The Blue Room trailer (9.28.14 release)

You may be familiar with French actor Mathieu Amalric (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Quantum of Solace, Cosmopolis, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Munich, A Secret, Love Is the Perfect Crime, the Mesrine films), but I believe this is his first theatrical feature as a director (he’s done a bunch of shorts and some television work).  It’s an adaptation of a book by acclaimed French crime novelist Georges Simenon, who happens to be the 20th century’s most widely published author, but who probably isn’t read in the States as much as he is in Europe.  Simenon was friends with the likes of Jean Renoir, Jean Cocteau, Federico Fellini, and Henry Miller.  The Blue Room looks really fantastic, and I’m guessing it’s not presently on most Americans’ radar.

Frank, Lenny Abrahamson (2014)

Frank

Frank is an incredibly interesting, unique, and quirky little film, but also one with schizophrenic ambitions that never really works as a whole, yet has occasional moments of pure brilliance.  I don’t believe that I can really explain how or why without going into a good deal of the backstory behind the film as well as what happens in the movie (I’d be hard-pressed to call it plot), so please be aware that SPOILERS ABOUND.  This is rare for me, as I usually try very hard to avoid posting spoilers, so remember if you decide to keep reading, YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.

So… for those of you who aren’t from Timperley in the UK, or weren’t aware of local personality Frank Sidebottom, who peaked in the early 1990’s with a British television show called Frank Sidebottom’s Fantastic Shed Show that plays like a low-rent version of Pee Wee’s Playhouse, the character of Frank Sidebottom was conceived and portrayed by Timperley local and musician/comedian Chris Sievey.  Chris had some success on his own with a band called The Freshies in the 1970’s and early 80’s, but in the mid-80’s started wearing a paper-mache head and shooting homemade videos and conducting local tours around Timperley as his strange alter-ego.  As the years went on, the paper-mache head was replaced with a stronger and more resilient fiberglass one.  Frank Sidebottom fronted several different band incarnations over the years, played local gigs and tours, landed spots on British television shows, and ultimate got his own Fantastic Shed Show and was revered in Timperley as a beloved personality and local cult hero.  He appeared quite a bit on Channel 4, and had a recurring bit called Frank’s Fantastic Question on the British iteration of MTV’s pop culture game show Remote Control.  His bands performed covers of songs like Anarchy in the UK and Born in the USA, but with the lyrics altered to Anarchy in Timperley and Born in Timperley. Sometimes at his gigs Frank performed with a hand puppet called Little Frank that looked like a smaller, identical version of himself. Sievey did fairly well for himself, but also spent what he made, and died bankrupt in June 2010 from throat cancer, without enough savings even for a funeral.

Jon Ronson, who had been a keyboardist in Frank’s band in the early 90’s when it was called Frank Sidebottom’s Oh Blimey Big Band, had been working on a script for a feature film version of Frank’s story when Sievey passed in 2010.  He found out about Sievey’s financial state when he heard reports that Sievey was to receive a pauper’s funeral, and took to social media, fundraising enough several times over within a matter of hours to pay for a proper burial.  Interestingly enough, the story took Ronson by surprise because although he had been working on the script for several years at that point, he hadn’t actually talked with Sievey in quite some time.  Initially he thought the reports of Sidebottom’s death simply meant that Sievey had retired the character.

The script for the film had never been intended as a straight bio-pic of Chris Sievey, or even of his years as Frank Sidebottom.  And Frank’s story is one that gets stranger and stranger the more you peel back the layers of the onion. Sievey wore the Frank head not just during the gigs, but backstage as well, and often while traveling around under the guise of Frank.  No one knew who Frank Sidebottom was except those in Sievey’s inner circle, and to the general public, Frank’s true identity remained a mystery. Sievey would not respond to being called anything other than Frank when he had the head on.  The character of Frank Sidebottom was always incredibly positive, increasingly so whenever bad things were happening in Sievey’s life.  Sievey even went so far as to wear a clip over his nose while wearing the head to achieve the very nasal tone of Frank Sidebottom’s voice, and often he wore the head so long that his nose would become indented and disfigured by the clip.  There was such a divide between the personalities of Frank Sidebottom and Chris Sievey that it seems as though there may have even been some schizophrenia or mental illness at play.  And in fact, when Ronson initially approached Sievey with the idea of building a script around him, Sievey loved the idea but then grew more fearful and hesitant when it seemed as though a movie about Frank might also have to address the psychology of the man behind the mask. That was when Ronson concocted the idea that the script not be a bio-pic, but rather a fictional character study about Frank pulled from the mythology that Sievey had created.  And this is ultimately, where the film Frank has its problems, because while this may have been the intention, the completed script doesn’t feel like a single intention had ever been settled upon.

