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Article updated: 8/23/2012 6:26 AM

Stellar cast in charming 'Robot and Frank'

Frank (Frank Langella), a retired cat burglar, persuades his personal robot (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard) to help him with a burglary in the science-fiction family drama “Robot and Frank.”

Frank (Frank Langella), a retired cat burglar, persuades his personal robot (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard) to help him with a burglary in the science-fiction family drama "Robot and Frank."

 
Two brothers (Eliu Armas, left, and Fernando Moreno) use soccer to climb out of the Venezuelan slums in the Music Box Films release "Hermano."

Two brothers (Eliu Armas, left, and Fernando Moreno) use soccer to climb out of the Venezuelan slums in the Music Box Films release "Hermano."

 
Irane (Golshifteh Farahani) shares a tender moment with the suicidal Nasser-Ali (Mathieu Amalric) in the visually poetic “Chicken With Plums.”

Irane (Golshifteh Farahani) shares a tender moment with the suicidal Nasser-Ali (Mathieu Amalric) in the visually poetic "Chicken With Plums."

 
The Eye is a watchful character in the Czech Republic stop-motion animated fantasy "Toys in the Attic."

The Eye is a watchful character in the Czech Republic stop-motion animated fantasy "Toys in the Attic."

 
The Head of State rules a land of evil in the Czech Republic stop-motion animated fantasy "Toys in the Attic."

The Head of State rules a land of evil in the Czech Republic stop-motion animated fantasy "Toys in the Attic."

 
Buttercup becomes a victim of toy-napping in the Czech Republic stop-motion animated fantasy "Toys in the Attic."

Buttercup becomes a victim of toy-napping in the Czech Republic stop-motion animated fantasy "Toys in the Attic."

 
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Reel Life mini-review: "Robot and Frank"

At first, the robot in Jake Schreier's senior citizen science fiction drama "Robot and Frank" resembles a 10-year-old actor stuffed inside a storm trooper costume purchased at the Sharper Image.

Quickly, the intelligence and charm of this unexpected poetic ode to humanity win us over, as does a superlative all-star cast.

Frank Langella brings graceful gravitas to Frank, a cranky retired cat burglar suffering from alarming memory lapses. Rather than invest time in caretaking, Frank's busy son Hunter (James Marsden) buys him a robot (voice by Peter Sarsgaard) programmed to perform household chores and provide companionship.

The lean screenplay by Christopher D. Ford veers into a comic mini-caper where Frank drafts the robot to be his co-conspirator in a neighborhood burglary. It isn't until near the end when Ford's thematic brilliance reveals itself, when we witness how easily robots and humans can have their precious memories wiped.

Susan Sarandon brings some welcome smoldering heat to her role as a local librarian. Jeremy Sisto plays the sheriff with Andy Taylor folksiness. A vapid Liv Tyler pops in as Frank's estranged daughter driven by guilt to return home to help her dad, but she can't.

Like its succinct title, "Robot and Frank" is an efficient little work of science fiction less concerned with hardware than with the softer wear of the human spirit.

"Robot and Frank" opens at the Century Centre in Chicago, the Renaissance Place in Highland Park and the Evanston CinArts 6. Rated PG-13 for language. 90 minutes. ★ ★ ★

Wrong again, Dann!

Jim Maleski of Elgin writes about seeing the magical realism fantasy "The Odd Life of Timothy Green," which I didn't particularly care for:

"WOW! Wrong again, Dann! Wonderful family movie. Really glad I ignored your review and went with my gut feeling."

Dear Jim: I'm pleased you went with your gut feeling and found "The Odd Life of Timothy Green" to be a rewarding experience. Contrary to popular belief, people who think for themselves are actually movie critics' favorite kind of readers.

I never accused "Timothy Green" of being boring. I only wrote that this thoughtless movie made light of the serious plight of couples who can't conceive children.

Plus, I suggested that the film's adoption officials might be slightly irresponsible in approving Joel Edgerton and Jennifer Garner as adoptive candidates after they lied about being the parents of a 10-year-old boy spawned from their garden.

But if you think this is a wonderful family movie, that's really what counts, isn't it?

Reel Life critics notes:

•To the woman who called my office (and talked to my editor) wondering if politics influenced why the Daily Herald didn't review the new movie "2016: Obama's America" when it opened.

The short answer: "2016: Obama's America" wasn't screened for local critics before opening. If distributors think their movies are so bad that they're not worth screening for the press, I've learned to believe them. I am also skipping the horror film "The Apparition" because the "critics screening" was held Thursday night, hours after our Time out! section went to press.

I hope that settles your curiosity.

