In “Frank,” Fassbender Gets a Big Head and Half a Great Script

Frank poster

Frank (Lenny Abrahamson, 2014)

Michael Fassbender (seen earlier this summer in X-Men: Days of Future Past), as the title character of Frank (which opens today at Baltimore’s Charles Theatre), spends most of the movie wearing a large papier-mâché head, and this visual conceit is almost reason enough to see the film. Requiring an actor considered, by some, to be one of the sexiest around, to cover his pulchritudinous features with an ungainly apparatus seems like a silly joke on the audience. But it is quite the opposite, as the fake head serves, instead, to mute our usual reaction to the presence of a movie star, which is to project onto him or her the longstanding feelings we have for them. In Frank, the head allows Fassbender to act, hidden from our preconceptions, and to create a vibrant and moving portrayal of a deeply damaged being with only his body as a tool. And he is marvelous. It’s too bad the film is only halfway so, but that first half is almost pure genius. As long as the movie stays in Ireland, where it begins, it works, but once the film shifts to America and to the SXSW Festival (where, incidentally, I first saw it), it becomes almost pedestrian.

Frank is about a rock band fronted by a man with a serious mental illness who copes with his madness by quite literally showing a different face to the world. Frank (the man) is also a bit of a musical prodigy, and his insanity and talent attract a group of similarly unstable musicians. Into this bizarre world comes Domhnall Gleeson – an actor I confess to find tiresome (except in this summer’s Calvary) – a paragon of normality and mediocrity, who is both drawn to Frank and his entourage and repelled by their rejection of the conventions of normal behavior. In the first half of the movie, as the band rehearses and then records what is to be a major album for them, the film flirts with true greatness, examining the meanings of art and insanity, and the potential connection between the two, without being too obvious in its intentions. But then, once the album is recorded, the band is invited to perform in America, and the earlier subtlety vanishes. Obvious dialogue and clumsy dichotomies – art vs. mediocrity, sanity vs. insanity, etc. – take over the script, and the dullness that is Gleeson takes over the movie. The final scene somewhat redeems the film, but the end result is still a very mixed bag. For that powerful first hour, however, I must recommend it. Maggie Gyllenhaal (Stranger Than Fiction) and Scoot McNairy (Monsters) – both almost as good as Fassbender – do fine work in supporting roles as a counterbalance to the parts that don’t succeed.

9/5/14: Happy Birthday, Mr. Herzog! Midday on Film Celebrates the Madness and Genius of Bavaria’s Favorite Cinematic Son

[NOTE: If you missed the show, you can still listen to the podcast.]

Herzog and Kinski Cobra Verde

Director Werner Herzog and actor Klaus Kinski taking the dynamics of their relationship to a whole new level on the set of “Cobra Verde” (1987)

Born in 1942 in Munich, Werner Herzog grew up in a remote Bavarian mountain village (you can learn more about his early life in interviews that aired recently on NPR’s Fresh Air), far removed from the battle-scarred landscape of post-war Germany, as well as from all forms of technology. And yet by 19 he had moved beyond these simple beginnings to make his first film (a short entitled Herakles). 10 years later, in 1972, he established his international reputation with his third feature-length fiction film, Aguirre, the Wrath of God, his first collaboration with volatile German actor Klaus Kinski, with whom he would make 4 more movies: Nosferatu the VampyreWoyzeckFitzcarraldo and Cobra Verde. Starting in the late 1980s, Herzog began to focus much more on documentary storytelling (though he had always made documentaries previously, and would continue to make fiction films, going forwards), and now has a body of work that includes such nonfiction masterpieces as Little Dieter Needs to FlyGrizzly Man, the Oscar-nominated Encounters at the End of the World and Cave of Forgotten Dreams.

