Tuesday, September 30, 2014

[Review] The Boxtrolls

The Boxtrolls is the third feature release from Laika Entertainment, the studio renowned for their unique and subversive style of stop-motion animation. Their craft is still commendable here, but The Boxtrolls can't help but feel like a slight step down in terms of storytelling. It lacks the haunting inventiveness of Coraline, as well as the wit and meaningful spine of ParaNorman

In the land of Cheesebridge, a haughty neighborhood rests on a tall hill. Beneath it, lies the underground steam-punk lair of the Boxtrolls. The Boxtrolls are little critters that each occupy their own cardboard box, as a turtle would with its shell. They speak their own language in throaty voices, reminiscent of the friendly side of Gollum from Lord of the Rings. Eggs (Isaac Hempstead-Wright) is a human boy who was raised with the Boxtrolls ever since he was a baby (his backstory reveals later).

There's a misconception between the two societies, and the town-folk think the Boxtrolls are dangerous flesh-eaters, but that couldn't be further from the truth. However, the film's despicable villain, Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley), devises a plan to capture all the Boxtrolls. And thus, Eggs must rise to the occasion and come out of his shell in order to rescue the Boxtrolls, with some help from Winnie (Elle Fanning), a curious girl he befriends.

It's actually a reasonably familiar story of nature vs nurture and the role reversals of good & evil. A couple of Snatcher's henchmen even contemplate if what they're doing is right or wrong throughout the entire film. Similar themes were explored in the recent watercolor tale Ernest and Celestine. While the concept is agreeable, it just isn't as bold or rich as the subjects conveyed in past Laika efforts. Even the humor pales in comparison to the wild shenanigans of Coraline and ParaNorman. When Eggs ventures into town, the usual fish-out-of-water gags run amok. A few smirk and chuckleworthy moments bite, but nothing too rambunctious. And unless I somehow missed it, the scene with the farting Boxtroll from the previews isn't in the movie and that's pretty disappointing.

The film also lacks some of the creepier "how did this get into a kids movie?" imagery from the other two installments. Not that this needed to be scary, but it's another void element that places this in the lesser section of Laika. But even considering some of these gripes, the film is never bad--it's just that it's a seen-it-before template placed within a stop-motion, clay-mation world. Speaking of the animation, though, it's wonderful here. The steam-punk motif cranks in a lot of kinetic energy within the Burton-like set designs, and the clay beings all look delightfully weird. It's hard not to think of all the meticulous, tedious, and back-breaking work that went into just a few seconds from each scene.

The Boxtrolls carries some disappointments, but this isn't stopping me from looking forward to whatever Laika still has to offer.


Monday, September 29, 2014

[Review] As Above, So Below

The found-footage horror concept has been fruitful for long enough to render its high points and its stinkers. As Above, So Below is one of the stinkers. While the tactic seems like a proper choice for this intriguing catacomb setting, the execution wears thin and the film descends into a shaky blur of subgenre clichés. The bad ones.

After nearly 30 minutes of anthropology lessons, Scarlett (Perdita Weeks), the only non-annoying character, rounds up a group of explorers in order to film a documentary about her search for a treasure stone in the catacombs of Paris. With so many residing bones and demonic ritual practices over the years, the underground tunnels have manifested into a cursed and dangerous place.

Despite possessing a couple of eerie bits and sounds, any sense of creepy consistency is frustratingly obstructed by the camerawork. In conventional horror, sometimes the things we can't see are exactly what makes it effective, but in the case of this film, it's like "Yo, we actually can't see anything." Of course the claustrophobia, lack of lighting, and narrow sightlines come with the territory, but it seems like every time something that is intended to be abruptly frightening occurs, the camera points toward a dark wall and we just hear a bunch of people shouting, "Oh my God!" And furthermore, the constant shaky-cam devolves from realism to an inducer of motion sickness.

There's an instance in the film when a character asks, "What are we looking for?" And another character responds with, "I don't know." I felt the same way.


