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A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001) [Review Re-View]

Originally released June 29, 2001:

A.I. is the merger of two powerhouses of cinema – Stanley Kubrick and Steven Spielberg. The very mysterious film was given to Spielberg by Kubrick himself who thought ole’ Steven would be a better fit to direct it. The two did keep communication open for like a decade on their ideas for the project until Kubrick’s death in March of 1999. What follows is an imaginative futuristic fairy tale that almost grabs the brass ring but falls short due to an inferior ending. More on that later.

In the future technological advances allow for intelligent robotic creatures (called “mechas”) to be constructed and implemented in society. William Hurt has the vision to create a robot more real than any his company has ever embarked on before. He wants to make a robot that can know real love. Flash ahead several months to Henry and Monica Swinton (Sam Robards and Frances O’Conner) who are dealing with their own son in an indefinite coma. Henry is given the opportunity to try out a prototype from his company of a new mecha boy. His wife naturally believes that her son could not be replaced and her emotions smoothed over. Soon enough they both decide to give the boy a try and on delivery comes David (Haley Joel Osment) ready to begin new life in a family. David struggles to fit in with his human counterparts and even goes to lengths to belong like mimicking the motions of eating despite his lack of need to consume. Gradually David becomes a true part of the family and Monica has warmed up to him and ready to bestow real love onto their mecha son.

It’s at this point when things are going well for David that the Swinton’s son Martin comes out of his coma and returns back to his parents. Sibling rivalry between the two develops for the attention and adoration of their parents. Through mounting unfortunate circumstances the Swintons believe that David is a threat and decide to take him away. The corporation that manufactured David had implicit instructions that the loving David if desired to be returned had to be destroyed. Monica takes too much pity on David that she ditches him in the woods and speeds off instead of allowing him to be destroyed.

David wanders around searching for the Blue Fairy he remembers from the child’s book Pinocchio read to him at the Swinton home. He is looking for this magical creature with the desire she will turn him into a real boy and his human mother will love him again. Along David’s path he buddies up with Gigolo Joe (Jude Law), a pleasure ‘bot that tells the ladies they’re never the same once he’s through. The two traverse such sights as a mecha-destroying circus called ‘Flesh Fairs’ complete with what must be the WWF fans of the future, as well as the bright lights of flashy sin cities and the submerged remains of a flooded New York. David’s journey is almost like Alice’s, minus of course the gigolo robot of pleasure.

There are many startling scenes of visual wonder in A.I. and some truly magical moments onscreen. Spielberg goes darker than he’s even been and the territory does him good. Osment is magnificent as the robotic boy yearning to become real, but Jude Law steals the show. His physical movement, gestures, and vocal mannerisms are highly entertaining to watch as he fully inhibits the body and programmed mind of Gigolo Joe. Every time Law is allowed to be onscreen the movie sparkles.

It’s not too difficult to figure out which plot elements belong to Spielberg and which belong to Kubrick, since both are almost polar opposites when it comes to the feelings of their films. Spielberg is an idealistic imaginative child while Kubrick was a colder yet more methodical storyteller with his tales of woe and thought. The collaboration of two master artists of cinema is the biggest draw going here. A.I.‘s feel ends up being Spielberg interpreting Kubrick, since the late great Stanley was dead and gone before he could get his pet project for over a decade ready. The war of giants has more Spielberg but you can definitely tell the Kubrick elements running around, and they are a gift from beyond the grave.

I thought at one point with the first half of A.I. I was seeing possibly the best film of the year, and the second half didn’t have the pull of the first half but still moves along nicely and entertained. But then came the ending, which ruined everything. There is a moment in the film where it feels like the movie is set to end and it would’ve ended with an appropriate ending that could have produced lingering talk afterwards. I’m positive this is the ending Kubrick had in mind. But this perfect ending point is NOT the ending, no sir! Instead another twenty minutes follows that destroys the realm of belief for this film. The tacked on cloying happy ending feels so contrived and so inane. It doesn’t just stop but keeps going and only gets dumber and more preposterous form there. I won’t go to the liberty of spoiling the ending but I’ll give this warning to ensure better enjoyment of the film: when you think the movie has ended RUN OUT OF THE THEATER! Don’t look back or pay attention to what you hear. You’ll be glad you did later on when you discover what really happens.

The whole Blue Fairy search is far too whimsical for its own good. It could have just been given to the audience in a form of a symbolic idea instead of building the last half of the film for the search for this fictional creature’s whereabouts. The idea is being pounded into the heads of the audience by Spielberg with a damn sledge hammer. He just can’t leave well enough alone and lets it take off even more in those last atrocious twenty minutes.

A.I. is a generally involving film with some wonderfully fantastic sequences and some excellent performances. But sadly the ending really ruins the movie like none other I can remember recently. What could have been a stupendous film with Kubrick’s imprint all over turns out to be a good film with Spielberg’s hands all over the end.

Nate’s Grade: B

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WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER

There are two aspects that people remember vividly about A.I.: Artificial Intelligence and that’s the fascinating collaboration of two of the most influential filmmakers of all time and its much-debated and much-derided extended ending. Before we get into either, though, a fun fact about its very helpful title for Luddites. Originally the title was only going to be A.I. but the studio found that test audiences were confused by the two-word abbreviation and several clueless souls thought it was the number one and not the capital letter “I.” The studio didn’t want their high-concept meeting of cinematic masters to be confused with a popular steak sauce.

In the realm of cinematic titans, Steven Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick rise to the top for their artistic ambitions, innovations, versatility, and great influence on future generations, but you’d be hard-pressed to see a uniquely shared sensibility. Kubrick’s films are known for his detached, mercurial perspective, flawless technical execution, leisurely pacing, and a pessimistic or cynical view of humanity. Spielberg’s films are known for their blockbuster populism, grand imagination and whimsy, as well as the director’s softer, squishier, and more sentimental view of humanity. It almost feels like a mixture of oil and water with their contradictory sensibilities. And yet Kubrick and Spielberg developed A.I. for decades, starting in the late 1970s when Kubrick optioned the short story “Super-Toys Last All Summer Long” by Brian Aldiss. Kubrick felt that Spielberg was a better fit for director in the mid-1980s, but Spielberg kept trying to convince Kubrick to direct. Both took on other projects and kept kicking A.I. down the road, also because Kubrick was dissatisfied with the state of special effects to conceive his “lifelike” robot boy. Kubrick died in early 1999 and Spielberg elected to finally helm A.I. and finish their creative partnership. He went back to the original 90-page treatment Kubrick developed with sci-fi novelist Ian Watson and wrote the final screenplay, Spielberg’s first screenwriting credit since Close Encounters of the Third Kind (and his only one since 2001). I view the final movie as a labor of love as Spielberg’s ode to Kubrick and his parting gift to his fallen friend.

