result is credible, engaging and beautiful. When they are melted together in melodramatic singing showdowns, I shudder. But then, I suppose this is the "musical" part of the film. Although there are quite a few goosebumps-inducing sparkly moments on stage in a thick glossy coat of glamour, all the glitz soon becomes nauseating and the musical performances both unremarkable and indistinguishable. The latter is also true for "Dreamgirls" as a whole unless paint-by-numbers musicals are your thing.

6 out of 10
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Idiocracy (2006)
6/10
Either really dumb or absolutely brilliant
10 February 2007
I'll be perfectly frank: I did not like this film, and did not find it particularly funny. However, I wouldn't want to review it as such, since that would be boring – and I am quite certain it's a brilliant satire, if that makes any sense. Too many satires are dismissed as being exactly what they satirize (Natural Born Killers mistaken to be too "violent" just makes me shake my head). "Idiocracy" is so dumb to the core in its humour that at one point I just realised this HAD to be a satire – of studios, contemporary society and trailer trash culture.

The basic set-up caught my attention the minute the universal logo appeared and a narrator explained the Darwinism-gone-wrong process that prompted a world filled with idiots. Survival of the fittest has never implied survival of the smartest; it is simply a question of who procreates at the most rapid speed. In humans, this is typically the below average intelligent people such as rednecks, the less educated, trashy celebrities, et al, and as a result – over many generations – the intelligent alleles have all been replaced by dumb ones.

There is satire even in this. Too many films employ narrators who explain absolutely everything even when it is already clear to the viewer. The new idiocratic world speaks a language that is derived from Valley girl speech, inner city slang and slack-jawed hillbilly. Starbucks has become synonymous with handjobs. In all seriousness, if you thought Blade Runner, Children of Men or other bleak Orwellian science fictions showed terrifying visions of the future, you are in for one hell of a nightmare. The scariest thing is that it could theoretically happen, and to an extent this natural selection process is already occurring in our species.

It is in a way a pity that Fox orphaned this project, no trailers, no nothing, for that just displays their misunderstanding of the film's nature. Although I didn't find "Idiocracy" to be hugely entertaining, it moved so earnestly at such a brisk and condensed pace that ultimately it is an altogether harmless film.

6 out of 10
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7/10
Curiously enough, its fans are smarter than the film
10 February 2007
2027. In the throes of chaos and general apathy, humans have become infertile and the youngest person on the planet has died at 18 years old. A former activist (Clive Owen) agrees to help transport a miraculously pregnant woman (played by Claire-Hope Ashitey) to a human project sanctuary at sea, where her child's birth may help scientists save the future of humankind.

First of all, I am amazed at how many people wrote off "Children of Men" as 'another bleak Orwellian sci-fi' á la the abysmal "Equilibrum", for to me it is clear that Alfonso Cuarón has created something refreshingly unique both in style and content here. It is a run-and-hide actioneer pumped full of adrenaline, and paralleled with an interested vision of the future. As the protagonists dart along the decaying routes of Britain in desperate hopes to save humanity, I was sort of surprised at how compelled I was at one point, from the amazing setting of crumbling buildings that look like war-torn Balkan countries to the political revolutionaries and snipers on the rooftops, the dark atmosphere is superbly breathed life into.

As for acting, as a notorious Clive Owen-hater, he is nevertheless perfectly cast in the role of a lifeless, jaded corporate drone who has greatness clumsily thrust upon him. Seriously, I've recited grocery lists with more panache. Blink and you'll miss both Julianne Moore and Michael Caine, for neither inhabit leading roles in "Children of Men". To compensate for it, Claire-Hope Ashitey proves a likable character throughout, even offering some humour along the way, and the dire circumstances automatically elicit sympathy for out protagonist centre.

Although "Pan's Labyrinth" is a strong contender in the same category, the cinematography win should be a lock at the Academy Awards, and rightly so. Director Alfonso Cuarón coats his standard gliding tracking shots over the craggy British landscape and fallen citiea, and here it is bleakly perfect. On the other end of the spectrum, he aptly uses atmospheric shaky-cams to capture the frantic chases and escapes Theo and the girl experience on their way out of the country. Thankfully, it is not a-monkey-could-have-shot-this shaky, but appropriately moody.

