Cars 3


A couple of rivals get personal.

(2017) Animated Feature (Disney*Pixar) Starring the voices of Owen Wilson, Cristela Alonzo, Chris Cooper, Nathan Fillion, Larry the Cable Guy, Armie Hammer, Ray Magliozzi, Tony Shalhoub, Bonnie Hunt, Lea DeLaria, Kerry Washington, Bob Costas, Margo Martindale, Darrell Waltrip, Paul Newman, Isiah Whitlock Jr., John Ratzenberger, Cheech Marin, Katherine Helmond, Paul Dooley, Jenifer Lewis. Directed by Brian Fee

 

It’s generally agreed that the Cars franchise is the weakest in the Pixar line-up, especially after the godawful sequel Cars 2. That film seemed to exist mainly to sell merchandise and indeed the Cars franchise has consistently been one of the top merchandise sellers for the Mouse House over the decade plus since the first film debuted. It is also, not uncoincidentally, one of the few franchises in the Disney animated firmament that seems deliberately targeted at young boys rather than the princess-wannabe crowd.

The new film is absolutely a big step up from the first sequel, leaving the incomprehensible spy movie elements behind and concentrating on the things that did work in the first film; the clever and engaging world of the anthropomorphic autos, the clear love for Americana and of course, Paul Newman. In many ways, the movie exists as a tribute to the late icon and he figures heavily in the plot; in fact, Newman’s voice is featured in the film utilizing stories Newman told that were recorded in between takes of the original Cars as well as unused dialogue. Newman’s fans will get a kick out of hearing his voice one last time.

The plot seems heavily influenced by Talladega Nights as well as other racing movies with the hero Lightning McQueen (Wilson) who played the young upstart in the first film being overtaken by younger, faster cars in this one. His rival is an arrogant high-tech machine who reminded me a great deal of the Sacha Baron Cohen character in the Ferrell film only without the European accent and gay overtones. The ending is heartwarming but a bit on the “really?” side.

Like the other Cars films, I got the sense that the really young children (particularly the boys) were much more into it than their parents were. As an adult, I generally don’t have a problem with Pixar films who have something for everybody which further distinguishes them from their animated competition; however, I could see why a lot of parents in the audience had a glazed over expression on their face. Maybe if we were a little more in touch with our inner toddler we might have appreciated it more but all in all this is definitely a big improvement over the last one.

REASONS TO GO: You really can’t complain about a love letter to Paul Newman. The world created here continues to be clever and engaging.
REASONS TO STAY: While the really wee kids were digging this, their parents were less entertained. Some of the plot elements seemed to have been lifted from Talladega Nights.
FAMILY VALUES: The film is completely suitable for family audiences.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: All three Cars films were released the same year as a Pirates of the Caribbean film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/10/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 68% positive reviews. Metacritic: 59/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cars
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Wonderstruck

Turbo


Snail fail.

Snail fail.

(2013) Animated Feature (DreamWorks) Starring the voices of Ryan Reynolds, Paul Giamatti, Michael Pena, Samuel L. Jackson, Luis Guzman, Bill Hader, Snoop Dogg, Maya Rudolph, Ben Schwartz, Richard Jenkins, Ken Jeong, Michelle Rodriguez, Mario Andretti, Michael Patrick Bell, Aidan Andrews, Paul Dooley, Latifa Ouaou. Directed by David Soren

If you must dream, dream big. It’s easy to dream of getting an ice cream cone – after all, that’s something nearly everyone can achieve. But for a snail to dream of winning the Indianapolis 500…

But that’s just what Theo (Reynolds) a.k.a. Turbo does. He dreams of being fast, to race alongside his idol Guy Gagne (Hader), a French Canadian who has won four Indies and is the most loved race car driver in the world. However, the reality is that for all of Theo’s dreams, he’s still a snail. His delusions make him the target of a lot of abuse, much to the chagrin of his brother Chet (Giamatti).

When a mistake on Theo’s part leads to a disaster at the tomato plant in which he works, his brother and Theo are both fired. Disconsolate, Theo goes to an overpass to watch traffic pass by…fast. However a chance truck sends him over the side and onto the hood of a street racing vehicle. When Theo is sucked into the manifold and it is flooded with nitrous oxide, Theo attains super-speed that allow him to go Indie car speeds. Barry Allen, take note.

