CLICK Adam Sandler earns his hefty paychecks for comedies like The Wedding Singer and the execrable Big Daddy, but he satisfies his thespian aspirations with films like Punch-Drunk Love and the underrated Spanglish. With Click, he attempts to have it both ways. Spending more time sucking up to his unctuous boss (David Hasselhoff) than bonding with his wife (Kate Beckinsale) and kids, Michael Newman (Sandler in familiar man-child mode) is so distracted that he can’t even keep track of the household remotes (he points the clicker at his TV and the garage door opens). Venturing into the “Beyond” section of Bed, Bath & Beyond, he stumbles upon eccentric employee Morty (Christopher Walken), who gives him a universal remote that allows him to program his life as well as his TV set: He can mute the dog’s barking, fast-forward through foreplay and even listen to audio commentary (provided by James Earl Jones) on past events in his life. For the first half of the film, this clever concept yields some genuine laughs but more often gets buried under the sort of adolescent humor that long ago became the actor’s calling card (how many times do we have to watch the family dog hump a stuffed animal?). Then the movie shifts its course dramatically: Morphing into an update of Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, it chronicles how the remainder of Michael’s life becomes a human tragedy, as he’s unable to stop the remote from fast-forwarding through the years, ultimately leaving him with bitter memories and numerous regrets. The comedy isn’t as pointed as desired and the drama isn’t as maudlin as expected, yielding decidedly mixed results. Still, it should prove to be an acceptable DVD rental in about six months. If they can get James Earl Jones for the audio commentary, so much the better.

NACHO LIBRE For a movie that many people (including me) tagged as this summer’s off-the-beaten-path sleeper hit, Nacho Libre turns out to be a surprisingly mild affair, one of those films where the creative juices dried up at some point between conception and execution. The premise held promise: Nacho (Jack Black), the lowly cook at a Mexican monastery that doubles as a home for orphaned boys, realizes that becoming a Lucha Libre wrestler would not only earn him enough money to better take care of the lads under his watch, but it might also instill enough self-confidence so that he won’t remain tongue-tied around the lovely new nun (Penelope Cruz look-alike Ana de la Reguera). But because the monks frown upon wrestling, Nacho is forced to disguise himself by donning a mask. Writer-director Jared Hess (Napoleon Dynamite) and co-scripter Mike White (The School of Rock) serve up a few potent gags, but they’re spread mighty thin throughout the picture’s running time. The remainder of the film is split between the sort of scatological humor we can find anywhere else — See Jack Black break wind! See Jack Black sit on the toilet! See Jack Black smear animal excrement on someone’s face! — and lazy south-of-the-border caricatures that aren’t funny, are offensive or are offensively funny. After a while, this disappointing film just lays there, like a wrestler body-slammed one time too many.

 THE LAKE HOUSE Sandra Bullock’s star-making performance in 1994’s fast and furious Speed rushed through auditoriums like a welcome breeze on a muggy summer day. But with the exception of those imbecilic Miss Congeniality comedies, it’s hard to recall a recent picture in which Bullock has been allowed to draw upon her natural charisma. On the other hand, Reeves in ‘94 was just emerging from a period in which his repeated miscasting in prestige pictures like Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Dangerous Liaisons and Much Ado About Nothing left critics and fellow actors scratching their heads as to his ability to repeatedly land such high-profile roles. Since then, he’s excelled in a handful of diverse roles: iconic in The Matrix, funny in Thumbsucker and, in his best work, disarmingly romantic as he woos Diane Keaton in Something’s Gotta Give. The Lake House, which brings the stars together for the first time since Speed, serves as an exclamation point to the evolution of their respective careers. Bullock plays Dr. Kate Forester, whose new position at a Chicago hospital convinces her to move into the city and leave behind the lake house she’s been renting. Before departing, she whips off a welcome note for the next tenant, who turns out to be an architect named Alex Wyler (Reeves). But Kate’s comments in the letter, concerning the condition of the house, don’t jibe with what Alex sees, so he writes her back to clarify. As the missives keep flying back and forth, both parties come to the startling realization that they’re actually corresponding over the years -- she’s writing and receiving his letters in 2006, he’s doing likewise in 2004 -- and that the lake house mailbox serves as the magic portal through which they’re able to communicate. The Lake House’s central idea could conceivably work under the right set of circumstances -- chief among them the presentation of two lovers whose ardor is so all-encompassing that we feel like we’ll die if they don’t end up in each other’s arms before the closing credits. But The Lake House doesn’t even begin to inspire that level of swoony romance on our parts. The blame begins with director Alejandro Agresti, whose principal concern was apparently making sure that cinematographer Alar Kivilo captured the right lighting for each shot. Yes, it’s all as pretty as a picture, only it’s the wrong type of picture -- we expect a motion picture, but we get a still life instead.

