[Movie Review] I, Robot

I, RobotStarring: Will Smith, Bridget Moynahan, Alan Tudyk, James Cromwell, Bruce Greenwood
Director: Alex Proyas
Genre: Sci Fi
Cert: 12
Released: 2004

I’ve been to Chicago a few times and no matter how hard I try, I can never imagine it looking the way it does in “I, Robot” come 2035. Alex Proyas’ (“The Crow”, “Dark City”) futuristic action-thriller throws all the space-age visuals that his budget allows.

Most of the budget is spent on the rather stunning robots that the movie title refers to. The NS-5, manufactured by a company called US Robotics (USR), is a next-generation, robotic, personal assistant that will protect you and obey your every command, as long as it doesn’t conflict with the Three Laws of Robotics.

The First Law is that a robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. The Second Law says that a robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law. And the Third Law specifies that a robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

Looks like a futuristic version of The WaltonsSimple stuff, right? But techno-phobic cop Del Spooner (Smith – “Ali”, “Independence Day”, “Bad Boys”) doesn’t trust the robots. He doesn’t trust technology at all as it happens. Everyone else switches on their stereo with a voice command but he uses an old-fashioned battery-operated remote control (imagine!). We guess that his aversion is something to do with the disturbing dreams he has of a robot rescuing someone from a car submerged underwater, but we’re not given a lot of information about this initially.

He is renonwed for his hostility to the robots that everyone else pretty much depends on in everyday life. He effectively tells his robotic mailman to get bent, and then wrongly apprehends a robot that he spots running down the street with a handbag. Turns out he’s bringing a desperate woman her inhaler.

When he hears about the suicide of the inventor of modern robotics, Dr. Alfred Lanning (Cromwell – “Babe”, “The Green Mile”, LA Confidential”), he immediately suspects something that no one else does – murder. What’s more, he suspects that the murder has been committed by a robot called Sonny. USR psychologist Dr Susan Calvin (Moynahan – “The Sum of All Fears”, “Serendipity”, “Coyote Ugly”) tells him that it is impossible as it would conflict with the Three Laws. Mega-rich USR owner Lawrence Robertson (Greenwood – “The Core”, “Thirteen Days”) agrees with Calvin and ensures that a robot taken in to custody by Spooner is returned to him. With the NS-5 about to replace the previous NS-4 model, Robertson can’t afford any bad publicity.

Spooner says that Sonny is different – everyone says that Spooner is paranoid. With the NS-5 about to be unleashed, the robots may be set to take over the world.

Isaac Asimov’s book “I, Robot” forms the cornerstone of the movie. Rather than being based on the book (which was a collection of short-stories describing the relationship between men and robots), it merely builds on the basic ideas and produces a science-fiction thriller that comes up short in most categories. The visuals and general “futuristic feel” are decent but no better than “Minority Report”, for example. The robots themselves are striking looking and feature some great computer-aided animation but Proyas kind of drops the ball by not featuring them more prominently. This is not a movie that can survive on script and storyline alone so he should have overdosed on the special effects.

The shabby script hinders Will Smith considerably. Smith is better when he’s in good wise-cracking form like in “Bad Boys” or “Independence Day”. Playing a grumpy, paranoid cop with forced lines is a role more suited to the Bruce Willis of ten years ago. His support cast are very unspectacular. Bridget Moynahan tries her best and improves once the lab coat is off and she lets her hair down. Bruce Greenwood’s character is a stereotypical millionaire who adds little and James Cromwell is featured so little it’s criminal.

The pacing of the movie is very uneven. There’s little build up with Lanning’s character, any relationship that Spooner might have with him and no reasons given as to why he has such a problem with the robots. We learn it all eventually but cannot immmerse ourselves in the storyline slowly. Why should we trust Spooner? Because the movie promotion says we should?

Money can’t buy you love – it also can’t buy you an entertaining two hours. Let’s hope they can any sequel.

2star

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[Movie Review] Frailty

Frailty

Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Powers Boothe, Bill Paxton, Matt O’Leary
Director: Bill Paxton
Genre: Thriller
Cert: 15
Released: 2001

There’s something about an axe murderer that’s a little bit more frightening than other forms – not that I have a great deal of experience of course. But I suppose if you recount the way you’ve felt when watching a movie about said subject, the firing of a gun, strangulation, pushing someone off a cliff… they don’t quite have the same churning, disturbing impact as the thought of someone being murdered with an axe. You can be sure when a movie choses this as its central theme, that the intensity and drama is going to imprint itself far more than if the subject was killing with a sniper or via a killer dog or something. Vulgar thoughts, but often those are the ones that ring truest.

In “Frailty”, a serial axe murderer [dubbed the God’s Hand Killer] is the central theme. That axe murderer is unkonwn to the FBI despite the best efforts of Agent Wesley Doyle (Boothe – “Men of Honour”, “Joan of Arc”, “Nixon”, “Tombstone”). The investigation turns on its head when Fenton Meiks (McConaughey – “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days”, “Reign of Fire”, “The Wedding Planner”, “Contact”, “A Time to Kill”) enters his office one rainy (obviously) night and identifies his brother Adam as the killer. Doyle is sceptical, and only slightly less so after Fenton recounts their childhood.

