Viewer Guide: Moscow on the Hudson and Robot & Frank with Richard Peña

January 17, 2019 | Richard Peña

Your weekly peek into what’s coming up next on REEL 13, written by host Richard Peña.  

REEL 13 CLASSIC | MOSCOW ON THE HUDSON

This week’s classic is Moscow on the Hudson, the 1984 romantic comedy-drama directed by Paul Mazursky.

Looking to make the transition from small-screen TV stardom to the movies, Robin Williams scored one of his important early successes on the big screen with this tale of an unexpected immigrant making his way in a brave new world. In Moscow on the Hudson, Williams plays Vladimir Ivanoff, a Moscow resident eking out a subsistence living as a circus saxophone player during the waning years of the Soviet Union. Despite the relentless, everyday hardship of Soviet life—with long lines for everything from shoes to toilet paper—Vladimir seems resigned to his meager and chaotic existence, living with his extended family in a cramped apartment.

As his circus troupe prepares for a rare tour to New York City, Vladimir listens with detachment to the fervent defection plans his friend Anatoly, the circus’ star clown, memorably played by Elya Baskin. But why get your hopes up for a dream that will clearly go nowhere? However, once Vladimir finds himself in the Big Apple, something begins to change inside of Vlad; is it just the awestruck thrill of a typical New York City tourist, or perhaps the dawning of something much more that could lead Vladimir to make the biggest decision of life?

Also featured in supporting roles are Cleavant Derricks as a harried Bloomingdales security guard, Alejandro Rey as an eagle-eyed immigration lawyer and Maria Conchita Alonso as a perfume counter salesgirl whose own journey to achieving the American dream forms a telling counterpoint to that of Vladimir.

Paul Mazursky made a cinema of dreamers. Typically, his characters imagine or even fantasize the kinds of lives they would like—but when those musings threaten to become true, they often have to re-assess, making those dreams fit more comfortably with changing realities. Beginning his career as an actor, Mazursky burst on the international film scene with his scathing look at swinging LA in the late 60s with his first feature film, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, a barometer of the cultural zeitgeist if there ever was one. Other memorable early films included Harry and Tonto, Next Stop, Greenwich Village and An Unmarried Woman, as well as later films like Down And Out In Beverly Hills and Enemies: A Love Story.

Mazursky was reportedly inspired to co-write the script for Moscow on the Hudson by the story of his own grandfather, who emigrated from the Ukraine in the early 1900s. With Russia still very much under Soviet control during the film’s production, Mazursky selected Munich as a location stand-in for the Moscow sequences. Idiosyncratic and always deeply personal, the films of Paul Mazursky belong to that era in American cinema in which at least some directors liked to see their films as statements, and not merely products.

REEL 13 INDIE | ROBOT & FRANK

This week’s indie is Robot & Frank, a 2012 science-fiction comedy drama directed by Jake Schreier.

Although set sometime in the not too distant future, Robot & Frank presents the achingly and increasingly familiar situation of a stubbornly independent eighty-something whose memory lapses may be signaling the end of his ability to live safely on his own. But as played by the always magnetic Frank Langella, this particular senior—also named Frank—isn’t your average geriatric. While to all outward appearances Frank seems like a predictably grouchy old man, his son and daughter Hunter and Madison—played by James Marsden and Liv Tyler—know better, and are still coping with the emotional baggage from Frank’s years of being an absentee Dad due to his career as…a high end cat burglar. But at the film’s open, Frank’s unusual career seems to be very much a thing of the past, with both adult children growing weary of worrying about Frank living alone.

And so—remember, we’re in the future—Hunter comes up with an innovative technological solution: a personal caregiver in the form of a maddeningly insistent robot, a device to make sure Frank eats right while keeping an all-around eye on his daily schedule. Frank initially objects to the constant presence of his computerized “big brother,” until one day he realizes his robot companion may be able to offer him help in ways he hadn’t previously imagined.

Also featured in supporting roles are Susan Sarandon as a beguiling town librarian, and Jeremy Strong as a wealthy young developer who becomes Frank’s new neighbor—and nemesis. And sharp ears will recognize the voice of Peter Sarsgaard as Frank’s robot minder.

When Robot & Frank was first released in 2012, the idea of a personal live-in, high-tech helper seemed just this side of science-fiction, but to anyone who has had the unnerving experience of visiting someone who barks out orders such as “put on some music” to someone not there, the film takes on an eerie prescience about the future into which we’re heading. Internet search services like Amazon’s Alexa and Google Home have now become close to being standardized features of daily life, so the slightly futuristic world of Robot & Frank is more or less already here, albeit in a slightly different form.

The film’s parallel exploration of the frailty of human memory alongside the vulnerability of computer memory creates a poignant contrast, and a cautionary reminder that all memory can still be easily be “erased,” whether by age or by human interference. Marking the feature film debuts of both screenwriter Christopher Ford and director Jake Schreier, the duo met at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, joining forces to expand Ford’s NYU thesis project into the feature length script for Robot & Frank. During production, the robot suit proved to be so hot and uncomfortable to wear that a second performer was recruited for two days of shooting. Originally working on the film as a PA, Frank Langella’s nephew was ultimately pressed into service to provide Langella with the robot’s on-set dialogue during their scenes together. Keeping it in the family, I guess, even in the digital era.

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