Monday, October 7, 2013

Double Review: "Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2" and "The Butler"

One's a CGI kids flick about sentient, animal-like food creatures roaming about on a deserted island and the other is about one man's struggle through half a century of cruel, institutional prejudices. Okra? Prepare to Meet Oprah.

My favorite thing about going to the Drive-In, other than everything, is that it really focuses in on providing a value to patrons. Going to the cinemas these days usually costs about $50, once you add in taxes and snack bar pick-ups, so being able to see two movies for less than twenty bucks (that's for two people, by the way) is not only awesome, it's...well, it's really awesome

For those of you unfamiliar with how most theaters of the like operate, it goes a little like this: you pay for your tickets, you park your car, and after the first-run movie is over, you get to see another movie (usually, a bit older) for what is virtually nothing. A lot of times, the theater owners try to keep a theme going, so if movie #1 is a horror flick, movie #2 is usually a slightly older horror flick. Well, at my last trip to the Starlight Six, that little system get shuffled up a bit, and I ended up catching what may very well be the most unorthodox double feature in the history of anything -- "Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2," followed up by "Lee Daniels' The Butler."

It's an unusual mishmash, to be sure, but with three tofu dogs, two tofu burgers, and an eight pack of Hansen's Diet Black Cherry Cola in deep freeze in the backseat (which, by the way, tastes like grape cough syrup, if anybody was curious), how could it not be an entertaining evening, regardless of how the movies played out? 

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 (2013)
Director(s): Cody Cameron, Kris Pearn

I absolutely LOVED the first "Meatballs" movie, and thought it was an incredibly inventive and thoroughly underrated CGI offering. In some regards, you can consider this follow-up to be more of the same, but like a really, really yummy second helping of pineapple pizza, do you really want to complain about leftovers?

The gist of the plot is as follows: Flint Lockwood, the inventor of the machine that transformed water into food in the first movie, has been called up by his childhood icon -- an eccentric multibillionaire silicon valley type -- to lead an expedition back to the uninhabitable island that was turned into a food negative utopia when his original invention went haywire. Assembling the same crew from the previous picture -- a proud-to-be-nerdy weather girl voiced by Anna Farris, Lockwood's extremely eye-brow-y dad (voice by James Caan), a charismatic security guard (Terry Crews, replacing Mr. T.), a dude in a chicken suit, a Hispanic cameraman/polymath and a monkey -- travel back to their village, which is now overrun by "foodimals," that being, foods with decisively animal-like qualities and characteristics. Watermelophants, mosquitoasts, tacodiles -- really, this thing is just a smorgasbord of food puns, but that actually works towards the film's favor. In a CGI landscape populated by generic furry beings and big jawed stereotypes, it's a refreshing change of pace to encounter something so original and unorthodox.

The film is pretty much a take-off of the second "Jurassic Park" movie, only with shrimpanzees and giant hamburger spiders replacing the velicoraptors and T-Rexes. Of course, there are twists a plenty, beginning with the nefarious agenda of Chester V., Lockwood's hero, whom is actually trying to steal his old invention so he can release a better and beefier "food bar."

Believe it or not, there's actually quite a bit more to the movie than just food puns and "Indiana Jones" type parodies. The film's primary message, I suppose, is that kids need to pay more attention to their actual friends and families instead of their childhood heroes -- first and foremost, because their friends and families are actually there for them. In a medium that literally thrives off "hero worship," that's a pretty rare message to see in a contemporary kids flick. And as far as sociopolitical undertones go, well, we have quite a few going on here, too.

First off, I LOVED the fact that the primary villain of the film was a Steve Jobs doppelganger. Really, the entire film is a great criticism of "brand identity worship," with Chester V.'s  Live Corp organization -- a gigantic, state of the art, human interests first (allegedly) techno embryo -- serving as an especially delicious attack on new wave I.T. veneration. There's even a really great jab at the whole TEDtalks movement, which also gives the flick something of an anti-"philanthropic entrepreneurial" streak. Again, it's rare that you see such anti-cult of personality statements in Hollywood offerings in general, let alone a movie designed, first and foremost, for the nose-pickers and bed-wetters crowd.

Secondly, maybe it's just me, but did anyone else get a strong "pro-vegetarian" vibe out of this one? There's a line towards the end of the film where Anna Farris' character tries to prevent Chester form turning a gaggle of watermelophants into energy bar paste. "They're living creatures!" she yells -- if the first film was an incredibly sly critique of vapid American over-consumption, than perhaps this one is a critique of our decisively unhealthy omnivorous diets? At the very least, it's a film that seems to lean towards a pescatarian food ideology; after all, one of the film's subplots does entail an aged fishermen teaching a bunch of pickles how to effectively catch sardines.

