‘I love your wall.’ No, I love your wall. And I love your big, freaky head and your crazy songs. You’re awesome Frank. When I was a kid, there was a television character called Frank Sidebottom. He had a broad Northern accent and he would play the banjo and he would conduct interviews in his shed. He also had a huge papier mache mask. It was incredibly weird and cartoonish. The eyes kind of looked like something out of an anime and the hair looked like it was coloured in with felt pen. It was incredibly bizarre and I didn’t quite understand it. I hadn’t thought about Frank for several years and then he turned up in the movie Filth. James McAvoy’s character imitates Frank Sidebottom when making dirty phone calls to the wife of a friend. And then, weirdly enough, Frank got his own film. It was amazing to me that Michael Fassbender got cast as Frank. Fassbender is a massive sex symbol and Frank is, well, a freak. A kindly, well intentioned freak, but a freak nonetheless. The Frank in this movie deviates from the previous incarnation, in that he’s an American and he’s the leader of an experimental synth band. Gone is the broad Northern accent and the banjo, but it doesn’t matter. This movie is lots and lots of fun. The story centers around Jon (Domhall Gleeson), a young, aspiring songwriter. The movie begins with the protagonist desperately trying to write a song. His lyrics describe the things that he sees as he walks around, and the song is pretty terrible. We then see him struggling in his room to write melodies. Just as he thinks he’s stumbled upon something great, he realises that he’s playing a Madness song. This is a kid that hasn’t found his creative voice yet and who is desperately lacking inspiration. One day, as Jon is hanging out near the beach, he sees a man trying to drown himself. It turns out that the man is a keyboard player for a band that’s in town. Jon ends up talking to one of the band members and before he knows it, he’s invited to play keyboards for a gig that night. The gig is suitably weird. Jon turns up with the show already beginning and with an empty keyboard waiting. Frank then walks out, slapping a cymbal as he strides in (a little detail that cracked me up) and then proceeds to sing a song about soup. Jon kind of stares in disbelief but then begins to get into it, the allure of the bright lights too much for him to resist. Finally he belongs to something. Well, kind of. Even though Jon loves being part of the band, he faces hostility from most of the members. There are two French players who basically ignore him and then there’s Clara (Maggie Gylenhaal), the theremin player, who’s openly hostile. They know that this guy has no place in the band, that’s he’s just some sad guy desperate to belong to something, desperate for fame, but innocent Frank only sees goodness in him. Have I mentioned yet that Frank never takes his mask off, no matter what? Yep, no matter what he does, he keeps it on. There’s one hilarious moment when Jon, who’s desperate to see Frank without his mask, goes into Frank’s room and sees the mask on the floor. Finally, I’m going to see what he really looks like, you can imagine him saying to himself. He then goes into the bathroom and is confronted with the sight of Frank showering with a plastic bag on his head. He’s wearing another mask. He has multiples. At first you think that the band are being unnecessarily mean to Jon, but as the film progresses, you begin to realise that he’s the poisonous element of the group. He posts videos of the band on YouTube, he blogs and he tweets. This social media presence is meant to promote the band, but it ends up turning them into a joke. And Jon is all too willing to capitalise on this. After completing an album, the band travels to America for a music festival. Frank can’t handle his newfound fame and the group disintegrates. Eventually only Frank and Jon remain. Frank is a nervous wreck but Jon drags him onto the stage and they end up performing a song that Jon wrote. At the beginning of the performance, Jon states that it’s the greatest day of his life but it quickly turns into a nightmare, as Frank collapses on the stage, mumbling that the music is shit. Some people have criticised the final act of the film but I think it’s excellent. Jon is a hack and fame hungry. He isn’t a bad guy per se, but he doesn’t fully understand the consequences of his actions. Frank’s band isn’t so much about the music. It’s a way for this damaged individual to retain some measure of sanity (or at least to release his insanity). All of the other band members are there helping him. They realise that Frank is the center and they don’t try and disturb their orbit around him. But then Jon comes along, thinking that he can share the limelight and propel them to some measure of fame. This lunatic asylum is never meant to become famous. And so Clara, who for so long seems like the meanest bitch in the universe, comes out really as the hero. All along she’s trying to protect Frank. She can