The Multiply Archive – 2011

from the bottom…

Movies 2011  |  Season of The Witch  |  Faster  |  The Way Back  |  The Green Hornet  |  The King’s Speech  |  The Mechanic  |  The Adjustment Bureau  |  Black Swan  |  Drive Angry  |  Rango  |  Battle Los Angeles  |  Tomorrow When The War Began  |  Sucker Punch  |  Hop  |  Source Code  |  Rio  |  The Last Exorcism  |  The Dragon Pearl  |  Monsters  |  Easy A  |  Thor |  Fast Five  |  Priest  |  Pirates of The Caribbean: On Stranger Tides  |  Kung-Fu Panda 2  |  X-Men: First Class  |  Super 8  |  Dylan Dog: Dead of Night  |  Green Lantern  |  Transformers: Dark of The Moon  |  Tucker and Dale vs Evil  |  Vanishing on 7th Street  |  Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows Part 2  | Hanna  |  Captain America: The First Avenger  |  Rise of The Planet of The Apes  |  Cowboys & Aliens  |  Spy Kids: All The Time in The World  |  Cars 2  |  Colombiana & Conan The Barbarian  |  Contagion  |  Warrior  |  Killer Elite  |  Nasi Lemak 2.0  |  The Three Musketeers  |  Real Steel  |  What’s Your Number?  |  In Time  |  Tower Heist  |  The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of The Unicorn  |  Happy Feet 2  |  Puss In Boots  |  Guilty Crown (anime, first 6 episodes)  |  The Muppets  |  Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol


Sequels, Prequels, Remakes And The Occasional Surprise – Of Movies in 2011.

More than ever, Hollywood took to the franchise, relying on name brands and product recognition for their output in 2011. There were reportedly more sequels or prequels or remakes hitting the big screen than there have ever been, outpacing any original content. What was once regulated to simply reviving some obscure Horror film, spread to other films as we revisited the origin zone of such fare like X-Men and Planet Of The Apes or even The Thing, which didn’t even bother to have a slight change of title. A backlash to all that was raised expectations for some movies which led severe disappointments in most cases. When brand fatigue sets in, expectations are lowered and then the odd surprise occurs and we have something that is better than expected.

It’s hard to keep a critical eye on such movies because personal tastes does get in the way. For me, the three highly anticipated movies of 2011 were Sucker Punch, Pirates of The Caribbean: On Stranger Tides and The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of The Unicorn. Of the three, the biggest disappointment was Pirates, because it didn’t live up to the promise. Expectations were high so the fall was even greater. I even watched it twice (only noticing Judi Dench the second time around) because the initial 3D presentation sucked big time.

Speaking of 3D, There have been also lots of hits and misses although a major problem came from our cinemas (or at least GSC in Queensbay in particular) trying to find the right balance in terms of presentation with really dark and dim projections in those early months (Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows pt 2 pretty much disappeared into the dark muck of the film, Pirates never seemed to take place during the day). It took a while for the presentation to improve, and it turned out that the cartoons did way better than live action, although credit does have to be given to the last hour of Transformers: Dark Of The Moon for its bravura use of 3D. Too bad we really had to struggle through the first two thirds of the movie which was one of the worst and annoying movies to hit our screens.

So, in all, hitting maybe about 50 movies in our cinemas this year with just about 11 movies in my review block that got four stars or more, two of which were 2010 movies that got to our screens late (The King’s Speech and Black Swan). I’m sure the biggest surprise for most was my liking Sucker Punch more than The Muppets (and again, it’s those expectations vs results) but it wasn’t so much that I didn’t like  The Muppets. It resonated on that nostalgic level with me extremely well, but I simply doubt that it would appeal to many other casual viewers given the context of the film. Yes, it did celebrate exactly what the Muppets were meant to be, but the show did have its hits and misses.

My Top Rated films of 2011

In terms of pure entertainment of the brainless kind, you really couldn’t do better than Fast Five, which somehow managed to surpass expectation and make their own version of The Avengers, grabbing favourite characters from the previous entry for one hell of a bang for your buck. Having The Rock thrown into the mix just made things even crazier and fun. Crazy fun also applied to Paul WS Anderson’s take on The Three Musketeers. Marvel did really well with Thor, Captain America: The First Avenger and X-Men: First Class while DC fumbled with Green Lantern. And while I enjoyed Kung Fu Panda 2 to no end, I have to admit that the best movie we got in our cinemas in 2011 was… Warrior. Do yourself a big favour and go find this on Blu-Ray. We’d be lucky if we have more films like this that was big on drama, spends the right amount of time on character just so you’re fully invested in that amazing fight action scene at the end of the movie. So emotionally rewarding.

The second tier films – scoring 3.5/5 stars

Most other critics have other such movies in their top ten, most of which didn’t make it to our big screens, Drive being the major one. We’ll see if it’ll still turn up as we spend the next couple of months catching up on some potential Oscar nominees. Here’s hoping War Horse will hit out screens.

Those that never made it to our screen, which I want to see…

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Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol [2011]

Rating ****

Stars Tom Cruise, Paula Patton, Simon Pegg, Jeremy Renner, Michael Nyqvist, Vladimir Mashkov, Samuli Edelmann with Anil Kappor, Josh Holloway and Tom Wilkinson

Directed by Brad Bird

With this fourth entry into Tom Cruise’s personal franchise (now ‘A Tom Cruise Production’), Mission: Impossible returns to its roots with what is essentially a cold war plot device – potential nuclear armageddon. To make things tougher than before, our hero, Ethan Hunt (Cruise) has to operate with a team that’s forced upon him instead of one that he hand-picks for the task at hand (a conceit of the TV series, not necessarily used in the movies). The fact (even in the trailers) that the entire IMF is disavowed and of zero help is really nothing to bother with given that Ehtan’s been there before in the first (sort of) and third movie. So what makes this round so great?

Answer: Brad Bird
The director of some truly fantastic animated films (The Iron Giant, The Incredibles and Ratatouille) brings his sensibilities for character development to live action and proves that he is equally capable at it as he was with animation.

Cruise’s intent for the Mission films was that each entry would stand alone and have a different aesthetic based on the director involved. Successful or not, each Mission: Impossible film has the distinctive look given by its director. In that respect, Ghost Protocol probably has the most conventional look of the series thus far, and all the better for it. It’s gorgeously shot and framed with a focus on the characters that make up the team while on a mission that actually does require a team. It’s something that Bird has done quite well before on The Incredibles, establishing the characters, and how they function as a unit as well as giving each member of that unit something significant to do.

While Ehtan is still the focus point around which the others function, each member of this rag tag team has something extra. Jane Carter (Paula Patton) has a professional stake in the mission, while the returning Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg – awesome) is a newly minted field agent who’s out to prove himself a worthy field operative while gushing about being in the field. Then there’s the mysterious Brandt (the excellent Jeremy Renner) who appears to be in over his head and has a deep personal secret that could impact on how he performs in the field. Each of them come across as fully realised characters and this particular unit functions somewhat as a dysfunctional family, with Ethan being the father figure (a further progression from before after the whole girlfriend thing in the last movie) trying to hold everything together. Each of the stars perform admirably with Pegg bringing in some comic relief, but not in an obtrusive or obvious manner. Renner is somewhat understated, but it’s factored into his character and the secret he carries. As a whole, it’s an excellent performance that shows some promise should Cruise intend to pass the franchise over to Renner’s character as it has been rumoured.

While there’s an improvement in the character front, things are not slacking on the action front and again, Bird shows he has the chops with several spectacular set-pieces, the highlight in the trailers being set around the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. That’s just the middle portion of a globe spanning mission that starts in Moscow and ends elsewhere. To Bird’s credit, he does something with the action scenes that very few directors these days are able to do, he grounds them to their location so that you know exactly who’s doing what in which area of the particular location. The set-pieces are also well designed and edited giving several breath-taking and breathless moments (i.e. don’t forget to breathe or you might forget you’re holding your breath). The pacing is amazing and it keeps the relentless nature of the plot going without scrambling your brains or leaving you wondering just what is going on as they zip about from place to place.

The excellent first movie was a shell-game, which made for some really twisty plotting (loathed by most, loved by others). The second fell as a mediocre con-game while the third movie improved a little, but still kept loads of double-crossing and involved a mysterious and never-explained McGuffin (rabbit’s foot?). Ghost Protocol is a far more straight-forward affair of Bond proportions, and almost reaches the heights of the initial entry. It is entertaining, enjoyable and incredibly close to being mind-blowing in some aspects.

Brad Bird definitely accomplished something impossible here and made Mission: Impossible continue to be a viable franchise with a fourth entry.

For Comparison:
Mission: Impossible (1996) ****
Mission: Impossible II (2000) **1/2
Mission: Impossible III (2006)***

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The Muppets [2011]

Rating ***1/2

Stars Jason Segel, Amy Adams, Chris Cooper, Rashida Jones with Muppet Performers Steve Whitmire, Eric Jacobson, Dave Goelz, Matt Vogel, Bill Barretta and Peter Linz as Walter… and a slew of Celebrity cameos

Directed by James Bobin

Having grown up with The Muppets and their entertainment show, and loving every minute, it’s a little herd to be objective with this one. Part of the problem is the nostalgia invoked by the movie. It permeates throughout the movie and it both aids as well as hinders the movie. It’s no surprise that star and key writer, Jason Segel, has great love and affection for the Muppets, which was also partly on display in his earlier movie ‘Forgetting Sarah Marshall’.

The plot revolves around Gary (Segal), his girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams) and his muppet brother Walter (Peter Linz) helping Kermit The Frog get the rest of The Muppets back together in order to save their old theatre from oil baron, Tex Richman (Chris Cooper), who wants to tear the theatre down and drill for oil.

Because The Muppet Show has been off the air for decades, there is a point made that The Muppets are no longer as relevant as they once were (and given their last few movies, it would appear to be true). This movie feels more like a direct sequel to ‘The Muppet Movie’ with even the original “Rich and Famous” contract coming into play, not to mention the numerous references to ‘The Muppet Show’ TV series.

However, all of these references are organically worked in so it may not really be necessary for younger viewers to actually be aware of the history of The Muppets. As such, this is the nostalgia factor at work for viewers like me, so there are tons of in-jokes at work, more hits than misses there. I couldn’t really say if it would work just as well with others. The nostalgia factor also does tend to slow down the movie a little in spots, especially in dealing with Kermit (the song ‘Pictures In My Head’ is particularly touching, if you can reminisce along with Kermit) and Miss Piggy in particular.

Like with previous Muppet movies, there are songs incorporated into the story with a doozy of an opening number (“Life’s A Happy Song”) that doubles as the finale, and Chris Cooper does a rap song in the middle (awesome). “The Rainbow Connection” also gets an airing although Kermit’s signature tune, “Bein’ Green” is nowhere in sight. The final half hour is pretty much a condensed version of “The Muppet Show” itself where the songs and jokes are moving at a fast and furious pace (again, hits and misses).

At best, it is a truly joyous movie with a mission to entertain, and it is a joy to see almost all the familiar Muppets back on screen (Frank Oz is sorely missed as Fozzie sounds more than a little off, but that’s a nitpick of an old fan). The human characters are a little problematic, particularly the Gary and Mary storyline which appears to be competing with the Kermit and Piggy storyline. Chris Cooper does his best to play the bad guy while being somewhat aware of the role he’s playing (you’re called Tex Richman and you’re an oilman? Maniacal laugh, MANIACAL LAUGH!) while being flanked by Uncle Deadly and Bobo (who’s pretty much in the same capacity as he was in ‘Muppets From Space’). Still, the movie belongs to The Muppets and it’s all the better for it when they’re on screen.

Yes, I enjoyed it, but not as much as I wanted to. A lot of it resonated with me, as did the nostalgia, but it’s something that I could do without as well as the typical Disney moralising. The last third feels more like what the movie should be, although stretching the half hour idea into a whole movie probably wouldn’t be feasible without a proper story to drive it and things get wrapped up a little too neatly. The cameos are a lot of fun to spot although most of the stars don’t really add anything aside from a typical line or two (well, maybe Emily Blunt reprising her ‘Prada’ role, and there’s one magnificent unbilled cameo, which may not register with our Malaysian viewers). Kids may love some of the antics, but they may not catch the jokes. It may disappoint, but at least it tries exuberantly to rekindle that sense of joy that represents The Muppets.

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ギルティクラウン a.k.a Guilty Crown [2011]

Rating ***

Episodes 1 – 6
Studio: Production IG

The first six episodes reviewed here is what I see as the first full arc, although it’s made up of basically 3 two-part stories.

There’s really no telling what it is about any particular anime that grabs my attention. Often, I look at the concept or idea behind the story, but it really simply boils down to if I get absorbed into the world and its characters from viewing an episode or two (or four). So, i might flip about from the light silliness of K-On or Azumanga Diaoh, to the dramatic stylings of Hanasaku Iroha (which really shouldn’t have appealed to me at all, but it did buck certain conventions and cliches), to the dark mysteries of Gosick or to the outrageous violence of something like Highschool of the Dead (zombies and erotica) or Shigurui (just plain disturbing – you really want to turn it off, but you can’t stop watching).

In any case, I find that most anime of this nature always a little difficult to get into given that the world that Guilty Crown takes place in is a typically dystopian future that has a totalitarian rule that’s being fought by some underground rebels. The circumstances of each reality changes and there’s usually a steep learning curve in trying to understand the political situation and how the world functions in general.

Basically, a devastating virus swept through Japan, but was somehow kept at bay by a coalition we get to know as the GHQ. It’s isn’t a full cure tho as the Apocalypse Virus (or AP Virus) is still around and likely to hit those who do not take the vaccination. If there are communities who refuse the vaccination, the GHQ are more than likely to wipe out the whole community regardless of the sick or healthy. Fighting against the GHQ and their strong-arm tactics is an organisation known as the Undertakers (or Funeral Parlor, depending on the translators) led by the enigmatic Gai.

As the series begins, we are first introduced to this strange pick haired who is on the run from the GHQ. She has a vial which she is supposed to get to Gai. She is wounded, but manages to slip away from the GHQ. Within that opening sequence, we also glimpse that she is a popular singer called Inori. We’re then introduced to Oumo Shu, our main character, who finds Inori hiding out in his work area (take it as it is, you’ll understand when you watch it). He decides to help her, but when the GHQ turn up, he freezes. She does manage to pass him the vial and asks him to take it to Gai. When he does find Gai, that’s when the action kicks in and the ante goes up as the typical weirdness kicks in.

Yes, we have large robots called Endlaves. They are piloted by humans, but from a remote pod away from the main action. No, our hero doesn’t suddenly finds himself piloting one. Instead, in the midst of the action, the mysterious vial spills its contents onto Shu and he gets this mysterious power that allows him to draw items out of Voids. That’s your “what the-?” moment that’s supposed to hook you in the first episode (although we do see something similar in “Dantalian no Shoka”).

Voids are basically kids who are 17 or under who have these items within them, and someone like Shu is able to extract or draw these items out. They might be weapons or they might be something else entirely (as seen in episode 3, to some hilarious effect), but whatever these items are, they are supposed to reflect the persons heart. When the item is extracted, the Void goes into shock and they don’t remember what happened. Inori has some kind of powerful sword within her, and Gai is able to ‘see’ these void items in other people.

As the episodes roll on, we get information in drips, usually as Shu learns about it. So the first two introduces us to everything on a surface level, by episode 3, we learn more about the Voids. In episode 4 we learn about the AP virus, and by the time episode 5 and 6 roll along, we’ve gotten to know most of the key characters while being fed new intriguing aspects about other characters (there’s something strange about Inori), while getting caught up with boths sides of the fight. And the fights are rendered rather spectacularly with a keen eye on the visual aspects of the void weapons in use. The violence is tough, but not very brutal although there are deaths that also occur. It’s a harsh world there.

The visual design for the series is beautifully elegant from the background design to the character designs and the colours in use. The imagery is spectacular to behold and I do love the overall design aspect, especially in those quiet moments between Shu and Inori in episode 1 and episode 5. While Shu comes across plain where the character design is concerned, the others really shine more with Inori being a visual standout (bright colours in her hair and somewhat impractical costume against the blueish and dark backgrounds), also as a contrast to Shu who is often in darker clothes.

One other intriguing character is Ayase, the Undertaker Endlave pilot who might be regarded as a typical tsundere character, but there is something intriguingly unique about her. Might be the wheelchair affecting my judgment. She does get her moment in episode 5 tho, and that’s probably where she gains the most fans.

Overall, this is an intriguing series (enough to make me do a review on an anime for the first time) that is visually splendid, has a plot that is complex, but not entirely so. The information comes a little slower than one might like, but not a slow as some, as it depends on Shu and how deeply involved he gets with each side of the fight. There are lots of grey shades to the characters, with no one really being the whole white knight (even Shu has his flaws and his motives aren’t necessarily just), while the nemesis are either calculating (Segai) or downright cold (Daryl). Six episodes down, with more to come. Inori is more of a mystery than ever, and Shu has more secrets to learn.

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Puss In Boots [2011 3D]

Rating ***

Stars (vocally) Antonio Banderas, Salma Hayek, Zach Galifianakis, Billy Bob Thornton, Amy Sedaris, Constance Marie with (the excellent) Bob Persichetti and Guillermo Del Toro

Directed by Chris Miller

The ever popular Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas) from the Shrek movies get his own movie and it’s an origin story of sorts that ties in Humpty Alexander Dumpty (Zach Galifianakis) while going up against the grown-up pair of Jack and Jill (Billy Bob Thornton and Amy Sedaris), not to mention the appearance of another fairy-tale Jack. The movie chronicles more or less where Puss came from, how he got his boots and the circumstances that led to him being a sort of mercenary for hire, the one we met in Shrek 2. This is a very busy movie indeed that’s filled with adventure, some great character moments, humour and a little wit, and Puss doesn’t really need to do anything to fill those boots he wore so well in the previous movies.

The keyword there is “busy” as we have quite a few things going on. We do have the origin story, but that’s framed by a heist adventure that has a secondary underlying agenda, coupled with a bit of a romance and wrapped with… well, that would really be telling. All of that, however, doesn’t get in the way of the character set-pieces, but enhances them really well, particularly where Puss is concerned. It is, after all, his story. Banderas brings his usual charm, so no worries there. His interplay with Salma Hayek (who plays Kitty Softpaws) sparks with the chemistry one would expect from the sizzling co-stars of Desperado and Once Upon A Time in Mexico (and several others).

Some things don’t quite line up with the Shrek world tho, as this plays very much like a Mexican-Western for the most part, while the Shrek worlds are very European instead. It’s probably due to Guillermo Del Toro serving as Executive Producer (and voicing two characters as well). The story does have some pacing problems, trying to squeeze so much in, but that’s countered with several major highlights, my favourite being the ‘dance fight’ sequence. The cultural references are kept to a minimum, something that the producers have been conscious of dialling way back, although some still do creep through. These are all just really minor squibbles tho.

Overall, it is a rollicking entertaining and enjoyable adventure. The 3D is as fantastic as one would expect from PDI/DreamWorks animation. Not really necessary if you don’t feel like spending the extra cash on a 3D screening, It’s not perfect or as captivating as “Kung Fu Panda 2” earlier this year, but it is still better than the last couple of “Shrek” movies.

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Happy Feet 2 [2011 – 3D]

Rating ***1/2

Stars (vocally) Elijah Wood, Robin Williams, Alecia ‘Pink’ Moore, Ava Acres, Benjamin Flores Jr with Hugo Weaving, Magda Szubanski, Common, Hank Azaria and Matt Damon & Brad Pitt

Directed by George Miller

A rather belated sequel, Happy Feet 2 pretty much treads similar ground as its predecessor in that you have a baby penguin in search of an identity. While Mumble (Elijah Wood) had to find his place in the world, being the only penguin that couldn’t sing (in the original) but could dance, here it’s his son Eric (Ava Acres) who may be just about the only penguin who seems to be lacking in the rhythm department. Meanwhile, a catastrophe occurs that threatens all the emperor penguins and it’s up to Mumble to find a way to save the day (of course he does, even the kids will know that one), while trying to handle his son.

Like before, there are a few preachy messages and lessons thrown in, quite a few more than before although it’s handled with a lighter touch this time around. It’s worked into the dialogue and visuals, so some of you may find it annoying, but this is aimed at the younger audiences and particularly those who have seen the first movie (or else, be ready to answer their questions about why these particular penguins sing and dance, not so much the others.)

And apparently, these two plot just aren’t enough to fill a whole movie, so we also get another adventure featuring a pair of unlikely ‘heroes’, Bill the Krill (Matt Damon) and Will the Krill (Brad Pitt – although I honestly could not tell which actor did which voice, I’m just following the IMDB listing). Bill decides he’s had enough of the heard mentality and decides to break away from the swarm only to discover the world beyond and the krill’s place in it. He then decides to move up the food chain, with Will being his somewhat reluctant sidekick for the adventure. While their story might intermingle with Mumble’s adventures, they don’t directly interact. Much like following Scrat’s adventures throughout the “Ice Age” movies. They also happen to be just about the best thing in the movie and are deserving of their own flick next time, or at least, a series of shorts.

It isn’t enough to really raise the quality of the stories though and while it might cause the movie to suffer a little, knocking it a peg or two from its predecessor, it the the effective and rather infectious energy of the overall presentation that buoys the movie overall. It is mostly thanks to Robin Williams returning to voice both Ramon and Lovelace, followed by the mostly engaging songs. Although in this post “Glee” world, some might not be entirely taken by it. Yes, the mash-ups are a plenty and the new renditions are intriguing, and since it’s aimed at the youngsters, it might also be their first exposure to some of the classics on display. Add to that John Powell’s rousing score, and the entertainment level really reaches for hat high bar.

