Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (***1/2)

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. 82 mins. PG. Written and Directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller. Starring the voices of Bill Hader, Anna Faris, Neil Patrick Harris, Bruce Campbell, Andy Samberg, James Caan, and Mr. T.

I never read the beloved children's book that the movie is based on, but as written and directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller (two writing vets of How I Met Your Mother), Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs is a rollicking delight for both kids and adults. It's one of the more successful non-Pixar animated movies of late mostly due to the script and voicework. When inventor Flint Lockwood (Bill Hader) invents a device that turns water into food, his sardine-loving town has all kinds of delicious food fall from the sky. Lockwood's invention was supposed to end world hunger, but problems develop when the town denizens start overeating. The visuals, as rendered in Digital 3D, are gloriously yummy and the comedy is smart and quick. There's great use of running jokes and call-backs, and if you're a fan of How I Met Your Mother (I am), you'll enjoy the comedic tone sustained throughout. Hader and Faris are great as Lockwood and his weather gal squeeze, but NPH steals the show as a monkey whose thoughts are made audible by one of Lockwood's inventions. Cloudy manages to execute this concept much better than Up did, with its Dug the dog character. The movie nearly wears out its welcome toward the end when the action ramps up and takes over, but the movie is so short and it's earned enough goodwill up to then that you don't really care. I'd recommend checking it out in 3D, and kids or no kids, it's worth seeing.

- John

The Informant (***)

The Informant. 108 mins. PG-13. Directed by Steven Soderbergh. Written by Scott Z. Burns. Starring Matt Damon, Joel McHale, Scott Bakula, and Melanie Lynskey.

Director Steven Soderbergh can be hit and miss, and, for better or worse, you never know what you're going to get with him. The Informant! falls on the good side of the line. It's a quirky little comedy, anchored by a great lead performance from Matt Damon. Based on a true story, Damon plays the title informant, Mark Whitacre, an executive at Archer Midland Daniels, who blows the whistle on a price fixing scheme in the mid-90s. The set-up is like Michael Mann's The Insider, but the execution is about 180 degrees different. As if the exclamation point in the title didn't give it away, The Informant! is a comedy, and Soderbergh stages the proceedings with deadpan silliness, backing it up with a goofy musical score by Marvin Hamlisch that amuses as much as it distracts. Whitacre's story unfolds in cascading waves of ridiculousness, springing from the fact that Whitacre has bi-polar disorder. He makes things up as he goes along and nothing he says can really be trusted. In a clever use of narration, the audience gets random samplings of Whitacre's thought process throughout. The Informant! draws chuckles but it's not hilarious, and even though Soderbergh and Damon are more than game, the movie never quite sweeps the audience up in its story. Perhaps that's because, like Whitacre himself, everything is a little off, a little screwy. Still, it's a decent effort and worth checking out on DVD if you can't make it to the theater.

- John

Jennifer's Body (*)

Jennifer's Body. 102 mins. R. Directed by Karyn Kusama. Written by Diablo Cody. Starring Megan Fox, Amanda Seyfried, and Adam Brody.

Talk about a sophmore slump. Expectations were high for Diablo Cody's follow-up to Juno, but Jennifer's Body is DOA. It's a complete misfire from start to finish - almost nothing works. Having read some interviews with Cody, it's clear she was aiming for a horror comedy in the vein of Heathers, but Jennifer's Body doesn't even come close. It's neither funny, nor scary. Yes, there is some gore and plenty of blood to go around, but the tone of the movie as well as the direction by Girlfight director Karyn Kusama is a chaotic mess. Megan Fox plays Jennifer, the hottie popular girl in high school who, after a tragic run-in with a satanic emo band (yes, you read that right), turns into a demon and starts eating every boy she can. This doesn't sit well with best friend Needy (Big Love's Amanda Seyfried, whose talent is wasted here), especially when Jennifer targets Needy's boyfriend. Catfight alert! I really wanted to like this movie, but quickly grew impatient with the lack of competence and Megan Fox's "acting." She sucks, and so does the movie. Despite its pedigree, Jennifer's Body is nowhere near as clever as it thinks it is, and fails to achieve even it's modest feminist horror comedy aspirations. At 102 minutes, it feels much longer than it actually is. If you're looking for a fun scare flick, you'd be better off skipping Jennifer's Body and going to see Sorority Row instead.