It's been a pretty strong year for animated flicks. I really liked both "Monsters University" and "Despicable Me 2," but at the end of the day, I think "Meatballs 2" is actually better than both of them. It's funny, it has inspired visuals, the voice acting is great, the plot line goes off in different directions than most CGI flicks and the overall "morals" of the story are a bit more thought provoking than the hyper-heteronormative and borderline-Objectivist claptrap you'll get out of some of this year's other kid-catered hits.

"Cloudy 2" is smart, legitimately humorous, creative, and nails a ton of targets that most Hollywood films steer clear of. The fact that it's one of the best animated films of the year isn't unexpected; the fact that it's one of the better movies of any kind released by a mainstream distributor in 2013 surely isn't.


Three Tofu Dogs out of Four.

The Butler (2013)
Director: Lee Daniels 

"Precious" gets my vote for being the most horrific tragicomedy produced by mainstream Hollywood in at least the last 20 or so years. If you wondered how Daniels could follow up a movie about a severely obese high schooler, pregnant with her HIV-infected step-father's son, "The Butler" may, in many regards, be even MORE depressing than that. Yes, more depressing than a film that had Mo'Nique literally throwing an infant as a projectile weapon, if you dare imagine it. 

The glumness begins pretty much as soon as the picture starts, with Forrest Whittaker's character watching his mom (played by Mariah Carey) get raped to the point of brain damage by a Georgian plantation owner, who then proceeds to gun down his daddy just for looking at him funny. After running away from the farm, Whittaker's character winds up getting a butler job at this bistro he broke into, and there he meets a mentor/older waiter that teaches him how to play into white folks' prejudices, all the while teaching his pupil to respect his own peoples, too. So, eventually, Whittaker manages to earn a position serving tea at the White House, and that's when things get really, really weird: Robin Williams plays Dwight D. Eisenhower, while John Cusack plays Richard Nixon. And if you think THAT's stunt casting at its most phenomenal,  just wait until you see Severus Snape playing The Gipper and JANE FONDA as Nancy Reagan. 

So, Whittaker is married now (to Oprah, whom spends half of the movie looking like she REALLY enjoys smoking cigarettes) with two kids, one of whom goes off to college in Tennessee and gets all interested in the blossoming civil rights movement. While Whittaker talks shop with JFK, his son is having coffee thrown into his face by racist cafe owners and barely surviving firebomb attacks from the Klan; and then, JFK gets shot, and LBJ comes into office, and there's a really great scene where he barks orders at his subordinates while taking a no-doubt presidential sized shat before ordering his servants to fetch him some prune juice. Oh, and before I forget, "Radio" is one of the other White House butlers, and he seems to take more of a liking to Whittaker's oldest kid than his own pappy. 

Nixon comes into office after that, and Whittaker's oldest kid has joined the Black Panthers (his girlfriend, by the way, is that one chick from "America's Next Top Model.") Then, Whittaker's youngest son gets shipped off to Vietnam, and his parents find out he got killed in action right before they're about to go disco dancing. And oh yeah, Martin Luther King, Jr. is in the movie, for like, two minutes and stuff. 

Nobody cares about Gerald Ford or Jimmy Carter, so we zoom straight ahead to the Reagan Years. Whittaker gets all pissed off about Ronny not caring all that much about apartheid in South Africa and black White House employees not getting a pay raise in forty years, so he decides to call it quits. His son grows up to be a politician in Tennessee, and we completely skip over the Clinton and W. years and see an aged Whittaker having a cookout with his wife, both wearing Barack Obama '08 tee-shirts. Oprah talks about how dumb she thinks their granddaughter's name is, and she just keels over dead against the refrigerator; the film concludes with Whittaker's character being called into the Oval Office, for a chit-chat with the first ever African-American commander-in-chief in U.S. history.

So, uh, yeah, like I was saying, there's quite a bit of depressing material in this one. As a historical docudrama, it's probably more fluff than reality (the conservative blogosphere is already having a field day with it -- since these are "show me your birth certificate" right wingers, however, I'll leave it up to you to determine how valid their assertions are), and while it does get a bit preachy and overly saccharine here and there, it's a pretty well-paced movie, with solid acting throughout. And of course, the sheer WTF of watching Robin Williams playing the dude that conquered the Nazis and built our Interstate system is one of those things you just HAVE to be captivated by. 

It's clear that Lee Daniels is in full Oscar-bait mode here, but I don't really think this one is Academy Awards-bound, though. Forrest Whittaker MIGHT get a Best Actor nod, but unless this autumn's slate of movies REALLY stink, I think this one is more or less relegated to the "well, that was a good rental" categorization. And unfortunately, we're still quite a few years away from that one becoming an officially recognized film format by the Academy, I am afraid.

So all in all? "The Butler" is a really good movie, but nothing too outstanding. If you screen it, you'll probably like it, unless you're a racist or something -- or, someone that really, really hates Oprah, which as it turns out, is most people.


Three Tofu Dogs out of Four.


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