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August 22, 2014

The longer Frank sits with me, the deeper it seems to get. At first, a silly little story about a quirky experimental music group, it grows into a touching meditation on a number of topics, as honest about each of them as it is weird and wonderful.

Jon (Domhnall Gleeson) is an aspiring young songwriter who can’t manage to actually write a song. He does manage to maintain a social media presence, though. Is it not-quite-honest or not-quite-serious? it’s hard to say, but with only a dozen or so followers it probably doesn’t matter.

And then he stumbles into a chance to join a band: “Soronprfbs”. He fills in for their keyboardist when they play in his town, which leads to an invitation for a thing in Ireland, which turns out to be less of a weekend gig and more of an album-recording at an isolated resort house that stretches out over a year. It’s a little crazy, yeah, but what keeps him there is the promise of living his dream, and Frank.

Frank (Michael Fassbender) is the leader and musical visionary of Soronprfbs, most notable for always wearing a giant fake head, styled after Chris Sievey’s Frank Sidebottom character. The manager and sound engineer, Don (Scoot McNairy), says he met Frank in a mental hospital, but swears he’s the sanest person ever; the head is just part of the same artistic sensibility that pushes each of them to their “furthest corners”. I mean, who hasn’t known an artsy type with some odd affectations?

So Jon settles in among the group, but never really with them. He films clips of their sessions and posts them online, cultivating a connection with the outside world none of the others seem to want. The aggressively protective theramin player, Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal), finds the idea of publicity particularly distasteful, but Frank himself seems excited by the thought of reaching a wider audience. When Jon receives an invitation to perform at South by Southwest just as the band finishes recording the album, it’s clear he’ll be responsible either for truly launching the band — and himself with it — or destabilizing their tenuous equilibrium.

The vertiginous shift in tone may come as an unwelcome surprise for those who showed up expecting a silly, offbeat, indie comedy about a quirky, artsy, outsider musician. But this shift is the real heart of the film; the silly, quirky stuff plays into our popular assumptions, setting us up for the whiplash that brings us face-to-face with them. There are plenty of them, and I keep turning up more as I turn it over in my mind, but most obvious and most important is the idea of a connection between mental illness and creativity.

I hate to bring it back to David Foster Wallace, but who am I kidding, I love to bring it back to Wallace. It’s easy to say that his depression and his writing were linked, and it’s even true in a way. Being depressed brought Wallace into contact with a portion of human experience that he could then use in his writing. If Wallace hadn’t been depressed, he wouldn’t have written “The Depressed Person”, or “Good Old Neon”, or any number of his other works, including large parts of Infinite Jest. But we all too often make the leap to say that if he hadn’t been depressed he wouldn’t have written at all, or as well. We say the same about Picasso, or Syd Barrett, or almost any other “tortured artist”.

And we want to say it about Frank, too. Sure, he’s weird, and maybe some of that weird comes from mental illness. But as long as we think we can get something quirky silly and fun out of it, hey, that’s Frank. We’re glad to take it and have our fun, and maybe cluck our tongues a bit every now and then about how it’s a shame that he has to be crazy for us to get this music or this movie, but man it must be fun to be an artist like that.

Frank sets us up to say this, and then turns us around to face it. As fun as it is to see Fassbender cavort under that big fake head, it’s when the head finally comes off that we can see the face behind it — the man behind the music — and he’s just perfect in a way only Fassbender can be.

It’s an axiom of comics that the less realistically characters are drawn, the more we as readers can project our own ideas onto them. When Frank’s head comes off, we get a sudden rush of his reality. If that makes us feel weird — and not in a quirky, fun way — then maybe we need to think about what, exactly, we were projecting onto that big, blank face.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.

If I Stay

August 22, 2014
If I Stay

All signs would point to If I Stay being yet another teeny-weepy, in the same glurgey, smarmy vein as The Fault In Our Stars, but somehow it manages to rise above that. Yes, there are teenagers, and yes, they’re in love, and yes, they deal with tragedy. And yet there’s something fundamentally honest about it in a way that most similar movies lack.

The story is told, basically, in flashback. Mia (Chloë Grace Moretz) is a talented young cellist in Portland. She meets Adam (Jamie Blackley), who fronts a local rock band that’s starting to go places. Her parents (Mireille Enos and Joshua Leonard) were young rockers once, too, and they’re cautiously encouraging about their daughter’s first tentative steps into young love.

The catch is how the flashback comes in: Mia, her parents, and her brother are in a bad car accident. Her mother is dead on the scene, and her father dies on the operating table. Mia herself is comatose, at least in her body. Her “spirit” is awake, roaming the halls of the hospital, watching how everybody reacts, and remembering her life over the last year or so.

