Thursday, June 30, 2011

I like IMAX 3-D: Cars 2, "Under the Sea", and "Born to Be Wild"

For just the second time ever, it seems, the MBTA has adjusted their schedules in a way to make getting to and from Jordan's for a movie relatively painless (the first was when they decided to actually run the 136/137 bus tandem on Sundays). Even cutting things a little close on the Orange Line, the bus dropped me off at 55 Walker's Brook Drive just in time to climb the hill and get my tickets, and it wasn't more than a 15 minute wait on the other end. I was able to just tear through my book that day, too, so that was satisfying all around.

Especially since, despite all the negative reviews I've seen, the movie was darn good. It doesn't transcend the "kid's cartoon" genre the way many of Pixar's other recent films do, but it's an exciting adventure that can bring a smile to an otherwise sour puss if accepted as such. By that I don't mean to lower one's expectations of quality, but to judge it for what it is rather than what one wants it to be (especially if what one wants it to be is "nonexistent, because it's a sell-out sequel to a movie I didn't much like anyway!"). There are bits that put a big, stupid grin on my face - the black humor of Finn McMissile being presented with a crushed cube of metal, the toy airplanes that scatter when cars drive through a park in Rome, and Bruce Campbell showing up in a Pixar flick are just a few - and they don't feel like pandering.

Without walking back how much I enjoyed the movie, one thing that surprises me upon reflection is how my perception of John Lasseter has changed upon looking at the Cars movies. Back when Toy Story popped up, it was easy to place him aside Windsor McKay, Walt Disney, Usama Tezuka, and Hayao Miyazaki as animation pioneers who not only revolutionized animation as a medium but were also brilliant storytellers; now, seeing what sort of brilliant and emotional movies Pixar is making with him in a supervisory role (and how the "main" animation department at Disney has improved ever since he was placed in charge), the perception is a little different - he's still a very good storyteller, but he's arguably an even better mentor and developer of raw talent.

One more amusing thing - with the IMAX theater at Jordan's gaining another new sponsor (this time, Posturepedic), Elliot recorded a new pre-show teaser, this one taking pains to point out that they project using 70mm film. I don't know if that's necessarily a reaction to the recent wave of dissatisfaction at how digital projectors equipped for 3D can create a sub-par experience (with Boston cited at a specific example), but I kind of like to think it is.

The next day wound up being about using my tickets for the IMAX shows at the Aquarium up. I kick myself a little for not using one earlier and seeing Hubble 3-D again, but both movies I did see were solidly enjoyable science documentaries, worth the $5 I paid and probably the $9.95 full price. I may not wind up using the ones for the Museum of Science, depending how this weekend lines up, but if I don't, it will because I'm doing something else that's cool.

Cars 2

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 25 June 2011 at Jordan's Furniture Reading (first-run, IMAX 3-D)

There's no getting around the fact that Cars 2 exists because of Disney's merchandising machine, and unlike the Toy Story sequels, which also exist in large part because the stuff on the shelves could use a refresh and a boost, the original Cars wasn't well-received by critics. As a result, there's less anticipation and more cynicism where this one's concerned, as few are saying "well, I don't like sequels as a rule, but I really love Lightning and Mater" the way they did with Buzz and Woody. For as clear as the mercenary motives behind it's creation are, though, Cars 2 succeeds at being an entertaining adventure.

Somewhere in the South Pacific of the Cars world (where cartoon vehicles live without human drivers), British Intelligence operative Finn McMissile (voice of Michael Caine) has come upon a secret base where a colleague has disappeared, and he barely escapes from the clutches of Professor Z (voice of Thomas Kretschmann) himself. Meanwhile, back in Radiator Springs, stock racer Lightning McQueen (voice of Owen Wilson) was planning on some R&R after another successful season, but the goading of open-wheel racer Francesco Bernoulli (voice of John Turturro) has him sign up for the World Grand Prix, this time with his new friends from the first movie as his pit crew, including his loyal but far-from-worldly best bud Tow Mater (voice of Dan "Larry" Whitney). Things get hairy, though, once they arrive in Tokyo - Mater's cornpone antics are kind of embarrassing to McQueen, while McMissile and his assistant Holley Shiftwell (voice of Emily Mortimer) mistake Mater for the American spy they were sent to meet, sweeping him into a world of intrigue.

