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Southpaw Review

Weak

Slick direction and meaty performances may be enough for some viewers, but this boxing drama's complete lack of originality keeps it from being something memorable. Centring on a committed performance from Jake Gyllenhaal, it's always watchable, but it's rather annoying that every time an interesting theme is raised the script sidesteps into yet another boxing-movie cliche.

Gyllenhaal plays Billy Hope, an orphan raised in the system who rose to become the world light heavyweight champion. He has savvy wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams) at his side, smart young daughter Leila (Oona Laurence) cheering him on and the fiercest manager (Curtis '50 Cent' Jackson) in the business. But personal failures, unexpected tragedies and financial crises suddenly bring an end to his millionaire lifestyle, leaving him alone and wandering the New York streets in search of a place to live. He seeks help from grizzled gym owner Tick (Forest Whitaker), who helps Billy rebuild himself so he can take on his nemesis (Miguel Gomez).

Billy is such a hot-head that he's not easy to like, continually blowing his top to make everything much worse for himself and his family. Gyllenhaal is an astonishing mass of muscles, scars and tattoos, with a burning inner rage that's startlingly believable. He also works hard to earn the audience's sympathies, despite the blunt superficiality of Kurt Sutter's script. Whitaker's role is even less nuanced; he's little more than the formulaic gruff trainer who's always played by an ageing Oscar winner. McAdams injects some snappy energy in her too-brief role, and it's actually Laurence who emerges as the film's most resonant character, effortlessly stealing her scenes right out from under Gyllenhaal's smashed-in nose.

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Unfinished Business Review


Unbearable

More than just a misfire, this attempt at a rude comedy goes so spectacularly wrong that it actually contradicts its own jokes even as it's telling them. But then it undermines everything as it goes along, for example indulging rampantly in comical cruelty before trying to say something meaningful about the dangers of bullying. The real question is how the cast members could have agreed to make a movie in which they all come across as incoherent idiots.

The story opens as Dan (Vince Vaughn) clashes with his boss Chuck (Sienna Miller) then quits dramatically, taking newly retired Tim (Tom Wilkinson) and airhead newbie Mike (Dave Franco) with him to start a new sales company. But after a year, business isn't good, and the future hinges on making a massive deal with Bill and Jim (Nick Frost and James Marsden). The problem is that Chuck is also bidding for the business, so Dan, Tim and Mike fly off to Maine and then Berlin to seal the deal with a handshake. Impossibly they arrive in Berlin at the same time as Oktoberfest, the marathon, a gay S&M festival and the G8 Summit, with its accompanying anarchist protest. Meanwhile back home, Dan's wife (June Diane Raphael) is having problems with the kids.

Frankly, there is so much going on in this film that it's exhausting. It's as if screenwriter Conrad just threw everything he could think of onto the page and didn't worry if it made even a lick of sense. Every scene feels interrupted by a bit of random chaos that isn't remotely amusing. And despite making a movie that's obsessed with sex, the filmmakers are unable to decide whether they want to make fun of it or are terrified of it (so they end up being both at the same time). Each time something interesting or funny threatens to happen, it's sideswiped by something so breathtakingly bungled that we don't know where to look.

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The Equalizer Review


OK

Little more than a paint-by-numbers action thriller, it's anyone's guess why the filmmakers have bothered to make a connection with the 1980s TV series of the same name. Because this film bears almost no resemblance to it. Instead, this is a reunion of Denzel Washington and Antoine Fuqua, who last collaborated on the Oscar-winning Training Day. And since it's packed with brutal violence and questionable morality, that's clearly where this movie's roots truly lie.

Washington stars as Robert, a meek shelf-stacker at a DIY warehouse store in Boston. He can't sleep at night, so he heads to the local diner to read classic novels. That's where he meets Teri (Chloe Grace Moretz), a teen hooker who is having problems with her psychotic Russian pimp (David Meunier). Ever so quietly, and clearly relying on some external source of income, Robert goes about helping Teri secure a free future. But when he offers to settle her debts, the pimp and his thugs just laugh at him. So Robert mercilessly kills them all, drawing on his secret past as a black-ops agent. The problem is that this puts Robert at odds with the top Russian boss Teddy (Marton Csokas), who heads to Boston to get even.

