Movie Review: Alice in Wonderland

alice_in_wonderlandI like movies that are a little crazy. Crazy movies have passion and ambition, and while that passion can sometimes be misguided, at the very least it results in something interesting. Tim Burton’s 3D take on “Alice in Wonderland,” on the other hand, is just plain nuts. It has style but no heart, an off-putting ‘weird for the sake of being weird’-ness to it that is more alienating than it is imaginative. And the post-“Avatar” viewing public will not be impressed by the gimmicky 3D.

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Movie Review: Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good Very Bad Day

“Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good Very Bad Day” is not a good movie, but it’s a damn likable one. The dialogue is snappy, and the performances by the family members are spot-on (this movie does not work without Steve Carell), but the plotting is, well, bad. All characters outside of the family are gross stereotypes, seemingly because it’s easier to make an example of them that way. The pro-family vibe of the movie is so strong, though, that it makes the predictable storytelling easier to forgive.

Alexander Cooper (Ed Oxenbould) is about to turn 12, and per middle school protocol, he’s having an awful day. He wakes up with gum in his hair (sadly, one of only a few nods to the 1972 book on which the movie is based), and proceeds to get humiliated at a school-wide level via text bomb, and is crushed to discover that even his best friend is going to skip his birthday party the next day in order to attend the party of a much cooler kid. Alexander, convinced that he is all but invisible to his family and frustrated that they can’t relate to what he’s going through, wishes on a candle-lit cupcake at midnight on his birthday that they could know how it feels to be him for a day. From the moment they wake up the next morning, Alexander’s entire family experiences a “Liar Liar” form of karmic payback.

Each member of the Cooper family has a designated foil assigned by the screenplay (with the exception of newborn baby Trevor, for obvious reasons). For oldest sibling Anthony (Dylan Minnette), it is his awful girlfriend Celia (Bella Thorne). For aspiring actress Emily (Karris Dorsey), it is her awful theater instructor who expects perfection from tweens. In the case of the parents (Jennifer Garner and Carell), it is her awful boss and his prospective employers, whose awfulness is yet to be determined. (For Alexander, it’s everyone.) All of these awful people exist in the real world, sadly, but when making a movie that features awful people, it helps to make them, well, slightly less awful, or at the very least somewhat human. Celia, unfortunately, doesn’t exhibit a single redeeming quality in the movie. You have to think that Anthony’s parents despise her, and wonder where they went wrong in raising their son.

And then there are these out-of-nowhere moments of pure joy, of a family letting its collective guard down and showing what it means to be a family, that send the movie soaring. Carell’s Ben Cooper is the best dad ever. He never loses his cool, he will defend his kids to the death (the way he dispatches the drama instructor is pithy and spot-on), and finds the silver lining even as the cloud is repeatedly striking him with lightning. He’s so fun to watch that it’s actually okay that he’s stealing the focus from Alexander. Everyone else gets a moment, or a line, but they’re at their best during the group scenes, particularly the bit where the family takes Anthony and Celia to the prom. It is the essence of family, and it’s thrilling to watch.

Judith Viorst’s book “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good Very Bad Day” would have made a 5-minute movie. In its fleshed out form, it’s an 81-minute movie, a tacit admission that they knew that there just isn’t much to build on here. If it had an equal amount of smarts to match its heart, this could have been something special. As it is, it’s a pleasant distraction, nothing more.

2.5 Stars (2.5 / 5)

This originally ran October 9, 2014 on Bullz-Eye.com.

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Movie Review: Alex Cross

alex_crossParamount used to pony up big bucks for the movie rights to James Patterson novels. This time around, Patterson’s “Alex Cross,” named after his titular detecto-shrink, fell to Summit Entertainment, and while Summit is raking in headlines and cash at the moment with those “Twilight” movies, make no mistake: for James Patterson, this is a precipitous drop. Look at the script, though, and it makes sense why every other major studio passed: it’s a flat recycling of every late-‘90s thriller ever made, without an original thought in its head. Worse, it just looks cheap, and cheap combined with unoriginal is not a recipe for success.

