Thursday, December 4, 2014

Short Round: Foxcatcher (2014) **/*****

After directing Capote and Moneyball, Bennett Miller has become fairly renowned for being a go-to guy when it comes to biopics. So you’d think that him tackling the life of John du Pont—who was an heir to a fortune, weirdly obsessed with amateur wrestling, and who suffered from issues with self esteem and mental illness that eventually led to him committing a murder and being incarcerated—would make for a pretty amazing movie. Unfortunately, this time around, it doesn’t. Miller isn’t a director who I’ve found to be too on the nose in the way he tells stories before, but for some reason his hand gets fairly heavy here (through extraneous use of flashbacks, camera work that over emphasizes what we’re supposed to be feeling about a scene, etc…), and the result is a movie that contains individual scenes that are good on their own, but that doesn’t work as a whole.

Probably the thing about Foxcatcher that’s earning it the most attention is its performances, which makes sense, because Steve Carell is really going out on a limb as du Pont, and Mark Ruffalo and Channing Tatum are burning an equal amount of calories playing David and Mark Schultz, a pair of Olympic gold medal earning brothers who get sucked into du Pont’s bubble of influence thanks to his obsession with wrestling, and eventually suffer negative consequences because of it. Each performer doesn’t work to the same result, however. Ruffalo is absolutely amazing here, disappearing so completely into the older brother David that you never once catch him performing. Tatum and Carrell are a different story. Tatum is so forcefully playing the younger brother Mark as a hulking, confused, lump of focus and simplicity, that to behold him on screen is like laying eyes on a cave man. But at times he goes a bit far and it feels like he’s doing a caveman impression—and poor Carrell fairs even worse. He’s really making a go of it as du Pont, but they’ve got him buried in so many stupid looking prosthetics and have dressed him in so many silly outfits that it’s never not clear that you’re watching Steve Carell play-acting a wacky character.

The main problem with Foxcatcher is that it’s boring though. Slow burns can be effective, especially when they’re building up to as big a moment as this film is, but this one goes beyond being a slow burn. This movie is barely ever smoldering. It’s so much longer than it needs to be, it spends too much time on scenes that don’t actively drive the narrative forward, and it asks us to be far too interested in the day to day existences of characters who exist as little more than blank slates with one critical personality flaw. There’s no life, no humor, no anything in this script other than a slight awkward tension in the interactions between the principals that’s just barely able to keep you from turning it off. Foxcatcher is a story that may have been worth 100 or so minutes of screen time, but at 134 minutes it gets sunk by its own weight.

Short Round: The Babadook (2014) ***/*****

For a first time writer/director of a feature, Jennifer Kent did an amazing job making The Babadook. Seeing as the film doesn’t seem to be getting praised as a strong effort from a first time director though, I fear that it could generate something of a backlash. Currently there are a number of respected voices praising the movie as being an instant classic and an immediate member of the horror canon, and it seems to me that such a large amount of hype could cause audiences to come out of it feeling disappointed when they eventually get a chance to see it (currently it’s not playing on too many screens, but is available on VOD if you know to search for it). I guess what I’m saying is that the best way to watch The Babadook would be to go into it expecting to see a typical, overdone haunted house movie, and then come out of it pleasantly surprised that it’s actually got a couple of assets that help to raise it a step above the rabble.

The main thing that the film has going for it is the lead performance of Essie Davis, who’s playing a single mother whose house is plagued with supernatural happenings after she reads her son a children’s book about an insidious figure named Mr. Babadook that seems to invite demonic energy into their lives. Her character goes from sad, to terrified, to manic, to menacing over the course of the film, and she’s able to sell absolutely everything that’s asked of her. Perhaps more impressively though, even though she’s put through a traumatic amount of stressful and annoying situations, she’s able to make you identify and sympathize so much with her character that you never want the camera to cut away from her, no matter how much her ordeal is making you squirm in your seat. The other main character, her son, isn’t realized quite as well. He’s played by newcomer Noah Wiseman, a youngster who the script simply asks too much of. He has scenes where he needs to go big and broad and sell rage, panic, and screaming insanity to the audience, and it’s just more than he can muster—and perhaps more than any actor his age could muster. The scenes where he’s freaking out are supposed to have real weight to them, but when you watch them you can’t help but feel like you’re just watching a little kid being silly.

