Movie Reviews: Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, Jennifer's Body, Love Happens 

Also, Crude, You the Living and more

Wednesday, Sep 16 2009

AMERICAN CASINO At the very least, former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson owes Denzel Mitchell a nice eCard: Mitchell, a Baltimore high school teacher, was one of the countless Americans whose shady subprime mortgage poured money into Goldman Sachs’ coffers during Paulson’s tenure as CEO. Alas, Mitchell had his finances bled dry by higher-than-indicated payments and lost his modest home — including the garden out back, which fed his kids — while Paulson walked away with a tax-free $600 million nest egg. If ever an occasion called for guttersnipe fury, it’s the subprime lending crisis and its subsequent $8 trillion bailout, but this authoritative, far-reaching documentary by veteran investigative journalists Leslie and Andrew Cockburn comes off as curiously bloodless. They lead with the sense-numbing contours of the crisis — the “house of cards” described in an internal Standard & Poor’s memo as early as 2006, propped up on credit derivatives, CDOs and deceitful loans targeting minorities and the working poor — before showing the devastating effect of this chicanery on a Baltimore neighborhood wracked by more than 700 foreclosures. (This should have been the sixth season of The Wire.) The serious-TV blandness of the filmmaking mutes the outrage its subjects provoke, and the “casino” metaphor does little to bolster their arguments visually or thematically. Indeed, a better metaphor might have been cancer: The Cockburns’ most inventive stroke is to show the crisis’ effects manifesting as a kind of heartland metastasis — unkempt lawns heralding a plummet in property values, abandoned swimming pools turning into breeding grounds for virus-spreading mosquitoes. Grim as that is, the filmmakers prove beyond doubt that America has far bigger bloodsuckers to worry about. (Music Hall) (Jim Ridley)

THE BURNING PLAIN Oregon restaurant manager Charlize Theron, prone to submissive promiscuity and self-inflicted violence, sits naked in bed next to her lover. A decade or so earlier, an abandoned trailer in the middle of the New Mexico desert blazes the title into being. In the fractured, self-impressed screenplays of Guillermo Arriaga (Babel, 21 Grams), events unfold out of time and space, effects before causes. Arriaga engages us not by playing out human complexities but by using rim shots that reveal how each jigsaw piece fits into his puzzle. (Gee, will that little blond girl in the desert grow up to be Charlize? Does she cut her thighs to punish herself for something discovered in the final act? Better keep watching.) The writer’s most successful works — The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada and Amores Perros — were bolstered by directors who brought genuine emotion to the screen, but The Burning Plain marks Arriaga’s behind-the-camera debut, and his obviousness is staggering. The present tense rains down in gray-blue melancholy, while the past comes sun-kissed in orange, and the sensational pop-psychological damage wrought by two generations onto a third carries all the dramatic heft of a telenovela, albeit one with award-bait cinematography. (The Landmark; Sunset 5; Town Center 5; Playhouse 7) (Aaron Hillis)

GO  CLOUDY WITH A CHANCE OF MEATBALLS By the time the brilliant fuckup of a hero said to the heroine, “Why do you do that — say something supersmart and then bail from it?” Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs had won me over. The line is followed by a makeover of said heroine, which is less about remaking her than freeing her; it rings more true than a slew of Jennifer Aniston and Sandra Bullock movies combined. Written and directed by Christopher Miller and Phil Lord, who adapted the script from the popular children’s book, Cloudy is smart, insightful on a host of relationship dynamics, and filled with fast-paced action. When failed inventor Flint (fantastically voiced by Bill Hader) accidentally creates a machine that makes food fall from the sky, he revamps his rep as the town laughingstock and catches the eye of fledgling reporter Sam Sparks (voiced by Anna Faris), who masks her intelligence beneath a veneer of ditziness. The duo is tested, of course, when things go horribly awry and lessons about self-confidence — and the distinction between confidence and assholery — is driven home. The 3-D effects are wonderful, full of witty sight gags that play out both center-screen and on the periphery, while immensely appealing secondary characters (a policeman voiced by Mr. T; a loving but tongue-tied dad voiced by James Caan; and a scene-stealing monkey voiced by Neil Patrick Harris) round off a film that plays as well for adults as kids. (Citywide) (Ernest Hardy)

click to enlarge Joe Berlinger’s Crude
  • Joe Berlinger’s Crude

GO  CRUDE Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink. Why? Because it’s thick with sludge. Moving briskly through a stranger-than-fiction, serpentine narrative that is still unfolding, Joe Berlinger’s remarkable documentary Crude recounts an infuriating litany of South American exploitation, backroom glad-handing and bureaucratic dead ends that has, among other collateral damages, created a Rhode Island–sized “death zone” of toxic pollution in the middle of the Ecuadorian Amazon. For nearly 30 years, beginning in the mid-1960s, the former Texaco oil company (acquired by Chevron in 2001) drilled for oil in Ecuador, in and around the ancestral homeland of the indigenous Cofán Indian community. In 1992, Texaco finally lost its government-granted concession and was forced to cede control of its drilling sites to state-owned Petroecuador. Three years later, Texaco conducted a purported “environmental remediation” as part of a $40 million settlement with the Ecuadorian government that, in turn, indemnified the company against any further government claims. And yet, today the soil and waters of the area still run black with oil, the Cofán are dying of cancer at an alarming rate, and the buck for this enviro-disaster is being passed between Chevron and Petroecuador faster than a Bobby Hull slap shot. A master of true-crime verité, Berlinger (Brother’s Keeper, Paradise Lost) does a superb job of taking us through the twists and turns of the decade-and-a-half, multibillion-dollar class-action lawsuit filed by the Cofán against Chevron — a legal battle nearly as long as the Amazon itself, and with no discernible end in sight. (Nuart) (Scott Foundas)

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