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Creed Review


While this film is basically Rocky VII, it's also much more than that, and perhaps the best in the series as it tells a standalone story with energy and skill. Reteaming writer-director Ryan Coogler with actor Michael B. Jordan after their underrated gem Fruitvale Station, this pulsing drama is also one of the best boxing movies in recent memory, harking back to classics in the genre while reinventing them with textured storytelling and raw performances.

Jordan plays Adonis, who never met his father, the iconic boxer Apollo Creed. He also refuses to take his surname, even after being adopted by Apollo's widow (Phylicia Rashad) and raised in a Los Angeles mansion with a great education. But he also can't resist the temptation to box, starting out in backroom Tijuana brawls. Finally he realises that something's got to give, so he heads to Philadelphia to explore his roots, meeting his father's former friend and rival Rocky (Sylvester Stallone) and asking him to teach him a few tricks to help further his career. But Rocky is battling his own issues, so these two mismatched men push each other forward. Adonis finds romance with the feisty Bianca (Thompson), and Rocky decides to help Adonis train to face the tough British champ (Tony Bellew).

The essence of this story is that we have to make peace with the past to move on to the future. This is woven into the script beautifully, without ever preaching, as Coogler encourages the audience to constantly see what's happening beneath the surface. This requires the actors to deliver unusually complex performances, and Jordan is wonderfully conflicted as a man whose inner nice guy is warring against his own history. Stallone, meanwhile, delivers one of his best performances ever as the sardonic, battered champion. He's relaxed and open, reminding us why we fell in love with Rocky to begin with.

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The Gambler Review


With a strangely simplistic screenplay by William Monahan (The Departed), director Rupert Wyatt and his cast struggle to dig beneath the surface in a meaningful way. Mark Wahlberg does what he can in the lead role as a self-destructive gambling addict, but since he's never remotely likeable it's impossible to care what happens to him. It's decently made, but without strong characters or a resonant message the movie ultimately feels like a vanity project that's gone wrong somewhere along the way.

Wahlberg plays Jim, a swaggering university professor who torments his brightest student Amy (Larson) in front of the whole class. But she knows that he's also unable to pass a blackjack table without losing a small fortune. And it's probably money he owes to someone. Indeed, he's accruing such severe debts to a gangster (Michael Kenneth Williams) that he turns to his millionaire mother (Jessica Lange) for help, knowing that if she gives him the cash he'll gamble it away before settling his accounts. So he also turns to tough loan shark Frank (John Goodman), who stresses to Jim the importance of paying up and getting out of the betting world for good. But Jim seems incapable of even a shred of self-control.

It's virtually impossible to connect with a character this one-sided. Aside from his literary intelligence, there's nothing remotely redeeming about Jim, so it's difficult to escape the feeling that he's getting just what he deserves. And it gets worse when he starts romancing Amy, a nubile girl barely half his age. Wahlberg never plays Jim as anything but an unapologetic loser who has orchestrated his own misfortune. So why should we care what happens to him? At least the side characters interject a bit of complexity, most notably Lange and Goodman, who command the entire film with just a couple of scenes each. The usually terrific Larson barely registers in an underwritten role that makes very little logical sense.

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Ender's Game Review


Since this entire story centres on virtual-reality gaming, it's tricky to feel any sense of what's at stake here. But a strong cast and above-average effects work help hold our interest until the requisite dramatic shift takes hold. Along the way, the movie explores some punchy issues such as the nature of true leadership and the morality of war.

It's set in a distant future: Earth has regrouped after an alien invasion, turning to children to harness their quick gaming reflexes and inner fearlessness. Ender (Butterfield) is a 12-year-old who's sure he'll crash out of training like his older sister Valentine (Breslin). But Colonel Graff (Ford) and Major Anderson (Davis) see something in him and send him on to battle school in an orbiting space station. As he shows true leadership potential and a sharp mind for warfare, he's promoted even further, training with iconic hero Rackham (Kingsley) on one of the aliens' former planets. And as he approaches his final exam, there's the sense that the fate of Earth hangs in the balance.

Yes, everything Ender does throughout his training is game related, either with digitally created environments or in a weightless battle globe with other cadets. This adds huge possibilities for the script to grapple with moral issues as Ender faces some staggering decisions. But since it's just a simulation, does it really mean anything? Thankfully, Butterfield is a terrific actor who lends the character a steely interior life that catches our interest. And being surrounded by the terrific Ford, Kingsley and Davis helps. As do some intriguing fellow recruits played by Steinfeld, Arias and others.

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The Tempest Review

After Titus, Taymor brings her unique perspective to another Shakespeare classic, although this movie feels oddly stage-bound, indulging in theatricality in both the design and performances. It's a great story, but this feels a little forced.

