Gavin Grades The Movies

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1

It's a rare thing when a film version of a book is better than the book it's based on. I can only think of it happening one or two times. I read the entire Hunger Games series and found that the last book, the one this film is based on, was the worst. Maybe it's not enjoying a book that made the film seem so much better. Maybe it's because they split the book in half and were able to include far more than they ever could had they not done that. Maybe it was a seasoned cast and crew that's been together long enough that they're building a healthy stride. I don't know what it is but I'm thrilled because Mockingjay Part 1 is the best in the Hunger Games series so far.

I was thrilled when director Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend, Constantine) took over the series from the original director Gary Ross (Big, Seabiscuit). I think we all agree that the first Hunger Games film was a let down. The series by Suzanne Collins is so incredibly dark and he did a subpar job of making that feel dystopian. But with Catching Fire, Lawrence gave it the edge and action the series lacked so badly. It also didn't hurt that it was a much better book than the first one. In Mockingjay, Lawrence kicks everything up a notch and that's impressive considering how slow and boring the book was.

Since Jennifer Lawrence has taken the role of Katniss, she's been nominated for two Oscars. No doubt that she's kicked ass in other films but as far as The Hunger Games goes, she's been very unimpressive. It's almost like she was giving us a performance we expected to see in a film based on a Young Adult novel. In Mockingjay, however, she finally shows us why she's got a gold statue. Her performance in Mockingjay is the most heartbreak and emotion we've seen in the Katniss character in the entire series.

The rest of the cast helps that along as well since the caliber of actor is at a peak for Mockingjay. It's emotional watching the late Phillip Seymore Hoffman in one of his last roles because his performance is great! He's subtle but delivers some much-needed levity and power to a story that often lacks both. Julianne Moore (Children of Men, Boogie Nights) joins the cast as President Coin. She makes the character a lot warmer than it read in the book and that's good because it's one of the many things that makes this far better than the source material.

Critics, including myself, have often accused Hollywood of bleeding books dry of every last drop of box office profit when they split them into several movies. Sometimes it works as in the last Harry Potter book and other times it's a terrible and tragic failure like in The Hobbit. In the case of Mockingjay, it's wonderful! Letting this story play out like a chess game is exactly what it needed. They also take the liberty in showing us things that aren't in the book at all. I very suspenseful scene at the end is talked about in a few sentences in the book yet puts us on the edge of our seats in the film; and sequences of uprisings in other Districts are shown and are some of the highlights of the film.

I understand that some people may call this boring because there is downtime building up to a revolution. But as someone who's read the book, I can assure you that it's better this way. Francis Lawrence is making the absolute best film one can make from a book that let down most of the its readers. His cast is committed to his vision and are executing it with precision. Even as a fan, I didn't look forward to this and now that I've seen it, I can't wait to see what he does with Mockingjay Part 2.

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Dumb and Dumber To

What has happened to The Farrelly Brothers? These guys were not only responsible for making three of the funniest movies of the '90s but three of the funniest movies in the last 25 years! Dumb and Dumber, Something About Mary and Kingpin are amazing and never seem to totally lose their luster. After that it was flop after flop after flop. Shallow Hal, Stuck on You, Fever Pitch, The Heartbreak Kid, The Three Stooges...these are some of the worst comedies of the last 25 years. A lot of people thought that a sequel to Dumb and Dumber looked desperate but, you know, these guys could use a little desperation.

First thing that needs to be addressed is that it's been 20 freaking years since the original. When we first met Lloyd and Harry they were harmless halfwits that were bumbling innocents that tried really hard not to screw things up but did because they didn't know any better. Now they look old and are still just as stupid but there seems to be a level of deviousness to them. I didn't mind that as much as I did the age of Jim Carey and Jeff Daniels. They're both in their 50s (Daniels in his late 50s) and it's sad because it looks like two autistic adults that have been abandoned by society and family.

The good news is that the Farrelly Brothers swing for the fences on every joke and when you do that you either strike out big or hit a home run; that's exactly what happens. Most of what we get treated to are strike outs but those home runs make it worth sitting through. Carey is back in the saddle and it's so nice to see. Don't get me wrong, I love serious Jim Carey. His performances in Man on the Moon, The Majestic and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind are so great to see. But there's also something refreshing and nostalgic about seeing him acting like a total moron. Daniels on the other hand always felt forced in that role but because the guy is so talented he makes it work.

