Skip to main content

You may have seen a meteor shower, but you’ve never seen a shower meatier than this.

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs
(2009)

Phil Lord and Chris Miller’s big screen debut, whenceforth they have conjured box office gold from all manner of unlikely properties (a Johnny Depp TV series, Lego). Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs was a surprise hit for Sony, successful enough to spawn last year’s sequel (and no doubt another beyond that). It’s one that failed to pique my interest. Maybe it was the trying-too-hard title, or the anonymous style of animation. Why, I didn’t even realise Bruce Campbell voiced a character. And… the movie’s… okay. If you’re a fan of CGI cheeseburgers, you probably can’t go far wrong here, but if you want to see an animated feature with mouth-watering food, stick to Ratatouille.


Lord and Miller adapted Judi and Ron Barrett’s children’s book (first published in 1978; it’s really old, kids – ancient!) in which raining food is not the result of genius boy scientist’s dabbling and does not solely constitute junk food. And when said comestible deluges become uncontrollable they have to move to a more customary precipitationary environment. There’s a moral in there, I think, since the townsfolk must discover how to obtain food in the usual way. Not having read the book, I presume the usual way is the tried and tested capitalist route – so most of their needs are met by cheap labour in third world countries – rather than grown locally, in gardens, allotments, or surrounding farmland.


In the movie version, the one everyone will remember from now on, inventor Flint Lockwood (Bill Hader) is responsible for the fast-food flurries. His mono-browed, with matching moustache, widowed father (James Caan) wants him to join the business (selling sardines), and his constant companion is a monkey called Steve (Neil Patrick Harris). Flint’s reputation for failed and problematic creations precedes him, so when he conjures up food on tap it’s an enormous surprise and one the mayor (Campbell) gets fully behind.


Just to make sure all the necessary boxes are ticked, there’s TV weather girl Sam (Anna Faris), who used to be a nerd and of whom were informed reverting to type (cosmetically) is a good thing (well, it gets the science nerd hot under the collar); “This is the real you”. Actually, isn’t it just Flint’s idea of the real her? That’s right, allow others to tell you who the real you is; it amounts to about the same as peer pressure conform to some beauty myth. At least Lord and Miller are intent on giving kids conflicting messages; way to really mess with their heads. Flint grows up convinced he is different and that he has something unique to offer the world, a contrast to the resolutely un-special Emmett in The Lego Movie.


There are vague rumblings of economic commentary in here, but it is unclear to what end. When the local cannery closes, the townsfolk must subsist off sardines; Flint’s invention is a result of his attempts to aid the populace in their plight, but gets out of control. There’s a “perils of science unleashed” theme in here, except that it is only the greed of the locals for more and more that causes the mutations that blight their prosperity (so science unshackled from the constraints of market forces will be wholly beneficial?) Alternatively, one might see the rain of junk food as a metaphor for homogenous branded outlets destroying local communities’ identities and self-sufficiency; they provide a quick fix until it is realised there’s nothing left. Which means Flint is the big corporations (the science nerd made good), apparently serving our needs but actually massaging his own ego and bank balance. The ever-expanding mayor, the politician pressing after votes rather than a better life for his constituents, is the incarnation of greed and profit itself.


Yet there isn’t anything really daring or intriguing or surprising about this movie. Nothing more than a lesson kids are told anyway; junk food is bad for you (I’m not sure that “Sardines are super gross” is entirely fair, however; I’ve always rather liked them). Free junk food is bad also. Just like junk food you have to pay for. It makes you fat. There might have been room for a The Man in the White Suit lesson in the perversity of a profit-based system, where the invention of something that removes the need for labour and toil (and jobs) is rebelled against, because it undermines the familiar system (Tesla; see below). What if Flint had created unlimited supplies of nourishing food instead?  How would the cartoon corporations react to the promise of free food for all, an end to starvation? Nah, it’s just a kid’s film.


