June 28, 2011

Cars 2 (2011)

I’M SURE I’M NOT ALONE when I say I have two boys under the age of ten who love Pixar’s 2006 release Cars. It’s a near-perfect match for young boys: A cartoon movie about talking cars, fast races, and the true meaning of loyalty and friendship. (And to my wife’s satisfaction, the meanest villain is merely an obnoxious cheater.)

So when Dash heard there was going to be a Cars 2, we knew we’d be going to see it the moment it hit theaters. It’s Pixar, they’re characters our family loves, and it’s based on Pixar’s most kid-friendly film. It’s bound to be great, right?


Star racecar Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) and his best friend, tow truck Mater (Larry the Cable Guy), head overseas to compete in the first-ever World Grand Prix. But the road to the championship is filled with potholes, detours, and surprises when Mater gets caught up in an intriguing adventure of his own: international espionage. Torn between assisting Lightning McQueen in the high-profile races and being part of a top-secret spy mission, Mater's journey leads him on explosive chases through the streets of Japan and Europe, trailed by his friends and watched by the whole world.


In various interviews, Cars 2 director (and Pixar co-founder and Disney/Pixar Chief Creative Officer) John Lassetter has said he wanted to do something completely different with this sequel compared to the original.

And therein lies the problem.

Cars 2 is far removed from what made the original so endearing (even if Cars is basically Doc Hollywood with wheels). Cars 2 is driven entirely by plot, not character – the complete antithesis of any Pixar film that came before it. To make matters worse, the plot (a battle of alternative fuel vs. oil) is far too complex and adult-centric for children to follow, much less care about.

In terms of characters, the old gang from Radiator Springs is back, but almost incidentally: Luigi, Guido, Fillmore, and Sarge join the adventure, but we only see the rest of the gang at the beginning and end of the film. Development of the main characters is also at a minimum: There are occasional hints at the special friendship of McQueen and Mater, but the sentiment quickly vanishes and we’re off to the races again (literally).

Then there’s the noise factor. While it’s expected that McQueen’s three big races will have loud engines, screeching tires, and an occasional crash, the remainder of Cars 2 is flooded with booming explosions, unrelenting action, and extended scenes of bullet-spraying violence.

The screenplay by first-time Pixar scribe (and second-time feature film writer) Ben Queen feels like it was commissioned rather than crafted. There’s near-zero character depth, and jokes often feel like they’re pulled from a sitcom, relying too often on toilet humor and double entendre.

On the plus side: In true Pixar fashion, Cars 2 is visually gorgeous, especially the Tokyo segment. There are grown-up jokes about VIN numbers, Japanese culture, and airport security that hit the mark. And the idea that all the villain cars are discontinued lemons (Pacer, Gremlin, etc.) is inspired.

Unlike Pixar’s previous, moving films like Toy Story 3, Up, and WALL-E, not one tear will be shed by anyone while watching Cars 2…except maybe tears of sadness for how badly Pixar has stumbled with this entry (which unfortunately comes out as the company celebrates its 25th anniversary).

Taking into account Lassetter’s unabashed love of cars and what makes them go vroom, Cars 2 comes off as a pet project by the boss that no one dared question in terms of its unoriginal storytelling, lack of character development, convoluted plot, and inappropriateness for children.

It’s been five years since Lassetter directed the original Cars, and a dozen years since his previous Pixar directing gig, Toy Story 2. In that time, it seems he’s either losing his touch as a director...or has lost touch with what audiences want from a Pixar film.

What did Dash and Jack-Jack think?
Sitting through Cars 2 is an exhausting experience for filmgoers of any age, but especially for kids. Dash and Jack-Jack were restless and fidgety by the end of the second act; the endless onslaught of car chases, gunfire, and explosions simply drained them. Also, like the original Cars, this sequel clocks in at nearly 2 hours – way too long for the attention span of children.

Is it suitable for your kids?
It’s unfathomable how Cars 2 received a G rating by the MPAA. It contains even more intense action and violence than Pixar’s PG-rated The Incredibles. Nearly every car involved in espionage fires a gun, and many of the shootouts are excessive; also, several cars are tortured and killed.
In addition to the scatological humor, there’s other questionable language including threats of violence (“Lightning McQueen must be killed,” “I’m gonna make sure you stay dead”), sexually suggestive insults (“Your mother,” “Your sister”), and in the Tokyo segment, Mater hits a gong and declares, “Bang a gong, get it on!”

