Friday, August 31, 2012

Ride Like Hell and Run Like You Stole Something

On my last day off from work, I had so much extra time that I decided to pull a two-fer at the movies. Sometimes I'll do this, especially when my schedule has no overly-burdensome tasks laid out for me and I've got nobody else with whom to share my time. And so today I'm going to talk about two VERY different movies, the bike messenger thriller (yes, you read that right) Premium Rush and the sci-fi drama Robot & Frank.

In Premium Rush, rising star Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Wilee, a thrill junkie of a NYC bicycle messenger, one of the many riding through the streets of the city (my own recent jaunt to the United States' most populous city did not witness any cyclists, but maybe it was an off week). Among his peers, Wilee is considered one of the best, and it's his reputation that gets him a premium rush job, transporting one envelope from a friend from one side of the city to the other quickly. But the package turns out to be a hot commodity, as Wilee finds himself dodging Chinese mafia, dirty cops, legit cops, and even rival bike messengers in a bid to get the package delivered on time.

"Why yes, I WAS that kid from 3'rd Rock!"
This is a huge year for Gordon-Levitt. After finally gaining mainstream acceptance with his role in 2010's Inception, he has been steadily raising his status as a Hollywood star, and 2012 looks to be his biggest year yet. He was a huge reason Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight Rises was as good as it was, and he'll be following up Premium Rush with the sci-fi thriller Looper, which is one of my more anticipated sci-fi flicks this year. He also has a role (how large, I'm not sure) in Steven Spielberg's Lincoln, which is as big as a deal as it sounds. While his Wilee does come off as kind of a jackass at times, it's Gordon-Levitt's charm that ensures that we never get tired of his schtick. He's front and center most of the time, and his casual, take-no-shit attitude and his interactions with others are what makes him such an effective protagonist.

"What do you mean he's 'not Batman'?"
Surprisingly, for a film centering around such an obscure job this movie never feels out of place or far from your comfort zone. Replace the bike chases with car chases, and you've got your standard high-level action film ready for distribution. That might make it seem like Premium Rush is no different than anything else out there (and you'd be right), but that doesn't mean that it's a bad thing; the film packs all the excitement of your standard thrill-ride, simply replacing four wheels with two. The supporting cast seems to have been set up with this action pastiche in mind; with Dania Ramirez and Aasif Mandvi doing the best they can with limited character. Michael Shannon especially steps up, as his cliche dirty cop with a gambling problem would be a disaster in anybody else's hands. Director David Koepp's biggest coup was casting the former Academy Award nominee in the role, which benefits from his experience and ability to command a scene effortlessly.

Out-riding all his newfound glory.
Anyone expecting Premium Rush to have more brains than it does is bound to be disappointed. The biggest surprise is that for an action piece with no emotional commitment, it's a lot more fun than it really has any right to be. You might want to overlook this movie (and as it made very little opening weekend, a lot of people did just that), but for a mindless action flick this one is actually clever enough to make the cut. It might not be Top 10 material, but it's still a lot of fun.

The next title required me to head to the oft-cited Coolidge Corner Theater. The story of Robot & Frank definitely struck me as a peculiarly odd, but somehow ingenious concept. Set in the near future, it stars Frank Langella as Frank, a mentally-afflicted father and former cat burglar who has strained relationships with his children. When his son (James Marsden) brings him a robot butler (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard) to help keep his life in order and remain healthy, Frank is at first distrustful of having the thing around the house, but slowly begins to accept Robot's help. This comes to a head when he discovers that his new companion has no protocol that says that stealing is wrong, prompting Frank to plan a major heist to strike at the rich folk who he believes don't deserve their vast wealth.

On the surface, Robot & Frank has a lot going for it; a great cast (which also includes Susan Sarandon, Liv Tyler and Jeremy Sisto), an interesting hook, and some clever societal statements made it one of the smarter-looking movies this year. And for the most part, that is the correct assumption. Clever in a completely different way than Premium Rush could ever have hoped, this movie is more of an actor's film, with the characters guiding film in a way you don't see much anymore. The acting is all excellent, especially Langella, who might be Oscar baiting if the film can gather any traction beyond the science fiction crowd. If Sam Rockwell's under-loved role in Moon is any indication however, the Academy won't be giving this sci-fi movie any credit anytime soon. That's a shame for both Langella and Sarsgaard, who once again provides the kind of excellent performance we now expect from him. Together, they create a nice one-two punch and are one of the better pairs I've seen in 2012.

Two of the best performances you'll see this year.
Unfortunately, the film's slow and inconsistent pacing make many a scene less interesting than the film as a whole. While we get to experience the budding friendship between our two leads, director Jake Schreier does so at the expense of many of the other characters, most notably Sarandon's librarian who befriends Frank only to be cut from most of the main story. While the story as a whole is solid, and at times a ton of fun, there is a lot of evidence that Schreier is - for good or bad -  the first-time director that he is.

Guess who wishes Liv Tyler was elsewhere right now?
Still, Robot & Frank has a lot of charisma in its bones, and the story and characters combine for a fun if not perfect time at the movies. If it comes to a theater near you, it's a solid option as a smart, funny, and clever film. Langella and Sarsgaard are well worth the effort, and even if you somehow miss this small gem, definitely take the time to see it on DVD when it's available.

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