Thursday, June 30, 2011

June Movie Jambalaya

At last, after a tumultuous first five months, business is really starting to pick up at your local multiplexes and art houses. June may have been the first month of 2011 in which the good outweighed the bad. Yet somehow, with 72 ticket stubs already in the books (literally -- I have albums full of’em), I am still ahead of last year’s record-breaking movie-watching pace. Go figure. Anyway... June movies... Ready? GO!

the_tree_of_lifeTHE TREE OF LIFE -- It almost doesn’t seem right to use this small space to discuss Terrence Malick’s latest, Palm d’Or-winning effort, a film that juxtaposes one family's intimate story with nothing short of, oh, the ENTIRE HISTORY OF THE UNIVERSE. Brad Pitt and the angelic Jessica Chastain play a father and mother whose differing parenting methods (he, harsh & disciplinary; she, warm & loving) leave an indelible mark on their son, Jack, who grows up to be a detached, reflective shell of a man in the form of Sean Penn. This family, of course, is but a tiny speck in the vastness of the cosmos, which we see develop through Malick’s customary lingering, ethereal, breathtaking visuals (we even get to see dinosaurs!). But the point of the whole thing is that this insignificant family and the creation of the universe are equally tumultuous, molded by a series of ebbs, flows, explosions, eruptions and constant flux. It's mad deep. On a more surface level, the film is gorgeous to look at and filled with fine performances. Despite its vast scope and ambition, it somehow feels more readily accessible than a typical Malick opus -- but still all-too-capable of keeping you up at night as you peel back the layers.

BeginnersBEGINNERS -- Here’s a great little film that kind of came and went under the radar, and that is a shame because I loved it. It’s a story of life, love, family and identity, featuring the kind of whimsy, sincerity and underlying optimism that seriously reminded me of AMELIE -- which, as you may or may not know, is one of my favorite movies of all time, so I do not use such a comparison lightly. Ewan McGregor stars as Oliver, a lost soul who has never really had a meaningful relationship in his life. But that sad, lonely life is thrown for a loop when he meets a woman named Anna (INGLORIOUS BASTERDS’ Melanie Laurent, absolutely luminous) who at first can only communicate by writing because she has laryngitis (yes, they “meet cute” -- but even this movie’s cliches feel original and irreverent). She immediately senses that Oliver is sad (she is, too) and they connect. We also learn that several months earlier, Oliver’s father (Christopher Plummer in what should be an Oscar-worthy performance if the Academy actually sees this) died -- and a few years before that, came out of the closet shortly after Oliver’s mother died. In fact, he was always gay and married Oliver’s mother as a cover -- a fact of which she was well aware, and the discovery of which threw everyone, especially Oliver, for a loop -- especially when Hal began embracing a gay lifestyle, going to clubs and dating much younger men. These stories are told via intersecting timelines and Oliver’s own inner monologue, with occasional insightful, subtitled observations about the human condition by Oliver’s Jack Russell terrier, Arthur. So there’s a lot going on... and yet it’s all very simple: Oliver needs to find love & happiness. His father DID find love & happiness, but it took many more decades than expected. The moral of the story is that it’s never too late to get things right. A phenomenal movie featuring some phenomenal performances -- seek it out.

xmenfirstclassX-MEN: FIRST CLASS -- I gotta say, I like this current revisionist history trend in which superhero movies are merged with real-life events and, like, it’s cool. TRANSFORMERS 3 did it with the moon landing... CAPTAIN AMERICA is going to do it with World War II... WATCHMEN took it to a whole other level by completely altering the course of history... and this reboot/prequel to the X-MEN series does it with the Bay of Pigs invasion and it works wonderfully. Pretty much everything else in the film works, too -- at times far better than the hit-or-miss original trilogy. In particular, the casting is spectacular -- especially Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy as the future Ian McKellan and Patrick Stewart. I also liked Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique -- she displays a perfect innocence that, as we know, will eventually become anything but (also, she’s a cutie). I didn’t even realize that Kevin Bacon was in the movie until I saw him on screen, but he chews the scenery with gusto. (Also, his character is named Sebastian Shaw, which, as STAR WARS fans know, is the name of the actor who played Anakin Skywalker in RETURN Of THE JEDI. What is the significance? Absolutely nothing.) Add in solid writing, stylish direction, excellent mix of mutants and powers and one hilarious surprise cameo, and the result is one of the better all-around comic book films we’ve seen recently, and certainly the best so far this summer.