Detective Alex Cross (Tyler Perry) and his two partners, childhood friend Tommy Kane (Edward Burns) and Tommy’s secret coworker with benefits Monica Ashe (Rachel Nichols), are called to the scene of a gruesome murder, where the ultra-rich daughter of a Chinese businessman is found tortured to death. The killer (Matthew Fox), a hit man for hire and demented psychopath whose name the audience never learns, even leaves a clue as to whom his next target will be. Cross, who “can tell you had scrambled eggs at a hundred yards” (that is an actual line of dialogue), spots the clue and the gang arrives in time to botch the hit, but Alex and Tommy both suffer massive collateral damage in return. At this point, shit gets real.

Whatever you may think of Rob Cohen’s movies, they have always looked good, not quite a poor man’s Michael Bay but at least a less rich man’s Michael Bay. “Alex Cross,” on the other hand, is a poor man’s Rob Cohen. The camera work is downright amateurish: the final showdown between Alex and the killer is a giant blur, as if the cameraman shot it while on fire, and the pan shot of the underground fighting venue is just clunky. Even the big, hyper-choreographed tracking shot of the police arriving at a potential crime scene is not so much flashy as it is laborious. Factor in the story, acting, and the dialogue, and things only get worse.

Final showdown in an abandoned building? Check. Dialogue about the gates of hell and someone appointing themselves judge, jury and executioner? Check. The sociopath who suffers unexplained, out-of-body psychotic episodes? Check. (Hell, we don’t even get the back story of Fox’s character.) Implausible, large-scale kill shot executed to perfection in defiance of all laws of physics? Check. The full-speed, no-look car collision shot from the victim’s point of view that could never, ever happen in real life? Checkmate. The entire film is a walking, talking checklist of ‘90s serial killer movie clichés, and that might actually be all right if they had brought something new to the table. But they don’t, and as a result the movie looks dated and lazy.

Perry is clearly busting his ass to show that he can do these kinds of roles, and while it’s tempting crack some joke along the lines of, “I know Morgan Freeman, and you, sir, are no Morgan Freeman,” Perry is not the problem. He’s not the solution either, but he doesn’t make things worse, at least not in the way the once-reliable Matthew Fox does. Fox looks out of his element here, overacting at random moments like he took his inspiration from Vincent D’Onofrio on “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” (not a good idea). Only Edward Burns seems to be in on the joke, playing his role like he just walked off the set of “Man on a Ledge” and fully aware that this was not going to end well, so he may as well have fun.

Nothing about “Alex Cross” makes sense. It’s a movie no one asked for, funded by people who didn’t believe in it enough to spend the necessary money to make it better, and assembled by people who put up a half-assed effort at best, on both sides of the camera. Once they made the decision to go low-budget, they should have sent it straight to video, because the big screen does this no favors.

1.5 Stars (1.5 / 5)

This originally ran October 18, 2012 on Bullz-Eye.com.

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Movie Review: The Age of Adaline

the_age_of_adalineThere is no pleasure in putting down a movie that is in love with science, to the point where the screenplay invents a new law of molecular biology – one that won’t be discovered for another 20 years, no less – in order to justify the fantastical plot. Indeed, we’ll give “The Age of Adaline” credit for taking a left-field approach to the love story of the girl who won’t/can’t stop running, but in this case, the opposites don’t attract; the science talk is almost exclusively done via narration (THE MOVIE IS EXPLAINING ITSELF TO YOU BECAUSE YOU WON’T UNDERSTAND IT OTHERWISE), and it’s actually even more jarring when it’s inserted into the dialogue. However it’s delivered, it never gels with the love story. In fact, the love story never gels with the love story.