The plot for Dumb and Dumber To actually works. It follows the boys across the country on a quest to reunite Harry with his estranged daughter but end up, once again, getting tangled in a murder plot fueled by greed. It's not Shakespeare but it's what you expect. The Farrellys don't try to reinvent the wheel, which is good because we came to see dumb comedy done right. A third of the time we get it too and that's enough for me to recommend people give it a viewing. It's nice to have something where you can remove your brain for 90 minutes and laugh; I just wish I laughed a little more often.

The end credits may have suckered a better rating out of me than this deserves. It shows clips of the 1994 film with scenes from the 2014 one and you can hear an audible "awe" coming from the audience when you see it. Sure it's cheesy but I was 14-years-old when I saw it the summer before my sophomore year of high school with my best friends. If I'm duped into feeling that age again for a split second while I laugh at the same two idiots that made me do it back then, so be it!

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The Theory of Everything

When you see a movie that you have a profound interest in it makes it difficult to review it. One reason is because you're biased from the beginning because you want a film about the subject you love to be great. The other reason is you're too hard on it because you're too close to the subject to begin with. In the case of The Theory of Everything the subject is the astrophysicist and one of the smartest people to ever live, Stephen Hawking. I've been obsessed with him for many years now and watching a film about his life was thankfully better than I thought it would be and more thrilling than I could've imagined.

What's interesting about The Theory of Everything is that it's directed by James Marsh. The reason why is because Marsh is a documentarian. Granted, his films feature far more recreation than actual footage (like his Oscar-winner Man on Wire) but he's still someone who loves to tell a true story from the people who lived it. In the case of The Theory of Everything it was based on the book by Hawking's ex-wife Jane, who's played amazingly subtle by Felicity Jones (Amazing Spider-man 2, Like Crazy). She's charming, beautiful and strong as one of the best roles of her career but it doesn't hold a candle to Eddie Redmayne.

Stephen Hawking is a very challenging character to portray. It's not just the physical limitations but it's everything else about him. The man has a warm and inspiring soul the exudes even though he can no longer talk. Redmayne gives the performance of his career playing Hawking before and after his disease takes hold. He is unrecognizable and absolutely worthy of an Oscar nomination. His previous roles in mostly British period films and most notably in Les Miserables have been impressive but nothing like this. (LISTEN TO MY INTERVIEW WITH HIM BELOW)

The one thing that's disappointing is that the film moves very slowly; stretching a two-hour run time into feeling more like three. It held my attention but that was due to my fascination with Hawking. I doubt that someone who knew nothing about it would be as entertained. Marsh misses opportunities by zipping right past some of the only dramatic moments in Hawking's life, aside from his disease, and doesn't develop them at all. Lots of attention is paid to so much of his early life and developing relationship with Jane Hawking that once we get into the really interesting aspects of his career and their marriage we're ushered along at a quicker and disappointing pace. Because of that the film feels pretty lopsided.

Some films come along that act as a tribute to some of the greatest people in history. Some films do that and are still very entertaining. The Theory of Everything is a wonderful, touching tribute but lacks in the scope of entertainment it could have fulfilled. But the performances are so great that a viewing should be necessary to help people appreciate one of the smartest men to ever live and the love he shared with a patient woman.

Listen to Gavin's interview with one of the stars from "The Theory of Everything," Eddie Redmayne:
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Big Hero 6

When Disney releases a movie the world takes notice and can't wait to see it. It's hard to believe that that wasn't the case there for a while. After Walt's death the studio had a series of bombs and was in financial trouble until The Little Mermaid. They then had another recession, not making a single massive animated hit from 1994 till 2010's release with Tangled. Sure, Pixar films kept the studio alive but Pixar makes Pixar and Disney just releases them. The good news for the world though is that Disney animation is back on top since then releasing films that keep getting better and better. I'm happy to say that Big Hero 6 keeps the streak alive.

