‘Cars 3’ looks good with a little something more

Cars 3


     I have a written before that if I were making a list of all the Pixar feature films, “Cars 2” would be my least favorite, the bottom of the list. One notch above “2” would be the original “Cars.”  These are not bad films. Each of them have their moments. The “Cars” series can just not compete with the three “Toy Story” films, “Up,” “Inside Out,” “Wall-E” or “Finding Nemo” just to name a few.

     Needless to say, I went into “Cars 3” with very little expectations. “Cars 3” is once again spotlighting racing. “2” did not have a plot that focused on racing as the first film did. “2” was more about a mystery. Racing fans, of which I am not, will most likely embrace this third film as being more like the first, with exciting racing elements throughout the film.

     “Cars 3” is also about other issues beyond racing. The film is about the passing of time and the element of age that we all must face. Lightning McQueen is back racing once more, hoping for one more victory. There are flashbacks featuring his departed friend: Doc Hudson played by the late Paul Newman. Many of the fellow cast members are back as well. Then there are new voices including Cristela Alonzo, Chris Cooper, and Armie Hammer. Hammer plays McQueen’s greatest competition, a younger sleeker model who can simply move faster than McQueen ever could.

     As with all Pixar films, “Cars 3” looks great. The characters are wonderful creations merging the reality of metal cars with the ability to alter their expressions when emotions require it. Beyond the characters, the settings around them are beautiful. As with all Pixar films, there are too many things to see in one viewing and all of it is artistic masterworks.

     And as I said, the film is about the passing of time and the element of age. McQueen has to admit that the younger cars are faster. Learning new things can be frustrating. Also with the passing of time, there come disappointments with the changes life brings. Others, cars or people, begin to look at someone or some car differently because the passing of time has altered their perception. And the ones at whom we are looking actually have changed.

     It is not the racing action, which is well drawn. It is not the jokes and comedy which are often clever. It is not the vivid color, which covers every shade of the spectrum. The greatest strength in “Cars 3” is the sentiment. Most of the audience of “Cars 3” will not understand any of the passing time issues, but for those of us who have watched four or more decades pass, there are many things that resonate in the film, and that is the film’s greatest strength. The film moved me, more than I thought it would.

     And that brings me back to where I began. Now that I have seen all three “Cars” films, I think I like them a little bit better. However, collectively, these three are still my least favorites. Give me Nemo, Buzz, Woody, Carl Fredricksen from “Up” or all the cast of “Monsters, Inc” and “Inside Up,” and I will be happy. I even liked the short “LOU”, which is shown before “3,” more than “Cars 3.” But, I am glad I saw it. I am sure many racing fans and Pixar fans will like it even more; they will be hoping for “Cars 4.”

     One final note, “Coco” is Pixar’s next feature. There is a trailer before “Cars 3.”  “Coco” looks absolutely incredible. Once again, it may become harder and harder to pick the best five Pixar films. Leave it up to Pixar to make an animated feature about death. “Coco” opens November 22. The sentiment of “Cars 3” moved me; I expect that “Coco” will have me in tears for most of the film. 

Roger Thomas is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association. He reviews films for The Stanly News & Press.


Can ‘Transformers: The Last Knight’ be the last film?



    I have written before that the “Transformers” came out after I was too old for miniature robots that transformed in various things. I never watched the cartoons or purchased any of the toys.

     But now there are five of these films, and I have seen every one of them. I keep going to the theatre hoping that something will inspire me. This time I did discover a few qualities that I can compliment.

     First, the film looks good from start to finish. A few months ago, I charged that the film “King Arthur” had terrible 3-D. The whole film was too dark, especially after one placed the 3-D glasses over their eyes. I did not like “Transformers 5” much more “King Arthur” but one thing is sure, “Transformers” is a visual masterpiece compared to “Arthur.”

     As an interesting side-note, in this fifth film, fans find out that Merlin, the wizard from the stories of King Author, met the Transformers centuries ago. Merlin and the Transformers help Arthur and his knights win a battle. I am sure if one is a fan, that must be really exciting.

     So, the film looks good, and the 3-D is bright, are there any other redeeming qualities in the film.

     I liked the early scene where four young boys meet a young girl as they are exploring the ruins of a sports stadium. Those moments with the children have interesting action and dialogue, and the film would have been better if it had put more focus on the generation whose whole lives have been affected by the robots from space.

     There are some funny moments, especially among the Transformers. There are some quiet moments with some of the cast members. Mark Wahlberg’s character can call his daughter but cannot speak to her because he is a “wanted man.” Moments like those are somewhat touching. 

      On the other end of the spectrum, why did Anthony Hopkins join this cast? I know the answer most likely: money. I kept thinking, “This man played Hannibal Lector; why is he in a “Transformers” film?” Beside Wahlberg and Hopkins, the only other recognizable person I saw in the cast is Stanly Tucci who plays Merlin.

     The other problem with this series is that if offers more of the same repeatedly. There will be several battles, in which the good guys, lose because Optimus Prime is not there. Then there will be a final battle that first goes against the good guys, and then shifts with the help of Optimus Prime will show up at the last minute. No one should be surprised that the battle ends up with the heroes winning rather than the villains.

