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Posted: October 28, 2009

Dave on film: “Law Abiding Citizen” needed Hitchcock

And "Astro Boy" is too intense for little kids

Dave Taylor

I've got an interesting pair of movies this snowy week, one of which is a poorly plotted, violent film about justice, while the other is a predictably plotted animated film about, well, justice too, now that I think about it.

There's a world of difference between the two, though, with Law Abiding Citizen challenging the narrative attentiveness of even the best viewer. Astro Boy, rather to my surprise, ends up being more religious in nature and probably should have been released closer to Christmas time, as you'll understand when you read my review.

 LAW ABIDING CITIZEN

Law Abiding Citizen is the latest in the bad-lawyer genre, with Jamie Foxx as career focused attorney Nick Rice who accepts a plea bargain from the killer of affable inventor Clyde Shelton (Gerard Butler)'s family to ensure his excellent trial outcome record.

The film opens with Shelton and his daughter working together in the basement, while his wife prepares dinner. There's a knock on the door and when Shelton opens it, he's wacked with a baseball bat, tied up, and then watches as the assailant picks up the daughter and (mercifully for us viewers) murders her off-camera. Later, we learn that the wife was also murdered.

Rice and his team accepting a plea bargain where the killer, Darby (Christian Stolte), has agreed to turn state's evidence against his co-assailant, Ames (Josh Stewart), putting him on death row, while Darby - the real killer - is guilty of third-degree murder and out in five.

Unsurprisingly, Shelton's not happy about this plea bargain, resulting in Rice impatiently yelling at him that "it's not what you know, it's what you can prove in court!" That is, of course, the basis of all vigilante  movies. Jump forward ten years to Kelly Rice (Regina Hall), Nick's wife, complaining that "You haven't been to one of [their daughter's recitals". Instead of his daughter's recital he attends Ames' execution and the following scene is a tedious and formulaic two-shot, alternating between the execution and her cello performance.

Turns out that the execution was botched, and it seems to be the work of Darby, the original killer. Seconds before he'd have subsequently been arrested, however, Darby is warned by a mysterious phone call  (think either The Matrix or Eagle Eye).

He hijacks a police car but ends up in the clutches of a vengeful but disconnected Clyde, who drugs, kidnaps and tortures him in a very unpleasant scene that goes on far too long. Shelton is arrested for Darby's brutal murder and Shelton's campaign to harass Rice and everyone else involved in the original murder trial begins, all having been carefully planned in advance. But Shelton's in jail, how can he be orchestrating a terror campaign?

About halfway through, the film takes a typical Hollywood left turn and we find out that Clyde Shelton isn't a slightly goofy, clueless inventor who had his wife and daughter murdered, but, well, I won't spoil it, but I so wished that some more like Hitchcock had directed Law Abiding Citizen instead.

Ultimately I think there was a really interesting film buried within Law Abiding Citizen, but it only sporadically shone through the otherwise poor, unengaging performances and a narrative storyline rife with logical glitches that kept puzzling me instead of engaging me.

ASTRO BOY

 I like animation in just about any form, whether it's the stop motion brilliance of Coraline or the computer graphics gleam of Toy Story. I'm not a huge fan of manga, Japanese comics, though I am a definite fan of graphic novels and probably buy a dozen or so every month.

 Astro Boy was a  mixed bag, therefore, because it's animated (good) but based on a very Japanese manga comic and story (not so good). What I hadn't realized until watching this animated feature was that the story of Astro Boy is really just a robotic retelling of the story of Jesus,  with lots and lots of visual and story ideas inspired by pop culture, including Robocop, Toy Story, Frankenstein, I Robot, Minority Report, a definite inspiration from Wall-E, and Pinocchio, just to name a few.

The story is set in a mythic future where the inhabitants of Earth have created a floating city built around Mt. Fujiyama called Metro City. Robots are pervasive and exist as distinct second-class citizens, destroyed on a whim and discarded in massive junk piles on the surface. In an amusing introductory video narrated by Charlize Theron, we are shown how the broken robots are discarded with the elegy "may you rust in peace."

Brilliant boy scientist Toby (Freddie Highmore) is the son of robot inventor Dr. Tenma (Nicholas Cage), and there's no mother in the story at all, not even a mention of a missing, departed or deceased parent. Dr. Tenma is perpetually
too busy to pay attention to Toby, who is left instead to play with his robot pal  Orrin (Eugene Levy).

Through an accident, Toby is killed but his father resurrects him by tapping into pure positive "blue core energy" in a scene clearly reminiscent of the classic Frankenstein film. There are lots of amusing adult touches in Astro Boy that kept me entertained during its 94 minute run time, including a scene where Dr. Tenma reminds Toby  (by that time resurrected as a robot with Toby's memories and  experiences, a la Blade Runner) that when he was younger, Tenma would read ridiculously adult, intellectual books to him, including Kant's "Critique of Pure Reason" and Descarte's "Before the Horse." (get it?)

As with many films of this nature, there are some scenes that stand out as interesting and visually delightful, while others fall flat. One of the best was when Astro Boy is given a book on the complete works of Leonardo daVinci and proceeds to turn the pages into daVinci-esque flying machines. It's almost worth the cost of admission alone.

In a classic resurrection scene that's appeared in dozens of films, Astro Boy finds out for himself the additional powers he has, including turbo jet boots and hands that can turn into weapons as needed. He barrels through Mt. Fuji then soars high into the air, above the clouds, reveling in his powers.

After Metro City president Stone (Donald Sutherland) learns about the blue core energy and its negative, evil twin red core energy, he tries to create a robot with the red core energy as its primary power source. You can predict it goes awry and fights Astro boy, who ends up tossed off Metro City, landing in a junk pile on the planet's surface.

 Astro Boy meets a group of Earth children, notably including female Cora (Kristen Bell). They bring him to meet robot tinkerer and Fagin-esque character Ham Egg (Nathan Lane). At first, Ham Egg seems like the attentive father Astro Boy has never had, but then it's revealed that Ham Egg's interest in robots is because he puts them in a gladiatorial ring to fight to the death.

In another scene with religious overtones, Astro resurrects ZOG, a giant construction robot by opening up his chest and then directing the pure blue core energy: the blue light flows into ZOG and wakes him up after a century of inactivity.

 The film ends as you would expect for a children's movie, including a rather dull reconciliation between Astro Boy/Toby and his father Dr. Tenma, who explains that "fitting in can be more complicated than it seems", to which Astro Boy says "this must be my destiny."

If you're a manga fan or just love animation in any form, I'd definitely say Astro Boy is worth checking out. But don't take your younger children. The volume, the imagery and the action and fighting scenes are just a bit too intense for their age group.

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Dave Taylor has been watching movies for as long as he can remember. Along the way he’s become a nationally recognized expert on technology, an accomplished writer, and award-winning public speaker and blogger. You can find his film writing at  www.DaveOnFilm.com and follow his film commentary on Twitter at @FilmBuzz or just email him at taylor@intuitive.com.

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