Kicking the Tweets

Frank (2014)

Mâché Point

Frank is a prime example of marketing's double-edged impact on modern filmmaking. It also raises a deeper issue of how much movies are allowed to stand on their own--as opposed to being amalgamations of the creators' vision, the careers of the performers and artisans involved, and whatever baggage each audience member brings into a screening. As a movie, however, Lenny Abrahamson's Twitter-era take on Almost Famous flounders, narratively, and winds up yet another flimsy showcase for a stellar lead performance.

Domnhall Gleeson stars as Jon, a wannabe musician who doesn't so much struggle as wait for greatness to arrive at his doorstep. He makes up lyrics and melodies while walking home to his parents' house from his dead-eyed day job. Always fussing and tweaking, he never commits to anything that requires more creativity than 140-character witticisms. One day, he happens upon two cops pulling a raving, suicidal man from the ocean. This lunatic turns out to be the keyboardist for a band whose music is as experimental as its name is unpronounceable ("Soronprfbs"). Jon stumbles into a gig with a group that includes a spacey Scoot McNairy, an aggressively anti-social Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Michael Fassbender in a giant papier-mâché head.

The band spends nearly a year in a remote cabin, warming up to (maybe, eventually, not really) recording an album. Like his fellow performers, Jon leaves his life behind to follow the enigmatic, demanding, and oddly charismatic Frank--even going so far as to blow his grandfather's inheritance on financially supporting the group. He grows ever more petulant and opinionated, and by the time he's tricked Soronprfbs into becoming social media darlings, I was too far gone to even consider Jon a sympathetic character. Almost Famous, which covered similar ground, at least featured a teenage boy as its window into the weird, wide world of music-making; the fact that Jon appears to be in his early twenties, and has at once a brazen ego and discomforting lack of identity, makes it difficult to spend fifteen minutes with him--let alone an hour-thirty.

I don't blame Gleeson, who makes what he can out of the role. No, problems rest with co-writers Jon Ronson and Peter Straughan. These results are especially surprising from Ronson, a journalist who specializes in getting fly-on-the-wall access to fringe circles and making obscure realms and conspiracies accessible to novice readers. In books like Them and films like The Men Who Stare at Goats, the Ronson character is typically an informed adult who finds himself in over his head. The "Jon" in Frank is a turnip fresh off the truck, who foolishly believes he invented both turnips and trucks.

Of greater concern is Ronson and Straughan's stance (at least in this story) that artists are either milquetoast aspirants or socially awkward maniacs. There's no middle ground here, no character for the audience to really identify with. Speaking from experience, there's a wide swath of creative people who produce stellar art on a daily basis and understand how to interface with the world. The screenwriters fall for the mystique that art is a bi-product of insanity, an intangible thing that cannot be understood. Frank offers a celebrity-chef approach to creativity that, as an artist, I neither recognize nor endorse.

The real reason to see Frank is Frank, and for all the meta conundrums those big, blank eyes represent. Let's get this out of the way: Fassbender is terrific here. Hiding that icy, descendant-of-Caesar stare inside a mask, he morphs his body into a slumped-shoulder vehicle for artistic genius. Unlike Jon, who is too cocky to know he's vulnerable, Frank is a wounded god, trapped in a mentally constrained shell. As the film opens up about his past, so, too, does Frank break free of the creative and social blocks that locked him insde a giant cartoon to begin with.

This brings us to some big questions.

Would Frank have been a different experience if Fassbender was never credited? The answer is, undoubtedly, "Yes". The actor's name is even more important to this film than its quirky premise, and I can't blame the studio for doing everything they could to get eyeballs on this thing. But I was hyper-aware of the person beneath the mask, from the get-go. When Frank slipped from his mumbling Kansan accent into an Irish brogue, I was reminded of Fassbender's shaky climactic speech in X-Men: First Class--not exactly the kind of immersive experience Abrahamson envisioned, I'm sure. I was also bowled over by the extent to which he played against his own type.

