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Hei tai yang: Nan Jing da tu sha

Exploitation or historical document? You be the judge...

Aspect ratio: 1.85:1

Sound format: Mono

Dramatized account of events in 1937-38, when Japanese military forces overran the city of Nanking, unleashing a wave of barbarous cruelty on the defenceless population.

Though hyped by its director as a sincere depiction of China's darkest hour, BLACK SUN: THE NANKING MASSACRE will be remembered chiefly for its exploitation trimmings, such as the scene in which a sneering Japanese soldier uses his bayonet to cut a foetus from the womb of a pregnant Chinese woman. It sounds horrific, but the incident is staged with freak-show explicitness more likely to generate laughter than horror - until one remembers that such things *did* happen during this period, and much worse besides...

In narrative terms, the film offers a curious mixture of gruesome horror and earnest recreations of historical events, punctuated by lengthy scenes in which high-ranking Japanese officials argue the merits (or not) of their behavior toward 'enemy' civilians. Unlike the scenes of carnage, however, these dialogue exchanges are rendered with little or no visual flair, a stylistic conceit which serves the demand for historical accuracy whilst simultaneously blunting any possible sympathy the audience may develop for the Japanese characters. Director Mau Dui-fai - billed as 'T.F. Mous' - was previously responsible for such see-'em-and-vomit items as LOST SOULS (1980) and the notorious MEN BEHIND THE SUN (1988), and here he demonstrates an aptitude for sideshow theatrics which renders him uniquely suited to the subject at hand.

For all its sensationalism, however, the movie is distinguished by an extraordinary *lack* of melodrama. Mau depicts the worst horrors (rape, decapitation, mass shootings and burnings) with po-faced solemnity, lapsing into carnival grotesquerie only when the pace threatens to flag. Those looking for sleazy thrills will get their money's worth, but "Black Sun" straddles the gap between commercial exploitation and journalistic integrity, and takes few prisoners along the way. Performances by a largely unknown cast are uniformly fine, and production values are top-notch for such downmarket fare.

(Cantonese dialogue)

The Bunker

Uneventful and confusing

Aspect ratio: 1.85:1

Sound format: Dolby Digital Surround EX

1944: A group of German soldiers take refuge from advancing Allied forces inside a bunker on the German-Belgian border, where they're haunted by what appear to be the restless spirits of a Medieval massacre...

Debut director Rob Green aims for something less exploitative than your average low budget shocker, but he's rather handicapped by Clive Dawson's feeble script, which mistakes 'creeping dread' for 'narrative drive', and the resolution is both confusing and unsatisfactory. The funereal pace and lack of action is further amplified by Russell Currie's dissonant music score, which fails to bolster the visuals in a constructive manner. Still, some viewers will get a kick out of the creepy setting and sudden flashes of violence, and there's an excellent cast, toplined by Jack Davenport (THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY), Jason Flemyng (LOCK, STOCK AND TWO SMOKING BARRELS) and Andrew Tiernan (EDWARD II). See also DEATHWATCH (2002), a marginally superior reworking of the same basic storyline.

Before Night Falls

Prior knowledge of the subject is a must

Aspect ratio: 1.85:1

Sound format: Dolby Digital

The life and times of Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas, whose political viewpoint and experiences as a gay man rendered him unwelcome in his home country.

Evocative study of a renowned artist whose craft was forged under duress, within a political system which defined Art and sexuality as two sides of the same 'dangerous' cultural coin. Viewers with a prior knowledge of Arenas' life and work will derive more from the episodic narrative than most casual viewers, though no one could fail to be impressed by Javier Bardem's Oscar-nominated performance in the central role. Strong supporting cast, too, including Johnny Depp in brief - but memorable - dual roles, Olivier Martinez (as Arenas' closest friend) and a virtually unrecognizable Santiago Magill (DON'T TELL ANYONE) as one of Bardem's early sexual conquests. Directed by Julian Schnabel (BASQUIAT).

(English and Spanish dialogue)

Batoru rowaiaru II: Chinkonka

Disappointing sequel to magnificent predecessor
BATTLE ROYALE II: REQUIEM (Batoru Rowairu II: Chinkonka)

Aspect ratio: 1.85:1

Sound format: Dolby Digital

Under the new Battle Royale Act, a group of unruly juveniles is taken to a remote island and forced to engage in mortal combat with another set of teenagers who have defied the Act by engaging in militant activities.

Disappointing sequel to the magnificent BATTLE ROYALE (2000), completed by Kenta Fukasaku following the death of his father Kinji during production. The movie is no less bombastic than its predecessor, though it lacks the element of surprise and is further weakened by a meandering plot line which heads in fairly obvious directions. More controversially, Fukasaku's script (co-written with Norio Kida) launches a blistering - though indirect - attack on American foreign policy, which it blames for fomenting unrest in Arab nations, leading to the events of 11 September 2001 and subsequent terrorist attacks on international targets. This probably accounts for the film's lack of exposure in American theaters!

Teen idol Tatsuya Fujiwara makes a welcome return from the first film, playing the disillusioned leader of an uprising against 'fascist' adults and their murderous regulations, and 'Beat' Takeshi Kitano appears briefly in a minor cameo. However, the film is undermined by Riki Takeuchi as the former teacher with a grudge against Fujiwara's rebellious clan, giving a cartoonish performance as the chief villain.

