Review: Frank

frank

What does it mean to be a genius? Is this label solely applicable to the Einsteins and Hawkings of the world; celebrated minds with international renown. Or could those without global appreciation still fall under the category? Why are the chefs of Big Joe’s Downtown Barbecue less of a genius than those who study quantum physics? They are just as, if not more talented in their craft than any person with a PhD next to their name. And which of us is qualified to determine exactly who is a genius and who isn’t? Is my opinion on genius somehow any more valid than yours? Perhaps all it takes to be a genius is to find a group of people who accept you, and your mind, for what it is; your friends, family.

These are the ideas that director Lenny Abrahamson explores in his new film Frank. Simultaneously a harsh indictment of the current state of the music industry and a ponderous thesis on the nature of genius (if such a title is even important), Frank  has a lot on its mind. Oftentimes, when I speak in front of groups, the ideas that are so clearly formed in my head come out slightly discoherent and difficult to understand. I often ask myself “How do you express such intricate ideas in a limited period of time?” I feel like the same applies to Frank on many occasions. Its big ideas fail to consistently manifest themselves into a cohesive motion picture. Some sections feel disjointed, and character interactions oftentimes fail to establish the relationships that become so crucial to the narrative. Abrahamson clumsily utilizes voice-over narration to set-up the story, and it often comes off as false. The movie is much better when it shows you its ideas rather than when it tries to tell you them.

With that being said, I will stay say that the movie is still largely a success. You walk out of the theater feeling moved by the experience; maybe the route it takes isn’t the best, but the film definitely reaches a satisfying destination. Michael Fassbender gives a great performance as Frank; a character that could have ended up being very one-note turns into someone quite dynamic. Sure, he’s often very funny (his character wears a giant paper-mache mask at all times, what can you expect?) but there’s a level of pain beneath it all. What is going on beneath that giant mask of his? Without spoiling anything, the answer to this question (or maybe lack thereof) works on every level. The rest of the performances work as well: Maggie Gyllenhaal tries a bit too hard as Frank’s second-in-command, but her character comes as convincing nonetheless. The other side members of the band are all played well, with Scoot McNairy making great use of his relatively few minutes on screen. It’s actually the lead performance by Domhnall Gleeson that leaves the most to be desired; the movie plunges into some dark territory, but he fails to bring the proper gravitas to the proceedings. He more or less  acts throughout the entire movie as if its an off-kilter comedy, and while it is that, it is also so much more. It’s unfortunate that he fails to take advantage of this depth.

The movie is about the journey of Frank’s band, and as such the soundtrack is quite good. Whether or not you think Frank is a genius by the end of the movie, you’ll at least appreciate his music. There’s a standout song that Frank improvises about a “lone, standing tuft” on a rug that will have the entire theater smiling. Like I said, there’s also some commentary about the current music industry’s emphasis on popularity and “likability” (the script has a lot of fun with that word), and while it’s on-point with its judgement, it really is just a side-note that accentuates the story’s headier themes. And that’s really the main reason I like this movie so much; it has a lot to say, but it doesn’t take itself too seriously. If the movie ever begins to feel too dour, it will promptly remind you that, hey, this weird Frank guy is wearing a giant paper-mache mask. What the hell is wrong with him? Is there anything wrong with him at all? Is he crazy or a genius? Both? The answers to these questions are entirely subjective, and I highly recommend that you go and see this movie to figure out what your stance is.

I give Frank an . . . .

A-

That means go see it right now!

So have you seen Frank? Do you agree with my assessment? Let me know below!

In other news, college is going well-enough, but it’s definitely keeping me busy. I don’t know how much content I’ll be able to put out there from here on out, but I will stay consistent with my reviews for the AFI Challenge. Thanks for your understanding!

Advertisements

Review: Calvary

calvaryposter

It’s difficult to watch a film with such exciting potential flounder in its attempt to reach greatness. In your mind, you see the movie it could have become, a classic that would be remembered for years. Yet what you see in your mind and what you see on the screen are two very different things; the actual movie ends up letting you down, all the more because you see how close it was to achieving its ambitions. Unfortunately, I have to say that this is the case with Calvary, the latest film from Irish director John McDonagh.

