Three movies: Mutant food, intense racing competition and a search for a meaningful relationship

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2″ has the necessary ingredients for an effective family-oriented animated feature. There is an uncomplicated story with a life lesson, along with sight gags, for the younger audience, and enough detail and G-rated humor that adults could appreciate.

The story picks up where the original left off, with dedicated but erratic inventor Flint Lockwood (voice of Bill Hader), after having to destroy his out-of-control food creator nevertheless getting an opportunity to work at Live Corp Company, founded and operated by his childhood idol Chester V (Will Forte). Although his Live Corp is a wildly successful incubator for inventions, Chester V is obsessed with recovering and reactivating Flint’s food machine and tasks the young man to go back to his home island and find it.

Naturally, Flint’s father Tim (James Caan) and his friends Sam Sparks (Anna Faris), Manny (Benjamin Bratt), Earl (Terry Crews) and Brent (Andy Samberg), along with the scene-stealer pet monkey Steve (Neil Patrick Harris), join the quest.

What they encounter on the island is a virtual paradise of food mutated into living beings. Well, it’s not all paradise at first. Cheeseburgers tend to be nasty, using their cheese as a spider does its web. But this all makes for a lot of fun wordplay with these tasty creatures — tacodiles, apple pie-thons, shrimpanzees — some of which induce giggles and some of which induce groans. The cute factor is ratcheted up also, especially with strawberries and marshmallows.

Co-directors Cody Cameron and Kris Pearn are new in the directors’ ranks but combined have put together extensive work in other animated features series such as “Shrek,” “Madagascar” and “Open Season.” Thus, “Cloudy” is impeccable in its colorful animation and detail.

While the story is simplistic, there are numerous amusements for the adults while the children will be held rapt by all the action.

“RUSH”

Ron Howard has proven an adept director of movies based on true stories, notably “Apollo 13,” “A Beautiful Mind” and “Frost/Nixon,” and in “Rush” he tackles the intense rivalry in the 1970s between Formula 1 race car drivers Niki Lauda from Austria and James Hunt from England.

Chris Hemsworth as Hunt and Daniel Bruhl as Lauda bear striking resemblances to the real men they portray, and the script by Peter Morgan, who adapted his “Frost/Nixon” play to the screen for Howard, allows enough off-track time to explore the relationship between these two fiercely competitive drivers.

The two first meet in the early 1970s at the Formula 3 level of racing but it is clear they both are destined to get to Formula 1. Most of “Rush” focuses on the 1976 racing season and the quest to be world champion. Lauda goes into the ’76 season as defending champion, moving to the top of the racing world while Hunt, after his initial racing team disbands because of financial difficulties, finally lands a contract with McLaren.

Morgan’s script has been criticized for taking license in depicting the relationship between the two men. Hunt had a reputation of being a playboy and was married three times, although only his first marriage, to Suzy (Olivia Wilde), is shown in “Rush.” He is portrayed by Hemsworth as a hard-living guy but all-business on the track

Bruhl’s Lauda is seen as a stoic, totally serious character, confident, with a tendency to rub people the wrong way. Even as he falls in love and marries Marlene (Alexandra Maria Lara). he admits to not being a romantic.

The interplay between these two men is shown in “Rush” as one of on-track respect but of conflict away from the race cars. Lauda, focused and disciplined, chides Hunt for his overactive social life, implying that might contribute to Hunt losing his edge. Hunt, in retaliation, suggests Lauda should loosen up and he  might then be more well-liked by his racing brethren.

Lauda himself has said that he and Hunt, for all their different approaches to their lives, actually were quite friendly. He said he and Hunt often chatted pre-race. In “Rush,” Hunt is shown as being more likable in the racing community and more quotable in dealing with the press, but the movie does illustrate Lauda’s popularity among race fans.

Lauda’s near-fatal crash at Nurburgring on Aug. 1, 1976, was a turning point in the season. Although he returned to racing within six weeks, his lead over Hunt in season points had dwindled, leading up to a neck-in-neck run down to the final race.