Theo – make that Turbo – then chases down a crow that has taken Chet and rescues him. The two are then captured by Tito (Pena), the dreamer brother of a taco stand owner (Guzman) in a dilapidated strip mall and entered in snail races which of course Turbo dominates. Tito – with an assist from Turbo – then determines to enter his unique snail in the Indy 500. Tito’s snail pit crew of Whiplash (Jackson), Smoove Move (Dogg), Burn (Rudolph), Skidmark (Schwartz) and the White Shadow (Bell) are very much supportive; Chet, not so much.

However, things take on a life of their own and Turbo becomes the big story at Indy, bringing in record crowds and viewing numbers. This doesn’t sit well with Gagne who doesn’t relish being beaten by a snail. It will take every ounce of courage and fortitude for Turbo to achieve his unlikely but now well within his reach dreams.

I have to admit, auto racing does nothing for me so the subject of the movie left me underwhelmed. That’s a personal bias more than an indictment of the plot here. While I will admit that the snails make fascinating animation subjects, they are kind of limited as one-joke subjects; they’re slow, we get that. There’ s the slime trail and then…nothing. That means it was always an uphill climb for the writers and filmmakers to make these characters interesting and I will give ’em props for managing to do it more or less; sadly they were less successful with the human characters.

Although bashing Reynolds has become a popular critical pastime, you won’t find me joining in. His voice is expressive and he gives Turbo a heroic yet nebbish personality. One of the movie’s funnier sequences has Turbo getting pie faced by rotten tomatoes (it’s his job to dispose of them at the plant) which pretty much sums up the critical reaction to the film.

Yeah, there are a lot of pretty colors and kids are going to love it along with all the merchandising that is sure to follow. I will say that overall that the filmmakers purloined so many elements from so many films from the TRON-like neon trail that Turbo leaves when he’s in turbo mode to the Big Wheel-riding shell crusher kid who brings to mind Sid from Toy Story that a savvy moviegoer might be more entertained by spotting the rip-offs than actually watching the movie.

It’s been a pretty subpar year for animated features and this one isn’t going to redeem it any. By any measure, this is fairly bland entertainment for kid and parent alike. That doesn’t mean it won’t keep your kids happy and content in the theater which for a frazzled parent who’s had to deal with amped up kids all summer long is all the blessing you need.

REASONS TO GO: A bit better than you’d expect.

REASONS TO STAY: Not really into snails or race cars. Very derivative.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is a bit of cartoon violence and action as well as some thematic elements that might be a bit more than the very wee tots can handle.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: “Gagne” means “to win” in French.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/5/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 64% positive reviews. Metacritic: 59/100; the reviews are pretty mixed thus far.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ratatouille

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: The Wolverine

Cars 2


Cars 2

Tow Mater and Lightning McQueen, together again.

(2011) Animated Feature (Disney*Pixar) Starring the voices of Owen Wilson, Larry the Cable Guy, Michael Caine, Emily Mortimer, Jason Isaacs, Eddie Izzard, John Turturro, Brent Musburger, Joe Mantegna, Thomas Kretschmann, Peter Jacobson, Bonnie Hunt, Darrell Waltrip, Franco Nero, Tony Shalhoub, Jeff Garlin, Bruce Campbell, Sig Hansen, Vanessa Redgrave, John Ratzenberger, Cheech Marin, Paul Dooley. Directed by John Lasseter and Brad Lewis

Pixar has become a brand name in the same way Lexus and Rolex are. It has become a symbol of prestige, the very best in their industry. Of course, no human institution can operate at peak ability every time out.

Lightning McQueen (Wilson) makes a triumphant return home after winning his fourth Piston Cup, marking him as one of the all-time NASCAR greats. He is happy to hang out with his best friend Tow Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) and his girlfriend Sally (Hunt) when he receives word that a former oil billionaire gone alternative fuel-happy, Sir Miles Axelrod (Izzard) is putting together a World Grand Prix, a series of three races around the world (two of them in Europe, one in Asia – none in North America which seemed to be bending a bit backwards not to make this one as overly American as the first Cars) showcasing his new alternative fuel Alinol.

