Fame (2009)

With any movie remake, the question can be asked: Why? Sometimes, it's a Why bother? Sometimes, Why not? And rarely, Why did it take so long? Often, the answer is simple enough: there's money to be made. With the likes of the *High School Musical* and *Hannah Montana* juggernauts out there demonstrating a ready market for teen musicals, Fame was probably an inevitability. Not to be too cynical about it, but there was money to be made.

The original Fame (1980), directed by Alan Parker, followed a handful of students at New York's High School for the Performing Arts, from their nerve-wracking auditions, through to their senior years. It won a few Oscars (for Original Musical Score and Best Original Song), spawned a hit song, a TV series, a theatrical musical, and now this remake, updated with hip hop influenced song and dance. Of the original cast, Debbie Allen returns. Then, she was the dance teacher; now, she's the stern but caring principal of the high school.

Fame, like its inspiration, follows the trials and tribulations of talented students trying to make it through high school while simultaneously trying to make it in show biz. The movie has some terrific musical numbers, with fresh, energetic dancing and music. Naturi Naughton, in particular, stands out as Denise, a classically trained pianist who, it turns out, is also a funky fine singer (if only her overbearing dad would let her get her groove on!). The entire cast of kids is utterly adorable, and ready to take their spots on the pages of *Teen People* (although more than a few of them look well past their teen years).

If only they'd been given stories and characters. The structure of Fame, written by Allison Burnett (and based on Christopher Gore's original), follows the students through each year of high school. Following one character with any depth through four years of teen life would be hard enough. Fame ambitiously tries to track several kids, each with a distinctive talent (dancer, filmmaker, singer, actor, rapper...) and set of personal problems, but there's little time to do more than hurriedly present an issue or difficulty before the titles yoink us into another year, each time doing so at a supposed moment of crisis, and a potential life/career turning point. But with no follow through, any questions about what happened next are left unanswered. The plotlines are little more than cliches; the characters don't develop or change. There's angry inner city guy, bored Upper West Side girl, undisciplined cocky guy who doesn't care about Bach, timid girl, etc. They have PG-rated, after school special problems, dumbed down and sanitized for a tween market (that is already probably too sophisticated for this). There's no central character or storyline, and the drama is superficial and tacked on -- the real focus here is on performance, while the rest (plot, character, emotion) is just filler (and minimal filler at that). If the characters had any substance, the performance segments of Fame would have a chance to grow organically out of their lives and experiences. After all, what would be more natural than students at a performing arts high school spontaneously performing? Instead, the performance segments are, for the most part, separate, energetic (and welcome) interlopers from a different and better movie.

The teachers, played by veterans of stage and screen (Bebe Neuwirth, Charles S. Dutton, Megan Mullaly, and Kelsey Grammer), manage to flesh out their roles despite underwritten parts and parsimonious shares of screen time, demonstrating nicely the enduring value of experience and screen presence.


Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (2009)

Films about food usually feature chefs, whether they're obsessive pros or dedicated, magical amateurs who invent marvelous, miraculous edibles by blending and stirring, chopping and kneading, adding a little spice and a soupcon of drama to the kitchen. But nuts and bolts inventors? They're hardly ever depicted as gastronomical wizards. Until Flint Lockwood, the wacky inventor of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, and a guy who's more astronomical than gastronomical.

Flint doesn't make fancy food. He specializes in pizza and cheeseburgers and Jell-O and donuts. The kind of food that makes Homer Simpson drool. Flint doesn't cook either. He's invented a handy-dandy machine that converts plain old water into mouthwatering combinations of sugar, fat, and salt, the unholy trinity of obesity, the trifecta of artery-clogging comestibles. (Although if it's made from water, it must be vegan and cholesterol-free, no?) Flint's food literally rains down on the aptly named town of Swallow Falls, where the populace (raised on a steady diet of sardines), is eager to expand their gastronomical horizons.

Thanks to his many failed inventions, Flint (voiced by Bill Hader) was once the laughing stock of Swallow Falls; but then Flint's machine was accidentally shot into the sky, where it continuously churns rainwater into buttery treats. Now he's the man with the manna, the toastmaster, the pharaoh of the food pyramid. Even better, he's been noticed by cutie-pie meteorologist Sam Sparks (Anna Faris), an all-around smart cookie (with a serious peanut allergy). Suddenly, the world is Flint's oyster, er, cheeseburger. Needless to say, things eventually go terribly, deliciously wrong, Flint's machine goes bananas, and showers of colorful sprinkles give way to a pasta disasta.

