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…

INCEPTION: The Film Babble Blog Review

(Dir. Christopher Nolan, 2010)

The buzz has been building for Christopher Nolan’s followup to the THE DARK KNIGHT for some time now, and it’s certainly going to get bigger as audiences see for themselves what this incredible mind bender of a movie is all about. What it’s all about I’m still working out, but I can say that it’s a vivid visual feast that’s one of the best films of the year so far.

It’s a difficult film to describe without giving away some of the pure pleasures of the plot so beware of Spoilers! Leo DiCaprio is a dream extractor – an expert in mind manipulation who deals in the underworld thievery of, well, parts of men’s minds when they are asleep and dreaming. DiCaprio works with a team including Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a “point-man” and a dream “architect” played by Lukas Haas. We meet them in the middle of a job inside of the dream state of Saito (Ken Watanabe) – a powerful Japanese business magnate.

Turns out Watanabe is auditioning DiCaprio and his crew for a bigger job involving “inception” -that is the planting of an idea into somebody’s head through the dream world. For the job they need a new architect so through DiCaprio’s professor father (the always welcome Sir Michael Caine) they are joined by a snark-free Ellen Page. DiCaprio also recruits the slick Tom Hardy to act as “forger” for the team. Dileep Rao rounds out the team as their chemist.

The target for their mind crime caper is Cillian Murphy as Watanabe’s corporate rival who has the fate of his family’s fortune in his hands upon his father’s (Pete Postlethwaite) death. Much like in his last film, Martin Scorsese’s SHUTTER ISLAND, DiCaprio is haunted by memories of his dead wife (here Marion Cotillard). Unlike SHUTTER ISLAND however here it’s impossible to guess where it’s all going.

Despite that it’s crammed with a lot of action movie clichés – shoot-outs, automobile crashes, explosions, and there’s even a sci-chase with machine guns – it never feels contrived. Its endlessly inventive dream inside of a dream inside of a dream scenarios are spell binding, and genuinely scary at times, and the towering worlds of the CGI crafted dream set pieces are overwhelmingly beautiful. Nolan and cinematographer Wally Pfister really outdid themselves on every frame. Likewise for Hans Zimmer who provides one of his most solid scores, one that swells and swoons at just the right moments.

I’ll leave other critics to make comparisons to everything from METROPOLIS to the THE MATRIX because it’s obvious that the decade it took to finish the screenplay Nolan has woven many influences and ideas into the framework. What wins out is the film threatens to burst out of the screen into real life – just like the most lucid dreams.

DiCaprio skillfully maneuvers through the action with a layered performance that’s nearly as complex as the movie that’s surrounding him.. Gordon-Levitt has a lot of screen time in his secondary role and he owns it – especially in the stressful yet seriously fun second half. In one of the best bits of acting I’ve seen from the actress, Page makes us feel the wonder of being able to create an entire world with intricate acrchitecture and the thrill of manipulating it to your own desires. At one point when she is learning how to structure a cityscape with thought, I really thought she was going to say: “Wow! This is awesome!” Because, well, it really is.

More later…


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.

(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…

THE DARK KNIGHT – The Film Babble Blog Review

THE DARK KNIGHT (Dir. Christopher Nolan, 2008)

As the best of the movie franchise re-boots over the last decade, BATMAN BEGINS differentiated itself from the rest of the pack by taking the whole Batman thing so damn seriously. It was gritty yet precise and had a roster of amazing actors (well except for Katie Holmes) who brought a gravitas to a comic book legend which made it into glorious epic cinema. The long awaited follow-up, made even more anticipated by the untimely death of Heath Ledger, is even grander with an operatic majesty that even the best superhero movies have never even gotten close to attempting. Christian Bale returns as Bruce Wayne/Batman and with the sharp focus of a heat-seeking missile proves himself, yet again as one of the most solid actors working today. Also returning is the laconically witty Michael Caine as butler Alfred, a haggardly effective Gary Oldman as Lt. James Gordon, and Morgan Freeman as Luscious Fox who provides Batman with a new line of crime-fighting toys. It has been called an upgrade for Katie Holmes to be replaced by Maggie Gyllenhaall in the role of Rachel Dawes and I definitely agree. Aaron Eckhart is also a new addition as Harvey Dent, a noble D.A. that Batman believes is the real saviour of Gotham City despite that he’s dating the caped crusader’s true love (Gyllenhaal).

