WALL-E


Apparently a robot can have more humanity than any presidential candidate.

Apparently a robot can have more humanity than any presidential candidate.

(2008) Animated Feature (Disney*Pixar) Starring the voices of Ben Burtt, Elissa Knight, Jeff Garlin, Fred Willard, John Ratzenberger, Kathy Najimy, Sigourney Weaver, Teddy Newton, Ben Bergen, John Cygan, Pete Docter, Paul Eiding, Don Fulilove, Teresa Ganzel, Jess Harnell, Laraine Newman, Andrew Stanton, Jeff Pidgeon, Jim Ward, Sherry Lynn, Lori Alan. Directed by Andrew Stanton

800 years from now, Earth is an empty, dead garbage dump. It is no longer capable of supporting life. In this whimsical, magical animated tale from the geniuses at Pixar, it is tended to by WALL-E, who compacts the trash and stacks the bricks, trying to tend the planet until its human inhabitants return, but it is another robot – EVE – who returns and discovers a tiny little plant growing. She and WALL-E miraculously fall in love with each other, but EVE must report back to the Axiom that it is time for humanity to return.

Humanity, however, has become obese and lazy their every need tended to by robots who have a different program in mind. Beautifully animated with tons of heart, this is one of Pixar’s finest animated films and clearly one of the best animated features of all time. The slapstick humor may be a little much for some (reportedly director Andrew Stanton and many of the top creative people behind the movie watched scores of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin movies for inspiration) but there is virtually no dialogue which helps make the magic even more…um, magical. This is definitely one of my favorite movies ever and it bears plenty of re-watching. Even Peter Gabriel’s closing credits song is perfect.

WHY RENT THIS: This is simply one of Pixar’s best ever. There are some big ideas made palatable for all ages. Love is front and center here. The characters are memorable and cute.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some may find it a little too slapstick for their tastes.
FAMILY VALUES: Perfectly suitable for all ages.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: When WALL-E has fully recharged his solar batteries, he makes the same sound as the Apple “Boot-Up” chime which every Apple computer has made since 1996 but is finally being retired later this year.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The 3-Disc DVD set includes the short Presto which was shown before the theatrical release of WALL-E, as well as a short focusing on the welding robot BURN-E, a series of promos for the Buy ‘N Large corporation (including a training video), a kid-friendly guide to the 28 robots shown in the film as well as a digital storybook read by Kathy Najimy featuring the characters from WALL-E. The 2-disc Blu-Ray also includes the full length documentary The Pixar Story and several 8-bit arcade-type games featuring the characters of the film.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $533.2M on a $180M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray rental only), Amazon, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Silent Running
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10

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Futureworld


The future is phallic.

The future is phallic.

(1976) Science Fiction (American Independent) Peter Fonda, Blythe Danner, Arthur Hill, John Ryan, Stuart Margolin, Yul Brynner, Alan Ludden, John Fujioka, Dana Lee, Burt Conroy, Darrell Larson, Nancy Bell, Judson Pratt, Jim Antonio, Mike Scott, Ed Geldard, Charles Krohn, Jim Everhart, Jan Cobbler, James Connor, Catherine McClenny. Directed by Richard T. Heffron

sci-fi-spectacle

This was a sequel to the popular hit film Westworld which on the day this is being published is making its debut as an HBO miniseries. Rather than a major studio behind the wheel however, AIP was funding this and of course as was typical for AIP films there was a kind of TV movie-of-the-week quality to the proceedings.

Following the disaster at Westworld the Delos resort is trying to regroup. They are so confident that they can resume their resort life of allowing guests to live their fantasies, no matter how illegal or immoral they are, with robots bearing the brunt of sexual congress and murder. Their publicity shill, Duffy (Hill) is so sure that the bugs have been worked out and that the guests are completely safe that he has invited a pair of reporters – print columnist Chuck Browning (Fonda) who helped expose the disaster at Westworld – and Tracy Ballard (Danner), a once-upon-a-time journalist who was fired by Browning but became a famous TV news personality. The two couldn’t be more opposite if they could try, which in movie-speak means they’re going to fall in love.

Westworld has closed (although we get to visit the ruins and get a hand job for doing it), but Delos has retained Romanworld and Medievalworld as well as adding two new resorts – Spaworld which gives the illusion of eternal life and youth, and Futureworld, which allows the wonders of the solar system to be experienced from the comfort of a cruise ship-like spaceship.