Super8SUPER 8 -- At this point, I don’t know what the heck to make of J.J. Abrams. Granted, I’ve still never seen a single episode of LOST... but I liked MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE III, thought CLOVERFIELD was a piece of crap, and was very pleasantly surprised by STAR TREK (even if it did blatantly rip-off STAR WARS almost beat-for-beat). Though his films have been a mixed bag, his geek cred has never been in doubt, so when I heard he was making an homage to old-school Steven Spielberg films, with the assistance of Spielberg himself, it sounded like a great idea at the time. And indeed, in this film about a group of kids who, while making their own movie, witness a horrific train crash and subsequently investigate a wave of strange, other-worldly occurrences in their sleepy suburban town. Abrams perfectly captures the tone, look and feel of ‘80s Spielberg ranging from E.T. to CLOSE ENCOUNTERS to THE GOONIES to GREMLINS... but after about an hour of blue lens flares, it occurred to me that maybe it’s the kind of thing that works better as a two-minute trailer, or simply as a concept, but not so much as a full-length film. By the time it was over, I was wishing that I actually HAD been watching E.T. It’s just... too much. But still well done, and the kid-cast is outstanding, especially Elle Fanning in a performance that should catapult her past her older sister.

green-lanternGREEN LANTERN -- Another week, another movie based on a comic book that contains an extremely dense backstory, of which I had little to no prior knowledge. Fortunately, this time, the filmmakers took a novel approach: Instead of dumping us right in the middle of some crazy convoluted universe, they gave us a trailer that provided a good deal of exposition and helped ease us into it. So when it came time to see the movie, we were (more or less) prepared. Unfortunately, for a tale involving strange alien worlds and magic rings and galactic guardians and unlimited superpowers... it’s just not particularly exciting. I like Ryan Reynolds, but he’s just too RYAN REYNOLDS to play a superhero. He’s a good actor, but he doesn’t quite have the subtleties of, say, Robert Downey Jr., who was able to hone his schtick to fit the role of Tony Stark. Also, while Blake Lively remains the hottest woman alive at the moment, she is WAY out of her element here. All that being said, the scenes on the planet Oa, the vastness of space, and, really, anything but boring ol’ Earth, are pretty impressive. Wish they had focused more on that and just gone crazy with the visual effects rather than give us the same old song-and-dance origin story. Seems like there’s probably a truly epic, exciting Green Lantern story in there somewhere -- next time, everybody involved needs to do some shots or something beforehand and live a little.

the-art-of-getting-byTHE ART OF GETTING BY -- A coming-of-age movie in two respects. First, it’s about a lonely, disaffected, too-smart-for-his-own-good student who has coasted through high school without ever having done anything of substance, only to meet a kindred spirit who fills his life with meaning. Second, it stars two former child stars who are now all growns up: CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY’s Freddie Highmore as George and NANCY DREW’s Emma Roberts as Sally. Both give fine performances -- a little unintentionally awkward at times, but it fits the material. Roberts, in particular, has recently proven that she is more than just Julia’s niece with excellent turns in this, IT’S KIND OF A FUNNY STORY and even SCREAM 4. Story-wise, writer/director Gavin Wiesen is kind of all over the place and the movie is ultimately sabotaged by its own self-importance. Not to mention that, by my count, Wiesen blatantly rips off the following things: (1) Old-school Woody Allen, with the Manhattan love-letter setting and cute self-deprecation, (2) “The Catcher in the Rye,” with its stance against the establishment and phonies, (3) SAY ANYTHING, with the way George wears a trenchcoat for no apparent reason other than he’s probably imitating Lloyd Dobbler, and (4) BILLY MADISON, when George must complete an entire year’s worth of homework over three weeks in order to graduate. All in all, the movie is mildly enjoyable because the actors are endearing... but ultimately it’s a bit of a mess.