But what of those people who encounter Frank, now or twenty years from now, who know nothing of the Fassbender zeitgeist--those who just see an actor (Spoiler: he shows his true face later in the picture) doing a really good job? Does my opinion of the performer's stellar resume--and the fact that he branches out here--shade my overall affection for his role? Or is he really that good in Frank?

One could ask these questions about any movie, I suppose. That kind of commentary on commentary on commentary is either the death of art or the beginning of it; I'm not sure which, yet. I do know that I enjoyed Frank less than I'd hoped to, but discovered a specific vulnerability to Fassbender that I hadn't expected to even exist. I recommend this film as a fascination, a wayward entertainment that invites deep thinking about lots of things that have little to do with the quality of the movie itself. Then again, maybe I just need to get out of my own head.


Starred Up (2014)

One Love

Sad, but true: the modern prison drama is a genre unto itself. On some level, many are the same as the last. From The Shawshank Redemption to Oz to Orange is the New Black to David Mackenzie's latest, Starred Up, the utterly edible concept of lifetime incarceration is soured by beats and archetypes that audiences can now sleepwalk through. We enter high-security facilities via some relatively sheepish newbie who must straddle lines racial, social, and psychopathic. We meet the mentor, the block bully, the counselor who wants to make a difference; shower-attack scene happens at the mid-way mark; we reflexively scrunch up our noses at grimy trays of lunch-room slop.

Maybe it's because, by design, prison pictures aren't afforded the breathing room of Sci-Fi or Westerns, but watching these things can be like scanning gray walls for the odd speck of color. That color often comes from the performances (sometimes the writing). In the case of Starred Up, Jack O'Connell and Ben Mendelsohn break the emotional mold with a final twenty minutes I still can't shake. On a dime, Mackenzie and writer Jonathan Asser turn a cookie-cutter prison flick into impactful, must-see entertainment.

I'm not gonna lie: almost everything leading up to the good stuff is mediocre. Despite being competently put together and well-acted, the film subtly belies its own premise. "Starred Up" refers to an inmate who has been prematurely transferred from juvenile detention to an adult facility. As Eric Love, O'Connell plays nineteen, but looks and carries himself like his real-life twenty-four years. Had the filmmakers skewed younger, I might not have questioned why this character was supposed to be exceptional. In many scenes, he looks the same age as his fellow inmates--most of whom also act like dangerous, petulant children.

American audiences may find some intrigue in cutting through the screenplay's thick British prison slang.* But for every colorful phrase or sickly funny moniker ("Fraggle" means "fragile prisoner", "bag head" means "heroin addict"), there are a dozen lines of dialogue in which "fuck" is used as noun, conjunction, adjective, and verb. These aren't Tarantino profanity mosaics, either--just muscled up dimwits yelling threats at one another while trashing their cells.

I'll also step lightly onto the ignorance ledge and ask why a prison full of murderers, rapists, and assorted scumbags would feature a pool table in the middle of the cell block--and allow inmates to have cofeemakers in their cells. None of these are used in the course of the film (which is puzzling), but they underscore Starred Up's inherent lack of danger: why am I supposed to be scared/impressed that Eric has been transferred to this alleged Hell on Earth? Do they not have enough chalk for the cues?

The central drama here involves Eric discovering that his Dad, Neville (Ben Mendelsohn), is in the same facility. It's unclear how much interaction they've had prior to this, but Neville takes it as a point of pride to look out for his son (kinda). He advises him not to race-mix, socially, and urges him to keep his mouth shut. There are also some shenanigans involving the weird warden (Sam Spruell) trying to shut down the aforementioned do-gooder counselor's (Rupert Friend) group-therapy sessions, but this is largely a father/son show--one we've seen too many times to count.