The names of the characters in the script remain the same: Frank is Frank and Domhnall Gleeson plays the role of Jon, and early events in the film are pulled wholesale from Ronson’s early experiences in the band.  That includes how he was hired as a substitute keyboardist on the day of a gig when he didn’t know how to play any of the band’s songs, and his first experience meeting Frank while he already had the head on, and Sievey not responding to anything other than the name Frank.  In fact, the film is set up early on as the story of protagonist Jon.  We see him suffering at his bland, tired day job, trying to find inspiration and create songs as he walks about town, but not having much success with it.  I’ve read other reviews claiming that Jon isn’t very talented, and that the film is ultimately about the struggle between an untalented musician with drive and a talented band with no ambition, but that seems to me to not only be a very oversimplified description of the story, but also fairly inaccurate.  I wouldn’t say that Jon is untalented as a musician, simply that he hasn’t yet found his voice.  He’s obviously great at identifying good music, and has grown up on the tunes of the 80’s and 90’s and is something of a pop scholar.  He absolutely knows what good music is, and he has a savvy and ambition that many of Frank’s band members may not, but he lacks confidence and the discovery of himself to be able to create.  I have a hard time qualifying the band members as talented musicians, and I’ll get back to more on this later.

The first three-quarters of the film follow Jon’s story, and Frank is really just a supporting character amidst all of the madness.  After agreeing to play a gig last-minute without knowing any of the songs, and then being offered a full-time spot in the band after the band’s regular keyboardist doesn’t mentally recover from a suicide attempt, Jon finds himself indefinitely holed up with the band in a rural cottage to write and record the band’s next album.  As it turns out, the band members are all quirky to the point of being superficially insane.  The drummer and lead guitarist are French and hardly speak any English (and get very little screen time); Scoot McNairy plays the band’s manager and ex-keyboardist Don (the keyboardist previous to the suicidal keyboardist, which begs the question why he couldn’t have simply taken over during the initial gig) with a fetish for mannequin sex; Maggie Gyllenhaal is the highly strung and controlling Clara and plays all manner of odds and ends including the theremin; and Frank is, well… Frank. Jon bonds with Don early on as the only person in the band besides Frank that can and will speak to him, and Don is Jon’s first window into the band and their strange interpersonal politics. Frank is obsessed with not just music but sound, and creating things that have never really been heard before.  In one of the film’s more brilliant moments, Frank spontaneously creates a beautiful and poetic song about a loose thread on a rug. Eventually Jon develops a growing friendship with Frank, which seems to threaten the delicate balance of the group.  The French don’t like Jon and their allegiance lies with Clara, who sees Jon as a threat to Frank’s well-being.  Clara has some kind of a pseudo-romantic/emotional relationship with Frank, and she’s often the person he turns to when he can’t cope with the outside world.  Jon is frustrated by the madness he sees all around him, which includes a lack of cohesion and the band’s inability to write anything that could possibly be considered mainstream pop.  And while Jon knows he has a lot of growing to do to become the musician he wants to be, he also wants to have a sustainable career.  He tweets about his time working on the new album and secretly posts youtube videos, which often feature creative and nervous breakdowns more than they do actual songwriting sessions.  But he begins to develop a bit of a following, and eventually shares the band’s secret growing success with Frank. Frank latches onto the possibility that their music may actually finally be appreciated, which worries Clara, who sees where this may all be going.  Jon manages to book them a gig at SXSW that leads into a road trip, the dissolution of the band, and Frank losing his head, having a breakdown, and disappearing.

The final 20 minutes or so of the film involve Jon tracking down Frank and seeing him, for the first time, without his head.  His forehead has scars and he’s missing hair in a line around his head, presumably from the brace inside Frank’s fiberglass noggin, bearing echoes of the disfiguration of Chris Sievey’s nose from his nose clips.  And this is where the film does a huge pivot.  The best parts of the movie up until this point are the occasional inspired bits of manic genius on the part of Frank… like his song about the tuft of rug, or a jingle he calls his “most likable song ever.”  And Fassbender is amazing in the role.  His voice isn’t the nasal tone of the real Frank Sidebottom, but rather an overly-positive dulcet American baritone.  And when he sings, he sounds a lot like Jim Morrison.  Fassbender is very aware of the performance limitations of the giant fiberglass head, which looks a lot like Davey of the Christian-themed Davey & Goliath claymation/puppet segment broadcast during educational programming on Sunday mornings in America in the 70’s.  So Fassbender really utilizes the elements he has left– physicality, body language, and voice.  And it’s an iconic, amazing performance.  Some of the best bits also include his conversations with Jon, as when he explains why he wears the mask and his aversion to human faces, and there’s some great dialogue in these moments.  But for so much of the first three-fourths of the film, I wanted more Frank.  I wanted more of these conversations, and more of an exploration of Frank.  And I couldn’t have cared less about the band’s story or their chaotic, quirky fights and affected breakdowns that occupied most of the film’s running time.  So much of that storyline, along with the recording of the album and the road trip to SXSW, just felt tired, familiar, and cliche, and cobbled together from other uninteresting indie movies.

