Capsule reviews of films playing the week of Oct. 7 | Film Clips | Creative Loafing Charlotte

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Capsule reviews of films playing the week of Oct. 7

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BRIGHT STAR Commencing in 1818 London, the story of Bright Star, with its key events based in fact but its smaller ones colored in by writer-director Jane Campion's poetic license, takes place over the course of a couple of years, as the forward and fashion-conscious Fanny (Abbie Cornish) makes the acquaintance of two English poets trying to build names for themselves. One is Charles Brown (Asheville native Paul Schneider), who views Fanny as no more than a bubble-headed flirt and frequently engages her in vicious verbal combat (she holds her own quite nicely, thank you). The other is John Keats (Ben Whishaw), who's initially preoccupied with tending to his dying brother but in time falls for the lovely Fanny. She's equally smitten, but since he's penniless and since the women of the day were expected to set their sights on men with money, their love seems doomed – even before he develops that bothersome cough. Bringing the creative process to life on screen is always an uphill battle – how does one turn thoughts into something tangible? – but Campion uses the characters' dialogue to provide reasonably sturdy stepping stones into often abstract territory. Fanny's strong desire to learn about poetry – to understand it, to appreciate it – stirs our own interest (perhaps buried since college!), and Keats responds with an absolutely lovely speech comparing poetry to a dive in the lake. A similar respect for the craft remains on view throughout the picture, thereby never reducing the art to a mere plot device but rather constantly working it into the very fabric of the film. Campion has made several films over the past 16 years, but all have been disappointments in the wake of her 1993 masterpiece The Piano. Bright Star isn't in the same ballpark as The Piano – heck, it's not even in the same time zone – but it's the first Campion movie since then to warrant 10 Best consideration. It's that special. ***1/2

CLOUDY WITH A CHANCE OF MEATBALLS Although it's based on a children's book (by Judi and Ron Barrett), this animated charmer is one of those equal-opportunity exercises that provides as much merriment for adults as for kids. After all, it's the grownups who are sure to get a chuckle out of a voice cast diverse enough to include Bruce Campbell, James Caan and Mr. T, and it's the grownups who will pick up on the movie's gentle ecological themes. As for the rest, the adults will feel like kids when bombarded by the film's freewheeling innovations and bright color schemes – all made even more irresistible in 3-D. The film's central character is Flint Lockwood (Bill Hader), a gangly inventor whose latest contraption – a device that turns water into food – seems to be a winner. After its unceremonious launch into the heavens, the machine pours down all sorts of cuisine – hamburgers, pancakes, pasta, you name it – on a regular basis. Flint becomes the town's savior, but stormy weather lies ahead. The visual design of Cloudy is wondrous: There's something inherently amusing in seeing a castle built out of gelatin or a street lined with ice cream rather than snow, and the movie repeatedly offers up these gastronomical delights. Yet underlying the frivolity is a warning about our nation's gluttonous and wasteful ways, a message certainly to be lost on children (who'll wish they had their own candy-dispensing machine hovering above their homes) but relevant to environmentally aware adults. Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs is an entertaining ride, but it doesn't possess the lasting power of, say, this summer's Up or any of the other top-tier animated features that stick with us for the long haul. It's more comfortable in the company of Kung Fu Panda and Monster House: Like those worthy animated features, this one shows up, gets the job done, and leaves us feeling satisfactorily full. ***

DISTRICT 9 District 9 is Independence Day for the art-house set. Although its press launch has been so deafening that it's managed to permeate the mainstream consciousness, its modest approach and meaty metaphors will curry greater favor with filmgoers who opt for Tsotsi over Transformers. And although it's already being hailed in many quarters as a model of originality, the truth of the matter is that the film follows genre conventions just as often as it heads off in its own direction. Like Independence Day, it treats the cinema of science fiction as its own buffet table, picking and choosing which ideas would best serve its own intentions. And in doing so, it comes up with a dish that's juicy in both execution and endgame. Back in 1981, an enormous alien craft appeared in the sky above Johannesburg, South Africa; the voyagers, malnourished and stranded on a spaceship too damaged to go anywhere else, were rounded up and placed in a slum area known as District 9. Now it's been nearly three decades since their arrival, and the million-plus aliens, known dismissively as "prawns" because of their physical appearance, continue to wallow in filth and poverty, conditions that convince the South African government to move them further away from the city limits so as to minimize their contact with humans even more. The specter of apartheid is never far removed from the actions occurring throughout District 9, but writer-director Neill Blomkamp and co-scripter Terri Tatchell never turn this into a heavy-handed screed. Instead, they approach the issues of racism and xenophobia mindful of their knotty ramifications. Imagination runs a bit short toward the end, as District 9 largely turns into a standard chase thriller and viewers are asked to swallow a bit more than even their disbelief-suspending minds might accept. But in a nice twist from the standard Hollywood blockbuster, this Australian import employs its special effects to save the day rather than ruin it, using superb CGI wizardry to draw us into the final battles instead of relying on obvious fakery to distance us from the proceedings. ***