From the very first scene, you get a taste of the exquisite filmmaking potential lying beneath all of Calvary‘s flaws. Father James Lavelle, played by Brendan Gleeson, sits in the confessional booth, when a parishioner walks in and tells him that he “first tasted semen when he was seven years old.” “Quite the opening line,” remarks Lavelle, but you can tell he immediately regrets it. You see, Lavelle is far from a perfect man, but he is by all accounts a decent one and a very good priest. Gleeson does a great job making use of this multifaceted character. It’s a subtly great performance, one that you begin to respect immediately. Indeed, Gleeson’s reaction is remarkably genuine when the parishioner says that he’s going to kill Lavelle; not because he’s a bad priest, like the one who raped the parishioner, but because he’s a good one. “Killing a priest on a Sunday. That’ll be a good one.”

This scene grabs your attention immediately; it’s a terrific concept that’s made even better in a later scene. Lavelle reveals to the local bishop that he, and he alone, knows the identity of the person who threatened to take his life; the viewer is still left in the dark. As the movie develops, it’s fascinating to watch Lavelle interact with the various members of the local community while you try to figure out if he’s talking to the killer. Is it that guy? Or maybe him? Or even him???

It’s regrettable, then, that it is in this area that Calvary starts to falter. Much of the film involves a variety of side characters who live in this rural Irish town, and it tries to show you who they are and why they make certain decisions. But the film struggles to make any of these citizens seem anything like real people, and their interactions with Lavelle often come off as totally hamfisted. Even when you are given some expository information on a character, many of their actions still make little sense. This is very damaging to a film where the supporting cast is just as, if not more important to the main story than the protagonist himself.

A major part of this problem is that this movie can’t seem to decide what it wants to be; a black comedy, or a dark drama with occasional comedic elements. The truth is that it works far better as the latter, but all too often will try to be the former. The best parts of the movie are those where its serious and ponderous, and then throws in a quirky event to lighten the otherwise dour mood. But instead it will randomly alternate between long stretches of bleak storytelling (good) and then mostly pointless comedic exercises (bad). When a commoner engages Lavelle in a prolonged discussion about him feeling violent  due to his inability to get laid, you’re not laughing at the exchange, but instead thinking how out of place it feels with the rest of the film. The same could be said of when an arrogant millionaire urinates on one of his many valuable paintings. Some people in the theater laughed, but most stayed silent. This is a gloomy movie about pitch-black subject matter; you don’t want to laugh at what’s happening, despite its many attempts to make you do so.

Luckily, it all eventually culminates in a fitting conclusion that I did find to be rather poignant. Without spoiling anything, I will say that the reveal of the would-be killer is well-done. The ending will undoubtedly provoke discussion on what message the story is trying to convey, as it could be interpreted in many different ways. I suspect that this is exactly what McDonagh intended.

When looking back on Calvary, I see a movie with an excellent opening and closing, and then a lot of mehhh tucked in between. I will say that its a decent film, but not the great one that it tries to be. There are simply too many problems for me to say this is the “important” film that some are claiming it to be. Nonetheless, I caught myself the next day contemplating its fantastic ending and somber themes. Despite my many concerns, there’s something to be said for a movie that can stick with you.

I give Calvary a….

B-

That means go see it if you’re interested.

So have you seen Calvary? Do you agree with my assessment? Let me know below!

Calvary Info
Directed by: John McDonagh
Written by: John McDonagh
Starring: Brendan Gleeson, Kelly Reilly, Chris O'Dowd, and Aiden Gillen
Running Time: 101 minutes
Release Date: August 1, 2014 (United States)
Production Company: Reprisal Films, Octagon Films, and Protagonist Pictures

Review: Guardians of the Galaxy

Guardians_of_the_Galaxy_46

The dastardly alien Ronan the Accuser has begun his siege on the benevolent planet of Xandar. Entire cities burst into flames and thousands  probably die by the minute. If Ronan’s plan succeeds, the entire planet will be decimated. In a last ditch effort to stop this evil force, our heroes rush aboard the villain’s flagship. Within seconds, Ronan’s guards flank the protagonists from all sides, surrounding them. The heroes adopt defensive stances, preparing for an imminent attack. One guard glares at the heroes’ leader, his gaze piercing deep into his soul. Our hero stares back. With menace and hatred behind his voice, the guard addresses this leader: “Star Lord.” Peter Quill, the leader of the so-called “Guardians of the Galaxy,” breaks into an appreciative smile. “Finally!” he retorts gratefully, feeling that it’s about time someone addressed him by his code name.