Scoot McNairy is quickly becoming one of my favorite actors, but his role in the film was problematic.  His character isn’t developed enough for him to become as fascinating as he could have been, and he disappears part-way through the movie.  I felt like we either needed more or less of him, but the balance that was achieved just didn’t quite work for me.  Domhnall Gleeson is a fantastic actor, so likable and open and vulnerable and accessible, and he really anchors much of the journey of the film.  But the character he’s given to play is ultimately thin with not enough going on in his own right, and the film eventually sort of jettisons the importance of Jon as the protagonist and narrator.  He’s the audience’s initial window into the world of Frank, but by the end of the film, just a catalyst character and plot device.  And Maggie Gyllenhaal, well, I can’t stand her in general.  I suppose that sort of works for parts of Frank, but I don’t really understand her appeal and I would have preferred almost any other actress in the role.  While her character is meant to be abrasive, she also has a loving connection with Frank, and is really the only person in the world that can hold him together and pull him back from the edge. And because Maggie Gyllenhaal was playing the role, that element of Frank just didn’t work for me.

But beyond my personal quibbles is the problematic ending, undeniably brilliant in its own right.  It features Jon driving the near-catatonic and now-maskless Frank back to Texas, where Clara and the French drummer and guitarist are the new house band in an almost-always empty bar.  Without his fiberglass head, Frank is far gone, almost to the point of no return.  He’s always been incredibly musically talented, but he’s also afflicted with some form of mental illness, and it was the head that allowed him to function socially.  Yet when he hears the music from the stage, he tries to connect and not emotionally evade what’s going within himself, and he begins creating lyrics and singing “Put your arms around me, fiddley digits, itchy britches… I love you all.”  It’s an incredible moment from Fassbender.  The song itself works in ways that songs rarely do, the performance and moment are transcendent, and they really capture the truth behind a person’s inability to connect or communicate with others, particularly creative savants.  It’s the kind of moment and song that will make you walk out of the theatre glad to be alive and appreciating all of humanity, and that’s a rare thing in movies today.

And yet… it really calls into question the point of the film, and why so much of it was a trite and predictable movie about Jon joining Frank’s band and creating an album in the countryside and the road trip to SXSW.  Ultimately, in the last 20 minutes, the film became the very thing that Chris Sievey had been so nervous about and didn’t want… an exploration behind the mask and a glimpse of mental illness.  That’s certainly the most important part of the movie, and probably the only part of it that actually has something to say behind it.  So if Ronson eventually goes there anyway, why tap dance around it for three fourths of the film and couch the movie as a quirky, indie film about a guy with a giant fiberglass head and his band?  And to get back to my previous point, while I think you can certainly call Frank a talented musician, I’m not sure the same can be said for Clara or the keyboardist or guitarist.  Clara is simply an oddball who holds Frank together, and the other two are simply competent musicians; but the film was never about the divide between ambition and talent.  It’s ultimately about communication.  And for Frank, music is communication… perhaps the only kind he’s capable of.  The character of Jon begins to understand this, and through his journey grows as a person and likely finds his own voice, but that journey isn’t so much about music as it is about humanity.  And certainly there’s a purity to Frank’s kind of musicality that may not be for the mass market, but ultimately that’s besides the point, and not really the story the film is telling. There’s a victory for Frank at the end of the film as he comes out from behind his mask and starts tiptoeing into the world relying purely on music to help him.

No, ultimately it would appear that Jon Ronson wanted to tell the world about the beauty of Chris Sievey, and of Frank, and of seeing and appreciating those that are often overlooked and misunderstood.  And the movie ends up really succeeding at that. But he takes such a long, roundabout way to get there, and he couches most of it in the framing of his own pseudo-biographical journey, and then places that within the framework of a narrative aiming to be something else entirely, that the film feels fractured and schizophrenic, and sadly less effective and entertaining than it could have been.  Perhaps it was simply a case of Ronson knowing on some level what he wanted to say with Frank, and then holding it in while writing the script out of deference to Sievey, until feeling he had to release it in the film’s few final scenes. But really, Frank would have fared so much better with more balance, and more Frank throughout, and less of the chaotic quirkiness of the supporting cast that Ronson likely focused on as a self-stalling technique.

