Review: Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (2009)
Voices of Bill Hader, Anna Faris, Neil Patrick Harris, Benjamin Bratt, Bruce Campbell, Andy Samberg, James Caan, Mr. T, and Lauren Graham. Written by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (based on a book by Judi and Ron Barrett). Directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller.

cloudy3aCloudy with a Chance of Meatballs might be the funniest movie I’ve seen this century. I have now seen it three times, and I keep finding new things to laugh about. It’s cute, smart, and clever, and its animation is sneaky terrific. It has that shiny surface a lot of recent 3D animation has, but it manages not to have just one look, at times looking like a box of Skittles and at others like a postcard from somewhere with foggy moors. I’m not exactly sure what a moor is, but I imagine a lot of damp greys.

cloudy2Like the earliest Pixar films, this picture by Sony Animation seems to be driven by a creative force that says, “What can we do that nobody’s ever done before?” This spirit permeates the animation, story, dialogue, and voice acting, as if every decision was made by a refusal to do what every audience has come to expect from any other film, or (at some of its funniest moments) doing exactly what other films do, but exaggerating them to the point of ridicule. You know those ten million other movies where a nerdy girl takes off her glasses and is suddenly stunning?  The writers in this movie do something different with that idiotic motif that makes me want to hug them.  Meatballs raining from the sky are really the least surprising thing about the movie.

The meatballs fall from the sky because Flint Lockwood, a young genius inventor, has created a machine that turns water into food. His town on a small island in the Atlantic has seen rough times after the collapse of its one-strong sardine industry. Now, since the world doesn’t like sardines anymore, the locals are forced to eat them for every meal. Flint’s idea could turn things around for his community. But as with all his inventions, something goes wrong. Unlike his previous foul-ups, this one seems pretty great. Food falls from the sky, delighting the locals and drawing the attention of a national weather channel, who sends its newest intern, Samantha Sparks, to cover the story. When things get out of hand, it’s up to Flint to save not only his town, but the whole world. He’s joined by Samantha, her cameraman, a pet monkey named Steve, and a grown man in a diaper.

cloudy1The first half of this movie is hilarious, especially for those who appreciate a clever sight gag or bit of playful dialogue. It rewards multiple viewings because there’s so much interesting stuff packed into visual and verbal presentation. I love how it doesn’t take very long to set up and gets right into the heart of the story. The second half is a bit on the wild action-adventure side, something that doesn’t thrill me much, but even in the middle of crazy stunts and heroic sequences, there is a clever, creative touch.

It’s a very good film. I wouldn’t put it up there with the greats because it either shoots for the heart and is off by a little, or it never really wants to go there. Not every animated movie can be Beauty and the Beast, and that’s okay. It’s more than enough as an exercise in super-creative silliness, and it is the first movie to make me regret not seeing it in 3D on a big screen. I’m probably going to have to buy this.

8/10
87/100

Friday 5: Celluloid Heroes

From here.