Browning is a cynical, suspicious sort – particularly after a tipster named Frenchy (Geldard) shows up dead with an envelope full of newspaper clippings. Browning means to do some investigatin’ and Woodward and Bernstein ain’t got nuthin on him. In the meantime he flirts with Ballard, calling her by the pet name “Socks” which isn’t as endearing as he thinks. And with the aid of disgruntled maintenance worker Harry (Margolin), Browning begins to uncover a horrific plot going on at Delos with the sinister Dr. Schneider (Ryan) at its very center.

All this was supposed to take place in 1985 and while some of the technology isn’t there yet (human-looking and acting robots) the computers and electronics looked positively archaic by the time 1985 actually arrived. AIP was hoping to cash in on a hit movie which the original studio, MGM, had tried to develop but couldn’t get a script and a budget they wanted. AIP didn’t really care about the script and as for budget, well, let’s just say that they didn’t scrimp but they didn’t break the bank either.

Fonda was at the time still trying to kick his counterculture image of Easy Rider and so his “stick it to the man” mentality that Browning possesses struck a chord with his fans. Part of the dated element of this film is that I don’t think that reporters are as considered heroic and anti-establishment now as they were in the wake of the Watergate investigation of the Washington Post which had just taken place a few years earlier. These days we mostly look as reporters as part of the corporate media machine. They essentially do little to report the news and more to sell advertising and for certain don’t look out for the little guy.

Danner was a hottie back in the day; we sometimes forget that Gwynneth’s beauty came from somewhere. However, AIP wanted this to be more or less compatible with network television standards, so there is virtually no sex, hardly any violence and no swearing. It was a different time.

Brynner, making his last screen appearance, reprises his role as the Gunslinger from the first film (the only actor who appears here from Westworld) and his menacing glare is one of the highlights of the film. Most of the rest of the performances were fairly pedestrian although Ryan did do some mustache-twirling scene chewery as the true big bad, in a generic 70s TV movie kind of way.

Most of the movie seems to have the actors running around the bowels of Delos with a lot of pipes, catwalks and wires which I suppose is better than having to construct futuristic-looking sets. None of it makes a lot of sense but overall, it’s surprisingly entertaining. I first saw it as a teen boy and I carry with me the fond memories of seeing it in a theater which may color my appreciation of it now. Still, while this isn’t the kind of movie that attracts a cult following, it’s still got enough going to make it kind of fun and quite frankly that’s far more than a lot of contemporary films can say.

WHY RENT THIS: There is some fun robot action. Yul Brynner makes a menacing but silent villain. Surprisingly entertaining throughout in a guilty pleasure kind of way.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Very dated. Doesn’t make a whole lot of logical sense. The performances seem mailed in.
FAMILY VALUES: Some sexuality and mild profanity and a few disturbing images as well as some violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the first film to utilize 3D imagery, as well as being Brynner’s final film.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.
SITES TO SEE: Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, Google Play, Fandango Now
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Westworld
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years

Tomorrowland


George Clooney has a chat with Brett Robertson over her TV viewing habits.

George Clooney has a chat with Brett Robertson over her TV viewing habits.

(2015) Science Fiction (Disney) George Clooney, Hugh Laurie, Britt Robertson, Raffey Cassidy, Tim McGraw, Kathryn Hahn, Keegan-Michael Key, Chris Bauer, Thomas Robinson, Pierce Gagnon, Matthew MacCaull, Judy Greer, Matthew Kevin Anderson, Michael Giacchino, D. Harlan Cutshall, Shiloh Nelson, Xantha Radley, David Nykl, Priya Rajratham. Directed by Brad Bird

The future is a subject that fascinates most of us. How we view the future tends to be a reflection of how we view the present; in the optimistic days of the early and mid-60s, the epoch of the New York World’s Fair, there was optimism. Things would get better and our ingenuity would get us there. The future was full of sleek buildings, mass transit via monorail, wondrous scientific advances, cities on the moon, flying cars, jetpacks and cheerful, smiling people without a care in the world. In short, a theme park.

These days the way we view the future is dark and hopeless. Inevitably in our view of the future civilization has collapsed, resources have been depleted and humanity is on the verge of extinction. There are no gleaming cities, no jetpacks, no cheerful, smiling people; just dirty, destitute denizens of a hardscrabble world desperate to survive in a world where survival on any given day is no picnic. Welcome to the 21st century, no?

In Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland, yet another Disney film based on a theme park attraction – or, in this case, an entire themed zone within a theme park – there is a return to that bright shiny future but in this particular case, the future isn’t all that it used to be.

