Friday, December 19, 2014
YOLO COUNTY NEWS
99 CENTS

Robot & Frank: Unconventional buddy saga

With the town library scheduled for “improvements” that will transform it into an all-senses experience, Frank (Frank Langella) and Jennifer (Susan Sarandon) glumly watch as the remaining books are removed for digitization, and then ... elimination. Courtesy photo

By
From page A11 | September 07, 2012 |

Four stars; rated PG-13, and rather needlessly, for brief profanity

STARRING: Frank Langella, Susan Sarandon, Peter Sarsgaard, James Marsden, Liv Tyler, Jeremy Strong, Jeremy Sisto

By Derrick Bang
Enterprise film critic

Science fiction isn’t solely devoted to opulent spaceship battles and grim post-apocalyptic survival sagas, despite Hollywood’s best efforts to suggest as much.

Some of our best cinema sci-fi has been much quieter and more deeply moving: gentle parables that employ only modest futuristic touches in order to confront universal truths — often uncomfortable ones — about the human condition.

These days, as aging baby boomers contemplate the frightening implications of mental and/or physical deterioration, we’re seeing a corresponding focus on gerontology issues. Science fiction has responded in kind.

“Robot & Frank” is a whimsical, charming and poignant character study: a film school short expanded into a full-length feature that enchanted this year’s Sundance Film Festival audience and went home with the Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize. The tone of Christopher D. Ford’s original script — his first big-screen effort — feels very much like that of a Ray Bradbury story: thoughtful, occasionally poetic and willing to tackle unsettling topics.

But this slice of elder life is disarmingly cloaked in the trappings of a mild-mannered comedy, and the story’s more serious elements sneak up on us. Director Jake Schreier, also making an impressive feature film debut, paces the narrative quite skillfully; he also draws persuasive performances from his cast members, most notably star Frank Langella.

The setting is “the near future” in the upstate New York community of Cold Spring. Frank (Langella) lives alone in an increasingly cluttered home that is nestled in the woods, a comfortable walk from town. Frank’s grown children, Hunter (James Marsden) and Madison (Liv Tyler), have grown worried about his apparent inability to care for himself; his fading memory also plays tricks on him, such as an ongoing desire to dine at a long-absent local restaurant.

Frank’s one regular joy comes from the walking trips he takes to the Cold Spring Library, where he exchanges oft-read books while chatting with the librarian, Jennifer (Susan Sarandon). She is the facility’s sole remaining human employee — filing duties and record-keeping having been embraced by computers and ambulatory machines — and Frank is pretty much the building’s only visitor.

Hunter makes time-consuming weekly drives to check on his father, more out of a feeling of responsibility than any genuine desire to spend time together; we sense efforts to surmount mild estrangement, the cause for which eventually becomes clear. Hunter, increasingly concerned by what he finds each week, threatens placement in a senior care facility; Frank angrily resists.

So Hunter compromises by gifting his father with a walking, talking humanoid robot that has been programmed to improve the old man’s physical and mental health. Stung by this presumptuousness, Frank bitterly resents the hovering presence of this mechanical nanny, which now micro-manages his every move, from strict, healthier diets to enforced regular waking and sleeping hours.

This arrangement seems doomed to failure, until Frank discovers that his new companion’s programming is somewhat light on ethics. Although the robot understands concepts such as theft, it has no inherent objections to such behavior. And if Frank becomes newly invigorated by this discovery, well, so much the better.

You see, Frank is a “retired” cat burglar, long chafing at his inability to continue the quite exciting, high-stakes career that he remembers so vividly. The robot has physical skills that Frank’s old fingers now fumble, not to mention additional abilities — such as rapidly trying all possible values of a combination lock — that would require prohibitive amounts of time for a human being.

And thus a new — and quite unlikely — criminal team is born.

Langella, for years an under-appreciated actor only now receiving proper recognition for a long and remarkably varied career that recently brought him an Academy Award nomination for 2008’s “Frost/Nixon,” delivers a precise, delicately nuanced performance. His expressive features convey a wealth of emotions, from stubborn petulance to sorrow, embarrassment and the genuine fear that he may have become as obsolete as the books in the town library.

Watch for the flicker of interest — so marvelously subtle, at first — as Frank learns of his new companion’s moral shortcomings.

Tyler breezes into this story when the globe-trotting Madison — a political activist with rather strong views on the subject of robot helpers — decides to visit and care for Frank herself. It’s a noble gesture, but Madison can’t begin to cope with the situation; Tyler deftly conveys her character’s warring, guilt-laden emotions.

Marsden has a somewhat tougher role, because Hunter lacks the comfortable relationship that his sister shares with their father. Hunter is more apt to act according to his own definition of a “best” solution, rather than working with Frank toward a mutually agreeable goal. And yet, even as a successful adult with a family of his own, Hunter stills recalls being the little boy who worshiped his dad.

Sarandon, as always, is an effervescent revelation. Jennifer is a patient woman with an obvious fondness for Frank, and of course we wonder if anything will come of that.

