Sunday, March 17, 2013

A Review: Robot & Frank

*This review is riddled with hyperlinks (highlighted in blue) that give support and insight into the ever-speedily-moving, mindbogglingly and purely utterly fascinating world of advanced robotics. Please do not hesitate to click them and watch the videos I have located to enhance your understanding that the future of robotics has already arrived. 


"Some things take time Frank."

Here we have a pleasantly brilliant film. And please mark those words as they are the correct labeling through and through. Both pleasant to the highest heights of the word, and, brilliant in the execution. 

First time director Jake Schreier and screenwriter Christopher D. Ford have crafted a simple tale about a retired thief who gets a robot butler and the ensuing adventures that follow. The kicker being his dementia is slowly eroding his mental facilities. 

Nothing in the film is exactly what it seems, and I'll say it now, there's even a "Bruce Willis is really dead?!" moment in here that makes a lot of sense when you think about the minor ticks and occurrences where that point in the plot is hinted to. Which is an ode to the power of the filmmakers and that one element that they used to enhance that point.   Here we have a splendid and  curious little series of events that unfold for us. 

Frank, in his seventies now, lives alone and sleeps, eats and does things in a sloppier manner than we feel he'd like to be. He has dementia, and day by day, it chips away at what is left of his very sharp mind. His kids are worried but he doesn't seem to mind. He walks the streets of his upstate New York home. They are paved with a forest to make the hallways as cars (or pancaked versions of the Smart Car) whiz by him. He wanders his woods road into town to exchange his recently re-read books and then in turn also see his favorite librarian, Jennifer. The other is a rolling box with arms and a voice speaker, he is the chief librarian named Mr. Darcy. Jennifer is played affably and as accurately as the role requires by the always performance-reliable and ever-kindly Susan Sarandon. 

Blush: A Beauty bar is not Harry's Diner how Frank remembers. But yet he goes there anyway and even rips off the merch. A bar
of soap molded into the shape of a dog. And evidently it was not his first time. But the shop owner (Ana Gasteyer) seems to understand his deteriorating facilities so she cuts him slack on the petty thefts, thievery? Nah. Er, uhm--theftery. Theftery? Yeah. I'm going with that one. 

As he walks in the middle of the road one day, his son Hunter (James Marsden continuing to impress me lately) spots him on his weekly trip up to see him and presents him with a gift. A robot. Frank refuses to it so it's defunct handle is of course only Robot. He's worried about his father up there all alone, thinking Harry's is still a restaurant and eating only cereal, falling asleep in front of the television. It's a problem. And the ten hour round trip every weekend is starting to take it's tole on Hunter and his family. So, naturally, Robot is his solution. 

Robot can cook spaghetti and meatballs with a vanilla cake for dessert and clean the entire house with an auto-politeness and programmed willingness to serve it's master. An advancement of this model. And then it will clean the dishes, take out the trash, grab the groceries from town (taking a slightly safer route through a path in the woods) and even wakes Frank up in the morning with his daily activities at the ready. You get the idea, he's not as cool as Alfred but can do everything he does just as well. 

It doesn't take long for Frank to give out a comical set of curses and then eat a cookie for breakfast instead of a grapefruit. It's offensive for Frank to garden with and talk to an appliance. 

It eventually is foretold to Frank by Robot that if he were to "die eating cheeseburgers" Robot will have failed his mission and be sent back to the factory for a mind-wiping. Frank takes that piece of information with a "garlic-thin-slice" of actual emotional registration. But before long he tells his daughter (played exactly like you'd assume Liv Tyler would play her) on the phone that Robot is 'crampin' my style.' He then leans over to Robot, holds away the phone for a moment and gives me a laugh with (said as softly and stern as Langella can): "She doesn't like you. . . I don't like you either."

One day while in Blush, he attempts another "robbery" but the shop owner asks him what's in his pocket and he slyly puts back the animal-shaped soap. On the walk home, Robot tells him he took the soap for him and put it in his bag. Robot tells Frank he is not programmed to care about the morality of theft, or breaking the law in general. So naturally, after that, it's open sesame on Frank's body and spirit. He's quickly renewed with a vigor he's long forgotten and even stopped chasing. 

After telling Robot specifically not to incorporate state and federal laws into his programming, he starts teaching him the art of being, "a second story guy." How to break in and enter where no one else can, how to steal goods and jewelry, what kind, how much, how to pick locks, the art of casing, and shares all sorts of old adventures with him about the glory days of being a high-line thief. 

The first robbery is done strictly for Jennifer's sake. And we now see the old tired horse commin' 'round with his budding heart. I won't tell you what it is, but it was a sweet gesture none the less. 

And speaking of Jennifer, what is it about Susan Sarandon's sheer inability to age? At 66 years of age I'd chop her down to 50 in certain frames. And at that, she pulled this role off (with meat on the bones of the script only an actress of her degree can see) in such a way that I could most definitely see a twenty-something coming through her. There is something about her in the way that she possesses that cuteness of a youthful quality, such a girl's innocence in her swagger. It's a power that a lot of actresses her age simply do not still have in them that naturally comes out to play on screen. 

What happens after the first boosting is Frank's assimilation into his old self, and a new job proving  more difficult to accomplish then Robot is willing to accept. He asks Frank to be very thorough in his preparation for he is "a very strict judge." Frank nods and smiles with the anticipation knowing what's in store for him. 

I'm really giving it to Peter Sarsgaard and his evocation of the animatronic caretaker. He supposedly read all his lines straight through in less than an hour one afternoon in the recording booth. Sarsgaard comes across with his soft, delicate and precise voice exactly the way we want Robot to sound. Reminding him, "I'm not human Frank." How many films have I seen him in being delicate, soft and inviting. It now seems only logical to me that he would of course one day take on something like this to add to his already impressive repertoire. He even manages to squeeze in an actual certifiably funny enema joke, including more humor supplied by Sarsgaard/Robot. And truly smile-worthy back-n'-forth with Frank about Gout and it's potential unbalancing through the imbibing of alcohol. 