Watching A.I. again, it is a recognizable Kubrick movie but through the lens of Spielberg’s camera and budget. In some ways, it feels like Spielberg’s two-hour-plus homage to his departed mentor. The movie moves gradually and gracefully and, with a few delicate turns, could just as easily be viewed as a horror movie than anything overtly cloying or maudlin. The opening 45 minutes introduces a family whose child is comatose with some mystery illness and the likelihood he may never return to them. The husband (Sam Robards) is gifted with a shiny new robot boy, David (Haley Joel Osment), as a trial from his big tech boss (William Hurt) who wants to see if he can make a robot child who will love unconditionally. The early scenes with David integrating into the family play like a horror movie, with the intruder inside the family unit, and David’s offhand mimicry of trying to fit in can make you shudder. All it would take is an ominous score under the scenes and they play completely differently. One scene, which is played as an ice breaker, is when David, studying his parents at the dinner table, breaks out into loud cackling laughter. It triggers his parents to laugh alongside him, but it’s so weird and sudden and creepy. David’s non-blinking, ever-eager presence is off-putting and creepy and Monica (Frances O’Connor), the mother, is rightfully horrified and insulted by having a “replacement child.” However, her emotional neediness steadily whittles away her resistance and she elects to have David imprint. This is a no-turning-back serious decision, having David imprint eternal love and adoration onto her, and if she or her husband were to change their minds, David cannot be reprogrammed. He would need to be disassembled. With this family, David is more or less a house pet kept around for adoration and then discarded when he no longer serves the same comforting alternative. Once the couple’s biological child reawakens, it’s not long before jealousy and misunderstanding lead David to being ditched on the side of the road as an act of “mercy.”

From there, the movie becomes much more episodic with David and less interesting. The Gigolo Joe (Jude Law) addition furthers the story in a thematic sense and less so in plot. Gigolo Joe is a robotic lover on command, and framed for murder, and just as disposable and mistreated as David. From a plot standpoint, David’s odyssey is to seek out the Blue Fairy from Pinocchio, a book his mother read to him, and to wish to become a real boy and be finally accepted as his mother’s legitimate son. Thematically, David’s real odyssey is to understand that human beings are cruel masters. In short, people suck in this universe and they don’t get any better.

People, or “orga” as they refer to organic life, are mean and indifferent to artificial life, viewing the realistic mechanical beings, or “mecha” as they are referred to, as little more than disposable toys. Despite its cheery happy ending (and I will definitely be getting to that), the movie is awash in Kubrick’s trademark pessimism. Early on, David is stabbed by another boy just to test his pain defense system. David is only spared destruction from the Flesh Fair, a traveling circus where ticket-buyers enjoy the spectacle of robot torture, because the blood-thirsty audience thinks he’s too uncomfortably realistic. I don’t know if they’re supposed to be confused whether he is actually a robot considering that the adult models look just as realistic. He’s not like a super advanced model, he’s just the first robot kid, but applying the same torture spectacle to a crying robot child is too much for the fairgoers. However, this emergent reprieve might be short-lived once these same people become morally inured to the presence of robot kids after they flood the consumer market. Once the “newness” wears off, he’ll be viewed just as cruelly as the other older models also pleading for their pitiful mecha lives.

The tragedy of David is that he can never truly be real but he’ll never realize it. His personal journey takes him all over the nation and into the depth of the rising oceans, and it’s all to fulfill a wish from a benevolent make-believe surrogate mother. His programming traps David into seeing the world as a child, so no matter how old his circuits might be, he’ll always maintain a childish view of the world and its inhabitants. He’ll never age physically but he’ll also never mature or grow emotionally. Because of those limitations, he’s stuck seeing his mother in a halo of goodness that the actual woman doesn’t deserve. Monica felt like she was being helpful by ditching David before returning him to his makers, but this boy is not equipped to survive in the adult world let alone the human world. He cannot understand people and relationships outside the limited confines of a child. So to David, he doesn’t see the cowardice and emotional withdrawal of his mother. She knew the consequences of imprinting but she wanted to feel the unconditional love of a child again and when that got too inconvenient she abandoned him. Their relationship is completely one-sided with David always giving and his mother only taking. David’s goal is to be accepted by a woman who will never accept him and care for him like her organic child. She will never view David as hers no matter how hard David loves her. He cannot recognize this toxic usury relationship because he’ll never have any conception of that. David is trying to be loved by people undeserving of his earnest efforts and unflinching affections.

Do these look like robots to you?

Let’s finally tackle that controversial ending, shall we? The natural ending comes at about two hours in, with David in a submersible at the bottom of the ocean and pleading with a statue of the Blue Fairy in Coney Island to make him a real boy. He keeps whispering again and again to her, and the camera pulls out, his pleading getting fainter and fainter. The vessel is trapped under the water, so he’ll likely live out the rest of his battery life hopefully, and hopelessly, asking for his wish. It feels deeply Kubrickian and a fitting end for a tragic and unsparing movie about human cruelty and our lack of empathy. It’s also, in its own way, slightly optimistic. Because David is so fixated, he’ll spend the rest of his existence in anticipation of his dream possibly being granted with the next request. He has no real concept of time so hundreds of years can feel like seconds. Everything about this moment screams the natural ending, and then, oh and then, it keeps going, and the ensuring twenty additional minutes try and force a sentimental ending that does not work or fit with the two hours of movie prior. Two thousand years into the future, David is rescued by advanced robots (I thought they were aliens, and likely you will too) who finally grant his wish thanks to some convenient DNA of his two-thousand-year dead mother. These advanced robots can bring the dead back to life except they will only last one day, so David will have one last day to share with his mother before she passes back into the dark. However, David’s conception of his mother isn’t the actual woman, so his rose-colored glasses distortion means he gets a final goodbye from not just a clone but one attuned to his vision. It’s false, and the fact that the movie tries to convince you it’s a happy ending feels wrong. Also, the world of 4124 still has the World Trade Center because A.I. was released three months before the attacks on September 11th. It’s just another reminder of how wrong the epilogue feels.

