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

Joe Berlinger’s Crude

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)

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)

JENNIFER’S BODY A premeditated cult classic — they’re kind of like “preworn” designer jeans — Jennifer’s Body seems designed to be quoted more than watched. This is the sophomore production from Juno screenwriter Diablo Cody, similarly told through ultra-stylized slangy teen dialogue, which is cool, in theory, in the way it respects the verbal resourcefulness of idle kids but is excruciating to listen to in actual fact. Megan Fox’s lithe Jennifer is BFF to goldfish-faced, bespectacled Amanda Seyfried’s “Needy” — the nickname underlines the essentially condescending dynamic in their high school relationship, which also digresses into the best close-up girl-girl liplock since Cruel Intentions. Jenny is transformed from a flaunting tease into a literal man-eater, a boy-gobbling succubus, after going off one night in some out-of-town rocker’s van (the movie can read as a cautionary tale on the dangers of trolling for hot band dudes instead of sticking with your schlubby boyfriend), setting up a Good Girl vs. Bad Girl knockdown-drag-out. The suburban interior décor is about a generation off, but the satire is roughly contemporary, with routine “risky” digs at 9/11 kitsch (and, generally, the American “Tragedy boner”) and a re-enactment of the Great White club fire. Lines like “Sandbox love never dies” could be lyrics to the Warped Tour riffs to which Fox slo-mo sashays at the camera. (Citywide) (Nick Pinkerton)

JORDON SAFFRON TASTE THIS! Give Sergio Myers some credit — the man knows his reality TV. The creator of MTV’s proto-Laguna Beach show, Sorority Life, successfully transplants the look and style of the schlocky TV genre for his film, Jordon Saffron — Taste This!, a limp satire of egomaniacal celebrity chefs. Casting himself as the titular restaurateur, Myers eschews a script in favor of improv, which results in scenes that run far past their natural comedic threshold. Someone should have reminded him and his not-quite-ready-for-prime-time cast that they were making a comedy, not a documentary. The best thing about Jordon Saffron is Myers as Saffron, a prat whose expletive-laden rants and complete lack of self-awareness seem as close to Danny McBride in Eastbound & Down as to Gordon Ramsay. The film is raucously funny during Saffron’s professional and personal meltdowns, but the long scenes of repetitive jokes, the dreary reality-TV style and some very strange accents bring down the whole affair. The story of Saffron’s fall and rise as a chic cuisinier riffs lamely on Rocky — even the theme is a heist of “Eye of the Tiger” — but Myers is intelligent enough to know that if his protagonist actually learns anything by the end of this comeback story, then the satire becomes meaningless. Hopefully, the clearly talented Myers will try a different recipe for his next concoction. (Sunset 5) (John Wheeler)

GO  LAILA’S BIRTHDAY Toward the end of Palestinian filmmaker Rashid Masharawi’s tragicomedy about daily life in his West Bank hometown, the frustrated protagonist shakes his fists at the heavens and blames the 60-year Israeli occupation for his woes. That’s the only direct polemic in Laila’s Birthday, and this beguiling second feature, after the respectfully received Ticket to Jerusalem, is all the better for keeping its head close to the ground of the surreal business of getting through the day in Ramallah. Veteran Israeli-Arab actor Mohammed Bakri (whose son, Saleh, played the hunky young Chet Baker fan in The Band’s Visit and has a small, but significant, role here) plays Abu Laila, an unemployed judge eking out a living as a taxi driver, who heads out to work at the beginning of the film, charged with bringing home a gift and a cake for his little girl’s birthday. Prickly, unbending and a rigid follower of rules, Abu Laila is hopelessly ill-equipped for the bedlam of a city plagued by corruption, inefficiency and the occasional missile from across the border. Part Tati, part Chaplin, part absurdist satire in the manner of Palestinian director Elia Suleiman (Chronicle of a Disappearance), Laila’s Birthday is beautifully shot and overlaid with a spare, lyrical score that lends rueful emphasis to Masharawi’s exasperated fidelity to a chronically malfunctioning city. (Music Hall)—  (Ella Taylor)

LOVE HAPPENS “The sap pollutes the water, and then they die,” florist Eloise (Jennifer Aniston) upbraids her employee on the importance of cauterizing stems. A similar befouling occurs in the directorial debut of Brandon Camp, who, with Mike Thompson, co-wrote Love Happens — which is not so much a romance as it is a male weepie. Aaron Eckhart plays Burke, a widowed self-help author leading a seminar in Seattle for those mourning the loss of loved ones. The healer isn’t fully healed himself, of course, necessitating emotional helpmeet Eloise, who takes Burke to a poetry slam (only the presence of PDAs reminded me that the film was not set in 1992), the graves of Bruce and Brandon Lee, and the woods of Washington to set a parrot free. Burke’s hollow pop-psychspeak, lightly ridiculed at first, is wholly embraced by the film’s end, if not as adamantly as the outrageous product placements for Qwest and Home Depot, the latter crucial to a seminar attendee’s recovery. Eckhart has even less chemistry with Aniston than he did with fellow narcissist Catherine Zeta-Jones in 2007’s No Reservations, going soft and gooey only when he and Martin Sheen, as Burke’s father-in-law, share a big cry. (Citywide) (Melissa Anderson)