(Japanese dialogue)

Lung hing foo dai

Not much of a plot, but get a load of the stunts!!
ARMOUR OF GOD (Long Xiong Hu Di)

Aspect ratio: 1.85:1

Sound format: Mono

Fortune-hunter Asian Hawk (Jackie Chan) travels to an ancient monastery in central Europe where his ex-girlfriend (Rosamund Kwan) is being held to ransom by a deadly cult who want Chan to deliver fragments of an all-powerful religious artefact.

Forever remembered as The Movie In Which Jackie Chan Almost Lost His Life™ (footage of the accident is even played over the closing credits, just to prove it!), this thinly-plotted action-adventure boasts a series of death-defying stunts (watch out for a truly breathtaking car chase early in the film) and brilliantly choreographed fight scenes, set against the backdrop of various far-flung European locations. Chan draws most of the limelight away from co-stars Alan Tam and Lola Forner, and the 1.85:1 image seems a little cramped in places (Chan was forced to adopt the narrower frame favored by original director Eric Tsang, who withdrew from the project following Chan's near-fatal mishap), but the movie still has much to recommend it. Dimension's rescored, re-edited US version - titled OPERATION CONDOR 2: THE ARMOR OF THE GODS (!) - should be avoided at all costs. Followed by ARMOUR OF GOD II: OPERATION CONDOR (1991).

(Cantonese dialogue)

Fei ying gai wak

Widescreen thrills on a lavish budget

Aspect ratio: 2.39:1 (Technovision)

Sound format: Mono

Asian Hawk (Jackie Chan) comes under fire from all sides whilst on a mission to retrieve Nazi treasure buried in the Sahara desert.

One of the most popular films in Chan's extensive filmography, this superior sequel to ARMOUR OF GOD (1986) is clearly patterned after the success of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981), but Chan's movie celebrates its American influences whilst remaining defiantly Asian in concept and execution. It isn't perfect, by any means: The female characters are rendered almost entirely subordinate (Carol Cheng, Eva Cobo De Garcia and Shoko Ikeda give OK performances under the circumstances), and some of the Arab stereotypes are borderline offensive (prompting protests by the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee when a re-edited version - OPERATION CONDOR - opened in US theaters), but viewers willing to overlook these conspicuous blunders will be treated to some of the most astonishing set-pieces of Chan's entire career.

In fact, the entire movie is a showcase for world-class stuntwork, photographed in glorious widescreen by veteran cinematographer Arthur Wong. Chan is clearly doubled in a number of sequences (notably a car-and-motorcycle chase during the film's opening stretch), but there's no denying his participation in the show-stopping finale, where Good and Evil engage in mortal combat within a vast underground labyrinth, culminating in a spectacular wind-tunnel sequence which took *months* to film and sent the entire movie over-schedule and way over-budget. Released in the UK as OPERATION CONDOR: ARMOUR OF GOD II.

(Cantonese dialogue)


Triumphant mixture of action and drama

(USA/UK: Unleashed)

Aspect ratio: 2.39:1

Sound formats: Dolby Digital / DTS

Raised as a fighting machine by thuggish Glasgow loan sharks, a young man (Jet Li) finds happiness after falling into the care of a kindly old piano teacher (Morgan Freeman) and his musical-protégé granddaughter (Kerry Condon). But Li's past catches up with him, threatening the safety of his newfound family...

Terrific combination of heartfelt drama and bone-crunching action scenes (choreographed by Yuen Wo-ping), anchored by strong performances (including Bob Hoskins as Li's brutal 'mentor') and a finely-tuned script by French action maestro Luc Besson. Grainy filmstock and an excess of closeups (typical of the ghastly Super 35 'widescreen' process) render it less cinematic than it ought to be, and the narrative is predictable, but the movie works on a visceral level whilst simultaneously pulling the heartstrings. Li's best non-HK film since KISS OF THE DRAGON (2001).

(English dialogue)

The Mothman Prophecies

Portentous thriller with empty heart

Aspect ratio: 2.39:1

Sound formats: Dolby Digital / DTS / SDDS

Following the death of his wife in a mysterious traffic accident, a successful journalist (Richard Gere) becomes drawn to the small town of Point Pleasant in West Virginia where sightings of a weird moth-like creature foretell a devastating tragedy...

Based on true events which occurred on the Ohio River in 1967, Mark Pellington's portentous drama follows Gere's big-city reporter through a series of strange events in small-town America (eg. his 'first' encounter with farmer Will Patton, his 'telephone conversation' with the Mothman, etc.). Apparently, neither Gere or Pellington were interested in making a conventional 'monster movie', opting instead for a series of bizarre plot twists and sudden shocks, linked to various glimpses of the title creature in a number of clever disguises.

