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Capsule reviews of films playing the week of April 22

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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. ***

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. ***

FAST & FURIOUS The best part of Fast & Furious is its tagline – "New Model. Original Parts." – which means that the studio wonk who created it deserves the big bucks more than anybody who actually appears in the film. It's a catchy line because it advertises the fact that all four stars of 2001's The Fast and the Furious – Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Michelle Rodriguez and Jordana Brewster – have reunited for this fourth entry in the series. Unfortunately, this is one star vehicle that seems permanently stuck in "reverse." The best performer of the quartet, Rodriguez, disappears from the proceedings fairly early, as director Justin Lin and writer Chris Morgan apparently decided to make this even more of a Toys for Boys romp than its predecessors – Brewster's character is, as before, an utter stiff, while the other women (occasionally seen making out with each other) are merely decorative props. That leaves more time for Diesel (as outlaw hot-rodder Dominic Toretto) and Walker (as lawman hot-rodder Brian O'Conner) to engage in competitive bouts of piston envy, each trying to prove to the other that only he has a crankshaft large enough to take down the drug kingpin responsible for the murder of a close friend. The opening vehicular set-piece is a doozy, but subsequent racing sequences resemble nothing more than video game sessions. Diesel tries to recapture the brooding brand of charisma that made him a star, but he seems to be losing his grip on that elusive quality. As for Walker, he's more boring than ever: His acting is so somnambular that even his car's steering wheel stands a better chance at grabbing an Oscar nomination. **

THE GOLDEN BOYS Between them, David Carradine, Rip Torn and Bruce Dern have racked up 147 years of screen time, and The Golden Boys capitalizes on that vast pool of experience by allowing these veteran performers full rein to work their movie mojo. It's impossible to recommend this piffle to anyone who doesn't possess an ounce of interest in these accomplished thespians or the filmic heritage from which they draw, but seniors and cinema buffs might derive some modest measure of pleasure from the end result. Working from a 1904 novel by Joseph C. Lincoln titled Cap'n Eri: A Story of the Coast, this centers on three septuagenerian sea captains sharing a Cape Cod home. Deciding that they need a woman to look after them – but unwilling to pay for a housekeeper – the crusty trio decides that one of them must immediately find a wife. Captain Zeb (Carradine) and Captain Perez (Dern) are let off the hook when Captain Jerry (Torn) loses the coin toss, but once the chosen woman – the sensible, middle-aged Martha (Mariel Hemingway) – enters their lives, the other two men find themselves captivated by her charm and intelligence. Charles Durning, looking shockingly frail at 86, turns up as a God-fearing man who believes actions speak louder than words, while John Savage, the spring chicken among the males at the age of 59, appears as a city slicker who wants to introduce (gasp!) rum to this quiet community. Other characters flutter in and out of the story, but really, all that matters here is the triumvirate heading the cast. These three vets are a delight to watch, even if the movie around them remains soggy. **1/2

THE GREAT BUCK HOWARD John Malkovich's greatest performance will probably always remain his turn as, well, John Malkovich in Spike Jonze's Being John Malkovich, but that's not to say this versatile actor isn't always adding memorable bits to an increasingly impressive portfolio. Thanks to writer-director Sean McGinly, Malkovich triumphs again, this time portraying the title role in The Great Buck Howard. A slight yet satisfying show-biz tale that occasionally recalls such similar works as Broadway Danny Rose and My Favorite Year, this focuses on Troy (Colin Hanks), a young man who quits law school in order to find out what he really wants to do with his life. As he tries to figure it out, he takes a job as the road manager for Buck Howard, a temperamental mentalist who's convinced that his comeback rests just around the corner. As portrayed by Malkovich, Buck is a man who's by turns sympathetic, cruel, charming and egotistical. It's a socko piece of acting, and while the likable Hanks is rarely more than adequate, Emily Blunt comes along (playing a no-nonsense publicist) and more than holds her own with a sly, charming performance. From narcissistic entertainers to overzealous fans, The Great Buck Howard has something to say about almost everyone positioned up and down the chain of command. This expose is more congenial than acidic, but it's difficult not to like any movie in which a character states, "My college roommate was managing a multimillion dollar hedge fund, and here I was, helping Buck Howard with his benefit starring Gary Coleman and the guy from the Police Academy movies." ***

HE'S JUST NOT THAT INTO YOU This long-on-the-shelf comedy-drama is a muddled he-said-she-said yarn that, even in this supposedly enlightened age, manages to reduce most of its characters (male and female) to the most base stereotypes. Based on the bestseller by Greg Behrendt and Liz Tuccillo, it centers on nine Baltimore residents all looking for love or sex or some combination thereof. Unfortunately, most of these characters are either self-centered dipshits (e.g. Justin Long's emotionless player, Bradley Cooper's philandering husband) or emotional retards (Ginnifer Goodwin's whiny nerd, Jennifer Aniston's marriage-manipulating girlfriend). Jennifer Connelly (as Cooper's patient wife) and Ben Affleck (as Aniston's devoted boyfriend) arguably fare best, though that probably has as much to do with their characters (more tolerable than the rest) as with their performances. *1/2