It's been 12 years since Prospera (Mirren) and her daughter Miranda (Jones) were banished from their homeland, so Prospera orchestrates a storm to maroon her tormenters on her island home. With the help of sprite Arial (Whishaw), she divides them into three groups: the king (Straithairn) and his brother (Cumming), along with Prospera's brother (Cooper) and wise Gonzalo (Conti), are lost in madness; the wacky Trinculo and Stephano (Brand and Molina) meet up with slave Caliban (Hounsou) and run in circles; and the king's son Ferdinand (Carney) is diverted to meet Miranda.

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The Mechanic Review

Remade from Michael Winner's 1972 thriller, this action movie can't be bothered to get as dark and edgy as it should be. But the cast members keep us watching, even as things turn unnecessarily grisly.

Elite hitman Arthur (Statham) lives a solitary life in a New Orleans bayou with his stinking wealth and exquisite taste. But he's shocked when his boss (Goldwyn) gives him his next assignment: to kill his mentor Harry (Sutherland).

Arthur is a cool professional, but now he's also wracked with guilt. So he takes Harry's wastrel son Steve (Foster) under his wing, teaching him the assassination trade and letting him practice during a few jobs. But the work gets increasingly dangerous, and soon it becomes apparent that Harry was set up. Revenge is in the air.

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Rocky Review

With Rocky, cinematographer Jimmy Crabe worked with director John G. Avildsen to rethink the look of the city of Philadelphia. Consisting of a scant few shots of the familiar monuments and parks, Crabe, who was later diagnosed with and succumbed to AIDS in 1989, turned the city into miles of sleet-swept streets, soiled corner stores and nausea-green gymnasiums where wannabe athletes spend their time until they make their way to any of the dozen cheap basement bars scattered throughout the terrain. If the star of Rocky is Sylvester Stallone, his co-star is the atmosphere of cold and piteous hope that cultivates around the titular amateur boxer.

In hindsight, the first chapter of the rigorous franchise has a healthy leg-up on the rest of the films and feels uniquely homegrown in tone. It's almost basic mythology at this point: Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone at the peak of his durability) works for a two-bit loan shark as freelance muscle while he trains to become a boxer and does amateur bouts for 40 bucks a pop. It's his nickname, The Italian Stallion, which catches the eye of heavyweight champion Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) when the champ is looking for a gimmick. Creed is more of an entrepreneur than an athlete: When someone calls the gimmick "American," he quips back, "No, it's smart."

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Rocky Balboa Review

When last we saw Rocky Balboa, our prized overachieving contender (played to monosyllabic perfection by Sylvester Stallone) had prevailed in a street fight against his protégé, Tommy "Machine" Gunn (Tommy Morrison).

The Italian Stallion may have triumphed that day, but the feel-good franchise long since had thrown in the towel. Rocky V did more damage to the character's legacy than Ivan Drago, Clubber Lang, and Apollo Creed combined. It issued a crushing TKO to a collection of films that celebrated victory in the face of impossible odds, and it left a horrible taste in fans' mouths. By all accounts, the final bell had rung on Rocky.

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The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight Review

As much as I like Hervé Villechaize, it's pretty impossible to like much about The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight, a mob slapstick comedy that features Tattoo is one of a bunch of hapless thugs who want to get rid of the local heavy (Lionel Stander) so they can take over in his stead. Too bad the crew, you know, can't shoot straight... and though they try endlessly to get rid of him, they just can't manage to do it.

That's pretty much the story, with rising star Robert De Niro strangely inserted into the movie to take advantage of his upcoming celebrity (he's a bicycle racer that falls for the gang leader's (Jerry Orbach) kid sister (Leigh Taylor-Young, completely lost here). The bulk of the film has Orbach and co. scheming endlessly to off Stander's Baccala, and over and over it fails to amuse us, even when a live lion is thrown into the mix. That's the film. If it weren't for Villechaize, there'd be nary a laugh in the whole movie, and even that kind of comedy is hardly highbrow.

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They Shoot Horses, Don't They? Review

I didn't get what all the fuss was over. Dance marathons? A couple of hours of the charleston and eventually everyone quits, right?

Wrong. They Shoot Horses, Don't They? is set in the real dance marathon world of the Great Depression, when people were willing to do anything for a buck. Even if that means staying on your feet for 1,200 hours or more, with a few rest periods along the way. That's nearly two months. Dancing.

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The Gambler (1974) Review

James Toback wrote this long-forgotten look at the gambling mind back in the early 1970s, but it remains one of the most accurate and stirring portraits of the betting mentality ever put to film.

James Caan owns the movie, as a vey charismatic English professor with a bad gambling addiction -- he borrows money from his girlfriend (Lauren Hutton), his mother, and the mob, and invariably he loses it all. Why play? Because of the thrill. In one scene, when he doubles down on 18 during a game of blackjack (for casino novices: this is absolute insanity), our antihero actually wins. Eventually, though, even the best streak goes bust, and it's in Caan's darkest hours that the movie shines the most.