There’s obviously a certain supernatural aspect to the story, and yet Shauna Cross’ screenplay — based on Gayle Forman’s novel — wisely avoids using this as anything but a plot device. There’s no explicitly religious overtones, no population of other disembodied people, and no suggestion that Mia can affect anything other than her own recovery. It’s just a way to isolate her on her long, dark night of the soul. And, in a way, it’s a more effective way than the gimmick in Locke.

Mia has a lot to think about, even beyond what her life will be like as an orphan. Her relationship with Adam was on the way out. She had an application in for Juilliard, and even if she didn’t go to New York Adam’s band would be touring much of the time. Even decades past that point in my own life I remember how that first love feels newer and stronger than anything, and its inevitable end does feel, at the time, like the death Mia faces.

In the flashbacks, Mia and Adam both say and do some dumb, clichéd things, but in this film they feel descriptive of the dumb, clichéd things real teenagers do in their first relationships. This is probably the single biggest improvement If I Stay has over its genre, where normally these big, romantic gestures are glorified and endorsed.

Unfortunately, the story still paints itself into a corner where it can’t reach the real best-case scenario. It portrays Mia’s choice as letting go, avoiding the pain she’ll face if she wakes up, or coming back to a happy ending with Adam. While it’s admirable that the film uses its setup to engage with the issue of suicide absent the usual moral questions of responsibility, we know with our perspective that what Mia really needs is to learn how to recover from the loss, but still go on living without Adam. The end of the relationship is not the end of the world. Younger audiences will probably enjoy the story better without that nagging voice of experience, though.

Despite this flaw, I think Moretz really imbues the film with its heft. She manages to deliver just the right combination of naïvety and confidence that makes Mia work, not entirely unlike the way she played Carrie. And she can really sell tragedy, possibly from her history of working with heavier material than most actresses her age.

Wherever it comes from, If I Stay comes across as fundamentally more honest about the way down than most films that deal with teenage love. It may not be perfect, but something about it just works.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: pass.

Frank Miller’s Sin City: A Dame to Kill For

August 22, 2014
Frank Miller's Sin City: A Dame to Kill For

A day after watching the over-titled Frank Miller’s Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, I still find myself of two minds about it. The style and gloss is great, and it feels just as fresh from the pages of Miller’s Sin City books as the first movie did. And yet, it’s hard to shake the disturbing feeling that someone involved takes this stuff seriously.

Again we’ve got a pulp anthology, built from equal parts 1940s-era noir clichés, warmed-over Charles Bukowski, and Miller’s own swaggering macho wish-fulfillment. Basin City is the sort of place where the crime gang that runs Old Town may be composed of women, but they’re still prostitutes dressed in bondage gear. There’s no good or bad here, but only more or less corruption. They bleak, “gritty” view Miller injected into so many comics and their derived media — The Dark Knight Rises directly, but now also Man of Steel — is here uncut. It’s a strong, bracing jolt of a movie that will surely thrill those who really love this throwback attitude.

The stories themselves are linked with those from the 2005 installment, sharing characters and settings. Some function as prequels; others as sequels. The bulk of the movie is taken up by “A Dame to Kill For”, but we get a quick re-introduction to Marv (Mickey Rourke) in “Just Another Saturday Night”. We also get a couple original side stories: “Nancy’s Last Dance”, an unnecessary coda to “That Yellow Bastard” about Nancy Callahan (Jessica Alba) taking her long-awaited revenge; and the underdeveloped “The Long Bad Night”, the most interesting of the quartet, about a preternaturally lucky gambler (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) with a score to settle with the corrupt Senator Roark (Powers Boothe).

“Dame” itself features Dwight McCarthy (recast as Josh Brolin) from “The Big Fat Kill” spinning out of control when his former lover Ava Lord (Eva Green) shows up, desperate for his help escaping from her husband and his bodyguard, Manute (recast as Dennis Haysbert). But since this is Sin City and not a real noir there’s no chance she’s an actual damsel in distress, and the situation is bound to be more complicated than it appears.

Now, I’ve seen enough of Rodriguez’ work to know how he likes to have fun with silly, pulpy material. This is the man behind the Machete movies, Planet Terror, and From Dusk till Dawn, among others, after all. And here he’s in fine form, translating Miller’s high-contrast graphic style perfectly to the screen. The two Sin City movies surely mark a high point in Rodriguez’ visual directing, with Miller’s striking art providing the jumping-off point. The only complaint is that the addition of 3D is totally unnecessary, and even distracting in the translation from comic book page to screen.

