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New films: Robot & Frank, The Possession, Lawless

"Robot & Frank"
Directed by Jake Schreier

This odd, low budget little movie is probably my favorite of the new releases this week, starring Frank Langella as the coincidentally titular Frank, an ex-burglar who lives alone and has early signs of some form of dementia or memory loss and a diminishing ability to take care of himself. His son Hunter (James Marsden) makes onerous weekly visits to clean the house and make sure he’s OK, while his daughter Madison (Liv Tyler) pursues social justice causes in remote spots around the world.

Faced with the possibility of needing to place his ailing but reluctant father into a care facility of some kind, Hunter instead buys a robot that’s programmed to provide in-home assistance and oversee a healthy regime of diet, mental stimulation, and physical exercise. But what the robot’s programmers didn’t anticipate was that rekindling Frank’s burglary career, with the robot’s assistance, might fall within the parameters of the required mental and physical activities.

This could very easily have been a trivial little unlikely buddy movie with an infirm cat burglar and his robot assistant performing for laughs, and there’s a certain amount of that involved, but it’s also much more than that. While considering the ways in which various family members deal with the loss of companionship that accompanies the loss of memory, it also introduces other interesting ethical considerations. Madison, the pursuer of social justice, is not happy with the substitution of human care with mechanized care, nor with the implied slavery of robots doing their human masters’ bidding. And along the way we get glimpses of a not too distant future in which artificial intelligences will no longer seem very artificial and may or may not gain certain rights (moral and legal) and respect.

The production values here are simple and inexpensive. The robot is of the Honda exhibition style (like a child in a stormtrooper uniform and astronaut helmet) and there are very few special effects aside from some advanced looking cell phones and other electronics. Aside from robots themselves, the sense of a near future is provided by a single small commuter vehicle and a made-to-look-old Prius (and then a general avoidance of crowded street scenes that might undermine such an image), and general themes and commentary about the demise of books and the printed word.  At first this approach seems a little cheesy and simple but it works well enough to deliver the pleasant and well-meaning story.

“Robot & Frank” is a somewhat minimalistic exercise in storytelling and film production and should appeal to people with an interest in aging, future technologies, or budget filmmaking. It would be a good choice of activity paired with a meal, but as movie+dinner not dinner+movie as it provides multiple launching points for interesting dinner conversation.

"Robot & Frank" opens today at Sacramento’s Tower Theatre.


“The Possession”
Directed by Ole Bornedal

One of the best things one can say about “The Possession” is that it’s probably not the worst movie opening in some cities this weekend. And I say “probably” because I haven’t actually watched “The Apparition” which wasn’t screened for critics here – but 43 reviews are listed by the review aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes and only one is labeled positive (and that one basically says that if you have very low expectations “you could do worse”). “The Apparition” is also a film that’s sat on the shelf for two years, a victim of a dispute between the production and distribution companies that’s resulting in what has been described as Warner Brothers’ narrowest of “wide” releases.

However, if you think that makes “The Possession” seem like a winner, you’re wrong.  By the same standards, “The Possession” also has 43 reviews and 28 are considered “rotten” within the Rotten Tomatoes system – and I would be on that side of the balance sheet also.

This is a movie as devoid of originality as deep fried butter is devoid of nutritional value. A pitch session for this film would go like this: “Let’s remake “The Exorcist,” replace the Catholics with Jews, and replace the suspense, intrigue, and head-spinning pea soup delivery with predictability, ennui, and moths.” But for its potential offensiveness, this movie would have been called something like “The Jewxorcist.”
As I look back at “The Possession,” the only things that stand out to me are the missed opportunities in the script and the fact that one fairly significant character disappears violently and completely without a single comment, or even a clear sense of the absence having been noted, by any other character. This isn’t so much a horror film as a horrific film.


Directed by John Hillcoat

“Lawless” is adapted from the novel “The Wettest County in the World” by Matt Bondurant, who wrote about the exploits of his grandfather and two great uncles distilling and running moonshine in Franklin County, Virginia during Prohibition. It’s a moderately enjoyable, occasionally extremely violent, period piece that reminds us how criminalizing many activities doesn’t eradicate them, it just sets up entire economies designed to circumvent the lack of legal provision. Eighty years from now, we could get the same film made about marijuana running, if we didn’t already get something very similar from Oliver Stone in “Savages.”

The film is decently produced with fairly solid acting – although each of the actors seem like they were given only one or two characteristics to work with and within. It’s also an odd (but respectable) cast of actors who might previously have seemed to have very little likelihood of being cast in these parts (including multiple non-American actors and American actors without Virginian accents).

One other observation: I watched “Lawless” a couple of days after watching “Farewell, My Queen,” about the French royal court at Versailles during the French revolution, and both seemed to have the same inherent production error. When you make period pieces using buildings that still exist, they end up with buildings that look very old (because they are old) during periods in which they would have looked relatively new.

About the author

Tony Sheppard

Tony is a Professor at Sacramento State, Co-Director of the Sacramento Film & Music Festival and a long-time writer, primarily on topics related to film and the film industry. He is an active supporter of the local arts community, an amateur photographer, and has an interest in architecture and urban planning topics. He is currently designing a 595 sq.ft. house on a very small infill lot in Sacramento.

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