A.I. Artificial Intelligence
A.I. ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE (A-2, PG-13) marks a return
to smart robot movies (Blade Runner, 2001: A Space
Odyssey) that treat robots in some future world but
also work as allegories about how we have always treated
people who are different.
Steven Spielberg worked for years with the late Stanley
Kubrick on this film in which humans in a post-ecological
disaster world design lifelike robots to serve their needs.
The boy-hero, David (played by ethereal, 13-year-old Haley
Joel Osment), is an advanced model, designed to give his
“parents” a love “that will never end.”
When David is no longer needed, his mom (Aussie actress
Frances O’Connor) abandons him.
Filled with unrequited love, David searches for his lost
mother and meets the worldly-wise robot Gigolo Joe (Jude
Law). Despite light moments, their harrowing travels and
close escapes reveal the horrible fates of fellow mechas
(robots), who are abused and mutilated for pleasure, and
the corruption and decadence of future society.
While it sounds grim, the perspective is moral. The robots
are scapegoats, recalling all the persecuted people of past
and present history. But they are also themselves: When
machines look and walk and talk and feel like people,
are they people? (Even if not, is it O.K. to mock and hurt
them?) The movie nibbles at the edges of the religious and
scientific mysteries of who we are, where we came from and
what it is all about.
It’s also full of visionary images: a robotic junkyard
where mutilated machines come for spare parts; a Flesh Fair,
something like the Roman arena and circus, where the humanoids
(all looking very human) amuse the raucous crowds by being
destroyed in inventive ways; New York after global warming.
David’s search ends in a way that is both moving and a bit
The Kubrickian element is that perfecting robots is an
idea that goes terribly wrong. The Spielbergian note is
the theme of the lost boy wrenched from home, plus the stubborn
optimism that, despite everything, the robot child will
Catholics will argue with this film’s incomplete, unsatisfying
grasp of ultimate reality. A lengthy speculative fable
for adults and mature youth; definitely worth seeing and
SONGCATCHER (A-3, PG-13) takes us into the western mountains
of North Carolina in 1907 with music professor Lily Penleric
(Janet McTeer, a best-actress Oscar nominee last year) seeking
escape from her “old boy”-controlled Eastern university.
Visiting a remote community school run by her sister, Lily
discovers how important songs, virtually unchanged from
ballads brought by immigrants from England and Scotland,
are to the country folks’ everyday life. She resolves to
record and collect them before they’re lost to posterity.
Sophisticated, city-bred Lily hauls around her primitive
recording equipment by horse cart and tries to convince
the poor, ill-educated, fundamentalist Christian locals
of her honest intentions. The movie is suffused with old-time
hymns and folk songs, well integrated and performed by almost
everybody, including pros like Iris DeMent, 13-year-old
Emmy Rossum and blues legend Taj Mahal.
Amid the moody and picturesque visuals, McTeer dominates
the screen, especially in a lively feud and then romance
with a feisty local musician played by Aidan Quinn. A background
lesbian relationship precipitates a somewhat melodramatic
but satisfying—if not terribly credible—climax.
The writer-director, Maggie Greenwald, is interested in
the role of women in this rustic world of large families,
minimal health conditions, and emotionally isolated men
and women. The mountain people are easy marks for prejudice
and exploitation by outlanders. Offbeat but accessible
mix of social history, music and drama.
THE SCORE (A-4, R) is perhaps the best-made movie of the
summer but, alas, it is only entertainment, at best a respectable
entry in one of the cinema’s most durable genres: the caper
film. This is the setup where a bunch of crooks plan a brilliant
crime but run into awkward surprises during its execution.
Once upon a time, crime never paid. But that seemed to
conflict with reality. Today you are asked either to suspend
moral judgment or to look for subtle dispensations of justice
or insight into the absurdities of the unforeseen.
Robert De Niro plays an expert burglar who owns a classy
Montreal jazz club. He’s enticed (for an improbable $6 million)
into “one last job” to help out his longtime associate (nicely
acted by the other guy who played Vito Corleone, Marlon
Brando, now 77).
The target is a priceless scepter locked in the basement
of the Canadian Customs House. His partner, a brash young
newcomer (Edward Norton), seems too clever. The highlight
of this first non-comedy directed by Frank Oz (of Muppets
fame) is the super-tense, deftly edited theft sequence and
its several shocks, among them a refreshing lack of violence.