But Rodriguez’ other pulp work is clearly positioned as campy, or even comedic in its exploitation influences; if it didn’t look so well done it would be right at home next to Troma productions. This is different. Sure, there are plenty of laughable moments, but it’s more something to laugh at than with: the unearned melodrama; the sometimes ridiculous action sequences; the three times a woman says someone is “the only man I’ve ever loved”. Underneath Rodriguez’ obvious glee in rendering these pictures into motion there’s the slowly growing sense that Miller really believes in this stuff.

And that’s where this movie loses me. It’s not really noir, for all it cribs from noir aesthetics. It’s not even as transgressive as the first movie could be; it’s rather tame in comparison, actually. There’s nothing here except the same old ultra-masculine, oh-so-tortured men, and the slut-shamed “strong” women who either need one of the aforementioned men or are condemned for rejecting them. It’s the product of a puerile mindset that sneers at a world it declares “fallen”, and then pleasures itself to the rubble.

Caught between admiration for Rodriguez’ artistry as a director and disgust for the way Miller takes his ridiculous, sophomoric material so seriously, I may ultimately have to lean towards the quality of the production. Just because Miller — and, let’s be honest, a large portion of the target audience — thinks these are great stories doesn’t mean we have to take them seriously.

Worth It: on the principle that defenders win ties, yes.
Bechdel Test fail.

Land Ho!

August 15, 2014
Land Ho!

If there’s one thing that distinguishes most films from real life it’s the drama. Momentous things happen, and big emotions are felt, and all of us in the audience get a vicarious sense of resolution. Even most “slice of life” movies tend to focus on the big lows and highs rather than the day-to-day adventures. Land Ho! may not be completely pedestrian, but it comes a lot closer to life as it is lived than we’re used to seeing on screen, and it’s both refreshing and relaxing to see.

Colin (Paul Eenhoorn) and Mitch (Earl Lynn Nelson) are a pair of aging ex-brothers-in-law. Colin has always been more taciturn, and he’s drawing in even more after the loss of his wife. Mitch, on the other hand, is effusive and outgoing, almost to the point of boorishness. He decides that what Colin needs is a change of scenery, so he books the two of them on a week’s trip across Iceland.

The scenery is beautiful, and cinematographer Andrew Reed makes the most of it. The restaurant visits show off the food and the ambience, although without the focus of The Trip. Some things go right, and some go wrong, but the stakes are always low; the worst thing that happens to Colin and Mitch is getting lost away from their hotel for the night.

The lack of “action”, though, lets us get to know these men. Nelson is almost an amateur, and he plays Mitch largely as his own, boisterous, extraverted self. I would certainly tire of him quickly in person, and the film doesn’t try to soften his grating edges. And yet at the same time his essential good-natured charm comes through; he just wants to have a good time, and he honestly wants everyone else to have a good time with him, though sometimes he doesn’t notice that his idea of a good time doesn’t line up with Colin’s.

Eenhoorn is the more experienced actor, and he plays off Nelson well. The pair have a nice balance, each acting to develop the other. Colin’s calm demeanor makes Mitch’s outgoing nature pop that much more, and helps raise the contrast when Mitch does get serious. At the same time, Mitch draws Colin out, pushing him into situations for us to see Colin’s reactions in a way we never would if Colin were left to his own devices.

It’s fun to see big emotional dramas play out, but Land Ho! brings us a calmer, sweeter story that’s no less pleasant.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.

The Expendables III

August 15, 2014
The Expendables III

Sylvester Stallone started the Expendables series with the intent of returning to the 1980’s style of action films. With The Expendables III, I think it’s safe to say he’s succeeded. As the series goes on, it gets more bloated and ridiculous, eschewing story and character for the assembly-line commodification of guns and explosions. And it’s all just so textureless and boring, just like the garbage Menahem Golan’s production houses used to churn out.

The cast is jam-packed with recognizable actors, which of course means that there aren’t really any characters. Stallone anchors the team again as Barney Ross, with the approximate proportions of a Perdue chicken. Most everyone else falls into broad swaths of stereotypes. Terry Crews may be the smartest of the lot, since he bargained his way into getting shot early on by international arms dealer Conrad Stonebanks (Mel Gibson), putting him out of commission for most of the picture. Ross is spooked by this and dumps his old team, hiring the Young and Hungry Crew (Kellan Lutz, Ronda Rousey, Glen Powell, Victor Ortiz) to exact his revenge. But they get into trouble and it’s up to the Old Guard (Jason Statham, Dolph Lundgren, Randy Couture, Wesley Snipes) to rescue them, with some help from the Support Staff (Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jet Li, Harrison Ford, Kelsey Grammer). And then there’s Antonio Banderas running around as a Spanish mercenery, desperate for a chance to just kill someone already.

