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A SCANNER DARKLY Once again employing the rotoscoping process that he used in 2001's Waking Life (basically, filming in live-action and then tracing over the images), writer-director Richard Linklater this time unleashes the technique on Philip K. Dick's 1977 novel -- a match made in hallucinatory heaven. Seven years from now, 20 percent of the population will be comprised of junkies, and the US government, with the aid of an organization whose motives might not be squeaky-clean, is trying its best to break the nation of its habit. It sends an agent known only as Fred (Keanu Reeves) into the field to track down the suppliers of a deadly drug called Substance D. Posing as a slacker named Bob Arctor, he forges relationships with several dopers (Winona Ryder, Robert Downey Jr., Woody Harrelson and Rory Cochrane), but as his own use of Substance D continues to fry his brain, he finds it increasingly difficult to ascertain what's real and what's imagined. Even with its animated overlay, A Scanner Darkly is far more restrained in its storytelling methods than other notable "drug flicks" (Requiem for a Dream, Naked Lunch), though the uniqueness of its visual style (that "scramble suit" is a wow!) nevertheless insures that there's always something eye-catching on view. ***

Current Releases

CARS Ever since Pixar Animation Studios began its incredible run with Toy Story back in 1995, haven't most observers been wondering when the company would hit a critical and/or commercial roadblock and watch its latest effort crash and burn? Newsflash: It hasn't happened yet, and it ain't happening with Cars. The storyline seems a little hoary: A big-city slicker learns to slow down and smell the flowers -- or, in this case, the diesel -- in a small town in the middle of nowhere. But the picture's six scripters expand the parameters of this plot description to make an entertaining and even poignant tale about the lure of the open road and the passing of a quaint chapter in modern American history. That race car Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) will find redemption in the small town of Radiator Springs (populated by vehicles played by, among others, Paul Newman and Bonnie Hunt) is never in doubt, but like the best storytellers, John Lasseter and his co-writers make the journey to self-discovery as interesting as possible. So for all its high-gloss NASCAR trappings, Cars is ultimately a paean to Route 66. ***1/2

CLICK Venturing into the "Beyond" section of Bed, Bath & Beyond, harried Michael Newman (Adam Sandler) stumbles upon an eccentric employee (Christopher Walken) who gives him a universal remote with the power to control his life: He can mute the dog's barking, fast-forward through foreplay and even listen to audio commentary (provided by James Earl Jones) on past events in his life. For the first hour, this clever concept leads to some genuine laughs but more often gets buried under the sort of adolescent humor that long ago became the actor's calling card (how many times do we have to watch the family dog hump a stuffed animal?). Then the movie morphs into an update of It's a Wonderful Life, with Michael learning valuable lessons as his life turns tragic. The comedy isn't as pointed as desired and the drama isn't as maudlin as expected, yielding decidedly mixed results. Still, it will make an acceptable DVD rental in about six months; if they can get James Earl Jones for the audio commentary, so much the better. **1/2

THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA Meryl Streep deserves all the accolades she can stomach for her poison-dipped performance in this satisfying screen version of Lauren Weisberger's best-selling novel. As Miranda Priestley, the ice-cold and rock-hard editor of the fashion magazine Runway, Streep delivers a terrific comic performance, as rich as the ones she gave in Postcards from the Edge and the otherwise unwatchable She-Devil. But let's not undervalue the contribution of Anne Hathaway, who's just fine as Andy Sachs, a college grad whose cluelessness about the fashion industry proves to be a drawback in her stint as Miranda's worked-to-the-bone assistant. (Stanley Tucci and Emily Blunt, as Andy's cynical coworkers, likewise deserve kudos.) The film's peeks into the fashion world are amusing, and the script makes some salient points about the lengths to which a person will allow themselves to be humiliated simply to hold onto a job. Once the focus turns to Andy's crisis of conscience, the picture loses some of its bite. But not Meryl, whose ferocious work continues to take a sizable chunk out of the couture culture. ***

AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH The cacophonous naysaying has already begun (largely by those who haven't seen the movie, natch), but this absorbing documentary about global warming gently pushes a message that all Americans of sound mind and good conscience can embrace: Let's work together to make the world a better place. It's a tall order, but the beauty of the film is that it inspires audience members to actually believe they can be a part of something important -- as Gore notes, all the resources are already available for combating global warming, and the only thing that's missing is "political will." Personal anecdotes, charts, slide shows and even cartoons are employed to allow the information to be easily digested by almost anyone. As for Gore, he's far more personable and animated than he ever was on the campaign trail -- what remains unchanged is his blazing intelligence, a far cry from the monosyllabic chimp presently sitting in the White House. As has been the case with Jimmy Carter, getting ousted from office might end up being the best way for Gore to serve his country. ***1/2

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