Tuesday, June 28, 2011

'Cars 2' spins wheels

Two and a half stars

You know, it’s hard for me to knock a kid’s movie. Even as a film critic, I really take no delight in writing a bad review of what is really meant for kids. Unless the movie has some really bad message for kids I need to warn parents about, then I don’t really see why I should write a bad review of a kid’s movie. Pixar’s new film, “Cars 2”, doesn’t really have a bad message for kids. Also, its main characters are lovable, as usual. Pixar characters are always lovable. The film is about the friendship between the talking cars, Mater, a dim-witted but lovable tow truck voiced by Larry the Cable Guy, and his friend, the race car, Lightning McQueen, voiced by Owen Wilson. They live in Radiator Springs, a little American town. Of course, this is a universe where there seems to be no humans. Everyone’s a talking car. Lightning McQueen happens to be a famous racecar, and he decides to take Meter with him to Tokyo for a big race.

In Tokyo, Pixar has some fun with the culture. It is fun seeing Pixar poking a little fun at the Tokyo culture. The sequence looks great. While in Tokyo, Meter gets mixed up in a spy-plot with two spy cars. One voiced by Michael Caine. They mistake him for an American spy. You see, there’s a plot about the cars in the race using a new fuel, but the evil cars want the cars to use their fuel. So they sabotage the race. Call me old-fashioned, but I don’t really relish political messages in children’s entertainment. I think teaching kid’s morals, old fashion morals, is fine. Like that good prevails over evil or friendship. Though, I don’t like some message about oil and the environment and alternative fuels and evil oil companies in a picture by Pixar. The subplot is rather unnecessary. So, Mater gets mixed up into the spy plot and is zoomed around from Tokyo to Paris to London. Every five minutes when I thought that maybe the film would pick up a little, they go back to the spy plot. The spy plot kind of falls flat.

I don’t like bashing a kid’s movie, as I said earlier, but this one kind of spins its wheels. Meter talks throughout the picture, and he’s not a bad character. As I said, the dim-witted pickup truck is lovable, but I’m not sure he makes the best main character. I can honestly say I was bored half-way through this picture. The kids in the theater didn’t seem to laugh once. Look, I’m not going to be one of those critics who say that everything Pixar makes needs to be a masterpiece or have a deep emotional core like the people who told me they cried at the end of ‘Toy Story 3’. I think a good afternoon at the movies with your kids isn’t a bad thing. I, for one, don’t believe that all children’s entertainment needs to always be great. Sometimes entertaining the kids is enough. That being said, I think this Pixar film is going to bore the adults.

If you want to bring your kids to this movie, it's not the worst thing in the world. There are some scenes of cars in explosions that might scare younger kids. I don't expect greatness from every Pixar or kids film, and I don't think a merely entertaining kids film is a bad thing but this film could use some repairs.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

A Love Letter to Early Spielberg

Three Stars

I loved seeing the Amblin logo on the screen again. Hello, old friend. ‘Super 8’ is J.J. Abrams’s homage to Steven Spielberg, and I came prepared to this film. I came prepared to feel twelve again. The story opens on our twelve year old hero, Joe Lamb (Joel Countney). He is sitting on a swing set with his head down. It’s his mother’s funeral. His father Deputy Schiff Jack Lam (Kyle Chandler) is upset as well. Cute kid with a great loss. We are already starting to feel the Spielberg effect here. A couple months pass by, and he and his friends are hanging out, as they work on a film. It’s the summer or 1979. Joe and his friends Charles (Riley Griffiths), Cary (Ryan Lamb), Martin (Gabriel Basso), Preston (Scott Mills) and Alice (Elle Fanning) are all spending their time making a cheap horror flick on super 8 film they bought from the local store. They are filming a scene at the local train station. All the boys are enchanted by Alice, as they cast her to play the girl in their film. They start to film the scene, but before they know it, a car goes on the tracks and the train crashes into it. Huge explosion and they get more excitement than they bargained for. The scene is a very good action sequence, and is the type of thing J.J. Abrams does well. I am reminded of his last film, ‘Star Trek’, which also had excellent action sequences.