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Point Blank Review

Classic cinema badass Lee Marvin gets a whole movie to strut his stuff in Point Blank, the first cinematic version of the book originally called The Hunter, which was later made into the improbably hit Payback. (The Hunter, of course, can now be found under the title Payback as well.)

The story is almost obliviously simple: Lee Marvin is a mafioso who's been turned on and left for dead. But not quite dead: He comes back (from the grave? who knows...) to get his vengeance. Or more precisely, to get the $93,000 he is owed by his former bosses.

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The Right Stuff Review

Fortuitous time for The Right Stuff to hit DVD, when the American space program is nearing rock bottom in the court of public opinion.

Based on Tom Wolfe's novel (though heavily inspired by the truth), The Right Stuff follows the formative years of the space race, from 1947 to 1963, when it was us vs. the Russians. The film begins as we first punch through Mach 1 in experimental aircraft and ends with seventh and final Mercury astronaut blasting off.

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Raging Bull Review

Twenty-five years since its release, Martin Scorsese's masterpiece Raging Bull has been crowned with so many critical laurels that another word in praise of it might seem hopelessly redundant. To claim that it puts to shame virtually any American film made since sounds about right, but it might be more worthwhile to note how the film showcases Scorsese's artistic genius in its purest form -- unsullied by ego, commercial pressures, or the self-doubt that can cloud a more jaded artist's vision. Raging Bull is a work of religious devotion by a filmmaker to his craft and an apotheosis of Scorsese's promise.

The film charts the life and career of boxer Jake LaMotta (Robert De Niro) from his rise to glory in the 1940s to his fall into washed-up grotesquery in the '50s, a lounge lizard parody of his former self. That LaMotta turns into the very sort of schmuck, fat-bellied and dissipated, that he would've abhorred in his youth marks one of Scorsese's most poignant treatments of his trademark theme of the individual struggling to transcend his worst instincts to achieve greatness and grace. Anger and bitterness are ever-present here, either churning at the film's surface or roiling just below in slow burn. LaMotta, the insecure hothead who chafes at the underworld hoods who've ensnared him, directs his rage outward in the form of sexual jealousy at his wife, Vickie (Cathy Moriarty), and through his tornado-like fury in the ring. The boxer's battle for self-acceptance even threatens the most meaningful and enduring relationship he's got, the one with his brother and manager, Joey (Joe Pesci); indeed, Raging Bull is, to a large extent, about the effect of blind ambition on our most meaningful, enduring relationships.

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In My Country Review

South Africa's 1995 Truth and Reconciliation Hearings - which sought to resolve the animosity between blacks and white Afrikaners after the fall of apartheid by having victimized blacks confront their white tormentors, who in turn would be granted amnesty by publicly admitting to, apologizing for, and proving that they were ordered to carry out, their hateful actions - may one day spawn a great movie. In My Country, John Boorman's lazy and ludicrous film about the Hearings, isn't it. A prime example of why it's dangerous to concoct fictional narratives in order to tell historically important stories, Boorman's latest is awkward and ungainly, a dramatically forced and stilted tale of interracial reconciliation bereft of any rhythm and even less subtlety. With the wildly inconsistent director working more in the vein of his legendary disaster Exorcist II: The Heretic than his neo-noir masterpiece Point Blank, it's the kind of well-intentioned, but wholly unsuccessful, misfire that makes one desperately pine for a thorough documentary on its real-life subject.

Inauspiciously beginning with a clunky montage of sun-dappled vistas and police brutality newsreel footage set to rousing (but still slightly heartbreaking) African singing, In My Country focuses on Anna Malan (Juliette Binoche), an Afrikaner journalist and poet whose white father and brother disapprove of her interest in the Hearings ("Remember where you're from, Anna," racist Dad ominously warns). While covering the event, she meets Langston Whitfield (Samuel L. Jackson), a Washington Post reporter opposed to the Hearings' disinterest in persecuting the country's heinous, government-sponsored white criminals. The two quarrel over the effectiveness and justness of the Hearings' guiding principle of "Ubuntu" (an African belief in forgiveness over punishment), but their horror and sadness over the proceedings' testimonials - many of which have been recreated, word-for-gut-wrenching word, by the filmmakers - helps them eventually bridge their initial ideological differences and, in the case of Anna, learn to reconcile herself to her family's own nasty role in apartheid. After some boneheaded flirting, the two attempt to heal the country's racial divisions themselves through lovemaking, all while Anna's cheery African-American sidekick Dumi (Menzi Ngubane) gleefully confirms the hoariest of stereotypes by breaking into jubilant song and dance at every available turn (including in court).

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