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Cars 3 (2017)

The Cars franchise is like the “goofy uncle” that nobody chooses to talk about at family reunions. We acknowledge it at most because we have to and then move onto other chipper subjects. I didn’t think it could get worse for Pixar than Cars 2. Then I watched Cars 3.

Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) is starting to lose his championship luster when a new rival, Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer), speeds onto the circuit. Humbled and wondering whether his time is up, Lightning trains to be faster than ever and regain his title. He goes through a series of training struggles with Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo), a spunky racing coach. Lightning misses Doc Hudson (Paul Newman, posthumously reappearing) and seeks out Doc’s old trainer, Smokey (Chris Cooper). Together, they plan to win back Lightning’s title and prove he still has what it takes.

I was ready for this movie to be over after its first ten minutes, and that’s chiefly because it repeats just about all the paces of the original Cars. Once again Lightning McQueen is bested by a new rival and has to re-learn the basics of racing, center himself as much as a car can, and open himself up to the help of others. Except the villain isn’t really a villain, as Jackson Storm is just a newer model. He’s self-centered and cocky, sure, but so was Lightning McQueen. He barely registers as a character and more as a symbol of newer, faster, more contemporary racers. If there is an antagonist in the movie it might actually be aging, which raises more questions about this Cars universe that I’ll unpack later. The plot formula will remind you of another franchise’s third entry, Rocky III. The hero is bested by a newer champ, seeks out a new trainer because their old mentor died, and there’s even a beach training montage. Then the movie goes from Rocky III to Creed in its final act, and I’m thinking why not remake Rocky IV instead? There’s already a robot butler in that one (it practically writes itself). Suffice to say, the generic formula of going back to basics and believing in one’s self, this time with fewer side characters, is even less interesting 11 years after the first film revved its limited story engine.

I was flabbergasted at just how lazy the storytelling was (there aren’t even that many car puns). It feels too much like a rehash without any memorable set pieces. There’s a segment at a demolition derby that has potential but it never really hits its stride and just relies on the initial particulars. The relationship between Lightning and the other cars is also rather weak. His new mentor Smokey is simply a surrogate Doc. The bulk of the film after the first act is the relationship between Lightning and Cruz Ramirez. It would have been stronger if there were more to her fledgling character. She’s consumed by self-doubt and gave up on her dream of being a racer, which should tip off every audience member where her arc is destined. She’s assertive, optimistic, and highly energetic, but her defining character obstacle is her self-doubt, which limits her. All she needs to do is gain confidence, which is a pretty straightforward solution in a sports film replete with training montages. I don’t know if she was told she wasn’t good enough because she wasn’t “made” to be a racer, or if it’s because she’s a girl, so her perhaps her ascension can be seen as an improbably empowering moment for lady cars everywhere.

The most fascinating aspect of the Cars universe has never been the characters or the stories but the world itself. In a land of sentient motor vehicles, how are they born? We see them age but where do the little cars come from? How do they make anything considering they have tires instead of opposable thumbs? Why do the cars have teeth? What is the point of designating gender? Did any adult car tell Ramirez that she was a girl car and girl cars aren’t supposed to do boy car things like racing? How old is Doc’s mentor considering Doc died of old age? Where do the dead cars go? Is there a junkyard burial ground? Do they get recycled into new cars? Speaking of mortality, this entire world has to be some post-apocalyptic hellscape, right? There’s got to be like a Forbidden Zone, and just along the other side of a steep ridge is mountain after mountain of human skulls. The self-driving cars became sentient, following the SkyNet model, and rose up against mankind. In the ensuring thousands of years after, the sentient cars have adopted our ways even though they clearly don’t match up to their circumstances. They have forgotten the world of humans but are still trying to remake our world as theirs. Do these cars do anything other than watch races? Is this pastime the hierarchy’s form of bread and circuses? What kind of day-to-day existence do they have? Considering every living being is a motor vehicle that runs on fossil fuels, are the sentient cars aware of climate change and the greenhouse effect? Are they hastening the planet’s demise? What if inside every car were the mummified remains of a human inhabitant? What if during Lightning’s big accident a human skeleton pops out of the windshield? That might lead to an existential crisis in the Cars world that would make them rethink their place in history.

