Cars 2

16 years ago, Pixar Animation Studios released the first feature length computer animated film in history, Toy Story. What followed was an incredible run of success, an 11 film hot streak that yielded dozens of awards (including 11 Oscars), billions of dollars in box office receipts, and the admiration of audiences and critics everywhere. Year after year Pixar was a company you could rely on, and while not all the films were perfect, they all were at least of decent quality, and light years ahead of their competition from the likes of Dreamworks and Sony. So therefore it’s heart-breaking to say that Pixar’s hot streak has come to a crashing halt in 2011. Cars 2 is not just the weakest film in Pixar’s catalogue, it is the worst high-profile animated release for some time.

If there is one Pixar film that divides opinion much more than any other, it is 2006’s Cars. While by no means a bad film, it just didn’t hit in the same way as films like Toy Story, Finding Nemo, or The Incredibles. It did middling numbers at the box office (by Pixar standards) and currently sits with a 74% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, the only film from the studio below 90%. For director John Lasseter (also head of Pixar), Cars is obviously a very personal film, a nostalgic story about the loss small-town American values in the face of increased modernity. If it’s not a complete success, credit must be given to Lasseter for at least trying to say something meaningful, and in typical Pixar fashion the film stands out in the increasingly crowded computer animation film market for at least attempting thematic depth, and it’s ability to reach audiences both young and old. Cars 2 on the other hand is completely devoid of depth and subtlety, and will more than likely annoy adults while at times being arguably inappropriate for children. Returning director Lasseter takes the worst character from the first film (in my opinion the biggest reason for Cars’ failure), and structures the whole story around his infuriating exploits. Imagine George Lucas, upon seeing the negative feedback following The Phantom Menace, making all of Episode 2 about Jar-Jar Binks. That’s the kind of thing we’re left with in Cars 2. Compounding the story problems is the troubling amount of guns and violence in the film. To make the argument that ‘it’s OK because they’re just cars’ is inexcusable. This is still supposed to be a children’s film, and while the espionage sub-plot does have potential, there are elements that seem shockingly unsuitable for young kids.

This brings up a question: why would Pixar choose to revisit the only film they have produced which could conceivably be called a failure? Lasseter is on record as saying that the company would only explore sequels to their films if a good story could be developed, and the level of quality of the two Toy Story sequels seems to back up this sentiment, but it’s hard to believe that anyone would think the script of Cars 2 is worthy of that high standard. Interestingly, there is one other way that Cars stands apart from other Pixar films: the estimated $8 billion merchandising revenues. While all Pixar films have profited from merchandising, none have had the global appeal of Cars. It’s upsetting to think that Pixar, a company who seemed previously to place greater importance on the quality of its films than the bottom line, have gone for the easy cash grab, but there really seems to be no other reason for the existence of Cars 2. Everything about the films seems designed to increase the potential for selling merchandise, whether it’s the films global locations which pander to international audiences, or the increasingly ridiculous characters and set-pieces, tailor made to be toys and video games. It’s a cynical opinion, one which I had hoped I’d never feel towards a Pixar film, but it is undeniably true: Cars 2 is a film created not as an artistic endeavour, but to feed ancillary markets.

Pixar’s golden run had to end sometime, and one bad film is a small price to pay for 11 good, with two or three being genuine masterpieces. What is most unfortunate is the catastrophic level of Cars 2’s failure, and Pixar will undoubtedly lose a lot of respect for making such a soulless film, unworthy of the studio’s name.

Green Lantern

Let me begin this review by mentioning where I stand on comic books. I rarely read many anymore, but in the past I have dipped my toe into a few series and enjoyed them, even forming limited attachments to certain characters, and as such I have feelings and opinions concerning how they are portrayed on screen. Green Lantern was not one of these characters. I was aware of the basic story, had some sense of what his powers were, and I even had a Green Lantern action figure as a kid. But I never read the books, and so, approaching Martin Campbell’s Green Lantern, I really had no idea what to expect. What I saw in the trailers looked cool enough that I was excited by what this film could be, but my usual gut-feeling about how a movie will turn out was absent. After seeing Green Lantern this morning, I’m still at a loss to describe how I feel about it. The film features some of the most interesting and stunning visuals I’ve seen in a while, certainly streaks ahead of this years previous comic book offerings X-Men: First Class and Thor, but, regrettably, the quality of the visuals can’t make up for the muddled plot and dreadful pacing issues, particularly in the film’s conclusion.

