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How about a lube job, baby? robots in Robots.

Mechanical Man
By Laura Leon

Directed by Chris Wedge

The fact that Robots con- tains an estimated 10-minute middle period devoted entirely to fart jokes is as much a testament to what passes for humor in too many family-friendly films as it is a mark of the filmmakers’ apparent desperation at breathing some life into this curiously hollow endeavor. Taking animation to a new milieu, metal, 20th Century Fox’s Blue Sky Studios has created a pretty nifty visual backdrop, all streamlined and sexy, in much the way ads for household appliances were produced in 1950s glossy magazines. And they’ve stacked the cast list with a veritable Who’s Who of Hollywood, including Ewan McGregor, Halle Berry, Robin Williams, Greg Kinnear, Mel Brooks, Drew Carey, Jim Broadbent, Amanda Bynes. . . . Hell, even Jay Leno and Al Roker lend their vocal talents. But despite all the talent (haven’t I written this line before?), director Chris Wedge and writers David Lindsay-Abaire, Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel neglected to provide a real storyline.

With a seemingly workable theme, that being that “new” doesn’t necessarily mean improved, and that old/recycled has value, Robots follows idealist would-be inventor Rodney Copperpot (McGregor) as he tackles the big city in hopes of getting a job at the Bigweld Company, whose eponymous founder (Brooks) inspired young Rodney, in his early TV shows, to “find a need, fill a need.” Unfortunately, however, Bigweld has been spirited off on holiday by his untrustworthy assistant Ratchet (Kinnear), who, at the behest of his evil mother Ma Ratchet (Broadbent), is spearheading the company’s move away from producing parts and into expensive upgrades. Those robots who cannot afford upgrades, or who simply don’t wish to change for the sake of change, will be sucked up by evil-looking street cleaners and delivered to Ma Ratchet’s fiery furnaces, where they will be melted into scrap. While the movie has a little fun with the fact that the ever-resourceful Rodney is able to help the otherwise doomed robots, it rushes the moment, preferring instead to focus too many screen minutes on Williams’ manic character, Fender. (Seeing how many accents and “costume” changes Williams can cram into the proceedings seems to have been a priority for the filmmakers.)

As with too many movies of late, musical choices are designed to make you feel or think a certain way, as opposed to accentuating or underlining that which the characters and the writing are meant to do. And so, for instance, we have the “ha-ha” moments of Fender, in drag, performing “Hit Me Baby One More Time” during the climactic fight scene. Anyone who has seen an animated American film of late will realize that Robots, like its predecessors, must have a cute but kind of weird pet—in this case, an inventive coffee pot—and a band of unlikely misfits who ultimately triumph over evil or adversity. The vocal talents of Carey, Bynes, McGregor and Williams, aren’t enough to excuse the almost total lack of dimension or identity to their respective characters. Production designer William Joyce has done an admirable job of creating disparate settings—Rodney’s bucolic hometown and the amazing metropolis of Bigweld, complete with a dizzying public transportation system—and the robotic humor has some genuinely good moments, such as when Rodney’s parents (Dianne Wiest and Stanley Tucci) “make” their baby, in much the same way parents have assembled toys for their tykes on countless Christmas Eves. But for the most part, it’s an empty, joyless exercise in animation.

What Is Life?

The Sea Inside
Directed by Alejandro Amenábar

Ramón Sampedro (Javier Bardem) wants to die. Having spent a quarter- century as a quadriplegic, he is tired of a “life without freedom.” A prisoner of his body and bed—he rejects the use of a wheelchair—he is weary of living only in his mind. This film picks up Sampedro’s real-life story at the point he decides to begin a legal battle for the right to die. He can’t, after all, kill himself without help.

We are made to understand that, from the beginning, it’s a quixotic fight. Mid-1990s Spain is more like America than the Netherlands, with no legal provision for euthanasia. Sampedro’s legal struggle, then, is more in the nature of consciousness raising than anything else. And, as such, The Sea Inside is a slick, beautifully made argument for death.

Or is it? Though it’s fairly clear that both Amenábar and Bardem agree with Sampedro’s decision to kill himself, and stack the narrative accordingly, it’s possible to watch The Sea Inside and conclude that Sampedro’s death wish was incredibly wrongheaded. Why? Because, as the film presents it, it’s an emotionally, socially and culturally engaged life.

