I, ROBOT (2004). Every summer needs one massive mega-bomb to balance the scales, a Battlefield Earth or Gigli to serve as an easy target for smart-aleck critics, derisive audiences and bloodthirsty rival studios. Among this year's candidates was I, Robot, which finds Will Smith shoehorned into a high-tech yarn "inspired" by Isaac Asimov's collection of loosely related stories. There was something about this particular project that carried the stench of an animal carcass -- or at least, Shaquille O'Neal's socks after a playoff game. Boy, did I call this one wrong (instead, Catwoman turned out to be the movie everyone loved to hate). If memory serves, about the only elements the film retains from Asimov are the Three Laws of Robotics and a character named Dr. Susan Calvin. So faithfulness to the source material isn't a strong point -- which of course makes it no different than most other Hollywood adaptations. The important thing is that on its own terms, this delivers the goods as a zippy piece of sci-fi pulp. Smith stars as Del Spooner, a detective in 2035 Chicago who's convinced that a scientist has been murdered by one of his own robot creations. Only thing is, robots are programmed never to harm humans, and Spooner's suspicions are dismissed as prejudice and paranoia. But he -- and the audience -- knows better. Even if Asimov's deep delving into the complexities and contradictions inherent in these artificial beings is only given lip service, the movie works as a compelling murder-mystery as well as a suitable star vehicle. And the robots are out of this world. DVD extras include audio commentary by Proyas and scripter Akiva Goldsman, a making-of featurette, and a photo gallery.
M (1931). Orson Welles' Citizen Kane (1941) is rightly celebrated for hauling more than its share of cinematic innovations, but this German masterpiece from director Fritz Lang likewise deserves praise for introducing new techniques to an international film community that was eager to expand the parameters of this bold medium. Watching this psychological thriller in a beautifully restored edition presented by Criterion, it's clear that Lang was ahead of most of his peers in grasping the promise of the motion picture form: The inventive camerawork and sharp editing were unusually complex for their time, and the director's extraordinary use of sound (and this was his first talkie!) further enhances the effectiveness of the piece. In a star-making performance, Peter Lorre is mesmerizing as a child killer whose vile crimes are paralyzing the streets of Berlin. The police exhaustively use every resource at their disposal in an attempt to track him down, but they're one-upped by the criminal underworld, whose members use their own methods to locate the madman who's been drawing too much attention to all illegal endeavors. Extras in this two-disc DVD set include audio commentaries by film scholars Anton Kaes and Eric Rentschler, William Friedkin's film Conversation With Fritz Lang, a fascinating look at the movie's history (including its placement in an anti-Semitic propaganda piece produced by the Germans as World War II heated up), and a stills gallery that includes a reproduction of the poster used in Argentina, where the film was retitled The Black Vampire!
THE ULTIMATE MATRIX COLLECTION (1999-2003). The most exhaustive DVD set this side of The Alien Quadrilogy contains 10 discs holding over 35 hours of features. Folks who already own the previously released individual sets for the trilogy -- 1999's The Matrix, 2003's The Matrix Reloaded and 2003's The Matrix Revolutions -- may want to think this one through before deciding whether or not to invest in this pack: Those earlier editions, crammed with countless extras (most of which are included here as well), were already pushing the edges of information overload. Yet diehard Matrix fans (and they are legion) will doubtless absorb everything included here (even if they have to take a sick day off from work to do so), and admittedly, the new audio commentaries provided with each film are novel: One audio track features philosophers Dr. Cornel West and Ken Wilber contemplating the series' themes, while the other offers film critics Todd McCarthy, David Thomson and John Powers discussing why they disliked the series. Other newbies include further dissections of the films' meanings and additional behind-the-scenes featurettes. As for the movies themselves, The Matrix and Reloaded deliver both brains and brawn, while Revolutions (not as bad as its reputation) focuses on the visceral impact while letting the storyline fizzle.
The Matrix Reloaded:
The Matrix Revolutions: 1/2