Alex Cross


Alex Cross

Matthew Fox wishes he was still “Lost.”

(2012) Suspense (Summit) Tyler Perry, Matthew Fox, Edward Burns, Rachel Nichols, Jean Reno, Giancarlo Esposito, Carmen Ejogo, John C. McGinley, Cicely Tyson, Chad Lindberg, Yara Shahidi, Stephanie Jacobsen, Warner Daehn, Bonnie Bentley, Ingo Rademacher. Directed by Rob Cohen

 

America loves mystery franchises. There are dozens of them from talented writers like Sue Grafton, Janet Evanovich, Robert Parker, Jonathan Kellerman – and James Patterson. Patterson is the creator of Alex Cross, an African-American forensic psychologist who has already made two appearances in film – Kiss the Girls and Along Came a Spider. He was portrayed by Morgan Freeman in both films.

Now he’s back and this time instead of a federal agent he’s a Detroit cop (this takes place much earlier in his career). Cross (Perry) is the head of a crack team of detectives who are routinely given Detroit’s nastiest crimes to solve. His childhood best friend Tommy Kane (Burns) is his right hand man, along with Monica Ashe (Nichols) who has a relationship with Tommy on the QT – if it got out the two were romantically involved, they could lose their jobs.

But things are going pretty well for Tyler. His pretty wife Maria (Ejogo) is pregnant and his grandma – henceforth referred to as Nana Mama (Tyson) watches the kids and growls folksy disapproval at her son and his ideal children Janelle (Shahidi) and Damon (played by Shahidi’s brother Sayeed).

One night, Alex gets a call that there has been a particularly grisly “four roses” murder. The victim, Fan Yau (Jacobsen) who happens to be the CFO of a multi-billion dollar global corporation, was brutally tortured before being executed. Although a number of bodyguards were also killed, Alex divines that this was the work of one man and indeed it is – a man the cops will soon call Picasso (Fox) for the Cubist drawings he leaves at the scene.

After an attack on Erich Nunemacher (Daehn), the next highest person on the executive ladder of the same corporation that Fan Yau worked for is thwarted by Cross and his team, Cross realizes that the real target is Leon Mercier (Reno), the CEO of the company. But Picasso has other plans for now – Cross has made this personal and before things are all played out there are going to be casualties and perhaps in the form of losing someone that Cross may be unable to bear.

This is a far different tone and type of film than the first two Alex Cross movies were – those were a bit more cerebral and much less action oriented. To the good, Cohen – whose got the Fast and the Furious franchise under his belt among other things – knows his way around an action sequence and there are some pretty nice ones in Alex Cross. Also to the good, the bi-play between Alex and Tommy is pretty natural and yields some of the best moments of the film, much of it due to Burns’ comedic timing and the wisecracking nature of Tommy.

Perry, best known for his Madea series as well as having become something of a brand name for urban comedies and romances, tries on strictly acting for size (until this film, the only movie he has appeared in that he didn’t direct himself was a brief cameo appearance in Star Trek). He has a future as an action star, being ruggedly handsome and athletic, although chances are for the time being he will stick to his extremely profitable directing gig. Unfortunately, he didn’t convince me as Cross, partially due to the short shrift the script gives his character. He’s supposed to be brilliant, a sort of Sherlock Holms of Detroit with keen observational skills and a talent for getting in the heads of criminals.

Those things are there but those aspects are written lazily, showing Cross’ talents as more or less big dumb luck rather than the result of intellectual reasoning and because we’re not shown that side of Cross, he loses much of the vitality that his character has in the books. In fact, I think it’s safe to say that this film’s primary flaw is the writing. The dialogue is, simply put, embarrassing. The characters say things actual people would never say and there’s no way even the talented actors in this movie can pull it off although Fox comes close.

Fox, who caught the national fancy as Jack in the “Lost” series not that long ago, is absolutely the highlight here. He is a charismatic villain, one of the best performances in a villainous role so far this year (take that Tom Hiddleston and Tom Hardy!) His shaven-headed gaunt Picasso looks twisted and sadistic and although Fox occasionally takes it over the top, Picasso is perhaps the most memorable aspect of the movie.

The endgame revelation is going to be painfully obvious to anyone who has even a lick of cinematic sense. Although I’m giving it a pretty generous rating, that’s mainly for the action sequences and not the script. Alex Cross is a pretty smart guy but Alex Cross isn’t a smart film and in a crowded release schedule it could have used some smarts.

REASONS TO GO: Nice chemistry between Perry and Burns. Fox is a demented villain.

REASONS TO STAY: Perry is unconvincing.  End twist is a yawner. Dialogue borderline incompetent.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence and a whole lot of bad language. Some of the images are pretty gory and even gruesome. There are some drug references, a bit of sexuality and an even smaller bit of nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Idris Elba was initially cast to replace Morgan Freeman as Cross but had to bow out due to scheduling conflicts and was replaced by Perry who is starring for the first time in a film he didn’t direct. Ironically, Elba starred in Perry’s Daddy’s Little Girls.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/23/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 13% positive reviews. Metacritic: 30/100. The critics have pretty much given it a beating.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Bone Collector

MMA LOVERS: There’s a scene in which the Matthew Fox character participates in an underground MMA match. Fox shows some pretty impressive moves.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: The Edge of Heaven

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The Help


The Help

Viola Davis is tired of Emma Stone asking what it's like to be nominated for an Oscar.

