Posts Tagged ‘Michael Fassbender’

Frank

UK / Ireland 2014

Director: Lenny Abrahamson

Writers: Jon Ronson & Peter Straughan

Runtime: 95 minutes

 

For anyone seeking an alternative to (or respite from) the relentless onslaught of summer blockbusters (so far: Pompeii, Spiderman 2, Godzilla), there can be few better recommendations than the decidedly oddball Frank. As a story this is almost impossible to categorise, but ultimately it is a kind of paen to outsider art. The idea was developed by journalist/writer Jon Ronson (The Men Who Stare at Goats) and draws upon his experiences as sometime keyboard player for the real life Frank Sidebottom, a fictional stage character created by  Chris Sievey.

As Sidebottom Sievey would take to the stage wearing an outsized round mask with big wide eyes (literally an “odd ball”) and adopt a relentlessly cheerful, optimistic persona, whilst he and his band delivered the audience an unpredictable show that might include some ramshackle music, stand-up comedy, and even lectures. But whereas many of the artists in Sievey’s orbit would go on to achieve great fame and success, he not only seemed disinterested in reaching for such a goal but appeared to actively sabotage opportunities that might have led in that direction. As described by Jon Ronson, Chris Sievey was undeniably eccentric but essentially normal. The movie Frank does not pretend to be a biopic of Sievey/Sidebottom, but instead imagines a fictional Frank who never removes his mask, and explores the relationship between Frank, his bandmates, and the tensions between artistic originality and commercialism.

The story begins with Jon (Domhnall Gleeson), a young man wandering along a seafront and struggling to compose lyrics based on the things he sees around him. He witnesses the police and an ambulance crew trying to prevent a man from drowning himself in the sea. This would-be suicide turns out to be the keyboard player in a band with the unpronounceable name Soronprfbs. As the wretched keyboardist is taken away to have the seawater pumped from his stomach, Jon strikes up a conversation with Don (Scoot McNairy), who is the band’s manager. When Jon mentions that he plays keyboards, Don disappears back to the band’s van and then returns to say that Frank (Michael Fassbender) has invited Jon to play at that evening’s gig. On stage, Jon is momentarily discombobulated by the sight of Frank’s enormous fake head, but soon finds himself enjoyably settling into their eccentric musical groove.

Soon afterwards Don tells Jon that Frank has invited him to play with the band in Ireland. Thinking that this is just an overnight gig, Jon – who has a regular day job – is startled to discover, once in Ireland, that they are there to record a new album (“I’ve only packed one pair of underpants!” he complains). Worse, with the exception of Don and Frank, the various band members take an inexplicable dislike to Jon and his presence among their group,  especially the theremin player Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who seems to ooze contempt from every pore. The tension is not improved by Jon’s attempts to nudge Frank in a slightly more commercial direction.

Frank is one of the few modern films to fully recognise the ubiquitous presence of social media in our everyday lives. The narrative is regularly peppered with Jon’s Twitter updates to a slowly increasing audience of followers, and unbeknownst to the rest of the band he circulates YouTube clips of their rehearsals. When they eventually become aware of this there is outrage among everybody but Frank, who is naively thrilled to discover that twenty-seven thousand people are apparently following the band.  On the strength of this he agrees to the suggestion that the band should play at an American music festival that has a slot to promote interesting new groups. However, once in America all the tensions within the band, and between artistic integrity and commercial realism, come to a head.

If the film can be said to falter at all, it is towards the end where it feels the need to explain the character of Frank. This is not badly done, but it is perhaps just a little too pat. Maybe it would have been just as satisfactory for Frank’s character to remain a mystery. Nonetheless, in its tribute to those who wish to plough the lonely furrow of their own unique artistic vision, come what may, I thought the finale was emotionally satisfying. There are fine performances all round, especially from Gyllenhaal and Fassbender.

Rating: 8/10

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ImageFrom the title alone you know that this film is going to be pretty grim viewing. However, for anyone concerned that 12 Years a Slave might be worthy, but not cinematically fulfilling, then I would urge them to think again. This is not a perfect movie, but it is a very fine and important one.

The story begins in New York, where we encounter the talented violinist Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor). He meets two men who offer him a two-week job on an out-of-town tour. We next see Northup sharing a fine meal with the two men who are clearly plying him with drink. Sometime later Northup wakes up in chains in a darkened room, and his miserable ordeal has begun. He is taken to a slave market, where he is sold to plantation owner William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch). Ford turns out to be relatively enlightened, and when Northup devises a scheme for efficiently transporting logs down a waterway Ford presents him with a violin as a mark of gratitude.

However, Northup is harrassed by the racist carpenter John Tibeats (Paul Dano), who eventually rounds up his white friends to lynch Northup. Northup only survives this episode due to the intervention of Ford, but Ford explains that his own life will be endangered if he continues to protect him. Thus, Northup is sold on to another slave owner, Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), who puts his slaves to work picking cotton. Epps believes that the Bible gives him the right not just to own, but to abuse, slaves, and he forces his desire on the slave-girl Patsey (Lupita N’yongo). In this terrible environment Northup must hide his intelligence in order to survive, especially as Epps becomes ever more demented.

As most potential viewers of 12 years will undoubtedly agree that slavery is a bad thing, one might ask just why it is that this film is worth seeing. The answer to this is that it is one thing to intellectually know that slavery bad, but it is another thing to understand at a visceral level just how bad slavery is. With that understanding, perhaps, can come an even greater appreciation of the anger felt by the descendants of slaves in western societies who nonetheless remain victims of discrimination. Two moments in the film stand out as particularly brutal. In one, Patsy is whipped so severely that the weals on her back could only have looked worse if this had been shot in 3D. Arguably even more distressing than this, is a scene in which Northup is strung from a tree in such a way that the only way to avoid strangulation is to stand on tip-toes for hours. Whilst he does this we see people going about their business in the background as though nothing were untoward.

There are a number of performances in the film that have been rightly praised as outstanding. Chiwetel Ejiofor is utterly convincing as Solomon Northup, using his face more than words to convey the inner turmoil of a man who must suppress his intelligence and his rage. Lupita N’yongo as Patsey likewise shows us the utter desperation of a woman who would rather die than suffer further abuse and humiliation at the hands of Epps. And Fassbender himself, as Epps, gives us a portrait of a man for whom slavery appears to provide a vehicle for the deranged expression of his own inner demons.

If the film has shortcomings, then one of these must be the third-act appearance of Brad Pitt, whose superstar presence is a real distraction at that point. Secondly, in terms of dramatic tension, it is perhaps a little churlish to criticise a film for staying true to the real-life story (I have not read Northup’s own book, but I believe this is the case). However, most films present us with a series of emotional ups and downs that keep tension alive. In 12 Years, by contrast, things start bad, get worse, and then get really worse again. And because most people will know that 12 Years is based on the real-life Northup’s account of his ordeal, we also therefore know that the movie Northup must survive his ordeal. In this respect, I did feel that the film, while unflinchingly brutal, nonetheless lacked a certain degree of dramatic tension.

Such quibbles aside, however, with so few Hollywood movies touching on the topic of slavery 12 Years really is an outstanding achievement.

Rating: 9/10