Posted on September 18, 2014 at 5:59 pm

Copyright 2014 SModcast Pictures
Copyright 2014 SModcast Pictures

You can make a good movie about slackers, for example “Slackers,” from Richard Linklater and “Clerks” from Kevin Smith. But you can’t make a good movie by a slacker, and Smith does not seem willing to be anything more. There are flickers of interesting possibilities in his latest film, his first foray into horror. Justin Long nails his early scenes as Wallace, a sort of Smith wannabe. We learn later in flashbacks that he was once a sweet, geeky guy who cried in “Winnie the Pooh.” He was conversant enough with literature to recognize quotes from “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and Hemingway. But he found out he could make money and attract groupies by being obnoxious and outrageous. Wallace and his best friend Teddy (Haley Joel Osment) host a podcast something between Smith’s own SModcast, Tosh.0 and the skankier sub-reddits. It’s called “Not-See Party,” get it? In case you don’t, Wallace has a sign-off in a fake German accent. What, too soon?

We first see them helpless with laughter over a found video along the lines of the “Star Wars kid,” but this one is a “Kill Bill” wannabe who accidentally slices off his own leg at the thigh. A real laff-riot! This is such a bonanza of a topic for the Not-See Party duo that Wallace decides to visit the kid in person, at his home in Manitoba, Canada. But when he gets there (following a not-funny encounter at the border with an official who warns him not to be flippant about hockey in Canada), Wallace discovers that the despondent kid has committed suicide. Bummer for the podcast! Seeking some other poor slob to make fun of so the trip won’t be wasted, Wallace comes across an intriguing flier in a men’s room, a man named Howard Howe, a retired sailor, who says he has stories to tell. Wallace rents a car and drives two hours into Howard’s remote house (beautifully creepy interiors by John D. Kretschmer, a highlight of the film). He sips at the tea offered to him by the genially eloquent Howard (as he prefers to be called), at first condescending but thinly disguising his snark, then impressed in spite of himself with Howard’s stories of WWII and being shipwrecked, and then, suddenly, very, very, very, very sleepy.

The tea was spiked. Howard has something very gruesome in mind, which we discover along with the terrified Wallace.

The idea for this film came up in a SModcast conversation with Smith and friend and producer Scott Mosier discussing an ad placed by a homeowner who was offering a living situation free of charge, if the lodger would agree to dress as a walrus. Their can-you-top-this riffs on the possibilities suggested by the ad led to a twitter campaign with the hashtag #walrusyes. And that is why it feels at times as though the screenplay was pieced together by tweets. A major Hollywood star shows up in disguise for a stunt-ish, winking-at-the-screen turn as a Quebecois detective in pursuit of Howard Howe, not nearly as funny or charming as intended. While there are hints of something deeper — the conversation about how Wallace as devolved as a person, with his girlfriend missing the “old Wallace,” the similarities between “Wallace” and “Walrus” — the real possibilities of the storyline about humanity, inhumanity, and what separates us from the animals, are blithely bypassed for random detours and red herrings (maybe red mackerels). It is another disappointment from Smith, who may not write all of his scripts while stoned, but they sure feel like it.

Parents should know that this is a horror film with many graphic and disturbing images of torture and mutilation. Characters are injured and killed. It also includes strong language, drinking and smoking, and sexual references and situations, with brief male rear nudity.

Family discussion: Are we supposed to think that Wallace somehow deserved or asked for what happened to him? How do you interpret the final scene?

If you like this, try: “The Skin I Live In” and “Boxing Helena” — and Eugene Ionesco’s classic Rhinoceros

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Horror Scene After the Credits

A.I.: Artificial Intelligence

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

Cross “2001” with “ET” and “Blade Runner” and throw in some “Pinocchio,” some “Wizard of Oz,” some “Velveteen Rabbit” and a touch of “Our Town,” and you might have some sense of what to expect from “A.I.” It is an ambitious, complex, provocative movie that is likely to lead to more late night college dorm debates than anything since the ones about “2001’s” monolith and the ape throwing the bone.

The movie is about David, who looks like a 12-year-old boy but is really a “mecha,” a highly developed robot. It is set in the world of the future, when the polar ice caps have melted and cities have been flooded. Population is strictly controlled, and robots that look and act like humans perform almost every service. Dr. Hobby (William Hurt) decides to take robots a step further and develop the first robot that can feel love. One of his employees, Henry (Sam Robards) is chosen to be the beta tester. Henry and his wife, Monica (Frances O’Connor), have a son, Martin, who is critically ill. At first, Monica is horrified by the idea of “adopting” a mechanical boy, but her need for love is so overpowering that she initiates the sequence that will bind David irrevocably to her forever. He immediately changes from a pleasant if emotionless toy into a child whose mother is his whole world. He loves, which means that he is needy, jealous, and He thinks like a three-year-old, calling for his mommy and wanting her all to himself.

Martin gets better and returns home. He and David are jealous of one another, and when Monica believes that David may be a threat to Martin, she sets him lose in the woods. David is determined to find the Blue Fairy who can turn him into a real boy, as she did with Pinocchio, because he thinks that will make it possible for Monica to love him. In the woods, David meets up with other abandoned mechas, including a robot gigolo named Joe (Jude Law). As he searches for the Blue Fairy, he sees disturbing sights: a gladiator-style demolition derby where people pay to see the destruction of mecha, a decadent city reminiscent of the place where Pinocchio turned into a donkey, and a flooded metropolis where David meets someone from his past. Wherever he goes, he tries to become real, so he can return to his mother as someone she can love.

Developed by Stanley Kubrick and completed by Steven Spielberg, this is a two-part invention of a movie that owes both its strengths and its weaknesses to the collaboration between two men of such prodigious talents and such different, even opposing sensibilities. Kubrick is the master of the cool image; Spielberg the master of the warm feeling. The juxtaposition of their influence is particularly apt for this story of the struggle between heart and brain, not just on the part of the mecha, but on the part of the orga (humans) as well.

Parents should know that the movie is rated PG-13 for some sexual references (Joe is a robot created to have sex with women, a crude joke about the equivalent for men) and some violence (mecha are destroyed, critically ill child, characters in peril). Children may also find the theme and some of the situations disturbing and may also be unsettled by the open-ended nature of the story, which leaves many questions unanswered. It will be most suitable for teens, who may enjoy debating some of the issues of love, vulnerability, the nature of humanity, the future of the human race, and even the meaning of life.

Families who see this movie should talk about whether what David feels is love, and Dr. Hobby’s real reason for creating him. Is there any way to make a robot “real?” If the movie is about making a machine that can feel, why is the title “Artificial Intelligence?”

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy Blade Runner (for older teens and adults, due to violence and dark themes). They might like to read the Karel Kapek play, “R.U.R.,” which coined the term “robot” and raises some of the same issues. They might like to take a look at this site about the famous Turing Test developed by computer pioneer Alan Turing to determine whether a machine could think. Turing said that a machine could be considered intelligent if it could fool a person into thinking that he or she was communicating with another person.

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