The asides the directors and their animators throw in are more engaging than the plot itself. Posters on Flint’s wall depict Alexander Graham Bell and Nikola Tesla (Hollywood has come round to bigging up the latter, but what chance of shedding a light on his less accepted ideas; not much, I suspect, although Flint’s lab is modelled on Wardenclyffe Tower, site of Tesla’s curtailed experiments with wireless electricity transmission). The only requirements for a weather girl are to be cute and “super perky”. A sardine, breaking free of Sardine Land, shouts for joy only to be carried off by a passing seagull. A cello made of jello. “I need a celery. Stat.” There’s also the occasional full-on portion of weirdness (for a movie with giant food stuffs plummeting from the heavens, the picture surprising lacks any real spark or distinctiveness); Flint and his pals are surrounded by a platoon of plucked, headless chickens, straight out of a David Lynch film. Gummi bear “gremlins” cause havoc on the wing of a plane. However, the third act action food storm spectacle, as Flint attempts to save the day (to right the mess he made, essentially), is little more than a de rigueur series of CGI toonery action set pieces.


Lord and Miller are funny guys with an untarnished Midas touch. I particularly look forward to seeing what they do with one of my ‘80s TV favourites, The Greatest American Hero (how to fill the gap of the unassailable Robert Culp, that’s the big challenge). They took on Cloudy after it had been in development for several years at Sony, and delivered something watchable and occasionally witty, but it lacking the style and personality of the best animation fare. That slickness is evident in The Lego Movie too; the appeals to the heart or delivery of moral lessons (they really just wanted to make a disaster movie here) are prescribed within the family movie formula, rather than elements they have nurtured and care about.





Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

What ho, Brinkley. So, do you think we’re going to get along, what?

Jeeves and Wooster 2.4: Jeeves in the Country  (aka Chuffy)
The plundering of Thank You, Jeeves elicits two more of the series’ best episodes, the first of which finds Bertie retiring to the country with a new valet, the insolent, incompetent and inebriate Brinkley (a wonderfully sour, sullen performance from Fred Evans, who would receive an encore in the final season), owing to Jeeves being forced to resign over his master’s refusal to give up the trumpet (“not an instrument for a gentleman”; in the book, it’s a banjulele).

Chuffnall Hall is the setting (filmed at Wrotham Park in Hertfordshire), although the best of the action takes place around Bertie’s digs in Chuffnall Regis (Clovelly, Devon), which old pal Reginald “Chuffy” Chuffnell (Marmaduke Lord Chuffnell) has obligingly rented him, much to the grievance of the villagers, who have to endure his trumpeting disrupting the beatific beach (it’s a lovely spot, one of the most evocative in the series).

Jeeves is snapped up into the e…

Exit bear, pursued by an actor.

Paddington 2 (2017)
(SPOILERS) Paddington 2 is every bit as upbeat and well-meaning as its predecessor. It also has more money thrown at it, a much better villain (an infinitely better villain) and, in terms of plotting, is more developed, offering greater variety and a more satisfying structure. Additionally, crucially, it succeeds in offering continued emotional heft and heart to the Peruvian bear’s further adventures. It isn’t, however, quite as funny.

Even suggesting such a thing sounds curmudgeonly, given the universal applause greeting the movie, but I say that having revisited the original a couple of days prior and found myself enjoying it even more than on first viewing. Writer-director Paul King and co-writer Simon Farnaby introduce a highly impressive array of set-ups with huge potential to milk their absurdity to comic ends, but don’t so much squander as frequently leave them undertapped.

Paddington’s succession of odd jobs don’t quite escalate as uproariously as they migh…

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

Don't give me any of that intelligent life crap, just give me something I can blow up.

Dark Star (1974)
(SPOILERS) Is Dark Star more a John Carpenter film or more a Dan O’Bannon one? Until the mid ‘80s it might have seemed atypical of either of them, since they had both subsequently eschewed comedy in favour of horror (or thriller). And then they made Big Trouble in Little China and Return of the Living Dead respectively, and you’d have been none-the-wiser again. I think it’s probably fair to suggest it was a more personal film to O’Bannon, who took its commercial failure harder, and Carpenter certainly didn’t relish the tension their creative collaboration brought (“a duel of control” as he put it), as he elected not to work with his co-writer/ actor/ editor/ production designer/ special effects supervisor again. Which is a shame, as, while no one is ever going to label Dark Star a masterpiece, their meeting of minds resulted in one of the decade’s most enduring cult classics, and for all that they may have dismissed it/ seen only its negatives since, one of the best mo…

Ruination to all men!

