Stacey Sher

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A Walk Among the Tombstones Review


Good

Although the plot isn't particularly original, a darkly internalised tone makes this low-key thriller oddly compelling. It may be the usual serial killer nastiness, but it also pays attention to earthier themes like morality and the futility of revenge. Meanwhile, Liam Neeson is able to combine his more recent action-hero persona with his serious acting chops this time. And writer-director Scott Frank infuses the film with moody grit, quietly subverting each cliche of the genre.

The action picks up eight years after Matt (Neeson) stopped drinking and quit the police force, following a shootout that went horribly wrong. It's now 1999, and New York is in the grip of Y2K paranoia. Matt is working as an unlicensed private detective who uses word-of-mouth to find clients. So Matt is intrigued when one of his 12-step friends (Boyd Holbrook) introduces his brother Kenny (Dan Stevens), a wealthy drug trafficker whose wife was kidnapped and then murdered even though he paid the ransom. As Matt digs into the case, he realises that the two killers (David Harbour and Adam David Thompson) have a left a string of similar victims in their wake, and that the murders are connected. Meanwhile, Matt takes in homeless teen TJ (Brian "Astro" Bradley), an observant kid who helps him work piece together the clues. And together they try to figure out where the killers will strike next.

This story unfolds with a remarkably gloomy tone, combining horrific violence with introspective drama. This mixture can feel rather jarring, especially as it wallows in the nastier side of human existence. Every character is tortured in more ways than one, with lost loves, physical afflictions and internal demons. Even the smaller side roles are packed with detail, including Olafur Darri Olafsson's creepy cemetery worker and Sebastian Roche's frazzled Russian mobster. All of this adds texture to the film, a welcome distraction from the grisly central plot, which is never played as a mystery, but rather as an inevitability.

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Runner Runner Review


Terrible

Clearly something went horribly wrong as this thriller was being made, because despite a solid cast, gorgeous locations and an intriguing premise, the film is an incoherent mess. Sure, it looks achingly cool, but there isn't a single moment when the characters' motivations make any sense. And there's never a hint of suspense or danger.

It doesn't help that the set-up revolves around two of the least cinematic things on earth: finances and computers. Timberlake plays Princeton grad student Richie, who runs a gambling website to pay his tuition but loses his savings when another site cheats him. So he heads to Costa Rica to confront the online casino boss Ivan (Affleck). Impressed with his initiative, Ivan offers him a job, and soon Richie has more cash than he can possibly spend. But for some reason, all he wants is Ivan's colleague-girlfriend Rebecca (Arterton). Then a nosey FBI agent (Mackie) forces Richie to help him take Ivan down.

Director Fuhrman showed considerable promise with another renegade loner in The Lincoln Lawyer, but this film simply refuses to fill in enough of the gaps. Nothing that happens here is remotely convincing, as the characters are continually thrust into half-developed scenarios. Perhaps there's a more coherent longer version out there, because this one feels like it was edited with a machete. Even as a cautionary tale about the dangers of greed, this story has nothing relevant to say.

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Django Unchained Review


Excellent

Tarantino takes an unusually comical approach to a provocative topic, and the result is as controversial as expected. And also startlingly hilarious. At its core, this is another revenge-themed thriller, but Tarantino's snappy, constantly surprising aproach spirals out to explore racial issues over the past 150 years with humour, drama and, of course, grisly violence.

Set two years before the American Civil War in 1858 Texas, the story centres on bounty hunter Schultz (Waltz), who offers the slave Django (Foxx) what seems like a fantasy job: to work with him to capture white criminals dead or alive. Usually dead. Sure enough, everyone is shocked to see a black man not only riding a horse but carrying a gun. When Django helps find three notorious outlaw brothers, he earns his freedom, and Schultz then offers to help free Django's enslaved wife (Washington). This involves staging an elaborate sting on her owner, the bloodthirsty Mississippi plantation owner Calvin (DiCaprio), who runs a ring of slaves who fight each other to the death. But Calvin's butler Stephen (Jackson) suspects that something is up.