Despite all this, I highly recommend Starred Up for that last twenty minutes. They come out of nowhere, and slide a hot emotional shiv right between the ribs. I don't want to spoil anything (people need a reason to leave the house, after all), but Eric and Neville find themselves on the wrong side of two very powerful, very deadly people. We're led to believe that the Love family line could very well end in the big, anonymous basement of a dank prison. Asser and Mackenzie switch from the broad to the achingly specific, capturing a fragile yet resilient genetic bond that will overcome decades of emotional abuse in order to survive. Eric and Neville's final scene together is surprising, warm, and indelible.

Like Tom Hardy's breakout turn in another British prison flick, Bronson, Jack O'Connell mines lots of emotive richness from his character's complex psychological landscape. Eric love is funny, scary, pitiful, and tender--as are cinema's most charismatic movie punks (think Mark Renton or Alex DeLarge, minus the poetic, street-trash intellect). Though Mackenzie's movie has a lot of problems elsewhere, it is noteworthy because the director sets off a bona fide firecracker here. More than that, he blows up a star.

Chicagoans! Starred Up is now playing at Facets Cinematheque.

*I'm glad Tribeca Film included a mini-glossary with the screener.


Pity (2014)

More's the Pity

I don't watch end credits. Yes, I'm one of those people, a cinematic charlatan who mentally subtracts a few minutes from the run-time when mapping out my viewing schedule. As much as I'd love to ogle the Dolby logo or find out who landed the Second Assistant Caterer's gig, I simply have places to be (and movies to watch). In the case of writer/director John Pata's short film, Pity, though, I gladly made an exception to the Run-time Rule.*

Big deal, right? The total investment was seven minutes, with end credits taking up...well, about a seventh of the experience. But Pity is such an outstanding work of art, from start to finish finish, that I stuck around for the whole damned thing. I'll come back to those credits in a bit, but just know that, in every detail, Pata continues his streak of not messing around.

Based on a short story by J.R. Hayes, which appeared in the liner notes for Pig Destroyer's 2001 album, Prowler in the Yard (got all that?), Pity brings us into the fractured, psychopathic mind of Anonymous (Jake Martin). We meet him on a dark and stormy night, parked across the street from his ex-girlfriend's house. He shares dark thoughts while chain-smoking, gobbling pills and booze, and fondling a gun.

That's the whole film: psycho, rain, car, house. And that creepy, throaty narration that at once recalls Sin City and calls it out. Anonymous isn't movie crazy: he's full-blown, unhinged, get-away-from-me nuts. I haven't read Hayes' short story, but he and Pata are clearly on the same wavelength. Something about those words spoke to the filmmaker, and this adaptation is a master class in detached derangement. Like Bret Easton Ellis' Patrick Bateman character, Anonymous' humanity is barely a skin; the anger roiling beneath is so repulsive as to be attractive.

This specificity keeps Pity from merely being a slice of "bad-ass" exploitation. In lesser hands, Anonymous would have been the sleazy centerpiece to a borderline misogynist fantasy. But as he and co-creator Adam Bartlett (who serves as an assistant director and foley artist here) proved with their dynamite take on the zombie genre, Dead Weight, the most gratifying and disturbing entertainment comes not from buckets of blood, but from drawing on mankind's inherent instability and vanity. Here, Pata digs beneath the iconography of the grizzled, wronged drunk with the rosy-prose inner monologue to unearth an unflattering portrait of a dangerous monster. The titular "pity" is not a nod of sympathy towards Anonymous, but a statement of shame that this deluded pulp hero's entitled lack of self-awareness may get an innocent woman killed.

Story aside, Pity is a shining example of low-budget/short-form artistry. From acting to production design to makeup, sound, and editing, Pata enlisted a small team of agile craftspeople who treated this project as if it were bound for the desks of Scorsese or Spielberg. There's not a corner of this thing that doesn't say "A-list filmmakers having fun between big projects". It's so refreshing to see a singular vision executed with such skill.