Meet Frank Walker (Robinson). He’s a brilliant kid living out in the sticks who dreams of jetpacks and shiny cities and heads over to the 1964 World’s Fair with stars in his eyes and a (nearly) working jetpack under his arm for a competition for inventors. His invention is rejected but a little girl named Athena (Cassidy) gives Walker a pin and tells him to follow her and her group. Walker follows them onto the It’s a Small World ride via which he is transported to an alternate dimension, one in which the future is now. He has arrived in Tomorrowland, a place where humanity’s most creative minds, most artistic souls and most brilliant scientists have gathered to create a Utopia. In short, not unlike the SyFy Channel’s Eureka.

Flash forward 50 years and over to Central Florida where Eddie Newton (McGraw), a NASA engineer, is given charge of dismantling the launch site for the Space Shuttle after which he’ll be out of a job. His spunky daughter Casey (Robertson), who has a brilliant intuitive mind and is able to figure out almost instantly “how things work,” has been repeatedly sabotaging his efforts. One of her attempts at sabotage gets her caught and lands her in jail. When she goes to collect her things, there’s a strange pin among them – one she didn’t have before. Whenever she touches it, she is transported to Tomorrowland, although it is more of an immersive hologram of Tomorrowland. And there’s a time limit on the pin’s battery, after which it  ceases working.

Casey is obsessed with finding Tomorrowland and her search takes her to the doorstep of Frank Walker (Clooney), now a grizzled old hermit whose house looks dilapidated yet is taking in more electrical current than Walt Disney World. It turns out that Frank was exiled from Tomorrowland, and that he harbors a terrifying secret; while in Tomorrowland he built a machine able to look into the future and to his horror, it showed that the end of the human race was approaching. And it appears that Casey may hold the key to stopping it, but they have to get to Tomorrowland to do it. And there are some killer robots who are dead set on making sure that doesn’t happen.

Bird has created a marvelous universe that is brilliant to watch. Sure, it’s a bit of a retro vision but he has managed to make it visually stunning, an extension of the future worlds we saw 50 years ago (that are supposed to be now) but modernizing them somewhat. Tomorrowland thus becomes believable, at least to 2015 eyes.

In a movie in which ideas and dreams are extolled, Bird has several of his own and they bear thinking about. For example, he posits that because we’re conditioned to think that the future is bleak and awful, that we are making it come to pass. It’s a concept not without merit. The news about our present is unrelentingly bleak, when you consider climate change, income inequality, peak oil, religious fanaticism, water and food shortages, overpopulation and all the other issues that are affecting our survival. Hollywood also tends to make big budget sci-fi movies about futures in which mankind is not prospering. Post-apocalyptic wastelands are easier and cheaper to create than futuristic utopias, after all.

The constant Disney references in the movie are probably delightful to most Disneyphiles, from visions of Space Mountain on the edge of the frame during a visit to Tomorrowland, to the It’s a Small World ride in 1964 – which was actually filmed at the attraction in Anaheim, which is much longer than the original which was in the Pepsi Pavilion and not its own stand-alone facility. However, I’m betting those of you who have ridden the attraction are now cursing me because they know they won’t be able to get the song out of their heads for hours. In any case, there are references to Disney movies, Disney theme parks and Disney memorabilia throughout the movie and while most of it is subtle, some of it is blatant enough that it makes one feel like one is experience a 2 1/2 hour advertisement for Disney. But that isn’t the movie’s deadliest sin.

What I object to most about Tomorrowland is that the filmmakers have dumbed it down to appeal to a younger audience. Gigantic leaps in logic and common sense abound here as we get to watch a kid save the world. I don’t object intrinsically to having a kid be smart, but smarter than everyone else? Wisdom comes with experience; it isn’t something we are born with, something movies aimed at kids conveniently tend to overlook in order to stroke the fantasies of kids in that they’re smarter than the adults around them, and more able. While thankfully most of the adults in the film aren’t portrayed as buffoons as they often are in kid-oriented films, not one of them seems to have any sort of optimism within them whatsoever which defies the odds. I think making this too kid-oriented was a tremendous error. Look at the facts; on those Disney attraction-based films that have been completely kid-oriented (i.e. The Haunted Mansion, Country Bears) the box office has been anemic. On those that have aimed to be entertaining to all audiences (i.e. the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise) the box office was through the roof. Not all of it was Johnny Depp, mateys; a lot of it had to do with that most adults won’t watch Nickelodeon, the Cartoon Network or the Disney Channel for very long.

Clooney puts aside his suave sex symbol image and plays an unshaven, pessimistic sort who out-Get Off My Lawns Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino. He doesn’t flash his trademark grin very often in the movie, but remains engaging and charismatic nonetheless. I can’t say the same for Robertson however. I get that her character is supposed to be optimistic to the point of mania but she comes off as cloying instead. Worse, she seems to be overacting throughout, using broad gestures and expressions where subtlety would have been more appreciated. The 24-year-old Robertson is playing a young girl in her mid-teens and I get that girls that age are generally more dramatically inclined and that playing it over-the-top is more realistic than subtlety but it takes me out of the movie as I am continually reminded that someone is acting here.