  1. What movie most recently impressed you with its score or soundtrack?
    Last year’s Oscar-winner for best score was Ennio Morricone’s beautiful work on The Hateful 8, and I was pleased that it was recognized.  I was sure Star Wars: The Force Awakens was going to get the award, and it was certainly worthy, but Morricone’s was slightly more memorable.
  2. What movie most recently impressed you with its costumes or makeup?
    The costumes in Mean Girls, which I saw recently for the first time, were really creative and interesting.  You could tell the costume designer had a lot of fun dressing up these four pretty actresses.  Honorable shout-out to Captain America: Civil War.
  3. What movie most recently impressed you with its scenic backdrops?
    Strangely, it might have to be Pali Road, a film I disliked.  It’s filmed in Hawaii, and at first the scenery is the usual Hawaii stuff.  Beaches, mountains, greenery, oceans.  But then it takes us to some less picturesque locations that residents will recognize, if not for their exact spots, for their everyday Hawaii-ness.  It’s a film that looks like home.  A pretty crappy film that looks like home.
  4. What movie most recently impressed you with its originality?
    I’m going with Inside Out, although the case could be made for Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.  The very concept of a children’s movie about emotions personified is so huge and unreal that its making it to screen is impressive enough.  But not only does it exist, it works in ways that hadn’t been invented yet.  Pixar didn’t just create a movie whose technology hadn’t been seen before (as is the case with just about every Pixar movie); it may have created a movie whose characters, themes, and plot devices hadn’t been seen before.  It’s just an amazing piece of film.
  5. What movie most recently impressed you with its dialogue?
    There’s a scene in Hail, Caesar! where Alden Ehrenreich (the future-and-past Han Solo) and Ralph Fiennes do the old “repeat after me” gag that had me nearly in tears, it was so well done.  It wasn’t the most creative dialogue — I mean, it was basically the same line said over and over — but it was so well delivered I may have sprayed iced tea all over myself.  That was just one scene, though.  For a whole movie of impressive dialogue, a recent rewatching of Chasing Amy was a nice reminder of how good Kevin Smith is.

Review: Midnight Cowboy

Midnight Cowboy (1969)
Jon Voigt, Dustin Hoffman. Written by Waldo Salt (based on a novel by James Leo Herlihy). Directed by John Schlesinger.

Before this week, these are the things I knew about Midnight Cowboy:

  • midcow1
    Hey! They’re walking here!

    Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voigt are in it, although I wouldn’t recognize Jon Voigt because I only know what he looks like today.

  • ”Hey! I’m walking here!”
  • ”Everybody’s Talkin’,” a song performed by Nilsson, is in it. And before two weeks ago, I knew the song but didn’t know it had anything to do with this film. Tony Kornheiser featured it on his podcast during the Old Guy Radio segment.
  • At the end of the Seinfeld episode with the mom-and-pop store, Kramer and Jerry get on a bus for New Jersey. Kramer’s nose starts to bleed, and he says, “Look at me; I’m falling apart here.” Jerry puts his arms around Kramer while “Everybody’s Talkin’” plays and the closing credits roll. I hadn’t made the connection between the song and this scene until last week, but I had a vague idea that this was a parody of Midnight Cowboy.
  • It was the only film rated X by the MPAA to win a Best Picture Oscar.
  • On the original (1998) AFI 100 Films list, it was ranked 36; on the updated list in 2007, it was ranked 43.
  • It’s been in the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die books; I don’t know if it’s in the most recent (2016) book.

midcow2That’s a lot more than I thought I knew about it, but for such a decorated, celebrated film, it still feels almost like nothing. I had no idea who the actors played and I didn’t know the first thing about the story. So I went in about as cold as I ever do.

I can see why it’s something that sticks in people’s brains. The performances by Hoffman and Voigt are strong. The cinematography is gritty, grimy, dark, bright, and warm, a look I associate with the great films of the 1970s. It looks like a film that should be on the AFI list.

midcow3But man, the material just isn’t good enough. It’s clear that we have a film about how two guys become friends, but there are a couple of leaps in the development of their relationship that don’t make any sense. I’d be (mostly) okay with this if there was more story, but the way the story plays out doesn’t warrant fast-forwarding through our sense of what each man means to the other. Flashbacks and fantasy shots give us an inside look at backstory and characters’ thoughts, but they don’t do anything meaningful. I’m not totally sure why the film was rated X (the rating has since been changed to R), but I suspect there are dark, sinister things going on in those flashbacks, only I can’t say what, because I don’t understand much of what I saw.

Anyway, who would have guessed that young Jon Voigt was kind of a poor man’s Robert Redford? This is my biggest takeaway: that Voigt is an actor whose early work may be worth a look. Hoffman is solid in a Hoffman-like way, but that’s no surprise, and honestly, I don’t know that I would put this in my top five Hoffman roles.