The visuals, which were already stunning in the first movie, are even more eye-popping spectacular in 3D this time from the brilliant use of color and lighting (with one rather spectacular flashback sequence that mutes most of the color) to the sweeping camera movements over the gorgeous vistas. The 3D is very impressive and if you have kids, let them linger during the end credits; they’ll have some fun there.

In all, entertainment is the key ingredient here even if the story is completely reworked and slimmed down to carry over a few days instead of the rather epic scale of the first movie. The urgency of the catastrophe dictates the time factor and while we adults would know the cause of such a catastrophe (even with some other visual evidence), it isn’t spelt out entirely within the movie, as are other aspects. So while it is a little slipshod in the storytelling department, it’s only something that will linger sometime after the infectious entertaining energy of the movie has faded over several days. There is a joy in watching the movie unless you’re a bitter cynic determined to scowl at the screen and scoff at the singing, dancing penguins as being unrealistic.

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The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of The Unicorn [2011 3D]

Rating ****

Stars Jamie Bell, Andy Serkis, Daniel Craig, Toby Jones, Cary Elwes, Tony Curran, Mackenzie Crook with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost

Directed by Steven Spielberg

There is so much love in this movie from the brilliant opening credits with John Williams’ awesome score played over the animation sequence which gives flashes of the comic books. The style is similar to the opening of director Spielberg’s “Catch Me If You Can” and it works equally well here. Then the movie begins, opening with a street market scene that pays beautiful tribute and acknowledgement to Tintin’s creator, Herge, who makes a cameo as the street artist who does a drawing of Tintin himself. So we see the traditional artwork (among others in the background) right before we’re introduced to the character of the film, as portrayed by Jaime Bell.

The movie itself adapts material from two books, mainly “The Secret Of The Unicorn” for the main plot, and “Crab WIth The Golden Claws” for parts of the side story, particularly with the intention of bringing Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis) into the story. The biggest expansion would be on the character of Sakharine (Daniel Craig), one of the minor characters who was after the model of The Unicorn, who is now the full-fledge villain of the piece. While writers, Edger Wright and Joe Cornish, with a polish by Steven Moffet, do keep to the main plot, the changes they made makes sense for a cinematic treatment of the material while minting most of the witty dialogue (particularly where Thompson and Thomson are concerned), which does have some problems given the feeling of comic book dialogue being transferred to screen (Tintin’s “Great snakes!” exclamation feel very dated and yet completely within character).

But credit has to be given to the performers, especially Andy Serkis as Captain Haddock primarily and Jaime Bell as the titular character. Their double act works very well to carry the movie through and the pace is fairly relentless (given the writers’ reputation, it still impressed).

It was difficult to watch the movie as purely a cartoon given the method of filming, and Spielberg almost feels as if he’s channeling 1941’s frantic antics through the filter of an Indiana Jones adventure. So the energy is there, especially in one outstanding bravura chase sequence that happens in mostly ‘one-take’ which is an impressive visual feast, especially in the outstanding 3D presentation.

Yes, the 3D is amazing, but then given that it’s pretty much an animated feature, it’s probably a given.

Spielberg’s first foray into 3D and performance capture is a stunning piece of presentation. The exuberance of the venture behind the camera is reflected on screen, perhaps a little too much. There is a sense that Spielberg is really testing himself as to what he can do with the technology at hand (again, see that breath-taking chase sequence) and it’s a bit difficult to determine just how much influence producer Peter Jackson had in it all. Jackson also served as second unit director, this is very much a Spielberg movie through and through. The feel is there from the tone to the set-up, to the cinematography and overall presentation.

(For those who need a reference, Performance Capture is how Gollum was filmed in the Lord Of The Rings Trilogy, and it’s how the Na’vi characters were filmed for Avatar. The actors still give full performances in terms of physical and vocal presentation, only the characters on screen are rendered by computers following the actors’ performance. Serkis, who plays Captain Haddock, also played Gollum, King King and most recently Caesar in “Rise Of The Planets Of The Apes”.)

From a technical standpoint, the movie is a visual feast with solid production design, dazzling visual effects, gorgeous cinematography from Janusz Kaminski (more as director of photography than actual cinematographer) and a beautiful score from John Williams that, while may feel a little old fashioned with the jazzy tones, sets the mood of adventure very well. It practically hangs in every scene.

Only absolute die-hard Tintin fans would find fault with the movie as a whole, but if you can let yourself into the world – as strange as it may seem – it’s an exuberant roller-coaster of an adventure that harks to the best of the boy’s own adventure serials of yesteryear, the same way “Raiders of The Lost Ark” evoked that sense of adventure of a bygone cinematic time. It’s absolutely worthwhile in 3D and very possibly makes up for that last adventure flick that Spielberg churned out.

Too bad the ticket pricing makes it prohibitive to watching more than twice.

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Tower Heist [2011]

Rating ***

Stars Ben Stiller, Eddie Murphy, Tea Leoni, Michael Peña, Casey Affleck, Gabourey Sidibe, Stephen Henderson with Matthew Broderick, Judd Hirsch and Alan Alda

Directed by Brett Ratner

This has been described as a ‘poor man’s Ocean’s Eleven’ in that none of the individuals who are attempting to pull off the titular heist are professionals in any particular way. It’s suggested that they might have some skills of use, but it never really shows how all that actually comes into play to be of use.

Pretty much like this whole bit of a time-waster. That is, if you have a little time to waste and there’s nothing else particularly worth your attention, then you might consider checking this out. It’s safe, it’s entertaining, there are a few chuckles to be had, and while the cast is mostly pleasant, they don’t seem to be reaching their potential based on the movies they have been in before.

Ben Stiller in particular is extremely low key, playing it very straight to Eddie Murphy’s typically loud-mouth and (not very) abrasive felon, and it’s clear they can riff off each other well enough, but both have been far better. The same actually applies to the rest of the cast, who all seem to be coasting, but it also lends a sense of easy breeziness to the proceedings of this typical action comedy.

The plot is typically structured with a Set-Up, a Planning and The Heist itself, and given the title, you should already know what you’re in for, as well as the usual red-herrings and glitches that keep the plan from running too smoothly. If you’ve seen enough heist movies, you know what to expect, so the movie has to rest on the characters, the cast and their chemistry.

The characters are likeable enough to carry the movie, and as mentioned, there are a few moments that provide some levity. While the planning is sound enough, there are lots of holes in the logic, most of which can be simply ignored due to typical movie physics and contrivances (you’re pulling off a heist up a tower, some of which happens outside of the tower during a massive parade with big balloons… and no one looks up to notice the shenanigans?) You can’t help but perhaps laugh (or groan, depending on your preference) at the utter silliness of it all.

With a lesser cast of unknowns, this perhaps might have been something to watch and be slightly impressed, but given the cast corralled for this, you wouldn’t be blamed for expecting a touch more.

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In Time [2011]

Rating ***

Stars Justin Timberlake, Amanda Seyfried, Cillian Murphy, Vincent Kartheiser, Alex Pettyfer with Johnny Galecki, Olivia Wilde and Matt Bomer

Directed by Andrew Niccol

Director Andrew Niccol seems to be able to really run with a concept or idea even if he can’t quite get a proper fix on the story. Among his earlier ‘high-concept’ work are ‘The Truman Show’ (looking at Reality TV way ahead of its time), Gattaca (genetic engineering to create perfect human beings) and S1m0ne (virtual stars, something that’s actually taking off in Japan already) – all have interesting concepts even if the story does fall apart under scrutiny. ‘In Time’ is really that much different in that respect that we have an intriguing concept that doesn’t quite fill up the movie… perhaps a TV mini-series, maybe, but the movie does have its problems in pacing and plot.

But the concept alone does warrant your attention at the very least, and depending on your point of view (socially, politically, etc.) you might either hate it or love it, particularly given the timeliness of its release.

The basic conceit is simply that time, literally, is money in this particular world. Genetic engineering has reached a state that people are born with an allocated one year which begins counting down once they turn twenty-five. The ‘time’ is displayed on the forearm on the left, looking like an embedded digital display beneath the skin, while on the right wrist is a port of sorts (also beneath the skin) with which you can add/earn or subtract/pay time. When your time runs out, you die on the spot, so every minute counts if you’re among the ‘poor’, earning your time on a daily basis. The ‘richer’ you are, the more time you have, which means that you can potentially live well beyond your years and remain looking 25 forever.

Cities are divided into Time-Zones with the largest areas being the ghettos where the residents live on a day-by-day basis (hard labor or beg, borrow, steal) and the cities are where the rich leisurely reside. The contrast is stark. With barely enough time on hand, the poor tend to run and do things as quickly as possible with sleep barely even a luxury. The rich have the time to walk about and slowly savour meals. We don’t get to see much on the ‘middle-class’ even though we do pass through some of those time-zones.

The movie revolves around Will Salas (Justin Timberlake), one of those who live day-by-day, earning enough just to survive another day. When he meets Henry Hamilton (Matt Bomer), he learns that there is more to the world at large than just how time is shared among the population of the world. Hamilton, who has just over a century on his clock, gives his time to Salas (and in effect, kills himself) with the message, “Don’t waste my time.” Yes, there are plenty of similar uses and puns throughout the movie to stress just how important ‘time’ really is. Salas embarks on a mission to… it’s not entirely clear because there are shifts as to his purpose throughout the movie, but the general idea is simply to make the rich people pay for choking the time and life out of the poor. Kinda like what’s going on with the economy these days, so did Niccol foresee what was coming or was it just pure luck that similarities are there for comparison? Given the state of the world and the whole “Occupy Wall Street” movement, it’s hard to ignore the parallels.

So, yes, given what Will carries out through the movie, there’s actually more than enough ideas to fill a TV series, or at least, a mini-series. The movie, however, takes a particular path, forces some kind of romance between WIll and Sylvia Weis (Amanda Seyfried), the daughter of his primary target, Phillipe Weis (Vincent Kartheiser). Then there’s the Timekeeper agent, Raymond Leon (Cillian Murphy) who is chasing Will because Will is upsetting the balance of time distribution. The nature of these Timeagents is also intriguing, and Murphy brings some serious gravitas to the role, almost mirroring Tommy Lee Jones US Marshall Sam Gerard in ‘The Fugitive’ – that dogged single mindedness to do the job at hand regardless of whether the perpetrator is in the right or in the wrong. Murphy anchors the movie and steals every scene he gets with just about the best written role in the whole movie.

Also of note in terms of performance is Alex Pettyfer (‘I Am Number Four’, ‘Beastly’) who is suddenly a revelation as the MinuteMan (or Gangster, if you prefer), Fortis. I honestly did not recognise him at all (not that I was all that taken by his previous screen roles, none of which are of any note). Pettyfer exudes the nastiness and danger of his character that whenever he’s on screen, he’s simply magnetic. It would have been interesting to see Fortis go up against Leon, but it didn’t happen within the movie.

There are some pacing problems, which is ironic given the conceit, and a few plot holes that might have been served better in a longer format (too many ideas, not enough time to explore them), but instead, we’re settling for the most action driven plot. In that regard, it delivers a fair piece of entertainment that does have some thrilling moments. Timberlake makes for a decent action hero and delivers a credible performance for the most part. His character could easily be annoying and grating, but Timberlake manages to make him sympathetic enough.

In all, the movie delivers some food for thought, presents an intriguing concept but lacks proper development. While we are made aware at certain points just how much time a particular person has, it has problems matching up the ticking clocks with the action that flows on screen (unless everyone is more than an Olympic class runner or the time-zones are much smaller than they actually seem). The limitations of production do scream out at some obvious points as well, but the performances more than make up for the pitfalls. The economic running time (safely under two hours) also works in favour of the movie, but you probably will wish that there was more to it all.

Perhaps, if Niccol is willing, we just might get a mini-series after all, in time…

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What’s Your Number? [2011]

Rating ***

Stars Anna Faris, Chris Evans, Ari Gaynor, Blythe Danner, Ed Begley Jr. with Zachery Quinto, Martin Freeman, Chris Pratt and Joel McHale

Directed by Mark Mylod

The Rom-Com genre hasn’t really had anything outstanding of late and it’s mostly down to the formula of such a movie. It’s success usually depends on is the chemistry of the stars and, more often, the likability of the leads. It wouldn’t matter too much if it’s a good or great if the lead stars manage to pull in the viewers, particularly the leading lady. Then again, the audience who used to follow the likes of Julia Roberts or Meg Ryan in these movies have long since moved on, leaving the field to stars such as Kristen Bell, Amanda Seyfried or, in this case, Anna Faris.

For most viewers, Faris is more recognised for her parts in the Scary Movie series of parody films, or from the final season of Friends (her babies was adopted by Monica and Chandler). Here, she’s Ally Darling who finds out that she’s apparently slept with twice the national average of men that normal women would sleep with before settling down. She decides to swear off sex until she can find her Mr. Right among the list of men she has already slept with. Aiding her in her quest is her philandering neighbour, Colin (Chris Evans) who occasionally hides out in her apartment when he’s trying to avoid those awkward mornings with the woman he’s slept with. On the side story is Ally’s sister, Daisy (Ari Gaynor), who’s about to get married while dealing with an overbearing mother (Blythe Danner).

Faris and Evans make a charismatic couple with decent easy-going chemistry, giving the movie a nice easy-going feel for its reasonable running time. The movie practically breezes by aided by some genuinely humorous moments, by a very game Faris and a charming Evans.

There really is nothing more to it than that, and it’s the kind of movie that you might while away some lazy Saturday afternoon. Above average light entertainment to while the time away and not be too disappointed by the proceedings. Be mindful that this is an R-rated film with some language and quite a bit of skin.

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Real Steel [2011]

Rating ***1/2

Stars Hugh Jackman, Dakota Goyo, Evangeline Lilly, Anthony Mackie, Kevin Durand, Hope Davis with Karl Yune, Olga Fonda and James Rebhorn

Directed by Shawn Levy

This movie is pretty much what you’d expect, and a bit of what you might not expect. It has been called “Rocky” with robots, or “The Champ” meets Rock ’em Sock ’em, and while there may be some similarities, “Real Steel” does manage to blaze its own path, even if it’s a well-trod path.

Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) is a proud fighter who’s had a severe run of bad luck. It’s his pride that causes him to make stupid choices and blinds him to the obvious. Things don’t get any easier when he learns that he has to take care of his 11-year old son, Max (Dakota Goyo), while trying to put together a fighting robot in order to get back into the game. It’s during a night of scavenging for parts when Max finds a buried sparring robot and decides to get into the world of robot fighting himself, with a little help from the reluctant Charlie.

What follows is a rather well-made movie about a man discovering the son he never bother to know, and in doing so discover himself in more ways than the obvious. Jackman delivers a very charismatic performance that you’d forgive the arrogant prick that Charlie is in the early half and root for his redemption in time for the expected climatic fight. Yes, it’s formulaic, but it works well enough that you would be cheering by the end, and if you’re feeling energetic enough, you might want to join Charlie in shadow boxing. The young Goyo does come across as typically annoying at first, but the writers and director do give him time to develop as a sympathetic character and have you cheering for him as well. You can see how and why Charlie would end up bonding with his son. The rest of the characters feel a touch under-developed with so much focus on Charlie and Max.

Then there are the robots.
There is a combination of physical and digital effects going on, enough to give the robots a real sense of weight and physicality, and having the stars physically interact with them help in making them believable. The relationship between Max and his robot, Atom, makes the robot so empathetic (and those eyes) that you swear there’s something going on in that robot’s head. If only it could be so for some of the other characters.

Overall, the structure works and the stars drive the plot well enough that it builds up nicely to the incredibly rousing finale. It might be a little cliche in some respects, but this is “Rocky” for this generation who probably never saw the movies mentioned earlier. Throw in the robots, and you’ve got the kid in all of us cheering along with the kids in the audience.

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The Three Musketeers [2011 3D]

Rating ***

Stars Logan Lerman, Ray Stevenson, Matthew MacFadyen, Luke Evans, Juno Temple, Gabriella WIlde, James Corden, Carsten Norgaard, Freddie Fox with Mads Mikkelsen, Orlando Bloom and Chrsitpoh Waltz

Directed by Paul WS Anderson

Where do we start with yet another Three Musketeers movie? Do we compare it to its ilk (primarily the 1973 and 1993 versions, or some of us might go all the way back to early cinema) or do we take it on its own since it’s directed by Paul WS Anderson, whose recent movies are practically critic-proof (Resident Evil, Death Race)? Yes, the Musketeers have had a long and varied cinematic history, so why would we need another version?
And in 3D?

Well, why not?
Similarities to previous incarnations aside, this new version of The Three Musketeers still manages to hang onto the fun exuberance of the swashbuckling adventure, presenting a rather epic adventure of scope, if it’s also lacking a little in the sweeping grandeur, i.e., we’re a little short on the live extras so we won’t be having any large scale brawling between hundreds of musketeers and the cardinal’s guards. The money went into some truly spectacular effects and nicely shot duals as well as the production design, which is sumptuous in 3D, especially the Cardinal’s personal office.

There’s a prologue that’s a little different from other versions as well, and it nicely establishes the camaraderie of Athos (Matthew MacFadyen), Porthos (Ray Stevenson) and Aramis (Luke Evans) as well as their relationship to Milady deWinter (Milla Jovovich) and the Duke of Buckingham (Orlando Bloom, enjoying his moustache twirling hijinks). Some may cry foul at this, but it works within the context of this movie. The obvious deviations are those that can be seen in the trailers (airships?) although the plot might be similar to the 1973 version (The Queen’s Necklace being the MacGuffin). Then there are the action scenes that may seem as if one Zack Snyder may have taken control of the reins for a moment.

A problem I’ve usually encountered before is in the casting of D’Artangan, and while Logan Lerman (last see widely as Percy Jackson) seems young enough, it almost feels as if he’s in the wrong movie with his over-confident smirk, almost as if he’s winking at the audience that he can’t believe he’s playing with sword in an epic adventure. Then again, it is in the nature of the character to be brash, head-strong and occasionally annoying. The three main titular heroes themselves fit their roles much better with Stevenson being a joy as Porthos (as was Oliver Platt and Frank Finlay before in the same role), while MacFadyen is appropriately brooding and sullen, and Evans is charming as scholarly Aramis.

The roles of the villains are more entertaining with the bigger stars filling those robes, particularly Christoph Waltz as head baddie, Cardinal Richelieu, who just oozes that sinister charm that was evident in “Inglorious Basterds” and missing in “The Green Hornet”. Despite having some truly lovely scenery for him to chew on, he manages to keep it restrained and cool, like a Machiavellian plotter. Then there are his henchmen in Milday deWinter and the visually impaired Rochefort (Mads Mikkelsen, in yet another visually impaired role), who has his own henchman in Jussac (Carsten Norgaard) who finally gets a much bigger role than in previous versions. Then there’s Bloom as Buckingham who does appear to relish being able to play the bad guy, although we may have to wait for a sequel for him to really let loose.

Aside from Milady, the other ladies (Queen Anne and Constance) are sadly lacking in character or even presence. This is very much boy’s adventure with most of the romance yanked out in favour of spectacle and fun.

As director, Anderson manages to keep things visually interesting although he doesn’t play with the 3D eye-poking as much as he did in “Resident Evil: Afterlife” and it’s a bit of a relief. There are other nicely shot 3D moments in any case, especially with the airships (like a pirate adventure, except in the skies). The sword fights are exuberant and fun, nicely choreographed and, in one crucial confrontation, kept to one fight instead of cutting back and forth across various fights. Anderson makes the film with the intention to entertain, so yes, there are massive holes in some of the logic — remember to check you brains at the door.

Still, it is a rollicking good time to be had and it is better than one might expect. Adventure and fun for its own sake, logic takes a step back, and by the end, you know that Anderson and Jovovich have another franchise on their hands (they are currently working on Resident Evil 5) that might take even more liberties with the original text. With the varied history of The Musketeers in cinema, there are always people who are going to complain one way or another, especially with Anderson at the helm. But take it as it is, and it’s an excellent diversion that’s just a little lacking and could have been much grander.

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Nasi Lemak 2.0

Rating ***

Stars Namewee, Karen Kong, Adibah Noor, Dennis Lau with appearances by David Arumugam, Afdlin Shauki, Nadine Ann Thomas, Reshmonu and Patrick Teoh

Directed by Wee Meng Chee (Namewee)

This is one of those “Malaysian” films that truly shows the talent of our local filmmakers as being capable of competing on an international level, but is not entirely recognised as a Malaysian film because it doesn’t have the backing of the National Film Company (FINAS). Shame really, because this is a perfect example of an answer to the question, “What is Malaysia?”

It takes a while to get going, the first act being devoted to a particular set-up of Huang (Namewee), a chef who takes full pride in his pure Chinese cooking but is unable to cater to the local tastes. After losing his restaurant, he reluctantly agrees to helping Xiao K (Karen Kong) save her father’s restaurant by competing in a cooking duel against his cooking school rival (Dennis Lau). In desperation, Huang needs to find something different, and that’s when the movie really takes off.

In seeking help from a local Nasi Lemak hawker lady (Adibah Noor), Huang and Xiao K are sent on a road trip to discover just what makes Nasi Lemak so special, and in doing so, discover the essence of Malaysia itself.

Namewee gained some notoriety for being outspoken and controversial, speaking out his mind on the state of the country and the government, ministries, or even certain local companies, mostly through songs and music videos. As a director and co-writer of this film, he delivers better than one might expect with typically subtle (and some not so subtle) digs at various issues ranging from culture, race, illegal immigrants, party politics, education, history, government and of course, food – which is what truly binds all Malaysians together.

In his direction, there is a slight sense of this being a bit of a vanity project in the first act, but once the road-trip kicks in, the focus is truly on Malaysians as a people and a culture. The choice of language use is deliberate with the film being mostly in Mandarin and Cantonese (note the names of certain characters), there are also uses of other Chinese dialects, Malay, Tamil and typical Manglish which is accompanied by equally horrendous subtitles used to great effect. Don’t worry, the normal subtitles for all the languages are also there.

