CARS Admit it: Ever since Pixar Animation Studios began its incredible run with Toy Story back in 1995 (followed by five more toon blockbusters, the last being The Incredibles), haven’t most observers been wondering when the company will hit a critical and/or commercial roadblock and watch its latest effort crash and burn? Newsflash: It’s hasn’t happened yet, and it ain’t happening with Cars. John Lasseter, the creative wizard behind Pixar (and now Walt Disney Pictures as well) has repeatedly stated that the key to any good animated film is the story, and of course he’s absolutely right. But the success of Pixar rests with the fact that they go beyond good storytelling and beyond good visual schemes to provide their pictures with that extra oomph, whether it’s in the tiny details or in the always spot-on voice casting. For all its high-gloss NASCAR trappings, Cars is ultimately a paean to Route 66. The cars are the characters -- no humans exist in this world -- and the most prominent vehicle is Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson), a rookie sensation on the NASCAR circuit (the name is doubtless an homage to Steve McQueen, a real-life racing enthusiast). Lightning is cocky, conceited and convinced that he needs nobody’s help to make it to the top. Clearly, Lightning is due for a comeuppance even more than he’s due for an oil and filter change. On his way to California to prepare for a race against a grizzled veteran known as The King (Richard Petty) and a loudmouth called Chick Hicks (Michael Keaton), Lightning unexpectedly winds up in the town of Radiator Springs, a once-bustling Route 66 burg whose status rapidly collapsed once the freeway insured that all cross-country traffic would be diverted away from the town. He becomes acquainted with the locals, including Sally (Bonnie Hunt), a former big-city lawyer who prefers the simple life; Mater (Larry the Cable Guy), a good ole boy tow truck whose idea of a good time is tipping the sleeping tractors; and Doc Hudson (Paul Newman), a sage automobile who might be able to teach the young hothead a few things about winning -- not only on the track but also in life and in love. That Lightning will find redemption is never in doubt, but like the best storytellers, Lasseter and his co-writers make the journey to self-discovery as interesting as possible.
A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION Robert Altman’s best film since the one-two punch of Short Cuts and The Player back in the early 1990s might at first glance seem like a minor work, an ambling, congenial picture constructed as little more than an opportunity to corral several major talents and give them a chance to sing songs and tell jokes in a relaxed setting. That the film is inspired by Garrison Keillor’s long-running radio show of the same name adds to that impression: Keillor, at least in his on-air persona, is the epitome of laid-back, down-home hospitality. Altman’s Prairie can indeed be viewed in such a light, but there’s more going on here. For all its levity, the central theme focuses on the specter of Death -- how it hovers around us, how it haunts us, and how it can inform our every move. The movie chronicles the events that take place during the last broadcast of a popular radio show. The Axeman (Tommy Lee Jones), a corporate suit with no respect for history or tradition, has dropped by to make sure the closing goes according to plan. G.K. (Keillor), the program’s guiding light, takes it all in stride (“Every show is your last show; that’s my philosophy”), more concerned that all the talent is in place. And what talent! First, there are the singing sisters Yolanda and Rhonda Johnson (Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin). Then there are the cowboys Dusty (Woody Harrelson) and Lefty (John C. Reilly), adept at crooning cowpoke tunes. Backstage, the characters are no less colorful. Guy Noir (Kevin Kline) handles security for the program, though his bumbling manner recalls Inspector Clouseau more than it does Sam Spade. Yolanda’s daughter Lola (Lindsay Lohan) mopes around in the dressing room while Mom performs. And then there’s the mysterious lady (Virginia Madsen) who appears out of nowhere and hangs around for the rest of the show. When the radio performers are front and center, the movie is nothing less than a joyous celebration of both Americana and the arts. Streep (who sang to equally good effect in Postcards from the Edge) and Tomlin make a formidable duet, while Harrelson and Reilly break through any lingering melancholy with their steady stream of quips.
