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.

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