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Posts Tagged ‘Liv Tyler’

Two separate trends on which I have previously commented come together in the form of Jake Schreier’s Robot & Frank, currently enjoying a generous UK cinema release. This is not the biggest movie in the world, and in both scale and tone it is unmistakeably very indie-ish – but at the same time it makes deft and convincing use both of modern cinema technology and narrative tropes from traditionally mainstream genres. It is also a film deeply concerned with the lot in life and place in society of older citizens, and thus arguably making a pitch for the grey market in the same way as other recent movies like Song for Marion and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. While the aging nature of western society should probably be more of a concern for everyone living in it, I am personally more immediately interested in the former.

robot-and-frank-official-poster

The distinguished character actor Frank Langella, who’s previously given us his interpretations of such great roles as Sherlock Holmes, Perry White, and Skeletor, not to mention appearing as the most bouffant Dracula in cinema history, plays Frank, an elderly man living alone in upstate New York. Relations with his children are not good – his son (James Marsden) lives five hours away and is often too busy to visit, while his daughter (Liv Tyler) is off travelling the world and can’t do more than videophone him (we are a teeny way into the future in this movie). Physically Frank seems okay, but he is becoming increasingly mentally fragile – spells of confusion and memory loss are growing more frequent and disturbing.

But Frank’s son has hit upon what he believes to be an ideal solution: he has purchased a domestic robot to live with Frank and look after him. Frank is initially less than delighted to have this cybernetic nursemaid attempting to run his life for him, but changes his opinion in a hurry when he realises that the robot, though an excellent carer, has no real moral compass nor cognisance of the laws of the land. This inspires Frank to return to one of the passions he had earlier in life – namely, being a high-end cat burglar. Previously only ever working alone, Frank finds that teaching the robot his skills at breaking and entering gives his life a direction it was previously lacking. As their criminal partnership goes from strength to strength, though, it seems that the robot is becoming more than just a guardian and an accomplice for the old man: it is the closest thing he has to a real friend…

Well, you may be thinking you’ve got a pretty good handle of the kind of film this is – a sentimental caper about a loveable old curmudgeon rediscovering his joie de vivre thanks to a cute droid, with some hilarious comedy lawbreaking along the way. That’s probably how it looks on paper, but this movie is a lot less broad and simplistic than it could have been – it actually takes itself pretty seriously, with considerable success. The robots in this movie look and behave credibly – they don’t crack jokes or suddenly manifest real emotions, they are recognisably and plausibly machines. To begin with I thought the design of Frank’s robot – it sort of resembles a giant Lego version of the Stig – was a bit of a misstep, as it’s not the most immediately endearing of objects, but the film consistently avoids this kind of easy get-out, working much harder to earn its pay-offs, which are all the more effective because of this.

It is, anyway, a very convincing robot: initially I found myself wondering exactly how it was operated, but very soon I had accepted it as part of the film and was following the story instead (a sign the film was really working). It’s really just a device to facilitate the rest of the plot, anyway, which is all about the characters of the various humans and how they respond to the world in which they live. Langella gives a brilliant performance, capturing the old man’s brittle defiance perfectly, and completely selling you on the kind of person he used to be and his delight at reliving former glories. I’m not sure I’m completely sold on Liv Tyler’s appearance as the daughter, but everyone else in the movie is also very good. The movie isn’t afraid to tackle fairly uncomfortable topics, like the issue of how we should treat our elderly parents, the price of progress, and the effects of senile dementia, and does so seriously and effectively, for the most part. Well – there’s a third-act plot twist courtesy of Frank’s memory loss that seemed to me to make a fairly big ask of the audience, and a possibly unnecessary one at that, but the film made up for this by making an issue of the difference between Frank’s all-too-fragile memory and the robot’s indestructible one.

It’s always quite clear that Robot & Frank is an indie movie, in both style and concerns, but it’s a very accomplished and accessible one with a superb cast. It treats the audience as intelligent adults and has interesting and significant things to say about the world in which we live. It works admirably as a character study, a piece of SF, and a comedy drama. It may not be the most momentous film of the year, but I can’t honestly think of a way in which it could easily be substantially improved. I liked it very much.