(500) DAYS OF SUMMER The beauty of this utterly winning picture is that it doesn't live in a generational vacuum: Like the best films of its kind, its tale of young love (and all the accompanying trials and tribulations) will speak to all ages. Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as Tom Hansen, a sweet kid who works for a greeting card company. Into the workplace walks new employee Summer Finn (Zooey Deschanel), and Tom is immediately smitten. Summer, however, isn't on the same page: More cynical in nature, she doesn't particularly subscribe to the notion of true love and sees Tom as a "friend with benefits." Tom does his best to keep their union afloat, but he obviously has his work cut out for him. Rather than spill the story in chronological order, this jumps back and forth to various points in the relationship, showing the pair happy one minute and gloomy the next. In the wrong hands, such a decision might have turned out unwieldly or awkward, but here the scenes flow smoothly, making sense not only narratively (on-screen markers always alert us to the day being shown) but also emotionally, allowing us to fully understand and appreciate how earlier incidents might affect the characters' mindsets during later ones. Ultimately, none of this would work without the proper actors, and Gordon-Levitt and Deschanel are adorable talents whose open faces and inviting eyes seem to allow audiences access to their very psyches. Because of them, we find ourselves completely invested in Tom and Summer, and their love story becomes our love story, warts and all. Don't miss the brilliant cameo of sorts by a Star Wars character, the result being the funniest moment in any film released thus far in 2009. ***1/2

G.I. JOE: THE RISE OF COBRA This is the second film this summer to be based on a line of Hasbro toys, and the good news is that it's better than Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. Of course, then comes the sobering afterthought: Pretty much every movie this summer has been better than Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. At any rate, this isn't G.I. Joe so much as it's C.G.I. Joe, a nonstop orgy of computer imagery and pretty much what we'd expect from the director of the execrable Van Helsing and two dopey Mummy movies. Tatum Channing, certainly more plastic than any of the G.I. Joe action figures I owned as a child, plays Duke, a dedicated soldier who, along with best bud Ripcord (Marlon Wayans), joins the elite commando squad in order to help take down a megalomaniac (Christopher Eccleston) bent on ruling the world. Duke's particularly perturbed because his former girlfriend Ana (Sienna Miller) is now an enemy agent, but both actors are so dull that they seem to have wandered in straight from the set of a soap opera. Wayans tries to provide some pep, but because his contract specifically states that the actor receive the lion's share of the script's truly atrocious lines, he's rendered ineffectual every time he opens his mouth. Those who claim that action yarns don't even need sound actors or competent direction or compelling storylines are either not thinking the argument through or have become too shell-shocked to note the obvious differences between, say, Van Helsing and The Dark Knight, between Transformers: ROTF and District 9. Yes, there are a few rousing set-pieces in G.I. Joe, but for the most part, the action is unfocused, the effects are iffy, and the thrills are fleeting. Young boys will probably get a kick out of the movie, but everyone else will notice that the entertainment value is clearly MIA. *1/2

THE INFORMANT! No stranger to coloring outside the margins, Steven Soderbergh displays a quirky brand of lunacy with The Informant!, a like-it-or-leave-it endeavor blessed with a terrific central performance from Matt Damon. Damon leaves behind Jason Bourne's muscularity and goes all pudgy as Mark Whitacre, a midlevel executive at the major conglomeration Archer Daniels Midland. Whitacre seems like a pleasant enough fellow, so when he approaches FBI agents Brian Shepard (Scott Bakula) and Bob Herndon (Joel McHale) volunteering to uncover a price-fixing racket at the company, they believe he might be honest when he claims he's turning whistleblower because it's the right thing to do. Unfortunately, with Mark Whitacre, there's far more than meets the eye. Whitacre has a way of embellishing some stories and leaving crucial facts out of other ones, which leads to no small amount of frustration for the agents trying to do their jobs. In Whitacre's mind, he's the hero of this particular saga, but to everyone else, he might merely be a lying nutjob. In adapting Kurt Eichenwald's book The Informant (A True Story), scripter Scott Z. Burns and Soderbergh find the proper consistent tone to allow this to function as a loopy satire. Adding to the mirth is a bouncy score by veteran Marvin Hamlisch, which never provides us with the musical cues we might expect. In fact, given the current state of the nation, with its stories of greedy banks and fat-cat CEOs bleeding average Americans dry, tackling this saga of corporate malfeasance with all comic cylinders firing might have been the only palatable way to present such a downbeat tale. Otherwise, if we weren't busy laughing, we'd be busy crying. ***

INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS With its freewheeling exploits and liberties with historical veracity, Quentin Tarantino's World War II excursion is a celebration of film as its own entity, beholden to nothing but its own creative impulses. One would be correct in assuming that Inglourious Basterds is a remake of 1978's international production Inglorious Bastards, but except for the similar title, the films have nothing in common. The joke is that Tarantino's film isn't even primarily about the Basterds; rather, Tarantino pulls his story this way and that, to the point that marquee star Brad Pitt, as Basterds leader Aldo Raine, is MIA for long stretches at a time. In screen minutes, he probably places third under Melanie Laurent as Shosanna, the lone survivor of a massacre that left her family members dead, and Christoph Waltz as Hans Landa, the so-called "Jew hunter" responsible for the aforementioned slaughter. All three are fine, and it's easy to see why Waltz won a Best Actor award at this year's Cannes Film Festival. Like the best Tarantino flicks, this one is more talk than action, and the auteur also continues to be as big a film fan as he is a filmmaker, evidenced by how the movie is marinated in an unequivocal admiration for cinema. For all its attributes, the film does make a couple of miscalculations. The stunt casting – exploitation director Eli Roth as Raines' right-hand man, Mike Myers as a British officer – doesn't work at all. And after 2-1/2 hours of leisurely storytelling, the ending feels disappointingly rushed, the sort of abrupt conclusion sure to leave a bad taste in the mouths of countless moviegoers. Truth be told, another half-hour wouldn't have damaged Inglourious Basterds; it moves so quickly anyway that it's (to quote a famous line about another movie) "history written with lightning" – even if these particular chapters exist only in Quentin Tarantino's feverish imagination. ***

JENNIFER'S BODY When Diablo Cody won the Oscar for penning the delightful Juno, I'm assuming it was less for her hip-today-gone-tomorrow dialogue and more for her creation of ingratiating yet recognizably flawed characters as well as her deftness in telling a story with numerous emotional peaks. With her sophomore – and sophomoric – script, Cody has retained the hipster-speak but left out everything else. In Jennifer's Body, the warmth and wit have been replaced with cruelty and denseness, and what might have been a penetrating high school comedy – a new Heathers or Mean Girls – turns out to be nothing more than a cheap horror flick packed with lowbrow titillation. Megan Fox stars as Jennifer, who, after being served up as a satanic sacrifice by the members of an obscure band seeking fame and fortune (hey, it beats taking the humiliating American Idol path), returns as a vampire-zombie-thingie that must gorge on human blood to survive. There's always an audience for revenge fantasies, and perhaps if Jennifer had gone after misogynistic creeps, there'd be more rooting interest for her even given her demonic state. But Jennifer solely seems to target nice guys, which not only makes her a one-note killing machine but also cripples any attempts by Cody and director Karyn Kusama to provide any originality to a played-out genre that has traditionally been owned by male filmmakers. Instead of serving as a much-needed role reversal take on the standard terror tale, Jennifer's Body is merely a sellout, most notably in a pointless scene in which (fanboy alert!) Jennifer and her best friend Needy (Amanda Seyfried) briefly lock lips – a desperate sequence that's about as erotic to behold as Glenn Beck in a wet T-shirt. Seyfried is fine while Fox is dreadful, delivering her lines as if she doesn't quite understand half the words she's uttering. More than anyone else, she's the one who turns Jennifer's Body into a rotting corpse of a movie. *1/2

JULIE & JULIA Working overtime as writer, director and producer, Nora Ephron has taken a pair of books – My Life in France, by Julia Child with Alex Prud'homme, and Julie & Julia, by Julie Powell – and combined them into one irresistible motion picture. It's a film that rises two stories, on one hand focusing on the legendary Julia Child (Meryl Streep) as she begins her journey toward becoming one of America's greatest chefs, and on the other following Julie Powell (Amy Adams) as her idea for a blog – cook all 524 recipes in Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking in 365 days – eventually leads to fame and fortune. The Julia Child segments of the film are magnificent. As the towering, exuberant Child, Streep delivers another astonishing performance, never lapsing into mere caricature but steadfastly making sure to capture all facets of the woman's personality. The best parts of the Child sequences focus on the marriage between Julia and her husband Paul (Stanley Tucci, reuniting with Streep on the high heels of The Devil Wears Prada). Movies aren't normally where we turn to watch happily married couples in action, but the Julia-Paul relationship is one of the most blissful seen in years, and Streep and Tucci dance through their interpretations with the grace and ease of an Astaire-Rogers routine. When compared to the Julia Child portions, the Julie Powell chapters aren't nearly as compelling, but they're far from the drag that others have suggested. And as in Babette's Feast, Eat Drink Man Woman and Big Night (another foodie flick with Tucci), the camera gazes so lovingly on each prepared dish (even the burnt ones!) that it's virtually impossible to exit the theater without wanting to head immediately to a gourmet restaurant. That, then, is one of the beauties of Julie & Julia: While other ambitious movies are content targeting the heart and the mind, this one adds another palatable layer by also going for the stomach. ***1/2

