Cynically Sentimental
Frank (2014) review

 It was Filth (2013) that introduced me to “Frank Sidebottom,”  a character created by UK performance artist Chris Sievey in the 1980s.  Frank—who had a rigid, oversized, false head with literally cartoonish features—was a would-be “celebrity” TV presenter and singer from Manchester.  As Sidebottom, Sievey made recordings and hosted television shows until his death in 2010.  Filth features some video clips of Frank’s work, without explanation—although he’s a cult figure in the UK, I had no clue that these surreal appearances were actual broadcasts, until I did a bit of post-screening research.

            Frank borrows only the first name, the false-head, and—to an extent—the concept of “Frank” as a singer, from Sievey’s character.  The rest of the story is completely new and bears no relation to Frank Sidebottom’s personality, shtick, or “real” life history, which may have initially dismayed some fans who might’ve been expecting (or fearing) a biopic. However, for everyone else, Frank can be enjoyed as an effective comedy-drama that touches on topics such as the nature of creativity, celebrity, and friendship.  And if it piques viewers’ curiosity about the “real” Frank Sidebottom, whose work can be sampled on YouTube, then that’d be a bonus.

            Jon (Domhnall Gleeson, one of the sons of Brendan) is an aspiring composer who by day works in a cubicle, doing something boring on a computer (that narrows it down, doesn’t it?).  One day he spots the police rescuing someone trying to commit suicide in the surf, and is casually invited to take the man’s place as keyboardist for the band “Soronprfbs,” led by the mask-wearing Frank (Michael Fassbender).  The gig doesn’t go well, but Jon later receives a call from manager Don, who invites him to Ireland.  Jon discovers he’s not merely filling in for a weekend engagement, but that Frank, Don, guitarist Baraque, drummer Nana, and theremin-player Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal) are going to stay in a rented house there until they’ve completed their new album.

            Desirous of becoming a professional musician, Jon agrees to participate, even financing the band’s extended stay with his own money.  He documents their progress via social media.  Frank, who never removes his mask, is an eccentric perfectionist, and months go by.  The album is finally complete, but it’s Jon’s YouTube videos and Tweets that earn the band an invitation to the SXSW festival in the USA. Clara, protective of Frank and hostile to Jon, objects, but Frank is enthralled that people want to hear his music, and Soronprfbs crosses the pond.

            SXSW doesn’t turn out as expected.  There are arguments, a stabbing, several people hit by cars, on-stage collapses, an arrest—and that’s just events involving the band members!  Frank, which has been (mostly) comedic prior to this point, gets semi-serious in the final section but manages to end on a high note, never fear.

            One interesting aspect of Frank is its view of musical creativity.  Frank’s music is beyond avant-garde—densely-layered noise, ambient sound, repetitive vocals, with the occasional recognisable melodic phrase.  Even “Frank’s Most Likeable Song,” played in response to Jon’s frantic attempt to change the band’s direction at SXSW, is hilariously off-putting.  And yet Frank’s drive and dedication are obvious, and Clara, Don, Baraque, and Nina have apparently bought in to his vision.  Even Jon, after weeks of close collaboration while isolated with Frank and the others in the Irish countryside, finds his own creativity restimulated (although he’s hurt that his pop-influenced tunes find no favour with the others).  Late in the film, Jon tries to ascertain if some trauma in Frank’s youth “caused” his musical genius, but learns Frank’s eccentricity (or, to be more accurate, his diagnosed mental illness) probably hampered his development, if anything.  There’s no easy answer—“normal” Jon is talented enough but can’t get beyond snatches of mundane songs like “Woman in a Red Coat,” while Frank’s separation from reality has pushed his music beyond the realm of public acceptability.

