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Girls in thigh-hi stockings and tiny spangled miniskirts take on steam-powered corpses, WWI bi-planes, samurai robots, and an angry dragon, along with a series of odiously predatory men in the latest film from Zack Snyder. His versions of “300” and “Watchmen” overwhelmed the storylines with striking, provocative visuals. Here, he solves that problem by pretty much not having any storyline at all. He literally and metaphorically cuts to the chase. It’s not so much punch, a bit more sucker.

Baby Doll is a young girl in blond pigtails, framed for her sister’s murder and thrown into a nightmarish mental hospital by her abusive step-father. Emily Browning plays her with just two facial expressions, which I came to think of as “Mom said I can’t go to the mall until I finish my math homework” and “I really want to go to the mall.” The step-father pays a corrupt orderly (Oscar Isaac, in the film’s best performance) to have Baby Doll lobotomized so that she cannot tell anyone what he has done, and that he tried to molest her after her mother died. She enters a dingy lounge area called “the theater,” where a sympathetic therapist (Carla Gugino, sounding like Natasha from “Rocky and Bullwinkle”) is encouraging the patients (all young and very hot women) to re-enact their stories.

The rest of the movie is best summarized by the song memorably performed by En Vogue: “Free your mind and the rest will follow.” Baby Doll then either sees or imagines the hospital as a brothel, run by the evil Blue (Isaac again, in sharkskin suit and gigolo-style mustache), where the girls are forced to dance for the customers. Baby Doll has the ability to mesmerize men with her dances, which somehow turn into deliriously deranged gamer-style battle sequences as she and the other girls must, in classic computer game tradition, obtain a map, fire, a knife, a key, and make some unknown sacrifice to achieve freedom.

They could have had fun with this, but instead everyone acts as though it is deadly serious, and so it just drags. The other girls, played by Jena Malone, Abbie Cornish, Vanessa Hudgens, and Jamie Chung, are supposed to be tough but vulnerable, but they look absurd, racing around on heels in skimpy costumes as they fight with swords and guns, as though they believe they are exemplifying female empowerment and solidarity instead of parodying it. It is sad to see these talented actresses feel that they have no other opportunity for career advancement than to appear in this dispiriting dreck. A movie about finding freedom from that prison would be something worth seeing.

Why do film-makers keep coming back to Jane Eyre? Charlotte Bronte’s story has elements of horror, mystery, revenge, romance, and morality, but it is an internal narrative, Jane’s own clear-eyed but personal view of her story (“Reader, I married him.”) And yet, it is such a perennial favorite that this is at least the ninth (at least and so far) English-language cinematic visit to the wild moors and the wilder hearts of Jane Eyre. And that is not counting the many, many variations and spin-offs, including a book and movie that tell the same story from the perspective of another character.

Jane Eyre is an orphan, raised under the cruelest circumstances by her aunt (Sally Hawkins). Her spirit and integrity are such an affront to the aunt that she is sent away to a charity school called Lowood, where the girls are treated with contempt. She makes one true, loving friend, a girl named Helen, who ties of consumption in Jane’s arms. When she finishes at Lowood, Jane (Mia Wasikowska of “The Kids are All Right” and “In Treatment” in a performance that beautifully conveys both Jane’s emotional vulnerability and her strength of character) takes a job as a governess at a home called Thornfield. She is warmly welcomed by the housekeeper, Mrs. Fairfax (Dame Judi Dench) and her charge, a little French girl, but it is some time before she meets her new employer, Mr. Rochester (Michael Fassbender, in a less broody, more desperately unhappy performance). When she first sees him, she is walking in the woods and his horse rears up and throws him. She must help him to the house and they walk slowly, him leaning on her heavily. The emotional upheaval and unexpected intimacy of this encounter are followed by mysterious disturbances in the house, by an anguished longing, an almost unimaginable romantic ecstasy, and then by betrayal, loss, a new start, unexpected independence, and then acknowledgment of a connection too strong to resist.

And it is that relationship, all smolder and repressed passion, that answers the question. The Eyre/Rochester romance has inspired happy sighs for 160 years and in these days, when so little is repressed that no one makes time for smolder, it still delivers.

Director Cary Fukunaga (“Sin Nombre”) wisely used natural light and no make-up to give this version a rough, natural, intimate feel. Jane’s hair is a smooth loop over each ear with an intricate knot in the back, showing capability and determination. And perhaps some imagination as well. The way that the setting and events seem to embody the emotion the main characters cannot express, which is what makes an internally narrated story so compellingly cinematic.

This is the second movie based on the wildly popular series of Diary of a Wimpy Kid books by Jeff Kinney. Last year, in Diary of a Wimpy Kid, we saw Greg Heffley (Zachary Gordon) begin the agonizing experience of middle school. This movie opens with Greg and his best friend Rowley (Robert Capron) starting their second year in middle school, convinced that everything is going to be different. They have learned from their experiences and torments of their first year, and now begin their second year all grown up and sophisticated.