While I don’t see this as essential viewing, it’s worth checking out, if only for some cultural literacy.

6/10
60/100

Dustin Hoffman Films I’ve Seen, Ranked

I guess I haven’t seen as many as I thought I have. Titles are divided in tiers. Something like very good, good, okie-dokie, and just north of bad.

hoffmanAll the President’s Men (1976)
Rainman (1988)
Stranger than Fiction (2006)

Tootsie (1982)
Barney’s Version (2010)

Kung Fu Panda (2008)
Hero (1992)
The Graduate (1967)
Midnight Cowboy (1969)

Outbreak (1995)
Wag the Dog (1997)

Review: Stripes

Stripes (1981)
Bill Murray, Harold Ramis, P. J. Soles, Sean Young, John Larroquette, John Candy, Judge Reinhold. Written by Len Blum, Harold Ramis, and Daniel Goldberg. Directed by Ivan Reitman.

stripes1I’ve finally seen the supposedly legendary Stripes, a film that in 1981 won my high-school newspaper’s back-to-school survey asking for the best film of the summer. It beat out my favorite from that summer, Raiders of the Lost Ark. Bill Murray is in some of my favorite movies of all time, including Lost in Translation and Groundhog Day, but Stripes reminds me of a classic Murray line from another beloved project with costar Harold Ramis and director Ivan Reitman: “Okay. So she’s a dog!”

This movie was more popular with my schoolmates than Raiders of the Lost Ark? Who in the world did I go to school with?

It’s a barely decent screwball comedy. Murray plays John Ringer, kind of a slacker amateur photographer who convinces his best friend Russell Ziskey (Ramis) to enlist in the army with him. They bump heads with their drill sergeant and they bump other body parts with attractive MPs (P. J. Soles and Sean Young), somehow bonding with the others in their platoon as they survive basic training.

stripes2Nothing in the plot is remotely believable, but there are some good laughs because while the story they inhabit is ridiculous, the actors behave with earnestness and sincerity, and because they are talented comic actors, humor emerges anyway, and this is the movie’s one strength.

Murray does something better than almost any other screwball actor I’ve seen. He ties himself to another character like a kite on a string, so that he can dip, dive, and spin according to his creative whim while maintaining a grip on reality, such as it exists in a given film. He told Ivan Reitman while the film was casting that he would do the role if Reitman would cast Ramis in the other part, and you can see why. There is an obvious trust, not only between their characters but between the actors as well, and we the audience can believe in Ringer enough to laugh with him, because Ziskey so convincingly believes him too.

stripes3The acting is excellent almost all around. John Candy as Ox is sincere and sweet, and John Larroquette has a few moments that should have been throwaways, but he adds convincing touches that make him somehow almost real even though nothing his character does is remotely real.

The romance in this story is preposterous, excused perhaps only because the love interests are pretty, and the actresses know their stuff. The entire third act is outlandish and dull. In fact, just about every decision in this film after the first act is wrongheaded, including the stupid spinning magazine covers that tell us what happens to our characters later, and the idiot Czech soldiers at the border. I’m not even a fan of the iconic drill routine at the platoon’s graduation.

There is one film-saving moment in the middle, when Ziskey and Ringer get into a fight while Ringer attempts a desertion, a reminder that amidst all of this stupidity is being held up solely by some really good actors who somehow take this stupid plot seriously.

stripes4The DVD I watched had an extended version, with several deleted scenes placed where they were originally intended. Most of them are easy cutting-room decisions, but there is a moment, when Ringer is making the case for enlisting, when he straightens up and tells Ziskey, “I’m falling apart here.” Almost everything you need to know about how in the world this movie manages to be watchable is in these few seconds. Murray and Ramis don’t just show up and go wild. There’s acting going on here, real acting that perhaps performers in these kinds of films don’t get enough credit for, and I wish this moment had been left in. It’s a great reminder of how special even the stupidest comedy can be when actors like this know what to do with it.

