Frank, Lenny Abrahamson (2014)


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.



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.

Top Ten of 2011, #7: Shame, Steve McQueen

Steve McQueen’s follow-up to his debut Hunger, like Nichols’ Take Shelter, is another re-teaming of an actor/director pair that really should have resulted in an Oscar nomination this past year.  Michael Fassbender turns in a very emotionally raw & naked performance of a sexual compulsive and sex addict living in New York City.

This is the kind of material that could easily slide into exploitation, but McQueen handles everything with such a deft touch, and Fassbender implicitly trusts his director and allows himself to be very vulnerable and emotionally transparent throughout.  We seem to be in an era where American stars are so busy courting huge Hollywood success, and where Hollywood is transfixed with trying to make these boyish man-children into leading men.  Consequently, time and time again the actors who demonstrate a true masculinity and maturity, as well as both an honesty and complexity in their work are coming from Ireland, Britain, and Australia.  Fassbender gave a great performance in this summer’s X-Men: First Class, a big Hollywood film so well-executed that it does pain me a bit that I’m not able to include it in this list.  But here he’s plumbing even darker depths.

Shame didn’t receive a very wide release because of its inability to escape the dreaded NC-17.  And Shame certainly has its share of nudity, including some dangling man parts.  But a lot of this is front-loaded.  The film opens, shows you exactly the things that some audiences may be nervous about seeing, sets the tone, and then moves on.  Once that world has been established, once that level of sexuality is omni-present, McQueen knows he doesn’t need to visually dwell there.  Fassbender’s Brandon Sullivan is such a sexual compulsive, that he can barely go minutes without pursuing some kind of sexual release.  Women he picks up on the street, co-workers, magazines, internet porn, prostitutes– life for Brandon is a non-stop sexual buffet, and there’s nothing he won’t put on his plate.  At one point he even has sex with a man in a sex shop.  But there’s never really any question if Brandon is gay.  It’s simply part of his unending quest for physical release, and a constant need to raise the stakes by pushing his own boundaries farther and farther.

Somehow, Brandon is just barely able to hold down a job.  Part of that probably has to do with the fact that his boss, David Fisher, played by James Badge Dale, has a mess of a home life and sort of hero-worships Brandon.  David is the kind of frat boy who one day grew up and got married and had kids, but doesn’t seem to genuinely emotionally connect with his family.  He’s living an illusion and playing an artificial role of family man, but he’s not above secretly having affairs on the side, or having sex with Brandon’s own sister when she comes to town.  And David is not smooth, not in the least.  Despite the fact that he’s obviously had sexual relations with women, even married one of them, he constantly acts like an idiotic teenager trying to get laid.  As annoying as the character is, including him is a smart move on McQueen’s part because it invites a lot of comparisons with Brandon.  Next to David, Brandon is a very smooth operator.  He’s also much more intelligent.  And for all of his compulsiveness, he’s very self-aware.  This isn’t a teenager’s game to Brandon; it’s something that drives him and haunts him, and his shame throughout is palpable and complex.

The arrival of Brandon’s sister Sissy, played by Carey Mulligan in a performance that equals Fassbender’s, traps Brandon by shining a light on just how far gone he is.  Brandon avoids talking to her as much as possible, but when she literally shows up on his doorstep, there’s nowhere left to run.  It’s quite obvious that both of these characters have suffered some pretty terrible abuse, but McQueen never reveals the full details.  We don’t know if they were molested by their parents, if they were forced to participate in incest with each other, or if the abuse was less overt but just as psychologically damaging.  Either way, sister and brother are both extremely hyper-sexual characters, deeply scarred and in great pain with an intense need for love.  Yet, this need for love has been subverted into the sexual.  And they both pursue it in their own ways, but neither in a way that is healthy or could actually lead them to fulfillment.

Brandon in particular seems more sexually aroused the more he doesn’t know the people he’s with.  Once an emotional connection is made, as is the case when he tries to date a co-worker, his sexual equipment stops working.  It’s a case of that emotional connection representing too great an emotional risk, triggering a system shutdown.  Consequently, Brandon is forever pursuing love and meaning through empty sexual relations that can never amount to anything.  And the empty void of his existence just keeps deepening, widened by shame, and increasing the fevered pitch of his sexual mania.

Brandon tries his best to hide from himself and to keep pushing away a problem that seems to have no solution.  In spite of how debased a character he is, he’s also intelligent, self-aware, and not without a sense of humor.  A dinner date with a co-worker is intensely uncomfortable, but a fascinating look into his psyche.  He tries to be open and honest about his beliefs, while at the same time also knowing how unattractive it makes him.  When the conversation takes a certain turn and he realizes how far gone he must appear, he tries to bring it back with self-effacing humor.  But at a core level, Brandon is simply broken; he lacks trust on such a basic level, that he’s unable to give love to another person without the vulnerability destroying him, and he’s unable to receive it.  His existence has become a non-stop feeding of sexual addiction, but by leading an isolated, solitary existence with no real friends and no family, he’s able to shut down a large part of himself and exist only for the addiction itself.  When Sissy lands in his apartment on his couch, all of that changes.  Not only does he have to deal with repressed feelings that obviously make him uncomfortable, but he has to be more honest with himself about the extent of his mania and the way his life only exists to feed it.

