If you took the look of Minority Report, the existential questions of A.I. (Artificial Intelligence) and threw them in a blender with chapters from Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Star Wars - Episode Two: Attack of the Clones, and Blade Runner … then asked Will Smith to combine his characters from Men in Black, Bad Boys and Enemy of the State … you'd come up with something a lot like Alex Proyas's latest film I, Robot.

Smith is famous for showing up in July with blockbuster action films. Usually he arrives on July 4, but this year he's a few weeks late. The extra time did not help. Proyas's movie is flashy, fast-paced, and the story is promising, but the script, by Jeff Vintar and Akiva Goldsman (A Beautiful Mind, Batman Forever), feels sorely undercooked and the special effects range from decent to severely unconvincing. Smith looks lonely and stranded throughout the film—he's the only interesting human character. Everyone else seems designed to make him look smart, and they do that by saying unintelligent, dull, or merely expositional things.

It's too bad. The story sets us up to consider important questions about humankind's technological ambitions, the definition of personhood, the tendency of the masses to believe what the media or the government tell them, and the need for democratic people to stand up against powers that deceive them. As a result, the movie's more memorable moments become forgettable, overpowered by glossy but routine adventure sequences. You can almost hear the studio whispering in Proyas's ear: "More chases! More guns! More explosions! Less talk!" Perhaps the most unsettling thing about the film is the fact that a story about subversive technology and media would employ product placement so unapologetically. The Audi, JVC, and Converse logos are so prominent they could qualify as commercial breaks in the film.

My full review is at Looking Closer.

Peter T. Chattaway (Christianity Today Movies) explains that this is not Asimov's I, Robot: "The key issue here is whether human safety is ultimately the highest good, and in this, the film completely turns Asimov's vision on its head—and justifiably so, I think. For an atheist like Asimov, it seems benevolent machines were almost a substitute for God—potentially all-powerful beings who would not allow evil if they could help it, and who would use their supremely logical minds to save us from ourselves. I, Robot, however, suggests it would be a nightmare if humanity ever lost control of its fate like that." He describes the film as "not entirely sure what it wants to say, or what it wants to do. Like the robots in Asimov's stories, it is caught between conflicting impulses, and it ends up paralyzed."

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Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says, "The filmmakers borrowed one of Asimov's titles, the name of one of his central characters, and the three laws of robotics that govern his robot stories. They then ignored everything else that Asimov has to offer in order to make the same special-effects-happy action movie that the Hollywood machine churns out every summer. Those expecting an intelligent, thoughtful treatment on the moral and ethical questions Asimov explores in his stories will be disappointed."

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) agrees that it bears "only the slightest thematic resemblance to the short stories." He concludes, "For a popcorn movie, it navigates some surprisingly thought-provoking terrain, though many of its ruminations about artificial intelligence and the ensoulment of technology remain philosophical carrots, dangled tantalizingly but never fully explored."

Barbara Nicolosi (Church of the Masses) comments, "I generally enjoy Will Smith, but this project is as close to watching him prostitute himself as I have ever seen. There just isn't much for [Smith] to do here except swagger around modeling clothes and selling cars and sound-systems. This movie is so superficial in its treatment of a big theme, that I thought for a moment I was watching a Steven Spielberg film."

Phil Boatwright (CBN) writes, "It takes an extremely skilled directorial hand to be able to balance heady issues within the action/fantasy format. If the filmmaker goes too far one way, the result can be a bleak, melodramatic experience. If he goes too far in the other direction, the film can be silly nonsense with only one redeeming quality—CGI effects. Here, the director tries to address themes of liberty, individual purpose and free will, but his exploration of human emotions seems superficial at times, while at other times they simply get overshadowed by endless car chases and battle scenes."

Annabelle Robertson (Crosswalk) calls Proyas "a relative newcomer." (He directed The Crow a decade ago; Dark City in 1998, which Roger Ebert praised as the best picture of year; and Garage Days in 2002.) "The film," she writes, "asks us to ponder the question of whether technology liberates or enslaves us. Overall, I, Robot is a good action movie that raises some interesting political and theological questions that are well worth discussing."

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Tom Neven (Plugged In) calls it "a stylish thriller with a few unexpected twists and turns. The film implicitly and explicitly asks many … meaningful questions. If your family decides to brave I, Robot's action violence and gloss over its coarse language to witness the machines of the future battle the Will Smith of today, make sure to discuss things such as Utilitarianism and free will afterwards."