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As I have mentioned before, this seems to be a landmark year for the superhero movie – not necessarily because they are coming out in record numbers (although this year has already seen the release of The Green Hornet, Thor, X-Men: First Class and Green Lantern, with Captain America still to appear) but because they’re now such a part of the cultural landscape that their makers seem more willing to experiment, in terms of both tone and setting.

All of the foregoing, however, are quite big studio pictures aimed fairly and squarely at a mainstream audience. Boldly going where virtually no superhero film has gone before (note the qualifier; we shall return to this) is James Gunn’s Super, which is surely the stuff that cults are made of.

Rainn Wilson plays Frank, a rather nondescript short-order cook who has not had the happiest of lives. What happy memories he has revolve around his being a law-abiding citizen and relationshipo with his wife Sarah (Liv Tyler). However, Sarah’s own personal problems result in her leaving him for the clutches of slimy local gangster Jacques (Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon).  Utterly distraught and bereft, Frank is at a complete loss, and…

Well, here the movie gives you a choice of options. Either, a) God appears to Frank in a vision, embodied by Christian network figurehead the Holy Avenger (Nathan Fillion, as his fans have never seen him before), and tells him he’s been chosen to be an evil-battling superhero, or, b) Frank has a mental breakdown and imagines that God appears to him in a vision, etc etc.

Needless to say, Frank is a singularly inept and rubbish superhero. He has a rubbish costume (spandex not favouring his fuller figure). He has a rubbish gimmick (his signature move is to whack people about the head with a pipe wrench). He has a rubbish battlecry (‘Shut up, crime!’). Even his kid sidekick, when he eventually acquires one, is rubbish: she is the girl from the local comic-book shop (played by Ellen Page), who is strong on enthusiasm but even shorter on sanity than Frank himself. Nevertheless, the Crimson Bolt and Boltie begin to make a name for themselves as crime-fighters, and their ultimate showdown with Jacques and his thugs draws closer…

I only really know James Gunn from his comedy-horror movie Slither (which I enjoyed very much when not actually fighting the urge to gag), and in many ways Super is clearly the work of the same creator. There are the same deft shifts in tone between absurd comedy, splatter, and genuine emotion, and the same strong content. This is a very graphic movie in nearly every department. Calling it extreme isn’t quite enough – then again, calling it extremely extreme just sounds stupid. Suffice to say there is a scene where someone sees a vision in a pool of vomit, and this is not the most twisted moment in the movie by a long way.

Most of the publicity material I’ve seen for Super describes it as an out-and-out comedy, which I think does the film a disservice. If you turn up expecting wall-to-wall laughs, as I did, you’ll probably be very disappointed. The film isn’t afraid to explore the emotions of the main characters in some detail and with great sympathy, and Wilson gives a terrifically well-rounded performance as a man who suspects he’s gone off the deep end but doesn’t know how to stop himself. It’s probably a coincidence that of the other main players, Page and Bacon have both been in X-Men movies and Liv Tyler was in one of the Hulks: the film itself never winks to the audience.

The obvious comparison to make here would be with Kick-Ass, but, readers, I have a confession to make: haven’t seen it (yet – review coming next month) . On its own terms Super is very accomplished, and manages something significant within the genre. Alan Moore’s Watchmen graphic novel made the point very strongly that any real-life superhero would not be cool. Anyone driven to dress up in that sort of outfit and beat up small-time crooks must obviously have profound mental problems. Even those movies which have addressed this point (including the Watchmen movie itself and The Dark Knight) have still implicitly gone to imply ‘…but they’re still cool, though, right?’ In Super, the Crimson Bolt is sometimes a clown and sometimes a disturbing psycho, but he never approaches coolness.

I laughed a lot during Super, but I also found myself genuinely caring about the main characters even during their most psychotic moments. I suppose it could be argued that at the very end the film slides into out-and-out sentimentality, but by this point I was prepared to cut it some slack. Gunn’s movie contains some very strong stuff, but on the whole it’s good stuff too.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published 24th June 2004:

Well now, ladies and gentlemen, girls and boys, we appear to have successfully weathered the initial onslaught of summer blockbusters, and now the multiplexes are actually back to showing films only on a single screen at a time. The downside to this, of course, is that traditionally the only films the studios are prepared to pit against the Troys and Potters – which are still very much around – are a right bunch of old yappers.