As a movie, it’s a very mixed bag, much like the titular Nasi Lemak. The various songs that are peppered throughout and the occasional fantasy sequences also might confuse some viewers as to just what they are watching, but the spirit and intention is undeniable. It’s not a great film, but it is a good film that reflects what Malaysia is, how the various races do come together and, in its own unique way, integrate with one another.

Trailer here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3QyRzSKuwkY

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Killer Elite [2011]

Rating ***

Stars Jason Statham, Clive Owen, Dominic Purcell, Aden Young, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje with Yvonne Strahovski and Robert DeNiro

Directed by Gary McKendry

This is a case where the trailer for the movie and the movie itself were at odds with each other, practically loggerheads. There was the idea that a showdown between action king Jason Statham and the occasionally cool action-star-wannabe Clive Owen (see BMW’s “The Hire”, “Shoot ‘Em Up”) would be a highlight where two professional killers would be going up against each other. Try as it might, it doesn’t even reach the heights of a Bourne showdown.

Supposedly based on true events in the 80s (although the opening text might suggest it could be today’s environment), Killer Elite revolves around an ex-mercenary (Statham) who takes on one last job to save his mentor (an underused and seemingly wasted Robert DeNiro, better seen in “Ronin”) which requires him to take out three ex-SAS operatives in the middle of London. A clandestine group of ex-SAS soldiers catch wind of someone looking into their past and they assign Owen’s character, an ex-SAS operative as well, to look into the issue and find out what exactly is going on.

It could have been a taut cat-and-mouse thriller following the likes of John LeCarre or even Frederick Forsyth, but instead, director Gary McKendry seems to opt for the straight-forward bluster of a men-on-a-mission auctioneer. Granted there are some set-pieces that work well in terms of the action, but Statham’s guilt-ridden ex-merc feels overused and cliche. The movie itself also feels out of its time and it’s not entirely above saving given a tighter script and a little imaginative action choreography and direction. Comparatively, Statham had better action scenes in “The Mechanic” earlier this year, even if both movies are on par with each other where storytelling and pacing are concerned.

Heck, “Strike Back” (Sky and Cinemax production) has better storytelling and action sequences on a much lower budget, so “Killer Elite” feels like it’s coming to the game a little late.

It’s not entirely a disappointment, but it’s not as good as it could have been. Add to that the rather flashy and enticing trailer, and expectations might be dashed just a tad. Still, it is above average and worthy of some cinematic screening instead of being direct-to-DVD fodder it might have been with lesser known stars.

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Warrior [2011]

Rating ****

Stars Joel Edgerton, Tom Hardy, Jennifer Morrison with Frank Grillo, Kevin Dunn and Nick Nolte

Directed by Gavin O’Conner

This is a movie that deserves a little more love, given the rather empty cinema I was in while watching this. This is what one might call a ‘proper movie’ in that it takes its time to build up the characters and their motives before the brutal pounding of the second half pulls every emotion you invest in to the surface. Movies like this unfortunately fall into that nether region where it has potential appeal and yet it’s not quite Oscar bait, although it might be deserving of some attention in both camps.

The movie starts quietly with Tommy (Tom Hardy) returning home and catching up with his pop, Paddy Conlon (Nick Nolte). The most we can gather is that this is one very estranged family that was split apart by pop’s alcoholic and abusive past. Tommy’s older brother, Brendan (Joel Edgerton) had long since left and settled into family life, teaching physics at a high school. What ties the three men together is the fight. Paddy had coached Tommy to be a wrestling champion from a very early age and Brendan found his own way into becoming a UFC fighter before he became a teacher.

The movie focusses more on Brendan and his financial problems that leads him back into the world of cage fights while Tommy manages to wrangle his father into coaching him again. While Brendan’s motives are clear, Tommy keeps things close and we don’t really learn his motives until much later. While on separate paths, both brothers (obviously) end up on a collision course that dominates the second half of the movie.

So, yes — this is a sports movie with MMA being the sport in question. And with the sports movie genre in mind, there is, of course, the training montage which is actually quite brilliantly done with split-screen editing and overlapping floating frames adding in the build-up to the big fight, scored triumphantly by Mark Isham while highlighting a potential threat in the Russian fighter, Koba (Kurt Angle). The fight scenes themselves are brutal which should appeal nicely to MMA fans or even action fans. The sport itself is incidental to the drama that unfolds (it could have been any sport).

The direction and editing manages to streamline everything so that it never feels bloated, giving just enough to make its mark as something different from the Rocky series (despite its similar setting) or the other sports /dramas such as The Fighter or The Wrestler, a pair of movies that got a little close to being maudlin for my tastes. While Warrior may thread close in one pivotal scene, it doesn’t quite plumb the depths of mawkishness.

Joel Edgerton brings heart and soul to his character, and he is the core of the movie. There is more focus on him and his family life as well as their problems, but it never descends completely into the soppiness one might expect. The scenes between him and Jennifer Morrison, who plays his wife Tess, ring true as they try to get a grip on their spiralling situation. Tom Hardy is a little more reserved playing a rather closed character who is keeping things hidden. It works well and you can sense the danger and conflicts within him. Nick Nolte fits his role easily and does incredibly well in what looks like a tailor-made role. The performances across the board are very good, even in the supporting turns, but the three leads hold everything together extremely well which gives the movie that extra punch in the dramatic stakes.

Overall, this is a solid dramatic movie that utilises its action scenes well in order to complement and drive the dramatic plot. The rock-solid performances deserve attention and the stars do well in bringing their characters to life. Tom Hardy should be a much bigger star by now and having this movie sandwiched between two major blockbusters (Inception before, The Dark Knight Rises next) can only bring more recognition to this movie.

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Contagion [2011]

Rating ***

Stars Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne, Kate Winslet, Marion Cotillard, Jude Law, with Gwyneth Paltrow, Sanaa Lathan, Elliot Gould, Larry Clarke, Jennifer Ehle and Enrico Colantoni

Directed by Steven Soderbergh

First impressions would be this is a remake of “Outbreak” on a global scale, but that’s really not even close. Sure it involves a mysterious viral outbreak and lots of famous looking actors working to try figure things out, find a cure and save a lot of people.

Director Steven Soderbergh revisits “Traffic” and handles everything economically to a point that most of the stars barely share a scene and the story itself spans the globe and various organisations (CDC, WHO, Homeland Security) as well as the personal lives of certain characters. The focus on the characters is perfunctory with Damon serving as the everyman perspective at the results of the outbreak’s effect on society. Along the way, we get to learn about how the virus came to be and how it spreads not to mention how the process of tackling a virus and finding a vaccine is carried out. Yes, it does get fairly technical at some points, but the edit is slick and the pace carries the movie along at a decent clip that you never really feel overwhelmed or bored.

The stars deliver their lines with the same workmanlike professionalism you’d expect from cast of this magnitude while everyone else do manage to step up to the material and make it a little better than you’d expect from the typical made-for-TV/cable fodder. The characters are all reacting to the situation which, in the end, isn’t really material for the kind of conflict that drove “Outbreak” to proper thriller heights. “Contagion” strives for real-world realism and Soderbergh gives it that touch of realism, enough to probably make you wary of every cough or sneeze you might hear in the cinema and then worry about what you might be touching around you. That’s the kind of scare that “Contagion” tires to put in you, even dredging up the recent memory of the SARS outbreak scare (which might make this movie a couple of years too late)

Otherwise, this is an effective movie given what it’s trying to do with the material at hand. In a word, the movie is… solid. It delivers, but it leaves us wanting, guessing that perhaps if Soderbergh had a little more to work with, it might have been a truly effective movie but at a much longer running time.

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Review Revenge Duo – Conan [2011] & Colombiana [2011]

Again, we stumble across two movie with similar stories even if they are worlds apart. Sure, their stories are quite different even if they are both essentially revenge flicks where our protagonists are anti-heroes seeking the one responsible for the death of their parents. One slinks through modern day cities in a catsuit while the other hacks his way through several lands and getting positively medieval.

So, this is how the summer ends – with lots of blood and bang.

Conan the Barbarian [2011]  **1/2
Stars Jason Momoa, Stephan Lang, Rachel Nichols, Rose McGowan and Ron Perlman

Directed by Marcus Nispel

Colombiana [2011] **1/2
Stars Zoe Saldana, Lennie James, Jordi Molla, Beto Benites with Michael Vartan and Cliff Curtis

Directed by Olivier Megaton

Early on in each movie, we see the potential of our lead characters as children when confronted by their enemies. Young Conan (Leo Howard) is seen as tough and resourceful against his rather deadly opponents while young Cataleya (an impressive Amandla Stenberg) is seen as wily and equally resourceful as she escapes from her would-be killers. Both grow up with revenge on their minds, shaped by the world around them. So, Conan (a very impressive Jason Momoa) is a musclebound sword-wielding pirate of the Hyborian Age in search of Khalar Zym (Stephan Lang) and his sorceress daughter Marique (Rose McGowan), while Cataleya (Zoe Saldana) is a slinky assassin in search of Don Luis (Beto Benites) and his henchman, Marco (Jordi Molla).

Almost beat for beat, the stories hit their points where action is concerned. When we first catch up with Conan or Cataleya as adults, it’s to see them in action before moving into the story proper. Both also suffer from pretty much the same problem in telling an origin story in that the motives of each character is kept fairly simple as to not intrude too much on the action. Romantic foils are introduced, but ultimately serve no real purpose other than to conveniently get our hero/heroine into trouble.

So, story-wise, it’s pretty much a no-brainer with the predictability factor running off the chart and the ending telegraphed way in advance. If you didn’t see it coming, you’ve obviously not watched a lot of movies or read a lot of books / comics. Being cinematic releases, it’s all about the action and that’s where they differ.

Taking full benefit of its R rating, Conan is relatively bloody and a little gory. Blood splatters a little too liberally (although not too liberally as in, say, Spartacus: Blood and Sand) with every cut of the blade that it looks very watered down. Aside from a sliced off nose and a few hacked limbs, the gore is fairly minimal. What really counts is more Momoa’s portrayal of Conan. While he is imposing, he doesn’t have the stiffness that permeated through Arnold Schwarzenegger’s somewhat lumbering performance almost 30 years ago. This Conan is a little more flexible be it in movement, swinging the massive sword (probably made of much lighter materials these days) or facing off against his enemies. It’s hare to even imagine Schwarzenegger pulling most of the moves on display here, even in his prime. With this back-story out of the way, Momoa could easily do another Conan and simply focus on the action and maybe a little more of the supernatural stuff. We only have some sand-warriors and a woeful water creature that may have been some kind of squid, but we barely see anything more beyond they few tentacles. Lots of room for improvements here.

Coming from Luc Besson’s Digital Factory, Colombiana’s action is a little more stylish but with more firepower (and overkill in some scenes), but I suppose that’s to be expected from the makers of such fare like “The Transporter” series, “Taken”, “From Paris With Love”, “District 13”, the “Taxi” series, etc. Of course, you could probably take the cue from a director who chose “Megaton” for a name. This is Zoe Saldana’s movie though form the moment she appears on screen. She gives the movie a little more gravitas than it really deserves while delivering the action with a physicality that is impressive and rather unique. One would hope that Anne Hathaway is paying attention on how to move like a cat, because Saldana slinks about very convincingly, before going all out in the final blowout.

Ultimately, this is all for action fans, although fans of Conan might be happy with Momoa (fans of Schwarzenegger’s Conan, maybe not so much). Some might find Colombiana to be something of a spiritual follow-up to Besson’s “Leon”. Others might not really care as a lot of time has passed between these movies and their predecessors. Take you pick – manly barbarian or female empowerment – but both are pretty testosterone laden action flicks, and if you’re in the mood, why not do a  double feature.

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Cars 2 [2011]

Rating: ***

Stars (vocally) Michael Caine, Emily Mortimer, Larry The Cable Guy, Owen Wilson, John Turturro, Thomas Kretschmann with Bruce Campbell and a host of cameos

Directed by John Lasseter and Brad Lewis

The first Cars movie is a bit of a strange beast for me. It’s not a movie I particularly like to start watching, but I rather do enjoy the middle portion, particularly once we’re past the Mater hijinks, that leads to the end. The design of the world is fairly impressive because you have to create a somewhat functional world where the cars are the main population. It’s not like they have hands to operate things — a conceit they expanded in this sequel (“Everything’s voice activated now.”)

So, yeh, not a particularly big fan of Mater (Larry The Cable Guy), which might have made watching Cars 2 a bit of a turn-off considering he’s a little more front and centre while Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) is gently nudged into the background for the most part. Thankfully, most of the hijinks are downplayed in favour of a different kind of, well, hijinks — the espionage kind. This take the original, which was more of a self-discovery journey drama with comedy bits, and thrust it into more of an action comedy with the cars doing exactly what you like to see cars generally do — chase scenes.

The movie opens with an impressive set-piece as Finn McMissile (an excellent Michael Caine) infiltrates an enemy’s lair on the high seas. McMissile is an Aston Martin decked out with all the gadgets you’d expect a spy car to have and it’s a blast watching the action in this opening. Definitely miles and miles away from the first movie, to which we briefly return only to set McQueen, Mater and several other Radiator Spring denizens on a world spanning, country hopping Grand Prix that coincidentally ties into McMissile’s mission.

So this is essentially a spy movie with the characters from the first movie, particularly Mater who gets mistaken for an American spy, getting caught up with the globe hopping shenanigans. Not quite Pixar’s finest, but entertaining nonetheless.

Props have to be given to the design team for creating the world of Cars 2 beyond the typical racetrack and desert town locale of the original. It is a world that is very rich in its detail. You can even spot (a Cars version of) Gusteau’s restaurant (from Ratatouille) during the Paris scenes.

Again, it’s not something that’s to appeal to you that much if you didn’t care for the first movie, and if you find it really problematic that the characters ‘perform’ the way they do. Kids will love it, for sure, and adults who accompany the kids may find something to enjoy as well

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Spy Kids: All The Time In The World [2011]

Rating: **1/2

Stars Jessica Alba, Rowan Blanchard, Mason Cook, Jeremy Piven, Joel McHale with Alexa Vega, Daryl Sabara and Ricky Gervais

Directed by Robert Rodriguez

Just before 3D became so popular again, director Robert Rodriguez churned out Spy Kids 3D: Game Over. We didn’t get a proper 3D screening and instead had to bear with the eye-straining, headache inducing red/blue anaglyph. Despite that, some of the 3D effects did work rather well. After churning* out the rather violent (and adult) Machete movie, Rodriguez has decided to unwind with yet another kiddie flick with which to stretch his imagination and practice those whacky CGI effects. Apparently 3D isn’t enough as he resurrects another old cinematic gimmick — the scratch and sniff card — for a 4D cinematic adventure.

And again, it doesn’t quite live up to expectations. Maybe there was some defect in the card’s production, but evidently, from selected reviews around the web, we all seemed to have cards that smelled of fruity bubblegum candy and cardboard, having spared the scents of slimy green cheese and baby farts. It wasn’t that easy to actually rub those numbers in the dark (when prompted on screen), you could be holding the car upside down and not know it – not that it made any difference. The 3D was amazing tho, and utterly fun to watch.

The fourth entry into the Spy Kids franchise is years away from the original, with the original ‘kids’, Carmen (Alexa Vega) and Juni (Daryl Sabara), putting in appearances, and you realise just how much they’ve grown up. So new kids are brought in, and the family connection is still there with Jessica Alba’s Marissa Cortez being Carmen and Juni’s aunt. Even Uncle Machete (still Danny Trejo) puts in a very brief blink-and-you’ll-miss-him cameo.

The theme this time is all about time, and it’s driven home with a sledgehammer pounding away the dialogue and the puns. It’s really not very much different from the first movie and it’s something that kids will pick up on even as they enjoy the 3D and the onscreen hijinks (a very pregnant Marissa still doing her spy job as she’s about to pop being the opening gambit).

Inane yet entertaining, but not any better than the previous entry and not living up to the utter magnificence of The Island Of Lost Dreams (my favourite entry in this franchise, which also gets a cameo). One strictly for the kids.

*yes, I use ‘churning’ because most of Rodriguez movies are pretty much his home movies, done for the fun of it at his whim and fancy with no studio interference. He’s involved in almost every aspect of the movie from writing, directing, effects, editing and even music. Each movie pretty much pays for the next.
It’s pretty much the same with Luc Besson’s Digital Factory and the movies it churns out.

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Cowboys & Aliens [2011]

Rating ***

Stars Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Olivia Wilde, Sam Rockwell with Clancy Brown, Paul Dano, Noah RInger, Adam Beach and Walton Goggins.

Directed by Jon Favreau

Despite the title, this is very much a Western to the core, even in structure. The Aliens in the title are nothing more than a MacGuffin, barely a plot point at that. It’s simply by being in the movie, by being the antagonistic force, does the movie dip its dusty Western cow-poke toes into the Sci-Fi genre.

While director Jon Favreau does deliver an entertaining romp, complete with some spectacle courtesy of the occasional alien attack, the story itself does occasionally struggle with its high concept of pitting the locals against a far superior and technologically advanced enemy. The basic core isn’t unlike the taming of the west, with the Red Indians having to face the supposedly advanced Whites who were invading into their lands, or perhaps when the Spanish armada arrived in South America.

At it’s basic idea, we have a bunch of disparate, if typical, individuals who band together to track down the Aliens who have raided their town and kidnaped some of the townsfolk. If it were a regular Western, they’d be tracking a bunch of bandits. In the lead of the pack, we have our mysterious hero (Daniel Craig) and a former army colonel (Harrison Ford, at his grumpiest best in a long while) who have to bear an antagonistic relationship while on the mission. Following them are a preacher (Clancy Brown), a bartender (Sam Rockwell), a dame with a secret (Olivia Wilde) and a kid (Noah Ringer) whose grandfather (the town’s sheriff) was taken by the Aliens, and helping them to track the Aliens is a native (Adam Beach) who works for Ford’s Colonel. On the trail, we get to know more about the characters, but in broad strokes. ‘Unforgiven’ this ain’t, neither is it ‘True Grit’. It’s not deep on characters.

Still, most of the hallmarks are there from the sweeping vista to the gunfights; from canyon shootouts to bar fights, and a rather unusual calvary of mostly disposable faces. The stars themselves commit to the roles and manage to convince at playing cowboys. Wilde also manages to keep up with the boys and her character is more than just a damsel with a gun, which is usually what you’d get in these movies.

While the Aliens themselves are fairly decent from a design perspective, a rocking and rousing score (not too Western though) from Harry Gregson-Williams manages to keep things from settling too much. The pace hardly slacks and the character beats work well within the movie, the action set-pieces are exciting and it’s a wholly enjoyable movie… provided you’re not expecting a Sci-Fi adventure flick.

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Rise of The Planet of The Apes [2011]

Rating ****

Stars James Franco, Andy Serkis, Freida Pinto, John Lithgow, David Oyelowo, Tyler Labine, Tom Felton and Brian Cox

Directed by Rupert Wyatt

By today’s standards, the original Planet of The Apes (1968) might be considered glacially paced and perhaps even boring with a hint of intelligence in the story. I doubt many kids today could even get past the first half hour without getting antsy. However, the movie remains a classic, a product of its time and a personal favourite in my collection. It spawned sequels, a short lived TV series and that rather pointless and fairly disastrous ‘remaining’ in 2001 which many fans would rather just forget.

This new entry into the franchise is part reboot and part prequel. The story of Caesar growing to become the leader of the apes and taking over the planet had been tackled before (Conquest of The Planet of The Apes, Battle for The Planet Of The Apes and admittedly, I’ve never seen either film in its entirety), but this new version (if you need the plot, it’s there in the title) does an impressive take with its intelligent story and some powerful performances courtesy of Andy Serkis and effects house, Weta Digital.

Like a good science fiction story, the movie tackles several issues in our current world and takes it beyond while remaining within the realm of possibility. This includes the constant search for medical miracle cures and animal testing being the starting point, and while the cure for Alzheimer’s has been used to enhance an animals ability before (see Deep Blue Sea, 1999 – couldn’t help but draw some similarities), it also makes the idea plausible here. The newer element is that the cure isn’t some chemical mix, it’s viral. Weaving into the background of the story are also elements that tie this movie to the original 1968 classic (note the three astronauts who take off in the Icarus and are later reported lost), not to mention the various homage. Classic lines are quoted, the most famous of which leads to a most spectacular moment.

While most of the actors do admirable work for the most part, the star of the show is Andy Serkis, aided by Weta Digital, for bringing an incredible performance as Caesar that makes him incredibly sympathetic, so much so that the full arc of Caesar’s story truly takes centre stage, pushing most of the human performances into the background, save one. John Lithgow’s performance as Charlie is understated but incredibly effective in portraying a man suffering from Alzheimer’s, given a respite and then succumbing to the disease again. His interactions with Caesar are touching (a breakfast scene in particular) and Lithgow pulls some great moments with James Franco, who plays Will (Charlie’s son).

Franco does as best as he can and does have some great moments given that the movie pushes the story along at a fairly brisk clip coming in at a run time of just over 100 minutes. Given the time span of the story (I estimated about eight to ten years, given the way Caesar grows – which is also documented by Will, and on screen captions), the human characters barely change at all. The impression is that those years seem to be barely weeks in human terms as evidenced by a few main characters particularly those portrayed by Franco, Lithgow, David Oyelowo (as Will’s boss) and Tyler Labine (as Will’s animal wrangler in the labs). Oyelowo’s character is a bit of a cliche and Freida Pinto is pretty much window dressing. Brian Cox does what he can with his rather small role as the owner of an animal shelter while Tom Felton can’t seem to shake the spectre of Draco Malfoy. He gets the two classic lines and barely manages to get them past his struggling accent (and thank goodness for that spectacular moment that saves the scene).

