Aquaman – A Science Fiction & Fantasy Movie Review

Today Camera Girl and I took grandsons Primus and Secundus to the local multiplex and watched a double feature of

  • Ralph Breaks the Internet
  • Aquaman

Between tickets and popcorn this went for about a hundred bucks.  And it was horrible.  Having to twice sit through the interminable coming attractions and other advertising video was pure torture.  Ralph Breaks the Internet was mildly amusing but twice as long as it needed to be.  Plus, at the end I found out that Sarah Silverman was one of the voice actors.  By the time Aquaman began I was bored and queasy from eating greasy popcorn.

It wasn’t bad.  There was a little too much girl power being pitched and of course none of it made any sense at all but taken as a whole it wasn’t bad.  The plot was ridiculously contrived and the evil half brother motif might as well have had Thor and Loki’s names filed down to protect DC from being sued by Marvel.

The special effects are, of course, spectacular.  Due to his human/Atlantean hybrid ancestry the title role is performed as a regular guy who just happens to be a super hero that can breath under water and control the denizens of the deep.  The rest of the Atlanteans try to sound like some kind of quasi-medieval nobility, sort of like how the Asgardians in the Thor movies do.  It’s a little silly but not terrible.

I’ve never followed the Aquaman character before.  I figured he was just the DC version of Submariner who was the lamest of the Marvel superheroes.  From the ending sequence and the way these superhero franchises are handled it’s certain that there will be sequels.  Not that I think there need to be any.

Bottom line, the movie has plenty of action and drama.  The main character is likable and fulfills the function of a superhero by being heroic.  And finally, the grandsons thought it was very good.  So it fulfills its primary role, it amuses kids.

The Dead – A Movie Review

The Dead is the film adaptation of a James Joyce short story of the same name that is part of the “Dubliners” collection.  It was the last picture directed by John Huston and was made shortly before he died.  It starred his daughter Angelica Huston and a cast of Irish actors who are mostly unknown to American audiences.  It’s the story of a New Year’s Party in Ireland in 1904.  The protagonists are a husband and wife, Gabriel and Greta, visiting his aunts for the party.  There are a number of characters who interact and exhibit the various foibles and characteristics found in a gathering of middle-class city dwellers.  There is the drunkard and the old maids and the young women and men full of excitement about the cultural and political happenings.  Music is a big part of the story with opera arias and piano concertos along the course of the party.  But at last the story is a meditation on the transitory nature of life.  Because it is an Irish story and specifically because it is James Joyce story it is very melancholy.  But there is humor and the portrayal of the party is an amusing period piece of turn of the twentieth century Ireland.  There is a number of mentions of the Irish Republican Army meetings plotting the coming uprising and the story is full of allusions to the Roman Catholic religion and the changing mores of the times.

But in the end, as the summation of the story, we see an intellectual coming to terms with the visceral nature of life.  He feels that he’s never touched his wife’s heart the way the death of a childhood sweetheart did many years ago.

John Huston was a very sick old man when he made this film and the concept of mortality was of prime importance to him.  And the James Joyce story is a good one.  But I wonder how big the audience is for this movie.  It’s a period piece and all the humor is mild and subdued.  It’s highly sentimental and slow paced.  I enjoy it a great deal and like it as a good end of year picture.  But I would recommend prospective viewers consider in advance if they care for such tame and sad entertainment.  I recommend this movie for the philosophic spirits out there.

Flash of Genius – A Movie Review

This was a 2008 release that’s based on a true story.  Greg Kinnear plays Bob Kearns, an engineering professor in the Detroit area in the 1960s who along with his wife Phyllis (played by Lauren Graham from the Gilmore Girls) and their six kids are living a happy mid-western existence.  One day Bob was driving and he came across the difficulty of having single speed wipers in a light rain.  If he left the windshield wipers on then the window would get dry and the blades would squeak and streak, but if he left them off, he couldn’t see.  Being an inventor, he came up with an electronic device that allowed the wipers to work with a variable delay between cycles, now known as intermittent wipers.  With the help of a friend who had an automotive component company he approaches Ford Motor Company about them purchasing his wiper invention to use in their cars.  They convince him they need to have a copy of the device to get it approved by the federal agency that oversees automotive safety equipment and he provides it to them.  Kearns leases factory space and goes into production on the device.  Then Ford backs out of the deal and starts producing essentially the same device on their own.