     So here it is. If you love special effects, flat dialogue, a few good moments, lots of chaos, and a set up for “Part Six,” this is probably the film for you. It certainly seemed to please the people around me.

     On the other hand, if you want story over effects, something different rather than the same old things, smart dialogue instead mindless banter, you want something more than the “Transformers.” I agree with you one hundred percent. 

     The original film, “Transformers” came out in 2007. It starred Shia LaBeouf, Megan Fox and Academy Award winning actor, Jon Voight. Few of us would have ever guessed that a decade later, there would still be an interest in “Transformers.” But there is.

     My guess is that Michael Bay will strive for five more. So, why don’t he change the story? Let all the bad Transformers break down and the good ones start building homeless shelters. Rather than participating in destruction, the benevolent Transformers change the world for good and along the way, they change a few human hearts. Would it not be great if “Transformers 6: Rise of Benevolence” became the greatest “Transformers” film ever.

Roger Thomas is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association. He reviews films for The Stanly News & Press.

‘The Book of Henry’ is intriguing start that becomes preposterous

Book of Henry


     The character named in the title is a gifted child. Henry is an incredibly intelligent young boy who impresses his teachers, his mother, his doctor, and anyone else who crosses his path. The screenplay makes sure the audience understands Henry’s brilliance from the beginning. 

      Henry is played by Jaeden Lieberher and his performance is the best part of the film. Lieberher has acted with one of my favorite directors, Jeff Nichols. “Midnight Special” was the name of the film; not one of Nichols best works, but Lieberher was one of the best things in it.   This young actor also did fantastic work in “St. Vincent,” a film that always makes me cry. His next work is the new version of Stephen King’s “It.” May it be better than “The Book of Henry” in every way.     

     There are other strengths. Naomi Watts, who has been nominated twice for Oscars in “The Impossible” and “21 Grams,” plays Henry’s mother. Watts character, Susan Carpenter, relies on her child prodigy for most of the responsible actions that take place in the home. This is the first flaw of the film. Susan is playing video games when she should be sharing time with her children or learning to take some of the responsibility off of her 12 year-old. Certainly in reality there are many negligent parents in the world, Susan’s character, however, just seems odd in an unbelievable way. She is smart, yet incapable.

     Besides, Henry has a younger brother named Peter who definitely needs his mother more than Henry. Peter played by Jacob Tremblay. Tremblay should have received an Oscar nomination for his role in “Room.” His work here is fine, but not near the quality he offered in “Room.”

     Other important characters include Glenn Sickleman, the police chief, played by Dean Norris who seems to get plenty of work these days. Sickleman is the next door neighbor of Henry’s family, who might just have a secret. Maddie Ziegler plays Christina, the stepdaughter of Sickleman.

     The performances are not the film’s weaknesses. Without giving away too many plot points, the film is built around Henry’s suspicion of what is happening next door. Anyone who has seen the trailer for this film, already knows what is suspected because it is spelled out on the screen. That possibility is what moves the second half of the film forward. After the focus has shifted from Henry to Susan, a plan is put into action.

     There are many dramatic moments in the film. There are good actors involved. The film has some clever humor and some sets that are ingenious. Some of the unexpected  twists work better than others. And there are moments when the emotional elements work. The problem is that the main plot does not seem based in reality. I do not think an adult would choose actions depicted in the film.

     As the film begins to focus on the plot that is the center of the preview trailer and the film itself, everything collapses. Not one moment of the climax resonates in reality. There are simply too many holes in the story. I continued thinking, “That would not happen in the real world.” There are too many things that simply do not ring with any truth.

     Then comes the climax. I suppose it works on some level. It is certainly sweet and wholesome at the end. All things are resolved.

     I am not sure who the audience is for this film. Few adults will find it compelling. Children under ten will have a lot of uncomfortable questions. Teenagers would probably laugh rather than empathize with the characters. So who would enjoy this film? 

      Someone who does not want to think too much. Or perhaps someone who likes this cast, because they are talented. Other films have proven these cast members are quite talented.

Roger Thomas is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association. He reviews films for The Stanly News & Press.

’47 Meters Down’ another attempt to scare us with sharks

47 meters


     I was twelve when I was first scared by a shark movie. Almost anyone in their fifties remembers that Summer of 1975. That was the year that just hearing the right music reminded us of our communal experience. I think I saw “Jaws” three times that summer, but it may have been more.

    The effects were not always good. Half the scenes had to be changed because the mechanical shark did not work. Yet somehow, a masterpiece happened.

     Is it time for a national audience to have a scare once again? But alas, I doubt that is going to happen. First, many of the people who loved “Jaws” forty-two years ago, do not go to the movies anymore. Besides there are only a few filmmakers achieving anything close to the magic and hysteria that was “Jaws.”

     In case you are wondering, “47 Meters Down” is not the new “Jaws.”

     There are a few good moments in this latest shark flick. And even The sharks look grand. CGI can do things that a mechanical shark never could. So the film earns points for the visuals.

