The very first moment of Robot & Frank is kind of a groaner: a title card flashes before the woodlands of upstate New York informing the audience that the film is set in “the near future.” At once the golden rule of show-don’t-tell is broken while the time-sensitive ambiguity of the information can come off as careless and frustrating. But Robot & Frank is for the few of us out there with enough patience to last beyond the initial five-second frame of a movie.
Everything thereafter is wholly impressive from the engrossing confusion that overtakes the audience when we first meet the on-in-years Frank (Frank Langella) a retired jewel thief struggling with the early-to-mid stages of Alzheimer’s. The story opens with Frank attempting to rob his own house — trapped in the motions of his youthful glory days and at painful odds with his increasing struggles with memory. Frank is alone: his affectionate flighty daughter Madison (Liv Tyler) is off traveling the world only speaking to her father via fleeting video-phone conversations. Frank’s resentful son Hunter (James Marsden whose only flaw here is that his ever-present charm makes him a little hard to believe as an embittered everyman with daddy issues) visits regularly to check on his father but brings nothing but malice and judgment. The only company Frank does have is a friendly librarian Jennifer (Susan Sarandon) the object of his flirtatious affections. Frank’s regular visits to Jen’s library — which is being “reimagined” as a digital cutting-edge social-media-incorporating blah blah blah experience — help to establish his lasting affection for the woman as well as the reality of the world in which this story is set. Jennifer like many in their society is abetted by a robot associate who helps to carry out her day-to-day.
It isn’t long into the film before Hunter decides that a caretaker robot would be the right fit for his father; unsurprisingly this is not an idea to which Frank takes too kindly. At first the highly intelligent android (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard) simply insists on feeding Frank a healthier diet taking him for hikes and employing the mindful activity of gardening. Frank is interested in none of this — except for the robot’s apparent knack for lock-picking. After taking note of Robot’s (he never gets a name) skill Frank decides to get back in the game: with his knowhow and Robot’s aptitude the two can really make a run for some high-profile items like the priceless copy of Don Quixote that the new owners of Jennifer’s renovating library plan on disposing (Frank wants to steal it so that he can give it to her — a sweet gesture if it weren’t so misguided). Beyond the monetary gain from this return to action is the first friend Frank has had in years. He shares stories with Robot relishing in his pal’s unwavering loyalty (he’s programmed that way after all) but lamenting in Robot’s frequent admissions that he is not actually alive.
Therein lies the heartbreak of the story: the affair of unrequited love. While Frank gradually (and begrudgingly — don’t you worry the process is quite begrudging!) comes to care for and cherish Robot he is placed with the new struggle of accepting his companion’s lack of ability to reciprocate any truly genuine affection. Robot is there for Frank through anything. He is “instinctually” driven to protect Frank from harm even if it means sacrificing his own well-being… as he understands he has no being to preserve. And although the self-involved Frank revels in this kind of relationship at first his love for and friendship with Robot becomes a source of deliberate pain in the film: beyond his shattered relationship with his children and his waning mind the sorrow is in Frank’s inability to accept that his closest friend is not really there.
As obvious ties can be drawn between this and the tragedy inherent in an Alzheimer’s sufferer grasping at things long gone the movie also serves as a truly interesting and approachable examination of the science fiction element of artificial intelligence — probably one of the best takes on the idea that film has given us in recent years. Capped with a fun albeit extremely odd performance by antagonist Jeremy Strong (as the new owner of Jennifer’s library) as well as an always welcome visit from Jeremy Sisto (as a crafty law enforcement officer with eyes on Frank… but don’t worry the heist motif never overtakes the film to the point of crime-thriller) as well as some genuinely unforeseen turns of events Robot & Frank is consistently gripping. A rare thing to say about a somber character study. Robot & Frank uses sci-fi as it was created to be used: to say something poignant about the human condition. Jake Schreier's Robot & Frank is not at all something you have to be "into" sci-fi to appreciate; it's simply a story about friendship and loneliness... something all humans (and some robots) can understand.
