31 December 2011

The Best Movies of 2011 (and all of the others too because what the hell)

Another godforsaken year gone and what do we have to show for it?  Nothing except wrinkles, regrets, some magic beans, and lists, lists, lists.  Below is one such list, detailing every film released theatrically in 2011 that I, for whatever drunken reason, deemed worthy of my precious time.  For your benefit I went ahead and ranked them all, from the films I hated with such profound passion that I cursed my very existence, to the ones I will realize I completely overpraised five years from now.  The top ten movies even get their own pithy commentary by yours truly.  They all must feel honored.  Lastly, keep in mind that I'm a stickler for rules, so any film that had a premiere earlier than 2011, even if it didn't make it to Seattle before the calendar year, is ineligible.  Therefore you won't be seeing such indie titles as Beginners and Meek's Cutoff (although to be honest, neither would have made my top ten regardless); or such foreign fare as Poetry and Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives.

Without further ado, the cinematic year in review:

22. Cars 2
21. Drive
20. The Artist
19. The Muppets
18. Win Win
17. Source Code
16. Captain America: the First Avenger
15. Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey
14. Kill All Redneck Pricks: A Documentary about a Band Called Karp
13. Beats, Rhymes and Life: the Travels of A Tribe Called Quest
12. The Adventures of Tintin
11. The Future

10. Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol

Having not seen any of the other entries in the Mission: Impossible series I must declare that my excitement for this fourth installment was riding on just one element: Brad Bird.  Animation genius behind the Iron Giant, the Incredibles, and one of my favorite films of all time, Ratatouille, Bird took on the fourth Mission film to prove that he was capable of handling a live action movie, emphasis on action.  And boy howdy, does it go off like gangbusters.  Bird's background in animation, where one must be a perfectionist with both framing and movement, pays huge dividends as we are thrust headlong into a bonanza of explosions and gunfire.  The two hour film is almost relentless with exhilaration, from the opening prison break to the Kremlin bombing to the hotel heist to the blind car chase to the nuclear launch, it is breathtakingly sure of itself.  Along the way we get just enough moments of goofy hilarity to relieve the tension and then its back out into the fray.  Ladies and gentlemen, Brad Bird, action hero.

9. Winnie the Pooh

Disney's comfortingly low-key return to the Hundred Acre Wood proves once and for all that you don't need pop culture references, celebrity voices, 3-D gimmickry or any other manner of foofarah to make an enjoyable family film.  The beautifully hand-drawn Winnie the Pooh is timeless; full of gentle, charming moments that should delight any filmgoer regardless of age.  It stands up well alongside its thirty-five-year old predecessor, the Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh.  Heck, the hallucinatory Backson sequence from this year's film may give the Heffalumps and Woozles a run for their money.  One of the great rewards stemming from Disney's purchase of Pixar Animation Studios came when Pixar head John Lasseter was given free rein of the Disney animation department.  He immediately ousted anyone who couldn't draw from the building and re-opened the hand-drawn division.  They have since released two gorgeous little films (the other being 2009's the Princess and the Frog) both of which are vastly superior to Pixar's 2011 output.  Here's hoping that they are allowed to make many more.

8. Moneyball

Like last year's the Social Network, Moneyball seemed like the least filmmable story on the face of the earth.  How does one translate Michael Lewis's phenomenal book about the rise of statistics-based management on the Oakland A's baseball team into something even remotely cinematic?  Ample credit is due screenwriters Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin (the latter also having penned the Social Network) for zippy dialogue that managed to present the science in an intelligent manner without it ever becoming tedious (unlike this sentence).  In fact, my only real qualms with the film are when it strived to be more conventional, shoehorning in a treacly father-daughter relationship that was utterly superfluous.  Thank Willie Mays (or whomever you pray to) that the film ended up in director Bennett Miller's hands after Steven Soderbergh (and his animated Bill James) left the project.  Miller's tasteful, restrained direction smartly kept the focus on the audacious tenacity of Brad Pitt's Billy Beane, never feeling the urge to resort to flashy spectacle.  

