While my intrepid colleagues Greg Ellwood and Drew McWeeny were up in Toronto seeing dozens of movies, partying with the stars and not visiting members of my extended family, I was back in Los Angeles, which meant that in addition to bobbing for apples in the fall TV barrel, I also covered movie junkets for two of this week's major new releases.
The answer is "Heck, no!" and "Surprisingly, yes!"
[Brief-ish reviews after the break. Not capsules, per se, but also not epic full-length Fien Print reviews. ]
Everything about Brandon Camp's "Love Happens" screams "Generic!" from the meaningless and mushy title -- "Death Happens," "Psychobabble Happens" or "Lazy Screenwriters Make Love Happen Even If The Leads Have No Chemistry" -- to the poster with leads Jennifer Aniston and Aaron Eckhart poised in a near-embrace, a positioning meant only to lure female viewers with the promise of a love that barely happens.
And the movie itself is pretty generic as well, except that it can't decide which of a dozen generic genre movies it wants to be. Mostly, "Love Happens" is a depressing Vocational Irony Narrative in which Eckhart plays a grief guru who hasn't figure out how to grieve himself. Because Eckhart's Burke Ryan is a miserable person and he's running grief seminars with other miserable people. Who better to turn his life around than Aniston, playing the oldest Manic Pixie Dream Girl since Meg Ryan stopped looking like Meg Ryan and Maude tutored Harold. She's all quirky and flighty and unpredictable and so soon she'll be teaching him how to live life and how to forgive himself and how to... Zzzzzzz.
Because it's always important to give credit where credit is do, Camp doesn't have a bad eye for visual composition and he and DP Eric Edwards achieve some decent shots. It's a pity he doesn't have nearly the same sense of tone. If he wanted the movie to be a serious exploration of the grieving process and, perhaps, a romantic drama, why are the two leads saddled with Wacky Best Friends (Dan Fogler and Judy Greer, stumbling in out of a different movie) and why is there a cockatoo that's being call a parrot and being subjected to what can only be considered animal abuse? Oh right. So that Universal can pitch "Love Happens" as a romantic comedy, which it most certainly is not.
The movie is just glutted with painfully annoying moments, things that go beyond Vancouver masquerading as Seattle. Part of the movie, for example, is a critique of the hero selling out to the highest bidder, which would work better if the product plugs for Office Depot, TeleFlora and QWest weren't so blatant and clumsy. Then there's a major scene in which our hero walks across hot coals and horribly scalds his feet, which requires medical treatment, even though Eckhart doesn't walk with even a slight limp the rest of the movie. Then there's the poorly motivated cameo by the band Rogue Wave, who appear as themselves without even the slightest prompting. Finally, there's the climactic slow clap, a cinematic cliche that manages to single-handedly invalidate any supposedly ernest drama that may have come before.
Eckhart plays what he's given, but his arc is so predictable and belabored that he can't make it organic, especially since Aniston, as his enabler, doesn't have enough of a character to see real at all. Also, whoever thought it was a great idea to do a movie where Jennifer Aniston spends two hours bundled up to fight the cold and wet needs a lecture on utilizing assets.
The studio is try to pull two or three different bait-and-switch maneuvers to get people to see "Love Happens." I doubt it'll work for longer than a day or two.
"Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs"
Colorful, energetic and sometimes inspired, "Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs" isn't Pixar, but it may join the first two "Shrek" movies in that next tier of quality.
Using much of the delectable imagery from Judi and Ron Barrett's book (a staple of my childhood), but creating a new plot from whole-cloth, writer-directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller have actually found a way to make a story that's about our culture of excess without needing to lecturing young viewers on childhood obesity. They've also woven in a story about an inventor trying to win his father's love and a meteorologist trying to overcome her own beauty to be taken seriously as a professional, all without overwhelming the massive pancakes, swimming pools of nacho cheese and threatening tornados of pasta. In fact, Lord and Miller have written an amazingly tight screenplay that tells a full story, arced out with payoffs for nearly every introduced joke. Maybe their background in live-action writing helped them avoid becoming as story-lite as, say, "Monsters vs. Aliens."
Lord and Miller utilize the 3-D technology in a number of ways, mostly continuing the trend away from merely lobbing objects at viewers. The 3-D definitely helps when things start falling from the sky, but it's also good for depth of field and for several continuous shots that play out like amusement park rides. Sometimes the food is nearly photo-real -- kudos to the sequence in a Jello mold castle, which even nails the air-bubbles in the newly-set dessert -- and sometimes it's impressionistic, like the extended climax, which becomes a noshing nightmare.
The lead characters, voice by Bill Hader and Anna Faris, are likable and appealing and there are a number of great supporting vocal performances from recognizable voices including James Caan, Bruce Campbell and Mr. T. Best of all, there's Steve, a mustache-obsessed, gummy bear-loving simian with a Monkey Thought Translator. The voice from the MTT? Mr. Neil Patrick Harris, who worked with Lord and Miller on "How I Met Your Mother."
There are TV and movie references galore in "Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs," but they aren't the backbone of the movie. It's actually driven by the carefully constructed plot and by a well-honed sense of both visual and verbal comedy. I'm certain kids will love the food, but I think there's and ample buffet of pleasures for grownups as well.
As a side note, I'm relieved that 3-D technology is finally reaching the point at which watching a movie doesn't leave me with a splitting headache. It hasn't yet achieved a level where it doesn't make my eyes water and sting, but I guess I'll have to deal.