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Capsule reviews of films playing the week of Sept. 30 

Current Releases

CLOUDY WITH A CHANCE OF MEATBALLS Although it's based on a children's book (by Judi and Ron Barrett), this animated charmer is one of those equal-opportunity exercises that provides as much merriment for adults as for kids. After all, it's the grownups who are sure to get a chuckle out of a voice cast diverse enough to include Bruce Campbell, James Caan and Mr. T, and it's the grownups who will pick up on the movie's gentle ecological themes. As for the rest, the adults will feel like kids when bombarded by the film's freewheeling innovations and bright color schemes – all made even more irresistible in 3-D. The film's central character is Flint Lockwood (Bill Hader), a gangly inventor whose latest contraption – a device that turns water into food – seems to be a winner. After its unceremonious launch into the heavens, the machine pours down all sorts of cuisine – hamburgers, pancakes, pasta, you name it – on a regular basis. Flint becomes the town's savior, but stormy weather lies ahead. The visual design of Cloudy is wondrous: There's something inherently amusing in seeing a castle built out of gelatin or a street lined with ice cream rather than snow, and the movie repeatedly offers up these gastronomical delights. Yet underlying the frivolity is a warning about our nation's gluttonous and wasteful ways, a message certainly to be lost on children (who'll wish they had their own candy-dispensing machine hovering above their homes) but relevant to environmentally aware adults. Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs is an entertaining ride, but it doesn't possess the lasting power of, say, this summer's Up or any of the other top-tier animated features that stick with us for the long haul. It's more comfortable in the company of Kung Fu Panda and Monster House: Like those worthy animated features, this one shows up, gets the job done, and leaves us feeling satisfactorily full. ***

DISTRICT 9 District 9 is Independence Day for the art-house set. Although its press launch has been so deafening that it's managed to permeate the mainstream consciousness, its modest approach and meaty metaphors will curry greater favor with filmgoers who opt for Tsotsi over Transformers. And although it's already being hailed in many quarters as a model of originality, the truth of the matter is that the film follows genre conventions just as often as it heads off in its own direction. Like Independence Day, it treats the cinema of science fiction as its own buffet table, picking and choosing which ideas would best serve its own intentions. And in doing so, it comes up with a dish that's juicy in both execution and endgame. Back in 1981, an enormous alien craft appeared in the sky above Johannesburg, South Africa; the voyagers, malnourished and stranded on a spaceship too damaged to go anywhere else, were rounded up and placed in a slum area known as District 9. Now it's been nearly three decades since their arrival, and the million-plus aliens, known dismissively as "prawns" because of their physical appearance, continue to wallow in filth and poverty, conditions that convince the South African government to move them further away from the city limits so as to minimize their contact with humans even more. The specter of apartheid is never far removed from the actions occurring throughout District 9, but writer-director Neill Blomkamp and co-scripter Terri Tatchell never turn this into a heavy-handed screed. Instead, they approach the issues of racism and xenophobia mindful of their knotty ramifications. Imagination runs a bit short toward the end, as District 9 largely turns into a standard chase thriller and viewers are asked to swallow a bit more than even their disbelief-suspending minds might accept. But in a nice twist from the standard Hollywood blockbuster, this Australian import employs its special effects to save the day rather than ruin it, using superb CGI wizardry to draw us into the final battles instead of relying on obvious fakery to distance us from the proceedings. ***

(500) DAYS OF SUMMER The beauty of this utterly winning picture is that it doesn't live in a generational vacuum: Like the best films of its kind, its tale of young love (and all the accompanying trials and tribulations) will speak to all ages. Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as Tom Hansen, a sweet kid who works for a greeting card company. Into the workplace walks new employee Summer Finn (Zooey Deschanel), and Tom is immediately smitten. Summer, however, isn't on the same page: More cynical in nature, she doesn't particularly subscribe to the notion of true love and sees Tom as a "friend with benefits." Tom does his best to keep their union afloat, but he obviously has his work cut out for him. Rather than spill the story in chronological order, this jumps back and forth to various points in the relationship, showing the pair happy one minute and gloomy the next. In the wrong hands, such a decision might have turned out unwieldly or awkward, but here the scenes flow smoothly, making sense not only narratively (on-screen markers always alert us to the day being shown) but also emotionally, allowing us to fully understand and appreciate how earlier incidents might affect the characters' mindsets during later ones. Ultimately, none of this would work without the proper actors, and Gordon-Levitt and Deschanel are adorable talents whose open faces and inviting eyes seem to allow audiences access to their very psyches. Because of them, we find ourselves completely invested in Tom and Summer, and their love story becomes our love story, warts and all. Don't miss the brilliant cameo of sorts by a Star Wars character, the result being the funniest moment in any film released thus far in 2009. ***1/2

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  • On Saturday, Oct. 21, hundreds gathered at Camp North End on Statesville Avenue for Charlotte's first black alternative music festival. We captured some of the bands in action on stage, but mostly we surveyed the grounds as fans, families, vendors and more lounged around the sprawling, colorful Camp North End site. It was a great day of music, food, fun, and sweet, autumn sunshine. (Photos by Mark Kemp)
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