The Avengers 24: How to Succeed…. At Murder
On the one hand, this episode has a distinctly reactionary whiff about it, pricking the bubble of the feminist movement, with Steed putting a female assassin over his knee and tickling her into submission. On the other, it has Steed putting a female assassin over his knee and tickling her into submission. How to Succeed… At Murder (a title play on How to Succeed at Business Without Really Trying, perhaps) is often very funny, even if you’re more than a little aware of the “wacky” formula that has been steadily honed over the course of the fourth season.

You just keep on drilling, sir, and we'll keep on killing.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2016)
(SPOILERS) The drubbing Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk received really wasn’t unfair. I can’t even offer it the “brave experiment” consolation on the basis of its use of a different frame rate – not evident in itself on 24fps Blu ray, but the neutering effect of the actual compositions is, and quite tellingly in places – since the material itself is so lacking. It’s yet another misguided (to be generous to its motives) War on Terror movie, and one that manages to be both formulaic and at times fatuous in its presentation.

The irony is that Ang Lee, who wanted Billy Lynn to feel immersive and realistic, has made a movie where nothing seems real. Jean-Christophe Castelli’s adaptation of Ben Fountain’s novel is careful to tread heavily on every war movie cliché it can muster – and Vietnam War movie cliché at that – as it follows Billy Lynn (British actor Joe Alwyn) and his unit (“Bravo Squad”) on a media blitz celebrating their heroism in 2004 Iraq …

The wolves are running. Perhaps you would do something to stop their bite?

The Box of Delights (1984)
If you were at a formative age when it was first broadcast, a festive viewing of The Box of Delightsmay well have become an annual ritual. The BBC adaptation of John Masefield’s 1935 novel is perhaps the ultimate cosy yuletide treat. On a TV screen, at any rate. To an extent, this is exactly the kind of unashamedly middle class-orientated bread-and-butter period production the corporation now thinks twice about; ever so posh kids having jolly adventures in a nostalgic netherworld of Interwar Britannia. Fortunately, there’s more to it than that. There is something genuinely evocative about Box’s mythic landscape, a place where dream and reality and time and place are unfixed and where Christmas is guaranteed a blanket of thick snow. Key to this is the atmosphere instilled by director Renny Rye. Most BBC fantasy fare doe not age well but The Box of Delights is blessed with a sinister-yet-familiar charm, such that even the creakier production decisions may be vie…

In a few moments, you will have an experience that will seem completely real. It will be the result of your subconscious fears transformed into your conscious awareness.

Brainstorm (1983)
(SPOILERS) Might Brainstorm have been the next big thing – a ground-breaking, game-changing cinematic spectacle that had as far reaching consequences as Star Wars (special effects) or Avatar (3D) – if only Douglas Trumbull had been allowed to persevere with his patented “Showscan” process (70mm film photographed and projected at 60 frames per second)? I suspect not; one only has to look at the not-so-far-removed experiment of Ang Lee with Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, and how that went down like a bag of cold sick, to doubt that any innovation will necessarily catch on (although Trumbull at least had a narrative hinge on which to turn his “more real than real” imagery, whereas Lee’s pretty much boiled down to “because it was there”). Brainstorm’s story is, though, like its title, possibly too cerebral, too much concerned with the consciousness and touting too little of the cloyingly affirmative that Bruce Rubin inevitably brings to his screenplays. That doesn’t mea…

You keep a horse in the basement?

The ‘Burbs (1989)
(SPOILERS) The ‘Burbs is Joe Dante’s masterpiece. Or at least, his masterpiece that isn’t his bite-the-hand-that-feeds-you masterpiece Gremlins 2: The New Batch, or his high profile masterpiece Gremlins. Unlike those two, the latter of which bolted out of the gate and took audiences by surprise with it’s black wit subverting the expected Spielberg melange, and the first which was roundly shunned by viewers and critics for being absolutely nothing like the first and waving that fact gleefully under their noses, The ‘Burbs took a while to gain its foothold in the Dante pantheon. 

It came out at a time when there had been a good few movies (not least Dante’s) taking a poke at small town Americana, and it was a Tom Hanks movie when Hanks was still a broad strokes comedy guy (Big had just made him big, Turner and Hooch was a few months away; you know you’ve really made it when you co-star with a pooch). It’s true to say that some, as with say The Big Lebowski, “got it” on fi…