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…

As Predicted Pixar Saves The Sucky Summer Day

(Dir. Lee Unkrich. 2010)

Like many film folks, in the days before a long awaited sequel in a beloved franchise appears I like to revisit the earlier movies – especially if I haven’t seen them in a long time. It’s to remind me of the flavor of said films, yet it can also feel like doing homework sometimes. Re-watching the first TOY STORY (1995) and its follow-up TOY STORY 2 (1999) though, wasn’t like doing homework at all. The films hold up as immensely enjoyable endlessly inventive masterworks.

The TOY STORY films established Pixar Studios as the leading creators of CGI-animated features that built a beautiful track record of critically acclaimed hits including some of the best films of the last decade – FINDING NEMO, UP, WALL-E, and RATATOUILLE to name a handful. It’s easy to be cynical about sequels, but Pixar is a name to be trusted, and you won’t go wrong trusting them here. The return of Sheriff Woody (Tom Hanks), Space Ranger Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), and their fellow toy friends is happily up to the high standards of their canon and even more happily its one of the few cinematic saviors of this summer of suck.

It’s been over a decade since we’ve last seen the disparate troop of talking toys and we catch up with them as their now teenage owner Andy (voiced by John Morris) is packing for college. The toys fret over their fate – will they be stored in the attic, sold in a yard sale, or thrown away? To their surprise, Andy picks Woody to take with him to school and puts the others in a garbage bag. Luckily he’s just taking them to the attic, but in a moving mix-up they are taken to the curb by Andy’s mother (voiced by Laurie Metcalf).

Woody tries to save them, but nearly gets thrown away himself. After freeing themselves from the garbage bag, the toy troop (including the returning voices of John Ratzenburger, Don Rickles, Joan Cusack, Estelle Harris, and Wallace Shawn) realize that their life with Andy is over and that they should collectively climb into a box set to be donated to Sunnyside Daycare. Woody wants them to return home, but his friends immediately take to the lushly lit facility and the warm friendly welcome by the leader of the left behind toys: a pink strawberry teddy bear named “Lotso” – short for Lots-o’-Huggin’ Bear (wonderfully voiced by Ned Beatty).

While Woody tries to get back home, the toys find that things aren’t what they seem at Sunnyside. I’ll hold off on further major story Spoilers!, but I’ll just report that there’s a romantic subplot sponsored by Mattel in which Barbie (Jodie Benson) meets Ken (Michael Keaton), Buzz Lightyear gets his settings stuck in a Spanish mode, and there’s a young girl (Emily Hahn) who Woody is briefly in the custody of that owns a few other new toy characters (voices of Timothy Dalton, Beatrice Miller, Javier Fernandez Pena, and Bud Luckey).

A superlative sequel in which all of the elements of the wealth of close scrapes, captivating chases, and absorbing attention to the exorbitant detail of the TOY STORY world are attended to excellently. It’s funny, exciting, and sometimes even scary, yet it will most likely be remembered for its strong emotional pull. The previous films were well rooted in sentimentality about the innocence and imagination of childhood balanced by the sad acknowledgment that these joys are fleeting, and play-time has to end someday. TOY STORY 3 doesn’t shy away from these themes; it enriches them further making it the most thoughtful and touching film of the series.

Pixar (and Disney) did it again. They made a wonderful movie that will take everyone from children to grown adults on a ride from doubling over with laughter to being reduced to tears. They also made so a 40 year old man can admit that, without shame, he can get worked up about a cast of animated plastic playthings accessing their worth. See? It felt good admitting that. Really good.

More later…

The Suckiest Movie Summer Ever?

You may have noticed that this blog hasn’t reviewed several of the major summer releases such as ROBIN HOOD, SHREK FOREVER AFTER, SEX AND THE CITY 2, and PRINCE OF PERSIA: THE SANDS OF TIME. That’s because I haven’t been able to build up enough interest to see those movies. I don’t like to judge films before I see them, but this summer’s crop appears to be one of the most questionable array of films ever lined up for a supposed event season. The reviews for the films I mentioned above have been extremely mixed with SEX AND THE CITY 2 particularly taking a beating – one critic (Kyle Smith, New York Post) hilariously called it “Bitchtar” – so I haven’t felt so far like I’m missing much.

I don’t consider myself a snob about mainstream multiplex movies. I enjoyed IRON MAN 2 and thought MACGRUBER had a fair share of laughs in it, but I can’t seem to get excited about the others, nor upcoming films like MARMADUKE, SPLICE, JONAH HEX, KILLERS, or KNIGHT AND DAY. Likewise the remakes or re-boots or re-whatever’s – THE A-TEAM, THE KARATE KID, and PREDATORS (Wow! With SPLICE that’s 2 Adrien Brody wannabe blockbusters – that’s rare).