THE BREAK-UP There’s a fine movie trapped inside The Break-Up, and it’s a shame that it couldn’t break free. As it stands, here’s a picture whose many fine ingredients are never able to compensate for the staggering miscalculation that cripples the piece almost immediately. Vince Vaughn and Jennifer Aniston play Gary and Brooke, whose initial meeting and courtship are dealt with during the opening credits. From there, an argument over a dinner party proves to be the catalyst for the pair deciding to call it quits. Secretly, Brooke doesn’t want to break up -- she only wants Gary to appreciate her more -- but as time crawls along, the hostility between the pair increases, and it becomes apparent that there’s simply no saving this relationship. From the start, Gary is painted as a self-centered, insensitive man-child whose greatest passions are video games and baseball; the only reason audiences like this character at all is because he’s played by the charismatic Vaughn, whose motormouth wit is always good for a few laughs. Brooke, meanwhile, is intelligent, classy, mature, patient, and on and on and on. He’s a prick; she’s a saint. Um, why exactly would we have a vested interest in whether these two remain together? Simple answer: We don’t. And since we don’t care about the central plot thrust, we’re left to find the odd pleasure here and there: the sharp supporting turn by Judy Davis as a haughty art gallery owner; the startling vulgarities uttered by Gary’s sleazeball brother (Cole Hauser); and, best of all, the scenes between Vaughn and his Swingers co-star Jon Favreau, here cast as Gary’s intriguing friend Johnny O.
X-MEN: THE LAST STAND Director Bryan Singer, best known for The Usual Suspects, was entrusted with turning the valuable Marvel Comics property into a motion picture, and he proved to be the right man for the job with the 2000 hit X-Men. Singer returned for 2003’s X2, and, bucking the trend, managed to make a followup that equaled its predecessor on nearly every level. And now we get X-Men: The Last Stand, the third picture in the series. Unfortunately, Singer is nowhere to be found, as he opted to jump ship in order to jump-start the dormant Superman franchise. So we get Brett Ratner (the Rush Hour duo) as the new ringmaster, aided in his efforts by scripters Simon Kinberg (Mr. and Mrs. Smith) and Zak Penn (who co-wrote X2 but also co-wrote the lamentable Elektra). It’s hardly a fair deal, yet it’s a testament to the durability of the original comic created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby that the movie survives this hostile takeover. Newbies need not apply, but the faithful will catch on immediately when the movie brings up its smoking gun of a central issue: a “cure” has been found for mutancy, leading to divergent viewpoints among those afflicted with extraordinary powers. Some, like X-Woman Storm (Halle Berry) and the villainous Magneto (Ian McKellen), don’t look at mutancy as a curse and are offended that such a remedy is even being offered. Others see nothing wrong in desiring a life of normalcy; among those is Rogue (Anna Paquin), whose mere touch can kill anyone, even a boyfriend (Shawn Ashmore’s Iceman) with whom she can never enjoy even the most chaste of physical intimacy. As always, X-Men guru Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) takes a philosophical, wait-and-see approach. And Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and Cyclops (James Marsden)? They don’t seem too preoccupied with the issue, since they’re both still reflecting on the death of Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), who sacrificed herself at the end of X2.
THE DA VINCI CODE It’s no instant classic, it won’t sweep next year’s Academy Awards, and it won’t make its way to the upper echelons of the all-time top-grossing films list. Conversely, it’s also not a turkey for the ages -- it won’t draw instant titters at the mere mention of its name like, say, Gigli or Battlefield Earth or The Bonfire of the Vanities. Like Bonfire, however, I suspect that it will be judged far more harshly by those who read the book than those who didn’t. After all, on its own cinematic terms, it’s a moderately entertaining ride, sort of like the Nicolas Cage hit National Treasure only done with more style and a more respectable cast. Steered by his Apollo 13 director Ron Howard, Tom Hanks plays the central role of Robert Langdon, a Harvard symbologist whose book-signing stint in Paris is cut short when he’s summoned to the Louvre to hopefully shed light on the strange circumstances surrounding the murder of an elderly curator. What Langdon doesn’t initially know is that the detective on the case, the gruff Bezu Fache (French national treasure Jean Reno), is convinced that he’s the killer. With a police cryptologist named Sophie Neveu (Amelie’s Audrey Tautou) as his only ally, Langdon evades capture and begins a jaunt across France and, later, England in an attempt to solve an ancient mystery that, if revealed, could potentially spell the end of Christianity as we know it. Seeking guidance, Langdon and Sophie turn to British scholar Leigh Teabing (Ian McKellen, easily earning MVP honors) to fill in the missing pieces. However tantalizingly this might have all played out on the page, up on the screen it simply comes off as one more familiar Hollywood thriller. Yet where The Da Vinci Code succeeds is, as expected, within the arena of religious debate. Whatever one thinks of the worldwide protests of offended Christians or Dan Brown’s research and subsequent conclusions, there’s no denying that the movie’s most gripping scenes involve the laying out of the conspiracy theories.