mr-poppers-penguinsMR. POPPER’S PENGUINS -- Decent family fare about a successful Manhattan businessman/deadbeat dad (Jim Carrey) who... well, he inherits six penguins who turn his life upside-down. With their particular personalities and potent presence, the penguins turn Popper’s posh penthouse into a polar playpen. (I promise I’ll pull the plug on the P-words, pronto... perhaps.) With the penguins’ help, Popper realizes that he’s been missing out on the really important things in life -- namely, his kids and estranged wife (Carla Gugino, always a pleasure). It’s all very predictable, kind of bland, harmless and mildly enjoyable. But therein lies the biggest problem: It’s just not wacky enough. Lots of potential to really let Carrey go nuts (in a family-friendly way, of course), but he was pretty subdued for the most part. I mean, it's Jim Carrey and a flock of penguins in New York City -- turn him loose and see what happens! As it stands, there is nothing wrong with the film on a pure family level, but you definitely get a sense of the far zanier and more entertaining film that might have been. It was, however, interesting to see the landmark Central Park restaurant, Tavern on the Green, used as a plot device even though it is currently shut down. They even went so far as to recreate the restaurant as it once was -- which raises the question, was this whole movie just a veiled campaign to drum up support and bring the NYC institution back from the dead? And if it does ever reopen, will the penguins appear as a compensatory marketing tie-in? Let's hope so.

the_tripTHE TRIP -- I remember seeing Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon in TRISTRAM SHANDY: A COCK AND BULL STORY a few years ago but not thinking much of it, but now I am pretty sure I would watch them in anything. This is one of the great road/buddy movies in recent memory. The premise is that Coogan has been asked to write restaurant reviews for the Observer, and after his girlfriend bows out of the trip, he reluctantly asks Brydon, his friend & rival, to join him. From there, the two spend the entire movie driving around, eating food, talking, bickering and trying to outdo each other's celebrity impressions. Their dueling Michael Caine voices are the stuff of legend (particularly Brydon's theory of how Caine's voice has changed after years of hard living), but I particularly love their take on the costume drama inspirational speech -- "Gentleman, to bed! For we leave at 9:30... ish." (I've been quoting that in my head for the past week.) The relentless back-and-forth is genius in itself, but throw in Coogan's self-absorption and resentment towards Brydon and you have a bit of a character study as well. Just an all-around hilarious and ridiculously entertaining film.

BadTeacherBAD TEACHER -- Looks like 2011 is the year that the ladies “Take Back the Raunch.” First came BRIDESMAIDS, in which Kristin Wiig & Co. proved that they could go up against the Apatow boys’ club and succeed. And now here comes Cameron Diaz as Elizabeth Halsey, a foul-mouthed, conniving, drinking, smoking, gold-digging, wildly inappropriate middle school teacher who just doesn’t care. Diaz’s most memorable comedic characters have had a certain naïve sweetness, like in THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY and CHARLIE’S ANGELS (even BEING JOHN MALKOVICH to an extent) -- but there is nothing sweet about the comedy in this movie. It is very filthy, very un-PC and very much earns its hard R-rating. Characters don’t even necessarily learn any  lessons or go through big changes -- any good that happens (a piece of good advice to a child, say), happens in spite of itself. The comedy is just pure, unadulterated filth -- and it works. Along for the ride is a game supporting cast, including Jason Segel as a sarcastic, non-sequitur-spouting gym teacher who s determined to get Elizabeth to go out with him; Justin Timberlake as a substitute teacher who becomes the object of Elizabeth’s scheming desires when she learns that he is rich; and the very funny Lucy Punch with a scene-stealing performance as Elizabeth’s nemesis, suck-up, and all-around do-gooder Amy Squirrel. (Not to mention appearances from Thomas Lennon, John Michael Higgins, and for God’s sake, Phyllis from THE OFFICE!) If you like a good, dirty comedy with zero moral value, this is the movie to see. Also doesn’t hurt to have an appreciation for Cameron Diaz’s legs... she’s still got’em.