Certainly the film is worth watching, and it’s almost a must-see for the final scene.  But there’s a lot of bland tediousness along the way to sit through, made palatable by performances from Fassbender, Gleeson, and McNairy.  I’ll leave you with the kind of scene I wish we’d seen a lot more of in Frank– because Ronson could have explored the character throughout with a light touch, instead of avoiding it as much as he does, and you can’t fault director Abrahamson for not shooting scenes that were never written.

7/10

Interstellar trailer (11.7.14 release)

I think Christopher Nolan is a great director… but… he’s also so enamored of puzzle box structure that often his films are all cerebellum and no heart, to the extent of being ultimately pointless on a storytelling level.  From what I’ve read, Nolan feels that Hollywood itself has lost a lot of its heart, and that we no longer have the kind of big Hollywood blockbusters that are inspiring and can truly strike a resonant chord in the audience; instead, things have degenerated into lots of entertaining but ultimately pointless eye candy.  Similarly, in the past several decades funding and focus has shifted away from NASA’s space program.  I believe that as we grow older, we can often limit ourselves by shifting our focus solely onto what we’re doing and what we have, trying to manage our lives in their current state while letting our dreams and aspirations go; and that it can be incredibly harmful and dangerous to us as human beings to remove hope, promise, and inspiration from our outlooks.  So much of our energy and drive comes not from youth, but from our potential and the belief that we can do anything with our lives– a belief that we ourselves retire after a certain age and making certain choices, but one that is essential to our continued growth as well as our state of well-being.  To retire that kind of forward-thinking, and to resolve ourselves to lives without potential that exist only to manage the slow decline of our own mortality, is to prematurely accept not only death, but defeat, and to shift our focus to one of ultimate hopelessness.  And yet that is what so many of us do once we settle on certain choices of career, and lately what it often feels like humanity is doing on a larger, global scale.  The advances in technology in the last twenty years– the internet, smart phones, social media and the like– have transformed global communication but have also shifted our focus inward in a very self-critical and self-damaging way.  We’re no longer focused on or potential, but on self-destruction.  If we are to continue to grow and evolve, we need to recast our focus outward and on moving forward, not just on managing our troubles.  It’ll certainly be interesting to see if Interstellar addresses this, and if Nolan can deliver on the kind of inspirational blockbuster that engages the heart and inspires us on a national, and even global, level to think bigger and be bigger.  It would be a leap forward for Nolan, and its the kind of film we really need right now.  If he can achieve that, this could easily be the movie of the year.

Frank trailer (8.22.14 release)

So I just saw Frank today and plan to get a review up shortly, in between the other four reviews of films I saw recently at TIFF. And since I hadn’t been back to posting on this blog when the trailer hit several months ago, I figured I’d post the trailer now. Frank is a very specific kind of film that occupies a corner of the universe all its own, and reading a review on it just won’t mean very much if you have no concept of the film itself.  So here it is. Michael Fassbender as you’ve never not seen him before.

The Equalizer, Antoine Fuqua (2014)

The Equalizer

The most interesting thing about The Equalizer is what it represents to the future of Denzel Washington’s career.  Denzel has always been one of our finest actors, but there just don’t seem to be a plethora of Oscar bait lead roles for African-American men in mainstream American movies these days.  And for whatever reasons, Denzel has yet to really embrace the world of indie film. If he had, I think Washington might have a more impressive resume filled with more varied and deeper work, but he seems determined to stick with mainstream cinema.  What if, for example, Washington were to reteam with Spike Lee on a bunch of smaller projects.  Washington’s name would help Lee get financing, and it would offer Washington the ability to work on scripts where he’s something other than just the intensely focused detective or criminal.  How about Washington in a Steve McQueen film?  Why have we never seen Washington work with Spielberg, Scorsese, the Coen brothers, Fincher, or Nolan?  What about if Washington were pursuing directors like Alfonso Cuaron, Richard Linklater, Spike Jonze, Kathryn Bigelow, David O. Russell, Jeff Nichols, Jean-Marc Vallee, Paul Greengrass, Rian Johnson, or Ben Affleck?  Imagine Washington shaking things up and appearing in a smaller role in a Wes Anderson movie, or doing a comedy role in an Apatow or Chris Rock film.  Maybe he should take a page from the likes of Tom Cruise, Leonardo DiCaprio, and McConaughey and pursue the great directors who are currently trying to make relevant, cutting-edge films.