The other day, we got a look at the list of competitors in the upcoming Sundance Film Festival. But we've also got ourselves a fair share of promising premieres, with a slew of stars and directors alike that we're sure to get excited over.
Some of the big names we'll be seeing at this year's Sundance include Bradley Cooper, Zoe Saldana, Olivia Wilde and Jeremy Irons in The Words, Bruce Willis and Catherine Zeta-Jones in Lay the Favorite, Kirsten Dunst, Isla Fisher, Lizzy Caplan and Adam Scott in Bachelorette, Julie Delpy and Chris Rock in the Delpy-directed 2 Days in New York, Rashida Jones, Andy Samberg and Elijah Wood in Celeste and Jesse Forever (co-written by Jones) and Josh Radnor, starring against Elizabeth Olsen, in Liberal Arts, which he wrote and directed.
2 Days in New York / France (Director: Julie Delpy, Screenwriters: Julie Delpy, Alexia Landeau) — Marion has broken up with Jack and now lives in New York with their child. A visit from her family, the different cultural background of her new boyfriend, her sister’s ex-boyfriend, and her upcoming photo exhibition make for an explosive mix. Cast: Julie Delpy, Chris Rock, Albert Delpy, Alexia Landeau, Alex Nahon.
Arbitrage / U.S.A. (Director and screenwriter: Nicholas Jarecki) — A hedge-fund magnate is in over his head, desperately trying to complete the sale of his trading empire before the depths of his fraud are revealed. An unexpected, bloody error forces him to turn to the most unlikely corner for help. Cast: Richard Gere, Susan Sarandon, Tim Roth, Brit Marling, Laetitia Casta.
Bachelorette / U.S.A. (Director and screenwriter: Leslye Headland) — Unresolved issues between four high school friends come roaring back to life when the least popular of them gets engaged to one of the most eligible bachelors in New York City and asks the others to be bridesmaids in her wedding. Cast: Kirsten Dunst, Isla Fisher, Lizzy Caplan, James Marsden, Adam Scott, Kyle Bornheimer.
Celeste and Jesse Forever / U.S.A. (Director: Lee Toland Krieger, Screenwriters: Rashida Jones, Will McCormack) — Celeste and Jesse met in high school, married young, and at 30, decide to get divorced but remain best friends while pursuing other relationships. Cast: Rashida Jones, Andy Samberg, Ari Graynor, Chris Messina, Elijah Wood, Emma Roberts.
For A Good Time, Call... / U.S.A. (Director: Jamie Travis, Screenwriters: Katie Anne Naylon & Lauren Anne Miller) — Lauren and Katie move in together after a loss of a relationship and a loss of a rent controlled home, respectively. When Lauren learns what Katie does for a living the two enter into a wildly unconventional business venture. Cast: Ari Graynor, Lauren Anne Miller, Justin Long, Mark Webber, James Wolk.
GOATS / U.S.A. (Director: Christopher Neil, Screenwriter: Mark Jude Poirier) — Ellis leaves his unconventional desert home to attend the disciplined and structured Gates Academy. There, he re-connects with his estranged father and for the first time questions the family dynamics. Cast: David Duchovny, Vera Farmiga, Graham Phillips, Justin Kirk, Ty Burrell.
Lay The Favorite / U.S.A. (Director: Stephen Frears, Screenwriter: D.V. Devincintis) — An adventurous young woman gets involved with a group of geeky older men who have found a way to work the sportsbook system in Las Vegas to their advantage. Cast: Bruce Willis, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Rebecca Hall.
Liberal Arts / U.S.A. (Director and screenwriter: Josh Radnor) — When 30-something Jesse is invited back to his alma mater, he falls for a 19-year-old college student and is faced with the powerful attraction that springs up between them. Cast: Josh Radnor, Elizabeth Olsen, Richard Jenkins, Allison Janney, John Magaro, Elizabeth Reaser.
