A.I. ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE (Steven Spielberg)
Steven Spielberg meets Stanley Kubrick. Literally. It was Kubrick who developed the idea for A.I. after buying the rights to a story called “Supertoys Last All Summer Long”. Kubrick was intrigued with the concept of a future where artificial intelligence would become so advanced that one could adopt a child-robot whose proximity to the real thing was provided by human DNA, allowing it to feel, even to love. Kubrick had become friends with Spielberg after their meeting in England during the filming of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. They kept up years of correspondence, during which Kubrick shared his ideas for A.I. The two would exchange documents over private fax machines. Kubrick’s contention was that there was not a child star at the time that would be right to play the robot-boy, nor were the special effects advanced enough to do justice to the story on film………that is until he saw JURASSIC PARK. Kubrick re-committed to the project and planned to make the film before EYES WIDE SHUT. One day, Spielberg was surprised to hear Kubrick tell him, “You should direct it”. “Why?”, he asked. “This has been your project from the beginning”. “You’re better suited for it. I’ll produce, and you’ll direct”, Kubrick said.
No decision was made, but discussions continued during whiie EYES WIDE SHUT was made. Soon after, Kubrick died. Those who had been involved with the project urged Spielberg to take up the mantle. Eventually, he agreed. In his efforts to faithfully represent Kubrick’s vision for the film, Spielberg also took to writing the screenplay himself, the first he had written since CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND.
Knowing all of this as you watch the film, it’s hard not to keep it in mind. One is constantly asking oneself, how much of this is Spielberg? How differently would Kubrick have handled this? Ultimately, this is clearly a Steven Spielberg film, albeit an undeniable homage. Its strengths and its weaknesses belong to Spielberg.
It is also one of the saddest movies ever made. Nowhere in A.I.’s vision of the future can humor be found, or even joie de vivre. In A.I., humanity is on the run, and the fear of losing it colors the landscape. Climate change is showing its effects (as in the torrential rains of the earliest scenes). There is desperation and sadness in the poor couple’s attempt to replace the loss of their son with a prototype of a newly-engineered robot-boy. There is heartbreak when the boy must be separated from them, and when he begins his long, long journey to re-connect. “Flesh fairs” have sprouted up, where robots are tortured for entertainment in a circus-like setting. And the ending may be the saddest of all, 2000 years in the future, when the last approximations of human feeling are expressed.
It’s no wonder that audiences didn’t exactly warm up to A.I. on its release. Speielberg was further taken to task for the relatively upbeat ending, as if he had added it, changing Kubrick’s original intent. Spielberg was compelled to explain that the ending was not only in Kubrick’s original treatment, but in the original story as well. All things considered, A.I. has aged well and should continue to do so. It is a provocative and challenging work, even courageous.
GHOST WORLD (Terry Swigoff)
After the relatively flat 80’s and 90’s where big-budget no-brainers and endless sequels seemed to dominate the cinema landscape, the early 2000’s started to show signs of some creative life again. When Terry Swigoff’s GHOST WORLD came out, it really looked like we might be entering the age of the Indie. And in many ways, that turned out to be true. It was just slow in coming and slow to develop.
Based on Daniel Clowes’ graphic novel (in itself a new source for cinematic ideas), GHOST WORLD follows two admirably outsider young women just out of high school as they explore the world (or as much as they know of it). Enid, played by Thora Birch (of AMERICAN BEAUTY) and Rebecca, played by then-newcomer Scarlet Johansson, are caught in that awkward, in-between place where you’re supposed to figure out what to do with your life, but don’t find the options much to your liking. It’s easier (and more entertaining) to just goof on the whole thing. When they meet Seymour (Steve Buscemi), a collector of old blues and jazz records, and a true lifelong misfit, things get interesting.
GHOST WORLD really defies genre categorization, and that is to its credit. Perhaps the only thing it established is Steve Buscemi’s stature as the sexiest man alive.
HANNIBAL (Ridley Scott)
Sequels are not supposed to be this good. Except for The Godfather, they always disappoint. Everybody knew that when this sequel to The Silence of the Lambs was attempted. To avoid that pitfall, you go back to the original source. Thomas Harris writes a brand new novel, an epic 600-pager, further chronicling the adventures of Hannibal Lechter and Clarice Starling. Producer Dino De Laurentiis (of the 1st Hannibal movie, MANHUNTER) tries to corral everybody back. Screenwriter Ted Talley, Director Jonathan Demme and actor Jodie Foster are out, for various reasons. Do you soldier on? Well, you do if you get Ridley Scott interested.
Ridley Scott has become a force of his own in the world of cinema. It’s one thing to have a bunch of hits and amass a personal fortune and have production centers all over the world. It’s quite another to do it with incomparable intelligence, integrity and a pure love of movie-making. Credit Scott for making HANNIBAL the knockout that it is. Guiding the project through the meticulous script by Steve Zaillian, giving Julliane Moore the confidence to be the new Clarice, letting Anthony Hopkins be Hannibal Lechter they way he knows how. These are just some of the decisions that made HANNIBAL something wholly other than its predecessor. Sure, it’s gorier. But you should read the book! If anything Scott & Co. tone down the grisliness, while still making this the most explicit mainstream horror film since THE EXORCIST!
HANNIBAL is grand in every way, even operatic in its blending of characters and inter-connected storylines. Location shooting in Florence, a magnificent score by Hans Zimmer and stunning performances by Hopkins, Moore, Giancarlo Gianini and an unrecognizable Gary Oldman all combine to make this a mesmerizing experience.
TRAINING DAY (Antoine Fuqua)
It’s not impossible to imagine TRAINING DAY with someone other than Denzel Washington in the lead role. After all, there was already a pretty good screenplay and a great concept of a deeply crooked cop showing the ropes to a rookie for a day. But after seeing Antoine Fuqua’s film, you realize that with anyone other than Denzel, the results would have been just damn good, instead of great.
Every good actor wants to inhabit his character, wants to own his role. And there are various methods available for him or her to attempt that. But once in a while, there can be a project that allows the actor to drive that very project; to dictate its pace, to be its heartbeat, to define it. And everybody else in it just looks better being a part of it. That’s the way it is with Denzel Washington and TRAINING DAY.
VANILLA SKY (Cameron Crowe)
When Hollywood does a remake of a previously foreign-language film, you can expect that it will have big stars and a bigger budget. It doesn’t mean that it will be a better film. When Cameron Crowe made VANILLA SKY with Tom Cruise (from the original Spanish film OPEN YOUR EYES), he knew that few people had seen the original. (I am still one of them). Perhaps that was an advantage. Taking VANILLA SKY at face value, it is quite the provocative sci-fi thriller. The concept is unique enough to really keep you guessing the first time around (I won’t spoil it here for anyone who wants to discover it), and haunting enough to want to explore it the second time. In addition, the production values are high. And you not only get Cruise, you get Cameron Diaz and Penelope Cruz (who was also in the original!) VANILLA SKY is well worth a look, even for Cruise-haters.