     So what are the problems. First, the backstories of the two leading ladies are uninteresting and unrealistic. Lisa’s ex-boyfriend is going to reconcile with her after he knows that she went down in a shark-cage? That is what her sister Kate tries to convince her. These girls do not seem to exist in a real world. Brody the sheriff of Amity Island was scared of the water but lived on an Island. Hooper made fun of him for that. Now that’s a back story.

     Second, who would choose the economic shark cage crew rather than the licensed professionals. I am not going down in shark cage but if I was, I would want to know that there were extra equipments for every possible mishap. These young women are not hesitant enough, so they go into the deep with faulty equipment and large sharks already circling the boat.

     Most of the equipment is questionable, but when it comes to the underwater breathing gear, those items look expensive. Of course, the breathing gear has to be state of the art so that once the ladies are trapped on the bottom of the ocean, they will have enough oxygen to keep the film going for nearly ninety minutes.  

     Once the ladies became trapped at the bottom, they take all sorts of risk. Unfortunately most of it simply seems implausible.

     Toward the end, there is a slight twist. I did not find it redeeming but it was a creative attempt. Overall, the film had some potential that never manifested. The characters are not created in a way to make the audience sympathize with them. The situations seem far too unbelievable.

     I could forgive most of that if one thing had happened. I wanted to be scared. I was scared at twelve when Christy was pulled under the water and  tried to grab that buoy. I was scared when the one- eyed corpse startled Hooper. I was scared when the shark came out of the water when Brody is scooping out the chum. That is when he says those classic words, “We’re gonna need a bigger boat.” Granted I was young, but “Jaws” was scary.

     As I watched “47 Meters Down” I noticed that no one in the  audience seemed to be tense. We have come a long way in forty-two years since “Jaws” and it is harder to scare audiences today. But “47 Meters” certainly could have  tried a little harder.

     If you are looking for a well-made shark film, and you want something different from “Jaws,” check out last year’s “The Shallows.”  It is not a great film, but it is a good one, far better than “47 Meters Down.”

Roger Thomas is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association. He reviews films for The Stanly News & Press.

‘Baby Driver’ is a thrilling ride with heart

Baby Driver


     I had seen the trailer for “Baby Driver” many times but I never realized the plot was taking place on the streets of my former residence: Atlanta, Georgia. I saw several things that looked familiar and there was also some dialogue that discussed sights and roads I used to drive on. The references to that city are just one of the many elements that made “Baby Driver” a exceptional experience for me.

     The film boasts a strong cast. Ansel Elgort plays the title character “Baby.” He was previously seen on the “Divergent” series of films of which I was not a fan. He also did “The Fault in Our Stars” which I liked more than the “Divergent” films. None of his previous work, however, comes close to his work in this film. He is the greatest strength of the film and I am looking forward to seeing what he will do next.. 

     Elgort is surrounded with talent including three villains played by Jon Hamm, Kevin Spacey, and Jamie Foxx. Lily James plays Baby’s love interest, Debora, and she does good work as a waitress who happens to meet Baby one day at the diner where she works. It is a superb cast all the way around.

     Beyond the setting and cast, the film is choreographed with so many high speed chases that I could hardly keep up with all of them. This film reminded me of the films I saw as a child and a young teenager. My brother and I were always excited when a another film about people in cars chasing one another came to our local theatre. The only title I remember was “Vanishing  Point” but back then it seemed like a car chase movie came out every other week. In the 70’s I believed in all that stunt driving; now I know that most of the car chases on screen would never actually happen in a metropolitan city. The chases in “Baby Driver” are slick and cool scenes. Plus they are incredibly fun even if they are not realistic.

     So the film has a great setting, Atlanta, a fine cast pushing a strong story, and great action sequences. All that would add up to a fairly good film. But there is so much more. Edgar Wright is not a household name in the United States. When the credits were rolling on the screen, I did not recognize his name. Wright is a British filmmaker who has given the world such films as “Shaun of the Dead,” “Hot Fuzz” and “The World’s End.” Thanks to a friend who pointed this out to me.

     Wright has done great work for years. “Shaun” came out in 2004, so it has been more than a decade that Wright has been making entertaining and fun films that are also smart. “Baby Driver” follows right along with that tradition. First and foremost, this is a action film. It is a thriller. But it is also a story of a good person trapped in a bad world. Baby wants to escape from the darkness where he dwells, but his situation denies him that freedom.

     Then there is Debora, Baby’s first love and Joseph, Baby’s foster father. These two influences challenge Baby to escape and become something new. Their presence in the story offers redemption. Whether it is within Baby’s grasp is the question between all the car chases and crimes being committed.

     I will not reveal how all this plays out, but there is a coda that I, for one, appreciated. Sometimes films end and we have questions. Sometimes actions set up a potential secret for a sequel. Sometimes when we see a film, we get the feeling that the film truly concludes; whether the story ends happy or sad, it ends right. 

     “Baby Driver” has one of those endings. It concludes just right.

Roger Thomas is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association. He reviews films for The Stanly News & Press.