Will your FilmMother want to watch it?
If she’s looking for the sentiment and fun from the original Cars in this sequel, she’ll be highly disappointed.

Vee have vays uff making you like zis movie...

Cars 2
* Director: John Lassetter
* Screenwriter: Ben Queen
* Stars: Owen Wilson, Larry the Cable Guy, Michael Caine, Emily Mortimer, John Turturro, Eddie Izzard
* MPAA Rating: G

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Rent Cars 2 from Netflix >>

June 16, 2011

Leroy & Stitch (2006)

DASH GOT LEROY & STITCH ON DVD for Christmas last year, and when he eventually asked me if we could watch it as part of our weekly Movie Night, I knew I was taking my chances for a couple of reasons:
  1. Direct-to-video Disney films are sketchy at best, uninspired and slap-shod money-makers at worst (though The Lion King 1 1/2 was a pleasant exception).
  2. The last entry we watched in the Lilo & Stitch film series, 2003’s Stitch! The Movie, was absolutely awful – nearly killing the fun memories of the 2002 original film.
Still, I took a deep breath, popped in the DVD, and hoped for the best. (Or feared the worst, I can’t remember…)

Since rounding up all 625 of Dr. Jumba's genetically engineered experiments in Stitch! The Movie, Lilo (Daveigh Chase), Stitch (Chris Sanders), Pleakley (Kevin McDonald) and Jumba (David Ogden Stiers) are enjoying separate vacations in the far corners of space. But when evil Dr. Hamsterviel (Jeff Bennett) returns, forces Jumba to create Stitch's evil twin (a creature he names Leroy), and plans to clone Leroy into an unstoppable army, it's up to Lilo to reunite the gang and save the day.

While Leroy & Stitch is pretty quiet until Dr. Hamsterviel arrives, things pick up once he creates the powerful and destructive Leroy. In fact, the battles between Stitch and Leroy are actually exciting and really well-choreographed.

There are a decent amount of one-liners for the grown-ups; a climactic battle featuring Stitch and the “good” aliens versus an army of Leroys; and a great, inspired closing scene that pays tribute to Lilo’s hero, Elvis Presley.

The creative team of Tony Craig, Roberts Gannaway, and Jess Winfield (responsible for the aforementioned, lackluster Stitch! The Movie) have redeemed themselves with Leroy & Stitch. While it may not go down as a classic in the Disney pantheon, it’s an enjoyable and easily digestible 73 minutes of fun for kids and parents alike.

What did Dash and Jack-Jack think?
They both really enjoyed Leroy & Stitch, earning it repeat viewings over the weekend after this airing on Friday night. Despite a slow start, the action and antics kept them entertained – the capper being (gross-out alert) when Leroy picks his nose with his tongue.

Will your kids like it?
Kids under ten will probably enjoy Leroy & Stitch. And despite Leroy’s tricky nose-picking, there’s no content that’s inappropriate or scary for toddlers or pre-schoolers.

Will your FilmMother want to watch it?
Leroy & Stitch will probably fall somewhere between “enduring it” and “liking it” – fun to watch with the kids, but not something she’d seek out on her own.

Yikes. Anybody remember that arcade game Robotron: 2084?

Leroy & Stitch
* Directors: Tony Craig, Roberts Gannaway
* Screenwriters: Roberts Gannaway, Jess Winfield
* Stars: Daveigh Chase, Chris Sanders, Kevin McDonald, David Ogden Stiers, Jeff Bennett
* MPAA Rating: G

Buy Leroy & Stitch from Half.com >>
Rent Leroy & Stitch from Netflix >>

June 9, 2011

Win a copy of the book Mr. Popper's Penguins!

YOU COULD WIN one of three copies of the book Mr. Popper's Penguins!

This book is the basis for the upcoming movie opening June 17th.

The summer movie season’s first live-action family comedy event stars Jim Carrey, whose chilly relationship with his family heats up after he inherits six adorable, lovable, and mischievous penguins. Mr. Popper’s Penguins is based on the award-winning classic children’s book by Richard and Florence Atwater.

How to Enter:
Comment on this post by June 23, 2011. I will then pick three comments at random and post the winners soon after. (Winners will then have to e-mail me their mailing addresses to receive their book.)

  • You must have a link to your e-mail address on your Blogger profile page. If not, you must provide your e-mail address in your comment.
  • Prize pack is available to United States mailing addresses only.
Good luck!