Director Rupert Wyatt and his writers, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, do manage to wrangle an impressive, entertaining and wholly enjoyable story and throw it on the big screen. There are some incredible visual moments and well as intelligent story ticks which does make this a worthy entry to the franchise and possibly reviving it. The focus of the story is rightfully on Caesar and Serkis delivers on all counts. It’s worthy of a best actor nomination for sure, but how do they justify it? What kind of award can they come up for this or will they create a whole new category? We’ll have to wait and see. Weta Digital definitely deserves props for all the apes, not just Caesar, who all have very distinctive looks and mannerisms. The primary apes each do have specific personalities and you will barely be second guessing just which ape is doing what.

Ultimately, this is pure summer entertainment and a surprisingly good one at that. Direction and effects work best with the story being impressive for the most part (a few holes) and the human performances being mostly decent. It does have a few weak points but you would tend to forgive it because Caesar will beat you to a pulp if you don’t.

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Captain America: The First Avenger [2011]

Rating ***1/2

Stars Chris Evans, Tommy Lee Jones, Hugo Weaving, Hayley Atwell, Dominic Cooper, Sebastian Shaw, Toby Jones with Neal McDonough and Stanley Tucci

Directed by Joe Johnston

Thankfully, this isn’t so much a gung-ho/rah-rah-go-America movie despite the titular character. Instead, it’s very much a rollicking adventure about a man who represents the best qualities of being a hero and he just happens to be called Captain America (over at the Distinguished Competition, he’d be called Superman). The qualities embodied in one Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is the key element in the movie, so much so that before he is transformed from “skinny Steve” into the Super Soldier, it is emphasised that it is those very qualities that got him chosen for the project and its the very same qualities that he should hold on to. It really has nothing to do with being an American, but being a decent human being.

Set mostly in World War II (it opens in present day with the discovery of Cap’s shield), the movie stays quite close to the comic-book origins (than say Iron Man or even Hulk), but does incredibly well to establish a solid screen persona for Cap. Steve Rogers isn’t out to simply get into a war and kill Nazis, and he isn’t doing it for his country per se. His motives are slightly different and it is this that grabs the attention of Dr. Erskine (Stanley Tucci, excellent as always) who fast-tracks Steve into the Super Soldier program. This is despite the consternation of Colonel Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones), who oversees the program with Agent Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell). Assisting in the program is one Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper), the father of Tony Stark a.k.a. Iron Man.

Once the transformation into the Super Soldier occurs, the movie moves a gear up and heads into full blown action movie, including an impressive montage of Cap in action with his team of soldiers (with ‘Dum-Dum’ Dugan (Neal McDonough) in the mix, you’d think they’re the Howling Commandos minus the original Nick Fury, but the name never crops up) as they battle to take down Johann Schmidt a.k.a. The Red Skull (Hugo Weaving).

With the ensemble cast putting in commendable performances for the most part, it’s Chris Evans who holds the movie together with his earnestness and charm. The performance as ‘Skinny Steve’ – accomplished by taking Evans’ performance and digitally shrinking his form, no face replacement here despite what you may have heard or read, although a body double was used for establishing and far shots – is mostly impressive and effective enough to buy into the charm of the character before the transformation. Establishing Steve Rogers as a character takes up quite a chunk of the early part of the movie and it also goes to show how and why other characters like Phillips and Carter would endear themselves to him. The effects may seem a little dodgy at first, but the performance does ring true – and it works more than it fails.

The shorter end of the stick is Hugo Weaving’s portrayal of Schmidt. While the Red Skull is Cap’s greatest nemesis, it was never really an easy character to bring to the screen because of his singular obsession. The Skull is rather one-note and Weaving doesn’t really have much to go on in that area. While there is a sense of menace oozing in the performance, it doesn’t quite convince, unlike Tom Hiddleston’s Loki in “Thor”.

Johnston does incredibly well in capturing the nostalgic feel of the era in the movie (something he’s handled before in another comic-book adaptation, “The Rocketeer”) but is no slouch when it comes to the characters or the action scenes. Writers Christopher Markus and Stephan McFeely (with some doctoring by Joss Whedon) pulled together a tight story leaving a little fat to be noticed (the USO bit does go a little too long), but a lot of elements were thrown in that true blue comic fans will appreciate (including certain things at the World Fair early in the movie). The cinematography by Shelly Johnson is beautiful and the score by Alan Silvestri is suitably rousing if leaning a little to the patriotic (American), but it’s among his better work of late (GI Joe, The A-Team, anyone?)

With “Thor” earlier this year and now “Captain America: The First Avenger”, Marvel Studios have pulled off an impressive presentation of pairing these two into a double feature of sorts. “Thor” does quite a bit of set-up and in the post credits sequence, informs on “Captain America” (the object presented at the end) while “Captain America” reinforces certain aspects that were brought up in “Thor” (Odin gets name-checked, the world tree is mentioned among other elements) and somehow, it all blends together to create the massive cinematic universe that started with Iron Man. Oh, and stay through the credits for some awesome stuff. I learned that the correct terminology for this is called a ‘button’ although we would still think of it as a ‘teaser’, but since the Marvel movies put these in (starting with Iron Man), this is the most awesome!

In all, this is highly enjoyable escapist fare that entertains and delivers where it matters. There might be a few who would gripe and groan, but it’s not a movie to be taken too seriously (like say, The Dark Knight). This is simple, straight-forward, pure popcorn entertainment with some great character work.

Recommended 2D viewing, or if you must got to a 3D screening, make sure it’s a cinema with good projection, like WCinemax in Island Plaza.
The movie by itself is 3 1/2 stars…
Add an extra 1/2 star for the ‘button’.

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Hanna [2011]

Rating ***

Stars Saoirse Ronan, Cate Blanchett, Eric Bana, Olivia Williams, Jason Flemying Tom Hollander, Jessica Barden and John MacMillan

Directed by Joe Wright

Perhaps it is safe to say that an action film would the last thing you’d expect from director like Joe Wright (Pride and Prejudice, Atonement, The Soloist), but it’s also not like the man isn’t capable of pulling off action (or epic in the case of Atonement’s Dunkirk evacuation) scenes when the need arises. You just some really stylised action scenes with usual editing. Despite the kinetic ferocity of some of the action scenes that might prove that Wright would be comfortable handling the next Bourne adventure (he’s not doing that, he’s heading back to period dramas with Anna Karenina), Hanna is very much a coming-of-age fable.

The fairy-tale motif is underscored in more ways than one from the Grimm’s Fairy Tales book that Hanna (Saoirse Ronan) has at the beginning to the fairgrounds at the end not to mention the quirky melody that runs throughout most of the score. Add to that the ethereal quality of the cinematography in most scenes, there is a sense of the events being a touch surreal as the young Hanna leaves her father (Eric Bana) and her home just below the Arctic Circle, and sets out on a mission to kill one Marissa Wiegler (Cate Blanchett), discovering the world at large in the process.

Much of Hanna’s journey of discovery is extremely well-conceived. Ronan’s performance and Wright’s direction work really well here, especially once Hanna comes across a British family who are travelling across country (Morocco to Spain) and things take a turn away from the action thriller that kicked off the movie. After all, this is where Wright excels as a director, focussed on character and their growth, but then he’s no slouch when it comes to most of the action scenes either. One particular standout is a tracking shot (much like the Dunkirk tracking shot in Atonement) that follows Bana’s character as he notices several agents following him and he proceeds to take them out, all in one take. It is impressively staged and executed. Other scenes include Hanna’s early breakout from the holding facility.

Strangely, the weaker point of the story comes from the thriller aspect. The nature of Hanna’s origin, the CIA connection (why Marissa is after Hanna and her father) and the final resolution all appear to be in slight conflict with the dramatic aspect of Hanna’s tale. Slight, not totally distracting or detached from the characters. The fable-like nature of the tale could be why the script made the top of the Black List (Hollywood’s list of the best unproduced screenplays) for two years, but the process of production may have sapped some of the magic away. The occasionally pounding score by The Chemical Brothers (probably typical when getting synth-pop musicians to score a movie) may distract some viewers although they do create some interesting melodies as well. It’s a fine line between genius and generic. The score may do well on it’s own but might not serve the movie as well as one would expect.

And then there are the performances which are mostly excellent save for a few dodgy accents. Blanchett’s Marissa seems to be of German descent, but speaks with an American Southern accent that doesn’t quite register in other languages, of which there are several spoken throughout the movie. The same goes for Bana who carries a German accent for most of the film, but it also slips from time to time. Otherwise, the performances are solid with Ronan a standout in the titular role and Blanchett as the ‘wicked witch’ nemesis (there’s a dig at Marissa’s odd quest for oral perfection while staring into mirror while it is suggested that Hanna may be just ‘perfect’, albeit with ‘abnormal’ DNA).

In all, as a whole, the movie pulses with a vibrancy that is actually quite rare among today’s cinematic fillers. There almost seems to be an honest attempt to meld the various genre and infusing them with a sense of character that can be believable… except that most of it crumbles under the genius of its own weight by the end. Still, it is a compelling and intriguing (mostly original) ride along the way.

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Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows Part 2 [2011]

Rating ***1/2

Stars Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Ralph Fiennes, Alan Rickman, Maggie Smith, Warwick Davies, Michael Gambon, Evanna Lynch, John Hurt and etc. etc. etc. (If you’ve seen the previous parts, almost everyone comes back).
Now with Ciaran Hinds and Kelly MacDonald.

Directed by David Yates

And so it comes to an end.

The decision to split the final book into two parts may have been an economic decision, but the two movies are vastly different beasts, the first being a rather languid and moody trek through the woods (and other places) as our trio of heroes search (semi-successfully) for the Horcruxes and learn about the titular Deathly Hallows that spans months. The second is very much an action movie that takes place over a span of maybe a couple of days, the pace is relentless and practically exhausting. This literally is everything and the kitchen sink, albeit a little scaled down from what the first three movies looked like. (Ghosts, moving staircases are missing, moving pictures are severely limited – an issue I griped about before, about the ‘world’ losing its sense of magic and wonder, ever since the British directors took over).

It is a satisfying conclusion that brings all the elements from the previous films together (or at least, most of it) as well as most of the characters from the previous movies. At least, a glimpse of most of them as the movie’s story stays strictly with either Harry or Voldemort and not much with anyone else (mostly Harry). This results with having glimpses of the inevitable war that has been teased in trailers – and if you didn’t see it coming, you weren’t really following the series – as well as the slew of characters and familiar faces that pop up. It’s the tough choices of adapting a tome as the Potter saga, not everything that is in the book makes it to the screen and in order to keep the running time manageable, the story has to be streamlined. This also results in certain characters popping up here and there without much explanation as to how they got to those places (Luna, for example, last seen in Part 1 with Harry escaping the Malfoy dungeons to that beach house, and later turning up at Hogwarts as if she’s been there all this time; Hagrid making a very late appearance in some unpleasant company).

It isn’t entirely a bad thing, but it might ruffle the feathers of a few stalwart fans (much like how the previous battle at the end of Pt 6 was excised from the movie). It makes sense from a movie standpoint as it has always been Harry’s story throughout all the installments. In that, the series has done quite well overall with this finale serving up almost the best of everything.

Director David Yates still delivers a workman-like presentation and the while it has some large epic scale set-pieces, the more dramatic scenes still feel like they came off a British TV series – or it might be that most TV series are better produced than most movies these days, so the line blurs quite a bit. Locations are mostly enclosed which lends to a sense of claustrophobia even when they’re outdoors, but it’s really no fault to the overall production design. The last five movies have been very consistent in terms of design and atmosphere. The stars are all extremely comfortable in their roles.

There is truly nothing much I can say about the performances or the story other than it is a satisfying conclusion. A few more questions are answered, a few more mysteries solved and everything is pretty much wrapped up as best as it can given the massive source material. All that needs to come next is a multi-year series of mini series for TV (probably starting with a 6 part mini-series echo for the first two books and building up to maybe a 24-part final season 7) that would fully adapt every nuance of each book for the full and proper adaptation. Give it a few years, but someone will pick up on that.

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Vanishing on 7th Street [2010]

Rating: ***

Stars Hayben Christensen, John Leguizamo, Thandie Newton, Jacob Latimore

Directed by Brad Anderson

Brad Anderson continues to make small intense movies following features such as ‘Session 9’, ‘The Machinist’ and ‘Transsiberian’, in between his TV work (Fringe, The Wire, etc). The conceit here is that in one moment, the world’s population apparently disappears. In one truly creepy moment, the lights flicker then go dark and everything goes silent. Save for a small handful of survivors (due to unique circumstances), everybody else has vanished leaving only their clothes.

With no more than four main characters holed up in a pub on 7th Street, the movie is more than claustrophobic and nerve wrecking, especially when the shadows start to move. It’s reminiscent of the excellent Doctor Who two-parter “Silence In The Library / Forest of The Dead”, but holds up well on its own. The movie doesn’t ask questions nor does it provide answers (like most zombie movies with which this movie should sit comfortably next to) as to what happened, how it happened or why. The rules are simple – stay out of the dark  and in the light if you want to survive.

Therein lies part of the problem for viewers who crave straightforward movies that lay it all out. This isn’t that. It’s very much a character piece revolving around disparate strangers trying to cope with the circumstances and trying to survive. An occasional flashback shows how each of these individuals survived being ‘taken’ in the first place.

Anderson does a commendable job in keeping the creeps up (much like he did in Session 9 and The Machinist), and it’s not just paranoia when the shadows are out to get you. He wrangles decent performances out of his stars with Hayden Christensen doing well enough to erase the spectre of Anakin Skywalker and John Leguizamo being typically edgy with nervous energy.

Try watching it at night with the lights down low.

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Tucker and Dale vs Evil [2010]

***1/2

Stars Tyler Labine, Alan Tudyk, Katrina Bowden, Jesse Moss, Philip Granger

Directed by Eli Craig

A complete flip on the whole killer-in-the-woods horror flick although still loaded with some gruesome deaths. It shouldn’t be funny, but it’s outright hilarious.

It starts typically with a bunch of college kids heading out into the woods for Memorial break. They pass a couple of mean looking rednecks, Tucker and Dale (Alan Tudyk and Taylor Labine), and assumptions are made there and then. It isn’t long (about 7 minutes) before the focus shift to our lead characters and we find that they’re actually a pair of decent guys heading into the woods because Tucker bought a cabin there. A little run-down, a little mysterious, but the boys are happy and they’ve got work on their hands to fix the place up.

Meanwhile, they kids tell horror stories and go skinny dipping at night, and that’s when things go way awry with hilarious consequences. Tucker and Dale do have to fight against evil, but it’s from a most unexpected source. Cliches are played with and thrown right out the window.

Tudyk and Labine are a very likeable pair as a pair of good ole hillbillies who get in way over their collective heads as the body-count rises. They carry the movie really well whit adds to the enjoyability of the movie.

Obviously low budget, but done with great aplomb. While the movie does settle into some serious territory at times, it never lets that get int he way of the fun. Black comedy was never so fun, at least, not since “The Re-Animator” for me.

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Transformers: Dark Of The Moon [2011]

Rating ***

Stars Shia LaBeouf, Josh Duhamel, John Turturro, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Tyrese Gibson, Patrick Dempsey, Alan Tudyk with Kevin Dunn, Julie White, Frances McDormand, Ken Jeong and John Malkovich
Also stars (vocally) Peter Cullen, Hugo Weaving and Leonard Nimoy

Directed by Michael Bay

Let’s do it this way…

Is the movie, Transformers: Dark Of The Moon, worth watching in 3D?
Hell, Yeah! This is actually quite impressive where the 3D is concerned and it has reined in Michael Bay’s directorial style quite a bit. Gone are the excessive juddering and jittering camera effects (not totally eliminated, just toned down to adjust to the 3D). The ‘Bay-hem’ of giant robots ripping into and pounding on each other, metallic pieces flying every which way, ensure that TV shops will be showcasing this movie on their 3D TVs. Granted nothing very much happens in the first half, even if there are a few action set-pieces thrown in for good measure, but the last hour is just what 3D is all about. There are many sequences in there that will blow your mind (and of course one truly gratuitous moment introducing the new lady-love that had guys giggling in the cinema).

This is a perfect showcase for 3D in the cinemas.

Is the movie worth watching?
Ah, well… that’s a whole other thing.

Granted, a lot of what was annoying before is mostly (again, not all) eliminated in favour of what was right. Comparatively, this is the movie we hoped Michael Bay made the first time around, although it does still have some of the same problems as the previous two instalments, not to mention a majority of his other movies. Overblown and bombastic is what you’d expect and it’s what you’d get. Outrageous plot, heavy handed dialogue and slim characters are boxes you can easily tick off, all mixed with the typical gung-ho adrenaline fuelled action beats.

It’s a Michael Bay film after all, and while he has at least one good movie under his belt (for me anyway, that being “The Rock”), it’s no more that what I’ve come to typically expect from him.

Shia LaBeouf was fairly grating in the first movie and has not gotten any better – character wise. Sam Witwicky is actually more annoying than ever and has appeared to have regressed to a child in a grown-up’s body rather than maturing, throwing temper-tantrums when things don’t go his way or when people don’t take him seriously. His new girlfriend, Carly (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley) is not much of an improvement over the previous girlfriend. They’re actually quite interchangeable and I don’t miss Megan Fox one bit. In fact, it barely felt like she was missing. More like she dyed her hair blonde and took on another name. The Witwicky parents are still around, and as annoying as ever, although they have even less screen time this round. The rest of the returning cast (John Turturro, Josh Duhamel and Tyrese Gibson) are pretty much the same.

Of the new additions, an avid movie fan might be wondering if John Malkovich and Frances McDormand are slumming it for a paycheck. Malkovich in particular seems a very odd fit, even as a character that flip-flops and appears unhinged. He does look like he’s having a ball though. As is Patrick Dempsey who relishes himself, especially in the second half. I’m sure they were all trying their best, but are equally aware that the main draw of the film are the robots themselves. If there was one particular human character who stands out, it’s Alan Tudyx’s mysterious Dutch, a valet to the ex-agent Simmons (although Tudyx seems to be channeling Alpha, his character from TV’s Dollhouse). Dutch is a hoot and a great character, one of which I wish had more screen-time. Heck a whole movie with him would be great. (well, part of the appeal is the mystique, which might get spoiled with a whole movie, but still..)

Leonard Nimoy does some vocal work for the Transformer character of Sentinel Prime, and while he brings his typical gravitas, he does get some of the worst lines comprised of past performances. It makes one wonder just how much time he spent in the recording booth, and how much was just sample from previous performances.

Effects-wise, the movie is a visual feast with the robots looking much better than before. There’s also a lot more robots of various scales that have to be seen to be believed. Make no mistake, this is a major alien invasion movie with some major destruction barely seen on the big screen and the mayhem it produces puts recent effects-heavy movies to shame (looking at you, ‘Skyline’ and ‘Battle Los Angeles’); effects-wise, not so much story or character-wise. Of course, not many can do that kind of mayhem better than Michael Bay. At 160 minutes (not counting the end credits) though, the movie is positively exhausting, especially that final act.

In the end, this is an improvement over the previous two instalments, but not by very much. It’s a little more serious minded, reaching for the epic scale (love the interweaving history of Space-race moon-shot and Chernobyl), touching that limit but still falls short in quite a few areas. It straddles the fence between epic greatness and pure dreck. In the end, you really couldn’t ask for more from Michael Bay.

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Green Lantern [2011]

Rating **

Stars Ryan Reynolds, Blake Lively, Peter Sarsgaard, Mark Strong, Temuera Morrison, Taika Waititi, Angela Bassett, Tim Robbins with Geoffery Rush, Michael Clarke Duncan and Clancy Brown

Directed by Martin Campbell

Director Martin Campbell may have been a little out of sorts in tackling Green Lantern. While he did some excellent work with ‘Goldeneye’ and ‘Casino Royale’, managing to wrangle the excitement in ‘The Mask of Zorro’ and even the slightly lacklustre ‘The Legend of Zorro’, ‘Green Lantern’ lacks a certain exuberance, lacks excitement for the most part. Campbell seems to have take a very workman-like approach in directing Green Lantern.

Or was it down to the writers who do have a pedigree in handling superheroes for the most part. Greg Berlanti and Marc Guggenheim worked together on TV series ‘Eli Stone’ and they have both dabbled in writing comics, while Michael Green worked on ‘Heroes’ and ‘Smallville’. Add to that one Geoff Johns as a co-producer, probably to keep an eye on keeping things faithful to the comic, him being the current writer / mastermind of the Green Lantern comic, it really should have been a lot more exciting. But then, the problem between movies and the comics is that the comics have an ‘unlimited budget’ when it comes to the scope of the story, action, setting, etc., while the movie’s budget tends to restrict what can go on screen.

The opening prologue introduces us to the massive epic scale in which the story is set. It promises much in terms of a grand cosmic adventure, but as a whole, it falls way short as we follow the perspective of our hero, Hal Jordan (Ryan Reynolds), as he decides what exactly he wants to do without he power ring that was given to him by the alien, Abin Sur (Temuera Morrison). Meanwhile, a threat in the form of some dark clouds called Parallax is causing much devastation across the universe and the Green Lantern Corps, apparently headed by Sinestro (Mark Strong) seem powerless to stop it. That’s just in the broad strokes.

The movie focusses on the human story around Jordan, a test pilot. There is a love interest, Carol (Blake Lively) who is pretty much Hal’s boss as well. Then there’s Hector Hammond (Peter Sarsgaard – superb) whose affliction due to exposure to the corrupting power of Parallax is juxtaposed against Hal’s discovery of his own encounter with the power of the ring. It’s thanks to some excellent editing work from editor Stuart Baird that makes these scenes work so well. As much as Sarsgaard excels in his role, Lively struggles with her character, pulling in an almost polar opposite of Sarsgaard’s understated performance. There’re are only one or two scenes that come to mind where Lively is able to step up – given the material – but it’s an otherwise mostly underwritten role. Reynolds puts up a decent performance for the most part, making the most of the role and doesn’t completely disappoint. But he doesn’t completely excel either, the middle stretch being a mite problematic until his first public appearance as Green Lantern. Angela Bassett seems utterly wasted in her role though.