            As noted earlier, Jon blogs about his experiences with Frank and the band, and it is his social media promotion that eventually earns them an invitation to SXSW.  Frank and the others believe they have a coterie of fans waiting to see them perform, only to learn that “23 thousand hits on YouTube is nothing,” and there might be “one or two” people in the audience who’ve heard of them.  This is amusing although it’s difficult to believe Jon—depicted as a savvy user of YouTube, Twitter, etc.—would not have known this.  [Also, while the social media aspect of Frank is appropriate and more or less realistically utilised—although I must say the wi-fi signal in rural Ireland seems suspiciously pervasive—I cannot help but feel this will feel a bit “quaint” in a few years, when all social media has been replaced by telepathic brain-slugs.]

            Primarily a comedy, Frank takes an ambivalent stance on mental illness, mocking it at times and portraying it with taste and sympathy at others.  Frank is obviously more than simply “odd,” he’s spent time in a mental hospital (in fact, that is where Don originally met him!).  He refuses to remove his fiber-glass head (“I have a certificate!” he says to the authorities when crossing national borders) even in private, indicating it’s not simply a part of his stage persona. [This is in contrast to “Frank Sidebottom,”  a fictional character portrayed by Chris Sievey.]  Although Frank is articulate and even charming at times, he is also portrayed as volatile and unstable, traits which are exacerbated when the band arrives at SXSW. 

            As mentioned, the band’s manager Don also spent time in psychiatric care—he was sexually attracted to mannequins—and although this is played off as a joke, Don himself eventually succumbs to his own demons.  Jon’s presence in the band is the result of a suicide attempt by the former keyboard player, and at one point Jon tells Clara “I assumed you were mentally ill,” as if this was practically a prerequisite for membership in Frank’s group (to be fair, Baraque and Anna appear more or less normal—for avant-garde musicians, at least). 

            The loyalty of Frank’s band members, despite his extreme eccentricities, is never fully explained.  Have they all subscribed to his outlandish theories about music?   Are they enthralled by his engaging personality?  Do they care about him personally?  The latter would seem to apply to Clara, who, although she enthusiastically participates in the music, seems indifferent to fame and seeks chiefly to protect Frank.  Jon, the outsider, is caught up in the creative process and sees Frank’s band as a pathway to personal fulfillment.  In the end, however, he proves to be a disruptive influence—forcing Frank and the others to break out of their isolation and confront the real (music) world, with tragic results.  At this point, he finally understands that friendship is more important than fame and fortune…

            Frank is an Irish film, directed by an Irish director (Lenny Abrahamson) and largely filmed in Ireland, but the movie, unlike a picture such as Calvary, doesn’t advertise its Irishness.  Frank, Don, and Clara are presumably Yanks (Frank and Don, definitely so), Jon is British, and Baraque is French (possibly Anna as well, although she could be British or even American), so there are no true Irish characters.  The Irish setting is a rural house, which could be located anywhere, and the last third of the film takes place in the USA (Texas and Kansas).  This isn’t a criticism: Calvary is about Ireland and the Irish people, while Frank is not. 

            The performances in Frank are all quite fine.  Michael Fassbender only gets about 10 minutes of actual face-time, but he’s still very affecting as Frank throughout (sounding a bit like Bill Murray at times, excellent American accent).  Domhnall Gleeson, despite occasionally (and unfortunately) slightly resembling Andy Dick (facially), is likeable as Jon, who serves as the audience’s surrogate, observing and commenting on Frank and his weird mob.  Maggie Gyllenhaal and Scoot McNairy do fine work, and although François Civil and Carla Azar have less to do, they also contribute meaningfully to the picture.  Production values are fine.  The direction and script are spot-on, with no significant slow spots. 

            Frank is very funny (sometimes blackly so) for the first hour or so—alternating absurdist, situational, verbal, and physical humour—then turns more serious (with plenty of humour still present—the film doesn’t get grim, no fear) in the final section.  It’s well crafted and really very good. Recommended. 

            [Note: I also saw The November Man.  It was…alright, but it contains almost nothing I feel like writing about.  So I didn’t!]

"If you want romance you’ll be dainty and helpless!" (Love Confessions 50, 1956). Ah, Minnesota, abode of athletic & amorous Amazons, apparently.

