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Column Fri Jun 24 2011

Cars 2, Bad Teacher, Conan O'Brien Can't Be Stopped, Buck, Troll Hunter & Rejoice and Shout

Cars 2

I've long believed that Cars has long been held as the weakest of the Pixar offerings because it has the broadest appeal and seems more squarely aimed at younger viewers than any of the other works. Beyond that, it's also the one that seems the most "red state," featuring an abundance of racing and core messages about homespun values as seen from the vantage point of Smalltown USA. Those of us who adore what Pixar does in terms of innovation and not always casting the most obvious voice talent for its movies seemed to flat out reject the presence of Larry the Cable Guy's tow truck character Mater, perhaps the broadest stroke in the Pixar character army.

But for reasons that most cannot understand, Mater has grown into his own franchise to the point where he even got a DVD of shorts based on his silly adventures. I'll admit, it's strange to see the focus shift in Cars 2 from race car Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) to Mater. While the film pretends to be about a fracture in the friendship between McQueen and Mater, what this really means is that they don't spend a lot of time on screen together. Shifting the setting in the sequel away from Radiator Springs and most of the characters based there (including those voiced by Bonnie Hunt, Tony Shalhoub, Cheech Marin, and others) was probably a wise decision on the part of directors John Lasseter and Brad Lewis and screenwriter Ben Queen, and it gives the filmmakers a chance to explore the rest of this auto-controlled planet.

The plot this time around involves Lightning and Mater hitting the road as part of the three-race World Grand Prix, run in Japan, Italy and London, which is mean to promote the use of a clean alternative fuel designed by Sir Miles Axlerod (Eddie Izzard). But an evil consortium of "lemon" cars is determined to stop Axlerod and the racers using his fuel by means of a ray gun that someone reacts with the new fuel to make engines explode. Yes, folks, there is a great deal of car death in this movie, and I'll admit, that's kind of weird. Meanwhile, McQueen gets into a little friendly adversarial back and forth with Italian racing champion Francesco Bernoulli (John Turturro), while Mater is mistaken for an American spy by British agents Finn McMissile and Holley Shiftwell (Michael Caine and Emily Mortimer), who are trying to stop the lemons and their leader Professor Z (Thomas Kretschmann) from ruining the races.

In case you were wondering, yes, Finn McMissile is the greatest character ever created for this franchise, and Caine finally gets a shot at doing his best James Bond characterization. Finn has gadgets and weapons in every corner of his sleek frame, and in many ways, he seems designed specifically for older audiences, as he represents the most adult-acting character in the film. Holley is the classic desk jockey-turned-field-agent, and she too has a few tricks up her rims, many having to do with getting Mater to work with them. Mater thinks she just wants a date, and by the end of the film, he must come to terms with the fact that many see him as a buffoon. It seems a little heavy handed for a kids film, but it's one of the few aspects of Mater's character that didn't annoy the bejesus out of me.

What truly floored me about Cars 2 were the cityscapes for the three main city locations. The production design and photorealistic views of Tokyo, London, and the Italian seaside is breathtaking, and as with the first Cars, the races are spectacularly rendered. And I have to admit, pretty much all of the material with Finn and Holley is great stuff, both in terms of creativity and the visuals. But what is sacrificed is the presence of Lightning McQueen (outside of the racing scenes), which isn't necessarily a bad thing. In Cars, the relationship with Lightning and Doc (Paul Newman, who for obvious reasons isn't in this film) was the heart and soul of that film. Lightning and Mater's friendship doesn't hold a candle to that, and so less Lightning didn't bother me.

When all is said and done, Cars 2 is better than its predecessor by a fender's length. Turturro's borderline stereotype Italian accent is actually very funny. And hearing Vanessa Redgrave as the Queen of England is kind of inspired. The vocal cast is hit and miss, with talent like Jeff Garlin, Franco Nero, Jason Isaacs, Paul Dooley, Edie McClurg, Richard Kind , Katherine Helmond, John Ratzenberger, and Bruce Campbell (who gets in quite a few choice zingers) rounding out the voices. At times, the film feels a bit cramped with characters, especially when the Radiator Springs crew is brought back in late in the film, but there's enough awe-inspiring animation and solid spy story to keep things moving and exciting. I will admit, there's a dopey twist about the villain behind the scheme to destroy Axlerod's fuel that you'd have to be an idiot not to see coming, but that's a minor complaint.