see through Jon. She knows that he has stars in his eyes and that he has the potential to destroy them all. One of the funniest scenes is when Frank decides to preview a new song he’s written. Under the influence of Jon, he decides to write his most ‘likeable song ever’. With a crazy dance beat and an ear-piercing falsetto he proceeds to sing a song about Coca-Cola, lipstick and kissing. Clara, in complete deadpan, tells Frank that yes indeed, it is his most likeable song ever. In other words, he’s completely sold out and has produced a bag of shite. After the failed festival performance, Jon and Frank hole up in a motel. They get into an argument and Jon tries to rip his mask off. It’s further evidence of what a reprehensible person Jon is. The rest of the band are content to let Frank just be Frank. But Jon wants to see the ‘real’ Frank and selfishly tries to expose him in order to satisfy his own curiosity. Frank then runs out of the motel and gets run over, his mask shattering in the process. We do eventually get to see Frank without his mask. He’s a completely broken person, his hair patchy and bald in places because of the mask rubbing against his head. He looks completely lost. But he comes to life at the end when Jon reunites him with his band. Jon’s final shot at redemption is to take Frank to a hick bar where his old band is performing. Clara is warbling some terribly depressing tune but then Frank turns up. At first she doesn’t recognise him but then it dawns on her who he is. He begins to improvise a tune and Clara returns to her familiar place on the theremin. The band quickly get into the song and begin rocking out. And the final song is actually really good. Frank sings about everything he loves and you can’t help but feel that this is a love song to his band. They’re his therapy, his meaning, his life. They’re all back together, the familiar pieces back in place. This is the way it should have been all along and it’s completely appropriate that Jon returns back to obscurity. But who knows what lies in store for Frank’s band. They’re not built for success but this last song is actually really good and completely heartfelt. The ending is actually really moving. Maybe they’ll have some success despite themselves.
Having been disappointed by 2014’s most critically acclaimed film, Boyhood, I decided to give 2014’s highest grossing movie a chance. Surely I can’t go wrong here. Everyone loves Guardians of the Galaxy. This is going to be loads of fun, isn’t it? Sadly, I was wrong. This is a painfully ordinary movie. Pedestrian action scenes, plodding screenplay and mediocre direction. Starved as we are for fresh, inventive summer blockbusters, I can understand the willingness to pounce on anything that rises above the mediocre standards set by this rather moribund industry, but Guardians of the Galaxy is not a film to get excited about. It offers nothing that we haven’t seen before and nothing that hasn’t been done better countless times. Want a sci-fi soap opera western? Watch Star Wars. Want a wisecracking hero? Watch Indiana Jones. Want a gang of colourful heroes? Watch The Great Escape or The Magnificent Seven. What makes this extra disappointing is that the film starts so strongly. The film begins with Peter Quill as a child. His mother is on her deathbed and he’s listening to some 10cc on his Walkman. It’s incredibly sad and moving, and they manage to film it in such a way that it resembles a Spielberg film from the 70s. But then Peter gets kidnapped by aliens and we’re thrust into mediocrity. The film is just incredibly disjointed and random. Like so many action and adventure films these days, they’re impatient. Everything has to move at a hundred miles an hour. They never take the time to set up situations and characters correctly. I watched Guardians and it was just like *random shit, random shit, wisecrack, random shit, random shit, action scene*. How about, you know, a story? And really, the MacGuffin in this film is some round thing? And the bad guys are armour-plated aliens with blue faces? In The Avengers the MacGuffin was a square thing and the bad guys were amour-plated aliens with skeleton-like faces. Nice to see that Marvel is awash with fresh ideas. What’s next? Are we going to have a triangle MacGuffin and are the bad guys going to be amour-plated aliens with red skeleton faces? Yeah, that’s stupid, Captain America already has the red skeleton thing covered. Maybe I’m just a joyless, miserable bastard. Everyone else also loved The Avengers, while I thought it was terrible. But no, I refuse to believe that I’m the problem here. Just because other people have lowered their standards beyond all recognition, doesn’t mean that I have to. How can you aspire to create a compelling adventure film when you have some of the dullest villains ever seen in a movie? A film like this lives and breathes with its villains. A hero is only as good as his/her adversary. The villain here is a roided, blue alien dude. He doesn’t say anything