David Gritten on this week's cinema and DVD releases

By David Gritten, Friday 8 March 2013

Saga film critic David Gritten reviews Side Effects, Robot & Frank and DVDs The Master and The Sapphires.

In cinemas this week

Robot & Frank

A comedy about an elderly man in the early stages of dementia interacting with a robot who can walk, talk and remember to do all his domestic tasks for him? It’s a thin-sounding idea. And surely not one that could sustain a feature-length film.

That’s what you might think, but Robot & Frank is a droll, low-key joy – thanks mostly to the veteran American actor Frank Langella who dominates it with his understated charm.

It’s set in the near future, and Langella’s Frank lives in a small, pretty town in upstate New York, where he lives alone and forgets to look after himself in basic ways. His anxious adult son (James Marsden) buys him the advanced unnamed robot, gleaming white, with the build of a petite, slim woman, and foists on his father.

There’s a twist here: Frank is a retired cat burglar, and has his heart set on relieving some rich, unpleasant neighbours of their valuable diamonds. So although he resists the idea of the robot at first, insisting he can cope by himself, he soon comes to see that it could be a valuable ally in his criminal endeavours. For one thing, unlike him, it has a memory that never fails. It can also crack open safes and pick locks.

One of Langella’s great gifts is that he can make his face difficult to read. One of the uncertain factors in this story is how much Frank knows and remembers. We’re as much in the dark about this as his son, his daughter (Liv Tyler) and the attractive town librarian (Susan Sarandon) with whom he flirts.

Robot & Frank doesn’t announce itself as a major, important film, and it’s not one likely to win prestigious awards. But it’s inventive, original and sweet-natured. It’s a minor delight, to be sure – but still a delight.

Side Effects

After a hugely impressive career covering  almost 25 years, director Steven Soderbergh (Erin Brockovich, Traffic, Out of Sight, Sex, lies & videotape) has announced he is to quit making films and will concentrate on painting. 

If he carries out this promise, he’ll be badly missed. He’s a rare talent, his films are often original variations on well-trodden themes and genres – and he has the knack of bringing out the very best in star actors, who he seems to push beyond their comfort zone.

Side Effects, his new film, and thus possibly his last, is evidence of all those virtues. It’s a medical thriller about prescribed drugs and the dangers they pose. But that would never be enough for Soderbergh, who weaves that theme into a story set in an  affluent Manhattan world that includes money markets, careerism and consumerism.

The central character is Jonathan Banks, a respected British-born psychiatrist who dispenses anti-depressants to high achievers worn down by their rat-race pursuit of wealth.

A new client with clinical depression comes to see him: Emily, played by Rooney Mara (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo in the American version), whose husband (Channing Tatum) has just been released from jail after being accused of insider training.

The apparently suicidal Emily has just driven her car into a wall at speed, and survived. She has a habit of standing too close to the platform edge on the subway.  Jonathan prescribes a new prescription drug to alleviate her anxiety.

At this point Side Effects changes direction and nothing is quite what it seems. There’s a murder (signalled in the opening credits), a flurry of charges and counter-charges, the appearance of Emily’s former shrink (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and suddenly it’s Jonathan who looks like the villain. We could be in the middle of a Hitchcock-influenced thriller.

To give much more away would spoil the fun, but suffice it to say that Soderbergh has a playful, masterly touch and keeps us guessing right to the end. Zeta-Jones is far more impressive than in most of her film work, and I’d venture to say this is the finest work of Jude Law’s screen career. Highly recommended.

Out on DVD this week

The Master

Paul Thomas Anderson, the prodigiously gifted director who gave us the Oscar-winning There Will Be Blood, offers us two characters as deranged and over the top as Daniel Day-Lewis’s Plainview in the earlier film.

On one hand we have Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), an alcoholic, vulnerable drifter who has served in the US Navy during World War II and shows all the signs of post-traumatic stress syndrome. On the other is Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a self-described “writer, doctor, nuclear physicist and theoretical philosopher.”

He omits the word ‘charlatan,’ but he’s that too. Dodd is leader of The Cause, a cult-like organisation; controversially, he is loosely based on the character of L. Ron Hubbard, founder of the Church of Scientology.

The two men meet and establish some kind of mutual need. This is an uneasy story about a crucial point in American history when the pursuit of happiness after the trauma of war was uppermost in many people’s minds.

This is a film that will sharply divide opinion. Neither of these protagonists is remotely likable. The story paints a bleak, sour, occasionally sexually explicit picture of humanity.    

As always with Anderson, it’s remarkably accomplished film-making and some scenes – notably those with Phoenix on a motorbike speeding through a desert landscape - are the work of a master director. For those who can take tough, forbidding material, it’s dark and intriguing. An extra DVD with teasers, trailers and copious extra material is included. (Entertainment in Video from March 11)

The Sapphires

Loosely based on a real life story, this appealing music comedy traces the rise of Australia’s first aboriginal girl group, who modelled themselves on the Supremes and entertained troops in Vietnam for a spell.

Chris O’Dowd is amusing as the somewhat hapless talent scout who takes them on; they succeed almost despite his best efforts. The film’s low budget is evident at times, and some scenes are executed amateurishly. But its good-hearted charm wins though.   (Entertainment One, available now) .

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David Gritten reviews Side Effects, Robot & Frank, The Master and The Sapphires

Saga film critic David Gritten reviews Side Effects, Robot & Frank and DVDs The Master and The Sapphires.

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