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Tuesday, July 16

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Airbags

Cars

I've had serious doubts for some time that Pixar was capable of producing a bad film, and my feelings certainly aren't going to change as a result of watching the visual tour-de-force Cars, an absolute slam-dunk mix of dead-on vocal talents and some of the most dazzling computer-generated animation to ever hit the big screen. The film only falters in the story department, which doesn't carry the emotional weight that has been the stamp of most Pixar works, such as Finding Nemo, the two Toy Story films, and The Incredibles. The fact that lead car actor Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) might not make it to or win the big race isn't the same as little Nemo getting eaten or Mr. Incredible and his family dying at the hands of an evil villain.

Still, Cars has loads going for it, beginning and ending with the presence of race car enthusiast Paul Newman as Doc Hudson, who, along with the fellow residents of Radiator Springs, are forced to endure McQueen in their quiet desert town that used to be a high-traffic community for vehicles traveling down Route 66. When a major interstate was built near the town, it became a virtual ghost town inhabited by a group of eccentric and desperate cars voiced by the likes of George Carlin (as the hippie VW bus), Tony Shalhoub, Cheech Marin, Larry the Cable Guy (as a redneck tow truck), and the gifted Bonnie Hunt as Sally, a Porsche who once led the good life in the big city but fell in love with this sleepy town and just stayed. McQueen tears up the town's main road when he is accidentally separated from the 18-wheeler (named Mack, voiced by Pixar mainstay John Ratzenberger) transporting him to what could be the championship race that makes him…well, champion. But he is forced to stay in town long enough to fix the road, which may put his making the big race in jeopardy.

In the world of Cars, there are no humans. Every living, breathing creature is some type of vehicle; even the insects are little VW bugs with wings (get it?). So does that mean that a car race is more like a foot race to…oh, never mind. My point is, this set up sparks a never-ending succession of clever, sometimes ingenious, plays on words and topical references that will keep adults laughing while the kids look at the pretty pictures and follow the fairly straightforward story.

This is the first film directed by John Lasseter (Bug's Life) since Toy Story 2, and it's great to see him back on the job (he runs Disney's animation arm now). But this is not the best Pixar has to offer, at least not in terms of story or humor. Overall, I thought Over the Hedge was better on most levels, but especially as pure entertainment. Still, I suffered not a hint of disappointment upon seeing Cars. In fact, I loved every minute of the viewing experience. I loved that since cars don't have heads to turn and look at someone behind them, they have to back up to see what's what. I loved the way the light bounced off McQueen's polished hood, and the ultra-realistic way a car skids off a dirt road. The look of the movie is astonishing. Some may be let down by the unchallenging nature of the story, but I considered it a small price to pay for such joyful animation and Newman's crusty old car voice.

The Omen

When I hear that a classic film (especially a horror movie) is being remade, I tend not to want to watch the original version in close proximity to watching the redo. I'm already distracted enough trying to work out in my head why the film was remade in the first place, so I don't need to spend an entire feature doing side-by-side comparisons in my brain. But John (Behind Enemy Lines; the remake of Flight of the Phoenix) Moore's version of The Omen is so utterly devoid of any original ideas or visuals, one is forced to ask, "What's the point?"

Oh, for those of you who tend to miss subtle visual cues, let me point out: the color red is very important in this version of The Omen. You may not notice it at first, but since it's the only f*cking primary color in the entire f*cking movie, I just want to make sure you don't miss the f*cking "red" hammer smashing into your eyes every 30 seconds of this shite. What's even more retarded about the use of the color red is that it symbolizes nothing in the story. Remember when M. Night used red to signify a ghostly presence in The Sixth Sense? That was cool. Moore just tosses it in wherever he bloody well feels like it. It doesn't signify anything. Oh, look, red shoes, red flowers, red door, red your mama.

