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!

Millions (Fox Searchlight), directed by Danny Boyle from a script by Frank Cottrell Boyce, is a piece of religious whimsy that mixes saints and thieves. A young, motherless, trainspotting lad (Alexander Nathan Etel) becomes obsessed with self-flagellating (and self-mutilating) saints, and one day becomes the recipient of a gift from the heavens (or so he thinks): a huge bag of money hurled on top of his cardboard hideaway from a passing locomotive. As the United Kingdom is on the verge of switching from the pound to the euro, there is an expiration date on those riches. The boy begins asking strangers and acquaintances if they're poor and then slipping wads of bills through their mailboxes. His older brother (Lewis Owen McGibbon), meanwhile, considers long-term investments. And an ominous stranger begins poking around asking questions about the whereabouts of what is obviously ill-gotten lucre. We know he's the bad guy because whenever he appears the soundtrack features Darth Vader-ish heavy breathing.

Millions is overdirected from its first frame. It was reportedly recut by the studio to get a more family-friendly rating, which could account for the some of the more confusing syncopations. But the fast-motion trains and landscapes, the scudding clouds, and the incessantly circling camera are Danny Boy at his most hard-Boyled. I'm not a cinematic Luddist: Exuberant whooshy trickery has its place, and directors like Alfonso Cuaron (A Little Princess, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban) and Carroll Ballard (The Black Stallion) are hardly self-effacing. Moreover, the punchy style of 28 Days Later worked like gangbusters. But when technique constantly throws you out of a story, it's time for a director to practice a little saintly self-abnegation himself.

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The manifestations of sundry saints (some of whom speak in a most unsaintly vernacular) are intermittently amusing, and the climax works up a fair amount of tension considering that you know it will all turn out all right. But Millions doesn't come together: the showoffy visuals, the Monty Pythonish parody, the religioso glop ... Boyle is selling his story like a televangelist, when he ought to be telling it like ...

Well, not like John Boorman, a great director who's on the opposite end of the artistic spectrum with his painfully self-effacing In My Country (Sony Pictures Classics). The movie centers on South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission—the government investigation into the crimes of apartheid that resulted in the unearthing of so many bodies and the amnesty of so many war criminals.

The protagonist, Anna Malan (Juliette Binoche), is a poet and radio journalist who supports the trials—although they are hard on her as she feels increasingly guilty for her ignorance of (and her family's complicity in) the government-sanctioned torture and murder. Coming from a different place, Langston Whitfield (Samuel L. Jackson) is an American Washington Post reporter with a most un-Mandela-like hunger for revenge. A third point of view is offered by most of the black victims of apartheid, who are deeply in tune with the landscape and the spirits of their ancestors and argue for forgiveness on the grounds of the interconnectedness of all things: What hurts you hurts me. Whitfield, meanwhile, smolders, especially when he sits down for an interview with one of the most sadistic of the government's enforcers, the piggy-eyed De Jager (Brendan Gleeson).

I'll be damned for saying this, but South Africa brings out the dullsville side of most non-South African filmmakers. The reason is simple. Great drama relies on two points of view that, if not always equal, are at least of comparable weight. But there wasn't, isn't, and never will be a remotely compelling defense of the evil that was apartheid. Moreover, the man who presided over the system's denouement, Nelson Mandela, is the closest thing to a saint that most of us will see in our lifetime. The screenwriter, Ann Peacock, adapting the book Country of My Skull by the poet Antjie Krog, can't seem to shake off the anti-dramatic torpor of the virtuous. A recitation of horrors by assorted commission witnesses and dead-to-rights secret policemen drives the antagonists, Malan and Whitfield, together: Their tender affair takes what little wind there is out of the movie's sails. And Boorman often gets woozy around pantheist philosophers.

This is the point where I ought to say, "Well, see In My Country anyway, because it's doubtful we'll get another movie too soon that raises the issue of vengeance versus forgiveness—and endorses the latter in the name of a nation's spiritual well-being." So, there it is.

Speaking of torture, if you dig it, by all means lock yourself up for two hours with Hostage (Miramax), which begins by administering electric shocks to your viscera and keeps upping the voltage. It's a kids-in-jeopardy movie that opens with a kid getting shot and hemorrhaging in hostage negotiator Bruce Willis' arms, engendering in him a spiritual crisis. For reasons too complicated to relay (or believe), Willis has to risk the life of another little boy (held by one set of monsters) to save his own wife and daughter (held by a more professional set of monsters), engendering in him another spiritual crisis. The director, Florent Emilio Siri (The Nest), is more imaginative and resourceful than the material deserves, and the cinematographer, Giovanni Fiore Coltellacci, gives the nightscapes an unearthly glow—as well as lighting Willis to bring out his great, hairless, chiseled head. The hero's daughter, as you probably know, is played by Willis' own progeny, Rumer, who offers a fascinating glimpse of a pre-plastic-surgery Demi Moore. A nonactress and evidently untroubled by it, she's the one human touch in this slick chamber of horrors ... 3:20 p.m.

Family fun
Family fun

Robots (20th Century Fox), directed by Chris Wedge and Carlos Saldhana (of Ice Age), has a certain conceptual elegance. It's designed and animated, like most everything else these days, on a computer, and its characters are machines that (who?) move in herky-jerky mechanical fashion: Unnatural form meets unnatural content. The joke is that this entire universe is mechanical yet sentient, from the people to the birds to the fire hydrants. (One hydrant, voiced by Jay Leno, hisses at a dog lifting its leg, "Don't even think about it.") Here's another good joke and then I'll stop with the spoilers. A father frets that he has missed the delivery of his son—the delivery by post, that is, in a box with convoluted assembly instructions. When the child is finally put together, the dad remarks, "He has your mom's eyes and your dad's nose—I'm glad we saved those parts."

As the above lines (from the script by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel) suggest, this is pretty sophisticated humor for a kids' movie. There's now a Hollywood term for what Robots is: a "hand-hold" picture, meaning that parents don't just drop the kids off (does anyone do that anymore?) but stick around and have to be entertained—to ensure, if nothing else, that they talk it up to other parents. This is the first time, though, that I've seen a family animated feature in which more than 50 percent of the gags seemed squarely aimed at grown-ups.

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