Regardless of genre or format, Herzog’s ongoing cinematic obsession has almost always been an exploration of the intersection of madness (or, at the very least, eccentricity) and genius (or, at the very least, creative yearnings), whether it be the story of a man dragging a 300-ton boat over a mountain in the Amazonian jungle (Fitzcarraldo) or of a wannabe animal rights activist being eaten alive by a bear (Grizzly Man). In some cases, the filmmaker’s methods have, themselves, replicated the mad genius of those of Herzog’s protagonists (the story of the filming of Fitzcarraldo, as profiled in Les Blank’s documentary Burden of Dreams, is at least as interesting as the movie, itself). Whatever one thinks of Herzog’s (very prolific) artistic output, he is undeniably passionate about the medium of cinema, and one of the great directors of the second half of the 20th century and first half of the 21st.

So join us on Friday, September 5, as Linda DeLibero – Director, Film and Media Studies, Johns Hopkins University – and Christopher Llewellyn Reed – Chair of Film/Video at Stevenson University – celebrate the life and work of this great filmmaker on his 72nd birthday on Midday with Dan Rodricks, on WYPR 88.1 FM, Baltimore’s NPR News Station, during the second hour, 1-2pm.

If you can’t listen locally, you can live-stream the podcast.

And you can always download the podcast afterwards, either via iTunes or the Midday page.

Enjoy the show!

[Correction: An earlier version of this blog post incorrectly identified the above photograph as being from the set of Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972)]

“The November Man” is Perfect for Late August (Which Means It’s Not That Great)

November Man

The November Man (Roger Donaldson, 2014)

The last two weeks have seen the usual weak roster of films that studios tend to release in late August, before the autumn slate of Oscar contenders come out. The summer blockbusters are done, and now we must bide our time until the anticipated return of quality (we hope). After If I Stay and When the Game Stands Tall, we now get The November Man, from Australian-born New Zealand director Roger Donaldson, a man who in the past has given us such reasonably competent thrillers as No Way OutDante’s Peak (which, like this new film, starred Pierce Brosnan), Thirteen Days and – my favorite among them – The Bank Job. Unfortunately, The November Man is neither reasonable nor competent. It is, upon occasion, a lot of fun – if you don’t mind senseless violence and gaping plot holes – which elevates it above pure stinker level. That’s not much, but at least it’s something.

The film sees Brosnan – 12 years after his last outing as James Bond, in Die Another Day – return to action-movie form as a former CIA operative (with, somehow, an unexplained British accent) with an axe to grind with his ex-employer and ex-trainee (now promoted to full operative status). Brosnan – except for a few scenes in which he overdoes the hand-wipe-over-brow to indicate stress – is terrific, and it’s a joy to see how much he’s still got it. Unfortunately, Luke Bracey (G.I. Joe: Retaliation), as his protégé, is anything but terrific. In fact, he’s dull, dull, and then dull. Olga Kurylenko (Quantum of Solace, where she starred opposite Brosnan’s replacement as Bond, Daniel Craig) livens things up a bit, but no one next to Brosnan is as entertaining as unknown Bosnian gymnast Amila Terzimehic as a Russian assassin whose body is as flexible as it is deadly. Too bad she’s not in the movie for more than a few minutes.

To describe the plot would be a wasted venture, as very little of it makes sense. The various secret services are alternately super-efficient and bungling, and people are killed throughout – in glorious bloody close-up – with neither reason nor sense. The car chases and action sequences, however, are staged well, and when Brosnan is one the move, too distracted by bullets to wipe that brow, he’s a powerfully kinetic force that must be watched. Idiocy, slaughter and proficiently managed mayhem: if that’s your thing, you’ll enjoy at least parts of the film.

O, the Ecstasy of Tragedy! “If I Stay” Delivers Melodrama and Not Much Else

If I Stay

If I Stay (R.J. Cutler, 2014)

What a week! The two films screened for press were this and When the Game Stands Tall, neither of which impressed. The only way this movie looks good is by that comparison, sadly. Based on the best-selling young adult book of the same title by Gayle Forman, If I Stay comes with a built-in opening-weekend audience. I have not read the book, nor am I of the target demographic, so all I have to go on is the feeling of dread and nausea that spread over me with each passing minute of screen time. Who would die? Who would cry? Oh me, oh my!

