Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Mechanical Man

Frank and friend case the joint.

««««  Robot and Frank. Written Christoper D. Ford. Directed by Jake Schreier.

It's the best of times and the worst of times for movie science fiction, but mostly just the latter. Though supreme at the box office, most onscreen science fiction has become the equivalent of the historical epics of the '50s and early '60's: empty spectacle, concocted by deeply unimaginative people to put fannies in the seats. Jules Verne and H.G. Wells didn't pioneer the genre to give the world the likes of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen--or even brainless fun like The Avengers. In a way, it was better for sci-fi a couple of generations ago, when it was a despised, B-list genre. Exceeding expectations, and challenging our complacence, was easier then.
            So we're thankful for Jake Schreier's Robot and Frank, a small drama about some very big ideas. Frank Langella plays Frank, a septuagenarian ex-con living (or more precisely, "enduring") old age in our immediate future. Weary of the ten-hour round trip to visit him, his son (James Marsden) buys him a robot companion (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard) with the programmed goal to improve Frank's quality of life. "Let's start a garden," suggests the Robot with maddening, anodyne mildness. "Go screw yourself," grumbles Frank, who wants nothing more but to return to his former profession: breaking into people's houses.
            It's no spoiler to disclose that Frank gets his wish, although in a way he never would have anticipated. For unlike many of the much bigger movies that work this corner of the genre--AI and I, Robot come to mind--Christoper D. Ford's script for Robot and Frank recognizes that what's revolutionary about some technologies is not the technology itself, but what it brings forth in us. Where a less imaginative movie would have dwelled on the robot's "humanity", this one is more concerned with the possibility of human beings behaving humanely.
            Frank Langella is pitch-perfect. He's adrift in his world, both because it has left him behind and because aging is increasingly making him a stranger to himself. Langella shows flashes of Eastwood-esque crabbiness here, but seems to recognize that would be too obvious a choice. Instead, his character comes alive when he shows a child-like delight in his misbehavior, aided and abetted by his surprising accomplice.
            There's a Jobsian sleekness to the Robot, stylishly devoid of toggles and gyros and the other dagmars of classic robotdom. Sarsgaard voices it/him some of the same all-too-programmed compassion of HAL in 2001, as if some attitude switch is permanently set to "patronizing". When Ford has him declare to Frank "In the same way you know you are alive, I know I'm not," one can just about hear Descartes rolling in his tomb ("I think I am not, therefore I am not--?"). In this and many other ways, Robot and Frank is a genuine sleeper: the kind of movie that comes out of nowhere to remind you why you're sitting there in the dark. Not to be missed. 
© 2012 Nicholas Nicastro

Wednesday, August 22, 2012


Galifianakis and Ferrell, on the hustings.

«« The Campaign. Written by Chris Henchy & Shawn Harwell. Directed by Jay Roach. 
Marx said that figures plays their roles in history first as tragedy, then as farce. Now that we are in our umpteenth national campaign season, the American Politician has apparently gone way beyond farce, deep into poop and pee joke territory. Or at least that's how it seems in Jay Roach's comedy of political ineptness, The Campaign.
            Now you might go into this movie with the tradition of Hollywood movies about politics in mind--films like The Candidate, Primary Colors, Bob Roberts, Bulworth, among others. That, of course, would be a mistake, because director Roach is the one who gave us Meet the Parents, Austin Powers, Dinner for Schmucks and other comedies of social embarrassment--as well as Game Change, an HBO movie that was about Sarah Palin and therefore, by the very nature of its subject, embarrassing.
            And so Roach earns his paycheck in his usual way, offering up episodes of grotesque humiliation on the part of two candidates for Congress in the great state of North Carolina. The Democratic incumbent, Cam Brady (Will Ferrell) is an egomaniac with the intellectual heft of George W. Bush and the libido of Bill Clinton. He's used to running unopposed in his deeply blue district, but after he drunkenly misdials a fundamentalist Christian family instead of his mistress ("I want to get freaky with our tongues..."), a pair of scheming CEOs called the "Motch" brothers sense an opportunity. They bankroll the swishy but sweet Marty Huggins (Zach Galifianakis) to run on the Republican ticket. The mud-fight that follows includes Cam giving a baby a slug across the jaw, a public cuckholding for Marty, and some old-school backwoods hunting, Dick Cheney-style.
            Now it's undeniable that, for satirists, the modern American political landscape offers up a target-rich environment. When making comedy about this subject, the problem isn't finding material but staying ahead of it, keeping the satire one step beyond the absurd reality. Unfortunately, Roach and screenwriters Chris Henchy and Shawn Harwell interpret this challenge as a license not for a more cutting, more sophisticated kind of absurdity, but to go juvenile, to give us the Dumb and Dumber of campaign movies.
            There are some laughs here, to be sure--especially to folks like yours truly, in close touch with his inner child. Ferrell has a lock on this kind of role, combining a big physical presence with breathtaking idiocy in a way that is unique to him. Galifianakis, who has the talent to take on "straight" roles a la Robin Williams, is a good foil as he plays a personality much smaller and milder than his girth. And Henchy and Harwell are right to take particular aim at the consequences of the Supreme Court's disastrous Citizens United decision, which legitimized the sale of our politics to corporate raiders like the "Motch" (Koch) brothers.
            But the likely effect of dopey material like The Campaign isn't a more savvy, active citizenry. Instead, it will promote the kind of complacent resignation that shrugs its shoulders and says "They're all crooked jackasses, so why bother?" At the end of the film the chastened Cam and Marty atone for their antics by daring to be honest about themselves to the public. "I once farted in an elevator and blamed an innocent woman," says Marty; "I never read the bills I vote on," grants Cam, admitting that he prefers to sit in his office and play Words with Friends. The film's call for personal honesty in politics sounds good, but misses the larger point: we don't necessarily need politicians to tell us the truth about themselves. We need them to tell the truth about the state of our country.
            Imagine someone in power actually said we can't have a robust social safety net, a military bigger than the next 25 countries, decent infrastructure, first-rate education and science, a climate we can live with, and low taxes, all at the same time. Imagine him or her saying we need to chose five from that list, and maybe as few as three. Imagine that, and it's hard to hear anybody laughing. But it would more helpful than any movie.   