I LOVE YOU, MAN Like most films in the Judd Apatow vein (the man himself wasn't involved with this project, but the principal players are all veterans of his works), this attempts to strike a desirable balance between sweet sincerity and risqué raunch. Yet perhaps more than any of the other films (Knocked Up, Superbad, etc.), it frequently pulls back when it reaches the edge of vulgarity. (That's not to say the picture doesn't fully deserve its R rating: With its ample selection of crude language, no one will be mistaking it for Mary Poppins.) Paul Rudd (in a disarming performance) stars as Peter Klaven, a nice guy who's always put his energy into his relationships with women. Because of this, he doesn't have a single male friend, so after he proposes to his girlfriend Zooey (immensely appealing Rashida Jones) and realizes he has no one to serve as his best man at their wedding, he sets out on a mission to find an eligible dude. His first few "dates" are disastrous, but he eventually meets Sydney Fife (Jason Segel), who's his complete opposite: disheveled in appearance, able to converse openly about sex, and completely comfortable in his own guy-skin. It's after Sydney's first appearance that I Love You, Man had the potential to self-destruct, as most filmmakers would turn Sydney into a complete creep or psychopath, a walking nightmare fueled by booze and testosterone. Yet while he does often come across as boorish, he's allowed to remain a fundamentally ordinary guy, and an often decent one at that. Unlike some of the other sweet-and-sour comedies of modern times, this one doesn't provide much in the way of large belly laughs. But it's pleasurable enough to paste a smile on the face for the majority of its running time. ***

KNOWING Sober in its intentions but laughable in its execution, this begins promisingly, as a letter written by a little girl in 1959 finds itself, 50 years later, in the hands of John Koestler (Cage), a widowed MIT professor raising his son Caleb (wooden Chandler Canterbury) by himself. Koestler soon figures out that the piece of paper, on which the child scrawled nothing but numbers, foretold all the major disasters of the past five decades (well, all the disasters that resulted in deaths, as it appears the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections were not included). The problem is that three of the prophesied disasters have yet to occur, leaving Koestler in the unenviable position of trying to figure out how to prevent large-scale tragedies. Meanwhile, a group of shadowy figures spend their time trailing Caleb; they're meant to appear menacing, but that's hard to accomplish when they basically all look like Sting impersonators. Knowing was directed by Dark City's Alex Proyas, although it feels like the sort of poorly defined spiritual salve that M. Night Shyamalan concocts in between preening sessions in front of the mirror. But early discussions regarding destiny versus randomness soon get sidestepped for one CGI set-piece after another, most of them hampered by mediocre effects work (and tasteless, too; did we really need to see blood repeatedly splatter on a subway car window as it rams into each successive victim?). Eventually, the film only elicits misplaced chuckles, as awkward acting, lulls in logic, and a cameo appearance by The Fountain's majestic tree combine to make this a movie not worth knowing about, let alone watching. *1/2

MONSTERS VS. ALIENS With a title like Monsters vs. Aliens, the latest animated effort from DreamWorks sounds as if it could match all those Pixar gems in terms of emerging as a toon tale equally likely to entertain the adults as the small fry. After all, what film-lovin' grown-up, specifically one weaned on a steady diet of 50s fantasy flicks playing all night on late-night TV, could resist a movie guaranteed to be crammed with more inside jokes than anybody could reasonably hope to absorb during the initial viewing? Unfortunately, this doesn't come close to fulfilling what appeared to be its lot in (cinematic) life. Sure, there are plenty of bright colors and wacky characters and slapstick antics to amuse the children, but many adults will, to a degree, be left wanting. The monsters, here reconfigured as the good guys, are all based on creatures found in classic sci-fi romps of the 1950s: Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, The Blob, The Fly, Creature from the Black Lagoon, and Japan's monster mash (Mothra, Godzilla, etc.). These creations are amusing enough, but what of the alien half of the equation? Where's the savory mix that would pay homage to the E.T.s found in The Thing (from Another World), The Day the Earth Stood Still, This Island Earth – heck, even The Monolith Monsters? Instead, we get one tiresome extraterrestrial megalomaniac (Rainn Wilson), a clear indication that inspiration ran out long before this promising premise was saturated. The film's visual scheme is inventive, but for a movie that had the potential to knock the genre out of this world, the pleasant but frequently pedestrian Monsters vs. Aliens remains too earthbound for its own good. **1/2

OBSERVE AND REPORT In his sophomore effort (following The Foot Fist Way), N.C. writer-director Jody Hill valiantly tries to combine the twisted trappings of a black comedy with the more accepted slapstick shenanigans of a mainstream outing. Terry Zwigoff largely pulled off this difficult synchronization with Bad Santa, but Hill never locates the proper balance that would make this more than just a hit-and-miss curio. Seth Rogen plays Paul Blart – excuse me, Ronnie Barnhardt, a schlub who takes great pride in his work as the head of mall security. Ronnie is a disturbed individual, but he's largely oblivious to his own inner demons – he's too busy lusting after a makeup counter tart (Anna Faris), attempting to apprehend a flasher who's been terrorizing the mall, and engaging in a war of words with a real detective (Ray Liotta). Much of Observe and Report is aimless and lackadaisical – a whole burglary subplot could easily have been dropped without affecting the overall product – yet the script's biggest problem rests with its decidedly non-PC content. There's nothing wrong with ruffling a few feathers here and there – a little vulgarity is good for the soul, as Mel Brooks used to prove on a regular basis – but the material needs to be funny as well as potentially shocking, and almost none of the film's targets are skewered in a fashion guaranteed to elicit laughs. The exception is the rampant male nudity seen during the bloody climax; I won't ruin it here, but let's just say this might mark the only time that a movie manages to go limp and out with a bang at the same time. **