You see, Peter, played by an exceptional Chris Pratt, has been labeling himself as the inter-galactic rogue “Star Lord” for years, and this is the first time ever that someone has addressed him as such. The universe could be burning, and that wouldn’t stop him from enjoying the hell out of this moment. That is until the guard hits him with a sucker punch right to the gut, but that’s not really relevant.

I apologize if you feel that I’ve “spoiled” crucial parts of the movie with my little intro, but I promise that you really shouldn’t worry about knowing plot details ahead of time. From the moment the film introduces Ronan and his flagship, I had a decent idea of what the climax was going to look like, and I certainly anticipated Peter/Star Lord to have a moment similar to the one I described above (not that it was any less enjoyable because of that). To be perfectly frank, Guardians of the Galaxy‘s primary plot is rather predictable, uninteresting even. Where this movie truly excels is in the creation of its characters. Each “Guardian” has a surprising amount of depth, and a lot of heart, which keeps the film compelling even when it’s story feels stale. And, as demonstrated by the above anecdote, it’s really funny and all around fun.

With this movie, Chris Pratt is offically a superstar. He depicts Peter as an arrogant asshole with many flaws, but, in his own words, “still isn’t 100% a dick.” In fact, as we learn from an emotional opening scene (which is important to the story, but not very well-executed), Peter has some demons of his own that he struggles with. You always know that he’s a good guy underneath, but he doesn’t, and it’s fascinating to watch him discover the hero within himself. It’s not exactly easy to pull off, but Pratt does it.

Speaking of characters that are hard to pull off, Rocket Raccoon, another “Guardian,” goes through a character arc similar to Peter’s, but there core personalities are different. Whereas Peter is a bit of an asshole, Rocket is straight-up crazy and unpredictable. I didn’t think I was going to care for this character going in, but Bradley Cooper brings him to life in ways I didn’t think possible. Seriously, this is probably the most impressive voice work within a film in at least the last several years. He’s zany and irreverent, but also struggles with his own feelings of inferiority due to the fact that he’s, well, a talking raccoon. Accompanying him is Groot, a walking tree-like alien who, as I’m sure you know, can only say the words (as voiced by Vin Diesel) “I am Groot.” Although he’s light on dialogue, he just might be favorite character of the movie. He has a pure soul, something no other character can make claim to. As a sci-fi sidekick, he’s a modern Chewbacca.

I am Groot

I am Groot

Zoe Saldana plays Gamora, a character much less showy than her counterparts, but she does a good job with the material that she’s given. Unfortunately, she’s saddled with an unimpressive sub-plot regarding a rivalry with her evil sister. Saldana does the best she can, but the chemistry just isn’t there. The last Guardian is Drax the destroyer, who’s played by the professional wrestler Dave Batista. His backstory involving a slain family and a quest for vengeance is as clichéd as can be, but you grow to love him nonetheless.

There are some smaller roles in the film as well, each played with varying degrees of success. Lee Pace tries hard to inhabit Ronan, but despite some visual flair in the character design, he’s not a particularly engaging villain. Glenn Close is just sort of “there” as leader of Xandar. She doesn’t do a bad job, but her character is rather pointless and could have been played by anyone. Michael Rooker is underused as a side-antagonist with a personal connection to Quill, as is Benicio del Toro as a shady artifact broker. I did love John C. Reily here, however; he’s given the perfect amount of screen-time and makes the best of every second.

While this movie does belong to the characters, the universe that surrounds them is quite impressive. The visual effects are top-notch, the alien creatures creatively designed, and the gadgets unique and original. I don’t want to give out many specific details, but  there’s a particular scene involving a “remote-controlled” arrow that is a distinct highlight.

When all’s said and done, this movie is just plain fun. You see so many comic-book movies that try to be dark and serious that it’s refreshing to have such an unconventional change of pace. Now that this movie has scored +$90 million at the box office, I feel it’s safe to assume we have another Marvel franchise on our hands. I’m happy to report that it’s well-deserved.

I give Guardians of the Galaxy a . . .

B

That means go see it whenever you have some free-time on your hands!

So have you seen Guardians of the Galaxy? Do you agree with my assessment? Let me know below!

Review: A Most Wanted Man

amostwantedmanposter

You always feel a pang of sadness when you encounter a work of art by an artist who passed away too early in their lives. It’s hard to read the great novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald and not ponder what other great literary ideas he could’ve given us. How far could James Dean’s career have gone had he not died at a tragically young age? Even listening to Biggie Smalls elicits sadness from me, just because it’s hard to imagine any other rapper holding his same level of talent. I expect that from this point on, this is how we will feel when watching films with Phillip Seymour Hoffman in them.