The racing scenes take on a noisy “Fast and Furious” tone but are thankfully not particularly long. Still, those of us not familiar with the story are kept on edge during the season finale race, not knowing who prevailed in the final standings in 1976.

The story in “Rush” is pretty familiar — many fictional racing movies have the same theme of a tenacious battle between two men, ego-driven and willing to challenge the odds of death. That they respect each other, while not necessarily being buddies, has been shown before. Thanks to superb interplay between Hemsworth and Bruhl, crafted by Howard and Morgan, “Rush” produces character texture that has the audience acknowledging the flaws of these men while admiring their courage and spirit.

“DON JON”

Joseph Gordon-Levitt took a big chance when he decided to write, direct and star in a movie. Such projects risk being dismissed as being ego-driven and pretentious.

Gordon-Levitt gets to cozy up to Scarlett Johansson and Julianne Moore in his “Don Jon,” a movie in which he as the main character has enough depth to avoid the pitfalls of being too cool or too despicable.

Gordon-Levitt’s Jon Martello is a 20- to 30-something New Jersey man whose life seems so polar. He joins his family for Mass every Sunday, but spews obscenities at other drivers while en route to church. He is a meticulous housekeeper, often has dinner with his parents and sister. He hangs with his buddies while often ridiculing them.

He is also quite successful in wooing the ladies and has a very active life in that regard. But he also has a need to view explicit adult entertainment on the Internet. He admits that viewing such material delivers an emotional payoff he finds missing when he beds down women.

His life gets complicated when one of his pickups, Barbara Sugarman (Johansson), really puts the hook into him. Suddenly he is happily locked into a relationship with Barbara, even to the point of bringing her to meet his family and going to meet hers. Theirs seems to be a perfect matching, and she even talks him into taking night classes so he can get a degree. But there is a problem — he still needs his adult entertainment fix. There still is an emotional void in his life, even when he is with Barbara.

Gordon-Levitt’s clever script adeptly uses a weekly event –his Sunday confessions — to serve as a gauge of his life. He sins regularly, but if the quantity of his sins is down, it’s been a good week as far as his spiritual life is concerned.

While the Jon-Barbara tract of this story takes a predictable path, Gordon-Levitt adds dimension with Moore’s character, Esther, an older woman Jon meets at his night class. Esther’s forthright manner serves to irritate Jon initially, but as she offers some pretty wise insight into Jon’s behavior, he finds himself drawn to her in a way he never would have expected.

“Don Jon” is a very adult movie, one which can make a viewer squirm as it unabashedly tackles intimate issues. It is a character-driven movie and Gordon-Levitt displays talent as a writer. There are some misses, notably in the later scenes that diminish Barbara and some moments with Tony Danza as Jon’s father that fall into the strained-family-relations cliche. But his wise use of Esther, a quiet but strong portrayal by Moore that injects wisdom and maturity into the story, leads to a feel-good conclusion that is very plausible.

‘Prisoners’ puts audience through emotional wringer

Well-acted and superbly crafted but a little long at more than 150 minutes, “Prisoners” tests the audience’s will to endure an emotional journey while trying to unravel the mystery.

Director Denis Villeneuve and screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski (“Contraband”) have mostly succeeded in putting together a story that is gripping and intense and an actors’ showcase, but they are faulty in having extended scenes that could have been streamlined. This movie is about 30 minutes longer than it needs to be.

Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal provide the emotional core in “Prisoners” as two men equally driven but with opposite temperaments. Jackman’s Keller Dover is a husband and father with strong religious convictions and family values — a man whose existence centers around being a steadfast protector of his wife and children.

Gyllenhaal’s Det. Loki is a dedicated and meticulous police officer, patient and focused — a man with no family, thus totally committed to his job.

These two very forceful personalities are brought together on a Thanksgiving evening when, during a gathering of the Dovers at the home of their  friends Franklin and Nancy Birch (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis), the two youngest daughters in each family, taking a walk back to the Dover house, disappear.

