Pixar has made another enchanting film, witty, touching, and utterly delightful. It is “Toy Story Hawaiian Vacation,” a brief opener followed by the less delightful “Cars 2.”
In “Toy Story Hawaiian Vacation,” Ken and Barbie are disappointed at being left behind when Bonnie and her family go to Hawaii. So, once Barbie coaxes Ken out of the backpack where he is sulking by telling him she needs some help coordinating her accessories, the other toys create their version of Hawaii in Bonnie’s bedroom. It is adorable — and the best part is that there will be another Toy Story short before next fall’s Muppet movie.
Then comes “Cars 2,” which continues the story of race car champion Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) and his best friend, the rusty, dented tow truck called Mater (voice of Larry the Cable Guy). But this sequel is very different in tone and setting. Mater takes the leading role in an action-filled and sometimes violent spy story that mixes poorly with some muddled messages about friendship and being yourself. I suspect that if it had come from any other studio it would have been given a PG rating.
Lightning loves being with Mater in remote Radiator Springs, but has never taken him along to a race. When he gets the chance to compete in his first international event, Lightning invites Mater to come along. Sir Miles Axlerod (voice of Eddie Izzard) is sponsoring a series of races to promote his new renewable resource-based fuel. Lightning thinks his biggest problem will be out-racing the arrogant Italian champion, Francesco Bernoulli (voice of John Turturro). But there are even more difficult challenges including the embarrassing behavior of his unsophisticated friend and what appears to be sabotage by someone who does not want Axelrod’s new fuel to succeed.
While Lightning is seeing less in his friend away from home, the suave super-spy Finn McMissile (voice of Michael Caine) mistakes Mater for another agent and Mater finds himself caught up in a web of danger and intrigue with Finn and his researcher-turned-field agent Holley Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer). Mater takes over the lead role, first as the kind-hearted but naive and clumsy rube who gets in everyone’s way and whose gaffes are so outrageous the sophisticated spies think it has to be a disguise.
Like a classic James Bond movie, the action moves from the US to Tokyo, Paris, London, and an imaginary spot in “the Italian Riviera.” But it is overly violent, with many minor characters apparently burned up and one non-explicit scene of torture. And it feels both over- and under-plotted at the same time. All the different shifts in location with four big races and the spy story’s mechanical and logistical intrigues get overly complicated without drawing us in. There’s a disquieting sense of missing the forest for the trees. There are so many details, some quite delectable, that somehow the story and characters get lost in the clutter. Is this a story about racing? Friendship? The environment? Taking risks? Bullying? How other people can help us see that we’re capable of more but we should never let them persuade us we are capable only of less? Being proud of your dents and the stories they help you remember? How being rich and powerful does not make you happy and sometimes wisdom comes from unexpected places? All of the above and more.
But some of those details remind us that even second-rate Pixar is worth seeing. There’s the movie playing at the Radiator Springs Drive-In: “The Incredimobiles,” and some nice moments about how different kinds of cars are good at different kinds of race courses and the importance of being kind to “lemons.” There’s a popemobile, a queen car, and geisha cars, even a mime car in Paris. There’s a joke about the word “shoot” that is funny — twice. But it is too scary and confusing for little kids and parents may find that they check their watches, not to see whether Lightning has beat his own record but to see how long before they can go home.
I loved “Buck,” the new documentary about Buck Brannaman, the real-life horse whisperer who inspired the book and movie. The film is extraordinarily moving. Buck’s gift for animals is a wonder, but it is his understanding of people and his own inspiring recovery from abuse that make it so stirring. It was a genuine privilege to speak with him.
You were training the people on how to deal with the horses, not the horses on how to deal with the people.
Sometimes they don’t realize that when they come to the clinic. They think we’re going to fix the horse. But pretty soon they realize the problem is not really about the horse. It’s really about them.
I love the appearance by your foster mother.
She’s the best. I can hardly watch the last few minutes of the movie with her in it without crying. She’s 88 years old now. And then when there’s a Q&A after the screenings I always go up there crying. Her and her husband moved to the ranch after WWII. It’s a small ranch, nothing grand, and they struggled for many many years from one month to the next. I don’t think they ever had any money to speak of but they always had an open door for kids, long before there was a formal foster care program. They were the place where people dumped their kids off when they couldn’t get along with them, when they couldn’t get anything accomplished with them, like you might dump off a kitten at a ranch because it could turn out to be a barn cat. They had four kids of their own and then 17 other boys they raised over 40 years. I was the last one.
You tell a very moving story about how much it meant to you the first day with your foster parents when your foster dad handed you a pair of work gloves.
I was scared when I met my foster dad because of the horrible experiences I had and the best thing he could do for me was not to put a lot of time into feeling sorry for me. He knew I needed some direction and a job to do. I needed something so I could move on. He knew if we dwelled there too long it was going to be nothing but negative for me. He did the same thing for me I tell people to do with the horses that are troubled. We can’t do anything about what happened yesterday or last year but we can live in the moment and do something about it right now. So we give him a job to do and pretty soon he has something else to think about.
My husband and I are both old enough to remember the TV commercial you made when we were kids.
It’s amazing how many people our age still remember that! In those days you looked forward to watching cartoons Saturday morning all week long.
Has there ever been a horse you couldn’t handle?