Right away the film had problems. Its lead, Chloë Grace Moretz, so good – and, most importantly, natural – in Kick-Ass and Let Me In, here seems to have developed a severe case of “acting.” She telegraphs every emotion to the audience with head shakes, nose flares and dilating pupils. It’s unfortunate, as Ms. Moretz is a very likable presence, even if she has no chemistry with her onscreen co-star, Jamie Blackley (We Are the Freaks). Perhaps we can simply chalk up this and Carrie to growing pains. I hope so. Her talent lies (or lay, anyway) in effortlessly revealing the strangeness below the surface of normality. When we see her exertions, however, it’s painful.

If I Stay tells the story of how Mia (Moretz), a talented young cellist in a family of former punk rockers, gets into a car accident, suffers severe head injuries and almost dies. For most of the film, she lies in a coma, remembering her life (via flashbacks) and deciding whether or not to leave it behind and head into the white light of the beyond. While her body is trapped in the hospital bed, her conscious mind wanders the floors of the hospital, which is how she is able to discover the fate of the family members who were with her in the car (hint: theirs is not a happy fate). As tragedy is layered upon tragedy and Mia feels less and less inclined to fight for her own life, a certain emotional numbness sets in. Who else will die? How far will the filmmakers go to make Mia’s case as dire as possible? It’s tragi-porn at its most extreme.

But just when you thought all was lost, along comes Adam (Blackley), the love of Mia’s (extremely young) life. Will his affections make up for Mia’s loss? Will the song he writes for her bring her back from the brink? Speaking of Adam’s music – he’s a rocker, like Mia’s parents – I found his supposedly brilliant songs (the ones that get him an awesome record deal) rather conventional, and more pop than rock. But music was the least of my complaints. What was more annoying was seeing Mireille Enos – so terrific in AMC’s (and now Netflix’s) “The Killing” – reduced, yet again, to playing the mother role in a feature film (as she did in last year’s World War Z). Give the woman a role worthy of her!

I stayed till the end, but kept on saying to myself, “If I leave . . .” Unless you’re a diehard fan of the source text, I’d leave the movie for someone else to see.

“When the Game Stands Tall”: Drop Kick Me Jesus Through the Clichés of Corn

When the Game Stands Tall

When the Game Stands Tall (Thomas Carter, 2014)

“Inspired by the extraordinary true story” (as the poster reminds us) of how the members of De La Salle High School‘s football team struggled to regain their sense of purpose (and of faith) when they lost two games in a row after a 151-game winning streak, When the Game Stands Tall hits every tired sports movie cliché in the playbook and augments each one with ostentatious displays of Christian belief that are clumsy enough to embarrass even the most devout among us. It’s a fiasco of messy storytelling that asks us to care about its grotesquely underwritten characters just because they spout platitudes of brotherhood and God. When one of the families faces an actual tragedy (sorry, but losing games doesn’t count), we mourn their loss, but it’s hard to feel anything truly genuine since we hardly know those involved. The movie strives to be Hoosiers but instead comes across as the The Passion of the Coach, which perhaps shouldn’t surprise us since said coach is played by Jim Caviezel (Jesus in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ). Drop kick me Jesus, indeed!

On the plus side, When the Game Stands Tall is that rare example of a film where the 2nd act is actually the strongest part of the enterprise. Normally, screenplays that start and end well suffer in the middle: it’s a lot easier to write the fun opening and wild finish. But here, the first 45 minutes are completely unfocused, with barely distinguishable young football players running around looking mopey, presaging their inevitable defeat. Once that defeat happens, however, the movie jettisons its religious mission for a bit and focuses on the game that brings the team together and turns their fortunes around. While it does that, it’s (somewhat) interesting. And then it all falls apart again. But I think I’ll save this movie somewhere in my memory bank as one to show my students in the future, as the exception that proves the rule of the usual script issues. Badly acted and poorly conceived, the film is otherwise not worth its ticket price, however. Stay away.

In Memoriam: Goodbye Lauren Bacall and Robin Williams

This week, we lost two great stars, each representative of very different eras. I add my brief two cents to the many eulogies written over the week. Here are the two statements I drafted for my university’s press office.

