"Cars 2, directed (like several great Pixar films of the last two decades) by John Lasseter, finds itself in the unlucky position of the not-so-bright kid in a brilliant family," finds Slate's Dana Stevens. "No matter if his performance in school is comfortably average; he'll always be seen as a disappointment compared to his stellar siblings. There's nothing really objectionable about Cars 2, although parents of young children should be warned that a few evil vehicles meet violently inauspicious ends. It's sweet-spirited, visually delightful (if aurally cacophonous), and it will make for a pleasant enough family afternoon at the movies. But we've come to expect so much more than mere pleasantness from Pixar that Cars 2 feels almost like a betrayal."
Nick Schager for the Voice: "Pixar's Cars franchise takes a sharp turn from NASCAR mayhem and rural red-state-targeted 50s nostalgia to 007 espionage with this upgraded sequel, though in its delivery of Matchbox-machine superheroics for its young male demographic, it stays true to its prime function as an advertising vehicle for lucrative merchandise. Nonetheless, if this shift can't stave off monotony, it's still welcome, as the series at least dispatches with conservative cultural pandering in favor of be-yourself platitudes and — following WALL-E's lead — pro-environment messages, all delivered via high-octane chases over land, sea, and air."
Cars 2 "takes the bold, arguably generous and ultimately calamitous step of pushing its lovable, goofy second banana to the center of the action," writes AO Scott in the New York Times. "That would be Mater, the garrulous, snaggle-toothed, dimwitted tow truck voiced by Daniel Whitney, better known as Larry the Cable Guy. This may be Mater's finest hour. It is certainly his longest…. As if to prove that certain groups have escaped the protection of political correctness, the Southern-fried Mater is dumb, excitable and puppy-dog loyal, his idiot-savant automotive expertise grounded in humble, blue-collar simplicity. I doubt anyone will protest much, but Pixar has now found its redneck Jar-Jar Binks. Such a proud moment."
On yet another hand, Glenn Kenny for MSN Movies: "Sometimes it's a relief when a film doesn't swing for the emotional fences, when it's just content with being a lively, pleasurable, colorful diversion." More from Sam Adams (Philadelphia City Paper, B), Marjorie Baumgarten (Austin Chronicle, 2.5/5), Josh Bell (Las Vegas Weekly, 2.5/5), Jaime N Christley (Slant, 1/4), Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times, 3.5/4), Logan Hill (Vulture), Robert Horton (Herald), Neil Morris (Independent Weekly), Wesley Morris (Boston Globe, 3/4), Andrew O'Hehir (Salon), Mary Pols (Time), Nathan Rabin (AV Club, C-), Drew Taylor (Playlist), Kenneth Turan (Los Angeles Times), Keith Uhlich (Time Out New York, 2/5) and Stephanie Zacharek (Movieline, 5.5/10). Interviews with Lasseter: Kyle Buchanan (Vulture), Alex Dorn (HitFix) and Mary Pols (Time). More background: Rebecca Keegan (LAT) and Mekado Murphy (NYT).
"In Bad Teacher, a breezily crude comedy about unladylike pleasures like guzzling booze, swearing at children and being mean because, well, you can be, Cameron Diaz taps into her inner thug," writes Manohla Dargis in the NYT. "It's a beautiful thing. A performer with a gift for light comedy and a comically ductile face that can work in fascinating counterpart to her rocking hot body (as her character would say), Ms Diaz has found her down-and-dirty element in the kind of broad comedy that threatens to get ugly and more or less succeeds on that threat."
"Unapologetically fashioned in the likeness of 2003's cult comedy Bad Santa, Bad Teacher lacks the courage of its predecessor's misanthropic convictions," argues Mike D'Angelo in the Las Vegas Weekly, "though it boasts a few memorably outrageous gags of its own (including the creepiest bout of dry-humping in cinema history). The genius of Bad Santa, after all, was that it served as a vicious parody of sappy Hollywood films in which a mildly incorrigible protagonist learns valuable life lessons — precisely the kind of earnestness to which Bad Teacher, for all its flirtation with filth, inevitably succumbs. There's still some fun to be had watching an ordinarily sweet-faced actress like Diaz indulging her inner reprobate, but black comedy only truly delivers when you can sense that the folks who made it are playing for keeps."
