Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Robot and Frank (Rhoades)

“Robot and Frank” –
Books and People
Are Not Obsolete

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

In a short story called “I Sing the Body Electric” acclaimed fantasy writer Ray Bradbury told of children who get an electric grandmother to take care of them. Now, in this era of aging baby boomers, we have a turn-it-around movie about an aging ex-con named Frank who gets a robot to look after him.
However, with this plot twist, our guy Frank enlists his robotic caregiver to help him pull off one last jewel heist.
In “Robot & Frank” – currently playing at the Tropic Cinema – 74-year-old Frank Langella (“Frost/Nixon”) stars as the old-timer who wants to impress the local librarian with his Geritol-infused derring-do. Susan Sarandon (“Jeff Who Lives at Home”) is that lovely librarian. James Marsden (the “X-Men” films) and Liv Tyler (“The Incredible Hulk”) are the well-meaning children who chip in for dad’s robot rather than putting him in a home. Jeremy Strong (“The Romantics”) stands out as the high-tech entrepreneur who becomes the target of Frank’s ire. And Peter Sarsgaard (“An Education”) provides the voice of Frank’s mechanistic partner in crime, a robot that looks something like a dwarf-size “Star Wars” Stormtrooper.
The précis here is that in the near future cantankerous old duffers like Frank are generally annoyed by newfangled technology. A bossy robot reminding you it’s time for your enema just doesn’t seem much of an improvement over pretty nurses.
But that’s not what really vexes Frank. He hates the idea of printed matter becoming obsolete. “What’s the point of a library if you can’t check out books?” he asks crankily.
The nice librarian named Jennifer tries to explain that “Since you can get any book, any time, any place instantly, it’s all about community now.” It’s what she describes as “the augmented library experience.”
That’s not good enough for Frank.
As a second-story man, he’s come to be fond of libraries after two stretches in prison.
So he trains his robot caregiver to pick locks, case joints, and evade security. Skills that have augmented his own life of crime. After all, didn’t the overly helpful robot suggest to him, “You need a project’?
What better project than to burglarize the home of a wealthy techie who is responsible for the conversion of the local library from books to digital?
And in the process Frank and the robot become, well, friends.
First-time director Jake Schreier and newbie screenwriter Christopher D. Ford are responsible for this whimsical conceit. Sure, there have been plenty of cute robot movies – “Short Circuit,” “WALL-E,” “The Iron Giant,” even “Real Steel” – but we have to give Schreier and Ford credit for taking this one in a fresh direction. Although quirky and funny, “Robot & Frank” has a serious side as it looks at aging and Alzheimer’s through a fresh new lens.
But let’s not fail to acknowledge my late friend Ray Bradbury. In addition to his “I Sing the Body Electric” (i.e. robot caregivers), we also see homages to “Fahrenheit 451” (i.e. the obsolescence of paper books) and a view of techies as the enemy (Bradbury said, “I’m not afraid of machines, I’m not afraid of the computer, I don’t think the robots are taking over. I think the men who play with toys have taken over…”).
As filmmakers, Schreier and Ford have learned these lessons well.
Ray Bradbury liked to tell about meeting a carnival performer called Mr. Electro who shouted to him, “Live forever!”
“I thought that was a wonderful idea, but how did you do it?” he said.
Well, through your books. Or a movie.

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