Friday, September 26, 2014

[Review] The Skeleton Twins

Saturday Night Live alums Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader star as estranged siblings in this affecting tragicomedy. Even though hilarity is often present and there are deliciously timed jokes, anyone expecting the usual light and care-free humor of this duo's past catalog is going to be greeted with a somber awakening. The Skeleton Twins navigates some dark and sensitive places, and Wiig and Hader find themselves diving into heavily dramatic territory, and it's done with impressive rigor.

After Maggie (Wiig) and Milo (Hader) both have a close-call with suicide, they reunite with each other under unfortunate circumstances for the first time in over 10 years. Maggie invites Milo to come stay at her house in an attempt to obtain some stability and patch up their strained relationship. The brother and sister harbor some weighty secrets, and the film's nuanced, layered story revolves around the symbolic 'skeleton twins' as they confront past and present conflicts. The soft-lighted memory flashes of their early, innocent childhood cast a spell of nostalgia throughout the stay.

The chemistry between Wiig and Hader is superbly infectious, lending full dimensions to their dysfunctional bonds. The characters have carried over a childlike aura into their adult lives and their tongues are planted firmly in cheek. "I can't wait to be the creepy gay uncle," Milo says when he hears Maggie and her husband (Luke Wilson) plan to have a baby. The film's highlight is a scene where the twins playfully lip-sync Starship's "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us". The moments of bonding thrill with delight, and the moments of anguish and bouts with severe depression are heartwrenching.

The Skeleton Twins serves that potent blend humor and solemnity that provokes laughter and tears. It's masterfully toned and emotionally raw, dealing with matters of mental illness as well as life's crushing complications and disappointments. Wiig and Hader give the best performances of their careers, embodying these characters with so much more than just flesh and bone.


Thursday, September 25, 2014

[Review] A Walk Among the Tombstones

The intriguingly titled A Walk Among the Tombstones arrives just in time amidst the brisk autumn winds and grey overcast. Neeson finds himself in a very Neesian role, but it's gritter and more grounded than say, this year's airplane (and surprisingly entertaining) conundrum Non-Stop.

In the opening sequence, the tone is set abruptly when we see an unkempt, world-weary Matthew Scudder (Neeson) sitting in a dingy bar that looks similar to the one from this month's The Drop. A group of criminals storm in and fire a number of shots. Scudder reacts by hunting all of them down after they flee the joint. But of course, there's more to this part of the story that gets revealed later on.

Flash forward eight years later and we see Scudder, clean-shaven and sober. He's finished working for the NYPD, and now he's an unlicensed private investigator. He's hired by a high-ranking drug trafficker (Dan Stevens) to track down his wife's murderers. It's a fairly straightforward premise, and the narrative's few twists are less-so twists and more-so hiccups and revelations.

Moving at a True Detective-like pace, the first half involves a lot of asking around, gathering information, and flashbacks. The second half intensifies as Scudder obtains leads and finally initiates contact with the group of brutal and perverted killers. Suspense and anticipation runs high as we wonder how all this transpires. Perfectly eerie music fills the background, and death looms over everyone in the film. A showdown in an actual graveyard completely pays off the title.

While the supporting characters aren't that interesting (and some of the cast members are less than stellar), and the film doesn't quite offer up anything new or particularly outstanding, A Walk Among the Tombstones is a solid enough crime drama and Neeson's haunting presence gives it a chilling edge.


Wednesday, September 24, 2014

[Review] The Maze Runner

The Maze Runner, based on a YA novel of the same (which I haven't read), joins the trend in getting the big screen treatment. The film is sort of a mixture of Holes, Lord of the Flies and Hunger Games, and it isn't difficult to understand the hype. Despite its sometimes muddling and repetitive story, the film serves as a decent adventure fantasy and survival thriller, but it doesn't do much more than that.