The crux, and there nearly always in one, is the unspeakably lazy writing of the template script, undoubtedly by Cuarón himself. If you intend to make a film largely about science, you should probably at least nod to science. In the film, no explanation is ever offered as to why people can no longer procreate, and it becomes clear that the writers have NO IDEA what they are talking about. Luckily, "Children of Men" is cleverly crafted in such a way that it never needs to explain what caused the infertility or the technicalities of what is wrong ("We don't know what caused it"), but as a result it is neither very interesting nor very credible. No matter how you get around it, you need a firmer scientific footing to appeal a wider audience.

The film does, however, bring up important existential questions in bioethics. The implications of humanity no longer being able to procreate its species are wide-ranging and severe. In a way as humans it would not directly affect us since *we* would lead our ordinary lives to the fullest (albeit without having children). But undeniably, whatever distant genesmanship to our offspring and future generations, it would eventually provoke a kind of altruism that would lead us to act, much like Theo in protecting the pregnant girl, even if the child was not his, because in the end it would benefit the survival of our species – which is all that matters to the selfish nature of genes.

"Children of Men" has an admirably grainy and bleak tone, even though it is momentarily lifted by humour. It is a pity that its fans are doing most of the insightful thinking in the message boards, scratching their heads trying to come up with feasible scientific explanations for the infertility in the film ("carrying capacity of the population", "over-dependence on anti-depressants", "flunk of evolution" and "plague" to name a few) something that the writers should already have sketched out in the writing stage.

7.5 out of 10
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The Guardian (I) (2006)
6/10
2½ hour long padded-out advertisement for the National Coast Guard
10 February 2007
... and yet, altogether watchable. Big-shot legendary rescuer Ben Randall (Kevin Costner) loses his whole crew out at sea in a rescue mission gone wrong, as well as his marriage, and is instructed to take a "time-out" to teach at a prestigious coast guard school. He trains "the best of the best, of the best, sir..." and one of his students is Jake (Ashton Kutcher) is a cocky whippersnapper fresh out of high school with swimming medals by the bucketload, more interested in setting records than in saving lives.

Predictably, "The Guardian" serves heartfelt American morals and messages en masse in building a bond between the mentor and his rookie student. Kevin Costner is a readily-molded veteran hero, passably virile for the role and effortless in his leading quality. Ashton Kutcher is at least not notably bad in his acting efforts, especially when the grueling coast guard training sessions demand our attention and sympathy for his character. As ever in army films, a kind of Top Gun homoeroticism is hilariously displayed throughout.

Curiously enough, in spite of its paint-by-numbers army set-up and parallel Wolfgang Peterson-esquire sea actioneer approach, the film elicits surprising attention, even in the bloated "I have high hopes for you" speeches by Mr. Costner. Perhaps this stems from its grounded relations basis; there is undeniably a lot of deeply-rooted character problems below the surface both in Ben and Jake's pasts. In the former case, his devotion to the guard is almost self-destructive, which aptly translates in his unconventionally harsh teaching methods ("Tread water for an hour, or go home"). In the latter's case, his adolescence is plagued by a traumatizing event.

"The Guardian" is ultimately a film with technicalities and formalities so dutifully sketched out from opening to closing credits that a computer could code for the same film had it been programmed to do so. You will probably be able to anticipate every up and down of the journey, and even the rare comical moments sings notes I have heard before, even toward the end with the cheesy credit note nodding to Hurricane Katrina, cementing it as an extended advertisement for the National Coast Guard. But with bouts of well-special-effected action at sea, "The Guardian" remains a fully passable film.

6 out of 10
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10/10
Reality vs. Illusion
9 February 2007
Now listen, I don't usually shower films with perfect tens, let alone those that are yet to stand the test of time, but I have to be honest here: I can't find anything tangibly wrong with Guillermo del Toro's "Pan's Labyrinth". Set against the backdrop of Franco's fascist repression in 1944, a young girl descends into fabled fantasy to escape the harsh reality of her step-father reign. This beautiful set-up is sheer darkly goosebumps-inducing magic, and the bitter everyday drama is almost as bitingly compelling.

