Movie review: ‘Cars 2’

In theaters

“Cars 2,” written by Ben Queen (screenplay), John Lasseter (story), Brad Lewis (story) and Dan Fogelman (story), directed by Lasseter and Lewis, 112 minutes, rated PG.

In the Pixar universe, Mater (voiced by Larry the Cable Guy) is kind of like what Jar Jar Binks is to “Star Wars.” To put it kindly, he’s polarizing. Many kids love him, while most adults are probably put off by his grating voice and dumbed-down sense of humor. Mater is, after all, an animated incarnation of Larry the Cable Guy.

It strikes me as a surprisingly poor choice by Pixar to thrust Mater into the spotlight of “Cars 2,” the sequel to the commercially successful, and mostly enjoyable, 2006 film. Here, Mater is the lead. Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) and his friends from Radiator Springs fall into the movie’s backdrop, taking part in a series of races spanning three countries to promote Allinol, an alternative fuel created by the adventurous mogul Sir Miles Axlerod (Eddie Izzard).

The fuel has one major design flaw: A strong electromagnetic pulse causes it to combust, and a group of jealous lemons (Gremlins, AMC Pacers among others) look to exploit that weakness, putting the racers in danger. It’s a part of a grander plot to destroy the public’s faith in alternative fuel.

Meanwhile, Mater unknowingly teams with two British secret agents, Finn McMissile (Michael Caine) and Holley Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer), who are on the trail of the criminal ringleader and plan to put an end to the corruption.

Mater gets tossed around during chase scenes, inadvertently discharges hidden firearms and gadgets, alternates silly disguises using voice activation, and uses grammar like he’s back on the Blue Collar Comedy Tour. All of this would have been fine in a subplot of “Cars 2,” but instead it just leaves you wanting more of the racing, and to return to Lightning McQueen and his arch rival Francesco Bernoulli (John Turturro), an Italian Formula Racer. That’s where “Cars 2” is at its best.

The racing bears a surprising likeness to its real-world counterpart, so meticulous in its translation that you’ll forget you’re watching an animated movie. From the starting line to every corner and crash, “Cars 2” gets the racing action just right.

There’s also a Rocky-Apollo love-hate relationship between McQueen and Francesco that is left underdeveloped. A little more of that would have made for a vast improvement to “Cars 2,” maybe even aiding it in becoming a great sports movie. But Lasseter never gives the contention between the two racers any room to breathe. Instead, we’re left with drawn-out scenes of a tow truck pretending to be a spy. Go figure.

Grade: C+


Slasher Summer Camp: ‘The Record’

By Anthony Crabtree, Guest Blogger

Today, Slasher Summer Camp goes where it has never gone before: South Korea. It is my belief that South Korea is currently making some of the best films cinema has to offer. While that might be what’s happening with South Korean film right now, the film that we are looking at today is “The Record” from 2000.

“The Record,” written by Chang-hak Han, directed by Gi-hun Kim and Jong-seok Kim, 94 minutes.

Now I normally would not start a review off like this, but first I have to warn anyone interested in this film about the DVD. Ironically from a company called WideSight, the film is presented with a full-frame transfer (not very wide …) and looks horrendous. It appears that the company used an old videotape to create the transfer. If at all possible, find another version and stay away from the WideSight release.

With that said, “The Record” begins with school getting out for the summer and a group of friends looking to make some easy money. They come up with what could quite possibly be the stupidest idea ever: lure a nerd with allergies to a house with no parental units around, pretend to murder him, film it all, and then sell it to make money. I have a couple of questions about this:

1. The friends plan to “pretend murder” the nerd by stabbing him with a blunt object. Now, I’m no stabbing expert here, but I would think an object (whether it be blunt or sharp) would do major damage if you jabbed it into someone hard enough. So they were just planning to do serious harm to him, but did not want to kill him? Okay. Moving on.

2. In what world can you film a pretend murder with a Sony camcorder and sell it for lots of money? I mean, “The Blair Witch Project” and “Paranormal Activity” are one thing, but five minutes of you pretending to murder your friend? I don’t think any studios would pick that up. Good luck at the amateur short film festival though.

Well, they actually do end up murdering Sung-wook (the nerd) because they mistakenly use a real knife. Naturally, the friends panic and do not end up calling the cops. They try to dispose of the body themselves. Two years later the friends are haunted by a figure dressed in bright red who wears a surgical mask. Could it be the return of Sung-wook?