The film opens with Thomas (Dylan O'Brien) getting launched up an elevator and transported to a dystopian zone full of teenage dudes. He has no recollection of the outside world, aside from some cryptic memory flashes that serve some conspiracy mysteries. After making a couple of friends, most notably Alby (Aml Ameen) and Chuck (Thomas Sangster, Game of Thrones), Thomas learns the ropes of this hostile society. Turns out they've all been trapped inside the barriers for years, and the only way to escape is to successfully make it through an ever-changing maze. Thomas strives to be one of the designated "runners", and the story really heats up when he gathers a group and heads out into the treacherous maze in attempt to unravel its obstacles.

Even though the events are kept fairly interesting, and there is some cool production design, the inherent flaws prevent this film from rising to anything great. Bland lines of exposition are stuffed into nearly every conversation, yet at the same time certain odd things occur without any explanation at all, like, things are randomly dropped in just because it seems like it'd be entertaining, but it ends up feeling forced. This is part of the nature of the premise, but it also makes it difficult for the world in this story to fully establish itself. The characters, even the lead, are all notably depth-less, due to the fact that they're just kind of there. At one point, someone actually says "I can't miss my parents because I don't remember them." Any ounce of humor or emotion in The Maze Runner is elusive. I realize the story strives to be uber-serious, but a little more dimension could've saved its flat tone.

And in predictable form, The Maze Runner also suffers from the unsatisfying ending and inevitable setup for a sequel, which seems to be a key signature in a lot of these YA adaptations. Maybe some of the film's flaws will be reconciled in later installments, but it's tough to be compelled to make it all the way through.


Monday, September 22, 2014

[Review] Tusk

Kevin Smith's latest film Tusk is one of the more bizarre and demented gross-out horror flicks I've ever seen, and I just couldn't look away. Be warned though--this is definitely tailored for a niche audience, and it's the type of movie where if an unsuspecting viewer stumbled into the wrong theater, they might faint in the corridor.

Wallace (Justin Long) is a douchey podcast host (the podcast is called the "Not-See Party"), and his co-host is played by Haley Joel Osment, a chubby and shaggy smart-mouth who somehow manages to resemble what you envision most podcast hosts to look like. Anyway, Wallace's specialty is conducting interviews with weird people from the corners of the Internet. When he travels to Canada in order to interview a viral video kid, only to find out that the kid has died, he's left S.O.L.--that is until he sees a mysterious letter on a bathroom wall from a guy with lots of stories to tell.

He goes by the name of Howard Howe and he resides in a dark mansion hidden in the middle of the woods in Manitoba. The moment Wallace steps into the creepy house, it's obvious that there's something suspicious about Howard. Wallace gets drugged, passes out, and Howard plans to turn him into a walrus (yes, a walrus) through some disturbingly grotesque surgical procedures. It's a total WTF premise, and it's as weird yet straightforward as it sounds. But the spectacle is executed with surprising creativity. The actual process of the transformation is never shown, which could be a good or bad thing depending on your threshold for this sort of thing, but this tactic works because we're just as clueless as the protagonist is until he awakes to the shocking reveals in all their twisted glory.

The script is full of Kevin Smith's usual rambling dialogue and it contains a handful of funny and provocative quips, but the writing is unexpectedly focused. However, the flashbacks and "back at home" scenes can't help but feel lame--like flimsy padding for a stretched story. Thankfully, the "back at home" section gets an enormous boost when a significant cameo enters the picture. This cameo is present in the entire third act of the film, so it's much more than an average uncredited bit. I think the cat is already out of the bag, but as tempted as I am to talk more about it, I figure it's best to leave it a secret for now, especially for those hellbent on being surprised. Though I will say: it is awesome.

Tusk definitely isn't for everyone, but the off-the-wall nature of what's taking place on screen calls for pure amusement. It will certainly find a place in the cult hearts of campy horror enthusiasts, making it a good piece to add to the midnight freak show. This film isn't bat-shit insane - it's walrus-shit insane.