The rest of the movie chronicles Bob’s twenty-year crusade to bring Ford to justice for stealing his invention.  During that time, he loses his job, his wife and almost his mind.  At a certain point he becomes so desperate that he jumps on a bus to Washington D.C. to “talk to the White House” about his problem.  This lands him in a mental ward for several months.  When he gets out, he hires a lawyer to sue Ford for stealing his idea.  The lawyer (played by Alan Alda) gets an agreement from Ford to pay Bob several hundreds of thousands of dollars to settle.  But when he finds out that Ford wouldn’t be admitting to the theft, just paying him off, Bob balks and refuses to give up his crusade against Ford.  At this point he’s several years into this nightmare and without a job.  His wife, exhausted with raising six kids and supporting the family leaves him.

Now alone and miserable, he spends all his waking hours teaching himself the law applying to theft of intellectual property and fighting off Ford’s counter-suits and other delaying tactics.  Finally, twelve years after initiating the effort his suit goes to trial.  He represents himself and blunders through the various amateur shortcomings of being a make-believe lawyer.  But as the end of the trial approaches Ford’s representative suddenly offers him thirty million dollars to drop the suit.  He refuses and everything comes down to the jury decision.

I won’t give away the ending but I will comment on the dilemma of this poor man.  Basically, he traded away the best years of his life and the happiness of a family for the chance to get justice from a court over being robbed of an invention.  I am an engineer but I’ve never had a “flash of genius.”  But I think as much as I am a vindictive bastard, I’d have recognized that spending decades of my prime and losing the woman I love to be proven right is an obsessive-compulsive fool’s errand.  Even if you win, you’ve lost.  A corporation is an immortal being with godlike power.  It can outlive you and overpower you.  The best thing you can do is steer clear of them.  They are by definition soulless and amoral.  I think the lesson learned from this movie is that life is short.  Justice that costs you your reason for living is too costly for real people.  It’s a good movie and the character Bob is a recognizable type that I have met several times in my life.  And I felt sorry for him but I think he made a big mistake.  Good movie about a cautionary tale for nerds.  Don’t trust the man.

The Inside Baseball of Film Versions of “A Christmas Carol” – Part 1

Anyone who has been reading my posts on this site for more than a year knows that I am a Christmas Carol fanatic.  So as a fair warning I’ll just say that this post is only for true Christmas Carol devotees.  Every word of it is subjective and dedicated to minutiae.  I have four versions of the film that I like and each has an aspect in which it excels the other three.  Every year I re-evaluate the films and debate with myself on trivial points that would have exactly zero importance to the overwhelming majority of the human inhabitants of planet earth.  Here goes.

Material that wasn’t in the book

A Christmas Carol was a novella.  It is brief and in places lacks details about the characters and events.

For instance, the book never says why Scrooge’s father treated him so poorly.  In the 1951 version it is stated that his father held it against him that his mother died in his childbirth.  And in the same version a similar grudge exists as the reason why Scrooge dislikes his nephew Fred.  It is shown that his sister Fan died giving birth to Fred.  In the 1984 version the same reason for his father’s dislike for Scrooge is presented.  But the death of Fan during Fred’s birth is not added.  What is interesting about these additions is that based on the original story they would be impossible.  In the book Fan is quite a bit younger than her brother Ebenezer.  Therefore, their mother couldn’t have died at the birth of her older child.  I suppose Fan could have been Ebenezer’s half-sister but I don’t imagine that a twice married man would still be holding his first wife’s death as a grudge against his son.  So, this addition is spurious.  But it is extremely dramatic and provides a timely reason for both father’s and son’s misanthropic behavior that could be somewhat excused and so leave room for deserved forgiveness.  And it has a highly effective scene where the older Scrooge hears his dying sister ask for his promise to take care of her infant son Fred.  We see that the younger Scrooge never heard the dying plea and the older Scrooge gets to belatedly beg his beloved deceased sister’s forgiveness for his heartless treatment of her only child.

