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Surprisingly effective and smart
Chronicle follows the story of three high-schoolers, popular Steve (Michael B. Jordan, who was so exquisite in The Wire), brainy Matt (Alex Russell), and his withdrawn cousin Andrew (Dane DeHaan, looking occasionally like a young, angry Leonardo DiCaprio). Andrew starts going through his phase where he films everything, and we are treated to his lonely, abuse-filled existence for the first fifteen minutes of the movie until Matt prevails upon him to join him at a party. While Andrew films the rave, the story is interrupted by Steve's discovery of a sinkhole nearby, which the three boys investigate, only to find some weird glowing artifact buried within (intentionally shaky camera-work obscures just exactly what the McGuffin is). Whatever it is, it imbues them with psychic powers, predominantly telekinesis, which starts off small Andrew builds a replica of the Space Needle out of Legos using just the power of his mind but graduates to larger stunts, namely the moving of someone's car while she's shopping in the mall, and then fatefully, Andrew casually tosses a pick-up truck off the road when the driver following them becomes too aggressive for his liking.
The film does cover some familiar super-hero ground newfound powers and how to deal with them but it's immeasurably smarter than the average journey down this lane. You don't even know it will be a sci-fi movie until about twenty minutes in (it seems like an indie flick about teens), and where Chronicle really stands out is that finally, finally, someone understands that story stems from character (okay, Joss Whedon demonstrated that in The Avengers, but that was a rare exception). Each character is smartly thought-out and more importantly stays consistent when his powers develop into a great deal more than any of them imagined (special mention must be made of the initial flying scene, which was the most innovative of its type since we first saw Chris Reeve do it thirty-five years ago the sheer joy these kids feel when they learn to break the earth's bonds is infections and terrifically captured).
The performances all around are aces. All three young leads stand out it's hard to prefer one over the other. Michael B. Jordan shines here with the right projects, he could be a huge box office sensation. Alex Russell is strong throughout, and Dane DeHaan who gets the lion's share of screen time and the darker role is simply superb.
The movie's just plain clever as well; it's just smartly thought-out and feels satisfyingly realistic (especially compared to tripe like the Tobey Maguire Spider-man films). The use of faked surveillance footage also adds to the realism as it's so adroitly done (and probably saved quite a few pennies on special effects). The few showy effects Andrew splits apart a spider into its component pieces are so well realized they feel eminently natural. From every angle this movie surprised me.
It was only toward the very end, when (naturally in a super-powered movie) things get out of hand that the light bulb went on over my head and I saw an additional shading of genius in this movie: it is, for all intents and purposes, a live-action Akira, except that it's really well done and doesn't have a crappy let down of an ending. There is no longer any need for anyone else to even attempt this, for Josh Trank (director) and Max Landis (screenplay) have already achieved it, far better than any adaptation of Otomo's work could (and indeed, more satisfyingly than Otomo's original version).
I've gushed enough. This movie brilliantly exceeded all my expectations and deserves a lot more exposure than it's gotten. It's smart, engrossing, sharp, and best of all, it didn't cost hundreds of millions of dollars to make. It just goes to show if you have good ideas and a good, well-told story that you don't have to break the bank. I'll be anxious to see what these guys do next, but honestly, it would be hard to top this.
I've never been a big fan of Sherlock Holmes; I don't find it particularly engaging to be talked down to by someone who is smarter than I am, and the stories mostly felt that way to me (I have bigger issues with mystery as a genre, but that's a different conversation). I did manage to catch Guy Ritchie's revision of the character and found that mostly amusing, but that's not really orthodox Sherlock Holmes; but my neighbor Bob talked up this series so strongly (and, as she stingingly reminded me, so had my friend Nancy), so I decided to give it a try mainly because, well, it's British, and I've had remarkable luck with British series lately.