Bacall and Williams

When Lauren Bacall (1924-2014) – née Betty Joan Perske – first walked on screen in Howard Hawks’s 1944 To Have and Have Not, audiences could sense the raw power of her young talent. Paired with veteran Humphrey Bogart – 25 years her senior – she more than held her own, and in her sultry voice told him just how to whistle. A star was born, and when she later married Bogart, a star couple was formed. Never Oscar-nominated until The Mirror Has Two Faces in 1996 – sadly losing to Juliette Binoche for The English Patient – Bacall nevertheless dominated the films in which she starred, which included The Big Sleep, Key Largo, How to Marry a Millionaire, Written on the Wind, Murder on the Orient Express, The Shootist, and Dogville, among many others. Winner of two Tony Awards, for Applause in 1970 and Woman of the Year in 1981, Bacall had a long and successful life as an actress, author (of three autobiographies), mother of three (two with Bogart, and one with her second husband, Jason Robards), and woman of the world. With her death, we lose one of the great lights of Hollywood past and present.

Robin Williams (1951-2014) was the most important and influential comedian of his generation. For those who came of age with “Mork and Mindy,” he left an indelible impression of brilliant manic energy and unrivaled empathic intelligence. While audiences remain divided on the quality of his later film work, he touched us deeply – and made us laugh hysterically – in films as diverse as The World According to Garp, Moscow on the HudsonGood Morning VietnamDead Poets Society (his portrayal of Mr. Keating had an enormous influence on my own early teaching), The Fisher King, Mrs. Doubtfire and Good Will Hunting (for which he won an Oscar after 3 previous nominations), not to mention his multitude of stand-up comedy performances. He will be sorely missed by millions around the globe.

If you want to hear more of my thoughts on Robin Williams, you can listen to the podcast of the August 18, 2014, Midday with Dan Rodricks show (on Baltimore’s NPR News Station, WYPR, 88.1 FM).

“Calvary” Stumbles on the Way to Crucifixion


Calvary (John Michael McDonagh, 2014)

“Do not despair; one of the thieves was saved.

Do not presume; one of the thieves was damned.”

– St. Augustine

“My first taste of semen was when I was 7 years old”

– Off-camera voice spoken through confessional wall to Brendan Gleeson’s Father James at the start of Calvary

A film that opens with the above epigraph, attributed to St. Augustine, as white text over black, and then segues into a stark confessional scene, in which an unknown man describes his childhood molestation by a Catholic priest, holds out the promise of a raw emotional journey into how the hope and promise of Christianity collide with the sins of the Church, especially the sin of pedophilia. As written and directed by Irishman John Michael McDonagh, whose previous feature, The Guard, was similarly set in a small Irish hamlet and also starred Brendan Gleeson (who also starred in In Bruges, written and directed by Michael McDonagh, John Michael’s brother), Calvary starts out with every indication of fulfilling that promise, and then some. McDonagh has a wonderful feel for his homeland’s beauty and ruin, as well as for simple dialogue that conveys more by what it doesn’t say than through needless exposition, and Gleeson is more than up to the task of carrying the weight of the film – and of the world – on his wide and weary shoulders. But about halfway through the 100-minute running time, Calvary begins to falter, losing its light touch and deft mixture of comedy and tragedy to become an overwrought mess. It stumbles badly on the way to its own crucifixion. Still, the film is well worth watching for Gleeson, alone.

Gleeson plays Father James, a widower (and now-sober alcoholic) who joined the priesthood after his wife died. He has a troubled daughter, nicely played by Kelly Reilly (who, with this and Flight, needs to be careful not to be typecast as the struggling addict), who comes to visit him after a failed suicide attempt. Through their conversations, we learn much about what motivated this one-time bon vivant to become a priest, and their scenes together are gently rendered. It’s all colored by the threat uttered in the opening confessional, however, in which the sex-abuse survivor declares that he will exact retribution on the Church by killing an innocent priest – Father James – since killing a guilty man would mean nothing. As Gleeson makes the rounds of his disillusioned flock – the only believer in the power of faith is a visiting French woman whose husband dies in a car wreck – we watch him struggle to bring some good into the world in the face of indifference, all the while knowing that he will probably die if he doesn’t leave. And struggle he does, since no one gives a damn.