7. Rango

Unlike most mainstream films cranked out nowadays, children's films in particular, the delightfully oddball animated feature Rango doesn't feel like a film created by committee.  It has the distinct imprint of a personal, idiosyncratic vision.  Director Gore Verbinski's neo-Western about a sheltered chameleon (voiced winningly by Johnny Depp) who finds himself in a drought-stricken desert town, a place where he can start anew, inhabiting the persona of the hero he longs to be, is full of bizarre interactions with genuinely fresh characters.  The action set pieces are all staged beautifully, which is to be expected by the man that deftly helmed the first three over-the-top, rip-roaring Pirates of the Caribbean films.  The jokes are organic, not shoehorned-in pop culture references.  Sure, the plot and machinations are borrowed from every other Western under the sun, but in this style, with this perspective, it all feels like a loving homage, not a calculated move.  It all just feels right.  In a left field sort of way.

6. Bridesmaids

I am shocked by how much I enjoyed Bridesmaids.  Shocked, I say!  I didn't catch up with the film until about a week ago, having avoided it solely on the absolutely atrocious trailer I was subjected to prior to the film's release.  It looked like the most by-the-book, lowest-common-denominator, gross-out film to come through the pipeline.  Despite proclamations of critics and friends I wholeheartedly trust, I couldn't bring myself to sit through it.  Thankfully with six months' distance, my defenses were weakened enough to open up to this sweet, honest and emotionally mature film, that just so happens to traffic in equal amounts of diarrhea and vomit.  Kudos to Kristen Wiig, who co-wrote the film (with Annie Mumolo) and gives a fearless performance as a down-on-her-luck single woman who feels threatened less by her best friend's impending nuptials, than by the model of perfection who tries to usurp their lifelong friendship.  Wiig adeptly carries the emotional weight throughout, even when she's getting herself arrested for drunken shenanigans on a plane or punching a giant cookie.  Plus, as a true sign of the film's greatness there's nary a trace of Wiig's real-life husband, Bill Hader, anywhere!  I hate that guy!

5. Super 8

Critics like to try and tie a cinematic year together under a common theme or idea.  This allows everyone to put a nice ribbon on everything and go to sleep believing that there is a semblance of order to the universe.  Either that or they're just over-analyzing the trivial, as usual.  If I were to be fool enough to play such frivolous games, which I undoubtably am, I would unoriginally argue that 2011 was the Year of Adolescent Protagonists and Movies About Movies.  No film merged the two so completely than J.J. Abrams' Super 8, the most fun summer blockbuster I've seen since well, J.J. Abrams' Star Trek two years ago.  The film tells the endearing story of a group of gawky, geeky kids trying to get their homemade zombie film completed amidst the chaos and destruction brought to their hometown by the escape and subsequent hunt of an alien being.  A blatant but loving homage to the early work of Steven Spielberg, the film tapped into the collective past of a certain group of cinephile so precisely that it felt a bit like a comfort blanket.  But that's okay, I like staying warm, especially if the blanket is made with care.  What lifts Super 8 above the level of mere carbon copy and allows it to stand on its own is the honest portrayal of the lives and friendships of these kids which is due both to Abrams' assured writing and direction, and the uniformly winning performances of the cast.  I would be remiss if I didn't single out Elle Fanning because her portrayal of the new girl in the group is pitch-perfect.  Her transformation into a zombie before the eyes of pining protagonist Joe (played by Joel Courtney) might be my favorite single scene in any film this year.

4. War Horse

From J.J. Abrams aping Spielberg, we turn to Spielberg himself aping the works of John Ford with the majestic War Horse.  Spielberg's been rather quiet for the last several years, having only released the miserable Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull in the last half decade, a textbook example of phoning it in, but thankfully he returned this year with not one, but two solid features.  While The Adventures of Tintin is an enjoyable--although uneven--genre exercise (infinitely better than Crystal Skull though), one cannot deny the high level of commitment on display in War Horse.  In this story about a boy and his horse, separated through hardship and turmoil, questing to return to one another, Spielberg is firing on all sentimental cylinders.  While not all of it works--the French reverie in the film's middle is a little too precious--one cannot help but be won over by the end of the picture.  The lyrical evocation of early twentieth century rural life is top notch, the scenes of battle are distinctive and harrowing, and the cinematography (by frequent Spielberg collaborator Janusz Kaminski) is stunning.  Most every performance is superb, not least of all that of the horse(s) that portray the titular character Joey.  I'm not quite sure how Spielberg was able to wring such emotional nuance out of a horse but I swear I could see fear, love and joy in its eyes.    

