Monday, September 17, 2012

Robot & Frank

Bottom line: Robot & Frank is a great movie that takes the idea of disjoint elder and youth and gives it a modern twist. It is a funny movie and Langella's acting is spot on.

Robot & Frank is about, well, Frank. In his youth, he was a cat burglar. He planned the robberies of high-end jewels and things that would be paid for by the 'greedy insurance companies'. That is how the movie justifies the whole threat plot device (“It’s ok, because no one is paying for it per se). Now, Frank is older and going senile. He and his wife divorced thirty years before and he has been living alone ever since. His daughter, Madison (Tyler), calls from Turkmenistan whenever she has a break from her non-profit work. Frank's son, Hunter (Marsden), drives the ten hour trip every week to check on things. To ease the trouble for himself and his family, Hunter purchases a very expensive caretaker robot (Sarsgaard) to help Frank around the house. The robot is a sort of in house nurse but from the ‘near future’. Frank vehemently opposes the robot but, when he hears the alternative is a nursing home, accepts the appliance. Although Frank is slowing losing his mind, he holds onto his skills as a thief, regularly stealing from the bath shop and neighbors and practices picking locks. As soon as he learns that the robot doesn't incorporate the law into its programming (the robot inadvertently steals a bar of soap) Frank teaches the robot to be his accomplice: how to pick locks and crack safes. The work involved with planning a heist, be it an antique copy of Don Quixote (how symbolic of Frank's mental state) or millions of dollars in jewels, gives Frank much needed mental stimulation.

A big theme in Robot & Frank is about the relationship between youth and their elders. We have Madison, who is youthfully focused on her non-profit work abroad. This isn't to say she is bad or wrong for wanting to help. She loves her father. She regularly calls and even offers to stay as long as he needs. She just has her own life which can over shadow the needs of her father. Her dogmatic belief against "robot slavery", for example, prevents her from seeing the positive effect the robot has on her father. Hunter acts similarly. It isn't that he doesn't care about his father (he does make the ten hour drive) but it comes across as a chore. Initially, I objected to how the son and daughter were characterized as children. But, the more I thought about it, the more I felt it was a relatively realistic scenario. By the end of the movie, the family is brought together in order to care for Frank. They have lunch together and go for a walk. They all laugh and talk but the experience isn’t without a fair share of annoyance. These highs and lows mirror the sense of humor. But, first, let me talk about the young yuppie Jake (Jeremy Strong).

He is the closest thing we have to a villain and he is almost painful to watch. He is so clearly a child and, as such, he becomes a lame comic relief: he whines, he plays with toys and, as his wealth comes from his attorney wife, he doesn't really work. Alright, sure, he is a "consultant...whatever that means". In one scene, he brings the sheriff to Frank's house to accuse him of theft. The low-angle shot physically places him in the position of a spoiled brat complaining to an adult. As if it wasn't obvious enough, his wife even calls him a baby.

Anyway, I mentioned the high and lows. That is, one minute we are laughing, then next we are sad. That is a big part of the movie and a make a great experience. In order to stop people from toying with the robot, Frank tells the robot to say "Self-destruct sequence initiated..." and count down from 10. At one point, police and Jake are trying to access the robot's memory so it says the line he was taught. Everyone but Hunter runs out of the house. He calmly sits on the steps near the robot. When the countdown ends, he bitterly says "He is just lying like he always does." I am so used to the scenario where the countdown ends, the characters look out from behind their hiding spot and then scene ends. To end it with an angry sentiment is really refreshing. It doesn’t spoil the humor it actually makes the experience deeper. Robot & Frank feels more worthwhile than something that just makes you laugh.

Directed by Jake Schreier. Written by Christopher D. Ford. Starring Peter Sarsgaard (Robot), Frank Langella (Frank), Susan Sarandon (Jennifer), Liv Tyler (Madison), James Marsden (Hunter)


Bottom line: Brutal but not gratuitous violence, lovely cinematography and good acting make Lawless a solid crime story.

Lawless opens with three kids in a barn standing over a pig pen. We cycle through close-ups and extreme-closeups of the kids and a long shot of the pig. Two of the children goad the third, who holds a rifle, into shooting the pig. Reloading, the boy hobbles through the mud. He aims but cannot pull the trigger. One of the other boys lets out a sigh as he pulls a revolver out of his pants and shoots the pigs. Cut to a helicopter shot of autumnal tree tops in Virginia and an extreme long shot of a jalopy winding through an empty road.

