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 (only Walker appeared in 2003's 2 Fast 2 Furious, and all were AWOL for 2006's The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift). 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 earlier in the decade, 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.
Observe and Report
Observe and Report, writer-director Jody Hill's sophomore effort following the no-budget, no-laughs farce The Foot Fist Way, valiantly tries to combine the twisted trappings of a black comedy with the more accepted slapstick shenanigans of a mainstream outing. It's extremely difficult to synchronize these approaches into one fluid viewing experience -- Terry Zwigoff largely pulled it off with Bad Santa, but Hill never locates the proper balance that would make this more than just a hit-and-miss curio. Seth Rogen, no stranger to controversial comedies, stars as Paul Blart -- excuse me, Ronnie Barnhardt, a schlub who takes great pride in his work as the head of security at a popular mall. Unlike the congenial Blart, however, Ronnie is a disturbed individual, required to remain on his medication lest his destructive tendencies take over. But Ronnie is largely oblivious to his own inner demons -- he's too busy lusting after a makeup counter tart (Anna Faris), cluelessly overlooking a sweet fast-food employee (Collette Wolfe), 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 -- alcoholism, racial profiling, date rape, etc. -- 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's ads trumpet that it's "from the producers of Little Miss Sunshine," and like that Oscar-winning hit, it often belies its cheery title by exploring the darkness that descends on the lives of decent, ordinary people just trying to get ahead. Yet while it may not be as sharply written as its predecessor, it contains enough fine moments -- to say nothing of a strong central performance by Amy Adams -- to make it a worthwhile endeavor. Adams stars as Rose Lorkowski, once a popular high school cheerleader with a quarterback boyfriend, now a struggling maid-for-hire with a troublesome son (Jason Spevack). When her married lover Mac (Steve Zahn), the former QB who's now a police detective, suggests that more money can be made 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 (which often include removing body parts and swarming insects and always include mopping up copious amounts of blood), but Rose is determined to carve out a better existence for herself and her family. First-time scripter Megan Holley relies on too many familiar conventions and character types to flesh out her story: Here's yet one more 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 (more scenes of them on the job would have been appreciated), 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.
Monsters vs. Aliens
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, Monsters vs. Aliens doesn't come close to fulfilling what appeared to be its lot in (cinematic) life. The title itself points out the film's failing. The monsters, here reconfigured as the good guys, are all based on creatures found in classic sci-fi romps of the 1950s. Sweet Susan (Reese Witherspoon), a bride-to-be who gets super-sized (hence her new name of Ginormica), is a nod to Attack of the 50 Foot Woman; the gelatinous mound B.O.B. (Seth Rogen) is based on The Blob; Dr. Cockroach (Hugh Laurie) obviously parodies The Fly; the amphibious Missing Link (Will Arnett) is an offshoot of Creature from the Black Lagoon; and the silent Insectosaurus seems patterned on the behemoths once found stomping around Japan (Mothra, Godzilla, etc.). Amusing, but what of the alien half of the equation? 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, and parents seeking kid-friendly life lessons should appreciate its message. But for a movie that had the potential to knock the genre out of this world, the pleasant but predictable Monsters vs. Aliens remains too earthbound for its own good.
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, who appears to be a Michael Cera wannabe until you remember that he's been around as long as the Juno actor (and more prominently in the early years, thanks to key roles in Roger Dodger and The Squid and the Whale), stars as James, whose best-laid plans to attend grad school are dismantled by a sudden lack of funds. Bummed, he's forced to take a minimum-wage job working the game booths at the Pittsburgh amusement park Wonderland. He spends an exorbitant amount of time smoking pot and goofing around with his co-workers, but what really makes the gig endurable is his burgeoning relationship with a fellow employee, the pretty if often moody Em (Twilight's Kristen Stewart). What James doesn't know, however, is that Em is involved with the park's older, married handyman (Ryan Reynolds), a situation that becomes difficult to manage once James and Em start spending more time together. 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. 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.
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), both 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 as they work overtime to insure they're always one step ahead of their respective companies' key personnel (not a dummy among them), Claire and Ray 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 and flashbacks-within-flashbacks 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.
With its plotline involving extraterrestrials, a kid in potential peril, and a man obsessed with uncovering the truth behind unexplained phenomena, this could easily have been tagged Clod Encounters of the Absurd Kind. Sober in its intentions but laughable in its execution, Knowing begins promisingly, as a letter written by a little girl in 1959 finds itself, 50 years later, in the hands of John Koestler (Cage), an MIT professor whose wife died in a hotel fire a year earlier and who now must raise his son Caleb (Chandler Canterbury) by himself. Koestler soon figures out that the piece of paper, on which the child scrawled nothing but a lengthy series of numbers, actually foretold all the major disasters of the past five decades. 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 stop large-scale tragedies from taking place. Meanwhile, a group of shadowy figures spend their time trailing young Caleb; they're meant to appear menacing, but that's hard to accomplish when they basically all look like Sting impersonators.