3. Midnight in Paris

Woody Allen's fantastical fable, Midnight in Paris, is a pure charmer from start to finish.  A conflicted American writer vacationing abroad with his fiance and her family, finds himself, at the stroke of midnight, transported back to the 1920s and the great intellectual scene then based in Paris.  Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso, the Fitzgeralds, Gertrude Stein, and Salvador Dali all drink and carry on, critiquing one another's work and having the time of their lives until morning comes and the world rights itself.  Admittedly I am a born sucker for the 1920s time period so I was hooked the moment that magical cab appeared and whisked Owen Wilson away.  As always there's a backlash brewing, calling the film flimsy, the supporting characters one-dimensional, and the lessons learned trite.  Yes, yes, and yes, but that doesn't matter at all because that's not what this film is about.  Midnight in Paris is Cinderella, it's Sleeping Beauty, a fairytale, nothing more, nothing less.  Rachel McAdams's shrill harpy of a fiance is nothing but a wicked stepsister deposited in a luxury hotel suite.  We're not supposed to care about her, she's simply a plot point.  And despite the lack of complexity in the realization that the grass will always be greener, I enjoyed the fact that the movie lets you have your cake and eat it too. We are reminded that the 1920s and every other period in the history of the world seems unsatisfactory to those living in it, but they're still great places to visit.  Especially when they're portrayed so beautifully as in Midnight in Paris.

2. Hugo

Is there a more consistently invigorating filmmaker out there than Martin Scorsese?  Most often my initial memory of seeing a new Scorsese picture is the buoyant feeling I have while walking out of the theatre, my mind racing with excitement, close to the speed of Scorsese's trademark verbosity.  The closest auteur I can think of that exudes such a passion for the art form of film is Quentin Tarantino, but even his adoration of cinema must go through the transcendent trajectory of Scorsese.  Scorsese's entire career has been a proselytizing paean to the magical powers of cinema and if--heaven forbid--he were to suddenly cease making films, I can think of no more perfect a send-off than Hugo, his absolutely gorgeous, glorious, magnificent love letter to early cinema.

Based on the acclaimed children's book The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick, Hugo follows the titular character (played by the wonderful Asa Butterfield) an orphan living in the clockwork of a French train station.  Over the course of the film he tries to rebuild an automaton and discover the historical mystery of George Melies, pioneer of early cinema, now beaten down and working in the train station toy shop.  Ben Kingsley's deft portrayal of Melies carries the picture, as he transforms from a heartbreakingly defeated man to a genius reborn.

There has been a lot of ballyhoo made this year about the Artist, the French-produced silent throwback that has audiences swooning for its magical return to the early days of cinema.  Unfortunately there is nothing beneath the film's black-and-white facade but a barrel of snake oil.  It is all trick, no magic.  There is neither substance nor wit under the film's artificial veneer.  It doesn't even feel like a silent film.  With its infinite charms, Hugo manages to transport us much more successfully to a bygone time and place, evoking such an honest and heartfelt recreation of cinema past, despite its 21st-century technology.  The Artist is littered with allusions to classic films but with no apparent rhyme, reason or skill.  Hugo on the other hand, spends ample time showing the actual recreation of older films, and the enthusiasm and affection for the cinema's forefathers permeates every single frame.  Editor Thelma Schoonmaker's tour-de-force of a silent film homage contained in Hugo has more verve in its half minute of screen time than the entirety of the Artist.  Hugo will be the film we return to decades down the line when the artifice of the Artist has been fully swept into the dustbin of history.

