First things first, sorry for not posting this yesterday. I was fairly exhausted, and the results would probably have been close to unreadable. Since I’d rather avoid this, there will probably be two posts today, this and another in the evening. But enough of logistics, there are two movies and another interesting Sundance experience to talk about.
I did not have tickets for either of the pictures I saw yesterday, so I spent a good portion of it standing on the Sundance wait-list lines. Two hours before showtime, people who were not able to buy tickets ahead of time line up to get a number. Half-an-hour before the movie starts, they return to that line in numerical order and then, assuming the theater is not already full of ticket holders and Sundance pass owners, get a chance to buy tickets. I managed to get on line fairly early for both Robot and Frank and Reality Bites, and in both cases met some fairly cool people. Robot and Frank‘s first two wait listers were a pair of students working their way through The Hunger Games book series. We did not talk terribly much, but they were friendly and shared my passion for film. Reality Bites‘ line was filled with people who would have been the right age to empathize with Ben Stiller’s chronicle of Generation X when it was first released back in 1994, including a couple who had come to Park City to ski, but decided to catch Reality Bites to try and remember if they had seen it before. Our conversation covered a wide range of slightly off-kilter topics, from the films of John Carpenter to the strange fascination people have with celebrity deaths.
On a less exciting note, the line for Robot and Frank also featured the first rude people I have seen so far. Apparently the Sundance volunteer staff, who spend most of their time making sure that everything runs as smoothly as possible owe them an absolutely perfect, flawless Sundance. And for not waiting on them hand and foot, they dubbed all the volunteers idiots who were wasting their precious time. Charming people really. But on the plus side, they have been an exception so far. By and large, most of the people I have met here at Sundance have been pretty severely cool. The same could be said of the films.
While I adore The Raid, if I had to pick a film from Sundance 2012 to show someone who did not care for hyperviolent action, it would be Robot and Frank hands down. Frank Langella plays Frank, a lonely, angry old man succumbing to memory loss who drives his son Hunter (James Marsden) to distraction. Frustrated by his father’s increasingly poor condition and desperately wanting to spent some time with his own children, Hunter delivers an ultimatum to Frank: either accept a robotic caretaker (voiced by Peter Saarsgard and played physically by Rachel Ma) or check into a retirement facility. Frank, who remains insistent that he is “fine,” grudgingly accepts the robot, despite being certain that it will murder him in his sleep. The robot, eventually dubbed Robot, is committed to his programming – that is to help Frank improve his memory and maintain his independence through a schedule. Frank chafes at Robot’s healthy cooking (as opposed to his preferred diet of Captain Crunch,) his suggestion that they start a garden and his insistence on vigorous hikes every day (“You’ve seen one tree, you’ve seen them all.” Frank grumbles.) Gradually however, a friendship forms, one that accelerates when Frank decides to come out of retirement as a cat burglar, since teaching Robot how to successfully burgal qualifies as a hobby that helps him improve his memory and physical fitness.
Robot and Frank is built on a very tight balancing act between comedy and drama; funny as Frank’s curmudgeonly behavior can be, he is not a well man. He continues to try and eat at Harry’s, a diner that closed down years before the story begins and occasionally forgets that Hunter is old enough to have started a family of his own. It is not easy to watch, especially when the plot’s climax sees Frank reduced to a desperate, terrified wreck who wants to get away with what he has done without sacrificing Robot. To its very great credit, it maintains this balance the whole way through its 90 minutes – never becoming so much a comedy that the implications of its premise are glossed over but neither ever becoming “Immensely Likable Old Man Succumbs to Alzheimer’s Over A Protracted Period of Time: The Movie.” Much of this is attributable to the characters – they are, Robot included (despite his oft-repeated statement that he “is not a person) some of the most wonderfully human I have seen on film in quite a while. Frank bonds with Robot and treats him with nothing but affection, but cannot manage to muster the maturity necessary to accept that Hunter and his daughter Madison (Liv Tyler) may have their own lives to live independent of him, but still love and worry for him. Likewise, Madison is capable of finding the beauty in the devastated people she helps as part of a non-profit, but initially tries to take over Robot’s position as caretaker when she comes for a visit, unwilling to accept the idea of a robot as anything but a menacing threat. It is difficult to write too much about Hunter without getting into spoiler territory, but he is just as complex, flawed and likable as his father and sister are. Robot is extremely charming; from his gangly walk to his eternally calm if occasionally snarky conversations with Frank to the black cape he dons to hide his sleek Appleish exterior during the robberies he and Frank pull off. Just as Frank’s gradual deterioration is painful to watch, Robot’s insistence that he is not a person becomes increasingly uncomfortable as the extent of his cognitive abilities comes to light.
Robot and Frank‘s biggest weakness comes in the form of the closest thing it has to an antagonist, Jake (Jeremy Strong.) A staggeringly snobbish Yuppie of the future, Jake’s ineptitude and snobbery work for comedy, but his descent into frenzied lunatic determined to make Frank suffer for his crimes (he does not want Frank to be punished, he wants him to suffer for the twin sleights of robbing him and finding him obnoxious) comes on very fast and reads as unnatural compared to the careful, gradual development the rest of the cast receive.