Scripted by Richard Hatem (UNDER SIEGE 2) from John A. Keel's non-fiction book (an overview of the entire Mothman phenomenon to date), the film sports a welcome cameo from acting heavyweight Alan Bates as a grizzled professor whose personal encounters with the eponymous Mothman have reduced him to a shadow of his former self, though the narrative loses some of its dramatic momentum around the halfway mark, and the fiery climax barely resonates on an emotional level, perhaps because the characters are mere stick figures, subservient to the unfolding mystery. For all its drawbacks, however, THE MOTHMAN PROPHECIES - clearly inspired by the popular success of like-minded chillers THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (1999) and THE SIXTH SENSE (1999) - is mature, intelligent, and often deeply unsettling, and both Laura Linney (TV's "Tales of the City") and Debra Messing ("Will & Grace") are excellent in crucial supporting roles. Good title, too.


Unheralded masterpiece

Aspect ratio: 2.39:1 (Technovision)

Sound format: Dolby Stereo

A TV newsroom artist (Mark Rydell) helps a distraught anorexic (Asia Argento) to investigate the death of Argento's mother (Piper Laurie) at the hands of a monstrous serial killer.

Though often cited as the film which signalled a creative downturn in Dario Argento's career, TRAUMA is actually a much better entry than its reputation suggests. The victim of spotty theatrical distribution and horrendous pan-scanned video versions - which reduce the wide Technovision frame to a mere shadow of its former self - the film is an exercise in giallo excess, culminating in one of the finest Grand Guignol set-pieces of this director's long career. Indeed, far from providing evidence of 'creative decline', TRAUMA is actually a fine addition to Argento's filmography, and is ripe for reappraisal.

Despite its American setting, the film is defiantly European in style and execution, employing ultra-wide scope framing, inventive camera-work (including a bizarre shot from the point-of-view of a butterfly!!), ornate narrative structure and eccentric characterizations. It's no wonder some of the supporting American players seem a little disconcerted by the director's unconventional approach (including Frederic Forrest as a doctor sporting an unexplained neck-brace, and James Russo as a typically hard-boiled cop, always one step behind the film's youthful protagonists)! And the script - co-written by Argento and celebrated fantasy author T.E.D. Klein - adheres faithfully to the giallo template, punctuating its convoluted storyline with several grisly murders (though not *that* grisly, considering the involvement of makeup wiz Tom Savini), and a number of compelling set-pieces: The seance which ends in murder; the mental institution where the killer disposes of an important 'clue'; the room full of billowing drapes (an authentic stroke of genius); and the climactic revelation of the killer's motive, which is so utterly horrific, it almost justifies his/her gruesome rampage. The movie ain't called TRAUMA for nothing!

At least two other versions of the film have surfaced in bootleg video form over the years, both of which plug a number of gaping editorial gaps in the official 'director's cut' (note, for instance, the abrupt introduction of Rydell and Asia at the beginning of the film), which indicates either distributor problems or a rushed post-production schedule. This may explain why Pino Donaggio's half-hearted score sounds like it was written and recorded before completion of principal photography and tailored to match the finished product, rather than the other way around. The cast is a typical Argentonian mixed bag: Asia portrays the same joyless harpy she's played in all her collaborations with Argento to date (including THE STENDHAL SYNDROME and THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA), leaving Rydell to shoulder most of the film's emotional burden as a young man who learns to accept Asia's flaws whilst simultaneously falling in love with her (few) virtues. Frankly, she doesn't deserve him! Laurie makes much of her limited screen time as Asia's domineering mother, while Brad Dourif (the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy) plays a former doctor whose guilty conscience comes back to haunt him in the worst possible way. Watch out for ex-"Falcon Crest" star Laura Johnson in a brief but creepy performance (her final scene is genuinely chilling) as an ambitious TV news anchorwoman who tries to stake her claim on Rydell in no uncertain terms.

The Brotherhood 2: Young Warlocks

Even less impressive than the first...

(UK: Young Warlocks)

Aspect ratio: 2.39:1 (Lomoscope)

Sound format: Stereo

A group of high school outcasts are given strange powers by an influential new student (Forrest Cochran) who turns out to be a murderous demon...

Unrelated follow-up to THE BROTHERHOOD (2000) amounts to more of the same, though there's even less beefcake on display, and most of the guys aren't all that attractive anyway. The one exception is former model Sean Faris, playing an innocent pawn in Cochran's devilish plot, though director David DeCoteau takes little advantage of Faris' radiant beauty. As with the original, the narrative is weighed down by acres of mind-numbing dialogue, sparked by a studs-in-underwear finale and the "Brotherhood" series' signature episode, in which two near-naked hunks 'ravish' a hypnotized young girl, staged and photographed in a manner which suggests one guy is actually seducing the other. If the movie wasn't such a poorly-conceived tease (just like the first one), this might actually be worth a damn, but it just lies there and dies there. Followed by THE BROTHERHOOD 3: YOUNG DEMONS (2002).

The Brotherhood

Beefcake thriller lacks the courage of its convictions

(UK: I've Been Watching You)

Aspect ratio: 2.39:1 (Lomoscope)

Sound format: Stereo

A high school jock (Nathan Watkins) is targeted by the leader of a vampire cult (Bradley Stryker) who needs to transfer his soul into Watkins' body to survive...