Washington’s previous collaboration with Fuqua was the impressive Training Day, a film that netted him his first Oscar win.  From there he alternated between films like The Manchurian Candidate, American Gangster, and Flight, with more straightforward crime/thriller fare.  That genre seemed to be Washington’s always-reliable meal ticket, in between the wait for roles that might qualify him for more Oscar noms and wins.  The most consistent of these was with director Tony Scott, and Washington’s relationship with him dates back to the 1995 film Crimson Tide.  For Scott, that was probably around the peak of his career, following big hits like Top Gun, Beverly Hills Cop II, Days of Thunder, The Last Boy Scout, and True Romance.  Crimson Tide put Scott in bed with Washington, one of the biggest and most reliable A-list movie stars in mainstream American cinema. And while it was a hit, they didn’t reteam until 2004 with Man on Fire.  Man on Fire is, in my opinion, one of Scott’s best films.  But its dark, nasty tone and storyline kept it from being a runaway success.  It was around that time that both Scott’s and Washington’s career’s started flagging.  Scott never hit the kind of mainstream critical acclaim his brother Ridley saw, and Washington’s big Oscar bait roles seemed to dry up.  So instead they kept making genre films together with increasing frequency– Deja Vu, The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, Unstoppable.  None of these were bad films, but none of them were great films.  And we kept seeing Denzel do what Denzel does best, again and again.  Now Scott, sadly, is no longer with us.  What’s Denzel to do for his bread and butter?  Well, if The Equalizer is any indication, it seems like perhaps he’s plugged Fuqua into Scott’s old genre-director role, and it wouldn’t surprise me if we see these guys put out a similar movie every 2-3 years for the foreseeable future.

And just like with The Equalizer, we’ll get more Denzel doing what he does best, with a lot of seriousness and focus and intensity, and the movies will be okay but not great, and both Washington and Fuqua will maintain their Hollywood relevancy and their bank accounts.  And if that sounds like I’m harshing on Denzel, then let me apologize.  I really do believe he’s one of our best actors, and I love his work… I just wish he’d mix it up and move outside of his comfort zone more and do some different things– because he’s capable of so much more.

In a nutshell, as if you haven’t already guessed, The Equalizer is in line with what you should expect from Washington’s previous output with Tony Scott.  It would make for a happy discovery flipping around channels at 2am and landing on something both competent and entertaining.  But for a movie you’re going to see at the theatre and plunking down your $10 for, it’s a fairly generic crime thriller with a reliable lead performance from Denzel.  Chloe Grace Moretz does solid work as a young prostitute caught up with the abusive Russian mob, which pushes Washington’s Robert McCall, friendly with her in passing from some conversations at a local diner, over the edge of an increasingly dull life and a day job at a Home Depot knock-off.  The film is fairly violent, which helps to liven up the proceedings and keep the viewer awake, but the story is pretty much a paint-by-numbers job.  Bill Pullman and Melissa Leo show up in extremely small roles, and most of the Russian mob are relative unknowns.  You might recognize David Meunier from his work on Justified where he played Boyd’s crippled cousin Johnny Crowder for several seasons, or David Harbour, most recently seen on Rake and The Newsroom, playing a corrupt cop.  Martin Csokas is the big bad’s main henchman, and the villain Washington is up against for most of the film’s running time.  You might not recognize Csokas’ name, but you’ll recognize him when you see him, because his entire career has been spent playing generic, disposable gangsters just like this one.

The Equalizer plays best when it’s at its most violent, and it bears almost no resemblance to its 80’s television predecessor starring the British Edward Woodward.  The third act of the film almost becomes Die Hard in a Home Depot, and during moments where Washington’s Robert McCall maims and kills Russian gangsters with traps made from home construction machinery, a voice in my head kept saying “That’s the power of the Home Depot.”  At least Fuqua didn’t actually name the store in the film Home Depot so the movie doesn’t come off like a blatant commercial for the super chain, and Fuqua can’t be accused of building a movie primarily around product placement… but it still kind of feels like that’s what it is.

