Cars 3 (2017)

Rated G. Running time: 1 hour 49 min.

Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 2; Language 0; Sex/Nudity 1.

Our star rating (1-5): 5

You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.

Leviticus 19:18

In all this I have given you an example that by such work we must support the weak, remembering the words of the Lord Jesus, for he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’

Acts 20:35

 Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.

Philippians 2:4

Lightning even becomes ensnared in a demolition derby. (c) Walt Disney/Pixar

Director Brian Fee, who served as a story artist on the first two films of the Pixar series, redeems the franchise after the crtics’ drubbing of Cars 2. Of course, he is greatly aided by co-writer Mike Rich (and several other writers), a talented voice cast, and spectacular animation that, with its 3D photography, places us seemingly in the middle of the action. Mention too must be made of the background art which is among the most beautiful that I have seen, especially the night scenes.

The world of Cars is a fantasy one in which not only are cars driverless, but one from which all humans have disappeared—and come to think of it, other creatures as well. Even the spectators in the huge stands are cars, cheering as excitedly as any human fans at a NASCAR event. The wonder is that the art of the animators and skills of the voice talent can convey distinct characters beneath the hoods of the vehicles—no, these are no longer “vehicles,” tools for transporting humans, they are personalities in themselves. In such scenes, as when a trainer named Cruz shares her unfulfilled dream of becoming a racer herself, you probably will feel a tear or two welling up in your eyes.

The plot involves the champion speed racer Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) trying to get his mojo back after suffering a defeat, and then in a later race, a crash that puts him out of commission for a while. The rookie Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer), a jet-black new breed of racing car, has come out of nowhere to beat the Champ and gain critical and popular acclaim. Storm pretends to respect Lightning, but he really is bent on sowing the seeds of self-doubt in his competitor’s mind with his false praise. One by one Lightning’s friendly fellow racers drop out of the sport as technological change renders them obsolete. The consensus among sports commentators is that Lightning too is at the end of his career.

Lightning, returning to his hometown of Radiator Springs, is aided by his numerous friends in his attempt to recover, including possible love interest Sally (Bonnie Hunt), his tow truck pal (Mater (Larry the Cable Guy), and later on by a famous coach Smokey (Chris Cooper), and a new character Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo), a small bright yellow-bodied roadster. Cruz is the head trainer working for Lightning’s new sponsor the mysterious investor Sterling (Nathan Fillion) who has set up an elaborate high-tech training facility. Cruz expresses her admiration for Lightning’s record, but also says, “I call you my senior project!” Both she and the racing experts regard Lightning as a has-been. Little wonder that Lightning does not take well to the high-tech simulation tests and such. Learning that Sterling is interested in him only for the money to be made selling products under Lightning’s famous name, Lightning leaves the facility inside the trailer of his transport truck Mack (John Ratzenberger).

Cruz accompanies Lightning, the pair winding up at a demolition derby. Under disguise, Lightning enters, changes his mind, but both are trapped when the gates close. The wild race, as much as a duel to smash the other car as it is to cross over the finish line first, finds both Cruz and Lightning unbattered, but, surprise, it is Cruz who wins the race. She is elated, failing to see Lightning’s downcast reaction. They have words, with Cruz pouring out her heart, explaining how she had long ago given up her dream to be on the track competing, and instead settling for the next best thing, training others to race.

The two separate, but come back together the next day. Although she resigns as his trainer, Cruz agrees to accompany him in his quest for the trainer of his old mentor Doc, Smokey (Chris Cooper), in hopes of securing some helpful advice.  Smokey tells him that he will not be able to beat Jackson’s speed, but that he can outsmart him, whereupon he puts Lightning through a rigorous series of training exercises involving his pupil’s being surrounded by a large “herd” of tractors through which he must navigate. Smokey also reveals that the retired Doc’s biggest joy was not the memories of his own string of victories, but of a young rookie named Lightning. (In the flash backs we hear the voice of Paul Newman, again voicing the character, thanks to some digital wizardry.) This leads our favorite racer to do some rethinking of his priorities when the day of the Big Race arrives, Lightning’s last chance to save his career.

Lightning’s decision will be one that would gladden the heart of the apostle Paul, quoted above, and propels this sequel to a level of maturity far beyond that of Cars 2. In a culture which mostly teaches “Winning is everything” and “getting” is what makes for the abundant life, it is good to find a film that states that real joy comes from giving to others.  Lightning’s decision during the Big Race is thus very counter cultural. The focus upon Cruz adds a touch of feminism to a series that hitherto has been exclusively male-centered, except for the small role of Sally. Race lovers will revel in the racetrack scenes. I don’t recall any  live-action racecar films that provide such thrilling views of a race from the viewpoint of the driver. All this wrapped in a package that includes much beauty and thrilling action.

This review with a set of questions will be in the 2017 issue of VP.

 

 

Joe (2013)

Our content advisories (1-10): Violence 7; Language 4; Sex 6/Nudity 2.

Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 47 min.

Our star rating (1-5): 5

Note: There could be a spoiler in the last two paragraphs.

So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, 23 but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.

Romans 7:21-23

 Speak out for those who cannot speak,
for the rights of all the destitute.
Speak out, judge righteously,
defend the rights of the poor and needy.