1. The Tree of Life

I am so predictable.  While I think it's a stretch to say a work of art changed my life, I can think of no film that has had a more lasting impact on my person than Terrence Malick's fifth feature.  Not just this year, any year.  Having waited impatiently for a long, long time (as the Tree of Life's release date was rescheduled time and again) I feared that the fever pitch of my anticipation would be nothing but detrimental to my viewing experience.  Fortunately there is no artist working today that can so completely bypass our expectations and give us something so grand, majestic and unwieldy, that we could never have hoped to contain it with our puny imaginations, than Malick.  After my first viewing, the Tree of Life clung to me for weeks on end.  I woke up with it for days and it acted as a prism for which to see my actions, life and relationships.  The film hung over most every thought or conversation.  That sounds melodramatic and cheesy, which is probably how the plot of the film sounds to most people, but like the film, I am being unabashedly sincere.

It is this relentless sincerity and purity of vision that really propels Malick's work into the stratosphere.  Really, how could any other film released this year top Tree of Life?  None of the other admittedly fine films on this list had half the ambition and audacity of this epic, that sets its wide eyed gaze on the potentially small story of a mid-century childhood in Texas and somehow manages to consume the creation of the universe in the process.  There were also dinosaurs and they were awesome.

The performances in the film are uniformly fantastic.  Jessica Chastain plays the matriarch less like a mother and more like an angel.  Brad Pitt gives the most mature performance of his career as a fierce, determined, but woefully flawed father trying to navigate an uncertain world and instill ethics and purpose in his children.  Many saw the parents as a simple dichotomy of good and evil, but it is far more nuanced than that.  The kids run to their mother for protection but she is completely ineffectual; while the father is the most complex and fascinating character in the whole movie.  But it is Hunter McCracken's portrayal of the young Jack, our protagonist, that carries the film.  This kid is so natural, so unflinchingly real, that I hope to never see him again in another movie because I don't want to believe he is not Jack all of the time.  He's that good.

The Tree of Life felt so real to me, as if it were my childhood being displayed onscreen, or better yet that of my father, who grew up in the midwest in the same time period.  My thoughts continually returned to my dad throughout the film and then on back to his father and their relationship.  It made me reflect on my mother, this time in a light I was unaccustomed to, or maybe I had just neglected.  It made me think about family and the bonds and connections that are so intwined with our DNA that we cannot even articulate them.  They're just there.

In the final sequence of the film the adult Jack (Sean Penn) envisions a reunion in the afterlife between himself, his long-dead brother, father, and the rest of his family.   They walk along a beach, wordless but completely understood.  An arm on a shoulder is the only reassurance we need.  This emotional reverie allows Jack to finally find a modicum of grace, the longed-for quality his beautiful mother exuded that has heretofore eluded him.  He returns from his metaphorical heaven, literally descending from his austere downtown high rise, and then out the door and back into civilization.

Then a bird flies by and you just weep.

18 December 2011

Hypothetical Buffy Dissertations

Designer Feminism and the Staking of the American Dream: Politics in the Buffyverse

The Born Identity: Dawn Summers and the Existential Key

The Zeppo: Vaudeville Vampires and the Theatrics of Buffy the Vampire Slayer

The Apple of Knowledge: Libraries and Hellmouths

Milton, Frost, Spike: The Soul-Searching Poetry of William the Bloody

Werewolves and Manboys: A Portrait of Modern Masculinity on Buffy the Vampire Slayer

From High Heels to Higher Being: the Odyssey of Miss Cordelia Chase

07 December 2011

Where's the Love? A Kelly Reichardt Retrospective

I really want to like Kelly Reichardt, I really do.  I just recently caught up with her third feature, the minimalist Western, Meek's Cutoff, a film that received a significant amount of critical praise upon release, and one that I had been very excited about.  Unfortunately, as the feature folded into credits I was left with disappointment.  I was nothing but deflated.  There were elements within the preceding ninety minutes that tantalized me, teasing my brain with excitement.  But to my chagrin, nary a thread I followed, whether stylistically or dramatically, paid off.

Don't get me wrong, Ms. Reichardt has talent.  She is most definitely an artist with a distinctive style, stark that it may be.  I believe I could spot her work in a line-up.  She is most certainly not a hack.  Unfortunately her cinematic potential has not yet been sustained to the point of creating a significant and wholly satisfying work.  I see it throughout her three features in fleeting fits and starts and this excitement compels me to continue seeking out her efforts, despite my prior frustrations.