I don't know anyone who thought that Frozen was not only going to be one of the top grossing films of 2013 but THE top grossing animated film of all time. It was a massive success and it was a cultural impact. You can't expect the next time up to the plate to be a Grand Slam on that scale but many people did. Big Hero 6 was released in the unfairly massive shadow of Frozen but still does a stellar job of casting its own. Since Disney alternates making films (stereotypically) for boys and girls, this one is obviously geared toward boys and hits the target true.

The film follows a boy who continues the robotics work of his older brother in cultivating a healthcare robot named Baymax, who is brilantly designed as a large, loving marshmallow. After his older brother is killed and a villain reveals himself, Baymax is used as a weapon to fight evil. This creates all kinds of parables that mostly stick the landing. The film teaches right from wrong, coping with the death of a loved one, revenge and doing what's right. None of it is heavy-handed and all are lessons that translate.

What's the most impressive to me is that it's the first collaboration between Disney and Marvel since Disney purchased them for $3 billion a few years ago. Both are companies that have a long and prolific history of molding the minds of children and seeing the two empires work together is the stuff of dreams! Aside the creation of Baymax are several of Hiro's friends who all are given special powers based on actual science that exists. When each character is revealed in a montage the 10-year-old boy inside me got goosebumps and wanted to be one of the members of the Big Hero 6.

I'm not 100% sure why Disney excludes songs from their films for boys but I wish they wouldn't. Maybe I'm comparing it to Frozen too much but Big Hero 6 had a small amount of emptiness and I wonder if that was because there was no show-stopping "Let It Go" moment. That being said, the action sequences are pretty intense and amazing which helps you overlook the flabby and weak justifications for a bad guy. The whole film feels like a comic book movie for kids told by the masters of children's storytelling. My two-year-old son loved it so I can only imagine that 10-year-old boys everywhere will wet themselves.

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To be perfectly honest, I don't get jazz music. I understand the art and history that dwells deep in its DNA but it was never for me. That being said, Whiplash is a film that is not just a send-up but a true love letter to the genre. It's basically porn for anyone who's ever been into jazz or tried to get really good at playing an instrument. Neither of those are me and I enjoyed Whiplash so much that it might be one of my favorite films of the year.

I've always had a soft spot in my heart for actor JK Simmons. You, sadly, know him as "that guy that played that guy in that thing" or, even worse, the guy from the State Farm commercials. I have always known him as an extremely talented character actor that has been long, long overdue for his shot at being A-list. He's been amazing in comedies like Juno, the Spider-man films, and I Love You, Man. He's also turned in great dramatic performances in movies like Up in the Air, Young Adult and True Grit. If you add up all of his performances, they don't equal the power of his in Whiplash.

The other star of the film is Miles Teller who is rapidly a young rising star in Hollywood. He's been in Divergent, That Awkward Moment and 21 & Over, all of which were absolutely dismal. I decided (for whatever reason) that he was too cocky to be likable and not talented enough to take seriously. His performance in Whiplash has changed my mind on both. He goes toe-to-toe with Simmons in ways that astound and the physical torture he subjects his body to is impressive.

Sure there are other people in the film but they are completely unimportant. This story is ONLY about two people — the student and the teacher. We've all had that person in our lives that terrified and intimidated us so much that they made us feel less than an inch big yet we wanted their approval and admiration more than anything. That person also had ways of yelling at you where you didn't know what answer to give because both seemed like it would rain retribution of a biblical level down upon you. Simmons is that person! He is a complete monster yet you can never fully hate him. Just like Teller's character, you want him to notice you, like you, be impressed by you. He is the sun that Icarus flies toward.

The character wouldn't exist though without the absolutely brilliant direction and script from first-timer Damien Chazelle who based the movie off his short film by the same name and cast. He deserves just as much credit as the other two for making a small and simple film about a student at a music college trying to be the best more exciting than any action film to come out this year. To call Whiplash "pulse-pounding" is a disservice to one of the best films of 2014.

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Many things can be said about director Christopher Nolan. The man is responsible for some true cinematic marvels and masterpieces. He not only made the greatest superhero film of all time but made two others as part of the Dark Knight trilogy that were almost as good. He's a man of vast vision and superb scope that aims for the stars and, at times, delivers the galaxy. In the case of Interstellar, he literally does that and delivers one of the most challenging and visually splendid films of the last decade but still may have overshot his destination and gone way beyond the realm of entertainment.

