Robot & Frank (2012)

robotfrankIf Amour and Trouble With The Curve didn’t float your OAP boat, how about this for a pitch – Frank Langella goes on crime spree with adorable robotic butler. That may sound more like something Michael Bay would direct, but fear not, Robot & Frank is less concerned with blowing shit up and more comfortable with gentle humour, heartfelt observations and robots that make funnies.

Living in the ‘near future’, 70-year-old Frank (Langella) is having problems with his memory. Residing alone in an isolated wood-side house, his place is a tip and his grown-up kids only seem to communicate with him via the TV-phone. When he refuses to move into a ‘memory centre’ (read: retirement home), Frank’s son (James Marsden) comes up with an innovative solution: give dad a robot butler.

A hi-tech humanoid with the voice of Peter Sarsgaard, the ’bot wastes no time putting Frank on both a schedule and a diet. Though Frank is initially annoyed at the intrusion (“That thing is gonna murder me in my sleep”), he soon finds a use for the robot as an accomplice in his latest jewel heist.

Admittedly, that last development is a bit of a stretch, but Robot & Frank pulls it off thanks to its infectious, knowing sense of fun. It’s a ‘what if’ for anybody with grumpy old grandparents, and the film offers a frighteningly realistic glimpse at a future where people are even more tech-reliant than they are now. With a nostalgic backward glance, Robot & Frank serves up micro-cars, see-through phones and symphonic orchestras that are scarily plausible.

Tech aside, Langella’s the real marvel here. Acting for the most part against nothing more than an emotionless mannequin, he’s fantastic, playing the cantankerous old man (think Up’s Mr Fredricksen minus the soft edges) with surprising sensitivity. And though first-time feature director Jake Schreier keeps the tone light, he never lets us forget that Frank is mentally fragile – a fact that’s given unexpected poignancy when Frank realises he’ll have to erase his robot’s memory as it’s evidence of his planned heist.

At its core, though, Robot & Frank is a fantastic futuristic buddy caper with an inexhaustibly quotable script (by Comedy Central scribe Christopher D. Ford). It’s full of lovely ideas (check out the scene in which Frank’s robot attempts to parlay with Susan Sarandon’s retro library ’bot), meaning that though Robot & Frank has an android at its centre, its heart is definitely in the right place. 4/5

Via Grolsch Film Works

The Paperboy (2012)

kinopoisk.ruGrainy, sweat-smeared and more kitsch than an Elvis Presley bedspread, The Paperboy has a title that sounds like a made-for-TV Disney movie, but it’s easily the most outrageous film of the year. A kaleidoscope of murder, sex and violence, Lee Daniels’ (Precious) third directorial effort is a swampy oddity as brazen as it is wilfully bizarre.

The year is 1969 and Miami Times reporter Ward Jansen (Matthew McConaughey) has just returned home to Florida with colleague Yardley (David Oyelowo) in tow. They’re researching the story of Florida resident Charlotte (Nicole Kidman), a perma-tanned blonde bombshell who’s been writing to a prisoner on death row.

Charlotte’s convinced that inmate Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack) is innocent of the murder of Sheriff Thurmond Call, and she wants Ward to help her prove it. Roping in younger brother Jack (Zac Efron) to help, Ward leads this strange band of truth-seekers into dark, alligator-infested waters.

Adapted from Pete Dexter’s 1995 novel, The Paperboy is a trashy neo-noir populated with the kind of characters that rarely see the light of day in mainstream movies. From Macy Gray’s sardonic, long-suffering housemaid (who also provides a rasping narration) to Kidman’s beautifully complex Barbie, it’s the characters that make Paperboy riveting from start to finish despite a catalogue of sins.

Those sins are, in all honesty, plentiful. Frequently lacking in focus and devoid of tension when it’s needed, Daniels’ film tumbles along making casual remarks about racism and sexuality that never really carry much weight. The film’s often messy, unsure just which story it really wants to tell, and its central mystery is distracting instead of intriguing.

So why the four stars? Well, all of that can be accepted (if not excused) in the captivating presence of The Paperboy’s unconventional players. Efron and Kidman are the heart of the film, both adrift, both toying with conventional ideas of beauty. She enjoys his covetous gazes, in turn playing up to his image of her (according to Gray’s narration) as “his mama, high school sweetheart and an oversexed Barbie doll all at once”. The Paperboy isn’t looking for easy answers; it’s content with the rough and tumble as it deals out killer one-liners and instantly iconic images.

