Friday, December 9, 2016

I, Robot (2004) (Movie review)


     More than any other category of film, I love me some Science Fiction cinema. I feel that Sci-Fi can offer the most variety for a viewing experience. They can be deep and thought provoking, they can be highly imaginative transporting us to strange yet fascinating worlds, they can elevate action scenes in high-tech and jaw dropping ways, etc. More than anything, I love a good Sci-Fi that can combine a little bit of everything. The early 2000’s was the age of Sci-Fi blockbusters that had some semblance of a brain beneath all the flashy effects. Movies like “The Matrix” and “Minority Report” were all the craze, and several films tried to emulate their style. The 2004 movie “I, Robot” was one of the more successful films of the time, but has sense fallen by the waist side, and has become something of a forgotten gem. Well, as always when I get nostalgic for a movie I grew up with, I like to look back and see how much of it really holds up.


      Set in a futuristic setting of Chicago, specifically the 2030’s, a detective played by Will Smith has a serious prejudice toured machines, while everyone else on the planet has no problem letting robots run all the jobs and labor work of the planet. There are three laws set in place to make sure that a Robot never harms a human, but detective Will Smith still fears the day in which technology inevitably turns on the creator. One day, the sudden suicide of a robotic scientist gets the detectives attention, and an investigation leads to a rather unique robot named Sunny. This robot has his own intellect, and even emotes like a human. This raises a supposition in the detective, that maybe the scientist was murdered, and possibly by the robot Sunny himself. As his investigation continues, he finds himself falling under constant attack by various robots. Meanwhile, all the rest of the world is completely oblivious of a robot uprising that’s building under their very noise.


      In short, the film has a cool premise, it boasts an exciting mystery, and manages to be a relatively fun summer action movie, but there’s one major problem here ... the movie is titled “I, Robot”, and this is not a proper adaption of its literary source material. The original “I, Robot” short stories written by Isaac Asimov are among some of the deepest and most influential that the Science Fiction genera has to offer. It wasn’t just an exciting action mystery thriller, it was much deeper and smarter, combining the themes of interactions with human’s, robots and morality. The “I, Robot” books took Science Fiction to new, inspiring heights that it had never reached before. The movie on the other hand is just basic pop-corn entertainment that occasionally makes reference to its far superior source material. Now to be fair, the movie has underlining themes of race, stereotyping, even slavery and there are select moments that hint at something smart. However, the film just can’t escape it’s summer movie trappings. Now in general there’s nothing wrong with pop-corn entertainment, but if this movie is going to bare the title of “I, Robot”, it needs to be much deeper and more influential than this.   


     The highlight of the movie by far in the robot Sunny, who completely steals every scene he’s in. Outside of an outstanding performance from Alan Tudyk, and a really cool design, this character’s journey is genuinely intriguing. Granted the concept of a robot developing an intellect is obviously nothing new, but whenever this character is on screen I feel the small traces of Asimov’s original themes and subtext. The problem once again is that Will Smith’s character gets far more attention, and just isn’t as interesting by comparison. Now Will Smith’s performance is perfectly fine albeit a little familiar, and even the characters back story is decent, but he just shouldn’t have been the center point focus of the movie. This might sound like an odd comparison, but this movie should have been a little more like “Who Framed Rodger Rabbit”, a movie that revolves around a detective who has to provide aid to a character that he has a serious prejudice against. One of that films many strengths was the partnership and genuine friendship that slowly bloomed between the two main characters. “I, Robot” had a perfect opportunity to create a similar relationship between the robot Sunny and detective Will Smith, but nothing of the sort ever takes shape until the tail end of the film. The remaining characters are hardly worth mentioning, there’s a female scientist who bears the name of a character from the books, but is largely a forgettable love interest for Will Smith’s character. There’s also a completely pointless teenage character played by Shai LaBeouf, although it is amusing to see him here before he stared in the “Transformers” movies.   

                      
     Now as far as action and entertainment is concerned, “I, Robot” is perfectly satisfying. I probably sound like a hypocrite after making my negative comparisons to the books, but I’m still going to enjoy all the robot action on some level. While not as impressive as other action movies of this sort, it thankfully isn’t as over the top either, and is consistently fun to watch. The film moves at great pace, unloading just enough fire power while also giving our characters time to breath and emote. The battles also come in a nice variety, this way we’re never tired of seeing the same thing. There’s a giant demolition robot chasing Will Smith in an abandoned house, we have good robots dueling evil robots, and a high-speed car chase in a future setting. I have to admit, I’m a sucker for futuristic cars chasing in high-tech Sci-Fi surroundings.