Sheri McMurray (Christian Spotlight) seems bewildered by the film's portrayal of futuristic technology. "Are we really capable of some or even all of the technology depicted in this current summer addition to the blockbuster arena? The ultimate question for Christians is: 'Would our God allow mankind to go this far in 30 years or at any time in the not so distant future?' A closer study through Revelation and Daniel is in order." She concludes that the film is "a well rounded sci-fi mystery thriller. The whole thing worked because the actors and visual effects worked seamlessly together."

Mainstream critics are split over whether the film is worth seeing, but few of them muster much enthusiasm for it.

Is A Cinderella Story "too childish" even for kids?

Right now in theatres, a popular young actress has stepped up into a more mature role as an intelligent high school student in a film that takes a complex look at the social dynamics of school and the challenges facing young people today. The movie is an intelligent and surprising satire, a smart alternative to the routine teen comedy. The movie is called Mean Girls, and the star is Lindsay Lohan.

Meanwhile, Hilary Duff continues to play "cherubic" adolescents in typical fairy tale formulas. According to most critics, A Cinderella Story is just the "Teenage Girls Should Have Faith in Themselves" movie of the month.

Peter T. Chattaway (Christianity Today Movies) writes, "I took a friend's 10-year-old daughter to see the film, and she found it 'too childish.' And who am I to argue with a member of this film's target audience?"

He also describes the media-celebrated rivalry between Duff and Lohan. "Whatever might be going on behind the scenes, it is probably fair to say that Duff is losing the battle for big-screen supremacy. While Lohan has shown impressive range and lent her wide-eyed, crinkle-faced bewilderment to such intelligent romps as Freaky Friday and Mean Girls, Duff is all cherubic cuteness and bland perkiness; she doesn't have much of a screen presence, and she often rattles off her lines as though she has just learned them and wants to get them out of the way before they fade from her memory."

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Lacey Mical Callahan (Christian Spotlight) says, "The love story of this film is actually not based on lust as are most silver screen flings. Because they have formed a relationship on the Internet, the two do not even know what each other looks like. The downside of portraying this Internet romance is that it encourages some unsafe behavior. Bottom line, this movie probably does not have something for the whole family, but it is a cute chick flick for a mother-daughter outing."

"Duff has yet to show any range beyond what she has already displayed as Lizzie Maguire," says Michael Elliott (Movie Parables). "She manages to smile, cry, and stare blankly on cue which is all that is really asked of her. It is a 'safe' performance in a 'safe' film. Parents with young children will be pleased. I'm not so sure about the rest of us."

Steven Isaac (Plugged In) says, "While the structure of this film's plot follows that of the age-old Cinderella fairy tale, it's feel is that of a half-hour Disney series." He then sums up the film's rather shallow conclusions: "Happily ever after only comes to those who make it happen for themselves. Princes will fail you. Moms will neglect you. Friends may even flake out on you. But none of that matters if you do the right thing, conserve water, watch out for the less fortunate and go to the college of your choice."

Annabelle Robertson (Crosswalk) praises the filmmakers for the movie's "lack of obscenities (one exception only), profanities and nudity, although the potty humor could and should have been bypassed as well. It truly takes the film down a notch to see young women passing gas in a pool."

Robertson concludes that A Cinderella Story "fails to achieve any cinematic heights and offers a trite moral message. It's also a blatant advertisement for teenage dating and romance. The cheesiest part of the film is its message, which consists of banalities like 'believe in yourself' and 'have faith in yourself'—all cliché s without any real substance."

Ted Baehr (Movieguide), who insists that the writers on his site are "not film reviewers," calls A Cinderella Story "one of the three best produced movies of the summer of 2004 … a must-see movie for all ages. … "[The movie] should be used in script classes to help demonstrate good scriptwriting. Bravo! It's the perfect complement to Spider-man 2." Moreover, he says Duff "does a terrific job in this movie expressing nuanced emotions in a profound yet humorous way."

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Meanwhile, only about 11% of mainstream critics are willing to give A Cinderella Story a thumbs-up. Most of them agree with Karen Karbo (The Oregonian), who calls it a "poorly written, poorly acted exercise in banality and studio greed."

