Review of “Cars 3”

Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) is having a great year on the Piston Cup circuit until the arrival of younger and more high-tech race cars led by Jackson Storm (voiced by Armie Hammer). Storm and other next gen race cars begin dominating all the races forcing several veteran cars to retire. At the last race of the season McQueen pushes himself too hard and has a bad crash. Going to Radiator Springs to recuperate surrounded by his friends Mater (voiced by Larry the Cable Guy) and girlfriend Sally Carrera (Bonnie Hunt). With their encouragement and fond memories of his mentor Doc Hudson (voiced by Paul Newman), McQueen decides to keep racing. To help get him in a position to challenge Storm, new Rust-eze owner Sterling (voiced by Nathan Fillion) has built a state-of-the-art training and research facility. There McQueen is introduced to his trainer Cruz Ramirez (voiced by Cristela Alonzo) who believes in a multi-tiered approach including visualization, meditation, stretching and time in a race simulator. McQueen bristles at the new approach and wants to get out on the sand and dirt tracks of his mentor Doc. After a disastrous visit to a dirt track that was running a demolition derby, McQueen heads for the Doc’s old stomping grounds and finds his former pit chief Smokey (voiced by Chris Cooper). Smokey and some of Doc’s old friends from the racing circuit help teach McQueen the lessons he may have forgotten over his years as a winning race car. Lessons that may help him defeat Storm and learn something about himself.

“Cars 3” is the best of the series. While I’ve liked the two previous films there’s something about this one that made me pay a bit more attention. I’m sure the thing that made this a better film for me probably went well over the heads of the film’s very young target audience; but the messages of learning from your mistakes, growing to appreciate your past and understanding your weaknesses are ones that children need to learn as early as possible and exposing them to these lessons early can’t hurt. It doesn’t hurt that the messages are delivered in a bright and colorful package with amazing animation and some terrific voice acting from a massive and talented cast including veteran actors and some NASCAR drivers and retired veterans to add a bit of authenticity to the racing chatter.

The “Cars” franchise may be considered the lower tier of the Pixar movies but you can see the effort by the studio to turn out a film that looks amazing and has a solid story base. It may not have quite the heart of the “Toy Story” movies or the humor of “Monsters, Inc.” but the series does have a strong appeal to very small children which gives Pixar and Disney an opportunity to develop a base of new fans every few years. Simpler stories told well with bright colors and sweet characters with big eyes could be considered a kind of gateway into the more complex and grownup films the company also releases. It’s a brilliant technique to constantly be bringing in new audiences and give them more mature fare as they age.

“Cars 3” boasts a massive voice cast and several of them do standout work. Owen Wilson is great as Lightning McQueen. Wilson has the perfect kind of drawl to make the character relatable to younger viewers. He can complain and whine without sounding too childish and can sell his understanding and acceptance of realizations that he’s wrong or when he learns something. It’s a homespun performance that doesn’t make fun of the quality.

Cristela Alonzo is a perfect choice for Cruz Ramirez. She can be an annoying cheerleader and quickly turn her character into a righteous and powerful advocate for herself. It is a somewhat secondary storyline how her character, and another female character, have faced discrimination due to their gender. It becomes a more prominent feature late in the film. Alonzo plays the scene like I’m afraid many women do in the real world: They surrender. While I would have preferred if her character had been written to be more of a self-advocate, it actually makes the resolution all the more thrilling.

Praise must also go to Armie Hammer as Jackson Storm. The character actually has very little screen time but Hammer’s performance makes the most of it. Storm is a bully with a very high opinion of himself and Hammer is able to make him utterly despicable, handing out false compliments and insincere praise always dripping with contempt. As Pixar villains go, Storm is right up there with Randall from “Monsters, Inc.” as the best of the worst.

There are lots of brief character bits that add to the enjoyment of “Cars 3” but it would be a mistake to not mention the late Paul Newman’s work as Doc Hudson. The lines heard in the movie were bits of dialog not used in the original “Cars.” The gravitas and history heard in Newman’s voice can’t be ignored. Weaving this old dialog into the story and making it all work within the narrative of a film written a decade after the first and several years after Newman died shows a level of commitment to storytelling and to an actor that apparently made a strong impression on the Pixar creative team. They probably could have found an actor with a gravelly voice to take over the role; but including Newman in this film honors his memory and shows just what a class act the leadership of Pixar is.

As you would expect, “Cars 3” looks amazing. The animation of the characters and the backgrounds is stunning. I found myself especially impressed with the look of one very unimpressive shot. The camera focus on a wall of an old race track shifts from the closer sections of the wall being in focus to the further away sections. It’s the kind of thing that is small and you see in live action movies all the time but using it here makes the realism of an otherwise unreal story about living cars amplified. The visual style of the film is impressive and gorgeous to look at even if you don’t find the story all that interesting.

“Cars 3” is rated G. Naturally there are no language issues but younger viewers might find the crash scene early in the film, as well as a flashback about a wreck Doc Hudson had, a little disturbing.

It may not be at the top of any “best of” lists at years end but “Cars 3” is certainly the best of the series. It looks at hard questions and, in its aimed-at-young-children way, comes up with answers that work within its world. The film also gives Disney/Pixar a chance to add to its already impressive over $10-billion worldwide merchandising haul. Race cars with eyes really rake in the dough! This film will probably do pretty good as well.

“Cars 3” gets five revved up stars out of five.

This week there’s only one new movie in theatres: Transformers: The Last Knight. I wonder if this one makes any more sense than any of the others in the series.

See my review for “Rough Night” at http://www.wimz.com/blogs/stan-movie-man. Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan and send emails to stanthemovieman@comcast.net.