Hoffman owns his role in A Most Wanted Man, the last starring role he had prior to his tragic death earlier this year. I was happy to watch another incredible performance from Hoffman, but simultaneously sad to know that it’s likely to be the last we’ll ever see from him. Nonetheless, it was a still marvel to watch Hoffman lose himself in yet another character. Here he plays Günter Bachmann, a chain-smoking drinker who heads a shadowy anti-terrorist organization in Hamburg, Germany. While all of the characters, including Günter, inexplicably speak English at all times, each actor easily convinces the audience that they are actually German, not just Americans playing Germans.

Günter is tracking a half-Chechen, half-Russian immigrant with terrorist ties while simultaneously keeping tabs on a wealthy Islamic businessman/philanthropist whose dealings may be shadier than he lets on. The less you know about this movie’s plot going in, the better. It moves at a slow, methodical pace that some people might find “boring.” But know that with each passing minute, director Anton Corbijn carefully pieces together a puzzle with a wide cast of characters, each with disparate motives (the plot is based off the John le Carre novel of the same name).

The key players are almost unanimously portrayed with a delicate level of skill. Willem Dafoe plays a banker who unwittingly gets ensnared in Günter’s scheming, while Rachel McAdams plays the lawyer looking after the immigrant, who’s played by relative newcomer Grigoriy Dobrygin. The chemistry between McAdams and Dobrygin is well-executed, and provides a crucial element of heart to a movie that often seems rather cold. Speaking of cold, the normally excellent Robin Wright pops in on occasion as a CIA operative, but fails to make any impression. She develops a relationship with Günter that seems awkward and forced. Maybe its just because Hoffman is so good, but she really pales in comparison.

But it really can’t be overstated, Hoffman is the key to this movie’s success. He adds depth to a character that could have easily become a stereotype, and never lets you know exactly who Günter is beneath his callous exterior. That is, until the film’s ending. All of the slow pacing and careful plotting leads to a surprisingly involving finale. As Corbijn lays the final piece in the puzzle, you just watch, heart-racing, unsure if someone is going to come out of the shadows and throw the entire puzzle to the ground.  I’ll stay silent on whether or not that happens, but you should definitely go watch this movie to find out.

I give A Most Wanted Man an …

A-

That means go see it right now!

Also, if you’re interested (I know you must be, all of my content is really interesting) I would put A Most Wanted Man at #4 on yesterday’s list of my favorite films of the year so far.

So have you seen A Most Wanted Man? Do you agree with my assessment? Let me know below!

My Top Movies of 2014 (So Far…)

Earlier today I went to see the movie A Most Wanted Man in the theaters, and I decided that in between my reviews for the AFI Challenge, I could give you guys my opinions on recent releases that I have seen. So, on that note, expect a review for A Most Wanted Man within the next day.

To fill that time, I thought I’d give you guys a rundown of my favorite movies of the year so far, with just a brief description as to why I love them so much! For the purpose of building suspense for my review of A Most Wanted Man (I’m sure you must be counting the minutes), I’m going to exclude that movie from consideration on this list. Without further ado…

10. 22 Jump Street: An absolutely hilarious riot that really had no business being anywhere near as funny as it turned out to be. Despite having many surface similarities to the original, this sequel managed to take that concept and turn it into it’s own distinct story (if you even consider these movies to have a “story). The entire cast once again turns in great comedic performances, but Channing Tatum steals the show. This guy has a surprising amount of range, and he puts it on display here.

9. The Internet’s Own Boy: Uplifting. Ponderous. Shocking. Heartbreaking. These are all words that could be used to describe the story told in this documentary chronicling Aaron Swartz’s tragically short life. As a piece of filmmaking, it’s not particularly impressive, but the true story that it tells is one that everybody should see. One of the year’s most important movies.

8. The Grand Budapest Hotel: Wes Anderson has another winner on his hands. After Moonrise Kingdom, one of my all time favorite movies, I wasn’t sure if Anderson could craft a satisfying follow-up. However, with the help of a great lead performance by Ralph Fiennes, he does exactly that. A fun and quirky (who would’ve thought?) adventure, whose best scene, surprisingly, involves a cat being thrown out of a window. I think this is the only movie in history where that statement is a compliment, rather than an insult.