More from Ed Champion, Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times, 2/4), David Edelstein (Vulture), Heather Havrilesky (Movie City News), Glenn Kenny (MSN Movies, 4/5), Karina Longworth (Voice), Peter Martin (Twitch), Wesley Morris (Boston Globe, 1/4), Mary Pols (Time), Nathan Rabin (AV Club, B), Joshua Rothkopf (TONY, 3/5), Nick Schager (Slant, 1.5/4), Dana Stevens (Slate), John Sylva (L), Drew Taylor (Playlist, B-), Daniel Walber (Spout) and Stephanie Zackarek (Movieline, 8.5/10). Rebecca Keegan talks with Diaz for the LAT. Interviews with Kasdan: David Poland (video, 28'24") and Drew Taylor (Playlist).
"A stale but scrupulously structured anecdote, A Better Life seems intended as an eye-opener for the send-'em-back American racist," writes Ed Gonzalez in Slant. "Directed by Chris Weitz (son of Susan Kohner, daughter of Lupita Tovar) and written by Manito filmmaker Eric Eason, this semi-outsider's vision of an illegal immigrant's struggle to reclaim a stolen truck in Los Angeles sets its sainthood-vying tone with its opening shot of its main character, Carlos (Demián Bichir), bathed in the warm burnt-sienna light of the morning sun. From the couch he sleeps on to the gardens he tends for Los Angeles's richest, Carlos appears to literally rise above his desperate station: Shot, one might say trapped, by Weitz in rigorously symmetrical angles, the man traverses every frame of the film as if on an upward diagonal path."
"Weitz's challenge is to make Carlos more a man than an everyman," writes Logan Hill at Vulture. "Weitz doesn't entirely succeed, perhaps because the problem with problem movies is that, too often, a film's unalloyed worthiness is its vice." The "story is simple as a parable, and the deliberate pacing and rising score by Alexandre Desplat give the film the feel of modern myth. Coming off his supernatural films New Moon and The Golden Compass, Weitz hasn't shaken the primal sense of black-and-white morality, either. Carlos is a good man, surrounded by foils: tatted-up gangsters and thieving, weaker men. His rectitude is never in doubt. Which means not much else is, either."
More from Melissa Anderson (Voice), Richard Brody (New Yorker), Jeannette Catsoulis (NPR), Manohla Dargis (NYT), David Fear (TONY, 2/5), Glenn Kenny (MSN Movies, 3/5), Eric Kohn (indieWIRE), Michelle Orange (Movieline, 7/10), Tasha Robinson (AV Club, B) and Stephen Saito (IFC). John Horn talks with Weitz for the Los Angeles Times.
"Positioning itself as a portrait of Conan O'Brien's tireless dedication to entertaining and pleasing his fans (as well as his consuming need for audience-applause approval), Conan O'Brien Can't Stop nonetheless can't mask that, at heart, it's merely a trifling tour doc that gives further excessive attention to the late-night star's 2010 ouster as The Tonight Show host." Nick Schager in Slant: "O'Brien's contentious split from NBC, which included an agreement that he not appear on TV, radio, or the Internet for six months, is the guiding motivation behind his cross-country 'Legally Prohibited from Being Funny on Television Tour,' which O'Brien uses as a vehicle for expunging the still-burning anger he has at being forced out of his former job."
Karina Longworth in the Voice: "Sometimes painted in the press as the excessively petulant jilted wife in the NBC divorce, here the comedy-writer-turned-late-night-host comes off as less an entitled whiner than a perfectionist: NBC's crime was not taking away his toy, but taking away his control." But the Chicago Reader's JR Jones is reminded Mitt Romney's recent gaffe: "I'm also unemployed."
