If Pixar could ever be said to have a red-headed stepchild it would be 2006’s Cars. Other studios would be doing backflips and buying self-congratulatory Variety ads if their tentpoles earned Cars’ 74% Rotten Tomatoes rating but for Pixar it represents an all-time low. Scan the positive reviews and you’ll notice they’re mostly filled with praise of the qualified kind as in “It’s no Toy Story or Incredibles but…”
So why bother with a sequel? Because even a studio of such vaunted artistic integrity as Pixar must occasionally bow to the dictates of the market: Cars may be among Pixar’s lesser-regarded and lesser-performing films (though a $461 million worldwide gross hardly constitutes failure) but it is astonishingly successful as a brand second only to the Toy Story franchise in its worldwide merchandising haul. The prospective numbers alone – Cars 2 is expected to outstrip Toy Story 3’s multi-billion-dollar retail sales tally – made another Cars installment all but inevitable.
That’s not to say Cars 2 is just some naked cash-grab. As the Toy Story follow-ups demonstrated Pixar and producer-director John Lasseter take their sequels seriously and never embark upon them without a plan that allows a reasonable chance at surpassing the original. And their plan in the case of Cars 2 calls for a wholesale overhaul.
The story begins with racecar Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) now a four-time Piston Cup champion accepting a challenge by arrogant Italian Formula One racer Francesco Bernoulli (John Turturro) to compete against him in the World Grand Prix a series of races in Japan Italy France and England. But once Cars 2 arrives in Tokyo the setting of its first race the plot pulls an audacious switcheroo morphing into a rollicking spy thriller. (This is presaged by its opening sequence an elaborate take-off of classic Bond-movie prologues.) Lightning the hero of the first film retreats to the sidelines as the story shifts its focus to his dim-witted tow-truck sidekick Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) who through a case of mistaken identity is thrust into the center of a conspiracy involving efforts to thwart a revolutionary alternative fuel called Allinol.
On the trail of the mysterious green-energy haters are British secret agents Finn McMissile (Michael Caine) the spitting image of 007’s iconic silver Aston Martin DB5 (actual brand names are for the most part avoided) and Holley Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer) a plucky purple roadster who believe Mater to be an American agent under deep cover. Fumbling toward gallantry his ignorance and clumsiness attributed to his elaborate disguise Mater’s arc echoes those of the protagonists in Being There and other works in which simpletons inadvertently elevated to positions of significance. Heroism it seems knows no IQ.
All told Cars 2 represents a solid upgrade – lighter quicker sleeker and brighter than the original model. Leaving the provincial confines of Radiator Springs the setting of the first film is a boon to the animators allowing them to showcase breathtaking 3D renderings of exotic skylines and cityscapes. The film boasts an earnest if artlessly conveyed pro-environmentalist message but I would hesitate to call it a message film. In fact it may be Pixar’s least-serious film to date: silly whimsical and crammed with one-liners and throwaway sight gags. It lacks the immense depth of feeling that characterizes more esteemed Pixar releases like Toy Story 3 or Up! but it's by no means hollow either. Those wishing for that old familiar Pixar profundity may simply have to accept that a world made up exclusively of anthropomorphized cars just isn’t conducive to it.
All of which suggests that Cars 2 is principally geared toward the audience’s younger and more distractible members who may lose track of the conspiracy plotline or fail to grasp its energy politics but will devour the rest of the film like a supercharged pixie stick. A handful of vehicles actually die in the film though never on-screen. The implied vehicular carnage probably won’t traumatize the little ones but it could prompt a few uncomfortable “Do cars go to heaven?” conversations.
Adults’ appreciation for Cars 2 may ultimately hinge on their respective tolerance for Mater’s bumbling redneck shtick and the film’s reliance (some might say overreliance) on fish-out-of-water/culture-clash humor. The comic tone of Cars 2 is about what you’d expect from a film in which Larry the Cable guy gets the lion’s share of the dialogue which is to say: exceedingly lowbrow. I tired of it shortly after the first act; your mileage may vary.
