Posts tagged with Movie Reviews

‘Frank’ puts a face on the creative process

Frank, the fringe musician who never takes off his giant papier-mache head (played by Michael Fassbender), isn’t going to kowtow to the rules, and neither does “Frank” the movie, opening Friday at Liberty Hall.

Directed by Lenny Abrahamson and written by Jon Ronson and Peter Straughan, “Frank” is loosely based on the real-life experiences of Ronson, who played music with the cult musician/comedian Frank Sidebottom in the late '80s/early '90s.

While Sidebottom (real name Chris Sievey) was an Englishman who appeared on several TV and radio programs, the fictional Frank is a mysterious person of unknown origin with an American accent who never takes off his mask. He’s a symbol of artistic integrity and raw creative inspiration.

Jon (Domhnall Gleeson), an average Irish bloke who wants to be a songwriter, is our way into Frank’s strange, uncompromising world. Jon strolls the suburbs singing to himself about whatever he sees, trying in vain to turn his surface-level ramblings into a song (“Lady in a blue coat/Do you know the lady in the red coat?”).

When he arrives home in time to eat dinner with his parents, he sends out a self-promoting tweet that masks the day’s failure, making it seem like just another productive day in the life of an artiste.

While out, he also witnesses a bizarre suicide attempt by drowning, as the keyboardist for Soronprfbs, the band fronted by the mysterious Frank, is chased by police out of the ocean and onto the beach to safety. The band’s manager Don (Scoot McNairy), invites Jon to play keyboards with them at a club that night, but does so with a brusque tone that almost feels like he’s joking. He’s not, it turns out.

Jon gets no rehearsal, and finds himself at a half-empty club, hesitantly playing along to the band’s experimental, post-rock music. Weeks later, he gets a phone call from Don. Frank likes what he did, and he’s in the band.

After introducing its premise, a movie traditionally follows a pattern of mounting tension and complicating action that propels the narrative forward, but the middle section of “Frank” is as stubbornly non-commercial as Soronprfbs’ unpronounceable band name.

In a remote Irish cabin, the band holes up to make an album, and Frank proves to be an unusual ringleader and source of creative inspiration, devising games and exercises that seem distantly related to music — somehow. Though memorable in and of themselves, these scenes get pretty redundant, driving home the same point: that Frank is some kind of mad, creative savant.

While his new bandmates are used to dealing with Frank’s eccentricities and look to him for guidance, Jon sits comfortably outside of it all, tweeting about and posting videos of the entire unusual recording process. He can’t believe how lucky he is to be in on the ground floor of something so amazing, and it’s his eagerness to please that easily becomes his most annoying trait. It also gives the movie a noteworthy conflict, putting a new face on the classic trope of art vs. commerce.

At its heart, “Frank” revels in the creative process and celebrates artistry that’s touched by madness, even going so far (in a bit of foreshadowing) as to reference original Pink Floyd bandleader Syd Barrett. But whereas Barrett’s music had its own unique whimsy and charm, the music made by Soronprfbs is dark and impenetrable, even when its songwriter is happy.

Fassbender’s singing voice (if you can call it that) has a very limited range, not made better by being buried within a papier-mache head. It would be easier to stand by Frank’s uncompromising “vision” if the quality of the music he was producing could match the novelty of the process.

It’s also quite hilarious how the film portrays artistic “cool”: According to Maggie Gyllenhaal’s character at least, it involves a lot of staring intently, making non-musical electronic noises while shaking and some general brooding.

The band, rounded out by drummer Carla Azar and bassist François Civil, is non-communicative except through their music (which is fitting), and fiercely protective of Frank. Apparently people who live in a purely naïve artistic bubble need sanctuary from reality, even though it tends to enter the picture every now and then in the form of a suicide attempt.

Eventually, something resembling a standard plot creeps forward, and when it does, “Frank” ambles toward what seems like an inevitable conclusion. Ironically, as the grayer parts of Frank’s character get filled in, the movie loses a little of its charm.

In retrospect, it’s the rambling middle section that sticks out, partially because of an emotionally satisfying final turn that keeps things appropriately dark. Being artistically pure is no simple thing, and although Frank takes this idea to an incongruous level, he’s an apt and sympathetic symbol for outsider artists everywhere.

