Back Rowe Reviews
Real Time Movie Reviews from the Back Row of a Theater


Cars 2 (G)

Directed by: John Lasseter, Brad Lewis
Starring: Owen Wilson
June 2011

Celebrating 25 years of animation excellence, Pixar Studios has never released a dud—a truly astounding achievement. In fact, the closest they’ve ever come to producing a flop was the commercially successful but critically tepid
Cars (2005). So then, why would the studio green-light a sequel to the worst received film in its catalog rather than its most successful—you know, the one with the clown fish?

The easy answer is marketing—
Cars merchandise is everywhere…on clothing and pillow cases, on cracker boxes and soup labels and especially on shelves in the toy aisle. Cars paraphernalia is ubiquitous and the drop in sales since the first film exited theaters is negligible to the point of imperceptibility. Sad to say, but as long as the marketing machine is at full throttle, even mediocre box office returns from any future sequels will still be considered a success.

So with nothing to loose and bank to make, Lasseter and Co. have reunited us with Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) and Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) and a host of new and returning characters (all of which, you can bet, will have at least one toy car manufactured in their likeness) in
Cars 2. Leaving behind the cozy confines of Radiator Springs, the story soon takes us on a globetrotting adventure that’s part racing film and part Bond-esque spy thriller where Mater is mistaken for an undercover agent (huh?). The action kicks into high gear when the characters are whisked away on a foreign tour for the World Grand Prix.

The film’s premise seems like a sure-fire winner, but large sections of the film just feel off—like the timing of a car in desperate need of a tune-up. One key contributor to this cinematic vapor lock is the inner-cutting between the race and espionage subplot. The actual race is upstaged and overshadowed by the international intrigue for most of the film, making it difficult to actually enjoy or even care about the race itself, which becomes ancillary to the spy action sequences. This narrative tug o’ war is tiring and jarring. Further, McQueen plays second horn to Mater for most of the movie (notice that Larry has top billing over Owen in the end credits).

The espionage plot itself is intended as a nod to the
James Bond and Mission: Impossible franchises, but unwittingly degenerates into a derivative spoof. Michael Caine is predictably masterful as mega-spy Finn McMissile and probably should’ve had his own film. In the same way that the spy plot dominates the racing plot, McMissile is more of a hero in the film than McQueen. Has the “Mc” mantle been passed on for the next, inevitable sequel?

The movie’s commentary on oil vs. a fuel alternative (Allinol) is by turns heavy-handed and OPEC, I mean opaque, and ultimately fails to say anything meaningful on the subject.
Monsters Inc. subtly addressed the energy crisis of the early 2000s while WALL-E harrowingly forecasted the dangers of consumerism run amok. By contrast, Cars 2 breaches the topic of our dependency on fossil fuels and then quickly abandons it, hit-and-run style.

Equally irritating is the film’s vacillation with respect to lemon cars—one minute we’re supposed to pity them, like Mater’s rust bucket fan, Otis, and the next we’re supposed to despise them, like the nefarious henchmen who “kill” cars because they’re rich and famous. Even when confronted with the error of their ways, the Lemon Mafia refuses to change, much to their demise. Unrepentant evil is pretty rare in Pixar movies (Syndrome is one notable exception), and sets a poor example and precedent, especially since the plight of lemon cars could’ve set up a heartfelt moral—you know, the kind Pixar normally capitalizes on for maximum emotional effect. The only meaningful moment here is the analogy between dents and momentous events of the past, a very understated theme that Lasseter should’ve gotten more dramatic mileage out of.

So, has
Cars 2 broken Pixar’s perfect track record? Opinions will vary, but there can be no doubt that if fails to measure up to the studio’s stellar back catalog. The movie mishandles nearly every narrative turn and takes the original conceit of talking cars (and now ships, jets, trains, etc) to absurd extents. As such, the film has effectively scrapped credibility while abandoning the heartwarming character moments that aided in our suspension of disbelief during the first outing.

In one of the movie’s rare racing scenes, McQueen moves outside and allows chief rival Francesco Bernoulli to take the inside track to victory. In the same way,
Cars 2 has pulled over onto the shoulder, allowing any other decent animated film the chance to play spoiler in this year’s race for the Best Animated Feature Oscar. There’s always the Piston Cup as a consolation prize, I suppose. As painful as it is to admit, Pixar has fallen off the pace.

Rating: 2

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (PG-13)

Directed by: Peter Jackson
Starring: Elijah Wood
December 2001

Enchanting. Spellbinding. This is simply one of the most amazing, moving and magical movies I’ve ever seen.
The Fellowship of the Ring excels in every category (acting, directing, music, etc.) and leaves you craving a sequel. My vote for movie of the year.

Rating: 4

Ocean’s Eleven (PG-13)

Directed by: Steven Soderbergh
Starring: George Clooney
December 2001

Ocean's Eleven gets going, it’s an amusing, star-studded romp that depicts a daring heist in a major Vegas casino. The plot never tips its hand fully until the end, and the final series of twists is quite good.

Rating: 3

K-PAX (PG-13)

Directed by: Iain Softley
Starring: Kevin Spacey
October 2001

is a slightly off-kilter movie that's enjoyable just for that reason. Bridges and Spacey deliver fine performances and the plot is engaging enough to keep you guessing until the emotional climax. The message K-PAX leaves you with is powerfully poignant.

Rating: 3

Serendipity (PG-13)

Directed by: Peter Chelsom
Starring: John Cusack
October 2001

A slightly better than average love story,
Serendipity works because the romantic leads have great chemistry and because of the fateful book that reunites them. John Cusack and Kate Beckinsale are supported by some great performances by Jeremy Piven, Molly Shannon and Bridget Moynahan. The snow angel on ice scene stands out as one of the most memorable in the movie.