Following the unexpected success of his gloriously homoerotic horror-thriller VOODOO ACADEMY (2000) - particularly the unrated DVD version - veteran director David DeCoteau (CURSE OF THE PUPPET MASTER, PRISON OF THE DEAD, etc.) Took a commercial gamble and formed his own company - Rapid Heart Pictures - dedicated to the production of low-budget teen movies with a beefcake twist. Unfortunately, their maiden venture is a bust, for several reasons. Firstly, it was shot in less than a week (!), which precludes a certain degree of cinematic flair (despite DeCoteau's wasted use of the 35mm scope format), and the plot is driven by dialogue rather than action - too much dialogue, in fact. Secondly, whereas "Voodoo" overcame numerous plot deficiencies by stripping its hunky cast down to their designer underwear at every given opportunity, THE BROTHERHOOD is a great deal less forthcoming in this regard. Indeed, DeCoteau claims the film's blatant gay undertow is 'accidental', despite the unsubtle narrative device of a monstrous entity which takes the shape of a beautiful young man in order to seduce (figuratively speaking) another equally beautiful young man. Furthermore, the movie contains an eye-popping set-piece in which the two male leads shed their clothes and ravish a young girl who's been hypnotized into submission, though the coverage is focused almost exclusively on the guys themselves...

DeCoteau's insistence that his movies cater primarily for teenage girls (contrary to remarks made on the US DVD release of LEATHER JACKET LOVE STORY, where he specifically encourages gay viewers to check out the Rapid Heart catalog) suggests a reluctance to challenge established mainstream parameters. In other words, he's trying to have his cake and eat it by indulging a commercial preoccupation with beautiful young men whilst refusing to pursue the concept to its logical narrative conclusion. In his own defence, DeCoteau argues that many actors - particularly those most suited to this kind of movie - are unwilling to perform nude scenes, though this argument seems particularly bogus. Refusal to do a full-frontal is one thing, but if his actors won't even allow rear-view nude shots, then the likelihood of a daring, sexually unambiguous horror film from this particular stable seems remote, to say the least. Here, for instance, very little attention is lavished on Bradley Stryker's ultra-buff torso, except for a couple of sequences during the latter half of the film, and the equally hunky Donnie Eichar (playing an axe-wielding doorman) remains fully clothed throughout! The movie lacks audacity and courage, in spades.

All this would be immaterial, of course, if the production schedule had allowed for a stronger storyline, less reliant on prolonged stretches of mundane dialogue. For all that, however, THE BROTHERHOOD is assembled with a fair amount of professional skill, and most of the acting is fine (Josh Hammond steals everyone's thunder as Watkins' not-so-nerdy sidekick). Teens may enjoy the simplistic storyline and sumptuous young actors, but there's little here to engage a wider audience. Followed by THE BROTHERHOOD 2: YOUNG WARLOCKS (2001).

Crimson Tide

Entertaining blockbuster with first-rate performances

Aspect ratio: 2.39:1 (Panavision)

Sound format: Dolby Digital

At the height of the Cold War, a battle of wills erupts between the captain of a US nuclear submarine (Gene Hackman) and his second-in-command (Denzel Washington).

Unusual blockbuster from the Don Simpson/Jerry Bruckheimer stable, which foregoes flashy set-pieces for an intimate - though no less gripping - drama involving two experienced submarine officers who lock horns over protocol as the world teeters precariously on the brink of nuclear war. Hackman embraces the 'shoot-first-ask-questions-later' point of view, while Washington prefers adherence to the rule-book, and both men are determined to prevail. Michael Schiffer's screenplay contains echoes of THE CAINE MUTINY, especially the dramatic sequence in which Washington is forced to assume command of the sub, though Hackman's subsequent attempt to regain control is pure melodrama, done to a turn. Performances are first-rate all the way down the line, helped by gleaming production values and terrific dialogue (pop-culture references to "Star Trek" and the Silver Surfer betray evidence of an uncredited script polish by Quentin Tarantino), and director Tony Scott keeps a steady hand on the rudder. Also starring George Dzundza, Viggo Mortensen, James Gandolfini, Danny Nucci, Rick Schroder, Steve Zahn and an unbilled Jason Robards. Look quickly for Ryan Phillippe as a young crewmember.


A blockbuster classic - who'da thunk?!

Aspect ratio: 2.39:1 (Panavision)

Sound formats: Dolby Digital / DTS

A ruthless terrorist (Dennis Hopper) plants a bomb inside a bus which is primed to detonate if the vehicle's speed falls below 50mph, and a SWAT team is dispatched to guide it through rush hour traffic.

That rarity in modern American cinema - a high concept bubblegum movie which doesn't insult the audience's intelligence. Episodic in structure, the movie pits Hopper's vengeful psychopath against SWAT member Keanu Reeves (whose career went into overdrive from this point onward), and barely pauses for breath along the way. Debut director (and erstwhile cinematographer) Jan de Bont transforms Graham Yost's modest screenplay into a super-charged thrill-machine, photographed (by Andrzej Bartkowiak) and edited (by John Wright) to perfection, and augmented by some of the best stuntwork and visual effects money can buy. The cast is a ragbag of new faces, old-timers and dependable character actors: Reeves and Hopper dominate the show, while leading lady Sandra Bullock 'makes cute' in a career-making performance, and there's strong support from Jeff Daniels (DUMB & DUMBER) and Joe Morton (THE BROTHER FROM ANOTHER PLANET) in crucial secondary roles. Followed by SPEED 2: CRUISE CONTROL (1997).

