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This Movie Makes No Sense: “Cars 2”

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Earlier this week at a press junket for “John Carter,” Disney producer Lindsey Collins suggested that a Pixar backlash was to blame for “Cars 2″‘s lack of an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature. “I think it had the fact that Pixar has dominated going against it,” Collins told Movieline. “At a certain point there was going to be somebody who was going to take the fall a little bit. It was going to be like, ‘Eh, we don’t like that one.’”

Was there a Pixar backlash? Perhaps. It definitely felt like a few critics took an undue amount of glee in finally getting an opportunity to savage a film from the vaunted Pixar Animation Studios. In their sixteen year history making animated feature films prior to “Cars 2,” Pixar had never received a negative score on Rotten Tomatoes. Even 2006’s “Cars” — supposedly “the bad Pixar movie” according to some critics — earned a respectable 74% on the movie review aggregator. But if critics were lukewarm on the first film in the series, they were bitterly cold on its sequel, which ultimately wound up with a rotten 39% Tomatometer rating. The reviews were scathing, a veritable festival of anti-pull-quotes. “A mess!” declared the Associated Press. “Surprisingly tedious!” moaned ReelViews. “Utterly ordinary!” kvetched The New Orleans Times-Picayune.

If you’re looking for someone to refute the bad vibes, to explain how everyone missed the boat and why “Cars 2” is a misunderstood masterpiece, you’re parking in the wrong garage. “Cars 2” is a mess, and its plot is, at times, surprisingly tedious. It is easily the worst film ever produced by the animation wizards at Pixar. It’s not, however, “utterly ordinary.” In fact, “Cars 2” is a bit more interesting — and a whole lot weirder — than you’ve heard. Ordinary? A film about sentient automobiles existing on a planet exactly like our own except for its total lack of human life, engaged in auto racing (a sensible occupation for cars) and international espionage (a less sensible one)? A film with car toilets and car bidets and car food and car sleeping gas? Sorry, no ordinary film makes this little sense.

Of course, the living, (apparently) breathing cars first appeared in the original “Cars,” directed, like its sequel, by head Pixar honcho John Lasseter. But they invited less questions that time around. “Cars” was largely confined to the comings and goings of a sleepy town called Radiator Springs, where a race car named Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) got stranded on his way to the big finale of the NASCAR-ish Piston Cup. Though inspired by a Lasseter family vacation along the old Route 66, Radiator Springs was an entirely fictitious setting. It felt divorced enough from our own reality to let the inherent strangeness of its premise — a universe of cars without humans who, according to my vague recollections of elementary school social studies, were the ones who invented cars in the first place — slide. Anthropomorphic cars. Fine.

The expanded setting and more complicated plot of “Cars 2,” though, make the larger implications of this world harder to ignore. This time out, Lightning is invited to participate in the World Grand Prix, with races all over the globe. While in Tokyo for the first leg of the WGP, Lightning’s dopey sidekick Tow Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) gets mistaken for an American spy by British secret agent Finn McMissle (Michael Caine). While Lightning drives through the World Grand Prix, Mater participates in a series of James Bond-style chases and “car-ate” fights to protect the world from evildoers who wish to interrupt the races and discredit its sponsor, a new alternative fuel source named Allinol.

If the cars are searching for an alternative fuel source, then they must be using a non-alternative fuel source — and, sure enough, “Cars 2″‘s opening sequence, inspired by the pre-credits adventures of 007 in thrillers like “The Spy Who Loved Me,” follows Finn McMissile as he sneaks aboard an enormous off-shore drilling platform. In other words: the cars of “Cars” need gas. Fair enough; but if cars need gas to run, and the gas needs to be sucked out of the ground just like it does in our reality, how did the cars function before they built their first oil wells?

