Cars 3 (2017)

2018 #54
Brian Fee | 102 mins | download (HD+3D) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | U / G

Cars 3

At this point I think it’s fairly well known that the Cars movie series continues not because of any artistic desire on the part of Disney/Pixar, but because the toys the films generate sell like hotcakes. Indeed, that situation hasn’t necessarily changed with this third instalment: apparently Cars 3 features 65 different individual racers, more than both the previous films combined. And several of those appear kitted out in different paint jobs. Disney gotsta make that toy money! The disregard with which they hold the actual movies is perhaps demonstrated by the fact this third one is helmed by a first-time director, Brian Fee, whose previous credits are as a storyboard artist on a couple of Pixar productions. Maybe they lucked out, then — or maybe they actually knew what they were doing promoting him — because I think this is easily the best film in the Cars trilogy.

Beginning with nary a reference to the events of Cars 2, racer Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) is back doing what he loves: racing. That’d be American-style racing, i.e. constantly turning left for hundreds of laps. Anyway, turns out there’s a new generation of hot young racers, who are less on their way up and more already here, led by Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer). They use advanced training techniques and statistics to beat the old guard — soon all of Lightning’s contemporaries are choosing to retire or being forced out, leaving him the last one standing… until he crashes in the final race of the season. Is his career over? Well, what do you think? With the backing of a new sponsor, Sterling (Nathan Fillion), and all the latest high-tech gear, Lightning sets to work training with young wannabe-racer-turned-coach Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo). But as he struggles to regain his mojo, perhaps there’s something to be said for the old ways after all…

Storm vs Lightning

Although I wouldn’t say sports movies are my bag, I think Cars 3 probably benefits from taking a more clean approach to that genre, ditching all the spy hijinks distractions of the last one. That purity of genre keeps it straightforward and focused. It also re-centres itself on Lightning McQueen, shoving Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) back into a cameo-sized supporting role, which is about where he belongs (I wouldn’t say he’s likeable in small doses, but he’s tolerable). It still finds room for humour and levity, just in a more natural, less goofy way.

Around that, it actually takes a run at some weighty themes — specifically, old age and obsolescence — and carries through on them too, with a finale that goes for more of a “finding worth in what you do next” ending rather than a “still got it (for now)” one. Such maturity means it’s perhaps more suited to Pixar’s grown-up fans than their young ones — it’s a surprisingly serious movie, in fact, without being po-faced about it. That said, you could probably play down the thematic stuff and just be entertained: there are still good set pieces, both action-based and comical, to keep the right family-friendly tone.

It makes for a winning combination. Cars 3 may not trouble the upper echelons of Pixar’s greatest achievements, but it is the best of their Cars movies — the first of the trilogy I remember genuinely enjoying, rather than just finding tolerably okay. That might sound like a low bar to set, but Cars 3 clears it admirably.

4 out of 5

Cars 3 is available on Sky Cinema from today.

Fast & Furious 8 (2017)

aka The Fate of the Furious

2018 #21
F. Gary Gray | 136 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA, China & Japan / English & Russian | 12 / PG-13

Fast & Furious 8

Anyone who’s watched a Fast & Furious movie will know that the most important thing to our heroes is not fast cars but family. Family, family, family — they don’t half go on about it. But what might make one of the team betray their all-important figurative family? Well, that’s what the series’ eighth instalment sets out to ask, as patriarch Dom (Vin Diesel) is forcibly recruited by terrorist Cipher (Charlize Theron), and government agent Mr Nobody (Kurt Russell) counter-recruits Dom’s family to track him down and stop Cipher’s evil plan.

You may remember that, once upon a time, these films were about street racers who occasionally carried out on-the-road heists, all the better to keep the focus on the cars. Those days are long gone, despite an opening sequence here that tries to pretend that’s still part of the game. No, nowadays we’re in the “international spy actioner” genre, and our former street racers have somehow become highly capable agents… whose primary tools/weapons are still vehicles. It’s utterly ridiculous… but, thank goodness, everyone involved seems to know that.

Well, most people do. I reckon Vin Diesel might think it’s a serious movie about the emotional turmoil of being kidnapped by a global cyberterrorist who lives on a plane and can remotely hijack a city-load of cars and is threatening your family unless you help her steal a nuclear submarine. I mean, we’ve all been there, right?