Adaline Bowman (Blake Lively) was born in 1908. She met a man, fell in love, got married, had a daughter, and lost her husband in an accident. One night, while driving to visit her parents, she had an accident that sent her car plunging into a lake. The cold temperatures of the water stopped her heart, but she was revived when her vehicle was struck by lightning (again, the science behind this is decades away, they assure us), and as a result she stops aging. This obviously makes it difficult for Adaline to forge long-lasting relationships (both friend and other), and avoid the suspicions of law enforcement. She eventually learns to guard her privacy to the present day (her daughter is now played by Ellen Burstyn), but handsome philanthropist Ellis Jones (Michiel Huisman) refuses to leave her alone. Adaline, who now calls herself Jenny, wants to let him into her life, but decades of running is a hard habit to break. She agrees to spend the weekend with him as his parents celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary, and it is there that Jenny, for the first time in ages, comes face-to-face with her past.

As awkward love triangles go, this is second only to the 1989 film “Chances Are,” where Robert Downey Jr. discovers that in a past life, he was his girlfriend’s father. (Gross.) Adaline has the new love, and runs into the old love, but there are no stakes; it’s obvious that she’s not going to leave new love for old love, so why does it happen? Quite frankly, they need to get her in a car by herself, so they can wrap things up with a tidy little bow. Is that a spoiler? Only if you’ve never seen a movie in your life.

Blake Lively is all sorts of stunning here, achieving Diane Lane/Michelle Pfeiffer levels of gorgeousness, yet Adaline is a specter, floating through the movie without leaving a footprint. There’s a logic to this, though: for her to maintain her life off the radar, she needs to be as invisible as someone who looks like Blake Lively can possibly be. The downside is that that decision offers her little in the way of emotional range, reducing the majority of her performance to polite blandness. Huisman doesn’t fare much better. His Ellis is impossibly earnest, the do-gooder silicon millionaire with a pure heart. They make a dashing couple, and a ridiculously smart one at that, but with neither of them seemingly capable of harboring a dark thought, they are also really boring. The darkest thought Adaline shares is when she chides Ellis for listening to bad jazz.

The most frustrating thing about “The Age of Adaline” is that there is a high-concept, thinking man’s romance at its core, but it is never fully explored. Are we really all connected? Are some of us chosen against our will to endure hardships that will benefit humanity in the future? That’s heady stuff for a romantic drama, and while it’s possible to get both to co-exist in a film, “The Age of Adaline” only flexes its smarts when it’s convenient.

2 Stars (2 / 5)

This originally ran April 23, 2015 on Bullz-Eye.com.

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Movie Review: Aeon Flux

aeon_fluxThose of you who frequent our Coming Soon pages may recall that the official Bullz-Eye stance on “Aeon Flux” was that we were concerned at first about this movie, but after seeing the trailer, concluded that the movie could be a lot better than we thought it would be. By ‘we,’ I really mean me, since I write all of those bits. And I’m not too proud to admit that I couldn’t have been more wrong. “Aeon Flux” is the most unintentionally funny movie I have seen all year, the kind of movie where sexy assassins sleep in bikini type outfits that show a healthy majority of their breasts and couldn’t possibly be comfortable to sleep in. How they convinced two Oscar-winning actresses and one Oscar nominated actor to appear in it defies logic, though I’m guessing it had something to do with condos in Vail.

The setting is 400 years in the future, and Charlize Theron plays the title character, an assassin for a rebel movement called the Monicans. The world’s entire population lives in Bregna, the only city left on earth after a virus that took out the other 99%. The government is a police state ruled by the savior of mankind Trevor Goodchild (Martin Csokas), who created a vaccine to the virus. Still, citizens disappear at random, never to be seen again. The Monicans want to take out Goodchild, and the Monican’s Handler (Frances McDormand, with hair that simply has to be seen to be believed) assigns Flux to do the job. Complications arise when Flux gets in perfect position to take Trevor out, and inexplicably cannot pull the trigger. This makes her an enemy of both the Monicans and the government, and since Trevor’s little brother Oren (Jonny Lee Miller) is hatching a power play to take over the Goodchild empire, Aeon and Trevor must band together to stay alive and discover What Is Really Going On.

