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Cars 2

Directed by John Lasseter

Review by Malcolm Maclachlan
This film has been pretty well hated by reviewers; we seem to think Pixar only makes brilliant movies unless the word “Cars” is in the title. They had the same reaction when the original came out five years ago. They correctly noted that the film didn’t seem to be as smart and sharp as most Pixar flicks.

But I think that this is absolutely intentional in both cases. While flicks like “Wall-E” and “Up” are aimed at NPR listeners who think about the deep questions, “Cars” is Pixar’s foray into Middle America, literally and figuratively. The, um, lowered-common-denoninating was on purpose. At times this was annoying – take the shallow-beyond-belief interactions between the aging army jeep and the hippied-out VW van. Though I did like how it followed the rhythm of a 1960’s era James Bond film.

And a little bit of Tow Mater, the redneck tow truck from the first film, goes a long way. But I liked how, even though he’s uncouth and uneducated, Mater also has huge amounts of specialized knowledge about car parts and a type of cunning that lets him see through situations that confuse others. It rang true to me because it’s something I’ve witnessed in real life many times.

But the “Cars” movies also seem to be critic-proof, and are among Pixar’s biggest money makers. So don’t assume they’re trying to do the same thing, or even aiming for all of the same audience, with each film. For one thing, they look amazing, in a way no other studio can yet match. And even as I was conscious of not liking “Cars 2” as much as other Pixar films, I think I actually laughed out loud more often, not less, because the humor tends toward the absurd slapstick that you don’t have to think too hard about.

So what message are they sending to Middle America? Here things get a little confusing. The plot (SPOILER ALERT) involves offshore drilling, pollution, alternative fuels and a plot to discredit them. All very liberal/intellectual subject matter. Yet the message that comes out of this appears to be, at least in part, that alternative fuels aren’t really around the corner and you shouldn’t trust people who say they are. And, of course, the whole thing is a tribute to the freedom of the road.

We also checked out “Born to Be Wild” at the Esquire IMAX last weekend, along with “Cars 2.” This has to be one of the most adorable movies ever made. It tells the story of two facilities, one in Kenya that takes care of orphaned elephants and the other in Borneo that does the same for orangutans. The orangs in particular are just unbelievably cute, and seem extremely human at times as they go through their young lives.

Like most IMAX films I’ve seen, I wanted a little more information about what I was seeing. Usually that’s crowded out by too much information about the people in the film, such as the space walk movie that was too much about the astronauts. This time, though, I would have loved to have learned more about the two extraordinary women who founded these institutions – Dr. Birute Galdikas in Borneo and Daphne Sheldrick in Kenya. But, hopefully like lots of kids out there, I’ll do that on my own.

Second brief opinion on “Cars 2” from Tony Sheppard

Yes – the political/topical aspect of the story is a mess. It starts out seeming to be an anthem for alternative energy and then takes a 180, with an energy conglomerate undermining alternative fuels in order to make conventional fuels seem more viable. It’s like “Cars 2: Who Killed the Oil Alternatives?” taking an animated place alongside “Who Killed the Electric Car?” – which is potentially confusing for kids. It carries the fundamental flaw of taking an annoying sidekick and making him the lead: Imagine “Jar Jar Binks: The Movie.”

Buck

Directed by Cindy Meehl

Review by Tony Sheppard
Buck Brannaman may not have been the original inspiration for “The Horse Whisperer” and, as one person says in the movie, he may not actually whisper to the horses he works with, but that’s still one of the best points of reference for this film. Indeed, he helped bring that film to the big screen, acting as “equine technical advisor” to the production, uniquely enabling specific scenes to be shot. In “Buck,” Robert Redford, the star and director of “The Horse Whisperer,” joins the many people who sing his praises.

Buck seems like a fairly average guy – until you see him around horses. That talent keeps him on the road for 40 weeks out of the year, conducting clinics for riders and owners, often dealing with problem horses or helping people saddle young horses for the first time. If you’ve ever seen those classic scenes in westerns, in which a horse is “broken,” think again – Buck makes it seem more like a negotiated settlement between trainer and mount.  

It’s often a profound pleasure to watch a true master of a craft and this is one of those opportunities. Even if you know little or nothing about training horses, the amazement of the people onscreen who know a lot about those things is testament enough. It’s also a moving story of a small boy who escaped an abusive childhood and made a career out of gentleness and understanding. Fascinating and well worth the time.

Larry Crowne

Directed by Tom Hanks

Review by Tony Sheppard
This is only Tom Hanks’ second outing as a director, following 1996’s “That Thing You Do,” and he scores again with a pleasantly light romantic dramedy. He’s also the lead character, co-starring with Julia Roberts, who gives an appealing, albeit exceptionally glamorous, performance as a cynical and emotionally exhausted junior college instructor. Other faculty members include Pam Grier and George Takei.

Larry Crowne (Hanks) is a 20-year Navy veteran and retail superstore employee who finds himself in college for the first time after his lack of higher education makes him a victim of downsizing (and appallingly twisted corporate logic). It’s a neat concept and a timely one, as Larry joins classmates half his age and generations apart in style and attitude. It also plays like a tutorial and public service announcement in favor of strategic mortgage foreclosures.  

But some of the junior college references are hit and miss, despite serving the script well. For example, it makes fiscal sense to cancel a low-enrolled class when it’s taught by a part-time instructor who is then let go, but it’s somewhat counter-productive to do so with a full-time instructor (as Robert’s character appears to be) who is going to be paid whether the class is offered or not and who is unlikely to be given another section to teach after the semester has already started. While some people may find the depiction of educators offensive, there are other details that ring true, like differing early morning attitudes and disappointment when favored classes disappear.

It’s worth noting that Hanks also co-wrote the film, with Nia Vardalos. Vardalos hit cinematic platinum by writing 2002’s “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” – a film co-produced by Hanks and his wife Rita Wilson (who has a small part in “Larry Crowne”). This one may not have quite the same return on investment (“Wedding” made $369 million on a $5 million production budget) but it’s a fun and enjoyable holiday weekend pick.


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