June 1, 2011

Chocolate (2008)

LAST YEAR, OUR SON JACK-JACK was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

It’s forced us to evaluate every aspect of his life in order to help him continually develop his social skills and avoid negative reactions to situations. Every day and every situation is unique – from peer interaction and school choices to whether he’s happy with the way he wrote his name.

As I was scrolling through my Netflix queue last week, I came across Chocolate by Thai director Prachya Pinkaew. I had considered watching it a couple of years ago because of my love of martial arts films (and the fact that Pinkaew’s 2003 classic Ong-Bak has amazing, action-packed fight scenes).

But after Jack-Jack’s diagnosis, another reason made my interest climb…

Zen (JeeJa Yanin), a young woman with autism, is raised by single mother Zin (Ammara Siripong), a former member of a mob ring led by the sadistic No. 8 (Pongpat Wachirabunjong). Growing up, Zen discovers she has the ability to absorb precision fighting skills by watching martial arts movies on TV and observing a class of students training in the courtyard outside her window. When Zin is diagnosed with cancer and can’t afford the medical bills, Zen sets out to collect from those who still owe Zin money. But what will No. 8 do when he finds out the daughter of one of his ex-employees is taking money from his clients?


Pinkaew does something very admirable with Chocolate: He doesn’t make Zen’s autism a one-note gimmick. He takes time at the beginning to show the emotional and social obstacles Zen faces growing up (these montages, accompanied by a beautiful lullaby-like score, are both touching and hard to watch).

As Zen, Yanin does an amazing job of capturing the many aspects of autistic behavior, such as obsessing over an item or hobby (be it martial arts, her collection of beads, or her ever-present tube of chocolate candies), fearing an everyday item (for Zen, it’s houseflies), or rocking left and right on her feet while examining something (Jack-Jack does that all the time).

Moving from emotional to physical: The fight scenes (choreographed by longtime Pinkaew colleague Panna Rittikrai) are fast-paced and have moments of inspired greatness. But Pinkaew doesn’t pull out all the stops in Zen’s first confrontation with baddies, or even the second one – he carefully ups the ante with each battle, sprinkling crazier moves and more lethal weapons into each subsequent clash. He saves the best for last: a one-two finale featuring a fight very similar to the House of Blue Leaves scene in Tarantino’s Kill Bill Vol. 1, followed by an insanely brutal showdown between Zen and a dozen henchmen along a third-floor window ledge.

A few cons: The continuous cycle of fights in the second act (Zen tries to collect money, debtor sic’s goons on her, she kicks their asses, rinse, repeat) sometimes makes Chocolate feel more like levels of a videogame than a progressing story. The added dashes of slapstick also felt out of place – if I want that, I’ll watch Jackie Chan. And Zen’s one-on-one fight against a martial artist with epilepsy seemed one step away from self-parody.

At the beginning of Chocolate, there’s a message from Pinkaew:

“The making of this movie was inspired by a group of very special children and a personal dream. To unleash the amazing potential of human movement that is not often seen in everyday reality. To be an encouragement to parents and the unconditional love given to all the special children in the world.”

With this highly entertaining film, Pinkaew unleashes that potential through a character whose disorder is her path to strength. And it’s a potential that parents of children with autism strive to unleash in their own kids every single day.

Thai, with subtitles.
aka Fury.

Is it suitable for your kids?
Chocolate is rated R largely for violence. There’s a lot of martial-arts fighting, several people are shot, No. 8 cuts off a woman’s toe, his henchmen rough up some “clients,” and many men die in a bloody samurai sword fight. During a fight sequence in a butcher shop, a man gets his foot caught on a meat hook, while a cleaver gets embedded in another man’s shoulder. Regarding sex/nudity, there’s a brief shot of a man’s bare behind, as well as a lovemaking scene (naked but no nudity).

Will your FilmMother want to watch it?
The early montages of Zin caring for Zen will likely appeal to your FilmMother’s maternal instincts, and if you have or know a child with autism, Yanin’s performance will hit home. From there, it depends if your better half enjoys (or at least can tolerate) the violence and bloodshed that comes with Zen’s fights with the bad guys.

The voiceover auditions for Kung Fu Panda 3 went horribly, horribly wrong.

* Director: Prachya Pinkaew
* Screenwriters: Chukiat Sakveerakul, Napalee
* Stars: JeeJa Yanin, Ammara Siripong, Pongpat Wachirabunjong, Hiroshi Abe
* MPAA Rating: R

Buy Chocolate from Half.com >>
Rent Chocolate from Netflix >>


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