Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Robot & Frank [2012]

MPAA (PG-13)  Roger Ebert (2 1/2 Stars)  Fr. Dennis (3 Stars)

IMDb listing
Roger Ebert's review

Robot & Frank (directed by Jake Shreier and written by Christopher D. Ford) is a movie I went to somewhat warily and finally only as an early matinee.  And while I continue to think of the film as perhaps a bit too "original" / "outside of the box" for its own good, as a matinee or a rental, I would _definitely_ recommend it to Seniors and/or grown children of Seniors, because, well, the film "grows on you" ;-)

The film is set "in the near future" presumably somewhere in upstate New York and is about the relationship between a Robot (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard) and an older man named Frank (played by Frank Langella) who's been living alone but has been increasingly become forgetful and less able to take care of himself.  Frank's son, Hunter (played by James Mardsen) bought him the Robot because he lives five hours away from his father (presumably in New York City) and has become increasingly worried about him.  As is often the case, Frank values his independence, doesn't want to be burden to his kids -- besides Hunter, Frank also has a globe-trotting daughter named Madison (played by Liv Tyler) who's a journalist of the vein of Cristiane Ananpour who Skypes regularly, ... but each time from "God knows where ..." ;-) -- and Frank really doesn't want to go to "a home."  So what then to do?  It's "the near future" in this film and so Hunter buys his "set-in his ways" generally grumpy dad the Robot to "tie him over."

Now folks, imagine buying _your_ older parent "a robot" :-).  "Just turn the thing off!" Frank tells Hunter when he sees it. "You can't turn me off and only Hunter knows the passcode," replies the Robot in a gentle-sounding but firm voice of a machine operating with the certainties of ones and zeroes knowing that while as a machine he/she/it doesn't really care if he/she/it were turned on or off, it was simply impossible for Frank to do so unless Hunter gave him the passcode to do so.  So there ;-).  The robot has in his own way a sense of humor / attitude ;-).

It turns out that as a housekeeper, the Robot from "the near future" is actually quite good:  It can clean, it can dust, it can vacuum.  It knows to look for closets to look for these items.  It knows to look into the refrigerator/pantry for food items, kitchen cabinets for pots, pans and dishes.  Heck it can even cook Frank "healthy food" -- "yuck!' ;-).  And it can serve as a giant walking alarm clock, poking him, saying: "Hey Frank, it's 7, you should be getting up" -- double "yuck" ;-)

Frank doesn't really warm up to the Robot until he realizes that he can manipulate/have some fun with him.  It turns out that Frank has had something of a "colorful" past:  He had been a burglar in his younger years, both lucky (he had stolen some fairly valuable stuff in the past) and unlucky (he served 2 jail terms - of 6 and 10 years respectively for his crimes, first for burglary and then for tax evasion).  In any case, he had spent, arguably wasted, a good deal of his life on becoming a really good burglar.  Yet, now with increasing age and most of his past friends presumably either passed (or in jail ...), he was wasting away in his reasonably nice but "out of the way...," home somewhere in upstate New York.  (Was he still hiding / "laying low" or was this the only kind of place that someone like him "with a record" would have been allowed to live in peace?)  In any case, what was Frank to do?  Well he wasn't going to "start a garden" as the programmed to be constructively compassionate Robot was suggesting to him.  Instead, it occurred to him that this Robot could actually be "really good" at picking locks ;-).

The Robot, programed to be concerned for Frank's well-being, and, well, fundamentally _amoral_ doesn't necessarily find anything wrong with Frank exercising both his mental and physical faculties practicing picking locks (or even casing a house or establishment for a robbery). The only criterion that the Robot is concerned with is one of "minimizing risk to his (Frank's) well-being" (in the case of plotting a robbery -- minimizing primarily the risk of getting caught...) and heck Frank's concerned about that too ;-).

So Frank and the Robot become "friends," of sorts, in crime.  There's also a love interest in the story, a librarian named Jennifer (played by Susan Sarandon) for whom Frank decides to perform his first robbery (stealing an old venerable copy of Don Quijote ...).  The Robot, again programmed to be concerned for Frank's well-being is programmed to encourage the building of friendships between Frank and others, expecially between Frank and someone like Jennifer who is both of the appropriate age and unattached.  So, once again, the Robot is manipulated to "go along..." which he/she/it does dispassionately (except for concern for Frank's well-being).

This Don Quijote motiff probably saves the film.  Yes, Frank manipulated the Robot to participate in some fairly bad things.  But he's "an old person" trying to impress a similarly appropriately older lady.  So just like the Robot, most of us, the veiwers are somewhat manipulated by the film-makers' to give Frank "the benefit of the doubt" as well.

Still in its gentleness and humor, the movie does offer the viewer much to think about:

Could robots be useful as caretakers and even companions for people in need?  In the United States, we haven't necessarily thought of much robots taking-on such a role.  However, the Japanese have certainly been thinking along these lines, having already invented and successfully marketed "mechanical pets" for the elderly and others who would otherwise be lonely but would also not necessarily be capable to taking care of more "normal" (biological/living) pets that would need to be fed and taken-out of the house occasionally to be taken care of, etc.

Would people inevitably find ways of manipulating robots to do some fairly dasterdly deeds?  The aging and increasingly forgetful Frank was not necessarily capable of taking _full_ advantage of his Robot in his "twilight years crime spree."  However, one could easily imagine young bank-robbers, car thieves, etc having actually robots do the stealing and even "get away driving" following a heist. 

How would even the most "human" of robots differ from people and would those differences be necessarily bad?  There's a point in the film when Frank and the Robot find themselves in danger of getting caught and the Robot, programmed to be concerned for Frank's well-being suggests to (the increasingly _forgetful_...) Frank that Frank might have to "reformat" the Robot's hard-drive (to presumably erase any memory that the Robot had of Frank's/his crime).  Frank finds the prospect of doing that to the Robot shocking.  Indeed, arguably that's his biggest nightmare (that he, Frank, would one day lose all his memory...).  However, in the case of the Robot, the Robot assures him that he, the Robot, would just "reboot" and be fine. ;-)

Anyway, this is a gentle movie.  I would still look to see it as a bargain matinee or a rental.  But it does sneak-up on you and it has a lot to offer even the reluctant viewer who gives it a chance ;-).

ADDENDUM --

I was recently confronted by difference between how the Japanese view robotics and how we, Americans (and probably Europeans) generally do while seeing the Japanese animated film Castle in the Sky (orig. Tenkû no shiro Rapyuta) [1986], which played recently at the Gene Siskel Film Center.   Subsequently, I found and read an excellent book on Japan's embracing of robotic technology by Timothy Horniak called Loving the Machine: The Art and Science of Japanese Robotics.  IMHO, if you're at all interested in the subject, it's well worth the read!


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