I’ve never found one I couldn’t handle, or couldn’t help. But occasionally someone will bring a horse to the clinic that is so far out of their league based on their experience. If they had another couple of thousand horses under their belt than maybe you could do this horse some good. Sometime the human doesn’t have what they need to help the horse. It all comes from the horse. Tom Dorrence, who really was the godfather of this kind of horsemanship, he spent his entire life studying horses and trying to find a way to work with the horse as if he made up the rules how you’d help him to understand, to teach a horse what you’d like him to do. And being real, it’s not always going to be fuzzy and warm. Sometimes there’s going to be trouble and struggles but that’s true in all relationships. It’s true in raising kids. It’s not always going to be Mayberry RFD. But you do the best you can. You try to be as engaged as possible so that when they’re ready for redirection you are there to put them on the right path.
I get everything from Olympic riders and dressage to ranch cowboys to people who ride for pleasure. The demographic of horse owners spans from one end to the other. There are places in the country where people still make their living on a horse. Sometimes the cowboys are the least likely to listen or get advice. Whatever you’re talking about, the male ego can kind of get in the way. All of us men have to deal with that one time or other.
And all of us women have to deal with you men dealing with that! I love the scenes with you and your daughter. You’re clearly so close and have such a loving, trusting relationship.
I never get tired seeing that. I always had an idea of the dad I hope I would turn out to be, nothing like my own dad, and I always figured these things applied to people as well as horses. Even before I had kids I would draw that analogy to people because they could relate to it. In the back of my mind I always thought, “I sure hope this applies the way you say it does!” And sure enough it did.
What do you hope people will take away from the movie?
The big picture is that these things apply whether you’re talking about people or horses. It’s about taking responsibility rather than shirking, that’s true whatever you might be talking about. And, to be honest, I’m hoping that of all the people who might be seeing this, maybe there will be a handful that might get the idea, “I don’t care so much if I can be like Buck, but I sure would like to be like Betsy and step up and give a kid a home, someone that nobody cares about and nobody wants.” If that came of it, wouldn’t that be cool?
When did “My Little Pony” get so cool? According to BNET’s Constantine von Hoffman, the new Hub series “is the new, hip thing among the geekerati.”
I love this presentation from a high school student whose assignment was to examine the physics of a stunt in a movie or television.
“Louder than a Bomb” is a new documentary about Chicago’s poetry slam competition for high schoolers. Watching these teenagers thrill to finding their own voices and hearing each other’s stories makes it one of the most inspiring films of the year. I spoke to co-director Jon Siskel (nephew of the late critic Gene Siskel) about making the film.
How did you discover the poetry slam competition in Chicago?
My co-director, Greg Jacobs, was driving on the North Side of Chicago on a Saturday night and saw outside this club called The Metro hundreds of kids lined up under this marquee that said “Louder than a Bomb Poetry Slam.” He thought, “That’s the craziest thing I’ve ever seen, all these kids, every shape size, color, lined up for poetry on a Saturday night.” Greg came in Monday and said, “I think I’ve got our next subject.” We reached out to the founder of Louder than a Bomb Kevin Coval and he invited us to visit a slam and it was really that moment, going to the slam, seeing the kids on stage and the exchange with the audience that was so electrifying — it was one of those things where you know it when you see it. When you get into documentaries you know it is going to be such a long commitment so you’re always kind of cautioning and looking for a way out. “Is something wrong here? Is something not going to work?” But every step of the way it was just better and better and better.
How did you select the kids you were going to focus on?
Our first criteria was that we wanted the best poets. If you’re going to make a movie about a poetry slam, you have to start with that. There are these amazing moments of bravery with other poets who are not shining stars but who get up on stage, paper shaking, not necessarily a great poet but they’re up there pouring their hearts out. But we wanted the poetry to sing and be great.
There were about 40 teams competing at that time. Kevin narrowed it down to a dozen schools. We spent a year hanging out with the kids and part of that year was the first competition we filmed, Nate doing “LeBron James” and Adam doing “Poet Breathe Now.” We heard some stuff that Nova did that was amazing and the Steinmenauts won that year.
What makes a good poem?
I think these kids are writing great poems on paper, but with Slam it’s a combination of really good writing with really good performance. All of our kids in totally different ways do that amazingly well. I think people start giggling when they first see Adam on screen, the hippie kid, dorky, nerdy-ish, but when he gets up on stage he grabs the audience by the throat. And Nova just silences audiences, even in the scene where she’s performing her piece in the classroom about her father, every audience is just holding their breath. She is just devastating. There’s this honesty — I don’t know how they do that. What is so amazing is that it starts in the classroom with this teamwork and so you have Nova putting this stuff out in front of her peers, and Lemar and Big C, putting this very emotional territory in front of people.
Why does poetry make that possible in a way that say, writing an essay does not?
They’re reporting from the streets, talking about things happening around them. “Counting Graves” is this incredibly powerful poem. They create personas and characters. But a lot of the slam comes from this very personal place and that is highly valued by the audience and the judges.
What did you leave out that you wish you could have included?
So much. We had over 350 hours of footage and the movie is 99 minutes. For the educational DVD we’ve been able to add this really beautiful poem from Nate. And it’s going to air on OWN and they will put out a DVD and we hope there will be extras in that.
Are the slam kids influenced by classic poetry? Do they read it in school?
Oh yeah. Nate’s walls are covered with Bob Dylan and Langston Hughes. They read Gwendolyn Brooks, they read all kinds of stuff. Kevin and the teachers bring all kinds of influences and poetry into the classroom. Nate uses the word villanelle, a reference to a classic formal poetry structure.
Tell me about the teachers who work with these kids.
They are incredible. I think “love” is a word people are uncomfortable with, but it is really what this movie is about, love between the teammates, love from the community, and love between these teachers and their students. The teachers are the heroes of the film, not in a hammering political way but you just see it.
Chicago public radio station WBEZ co-sponsors Louder Than a Bomb and has posted audio from many of the Louder Than a Bomb poetry slams.