Taylor Schilling and Zac Efron in The Lucky OneTHE LUCKY ONE

Every time I leave a movie version of some Nicholas Sparks novel, I'm relieved if it's not, thus far, the worst movie version of some Nicholas Sparks novel. It's to The Lucky One's good fortune, then, that 2008's Nights in Rodanthe still scrapes the bottom of that particular barrel, because otherwise we might've had a new champion.

I have no way of knowing, but these preposterous, embarrassingly rigged romances have to work better in print than they do on-screen, right? Directed by Scott Hicks, this latest Sparks tearjerker opens with Zac Efron's Marine Corps sergeant Logan Thibualt serving his third tour of duty in Iraq, stumbling upon the half-buried photograph of a beautiful woman (Taylor Schilling), and - after the snapshot's recovery indirectly saves him from an explosion - vowing to locate the woman after returning to the United States. I was just fine with this.

What I wasn't fine with was the ridiculous ease with which Logan discovered not only which state, but which town, his unknown guardian angel hailed from. Or with Logan and his trusty pooch walking - walking! - from Colorado to Louisiana in an attempt to find her. Or with, after Logan does find her, his inability to mutter a simple "Thank you for unwittingly saving my life," and keeping the reason for his arrival a secret while working as a handyman at the woman's dog kennel. (In addition to tending adorable pooches, Schilling's adorable single mom Beth is also a substitute teacher for adorable pre-schoolers, and lives with an adorable young son and an even-more-adorable grandmother.)

Must I continue? This being Sparks, as adapted by screenwriter Will Fetters, our heroes' tentative courtship must hit a romantic-rival roadblock, which it does in Jay R. Ferguson's Keith - a bullying sheriff's deputy (and Beth's ex-husband, natch) who frisks Logan within their first 10 seconds together, and who may be the single most irredeemable character in the author's canon. It goes without saying that there'll be yearning glances and weepy monologues and kissing in the rain and an "unexpected" death. And this formulaic blarney might've actually worked - as Dear John did for me, and The Notebook did for so many others - had the deck not been stacked so neatly in the leads' favor, and had Schilling and the eternally vacuous Efron shared some palpable chemistry. Unfortunately, however, The Lucky One's narrative is almost childishly simpleminded, and because you can't forge chemistry with a zombie, the appealing Schilling is left with little to do but pine and glow and whisk her floppy bangs out of her face.

Still, Nights in Rodanthe it happily ain't. Although the movie, at 100 minutes, lacks even one spontaneous-seeming moment, Hicks and editor Scott Gray keep events moving along relatively swiftly, and Blythe Danner is on-hand as Beth's grandma, which helps enormously. (Danner now joins Joan Allen and Viola Davis among our country's finest character actresses undeservedly recruited to the Sparks cause.) And it all certainly looks pretty, even if every artfully composed, sun-drenched image does suggest the perfect commercial for a flavored coffee or feminine-hygiene product. I mostly hated The Lucky One, but as it's the seventh (!) Nicholas Sparks adaptation I've now seen, I'm at least familiar enough with his output to know I could've hated it more.