The film, from a screenplay by original Omen writer David Seltzer (I'm assuming he rewrote it, but it's hard to tell; he probably just added the word red in every other scene description), opens with its most promising scene. The Catholic leadership meets with the Pope to lay out evidence that the Apocalypse is approaching and that the son of the devil has probably been born on earth. As they read off the signs, they flash up images and video of their proof, which includes shots of a burning World Trade Center, tsunamis crashing onto shorelines, Hurricane Katrina-damage footage, torture victims of the U.S. military. My first thought was, "Wow, at least the filmmakers certainly aren't pulling any punches in making their case that the time was right to remake this film…that, and the release date." Seeing the footage is jolting, and I completely understand why folks in New York almost rioted when they saw it at a recent preview screening. But, the use of these images does make sense in the context of this film. It's just so damn slimy.

Liev Schreiber as Robert Thorn does a pathetic job filling Gregory Peck's weighty shoes. He's just so wimpy by comparison and far too young to be the ambassador to the United Kingdom (a job he acquires when his boss dies shortly after being appointed to the job). It's established early on that, although Thorn is the godson of the president, this played no part is his being chosen for the job. No favoritism here, especially not toward the audience.

You all know the story, right? A couple has their first child, which dies during delivery; the mournful father decides to accept a motherless orphan baby from a priest and pass him off as their own, unbeknownst to his wife, Katherine (here played by Julia Stiles, slightly more acceptable in her role than Schreiber in his). As the years go on, young Damien (played as a 5-year-old by all-too-knowing newcomer Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick) grows more and more distant from his parents, and more weird shit happens in his presence. His first nanny commits suicide at his birthday party, only to be replaced by Rosemary herself, Mia Farrow. Did I mention how subtle this film is? Slowly, Damien's parents begin to realize something is not right about their devil-baby. A rogue priest (Pete Postlethwaite) tries to warn Robert, a nosy photojournalist (David Thewlis) attempts to help the Thorns solve the big mystery of Damien's origins, and, in the year's silliest cameo, Michael Gambon appears to give Robert some sacred daggers and some advice on how to use them against his anti-Christ child. You will laugh 'til it hurts.

It's certainly feasible that in 1976, when the original Omen was released, audiences might have gone into the film not knowing what to expect or what the story was. But that's not a safe assumption today, and keeping the "mystery" going for as long as they do in this remake is silly. Virtually everybody watching this movie will know what to expect. If you really want to redo this film, go nuts. Make five-year-old Damien something fierce, or make one of the parents secretly in on the whole evil plot, but no. Instead, we get a naughty little boy in a school uniform who leers at everyone except his nanny and the fierce dogs that have taken to guarding him. Director Moore goes for cheep thrills, about on par with throwing a screeching black cat at the camera lens. He also relies too much on brief evil image flashes and nightmares (waking or otherwise) that are filled with blood and scary faces, but never amount to anything.

And let me throw this out, too. The original Omen isn't that good, and it certainly isn't that scary. As an exercise in camp, it works wonders, but as a serious horror film, I never fell for it. So imagine that experience, but without the camp. That's what you get in the new version: zero irony, barely a hint of updating, and not a respectable creepy moment anywhere in sight. Good luck keeping awake during this limp effort. After about 40 minutes of this film, I was ready to stab myself with sacred daggers, right through my eyes.

A Prairie Home Companion

If I feel it's required, I always like to begin my reviews with an admission of some shortcoming regarding the source material of a movie. If a movie is about a band or artist or writer that I'm not familiar with, I'll admit my ignorance. But based on my limited exposure to storyteller and radio show host Garrison Keillor, I feel it my duty to report that I'm not only unfamiliar with his "Prairie Home Companion" radio show, but I've also never really been interested in hearing it. The idea of the show always seemed too clever for my tastes. That being said, I had a hoot watching this movie, directed by Robert Altman, about the show's fictional final broadcast. From a script by Keillor, Altman—the master of overlapping dialogues—has composed a wonderful and bittersweet symphony of chaos, in which the events of backstage are as equally important as the on-stage antics.