As you can probably figure from that brief explanation, the characters do some pretty stupid things. This is what makes “The Record” surprisingly enjoyable. Yes, the characters split up when they go searching for the killer. Yes, one of the characters goes on a mission to hunt down the killer where it lives instead of waiting for the others or calling the police. And yes the characters consistently make unwise decisions when there is someone attempting to murder them.

These are all common occurrences in American slasher films, and it’s partially why we enjoy them. Do we want characters to think about what will happen before they act? No. The lack of any logical thought process adds to the fun of the film.

And that’s what makes “The Record” fun. It is by no means a great movie because it does stick to the standard slasher model. Yet, the standard slasher model works to entertain. It’s an entirely plot-driven film, with character development relying on differentiating between which character wears his hair spikey or which one tries to be nice to the nerd. Unlike recent South Korean films such as “The Chaser” or “I Saw the Devil,” there is nothing brilliant about “The Record.” Yet, it works because it’s enjoyable if you’re looking for a slasher film devoid of thought.

Grade: B –

Power Link of the Week: has a pretty self-explanatory name, and I encourage you to check it out and browse the site if you have any interest in Korean cinema.

Movie review: ‘Midnight in Paris’

In theaters

“Midnight in Paris,” written and directed by Woody Allen, 94 minutes, rated PG-13.

Much like its title city, Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” has an irresistible allure, placing you in the heart of the most highly romanticized setting imaginable.

Owen Wilson gives one the most disarming performances of his career as Gil Pender, a kindhearted screenwriter-turned-novelist spending time in Paris with his controlling fiancee, Inez (Rachel McAdams), while his future father-in-law works on business. Being in the city he loves ignites a spark in Gil – a yearning to uproot his life to Paris. More accurately, Gil longs for Paris in the 1920s.

One night, after turning down an invitation to go dancing with Inez and her friends Paul (Michael Sheen) and Carol (Nina Arianda), Gil finds himself lost on the streets of Paris trying to find his way back to the hotel. An antique car pulls up beside Gil, with passengers partying in the back, beckoning for him to join. He does, and soon finds himself talking to Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald (Alison Pill, Tom Hiddleston), who introduce him to Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll) among others.

The surreal moment strikes Gil with the sense of awe (as it should), but more than anything he’s filled with inspiration. His days are consumed by his novel (writing, rewriting, and rewriting some more), and at night he returns to the same spot, where a vintage ride pulls up to take him back to the roaring ’20s.

Inez becomes worried. Her parents find Gil to be weird, hiring a private investigator to follow him on his midnight strolls. But Gil feels more alive than ever – particularly after meeting Adriana (Marion Cotillard), a muse who has every artist of the era vying for her affection.

We’ve all pondered those hypothetical questions: “If you could be anywhere? Any time period? With any one?” Etc. etc. In exploring such queries, “Midnight in Paris” comes dangerously close to being a little too ludicrous and pretentious, but Allen successfully steers his film in the right direction, creating something that is far too likable to be either.

Much like Gil, Woody Allen is nostalgic at heart. We all are. We’d all like to drop in on a different time period that we feel an inexplicable connection to. Inez’s pedantic friend Paul points out the flaws in that mindset, mostly that it’s a form of denial. He’s right. But the romantic in us doesn’t care.

In Wilson, Allen finds that rare collaborator who can parlay his material into something that is neurotic yet strangely compatible with audiences. Allen has assembled an exceptional cast, as always, but it’s Wilson who fits the director’s comedic leading role like a glove. He’s a fountain of words and silly faces, and a master of that uncomfortable self-effacing humor. Best of all, he makes us laugh. It’s the type of performance that reminds us what a pleasure it is to watch Wilson when he’s at his best.

“Midnight in Paris” is escapism in its highest form – not like the sugar high you get from the soda pop Hollywood spits out, but more like a well-crafted wine. Cinematographer Darius Khondji (“Seven”) photographs the city with an understated beauty that blends reality with surreality – the everyday side of Paris and the mythological status built around it. Like the fabled side of the city, it’s easy to succumb to the charm of “Midnight in Paris.”