A lot of men would betray their family for Charlize Theron, to be fair

So, yeah, the story is thoroughly daft. But it exists primarily to connect up action sequences, and in a movie like this I’m fine with that — I’m here to watch people do cool shit in cars, hopefully with some funny bits around that action, not to be wowed by an intricate plot or ponder meaningful character development. On the things I expect, then, FF8 more or less delivers. I mean, the series has always been renowned for using CGI to augment its car chases, which is less thrilling than doing stunts for real, but it really blurs the line nowadays: you might think dozens of cars falling from a multi-storey car park is all CGI, but you’d be wrong.

Any time almost anyone besides Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) or Deckard (Jason Statham) has their mouth open, FF8 is pretty dumb; but when those two are talking, especially when they’re bickering with each other, it’s often pretty funny (they’re definitely in on the joke). And when the action’s a-go-go, the film’s either solidly pulse-racing or, actually, being kinda witty — there’s a prison riot, for example, that is, appropriately enough, a riot. Though it’s as nothing to Statham engaging in a protracted gunfight-cum-punch-up against a bunch of goons while carrying a baby.

Bromance

Fast & Furious 8 isn’t strictly a comedy, but a sense of humour is required to enjoy it. There’s no way to take this palaver seriously, and fortunately the filmmakers have embraced that. It’s deliberately OTT, dedicated to being entertaining for almost every minute of its running time. Taken as just that, it’s a lot of fun. Also, probably the series’ best instalment since the fifth.

4 out of 5

Fast & Furious 8 is available on Sky Cinema from today.

Baby Driver (2017)

2017 #89
Edgar Wright | 113 mins | cinema | 2.35:1 | UK & USA / English & American Sign Language | 15 / R

Baby Driver

It felt like half (at least) of the film-loving internet had somehow had a chance to see Baby Driver before its release on Wednesday, but I’m going to throw my two cents into the ring anyhow. Not that it makes a great deal of difference because, like most other folks, I bloody loved it.

Written and directed by Edgar Wright, director of the Cornetto trilogy and not of Ant-Man, the story focuses on getaway driver Baby (Ansel Elgort), a fundamentally good kid who has ended up suckered into a life of crime, working for robbery kingpin Doc (Kevin Spacey) and a rotating array of criminal compadres. An accident as a kid left Baby with “a hum in the drum” — tinnitus, if you want to get medical about it — meaning he listens to music all the time to drown it out, and also choreographs his daring drives (not to mention his walks down the street, etc) to the music he hears. One day he bumps into Debbie (Lily James) and falls in love, which happily coincides with his “one last job” for Doc. But once you’re in it’s hard to get out, and Baby again finds himself doing one more “one last job”, with a particularly volatile crew…

Baby Driver is a movie about three things: driving, music, and love. As Guillermo del Toro put it, it’s a kind of fable, or fairytale, with Baby as the prince and Debbie as the princess. In this respect it’s a change of pace for Wright, ditching the almost-spoof comedy of his previous successful movies for something more emotionally earnest. Not in a bad way, but in a kind of pure way, like a fairytale. This fairytale world isn’t all castles and dragons, of course — instead it’s full of violent criminals and fast cars; but it’s also a world where you can synchronise your getaway driving to the music on your iPod, so it’s hardly mired in gritty realism.

No little green bags here

There’s a definite edge of Wright’s buddy Quentin Tarantino to this world: a cast of crooks delivering snappy, quotable dialogue to a near-constant soundtrack of deep cuts selected from the director’s music collection (plus a few familiar tunes for good measure) — the style of QT comes to mind more than once while watching. Fortunately Baby Driver’s style is more than homage or copycatting. Although it’s not a straight-up comedy, Wright does bring his own comedic touch (there are several big laughs), and the purity of emotion — that fairytaleness again — isn’t from Tarantino’s wheelhouse either. Plus, visually it presents a brighter and more colourful space than Tarantino normally inhabits. Most of the action takes place in the golden daylight of Atlanta and is filled with popping primary colours. There’s much great work by DP Bill Pope.

Though the soundtrack may have a Tarantino feel in its construction, that’s less prevalent in its usage. Characters communicate through song — not by singing them (most of the time — Baby first notices Debbie because she’s singing “B-A-B-Y”), but by connecting through them (that singing is followed by a discussion of songs featuring her name — both of them). The songs Baby chooses for boogieing around his small apartment, or for dancing down the street on a coffee run (in a title sequence that is marvellously choreographed, with dozens of small details timed perfectly to the track), help illuminate his true character — sweet and romantic — which is hidden by the sullen silence he adopts whenever around criminals.

B-A-B-Y Baby

Some have criticised the film for a lack of character, reckoning Baby’s silence distances him from the viewer so we never build a connection and don’t root for him. Frankly, I’m not sure what film they were watching. No spoilers, but Baby first opens up with something endearing and ingratiating in scene one. Right at the start. It could barely be any closer to the studio logos (and it kinda wouldn’t work if it were). I’m not arguing he’s the most charismatic lead ever to grace the silver screen, but Elgort makes fine fist of selling Baby as both a quiet, focused driver and a sweet, likeable, cheer-on-able hero.

And if you want character in general, the rest of the cast has it in spades, with an array of supporting roles that are as colourful as the cinematography. Recognisable faces like Spacey, Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx, and John Bernthal get to cut loose as crooks who each have their own kooks, while lesser-known names like CJ Jones (as Baby’s foster father) and Eiza González (as the Bonnie to Hamm’s Clyde) make a mark too. Lily James may be placed in a dream-figure damsel role, but that doesn’t mean she can’t hold her own at times too. She’s not Wonder Woman, but she’s not a Manic Pixie Whatever That Phrase Was either.

Mozart in a go-kart

So, the one major thing I’ve only touched on fleetingly thus far is the main thing the film has attracted attention for: the driving. Done for real by stunt drivers with not a lick of CGI, that knowledge means it packs a viscerally real punch. But it’s not just snobbery: this is genuinely breathtaking action, slickly planned, masterfully performed, magnificently shot and edited. It’s this year’s Fury Road — a kinetic action spectacle made with skill rather than hand-waiving fast-cuts. Even more impressively, it’s been choreographed to music, but not in a draw-attention-to-itself dance-routine-y way. Perhaps saying it’s been synced to the music would be more accurate. Either way, it only heightens the effect. This extends beyond the car chases, too, including one marvellously musical shootout, the gunfire serving as percussion. The sound design throughout is exemplary. This is a movie that deserves to be remembered come awards season. Perhaps, again like Fury Road, some love will extend beyond the technical categories, too. Wright seems deserving of Best Director recognition, just like George Miller was.

But such back-patting is for much later in the year. For now, just revel in the gleeful moviemaking verve of a flick that already seems destined to be remembered as one of the greatest car chase movies ever produced.

5 out of 5

Baby Driver is in cinemas many places right now, but not everywhere. It’ll be worth the wait, guys.

It placed 2nd on my list of The 17 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2017, which can be read in full here.

The Past Fortnight on TV #11

As discussed yesterday, I’m out of the country for a fair chunk of December, including when my regular monthly TV review is due. So to placate the ravenous need for my opinions about television that you will surely feel if such thirst goes unquenched for six-to-eight-weeks, here’s what I watched in the fortnight since my last TV post.

Crisis in Six Scenes
Crisis in Six ScenesWhen Amazon started making a serious effort to challenge Netflix in the field of streaming original series, one of their early moves was the headline-grabbing signing of Woody Allen to create his first TV series. As has since become clear, Allen didn’t know what he was letting himself in for. To summarise his comments from various interviews (and read between the lines a little), it seems he had a view of TV that’s about 20 years out of date, and thought he’d be able to dash off something suitable between two of his annual movies. At some point he obviously realised how much more sophisticated TV has become, and coopted a movie idea he’d had on the back-burner to expand into a short TV season. Allen’s been vocal about how miserable he found this process, but I’m not sure if he’s aware that he made a rod for his own back: he essentially made three movies in two years instead of his usual two. It probably would’ve been wise to swap out one of the films for the TV series, but you get the sense that, despite having been shown TV’s burgeoned respectability, Allen’s still something of a film snob. Rather than the potential of TV coming as a revelation to him, he’s declared he won’t be making any more.

On the evidence of the single six-episode season we did get out of him, that’s neither here nor there: Crisis in Six Scenes is just a slightly-longer-than-average Woody Allen film split into instalments. The first episode is the worst offender in this regard — it doesn’t reach a climax of any description, it just stops. The rest of the episodes aren’t as blatant (episode five’s ending even feels like it’s genuinely meant to be the end of an episode!), but none of them are particularly satisfying as a discrete segment. I’m not really one for binge-watching — I get fidgety and want a change; or if a show’s too good, I want to savour it rather than race on — but I watched all of Crisis in one sitting, because at heart it’s just a chopped-up movie. Some characters or events are confined to a single episode, but you get the impression that’s almost incidental rather than a deliberate attempt to make six finite units. The main storylines flow between episodes like the boundaries are artificially imposed — which, in a medium without the constraints of broadcast time slots and where all the episodes are released at the same time, they are.

A scene of CrisisBut enough of the form — what of the content? This is not prime Allen, that’s for sure. At times it makes for uncomfortable viewing, when it’s hard to tell if it’s half improvised or if half the cast are just a bit doddery (and I suspect it’s the latter). Other bits do work, though, and while it isn’t massively rewarding it is amusing at times. Even less assured are some broadly political points that it seems like Allen is trying to tap into, or maybe it’s just incidental. He appears to be using the series’ 1960s setting as a mirror of the present: the plot concerns a twenty-something anti-government protestor, and there’s lots of talk about unnecessary wars, campus demonstrations, young people staging protests, rights for women and black people, etc, etc. At first blush these parallels are all well and good, but I’m not sure they develop into much more than wry observations. The best I can take from it is a result of the particularly farcical last episode, where it may be that he’s trying to say people in general should be more aware and active, like the young are — to walk the walk of political change rather than just talking the talk.

If he was trying to spread such a message, it’s a bit buried. Maybe he was just picking on some low hanging fruit. Considering Allen’s half-arsed attitude to the whole endeavour, I guess that’s more likely. Oh well.

The Grand Tour (Season 1 Episodes 1-2)
The Grand TourAnother big gun in Amazon’s streaming mission, their £160 million “Not Top Gear, Honest” original series kicked off last month to widespread positive reviews and, apparently, big ratings (relatively speaking). I’m not really a ‘car person’, but like millions of others I wound up watching Top Gear during the height of the Clarkson / Hammond / May era for all the other hijinks. I thought it was going off the boil a bit even before their semi-enforced departure — I didn’t even get round to watching their last series. They come to Amazon after a short break (a long break for us, but it takes time to film these things, so, short break), and I think reinvigorated — possibly by the rest, possibly by the change of management, possibly by the huge budget.

There’s no denying that this is their Top Gear with just a few tweaks… unless you’re an Amazon lawyer, in which case it’s a completely different show. But the freedom from being a motoring programme on a public service broadcaster means they’re not quite so constrained by that remit. Episode 2, for instance, is half given over to them attacking a military training course in Jordan, a riff on Edge of Tomorrow in which they get to play at being action movie stars, and which features cars because action movies feature car chases, not because they’re actually reviewing how the motor performs while in a high-speed chase. There are still genuine car reviews, and they’re as dull / interesting (delete as applicable) as they always were. At least they’re excitingly shot and scored (still using cues from film music, as they always have).

Some bits are improved: the famous Star in a Reasonably Priced Car segment was always one of the weakest parts of the show (the track times were fun, but Clarkson is no interviewer), but here the need for celebrity guests is neatly pilloried. Conversely, a couple of things are weaker: their blatant attempt at a Stig replacement, The American, doesn’t really work. It’s also one of the bits that most feels “changed just enough to avoid a legal challenge”. I imagine there are only so many different ways to do a car show, so of course there are going to be similarities, but you could imagine them having done this as their next run of Genuine Top Gear (well, aside from the expense) without people thinking, “wow, they’ve completely changed the show!”

Still, it is what it is, and if you liked it before I can’t imagine you wouldn’t like it now, maybe even a little more.

Class (Series 1 Episodes 6-7)
ClassThe Doctor Who spin-off that no one’s watching continues with two of its strongest episodes. A two-parter that isn’t, the first is a “bottle episode”, with most of the cast stuck in detention and forced to confess their secret feelings by an alien rock. Cue arguments. Not Class’ strongest instalment — it’s a good idea, but the characters haven’t amassed quite enough secrets over just five episodes to make it feel as cathartic as it should — but it’s considerably better than the weaker ones. Even better is the next episode, which shows what Quill was up to while the kids were bickering. A world-hopping quest (presumably paid for by saving so much money on episode 6), it has several good ideas that it burns through like they’re going out of fashion. It feels most like Doctor Who, too, which provokes no complaints from me.

Next time: the Shadow Kin are back, again. Ah well.

Also watched…
  • Castle Season 7 Episodes 16-21 — by sheer bloody coincidence, the night before flying from London to the US I watched the episode where Castle flies from the US to London and has to deal with a murderer and possible terrorist on his flight. Super timing.
  • The Flash Season 3 Episodes 3-5 / Arrow Season 5 Episodes 3-5 — the much-anticipated four-way crossover between The CW’s superhero shows finished last night in the US, which means it’s at least a few weeks away over here. I’ll say something about it next time, then. Or the time after.
  • Junior Bake Off Series 4 — the main thing I take from this is that all kids are incredibly clumsy and slapdash.
  • The Moonstone — the recent BBC adaptation of Wilkie Collins’ novel, which is generally regarded as the first full-length English-language detective novel. This decent miniseries version was produced for daytime, and was the kind of series certain viewers proclaimed was good enough for prime time. It wasn’t.

    Gilmore GirlsThings to Catch Up On
    This fortnight, I have mostly been missing Netflix’s Gilmore Girls revival, subtitled A Year in the Life. Rather than race through the four feature-length instalments between their release last Friday and our departure yesterday, we decided to save them for when we’re back, like a Christmas treat. Maybe we’ll just watch them in four days then instead, but at least we’ll feel like we have a choice.

    Next time… a festive special, looking at what seasonal delights the tellybox has provided us with this year. As far as December 29th or so, anyway.

  • Christine (1983)

    2016 #85
    John Carpenter | 106 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 18 / R

    ChristineOne of a couple of films John Carpenter directed “for hire” in an attempt to restore his Hollywood reputation after the box office failure of The Thing, Christine is an adaptation of a Stephen King novel about a car possessed by evil. Yes, a car. I guess if you wait long enough, anything and everything will be possessed by evil eventually (in fiction, at any rate).

    Despite that pedigree, Christine is about as scary as… well, I was trying to think of something soft and fluffy that hasn’t ever been used in a horror movie, but that list is increasingly short. But you get my point: it’s not scary. Its 18 certificate is earned by an abundance of very strong language — which, according to screenwriter Bill Phillips, was added for that exact purpose: the film wasn’t violent enough to get an R, and they didn’t think people would see it if it was a PG (this being before the PG-13), so they just inserted a lot of swearing. It’s still a pretty entertaining film, though, thanks to some humour and the almost-there thematic subtext of America’s obsession with the automobile.

    The central (human) character is Arnie, a nerdy teen who becomes obsessed and then empowered by the eponymous vehicle. Keith Gordon is pretty good as this “worm that turned” type, albeit in a somewhat melodramatic way: he’s a heightened version of a nerd at the start, and a heightened version of a car-obsessed teenage dick later on. One review I read reckoned the film “sacrifices character logic” — what, there’s a flaw in the logical behaviour of a guy who’s semi-possessed by his demonic car, you mean?

    Girl on girl action, of a sortEven if Carpenter was doing it only for kudos with the studios, he still turned in solid work. Christine may not be scary, but she is menacing, and her attacks work as individual sequences. Unsurprisingly it’s not his strongest film, and it’s not the greatest adaptation in the Stephen King movie canon either, but if all movies by jobbing filmmakers were this good then we’d be luckier moviegoers.

    4 out of 5

    Christine is one of the first releases from new UK Blu-ray label Indicator, out today.

    Fast & Furious 7 (2015)

    aka Furious Seven

    2016 #52
    James Wan | 132 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA, Japan & China / English | 12 / PG-13

    Fast & Furious 7The franchise that can never make up its mind about what each instalment’s called continues with its most outrageously ludicrous entry yet.

    Picking up from the events of the last one, this time our ‘family’ of car-racing heisters are targeted by their previous enemy’s brother, Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham). After Shaw’s first attempt to kill our heroes fails, they’re recruited by covert ops agent Mr Nobody (Kurt Russell) to obtain a computer surveillance program, on the promise that, if they’re successful, Nobody will help them deal with Shaw. Because when you’re in charge of a covert ops team, you don’t have your own guys for that kind of thing. Anyway, this leads us on a globe-trotting mission that involves things like parachuting cars into Azerbaijan and using cars to leap between skyscrapers in Abu Dhabi.

    So yes, the action is ridiculous and implausible. Even the stuff that doesn’t seem physically impossible is overblown. But it’s so ludicrous that the film can’t possibly be trying to claim it’s real anymore, and therefore it kind of works — they’ve committed to it. Though anyone who started out enjoying this series for its broadly-realistic car-racing thrills must be pretty disappointed in it by this point.

    Despite that, the series is beginning to feel increasingly “fans only”. That’s the way of all things these days, I suppose. Long gone are the days when movie series aimed at accessibility, each entry fundamentally a standalone adventure for a popular hero. Serialisation is the new discreteness, and it pays dividends for Marvel and, indeed, for Fast & Furious: in the same year as the return of Star Wars, the return of Jurassic Park, the return of the Avengers, the return of James Bond, and the return to form of Pixar, Furious 7 was still the third highest-grossing film worldwide, and sixth of all time.

    But I still find it remarkable how well it did at the box office, because while most of those other films are actually very accessible to newcomers, this is resolutely a film for those well-versed in the franchise. Its story joins the dots between several previous films — as far back as Tokyo Drift, four films and nine years ago — but seems to assume you’ll know what those dots contain, because it only shows the joins. Even as someone who knows what events are being linked (that Tokyo Drift connection has been long-awaited!), it feels a bit disconnected and piecemeal. And it doesn’t help anyone that Tokyo Drift’s Lucas Black looks like he’s aged every single day of the nine years since his last appearance…

    Of course, you can’t ignore that part of the reason for the film’s financial success is the death of Paul Walker, particularly as it occurred halfway through production and the filmmakers understandably felt the need to give one of the series’ primary stars a fitting send-off. With seemingly little of his part shot, his performance is mostly faked. It was created with a mixture of techniques, many of them pioneering — while we’ve seen computers being used to generate a performance for a deceased actor for over 15 years now (I believe Gladiator was the first), those tend to be for very short scenes and/or filtered through some other medium (like Laurence Olivier appearing on a videoscreen in Sky Captain), whereas here they’ve attempted to create a co-lead-sized role. Truthfully, the effect is variable. If you’re looking, it’s always obvious (well, I say that — if it was so good that you couldn’t see it, you wouldn’t know you were seeing it). However, if you’re not looking too hard then a lot of it is very well done… though some remains pretty glaring. At the end of the day, you know why they did it, but it still rather draws attention to itself. However, a post-climax finale is a nice send-off for Walker (again, you can’t deny that it’s more about paying tribute to the actor than writing out the character), and represents a moment of catharsis that clearly worked for the cast, crew, and the series’ die-hard fans.

    The quality of other elements is rockier. Kurt Russell’s spy is a cool new character, but can’t escape the feeling he’s been introduced to play a bigger role in the inevitable sequels. Jason Statham has clearly been cast for his ability to fight, which he does well enough, but a bit more dialogue-based antagonism might’ve added some flavour. He gets a very cool opening scene, though. And while a coherent story is not likely to be at the forefront of many people’s minds when it comes to these movies, the plot is nonetheless scattered with holes. Like, the gang’s entire motivation to undertake the mission is so they can borrow the software to track down Deckard… but he keeps showing up anyway.

    But hey, what does it matter? The point is the big dumb fun of the action sequences, be they well-choreographed and -shot fisticuffs, excellent stunt driving, or computer-generated ridiculousness. Is it okay to just give a movie’s plot a free pass like that? Sometimes, I think it is. Furious 7 is an action movie, in a fairly pure sense of the term, and action it delivers.

    4 out of 5

    Furious 6 (2013)

    aka Fast & Furious 6

    2014 #106
    Justin Lin | 125 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    Furious 6Fast Five’s kinda-villain, supercop Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson), tracks down our band of car-driving criminal-heroes to inform Dom (Vin Diesel) that former girlfriend Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), who apparently died in the fourth film, is actually alive and working with a gang of super-criminals in London — which is Hobbs’ leverage to get Dom, Brian (Paul Walker) and the rest of the gang to come out of retirement to help catch said crims.

    Cue two hours in which cars drive fast, people punch each other, and things blow up. Furious 6 (as it’s called on screen, to forcefully indicate a barely-existent “Part Two”-ness with the previous film) doesn’t ask much of you as a viewer, and doesn’t give you much back either — which is fair enough, in its own way. In other ways, it’s a disappointment.

    The last film broke the diminishing-returns curve the franchise was on, but Furious 6 slots right back into it. It’s kinda tricky to pinpoint why Fast Five was so entertaining and this one isn’t. I think it just takes things too far. Firstly, the team-up novelty of the fifth film is now the series’ modus operandi, which makes it less special. Worse, there’s a muddled plot (Brian goes back to LA to meet someone in prison for no particularly good reason) and OTT action sequences. Five had the latter too — dragging a safe round the streets of Rio! — but 6 goes too far beyond. In transitioning from “street racing franchise” to “heist franchise (with cars)”, Fast & Furious has lost sight of its roots and become just another overblown action series.

    Special delivery... of muscles!For all the intent of this being “Part 2 of 2”, there’s a post-credits tease which sets up the next film’s villain: the brother of this film’s villain! So, what, this is “Part 2 of 3” now? Or, more likely, they’ve adopted the modern movie franchise format of a never-ending series of closely-connected narratives; essentially, a TV series, only with bigger budgets and just one instalment every other year. I suppose it doesn’t matter, but go too far down this route and you end up with films so engrossed in their own years-long mythology that your viewers forget why everything’s happening. Just look at the Saw movies, which had to start building “previously on”-style flashbacks into their editing. Let’s hope Fast & Furious doesn’t start requiring the same — to this point, at least, the primary story of each film has thankfully been established and resolved between the Universal logo and the credits scroll.

    Also on the bright side, the action sequences aren’t over-CGI’d. There’s definitely some of that in play, most obviously during the climax (with its never-ending runway), but a lot of the car stunts throughout the film look to have been done for real. Always preferable. As for the Old Blighty setting, although the film does indulge in some tourists-will-recognise-this views of London, it’s not as bad as most Hollywood versions of the city — or British versions, if you look at the work of Richard Curtis & co. Call that a car?There’s plenty of backstreet, underground, grim-and-gritty bits on display here — entirely appropriate given the characters’ street-racing roots and criminal know-how. Still, these are little more than cosmetic bonuses.

    Not the worst of the franchise, though certainly not the best, Furious 6 is an overcooked extravaganza that goes on at least one action sequence too long.

    3 out of 5

    This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2014. Read more here.

    Cars 2 (2011)

    2012 #51
    John Lasseter | 106 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | USA / English | U / G

    Cars 2Pixar, oh exalted studio of wondrous excellence, who produce naught but critically-acclaimed and audience-beloved films that may as well just be given the Best Animated Feature Oscar without the need for fellow nominees, dropped the ball with Cars. So why did it become only the second Pixar movie to earn a sequel? As most people know, because of the merchandise. Little boys love toy cars (and grown men too, apparently) and the things sold like hot cakes, and continued to do so for years afterwards. Running out of ways to milk the first movie’s characters, the only solution was to make some new ones — and that involves making a new film.

    For what is essentially a near-two-hour toy commercial, Cars 2 fares quite well — it’s better than Batman & Robin anyway. Well, it’s less offensive to one’s sensibilities. Not ruining a great character and a once-great franchise helps. And, despite its lowly Rotten Tomatoes rating (which is flat out appalling, and doubly so for a Pixar movie), there’s a solid argument to be made that it’s better than the first Cars.

