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Notes from the back row

It's all very sweet and somewhat creepy

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Well, the devil didn’t burst from hell and walk the earth leaving a wake of mayhem and death last Tuesday (6/6/06) so I guess we’re gonna have to get back to slow human extinction all by ourselves. What a better way to do it, with oil wars, gas prices, and greenhouse emissions as bad as they’ve ever been, than to make a movie celebrating the automobile and the rustic, conservative nostalgia that stems from it’s heyday.

Cars , opening Friday at the Village 8, is the latest animated film from animation industry giant Pixar. And while decent and visually stunning, it’s a bit of a lemon and far too long.

Owen Wilson voices Lightning McQueen, a young, brash, hotshot stockcar on the way up. En route to a tie-breaker race in California, he is separated from his entourage and winds up in Radiator Springs, a near-ghost town along old Route 66.

While there he gets in a bit of trouble and, with the help of some local and stereotypically detailed characters (the VW van that, surprise, is a hippy) he learns about teamwork and community and respecting others and how the journey is more important than the destination and all that malarkey.

It’s all very sweet (and somewhat creepy – cars with tongues?) yet the movie, which attempts to toss in some jokes for adults too, just isn’t as funny as you’d expect from Pixar. The guys that made Monsters Inc, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, and both Toy Story movies most certainly have big shoes to fill and this time they lack a bit of engine power.

Where the film does excel, pushing the animation envelope, is in the photorealistic backgrounds and lighting effects. The way the animators dealt with reflections off all that chrome and metal is particularly astounding to anyone who knows anything about how difficult animation is.

Other highlights are Cheech Marin voicing a lowrider named Ramone and Larry the Cable Guy as a beat up, best friend tow truck. Toss in a subtle lesson on how the interstate highway, detached and lined with stripmalls rather than communities, is ruining the great American tradition of the road trip and you end up with a film that may have a bit of rust under the hood but will still take you the distance – if you’re eight years old or into NASCAR (which requires an eight-year-old mindset).

For other car-with-personality flicks check out Christine, Maximum Overdrive, Herbie, or 1974’s The Cars that Eat People.

And if you don’t like cars, take the bus. Bus 174 that is, a hard-to-find, gut-wrenching documentary out of Brazil showcasing more than a few of that country’s social catastrophes. Beginning with perhaps the best opening shot I’ve ever seen, a long flying shot that starts over the ocean and does low laps over and around Rio de Janeiro’s wealthy sections and impoverished favellas, Bus 174 pieces together newsreel footage and candid interviews to tell the tale of a young, hopped-up street youth who hijacked a commuter bus he couldn’t drive and held it’s occupants hostage while the police and SWAT team clusterfuck and a media frenzy ensues.

What makes the film amazing is the newsreel footage. Cameramen were able to get within five feet of the bus and so the film, while tragic and tense, makes a stunning comment on our fascination with reality television. We’re right there as Sandro, a youth who’d witnessed his mother’s murder and been forced to life on the streets, invisible to the system, snaps and stars in his very own American-style action movie for all of Brazil to watch in real time. Serious stuff. The devil doesn’t need to walk the earth, we’re screwed up enough as it is.

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