I actually quite like Old Joy, which tells a quiet, simple story of friends who grew apart long ago, tentatively dancing around one another again before going their separate ways.  The film is told in a low-key manner that pulls you into its world, allowing you to sit side by side with her characters and their awkward reunion.  It is easily Ms. Reichardt's most satisfying work.  Wendy and Lucy had similar attributes and I found the filmmaking to be accomplished but the movie's failing came with the story itself.  We are shown a deep and loving bond between the two titular characters and the emotional devastation that is wrought when they are separated.  The plight of the movie is the quest for reunion.  It is the only thing that matters.  That is until they do reunite and decide its just best to leave one another again.  The plot deals with themes explored in Old Joy except that Wendy and Lucy do need one another and are not complete as individuals.  Basically dogs are more important than friends.  You don't leave them with strangers to go to Alaska indefinitely.  It's just stupid.

From Meek's meager beginnings (more on that in a moment), I was more entranced with the film's style than the substance.  She's shooting in 1:33, I thought.  That's awesome!  But why?  And why am I more concerned with her sense of framing than her characters?  Because in this film her characters are all but non-existent.  I actually think that is a major step backward from both Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy.  In both previous films, we got a definite grasp of who these people (and dogs) are and what their motivations were.  We get very little to latch onto in Meek's Cutoff, save Michelle Williams's pioneer and her burgeoning feminism.  One character is pregnant but I didn't notice until the last couple of minutes of the movie.  Was it a big reveal, supposed to heighten the drama of the denouement?  Nope, she just wasn't framed from the waist down earlier.  Knowing this earlier in the film would have differentiated her from her bonneted brethren but instead she's just there, somewhere.  The only other character we get a bead on is Meek himself, played far too broadly by Bruce Greenwood, who is nothing more than an idiot and a nuisance to the proceedings.  His character goes through no emotional arc and is the same oaf at the end of the tale as he is at the onset.  He learns nothing.  One aspect the film wants us to question is whether he is evil or just misguided, but we never care because as my astute girlfriend put it, this guy would never survive in the West.  He would be swallowed whole.

The film starts with Meek already guiding the emigrants westward.  We are never shown their initial meeting, the pioneers' desperation, or how Meek sold them on the idea of him being their guide.  Its really no beginning at all.  We are just thrown in together with this faceless, mumbling bunch.  And we tag along as this faceless, mumbling bunch pick up a lone Indian who has been tracking them for a spell.  The argument between the settlers on whether to kill the Indian or supplant Meek with his guidance is a major dramatic point within the film.  They eventually throw their lot in with the Indian, while Meek tags along repeatedly warning them of their folly.  Was the decision for the best?  We'll never know because the Indian walks away and whoops, here are the credits!  Damn, no beginning and no end?  This movie is all middle!  I'm open, even invigorated, by the prospect of blowing off dramatic structure and creating new, unseen forms but to do so there needs to be something to guide us, the audience, and it better be more engaging than that blowhard Mr. Meek.

At first I thought the crucial element missing from Reichardt's work was humor, but I realized that there are dozens of filmmakers I revere who betray not an ounce of humor, Terrence Malick for one.  No, we don't need humor but we do need joy.  And this is what Reichardt patently lacks, despite including the word in the title of her first film.  Just the hint of happiness or transcendence would give us all something to cling to when Michelle Williams's pretty face is offscreen.  Instead we see static.  Well-composed, truly independent static, but static nonetheless.


05 December 2011

A Very Merry Birthday to You! (Or Co-opting the Dead for My Own Shameless Promotion)

There is an oft-repeated quote of Walt Disney's, "I only hope that we never lose sight of one thing--that it was all started with a mouse."  Lovely little turn of phrase there.  I would like to paraphrase it a bit and remind everyone that it all: the theme parks, the stores, the tween stars, the big, hulking corporate monolith that dominates childhood due to its voracious need to feed on the souls of babies; started with two brothers (and Ub Iwerks) in a scrappy little storefront.  They had very little money and whatever revenue they acquired they quickly dumped back into the fledgling studio to produce ever more ambitious works of popular art.  Shareholders were not the concern.  Creating the impossible was.

Oh, how so much has changed.

