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Vroom, vroom: Cars.

Sleek Ride
By Laura Leon

Cars

Directed by John Lasseter

Cars, 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 compadres.

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.

Good and Corny

A Prairie Home Companion

Directed 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.

—Shawn Stone


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