Robot & Frank (2012)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Hunter (James Marsden) lives about five hours away from his dad, Frank (Frank Langella), whose dementia is starting to deteriorate at a much faster rate. In order to help him out, the dutiful son buys his father a robot (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard) programmed to function as a health care aide. Although Frank meets the gesture with resistance, he warms up to it eventually given the fact that not only does it make things easier for him, it is also proves to be quite a reliable companion. Frank being a former cat burglar, he soon decides to train Robot to pick locks and other requisite skills to pull off successful heists.
Written by Christopher D. Ford and directed by Jake Schreier, while some will be compelled to consider “Robot & Frank” to be a story about a man with dementia, this is misleading because it is actually more about an unusual friendship, if one decides to call it as such, between man and machine. Frank’s gradual and then sudden memory loss is an important tool for us to want to believe in the relationship forged over a period of time.
It is easy to buy into the picture’s reality. The story is set in the near future where robots are found in homes and at work but the machines do not look polished. They look very manmade, angular and blocky, so it is not at all a stretch to imagine that they are creations meant to serve specific purposes. Also, there are no flying cars or wild fashion to catch our attention. So when Frank and Robot interact in public, for instance, we are drawn to them instead of what might be happening on the background.
Langella injects his character with a gruff sense of humor. Despite his character’s age and declining memory, I enjoyed that his personality is as vibrant as someone half his age. By playing him in such a way, the character is not seen as victim of a disease. When he talks about his plans of stealing from a rich yuppie, he look forward to how he and Robot will manage to pull it off and not how it might fail because of the memory problems.
The robot, too, is interesting. At one point, Frank and the machine get into the topic of self-awareness and what it means to be alive. Robot admits to Frank that it knows that it is not alive and so it does not care about, for example, having its memory erased. It is easy to see the limitation in the duo’s relationship. As humans, we value our experiences and our ability to remember them. Machines, on the other hand, remember information because that is the way they are programmed, not because they want to. Machines do not even want. They do as they are instructed via direct commands or patterns.
“Robot & Frank” is not without moments of genuine dramatic heft. While Frank’s interactions with his daughter, Madison (Liv Tyler), verged on annoying, I wished that there had been more scenes between Frank and the librarian named Jennifer (Susan Sarandon) with whom he crushes on. The protagonist’s interactions with the latter have a lot of sweetness even though we suspect that it probably will not work out considering the circumstances. There is a dramatic punch involving the two in the back half, but it would have had more of an impact if we are given a more defined portrait of their relationship. Still, the film is not handicapped by a lack of depth in the romance because it is first and foremost about Robot and Frank.
Ledge, The (2011)
★ / ★★★★
Hollis (Terrence Howard), a cop, just found out that he has always been infertile. This means that the kids he supposedly has with his wife (Jaqueline Fleming) are not his biologically. Still processing the news, he is informed that a man wishes to jump off a building. The person about to commit suicide is called Gavin (Charlie Hunnam). Gavin tells Hollis that he has been instructed to jump to his death at noon. If he fails to do so, another will die on his behalf.
“The Ledge,” written and directed by Matthew Chapman, lacks punch because the thriller and dramatic elements fail to mesh in such a way that reels in our interest from the beginning all the way to the end. I stopped caring somewhere in the middle.
The majority of the story is told using flashbacks. We meet Gavin’s new neighbors, Joe (Patrick Wilson) and Shana (Liv Tyler), a married couple who strictly hold onto their belief in God and what is written on the Bible. Over dinner, conflict arises when Joe assumes that Gavin and Chris (Christopher Gorham), roommates, are gay. Only one of them is gay, which is Chris, but Gavin, an atheist, cannot help but feel offended by such bigotry. The scene sets up Gavin and Joe’s tug-of-war between who is “right.”
As much as I am interested in philosophical musings involving faith, or lack of one, the arguments they bring up are not anything new. As their discussions evolve into altercations, I found myself thinking about a documentary I saw many years ago involving religious radicals condemning viewers who do not believe in God that they would surely go to hell. I was reminded of those specific images because, to me, those emotions–specifically the level of animosity–are real. The negative tension between Gavin and Joe feels too much like a poor simulation.