Here the creators have erased the historical Sherlock and replaced him with a modern-day counterpart (Benedict Cumberbatch) a "high functioning sociopath," by his own description, a man whose only joy seems to be challenging his incredible brain to solve a puzzle. When he encounters Dr. John Watson (Martin Freeman) they are introduced by a mutual friend as both of them require roommates to be able to afford to live in London Sherlock allows Watson within his orbit, and Watson who is no dope himself has to try to avoid looking like an idiot.
Obviously the entrée to the series is Watson, a man we sympathize with almost immediately; Freeman has that sort of everyman quality, and while we learn that Watson is a cut above, he's still human, still mortal, still relatable. Not so Holmes; while he's indisputably brilliant, he's also emotionally thoughtless and needlessly, though not intentionally, cruel and disrespectful to others. Sherlock simply operates on a different wavelength than the rest of us, and if you can't keep up, he has no use for you. By making such a genius so difficult as would likely be the case in real life the writers have hit upon the core of an interesting relationship.
Another masterstroke is the series' length. Rather than give us a dozen or two episodes, we are treated to three ninety-minute films. While, yes, this emphasizes quality over quantity, it allows the writers to spool out the stories and develop the characters better, as you're not being relentlessly driven by the needs to fitting all that plotting into forty minutes. The series greatly benefits from this breathing room, and it does play with your expectations as a viewer. I kept expecting a solution at the hour (or so) mark, and this is used to great effect in the third episode, where Holmes indeed seems to have solved the crime, only to have the carpet drawn out from under him. Despite their length the shows move along at a brisk pace. I'm not sure every series would benefit from this format, but this one certainly does.
Cumberbatch is simply riveting as Holmes; it's hard to imagine anyone else in the role, or at the very least anyone else being half as effective. It's a joy simply to watch him, and to try to keep up with him. He could almost become overbearing, but Freeman's Watson balances him out perfectly. Watson is one of the most engaging characters I've seen in a while smart, capable, flawed, sympathetic, utterly human and yet, like the viewer, both drawn to and irritated by Holmes. As good as Cumberbatch is, the show simply wouldn't work without this character being so perfectly written and performed; points to Freeman.
The show is smart, funny, interesting, and keeps you guessing; there's really nothing more you could ask from any mystery, or any representation of the Holmes character. His older brother Mycroft (Mark Gatiss), who works for the government, is like Sherlock but with more polish, and their relationship is amusing. The show is written exceptionally well, and hits on every cylinder except one an unexpected misstep all the more jarring because the rest of the series is so artfully conceived. The depiction of Moriarty, to put it simply and inelegantly, sucks. Moriarty is not the Joker (not even Heath Ledger's amazing version), and yet here he is played like a fey clown prince of crime. I understand they wanted to go in a different direction from Holmes, but they went directly the wrong one here. It's a colossal letdown when we finally come face to face with the man who might possibly be smarter than Holmes and he's a raving goofball.
That somewhat important nitpick aside, though, this is an impressive and well-done series, even for those of you (like me) who abhor mystery. Unless you just can't stand all things British (and if so, by now, why are you reading my reviews?), then by all means take the time to track these down Netflix has 'em and give them a spin. Time exceptionally well spent.
December 16, 2011
The Debt (2010)
Sharp first two-thirds let down by the end of the film
I knew almost nothing about this film other than it had some good buzz and Helen Mirren was in it. No idea of the plot, setting, etc., which is rare, so I went in about as blindly as one can.
The Debt, in case you are as ill-informed as I, is about a trio of Israeli agents in the mid-60s who infiltrate East Berlin to track down a former Nazi concentration camp doctor and bring him to justice. The team consists of Stephen (the great Marton Csokas), David (Sam Worthington), and Rachel (Jessica Chastain), and they have their own inner tensions there's a semi-love triangle, David is overly secretive, and so on. Interspersed with this plot are scenes where the three of them are older (and except for Rachel, look totally different), looking back on the incident, as Rachel's daughter has written a book about it (older Rachel is, of course, Mirren).
