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

New Releases for the Week of July 1, 2011


July 1, 2011

CARS 2

(Disney*Pixar) Starring the voices of Owen Wilson, Larry the Cable Guy, Michael Caine, Emily Mortimer, Jason Isaacs, Joe Mantegna, Thomas Kretschmann, Bonnie Hunt, Cheech Marin, Tony Shalhoub, John Ratzenberger, Vanessa Redgrave. Directed by John Lasseter and Brad Lewis

Stock car superstar and Piston Cup winner Lightning McQueen has been invited to participate in the first ever World Grand Prix, a series of races all around the world. He brings along Mater, his friend from Radiator Springs who is promptly mistaken for a spy by a pair of crack British agents. Embroiled in an international espionage affair, Lightning is going to have to help foil enemy spies, cocky racers from around the world and an international conspiracy in order to win the Grand Prix.

See the trailer, clips, interviews, a featurette and promos here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, 3D, IMAX 3D

Genre: Animated Feature

Rating: G

Bad Teacher

(Columbia) Cameron Diaz, Justin Timberlake, Jason Segel, Lucy Punch. Some people are born to teach but Elizabeth does it as a means of supporting herself until she can marry a wealthy guy. When a new substitute proves to be rich, she schemes to get his attention but will need to fight another teacher off for his affection. She might also finally find her own inner teacher.

See the trailer, interviews, clips, a promo and web-only content here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Comedy

Rating: R (for sexual content, nudity, language and some drug use)

Turtle: The Incredible Journey 3D

(Hannover House) Miranda Richardson, Daniel Braga. The epic migration of loggerhead turtles from the Florida beach where they were spawned on a journey to the Atlantic and back to the same beach years later is the subject of this award-winning documentary, 25 years in the making. Sea World partially funded this film..

See the trailer, clips, interviews and a featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: 3D

Genre: Documentary

Rating: NR

The Celestine Prophecy


The Celestine Prophecy

Coincidentally, they've walked out to a vista of where they're supposed to go.

(RAM Entertainment) Matthew Settle, Thomas Kretschmann, Annabeth Gish, Sarah Wayne Callies, Hector Elizondo, Joaquim de Almeida, Jurgen Prochnow, John Aylward. Directed by Armand Mastroianni

Sometimes a work of literature can become a phenomenon; not because it is especially well-written but because people are searching for answers and they tend to go a little gaga when they think they’ve found a few.

John (Settle) is a high school history teacher whose services are no longer required. Adrift and somewhat at a crossroads in his life, he meets up with an old flame who conveniently flits into town (you’ll notice a lot of these conveniences in the film) to tell him about an exciting discovery in Peru of eight scrolls that have been dated 500 years before Christ, and each containing a singular insight that when taken as a whole will open a pathway to a new spiritual revelation. On something of a whim, John books passage on a flight to Peru after seeing a brochure for Peru arrive in the mail. Out flits his old flame, not to return.

In flits a historian, Dobson (Aylward) who sits alongside John on board the flight. Not only is he aware of the scrolls, he has been assisting with their translation and interpretation. It is he who dated the scrolls (although he did have them home before curfew). He also warns John that not everyone is eager to see the contents of the scrolls revealed to the world.

Before he can even say “See what I mean?” John witnesses the abduction of a priest whom he had been sent to connect with in order to see the scrolls. Strangely, it appears to be the police doing the abducting and when Dobson shows up, he gets taken too. Out flits Dobson from the movie.

John is saved by Wil (Kretschmann) who conveniently enough is one of the acolytes working on the scrolls and had arrived too late to help Father Jose or Dobson but he manages to bring John to their commune/resort/enclave/whatever. There he meets Marjorie (Callies) who at first recoils from John’s controlling energy (John has no game when it comes to the ladies) but eventually teaches him to share energy which is apparently better than sex.

However, the government forces marshaled by Cardinal Sebastian (Elizondo) and the mercenary Jensen (Prochnow) decide to take on the Celestines head-on and raid the ranch/commune/resort/enclave/center/whatever. Things look bad for the Celestines but they are rescued by the timely appearance of local rebels who could care less about them but who keep the government troops busy enough for them to get away and get on with their real business of finding the ninth scroll, which is the key and which apparently John is the key to acquiring. Ain’t that a coincidence? In ny case, out flit the rebels and in flits a headache.

Back in the 90s this was a huge bestselling novel for James Redfield. Several studio offers were made to convert the  property into a major motion picture, but Redfield turned down all of them, wanting to maintain intellectual and artistic control. Perhaps he should have taken one of them.

This is a mess from beginning to end. It’s really hard to know where to start, whether it is the new age hokum that is continually being spouted until you want to shove a bowl of granola up someone’s rectum or the wooden acting that keeps the energy of the film muted,. No, I think it was the overreliance on coincidence as a plot device and the way the characters keep commenting that these “coincidences” prove that something is meant to be. Actually, it’s just bad writing.