NB. A 'sleeper' hit by Hollywood blockbuster standards, the film owes a narrative debt to Junya Sato's Japanese thriller THE BULLET TRAIN (1975), in which a terrorist bomb is primed to explode on board a packed commuter train if it falls below a certain speed. It's possible SPEED was written and produced in complete ignorance of the earlier film, but no one connected with de Bont's version seems willing to address the similarities.


OK Van Damme vehicle, well-done but uninspired

(UK: Inferno)

Aspect ratio: 1.85:1

Sound format: Dolby Digital

A disillusioned ex-soldier (Jean-Claude Van Damme) goes to the desert to commit suicide, but instead gets drawn into a small town plagued by thuggish drug runners.

Van Damme's career continued its downward slide with this routine actioner, inspired by YOJIMBO (1961) and bolstered by violent set-pieces and a gallery of eccentric supporting characters (played by Pat Morita, Danny Trejo, Larry Drake and Vincent Schiavelli, amongst others). Tom O'Rourke's screenplay springs few surprises, but director John G. Avildsen (THE KARATE KID) keeps the pot boiling in between scenes of gunfire and hand-to-hand combat, and Van Damme strikes something of a god-like figure in his skintight vest and clinging jeans (it's doubtful he ever looked sexier than he does here). Undiscriminating action fans will lap it up, though it doesn't really amount to very much. Released to video in the US as DESERT HEAT.

Queen of the Damned

B-movie with delusions of grandeur. But what grandeur!!

Aspect ratio: 2.39:1 (Panavision)

Sound formats: Dolby Digital / DTS / SDDS

At the end of the 20th century, the vampire Lestat (Stuart Townsend) rises from his undead slumber and adopts the guise of a rock star, which draws the attention of a beautiful vampiress (Aaliyah) who wants to conquer the world...

Forsaking the introspective melancholy of its highbrow predecessor (INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE: THE VAMPIRE CHRONICLES), this ill-conceived sequel plays like a Gothic MTV fantasy with delusions of grandeur. But what grandeur! Combining elements from two of Anne Rice's celebrated 'Vampire Chronicles' ('The Vampire Lestat' and 'Queen of the Damned'), the narrative is anchored by Townsend's ultra-sexy turn as anti-hero Lestat. Flamboyant without ever seeming camp, he strikes a more dynamic figure than Tom Cruise's foppish blade in the previous film, and it's all too appropriate that he should locate himself within the modern music industry, with its outlandish characters and overzealous visual style (several of Lestat's music videos - inspired by German expressionist cinema of the 1920's - are convincing down to the last detail). However, while most of the songs - co-written by Richard Gibbs and KoRn vocalist Jonathan Davis - encapsulate the spirit of Lestat's heartbroken worldview, their aggressive fatalism will alienate some viewers and date the movie pretty quickly.

As in the original, director Michael Rymer (IN TOO DEEP) downplays the homoerotic undercurrent which forms a significant aspect of Rice's literary style. Nevertheless, the script - written by Scott Abbott (INTRODUCING DOROTHY DANDRIDGE) and Michael Petroni (THE DANGEROUS LIVES OF ALTAR BOYS) - actively celebrates the 'outsider' lifestyle (vampires, Goths, rock fans, members of secret societies, etc.) and tips a knowing wink to the initiated when Lestat exhorts his fellow vampires to: "Come out, come out, wherever you are!" Aaliyah makes the most of her extended cameo as the Queen of the Damned - she even manages to steal some of Townsend's erotic thunder! - and her final sequence includes one of the most visually stunning vampire disintegrations ever captured on film. Sadly, the singer-actress died in a plane crash shortly after completion of principal photography. Also starring Vincent Perez (THE CROW: CITY OF ANGELS) and Lena Olin (ROMEO IS BLEEDING) in secondary roles.

Interview with the Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles

Romantic, melancholy and beautiful - a vampire epic for the new millennium

Aspect ratio: 1.85:1

Sound formats: Dolby Digital / SDDS

17th century New Orleans: The relationship between an ancient vampire (Tom Cruise) and his bloodsucking protegé (Brad Pitt) is tested to destruction by a young girl (Kirsten Dunst) who challenges their established dynamic, leading to betrayal and murder.

A doom-laden meditation on life and death and the nature of grief, based on Anne Rice's bestselling novel (written as a response to the death of her beloved daughter), and featuring two of contemporary Hollywood's most recognizable stars (both astonishingly beautiful here) as vampire and willing victim, remaining eternally young as the world evolves around them. Cruise plays a seasoned killer who revels in bloodthirsty excess, while Pitt is a conscientious objector who balks at the prospect of drinking human blood, until Cruise creates a 'companion' for Pitt in the shape of a little girl (Dunst) who refuses to grow old gracefully, with tragic consequences.