Exactly what the cars need to survive is massively confusing in general. The cars require gas (or Allinol), but they can also apparently eat as well, ingesting foodstuffs through the enormous cartoon mouths on their front bumpers (their mouths also sport teeth and tongues, which must freak out potheads when they watch this movie). The World Grand Prix’s launch party in Japan features a free food buffet, including wasabi that Mater mistakes for pistachio ice cream. As you might expect, Mater eats too much and is sent scrambling for water. The existence of wasabi means the existence of organic foods which would be unnecessary (or impossible) in a world without humans or animals. Then again, Mater mistakes wasabi for pistachio ice cream, which implies the existence of ice cream, which implies the existence of cows. But where are they? Who milks them? And how?

Cars need to make pit stops just like humans do, but still, it’s a bit unsettling to learn the cars use bathrooms like the one Mater patronizes in “Cars 2.” During the aforementioned Japan sequence, Mater begins “leaking” and dashes off to the lavatory. You might expect a car’s bathroom to look like a car wash, but no, a car’s public restroom looks exactly like a human one, right down to the mirrors and sinks (even though the cars don’t have hands to wash in them).

Mater uses a toilet stall and gets roughed up by a parody of Japanese “Super Toilets” that include high-tech features like bidets and heated seats. Lasseter has said in interviews that “Cars 2” was inspired by the international press tour for “Cars 1,” and it seems likely that he himself might have had a bewildering altercation with a crazily elaborate Japanese toilet. But that still leaves me wondering: WHY DOES A CAR NEED TO USE THE GODDAMN BATHROOM?

Let’s talk about God for a second. The cars seem to have one, as a race in Italy is attended by The Popemobile. During a stopover in Paris, we also see Notre Dame Cathedral which sports clever “car-goyle” statues amongst its spires and arches. These are all clever visual jokes, but the film doesn’t dwell on them, probably because if it did you’d start to think about them, and when you start to think about them the whole thing falls apart. If God created man — or cars — in his own image, that would seem to suggest God, at least in this batshit crazy universe, is a car too (probably a Lamborghini).

Here’s another one that stumped me. The final leg of the World Grand Prix is in London, where the Queen is both a spectator and the potential target of Finn McMissile’s enemies. Eventually, the heroes defeat the villains, and Mater gets knighted by a thankful Queen. A Queen car! So there’s car royalty! How does that work? The English royal bloodline goes back centuries — does the English car royal bloodline work the same way? If it goes back even two or three generations, that’s before the invention of cars. Was Queen Crown Victoria, say, a horse-drawn carriage? Did the cars evolve from lesser forms of transportation? How does Darwin fit in here? If all of human history played out basically as it did in Cars Land, what did Ancient Greece look like? Or the American Civil War?

So many questions. I’ve spent so much time dwelling on the larger theological and political implications of a world of cars I haven’t even mentioned the more practical puzzlers, like the strange choices surrounding which characters returned from the first “Cars” for the sequel. If Doc Hudson was killed off in deference to the passing of his voice, Paul Newman, why did they recast George Carlin’s character Fillmore? It all makes no sense.

Actually, while this movie makes no sense to me, an alleged adult, it might make perfect sense to a child. Kids, after all, routinely anthropomorphize their toy cars with nary a thought to rationality or continuity. The charmingly human world of “Cars” speaks to a child’s logic even as it confounds an adult’s. That’s why this series has become Pixar’s second-most successful franchise and a huge cashcow for Disney even though it’s never connected with parents in the same way more respected and literate Pixar films like “WALL-E” and “Up” did. It may not have earned an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature, but I’m sure in the universe of “Cars” it would have won every single award given to movies. And the statuettes would have been shaped like the open source car — or OSCar for short. Just don’t ask why.

What part of “Cars 2” makes the least amount of sense? Tell us in the comments below or write to us on Facebook and Twitter.

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Mr. Roboto

5 Reasons Rocky IV Is Too Rotten to Miss

Catch Rocky IV Friday at 8P during IFC's Rotten Fridays.

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Photo Credit: MGM/UA/YouTube

When Rocky IV was released in 1985, the critics were not kind. (While it wasn’t around back then, the film’s 39% ranking on Rotten Tomatoes speaks for itself.) Less of a movie than a jingoistic music video starring a robot and a steroid-addled, monosyllabic Russian baddie, Rocky IV is a far cry from the Italian Stallion’s humble origins.