For a good while, the film is very effective at showing how the years of administrative neglect and moral corruption have eroded the ability of even a sincere priest to do his work. We almost come to believe that Father James will ultimately triumph over the disgust of the scant congregation members he has left. The fact that he doesn’t is not where the film goes wrong. Rather, the threads of the story begin to fray as McDonagh starts underlining his points in bold underline, explaining in no uncertain terms how Father James’s struggle is quixotic, at best. Then there is also the question of tone: as the film grows psychologically more dire, the comedic bits seem less and less appropriate. Finally, the ending eruption of violence is shown in such an out-of-the-blue graphic close-up that it feels like it belongs to a different movie, as if McDonagh is channeling his inner Tarantino.

In spite of these significant problems, however, the movie raises important issues of institutional failure and faith, and with fine supporting performances from Chris O’DowdAidan GillenIsaach De BankoléMarie-Josée CrozeOrla O’Rourke and even *gasp* Domhnall Gleeson (Brendan’s son, and an actor I usually find unbearable to watch, but who here is very good), Calvary has many reasons to see it, even if the sum total of its quality elements do not help it transcend its flaws. I give it a (very) qualified recommendation.

“Magic in the Moonlight” Offers Charm Without Substance

Magic in the Moonlight

Magic in the Moonlight (Woody Allen, 2014)

Woody Allen’s new film is as delicious and amusing a confection of cinematic delights as any he has made in the past 20 years. Filled with gorgeous shots of the French Riviera – often bathed in the fading rays of magic hour – from master cinematographer Darius Khondji (Se7en, Midnight in Paris), Magic in the Moonlight is a visual marvel, well served by the fine lead performances from Colin Firth and Emma Stone. Unfortunately, it is not well served by an ultimately pedestrian script burdened with a foreseeable plot twist that leads to the inevitable (and distasteful) union of an older man to a much younger woman (not quite shades of Manhattan, but still problematic and not particularly believable). Isn’t it time we start demanding more than the same tired clichés?

We are in 1928. Stanley (Mr. Firth), a world-famous magician (who goes by the stage name of Wei Ling Soo, Orientalism being in fashion then) is approached by an acquaintance on a mission. It seems as if some mutual friends have fallen under the spell of a young American medium, Sophie (Ms. Stone), and it turns out Stanley is a noted expert at unmasking spiritual frauds. Will Stanley travel to the south of France to expose the pretender? Of course! And so off he goes, incognito (no one must know that he is the famous Wei Ling Soo), to the charming mansion in which Sophie has so comfortably settled, senses and cynicism on full alert, prepared to destroy the young lady. But a funny thing happens on the way to battle, as Stanley – a lifelong bachelor only recently engaged – finds himself enchanted, rather than repulsed, by Sophie. Is she real? Is Stanley’s conversion real? Does he love her? Does she love him? Or is it all a game, where no emotions are genuine?

For a while, the film works – and is, in fact, very entertaining – largely thanks to the solid performances from the leads and the supporting players, which include a very funny Hamish Linklater, an icy Marcia Gay Harden and a ditzy Jacki Weaver, among others. But the central romance at the center of the story – in spite of the considerable charms of both Mr. Firth and Ms. Stone – just doesn’t work. At no time does their budding attraction the one for the other feel anything other than pure screenwriting conceit. As the film moves away from Stanley’s initial misanthropic cynicism (something Mr. Firth perfected in his work in “Pride and Prejudice” and Bridget Jones’s Diary) to later genuine hope and feeling, the script devolves into hackneyed romantic-comedy conventions, and we lose interest. In the end, though magic there may have been, it was in the beautiful light of Khondji’s images and not in the writing.

