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Capsule reviews of films playing the week of March 30

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THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU One person's religious beliefs is often another person's existentialist theories, and The Adjustment Bureau offers plenty of theological fodder to go around. Because it tinkers with notions involving God and chance and destiny and all that other stuff that's fun to discuss, it might turn off those types of folks who misunderstood Martin Scorsese's brilliant and heartfelt Christian ode, The Last Temptation of Christ. Other viewers, however, might appreciate the movie's ability to question omniscient authority with the proper mix of reverence and reflection. Based on a short story by Philip K. Dick, this stars Matt Damon as aspiring U.S. senator David Norris, who meets promising dancer Elise Sellas (Emily Blunt); the pair are instantly attracted to one another, but David soon learns from the members of a shadowy cabal that they are never meant to be together. But David refuses to accept his fate, leading the mysterious enforcers to resort to strong-arm tactics to contain the situation. The film's notion that true love conquers all would fall flat with the wrong leads, but Damon and Blunt possess a lovely, laid-back chemistry that allows us to believe in their union. Because their casting is so apt, this often feels like a romantic yarn first and a fantasy flick second, with some nifty chase sequences thrown in for good measure. ***

BARNEY'S VERSION Paul Giamatti's excellent performance earned him the Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Musical or Comedy, and he certainly deserved the honor over his embarrassingly weak competition. What isn't so clear, however, is why this film was thrust into the Comedy category in the first place. Certainly, this adaptation of Mordecai Richler's novel has its share of gentle laughs, many of them provided by Dustin Hoffman in an ingratiating turn as the father of Giamatti's Barney Panofsky. But ultimately, this decades-spanning look at the life of an often unpleasant man is more about heartbreak than humor, touching upon such subjects as Alzheimer's, infidelity and even murder. Moving back and forth in time, the film allows us glimpses into what helped turn Barney into a far-from-upstanding individual, even if it doesn't always excuse his behavior (for what it's worth, he's surrounded by equally annoying and/or unscrupulous individuals, played by, among others, Minnie Driver, Scott Speedman and the Twilight series' original Victoria, Rachelle Lefevre). Barney Panofsky is a rich character inhabited by an actor up to the formidable task, although it's worth noting that the Globe win didn't lead to an Oscar nod; instead, its sole nomination was for Best Makeup. It deserved to win over Rick Baker's been-there-done-that work on The Wolfman; frankly, Benicio Del Toro's hirsute countenance is no match for Giamatti's liver spots. ***

BATTLE: LOS ANGELES It takes a special type of hack to make Roland Emmerich look like Steven Spielberg, but Jonathan Liebesman appears to be the right man for the job. The less said about most Emmerich movies (like 2012 and Matthew Broderick Meets Godzilla), the better, but he did helm Independence Day, and for all that film's faults, it knew how to milk the hell out of its H.G. Wells-by-way-of-Hollywood premise and, silly as it sounds, make us proud to be human. Battle: Los Angeles is so feeble that we really don't care who wins the global skirmish: the E.T.s or the earthlings. At least if the aliens win, we won't have to sit through any more movies like this one. As the film begins, most of the major cities are being decimated, leaving LA as the last great hope for humankind's survival. "Retreat? Hell!" bark the Marines tasked with saving the planet, as a sign that they'll never back down. B:LA is such an ADD-afflicted action film that it's impossible to invest much emotion in its one-dimensional characters — "Where's Lenihan?" someone asks regarding a missing comrade, but they might as well have been asking, "Where's Waldo?" for all it ultimately matters. The design of the alien critters is the usual blend of crunchy on the outside and squishy on the inside, but that's OK, since the camerawork and editing are executed at such dizzying paces that we never get a good look at most of the CGI work anyway. "Retreat"? Hell, yeah! Where's the nearest exit? *1/2

BIG MOMMAS: LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON Big Mommas: Like Father, Like Son isn't like Some Like It Hot; instead, it's like every other witless sequel meant to prolong the life cycle of a flailing franchise. Like it or not, the fact remains that there's not much to like here, and it only escapes a bomb rating because it's more irritating than offensive — like an ant crawling across a countertop rather than a roach roosting in the cereal box. The second sequel to the 2000 box office hit Big Momma's House, this finds Martin Lawrence again cast as FBI agent Malcolm Turner, donning the wig and fat suit once more to elude some Russian mobsters. The added, uh, hilarity comes with the notion that Malcolm's stepson Trent (Brandon T. Jackson) must also disguise himself as a female — in his case, a student named Charmaine. Together, Madea — excuse me, Big Momma — and Charmaine head to an all-girls arts school to uncover some evidence that will put away the criminals on their trail. Big Momma gets romantically wooed by a hefty caretaker (Faizon Love) who's into hefty women, Charmaine ogles the young ladies as they strip down to their undies, and everyone involved dutifully collects their paychecks while hoping for better luck the next time out. *1/2

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