This extended epilogue desperately tries to attach the treacly sentimentality that was absent from the rest of A.I., which is why many critics felt it was Spielberg asserting himself. Apparently, we were all wrong. According to an interview with Variety in 2002, the opening 45 minutes is taken word-for-word from Kubrick’s outline and the extended ending, including the misplaced happy every after, is also strictly from Kubrick’s original treatment. It was Kubrick who went all-in on the Pinocchio references and parallels. Even the walking teddy bear was his idea. Watson said, “Those scenes were exactly what I wrote for Stanley and exactly what he wanted, filmed faithfully by Spielberg.” The middle portion was Spielberg’s greatest writing contribution, otherwise known as the darkest moments in the movie like the Flesh Fair and robot hunts. The movie is much more sexual than I associate with Spielberg. There has been sex in Spielberg’s past films, but it’s usually played as frothy fun desire with cheeky womanizers (Catch Me If You Can) or as a transaction with unspoken demands (Schindler’s List, The Color Purple). Then again, when Spielberg really leaned into a sex scene, we got the awkward and thematically clunky “climax” of Munich. With A.I., the perverse nature of humanity is another layer that reflects how awful these people are to the wide array or robots being mistreated, abused, and assaulted on an hourly basis in perpetuity.

Twenty years later, the movie still relatively holds up well and is good, not great. It’s more a fascinating collaboration between two cinematic giants, and the fun is recognizing the different elements and themes and attributing them (wrongly) to their respective creator. The special effects are still impressive and lifelike even by 2021 standards. Even though the movie is set in 2124, so over 100 years into the far-flung future, everyone still dresses and looks like they’re from the familiar twentieth century (maybe it’s retro fashion?). It’s a slightly distracting technical element for a movie otherwise supremely polished. There is a heavy emphasis on visual reflections and refractions of David in his family home, exploring the wavering identity and conceptions of this robo kid. Spielberg’s direction feels in keeping with Kubrick’s personal style and sensibility. A.I. is a labor of love for Spielberg to honor Kubrick, and he went another step further with the 2018 adaptation of Ready Player One where one of the missions was exploring a virtual reality recreation of the famous Overlook Hotel from The Shining. In my original 2001 review, I took the same level of umbrage with the miscalculated ending as I do in 2021. In the many years since its release, A.I. has been my go-to example of a movie that didn’t know where to properly end. As a result, it’s still a fascinating if frustrating experience on the verge of greatness.

Re-View Grade: B

Lee Daniels’ The Butler (2013)

Lee-Daniels-The-Butler-poster-1Before I begin my review, I feel the need to come to the defense of Oscar-nominated director Lee Daniels (Precious). Despite what Internet message boards and detractors may have you believe, it was never the man’s intention to insert his name into the title of his latest film, Lee Daniels’ The Butler. Warner Brothers claimed copyright ownership over the title of The Butler. The MPAA mediates title discrepancies in cases where one movie could clearly be confused for another. However, Warner Brothers’ claims a 1915 silent short film in their vault by the same name. Is anyone in the year 2013 really going to pay a ticket for the Butler and reasonably expect a silent short that’s almost 100 years old? Rather than pay a financial settlement, The Weinstein Company decided to alter the original title, adding the director’s name. This isn’t The Butler. Now it’s Lee Daniels’ The Butler. So before I get into the thick of my review, I’d like to absolve Daniels of Tyler Perry-levels of hubris. You’ll excuse me for just referring to it as The Butler throughout the duration of this review, not to be confused with a 1915 short film.

From Harry Truman to Ronald Reagan, one man served them all and his name is Cecil Gaines (Forrest Whitaker). He was a White House butler for over 30 years, even attending a state dinner at the behest of Nancy Reagan. Cecil grew up on a Georgia cotton plantation and moved up the ranks in high-class service. His wife, Gloria (Oprah Winfrey), wishes her husband would worry more about his own home than the White House. Cecil’s two sons, Louis (David Oyelowo) and Charlie (Elijah Kelley), have very different views of their father. Louis feels like dear old dad is too close to the men of power, and Louis is going to do what he can on the frontlines of change.

105174_galI’m sure everyone had good intentions with this movie, but I walked away with the overwhelming impression that The Butler was too heavy-handed, too corny, and too mishandled with its plot construction for it to be the effective drama all desired. I also know that my opinion is of a minority, but that has never bothered me as a critic. Let’s start with the biggest handicap the film has going, and that’s the fact that its central character, the titular butler, is too opaque for a biopic. Early on, Cecil rises through the ranks of black service workers because of his skill, and that skill is none other than “having a room feel empty with [him] inside it.” I’m not downplaying the man’s dedication, or the culture he grew up in that preferred their black workers to be silent, but here is a movie where the man’s claim to fame is that he served eight presidents but he was in the background for all that history. I wasn’t expecting Cecil to lean over and go, “Mr. President, that Voting Rights Act might be a good idea, and I’ll help ya with it.” He is just sort of there. I was expecting him to have some larger significance, especially in his own life, but here’s the kicker: by the end of the movie, you’re left with the impression that all of his years of service were for naught. Cecil comes to the realization that his son, who he has sparred with for decades, was right and he was wrong. Is this the intended point? My colleague Ben Bailey will argue this is Daniels’ subversive intent, to undermine the tenets of typical biopics, to fashion an anti-biopic. I am not as convinced.

The problem is that Cecil is a passive character, which makes him the least interesting character in his own story. He served eight presidents, yes, but what else can you say about him as presented? What greater insights into life, himself, or politics does he have during those years with seven different presidential administrations? I cannot tell. I was thoroughly astounded that Cecil, as a character, was boring. I suspect this is why screenwriter Danny Strong (Recount, Game Change) chose to split Cecil’s story with his son, Louis. Here is a character on the front lines of the Civil Rights movement, getting chased by mobs, beaten, sprayed with firehouses. Here is an active character that wants to make a difference. He also happens to be mostly fictional.

While the film opens with the phrase “inspired by a true story” you should be wary. Upon further inspection, very little is as it happened. I think all true stories, when adapted to the confines of a two-hour film narrative, are going to have to be modified, and pure fidelity to the truth should not get in the way of telling a good story, within reason. I don’t have an issue with Louis being fictional, but it points to the larger problem with the biopic of such an opaque man. The real-life Cecil, Eugene Allen, had one son who went to Vietnam and married a former Black Panther. Strong splits the difference, supplying two sons with different paths. Because of his invention, this means Louis has the benefit of being present at a plethora of famous Civil Rights events, like the Woolworth counter sit-in, the Freedom Rider bus burning, and the assassination of both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. Seriously, he’s in the same motel room with MLK in Memphis. With the exception of the Woolworth sit-in, the Civil Rights events feel like minor pit stops, barely spending any time to develop. It ends up feeling like a facile Forrest Gump-like trip through the greatest hits of the Civil Rights movement.