Kevin Kline is our narrator, a detective-like character named Guy Noir, who acts as security guard for the show, which is going off the air after this broadcast because the theatre it broadcast from (the fabled Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul, Minnesota) has been sold off. There is no story to speak of in Prairie Home Companion, just a series of moments, discussions, songs, comedy, homespun commercials, and remembrances from Keillor and his players (I'm guessing some will be familiar to faithful listeners). There isn't a week performer in the bunch. Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin play the singing and bickering Johnson Sisters, who spend all of the backstage time talking over each other and overwhelming Streep's daughter Lola, played with maudlin charm by Lindsay Lohan, who writes poems and songs about suicide. As horrifying as it might seem at first, Lohan holds her own with these two exceptional actresses, and, if nothing else, the film gives us hope that she is capable of real acting once she gets these gutless teen comedies out of her system. The show's other singing duo are Dusty and Lefty (Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly), whose expertise lies in cowboy songs with borderline-obscene lyrics. Did I mention that everyone sings their own songs and does so live, and what a difference it makes?

Also slinking around backstage are Maya Rudolph, as the very pregnant stage manager, and the mysterious Virginia Madsen, wearing a white trench coat and apparently only seen by certain players. It takes a while to figure out why she is there, and even after her secret is discovered, I'm not sure it's clear. Late in the film, Tommy Lee Jones arrives as the Axeman, the buyer and would-be destroyer of the glorious old theatre.

It's probably best you don't try to read too much into Prairie Home Companion. This is a comedy at heart, but it pretends to offer life lessons not meant to be taken seriously. Every time someone wants to share with Keillor an important story about their life, he uses it as a means to segue into a made-up tale of how he got started in the radio business. It takes a while to catch on that this is what he's doing, but once you do, you'll understand the comic sense of the film. The biggest shock in the film is how effective Keillor is as an actor. He moves from room to room, from stage to backstage, eager to spin his tales and fictional histories. He rejects the idea of making on-air mention that this may be the last show, claiming he's not a sentimental man, despite the fact that the show is all about nostalgia.

As is often the case in Altman's films, there is both more and less going on in this movie than you might think. But more importantly, A Prairie Home Companion is a celebration of old-fashioned entertainment and values, while fully acknowledging that change is as much a part of life as death and corporate greed. At 81 years old, Altman has still got it, and so does this film. It opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Sketches of Frank Gehry

Just when you think you've got this whole architecture stuff figured out, the world throws us a wonderful freak of nature like Frank Gehry, who, in the course of a single film about his work, teaches us that buildings are more than just horizontal and vertical lines with the occasional curve thrown in. Credit must be given in large doses to Sketches of Frank Gehry director, and long-time friend to Gehry, Sydney Pollack, who admits at the outset that he knows nothing about making a documentary or about architecture. But this culmination of five years of digital video filming of Gehry and his team of architects at work and play is a fascinating vanity project for both men, and ultimately a true joy for the viewer.

Pollack does a credible job walking us through Gehry's early years, but the most fascinating part of the film is watching the progression from Gehry's chicken-scratch concept drawings, to cardboard mock ups held together with tape, to 3D computer models where every bizarre twist and turn of each new structure is mapped out just to make certain the geometry and physics of a given project are even possible. Perhaps more than that of any other living architect, Gehry's works are hotly debated. Are they a new breed of visual, inhabitable art, or are they the result of pulling a crumpled up piece of paper out of the garbage and saying, "Let's make an office building that shape."

Since my office is near downtown Chicago, I'm able to revisit Gehry's Millennium Park creations like the pristine wooden bridge or the Music Pavilion and Great Lawn. Looking at those enormous ribbons of steel that hang over the performance stage never gets old and always makes you pause to wonder how the hell Gehry came up with the idea. (FYI—The Millennium Park project is never specifically mentioned in the film.) But for every great building like the Disney Opera House or Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in Spain, there are structures largely considered failures, like the Experience Music Project in Seattle. But it's this hit-and-miss quality to Gehry's work that makes him so fascinating, and Sketches shows us a man whose greatest fear is not failure or bad reviews; it's playing it safe.