Weird things start to happen in their small town like all the dogs disappearing and people disappearing. The military sets up camp. Weird things that look like Rubik Cubes start to appear. I was reminded of Stephen King’s ‘Stand by Me’, as these young kids band together to confront something weird and evil happening in their community. As all this is happening, though, their main focus remains making their little film with their camera. I felt like I was watching a film from the late eighties to early nineties. The kids are all in a scary situation, and they are quicker than the adults to figure out what is going on.

The film can be kind of obvious at times. It makes up for that with a charming group of kids. Movies like this make up for their short comings with innocence and relationships including kids. That’s what made E.T. and other movies of that time period work. The kids have their quirks. Charles is the young director, who is strict about the direction of his film, and despite everything happening, is determined to finish it. Things get crazier and crazier. The kids run through the town on fire, and they get to the school where they discover more film with evidence of the truth the evil government had been hiding.

One of the things I love about this film is the love letter it is to Spielberg and film in general. Film is very important to the plot, from the kids making a film of their own to the scene where Joe and Alice watch the film of Joe’s mother on the wall. Film is important, apparently, to J.J. Abrams, and that’s really the joy of ‘Super 8’. The film can feel a little rushed at times, and the ending is directly pulled from Spielberg’s playbook. Though, I suggest you take your kids and yourself to this film, because this film has the right spirit. I’m suggesting this film mostly for its spirit. You don’t get films like this anymore. It’s a story of kids facing great danger, but going on a quest and trying to save their friend from a monster. Perhaps this film will inspire a kid to pick up a camera and make a Super 8 film of their own. Ok, maybe people don’t use super eight film anymore, but people don't make films like 'Super 8' anymore, and it's perhaps trying to recapture some of that magic.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Woody Allen’s Magical Romp Through Paris…and Time

Three and a half stars

Woody Allen’s new film, “Midnight In Paris”, is a magical romp through Paris. What I didn’t expect was that it would also be a film about time travel. Woody Allen, I suppose, could have been an English professor. When I was in college, I was an English major, and I have heard of all the people that are referenced and played in this movie through my American and English literature classes. This film isn't about just time travel, but about a man's desire to fulfil a dream.

The film opens on screenwriter, Gil (Owen Wilson), and his girlfriend, Inez (Rachel McAdams). They are in Paris with her parents. Gil is an old time romantic when it comes to Paris and literature. He wants to go to Paris so he can give writing a novel a shot. His girlfriend and her parents would rather go shopping, and go dancing. They meet up with another couple who want to do the same. Gil just wants to walk through Paris, and be inspired by it.

One night, when he is sitting on the steps of a church, an old car pulls up and invites him in. He rides in the car, and arrives at a party where he is introduced to two people who he kind of recognizes. They end up being F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife. They go to a cafĂ©. Hemmingway is sitting there. Gil is shocked. The film keeps going back and forth between Gil’s modern life and Gil’s time travel adventure. He keeps going back to the same spot night after night, and he keeps getting into the car. One night he ends up at Gertrude Stein’s house. They all speak the way I would imagine them speaking,intellectually. Gertrude Stein will read his novel, after she is done arguing over culture with a friend of hers. Stein is played by Kathy Bates. Ah, to go back to that old time culture where high class people sat around at parties talking intellectually and listening to Cole Porter. But then I digress.

One of the wonderful things about Woody Allen, is that he doesn’t really care if you know who these people are, but if you where a English major or a person of a certain age, you really should know who these people are. When Gil comes back and tells Inez of his time with Hemmingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, T.S. Elliot, Cole Porter, Gertrude Stein and other important people of the bygone era, she thinks he is nuts and has a brain tumor. Owen Wilson is obviously playing the Woody Allen part, and he makes a charming Woody Allen.

Gil, like Woody Allen, is in love with the city. The film opens with a montage of Paris. No one shoots a city like Woody Allen. This is a film that people who are well read will get a kick out of. Not to say that someone who never heard of these authors and writers will not enjoy the film. They will. Woody is tipping his hat to a bygone literary era. These are writers Woody Allen probably admires as well. I wonder if this film, if made years from now, would have people traveling back in time to meet up with J.K. Rowling and Stephen King? Only time will tell.