The only clue to the girls’ disappearance is a mysterious and grimy camper seen parked in the area earlier. Loki, dining alone at a Chinese restaurant — one of the few places open on Thanksgiving — is nearby when the call comes in about the suspected abduction and the camper, and is on hand when the camper is found.

Inside the camper is a young man named Alex Jones (Paul Dano), who at first seems like a perfect suspect. However, he appears to be mentally disabled, and there is no sign of the girls. Loki interrogates Alex but cannot extract any useful information from him on the location of the girls. The camper is picked clean by forensics people who find no evidence the girls were in the vehicle.

Loki, who has a reputation for solving all of his cases, contains his intensity, although a nervous eye-tick and a short fuse when dealing with his superior, Capt. O’Malley (Wayne Duvall) belie his calm, cool exterior. To his frustration, there is not enough evidence to continue to hold Alex, who is released.

This of course sets off Keller, whose wife Grace (Maria Bello) has fallen apart and pretty much rendered into a stupor via medication. Desperate, Keller takes matters into his own hands, making a very reluctant Franklin an accessory to his efforts.

The depth of “Prisoners” is that in addition to being a riveting crime thriller, it is also a character study. All of the characters are laid out there raw, their actions totally human — often irrational with some moments of clarity. Even Dano’s Alex, at times seemingly a personification of evil in an emotionally immature framework, garners some sympathy.

Every actor in “Prisoners” has at least one showcase moment, including Melissa Leo as Alex’ devoted aunt Holly Jones. But it is the interplay of Jackman and Gyllenhaal, two hefty personalities in their characters, who compound the emotional power of this movie.

Scary times

Shriekfest, the annual horror/science fiction film festival and screenplay competition is set for Oct. 4-6 at the Chaplin Theater in Los Angeles. Screenings will begin at 7 p.m Friday, Oct. 4, with screenings starting at noon on Saturday and Sunday, Oct. 5-6. An awards show begins 10 p.m. Sunday. www.shriekfest.com.

Also: Son of Monsterpalooza will take place Oct. 11-13 at the Marriott Burbank Airport Hotel and Convention Center. Featured guests will include the cast of “Killer Klowns from Outer Space,” Nastassja Kinski (“Cat People”), Dee Wallace (“The Howling,” “Lords of Salem”) Jeffrey Combs (“Re-Animator”), Lisa Loring (“The Addams Family” television show), Russell Streiner (“Night of the Living Dead”), Bela Lugosi Jr. and Victoria Price, daughter of Vincent Price.

Tickets are $20 per day — $25 at the door on Saturday — or $50 for a three-day pass. www.monsterpalooza.com

Nasty spirits will not go away in ‘Insidious: Chapter 2′

Director James Wan and writer Leigh Whannell, who took horror to a new level in “Saw,” are well on their way to a new franchise, exploring the paranormal with “Insidious.” This is the now-familiar theme of a family thrown into terror when spirits that are the antithesis of Casper the Friendly Ghost drop in and prove to be nasty guests.

“Insidious,” which hit theaters in spring 2011, is the story of the Lamberts, whose world is turned inside out when son Dalton (Ty Simpkins) falls into a coma after a mysterious incident in the attic of their house. Parents Josh (Patrick Wilson) and Renai (Rose Byrne) seek the help of expert Elise Rainier (Lin Shaye), who uncovers key secrets of the past and helps Josh enter the spiritual world and pull Dalton out. But it is costly, as Elise is found murdered.

“Insidious: Chapter 2″ opens with a back story dating to 1986. Elise first meets Josh as a child, summoned to the home by Lorraine Lambert (Jocelin Donahue playing the younger version of the character portrayed in current day by Barbara Hershey). Young Josh in his dreams punches through to the spiritual world, and under hypnosis administered by Elise begins communicating with an unseen entity. In a superb piece of casting, Lindsay Seim is excellent as a younger Elise.

