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Thursday, 23 June 2011

Cars 2

(PG) ★★

Director: John Lasseter & Brad Lewis.

Cast: (voices) Owen Wilson, Larry The Cable Guy, Michael Caine, Emily Mortimer, Eddie Izzard, John Turturro.

Cool cars never look back at the explosion.

IT'S finally happened. Pixar's mythical run of great films is over.

Adding insult to injury is that it's come with a sequel that no one really wanted except the merchandise money counters - Cars is generally regarded as a good film, but certainly the runt of the Pixar litter.

It's hard to know where to start with this movie. It's a sequel to Cars in as much as it's set in the same alternate reality (ie. a world of inhabited entirely by vehicles) and the main characters return in varying amounts.

That's where the similarity ends. Cars 2 is a James Bond homage that focuses on first film sidekick Mater (Larry The Cable Guy) as the accidental secret agent in an environmentally fuelled tale of espionage, set against the backdrop of a tri-series car race that promotes a type of bio-diesel.


Meanwhile, some of the emotional themes fly in the face of the first film, in which NASCAR upstart Lightning McQueen is forced to slow his life down and adapt to the pace of rural life so as not to upset anyone (and learn some lessons about humility). Here the message is be yourself no matter what and don't change for anybody, even if you're being an ignorant laughing stock who's upsetting people (although there are some other lessons along the way but this is the main one).

Like an automobile, Cars 2 is cold and emotionless. It's also sadly humourless, unless your idea of a hilarious joke is "Japanese toilets are different to Western toilets" or wanting to see how far the film-makers can push the "cars do wacky human things" envelope.

With no heart to it, we're left with a so-so spy movie that bizarrely stars cars, in particular Mater. A decent sidekick and comic relief character in the first film, he becomes almost painful to endure as a lead, although the film does improve as he eventually comes into his own.

As you would expect with Pixar, Cars 2 looks spectacular, and there are some interesting ideas, such as the environmental theme and elements of the espionage parody, plus the ending is strong.

But overall it feels like three different movies welded together or - worst of all - that Pixar is running out of ideas. Even the pre-film short is a return visit from the Toy Story team (albeit a welcome comeback).

However, the presence of Woody and Buzz just serves to remind you of how good Pixar sequels can be, and how disappointing this one is.

Monday, 20 June 2011

BlogalongaBond: On Her Majesty's Secret Service

Way back in 2011, my favourite film critic The Incredible Suit figured out there were exactly the same amount of months preceding the release of Skyfall as there were Bond films. And thus BlogalongaBond was born, in which international film critics from around the world (hence the international bit) reviewed one Bond film a month until Skyfall dropped.

Being the top bloke that I am, I convinced my then-girlfriend (now wife) to take part in BlogalongaBond with me, seeing as how she hadn't seen a Bond film before, or couldn't remember having done so.



Her: I want those two hours of my life back.

Me: That bad?

Her Oh yeah. So bad.

Me: Was it George? Are you just pining for Sean?

Her: No, it was nothing to do with George. He did a good job with what he had to work with. Unfortunately, what he had to work with was a steaming plate of poo. And he had to eat it.

Me: That's a horrible mental image.

Her: I know, but that movie was bad. It was a total stinking plate of poo.

Me: Oh come on, there must have been something you liked about it.

Her: That car race/chase was pretty cool. And I thought some of the fights were better. Lazenby really threw himself into those - I think you can tell he was a better fighter than Connery.

Me: Well, Lazenby would probably beat Connery in a fight, but I really disliked a lot of the early fight scenes. I thought the Bond movies had evolved past the point of speeding up footage and editing it choppily to make it look more action-packed, but obviously not.

Her: Well, either way, I've got to say - and I hate to admit this because you'll probably put it on the bloody internet - but I had no idea what the plot was and what was going on. I mean, why was Bond following Tracy around? Why was she wandering off into the water? Why did her dad want to pay Bond to marry her? And what was Bond doing for the whole film? I mean, what was the bloody point of it all?

"Has anyone found the bloody point of all this?"
Me: It did feel like the film started part-way through something and never told us explicitly what it was. As far as I can work out, Bond was keeping an eye on the suicidal/crazy Tracy in the hopes of ingratiating himself with her dad so that he would spill what he knew about Blofeld, who Bond had been trying to catch since the end of You Only Live Twice. At least I think that's what was going on.

Her: Well, I didn't get that. It was nonsensical.

Me: Yeah I don't think the script fit together very well at the start. And while that is a big problem with the film, I think the biggest problem was that it didn't feel like a Bond film. They make an effort, particularly in the rubbish opening titles, to reference the previous films, then the film-makers turn OHMSS into a quasi-reboot for the new guy. It took 90 minutes before it started to feel like a 007 adventure. I mean, the final 30 minutes are really good, but it was as if they got to the end and realised they'd forgotten they were making a Bond film and crammed all the action and Bond-ness into the final act with a ski pursuit, an avalanche, a car race, and a toboggan duel.

Her: Yeah, it's very un-Bond. I mean, what the hell was the go with that "falling in love" montage in the middle of the film? I nearly puked in my popcorn. And since when does Bond get married? That's not Bond!