The overhauled Cars 2 is a much-improved version of what we got several years ago from the first film, and it's good to know that even weak Pixar is better than most animated offerings in a given year. As it should be, the 3D is fantastic in the brightly-lit sections of the movie (which is most of them). I may be on the verge of a coronary when it comes to 3D in live-action movies, but it still looks great in animated works, especially in films by the perfection-minded wizards of Pixar.

Just to by crystal clear, I'm in no way torn about my feelings on Cars 2. It's a step up from Cars, and I think you'll all agree. But there's still something empty about it, despite its eye-melting visuals. And I'm happy that the filmmakers actually give us a few extra seconds to soak in the work that they've accomplished to make their film so stunning. A lot of animated films force us to fly from set piece to set piece, without giving us a real chance to take in the scenery. I dare you to take in the sweeping Italian vista that serves as the opening to that section of the film and not go "Wow!" There's quite a lot to like about Cars 2, and fortunately much of it has to do with what was missing from Cars. It's still doesn't contain the emotional punch of a Wall-E or Up, but they can't all be that compelling as much as we'd like them to be.

Bad Teacher

I have to admit, over the last few years, I've kind of lost my affection for Cameron Diaz as a comedic actor. Don't get me wrong, she still looks like a million bucks in a short skirt and that fantastic smile, but I just haven't been that impressed with her ability to make me laugh. Which is why I was so categorically left dumbfounded by how aggressively great Diaz is in Bad Teacher, in which she plays Elizabeth Halsey, a gold-digging horror show of a woman with zero ambition beyond finding a man to take care of her and getting a new pair of tits to aid her in her pursuit.

When we meet Elizabeth, she's leaving her teaching position after one whole year to get married, but when she returns home after her final day at school, she finds her groom-to-be (and his mother) ready to kick her out. Skip ahead three months, and Elizabeth is back at school, much to the delight of gym teacher Russell Gettis (Jason Segel), who has a cute habit of asking her out all the time. With her heart set on new breasts to ensnare a man, Elizabeth starts a campaign to earn money however she can to pay for them, while still look for the right guy, who enters her life in the form of substitute teacher Scott Delacorte (Justin Timberlake), who in turn is crushing hard on Amy Squirrel (the great Lucy Punch), Elizabeth's arch nemesis across the hall.

Beyond the journey to get money by any means necessary, there isn't much more of an actual story to Bad Teacher, and that's actually okay. Director Jake Kasdan (Zero Effect, Walk Hard, several episodes of "Freaks and Geeks") has something more ambitious in mind. He actually wants us to care about these characters, and Diaz plays Elizabeth like she was shot out of a smart and sexy cannon. She's not only great at insulting everyone in her path like a virtuoso, but when she figures out how more funds might be acquired, she turns on something inside her that goes from bitch to charming and seductive. It's truly enjoyable watching the transformations. I especially loved Diaz's scenes with "The Office's" Phyllis Smith's Lynn, a fellow teacher who seems to have some issues with assertiveness and possibly dual personalities.

Diaz herself has rarely expressed such rousing confidence, and I love when you can see the gears grinding as Elizabeth cooks up a new scheme. And there is almost nothing she won't do or say for a laugh. One of her first lines is something like, "Get yourself hard, honey. I'm going to suck your dick like I'm angry at it." Such a lady. Diaz is so strong, in fact, that she overshadows the men in her life. Segel is quite funny here, but he's only given to us in small, supporting-role quantities. Meanwhile Timberlake plays things kind of safe as the straight man to the two outrageous women who feel for him. There's a sequence involving sex with all your clothes on that I still can't get out of my mind, no matter how hard I try. I also liked the performance by John Michael Higgins as the school's principal and Thomas Lennon as a guy Diaz is forced to get close to to make the system work for her.

What I especially liked about Bad Teacher is that it even as Halsey learns to loosen her restrictions on getting a certain kind of guy, etc., she never wusses out and becomes the best teacher the world has ever seen. But on top of all else, this movie is loaded with a great deal of laughs and wildly inappropriate behavior, made all the more so by the presence of young minds. I laughed often and loudly at this one, and I think you will do. I'd say I was surprised by how much I like this film, but I have a great deal of confidence in Kasdan, and Diaz seems reinvigorated. Plus, she still looks stunning and completely doable. There are few weak ends in Bad Teacher, and the elements that work do so more than I ever would have expected. This is a solid R-rated comedy that deserves a great deal of your attention this weekend. Class dismissed.

Conan O'Brien Can't Be Stopped

You know the set up, but this magnificent documentary about the planning and execution of talk show host Conan O'Brien's music and comedy tour after being given the heave ho from the "Tonight Show" provides you with the rest of the story. And I'm guessing that even those of you who saw O'Brien on his "Legally Prohibited From Being Funny on Television Tour" don't even quite understand what made that tour so special. This doc from Idle Hands director Rodman Flender will explain all and give you a fascinating glimpse into the mind of a man who lives to entertain and be in front of a crowd.

