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Collaborator Needed: Call Steven
2 July 2001
As an epic cinematic work, A.I. possesses both a beautiful and an irksome soul. The beauty comes from the visionary baton of director Steven Spielberg and from the incredibly eloquent Haley Joel Osmont, whose acting is simply uncanny. The irksomeness comes from Speilberg's screenplay, an unfortunate pastiche incorporating at least three different narrative tones, two and a half stories, and an overabundance of undisciplined imaginative license.

If you search the IMDB under "Spielberg", you'll see that Steven Spielberg, despite his directorial craft and more than occasional genius, has only a few writing credits to his name. A.I. is notable as an insight into how far the boy wonder has to go before he can again solo as a writer. The box office champ obviously had the power to wing this screenplay on his own, but doing so was a mistake. I wish he had sought counsel; the central theme in this tale deserved it. Spielberg would have benefitted greatly from running his final draft by any number of script doctors - Robert Towne for instance - before pre production.

Not that the film fails entirely; as I said, it has a beautiful soul too. But the mistakes and missed opportunities are of such an obvious and repetitive nature that experienced and mature filmgoers will be distracted - constantly standing on the sidelines rather than immersed in the film. Like other's commenting here I saw a number of viewers get up and leave two thirds of the way through. Amazing.

I encourage you to see this film if you're a serious film lover, if only to watch Spielberg's feet of clay stride ardently toward what turns out to be an only partially realized epistle about love. His ambition is almost Faustian. My own opinion is that after three masterful serious films (Schindler's List, Amistad and Private Ryan) and an intermezzo with the great Kubrick around this project, Spielberg reapproached the lost boy genre as a writer-director, and found himself in an almost schizoid void between Kubrick's distanced visual language (pulled off with great aplomb in A.I.'s first third by DP Janusch Kaminsky) and the magical sci-fi fantasies of his own youth.

The result is a genetic experiment. There are strange flowers along the way and many have a strange smell to them. Some are downright garish. The most luscious fragrances are the musical passages composer John Williams scored to accompany David's first days with his adoptive family. David's strange presence is echoed in William's paraphrases of Bartok. Where Stanley Kubrick needed to license Bartok recordings for films like "The Shining", Spielberg has his longtime maestro John Williams around to recombine Bartok's strange Hungarian tonalities for A.I. In the early family scenes, this Williams-Jaminsky mixture is original and stimulating. It's a new kind of Spielberg magic. Unfortunately, this new intoxicating mist is nowhere else to be found in the film. I would have loved Spielberg to carry this atmosphere through to its logical end - as would have many I discussed the film with afterward. These passages spoke of the strange bond building between David and his mother with greater eloquence than any of the bathetic Pinocchio references in the next two hours.

Indeed, I strongly felt the opening impetus of Speilberg's story was completely hijacked by Pinocchio. I became completely sidetracked by thoughts of "How is Spielberg ever going to let a robot become a real boy?" The original question was a much more compelling one: "Can a creature programmed to love unconditionally ever be matched in its ardor by the object of its affection?" This hypothetical, posed by a female scientist of African descent in the first scene, remains the real spine of the story. But it evaporates once David is abandoned by his mother. Or, perhaps, it is simply answered in the negative in the first hour by her very abandoning of him, making the next 90 minutes anti-climactic - an irritating retread of Pinocchio rather than the original, thought-provoking investigation of the first 45 minutes.

After this abandonment we plummet to sensational sequences drawn from Mad Max and Blade Runner, culminating in a final, grandiose apocalyptic epilogue. The SPFX budget goes through the roof, yet nothing in the hearts of viewers is deepened beyond the original family scenes. For a theme this profound, Spielberg might have consulted Aeschuylus, Sophocles and Shakepseare, as well as Collodi.

Despite its failings, I draw great hope from A.I. It is beautiful beyond imagining in places. And great filmmakers need to make big, public mistakes to get them actively reevaluating and rerouting themselves into new territory. Spielberg is an opus filmaker, a career director with a historically significant oeuvre. Perhaps someday he'll become a great screenwriter too. Meanwhile, we and he can take comfort in knowing that his burgeoning into a full literary auteur won't be mandatory for him to realize more great cinema. His directorial resources and maturity have already been proven in two of his last three serious films. Next time he writes a film, I would like to see him surrender his prodigious imagination to a great collaborator who is brave enough to discipline and shape his inventions. I'm sure Stanley Kubrick would have done so, had he lived.