Today would have been Walt Disney's 110th birthday.  In honor of this non-milestone (he's dead, so it doesn't count) I am announcing a new weekly feature for the blog here.  Next year Walt Disney Pictures plans to release Wreck-It Ralph, the studio's 52nd full-length theatrically-released animated feature.  To commemorate, I will be watching each of these features in chronological order, one per week through 2012, and writing about them here.  Mark your calendars!  If that Mayan prophecy won't kill you, my purple prose sure will!  Speaking of predictions, I have a sneaking suspicion that my winter and spring will be very enjoyable but next autumn is going to suck.

01 December 2011

Infernal Combustion Engines

The final crop of 2011 films are barging their way into theatres this month, competing with one another for my highly coveted attention.  I've got quite a list of must-sees lined up between now and New Year's, when I hope to publish my patented Best of the Year Awards, an occasion so momentous that Earth's entire population awaits annually with baited breath.  Even starving kids in third world countries shoo away the Unicef package for fear that it will distract them from my regal proclamations, deeming one piece of long-form audio/visual narrative superior from another.  It's sad really.  In the meantime I wish to bring up a couple of films that will unfortunately not be making an appearance on my B.O.T.Y.A (it's like booty and boo-ya, all rolled into one).  Both films have a lot in common, not just their infatuation with the internal combustion engine.

I am speaking of Pixar's Cars 2 and Nicholas Winding Refn's Drive.  Both films center around automobiles, the former depicting a world populated solely with vehicles, while the latter revolves around a man whose entire existence involves horseless carriages.  There are many more similarities between these two features and I hope to highlight them here, while simultaneously keeping you in hysterics with jocular wit and ribald whimsy.  I trust you are up for such a devilish diversion?  Well then, let's be off!

Cars 2 and Drive have strong footholds in two past decades, each film favoring one over the other but both dipping their toes liberally in nostalgic waters.  First up is the 1960s which Cars 2 heavily relies on for its trappings as a James Bond-esque espionage thriller.  Michael Giacchino's groovy surf/spy score jockeys for attention over the gunshots, revving engines, and dialogue of another Michael, Michael Caine, who rose to fame in the 60s as Harry Palmer, an espionage agent.  The cool aesthetics of the decade run throughout Cars 2.

As they do to a smaller but no less important degree in Drive.  Instead of espionage films full of danger and intrigue, Drive looks to the existential detachment of pioneering work like Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Samourai, whose protagonist, underplayed by Alain Delon, lives in a sparse apartment and is wholly consumed by his occupation.  Ryan Gosling's Driver is like a twelfth-generation replicant of Delon's cool hitman.

Drive and Cars 2 also borrow bits from the 1980s but like that decade, these homages are more superficial.  Cars 2 does a first for a Pixar film and resorts to Dreamworks territory by having a contemporary band record a by-the-numbers version of a ubiquitous 80s hit, here the dubious honor goes to Weezer and their completely pointless cover of the Cars (get it?) "You Might Think" (according to imdb, a cover of "Kids in America" sneaks its way in there as well but I must have blocked that out.)  Drive borrows more visually from the decade of Reagan, especially its opening credit sequence which wouldn't look out of place on Miami Vice, with its neon pink squiggles and synth-based pop.

Speaking of opening scenes, the beginning of both films is easily the highlight of either.  (That's a weird sentence, reread that real quick.  Wacky, huh?)  Both are action set pieces in the respective film's chosen style.  Drive pulls off a getaway through downtown L.A. in a series of fits and starts that manages to keep the audience more rapt than a typical high-speed chase at a relentless 100 M.P.H.

Cars 2 starts off with a bang as we are plunged into a world of scheming oil-igarchs (ahem) and the heroic British intelligence agent (voiced by Caine) who is trying to get a handle on their nefarious machinations.  He is soon discovered by the villains and chased around a huge oil tanker in the middle of a beautifully rendered ocean (seriously, the animation alone in this scene is jaw-dropping).  Bullets fly, bombs explode, fires rage and the filmmaking is first-rate.  Unfortunately the very next scene throws all of that cinematic goodwill out the window in mere moments.

And this fatal flaw is the biggest comparison between Drive and Cars 2.  Both protagonists, Drive's "Driver" and Cars 2's Mater (they even sound like twins) are borderline retarded.  And I don't use that term lightly either.  Both characters are in my opinion severely mentally handicapped.  I am surprised they can even operate in normal society.