© 2012 Nicholas Nicastro 

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Why So Serious?

Bane and the Bat struggle to avoid tears.

««1/2  The Dark Knight Rises. Written by Jonathan Nolan, Christopher Nolan & David S. Goyer. Directed by Christopher Nolan. 

Been away for a while, but only because I've been watching The Dark Knight Rises, the epic end of Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy that seems to go on about two weeks. Anybody who has been following Nolan's career knows what I'm talking about: from his spare, practically perfect Memento through The Prestige, Inception, and his Dark Knight opuses, his work has gotten increasingly overblown. Unlike much half-baked Hollywood product, made with the aim of making a fast buck, Nolan's films are obsessively fussed over, like the work of a sculptor who can't put down his chisel. That's not necessarily a bad thing--Kubrick, for instance, gave the same impression. But Christopher Nolan doesn't have the rigor of Kubrick. Lately, his films have become Rube Goldberg machines, baroque constructs festooned with more ideas than they can possibly work out. Dark Knight Rises is only the latest--and most gaseously expansive--instance.
            Number three is set eight years after The Dark Knight ends. Batman (Christian Bale) is an outlaw after selflessly taking the blame for the crimes of Two-Face; Bruce Wayne has become a recluse rumored never to have foot-long nails and piss in mason jars. He's pulled back into circulation by the arrival of a new super-villain: a hulking, improbably well-spoken mercenary (Tom Hardy) called Bane. Indeed, in The Road Warrior, this character was called "Humungus" and was identical to Hardy's right down to the squirty cranial arteries and delusions of grandeur. But we don't come to Batman movies for originality, so never mind.
            The Caped Crusader gets a frenemy this time in the sleek form of Catwoman (Anne Hathaway). She's a cat burglar with serious skills but no wealth to show for it--she's "in with the wrong people" but the script never explains how (a problem with gambling on the ponies, perhaps?). In fact, Hathaway plays the typical "girl gone bad in the city", making all the wrong choices to keep ahead of the rent. That she can rock a cat suit, and has played catty women in just about every movie she's been in, makes casting her pretty much a "can't miss" enterprise.
            Explaining how these costumes and the other characters (Gary Oldman, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Marion Cotillard) fit in to the two and three quarter hours of overstuffed plot is beyond the scope of this little column. Alas, the script's complexity is too often its weakness. As the thing hurtles onward, we wonder why Bane needs to shoot up the whole Gotham City Stock Exchange just to make some fraudulent trades, when a memory stick in the right USB jack would do just as well. We wonder why Bane feels compelled to torture the city before blowing it up. We wonder but then forget, because the thing is endless and there's always something new to puzzle about.
            It is interesting how Nolan is determined to make a superhero movie without ever admitting he's making a superhero movie. Catwoman gets her cat ears here, except they're actually night-vision specks that she happens to flip up on her head; the script by Nolan (and his brother Jonathan) contains just enough police procedural argot to give it a dash of Sidney Lumet-ish grit. He seems to want to have it both ways, to reach for epic sweep with his feet dunked in urban decay. The combination doesn't always work--the Wagnerian ruffles sometimes seem silly in service of a guy in a bat suit. Sometimes you just want to tell Nolan to relax--this is a comic book, not Götterdämmerung. There isn't a single scene with Michael Caine's Alfred that doesn't end with the old chap in tears.
            One day dissertations will be written about the influence of the current political atmosphere on superhero movies, and vice versa. Nolan's villains are obviously inspired by the modern suicide terrorist, who can't be deterred because he aspires to nothing but destruction. Deeper down, though, the movies are about the scope and role of government. Batman opposes Bane and The Joker, but he shares with them the resources to out-gun and out-smart official authority--the privatization of justice and crime. In the widest sense, Nolan wants to get at our anxieties about this new world, this "winner take all" society where ordinary individuals count for less and less.          
            One nice thing about this Dark Knight is how it acknowledges that the best superhero doesn't solve everyone's problems, but inspires the rest of us to become heroes. In The Avengers, the people of New York (Gotham City) just stood around and watched as the Marvel Dream Team saved the world. Here, the final confrontation is a collective affair, with Batman a little like William Wallace with better equipment. It's just too bad this Wallace doesn't have a sense of humor.             
 © 2012 Nicholas Nicastro