 CARS Admit it: Ever since Pixar Animation Studios began its incredible run with Toy Story back in 1995 (followed by five more toon blockbusters, the last being The Incredibles), haven’t most observers been wondering when the company will hit a critical and/or commercial roadblock and watch its latest effort crash and burn? Newsflash: It’s hasn’t happened yet, and it ain’t happening with Cars. John Lasseter, the creative wizard behind Pixar (and now Walt Disney Pictures as well) has repeatedly stated that the key to any good animated film is the story, and of course he’s absolutely right. But the success of Pixar rests with the fact that they go beyond good storytelling and beyond good visual schemes to provide their pictures with that extra oomph, whether it’s in the tiny details or in the always spot-on voice casting. For all its high-gloss NASCAR trappings, Cars is ultimately a paean to Route 66. The cars are the characters -- no humans exist in this world -- and the most prominent vehicle is Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson), a rookie sensation on the NASCAR circuit (the name is doubtless an homage to Steve McQueen, a real-life racing enthusiast). Lightning is cocky, conceited and convinced that he needs nobody’s help to make it to the top. Clearly, Lightning is due for a comeuppance even more than he’s due for an oil and filter change. On his way to California to prepare for a race against a grizzled veteran known as The King (Richard Petty) and a loudmouth called Chick Hicks (Michael Keaton), Lightning unexpectedly winds up in the town of Radiator Springs, a once-bustling Route 66 burg whose status rapidly collapsed once the freeway insured that all cross-country traffic would be diverted away from the town. He becomes acquainted with the locals, including Sally (Bonnie Hunt), a former big-city lawyer who prefers the simple life; Mater (Larry the Cable Guy), a good ole boy tow truck whose idea of a good time is tipping the sleeping tractors; and Doc Hudson (Paul Newman), a sage automobile who might be able to teach the young hothead a few things about winning -- not only on the track but also in life and in love. That Lightning will find redemption is never in doubt, but like the best storytellers, Lasseter and his co-writers make the journey to self-discovery as interesting as possible.

 A PRAIRIE HOME  COMPANION  Robert Altman’s best film since the one-two punch of Short Cuts and The Player back in the early 1990s might at first glance seem like a minor work, an ambling, congenial picture constructed as little more than an opportunity to corral several major talents and give them a chance to sing songs and tell jokes in a relaxed setting. That the film is inspired by Garrison Keillor’s long-running radio show of the same name adds to that impression: Keillor, at least in his on-air persona, is the epitome of laid-back, down-home hospitality. Altman’s Prairie can indeed be viewed in such a light, but there’s more going on here. For all its levity, the central theme focuses on the specter of Death -- how it hovers around us, how it haunts us, and how it can inform our every move. The movie chronicles the events that take place during the last broadcast of a popular radio show. The Axeman (Tommy Lee Jones), a corporate suit with no respect for history or tradition, has dropped by to make sure the closing goes according to plan. G.K. (Keillor), the program’s guiding light, takes it all in stride (“Every show is your last show; that’s my philosophy”), more concerned that all the talent is in place. And what talent! First, there are the singing sisters Yolanda and Rhonda Johnson (Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin). Then there are the cowboys Dusty (Woody Harrelson) and Lefty (John C. Reilly), adept at crooning cowpoke tunes. Backstage, the characters are no less colorful. Guy Noir (Kevin Kline) handles security for the program, though his bumbling manner recalls Inspector Clouseau more than it does Sam Spade. Yolanda’s daughter Lola (Lindsay Lohan) mopes around in the dressing room while Mom performs. And then there’s the mysterious lady (Virginia Madsen) who appears out of nowhere and hangs around for the rest of the show. When the radio performers are front and center, the movie is nothing less than a joyous celebration of both Americana and the arts. Streep (who sang to equally good effect in Postcards from the Edge) and Tomlin make a formidable duet, while Harrelson and Reilly break through any lingering melancholy with their steady stream of quips.

THE BREAK-UP There’s a fine movie trapped inside The Break-Up, and it’s a shame that it couldn’t break free. As it stands, here’s a picture whose many fine ingredients are never able to compensate for the staggering miscalculation that cripples the piece almost immediately. Vince Vaughn and Jennifer Aniston play Gary and Brooke, whose initial meeting and courtship are dealt with during the opening credits. From there, an argument over a dinner party proves to be the catalyst for the pair deciding to call it quits. Secretly, Brooke doesn’t want to break up -- she only wants Gary to appreciate her more -- but as time crawls along, the hostility between the pair increases, and it becomes apparent that there’s simply no saving this relationship. Gary is painted as a self-centered, insensitive man-child whose greatest passions are video games and baseball; the only reason audiences like this character at all is because he’s played by the charismatic Vaughn, whose motormouth wit is always good for a few laughs. Brooke, meanwhile, is intelligent, classy, mature, patient, and on and on. He’s a prick; she’s a saint. Why exactly would we have an interest in whether these two remain together? Simple answer: We don’t.

