Cars: PICK


Mission: Impossible 3: PASS


Marie Antoinette: PICK  


Content advisory:

Cars: Anthropomorphic race-car mayhem; mild crude humor; a couple of oblique double-entendres. Fine family viewing. M-I:3: Much strong action violence and intense menace, including a brutal execution-style shooting; a premarital live-in relationship and a scene of post-wedding sensuality; some profane and harsh language. Adults. Marie Antoinette: Romantic complications; revolutionary violence. Teens and up.

New this week on DVD, Cars is Pixar’s most improbable success to date, a film that could easily have misfired, but somehow does not. Directed by Pixar honcho John Lasseter, who last directed A Bug’s Life, Cars ominously recalls some of the elements that made A Bug’s Life Pixar’s least inspired film: the total absence of human beings and a formulaic story of a threatened community pulling together to overcome adversity.

But Cars is no Bug’s Life. Offbeat and counter-intuitive, Cars finds a quirky creative groove and an emotional center that eluded the earlier Lasseter effort.

The story of a callow young racecar (Owen Wilson) whose rise to the top is sidetracked by an unplanned stopover in a sleepy, time-forgotten town may be formulaic. But the film’s sense of time and place, its 1950s small-town nostalgia, its jaw-dropping visual beauty — along with its love of cars, the open road and the American Southwest — ultimately elevate Cars to a level of art that continues to defy even the best efforts of Pixar’s competitors.

Heavy on hooey, Cars is also genuinely endearing. Refreshingly, neither of the big races that bookend the film ends the way formula would dictate. Cars doesn’t just mouth the platitude that winning isn’t everything. Respect, dignity and loyalty are really honored above finishing first. Only Pixar’s enviable track record could make this charming film seem a disappointment. (Don’t miss the end-credit outtakes, which include the funniest end-reel gag in Pixar history.)

Also new on DVD, Mission: Impossible III is the first M:I film to achieve emotional urgency. But who wants emotional urgency in an M:I film? The best scene in the franchise remains the original’s suspenseful CIA break-in, which was a lark. By contrast, the same film’s opening act, in which Hunt’s Impossible Mission Force team is killed, gets the franchise off on the wrong foot.

I enjoyed M:I-III, sort of, when Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and his team are having fun — especially the sequences in and around Vatican City, the Tiber, St. Peter’s Square and the catacombs. Just having a scene at a Vatican soirée with no gratuitous swipes at the Church is a refreshing change. For that matter, we see priests officiating at a funeral and a wedding; the latter priest even mentions the indissolubility of marriage.

But when the emotions turn grim for too much of the film, it takes a toll. The villain isn’t just a typical movie bad guy but a genuine monster. From the opening scene, it’s clear that Hunt, at best a lightweight movie hero, is out of his league. It’s competent, disposable entertainment, but in the post-007 world of Jason Bourne, that may not be enough. The Impossible Mission Force has perhaps outlived its usefulness.

With Sophia Coppola’s quirky, much-debated revisionist take on Marie Antoinette in theaters, the recent DVD release of the classic 1938 Marie Antoinette, starring Norma Shearer, comes just in time for movie buffs who give a fig about history. Directed by W.S. Van Dyke and based on the 1933 Stefan Zweig biography, the lavishly produced film follows Marie as she learns to negotiate the dangerous world of the court of Louis XV, marrying the dimwitted, unvirile Dauphin (Robert Morley) and eventually becoming queen. The last act, though without surprises, remains powerful.