Thursday, June 23, 2011

CARS 2: The Film Babble Blog Review

CARS 2 (Dirs. John Lasseter & Brad Lewis, 2011)

CARS and it's new sequel opening today, CARS 2, are the most commercial and formulaic films of all the Pixar productions. But that doesn't mean that they suck - no, they are both fairly entertaining animated kids flicks. It's just that this new entry in the franchise has a major problem that can be stated simply: too much Larry the Cable Guy.

Way too much.

As Tow Mater, the rusty redneck tow truck friend to Owen Wilson's Lightning McQueen, Larry the Cable Guy (man, I hate typing that - he'll be LCG from here on) has been promoted to the lead character here. LCG gets mistakenly caught up in a secret spy mission involving Michael Caine as a British agent Aston Martin model (obviously 007-ish), and his partner in espionage Emily Mortimer, also a sleek European car outfitted with snazzy gadgets.

Meanwhile, Wilson is competing with John Turturro as an arrogant Italian race car in the first World Grand Prix to determine the world's fastest car. This takes us to the gorgeously rendered locations of Tokyo, Paris, and London which often distracts from the flimsy predictable plot. Eddie Izzard voices a army green SUV billionaire who's promoting a green gasoline substitute fueling the vehicles in the Grand Prix.

So Caine and Mortimer with the scrappy help of LCG work to take down the bad guys trying to discredit the threat to traditional gasoline. If you can't guess the identity of the mysterious villain way before it's revealed then you're probably not paying attention. Or Pixar has succeeded in dazzling you enough that you don't care.

LCG was fine in small doses in the first CARS, but its a major malfunction to make Mater the central dominant character. His one note bucktoothed presence grated on me in every scene, and the tired premise of  his dumb luck reeks of comic desperation, which is very surprising in a Pixar film.

No Pixar palette should ever attempt to balance the likes of Michael Caine and Larry the Cable Guy (felt I should type it out this time).

As I said, CARS 2 isn't awful, it's just awfully average for a Pixar film. There are some fun sequences, but after the company's heights of the last several years (RATATOUILLE, WALL-E, UP, TOY STORY 3) this sequel feels like treading water. And with its over abundance of country bumpkin crap via one of the unfunniest and irritating comedians of all time, it barely keeps afloat.

Oh yeah, there is a amusing TOY STORY short called "Hawaiian Vacation" before the movie so that's a definite plus.

More later...

BAD TEACHER: The Film Babble Blog Review

BAD TEACHER (Dir. Jake Kasdan, 2011)

If you've seen the trailer for this crude Cameron Diaz classroom comedy, you've already witnessed all the best lines and all the relevant plot-points. But since none of that stuff was that great to begin with, it's quite a tiring task to make it through this 90 minute mess of a movie that has maybe 3-4 solid chuckles in it.

Daez plays the foul mouthed, hard drinking, pot smoking, gold digging, and completely immoral title character who gets dumped by her rich boyfriend (Nat Faxon) at the beginning of the movie. She has to return to the job she doesn't give an "F" about, as the movie's tagline goes, teaching at John Adams Middle School (JAMS).

Diaz gets through the day by putting on DVDs for her students of movies about teachers (STAND AND DELIVER, LEAN ON ME, DANGEROUS MINDS, etc.) while she drinks from mini liquor bottles or sleeps at her desk.

As the school's gym teacher, a smirking Jason Segel clearly has the hots for Diaz, but she's got her eyes on a Justin Timberlake as a nerdy substitute teacher. Lucy Punch plays a goofy goody two-shoes rival colleague of Diaz's, who is also after Timberlake's affections.

The sloppy narrative concerns Diaz trying to raise money for breast implants. That's right, that's the plot. She puts on a sexy car wash complete with a rock video (or beer commercial) style montage. She steals standardized test answers so her class can get the highest scores and she can receive a large cash reward. She, uh, does wacky corrupt stuff for her own selfish purposes - you got it, right?

Unfortunately, precious little of this is funny. Diaz doesn't really bring anything but the bare minimum effort to her role, Timberlake is likable but not believable, and only Segel seems to have the right laid-back approach to this lazy lackluster material.

BAD TEACHER feels like a series of deleted scenes on a lame comedy's DVD special features menu. The kind you watch and think 'I can see why they cut that. Because it didn't work.'

That pretty much sums it up - much like its superficial protagonist, BAD TEACHER rarely works.

More later...

Friday, June 17, 2011

THE TREE OF LIFE: The Film Babble Blog Review

THE TREE OF LIFE (Dir. Terrence Malick, 2011)

This is sure to be the most debated film of the year.

Just a cursory glance at internet message boards shows that while some people are labeling it “pretentious crap,” another thread of folks are calling it “one of the best movies ever.”

Consider me in the latter camp.