And notice that the 1984 version borrows both the discrepancy of Fan’s age and the spurious grudge of Scrooge’s father but neglects the equally spurious grudge of Scrooge for his nephew.  I guess they thought those additions gave resonance to the story.

In both the 1951 and 1984 versions Scrooge’s fiancée is introduced during the Fezziwig party scene and give a name (Alice in the earlier version, Belle in the later).  Neither this early link to Scrooge’s life or the name show up in the book.  In addition, in the 1951 version it skips the scene introducing this woman’s later life with husband and large family but instead substitutes a scene during the Ghost of Christmas Present section where Belle is volunteering at a shelter for the poor.  Now whereas tying Scrooge’s love to the Fezziwig era of his life is fine and in fact better than the way the book presents it, I do not particularly favor the poor shelter addition.  It seems unwarranted.  I think the scene where she is surrounded by her family is dramatic enough in that it illustrates what happiness Scrooge has lost.

In the book the Ghost of Christmas Present visits the house of Scrooge’s nephew Fred.  The dinner guests are presented enjoying games such as blindman buff and forfeits which I take to be word games such as twenty questions.  One of the rounds determined that it was a disagreeable animal that growled and lived in London.  And, of course, it turns out to be Uncle Scrooge.  In the 1984 version the story is adapted so the dinner guests are playing a game called similes where they need to guess the end of a simile.  When Fred asks his wife to complete “as tight as,” she replies “your Uncle Scrooge’s purse strings.”  Scrooge hears this while in the presence of the Ghost of Christmas Present.  After his repentance and on the actual Christmas Day he meets his niece and discussing the game of similes he advises her that the simile, in case it came up, was “as tight as a drum.”  Nicely played.

From the book we know that Jacob Marley died seven years earlier on Christmas Eve.  And we are informed that Scrooge inherited his house.  What the 1951 version does is tie these facts together in a scene.  We have Jacob Marley’s charwoman come to the office and interact with Bob Cratchit and Scrooge.  Then we have Scrooge being warned by a dying Marley that their misanthropy would endanger their immortal souls.  And this then links both the charwoman’s stealing of his bed curtains and bed clothing and her later spurious appearance after the last of the spirits depart and Scrooge wakes up on actual Christmas morning.  In this scene the charwoman (identified incorrectly as Mrs. Dilber) is bringing in Scrooge’s breakfast and witnesses his reformation into a caring human being.  His manic happiness frightens her and when he gives her a gold sovereign coin as a present, she assumes it’s a bribe to keep her quiet about his strange behavior.  When he tells her it’s a Christmas present and he is quintupling her salary she is overcome with happiness and rushes off with her own characteristic version of a Merry Christmas greeting.  I find this addition to the story especially apt.  In the story the charwoman selling Scrooge’s bed curtains comes off very negatively.  But humanizing her by including her positively in the scene about Marley’s death and allowing a rapprochement with a penitent Scrooge on Christmas morning improves the story and ties these aspects of the story together in a way that gives the story more depth.  It reinforces that Scrooge’s repentance touches every aspect of the world we have been shown in a positive way.

Overall I’d say that the film additions to the plot have been acceptable and true to the spirit of the story.

Miller’s Crossing – A Movie Review

The Coen Brothers make a lot of interesting movies.  Some I like more than others.  Miller’s Crossing is one of my favorites.  It’s a gangster story in an unidentified southern city during the 1930s.  Albert Finney is Leo O’Bannon, an Irish gangster who runs the city.  Gabriel Byrne is Tom Reagan, Leo’s right-hand man and best friend.  Verna is Leo’s girl.  But she’s also sleeping with Tom.  Verna’s brother, Bernie (played by John Turturro) and  Mink Larouie (played by Steve Buscemi) are small-time bookies who have crossed another gangster, Johnny Caspar.  Caspar wants Bernie dead and Leo won’t let it happen because of Verna.  Tom knows that Bernie and Verna spell disaster for Leo and advises him to give up Bernie.  So, this is the complicated basis of the story.

But that’s not the reason to watch the movie.  It’s a comic book version of a 30s gangster movie.  A gangster can be bounced down three flights of marble stairs and walk away from it all in one piece. The cops and the city administration will switch back and forth between mob allegiances on an hour’s notice and bring to bear against their former allies all the force of military grade weaponry.