This will probably rank as one of the summer’s greater disappointments. I had high hopes for it and was hoping that perhaps a new franchise might be brewing. The movie is doing pretty well at the box office but given its monster budget will have a hard time recouping all of it at the rate it is going.. I think if Bird had taken a page from Gore Verbinski’s book and appealed less to the youngest moviegoing audience and more to a more mature audience, this could have been a huge hit; it does have some admirable ideas to think about and is visually impressive but at the end of the day the things in the film that are annoying trump the things in the movie that are worthwhile. A world of tears, indeed.

REASONS TO GO: Nifty eye candy (not Clooney). Some fairly complex themes.
REASONS TO STAY: Dumbed down. Robertson overacts.
FAMILY VALUES: Some mildly bad language, sci-fi violence (robots beating each other up) and some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: When Casey confronts the holographic dog early on in the film, her footprints form a Hidden Mickey.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/3/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 49% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mom and Dad Save the World
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: Top Spin

Avengers: Age of Ultron


Hawkeye takes the heat.

Hawkeye takes the heat.

(2015) Superhero (Disney/Marvel) Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, James Spader, Elizabeth Olsen, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Samuel L. Jackson, Don Cheadle, Anthony Mackie, Andy Serkis, Paul Bettany, Cobie Smulders, Hayley Atwell, Idris Elba, Linda Cardellini, Stellan Skarsgard, Claudia Kim, Thomas Kretschmann, Julie Delpy. Directed by Joss Whedon

As Uncle Ben from the Spider-Man series was wont to say, with great power comes great responsibility. It also makes sense that with great power comes great ego. When you have god-like powers (or are an actual god), the tendency would be to think that your powers make you right. When you get a roomful of such beings who may disagree on certain things, how possible is it for them to work together?

Avengers: Age of Ultron picks up from the pieces of HYDRA’s infiltration of SHIELD as shown in Captain America: The Winter Soldier and continued in the television show Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD as the Avengers are mopping up certain HYDRA bases trying to find Loki’s scepter which Thor (Hemsworth) is eager to restore back to its place in Asgard.

Despite heavy resistance from HYDRA and their leader Baron von Strucker (Kretschmann), Captain America/Steve Rogers (Evans) leads the Avengers to their goal and retrieves the scepter as well as capturing von Strucker. Von Strucker has been using the scepter to experiment on humans, bestowing on twins Quicksilver/Pietro Maximoff (Taylor-Johnson) and the Scarlet Witch/Wanda Maximoff (Olsen) superpowers; in Quicksilver’s case super speed, in the Witch’s case the ability to enter minds and to shoot red hex blasts from her hands. She implants a suggestion in Iron Man/Tony Stark (Downey) to sow discord among the Avengers, somewhat successfully. After all, the conflict was essentially already there.

Stark uses the scepter to kick start an artificial intelligence he calls Ultron which is meant to be a program that protects the planet from alien invaders, an event from Marvel’s The Avengers that so traumatized Stark that it has literally become his greatest fear that the next time invaders come he won’t be able to stop them. However, Ultron (Spader) decides to make himself a body and after quick consideration comes to the conclusion that the best way to protect planet Earth is to remove the human beings from it and to start anew, preferably with metal constructs as the dominant species. That Stark doesn’t tell his fellow Avengers what he’s up to (although The Hulk/Bruce Banner (Ruffalo) assists him reluctantly) further stirs the pot.

As you might guess, this doesn’t sit too well with the Avengers who go out to stop Ultron, who has recruited the twins to his side. They get wind that Ultron is visiting Ulysses Klaw (Serkis), an arms dealer in the African nation of Wakanda to retrieve as much vibranium as he can get his metal hands on and each are given a kind of dream courtesy of the Scarlet Witch that stops them in their tracks and further makes the team wonder if they can function properly. Afterwards, with their gaudy New York headquarters compromised, they retreat to a farm owned by Hawkeye/Clint Barton (Renner) and his wife (Cardellini) to lick their wounds. Thor heads off to find out the meaning of his dream, enlisting old friend Erik Selvig (Skarsgard) to help him.

In the meantime romance begins to blossom between Banner and the Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff (Johansson), and Nick Fury (Jackson) arrives to give the team a pep talk. Thus they head out to stop Ultron, even though it might cost them their lives. And Ultron plans an extinction level event to take out the entire planet. Can the Avengers stop a being that may be smarter and stronger than they are collectively?