Ably crafted for adults by solid pros, but suspense skills
can’t cover absence of real character and substance.
NETWORK (1976) is the one great movie about the monster
of television, amazingly prophetic about where TV was headed
(contrived reality, the cult of personality, and the confusion
of news, entertainment and advocacy). Written by the late
Paddy Chayefsky and among several masterpieces directed
by Sidney Lumet (Serpico, The Verdict), it
centers on an aging anchorman (Peter Finch) who inadvertently
saves his job by going mad on camera. The zany prophet of
doom scores an instant but temporary hit in the ratings.
This merciless satire is full of memorable characters:
the ambitious career woman (Faye Dunaway) with the taste
for schlock, the bottom-line corporate in-fighter (Robert
Duvall), the mysterious (and slightly crazy) C.E.O. of the
conglomerate that owns the network (Ned Beatty) and the
veteran once-idealistic newsman (William Holden).
They don’t make many bright, funny, morally angry movies
in any era. Chayefsky’s script, with all its smart, witty
speeches, surely belongs among the all-time Ten Best. A
film history great moment occurs when Finch urges his viewers
all over America to open their windows and shout: “I’m mad
as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore!” (Finch died
of a heart attack just before being interviewed about the
film on Good Morning America. He won a posthumous
Oscar as best actor.)
My Favorite Curse Word
MY FAVORITE CURSE WORD is probably James Lipton. No doubt
a favorite regular indulgence is watching his Inside
the Actors Studio interviews, a weekly hour that helps
the upscale Bravo network stay afloat. It was more viewer-friendly
when Bravo had no commercial breaks. But educator Lipton,
sitting with his subject on a stage before rapt, hero-worshiping
acting students, still runs one of the better celebrity
interview/ biography/movie clip series on TV.
One routine I wish he’d drop comes near the end, when he
asks the guest a list of superficial questions including
their favorite curse word, for which there are few creative
but usually very predictable (and ineffectively bleeped)
answers. The audience always howls, which may reinforce
Lipton’s conviction that this is a good idea. Juvenile and
uncool, I say, although typical of our times.
I wince also at another standard query: “If heaven exists,
what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the
pearly gates?” But the gentle pop agnosticism is tolerable
because of the rare venture into theology and the often-poignant
When my time comes, I’m hoping that, among more important
stuff, God will say, “You’ll never have to hear everybody’s
favorite curse word again.”
EVER WONDER how much TV-viewing time is devoted to watching cars (in commercials) zooming around on two-lane country roads (otherwise empty) where in reality almost nobody drives? How come no images of backed-up freeways?
Boxing Exposed (Again)
Cheers to the Arts and Entertainment Network (A&E) for
demonstrating what the medium can do when it’s actually
trying to reach adults and not some kind of adolescent advertising
niche. Its solid two-hour documentary Boxing: In and
Out of the Ring exposed this largely unregulated and
disorganized perennial problem sport, its dominance by promoter
Don King and its links to HBO and Showtime.
The show focused on the stir caused by the upset knockout
last April of heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis by underdog
Hasim Rahman. King made a swift takeover of Rahman’s career
(and huge future profits) from his longtime promoter Cedric
Kushner. The show also described the bribery and manipulation
involved in the rankings of fighters, which is crucial for
determining who fights whom and for what kind of money.
We see an F.B.I. surveillance tape of money being passed
to Bob Lee, president of the International Boxing Federation,
as the guys discuss the rankings and how “Fuzzy Wuzzy” (a
nickname for King and his vertical hairdo) will like this
or that choice. Lee gets a short jail term, but nothing
serious happens to the system.
Boxing historians Thomas Hauser and Jack Newfield put the
current situation in the context of 100 years of history,
starting with Thomas Edison’s first footage of Gentleman
Jim Corbett. The major difference is money and big business
(the pay-per-view TV pot is now $100 million).
The fighters, of course, get whatever end is shortest,
although the film offers at least one hero, William Guthrie,
who defied King and became light heavyweight champion. “I’ve
never been invited to attend a benefit for a promoter,”
Calls for reform have gone largely unheeded, although it’s
another project on the agenda of Senator John McCain. “It’s
always been run by gangsters,” says the veteran Newfield,
who is perhaps too resigned. “You can’t change it. It’s
like the oceans and the tides.”