Monday Movies Needs Him. He’s Our Friend.

Robot and Frank opens with a sequence borrowed from Bottle Rocket: a robber breaking and entering into his own home. But unlike Owen Wilson’s Dignan, whose crime is in preparation for a more eventful life, Frank (Frank Langella) is helplessly reliving his adventures. Frank lives in Cold Spring, NY, five hours’ round trip from his barely-not-estranged son Hunter (James Marsden), and under the lengthening shadow of dementia. When Hunter brings him a helper robot, an affably clunky-looking white cartoon astronaut without a name (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard, inhabited by dancer Rachael Ma), he proudly resists at first, but soon learns that the robot’s obedience to federal and state law is subordinate to its prime directive, to maintain his health, and if planning and executing heists keeps his mind sharp and his life purposeful, the robot is happy to learn the meaning of “case the joint.”

Sad, sweet and hilarious, the movie takes turns a potential treacle sandwich into a perceptive meditation of aging, right action, and what “the near future” holds for humans. The set design is impeccable — Susan Sarandon, as a librarian who befriends Frank, drives a beat-up Prius, and Frank’s youthful antagonist wears hideous eyeglasses that look like mine from about 1994, a retro that has not yet become chic but probably will soon. The most beautiful motif is the question of whether Frank will keep himself out of trouble by wiping the robot’s memory; it would in one gesture destroy the evidence of his trespasses, but would assault the robot where Frank himself feels most assaulted.

I grew bored with the sequences in Iron Man that squeezed humor out of Robert Downey riffing with his CGI butler robot, but I loved Robot & Frank‘s long stretches of Langella doing the same thing with the robot, more quietly and with higher stakes. It seems odd that a helper robot would have a male voice, but Sarsgaard sells it with his vaguely femme-y trademark supervillain purr. As Frank’s daughter, Liv Tyler is a hippie globetrotter who opposes the robot on “human movement” grounds but can’t keep his house marginally livable when she powers it down; she might have been more interesting if her character’s outrage was less Luddite and more concerned with labor displacement, but that’s a minor beef.

Brave – It’s mythic Scotland, and the clans are gathered, each vouching a suitor for the hand of King Fergus and Queen Elinor’s daughter Merida (Kelly Macdonald). But the princess, a tomboy since birth, finds a loophole that allows her to compete for her own hand, and wins it back with a masterful display of archery, the art she’s practiced ever since the day her father gave her her first bow, and immediately thereafter lost a leg in battle with the demon bear Mordu.

It seems like a brilliant way out for the untamable princess, but it only calcifies her mother’s anger. Merida seeks the help of a forest witch for help changing her mother, and the magic’s clever backlash lashes mother and daughter together in a quest to reverse its effects. There’s something darker than the movie can fully embrace in the peril in which Merida’s use of magic places her mother, giving Brave an uncanny feeling, as if the stakes are only ever half-spoken.

Brave manages a remarkable bait-and-switch, dangling a gender-switched hero’s journey but offering instead something that feels much newer, a mother-daughter buddy comedy quest. Unfortunately, it also trips up on its own newness; Merida’s arranged marriage is to be the glue that holds the clans together, but the movie doesn’t really give that much weight, dismissing it instead as a fusty tradition with no other implication than an obstacle to true love, an unsurprising anachronism that dilutes the power of the setting and confirms Brave as minor Pixar (which is still going to best all but ten major releases in any given year).

One of the problems with the first Toy Story was that Pixar’s magic was better at animating non-human characters than humans, who fell at first into the uncanny valley. Brave has a similar problem, though it’s in the storytelling, not the animation — it’s one thing to animate a world of fish or toys with the neuroses, complexes and conflicts of contemporary families, but it’s somehow more of a cheat to give those properties to humans from a different time. But the uncanny valley here is simply that between good and great. And any movie that includes the delight of Kelly MacDonald saying the word “murder” is one I must endorse.

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One Response to “Monday Movies Needs Him. He’s Our Friend.”

  1. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I was intrigued by the robot movie when I saw the preview, and I’m glad to learn that it’s actually good. Hopefully The Girlfriend and I will make it to the theater more often now that it’s fall (and now that we’ve almost caught up with Breaking Bad).

    This weekend, we watched Bergman’s Summer With Monika, which I put on the list due to something I read somewhere…. The article promised a shift from idyll to horror movie once Monika (spoiler alert!!!) gets pregnant, but I’m not sure it really delivered. It was also weird to have so many “crowded” sequences in a Bergman film — it seemed almost like a tribute to a Fellini-style social realism, which is radically foreign to what I think of as his “classical” works. (A nice and kind of funny touch is that when the male lead reminisces about their summer together, they flash back exclusively to scenes with nudity. It felt true, given how young they both were.)


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