I tried plowing through the novel back in the day but finally gave up when I realized that for my admittedly dull sensibilities was neither entertaining nor enlightening and I feel the same way about the movie. Nothing in it really works, although if you’re a fan of the book you’ll appreciate how faithful the movie is to the novel, which is apparently what Redfield was after. He got his wish, but unfortunately what he didn’t get was a good movie and that’s no coincidence.

WHY RENT THIS: A fairly faithful adaptation of the novel.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Stiff and clumsily directed which is appropriate considering the stiff and wooden acting in the movie.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild violence but not enough to make me hesitate to allow most kids to watch.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Redfield had initially self-published the book and sold 100,000 copies out of the back of his truck before Warner Books agreed to publish it; the book went on to become one of the best-selling novels of all time. The author decided to take a similar approach to the film and self-financed it as well as writing the screenplay himself.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $903,680 on an unreported production budget; my guess is that the movie lost money.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: Broken Embraces

The Young Victoria


The Young Victoria

We are QUITE amused!!!

(2009) Biographical Drama (Apparition) Emily Blunt, Rupert Friend, Paul Bettany, Miranda Richardson, Jim Broadbent, Thomas Kretschmann, Mark Strong, Julian Glover. Directed by Jean-Marc Vallee

Most Americans have a picture in their head about Queen Victoria of England (if they even know who she is at all) of a dour old matronly sort dressed entirely in black with a perpetually sour expression, exclaiming “We are not amused!” in a posh accent. The woman who would be the longest-reigning queen in English history was obviously much more than that; she was also, at one time, a young woman.

As the movie begins, King William (Broadbent) nears the end of his reign. He is childless, so the daughter of his late brother, the Duke of Kent is his heir. Victoria (Blunt) lives in isolation with her mother (Richardson) and her mom’s lover, Sir John Conroy (Strong). Both of them very much want a regency with Sir John taking control of the throne, but Victoria is having none of it. In a show of the backbone that would define her reign, she refuses to sign papers handing over her authority and rights to her mother. It will not be the last time she will be underestimated.

Sir John isn’t the only one with designs on the crown. King Leopold of Belgium (Kretschmann) is eager to marry off his son, Prince Albert (Friend) to the young girl, so he coaches his son on Victoria’s likes and dislikes. She finds him out and when she confronts him with it, he owns up. This impresses her.

Good thing too, because she needs all the friends she can get. The Prime Minister Lord Melbourne (Bettany) appears on the surface to be Victoria’s ally but he’s been playing the political game for so long that he can’t be trusted. Everybody at court wants some measure of power, and it is up to her to sort through it. It isn’t always easy, but with Albert at her side, she has an ally and confidant that she can at last truly count on.

This is an impressive-looking film much of it filmed at the actual locations the events took place at (with the notable exception of Buckingham Palace). The costumes are sumptuous (the film won an Oscar for it) and the movie appears to be meticulously researched. As such, it’s candy for the eyes.

It’s also candy for the soul as Blunt gives a terrific performance as the young queen. Ever since her acclaimed work in The Devil Wears Prada Blunt has been looking for that one role that can show she can carry a film on her back, and this more than does the trick – she is every inch the Queen and yet just as vulnerable as the rest of us. While she didn’t get a nomination, this was certainly Oscar-worthy work.

The movie lets us down in that it drags quite a bit through all the turns and twists of court politics. Sometimes it gets hard to tell one lord from the other duke and what their agenda is, but consider this is essentially a condensed version of what really happened. Imagine trying to keep track of it if you were Victoria herself.

The love story between Victoria and Albert are at the heart of the movie and it is important that the relationship seem realistic. Fortunately, the chemistry between Blunt and Friend is genuine, and the relationship works; it’s easy to see why Victoria adored him so, and why she mourned his untimely death for her entire life.

While this isn’t perfect, it is nonetheless quite satisfactory both as history lesson and as entertainment. While there are some factual fudging, there isn’t nearly as much as is usual for a Hollywood production and that’s reason to give thanks right there.

WHY RENT THIS: Very informative on the life of one of the most influential figures of the English monarchy. Blunt does a tremendous job in the title role, and the production is authentic-looking and lush.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie is slow-moving at times and keeping some of the palace intrigue straight is a bit tiring.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a little bit of violence, some semi-chaste sexuality and a few bad words. While this will bore most of the little ones, it is certainly fit for nearly all audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: One of Victoria’s ladies-in-waiting is played by Princess Beatrice of York, the great-great-great-great granddaughter of Victoria. Her mother, Sarah Ferguson, is one of the film’s producers.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a featurette on “The Real Queen Victoria” featuring excerpts from her diary as well as the actors giving their perceptions – occasionally inaccurate ones – on Her Majesty. There is also a featurette on the Oscar-winning work of Costume Designer Sandy Powell.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $27.4M on a production budget of $35M; the movie was a flop.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: Post Grad

Valkyrie


Valkyrie

Tom Cruise wonders why he didn't get a part in the next Pirates of the Caribbean movie.

(United Artists) Tom Cruise, Kenneth Branagh, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson, Carice van Houten, Thomas Kretschmann, Eddie Izzard, Terrence Stamp, Christian Berkel, David Bamber. Directed by Bryan Singer

When the state becomes toxic to its people and amoral in its actions, it is the responsibility of good men to rise up and resist. Those actions may take the form of protest or, in extreme instances, of action – deadly action with deadly consequences.