Picking things up shortly after getting the axe from NBC, Conan O'Brien Can't Stop opens with O'Brien at home attempting to figure out what to do next until his contractual agreement with the network keeping him off TV for the better part of a year. The seeds of the tour begin to take root, and soon a roomful of writers, assistants, and event planner began the painful process of putting a show together. Being given complete access and with no real input from O'Brien, Flender and his team document every mini-meltdown, argument, and even a few diva-like moments (some real, some mockingly staged) by O'Brien that went into the 32-city tour.

And then comes the actual tour, which was constantly evolving and fairly hit and miss in its earliest incarnation, although the hardcore devotees seemed to eat up every word and note. Punctuated by a host of special guests in each city (including Jack McBrayer, Stephen Colbert, Jim Carrey, and Jon Stewart, as well as O'Brien pal musician Jack White) and some truly inspired jam sessions, the tour gets more and more polished as O'Brien gets more manic about protecting his voice (not used to this kind of performance schedule) and mental well being. One fantastic meltdown has to do with Conan getting shuffled from one meet-and-greet to another before each show, and then being forced to be a dancing monkey at each afterparty as well.

I truly believe that even the members of Team Coco in long standing will learn something about their hero, from his almost strange behavior (much like withdraw symptoms) in the weeks when he wasn't getting regular affirmation from audiences to the borderline abusive way he treats the staff closest to him (although they seem okay with it).

Above all other things, Conan O'Brien Can't Stop is wonderfully entertaining, often moving, and occasionally shocking -- all of which are meant in the best possible way. And I have to admit, getting to watch a famous person at what might be the lowest point in their professional and personal life (I'm not sure there's a difference with O'Brien) made me appreciate the work he does and the dedicated effort that goes into everything he does. It's sometimes tough to draw straight lines between the man featured in this film and the guy who hosted a successful talk show on TBS, but maybe that's the point. The guy on TV is in his environment; the man in this movie is attempting to create a temporary habitat in which he can thrive (or at least not curl up and die). The guy in this movie is the hardest working man in show business for a span of a few months; it's exhausting to watch, but well worth the journey. Fan or not, you'll love this movie. It opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

To read my exclusive interview with Conan O'Brien Can't Stop director Rodman Flender, go to Ain't It Cool News.

Buck

Anyone who doesn't like this one-of-a-kind profile of a man who overcame a horrific upbringing to become of the world's foremost "horse whisperers" (although he claims not to actually whisper to horses) is a heartless bastard of immense proportions. If I ever had the chance to meet Buck Brannaman, the subject of the documentary Buck, I'd want to give the man a big hug and hear every story and piece of sage advice he has to offer.

Buck is both an easy and tough movie to explain or make sound as interesting as it truly is. There's no plot here. We see Brannaman work at taming colts at several of his horse training workshops, while talking the owners through the process in a calm, soothing voice. He not only explains what he's doing but why he's doing it and what the horse is thinking and experiencing. With uncanny accuracy, Buck can often predict how a horse will respond to any number of stimuli, and as a result, he knows exactly how to counter any negative reactions by the horse.

From first-time feature director Cindy Meehl, Buck gives us an honest and sometimes unnerving look at its subject's awful treatment at the hands of his alcoholic father, the kind foster family that raised him, and the path he took from child rodeo star (specializing in rope tricks) to cowboy to teacher. We meet his wife and daughters, all of whom seem just as kind and sweet as Buck himself. One of my favorite segments of the film involves the relationship Buck forged with Robert Redford while Buck acted as advisor and inspiration behind Redford's movie The Horse Whisperer.

Another, quite terrifying section of the film involves an out-of-control, poorly raised colt that Buck manages to get somewhat under control, only to watch it literally attack one of its owners. This experience is crucial to the film because it is one of the rare instances where Buck is unable to solve the problem the way he'd like to, with tragic results. Not surprisingly, Buck takes this failure hard, but he rightfully assigns the blame to the owner, claiming the horse's state of mind is a reflection into the troubles in her life, and not for one minute does she disagree with him.

