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Adjustment Bureau, Rango, Gnomeo & Juliet, Cedar Rapids
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One person's religious beliefs are 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 whether under or over the influence, it might turn off those types of folks who badly 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 Hollywood's go-to sci-fi author Philip K. Dick (Blade Runner, Minority Report, etc.), this stars Matt Damon as aspiring U.S. senator David Norris, who, on the night of a humbling defeat, 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.

Yet these imposing figures in long coats and hats aren't just any muscle men -- they're actually spiritual beings who help keep our world in balance by following the orders of the so-called "Chairman." But David refuses to accept his fate, leading the ethereal 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, The Adjustment Bureau often feels like a romantic yarn first and a fantasy flick second, with some nifty chase sequences thrown in for good measure. And that's fine, because viewers who potentially might analyze the spiritual slant and find it lacking can at least take comfort in the fact they spent their money on an affecting love story.






It's nice to see that, when it comes to producing quality animated features, Hollywood studios have managed to change their, uh, toon. For many years, Pixar was the only outfit consistently releasing choice animated movies, but it finally appears that other studios' specialized departments are finally getting the hang of it. Disney has recently regained some of its old mojo, while DreamWorks and Universal have managed to lay their hands on more worthy material than what was previously being offered.

Of course, let's not go overboard with the praise: For every Rango, there's inevitably a Gnomeo & Juliet.

Still, the pleasures of Rango are vast enough to wash away the bitter aftertaste left by any of the feeble family films of late, although I suppose I should hasten to add that Rango isn't a kid flick by any stretch of the imagination: Instead of a G rating, it sports a PG, and I daresay even a PG-13 wouldn't have been out of line. Then again, that's perfectly in line with a work that in its finest moments comes across as a Coen Brothers film with anthropomorphic animals instead of flesh-and-blood humans.

Pirates of the Caribbean director Gore Verbinski has teamed with Johnny Depp and The Aviator scripter John Logan to fashion a frequently warped and always humorous quasi-Western in which a chameleon (voiced by Depp) who had previously enjoyed the comfy life of a family pet winds up in the dusty town of Dust, where he gets elected sheriff after convincing the locals that he's one tough hombre.

Rango is so imaginatively realized in terms of its camera angles and backdrops that the sense of detail brings to mind a live-action flick rather than an animated one -- it's no surprise to see ace cinematographer Roger Deakins (True Grit) listed in the closing credits as "visual consultant." As for the narrative, it's a film buff's delight, expertly incorporating elements from, among others, Clint Eastwood's Spaghetti Westerns, Apocalypse Now and, with its plot thread of the villain trying to control a town's water rights(!), Chinatown. For the PG set, the classic line "Forget it, Jake; it's Chinatown" will have no relevance, but "Remember it, Jake; it's Rango" will.

Speaking of forgetting, that's the best option when confronted with Gnomeo & Juliet, a toon take on, what else, William Shakespeare's immortal Romeo & Juliet. Here, the majority of the characters are garden gnomes who come to life whenever the humans aren't around. As in the original text, the families of the boy (voiced by James McAvoy) and girl (Emily Blunt) are constantly feuding, making their love a forbidden one.

But unlike Rango, the film is strictly for small children, with only a few shout-outs to Shakespeare and a happy ending grafted onto the proceedings. The music score relies on slightly altered versions of Elton John standards, and while it's always nice to hear his classics in any form, they're usually integrated into the story in only the most perfunctory manner. Honestly, for all the difference it would make, they could have just booted the EJ tunes and instead employed, say, Gerry Rafferty's "Baker Street" or Cee Lo's "Fuck You."




Cedar Rapids is a low-rent version of the sort of raunchy comedy that's all the rage these days, but it wears its modesty rather well. In fact, its reliance on vulgar gags is so sparse that it's somewhat startling when this ends on an outtake of co-star John C. Reilly mixing flatulence and flick-a-BIC. But we're getting ahead of ourselves.

The plot of this amiable comedy centers around Tim Lippe (Ed Helms), a dorky insurance agent who's never ventured outside his hometown. So it's a big deal when his company sends him to the annual convention in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, with the task of returning home with the event's top sales prize. But Tim's attempt to snag said honor frequently takes a back seat to hanging out with his new pals, including the obnoxious Dean Ziegler (Reilly), the reserved Ronald (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) and the flirtatious Joan (Anne Heche).

It's the same outline often employed in these types of films (e.g. The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard, also featuring Helms), but because the writing is a bit sharper and the characters more fleshed out than expected, there's actual interest in seeing how the story pans out and what happens to these people. Empathic feelings aren't usually engaged with this sort of fare, but Cedar Rapids manages to sell the idea, if just barely.