That they go so far with the kid losing control is part of the other big reason this movie is better than your typical evil spirit movie, however. The horror of this film comes not only from the usual malevolent presence, but also from the crushing responsibilities of being a parent. The typical trials and tribulations of parenthood, and how they’re able to sometimes make even the best parents resent their children, get amplified so thoroughly here that the stress they cause skyrockets off the charts, to the point where you begin to believe that the misbehaving/uncompromising child could have been the only antagonist in the film, and it still would have been just as scary. The way that being haunted by an evil spirit would interrupt your life gets woven in with the way that having a child does interrupt your life, and presenting the two situations next to each other provides the film with quite a bit of meaty thematics for the audience to chew on—which is a pretty unusual thing to say about a movie in this genre, and is probably the big reason that it’s earning so much praise.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Interstellar (2014) ****/*****

After all of the profits he generated by making the Dark Knight movies and Inception, filmmaker Christopher Nolan basically had carte blanche to spend as much money as he wanted making whatever movie he wanted the next time around. Similarly, after all the universally praised work that he’s been doing over the course of the last few years, Matthew McConaughey has become essentially free to star in whatever projects he chooses. Given all of that rarified power, what both men chose to do is to work with each other on Interstellar, a science fiction movie about a dying Earth, the ties that bind us together as a species, and a last-ditch gambit to find a way to keep our species—and, by proxy, that connection—alive.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that Interstellar is an event movie—large in hype, scale, visual splendor, and storytelling ambition. This isn’t just a story about how humanity deals with a crisis, though it is that. It isn’t just a story about a regular man who gets called on to do an extraordinary thing, though it’s that as well. It’s a big screen adventure. It’s a meditation on the relationships between fathers and daughters. It’s that sort of genre-heavy “hard sci-fi” story that’s more concerned with exploring future possibilities and imaginative ideas than it is in being pure escapism—all while still being pure escapism. When you factor in all of the things that Interstellar is trying to do in one movie, it becomes clear that it really is an attempt at creating one of those sweeping, mythic pieces of art that’s looking to provide answers to all of the big questions of life, the universe, and everything. And, sure, maybe it isn’t quite able to pull all of those lofty goals off, but it is still refreshing to see a mainstream release that’s got the chutzpah to try.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Short Round: Laggies (2014) ***/*****

The film industry creates no shortage of indie movies about characters who are old enough to be adults, but who nonetheless live in a state of depressed, arrested development. That doesn’t mean that these movies can’t still be good if they find a unique voice or are made especially well though. Lynn Shelton is the kind of director who likes to make loosely-scripted, improv-heavy, small-scale, realist movies, so they too need to bring a little something extra to the table in order to be good. Her Your Sister’s Sister cast found an amazing chemistry and created an amazing movie together as a result, while her more recent film, Touchy Feely, came off as more of an unfocused mess. Laggies, which is both a lost young adult movie as well as a Lynn Shelton movie, is a solid-though-unspectacular effort that puts it not only right in the middle of the pack of slacker movies, but also somewhere right in between the spontaneous joy of Your Sister’s Sister and the frustrating faults of Touchy Feely. What that means to you will probably depend on how strongly you respond to the genre and the creator.

Laggies is about a girl who’s probably somewhere in her late 20s, named Megan (Keira Knightley). After a decade or so of hanging out with the same group of friends she’s had since high school, Megan comes to realize that everyone she knows has turned into married, careered, dead-eyed yuppies, while she still feels that exploratory spark of youth and has yet to figure out what she wants her life to be. One proposal from her painfully earnest-though-lame longtime boyfriend (Mark Webber) later and Megan reaches a crisis point. Is she really ready to lock in to this kind of traditional existence? Retreating, our would-be hero ends up skipping out on her responsibilities and loved ones and holing up in the bedroom of a random high school girl (Chloë Grace Moretz) who she meets outside of a liquor store. As if this wasn’t intrigue enough, even more conflict creeps into the picture when, after running away from her own problems, Megan then finds herself deeply involved in the troubles of not only this young girl, but also the frazzled-though-charismatic single father (Sam Rockwell) who’s been raising her.

