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Monsters vs. Aliens
Directed by Rob Letterman and Conrad Vernon
This is an interesting release for Sacramento, for a couple of reasons. For starters, it’s set in California, with the initial action taking place in the Central Valley and the climax in San Francisco. But it’s also a bit of a departure from the established norm in this market, in that it’s being released in 3D on the giant IMAX screen on the same day as it hits the multiplexes – so you can pick your format without having to wait.

Susan (voiced by Reese Witherspoon) lives in Modesto, where she’s about to marry the local TV weatherman Derek (Paul Rudd). Derek is waiting to expand his horizons with a move to an anchor position in the larger Fresno market, but he isn’t quite ready for Susan’s expansion into giant womanhood, brought on by a direct meteor strike on their wedding day. Naturally, the newly enormous Susan is captured by the military, who house her with an odd assortment of previously found monsters, including a genius man/cockroach, an amorphous blue blob, an evolutionary missing link (Link), and a giant insect larva. The last of these is the least well developed, but also the subject of a cute running joke that has it guided around by a bright light suspended from a helicopter.

The monsters seem destined for a life of containment until a megalomaniacal alien arrives, intent on recovering the powerful substance from the meteor that has given Susan her strength and size. The basic story is very much geared towards children, with an interesting mix of animation that includes realistic objects such as chairs, tables, and machinery, but also very generically cartoony vehicles (unlike the perfect rendition of a VW Beetle in the recent “Coraline”).  

Hidden within the kids’ storyline are a few small nuggets of humor for the adults, including stabs at San Francisco’s Tenderloin district and outsourcing to India. At one point, Link ponders whether the earth has become warmer and refers to what he perceives to be a desirable warming trend as a “convenient truth.” The movie also offers some appeal to older siblings by having the President voiced by Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert – who is also in the news this week for winning the popular vote in the bid to name a room on the international space station.

“Monsters vs. Aliens” is a fun ride for younger kids, and is just amusing enough to keep the rest of the family entertained. There are several scenes that are set up to benefit from the 3D effects, but the basic appeal of the movie would be preserved in 2D. That said, some of the multiplexes have a surcharge for 3D screenings that cut the price differential compared to the IMAX – so it’s mostly a matter of taste and magnitude. (Opens March 27)

Sunshine Cleaning
Directed by Christine Jeffs
“Sunshine Cleaning” is another intriguing opening this week. When it opened in very limited release a couple of weeks ago, it generated the highest per-screen averages of any movie so far this year. And it’s easy to appreciate why when you see one of the most perfectly assembled film casts.

Rose (Amy Adams) is a single mother struggling to raise her son on her house-cleaning income. Her adulterous detective lover and ex-high school sweetheart Mac (Steve Zahn) happens to mention how lucrative the messy crime scene and death cleanup business seems, and a new startup is born. Rose enlists her less ambitious sister Norah (Emily Blunt) and leaves her son with their cranky father (Alan Arkin) as they head off to mop up blood and assorted other body fluids in a series of pungent venues.

What’s especially neat in all of this for those of us who like comparing faces and appearances, is the remarkable casting of Adams and Blunt as sisters – not just because they are such appealing and talented actresses, but because they look like they could fit into the same genes. And it works beyond just the two of them, as the rest of the family is unveiled. Zahn and Arkin are as appealing as ever. They are complemented by a wonderfully understated and physically impressive performance by Clifton Collins Jr. as Winston, the one-armed proprietor of a janitorial supply company.

Like the recent “Wendy and Lucy,” “Sunshine Cleaning” gains by the timing of its release. There’s something especially poignant in the current economic climate about a young mother juggling bills and trying to start a small business to make ends meet. And while the premise of the movie may seem conveniently contrived at first, it’s also an industry that is depressingly steady in its opportunities, and an equally steady source of both morbid comedy and genuinely touching moments – both of which provide an excellent return on investment.

“Sunshine Cleaning” is produced by the same folks who made Little Miss Sunshine, the delightful and under-appreciated “Everything is Illuminated,” and the upcoming “Is There Anybody There?” (with Michael Caine). They also have projects on the way from Sam Mendes (“American Beauty,” “Revolutionary Road”) and Philip Seymour Hoffman (in his directorial debut). That’s a pretty interesting and impressive list of projects. “Sunshine Cleaning” is a worthy and neat entry into the growing collection. (Opens March 27)


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