Cars 2 director John Lasseter has mentioned on several occasions that the germ of the sequel's story came from his global press junket for the first Cars film.  As he visited exotic locales the world over, he would ponder what "average American" Mater would do with foreign customs in unfamiliar surroundings.  The answer is not much.  Mater stumbles through Cars 2, becoming distracted by shiny objects, fascinated by toilets, plowing his way through every city, breaking things and leaving a path of destruction in his wake.  Someone several years ago released an edited version of the Phantom Menace that excised every moment of Jar-Jar Binks, and from many accounts made a far superior film.  In all honesty, Pixar could have had their 12th consecutive artistic hit on their hands had they left Mater in Radiator Springs and just followed this new cast of spies around the globe.  The cynical cinephile (hey, new blog name!) claimed that the film was a cash-grab anyway so why not pull a Transformers: the Movie and kill off all of the old Cars characters in the first five minutes and introduce a whole new line of toys, I mean characters, for the kids to fall in love with?


In the first half of Drive, as Ryan Gosling meets and falls for the irresistible and implausibly Denny's-employed Irene (seriously, even in this economy Carey Mulligan is not working at a goddamn Denny's) we, the audience, are subjected to long chasmic bouts of silence as Driver weighs the options of responses to such brain teasers as Irene's "what do you do for a living?"  Pause.  Look around the empty room.  Maybe sigh.  Shuffle your feet.  "I drive."  I know we're supposed to find Driver cool, detached and enigmatic, and I can't quite put my finger on who exactly is to blame for the absolute failure of this attempt, Ryan Gosling or the director Nicholas Winding Refn.  I guess they're both to blame.  I saw no sign of wheels a'crankin' behind Gosling's eyes and yet Refn could have put us out of our misery by editing the hell out of these exchanges.  Of course the movie would then be a mere forty-five minutes but hey, that's more room for commercials when this winds up on basic cable in six months!

But wait, it's not just the characters in Drive and Cars 2 that are idiotic, it's the writing too!  Drive strives to be cool and intellectual but time and again fails miserably.  There is a scene halfway through the film where Driver is watching cartoons with Irene's son and he asks the young boy who the bad guy is (like I said, retarded).  The boy points out the animated villain and explains how one knows this and then guess what?  The next shot in the movie is of the movie's villain!  Damn, these guys are weaving a complex tapestry of awesome here.  Later on in the film as we are ramping up for the climax wherein Driver has a final confrontation with the admittedly great Albert Brooks (credit where credit's due), Driver is on the phone and he mentions the parable of the scorpion and the frog.  Here let's pause for a real cinematic genius to break this shit down:

So boys and girls why is Driver talking about this?  What does this have to do with anything?  Oh wait, the whole movie he's been wearing a jacket with a big ass scorpion on the back of it!  He's the scorpion!  Holy guacamole, Batman, that's heavy!

But nothing in Drive can compare with the egregious, cringe-inducing piece of pablum that passes for writing in Cars 2's denouement.  Let me bring you up to... speed (it's writing like this that could have worked wonders for the Pixar folk.)  You see, Mater and Lightning McQueen have had a falling out, mostly because Mater has the brain activity of a muddy creek, but McQueen has had a change of heart and wants to kiss and make up.  Unfortunately for him, Mater is too preoccupied with the explosive affixed to his body to accept his friend's apology.  Chaos ensues as the two race through London streets, Mater trying to keep his buddy away from certain doom by warning him that he is the bomb, and McQueen mistakenly thinking that Mater is referring to himself as hot shit, the bee's knees, you know, the Bomb.  And here ladies and gentlemen, after two decades of heart-breaking, intelligent and beautiful works of crowd-pleasing art, Pixar jumps the shark.  Mater, my friend, you are the bomb.  The bomb that destroyed one of civilization's greatest track records for excellence in entertainment.  The bomb whose fallout has me hesitant about the next slate of films from the company I would have followed blindly off a cliff three short years ago.  Sorry, Brave.

I guess that's the last similarity between Drive and Cars 2.  High expectations and grave disappointment.

Oh well, I'll always have Death Proof.