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Pixar hits with ‘Cars’

‘A Prairie Home Companion’ also shines.

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There’s a reason why a new film from the good folks at Pixar is heralded with such fanfare. Unlike any other studio that has tried computer-animated fare so far, Pixar’s films seem to always hit the perfect mix of child-friendly slapstick and adult-friendly cleverness, subtly riffing on all aspects of pop culture while keeping the tykes entertained. Combine that with cutting-edge CGI work, rich plots and characters that fairly leap off the screen, and you’ve got films that anyone from 8 months to 108 can watch again and again.

Chalk up another one with the release of Pixar’s latest film, “Cars.” Smart, funny, tender and absolutely beautiful to look at, it’s the film that might finally knock off the original “Toy Story” as the brightest jewel in the Pixar crown. When it comes to sheer, popcorn-munching joy, it’s the best film I’ve seen this year.

Owen Wilson lends his voice to the main character, Lightning McQueen, an arrogant NASCAR-style racecar making a name for himself in a world inhabited exclusively by anthropomorphic automobiles. While en route to California for a three-way championship race against his arch enemy, Chick Hicks (Michael Keaton), and racing legend The King (real-life racing legend Richard Petty), McQueen falls out of his truck and ends up in Radiator Springs, a desert town on Route 66 that was bypassed long ago by the interstate.

After running afoul of the law, McQueen is sentenced by the town’s judge and mayor (Paul Newman, as a Hudson with a secret) to repave the town’s main drag before he’s allowed to move on. In the week it takes to fix the road, McQueen befriends the town’s few-but-friendly inhabitants, including motel owner/love interest Sally (Bonnie Hunt, as a sassy Porsche), Mater the Tow Truck (Larry the Cable Guy) and a host of others. With the help of his new friends, McQueen is eventually able to head west and take on Chick Hicks and The King for all the marbles.

There isn’t much more to say than: It’s simply fantastic — fantastic script, fantastic casting, fantastic visuals. From the stunning backdrops (a number of surprising riffs on the auto-motif are hidden among the desert rocks, for example), to the heartfelt message that even the greatest of us needs friends, “Cars” simply leaves any kids’ movie of recent memory in a cloud of dust. Catch it if you can, no matter what your age.

— David Koon

Radio love letter

While fans of the long-running National Public Radio variety show “A Prairie Home Companion” will probably flock to see the new film version, opening Friday at Market Street Cinema, you need not have listened to a single broadcast to appreciate director Robert Altman’s big-screen treatment of the show.

Sweet, sad — and yet infused with the same smart, dry humor that keeps “Prairie Home” a weekend radio favorite — this is a testament to the glory days of radio, one full of beautiful and moving performances.

Scripted by “Prairie Home” host Garrison Keillor and filmed at the real-life home of the show (the Fitzgerald Theater, in St. Paul, Minn.), the film version of “A Prairie Home Companion” exists in a kind of alternate universe, where no one outside the broadcast cloud of a small Minnesota AM station has ever heard of the show. Soon after the credits roll, we learn (from narrator and show security chief Guy Noir, played with glee by Kevin Kline) that we are about to bear witness to the last broadcast of the show. It seems the station has been bought out by a Texas broadcasting conglomerate that is — that very night — sending the Axeman (Tommy Lee Jones) to oversee the end of the show and the demolition of the theater for a new parking lot.

From there, the viewer is off on a soft-focus roller-coaster ride as the show’s performers sign off one last time: including host GK (Keillor), the two surviving sisters of a former sibling quartet (Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin), Streep’s possibly suicidal daughter (Lindsay Lohan), and a pair of singing cowboys (Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly). Meanwhile, a beautiful woman in a white trenchcoat who might or might not be an angel (Virginia Madsen) lurks backstage.

For fans of either “A Prairie Home Companion” or the films of Robert Altman, this one is destined to become a minor cult classic. Smart in the way films never are these days, it’s a real thing to behold. With all the performances in the film recorded live at the Fitzgerald and with Altman’s floating, voyeuristic style, the viewer soon gets that rare pleasure of being a fly on the wall. That we get to watch, from our fly’s-eye view, a family preparing to split up for good only adds to the power and comedy of the scenes (though it’s a sure bet that — if asked — the participants would see neither power nor comedy in them).

Even if you’ve never heard a syllable of Keillor’s speaker-rattling baritone, you’re bound to love this movie. With so much great acting that it’s pretty much impossible to single anyone out, it’s a real radio love letter, penned by one of the masters.

— David Koon


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