But that same careful, gradual development is exceedingly well-done with every other character, and on the whole the film is a fine, fine piece of work that deserves to be celebrated as the wonderfully smart, sweet piece of science fiction comedy drama it is. Also worth noting, before I wrap this particular review up, is the very careful balance of old and new in the small New York town where Robot and Frank is set. I had a chance to ask the director, Jake Schreier, about this, and the idea behind it was to make the film look futuristic without dating it too badly (always a risk for science fiction, given how dramatically science and human civilization can change over a very short period of time.) Robot and Frank‘s performances are amazing, the questions it asks are questions worth asking, and its answers leave room for debate and discussion. It is also very, very funny. So far, it is the best film I have seen here at Sundance.
Every year Sundance has a program they call “From the Collection,” where they re-screen a film that played at Sundance in a previous year with a restored print. It is a testament to film preservation, and Reality Bites’ new print is a resounding endorsement of that. It looks gorgeous, which is especially important given that deliberately grainy tape footage (according to Ben Stiller, shot on Beta, because a new type of videotape introduced recently looked too good for what the footage was supposed to be) is a recurring element of the picture.
Reality Bites is fascinating to me, since it is very much a time capsule of the decade I was born in, and I am getting close to the age its cast and characters were in 1994. The nineties gave me my favorite band (Pearl Jam), the primary work in my favorite author’s canon (David Foster Wallace and Infinite Jest) and saw the end of my favorite director’s best period of work (John Carpenter, who closed off his period of more or less consistently good-to-great work with 1995′s In the Mouth of Madness.) On a less personal level, this was the decade that saw the formal end of the Cold War, the initial rise of the Internet as a force in human society and a shift in the definitions of what personal privacy meant for people everywhere from suburbia to the White House. With all of this, plus the fallout of the 1980s, uncertainty and angst reigned supreme in youth consciousness like never before. Beyond the physical pieces of its time; the dress, music, television, slang and general behavior of its leads, that uncertainty is what Reality Bites preserves the best. Everyone, from Winona Ryder’s aspiring documentarian Lelaina to Steve Zahn’s Sammy; a man trying to figure out how to come out to his parents, deals with it in some form. Their reactions are all over the map, from rational anger to irrational anger to trying to find some dignity in it to resigned sadness. It’s a wide range, and most of it feels genuine – it is helped by the fact that Helen Childress, the screenwriter, began work on the project at 20.
Stiller gets good performances out of his entire cast, particularly Ryder and Janeane Garofalo as her best friend Vickie. His own character, the yuppie employee of “IN YOUR FACE TV” Michael is given some refreshing depth for a relatively unsympathetic role. My biggest issue with the cast lies with Ethan Hawke. He does a good job as intellectual, commitment-phobic slacker Troy, but I find the character quite unappealing. For all of his supposed intelligence, he manages to say some things to the woman he loves that even being uncomfortable with commitment cannot really explain as anything other than cruel. He later tries to justify his behavior by declaring that as messed up as he may be, he is “the only real thing” Lelaina has in her life, which the rest of the movie has proven outright untrue. While he is implied to have grown up emotionally in the final scenes, I find myself perplexed as to why Lelaina would want anything to do with him at all at that point.
To be fair, Ryder and Hawke do have a few legitimately sweet scenes together, particularly just before the first of several fights they have over the course of the film, but by and large I as a viewer care a lot more about Lelaina than I do Troy. In fact, I would go so far as to say that Lelaina, and Ryder’s performance of her, is my favorite thing about Reality Bites as a film rather than a time capsule. She is an intelligent, passionate woman who takes the documentary she spends most of the picture working on admirably seriously. She makes believable mistakes, and deals with the consequences of those mistakes equally believably. Her revenge on her cruel, casually sexist boss is one of the film’s highlights, and both Stiller and Childress deserve a lot of credit for following through on what happens after the moment of triumph. She is a believable and incredibly likable woman.
As an experience, the best thing about seeing Reality Bites at Sundance beyond the gorgeous print, intriguing historical snapshot and Ryder’s performance was the question and answer session. Ben Stiller, Helen Childress and producers Michael Shamberg and Sharon Seymour were amiable, informative and above all honest. Stiller was completely comfortable admitting that there were choices he had made as a director in 1994 which he cringes at now, and Childress talked about how in future work she would learn to step back a bit from her own personal life when looking for inspiration. It was fantastic to listen to, and I am glad I got the opportunity to do so. As a film, Reality Bites stands time pretty well, especially given that it was Stiller’s directorial debut. It may not be the best film I have seen here so far (Stiller relies way too heavily on his soundtrack to generate emotion at times, and Hawke’s character really hurts the picture for me) but I am quite glad I got the opportunity to.