This narrative expediency also translates to the supporting characters in The Butler. Beyond Cecil, Louis, and Gloria, there aren’t any characters that last more than one or two scenes. Cecil’s White House co-workers, played by Cuba Gooding Jr. (Red Tails) and Lenny Kravitz (The Hunger Games), provide amiable comic relief but little else to the narrative. Terrence Howard (Dead Man Down) has an affair with Gloria and then is never seen again. That affair, by the way, is also never referenced again nor does it have any further ramifications with the relationship between Cecil and Gloria. So then what was the point? There is a litany of famous faces playing real people, but they’re all in and out before you know it. The actors portraying the presidents are more an entertaining diversion than anything of real substance. Alan Rickman (Harry Potter) as Reagan gets the closest in the physical resemblance game, though I strongly doubt Reagan, as presented in the film, sat down and openly admitted he was wrong to his African-American service workers. John Cusack (The Raven) as Nixon is a hoot. The movie speeds right through the Ford and Carter administrations, so I’ll play my own game of casting (Ford: Dan Akroyd; Carter: Billy Bob Thornton). The presidents, like the clear majority of supporting players, don’t stick around long enough to leave an impression. It’s as if our prior knowledge of these famous faces is meant to serve as characterization. Beyond the immediate Gaines family, you don’t feel like you’re getting to know anyone.

105665_galThen you bring in Daniels as director and the man has not shown much of a penchant for, let’s call, subtlety. This is, after all, the same man who directed Nicole Kidman in the ways of urinating upon Zac Efron. A coherent tone has often been elusive in Daniels’ films, which veer into wild, loud, sometimes clashing melodrama. The most clashing thing in The Butler are the matching 1970s and 80s fashion that will burn your eyes. He tones down his wilder sensibilities but The Butler is an especially earnest movie; but overly earnest without earned drama usually begets a corny movie, and that’s what much of The Butler unfortunately feels like. The significance of the Civil Rights movement and the bravery of the ordinary men and women, and children, fighting for equality cannot be overstated. These were serious heroes combating serious hate. I expect a serious movie, yes, but one that isn’t so transparent about its Staid Seriousness. The Butler is very respectful to history (fictional additions aside) but too often relies on the historical context to do the heavy lifting. It also hurts when the film is so predictable. At one point, I thought to myself, “I bet Cecil’s other son gets shipped to Vietnam and probably dies.” Mere seconds after this thought, young Charlie Gaines says he’s going to Vietnam. I’ll leave it to you to discover his eventual fate.

Daniels’ true power as a director is his skill with actors. The man nurtured Mo’Nique into an Academy Award-winning actress. From top to bottom, no actor in this film delivers a bad performance, which is a real accomplishment considering its stable of speaking roles. Whitaker (Repo Men) is the anchor of the movie and he puts his all into a character that gives him little to work with. He brings a quiet strength and dignity to Cecil, able to draw you in even as he’s presented so passively and ultimately perhaps in the wrong. Winfrey hasn’t been acting onscreen since 1998’s Beloved. Gloria is an underwritten part but she does the most with it and I’d like to see more of Oprah the actress more often. Another highlight is Oyelowo (Jack Reacher) as the defiant son fighting for what he believes is right. I want to also single out former America’s Next Top Model contestant Yaya Alafia as Louis’ girlfriend and eventual Black Power participant, Carol. She’s got real potential as an actress and if she gets the right role she could breakout and surprise people.

Lee Daniels’ The Butler (just one last time for feeling) is an earnest, emotional, but ultimately unsatisfying picture and it’s mostly because of its title figure. The figure of Cecil Gaines is not the kind of man that the entire perspective of the Civil Rights movement can be hung onto as an allegory. He’s treated as background of his own story. If the filmmakers wanted to highlight the life of a man who grew up on a cotton plantation, worked in the White House, and who lived long enough to see an African-American be president, well then tell me that story. But they don’t. I think Daniels and Strong knew the limitations of their central figure, which is why the son’s role was invented to provide a more active perspective outside the hallowed walls of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. In the end, I really don’t know what the message is, because the one I’m left with is that Cecil Gaines realizes late in life how wrong he was, not just with his son, but his faith in the office of the presidency. I doubt the majority of filmgoers are going to walk away with this message. While well acted and with a sharp eye for period details, The Butler is earnest without having earned your emotions.

Nate’s Grade: C

Wolrd’s Greatest Dad (2009)

The name Bobcat Goldthwait doesn’t exactly make you think accomplished filmmaker. Goldthwait is best known for his screechy, nervous voice utilized in animated features and the hallowed Police Academy series. But he’s also a writer and a director. His first effort was 1991’s Shakes the Clown, starring Bill Murray as an inept bank-robbing clown. Then he wrote and directed a 2006 movie called Sleeping Dogs Lie that centered on the romantic foibles of a woman who, on a whim, once gave her dog oral pleasure. I can’t see Hollywood touching that one with a ten-foot pole. These sort of unconventional, risky artistic concepts might prepare you for Goldthwait’s newest black comedy, the ironically titled World’s Greatest Dad.

Lance Clayton (Robin Williams) is an underappreciated man. His teenage son, Kyle (Daryl Sabara), hates him. He cannot find anyone interested in published his many manuscripts. His colleagues think little of him, students don’t attend his poetry class, and his quasi-girlfriend, Claire (Alexie Gilmore) is showing more interest in Mike (Henry Simmons), the new hunky, successful English teacher that got a story published in the New Yorker on his first try. Then everything changes. Lance comes home to find his son dead of auto-erotic asphyxiation. He rearranges the body and writes a suicide note, attempting to spare his son from being mocked in death. But then the school hacks into the police system and prints Kyle’s suicide note. The entire school is awash in grief and discovers what an insightful, troubled young man Kyle was. They all want to know everything they can about Kyle, and suddenly Lance has found an outlet for his writing.

The movie satirizes grief culture with sharp acuity. Kyle’s classmates all react with horror and look back with extreme rose-colored glasses. Suddenly their fallen peer has transformed from the kid nobody liked into the wounded soul that touched all their lives. Bullies reexamine their behavior, girls that never would have given him the time of day now immortalize Kyle, and the faculty that wanted to expel him now wishes to rename the library in his lasting memory. This warm, fuzzy gauze of grief is Goldthwait’s target. He is satirizing how people turn tragedy into hypocritical attitude shifts. He ridicules the easy revision of history under the guise of collective sympathy. Not every youth is necessarily taken before their time. Not everyone was going to grow up to contribute selflessly to society, making the world a better place to live. Not every youth is deserving of canonization. Some people are just jerks from beginning to end, and Goldthwait proposes we do a disservice when we whitewash reality in the name of kindness and good taste. The only person who can see through this wave of hypocrisy is Kyle’s only friend, Andrew (Evan Martin), who doesn’t remember his crabby buddy being deep, articulate, or remotely smart.