Lightning is a bit reluctant to go but after smug, arrogant Formula 1 racer Francesco Bernoulli (Turturro) – a clever reference to the principle of fluid dynamics which is part of what makes the modern automobile engine work – insults Lightning, its game on.

In the meantime, British spy Finn McMissile (Caine) discovers a plot led by the renegade scientist Professor Zundapp (Kretschmann) to ignite the Alinol fuel with a burst of microwaves, leading the public to believe that the fuel is unsafe and forcing them to buy their crude oil – the professor and his group happen to own the world’s largest fuel reserve.

The overall leader of the plot is unknown but an American agent has a photo of him. Finn and his compatriot, inexperienced tech agent Holly Shiftwell (Mortimer) are supposed to pick up the film at the party for the World Grand Prix, but the agent is spotted and in desperation, attaches the film to Mater, who has been embarrassing Lightning with his ignorant antics. Mistaking Mater for the spy, Finn and Holly team up with Mater who must discover who’s behind the plot (which turn out to be a consortium of lemons, cars like Pacers, Yugos and Gremlins, all of which have been written off as bad cars), a mission that becomes more urgent when it is revealed that Lightning is the next target for destruction.

By now, most people are well-aware that this may well be the weakest movie in the Pixar filmography. In terms of storyline, this is certainly true – the plot is quite a bit of fluff, disposable and not particularly original. When compared to such work as Up, Wall-E and Toy Story, it certainly doesn’t hold up well.

However from an entertainment point of view, it isn’t a bad choice for a summer afternoon. The movie has a breakneck pace that keeps it from being boring at any given time. Like all Pixar films, it is a work of outstanding visual achievement – the details of the world are absolutely amazing, and often clever. Keep an eye out for a number of Pixar in-jokes, from director John Lasseter’s name appearing in a clever way on the London speedway track to the name of a movie at the local Radiator Springs drive-in resembling that of a Pixar classic. There are also nice little cultural references, such as Sig Hansen of “Deadliest Catch” fame voicing a Cars-world version of the F.V. Northwestern, the vessel that Sig captains both on the show and in real life.

Whereas the original Cars tried to re-create a 50s Route 66 American Southwest vibe, this is a full-on 1960s British spy caper feel. Everything from the supercool Finn McMissile to the gadgets to the music makes those of us old enough to remember them (or those willing to have checked them out on Netflix or cable TV) the spy movies of Caine, James Bond or James Coburn, among others. There are homages to these films scattered throughout, sometimes subtly and occasionally not so much.

This is a movie which is more about entertaining the audience than it is about blowing them out of their seats. It isn’t a bad thing to be entertained; it’s just that the bar has been set so high by previous Pixar films that it’s almost impossible for any movie to measure up. I suppose it’s not a bad thing for a film company to be victims of their own high standards – and this movie certainly is. It’s not a bad movie, it’s just not a great movie and I guess that’s enough to upset some people in the critical community. I can recommend it without a second thought, just don’t go in expecting too much other than mindless good fun and you’ll enjoy it purely on that level.

REASONS TO GO: Your kids will want to see it. Visually delightful.

REASONS TO STAY: Not on par with Pixar’s other films. Mostly fluffy, could easily have been a direct-to-cable film from a story standpoint.

FAMILY VALUES: Perfect for family viewing, as you’d expect.  

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Luigi visits Lightning to visit his Uncle Topolino. Topolino is the Italian name of Mickey Mouse.

HOME OR THEATER: This is going to seem sacrilegious, but I think it’s going to look just as great at home as it does in a movie theater.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: La Mission

Bedtime Stories


Bedtime Stories

A rose by any other name doth smelleth.

(2008) Fantasy (Disney) Adam Sandler, Guy Pearce, Keri Russell, Richard Griffiths, Courtney Cox, Lucy Lawless, Teresa Palmer, Russell Brand, Aisha Tyler, Jonathan Pryce, Jonathan Morgan Heit, Laura Ann Kesling, Carmen Electra, Paul Dooley, Rob Schneider. Directed by Adam Shankman

There is something comforting about a good old fashioned bedtime story. They transport us to faraway places and show us fantastic sights with strange and magical beings. This is part of the comforts of our childhood, as well as the joys of our parenthood.