(2011) Period Drama (DreamWorks/Disney) Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Bryce Dallas Howard, Octavia Spencer, Jessica Chastain, Ahna O’Reilly, Allison Janney, Sissy Spacek, Cicely Tyson, Mike Vogel, Anna Camp, Brian Kerwin, Mary Steenburgen, David Oyelowo, Aunjanue Ellis, Nelsan Ellis. Directed by Tate Taylor

Often those who work as domestic servants are relegated to being background characters, even in real life. They clean the houses of their employers, cook their food and even raise their children, but their stories are rarely told. That’s especially true of the African-American domestics of Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960s as America stood on the cusp of the civil rights movement.

Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (Stone) has just returned home after graduating from Ole Miss with her head stuffed with the dreams of being a writer. Her mother Charlotte (Janney) has different dreams for her daughter; mainly of getting married, something Skeeter isn’t eager to do. Her friends mostly already have and can’t figure out why on earth a good looking girl like Skeeter remains unhitched.

Skeeter is surprised that her longtime nanny and maid Constantine (Tyson) is gone. According to her parents, Constantine has gone to Chicago to be with her family there but Skeeter senses that there is something she’s not being told. She holds her tongue however, considering her mother is battling cancer. Skeeter is also far too busy starting a new job as the columnist for the (fictional) Jackson Journal dispensing housecleaning tips.

Her friend Hilly Holbrook (Howard) has become something of a community leader, head of the local Junior League and writer and proponent of a bill that specifies that the hired help in Jackson homes must have separate toilet facilities. This doesn’t sit well with her maid Millie (Spencer), who doesn’t appreciate being sent out in a hurricane to use an outdoor commode. When she pretends to use the family restroom, she is shown the door much to the chagrin of Hilly’s mom (Spacek) who was Millie’s actual employer.

Millie is the best cook in Jackson so it won’t take her long to get another position, this time with Celia Foote (Chastain), a wrong-side-of-the-tracks blonde who is married to an ex-boyfriend of Hilly’s and has thus earned social shunning. Celia knows nothing of cleaning house or cooking, and she desperately needs someone who can train her in both, or at least convince her husband Johnny (Vogel) that she knows something.

Also in Skeeter’s circle is Elizabeth Leefolt (O’Reilly) whose young daughter Mae is being raised by Aibileen (Davis), who has raised seventeen white babies while her own son died recently. She keeps her grief to herself, pouring herself into taking care of the family she works for. She notices that Elizabeth doesn’t really interact with her daughter much, rarely picking her up and Mae has become as a result way more attached to Aibileen.

Skeeter is aware of Aibileen’s reputation as a housekeeper and asks Elizabeth permission to talk to Aibileen so she can get help writing her column. Elizabeth is reluctant and puts a stop to the conversations after a single session but Skeeter becomes fascinated by Aibileen and has the brilliant idea to write the stories of the domestics of Jackson and make a book out of them. Her publishing contact in New York (Steenburgen) agrees but is skeptical that given the climate in Jackson that Skeeter will see much co-operation.

It initially appears that the publisher is right when Aibileen refuses Skeeter but after a particularly impassioned sermon by the local pastor (Oyelowo) inspires Aibileen to change her mind. Aibileen also recruits her friend Millie and soon Skeeter is getting some pretty subversive stuff, things that are going to shake up Jackson to the core.

This is based by the 2009 bestselling novel by Kathryn Stockett whose childhood friend Taylor adapted the work for the screen and directed. Taylor does a fair job with it, framing the story in the turbulent times; we see clips of Medgar Evers (and see the devastating effects of his murder on the community) as well as JFK and Martin Luther King. The archival footage dos help set the time and place.

It is the acting that is the real reason to see this movie. Davis in particular becomes the center of the movie and Stone, who is the erstwhile lead, seems to realize that and generously allows Davis to shine at her own expense. That turns out to be a good move for the film; Davis carries it. Her quiet dignity and expressive eyes are at the center of the movie. For my money, it’s an Oscar-caliber performance and I sure hope the Academy remembers her work come nomination time.

That isn’t to say that the rest of the cast isn’t impressive as well. Stone takes Skeeter and gives her sass and character. At times the character is written as kind of the “white person saving the black person” cliche, but Stone elevates it above stock character status. Speaking of sass, Spencer just about defines the term in her portrayal of Minnie who comes off as very spunky but there are moments when she reveals her inner pain, suffering in an abusive relationship and unsure of herself.

Howard has the juiciest role here, that of the hysterical racist Hilly. Howard has had some decent performances in a variety of movies, but this might be her finest. She captures the pettiness and vitriol of the part and her expression when Millie’s “terrible awful” is revealed is priceless.

Veterans Steenburgen, Janney and Spacek lend further credibility to the film which is well acted from top to bottom. There are moments of genuine comedy (the terrible awful) as well as some heartstring tuggers (when Aibileen reveals to Skeeter what happened to her son). Mostly, you get a sense of the attitudes towards African-Americans of the era. We’ve come a long way since then, but we still have a very long way to go (as evidenced in the treatment of our President and the continued use of racial profiling). The Help isn’t the best movie of the year but it is on a very, very short list.

REASONS TO GO: Terrific performances and compelling source material. Drama, comedy, pathos; this movie has something for everybody.

REASONS TO STAY: Can be emotionally manipulative in places.

FAMILY VALUES: The thematic material is on the mature side; younger kids may not understand the historical context but for teens who might be learning about the civil rights movement this makes for some fine viewing.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The book the movie is based on was rejected 60 times before finally being published, a testament to persistence by author Kathryn Stockett.

HOME OR THEATER: As studio films go this one’s pretty intimate but the shared experience factor tends to make me lean towards theater for this one.

FINAL RATING: 9/10

TOMORROW: GasLand