While there’s much for the average Green Lantern comic fan to appreciate and spot (including a post titles sequence catering more to them than any other audience member who will be scratching their heads at the significance), the movie tries a little too hard, squeezing a little too much into the movie. A comic book fan might be able to follow it with ease, but an average movie-goer might struggle with the amount of information. The fan may enjoy the glimpses of the cosmic scale, and complain at its briefness, an average movie goer might marvel at the effects and visual spectacular, but only when the action kicks in – everything else falls between the cracks which drains the momentum and excitement from the movie. This is where the feeling that the massive budget was still not enough to get the movie going properly.

In all, the movie does show some potential for the character, but it suffers the same as several other super-hero movies dealing with the origin story. It tries hard, but the spectacular set-pieces and dazzling effects or design doesn’t manage to elicit any kind of actual excitement. It builds up a lot of things (including the Corps), but then squanders it all either due to the lack of imagination or budget constraints. Campbell has grounded the movie a little too much to allow it to properly take off. Hopefully, it won’t ground any plans for a sequel, which could make use of the potential glimpsed here.

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Dylan Dog: Dead of Night [2010]

Rating ***

Stars Brandon Routh, Sam Huntington, Anita Briem, Brian Steele, Kurt Angle, The Diggs and Peter Stormare

Directed by Kevin Monroe

This is more adapted from than based on the French comic book featuring a human private investigator who deals without he supernatural world. As it is explained in the movie the various factions – Vampires, Werewolves, Zombies, etc. – have a pact wherein any problems arises between the factions should be handled by an outsider, a human. Dylan Dog (Brandon Routh) in particular who, following a particular nasty incident, stepped away from the world. As the movie begins, Dylan makes his living as a normal P.I. catching spouses who cheat on each other. Until one murder case lands him back into the supernatural world dealing with those fantastical creatures of the night who have migrated to New Orleans.

Through Dylan (and his narration) we’re introduced to the Werewolf clan led by Gabriel (a sinister Peter Stormare) and the vampires led by Vargas (Taye Diggs) while mingling with zombies because his assistant, Marcus (Sam Huntington) got killed and came back to life as a zombie.

The chemistry between Routh and Huntington crackles with Routh being the straight-laced guy with his dry line delivery and somewhat sardonic attitude, and Huntington being the hysterical edgy schmuck who can’t cope with being a zombie. Huntington also has most of the better lines while Routh has the more expository lines laced with the occasional bit of wit. The rest of the performers do as best as they can with the material they have.

Given the plot and story, it’s not really very much one might expect out of the whole endeavour. The humour does carry the movie quite a bit and the effects does betray its obvious budget restrictions, but it doesn’t skimp too much on the entertainment value, which is just above the quality of direct to cable or video. Not too bad.

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Super 8 [2011]

Rating ****

Stars Joel Courtney, Elle Fanning, Riley Griffiths, Zach Mills, Ryan Lee, Gabriel Basso with Kyle Chandler, Ron Eldard and Noah Emmerich

Directed by JJ Abrams

Super 8 is very much a piece of nostalgic film-making in the way that it is so referential and reverential to the films that inspired it. There are seemingly obvious Speilbergian touches to certain scenes (low camera angles, lighting choice and even music) even if the movie is all director’s JJ Abrams, evident by all those lens flares although it’s been cut down since ‘Star Trek’.

Set in 1979, the movie revolves around a bunch of kids trying to make their own horror movie when something extraordinary happens to their typically small town. That’s all you’re getting in way of a synopsis. The setting itself recalls lots of those 80s kid adventures (‘The Monster Squad’, ‘Explorers’, even ‘Close Encounters’ at one point) while the kids themselves more closely recall ‘The Goonies’. While they may not be entirely unique the way The Goonies were, they have their own bits of language (we might say “good” or “cool”, they use “mint” – sounds ahead of time if it’s referencing comic books; “Mint” being a comic in excellent condition. Then again, it might be a completely different reference) and can get noisy when they get to bickering, which can be both annoying and hilarious. That being said, the kids performers do admirably in holding the movie together. While the kids do stand out, it’s Elle Fanning who excels above the others (probably being the most experienced among the kids). She is magnetic in every scene, even when she’s acting like she’s acting in the super-8 movie the kids are making.

Most of the grown-ups are almost incidental characters save for Kyle Chandler’s father/deputy character and Noah Emmerich’s army officer (not sure of the character’s rank). They’re not entirely sidelined by the plot either, but they do run through the motions of what you’d might expect of them in a movie like this. Then again, for an audience who’s watching a movie like this for the first time, there is much to savour although the story does take its time to build up, establishing the characters of the kids and the dynamics among them.

Abrams’ story does have a few problems in terms of plotting and the eventual revelation of the ‘something extraordinary’. And while it takes its time to build its pace, Abrams manages to keep the pulse steady enough to hold the viewer’s interest by driving the mystery. While the reveal isn’t as much as a wonder as one might expect, it’s the human story, specifically the kids, that’s as much a wonder to behold than the mystery itself.

Will it inspire a generation of kids to get into film-making the way those older films inspired the kids in the movie (lots of horror movie references, by the way)? given that kids today have greater access to cameras (on their phones) editing equipment and effects software, not to mention a portal to showcase their ‘talents’, it’s a wonder not more kids are doing this locally. Given the pace of the world today, it’s more likely kids don’t have the patience to do anything like that, much less sit through a movie like this. Too bad, considering that they are part of the audience the movie is aimed at. Those of us who grew up on films like this might find it reverential, but lacking just a tad. It’s hard to recapture nostalgia, but this does a damn good job at it.

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X-Men: First Class

Rating ***1/2

Stars James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Rose Byrne, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, Oliver Platt, Caleb Landry Jones. Edi Gathegi, Zoe Kravitz, January Jones with Jason Flemyng and Kevin Bacon

Directed by Matthew Vaughn

This is one schizophrenic movie.
Just to give you an idea, the first half of the movie is an excellent 5-star movie even if it’s not quite what you’d expect from a superhero movie, and the second half is exactly what you’d expect from a superhero movie, of which half is skating close to brilliant, but been-there-heard-that, and the other half is typical superhero shenanigans. The partial problem is that this is a prequel, not quite reboot, to an established series of movies (although I’d like to think this actually erases the mediocre X-Men: The Last Stand due to the reestablishment of some characters, particularly one Moira McTaggart).

The brilliant first half plays like a 60s spy thriller with Micheal Fassbender oozing the sophisticated cool of one particular renowned Secret Agent (and if Daniel Craig figures he’s too old to continue, Fassbender should really step up and they take that series back to the 60s). While Fassbender is playing the young Erik Lehnsherr (essayed by Sir Ian McKellen in the previous instalments), he really is nothing like the Magneto that we know. Fassbender owns the first half of the movie so well that we could really just want to watch the entire movie play out like some really cool spy thriller, where the hero just happens to have this ability to control metal. But then, the story at this point is split to showcase the other side of the coin, that of young Charles Xavier (James McAvoy). What we get is basically a glimpse into how their two different backgrounds inform their characters, their philosophies and the path towards their destinies (already established in the first two X-Men movies). Comparatively, Erik’s story is just the more compelling, but both are given due attention, and interestingly is how Mystique’s (Jennifer Lawrence) story is woven in as well.

Which brings in the problem of the second half, and the new team of mutants that make up the First Class of the title. Because the bad guy of the story has a team of mutants helping him, our heroes decide that they need their own team of young and very inexperienced mutants to help with the fight. The addition of these new mutants seem really superfluous, thrown in just so we do have some “X-Men” in the story (yes, a training montage is also in there for good measure). Given the timeline of the story (go watch “Thirteen Days” for some background on the, uh… backdrop of this movie), they learned their stuff really quick. With the focus mainly on Erik and Charles, the other mutants are thrown is just so we have the action set-piece at the end.

Still, with the plot-holes in abundance (character background, motives, timelines, superfluous characters, etc.) directer Matthew Vaughn does a very commendable job at holding everything together and delivering what is probably the best Marvel superhero movie since “X2”. The pacing, the editing, the score, the design et al works so cohesively that what you get is one very densely plotted and well paced movie that delivers pure summer entertainment that is smart, witty and also manages a few surprises. Sure there may be a few characters too many and perhaps one plot too many (including a take at the whole cure thing that was in “X-Men: The Last Stand”) that may fall apart under scrutiny, but the escapism it provides allows you to dismiss it entirely for the sake of entertainment. Fans will have lots of ‘easter eggs’ to spot (although the much hyped cameo was a given considering the timeline, but brilliantly well-done – a true highlight – courtesy of producer Bryan Singer).

In all, this is a brilliant reset of the X-Men movies given the last couple of mis-steps (if they were that). Again, X-Men: The Last Stand can probably be ignored given the events in this movie, but X-Men Origins: Wolverine is partially still intact (given the Stryker connection). I would be curious to see what happened to some of the other characters that have been introduced here. Matthew Vaughn deserves all sorts of praise for this one, with the stars delivering top notch performances, particularly Fassbender, who is the real stand-out. This team should really get on to the next entry.

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Kung Fu Panda 2 [2011] (3D)

Rating ****

Stars (vocally) Jack Black, Angelina Jolie, Gary Oldman, Dustin Hoffman, David Cross, Seth Rogen, Lucy Liu, Michelle Yeoh, Dennis Hysbert, Victor Garber, James Hong, Lauren Tom, Paul Mazursky with Jean-Claude Van Damme and Jackie Chan

Directed by Jennifer Yuh

The first Kung Fu Panda (2008) was a bit of a surprise hit that managed to blend various elements together within a fairly kick-ass kung-fu movie. Granted for most Asian viewers, it was truly stuff we had seen before, but the presentation was extremely well executed and the loveable lead character was rather appealing, despite being voiced by Jack Black. His previous foray into animation was the very lacklustre Shark Tale (also from DreamWorks Animation). Suffice to say, hopes were not that high for the initial Panda adventure, but it was a spectacular and entertaining adventure that carefully treaded the cliches without slamming home the morals.

This being a sequel, and added with a rather muted publicity (massive lack of posters, and a bunch of trailers that didn’t really show anything except more of the same), let’s just say that my expectations were not really that high. I wasn’t really planning on catching it in 3D, save for the fact that my regular cinema is not showing a 2D version. All I was going on was that I really enjoyed the first movie, and DreamWorks Animation has have been doing really well lately.

Questions that may have risen in the first movie get tackled here as we learn of Po’s origin – a very familiar one at that – as he and the Furious Five set out to save all of China from the villainous Lord Shen (a very game Gary Oldman) who has created a weapon that, “can stop kung fu.” Kudos to writers Jonathan Abibel and Glenn Berger (who also wrote the first movie) for creating yet another villain who is layered and complex enough. Like Tai Lung before, Lord Shen has a past that, one step to the right, could have taken him in an entirely different direction. It’s always about the choice we make that can define us.

Po’s journey also progresses as does Tigress, subtly for the most part (not so much the other four of the Furious Five). Their relationship might prove to be one that will develop in future instalments given two very significant moments within this adventure. There are major subtle moments for character development that are very beautifully handled (could it be thanks to Creative Consultant, Guillermo DelToro?), and the action sequences are even more impressive (if a tad unbelievable, but then again, it’s a cartoon and a kung fu movie). The tone of the movie is a little darker than before given the back-story on both Po and Lord Shen, which gives a slightly more tragic air to the adventure. Credit has to be given tot director Jennifer Yuh for wrangling everything together, and keeping Jack Black from over-doing his schtick that made Po a touch annoying before.

Behind the scenes, the animation raises the bar for DreamWorks yet again (although PDI isn’t credited this time around). The design and colours pop very nicely and they work extremely well with the 3D effects. The rigging engine that handles the character animation seems looser now, so the fight scenes has some real heft to them, giving the stretch and squeeze illusion that is usually seen in traditional hand-drawn animation. There’s also a richer atmosphere than before with more locales (interior and exterior) and the greenery look lush (although not quite as lush as in Tangled, then again, different geography). The textures are also very much improved, particularly evident with the wet fur on the characters.

The rather rousing and epic score from Hans Zimmer (making up for the rather disappointing Pirates of The Caribbean – On Stranger Tides score) and John Powell expands on the earlier themes very nicely. A fantastic set-piece for the action and music early on in the film takes place during the defence of the Musicians Village. Although, there isn’t a piece within the movie that comes close to the beauty of Oogway’s ascension in the first movie.

In all, this does actually surpass the original, and hopefully, it also set a direction for the rest of the inevitable sequels. If initial reports are right, we have another four Kung Fu Panda movies coming (hopefully they take the cue from the Harry Potter movies that they do not have to remain simply children movies), and given how this ended, I can’t wait for the next instalment.

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Pirates of The Caribbean – On Stranger Tides

Rating **

Stars Johnny Depp, Geoffrey Rush, Penelope Cruz, Ian McShane, kevin McNally, Sam Clafin, Astrid Berges-Frisbey, Stephan Graham with Richard Griffiths and Keith Richards

Directed by Rob Marshall

Note: Spoilers ahoy!

After the labyrithian trilogy made up of double crosses, back-stabbing triple-crosses, outrageous monsters and whatnot, a somewhat global (and beyond) escapade not to mention one very wily pirate at the centre of it all, the somewhat romantic adventures of those Pirates of The Caribbean get a fourth go-around with the promise that you really don’t need to know much about what’s come before. The simple idea of maintaining the franchise was to take certain core characters and just dump them into a whole new adventure (much like you basically just need James Bond, M, preferably Q and Moneypenny thrown in for any decent Bond movie).

Just dumping a few core characters (Jack Sparrow, Hector Barbossa and Joshamee Gibbs) into a whole new adventure is pretty much what was done, emphasis on “dump”. Dumped also were lots of the other pirates that made the previous movies such fun (Pintell and Ragetti come to mind as does the diminutive Marty and a host of nameless others) In fact, compared to the previous entries, we’re facing a dearth of pirates in this one what with Pirate Captain Edward Teach a.k.a. Blackbeard (an imposing if wasted Ian McShane) being in command of mostly conscripts and zombies while the returning Barbossa is in charge of several King’s men, after having given up his Pirate ways to become a Privateer (still a pirate to other nations tho).

While the story concerns with several parties searching for the fabled Fountain of Youth (which was exactly what Captain Jack Sparrow was setting out for at the end of the last movie), it comes at the expense of some wonder and fun. While I’m sure Tim Powers’ source novel “On Stranger Tides” is spectacular (if articles about it are to be believed), I’m guessing a lot of what was lifted and adapted for this movie lost a lot of context. Sam Clafin’s missionary feels like an afterthought and has no real purpose except to be some kind saviour to a mermaid (Astrid Berges-Frisbey) who barely has any purpose aside from being some last minute plot device from left field, a deus ex machina, if you will. We are told that Blackbeard is a fearsome fellow, but he doesn’t really prove it aside from making mostly empty threats. He appears to be able to do some voodoo and aside from the ‘zombies’ that look nothing like zombies (although to be fair, they do look like risen-from-the-dead voodoo zombies, which aren’t really actually zombies) and fiddling around with a Captain Jack doll, nothing much is made of it. You’d have to guess it’s voodoo that he does.

So, there’s barely any real threat from the main villain, there’s little magic and wonder (okay – Mermaids, briefly… the sirens in the animated ‘Sinbad, Legend Of The Seven Seas’ were far creepier) and as for the fun…

Well, Captain Jack remains mostly fun, but his wily ways seemed to have been tamed, probably to cut back on confusing the audience with his methodical madness. An early escape, reminiscent of the escape in “Curse of The Black Pearl”, is mostly telegraphed (it’s a little more fun when we don’t know what Captain Jack is up to and have to figure it out after the fact) as is the subsequent sword fight sequence (I don’t really recall any other sword fights until the mess of a melee at the end). Captain Jack seems to be unable to really outwit and outflank his foes unlike before, and Depp seems to be simply going through the motions. Even his wrap-around double-speak has been toned down.

As for Penelope Cruz, at least she seems to be having fun with her character, very much the way Depp was with Captain Jack in the first Pirates movie. Their scenes together are mostly fun and ooze with cheekiness.

Comparatively, this little romp is sadly lacking and there are flaws aplenty. The pacing and editing are mostly off and while director Rob Marshall may have experience with dance numbers, the fight scenes are a bit of a mess with little coherence and no real flash. Worse in the 3D version where the dim lighting and darkened sets (which is probably 70% of the movie) make everything murkier and muddled, difficult to even make out who’s fighting who, or who’s doing what.

In all fairness though, a romp is a romp and there is still that sense of fun and adventure, even if it’s somewhat diminished. On its own, this is entertaining and enjoyable, and the performances hold steady. The plot is thin, a little fast and very loose, and there are some solid moments (Barbossa relating the fate of The Black Pearl, Captain Jack’s ‘improvisations’ and a good majority of his dialogue, Depp and Cruz, those tiny little ships in storms in bottles). It’s just difficult to take it on its own, given the raucous thrill rides that came before.

Given that a fifth instalment is in development, there’s a chance for redemption.
And maybe get Gore Verbinski to come back for one last overblown hurrah.

For comparison – Pirates of The Caribbean
– The Curse of The Black Pearl 4.5/5
– Dead Man’s Chest 4/5
– At World’s End 4/5

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Priest [2011]

Rating *

Stars Paul Bettany, Cam Gigandet, Maggie Q, Lily Collins with Brad Dourif, Karl Urban, Stephan Moyer, Mädchen Amick and Christopher Plummer

Directed by Scott Stewart

‘Legion’ director Scott Stewart reteams with actor Paul Bettany for Priest, an adaptation of the Korean graphic novel in which a warrior priest battles vampires in a post-apocalyptic far-flung future. The city is typically dystopian and the ruling government is, of course, a totalitarian one. It’s got all the makings of a b-grade sci-fi action adventure flick.

Except that it promises much and delivers little. The vampires are a mindless horde that are nothing more than cannon fodder for our “Priest” (Betanny) to fight through. His mission? It turns out that his brother’s family was attacked by a vampire horde, and the child has been taken. The first thing that went through my mind was, “They’re making a futuristic version of The Searchers with vampire replacing the Red Indians.” Sure enough, our nameless Priest sets out to rescue his niece with the determination to kill the girl if she were infected and turned into a vampire. Assisting him is a local sheriff (Cam Gigandet), who also has his own motives for rescuing the girl.

While most might enjoy the film at its most basic level, I personally found the movie a tad boring despite the action. I can’t really put my finger on what it is that actually fails for me, be it the pacing or the editing or perhaps it’s the story structure itself. Maybe it’s the “villains” themselves. The vampires are more animals than actual vampires, while the main villain, called ‘Black Hat’ (Karl Urban) isn’t quite menacing enough and barely seems an actual threat. A bigger threat is mentioned but nothing much is done about it save to promise a sequel. Add to that the intriguing concept of the Church being a totalitarian force, but it isn’t quite expanded upon either. Then again, it does build its own world, it’s just not as interesting or as exciting as it could be.

While I found “Legion” interesting enough, I couldn’t drum up enough interest in “Priest” despite having low expectations. Comparatively to everything else so far, it’s a nothing movie.

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Fast Five [2011]

Rating ****

a.k.a Fast and Furious 5: Rio Heist

Stars Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Jordana Breswter, Tyrese Gibson, Chris ‘Ludacris’ Bridges, Sung Kang, Matt Schulze, Gal Gadot, Tego Calderon, Don Omar, Joaquim de Almeida with Elsa Pataky and Dwayne Johnson

Directed by Justin Lin

When ‘The Fast and The Furious’ first came out, it was very much a gangster-lite film played out against the backdrop of the underground street-racing and car culture of the streets at the time. Nothing too grandiose, running on adrenaline and oozing testosterone, it was a minor success that put the spotlight on it’s then half-known stars. That was ten years ago. The inevitable sequel was more of the cars and the racing, but focussed on a cop thriller instead. It looked like there wasn’t much fuel in the tank, but then came director Justin Lin with writer Chris Morgan churning out ‘The Fast and The Furious: Tokyo Drift’, a high-school sports film, replacing the football/skateboards/whatever with street racing. Boasting a last minute cameo by star Vin Diesel (who passed on the sequel), Lin managed to invigorate the franchise.

With the fourth instalment, ‘Fast and Furious’, the original stars returned and the street racing became incidental to the story, fuelling the action and underscoring the drama which was a revenge flick mixed with the cop drama. It did more than pump more fuel into the tank, as the gears shifted into a new genre. PIcking up directly from where the previous chapter left off, in ‘Fast Five’ everything shifts again into the heist film genre and recalling stars (and characters) from the previous film of the franchise, all throwing in game performances that sparks and crackles with snappy if predictable dialogue, even more outrageous (and mind-blowing) action overloaded with more testosterone, thanks to the addition of one Dwayne Johnson as a Fed chasing down our anti-heroes. When the two burly bald muscle-men inevitably brawl, it’s literally a clash of titans that’s downright brutal and destructive.

The main stars know their roles well and with so many past characters returning, its a wonder that the main stars (Diesel and Paul Walker) are able to step aside to let the others have their moments. It’s obvious that there are no egos involved here, which gives the characters great moments of hilarity in both dialogue and action as they riff off each other, true to their heist film roots. Among the new stars, it’s Johnson who shines, taking his role in stride and playing it with relish. He knows perfectly well what he’s getting into and establishes his character very well.

While CG is used to keep the stars in the driver’s seat during the action, a method established over the last two films, it’s the muscular vehicular stunts that shine out more than ever (with less CG cars this time) with two major set-pieces involving the vehicles that stand out, including that train scene in the trailer. Suffice to say, I haven’t see thIs kind of vehicular insanity since ‘Taxi 2’ or ‘The Blues Brothers’. So much fun.

