Monday, June 27, 2011

cars 2

Pixar, let’s face it, are wonderful. I dare you to find a better superhero movie than The Incredibles, or a more moving ten minutes of film than the intro to Up, or a better and braver hero than Wall-E. Then I double dare you to think of the first Cars movie as the best of anything. Maybe the best at making Pixar’s board a huge merchandising fortune so they can fill their Lightning McQueen-shaped swimming pool with Cristal or whatever it is rich people drink. Probably imported Dr Pepper.

I went to see Cars 2 when the Rotten Tomatoes rating had been going downhill faster than a relevant racing pun. I’ll see anything, though, and as I’ve seen everything Pixar has done (including Ratatouille, which is the first movie I’ve fallen asleep during) there was no way I could stop myself. Armed with 3D glasses and enough popcorn to float a shipwreck, I bravely went to see the first Pixar movie the masses appeared to be dreading.

And they shouldn’t be. Actually, Cars 2 is pretty good.

Perhaps it was my low expectations. I’m not interested in racing or in arrogant race cars voiced by Owen Wilson. (Though I am interested in Owen Wilson when he plays humans.) I own a bunch of movie paraphernalia but cars aren’t my thing. For me, Cars 2 was lifted from horror by ditching the races—there are only three, and the last one you only see for about five seconds—and instead following an adventurous spy thriller storyline when Lightning McQueen’s best pal, country bumpkin tow-truck Tow Mater (Larry the Cable Guy), accidentally happens upon some highly secretive information in a Japanese bathroom. (Yes, there is a scene in one of those convoluted Japanese toilets. Yes, it’s funny. Yes, I wish I also had buttons on my otherwise dull toilet at home.) Mater then becomes the target of the bad guys—headed by a monocle-side-mirror-wearing car who answers to a faceless villain I picked from miles away—but is thankfully found first by British Intelligence officers Holley (Emily Mortimer) and the moustachioed Bond car Finn McMissile (Michael Caine, totally and utterly excellent.) A misinterpretation of events leads Holley and Finn to believe Mater is a spy under deep, stupid cover, and together they must save the day.

Interestingly, the plotline McQueen follows is about a competition started by Sir Miles Axelrod (Eddie Izzard) to best show off the new alternative fuel source he has come up with. While it’s a topic that is currently quite relevant, it’s not elaborated upon too much (fair enough too, the target market really couldn’t give a toss about petrol prices no matter how much we moan about them) but was a pretty interesting angle to take. It’s discovered during the first races that the cars running on the new fuel are prone to go boom, and Axelrod’s new fuel and race appear to be the end of his career.

Along with that drama, McQueen and Mater have a falling out, basically because Mater is stupid and annoying and ruins everything. Which is what stops Cars 2 from attaining the heights of Pixar’s excellence. While Lightning McQueen is smarmy and arrogant, Tow Mater is not street-smart, doesn’t listen, and makes terrible puns. (Okay. And some good ones which should be terrible, like when someone says, “tout suite!” and he says, “I’ll have two sweets too!”) You can forgive him a lot, because he’s never really left his quiet hometown of Radiator Springs before, but the incident that gets him out of favour with Lightning during the first race is actually appalling behaviour on his part as both a friend and a team member. So while I appreciated getting away from McQueen, Mater is still a very imperfect character. You get so little of everyone else that I don’t know who I’d prefer it to be about. Maybe Finn McMissile.

Cars 2 is a beautiful looking movie, which is hardly a surprise. The action is thrilling, Finn McMissile is an amazing addition—he’s a car! He’s on skis! He’s a submarine! He’s got guns! Etc!—and there are a lot of little jokes you could miss if you weren’t paying attention, like that there’s a Popemobile that has its own Popemobile, and the ads on the side of the racetrack that say “Lassetire”. For Australian audiences, V8 Supercar driver Mark Winterbottom voices a car in one scene; in other countries, the paint job and voice is changed. Some jokes are flat-out hilarious. Some will induce a smile. It’s a movie you shouldn’t mind taking your niece to go see.

One flaw that bothered me was the excessive use of stereotypes. It starts with the cringeworthy hillbilly that is the bucktoothed Tow Mater, goes off to Japan where all the female cars appear to be geishas (in my three week experience of Japan, I did not see a single geisha anywhere), then heads over to Italy where everyone is making out and McQueen is told he needs to be fattened up. The only “non-white” characters in Radiator Springs are Flo (Jenifer Lewis), who speaks fluent sass, and her panelbeater husband Ramone (Cheech Marin). My problem is that these kind of stereotypes should be avoided, and pushing them on kids when they’re young and impressionable—“it’s okay to think that other countries are made of a homogenous people!”—is something I’d wish my kids would avoid seeing.