Sometimes this kind of crosscutting works in a film, but here it is somewhat confusing because older David (Ciaran Hinds) and older Stephen (Tom Wilkinson) look nothing like their younger counterparts, so you have to sort of play 'who's who' for a while until it sorts itself out. Also, they seem to show you the climax of the 60s plot in the beginning, so some of the tension seems to be missing from that thread until the big twist in the middle of the film, which catapults the action into the modern day. This is where the movie really grinds to a crawl; the older counterparts are so different from their younger versions that it's almost like starting a second movie an hour and ten minutes in. I had a hard time caring about the older characters, and they dominate completely the last third of the film.
Mirren of course is good, and Hinds plays older David with a wonderfully haunted mien (he's not in the movie enough to make any deeper impression). All three of the young leads are excellent Worthington can sometimes come off as flat, but here he underplays David, and he's excellent (his final scene with Rachel is subtle and exceptional). Chastain, whom I'm not familiar with, is stellar here; we bond with Rachel instantly, and she's an intriguing character. Obviously I like Csokas and he's in his comfort zone here, playing a confident, intelligent prick, but he's magnetic.
It's probably because the young leads are so good that the older ones come off so dull and unappealing (even Mirren), and frankly the storyline in the present day (well, the late 90s, their present day) seems trite and silly next to the danger of East Berlin and an ex-Nazi gynecologist. That shift, which may have worked well in a novel (or perhaps in the original Israeli version of the movie), stops the film dead in its tracks, and while we're following the present, flashbacks to the past only drag down the current action more. It's a risky proposition to split a plot between younger and older versions of characters anyway, though it's been done well elsewhere; but here the schism is too jarring, too great to be overcome, and you're left wishing they would have just stayed in the Sixties when the movie was interesting.
Overall it's a mediocre film, with some parts very well done and others irritatingly flat. Had the present day plot line been anywhere near as compelling, this would have been a standout film; as it is, it's a take-it-or-leave-it proposition. Some parts are definitely worth a look, but the parts don't add up to a satisfying whole, and with the talent involved, I can't shake the nagging feeling they should have.
Kung Fu Panda 2 (2011)
Sadly no better than the first one
See, when you start to get older, you forget some things, like sometimes what you thought of a movie. Not a major crime, but it can lead to little mistakes, like renting this film. For some reason (Angelina Jolie's voice acting? Encroaching senility?) I recalled, incorrectly, liking the first KFP. I got my hands on this, queued it up, and then read my review of the first one (maybe I should have performed those tasks in a different order). When I recalled how kind of flat I thought the first one was, I thought, well, maybe this one will be better.
It's not. It's not a terrible film, but it's flat and lazy like the first one. Here big fat Po (Jack Black, the titular panda), now a member of the legendary Dragon Warriors, has two dilemmas; he and the other Dragons must take back a remote city from the new bad guy, a crane (really? a zillion animals in Chinese folklore and the bad guy is a bird?) and also has to find out his true heritage, as it's really blanking obvious his father cannot biologically be a duck. The two plots progress slowly, and of course are tied together, and naturally we have to stop every dozen minutes or so to let the cartoon characters duke it out.
The design work is fine, and executed very sharply it's a pretty pseudo-Chinese pastoral world, and we have the requisite gorgeous scenery paired with the evil, red-lit infernal machine factory of the crane (in a plot that felt wholly stolen from Detective Dee). KFP character design tends more toward the cartoony and for some reason flashbacks are done in traditional animation, to help separate them from the CGI stuff and that doesn't change here (I liked the addition of the rhino, even though he does nothing but stand around).
The problem here is, once again, a lazy script full of fat/eating jokes and some uninspired voice work. How is it that Jolie could make a fish seem sexy in Shark Tale, and yet fails to do anything but a straight reading with the most eroticized of animals, a big cat? Maybe that's direction, but it seems like she's sort of phoning it in, as does everyone, excepting of course James Hong, who once again is amusing as Po's duck daddy.
