Saturday, August 21, 2004

Reel To Reel:
I, Robot

How It Rates: **1/2
Starring: Will Smith
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Mild Language, Violence, Brief Partial Nudity (e.g. a side look at Smith's bare butt)

Preconceived Notions: I never read Asimov's collection of short stories.
The Bottom Line: Maybe the filmmakers did, but somewhere in this, a classic got lost.

The three laws of robotics, penned by Issac Asimov, say robots can't hurt anyone, must obey commands, and must protect themselves -- unless doing so would hurt someone. But as Smith's cop character explains himself, rules were meant to be broken. I wish he were talking about the filmmakers, too.

Smith plays Del Spooner, a Chicago homicide detective in 2035 with issues -- some mental, some mechanical. He doesn't like robots, for a reason that will be explained halfway through the picture. He's happily old-school, right down to the remote-controlled (as opposed to voice-activated) CD player in his apartment and his "vintage 2004" Converse All-Stars. But his latest case puts him on the death of a robot designer at USR, U.S. Robotics -- the Procter & Gamble of industrial mechanics. Everybody else thinks it's suicide. Spooner disagrees, and before long, he's onto the theory that a robot is to blame. He's right, of course, but everybody else in the picture, including Spooner's superiors, dismiss it as nonsense. Robots can't hurt people -- it's in the laws. Obviously they can't malfunction either. The simple stubborness of the film's characters to consider the possibility is annoying.

Here we come to a rule of disaster films, one which many action films also adhere to. Repeat after me: "Only One Guy Really Understands What's Going On, But Nobody Will Listen To Him." See my review of The Day After Tomorrow for more on other disaster-film rules. But that isn't so much the problem as the film's disjointed plot. Scenes and characters are pushed together merely as a way to get us from one action scene to the next, a common ailment, or make that a rule, of the genre. Will Smith's character gives us lots of memorable one-liners, but everybody else in the film is one-dimentional. The robots have more depth than most of the people in this film.

How about the effects? Yeah, there are some doozies. But let's be frank here. The more CGI I see, the more convinced I am we are becoming numb to it. The last movie I saw with innovative CGI was Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, hardly sci-fi.

I, Robot has a message for us, but it's thrown in simply as a plot device, not as a moral to base a film around. When we finally see that message, it doesn't tidy up the confusion of earlier scenes. I'm not even going to guess what Asimov would have thought.

If you want to see a truly great sci-fi action film which gets the message and method right, try Blade Runner or Minority Report. It helps that both films were put into the hands of capable directors Ridley Scott and Steven Spielberg.

Yes, USR -- U.S. Robotics, is an actual company off the screen. It makes modems. The company's web site explains its name, like the movie, came from Asimov's short story collection. In fact, the company is openly embracing the film, despite the sinister overtones for its celluloid namesake. But I guess the real-life USR won't be making 'bots anytime soon.

Saturday, August 14, 2004

Reel To Reel:
The Village

How It Rates: **1/2
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Sigourney Weaver, Adrien Brody
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Some gross scenes, brief scary violence

Preconceived Notions: M. Night Shyamalan's latest thriller. Can it deliver the scares of "Signs" with the twist of "The Sixth Sense?"
The Bottom Line: Not enough scares. But there's a twist.

I'm reluctant to discuss The Village at length because understanding what I think about it requires giving away one of several twists. Overall, my problem with it is that the foundation seems built upon a set of rules -- yes, those rules you see on the poster, along with some others -- that in the end, don't really matter that much. Yes, the movie has scary moments, but there are far too few of them to classify this in the same league as The Sixth Sense or Signs, which uses silence so effectively. But like the Blair Witch Project, here is a film which is less about scaring the audience than it is about scaring the people in the film's village.

The film gets off to a slow start, set in a rural village in late 1800's Pennsylvania, right down to the archaic diction of its inhabitants (Brownie points to Shyamalan for getting a language detail many films would miss). The village is surrounded by woods, blocked off with yellow penants and a warning -- don't go into the "forbidden woods" or those "who we do not speak of" will attack you and likely the whole town too. We are told a truce exists, like two street gangs who have carved up territory. You stay off their turf and they'll stay off of of ours. Oh and one other thing -- if you see anything red, pick it up and bury it. Those who we do not speak of are attracted to it.

We wouldn't have a movie unless somebody broke the truce. And somebody does. But the town's reaction to it is puzzling. And so are many scenes in the first half of the film that focus more on village life than the creatures who threaten it. I wondered if I had walked into Sense And Sensibility by mistake. However, the reason for those scenes becomes obvious by the end of the film.

I will give you a choice here. You can either stop reading and avoid potentially figuring out a spoiler or go on for more analysis. If you want to read on, highlight the white space below with your mouse.

Okay. You have chosen to enter the forbidden woods.

Like I said, there is much more focus on village life than the creatures. And the reason for this is because of the nature of the creatures themselves, which leads us to another reason why the woods are off limits. Without divulging that secret, I will merely tell you that reason, while understandable, simply seems cruel in the context of what I would consider to be the pioneer spirit of that age. Again, without divulging a plot twist, I will simply say that a much larger danger surrounds the village, and that is the real reason the woods are off-limits.

