Skip to main content

Remember Frank, your next job.


Robot & Frank
(2012)

Labelling a movie “quirky” is to risk damning it with faint praise. It suggests a benign eccentricity but an absence of bite or depth. Robot & Frank is most definitely benignly eccentric and doesn’t have much in the way of bite or depth. It doesn’t possess the stuff of great movies in its DNA, but nevertheless exudes an irresistible warmth.


Christopher D. Ford adapted his student film, concerning an elderly man cared for by a robot, for his fellow ex-classmate Jake Schreier. It’s set a few years hence but the only signs of this, besides the titular ‘bot, are widescreen Skype communication devices and the odd souped-up OAP vehicle belting it around the rural idyll. This pocket of the future appears hermetically sealed, and it’s where Frank (Frank Langella) finds himself in his dotage. He’s suffering from the early stages of dementia, but likes to re-enact his past glories as a cat burglar in the comfort of his home. He’s a regular at the local library, and regularly attempts to woo the librarian (Susan Sarandon). When his long-suffering son (James Marsden, who previously appeared with Langella in The Box and Superman Returns) presents him with a robot helper, Frank is in initially dismissive of the automaton. But, when Robot aids him in one of his shoplifting excursions, Frank begins to see him in a new light. He is no longer just a cleaner and dispenser of unwelcome dietary regimes; he’s a partner in crime.


The relationship between the two unfolds at an amiabl pace, as gruff Frank mellows in response to the unmodulated but soothing tones of Robot. It’s quite a feat that the chemistry between the two is so perfectly sustained, as Peter Sarsgaard, who voices Robot, never met Langella (Rachael Ma is inside the robot suit). When Frank eventually admits to his hippy daughter (Liv Tyler) that his helper has become his friend, it’s a genuinely touching moment and one we have no trouble believing. Schreier and Ford repeatedly make it clear that Robot has no emotions, but the benevolent tone of Sarsgaard will lead you to doubt this as much as Frank does.


The heist plot is very much secondary to the heart of the piece, but this conceit is where the few hiccups in plot and character lie. The idea that the designers of the robot would omit to programme it with the rule of law is scarcely credible, and a conversation on the subject doesn’t make it any more likely. There is also a mistaken assumption that, in order to get behind Frank’s thievery, Jeremy Strong’s designer (who is renovating the library) needs to be excessively shrill and boorish. Then there’s choice of book for Frank to steal; it’s a little on-the-nose (Don Quixote), inviting us to parallel our protagonist and his diligent sidekick with Cervantes’ work.


But the melancholy tone is affecting rather than cloying, and the humour comes naturally rather than being forced (such that a line about an enema feels out of place, thrown in for a cheap yuk). Robot’s meetings with the library help, Mr. Darcy, are very funny, resembling those awkward situations when you’re forced into conversation with someone to whom you have nothing to say. And Sarandon gives a lovely, touching performance in a small but significant supporting role. As great as Langella and Sarsgaard are, it’s the soulful kindness she displays at key moments that is most poignant.


This is a simple tale, and at times it the telltale signs of its expansion to fit feature length are evident (the police investigation scenes never quite play and come across as slightly laboured). But as a meditation on friendship and aging, Robot & Frank is subtle and insightful. The score, by Francis and the Lights, may exclaim a little too loudly, ‘This movie is quirky!” But that’s exactly what it is.

***1/2

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

Must the duck be here?

The Favourite (2018)
(SPOILERS) In my review of The Killing of a Sacred Deer, I suggested The Favourite might be a Yorgos Lanthimos movie for those who don’t like Yorgos Lanthimos movies. At least, that’s what I’d heard. And certainly, it’s more accessible than either of his previous pictures, the first two thirds resembling a kind of Carry On Up the Greenaway, but despite these broader, more slapstick elements and abundant caustic humour, there’s a prevailing detachment on the part of the director, a distancing oversight that rather suggests he doesn’t feel very much for his subjects, no matter how much they emote, suffer or connive. Or pratfall.

