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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Movie Review: 300: Rise of an Empire

300_empireThere is only one woman who doesn’t end up raped or murdered. The ones who are spared rape – presumably, anyway; for all we know, they were raped before we witness their deaths – are nearly all slaughtered while topless. Far be it from me to sound like a feminist, but there are parts of “300: Rise of an Empire” that are disturbing on a number of levels. Zack Snyder, who opted not to direct the follow-up to his 2006 smash “300” but co-wrote the screenplay, will likely argue that these were dark days, and heinous crimes were committed, and we will not debate either point. However, when all of the naked victims are ‘D’ cups, it sends a mixed message, to say the least.

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Movie Review: 300

300I had an interesting conversation with one of my fellow movie critic friends on the way out of “300.” He was just as excited to see it as I was, but afterwards, the first word he used to describe it was “lame,” that it was nothing but slo-mo swordplay and green screen work. I found this puzzling, since every trailer for the movie shows nothing but slo-mo swordplay and green screen work. Wasn’t the movie, then, exactly what the ads – the very things that got him so excited in the first place – proclaimed it to be? And if so, why was he so disappointed to get exactly what the movie promised?

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Movie Review: 127 Hours

127_hoursThree years ago, the Onion A.V. Club ran a list of great films that are too painful to watch twice. That list has a new Number One. Danny Boyle’s “127 Hours” takes a hellish premise that Jigsaw himself would be proud to call his own – mutilate yourself or die! – and turns it into a moving and even amusing testament to what men will do to survive. Best of all, the movie is careful not to paint Ralston as a victim because, well, he’s not. He got himself into this mess, and while his escape makes for a hell of a story, it’s a story that could have been prevented a million different ways.

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Movie Review: 50/50

50_50It is not easy to mix comedy with tragedy. Even Oscar-winning movies like “As Good As It Gets” had difficulty finding the right balance. “50/50” actually bests “As Good As It Gets” in a few respects, but rhythm eludes the movie from the very beginning. It hits all the right emotional chords, but it hits them like they’re targets in a drive-by shooting, fleeing the scene before the audience has had a chance to survey the damage and contemplate what’s just happened. In spite of this, “50/50” is a very entertaining and touching movie. With a different balance of love and death, though, it could have been something special.

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