Also, while I’m totally okay with the fact that cars talk in these films, it absolutely pushes my credibility when you see what they have built. HOW DO THEY DO THIS? THEY DO NOT HAVE HANDS. A scene with an army of miniature robots would fix this. Or, you know, I could get over it. After all, there’s one scene in this where the a bunch of cars play guitar in an Italian plaza. HOW DO THEY STRING THE GUITARS THOUGH? I cannot buy it. Also, while I can be okay with teeth (I can buy that they’re actually grills, or whatever), why do cars have tongues? WHYYYYY

So it exceeded my expectations, made me laugh, and I had a good time. And, thrillingly, there’s a Toy Story short before it called Hawaiian Vacation that rocked my socks. There are worse movies out there to see this holiday season, like Kung Fu Panda 2 (which I may review later). And if anyone asks you if it’s better than Cars 1, you can even quote it: “Is the Popemobile Catholic?”

Friday, June 17, 2011

h j harper, star league #1 lights, camera, action

There’s something about initials in kids books. When I was a kidlet, all the best books were by people hiding behind initials – along with Point Horror writers Caroline B Cooney and D E Athkins, R L Stine is of course a good example, and I was so in love with him and his initialled compatriots that for a while all of my (numerous and terrible) stories were mostly me thinking up dramatic titles, writing the name F E Hardy in bold, then running immediately out of ideas. The trend continues with the Zac Power books, written by H I Larry, a pen name for a variety of excellent authors who have contributed to the series. H J Harper is no pseudonym, but an actual (and quite lovely) person named Holly, and her new Star League series starts as much fun.

Book one opens with movie star Jay Casey heroically stopping some bank robbers in a commercial for the drink Fizz Force. As the filming wraps up, we learn more about Jay: he does his own stunts, swinging down from the ceiling and kicking a burglar’s legs out from underneath him; he’s kind, showing concern for the actors he’s just beaten up; and he’s a lonely kid, orphaned and with only his uncle/agent Jefferson as a friend. Then Jay finds out he’s up for an audition with the famous director Ben Beaumont—but it’s not an audition for a movie, but to join a new bunch of kids with the ability to save the world. There’s robot S.A.M., animancer Leigh, zombie Roger (full name Roger Romero, which is why I love Holly right there), werewolf Connor and ninja Asuka, and the first book shows the team meeting for the first time, and thrown right in the deep end with a dramatic kidnapping as the evil and awesomely named Professor Pestilence tries to use Jay
s fame to his advantage.

I like early reader chapter books because I can knock them out in a short period of time and feel like a Successful Bookseller. It’s also great when I like them and then have some proper advice to offer those who want to buy a book for the eightish-plusish market. (Younger kids will probably like having it read to them and older kids, like for example twenty-nine-year-old ones, might also like to snare themselves a copy.)

Having male, female and androgynous-robot characters means that all types of kids can see that anyone can be powerful and courageous, and makes the series good for kids who think reading about the opposite sex is gross/smelly/weird/boring or the parents that assume their kids think that way. Though to be honest, in many ways the children’s book industry mops the floor with adult books, sexism-wise, because there are female spies and agents and adventurers all over the place in the kids section but not as much in the adult fiction section. Hopefully kids who grow up reading books like Star League: Lights, Camera, Action Hero will end up writing books like Star League: Equal Pay, Equal Badassness. Or perhaps they’ll think of better titles. Probably.

Lights, Camera, Action Hero is fun, adventurous, a bit different, and manages to tackle the serious issues of being ostracised and feeling lonely while throwing in terrifying evil professors, killbots (my favourite kind of bot!) and jokes. Basically, it’s all you could want in a kid
s adventure book, with the added bonus of originality and warmth. Nahum Ziersch’s manga-ish illustrations are excellent, energetic, edgy and other e-words too: it makes for a good-looking read to go with the clear but not patronising language. And if you/your kid/your grandma likes it, there’s five more books in the series. You know what, you should probably just go buy them all at once.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

