Yesterday, the Sundance Institute announced that this year's Alfred P Sloan Feature Film Prize goes to Jake Schreier's Robot & Frank and Musa Syeed's Valley of Saints; the filmmakers will split the $20K that comes with it. An Alfred P Sloan Commissioning Grant is awarded to Katy Scoggin for Flood and a Lab Fellowship goes to Logan Kibens and Sharon Greene for Operator.
The whole batch of prizes is part of the Sundance Institute Science-in-Film Initiative, which "supports the development and exhibition of new independent film projects that explore science and technology themes or that depict scientists, engineers and mathematicians in engaging and innovative ways," so the jury's explained that it's selected Robot & Frank for its "humane and prescient portrait of the relationship between an aging father and his non-human caregiver, and for raising profound questions about the role of technology in our collective future" and Valley of Saints for its "brave, poetic and visually arresting evocation of a beautiful but troubled region, and for it's moving, nuanced and accurate depiction of the relationship between a local boatman and a young woman scientist whose research challenges the status quo and offers hope for a restored eco-system."
In Robot & Frank, "Frank Langella plays Frank, an aging thief slowly going senile living alone in a big, comfortable house," explains Bilge Ebiri. "He's got nothing to do except visit the local library, where lovely librarian Susan Sarandon informs him (and us) that Frank is the place's only customer. Meanwhile, Frank's hippy-ish daughter (Liv Tyler) and his yuppy-ish son (James Marsden) worry about him in their own little ways. While she's off traveling and doing good in Turkmenistan, the son gets Frank a robot helper (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard, who should do more robot voices) to cater to his needs. Frank's reluctant at first, but sure enough he starts to bond with his machine friend. Before we know it, he's using the robot to help plan an elaborate robbery of his neighbors."
"The main failing of Robot & Frank is that too much of it falls under the umbrella of the 'classic buddy movie' (or classic other kinds of movies)," finds Noel Murray at the AV Club. "It's designed to be a crowdpleaser, which may explain why it's so flat in style, and why it's not all that rich in theme."
At the House Next Door, Simon Abrams agrees that the film "seriously flounders when its themes need to be most substantiated. This is an especially disappointing shortcoming given how well first-time filmmaker Jake Schreier and screenwriter Christopher D Ford manage to make what's essentially a light comedy about losing your memory both funny and involving."
More from Nicholas Bell (Ioncinema, 3/5), Alex Billington (FirstShowing, 9/10), David D'Arcy (Screen), John DeFore (Hollywood Reporter), Cory Everett (Playlist, C), Owen Gleiberman (Entertainment Weekly) and Ray Greene (Box Office, 3/5).
"Musa Syeed's Valley of Saints is a film warmly awash in setting and culture," writes Dan Schoenbrun, introducing his interview at Filmmaker. "Filmed in Kashmir, within the aquatic trading community of Dal Lake, Valley follows Gulzar, a young ferry driver who dreams of moving out of Kashmir, until the arrival of a beautiful American scientist begins to complicate things. Pairing with producer Nicholas Bruckman, Syeed's first narrative effort patiently probes into a fascinating community (and part of the world) rarely seen on the big screen."
IndieWIRE introduces its interview by noting that Syeed, "who was inspired by the work of Satyajit Ray, is now caught in between working on two projects," a "'dark comedy-fantasy/musical set in New York' or a film set in Afghanistan."