MIFF 2012: Reviews of Robot and Frank, Easy Money and Killer Joe

Welcome to day six of my coverage of the Melbourne International Film Festival. You can read previous entries here: Day One / Day Two / Day ThreeDay Four / Day Five. Enjoy.

 

Robot and Frank

Robot and Frank

This debut film from director Jake Schreier is a marvel of the highest order. Robot and Frank manages to seamlessly blend comedy, science fiction and drama into a film that is hilarious, truly original and utterly heartfelt.

Set in the near future, Robot tells the story of Frank (Frank Langella), an ex-con who has early onset dementia. Frank is struggling to make sense of a constantly advancing world. His children Hunter (James Marsden) and Jennifer (Liv Tyler) worry about his ailing health, but are too caught up in their own lives to take care of him. In an act of resignation, Hunter purchases a new ‘lifestyle robot’ (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard) for Frank. While originally opposed to the idea of having a walking, talking piece of technology telling him what to do, the robot’s influence improves Frank’s health and with it, his mental lucidity. This newfound focus sees Frank romanticising his cat burglar past. Frank wants to get back into the game and now he has the perfect partner.

This script by Christopher D. Ford is as sleek and functional as the titular robot: every part works in impressive unison. Robot is so charming that at certain points of the film it plays like the best of Pixar. Robot effortlessly captures the spirit of friendship; the robot is gentle but stern and seeing him buck against Frank’s cantankerous nature is a hoot. Once the two realise their situation is mutually beneficial, this film soars.

The acting is across-the-board great. Langella is phenomenal as Frank, equal parts vulnerability and mischief. His performance is even more impressive when you factor in that his scene partner is often a piece of plastic. Langella should see some serious awards traction for this performance. In a career full of stellar turns it is one of his best. Susan Sarandon is subtly powerful as the local librarian who is the object of Frank’s affections. Peter Sarsgaard manages to maintain his robotic monotone yet add slight inflections that build character – despite his lack of facial features we always see ‘robot’ as a character.

The futuristic aspects of this film are subtle and realistic: Robot feels like a natural extension of our world. Cell phones are transparent panels, video calls are everywhere and cars are nippy and compact. The design of Robot himself is impressively refined. He is small in stature and looks like a mini astronaut – basically he is an Apple product.

I was blown away by Robot. I had the pleasure of going into this film without a single shred of preconception. I highly recommend taking this approach as Robot’s pleasures are best discovered in a cinema. But for those of you who need more prodding, I’ve included a trailer below. So far, Robot is my favourite film of the festival.

Five Stars

 

 ***

Easy Money

Easy Money

This Swedish thriller isn’t just a great crime film, it’s a great film, period. Based on the novel by Jens Lapidus, Easy Money is positively Dickensian in its themes and scope.  After watching this film you will have no illusions: crime does not pay.

Money  follows JW (Joel Kinnaman) a business student who dreams of surpassing his poor roots. From taxi driving to finishing other students’ homework, JW will do anything for a buck. JW has a carefully calculated exterior (he even sews the proper buttons on knock-off designer clothes). JW’s materialism extends to his social life – he hangs out with a crowd of beautiful, vapid rich kids who have no idea he lives in cramped student housing. When JW’s taxi rank boss asks him to get involved in the cocaine trade, JW is faced with a conundrum: he isn’t cut out for the criminal life but when money is this fast and easy, he won’t have to fake it for much longer.

Calling Easy Money a crime thriller is quite deceptive as this film is more interested in human drama than genre thrills. I don’t think that anyone who sees this film will complain though, as the character work is phenomenal. JW is a fascinating character, his ambition supersedes all of his moral convictions. This film is similar to 2009’s A Prophet as it shows the genesis of criminality. In a clever juggling act, Easy Money makes us invested in JW’s success and at the same time we resent the risk-taking of his underworld dealings.

Easy Money takes time to flesh out all of the characters surrounding JW. His criminal opponent, the violent Mrado, is no one-dimensional-thug. A large portion of this film is dedicated to Mrado’s gentle relationship with his daughter and, like most aspects of Easy Money, nothing is as it seems on the surface.

Director Daniel Espinosa (Safe House) keeps things moving at a breakneck pace, deftly navigating us through this truly dense film. His action work is tense and realistic, but it is the work he gets out of his actors that is most impressive. It is of little surprise that  Joel Kinnaman is making a big splash in the U.S (he is the new Robocop) as he is superb as JW. Kinnaman constantly conveys a sense of unease in JW – straddling two worlds, he doesn’t belong anywhere.

Easy Money is sprawling and epic. It is a great crime film that rewards your investment. I’m sure many will see this as a minus (I did), but the last passage of this film went so against where I wanted it to go that I was gobsmacked. It may not have been what I wanted, but it was bold and full of conviction.

Four Stars

 

 ***

Killer Joe

Killer Joe

Killer Joe is a white-hot fever dream of a film. A toxic swill of sex and violence, Joe is mordantly funny, tantalizing and, ultimately, shocking. Love it or hate it (there will be a few in the latter category) Joe has that most elusive of cinematic qualities: it is unforgettable.

Based on the play Tracy Letts, Joe follows the schemes of the moronic Smith family – the definitive trailer trash clan. Eldest son Chris (Emile Hirsh) owes big to the local drug lord, and in an act of lazy desperation, he decides to cash in his mother’s life insurance policy. Enter: Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey). Cooper (or Killer Joe) is a cop who moonlights as a hitman. For $25,000 Joe will make your problems go away. Chris’s plan has a slight hitch though: he doesn’t have $25,000, but Joe notices what he does have is a striking, virginal sister (Juno Temple)…

A strange balancing act, Joe is by turns howlingly funny and shockingly debased  -this is undeniably one of the darkest films of the decade. Letts has little to no sympathy for his characters. He portrays the Smiths as hair-brained at best, their schemes are hilarious in their lack of forethought or morality. When the film isn’t being funny, it plays like a nightmare, numerous scenes contain a pervasive sense of dread. This film also has a raging carnality that has been absent from recent cinema. The sex in Joe  is red hot and truly dangerous.

Joe is directed by legendary, Oscar-winning filmmaker William Friedkin (The Exorcist) and he shows that, despite being 76 years old, he still has plenty of gas in the tank. This is a slick film full of ominously shot scenes – it’s not a matter of if a bad thing will happen, it’s when.  Friedkin pulls no punches with this film, taking time establishing character and stakes, and when he lights the fuse on Joe’s powder keg denouement, it is jaw dropping.

Like The Exorcist and The French Connection before it, Friedkin gets the best out of this film’s actors. Emile Hirsh is fantastic as the antsy Chris and Thomas Haden Church is a hoot as the family’s shaved ape patriarch, Ansel. This film belongs to Matthew McConaughey and Juno Temple. Their scenes together are electric, both representing flip sides of the moral coin. McConaughey is cast hugely against type as Joe and he has never, ever been better. He inverts his megawatt charm into something truly unsettling.

Joe is a film that will polarise audiences: this is uncompromising, audacious filmmaking. I’m a sucker for pitch black films and some of Joe’s turns left me breathless. This is the kind of film that I would have tried to sneak past my parents when I was a child and for that I give it top marks.

Five Stars

Tomorrow’s films: Shadow Dancer, The Ambassador and The Sapphires.  

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