Saturday, September 1, 2012

Review: Robot & Frank

Robot & Frank is easily one of the best sci-fi movies to hit in a long time (probably since 2009 when we had the one-two punch of District 9 and Moon). This is because, like most of the great sci-fi movies, it manages to have the science fiction aspect without feeling that that aspect excuses it from having anything else interesting about it. It is, in no particular order: a fantastically made hard sci-fi movie (hard sci-fi is more in line with science, rather than soft sci-fi which is more silly, like Star Wars), a deeply affecting character study, a well paced and interesting heist movie, a profound look at the idea of a soul and one of the most quietly effective looks at senility in films. It’s destined to be on a lot of year’s best lists (and signals, in my opinion, the official start of Oscar Season) so you should see it right away.

The plot is concerned with Frank (Frank Langella), an elderly and increasingly senile former jewel thief. His adult son is getting tired of coming to see him, so he gives him a robot to keep him company and to help with his mental and physical health. Soon Frank starts zeroing in on doing a few more heists to help save his favorite library and stick it to the yuppies whom he holds responsible for it’s failing.

Weirdly enough, this is not based on a forgotten Isaac Asimov short story (it would fit right in in the IRobot book), but it feels exactly like it was, from the way it’s story is based heavily around the relationship between a human who initially doesn’t trust robots and a robot and in how much the design of the tech and ESPECIALLY the robots seem to be Asimov inspired. It must be said, that a good portion of the movie’s depth comes from the fairly deep exploration of the relationship between Frank and the Robot. Saddling a full half of the main characters with a complete lack of facial or vocal changes is a pretty damned brave decision, and one which pays off magnificently, as the Robot is eventually capable of communicating huge amounts of information with tiny changes in posture and word choices.

What you’ve heard about Frank Langella as the lead is true: He gives an all time career great performance, managing to find the delicate balance between being an angry old man and the increasingly tragic deterioration of his mind.  His portrayal of senility is almost entirely without angst on his part, merely a slow quiet slide into  forgetfulness and it manages to be all the more realistic and touching for it. He gives a truly brilliant performance and if there is any justice at all he is a shoe in for a Best Actor nomination come January (of course that’s what I said about Sam Rockwell in Moon so what do I know?)

The other actors are more up and down. Liv Tyler and Susan Sarandon come off pretty good, although Liv is saddled with a rather thin character arc and not enough screentime to properly realize it. James Marsden is a little more problematic, as he is given very little screen time and as such seems to switch disposition from scene to scene.

The direction is fine, emphasizing music and lighting. A few shots stand out, in particular one bit of fantastic lighting towards the end. Kudos must be given to the script writer and director for managing to realize a future so close to modern day that I’d swear I could buy some of the appliances they pull out regularly. Along with some interesting shot composition and editing, the direction is as good as you can expect from such an actor driven movie, and the screenplay rises to the challenge, delivering an engaging and moving story that never once feels forced.

September has officially started and with it, Oscar season, something I’ve been eagerly anticipating for weeks now. Robot & Frank is the first one out the gate and it sets a very high standard for the rest of them (still need to see Cosmopolis though). If this plays near you, do not miss it.

Elessar is a 22 year old Alaskan born cinephile and he still wants a robot.

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