REVIEW: Cars 3

26 06 2017

LPixar, like any purveyor of family entertainment, tells stories laden with themes. They do a better job than most at letting those life lessons arise naturally from an ingeniously derived plot rather than letting the morals dictate the proceedings. For whatever reason, the “Cars” franchise has been an outlet for some of the animation studio’s most blatant sermonizing, and “Cars 3” is no different.

As champion racer Lightning McQueen (voice of Owen Wilson) faces obsolescence in his sport thanks to an influx of “Moneyball“-esque stats and data, he has to take his game back to the basics. At the new racing facility, his trainer Cruz (voice of Cristela Alonzo) tries pulling some Mr. Miyagi style mind tricks on him as she eases him into their high-tech treadmills and simulators. Yet for all Cruz’s fancy techniques, Lightning shows how little she knows when taking her outside to race. There’s something to say for real-life experience as opposed to simulations of it.

But lest we think that Lightning is the pinnacle of senior sagacity, the duo eventually links up with some pals of his mentor, Doc Hudson. (Paul Newman’s character from the first film keeps appearing in so many flashbacks that you’d think he died in 2016, not 2008.) These vintage autos help Lightning realize that joy and promise lie beyond our youthful days, though they also help raise his game with some of their classic, road-tested techniques. The limitations of older generations gave them different, not less, skills, and we’d all be wiser to heed their lessons.

It’s not a radical message, and Pixar did better conveying intergenerational understanding with “Up.” Still, it’s harmless to see repeated and beneficial to remember. B

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REVIEW: Zoolander 2

2 03 2016

Decades-delayed sequels from “Anchorman” to “Scream” and even “Monsters University” tend to fall into some trap of relying on nostalgia for or nodding towards the original film. To some extent, if the makers do not strike while the iron is hot, they have to remind people that the iron existed in the first place. And, not to overload the metaphor, but by employing a heavy hand with said iron, they can burn a hole through the cloth of the new creation.

Given the fashion origins of the “Zoolander” series, it would only make sense that the 15-years-in-the-making second installment would hew all too close to its predecessor. In many ways – and perhaps in the ones that count – it does. But multi-hyphenate Ben Stiller does have a few new tricks up the sleeves for his old character, and even more than just a new signature look to go alongside Blue Steel and Magnum.

In another delightfully absurd caper, the pretty, dumb Derek Zoolander once again gets caught up in a tale of international intrigue. This time, it involves a conspiracy to murder good-looking celebrities and bring the fashion elite of the world to the slaughter. And, once again, it sidetracks so Derek can resolve some familial issues as well as tension with fellow model Hansel (Owen Wilson). Oh, and there’s a music montage

All in all, however, “Zoolander 2” breaks enough from the original to make the team’s efforts worthwhile. Much of the fun comes from the new characters like Kyle Mooney’s Don Atari, a pitch-perfect parody of über-trendy hipsters, and Kristen Wiig’s Alexanya Atoz, an en vogue fashion designer with enough Botox in her face to rejuvenate an entire school’s worth of soccer moms. (It’s best not to mention Penelope Cruz’s Interpol agent Valentina Valencia or Benedict Cumberbatch’s transphobic punchline All.) The whole affair is predictably stupid, though anyone who remembers the first “Zoolander” ought to expect just that. Nostalgia sometimes makes people remember things as better than they really are, and “Zoolander 2” is essentially a chip off the old block. B2stars





REVIEW: Inherent Vice

25 11 2014

Inherent ViceNew York Film Festival

Thomas Pynchon’s novel “Inherent Vice” ends with his chief character, Doc Sportello,  attempting to discern shapes within a haze that has formed outside his car window.  Not to worry, this is not a spoiler since screenwriter and director Paul Thomas Anderson chooses to end his cinematic adaptation on an entirely different note altogether.  But the passage is such an apropos summation of “Inherent Vice,” both in terms of its content and the ensuing experience, that it certainly deserves a place in the discussion.

While this is a not entirely unusual noir-tinged mystery surrounding corruption and vice, the story is hardly straightforward or easily discernible.  Characters drop in and out of the narrative at will, making it rather difficult to decipher who the key players really are.  Take no motivation and no appearance at face value, because it is likely to change in the blink of an eye.

Anderson cycles through events at such a dizzying speed that trying to connect the dots of “Inherent Vice” in real-time will only result in missing the next key piece of information.  (I found myself drawn to read Pynchon’s novel after seeing the movie to get a firmer grip on the plot.)  Might I suggest just to kick back, allow the film to wash over you, and let Joaquin Phoenix’s Doc Sportello be your spirit guide through the fog of Los Angeles in 1970.

In a fictional beach community outside the city proper, steadily stoned private eye Doc tries to make sense of a strange case in a transitional time period.  The city is still reeling from Manson mayhem, and hippies are no longer cute animals at the zoo but entities whose every move is subject to suspicion.  People are beginning to anticipate Nixonite and Reaganite malaise, though it remains unformed and intangible.  Ultimately, his understanding is about as good as ours – which is to say, it scarcely exists.  What begins as a routine investigation of Doc’s ex-flame and her rich new lover quickly spirals into something far more sprawling.