Waltz and Foxx have terrific chemistry in the central roles, with Waltz's lively intelligence bouncing off Foxx's physical and emotional intensity. This gives the film an underlying drive that keeps us engaged through the blood-soaked violence as well as the more slapstick-style sequences (a KKK raid led by Johnson and Hill feels like a lost sequence from Blazing Saddles). But Tarantino's screenplay is beautifully constructed to even out the tone with exciting action, harrowing nastiness and some darkly involving drama. All while quietly exploring the twisted history of racial relations in America.

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Contagion Review


Excellent
Soderbergh applies his brainier brand of filmmaking to the global outbreak thriller genre, and the result is a hugely gripping blockbuster that never talks down to its audience. It's also terrifyingly believable as we watch a deadly flu virus spread around the world.

In Minneapolis, Mitch (Damon) is horrified when his wife (Paltrow) comes home from a business trip to China, collapses with the flu and dies. But she's only the first of a series of similar cases around the world, and soon officials from the Centers for Disease Control (Winslet, Fishburne and Ehle) and the World Health Organisation (Cotillard) are on the case, trying to manage emerging clusters while tracing the disease back to its source. Meanwhile, a blog hack (Law) is pestering a San Francisco scientist (Gould) for a cure.

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Extraordinary Measures Review


OK
The A-list cast raises this film above its unsophisticated TV-movie style, helped by the remarkable facts of the true story. The actors even manage to add nuance to the straightforward, over-sentimentalised writing and direction.

John Crowley (Fraser) is a manager at a pharmaceutical company who hears about the innovative theories of Dr Robert Stonehill (Ford) for the treatment of Pompe Disease, a variation on muscular dystrophy. John and his wife Aileen (Russell) have two wheelchair-bound children (Droeger and Velazquez) with the condition, plus an older son (Hall) without it. So they all have a special interest in Stonehill's work. But the eccentric doctor isn't so easy to get on board, mainly because he needs a lot of money to continue his research.

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Reno 911!: Miami Review


Unbearable
It's never a good sign when a film's press screening occurs the night before it opens. The film is instantly labeled a loser long before the opening credits even roll. So if Reno 911!: Miami was to be anything like its Comedy Central inspiration, then its 11th hour screening should come as a surprise. Unfortunately, for the most part, Miami is exactly what everyone expected it to be: raunchy and brainless. Yet, what I didn't expect was for Miami to be so bawdy, so unfunny, and so unlike its small screen roots that after the first 30 minutes I was so desperate to change the channel.

In Miami, all of the familiar bungling deputies from the TV show are part of the action, along with their hang-ups. Led by the short-shorts wearing Lieutenant Jim Dangle (Thomas Lennon), the inept Washoe County Sheriff's Department is "invited" to attend a national law enforcement convention in South Florida. But when the gang arrives, they quickly find themselves outclassed and left out of the convention's festivities. When a biohazard chemical is released at the convention, quarantining the nation's police force, Dangle and Company are the only uncontaminated law enforcement officers available to keep the streets of Miami safe.

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Freedom Writers Review


Good
It's always satisfying when a movie defies an obvious formula and delivers something better. Freedom Writers is the first such surprise of 2007, a genuinely touching entry in a genre that often wallows in cliché: a motivational teacher inspiring a group of troubled kids.

The list in this category is long, and the quality broad, ranging from To Sir, with Love (Sidney Poitier straightens up hooligans) to Sunset Park (Rhea Perlman coaches hoops!). Instead of sliding into pitfalls of predictability, writer Richard LaGravenese (The Fisher King, Beloved), who also directs, relies on straight, unforced dialogue delivered by a fine cast. Like many similar films, this one happens to be based on truth.