Back to present day, the story picks up where “Insidious” left off, with Dalton out of the coma and the police investigating the death of Elise — and Josh as a possible suspect. With the house being a crime scene, the Lamberts relocate to Lorraine’s house — a bad idea considering that Lorraine, like her son, likes to live in a multi-story, creaky house with lots of squeaky doors and a basement. The house might as well have a banner stretched across its front saying: Restless spirits welcome — all creepy amenities included.

Although Josh is cleared of Elise’s death, something is not quite right with him since he rescued Dalton. When the usual spooky things commence in this house, Renai is convinced the paranormal entities have followed them into the residence, while Josh gets suspiciously more intense in his denials that anything is wrong.

The fright factor in “Insidious: Chapter 2″ has been diluted by overexposure. After all, doors opening up slowly, radios coming on, pianos playing by themselves and toys coming to life tend to get blase after the 100th movie about ghosts. Fortunately, the Wan-Whannell team  adds intrigue to the story, building hints as to what, if anything, is wrong with not only the present Josh, but what was going on with him back in 1986. Whannell, incidentally, recreates his role as paranormal investigator assistant Specs, and Angus Sampson returns as the other assistant Tucker, offering the comedy relief of these sometimes bumbling guys.

Also, Shaye, whose Elise was a fan favorite among “Insidious” aficionados, makes a popular return. The story line forces viewers to pay attention and there are some clever and unexpected tie-ins, making this chapter, while not as frightful, effectively creepy, capping it with a teaser — yes, at least one more chapter in the “Insidious” story appears to be inevitable, and the expectations will be high. The Wan-Whannell team has shown to have the chops to keep the story fresh amid a well-worn theme.

In “Riddick,” Diesel does what he does best

A year before he began to establish his signature character, the charismatic Dominic Toretto from the “Fast and Furious” franchise, Vin Diesel began to build his formidable screen presence via the character Richard B. Riddick.

It started with the TV movie “The Chronicles of Riddick: Into Pitch Black” in 2000, which served as a prelude to the first theatrical release featuring the Riddick character, “Pitch Black,” that same year.

In “Pitch Black,” Diesel’s Riddick is a dangerous convict who is being transported on a space vehicle with 40 other people when it crash-lands on a desert planet. There, the survivors discover that dangerous beings come out at night, primed to devour the people. Not only that, a long eclipse is about to occur, leaving the planet in darkness. Thus it is Riddick’s survival skills that become vital.

In the followup film, “The Chronicles of Riddick” in 2004, the character, now a hunted man, finds himself in the middle of two opposing forces in a major crusade and finds himself reaching into his own humanity.

Eventually he becomes a lord marshal, but he is clearly out of his element.

As “Riddick” begins, Riddick is fed up with ruling and wants to go to his home planet of Furya, but is betrayed by “Chronicle” holdover Vaako (Karl Urban) and left for dead on a desolate planet.

As Riddick says in a voice-over when he assesses his current situation, “There are bad days, and there are legendary bad days.” Yet you get the feeling that even as he has to fight for his life from  beasts that look like a cross between a jackal and a dingo, and serpents that hide in the rare spots of muck, he really is content.

Capturing one of the jackal-dingo beasts as a pup, which grows up to become a faithful pet, Riddick sets out on foot and eventually comes to an abandoned outpost, where he is able to send out a beacon, hoping to attract a ship he might be able to obtain one way or another and escape the planet.

Two teams of bounty hunters arrive, one a freelance mercenary group lead by Santana (Jodi Molla) who has among his men Diaz, played by the former professional wrestler Dave Bautista. The other group seems to have some sort of government backing, arriving with a lot more weaponry and led by Boss Johns (Matt Nable), who has a personal stake in that his son William J. Johns (played b y Cole Hauser) was killed by Riddick in “Pitch Black.”

At this point, the movie takes on a familiar form of a story in which one person is out-manned and outgunned but is able to use patience and knowledge of the elements to prevail, usually picking off foes one by one.