Critics trip over The Door in the Floor

Author John Irving's popular novels of broken relationships and needy hearts have made for hits and misses on the big screen. Following The World According to Garp, The Cider House Rules, and A Prayer for Owen Meany (which came to the big screen as Simon Birch), now the novel A Widow for One Year has arrived, adapted as The Door in the Floor.

Director Tod Williams (The Adventures of Sebastian Cole) cast Jeff Bridges and Kim Basinger in the lead roles of this story about a troubled marriage. Both Marion and Ted Cole are keeping secrets that damage their relationship and make them vulnerable to misbehavior and denial.

The story poses Christian press reviewers with a challenge—a narrative that honors the ideal of marriage while portraying people who make foolish and drastic decisions. Mainstream critics are celebrating the film as one of the most challenging and profound releases of the year, and some are suggesting that Jeff Bridges should earn another Oscar nomination. Few religious press critics have reviewed the film as yet.

A review from the Catholic News Service is not encouraging: "Failing to resonate on an emotional level … Williams' film attempts to examine the strain of grief on a marriage, but remains superficial as selfish characters manipulate vulnerabilities, leaving innocent victims in their wake."

Todd Campbell (Christian Spotlight) says, "This movie is very offensive, with strong sexuality and graphic images, including frontal nudity. If you struggle with fleshly desires, do not see this movie."

Low profile films earn high volume raves from Christian film critics

Seattle Weekly described Napoleon Dynamite, a comedy about a high school geek in Preston, Idaho, as "supernaturally lethargic." Jon Heder plays the quirky hero who must deal with a family that redefines dysfunction. The film has been in theatres for a few weeks now, and many mainstream critics are praising it as one of the summer's funniest films, but few religious press critics have seen it.

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says, "The film is riding a ground swell of enthusiastic support as it begins to open in more and more theaters nationwide. There are two reasons why. The first is a brilliant and memorable characterization by newcomer Jon Heder. The second is a solid screenplay co written by director Jared Hess that absolutely nails its depiction of the 'uncool' members of high school life. Heder is a laugh riot as Napoleon. By underplaying all of the character's quirks and absurdities he brings an aura of familiarity to the role. It's as if we kind of remember someone like him in high school. Of course, we never got to know him real well because, back then, it wouldn't have been cool to be seen with him."

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The heavy metal rock band Metallica is the focus of a new documentary that chronicles a time of tension and transition for the band. The film Metallica: Some Kind of Monster was made by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, the acclaimed documentarians who gave us Brother's Keeper and Paradise Lost. Mainstream critics are describing it as "a riveting, intricate psychodrama" (The New York Times).

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says, "While the film does present some interesting perspectives on Metallica's difficulties during this time, most of the film is spent with the group being just a tad too self-conscious of the camera's presence. We get the feeling that they are censoring themselves and framing their responses for the film instead of honestly expressing their thoughts and feelings. Occasionally, as in the example above, there is a moment of genuineness that breaks through but there aren't enough of them to sustain the film." He adds that the film is, surprisingly, not about "sex, drugs, and rock and roll," but rather about "family, therapy, and business royalties."

Director Joshua Marston has made an impressive debut with the film Maria Full of Grace, which he wrote in English and then had translated into Spanish. The film follows a pregnant woman who moves from Columbia to New York, working as a "drug mule" by swallowing packages of heroin. The deeper she becomes involved in drug trafficking, the more resourceful she must become in order to survive and make a new life. Most mainstream critics hail it as a compelling thriller that should hold the interest of American audiences who are not usually interested in subtitled films.

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says, "Marston grafts human drama onto what could have been a conventional crime thriller, crafting a film that is emotionally affecting. Avoiding any trace of sentimentality, the film effectively conveys the alienation experienced by immigrants. It also paints a compelling portrait of desperation, showing the extremes to which the poor, especially those from Third World countries, will go in order to secure a higher quality of life for themselves and their families."

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Best movie currently playing has great performances by … camels?

Last week, Film Forum featured reviews of The Story of the Weeping Camel. I have to lend my own applause to the roar of approval from other critics: This is one of the year's finest films. Unfortunately, the film is only playing in a few theatres around the country. If the camels come to your town, don't miss them.

Next week: Let's review Catwoman and get it overwith. Plus, The Bourne Supremacy looks like the summer's most intelligent action movie.