Scored with melancholy grace by composer Elliot Goldenthal, and beautifully designed and photographed (by Dante Ferretti and Philippe Rousselot, respectively), the film is epic in concept and execution, spanning the social upheavals of 17th and 18th century America and the horrors of 19th century Europe, where a nest of ancient vampires (led by scene-stealer Antonio Banderas and a miscast Stephen Rea) wreak terrible revenge on those who transgress against vampire lore. But, for all its spectacle, director Neil Jordan (THE COMPANY OF WOLVES) - working from a script credited to Rice herself - maintains a leisurely pace and never loses sight of the characters. The movie contains some beautiful, transcendent passages, including a breathtaking transition from 19th century Europe to modern day America via the introduction of motion pictures (everything from SUNRISE: A SONG OF TWO HUMANS to GONE WITH THE WIND and SUPERMAN!), and an incredibly moving sequence in which a once-proud vampire is discovered in exile, laid low by his own vanity.

The film's delicate tone is upset by a trick ending which comes completely out of left-field, though Jordan has denied any suggestion of studio interference. And, as with the novel, the homoerotic undercurrent is mere window-dressing, an unconsummated tease which the filmmakers (and Rice herself) refuse to explore in any detail, lest it frighten the mainstream crowd. Sadly, the movie is dedicated to the memory of River Phoenix - originally cast as the interviewer who provides one half of the film's title - who died of a drugs overdose during pre-production; his role was taken by Christian Slater. Followed by QUEEN OF THE DAMNED (2002).

The Skulls

OK yarn will please target audience

Aspect ratio: 1.85:1

Sound formats: Dolby Digital / DTS / SDDS

After being recruited to a secret society operating behind closed doors at his Ivy League university, a young student (Joshua Jackson) becomes suspicious of the organization's ringleaders following the unexpected 'suicide' of a close friend (Hill Harper) who had set out to expose the society's criminal methods.

The cross-pollination of film and television continues apace with this entertaining yarn, featuring a number of well-known TV faces, including Craig T. Nelson ("The District"), William L. Petersen ("CSI: Crime Scene Investigation") and Steve Harris ("The Practice") as the token grown-ups, and Leslie Bibb ("Popular") as Jackson's love interest. Paul Walker (THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS) is the golden-haired jock who seems to know more about Harper's tragic death than he's prepared to admit. On hiatus from "Dawson's Creek", Jackson coasts through proceedings on the strength of his TV persona (smart, plucky and wise beyond his years), battling the age-old rituals of an ancient cabal which moulds a selection of today's student body into tomorrow's politicians and business leaders, and will stop at nothing to conceal its activities from the outside world. Murder and mayhem are the order of the day, though the movie is flawed by a couple of implausible plot twists and a rather tepid climax. Beautifully photographed by Shane Hurlbut; directed by Rob Cohen (DRAGON: THE BRUCE LEE STORY). Followed by THE SKULLS II (2002).


'Teensploitation' pic with heart and soul

Aspect ratio: 1.66:1

Sound format: Mono

Whilst standing at the crossroads of their lives, three oversexed teenagers (Hans van Tongeren, Toon Agterberg and Maarten Spanjer) are driven apart by a beautiful gold-digger (Renée Soutendijk) who seeks to benefit from their mutual ambitions.

Maverick filmmaker Paul Verhoeven turns the much-reviled 'teensploitation' subgenre on its head with this uncompromising depiction of three naive young men and their difficult journey from adolescence to maturity. Rebelling against their conservative small-town upbringing, the protagonists are forced to reap the whirlwind of their actions, leading to tragedy for some, redemption for others. Verhoeven's script (co-written with his regular collaborator Gerard Soeteman) tackles hot-button issues like sex, disability, religious faith and homosexuality in an up-front manner, leading some Dutch critics to berate the film's alleged 'misogyny' and 'homophobia' (similar accusations were levelled against some of Verhoeven's Hollywood features, including BASIC INSTINCT and SHOWGIRLS), but these complaints become diminished under scrutiny: True, Soutendijk's heartbreaker is little more than an avaricious trollop, but she's the only one who remains loyal to van Tongeren in the wake of a devastating accident which changes his life forever. It's also true that Agterberg is driven out of the closet by a vicious sexual assault which occurs late in the film, but this episode represents his passage into adulthood, giving him the courage to confront his demons, including his brutal, ultra-religious father.

Beautifully filmed, and acted with conviction by a sterling cast (there are extended cameos from Verhoeven regulars Jeroen Krabbé and Rutger Hauer), the movie benefits from an extraordinary sexual candor, light years removed from the cowardly R-rated rubbish flooding international cinemas at the time (PORKY'S, MEATBALLS, etc.). And though the sexual imagery here is only fleeting, it's also remarkably potent, and the actors are to be commended for their bravery. Sadly, van Tongeren - a hugely talented actor with a bright future in international cinema - committed suicide two years after the film was completed.

NB. The film's title is Dutch slang for handsome, arrogant young men.

(Dutch dialogue)

Lik wong

Comic-book shocker, with gallons of blood and gore!!...

Aspect ratio: 1.85:1

Sound format: Mono

After killing the drug-addicted lowlife who murdered his fiancée, an unlucky strongman (Terry Fan Siu-wong) is remanded to a corrupt prison where he's forced to defend himself against inmates and tyrannical officials, spilling gallons of blood and gore along the way...