There are a couple of interesting moments featuring McCall talking about Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea (“Man’s gotta be a man, fish’s gotta be a fish”) or telling Csokas how he’s going to take down his organization “brick by brick” in typical Denzel-speak.  In general, The Equalizer kind of feels like Man on Fire-lite; the film’s tone isn’t as bleak or dark, Denzel’s character isn’t as over-the-edge, and as a result everything just feels similar but more generic.  Again, Fuqua is a competent director, and Denzel is always solid, but The Equalizer tastes like reheated leftovers.  If you like crime movies, The Equalizer delivers and you won’t be disappointed, but it’s not going to wow you, either, and you’ll want to keep your expectations set to moderate.  Here’s hoping that if the Fuqua-Washington collaborations replace the Scott-Washington collaborations as I suspect they might, the two of them aspire to get back to the higher level of quality and relevancy they hit previously with Training Day.  I know Equalizer writer Richard Wenk already has a sequel penned for The Equalizer 2, which may not be the most encouraging of signs.  To put his work, as well as the content of The Equalizer, into focus, he’s the man who gave us the screenplays for 16 Blocks, The Mechanic, and The Expendables 2– not exactly examples of genre re-defining work.

7/10

Nightcrawler trailer (10.31.14 release)

Another day, another trailer for a festival favorite with an early rumored Oscar nomination, this time for Jake Gyllenhaal.  It certainly looks as though he’s been building to this performance over the last few years with the likes of End of Watch, Prisoners, and Enemy.  He’s lost some weight for the role of aspiring crime photographer Lou Bloom, nothing like Bale in The Machinist or McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club, but just enough to physically transform into a leaner, hungrier character.  And that weight loss also makes his eyes, already normally pretty big, seem to pop with feverish intensity.

In some ways, Nightcrawler seems the kind of character study and commentary on life in America during a sinking economy that was more prevalent in the 70’s, and its main theme of media eating away at society an evolution of movies like Network, updated for the internet/TMZ generation.  Rene Russo has been gone for almost a decade now, but her recent appearances in the Thor films may have led to her being cast here, and it looks like a noteworthy performance and perhaps even a possibility for a supporting actress nomination as well.  And Bill Paxton appears to be doing more naturalistic, subdued work that some of his lighter, breezier, more mannered and theatrical performances.  This is also the feature directorial debut of Dan Gilroy, brother of Tony. Tony gave us Michael Clayton, Duplicity, and has been the main screenwriter and architect behind the theatrical Bourne franchise. Most recently, Dan wrote The FallReal Steel, and co-wrote The Bourne Legacy, which apparently led to a deal to direct his own script.

I’m very excited for this one, and hope that the energy we see in the trailer carries throughout the feature.  In a world post-C.S.I., elements like paparazzi and crime photographers racing to beat police to crime scenes, and even altering crime scenes, may not be 100% new or original, but if updated and done right this may strike a nerve in the current climate, particularly if Gyllenhaal’s performance can deliver on the promise shown here.

Published in: on September 18, 2014 at 12:53 pm  Leave a Comment  
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A Game of Thrones review

AGameofThrones

I’ve been enjoying Game of Thrones on HBO, but once upon a time, before the show premiered, I’d initially been interested in reading the novels.  Recently I met someone who was holding off on watching the show until after she read the books, so we decided to start the first book in the series together.  Luckily for me, it’s now been a few years since I watched the first season of GoT, and my memory of it is a bit fuzzy, so my experience with the book wasn’t entirely just a recreation of the show.  That can often be a problem if you watch an adaptation first with a strong vision behind it, and it’s the reason I just read Gone Girl and am currently reading Inherent Vice– two novels with film adaptations coming out in the next few weeks/months where the books themselves are supposed to be very well-written and worthy of one’s time.  While it’s true that sometimes reading a book first can lead to disappointment with an adaptation, watching an adaptation first can deprive you of ever being able to have your own experience with the source material… particularly if the adaptation is a strong one.

But there are some differences in the novel A Game of Thrones that helped me to set it apart somewhat from the series.  Tyrion and Arya are physically described very differently from Peter Dinklage and Maisie Williams.  Tyrion has blonde hair and mismatched, differently-colored eyes, and waddles when he walks significantly more than Dinklage as a result of somewhat misshapen legs.  Arya is described as horse-faced and gangly-limbed, and made me think of a younger, pre-teen version of Sarah Jessica Parker or the girl who played Millie on Freaks and Geeks.  And while I love both actors on the show, the differences in description helped me get away from them a bit to have my own experience with the characters.  But there is much between the novel and show that is spot-on identical, and it’s a huge testament to the show that they were able to create so much of the world so faithfully and successfully.