super 8

While I can only remember spending my school summer holidays watching Spaceballs on repeat and eating peanut butter out of the jar, in Super 8 a bunch of clearly more motivated kids decide to spend their summer holidays shooting a zombie movie. Among them is Joe Lamb (an excellent Joel Courtney), in charge of makeup effects, who lost his mother in an industrial accident four months earlier. He and his father’s relationship has suffered heavily, most heartbreakingly displayed in a moment when dad Jackson (Kyle Chandler) sells him on the idea of spending summer at a baseball camp by saying “it’s best for both of us”. Before the idea takes hold, the group of friends sneak out late one night to film a midnight scene by a train line. Accompanying them is the only person with access to a car—Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning), whose first scene is amazingly snippy but who Joe is besotted with regardless. As they start filming, a train comes along in the background, and all hell breaks loose.

The train crash scene was incredible. I love a good smashy disaster spectacle on film—only pretend ones, though—and this blows most other such scenes out of the water. Carriages go flying, debris everywhere, fireballs—you name it, it happens. And it keeps happening. It takes your ability to believe in the physics of a crash and stretches it as thin as possible. It is one of the most entertaining ten minutes I’ve ever had in cinema, and though the movie had been fine up until that point, that was when the audience gasped at each other in shock and I blustered about it happily in my seat. In the aftermath of the crash, the story proper is set up: something mysterious and alive was in one of those carriages, and the Spielberg/Abrams camp is happy to scare the pants off you from here on in.

As the town deals with the crash and the subsequent drama of both the army’s arrival and the fallout from the accident, Joe and his friends have their own problems—jealousy, grief, blossoming friendship and the need of movie director Charles (Riley Griffiths, shouty and excellent) to finish the film. Shit gets real pretty quickly, and our characters are in actual danger, making it a tense and gripping film that has typical Spielberg humour to lighten the mood. And I don’t begrudge him that for a second; it’s bloodier and the kids swear like troopers, but otherwise, it’s got a real Goonies feel to it; fun, scary, everything a kid could want—though I’d be hesitant recommending it to anyone under the age of twelve or so.

The acting is perfect, and the kids—some of who have never acted in film before—will make you weep for them and laugh with them. The film-within-a-film’s lead actor Martin (Gabriel Basso) barfs at any level of distress; explosion effects master Carey (Ryan Lee) is a slightly alarming little pyromaniac; Preston (Zach Mills) designs sets and is a terrible extra. You’ll love them all—apart from Alice’s guilt-ridden father Louis (Ron Eldard), none of the humans are really a grey area as far as how you want them to see out the movie. The army is made up of jerks. The townspeople are good. And with a mysterious creature on the loose, someone’s going to get attacked.

The scares were so neatly placed that I never expected them; one particular bus scene had me so surprised that I knocked Chris’s Pepsi over in my terrified flail. One guy behind me screamed in an earlier moment of shock. With these moments of alarm coupled with jokey characters and a pace that never stops being affecting in some way, Super 8 is almost a perfect movie.

It isn’t, though: the creature itself is a grey area emotionally and has a frustrating ending; Alice’s dad Louis seems to have more backstory with Joe’s family than is properly exposed; a particularly magnetic (this is a terrible pun) scene at the end is laboured and pointless; a joke about a kid listening to this new thing called a “Walkman” is forced and elicited nothing but groans from the audience. But no movie is flawless, and it was such a fantastic movie overall that a few people even applauded as the credits rolled. And you should, of course, stay for the credits.

Super 8 is a wonderful, instant-classic type movie; it gives me hope for J J Abrams (because let’s face it, Cloverfield was pretty average) and reminded me why Steven Spielberg is the kind of guy who you want to hug and thank for making childhood seem much more fun than it actually is. For the first time in a long time, I am contemplating seeing a movie at the cinema twice. This time I’ll make sure we take drinks that have screw-top lids so no one needs to find themselves covered in ice just because I can’t control my arms.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

remote viewing episode 15

So me and my pals Elroy and Matt do a weekly podcast on movies that you should probably listen to obsessively. We review what we’ve seen, discuss movie news (at least one news item a week is about the Akira movie going horribly wrong in some way), choose a topic to go into more depth about—this week we went all meta and discussed reviews and reviewers—and inform our Faithful Listeners about movie release dates, then chat about feedback. To check it out, you can go to the Remote Viewing website, follow us excitedly on Twitter, or, best yet, subscribe on iTunes, where we’ve been in the New & Notable category for a few weeks because we’re pretty much the most awesome thing on iTunes. Yeah Beyonce, you heard me.