Still, more than any movie ever made, it exemplifies the whole “so bad its good” genre. This movie was made for us, the great-unwashed masses of the 1980s, who loved the band Survivor and hated those Commie bastards. Before you catch Rocky IV on IFC’s Rotten Fridays, let’s take a look at some moments that make this flick a “too rotten to miss” classic.

5. That Opening Shot

Rocky IV
United Artists

It takes all of 30 seconds for the audience to know they’re in for one ridiculous rollercoaster ride through a Cold War conniption fit of good vs. evil. Gone is the subtle tone and grounded reality of the first Rocky. In its place we see two gloves, one emblazoned with the American flag, the other with the Soviets’, hurtling toward each other. When they collide, sparks fly, and we witness an explosion decades in the making.

In case the symbolism is too subtle for you, director/writer/star Sylvester Stallone is trying to hint that this movie will be the clash of civilizations we’d all been waiting for, but instead of nuclear bombs, a humble palooka from the streets would be duking it out in the ring with the ultimate representation of coldhearted Communism. If it were up to us, this opening shot would’ve won Best Picture all by itself.


4. So Many Montages

Rocky IV has a running time of 91 minutes and 20 seconds. Its eight montages (yes, EIGHT) run a total of 29 minutes and 10 seconds. That is one third of the movie solely dedicated to montages. (Considering Stallone’s contempt for all things Soviet, we have to wonder if he knows it was a dirty Ruskie who invented the montage.)

During one of the many, many montages, director Stallone actually flashes back to a scene that had happened a minute and half prior, creating the impression that he might actually flashback to the montage we were just watching in the same montage. Stallone clearly loves a good montage set to an inspirational ’80s song, and so do we. Which brings us to…


3. A Soundtrack Full of Pumped Up ’80s Jams

Speaking of montages, they are set to the score of some of the cheesiest hits from the mid-’80s. For once, we’re spared tracks from Frank Stallone, with Stallone replacing his rocker brother with synth-y singles from Survivor, John Cafferty and Kenny Loggins. And of course, Robert Tepper, possessor of an ’80s mullet that could topple empires, crooning “No Easy Way Out.” The music in this movie is one step away from being a parody of the music in this movie. If you ever want to know what cocaine can do to the human mind, just listen to this soundtrack.


2. Rocky Ends the Cold War

Rocky IV speech
United Artists

In one of the most misguided, self-congratulatory, and immediately dated moments in cinema history, good ol’ galoot Rocky Balboa single-handedly ended the Cold War four years before the Berlin Wall came down.

To quote the Italian Stallion himself: “In here…there were two guys… killing each other. But I guess that’s better than millions. What I’m trying to say is… if I can change… and you can change…everybody can change!” And just like that the Soviet public, generals and even the Premier himself rose to their feet in applause, realizing what fools they’d been. This guy beat Mr. T for Heaven’s sake. He knows what he’s talking about!


1. Paulie’s Robot

Okay, let’s all take a deep breath and really consider this for a moment. Rocky IV has a robot butler in it. A movie franchise that began back in 1976 exploring the gritty reality of a bum fighter trying to prove himself somehow limped along long enough to turn into a weak Short Circuit rip-off in which an alcoholic mooch with a history of domestic abuse now gets his coffee served to him by a robot. A robot that he has programmed with a “sultry” lady voice!

Stallone was inspired to include the real life robot Sico in Rocky IV because of the work it did to help autistic children like his son Seargeoh. That’s all very moving, but doesn’t explain why he decided to write a scene where Paulie dubs poor Sico “the love of my life.” It’s a testament to Rocky IV‘s “too rotten to miss” status that Paulie’s robot girlfriend/personal servant isn’t even the craziest thing that happens to Rock and the gang.

Catch the “Too Rotten to Miss” movie Rocky IV this Friday at 8P on IFC. 