Fortunately, the script, co-written with Jim Wheat by director Jim Twohy — who also penned the earlier Riddick adventures — takes time to explore the two bounty hunter teams, establishing competitive tension between the two, including the exchange of verbal zingers and fisticuffs — the latter delivered by Dahl (Katee Sackhoff from “Longmire”), who does not take anything from anybody.

Riddick does outwit these people a few times, but in the end even he is upstaged by the CGI-created creatures that prove to be far more deadly than Riddick.

There are no real surprises here since it is inevitable Riddick will continue to survive until the paying movie audience renders Riddick passe by no longer showing up to see him. Until then, this Diesel character, a man of few words but huge presence, is fun to watch.

Somber tone, lack of focus bog down ‘The Grandmaster’

Kar Wai Wong’s “The Grandmaster” is at its best when it swings into action with its superbly choreographed kung fu confrontations. While it provides fascinating information on martial arts and their various disciplines, its attempts to be a biopic become disjointed.

Marketed to be the story of Ip Man, who spread the Wing Chun style of kung fu around the world and became famous for being Bruce Lee’s master,”The Grandmaster” starts out promising, showing Ip Man’s mastery as he prevails over several foes. Ip Man (Tony Leung), in a voice-over, then offers a brief history of his first 40 years, which he calls the springtime of his life — his early years of kung fu study and practice, his loving marriage and family, his thriving business in Forshan, southern China.

The story then picks up when the aging master Gong Yutian (Qingxiang Wang) arrives from the north in an effort to consolidate his power. Ip Man is chosen to face Gong Yitian and prevails in a battle of minds, but Gong Yutian’s daughter Gong Er (Ziyi Zhang from “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”) gains some measure of restoring family honor by besting Ip Man in a friendly duel.

Ip  Man’s plans to go north and face more Gong challenges gets stymied with the invasion by the  Japanese in the late 1930s. Ip Man refuses to collaborate with the Japanese, thus putting himself and his family in jeopardy, entering what he calls the winter of his life.

Desperate to support his family, Ip Man travels alone to Hong Kong to establish a Wing Chun school in an already saturated market of kung fun instruction. Adding to his troubles, political actions permanently separate him from his family.

While in Hong Kong, Ip Man tracks down Gong Er, now a doctor, and at this point the movie shifts its focus to the woman, recalling her quest to avenge her father’s death at the hands of a former protege, Ma San (Jin Zhang), her vow of celibacy and final bout with Ma San.

While this portion of “The Grandmaster” provides some emotional impact, given the fondness Ip Man and Gong Er have for each other but cannot act upon, the movie never gets back on track in resuming Ip Man’s story. Those expecting to see Ip Man’s serving as master to Bruce Lee in the budding martial arts superstar’s training will be disappointed. Only a couple of brief scenes are shown.

Visually, “The Grandmaster” is stunning despite the somber tone throughout the movie. Even the settings are dark — the sun never seems to shine in China; it is either pouring down rain or snowing.

Leung and Ziyi Zhang elevate the movie with their kung fu moves, naturally vanquishing foes without becoming winded or raising a sweat. Zhang’s brutal fight with Ma San is conducted while she wears a heavy fur coat.

For those not familiar with the history of kung fu, “The Grandmaster” is a good quick lesson in all the factions of this martial arts and the philosophies within. It’s just a shame it did not explore more the inner workings of a master like Ip Man.

 The Story of Film: An Odyssey

Turner Classic Movies on Sept. 2 began its 15-week programming event, “The Story of Film: An Odyssey.” The event, which will run until Dec. 9, plans to offer 119 feature films and dozens of short subjects, including films from 29 countries. The history will begin with 1895 and go to present times, offering opportunities to catch classic movies from the various eras over the last century-plus. Information can be found at www.tcm.com/storyoffilm.

New streaming

Fans of Charles Brand, creator of unique horror and fantasy films, will be glad to learn Brand has launched Full Moon Streaming, a subscription-based movie and interactive streaming site. The interactive service will invite participation, of course, along with contests, giveaways, merchandise tie-ins and treasure hunts. The subscription rate is $6.99 per month. www.fullmoonstreaming.com.