Grade: A

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The five best movies from Pixar

It’s like clockwork. Pixar releases one movie every summer. From years and years of success, audiences have come to rely on the tour de force of animation to provide at least one very good (or great) film each year. With the release of “Cars 2,” the sequel to one of Pixar’s more mediocre efforts, there comes an overwhelming sense of pressure. Will it live up to expectations? Exceed them, perhaps? Or will fans tout it as a new low for the animation studio?

We’ll find out this weekend.

“Cars 2” aside, it seems as though every year Pixar’s latest release sparks a debate among film fans. What are some of Pixar’s best movies, and which ones are, well, just pretty good? Let’s take a look at my five favorite Pixar movies.

The five best from Pixar:

5.“Finding Nemo”: More than a children’s movie, “Finding Nemo” is an unexpected (and brilliant) study on father-son relationships. Having lost his entire family in a barracuda attack, Marlon, a clown fish, finds one remaining egg – Nemo. When Nemo is abducted by scuba divers, both Nemo and Marlon begin a journey to reconnect with each other, and, in the process, the two experience an adventure full of self-discovery. It’s in the exploration of characters where we begin to see Pixar develop into the studio it has become today. Oh, and the underwater setting lends itself to some of the most beautiful CG animation of all-time.

4. “Toy Story 2”: A perfect supplemental piece to the original “Toy Story,” the sequel makes a few welcome additions without losing the magic of the original. There are some new characters, more developed scenes of action, and a back-story for Woody. But the best thing to come from “Toy Story 2” is a sense of doubt in the characters. It’s something that the original only touched upon briefly. Where exactly do these toys belong? What are their roles in life (umm … toy life, that is)? Yeah, it might seem a bit ridiculous, but the way Pixar presents it is incredibly moving. It gives the sequel layers that most follow-ups don’t have, and sets the series up for a heart-wrenching finale in 2010’s “Toy Story 3.”

3. “WALL-E”: Andrew Stanton’s (“Finding Nemo”) ambitious experiment tested the boundaries for Pixar and for audiences. It paid off. “WALL-E” tells the story of the last survivor on Earth in 2085, a cubing robot named WALL-E. He ventures into space (hitching a ride on a spaceship in one of the movie’s funnier moments) for the love of a more advanced robot named EVE. The first 40 minutes, which contains no dialogue among humans, is some of the best and most daring filmmaking to come out of Pixar. Tough for kids to sit through, but something many film fans have really come to admire. The rest of the movie’s pretty good, surprising viewers with an in-your-face message that will hopefully reach a younger generation. That is, if they have the patience to get past the first 40 minutes.

2. “The Incredibles”: As everyone knows by now, Brad Bird is a genius, and “The Incredibles” might just be his career-defining masterpiece. The story of a superhero family who aren’t legally allowed to be “heroes” anymore, is a simple concept that Bird brings a lot of depth to. The parents are shells of their former selves, looking back on those glory. The kids have personal troubles stemming from their latent powers. And together, the family is dysfunctional and disorderly, trying to fit into a “normal” role they weren’t destined for. It’s a lot of fun watching this family gel as they rediscover what it means to be superheroes and a family. The movie also has some of the best action scenes ever featured in an animated movie, with quirky animation that gives each character a unique shape and personality. “The Incredibles” seems to have gotten lost somewhere between “Finding Nemo” and the commercial Goliath “Cars.” That’s a shame.

1. “Toy Story”: Pixar’s first feature-length film, and it remains the studio’s best. “Toy Story” is arguably the perfect animated movie. It begins with its strong sense of adventure, and ends with building one of the greatest friendships in film history (Woody and Buzz, like peanut butter and jelly). It’s funny without sinking to “Shrek”-like levels of humor, and the movie created an iconic cast of characters that have stuck with a generation of fans – and found some new ones along the way. Above all that, “Toy Story” is an innovation to behold (for 1995, that is), bringing computer-generated movies to the forefront of the industry. “Toy Story” redefined people’s perception of animated movies, and Pixar has continued that pursuit ever since.

On Blu-ray and DVD: ‘Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules’

“Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules,” written by Gabe Sachs, Jeff Judah and Jeff Kinney (book), directed by David Bowers, 99 minutes, rated PG.

When 20th Century Fox captured lightning in a bottle with its 2010 adaptation of the “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” series, a sequel was inevitable.