The movie has a fine soundtrack that includes popular music of the era, Irish folk music and even a little Italian opera.  My favorite scene is an attempted mob rubout at Leo’s house.  It’s a bullet riddled ballet to the accompaniment of Danny Boy.  It’s in this scene that Albert Finney proves that a Thompson machine gun will never run out of ammunition.  It’s a thing of nihilistic beauty.

Finney, Turturro and Buscemi are all extremely entertaining but Gabriel Byrne is the center of the movie.  His character Tom is a hardened bitter man who nevertheless lives by a code that requires loyalty to a friend.  In fact, his loyalty to Leo is the only admirable behavior displayed in the whole movie.  And even this is wholly doomed by their relationships with Verna.  Basically, everyone is corrupt.  The good guys are mobsters.  The bad guys are mobsters.  There’s even a scene where a little kid sees a dead mobster on the street and steals his toupee.

And because this is a Coen Brothers movie it is suffused with black humor.  Every mob rubout and brutal beating is chock full of jokes and wisecracks.  The mobsters and cops in the movie are prone to witticisms and philosophical musings that probably rarely occur in real mobsters and cops.  The best example is when Johnny Gaspar explains to Leo that Bernie’s selling of Johnny’s fixed fight information demonstrates Bernie’s lack of moral character.

Miller’s Crossing is a typical Coen Brothers movie.  All the characters are morally compromised and happy endings are extremely scarce and never unmitigated.  If you have enjoyed any of their other movies then I highly recommend Miller’s Crossing.  Otherwise, read my description and decide for yourself if this type of film is for you.

To Have and Have Not – An OCF Classic Movie Review

I think it’s a pretty remarkable fact, that of the seven films Humphrey Bogart was in that I consider worth owning my least favorite is Casablanca.  It’s possible I’ve just seen it too many times already.  But I’ve watched the Maltese Falcon many times more and I keep putting it back on.  It’s probably just individual preference.  But for whatever the reason, it tells me that Bogart was in a relatively large number of excellent films.

Next up is “To Have and Have Not.”  This movie is based on the Hemingway story.  Several of the story elements seem to be repeated in Casablanca.  A French colony is the locale.  There are Nazis and their local collaborators as the heavies.  Resistance fighters including a husband and wife team are looking for help from Bogart’s character.  There is a damsel in distress as the love interest.  And there’s a singer at a piano that entertains us here and there.  Honestly, I actually prefer this earlier film to Casablanca.  It seems less strained.

Bogey is a charter boat captain named Harry Morgan and Walter Brennan is his first mate Eddie.  Eddie is a garrulous alcoholic and Harry’s best friend.  They’re on a two-week charter out of Florida to the French island of Martinique.  Martinique is part of “Free France” but under the thumb of the Nazis.  Harry meets Marie Browning, played by a very young Lauren Bacall, as she is stealing the wallet of Harry’s charter client.  He takes the wallet from her and discovers from the contents that the client was about to skip out without paying him.  Grateful for her unwitting help he strikes up a friendship with her.  Of course, under the circumstances, their relationship is always awkward and tentative.  He calls her Slim which rankles her so she calls him Steve probably from spite.  But for all their verbal jousting the sparks begin to fly and it’s easy to see that their relationship will be at least one of the major plot lines.

The hotel where Harry, Marie and apparently anyone involved in the resistance ends up staying is owned by, of course, Frenchy, or so he is called by Harry.  He is the clandestine leader of the resistance.  Several of his friends get into a gun battle with the local police and this leads to Harry and Marie falling under the suspicious eye of the local police chief.  He seizes their passports and money and grills them for information on the resistance.

Being strapped for cash Harry accepts a job ferrying some resistance fighters onto the island, Paul and Hellene de Bursac.  Paul gets shot during a sea voyage while evading the harbor patrol.  Harry acts as a cut-rate trauma surgeon and removes the bullet.  The police finally decide to put the squeeze on Harry by grilling Eddie this triggers a confrontation that Harry controls with the help of a few well aimed bullets.  Throughout Marie is at Harry’s side, for the most part, trading wisecracks and supporting the cause.  Eddie supplies the comic relief and Hoagy Carmichael as Cricket plays the piano and employs Marie as an ersatz lounge singer.

