Thursday, March 6, 2014

From the Rental Vault: Two Thieves

Our first thief is the enigmatic Prince, whose high-tech gadgetry, fighting skills and nearly supernatural level of cool give him all he needs to steal just about anything. But immediately after the prologue in the 2010 Hindi-language movie Prince, we encounter our potentate of thieves wounded and without his memory.

An assistant fills in some gaps from the night before, but many still remain. A beautiful woman named Maya, who claims she is his girlfriend, tells him what has happened...but can she be trusted? Is she who she says she is, or is she one of the several law enforcement agencies closing in on Prince? And if she is who she says she is, what about the second woman claiming to be Maya, and her story? What about the third? And what about the crime boss demanding Prince turn over loot from a job he doesn't remember pulling?

Vivek Oberoi in the title role has to spend a lot of the move looking confused, which is good because the audience will need to mimic him. Although some of the special effects, music and look of Prince are really first rate -- some of the first call to mind work from The Matrix -- and alhough Oberoi and Aruna Shields (the actual Maya, whichever one she is) are a charismatic couple, the movie they are in never hangs together long enough to figure out what's really going on. Complexity in a caper story is no bad thing, but flat-out obscurity disengages the viewer enough that by the time we find out everything that's happening, who is really who and what side each of them is on, we're left with only shrug-level interest. The mix of silly humor and jarring brutality in several spots doesn't help, so by the time the audience does pick up the truth, they will probably wish for their own bout with amnesia.
On the other end of the effects spectrum is the story of sneak thief Frank Weld (Frank Langella), who has more or less retired from his profession and lives alone in upstate New York in a year not too far from our own.

In 2012's Robot & Frank, Frank's adult children (James Marsden and Liv Tyler) worry about him because he has obviously begun losing his memory and really isn't able to live on his own. His son buys a robotic assistant (given voice by Peter Sarsgaard and movement by dancer Rachel Ma) who is supposed to make sure Frank eats healthier and keeps his mind occupied. Naturally, Frank hates the robot. Until, that is, he learns that the robot has not been programmed with any special respect for following the law, and is an invaluable aide in committing burglaries. But robot partner or not, advanced age does not a flawless sneak thief make, and so Frank finds the law may be more onto him than he has thought.

Robot & Frank has quite a few things to say about how our society handles its inconveniently aging members and demonstrates the burden an aging parent can place on children who have their own lives to live. Does the hurried rush to change and make up-to-date everything help or hurt those who are becoming confused by the quickening pace of life, let alone whatever medical condition they may face? Where is the balance between a caretaker allowing an older person to retain independence and handling responsibilities children would just rather avoid?

Jake Schreier can play around with those questions without breaking the bank on CGI whiz-bangery, throwing in a touch or two here and there to make this world different enough from our own that a semi-autonomous robot seems plausible. Robot is simply a short dancer in a plastic suit, voiced by an actor. The movie is Langella's to carry, and he does so very well (with the possible of exception of Daniel Day-Lewis, Langella could have replaced any of the 2012 Best Actor nominees and improved the field substantially). Susan Sarandon as a librarian in town who draws Frank's eye, Marsden and Tyler as his children, Jeremy Sisto as a small-town sheriff and Jeremy Strong as an officious twit all support him very strongly, making Robot & Frank a fine little movie that not only tells its story but says a little something into the bargain.

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