Interstellar is a near three-hour sci-fi epic that makes Gravity look like child's play. That's not to say that it's better than Gravity in any way. Gravity was a space adventure that was small, simple and thrilling. Interstellar is a space adventure that is as big as the galaxy and just as chaotic and confusing. See, there is a wonderful show on the Science Channel called Through the Worm Hole and it's hosted by Morgan Freeman. The show is a way to feel high without drugs because it covers some of the most complex aspects of astrophysics. Interstellar was as if Nolan watched that show and said I'm gonna make that a movie with a bigger budget, crying and some action.

The film stars Matthew McConaughey and further proves that the man is on a hot streak as far as turning in top shelf performances. He is the only performance worth watching in the film which is shocking because it also stars Anne Hathaway, Michael Caine, Jessica Chastain, Casey Affleck and Matt Damon. Everyone else has paper-thin characters written for them and they are in the film as mere scenery. Disappointing since Nolan has a history of making very interesting supporting characters.

It's strange to say this about a movie that I was personally bored and confused by but Interstellar is still a sight to be seen; especially on the IMAX screen since over half of it was shot in that format. The imagery of deep space is so realistic that they could have been shot by the Hubble. The musical score by Hans Zimmer is his greatest and it's absolutely haunting using massive pipe organs. The story is way ambitious but that's the problem. The movie is sci-fi that has so much "sci" it forgot the "fi" and ends up talking over and around its audience so much so it doesn't make sense. (Anyone who says they fully understand it is a liar!)

At almost three hours long it's crazy to say that a film like this feels rushed but it does. When you try to spin a tale that tackles the science that Interstellar does while still trying to take moments of human emotion, which it has here and there, you have to cut it back somewhere. Sadly for Nolan those cuts consist of moments that would help explain what's happening and care about what's going on. In the case of Interstellar, it is a perfect example of large ambition mixed with high expectations that turned out to be a black hole…makes time feel slower than it is while sucking you in just to crush you inside.

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Birdman (or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

When I was a kid, Michael Keaton ruled supreme in the box office. He was pretty amazing. It seemed like he was in hit after hit after hit and every role, every film was completely different than the last. He would murder audiences in comedies like Gung Ho, Beetlejuice, Mr. Mom and The Dream Team. He would impress us with his dramatic work in My Life, Clean and Sober and The Paper. Yet would still pump blood faster through our veins with villains like in Pacific Heights and heroes like in Batman. Regardless of all the films he's done in his life that were huge successes, Birdman is the film that he'll be remembered for after his death.

The character Keaton plays in the film is named Riggan but it might as well be Michael Keaton. It's about a washed up actor who's famous for playing the superhero Birdman in movies but now he's old and searching for validation so he's sunk all of his money into a very self-important Broadway play. What starts off feeling too close to home to be enjoyable for anyone who enjoys Keaton ends up being one of the most spectacular character studies I've seen in a long time.

Director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu has a huge following although I was never one of them. The Mexican director has been nominated for Oscars and is responsible for Biutiful, Babel and 21 Grams. None of them really blew my skirt up but I could see the appeal. His approach to the dark comedy of Birdman was pure genius though. The entire film gives the impression it was shot in one single two-hour-long take. It actually wasn't though; it has hidden cuts but not many and was actually shot in about 10-15 takes. The purpose of doing long takes is to build suspense or make things feel real. Applying that difficult task to a comedy is very interesting and the end result is one that mesmerizes anyone who's paying attention.

Perhaps one of the agendas behind that is to reflect the film's central argument of live theater versus film. Because it's about a Hollywood action star putting on a Broadway show, there is a belief from many characters about how real performances are only found in live theater and he's nothing more than a hack. So doing takes that are 15-minutes-long with major Hollywood actors is a funny irony that accomplishes both. Everyone in the film is at the top of their games including Emma Stone, Edward Norton, Naomi Watts and Zach Galifianakis. I wouldn't be shocked if we saw a couple Best Supporting nominations thrown at a couple of those names.