For his first film since THE NEW WORLD in 2005, the none-too-prolific Terrace Malick (BADLANDS, THE THIN RED LINE) has made a non-linear epic of incredible photography, lavish reconstructions of astrological history, and classical music.

It’s an overwhelming work that obviously a lot of people simply won’t get. I myself am still trying to piece it together, but I think I get it. I think.

Through beautifully fleeting imagery, we follow Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain as the parents of three sons in 1950s Waco, Texas. One of the sons dies, the cause of which is never explained, and the family is in mourning with Chastain asking the Heavens: “Lord, why? Where were you?”

Malick attempts to answer that question by going back to the beginning of time in a mesmerizing series of shots of thick engulfing clouds, glowing globules of every color, shining light, fire, flowing lava, etc.

History comes alive via CGI, and we even get to spend a little time with a few dinosaurs.

The visual thrust of all of this is stupefying; it’s like Malick is actually trying to capture God on film.

I’m really not sure if he succeeded, but that a film maker would try so hard and in some flashing moments appear to get so close is amazing to behold.

The timeline catches up with the ‘50s family again, as we see the boy who died being born. A strict disciplinarian, Pitt practices tough love on his boys (Hunter McCraken, Laramie Eppler, and Tye Seridan) while Chastain offers nothing but unconditional motherly love.

The vivid cinematography by four-time Oscar nominee Emmanuel Lubezki is astounding. Whether it’s exploiting the lush splendor of nature or zeroing in on the characters in emotional despair, the camera is always moving, exploring the space of every frame.

Close-ups are handled in a manner I haven’t seen in a film in ages. Even when the boys join a roving group of trouble making pre-teens, a feeling of isolation around McCracken is felt. His misguided desire to fit in with the window breaking, animal abusing brats is captured in the restless energy of the camerawork.

As the troubled eldest son Jack, McCracken is arguably the protagonist. His angry brow dominates the screen as he grows to resent his father. It’s a spare yet piercing performance – a noteworthy film debut.

An older version of Jack is played by Sean Penn, a businessman in the modern world still suffering over the loss of his brother and estranged relationship with his father. Penn’s part is one of the film’s only weaknesses. Penn, who gets more grizzled looking every movie he makes, mainly broods with his presence threatening to stop the film’s immersive flow.

As the last third becomes engulfed in surrealism, Penn is seen, suited up, wandering around a desert landscape. These images are pretty, but ultimately superfluous.

Many moviegoers (and critics) are going to be baffled by THE TREE OF LIFE. It’s a challenging and dense work that comes off at times like STAND BY ME filtered through the Kubrickian kaleidoscope of the last ten minutes of  2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY.

To me it’s not just a massive breath of fresh air during this sequel saturated summer, it’s a near masterpiece about life, death, the universe and everything.

In other words, here’s the year’s first major contender for Best Picture at the next Academy Awards.

More later...

MR. POPPER'S PENGUINS: The Film Babble Blog Review

MR. POPPER'S PENGUINS (Dir. Mark Waters, 2011)

Isn't Jim Carrey too old to be doing this kind of movie?

A decade ago it seemed like Carrey was moving towards a more thoughtful phase in his career based on work based on work in such fine films as THE TRUMAN SHOW, MAN ON THE MOON, and ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND. However at the same time the man still had, and still has, a fondness for doing broad commercial crap, which is exactly what MR. POPPER'S PENGUINS is.

In what must be screenwriting leading man character archetype #1, Carrey plays a divorced corporate big wig, who loves his kids (also still loves his ex-wife), but is too business-minded to be in touch with his soul. So a crate coming from his recently deceased globe-trotting father containing a penguin in it will, of course, melt his cold heart, right?

Carrey comically protests the penguin and calls everyone he can think of (Antarctica, animal control, the zoo, etc.), but then another crate containing more penguins arrives, and his kids (Madeline Carroll and Maxwell 

Perry Cotton) love them so the put-upon protagonist makes his Park Avenue pad into a winter wonderland.

Carrey's shtick is always giving everybody hip snappy nicknames as he glides though films, so it comes in handy naming the penguins: Captain, Lovey, Bitey, Nimrod, Stinky and Loudy. The birds can be fun to watch, but as a large percentage of their antics are via CGI it's more and more cringe inducing than cute.  

Angela Lansbury is in the thankless role of the potential client Carrey is trying to score for a big real estate deal, and guess what? The penguins get in the way, particularly in a silly set-piece that turns the Guggenheim into a massive seabird slide.

That's actually one of the better scenes, as the film is bogged down in schmaltz and poop jokes. And I mean, a lot of poop jokes. Enough to make the "poop picnic" in JUDY MOODY seem positively understated.