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Gray's Anatomy

Everything You Need to Know About the Movie That Inspired “Parker Gail’s Location is Everything”

Brand new Documentary Now! airs Wednesday at 10P on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Cinecom Pictures

This week Documentary Now! spotlights a master monologist with “Parker Gail’s Location is Everything.” Before you tune in at 10P this Wednesday on IFC, check out our guide to Swimming to Cambodia, the 1987 film that captured writer/performer Spalding Gray’s acclaimed one-person show.

Spalding Gray 101

Swimming to Cambodia
Cinecom Pictures

Actor and renowned monologist Spalding Gray spent two years on stage perfecting his Obie Award-winning “Swimming to Cambodia” monologue. In it, Gray tells the story of his eight weeks in Southeast Asia while shooting the 1984 Academy Award-winning movie The Killing Fields. He had a small role, but the experience gave him several anecdotes about hanging out with the film crew and experiencing the local culture, all while searching for “the perfect moment.”

Directed by the Silence of the Lambs Guy

Hannibal Lecter
Orion Pictures/Everett Collection

Acclaimed filmmaker Jonathan Demme took Gray’s two-night, four hour performance and crafted it down to 85 minutes. His use of dramatic lighting, stylish camerawork and a score by performance artist Laurie Anderson was praised by critics and earned the film a cult following. No stranger to groundbreaking docs, Demme also directed the 1984 Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense, which Documentary Now! pays tribute to in this season’s episode “Final Transmission.”

All about the Voices

While it may have been a one-man show, Gray created a repertoire of characters all with distinctive accents. (He portrayed conversations between himself and others just by turning his head.) Our favorite impressions are of his demanding girlfriend Renee and Ivan Strasberg, the South African director of photography on The Killing Fields who, as depicted by Gray, sounds a bit like a Jamaican surfer.

The Original Cranky New Yorker

In one memorable scene, Gray rants about how his noisy upstairs artist neighbors are driving him and Renee crazy. Even in the mid-’80s, there were New Yorkers complaining that the city wasn’t what it used to be.

Show and Tell

Swimming to Cambodia
Cinecom Pictures/YouTube

A big fan of visual aids, Gray used pull-down maps to illustrate his travels. This helped to bring Swimming to Cambodia to life, since he’s basically sitting at a desk the entire time.

Inspired One-Person Shows

Gray’s groundbreaking performances in Swimming and other documentaries like Monster in a Box and the Steven Soderbergh-directed Gray’s Anatomy (about Gray’s struggle with a rare eye condition) paved the way for future one-person shows. (We wouldn’t have everything from Carrie Fisher’s “Wishful Drinking” to Mike Birbiglia’s “Sleepwalk With Me” without him.) Even Doc Now! star Fred Armisen got into the one-person show act for his recent SNL monologue.

Catch Documentary Now!’s tribute to Spalding Gray when “Parker Gail: Location Is Everything” premieres Wednesday, September 28th at 10P on IFC. 

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Burning Heart

10 Reasons Why Rocky IV Is the Ultimate Rocky Movie

Catch an all-day Rocky movie marathon this Friday, September 30th on IFC.

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Photo Credit: United Artists/Everett Collection

Sure, most people love the first Rocky for its heart, gripping boxing scenes and the classic training montage. Or, you might love Creed for being both a return-to-form and a new exploration of the Rocky mythology. Maybe the thrill of seeing Mr. T and Hulk Hogan in the same movie makes Rocky III your top pick. Well, sorry, you’re wrong: Rocky IV is the greatest of all the “Italian Stallion”‘s movies.

Before you watch the all-day Rocky movie marathon this Friday, September 30th on IFC (with Rocky IV airing at 8P as part of Rotten Fridays), check out a few reasons to appreciate the fourth installment as the king of the series.

1. The Greatest Opening Ever

How many openings are able to sum up the entire conflict of the film in less than a minute and without a single line of dialogue? And how many of those movies have exploding boxing gloves? Just try to watch the opening sequence above and not be completely psyched for the pumped-up flick to come.