Perhaps no society had ever become more amoral than that of Nazi Germany, and although sometimes we forget, there were plenty of Germans who resisted the Nazis and worked to bring down their diseased regime.

Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg (Cruise) was one aristocratic Prussian who was becoming more and more concerned over the direction that Hitler was taking. Certainly Hitler was proving himself to be no master tactician; he was needlessly sacrificing men and material that, von Stauffenberg thought, would be needed for the defense of Germany when the Allies invaded. Von Stauffenberg, a handsome aesthetic young man, would be cruelly injured in battle, losing an eye, a hand and two fingers off the other hand.

There were others who thought as von Stauffenberg did as well, including Major General Henning von Tresckow (Branagh), General Friedrich Olbricht (Nighy) and Ludwig Beck (Stamp), a politician. In fact, these men were convinced that in order to save Germany, Hitler had to die. After an aborted attempt to kill Hitler goes wrong, the remaining conspirators decide to bring von Stauffenberg into the fold.

At first he’s reluctant to join the fold. The cabal doesn’t really have an exit plan, nor do they seem well-organized to the well-organized von Stauffenberg. However, von Stauffenberg has an idea. It involves Operation Valkyrie, a plan Hitler has in place to keep the government intact in the event that the Nazi leadership is killed or incapacitated. Von Stauffenberg can use that plan against the Nazis by assassinating Hitler with a bomb at the Wolf’s Den, his heavily armored stronghold where his military staff meets to plan the war, then claiming the SS was responsible for the deed.

It’s a bold move, but it will need a lot of moving parts, not the least of which is getting General Friedrich Fromm (Wilkinson), head of the reserves, on board and Fromm is a political opportunist who doesn’t care about ideology so much as he does about power – his own. If the plan succeeds, it will save hundreds of thousands of lives and change the face of the war forever.

Of course, most people know that Hitler wasn’t assassinated by his own people – he took his own life. Students of history familiar with the plot know that it failed due to a relatively simple factor – the briefcase bomb was moved inadvertently by an adjutant so that he could stretch his legs, putting a thick block of wood between Hitler and the bomb.

However, unless you’ve got a rabid passion for World War II, chances are you aren’t going to know many details about the plot. Director Singer, best known for his X-Men movies, has meticulously recreated wartime Germany, and has at least tried to film at actual locations whenever possible, although his star’s Scientology beliefs made that task difficult as the German government was at first reluctant to grant the crew access to these locations because they consider Scientology a cult. While I don’t necessarily disagree with them, I do think that it was a bit ludicrous of them to kick up such a fuss over the beliefs of a single actor. That’s just me though.

I did like the historical detail to the piece; it’s one of the best aspects of the movie. However, there are some problems here, some of them not the fault of the filmmakers. For one, the real von Stauffenberg was a very cultured, somewhat reserved man who held himself with military bearing. By our standards he was somewhat aloof, and that aspect of his personality seems to be the one Cruise honed in on. There’s a bit of a disconnect between the audience and the character; it makes it difficult to really get into von Stauffenberg’s head. However, Cruise looks uncannily like von Stauffenberg as shown in the comparison photo below:

Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg (left), Tom Cruise (right)

Screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie, a long time associate of Singer, takes a more observational tactic to the script. He gives us the events and many of the facts, but little of the character behind the men who were involved. We have to take it for granted that they were more concerned with the potential destruction of Germany than they were about the Final Solution, which they may or may not have known about. We won’t get any insight that way from this movie.

The supporting cast, mainly of veteran British character actors, is sterling. Nighy as the somewhat indecisive Olbricht is particularly outstanding, although it is Wilkinson as the conniving Fromm who delivers the best performance. He is a conniving rat who follows whichever direction the wind is blowing, but even so when Wilkinson’s onscreen you can’t take your eyes off of him.

This isn’t a bad film, it’s a pretty good film as a matter of fact but unfortunately it never got much attention during the glut of releases Christmas 2008 when it hit theaters. That’s a shame, because this is a decent suspense movie with the added attraction that it actually happened, pretty much as seen in the film.

WHY RENT THIS: The historical accuracy is a bit better than is usual for Hollywood films. Singer keeps the tension palpable even though most of us know how the events are going to conclude.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Cruise is a little stiff as von Stauffenberg. The script seems more concerned with the events than those who took part in them.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of violence, including some scenes that are sudden and shocking, and a smattering of bad language. Certainly most teens can handle this, as well as mature pre-teens.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Van Houten, who plays Nina von Stauffenberg, is the longtime companion of Sebastian Koch who played Claus von Stauffenberg in the TV production of “Operation Valkyrie.”

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: A feature called “The Valkyrie Legacy” discusses the actual historical events, with interviews from descendents of the failed plotters as well as surviving co-conspirators. It also covers what happened after the events of the film. The Blu-Ray edition has the grandson of von Stauffenberg taking us on a tour of the actual Valkyrie locations.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: City of Ember