PARIS Paris, as overdocumented as any great city, still has new facets to reflect. For proof, see Claire Denis’ idiosyncratically observed 35 Shots of Rum — a contrast to Cedric Klapisch’s Paris panorama, an encyclopedia of “types” and banal c’est la vie lessons. When an ensemble film works, you welcome the shifts between characters, intrigued to catch up with each in turn. Paris’ rounds feel like obligatory visits. Romain Duris, an actor whose overuse is symptomatic of France’s shallow talent pool, does his preset clenched forehead as a dancer facing possibly fatal illness. Fabrice Luchini’s professor of Parisian history gets the lone funny business, sending dirty text messages to a student (Inglourious Basterds’ Mélanie Laurent — more spellbinding than Paris co-star Juliette Binoche ever was). The white working class and African immigrants get obliging nods, and there’s François Cluzet’s architect, here mostly for a nightmare scene expressing commonplaces about urban planning. There are some good, unusual stop-offs (Rungis, the massive wholesale market; Baudelaire’s gilded suite on the Île Saint-Louis), as well as location resourcefulness (Klapisch coordinates a string of scenes along the city’s highest monuments). At 124 minutes, though, the writer-director has stretched a wide canvas, and only sporadically found anything worth filling it. (The Landmark; Town Center 5; Playhouse 7) (Nick Pinkerton)

PRETTY UGLY PEOPLE Pretty Lousy Movie. Former fatty Lucy (Missi Pyle) tells her old posse of college friends that she’s dying and summons them to Montana, where it turns out that the death in question is merely the metaphorical passing on of her old overweight self. Now a total babe, she wants everyone to celebrate the loss of her final four pounds over the course of a three-day wilderness hike that nobody actually wants to do. At first, Lucy seems so manic and crazed that the viewer might suspect this will turn into a slasher movie. Later, when it becomes clear just how annoying and unlikable each character is, you’ll pray that it turns into a slasher movie. Alas, writer-director Tate Taylor instead seems to be reaching for a Gen-X take on The Big Chill, sans high-powered soundtrack, insightful script or skilled actors. So yes, we get the obligatory boring married couple having second thoughts (Melissa McCarthy and Philip Littell); the former radical who now seems like a sell-out (Phill Lewis); the guy (Larry Sullivan) still nursing a schoolboy crush, etc. What we don’t get is a reason to care. It takes an immensely contrived third-act crisis to create even the vaguest sympathy for this group; and yes, as the title suggests, most of them are supposed to be jerks. But Lucy is no better, interrupting their lives on a whim with a gigantic lie for the benefit of her own ego. At least Pyle got something out of this — she met her husband, a bear trainer, on set. (Sunset 5) (Luke Y. Thompson)

SORORITY ROW The first credit to roll for Sorority Row, director Stewart Hendler’s highly unnecessary remake of a 1983 slasher, is for a character identified as the “Bra-clad sister.” A few entries down are “Slutty sister,” “Ditzy sister” and “Sarcastic sister.” I’m not sure you need to know much more than that, but here goes anyway: Among these luminaries is a group of sorority seniors whose idea of a revenge prank is convincing a young man that he has killed his girlfriend with an ill-timed roofie. The vaguely sensible one among them (played by Briana Evigan, whose resemblance to Demi Moore puts her co-star — and Moore’s actual offspring — Rumer Willis to a strange sort of shame) protests the group’s plan to cover up the death of their fellow sister when the prank tanks, and takes the lead when a graduation gown–wearing maniac begins killing off everyone associated with the death. A very thin feminist subtext about the meaning of sisterhood only highlights how badly this film botches its attempt to have it both ways: naked, bleeding cuties combined with “final girl”–ish, butt-whipping empowerment. Call me the sarcastic sister, but the only things screaming in any convincing way here are the cheap look, epileptic direction and off-key, “edgy” humor. It’s all so ’80s I could die. (Citywide) (Michelle Orange)