"If you want romance you’ll be dainty and helpless!" (Love Confessions 50, 1956). Ah, Minnesota, abode of athletic & amorous Amazons, apparently.

"Grow a moustache—Be a MAN!"  Stroud’s Moustache Forcer! (The Magnet February 1923).  ”You cannot expect to improve your job with a boy’s face.”  Truer words have never been spoken. 

"Grow a moustache—Be a MAN!"  Stroud’s Moustache Forcer! (The Magnet February 1923).  ”You cannot expect to improve your job with a boy’s face.”  Truer words have never been spoken. 

“I might meet a man who likes tall girls!”  (Confessions of Love 14, 1953).  Two of the most intelligent, beautiful young women I’ve ever known (and had mad crushes on) were tall.  I’m just sayin’…

“I might meet a man who likes tall girls!”  (Confessions of Love 14, 1953).  Two of the most intelligent, beautiful young women I’ve ever known (and had mad crushes on) were tall.  I’m just sayin’…

"Just looking at him seems to make my face burn! What does it mean?"  Um, that he’s…radioactive? [Secret Loves 3, 1950] 

"Just looking at him seems to make my face burn! What does it mean?"  Um, that he’s…radioactive? [Secret Loves 3, 1950] 

The Congress (2013) review

I knew only a bit of the premise of this film before seeing it (having avoided detailed synopses and reviews), and wasn’t sure what to expect.  Admittedly, I was aware of Ari Folman’s work—specifically Waltz with Bashir—so I didn’t think The Congress would be a wacky live action/animation farce a la Monkeybone, Cool World, or Who Framed Roger Rabbit?  And I was right!  What The Congress is, however, is…um…I’m…not sure. 

            [The Congress is not a new film, having been released in Europe in 2013, but it recently got “limited” theatrical exposure in the USA and some other countries (it’s also available on VOD).]

            The first 45 (live action) minutes  of The Congress would have been a pretty good set-up for a serious drama about identity, self-image, new media, and so on.  Forty-ish (well, 44 years of age) actress Robin Wright (sort of playing herself, with references to The Princess Bride and Forrest Gump, and two children—as in real life—but no Sean Penn) and her agent Al (Harvey Keitel, excellent here) are approached by Miramount Pictures with an offer they can’t refuse: Robin will be digitised and Miramount will use her image in their films, while Robin retires. The actress is initially opposed to giving up her career (even though it’s been trending downward for some time) but eventually agrees, largely because her young son Aaron has a “condition” (not fully explained, but which will eventually result in the loss of hearing and sight) and she wants to spend more time with him.

            But Robin’s adjustment to retirement, the manner in which she copes with the inability to express herself artistically (the contract forbids her to perform in any manner), and the ramifications of the use of such “virtual performers” in motion pictures are not dealt with at all in The Congress.  These potential themes are just jettisoned, because as soon as the contract is signed and Robin is computer-scanned, the film jumps 20 years into the future and changes direction (and form) entirely.  Robin has been invited to “The Congress” (the film is based on a novel by Stanislaw Lem titled “The Futurological Congress”—I’d have advised them to call the film something that didn’t remind people of politics, maybe The Contract or something) at which Miramount will announce a break-through in “entertainment.”  People will now be able to drink a chemical that allows them to essentially become anyone or anything (or at least, to imagine it, in the Chemical World).  