Bit of well-known classic Hollywood trivia, the sparks flying between Harry and Marie were mirrored in real life between Bogart and Bacall and they shortly afterward became man and wife in real life.  And the chemistry they had translated excellently to film.  Their sparring courtship is fun to watch and although stylized in the manner of director Howard Hawkes’ staccato bantering dialog it comes off as interesting and of its time.  Highly recommended.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre – An OCF Classic Movie Review

There is a school of thought that says Bogart became a big star because of the Maltese Falcon.  It was his first role that extended his acting range beyond the gangster parts he had been doing up to that point.  And the story was a popular book and John Huston’s script was a pip.

So, I’m sure Bogart was more than anxious when he had a second chance to work with Huston.  The Treasure of the Sierra Madre was once again based on a popular book.  And once again Huston’s script is a pip.  Bogart is an American named Dobbs in Tampico, Mexico who is broke and looking for an opportunity to make some money.  After some difficulty collecting back-wages he teams up with two other Americans.  Walter Huston, John Huston’s actual father, plays an old gold prospector Howard and Tim Holt is Curtin who hopes to make a stake before returning to the United States.  The three men discuss what it would take to make a prospecting expedition to the Sierra Madre.  By an amazing coincidence Bogart wins the amount they need off of a lottery ticket and donates it to the expedition.  On the train ride at the outset of the journey to the Sierra Madre, the partners encounter bandits.  This is followed by a long trek through jungles and desert and mountains.  And just as Dobbs and Curtin have become discouraged and want to give up the search Howard mocks them with the news that they’ve been surrounded by gold for the last day but they were too ignorant to see it.  The partners get to work and start a mining operation that rewards their hard work with generous amounts of gold.  And at this point we begin to see the destructive effect of greed and mistrust.  Pretty quickly Dobbs becomes dangerously suspicious of his partners and all remnants of amicable relations evaporate and all that is left is the business of harvesting the gold.  During this time there are episodes involving a claim jumper and later the bandits return.  A very well-known exchange occurs between the head bandit and the partners.  The bandit is pretending to be a policeman and when asked to show his badge he sputters, “Badges?  Badges?  We don’t need no stinking badges!”  The return journey also contains some interesting episodes that eventually split up the partners and leads to open warfare between Dobbs and Curtin.  For the better part of the movie we’ve been watching as Fred C. Dobbs slowly descends into gold madness.  Now he reaches the point of attempting murder.  The end of the movie follows the last scenes where we learn the fate of the partners, the bandits and the gold.

For me this movie is an almost perfect gem of a tale.  It has an interesting blend of humor, adventure and a study of human nature.  Toward the end, Bogart is almost over the top in his manic portrayal of Dobbs but he is an interesting character.  Tim Holt plays the most sympathetic character as Curtin but without a doubt, Walter Huston steals the show from everyone else as the old prospector Howard.  His character is colorful, glib, humorous and just plain engaging.

I highly recommend this movie for everyone.  It’s a classic and timelessly entertaining.

Them! – A Science Fiction Movie Review

You may be asking yourself, is photog becoming demented?  Didn’t he already write a review of Them!?  The answers to those questions are yes and no.  I have referenced Them in several posts about cheesy 1950s science fiction movies.  But it has never gotten its own exclusive treatment.  Well, I mean to remedy that situation, pronto.

Them! is the grand-daddy of all atomic energy fear films.  Instead of fearing cancer and radiation sickness we are provided with a much more rational fear, giant ants.  It is 1954 and nine years after the first atomic bomb was tested at White Sands, New Mexico.  During those nine years ants have been traipsing around the New Mexico desert ignorant of their future as future contenders for mankind’s crown as King of the Earth.  But the wait is over.  A small prop plane is inexplicably cruising over the desert and spots a little girl holding a doll aimlessly walking in the hot sun.  The pilot alerts a nearby police cruiser which intercepts the little girl and finds that she’s catatonic.  With the help of the pilot they trace her point of origin to a recreational vehicle parked in the desert.  On closer inspection the officers discover that one side of the RV has been ripped to shreds.  But being crack forensic experts and logical linguists, they proclaim that the RV wall, “wasn’t caved in, it was caved out.”  Whoever wrote the deathless prose of this dialog is partly responsible for the sad position we currently find ourselves in, vis-à-vis cultural and actual illiteracy.  Later on, the policeman redeems himself when at a general store that has been similarly destroyed, he declares, “this wasn’t pushed in, it was pulled out.”  Okay, stupid rant over.