As suspected, and fortold by nearly everybody on the internets, Heath Ledger steals the show as the Joker and appears to have a had a great time with the part. Ledger has a frenetic energy and unique tone to his version of the classic character that takes over every scene he’s in; sometimes disturbing, sometimes funny in a sick twisted way, but always intense and compelling completely justifying the “too soon” talk of a posthumous Oscar. I’ll avoid any further story description; there are so many powerful surprising plot-points that it would be a shame to spoil but the action sequences are all top notch and despite its length it never lags. To label or consider this film just a superhero movie seems an incredible injustice for it’s more aptly a crime epic that definitely is in the league of Martin Scorsese’s and Michael Mann’s forays into that territory. One of the most satisfying and electrifying movies of the year if not the decade, THE DARK KNIGHT doesn’t just live up to its hype – it blows it away again and again.

More later…

SLEUTH & A Few New DVD Reviews

“The film was a sadd’ning bore, ’cause I wrote it 10 times or more.”
– David Bowie from the song “Life On Mars”

Bowie’s couplet above could serve as perfect criticism of the following film. I wanted to see it on the big screen last Fall but it played for only a week at a local theater and was roundly panned. I loved the original so I put it in my queue and wished for the best. Well, what I got was the worst:

SLEUTH (Dir. Kenneth Branaugh, 2007)

This entire production screams “high concept!” It’s a slick streamlined remake of the much beloved 1972 mystery which pitted Sir Laurence Olivier as a wealthy novelist against Michael Caine as a gold digging hair salon manager who is having an affair with Olivier’s wife. The high concept here is that Caine now plays the wealthy novelist and Jude Law, fresh from remaking ALFIE, again steps into Caine’s old shoes as the young gold digger. The gothic old house of the original has been transformed into a high tech palace with surveillance cameras and monitors in every corner – a cold and sterile museum of a house that Caine says was designed by his wife but it’s hard not to think he took some notes from Batman. Taking the concept higher is a new screenplay by noted playwright Harold Pinter which throws out all of the original’s dialogue and replaces it with even more twisted mental trickery. Branaugh’s sharply stylised direction inhabits every frame – the film actually looks shiny like an expensive ad in GQ magazine. So why doesn’t any of it work?

Hmmm, It’s not because it’s ridiculous, contrived, and over the top – the original was all those things and even more unbelievable in its conceit. The conceit being that these 2 men perform a series of double crossing mindgames over the never seen wife. There is one giant plot device that I won’t give away, though if you watch the trailer you can probably guess what it is, that is handled so horribly it should have been discarded all together. Caine has sleepwalked through better material than this but he does give it the old college try. Jude Law, is well…just what I expected – glib but hiding overwhelming insecurities but just like with Caine we never believe these are people with lives outside of this movie. They’re both constrained by their empty caricatures.

Like I said before – the film looks great, the actors are apt, and the direction is solid so I guess I can only really blame the script. Pinter’s dialogue is simplistic yet over-reaching – he uses all of the original’s hot premise points but retains none of their humorous charms. If the plan was to break down a grand theatrical melodrama down into a souless modern psychological thriller package with as much depth as a Tom and Jerry cartoon then Pinter is indeed a genius as he’s been often called. With all due respect to the Nobel Laureate, the original was an amusing trifle; this is high concept tripe. The 2007 model SLEUTH only has 2 good things going for it: 1. At 86 minutes it is an hour shorter than the original so at least they didn’t try and stretch what was already as thin as Shelley Duvall as Olive Oil. 2. The prospect that because this film was a critical and financial failure we can be spared any future Jude Law remakes of Michael Caine movies. Though come to think of it though, in the right hands Law could maybe pull off DEATHTRAP – if they stick to the original script, that is.

