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Capsule film reviews for week of April 15

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ADVENTURELAND Our multiplexes need another period coming-of-age flick about as much as the nation needs another banking industry bailout, yet Adventureland proves to be a modest surprise. For that, thank the efforts of a talented ensemble and a screenplay that mostly steers clear of the usual gross-out gags that have come to define this sub-genre in modern times. Jesse Eisenberg stars as James, whose best-laid plans to attend grad school are dismantled by a sudden lack of funds. He's forced to take a minimum-wage job working the game booths at the Pittsburgh amusement park Adventureland, and what makes the gig endurable is his burgeoning relationship with a fellow employee, the pretty if often moody Em (Twilight's Kristen Stewart). Adventureland was written and directed by Superbad's Greg Mottola, and he frequently has trouble nailing the 1980s milieu in which the film is set: Some scenes are visually so nondescript that it's easy to forget the time frame and assume the movie takes place in the here and now. Other bits hammer the 80s connection home in marvelous fashion: The "Rock Me Amadeus" gag is especially inspired. Eisenberg is exemplary as the nerdy intellectual whose sensitivity and demeanor attract rather than repel women – here's that rare youth flick where it's actually believable that the geek gets the girl – while Stewart again demonstrates her standing as one of our most promising young actresses by ably tackling the script's most complicated role. The supporting parts are also well-cast, offering familiar character types yet investing them with enough personality to offset any sense of deja vu. ***

THE CLASS Don't be embarrassed if you start watching The Class and can't figure out if it's a documentary or a fictional piece; that's doubtless the effect that director Laurent Cantent was hoping to achieve. Winner of the top prize at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival as well as an Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film, this French import is based on Entre les Murs (Between the Walls), a novel penned by schoolteacher Francois Begaudeau. Begaudeau co-wrote the script and plays himself in the movie, which is shot in cinema verite style by Cantent – add up all these facts and we're left with a fictionalized presentation that walks and talks like a documentary. Set in a Paris high school, the movie follows Begaudeau over the course of one year, sticking with him as he struggles to maintain his cool in the midst of so many openly hostile students. Certainly, there are plenty of good kids, but there are also some whose sole purpose on this planet seems to be to question authority. That's hardly a new concept – teens have been testing the patience of their elders ever since the first professor drew a mark on the cave wall and a pupil argued its purpose – but what's particularly interesting about The Class is that there aren't always clear-cut delineations between "right" and "wrong" behavior: The students' frustrations are sometimes justified, and while Begaudeau seems to have his heart in the right place, his ability to communicate often gets hampered by the limitations of the curriculum, the limitations of the teaching environment, and even by his own limitations as an instructor. There's nothing particularly revelatory about the film – unless you happen to believe that the U.S. is the only country with an educational system in disarray – but it's a piercing look at a generation gap that only seems to be gaping ever more widely. ***

CORALINE Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas was actually Henry Selick's The Nightmare Before Christmas, given that it was the latter who actually directed the film. Here, he displays his mastery again, helming an eye-popping animated extravaganza he adapted from Neil Gaiman's best-selling book. Dakota Fanning provides the voice of Coraline, a lonely little girl who discovers an alternate world hidden behind a small door in her family's new house. Initially, life does seem more pleasant on the other side – her alternate parents are hipper, the food is tastier, the entertainment is more dazzling – but it's not long before things take a dark turn, and, with the help of a sage black cat, Coraline soon finds herself fighting for her very soul. The visual scheme – as with Nightmare, stop-motion animation is the order of the day – is remarkable enough in any dimension, but do make an effort to catch the film in one of its 3-D presentations. ***1/2

DUPLICITY Duplicity is a jet-setting romp that proves to be as bright as it is brainy. Writer-director Tony Gilroy, flush from his Michael Clayton success, retains that film's examination of corporate malfeasance yet replaces the sense of dread with a sense of style. After all, when a movie showcases a Caribbean hotel where rooms cost $10,000 per night, it's clear that the protagonists won't be cut from the same cloth as us po' folks who have to worry about trifling matters like soaring unemployment rates and obstructionist Republican Congressmen. Indeed, the leads are played by Julia Roberts and Clive Owen, the sort of high-wattage movie stars so glamorous that it's easy to believe even their bath tissues are Armani-designed. She's former CIA agent Claire Stenwick; he's ex-MI6 operative Ray Koval. Having both left their jobs to take lucrative assignments with rival corporations (the company CEOs are played in amusing fashion by Tom Wilkinson and Paul Giamatti), Claire and Ray end up pooling their talents in order to swindle both companies and steal the formula for a new cosmetic product that will revolutionize the industry. But all the time, they each wonder whether they can really trust the other person. If there's a fault with Duplicity, it's that Gilroy relies far too heavily on fastbacks to the point that the first half-hour is often impenetrable – telling the story in linear fashion would have still produced enough narrative twists to keep audiences happily engaged. Fortunately, as the movie continues, plot basics become more digestible, and it all pans out with a climactic "gotcha" that should invoke happy memories of The Sting. ***

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