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.

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.

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.

Don't Swing Away: The entries are pouring into my e-mailbox, with the Shyamster, M. Night Shyamalan, predictably far out in front. It's going to take the weekend (at least) to sift through them all, especially with Robots, Millions, Hostage, and In My Country still demanding your humble critic's attention. But it would be useful to define the term "twist" before too many more people submit the dread "Swing away" from the dread Signs.

For my purposes (if not O. Henry's), a twist is a particular kind of surprise: one that not only forces us to reorient ourselves radically, but that comes close to demolishing the very premise of everything that has preceded it. The Shyamster's three other mature films have premise-demolishing finales, but I would classify "Swing away" as a "surprise," as well as "retarded."

David Edelstein is Slate's film critic. You can read his reviews in "Reel Time" and in "Movies." He can be contacted at slatemovies@slate.com.

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