Kicking the Tweets

Jimi: All is By My Side (2014)

How Many Licks Does it Take?

I was as skeptical as anyone, going into the Jimi Hendrix biopic, Jimi: All is By My Side. Overshadowing the early buzz about André Benjamin's uncanny and electrifying performance was news that a purple haze of rights issues kept writer/director John Ridley from using any Hendrix-penned songs in his film. That's right: no "Voodoo Child", no "All Along the Watchtower", no "Hey Joe". But Ridley and company rose to the challenge, making All is By My Side one of the most interesting films of 2014.

Ridley focuses on a single, seminal year of Hendrix's rise to prominence, sidestepping the traditional biopic structure with a narrative that's as fluid as its hero is aloof. This makes the two-hour run-time as bold a statement as Hendrix's playing "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" two days after the album's release, to a packed house that included George Harrison and Paul McCartney.

Those looking for an A-to-Z reporting on Hendrix will come away disappointed. Ridley and his team meddle with time, space, and media in putting together a film that aims to capture the "Jimi Hendrix experience" (sorry). Unlike the recent James Brown biopic, Get On Up, however, one can't simply do a re-edit and get a fuller picture of the subject's life. We learn much from dialogue, body language, and the way in which this movie about revolutionary sound frequently drops into silence. Hendrix's childhood is summed up beautifully in a heartbreaking phone call with his estranged father; no flashbacks necessary.

If comedian Bill Hicks was right, and Hendrix was some kind of alien space Jesus sent to teach us about love and to reinvent rock, then All is By My Side is the perfect movie to capture all the attendant weirdness that implies. Benjamin plays Hendrix as a spaced-out, supremely dedicated artist who doesn't quite get people. The film is a ménage à quatre between Hendrix, his music, and two vastly different rock groupies: Linda Keith (Imogen Poots), a British socialite who believes so fervently in the music that she temporarily falls victim to the man; and Kathy Etchingham (Hayley Atwell), a good-time girl who gets more than she bargained for when falling in love with a musical genius. As the film points out, Hendrix was a lyrical master of soulful and social observation, but he fell far short in the interpersonal relationships that should have, by all rights, informed his professed giant heart.

Ridley's experiment in stream-of-consciousness biography is not unprecedented. In fact, it's the perfect companion piece to Julian Schnabel's 1996 film, Basquiat. The two pieces are so similar that it's easy to wonder if Ridley simply swapped out 80s abstract art for 60s abstract guitar riffs. Both movies are about awkward, drug-abusing black artists struggling with identity and fame; both feature a dichotomy of key female relationships; both nail the ups, downs, and maddening spiritual contradictions inherent in having been born creative; and both are anchored by unforgettable star turns.

Yes, let's get back to Benjamin. Those who mostly remember him as one half of Outkast (aka, "Andre 3000") will be positively floored. Between him, Jared Leto, and David Bowie (who nearly stole Basquiat, playing Andy Warhol), there's almost enough contrary evidence to shrug off the "musician/actor" willies that have become cliche. I could dig into the nuances that made me love the job he does here, but my highest compliment is that he very quickly made me believe in Jimi Hendrix as a character--not as a historical figure or as an actor playing the hell out of a part.

He shares the screen with two admission-worthy actresses in Poots and Atwell; I don't want to give Ridley's script short shrift, but I was wildly impressed by the realistic characters they built. Just as Benjamin's Hendrix is a frustrating composite of post-racial humanism and base aggression, Keith and Etchingham come across as smart, head-strong women who put up with mental and physical abuse long after either should have sent Hendrix packing. Atwell and Poots help us understand why they stick by their man, to a point, without allowing their characters to come across as plot-necessitated doormats. A shout-out is in order for Ruth Negga, as well, who plays the eerily angelic dark conscience of the rock groupie.

It's weird to say that I neither noticed nor minded the lack of Hendrix's greatest hits in the movie. All is By My Side is such a bold portrait of attitude and art that I simply wanted to see and hear what the filmmakers would do next. We get a full sense of Jimi Hendrix as tinkerer, rebel, monster, and prophet. Ridley's alternately blissful, challenging, frustrating biopic is a fitting, shades-of-gray tribute to a man who saw everything as colors.


The Boxtrolls (2014)

So What and the Seven Whatnots

The Boxtrolls makes me wonder if I’m too old to enjoy kids’ movies. I was completely disengaged from everything--story, characters, and dialogue--until the closing credits, which played over a fun cover of “Little Boxes” by Loch Lomond. The last three minutes also taught me that Eric Idle wrote one of the songs, and that Tracy Morgan was both underused and unrecognizable as a voice talent.

The problem with the previous ninety-three minutes is that I’m so used to kids’ movies that pop off the screen with imagination and personality that matches—even trumps—the world-building technical artistry.