Friday, September 19, 2014

[Review] This Is Where I Leave You

"I don't do complicated."

This Is Where I Leave You is like the offspring of Death at a Funeral and August Osage County, except it inherited all the good traits from Death at a Funeral and spared all the cynical Southern Gothic theatrics of August Osage County.

Comedies about dysfunctional families are common, but it's for good reason. This Is Where I Leave You provides the right kind of raunch and the right kind of sentimentality, making for a thoroughly enjoyable experience. We have a great ensemble cast here, which includes the likes of Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, Jane Fonda, Corey Stoll, Adam Driver, Rose Byrne, and Timothy Olyphant. Each one is spot-on in their role.

Judd (Batemam), Wendy (Fey), Phillip (Driver), and Paul (Stoll) are estranged siblings. After they learn that their father has died, they're forced to engage in a seven day mourning period under the same roof together with their crazy mother (Fonda). Of course, the siblings can barely manage to sit in the same room with one another. During the eternal week, heads are butted, secrets are revealed, madness ensues, and yes, there is an obligatory fight scene on the front lawn. It's all so juicy.

Multiple strains of jokes and gags are cleverly weaved throughout, and there are some hilarious lines of banter, provoking plenty of laughs even when things get serious. The film does go for the tender spots, delivering a lot of nostalgic moments and character transformations. Its story thrives on internal conflicts, as well as the dynamics between each family member. The heart-to-heart conversations are piled on, but they're nice and meaningful, rather than schmaltzy. Alright, some of them are schmaltzy, but it's okay.

Everyone in the cast is wonderful, but Adam Driver in particular is a scene-stealer, standing out as the slacker miscreant of the family that actually ends up being the glue. And with so many characters involved in this film, it's impressive that they all function as at least two-dimensional personalities.

Sure, most of the setups lead to pandering and predictability, there are a couple of off-putting scenes, and the story sends some mixed messages... But hey, stuff is complicated.


Wednesday, September 17, 2014

[Review] The Drop

It's tough to come across a solid America-set gangster flick nowadays, but this is definitely one worth seeing. The Drop is directed by Michael R. Roskam (the man responsible for 2011's sluggish, but impressive Academy Award nominee Bullhead). It's written by Dennis Lehane (Mystic River & Boardwalk Empire). And it stars Tom Hardy and Matthias Schoenaerts (who gave one hell of a performance in Bullhead), as well as the late, great James Gandolfini.

Set in a bleak-looking Brooklyn, the deliberately humorless Bob (Hardy) tends bar at a place called Cousin Marv's. Marv (Gandolfini) is the bitter former owner of the establishment, which is now run by Chechen mobsters. The dive serves as a drop box for funneling dirty and bloody (sometimes literally) cash. Bob anchors the story--he puts up with robberies and uncomfortable visits from mobsters, all while reiterating that he's "only the bartender." In his personal life, he rescues an abandoned dog, makes friends with a local woman named Nadia (Noomi Rapace), and crosses paths with a shady character named Eric Deeds. But in this small and rundown neighborhood, everything is interconnected, and not in a good way. Each event fuels a slow burn of conflict and crisis in a deceptively quiet and genuinely unpredictable manner. It's discomforting in the best way.

The cold, see-your-breath atmosphere lends to the twisty story, as well as the twisted morals. In a similar turn to Roskam's Bullhead, there is a significant focus on symbolism and visual metaphor, giving the film a richness that doesn't feel phoned in. The script is driven by great dialogue, and the performances are superb all around. All these pieces elevate The Drop above many of the past decade's mediocre and flat-out bad efforts in the organized crime genre. It deserves its clichés and its coincidences. It earns its place.