If Efron’s growing maturity impresses, and Kidman’s gung-ho approach thrills, it’s Cusack who’s the real surprise here. Dirty in more ways than one, he’s a revelation as sex-obsessed inmate Hillary, and central to many of Paperboy’s most memorable moments – including a ‘psychic’ sex scene with Kidman that has to be seen to be believed.

Flying its freak flag with pride, Daniels’ film is a weird, mesmerising ball of contradictions, buoyed by the strength of its performances, but also aesthetically gorgeous (it was shot on Super 16, which gives the film a lovely grubby look). It’s sexy, shocking and stylish, and you’ve never seen anything like it. 4/5

Via Grolsch Film Works

Rise Of The Guardians (2012)

It sounds like the opening to a potentially offensive joke. Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy walk into a bar…

DreamWorks Animation gets the last laugh with Rise Of The Guardians, though. Their latest CGI adventure is a glittering yuletide yarn that just about overcomes its gimmicky concept.

Following on from the successes of How To Train Your Dragon and the Kung Fu Pandas, ROTG warps traditional fairytales as childhood ‘Guardians’ North (ie Santa, voiced by Alec Baldwin), E. Aster Bunnymund (Hugh Jackman) and Tooth (Isla Fisher) unite against nightmare-spreading boogeyman Pitch (Jude Law).

Notions that this is basically a Christmas version of Avengers Assemble, though, prove unfounded.

With its watery opening shot of soon-to-be-Guardian Jack Frost (Chris Pine) drifting in icy purgatory, it’s more like a kiddies Bourne Identity.

As Frost battles his amnesia and becomes an action hero, all that’s missing is Matt Damon ramming pens into unfortunate places.

Also missing, sadly, is a script that really gets its larger-than-life characters interacting with each other. Despite all the rampant, twinkly magic, there are few sparks flying between our motley crew.

The best exchange comes when everybody clambers into Santa’s pimped-out sled. “I hope you like loop-the-loops,” the jolly fellow bellows. “I hope you like carrots,” mutters Bunny.

Visually, things are bright and crisp as Christmas morning. With Guillermo del Toro on producing duties, ROTG looks a million bucks.

The 3D jerks to life inside Santa’s toyshop, a banquet of background detail, while the sorcery-infused battle scenes swoop, sparkle and occasionally terrify.

The pacing also takes no prisoners – Guardians is like an OCD moppet hopped up on Haribos, which is both a positive and a negative thing.

From its mysterious opening gambit right up to its firecracker finale, there’s no fat to be found here. Even Santa’s now a brawny Russian with bricklayer’s forearms. At the midway point, big red stops to reveal what makes him tick: wonder.

He wants to be awed by things. Rise Of The Guardians takes that philosophy as gospel. It’s a film so desperate to have us gawping at its pretty visuals that it forgets to craft its story with the same amount of care.

Verdict: More “oooh… aaah” than “ho-ho-ho”, ROTG is so full of yuletide razzmatazz that only true Scrooges will have trouble stomaching it. If only Santa’s workshop had given the script more of a tinker… 3/5

Via Total Film

Happy Happy (2010)

The hunt for happiness is miserable indeed, not least when it involves the seduction of your married neighbour.

Such is the predicament Kaja (Agnes Kittelsen) faces in Anne Sewitsky’s dramedy debut when, weary of her chilly marriage, she cosies up to hunky Sigve (Henrik Rafaelsen).

The ensuing drama is typically Scandinavian in the best way possible – the setting’s beautiful, the tensions slow-burning. Meanwhile, musical interludes courtesy of a barbershop quartet lend a playful undertone.

Sweet but never saccharine, Happy Happy is as delicate as Kaja and just as endearing. 4/5

Via Total Film

For A Good Time, Call (2012)

If Bridesmaids proved anything, it’s that the girls can be just as filthy/depraved/unsubtle (delete where applicable) as the boys.

Taking that insight and dialling up the dirty, Jamie Travis’ comedy sees ex-college frenemies Lauren (Lauren Miller) and Katie (Ari Graynor) launch their own amateur phone-sex line: 1-877-MMM-HMM.

All right, it’s not up there with Bridesmaids but, thanks to a game Graynor (here channelling a young Bette Midler), a revolving door of cameos and some gloriously smutty pillow talk, For A Good Time delivers, yes, exactly that.