Yes, it’s impossible to talk about general-audience entertainment without mentioning Pixar. And there’s a reason: that studio knows what material justifies a feature-length adventure, and what works best as a three-minute short.

Up-and-coming studio Laika, on the other hand, struggles with this calculation. The Boxtrolls, like 2009’s Coraline, works great as an elevator pitch—not so much as a heady hour-and-a-half. There’s a lot of “business” in both films: gorgeously hand-crafted and hand-animated characters amuse each other for minutes on end in ways that do absolutely nothing to service an already questionable plot. We spend way more time watching the titular Boxtrolls fall all over each other than learning what they are, where they come from, or why we should care that they’re feared and oppressed by humans.

Sorry, I’m just now getting to the plot. Consider this my clever, meta way of describing the Boxtrolls experience. In a fictitious, vertically laid-out village, hundreds of scared citizens lock up their doors so as not to be attacked by the titular sewer-dwelling gremlins—who wear discarded store boxes as clothing, for some reason. A human boy, whom everyone believed had been kidnapped by the Boxtrolls, grows up with the monsters and eventually rejoins society on a quest to make everyone get along.

There’s a scheming businessman, a spunky-girl sidekick, and endless “look at me” fly-throughs of weird, subterranean landscapes. There’s also a noticeable deficit of surprises, heart, or reason to be impressed, outside of the fact that most of the animation didn’t come from a computer. Unfortunately, recent examples of CG that looks hand-made (such as The Lego Movie) makes Laika seem like the top horse-carriage manufacturer in a bullet-train world.

On second thought, I’m not too old to enjoy kids’ movies. The best children’s fare is timeless and multi-generational. The Boxtrolls is a painstakingly rendered paean to padding and silliness, with life lessons that will awaken and impress only those who’ve never seen other movies. The same can be said of Transformers: Age of Extinction, too, and I don’t plan to revisit that one, either.


Take Me to the River (2014)

Hep Hop

There's a touching message at the heart of Take Me to the River, director Martin Shore's documentary about old-school blues legends collaborating with young hip-hop artists on a tribute album to Memphis' Stax Records: the Southern sound that defined American music may have been born out of struggle in the African-American community, but has become a multi-racial, multi-generational language of harmony. This is at odds with the movie's other message, which is that white people ruin everything.

To be clear: Take Me to the River is neither a racist movie nor a polemic against systemic oppression. But in addition to muddying stories of political and police brutality in the 1950s and 60s, Shore frequently halts his film's beautiful black rhythms by interjecting flat, self-important narration from himself and actor-turned-sorta-musician Terrence Howard. The inclusion of rap artists on this sacred musical ground is also jarring: in one corner, you have the late, great Charles "Skip" Pitts joyously talking about Isaac Hayes and the wah wah pedal (which Pitts pioneered); in the other corner stands Frayser Boy, a mumble-mouthed rapper who scrolls through lyrics on his cell phone while hunched over the mic. This isn't a white supremacist's ideal in action, per se, but one need barely squint to see the disheartening contrast between the lively, soul-searching, and very talented musicians of old, and the Pro Tools-weaned Thesaurus Rappers with interchangeable voices and "ideas".

My stomach turned when Howard stepped into the studio. Dressed to the nines in a white suit and sunglasses, he stuck out like a sore, untalented thumb in a room full of justifiably self-assured and accomplished, t-shirt-and-ball-cap-wearing geniuses. The ego pooled around Howard, creating a danger to everyone involved, and his singing was as garish as his tackiness.

Since I'm on a racial tangent (fair or not), Take Me to the River offers up only one white guy who isn't an utterly embarrassing cheeseball. We get the technician who only stops giggling and fist-pumping when he's not vomiting sycophancy all over blues icons, and North Mississippi AllStars' guitarist Luther Dickinson-- a cross between the dude who played Jim Morrison in Wayne's World 2 and every cartoon hippie committed to film. I don't begrudge anyone leading a knee-slapping life of zonked-out dorkiness, but until the cool, calm, collected (and, again, conspicuously talented) Charlie Musselwhite showed up, I thought I was watching a Christopher Guest spoof.

Despite the numerous stretches of discomfort, you really should see Take Me to the River. It may be clogged with rocks and logs, but the bubbling momentum of live performances from Mavis Staples, William Bell, and Bobby "Blue" Bland make the journey more than worth it. I just wish Shore and company had figured out what kind of movie they'd wanted to make: Is this an over-long record promo? Or is it an examination of Memphis music and its place in America's Civil Rights history?*

The film's saving grace comes in the last act, when high school students from the Stax Museum and Music Academy jam with our blues heroes. It was so touching to see Pitts encourage and advise young drummers and guitarists. Better yet, he offered to work with some of them in the future, just as he'd been given a leg up early on. Even this moment, though, was soured by Snoop Dogg, who popped up with some insightful and moving commentary on generational appreciation--before ruining Bell's "I Forgot to Be Your Lover"; with a Thesaurus Rap interlude he wrote on the spot, and while possibly high ("I did this in, like, six minutes". No shit).