Based on blood found in the RV the officers determine that the girl is the only survivor of an attack.  On the way back from finding the girl and the trailer they stop off at a local general store and find it similarly damaged and the store owner brutally killed.  One of the police officers, Ed Blackburn is left at the store to guard the remains.  His partner, Sgt. Ben Peterson played by James Whitmore, drives off and shortly afterward, Blackburn is heard off camera firing his revolver at some thing and then screaming as he suffers horrible death.

Evidence found at the site of the RV, a foot print, is sent to the FBI for identification and so the story moves on to its next logical step, Santa Claus is called in.  Or more precisely Edmund Gwenn who played Santa Claus in Miracle on 34th Street.  Gwenn plays Dr. Harold Medford a world-renowned myrmecologist who with his myrmecologist daughter have come to lead the effort to save the world from the giant ants.  Representing the government is FBI agent Robert Graham played by James Arness.  Arness who later found fame as Marshall Dillon on TV’s Gunsmoke is the brave, competent hero of the movie and the love interest for the myrmecologist daughter.  And to provide local color Ben Peterson is always on hand to provide the comic relief.

With the help of the scientists, the army locates the giant ant nest and destroy it with cyanide gas.  But after inspecting the inside of the nest the scientists break the bad news.  New queen ants have escaped the nest and will be forming new nests elsewhere.  Now a war room is set up and armed forces from all the services mobilize to battle the giant ants on land, on sea and in the air.  Dunt, dunt, daaaah!!!

The final showdown takes place where it must, in the storm drains of Los Angeles.  And in fitting fashion, the ants capture two little boys who wander into their nest and are rescued by the US Army.  Unfortunately, Ben Peterson dies saving the boys but dies the good death of a hero.  And when the ants are finally finished off Dr. Medford gives a speech and tells us that the atomic age is fraught with danger and giant insects.

Despite how thoroughly I’ve mocked this movie, I actually enjoy it immensely.  Other than the laughably fake animatronic ants the production values for the movie are quite good and the actors are actually very effective for the most part, including the character actors performing the bit parts as police, military and civilian participants.  My favorite scenes are where the scientific expertise of the Medfords is showcased for the benefit of the poor ignorant soldiers and police.  While under attack from their first giant ant Dr. Medford makes sure he uses the Latin singular and plural versions of the word antenna when instructing the police to shoot at the ant. “Shoot the antennae, shoot the antennae,” he yells and once one of these has been shot off he continues “now shoot the other antenna.”  In another scene Dr. Medford is attempting to convince the Pentagon that the giant ants are an existential threat to humanity and he uses an ant film clip that looks like it could have been made by my high school biology teacher.

Them! is a wonderful time capsule of the 1950s.  Americans are the good guys and giant ants are definitely bad.  What could be simpler?

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen – A Movie Review

Terry Gilliam is best known as a member of the comedy troupe Monty Python’s Flying Circus.  But he also had a second career as a motion picture writer/director.  His best-known movie was Brazil, about a dystopic future where the all-powerful security state reaches an absurdist level of control.

But the movie that I am interested in here is a less well known but sunnier exercise.  The movie opens up within a walled town besieged by the Turks at a time that is identified as being in the 18th Century, The Age of Reason, Wednesday.  A small acting company is putting on a comical play of the legendary Adventures of Baron Munchausen, when in the middle of the first act the real Baron Munchausen interrupts the play to refute the slanders, he claims are being made against himself.  The Right Ordinary Horatio Jackson who is in attendance in the audience and is the military governor of the town and a staunch proponent of the Age of Reason, takes offense at the Baron’s aspersions against reason and logic and threatens to throw the Baron and the whole acting troupe over the wall to the Turk.  The Baron claims he is the cause of the Turkish assault on the town and spends the rest of the movie assembling his legendary comrades to save the town from both the Turk and the Right Ordinary Horatio Jackson.  The Sultan and Jackson, behind the scenes are actually on excellent terms and take turns winning battles in order to keep the war going on forever.