Cars 2 is kind of an odd duck compared to other recent Pixar movies, and even its own progenitor. It's the first feature from the studio that really doesn't have an emotional gut-punch since, well, Cars - even the moment where Mater recognizes that others often see him as a buffoon is muted, either not looking or not succeeding in getting the audience to cry like Up and the Toy Story sequels managed. Even without bringing those into the picture, it's in many ways the inverse of director John Lasseter's original Cars. Lasseter and his co-writers move McQueen from lead to supporting and Mater in the other direction, crafting the story around Mater at odds with big international cities rather than McQueen in small town America. The tone is completely different; where Cars was often quiet and pastoral, the sequel is loud and packed with action.

Full review at EFC.

"Under the Sea"

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 26 June 2011 at the New England Aquarium (repatory, IMAX 3-D)

I saw this one about a year ago, and wound up giving it somewhat higher marks than I do today. Of course, the movie itself hasn't changed; I just didn't find myself reacting quite so strongly as I did. It could be the audience, it could be that I was using a coupon up before it expires and thus seeing it more out of obligation than enthusiasm, it could be that I was sitting in the second row and that's really too close for this sort of giant-screen presentation. Or because it's a science doc aimed toward young children and while the picture was still dazzling, the information wasn't new.

One thing that often amuses me with some of these things they show at the Aquarium is just how much hot fish lovin' gets into them. I'm half-kidding, of course, but I remember seeing one with my brother and joking afterward that one of the centerpieces of the movie was a squid orgy. This one makes audiences go "aawwww!" at the sight of two cuttlefish kissing (no small feat, because the cuttlefish is a supremely grotesque creature, almost certainly the visual inspiration for many depictions of Lovecraft's Cthulhu, whose very visage is said to be enough to drive men mad), while narrator Jim Carrey jauntily points out that this is all it takes to fertilize the females eggs. The implication is clear enough that when we return to the cuttlefish later, and Carrey talks about how it is trying to avoid the claws that pinch as it stalks its crab dinner, I have a hard time not shouting out that you would too, if nature had decided to place your reproductive organs in your mouth! I mean, avoiding spicy foods would be the least of your concerns.

And with that thoroughly inappropriate detour amid reviews of G-rated movies, let's move on...

"Born to Be Wild"

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 26 June 2011 at the New England Aquarium (first-run, IMAX 3-D)

Even the coldest, meanest of people has a soft place in their hearts that wants to see this movie. After all, it's about orphaned baby animals and people who have made it their life's work to raise these cuties and return them to their habitats; who can argue with that. The filmmakers are banking on an immediate emotional reaction to the lovable animals followed by appreciation for the nobility of the cause, and once you've got those, dissecting it as a film is beside the point.

Director David Lickley presents us with two women doing this good work in parallel: In Kenya, we meet Daphne Sheldrick, who grew up on the grounds of a national park and now rescues baby elephants whose parents have been killed, mostly by poachers for their ivory. On the other side of the Indian Ocean, in Borneo, Dr. Birute Galdikas tends to orangutans, who are seldom hunted as such but have been crowded out of their habitats by expansion and deforestation. Both are intelligent women with dedicated teams, and neither aims to domesticate their charges; these animals will remain in their care only until they are able to fend for themselves in the wild.

Lickley and screenwriter Drew Fellman tell the story in a reasonably straightforward manner; we're given an introduction to each of these women, shown a rescue, some scenes of how the orphans are cared for, and a return to the wild. The details are interesting and informative, whether it be how these elephants require a lot of sunblock for their ears (normally, they would be shaded under the females of the herd or how orangutan "graduates" will often come back to visit Galdikas's camp. Narration (by Morgan Freeman) is used sparingly, mostly to set up a scene which plays out on its own.

Full review at EFC.

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