CARS 2: The Film Babble Blog Review

CARS 2 (Dirs. John Lasseter & Brad Lewis, 2011)

CARS and it’s new sequel opening today, CARS 2, are the most commercial and formulaic films of all the Pixar productions. But that doesn’t mean that they suck – no, they are both fairly entertaining animated kids flicks. It’s just that this new entry in the franchise has a major problem that can be stated simply: too much Larry the Cable Guy.

Way too much.

As Tow Mater, the rusty redneck tow truck friend to Owen Wilson’s Lightning McQueen, Larry the Cable Guy (man, I hate typing that – he’ll be LCG from here on) has been promoted to the lead character here. LCG gets mistakenly caught up in a secret spy mission involving Michael Caine as a British agent Aston Martin model (obviously 007-ish), and his partner in espionage Emily Mortimer, also a sleek European car outfitted with snazzy gadgets.

Meanwhile, Wilson is competing with John Turturro as an arrogant Italian race car in the first World Grand Prix to determine the world’s fastest car. This takes us to the gorgeously rendered locations of Tokyo, Paris, and London which often distracts from the flimsy predictable plot. Eddie Izzard voices a army green SUV billionaire who’s promoting a green gasoline substitute fueling the vehicles in the Grand Prix.

So Caine and Mortimer with the scrappy help of LCG work to take down the bad guys trying to discredit the threat to traditional gasoline. If you can’t guess the identity of the mysterious villain way before it’s revealed then you’re probably not paying attention. Or Pixar has succeeded in dazzling you enough that you don’t care.

LCG was fine in small doses in the first CARS, but its a major malfunction to make Mater the central dominant character. His one note bucktoothed presence grated on me in every scene, and the tired premise of  his dumb luck reeks of comic desperation, which is very surprising in a Pixar film.

No Pixar palette should ever attempt to balance the likes of Michael Caine and Larry the Cable Guy (felt I should type it out this time).

As I said, CARS 2 isn’t awful, it’s just awfully average for a Pixar film. There are some fun sequences, but after the company’s heights of the last several years (RATATOUILLE, WALL-E, UP, TOY STORY 3) this sequel feels like treading water. And with its over abundance of country bumpkin crap via one of the unfunniest and irritating comedians of all time, it barely keeps afloat.

Oh yeah, there is a amusing TOY STORY short called “Hawaiian Vacation” before the movie so that’s a definite plus.

More later…

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Movie Reviews: HARRY BROWN & SOLITARY MAN

Despite the amazing anomaly that is TOY STORY 3 the summer keeps on suckin’. But if you bypass the multiplex and head to the indie/art theater you may a few interesting diversions. Okay, at least one:

HARRY BROWN (Dir. Daniel Barber, 2010)


Tiny white titles on the side of the screen tell us “Michael Caine is Harry Brown.” The lettering is dwarfed by the darkness of the rest of the frame. The title character fares at bit better against the darkness – at least at first. We see Caine waking up in his South London flat to face the grim day. He has his head held high as he walks through his neighborhood on his way to the hospital to visit his dying wife (Liz Daniels). There is a particular noisy graffiti covered underground passageway he hesitantly passes.

After his visit Caine plays chess at a shady pub with a long-time friend (David Bradley) who is also afraid of the gang activity, but to a greater extreme. Bradley has armed himself with a old army bayonet and fully intends to use it against the harassing hoods. In the night Caine’s wife dies; he is unable to be with her because of the additional distance he must travel by avoiding the tunnel. The next morning Caine is visited by police detectives (Emily Mortimer and Joseph Gilgun) who inform him that Bradley was murdered – the killing happens off-screen but we do see some of the offending incident leading up to it.


Caine, of course, takes the law into his own hands to avenge his friend’s death. He gets in a shoot-out in a drug den; he offs a few of the punked-up thugs, and hunts down the king-pin while the police close in. My wife called it “Gran Torino UK” and, yeah, there is quite a bit of that in play – a pushed to the edge war veteran, who after his wife dies, takes on the gangs that are threatening the well-being of his neighborhood. It’s much darker and grittier than Eastwood’s film – in fact the stark white faces of the actors
and the washed out look made me think that it could’ve been just as effectively shot in black and white.

While some sections like a way-too-long montage of police interrogation may be muddled, Caine alone gives the film a hearty gravitas. It’s maybe a minor movie but Caine owns the screen in a major way. He’s utterly believable in every moment – from his grieving over his wife to his calm intensity when facing down his enemies. HARRY BROWN has a predictable vigilante premise yet it’s still satisfying – take away the cell phone camera footage and it’s the same kind of claustrophobic thriller that could’ve been made in any era.

SOLITARY MAN
(Dirs. Brian Koppelman & David Levien, 2009)


Once again Michael Douglas plays a crassly ambitious businessman who alienates everybody around him. No wait; this isn’t WALL STREET 2: MONEY NEVER SLEEPS – that’s not in theaters until September. Here Douglas plays Ben Kalmon – a divorced defrauded former car dealership tycoon who cheats on his girlfriend (Mary Louise-Parker), borrows money from his daughter (Jenna Fischer from The Office), and spouts out existential advice about every topic to whoever will listen to him.