The unintentional funny comes from a couple angles. The dialogue is a textbook example for future generations on how not to use exposition – when one brother talks to another brother about how they’re brothers, you’ve clearly done something wrong – and the comatose delivery of the dialogue by all parties only underlines this point. I was reminded of “Team America: World Police,” the brilliant but flawed movie from Trey Parker and Matt Stone that, hello, was a satire of bad action movies. All the more puzzling, then, that the movie’s director is Karyn Kusama, who made the much-loved “Girlfight” but seems to be completely out of her element here. Although, in retrospect, it is not without irony that “Aeon Flux” contains one big-ass girl fight that involves a move on Theron’s part that made the person sitting next to me (BE critic Jason Zingale, if you’re curious) squirm in his seat. This is easily one of the bloodiest PG-13 movies ever, giving Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” movies a run for their money.

I see your question coming down Broadway: if the movie’s truly this awful, then why give it even one star? There are two reasons, actually. For starters, for a movie to earn less than one star, it has to make me angry, like “Brothers Grimm.” For as bad as “Aeon Flux” was, doggone it, it made me laugh, a lot. The other reason is that it takes one hell of a lot to make me say bad things about Charlize Theron. Is this a bad movie? Absolutely. Was Theron good in it? No better or worse than anyone else (I’ve spared Pete Postlethwaite up to this point, but even he comes out of this tainted). And who knows, maybe doing this movie was a calculated move on Theron’s part. Halle Berry did “Catwoman,” and now no one expects anything of her. Maybe this is Theron’s way of lowering her stock so low that she can truly surprise us again, like she did with “Monster.” Not a bad idea in theory, but surely there was a better project in some studio’s pipeline than this one. Joss Whedon’s “Wonder Woman,” perhaps?

1 Stars (1 / 5)

This originally ran December 2, 2005 on Bullz-Eye.com.

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Movie Review: Adventureland

adventurelandThe “Superbad” generation is going to have no idea what to do with “Adventureland.” They’ll see ‘From the director of ‘Superbad’’ in the ads and have visions of inept cops, fake IDs, and slow dances with girls that are having their period. This is not that kind of movie. For starters, it’s set in 1987, and at the risk of sounding like Abraham Simpson, things were much different then. I was roughly the same age at the time as the main characters, and I speak from experience when I say that we were naïve much later in life than kids are allowed to be now. “Adventureland” revels in that naiveté, and treats it as the blessing that it was.

James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg, doing his best Michael Cera impression) is excited to spend the summer after college graduation backpacking across Europe, but when his father is forced to take a massive pay cut at work, James must abandon his trip and get a job in order to save up enough money for grad school. His lack of work experience (he was too busy working on the academic extracurricular activities to get a job) leaves him one option: Adventureland, the local amusement park. The job is completely beneath his intelligence, the games he works on are rigged, and the customers are awful (not to mention armed), but James is thrilled to discover that many of the other employees are overeducated misfits as well. He falls for the jaded Em (Kristen Stewart), though unbeknownst to him she is entangled with maintenance man Mike Connell (Ryan Reynolds), who happens to be married.

The humor here is rarely of the belly laugh variety. The jokes are subtle, and when someone dares to be juvenile, namely James’ obnoxious childhood friend Tommy Frigo (Matt Bush), the joke, thankfully, is at his expense. Mottola recreates the music and fashion of the era with uncanny accuracy, though he held the supporting characters to a much higher standard than he did Em and James, who look like they walked out of a 2008 high school. Best of the bunch is the gum-chomping Lisa P (Margarita Levieva), the unattainable babe of the park. Her club-hopping wardrobe is priceless. Martin Starr also provides invaluable support as the brainy cynic Joel, though Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig are largely wasted as the park proprietors.

The third act, however, is troublesome. The movie’s tone goes south in a hurry as everything goes sour, even for the peripheral characters. The ending doesn’t work either, feeling more like an afterthought than a logical progression of the events that took place up to that point (it screams ‘reshoot’). The character of Em ultimately gets short-changed in the depth department as well; she has back story, and it’s a complicated one, but it could have used more work.

