Robots.

Running thoughts on movies and their makings.
March 11 2005 2:37 PM

Clanks a Million

Robots plus Millions, In My Country, Hostage, The Upside of Anger, and a new reader contest!

(Continued from Page 1)

True, my almost-7-year-old daughter liked the movie a lot—maybe because it's so busy. The plot revolves around (and given the nonstop motion, it really does revolve around) an enterprising young inventor robot, Rodney Copperbottom (voiced by Ewan McGregor, not that it really matters), who strikes out for the big city to meet his hero, Bigweld (voiced by Mel Brooks, which matters), the nominal head of a great (and all-controlling) high-tech corporation. What he finds is that the exuberantly idealistic Bigweld has been shoved aside by pinstripe-coated yuppie profiteer named Ratchet (voiced by Greg Kinnear), who has a plan (in cahoots with his gorgon mother, deliciously voiced by Jim Broadbent!) to stop manufacturing replacement parts, forcing the robot population to submit to expensive upgrades or be melted down into paper clips.

What an interesting, quasi-liberal parable for this Republican-dominated era: overbearing but socially responsible capitalism versus overbearing, ruthless capitalism that would, in effect, exterminate the underclass. (No one has a problem with enlightened, paternalistic capitalism in and of itself.) Rodney falls in with a group of rusty, impoverished slackers and dreamers who must constantly look out for a malevolent roving magnet that will carry them away to the forge--presided over by Mrs. Ratchet. Asimov meets Dickens meets Bush II.

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The prospect of another Robin Williams voice seems deadly, especially when his big production number is something lame called "Singing in the Oil." And it's fascinating the way that Halle Berry's dullness seeps into the animation of her character. But the high-tech/low-tech designs are fun: the robots with the button noses and marble eyes, the hero's invention that's a modified old-fashioned coffee pot. The robot metropolis is all circles: egg-shaped dwellings, spinning wheels, and swirling streets. The visuals have so much intrinsic motion that it's too bad Robots is oppressively rollercoasterish. The characters can't walk across the street without being swept up in some Rube-Goldberg-like contraption that whips them madly up and down and around while the sound effects rattle your head. I wonder if the next generation will be discombobulated as well as deaf ... 11:18 a.m.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

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Costner and Allen in Upside
Allen: Remind me what the upside of this is, again ...

In The Upside of Anger (New Line), Joan Allen plays Terry Wolfmeyer, the mother of four daughters in an affluent suburb of Detroit who one day discovers that her husband has left—apparently run off to Sweden with his secretary after getting canned from his job. Royally pissed-off, she begins to go to seed. The blonde, redheaded, and reddish-blonde daughters (Erika Christensen, Keri Russell, Evan Rachel Wood, and Alicia Witt), who range in age from 15 to 22, are unused to seeing their mom as a disheveled drunk with an acid tongue—and I'm unused to seeing Joan Allen that way. But it becomes her.

I first saw Allen in the late '80s in Wendy Wasserstein's The Heidi Chronicles. That play has its champions (among them the Pulitzer judges), but it struck me as a load of moralistic feminist wank with androids in lieu of people, and Allen was all too suitably passive and sexless. She was tall and handsome and knew how to move (she'd gotten great reviews as a dancer in the Steppenwolf production of Burn This!), but she seemed like the wonky girl in high school who goes on stage to get wild but can't fully shed her inhibitions. Compare Allen to Sigourney Weaver, another tall actress of her generation. Weaver can look crazed and downright foolish, but she turns every performance into a thrilling high-wire act. I've always found Allen too cautious, too sane, maybe too nice to be thrilling in the same way—until now. The Upside of Anger is the upside of Allen.

The writer and director, Mike Binder, knows just how to capture the discourse of bright neurotic people—how they snipe before they think, self-dramatize, and make compulsive masochistic jokes. He knows when to make drunken abrasiveness a riot and when to make it sad and depressing. As an actor, he plays a grubby, on-the-make radio producer, "Shep" Goodman, who dates Terry's second daughter (Christensen), and his scenes with Allen are haymakers. Binder stands there with his lewd asymmetrical eyebrows and handlebar mustache and his arm around this cherubic young blonde, and Allen slits her eyes and incinerates him with a stare. Binder unlocks something primal in Allen. In one scene she weeps and hits notes I've never heard from her—the tears were suddenly pouring down my own face. For once, I didn't even wish she were Sigourney Weaver.

The movie's rudderless matriarchal universe—with its four varieties of mother-daughter conflict—would have been more disturbing if a quasi-patriarchal figure didn't amble by on cue. Kevin Costner plays a neighbor named Denny Davies, a former baseball star and current rambling radio host and alcoholic. Denny has been trying to convince Terry's husband to sell a parcel of land in back of the house to a development group he's fronting. But when he finds Terry alone, he offers up his services as a drinking buddy and plants himself and his bottle of Bud down on her sofa. It isn't long before he puts the moves on Terry, whose attitude is, like, "Oh, please."

Costner clearly hopes this will relaunch his career as a character actor the way Terms of Endearment added luster to Jack Nicholson's. And he's funny and likeable—his timing is great. He and Allen have superbly orchestrated battles, and their moments of tenderness are even better: They have a dance that I wish had gone on longer. But Denny is a little too sweet and solicitous and selfless; the part doesn't quite add up.

In fact, a lot of The Upside of Anger has you scratching your head—or, in the case of Alexandre Desplat's uncharacteristically cutesy piano score, plugging your ears. (Desplat has a better score in theaters this week, an entertainingly bombastic circus-of-horrors suite for Hostage.) The daughters take the father's exit weirdly in stride and don't even seem nonplussed by the total lack of contact. The movie is framed by the youngest girl's term paper on anger: When she drew her conclusions in her closing narration about what we'd just witnessed, I had literally no idea what she was talking about.

That summing-up came after a climactic twist that's among the stupidest I've ever seen—almost up there with another Costner movie, No Way Out, and The Life of David Gale. Do I dare propose another contest? The worst twist endings of all time? I think I've got three of the worst already. Can you surprise me? Send them here.

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