Gandolfini is brooding, reveling in his knack for delivering snappy lines of dialogue, while also reminding us how much it sucks that he's gone. Hardy's character appears awkward at first, but he eventually comes into form, subtly revealing a few shades reminiscent of On The Waterfront-style Marlon Brando. Matthias Schoenaerts is the perfect scumbag as Eric Deeds. Noomi Rapace is good, but much like many male-driven mob movies, her underdeveloped character unfortunately gets lost in the shuffle, seeming like a puppet at times.

It's no secret that many mob movies of old have set a hard-to-reach standard, but The Drop proves that a good one can still sneak up on you.


Wednesday, September 10, 2014

[Review] God Help The Girl

Stuart Murdoch, lead singer of beloved Scottish indie band Belle & Sebastian, directs this unabashedly twee musical drama. It seems to occupy a space directly in the middle of Mamma Mia and Once. Let's say its sort of like an alt, Euro version of Grease. The project is a charming and likable effort, but it doesn't fully deliver on all parts.

Set in the West End of Glasgow, God Help The Girl shows the formation of a 3-piece band of teenagers. We first meet Eve (Emily Browning), a young woman battling with anorexia in a medical clinic. She has a penchant for singing and songwriting. After an early exit from the clinic, she meets James (Olly Alexander) and Cassie (Hannah Murray, some of you might know her as Gilly from Game of Thrones), two other budding musicians, and the group begins crafting blissful pop songs. They fuse a friendship, having long talks while looking out at the city, going on day-trips, and canoeing down a scenic river. It all drifts lightly--a little too lightly. In turn, the lulls in the story render all of the musical breakouts as definite highlights. The catchy and endearing indie-pop songs are extremely enjoyable and well-crafted, making you clamor for the next one.

Emily Browning is fantastic in the lead role, giving her character both an inspired enthusiasm and an undertone of anguish. Her voice is perfect for these songs. But despite its bright spots, God Help The Girl really could've used some cutting in the editing room. If the story and supporting characters had as much distinctive flair and energy as the songwriting and musical arrangements, this would've really been something special. While the songs are indeed the main focus, that doesn't mean the overall picture couldn't have benefited from a stronger narrative. 

You wont necessarily want to see the film again, but you'll certainly want to give the soundtrack another listen.


Tuesday, September 9, 2014

[Review] Starred Up

David Mackenzie directs this stirring UK prison flick, starring up-and-comer Jack O'Connell. The prison drama is a crowded thing, but it can prove to be engrossing stuff, and Starred Up is well worth the time.

When 19-year-old Eric (O'Connell) gets sent to prison, he starts creating makeshift shanks the minute he's assigned to a cell. He's the type of individual that gets himself into trouble about every two seconds. After some insane outbreaks, he starts seeing the prison's therapist, and things don't go very well. Just when there's a bit of progress made, a major setback occurs.

Starred Up brings out all the usual prison genre clichés, but they're well-executed and about as gritty as it gets. The story is a series of fights, gang politics, betrayal, corruption, trips to the hole, and blood. If you've watched enough of National Geographic's "Lockdown", you can pretty much predict what's going to happen after each inciting incident. The main central twist in this film is that Eric's father, Neville (played by Ben Mendelsohn), is in the same prison AND cell block. Neville constantly attempts to keep Eric in line, but of course, he isn't an angel himself either. It's a toxic relationship that's on the verge of absolutely hitting the fan. Talk about father/son issues.

Jack O'Connell gives a volatile and dedicated performance, and we can probably expect to see an even better one is this year's forthcoming Unbroken. Ben Mendelsohn is perfectly cast,  right there with O'Connell in terms of impressiveness. Rupert Friend as the prison's therapist demonstrates a great turn as his character unexpectedly fleshes out.

Amidst all the surface violence and sometimes convenient plotting, the film is a psychological study of madness. It also raises questions about corruption within the institution, the small windows of reformation and rehabilitation, as well as the overbearing nature of evil itself. A symbolic shot of a revolving door can be taken any way.


Monday, September 8, 2014

[Review] The One I Love

Elizabeth Moss and Mark Duplass are the central couple in this romance drama with a sci-fi twist.