Believe it or not, that’s just the bare bones outline of what’s going on in this movie; there are tons of subplots going on as well. Along the way we get more insight into the characters of Hawkeye and the Black Widow (which are welcome) and extended battle sequences which after awhile, truthfully, begins to feel repetitive.

Whedon was able to weave all the different characters together in the first Avengers movie in a way that brought disparate elements into a congenial whole. He is less successful at it this time, which I think has more to do with an attempt to tell a story with so many moving parts, meant to not only influence events in Phase II of the Marvel Cinematic Universe but also lead directly into the next Phase. In many ways, this is the worst review I’ve ever written; there’s so much Marvel-centric jargon here that it’s nearly impossible to really sum up the movie without going into detailed background, so much so that to really do it justice the review would end up being novel-length. Therein lies the rub for the movie; whereas Marvel’s The Avengers didn’t require a lot of explanation, this one does.

Still, the battle sequences are plenty amazing and while there are so much of them that after awhile there may be some overload particularly among audiences who aren’t young and male, they are all impressive enough to make for wonderful summer entertainment. I’m also liking Whedon’s attempts to illustrate the team’s dysfunction, their self-doubts and the realization that even if they succeed the collateral damage may be unfathomable. Whedon goes well out of his way to depict these warriors as human beings chock full of frailty; it doesn’t always work but at least it makes the movie more interesting than just a mere smashfest.

This sounds very much like a negative review and maybe it is; after all, Marvel has been setting the bar high with their cinematic universe and the last two films in the series have been absolutely outstanding, year-end top 10-worthy features. This doesn’t quite reach that bar but maybe it doesn’t have to. For those looking for ideal summer blockbuster entertainment, this more than fits the bill. It’s the kind of movie made for hot days, cool theaters and freshly popped popcorn. It’s the kind of movie that you’ll want to see with friends and go out for pizza afterwards. And yeah, it may not be the best Marvel film ever but it isn’t the worst either and it more than gets the job done.

REASONS TO GO: Plenty of superhero goodness. Looks at the inherent dysfunction of a team of powerful beings.
REASONS TO STAY: Feels less focused than the previous Avengers.
FAMILY VALUES: All sorts of comic book violence and mayhem, and a couple of suggestive comments.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Juggling all the characters in this film was so grueling and exhausting that Whedon elected not to direct the next Avengers movie, scheduled for 2018. Instead, Captain America: The Winter Soldier‘s The Russo Brothers will take on the next two-part Avengers: Infinity Wars.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/16/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 74% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Spider-Man 3
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: My Life in China

I, Robot


Ever feel alone in a crowd?

Ever feel alone in a crowd?

(2004) Science Fiction (20th Century Fox) Will Smith, Bridget Moynahan, Alan Tudyk, James Cromwell, Bruce Greenwood, Adrian L. Ricard, Chi McBride, Jerry Wasserman, Fiona Hogan, Peter Shinkoda, Terry Chen, David Haysom, Scott Heindl, Sharon Wilkins, Craig March, Shia LaBeouf, Simon R. Baker, Kyanna Cox, Emily Tennant, Tiffany Knight. Directed by Alex Proyas

Isaac Asimov was one of the giants of science fiction. Like many of the sci-fi writers of the golden age (and on into today), he had a scientific background. He also had an interest in robotics and wrote many stories on the subject.

Detective Del Spooner (Smith) of the Chicago PD lives in a world that’s a lot different than ours. For one thing, it’s 2035 and robots have become ubiquitous particularly in doing the kind of jobs humans don’t like doing – waste disposal, household work, drudgery. Spooner has a thing about robots – he doesn’t trust them. He’s a bit of a technophobe, preferring the world of the early 21st century which he considers to be the good ol’ days.

When kindly scientist Dr. Alfred Lanning (Cromwell) takes a header from the top of his company’s skyscraper, it looks like suicide at first but Spooner ain’t buying it. Lanning was responsible for most of the advances in robotics that have allowed robots to be so prevalent and his company was about to release their latest model. Their CEO (Greenwood) is keen that there is no hint of trouble on the eve of the release that will put one of their new models in every U.S. home.

Spooner doesn’t like that idea much, particularly since he has a nasty hunch that a robot had something to do with Dr. Lanning’s death. The robot, a twitchy sort named Sonny (Tudyk) may be the key to unlocking a nasty little conspiracy. Disbelieved by his superiors, on the run from homicidal robots and with only a comely robot psychologist (Moynahan) on his side, Spooner will have to save the day – or see humanity become slaves to robots.

