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'Robot' missing substance to match its hype

March 12, 2004|Manohla Dargis | Times Staff Writer

There's little doubt that Greg Pak, the young writer-director of "Robot Stories," has plenty of moxie. Since Pak finished production on his debut feature in 2002, the anthology film about humans and their machine counterparts has screened in 50 festivals from Greece to Portugal, South Korea, Spain, Italy and Daytona Beach, Fla. Along the way, "Robot Stories" has copped more than two-dozen awards, earned blurb-worthy praise in legitimate news outlets and landed its creator an interview with Terry Gross on National Public Radio's talk show "Fresh Air."

That's impressive for an unknown filmmaker, all the more so because "Robot Stories" isn't any good. I don't say this lightly. There's no pleasure in giving new directors bad reviews and it's especially unpleasant when what's wrong with their work isn't a clumsy performance or two, a sagging second act or a repugnant worldview, but a near-total absence of filmmaking talent. Badly photographed and directed in cruddy-looking digital video, with jerry-built production values that alternately bring to mind first-year film school and Ed Wood Jr., "Robot Stories" is barely watchable and only because some of the actors seem to know their way around a film set. So estimable is Pak's perseverance (he's also co-distributing the film) that he even managed to get some recognizable names on board.

To that end, Tamlyn Tomita almost transcends the cliches of her role in the first story, "My Robot Baby," about a female executive who has ambition to burn, but comes up short on maternal instincts. Tomita, an alumna of the movie adaptation of "The Joy Luck Club," brings warmth and an appreciable undercurrent of incredulity to a role that requires her to prove her Mommy-ness by cuddling a watermelon-size robot the color of Pepto-Bismol.

As her husband, James Saito keeps a dignified profile, as does veteran actor Sab Shimono. Along with the fine actress Eisa Davis, Shimono stirs up some real feeling in the film's final and strongest story, "Clay," about an elderly sculptor who wants to be immortalized by his art rather than the latest in funerary technology.

In its programmatic march through the Ages of Man, "Robot Stories" takes on death (in the story "The Robot Fixer") and Eros (in "Machine Love," with Pak himself playing a robot hunk) with even less success. Pak has clearly absorbed his share of science fiction and he's come up with some clever enough if familiar conceits involving men, women and machines, all of which have been explored to vastly superior effect in films as diverse as "The Terminator" and "AI Artificial Intelligence." Although he's locked onto a few potentially ripe metaphors -- the woman who comes across as more inhuman than her mechanized child, the robot that behaves more passionately than its flesh-and-blood colleagues -- Pak doesn't yet possess the filmmaking gifts that can transform platitudes into poetry, moxie into magic.

*

'Robot Stories'

MPAA rating: Unrated

Times guidelines: Some discreet lovemaking

Tamlyn Tomita...Marcia

Wai Ching Ho...Bernice

Greg Pak...Archie

Sab Shimono...John Lee

Eisa Davis...Helen

Released by Pak Film and Shotwell Media. Writer-director Greg Pak. Producers Pak, Kim Ima. Director of photography Peter Olsen. Editor Stephanie Sterner. Production designer Shane P. Klein. Composer Rick Knutsen. Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes.

Exclusively at Laemmle's Fairfax, 7907 Beverly Blvd. (323) 655-4010 and Laemmle's One Colorado Cinemas, 43 Miller Alley, Pasadena (626) 744-1224.

Pak will appear Friday, Saturday and Sunday at all shows at the Fairfax; co-producer Karin Chien will appear Friday, Saturday and Sunday at all shows at the One Colorado.

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