Within a year, the studio released “Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules,” a slightly inferior version of the original.

In “Rodrick Rules,” Greg Heffley (Zachary Gordon, perfectly cast) enters seventh grade, which to audiences, will feel uncannily like sixth grade. Greg hasn’t evolved a bit. He looks the same, acts the same, and still finds himself on the bottom of the social pecking order.

And it seems like everyone is still out to make Greg’s life as embarrassing as possible – none more than his older brother, Rodrick (Devon Bostick).

Greg and Rodrick’s mom, Susan (Rachel Harris), reaches a breaking point with her feuding sons, and offers incentives and ultimatums to force the two together. The brothers’ bond, or lack thereof, is the backbone of “Rodrick Rules,” but more than anything it serves as an excuse to put Greg through a battery of socially awkward moments. Because, after all, that’s what “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” is all about.

“Rodrick Rules” takes material that should be stale (a candy bar stain on the back of Greg’s pants, for example) and somehow makes it work. A lot of credit should go out to the cast, with much of the movie’s humor resting on the shoulders of 19-year-old Devon Bostick. He succeeds, creating a diabolical big brother – mischievous, larger-than-life and surprisingly relatable. Everyone has had a Rodrick in their life, to some degree. Or, maybe you are the Rodrick to others. Either way, with this role, Bostick again shows the world that he is a young actor to watch.

And if you’ve come expecting more sophomoric antics from Greg and Rowley (Robert Capron), you’ll find plenty here. They’re amusing enough. But where the movie really resonates with audiences, both young and old, is in its exploration of the inner workings of middle school life. It lifts those embarrassing moments from everyone’s childhood and amplifies them. If you attended middle school, odds are that you’ve lived through much of Greg’s trials and tribulations.

The sequel does a weak job of parroting its predecessor, however, feeling less like a bona fide follow-up and more like an extended episode of a Nickelodeon TV series. Scraping by on its sense of humor and ability to take you back to the good (or not-so-good) days of middle school, “Rodrick Rules” should please “Wimpy Kid” fans.

Grade: B-

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Slasher Summer Camp: ‘Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives’

By Anthony Crabtree

“Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives”

Last year I began collecting all of the “Friday the 13th” films and decided that I absolutely must have the slipcases for all of the deluxe edition DVD releases. For those who are unfamiliar with the slipcases, they are very cool and you should hunt at least one down if you’re a fan of the franchise. I won’t bother describing them, because no matter how hard I try it will never do these fine cases justice. Anyway, in pursuit of these slipcases, I had to e-mail many eBay and Amazon sellers asking if the slipcase came with the copy they were selling. For the release of “Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives,” I did not realize that I had e-mailed a Canadian seller about the case. He answered that yes, it came with the slipcase, and I quickly ordered it. It had not occurred to me that the case would be bilingual due to the fact that it was a Canadian release. Is this a problem? Certainly not! It’s a bonus! So, I now present my Slasher Summer Camp review of “Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives,” or as my case also refers to it, “Vendredi 13 Chapitre VI: Jason Le Mort-Vivant.”

“Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives,” written and directed by Tom McLoughlin, 86 minutes.

For those unfamiliar with the “Friday the 13th” series, let me briefly catch you up. Jason drowned in Camp Crystal Lake as a child because of the negligence of the camp counselors. His mother tried to avenge his death by murdering the counselors who worked at Camp Crystal Lake, but ultimately died in the process. Since his mother died, Jason has picked up where she left off and continues to murder camp counselors. Keep in mind that Jason “dies” in just about every film, but manages to be resurrected. This, the sixth part in the series, continues with the murdering of camp counselors.

From the start of “Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives,” it’s clear that writer-director Tom McLoughlin had a completely different vision of what Jason should be than any other filmmaker who had previously worked with the series. Combining humor with horror, this is the first (but certainly not the last) time that the “Friday the 13th” series had fun at its own expense. The plot focuses on Tommy Jarvis, who has tangled with Jason in parts IV and V. In part IV, he was played by the immortal Corey Feldman, and that will forever be the Tommy Jarvis that this reviewer remembers. Thom Mathews steps into the role this time around and does a serviceable job.