Shame is an incredibly brave film with two incredibly brave and honest central performances.  And while it’s sexually graphic at times, it plays those cards pointedly for their full effect when it needs to, so that most of the film can be spent examining an overtly sexual world through tone and characterization.  It also doesn’t attempt to provide easy answers or to solve its characters lives with lazy melodrama, but recognizes that real change is a process.  Sometimes that process requires a life-changing event for it to be initiated, but continuing to carry through with it is a constant daily struggle, and some days are more successful than others.  While that makes Shame a very honest film in its approach, it also makes it slightly unfulfilling.  It’s bravura filmmaking to be sure, but it’s bravura filmmaking with an ultimately somewhat modest aim.


Haywire, Steven Soderbergh (2012)

I had my doubts going into Haywire, considering it’s been in production limbo as long as it has been.  There were rumors of multiple reshoots and a lengthy editing process to mask Gina Carano’s terrible acting.  Well, either Soderbergh achieved his goal, or the reshoots and editing were simply the result of a sporadic shooting schedule designed to accommodate his actors– Soderbergh has long used a process where he’ll shoot all of a supporting actor’s scenes in an ensemble film at one time, effectively shooting in chunks designed to grab his individual cast members when their schedules have openings between other projects.  A given actor might work for a week, and the larger film is shot almost as a series of short films with each of the supporting actors as the lead, with the true lead actors involved for the entire length of the shoot.

It’s true that Carano may not be the most skilled, versatile, or experienced actress, but for what she has to do here, she acquits herself quite well.  Soderbergh keeps her busy with physical business in the dramatic scenes, and it helps to give her such anchors.  It also certainly doesn’t hurt that she’s playing opposite some very good male actors, and she surely benefits from their experience.  And of course, during the action and fight scenes, Carano is completely in her element and shines quite brilliantly.  Soderbergh also had the foresight to write to her comfort level and tailor the script to her strengths– when she has to dress up for a formal event, there’s discussion about how Mallory isn’t completely comfortable in that kind of social setting.  Soderbergh effectively covers all bases so were Carano to seem slightly uncomfortable in some of these scenes, it would read as part of the character’s uncomfortability.  And it’s refreshing to see a female action lead who is definitely blue collar and comes from a military background.  Not every female spy should also be a leggy supermodel as at home at the cotillion as out in the field, or with the kind of ultra-thin limbs and frame that look as though she’d snap her own arms in half by landing a single punch.  No, Carano definitely has a believable athletic physique, and carries the kind of experience and weight in the role that seems much more realistic from what we’re used to getting on television and at the movies.

Lem Dobbs’ script is brisk and efficient, and between the way it skips along and also backtracks through some backstory, it’s well-paced and effective.  It may not be among Soderbergh’s best films, but it’s definitely worth a watch and much better than you’d expect from its January dumping-ground release date.  It’s worlds better than his last collaboration with a non-actress, The Girlfriend Experience, and for my money it’s a better film, and certainly more entertaining, than his lugubrious and unwieldy Che biopics; I’d also put it ahead of last year’s Contagion, which I ultimately found rather flat and uninvolving, and without a human protagonist to truly care about.  If Carano decides to stick with acting, she certainly appears to have the facility and potential to become a decent actress, particularly if she initially picks the right projects that play to her strengths and give her the room to grow.  This is a perfectly-placed first step, and she demonstrates enough charm and charisma to land her more roles.  The supporting cast all turn in solid work, but for me the standout was Bill Paxton as Mallory’s father.  Paxton is perfect as the kind of Clancy-esque novelist/writer who is likely a conservative Republican with a miltary background of his own and politics that helped lead his daughter to her given career choice.  Father and daughter are definitely two of a pair, even if he doesn’t always know the full extent of what she may have become or be capable of, and Carano and Paxton have an easy, shared chemistry with each other that hints at a lot of deep, complex history.  In fact, there’s enough there to support a relationship between the two across a series of films if Soderbergh were to decide to keep exploring Mallory’s world.

Haywire isn’t going to win any awards, but it’s an action/spy thriller with more intelligence and gritty realism than most of its peers.  Soderbergh makes the smart choice to use some choppy editing to capture street realism when it helps to build the world of the film, but also to pull the camera back and use longer takes when showing Carano in her more physical scenes.  Sometimes, as in the Batman and Bourne movies, the choppy editing can really punctuate the brutality of an action scene.  But too many directors have lazily adapted it to get away with less choreography, using a lot of quick cuts to cover a lack of technique or rehearsal time.  When you’ve got someone as skilled as Carano, the smart move is definitely to pull the cameras back, let the film roll, and showcase the strength of the work by actually letting the audience see the full range of the action.  It’s a breath of fresh air for Soderbergh to have made this choice in counterpoint to what has become a common and overused cinematic hook these days, and it sets the film apart enough that it becomes of the hallmarks of the overall look and texture of the piece.  Much of the other production elements, from the score to the cinematography to the overall production design, are also a bit of a throwback to the films of the 70’s, and help give Haywire a certain amount of naturalism without being artificially punched-up or over-the-top.


%d bloggers like this: