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.

Zoolander (2001)

2016 #121
Ben Stiller | 85 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & Germany / English | 12 / PG-13

Zoolander15 years before flop comedy Zoolander 2, there was Zoolander… which wasn’t a big hit either (it was 2001’s 68th highest-grossing film). Nonetheless, it developed some kind of mainstream-cult appeal, resulting in: a) that sequel, and b) me, on a night when I fancied something undemanding, deciding I should see what the fuss was about.

The story of an almost-past-it model who’s brainwashed into being an assassin, it’s essentially a one joke film (“aren’t models dumb?”), but gets surprisingly good mileage out of that. Not relentlessly amusing, nor the best thing on anyone’s CV, but some bits are very funny.

3 out of 5

Inherent Vice (2014)

2015 #113
Paul Thomas Anderson | 149 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Paul Thomas Anderson — the fêted writer-director of Boogie Nights, Magnolia, There Will Be Blood, The Master, et al — here turns his hand to adapting reclusive novelist Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 opus. It met with notably less success than most of his previous works. The Alliance of Women Film Journalists were one of few organisations to recognise it come awards season, with a gong for “Movie You Wanted to Love, But Just Couldn’t”. Apt.

The story — not that the story is the point, as aficionados of Anderson and/or Pynchon will happily tell you — sees stoner PI Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) receive a visit from an ex girlfriend (Katherine Waterston), who’s been having an affair with a real estate developer whose wife now intends to have him committed so she can inherit his estate. It only spirals from there, and I’m not even going to begin to get into all the different directions it shoots off into.

Really, the plot is a deliberate mess — it’s not the point, remember — but even allowing for that, it’s messy. How things are connected to one another is regularly unclear, subplots seem to take over for no apparent reason, and if there was a point to it all, it completely passed me by. Maybe I’m being cynical, but I get the impression it also sailed past those who would claim there was some point, as they scrabble around to justify one. Moments of amusement or filmic craftsmanship do shine out, but only occasionally. Chief among these is Robert Elswit’s cinematography. It’s understatedly wonderful, reminding you how great proper film stock can look, especially in HD. Digital photography has its benefits, but golly there’s something to be said for film.

Anderson chooses to realise the movie mostly in long, unbroken takes, which not only lets the photography shine, but also allows his cast free rein to construct their own performances. I’m not sure how much that pays off, but it’s certainly not a hindrance. Turns from the likes of Josh Brolin and Martin Short border on the memorable, though your mileage will vary on if anyone truly achieves it, with the possible exception of Katherine Waterston, who surely deserves more — and more prominent — roles. Other recognisable faces (Jena Malone, Eric Roberts, Reese Witherspoon) are wasted in one- or two-scene appearances, which I suppose we could kindly call cameos.

For a certain kind of viewer, Inherent Vice will be nirvana. Or possibly for two kinds of viewers. One: stoners, who can identify with the main character, and find the majority of life just as bewildering as this film’s plot. You don’t have to go far on the internet before you find, “dude, it’s a totally great movie to watch stoned, dude”-type comments. Two: some Anderson and Pynchon fans (though by no means all), as well as similar cinéastes, who I’m sure can find something in there because it’s by an acclaimed auteur so it must be worth re-watching multiple times, and if you re-watch anything enough you can find some deeper meaning to it.

I am in neither of those groups, however. The aforementioned fleeting aspects of quality weren’t enough to swing it for me either. Sadly, I’ll be chalking this up alongside Killing Them Softly and Seven Psychopaths as “neo-noirs from previously-excellent directors that seriously disappointed me this year”.

3 out of 5

Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)

2014 #95
Wes Anderson | 83 mins | TV | 1.85:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

Fantastic Mr. FoxQuirky cult-y director Wes Anderson tries his hand at stop motion animation with this Roald Dahl adaptation, in which an all-star cast voice the tribulations of a gaggle of talking animals — led by the eponymous vulpine — who come into conflict with three vicious farmers.

I’ve never seen a Wes Anderson film before, but his reputation is such that I don’t think you need to have to spot that Mr. Fox has been heavily Anderson-ised. It’s probably for the best I’ve not actually read Dahl for decades, because the purist in me would hate it for that. So it’s Quirky with a capital Q, and yet, miraculously, not irritatingly so — it feels like it should be considered self-consciously Quirky, but somehow isn’t. Instead, it’s almost (almost) charming. Whatever, it works.