This is a mostly terrible movie with a great cast.

5/10
47/100

Review: Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates

Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates (2016)
Anna Kendrick, Aubrey Plaza, Adam DeVine, Zac Effron. Directed by Jake Szymanski.

mandd1If you can’t disconnect your brain and just enjoy four good actors being goofy and stupid, there’s really no way to appreciate a film like Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates, unless, like me, you are a deep admirer of the actors themselves. My fan-love for Anna Kendrick and Aubrey Plaza is so deep that it almost doesn’t matter what the film is, and I know for certain that many people feel this way about Zac Efron.  A movie like this isn’t so much a story as a witness to an execution of comedic over-the-top acting chops, if there is such a thing, and if you can appreciate Anna Kendrick sobbing her poor young heart out while George Clooney awkwardly pretends to sympathize in an Oscar-nominated performance in Up in the Air, why not go along in the opposite direction as she shares a bunch of MDMA with the bride the night before a wedding, and then takes her clothes off so she can cavort with a corral of hotel-owned horses she decides to set free?

mandd3Adam DeVine and Zac Effron are Mike and Dave, two idiot brothers whose younger sister is about to be wed. They’re warned by their family—the bride included—that they are expected to have dates for this wedding, because they have a history of coming to family events stag, and then embarrassing everyone with life-endangering stunts and guest-insulting flirtation. The family hopes that dates will keep the young men in line. Because they’re idiot horndogs, at first they resist, but because they love their sister (nearly as much as they appear to love each other), they acquiesce, putting an ad on Craigslist, searching for dates to the Hawaii wedding.

mandd2The Hawaii part of the deal inspires a lot of responses, as well as an appearance on The Wendy Williams Show where Tatiana (Aubrey Plaza) and Alice (Anna Kendrick) see them. The ladies are having problems. Alice, recently abandoned at the altar, repeatedly shows up for her waitressing job drunk. Tatiana, her best friend, joins Anna in her drunkenness, and they are both fired. A trip to Hawaii could help them reset their lives, so they make up fake identities, Tatiana declaring she’s a teacher, and Alice claiming to be a hedge-fund manager. Just the sort of nice girls Mike and Dave know will please their family.

My friend Dawn (holding the drink) is an extra in several scenes.  Another reason to see this film.
My friend Dawn (holding the drink) is an extra in several scenes. Another reason to see this film.

All that setup seems unnecessary for a pretty thin story, but I suspect it serves to loosen a viewer’s brain, a kind of focused stretching before a basketball game. First, get to like the characters, understanding that they’re basically nice people, if stupid and misguided. Then, get used to the possibility that their likeable stupidity means they are about to do some really stupid, unbelievable stuff for the sole purpose of making you laugh, or (alternately) be reminded that Kendrick and Plaza are super cute, and that Effron is a hunk. You paid for the rental; you might as well stick around for that.

This is the second Kendrick-Plaza movie and the third Kendrick-DeVine movie, and these are good team-ups, and this is where the film mostly works, because goodness knows there aren’t a lot of genuine laughs. The hope that there might be some singing, with three of the four principals starring in hugely successful musical projects, might be another appeal, and some of that is delivered as well. There’s a happy pleasure in seeing this young talent get a little crazy and have fun, and if one can forgive the characters for promising more than they deliver, shallowly motivated by a trip to Hawaii, one can certainly excuse the actors for doing the same thing.

5/10
51/100

PS: This is not Pitch Perfect or High School Musical. Screen it before you watch it with your kids.

The Star Trek Films Ranked

From best to worst.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn (1982)
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986)
Star Trek (2009)
Star Trek: First Contact (1996)

Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)
Star Trek Beyond (2016)
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)
Star Trek: Insurrection (1998)
Star Trek: Nemesis (2002)

Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984) (pretty bad)
Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989) (bad)
Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) (the only one that’s truly awful)

I haven’t seen Star Trek: Generations (1994). It’s at the top of the queue.