As coming-of-age movies go, “Adventureland” is neither one of the best nor one of the worst. It’s cute enough, and it’s clear that Mottola loves every one of these characters, even Reynolds’ lecherous Connell. The problem is that it ends up being somewhat lightweight, which is fitting since it takes place in the tail end of the ‘80s, but makes it a fish out of water in the cutthroat ‘00s. Pity they didn’t make this in the mid-‘90s. It would have been a smash.

3 Stars (3 / 5)

This originally ran April 2, 2009 on Bullz-Eye.com.

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Movie Review: The Adjustment Bureau

adjustment_bureauIt might look like another “Run, Matt, Run!” conspiracy thriller, but “The Adjustment Bureau” is a surprisingly high-concept affair, where the baddies aren’t incorrigible evildoers but rather the agents of fate itself. Think of it as “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” with chase sequences; the heart wants what it wants, and it’ll be damned if anyone is going to get in its way, no matter the cost. All love stories should be so thrilling.

Matt Damon is David Norris, a rising star in political circles whose run for the Senate is dashed by the poorly-timed leaking of some embarrassing photos of Norris from years back. As he’s prepping his consolation speech in the restroom, he runs into Elise (Emily Blunt), who’s hiding from authorities after she pulled a prank. The two hit it off immediately but do not exchange personal information. Three months later, David and Elise end up on the same bus and pick up right where they left off, at least until David gets to work and sees a group of men in suits reprogramming his coworkers. The men capture David, and a man named Richardson (John Slattery) informs him that they are “adjusters,” men who make sure that David remains on the path that has been chosen for him, one which keeps him away from Elise. There are dire consequences should he tell her why he is forbidden from seeing her (they’ll erase his brain, yikes), but David refuses to give her up. Fortunately for him, he has a sympathetic adjuster (Anthony Mackie) in his corner, who uncovers a shocking secret about David’s true path.

It’s tough to see anyone else selling this story like Damon does. This is as pitch-perfect a role as he’s ever had, and his chemistry with Blunt is white-hot. (Their meet cute in the bathroom is one for the ages.) Writer/director George Nolfi stages some dazzling transition shots as the adjusters use doorways as short cuts through the city, but his true masterstroke is the dialogue. It’s not flashy, but it is so right, so pure. When David tells Elise that loads of women have told him what a bad dancer he is, Emily simply replies, “That’s gross.” Does anything more really need to be said?

Of course, with all high-concept movies comes a fair amount of exposition, and there are a couple scenes where Damon and Mackie’s characters are clearly talking for our benefit more than their own. Also, the adjusters’ weaknesses are curious to say the least, but neither of these proves to be a major distraction, certainly not compared to what the movie offers in terms of a genuine romance and a boatload of philosophical questions, such as: if we choose happiness over success, is God disappointed?

People have looked to indie movies of late when it comes to matters of the heart, but “The Adjustment Bureau” has the most emotionally satisfying love story that any movie, major or indie, has sported in years. An action thriller with a soul; that is one trend we’d like to see catch on.

4 Stars (4 / 5)

This originally ran March 3, 2011 on Bullz-Eye.com.

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Movie Review: Across the Universe

across_the-universeRevolution is arguably the worst movie studio in history. Their catalog stuffed to the gills with movies so bad that it would make Ed Wood blush. Two “xXx” movies, “Daddy Day Care,” “White Chicks,” “Little Man,” “Christmas with the Kranks,” “America’s Sweethearts” (the last two were actually directed by Roth), “Zoom,” “The Master of Disguise,” “Next” and “The Animal” are but a handful of the movies they’ve inflicted on an undeserving public. They’re also responsible for three of this year’s worst movies: “Daddy Day Camp,” “The Brothers Solomon” and “Perfect Stranger,” the last of which has the most preposterous ending you will see in a movie from this or any other year. Revolution, by and large, specializes in dumb. C-A-T dumb, as my friend Mark would say.