Through a series of flashbacks we see the simple family life of Fenton (played as a child by the very talented Matt O’Leary – “The Alamo”, “Domestic Disturbance”, Spy Kids 2″, “Spy Kids 3-D”), Adam (Jeremy Sumpter) and their father (Paxton – “Twister”, “Aliens”, “A Simple Plan”, “Titanic”) – their mother died when giving birth to Adam. They lead a normal blue-collar existence in Texas until one night their Dad tells them that God visited him. God tells Mr Meiks that it is he and his family’s job to track down demons on earth who are masquerading as humans and kill them. Further visits from angels will reveal who those people are and how the job is to be done.

One of the many visually memorable moments from "Frailty"What do you know…this seems to make some sort of psychological impression on Fenton and Adam. Adam follows his father loyally, believing in his revelation, Fenton resists. Now, both grown up Fenton finally reveals to the cops that he believes the serial killer is Adam.

Bill Paxton makes his directorial debut here. Used to being a minor player in major movies (“Titanic”, “Aliens”, “Apollo 13”) and not a particularly talented one either, one would not expect the sharpest of performances from him behind the camera. You’d be dead wrong. This might be one of the most surprisingly adept movie debuts you’ll see. The story of “Frailty” is like a coil – tight and tense, it needs to be handled carefully to stop it springing free and out of control. Not to overstate things, Paxton directs at a level you might expect from Brian DePalma.

Critical to the movie is the investment you put in Fenton and Agent Doyle. From the beginning, the scene is set well – a dark office, late at night. The rain is falling, Fenton looking unkempt but alert – his question to Agent Doyle as to why he only has one picture of his mother in the office, bringing her in to the story for what seems to be little rhyme or reason at the time.

Forced to flash back twenty five years or so to tell the tail, and subsequently needing to employ kids to develop the plot, Paxton then shines on the other side of the camera, producing one of the most convincing performances of his career as an actor. He is helped undeniably by the ever-rising star of Matt O’Leary who put some guts in to the otherwise wimpy “Domestic Disturbance” with John Travolta.

I described in the first paragraph the uneasiness you feel when it comes to visualising an axe murderer and Paxton engages us with the subject matter without turning us off, or turning our stomachs. This is most definitely a psychological thriller rather than a gore-fest and it’s a film that builds true intrigue rather than building a feeling that you should be intrigued, which many big-name movies do (without pay-off I might add).

McConaughey is back on form here after starring in rather fluffy material like “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days”. He’s creepy – but if you’d been through what he’s been through, you would be too. Boothe always reminds me of Tommy Lee Jones and I was left wondering if he was imagined for the role initially. As it is, Boothe is fine if a little generic.

“Frailty” really works and is genuinely scary and more thought-provoking than you would expect. The ending is real border-line genius/nonsense and if you’re tipping towards the latter after seeing it, a few days contemplation might point you the other way.

If Paxton finds another script of this ilk and level (Brent Hanley’s debut also), then there’s no reason why he can’t succeed where more established names have failed.

4star

[Movie Review] Bad Santa

Bad SantaStarring: Billy Bob Thornton, John Ritter, Tony Cox, Brett Kelly, Lauren Graham, Bernie Mac
Director: Terry Zwigoff
Genre: Comedy
Cert: 15
Released: 2003

Willie (Thornton) is a pretty bad Santa. He swears, he drinks, he pisses himself and he hates Christmas and kids. But he’s not a mall Santa for the good of his health – he does it for his bank balance. Each year, along with elf sidekick Marcus (Cox) and vampy Asian Lois (Lauren Tom), Willie cracks the safe of the mall he happens to be working in and then lives off the proceeds until the next festive season.

Would you give these two a job?  Seriously? He’s a terminal loser, dogged by memories of his abusive childhood and unable to lift himself out of what seems to be a terminal rut. By the time they hit Phoenix for their latest scam, Willie has got even worse – more drunk and more abusive than usual. But things are a little better than usual. His womanising ways have been tempered by sweet but sexy bar-girl Sue (Graham) and he’s moved in to the house of an obsessive kid (Brett Kelly) and his senile grandmother. But mall manager Bob Chipeska (Ritter) is horrified by Willie’s behaviour and asks mall security man Gin (Mac – “Oceans Eleven”) to investigate.

Will Gin catch the gang out before Christmas Eve – and maybe more importantly will any of the seasonal goodwill rub off on Willie?

Although it’s something of a one-joke movie, “Bad Santa” is a viewing pleasure that’s frequently amusing, and You can't help but love this character.occasionally laugh-out loud, entertainment. Placing a fish out of water is a plot device that can fall on its face just as much as it succeeds. But thankfully director Terry Zwigoff pulls it off by building around Thornton’s expert portrayal and keeping sentimentality to a minimum. There’s very little that misses the mark. John Ritter stars here in his last role before his untimtely death in 2003 and does a great job playing a timid mall manager who tiptoes around like an ant stranded at an anteater’s social event might.

This isn’t a conventional Christmas movie and it’s certainly not for the family. Don’t let the title put you off – just go see “Bad Santa” and another fine performance from one of the most atypical A-list stars around.

3halfstar