There is a lot that Campbell gets right with Green Lantern. Firstly the casting, always of utmost importance in a superhero film, is solid. All participants make the most of their roles, with Ryan Reynolds as Hal Jordan a particularly inspired choice. This is the type of role Reynolds was born to play, and he clearly understands the journey Jordan takes over the course of the film. Bringing his natural charm to elevate the character above the by-the-numbers troubled hero Jordan could have been, he’s the best thing about the whole film. Supports are good too, with Peter Sarsgaard wickedly creepy as Hector Hammond, and Mark Strong as Lantern Corps leader Sinestro making the best of smaller parts. It’s also nice to see Campbell keeping it Kiwi with roles for Temuera Morrison and Taika Waititi, although both are underused. Campbell also nails the look of Green Lantern, and the delicate but masterful use of colour (perhaps unsurprising in a film with a colour in the title) shows his visual expertise as a filmmaker. Freed from the restraints of a realistic setting, Campbell really lets loose with his great visual style in scenes that take him away from Earth. Too often superhero films are hampered by the perceived need to keep proceedings grounded in reality to give mass audiences something to better relate to, and much like Marvel’s Thor, the sci-fi heavy sequences set in far-off fantastical locations offer refreshing variety. It is however spectacularly geeky, and as much as certain core fans will undoubtedly be crying for more of this style in future comic adaptations, conservative studio thinking is likely the reason we’ll never see a Green Lantern movie set entirely off-Earth.

Green Lantern, despite all it has going for it visually, falls down at the story level, perhaps an effect of having four writers working on the script at various times. Adding originality to an origin story is always going to be a challenging task, and the story spends too much time on build-up before rushing to a conclusion, which ultimately seems a touch too easy. Obviously Warner Bros. are counting on the success of the film to launch a new franchise, so therefore Jordan’s triumph was a foregone conclusion, but Campbell doesn’t spend enough time developing the threat presented by the film’s villain, and as such when the confrontation comes it never feels like anything is really at stake. It’s an exciting sequence while it lasts, despite its overly obvious terrorism parallels, but it’s just over much too quickly, and the colossal visual scale of the villain which Campbell reaches for is unmatched by the battle itself. There’s an uneasy balance between the small-scale human story and the epic overarching plot, and unfortunately Green Lantern comes off as unsure of what exactly it wants to be.

So, here I sit, unsure of what to make of Green Lantern. There’s potential in it, elements we’ll hopefully see explored in the inevitable sequel. As an introduction to a lesser known character (at least for mainstream audiences) it’s passable, and for the wow-factor of the visuals alone it may be worth seeing in the cinema. Personally though, I think Green Lantern will be filed under ‘interesting failure’.

Super 8

In 2010, amidst the flood of adaptations that filled the blockbuster season, Christopher Nolan’s Inception stood out for being not only an effective thriller, but more importantly for being one of the few original concept tent-pole releases of the year. This year you may hear similar things about JJ Abrams’ Super 8, but please do not be fooled. Super 8 is in fact arguably the most derivative film of the year, but for people of a certain generation who grew up on 80s family adventure films, it really is a rare treat. Working from the template perfected by executive producer Steven Spielberg in films such as Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and E.T., Abrams delivers a sweet, nostalgic, and often frightening film unlike anything seen in cinemas for many years.

While there is a lot to enjoy in many contemporary blockbusters, it takes a film like Super 8 to highlight the absence of a crucial ingredient in modern movies: heart. Most summer films released over the past decade have certainly been big on action set-pieces and visual effects, but everything else about them seems distressingly interchangeable. There’s a lone male hero. A love interest. A problem to be solved. And in many cases a kiss at the end. There’s no denying that it’s a successful formula (the box office numbers speak for themselves), but it is somewhat fleeting success. It really is a great shame that what people will remember about the films of the early 21st century is the style rather than the substance. In Jaws, it’s not the shark itself we remember so much as the pursuit of the shark and interactions between Brody, Hooper and Quint. In E.T., it’s the relationship between Elliott and the titular alien. Super 8 is Abrams’ love-letter to that period in cinema, and keen eyed viewers will undoubtedly spot many homages to films such as Stand By Me, The Goonies, and most obviously the early work of his mentor Spielberg. The film is rich with sentimentality, keenly addressing childhood issues of friendship, ambition, problems with parents, and first love. The adults in the film (including a great performance from Kyle Chandler) are all crucial to keep the narrative moving, but the beauty of Super 8 comes from its focus on the perspective of the kids. They’re a rag-tag bunch of largely unknown young actors who all do a terrific job (especially the freakishly talented Elle Fanning), and Abrams wisely allows the camera to linger on small character moments rather than simply jumping from one set-piece to the next as so often happens nowadays. Allowing development of these characters makes them seem all the more real, and when things get nasty (which they do), there’s genuine fear about what’s going to happen to these youngsters. Abrams ratchets up the tension with scream-inducing (at least in my screening) jump scares, and opts to keep the threat hidden for the majority of the film, another nice Spielbergian touch. Super 8 really is a masterpiece of tone.

