May 5 2009 12:00 AM

Reviews in Short

Fighting. Writer/director Dito Montiel drops down a few rungs after his promising debut film, "A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints," with an undernourished drama about small-town fighter Shawn MacArthur (Channing Tatum) who comes to Manhattan, where he meets twobit hustler Harvey Boarden (Terrence Howard). Harvey introduces Shawn to a world of underground street fighting, and Shawn proves himself a viable money-maker with an early steak of hard fought wins. The well-filmed impromptu bouts are appropriately gritty and energetic, but its the films romantic aspirations between Shawn and cocktail waitress Zulay (played by newcomer Zulay Valez) that provide a much-needed emotional lift to the otherwise dead-end social atmosphere.
The ever-watchable Howard mixes things up with a quirky, slowed-down accent that keeps you hanging on his every word, and Montiel cranks up the suspense with a third-act surprise climax that pays off nicely. (Rogue Pictures) Rated PG-13. 105 mins. (B-)

The Soloist. In this film based on the book by Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez, Robert Downey Jr. plays a divorced newspaper journalist who discovers homeless musical prodigy Nathaniel Ayers (Jamie Foxx) and takes responsibility for helping the mentally disturbed musician while writing a series of politicallycharged stories. Newbie screenwriter Susannah Grant fails to create an engaging arc for her adaptation, and she punctuates the drama with distracting touches of inappropriate genre clichs. (Note to screenwriters: Spilling urine, raccoon or otherwise, on your protagonist doesnt engender character development or empathy). As Lopez struggles with getting the irascibly schizophrenic Ayers into housing where he can play his freshly gifted cello, the need for maintained psychiatric care becomes more obvious. Heartfelt performances from Downey and Foxx cant counteract a lack of narrative focus that prevents the film from taking hold. Rated PG-13. 105 mins. (C)

State of Play. Based on a politically charged BBC mini-series, director Kevin Macdonald ("The Last King of Scotland") moves the action from the House of Parliament to Washington, where the suspicious death of a congressmans coworker mistress underlines the desperate state of newspaper journalism in America. Russell Crowe plays Cal McAffrey, a veteran Washington Poststyled reporter with close ties to Congressman Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck) and Collins romantically fickle wife, Anne (Robin Wright Penn). Cal uncovers a corporate espionage plan to privatize Homeland Security that seems related to the death of Collins mistress. Cal gets tossed in with neophyte newspaper blogger Della Frye (Rachel McAdams) to cover this story with scandalous elements that threaten to eclipse greater crimes at hand. Laced with telegraphed character development, ghost-in-the-machine plot points, and preachy commentary, "State of Play" is a pedantic thriller caught in its own obvious clockwork. Nothing is organic and no situation believable in a movie that plays like a collection of isolated sub plots. (Universal) Rated PG-13, 118 mins. (C)

Observe and Report. Writer/director Jody Hill makes a quantum leap from his low-budget 2006 debut feature "The Foot Fist Way" with a hilarious, subversive black comedy about Americas post-911 culture of authority-abusing misfits commonly referred to as security guards. Seth Rogen plays Ronnie Barnhardt, a racist, sociopath security guard who is far more Travis Bickle than Paul Blart. Ronnie is the bipolar head of security at the Forest Ridge Mall, where a trench coat-wearing flasher accosts the object of Ronnies wrongheaded affection, a vapid makeup counter clerk named Brandi (brilliantly played by Anna Farris). The arrival of local, no-nonsense police detective Harrison (Ray Liotta) threatens Ronnies ego to the point that he decides to apply to become a police officer after Harrison drops Ronnie off in a deadly ghetto to fend for himself. The films title spells out in no uncertain terms the limits of authority for security guards obsessed with checking your bag and wanding your body at public entryways. The film is a take-no-prisoners satire that rises to the level of Martin Scorseses 1982 milestone "The King of Comedy." The audience is continuously kept off balance by Hills unconventional use of slapstick humor offset by straight-to-the-heart dialogue and over-the-top plotting. Rogans performance is beyond perfect, and supporting efforts by Liotta, Celia Weston and Michael Pena are spot-on. "Observe and Report" is a diabolical send up of authoritarian culture. (Warner Brothers) Rated R. 106 mins. (A )

Fast & Furious. Chris Morgan (screenwriter of "The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift”) is to blame for a script that runs more like a 70s Ford Pinto than the hopped up muscle cars burning rubber onscreen. Original cast members Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Jordana Brewster, and Michelle Rodriquez are reunited with Crayon exposition about romantic and ethical mistakes theyve made, as well as sticking plot points culled from the same coloring book. Badass undercover cop Brian OConner (Walker) is hot on the trail of an anonymous Mexican drug cartel leader who has also attracted the heat-seeking revenge of the more badass ex-con Dominic Toretto (Diesel). OConner and Toretto reluctantly team up to trap the elusive kingpin known only as Braga. The plot holes are as big as the mountain tunnel that contains two of the films less-than-satisfying car chase scenes. For such a simple action/adventure template, the filmmakers fall down on the job at every turn. Theres no sustained suspense and only a few moments of truly exciting car racing to be had in a movie with a narrative flat line that substitutes for a dramatic arc. (Universal) Rated PG-13. 107 mins. (C-)

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