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs is, of course, based on the popular 1978 children's book of the same name (by Judi and Ron Barrett) and has been adapted for the screen with nifty 3-D animation by Phil Lord and Chris Miller, and the animators at Sony Imageworks. The animation is lively, bright, and colorful, with lots of clever sight gags and plenty of humor for both the little ones and the adults they bring along to buy the popcorn and Twizzlers. There are mildly menacing Gummi Bears, which is the only explanation I can come up with for why Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs is rated PG. The movie is far less scary than those creepy Quiznos commercials (which put the porn back in food porn), and anyway, every kid knows what to do when Gummi Bears attack. The movie nibbles at a smorgasbord of themes: fathers and sons (Flint's taciturn dad is voiced by a hilarious James Caan; Mr. T. is a pip as an overprotective pop), overindulgence and greed, the virtues and dangers of junk food, environmentalism and waste, heroism in the face of razor-sharp peanut brittle and rampaging bagels -- the usual fare. Dig in: it's fizzy, snarkless fun with no saccharine aftertaste.


9 (2009)

In 9, things are awakened in a postapocalyptic world. Things made by humans, but not human. Things alive, or not alive, depending on what that means, but ensouled perhaps, and given the best qualities of the men who made them, and also the worst.

The newest of these things -- creatures? robots? mecha? little people? -- is 9, who awakens into a nightmarish world in which everything built by humans is in ruins, and the humans are all gone. In time, the calamity that destroyed the world is revealed, but 9, directed by Shane Acker, and based on his Academy Award-nominated short animated film of the same name, takes its time explaining just what's going on in the ruined world 9 stumbles into on his new little legs.

9 seems to have been stitched together out of scraps of burlap and bits of machinery. He finds others like him -- they are very small, with soft, ragdoll bodies, articulated metal hands and eyes made from camera lenses. The apertures widen and narrow with little clicks and clinks, giving 9 and his companions wonderfully expressive faces. The animation is beautifully detailed, full of heaps of scraps and shards of bent and twisted metal and crumbling buildings, broken statues, rose windows -- civilization once flourished here, in the time before 9. Now, dust motes drift silently down on what is left.

9 and his companions -- also known by their numbers, which apparently indicate the order of their creation -- are not alone in the world. They are menaced by a machine they call "The Beast," which hunts and kills them for reasons they do not understand. 9 takes its time explaining that too, allowing the audience to discover answers slowly, along with 9. Acker's very compact short film told the same story, essentially, in ten minutes, and without dialogue. 9 adds more characters, and gives voices to the stalwart little ragmen. The movie also expands to 79 minutes by adding quite a lot of fairly scary action sequences (too scary for young kids, nicely challenging for older kids), and a bit more mystical, spiritual fluff 'n stuff at the end. It would be good if the additional hour added a great deal of substance to 9, but it doesn't especially. It touches on themes familiar in science fiction: the postapocalyptic world, totalitarianism, and sentient machines. It touches on these themes, or points towards them without really having very much to say about them. Acker co-wrote the script with Pamela Pettler, and the characters are not exactly raconteurs, which may just be a function of the somewhat infantile state of being for 9 and company. Their quest is partly metaphysical -- they don't know who or what they are, or why they were created. Each of them has a distinctive personality and character -- some are timid, some are bold, some are loyal, some are ruthless -- they each embody different aspects of humankind in general, which means they do a lot of squabbling, as the brave exhort the cowardly, and the noble scold the ignoble, and the paternalistic 1 (voiced by Christopher Plummer), the oldest of the ragmen, learns a thing or two from that rash, freethinking whippersnapper 9 (Elijah Wood).

Tim Burton produced 9, and the movie has the dark and vaguely gothic look familiar to Burton films. 9 is digitally animated, but the design of the characters and backgrounds has the depth, richness and tactile look of the traditional stop motion animation that Burton and his frequent collaborator Henry Selick (The Nightmare Before Christmas) are known for. The animation in 9 is really splendid, beautiful, and lively, creating a vivid sense of place, with imaginatively conceived, original, and intriguingly empathetic characters. All that's lacking is a story as good as the rest of the movie's elements.


All About Steve (2009)

Mary Magdalene Horowitz is a cruciverbalist, which, as Will Shortz would know, is a crossword constructor. She plies her trade in Sacramento, which, if All About Steve is to be believed, is one tough and unforgiving town for a quirky cruciverbalist like Mary (Sandra Bullock).

She wears red patent go-go boots everywhere. She has hair of a somewhat indescribable color, cut in a shag. She suffers from chronic logorrhea. When she speaks, which is most of the time, her words tumble out in a rapid-fire, polyglot cascade, thoughts leading to other thoughts as she accesses her encyclopedic knowledge of facts both trivial and profound. She also has a slight lisp. For all of this, Mary (Sandra Bullock) is mocked by schoolchildren, and told by her editor to "Be normal." At least her parents (Howard Hesseman and Beth Grant) and her hamster accept her. And in a touch of originality for the movie, she is a smart woman who doesn't wear glasses. Instead, she squints, flaps her hands, and skitters around on those wondrous boots.