So how on earth were they the studio that wound up making “Across the Universe”? Julie Taymor’s wildly ambitious reinterpretation of the Beatles songbook is the absolute last thing you’d expect a studio like Revolution to be interested in, yet “Across the Universe” has more guts than the rest of Revolution’s catalog combined. Pity, then, that it runs aground in the third act, because up until that point, Taymor’s weirdo blend of “Moulin Rouge” and “Hair” is just the right mix of whimsical and crazy.

The movie begins in the early ‘60s, and follows the lives of several people in various parts of the world. Jude (Jim Sturgess) is a dockworker from Liverpool who leaves for the U.S. to track down his father, whom he thinks is a professor at Princeton. Once he arrives he befriends a rich slacker student named Max (Joe Armstrong), and ultimately becomes smitten with Max’s little sister, Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood). Max and Jude move to New York and wind up sharing a flat with soul singer named Sadie (Dana Fuchs). Lucy visits them after graduating high school, and falls in love with Jude. Max is soon drafted by the Army to serve in Vietnam, which causes Lucy to become an anti-war activist, much to Jude’s chagrin. Rounding out the story is a former cheerleader named Prudence, a Hendrix-ish guitarist named Jojo, a psychedelics expert fittingly named Dr. Robert, and, of course, Mr. Kite.

I must give props to soundtrack producer T. Bone Burnett for knowing when to keep it simple and knowing when to have some fun, not to mention acknowledging some of the better Beatles cover versions along the way. “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” here, is an aching acoustic ballad, “With a Little Help from My Friends” is half-Beatles, half-Joe Cocker, and “A Day in the Life” owes more to Jeff Beck’s version than the sprawling Beatles opus. Additionally, it appears that they went out of their way to use as few songs from the Bee Gees’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” soundtrack as they could. Very smart. S-M-R-T, as noted scholar Homer Simpson would say.

What is not so smart, however, is the heavy-handedness of the war subplot. Uncle Sam reaching out of the poster on the wall and telling Max, “I want you”? Clever. Max and a group of soldiers carrying the Statue of Liberty on their backs through the Vietnam jungles, singing “She’s so heavy”? Painful. Ironically, this subtle-as-a-sledgehammer moment is as anti-establishment as the movie gets; the predominant message throughout the movie seems to be ‘The Man always wins,’ which cannot possibly be what Taymor intended. I also found it strangely easy to stop caring when things between Jude and Lucy went sour. In fact, I can’t say that any of the characters made much of an impact, to be honest. The music, in the end, is the star.

We can only hope that Revolution doesn’t use the box office numbers for “Across the Universe” – which, let’s be frank, is not going to make any money – to determine the movie’s true worth. The movie is ultimately pretty good, but damned if they didn’t aspire for something far greater, which is more than 90% of the movies in their catalog can legitimately claim. The Christmas bonuses at Revolution may be smaller this year, but the employees can take comfort in the fact that they’ve laid the groundwork for saving the souls they sold when they released “The New Guy.”

3.5 Stars (3.5 / 5)

This originally ran October 11, 2007 on Bullz-Eye.com

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Movie Review: 2012

2012When it comes to Roland Emmerich movies, we hold these truths to be self-evident: they will be overlong, not terribly well acted, and loaded with melodrama that has the emotional weight of a Hallmark card. In the plus column, the man can stage one hell of a disaster sequence, and his latest movie “2012,” for better and for worse, is all of these things. It sports a ridiculous run time – two hours and 38 minutes, yikes – and the so-called teary moments fall flat, but the annihilation sequences he assembles are like nothing you’ve ever seen. That leaves the acting as the difference-maker, and surprise, it’s actually better than expected. Not across the board, mind you, but having a better actor than Dennis Quaid at the helm is a good first step.

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Movie Review: 1408

1408The phrase “based on a story by Stephen King,” as a general rule, is far scarier than any movie that’s actually based on a story by Stephen King. Fortunately, “1408” is the first movie in years (decades?) to rise above its dubious distinction. It may not be run-to-church-and-repent terrifying, but it is relentless and unsettling, and as a bonus, it turns a Carpenters wedding staple into a murder ballad. That, my friends, takes skill.

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