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.
Animation particularly when it comes out of the Disney/Pixar stable is one of those areas of filmmaking that regularly inspires the phrase "They don't make them like they used to." In the case of Toy Story 3 however it's more accurate to say "They have never made them like this." It's certainly not unheard of for an animated film to be good for a Pixar film to be great or for the third film in a trilogy to be outstanding (though that's the rarest of the three) but in the case of Lee Unkrich's film the sheer degree at which it exceeds at all three is not just rare it's unprecedented.
Eleven years have elapsed since Woody (Tom Hanks) Buzz (Tim Allen) and all of Andy's favorite playthings had their last adventure -- rather 11 years have elapsed since Andy stopped playing with his toys. Buoyed by Woody's never-failing devotion the gang is all optimistic that Andy will elect to bring them with him to his first year of college but as that fateful empty-nest day approaches it becomes clearer and clearer that the only toy that will be making the trek to school is Woody. The rest are all by a series of unfortunate events consigned to live out their remaining days at Sunnyside daycare. Things are actually looking up for the neglected entertainers until they realize just how careless the ankle-biters are when it comes to playing with toys.
Unfortunately there is no escape in sight for the lovable personalities Pixar has been refining for over a decade. Lotso Huggin' Bear (Ned Beatty) runs a tight ship at Sunnyside; the new toys are just going to have to be sacrificed to the aggressive toddlers so the old veterans can have a relaxing time with their more mature counterparts. Eventually Woody catches wind of what kind of life his old pals are being forced to live and Toy Story 3 quite brilliantly becomes a riff on classic prison escape movies as Woody seeks to breach Lotso's security measures and bring his bunch back to Andy where they belong. And while this on-the-run chunk of the film is some of the most thrilling material Pixar has ever delivered it's also some of the most touching.
Unlike most sequels not a moment of Toy Story 3 feels artificial. There's no sense that Pixar decided to make a third film because it knew that the box office would gladly support another entry; no sense that this is a cash grab (unlike a certain green ogre's most recent trip to the big screen). All of those typical sequel pitfalls are carefully avoided by a swelling sense of finality. Toy Story 3 isn't just another adventure with these characters -- there is in fact no doubt that this is their final adventure their final hoorah together. Director Lee Unkrich and screenwriter Michael Arndt meticulously lead the audience along with bated breath the entire time culminating in a life-or-death scenario for the toys that is more heartfelt and genuine than most live-action films can ever muster.
It's astonishing how the creative team at Pixar can make you forget that what you're watching is all a bunch of digital wizardry. Maybe it's the 3D this time around maybe it's that this is the studio's most accomplished technical feat to date (there are single shots at a landfill that pack in richer detail than the entirety of the pioneering first film) that makes Toy Story 3 such an immersive experience. Or maybe it's simply because Pixar treats its property which is ostensibly for children with the utmost sincerity. The result is an overwhelming success the rare kind of film that were it a human being would be your best friend.
One could reasonably make the case that Toy Story 3 is the single best animated film ever made. I wouldn't outright agree with such grandiose claims but it's certainly not a baseless proposition that you'd be laughed at for bringing up. However with part three now tucked under Pixar's belt one could present an even better case that Toy Story is the best film trilogy ever made -- a claim I am far more comfortable signing on the dotted line for.
In an almost completely wordless first 40 minutes we meet the workaholic robot Wall E (Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth-Class) as he goes about the daily tasks--organizing an abandoned junk yard with remnants of what life was like before mankind was forced to leave earth (or die) in the 22nd century. Apparently no one remembered to turn his switch off so he continues to do his thing in the shadow of an eerily empty city. One day a spaceship lands and drops off a spiffy search robot named EVE (Extra-terrestrial Vegetation Evaluator). EVE strikes up a touching even romantic relationship with little Wall E his first contact with anything or anyone (other than a pet cockroach) in about 700 years. When EVE discovers that Wall E may have come upon the living proof that Earth is once again inhabitable she blasts off to tell the humans aboard the Axiom--a massive shopping mall-like space station--that it may finally be safe to return home. Not wanting to let her go Wall E hops on during takeoff and blasts into the outer reaches of the universe where he experiences the surreal future and brings hope from the past. Be prepared to fall in love with the most engaging and original new movie star in ages. The extraordinary performance here is a robot who utters sounds not words and comes brilliantly alive through state-of-the-art CGI animation and expert vocal design by legendary sound wizard Ben Burtt (R2D2 of Star Wars). He makes this non-human love-struck piece of tin the most human element in the film. Wall E does not need words to express his understanding of affairs of the heart. In fact the early sequences in which he repeatedly watches an old video tape of the 1969 musical Hello Dolly (the only one is his obviously limited collection) we totally understand where his notions of romance come from--and from an 800 year-old semi-flop Hollywood movie no less. The trip into space brings encounters with some misfit robots as well as the rotund immobile humans competently performed by vets like Jeff Garlin as the ship’s captain Fred Willard John Ratzenberger Kathy Najimy and Sigourney Weaver as the ship’s computer. But the real acting voice-over prizes belong to Burtt and his sound design colleagues this time. Oscar take notice: Pixar has done it again. Co-writer/director Andrew Stanton won an Oscar for Finding Nemo and has worked in some capacity on just about every Pixar triumph from Toy Story; through last year’s Oscar winning Ratatouille. His creative need to stretch and explore uncharted ‘toon territory results in the offbeat Wall-E which abandons the talking creature formats for a surreal touching and environmentally-conscious love story. The film sets off alarms for the future of our planet but also offers hope that it’s not too late. Stanton’s most daring notion is to create almost a silent film for the first half and in so doing gives us an animated cinematic experience the likes of Chaplin Keaton and Jacques Tati would have loved. The achievement of keeping an audience glued to the screen watching incommunicative non-humans who learn to communicate and care for each other is no easy thing. Stanton creates beautiful visuals and a well-crafted story to go with them. This is one from the heart.