It’s a tried and true tradition, of course, that the summer is filled with expensive mindless spectacle aimed at teenagers, and film buffs will have to wade through it to get to the fall which will be full of prestige Oscar bait. It just feels like this summer is much harder going than usual. The only thing that would make it worse is if there was another lackluster PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN sequel, but don’t worry I’m sure that’s what I’ll be bitching about next summer.

August is usually when some more interesting releases get dumped. In previous years great movies such as SUPERBAD, TROPIC THUNDER, and INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS have made the end of the summer a better place than the beginning, and this year Edgar Wright’s SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD looks like it could fit the bill. Until then there’s the possibility that Pixar could pull us through with TOY STORY 3 and Universal’s DESPICABLE ME also could be animation salvation.

I’m sure that there are some other gems hiding in between the weekly bombast of dreck so I’m keeping my eyes open. I’m also open to suggestions so if you’ve got any – lay ’em on me. To answer this post’s title question: It’s too early to really tell and I’m pretty sure there have been suckier summers – 2002 comes to mind – but this one sure looks to be shaping up as a contender. C’mon something, anything – Christopher Nolan’s INCEPTION maybe – surprise me!

Post note: There are a few smaller films (read: independent and Foreign) that I’m looking forward to – Todd Solonz’s LIFE DURING WARTIME and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s MICMACS. Check back for reviews of those.

More later…

UP: The Film Babble Blog Review

UP (Dirs. Pete Doctor & Bob Peterson, 2009)

Another summer, another wonderful colorful emotionally-involving awe-inspiring magical masterpiece from Pixar. UP had me from the get go – I was crying within the first 5 minutes. It would be a critical sin to reveal the exact narrative that sets up the premise of an old man named Carl Frederickson who one day decides to tie thousands of helium balloons to his old home in order to fly it to Paradise Falls in South America, so I’ll try and keep this relatively Spoiler-free. As voiced by the gruff Ed Asner, Carl is utterly sympathetic and not completely the cranky curmudgeon you might expect, though he is tasked when finding that there’s an accidental stowaway on his makeshift aircraft: an 8 year old “wilderness explorer” named Russell (Jordan Nagai) who is full of spunk. Like Asner’s classic Lou Grant character, Carl hates spunk but they form an alliance regardless as they brace a dark thunderstorm that is the first of many obstacles on their journey.

“No rap music or flash dancing!” Asner mildly growls as they set out over the terrain making their way through a jungle full of exotic birds and a pack of vicious dogs that amusingly communicate through translating collars. The boyhood hero of our protagonist, famous explorer Charles F. Muntz (voiced by Christopher Plummer) appears, at first welcoming but soon suspecting that his visitors are here to undo his life’s work: the securing of an extremely rare tropical bird. Saving the bird, which the plucky Russell previously befriended and named Kevin (not know it was female), from the clutches of Muntz becomes the crux of this delicious cinematic biscuit as we sail through glorious set pieces and gripping chase scenes at an invigorating pace.

UP may lose some of its sense of invention in the second half, yet it’s a gem that stands with the best Pixar productions. It maybe didn’t wow me as much as last summer’s WALL-E but that’s a tiny quibble. Pixar continues to do amazing work by consistently making quality family films that hip, intelligent adults can enjoy. The sentiment is sans cynicism and the worlds they create are eye-poppingly and mind bendingly beautiful. It’s a joyous feat to have a senior citizen as the lead battling another ornery old-timer while what could have been an obnoxious tag-along kid bounces around them. Surround them with patented Pixar inspiration and the result is pure exhilaration. Keep ’em coming, Pixar – there’s no reason to look back or look down when you’re this high in the sky.

Post note: There was a great UP sight gag in the season finale of The Simpsons this year. It may be the first time a movie was referenced on the show before it was even released. Actually, come to think of it, probably not.

More later…

Oscar Postpartum 2009

I did considerably better this time with my Oscar picks than the several years. I got 18 out of 24. Instead of listing all the categories like last year (and of course because they are listed on my last post as well as everywhere else online), I decided to just look at the ones I got wrong:

BEST ACTOR: My pick: Mickey Rourke for THE WRESTLER. Who won: Sean Penn for MILK. I can’t say I was completely taken aback – I knew it was a tight race and I knew Penn had a slight edge. Still, I loved the underdog comeback story of both the movie and Rourke’s real life back story so I can’t say I’m not disappointed either. Penn did however acknowledge Rourke nicely in his acceptance speech: “Mickey Rourke rises again…and he is my brother.