More from Ty Burr (Boston Globe, 3/4), Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times, 3/4), Stephen Holden (NYT), Robert Horton (Herald), Jonathan Kiefer (Faster Times), Victoria Large (Not Coming to a Theater Near You), Violet Lucca (L), Andrew O'Hehir (Salon), Drew Taylor (Playlist, A-), Scott Tobias (AV Club, C), Keith Uhlich (TONY, 4/5) and Stephanie Zacharek (Movieline, 8.5/10). Eugene Hernandez has five questions for director Rodman Flender at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.
"A repellent comedy that's less fun than a parasite infection, The Best and the Brightest plays like a television pilot written by sexually frustrated frat boys," writes Jeannette Catsoulis in the NYT. "Top-heavy with seasoned talent (including Neil Patrick Harris and Christopher McDonald) and bottom-loaded with bile, this skewering of wealthy Manhattanites puts more energy into demeaning women than into sustaining a narrative." More from Eric Henderson (Slant, 1.5/4), Aaron Hillis (Voice), Michelle Orange (Movieline, 6.5/10), Nick Schager (TONY, 3/5) and Scott Tobias (AV Club, C).
"Nothing screams 'French crossover comedy' like jokes about Auschwitz and childhood sexual abuse, the main rib-ticklers of Michel Leclerc's blood-clot-inducing second feature," writes Melissa Anderson in the Voice. The Names of Love is "a mawkish, MOR comedy of manners that even its straw man Nicolas Sarkozy would find suitable for date night." More from Joe Bendel, David Fear (TONY, 2/5), Stephen Holden (NYT), Keith Phipps (AV Club, B), Andrew Schenker (Slant, 2.5/4), Ryan Vlastelica (L) and Ryan Wells (Cinespect).
"The trailer for Turtle: The Incredible Journey promises more excitement than you might suspect could be packed into a story about loggerhead turtles, a plucky seafarer with high mileage," writes Manohla Dargis in the NYT. "Since it played at the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival, where it was in the documentary lineup, the movie has picked up plenty of goodwill and awards. Last year its director of photography, Rory McGuinness, won a wildlife/nature award from the Australian Cinematographers Society. Given the quality of their work, the special-effects wizards who whipped up some visual wow for the movie, including computer-generated imagery, deserve a share of the applause too." More from Mark Holcomb (Voice), Charles H Meyer (Cinespect) and Nick Schager (Slant, 1/4).
IN NEW YORK
"Winner of the Camera D'Or for Best First Feature at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival, the bracing Mexican psychodrama Leap Year unfolds almost entirely in a dim, seedy one-room apartment that doubles as living space and state of mind." Scott Tobias at the AV Club: "With equal debt owed to two mid-70s touchstones — half to Last Tango in Paris, half to Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce 1080 Bruxelles — writer-director Michael Rowe patiently details the grinding routine of its 25-year-old occupant, Monica del Carmen, a freelance journalist by day and an insatiable nymphet by night. Adopting a long master-shot style similar to Mexico's reigning sex-and-death maestro Carlos Reygadas (Japón, Battle in Heaven), Rowe follows del Carmen through dreary afternoons as she gathers quotes and dutifully clacks away on business articles like '30 Tips To Beat The Recession.' Then at night, she puts on low-cut dresses, slathers herself in perfume, and returns later with random men for sexual encounters that leave her feeling varying degrees of unsatisfied."
"The one she ultimately talks to is the first one to volunteer his name, Arturo (Gustavo Sánchez Parra), and he's the tall, imperious, European-looking type that Laura clearly prefers," writes Salon's Andrew O'Hehir. "Let me reassure you that while Leap Year goes to some profoundly troubling places, it's not, in the end, some utterly dark fable of misogyny or nihilism. Arturo is a cipher or a mystery — Laura doesn't learn much about him, and may not want to — but he isn't a monster, and there's a desperate, haunting tenderness to their story of uncontrollable love and its ending." More from Michael Atkinson (Voice), Jeannette Catsoulis (NYT), Fernando F Croce (Notebook), David Fear (TONY, 3/5) and Ed Gonzalez (Slant, 3/4). Rowe talks us through a scene at indieWIRE.