I'm sure the kids enjoyed this film (it did depressingly well at the box office), but unlike, say, Despicable Me or almost any of the Pixar films, there is nothing here for anyone over the age of ten. I tend to prefer family films that work on at least two levels, so the poor parents aren't bored stiff for eighty-five minutes, but the only other consideration other than cranking out a requisite sequel for this film seems to be to sell more action figures. Much like the first one, you could give this uninspired flick a pass and not miss much. My only subtextual giggle was seeing all the flashbacks with the panda village, which reminded me of the next expansion for Warcraft. But I doubt many of you would make that connection.
Serviceable, but not great
I remain a fan of the original Planet of the Apes movies, which, aside from the first one, were slightly cheesy, but remain one of the most inventive franchises yet. I loathed Tim Burton's abortion from several years ago, and had washed my hands of any further attempts to revive the franchise, thinking perhaps the films were, and perhaps ought to remain, firmly rooted in their sociological place in time. But I kept hearing murmurs that this was a good film (one friend called it "the best movie he'd seen all summer") and, well, okay, when it came out I broke down and checked out a copy.
They changed the story little; this is really a revamp of the third movie, Escape From the Planet of the Apes, explaining the genesis of how intelligent apes came to be among us (the original version features a delightfully impossible cause-and-effect loop where intelligent apes sprang from a pair of intelligent apes who traveled back in time). In a nutshell, Dr. Rodman (James Franco) is working on a cure for Alzheimer's when he discovers a concoction that heightens cognitive functions in chimps. When he tests it on his ailing father (John Lithgow), it displays enormous promise, but not as much as it does with little Caeser, a chimp born of their most promising test case. The original batch of super-goo proves unstable, however, and Franco is sacked. Fast-forward a few years (and throw in Frieda Pinto as a love interest, because, hey, she is really really beautiful), and Caesar is now adolescent sized, and incredibly smart. An incident with a snotty neighbor lands him in what is essentially an ape jail (run by Brian Cox and the dude who played Draco Malfoy, so you know it's a bad joint), and Caesar, by dint of his intelligence, takes over the place. From there it's just a hop, skip, and a jump to the apes running the planet, although we'll be saving that for future installments (watch the credits, you'll see what I'm referring to).
The Apes movies in their initial run were really more about what humans feared, and apparently in the Seventies what we feared is that we would screw things up and wreck the world and someone else would take our place at the top of the evolutionary ladder. Now that most of that has come to pass (save for the top of the ladder bit), it turns out what we are most afraid of now is that in trying to avert some horrible disease, we will screw things up and wreck the world and someone else will take our place at the top of the evolutionary ladder (well, again, in the next movie they will portray the actual taking our place bit). Whereas in the earlier version of the saga we shot ourselves in the foot with nuclear weapons, here we shoot ourselves in the foot because of greed and big pharma, which again, is a tad more realistic (though nuclear Armageddon was not so far-fetched in 1970). The story approach is different, but the underlying fears remain.
Much like in the original, the human actors are almost completely disposable; we spend a lot of time with Franco, but he could be any well-meaning shmuck, and Lithgow, while he's very good, is merely a maguffin to create the super-ape serum (the rest of the humans, even the radiant Pinto, are utterly forgettable). The take on the apes is different here they look much more ape-like, and less like humans in prosthetics, although honestly I loved the 60s/70s apes (and so did Oscar, they won an award for inventive make-up). The guy who played Gollum played Caesar as an adult, and of course he's crazy good and convincing in his movements; that helps sell the believability of the film. But even with flawless effects, I felt there was something missing from this version of the story, some element that sold me on the other, admittedly lower-tech and cheesier version, that did not sell me here. Maybe it was the casually boring treatment of man being mean to lower animals, or maybe it was just that it took way the hell too long to get things going; but this movie, while technologically impressive, has no heart. We don't bond with Caesar the way we bonded with Roddy McDowall's version of him; he seems a cold and cunning conqueror, almost more of a villain than a hero (while he rejects the evil humans, naturally, he also rejects the embrace of the one who loves him, which I understood from a plot point but nonetheless found curious). Caesar is less a protagonist to root for than a warning that it will likely be some innocent bystander we hardly give a second thought to who will eventually topple our way of life. He was far too callous for me to embrace. I also didn't care for the slapdash ending, where the apes find temporary sanctuary after besting a squad of policemen. So? The next day they'd simply be gassed, end of story (or it would be if not for the financial allure of potential sequels, which is why they keep trying to revive this franchise).
