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AEON FLUX While director Karyn Kusama probably deserves a lavish Hollywood mansion and a three-picture deal as much as the next filmmaker, she's one person whose career might have benefited more had she stayed hungry. Her low-budget debut feature, 2000's Girlfight, was an indie knockout, signaling her arrival as a moviemaker with grit, determination and something to say. Five years later, Kusama's back with her sophomore effort, and it's dispiriting to see that it's a big-budget production deemed so awful by its own studio that it wasn't even screened in advance for critics. Truthfully, it's not that wretched -- I've seen at least two dozen worse films this year that were screened for the press -- but in any case, Aeon Flux reveals either that Kusama has willingly squandered her talents for the sake of a fat paycheck or that said talent pretty much dried up after Girlfight hit theaters. Based on an animated series created for MTV a decade ago, Aeon Flux opens with a title card informing us that in the year 2011, approximately 99 percent of the world's population was wiped out by a virus. Flash forward to 2415, where the descendants of the original survivors continue to live in Bregna, the only established city on the entire planet. Fed up with the fascistic methods of the ruling class, a band of revolutionaries known as the Monicans seeks to topple the government; they order their best agent, Aeon Flux (Charlize Theron), to assassinate leader Trevor Goodchild (Martin Csokas), but as Aeon attempts to carry out her assignment, she realizes that the situation isn't as clearly defined as previously thought. An impersonal slab of sci-fi sameness, Aeon Flux wears its lethargy like a badge of honor, with Kusama's draggy direction and Theron's monotonous performance up front and center in virtually every scene. * 1/2

Current Releases

BEE SEASON For the sake of variety, we need more spirituality in cinema, which is why the very existence of Bee Season is a blessing even if its haphazardness makes it something of a curse. When 9-year-old Eliza Naumann (excellent Flora Cross) suddenly blossoms as a spelling champ, her college professor dad (Richard Gere) suspects she might be a modern-day mystic able to connect directly with God through language. Yet as he devotes all his energy to her, he fails to notice the increasingly bizarre behavior of his wife (Juliette Binoche). Binoche valiantly struggles to carry her unwieldy subplot, so clumsily presented that it repeatedly threatens to sink the entire project. Yet the efforts of the other characters to navigate their own spiritual waters remain compelling, even if it leads to a finale that isn't powerful as much as it's puzzling. ** 1/2

CHICKEN LITTLE With its hand-drawn animation division boarded up and its partnership with Pixar in flames, Walt Disney Pictures has taken the next step by creating its own fully computer-animated movie. Yet if Chicken Little represents the future of Disney animation, then the sky is indeed falling: This is as far removed from such old-school classics as Pinocchio and Beauty and the Beast as roast duck is from chicken gizzards. The story is serviceable, centering on a diminutive bird (voiced by Zach Braff) whose warnings about an alien invasion are ignored by the other anthropomorphic animals. And to be fair, the film has its moments, most of them courtesy of a character known as Fish Out of Water (basically an animated Harpo Marx). But the central thrust -- a standard "underdog wins the day" slog that on a dime turns into War of the Worlds -- is the same sort of hollow experience that has all but drained the traditional toon tale of its potency over the past decade-plus. **

DERAILED The inaugural feature from The Weinstein Company recalls the formation of TriStar Pictures back in the 80s, when the quality of its initial slate was so dreadful that one critic suggested the company should change its name to OneStar. Certainly, Derailed is deserving of whatever critical scorn is tossed its way, whether it's in the form of a solitary star, a down-turned thumb or even an extended middle finger. The film stars Clive Owen and Jennifer Aniston as unhappily married business drones whose attempt at an affair gets interrupted by a French thug (Vincent Cassel) with blackmail on his mind. Armed with only a plot synopsis, I (like many others) figured out the major plot twist even before stepping into the theater, yet this movie is so fundamentally brain-dead on so many levels that predictability turns out to be the least of its problems. *

GET RICH OR DIE TRYIN' Rapper 50 Cent may have set the music world on fire, but as a movie star, he's as relevant as a dead mic. His starring vehicle, about a drug dealer trying to make it as a rap star, is yet one more uninspired crime pic that liberally borrows from all the violent "dis dis bang bang" titles that preceded it. Yet the movie it most resembles -- coincidentally, given the proximity of the release dates -- is this past summer's Hustle & Flow (in which a pimp tried to make it as a rapper). It's fascinating to place both films side by side and see how one succeeds while the other doesn't. With its rich characterizations and pungent atmosphere, Hustle flows. Get Rich Or Die Tryin', with its frayed theatrics and stiff performance by 50 Cent, isn't worth a plugged nickel. *1/2

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