The film is filled with celebrities all willing to wax poetic about the greatness of Gehry, including people such as Barry Diller, Bob Geldof, Dennis Hopper, Michael Eisner, Michael Ovitz, and my personal favorite freak, artist and director Julian Schnabel, who offers up my favorite bit of wisdom about critics of the Bilbao Museum who charge that the ornate structure overpowers the artwork. "Maybe the art isn't good enough," he muses. Maybe he's right. Ultimately it's the words and work of Gehry that tell the story best. Director Pollack likes the sound of his own voice and sight of his own face on screen with Gehry a little too much. But it's a mutual admiration society between the two men. Gehry is as enamored with Pollack as Pollack seems to be with him, neither feeling quite worthy of the other's company. But this humble act grew on me, and eventually won me over, as did the film. And Pollack doesn't shy away from interviewing some of Gehry's most notorious critics. If you don't like his work, or aren't convinced of his genius, you aren't alone. Sketches is a fantastic character study about a man loved by many, who also happens to be an artist many love to hate. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

Sir! No Sir!

While a documentary like An Inconvenient Truth may shake up your views of the near future, this week's Sir! No Sir! may reconfigure the way you view the recent past, in particular, the nature of the anti-Vietnam War movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s. The film focuses on the protesters within the military, the men and women on the front lines and at home, and how their collective voices grew so loud that the Nixon administration literally could no longer rely on them to fight any longer.

Featuring interviews with nearly every person instrumental in the various regional and national movements on both sides of the Pacific, the movie makes it very clear that, while the peace movement on college campuses was inspirational to the soldiers, the government was unswayed as long as those in the military were willing to fight. However, when literally half a million documented "incidents of desertion" occurred between 1966 and 1971, it became clear the war had no support on any front. Military and federal prisons were jammed with modern-day rebels, with thousands more outside marching, tossing their medals, and speaking out with help from Hollywood dignitaries like Donald Sutherland and Jane Fonda. My opinion of her role in the anti-war movement has changed so much over the years, and this film seals in my mind that her Hanoi Jane persona is a total myth. In response to Bob Hope's pro-war variety shows, Fonda and fellow entertainers staged elaborate shows for the troops that were well-attended and supported.

Sir! No Sir! covers some of the same ground as the landmark documentary Winter Soldier, a stirring account of testimony by veterans who gave details of atrocities they witnessed or carried out in Vietnam. If you have a strong stomach and a curious mind, seek out Winter Soldier. Perhaps the section of the film that was most alarming was the debunking of the myth of spat-upon returning soldier. Vet Jeremy Lembcke in his book The Spitting Image did an exhaustive search of any account of such incidents in the history of the war and found none. Still, the myth was propagated during and after the war by those wanting to introduce an Us vs. Them mentality between soldiers and anti-war protesters back home. After the war, the stories became legend thanks such unlikely speechmakers as John Rambo in Sylvester Stallone's First Blood. A clip from that film is shown that almost appears to have been written by the person who invented the story in the first place.

Sir! No Sir! is a long-overdue account of this movement within the military, whose members were often in more mortal danger and suffered stiffer penalties than civilians for such crimes as going AWOL, mutiny, or treason. The film reclaims this vital piece of American history and places it squarely in the position of importance it deserves. The interviews pack an emotional gut-punch, especially when one man looks back and declares, "Damn, did we really do that?" I dare you not to smile and feel a little bit proud. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

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About the Author(s)

A Windy City resident for nearly 20 years, Steve writes about everything but movies at his day job for a trade journal publishing company. Using the alias Capone, he has been the Chicago Editor for Ain't It Cool News since 1998, and has been writing film reviews since he was a wee lad of 14, growing up in Maryland. Direct your questions or comments to .

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