Goldthwait’s screenplay is seriously dark and twisted but it’s also routinely hilarious, notably utilizing a deranged sense of irony. Lance uses his own son’s death as the vessel to become a respected writer. He uses his own dead son as his literary pen name. For once in his life, Lance now has an insatiable and adoring audience for his writings, and to top it all off they won’t dare be critical. Lance is manufacturing his son’s legacy and gaining unbeknownst critical praise. That’s fairly dark and fairly amusing stuff. It’s also funny that Kyle’s death has a greater positive effect on the community than Kyle being alive. The school rallies together and students use the death to justify personal growth. The fake journal of Kyle’s touches and enlightens, which further pumps up Lance’s ballooning ego and sense of purpose. At one point, a talk show host raises the question of whether it’s better to be a good person or thought of as a good person, and this gets to the heart of Lance’s dilemma. His actions are morally questionable. What started as an effort to protect his son’s dignity has morphed into personal gain. Is the world a better place because of this false rendering of Kyle? Is the lie better than the ugly truth? Is the lie justifiable? I honestly never expected to be confronted with tricky ethical questions while watching a movie made by Bobcat Goldthwait.

This is the best work Robin Williams has done in years, which I understand might not be saying much considering his recent slate of brain-dead family comedies. He hasn’t shown this much restraint, and talent, since his 2002 World Tour of Evil that included One Hour Photo and the masterful Insomnia. Williams drops every pretense of his well-known manic funnyman shtick and plays an actually subdued character. Lance is beaten down by the disappointments of his job and fatherhood. Williams effectively coveys the exhaustion of a man who repeatedly fails to connect with his brat of a boy. He doesn’t know what to do; the kid is practically a sullen stranger in his own house. Williams endures such slights and misfortunes with deadpan humor and sarcasm and the audience actually vaguely sympathizes with him through much, if not all, of the second half. Williams is mostly reactive and can come across like a calculated straight man to Goldthwait’s cracked-out script. You feel for the guy when he can capitalize on his son’s death and you practically want him to get away with it all.

Sabara has grown up considerably since being the chubby little tyke in the Spy Kids movies. It’s amazing how much you will detest his character. This kid is perverted, repugnant, obstinate, and just plain idiotic. He hates music (“All music? You hate all music?”), he hates movies, and he dislikes pretty much everything other than extreme pornographic fetishes. Kyle is a nightmarish child with no redeeming value. He had to be in order for the satire to work.

World’s Greatest Dad is a misanthropic hoot of a movie but that doesn’t mean it is without flaws. Goldthwait has yet to prove any particular style or vision behind the camera. His direction isn’t a distraction by any means but it mostly just presents the story in an unobtrusive fashion. He also has the annoying habit of using music selections as a storytelling crutch. He?s prone to using several songs that describe the onscreen drama to a literal level. For a script as biting and clever, it’s disappointing that Goldthwait feels the need to use songs to spell out his implicit drama. This being satire, by nature the characters are mostly going to be thin. The classmates are little more than a cross sectional representation of high school stereotypes, ready to slide in for a joke. Other side characters are weak due to being underwritten or dropped. Claire is a shallow love interest flitting from suitor to suitor, offering little more than a conquest. Mike works as a foil to Lance but then is completely forgotten about in the second half. There’s one interesting scene where Mike, Lance, and the principal are all golfing and the roles are reversed, Lance is the confidant and respected colleague and Mike is jockeying for approval. But that’s pretty much the last you’ll ever see his character in a meaningful way other than taking up space in the background.

In the end, World’s Greatest Dad is not a comedy that will leave your sides aching or seams in need of stitching. It’s dark and disturbing but unlike the earlier Observe and Report, this movie actually provides an entry point for empathy. It’s provocative and twisted but it never pushes the audience out of the story. The intriguing setup is explored with careful consideration. The characters manufacture a false love for a kid that was all but ignored, and everyone is worthy of scorn to some degree. Even Lance is worthy of derision considering he’s exploiting sympathy to find the success that has eluded him his entire life. But Williams’ performance and Goldthwait’s sharp screenplay keep the film grounded amidst its satirical targets. Most surprising of all, there’s a a sweetness that emerges from this film’s black core. Lance regains a sense of humanity and purpose, and so do we due to his journey. Golthwait has come up with an unusual, morbid, and cynical comedy that manages to be somewhat life affirming by its final reel. I can’t believe I?m saying this, but I believe Bobcat Goldthwait is establishing himself as a strong comedic voice in the world of film. I eagerly await the next movie by the guy who did all the funny voices in Police Academy.

Nate’s Grade: A-

August Rush (2007)

Am I too cynical for my own good? I’d like to think that I appreciate authentic works that tug at my heartstrings, and I’m a believer in the power that music can have, which are part of the reasons I named Once the best film of 2007. In comparison, August Rush tries to go all message and winds up skirting over why I should even care what happens to its characters.

In 1994 or so Lyla (Keri Russell) is a concert cellist in New York City. Louis (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) is the lead singer in a rock band touring the area. They meet atop a rooftop, look deeply into each other’s eyes, and then have sex. Parents, do not condone this behavior with your daughters and sons. But they’re separated through lame circumstances and nearly miss each other several times. This romantic encounter has spawned a son growing in Lyla’s womb. She gets into a car accident late in the pregnancy and was told by her manager/father tells her the baby has passed away. He is a liar because the baby was born and he signed it up for adoption.

Flash forward 11 years. The child has gown up into the likes of Evan (Freddie Highmore) who lives in a boarding school for orphan boys. He knows his parents are out there in the world somewhere and he believe he can find them through the connection music. He gets lost in New York City and follows a troop of child musicians to the Wizard (Robin Williams). He looks after a gathering of orphan musicians that play on street corners. It’s like Oliver Twist meets American Idol with an extra dose of sugar. Sure enough Evan stars drawing a crowd and the Wizard wants to make sure he doesn’t lose his biggest earner.

This film is a ludicrous and manipulatively maudlin mess. August Rush plays all the big notes; the film’s script is entirely comprised of big moments that waddle and crash into one another, and as such it ignores any details. Like the fact that Evan has the ability to connect to his long-lost parents simply by strumming an instrument, but he’s never heard of musical notes or touched an instrument until he was 11. If the kid hears music everywhere, which reminded me a lot of Bjork in the superior Dancer in the Dark, wouldn’t it stand to reason he would try to, I don’t know, play music? Now I’m not saying he’d have access to every musical instrument at the boy’s boarding house but surely he could have drummed something? I find it unbelievable that a musical prodigy would wait until he was 11 before he picked up an instrument. Also, he learns what sounds are labeled as what letter notes by a cherubic little tyke with some powerful pipes of her own. He goes immediately from learning what an F sharp is to scribbling complex musical notation on blank sheets of music stanzas. How does he know all the symbols and placements and everything that the little girl did not teach him in their brief instructional moment? I’ll go back even further. How come Lyla and Louis give up trying to find each other so easily? Why does Louis wait 11 years before he searches the Internet for Lyla, who, being a world-class cellist, would not exactly be low profile? And why does a pregnant Lyla not do more to, you know, get in contact with her child’s father when he’s even in the exact same city? It’s details like these that August Rush hopes to will the audience to ignore, but to me it was proof time and again that the film’s indifference to plot, character, and maintaining any level of credibility even on a heightened “urban fairy tale” level.