Somebody out there has to like these movies. I don’t know whom Cars 3 is intended for. It doesn’t present enough excitement or humor for children, and it doesn’t present enough substance and characterization for adults. It retreads familiar ground with lesser characters for lesser rewards. I knew every step of where this journey was headed, and without effective humor, characters, and surprises, I was tilting my head against my chair and just waiting for this mess to end. The reason there are three Cars movies is merely the profits Disney reaps from the toy sales and merchandizing (they estimate making a billion dollars in toy sales alone per Cars movie). There’s no other reason to supply the world three entries in the Cars universe before even getting a second Incredibles. The time with these anemic characters is not worth the 100 minutes on screen. I never thought I would reappraise Cars 2 but at least that movie had some exciting and colorful racing sequences and tried telling a different, albeit not successful story. Even a badly executed spy caper starring Larry the Cable Guy had something to it. In contrast, Cars 3 just goes in circles and expects you to be grateful for the same trip.

Nate’s Grade: C-

A Madea Christmas (2013)

madea_christmas_ver3I had no plans to watch this movie, let alone in a theater and on opening night. Then one fall weekend, my pal decided to raise the stakes on our fantasy football match-up, and then Ronnie Hillman couldn’t hold on to the ball, and I lost by four points. My punishment: seeing Tyler Perry’s A Madea Christmas in the theater. My friend and critic Ben Bailey has taken it upon himself to watch and review all the Madea films, so he was ready and planning to watch the latest. I accompanied him for one magical night of holiday messages bequeathed by a large man in drag pretending to be an old woman.

Madea (Tyler Perry) is called into action to help drive her sister Eileen (Ana Maria Horsford) to Alabama. Eileen wants to surprise her daughter, Lacey (Tika Sumpter), for Christmas. Lacey is working in a small-town as a teacher. Her husband, Conner (Eric Lively), is trying to engineer a new strain of corn to help his hometown confront a water shortage. There’s just one problem. Eileen hasn’t told her mom she got married… and to a white man. Lacey is worried that the news would kill her mother since Eileen has a weak heart. So Conner has to pretend to be a farmhand while Eileen visits. Then, unexpectedly, Conner’s parents (Larry the Cable Guy, Kathy Najimy) arrive to spend Christmas with their family, but they too must get in on the act. The small town is also in trouble of losing lots of money if they cannot put together their annual Christmas Jubilee celebration. Lacey’s ex-boyfriend Oliver (JR Lemon) swoops in to offer a corporate savior, but there are strings to attached, and he’d certainly like to get closer to Lacey.

I am about to type a string of words I never thought could possibly be put together in the English language: Tyler Perry’s A Madea Christmas, also starring thespian Larry thy Cable Guy, is not altogether terrible. I feel like a weight has been lifted just admitting this. Oh, let there be no question that this is a bad movie in just about every way, but the simply bad and poorly executed outweighs the terrible. To be fair my expectations could not have been any lower, especially after suffering through my first Tyler Perry movie ever this year, the earlier 2013 film, Temptation. This was my first Madea film. Part of my other entertainment was observing my audience, the mostly full theater on opening night, and charting their reactions to Madea and my own differences in opinion. I can’t in good conscience suggest this is a reason for people to go see this movie, but there it is.

111083_galEvery actor not named Perry or Cable Guy looks like they could sure use some more direction; they’re hungry for it. Actually, Najimy (The Guilt Trip) and Larry make a good team and you’re actually pleased when they enter the story, providing an alternative to Madea’s shenanigans. I’ll credit Perry with this twist: the redneck family is tolerant from day one and compassionate human beings and the conflict focuses on a black racist against white people. Although in the year 2013, inter-racial marriage seems like a strangely dated conflict to get so worked up over. This is also the least grating Larry the Cable guy has ever been in a movie, including the Pixar Cars franchise. But these are acting professionals. The rest of the cast is filled with Pretty Bland Young People, all of who look like they’d rather be on a TV soap. Sumpter (Sparkle) in particular comes across like discount Zoe Saldana. Hey, there is a former CW star involved in this too, Chad Michael Murray (TV’s un-canceable One Tree Hill, House of Wax) and while his character is dumb, the town’s chief redneck, he’s actually fine when you can make out what he’s saying. But the best actor in the whole movie turns out to be Alicia Witt (Urban Legends, 88 Minutes) as Murray’s put-upon wife. If there’s anything approaching subtlety in this mess, it’s through Witt’s graceful performance of a woman struggling against her husband for what she believes is best for her child.