"The Skeleton Twins"

The other film opening at Liberty Hall this weekend has a sort of thematic bond with "Frank."

"The Skeleton Twins," starring Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig, is about grown twin siblings who are reunited after years of being apart when one of them attempts suicide.

Mark Heyman and director Craig Johnson won a screenwriting award earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival for the movie, and Hader and Wiig have earned praise for their chemistry and understated performances.


Modern marriages go bad in ‘Gone Girl’ and ‘The One I Love’

Buried somewhere beneath the button-pushing gender politics and all-too-convenient plot twists in “Gone Girl,” there are some mildly interesting points being made about modern marriage. But after two and a half hours of soapy ridiculousness that wouldn’t be out of place on “The Bold and the Beautiful,” the movie just seems like cruel and unusual punishment.

The film’s title not only refers to the fact that Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike) has literally gone missing at the beginning of this tonally uneven thriller but also that she checked out of her marriage years earlier. Her emotionally stunted husband, Nick (Ben Affleck), has done the same.

Flashbacks of their sexually charged courtship and early heyday are presented along with the present-day story, where Nick is under heavy suspicion for her murder. He’s also a philandering jerk who’s having a hard time feeling too bad about her disappearance.

Director David Fincher’s masterstroke was casting Affleck, who has his typical hollow look behind the eyes that fits the part perfectly. But when the circumstances change — and they do, wildly so — Affleck doesn’t have the range it takes to be convincing and drive home some of the story’s outrageous turns.

“Gone Girl” is based on the best-selling novel by former Kansas University student and Kansas City native Gillian Flynn, who also single-handedly adapted the screenplay. Her sexually frank and often mean-spirited outlook on modern relationships is fresh, but too often Amy (in flashbacks) and Nick spout dialogue and narration that seems more agenda-based than character-based.

Fincher (“Zodiac,” “Seven”) is reliably dark, infusing the first half of “Gone Girl” with the appropriate amount of dread and red-herring doubt. Once the film shifts gears into a scattershot serial-drama-cum-media satire, he’s less reliable, however, and loses control.

The final act drags and drags while it struggles to refocus, and the characters become disappointing clichés. Pike is buried under the weight of the script’s wannabe high-minded trash, and Affleck can’t commit to Nick’s unlikely turnaround.

Fincher collaborators Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross also have a couple “look at me” menacing moments in the score, but their contribution, too, is hampered by wildly differing tones.

“Gone Girl” wants to be lots of different kinds of movies and ultimately fails at being very good at any of them. There are wiser films about marriages that fall apart and more savvy eviscerations of the snap-judgment media culture.

Once one of the main characters is shown to be a psychopath, it may make the preposterous reveal a little easier to swallow, but it cheapens any deeper discussion of the other issues. One day we’ll look back and chuckle at how seriously people took “Gone Girl” the same way we do now at “Fatal Attraction.”

Speaking of rocky marriages, the couple in "The One I Love," opening at Liberty Hall, moves from therapy sessions to a vacation retreat in the hopes of re-establishing trust in their relationship. When they first arrive, things couldn't be going any better.

The problems that Sophie (Elizabeth Moss) has with Ethan (Mark Duplass) seem to evaporate immediately, and they spend a sensual, romantic night together. But all is not what it seems in this sci-fi-inflected tale, and people don't turn into idealized versions of themselves overnight. A new divide opens between the two when Ethan decides he has to "figure out" what's going on.

Directed by Charlie McDowell, "The One I Love" is a modestly mounted indie film with some great performances and a novel premise. Duplass and Moss have great timing and they pull off some inventive gags with aplomb, selling some of the more heady concepts of Justin Lader's inventive script.

Moss has the trickier part, because Sophie's need to reconnect is almost blinding. Her husband is more practical about their unusual situation, while Sophie wears her wounded heart on her sleeve.

That "The One I Love" has an ending that's thematically similar (and almost as obtuse) as "Gone Girl" says something about the state of modern marriage today. Both films deal with the constant negotiation that it takes to pull off a long-term relationship, and both have similarly cynical attitudes when its all said and done.