Sampedro is a writer, who laboriously composes his poems with a mouth- operated pen holder. He enjoys political debates on the radio, listens to opera and has a network of friends. His body may be “dead,” but the man is fully alive. Bardem’s performance is remarkable; he’s also helped immeasurably by the Oscar-winning makeup that ages him 20 years.

Sampedro has four—yes, four—women devoted to him. There’s his sister-in-law, Manuela (Mabel Rivera), his caregiver; at one point, her dedication challenged by an outsider, she is offended, and fiercely states that she loves him like a son. Rosa (Lola Dueñas), a factory worker and part-time radio DJ, has something more personal in mind. A single mom with two broken relationships in her past, Rosa loves him for being the kindest, most thoughtful man she’s ever known. Gené (Clara Segura) is the death-with-dignity advocate who takes up his cause. Finally, there’s his lawyer, Julia (Belén Rueda). She’s beautiful, sophisticated, intellectual—and disabled. The last characteristic was one of Sampedro’s conditions, as he wanted a disabled lawyer who would, presumably, understand his plight; the first three characteristics are why he falls in love with her.

For whatever reason, the filmmakers dance around the reason Sampedro wants to die: He can’t have sex. Yes, it’s acknowledged, but without conviction. There are any number of emotions that might be tied to this feeling—pride, shame, machismo—but the film avoids anything that would make the hero seem stubborn or wrongheaded. Everything is, ultimately, submerged in a sea of noble feelings that prove ultimately inadequate.

The filmmakers even stack the deck with a “gotcha” ending that is clearly intended to support the argument for euthanasia. It feels forced, unfair and unnecessarily gleeful, however; it’s an unpleasant ending to a flawed but compelling story.

—Shawn Stone

Get a Grip, Bruce

Directed by Florent Emilio Siri

The snazzy opening credits of Hostage unreel like a hard-boiled graphic novel. The camera swoops around a lurching urban landscape, revealing spray-painted names on the underside of buildings. The graphics then morph into a grim Los Angeles neighborhood. This sequence—along with a strikingly moody score by the talented Alexandre Desplat—sets up the audience for a crime thriller that’s a lot better than the one they’re about see. Starring Bruce Willis as a “prime hostage negotiator,” the highly contrived Hostage steals its tensest elements from other movies, most noticeably The Negotiator, Panic Room, Phone Booth, and of course, the deathless Die Hard. To the credit of director Florent Emilio Siri, the pace is almost nonstop edge-of-your-seat, and if the noirish cinematography is rather too apocalyptic for the story, well, at least it disguises all the plot holes that riddle the script like birdshot.

Hostage opens with the requisite Unbearably Tense Situation. A deranged man threatens to shoot his “whore” wife and their son even as a SWAT team swarms his house. Willis’ negotiator, Jeff Talley, makes a bad call that results in casualties. Fast forward to one year later: Burned out, Talley is now the police chief of an affluent suburb. But just as he and his wife are getting a handle on their cranky teenage daughter, he’s caught up in another hostage situation, this one with three teenage boys. The juvenile delinquents invade the fortress abode of mysteriously rich Walter Smith (Kevin Pollak, effective as always), and are trapped in the cliffside house by its high-tech security system. They take Smith and his two kids, a teenage daughter and her younger brother, hostage. Although we don’t see how the boys were able to just walk right in, the house contains enough nifty surveillance equipment to keep them, and their victims, and the cops outside, plenty jumpy.

Talley is forced to take control of the situation when mysterious thugs kidnap his family in exchange for an item from Smith’s house. For some unexplained reason, they want it now, not after everything blows over. This doubly nerve-wracking predicament may bring tears to Talley’s eyes at regular intervals, but for the audience, the second kidnapping works against the action inside the house, where the oldest juvie, Mars (Ben Foster from Six Feet Under), an eerily calm killer, is having a psycho field day, especially with Smith’s curvy daughter (the threat of rape is one of the film’s cheaper emotional suspense ploys). But what Hostage is really about is the protective instincts of men toward their mate and offspring, which it underlines with primitive posturing regarding who is the alpha male. The film is most engaging whenever it positions creepy Mars in the lead.

The biggest downer is Willis, who makes an uneven, halfhearted effort at realizing Siri’s misguided intentions: to exploit the actor’s action-hero persona while presenting Talley as a big emotional softie (at one point, he lets out an anguished blubber worthy of Ralph Fiennes). It’s Willis as you’ve never seen him before—and won’t ever want to again.

—Ann Morrow

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