If you replaced the stars then this movie would prove to the world that it belongs on the Lifetime TV network. It’s a melodramatic free-for-all that turns the topic of music into a quasi-religious experience. Now I know for many that music actually can maintain a religious level of power and sweep, but I challenge people watching August Rush to replace the word “music” in the dialogue with any other word to fully realize how cheesy the dialogue is. Let’s try replacing “music with “the force,” and now read this choice line of dialogue: “You know what [the force] is? God’s little reminder that there’s something else besides us in this universe; harmonic connection between all living beings, every where, even the stars.” And: “[The force] is all around you, all you have to do is listen.” This is the kind of film where characters can look up into the void with wistful, wide-eyed looks and somehow connect over the ether. That’s how the characters stay together and eventually reunite in a predictable and sappy manner.

The music itself is rather unremarkable. It’s well composed but I wouldn’t be able to recall it again even if I had a gun to my head. When the movie trumps the message of the transcendent power of music it doesn’t help when the music it presents is less than special.

The acting befits the same cheesy atmosphere of the movie. Highmore is pretty vacant and looks like he’s shrugging from scene to scene, that is, until he bangs his hands against a guitar neck and everyone somehow calls this genius. I think part of Highmore’s problem is that regular folks just think that honest-to-goodness geniuses don’t really have to work hard for results. This is, of course, false. Mozart was a prodigy, yes, but he didn’t just yawn and write down invisible notes that were dancing in front of his eyes waiting all day to be transcribed. He worked hard. Highmore just looks off into the distance and he seems to be in a trance. It’s annoying.

Russell gets to pine for something just outside her reach (turns out it’s a son) but she doesn’t flash an iota of the grace and magic she showcased in Waitress. Meyers gets to “sell out” and then reunite his mid 90s alternative rock band. Here’s the thing — the sound EXACTLY THE SAME after 12 years and yet on their first gig back together they have a huge crowd? The movie is trying to tell me that the tastes of pop culture wouldn’t change in a dozen years. Williams manages to give hints about a troubled past as a musical prodigy eaten up by a system hungry for the next big thing. He also bellows and growls and comes across like a creepy Fagan for a team of street urchins.

August Rush is sticky, sappy, manipulative and maudlin feel-good rubbish. This is the kind of movie that most people will probably never get. Perhaps people who live, breathe, sleep, and eat music will feel more inspired by its message of human connection and spiritual fulfillment via the power of music. That’s swell but it still doesn’t excuse the fact that August Rush is a overly serious, laughable, syrupy work. If you’re going to dismiss its faults as the film being a “fairy tale” well then the film still doesn’t establish any hard rules for its universe. The characters are still one-note and behave in annoying and moronic ways because the plot demands it of them. And classifying the film as a fairy tale still doesn’t make the music any better. I can’t believe this stuff had a shot of beating the spectacular songs from Once for 2007’s Best Song Oscar. In fact, August Rush wishes it was Once because that low-budget charmer was able to communicate the power of music honestly and profoundly with the added benefit of beautiful tunes. I would like to recommend that all people thinking about renting August Rush.

Nate’s Grade: C-

License to Wed (2007)

Someone just tell Robin Williams to stop already. This painful and dated movie exists in another realm, a realm too fanciful and bizarre to exist even in sitcoms. The characters are all unlikable nitwits and I could not suppress to urge to want to dropkick William’s astoundingly annoying pre-teen sidekick. This implausible and puerile comedy is like an enema for the brain; it will wipe you clear out. The PG-13 movie regularly wades in tired pee and fart jokes, sometimes combing the two, but what really irritates me is how lazy the whole enterprise is. Williams makes a joke about O.J. killing his wife. I repeat, in the year 2007, Williams makes a joke about O.J. killing his wife. How topical and cutting edge. This whole movie induces one long, never-ending exasperated sigh from anyone that appreciates good comedy. If it weren’t for casual cameos by stars of NBC’s TV show The Office, this film would be totally worthless. As it is, License to Wed is yet another nail in Williams’ comedy coffin.

Nate’s Grade: D

Night at the Museum (2006)

Night at the Museum works because of the possibilities of its fun premise whereupon all the dusty items at New York’s Museum of Natural History come magically to life when the sun sets. I think every wide-eyed kid at some point had the same dream. Whether the movie taps into that childlike wish or panders to it is up for speculation. No doubt, this is a special-effects heavy family film that doesn’t aim its sights very high. Some storylines misfire like Ben Stiller’s tour guide love interest, Teddy Roosevelt (a very game and well cast Robin Williams) and his unrequited love for Sacagawea, and, in fact, a lot of it comes across as amusing but not very funny. The emotive bits feel awfully clumsy. But Night at the Museum has just enough to stay lively and remain unexpected enough to delight. Stiller works his usual shtick but remains the best comedic meltdown actor we have. The biggest surprise was seeing 86-year-old Mickey Rooney serve up some beat downs. I could easily see this becoming a franchise and I’m sure the studio has the same thing on their mind. Night at the Museum is a fun diversion for the holidays and will surely increase museum attendance nationwide. There are worse things than a film inspiring renewed interest in history.

Nate’s Grade: B

The Aristocrats (2005)

A man walks into a talent agency. He tells the agent he’s got a family act the likes of which no one has ever seen before. The agent tells the man to continue. The man’s wife, children, and pet come into the room and proceed to do the most vile, puerile, horrendously vulgar acts to themselves and each other. The agent is shocked. After a long moment of silence, the agent says, “What do you call this act?” The man replies, “The Aristocrats!” Ba-dum-dum.

It’s really not a good joke, but what makes it special is that the middle is entirely open for the comic to say whatever they want. Comedians will build and build in their obscenity so that the weak punchline is practically an afterthought. It’s a joke that goes all the way back to the days of vaudeville. Comics tell it to each other after shows like a secret handshake. The Aristocrats, an unrated documentary, gathers 100 comedians and lets them put their own crass spin on a classic dirty joke.