It's ironic that the "One" that sports a sci-fi premise is the more believable of the two.


New reissues challenge views of the Holocaust and man’s capacity for murder

The famous German playwright Bertolt Brecht fled his home country when Hitler came to power, and in 1942 at the invitation of renowned film director Fritz Lang, co-scripted the only screenplay he ever wrote for Hollywood.

The result is “Hangmen Also Die,” a stirring piece of anti-Nazi propaganda that blends hyper-real staging and cinematography with the very real threat of a Nazi takeover. Originally titled “Never Surrender,” this thriller-with-a-message has been restored for a new online streaming, DVD, and Blu-ray release, along with an ending that had been mysteriously lopped off during its theatrical run.

Although the movie is almost entirely fictionalized, it’s set in occupied Czechoslovakia and based on the 1942 assassination of the chief architect of the Holocaust, Reinhard Heydrich — also known as the “Hangman of Prague.” As the Nazis start rounding up and executing any Czech patriot they can get their hands on in retaliation, pressure mounts on the citizens of Prague to turn in the assassin.

While it’s an effective cat-and-mouse thriller, “Hangmen Also Die” is also a paean to resistance, designed to give strength to those under Nazi rule and a reminder of why the war was being fought. For a propaganda movie, however, it’s surprisingly dark and not afraid to show the human cost of resistance. It ends on a rousing note with Oscar-nominated Hanns Eisler’s song “No Surrender” playing and the word “NOT” appearing onscreen right before “The End.”

Another historic film about the Holocaust is new on Blu-ray, DVD, and HD digital this week as well. The interviews with Benjamin Murmelstein that make up the most fascinating parts of the 2013 documentary “The Last of the Unjust” were recorded in 1975 for his nine-and-a-half hour 1985 film “Shoah,” but have gone unreleased until now.

“The Last of the Unjust” is as complicated and hard-nosed as Holocaust stories get. Murmelstein was The Elder of the Jews at a Czech concentration camp, and his role was to negotiate “a world upside-down.”

Because of his manipulation of Jews in the camp, Murmelstein was accused of collaboration after the war by Czechs. The case was dropped, but it illustrates the blurry line of moral compromise that he walked as he tried to limit the amount of Jewish casualties.

Hannah Arendt famously coined the phrase “banality of evil” to describe Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, but Murmelstein dealt with the man every day and says, “He was a demon.” ”The Last of the Unjust” not only overwhelms with its depiction of human malevolence, but it asks thorny questions about brokering an atrocity with a fascinating first-hand account, the likes of which will not be captured ever again on film.

Several cold-blooded killings happen right at the outset of “Vengeance is Mine,” an angry and oddly captivating Shōhei Imamura film that won best film at the Japanese Academy Awards in 1980.

Loosely based on a real serial killer’s 1963 spree across the country, “Vengeance is Mine” is newly restored on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection, and it feels as fresh today as when it was made.

Although it starts out with detectives capturing killer Iwao Enokizu (Ken Ogata), this remarkable film is not a mystery or a procedural. Instead, it explores man’s capacity for murder, and lays the blame squarely at the feet of a guilt-ridden post-WWII Japanese society.

This isn’t an action thriller that glorifies violence and gore. In fact, after the two bloody murders that open the film, it’s all slow character-building and context.

Ogata is a menacing presence but his Enokizu is also a desperate and frustrated man. He’s already an outcast in Japanese society for being raised Catholic, and he learns at a young age to hypocrisy everywhere. When he’s released from an early stint in prison, a doomed view of his life overtakes him and he sets out on a course for self-destruction.

The title “Vengeance is Mine” sounds more like a violent soap opera than a serious challenge to contemporary culture, but that’s exactly what it is. Enokizu dispassionately wanders through the underbelly of Japan, swindling and killing people, but he’s clearly flailing. Imamura injects an air of inevitability into Enokizu’s spree, and projects his own commentary into the situation.