The beginning misdirects you into thinking this is a mockumentary, as Sophie (Moss) and Ethan (Duplass) talk about their dwindling marriage through an interview-like setting. This is until the scene opens up and it's revealed that they're in a couples therapy session with Ted Danson. He recommends that they take a mini-vacation to a getaway house in order to rekindle their relationship.

But there's something surreal about this house. Sophie and Ethan discover that each time one of them steps into the doorway, the "better version" of their spouse is on the inside. The exact existential persona of the doppleganger is never quite clear, but my guess is that it's either the spouse the person fell in love with in the first place, or the version they wished their spouse was. Despite the setup and mood feeling like a Cinemax After Dark show at times, it's an intriguing concept and initially appears to be a great avenue of relationship exploration.

However, the film doesn't really follow through on its premise, and it seems at a loss for where it wants to go during the latter half. The couple spend more time trying to figure out how and why the phenomenon is occurring, rather than confronting how and why this affects their relationship and what it discloses about human nature & expectations (they should've listened to Dr. Danson!). It all becomes a squeeze for material, resulting in too much padding that isn't interesting or insightful enough to sustain its feature length. And the ending unfortunately fails to make up for any of it.

The One I Love is a story of letdowns and unfulfilled promises - in more ways than one.


Friday, September 5, 2014

[Review] The November Man

You can't watch The November Man without thinking you've seen it before. It never really differentiates itself from other recent Hollywood spy/action thrillers. Seriously, it feels as though this film could've been made 8 years ago and just released this past weekend, and you wouldn't even know it. That said, you're never really mad for seeing it again. It's clichéd, but entertaining. Flawed, but serviceable. And Pierce Brosnan & Olga Kurylenko are great screen presences.

Brosnan plays Peter Devereaux, a retired CIA agent who gets willed back into a webbed case involving hitmen & hitwomen, a Russian war criminal turned political figure, computer hackers, and moles. There's a good portion of the story where it's hard to figure out what the hell is going on - not because of the suspense and mystery, but because the plotting is inconceivably convoluted. However, things eventually straighten out. It gets particularly interesting when Alice (Kurylenko), a valuable witness with a foggy past, enters the picture.

The twisty story unfolds with some brutal violence and plenty of scenes of people kicking the shit out of each other in stylish ways. The film does its job by getting the juices flowing and constantly escalating the intensity. The best compliment that I can give this is that: despite the fact that everything is expected--it's never dull. Devereaux walks away with his back to an explosion without a single shred of self-awareness.

There's a relationship that's dressed as a complex love & hate father/son dynamic between Devereaux and his former protege (played by Luke Bracey). But aside from some thin expository backstory, the relationship isn't developed enough to make us care whether these two save each other or kill each other. The film even has some technical falters, from its awkward casting of secondary characters to the questionable continuity leaps (and I'm not talking about which direction a character's hair strand is pointing after a cut). Still, the sheer watchability makes a lot of the flaws easy to forgive, and if you catch this on TV during a rainy afternoon, you'll probably be okay with it.


Thursday, September 4, 2014

[Review] The Zero Theorem

Terry Gilliam's latest feature revolves around a computer genius who desperately wants to discover the meaning of life. Yes, it's a bold premise, and the set designs are wildly inventive, but this is an exasperating, cold and distance slog.

Set in the near, chaotic future, Christolph Waltz stars as Qohen, the neurotic and distressed central character. He's remarkably bald, as if he's already pulled all his hair out while attempting this complicated task. He obsessively bangs away on incomprehensible machinery, stares at nauseating screens, and has the occasional breakdown. It's the equivalent of watching someone struggle at their desk job, except there's a lot more candy lazertag colors and cosmic Pee-Wee's Playhouse elements to it. Once in a while, Tilda Swinton pops up on the computer screen and continues her recent streak of wearing big teeth (see: Snowpiercer).