      The special effects are obviously top notch, and deservedly received an Oscar nomination, but lost that year to “Spider-Man 2” respectively. Outside of the effects themselves, some of the imagery is gorgeous, and I like the future setting of Chicago. Most movies revolving around robots taking over are set in these really ugly and depressing futures. The future depicted in “I, Robot” is actually very colorful and looks like a natural if slightly exaggerated depiction of the future. One little touch I really liked was that parking lots are apparently gone, and cars can just be filed away in a locker of sorts until the driver is ready to us it again. Another little detail I like is how casually people just replace their robots, not because their defective, but just because they’re not the newest model. I feel that there’s some commentary there on how people in general today just abandon their current devices just because they’re not the newest thing off the assembly line. Also, the world of “I, Robot” feels like a big one that can be explored in further films. On that note, I’m actually very glad that there weren’t any sequels, it’s such a rare treat to have a completely stand alone summer blockbuster with an expansive universe, but just one movie. Hollywood needs to take notes of this, not every successful blockbuster needs to be made into a franchise. 


     Now back to the mystery plot, which is competently written, but there really aren’t enough surprises that I didn’t see coming. The supposed “twist” reveal of the computer Viki as the main villain wasn’t that shocking. I mean this is a movie about technology turning on humans, so why should we be surprised by a twist ending where a computer is the villain. The character herself also feels like a watered down version of the “Hal 9000” from “2001: A Space Odyssey”, and by that I mean it’s the same character, just mines the charm, subtext and scares that he provided in that movie. Now for whatever it’s worth, I do love the climax, which takes place on a high rise in this massive building. The setting may not be that original, but I can’t deny that it’s a lot of fun to watch our hero’s jumping around while blasting killer robots with infinite ammo.    


    So how do I rate this movie, is it bad, is it underrated, is it just okay ... well, it all depends on what you compare this too. If you’re measuring this movie to the quality of its literary source material ... it’s a complete turd. In comparison to other summer blockbusters, this film may come off as just plain average to common movie goers. Personally, I do still like this movie and I think its fun to watch every couple years. It’s definitely inferior to its literary source material, but perhaps it’s best to ignore the similar titles and view them as two separate entities. The 2004 movie “I, Robot” on its own is fine, I enjoy the visuals, the robot action, Will Smith just being his usual cool self, and even if it’s not that thought provoking, it’s not completely brainless entertainment either. It can still be a little creative, even a touch ambitious at times, but there are obviously better Sci-Fi films that mix entertainment and subtext in one package. Both “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” and “The Matrix” are arguably the best of the thinking man’s action Sci-Fi movie genera, and I’d probably just recommend those instead. In the long run, robots will always be fascinating subjects for Science Fiction movies, and I think this movie is a mostly worthwhile entry to the genera.  


                                                     I give “I, Robot” 3 ½ stars out of 5.       
          


The Polar Express (2004) (Movie Review)


       Life is full of changes, and growing-up has its up’s a downs. My personal transition from Elementary school to Middle school was kind of rough, and a time when I shut myself out from other things. Strait to the point, this was a time in which the Christmas season meant very little too me, and I had pretty much lost all its magic. Then in 2004 a little animated movie came out called “The Polar Express”, and needless to say, this film helped reignite that warm magical spark, which I had lost. Now “The Polar Express” has never been regarded as one of the great holiday classics, and has received mixed reviews, but it’s got fans, and some would regard it as a “small” yuletide classic in its own right. I’ll admit the movie is far from perfect, but it’s still very special to me, and is personally one of my absolute favorite Christmas movies that I love watching every year. The movie is directed by Robert Zemeckis, who’s responsible for some of my favorite family adventure films including “Back to the Future”, “Monster House” and “Who Framed Rodger Rabbit”, and this film is yet another great one to add to his resume.  


       Naturally, the movie is based on the children’s book of the same title, which incidentally is a book I’m quiet nostalgic for. I remember my parents read that book to me every holiday season. However, even with my love for the source material, I never thought they could do a proper book adaption, especially considering how short and strait forward the story is. For those of you who don’t know, “The Polar Express” is the tail of a young boy who’s slowly falling out of the holiday season. Then on one magical Christmas Eve night, he gets whisked away on a train bound for the North Pole. Through his experience journeying to the Pole he rediscovered that magic spark, and in a sense had his “faith” restored. I can actually relate to the kid in the film, because that’s how I was, and it was through the experience of viewing the film that I found myself gradually tiptoeing back to my love for the holiday again. Personally, that’s what I take away from this movie ... the experience. Where other Christmas movies have great moral values, or are really funny, or very nostalgic, “The Polar Express” is the only one that makes me feel like I’m experiencing the holiday.