Me: Agreed. His previous womanising seemed fine because he didn't have a girlfriend, but by having him fall for Tracy then go and shag a chalet of shielas just makes him a cheating bastard.

Her: Mind you, I didn't think much of Tracy... or any of Blofeld's mind-controlled hussies. Once again, the Bond girls were a disappointment.

Me: Another disappointing aspect was that they seemed to be "hazing the new guy".

Her: What do you mean?

Me: Well, I think the costume department were picking on Lazenby a lot. Connery got all these awesome outfits and he always looked great. Lazenby gets some really shabby suits, a pale blue ski suit, lots of frills, and a kilt. A freaking kilt! And the script made him act kind of gay for a bit. There's nothing wrong with being gay but that's not Bond! He's a real man's man... wait, that sounds gay too....

Her: If they were really hazing Lazenby that would have made him dress as a woman.

Me: That would have clinched it. I'm surprised they didn't.

"Well, I'm not wearing any underwear. What about you ladies?"

Her: Poor George. I liked him, but he really got dumped with a rough deal here. I would have liked to have seen him do a more traditional-style Bond film.

Me: I thought he lacked charisma. That's the one thing Bond really needs, but Lazenby didn't have it.

Her: Whatever you think about George, you have to agree at least he was better than the new Blofeld.

Me: True. Telly Savalas was way too smug and nowhere near malevolent enough.

Her: And where did his scar go? And his accent? Wait a minute - they should have recognised each other from having met during You Only Live Once... but I guess they both look different in this one... but they're supposed to be the same guy... holy crap... I think my brain is about to explode.

Me: There's a really cool fan theory that James Bond isn't so much a person but a position in MI6 - hence the different-looking Bonds over the years. And I guess Blofeld could be the same - he's just a different Number One who takes on Blofeld's name and mantle.

Her: Stop talking. My brain hurts.

Me: Okay. But did you know this is actually a really highly regarded Bond film?

Her: What? How? Why? That was rubbish - the worst one so far by a long way.

Me: I don't think it's a total waste of time, but it does feel like they've tried to get away from the over-the-top nature of the previous films and have gone too far the other way, replacing the over-the-top-ness with bland-ness.

Her: My popcorn was more interesting.


BlogalongaBond will return in Diamonds Are Forever.


Friday, 3 June 2011

X-Men: First Class

(M) ★★★★

Director: Matthew Vaughn.

Cast: James McEvoy, Michael Fassbender, Kevin Bacon, Rose Byrne, Jennifer Lawrence, January Jones.

"Wait, we can't all look into the middle distance in this band photo."

YET another superhero movie... but hold your groans, people - this one is pretty damned good.

One of the best things about this prequel to the Hugh Jackman-starring X-Men series is that it almost wipes away the bad memories of the dire X3 and the average X-Men Origins: Wolverine, returning the franchise to the glory days of its first two films.

But that is not what makes it great, it's just an added bonus. The important ingredients here are the same as in any film - a great cast, a well-paced script that doesn't treat its audience like idiots, some deeper ideas and themes, and a welcome amount of dramatic tension.

The key to First Class is the relationship between Charles Xavier/Professor X (McEvoy) and Erik Lersherr/Magneto (Fassbender) - something hinted at in the previous films but fleshed out further here.

While Professor X is hoping for a world where super-powered mutants can live in harmony with humans, Magneto is distrustful of humans and believes mutants to be superior beings. This dichotomy is displayed brilliantly thanks to the sharp screenplay and the skills of McEvoy and Fassbender, and even though we know where these characters end up, seeing how they get there is deeply satisfying.

Their meeting and subsequent falling out is played out against the backdrop of the Cuban Missile Crisis, orchestrated in this alternate reality by ex-Nazi mutant Sebastian Shaw (Bacon). As the CIA grapples with the revelation that mutants walk among us, it's up to a fledgling team of genetic aberrations to save the day and stop Shaw's plan of starting World War III between the US and the USSR.


As with any origin story, there is a lot to cover, and First Class sets up everything elegantly and swiftly. While many of the characters are merely powered cyphers (Azazel, Emma Frost, Havok, Darwin, Angel, Banshee and Riptide), the likes of Mystique, Beast, Shaw, Professor X and Magneto are well fleshed out, with the latter two being incredibly intriguing characters as the younger counterparts of what Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan would produce later.

X-Men's main appeal has always been its bevy of specifically souped-up humanoids, and the cast of characters on display here, along with their CG-aided powers, don't disappoint. But the comic book's underlying themes of prejudice, bigotry, civil rights and fear - so effectively used in the first two films - are the heart of these stories, and First Class doesn't forget that. While some comic fans will be disappointed by the major tweaking of the source material - Banshee isn't Irish, Mystique's backstory is altered, Moira McTaggart isn't Scottish, the original X-Men line-up differs dramatically - the best suggestion is for you to check your inner Comic Book Guy at the door and revel in the way this plays into the existing X-Men movie universe.

There are flaws - Jones' acting is sub-par, there's a weirdly edited training montage, and a few cases of bad-action-movie-style dialogue, but for the most part this is pacy, punchy, smart and filled with memorable moments - including a great two-word cameo from a much-loved mutant. First Class passes with flying colours.