Slightly longer version of a movie review in the Friday, June 24 Oregonian....
"Cars 2" is probably the slightest of Pixar's films -- it sort of plays like an espionage-driven episode of the '60s "Speed Racer" cartoon, only with the Mach 5 doing all the talking in a universe eerily devoid of humans.
But if it's going to be diet Pixar, at least it's action-packed diet Pixar -- with overwhelming, detail-choked production design that occasionally had my jaw lowering like a forklift.
The "Cars" films somehow win me over despite my feeling at least three decades too old to invest in the travails of sentient automobiles. The first film was a surprisingly pretty, low-key love letter to friendship, Route 66 and lost Americana. The new movie -- which is pretty much the polar opposite of low-key -- takes the first film's dopiest character, Tow Mater (voiced by Larry the Cable Guy) and drops him into a retro spy adventure in which Michael Caine voices a secret-agent car loaded with cool gadgets.
This fish-out-of-water adventure (which features a surprising-for-Pixar number of jokes involving toilets) weaves in and out of Lightning McQueen's (Owen Wilson's) storyline, which involves him racing a snotty Italian racecar (John Turturro) in "Cars" versions of Tokyo, Italy and London.
"Cars 2" doesn't have the focus, comic sharpness or thematic depth of its predecessor. The first "Cars" is actually about something, and despite "Cars 2"'s nods to the importance of unconditional friendship and alternative fuels, the sequel really isn't about much more than director John Lasseter's professed love of "The Man from U.N.C.L.E." (Truth be told, I'm also not the biggest fan of Mater as a character, but again, I'm three decades too old.) But the movie's insanely generous level of detail still pushed it over for me -- from the precision of its action to its throwaway visual gags to its use of infamous "lemon" car designs as henchmen to its staggering cityscapes, which are designed at such a granular level that I felt like I could zoom in on any background window and find another automotive drama unfolding inside.
The film is preceded by a fun little "Toy Story" short built around Ken and Barbie, with Michael Keaton and the animators once again having a lot of fun with Ken's very metro lifestyle obsessions.
"Submarine" pulls off a nice little feat: It's a reference-heavy coming-of-age indie flick that feels fresh despite being, well, a reference-heavy coming-of-age indie flick.
This is largely thanks to the dexterity of writer/director Richard Ayoade (best-known as an actor on "The IT Crowd" and "Garth Marenghi's Darkplace"), who adapts a novel by Joe Dunthorne. The film is a fictional "memoir" about the too-clever-for-his-own-good Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts) -- a kid blessed with Bud Cort's "Harold and Maude" mien and several dark stylistic affectations, of which he is amusingly self-aware.
The movie charts Oliver's disastrous attempts at social engineering during his adolescence in Wales. This includes wooing a dark-hearted classmate (Yasmin Paige) who might as well have been drawn by Edward Gorey. It's an increasingly demanding courtship that competes with Oliver's other big campaign: saving the marriage of his neurotic parents (Sally Hawkins, Noah Taylor) from the mulleted New Age twit living down the hill (Paddy Considine).
"Submarine" wears its influences proudly -- vibe-checking everything from Anderson to Nichols to the French New Wave -- but it never feels burdened by its references. The movie probably starts a bit stronger than it ends, but Ayoade's direction consistently charms by carefully balancing the arch and the humane -- he gets performances out of his cast that somehow manage to be both deadpan-comic and oddly moving. And I loved the way Ayoade used special effects, sharp edits, and Super-8 montage to capture peak moments of adolescent love, longing and horror -- freezing emotions like 20-year-old memories. This is Ayoade's feature debut, and it's fairly stunning. _____
(97 min., rated R, playing in Portland at the Fox Tower)Grade: B-plus
• There's no nice way to put this: The Friday, June 3 "Cort & Fatboy" podcast completely derails. At one point we turn into drunk uncles. But I did manage to work an "X-Men: First Class" review in there somewhere. (I also posted some show-notes in the comments.)
After the blemished rush-job of "X-Men: The Last Stand" and the hilariously awful "X-Men Origins: Wolverine," it's a relief to report that "X-Men: First Class" recaptures the character-driven strengths of the first two films in this superhero series -- while adding a surprising dash of '60s spy-movie style.
This return to form is thanks partly to the director of those first two films, Bryan Singer, returning to the series as producer and story-developer. Matthew Vaughn ("Kick-Ass," "Layer Cake") directs the new flick -- a prequel that has idealistic young Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) teaming up with furious young Nazi-hunter Magneto (Michael Fassbender) to stop the supervillain (Kevin Bacon) secretly engineering the Cuban Missile Crisis. They're joined by bright and lovely emo-twentysomething versions of Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) and Beast (Nicholas Hoult), among many others.
"First Class" puts big fat exclamation points on the parallels between mutant and civil rights -- it's like a '60s "Star Trek" episode that way -- and maybe the story shouldn't have so many gadgets, costumes, and signature character traits from the first "X-Men" movie making their debut over the course of a couple of days in 1962. But the movie gets so much else surprisingly right.
For starters, it often looks and feels like a '60s Bond film, right down to Bacon's ridiculous-but-groovy super-submarine. Its team-building montages (which take up much of the film's running time) are funny and charming. And Fassbender plays Magneto as a supercool assassin with a completely understandable set of beefs. I spent most of the movie rooting for him, and would watch a "Magneto, 1960s Nazi Hunter" sequel in a second. _____