     The storytelling is light as air, and the atmosphere is just magical. I also respect how this film took the mythos of Santa and turned it into a challenge of faith, which some kids can probably relate to in their own general way. Having said all that, the movie would probably be stronger if it was a direct to TV special like “The Snowman”, because a theatrical movie needs to be padded out in order to be feature length. While I still love the overall experience of the movie, I’ll admit that the detours are very obvious. There are some action scenes thrown in revolving around the train getting derailed, and those moments do conflict with the films simplicity. To be fair, those action detours are still done well, and can be exciting to watch, but it does feel like the animators are trying to promote a theme park attraction at times. Now for as padded as the movie can get, it at least maintains the spirit of the source material, unlike say the movie adaption of “The Cat in the Hat”, which filled its run time with dry toilet hummer, modern day references and obvious commercial tie-ins. “The Polar Express” at least sticks to its time period, and is trying to be something meaningful.


     Some may argue that it’s still a little manipulative, like some scenes are added in just because most classic children’s movies have scenes of the sort. For example there’s a random scary moment involving a puppet of Ebenezer Scrooge coming to life which has nothing to do with anything, and is basically just there so the movie can have a scary scene. Maybe there’s a little bit of foreshadowing here, because Robert Zemeckis next animated Christmas movie would be “A Christmas Carol”. Well, clich├ęd or not, I do love the majority of scenes in this film, in fact, it’s one of those movies I love watching just to re-experience select moments. One of the most inventive moments happens when the hero boy loses his ticket, which gets blown off the train leading into an amazing tracking shot following this ticket as it blows through a mountain side and back on board the locomotive. Tracking shots are impressive enough in live action, but for the animators to create a long take with no cuts on a computer is really something to admire. Some of the random moments also help create an otherworldly atmosphere that makes the train feel all the more magical. For example, the lead boy frequently encounters the ghost of a homeless man, but only he can see him. We’re never given any clear answers about this character, but his presence gives the train a more mysterious yet lively feel. I especially love all the little details, like this one moment in the opening when the boy boards the train, he looks over at his house and a strong gust of wind gives the illusion that his snowman is waving goodbye to him, little touches like that are wonderful.


    For some reason, the scene that always stands out to me the most is when a lonely boy sings about the simple joys he desperately wants to feel around Christmas, which leads into a duet between him and a young girl. It may seem just a little corny to have these children signing, but I just love this song, I love the melody and really love all the colors and visuals that are displayed in this moment. It’s simply a touching little scene with these two kids, and once again it just adds a little more magic to the experience. On that note, the music in this film is outstanding. The score composed by Alan Silvestri is one of the most magical and breathtaking scores I’ve ever heard. The Polar Express theme song is very catchy, and I also love this song titled “Spirit of the Season”, which definitely puts me in the holiday mood. Also, just about every classic Christmas song ranging from Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” to the Andrew Sisters “Winter Wonderland” can be heard in the film. The song “Believe” performed by Josh Groban is personally one of my favorite modern holiday songs. It’s hard to explain but this song just lifts my spirit and really gets me in the “feels”. The only song I didn’t care for was that silly “Hot Chocolate” number, which wasn’t an awful scene mind you, it just didn’t do much for me.


     Now it’s time talk about the characters, who add another rich flavor to the film. I like that we never learn their names, their just kids with distinct character traits, which help them stand apart from each other. The lead boy is like the everyday person who’s wide eyed and observes all the magic around him. The hero girl always takes charge, and acts out of pure faith, which puts her at odds with the hero boy who’s on a journey to rediscover his. There’s a “know-it-all” kid, who’s basically a walking dictionary, and finally there’s a lonely boy who though the experience gains the gift of friendship. Each child has their own arch, each identifiable and I like seeing their friendships bloom over the course of the journey. I especially love that the hero girl is African American, which makes her relationship with the lead boy feel very unique. It would have been so easy for the animators to make her a pretty Caucasian girl that looks like a perfect match for the lead boy, but by giving her a different ethnicity, it makes their friendship feel unconventional, all the more genuine, and it’s even more special considering that the film is set in the 1950’s. Of course I have to mention Tom Hanks, who’s terrific playing various characters throughout the film, ranging from the train conductor to Santa Clause himself. It’s hard to explain, but there’s something about this films portrayal of Santa that has this real presence to him. I’ve been around the block with different portrayals of Santa in various Christmas movies, and while this obviously isn’t the absolute best, he still feels the most mystical in this film than any other portrayal I’ve seen. While the movie makes it clear that Tom Hanks is just playing several different characters, I’d still like to believe that their all the same magical entity taking on various forms. That would have made more sense to give Tom Hanks all these roles if there was something connecting them all together. 