- John

Sorority Row (***)

Sorority Row. 100 mins. R. Directed by Stewart Hendler. Written by Josh Stolberg & Pete Goldfinger. Starring Leah Pipes, Briana Evigan, Margo Harshman, Rumer Willis, and Carrie Fisher.

Sorority Row is enjoyable trash. It's a surprisingly effective guilty pleasure horror movie that delivers what it needs to, no more, no less. A loose remake of The House on Sorority Row, this new film concerns a group of supposedly tight-knit sorority sisters who devise a prank that goes horribly wrong and results in murder. To avoid ruining the rest of their oh-so-promising lives, the sisters cover it up and swear each other to secrecy. 8 months later, on the eve of graduation, their past catches up with them as there's a killer on the loose who is targeting each of them. Is it the girl they accidentally killed? Her sister? A boyfriend? The possibilities are endless and purposefully kept vague. The joys to be had here are not in finding out who's the killer (lame), but in the bitchy-silly dialogue and the well-staged scare scenes that achieve a decent amount of tension. The acting is horrible, but director Stewart Hendler certainly does his job, particularly with an impressive opening one-take party sequence that recalls the beginning of Boogie Nights. There is nothing new in Sorority Row - it's basically just another version of I Know What You Did Last Summer - but it's a fun flick and recommended for Friday night viewings.

- John

9 (***)

9. 89 mins. PG-13. Directed by Shane Acker. Written by Pamela Pettler. Starring the voices of Elijah Wood, Jennifer Connelly, John C. Reilly, Martin Landau, and Christopher Plummer.

9 is a decidedly adult animated movie that, though thrilling to look at sometimes, is hampered by a bare-bones story and lazy voice work from the actors. It tells the tale of a post-apocalyptic future, where mechanical burlap sack creations are left to fend for themselves against evil robots. The human race is extinct and all hope is lost. When the main character, 9, finds a mysterious bottle cap and sets off a whole new wave of evil robots, it's up to him and his other lower-numbered burlap sack buddies to stay alive and bring the robots down. The movie is based on a short animated film from director Shane Acker, and though I haven't seen it, I understand that there is no dialogue in the short. I think the movie would have been better served by the same tactic. The dialogue here is clunky and only serves to distract from some amazing visuals. I like the world Acker and his crew have created, and the movie's tone strikes appropriate notes of darkness and depression. Overall, I appreciated the imagination that went into making 9, even though I wasn't totally enamored by the end result.

- John

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Extract (***)

Extract. 89 mins. R. Written and Directed by Mike Judge. Starring Jason Bateman, Mila Kunis, Kristen Wiig, J.K. Simmons, and Ben Affleck.

Even if you went into Extract not knowing anything about it, you'd be able to tell pretty much right away that it's a Mike Judge film. The writer-director of box office bombs/cult hits Office Space and Idiocracy is back with another comedy set in the workplace, and he has such a distinct, refreshing style of comedy that his personal touch is instantly recognizable. Extract is by no means a classic; it's a minor movie - aims low and generally succeeds. In baseball terms, it'd be a single. There are a handful of truly laugh-out-loud moments (I counted five), but those moments are worth it. The plot is almost like something out of a Coen Brothers movie - a freak accident at the extract factory run by Jason Bateman's character, Joel, sets off a chain of events, most of which involve Bateman's attempt to have a young gigolo seduce his wife (Kristen Wiig) so he won't feel guilty about trying to sleep with the new employee at the factory (Mila Kunis). 90210's Dustin Milligan is a hoot as the gigolo, as is Ben Affleck as Joel's dazed and confused friend. Bateman is the perfect straight man for this kind of movie, and anchors it nicely with his second-to-none deadpan delivery. Seriously, can he just be in every movie? I just saw Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium, and he even makes that turd watchable. But, make no mistake, this is Mike Judge's movie all the way, and that's a good thing. Extract is not as good as Office Space, and I'm not sure I liked it as much as Idiocracy, but it's a solid, low-key comedy that deserves a wide audience - if only so that Judge can continue making movies. The comedy world needs him.

- John