Review: “Frank” 11.30.14

This film had been on my radar for quite a while as it had gotten a very strong reception while on the festival circuit this past year. That and almost everything I read for each of the festivals in which it was shown highlighted the fact that Michael Fassbender gives yet another strong performance in a series of Oscar worthy performances like the ones he put in in all three Steve McQueen films – those being 2008’s “Hunger” (how he wasn’t nominated for this was a major oversight on behalf of the Academy), 2011’s “Shame” (where he landed a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor), and last year’s “12 Years A Slave” (2013). A film in which he would pick up his first Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. I also thought he’s done some incredibly strong work in “Eden Lake” (2008), “Fish Tank” (2009), “A Dangerous Method” (2011), and “Prometheus” (2012). He almost always seems to pick good roles and is one of the most sought after young actors currently in Hollywood. I also liked the director, Ireland born director Lenny Abrahamson’s, previous film – “What Richard Did” (2012). A film which focused on a Irish teenager who is completely devastated when his once promising life gets thrown upside down. It’s an incredibly sad film which also happens to be a very good character study of a young man’s emotional disintegration following a tragic accident. Within it he showed a certain knack for feeling and emotion that is hard to truly capture in a lot of films from this genre. So given these two aforementioned reasons and the fact that it was also very favorably reviewed. I made it a point to seek it out as soon as it became available.

The story first introduces us to Jon, played by Brendan Glesson’s son, Domhnall Gleeson, an aspiring musician type who seems to dislike his mundane computer job. That is until one day when he comes across a band manager, played by Scoot McNairy, who employs him last-minute to fill in for one of his band’s gigs. While at the gig he meets his soon to be band members, two of which include both Clare, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal, and the titular character, Frank, played by Michael Fassbender himself. Frank seems to be some sort of enigmatic and incredibly gifted human being as we see him spout poetry like he’s channeling Jim Morrison of The Doors. Except one could make the assessment early on that Frank is far from your average, or “normal” human being. Frank hides under a blown up head that he wears like a mask, which according to McNairy’s band manager – “he never takes off”. None of the other band members have ever seen the man behind the mask, nor do they seem to care, as they seem to recognize his true genius. Gleeson’s character Jon seems to realize this to and is quick to say yes when they give him the offer to come onboard and join their band full-time. They then travel to the countryside to record a long gestating album. But because Frank is such a perfectionist they wind up over staying and go completely broke and wind up totally out of money. That’s when Jon steps in and offers to save them and the album, while also coming up what he sees as his own ingenious idea of capturing the process or making of the album. And soon after they become well-known across the country, and are asked to come play the prestigious South By Southwest Festival in Austin, Texas. It is here where the story really starts to develop, and both Jon, Frank, and the rest of the band members try to take full opportunity of their first shot at fame.

“Frank” is one incredibly bizarre, subversive, weird, and quirky film even by art house and independent film standards, and plays out like some absurdist tragic-comedy. Though along with that it’s tender, touching, heartfelt, and undeniably human. The first third is like something straight out of a Wes Anderson or Richard Ayoade film. It is strange and whimsical and contains some very well choreographed shots and segments. As we the viewer are transported directly into Frank’s highly unsual world through the eyes of its main character Jon. Some of the musical segments here are downright hilarious, and seem to want to take a satiric stab at what constitutes itself as being indie music these days. It’s while during the recording and capturing of the recording of the album that some of “Frank’s” more funny, clever, and delightful moments take place. Then comes their “calling” by way of the South by Southwest music festival, and the movie takes a dramatic shift in terms of story. Which I can’t say I was really all that big of a fan of. The way in which Austin is portrayed is like something out of Portlandia – where everyone’s a hipster and are drawn out to be slightly cliché. As is with a lot of the indie music scene these days. I thought the whole Austin part of the film, while I understood it in terms of context, was also the weakest and most contrived part about it. Then comes it’s mostly compelling and thought-provoking part of the film, which in my opinion should have come a lot earlier. Even in a 90 minute film. It is here that we learn about the man behind the mask and his mental illness, and this is when the film shines through somewhat, if just for the mere brilliant turn from Michael Fassbender, who in both inside and out of Frank, shows a certain range and depth that only an actor of his caliber could possibly pull off. I would recommend the film solely for Fassbender’s performance alone, as the rest of it is filled with either moments of grandeur, or moments that seemed to ber lifted straight out of other films I’ve seen like it (cough cough “Lars and the Real Girl”). Recommended for fans of Fassbender and for something completely outside of the box. Everyone else might find this movie to be much too strange and bizarre, even for fans of films that are a more acquired taste.