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World Trade Center Review


Grim
Oliver Stone's World Trade Center is a victim of bad timing and a blockbuster mindset. The heroism of September 11, 2001 is still fresh in the minds of millions of Americans, but so is the terror and unease of that day. Stone's movie doesn't reflect those feelings. He hasn't made a movie for a 2006 audience; he's made one for 2036.Stone's account of that day sticks to the two Port Authority cops, John McLoughlin and Will Jimeno (Nicolas Cage and Crash's Michael Pena, respectively), who were pinned for hours under the rubble of the World Trade Center. As the men talk to each other and endure cave-ins and unspeakable pain, the movie drifts to how their wives (Maggie Gyllenhaal and Maria Bello) handle the news of the terrorist attacks and of their husbands' uncertain fates.World Trade Center is meant to showcase America's heroism during a truly heinous time, but why does it feel so empty? The reason lies in this year's other notable 9/11 movie, the memorable United 93. That movie focused on one aspect of that terrible day -- the crew and passengers who gave up their lives to prevent a commuter flight from crashing into the White House -- but it gave you the experience without any chaser. There were no big name actors, no storylines featuring cute kids. It was a reminder of the country's capabilities, and it was desperately needed given the United States' wobbly war on terror. The best compliment I can give director Paul Greengrass is that his film felt necessary.Stone's picture doesn't. His film boils down to being about two tough cops trapped. The reminders that we bonded as a nation that day are thrown in bits and pieces: the former Marine who suits up; the cops from Wisconsin who serve bratwurst; the EMT who tells the cop to say goodbye to his wife for him; the 9/11 news accounts and sound bites. It's almost as if the studio execs said, "Hey, those two cops stuck underneath make for a great story, but how can we make it about 9/11 and not about 9/11?" World Trade Center feels like a rescue drama capitalizing on the day's frenzy, paying little heed to that day's incomprehensible heroism. And the frenzy from the home front isn't credible. Bello and Gyllenhaal look too well-preserved to suffer, too toned to be working class housewives. The latter especially applies to Bello's character. How many mothers of four look like they can run a mile in under six minutes?The focus on Jimeno and McLoughlin further takes away from the day's togetherness. What about everyone else who was pinned underneath the rubble, or the cops, firefighters, and office workers who died leading people to safety? (For more on that read Jim Dwyer and Kevin Flynn's brilliant 102 Minutes.) What about the families who waited in hospitals or by silent phones for good news that never came? September 11 was about a city and a country mourning and pulling together. It wasn't about two people, no matter how brave they were.World Trade Center feels too much like it was made for nostalgia purposes: Hey, do you remember that? How you felt? Well, yeah, all too vividly, actually. The television accounts and newspapers told us plenty about those brave men and women on the ground working all hours, ignoring fatigue. We still have those images swimming in our heads and our hearts, and such a compressed, slick vehicle doesn't serve as a fitting tribute, at least not yet.Off to work.

The Caveman's Valentine Review


Excellent
After working as an actor for some time, Kasi Lemmons (The Silence of the Lambs) wrote and directed her first feature, Eve's Bayou, in 1997. She has since spent the past 4 years putting together The Caveman's Valentine, which took 10-plus producers to come to fruition. Instead of directing original material, Lemmons directs from the book by Georges Dawes Green, who adapted it for the screen.

Samuel L. Jackson (Unbreakable, Shaft) teams up with Lemmons again (he played the philandering husband in Eve's Bayou) to star as the disturbed and homeless Romulus. Thankfully, no easy explanation is ever uttered as to the nature of his psychosis. He lives partially obsessed with a fantasy world in which exotic dancers inspire his hands on the piano, and his ultimate nemesis resides in the Chrysler building.

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Get Shorty Review


Weak
The cryptic title of Get Shorty should forewarn you of the confusion to come when the film actually starts. To be honest, I >still< don't really know what it's supposed to mean. Initially, I was pretty excited about the prospects for Get Shorty: it's John Travolta's much-anticipated follow-up to Pulp Fiction; great actors Gene Hackman and Rene Russo both star; the well-regarded Elmore Leonard penned the novel that the movie is based on. What a disappointment!