       
    Now let’s talk about the other obvious highlight of the film, which is the stunning 3D animation. While I regrettably didn’t see this movie in 3D I was still very impressed with the artistry of the film. However, I can still imagine the transporting effect the 3D adds to the experience. The colors and designs in this movie are just wonderful. Plus there are several individual shots that look like pictures I could frame and hang on my wall. The setting of North Pole is arguably my favorite I’ve ever seen in a Christmas movie. Many of the buildings are shrunken down to elf size, and there’s multiple colors coming from the chimneys. There’s a great segment near the end in which three of the kids get lost at the pole, which leads to some awesome locations, and terrific set pieces. The only time the animation suffers is with the human characters, who occasionally look like marionettes. This was the first animated movie to combine motion capture performances with the animation, and while it’s distracting at times, there’s still some great detail in regards to the human features, and it obviously can’t over shadow how stunning the animation is overall.


    For me, the best way to describe this film is like going to bed one night, and having this beautiful dream that takes many wild and magical twists, turns, then when you wake up you get this warm feel that you embarked on this enchanting adventure. From beginning to end, the movie makes me feel like I’m living a dream revolving around the Christmas season, and I really can’t think of any other movie that creates a feel as unique as this. Like I said in the opening, “The Polar Express” is far from perfect, but then again no movie really needs to be. All that matters is how much you take away from the experience, and in this regard, I received one of the most magical holiday movie experiences I could possibly ask for. The colors are beautiful, the music is fantastic, the premise is unique, the atmosphere is great, and the 3D animation is just dazzling. Honestly, films don’t always need a stellar story, sometimes I just want to experience something, and “The Polar Express” is a film that I look forward to experiencing again and again every year.


                                        I give “The Polar Express” 4 ½ stars out of 5.

      

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

My Top 10 “Not-So Christmas” Christmas Specials


It’s the Christmas season again, which means it’s time for anther Holiday themed countdown. In the past I’ve posted lists of my favorite Christmas specials, my least favorite specials, but now I’m going to look at the stuff in between. Have you ever noticed that select classic Christmas movies and specials have little to do with the holiday itself, yet we still watch them every year? Then there’s also those select films that aren’t even mandatory to watch around the holiday season, but feel the most appropriate to view around this time of year. So, with all that said, here are my personal top 10 alternate Christmas Specials.


#10 The Nightmare Before Christmas (1994)

 

In this stop motion holiday classic, the king of Halloween town is sick of his usual holiday, so he decides to take a shot at Christmas resulting in the strait forward story of “The Night Before Christmas”, just with a dark Halloween edge. Even though this is one of my favorite holiday movies of all time, I’ve only ever watched it around Halloween. Outside of one musical number and the ending, the majority of the film is spent in Halloween town, with monstrous creatures taking up the scenery. However, while visually the film will get you in the mood for Halloween, the story is still 100% centered on Christmas, so it works. Even with its dark visual style there are still some stand out Christmas moments. The musical number in which Jack Skeleton discovers Christmas town is one of the most colorful and detailed I’ve ever seen in a holiday movie. The best way to describe this film is Halloween dose Christmas ... which is awesome.  


#9 Snow Day (2000)


I can’t make any persuasive argument that this is a “good” movie by any means, but I will say that I love the concept and would love to see it done right. The movie play’s out like an anthology movie that’s set during one really snowy day as we watch various groups of characters going on separate mini winter themed adventures. We see a group of kids waging war with a nasty snowplow man, teenagers in love, snowball fights, and parents forced to stay home from work. While neither the jokes or the multiple stories are that memorable, there is still a great set up here for some fun winter themed shenanigans, and the film at least looks wonderful with lots of snowy landscapes and terrific winter visuals.    