DOCUMENTARY SHORT: My pick: THE CONSCIENCE OF NHEM EN. What won: SMILE PINKE. I really was just shooting in the dark here – I haven’t seen any of the nominees so I was going by internet research. I feel like even if I had seen them I’d still be taking a wild guess.

SOUND MIXING: My pick: THE DARK KNIGHT. What won: SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE. I should have known not to vote for the same movie in both sound editing and mixing. Sigh.

FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM: My pick: VALS IM BASHIR (English title: WALTZ FOR BASHIR. What won: OKURIBITO (English title: DEPARTURES). This was because I heard more buzz for BASHIR and neglected to really look into the others. Ill rectify that by checking them all out in the very near future.

As for the 81st Academy Awards broadcast itself I enjoyed host Hugh Jackman though I thought his song and dance numbers went on too long as did the show itself but that, of course, is a given. The “In Memorium” segment was poorly done (give everybody the big screen treatment next time!) and the one presenter presents multiple awards deal seemed to even throw Will Smith when he had to step up to the task: “Yes, they still have me up here… I think Hugh is napping.” My favorite bit of the show was presenter Ben Stiller in fake beard and sunglasses in an obvious parody of Joaquin Phoenix’s now infamous Letterman appearance of a few weeks back.

To his awkard antics (or non-antics) and his declaration: “I just want to retire from being the funny guy”, co-presenter Natalie Portman remarked: “You look like you work at a Hasidic meth lab.”

Ah, another Oscars over. Now back to the daily grind.

More later…

Just As Everybody Says – WALL-E Is Wonderful

WALL-E (Dir. Andrew Stanton, 2008)

Everybody (well, just about everybody – the film is at 96% at Rotten Tomatoes) is raving about WALL-E and it is well deserving of the acclaim. As the latest in the line of popular sophisticated animated Pixar films it is set in 2700 and involves a lonely rusty robot left behind to clean up the Earth after pollution has deemed it unlivable many centuries previous. As the humans have retreated to what Buy’ N Large (think Wal-Mart) CEO (played by a non-animated Fred Willard) calls “the final fun-tiere!” on a large corporate cruise-ship space station, WALL-E (stands for Waste Allocation Load Lifter – Earth) compacts old trash into cubicles and builds skyscrapers out of them. He collects what strikes his fancy – a Rubik’s cube, silver lighters, a dingy old hub cab that he tips like a hat while watching an ancient videotape of HELLO, DOLLY.

It’s apparent up front that this machine, as well as this movie, has a big heart as he befriends a cockroach and looks longingly to the sky while replaying love song sound-bites from his before mentioned favorite movie. When a probe named EVE (stands for Extra-terrestrial Vegetation Evaluator) from the ginormous spaceship comes to Earth looking for plant-life, WALL-E is intrigued. She’s a shiny new model with a noble directive and after one of the mightiest movie meet-cutes I’ve ever seen, WALL-E is soon smitten. I really don’t want to spoil any more of the nice narrative surprises or the tons of ingenious ideas here so that’s as far as I’ll go with the plot.

A friend mentioned IDIOCRACY (Mike Judge’s failed futuristic dumbing-down of society satire) right as WALL-E began so it was hard to shake the similarities of a trashed-out Earth with remnants of non-perishable plastic products covering every square inch. There is no big spelled out environmental preachiness here though, the narrative is too clever for such moralizing – more fun to be had in spectacularly imagining a future where cute robots sift through the debris and help mankind get back on track. There are many echoes of past sci-fi classics which also involved cute and not so cute robots – the warp speed, musical queues, and sound effects of the STAR WARS movies (thanks to Academy award winning sound designer Ben Burtt who also does the voice of WALL-E) and 2001 in both the character of the evil ship’s Computer (voiced by Sigourney Weaver!) and the use of the grand “Also Sprach Zarathustra.”

Jeff Garlin (Curb Your Enthusiasm, I WANT SOMEBODY TO EAT CHEESE WITH) does a enthused performance as the Ship’s Captain who despite his hard to move girth may find a spark of inspiration from the passionate power-activated robots who suddenly appear before him. In the matinee crowd full mostly of families with many little kids I sat in watching this mind bogglingly beautiful and funny movie I heard a lot of laughter of course, but there was also much crying, awe-ing and the very vivid sensation of an audience being profoundly moved. Score hit #9 for Pixar – in my book, or on blog, every one of their films has been better than the last and WALL-E is not only the best yet but one of the best films of the year.

More later…