Review: Star Trek Beyond

Star Trek Beyond (2016)
Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Simon Pegg, Zoe Saldana, John Cho, Karl Urban, Anton Yelchin, Sofia Boutella, Idris Elba. Written by Simon Pegg and Doug Jung. Directed by Justin Lin.

beyond1James Kirk and the crew of the Enterprise travel into an unstable nebula to help the captain of a disabled starship recover her crew. Things go horribly wrong, the crew is forced to abandon ship, the officers are separated by circumstances into pairs, a new ally is encountered, new enemies announce themselves, and everyone including thousands of people living on a brand-new space station is threatened by a horrible bio-weapon.

beyond3The Star Trek people are just crushing it with this reboot film series. These new stories, this new cast, and the new look and feel of the Enterprise combine to make some of the best escapist sci-fi I’ve ever seen. The films build upon the good feelings people already have for Captain Kirk and his crew, so that even while we’re watching new actors in old roles, everything feels fresh and familiar, rather than recycled or tired. The characters’ new facets feel exactly right, either because of underexplored elements from earlier work—such as Uhura’s relationship with Spock, slightly teased in the first few episodes of the classic television series—or because of new knowledge about the overall Star Trek universe, as when Sulu’s homosexual relationship pays tribute to original Sulu actor George Takei.

beyond2I’m not even a real Trekker, but my affection for the characters is so strong (and honestly, I don’t know where this came from) that when Kirk addresses his crew at the outset of a journey into uncharted space, he says, “The Enterprise has something no other ship in the fleet has: you,” and it’s a touching and inspiring moment. This dependence on his crew, and its members’ dependence upon one another, is a recurring theme. As the movie progresses, different combinations of crew members drive home the message that they respect, admire, love, and count on each other, and that this is why Enterprise has endured for these many decades. Add the real-life death of actors Leonard Nimoy and Anton Yelchin, whose Checkov will not be recast in future films, and a lovely voiceover on the “Space: the final frontier” intro, and it’s nearly impossible not to feel a warm nostalgia or an almost urgent desire to see more films with this cast.

beyond4The Chris-Pine-Zachary-Quinto partnership is again excellent here, but there are also great scenes with Quinto and Karl Urban, Pine and Yelchin, and Simon Pegg with Sofia Boutella, who plays a crash survivor joining the Enterprise crew against its current enemy. But props to the whole cast, every one of whom (except maybe Idris Elba) does a terrific job. Star Trek movies never get their due during awards season, but I will be royally peeved if there isn’t an ensemble nomination somewhere this time around.

8/10
82/100

Review: Song of the Sea

Song of the Sea (2014)
Voices of Brendan Gleeson, David Rawle, and Fionnula Flanagan. Written by Will Collins. Directed by Tomm Moore.

sots1Ben is resentful of his little sister Saoirse, who still cannot speak at the age of six and who is little more than a thorn in his side.  His father and grandmother are of very little comfort, and it seems all Ben has are the stories his mother told him when he was younger. Sometimes, Ben shares these stories with Saoirse, more to frighten her than encourage her, but these legends of Ireland seem to resonate with Saoirse even more meaningfully than they do Ben.

sots2Song of the Sea has a lot in common with the earlier film by Tomm Moore, The Secret of Kells. Both are rich with the folklore of Ireland, both are highlighted by beautiful artwork and music, and both reach into the sensitivities of their young audiences, touching on cultural identity and familial loss. Maybe it doesn’t take as much courage as I imagine for a storyteller to wriggle into those spaces where children are vulnerable, but I find it admirable when he or she executes it in non-gratuitous, effective ways. The sentiments are so genuine that I would caution parents to screen this film first before deciding whether their children are emotionally equipped to handle its themes.

sots3The story, art, and larger themes are perhaps just a click or two below The Secret of Kells, but Song of the Sea spends more time than its predecessor on character development, offering a slightly more satisfying experience. This may be nitpicking, though, because both are lovely to look at, although this film is a lot cutesier, which may be an improvement or not.