This is not meant to be a critical success, but it will sure pull in the guys who love action and the girls, and the girls who love the guys. This is strictly a B-Grade actioner with some A-Grade action set-pieces, a pure no-brainer that’s designed to thrill and excite. If you feel like it, go ahead and holler at the screen, gasp at the action, smile, laugh and have a solid good time. Comparatively, this is the best the series has been in a while.

And stay through for a post-titles (not post-credits) sequence that brings back one more surprise cameo and an awesome set-up for the next part that just can’t come soon enough.

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Thor [2011]

Rating ***1/2

Stars Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Stellan Skarsgard, Kat Dennings, Clark Gregg, Colm Feore, Ray Stevenson, Josh Dallas, Tadanobu Asano, Jaimie Alexander, Idris Elba with Rene Russo and Anthony Hopkins

Directed by Kenneth Branagh

“Astounding” comes to mind. Director Kenneth Branagh did an astounding job in bringing Marvel Comics’ The Mighty Thor to the big screen, and he did it with a style and verve that’s entertaining and fairly exciting. A lot of it has to do with the casting of the main characters. The stars do very well indeed with the material they have with perhaps only Natalie Portman’s Jane Foster coming off as a bit of a weak link in the overall scheme of things. The character seems to be written as a token female, and while it’s easy to see why Jane would fall for Thor, it doesn’t seem to work the other way around (aside that it’s Natalie Portman, which is reason enough for any fanboy).

Chris Hemsworth literally shines as Thor, the Norse God of Thunder, and looking every bit like a classical sculpted moving statue of a god. But looks aside (girls will swoon, as might some guys), it’s his charm that comes through and carries much of the movie. Even in the early scenes when he comes across as arrogant and a bit of a reckless prick, Hemsworth’s embodiment of Thor, with that smile, wit and charm easily captures your attention and has you rooting for him.

At the counterpoint is Tom Hiddleston’s portrayal of Loki, who is understated in the first half and really builds up very nicely into the villain of the piece. Even if everything moved according to Loki’s machinations, you’d barely notice it happening. It’s a credit to Hiddleston’s performance and the fact that he looks very much like his comic counterpart works well to sell the character on screen.

While the story is very much an origin piece, establishing the characters for future adventures (and doing it fairly well at the same time), the movie is carried by the performances and the technical wizardry on display. The costumes are lush and work very well with the setting. They don’t look out of place or cumbersome and most importantly, they don’t look silly. All of the mythological characters fit their costumes and even when mixed in with the real world, it doesn’t look like a cosplay convention. The set designs in Asgard are epic and beautiful, giving the sense of grandeur befitting gods, and it doesn’t hurt that while half the movie takes on Earth, there is still an epic feel to the proceedings. The action scenes are exciting, the cinematography is eye-catching, the music is appropriately grand and the humour draws chuckles and guffaws.

Branagh is a good fit for the Shakespearean aspects of the story, but he handles the action and humour equally well without having things feel ‘stagey’ (like most of his Shakespeare movies). The flow of the movie is paced well with action beats spaced apart evenly and the humour comes from some great lines and, again, Hemsworth performance for the most part, aided by the his interactions with his co-stars. Nothing feels forced and there is some intelligence at work there. Things have been thought out.

While they may grumble a little at Branagh’s colour-blind casting, fans of Marvel Comics have stuff to look out for throughout the film, and of course, the post-credits scene after they announce that “Thor will return in The Avengers”.

Full-blooded adventure that is entertaining and enjoyable, Thor scores well across the board with an acceptable origin story that works well enough. Some of the night scenes (and the Jotunheim scenes in particular) are a bit on the dark (dimly lit) side which might become murky in the 3D screening (at least Avatar’s night scenes were brightly lit by the bio-luminescent environment) and the action scenes may be a little too rapid for any 3D effects to really come through. It would be wiser to pass on the 3D screening and watch the 2D version twice instead, because the movie is a fun and entertaining ride.

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Easy A (2010)

Stars Emma Stone, Amanda Bynes, Penn Badgley, Aly Michalka, Thomas Haden Church, Patricia Clarkson, Malcolm McDowell with Dan Byrd, Stanley Tucci and Lisa Kudrow
Directed by Will Gluck

A gem of a movie that pays solid tribute to the teen movies of the 80’s and name-checks John Hughes quite often. References are also made to such fair as ‘Say Anything’ and ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’, while sitting in the same company as “10 Things I Hate About You’,  ‘Clueless’ and ‘She’s The Man’. Yes, ‘Easy A’ makes no qualms about it’s inspirations and sources, and it throws it all together with great aplomb thanks mostly to the captivating and engaging performance of its lead, Emma Stone.

Even when surrounded by some truly solid turns from established comedians and scene stealers such as Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson or Thomas Haden Church and Lisa Kudrow, Stone manages to ground the movie solidly on her terms with the narration and performance that should catapult her to solid stardom, a young acting force to be reckoned with.

The witty and charming script by Bert V Royal, in the assured hands of the Director Will Gluck and its young star, is filled with solid snarks and hilarious soundbites that’s classy enough to last a generation and beyond the way John Hughes has influenced many a youngster of his time.

Rating 4/5

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Monsters [2010]

Stars Scoot McNairy and Whitney Able
Directed by Gareth Edwards

This is groundbreaking stuff from a technical point of view. The movie is all the more potent when you know about its origins, especially how it was made. On its own, it still holds up as a remarkable piece of work that is quite engaging. Shooting on the fly, the movie has a slight documentary feel to it (it basically has a crew of four and two actors on the go) which some viewers might find off-putting. Don’t let that stop you though.

The concept is simply that it has been six years since a space probe crashed in Mexico and the alien specimens on board have grown into towering monsters that now roam most of Mexico to the US Border, an area now known as an Infected Zone. The movie is simply a road movie where an American photo-journalist has to escort his boss’ daughter through this Infected Zone and get her safely to the United States.

Stars Scoot McNairy and Whitney Able (then a couple, now married) provide incredible chemistry, making them an immensely engaging and captivating couple of characters. Their performance, mostly ad-libbed, is utterly remarkable and unforced, giving the movie an air of realism that most actors strive to perfect.

Despite the title, this isn’t another version of ‘Cloverfield’ and there’s not as much action as one might expect. This is very much an independent film and it’s all in the characters and the surprisingly improvised dialogue. Director Gareth Edwards maintains an air of uncertainty that’s almost haunting. We don’t know what to expect most of the time and using the ‘less is more’ approach, the movie scores well each time the titular creatures appear.

Rating 4.5/5

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The Dragon Pearl a.k.a The Last Dragon (locally) [2011]

Stars Sam Neill, Li Lin Jin, Louis Corbett, Wang Ji, Robert Mammone and Jordan Chan
Directed by Mario Andreacchio

Basically a throwback to those children’s adventure movie where a couple of kids stumble onto something that even the adults (their parents) would find hard to believe. In this case, Josh and Ling (whose father and mother respectively, are in the midst of excavating the tomb of a Chinese emperor) discover that the legend surrounding the emperor’s tomb is false, and they have to find a dragon’s pearl and return it to the dragon so that it can return home.

A decent story with so-so effects, although the realisation of a Chinese dragon on screen is impressive enough given the obvious tight budget of this independent production. Some gorgeous vistas gives the movie a small sense of wonder and the two kids make an appealing pair of adventurers, utilising their given abilities in service to the story and quest for the dragon pearl.

Simple family entertainment (almost akin to the Disney kids adventures of the 70s) aimed at the youngsters, and it does have some imagination to spare, which makes it a fair bit of entertainment to while away a lazy afternoon.

Rating 2.5/5

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The Last Exorcism [2010]

Stars Patrick Fabian, Ashley Bell, Iris Bahr, Louis Herthum and Caleb Landry Jones
Directed by Daniel Stamm

There have been a series of movies lately that deal with Hauntings and Exorcisms, most of which have not been truly scary to even touch the looming shadow of ‘The Exorcist’. It doesn’t stop director Daniel Stamm from making an attempt to pump fresh blood into this tired horror staple, and he does it with some style, marrying it to the mock-doc format that worked well enough for ‘The Blair Witch Project’.

The movie starts off like a typical documentary that focuses on one Reverend Cotton Marcus, who admits to some showmanship in his exorcisms, and it follows the reverend as he looks into one last case. Obviously, things take a turn for the worse when the good reverend and his camera crew stumble into something that none of them may be prepared for. There are red herrings a plenty and a nerve wrecking turn from Ashley Bell who plays the supposedly possessed Nell. While the movie does well in setting up its premise and does deliver some spooky moments, it also falls into the same traps as many of its ilk (from “Blair Witch” all the way to “REC” and “Cloverfield” – see where we’re heading?)

The stars do well enough although Patrick Fabian is extremely engaging as the Reverend Marcus. The movie rest squarely on him and his performance is very engaging. It’s a solid turn for the horror fans, but still not quite up to par with past glories of the genre.

Rating 3.5/5

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Rio [2011]

Rating **

Stars (vocally) Anne Hathaway, Jesse Eisenberg, George Lopez, Leslie Mann, Rodrigo Santoro, Jaime Foxx, will i am, Thomas Wilson and Jemaine Clement

Directed by Carlos Saldanha

While both PDI (DreamWorks) and Pixar (Disney) are serving up sequels this year (Kung-Fu Panda 2, Puss in Boots (a prequel) from PDI and Cars 2 from Pixar), Blue Sky (creators of Ice Age, Robots, Horton) offers up something original in Rio. Unfortunately, the story (and plot) isn’t as original as it might seem, although it does entertain well enough and serves to conjure some impressive visuals.

A daring move by Blue Sky Studios is the inclusion of songs performed by the characters in the movie, something that has been relatively missing from most of these animated features (save for Disney’s ‘The Princess and The Frog’ and ‘Tangled’). The opening number sets the mood with a flurry of feathered colours and foot-tapping rhythms. We see a hatchling blue macaw about to join in the festivities when reality sets in and the birds are caught in nets and cages. He soon finds himself abandoned in Minnesota where is found and cared for by Linda (Leslie Mann).

When Tulio (Rodrigo Santoro) turns up in Linda’s bookstore claiming that Blu is the last male of his kind, a plan is hatched to whisk the very domesticated (so much so that Blu never learnt to fly) Blu and Linda to Rio, where Blu can mate with a very free-spirited Jewel (and there went Pixar’s planed ‘Newt’ feature). While Blu (Jesse Eisenberg) can communicate with other animals such as the female blue macaw, Jewel (Anne Hathaway) or a Toucan, Rafael (George Lopez), the animals do not communicate verbally with the humans (thankfully). When Blu and Jewel are stolen from the enclosure, both pairs of animals and humans have separate adventures. Blu trying to get back to Linda while being chained to Jewel, and Linda trying to find Blu with the help of Tulio. Obviously, romance blooms for both couples throughout their adventures, among other eventualities.

There are no surprises here although youngsters might enjoy themselves with the animal antics. The animation is lush and colourful, although when it comes to the Carnival, it lacks in exuberance, even with a collection of songs (mostly samba) and a decent score by John Powell. The vocal performances are mostly decent. Anne Hatahway in particular does well and then there’s Jemaine Clement stealing most of the show as the villainous cockatoo, Nigel and getting the best song of the movie.

Still, while it is entertaining, it isn’t as memorable or resilient as it could be, falling short of anything truly spectacular (not that it has to reach the heights of Pixar). Even the songs don’t really stay after leaving the cinema. It’s an entertaining diversion with a simple story, simply told, and perhaps a decent and innocent date movie.

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Source Code [2011]

Rating ****

Stars Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Monaghan, Vera Fermiga, Jeffrey Wright, Michael Arden and Russell Peters (as a stand-up comedian!)

Directed by Duncan Jones

In a nutshell, this is an amped up ‘Quantum Leap’ by way of Hitchcock, deftly delivered by director Duncan Jones who proves that his first feature, the extraordinary ‘Moon’, was no fluke.

It is a bravado opening sequence, an intense eight minutes (including the titles, in which a hint as to the nature of the movie is provided) where our protagonist (Jake Gyllenhaal) wakes up on a moving train, disoriented by his surroundings. He is greeted by a woman (Michelle Monaghan) who seems to know him as Sean even though he doesn’t know who she is. He tells her that he is Captain Colter Stevens, a helicopter pilot who’s supposed to be serving in Afghanistan. A trip to the rest room reveals a reflection that is not his own and just when she tells him that everything will be alright, an explosion occurs that engulfs everything. From there, we learn that the entire movie is one huge ticking bomb. Captain Stevens is on a mission to find out who planted the bomb and he only has eight minutes to do so. If he fails, he has to relive those eight minutes leading up to the explosion, again and again and again, until he is successful. Although he has those same eight minutes to work with, time is not on his side as there has been a threat of a second bomb set to detonate within a major city.

In true Hitchcock style, the ticking-clock tension builds with each trip back to the train, but that’s not where the influences stop. From framing to the amazing cinematography to editing and even the Hermannesque score by Chris Bacon employed over the opening titles, Jones does more than just channel Hitchcock in the end (one might say he was channeling Kubrick when he made ‘Moon), but it’s clear where the inspiration lies for some scenes and set-ups, and boy, are there set-ups and hints dropped all over the place. Like ‘Inception’ before or ‘Sucker Punch’ earlier this year, ‘Source Code’ is a very layered movie that entertains and thrills on first viewing, but also rewards (maybe warrants) repeated viewings to catch some of the hidden secrets, be it in the framing, dialogue, editing or background.

Gyllenhaal has done this bit of time-travel before in ‘Donnie Darko’, although the movie doesn’t really call it time-travel per se. Like ‘Quantum Leap’, it is his consciousness that is sent back into the body of a train passenger who had perished in the explosion, but his character remains himself. Gyllenhaal does better here as a thinking man action hero than he did in ‘Prince of Persia’ as he tries to focus on the mission at hand (find the bomber), while trying to figure out what happened in the last two months (his last memory before waking on the train was flying a helicopter on mission while in Afghanistan) and handling a supposed relationship between the person he is in and the mysterious woman he meets on the train. It is a very solid performance layered with nuanced, yet subtle, emotions.

Michelle Monaghan does the best she can with what is essentially a small part composed of repeated moments, but the chemistry she has with Gyllenhaal works well enough for him to develop a need to save her from the exploding train each time. It isn’t a big performance, but is economically handled. Taking a bigger role as Stevens’ ‘handler’ is Vera Fermiga who delivers a majority of her performance over a monitor screen, communicating with Stevens as an almost disembodied voice (similar to Kevin Spacey’s GERTIE in ‘Moon’, except with a real face attached). Fermiga’s Goodwin becomes Stevens’ life-life to reality. Goodwin’s superior, and creator of the titular Source Code which enables Stevens to continually return to the disaster, is Rutledge, played in a rather odd, affected manner and accent, by Jeffrey Wright. For the most part, he is Mr. Exposition.

Duncan Jones is effectively two for two in directing, and it looks like he’s hit upon a theme that he likes to tackle. As Christopher Nolan enjoys employing the theme of perception (see “Memento”, “Insomnia”, “The Prestige” and “Inception”) in his movies, Jones tackles identity. It’s not really that simple as there are layers in the works of both directors (and this is merely a simple comparison), but both have now had impressive follow-ups to their fantastic, if little seen, first films (Nolan’s first film “Following” preceded “Memento”). Not bad for the kid once known as Zowie Bowie.

Oh, and ‘Quantum Leap’ fans may want to keep a sharp ear out for a cameo.

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Hop [2011]

Rating ***

Stars James Marsden, Russell Brand (vocally), Hugh Laurie (vocally), Hank Azaria (vocally), Kaley Cuoco, Gary Ross, Elizabeth Perkins and David Hasselhoff

Directed by Tim Hill

This is simple, puffy little piece of friendly family entertainment that’s mostly innocent, and more importantly, mostly inoffensive. I asks the audience to take in a single premise and if you can accept it, you’re halfway to having an enjoyable time watching this movie.

The conceit is that the Easter Bunny is as real as Santa Claus, and as Santa operates out of the North Pole (or thereabouts) complete with a workshop and helper elves, the Easter Bunny operates out of Easter Island complete with a workshop that makes all that candy and helper chicks(!) who also double as sleigh pullers. At least Santa has those reindeers.

The movie is actually about how one Fred O’Hare (James Marsden) became the first human Easter Bunny, as he explains in the opening narration. We then follow EB (Django Marsh at the beginning, Russell Brand for the rest of the film) who is being groomed by his father, the Easter Bunny (Hugh Laurie) to take over the family business. EB has other plans, wanting to pursue his passion for the drums, and so leaves Easter Island for Hollywood where he meets Fred. It’s an uneasy partnership at first (how would you react to a talking bunny?) that grows throughout the movie through a series of incidents and misadventures. Meanwhile, on Easter Island, a particular chick, Carlos (Hank Azaria, who pulls double duty by voicing another chick, Phil, a complete polar opposite from Carlos), plots a coup to take over the Easter holiday!

Credit has to be given to Marsden who is able to convincingly act his socks off against the CG animated bunny for majority of the movie, making the interaction all the more believable. Not many actors are able to pull off acting against cartoons (Brad Pitt was not very successful in ‘Cool World’, and Branden Fraser barely managed it in ‘Monkeybone’. Even Bob Hoskins was only partly successful in ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit?’ the most obvious comparison), but Marsden accomplishes it with aplomb aplenty, gamely mugging it with his charm and goofy grin.

The animation itself blends into reality amazingly, so it’s no surprise to find effects company Rhythm and Hues in the end credits. They have the best track record for animating CG animals (pick any movie that has animals acting intelligently and realistically, and chances are they’re involved, going as far back as those Coca-Cola polar bears to the more current ‘Alvin and The Chipmunk’ movies, the upcoming ‘Red Riding Hood’ and ‘Mr. Popper’s Penguins’) and those Pink Beret commando bunnies are so damn adorable, yet deadly.

Adding much weight to the animation are the amazing vocal talents headed by Russell Brand (who also cameos in person) as EB. Hugh Laurie and the amazing Hank Azaria (most of the population on “The Simpsons” and a veteran of animated features) also deliver some great double acts as they share a number of scenes together.

While the story is fairly straight-forward, it does hit several right buttons without resorting to the typical gross-out humour (save for one particular moment) one would find in such kiddie fare. Surprisingly, it doesn’t completely pander to the kids and allows adults to actually enjoy the movie without wincing too much or feeling guilty. The use of popular songs is strategic (a centrepiece utilises, “I Want Candy”), and there’s a surprising lack of a love interest. It boils down to two particular individuals who are simply chasing their dreams.

Not picture perfect, but not so bad or annoying either (Chipmunks? Yogi Bear?). It will score well with youngsters (probably under 10) and might inspire them to start adopting bunnies. It might also work well as a simple date movie and it is a pleasant enough family film, even if it’s pretty much a transposed Christmas movie with much toned down schmaltz.

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Sucker Punch [2011]

Rating ****

Stars Emily Browning, Abbie Cornish, Jena Malone, Vanessa Hudgens, Jamie Chung, Oscar Issac with Carla Gugino, Jon Hamm and Scott Glenn

Directed by Zack Snyder

In Broad Strokes

Well, the movie definitely lives up to its name. It’s an unexpected out of nowhere blow to the senses that’ll leave one quite… well, senseless. In all honesty, it’s hard to say who this movie is intended for, who the target audience actually is. It feels like a lot of people may enjoy the babes and action scenes (female empowerment or exploitation?), most of which were highlighted in the teaser and trailers, but the story may leave most scratching their noggin wondering what the heck it was all about. The story takes place in a heightened reality and then radically shifts into fantasy, book-ended by the realm of so-called true reality. Then again, the opening itself suggests that everything you’re watching is in a way, ‘staged’, complete with red curtain rising.

While director Zack Snyder delivers in terms of visual extravaganza, sumptuous eye-candy and dazzling effects work that have peppered his two previous live-action movies (300 and Watchmen), he drops the ball on the story-telling, working from his own original story co-scripted with Steve Shibuya (who?). It could be telling that this is Snyder’s first movie that isn’t a remake or adaptation, and it’s very much a calling card for his visual style than his writing abilities.

Granted, it is not an easy movie to digest on just one screening and checking your brains at the door doesn’t help matters when the movie demands a little grey matter to put things in context. Given time and multiple screening, this is one that would grow into more of a cult film, analysed and examined for subtext between what we see and what we think we’re seeing. Discussions may be held over and over as those who would enjoy it expound upon what they think works against those who would simply dismiss the movie as a vanity project of its director who has over-indulged himself.

If you read further, guess where I fall.

Warning: potential spoilers abound, because it’s hard to get into this without addressing certain specifics.

Sucker Punch is my third most anticipated movie of the year, and the first of the three to arrive. The reason is simply because, based on the trailers, I felt that it celebrated imagination on film beyond anything that has ever come before, and it really does come very close. Really, too bad about the story that holds everything together, not that it was entirely bad. If fact, I found that the opening sequence that takes place before the shift into the ‘heightened reality’ to be chock-full of information and set up.

A practically silent sequence shows us how “Baby Doll” (Emily Browning) ends up getting sent to an all-girls asylum, The Lennox House for the Mentally Insane, by her stepfather. The accompanying narration talks about guardian angels of sorts and the manner in which they may turn up to offer advice. Is it really significant or not will depend on how much weight you want to give to it. By the time we’re given a quick initial tour of the asylum and reach the ‘Theatre’, we can catch an audio hint from Dr Vera Gorski (the lovely Carla Gugino adopting a strange accent) about adapting one’s reality to something suited to the state of mind. More hints and visual clues are dropped in very rapid succession, including the key plot point about a doctor coming to lobotomise Baby Doll in a few days, and the next thing we know, we’re not so much in an Asylum, but in a somewhat Burlesque-like brothel. The ‘patients’ are now performers and servicers for clients. Dr Gorski is the girls’ caretaker and dance instructor while the head orderly, Blue (an appropriately slimy Oscar Isaac) is the owner and pimp. The impending lobotomy doctor is now a high-roller.