            This middle section of The Congress is animated in a combination of faux­-1930s elastic-surrealistic-Fleischer-style, 1960s hippie imagery, and “realistic” representation.  It’s pretty interesting to look at, although the “plot” is almost literally incomprehensible.  There’s a “revolt” against Miramount (now “Miramount-Nagasaki”); Robin meets Dylan (voiced by Jon Hamm), who animated her “virtual” acting career for 20 years  (researching her “obsessively” and, as expected, falling in love with her); she’s frozen in liquid nitrogen for a couple of decades before emerging into a new, decorative, imaginative, pleasant world.  But it’s Chemical World, not reality, and Robin decides to go back into real life to find her now-grown son Aaron…

            Actually, there are a few clever but peripheral references to new media.  In the opening section of The Congress, Robin’s lawyer inserts a clause prohibiting her virtual-self from being cast in certain roles or genres (Nazi movies, sex films, etc.), including “science fiction,” which Robin and agent Al denigrate as populist trash.  Miramount executive Jeff Green (Danny Huston, very good in the role) convinces them to remove the no sci-fi clause, and we later learn “Robin” has been cast in an extended series of action/science fiction movies, culminating with RRR: Robot Rebel Robin (“Now playing—in the sky!”).

            The ability to chemically become anyone you wish results in a large number of celebrity cameos in the Congress/Chemical World sequences, including  but not limited to: John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Frank Sinatra, Robin Wright (multiples of her action-persona), Michael Jackson, Ron Jeremy, Magritte’s “The Son of Man” (aka Man with Green Apple Face), Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra, Egyptian god Horus, Jesus, Buddha, Elvis, Osama Bin Laden, Frida Kahlo, Marilyn Monroe, Will Rogers, Che Guevara, Yoko Ono, the Mad Hatter, Queen Elizabeth, Grace Jones, etc.  However, when Robin is revived from her liquid nitrogen bath, she and Dylan use the chemicals to physically morph (their arms changing into wings) while still retaining their personalities and (for the most part) their faces and bodies.

            Of course, and this is (sort of) pointed out in the final section of The Congress when it returns to live-action, the Chemical World isn’t an actual world, and people using the drug don’t actually exist in cartoon form, they merely think they do.  However, one of the frustrating things about The Congress is that the Chemical World—which consumes the majority of the film’s running time—is portrayed as “real” and no explanation is given as to what is happening to people in the physical world while they’re tripping their minds off.  Who feeds them?  Do they ever get sick and die?  At the beginning of the Congress section, live-action Robin drives up in her car, then takes the drug that “converts” her into a cartoon.  What happens to her actual body (and car)?  Or are your movements and actions in the Chemical World reflected in the real world?  Which would be weird, because live-action people would then be running around and screaming for no discernable reason…

          When Robin returns to the physical world at the end of The Congress, she discovers it’s a dystopia where filthy plebes sleepwalk on the Earth’s surface and military-uniformed overseers float above them in Zeppelins.  So, the ruling class is encouraging the (literally) unwashed masses to hallucinate their lives away in the Chemical World?  OK, but seriously, why?  The reasoning and (especially) logistics of the whole concept are fuzzy.

            The script never really tidies this up (that I could figure out).  It’s not a deal-breaker, but it adds to my sense that the last two-thirds of The Congress are some sort of hippie, trippy, arty allegory that you’re supposed to experience, admire and enjoy without understanding.  I refuse to read anything that explains the “meaning” of the film—either I’m too dense to get it or the film is too abtruse.  Or both.

            Technically, The Congress is very accomplished, although there has been some criticism of Folman’s eclectic animation style (I might have preferred a more consistent, realistic design but the wide range on display here didn’t bother me).  The production values are polished and the overall mise-en-scene (actually, multiple mises-en-scene, if that’s even a thing) is fascinating.   Slightly overlong (just a tad over 2 hours), the film is consistently interesting if, as noted above, rather inscrutable at times.  The acting is also top-notch, particularly Wright, Keitel, and Huston.  I can’t say I was wholly enamoured of the sentimental Aaron sub-plot in the opening section—he’s precocious but flawed, but comes off at times as plain weird—but Robin’s concern for her children (especially Aaron, since his older sister Sarah is independent and self-assured) is believable and more or less justifies the final twists and turns of the plot.

            The Congress, unfortunate title aside, is worth watching.  Which just proves I don’t have to understand something to like it.  But then again, based on my relationships with women, I already knew that.  *rimshot* 

"I’ve been waiting all my life for a girl like you—only different!"  So…not like her at all, really? (Revealing Romances 6, 1950).

