REVVED UP

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film - Evan Wil­liams

DI­RECTED by John Las­seter, Cars 2 is Pixar’s hard-work­ing se­quel to the stu­dio’s an­i­mated Hol­ly­wood block­buster re­leased in 2006. And what­ever you think of it — and I think it’s rather good — it may come to be re­mem­bered as the film that re­vived the flag­ging for­tunes of 3-D. The process did lit­tle for Avatar, noth­ing for Alice in Won­der­land, pre­cious lit­tle for Gnomeo and Juliet and was pretty well use­less in Pi­rates of the Caribbean. But in Cars 2 it has found its mo­ment of truth. There’s noth­ing like the sight of hun­dreds of brightly coloured slabs of hot-revving metal hurtling to­wards the cam­era to give the 3-D process a new lease of life.

The orig­i­nal film had mixed for­tunes. Las­seter is on record as say­ing that he vis­ited the big-three Detroit auto-mak­ers to gather ma­te­rial for Cars and ab­sorb some­thing of the cul­ture of the US mo­tor in­dus­try. Cars must have been worth mil­lions in morale­boost­ing pro­mo­tion for the in­dus­try, but the big three car­mak­ers all went bust af­ter the film’s re­lease. Joe Ranft, Las­seter’s codi­rec­tor on the first film, died in 2005 (the re­sult, sadly, of a car ac­ci­dent). And I felt sorry for Paul New­man. Cars proved the high­est-gross­ing film of his ca­reer. When New­man died in 2008, au­di­ences had paid more to hear him as Doc Hud­son in Cars than had paid to see him as Butch Cas­sidy, or as Frank Galvin in The Ver­dict or as Brick Pol­litt in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

In Cars 2, the hero once again is Light­ning McQueen, a hot­shot rac­ing car voiced by Owen Wil­son. The films are unique in hav­ing no hu­man char­ac­ters: ev­ery­one is a car (or a bus, or a truck) in a world wholly pop­u­lated by au­to­mo­tive be­ings. (On a grid­locked Syd­ney free­way, this seems an en­tirely plau­si­ble sce­nario.) Las­seter’s idea was to com­bine folksy Amer­i­can val­ues with a mi­lieu much loved by car-crazy Amer­i­cans — the mo­tor rac­ing world, with all its noise and fu­tile vi­o­lence. More than half a cen­tury ear­lier, Ce­cil B. De Mille had found a sim­i­lar metaphor for Amer­i­can so­ci­ety in the world of the cir­cus; for Robert Alt­man, the coun­tryand-west­ern mu­sic scene served a sim­i­lar pur­pose in Nashville. Las­seter’s other fa­mous idea was not to use head­lights for the eyes of his cars but to put eyes on their wind­screens. In that way, he dis­cov­ered, cars looked more like peo­ple. In Cars 2 the eyes have it once again — and cars have never looked more life­like. Or cuter.

The prob­lem for the se­quel was how to move on from Light­ning McQueen and the desert world of Ra­di­a­tor Springs and give the rac­ing for­mula a fresh twist. Las­seter’s an­swer is to throw in a Bond-style in­ter­na­tional spy chase with Michael Caine voic­ing a bigshot from Bri­tish in­tel­li­gence, a char­ac­ter called Finn McMis­sile. Finn’s only a car, re­mem­ber, so Caine is never ac­tu­ally seen. But Ben Green, the screen­writer, more than com­pen­sates Caine fans for any dis­ap­point­ment by giv­ing Caine most of the di­a­logue and many of the best lines. Even Light­ning McQueen has to take a back seat and make room for an English-ac­cented fe­male spy, Holly Shiftwell (Emily Mor­timer), who wins the heart of Mater, Light­ning’s loyal towtruck buddy (voiced by Larry the Cable Guy).

Sin­is­ter plots are afoot. A vil­lain is plan­ning to make a for­tune by de­stroy­ing the bio­fu­els in­dus­try with a se­cret weapon that will re­store gas-guz­zlers to their right­ful em­i­nence in a world rapidly be­ing in­fil­trated by elec­tric cars. Is this the end of gaso­line as we know it? Along with an es­pi­onage thriller we get an en­vi­ron­men­tal mes­sage as well, not to men­tion a ro­man­tic sub­plot and an­other sub­plot in­volv­ing the revolt of the lemons. All those de­spised and ne­glected mod­els of ear­lier days have ral­lied to cap­ture the World Grand Prix and re­cover their self­es­teem. As their leader ex­horts them: ‘‘ For­get all those nasty names — rat­tle­traps, jalop­ies, bombs, clunkers — and em­brace your in­ner lemon.’’