rotkTHE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RETURN OF THE KING (EXTENDED EDITION) -- I saw this on the big screen the other day as part of Fathom Events series to promote the new Blu-Ray release (my first time seeing a LOTR film in theatres since early 2004 when I saw ROTK for the third time) and it was just as powerful, epic, astonishing and emotional as ever -- if not more so. Not sure there's much more I can say about this movie -- one of the top three greatest final installments of a trilogy ever, along with RETURN OF THE JEDI and TOY STORY 3 -- that hasn't already been said, so let's just run through some parts that were particularly awesome on the big screen: The final confrontation with Saruman (Christopher Lee's voice is made for a booming movie theatre sound system). Gandalf & Pippin's arrival at Gondor, particularly their race up the spiral pathways with Howard Shore's magnificent "Gondor theme." The majesty of the lighting of the beacons ("Gondor calls for aid!" "And Rohan will answer!"). The Battle of Pelennor Fields -- quite possibly the most awe-inspiring battle that will ever be put to celluloid. Rohan's grand arrival. Theoden's anguished-turned-valiant expressions whenever some new evil rears its head. Legolas single-handedly taking down that oylphaunt ("That still only counts as one!"). Shelob's Lair, Gollum's treachery, Sam's heroics -- you could practically feel the breathlessness of the crowd. The vast desolation of Mordor looks even more daunting on the big screen. The Mouth of Sauron, meanwhile, looks even crazier and somehow scarier. "For Frodo!" "I can't carry it for you, but I can carry you!" "The Ring is mine!" And of course, "My friends... you bow to no one!" Just the tip of the iceberg, or we'll be here all night. God, I want to watch it again right now. Let's hope that they decide to re-release these movies in theatres every few years....

Also, in case you missed them, be sure to check out my reviews of CARS 2 and TRANSFORMERS: DARK OF THE MOON, too! Yay, summer!

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

TRANSFORMERS: DARK OF THE MOON -- More Than Melts the Eyes Out of Their Sockets

Let me begin this review by reiterating the following disclaimer: I LOVE TRANSFORMERS. I love the cartoons -- I watched the entirety of the first two seasons in chronological order on the Hub network earlier this year, typically DVRing them during the week and watching them in two-hour clusters over the weekend, and it was an amazing nostalgia trip. I loved the toys -- had all of them as a kid and was pleasantly surprised to discover that I still have a bunch of them hiding away at my parents’ house. And yes, I even love the movies. The first time Optimus Prime reveals himself in 2007’s TRANSFORMERS was one of the great geek-out movie moments that I’ve ever experienced. Even 2009’s TRANSFORMERS: REVENGE OF THE FALLEN, which even Michael Bay admits was a steaming turd, has its moments if you can ignore the racist Autobots and the giant clanging robot testicles. The TRANSFORMERS films are, quite simply, my biggest cinematic guilty pleasures of the past few years -- except that I don’t feel guilty about it at all.

Now, I honestly believe that Michael Bay has been on a mission to redeem himself after the much-maligned second film. The man may not be Orson Welles, but he takes great pride in his work nevertheless -- say what you want about Michael Bay flicks, but even the stinkers are always spectacles that few other filmmakers could even dream of accomplishing. He had something to prove with TRANSFORMERS: DARK OF THE MOON... and prove it, he most certainly did. Michael Bay has officially out-Michael Bayed himself with this movie in terms of pure, unbridled robot carnage. If this is the last installment (and it kinda has to be... at least until someone inevitably reboots the franchise in a few years), he has brought new meaning to the phrase, "going out with a bang." But more than that, he fixed a lot of the problems that plagued the previous installments: Transformers are now much more recognizable. Action sequences are no longer completely incomprehensible. Silly comic relief is still there, but toned down considerably. As for plot and dialogue and human characters with some semblance of depth... well, hey, it’s Michael Bay, not Shakespeare. If you are watching TRANSFORMERS and looking for stuff like that, you probably shouldn’t be watching TRANSFORMERS.