It’s hard to believe it but this movie is ten years old now. Doesn’t seem that long since I saw it in the theater but thus is the passage of time. While the CGI  was groundbreaking in its time, these days it looks a little bit dated which is the big trouble with CGI – someone’s always inventing a better mouse trap in the field.

The filmmakers brought in Akiva Goldsman to make the film Will Smith-centric and this is definitely a Will Smith film. He’s onscreen nearly the entire time, and to be honest Spooner isn’t much of a deviation from the typical formula of Will Smith characters. Agent J and Spooner would get along fine.

The character of Sonny is largely shot in motion capture with Tudyk providing both the movement and the voice of the robot and it’s right on, a cross between HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey and Niles from Frazier. Sonny of all the robots has personality, showing more than the colorless emotionless mechanical voice that we normally get for robots. Sonny can get frustrated and angry but also expresses compassion born of his adherence to the three laws of robotics (an Asimov invention that plays an important role here). Sonny in many ways is more real a character than many flesh and blood characters in the movie.

What irritated me here is that the movie has the opportunity to talk about the relationship between humans and technology and how technology is affecting us as humans. The writers take stabs at it from time to time but almost in a half-hearted manner and without much consequence. There seems to be more of a reliance on car chases and fight scenes than on any real thought. On that aspect, Asimov would have been rolling in his grave had he seen what had become of his work although in all honesty there really isn’t enough of it in there to justify labeling this with Asimov’s name. This turns out to be sheer popcorn entertainment – not that there’s anything wrong with that. It’s just that it could have been so much more. And should have been.

WHY RENT THIS: Sonny is as fully-realized a character as CGI will allow. Will Smith just being Will Smith.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Storyline weak and full of missed opportunities.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some fairly intense but stylized action sequences and brief nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While the movie claims to be “inspired by Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot,” there is no story under that name written by Asimov. It is a collection of short stories thematically linked to the Three Laws of Robotics. The movie was originally written separately with no link to Asimov but when Fox optioned the Asimov stories it was decided to adapt the existing screenplay to include the Three Laws and add a character from Asimov’s stories.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: While the original DVD release had no additional features of consequence, the All-Access Collector’s Edition has a Director’s toolbox looking at the three main special effects houses that worked on the film and followed their specific assignments for the film. There are also interviews with Asimov’s daughter and editor discussing the late author’s views on how robots would impact the future. The toolbox feature is also available on the Blu-Ray edition in a truncated from.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $347.2M on a $120M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Blade Runner

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Rid of Me

RoboCop (2014)


RoboCop takes aim at skeptical critics.

RoboCop takes aim at skeptical critics.

(2014) Science Fiction (MGM/Columbia) Joel Kinnaman, Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton, Abbie Cornish, Samuel L. Jackson, Jackie Earle Haley, Michael K. Williams, Jay Baruchel, Jennifer Ehle, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Aimee Garcia, Douglas Urbanski, John Paul Ruttan, Patrick Garrow, K.C. Collins, Daniel Kash, Zach Grenier, Maura Grierson. Directed by Jose Padilha

Military drones have become over the past 12 months something of a cause célèbre, although drones have been in use for years. In the near future, those drones will be even more sophisticated – human control may well be entirely unnecessary. However most Americans are uncomfortable with the idea of life and death being doled out by machines.

Pat Novak (Jackson) begs to differ. The host of the right-wing news magazine show The Novak Element thinks that having robots in law enforcement would be a very good thing. However, existing laws in the United States prevent drones and robots being used in a military or law enforcement fashion on U.S. soil. Novak is campaigning to change all that.

Raymond Sellars (Keaton) would like to see him succeed. As the CEO of OmniCorp, the multinational corporation that supplies robotic devices to the military and to international law enforcement, he’s chomping at the bit to get at the virgin U.S. market but is frustrated that public opinion is against him. However, he knows that given the right stimulation, public opinion can change. What the machine needs is a human element.

Cue Alex Murphy (Kinnaman). An honest cop on the Detroit Police Department, he is chasing a  criminal gang leader named Vallon (Garrow) whose investigation by other cops on the force has stalled. An inadvertent miscue by a lowlife gun dealer gives him and his partner Jack Lewis (Williams) an opportunity to connect Vallon to actual crimes and put him away. Unfortunately, someone tips off Vallon and Lewis gets shot for their troubles.

Realizing that Murphy is not going to give up until he gets an arrest, Vallon arranges for Murphy’s car to be wired with an explosive device. It goes off, critically injuring the cop in full view of his wife Clara (Cornish) and son David (Ruttan).