Tommy Jarvis and his buddy Hawkes have just been released from a mental institution. The first thing they decide to do? Drive to the cemetery where Jason is buried and burn his corpse. After digging the corpse up, Tommy is reminded of the horrible times he and Jason have had together and goes nuts. Tommy somehow manages to break a piece of a metal gate off and begins stabbing Jason’s corpse with it. After many stabs, Tommy turns around to get the gasoline, but just as he turns around lightning strikes the metal pole that was left inside the corpse. This, naturally, resurrects Jason, who is now more powerful than ever.

This scene ranks up there as one of the best scenes in “Friday the 13th” history. McLoughlin approaches Jason and his surroundings with a gothic touch, reminiscent of old Universal or Hammer films. It’s summer, yet we have dead leaves on the ground scuttling about. There’s lightning in the air and the cemetery that Jason has been buried in looks old and rustic. The vision here is unlike any other scene in a “Friday the 13th” film, and it works. It creates a legendary idea of Jason Voorhees that no other film has ever managed to capture and places Voorhees up there with classic monsters such as Frankenstein and Dracula. It’s all changed, though, as we zoom into Jason’s eye and he walks out a la James Bond and slashes into the title. The title then bleeds across the screen. Yes, after the successful and stylistic introduction, the film decides it wants to be a comedy.

One of the film’s major problems is that it has difficulty focusing on what it wants to be. It’s clear that McLoughlin wanted a comedic feel because the idea of Jason and his murderous adventures is ridiculous to begin with. The way that the writer-director works in some hilarious dialogue is too good to be missed. There is one scene in particular where the caretaker of the cemetery states, as he’s looking at the camera, “Why’d they have to go dig up Jason? Some folks have a strange idea of entertainment.” This line is what some would call “meta,” or as we referred to it in my day, self-referential.

With that said, McLoughlin also wants to approach “Jason Lives” as a traditional horror movie. Many times the humor falls to the wayside and the film is just about camp counselors getting murdered. And sometimes this leads to random scenes of killing that connect in no way to the film. A great example of this is about 20 minutes in when a group of executives are shown playing paintball. Over the course of 10 minutes, Jason murders them all. They are never referenced again or talked about.

The film has a random nature about it, and unfortunately while it’s enjoyable, it doesn’t all come together to make a cohesive story.

The film does work if you don’t take it or “Friday the 13th” series seriously. All of the “Friday the 13th” films are in some way enjoyable (save for maybe “Jason Goes to Hell”), and I appreciate that this film aims to be different. It’s self-referential, self deprecating, and sometimes actually witty. If you want to see Jason go on a random killing spree (which is essentially all caused by our hero Tommy Jarvis) and have a few laughs while watching it, then this is the “Friday the 13th” film for you.

Grade: B –

Instead of watching the trailer, let’s take a look at a live performance of Alice Cooper’s “Teenage Frankenstein,” which is featured in “Jason Lives.”

News update: June 19, 2011

The weekend box-office estimates are in, and it looks like “Green Lantern” has easily taken the No.1 spot with $52.7 million. That’s about on track with what many people had predicted, but is it a number that Warner Bros. can live with?

Yes and no.

The opening means that “Green Lantern” is not an complete failure. Emphasis on the word complete. If it’s lucky, the movie will go on to make somewhere in the neighborhood of $130 million to $140 million. Pretty underwhelming for a should-be franchise.

Clearly, it’s not Warner Bros. had expected.

The really bad news, however, is that “Green Lantern” debuted with $21.6 million on Friday, and dropped 22 percent on Saturday, and another 15 percent on Sunday. Bad word of mouth has spread, and it could cause a disastrous second-week drop-off.

So will “Green Lantern” even hit that $130 million mark? I would doubt it. Especially with the blockbusters stockpiled in the coming weeks.

I’m reluctant to call it a major financial failure at this stage, but it’s certainly not what Warner Bros. was hoping for.

Here’s the top five according to The Box Office Mojo.

1.“Green Lantern” – $52.7M
2. “Super 8” – $21.3M
3.“Mr. Popper’s Penguins” – $18.2
4.“X-Men: First Class” – $11.5M
5.“The Hangover Part II” – $9.6M

Trailer of the day:

Columbia recently released the trailer for the much-anticipated adaptation of the best-selling book “Moneyball,” starring Brad Pitt. I’m excited for it. What do you guys think?

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