The most amusing part is the strangely cast Matt Damon as Qohen's hovering manager. We see him rocking eccentric suits, slicked-back white hair, and thick glasses while mysteriously (and kind of hilariously) blending in with furniture. But there still isn't much that can save this mess. The narrative half-heartedly pokes at some existential notions, but it never really equates to much. It just muddles and drags. And that's pretty much the point. However, it doesn't really mean people want to watch it.

The Zero Theorem shares some traits of Brazil and 12 Monkeys, but it's nowhere near as interesting. It's the type of film where diehard Gilliam fans might scoff at the criticism and say "You just didn't get it." Well, I don't think anyone involved in this film quite got it either.


Wednesday, September 3, 2014

[Review] The Congress

The Congress is a half live action, half animated feature. Sci-fi and fantasy seep into reality, and reality seeps into sci-fi and fantasy. Robin Wright plays Robin Wright (yes you read that right).

Robin is an actress facing the dwindling of her career. A studio executive (Danny Huston) approaches her regarding a revolutionary field called "hermetically sampling". He proposes the option to "sample" her, or scan and conserve her entity into digital data, so the idea of Robin Wright's on-screen presence will endure forever, and she personally won't even have to do anything anymore. She refuses at first, but eventually gives in.

The setup is an immediate commentary on the scary possibility of "computerized performers" and the progress of technology completely journeying away from the human element. It also reflects the demand to stay young in the Hollywood world, and the drastic measures one will take to preserve their public image and stay relevant. These threads are explored further as the story evolves within this intricately sophisticated and multi-layered concept film.

During the powerfully depressing scan scene, Robin stands inside a futuristic globe of flashing lazers, demonstrating every emotion and facial expression possible, while her agent (Harvey Keitel) talks her though the process. After a 20 year flash-forward, Robin's aged self warps into fantasy drive and the film transitions to full-on acid trip animation mode--a post-postmodern society of former stars. It's all very strange and jarring, but fascinatingly creepy and utopian. Robin's goal becomes a plight to get back to the "other side" where the truth lies.

There's a lot of dreamy drift-offs, the pacing is awkward, and the structure is messy, but the ambition and uniqueness of the project is impressive. The Congress is a trippy look into an abstract future that might be too close to reality than we want.


Monday, September 1, 2014

[Review] Frank

Frank definitely isn't the most accessible flick of the Summer, but it's decidedly so. The nature of the film's obscure vibes go hand-in-hand with the characters that occupy this space, as well as the music the band creates. This won't be for everyone, but there's much more to it than an exercise in weird for the sake of being weird, and it goes beyond the novelty intrigue of Michael Fassbender acting a fool under a Pringles-looking mascot head.

Jon (Domhnall Gleeson) is a wannabe musician, humming up trite lyrics in his head while he peruses the streets of his small British seaside town. By a bizarre chance, he's asked to join an experimental synth-rock band that goes by the unpronounceable name, The Soronprfbs. The group is led by Frank (Fassbender), an enigmatic character who wears a giant, round, cartoony mask over his face and never takes it off. Fassbender is forced to do most of his work through oddball vocals, along with animated movements from the neck down. It manages to be an enthralling performance, conveying both an unhinged anxiety and playfulness.

The band retreats to a cabin in the woods in order to record their new album. During the offbeat process, Jon draws inspiration from each of the band's eccentric members, most notably their self-deprecating manager, Don (Scoot McNairy), as well as volatile and gloomy multi-instrumentalist Clara (played greatly by Maggie Gyllenhaal), and of course Frank himself.

After the quirky beginnings, the film transitions into some somber territory as the story's complex undercurrents sneakily begin to resonate. The themes touch upon mental illness, the exploitation of artistic creativity, and the lines between staying true to your heart or gaining fame. The second half of the narrative completely flips any preconceived notions of gimmickry onto its head, and this is exactly what makes Frank such a unique and absorbing experience--one that you might not fully appreciate until long after the final song has been sung.