Notorious for its splattery violence and hyper-stylized melodrama, STORY OF RICKY - derived from the Japanese manga 'Riki-Oh' created by Tetsuya Saruwatari - is directed by former cinematographer Laam Naai-choi, whose earlier efforts (THE SEVENTH CURSE, EROTIC GHOST STORY, etc.) rarely scaled the same dizzy heights of outrage and audacity. Shot on a shoestring budget in Macao, the film combines high octane bloodshed with "Carry On"-style humor (watch out for the incredible moment when a character uses his intestines as a weapon!), mixed with visual references to earlier exploitation fare such as THE STREET FIGHTER (1974) and THE FURY (1978), though the makeup effects are rudimentary at best, in keeping with the film's comic-book tone.

Japanese actress Yukari Oshima takes second billing as one of the *male* villains (she's dubbed with a masculine voice), and fan favorite Gloria Yip (SAVIOUR OF THE SOUL) plays the hero's ill-fated girlfriend in a series of corny 'feel-good' flashbacks. But the film belongs to handsome, hunky Terry Fan, ripping his shirt off at the drop of an intestine and posing impressively for the various combat sequences. Clothed or unclothed, he's never less than magnificent to behold, and director Laam uses the actor's exaggerated studliness to lampoon the homoerotic spectacle which once fuelled 'golden age' kung fu pictures. It ain't Shakespeare, but trash/splatter fans will embrace the movie with gusto. Also known as STORY OF RICKY AKA RIKI-OH.

(Cantonese dialogue)

Y tu mamá también

Dares to tell the truth about sex and sexuality

Aspect ratio: 1.85:1

Sound format: Dolby Digital

Two inseparable friends (Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna) fall hopelessly in lust with Luna's sister-in-law (Maribel Verdú), a beautiful young newlywed who's just discovered that her no-good husband is sleeping around. Hoping to escape her troubles, she agrees to accompany the boys on an extended road trip, during which their lives are changed forever.

Opening with two simulated (but incredibly realistic) sex scenes, Alfonso Cuarón's ambitious Mexican road movie has more on its mind than mere titillation (AMERICAN PIE this ain't!). Immensely popular on its home turf, particularly amongst hormonally-charged teenagers, the film embroiders its commercial aspects with a political awareness that acts as social commentary: The narrative unfolds amidst the decline of the much-hated Institutional Revolutionary Party which governed the country until July 2000, and the three principal characters travel through a landscape scarred by poverty, yet enriched by its heritage and traditions.

Verdú offers her sexual favors freely to the boys (for reasons which only become clear toward the end of the film), but her actions have unforeseen consequences which threaten to tear the two old friends apart. When confronted with the evidence of various infidelities, their anger - sparked by jealousy - hints at a twist in the tale which must have come as a terrific shock to its target audience (I'll say no more)! This is a movie which dares to tell the truth about sex and sexuality, not merely to provoke viewers (though the nudity is both generous and cheerful, and the beautiful García Bernal has since become something of a gay icon and poster boy) but also to illuminate the motives which underpin the characters and their fragile relationship. Quite an achievement.

(Spanish dialogue)

The Prowler

Savini shocker fails to meet expectations

(UK: Rosemary's Killer)

Aspect ratio: 1.85:1

Sound format: Mono

Just after World War II, a small-town graduation dance is cut short by a gruesome double murder. Thirty-five years later, the dance is reinstated and a killer dressed in military fatigues rampages through the partygoers.

Thrown together on the cheap by director Joseph Zito and debut screenwriters Glenn Leopold and Neal F. Barbera (son of legendary animation producer Joseph Barbera) as a showcase for makeup master Tom Savini, THE PROWLER emerges as a real disappointment. Following a terrific pre-credits sequence (which evokes the post-war period through a combination of soft-focus cinematography and imaginative production design), the movie segues into a by-the-numbers slasher scenario, lacking all but the most rudimentary elements of suspense.

Savini's effects are just as shocking today as they must have seemed in 1981, particularly a mean-spirited twist on the PSYCHO shower murder which revels in the victim's blood-spattered torment. But these effects - which are pretty few and far between - are almost all the film has going for it. Despite a paltry 88 minute running time, the storyline is padded by endless scenes in which the two central characters - a deputy sheriff (Christopher Goutman) and a plucky young partygoer (Vicky Dawson) - wander around various locations (the cemetery, an old house, the college dormitory, etc.) in search of clues to the unfolding mystery, culminating in a mind-numbing sequence involving an unhelpful motel clerk which lasts FOREVER and serves only the flimsiest of narrative purposes!

The young cast are all pretty nondescript, though top-billing is reserved for Farley Granger (a long way from STRANGERS ON A TRAIN!), who provides an extended cameo as the local sheriff. Lawrence Tierney (RESERVOIR DOGS) also receives a major credit, but has no dialogue and is on-screen for less than a minute! Though technically competent, the movie fails to generate a sense of dramatic urgency and relies too heavily on a small number of graphic set-pieces, while Richard Einhorn's tinny music score - played by what sounds like a five-piece orchestra! - does its best to energize the flagging narrative. Recommended for Savini-worshippers and slasher completists only.