This gives Sellars the perfect opportunity. Brilliant cyberneticist Dennett Norton (Oldman) can rebuild Alex; he has the technology. He can give Murphy all the advantages of being a robot while still retaining his human control. However, there are glitches. A machine doesn’t hesitate or consider human consequences; it just acts. Murphy is held back by having a conscience and emotions. Norton reluctantly must delete these items from the programming.

In his RoboCop role, Murphy scarcely even responds to his family who quickly realize that something is wrong. Norton isn’t happy about the situation either – the whole point was to retain both the human and machine and what he has created is essentially an automaton with some organic material. Nonetheless RoboCop is a huge success and Sellars is getting exactly what he wants – a repeal of the laws that keep his company from profiting in America. However, when Murphy’s human side begins to reassert itself, RoboCop becomes expendable in a hurry.

The 1987 Paul Verhoeven-directed feature was more of an over-the-top satire of consumerism as well as social commentary on urban decay and the ultimate soullessness of our society. It was most definitely a product of its time. Brazilian director Padilha (making his English language debut) is far more subtle but no less satirical, but with a little bit more thought beneath the satire – what constitutes humanity and at what point do we cease being human? He also asks a question that is very much one that should be getting asked more often – is trading freedom for security a wise idea?

I appreciate undertones of that nature, and give the movie points for it. However, movies of an action/sci-fi bent also need to be entertaining and for the most part, this one is. Kinnaman has a facial resemblance to Peter Weller (who originated the role) but in the Alex Murphy scenes shows a little more warmth than Weller radiated. He does surprisingly well as RoboCop and gets the right movement that you’d expect from a robot.

Michael Keaton is one of those actors that you don’t realize you miss until he shows up for an infrequent role. He is perfect for Sellars, making him almost likable despite his black heart. Only near the end of the movie do we see Sellars’ true colors but by then Keaton’s sucked us in. Oldman also manages to bring the conflicted nature of Norton to the fore and show both sides of the coin equally. Cornish is, I think, supposed to act as the conscience for the movie but doesn’t quite jell there. Jackie Earle Haley is awesome as OmniCorp’s prejudiced chief of security.

While the CGI is good (especially a squirm-inducing scene in which we see Murphy without the RoboCop armor) and the action decent, the story has a fractured element to it and seems to be travelling in all sorts of directions. Reportedly, the studio was extremely involved in the film and frustrated Padilha’s creative control to the extent that he made some unwise comments which he later recanted. However, the movie does show all the earmarks of studio interference which is never a good thing. Too many RoboCooks spoil the RoboBroth.

Despite the critical bashing it’s received, the movie is decent enough entertainment. If you go in expecting the same humor as the original, you’re not going to like this much. In fact, this version could have used a little more humor which it mostly gets from the Novak show segments that open the movie and are shown intermittently throughout. I would have been interested to see what Padilha’s vision for the film would have turned out to be although I understand that the movie’s budget became an issue in that regard. I suspect that he could have turned this into a better film than it turned out to be – although what he did produce is pretty good in and of itself.

REASONS TO GO: Pretty decent entertainment value. Kinnaman does a fine job as does Oldman and Keaton.

REASONS TO STAY: Muddled and unfocused, a sure sign of studio interference.  

FAMILY VALUES:  While not as violent as the 1987 original, there are plenty of bullets flying and some mayhem. There’s also a few choice bad words here and there as well as a disturbing image of the remains of Alex Murphy after the bomb blast.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Michael Keaton and Gary Oldman have both been involved in the Batman franchise; Keaton as the Caped Crusader in Tim Burton’s two films, Oldman as Commissioner Gordon in Christopher Norton’s trilogy.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/23/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 50% positive reviews. Metacritic: 52/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Total Recall

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Hysteria

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines


Ol' red eyes is back.

Ol’ red eyes is back.

(2003) Science Fiction (Warner Brothers) Arnold Schwarzenegger, Nick Stahl, Kristanna Loken, Claire Danes, David Andrews, Mark Famiglietti, Earl Boen, Moira Harris, Chopper Bernet, Chris Lawford, Carolyn Hennesy, Jay Acovone, M.C. Gainey, Susan Merson, Elizabeth Morehead, Jimmy Snyder, Chris Hardwick, Brian Sites, Alana Curry, Rebecca Tilney, Helen Eigenberg. Directed by Jonathan Mostow

Poor John Connor. He survived an unstoppable relentless killing machine from the future, but could he survive a movie without director James Cameron or actress Linda Hamilton as his mother Sarah? At least for the third go-round in the franchise he had Arnold back.