Bilge Ebiri recalls catching General Orders No. 9 at Slamdance a few years ago, when "this bewildering fantasia — of almost abstracted still lives, transcendent landscapes, and incantatory narration — enthralled me. When its director Robert Persons — a quiet, 40-something-ish fellow who'd never made a film before in his life and looked pretty uncomfortable — took the stage, my hand immediately went up for the first question: 'Who the hell are you?' I asked. He wouldn't answer me." The film "begins with a hand quietly contemplating objects from the past — the skull of a bird, a coin, something that looks like a bullet, a single die — and then drifts into a deeply personal rumination on community and place, and how they have become disjointed in the modern world."
In Slant, Joseph Jon Lanthier sees "a Chris Marker-esque paean to the state of Georgia and an oblique lamentation toward the nature-perverting wheels of progress. Concerned less with the cultural alienation facilitated by steel and concrete than with a vague loss of spatial identity, the film haphazardly follows the self-destructive path by which, in its own words, 'deer trail becomes Indian trail becomes county road becomes interstate.' The images along the way fetishize the organic and the handmade… Despite the spectral aura of these visions and ruminations, however, and Persons's complex sense of geographical order, under the modern mannerisms lies a rather clumsily Romantic — one might say Wordsworthian — rant that juxtaposes urbanity against a nebulous, fictitious past." Ultimately, he finds the film "repugnantly anti-social." More from Joe Bendel, Neil Genzlinger (NYT), Karina Longworth (Voice), Henry Stewart (L), Michael Tully (Hammer to Nail), Keith Uhlich (TONY, 2/5) and Alison Willmore (AV Club, B).
Daniel James Scott talks with Persons for Filmmaker and Ray Pride riffs on this passage: "But there were certainly a lot of films that we used to reference — a lot of Tarkovsky films, Herzog films, Chris Marker, John Grierson docs, the British Film Unit, David Lynch and Harry [Everett] Smith. There were also a number of novels and books. One in particular was this bit of naturalist writing from the 18th century, William Bartram's Travels. He was a Philadelphia naturalist who travelled through the southeast and was really the first to write about it while drawing pictures of plants and animals. His writing is very effusive, and has a lot of sense of wonder in it. I liked the idea of someone going around recording things. And I saw my film as an updating of that in a sense." At Brooklyn's ReRun Gastropub Theater.
Ernest Hardy in the Voice: "There's not a more gorgeous couple gracing movie screens at the moment than Late Autumn's Tang Wei and Bin Hyun (she from Ang Lee's Lust, Caution, he one of South Korea's biggest stars). It's pulchritude overload…. In remaking the 1966 South Korean film Full Autumn and setting it in America, writer-director Kim Tae-Yong uses the melancholic, gray backdrop of Seattle as both character and metaphor, crafting a film that's visually beautiful and incredibly moving."
"Complacent with road-movie tropes, director Ralf Huettner and screenwriter Florian David Fitz's Vincent Wants to Sea is likeable insofar as it's familiar," finds Kalvin Henely in Slant. But for Sam Adams, writing for Time Out New York, "a moronically quirky take on mental illness is no more palatable when it's subtitled."
IN OTHER CITIES
"This week Fred Camper weighs in on the 23rd annual Onion City Experimental Film and Video Festival," notes JR Jones at the top of his roundup in the Chicago Reader. "Our festival roundup covers 16 films altogether, including new work by James Fotopoulos, Thom Andersen, Lewis Klahr, and Stephanie Barber."
The Boston Globe's Ty Burr: "If you're in the area next Thursday and you care about local filmmaking — and, no, I'm not talking about the latest Southie crime drama, a genre that recent developments may have killed off for good — put a pin in the T map next to the Harvard Film Archive for its Four Films from Young Boston evening, a welcome event that spotlights three shorts and one feature from new area voices. I hear the production of one of the films almost resulted in the apartment of a local film critic being burned to the ground. Usually that happens after the review comes out."
