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By James Arnold

Love That Will Never End


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 puzzling.

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 find love.

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 debating.

Songcatcher

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

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

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 responses.

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

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,” Newfield quips.

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.”


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