But let’s talk more about the visuals and the action, because obviously, that’s what DARK OF THE MOON is all about. One key factor is that it was filmed using 3D cameras, which forced Bay to alter his style somewhat. Seems the human eye cannot register three-dimensional images if they are less than three seconds long. Now, Bay has made a career out of rapid-fire action sequences that could cause a person to go into epileptic seizures, but this time, he had to slow things down a bit. Not TOO slow, mind you -- but slow enough for the 3D to work, which in turn is slow enough for us to actually keep track of what’s going on, which Autobot is wreaking havoc upon which Decepticon, which Chicago office building is literally being ripped in half and used as a weapon, etc. To say that the action in this movie is an improvement over the first two installments is a vast understatement. In fact, everything that Bay has given us so far -- not just in the Transformers franchise, but in his entire career -- culminates with the climactic battle of this film. The last hour or so is nothing short of an epic symphony of destruction. All-out war between the Autobots (and humans) and Decepticons. Non-stop brutality and utter mayhem. Robots and people getting their innards ripped out, Mortal Kombat-style, or simply blasted to smithereens. I’m not joking when I say that the action does not let up for a second. Just before it begins, the screen goes black, as if lowering a curtain -- and when the curtain rises and the image returns, it’s just madness and carnage. And that carnage and madness continues and continues and builds and builds until it’s finished. And then the movie ends. It’s sheer insanity. It’s awesome. It’s everything you could possibly want in a Transformers movie. Every character -- good and bad -- gets a moment to shine. It must be seen to be believed, and the trailers have only provided a miniscule glimpse of what’s in store -- but I will say that Optimus Prime and Bumblebee have officially attained ULTIMATE BADASS status with some key moments that caused the audience at my IMAX 3D screening to roar its approval. There are some smaller action sequences throughout the first two-thirds of the film, but really, everything that happens is just one big build-up to the final spectacle.

That includes, like, a story and stuff. Remember the space race of the ‘60s that culminated with the moon landing of 1969? Turns out that was all the result of an Autobot spacecraft that crash-landed on the moon a few years earlier. This discovery was kept under wraps for a long time... even as the events of the first two films unfurled, which makes Optimus Prime none too happy. But he is now able to revive Sentinel Prime (voiced perfectly by Leonard Nimoy), the Autobots’ long-lost former leader and creator of some of their most prized technology. Meanwhile, the Decepticons, still led by Megatron, have been licking their wounds and biding their time to strike again... which of course they eventually do, with a few surprises up their robotic sleeves, including the deadly Shockwave, who kicks serious ass. Also meanwhile: Sam Witwicky (gigantic douche Shia LaBeouf, whose career will hopefully implode now that this series is done) has graduated college and is struggling to find a job, despite being a two-time hero of humanity, a fact that really sticks in his craw. But at least he has a new super-hot girlfriend, played by Rosie Huntington-Whitely, whose accent and lips help ease the pain of Megan Fox’s dismissal, and who doesn’t help Sam’s inferiority complex by making more money than him and having a cushy job with a pretentious, sleazy boss (Patrick Dempsey). Back for more fun & games are John Turturro, once again acting as if he’s in a whole other movie, and Josh Duhamel and Tyrese Gibson as soldiers who don’t have much to do other than run around and watch the robots kick each other’s ass. (Actually, that’s not entirely true -- the human soldiers DO get one pretty cool moment during the final battle. America, Fuck Yeah!) Somehow, Michael Bay convinced Frances McDormand and John Malkovich to be in this movie as the Secretary of Defense and Sam’s megalomaniacal boss, respectively -- seeing them is surreal, but they both add their own brand of screen presence and it works. Ken Jeong also makes a bizarre appearance, and Sam’s crazy parents are back for some comic moments, which is cool because they are strangely hilarious.