Peter Sarsgaard supplies the robot’s voice, and longtime movie buffs will blink more than once, because the calm, carefully modulated tones strongly echo HAL, from 1968’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Fortunately, Sarsgaard inhabits a far more benevolent artificial construct … and one whose fate soon concerns us quite deeply.

Because that, too, is a heavy topic in Schreier’s film. The agony of encroaching senility is uppermost — the potential loss of a once-vibrant man, cast aside much like Jennifer’s cherished books — but Ford’s screenplay also contemplates the degree to which a robotic being can blossom from intrusive pest to valued friend.

People, particularly lonely people, have long valued their strong bonds with pet cats and dogs. In our probable brave new world, is it so difficult to imagine the same thing happening with mechanical companions? Briefs clips of actual robots — some clearly designed to assist the elderly — accompany this film’s closing credits, and they lend weight to all such questions.

Steven Spielberg capably covered this territory with 2001’s “A.I. Artificial Intelligence,” his contemplative and often quite disturbing adaptation of Brian Aldiss’ short story, “Supertoys Last All Summer Long.” Schreier and Ford’s new film makes an excellent, if less flashy, companion piece: a “what if” tale that encourages us to acknowledge some painful, real-world truths.

And that’s the mark of a truly successful science-fiction story.

— Read more of Derrick Bang’s film criticism at http://derrickbang.blogspot.com. Comment on this review at www.davisenterprise.com

Comments

comments

  • Recent Posts

  • Enter your email address to subscribe to this newspaper and receive notifications of new articles by email.

  • .

    News

    UCD, UC team up to study effects of climate change

    By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: A1 | Gallery

     
    Teens’ goal? Helping other soccer players around the world

    By Anne Ternus-Bellamy | From Page: A1 | Gallery

    There’s a plate for you at the Davis Holiday Meal

    By Dave Ryan | From Page: A1 | Gallery

     
    Feds release ‘framework’ to rate colleges

    By The Associated Press | From Page: A2

     
    Gunfire leads to DUI arrest

    By Lauren Keene | From Page: A2

     
    Police seek suspect in hit-and-run collision

    By Lauren Keene | From Page: A2

    Help sought in search for runaway Davis teen

    By Lauren Keene | From Page: A2

     
    Konditorei presents free holiday concert

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: A3

    Welcome 2015 with Mumbo Gumbo at a gala bash

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: A3

     
    Luminaria display planned in West Davis

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: A3

     
    Sierra Club calendars on sale Saturday

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: A3

    Creative women share food, friendship

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: A3

     
    Blue Christmas service planned at Davis churches

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: A4

    Willett bench is a labor of love

    By Jeff Hudson | From Page: A4

     
    Author! Author! UCD hosts talks, Q and A on Asia-focused books

    By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: A4

    Libraries will be closed around the holidays

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: A5

     
    See diving ducks at city wetlands tour

    By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: A5 | Gallery

     
    Downtown gift cards get a new perk

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: A6

    Meditation, Buddhism classes offered

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: A7

     
    Nobel Prize winner will discuss research related to autism

    By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: A8

    A home for the holidays?

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: A8 | Gallery

     
    Explorit: Experience nano this spring

    By Lisa Justice | From Page: A9 | Gallery

    Traditional carols service is Saturday at St. Martin’s

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: A9

     
    Supplies collected for victims of abuse

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: A11

    Grandmothers support group meets weekly

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: A11, 1 Comment

     
    Soup’s On will benefit NAMI-Yolo

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: A11

    Donate to STEAC at Original Steve’s

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: A11

     
    .

    Forum

    He needs them to pay up

    By Creators Syndicate | From Page: B5

     
    Tom Meyer cartoon

    By Debbie Davis | From Page: A14

    Cheers and Jeers: Have you ever seen the rain?

    By Our View | From Page: A14

     
    Defeating Ebola involves medicine, and prayers

    By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: A14 | Gallery

    Kudos to Central Park Gardens donors and volunteers

    By Letters to the Editor | From Page: A14

     
    .

    Sports

    Devil boys hold off scrappy Rio Linda

    By Bruce Gallaudet | From Page: B1 | Gallery

     
    Lady Blue Devils rout an undefeated Liberty squad

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: B1

    UCD RB coach Wright heads to Florida; what next?

    By Bruce Gallaudet | From Page: B1

     
    Aggies nab junior college defensive lineman

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: B1

    Cousins is back in lineup but Kings fall

    By The Associated Press | From Page: B1 | Gallery

     
    Nostra-Dunning makes his college bowl picks

    By Bob Dunning | From Page: B2

    Tennyson’s first goal is the difference in Sharks win

    By The Associated Press | From Page: B6 | Gallery

     
    .

    Features

    Name droppers: Trio elected to academy of inventors

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: A11

     
    .

    Arts

    Tom Rigney and Flambeau to play

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: A15

     
     
    DMTC announces auditions for ‘Sweeney Todd’

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: A15

     
    ‘Before Midnight’ screening is tonight

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: A15

    DMTC plans New Year’s Eve party

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: A15

     
    .

    Business

    After 19 years, Alfa Romeo returns

    By Ann M. Job | From Page: A16

     
    .

    Obituaries

    Rena Sylvia Smilkstein

    By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: A6

     
    .

    Comics