What really made reading the book after having seen the show worthwhile, however, was the sheer amount of information in the books.  And while it’s not like I ever felt that I was getting a huge download of information about the various extended families in the form of blocky exposition, the fact of the matter is that there is a lot of information that just can’t be communicated within the show.  George R.R. Martin does a really stellar job of working that information into the telling of the story, so that it feels smoothly communicated and doesn’t require huge pauses in the plot or storytelling, but it’s information that couldn’t be communicated in a visual medium without stopping everything to sit down and explain.  The result was that, while reading the books, I understood the relationships between characters much more deeply.  For instance, while watching Game of Thrones, I’m not sure I ever knew that Stephen Dillane, who plays Stannis Baratheon, was Robert’s brother.  I was aware that he was in a different part of the world, slowly building his own army and political forces and collaborating with dark witch Melisandre (Carice van Houten), but the backstory and relationships, and consequently the motivations and possible consequences of his actions, were somewhat lost on me.  Perhaps, in the back of my mind, I did know he was his brother on some level, but I certainly didn’t understand the nature of their relationship or the political nuances of what was happening.  There’s also quite a bit about Robert Arryn, the previous Hand of the King killed prior to the beginning of the series, and his family’s subsequent retreat to the Ayrie, that was lost on me while watching the show.  This was, I think, particularly true during the first season when I, as a viewer, wasn’t familiar with the world or its characters.  I’d have to go back and rewatch that season to see if the information was there and it was just lost to me because I had nothing to attach it to, or if it simply was left unexplained and would automatically be lost to all viewrs.  And while these particular details could have easily been made more clear with more exposition, it’s a constant throughout because of the enormous cast of characters and their intricate web of relationships with one another.  If the show were to take the time to make everything clear, it would literally be an hour each episode of exposition.  It’s some kind of writing miracle that Martin is able to so easily and succinctly communicate all of it in the novel, but he does– yet the written word is predisposed to the ability to do this in a way that visual media is not.

Consequently I found my experience with the world of A Game of Thrones and its characters significantly opened and enriched.  I’m assuming that at some point I will go back and rewatch the show from the beginning, and I’m certain I’ll get even more out of it now as a result of having read the books, as I plan to continue with the other novels in the A Song of Ice and Fire series.  All of  which is to say that I would definitely recommend the books to fans of the show, and rather than being a redundant experience, believe it will also complement and expand your involvement with the Game of Thrones universe as well.

One area that I felt was handled much better in the novel was the character of Jon Snow.  I don’t think Kit Harington is necessarily a bad actor, but he’s very one-note and certainly doesn’t have the kind of charisma that Jon Snow has in the books.  There’s a decent amount of time spent with Snow in the first novel, and I felt much closer to the character and had a deeper understanding of him. That’s also true of the geography of the world and the way all of the storylines interconnect with each other.  Often watching the show the different storylines feel like they’re happening in different, remote parts of the world.  While that may be the case, Martin’s writing frames everything and places it in relationship with each other, so that you have both an understand of where everything is happening physically in relation to each other, and also how the various characters’ actions will immediately alter the delicate balance between everything.

As for the writing itself, Martin is in top form with this series.  The first book is a definite page-turner, no small feat with a page count of about 750.  I’ve already mentioned Martin’s ability to communicate so much expositional information without it ever feeling like walls of text.  And the characters are all complex and forever changing, which I think is probably the greatest hallmark of the series and the reason it’s been so successful in all of its forms.  It’s not enough that Martin has crafted a compelling story (or web of stories), nor that he’s chosen a fantasy setting and richly illustrated the world; he’s also created an enormous, complicated cast of characters that are as fascinating and nuanced as you’d experience in contemporary fiction.  Martin doesn’t simply create archetypes and then let them sit and do the work for him and occasionally play off of them, he’s forever developing and humanizing them and probing deeper into them.  Yet all the while he still maintains a strong storyteller’s voice that allows his fiction to feel like it draws from a world fables and legends, and never becomes adrift or meandering or searching in its own telling.

I’m never one to spoil plot, so I won’t reveal any story details here. And in this case, with the property so in the public consciousness, I don’t feel much of a need to summarize plot or even paint a picture of the world of the novels.  It’s fantasy, both high and low but more low… and it’s some of the best writing being published today and perhaps the best fantasy to ever be published.  Beyond that, what do you need to know?  It’s about life and death, love and friendship, honor and responsibility, morality and faith, courage and fear, soul-searching and purpose.  It’s about everything we experience, told through the prism of this fantasy world via compelling plots, sometimes with surprising twists, and very three-dimensional, human characters, whose strengths and weaknesses sometimes come from the same places.  The language is full and prosaic but never dense and impenetrable, everything interwoven by a master of his craft.