Yes, it’s a mud­dle, and the story barely hangs to­gether. But the an­i­ma­tion is state-ofthe-art and Las­seter (with his co-di­rec­tor Brad Lewis) takes us on a grand tour of the world’s big cities and tourist re­sorts. So Cars 2 is not just a spy thriller, a ro­mance, a rac­ing drama, and an en­vi­ron­men­tal crowd-pleaser. It’s an up-mar­ket trav­el­ogue as well, with tongue-in-cheek tourist post­card set­tings in Paris, Lon­don and the Ital­ian Riviera. We even get to see the Queen (a sil­ver-plated Rolls) in the fi­nal scenes. PEO­PLE have com­plained that Michael Win­ter­bot­tom’s com­edy, The Trip, while very funny, is re­ally only tele­vi­sion, and since it be­gan life as a six-part BBC minis­eries, that’s not per­haps sur­pris­ing. The show fea­tured two Bri­tish co­me­di­ans, Steve Coogan and Rob Bry­don, do­ing sketches and im­per­son­ations. They had ap­peared in ear­lier Win­ter­bot­tom films 24 Hour Party Peo­ple, about the Manch­ester pop scene and the rise of Fac­tory Records, and A Cock and Bull Story, a heavy-handed treat­ment of Lau­rence Stern’s novel, Tris­tram Shandy. For The Trip, Win­ter­bot­tom has re­cy­cled some of their orig­i­nal ma­te­rial and let Coogan and Bry­don do pretty much their own thing. And yes, it’s re­ally only tele­vi­sion: tight close-ups, in­con­se­quen­tial chat, no fancy cam­er­a­work. Not much more than a cou­ple of talk­ing heads. And the re­sult is joy­ously funny.

Both men play them­selves. Coogan is hired by one of Bri­tain’s posh Sun­day pa­pers to make a tour of restau­rants in north­ern Eng­land and write about them. He plans to take his food-lov­ing Amer­i­can girl­friend along, but she’s left him and re­turned to the US. The only com­pan­ion he can find is Bry­don, not his clos­est friend, but al­ways ready for a free lunch. In be­tween meals in Lan­cashire, York­shire and the Lake District, they sit in their car and talk. Win­ter­bot­tom throws in the oc­ca­sional shot of a culi­nary con­coc­tion or some mourn­fully beau­ti­ful north coun­try land­scape, and that’s all there is to it.

Who would imag­ine that a con­test be­tween two men to see who can do the best Michael Caine im­i­ta­tion would be enough to sus­tain any film for 10 min­utes, or that so many hi­lar­i­ous vari­a­tions could be wrung from a sin­gle line of di­a­logue from a Bond movie? Bry­don even had me laugh­ing when he read from a crit­i­cal study of Co­leridge by the English es­say­ist Wil­liam Ha­zlitt; not a sta­ple in­gre­di­ent in movie com­edy.

The restau­rant theme may be more than a link­ing de­vice. Win­ter­bot­tom could be pok­ing fun at foodie pre­ten­sions with his close-ups of tiny morsels on driz­zled plates, all look­ing vaguely un­ap­petis­ing. Coogan never makes notes about the food or dis­cusses it with Bry­don, and we won­der what im­pres­sions are be­ing men­tally filed away. Win­ter­bot­tom’s trick is to give the char­ac­ters sim­i­lar back­grounds but dif­fer­ent per­son­al­i­ties: the more abra­sive Bry­don a foil for the in­se­cure, wom­an­is­ing and un­happy Coogan, who craves recog­ni­tion as a se­ri­ous ac­tor.

It’s hard to think of an­other film like The Trip. Jim Car­rey starred in Man on the Moon, about the Amer­i­can TV comic Andy Kauf­man, di­rected by Mi­los Forman. Kauf­man did stand-up rou­tines in a Long Is­land rock club in the 1970s and was fa­mous for Elvis im­per­son­ations. He starred in a long-run­ning TV sit­com and made his name in the clubs as a dumb, mousy-voiced char­ac­ter with a ner­vous sign-off line, ‘‘ Tank you veddy much’’. With two Andy Kauf­mans you’d get some­thing like The Trip — a dou­ble-bar­relled English ver­sion of Man on the Moon. Win­ter­bot­tom gives us more than a cou­ple of fun­ny­men: he gives us a touch­ing study of con­trast­ing per­son­al­i­ties. The charm and ten­der­ness of the film take us by sur­prise, a re­minder that at the heart of the best hu­mour is a lurk­ing sad­ness.

Cars 2 is a true 3-D ex­pe­ri­ence

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