Gabrielle Union and Jerry Ferrara in Think Like a ManTHINK LIKE A MAN

A battle-of-the-sexes roundelay directed by Tim Story, Think Like a Man is adapted from comedian Steve Harvey's bestseller Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man, and forget Oprah's book club: It's hard to fathom a more blatant commercial for an author and his product. All throughout, characters quote Harvey's purported insights about relationships, and highlight meaningful passages in their paperbacks, and Harvey himself shows up to deliver unsolicited advice directly to the camera; I was all but expecting the cineplex's ushers to stroll through the auditorium with copies available for purchase. Still, if you can get past the unrelenting self-promotion, the movie itself is quite a bit of fun. Like a far more accomplished version of those irritating, holiday-themed outings that Garry Marshall has been directing of late, Story's film weaves a number of disparate plotlines into one innocuous, ultra-bright rom-com package. As enacted, though, by a sharp, witty, fantastically attractive ensemble that includes Michael Ealy, Jerry Ferrara (looking years younger than when he was first cast as Turtle on Entourage), Meagan Goode, Regina Hall, Taraji P. Henson, Terrence Jenkins, Romany Malco, and Gabrielle Union (looking her trademark spectacular), every single one of those plotlines is one you're happy to return to. Barring a delightful cameo, late in the film, by an actor whose presence you keep waiting for yet almost give up on, there really aren't any surprises in Think Like a Man. But even its formula elements - such as Jenifer Lewis playing what must be her thousandth sardonic, booze-guzzling shrew - are enjoyably familiar, and enough can't be said about the contributions of Kevin Hart, whose every utterance and action as a morosely loquacious divorcé is high-comedy heaven. I don't think I've ever before felt as connected to Hart as I did here when he begged Romany Malco to ple-e-ease put on a shirt while making breakfast; chiseled is one thing, but really, Romany, you're making us all look bad.


Rachel Hendrix in October BabyOCTOBER BABY

In the pro-life, pro-corn drama October Baby, a group of youths trek to New Orleans for spring break, with a planned pit stop in Mobile, Alabama, so that one of the travelers can confront the birth mother who tried to abort her. In other words, Worst Spring-Break Road Trip Ever. Yet in my experience, the best you can hope for when attending a movie that's profoundly not for you is to find little pockets of pleasure tucked into the experience, and this faith-based offering by directors Andrew and John Erwin does provide a few. It's all terribly earnest and after-school-special-y, and I wasn't too crazy about our peevish leading character's penchant for getting in trouble with the cops and using her sob story to talk her way out of it. (I also couldn't understand the film's geography, as the opening 15 minutes find our heroine musing pensively on the top of a high-rise and at the top of a lakeside rock quarry. Where on Earth does this girl live?!) But when she's not weeping or whining or overdoing her trembling chin, Rachel Hendrix makes for a perfectly likable protagonist - the actress displays a loose, flaky humor that's endearing as all get-out - and with the work featuring a goodly share of offhandedly charming details, there are lovely supporting turns by James Austin Johnson, Jasmine Guy (giving a tougher performance than I would've expected), Shari Wiedmann, and John Schneider, that Dukes of Hazzard alumnus still blessed with a fantastic head of hair. It should go without saying that October Baby was designed for, and proves affecting for, a very specific audience. But with the Erwins and their cast offering up a more-than-fair amount of professionalism, it's the rare nonsecular screen entertainment that - even if you leave less than moved - at least allows all viewers to feel welcome.



At one point in the Disneynature documentary Chimpanzee, we see a jungle family foraging for food while narrator Tim Allen states, "Chimps have gathered here to crack nuts for over 4,000 years." That's roughly how long the movie felt to me. The photography in this endeavor by directors Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield is exquisite, but their footage has been so nakedly, offensively assembled as a live-action version of a traditional Disney cartoon that I actually grew quite hostile toward it, and that's even disregarding Allen's incessant, insufferably cutesy blathering. (I kid you not: One of the comedian's observations ends with a mention of the animals' "power tools," causing Allen to foist his "Rhh! Rhh! Rhh!" grunts from Home Improvement on a whole new generation.) Accidental or not, the story that emerges here - with three-year-old Oscar losing his mom and finding a new protector in a stoic tribe elder - feels blatantly manufactured in the editing room, with the two simians' eventual bonding described as "an astonishing turn of events" that would be astonishing only if this were the first Disney movie you'd ever seen. Gussied up with depressingly predictable narrative beats, manipulative sentiment, rote music cues, and a triumphant finale followed (of course) by a title card reading "A few months later ... ," Chimpanzee is an insult to nature docs, and to young audiences who shouldn't be fooled into thinking that real life is just like The Lion King. Did I mention, as Allen frequently reminds us, that the film's token bad-guy chimp is named Scar? How did the Disney brain trust ever come up with that original moniker?

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