Review of “No Escape”

Jack Dwyer (Owen Wilson) is moving his whole family to Southeast Asia to work for a company modernizing the water system there. He’s bring his wife Annie (Lake Bell), oldest daughter Lucy (Sterling Jerins) and youngest daughter Beeze (Claire Geare) with him. On the flight over, they meet a world-weary Englishman named Hammond (Pierce Brosnan) who, once they land, guides them through the trickier side of living in their new country. Once in the hotel, the family notices many of the basic amenities, like cell and wired phones and TV, don’t work. The next morning, Jack goes looking for an English language newspaper amongst the local shops when he notices a group of riot police on one end of the street and a group of rebels on the other. Soon, the shops begin dropping their security doors and the two groups clash leading to death on both sides but the outnumbered police are losing. Jack tries to make his way back to the hotel but the way is blocked by a mob. An American is pulled out of the hotel and shot in the head. Someone in the crowd notices Jack and they begin to chase him. Jack manages to get away and back to the room but finds his oldest child Lucy has snuck off and gone to the pool unaware of the danger. Jack manages to get to her but is trapped in a stairwell when Hammond busts open an emergency door and shoots a couple of Jack’s pursuers. Hammond tells Jack to take his family to the roof. When they get there it’s filled with hotel guests and employees hiding out. Thinking an approaching helicopter is there to rescue them everyone stands and waves but is shocked to see a rebel with a machine gun open fire. Jack and his family manage to hide and the helicopter hits a power line and crashes on the roof. Jack has to get Annie and the kids off the roof and to safety before the rebels break through the barricaded door and kill them all.

“No Escape” is a type of film I call Tension Porn. The characters are placed in a situation that is designed to keep the audience constantly on edge wondering if, against all odds, the heroes of the film will succeed. While many films have a similar structure, what sets “No Escape” apart is the ruthless effort to make the audience worry about the lives of four people who are so completely unprepared for life in this new country even if everything goes well. Here, they are on the ground for about 12 hours when everything hits the fan. They don’t speak the language, they have very little money on them, they don’t have any weapons, they don’t have any fighting skills and they have two children under 10 years old. How could they possible survive in a city where it seems 9 out of 10 people want to kill them? Ugly, bloody death is lurking around every corner. There is no way they should survive and yet (spoilers) they do. This movie is lazy, predictable and ugly from start to finish.

If you’ve seen a trailer you know the very basic and simple story of “No Escape.” The writers, brothers John Erick Dowdle and Drew Dowdle, attempt to slip in a little social commentary in a brief scene between Jack and Hammond but it is mostly a time killer to set up the last act of the movie. From about 10 minutes in, the film is mostly Owen Wilson and his movie family running and hiding. While they move from hiding place to hiding place the movie is moving from unlikely to unbelievable.

One particular scene struck me as so completely dubious as to lose me for the rest of the film. The family is riding a motorbike wearing clothes pulled from corpses with scarves pulled over their faces when they encounter a crowd of celebrating rebels having an impromptu victory parade. Traveling against the flow of people, the family falls off the bike and a rebel helps them get it upright again. The rebel looks into Owen Wilson’s very American eyes with strands of blond hair peeking out from his hat and scarf disguise and, while looking suspicious, lets the family go. Every rebel he’s encountered to that point has quickly tried to kill him. The movie tells us that no foreigner, and many locals, is safe from these bloodthirsty killers yet he just happens to find the one that is either sympathetic or stupid. Either way, that scene turns everything that happens after it into a farce.

The movie wastes the talents of its actors as Wilson, Bell, Brosnan, Jerins and Geare all turn in pretty good performances. Not that anyone is asked to do any award-worthy acting; but given the quality of the script the company manages to put out some affecting work. Wilson and Bell are a convincing couple who go from the marital tension of moving half way around the world to the abject fear of trying to protect their children and save their own lives. The criminally underused Brosnan is the only spot of seeming joy in what is otherwise a dark and depressing world even before the trouble starts. Even when the full extent of his character’s involvement in the events preceding the uprising is exposed, Brosnan is still a likable rogue that appears to have a conscience when he sees innocent victims of his work.

The predictable plot doesn’t help make the movie any more watchable. The characters you think will die don’t make it to the end of the film. It isn’t a surprise the scenes from every action/chase picture are there to find in “No Escape.” What is a bit of a surprise is the level of xenophobia that seems to permeate the movie. The number of locals willing to help the Dwyer family can be counted on one hand. Everyone else is looking to kill whitey. It’s a kind of absolute that only exists in movies. When we finally find out what set the insurgents on their angry, violent rebellion, it doesn’t seem like it rises to the level of mass murder. The movie portrays those that are leading the revolution like pirates with bandanas tied around their heads, many with scars running down the length of their faces and their apparent weapon of choice is the machete. It plays into a stereotype that sees “the other” as being not much more than an animal that is out to get Americans. It’s a narrow worldview that offers simple answers to complex questions much like an attention-seeking politician.

“No Escape” is rated R for strong violence throughout and for language. There are numerous shooting, hackings and beatings. Many are bloody. There is a scene of attempted rape including the woman being beaten up. Foul language is common but not overwhelming.

After watching the trailer I dreaded seeing “No Escape” because I knew I would constantly feel uneasy as this family feared for their lives. I wasn’t wrong. I never considered the film would also be filled with a predictable plot and a fair amount of xenophobia but sadly, that was part of the movie as well. I feel sorry for the cast that did good work in what is a losing effort.

“No Escape” gets one star out of five.

Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan and send emails to stanthemovieman.com.

Next week, an action franchise gets a reboot and two old geezers get on each others nerves.  I’ll see and review one of these films.

The Transporter Refueled–

A Walk in the Woods–