Film: Broken | Side by Side | Robot and Frank | Fire With Fire | Oz the Great and Powerful

Robot & Frank
Robot & Frank
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Alistair Harkness reviews the latest film releases


Directed by: Rufus Norris

Starring: Tim Roth, Cillian Murphy, Rory Kinnear, Eliose Laurence, Denis Lawson

* *

ONE of the ironies of Broken is that the super-smart, self-assured and utterly bewitching performance of its young star Eliose Laurence is so brilliant, it actually exposes the film around her for the crock of hooey it really is.

In fact, so good is she as Skunk, an 11-year-old middle class kid coming of age in a suburban British cul-de-sac seething with violent but soapy melodrama, it’s hard not to wonder how much better this might have been had debut director Rufus Norris pursued the film’s gentler, more whimsical aspects instead of resorting to the default position of every serious British filmmaker by over-dosing on misery. As it stands the film plays out like an uneasy, emotionally manipulative hybrid of Andrea Arnold and Wes Anderson, one that exploits the affection and goodwill towards it that Laurence’s performance engenders by holding Skunk hostage – literally at one point – to the machinations of contrived plot that seems hell-bent on having terrible things happen to her. Even this might not have been so bad had the frequent attempts at hard-hitting social realism been done with any plausibility, but even the presence of Tim Roth, Cillian Murphy and Denis Lawson can’t sell us on scenarios that make The Jeremy Kyle Show look restrained.

Side by Side (15)

Directed by: Christopher Kenneally

* * * *

KEANU Reeves proves a surprisingly engaging host for this documentary inquiry into the ongoing transition from celluloid to digital filmmaking. Chatting to an impressive array of pioneers, converts and digital doom merchants (well, Christopher Nolan), Reeves gets into some animated discussions with the filmmaking A-list that help make in-depth tech-talk about relative merits of photochemical processing, digital manipulation and light-weight camera rigs sound a lot more enthralling on screen than they do on paper.

Highlights include: a smug George Lucas berating all the filmmaking Jeremiahs who tore him to shreds for shooting Attack of the Clones on digital, James Cameron taking Keanu to task for romanticising the “realness” of a movie set (“When was it ever real?” he asks, not unreasonably) and the stunning lack of self-awareness displayed by Transformers producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura when he complains that the democratisation of filmmaking through digital technology will lead to poorer films in the future because “there isn’t a tastemaker involved”. At the heart of the film, though, is the question: are we witnessing the end of film? For celluloid aficionados the prognosis doesn’t look good, but the enthusiasm of forward thinking converts like David Fincher, David Lynch and, especially, Danny Boyle (not to mention the emergence of talented new voices like Lena Dunham) suggests that filmmaking will be okay.

Fire With Fire (15)

Directed by: David Barrett

Starring: Bruce Willis, Josh Duhamel, Rosario Dawson, Vincent D’Onofrio


STARRING Bruce Willis, Fire with Fire went straight-to-download in the US but has somehow been granted a cinematic release in the UK, perhaps as a result of an optimistic distributor betting that A Good Day to Die Hard wouldn’t suck, and so create an insatiable demand for more Willis product

But A Good Day to Die Hard did suck and so does this, although to be fair to Bruce, he takes more of a backseat in this revenge thriller about a fireman who hunts down a vicious gang of Aryan Neo-Nazis after his position in the witness relocation programme (he’s supposed to testify against them) is compromised. Lest that description give the impression that any of this might be trashy fun, the fireman is played not by some wannabe Charles Bronson figure, but by the staggeringly bland Josh Duhamel, erstwhile romantic lead in last week’s nutty Nicholas Sparks swoon-fest Safe Haven. Willis, meanwhile, plays the jaded cop trying to do right by his now-fugitive star witness, and Rosario Dawson adds to the idiocy as a US Marshal who falls for Duhamel’s fireman, despite the fact he’s clearly a psycho! The result is breathtakingly dumb with absolutely zero redeeming features.

Robot & Frank (12A)

Directed by: Jake Schreier

Starring: Frank Langella, Susan Sarandon, Liv Tyler, James Marsden

* * * *

AFTER the recent mini-wave of films about old age, it’s a relief to be confronted with one that doesn’t use the fact that its protagonist is a senior citizen to pander to the audience. In the near-future-set buddy comedy Robot & Frank, Frost/Nixon star Frank Langella eschews all traces of sentimentality to play Frank, a retired cat burglar given a robot butler by his estranged son to help him cope with his failing memory.

A roguish reprobate whose career path has led both to a divorce and a strained relationship with his grown-up children (Liv Tyler and James Marsden), Frank is resistant to the idea of computerised help at first, but once he works out he can use Robot (serenely voiced by Peter Sarsgaard) to help him perpetrate crime, his fondness for this most gentle of task-masters grows. The amusingly inventive heist plot that follows – mostly involving the local library, the contents of which are in the final stages of being digitised – explores in subtle and heartbreaking ways how memory becomes a defining part of who were are and where we’re going. It’s Langella’s performance that makes this tangible, keeping the ailing Frank forcefully in the moment even when the moment is lost in a fog of confusion.

Oz the Great and Powerful (12A)

Directed by: Sam Raimi

Starring: James Franco, Michelle Williams, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, Zach Braff

* * *

PART loving tribute, part modern reboot, this sort-of-prequel to The Wizard of Oz offers plenty to enjoy without really nailing what makes Victor Fleming’s 1939 adaptation of L Frank Baum’s story such an enduring classic.

Telling the origin story of the eponymous wizard, it rewinds proceedings to 1905 where a small-time carnival magician by the name of Oscar Diggs (James Franco) is whisked by a tornado from Kansas to Oz and is quickly mistaken by its inhabitants for the wizard who has been prophesied to save the Emerald City. Fans of director Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead films will probably spot a number of similarities to Army of Darkness in Oscar’s character arc here and Franco’s twitchy, over-the-top acting style appears to have been modelled on Bruce Campbell’s B-movie wackiness from that film. That’s all to the good, and the film is certainly at its best when blending these elements with the freakier, more out-there aspects of the Oz mythos. When it’s attempting to simultaneously build a story around the origins of the Wicked Witches of the East and West, however, the cracks begin to show. A convoluted plot detailing their Machiavellian efforts to seize control of the Emerald City gets bogged down in too much meaningless detail, and what should be big reveals lack a certain wow factor. Nevertheless, Raimi deploys enough to magical moments elsewhere to see it through. Just.