Overall, Laggies is good but not great, though if there is one aspect of the film that elevates it above mediocrity and makes it worth seeking out, it’s the lead performance given by Knightley. She’s an actress who I’ve been hot and cold on in the past, but after what she accomplished here, I feel as though I’ve reached the point where I’m sold on her as a leading lady completely. Not only is she great at playing open-wound vulnerability (a refreshing change from all the repressed period picture performances of her early career) while letting every nuance of emotion that her character feels play over her naturally emotive face, but she’s also able to impress with the chemistry she’s able to conjure with her co-stars, which is just off the charts. Whether she’s lending an ear to Moretz’s confused kid or trading quips with Rockwell’s lonely adult, you absolutely believe in the onscreen relationships as they’re developed; which is essential to a movie like this whose premise is so inherently ludicrous. A movie about an adult hiding out in a teenager’s bedroom probably should have been a train wreck, but in the hands of the people involved here, it’s more like a train ride—maybe not the most exciting way to spend an afternoon, but it certainly has its charms.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Short Round: Big Hero 6 (2014) ***/*****

Disney Animation’s recent delving into video game-themed adventure, Wreck-It Ralph, proved that they’re a studio who could step outside of their princess roots and make animated movies that appeal to both boys and girls alike. And Marvel, the super hero factory who they teamed up with to make this movie, Big Hero 6, are the last people who need to have their credentials once again listed. In theory, Big Hero 6 looked like it represented the perfect marriage of content and creators—a surefire home run if there ever was one. In practice, however, it doesn’t quite manage to get there. If we’re going to stick with baseball metaphors, we’ll call it a solid double.

Big Hero 6 is a loosely adapted big screen version of an original Marvel comic that told the tale of the forming of a team of Japanese superheroes. This being mainstream Hollywood moviemaking though, we’re not getting the stories of Japanese-speaking people this time around. Instead, the film has created the city of San Fransokyo as it’s setting—an immersive metropolis that mixes San Francisco with Asian iconography and then pumps itself full of visual steroids. The story told is that of a troubled young genius named Hiro (Ryan Potter) and his loyal and lovable robot Baymax (Scott Adsit), who outfit a team of science-obsessed grad students with high tech weaponry in an effort to solve the mystery around and avenge the death of Hiro’s older brother, Tadashi (Daniel Henney), and inadvertently create the world’s newest team of superheroes in the process.

Big Hero 6 is a solid film, the kind that is likely to be enjoyed quite a bit by children, but, in the grand scheme of things, it just doesn’t bring anything to the table that would allow it to stand out from the rest of the animated pack. It’s frequently amusing, but never legitimately funny. It’s packed full of action, but it’s never legitimately thrilling. And, most of all, the things that it does manage to do well are things that too closely resemble aspects of other movies that already did them better. The Iron Giant did the boy and his robot story better. The Incredibles did animated superhero adventure better. Things like Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs or ParaNorman told the story of the sensitive and intellectual outsider better. Big Hero 6 never makes any major missteps, but in a world that’s so inundated with great animated family films as well as great superhero adventure movies, it needed to find a more unique angle to attack these storytelling forms from in order to not feel like such an also-ran. Baymax is cuddly and cute, but not enough to support an entire feature.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Nightcrawler (2014) ****/*****

Dan Gilroy has been working as a screenwriter for a while, long enough to have started his career by penning the script for Freejack, that ridiculous movie about time travel and body swapping that Emilio Estevez and Mick Jagger starred in back in 1992. Even given his lengthy career, he’s still never really done anything that hinted at the idea he had the ability necessary to become a true voice in filmmaking though, or even a successful director (some of his other works include the abysmal Reel Steel and that Bourne sequel that got rid of Matt Damon and introduced us to Chems). Still, ignorant as we may have been to his talent, it turns out it does exist, because he’s now written and directed Nightcrawler, which is such a strong movie that it almost seems impossible that it was made by a first-time filmmaker.