Rating: 2 1/2

The Musketeer (PG-13)

Directed by: Peter Hyams
Starring: Justin Chambers
September 2001

I was pleasantly surprised by this one.
The Musketeer has a halfway decent storyline, action sequences that stay just inside the boundaries of believability and boasts the best villain I've seen this year. The set design is Oscar-worthy.

Rating: 2 1/2

Planet of the Apes (PG-13)

Directed by: Tim Burton
Starring: Mark Wahlberg
July 2001

This new
Planet of the Apes doesn't have it all, but it has enough engaging elements to make me recommend it. Character development is predictably weak, but the plot is surprisingly solid and kept me guessing right up to the final, fateful twist.

Rating: 2 1/2

Jurassic Park III (PG-13)

Directed by: Joe Johnston
Starring: Sam Neill
July 2001

Great special effects, good directing, fair acting, weak plot and poor character development equals a mediocre sequel.
Jurassic Park III is a T-Rex leap better than the previous film, The Lost World, and yet it didn't make me jump. Nothing new here.

Rating: 2 1/2

Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (PG-13)

Directed by: Hironobu Sakaguchi, Motonori Sakakibara
Starring: Ming-Na Wen
July 2001

The subtitle, The Spirits Within, says it all. Gia (Mother Earth) and the eight living spirits? What kind of New Age schlock is this? Maybe it's fitting that this flick marks an "evolutionary" leap in computer-generated movies.

Rating: 1 1/2

Cats & Dogs (PG)

Directed by: Lawrence Guterman
Starring: Jeff Goldblum
July 2001

After suspending my disbelief, I found this to be a rather humorous look at the age-old battle for supremacy between felines and canines; kicked up a notch. A talking animal picture that entertains and bolsters family values is okay by me.

Rating: 2

A.I. Artificial Intelligence (PG-13)

Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Haley Joel Osment
June 2001

Two diametrically opposed directing styles collide in
A.I., producing a moody, avant-garde film. Every aspect of the movie soars except for the story, which makes the movie memorable for its unfulfilled potential. Osmet is a gem.

Rating: 2 1/2

Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (PG-13)

Directed by: Simon West
Starring: Angelina Jolie
June 2001

The problem with so many modern movies? Great special effects mated with anemic plots. This movie is no exception, and adds bad taste to the mix; gratuitous scenes reveal the true star of the movie...Jolie's physique.

Rating: 1 1/2

Atlantis: The Lost Empire (PG)

Directed by: Gary Trousdale, Kirk Wise
Starring: Michael J. Fox
June 2001

Sharp animation, good voice talents and memorable characters almost make me give
Atlantis a solid recommendation. Thinly-veiled New Age philosophies and violence (people actually die in this Disney movie) make me think twice about doing so.

Rating: 2 1/2

Evolution (PG-13)

Directed by: Ivan Reitman
Starring: David Duchovny
June 2001

Phil Tippet’s unique creatures and solid acting performances by David Duchovny and Julianne Moore couldn’t bring
Evolution past a primordial stage. You might even be disappointed paying the matinee price for this one.

Rating: 1 1/2

Shrek (PG)

Directed by: Andrew Adamson, Vicky Jenson
Starring: Mike Myers
May 2001

A genuinely hilarious adventure,
Shrek is a fairy tale that delivers. Great voice talents, amazing CGI and a heart-warming plot make Shrek the feel-good movie of the summer.

Rating: 3

A Knight's Tale (PG-13)

Directed by: Brian Helgeland
Starring: Heath Ledger
May 2001

Brief nudity and innumerable anachronisms (most notably the score) nearly ground this medieval tale, but a serviceable storyline, colorful sidekicks and an adequate villain combine to produce a satisfying and inspiring film.

Rating: 2 1/2

The Mummy Returns (PG-13)

Directed by: Stephen Sommers
Starring: Brendan Fraser
May 2001

Great special effects can’t compensate for a contrived plot. Little originality, excessive violence, grotesque creatures and a reincarnation subplot make this a mediocre movie at best.

Rating: 2

Crocodile Dundee in Los Angeles (PG)

Directed by: Simon Wincer
Starring: Paul Hogan
April 2001

This, third,
Crocodile Dundee movie is one sequel that should not have been made—it’s a terrible waste, mate. Paul Hogan’s jokes land like anvils and the story is as pedestrian as heck. This is the prime example of returning to a dry well. The Mike Tyson scene is silly as is the skunk rescue sequence. The only remotely funny moment in the film is at the posh Hollywood party where Dundee regales humorous episodes with his good friend “Mal” Gibson.

Rating: 2

Finding Forrester (PG-13)

Directed by: Gus Van Sant

Starring: Sean Connery
January 2001

Sean Connery plays agoraphobic William Forrester, renowned author of two best-selling novels, who entered seclusion at the height of his success and now exists as a curmudgeonly recluse in the Bronx. Enter Jamal Wallace (Rob Brown), a gifted writer who Forrester reluctantly takes under his wing (after the teen breaks into his apartment on a dare), teaching him the finer points of how to craft the Great American Novel. Jamal’s impressive grades pave the way for him to attend an upper crust school, where he makes friends with Claire Spence (Anna Paquin), but one of his teachers, Prof. Henry Crawford (F. Murray Abraham) has it in for him, claiming the young African American student is plagiarizing other famous works. The climactic scene, where Forrester visits Jamal’s class and reads one of his protégée’s works, is the moment of the film, very gratifying. There’s nothing revolutionary about
Finding Forrester, but as a character study and a tale of self-discovery and friendship, the movie passes with flying colors.

Rating: 3