In standard action movie tradition, Robert works his way right through the entire Russian mob, along the way cleaning up Boston's corrupt police force before the requisite final confrontation. His only distraction is a brief visit to his old CIA boss (Melissa Leo) and her husband (Bill Pullman) for a bit of moral support and added starry cameo value. Yes, there isn't much about this movie that doesn't feel concocted for the box office, which means that the story is both achingly predictable and littered with gaping plot-holes. And with Washington in the focal role, everyone else fades into the woodwork. Moretz is excellent but badly underused, while Csokas is never given much to do with his one-note villain.

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Sex Tape Review


Weak

Although it presents itself as a rude sex comedy, this movie is actually a prudish exercise in simplistic moralising. A glut of sweary dialog and leery innuendo is certainly no replacement for properly adult-oriented humour. At least Cameron Diaz and Jason Segel are relatively reliable as actors who can keep their characters likeable, but even they struggle with the trite material. And as a cowriter, Segel only has himself to blame.

Diaz and Segel play Annie and Jay, a couple whose courtship consisted mainly of having lots of sex in as many unusual places as they could think of. So it's hardly surprising that marriage and parenthood feel like a disappointment. They never have time for sex now, so when Annie's blog improbably wins a lucrative publishing deal, they celebrate by leaving the kids with the grandparents for a sexy night on their own. To get things going, they decide to film themselves on their iPad, oblivious to the fact that the video is synchronised to all of the iPads they've given to their family, friends and clients over the last few months. So now they're in a mad dash to find them all and delete their sex tape.

Honestly, does anyone actually give iPads to everyone they know? This is such a naggingly stupid premise that it leaves everything that happens feeling utterly inane, especially their contrived ignorance about how the Cloud works. Diaz and Segel bring enough charm to the film to keep the audience watching, playing even the lamest jokes as if they're hilarious. And as they race between their friends and family members, each side actor gets their cameo-style moment in which they can try to steal the show. Although even here director Jake Kasdan (Bad Teacher) hedges away from the genuine gross-out comedy, which leaves first-rate comical performers like Corddry, Lowe and Black looking a bit lost.

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Hope Springs Review


Good
The trailers for this film are misleading, promising raucous comedy from the director of The Devil Wears Prada. But this is actually a resonant emotional drama seasoned with earthy humour. Yes, there are funny moments, but don't go in expecting full-on hilarity. It's grounded by terrific performances from Streep and Jones as a couple who, after 31 years of marriage, have lost that spark of romance. This is a pretty serious theme for a movie, and the film takes a straight-on look at the issue.

The story starts when Kay (Streep) finally refuses to accept her dried-up marriage to Arnold (Jones), who can't see any reason to change things. She enrols them in an intensive counselling session in Hope Springs, Maine, with a well-known therapist (Carell), and after initially refusing to go, Arnold tags along. Their sessions immediately hone in on their nonexistent sex life, which causes both Kay and Arnold to squirm in their seats (and provides most of the laughs for the audience). And their small-step exercises aren't exactly a roaring success. But Kay is determined that she wants a real relationship or nothing at all.

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The Back-up Plan Review


OK
As far as romantic comedies go, this is just about watchable. Even though it's both silly and sappy, it has a vaguely realistic tone that lets us identify with the characters. Even if the romance falls flat, the romance is sweet.

Zoe (Lopez) is a busy but single New Yorker desperate to have a child, so she heads to the sperm bank. After her doctor (Klein) helps her conceive, even a clash with an annoying stranger, Stan (O'Loughlin), can't ruin her day. Of course, she runs into him again, and this time notices that he's both annoying and drop-dead gorgeous. So how will he react when he finds out that Zoe is pregnant?

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The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 Review


OK
Adapting a steely 1970s hit into a glossy 21st century blockbuster, Tony Scott indulges in his usual flashy pyrotechnics, which almost cover up the gaping craters in the plot. He also encourages his cast to really go for it.

Walter (Washington) is working at the dispatch desk for the New York Subway when crazed gunman Ryder (Travolta) hijacks the Pelham 123 and demands a huge ransom, or else he'll start killing passengers. Ryder refuses to talk to the know-it-all terrorism expert (Turturro), so Walter is pressed into service as a negotiator while the mayor (Gandolfini) gets the cash together. But Ryder and his goons are serious about this and, as the body count grows, the clock is ticking.

Director Scott and writer Helgeland aren't known for their subtlety, and this film is all whizzy style that's more about pure entertainment rather than establishing any actual suspense or character tension. The whole film is a collection of crashing edits, freeze frames, countdown graphics, loud sound effects and cheesily hysterical dialog. In other words, it's great fun. And it gives the cast plenty of scenery to chomp on--especially Travolta, who shows no mercy as he snarls and spits out every line.