I didn't find it a bad film, but I did find it an oddly cold and sterile one, and admit to being a tad perplexed as to why, technological achievements aside, everyone seemed so taken with it; granted, we humans are simply living high on the hog in an epoch between glacial periods (most likely), but I don't really find the notion that we will be displaced one that deserves much cheering. I find the whole premise kind of creepy, myself. Maybe without McDowall's humanity underneath it all there's some spark lacking in these new apes one I would label empathy. You'll certainly be impressed by the effects in this film, but I was left cold by the story.
Cedar Rapids (2011)
Manages to rise above familiar material
I got caught up reading one of those end-of-year retrospectives the other day, and I ran across a column about the ten movies you probably should have seen in 2011 but didn't. Cedar Rapids was listed as one of them, and while I didn't know much about the film I had shied away from it largely because it looked like a typical fish-out-of-water comedy, and I'm leery of most comedy movies these days. But, obviously, I bit the bullet and took a chance.
Cedar Rapids follows one Tim Lippe (Ed Helms), a stereotypical man-child so common in American comedies these days. Tim is of the kindly boy mold; he's in awe of superstar rep Roger (Thomas Lennon), and is suddenly picked to go to an insurance award convention upon Roger's untimely death. Tim has never left his tiny hometown, and to him even Cedar Rapids is "the big city." As expected, Tim displays the usual naiveté once away from home, not recognizing a hooker who loiters around the hotel as a lady of the night and so on; you've seen it before, small town = rube. Tim is thrown together in a room with two other insurance men, Ronald Wilkes (Isiah Whitlock), who, like Tim, is nerdy, but is far more successful at his job, and Dean Ziegler (John C. Reilly), who is basically everyone's drunken uncle, with his double entendres, smut talk, and wild behavior ill-suited to someone pushing fifty. Rounding out the little group is Joan (Ann Heche), who treats the yearly awards meeting as her version of Las Vegas, where whatever she does never leaves the city. All pretty much by the book for this sort of thing.
However, the performances are all so well done that the movie manages to rise above its middling material and engage the viewer. While Helms' shtick as Lippe is nothing new, and no real stretch for him, the other three leads are all really sharp. Whitlock manages to make the slightly stuffy Wilkes incredibly likable, and Heche, while delivering pretty much the same performance as Vera Farmiga in Up in the Air, nonetheless is excellent as Joan, possibly the only character in the film who actually achieves three dimensions. Reilly is, naturally, spot-on; this kind of role is not a challenge for him, but he makes the character funnier as the movie progresses, turning in a strong performance (and getting the best line of the film and of the year, one that made me laugh so hard I had to stop the disc for several minutes to recover). Sigourney Weaver has a small role as Tim's girlfriend, but she's very sharp, just perfect.
The movie gets better as it proceeds, as the leads are allowed more free reign to try and overcome the somewhat hackneyed set-up. Cedar Rapids succeeds despite its shortcomings, and ends much better than it begins, which is certainly better than the other way round. It's certainly worth a look for an evening's diversion.