Louise-Parker wants Douglas to accompany her daughter (Imogen Poots) to a college interview at his alma mater. You’re right to think that is a bad idea – he’s a womanizing sleaze and despite her youth, Poots is and cynical and promiscuous to match . Jesse Eisenberg (ADVENTURELAND, ZOMBIELAND) shows up as a campus guide who Douglas gives some unheeded romantic guidance to. Where this goes to from here was unpleasant enough to watch; I’d rather not have to describe.

It’s hard to decipher what we’re supposed to take away from Douglas’s character. At first he’s a fast talking comic figure who we’re supposed to laugh at in a “that old dirty codger” way but as the pitiful dimensions of his unlikability widen each scene adds up to little more than a series of collected cringes. It benefits sporadically from a good cast – Susan Sarandon as Douglas’s ex wife appears to delight in her character’s confidence, Fisher has some strong moments standing up to her untrustworthy father, and Poots savvily strides through her cutting scenes. Eisenberg just does his patented nervous kid shtick but it’s not his fault – he’s not given enough here to do anything else with.

Danny DeVito lightly steals the film as a deli owner who knew Douglas back in his college days. DeVito dispenses the only real wisdom (and some of its only humor) the film has to offer and it’s nice to see him on-screen again with Douglas – they were co-stars in ROMANCING THE STONE, THE JEWEL OF THE NILE, and, my favorite, THE WAR OF THE ROSES. Otherwise the film doesn’t have enough of an emotional arc to it. It’s well made with convincing dialogue but its tone is too reserved and its narrative lacks drive.

Seeing Douglas interact with college students made me nostalgic for a his much better film that tackled some of the same themes – THE WONDER BOYS. There Douglas’s Grady Tripp was a thoughtful yet jaded man truly at a crossroads, here his pathetic character is just a jerk in a large hole he dug himself and I found myself not caring if he ever gets out of it.

More later…

Movie Reviews: THE SECRET OF KELLS & CITY ISLAND

THE SECRET OF KELLS
(Dirs. Tomm Moore & Nora Twomey, 2009)


It was a bit of a surprise that this was nominated by the Academy for Best Animated Feature Film of last year, because in the current computerized cartoon climate it looks distinctly out of place with its old school hand drawn design. THE SECRET OF KELLS concerns a curious kid (voiced by Evan McGuire) in the 9th century living in the Monastery of Kells. His stern uncle, Abbott Callach (Brenden Gleason) fearing Viking attack, forbids him to leave the protective walls enclosing them and venture into the mystic forest. Of course, that’s where he’s gonna go – especially now inspired by the elderly Brother Aidan (Mick Lally) who requires the boy’s help to finish his mighty magical book.

Our intrepid lad journeys into the glowing lush forest to gather berries for ink and meets a playful yet spooky fairy – Aisling (voice of Christen Moony). She guides and aids the boy also adding some cryptic warnings. Moony breathes considerable life into the piece, that is until she starts to sing (thankfully there’s just one song). The pace is tight as it winds through its earnest storytelling, but unfortunately the flat look of its animation, and the fact that its chosen style makes it look like The Powerpuff Girls gone green, detract greatly from the earnest sincerity and its otherwise stable sense of wonder. Its admirable nobility is what got it Oscar nominated, but its lack of tension and grip to its tale, elements that the winner UP had in spades, left it deservedly on the sidelines. At least since it has no thematic intensity, it’s one you don’t have to fear about taking the kids to, unless you fear that they’ll fall asleep.

Don’t consider this a complete pan though. THE SECRET OF KELLS does contain a lot of pretty imagery and the story is fairly solid, I just wish it had more oomph.

Speaking of needing more oomph:

CITY ISLAND (Dir. Raymond De Felitta, 2010)


Nearly every member of the Rizzo family, a working class Bronx family, has a secret. Father and correctional officer (he hates being called a prison guard) Andy Garcia is taking acting classes which he doesn’t tell his wife (Julianna Margulies) about, causing her to believe he’s having an affair. Their daughter (Dominik Garcia-Lorido) is working as a stripper at a sleazy club because she got kicked out of her first year of college. Their wise-cracking son (Ezra Miller) has a fetish for overweight women and is eyeing their next door neighbor (Carrie Baker Reynolds) who just happens to have a website catering to people who, uh, have fetishes for overweight women.

Also add to the mix Steven Strait, Andy Garcia’s long-lost-just-out-of-prison son, who, of course, Garcia hasn’t told anybody about – not even Strait knows he’s Garcia’s son. Garcia brings him into their home and then we fret as his wife and daughter are attracted to him – something that could have been avoided if he just told them the situation. This movie is something that could be avoided in one swift family meeting. As it goes each scene is a joke on the scene before it and not a very well timed or funny joke. The addition of Alan Arkin as a crusty acting teacher (at least he’s not a quipping grandparent who dies in the last third) just confirms the contrived and quirky nature of this tired material.

At one point, Garcia gets an audition for a Martin Scorsese film (don’t worry – Scorsese wisely doesn’t appear). Only his acting partner Emily Mortimer, who yes, he didn’t tell his family about, knows this and encourages him. These scenes are sort of sweet as Garcia has a believability about him and Mortimer makes the most of an underwritten (and unnecessary) role. If the sitcom sensibility and overreaching comic tone could have been dropped and the characters were given room to be people and not sketch premise devices, CITY ISLAND could’ve really been something other than just a watchable throwaway.

More later…