"I’ve been waiting all my life for a girl like you—only different!"  So…not like her at all, really? (Revealing Romances 6, 1950).

"Betty is not going to grind anyone’s valves!” Oh Aunt Adele, you’re such a prude! (Sweethearts 34, 1956).  Betty gets a makeover, stops being a tomboy who works on cars, and finds true love!

"Betty is not going to grind anyone’s valves!” Oh Aunt Adele, you’re such a prude! (Sweethearts 34, 1956).  Betty gets a makeover, stops being a tomboy who works on cars, and finds true love!

"No chance for kisses!" (Wedding Bells 9, 1955). “And the worst part was that her father insisted on wearing that maid’s costume and wig every time I came over! It was creepy!”

"No chance for kisses!" (Wedding Bells 9, 1955). “And the worst part was that her father insisted on wearing that maid’s costume and wig every time I came over! It was creepy!”

Women beware! Never introduce yourself to a man.  It “wouldn’t be proper!” “People would talk!” and “He might get the wrong impression of you!”  Yes, just wait for “fate” to “bring about an introduction” to that man you love (even though you’ve never met him).  Wedding Bells 9 (1955) and Love Letters 31 (1953).  

The Expendables 3 (2014) review

  “The Expendables” series is a guilty pleasure that I don’t feel too guilty about. These films don’t give me quite the adrenaline rush I get from martial-arts movies, but I do love me some shootin’ and ‘splosions.  I also like homages and meta-humour, and “The Expendables” movies deliver those things as well—never completely breaking the fourth wall, just denting it a little.

            The Expendables 3 slips a bit  (but not too much) from its predecessors, unsurprisingly.  It is, after all, the third film in the series and much of the novelty has worn off.  It’s also rated PG-13, which seems to bother some people more than it does me—even though I don’t like the downgrade from an R-rating on general libertarian principles—but there is still an incredibly high body count on display, it’s just that nobody bleeds visibly when they’re shot or stabbed or blown up.  Nice, sanitised violence, that’s the ticket. 

            Additionally, the film is too long (over 2 hours), almost entirely due to the inclusion of a “Expendables Jr.” sub-plot.  Barney Ross (Stallone) doesn’t want his old pals to get hurt, so he fires them and goes searching for young people he doesn’t care about.  Cannon fodder, in other words.  One aborted mission later, and they’re all captured by the bad guys and have to be rescued.  So much for that plan, Barney.  This idea isn’t horribly annoying (although the new generation Expendables are pretty insufferable characters) but it consumes a huge amount of footage in the middle of the picture and deviates from one of the main attractions of the series—the presence of veteran action-movie stars, recreating iconic roles.  Nobody wants to see a film starring Kellan Lutz (I think The Legend of Hercules proved that) and Ronda Rousey, trust me. 

            Still, The Expendables 3 is still a hoot and a half for those of us who are old enough to remember the golden age of action-film stars (the Eighties).  The production values are fine (face it, we now have to accept CGI explosions and muzzle-bursts and so forth, nobody does practical effects on this scale any more).  The film was shot in Bulgaria (although set in Fake-Name-istan) and the final action sequence (which consumes almost a third of the running time, amazingly enough) takes place in what appears to be a deserted, derelict hotel-casino complex (with no explanation as to why it looks like it’s been through a war even before the Expendables get there—in fact, in some shots fires are still burning in the rubble, for whatever odd reason).  This place looks great and provides a more than satisfactory playground for the opposing forces.  The two previous action set-pieces are set in an unnamed African nation and Somalia, respectively, but this is merely a matter of throwing up some words on a screen, there’s no particular local colour involved.