I won’t blow the famous last scene of the movie for you (is it even possible to issue a spoiler for a movie from 1979?), but it reiterates Enokizu’s rebellious nature in the most absurd way possible — and is prescient in suggesting that this kind of societal alienation and its resulting loss of life won’t stop anytime soon.


Take a ‘Trip to Italy,’ and a cult ‘Raiders’ remake comes to KU

In 2010, British comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon had an unexpected indie hit on their hands with “The Trip,” a road-trip comedy in which the actors played heightened versions of themselves — like Larry David in “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” albeit not as extreme.

“The Trip to Italy,” opening at Liberty Hall today, sees the old friends off on another amiable trek for more food-tasting and soul-searching, and it’s the rare sequel that’s better than the first movie.

Both films have a loose quality and were originally filmed for a BBC TV series by director Michael Winterbottom. Like “The Trip,” the new movie has been cut down for theatrical release, but it even feels tighter and more focused.

Perhaps that’s because the cultural references Coogan and Brydon drop throughout their journey are tied more organically to the emotional state of their characters. Or perhaps it’s because “The Trip to Italy” is just funnier.

The conceit behind the film barely matters. The London Observer commissions the pair to write a food column while traveling to Italy’s most expensive and scenic coastal locales. Coogan immediately pooh-poohs the idea of another trip by mentioning that sequels are never as good as the original. Brydon’s retort? “Godfather II.” This is true, certainly, and it’s also an excuse for Brydon to trot out his over-the-top Al Pacino impression.

As a tribute to “The Italian Job,” they travel in a Mini Cooper. Most of the conversation — the real reason the film exists after all — takes place while the pair eat sumptuous meal after meal, kind of a “My Dinner with Andre.” Their meals are often filmed with the same formula over and over: set-up, punchline and a quick cutaway to kitchen. Repeat. As long as the jokes land (and most of them do), this repetition isn’t nearly as maddening as it sounds.

Both men have a deep knowledge and affinity for movies, music and theater, and the themes they skirt with are reflected in their subjects. Two of the most prominent are Romantic poet and literary egoist Lord Byron and Shakespeare’s death-haunted Hamlet.

“The Trip to Italy” is more than just two middle-aged comedians telling jokes and eating food. It’s a serious inquiry into looming mortality and the challenge of maintaining relationships — even as a serious attempt to undercut any serious discussion of either issue is mounted at every turn.

There’s something noble about the idea that laughing is the only thing to keep one from crying, and Coogan and Brydon’s dry wit is just the kind of remedy for too much introspection.

Cult classic ‘Raiders’ remake set to melt faces

It’s the ultimate fan film. Starting in 1982, it took an 11-year-old Chris Strompolos seven years to complete, but he and two other Indiana Jones-obsessed young friends remade “Raiders of the Lost Ark” in its entirety, using the original script and score.

“Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation” was recorded on Betamax videotapes and lovingly reconstructed throughout Strompolos’ teen years without the aid of viewing the Lucas-Spielberg classic on home video. The actors — Strompolos himself plays Indy — vary greatly in age throughout the movie because it took so long to film.

Since its completion in 1989, “Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation” has slowly gained notoriety, and Paramount Pictures has optioned the right to film Strompolos and friends’ story. As part of its annual film rally, Kansas University’s Film & Media Studies department will show this remarkable labor of love in its entirety at 8 p.m. Sept. 26 in Woodruff Auditorium.

Previously I profiled KU doctoral student Joshua Wille, whose “Watchmen: Midnight” fanedit improves upon the original Zack Snyder movie tenfold, and it’s no surprise to find that he was instrumental in bringing Strompolos and the film to KU.

As amazing as fanedit culture is, it is greatly helped along by the growing availability of digital tools to the average consumer. “Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation” was made by a bunch of teenagers in a desert in Mississippi in the 1980s, before digital was even an option.

Strompolos will be on hand and his collaborator Eric Zala will Skype in after the screening for a filmmaker Q&A. At least part of the discussion will focus on a recent successful Kickstarter campaign that reunited the friends this summer to film the famous scene where a Nazi gets destroyed by an airplane propeller.

As if this weren’t all too remarkable and to be true, the entire event is also free and open to the public.