This next film isn’t new but I’m writing about it because there is a recent English language remake that just came to my area. It’s not playing in Chapel Hill however possibly because in the light of the tragic death of UNC student Eve Carson it could be seen to be in bad taste. Hearing that the remake is a shot-by-shot replay of the original from a decade earlier by the same director I got it from NetFlix and do strongly feel that yes the timing would be bad. Not sure though, if the time will ever be right for:

FUNNY GAMES (Dir. Michael Haneke, 1997)

In a calm soothing manner we are introduced to a cultured Austrian family (A husband and wife played by Ulrigh Mühe and Suzanne Lothar with their son played by Stefan Clapczynski) arriving at their lake house. 10 minutes into the film a couple of creepy young men dressed in white clothes with white gloves appear – the first (Frank Giering) innocently asks to borrow some eggs from Lothar which he supposedly accidentally breaks. He asks for more, breaks those too and an awkward confrontation occurs when the second (Arno Frisch) assaults Mühe with a golf club severely injuring his right leg. The home invasion is in full swing now with the family taken hostage and a series of sadistic mind games with rules and deadly consequences set in place by Frisch. Frisch “breaks the frame” early on by winking at the camera then later asking the audience to bet on the fate of his victims: “You’re on their side so who will you bet with?”

Many critics have labeled FUNNY GAMES – high art disguised as torture porn (or vice versa) and point out that we don’t actually see much of the violence because it occurs off screen. That may be true but there is still enough voyeuristic violence with screaming and blood in sight to disturb not just the squeamish. Haneke has said that he intended to make “a film about the portrayal of violence in the media, in movies… an attempt to provide an analysis of the work within the work.” I’m afraid that even with that lofty purpose and artsy asides to the camera we still just have another violent piece of work here – a pretentious and tedious one at that. Repeatedly the suffering family asks their tormentors “why?” – “Don’t forget the entertainment value” Giering responds and it is the only thing that ever comes close to a sincere answer. The entertainment value of this pointless exercise however is non-existent. If Haneke is making a statement critical of the mass consumption of media violence and he is ideally chastising viewers with his own work then as someone identifying themselves as Fuckhead on a Onion A.V. Club message board * asks “I guess the way to pass this film’s test is to not see it? Is that it?” Yes, that’s it. I failed that test by watching the original. But I expect to pass with flying colors when it comes to the remake.

* Actually from the comments on the article “A funny response to Funny Games” by Steve Hyden (March 17, 2008)

I AM LEGEND (Dir. Francis Lawrence, 2007)

I was planning on skipping this flick but some friends thought it would be good mindless fun one recent eve. They were right – this Will Smith fighting zombies spectacle (big enough to warrant an IMAX release) isn’t too dumb for fun. Mind you, it considers itself to be too highbrow to call them zombies or mutants – they’re called The Infected or Darkseekers. Based on the 1954 novel (which took place in the 70’s) by Richard Matheson, the story is simple – in 2012, 3 years after most of the world’s population is hit by a massive plague a man (Smith) who believes he may be the last alive on Manhattan Island struggles to find a cure for the virus. Dodging constant attacks, Smith talks to himself and his trusty dog Sam (who you just know won’t make til the end) as he stockpiles food, broadcasts radio transmissions in hope of finding other survivors, and has several flashes to backstory about his departed family. He captures Infected ones in order to test treatments and thinks he may have found a possible anti-dote.

Of course, this plot seems designed as an elaborate laundry line on which to hang a series of immense bombastic set pieces including a scene involving the Brooklyn Bridge which cost $5 million (the most expensive scene ever filmed in the city at the time according to Wikipedia). The CGI demon dogs and Darkseekers provide some genuine scares, while the shoot-out scenes (as one-sided as shoot-outs can be) are actually fairly compelling. Despite the sci-fi action formula limits, Smith is able to build upon his acting standard set by THE PURSUIT OF HAPPYNESS last year and again shows he can carry, pretty much on his shoulders alone, another overblown blockbuster with poise. Don’t get me wrong though – it’s no movie masterpiece; I AM LEGEND is a brisk 1 hour and 40 min. piece of populist entertainment – nothing more. So just put a cork in your brainhole and sit back and enjoy.

More later…