Skeeter (Sandler) had a vivid imagination and loved to tell stories almost as much as he loved his dad’s (Pryce) hotel in downtown Los Angeles. Times were hard and his dad wound up having to sell the hotel to Barry Nottingham (Griffiths), owner of a chain of hotels – the understanding being that Skeeter would one day run the hotel.

Years later, Skeeter was still working at the hotel as a handyman but the days of the hotel were numbered; Nottingham had plans to build a new hotel, the flagship of his chain. Unctuous manager Kendall (Pearce) has the inside track for the position, as well as for Violet (Palmer), the tabloid bad girl who seems to always have a cloud of paparazzi following her.

Skeeter’s sister Wendy (Cox), the principal of an eco-friendly school, is having to look for new work in Phoenix when her school is abruptly closed, the land sold to a hotel magnate (you can guess who that is). She needs someone to watch her kids, daughter Bobbi (Kesling) and son Patrick (Heit) and Skeeter is essentially her only resort since her best friend Jill (Russell) must work. She doesn’t trust Skeeter – in fact, she hasn’t spoken to him in four years and he can barely remember the names of her children. Family is family though, so he does the best he can.

Turns out they can’t fall asleep without a bedtime story. He has them suggest one to him and he tells it to them, incorporating elements of his own life into the story. When the kids change the ending to include a rainstorm of gumballs, he doesn’t think much of it…until the sky opens up the next day and gumballs rain down.

Skeeter realizes that the kids have the ability to make their bedtime stories come true and he tries to manipulate their stories so that he gets what he wants in life. However, try controlling a couple of kids with vivid imaginations and as this is a Disney movie, you can bet that things are gonna get complicated.

Sandler can be an engaging and charming guy and there’s no doubt that he can appeal to the younger set, but this is actually his first family movie and in a lot of ways it feels kind of vanilla – more so than a family film would demand ordinarily. Not that Sandler has to be blue to be successful, but he feels very toned down, scaled back and watered down. I get the feeling that was more the doing of studio execs at the Mouse House more than anything but still the effect is the same.

There are several story segments, ranging from Ancient Rome to the Old West to Outer Space and beyond. Some of them are imaginative, others less so but they mostly hold your attention at least. So too (but for all the wrong reasons) does the guinea pig with saucer-like eyes that is used as a running joke in the movie. It’s CGI and not particularly good CGI; it’s a tiresome one-joke bit that is used way too often.

The cast is pretty impressive and for the most part, the acting is solid enough but again, nothing really stands up and makes you take notice. Russell is one of my favorite actresses and she lights up the screen when she’s on, but never really generates much chemistry with Sandler. Pearce, in a moustache-twirling villain role, seems a bit out of his element.

 There really doesn’t seem to be much of a message here, which would be refreshing if there was something else concrete to take its place, like sly wit or humor. I felt rather indifferent after seeing this and that’s not where you want your movie to be. I would have liked there to be more edge here, but unfortunately it can be filed away with Tooth Fairy, The Pacifier and other family films of that ilk that have a bit of magic to them, but only a bit.

WHY RENT THIS: Some of the story segments are cute and imaginative. Sandler is likable in a kind of oafish way.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Sandler goes family-friendly but it comes off a bit bland.

FAMILY VALUES: Disney knows family friendly and this is it. A few bad words and some poo-poo jokes but otherwise easily family-friendly.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: On the driving range, one of the golf balls that goes whizzing by bears the Happy Madison logo, a reference to the production company logo.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $212.9M on an $80M production budget; the movie made money.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: The Art of the Steal

Sunshine Cleaning


Sunshine Cleaning

Mary Lynn Rajskub and Emily Blunt share an awkward moment on an elevator.

(Overture) Amy Adams, Emily Blunt, Alan Arkin, Steve Zahn, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Clifton Collins Jr., Jason Spevack, Paul Dooley, Eric Christian Olsen. Directed by Christine Jeffs

Life is a messy business, so you might as well get paid for cleaning up after it. At least, that’s the theory.

Rose (Adams) is a single mother struggling to make ends meet. She works as a maid in a low-rent New Mexico hotel, worries with a high-strung 7-year-old boy causing chaos in a public school that would just as soon see him drugged. She carries on an affair with Mac (Zahn) the high school quarterback who fathered her child then abandoned her to marry someone else.