Let me first think about Shia LeBeouf. I’m always worried when I see him in a film and Lawless is no exception. I grew up with him on Even Stevens and, in my mind, he has never escaped the goofy little brother role. The inherent problem with LaBeouf is that he breaks all immersion. When I see him in this picture, I don't think "Oh, it is a bootlegger from Virginia." I think, "Oh, it's Shia LaBeouf. Let's see if he can play this role." In Lawless, his performance was pretty good darn good. He is beat up by Special Deputy Rakes (Pearce), I thought to myself "Sheesh, I don't think I act as good as LaBeouf; that is a really convincing cry." I saw a post on Reddit the other day asking if big name stars were a distraction to a movie. I don’t think they are, well, unless the star is Shia LeBouf.

Now, Tom Hardy is a tried-and-true big, burly, quiet guy. Now that I think about it, Hardy just replays his performance from Bronson. He is a fighter. He is a man who stands for his principles. He doesn't say much and does a lot of staring. Is he calculating? Is he just drawing a blank? I don't know. Maybe that is his appeal. He is an “invincible” entity that fights against those who bring his family and friends harm and, knowing this, we assume that he is calculating whenever he silently stars.

I hesitate to say that this movie was 'pretty' because, in the words of Dave Kehr, "Translated, 'beautifully photographed' generally turns out to mean that the film contains an unusually large number of mountain ranges and/or desert plains, preferably with the sun rising or setting somewhere in the immediate is an easy way to make a film seem larger, more powerful, than it really is." I feel a similar way about extreme closeups: giving sad puppy dog eyes doesn't equate to a genuine emotional response. I’m lookin’ at you, Blood In, Blood Out.

How, then, am I supposed to take Lawless? Long shots and close-ups are the main two types of shots. It comes down to the question of what these shots are saying. Are they helping the story? Are they leading us to a deeper truth? Two shots stick out to me.

The first is of Jack and Forrest. They are talking in the family restaurant. Jack was just beat up by Rakes. He is out of focus, left of the frame in the foreground. Forrest, in focus, is staring out of the frame to the left. The two brothers are very close and very close to us. We understand how Jack is feeling: he is embarrassed, scared and angry. Knowing this, we don't have to focus on him. But, Forrest we don't really understand. We are in the same boat as Jack. He wants to be a part of his brother's world. Despite how close Jack is to Forrest there will always be an element of mystery.

The second shot is a long shot of the restaurant. Jack sits, crying, at a table. Forrest stands back turned at the bar. The space between the two dominate the shot. It emphasizes how far the two have grown. Forrest is standing just where he did in the earlier sequence but Jack, who has tried to forge his own path, finds himself in a similar state: broken and crying.

So these shots hint at something more but I can't quite place what. Maybe it is because of my inexperience but, well, it doesn't quite do it for me. Now, it isn't a trashy movie with beautiful pictures. I would say it is a movie with beautiful images and a pretty decent story. It isn't earth shattering but I recommend it for a weekend movie-rental or matinee.
Directed by John Hillcoat. Written by Nick Cave (screenplay) and Matt Bondurant (novel). Starring Tom Hardy (Forrest Bondurant), Shia LaBeouf (Jack Bondurant) and Guy Pearce (Charlie Rakes)

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Interview With A Hitman

Bottom line: Interview With A Hitman leaves you saying "You went along way for that..." with its uninspired violence and even less inspired story.

Interview With A Hitman begins with a close-up of a handgun. A young boy is aiming at a young girl. He slowly pulls the trigger but, before we see it fire, the camera cuts to a large airplane landing. 

This initial sequence gave me a bad feeling about the movie because it could mean one of two things. If the boy killed the little girl then this is going to be one of those 'super intense/disturbing' European films. It probably won't be very good because it will be so concerned with shock effect. But, alright, I haven’t seen one of those movies in a while. Now, if the boy didn't kill the little girl, then it is going to be another cliché action movie like Hitman or Driver.

Getting off the plane, we see Viktor (Goss), the hitman. How do you know it is Viktor the hitman? Hitmen are always skinny, serious looking white men with shaved heads (see Hitman or any Jason Statham movie). He broods on over to his hotel and goes for a run. Right as he starts to jog, I thought, I bet he is going to dream about the woman he loves. Sure enough, as soon as he puts his headphones on, we are shown images of a bright white bed. He turns over to see a beautiful woman sleeping. He slides her nightgown down and we see several scars on her shoulder. I bet he saved her from an abusive world and they fell in love…

Jumping back to Viktor, we see that he wasn't just getting some exercise but scoping out his next target. You know, I am just going to summarize from here on out. I was going to talk about how this subplot of this pedophile reporter who interview Viktor to get back in the limelight but, quite frankly, it isn't worth it. In short, the rest of the movie is spent with Viktor giving his biography: He was a kid who has grown up in a poor abusive mob-run environment (Romania) and learns how to be the best hitman in the world. He does a number of jobs in Romania and London. Before he moves onto the next city, he is asked to do one more job by a London mobster. Sitting alone at an empty restaurant, Viktor has a glass of wine. This isn't part of the job. He is just getting a glass of wine. In walks a poor man’s Angelina Jolie; Caroline Tillette playing the role of Bethesda complete with plump lips, long dark hair and strong eye brows. She sits down alone and repeatedly looks over to Viktor. She gets up to leave and is jumped by three thugs. She is taken into the back to be raped while Viktor gets up to leave. He opens the front door and, suddenly, images of his abused mother come into his mind. Of course he goes back, saves her, falls in love and decides to leave the crime world.