As the fifth year at Hogwarts begins most of the wizardry world is having a hard time believing Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) has returned further propagated by the Ministry of Magic who refuses to recognize anything evil is brewing and blames all the hullabaloo on Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and Dumbledore (Michael Gambon). The Ministry even interferes with Hogwarts business by making Ministry employee Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton) the new Defense Against the Dark Arts professor whose outwardly sweet demeanor hides a sadistic streak a mile wide. She thinks the children should only learn about the Dark Arts “theoretically” and tortures all those who disagree. But the Voldemort threat is a reality and Dumbledore has re-formed the Order of the Phoenix a group of witches and wizards that prepares to battle the Dark Lord. Harry is unfortunately being kept in the dark for his protection of course even as his connection to Voldemort grows stronger and he’s royally peeved at being ignored. Urged on by Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint) he forms his own order of Hogwarts students called Dumbledore’s Army to teach them what defenses against the Dark Arts he has already learned. Oh yeah Harry also shares his first kiss but make no bones about it—love is the furthest thing on Harry’s mind when the crap hits the fan. War is imminent. Everyone steps up their game in Order of the Phoenix. Radcliffe Watson and Grint have shed their adolescent whininess and aw-shucks goofiness to give their characters the greatest depth so far. They are forced to grow up pretty quickly in Order with little time for any playfulness and the three actors handle the seriousness with aplomb. Of course both Radcliffe and Grint have already ventured out of the Potter world—Radcliffe shed more than just adolescence on stage in a production of Equus while Grint lost his virginity in the indie Driving Lessons--and their extra experience shows in Order. Also good are Matthew Lewis as the usually clumsy Neville Longbottom who shows his mettle in more ways than one and newcomer Evanna Lynch as the slightly off-kilter Luna Lovegood who proves to be a loyal member of Dumbledore’s Army. But the kids have to keep up with the talented adult cast especially Oscar-nominated Staunton (Vera Drake) as Umbridge. The veteran actress’ interpretation of one of J.K. Rowling’s nastiest characters so far in the Potter lore is spot-on down to the pink wool suits and irritating twitter “ahem” she uses when she wants your undivided attention. Helena Bonham Carter also makes an impression however over the top it is as the evil Voldemort follower Bellatrix Lestrange. Does she ever want to look pretty onscreen? Then there’s the laundry list of Brits whose time onscreen may be short but is nonetheless memorable including Alan Rickman as the sneering Prof. Snape; Gambon as the wise but flawed Dumbledore; Gary Oldman as the kindly Sirius Black Harry’s only real family; and of course Fiennes as He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. His late-in-the-game appearance once again throws you for a loop. It stands to reason that at five movies in moviegoers would have a favorite Harry Potter flick by now. Those who love those Triwizard Tournament special effects might feel The Goblet of Fire was the best; or Prisoner of Azkaban for its time-bending action. Yet The Order of the Phoenix may be the one movie that speaks directly to the fans of the books. Without as much wide-eyed wonderment or wizardry flash the story is still chockfull of compelling details that are absolutely pivotal to the continuing Harry Potter saga. Screenwriter Michael Goldenberg (Peter Pan) and director David Yates (HBO’s The Girl in the Café) manage to wade through this volume of information and cut successfully to the chase with great effect. Yates who has signed on to do the sixth movie Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince even shows an affinity for action in the final dramatic confrontation between good witches and wizards and bad ones. But overall Order of the Phoenix may leave audiences not as well-versed in the novels a little itchy for some good old-fashioned wand-waving and Disney special effects. Thing is it’s just going to keep getting darker and darker for Harry and his crew. The days of happy fun playtime are over.
The story of the late great Johnny Cash depicted in Walk the Line is not quite all encompassing. The film dramatizes just one moment in Cash's life: his tumultuous 20s and rise to fame. The young Cash (Joaquin Phoenix) married and straight out of the army struggles with his music finally finding his patented blend of country blues and rock music. Haunted by a troubled childhood Cash sings songs about death love treachery and sin--and shoots straight to the top of the charts. On tour he also meets and falls for his future wife June Carter (Reese Witherspoon) whose refusal to meddle with a married man only further fuels the fire and contributes to his eventual drug addiction. Their cat-and-mouse love story provides the film’s core but unfortunately can’t quite overcome Walk the Line’s formulaic nature. Biopics are generally good to actors. Phoenix and Witherspoon could easily each walk away with Oscar statuettes for turning in two of the most jaw-dropping spellbinding performances since well Jamie Foxx in Ray. Neither actor had any musical background whatsoever but they both underwent painstaking transformations for the sake of authenticity doing all of their own singing as well as guitar-playing for Phoenix. The actor's performance is purely raw and visceral; his vulnerability is aptly palpable at first but then he becomes the Cash with the unflinching swagger. Witherspoon's Carter is Cash's temptress and she'll be yours too by movie's end. She eerily reincarnates Carter as if she was born to play the part. If Walk the Line is the ultimate actor's canvas then Phoenix and Witherspoon make priceless art-and music-together. While good for the actors biopics can prove to be difficult for the director. It’s hard to highlight a person’s life without it coming off like a TV movie of the week. Unfortunately director James Mangold (Copland) plays it safe with Walk the Line. The duets between Johnny and June on stage are about the only electrifying moments of the film. The rest is pretty stereotypical. And it isn’t because the film only focuses on certain years of Cash's life. It's simply not possible to fit a lifetime into the short duration of a film. The problem instead is that Mangold's presentation of Cash's life would lead one to believe that Cash actually exorcised his demons. But in reality his lifelong demons are what endeared him to the layperson. There was nothing cut and dry about the Cash story--and adding a little grit would have given Walk the Line the edge it needed.