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Saturday, March 23

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Robots
I'll admit, I dreaded seeing this film. Nothing about the trailers for the year's first major animated release made me the least bit interested. We as a society have gotten over that initial rush of seeing an entirely computer-generated film. As a result, we demand the same standards for films that took dozens of animators years to produce as we do every other film: good stories, strong acting performances and visual style that complements the story and acting. Let's just say that when you hear the phrase "from the makers of Ice Age," it doesn’t instill the same level of confidence that seeing a Pixar-produced feature does. My response to seeing Robots: How fast can the makers of Ice Age produce the damn sequel?

But Robots shocked the hell out of me. Let's start with the look. I could watch this film 50 times with the sound turned off and still have a thrilling time with it. Most of the robots resemble old metal kids' toys—you know, the totally unsafe, wind-up kind with lead paint and choke-able parts just itching to lodge themselves in your child's throat. Some are shiny, some are old and rusty, some of the newer models are sleek beauties. Much like in Toy Story, it's the newer models we don't trust. What's also fascinating about Robots is the story: It's a veiled accounting of our nation's health care problems, and the lesson learned is, if you have money, you get fixed; if not, you end up on the scrap heap. This deceptively simple tale is told in a landscape that is unlike any I've ever seen. I'd even go so far as to say that Robots has the most enjoyable backgrounds I've ever peered around main characters to look at.

I usually cringe when I see an "all-star" cast in a major animated work. Some animation houses seem to rely on big-name stars rather than gifted, seasoned vocal talent to give themselves an edge at the box office. But who would have ever predicted a film starring Craig T. Nelson as a slightly out-of-shape superhero would have won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature? Still, Robots makes the most of its cast. Ewan McGregor voices Rodney Copperbottom, an idealistic young inventor who dreams of growing up and working for Robot City's most prominent (and rotund) businessman Mr. Bigweld (Mel Brooks). His parents (Stanley Tucci and Dianne Wiest) encourage him to leave his humble beginnings as a dishwasher's son (his dad actually has a dishwasher built into his torso) and pursue his goal, so he heads to the big city where he meets Fender (Robin Williams). For those of you (including me) who think you've had enough Robin Williams to last you a lifetime, give him one more shot in this film. No one does better wacky animated voices than Williams; let's just give him that.

It turns out that Bigweld's company has been taken over by a nasty junior executive named Ratchet (Greg Kinnear) and Ratchet's hideously ugly mother (voiced by the unrecognizable stylings of Jim Broadbent). The evil pair want to change the focus of the company to produce only new robot upgrades and dump the spare parts business, thus leaving millions of older-model robots to fall apart and be thrown into giant furnaces where they're melted down for new robots. Rodney sets out to discover what's happened to Bigweld and convince him that the company is worth saving. Along his Homeric journey he meets a chorus line of other remarkably rendered synthetic beings played by the likes of Halle Berry, Amanda Bynes, Drew Carey, Jennifer Coolidge, Paul Giamatti, Jay Leno, Natasha Lyonne and Dan Hedaya.

Ice Age co-directors Carlos Saldanha and Chris Wedge have upped the animated stakes with Robots. Like any smart animated feature these days, there are as many jokes for grown ups (a.k.a. parents) as there are for the little ones, who will inevitably be dragging said parents to see (and ultimately purchase) this film several times. Fear not, you will enjoy yourselves thoroughly. And whomever created the boring, unoriginal trailers for Robots should be fired. They don't even hint at how creative and exciting this movie is.

Steamboy (Dubbed Version)
Aside from the utterly charming and imaginative works of Hayao Miyazaki, I never dove into the world of anime. I've seen plenty of them, but usually just the ones that make it into American art houses. The first anime I ever saw (and to this day serves as my standard for greatness) was writer-director Katsuhiro Otomo's Akira. I suspect many other red-blooded Americans can say the same thing. Since Akira was released in 1988 (although I think it first hit these shores closer to 1990), Katsuhiro has written several scripts for other animation directors, directed a non-animated film and an animated short, jumped in as an animator on other directors' films, and continued his work as a comic book illustrator. If my research is correct, Steamboy marks the first animated feature with Katsuhiro as director since Akira, and it is a vision like no other.

Just a few technical notes: I know that to many of you region-coded DVD enthusiasts, Steamboy isn't "new." However, the version of Steamboy being screened for critics and pushed by the U.S. distributor is dubbed and 15-20 minutes shorter than the Japanese version. I was immensely bothered to hear this, but after watching it, I'm only really bothered by the editing aspect. Because all of the characters in Steamboy are British, I didn't mind hearing British-accented voice actors do the voices. But the unnecessary editing is unforgivable. At least in Chicago (and probably a few other larger cities), both versions of the film are being offered. In Chicago (where the film opens at the Landmark Century Centre Theatre), the uncut, subtitled Japanese version will play as the last show of each day. Thank goodness someone had some sense. Having gotten that out of my system (and having not seen the subtitled, uncut version, which I assume will be available when the DVD comes out), the dubbed version of Steamboy is still awe-inspiring.