OVER THE HEDGE Based on a comic strip with which I’m thoroughly -- and, if it’s anything like this movie, thankfully -- unfamiliar, Over the Hedge is yet another charmless animated feature made by profiteers whose historical reference point seems to begin and end with Shrek. An opportunistic raccoon (Bruce Willis), in hock to a grouchy grizzly (Nick Nolte), cons a group of peaceful forest denizens into helping him invade suburbia and steal the humans’ junk food. There’s a witty sequence in which the raccoon explains how the humans “live to eat” rather than “eat to live,” and a nicely delivered Stanley Kowalski gag make me chuckle out loud. Otherwise, this DreamWorks production feels like a flat-footed attempt to rip off the Pixar template.
POSEIDON The original Poseidon Adventure was one of the first disaster flicks and it arguably remains the best. The Oscar-winning visual effects hold up; the Oscar-winning song “The Morning After” does not. Come next spring, I doubt we’ll be similarly mentioning the new Poseidon and Oscars in the same sentence, since this is as forgettable as motion pictures can get.
M:i:III Look, I’m as sick of hearing about Tom Cruise’s offscreen nonsense as anyone else. But the great thing about the magic of the movies is that it immerses us in fantasy worlds that more often than not allow us to disengage from real-life baggage. In other words, Cruise is accomplished -- and canny -- enough to know that a well-oiled summer flick is just the item to make us all forgive him -- at least temporarily -- for his indiscretions. Yet the performance of note in Mission: Impossible III belongs to Philip Seymour Hoffman, fresh from winning an Oscar for last fall’s Capote.
JUST MY LUCK With such titles as Freaky Friday, Mean Girls and A Prairie Home Companion on her resume, Lindsay Lohan has made smarter choices than other performers her age, most of whom have a tendency to end up in inane teen-bait comedies or disposable Disney Channel movies. Just My Luck marks a major career stumble, as Lohan suddenly finds herself in the sort of drivel usually snatched up by arch-rival Hilary Duff.
UNITED 93 Writer-director Paul Greengrass’ superb 9/11 docudrama United 93 is one of those movies that should be seen, but it’s understandable that many viewers won’t want to see it, and no amount of critical hosannas will change their minds. It’s a testament to the movie’s power that we find ourselves praying for a safe landing even though history has long dictated otherwise. How restrained is Greengrass’ approach? Understand that passenger Todd Beamer’s catchphrase “Let’s roll” -- you know, the one that’s been co-opted by seemingly every politician and pundit from coast to coast -- is barely audible when Beamer speaks it.
RV One would have to travel deep into the 1990s -- during the era of Mrs. Doubtfire and The Birdcage -- to find a comedic Robin Williams performance that was more than simply incessant and annoying shtick. RV, therefore, marks the first time in at least a decade that Williams merges his patented humor with a recognizably human character, and the balance suits him well.
AKEELAH AND THE BEE Growing up in south LA with her widowed mother (Angela Bassett) and two older siblings, Akeelah’s (Keke Palmer) only true passion is for spelling -- a seemingly frivolous fancy considering her dour surroundings. But determined to somehow put his decrepit school on the map, the principal Mr. Welch (Curtis Armstrong) encourages Akeelah to try out for a competition that will determine which student will represent them in upcoming spelling bees.ƒnƒç