There is quite a bit that is original about All About Steve. There's also much that is utterly implausible about this odd comedy, although if we hold movies to a standard of plausibility, we might find ourselves staring at a lot of blank screens. The title is misleading, a play, obviously, on All About Eve (a completely unrelated Bette Davis classic). All About Steve is really all about Mary, although there is a Steve (Bradley Cooper), a TV news cameraman who ditches Mary during an awkward blind date. Steve chooses his words poorly during the ditching, which leaves Mary (who ought to know better, but doesn't) believing that she should follow him around the country as he pursues hot news stories with vain TV reporter Hartman Hughes (Thomas Haden Church). Mary's instantaneous smittening and subsequent obsession with Steve leads to her losing her job as a crossword constructor, thus freeing her to pursue the cameraman across hill and dale. He, for his part, instantaneously decides she is a lunatic, which causes him to fear the cute, sweet woman in the red boots who is stalking him. For reasons that never become clear, Hartman Hughes decides to string Mary along, persuading her that Steve's unambiguous declarations of non-affection are not what they appear (to everyone but Mary) to be.

All About Steve could be a fairly unlikable movie if not for Bullock, who is about as appealing a performer as there is out there. Bullock has played forlorn and lovelorn before, but never a character as colorfully off-kilter as Mary. (Haden Church, Katy Mixon, D.J. Qualls, Ken Jeong, and M.C. Gainey provide able comic support.) Mary is a problem-solver, but also, of course, a problem constructor, and things go awry with Steve because she tries to solve the wrong problem. Or maybe the clues are ambiguous. But she is, at any rate, smart and nice, and because smart and nice generally equate with dorkiness in Movieworld, she's also pretty dorky.

All About Steve, written by Kim Barker and directed by Phil Traill, lands a few very softly satiric blows about sensationalist TV journalists. That said journalists are exploiting stories about children with disabilities may or may not be intended to make a point about Mary, whose social ineptitude might rise to the level of a disability on the most uncharitable reading, in which awkwardness and intelligence are handicaps. When Mary herself becomes a news story, she's described, pejoratively, as "freakishly intelligent," emphasis on the freakish. The point of All About Steve (and there is a point), is that Mary is really okay the way she is, smart and all, and she just needs to find the right crew (i.e. fellow dorks, proud to be weird) to hang with.

But about that implausibility. The plot of All About Steve is pretty random, throwing all sorts of unlikely obstacles in Mary's path, and then resolving everything in one big unlikely happy ending. It's also a little hard to believe that Mary turns stalker over a guy as boring as Steve. It is the hallmark of romantic comedies, of course, that they move heaven and earth to keep two people apart, when those two people are meant to be together. All About Steve is not, in that sense, a romantic comedy at all, since Mary and Steve really ought not be together, and would be far happier apart (and Steve is a dullard who really can't hold down his end of the romantic comedy seesaw). Heaven knows it, but that doesn't stop the earth from literally moving in the vicinity of Mary fairly often. All About Steve is a movie chimera, a screwball road trip romantic satire, but without genuine romance, and without much bite to the satire. It manages to be modestly screwy, and there is a road trip in there, and lots of Sandra Bullock, so it ultimately adds up to a movie that's a little more enjoyable than it really ought to be.

All About Sandy

Fans of Sandra Bullock, and I count myself among them, have a hard row to hoe. She's an adorable screen presence, and funny, beautiful, and talented. She's got great hair (most of the time). She's America's Sweetheart -- accessible, likable, the kind of gal you'd want to have a beer with. So why is she in so many lousy movies? All About Steve is surely not the worst movie she's ever been in -- compared to some of Sandy's movies, it's positively superb. But good movies? Well, there was Speed (1994), which for my money was a terrific, uncomplicated action movie, with a star-making, everywoman role for Bullock. And there was While You Were Sleeping (1995), a sweet, funny romance in which Bullock's comedic and dramatic abilities are evident. And there was... well, that was about it, really.

Speed 2: Cruise Control? Definitely a candidate for worst sequel ever, although Bullock redeemed herself by admitting as much. There were a few passable thrillers like A Time To Kill and The Net, comedies like Miss Congeniality, dramas like Crash (which, by many accounts was a fine movie, and won three Oscars, although I'm not a huge fan). Sandy is diverse -- she can do anything, and she gamely tries, despite making so many stinkers.

I have a certain fondness for Two If By Sea (1996), a quirky crime comedy costarring Denis Leary, which contributed a memorable and highly useful (if unprintable) line to my household's stock phrases. Bullock has made two movies with another actor I happen to like despite his similar tendency to make more lousy movies than good: Keanu Reeves. It's possible they are both getting an undeserved pass for Speed, but I'll publicly confess that I kind of like The Lake House (2006), which is a romantic time travel movie. I'll watch just about anything that's about time travel, and The Lake House is definitely... about time travel. On the other hand, Premonition (2007) might be about time travel, and it's really quite terrible, incomprehensible, and barely watchable. As I said at the time, it's Bullock who really carries the movie, with an appealing and empathetic performance that is far better than anything else about Premonition. This is a general truth about Sandra Bullock movies, and the Uplifting Effect of Sandy is doubtless familiar to most of her fans.