Clark Gregg as the movie's villain - a creepy animal control guy who wants to take the penguins for his own supposedly evil purposes is a considerably contrived element, but in this fluffy formula he fits right in. Entourage's Carla Gugino as Carrey's ex-wife basically just shows up on time for her standard issue lines.

With it's icy subject matter, I wondered why MR. POPPER'S PENGUINS wasn't earmarked for a Christmas season release, but maybe since it's really all about the air-conditioning people seek during the heat of summer, it's probably a great marketing move.

Carrey, who's pushing 50, apparently sees himself as a post-modern Don Knotts - that is, a family friendly funny man caught in outlandishly wacky situations - and that's fine, but he's got the chops to shape his career better.

This at least proves that he's a good actor, because you've got to have talent to act like bland cash-in kid's crap like this isn't beneath you.

More later... 

Saturday, June 11, 2011

MIDNIGHT IN PARIS: The Film Babble Blog Review

MIDNIGHT IN PARIS (Dir. Woody Allen, 2011)

At first glance, Owen Wilson looks like an unlikely Woody Allen surrogate.

Yet in Allen's best film since VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA, it's an inspired piece of casting that works. Wilson puts real effort into the character of Gil Pender, a Hollywood hack screenwriter who wants to give real writing a try, and finish that difficult novel he's been tinkering with for months.

On vacation in France, Wilson's fiancée (Rachel McAdams) accuses him of romanticizing the past - particularly Paris in the '20s, an era he would most like to live in. Wilson clashes with McAdam's conservative parents (Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy), and her friends including a wonderfully snobby Michael Sheen, so he takes off on a walk around the city taking in the sights.

At the chimes of midnight, an old timey car pulls up him, and the drunk passengers plead with him to get in. After some hesitation, he joins them.

Somehow this takes him back to, you guessed it (or saw the trailer), Paris in the '20s. It's a rollicking party of an era where everybody he meets is famous figure of the arts. At a party, with piano accompaniment by Cole Porter (Yves Heck) no less, he meets F. Scott Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston) and his wife Zelda (Alison Pill).

There's also Corey Stoll as Ernest Hemingway, Kathy Bates as Gertrude Stein, Marcial di Fonzo Bo as Pablo Picasso, and the best one of all: Adrien Brody as Salvador Dali.

Wilson meets a fetching model (Marion Cotillard) who he falls for on the spot. So every night back in the present, he makes the excuse to McAdams that he wants to go out on a walk, and goes back to hobnob with history. The predicament of choosing the past over the present becomes a sticky one, as there's the possibility of another love in the form of Lea Seydoux as an antiques dealer "in the now."

There's a wonderful wit and whimsy to how Allen plays this all out. It's his warmest film since, uh, I can't remember when.

In other words, it's the most satisfying Woody Allen film in ages.

Wilson's delivery of Allen's choice one-liners is infectious, and he quotes from the greats, such as Faulkner's "The past is never dead, It's not even past." convincingly enough to make one forget the man-child of "Hall Pass" from earlier this year.

The film is at its most radiant when it's in those sequences set in the past. In a neat little twist, Cotillard dreams of living in the 1890's; turns out everybody has their dream era.

One personal thought is that I wish the Woodman would've filmed this in black and white. It's not just because the opening montage of shots of Paris was strongly reminiscent of the opening of MANHATTAN, I feel like B & W would've brought out something more in the photography, the depictions of both present and 20's Paris, and the performances of the people playing historical personalities.

As I said that's just a personal quibble. I'm just an aficionado of the man's B & W work so don't mind me.

MIDNIGHT IN PARIS isn't gonna to make me rearrange my top 10 Woody Allen movies, but it's a lovely lark that I predict even non-fans would enjoy. I think most people can relate wishing for a simpler more inspiring time to live in, and I think they'll be greatly amused with this simple and inspiring story.

More later... 

Friday, June 10, 2011

SUPER 8: The Film Babble Blog Review

SUPER 8 (Dir. J.J. Abrams, 2011)

Having grown up during the golden age of Spielberg (i.e. the late '70s-early '80s) I was immediately in tune with the vibe Abrams was going for here. It helps that mood and tone that SUPER 8 is set in a small mid-western town in 1979, and centers around a group of pre-teen kids.

Joel Courtney, who's never acted in a movie before, stars as a shy model building C-student whose mother is killed in an accident at her factory workplace. His grieving father (Kyle Chandler) is the town's deputy, and for obvious reasons things are strained between father and son.

Courtney's pushy friend (Riley Griffith) is making a super 8 zombie movie, and with a small crew of kids, including fire-works crazy Ryan Lee, klutzy Zach Mills, and geeky Gabriel Basso, they sneak out late one night to work on it.

Griffith invites Elle Fanning to play the lead character's wife, and because she has a car, to the excitement of Courtney who has a crush on her.