#8 Home Alone (1990) 

 

When a young boy is accidentally left at home during a family vacation, he finds himself protecting his house from two burglars, which leads to lots of slap stick comedy and a small scale child hood adventure. In sort, the movie has nothing to do with Christmas at all, yet it’s become a celebrated holiday classic. Obviously the film takes place during Christmas, and there’s definitely a warm holiday atmosphere that resonates from seeing all the decorations and the music. Beyond the visual presentation, the film dose embrace some subtle themes and morals that are commonly associated with the holiday season, that of family togetherness and youthful innocence. 
    

#7 Krampus (2015) 

 

Christmas themed horror movies have been around for years, but it’s the 2015 movie “Krampus” that surprisingly feels like something to watch during the holiday season. The premise revolves around an evil Santa which descended from English folklore, who terrorizes a family snowed in during Christmas eve. Even though this is a gory monster film, it features a great selection of various holiday themed creatures including snowmen, gingerbread men, elves, toys and of course Santa himself. It’s a very tongue-in-check horror comedy, that’s as over the top as they get, but highly entertaining and full of fist rate holiday thrills.


#6 Disney’s Frozen (2013) 

 

Much like “Snow Day” the film has zero connection to Christmas, but visually it’s so rich in winter imagery and a magical atmosphere that it still feels right for the holiday season. I don’t think I need to say too much else about this one, the music is great, the animation is great, the artistry is great, the characters are great, and it’s just another “cold” themed movie that just warms the heart with repeated viewings. 


#5 Disney’s The Little Match Girl (2006)

 

Despite the fact that this is only a seven minuet short, it still stands strong as a wonderful holiday gem. No, it’s not aimed at Christmas, but it’s set during the holiday season, and it's simply Disney at its finest. It’s got great animation, and lots of drama focusing on the fragile nature of human life. It's a truly heartwarming story that focuses on the importance of hope, dreams and helping the innocent. “Little Match Girl” has always been one of my favorite Christmas stories and has always deserved its own holiday special, thankfully in the absence of a motion picture we have this terrific little short film.


#4 Dragons: Gift of the Night Fury (2011) 

 
Well ...  DreamWorks “How to Train Your Dragon” is personally one of my favorite animated movies of all time, so naturally the holiday special is a personal favorite that I just couldn't keep off my list. It revolves around its own fictional holiday, yet it feels like a Christmas special thanks to its colors and themes. It’s a terrific continuation of their story, it's funny, and it has more than enough warm feel good moments that you just love seeing in holiday specials of this sort. 


#3 Gremlins 

 

Here it is, the true classic Christmas Horror movie that had no business being a holiday film, but is still a yuletide treasure all the same. The plot revolves around a bunch of nasty little monsters that terrorize a local town during Christmas, and by terrorize, I mean they just want to let loose and have fun and the cost of humanity. It’s funny, it’s scary and visually it really looks and feels like a Christmas film. There’s lots of little details that set the holiday mood perfectly, and the creature effects are outstanding. “Gremlins” is definitely an offbeat little film, but it just works somehow alongside all the other classic’s we watch around the holiday season.    


#2 Die Hard (1988)

 

In this action adventure, a group of bad guys take over a building, hold occupants hostage, and aim to collect a lot of money, but one lone cop is loose in the complex and dose all in his power to free the hostages, while also defeating the terrorists. Obviously the movie is only set during Christmas, it really has nothing to do with the holiday at all, but at least other films like “Gremlins” and “Home Alone” look and feel like Christmas. Die Hard doesn’t even have that going for it, and has little that makes me think of the season, that is with the small exception of the end credits in which we hear the song “Let it Snow”. Yet with all that said, this film is widely regarded as a holiday classic, and one of the greatest of its kind. Whether or not you see this as a good Christmas movie, it’s undeniably one of the greatest action movies ever made, and a staple of 80’s popcorn entertainment.       



#1 It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) 

 

Oh yeah, it’s one of the greatest holiday classics of all time, and yet, in truth it has nothing to do with Christmas at all. Don’t get me wrong, I love this movie and watch it every season, but the movie doesn't even take place during the holiday season until the third act. Heck, even "Die Hard" took place entirely on Christmas eve. Having said that, "It’s a Wonderful Life", is still the timeless story about how one man’s life could have such a huge impact on the lives of others, which is just as inspiring as it is enduring, and I suppose there are some themes that can be attributed to Christmas. In the end, this film reminds us what a wonderful and beautiful life we truly do have. With a solid direction from Frank Capra, an outstanding lead performance from James Stewart, and a brilliant premise, “It’s a Wonderful Life” still proves to be a near flawless film, and even though it's not directly centered on Christmas, it still deliverers the biggest impact during the holiday season. 

The End