GO  STINGRAY SAM Eight years after his underseen debut feature, The American Astronaut, writer-director-singer-songwriter Cory McAbee returns with another sui generis sci-fi/western/musical, set in a parallel universe where Mars is a bottomed-out casino town and the rest of the galaxy has been stratified by an interstellar class war. McAbee, a cross between Buck Rogers and Gene Autry, stars as the titular gunslinger-turned–lounge singer, enlisted by his old sidekick, the Quasar Kid (Crugie), to rescue the kidnapped daughter of a celebrity carpenter from the clutches of a genetically engineered man-child despot called Fredward (Justin Taylor). And that’s just the first of Stingray Sam’s six, serialized 10-minute episodes, which premiered as a gallery installation at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and will be available for Web downloading in concert with their theatrical release. Shot, like Astronaut, in crisp black-and-white, with ingenious shoestring production values (including reams of backstory conveyed through tinted, animated collages), each installment features at least one of McAbee’s genre-bending lounge-rock musical numbers. In an American indie-film landscape, where a 500 Days of Summer is lauded for its “originality,” McAbee should be a candidate for canonization. Somebody get this man an order for a second season. (Downtown Independent) (Scott Foundas)

TYLER PERRY’S I CAN DO BAD ALL BY MYSELF If you are the director, producer, writer (adapting your own stage play) and co-star of a film, you really show how bad you can do all by yourself. Usually thrilling in their lunacy, most Tyler Perry movies can at least keep up their momentum through the combination of an overstuffed plot and the presence of Madea, the big-boned granny who will rip out your urethra tube if you sass her. Perry’s latest — about a boozy nightclub singer, April (Taraji P. Henson), begrudgingly sheltering her niece and nephews — has so many dead moments that singing spots by Gladys Knight, Pastor Marvin Winans and Mary J. Blige simply highlight, rather than alleviate, the inertia. Madea, tonic in February’s Madea Goes to Jail, appears onscreen for only about 15 minutes, at least sharing an inspired bit about Siegfried and Roy on Noah’s “arch.” If the Atlanta impresario is just bored with cranking out two adaptations of his earlier stage work annually, the audience is getting restless, too: I counted at least three walkouts at the 11 a.m. show I attended. Though Perry may have stuck with his chitlin-circuit material for too long, I still can’t wait to see what he does with the choreopoem in an upcoming project — directing Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf. (Citywide) (Melissa Anderson)

WHITEOUT In this earnest but muddled Antarctic thriller, a masked man kills research scientists who may have stumbled upon a valuable object hidden beneath the ice. Figuring out the murderer’s identity falls to U.S. Marshal Carrie Stetko (Kate Beckinsale), with help from the research station’s doctor (Tom Skerritt) and a shady U.N. investigator (Gabriel Macht). Carrie is a good detective tortured by memories of a Miami drug bust gone bad, and in a regrettable blunder, director Dominic Sena (Kalifornia, Gone in 60 Seconds) and his four credited screenwriters have chosen to stage that failed arrest in a series of hokey flashbacks that always end with Sena cutting back to a zoned-out Carrie, who literally shakes her head to clear the bad vibes. One feels for Beckinsale, a B-movie action queen badly in need of a comedy and a script that doesn’t require, as this one does, her stripping down to her skivvies in the opening scene. It could be said that Whiteout is an honest attempt to set an old-fashioned whodunit in an exotic locale, but the mystery at the film’s core is so hopelessly dull that one begins to long for a third-act cameo by the Abominable Snowman. (Citywide) (Chuck Wilson)

GO  YOU, THE LIVING You, the Living flips through 50-some single-panel vignettes, many very funny, arranged by Roy Andersson, a Swedish director best known for his commercials and 2000’s Songs From the Second Floor. An (almost always) stationary camera captures a procession of lugubrious Stockholmians; the caption to most of the stills could be “I can’t go on.” Connections between scenes are loose, if any. A heaplike 50-ish biker gal replays teen-angst classics (“Nobody understands me!”) for her boyfriend in a public park. A man hunched over a walker obliviously drags his pet terrier behind him, tangled in its leash. A prematurely embalmed-looking fellow complains about his pension plans while his stout Brünhilde of a wife mounts him. Andersson particularly delights in left-outs: the guy who can’t squeeze into the bus stop during a downpour; the natty little suitor getting his bouquet smashed in a slamming door. The sum total is the reflection of a worldview — sad sack, bordering on “Everybody Hurts” black-velvet sad-clown bathos — rather than any narrative. The title comes from Goethe’s “Roman Elegies,” an admonition to appreciate one’s measure of life “before Lethe’s ice-cold wave will lick your escaping foot.” This I take to be one of Andersson’s dry jokes, as his anhedonic characters already seem settled in Hades — a streetcar even lists Lethe as its destination. (Music Hall) (Nick Pinkerton)