9 Not to be confused with Rob Marshall's upcoming musical Nine (or, for that matter, with the summer hit District 9), this single-digit offering is actually director Shane Acker's expansion of his own Oscar-nominated short film from 2005. That animated work ran approximately 12 minutes; this new version clocks in at 80 minutes, shorter than most theatrical releases but still thin enough to outstay its welcome by at least a quarter-hour. Set in a post-apocalyptic period caused by a gruesome battle between humans and the machines that ended up turning against them (sorry, no Arnold Schwarzenneger cameo this time around), the plot centers around a doll-like creature (voiced by Elijah Wood) identified by the "9" that's marked on his back. 9 discovers that humanity has been completely eradicated and fearsome mechanical monsters roam the earth, but he has no idea of his own origins or what his future might hold. He meets other rag dolls like himself – a warrior woman (Jennifer Connelly), a kindly scientist (Martin Landau), a scheming elder (Christopher Plummer), a timid sidekick (John C. Reilly), and more – and they argue as to whether they should continue to live in hiding or confront the enemy head-on. It's easy to see why Tim Burton signed on as a producer: The staggering visual scheme is dark, dank and dangerous, and characters often meet unexpected – and undesirable – fates (as the PG-13 rating suggests, this one clearly isn't for the wee ones). But these attributes, atypical for animation, are seriously undermined by a pedestrian end-of-the-world storyline and by characters with zero personality. **1/2

TAKING WOODSTOCK A major disappointment from director Ang Lee, Taking Woodstock purports to tell the true story of how the legendary youth festival came together in time for a few blissful days of peace and music during the summer of '69. Forget, for a moment, that Michael Wadleigh's Oscar-winning 1970 documentary Woodstock basically functions as the beginning, middle and end of the event's filmic chronicle; on its own terms, Taking Woodstock is a dramatically shaky work, misguided in some spots and misleading in others. Lacking the narrative clarity of Almost Famous and the visual ecstasy of Across the Universe, this movie rarely comes into focus on any level. At its center is the dull character of Elliot Tiber (Demetri Martin), a New Yorker who's trying to help his parents (Imelda Staunton and Henry Goodman) save their ramshackle motel at the same time he learns about an upcoming music festival that's just been banned by a neighboring town. Working in sync with the concert's promoters as well as a neighboring farmer (Eugene Levy), Elliot makes the prospect of the "Woodstock Music & Art Fair" a reality. But first, there are myriad problems to confront, including disapproving townsfolk, building codes, a sudden influx of hippies (lots of hippies), and a mother whose behavior is overbearing at best and monstrous at worst. Staunton's generally a hoot when she's in ham mode, but she tests viewer patience here with a performance as an abrasive Jewish mom that borders on caricature. Among all cast members, faring best by far is Tony Award nominee Jonathan Groff, who in his film debut plays beatific festival organizer Michael Lang with the right mix of savvy and sensitivity. Several storylines are introduced and then abandoned, meaning that while many of the characters are getting satisfactorily high, audiences are unfortunately left with a movie that's only half-baked. **

THE TIME TRAVELER'S WIFE Movies involving time travel are so difficult to script that it's a wonder anybody even bothers to make them. Good ones like Back to the Future are calibrated well enough to allow audiences to understand and accept the ripples in the space-time continuum, but most trip over themselves as the filmmakers try to establish knotty rules they hope won't leave audiences so immersed in untangling the hows and whys that they forget to involve themselves in the characters and events. I suspect that many crucial details found in Audrey Niffenegger's best-selling novel failed to make it into Bruce Joel Rubin's script, meaning that some nagging questions – combined with Robert Schwentke's aloof direction – frequently keep us at arm's length. Nevertheless, Eric Bana as the man who travels back and forth through time and especially Rachel McAdams as the long-suffering woman who loves him bring enough heat to this up-and-down affair that it qualifies as an agreeable timefiller but not much more. **1/2


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