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By Michael Calleri

In "Rango," the water is disappearing from the Old West town of Dirt. Over the course of this fresh comic movie, a quartet of owls, under the guise of a mariachi band, will lead you through a zany story that would have made the Marx Brothers proud.

The chameleon-like actor Johnny Depp is the voice of a lizard named Rango. This is just the beginning. You just might cheer for the streak of wildness in this new and thoroughly delightful animated feature.

What I especially like about "Rango" is that it is wonderfully off-kilter. Depp brings his trademark gonzo energy to the role of a chameleon who finds himself chosen to be the sheriff of a dusty 19th-century town, which faces typical dusty old town problems. The somnambulant "The Tourist" was an anomaly for the rarely boring Depp.

Gore Verbinski (Depp's sympathetic director of the "Pirates Of The Caribbean" series) and his screenwriter, John Logan, have delivered a motion picture that satirizes popular films, including, but not limited to, "High Noon," "Cat Ballou," "Chinatown," "The Shakiest Gun In The West," and "Gladiator." This is one of those animation fiestas that adults may well enjoy more than children. But any kid who is savvy enough to appreciate the concept of spoofs should find merriment in "Rango."

The movie opens with a scene that defies convention. Picture a lizard in an aquarium creating a tableau with a toy fish and a Barbie doll. In one of those serendipitous moments that turn average films into adventurous delights, Rango finds himself getting advice from an armadillo who directs him to Dirt, where all manner of reptiles live and work, including the mayor, a dastardly turtle who controls the water supply.

Eventually, the anticipated norms we expect from Westerns -- the lawless town, the greenhorn sheriff -- become part of the story, but with delirious twists. In addition to Depp, you'll hear the voices of Alfred Molina, Ned Beatty, Harry Dean Stanton, Abigail Breslin, Timothy Olyphant, Isla Fisher, and Bill Nighy.

The photorealistic animation is from Industrial Light And Magic, and it's crisp and colorful and delivers sight gags galore. As we slowly emerge from our winter wrangling, there's a new kid in town who's ready to walk us into early hints of warmth. With a spring in his step and a willingness to challenge the odds, the chameleon Rango is a welcome surprise for any moviegoer.

"Cedar Rapids" is one of those off-beat, slice-of-life features that succeeds only if we genuinely appreciate and enjoy its characters' foibles. The story is simple. A group of average Midwestern Americans heads to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, which is as middle as middle America gets. They're attending a convention of insurance agents.

At the convention, they will make new friends, party late into the night, and discover a few things about themselves. A film like this succeeds on the strength of the chemistry of the varied personalities on view. Fortunately, director Miquel Arteta and screenwriter Phil Johnston have a keen understanding of how the middle-class thinks and talks.

Arteta is a master at showing us how real people communicate and react to unexpected situations. His most important pictures are "Star Maps," "Chuck And Buck," and "The Good Girl," which showcases the best movie performance Jennifer Aniston has ever given.

Although there is some strong humor in the dialogue and situations, "Cedar Rapids" doesn't quite achieve complete excellence. It isn't as good as one of those Christopher Guest pictures about ordinary folks trying to break out of the crowd, especially the dog show comedy "Best In Show."

But "Cedar Rapids" is a good enough comedy to be worth your time. The fine cast is led by an enjoyable Ed Helms as a man for whom every new thing is an experience to be enjoyed. For him, even airport security is a thrill. Also along for the ride are John C. Reilly, Anne Heche, and Sigourney Weaver, as a grade school teacher who never forgets a student.

This is a movie that doesn't shine a harsh light on people's quirks. Instead, it celebrates everyone's unique qualities. And it makes you laugh while doing so.

"The Adjustment Bureau" is yet another alternate reality movie that slowly falls apart because it isn't really about smart ideas but is instead about the notion of smart ideas. It thinks it's clever, but it's boring. Call it "Inception"-lite.

Somewhere out there is a Force that controls human destiny. If a wrong decision is pondered, then our life-plan might be altered. This is not allowed. Enter the minions of the Force, who are a bunch of dull men whose task it is to stop wrong things from happening. As I sat in the theater, I was hoping they would shorten the film, but that didn't occur.

The gents, all shiny suits and fedoras, look like extras from the "Mad Men" television show. The Force's dull thugs, including Anthony Mackie and John Slattery, who actually is on "Mad Men, will zero in on a disgraced politician, played by a pudgy Matt Damon, whose pixie-like smile is still omnipresent. However, a chubby Damon is not all that appealing. In scenes where he's called upon to run from the Force, he actually waddles out-of-breath. And no, this isn't acting on Damon's part. He's 40 years old, and he's starting to be too old and out-of-shape to play the boyish ingenue.

The thrust of "The Adjustment Bureau" is that Damon will meet a female ballet dancer, a dull Emily Blunt, in a hotel men's room. Don't ask why she's there; the entire movie's like this. He falls in love with her, but the Force doesn't want the love to take root because that's not the life-plan for Damon. Ultimately, Terence Stamp will show up as the leader of the minions to make decisions for everyone involved in this dreary effort. Frankly, he needn't have, because Damon and Blunt have no chemistry.

Writer-director George Nolfi's weak screenplay is loosely based on a short story by Philip K. Dick. He should have stuck to the original.

E-mail Michael Calleri at michaelcallerimoviesnfr@yahoo.com.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com March 8, 2011