Via Total Film

Room 237 (2012)

Named after the creepy hotel room in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, this quirky indie documentary takes a left-field approach to film analysis. Stitching together footage from Kubrick’s considerable ouvre and recontextualising it to pick apart The Shining, various Kubrickites examine the supposed hidden messages contained in Kubrick’s terrifying tale of madness. It could be a recipe for disaster, but given the great director’s notoriety for poring meticulously over every little detail, it works surprisingly well.

Off-the-wall theories include one guy’s argument that The Shining is an apology from Kubrick for ‘faking’ the Apollo 13 moon landing footage. While that’s undeniably out there, more traditional analysis – like a look at how the director used shapes and fades to create patterns on the screen – are more difficult to rubbish, and provide a greater understanding of just how much thought Kubrick really did put into his celluloid masterpieces.

Despite the frequently outrageous claims offered up, there’s little room for mocking the theorists, and director Rodney Ascher is content to let them recite their hypotheses without judging either way. The result is a rich tapestry of ideas that speaks just as much about our continued obsession with The Shining as it does about film obsessives with too much time on their hands. Kubrick would be proud. And probably a little baffled. 4/5

Via Out In The City

Beasts Of The Southern Wild (2012)

One of the boldest and most original films to screen at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Beasts of the Southern Wild picked up both the Grand Jury Prize and the Cinematography Award at the closing night ceremony after surfing a roaring wave of positive buzz. And we doubt it’s going to stop there – this most auspicious of enviro-fantasies is Oscar-bound, and when it lands it’s sure to cause as much wonton destruction as its impressive central storm scene.

A tantalising hybrid of rugged fantasy, character drama and disaster epic, Beasts is a an enchanting oddity that’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen. At its heart is six-year-old Hushpuppy (newcomer Quvenzhané Wallis) who lives in a Southern delta community called ‘The Bathtub’ (because floods are a daily threat). When her tough love father Wink (Dwight Henry) falls ill, Hushpuppy sets off in search of her mother on a quest to put the world to rights again.

All bristly impudence and pouty bottom lip, Wallis gives a blistering central performance that imbues Beasts with a crude and affecting mood. Raw talent like this is gold dust in the movie industry, and Wallis carries the film with ease, her whimsical narration both quirky and stirring. She’s a fiery heroine, and leads a phenomenal cast of unknowns who are all equally impressive.

After a dreamy introduction, things really get going as a hurricane threatens The Bathtub (Hurricane Katrina is used as both a vague reference point and a thematic device throughout). Meanwhile, melting icecaps unleash giant, long-dormant monsters that charge across the globe towards our little welly-wearing heroine.

Part Where The Wild Things Are, part something else, Beasts is a feral, joyfully atypical fairytale. Debut director Benh Zeitlin – who adapted Lucy Alibar’s play Juicy and Delicious for the screen – creates a richly dilapidated world where you feel every creaking floorboard and every blast of wind.

True, it feels vaguely ostentatious at times, a consequence of its ambitious themes and dreamy language. “The entire universe depends on everything fitting together just right,” glowers Hushpuppy with wisdom beyond her years, just one of her remarkable if unrealistically mature observances.

Beasts, though, is the best kind of fantasy. Rooted in a believable, rough-and-tumble reality, its outlandish flourishes are grounded in stomach-flipping emotion. As told through the eyes of our young heroine, it makes a perfect kind of nonsense that defies explanation. It’s a draining, soaring, staggeringly original bit of storytelling that’s spellbinding from start to finish. 4/5

Via Grolsch Film Works

Ruby Sparks (2012)

As bright and likable as its titular lead, Ruby Sparks marks the triumphant return of Little Miss Sunshine co-directors Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton, who’ve not made a film in the six years since Sunshine nabbed two Oscars and a legion of fans. With its quirky narrative, Sparks recalls the very best of Woody Allen’s oeuvre (not least his recent Midnight In Paris), etching away at the inner workings of its romantic leads just as much as it observes their numerous trials and tribulations.

Paul Dano plays Calvin, an author who earned acclaim for his debut novel, but has been struggling for years to deliver his second work. Then he starts writing about a fictional girl called Ruby Sparks, who just so happens to be his ideal woman. Things take a turn for the weird, though, when Ruby (Zoe Kazan) appears in Calvin’s apartment one day, as if she’s always been there. Is he losing his mind? Or has he just managed to create an entire new person?

Like Little Miss Sunshine, Sparks is an indie comedy that’s as enamoured with making you laugh as it is getting under the skin of its lead characters. Inspired by the Greek Pygmalion myth – a sculptor falls in love with his sculptures – Sparks explores its nifty premise with intelligence and wit, examining the responsibility we have for those we love, and the danger of attempting to control them.