[B-]

Review: ‘The Selfish Giant’ 9.28.14

 

I have to admit I’m a sucker for European dramas that focus on poor, working class youth. I’ve always felt like they’re so much better made than their American counterparts. Particularly films that come out of Britain. Ones like Samantha Morton’s “The Unloved” (2009), the wonderfully sublime 2009 film by Andrea Arnold – “Fish Tank” (still Michael Fassbender’s best performance to date if you ask me), and Peter Mullan’s 2010’s “NEDS” (Non Educated Deliquents). These are all bleak and gritty social dramas about adolescents on the fringes of society. Societies that are in decay. And ones that condition the children they bring up in them to become inadvertent by-products of the harsh environments in which they live in. This was another one that earned a slot at last year’s Cannes Film Festival and won the Label Europa Cinema award. An award I can’t say I’m all too familiar with. But as I’ve mentioned in previous reviews, just the mere fact that a film was selected at Cannes, often times alone is reason enough for me to see it. I chose this film solely based on that notion and nothing to do with the director. Who, as I came to find out, goes by the name of Clio Barnard. Barnard has made quite a name for himself in the UK because of his award winning documentary that came out a few years back called “The Arbor” (2010). Which admittedly I haven’t seen.

The story revolves around two young boys named Arbor and Fenton (“Swifty”). Both live in very unstable households, especially Swifty, who lives in one of those households where more screaming is done than actual talking, along with there being one too many family members to share the space they inhabit. He’s also prone to temper tantrums and as a result of it is on medication. Both of his brothers are high school drop outs; one a drug addict, and by the way Swifty acts in school, he’s next in line. The focus then turns to that of Arbor, who’s personal and family life is equally as turmultuous. The two of them spend their spare time outside of their desparate school and home lives hanging out at the local “scrapping” yard where they trade in used scraps of metal and cable wire in exchange for money. This same scrap yard has its own culture that vulnerable young kids like Arbor and Swifty are drawn to. It’s an alpa male dominant one, with everyone trying to be “harder” than the next person. This at first seems alluring to the boys and they do what they have to do to fit in. The scrap yard’s perveyor, played by a ruthless and menacing character named Kitten that reminded me of somebody very similar to Peter Mullan’s in one of my favorite films of the past few years – “Tyrannosaur” (2010). Arbor takes a liking to Kitten in all of his alpa male dominance but it’s clear Kitten likes Swifty more, which is the start of the disintegration of the relationship of the two boys, and what the last third of the film really starts to explore.

I thought the film did a great job at depicting the working/blue collar class society. A society that’s decaying along with its people. People that are stricken with extreme poverty and have to do by whatever means necessary to survive. The scenes of watching the boys and their families are incredibly sad but immensely powerful. I also felt like it captured the mean-spiritedness and teenage angst of the poor youth culture rather well. Barnard also shoots the desolute, rural countryside; where it always happens to be both rainy and foggy beautifully. He has a certain knack for setting up establishing shots that are filled with some very striking imagery. The second high point for me was the scrap yard owner, Kitten, played by a British actor whom I’m unfamilar with but who really drives the beat at the heart of the story. He is almost a patriarch of the “scrap community”; a Don-like figure of sorts. Kitten is a bad, bad man. And the actor who plays him gives a hell of a bravura performance that’s both electrifying and terrifying in equal parts. I also thought the transition towards the last half of the film really started to show a more raw, humanistic treatment of the characters. It shows a sense of underlying tenderness as human vulnerability and compassion sets in which was absent from the first half, and comes across as both authentic and poetic. My only one very minor criticism of the piece is that it’s more of an examination or critique in its observation of its characters than it is plot driven. So some people may have a hard time with the patient pace that takes. But if you can keep yourself focused, you will find a beautifully heartfelt film about the nature of the human spirit and how people persevere even amongst the harshest of conditions. This is a strong and assured work. One that I highly recommend to those with an interest in calm yet challenging material. This will make my Honorable Mentions list at year’s end. That I can almost guarantee.

Grade: B+