"Pan's Labyrinth" is in this way neatly-composed of two parallel stories operating seamlessly in the same film, interweaving bucketloads of suspense in every single shot. On the realistic, reality-based end of the spectrum, we have Sergi López as the repressive big-shot Capitán Vidal, Ofelia's step-father. Although the latter brings wonderful wide-eyed intensity to her leading role, it is truly López who projects the most charisma in his performance, creating not a caricature of a villain, but a fully-fledged powerhouse of a tyrant.

Ofelia is not as well-acted as she is well-written, it needs to be said. Yet this is understandable, for Del Toro gives us a no-holds-barred likable heroine who displays some of the most fearless antics you will see in films this year. She crawls through muddy hellholes with bugs on her legs. She visits demons. When she sees the iconic fearsome faun again, she runs up and hugs him. When her mother asks her to tell her unborn child a soothing bed-time story, Ofelia tells him dark nightmares, because they're stories to her.

As for cinematography and the likes, the more CGI there is in a film, the more heart it needs to project. "Pan's Labyrinth" passes this criteria with flying colours because although the heaviest weapon in Guillermo Del Toro's directorial arsenal is undeniably his dark visuals, the wrapping story is so tear-jerkingly compelling that CGI typically takes a backseat to the drama in the film. The score, lullabies and all, is unspeakably disturbing – which tells me it is scored perfectly to a fantasy epic like this.

Yes, "Pan's Labyrinth" is a foreign film, foreign not only in its speaking language, but in its visual linguistics and imagination. The whole world created on the colour-awash screen is alien to most people, and atmospheric originality goes a long way. In the end, the film is a self-spun cocoon of childhood magic laced with dark notions, something like a NC-17 version of Alice in Wonderland – something absolutely extraordinary.

10 out of 10
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Half Nelson (2006)
7/10
Almost got it
6 February 2007
A rookie unconventional history teacher takes on a class of unruly inner city kids who will finally learn the meaning of teacher-student bond and free thinking. Does this sound like a hackneyed enough plot summary for you? No matter how gushing fans and reviewers twist and turn this outline, that remains its plot on paper. It is fortunate then that 'Half Nelson' mostly steers away from the dutiful by-the-numbers approach of underdog victories in the basketball court or an underdog student acing a test, adopting a sweeter less in-your-face indie tone.

The title 'Half Nelson' is a wrestling term that involves locking your opponent in an impossible position. This is an apt title, for Dan Dunne (Ryan Gosling) wrestles with a mounting drug addiction and teacher responsibility, pinning lost idealism somewhere in between. He is trapped in a situation he cannot get out of. As a History teacher, he likes to ramble more about the dialectics, complexities, forces and theories of history rather than recapping the facts according to the curriculum. He opposes the policies of the school and its conformist syllabus.

This type of racial inspirational drama is prime meat for Hollywood. The non-conformity in the film is so relatable that it makes nod with recognition, not to mention it sells. Certainly, 'Half Nelson' is not a particularly inventive film nor is it a Herculean task to make, but it transcends its genre by cross-over appeal in the drug side of the spectrum. The crux is to make it different and compelling. Dan teaches during the day and compels his batch of cocky black junior high students, then goes home, does a few lines, smokes crack, joints, whatever he can get his hands on. Moving anonymously from failed dates to lonely trips to the bar, he ultimately returns home to sleep on a dingy mattress on the hardwood floor of his apartment.

Dan as a character, as you can tell, is challenging role for an actor to inhabit. Between his difficult, idealist and alternative nature, he is utterly self-loathing and descends into narcotization because of it. I cannot quite make up my mind about Ryan Gosling in the film. To be sure, he is a capable actor with a kind of natural bleary-eyed talent, underpinned with strong emotional surges. Perhaps you could make a good case for that the film rests squarely on the shoulders of Gosling, even though but Shareeka Epps as Dan's only friend Drea performs well as a Latchkey kid, not to mention that at times Gosling feels almost too emotionally numb to truly engage you.

