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Buckle Up ... Again, as Cars 3 Hits Theaters

Reviews of "Cars 3" and "47 Meters Down," plus local movie news and notes.

Photo ©2017 Disney•Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

The “Cars” franchise, following the exploits of attitude-dispensing racecar Lightning McQueen (voice of Owen Wilson) and his allegedly lovable sidekick Mater (Larry the Cable Guy), is the necessary evil of the Pixar universe.

“Cars 2” is the only film in the history of the storied studio to receive outright dismissal from critics; it’s Rotten Tomatoes score, 39%, is the lowest-ranked Pixar film by far; no other offering from Disney’s sister studio scored below 74%. (And that previous low-water mark, respectable though it is, was lodged by the original “Cars.”)

The films sell well enough at the box-office, but that’s not the story; the driver of this enterprise is merchandise. “Cars” gear is a perennial force in the toy and youth-apparel aisles of stores worldwide, making the periodic appearance of new big-screen content an inevitability.

Now, in “Cars 3”: After being defeated on the track by upstart racer Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer) and suffering a car crash, Lightning begins to feel obsolete, unable to keep up with new technology. Humbled, he begins training for a race that will determine his future.

In other words, the plot of “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.”

Curiously, it does seem that Pixar was hoping to bring "Cars 3" to the narrative and artistic level of their other work, but handled this hopeful transition by rendering the film as a drama. There are some laughs, to be sure, but far fewer than we're accustomed to from this series; indeed, there are fewer moments of levity here than in famously weighty Pixar films such as "Up" and "Toy Story 3." We are far from the light-hearted, low-ambition romp of "Cars 2"; instead, this is quite unexpectedly a film about aging and growth, exploring the passing of generations and the meaning of a life well lived.

It doesn't really handle those subjects all that well, but it's trying.

There are glimmers of resonance, and the film does exhibit a more refined visual style than its predecessors. I'm not sure who will be pleased by the stark narrative shift, however; young audiences will have a tough time relating to the themes, and older audiences will likely have long since written the franchise off. And while the film's final act does deliver, much of it remains a procedural exercise.

In short: It's better. But that's about it.

The good news: Pixar has an original property, “Coco,” coming out later this year. So at least we can move quickly on from "Cars 3."

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Many films made with the best of intentions end up victims of circumstance, never given a proper theatrical release due to circumstance, quality or a combination of the two. That’s business as usual; it’s exceptional, however, when things go the other way. “47 Meters Down,” an unambitious shark-attack flick, was earmarked for a streaming-only release some time ago — the modern equivalent of direct-to-video — before some unexpected deals and the resurgence of star Mandy Moore, thanks to “This is Us,” improved the film’s fortunes. The promotion from bargain-bin afterthought to wide release was unnecessary at best, though; there’s not just much here. Lisa (Moore) and Kate (Claire Holt) are trapped in a cage on the ocean floor after a malfunction during a dive; they’re made to deal with a limited supply of oxygen, sharks and much more in trying to reach the surface. While there’s some natural tension to the premise, the script is awful and the direction (by self-stylized horror auteur Johannes Roberts) is hokey. Those who will watch any old flick with an angry shark will get their deep-sea fix, but with the vastly superior “It Comes at Night” in theaters, there’s no reason to buy a ticket for “47 Meters Down.”

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The Montage: Happy Birthday to Row House Cinema, which turns three this Wednesday. They’ll celebrate with a party at nearby hipster hotspot Belvedere’s; meanwhile, the week’s programming will be handed over to a quarter of the staff’s favorites. See “Back to the Future,” “The Shining,” “The Princess Bride” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark” all week; click here for showtimes ... Tonight, Oscar-nominated cinematographer Bradford Young (“Arrival,” “Selma” and many more) will introduce his new short documentary, “Black America Again,” at Carnegie Museum of Art. He’ll be joined by hip-hop artist, actor and Oscar winner Common, whose 2016 album of the same name inspired the film. Pre-registration is full for the free event, but a limited number of tickets will be released at the door ... The sublime “I, Daniel Blake,” one of 2016’s best films, finally receives a full run in the area this week. It opens at the Melwood Screening Room today; click here for info.


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