2. Montages!

We all know that the best part of any sports movie is the montage, and Rocky IV doesn’t give you one measly montage. There’s a recap of the previous films montage, a getting to Russia Montage, two training montages and an ending fight montage. That’s five montages! There’s probably a montage of montages snuck in there, too.


3. There’s a Full James Brown Musical Number

This movie is so packed with memorable moments, it’s easy to forget one of the first things that happens in the film: Apollo comes out to fight Drago dressed as a shirtless Uncle Sam, while James Brown and a full band play “Living in America.” To drive home the number’s patriotism, there are dancers in tuxedos and top hats, weird unitards and bowler caps, and bedazzled showgirls with headpieces for miles. Oh, and don’t forget the giant tentacled dragon statue on the stage. This is how every boxing match should start. Heck, this is how we always want to enter a room.


4. The Soundtrack

The Rocky IV soundtrack doesn’t just feature James Brown — it has rock anthems galore, all of which make you immediately want to hit the gym. From “Heart’s on Fire” by John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band to “Sweetest Victory” by Touch to multiple Survivor jams, you’ll get pumped and stay pumped. Even the instrumental score rocks! Sure, sometimes it sounds like it was made on a kids Casio, but this soundtrack never quits and — to quote Robert Tepper — never takes the easy way out.


5. Abs!

Rocky IV weights

Every Rocky movie shows off Stallone’s incredible physique, but Rocky IV really ups the game. Not only do we get Dolph Lundgren mostly shirtless looking like a man machine, but we get a wide variety of scenes of Stallone doing impossible tasks. Stallone’s crazy dragon fly crunches, aka a thing no human should be able to do, automatically take this movie to the top.


6. Two words: Ivan Drago

Ivan Drago
United Artists

Not only does Rocky IV explore the global conflict between the US and the Soviet Union, but it encapsulates all of our fears of the Cold War in one perfect villain. Ivan Drago only trains with machines and science and looks like he stepped out of an Aryan Nations recruitment poster. He also only responds in short, cold phrases like “If he dies, he dies,” or “I must break you.” There’s never been a villain who we so clearly want to get the crap beat out of than Ivan Drago.


7. Rocky Makes Chores Look Badass

Rocky saw
United Artists

Rocky doesn’t need to be hooked up to machines to become the perfect fighter. All he needs are huge tires and some outdoor chores to do. No one’s ever looked cooler chopping wood and using tractor parts. Half of his training is lifting an old wagon, probably to fix a broken axle. If anything, this film inspires us to take care of that gardening work we’ve been neglecting.


8. Rocky’s Beard

Rocky IV Beard

Stallone’s beard game is truly on point in Rocky IV. And this isn’t some “I forgot to shave, here’s a little stubble” look. No, we get full out, lumberjack-style beard action. Does any other Rocky movie have our hero looking like an old Russian aristocrat? Another point for Rocky IV.


9. There’s a robot!

Again, there’s so much to Rocky IV, you probably forgot about the robot. Well, Rocky has some money now and he’s not going to spend it on frivolous things for himself. He’s going to buy Paulie a robot! The best part of this scene is how truly disturbed Paulie is by this new technology until he gives it a sexy lady voice.


10. Rocky Ends the Cold War

If you’re still not convinced that Rocky IV is the greatest, answer this question: Does any other Rocky movie bring peace between the US and Russia?

By the end of the film, Rocky rises up to beat the seemingly undefeatable Drago. He fights so well, that even the Russians begin to appreciate his skills. Then, instead of using his victory to prove America’s superiority, he gives a rousing speech of “If I can change and you can change, everybody can change!” The whole crowd goes wild, including all of the Russian government, who we assume give up Communism immediately based solely on Rocky’s words. Stallone’s call for international reconciliation through brutal fighting and a variety of montages makes this if not one of the greatest films of all time, certainly the greatest Rocky of them all.

Catch the “Too Rotten to Miss” movie Rocky IV this Friday at 8P on IFC. 

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