This might sound like heresy, but after seeing the extraordinary doomsday parable 9, Pixar's Up is now only my second-favorite animated work from 2009 to feature a gravelly vocal performance by Christopher Plummer.
Clocking in at a splendidly compact 75 minutes, this serious-minded sci-fi fantasy - adapted from director Shane Acker's Oscar-nominated short of the same title - is so visually spectacular, haunting, and wondrously exciting that it jazzed me like no movie I've attended since Inglourious Basterds. (And as brilliantly eccentric as Tarantino's film is, it doesn't feature a hulking metallic monstrosity racing toward the screen while Judy Garland croons "Somewhere Over the Rainbow.") There's not much plot; the movie is basically an extended chase involving a group of foot-tall creatures of burlap and cloth, with Elijah Wood's title figure attempting to protect a post-apocalyptic Earth from hostile, mechanical takeover. Yet the nearly nonstop action is staged with devastating speed and tension, and there's no end to the astonishing images on display, from the subversively comic (one of our doll-sized protagonists gets high by holding a magnet above his head) to the utterly horrific. (The numerous deaths here are both unexpected and deeply disturbing.) 9 isn't quite WALL·E, but it's an altogether ravishing and weirdly poetic achievement that finds the end of civilization positively teeming with life.
TYLER PERRY'S I CAN DO BAD ALL BY MYSELF
By titling his latest comedic soap opera Tyler Perry's I Can Do Bad All by Myself, the film's writer/director/co-producer/co-star/possible-caterer was practically begging for a critical trashing. So it's almost disappointing to discover that not only isn't the movie bad, it's significantly better than not-bad. Sure, you'll still have to contend with the heavy-handed moralizing, obvious stereotyping, and occasional narrative ludicrousness. But you'll also get Taraji P. Henson, superb as a drunken chanteuse forced to raise her deceased sister's kids (among them the heartbreaking, preternaturally gifted Hope Olaide Wilson). You'll enjoy glorious, full-length musical numbers by Gladys Knight, Mary J. Blige, and Marvin Winans. You'll witness an honest, moving romance between Henson and the soulful Adam Rodriguez. And, in the drag-act personage of the hysterically abrasive Madea, you'll be treated to some of the movie year's most achingly funny dialogue. The devoted will no doubt love it, but if you've been curious about Perry's appeal without having seen one of his movies, I Can Do Bad might be the ideal intro: You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll groove, and, perhaps despite yourself, you'll cheer Henson on as she dangles a plugged-in boom box above her abusive lover's bathtub. It's like the Tyler Perry-est Tyler Perry movie imaginable, and there's very little that's bad about that.
There's a lot to hate about Sorority Row, including, in the end, yourself, for admitting that you're actually having a good time at it. To be sure, much of director Stewart Hendler's low-rent slasher flick is terrible. When a date-rape prank leads to a sorority sister's death, the bitchy hotties of Theta Pi pledge to carry their homicidal secret to the grave - which, for most of them, doesn't take long. We wait to see whether the tire-iron-wielding killer is the victim's crazed ex-boyfriend, an unknown witness, or even - gasp! - the dead girl herself, and while we do, the asinine plotting, incessant vulgarity, and gross misogyny (which is even more repellant than the bloodshed) make the movie barely endurable. But then, with 30 minutes to go, the damnedest thing happens: Sorority Row becomes legitimately, intentionally, funny, as if the filmmakers realized that instead of laughing at it, we should probably be laughing with it. Suddenly, the previously lame dialogue begins to crackle with knowing, Scream-style wit, the violence shifts from uncomfortably grisly to comically outré, and - in a camp-classic-in-the-making touch - Carrie Fisher's boozy den mother begins blasting at her sorority house with a shotgun, and you're forced to concede that this awful movie isn't nearly as awful as you expected it to be.
Kate Beckinsale's latest is titled Whiteout, and I think I experienced one or two myself while viewing it. Director Dominic Sena's literal chiller finds Beckinsale's U.S. marshal attempting to solve a series of murders in an Antarctic research facility, and while the film is moderately involving, it proves to be even more colorless than its landscape. See if any of this sounds familiar: a crime that reminds our heroine of a previous tragedy, witnessed in frequent flashbacks, and culminating in a teary confession. A seemingly helpful stranger (Gabriel Macht) who may or may not be the murderer. A kindly doctor (Tom Skerritt) referred to as, ahem, "Doc." A protracted battle with the killer, followed by the realization that, oh my God, he isn't the killer. And a climactic title card reading - wait for it ... - "Six Months Later." For all of its professionalism and interesting Antarctic factoids (did you know that pouring 10-year-old scotch over million-year-old ice will cause the drink to foam over?), you could easily steal brief naps throughout Whiteout and not miss a thing. Plenty of genre entertainments embrace clichés, of course, but this one practically impregnates them.