    The plot is just as predictable though: character arcs are so well-trodden they only seem to bother including them because they push the story along; surely everyone will guess who the ‘surprise’ villain is as soon as he/she/it shows up earlier in the film; and so on. But instead of the stock “slick city guy finds his true self in the country” tale told first time round, Caine, Michael Cainehere we get an international spy movie — much more fun. The espionage stuff is clearly inspired by Bond (the primary secret service is British, for starters), and the opening eight minutes — an action sequence starring the film’s Michael Caine-voiced Bond analogy — is probably the best stuff in either Cars movie. Actors like Caine and Emily Mortimer lend the whole affair some much-needed class.

    Mater, voiced by Some Idiot (I believe Larry the Cable Guy is actually his ‘name’) was a mildly irritating character in the first film, but at least there was less of him than the marketing suggested. Clearly he clicked with someone — the pre-pre-teen toy-buying audience, I suppose — and so his role is massively bumped up here. In fact, I don’t think anyone would disagree that he’s the main character, with Owen Wilson’s McQueen relegated to a supporting role. Mater isn’t the most irritatingly stupid animated character ever conceived, but he’s not a huge amount of fun either. Like so much else, his whole schtick is tiresomely predictable fullstop, and depressingly familiar from first time round — and it was barely amusing in the first place.

    McQueen, then, may still be front-and-centre in the marketing, but his story — the racing aspect of the movie — gets quickly relegated to a subplot. It’s kind of ironic, as the first film was all about races on boring NASCAR loops, whereas here we getting exciting European street circuits and we barely see them. On the bright side, we all know how race movies pan out — Touristythe back-and-forth battling, the last-minute surge, etc etc — so it’s not really any loss.

    There are a raft of cameos — more than the first film, I think — the most obvious being Lewis Hamilton as a black racing car. He’s joined in a sort-of-double-act by some American voice who I presume is also a racing driver. This is the role picked for localisation, getting region-specific racing drivers in France, Germany, Spain, Australia, Russia, Sweden, Latin America and Brazil. I’d wager at least half of those voices would be infinitely more recognisable to a British audience than that yankee bloke they do have in there — I don’t follow racing and I’ve heard of Fernando Alonso, Sebastian Vettel and Jacques Villeneuve, but I’ve not got the first clue who Jeff Gordon is.

    One much-criticised aspect of the first film was its world (who built these cars? where are the humans? etc). It was possible to gloss over it, just about, when the film was doing other things to hold your attention. Here, it’s almost like they don’t want you to forget. It’s plenty exciting and fast-paced enough to leave behind concerns about what’s going on, but then throws in all sorts of unnecessary snatches of dialogue or small details in set design that slap you with a brief remembrance that this world doesn’t make the slightest bit of sense. One I didn’t even notice until I was collating pictures for this review: Why is a CAR wearing a HAT?why is the police car wearing a giant hat?!

    The technical faults don’t stop there: despite its pedigree, direction is strangely amateurish much of the time. The action sequences occasionally sing, but not always, while the entirety of the dialogue scenes are flatly shot, showing a repetitive choice of boring angles. It doesn’t help that they don’t contain much engaging material, especially the instances when they seem to be literally trotting out all the first film’s characters to deliver a single line each in not-that-quick succession. At times it verges on painful.

    The Cars films are really aimed at kids no older than about six. They won’t be familiar enough with movies to see the tired plot points, they won’t question the film’s bizarre world, they’ll probably be enamoured of Mater, they’ll certainly be suckered in by the talking cars and the glossy action sequences… It’s their very lack of familiarity or critical faculties that makes the film easily entertaining. And then they’ll want all the toys, which is why this movie exists.

    And one of the reasons people heavily criticise the Cars films in spite of that increasingly obvious fact is because they’re made by Pixar. In themselves, these two films are fine — but that’s all they are. When Pixar can make so many innovative, exciting, emotional, Action!entertaining films, how can they also produce something so uninspired?

    Cars 2 still suffers from many of the first film’s faults, being lacklustre in vital departments like character, humour and storyline. But it’s shorter, faster-paced and more exciting, which for my money makes it the lesser of two evils.

    3 out of 5