Can you float through the air when you smell a delicious pie?

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)
(SPOILERS) Ironically, given the source material, think I probably fell into the category of many who weren't overly disposed to give this big screen Spider-Man a go on the grounds that it was an animation. After all, if it wasn’t "good enough" for live-action, why should I give it my time? Not even Phil Lord and Christopher Miller's pedigree wholly persuaded me; they'd had their stumble of late, although admittedly in that live-action arena. As such, it was only the near-unanimous critics' approval that swayed me, suggesting I'd have been missing out. They – not always the most reliable arbiters of such populist fare, which made the vote of confidence all the more notable – were right. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is not only a first-rate Spider-Man movie, it's a fresh, playful and (perhaps) surprisingly heartfelt origins story.

I'm a sort of travelling time expert.

Doctor Who Season 12 – Worst to Best
Season 12 isn’t the best season of Doctor Who by any means, but it’s rightly recognised as one of the most iconic, and it’s easily one of the most watchable. Not so much for its returning roster of monsters – arguably, only one of them is in finest of fettle – as its line-up of TARDIS crew members. Who may be fellow travellers, but they definitely aren’t “mates”. Thank goodness. Its popularity – and the small matters of it being the earliest season held in its entirety in original broadcast form, and being quite short – make it easy to see why it was picked for the first Blu-ray boxset.

I don’t think you will see President Pierce again.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
(SPOILERS) The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and other tall tales of the American frontier is the title of "the book" from which the Coen brothers' latest derives, and so announces itself as fiction up front as heavily as Fargo purported to be based on a true story. In the world of the portmanteau western – has there even been one before? – theme and content aren't really all that distinct from the more familiar horror collection, and as such, these six tales rely on sudden twists or reveals, most of them revolving around death. And inevitably with the anthology, some tall tales are stronger than other tall tales, the former dutifully taking up the slack.

You look like an angry lizard!

Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)
(SPOILERS) I can quite see a Queen fan begrudging this latest musical biopic for failing to adhere to the facts of their illustrious career – but then, what biopic does steer a straight and true course? – making it ironic that they're the main fuel for Bohemian Rhapsody's box office success. Most other criticisms – and they're legitimate, on the whole – fall away in the face of a hugely charismatic star turn from Rami Malek as the band's frontman. He's the difference between a standard-issue, episodic, join-the-dots narrative and one that occasionally touches greatness, and most importantly, carries emotional heft.

Whoever comes, I'll kill them. I'll kill them all.

John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017)
(SPOILERS) There’s no guessing he’s back. John Wick’s return is most definite and demonstrable, in a sequel that does what sequels ought in all the right ways, upping the ante while never losing sight of the ingredients that made the original so formidable. John Wick: Chapter 2 finds the minimalist, stripped-back vehicle and character of the first instalment furnished with an elaborate colour palette and even more idiosyncrasies around the fringes, rather like Mad Max in that sense, and director Chad Stahleski (this time without the collaboration of David Leitch, but to no discernible deficit) ensures the action is filled to overflowing, but with an even stronger narrative drive that makes the most of changes of gear, scenery and motivation.

The result is a giddily hilarious, edge-of-the-seat thrill ride (don’t believe The New York Times review: it is not “altogether more solemn” I can only guess Jeannette Catsoulis didn’t revisit the original in the interven…

There's something wrong with the sky.

Hold the Dark (2018)
(SPOILERS) Hold the Dark, an adaptation of William Giraldi's 2014 novel, is big on atmosphere, as you'd expect from director Jeremy Saulnier (Blue Ruin, Green Room) and actor-now-director (I Don’t Want to Live in This World Anymore) pal Macon Blair (furnishing the screenplay and appearing in one scene), but contrastingly low on satisfying resolutions. Being wilfully oblique can be a winner if you’re entirely sure what you're trying to achieve, but the effect here is rather that it’s "for the sake of it" than purposeful.