It is Mac who gives her the idea to start up a new business when he mentions off-handedly that crime scene clean-up pays very well. With no idea what is involved in the disposal of blood, guts ‘n’ gore from a living space, she approaches the idea with moxie and spunk, roping her shiftless sister Norah (Blunt) into helping her out with the encouragement of her Dad (Arkin) who never met a get-rich-quick scheme he didn’t like – and that didn’t send him fleeing for the poorhouse.

Rose begins to feel that the job is a bit of a calling. Norah, who does her own thing (and it’s usually the wrong thing), becomes involved in the life of the daughter (Rajskub) of a client who had committed suicide, and in a somewhat awkward way as well. Norah is the polar opposite of the straitlaced, slightly anal Rose. Where one likes to plan, the other prefers spontaneity. Where one is ambitious, the other is a slacker. I’m sure you know which one is which.

Rose has issues of her own, however. She has an inferiority complex stemming from her high school years, when she was the cheerleader and the belle of the ball. Ashamed of her lowly station in life, her new business is giving her self-confidence for the first time since her glory days. Attending a baby shower at which many of her former schoolmates will be in attendance becomes nearly as important to her as getting her son into a private school. This leads to a disaster that could spell the end of nearly every one of Rose’s dreams, as well as her relationship with her sister.

The producers of this film have another movie to their credit to which they are anxious to compare this one to: Little Miss Sunshine. Unfortunately, all the two films really have in common is their New Mexico setting, the word “Sunshine” in their titles and Alan Arkin. This is, I think, meant to be a black comedy. I’m not really sure. Something tells me that the filmmakers aren’t either.

That’s not to say that this movie isn’t without its charms. Adams is an accomplished actress who delivers a nicely layered performance. She is at once the mousy maid who has been smacked around overly much by life, the efficient and organized boss, the enthusiastic lover and the compassionate friend, not to mention the fiercely defensive mom. For my money, it’s some of the Oscar-nominated actress’ best work ever, although it was sadly overlooked.

Blunt is a talented actress in her own right as well, and she gives a solid performance in a role that is not written as well as Rose is. I got the impression at times that some of the things Norah does to screw up are done merely to advance the story along. They don’t seem terribly organic with the character that is not as brainless as her actions seem to make out she is.

Arkin delivers his usual fine work in a role that has come to define him pretty much over the last several years; the crotchety but eccentric dad/granddad. It’s a role he’s been playing for a couple of decades now (you can see the germs of it in Edward Scissorhands) and he does it better than anybody.

I tend to have a soft spot for movies that show a side of real life that we don’t often get to see portrayed onscreen. Truthfully, I never wondered who cleaned up a murder scene after the forensics team leaves the scene but obviously somebody must. Roger Ebert mused that there was a documentary in this movie somewhere and he’s right; unfortunately, there’s also a better movie in here as well.

I’m a big believer in the theory that characters should drive the actions, not the other way around. A good movie will take a set of characters, plop them into a situation and then see what they make of it. A movie that has to resort to having a stock idiot character in the mix is suffering from lazy writing and in almost every case will be flawed and not nearly as good as it could have been.

It’s too bad that the movie wasn’t better written because it has a lot going for it. I like the premise, I like the setting, I like the acting, heck I even like the gruesome crime scenes. This is a movie that swayed between being a black comedy and a slice-of-life drama and winds up somewhere in-between in a no man’s land of indecision. It’s worth seeing for the performances of the leads, but only just.

WHY RENT THIS: Adams, Blunt and Arkin give solid performances. A twisted slice of real life served up in New Mexico, where movies don’t film often enough.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the imagery and subject matter is squirm-inducing. Norah is such a screw-up at times that you wonder if she was written that way just as a plot device.

FAMILY VALUES: Some very disturbing images not suitable for children; also there is a goodly amount of foul language as well as some drug use and sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: During the first two seasons of “The Office,” Adams played John Krasinski’s girlfriend. Blunt was Krasinski’s girlfriend in real life at the time of filming.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a featurette on the realities of crime scene cleaning with some people who do the job in real life.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: I Love You, Man