What I kept marveling at what the sensitivity on display. Buck displays so much poise that a Zen master might feel like a speed freak next to him. It's virtually impossible not to take a shine to Brannaman and those around him. Unfortunately for him and his family, the only way he can be of use to the world at large is by being on the road nine months out of the year, but they all seem okay with that. But don't mistake Buck's laid-back approach to storytelling as soft. The hard-luck portions of this moving doc could easily make you cry, and for good reason; this is a movie with deep roots in emotional connection -- between human and beast, and between people. I'll repeat, if you don't like this movie, you probably have a lot of other things wrong in your life and probably need to see a therapist. This one is just that good. Buck opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Troll Hunter

Oh, you will fucking love Troll Hunter from Norway -- the chronicles of the one-man army whose only job is to keep the troll population of his country from making itself known to the human population. The titular character has managed to do his job in secret (with the help of certain members of Norway's equivalent of the Department of the Interior) for decades until a young film crew stumbles upon him while shooting a piece on bear poachers and decides to follow him on his mission to investigate why trolls have been especially active in recent weeks. Naturally, the crew is doubtful of what the hunter is telling them and have them do in preparation for their first troll encounter, but after clarifying that none of them believe in God (trolls can smell the blood of Christians) and rubbing the crew head to toe in "troll stench," the team goes into the woods and the hunter draws out their first glimpse.

I'm not sure that putting together Troll Hunter as a fake documentary adds much to the drama, and, frankly, this feels like one of the most scripted fake docs I've ever seen, but none of that really matters because the trolls in this movie are fucking awesome and disgusting, seemingly based on centuries-old drawings (or perhaps the drawings were based on real trolls!). I love that there are several species of trolls, each with their own set of abilities and personality traits. A couple of them are also taller than you can fathom, and the effect of having the trolls interact with the human occasionally is nearly seamless. My favorite element of the film is the soundscape, from the deep cracking of tall trees to the ungodly roar of an angry troll bearing down on the hunter and film crew, the sound makes this movie a better experience.

But Troll Hunter isn't all serious business, and there is a great deal of humor in the film. But much like another recent film based on myth, Rare Exports, the filmmakers take their subject seriously. There is nothing resembling campiness or silliness anywhere in this movie, and that sold it for me. Still, when the film crew needs a new camera person and a Muslim woman comes on board, the hunter is asked how the trolls will react to the scent of her blood since she's not Christian. His honest response: "I really have no idea what will happen." I loved moments like that in the film. The film takes a while to get going, but to me that make it feel like more of a real documentary, and once the trolls start appearing, the pacing picks up considerably.

Troll Hunter was deliciously under the radar late last year when a teaser trailer popped up and then it got its North American premiere at Fantastic Fest. But now that the troll is out of the proverbial bag, I hope geek audiences worldwide demand their Troll Hunter sooner rather than later. I'm hearing rumblings about it coming out before the end of the year, and I hope that's the case because I desperately want to watch this movie again. Troll Hunter is a classic adventure story told in a very different fashion that I believe people will respond positively to. Most importantly, it's a metric shit ton of fun.

Rejoice and Shout

Odds are you've never heard of the tremendously informative and highly rousing documentary Rejoice and Shout. And unless you have a deep affection for the history of gospel music, why would you? But here's my suggestion: seek this movie out and see it with an audience, which will likely consist of paying folks who are there due to their love for this style of music. The crowd I saw this film with were church-going people, mostly African American, and all ready to experience this movie as if the Tuesday night we watched it together was just another Sunday service.

Although this history of American gospel music is edited together like an episode of PBS's American Masters series (not an insult at all; just a fact), the music sets this film apart. Wisely, director Don McGlynn (who has made docs about performers such as Dexter Gordon, Charles Mingus, Louis Prima, and Howlin' Wolf) lets the music explain the trends and changes in gospel that 100 interviews couldn't quite get right. He lets entire songs play from beginning to end, and that's a beautiful thing. And his interviews with everyone from Smokey Robinson (in the capacity as a lover of the music, not a performer) to Andrae Crouch to Chicago's own Mavis Staples are exemplary, capturing an explanation in the shifts from more traditional gospel to radical do-wop and full-band works in later years.

As much as I never get tired of listening to Staples talk about her family's shift from pure gospel to folk to R&B, it was viewing rare archival performances by often long-forgotten performing acts that got my heart racing and toes tapping. It's impossible not respond physically to these rousing renditions. And as much as the film is about gospel music, it isn't heavy on the Godliness of the music. There's no missionary work going on here, although I can't imagine the spirit not get raised in a few audience members at every showing of this blessed movie. Rejoice and Shout knows its strengths and plays to them as often as possible. I have no idea what the release platform for this glorious little movie is, but do what you can to find where it's playing near you and just go without thinking. It's a complete and utter good time. Consider seeing this earning brownie points to get into heaven.

 
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