Spaced out

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Let’s set things straight at the top of this review: though it stars the duo behind the much-loved genre send-ups of cops (“Hot Fuzz”) and zombies (“Shaun of the Dead”), do not expect the exact same payoff for their latest outing, “Paul.”

“Paul’s” leads Simon Pegg and Nick Frost still posesses the same chemistry that helped cement “Shaun” and “Fuzz” in the modern comedic pantheon, but the addition of director Greg Mattola alters the equation. It’s not for the better or worse, he just brings with him a style that changes the scope, cadance and rhythm.

Science fiction and road movies are the genres up for ribbing in “Paul.” Pegg and Frost are Graeme and Clive, two good-natured nerds who are living their dream of attending Comic-Con, followed by a chaser of RV travels through alien “hotspots” throughout the Midwest. It starts off rather timid, as though Pegg and Frost (who also wrote the screenplay), were almost too cautious to sting the very crowd who bestow geek love on the pair in real life.

But the numerous obvious gags soon fade away once “Paul’s” eponymous star takes center stage, and things really ramp up. Voiced by Seth Rogan (and, for all intents and purposes’ is almost every Rogan comedic character), Paul is the stoner’s “E.T.” He’s randy (not above “pressing ham” against the car window), ribald, and does not need a spacecraft to “blast off.” In “Shaun” and “Fuzz,” both leads were at odds with one another, but are best pals here, so when Paul arrives, he delivers some much-needed conflict. And Rogan, content with becoming the Cheech Marin of this generation does more than his share to help stir the pot.

The film takes all the obvious routes — from eluding inept-but-persistent Feds and covert officers (Bill Hader and Joe Truglio, the former, and Jason Bateman, the latter), Paul’s ability to regenerate and heal with touch, but it does so with such affection for its source material (“Close Encounters,” “E.T.,” “Alien” etc.), it makes these scenes fresh with a knowing wink and grin.

For lovers of the genre, there are countless in-jokes peppered throughout to satisfy, and director Mottola manages to ground the film, even considering the film’s outlandish subject matter. The director, who helmed the sweetly nostalgic “Adventureland,” brings the same delicate focus on friendship and makeshift family.

Perhaps because the film is more singularly focused (the Speilbergian Mythology of aliens is the one to which this film most closely aligns), many may fault “Paul” for not broadening its net as widely as Pegg and Frost did with “Shaun” and “Fuzz.” But all feels right in “Paul’s” universe, right down to its final scene that is as touching as it is amusing.
“Paul” is a head trip with spaceships, and is accessible enough to let everyone on board to enjoy the ride.

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Just say ‘no’ (unless it’s on cable)

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Like those little bottles of 5-hour energy boosts found at the convenience store, the drug NZT promises not only the caffeinated rush, but the temporary mental clarity to solve life’s more complex puzzles like the stock market or the popularity of Ke$ha.

It is the (fictional) drug of choice for Eddie (played by Bradley Cooper), a slovenly writer spiraling into a cocoon of self-loathing. When he stumbles into his former brother-in-law, he is introduced to this brain-broadening pill, which tickles his lobes in ways he never thought possible.

Instantly, he completes his long-gestating novel, decoded more secrets than Dan Brown, and decides to party like a rock star on Wall Street. He’s also popping the drug like Skittles and is given access to only a limited supply (hence the ironic title). The film sets up such a dizzying premise (both narratively and visually), that it’s not only Eddie who suffers the drug’s side effects, but the film itself.

It’s the whole “what would you do if you won the lottery” scenario, amplified by the fact that it’s internal knowledge and not just material wealth that is unlocked — a thought that holds much more promise. Add to all this that his Stephen Hawking mind is in a Bradley Cooper body, and the possibilities seem, well…

Director Neil Burger teases us early with heady camerawork, depicting this lucid world in which Eddie’s mind now rests, sweeping Google Earth and Street views that whoosh the audience through his accelerated thoughts. And had he stayed with Eddie’s wrestling with such newfound powers, this would have been a slick slice of B-grade sci-fi. But Burger tosses in random Russian mobsters, a barely there murder investigation, and shadowy assassins that cloud up this tale of mental clarity.

Robert DeNiro fits into things as well as a smug power broker, but as with most his work as of late, is in a role well beneath his talents. His connection is just one of many the film tries to thread in order to heighten a sense of paranoia throughout. The resulting car chases and street fights seem aimed at appealing to the mouth-breathers in the audience on which this drug would most likely have little effect.

The result is Burger dumbing down a tale of heightened intelligence, and the tempoary buzz felt within the first few scenes of the film quickly wears off, leaving us with side effects of mediocrity.

‘Cleveland Steamer:The Movie’

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Dragons, zombie Nazis, faceless robots, orcs, towering samurai, scantily clad babes with guns: “Sucker Punch” is like a byproduct of some of fanboy focus group.

It’s as though director Zack Snyder simply plucked items off the shelves of better films and stuck them in his cart. And his script has all the depth and excitement of a shopping list.

Baby Doll (played by Emily Browning) suffers the loss of her mother, and, in an attempt to free her sister and herself from the grimy hands of her abusive stepfather, she gets shipped to an equally grimy mental institution where, presumably, only hot chicks are kept (Randall McMurphy would have had a field day).While there, she escapes into a fantasy world in which she and the other patients “empower” themselves as slutty dancers on a stage.

But Snyder, who has gained credibility with “300” and “Watchmen,” can’t let it rest there, for that would only give audiences some unholy union of “Burlesque” and “Girl, Interrupted.” So he dog piles on the aforementioned fantasy tangents into which the women retreat while “dancing,” making the whole thing into some mythical quest of epic proportions.

And by “mythical quest” I mean “catastrophic suck-fest.”

I know the whole film exists to satiate the pubescent heterosexual male moviegoers, but I was raised on the same diet of film, videogames and raging hormones, so I’m no stranger to the culture. But “Punch” never fully delivers on any of its tawdry teases, and its rallying cries of girl power are questionable at best.

Ms. Doll is joined by Blondie (played by Vanessa Hudgens), Amber (played by Jamie Chung), and sisters Sweet Pea (played by Abbie Cornish) and Rocket (played by Jena Malone). None of them is really distinguishable from the next, and all are equally expendable, as co-writer Snyder presents them. They must obtain several objects around the asylumn/strip club to enable their escape, all under the guidance of a supposed Zen master (played by Scott Glenn) who posesses all the wisdom of a stale fortune cookie.

Each object carries with it a mission to faraway lands, which just gives Snyder a chance to (over-)use his friend the green screen. None of the lands are terribly engaging, since Snyder is more focued on finding obscure angles at which he can place his camera and provide more slow-motion than a sports highlight reel. And since we know these worlds are only to be occupied for a short period of time, they carry zero opportunity for audience involvement.

In fact, since the whole premise is merely a dream (relax, “Inception” junkies, that film explored the parameters of dreams, not just have characters slip in and out of them), it’s difficult to invest fleeting attention to the action.

“Sucker Punch” is merely a lap dance of a movie, it flirts, teases and promises, only to vanish the moments after it has your money.

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