The cast is also a delight, with Kazan (who wrote the film’s script) delivering one of the freshest performances of the year. Annette Bening and Antonio Banderas also offer show-stopping support as Calvin’s hippie parents. It’s the chemistry between Dano and Kazan that really pops, though, and Ruby Sparks is a magical delight that never succumbs to romcom cliché. More, please. 4/5

Via Out In The City

Premium Rush (2012)

David Koepp has been the brains behind some of Hollywood’s smartest action thrillers, having scripted everything from Jurassic Park and Mission: Impossible to Spider-Man and Panic Room. Premium Rush is the scribe’s fifth directing gig and a departure from his brainiest tension-ekers – as the film’s title suggests, Rush is less about the grey matter and more about the intoxicating adrenaline kick.

Set entirely on the streets of New York, Rush follows bike messenger Wilee (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) as he takes on a job delivering a package for Nima (Jamie Chung). When he’s accosted by Bobby (Michael Shannon), Wilee begins to suspect he’s carrying something very important – a suspicion that’s confirmed when Bobby turns out to be a crooked cop who’ll stop at nothing to get his hands on Wilee’s package (so to speak).

Zipping through the Big Apple on his two-wheeler, Gordon-Levitt is a likeably unconventional action hero. It’s not the kind of role JGL’s best known for, but the one-time Third Rock From The Sun actor has star quality to spare, and he turns the wattage up considerably for a role that’s as lean as the film itself.

Behind the camera, Koepp generally knows what he’s doing, too. The visuals are sleek and inventive, with tongue-in-cheek ‘hazard prediction’ sequences recalling Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes films. Taking its cue from other NY-lover /Spider-Man/, Rush looks gorgeous and its sun-soaked streets vibrate with a fist-pumping soundtrack that includes The Who and My Chemical Romance.

You’ll want to leave your brain at the door, though – Rush’s attempts at a city-wide conspiracy are ambitious at best, convoluted at worst. When it comes to humour and breathless action, though, it generally delivers the goods. Fittingly, Koepp’s film is not unlike a sugar rush – it’s fun while it lasts, but it’s pretty forgettable once it’s over.  3/5

Via Out In The City

360 (2012)

Short Cuts did it. Magnolia did it. Even the deplorable likes of Valentine’s Day and New Year’s Eve did it. Now there’s 360, the latest film to take the concept of jigsaw storytelling – one that follows the courses of numerous interconnecting lives – and run with it across the globe for a pleasingly transcontinental tale of passion and betrayal. Think of it as the anti-Love Actually; a smorgasbord of misery, love and pain that occasionally grips but never rivets.

Of the numerous intertwining strands, Anthony Hopkins’ is the most interesting simply because he is Anthony Hopkins. We meet him aboard a plane (thankfully not serving a child brains a la Hannibal) as he travels to Phoenix to identify a young woman who could be his missing daughter. As stories go, it’s not exactly a screamer, but what we do get is Hopkins quietly effusing like only he can during a five-minute monologue. It’s a timely reminder of what a fine actor he truly is.

That segment is 360’s emotional zenith. Sadly, the film’s myriad other plots, which sweep from Vienna to Paris to London, often fail to rouse. Rachel Weisz is particularly underserved as a cheating wife whose husband (Jude Law) is also tempted to stray. The fact that their plotline is invested with the emotional wallop of a wet flan is mostly due to the nature of the film, which splits its time between so many globe-trotting characters that it can’t help but feel thin on the ground.

Director Fernando Meirelles (City of God) does try, though, and 360 possesses certain admirable qualities. For a start, there’s an anarchic glee to seeing a cast of impressive unknowns given 50% more screen time than headlining stars like Weisz and Law. Vladimir Vdovichenkov in particular is attention-grabbing as Sergei, a bodyguard to a wild-tempered gangster who’s going through something of a mid-life crisis. His segment closes out the film, and finally gives us some excitement – though it’s pretty much too little too late.

Consider 360 a hit-and-miss experiment. There are the occasional nice touches (a ringtone that functions as a scene’s tension-eking soundtrack) and Ben Foster is magnetic as ever playing a released sex offender stranded in a busy airport. The likes of Robert Altman and Paul Thomas Anderson worked the concept far harder in their time, though, and 360 suffers under such obvious comparisons. It’s a film that chases its own tale for 100 minutes, leaving little impression once the credits have rolled. 2/5

Via Grolsch Film Works