The shift from the reality of the asylum to the heightened state of the brothel happens from Baby Doll’s perspective, so what we see is her point of view. It is her escape from the harsh reality and the ‘heightened reality’ is her way of coping. Of course, the question then becomes, “How much of what we’re seeing is really happening?” The movie skirts dangerously close to that cardinal sin of storytelling, that one little thing any English teacher will tell you to never do in your essay – that it’s all just a dream. The sense of reality shifts even further into fantasy when Baby Doll has to dance, an act so salacious that it captivates her audience. But, we don’t see this. Instead, we follow Baby Doll as she retreats into the fantasy realm when she dances.

Within this ‘heightened reality’ of the brothel, Baby Doll befriends Rocket (a spunky Jena Malone, whom genre fans will know from ‘Donnie Darko’) who introduces her sister, Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish) and two other dancers, Amber (Jamie Chung) and Blondie (the very brunette Vanessa Hudgens). They end up helping Baby Doll procure several items in the hopes of escaping the brothel/asylum and when that happens, Baby Doll dances as a distraction, and the simple job of grabbing the items turn into extreme fantasy action sequences ranging from war trenches and Japanese temples to interplanetary moons and medieval castles.

It’s clear that these fantasy sequences are heavily influenced by other media and sources ranging from manga and anime to European comics, specifically the older Metal Hurlent rather than the newer Heavy Metal. This is evident from the design of these fantasy worlds to the design of the ‘foes’, the costume designs and even some of the action poses which Snyder’s slow-motion stylings will give you time to savour. It is very much a moving comic book that could very well belong in the pages of the current Heavy Metal as much as it does on screen.

The leading ladies do very well in their respective roles with Browning leading the way, although she does seem to be constantly in a depressively sad state, partly on the verge of crying. For me, the standout is Malone’s Rocket who is more the centre of the group.Her character seems better established than any of the others, even warranting a back-story while Hudgen’s Blondie and Chung’s Amber are more eye-candy than actual characters. Abbie Cornish, on the other hand, is a little more difficult to pin down. Her character is tied to Rocket because they are sisters and the reason she’s at the asylum may be the clue as to why the movie ended they way it did, although that in itself is open to argument. Cornish plays her role well although the motives are a tad murky aside from simply looking out for her sister.

The tag line for the movie is, “You will be unprepared,” and in essence, that is what a sucker punch is. Nothing that has ever graced our screens looks anything like this and it is very much a visual feast, rocked by a pounding soundtrack peppered with haunting renditions of some popular songs, including Browning’s variation of The Eurythmic’s “Sweet Dreams” that opens the movie. I love that the movie celebrates fantasy and sci-fi in its extremes, taking flight with pure imagination fueling the narrative. A lot of it is open to personal interpretation and it is just too bad that the story itself falls a little short. Then again, in comparison with fantasy, reality can be a touch disappointing. The ending itself renders everything else that came before a little pointless and you might question just what was and wasn’t real, but you get to choose what you want to believe.

So, while I will admit to the story being a bit of a letdown, and it falls a little short of what it was trying to reach for, I love that it tried its best and did something truly original in pushing imaginative film-making just that little bit further. For that, it gets that one extra star.

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Underdog Soldiers (locally) a.k.a. Tommorow When The War Began [2010 – Aust]

Rating ***

Stars Caitlin Stasey, Rachel Hurd-Wood, Lincoln Lewis, Ashleigh Cummings, Chris Pang, Deniz Akdeniz, Phoebe Tonkin, Andrew Ryan and Colin Friels

Directed by Stuart Beattie

While the US remake of “Red Dawn” is stalled at troubled studio MGM, still awaiting release, Australia has churned out their own version, adapted by director Stuart Beattie (screenwriter on Pirates of The Caribbean, Collateral, Derailed, Australia and 30 Days of Night) from the first in a series of acclaimed young adult novels by John Marsden.

Seven friends go camping in the woods, and on the first night, they notice some jets flying overhead. They pay it no mind, but when they return to civilisation several days later, their world has changed as they learn that Australia has been invaded by a faceless coalition of nations. The how and why don’t reveal themselves straight away, the kids just have to deal with the situation at hand, not all of them coping well with what they learn. From the get-go, we learn that not all of them make it. While this may seem like another teen-drama franchise starter, what we do get is actually far superior than the likes of ‘Twilight’ or ‘I Am Number Four’, mainly because of how grounded this one is, presenting a somewhat realistic view of teens thrown into an extraordinary circumstance.

While all seven (an eighth teen joins in past the midpoint of the film) seemingly have established (if typically recognisable) characters, the main character is Ellie (Caitlin Stasey). The movie opens with her talking directly into a video camera and the occasionally narrates certain parts of the film as we see how things came to be. Beattie does a commendable job in keeping the characters interesting and the situation tense once the invasion is revealed.

The young cast, made up of young Australian actors, deliver solid performances all around, with Stasey holding court for most of the movie. She has several strong moments to shine and establish her character very well, and convinces as the teen thrust into the unusual circumstance of being a guerrilla soldier, and becoming the de-facto leader of the group. At least, in the view of the audience (which may annoy some). Each of the cast members play to their stereotypes at first, but they do grow out of it as the movie progresses.

While the violence isn’t as overt as “Red Dawn” (the most likely comparison), it isn’t entirely glossed over either. Beattie does well enough to keep the pace moving and the characters interesting (as writer), as well as structuring several action set-pieces to deliver a better-than-expected teen drama/war movie. Despite the cheesy poster, the movie does manage to rise above some expectations.

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Battle: Los Angeles [2011]

Rating ***

Stars Aaron Eckhart, Ramon Rodriguez, Cory Hardict, Ne-Yo, Michelle Rodriguez, Bridget Moynahan and Micheal Peña

Directed by Jonathan Liebesman

Well, that was quite a cinematic experience. It’s nothing particular new or sensational, nor is it particularly an epic extravaganza on the scale of other invasion movies (“Independence Day” in particular). First and foremost, this is an on-the-ground war movie. With its hand-held aesthetic giving it a close-quarters documentary feel, it isn’t completely the herky-jerky of “Cloverfield”. Instead, we get a grounded, visceral and involved cinematic experience as we follow a small unit of Marines on a mission in the midst of an ongoing invasion by vastly superior forces.

Assigned to the unit is one Staff Sargent Michael Nantz (Aaron Eckhart), a veteran of several campaigns and obviously weary of it all. As we begin, he’s just handed in his papers to resign his commission when several meteors are sighted heading towards Earth. When he is assigned to the unit, he assumes its simple to asset with a city-wide evacuation as the meteors are expected to hit just off-shore of the Los Angeles coast. One last job, except that things take a turn for the worst. The unit is made up of mostly youngsters fresh out of training and have no field experience, led by Second Lt. Martinez (Ramon Rodriguez). While we get brief moments to meet other members of the unit, there is very minimal characterisation, and in the ensuing chaos, they sort of blended together. What little personality they have is mostly suppressed to face the simple task at hand – head to a police station, rescue civilians and get them to a safe zone.

Eckhart is a solid lead as the haunted soldier thrown into a situation he rather not be in, but he is the rock on whom everyone has to rely. His experience becomes crucial to the unit and he convinces in his performance. The rest of the cast, mostly fresh faces (or fresh enough) for the other members of the unit, also excel in their roles, showing off the obvious military training they must have gone through prior to filming. Michelle Rodriguez does as well as expected given that she has done these roles before (from “SWAT” to “Avatar”). Still, solid performances around with the stars convincing as soldiers (not necessarily as Marines), but nothing outstanding in particular given that they don’t have much to work with, except for Eckhart.

Where the movie excels is in the depiction and filming of the action sequences, keeping the tension riveting and palatable. The alien invaders are kept as enigmatic and mysterious, we hardly get a clear view of them. with our focus with the Marines, we only see the aliens from a distance. This gives the movie that gritty war movie feel, enhanced by the hand-held camera. That may also turn certain viewers off, who find the shaky hand-held a little too much to handle even if it’s not too shaky. At least, not to the nauseating levels of “Cloverfield” of “The Blair Witch Project”. Of course, it doesn’t make the effects work any easier, but the effects do hold up well given the environment in which the movie takes place (smoke, dust, haze, daylight, night, etc).

Aside for the last twenty minutes that falls into your typical sci-fi invasion bit, albeit in its own fashion, the movie does well enough in grabbing you and throwing you straight into the mayhem. The action builds up with each confrontation, peaking with the ‘highway’ set-piece, but it doesn’t stop there. Director Jonathan Liebesman keeps his focus on the tension and the action, even if the story is a little weak. But make no mistake, this is a War movie first dressed with Sci-Fi elements, but action is king. And if you can’t handle the ‘shaky-cam’ visuals, you might want to take some caution (motion sickness bag, perhaps). Not perfect, but highly entertaining though, enough to make you feel like signing up with the Marines.

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Rango [2011]

Rating ****

Stars (vocally) Johnny Depp, Isla Fisher, Ned Beatty, Stephan Root, Harry Dean Staton, Abigail Breslin with Bill Nighy, Ray Winstone, Claudia Black and Timothy Olyphant

Directed by Gore Verbinski

A new potential animation company joins the ranks of Pixar (Disney), PDI (Dreamworks) and Blue Sky (Fox), and it’s the unlikeliest of companies to be sure. Known more for its amazing effects work, Industrial Light and Magic, in collaboration with director Gore Verbinski, have just put out their first full animated feature (unless you want to count Star Wars: Revenge of The Sith as an animated feature), a rollicking western that is a gorgeous tribute to the genre. Even better that it is a fully animated feature not utilising Motion Capture (at least it didn’t appear to have any of that, and no listing in the credits, although there was something called ‘Emotion Capture’). The cinematography is absolutely gorgeous, probably thanks to the contribution of consultant cinematographer supremo, Roger Deakins.

Rango is actually a nameless chameleon (Johnny Depp) who fashions himself a rather verbose thespian (a brilliantly conceived opening sequence establishes almost everything you need to know about him, there’s even a surprising and hilarious cameo of a character previously played by Depp). The plot is a bit of a ramble and giving it away here is a disservice to the movie itself. Suffice to say, despite how it starts, the movie is very much a Western populated with various critters that reflect the typical characters they would represent in an actual movie. The vocal cast is sublime for the most part, although it is very much Depp’s movie, although when the character of Rattlesnake Jake, voice by Bill Nighy, turns up, the confrontation does sound a touch like Davy Jones going up against Captain Jack Sparrow (Nighy and Depp, respectively, in the “Pirates of The Caribbean” sequels).

Verbinski (along with James Wyrd Byrkit and writer John Logan) obviously have an affinity for the Spaghetti Westerns in particular, even having the Spirit of The West appear (and referred to) as “The Man With No Name” in more ways than the obvious. Add to that the Mariachi (Greek) chorus (a band of Mariachi Owls) who appear throughout the film singing and narrating Rango’s exploits, and Hans Zimmer’s rousing score that is also a partial tribute to Ennio Moricone’s scores, it’s practically cinematic bliss that may be a little too much for youngsters to grasp.

The basic story works well enough, with a decent amount of action beats, witty lines, smart dialogue and fascinating, if sometimes cliched characters. But there are existential moments within the movie that would suggest that the general audience thought of was not the kids. One scene in particular recalls “Pirates of The Caribbean: At World’s End” where Captain Jack Sparrow was trapped in Davy Jones’ locker, complete with pure white desert and strange creepy crawlies. Still, I did find myself pleasantly surprised at some of the twist and turns the story took, and its mostly thanks to the unpredictable nature of Depp’s “performance”, even when we did fall into the usual tropes of the Western. Does having Los Lobos doing the song over the end credits count as one of those?

The overall design and animation is beautiful to behold even if the have various critters of odd sizes mixing it up with each other. Chameleon, snake, possums, owls, hamsters, prairie dogs, etc all appear to be almost the same size, but as the movie rolls on, it barely matters. The environment they occupy suits them perfectly and there are lots of visual cues to suggest the ‘time’ in which the movie occurs, making it more of a pseudo-Western than an actual Western. ILM’s overall production puts them on par with PDI and Pixar, yet different enough to pave their own way and be a major contender in the animation arena.

Still, it is very much a rollicking adventure with an appealing, if unusual, protagonist . The vocal performances are a lot of fun (with no credits at the beginning, you’d be trying to guess the voices at first) with Depp holding court over practically every scene, keeping the bar high for everyone else to reach for. Superb animation with beautiful design and gorgeous cinematography ensure that this is one for the ages and for all ages, even if the story is a touch on the quirky side.

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Drive Angry [2011 – non 3D]

Rating **1/2

Stars Nicolas Cage, Amber Heard, William Fichtner, Billy Burke and David Morse

Directed by Patrick Lussier

Note: I wasn’t really planning on doing a review for this because the movie was seriously butchered on our big screens. Yes, it didn’t make it unscathed and our guardians of morality got a little too happy with the scissors, but it is mostly due to several scenes of sex and nudity, rather than language and violence. First hint was that the movie, shot in 3D, wasn’t going to screen in 3D. Not even in Digital 2D simply because you can’t censor a digital file.

I guess this means most of you will probably be heading out to the DVD shops or searching the internet about now. I won’t hold it against you, you do what you like.

On with the review…

“Drive Angry” is very much a b-grade grindhouse type feature complete with insane violence, gratuitous sex scenes, bad-asses and motherf**kers (seriously, check out the end credits) and comes complete with a really stupid sounding title that doesn’t make any sense whatsoever within the context of the movie.

Okay, it’s the number-plate of a car used throughout most of the movie, but still, it’s trash and it knows it, wears it on its sleeve with pride.

The plot has John Milton (Nicolas Cage) breaking out of Hell (his name should already trigger a familiarity with literary scholars) to go on a havoc wrecking trail, hunting down those responsible for killing his daughter and kidnapping his grandchild with the intent of sacrificing the wee babe to the Devil and unleash Hell on Earth. It’s that gleefully stupefying. Nic Cage as a (sort of) spirit of vengeance? Guess he’s trying to make up for Ghost Rider, even if he’s already filming a Ghost Rider sequel. Heck, his vehicle even bursts into flames at one point in the movie!

Still, it’s not that bad a turn from Nic Cage. It’s not quite up there with “Wild At Heart” or “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans”, but not quite the depths of “Bangkok Dangerous” or “The Wicker Man” remake. Definitely a step up from “Season Of The Witch” a couple of months back. The ace-in-the-hole, however is William Fichtner as ‘The Accountant.’ Fichtner steals every scene he’s in and leaves you wanting oh-so-much more.

All involved are aware of what they’re doing here and director Patrick Lussier makes no qualms about what he’s delivering on screen. The gore literally flies off the screen (if the movie had actually been in 3D), the violence is bloody and the sex (what little we could hear) is trashy. Obviously fitting in with the genre and class of film it reaches for; a somewhat pulpy trashy guilty pleasure with some truly cool moments, cheesy dialogue delivered with thick ham and an awesome turn from Fichtner. This is one to mindlessly enjoy – if it weren’t so cut up.

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Black Swan [2010]

Rating ****

Stars Natalie Portman, Vincent Cassel, Mila Kunis, Barbara Hershey and Winona Ryder

Directed by Darren Aronofsky

Looking back on director Darren Aronofsky’s movies prior to Black Swan, you could probably have guessed what to expect. Running through his movies is the idea of obsession, and Black Swan, in that regard, is not very much different. We have our lead, Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman), a ballerina who is given the star role in a new production of Swan Lake, obsessed with attaining perfection for the role, something slightly out of reach for her. Her director (Vincent Cassel) tells her that she is the perfect White Swan (innocent, fragile and seemingly afraid), but the role requires her to become the titular Black Swan, diametrically opposite of everything that she is. As her obsession with the role grows, so does a few other dark things starting with paranoia, delusions and going far beyond.

As “The Wrestler” belonged to Mickey Rourke, “Black Swan” belongs to Natalie Portman. This is a movie that hinges on her performance and she truly excels, going beyond anything else she has ever done. It is probably the darkest and bravest character she has ever done, and that doesn’t take into account the ballet sequences that she trained for. The camera captures her in the agony and the ecstasy of the role, with Aronofsky keeping us, the viewer, up close and personal to Nina. We become a voyeur in her descent into the madness the creeps up as the movie progresses.

This isn’t so much a drama as it is a psychological horror/thriller film, the victim being Nina’s innocence, her sanity and quite possibly her life is very much at stake as well.

Fuelling all of this is the potent combination of the ballet’s director, Tomas Leroy (Cassel) who toys with her emotions in order to bring out that spark of darkness within Nina; Lily (Mila Kunis) a newcomer to the ballet company who seems to be Nina’s opposite, a perfect Black Swan, who fuel’s the paranoia especially when she is named as Nina’s alternate; and Nina’s mother (Barbara Hershey), a former ballerina herself who pins her hopes and dreams on Nina. It is a superb supporting cast.

Kunis and Portman look so alike at times, but it doesn’t stop Aronofsky from having the two actress switch roles for split-second moments. The occasional bit of cinematic trickery helps to enhance the paranoia in Nina’s mind and a dab of CGI work towards the end just underlines a magnificent transformation sequence. All supported with some ingenious sound design and a brilliant score by Clint Mansell that utilises Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” beautifully.

It may start with a dream, but it descends into a nightmare. Darren Aronofsky’s direction holds everything together, delivering a powerful film that has surpassed his previous movies. LIke all he has done, has built to this. Technically brilliant with a rich score and almost claustrophobic cinematography, “Black Swan” ultimately rises on performance, specifically belonging to Natalie Portman. Together, Aronofsky and Portman have opened up more than just an insider’s view into the world of ballet. They’ve taken us on an incredible journey, just as any good movie should do, even if it’s a dark and dangerous one.

This is a film lover’s dream of a movie.

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The Adjustment Bureau [2011]

Rating ***

Stars Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, Anthony Mackie, John Slattery, Michael Kelly and Terence Stamp

Directed by George Nolfi

This movie must have been a monster nightmare to market. The posters are practically horrendous and misleading while the trailer itself is unsure as to which genre to market or which demographic to reach for. Add to that the contemporary setting masking a sci-fi undercurrent, and you’d probably be wishing for days when you had to ask, “What is The Matrix?”

In watching the movie, you can sense the paranoid imagination of Phillip K Dick at work. After all, the movie is based on his short story, The Adjustment Team. The core idea is that your fate or destiny has been planned out, and the titular bureau operates to ensure that your life will go according to The Plan. Free will is an illusion.

Despite the sci-fi shenanigans and brain mushing concept, the heart of the movie is a romance between David Norris (Matt Damon), an aspiring politician, and Elise Sellas (emily Blunt) an aspiring dancer. Aspiring is what they are when they first meet, seemingly by chance. According to The Plan, they were never meant to meet again, but apparently, chance trumps fate and they do meet a second time allowing their initial feeling to blossom to something far more serious. Serious enough to have The Adjustment Bureau pull all the stops, risking the overall Grand Design to get these two individuals back on track with The Plan. That is the great obstacle that their romance must overcome.

Therein lies several problems, unless you skip logic and allow the movie to insinuate that despite everyone having a pre-ordained fate, our main characters’ destiny matter more than everyone else, enough for the Bureau to interfere with other people’s destiny just to make sure these two are on their proper tracks. Heck even Norris makes a point of it to the Bureau agents who are constantly getting in his way.

However, the movie’s saving grace is the remarkable chemistry between Damon and Blunt. Their scenes together are truly magic, giving incredible credence to their romance. You really believe these two are meant to be together, from their initial meeting, to the banter of their second meeting and the following conversations that follow. It makes sense that Norris would fight fate tooth and nail to be with this one girl.

Director George Nolfi (who also scripted) paces the movie very well and even has some interesting effects going on, especially as the movie progresses and the curtain behind the way the Bureau operates falls away. Added to that John Toll’s gorgeous cinematography that utilises geography and weather, combined with lighting around New York City itself to reflect Norris’ emotional state from time to time. The last time I noticed the use of lighting to reflect emotion was in Steven Spielberg’s “The Terminal”. Thomas Newman’s often delicate score also deserves some notice.

On a technical level, there is much to behold and the performances from the lead stars keeps the movie propelled, not to mention the chilling turn from Terence Stamp. As a whole, it just might make you forgive the slight inconsistencies that creep up when you try to apply some logic and thought to the proceedings. It’s not quite one where you can just check your brains at the door, but it might help to be a little forgiving to the first time director.

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The Mechanic [2011]

Rating ***

Stars Jason Statham, Ben Foster, Tony Goldwyn, Jeff Chase, Mini Anden and Donald Sutherland

Directed by Simon West

It would seem that Jason Statham is the reigning action king of the big screen, putting out at least one action movie per year. If you’ve even caught any one of the generic action movies he’s been in be it “The Transporter” (or an of the sequels) or “Death Race” or even “The Expendables”, maybe even “Crank”, you’d be pretty aware of what to expect. Statham exudes a certain dependability when it comes to action sequences, churning out more content than his peers, the quality of it though be damned, depending on your preferences. Personally, there is a certain comfort in having Statham in the lead role of a movie like “The Mechanic”. He does bring his typical style and, yes, his range may be a touch limited, but you know what you’ll get when you settle into that seat in the darkened hall.

Taking the role from a previous grim-faced action man (one Charles Bronson) Statham is Arthur Bishop, a Mechanic whose speciality is ‘fixing’ problems the way a real mechanic might fix your car. Following a job that has him taking out his mentor, Harry McKenna (Donald Sutherland), he soon finds himself being a mentor to McKenna’s son, Steve (Ben Foster). Steve is looking for a way to vent his anger and frustrations over his father’s death and Bishop decides to give Steve a way to channel his rage. If you’ve seen enough of these revenge driven movies, where the grizzled vet takes on an underling, you pretty much have an idea what’s in store following a few missions for the youngster to they out his new skills.