Which brings us to Jersey Girl, the first non-Jay and Silent Bob film from indie auteur Kevin Smith. Here Smith hooks up with his regular collaborator Ben Affleck once more. On this occasion Ben embodies high-flying New York music biz PR Oliver Trinke, who is of course enormously popular and good at his job, and blessed with a lovely relationship with fellow PR Gertrude (Jennifer Lopez)…

(Now I appreciate that all these facts seem almost designed to make a discerning cinemagoer deeply wary, as they sound like the recipe for an intentionally bad film. Well, the thing about Jersey Girl is the way that… er… well, okay, you may have a point there, but stick around anyway.)

…but tragedy befalls Ben when J-Lo dies in childbirth. (Connoisseurs of the actor’s art will cherish Jenny-from-the-block’s portrayal of this moment, which mainly consists of her going cross-eyed and flopping backwards.) Ben is clearly quite upset by this development (the stress causes him near-total facial paralysis and he loses the ability to vary the tone of this voice – but then again this is probably just Ben Affleck’s acting style), which leaves him an unhappy single father with serious emotional issues…

(Yes, it gets even worse, doesn’t it? Look, I knew the risks, I made my choice. Besides, Affleck’s usually been okay when Kevin Smith’s been in the vicinity in the past.)

…which eventually lead to him getting sacked and having to move in with his crusty old dad (George Carlin) in New Jersey. After a mind-boggling scene in which a teary Ben tells the tot he’d rather have died instead of J-Lo (I briefly empathised, feeling that I’d rather have died than sat through this crap) we skip forward seven years. Ben is now working as a municipal dogsbody in New Jersey (this is signified by a slight change in his hairstyle) and his daughter (Raquel Castro) has grown into an irksomely cute smart-arse. But lo! A choice is on the horizon for Ben. Will he pick the wholesome pleasures of blue-collar life in New Jersey, and a romance with video-store girl Maya (Liv Tyler)? Or will he opt to return to his high-pressure, work-comes-first lifestyle back in New York City?

Well, readers, if you can’t figure than one out in advance then – well, then I suggest you go and see Jersey Girl as you’ll probably genuinely enjoy it. This is a pleasure denied to the rest of us, who are forced to indulge in ironic chortling at just what a strange, strange movie this is.

I have no idea who Jersey Girl‘s target audience is. It barely qualifies as a date movie, as the Ben and Liv romance hardly gets going (incidentally, and I don’t wish to sound ungallant, but on this evidence the Lord of the Rings cossie designers did a hell of a job concealing the fact that Liv has shoulders like a prop forward). Pensioners and younger viewers inclined to coo over the film’s high cute-kid and nappy-changing-joke quotient will probably be less enthralled with the extraordinary scene where Liv and Ben compare their respective masturbatory regimes before opting for casual sex. Kevin Smith’s not-inconsiderable fanbase will be left aghast by the aforementioned cute-kiddie stuff. And just who on God’s green Earth would choose to see a movie the climax to which consists of Ben, Liv, and the rest of the principal cast performing a selection of Stephen Sondheim musical numbers? I haven’t got a clue.

Quite what has happened to Kevin Smith I really don’t know. It would be nice to be able to say that this must be the work of some other Kevin Smith, but unfortunately this is still recognisably a film by the guy who made Clerks and Dogma. Smith is famous for writing the world’s least convincing, most convoluted and enjoyable dialogue, and this is on display here, along with flashes of the usual scabrous wit (and a Star Wars reference). But what worked so well in his earlier comedies (almost all profane and cynical) just doesn’t play in a film which clearly wants to evoke genuine warmth and emotion. It doesn’t help that this is a film bursting with tired old cliches and glutinous sentimentality.