The storytelling is among the laziest I’ve ever seen. Everything is a cliché. Even the token woman is the most trite and boring man-hating-yet-sexually-aggressive-badass-bitch sterotype possible. Banderas is the only remotely interesting person on the screen, and he’s intentionally played as so maddeningly irritating that we get sick of him before we have a chance to recognize what little charisma anyone else has in contrast.

But action movies are about action, right? Well, there’s a lot of not-action to sit through here, and it’s all boring. Hemming and hawing over getting rid of the old team, finding the new team, loading the plane, karaoke… all of it centered on a sleepwalking Stallone.

And when we do get to the action, it’s still boring. Long, loud, chaotic sequences of gunfire and explosions with no real stakes abound. Again, there are far too many people to keep track of who is doing what and where, especially in the huge final set-piece. Even when we focus down onto a handful of characters, the action is cut together haphazardly and nonsensically, and even that lasts for a few seconds at the most before jumping to another unrelated section of the battle.

It’s not exciting; it’s exhausting for a film to beat its audience into submission like this, without even the saving grace of Bayhem’s misused dynamism. Yes, this is a throwback to the big, loud, macho ’80s action style. But the key word there is “throwback”, as in a caveman out of his own time, and who was barely functional even then.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: fail.


August 8, 2014

The Irish are known for their good cheer, but as often as not that’s just the surface. There’s a lot of pain spread out across the Irish countryside, and a lot of sorrow. John Michael McDonagh meditates on this pain in his marvelously dark and sensitive film, Calvary

Much of this pain flows from the bad actions of the Catholic Church in Ireland, of which we were most recently reminded in Philomena. But of course there’s also the ongoing abuse scandal; we know about it here in America, where we’ve turned it into a running gag, but it’s far worse in Ireland. Remember when Sinéad O’Connor got banned from SNL in 1992, provoking outrage from Joe Pesci and Madonna? yeah, this is what she was protesting. Then there’s the financial collapse, again far worse in Ireland than on this side of the Atlantic, and any number of other more mundane tribulations.

We open in a confessional, on the shadowed face of Fr. James (Brendan Gleeson). A man enters the other booth; Fr. James recognizes the voice, but we don’t see him. He speaks of his childhood abuse at the hands of a priest. The abuser is dead; a complaint would do no good. And besides, what would it matter to punish a bad priest. But to kill an innocent priest would get attention, and would hold the Church as a whole responsible for the actions it has tacitly condoned. And so, in just over a week, the man says he will kill Fr. James.

For all the pain it has caused, the Church is still tremendously important in the lives of the Irish people, particularly out on the western coast. Fr. James knows the man is one of his parishioners; we see them receiving communion. His life may be threatened, but he still has work to do. Fr. James stands for that portion of the Church who have a genuine calling to minister to the spiritual health of their community. His fellow priest, Fr. Leary (David Wilmot), is more accountant than acolyte. He is an unreflective bureaucrat who doesn’t seem bothered by the failure of ecclesiastical authority.

And so Fr. James continues to minister to his flock: The butcher (Chris O’Dowd), whose wife is cheating on him; the washer-woman (Orla O’Rourke), acting out some unspoken, sometimes violent sexual psychodrama; the immigrant (Isaach de Bankolé), a handyman with a short temper; the dweeb (Killian Scott) desperate for a sense of his masculinity; a visitor (Marie-Josée Croze), whose husband has suffered a senseless accident; the gruff publican (Pat Shortt); the surly, atheist doctor (Aidan Gillen); the shady financier (Dylan Moran); the convicted psychotic murderer (Domhnall Gleeson). He even arranges, in this last week, a visit from his daughter, Fiona (Kelly Reilly), still hurt on some level by Fr. James’ response to her mother’s death.

Each of his parishioners carries around their own measure of pain and anger, and Fr. James is there to listen to them all, even as he is impotent to offer any temporal solutions. Each of them pours out their own measure of bile over the Church in general and Fr. James in particular, and still he listens, taking their anger as a sacrificial lamb for the sins of the Church. His last week plays out slowly, and he falls along the way, but Fr. James ultimately delivers himself up while hoping that the final cup of bitterness might pass from him. In the end, he has no more choice than all the other broken people he cares for.