Ostensibly a kids’ film, because it’s based on a children’s book and it’s animated, I don’t think it really is a film for kids. Not that it’s unsuitable for them, but only so in the literal sense that it’s an animated movie without extreme violence or swearing. A lot of the humour and the storytelling style, not to mention the slightly-creepy animation, are clearly aimed at a more mature viewer. The aforementioned animation was shot at the half-normal speed of 12 frames per second, to emphasis the nature of stop motion. That’s part of the creepiness, but it’s also the gangly designs, and that the animals look like they’ve been made out of real fur (because they have), which ruffles all of its own accord (accidentally moved by the animators’ hands, of course, but when seen in motion…) Honestly, I think it would give some kids nightmares more than joy.

Fox familyCompositionally, I thought I’d get sick of the squared-off 2D style, but Anderson’s cleverer than that. It might look flat and lacking in dimension at first, but that’s the starting point for variation, including some great bits of depth (farmer Bean trashing a caravan is a particular highlight of this), and when it breaks form (like a rabid dog chase) it’s all the more effective. There’s also a fantastic score by Alexandre Desplat. Not your usual plinky-plonky Quirky Kids’ Movie music (though there are instances of that), but something more raucous. Nice spaghetti Western riffs, too.

The main downside is the ending: it kind of reaches a conclusion, but also kind of just stops. It’s like Anderson doesn’t know how to end it… which, as it turns out, is almost exactly true. The ending isn’t the same as the book, because Anderson and co-screenwriter Noah Baumbach weren’t happy with it, but they couldn’t think of anything else. The final moments they’ve ended up with are apparently based on alternative material found in Dahl’s original manuscript, making it faithful (in its own way) while also settling the writers’ desire for a new finale. As I said, I’m not convinced.

(While we’re on trivia, residents of or regular visitors to Bath may spot the recognisable red facade of the Little Theatre towards the end. Its appearance is indeed based on the real one, though goodness knows why.)

Fantasticer in the future?Fantastic Mr. Fox is the kind of film I feel I may enjoy more on a re-watch. Indeed, some comments on film social networking sites (e.g. Letterboxd) do suggest that it only improves the more you see it. Having parked any desire for faithfulness to the original at the door, then, I feel there’s a chance the film’s boundless originality and almost-incidental outside-the-norm creativity may potentially render it an all-time favourite. But that’s something future viewings (if or when ever they occur) will have to ascertain.

4 out of 5

The Cable Guy (1996)

2008 #79
Ben Stiller | 88 mins | download | 12 / PG-13

The Cable GuyThe best thing I have to say about The Cable Guy is that the opening titles were very well done.

The second-best thing I have to say is that a subplot featuring director Ben Stiller as a faded-child-star twin-killer is very neatly integrated into the film, seeming utterly pointless until it has a near-vital role in the climax. That’s a pleasing piece of writing/editing right there. Unfortunately, the point this seems to be aiming at — that TV rules our life too much, that we’re too addicted to it, etc etc — is not only old hat, but also rendered meaningless in this instance by the lack of impact: TV goes off for the night, and one guy picks up a book. Oh, wow. And to top it off, thanks to an unnecessary final beat, it seems Jim Carrey’s titular character hasn’t actually learnt the lesson we thought he had.

Incidentally, The Cable Guy is a comedy, though at times it seems to wish you’d forget that so it could be a psychological stalker thriller. Perhaps that’s what it had wanted to be — for one thing, there are surprisingly accurate predictions for the future of telecommunications, although their coming true may simply have killed another joke (“play Mortal Kombat with a friend in Vietnam!”) — until someone realised the idea was too silly to be taken completely seriously. How funny you find the end product will depend on whether you like the style of comedy Carrey employed in the early & mid-’90s, and whether you can stomach pointless asides that don’t do anything for the plot (final act freaky nightmare, step forward). There’s little else to engage interest — Matthew Broderick’s pseudo-protagonist is, perhaps, too nice and too eager to please, and the go-nowhere romantic subplot — his main action aside from being Carrey’s straight man — has all the depth and shape of something from a cookie cutter.

More fun than the jokes, actually, is playing Spot The Pre-Fame Comedy Star. Eyes open for young-looking turns from (in ease-of-identification order) Jack Black, Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, Janeane Garofalo, and Kyle Gass. And Eric Roberts randomly shows his face too, not that that’s relevant to anything.

The Cable Guy is rated 12, or PG-13 in the US, which may also be the last ages you’d enjoy it at.

2 out of 5

In case anyone’s wondering what’s happened to #77 & #78… Despite spending 23 months carefully posting reviews in order (well, the first two months are actually a bit of a muddle), it’s now December and I’m a few behind, so I’ve decided to throw numerical sequence to the wind and just post reviews as & when I get round to completing them. The main reason for this is to help drive things forward so that I can actually end 2008’s posting by December 31st, rather than having it drag on into 2009 and overlap with Year 3. I’m sure no one will really mind. Or care.