This sexist type of "big strong man saves the attractive little lady" situation really burns me up. I think I will devote a separate post for that. It is sad that only thing refreshing about this is that there was no gratuitous nudity.

I wasn't the biggest fan of the look of the film either: lots of shadows, shifts in focus and shaky handheld camerawork. It looks like it was trying to be a Daniel Craig-James Bond/Bourne kind of movie. So nothing new, nothing inspiring is going on here.
"Was it the environment that turned him into a stone cold killer or was it his nature"? That is the big philosophical question of the movie. Unfortunately, the film doesn't really delve into it. We have an angry little kid who is willing to kill. Is it for money or power or what? It isn't really clear. Somehow he is able to, at the drop of a hat, switch away from a life of contract killing. We aren’t really involved with the story or characters.

Overall, Interview With A Hitman is just a bunch of hitman clich
és thrown into one. Don't waste your time on this one.

Written and directed by Perry Bhandal. Starring Luke Goss (Viktor), Caroline Tillette (Bethesda) and Stephen Marcus (Traffikant)

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Hard to Kill

Directed by Bruce Malmuth. Written by Steven McKay. Starring Steven Seagal (Mason Storm), Kelly LeBrock (Andy Stewart) and William Sadler (Senator Vernon Trent)

Bottom Line: This is a slow, drawn-out ordeal of a movie with no action or dialogue or plot to help. I don't even recommend it as a popcorn movie.

What is the first thing that comes to mind when I think about Hard to Kill? Actually, the only thing that comes out is a sigh of disappointment. In the first hour of this hour and a half long movie, there were two short fight scenes. The rest of the time was spent trying to make a deep story.

Other than simply saying that this was a boring, let me tell you a bit more about the movie. Seagal is a cop, Mason Storm (what a name!) who was on the trail of a big drug deal. He video tapes a meeting between the criminals. They get wind of the surveillance tape and try to kill Storm, his wife and son. Unfortunately for them, Storm is...hard to kill. He does go into a coma for 7 years (during which time the younger-than-his-dead-wife nurse, Andy (LeBrock) falls in love with him) and wakes up in 1990.

There is a gripping chase scene where Seagal tries to escape a hit man after waking from his coma. After seven years, his leg muscles have atrophied so he has to push his way around on a hospital bed. He is rescued by that nurse who nurses him back to health. After what seems like an eternity, he regains enough strength to do a training montage.

Now that Storm is back to his youthful strength he's ready to kill all the bad guys, oh yeah, and be reunited with his son...but more importantly kill all the bad guys!

By the end of the movie, I wonder how successful a family the Storms will be. Sonny Storm (the son) saw his parents killed with he was young and, years later, watches as another father figure is killed all the while his actual father is killing a dozen men with his bare hands. Andy is introduced wearing three buttons: a kitten, "We Try Harder" and, "The 'F' Word" crossed out in red. With regard to that last button, Seagal says to one of the villains "That's for my wife. Fuck you and die," before stabbing the guy in the neck with a broken pool cue. That's the recipe for a stable healthy family.

There is so much time and energy spent trying to develop the story which can be boiled down to: Criminals killed Cop's family, Cop gets revenge.

Overall because of the lame story, stupid dialogue, and lack of action, I don't recommend Hard to Kill. If there were more lines like "I'm going to take you to the bank...the blood bank", then it could be kinda fun as a joke.

Thoughts on Spoilers...

When discussing movies, there's always the subject of spoilers. The discussion includes not only whether or not they are ok, but the definition of a spoiler.

In the case of my brother-in-law, unless a movie is out for a couple of years, spoilers are of the worst crimes. 'Bruce Willis is dead in The Sixth Sense' is fair game, for example, but he wouldn't be okay with something like 'The ending of The Cabin in the Woods has that whole hand-thing...' (I tried to think of something only mildly offensive for the sake of discussion).

I, on the other-hand, believe that it isn't about the ending, it is about the journey. I took some film classes in school and spoilers are one of the first things you get over. To have a discussion about a film or to read papers about a film, it is assumed you have seen it so there are no such things as spoilers.

I say this, I suppose, as something of a disclaimer for what I write on this blog. I will try not to tell you anything unless it is relevant for the discussion.

Do let me know if you object to them and maybe I will try to watch what I reveal about a movie.