This time around, Connor (Stahl) is fully grown and he’s a mess. A loner who never really got over the events of his past, he’s further shut himself out from society after the death of his mother. He lives on the streets, for the most part shunning the city where he was born, although he comes back from time to time — like for example when he has a motorcycle accident and needs to steal some drugs from a deserted veterinary hospital to help dull the pain and stop the terrible dreams of Judgment Day that continue to plague him, even though he and his mom, along with the Good Terminator, stopped the machine-driven Armageddon from occurring, right?

Unfortunately for Connor, wrong. Also unfortunately for Connor, the veterinary clinic isn’t quite deserted. Kate Brewster (Danes), the vet who runs the clinic, shows up unexpectedly to handle a pet emergency. So does the T-X (Loken), a cyborg from the future which wasn’t supposed to exist anymore. This one is supposedly even more lethal than the T-1000 from Terminator 2: Judgment Day and she looks like she’s going to have her way with the trapped Connor when who should bust in but Arnold the Terminator. From there on in, it’s non-stop action leading to a wickedly twisted ending.

T3 did decent box office, enough to warrant a T4. Its critical reception, even within the action film addicts community, was more chilly. I have a few basic problems with T3. For one thing, one of the main action movie bugaboos: too many coincidences. Kate Brewster happens to be an old crush who gave Connor his first kiss as a young lad, and is the daughter of the general who heads the Skynet project for the government? I mean, really.

Secondly, Loken, while gorgeous, doesn’t really project the air of invincibility Robert Patrick did in T2. You got the impression that the Sarah, John and Arnie were overmatched and could get wiped out at any time by the T-1000. Not so here. Although the new Terminatrix has some built-in weapons and the ability to remote-control any machine she interfaces with, one gets the feeling that Arnie could lay the smack-down on her without dropping his cigar if he had half a mind to. I didn’t buy the menace that Loken was selling, and it did affect how I viewed the movie.

My other problem is with the whole idea of a Terminator coming to assassinate Connor. He is far too accepting of another set of androids from the future, almost seeming to expect them. Shouldn’t he be trying to figure out how Judgment Day could be back on the clock even after he had ended any chance of it taking place?

To the good side, the writing is a cut above the average action fare, and the twist at the movie’s end is a stunner. In fact, a number of conventions of the Terminator universe are turned on their heads in this movie, including the issue of Connor’s survival. Arnold has the terminator thing down to a “T” and could play the part in his sleep (and essentially would in Terminator Salvation). You get the feeling he really enjoyed himself making this movie, although, of course, he remains fairly emotionless onscreen. At the time this was made, the Awesome Austrian was on a roll, delivering some surprisingly strong acting performances (The Sixth Day and End of Days) that while not entirely deflecting the naysayers who said that the soon-to-be Governator couldn’t act, at least making the din of that accusation a bit less loud.

Director Jonathan Mostow had some pretty impressive shoes to fill in Cameron’s absence, but he is given a good template from which to work, and acquits himself nicely. The action sequences are well done, and the byplay between Connor and the Terminator is snappy. The only quibble I have here is a lack of spectacle; T3 seems in places more like a TV movie than anything else, but that doesn’t necessarily make it bad entertainment.

This would be his last starring role before embarking on the political career that would take him to the Governor’s Mansion in Sacramento. There had been talk when this film was released that a fourth Terminator film would star Schwarzenegger and would continue directly where this one left off but those plans had to be scrapped. He has since announced that he would return to the role for a fifth Terminator film to be released in 2015 after appearing in Salvation through footage from the first Terminator.

While in nearly every way possible the third installment didn’t measure up to the first two films in the franchise, it is nonetheless entertaining enough to warrant a look and it is certainly much better than Salvation. This is essentially the role most associated with Schwarzenegger during his acting career, and the robot has always overshadowed the messianic John Conner figure in the imagination of the moviegoing audience. Our fascination with that character of the unstoppable robot has kept this franchise alive and active for well over 25 years. Not every movie franchise can say that, but as long as that fascination remains and they keep making Terminator movies as the Terminator himself might say, “Ah’ll be bahck.”

WHY RENT THIS: Arnold in his signature role. Stunning twist. Some nifty action sequences.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: T-X not nearly as impressive as one would hope. Too many action movie cliches.

FAMILY MATTERS: A good deal of sci-fi action and violence, some foul language and brief nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Other than Schwarzenegger, the only actor to appear in the first three Terminator films is Boen as Dr. Peter Silberman. Boen has not appeared onscreen since, confining himself mainly to voice-over work.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: The DVD came in a two-disc edition packed with promotional features along with a Gag Reel and an odd two minute scene that seems to explain why the Terminator has an accent. There are also some features on the making of the T3 video game and the action figures that the movie spawned.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $433.4M on a $200M production budget.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Think Like a Man