MIFF Review: 7 Chinese Brothers, Robot Overlords, The Gift

We sent Glen Falkenstein to explore what MIFF had to offer. He returned to us, disappointed with the continued slip of an Oscar winner.

 

7 Chinese Brothers

The lyrics of R.E.M’s lesser-known hit 7 Chinese Brothers, for which the film is named, do little to make sense of this elusive title, or least make sense of the title. But that’s kind of the point.

Jason Schwartzman is Larry, who after being fired from a lousy job, picks up another gig at a car garage run by the beautiful Lupe (Eleanore Pienta) for whom he quickly develops feelings. In his spare time, Larry hangs out with his dog (Schwartzman’s real-life canine, Arrow), his ageing grandmother and last surviving relative (Olympia Dukakis) and her nurse/his best friend, Major Norwood (Tunde Adebimpe).

At times a comically sad figure whose forlornness and apathy are his most endearing features, it is Schwartzman who brings on most of the laughs and exactly the kind of comedy we would expect from a Wes Anderson regular. The sort of tragi-comic anti-hero that could have been filled by Jason Segel or any number of actors without the quirky, desperate charm nailed by Schwartzman, 7 Chinese Brothers is enjoyable if only for watching him careen from one increasingly pitiful obstacle to another.

Seeing Larry awkwardly entangle himself with a carful of strangers; or standing outside an ATM, withdrawing money to appease a hostile co-worker who is stealing from the boss he has a crush on; or playing with his dog after it almost gets kidnapped are only a few of the times where the filmmakers manage to find piercingly comic gems in some of Larry’s most desperate or tragic moments.

A fine comedy of exasperation, and yes, while not all of the scenes manage to hit the right notes, they are offset by the many times the tragic humorist in you can laugh and be glad that it’s not happening to you. Backed by a small yet solid supporting cast, Schwartzman delivers a bleak, bitterly funny comedy.

 

Robot Overlords

This had the potential to be an amazing movie. With the opening line being already a slap in the face to conventional wisdom – and logical plot development, on par with 2012‘s “the neutrinos have mutated” – this sci-fi comedy flick could have been so, so much more than the resulting lacklustre genre mash-up.

An invading army of robots insist on keeping the citizens of a nice English country town locked in their homes, experimenting on human thought at will and promising to rack off when their research is all done.

Holding them at bay with implanted trackers, the youthful occupants of a few of these homes manage to free themselves and head out in search of the father of Sean, their leader, who is mysteriously missing. Evading the robots and human “collaborators”, a small army of sell-outs to the human race lead by Robin Smythe (Ben Kingsley in one of many unusual casting decisions of late), the rag-tag group race throughout the countryside while Smythe tries to charm Sean’s mother, Kate (played by Gillian Anderson, whose familiar presence in the midst of extra-terrestrial life is one of the more enjoyable and redeeming features of this film).

I haven’t bothered to describe the central characters who form the rebellious band of youths as it really doesn’t matter – their underdeveloped personalities are just as useless to the overall plot as the third act romance haphazardly and awkwardly thrown in just because someone making the film felt it was necessary.

The moments of comedy are few and far between and most evident when Anderson is on screen, escaping from her captors with a hilarious gag completely out of tune with the rest of this very patchy comedy, where not even a goofball sidekick can relieve matters.

Most curious of all is the addition of Ben Kingsley and his decision to get on board with films that an actor with his calibre and experience would rarely associate with (unless the equivalent of the film’s budget was spent on his salary or the film’s production crew personally promised to build him a new house). The actor, best known for his historic portrayal of Mahatma Gandhi, has lumbered from one questionable role to another, missing a voice coach in the recent Self/Less and a conscience as an inexplicably nonplussed actor in Iron Man 3.

Aside from his captivating turn in Shutter Island, as of late the Oscar winner has starred in the heavily-panned Exodus: Gods and Kings, 2010’s Prince of Persia and any number of misfires. This is a far-cry from the man who played Otto Frank in the popular miniseries based on Anne Frank’s life, starred in The Confession and played the bad guy in my very favourite thriller Sneakers. Kingsley still has a lot of pull as a veteran star and any number of opportunities to turn his fortunes away from the likes of Robot Overlords.

Despite being able to convey complex emotions in his eyes while lying through his teeth, Kingsley’s turn as the regional collaborator cannot save this effort. Robot Overlords malfunctions on many levels.

 

The Gift

Joel Edgerton has a lot of options open to him. Riding the wave of the Australian hit, the Animal Kingdom star can and has gone for a number of big-budget Hollywood roles, in Exodus: Gods and Kings, opposite Tom Hardy in Warrior and in 2013’s The Great Gatsby.

It’s a huge temptation for any actor in this stage of his career to carve out an image as a reliable leading man and take on any number of the macho and/or action-heavy roles written for dudes in their thirties and forties, as Chris Pratt did in this summer’s biggest blockbuster Jurassic World, or Hardy in Mad Max: Fury Road.

Edgerton went in a slightly different direction with his latest movie The Gift, which he also wrote and directed, showing off his less than idealised talents at portraying the thoroughly discomforting childhood acquaintance of successful business exec Simon (Jason Bateman), who moves back to his home state only to encounter the unnerving Gordo (Edgerton).

Rendering creepy even something as simple as verbally recreating the sound of a helicopter, Edgerton makes the best of his creative Fatal Attraction-style role. Also playing against type as a charming yet thoroughly unlikeable husband/corporate hack, Bateman shows off his ample dramatic chops while still having enough scope within the sparsely comic yet frequently shocking screenplay for the Arrested Development star to flex his well-developed comedy muscles.

Edgerton is clearly the standout as the eerie and subtlety unsettling childhood friend who re-emerges after so many years. The Aussie actor shrewdly chose a seemingly counterintuitive starring-role to drive his increasingly prolific star-power, demonstrating his range as an actor and willingness to venture outside the glamorous roles typically afforded to actors with Edgerton’s track record.

Rebecca Hall (The Town) stages a solid performance as Simon’s wife, joining the audience as she comes to know Gordo and attempts to uncover his real motivations. A corporate storyline centring on Simon’s new job nicely complements the main drama, as elements of his and Gordo’s past continue to unravel.

An intermittently agitating, relatable and always compelling thriller, the unusual yet deft casting decisions helped make The Gift a thoroughly captivating drama and welcome career-move for its main stars.

 

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