“Get on Up” Never Quite Stands Tall

Get on Up

Get on Up (Tate Taylor, 2014)

With a terrific central performance by Chadwick Boseman (42), Get on Up has what it needs to give “Godfather of Soul” James Brown his due respect, but is hampered by a messy script and pedestrian direction from Tate Taylor (who did a little better in The Help). Papa may “got a brand new bag,” but it’s a very mixed one, indeed.

Part of the problem is the film’s approach to chronology. It begins in 1993, although we don’t know that it’s then until the end, when we return to the same scene of James Brown walking backstage to the chant of a crowd calling his name. We then immediately jump back (not that far) to 1988, where we meet a seemingly confused Brown who brandishes (and shoots) a gun in a building he owns, and then we keep moving backwards, now to 1968 and Brown’s musical tour of Vietnam, where he performs for the troops. We make one final quick jump, to 1939, where Brown is a little boy with warring parents, the result of which feud leads his mother (a wasted Viola Davis, who should have won an Oscar for The Help) to abandon young Brown. Soon he is brought to a brothel run by an aunt, played by Octavia Spencer (much better served by this summer’s Snowpiercer), who becomes his de factor mother, and from then on we jump around from time period to time period, often without specific reason. Sometimes there are subtitles to the dates, explaining why they’re important, and sometimes not. Sometimes Bozeman breaks “the fourth wall,” to address the audience directly, and sometimes not. There’s no rhyme or reason to any of it.

Which is too bad, since Bozeman (who, according to the credits, lip-synched to Brown’s original vocals) brings great energy and charisma to his turn as the singer. After seeing what Bozeman did in 42 and here, it would be great to see him next create a role from the ground up, without benefit of biopic research. It would also be wonderful to see him act in a movie with a better script. Still, he is almost worth the price of admission, as is Nelsan Ellis (“True Blood“) as his long-suffering friend and lieutenant, Bobby Byrd. It’s a very mixed bag, indeed.

Affably Silly “Guardians of the Galaxy” Is a True Summer Pleasure

Guardians of the Galaxy

Guardians of the Galaxy (James Gunn, 2014)

Until I first saw a trailer for this new superhero fantasy from Marvel Comics, I had never heard of the “Guardians of the Galaxy,” though it appears that these characters have existed in some form since 1969 (the year of my birth!). Still, something in the irreverent tone of that trailer caught my fancy, and given the relatively lackluster commercial fare on offer so far this summer, I went into the screening with some hope of having a good time. And I did. I am happy to report that Guardians of the Galaxy could be the big-budget blockbuster film you’ve been waiting for since June: action-packed, funny, slickly produced, with a decent script and (for the most part) interesting characters. With an extremely likable Chris Pratt (“Parks and Recreation“) leading the way, Guardians may be silly and derivative (shades of Star Wars in the poster, to begin with), but it’s also a terrific piece of escapist sci-fi entertainment. Zoe Saldana (AvatarStar Trek) – she of the ever changing on-screen skin color – and Bradley Cooper (The HangoverAmerican Hustle) – who here lends his voice to that of a surgically altered space raccoon – add their talents to the mix, to great results.

The movie begins on Earth in 1988, when the lead character – then a boy, but soon to grow up to be Chris Pratt – is kidnapped by a group of interstellar mercenaries just at the moment of his mother’s death, never to return. One of the recurring jokes in the film is that Peter Quill (Pratt) has a knowledge of pop culture stuck in our planet’s 1970s and 80s. When next we meet him, he is now an outlaw, himself, who very soon finds himself at the unwelcome center of a plot to destroy the universe. He may be a thief, but he’s not a psychopath. Thrown in jail after a failed heist, he joins forces with a ragtag band of fellow misfits and felons. The usual trial period of arguments and tests of friendship ensue – again, the plot is not going to win any points for originality, though the world and character details make up for that – before our characters become a true team.

Unpretentious, light-hearted and well-acted, Guardians of the Galaxy blends just the right combination of humor and action to be a near-perfect summer movie. It may be silly, but that’s all part of the appeal. I highly recommend.