2014: Part 3

Frank. Directed by Lenny Abrahamson. Fascinating movie? Sure. Great? No, I’m not certain that it is. Michael Fassbender might actually be an even better actor with the papier-mâché head than without it. He’s good, though, as is Maggie Gyllenhaal, who I liked better than usual because she actually has an interesting character, unlike other stuff I’ve seen her play like in The Dark Knight and Won’t Back Down (although, to be fair, she had some great moments in Secretary and I don’t remember whether or not her character had “character” in Stranger Than Fiction). Both actors succeed in their roles because they’re not always easy to understand. Gyllenhaal in particular makes the sex scene she’s in simultaneously hilarious and a little frightening. Domhnall Gleeson, on the other hand, has a more complicated character: he serves as our protagonist and yet he is ironically out of place and in some ways unlikeable because he is too “normal” and ready to sell out for success. As in another movie I saw this year, Chef, social media plays an important role in advancing the plot. (I’m waiting for the day when Twitter becomes passé and it looks even sillier than it already does to see Tweets onscreen.) At least in Frank there’s a sense of mocking in the ridiculousness of Gleeson’s Tweeting (“#livingthedream”). Other high points of the film: Scoot McNairy as the band’s disturbed manager, Tess Harper and Bruce McIntosh in their brief scene as Frank’s parents, Carla Azar as the drummer (clearly the most musically talented of any of them) and François Civil as the French bassist. Neither Azar nor Civil has much in the way of screenwritten substance, but Civil gets bonus points for being incredibly attractive, so at least he’s a draw for the eye. The film is let down by its third act, which I guess works out the only way it could have, but it kind of deflates the bubble of eccentric charm that the film had going for it. I understand why the film went where it went, and the ending does make sense in its strange way, but I still couldn’t help feeling disappointment. Frank is worth seeing, though, especially for the song that ought to be a hit single, “I Love You All.”

Miss Meadows. Directed by Karen Leigh Hopkins. I really enjoyed this weird little movie. The most common association made is that it’s a vigilante version of Mary Poppins (since Katie Holmes plays a prim-and-proper schoolteacher) but I think the better cinematic comparisons to make are Blue Velvet (violent and sexual tensions in a seemingly idyllic small town; dark comedy; stylized acting) and Taxi Driver (using violence to rid the world of other violent people; using your own rationales to determine who should be got rid of; a balance of naiveté and cynicism). I thought Katie Holmes did a really great job since she could portray both the innocent, childlike, stunted characterization and also the fragile, emotional, sexually aware woman in the process of emerging. I also enjoyed James Badge Dale’s performance as the sheriff who uneasily falls in love with Miss Meadows. Callan Mulvey is also memorable as the neighborhood sex offender, as are Ava Kolker as a student who takes a shine to Miss Meadows, Mary Kay Place as Miss Meadows’ next-door neighbor and Jean Smart as Miss Meadows’ mother. Some of Joan Sobel’s editing wasn’t to my liking, but Barry Markowitz’s cinematography was pretty good. (The film also has a fun cover of “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’” by Katie Holmes.) There’s something fascinating about a female character who cannot be controlled by men, not to mention viewing the film as the product of a female writer-director; maybe the film will eventually gain a cult following that will create some discourse on its themes.

St. Vincent. Directed by Theodore Melfi. This dramedy’s screenplay shows its seams quite often, hitting expected notes and even a few too many obstacles for Bill Murray’s Vincent character. The film is enjoyable, but it’s not subtle in its writing. Murray does very good work in the moments when you see the emotion in his face and his actions rather than in the not-so-great dialogue. (The dancing scenes, particularly “Somebody to Love,” are terrific.) I was often reminded of what Roger Ebert wrote about Murray’s performance in Broken Flowers: “No actor is better than Bill Murray at doing nothing at all, and being fascinating while doing it.” Murray shines the most when he is allowed to just act instead of overdoing it with the spoken word. Murray has some great scenes in the film, when the screenplay doesn’t overpower you with the hitting-you-over-the-head verbiage. I also enjoyed Melissa McCarthy’s performance, which felt realistic and relatable, and Jaeden Lieberher as McCarthy’s precocious young son (who is the film’s other protagonist). Chris O’Dowd is very good too as Lieberher’s teacher at Catholic school, including some truly funny lines. Naomi Watts’ character has a pretty ridiculous Russian (?) accent, which doesn’t work for me, and other supporting performances by Terrence Howard and Ann Dowd are mere cameos which don’t allow for character development. On the other hand, there is good work by Kimberly Quinn, Lenny Venito, Nate Corddry, Dario Barosso, Donna Mitchell, Reg E. Cathey, Deirdre O’Connell and Ron McLarty, who don’t appear for long either but who leave good impressions. It’s nice to see what I think of as the real Brooklyn (Sheepshead Bay), so that’s good, but ultimately I don’t think that this is a great movie or an out-and-out comedy. See it for Murray, McCarthy, O’Dowd and young Lieberher most of all.

The Theory of Everything. Directed by James Marsh. Overall this is a really good movie. The melodrama is a little heavy-handed at times, but Marsh knows how to handle emotion since he made the really affecting documentary Project Nim three years ago. Eddie Redmayne deserves so much awards love for his excellent and transformative performance as Stephen Hawking, including physical components that I’m sure were difficult to achieve. Felicity Jones also does a very good job as Jane Hawking, a role that shows the intense strain put on her character by the weight of having to take care of her husband. The ever-dependable David Thewlis does nicely as Stephen’s professor-mentor, while other good performances are given by Harry Lloyd as Stephen’s Cambridge roommate Brian, Simon McBurney as Stephen’s father, Emily Watson as Jane’s mother and Maxine Peake as Stephen’s caretaker Elaine. I don’t have quite so positive a reaction to Charlie Cox, who plays choral director Jonathan (another of Stephen’s caretakers); I just don’t get much of a sense of “acting” out of him. Otherwise, there is generally very good work from the actors, Redmayne and Jones obviously having the best showcases. Benoît Delhomme’s cinematography gives a warmth to the film, enhancing the look of certain scenes with a delicate glow that helps create a sense of the 60s and 70s. I definitely recommend the film, even if you’re like me and you have zero comprehension of physics; ultimately it is a film about love and the struggle to survive unimaginable obstacles.

20,000 Days on Earth. Directed by Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard. Put simply, this is my favorite film of the year so far. From the thrilling opening sequence fast-forwarding through Nick Cave’s life to the ferocious, life-affirming concert scene at the Sydney Opera House, the film totally changed my perspective on music, memory, writing and on my appreciation for how a documentary can blend the real and the unreal to create a unique narrative. The greatest benefits were not simply that I discovered Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds (although, admittedly, I had been peripherally aware of the band for nearly a decade, ever since seeing Wings of Desire – more on that in an upcoming post about that specific film), but also that I discovered Grinderman, The Birthday Party/The Boys Next Door, Rowland S. Howard (if you have never listened to his album Teenage Snuff Film, you have missed out on one of the finest solo efforts of the last 15 years), Mick Harvey, Blixa Bargeld and all the other extraordinarily talented musicians who have worked with Cave in the past forty years. In the two months since seeing the film (an experience so great that I went back to see it again two weeks later), my taste in music has undergone such a seismic shift… and I dig it. I also have to give a shout-out to Erik Wilson for such beautiful cinematography, especially in the shots of Brighton and the film’s last shot in Sydney.

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