Monday, June 20, 2011

New on DVD/Blu-Ray: "The Adjustment Bureau," "Cedar Rapids," and "Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules"

The Adjustment Bureau (2011)
106 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: B 

Big Brother is watching Matt Damon and Emily Blunt in "The Adjustment Bureau," enjoyably odd and far-fetched hokum. Based on a 1954 short story by Philip K. Dick (called "Adjustment Team"), it is a celestial thriller about fate and free will, but above all, it's a love story. As cinematically treated, the result is more "Vanilla Sky" and "The Matrix" than being alligned with Dick's other source material (the dark and superior "Blade Runner" and "Minority Report"). 

Damon, brawny and charismatic, stars as David Norris, an up-and-coming New York politician whose still-untamed frat-boy antics hit the press and hurt his chances of running for the U.S. Senate. During his darkest hour in the Waldorf Astoria Hotel men's room, David has a flirty encounter with a party crasher/ballet dancer named Elise (a feisty, mischievous, completely lovely Emily Blunt). Inspired by her, he becomes a candidate for the next race. Three years later by chance, David runs back into Elise and from fedora-wearing accountants that call themselves The Adjustment Bureau, he learns meeting Elise was not in line with the plan, or the blueprint of David's life. From that point on, he's told he cannot see Elise but David repeatedly tries to buck the system. 

Screenwriter George Nolfi ("The Bourne Ultimatum") makes his directorial debut, adapting Dick's paranoid story. It's intriguing and challenging and just loopy enough to not come off heavy or self-serious. The silly sci-fi details—rainy weather can throw off the bureau's radar of David and top hats enabling David and the adjustment accountants to use doors as portals—are secondary to the bigger picture. 

The romantic aspect of the film need no adjustment, as the two stars instantly connect. Damon and Blunt make a great pair with their sexy, playful chemistry that makes you want them to stay together. Even individually, Damon convinces as a politician and Blunt gets to dance. In the three "bureau" roles, Anthony Mackie provides wisdom and empathy as the angelic Harry, John Slattery has a "Mad Men" cool style, and Terence Stamp is enigmatic and sinister as "The Hammer." The screenplay has a few small quibbles of sloppy writing. For instance, if Elise thinks she's meant to be with David too, how come when time passes she never reaches him? Or when Elise's destiny to be a great dancer could be ruined by being with David and resorting to teaching 6-year-olds? Is that really a fate worse than death? But that's nothing emotional investment can't take care of on screen. 

The last twenty minutes is a pure chase scene, as tight and exciting as any. By the end, the threat is gone, The Big Guy Upstairs gets a nod toward religious allegory, and "The Adjustment Bureau" becomes a letdown. But until then, it's an engaging "Twilight Zone" episode. 

Cedar Rapids (2011)
87 min., rated R.
Grade: B +

"Cedar Rapids" is such a disarming, unassuming movie, and since it's a comedy, being disarming and unassuming are its greatest strengths. Those adjectives could describe Tim Lippe (sounds like "lippy"), the endearingly dippy and dweeby protagonist, played by Ed Helms, the movie's other strength. 

Tim never really went anywhere in his life: he works for a small Wisconsin insurance company called Brown Star and he's sleeping with and "pre-engaged" to his MILFy grade-school teacher, Miss Vanderhei (Sigourney Weaver, packing all of her comedic chops into a very small role), but you can call her "Macy." Once his poster-child boss (Thomas Lennon) dies in an autoerotic asphyxiation accident, that leaves Tim with the last-chance responsibility to attend Cedar Rapids, Iowa's annual American Society of Mutual Insurers convention to give a presentation to the very Christian president of the insurance federation (Kurtwood Smith). He's so sheltered and innocent that Tim has never been on an airplane or checked into a hotel room, let alone anywhere else. But once he checks into his suite, he meets his roommates, the straight-arrow Ronald Wilkes (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) and the crass, boisterous Dean Ziegler (John C. Reilly), along with a fesity, flirtatious agent named Joan Ostrowski-Fox (Anne Heche). 

"Cedar Rapids" is the kind of smart, entertaining comedy that's hard to find these days and doesn't have to get smarmy and obnoxious to get its laughs. It's low-key but satisfying, and that's all we ask for. 

Helms could've walked a tightrope between character and caricature, but deep down inside, his Tim is just a naive nice guy who falls hard rather quickly but has integrity. It feels like the role was written just for Helms. Reilly, in his zone, has the broadest character of all and runs with it as a blowhard schmuck with a soul. Heche, in a too-rare role, is offbeat, peppy, and foxy as Joan, who uses Cedar Rapids as a vacation from her married/maternal life. Whitlock Jr. is hilariously deadpan as the upstanding Ronald, Tim's African American roommate. Lastly, Alia Shawkat has fun as a young prostitute who's out for a good time, hanging around the convention hotel. Initially, it feels like we're supposed to laugh at the hapless boob that Tim is and these wild Midwesteners, in Phil Johnston's tight first-feature script, but director Miguel Arteta ("Chuck & Buck," "The Good Girl") has affection for his characters and brings them down to Earth and up to speed. These characters are types but given more personality and depth by its game cast. 

Tim's arc leads to a rather formulaic wrap-up, but there's a geniality to "Cedar Rapids"' horny, pot-smoking rowdiness that insures sweetness, a wise nature, and the funny. 

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules (2011)
99 min., rated PG.
Grade: B

Wimpy? Not this sequel. Jeff Kinney's book series was successfully adapted in last year's "Diary of a Wimpy Kid," and a year later, "Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules" makes the grade. Rather than being just another retread of its predecessor, this one has the same silly charm and more heart. 

Our underdog hero, Greg Heffley (Zachary Gordon), is now in 7th grade, but that's the least of his problems. Bullying big brother Rodrick (Devon Bostick) is constantly in his hair, pranking and tormenting him. Mom (Rachael Harris) and Dad (Steve Zahn) offer them "mom bucks" for every hour the boys spend quality time together. When the folks go out of town with baby brother Manny, Rodrick locks Greg in the basement and throws a wild house party (PG-rated with Coca Cola in red Solo cups), but the siblings clean up and swear to keep the party a secret from their parents. Meanwhile, Greg pines after the new girl, Holly Hills (Peyton List), and Rodrick tries to get a big break with his obnoxious heavy-metal band, Loded Diaper, in the school talent show. 

The same screenwriters and cast (save for Chloe Grace Moretz's Angie) are back, but "Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules" gets a new director in David Bowers, who's done previous work in animation, and retains the same silly, snappy, rib-tickling spirit as its predecessor. Narratively, there are a lot of threads here, but Rodrick and Greg's love-hate brotherly relationship is at its core, and the script speaks to universal morals of honesty and sibling relationships. The black-and-white doodle in-betweens are wittily executed the second time around. 

But the face-first-into-cake slapstick and gross-out humor, like when Greg has to go into church with a chocolate bar stain on the bottom of his pants, feel more like demographic pandering rather than key story points. They have the sort of panicky exaggeration that only happen in nightmares, but even taken as situational comedy sketches, they're uninspired. 

Gordon has grown into the character of Greg, gaining more confidence and handling of the humor. Robert Capron, reprising his role as sidekick Rowley, steals a lot of his scenes, especially when he makes a lip-sync YouTube video of Ke$ha's "Tik Tok," which is a hoot. As Rodrick, Bostick comes off cartoonish but settles down by the end once he learns his lesson. Harris and Zahn get more to do as the parents like, respectively, uncoolly dancing around and bugging his eyes out. 

"Rodrick Rules" probably won't be the last time we hear from Greg Heffley, unless this director wimps out on a third like the original director did on this.

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