This is regrettably also true for the whole film. It is numb. The atmosphere is almost eerily calm, accompanied by a mellow indie score, lingering close-ups and generally introspective camera-work. The only thing that jumps out and grabs you are the clipped, fragmentary newsreel footages interjected in the history lessons. I wish I knew their purpose, for now they serve only as bloated non-conformist speeches to support the film's key theme. On the other end of the spectrum, this is by all accounts a well-made little indie gem that serves as a pleasant diversion from the formulaic teacher/mentor/student turns of recent years. It is simply ultimately a bit of a snooze.

7 out of 10
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Blood Diamond (2006)
6/10
The Constant Gardener dumbed down to jungle adventure level
29 January 2007
There is quiet intensity and explosive intensity. I was going to say that 'Blood Diamond' makes no pretense about subscribing to the latter, but the fact is that it does. On the one hand, it treats heavy, salient issues like diamond trade and the trafficking of child-soldiers in Africa, even including a few lines of warning in the credits, but on the other hand it is structured and executed like a generic adventure treasure hunt. It cannot decide what it wants to be, and regrettably botches through both paths.

Set against the backdrop of civil war and chaos in 1990's Sierra Leone, Blood Diamond follows Rhodesian mercenary (oooh, scary!) Danny Archer (Leonardo Dicaprio), Mende fisherman Solomon Vandy (Djimon Hounsou) and American journalist Maddy Bowen (Jennifer Connelly) on a quest to find a rare pink diamond that Solomon first found when he was forced to work in the diamond fields. It intertwines bouts of blood-soaked encounters with child-soldiers, one of which is Solomon's own son that has been taken from him, and with emotional blackmail it cues us in to feel for the miserable conditions in Africa and the venality with which things are run.

The problem is that every slightly serious scene—every moment—is interrupted by some loud explosion, gun violence or shouting and sometimes all three. This is irritating in the film and it suggests two things: the script is unbearably lazy and sees action galore as a plot device and way to avoid writing the end of 'difficult' scenes with conversation or character development or 'Blood Diamond' tells us that we should not take it seriously and just treat it as any run-of-the-mill action-adventure. The problem with this is that it lacks the charm and sparkle in the eye of 'Indiana Jones', and Dicaprio is much too moody and unlikeable as a protagonist.

I have not yet seen many of the Oscar nominated actors' performances, but Leonardo Dicaprio's interpretation of the hard-boiled mercenary is the least deserving so far. It baffles me that such an action-oriented adventure with such a testosterone-fuelled lead could snag nominations with the drama-favouring academy, and I suspect this is solely because of its hazy political core. In comparison, Dicaprio is like Daniel Craig in Casino Royale but without the serious, emotional scenes. Apparently his South African accent is fairly in-tune, according to South Africans, but it seems uneven, exaggerated and varying in pronunciation to me.

None of the other performances are noteworthy either. Djimon Hounsou, shouting does not a good performance make. Jennifer Connelly warms up slightly in her role, shifting from her usual emotionally numb and somber state to being a little smilier, but here she is at the mercy of an underwritten character and there are not many ways in which she can go. The supporting cast for 'Blood Diamond' may be rather one-dimensional caricatures of evil corporate white men and black hard-edged guerilla leaders with berets, but they serve their respective functions rather aptly, especially Michael Sheen's brief appearance. The only issue I have here is that African people speak broken English to each other. Even if they're from the same family.

In the end, 'Blood Diamond' snags the 6 out of 10 from me. The cinematography is gorgeous with a screen that is awash with dramatic colours and shots, the action is fast-paced and exciting and the atmosphere is admirably gritty and visceral in the deep jungles of Africa. It features a ridiculous, two-faced mix between heavy-handed politics á la Constant Gardener and adrenaline-pumping action á la... any action film. It should in all theory be possible to join these two sides, and 'Blood Diamond' possesses all the necessary ingredients to do so, but no blender in which to stir it.

6 out of 10
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