It would be easy enough for McDonagh to pour out his own anger at the Church in Ireland; outside the film he declares it “essentially finished”. And yet he offers us a story that behaves as neither a polemic nor an apologetic, but which balances precariously between the two. He takes great care and consideration to present each character’s pain as real and valid, including the one who threatens Fr. James’ life. But at the same time he presents a last vestige of the true Church, even if it seems that this must be destroyed to pay for what the rest has become. McDonagh encapsulates this balance in his epigraph form St. Augustine, also famously alluded to by Beckett in Waiting for Godot: “Do not despair; one of the thieves was saved. Do not presume; one of the thieves was damned”.

The Church in Ireland, like so many institutions of authority, has become corrupted, and yet some shred of its original purpose remains; it’s not easy to just dispose of the whole thing while people still need what good it once offered, even as they hate what it has become. But we may yet hope, as Fr. James believes of the original Calvary, that the coming death promises more of redemption than destruction.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

August 8, 2014
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

The great tragedy of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is that it didn’t have to be this bad. I don’t mean to defend any particular iteration of these characters as the One True Turtles; they’ve been reinvented so many times since Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird’s original comic, and that’s fine. But when Michael Bay’s production team got their hands on the property they set about making the laziest, most obnoxious choice at each opportunity.

Yes, the whole concept is ridiculous from the title onwards, but we just came off of a weekend where a talking raccoon and a walking tree led Guardians of the Galaxy to a record-shattering debut, and without explicitly reducing the female lead to a sex object at every turn. The Turtles are practically normal next to that; in fact, Eastman and Laird’s comic grew out of the same era that gave us Howard the Duck and the original Guardians of the Galaxy. And even with such well-known characters to work with, writers Josh Appelbaum, André Nemec, and Evan Daugherty and director Jonathan Liebesman can come up with nothing interesting to do with them, even recycling a tired, old “poison the city” storyline from all the least imaginative superhero movies.

True to Michael-Bay-Transformers style, the turtles themselves are actually secondary characters. The real lead is aspiring reporter April O’Neil (Megan Fox). Despite being somehow the one reporter to see the rise of the Foot Clan as a New York City gang superpower as a big news story, she’s relegated to fluff pieces with her cameraman/producer Vernon Fenwick (Will Arnett). But she’s also the daughter of the researcher who created the turtles in the first place, the former partner of billionaire Eric Sacks (William Fichtner), who’s secretly partnered with Shredder (Masamune Tohoro), who heads up the Foot Clan. Because of course every single plot thread is connected to every other.

As for the turtles themselves, they look just awful. Yeah, mutated reptiles aren’t likely to win any beauty contests, but the bizarrely crooked humanoid teeth inside the green Mick Jagger lips — both obviously CGI-rendered — are just disturbing. And Splinter (motion-captured by Danny Woodburn, voiced by Tony Shaloub) is even worse. These are the stuff of nightmares.

Which is a particular problem given the standard excuse being wheeled out for the terrible quality: “it’s for the kids”. Setting aside the way this insults “the kids'” tastes, I don’t buy it. TMNT gets the same PG-13 that Guardians did. One of the first lines we get from Michaelangelo is about his shell “getting tighter” when he sees April. A major action beat is set up by Will Arnett getting distracted by Megan Fox bending way over. This is not aimed at kids; maybe at particularly puerile pre-teens.

And if the movie is still somehow intended for children, I don’t know how you can explain the broad stereotypes of the turtles themselves. Leonardo barely has a character, so I don’t know why you’d need to bring in Johnny Knoxville as a separate voice actor; Raphael has patterned himself after Christian Bale’s Batman; Michaelangelo is all but a pick-up-artist; and I’m most disappointed in Donatello.

Yes, Don has always been the engineer and the nerd of the group, but he’s never been the dweeb like this, down to the stammering, the nasal inflection, and the taped-together glasses. In tortoiseshell, no less, which kind of feels like a cow wearing a leather jacket, or (for you fellow TMNT fans) Miyamoto Usagi wearing a rabbit-fur stole. Raph and Mike try to make being a brute and a creep look cool; Don is here to make being smart look bad. And this is what you say is “for the kids”?

The visuals and action aren’t even salvageable. It’s a giant, chaotic mess, especially the one major set-piece. Think of a bad imitation of Bayhem without even Bay’s own aesthetic sensibilities. How can a tractor-trailer careening down a snowy mountain be so damn boring? For that matter, are there any mountains on the outskirts of the NYC sewer system that would be snowy in late March? Liebesman bends reality just in order to set up a visually awesome sequence, and then completely fails to deliver any real excitement.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is a loud, bloated, stupid mess. We had the chance to stop Bay’s Transformers after the first one, but we failed. I dearly hope we can stop the mutant turtles before they metastasize.

Worth It: no. Go watch Guardians of the Galaxy again.
Bechdel Test: fail.


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