Set in mid-1800s Victorian London (yes, Queen Victoria does have a cameo) during the Great Exhibition, Steamboy spotlights three generations of scientists, shockingly with the last name of Steam, whose field of study is…wait for it…Steam! Lloyd Steam (voiced by Patrick Stewart) is the wise old grandfather who wants to use steam power for the greater good. His son, Eddie Steam (Alfred Molina), is more interested in creating massive steam-powered weapons to sell to the highest bidder. Eddie's son, Ray (Anna Paquin, whose voice I absolutely did not recognize), is torn between his father and grandfather, but ultimately, there's no doubt he's a good, smart kid who will do the right thing. So far, this might sound very silly, but Katsuhiro makes it fascinating. The cityscapes of old London are breathtaking; the insanely complex war machines, battle armor and other weapons—all powered by mega-doses of steam—are wild and definitely warrant a frame-by-frame viewing of the film just to pick apart all the intricate details. Ray is saddled with the task of stealing and protecting a device known as a "steam ball," which rests at the heart of "steam castle" where his father is scheming. The steam ball magnifies the power of larger quantities of steam while controlling the massive pressure buildup so things don't start exploding. With the ball out of place, things do start exploding.

The film leads to a battle of such enormous proportions—between the steam warriors and the British police and military—that most of London is utterly destroyed. Katsuhiro clearly enjoys the hell out of flattening the classic architecture, presumably killing thousands of Londoners (although I'm pretty certain there isn't a drop of blood in the whole film). Steamboy is a visual splendor and one I would absolutely see again (preferably in its full-length version). My only complaint (and it's a small one) is the inclusion of a young American character named Scarlett (voiced by Kari Wahlgren), last name: O'Hara. You got it: a young Scarlett O'Hara somehow makes her way into this film as the head of the notorious O'Hara Foundation, which is in charge of the steam innovations pavilion at the Great Exhibition. Young Scarlett is just as spoiled and obnoxious as her grown, live-action counterpart. And yes, the timelines of this film and Gone with the Wind work out so that this could be the Scarlett O'Hara. She even insists that people call her "Ms. Scarlett." Even with her minor intrusion, Steamboy is one of those works that's easy to enjoy, no matter the primary language.

Hostage
There are certainly some fine films coming out in the first quarter of 2005, but let's face it: for many of us genre film lovers, the year doesn't really begin until April 1—the release date of the Robert Rodriguez/Frank Miller comic book come-to-life, Sin City. But one of that film's stars, Bruce Willis, bothered to put out a film last week, so I suppose I should discuss it. More Walking Tall than Die Hard, Hostage chronicles 24 hours in the life of small-town police officer Jeff Talley (Willis). A couple years earlier, Talley was one of Los Angeles's top hostage negotiators, until a bad judgment call resulted in the murder of a woman and her young son, and the suicide of the hostage taker. Talley hopes a position many miles away from the city will offer a quieter existence. He has his own family—wife Serena Scott Thomas and daughter Rumer Willis (guess who her dad is)—but they stay in L.A., and he only sees them on weekends. Divorce in the Talley family seems eminent.

When a group of three nasty thugs gets caught stealing an Escalade from the town's local rich guy Walter Smith (Kevin Pollak), the situation turns into one that Talley seems uniquely qualified to handle. Smith and his two children are held hostage by the hyper-kinetic youngsters, and Talley seems well on his way to solving the crisis before it turns ugly. Until, that is, he gets a phone call from a third party interested in recovering a valuable DVD from Smith's home. Turns out Smith launders money for some pretty major players, who kidnap Talley's own family and demand that he prolong the hostage situation a bit longer until their faux rescue squad shows up to extract the DVD. I believe it's a rare copy of the three-disc Patch Adams Super-Special Edition, but I could be wrong. So Talley has two families to protect.

In typical Willis mode, he handles the situation and manipulates everyone perfectly, barely getting a scratch on him. That's what we've come to expect from Willis, and the film delivers. The set up is great, particularly the openers in which the family gets killed, and there's absolutely nothing wrong with the main plot either. Some of the younger characters are drawn a bit broadly, but they're still within the realm of realism. The final showdown between Willis and the largely unseen forces controlling the situation (and his family's fate) is tense and nasty. I also appreciate the studio allowing the film an R rating. They probably could have dumbed down Hostage and gotten the PG-13, but nothing builds suspense and raises the freak-out bar like a few head shots and four-letter words. Hostage is a worthy addition to the Willis action library. For those of you who haven't totally written the guy off (it would be a shame if you did; I could give you a half-dozen reasons why you shouldn't), you'll relish this chance to see him back in form.

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About the Author(s)

A Windy City resident for nearly 20 years, Steve writes about everything but movies at his day job for a trade journal publishing company. Using the alias Capone, he has been the Chicago Editor for Ain't It Cool News since 1998, and has been writing film reviews since he was a wee lad of 14, growing up in Maryland.

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