In the middle of filming on the platform of an old rickety train station, a freight train comes nosily down the tracks. Griffiths wants to get it on film citing "production values," but Courtney sees a truck racing towards the train, and then there's a ginormous crash, completely derailing the engine and all the compartments in a series of fiery explosions. The kids escape unharmed, well, one claims he was "scraped", and recognize the driver of the truck as one of their school teachers.

They frantically leave the area when a bunch of shadowy men with flashlights descend on the wreckage.

That's the set-up, and it's a great one. From there a entertainingly tangled narrative involving a military cover-up, a budding romance between Courtney and Fanning, and, yes, a mysterious alien creature that was in one of the train's compartments unfolds.

A wide-eyed sense of wonder coupled with cynicism about government misinformation effectively evokes the atmosphere of CLOSE ENCOUNTERS and E.T., which is no surprise as Spielberg produced, and the film is a collaboration of Amblin Entertainment and Bad Robot Productions.

Like with his STAR TREK reboot, Abrams shows that he has a great grip on face-paced storytelling. As the movie lays out all its alien cards, the proceedings get a bit predictable, but the compelling craft on display never falters.

Abrams also gets the Spielbergian sentimentality down. No other recent sci-fi CGI blockbuster lately has had this much heart.

It's a promising debut for Courtney, who endearingly captures the awe in this tale of how kids can outsmart the authorities, figure out a complex conspiracy, and help an alien get back home.

As for the rest of the cast - Fanning brings poise to a standard damsel in distress part, the set of smart- alecky kid are perfectly cast, and Chandler infuses his troubled cop character with intensity.

However, Noah Emmerich as a U.S. Army representative is standard one note villain. He still kind of fits here because it's a common theme in this genre that the real bad guys are the government powers that be, not the aliens. Sure, there's a lot of killing at the claws of the creature, but that's because of military mistreatment and wrongful imprisonment, you see?

With a nice blend of nostalgia, emotional pull, and incredible special effects, SUPER 8 is as touching as it is a lot of fun.

Any be sure to stay for the end credits. I'm not going to tell you why, but trust me - you won't want to miss it.

More later...

Thursday, June 9, 2011



In 1996 former Raleigh resident, and former member of local favorites the Connells, John Schultz made one of my favorite independent films: BANDWAGON, about a fictional struggling indie band.

Since then Schultz has been mainly making kids movies like LIKE MIKE, WHEN ZACHARY TAYLOR CAME TO TOWN, and ALIENS IN THE ATTIC.

That family film streak continues with JUDY MOODY AND THE NOT BUMMER SUMMER, based on Megan McDonald's "Judy Moody" children's book series, which I had never heard of befoer since I'm 41 and don't have any kids.

Okay, so I'm not in the target audience for this movie.

I'll still proceed - Jordana Beatty plays the precocious title character, who's cute but often hyper-irritating as she bounces from frame to frame , spouting out self consciously hipisms like "rare" in place of "cool," and plotting every activity with charts in a control freak manner that even annoys her close friends.

After their teacher Urkel (I mean Jaleel White) dismisses class for the summer, 2 of Beatty's friends take off - Taylor Hender to clown camp; Garrett Ryan to circus camp.

Beatty is stuck with the nerdy Preston Bailey who gets in the way of racking up those "thrill-a-delic" points our heroine imposed on her chums.

Then there's Parris Mosteller as Beatty's brother Stink, who wishes to spend the summer tracking down Bigfoot, because reports indicate he's in the area.

Their parents (Kristoffer Winters and Janet Varney) leave for a emergency trip (I can't remember why or where), and Aunt Opal (Heather Graham) arrives to take care of the kids.

Graham is a free-spirited artist (she calls herself a "guerilla artist" but that's hard to believe), and Beatty takes to her immediately.

Beatty's Judy Moody exhausting antics in spastic scenes full of harmless destruction disinterested me to the point of wondering about Graham's character. I kept thinking a dark side that she was running away from would be revealed (addiction, abusive relationship, something sinister), but then I caught myself - what the Hell kind of movie did I think I was watching?

This isn't catching up with an aging Roller-Girl! This is a loud and brightly lit kid's romp in which the only thing close to edgy is poop and vomit jokes.

I really feel out of my element writing about this movie. The kids at the preview screening were howling with laughter, while every tired gag made me roll my eyes. But again, this isn't a movie for me.

It's a disposable candy wrapper of a movie, that I bet kids will outgrow right after seeing it. Schultz seems to have found his niche making such teenybopper tripe. I'm sure it pays the bills, but when I think back to his promising debut BANDWAGON, it just doesn't seem right.

At least Connells fans who take their kids to it will enjoy trying to pick out lead singer Doug MacMillon's cameo (MacMillan has appeared in all of Schultz's films).

That's all I got out of it anyway.

More later...