We are not told how long the village has existed, but we do know its origins. And those origins, depending on how you look at them, seem like either an act of genuine compassion or cruelty by ignorance. The Village raises questions beyond the scope of its presentation about those who live there and what they are thinking. You could make an entirely different movie about their motivations and actions. I don't know what it would be like, but for a hint, maybe you should watch the PBS Series Frontier House.

Saturday, August 7, 2004

Reel To Reel:

How It Rates: ***
Starring: Tom Cruise, Jamie Foxx
Rated: R
Red Flags: Language, Violence

Preconceived Notions: Michael Mann is directing another deep, dark thriller. Can it match of to Heat? And how good does Tom Cruise look in grey hair?
The Bottom Line: The ending stalls, but it's still an enjoyable ride.

Michael Mann's films have a grainy feel to them laced with style and dark wit. Collateral doesn't break the mold. But what starts out as a highly original, unpredictable nightmare trek falls victim to the Hollywood Ending machine. This machine could use a tuneup.

Cruise plays Vincent, an aging hitman with a lot of killing to do and not a lot of time to kill. The plan is to fly into L.A. for one night, ghost five people involved in a federal case against a drug cartel, and hop a plane out of there. Vincent could've rented something from Hertz to get around, but he's the kind of guy who can't leave as much as a shadow.

So Vincent flags down a cab driven by Max (Foxx), who will ferry him through the hit parade. Max is driving a cab as a part-time gig, we learn, as he saves up money to start a high-class limo service. Max thinks he's getting a nice pay-night for driving a notary around to get signatures on paperwork. That illusion soon comes crashing down right into the cab's windshield. Max becomes a driver held hostage and it's going to be a bumpy ride.

You adapt, you evolve, Vincent explains in one of his many philosophical taxicab confessions where he explains the significance of his job and the insignificance of life. These are the film's highlights. Cruise is masterful as somebody who rationalizes the irrational -- "I do this for a living" -- and sees knocking people off as just a job with no karmic downside. Foxx is also superb in his role of a street-smart cabbie who hasn't figured out he's spinning his wheels in life as he drives people around.

One of the most interesting dynamics in Collateral is the relationship between Vincent and Max. Max wants desperately to get away from Vincent, and yet Vincent ends up as his protector on several occasions. Vincent has several chances to off Max, just like he kills several innocents, but the cabbie lives. Max has a chance to sell out Vince during a key meeting with a cartel boss, but instead, he grows a spine.

Up to this point, you have a smart, sleek thriller with a brain and a lot of surprises. But all of that stops when Vince gets to his last hit. Instead of an original ending, Mann goes for a convenient one. A subplot involving the cops seems like a throwaway. And the notion of Cruise's character keeping his hit list on a tablet PC seems strange for somebody who would like to disappear into the night.

Sunday, August 1, 2004

Reel To Reel:
The Manchurian Candidate

How It Rates: ***1/2
Starring: Denzel Washington, Meryl Streep, Liev Schrieber
Rated: R
Red Flags: Language, Action Violence

Preconceived Notions: Remake a classic political thriller? Are you brainwashed?
The Bottom Line: Hits all the right chords, but Meryl Streep steals the show.

It's no coincidence the updated Manchurian Candidate was released one day after the end of the Democratic National Convention, striking while John Kerry's and John Edward's speeches about the direction of America are still fresh on the cable-news soundbite machines and in our heads. That only adds to its effectiveness.

The original Candidate, for those of you who don't know, featured Frank Sinatra and Angela Lansbury in a tale of eastern communists brainwashing a politician in a plot to infiltrate the government. The new version retunes to a post-9/11 world, subsituting a multinational corporation, Manchurian Global, as the bad guys and an implant as the means.

Their sleeper is Seargeant Shaw (Schrieber), Seargeant Raymond Shaw, Raymond... Prentiss... Shaw... -- a vice-presidential candidate who can be manipulated like a light switch. That's when he's not being manipulated by his mother (Streep), a powerful senator who gets what she wants -- all in the name of protecting America, of course. Streep swears she's not emulating Hillary Clinton. Yeah, suuuuurrrrre. Watch her performance and tell me if I'm wrong. Maybe it's not the Hillary we've seen in front of the cameras, but it has to be the woman behind closed doors. Schrieber's character has this constant creepy aura, making him an awfully cold fish for half the presidential ticket. He wouldn't be there without Mommy's help.

Washington plays Captain Bennett Marco, commander of an ambushed Gulf War unit both he and Shaw served in. Marco has had reoccouring nightmares for years of the ambush and knows something more went on there. His search for the truth accelerates when he meets a fellow soldier in his unit who's being mentally destroyed by the nightmares. Much of this film is Marco's picture, a study of a man collapsing under the weight of disturbing facts and diaboloical images.

The new Candidate taps into our fears about globalization and terrorism. A lot of us will subsitute Halliburton for the fictitous Manchurian Global. But it also plugs into some eternal truths about politics -- the manufacturing of candidates, the corruption of leadership through money, and the sideshow spectacle of the presidential race. Even Al Franken plays a darkly comic cameo as a lame television commentator. We have arguably seen, in the current administration, examples of corporate influence. After seeing this picture, you realize it's not that great of a leap to direct control.