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 heĀ  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.

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