The Madea character, Perry’s most famous alter ego, can have a numbing effect that mellows your judgment of an otherwise unlikable figure. Our introduction to the matriarch is her brief stint working at a retail store. She’s unfailingly rude to customers asking ordinary questions, she’s hostile, threatens violence readily, and then, when rightly fired, creates a scene and literally steals from the store. In mere minutes, I’m left with the impression that this elderly grandmother who looks like a linebacker is just a horrible human being and should be in jail. And this impression sticks for some time, that is, until you begin to adopt a Stockholm syndrome-like appreciation for her mean-spirited bickering and retaliation. As we sit and watch Eileen act like a horrible human being, so condescending and needlessly hurtful to her unknown in-laws, the balance of most terrible shifts, and we start to root for Madea because she’s the only one who cuts through the nonsense, the only one to speak truth to Eileen’s reproachful behavior. In the end, you may come to appreciate her being there to set people straight. I still think the whole Madea character is a large miscalculation on Perry’s part, a character that’s never as funny as he thinks it is (though eight movies in, so what do I know?). The constant string of malapropisms feels like the dying riffs of a deflated improv jag. There are several scenes that involve lines given off screen as if Perry is still experimenting with the scene. In the end credits bloopers, which are also not funny, it looks like Perry’s shooting style is just to turn the camera on and say whatever. This is a character born to be a supporting player if utilized at all. Though her best asset is when here happens to be a worse character onscreen to whom she can focus her ire. So as long as Madea keeps starring in movies alongside more horrible human beings, we should be fine.

Part of my forgiveness with several of the film’s sins goes back to its inception as a Christmas fable. You see these kinds of movies all the time on TV, where the threat of not having the small town’s Christmas ceremony is going to bankrupt the whole town in an impenetrable dark cloud of holiday misery. These are the movies where plots hinge on silly things given way too much significance, and where solutions can be pulled out of nowhere and the film’s family-friendly message tied up nicely in a bow. In other words, it’s a world not meant to remotely echo our own reality. And so I ended up giving A Madea Christmas more leeway during the many, many times its onscreen actions conflicted with credulity, because it doesn’t matter. So then…

107520_galWho cares if Conner is a college-educated scientist and doesn’t know the difference between male and female cows? Who cares if Conner conducts cutting-edge bio-engineering in an open barn with, what appears to be, doing little more than pouring different liquids into different vials? Who cares that the town lawyer is so incompetent he can’t be trusted to read a contract that is all of three pages? Who cares that catching a glimpse of a husband and wife in bed, with the husband under a sheet, is immediately interpreted as Klan membership, because what other possible explanations could there be? Who cares that there is a Klan meeting that Madea accidentally walks in on, and oh yes, they all happen to be in uniform? Who cares that the town’s chief redneck bullies the mayor into firing a teacher when I’m pretty sure that duty is not under the mayor’s direct powers? Who cares that for no reason there is a Naked Gun-style tracking shot that involves passing YouTube celebrities Sweet Brown (“Ain’t nobody got time for that”) and Antoine Dodson (“Hide your children and hide your wives…”)? Who cares if a character believes saying things in public over a microphone to shame a corporation into charitable giving is tantamount to an unbreakable oral agreement? Who cares about the wanton violation of the separation of church and state throughout the film?

Let me dig into that last one for just a bit. Perry takes up the “War on Christmas” mantle and dominates his conclusion with this non-conflict conflict. Turns out the company that is saving the town’s Christmas Jubilee festivity, thus saving jobs and keeping the beleaguered town afloat, has the audacity to request a secular ceremony. First off, this entire service is coordinated and produced by the local town’s government, on government property, and already a violation of the reach of government and religion. Even their classrooms have giant wooden crosses in them. What about anyone in this town who doesn’t happen to be Christian? I suppose anybody with differing religious beliefs is just not welcomed in this part of Alabama. But the most eye-rolling part is when characters screech that some vague omnipresent corporate or bureaucratic entity is taking away Christmas or stopping them from celebrating Christmas. NO ONE IS STOPPING YOU FROM CELEBRATING CHRISTMAS. Some of us just don’t believe that it’s government’s place to advocate or do so on government property, and the courts agree. Anyway, it’s an easy target for Perry and my crowd seemed to be nodding dutifully along to the whole “keep Christ in Christmas” message. It seems like a cheap way to unify the town, and it is.