Proverbs 31:8-9

joeGary

Joe becomes a mentor and protector to 15-year-old Gary.
(c) 2013 Roadside Attractions

Director David Gordon Green’s Southern Gothic film unreels as a tale of grace in unexpected places, one that Flannery O’Connor might have written. (At times I thought of the equally surprising Pulp Fiction.)     As written by Gary Hawkins, based on a novel by Larry Brown, the scripted character seems tailor-made for Cage’s hangdog looks that he is noted for. However, an especially brutal murder scene and a fleeting sexual tryst, neither involving Joe, make this a problematic film for some viewers.

Joe heads a crew of black laborers working on a wooded track in Texas where their job is to poison the trees unwanted by the lumber company. The plan is to get rid of the useless trees so that pines that produce quality lumber can be planted. Director Green is good at revealing little details of the work crew, showing their camaraderie, even with their white boss who seems free of any racial prejudice. He spends his evenings drinking coke and whiskey, sometimes at a bar, more often at his run-down house. He keeps a brown and white pit bull outside on a short chain as a deterrent against unwelcome visitors.

Joe also tries to keep a short leash on his too easily aroused temper. Recently it had led to his slapping boisterous tavern drinker Willie-Russell (Ronnie Gene Blevins), and the vengeful man had returned to shoot some buckshot into Joe’s shoulder. (He later says that he had meant to shoot over his head.) In the more distant past Joe had been sent to prison when he disarmed a policeman who was threatening to kill him during an arrest attempt.

Joe is thus a very conflicted man, a very unlikely role model or defender of “the rights of the poor and needy.” When 15 year-old Gary (Tye Sheridan) comes seeking a job, Joe surmises from the boy’s brief verbal work resume that he is a hard worker, and so hires him on. The African Americans readily accept the eager lad, several showing him how to load his back-pack tank with poison and how to slam the ax head into a tree several times to dispense the deadly liquid. Gary does this ably, as well as learning to cut brush away, and serve in the more menial task of distributing water jugs to the workers.

Before long Joe finds himself drawn to the boy, especially on the following Monday when Gary shows up with his father Wade (Gary Poulter), who turns out to be just the opposite of his son, lazy, argumentative, a vile force of disruption. Joe tells Wade not to come back but keeps the son, and later, when dropping him off in his old truck, observes the drunken old man abusing him. The grizzled Wade could have been a member of William Faulkner’s Snopes family, so devious, twisted, and brutal is he. He shakes down his son for his money, even becoming angry when the boy spends most of it on groceries, thus leaving less cash for him to seize and spend on booze. He apparently has abused not only his wife, but also Gary’s sister Dorothy (Anna Niemtschk), because the latter has not been able to speak a word in years. The part of Dorothy is very underwritten, but she will become pivotal to a plot development later on.

Joe is a familiar customer at the local general store and the whorehouse, and yet a young woman named Connie (Adriene Mishler) is drawn to him. When she needs shelter from a difficult relationship, Joe takes her in, where they sit many a night watching mindless TV while she longs for an occasional night out. At one point she serves as Joe’s Jiminy Cricket, pointedly asking him, when he tells her that he had seen Wade abuse Gary, what he had done about it. Joe is also well known to local sheriff Earl (Aj Wilson McPhaul), surprisingly a black man overseeing a group of white deputies. Earl, a friend back in the days when both were hard drinking hell raisers, tries to protect Joe, both from his deputies who have it in for him and from Joe’s own propensity for getting into trouble.

A feeling of foreboding, ably aided by the music and the scattered incidents of violence (the latter especially during the scene in which Wade brutally beats a homeless black man to death to gain his bottle of liquor), hangs over the picture, the climactic scene of redemptive violence reminding me a little of the way in which Gran Torino had ended. Joe is one more dark character to add to a list of unlikely bearers of grace (such as Walt Kowalski of the above picture). Far too conflicted to be a Christ Figure, Joe is nonetheless an agent of grace whose life definitely makes a difference in Gary’s life.

At this point I should also add that young actor Tye Sheridan played a somewhat similar role in Mud, where he also was influenced by an unlikely mentor. This is a young man to watch in the years ahead. Let’s hope he makes better film choices than Nicolas Cage has—indeed, let’s hope that Cage will himself exercise better judgment in the years remaining for his career!

After the film’s Good Friday climax there is a sort of Easter postlude when we see Gary apply successfully for a new job, the boss hiring him on the basis that the boy had worked for Joe. “He was a good man,” the man comments. To see what I hope was an intended hint of Easter, compare the task of the new job to that of Gary’s first one. Joe and his crew are not the kind of folk found in most of our churches, but they are very much like those with whom Jesus was accused of hanging out. The actors playing the crewmembers are all excellent in portraying an innate kindness and joy of living, contributing to making this one of the most rewarding films that I have seen this year.

Addendum: Gary Poulter virtually lived the life of the character he portrayed, Wade, father of Gary. The alcoholic-drug addicted man died shortly after the film was finished. For a sad but interesting article on his life and death go to: http://www.austinchronicle.com/screens/2014-04-11/his-name-was-gary-poulter/