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It doesn’t take them long to discover that an entirely new catalog of horrors is awaiting them. They’re all here: the embarrassment in front of the pretty new girl in class, the embarrassment in the school cafeteria, the embarrassment at the hands of bullies after school at the skating rink, the embarrassment caused by that suspiciously located stain on your pants, the embarrassment from the over protective mother, the embarrassment from the intercepted note in class, the embarrassment from mistakenly walking into the wrong restroom…it’s hard to think of a single childhood humiliation that has been omitted from this comprehensive inventory. Many of these situations are divided by age group. Greg is hounded by his three-year-old brother who just wants to play with the bigger boys, while Greg in turn hounds his older brother Rodrick (Devon Bostick) because Greg is curious about what goes on at “high school parties.” All of the kids in turn had situations with their parents, and a different set of issues with grandparents living at a home for seniors.

Halfway through this movie, Rodrick hisses to Greg, “You’re my brother, but you’ll never be my friend.” And yet, there is progress. Gradually, Greg forms alliances with family members. He and his brother protect each other. He and his mother reach understandings and enter into pacts. This is not just a repeat of the first year of middle school after all.

Kinney does a good job of remembering and portraying these childhood traumas. School children will laugh and groan in recognition of these misfortunes and will take heart from the fact that Greg somehow
manages to survive them all. Adults may cringe at some long dormant feelings, re-awakened by this movie, and feel more sympathy for the burdens of their school aged children.

Tom Shadyac had it all — if “all” means fame, fortune, and professional success.  He directed some of the biggest box-office hits of the 1990’s and early 2000’s, including Jim Carrey’s “Ace Ventura,” “Liar, Liar,” and “Bruce Almighty,” and Robin Williams’ “Patch Adams.”  Careful viewers might have been able to discern a spiritual theme, or at least a spiritual yearning in some of those films.  But what made them successful was wild, outrageous comedy.

Shadyac made a lot of money and bought a lot of things. He realized that contrary to the messages we receive all of the time, the money and the things did not make him any happier. And then a literal hit on the head made him think very hard about what really matters. For probably less than the cost of one craft services table or a star’s limo to the set, Shadyac went on the road with a crew of four in search of some mind-bending conversations about how we can do better.

Shadyac had a serious bicycle accident, followed by months of unremitting, excruciating pain so devastating that he decided to commit suicide. That moment of relinquishing any sense of control was somehow liberating and clarifying. He had to decide what he wanted to say before he died. This film became first that statement and then a reason to stay alive.

It’s less clear, though, that it is a reason to go to the theater. Shadyac, energized by the thrill of engaging on big questions with great minds, has created an earnest if often incoherent patchwork on the subject of life’s purpose and meaning and how we can make things better. There’s a reason we usually address those issues through faith and parable (parables including all forms of story-telling). It is very hard to address them directly without sounding vague, pretentious, or a little weird.

At its best, this is a movie that asks some provocative questions about the assumptions we fail to question and the consequences of our current trajectory and lets us hear from fascinating, passionate people. It is an exploration of what Judaism calls “tikkun olam,” the obligation of each of us to assist in healing the world. At its worst, it feels like a trippy all-night dorm debate, unformed and uninformed, that concludes the Beatles got it right: Love is all you need. Some viewers may conclude that the entire thing is just a function of post-traumatic brain injury.

Shadyac speaks to experts in hard and soft science and specialists in history, religion, and philosophy. While his posture is often grasshopper to their Master Po, he has not quite managed to free himself of worldly pride. He asks them whether they have seen his films. He is both dismayed and energized by all of the “no’s,” almost taking it as reassurance he is on the right path if he has found people who are so unconnected to what sustained him and trapped him before. But he is very happy to find one of them is a fan of “Ace Ventura.”

At times it feels like a 1970’s journey through what we used to call self-actualization or the human potential movement as Shadyac experiments with emotion-detecting yogurt, considers that “reality isn’t an it,” and “science is a story.” He ponders a “participating universe” and learns about generosity in deer. Ha also rhapsodizes about the purity of indigenous people without mentioning that, like economically developed cultures, some of them are very violent. But it is fun to get a glimpse of some cutting edge research that suggests that our hearts may be, after all, wise than our brains, and that anger makes us dumber. And it is thought-provoking to consider the benefits of a less individualistic and competitive society and the concept of “a participatory universe where everything we do is changing it” for better or worse.

I assumed when I first heard about this film that the title was a reference to the name of God. But we find out at the end that it is taken from the answer G.K. Chesterton gave when asked what was wrong with the world. Will this awkward movie inspires anyone to consider that answer and become a little more generous and kind? Or is that more likely to come from another big budget Shadyac comedy? For the answer, see “Sullivan’s Travels.”

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