by John Lasseter
unlike beloved toys, just aren’t cute and cuddly, which could
conceivably pose a problem for Pixar’s new film. A movie about
a bunch of automobiles? A racecar in need of attitude adjustment?
A Porsche who willingly left the rat race behind? A Hudson
Hornet mourning the all-but-forgotten glory of his youth?
It seems, on paper, ludicrous. Add to that the obvious NASCAR
tie-in, and you’d be justified in feeling a tad bit skeptical
of the whole thing.
And yet, despite the weirdness—or maybe because of it—Cars,
for the most part, works. It may not be Pixar’s best or most
original work, but it’s a damned good addition to its repertoire.
Somehow, the disparate cast of cars is fresh and funny, with
the notable exception of sleek ’50s Flo (voiced by Jenifer
Lewis). In this instance, the filmmakers follow the suit of
quite a few animated movies of late—most recently in Dreamworks’
Over the Hedge—in which a black actress gives life
to a character who can be described, at best, as earthy, but
more frankly, reminds one of an amalgamation of cultural stereotypes,
notably mammy, Aunt Esther and modern homegirl. Come on, Pixar.
You’re better than that.
But back on, er, track. Hotshot hotrod Lightning McQueen (Owen
Wilson) is the rookie to beat, a likely shoo-in for the prestigious
Piston Cup. En route to the big race, he is sidetracked, ending
up having to do community service in the dead-end town of
Radiator Springs, once the “gateway to Ornament Valley” and
a forgotten gem in the crown that was once Route 66. Lightning
is desperate to ditch this place, a feeling that the audience
can well empathize with, as there’s simply nothing going on
here. But then, predictably, we meet the townsfolk, so to
speak. Sally Carrera (Bonnie Hunt), the Porsche who left LA
behind, tries to get Lightning to see the beauty behind the
dust and rust, and to imagine how Radiator Springs used to
be. Doc (Paul Newman), a Hudson Hornet, tries to teach him
about humility, with little luck. Then there’s the hippie
RV Fillmore (George Carlin), constantly bickering with neighbor
Sarge (Paul Dooley), a jeep, when he’s not trying to sell
organic fuel. Best of all is Lightning’s self-appointed new
best friend, Tow Mater (Larry the Cable Guy), a rusted out,
buck-toothed tow truck who is so gosh darn good-natured and
goofy that one can’t help but admire Lightning’s taste in
It’s inevitable that Lightning will learn to be a better,
um, person, and that, somehow, he’ll end up a winner. But
what’s truly enjoyable about the ride is Lasseter’s obvious
love of the glory of the automobile, and the freedom and sense
of discovery that it once represented. OK, be cranky and carp
that, with global warming and diminishing oil supplies, we
shouldn’t be glorifying the car. To which I reply, respectfully,
go get a lube job. Cars revels in the beauty of old-time
vehicles, the big tailfins and the sleek lines of various
autos, the obvious riffs on those as depicted in architecture
and advertising, but more significantly, it offers a loving,
even heart-rending, monument to the way cars, at one time,
offered people a way to discover the country. Viewers don’t
necessarily need the map the filmmakers show us demonstrating
how the newer interstate highways bypassed the contours of
the land, in order to speed things up; we feel the pang that
Lasseter, and by extension, the residents of Radiator Springs,
experience, because it mirrors so closely the way each of
us, in some way, is affected by constant change and innovation.
Something soulful gets lost with each ratcheting up of technology
and our mastery over nature, and that is what Cars,
at its heart, is about.
Prairie Home Companion
by Robert Altman
There’s a wonderful scene in A Prairie Home Companion
where the alternately dour and droll sensibility of writer-host
Garrison Keillor meshes perfectly with the biting, I’m-an-s.o.b.-on-principle
point of view of director Robert Altman. Virginia Madsen,
as an angel of death, sits down next to Garrison Keillor (as
a version of his radio-host self), backstage in the middle
of a broadcast. She quite freely explains who she is to the
unflappable Midwesterner, adding that she died as a result
of one of his jokes. Just a hint of anxiety flickers across
his impassive mug before she adds that, well, she’s not here
for him. Well, OK, that’s nice, Keillor replies: “They need
me on stage.”
The gallows humor is Keillor; the fact that death is on hand,
and on business, is all Altman.
If you love the public-radio show of the same name, A Prairie
Home Companion will seem oddly different and weirdly familiar.
It’s not a filmed version of the radio show, but some of the
regular characters are on hand, portrayed by actors: Kevin
Kline as hapless detective Guy Noir; Woody Harrelson and John
C. Reilly as cowboys Dusty and Lefty. Keillor is sort-of himself,
but there’s no Lake Wobegon monologue. There is a lot of music,
however, with most of the regulars from the show featured,
including Rich Dworsky, Pat Donohue, Jearlyn Steele and Robin
and Linda Williams. Lily Tomlin and Meryl Streep are a sister
singing act; Lindsay Lohan is Streep’s daughter. And Maya
Rudolph is Keillor’s unflappable, ubiquitous assistant.
It’s kind of a mess, but it’s a genial, welcoming mess. There’s
a plot about a corporation buying the show’s radio-station
sponsor, and shutting the show down after one final performance,
but it isn’t very insistent. There’s a lot of singing; some
first-class acting (Streep, who continues to delight in her
new career as a character actress, and Tomlin, who’s a much
better singer now than she was 30 years ago in Nashville);
and some excellent comedy. Altman makes Kline keep his slapstick
simple, and the effect is amazing: Kevin Kline doesn’t mug
at all. Harrelson and O’Reilly are very funny as the dirty-minded
but good-natured cowpokes. Even Lohan is pretty good.
The ending is typical Altman. Though he can’t be dishonest
and give us a happy ending, Altman takes a filmmaker’s prerogative
to play God, and have His angel dole out satisfying justice
to the guilty. Altman being himself—a bastard—is an old moviegoing
pleasure, and worth savoring.