Beauty and the Beast

A genuine, bona fide animation masterpiece

Aspect ratio: 1.85:1

Sound format: 6-track Dolby Stereo

(35mm and 70mm release prints)

An unfulfilled country girl (voiced by Broadway star Paige O'Hara) falls in love with the owner of an enchanted castle (Robby Benson), a handsome prince transformed by witchcraft into a monstrous Beast...

Produced in the wake of Disney's smash-hit THE LITTLE MERMAID (1989) and helmed by debut animation directors Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise, BEAUTY AND THE BEAST combines animated spectacle with vivid characterizations and exuberant musical numbers in a confection which ranks alongside the very finest 'golden age' Disney classics. Returning to the European folk tales which inspired many of their earlier animated features (SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS, PINOCCHIO, etc.), scenarist Linda Woolverton leavens the essential romantic core of the film with exciting set-pieces and well-judged comic relief, and there are several stand-out sequences, designed and executed with breathtaking flair: A terrifying battle between the Beast and a pack of wolves; the spectacular and life-affirming 'Be Our Guest' number (voiced with remarkable dexterity by Jerry Orbach and Angela Lansbury); and the climactic assault on the castle, all of which are guaranteed to impress audiences young and old. The film - which is dedicated to the memory of co-songwriter Howard Ashman, who died before the film premiered in 1991 - was subsequently adapted to great acclaim for the Broadway stage, only to be sullied by an unnecessary TV series and a number of direct-to-video sequels. Stick with the original.

NB. A re-edited version was released to Imax theaters in 2001, restoring a musical number dropped from the original assembly.

Ren pi deng long

Old-fashioned mixture of kung fu and horror

Aspect ratio: 2.39:1 (Shawscope)

Sound format: Mono

A vengeful craftsman (Lo Lieh) sets two warring noblemen (Lau Wing and Chen Kuan-tai) against each other by abducting their loved ones and peeling their skin, which he uses to embellish a series of prize-winning lanterns.

Old-fashioned kung fu thriller with horror asides, distinguished by balletic fight scenes and expansive widescreen cinematography, in typical Shaw Brothers style. Ni Kuang's screenplay (co-written with director Suen Chung) is fairly detailed, and the pace is fast and furious throughout. But the film is weakened by pantomime performances and generic post-sync dialogue, and by an uneasy combination of martial arts mayhem and Hammer-style horror. Beautiful sets and costumes.

NB. The film played uncut on its original theatrical release, though most subsequent video prints have been censored, eliminating nudity and graphic violence. However, the UK DVD (issued by Momentum Asia in 2005) appears to be intact.

(Mandarin dialogue)


Spectacular fire scenes, but the drama is hopelessly insincere

Aspect ratio: 2.39:1

Sound formats: 6-track Dolby Stereo / Q Sound

(35mm and 70mm release prints)

Two firefighting brothers (Kurt Russell and William Baldwin) are forced to confront the ghosts of their past whilst pursuing an arsonist who targets prominent members of Chicago's political elite.

Former TV actor Ron Howard ("Happy Days") directed this high-profile Hollywood blockbuster, in which a cast of solid B-list actors and A-list supporting players (Robert DeNiro, Donald Sutherland, et al) are upstaged by scenes of fiery devastation, wrought with frightening intensity by incredible stuntwork and state-of-the-art visual effects. Plot-wise, the film is an old-fashioned barnstormer, directed with gee-whizz efficiency by Howard, whose attempts to wring high emotion from Greg Widen's corny script rings entirely false from the outset. Hans Zimmer's generic music score is overbearing in places, particularly during the 'tragic' finale.


Amazing true story emphasizes spiritual aspects

Aspect ratio: 1.85:1

Sound format: Dolby Digital

In 1972, members of a Uruguayan rugby team are trapped in the Andes when their charter plane crashes in the mountains, killing many of those on board. Unable to overcome their situation any other way, the survivors are forced to contemplate the unthinkable - to eat the dead...

Though the cannibalism aspect of this extraordinary true story had formed the backbone of an earlier exploitation movie (René Cardona's opportunistic 1976 Mexican thriller SURVIVE!), Frank Marshall's dignified Hollywood version - based on Piers Paul Read's bestselling book - places a deliberate emphasis on the survivors' spiritual response to their ordeal. Opening with a horrific plane crash (an effects tour de force) which places viewers at the heart of an appalling catastrophe, the film quickly settles into a matter-of-fact account of the protagonists' daily struggle to stay alive, though some of the dialogue sounds a little forced and unrealistic.

Handsomely mounted on location in the Canadian Rockies, the movie is toplined by some of Hollywood's brightest (and most photogenic) young talents, including Ethan Hawke (DEAD POETS SOCIETY), Josh Hamilton (THE HOUSE OF YES) and Vincent Spano (CITY OF HOPE), with capable support from Jack Noseworthy (CECIL B. DEMENTED), John Haymes Newton (TV's "Superboy"), and Illeana Douglas (GRACE OF MY HEART) as one of the few female survivors of the initial disaster. Though pretentious at times, and perhaps a little too leisurely for its own good, the movie pays tribute to the power of the human spirit and is often deeply moving. Beautiful score by James Newton Howard, with a haunting interpretation of 'Ave Maria' - sung by Aaron Neville - during the final credits.

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