I like it.

7/10
73/100

Review: New York, I Love You

New York, I Love You (2008)
Hayden Christensen, Andy Garcia, Rachel Bilson, Natalie Portman, Irrfan Khan, Orlando Bloom, Christina Ricci, Maggie Q, Ethan Hawke, Chris Cooper, Robin Wright, Anton Yelchin, James Caan, Olivia Thirlby, Blake Lively, Bradley Cooper, Drea de Matteo, Julie Christie, John Hurt, Shia LaBeouf, Burt Young, Shu Qi, and a few others. Directed by Jiang Wen, Mira Nair, Shunji Iwai, Yvan Attal, Brett Ratner, Allen Hughes, Shekhar Kapur, Natalie Portman, Fatih Akin, and Joshua Marston.

nyily2New York, I Love You is the second (of three, so far) in the Cities of Love series, preceded memorably by Paris, je t’aime and succeeded forgettably by Rio, I Love You. It is a good place for it in the chronological order, for if the series ends now, it will be the little downward-pointing bridge between the first and third films, the down staircase in the devolution of a great idea.

nyily1The concept of several short films by different directors, featuring different actors, with the loosely unifying theme of love is translocated to another great city that celebrates and destroys love in all its shapes and colors: New York, where there is a broken heart for every light, and all that. Although I’m about as personally knowledgeable about the Big Apple as I am the City of Lights, because I’m an American and I’ve seen a movie or two, I feel qualified to say that the stories in the first film seem to have emerged from the Paris’s many alleys and stages, while the stories in this second installment could have taken place in almost any city in the country.

nyily3This is a huge disappointment that could have been allayed by vignettes that deliver the promised goods. And they give it a good shot. Consider:

  • A Hasidic jeweler (Natalie Portman) and an Indian diamond merchant exchange barbs about the product they’re about to buy and sell, a give-and-take that leads to complaints about their respective religions and an unspoken sympathy.
  • A film composer (Orlando Bloom) works against a deadline, but the film’s director demands he read Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment for inspiration before he puts the music together. He complains to the director’s assistant (Christina Ricci), who offers support, and he is too stressed to receive it as anything more than the gesture of a sympathetic co-worker.
  • Ethan Hawke, playing whatever you’d call the opposite of against type, puts moves on a beautiful Maggie Q, who is unimpressed while Hawke explains what he would do to rock her world.
  • Robin Wright steps out of the restaurant where she’s dining with her husband. She bums a cigarette from Chris Cooper, standing on the sidewalk outside. She complains about all the ways marriage has become a disappointment, comparing it with the excitement of one-night stands.

nyily4There’s a lot of potential here, and while the majority of the eleven short films is fairly satisfying, none inspires a real wow, none really hits you in the gut in the manner of several chapters in Paris, je t’aime.  A few, like the Hasidic jeweler scene and a Fatih Akin scene involving an aging painter and a Chinese herbalist, deliver some nice, romantic arrows to the heart, but most don’t swing hard enough for the fences, eliciting more of a “that’s nice” than a “holy moly.”

I don’t fault the actors, most of whom find some really good notes in their short times on screen. I especially like Robin Wright, Chris Cooper, and Julie Christie as an aging actress visiting an old hotel whose young bellboy (Shia LaBeouf) may have a crush on her, ‘though it would be tough to find a bad performance anywhere in this.  Maybe Hayden Christensen and maybe Orlando Bloom are less than inspiring, but nobody sucks.

It’s unlikely anyone will hate this film, but not many will love it, the way they might love Paris, je t’aime. That’s a lot more than can be said for the film that follows, so it may be worth a look. I’ve spent far worse Tuesday evenings, like the Tuesday evening I watched Rio, I Love You.

6/10
68/100