• The After Hours Film Society presents the Japanese drama "I Wish" at 7:30 p.m. Monday, Aug. 27, at the Tivoli Theater, 5021 Highland Ave., Downers Grove. General admission costs $9. Call (630) 968-0219 or go to afterhoursfilmsociety.com for schedules and tickets.

• Martin Landau, Pam Grier and Loni Anderson will make guest appearances at the Hollywood Palms in Naperville and the Hollywood Blvd in Woodridge next weekend. Go to atriptothemovies.com for details.

Reel Life mini-review: "Toys in the Attic"

One glance at the animated fantasy "Toys in the Attic" (not to be confused with Lillian Hellman's famous play) and you instantly realize this is not a production by Pixar, DreamWorks or any other known brand of animation company.

It's from the Czech Republic, if you couldn't guess from the wording on signs and boxes in this eye-popping, exquisitely rendered stop-motion movie directed by Jiri Barta and Vivian Schilling.

"Toys in the Attic" deserves to be witnessed on the silver screen to absorb its almost-3-D depth without need of any 3-D glasses.

In this English version, Chicago's own Joan Cusack plays Madam Curie, Forest Whitaker plays Teddy bear, and Cary Elwes plays Sir Handsome, all discarded toys that come alive when people aren't around. They rally to help when a Bo-Peep wannabe named Buttercup (voiced by director Schilling) gets toy-napped and taken to the Land of Evil, commanded by the scary Head of State (Douglas Urbanski).

This is slightly scary stuff for very young children, but there's something magical and fascinating about this whimsical tale, quite content to let the dazzling stop-motion model work be its raison d'être, without much emphasis on complex characters or glib dialogue.

"Toys in the Attic" opens exclusively at the AMC South Barrington 30 and will expand to six theaters on Sept. 21. Rated PG-13 for language. 90 minutes. ★ ★ ★

Reel Life mini-review: "Hermano"

Marcel Rasquin's family drama "Hermano" was Venezuela's official entry for the Academy Award for best foreign language film. It tells a violent sports tale of two brothers, raised on the Venezuelan streets, struggling to escape death and poverty through sports.

Almost O. Henry-like in its narrative twists and turns, "Hermano" shows us how macho Julio (Eliu Armas) and the slighter Daniel (aka "Cat" played by Fernando Moreno) grow up as brothers, although Julio's mother raised Daniel as her own after finding him as a baby discarded in a garbage heap.

Daniel stays clear of life's darker side. Julio embraces the violence and drugs of the slum. But the two are a formidable force on the soccer field, and when the respected Caracas team considers making Daniel a pro player, he lays down a bold ultimatum: they must take both brothers, or none.

The violent gun culture depicted in "Hermano" makes the United States look like Sweden here.

When a valued teammate accidentally shoots to death the brothers' sacrificing mother on the street, "Hermano" evolves into a complex lesson in relative ethics as Daniel struggles to see a bigger picture than lowly familial revenge.

The result becomes an extremely watchable mix of sports clichés and startling drama, set against a Venezuelan backdrop of desperation and hopelessness.

"Hermano" opens at the AMC theaters in South Barrington, Ford City and Cicero. Not rated, but contains coarse language and violence. In Spanish with subtitles. 97 minutes. ★ ★ ★

Reel Life mini-review: "Chicken With Plums"

None of the main characters in this fantastical, visually elegant drama works very hard at being lovable, yet "Chicken With Plums" charms us with its stylized world, a mix of personal journalism, chronological whimsy and epic romance.

Set in 1958 Tehran, the story -- adapted from co-director Marjane Satrapi's graphic novel -- is an extension of sorts to her (and co-director Vincent Paronnaud's) acclaimed 2007 animated feature "Persepolis," based on Satrapi's family history in Iran.

"Chicken with Plums" concerns a master violinist named Nasser-Ali (superbly cast French actor Mathieu Amalric) so despondent over a smashed prized violin, that he goes to bed intending to die there. It takes eight highly examined days.

The back story unfolds as "Chicken" shifts into past events, showing us how the egocentric musician married a woman he didn't like, talks to the Angel of Death, carries a torch for a hottie bearing the symbolic name of Irane, and leaps into the future to glimpse how his children turn out.

The results may be visually poetic, but they're curiously emotionally vacant, as if the filmmakers were more intent on creating an engaging sensory experience without worrying about just how engaging their characters might be.

"Chicken With Plums" opens at the Music Box Theatre in Chicago. Rated PG-13 for drug use, sexual situations, language and smoking. 90 minutes. ★ ★ ★

Daily Herald Film Critic Dann Gire's column runs Fridays in Time out!

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