7. Begin Again: There’s something beautiful about the power of music, and John Carney, director of Once, certainly knows how to take advantage of it. Bolstered off of strong performances by Mark Ruffalo and Keira Knightley, this movie proceeded to completely win me over with its lovely soundtrack and fun story.

6. Neighbors: I don’t care if he plays himself in every single movie, Seth Rogen is a funny dude with reasonably strong acting chops. This movie proved to be a perfect showcase for his talents, which he uses to spar with the equally excellent Rose Byrne and, shocker, Zac Efron. I’m serious… Zac Efron is really good in this movie. Could this be to him what 21 Jump Street was to Channing Tatum? I think so. What puts this particular movie so high up on this list, though, is its heart. I genuinely cared about the characters and their relationships by the end of this movie; it all came off as authentic and meaningful. These days, that’s a rare thing to find in a comedy.

5. Mistaken for Strangers: I am very biased in my love for this film, because The National is one of my current favorite bands (if you don’t know who they are, go look them up now. “Lemonworld,” “Sea of Love,” and “Fake Empire” are my favorite songs of theirs. Now go!). That being said, this is a very strong piece of documentary movie-making all on its own. Not content to simply be the band’s “concert movie,” director Tom Berninger, brother of The National’s lead singer Matt Berninger, crafts a deeply touching story about their relationship as brothers. If you have siblings that you are close to, I guarantee you will be quite moved by this film, and its especially terrific final scene.

4. Obvious Child: Don’t let its moniker as the “abortion comedy” steer you away from this really poignant tale. While I don’t expect ardent pro-life supporters to enjoy this movie, I found it to be lovely and I’m not even sure of my own views on the issue of abortion. Jenny Slate delivers a layered, yet hilarious lead performance. What I loved most about this movie was that it completely avoided this topic’s common tropes. The characters don’t treat abortion in an overly-dramatic, Oscar-bait type way, but instead in a manner that I expect most (pro-choice) twenty-somethings with an unwanted pregnancy would actually react. There’s something to be said for a movie that’s able to exercise such restraint.

3. Ida: Ida presents a pretty compelling case as to why color in movies is an unnecessary gimmick. Beautifully shot in beautiful black-and-white, with a beautiful story and beautiful performances, I found this film to be rather beautiful (I’m now at the point where I’m not sure if beautiful is a real word lollll). There’s a certain methodical nature to many European films that American audiences often find “boring.” It is true. The story of Anna, a nun who discovers that she is of Jewish ancestry and that her real name is Ida, isn’t exactly the most gripping of movies. But through its disciplined plotting, Ida builds to a conclusion that touched me in a way very few American films are even capable of.

2. Snowpiercer: Does Snowpiercer have some minor inconsistencies in the presentation of its world? Yes, definitely. And you know what? I don’t care. This is one of the most joyfully creative movies I’ve seen in a long time. My fascination with this world and story was reminiscent of how I felt watching Star Wars for the first time. I was just smiling throughout all of its unexpected twists and turns, soaking in the aesthetic pleasures that came with them. All of it builds to an ending that is as satisfying as it is insane. Some may not warm up to the style of Korean director Bong Joon-ho, but for me? The snow was definitely pierced. (I’m funny right?)

1. Boyhood: I’m probably one of thousands of people who considers Boyhood to be their favorite film of 2014 thus far. And you know why? Because it’s an absolutely amazing movie. Much has been made of director Richard Linklater’s decision to film the movie over the course of twelve years, but that’s far from the best thing about this movie. Instead, that method enables Linklater to convey his more touching messages regarding the very essence of not just growing up, but living life in general. Each individual scene is generally not related to the ones that came before it or those that will follow. But when put together, they create a beautifully realized portrait of a young man’s life. As an 18 year old boy who has lived in the exact same span of time that this movie was filmed, I of course related to the story. But my 50 year old mom found it to be just as wonderful as I did, as did my girlfriend. This movie will affect you no matter your age or gender. And I am not a crier, in any way, but after this movie ended, I wept like a little baby. I’m sure in a year, this movie will be in the upper half of my favorite movies of all time.

So, what do you guys think of my choices? Did I make any egregious errors, or exclude one of your favorite movies? Keep in my mind that I have not seen anywhere near all the movies released this year. Let me know what you think!