Nightcrawler stars Jake Gyllenhaal as Louis Bloom, a sort-of lost soul who nonetheless has lofty aspirations to improve his station in the world. When we meet him he’s a petty thief, stealing scrap metal and selling it for a few dollars here and there, but after he happens upon a highway accident and is introduced to a freelance news photographer named Joe Loder (Bill Paxton) he’s suddenly struck with the inspiration to begin a new career. These freelance photographers refer to themselves as nightcrawlers, and the general idea of what they do is that they’re the ambulance-chasing version of a news reporter—they listen to a police scanner and wait for a violent crime or gruesome accident to happen, show up on the scene, shoot as much footage as they’re able to get, and then they try to sell it to a local TV station’s news department. It’s a scummy job that could only really be done by people who don’t mind being annoyances and who don’t mind exploiting the suffering of others, and thanks to the pile of social quirks Louis very clearly has, it winds up being a job that he’s very good at.

Monday, October 27, 2014

John Wick (2014) ****/*****

Good action movies, the kind that make you wince in pain one second and then pump your fist with excitement the next, were so prevalent when I was growing up in the 80s and are so rare now that whenever one comes along it feels like you’ve stumbled onto some kind of priceless artifact, or like you’re indulging in some sort of outdated thrill that’s long since been made illegal. The only differences between action movies then and action movies now though is a willingness on the part of studios to embrace an R-rating and a willingness on the part of experienced directors who know how to construct an action scene to work in the genre. Too often now the action film, which should be aimed toward a niche audience, is instead aimed at a wide one, and the results are homogenized and bland movies. And too often the genre is used as a proving ground for new filmmakers who have just come off of making music videos or web shorts, and the results are movies that are messy and hard to follow, thanks to the people in charge learning while on the job and having to take editing shortcuts to simulate spectacles that were beyond their capabilities of actually creating. 

John Wick, a new action-heavy revenge film that stars Keanu Reeves as a former assassin who goes on a rampage after a group of young mafioso punks steal his car and kill his dog, is one of those rare modern movies that does action right. It’s exciting, it’s brutal, it’s gritty, and it knows how to construct action scenes that are both thrilling to look at and also easy to appreciate. Maybe that’s because its first-time directors, David Leitch and Chad Stahelski, both have lengthy lists of credits working as Hollywood stuntmen. Could it be possible that these guys got sick of punishing their bodies to create action scenes that were ultimately ruined thanks to the close-in camerawork and quick-editing of filmmakers who weren’t savvy enough to exploit their efforts, so they decided to take matters into their own hands and make their own movie where the craftsmanship of the stuntmen and fight choreographers could be featured front and center? Whatever their motivations, Leitch and Stahelski have made a movie that at least feels like it was put together by frustrated action junkies with something to prove.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Two Days, One Night (2014) ****/*****

Belgian filmmaking brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (La Promesse, The Kid With a Bike) are known for making movies that are grounded in reality, gritty, and steeped in basic human drama in all of the best ways. They tell simple stories that shine a spotlight on the inherent struggles that exist in the lives of normal, usually lower class people. Their films manage to resonate while still defying the expectations of how “cinematic” a story needs to be in order to make for a good movie. It should be said though that their work is often slow to build to a climax, once that climax happens it’s generally a personal one that affects only the protagonist and not the greater world around them, and the places their films take you can often leave you feeling a little down. If you’re the sort of person who can get on the Dardenne wavelength, then their movies are always easy to appreciate—and Two Days, One Night is no exception there—but they’re certainly not for everyone. So beware my praise.

Two Days, One Night focuses on a very important weekend in the life of a blue collar mother of two named Sandra (Marion Cotillard), who’s recently had some troubles at work thanks to a bout of depression leading to her having to take a leave of absence. Turns out the forced time off was just the beginning of her professional troubles though, as her boss has recently made the decree that the company she works for can’t afford to both give everyone bonuses and also keep on 17 employees, so if everybody wants to get a bump in pay, somebody’s going to have to get fired, and it’s Sandra’s head on the chopping block—a true problem, because she and her husband depend on her salary in order to pay their rent and feed their kids. When we meet Sandra it’s at the beginning of a weekend where she’s informed that there will be a vote on Monday to decide her fate—bonuses for everyone else or she keeps her job, everyone in the company gets a say, and she only has the weekend to visit each one and convince them to make a personal sacrifice for her well-being. It would be a daunting and awkward task even for someone who wasn’t prone to depression.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Short Round: Gone Girl (2014) ***/*****