            The geo-political allusions in The Expendables 3 are deliberately vague and confusing, but mildly interesting.  Barney Ross and the Expendables are free-lance mercenaries (but good mercenaries), in this instance employed by the CIA (represented by Harrison Ford) to capture ex-Expendable-turned-arms-dealer Stonebanks (Mel Gibson).  They’re ordered to deliver him to the World Court in the Hague to stand trial for war crimes; the final confrontation has Stonebanks using the army of Fake-Name-istan as his personal bodyguards against the Expendables, which doesn’t say much for that (nonexistent) nation’s integrity.  There’s also a scene in which Stonebanks negotiates with a sort-of Muslim terrorist about weapons, and the film opens with a sequence in which the Expendables rescue Doc (Wesley Snipes) from an African prison where he’s been locked up for attempting to assassinate a dictator, so the film tries to make it clear that the Expendables only kill evil people (oh, and their employees, who might not be evil—they might be legitimate members of their nation’s military, trying to defend their country—but we don’t know them so the hell with them).

            Aside from the action sequences, which are competently shot and edited, the chief source of entertainment in The Expendables 3 comes from the cast, the characters they play, and the dialogue they’re given.  It might be cruel to say this, but Stallone’s an actor in a movie and his physical appearance is relevant: he foregoes the moustache and goatee he sported in the first two entries, which is a mistake—his battered and aging face is, frankly, distracting.  Still, he’s fine in his role.  While we’re on the subject of appearance, a scruffy Arnold Schwarznegger looks like a homeless guy, but seems to be having fun (and gets not one but two dialogue shout-outs to his famous “Get to da choppa” line).  Mel Gibson makes a satisfying villain: he’s smooth and smiling on the surface, but quickly turns petulant and dangerous when things go against him (I’d have liked to see him do the role wearing a beaver-puppet on one hand, but I guess that would’ve been too meta).  Wesley Snipes, a new addition to the roster, gets a substantial amount of screen time, as does another new face, Antonio Banderas, and both are moderately amusing.  Harrison “Grandpa” Ford has a more substantial role than I expected, and Kelsey Grammer is entertaining and congenial in his part (confined to the middle, “new generation” section).  The other old Expendables—Jason Statham, Dolph Lundgren, Randy Couture, Terry Crews, Jet Li—are fine.

            The Junior Expendables are mostly bland and predictable.  Ronda Rousey is the hot woman who kicks ass, Kellan Lutz the motorcycle-riding rebel, Glen Powell the skinny computer nerd, Victor Ortiz the “weapons expert.”  Rousey and Lutz get the most attention, but none of these people are that interesting (alright, Rousey does at least break up the all-male membership—and then has to endure a certain amount of sexual harassment and exploitation).

            Overall, The Expendables 3 should satisfy people (like me) who enjoyed the first two films.  It’s a big, dumb action film that knows it’s a big, dumb action film and isn’t ashamed of it.            

          Now we can sit back and start making our lists of people who should be in The Expendables 4.  Steven Seagal, Kurt Russell, Pierce Brosnan, Adam West, Lorenzo Lamas, Sean Connery, Christopher Lambert, Richard Roundtree, Clint Eastwood….           

Alternative “Guardians of the Galaxy” #2: Gamora-Gamera.

Alternative “Guardians of the Galaxy” #2: Gamora-Gamera.

Alternative “Guardians of the Galaxy.” 

Alternative “Guardians of the Galaxy.” 

"Honey, not that dress! It makes you look sort of…tough!” (Thrilling Romances 18, 1952). “Wait, did I say tough?  I’m sorry, I meant…it makes you look like a slut!”

"Honey, not that dress! It makes you look sort of…tough!” (Thrilling Romances 18, 1952). “Wait, did I say tough?  I’m sorry, I meant…it makes you look like a slut!”

"This is what I’ve always wanted! To look glamourous and be the center of attraction!"  And to wear a crown while other women wear dunce caps. (Love Letters 37, 1954). 

"This is what I’ve always wanted! To look glamourous and be the center of attraction!"  And to wear a crown while other women wear dunce caps. (Love Letters 37, 1954).