The movie boasts plenty of well-known names getting down and dirty, like Robin Williams, Chris Rock, Whoopi Goldberg, George Carlin, the South Park creators, Jason Alexander, Eric Idle, Richard Lewis, Andy Dick, Fred Willard, Howie Mandel, Eddie Izzard, and Drew Carey (he insists the punchline should be accompanied by finger-snaps). Few comedians give a full rendition of the joke but the clips are just as potent. Judy Gold involves her unborn baby in the act and Carrie Fisher says her mother likes to sing in a very different kind of shower, but the filthiest mind of all belongs to Bob Saget, who can’t make it through without breaking up and saying, “What am I doing?” The Aristocrats also includes comics from different eras, including Larry Storch, the Smothers Brothers (one of which has never heard the joke before), and even Phyllis Diller, who pretty much just cackles at others. Dana Gould manages to pull together a very funny clean rendition involving the Amish version of the joke. The film opens on Carlin, closes on Gilbert Gottfried, and oh what a journey the film takes.

The Aristocrats is very very funny but also a rather incisive look at the nature of comedy. In between dishing the dirt, various comedians rhapsodize about the mechanics of comedy, the freedom in conquering taboos, and the intricacies of delivery (Paul Reiser stresses that any poo-related parts should be saved for the big finish). Penn Jilette says, “It’s the singer, not the song.” The Aristocrats displays comedy like it was jazz, each individual playing the same note a different way.

Things get a tad repetitious after awhile and the vulgarity starts to lose its impact once you’ve listened to countless unspeakable acts, mostly involving family members, the animal kingdom, and the loosening of bowels. As an example, my friend from college, Jason Davis, attended Mardi Gras in New Orleans one year, and as any viewer of late night TV will attest, the girls have gone wild. The ladies, it seems, will freely show you their bosoms in exchange for cheap plastic beads, and some don’t even want anything in return. Jason said the experience was amazing, at first, but after hours of non-stop frontal nudity, it all got a little tiring after awhile. The rampant nudity lost its effect and Jason started paying more attention to the women who actually kept their clothes on. So too is it with The Aristocrats, in a manner of speaking.

The film’s unabashed vulgarity will spur guffaws and titters, especially in an “Oh-my-God-did-he/she-just-say-that?” way. But after so many tellings, things that were funny because they were taboo don’t seem as funny in repetition. It’s at this point that an audience can really appreciate comics that take unconventional routes toward telling the joke. Eric Meade does a card trick, Kevin Pollack does the joke as Christopher Walken, Mario Cantone performs the joke as Liza Minnelli, Sarah Silverman actually puts herself in the joke’s family (for my money, she gives the best performance), Penn and Teller do a magic trick with a soda bottle, there are jugglers, a ventriloquist, and even a mime. The Aristocrats still has its straightforward dirty pleasures, but it’s much more satisfying when certain comics work outside the box.

It should be obvious at this point but The Aristocrats is not going to be a movie for most people. The incredibly course language and graphic accounts of lewd acts will not sit well with most of the American public. This is a movie strictly for people that have a strong stomach and like hearing a dirty joke. For that group, The Aristocrats will knock you silly with laughter. My three friends whom I saw the film with said they were in pain from laughing so hard. Perhaps that speaks volumes about the company I keep.

The Aristocrats is a bawdy, filthy, hilarious documentary that becomes more than a bunch of funnymen retelling a dirty joke. This is a film for a very select audience, to say the least, and it does lag at parts when the continual vulgarity loses its impact. The Aristocrats also seems to be erratically edited; scenes will rapidly jump from different angles for little reason. Every comedian has their own style and every audience member will find something different to strike their funny bone. At the very end, The Aristocrats invites viewers to submit their own form of the joke for the eventual DVD. I don’t know about you but I’ve already got a goldmine of ideas.

Nate’s Grade: B

One Hour Photo (2002)

Do we regularly invite strangers to view the picturesque and personal moments of our life like marriages, celebrations, and maybe even a handful of hastily conceived topless photos? Well we all do every time we drop off a roll of film for development.

Robin Williams continues his 2002 Tour of the Dark Side (Death to Smoochy, Insomnia) as way of Sy, your friendly photo guy working at your local Sav-mart superstore. Sy takes an intense artistic pride in the quality of prints he gives. He knows customers by name and can recite addresses verbatim. One family in particular Sy has become fond of is the Yorkins, mother Nina (Connie Nielsen), father Will (Michael Vartan) and nine-year-old Jake. The Yorkins have been coming to Sav-mart and Sy for over 11 years to have their photos developed. He tells Nina that he almost feels like “Uncle Sy” to the family. For Sy, the Yorkins are the ideal postcard family with perennially smiling faces and the happiest of birthdays. He fantasizes about sharing holidays with them and even going to the bathroom in their posh home.

Sy is an emotionally suppressed and deeply lonely man caught in his delusions. In one of the eerier moments of the film we see that Sy has an entire wall made up of hundreds of the Yorkin’s’ personal pictures. When Sy attempts to become closer to the objects of his infatuation that’s when things begin to unravel at a serious pace. The more Sy learns that the Yorkins are not the perfect family he yearns for the more he tries to correct it and at any cost.

One Hour Photo is an impressive film debut by music video maven Mark Romanek (best known for the NIN “Closer” video). Romanek also wrote the darkly unrepentant story as well. One Hour Photo is a delicate voyage into the workings of Sy’’s instability with lushly colorful metaphors. Romanek’’s color scheme is a lovely treat, with vibrant colors popping out and Sy’’s life being dominated by cold, sterilized whites. His direction is chillingly effective.

This may be the first time we can truly say Robin Williams has not merely played a version of Robin Williams in a movie. Sy’’s thick glasses and thinning peroxide-like hair coupled with an array of facial pocks allow us to truly forget that the man behind the mask is Mork. His performance is unnerving and engrossing. The supporting cast all work well. Nielsen (Gladiator) is a sympathetic wife even if her hair looks like it was cut with her eyes closed. Vartan (Vaughn on ABC’’s wonderful Alias) plays understandably wary of Sy’’s friendliness. The great Gary Cole has a small role as Sav-mart’’s manager who grows tired of Sy’’s outbursts and peculiarities.

One Hour Photo is rife with nervous moments and titters. Williams almost has an uneasy predatory feel to him when left alone with Jake. The greatest achievement the film has is that is depicts the scariest person you’ll ever see, sans hockey mask, and by the end of the film you actually feel degrees of warmth for this odd duck.

Not everything clicks in Romanek’’s dark opus. A late out-of-left-field revelation by Sy feels forced and needlessly tacked on. The Yorkin family photos all appear to be taken by a third party, since the majority of them involve all three of them in frame. The climax to One Hour Photo also feels anything but climactic.

A compellingly creepy outing, One Hour Photo is fine entertainment with beautiful visuals and a haunting score. And maybe, in the end, it really does take an obsessive knife-wielding stalker to make us realize the importance of family.