Over the years David Fincher (Se7en, Fight Club, The Social Network) has built up such a reputation as a master director that his name on the marquee is pretty much the only thing a movie needs to sell itself. Gone Girl has more going for it than that though. It’s also got a best-selling Gillian Flynn novel as its source material, and it’s got an intriguing ad campaign that introduces us to a couple played by Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike, has Pike’s character mysteriously disappear, and then puts Affleck’s through the wringer as the news media turns him into the primary suspect. What happened to this man’s wife? Is he truly the good person that he projects himself as being when in the public eye, or does the handful of dark secrets he keeps behind closed doors point to the fact that he might have done something sinister? It’s a good mystery, but it only makes for about half of the story.

The problem with writing about a movie like Gone Girl is that it goes in so many unexpected places and it relies so heavily on its surprises to be a satisfying moviegoing experience that you can’t really talk about much of anything without ruining said experience. To even say anything about Pike’s performance would give away too much about her character’s fate, which is the uncertainty that everything gets built around. What should be said though is that the second half of the film, which is where all the twists start taking place, is completely different in tone than the first half, which is the material used in the advertising. Gone is a grounded story about the fate of real people and suddenly in its place is soap opera melodrama involving characters who behave far too insanely for you to maintain any real attachment to. Gone Girl’s true intentions are eventually revealed to be to stun the audience with ridiculous twists, and then to needle them with matters of gender politics that are sure to fan the flames of a good number of post-movie arguments. How one responds to all of the pulpy weirdness will likely come down to the individual and how engaged they found themselves with that first half of the film that proves to be a fake-out.

Fincher’s established aesthetic and that master craftsman’s touch that he brings to everything he makes are both on full display here, he’s gotten strong performances out of all the featured members of his cast, and he’s commissioned Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor to compose another moody score that increases the tension of everything that’s happening on the screen, but when I walked away from having seen Gone Girl, I left not astounded by the work of all of these talented artists, but instead wondering what it was about this silly story that was able to draw them all together in the first place. Taking the ride that is Gone Girl is engaging in the moment, but afterward I couldn’t help but feel like all of the dour gravity of the first act and the pedigrees of the artists involved had tricked me into watching something trashy and dumb—like if I went to a fancy restaurant and the Chef’s Special turned out to be Frito pie. I’ll eat the junk food, sure, but next time I’d appreciate a little more transparency in the menu. Expectation can be everything when it comes to how you respond to a film.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The Skeleton Twins (2014) ***/*****

We’ve been asking the question of whether or not actors known for comedic work should be able to make the jump to doing more dramatic work probably as long as there have been actors acting, so it’s likely that it’s time for us to finally retire that old debate. One of the most important aspects of being an effective comedic actor is being able to play silly things straight, and one of the elements necessary to being funny in the first place is compensation for a lifetime full of pain, so of course comedic actors are generally able to transition over to dramatic roles easily. As a matter of fact, this movie, The Skeleton Twins, seems to exist solely because of its director Craig Johnson’s confidence that Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader are so good at keeping straight faces during sad clown routines, that of course they would be perfect for playing damaged, suicidal characters.

Which is basically what The Skeleton Twins is, a movie about trauma and suicide. Wiig and Hader are playing a pair of twins here, who were all but inseparable when they were growing up, but who now haven’t spoken in 10 years. That all changes when Hader’s character tries to commit suicide and Wiig’s gets a call that she has to come take care of him though. One offer for him to move from Los Angeles to her New York home later, and suddenly secrets start to come out, past traumas begins to bubble to the surface, and a whole heaping pile of open wound humanity gets puts on display. Will these twins figure out how to get their shit together so that they can go forward as healthy adults, or will the pains of their childhood consume them and ultimately put one or both of them into an early grave? I’m not going to tell you the answer to that. You have to watch the movie to find out.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Short Round: The Drop (2014) ****/*****

The Drop, which is the latest film from Bullhead director Michaël R. Roskam, works on several levels. On its surface it’s most obviously a street-level crime drama, and it tells a tale with enough twists and turns and rampant corruption to be effective as that, but it also manages to get deep enough into the personal lives and motivations of its players to work as a sort of working class character study too; plus it puts enough focus on the dramatization of the adopting of a puppy by a sad sack bartender to be a fairly effective boy-and-his-dog story as well. Mostly though, what it really succeeds at is being a showcase for a handful of really talented actors to put on a handful of really strong performances.