Which brings me back to those end credits. Dull silver text scrolls up into the night through Anonymous' windshield. Rain cascades over the letters in a moment as surreal as the cold revenge dramas dancing through the protagonist's brain. Classically accompanied by thunder, lightning, and a somber score by Nicholas Elert, these last moments made me want to check every window in the house.

I don't know what the future holds for Pity. It's currently on the festival circuit. If we're lucky, it will show up as a blu-ray extra on Pata's next feature-length project (or a stand-alone download, which would be equally terrific). Whatever the case, if you can find this seven minutes of heaven (disguised, very convincingly, as pure hell), watch it. All of it.

*Other exceptions, of course, include comic-book movies. They're never over until after the post-credits "stinger". But I (like most everyone else in attendance, it seems) get some portion of my life back by checking e-mail during those long (long, long, loooong) scrolling-text extravaganzas.


The November Man (2014)

A Serbian Flam

Life is weird. Immediately following a Tuesday night screening of The November Man, I fell into a co-interview situation with Lori Granger--the widow of Chicago novelist Bill Granger, who wrote the spy series on which the film is based. Ms. Granger said the adaptation bore little resemblance to its source material, but that she was happy with the outcome. Based on the resulting film, I can only imagine that part of her contentment has to do with not being able to pin such shabby storytelling on her dearly departed husband.

Pierce Brosnan stars as Peter Devereaux, a CIA spy who left the agency shortly after an incident in which his hotshot young trainee, Mason (Luke Bracey), mistakenly killed a child. Years later, Devereaux's former boss, Hanley (Bill Smitrovich), unofficially reactivates him to protect an old flame, Natalia (Mediah Musliovic), who's protecting old secrets. A former Russian general named Federov (Lazar Ristovski) aims to bury his dirty past on the path to the presidency, you see, and Natalia's high on the list.

Simple enough, right? Not so fast. Writers Michael Finch and Karl Gajdusek then introduce a rogue CIA element (of course), which uses Mason (double of course) to kill Natalia so she can't spill the beans on someone in its own ranks. And we haven't even met Alice (Olga Kurylenko), a social worker with a dark past; or the American journalist she confides in; or Federov's silent assassin; or the pimp who used to be a military officer; or Mason's comely neighbor with the annoying cat.

We're also a good ways away from our heroes' disturbing schizophrenia (which led to my having used the plural apostrophe instead of the singular). Are we supposed to root for Devereaux? Of course! The actor playing him was once James Bond! Wait, why is James Bond gunning down federal officers and threatening to slit an innocent woman's throat?

So, then, Mason must be our man. Hold on. What was that about not giving a fuck about all the people he's killed? And why would he endanger that nice neighbor girl by going out with her in public, when he knows full well the guy who trained him in spyhood is most likely surveilling his every move? Hey, did he just betray his country? Or is he playing both sides? Or no sides?

Hey, look! Pierce Brosnan's in this movie! He played James Bond once, you know.

The November Man may not be a good film, but it's highly entertaining. That has to count for something--even if that "something" is a drinking game. Submitted for your viewing pleasure are just a few shot-worthy gems:

  • Every time a new sub-plot is introduced
  • Every time "Serbia" or "Belgrade" appears on the screen to indicate a new location ("American Embassy, Serbia", "Imperial Hotel, Belgrade", "CIA Black Ops Site, Serbia", "Belgrade International Airport", "American Embassy, Serbia"--again)
  • Every time Olga Kurylenko gets a close-up (not complaining)
  • Every time Luke Bracey gets a closeup (complaining a lot)
  • Every time someone gets punched/shot/body-checked from around a corner (Have 9-1-1 on speed dial for this one. Seriously, it's out of control.)