I do wonder if the book would have been even more effective for me if I hadn’t already seen the show and known what was coming. And in some ways, I was waiting to see how certain plot points or story progressions would work in written form.  Martin never disappointed, and reading the book was always a pure joy, even when horrible or bleak things were happening.  Yet I have to assume it would have been even more powerful if I didn’t know what was coming and wasn’t ostensibly waiting for it.  I’m definitely looking forward to catching up to the show and hopefully eventually outpacing it, so that the last several books in the series will be my first experience with their content, and I can experience what that’s like with Martin’s writing.  It’s so strong, it deserves it.

10/10

 

Published in: on September 17, 2014 at 3:09 pm  Comments (2)  
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St. Vincent trailer (10.24.14 release)

There may not be anything here we haven’t seen before, but it’s Bill Murray as we love him best… curmudgeonly and simultaneously corrupting and guiding today’s youth.  It also came in third place recently at TIFF for this year’s audience award (the winner was The Imitation Game, and the first runner-up was Learning to Drive).  It’s got supporting work from strong performers like Melissa McCarthy and Chris O’Dowd, smaller turns from Terrence Howard and Naomi Watts, and the kid opposite Murray (Jaeden Lieberher) appears natural, genuine, and unassuming, which is often not the case with young actors. People are loving Murray’s performance, and there’s talk of a possible Oscar nom.

Birdman trailer (10.17.14 release)

I’m posting a pair of trailers for the upcoming Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu film Birdman.  The first one is a teaser, and it’s brilliant and arty, but it leaves the viewer wondering what the hell is going on beyond the central conceit.  The international trailer reveals more of the plot and supporting performances, and while it might not be as succinct a nugget of brilliance, it demonstrates more of the film’s reach while continuing to promise an awful lot.

At surface level, Birdman is about a washed-up Hollywood comic book movie franchise star (not unlike Keaton post-Batman) trying to prove something to himself with a self-produced vanity Broadway adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story.  The film has been killing at festivals, partly because of the meta aspect, but also based on the strength of the performances.  It’s also uncertain from the trailers how surreal the plot is– i.e. how much of this is in Riggan Thomson’s (Keaton’s) mind and how much may not be. Keaton’s role is said to require several different sides of the actor, and that on all levels he’s pulled it off to an incredible degree.  The film is already being touted for Oscar nominations, particularly for Keaton, and it may put him back on the A-list in a big way.  It’s not so much a discovery, but a re-discovery– reminding us of the many things he can do, and do exceedingly well, and putting them all in one package at a time when we may be wondering why Keaton’s profile has receded in the last 10-20 years as much as it has.  Beyond that, the supporting performances are being talked about across the board as very strong to career bests; it’s also the first comedy director Inarritu has worked on, and the first shoot he’s described as enjoyable.  He previously directed Amores Perros, 21 Grams, Babel, and Biutiful.  The first three are all brilliant films with strong ensembles, but also dark and bleak and often unrelentingly hard to watch.

After Babel, Inarritu and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga parted ways, and as a result both of their careers stumbled.  Biutiful had a lot of potential behind its story concept and boasted a stellar central performance from Javier Bardem, but the film had a tighter, more personal focus with only one storyline that was a departure for Inarritu.  And as if it were possible, Biutiful was perhaps Inarritu’s darkest, bleakest film, while also not really delivering.  It felt as though Inarritu were using it to ask some questions as an artist, questions that he didn’t yet have an answer to, and as a result the film felt meandering and a bit lost.  It appears that with Birdman, Inarritu has answered those questions and found a confident direction forward.  To add to the immersion, Birdman is comprised of very long takes that required the actors to approach it more as a stage play, with most of the cuts hidden so that the film generally feels seamless.  It’s one of my most anticipated films of the year, and I’m equally excited to see where Inarritu goes next.

Whiplash trailer (10.10.14 release)

Just saw this the other day at TIFF, and loved it.  It’s so well done and has such energy behind it that it feels like it’s about 20 minutes long.  Miles Teller should probably get an Oscar nom for his performance, but I have a feeling that probably won’t happen. He’s just not a big enough name yet, and there are plenty of other higher-profile names that will likely, and perhaps comparatively undeservedly, take all of the nomination slots.  A supporting nod for J.K. Simmons may be more realistic.  But no matter, don’t deprive yourself of this wonderful film when it releases in October, and check out both the trailer and the additional clip below for a taste.

Published in: on September 12, 2014 at 10:59 am  Leave a Comment  
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