Then again Ratatouille does come from Brad Bird the creator of The Incredibles so you know you are in for something good. Meet Remy (Patton Oswalt) a rat who dares to dream the impossible dream of becoming a gourmet chef. All his life Remy has had a gifted sense of smell. While his family rummages through the garbage for scraps Remy only goes for the good stuff stealing directly from the kitchen. For instance a piece of brie combined with a fresh berry is just heaven for Remy. Then circumstances literally drop Remy into the Parisian restaurant of his dreams Gusteau’s where he soon discovers having whiskers and a tail is detrimental to cooking five-star meals. So close and yet so far away. But as luck would have it the petite rodent befriends the restaurant’s shy outcast garbage boy Linguini (Lou Romano) and together they form a most improbable partnership. With Linguini’s clumsy body channeling Remy’s creative brains they turn Paris upside down. Vive Remy! Ratatouille doesn’t have any showboating animated characters in need of A-list voices to bring them to life. Instead the vocal talent all take a backseat to the story and it works out perfectly. Stand-up comedian Oswalt (TV’s The King of Queens) taps into a rodent frame of mind and gives Remy a nice mix of intelligence spunk and food savvy while voiceover veteran Romanoo is effectively goofy and sweet as Linguini. There’s a slew of other more well-known voices as well including: Ian Holm as the domineering slightly sadistic short-in-stature chef Skinner at Gusteau’s; Janeane Garofalo as Collette the only female in the kitchen who at first resents Linguini but then grows to love him (mais oui!); Brad Garrett as the late great chef Auguste Gusteau Remy’s mentor whose spirit resurfaces in Remy’s imagination; and finally Peter O'Toole—yes THE Peter O'Toole—as the pompous food critic Ego who hates everything he eats. Well that is until he samples Remy’s cuisine. What can I say? Helmed by the ultra-talented Brad Bird Ratatouille is simply a masterpiece in animation which is quite a compliment in this day and age of the CGI glut. Reaching the standard they set with Toy Story Pixar has never stopped churning out the highest quality CGI you’ll ever see onscreen unsurpassed by any of their competition. Ratatouille’s attention to detail is nothing less than amazing down to Remy’s rapid breathing when he’s frightened just as if we are watching a real rat to the way Bird and his crew turn the City of Lights into a truly mesmerizing sight. And for those who love to cook—or eat good food for that matter—forget about it! Ratatouille is the delicacy you’ve been waiting for on par with expert cooking movies such as Like Water for Chocolate or Babette's Feast. Pixar clearly has defined the way we watch animation creating films that are not only entertaining for the children but just as hilarious compelling and heartfelt as any live action film. Now if only the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences can just get off their high horse and consider an animated film worthy of a Best Picture Oscar. Ratatouille might just have a chance.