I appreciate Donaldson and company's attempts to bring something new to the spy thriller. But at the end of the day, multi-layered plots without cohesion are just vignettes in search of a movie. The actors bring everything they've got to their roles, but each scene is from a different film in a diametrically opposed genre. You know what an hour-and-forty-four minutes of crosses, double-crosses, triple-crosses, and double-dog-dare-crosses will get you? A cross audience--assuming they're engaged enough to care.

If you're like me, The November Man will prove to be a hilarious fascination--a journey into a world where military geniuses don't recognize key people from fifteen years ago; where political leaders hang out in hotels guarded by five dudes who don't believe in bullet-proof vests; and where spies-on-the-run spend way too much time hanging out in front of exposed windows. On the broadest level, this is the worst kind of entertainment. Look closer, though, and you'll find a chuckle-worthy class in poor decisions that someone could write a book about.


Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (2014)

Shades of Great

If you're like most Americans, you didn't see Sin City: A Dame to Kill For last weekend. It failed spectacularly at the box office, and is on track to be one of Summer 2014's biggest bombs. Whether due to poor marketing, a critical clobbering, or nine years having passed between predecessor and sequel, moviegoers stayed away in droves. That's a damn shame, 'cause there's more to love here than in the original.

Based on the comics series by Frank Miller, who wrote the screenplay and co-directed with Robert Rodriguez, both films are chronologically challenged anthologies that take place in the world's most corrupt town. The high end is run by a dynasty of scumbag politicians and clergymen, and the low end bows to a cabal of costumed assassins who moonlight as prostitutes (or is it the other way around?). In the middle is Kadie's Bar, where a big, ugly brute named Marv (Mickey Rourke) drinks, ogles strippers, and welcomes excuses to bash people's skulls in.

Like the comics, 2005's Sin City used Marv as our gateway into Miller's neo-noir universe. The best parts focused on a bloody revenge mission against the powerful entities that murdered his would-be girlfriend. Unfortunately, Miller and Rodriguez rounded out their run-time with two lesser adaptations from the canon--resulting in a feature-length technical and narrative exercise that, as a story, came off as repetitive and too long by at least thirty minutes.

It didn't help that almost every actor involved had trouble distinguishing between the high camp of a "comic-book movie" and the down 'n dirty noir delivery Miller captured so effortlessly on the page. The women either lacked affectation or impersonated Betty Boop; the men mostly strived for seen-it-all detachment but came off as third-rate Batman impersonators Sure, Bruce Willis and Clive Owen have the right look, but their delivery was flatter than day-old root beer.

In the nine years since Sin City bowled over critics and comics fans, the comic-book movie has been seriously upgraded in the public consciousness. With camp-free heavy-hitters like The Dark Knight and Guardians of the Galaxy proving that relatable characters navigating multi-layered plots are as important (if not more so) than dazzling special effects, the stakes couldn't be higher for Miller's style of storytelling--which faces the added challenge of being a throwback to art forms (pulp novels, black-and-white movies) that modern audiences either despise or can't accept as having ever been real.

I was relieved to find that A Dame to Kill For ups the ante in special effects, screenplay, and performances. The movie is far from perfect, and would benefit from the axing of a superfluous prologue and a downright snoozer of a third segment. But the centerpiece--a flashback involving private investigator Dwight McCarthy (Josh Brolin, taking over for Owen) and his ex-girlfriend-turned-millionaire's-wife, Ava (Eva Green*)--is one of the coolest, most effective pieces of entertainment I've seen this year. Another story, in which Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays a gambler whose luck changes when he takes on Senator Roark (Powers Boothe), offers a pristine example of the tragicomic tapestry Miller weaves in his comics.

These segments work for a few reasons. The first is Green. Never mind that the actress spends more time out of clothes than in them, her real triumph is painting Ava Lord as the quintessential temptress and manipulator. She's the smartest person to have ever appeared in a Sin City film--a calculating and self-aware genius in a town overrun by impulse-driven savages whose survival instincts invariably skew towards mere violence. Ava enjoys playing with men to get what she wants; the evil intelligence and flashes of madness in Green's eyes make it easy to understand how so many guys could make so many stupid decisions while trying to please her.