Inspired, sublime parody
The concept is genius; the film takes the form of a mockumentary about a Japanese superhero, Big Man Japan (Hitoshi Matsumoto), an ordinary man who can transform, via a massive electrical shock, into a hundred-foot tall warrior. Apparently this trait is hereditary; his father and grandfather could also do this (in fact his grandfather was a popular hero, shown briefly in doctored WWII clips milling with the troops), and Big Man wonders in the film if the trait has been passed down to his daughter. But the tone of the documentary is what really makes the film; it's exceptionally dry and somewhat dull, like following an average man of little financial means would be. Big Man leads a wholly uninteresting life, until called upon to defend Japan from a marauding giant monster; then he rushes to the nearest electrical station to do his thing and fight whatever freakish thing is attacking (usually the other monsters are grotesque and stupid, more comic than scary). It's a spoof of the giant monster genre in Japan, but it's also a very clever social satire as well, because most people hate Big Man; they graffiti the walls outside his house and leave angry messages on placards on the road to the electrical station (once or twice sitting around his house just talking for the documentary, windows behind Big Man break as people throw bricks through them).
The humor is exceptionally clever and, aside from the scenes with the monsters battling, very low-key. Big Man's wife no longer living with him is somewhat ashamed of him, and insists that their daughter's face be pixelated on film. His manager is obviously conning him, and most people treat him with mild disdain. It's an interesting switch from the hero-worship we often see in superhero movies, and it's both more realistic and sublimely comic at the same time. The movie maintains its subtle and gently mocking tone right up until the end, when the final scenes turn to outright parody and we're not entirely sure what happened (did he die? Is this heaven?); it's more quizzical than disappointing, and it's hardly enough of a departure to spoil what is otherwise an inspired parody, probably the best fake documentary since Spinal Tap (and I would argue a better one). This film might not be for everyone it can move slowly, and it is very Japanese but it is so astonishingly clever and funny that I was deeply impressed. The film is absurd in all the right ways, and is far, far better than any of the 'straight' superhero movies you'll see any time soon.
Nothing But the Truth (2008)
Effectively acted and told story
Beckinsale stars as Rachel Armstrong, a reporter for a DC newspaper who writes a story revealing that the wife of an ambassador is actually a deep cover CIA agent. Sparks fly, and the government gets upset that one of their own was compromised so publicly. A special prosecutor is appointed, Patton Dubois (Matt Dillon), whose sole goal is to find out who leaked the classified information to Rachel. To do so, he leans hard on Rachel, even though she is defended by top-flight attorney Alan Burnside (Alan Alda); Rachel refuses to budge and so goes to jail.
The story touches upon First Amendment rights vs. the needs of the government to protect its covert operatives, and some nice speeches are made on both topics; but really the film is more interested in the personal choices Rachel has to make, whether her principles are worth going to jail and possibly sacrificing her family for. The larger issues loom, but they take a backseat to the personal through most of the film.
Most of the performances are very strong. Vera Farmiga is excellent as Erica, the CIA agent who is revealed to the world; she shows us both the human and the steely side of the woman, a textured turn. Noah Wyle is the paper's legal counsel, giving a very energetic turn as a lawyer who grows increasingly outraged with the government's use of power against Rachel. David Schwimmer plays Rachel's husband, Ray, not the most sympathetic role, but he delivers. Alda is excellent as the high-powered attorney whose humanity walks hand in hand with his ego; he's strong throughout and gets a very nice speech toward the end.
But the film really belongs to Beckinsale, who gives probably her best performance to date as the principled Rachel, and especially to Matt Dillon, whose Dubois is sketched perfectly (I've read Dillon played the role not as an antagonist but as a man who sees himself as the good guy, and that approach worked terrifically). Both Beckinsale and Dillon are sharp, strong, and understated, and both make effective arguments for their points of view, although naturally as the victim our sympathies lie with Beckinsale. Her scenes with her son are particularly effective, even as he begins to distance himself from her as her jail sentence begins to unexpectedly stretch on; but she balances the strength a person must have to stand up for one's principles nicely with the all-too-human weaknesses in the face of having what we cherish threatened.