What it all boils down to is this: Do you like TRANSFORMERS? Do you want to see TRANSFORMERS bash the ever-loving shit out of each other and lay waste to a major American city for a solid hour? Do you want to applaud and cheer and go “HOLY SHIT!” many, many times? Then, my friends, TRANSFORMERS: DARK OF THE MOON is for you. See it on the biggest, loudest screen you can find. Hell, even spring for 3D if you’ve got a few extra bucks in your pocket -- it’s probably the second-best use of the technology in a live-action movie after AVATAR (though in this case, I think it’s more the events that we are seeing in 3D that are eye-popping, not so much the 3D itself). Pound for pound, it’s clearly the best of the trilogy and some of the best work of Michael Bay’s career. Some might consider that light praise -- but those people, along with all other haters and curmudgeons and killjoys and negative nancies, can go F themselves. TRANSFORMERS, rule!

Friday, June 24, 2011

CARS 2 is NOT the Worst Pixar Film Ever

No... that title still belongs to the original CARS, a film that I actually liked very much when I first saw it on the big screen in 2006, but that failed to stick with me the way every other Pixar film has. In fact, when I re-watched it the other day to prepare for the sequel, it was the first time I’d watched it SINCE 2006. (Conversely, I’ve watched every other Pixar film at least several times -- and in some cases, worship them like gods.) So yeah, suffice to say, I am not a huge CARS fan -- but that being said, the worst Pixar film is still better than 99% of all non-Pixar animated films, and I can certainly see why it has become one of Disney’s most profitable merchandising juggernauts of all time, which of course made a sequel inevitable. Now, before I begin a brief rant that makes me sound like a curmudgeon, keep in mind that I love a good sequel. And Pixar has proven that they can whip up a damn good one (or two) when the story calls for it, as is the case with the TOY STORY trilogy. But... I dunno... a sequel to CARS just smacks of a pure moneymaking/marketing scheme, as if to remind a new legion of little boys that these characters exist, now that the last batch has moved on to other things. This seems very unlike what we’ve come to expect from Pixar, and is more reminiscent of Disney during cars-2the bad old days. I thought that when Disney bought Pixar and essentially handed the creative reigns over to our lord & savior, John Lasseter, we wouldn’t see this kind of unnecessary sequel-churning anymore. Perhaps that was naïve of me. Whatever the case, CARS 2 is upon us and it is going to be a gargantuan hit, both at the box office and especially at Toys R Us.

So, how is the movie?  Well, I’m pleased (and relieved) to report that it’s not half bad.  In fact, I think I may have even enjoyed it MORE than the original.  It’s bigger, brighter, faster and, most importantly, more engaging. Whereas the first CARS was very clearly aimed directly at kids and only kids, the sequel is more Pixar-like in the sense that it is a kids’ movie on the surface but peppered with adult themes underneath. It’s actually first and foremost a spy flick, rife with James Bond references, which is funny since, y’know, they’re cars. It also moves away from the backwater town of Radiator Springs and spans the globe, taking super-cool race car Lightning McQueen and his hick-tastic best buddy Mater to Japan, France, Italy and England, where all sorts of fish-out-of-water hijinks ensue. Now, this kind of comedy is nothing new -- but somehow, with Pixar’s uncanny knack for zeroing in on the tiniest nuances and foibles of humanity, it feels fresh.

(Of course, in this case, humanity = cars, which raises the following question: What the hell happened on Earth that created this chilling, human-free future dystopia? What caused cars and other vehicles to become sentient, rise up and completely annihilate not only the human race, but all carbon-based life forms? Was it a misuse of technology like THE TERMINATOR? A science experiment gone wrong like PLANET OF THE APES? Are the cars actually humans who have undergone some kind of species-wide Kafka-esque transformation? As shiny and happy and fun as these films may be, at some point in the distant past, a horrific worldwide holocaust must have taken place. Perhaps they will cover this in CARS 3... or not... anyway, I digress.)