Perhaps it has something to do with the acting. While Wilson is more subtle in expressing his frustrations–a wrinkling of the forehead, constantly looking down, a forced smile–Hunnam chooses to be more explosive. It might have worked better if the latter is calm, especially for someone who is comfortable with his atheism.
And then there is a messy subplot involving Gavin’s increasing attraction to emotionally fragile Shana. Gavin thinks it is his duty to rescue her, a former drug addict, from the grip of her husband’s iron fist. So Gavin tries to seduce her. I found the whole charade amusing, but it is clearly not meant to be. The writing fails to provide a good enough reason to convince us that the protagonist is ultimately doing the right thing. Sure, Joe is a controlling jerk of a husband, but whatever happens inside Joe and Shana’s home is really none of Gavin’s business.
“The Ledge,” rife with faux-intellectual debates, lacks common sense and it is prone to heavy-handedness. Even the act of jumping off the ledge symbolizes a leap of faith.
That Thing You Do! (1996)
★★★ / ★★★★
Guy (Tom Everett Scott) spent his days helping out his family to keep their appliance store business afloat. After he’d close up, he’d go down to the basement and play the drums before heading home. One day, his friends came up to him with a last-minute offer to play with their band at a local talent show because the drummer (Giovanni Ribisi) broke his arm. If they won, they’d evenly split a hundred dollars, a good amount of money in 1964 Erie, Pennsylvania. Their band, The Oneders, pronounced “The Wonders” but often mispronounced as “The O-need-ers,” won the competition and their song, “That Thing You Do!” was an instant hit. People in the music industry took notice, from the likes of a local-based manager, Horace (Chris Ellis), to the big deal Mr. White (Tom Hanks). Written and directed by Tom Hanks, “That Thing You Do!” was like a really catchy and inescapable pop song. Despite its occasional lack of logic and cohesion, I couldn’t help but welcome whatever it had to offer and see if it could surprise me in some way. Once in a while it did. One of the most exciting scenes was when the band, along with the lead singer’s girlfriend, luminescent Faye (Liv Tyler), heard their song on the radio for the very first time. They ran all over the street and into the appliance store, their energy so infectious, I wanted to join and celebrate with them. That scene drew a really big smile on my face. I could just imagine how much fun the actors had while shooting that sequence. Furthermore, I liked that we got a chance to feel each of the band member’s personality. Guy was the smart one with the puppy dog eyes, Jimmy (Johnathan Schaech) was the serious-minded lead singer, lead guitarist Lenny (Steve Zahn) had the great one-liners that bordered silliness and foolishness, and the unnamed bass player (Ethan Embry) was the reticent thinker. I found their lack of depth, at least initially, appropriate because that’s how I come to recognize the members of the bands I enjoy listening to. I may not know their names at first but I’m instantly familiar with their quirks to the point where I could look at the attitude–or lack thereof–in their shadows and match it with a face. It’s about presence and I was convinced that the picture understood that idea. However, some of the strands of the film left a lot to be desired. I didn’t see how Guy’s girlfriend, Tina (Charlize Theron), was at all necessary. Yes, she had a fling with her hunky dentist, but she was gone from the movie for such large chunks of time, I just stopped caring. I suspected the movie had forgotten about her because it didn’t offer closure between she and Guy. Another romantic angle that didn’t quite work was between Guy and Faye. I wanted to see them get together because the actors were attractive, but I’m afraid there wasn’t much meat in their potentially awkward relationship. Why didn’t they have funnier scenes? The little flirtations they shared were nice and sweet but they failed to match, or offer a different, the level of energy relative to the performances or when the band would just hang out backstage. Whenever the camera turned to romance, the quieter moments, the thinness of the plot and characterization were blinding. It made me consider that, without The Oneders’ zestful performances, it might have been a torturous experience. However, I had fun watching “That Thing You Do!” because it showcased the kind of pop music and time period that I’m a sucker for. It must’ve asked myself ten times why I didn’t grow up in the 60s.