Madeline Carroll and Callan McAuliffe in FlippedFLIPPED

Rob Reiner's 1986 Stand by Me told us that we'll never have better, more meaningful friends than the ones we had when we were 12. His new film, Flipped, tells us that we'll never have better, more meaningful romances than the ones we had when we were 12. It's touching, if a little sad, that it's all apparently been downhill for the director since hitting his teen years, but does Reiner's nostalgic yearning somehow excuse his latest for being so bland, saccharine, and childish? Set just a few years after Reiner's summer-of-'59 hit, Flipped is like Stand by Me without profanity, dirty jokes, unforced camaraderie, and Kiefer Sutherland. In other words, it's just a stone's throw away from utterly excruciating.

If the turnout at my opening-day matinée is any indication - I was the only one there - there's probably little point in a lengthy screed on the movie. But for a work that doesn't aim to be anything more than a sweet, sincere coming-of-age saga, Flipped is a drippy, irritating bushel of corn; you don't feel like ignoring it so much as knocking it down and stealing its lunch money. Meanwhile, if you're a viewer who reflexively groans upon hearing trite voice-over narration, you're to be especially warned: Flipped offers not one but two pubescent commentators - middle-schoolers Juli (Madeline Carroll) and Bryce (Callan McAuliffe) - whose reminiscences continually underscore actions and feelings that are already painfully obvious and who never shut the hell up. (The film's only laugh, and I think it's an unintentional one, comes when the off-screen Bryce says, "I've never been one to dwell," because all he does is dwell.)

Designed as a pre-teen, early-'60s He Said, She Said, the movie concerns the puppy-love infatuation between its young leads, and it should be said that Carroll and McAuliffe are earnest and genial here, even if they don't exude much personality. (It's something of a shame when the duo takes over from Morgan Lily and Ryan Ketzner, who play Juli and Bryce at age eight, and are far more natural and entertaining in the roles.) Yet almost nothing about Flipped feels remotely believable. The period details look right, and one could hardly fault the era-appropriate soundtrack, but the film is populated less with characters than cartoonish archetypes; Aidan Quinn and Penelope Ann Miller, as Juli's salt-of-the-earth parents, are as phony in their lower-middle-class squalor as Anthony Edwards and Rebecca De Mornay, as Bryce's folks, are in their upper-middle-class haughtiness. (Edwards' loutish, patronizing bully is the least convincing, most charmless portrayal of his career.) And Reiner's and Andrew Scheinman's script - based on Wendelin Van Draanen's novel - is so achingly coy and insufferably sentimental that there's no chance for honest emotion to sneak out. Listening to such banalities as "Somehow the silence seemed to connect us in the way words never could," I spent much of my time trying to determine which of Flipped's dreary, awkward sequences was its second-worst. (The no-contest-worst involves Quinn's mentally challenged brother played by Kevin Weisman, whose hideously mannered turn makes you want to hide your face in embarrassment.)

What happened to Rob Reiner? To be sure, he's never displayed a terribly strong directorial presence, but for a time - during an '80s/'90s run that included, without interruption, This Is Spinal Tap, The Sure Thing, Stand by Me, The Princess Bride, When Harry Met Sally ... , Misery, and A Few Good Men - he was as reliable a helmer of solid, audience-pleasing Hollywood fare as you could ask for. Over the past decade-plus, though, Reiner has morphed into a director whose works are to be steadfastly avoided, and perhaps none more so than his latest, which has the added detriment of continually reminding you of one of the man's finest achievements while emerging as one of his worst. It's not the film's characters who've flipped; it's Reiner, and given his slow descent into complete irrelevance, the purportedly "feel-good" Flipped makes some of us feel very bad indeed.


Mandy Musgrave and Hallee Hirsch in 16 to Life16 TO LIFE

Another coming-of-age tale, and a superior one, opened this past weekend with the local premiere of Iowa native Becky Smith's 16 to Life. Detailing a day spent with 16-year old Kate (Hallee Hirsch) - who celebrates her birthday with a double-shift at a Marquette, Iowa, fast-food stand - writer/director Smith's low-budget indie comedy is a little aimless and a lot formulaic; as with Flipped, the people on-screen are less characters than types. Yet here, they're funny, engaging types, and while the film's Long Day's Journey Into Curfew trajectory is rather obvious, the movie boasts a lovely, end-of-summer relaxedness and sharp wit that makes it tough to resist. Plus, Theresa Russell shows up as Kate's boss, and is more human and effortlessly likable than she's been in more than three decades on-screen. 16 to Life may be small-scale, but her sensational work with Russell - and at least half a dozen relative novices to film - indicates that Smith might just be capable of miracles.


Ali Larter, Wentworth Miller, and Milla Jovovich in Resident Evil: AfterlifeRESIDENT EVIL: AFTERLIFE

Despite my inherent (and, admittedly, frequently irrational) fondness for zombie movies, I've only seen the last two of the four films in the Resident Evil series. Are those who've watched the entire quartet twice as exhausted by this video-game-inspired franchise as I am? If so, that would really be saying something. It's pretty much business-as-usual in the new Resident Evil: Afterlife, with Milla Jovovich again laying waste to hordes of the undead; this time, though, our humorless artillery-toter is also trying to escape the confines of a Los Angeles prison, and reach the uninfected safe haven of a Pacific Ocean cruiser, with the aid of Ali Larter, Boris Kodjoe, and, in the requisite Scowling He-man role, Wentworth Miller. (Because when you're attempting to bust out of a maximum-security facility, it's always best to take the star of TV's Prison Break with you.) Writer/director Paul W.S. Anderson offers up some good, queasy shocks - the diseased Rotweillers who continue to growl while their heads split in half were particularly satisfying - and a fair amount of potent imagery, and the electronica duo of Tomandandy provides a supple, chilling score. Yet it takes forever for the zombie attacks to commence, and after they do, there are far too few splattering brains and far too much slow-motion posturing and fetishistic ogling of Jovovich's weaponry; Afterlife teases you with the possibility of her character taking a shower, but it's too turned on by her double-barreled bad-assery to allow the woman to strip. Despite a few enjoyable segments, this latest Resident Evil feels labored and tired, and while I didn't make an audible noise, I empathized with the audience members who groaned at its denouement, which doesn't so much promise as threaten a fourth sequel to the 2002 original. Collectively, we're now nearly eight hours into this cinematic video game, and it might finally be time to pull the plug.

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