The film stars James Gandolfini and Tom Hardy as the manager and bartender of a local watering hole that’s owned by a ruthless gangster who uses it as a way of collecting and moving money that he acquires through various illegal gambling ventures. Gandolfini and Hardy’s characters are basically given the tasks of keeping up the bars’ legitimate appearance, protecting the money in their care, and keeping their mouths shut about everything that’s going down. What seems to be a regular routine for them gets interrupted after a late night robbery raises questions about everyone’s loyalty, however. Does the crime have anything to do with Gandolfini’s resentment over being usurped as the local tough guy by the foreign invaders who are now his bosses? Maybe it somehow involves the local hood who keeps claiming that the dog Hardy recently adopted is his own? Whatever the case may be, it’s clear that the status quo has been interrupted, and before the end credits roll, somebody is going to have to die.

Gandolfini and Hardy get the bulk of the focus here, and they prove to be really effective in their roles, both when paired together and when paired with supporting players. Gandolfini is basically using what brought him to the table—that undercurrent of aggression that’s clearly stemming from a place of insecurity thing that he used so often as Tony Soprano—so it should come as no surprise that he appears completely comfortable in his role. Hardy is showing a bit more vulnerability than we’ve seen from him before though, and he’s still really authentic, even when working out of his comfort zone. His bartender character wilts like a flower in the face of violence, he looks at the ground and shuffles his feet in the face of social interaction, often muttering to himself afterward; but, through it all, Hardy is able to keep enough of a resolve burning in his eyes that you never write him off as a cowardly or unrelatable protagonist. It’s akin to those early scenes in Rocky, where we watch Sylvester Stallone interacting with his lower-class neighborhood and working as a low-level thug, but stretched out for an entire movie, and it’s pretty dang entertaining. Throw in Noomi Rapace resonating as a live-wire abuse victim and Matthias Schoenaerts intimidating as a Randy Savage-esque street tough who seems like he could explode into violence at any minute, and The Drop is a movie that’s well worth checking out just based on its acting alone.

The Guest (2014) *****/*****

The last time writer Simon Barrett and director Adam Wingard teamed up for a feature, the results were 2011’s You’re Next, a film that earned quite a lot of buzz in film critic circles thanks to its style, humor, and the way it was able to add several intelligent spins on the usual home invasion movie formula. You’re Next was a lot of fun. As good as it was, it still didn’t manage to hint at the true potential these two had as a filmmaking team though—potential that has now been revealed and realized thanks to their latest stab at the thriller genre, The Guest, which takes the style, fun, and intelligence of their work on You’re Next, pumps them full of horse steroids, and then elevates them up even a couple levels higher thanks to a handful of truly first-rate performances. To put things simply, watching The Guest was the most fun I’ve had in a movie theater in a really long time. It starts off fun, it continues to get increasingly more fun, and then it climaxes in a big finish that’s pretty much everything great about genre movies distilled down into a powerful potion that overwhelms all of your senses as soon as it hits you.

The film stars Dan Stevens (Downton Abbey) as a mysterious stranger, allegedly named “David,” who one day shows up on the doorstep of a fairly average American family and fairly immediately inserts himself into their daily routines. You see, the oldest child in the family, Caleb, was a soldier who went away to war and never came back, and the story David is telling is that they served together, and not only were they great friends, but he was also there in the last moments of his life. In that moment, David allegedly made a promise to check up on Caleb’s family, assure them all that he loved them, and to do anything he could to make sure they were all doing okay. I say that Stevens’ character is “allegedly” named David and that his telling of past events is his story rather than his reality because of the character’s overtly mysterious nature. This being a thriller rather than a tear-jerking drama, of course there’s something fishy going on—something murderously fishy, as it turns out.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Frank (2014) ****/*****

