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Capsule reviews of films playing the week of April 29

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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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