But speaking of the Oscars, Birdman isn't Best Picture material, although I fully expect it to be nominated. It's not mass appeal and many people will walk away from it shaking their heads because they didn't quite "get it." However, it IS the kind of role that wins an actor who has never even been nominated despite turning in an impressive and diverse career that has spanned 30 years an Oscar. I look forward to the rest of the performances we'll see this year but as of right now, Keaton has set the bar for Best Actor.

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Halloween is the time when studios used to release their best scary movies they had in the roster.  Seems like that's not the case anymore or at the very least it hasn't happened in a while.  The last movie that came out that I felt was truly terrifying was The Conjuring and that was a release in the middle of summer.  That's why it was a relief to see that at least one horror film was coming out this month and it was Ouija.  The first trailer was released and it didn't look very good but being the eternal horror optimist, I hoped for the best.  I shouldn't have because it's pretty terrible.

Every kid has played with a ouija board at some point in their life.  For me, it was at my best friend's house and, oddly, I played it with his mother after he went to sleep.  We "contacted the spirit" of a dead friend of hers.  It was pretty creepy for my 13-year-old brain but as an adult I look back at that and scoff because A: she was clearly the one moving it and B: it was weird to play that with my friend's mom.  That evening was more creepy though than anything found in Ouija which relies heavily on startle scares which are the easiest and cheapest tricks in the horror movie playbook.

The film stars Olivia Cooke (A&E's Bates Motel, The Quiet Ones), who I interviewed and you can hear below.  She leads a team of actors that are even less recognizable than her and it's obvious why when you see the film.  All of them are one or two rungs up the talent ladder from performers on The Disney Channel and all of which look like recent college graduates and not 17-year-olds.  The lack of quality in the performances from everyone besides Cooke is only part of the problem.  The rest of the issues rest on the shoulders of writer/director Stiles White.

White is one of the worst filmmakers I've seen in a while and I'm saying that knowing this is his first attempt at directing.  The man has an impressive background in the world of special effects and is punishing us all with his worse-than-film-school attempt at horror.  Besides the fact that he creates no atmosphere or tension, he also has no consequences for anything happening in it.  The film is about a group of friends who open the door to an evil spirit while playing with a ouija board trying to contact their dead friend.  One-by-one they all start to die and not only does no one care that these kids are dying but no one is reacting to the deaths either.

The one and only thing that is creepy about Ouija is the finale of the film.  Now the reason why I'm impressed with that is because that's usually where most horror movies go off the rails; they get bigger and bigger at the end and in doing so lose whatever creep-factor made them great to begin with (ie: Insidious).  In Ouija, when we have the big showdown with the physically manifested spirit, it's very chilling to see.  The make-up is very effective and the minute or so its on the screen is the one and only highlight of the film.  Despite an impressive finale, Ouija is still bad enough that I feel that I should get a board and try to contact the dead career of Stiles White and ask it to go toward the light.

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Listen to Gavin's interview with actress Oliva Cooke, who plays Laine Morris in Ouija...
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The Judge

Every Oscar season, which is September to December for anyone who doesn't know, I love to look and see what's getting buzz.  I would say a conservative estimate on what gets nominated every year is 80% of the same old same old.  Don't get me wrong; they're usually spectacular and the best films of the year.  However you can smell an Oscar film from a mile away.  The Judge is no different.  It's filled with Oscar cliches and is essentially a paint-by-number to making a movie that The Academy often loves.  Despite all that, there's a reason why that formula exists; it's effective.

The Judge stars Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duval as a father/son team.  Downey is the slick defense attorney who lives in the big city now.  Duval is the grumpy old judge that still lives in the small Indiana town.  They don't like each other due to a mysterious incident that reveals itself in pieces throughout the film.  A sad thing brings them together and then another crushing event happens, in this case Duval's character is accused of killing someone he sentenced to prison with his car.  Said event forces the two to stay together till it's resolved and in the process of doing so, they also resolve their differences.  See, what I mean?  It's a story you've seen many times before but those stories are usually good.  This is no different.