Since this is a film about a Subway carriage sitting still in a tunnel, Scott keeps the camera moving at all times. He also manages to throw in a crazed car chase and loads of big crashes for no real reason, as well as orchestrating a painfully contrived reason to get Washington in on the gun-waving action. Not to throwing in several rather overwrought back-stories. By the end, the film has turned into a full-on Die Hard movie, complete with over-the-top violence and some real brutality.

Amid the fabulously enjoyable actors, it's Gandolfini who walks off with the movie using sardonic understatement. The whole film is pretty hilarious, although this clearly wasn't the intention. Scott zooms past plot holes like a runaway train; we barely have time to say "Huh?" before the next bit of action mayhem assaults all our senses. There's not a moment of actual suspense, but it's so big and outrageous that we can't help but hold on for the ride.

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The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 (2009) Review


OK
Excellent acting can save almost anything. Even the most mediocre script or hamfisted direction can usually be manipulated and salvaged by a couple of pros performing at their thespian peak. It doesn't always work -- the actors can and often do make their obvious attempts known, stealing so much of the limelight that the project can't help but implode. But for something like The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, a routine remake of a '70s pulp novel/post-modern thriller, star power is the all-important ingredient. The work of Denzel Washington and John Travolta elevates material that otherwise sits flatly on the screen. No matter how hard director Tony Scott and screenwriter Brian Helgeland try, the hijack/hostage material here plays as dated, and in some instances, dull.

For recently demoted NYC Transit Authority official Walter Garber (Washington), working the dispatcher's desk is just the latest in a rash of embarrassments. Under investigation for taking bribes, the longtime civil servant is resolved to do his job and not make waves. Naturally, all that changes when the subway out of Pelham City station is hijacked by four gun-toting criminals. Led by the mysterious "Mr. Ryder" (Travolta), their demands are simple -- $10 million in one hour. If the delivery is late, they will kill one hostage for every minute over 60 they have to wait. Initially, the Mayor (James Gandolfini) is convinced that the NYPD, under the direction of hostage negotiator Camonetti (John Turturro) will get the situation under control. But Ryder will only deal with Garber, and when he makes his deadly intentions known, the former front office man must save the day.

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Knowing Review


Excellent
In the list of filmmakers packed with wasted potential, Alex Proyas has to be near the top. While Dark City sparkled with a kind of surreal sci-fi magic, his other efforts -- including the gloppy Will Smith epic I, Robot -- have felt strained and unrewarding. So when you see his name attached to the lasted Nicolas Cage effort (said actor himself a perfect example of the law of continued diminishing returns), one fears a flop coming on. But as luck would have it, Knowing is actually very good. It proves that Proyas is perhaps one mainstream mega-hit away from finally fulfilling his so far unrealized possibilities.

Fifty years ago, the students of a small Massachusetts school buried a time capsule filled with their drawings of the future. In 2009, it's opened, and what's inside will change the fate of MIT Professor John Koestler (Cage), his son Caleb (Chandler Canterbury), and the actual world as we know it. Seems the boy gets a weird list of numbers, scribbled by a troubled child five decades ago. Now, Koestler sees a pattern in the randomness -- they appear to be predicting cataclysmic events, providing the date and the actual number of casualties. Luckily, most of the tragedies have already occurred. Unfortunately, there are three remaining. With the help of Diana Wayland (Rose Byrne) and her daughter Abby (Lara Robinson), our hero will try to understand the omens before life as we "know" it no longer exists.

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Seven Pounds Review


Weak
Consumed by remorse and despair, a successful businessman gives up all hope after accidentally killing six strangers and his beloved wife. To make amends, he decides to off himself and donate his bodily organs to seven strangers.

That's Seven Pounds in a nutshell, and it sounds more like Saw 6 than a holiday drama reuniting Pursuit of Happyness director Gabriele Muccino with Will Smith. But unlike Happyness, the feel-good movie of 2006, Seven Pounds is just the opposite -- a feel-bad movie -- and its unpleasant aftertaste lingers in your mouth for days. After watching this depression-inducing saga of sadness, you'll need a Zoloft prescription.