Perry has been knocking out about two movies a year since he came onto the scene in 2005, and I still don’t know if he properly knows how to adapt his skills to the screen. The tone is uneven and the comedy usually falls flat, but there are just moments that make you shake your head in befuddlement. This is the SECOND Perry movie this year where a mother has been lying to her daughter for decades about her father being dead when he really ran out on them. Perry also decides to fill his holiday film with Christmas-related wipes. One second we’ll be watching some serious drama and then a giant animated Christmas tree will fly across the screen transitioning us to another. What? I’ve never seen this many wipes in a film short of a movie that had Star Wars in its title. From an acting standpoint, I still feel like Perry’s direction is more theatrical, trying to play to the people in the cheap seats. Too many scenes feel rudderless, with assorted actors just feeding more lines to Madea so she can continue on a longer improvisation before somebody remembers to pick up the plot again. The film also ends immediately following the climax, the solution to the town’s ails, without resolution. The camera pans up above the town and cue the end credits. It’s a bit abrupt.

111081_galThen again after directing over ten movies, many starring the Madea character, there is little incentive for Perry to change his style. His brand has made him one of the most lucrative entertainers in the industry, and he has a thriving studio of his own in Georgia, pumping out content and giving lots of African-American actors valuable experience and exposure with parts that don’t include Black Best Friend to the White Lead. Perry is a one-man industry and has legions of fans that will make any one of his movies a hit. They want what they want, and Perry is going to shovel it out to them. A Madea Christmas looks to be more of the same. It’s generally leaden in its comedy, filled with heavy-handed messages, a loose narrative built around propping up Madea improv riffs, and the character’s mean-spiritedness only really works when she’s attacking a deserving party. I’ll have to defer to Ben Bailey on where this ranks up there in the franchise (he said it may be the best), but for me, I was expecting terrible and was treated to mostly just bad. That’s a victory. Merry Christmas everyone! Hallelujer.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Cars 2 (2011)

Universally regarded as the least involving and nuanced film in Pixar’s illustrious catalog, Cars was the last film I thought would get the sequel treatment. Was it a creative tale that yearned to be told on the big screen, or is this just a business decision motivated by the sound of merchandizing coffers? Those talking cars seemed pretty content by the end of the 2006 original film. It doesn’t take long to realize that Cars 2 was done strictly for the cash. A sequel to the least involving Pixar film, with an even less involving storyline and elevating the most annoying character (Mater the tow truck) to lead status provides little in the realm of adult entertainment. The storyline, a mistaken identity spy thriller, seems like a rejected plot for a lesser direct-to-DVD sequel. While the visuals are still outstanding, the humor is stuck in neutral, overloaded with motor vehicle puns and groan-worthy visual gags. The message about accepting your uncouth friends no matter what their bad behavior might be seems rather misguided. That’s the message? Congrats Pixar, for providing cover for irresponsibility and incivility. The environmental message and its connection to a Big Oil conspiracy feels tacked on as an afterthought to try and crowbar in something more meaningful than a mediocre spy farce. I think cars are rather limited in their anthropomorphic expressions. There’s only so much they can do. And a world populated completely by living, breathing, gas-guzzling (can they get drunk on ethanol?) vehicles begs for an examination on how this world operates without any opposable thumbs. After a magical slate of films that dealt with serious mature themes and danced with storytelling finesse, it’s a shame that daring run comes to an end with such a rudimentary roadblock. Little kids will be entertained by all the bright colors and simplistic storytelling, but I cannot foresee too many fans of Cars even justifying the sequel’s existence.  It’s not out rightly bad it’s just so pitifully pedestrian. Cars 2 has so little going on under its hood, you’ll swear it came from a different maker.

Nate’s Grade: C+

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