via Ryan Gajda
Most movies that get made about a rock band follow the same typical formula: the band gets together, they hit it big, and then that success breeds personal demons that tear them apart right at the moment when they achieve what was supposed to be their dream. Frank, which comes to us from director Lenny Abrahamson and a script by Jon Ronson and Peter Straughan (The Men Who Stare at Goats), subverts that formula. Instead, it looks at a young band whose members are already consumed and defined by their personal demons, even before they achieve any sort of notoriety, which makes for a story that’s far more madcap, and ultimately bittersweet, than any of those rise-and-fall rock-and-roll stories of substance abuse and excess. Frank starts at the point where most of these movies end, so it ends up being able to take us someplace we’ve never before been.

The eccentric band who serve as the protagonists, an experimental number called Soronprfbs, are made up of new keyboardist Jon (Domhnall Gleeson), who is the most mundane of the group, and who serves as the eyes through which we discover their world, a consistently exasperated and painfully French guitarist named Baraque (François Civil), a silent but soulful drummer named Nana (Carla Azar), an intense taskmistress who plays the theremin named Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal), Don (Scoot McNairy), who is the mannequin-molesting lieutenant to the band’s lead singer, and said lead singer, Frank (Michael Fassbender), who obsessively wears a giant, creepy, expressionless fake head every moment of every day, and refuses to take it off. That’s an eccentric cast of characters brought to life by a charismatic cast of performers, and the ways in which they alternately bump up against each other and come together over the course of the film are a large part of what makes Frank such an entertaining movie. It’s filled with chaos and humor, and it even manages to be touching a time or two.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Short Round: The Trip to Italy (2014) ***/*****

Back in 2011, writer/director Michael Winterbottom and stars Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon saw success from editing down their BBC miniseries The Trip, and releasing it internationally as a feature film. The movie basically consisted of Coogan and Brydon playing exaggerated versions of themselves while traveling around the North of England and eating at fancy restaurants, under the pretense that they were taking the trip in order to write it up for a magazine. Their relationship had a competitive streak, especially surrounding who did better celebrity impressions, and Coogan’s character was dealing with some pretty serious insecurity issues regarding his stagnating career and advancing age. That was about it. The movie was pleasant enough—it included a couple moments of comedic brilliance and a couple somber moments that hinted at deeper depths—but mostly it was just a watchable diversion. The Trip to Italy is them doing the same thing, but in Italy.

Seeing as Coogan and Brydon are just naturally funny together, and are both fairly strong actors to boot, The Trip to Italy manages to hover around that “watchable diversion” area that the first film fell into. It makes a couple of well-meaning decisions that keep it from being quite as strong as the original though. For starters, this time around Coogan is the character who has gotten to a more content place in his life, and Brydon is the one who’s less than thrilled with his situation and is acting out. While it’s nice that Winterbottom decided to change the dynamic up, his efforts don’t quite pan out, because Brydon is at his best when he’s playing the oblivious simpleton, and Coogan is the one whose persona naturally lends itself to angst and hidden darkness. The duo’s relationship isn’t nearly as contentious this time around either, which makes sense, because ignoring the bonding they did in the first movie in order to create drama would have felt cheap, but it robs this movie of a lot of the fun tension that the first one had nonetheless. Somehow it just doesn’t feel right to see Coogan smiling and laughing at Brydon’s motor-mouthed antics rather than being embarrassed by them.

More than anything though, The Trip to Italy is a step worse than its predecessor because it lacks that one comedy bit that’s just so impossibly hilarious that it sticks with you for months, which is what the dueling Michael Caine impressions provided the first film. They go back to the Caine well again here, and even update the bit a little in order to also make fun of the other ridiculous voices that were featured in The Dark Knight Rises, but like most comedy bits, it’s just not as funny when you hear it for a second time. There are a couple new jags the guys get on that are worth your time, and if you liked the first movie it’s likely that you’re going to enjoy this one as well, just probably not as much as the first. Which, I guess, still puts it a step above most other comedy sequels, which generally turn out being frustratingly awful. Hurray for mediocre!