For all that, the movie does have a few good jokes in it and you can’t fault its intentions, and Smith has (as usual) snagged a good cast (Jason Lee and Matt Damon cameo). And – deep breath – Ben can actually do comedy quite well. But even the writing and direction are flawed: one big set-piece has Ben persuading his neighbours that some roadworks really are essential (yup, high-octane stuff, this) with a brilliant speech – but Smith cops out of having to write the speech and then getting Affleck to deliver it, basically just cutting to the aftermath and everyone saying ‘What a brilliant speech, Ben!’ This is elementary stuff and a director on his sixth movie should know better. The same goes for Ben’s toe-curling epiphany about the importance of being a good parent at the end of the movie, courtesy of a Major International Superstar (appearing uncredited, but presaged by a smug running gag about the improbability of his film career), which mixes sentimentality with crushing obviousness.

But then Jersey Girl is a film only functioning on the most obvious, mechanical and sentimental level. There’s nothing actually wrong with this, I suppose, but even so… I do genuinely have a soft spot for Ben Affleck – if nothing else his recent movies have all been consistent, and he seems like a nice guy when not acting – but if he’s now going to start going about wrecking the careers of people like Kevin Smith then I fear the time has come to be cruel to be kind. So, if either you or your career are listening, Ben: go towards the light! Go towards the light!

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published July 3rd 2008: 

Friends, I have a confession to make. Mild mannered though I may appear, a terrible monster lurks inside me. I try to control it as best I can because I know the terrible suffering it can create when it runs out of control… but sometimes, no matter how I struggle, events conspire against me; a horrible mist obscures my vision, and I just… feel the urge… to REVIEW! Rarrgh! Awix review!!! Awix reviews everything in sight…!!! …until the critical ire of the beast is exhausted and I can relax and watch a Milla Jovovich movie without fear of an aneurysm.

Well, as luck would have it, today I found myself watching a film about a man with a similar problem, to wit The Incredible Hulk, directed by Louis Leterrier. This movie is a bold new concept as far as a wannabe summer blockbuster goes in that it’s a special-effects-laden adaptation of a classic American comic book. A bit of a gamble, I know. Who comes up with these crazy ideas?

Anyway. Edward ‘You’re Not Just Hiring An Actor, Even If That’s All You Actually Want’ Norton plays Bruce Banner, a fugitive scientist with anger management issues, who has fled the US and is hiding out in Brazil, presumably so he can get a tan, not because the other Bruce Banner (played by Eric Bana) ended up there at the end of the first Hulk movie (this gets complicated. Stay tuned). He is hiding out from the Army, and in particular General ‘Thunderbolt’ Ross (William Hurt) and his moustache. This is because Banner has, rather nonchalantly, blasted his own brain with high-powered gamma rays (fairly unusual behaviour for a brilliant scientist, but bear in mind this is a Marvel movie), which means every time he gets ticked off or even just a bit excited he goes green, grows to about nine feet in height and demolishes everything in a two-mile radius. Banner can do without this, probably because the need to control his heart rate is wreaking havoc with his love life and there’s a very cute chick (Debora Nascimento) in his building who has a bit of a thing for him. However, the US Army, committed as ever to the precise and proportionate use of force, thinks that an army of berserk super-strong invulnerable ogres is just what they’re looking for and would quite like to talk to Banner about his giving a blood donation or twenty. As Ross is too American to be villainous enough for this kind of movie, he has recruited special forces expert Emil Blonsky to help him out in this department. Despite his name, Blonsky is British, mainly because it saves Tim Roth, who plays him, from having to do an accent. An inevitable freak accident, involving an even more inevitable cameo by Stan Lee, alerts Ross and Blonsky to Banner’s whereabouts, and off they go to Brazil to bring him home…

As you may recall this is Marvel’s second crack at a Hulk movie: the first one came out five years ago, was directed by Ang Lee, was rather overpraised by your correspondent at the time, and did rather indifferent business, probably because it was slow and talky, and the Hulk didn’t really start doing his stuff until the last forty-five minutes or so. The decision to do another movie may well come as a bit of a surprise then, but only to someone who’s forgotten the enormous name recognition and strength of the Hulk brand. (And it took Stan Lee two goes to get the comic right back in 1962, so it would be churlish to grumble.) This time, Marvel aren’t taking any chances as this is machine-tooled to be an absolutely mainstream blockbuster with some jokes, a proper bad guy, lots of stuff exploding, and absolutely no lingering close-ups of clumps of lichen growing on rocks.