Price Check / U.S.A. (Director and screenwriter: Michael Walker) — Pete is having trouble resolving a happy marriage and family life with rising debt and a job he hates. When his new boss pulls him into the maelstrom that is her life, money and opportunities come his way, but at what price? Cast: Parker Posey, Eric Mabius, Annie Parisse, Josh Pais, Cheyenne Jackson.
Red Hook Summer / U.S.A. (Director: Spike Lee, Screenwriters: James McBride, Spike Lee) — A young Atlanta boy spends his summer in Brooklyn with his grandfather, who he's never seen before. Cast: Clark Peters, Jules Brown, Toni Lysaith, James Ransone, Thomas Jefferson Byrd.
Robot and Frank / U.S.A. (Director: Jake Schreier, Screenwriter: Christopher Ford) — A curmudgeonly older dad’s grown kids install a robot as his caretaker. Cast: Frank Langella, Susan Sarandon, James Marsden, Liv Tyler. SALT LAKE CITY GALA FILM
Shadow Dancer / United Kingdom (Director: James Marsh, Screenwriter: Tom Brady) — Widowed mother-turned-terrorist Colette McVeigh has high-ranking brothers in the IRA. When she’s arrested in an aborted bomb plot she must make hard choices, testing family loyalties. Cast: Andrea Riseborough, Aiden Gillen, Domhnall Gleeson, with Gillian Anderson and Clive Owen.
The Words / U.S.A. (Directors and screenwriters: Brian Klugman, Lee Sternthal) — Aspiring writer Rory Jansen finds another man's haunting memories in a collection of lost stories and claims them as his own, propelling him to literary stardom. Cast: Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Irons, Dennis Quaid, Olivia Wilde with Zoe Saldana. CLOSING NIGHT FILM
13 Notes: Paul Simon's Graceland Journey / U.S.A. (Director: Joe Berlinger) — Paul Simon returns to South Africa to explore the incredible journey of his historic Graceland album, including the political backlash he sparked for allegedly breaking the UN cultural boycott of South Africa, designed to end Apartheid.
About Face / U.S.A. (Director: Timothy Greenfield-Sanders) — An exploration of beauty and aging through the stories of the original supermodels. Participants including Isabella Rossellini, Christie Brinkley, Beverly Johnson, Carmen Dell'Orefice, Paulina Porizkova, Jerry Hall and Christy Turlington weigh in on the fashion industry and how they reassess and redefine their own sense of beauty as their careers progress.
A Fierce Green Fire / U.S.A. (Director: Mark Kitchell) — A definitive history of one of the most important movements of the 20th century, A Fierce Green Fire chronicles the environmental movement’s fascinating evolution from the 1960s to the present.
Bones Brigade / U.S.A. (Director: Stacy Peralta) — When six teenage boys came together as a skateboarding team in the 1980s, they reinvented not only their chosen sport but themselves too – as they evolved from insecure outsiders to the most influential athletes in the field.
The D Word: Understanding Dyslexia / U.S.A. (Director: James Redford) — While following a Dyslexic high school senior struggling to achieve his dream of getting into a competitive college, The D Word exposes myths about Dyslexia and reveals cutting edge research to elucidate this widely misunderstood condition.
Ethel / U.S.A. (Director: Rory Kennedy) — This intimate, surprising portrait of Ethel Kennedy provides an insider's view of a political dynasty, including Ethel’s life with Robert F. Kennedy and the years following his death when she raised their eleven children on her own.
Something From Nothing: The Art Of Rap / United Kingdom (Director: Ice-T, Co-Director: Andy Baybutt) — Through conversations with Rap’s most influential artists – among them Chuck D, Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre, Eminem, MC Lyte, Mos Def, and Kanye West – Ice-T explores the roots and history of Rap and reveals the creative process behind this now dominant art form.
West of Memphis / U.S.A. (Director: Amy Berg) — Three teenage boys are incarcerated for the murders of three 8-year-old boys in West Memphis, Arkansas. 19 years later, new evidence calls into question the convictions and raises issues of judicial, prosecutorial and jury misconduct – showing that the first casualty of a corrupt justice system is the truth.