Take Me to the River is a film at odds with itself. Its rhythmic, beating artist's heart can't quite drown out the desire to be both commercial and semi-structured. It's too glossy and fan-boyish to qualify as a kind of concert film--and too disjointed to recommend as a history lesson. Still, I can think of few other recent movies that really capture the bond of great artists reminiscing while creating, and which grant the audience such fine, fly-on-the-wall access. Just try to ignore that sound-board stooge with the weird bowl-mullet and incessant-nodding disorder.

*There are some wonderful stories here, and unsettling footage set to Martin Luther King's final speech, but the narrative is choppy, incomplete, and loses out to the in-studio stuff.


The Zero Theorem (2014)

Sum Kind of Wonderful

Terry Gilliam puts the "make" in "filmmaking". Whether backed by major studios or literally begging in the street for financing, he always comes through with visually arresting art that feels captured and dragged out of our collective unconscious' Nostalgia Wing. This has led to indelible classics (Time Bandits), cult sensations (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas), and a disastrous project so unbelievable it was turned into a movie about Gilliam making a movie (Lost in La Mancha). The problem with unbridled imagination is that it takes a deft touch to reign in as entertainment, and Gilliam's filmography is peppered with ambitious narrative failures. I place The Zero Theorem among them, while also recommending it.

Christoph Waltz place Qohen, an office drone toiling in the kind of dystopian future that caused Spider Jerusalem to head for the mountains: customized advertisements follow pedestrians on ubiquitous video monitors; news reporters gossip about the First Church of Batman; and thousands of drugged-out, non-descript escapism addicts make their living crunching meaningless data in the bowels of a vague global conglomerate called Mancom. The Zero Theorem's landscape is almost as unruly as that run-on sentence, with every frame so jacked on A/V stimuli as to render focal points meaningless. In the center of this depressing kandy kaleidoscope is Qohen, who just wants to work from home and avoid people altogether.

Mancom's Management (personified by Matt Damon) has other plans. He assigns Qohen to solve the titular maze of equations, which asserts that human life actually has no purpose. This isn't a stretch for our protagonist, who lives alone in an old church and gets twitchy when anyone asks why he refers to himself in the royal "we" (Qohen's dubious sanity makes him perfect for the gig). Why would a company want to scientifically prove pointlessness? I'll leave that for you to discover.

Right now, I want to talk about Mélanie Thierry. She plays Bainsley, a lively professional sex object who struts into Qohen's life. Of course she winds up falling for the wounded weirdo, and becomes the catalyst for his seeking to bring down the entire corrupt system. But aside from The Zero Theorem's striking production design and costumes, Thierry is the film's big selling point (yes, even above Waltz, whom I adore). The actress brings a sultry attainability to the part that makes her utterly believable as both the subject of strangers' lust and as a character we want to see find true love.

Oddly, the romance sinks the movie--along with stale monologues about corporatism. The mystery of existence is unsolvable, especially in art, and shoe-horning in a charming but painfully contrived love story only subtracts from the headier and more spiritual aspects of any endeavor. For awhile, I thought Gilliam had something original to tell us about What It All Means; turns out, he just wanted to say, "Many, you've gotta check out Dark City!"

As we realize Gilliam and writer Pat Rushin have saddled their visual flights of fancy with a story and ideas that have nowhere to go and less to say, really, The Zero Theorem becomes an exercise in will. Damon disappears, as does the pathetically charismatic David Thewlis (he plays Qohen's wormy supervisor), and the oddities fade into conventions involving massive, exploding machines, regret, and a showdown with oblivion.

I'll give the movie this much: aside from some dodgy CGI here and there, The Zero Theorem is a marvel of practical props and sets, a fully realized world made all the more unsettling by the fact that the actors could actually touch everything (and be overwhelmed by it)* This is par for the course with Gilliam, and I'm delighted to see him achieve wonders with a (comparatively) small budget. He needs to keep an eye on those screenplays, though, if he's to continue making things that people revisit. No matter how amused I am by an intricately designed virtual-reality sex suit, nothing turns me on like great characters, ideas, and through-lines. When filmmakers ignore these key components, it's hard to see the point.

*The film gave me another reason to dislike Snowpiercer: Tilda Swinton pops up as a Qohen's virtual psychologist here, spinning the same dorky aristocrat schtick she did in Joon-ho Bong's picture. By "the same", I mean she's wearing the teeth, the glasses, the funny hair--even the over-pronounced accent that sounds like a desk clerk from Wallace & Gromit's universe. 


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.