Some very excellent actors are included in the cast including Jonathan Pryce as Horatio Jackson, Robin Williams as the King of the Moon and Eric Idle as Desmond and Berthold.  The reason Idle has two characters to play is another conceit of the movie.  The play actors of which Idle is one look exactly like the Baron’s actual comrades and so the movie actors play both parts.  Robin Williams as mentioned, is King of the Moon and his characterization has a split personality.  When the King’s head is detached from his body, he has a light, zany, Italian-accented voice an impish personality.  But when the head and body are joined Williams takes on the voice and personality of what could most easily be described as an angrier version of Benito Mussolini.

The English actor John Neville plays the Baron and smaller parts are distributed to well-known actors like Oliver Reed and Uma Thurman who portray the gods Vulcan and Venus respectively.  Even Sting (of Police singing fame) has a cameo as the “Heroic Officer.”

The plot, such as it is, has the Baron sailing to the Moon, falling into Mount Vesuvius to meet Vulcan and Venus and being swallowed by a giant sea monster, all performed as part of his search for his servants.  Along the way he flirts with Queens, goddesses and even a few commoners.  At all times he somehow has long stem roses to hand out and he invariably compares the beauty of each women to Catherine the Great “whose hand in marriage I once had the honor to decline.”  On one occasion he makes the remark to three women at once.  When an auditor of this exchange challenges him that they couldn’t all remind him of Catherine the Great, the Baron petulantly replied, “Why not? Bits here and bits there!”

The movie is obviously a hymn to fantasy and whimsy and the final showdown has the Baron conquer not only reason and reality but even old age and death itself.  It’s an utterly ridiculous movie that is full of fantastic visual effects and fairy tale imagery.  It probably will not appeal to all tastes.  I highly recommend it to those who can enjoy elaborate nonsense.

I Robot – A Science Fiction Movie Review

My regular readers will know that my estimation of Isaac Asimov’s work is not uniformly positive.  I read the “I Robot” stories as a kid and enjoyed them a good deal.  I think what I found entertaining was the cleverness of the interplay of the Three Laws of Robotics with the plot lines.  Re-reading them many years later I saw that aside from the cleverness, the stories were not particularly rich in characterization or description.  And for short stories of that era that wasn’t unusual.  So, let’s say I Robot is a worthy example of its time and type.

A film was made from the stories back in 2004.  It bears no resemblance to any of the stories but involves the concepts of the three laws and how they relate to a world that has adopted an almost universal use of robots in commercial, industrial and even personal service.  Will Smith is a cop in Chicago who despises robots because of a past encounter.  The plot revolves around his investigation of a murder that contrary to the requirements of the three laws has apparently been committed by a robot.  For fans of Firefly the voice of the killer robot Sonny is provided by Alan Tudyk (aka Hoban “Wash” Washburne).

I was sort of busy back in 2004 and didn’t see the movie when it came out.  But I Robot, the movie, has been in almost constant rotation on AMC for the last year or two so I’ve seen all or part of it a number of times now.  When I first viewed it I wasn’t very enthusiastic for it.  The dissimilarity from the Asimov stories probably annoyed me.  If I grasp for any other reasons, I’ll point to the presence of Shia LaBeouf in the cast in a part so insipid that it makes you shake your head wondering what the director was thinking.

Interestingly, over time I actually grew to enjoy the movie more.  It’s an action adventure movie and the scenes featuring Will Smith battling enormous numbers of robots are cleverly done and quite a lot of fun.  Tudyk does a good job making the robot character sympathetic.  And Bridget Moynahan makes the Susan Calvin character more personable than Asimov ever did.

So here we have a couple of inversions of the typical situation.  For the most part, I find that a movie made from a book almost never lives up to it.  But in this case, it surpasses it.  And here is an example of a book that has decreased in my estimation over time while the movie has done the reverse.

I Robot is not a film version of the Asimov stories and it does not break any new ground as a science fiction movie either for the special effects or for original story telling.  But it’s a pretty good Will Smith action adventure.  And he does kill a lot of robots with a big gun.  How can you go wrong with that?