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The Great Debaters Review


Weak
Told with the against-all-odds mentality reserved for most underdog tales, Denzel Washington's The Great Debaters -- inspired by a true story -- recounts how a plucky debate team from all-black Wiley College systematically defeated anyone who dared oppose them until they earned an impossible title shot against the scholars of Harvard University.

Washington, who also directs, plays Melvin Tolson, a hard-nosed instructor who, in 1935, coaches his co-ed team through racially motivated obstacles while simultaneously protecting a secret that threatens to derail his team's historic run. A self-righteous leader, Tolson fills his vessels with the knowledge that a proper education is their lone ticket to a balanced life. The school's president, played with stubborn dignity by Forest Whitaker, echoes this credo in quiet scenes with his son, who happens to be on Tolson's team. "We do what we have to do," the educator exclaims, "so we can do what we want to do." Part of Tolson's method is to drill mantras into his debaters' skulls. The judge is God. Their opponents do not matter. And the only way they will succeed is by telling the truth.

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Fire In The Sky Review


Weak
With all the great "true" UFO stories out there, it's a bit puzzling to figure out why the hicktastic 1975 story of Travis Walton and his band of logger pals earned the right to become a movie.

Walton's story -- based on his own book, which I can't find for sale anywhere, called, ahem, The Walton Experience -- goes like this: Six hard-drinkin' logger buddies encounter a red "fire in the sky" one night. They investigate and find a giant UFO in the woods, but Travis gets too close, and a light shining on him knocks him off his feet. The other five run away. When they come back the next day, Travis is nowhere to be found. The little Arizona town suspects homicide, and the FBI eventually swoops in. No one can find Travis -- or his remains. Is all the talk of UFOs a prank? When tempers threaten to flare out of control, Travis shows up again, six days later, naked, and shell-shocked. He finally tells what happens: He was abducted and tortured. And it was nasty.

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The Pursuit of Happyness Review


Good
There is a part of The Pursuit of Happyness -- most of the last third, honestly -- that is just plain too bleak. It's taking an eternally optimistic guy just trying to scrape by and doing more than making things rough for him; it's kicking him in the crotch and spitting on him, and maybe humiliating him a little bit. It's some really holiday good cheer.

Chris Gardner (Will Smith) is one of those downtrodden guys for whom better times are always just around the next corner. He's a salesman, hawking some over-priced and under-used equipment to hospitals around San Francisco. What Chris wants is a better life for his family, his angry and overworked wife Linda (Thandie Newton, unconvincing with her brittle, bottled up range) and his delectably cute five-year-old Christopher (played by Smith's real-life son Jaden -- or, as he's loftily billed in the credits, Jaden Christopher Syre Smith). And the idea he latches onto, because it does not require a college education, but could still pay off big time, is to become a stockbroker.

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The Weather Man Review


Excellent
The immediate forecast for Gore Verbinski's profound adult drama The Weather Man calls for intense downpours of self-loathing and perpetually overcast feelings of inadequacy. Luckily, that initial dreary period should give way to a bright and sunny future once positive word of mouth spreads on this intensely moving film.

The title refers to Dave Spritz (Nicolas Cage), chief weather forecaster for Chicago's most popular morning news program. Despite his high-profile position - and self-described light work week - life tends to maneuver against Spritz when he's away from the office. He's divorced, and all attempts to reconcile with his spouse (Hope Davis) are hitting dead ends. His listless and overweight daughter Shelly (Gemmenne de la Peña) earns a cruel nickname at school because her clothes are too tight. His son Mike (Nicholas Hoult) abuses marijuana, then fends off advances from his drug counselor, a sexual predator.

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Fire In The Sky Review


Weak
With all the great "true" UFO stories out there, it's a bit puzzling to figure out why the hicktastic 1975 story of Travis Walton and his band of logger pals earned the right to become a movie.

Walton's story -- based on his own book, which I can't find for sale anywhere, called, ahem, The Walton Experience -- goes like this: Six hard-drinkin' logger buddies encounter a red "fire in the sky" one night. They investigate and find a giant UFO in the woods, but Travis gets too close, and a light shining on him knocks him off his feet. The other five run away. When they come back the next day, Travis is nowhere to be found. The little Arizona town suspects homicide, and the FBI eventually swoops in. No one can find Travis -- or his remains. Is all the talk of UFOs a prank? When tempers threaten to flare out of control, Travis shows up again, six days later, naked, and shell-shocked. He finally tells what happens: He was abducted and tortured. And it was nasty.

Continue reading: Fire In The Sky Review

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