Nate’s Grade: B

A.I. (2001)

A.I. is the merger of two powerhouses of cinema – Stanley Kubrick and Steven Spielberg. The very mysterious film was given to Spielberg by Kubrick himself who thought ole’ Steven would be a better fit to direct it. The two did keep communication open for like a decade on their ideas for the project until Kubrick’s death in March of 1999. What follows is an imaginative futuristic fairy tale that almost grabs the brass ring but falls short due to an inferior ending. More on that later.

In the future technological advances allow for intelligent robotic creatures (called “mechas”) to be constructed and implemented in society. William Hurt has the vision to create a robot more real than any his company has ever embarked on before. He wants to make a robot that can know real love. Flash ahead several months to Henry and Monica Swinton (Sam Robards and Frances O’Conner) who are dealing with their own son in an indefinite coma. Henry is given the opportunity to try out a prototype from his company of a new mecha boy. His wife naturally believes that her son could not be replaced and her emotions smoothed over. Soon enough they both decide to give the boy a try and on delivery comes David (Haley Joel Osment) ready to begin new life in a family. David struggles to fit in with his human counterparts and even goes to lengths to belong like mimicking the motions of eating despite his lack of need to consume. Gradually David becomes a true part of the family and Monica has warmed up to him and ready to bestow real love onto their mecha son.

It’s at this point when things are going well for David that the Swinton’s son Martin comes out of his coma and returns back to his parents. Sibling rivalry between the two develops for the attention and adoration of their parents. Through mounting unfortunate circumstances the Swintons believe that David is a threat and decide to take him away. The corporation that manufactured David had implicit instructions that the loving David if desired to be returned had to be destroyed. Monica takes too much pity on David that she ditches him in the woods and speeds off instead of allowing him to be destroyed.

David wanders around searching for the Blue Fairy he remembers from the child’s book Pinocchio read to him at the Swinton home. He is looking for this magical creature with the desire she will turn him into a real boy and his human mother will love him again. Along David’s path he buddies up with Gigolo Joe (Jude Law), a pleasure ‘bot that tells the ladies they’re never the same once he’s through. The two traverse such sights as a mecha-destroying circus called ‘Flesh Fairs’ complete with what must be the WWF fans of the future, as well as the bright lights of flashy sin cities and the submerged remains of a flooded New York. David’s journey is almost like Alice’s, minus of course the gigolo robot of pleasure.

There are many startling scenes of visual wonder in A.I. and some truly magical moments onscreen. Spielberg goes darker than he’s even been and the territory does him good. Osment is magnificent as the robotic boy yearning to become real, but Jude Law steals the show. His physical movement, gestures, and vocal mannerisms are highly entertaining to watch as he fully inhibits the body and programmed mind of Gigolo Joe. Every time Law is allowed to be onscreen the movie sparkles.

It’s not too difficult to figure out which plot elements belong to Spielberg and which belong to Kubrick, since both are almost polar opposites when it comes to the feelings of their films. Spielberg is an idealistic imaginative child while Kubrick was a colder yet more methodical storyteller with his tales of woe and thought. The collaboration of two master artists of cinema is the biggest draw going here. A.I.‘s feel ends up being Spielberg interpreting Kubrick, since the late great Stanley was dead and gone before he could get his pet project for over a decade ready. The war of giants has more Spielberg but you can definitely tell the Kubrick elements running around, and they are a gift from beyond the grave.

I thought at one point with the first half of A.I. I was seeing possibly the best film of the year, and the second half didn’t have the pull of the first half but still moves along nicely and entertained. But then came the ending, which ruined everything. There is a moment in the film where it feels like the movie is set to end and it would’ve ended with an appropriate ending that could have produced lingering talk afterwards. I’m positive this is the ending Kubrick had in mind. But this perfect ending point is NOT the ending, no sir! Instead another twenty minutes follows that destroys the realm of belief for this film. The tacked on cloying happy ending feels so contrived and so inane. It doesn’t just stop but keeps going and only gets dumber and more preposterous form there. I won’t go to the liberty of spoiling the ending but I’ll give this warning to ensure better enjoyment of the film: when you think the movie has ended RUN OUT OF THE THEATER! Don’t look back or pay attention to what you hear. You’ll be glad you did later on when you discover what really happens.

The whole Blue Fairy search is far too whimsical for its own good. It could have just been given to the audience in a form of a symbolic idea instead of building the last half of the film for the search for this fictional creature’s whereabouts. The idea is being pounded into the heads of the audience by Spielberg with a damn sledge hammer. He just can’t leave well enough alone and lets it take off even more in those last atrocious twenty minutes.

A.I. is a generally involving film with some wonderfully fantastic sequences and some excellent performances. But sadly the ending really ruins the movie like none other I can remember recently. What could have been a stupendous film with Kubrick’s imprint all over turns out to be a good film with Spielberg’s hands all over the end.

Nate’s Grade: B

Reviewed 20 years later as part of the “Reviews Re-View: 2001” article.

Bicentennial Man (1999)

I shed a tear for what the great comedian Robin Williams has become. Once the quickest and sharpest of minds just cascading with outrageous and fanciful wit has been turned into the holiday gift-giver of schmaltzy pull-from-the-heartstrings sap.

The story of Bicentennial Man is set in the not-too-distant future, so not-too-distant that it looks like it’s just next week – with the addition of flying cars. The future seems to lack outbursts, crime, and even minorities. Seems like not everyone has a future I guess. In this world of marvels you can buy a shiny metal man for your home life and/or atrociously neglectful parenting needs. Enter walking trash receptical robo-Robin as Sam Niell’s family nanny and solution for not getting his children a dog. Through the 200 years robo-Robin learns to laugh, and love, and what the true meaning of humanity is and heart. Put some scrubs on him and this entire thing is basically Patch Adams in Space.

As the film lags on it grows increasingly more annoying until the point where it might cause audiences to bleed from the ears. If you thought a dentist appointment was painful just wait until the euthanasia comedy kicks in here.

Williams yet again throws on his usual holiday blubbery dough eyes and message of good will. But this time the pill is much harder to swallow, especially coming from an actor encased in silver foam rubber. The movie aims for a deep message of what makes us human, but comes away more likely with the message of “Wait an hour for Williams to get this crap off then do his schtick.” If you’re trying to find out what makes people human, it certainly ain’t this flick. Williams has such unparalleled comic ability that one wonders why he is wasting his time on sappy films like these when he needs to flee back to his zany comedic roots. Anyone could be a robot in this, judging from the acting for a start, but no one can do the things Williams does – and that’s why his uniqueness is being utterly wasted.

The real heart breaker isn’t in this movie, it’s seeing Robin Williams fade into mediocrity and seem content with it.

Nate’s Grade: D

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