The story goes: Travolta is Chili Palmer, a small time Miami hood, a "shylock" whose job is essentially coercing money out of people. His boss sends Chili on a chase for some questionably-raised funds; in Vegas, another contact sends him to L.A. to track down an entirely unrelated debtor, Harry Zimm (Hackman). And there are a few drug dealers who have their payoff stuck in a locker at LAX.

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Feeling Minnesota Review


Unbearable
In case you've been wondering, Feeling Minnesota is a film "inspired by a line in a Soundgarden song." This little fun fact is about as interesting as the film ever gets, and the wary moviegoer is well-advised to limit his Minnesota experience to looking at a poster for the film in the movie theater's lobby. And even then, you shouldn't look at the poster for very long.

As near as I can tell, this is the story of Jjaks (Keanu Reeves, and no that's not a typo), his brother Sam (Vincent D'Onofrio, "Gomer Pyle" from Full Metal Jacket), and Sam's slutty new wife Freddie (Cameron Diaz). Everyone's pretty miserable (ostensibly having something to do with their humdrum Minnesota existence). And Sam and Jjaks fight a lot (ostensibly over Freddie).

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Be Cool Review


Terrible
Ten years after he forcefully established himself as a Hollywood player, smooth-talking mobster Chili Palmer (John Travolta) is prepared to flee the biz. His breakout smash Get Shorty opened the door to multiple money-grabbing sequels (wink, wink), and the once-enamored movie buff has been turned off by the homogenized studio system. "Movies are too corporate," Chili gripes when telling a friend (James Woods) that he's thinking about trying something new.

He's right, especially when describing his own meaningless sequel. Be Cool, the long-gestating follow up to Barry Sonnenfeld's hit gangster-in-paradise comedy Get Shorty, has been manufactured to the hilt to appeal to all demographics yet entertains none.

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Gattaca Review


Good
I'd been looking forward to Gattaca since its clever promotions began several months ago, promising a story of a future-gone-wrong, a time when ethnic prejudice has given way to something even more frightening: genetic discrimination. It's in this setting that the genetically-inferior Vincent (played by Ethan Hawke) tries to advance his station by assuming the identity of Jerome (played by the creepy Jude Law), and putting the moves on the also-flawed Irene (Uma Thurman).

Everything goes well for awhile, and just as Vincent is about to realize his dream of going up as part of a space mission, the web starts to untangle. Here's where the problems of Gattaca start: you see, as a mystery, it really isn't much of one. The investigation into the murder of the mission director who may have known Vincent's secret is never very focused, and Alan Arkin's Columbo-type flatfoot seems to uncannily know where to go at every turn. By the time the investigation is over, the whole thing has felt like a put-on to waste an hour of screen time.

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Living Out Loud Review


Weak
Okay, I can sorta see what they were thinking. Holly Hunter stars as a free spirit who finds herself in the throes of divorce and in search of herself. En route to self, she encounters a plucky yet somewhat dense elevator attendant (DeVito) and a no-hit jazz club diva (Latifah) -- each of whom shares a thing or two about living. You know: out loud. Long-time screenwriter LaGravenese tries his hand at directing with fair aplomb, but ultimately, it's the story that stinks, as Hunter's journey toward self-realization never seemes to get very far.

Erin Brockovich Review


Good
Besides having the hardest-to-type title of a movie since Being John Malcovich, what will be the legacy of Erin Brockovich, an unabashed Julia Roberts star vehicle that, coincidentally, also tells the story of the largest direct-action legal settlement in American history?

It won't be for its aura of jurisprudence. As a primer on the U.S. legal system, Erin Brockovich is not terribly compelling. The legal mumbo-jumbo is all there and feels accurate enough, but the heart of the movie simply doesn't rest with the details of the case, which features Pacific Gas & Electric poisoning 600 people in a small California town with chromium (and then telling them it's good for them).

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