(It should also be noted that Spielberg buddy George Lucas's fourth installment of Star Wars also suffered primarily from a screenplay that fell short of Lucas's earlier work. Even the greatest lose their objectivity and need the humility to seek good counsel - Orson5 - 7/3/01.)
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Incredible Jon Voigt in a Truly Heart Moving Tale
7 May 2001
You'll miss the point if you dismiss this as another Lifetime soaper. There is authentic truth, feeling and heart in this film if you watch it from the top and stick with it. Table for Five is an intelligently paced and structured story both men and women will relate to. A failed divorced father (Jon Voight) has been replaced in the lives of his ex-wife and children by a more well-heeled step dad (Richard Crenna). The biological father (Voight) is allowed to take a two week Mediterranean cruise with his three pre-adolescent kids - the first time he's spent an extended period with them in four years. His failings as a father soon become apparent days into the cruise, but tragic events transpire that challenge him to ante up for his kids in ways he could never emotionally risk before.

A powerful film about fathering, Table for Five contains two of the ten best hours of Jon Voigt ever released on film - an outstandingly nuanced performance. The kids, especially Roxana Zal and Robbie Kiger are precociously honest actors. And dig the talent on the other side of the lens. Vilmos Zsigmond (Deer Hunter etc) is director of photography, Michael Kahn (editor on almost all Spielberg pix since Close Encounters) did the cut. The screenplay by David Seltzer (Lucas) gives the actors and the audience everything they could want from each character. Robert Leiberman's patient blocking and direction allows all the principal actors time to develop each scene. Professional all the way. A 9.5 out of 10, with only a half point deducted for a few somewhat slick TV-ish shortcuts in the production and a hammy helicopter dolly up. But, make no mistake. This one is not to be missed. Enjoy!
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Billy Elliot (2000)
A Triumph of Highly Charged Storytelling
7 December 2000
Billy Elliot is by far the most honestly told depiction of middle boyhood I've seen in years, if ever. I was in joyful tatters at the end of this story of a boy struggling to stay true to his calling in an anguished northern English mining town circa 1980. Every working class character in this film is written and uncompromisingly played with great love and understanding of both family and class hardship. Personally I view this film as the finest piece of British "intimiste" cinema I've seen since Mike Leigh's "Secrets and Lies". Yet it has epic elements as well. Billy's personal story unfolds while his home town is occupied by uniformed British strike control forces.

This is a tale of inter-masculine struggle in a family and mining town almost devoid of (and yearning for) a balancing feminine presence. Billy's gift is slowly awakened in this stressed and violent male crucible. His relationships with his brother, his father, his genderally confused classmate, and his teacher all grow increasingly charged as the movie develops. For honesty and presence, Jamie Bell as Billy far surpasses Haley Joel Osment's debut in The Sixth Sense. And if that's not enough, Julie Walters, Gary Lewis and Jamie Draven as Billy's teacher, dad and brother are all heartbreakingly portrayed. All are perfectly cast and at the very top of their form.

After all these characters have passed through the warzone of the first and second acts, director Steven Daldry delivers perhaps the most perfectly executed third act I have seen in a family centered drama from England or elsewhere. There are countless insightful decisions Daldry makes in the course of this film that other directors will study for years to come. But they're all brought to touching and masterful closure in the third act segments.

Kudos to scenarist Lee Hall for an excellent script. It should also be noted that many of DP Brian Tufano's beautifully composed shots match those of the great Chinese and Italian cinematographers. The film is brash in its musical style and forthright in its language. It is a film of specifics and the locale is not dressed up. And unlike many other local color films from England since 1985, this film has a strong, eminently compassionate narrative spine. Many audience members in the show I attended were immobilized and overcome in their seats during credits.

Despite frequent profanity, boys 11 and up should be allowed to see Billy Elliot, if only to keep them from abandoning hope. If it helps even one oppressed and confused boy keep an ear to the faint voice within that might just be his true calling, this film will have been worth every dollar spent in its making. A truly uplifting film.
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