Robot & Frank (US - DVD R1)
Jonathan secretly hopes these robots will exist by the time he is old...
In the near future, Frank, a retired cat burglar, has two grown kids who are concerned he can no longer live alone. They are tempted to place him in a nursing home until Frank's son chooses a different option. Against the old man's wishes, he buys Frank a walking, talking humanoid robot, programmed to improve his physical and mental health. (From the Sony synopsis)
Robot & Frank is a unique and sometimes very odd take on the challenge of old age. There have been many movies that feature the conflict that arises when your aging relatives are no longer able to take care of themselves. In Jake Schreier's directorial debut, you'll find two twists on that take. For starters, Frank is a cat burglar with a history involving prison. The synopsis says a retired cat burglar, but Frank still pickpockets and snatches small items up from local stores. Secondly, instead of debating whether or not to put him in a retirement home, Frank's son gives him a robot to keep him company and help improve his quality of life. Inevitably this scenario leads to some conflict. Frank doesn't think he needs help, when its clear he does. His house is a mess. In the opening scene we see Frank trying to rob his own house. His memory is getting worse. But after an incident at a local shop Frank realizes that Robot isn't programmed to interpret the law. He begins to form an unlikely bond with Robot as he teaches it how to pick locks. He eventually begins planning a heist to steal a prized copy of Don Quixote from the local library, hoping to win the affections of Jennifer (Susan Sarandon), the librarian.
That same library is undergoing renovations to become a community center. The movie lightly touches on how the world is changing, with print media going out of style and such. It never explores much deeper than the surface though. The relationship between Frank and Robot starts out with some similar commentary, but it quickly becomes more of a quirky friendship than a fable about technology changing the world. Frank's son and daughter check up on him throughout the movie. His son (James Marsden) is very successful and just wants the best for his father. His daughter (Liv Tyler) is an activist who protests robots taking over jobs. She disagrees with her father having the robot and decides to try and take care of him herself with humorous results. Robot's body is a suit worn by actress Rachel Ma, but he is voiced by Peter Sarsgaard. Together they make Robot more than just a piece of machinery wandering around the house. By making Robot a more believable character, its easier to accept that this old man builds a friendship with the machine. You won't find much realistic technology in this film, especially if you want to get into Robot's compassionate programming (a bit like GERTY in Moon), but this is a movie about characters first and the technology never pulls any cheap solutions out of a hat.
There's a gentle fineness to the way the story unfolds here that exudes charm, and there are enough great little moments scattered throughout Robot & Frank's generous 85 minute runtime to make it worthwhile. The film makers owe many of these small successes to Frank Langella. He's a class act and firm anchor for this small film. He makes Frank so likable that when he is planning robberies you find yourself hoping he'll get away with it, and not just because the guy he is planning to rob it the most obnoxious character in existence. There's a revelation near the end of the film that is supposed to be emotional and shocking, but it just felt extremely false and manipulative. On top of that, it had no real bearing on the story at hand. A sharper thematic focus might have benefited this story. It feels like its constantly dabbling with ideas about aging and technologies place in our lives, never making a strong commitment to any message. I still found myself pleased by the viewing experience when the credits began to roll. I want to see more from first-time director Jake Schreier and writer Christopher D. Ford.
Robot & Frank is an orange & teal movie. It used to be this color scheme was used to give something a futuristic look, but even the recent Gangster Squad used it (don't ask me why). It makes more sense in Robot & Frank, but it doesn't feel right considering the personal story in the foreground. There are some walks through the woods and scenes involving Robot's garden that bring some green into the color palette, but more often than not we're in low light interiors. It was shot on the Arri Alexa digital camera, and the smooth appearance of the digital photography holds up well in standard definition. Detail is also about as good as one can expect from the format. Compression artefacts are never a major issue. This is about as good as standard definition looks, and if Sony never announces a Blu-ray release of Robot & Frank, you can at least count on this being a solid DVD release.
One of my favorite things about Robot & Frank is its delightfully simplistic electronic soundtrack. Usually its a keyboard accompanied by some light string instruments, and its awfully pleasing to the ears. It compliments the film very well. The soundtrack is by a group called Francis and the Lights, which director Jake Schreier was apparently a keyboard player for. The music is the real highlight of this Dolby Digital 5.1 mix. Aside from it, this is mostly a very modest sound mix which suits the small drama at hand. There's some ambient noise to feel the sound space during outdoor walks, and directional effects are used nicely during one scene where characters talk to each other from opposite sides of a door. Dialogue is perfectly clear. This is a solid track that serves its small purposes just fine.
There's not much in the way of extras. Aside from a Robot Poster Campaign Gallery, there is only a Director and Writer Commentary. Schreier and Ford share the recording together, and both seem like very good friends. There is a warmth and modesty to their personalities that makes it easy to see them as the brains behind this movie. They tell a lot of quick stories about Langella and what it was like to be on set. They do a great job of talking consistently throughout the track. There is rarely a pause. Its a very informative feature with some great bits of humor scattered throughout it. I sometimes dread having to listen to commentary tracks on independent features, but this one was great listening.
Robot & Frank doesn't add up to much, but its small delights are plentiful and it boasts a great performance from the reliable Frank Langella. The audio and video are about as good as it gets in standard definition. Extras are light, but director Jake Schreier and writer Christopher D. Ford have recorded an excellent commentary track.
Review by Jonathan Hogberg
Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13
Release Date: 12th February 2013
Disc Type: Single side, dual layer
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 English, Dolby Digital 5.1 Portuguese, Dolby Digital 5.1 Spanish
Subtitles: English, English SDH, French, Portuguese, Spanish
Extras: Director and Writer Commentary, Robot Poster Campaign Gallery
Easter Egg: No
Director: Jake Schreier
Cast: Frank Langella, James Marsden, Liv Tyler
Genre: Comedy, Crime and Drama
Length: 85 minutes
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