This extends to completely ignoring the events of the first film, for all but that this starts roughly where that finished. The Hulk’s origin is retold in the opening credits and has been redone to be much more like the one in the TV show. The whole movie has been structured so as not to confuse people who only know the Hulk from the small screen – even Ed Norton’s hair has been redone to be much more like Bill Bixby’s (Bixby played Banner on the telly) – while still catering to purists who prefer the comic version. The movie covers all its bases to the extent that, at one point, Jack McGee and Jim Wilson (supporting cast from different parts of the franchise) cameo in the same scene. Their appearance, like that of Doc Samson (bear with me, normal people), is pretty much an in-name-only affair, solely calculated to push fanboy buttons.

Now that Marvel have their own film studio they have much more latitude to do this sort of thing. The main example of this in this movie is the way in which the origin of the main bad guy, the Abomination, has been redone. No longer is he just an evil version of the Hulk! No, now he’s a hybrid of an evil version of the Hulk and an evil mutant version of a recently deceased Living-Legend-of-World-War-Two (who’ll be getting his own movie soon, I shouldn’t wonder). It’s something to give Marvel Comics fans a nice gosh-wow moment, while not being so obviously geeky as to repel mainstream audiences. The same goes for the very final scene, which has all the hallmarks of something originally intended to run after the credits, presumably shifted into the movie proper on the grounds that you don’t put Robert Downey Jr (ooh, what a giveaway!) in the one bit most people aren’t going to bother to watch. Speaking as a comics fan, it’s a very cool moment, even if it does seem to be setting up a movie that’s still at least four or five years away. (The one time the movie oversteps the line when it comes to playing to the fans is when it foreshadows the – Box Office willing – ‘proper’ Hulk sequel. I ‘got’ the scene introducing Hulk 3‘s probable villain, but I doubt many normal people will.)

Enough fanboy wibbling! You want to know if it’s any good. Well, as I say, I overpraised the first Hulk at the time, which makes me cautious when it comes to this one. I will say Yes, it’s pretty good, in an unpretentious, CGI-heavy way. There are nice performances from Norton and Liv Tyler as his sweetheart, some amusing gags about stretchy trousers, and – as connoisseurs of the sublime Transporter series will know – while Leterrier may struggle a bit when it comes to character scenes and, to be honest, dialogue, he absolutely knows what he’s up to when it comes to doing action sequences. (Part of me thinks it’s a shame that Jason Statham isn’t in this movie, too – on the other hand, the Hulk’s hard, but he’s not that hard.)

However, Tim Roth’s part is atrociously underwritten, to the point where he can do literally nothing with it. His dialogue is simply terrible. It makes his role in the rubbish version of Planet of the Apes look like a masterpiece of character development, and I’ll bet now more than ever he’s regretting turning down the role of the Half-Blood Prince back in 2000. Purists may also complain that, for most of the film, Thunderbolt Ross is a bit too close to being actually evil, rather than the good-intentioned but thick-headed pain in the neck he generally is in the comic. And, for all its narrative flaws the Ang Lee Hulk had clearly had a lot of money thrown at it – the CGI here is impressive, but it seemed to me to lack the verve and scale of the action sequences in the earlier movie, as well as their primary-coloured comic-bookiness. Things are a little bit darker and more restrained this time round.

On the whole, though, The Incredible Hulk is solidly entertaining stuff which deserves to find an audience in a way the previous film didn’t. If you’ve encountered any version of the Hulk before and enjoyed the experience, there’s probably something here for you too. If you haven’t – well, it’s an efficient fantasy-action film, and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s the Marvel Universe shadings of the movie that make it truly distinctive, though, and after the very-much standalone Iron Man (seemed okay to me, but I saw it in Italian, alas) it’ll be interesting to see which direction Marvel Studios opts for with future projects.

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