Those in the San Francisco Bay Area will want to see the Guardian's listings, as always, but also Adam Hartzell in SF360 on Hong Sang-soo's Oki's Movie, currently at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts through tomorrow: "[M]uch buzz has centered on the ways in which this 11th full-length feature from the director departs from expectation."
Steve Rose lists a handful of goings on in the UK for the Guardian, and then, of course, there's Criterion's weekly globe-spanning "Friday Repertory Roundup."
"Shinji Aoyama might be described as a Japanese arthouse version of Quentin Tarantino," suggests Mark Schilling: "A smart, dedicated cinephile who works his influences into his films while experimenting with various genres, from the gangster film (Chinpira, 1996) to mystery (Lakeside Murder Case, 2004). But whereas Tarantino's films are cool in the ironic, in-your-face, extroverted American sense, much of Aoyama's work is cool in the distanced, oblique, introverted Japanese way. The ultimate example is Eureka, winner of the Cannes Jury Prize in 2000, whose drama about survivors of a bus hijack trying to heal their wounded spirits was filmed in gorgeous black and white with sparse dialog, long shots and austerely elegant compositions. Now Aoyama is back after a four-year absence from the big screen with the mystery drama Tokyo Koen (Tokyo Park), and what seems to be a new outlook and approach: puckishly surreal, narratively diffuse and limpidly transcendent. It's somewhat as if Tarantino broke a long silence to make a homage to Terrence 'The Tree of Life' Malick."
Also in the Japan Times: Schilling's profile of Yuya Ishii, "who was turning out quirky black comedies at a rapid clip in his early 20s and screening them at festivals around the world, including special sections at the 2008 Rotterdam and Hong Kong festivals." In 2010, his Sawako Decides "showed that Ishii was growing as a filmmaker, a wunderkind no more. His latest, Azemichi no Dandy (A Man With Style), is more Ishii than Ozu in its sudden, if firmly motivated, emotional eruptions and strange but sweet flights of fantasy. At the same time, its story of a father's anxiety over his own authority and his offspring's futures is a genre standard."
Plus, Kaori Shoji reports on "the first documentary on the aftermath of the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake and tsunami. A 75-minute film shot and made in 50 days and now playing at the Auditorium Shibuya theater in Tokyo (with screenings in Osaka and Nagoya to follow), Mujo Sobyo (The Sketch of Mujo) is as simple and unpretentious as its title."
Huang Jianxin's Beginning of the Great Revival, "a historical epic detailing the founding of China's Communist Party," has a few things going for it, reports Benjamin Haas in the LAT: "For starters, his cast includes more than 170 of his country's most famous actors, including Chow Yun-fat, John Woo and Andy Lau, who waived their salaries to take part. Second, many theaters have quietly cleared out or pushed back popular competing titles like Kung Fu Panda 2 and Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides to make way for his movie. And then there's the fact that many companies are compelling their employees to see the film, local government websites are urging people to attend as a patriotic responsibility, and some municipalities are footing the bill for citizen screenings."
According to Bill Weber in Slant, what those citizens will be seeing "is muddled, all right, but it's the helter-skelter speed at which it ticks off names and incidents, both in hopelessly confused action and on-screen text, that seems nearly unprecedented."
Xiyun Yang in the NYT: "Newspapers and television are barred from being critical of the movie, and caustic online reviews have been erased by censors. (Unfortunately for the filmmakers and the government, that edict does not cross borders; in a review in The New York Times, Andy Webster said the movie 'demonstrates that mainstream Chinese cinema can be as guilty of self-indulgent overstatement as anything out of the West.') Both Beginning of the Great Revival and The Founding of a Republic are attempts by the party to wrest the attention of a new generation away from the Internet, where opinions often deviate from the official line, said Paul Clark, a professor of Chinese culture and film at the University of Auckland, in New Zealand, who is a visiting scholar at Peking University. 'Movies have always been the most effective, consistent form of mass-media propaganda in presenting a party-blessed version of history,' Mr Clark said."