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REVIEW: Are You Here

21 08 2014

Are You HereBack in February, I got to see Matthew Weiner’s directorial debut at a special screening in Winston-Salem, NC, where the film was shot.  This event came about halfway between when the film known as “You Are Here” premiered to unanimous pans at TIFF and its eventual quiet theatrical/VOD rollout as “Are You Here.”

The film might have been recut some since that screening.  The level of retooling needed to save what I saw, however, requires change on a far greater scale than inverting the first two words of its title.  The film was a sloppy combination of slacker comedy, family melodrama, and improbable romance, a problem that is likely rooted in Weiner’s script.

It’s fruitless to size “Are You Here” up against an episode of”Mad Men” (the series Weiner created to the tune of all the Emmys) since the two aren’t even in the same league.  It might even be generous to say that the film is comprised of discarded ideas he had in the “Mad Men” writers’ room.  Better for his show’s legacy that he managed to put all the clichés on the silver screen instead of the small screen, I suppose.

Amy Poehler does redeem the film from being a complete trainwreck with a layered performance that gives her more dramatic depth than ever.  Her character, Terri, has lived by the rules and expects to reap the lion’s share of her father’s inheritance over her aimless brother Ben (Zach Galifianakis).  And whenever she gets screwed over by the will, it forces her to reexamine her values and priorities.

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REVIEW: The Grand Budapest Hotel

3 06 2014

Just so we’re clear: I have no problems with auteurism.  For those of you who just saw a French word and panicked, I’m referring to a school of film criticism that looks for recurring patterns throughout the work of an artist (usually the director).  It can often be a very interesting lens through which to analyze a set of films, and auteurism has the ability to shine a light on filmmakers outside of the general circles of critical acclaim.

Like anything in life, the theory has a dark underbelly, and to me, “The Grand Budapest Hotel” represents the perils of auteurism run rampant.  The film is Wes Anderson’s “Django Unchained,” in the sense that it represents a moment of stasis in the progression of a great director.  Anderson is now more than a director; essentially, he’s a brand, expected by customers to deliver a certain consistency of product.

Put into the position of becoming a cinematic McDonald’s, Anderson takes the easy way out by providing an assembly-line reproduction of what he has already created to great admiration.  “The Grand Budapest Hotel” feels like a less vibrant remake of a film he’s already made – or, perhaps more accurately, it feels like all of them at once.  Despite being set in a semi-fictionalized interwar Central Europe, the world Anderson portrays seems reassembled from pieces of “Moonrise Kingdom,” “The Darjeeling Limited,” and even “Fantastic Mr. Fox.”

Even more than Anderson’s last feature-length cinematic outing in 2012, “The Grand Budapest Hotel” takes his telltale stylistic flourishes and puts them to an exponential degree.  Every other take in the film had to be a tracking shot, so it seemed.  The cameos and other miscellaneous odd appearances by acclaimed thespians is now less of an amusing diversion and more of a distracting parade.  The off-beat characters feel less like quirky people and more like paper dolls traipsing around in the elegant house Anderson created for their frolicking delight.

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REVIEW: The Internship

26 07 2013

Strangely enough, the best moment of “The Internship” was not a big laugh; it was a dramatic exchange of dialogue.  While such moments in comedic films are often clichéd and forced, this one really hit the money.

As Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn’s imbecillic man-children talk a bunch of bull, their much younger intern teammates set them straight by explaining to them how much is riding on this summer gig.  In a particularly haunting line, one of them declares that the American Dream is virtually dead to their generation.

As someone who has suffered through / paid my dues at / enjoyed a number of internships myself, this scene hit very close to home.  But if I wanted to be slightly depressed about my future, I would have just watched “Frances Ha” or the second season of Lena Dunham’s “Girls” again.  I came to “The Internship” to be entertained, and I left rather disappointed by its (hopefully unintentional) humorlessness.

Though I’m not a huge  fan of Wilson and Vaughn’s last collaboration, 2005’s “Wedding Crashers,” I certainly did not expect their comedic prowess to depreciate to the point where I only let out a few mild giggles over the course of two hours.  Just about every gag falls short, although none ever hit cringe-worthy levels.

“The Internship” is, more or less, a retooling of the “Legally Blonde” story for modern men.  Unhappy in their current position, Billy and Nick drastically change career paths and head to an internship at Google.  While initially their foreignness to the field makes them obvious neophytes, they take some hard knocks that force them to grow.  Yet in the end, it’s those undervalued skills they entered with that allow them to achieve success.

I enjoy a movie like “Legally Blonde” because Reese Witherspoon’s Elle Woods is an inspiring figure, learning that she is capable of things she never imagined simply by trusting her own intuitions and wiles.  I find “The Internship” more than a little sad when it declares with no detectable sense of irony that we too can get an entry level position like Billy and Nick in our forties, so long as we work hard and can fall back on basic skills.  Though perhaps for that very reason, Shawn Levy has made an emblematic film of our wretched economy in post-recessional America.  C2stars





Weekend Update – Golden Globes 2011 Live Blog!

15 01 2012

4:00 P.M.  E! has already started their Golden Globe coverage, so I guess it’s time for me to begin as well!  Time for the best of Hollywood (and television) to come out and get rewarded (or robbed).  Predictions will slowly trickle in as the stars grace the red carpet, but I’ll be writing from the arrivals to the awards to Ricky Gervais’ harsh quips.  With recaps, opinions, and insights, make “Marshall and the Movies” your companion for the Golden Globes!

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