I guess I haven’t really mentioned the plot in this review, but this is a film about  emotion, harking back to a time where the plot was merely a foundation on which to build authentic character relationships. But yes, ostensibly Super 8 is a monster movie, and unfortunately Abrams fumbles at the goal line as the film draws to a close, hampered by the necessity to finish the monster story. As with any creature feature, the monster is merely a frightening manifestation of a bigger issue facing the characters, and Abrams’ attempt at pathos comes off as a little clunky. But where a lesser film would perhaps be ruined by such an obvious emotional climax, Abrams’ heartfelt handling of the characters in the film’s build-up allows some forgiveness. Super 8 is never going to be the highest grosser of the year, but it warms the soul to know that this type of filmmaking is still around, and hopefully the film will find an audience with today’s young and young-at-heart. Now if you’ll excuse me, I feel a strong desire to watch Close Encounters.

X-Men: First Class

It’s obvious to anyone who pays even the slightest attention to the industry that Hollywood has, over the past decade or so, become obsessed with comic book adaptations, and 2011 is choked with more of them than any year before. Thor kicked things off a few weeks back, and soon we will be seeing Green Lantern, Captain America: The First Avenger, Cowboys and Aliens, and The Adventures of Tintin, along with several other lesser known comic films. This week, Marvel Studios unleash X-Men: First Class, directed by Matthew Vaughn (Kick Ass), a prequel to the previous three X-Men films. Well, the first two anyway. This is in fact the second time we’ve had a movie this year which is the fourth in a series (not to mention the fifth in series Fast Five), and it is becoming hard to get enthused about the endless sequel/remake/reboot machine that Hollywood has become. So, what’s to get excited about in the latest X-Men film? As it turns out, quite a lot.

Perhaps most importantly for many fans (myself included), X-Men: First Class makes almost no reference to the last film in the series, Brett Ratner’s execrable X-Men: The Last Stand, while subtly maintaining links to Bryan Singer’s excellent original two movies. Set in 1962, First Class tells the origins of Charles Xavier’s (James McAvoy) research into mutant genetics, the formation of his school for gifted youngsters (mutants), and the forging of his friendship, and ultimate rivalry, with Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto (Michael Fassbender). Having Singer back in the fold as producer and co-writer really pays off, and only highlights how his lack of input on the film series he began effectively destroyed The Last Stand. Singer’s knowledge of the characters and mythology ensures that much that was great about the first two films is back on display, and this is clearly his film. While Vaughn does a competent job in the director’s chair, his sensibilities seem to be more suited to less conventional projects, such as the merciless deconstruction of comic book superhero tropes that was Kick Ass. Still, First Class is a welcome return to form for the series.

The period setting of First Class also adds very welcome variety to the franchise, and the costumes, dialogue and settings all playfully allude to the swinging sixties ideals reminiscent of early James Bond, or perhaps more accurately the Bond-lampooning Flint films. Two particular montage sequences closing out the first and second acts winkingly recreate not only the free-spirited mood of the time, but sixties filmmaking techniques as well. It’s clever, and it works as a nice counterpoint to some of the darker elements, which are where First Class’s strength really lies. While this is a Marvel film, Singer and Vaughn clearly are striving for a more real-world feel than the Avengers universe of the most recent Marvel adaptations. Interweaving the plot into such a defining real-world event as the Cuban missile crisis is ambitious, yet for the most part it works. While it’s maybe a little silly, it is fun to see this kind of revisionist history creeping into the X-Men universe, and it’s nice to have a Marvel film that doesn’t need to play by the Avengers rules.

So, all things considered, X-Men: First Class is largely a successful entry into the series, but I have to add a little addendum to my review: in all honesty I was a little disappointed with the film for one reason. Now that this story has been told, it’s unlikely that we will ever see the long-rumoured Magneto movie. And in light of the fascinating Magneto storyline which constitutes about a third of First Class, there is so much more that could be done with the character. Lehnsherr is presented here as a deeply abused and troubled man, torn between his anger, his desire for revenge and the promises of redemption from Xavier, his closest friend. Fassbender is terrific, more than equal to the performance of Ian McKellen in the previous films, and it’s a great shame that we won’t see his story fleshed out into a full feature. As much as I enjoyed First Class, I kept coming back to this. But I guess this doesn’t amount to much more than nit-picking to most people, so really any fans of the series, or even just quality action movies, should check this one out.