Speaking of Langella himself, some have claimed he knocked it out cold, turning in what a respected viewer called, "A master-class in acting." I'm inclined to agree. 

I myself was of course reminded of another inhuman, humane I should say, robo-servant. The one in Kevin Spacey's GERTY from Duncan Jone's wonderful Sam Rockwell vehicle Moon. Both come across with love and affection that is not exactly programmed, but, expected of their artificial politeness. The result is more than the robot's realize they are giving their human companions: legitimate friendship.

Frank's is virgin because it's not good for his blood-pressure.
Robot's design was mostly inspired by the caretaker prototype robots of Japan, I thought particularly of the Honda ASIMO(Which, as it turns out, it actually was.) That in hand paired with some of the more wonderful things that are being done today to treat dementia and Alzheimer's. PARO developed by AIST a leading Japanese industrial automation engineering company. 

PARO is a 6 pound 2 foot long white animatronic baby seal. It's leading use in today's world is to form a type of companionship with the elderly, particularly the one's in nursing homes that suffer from any form of dementia and Alzheimer's. It's goal it to strengthen and (if possible) enhance the cognitive functions that are inherent in the brain connected to friendship, care-giving, socialization and motivationHell, there's even video of President Obama using one. I'm not kidding. 

People, are rudimentary creatures of love and desired to be loved, they possess a need to provide for one another. And they tend to feel better, and live longer to do so.

Or, in Frank's situation, you could also say that about a job as well. Some of the retired tend to drop in motivation and start developing a slight lack of discipline after long. With grown children, and no 9-5 with consequences or better yet, exciting results, well. . . What else do you do? 

In Frank's case you crawl back out of retirement and start ripping off the entire town with your super-advanced robot. And what a joy that was to watch. I especially loved the way Robot wore a black cloak to match Frank's black attire during their heists. 

Robot and Mr. Darcy are "Functioning normally." 
There a is genuinely cute moment where Mr. Darcy and Robot are instructed to have a conversation with one another. What follows is pure innocence and a rare feat accomplished in the world of CGI and robotic fueled frenzies of the movies of today. Due to the fact that there is no CGI in the film, and if there is then the tiger from Life of Pi just got decrowned for the new master-feat of special effects. Robot is played with precise movements and focus by Rachael Ma. And Mr. Darcy is obviously swapped out of IBM's old storage closet.

It's eerily reminiscent of this video. Again, of the wonders of Japanese robotics are on display. 

This time, we get PLEO rb, a robotic baby dinosaur modeled after the Camarasaurus. This little one possess even more articulation with smells, eye-camera based vision functions, individually modeled behavior and intelligence that develops through the nature and nurturing of it's surroundings over time. It has height sensors so it doesn't fall, beat detection so it can dance, sound location so it can turn to it's master when called. It even comes with a learning stone (brown leaf you feed it) that you can use to teach it new commands. And much, much more. 

Things like this are the way of the future, and like it or not it's happen all around us. Which was the goal of the movie said Schreier. It's a fascinating thing concept to grasp, and one that is a little jarring as well. Which is why we identify with Frank's journey learning to adapt to this thing after 70 years of nearly zero interaction with something like it. 

What I saw here that I started to really enjoy is the fact that Frank's dementia starts become offset by Robot's daily interactions with him. Interesting meals, scheduled walks, breaking and entering, robbery, possession of stolen goods, good back-n-forth conversations, etc. He still has obstacles to overcome, or maybe he'd never really overcome them no matter what the outcome was. There are flashes of Frank's dementia that seem to be begging to over take his mind, and slip over him like a glove.

And witnessing Frank's battle (when he remembers to, literally) with his rotting facilities, I took notice to the wide, or the master shot that is strikingly established at times, then we go close. Something about Schreier's framing of it, there's a lot contained because he chooses to stay back far enough to get a good scope of Frank and his surroundings. Cinematographer Matthew J. Lloyd and him together created something in that I found very attractive. Or sometimes, the master was enough, and they held that with no blinks and let Sarsgaard, Ma, and Langella do their stuff. Terrific. 

I was very satisfied where this material didn't go. I heard and read some minor disappointments with this film, saying it took the easy route with the story instead of really challenging the audience with deeper complexity. What the hell do you want? "Minority Report meets The Zany Adventures of Bruce Wayne & Alfred?" Is that what you want? Fuckin' Michael Bay + Woody Allen + Phillip K. Dick? 

No you don't. Think about that. . .

Stop it silly-goose. No. This story is exactly fine the way it is. Why can't we get a simple tale of an old man who finds friendship in a robot companion, faces his own frailty and learns new lessons with genuine emotion and some quirky humor along the way? Sprinkle some cracked black pepper, sea salt and legitimate (albeit minor) thrills and unsure-of-the-ending-what's-gonna-happen-next and there you have it.

More than half of everything that Hollywood gets into a theater now consists of being either as raunchy and adult as possible, dark and serious as possible, sexy or romantic as possible, or (the most common even in fucking comedies now) as loud, explosive and expensive as possible. 

So, what's wrong with 20 shooting days in the summer with a 2.5 million dollar budget and some older screen legends just hammering out a feel-good picture. What's wrong with an old-fashioned feel-good with no hammy cliche's, forced emotional-responses and no strings or counterfeit obligatory actions clothes-liners and mental-mind-Olympics attached

Nothing. That's what. 

And this film is proof of that. 

Munki out. 

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