X-MEN: THE LAST STAND It’s a testament to the durability of the original comic created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby that the movie survives this hostile takeover. Newbies need not apply, but the faithful will catch on immediately when the movie brings up its smoking gun of a central issue: a “cure” has been found for mutancy, leading to divergent viewpoints among those afflicted with extraordinary powers. Some, like X-Woman Storm (Halle Berry) and the villainous Magneto (Ian McKellen), don’t look at mutancy as a curse and are offended that such a remedy is even being offered. Others see nothing wrong in desiring a life of normalcy; among those is Rogue (Anna Paquin), whose mere touch can kill anyone, even a boyfriend (Shawn Ashmore’s Iceman) with whom she can never enjoy even the most chaste of physical intimacy. As always, X-Men guru Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) takes a philosophical, wait-and-see approach. And Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and Cyclops (James Marsden)? They don’t seem too preoccupied with the issue, since they’re both still reflecting on the death of Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), who sacrificed herself at the end of X2.

 THE DA VINCI CODE No instant classic and it won’t sweep next year’s Academy Awards. Conversely, it’s also not a turkey for the ages -- it won’t draw instant titters at the mere mention of its name like, say, Gigli or Battlefield Earth or The Bonfire of the Vanities. Like Bonfire, however, I suspect that it will be judged far more harshly by those who read the book than those who didn’t. After all, on its own cinematic terms, it’s a moderately entertaining ride, sort of like the Nicolas Cage hit National Treasure only done with more style and a more respectable cast. Steered by his Apollo 13 director Ron Howard, Tom Hanks plays the central role of Robert Langdon, a Harvard symbologist whose book-signing stint in Paris is cut short when he’s summoned to the Louvre to hopefully shed light on the strange circumstances surrounding the murder of an elderly curator. What Langdon doesn’t initially know is that the detective on the case, the gruff Bezu Fache (French national treasure Jean Reno), is convinced that he’s the killer. With a police cryptologist named Sophie Neveu (Amelie’s Audrey Tautou) as his only ally, Langdon evades capture and begins a jaunt across France and, later, England in an attempt to solve an ancient mystery that, if revealed, could potentially spell the end of Christianity as we know it. Seeking guidance, Langdon and Sophie turn to British scholar Leigh Teabing (Ian McKellen, easily earning MVP honors) to fill in the missing pieces. However tantalizingly this might have all played out on the page, up on the screen it simply comes off as one more familiar Hollywood thriller. Yet where The Da Vinci Code succeeds is, as expected, within the arena of religious debate. Whatever one thinks of the worldwide protests of offended Christians or Dan Brown’s research and subsequent conclusions, there’s no denying that the movie’s most gripping scenes involve the laying out of the conspiracy theories.

 OVER THE HEDGE Yet another charmless animated feature made by profiteers whose historical reference point seems to begin and end with Shrek. In other words, don’t look for what was once quaintly referred to as “Disney magic,” that timeless, ethereal quality that used to be par for the course in toon flicks like Dumbo, 101 Dalmatians and, in more recent times, Beauty and the Beast. With rare exception, today’s cartoon characters aren’t allowed to be romantic or introspective or lovably quixotic -- usually, they’re too busy hyperventilating or passing gas or trying to find ways to screw over their fellow toons. Over the Hedge is more of the same, as an opportunistic raccoon (Bruce Willis), in hock to a grouchy grizzly (Nick Nolte), cons a group of peaceful forest denizens into helping him invade suburbia and steal the humans’ junk food.

 POSEIDON  The original Poseidon Adventure was one of the first disaster flicks and it arguably remains the best. The Oscar-winning visual effects hold up; the Oscar-winning song “The Morning After” does not. Come next spring, I doubt we’ll be similarly mentioning the new Poseidon and Oscars in the same sentence, since this is as forgettable as motion pictures can get.

M:i:III Look, I’m as sick of hearing about Tom Cruise’s offscreen nonsense as anyone else. But the great thing about the magic of the movies is that it immerses us in fantasy worlds that more often than not allow us to disengage from real-life baggage. In other words, Cruise is accomplished -- and canny -- enough to know that a well-oiled summer flick is just the item to make us all forgive him -- at least temporarily -- for his indiscretions. Yet the performance of note in Mission: Impossible III belongs to Philip Seymour Hoffman, fresh from winning an Oscar for last fall’s Capote.

AKEELAH AND THE BEE Growing up in south LA with her widowed mother (Angela Bassett) and two older siblings, Akeelah’s (Keke Palmer) only true passion is for spelling -- a seemingly frivolous fancy considering her dour surroundings. But determined to somehow put his decrepit school on the map, the principal Mr. Welch (Curtis Armstrong) encourages Akeelah to try out for a competition that will determine which student will represent them in upcoming spelling bees.ƒnƒç












More by Matt Brunson

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    Smart movies tend to avoid offering obvious patterns, imbecilic narrative coincidences, and imploding third acts. Unfortunately, The Accountant isn’t that smart.
    • Oct 11, 2016
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