As her counterpart, Brolin nails the archetypical Sin City man's man, which, I'd wager, Miller and Rodriguez had hoped to bring to life a decade ago. His narration evokes the precise voice I heard in my head when reading Miller's comics in high school--all gravel, regret, and pent-up savagery. Even when Dwight's storyline heads south (following facial-reconstruction that makes him look like an action figure mash-up of Clive Owen and George W. Bush), Brolin's commitment to treating the character as a character--and not a plaything between "serious" projects--makes this chapter indelible.

Another stand-out is Dennis Haysbert, filling in for the late Michael Clarke Duncan. He's a leaner actor than his predecessor, and his face doesn't immediately scream "trouble". This works in his character's favor, as he plays Ava Lord's brutish bodyguard with the understated calm of a man quietly comfortable in his own lethality. The change-up of performers actually works perfectly considering how, story-wise, the character becomes a different person between films.

Sadly, A Dame to Kill For unravels in the third act, as we catch up with Nancy (Jessica Alba), the stripper who fell in love with Bruce Willis' character in the first movie. He killed himself to throw Roark off her scent, and now she harbors an alcohol-fueled vendetta against the seemingly untouchable senator. For starters, Alba is simply not well-rounded enough as a performer to pull off the heartbroken, hearing-voices lunatic type. She's more movie star than actress, and that's perfectly fine--except when I'm asked to watch her stretch and fall short at the end of an otherwise stellar showcase.

Second, Nancy's story dredges up the worst aspects of the series: how many times must we watch people sneak through the woods to attack what should be a fortified compound, in order to assassinate the Big Bad? Miller tries to imbue Nancy with some modicum of character growth, but no one cares whether or not she'll win battle with booze and kill Roark. Of course she will. This is Sin City. No need for twenty minutes of Black Swan crazy talk.

The film ends abruptly, with another CGI spin-out of buildings that forms the Sin City logo. Unlike the striking red opening credits, the closing letters are dim and gray--as if Rodriguez and Miller ran out of juice to power the lights. I know, this began as a somewhat glowing recommendation. Now you're probably wondering how I can justify asking you to see A Dame to Kill For in the theatre. I'll go you one further, and endorse seeing it in 3D.

Just as most people stayed away from Dredd a couple years ago, and subsequently kicked themselves when word of mouth made it a home-video sensation, A Dame to Kill For really benefits from the big-screen, multi-dimensional experience. Rodriguez and the gang at Troublemaker Studios have outdone themselves this time. From the layered, perspective-enhanced translation of Miller's black-and-white drawings in the opening credits; to the steam that envelopes a hot-tubbing Ava Lord like Medusa's snakes; and Dwight's nasty fall out an apartment window, there's no shortage of detail to appreciate. I could tell that the filmmakers were invested in making these stories tangible for audiences, just as Miller is with his readers.

We can probably agree that most sequels are unnecessary. In the case of Sin City, its follow-up is essential. Miller and Rodriguez burst out of the gate nine years ago with a comics film that, collectively, we didn't know could be outdone in the genre. Its groundbreaking digital artistry booted panels off the page, and the nearly unprecedented violence helped reassert that some comics weren't just not for kids--they were positively child-restricted.

But it was a silly movie, a macho cartoon with aspirations of weight. A Dame to Kill For, by contrast, is a study in lessons learned--a film that could not have existed as a rushed sequel half a decade ago, despite ardent calls from fans. Like the titular town, the picture has its awesome parts, its bad parts, and its unspeakably dreadful parts. There are no shortcuts through Sin City, but some of its attractions are more than worth the trip.

*Oddly enough, this is the second long-in-the-tooth sequel based on a Frank Miller property to come out this year. The first was 300: Rise of an Empire. Both starred Green, and she is the driving, charismatic force behind both films.