Probably goes without saying that the animation is as good as it gets. Pixar is still the reigning king in that department. The landscapes are eye-popping, with unbelievable attention to detail -- I am sure that the backgrounds are absolutely loaded with inside jokes and sight gags that will take many cars-2-finn-mcmissile-mater-lightning-mcqueenviewings to pick up on. All of the old gang is back, though this time, the film focuses far more on Mater’s (mis)adventures when he is mistaken for a spy and roped into a mission to uncover a sinister plot, as opposed to Lightning’s racing prowess. (An attempt by Disney to pander to middle America by focusing on one of their own? I mean, Larry the freakin’ Cable Guy gets top billing over Owen Wilson, for Christ’s sake. Nah, forget it... that’s TOO cynical.) The car races, though, are also very impressive and a billion times more entertaining than any real-life car race. Thrown into the mix are the great Michael Caine as British superspy Finn McMissile and Emily Mortimer as the comely Holley Shiftwell. The film is loaded with plot development and intersecting storylines and multiple villains (my favorite is John Turturro, channeling Jesus Quintana as Francesco Bernoulli, McQueen’s suave Italian rival) and double-crossing and all sorts of craziness -- in fact, the sprawling story may be TOO complex for younger kids, especially compared to the more-straightforward original film (though they will still love the visuals and the slapstick humor) -- but again, it helps makes things a bit more engaging for us kids-at-heart.

Also worth mentioning that I saw the movie in 3D and it added absolutely nothing to the experience, which is surprising since Pixar has utilized the technology very well in the past (namely, UP and especially TOY STORY 3... God, that incinerator scene seriously felt like we were going to accompany the toys to a fiery death). The visuals should be strong enough on their own, and in fact, the tint in the glasses just serves to dull the natural vibrancy. I recommend seeing it in 2D if you have a choice.

But you know what? Enough about CARS 2. The best part of seeing CARS 2 is not the movie at all -- it’s the stuff that precedes it. First, you get a trailer for the upcoming 3D re-release of THE LION KING... except it’s not really a trailer, so much as it’s the full opening “Circle of Life” sequence of the film in all its glory. Friends, say what you want about 3D (I’m tiring of it, myself), but it looks like this conversion has been done with tremendous care and looks amazing. (Besides, let’s face it, who wouldn’t salivate at any chance to see this classic on the big screen.) Next, we get a short teaser for Pixar’s next film -- their first original fairy tale called BRAVE. I actually made an audible gasp of awe when I saw how astonishing the visuals look for this one -- it’s going to be epic and awesome. Last but not least, we get... wait for it... AN ALL-NEW TOY STORY SHORT FILM! I have to admit, when I first heard about this a while back, I was hesitant, because on some level, I felt that TOY Toy_Story_Hawaiian_VacationSTORY 3 should have closed the book on these characters. But when I saw Woody, Buzz and the whole gang (with Hanks, Allen & Co. providing the voices) appear on the big screen again... well, I was overcome with emotion. In this adventure, the gang must help Ken & Barbie enjoy a Hawaiian vacation at home after their failed attempt to stow away with Bonnie & her family. It is basically five minutes of hilarious rapid-fire gags in which each character gets a moment to shine. It is perfection. I don’t know how often they plan on giving us new TOY STORY shorts, but I hope it’s very, very often.

In conclusion: HAIL PIXAR! Even their failures aren’t really failures -- they’re just lesser successes. CARS 2 is nowhere near a classic work of genius like WALL-E or THE INCREDIBLES, but it’s a fun ride, a visual feast, and will still likely rank as one of the better animated films of 2011 when all is said and done (though this will be the rare year in which Pixar is NOT the frontrunner for Oscar gold -- that checkmark still belongs to ILM’s RANGO on my ballot). Plus, the kiddies are gonna love it... so parents, get ready to take out a second mortgage to pay for all those new toys!