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Capsule reviews of films playing the week of April 22

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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. **

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