Director Simon West (“Con Air”. Lara Croft: Tomb Raider”, “The General’s Daughter”, “Human Target” pilot episode) does manage to keep a few things fresh, finding new angles to present the typical action scenes. He also does manage to squeeze enough tension out of one particular mission to heighten the risk and danger of the job at hand. In both Statham and Foster, West has a unique pair who are above capable in delivering the goods. Statham is his usual growly self with a hint of vulnerability while Foster exudes rage and danger in every scene while delivering a solid performance.

Between the three of them, The Mechanic does elevate itself above the typical action films that are made for cable or released direct-to-disc. It’s not perfect, but the old-school practical stunts and practical effects (mostly), with the charismatic screen presence combo of Statham and Foster does warrant a trip to the cinema on any dull day in need of some minor shot of adrenaline.

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The King’s Speech [2010]

Rating ****

Stars Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, Helena Bonham Carter, Derek Jacobi, Guy Pearce, Timothy Spall and Michael Gambon

Directed by Tom Hooper

Note: I’m not a fan of the Golden Screen Cinema (GSC) at Gurney Plaza. This is due to several factors that includes (and not limited to) problematic screenings, bad sound and uncomfortable seats. While I can’t do anything about the seats, aside from sitting on the floor which feels a smidgen more comfortable, there’s always the hope that other areas have room for improvement. Well, I decided in this new year to give the cinema another chance, mainly because I really wanted to watch The King’s Speech and GSC Gurney was the only cinema screening it (bah!)

First disappointment, although a mixed blessing, was I had to shell out RM12 for the movie, which they insisted was in 2D, like this was a movie that somehow needed a 3D conversion. What they meant (unclearly) was that the movie was presented in digital 2D (hence the higher price), but it also meant that it would be uncut (given the US “R” rating for profanity use). Settling into the still uncomfortable seats, the cinema started with their ads, which strangely were in 3D (we were in the usual hall for 3D movies), so it was a strain watching those myopic inducing double imaged ads… which were followed by a trailer for ‘Sanctum’ and the 3D ‘Road Runner’ cartoon. I turned to the next closest patron to confirm if we did indeed buy tickets to the right movie, but they seemed clueless about what was going on. I went looking for an usher, none were found. So that meant heading back to the entrance to inquire (at least I wasn’t alone in this).

We were a good ten minutes into the 3D screening of Yogi Bear before the screen went blank and the right movie was put on, skipping through the ads and a portion of the opening credits before the movie proper was played. So much for giving them another chance. At least the presentation was crisp and clear (digital presentation) and more importantly, uncut.

Now, on to the review.

The accolades are well deserved. The performances by the leads are sublime and thoroughly engaging. There’s nary a misstep, perhaps for those unusual wallpaper patterns that decorate Lionel Logue’s office. Then again, maybe those wallpaper patterns were common in those days, and they do provide some lush backdrops to an otherwise dreary setting where two men work together to defeat a speech impediment that may prove to be the undoing of a monarchy.

We have the Duke of York (Colin Firth) who has had a stammer as far as he can remember. It is handicap that he needs to overcome in order to fulfil one of his duties, that being public speaking. It is a time when radio is gaining widespread use, and speeches by the monarchy to the people of the country, especially with the onset of war, have become crucial in giving the people of the country a glimmer of hope. Except that a stammer is something that doesn’t quite inspire confidence. The Duke’s wife, Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), seeks out Logue (Geoffrey Rush) as a last resort. Logue’s methods, while unorthodox, slowly wins over the Duke and their friendship builds throughout the movie.

The story follows a familiar pattern that would commonly be found in sports movies, but wholly applicable here. The Duke, who would become King George VI, is our hero, help by Logue – the coach / trainer. There’s even a training montage, intercut with scenes of public speaking (a.k.a. the ‘sport’ in question) and even a moment when over hero has a lapse of confidence and stumbles back a little before roaring triumphantly to the end. This is, after all, based on true events with real people portrayed on screen, so it is a touch predictable. That doesn’t really stop us from watching such shows, and it shouldn’t stop you from watching this.

Firth and Rush are magnificent together in their respective roles, delivering some impressive and witty banter as well as impeccable line readings (“Say the F-Word,” says Logue, to which The Duke blurts out, “F-Fornication!”). Their characters do go beyond just the dialogue and there is remarkable chemistry between the two, all the more important for engaging the audience as the drama flows rapidly and steadfastly to the inevitable war that looms on the horizon. The final ‘game’ being the King’s first wartime speech, on which everything rests; the one we’ve been building up to.

Beyond the performances, Alexandre Desplat’s music underscores the scenes beautifully with selective use of classical pieces, and making impressive use of Beethoven’s Symphony no 7. The music is playful at times and never too sombre during the more serious moments. Then there’s the production design to which director Tom Hooper does showcase by putting his characters just a little off centre of the screen and allowing the setting they are in come forth, just a little. The crisp digital presentation brings out a lot of the little details as well. But with all the beautiful trimmings and lush photography, it never distracts from the core story and central characters.

This is very much a rousing sports movie for the intellectual mind, but the relationship of the main characters transcends the genre making it just that little bit more special, and something any viewer can relate to.

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The Green Hornet [2011]

Rating ***

Stars Seth Rogen, Jay Chou, Christoph Waltz, David Harbour, Cameron Diaz with Edward James Olmos, Edward Furlong and Tom Wilkinson

Directed by Michel Gondry

By now, you’ve probably heard that this movie is much better that it deserves to be. That’s probably true simply because of the troubled history The Green Hornet has in making its journey to the big screen. It’s not one of those things that lends itself to being updated easily if you want to preserve some of its unique elements, such as the classic car, or that a newspaper publisher that is not part of some conglomerate.

Writers Seth Rogen (who also plays Brit Reid a.k.a. The Green Hornet) and Evan Goldberg do manage to play around those little details, easily dismissing them with quirky reasoning. They deliver a fairly straight-forward story that could have been ripped straight out of a comic book. Director Michel Gondry handles the action with a sense of maniacal glee, delivering mayhem that’s bordering on cartoonish. However, by keeping all of the action scenes within that sensibility, it actually maintains a constant air of being less than serious while being grounded within its own world (much like Gondry’s other movies such “Be Kind Rewind” or even “Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind”).

Rogen seems capable enough in the lead although he still does come off as an annoying prick moreso than the original Britt Reid is supposed to be (or perhaps thinking of a modern day equivalent of being a flamboyant playboy who’s got nothing better to do). There’s an air of childishness though in Rogen’s Reid from the dialogue (which probably seems endearing to some) to his actions. Jay Chou’s Kato is more in tune with Bruce Lee’s television incarnation than the original source material (pretty much forgotten, one might assume, since Kato was more in line with The Lone Ranger’s red indian sidekick, Tonto*). As with Lee on the TV show, Chou pretty much steals all the action scenes, but he also steals most of the scenes as well.

Majority of the movie revolves around these two while Christoph Waltz does seem to enjoy himself as the main villain, Chudnovsky (the pronunciation of his name being something of a running joke). Cameron Diaz is less a love interest than an unwitting sidekick even though she is pursued by both Britt and Kato. Her character isn’t given much attention and very much feels like an afterthought, just to have some eye-candy onscreen.

In all, this is very much a ‘bromance’ film, albeit a fairly entertaining one. The level of enjoyment may rely on your tolerance of Rogen’s performance although Chou’s scenes are reason enough to check it out on the big screen. The outrageous on-screen mayhem (I really can’t call it ‘action’) is very much eye-candy for action fans. There’s a lot to goggle at, perhaps even in 3D, and while some scenes are designed that way (the first street fight, uncapping the bottles), nothing else really registers. It doesn’t diminish the entertainment value though, so take your pick on that front. Still, there’re bits to enjoy.

*Both The Lone Ranger (John Reid) and The Green Hornet (Britt Reid) are actually related. Britt is John Reid’s grandnephew. Both were created by George W Trendle and Fran Striker for radio dramas.

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The Way Back (2010)

Rating ***

Stars Jim Sturgess, Ed Harris, Alexandru Potocean, Saorise Ronan, Dragos Bucur with Mark Strong and Colin Farrell

Directed by Peter Weir

As the film opens, we’re informed of a supposedly true incident that in 1944, three men walked out of the Himalayas into India. The movie that follows is supposed to be an account of how that came about. It practically seems a tale of epic proportions given that it’s directed by Peter Weir, whose last film was “Master and Commander: The Far Side of The World”. Given that we start in the frozen wilderness of Siberia, there’s a lot of promise that is rapidly squandered as we follow a band of prisoners as the trek into a serious snow storm, across the frozen tundra heading southwards into Mongolia and the Gobi desert to reach the Himalayas.

Led by the very determined Janusz (Jim Sturgess) the eclectic group include a mysterious American, Mr. Smith (Ed Harris), and a gangster (Colin Farrell). Along the way, they pick up a young girl (Saorise Ronan) who has her own reasons for joining the prisoners on their long trek. Given that the movie is partly financed by National Geographic, it’s safe to say that there are some amazing vista on display from the harsh Siberian tundra to the harsher Mongolian desert. As hard as the actor try to give some sense of characterisation, nothing very much gets through aside from almost perfunctory information. Smith is American, Janusz must get home, Valka (Farrell) is typically a gangster, one of the other prisoners was a cook, another is an artist and so on. Aside from Valka being the tough gangster, the rest isn’t particularly important to the story.

Instead, we do learn quite a few things as the movie presses on, such as how one might use snow to get lice out of clothes, or carving a thin piece of tree bark to create a face mask against a snow storm, or how some nomads use some kind of wood as mosquito repellant when trekking near a lake, or that snake meat tastes like chicken and so on, it’s practically educational, but at the expense of story. This is not to say that Weir doesn’t manage to craft a movie that is compelling enough for an audience to sit through. In fact, Weir does his best to showcase the harshness of the environment and the toll it takes on our band of individuals, so much so that one might be equally thirsty just following the characters through the desert.

The cinematography is beautiful and the music by Weir’s “The Truman Show” collaborator, Burkhard Dallwitz, is wonderfully evocative of the scenery and hardships, yet uplifting as well. Given the epic scope of the story, however, not much time is given to the actual trek, favouring moments that cater to set-pieces along the way. In this, the movie loses some of the impact and scale. Fans of Weir might feel this is closer to his efforts such as “The Mosquito Coast” or “Fearless” than the grandness of “Master and Commander” or “Gallipoli”. While it does have a bit of a travelogue feel, it does keep true to its source to showcase the triumph of the human spirit under extreme adversity, and achieving the impossible.

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Faster [2010]

Rating ***

Stars Dwayne Johnson, Billy Bob Thornton, Carla Gugino, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Maggie Grace, Moon Bloodgood and Tom Berenger

Directed by George Tillman Jr.

So The Rock finally decides that it’s time to step back into the action game after hanging about with the kids-friendly fare such as “The Game Plan” or “Race To Witch Mountain” or (shudders) “Tooth Fairy”. To be fair, Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson has been moving away from those films, taking in small roles / cameos in “The Other Guys” and “You Again”.

In “Faster” Johnson appears to be stepping up to where he left off with “The Rundown’. His character of ‘Driver’ is singular of vision and purpose in his actions from the get go when he is released from prison after serving ten years – not quite clear for what tho. Anyway, as mentioned, Driver is of single mind and purpose from the moment we see him on screen. He’s out of prison, practically runs the empty desert road until he gets to a junkyard where a car is waiting for him, and then he drives off to kill his first target. You could almost compare him to Schwarzenegger’s Terminator in the way he moves from one target to the next. His motive, however, only becomes clear as the movie progresses (also much like “The Terminator”) when a ‘Cop’ (Billy Bob Thornton) starts poking his nose into the initial killing, much to the chagrin of the initial investigator, Cicero (Carla Gugino).

As the movie goes on, Thornton’s ‘Cop’ seems to be the sympathetic character with some personal problems, and a side story that gets screen time. Johnson’s ‘Driver’ is literally a killing machine, although there is a sense of morality at play in that he’s after very specific people (we do learn why). Thrown into the mix is a character called ‘Killer’ (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) who also has a little bit of a back-story. Of the three main characters, ‘Killer’ is the most intriguing, being the most unique… until you start to delve perhaps a little too much into his back-story, like why he does what he does.

However, it’s the action that’s the meat here, with Johnson doing what many expected him to do years ago when the torch was passed to him by Schwarzenegger as they passed in the bar (in “The Rundown”). ‘Driver’ is literally a badass man of action with barely a total of five minutes worth of dialogue spread throughout the movie. The two key shoot-out sequences pack some punch within their claustrophobic setting and the singular vehicular chase scene seems bereft of any CGI enhancements, which gives it a strong kinetic energy. The same goes for the various driving scenes (which includes a getaway that showcases ‘Driver’s’ skills). There is also a close-quarters knife fight for those looking for some hand-to-hand action.

In all, director George TIllman Jr. does a decent job at wrangling the action sequences and maintaining the edgy pace of the story that takes place over a few days, although why the days have to be numbered with titles is a little beyond me. Perhaps it’s an indication that you need to check your brains at the door and not question the movie’s somewhat scattershot logic (like I said, it’s not entirely clear why ‘Driver’ was in prison for 10 years, even after the flashback scene). Then again, the focus is the action and having Dwayne Johnson be a badass ass-kicker. If that’s all you need, that’s all you’ll get and you’ll be grinning from ear to ear till the end-credits run.

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Season of The Witch [2011]

Rating **1/2

Stars Nicolas Cage, Ron Perlman, Stephen Campbell Moore, Stephen Graham, Ulrich Thomsen, Robert Sheenan, Claire Foy and Christopher Lee

Directed by Dominic Sena

There’s something a little odd about this one. It strives to be one of those medieval quest films complete with some magical shenanigans and foggy forests and noble knights, but there is just something a little odd. This is not to say that it’s a bad film, but it doesn’t quite reach the heights of greatness the title and idea suggests.

The opening sequence in which three women are accused of witchcraft in a small village, summarily executed and the bit that follows effectively sets the tone of what we might expect to experience. Unfortunately, the rest of the movie doesn’t quite live up to that promise as we follow two Crusader knights, Behmen (Nicolas Cage) and Felson (Ron Perlman), who are coerced into escorting a young girl suspected of being a witch to a faraway monastery. There, she would be tried and, if found to be a witch, executed. Behman doesn’t quite believe that the girl is a witch, but director Dominic Sena doesn’t even try to hide this as the girl’s words and actions are continuously at odds. Everything we see on screen points to the girl being a witch, and yet, the whole ‘is-she-or-isn’t-she’ is continuously raised.

There is a sense that there were massive changes to the story as the movie races to its climax (based on what can be glimpsed from the trailers) and suddenly, we’re in a special effects extravaganza. It almost feels as if that the makers of the film did not have enough faith in the finale they had, and decided that an extra twist needed to be thrown in.

While I have issues with the plot and story, the pacing of the movie is kept fairly brisk with some entertaining moments. The dialogue might feel a little stiff although the banter between Cage and Perlman provides some levity and is effective in representing their camaraderie, Perlman seemingly more at ease in this genre than Cage. There are times when you might feel that the movie treads dangerously close to parody, and while cliches may arise (see enough of these movies, you can easily pick off the victims), the movie does rise a little above the usual mediocre fare one might find on cable TV.

If this is your first such medieval quest type film, you will find much to enjoy while film fans may have seen all this before and seen better. Some may find fault and see the lost potential while others may not really care, enjoying the movie for what it is. At best, you just might want to check your brains at the door, or else just wait until the movie hits HBO or Cinemax.

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Of Movies in 2011, what we can look forward to

Note: links to trailers where available and release dates (US/M’sia) listed where possible… (ed:- all links have been removed)

While 2010 turned out like an amped up 2009 (bigger, louder, more spectacle, less content) there’s always hope in looking ahead at some truly potential entertainment. There are some projects that promise a decent return to form, a return to the screen and even more super-heroes that you might want to actually care about. Of course, even with following the schedule on CinemaOnline, there’s no guarantee that everything there will actually turn up. Although, the chances are better than most these days.

Instead of looking from a start-to-end of year perspective, I’m gonna start with the movies I’m most looking forward to and I’m sure some of you will be looking forward to most on this list. The first one I’m most eager to watch is pretty far out actually, scheduled for an October release and it’s the return of Steven Spielberg to the big screen after a long stretch of three years (since 2008’s Indiana Jones). In collaboration with Peter Jackson, it’s Spielberg’s first foray into motion capture (shudders) with The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of The Unicorn (yay!). The few images that came from Empire magazine actually look pretty good, retaining the stylistic design of Herge’s world.

Given my fondness for high adventure (and the original trilogy), you’d think that Pirates of The Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (May) would actually top my list, but it’s actually my third most anticipated movie after the return of The Muppets (Nov, but not expected to hit our screens until March, 2012… if ever). Then again, the Pirates will be the first of the three to reach our screens. Oh, well, at least I’ll get the Sucker Punch before that in March.

Taking account of the super-heroes, comic book movies appear to have quite a banner year lined up. The expected Summer hits include Thor (May), Green Lantern (June), Captain America: The First Avenger (July / Aug), X-Men: First Class (June), and lesser known comic properties such as Cowboys and Aliens (July /Aug), Conan (from books to comics, Aug), Priest (from Korean manhwa, May) and if we’re really lucky (doubt it, but CinemaOnline says otherwise) we will get Gantz in April (Part 1) and September (part 2). Strangely, CinemaOnline has The Wolverine (or X-Men Origins: Wolverine 2) listed for a May 2011 release even though the movie hasn’t even begun production. Add on to that the final FINAL chapter of Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows, and we can put that overgrown baby to rest. It just better have a more than decent pay-off after the somewhat limp first half.

On the action front, you have Dwayne (The Rock) Johnson pulling double duty, first as the eponymous Driver seeking vengeance in Faster (Jan) and then chasing down Vin Diesel and Paul Walker driving fast cars in Fast Five (May). There’s more vehicular mayhem in Drive Angry 3D (Feb) (although the chances of us getting the 3D version seem slim, not even listed in CinemaOnline) as Nicolas Cage escapes Hell itself to take vengeance on those who killed his daughter, and sending more damned souls to Hell. Of course, there’s also the vehicular insanity that is Transformers: Dark of The Moon (June). And while not quite involving cars, we do have the now expected Jason Statham action flick, The Mechanic (remaking the Charles Bronson film, Feb). Pulling in towards the end of the year is Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (Dec), which sensibly forgoes the expected double colon in its title.

Speaking of colons, there are quite a few elongated titles in some upcoming movies (Tintin, Pirates, X-Men, Cap and Transformers already listed). Joining them in the quest for longest titles include World Invasion: Battle Los Angeles (Mar), The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 1 (Nov), Caesar: Rise Of The Apes (Jul), Kung-Fu Panda 2: The Ka-boom of Doom (May), Spy Kids 4: All The Time In The World (Aug), Journey 2: The Mysterious Island (Sep), Diary Of A Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules (May) as well as (why-oh-why) Big Mommas: Like Father, Like Son (Mar) and Alvin and The Chipmunks: Chipwrecked (Dec)

While Pixar continues to maintain some concept of the one-movie-per-year-retains-quality philosophy with Cars 2 (Aug), they will face stiff competition from rivals, DreamWorks Animation who also have, aside from Kung-Fu Panda, Puss In Boots (Nov) spinning off from the Shrek series. Other animated features (most likely in 3D) expected to hit our screens include Rango (Paramount, Mar), Rio (Blue Sky, April), Winnie The Pooh (Disney, July), Hop (Universal, Mar), Happy Feet 2 (Nov), Mars Needs Moms (Digital ImageMovers, Mar) and wrapping up the year with Arthur Christmas (Aardman, Dec). That’s almost one animated feature per month with The Smurfs (Sony Animation) taking the September slot.

While 2010 seemed lacking in the comedy department, we do have some hope coming up with Paul (May) leading the pack. We can only hope that the rest such as The Hangover 2, No Strings Attached (Feb), Your Highness (Jun), Friends With Benefits (which seems similar to No Strings Attached, Sep), Cedar Rapids and Just Go With It (which pairs up Jennifer Aniston with Adam Sandler, Mar) can provide some much needed levity and hilarity, as well as hope that Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer (Disaster Movie, Vampires Suck, etc.) have finally run their course.

The year’s pretty packed just from looking at everything above and we haven’t even touched the wild-cards such as Hanna (Apr), Source Code (Apr), Scre4m (Apr), The Way Back, Unknown (Liam Neeson still in Taken mode, but looks a bit like an update of Frantic mashed with The 39 Steps), The Thing (a prequel to the John Carpenter classic), Anonymous (from Roland Emmerich), The Three Musketeers (Paul WS Anderson taking a stab at the classic), Apollo 18 (not quite sure what just yet, but am looking forward to this), Red State (Kevin Smith does horror), Sanctum (We’re not likely to get this in 3D even though it’s produced by James Cameron), Real Steel, The Adjustment Bureau (a Philip K. Dick adaptation with Matt Damon, Feb), Super 8 (from director JJ Abrams, produced by Steven Spielberg), I Am Number Four (the next Harry Potter?), Beastly (modern take on Beauty and The Beast, in New York, With Neil Patrick Harris), The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick ponders life, so it’ll beautiful and slow), The Rite (Anthony Hopkins teaches exorcism rites), Red Riding Hood (by way of Twilight, from director Catherine Hardwicke) and Cameron Diaz as a Bad Teacher (May). Then there’s (Witches of Oz), which is an intriguing poster with an interesting cast.

There are some foreign movies that I’m hoping will reach the Penang screens such as Capt. Abu Raed, Space Battleship Yamato, GITS: S.A.C. SSS 3D among them, but I know it’s highly unlikely, even if they are listed in CinemaOnline (the first two are). We’re looking at a very loaded Summer, but it still remains to see how many of them are actually good and not just empty spectacle.

Here’s hoping.

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