The reason you see The Judge is not because it's going to be a Best Picture.  You see The Judge because Downey and Duval are excellent.  Both show a vulnerability that neither have before, especially Duval.  The man is 83 and instead of hiding his age like everyone else does in Hollywood, he shines a spotlight on it and makes you weep at his frailty despite his stubbornness and will to carry on.  Downey plays the same character he always does, which is just different degrees of Tony Stark-intensity, but it's such an enjoyable character that we can't look away.  The difference here is that he has moments of big emotion that I can't remember him sharing with us in a very long time.

Director David Dobkin has made the best film of his career.  The reason why that's not an impressive statement is because his career sucks.  This guy hasn't made a good movie since 1998.  Since then he's been wasting our time and disappointing us with movies like Fred Claus, Shanghai Knights, and The Change-Up.  Yes, it's true he did Wedding Crashers but go back and watch it; it's not as funny as you remember.  But that was in his past.  Looking at his work on The Judge, it's not bad.  You can tell he studied Oscar films and made a check-list because everything is there -- the sweeping shots of small town America, the smokey and dark courtrooms, grainy flashback footage, etc.  It's not good but considering what he's done so far, it's his masterpiece.

Do I expect The Judge to win anything at this year's Academy Awards?  No.  Do I expect a nomination or two?  Perhaps.  Do I think it should win anything?  Not really.  Yes, it's true that I cried but I'm a softy who saw the movie when I was tired and since I became a father, anything that deals with family tension and resolution hits me right in the feels.  I don't think anyone who isn't a critic who watches films with a skeptical eye will walk away from this feeling like they got jipped but you just might get it confused with a number of other movies that were about the same thing and done slightly better.


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Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

Sitting in my son's bedroom is a copy of the book this film is based on.  Not only is it the same copy I loved and read hundreds of times as a kid but it's signed by the author Judith Viorst and made out to my son.  I found this book hilarious as a child.  The simple story of a boy named Alexander having just the worst day that gets more and more rotten until it ends is great and every kid and can relate to it.  The book is only 32 pages long and I when I saw that Disney was turning it into a 90-minute live action feature, I knew it would be ugly.  One thing that's to the advantage of movies that look terrible, horrible, no good and very bad before you see them, when it's slightly better than you think it makes it seem pretty great.

I probably should have seen at least some potential in the film since Miguel Arteta directed it.  Alexander is actually a dramatic departure from the kind of comedy he's used to directing.  He's done episodes of Freaks and Geeks, The Office, Nurst Jackie, Enlightened, and The Big C.  He's also the guy behind Cedar Rapids and Youth in Revolt, two pretty underrated dark comedies.  His brand is dark, twisted and very funny.  The images you see in this and knowing it's a family comedy released by Disney made me think it was going to be made by hacks that do those type of films.  You don't see a whole lot of Arteta's style in Alexander but just knowing he's behind the lens makes it a little better.

Another sign it wasn't going to be total crap was placing Steve Carrell as the patriarch of the family.  There are very few things he's done that were terrible.  The man is wildly talented and might even win an Oscar this year for Foxcatcher.  He's not the star of the film but he's in it enough to make you laugh even when his dialogue is stupid or the scene is ridiculous.  The rest of the cast is decent as well with Jennifer Garner, Kerris Dorsey (who was great in Moneyball), Dylan Minnette (who was also great in Let Me In and Prisoners) and newcomer Ed Oxenbould as Alexander.  Oxenbould was an interesting choice because he's oddly shaped, has off-putting long hair and a prominent lisp but wrangles sympathy as the forgotten middle child.

You have to know when a children's book is being turned into a movie that they're going to change the story but what was changed was too much.  The entire concept of what made the book amazing is lost.  In fact, it's changed so much that it makes the title confusing.  The plot for the film is Alexander, who seems to have bad luck every day, makes a wish on his birthday that his family would feel his bad luck for just one day.  What happens after that is his family has the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day and Alexander has everything work out in his favor.  I'm not saying it's not effective but it's confusingly different from the book.

Here's the bottom line with a movie like this; it's harmless.  Not everything made for children needs to be Frozen or Toy Story 3.  It's possible to have a disposable family comedy that serves its purpose by making you chuckle and keeping your kids entertained for an hour-and-a-half.  By Arteta doing his best with a controlling studio and a weird script, you end up with a film that's actually not terrible, horrible, no good or very bad at all.

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