Attempting to delve into one of Tinseltown’s most curious scandals--the mysterious suicide (or was it?) of the original TV Superman actor George Reeves--the story begins after Reeves (Ben Affleck) is found dead of a seemingly self-inflicted gunshot wound during a late night party in his Benedict Canyon home. The case then unfolds through the eyes of Louis Simo (Adrien Brody) a street-smart publicity hungry private dick hired by Reeves’ grieving mother. As Simo slowly peels back the layers of Reeves’ seemingly glamorous life he discovers an actor of charm talent and sophistication whose every opportunity for a big break fizzled forcing him to lead a frustrated existence slumming in the superhero show he deemed beneath him. Gradually identifying with Reeves’ failed expectations for himself Simo discovers a host of candidates who may have actually pulled the trigger on the actor including his young party girl paramour (Robin Tunney) his longtime lover and patron (Diane Lane) and his lover’s husband a powerfully connected studio “fixer” (Bob Hoskins). It is Brody not Affleck who carries the bulk of the film on his shoulders and the Oscar winner delivers a finely etched turn as Simo who’s fractured potential mirrors Reeves’ but quite simply Simo’s story isn’t nearly as dark or engaging as Reeves’ life or the mystery surrounding his death. Affleck an actor who has had his share of ups downs duds and disappointments in Hollywood delivers one of his most charming and fully realized performances to date even if his spot-on recreation of Reeves’ speech pattern is a bit distracting. The luminous Lane’s acting talents remain in full blossom in a character she’s well-suited to play—the aging beauty fearing the road ahead—and she commands every scene she’s in. Unfortunately there should have been many many more of them. She’s almost criminally underused. Hoskins more menacing then ever and the reliable stable of supporting players like Joe Spano are all top-notch as well; only Tunney apparently trying to channel both Betty Boop and Bette Davis simultaneously seems a bit off her game as the wannabe femme fatale. Best known for his strong turns helming many of the best episodes of television series such as The Sopranos Sex and the City and Six Feet Under first time feature director Allen Coulter’s cool assured hand and meticulous recreation of Cold War Los Angeles are major bonuses here. Even when Simo’s story sags in comparison to Reeves’ Coulter keeps us interested particularly when staging the Rashomon-like sequences depicting the various theories behind Reeves’ demise. But by skimping on Reeves’ story in favor of a less compelling fictional framework built around a private detective investigating the case we never see one key suspect’s possible murder scenario enacted visually and it comes off as a glaring omission.
Elderly Ptolemy (Anthony Hopkins) who once served under the great Alexander (Colin Farrell) narrates the life story of the man the myth the legend--the son of the ambitious King Philip (Val Kilmer) who surpassed his father at every level and charged into the farthest reaches of the world. From early childhood in Macedonia we see where Alexander gets his drive--mostly from his vengeful snake-lovin' mother Olympias (Angelina Jolie) who urges her son to take charge as well from his tutor Aristotle (Christopher Plummer). Even in the taming of his unbreakable horse Bucephalas at 10 years old Alexander's destiny is evident. The heart of the film lies in Persia which Alexander conquers in one of the most studied military battles of all time. Alexander spends a great deal of time there--taking in the culture claiming its riches and marrying a Bactrian princess Roxane (Rosario Dawson)--much to the chagrin of his Macedonian generals who are stuck in this foreign land with their king. Despite this success Alexander grows restless and turns his attention to the rest of the world including the unexplored regions of India. With his army stretched thin and his Macedonian troops longing for home Alexander presses them one campaign too far. Succumbing to a mysterious illness at age 33 Alexander dies never quite finding what he so desperately searched for.
Although some may scoff at casting the Irish actor in the lead Farrell does an admirable job playing the tortured hero blond wig and all. He exudes plenty of wide-eyed fury and intensity as Alexander the warrior balanced by the controlled calculation of a hyper-effective military commander although he isn't nearly as effective as the idealistic pre-world-conqueror Alexander as he is spiraling down into the haunted angst-ridden Alexander at the end of his obsessive crusade. Casting Jolie as Olympias is a stroke of genius. Sure Jolie can play a smart and beautiful woman in her sleep but her beauty is surpassed only by the power she imbues as Alexander's bitter yet loving mother; she's as hypnotic as the snakes she carries around. Kilmer relishes his role as Alexander's father Philip in all of his grotesque wine-soaked glory. Powerful driven and battle-scarred Kilmer's Philip knows precisely what he wants and matches Jolie's quiet intensity with the raw aggressive masculinity of a warrior king who is far more comfortable in his armor than a toga. In the supporting roles Hopkins is great as always this time in the thankless role of the narrator while Dawson plays Roxane with a ferocity that is as mesmerizing as it is terrifying. Standout Jared Leto also turns in a concentrated performance as Hephaestion Alexander's long-time companion boyhood friend and the person who loves Alexander the best. (And we do mean love.)
Alexander is Oliver Stone at his best. An Alexander nut for most of his life the director gives us a film that--even in its loooong three-hour form--continuously holds your attention especially its intense and bloody battle scenes. I mean honestly once you've fought against an elephant in armor the plain old sword-and-shield skirmishes pale in comparison. Alexander also possesses a great breadth of visuals: Alexandria's peace Pella's tension Babylon's opulence and India's richness. Yet as wonderful as the landscapes are it's personal interactions and internal politics that drive the story--and of course Stone's penchant for conspiracy theories as he more than insinuates Alexander was poisoned by his enemies rather than dying of an "unknown" illness. But a problem still remains: Alexander's life was so huge and he did so much that it's almost impossible to encapsulate it effectively into one film. Stone instead has to focus on what he thinks is the most important namely Alexander's renowned conquests while allowing the pressure cooker in which the young conqueror grew up--the triangle of mother father and son--come through in the decisions he makes later in life. For those few of us who have studied Alexander Stone has made this film especially for us. If you haven't spent any time reading Arrian and the other histories this excellent film might just inspire you to do so.