The film doesn't give any easy answers, and there is a nice plot twist at the end that I felt effectively highlights Rachel's humanity; we like her throughout the film but even moreso when we know the whole story. This is certainly a film worth checking out, for Dillon's deft performance alone if nothing else; but I think most people will find this a compelling, well-told story.
Not your standard western but better because of it
Appaloosa is set in the 1880s and follows the story of 'peacekeepers' Virgil Cole (Harris) and Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen) as they are hired by the leading citizens of the eponymous town to protect their interests from Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons), whose men more or less bully the townspeople at will. Virgil and Everett have worked together for years and know each other very well; they're a very effective team, but they are thrown off-balance by the arrival of Allison French (Renee Zellweger), who takes an immediate liking to Virgil.
At first look the movie seems like a straightforward western good guys have to find a way to restore law and order and capture the bad guy but I realized, when the 'story' climaxed somewhere in the middle of the film, that I had been fooled (or that I fooled myself); Appaloosa is really about the friendship between Virgil and Everett. There's an external plot, of course, and it is important, but it takes a back seat not obviously, mind you to the larger picture of the two men. In lesser hands I think this could have been a major backfire, but here, it makes the movie special.
Harris is very sharp as Virgil, a man who understands his shortcomings and flaws as well as his strengths. But the movie really belongs to Viggo Mortensen, who is so good here he should have been nominated for an Oscar. Viggo plays Everett with such subtlety and intelligence that he steals the spotlight, and the sidekick ends up seeming like the main character and possibly he is, by design. The craft that these two display aided by a crafty, witty, smart script is impressive; the rest of the cast is very good too (Irons is thankfully restrained), but none of them can compete with the two leads.
Appaloosa is a smart, well-done movie. It's not a standard western, but it's far better because of it. It was obviously a labor of love for Harris, and that shows through in every scene. I was deeply impressed with and pleased by this movie; unless you just can't abide westerns (or one of the leads), do yourself a favor and check out this unfairly overlooked film.
Not bad but we have seen this before
The story follows one James Ray Steam, a young boy of maybe 12 whose father and grandfather are scientists in Victorian England circa 1866. They of course work with steam power, and when they make a discovery that will greatly revolutionize the amount of power one can draw from steam, well, everyone wants to get their hands on it, from the weapons manufacturer company O'Hara to an English scientist named Stephenson. O'Hara has already kidnapped the elder Steams, so it's up to James to try to set things aright. Along the way he encounters the spoiled young heiress Scarlett, who is the sole member of the O'Hara family present and who sort of cottons to him because he's apparently the only other person in the world her age. James displays the family knack for ingenuity, and, during a violent showdown at the London Exhibition, O'Hara's new steam-powered weapons duke it out with Her Majesty's Royal Navy while James tries to rescue his grandpa.
It's all very nicely designed and drawn and the attention to the Victorian setting, from clothes to architecture to the extension of plausible steam powered uses into a sci-fi realm, everything looks marvelous even London managed to look good. There's just one glaring problem with the movie; it's merely a retread of Hiyao Miyazaki's masterpiece Laputa, from plucky boy hero to girl princess companion to a stern lesson about the excesses of technology to the Victorian design to the creepy secret agents to ah hell, it's just a straight re-do, pretty much, omitting only the delightful Dola gang pirates. Steamboy rarely varies from the script, save that the "technology run amok" rant is more stridently but less effectively articulated (Laputa featured a chilling, thrilling sequence with a giant robot waking up and laying waste to the countryside to protect his charge; Steamboy actually has Grandpa stand there and recite the message that technology is bad in the wrong hands (and no, I didn't watch the dubbed version, I never do).
Steamboy is not an awful film, but it beggars the question of why in the hell you would try to steal from (what I feel is) the greatest animated movie ever made. On its own merits Steamboy is okay, maybe worth a rental, but it could never ever hope to emerge from the shadow of its far greater predecessor; if you're at all curious about the genre or just good anime, do yourself a favor and track down a copy of Laputa; why have a Big Mac when you can have a porterhouse?