SUNSHINE CLEANING Sunshine Cleaning's ads trumpet that it's "from the producers of Little Miss Sunshine," and like that hit, it often belies its cheery title by exploring the darkness that descends on the lives of ordinary people just trying to get ahead. Yet while it may not be as sharply written, it contains enough fine moments – to say nothing of a strong performance by Amy Adams – to make it a worthwhile endeavor. Adams stars as Rose Lorkowski, once a popular high school cheerleader, now a struggling maid-for-hire with a troublesome son (Jason Spevack). When her married lover (Steve Zahn) suggests that she can make more money by providing cleanup services at crime scenes, she jumps at the suggestion, convincing her reluctant sister Norah (Emily Blunt) to join her in this new endeavor. Obtaining the proper license proves to be almost as challenging as the actual cleanup duties, but Rose is determined to carve out a better existence for her family. First-time scripter Megan Holley relies on too many familiar character types to flesh out her story: Here's yet another indie effort in which Mom is involved with a married man, Junior is a social outcast, and Grandpa is crusty yet kind (Alan Arkin virtually reprises his Little Miss Sunshine role). Yet other aspects of her screenplay are refreshing: The relationship between the sisters feels natural, the cleanup service angle is inspired, and the character of a one-armed janitorial store proprietor (nicely played by Clifton Collins Jr.) emerges as a complete original. Sunshine Cleaning's positives don't completely eclipse the tired material, but they do suggest that Holley might have a bright future ahead of her. **1/2

TAKEN Moral ambiguity seems to be the order of the day in most of modern cinema (recent examples include Body of Lies, Traitor, The Dark Knight, and even Gran Torino), but for purely cathartic purposes, there's still something to be said about films – competent ones, mind you – in which the line between Good and Evil is drawn oh-so-clearly in the sand. Take Taken, which operates on a very simple premise: Scumbags kidnap Liam Neeson's daughter; Liam Neeson fucks them up good. That's all the plot needed for this lightning-quick (91 minutes) action yarn in which Neeson stars as Bryan Mills, a former CIA operative who took early retirement in order to live close to his teenage daughter Kim (Maggie Grace). Bryan's frosty ex-wife (Famke Janssen) approves of their child traveling unsupervised with a friend (Katie Cassidy) to Paris for a vacation, but the overprotective Bryan doesn't like the idea and only reluctantly signs off on it for the sake of Kim's happiness. But it turns out that father knows best after all: Within hours of their arrival, the two American teens are kidnapped by an Albanian organization that turns young women into prostitutes and sex slaves. Bryan immediately springs into action, jetting off to Paris and employing his ample CIA training to locate his missing daughter. The film's PG-13 rating means that punches are pulled in more ways than one, and the script by Robert Mark Kamen and Luc Besson disappointingly turns Bryan from an ordinary man with highly specialized skills in the early going into a James Bond knockoff by the third act. But Pierre Morel directs crisply and efficiently, and Neeson delivers a typically compelling performance in (for him) an atypically muscle-bound role. ***

TWO LOVERS It's not that writer-director James Gray makes bad movies. It's just that it's difficult to remember anything about the movies he makes. We Own the Night starred Joaquin Phoenix and Mark Wahlberg and had something to do with bickering brothers on opposite sides of the law. The Yards also starred Phoenix and Wahlberg and somehow involved an ex-con with good intentions being dragged back into a life of crime. And all I recall about Little Odessa is that, uh, it included actors and buildings and perhaps a few props. Two Lovers seems as likely as Gray's previous pictures to fizzle away, Alka-Seltzer-style, until there's little left but a faint aftertaste. This Brooklyn-set drama casts Phoenix as Leonard Kraditor, who lives with his parents (Isabella Rossellini and Moni Moshonov) after a failed suicide attempt sparked by a romantic fallout. The folks try to steer Leonard into a relationship with Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), the daughter of a business associate, but even as Leonard tries to make a go of it with this insecure woman, he finds himself drawn to his neighbor Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow), a self-described basketcase who's having an affair with a married man (Elias Koteas). To his credit, Gray doesn't try to sugarcoat any of the relationships in the picture, but crucially, he and his leading man never make us care for Leonard Kraditor, nor do they find ways of making him interesting. Sandra and especially Michelle are also flawed, yet the actresses inhabiting the parts add nuance to their characters' imperfections. Phoenix, on the other hand, merely seems distracted, as if he was already looking ahead to his new career as the music man. **

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