interesting. He doesn’t say anything cool or scary. He doesn’t kill people in frightening/amusing ways. He doesn’t have any witty banter or one liners. He’s just like a guy from The Blue Man Group who’s gone seriously rogue and has taken far too much whey supplement. He probably has teeny, weeny testicles and is doomed to overcompensate on a cosmic scale. The best character, by a country mile, is Groot. Who would have thought that Vin Diesel as an intergalactic Hodor would be the best thing about this blockbuster? But weirdly enough, Groot, the alien Hodor tree, is the most rounded, most human, most selfless character in the movie. He even gives his life for his friends. In one of the best scenes in the film, he wraps his friends in a cocoon to protect them, taking his own life in the process. It’s a great scene. There’s also another great moment when Groot saves his friends by taking out a bunch of guys with his branches/arms. Groot drives his limbs through his adversaries and then batters them against the wall like rag dolls. Once they’re defeated, he turns around and gives his friends a big, goofy grin. It’s another excellent moment. However, even with Groot the film has a touch of randomness about it. His powers are never truly explained and it’s only when he’s saving his friends with his cocoon that you’re told that this will kill him. Again it leaves you with the impression that things are being made up as they go along. But there’s actually some pretty genuine pathos when Groot is killed and Rocket is sobbing into a handful of branches. For that, for having a character you genuinely care about, the film deserves some credit. It gets nothing from me, though, for the fearsomely dull action sequences towards the end. We’re not quite in Avengers territory where you have a forty minute action scene with flying space turtles and millions of people dying bloodless deaths offscreen in a citywide rampage, but it’s almost as dreary. Really, these big space battles and citywide assaults haven’t excited me for a long, long time. Pixels get destroyed, stuff goes kaboom and everyone gets on with their lives. None of these big Marvel action sequences have any flavor. They all feel incredibly bland. I’d rather watch the crazy father versus son fight in Hulk than this. And that film is still a lot better than anything Marvel has produced since.
Boyhood is a horribly depressing film; a film with an amazing concept that fails to deliver in every regard. Shot over the course of twelve years, we get to follow a boy as he becomes a man. The movie begins with him as a six-year-old and culminates when he begins college. But while there is all the potential in the world for an amazing statement on childhood and growing up, we end with a curiously cold and detached movie. A film that never gets into the head of its protagonist and which simply feels like it’s going through the motions. It’s kind of the polar opposite of Linklater’s Before movies. In those films, we really feel like we get to know the characters. We feel close to them. But I didn’t feel that here. Everything felt very facile. Maybe the Before movies benefit from having their characters locked down for each film. We get to spend a single day with them - you could call it ‘quality time’. But here a single year can pass in the course of one ten minute scene. It just isn’t particularly satisfying. Children change at an enormous pace, but because the film is basically a highlight reel, all we really notice is the growing body and the different haircuts. Forget about this being anything like Michael Apted’s Up series. You’re not going to have a fillet mignon to sink your teeth into. You’re not going to get into the child’s head and hear his hopes and dreams. Instead you’re going to get a pack of Doritos to nibble on. And it’s one of those massive packs that when you open it, it’s mostly filled with air. We’re told at the beginning, when Mason is a young child and just starting school, that he spends all his time staring out of the window, hinting that he’s something of dreamer. But we never see this. I don’t want to be told that Mason’s a dreamer. I want to see it. Children and teenagers, contrary to some of Hollywood’s precocious examples, aren’t really very good at expressing themselves verbally. The most interesting thing about them is their inner life. This is something that is usually best captured visually. But this is a meat and potatoes kind of film. It’s incredibly unlyrical. Not that the dialogue is anything to get excited about. Mason mumbles and grumbles but aside from the odd moment here and there everything is purely functional. There’s a fairly insightful scene when Mason bemoans our collective addiction to cell phones and how we view everything through a screen, but this kind of commentary is hardly the norm. Not that I really want the film to be three hours of social commentary. But I do want to feel close to the lead, which I didn’t at all. Even more disappointing than Mason’s role is that of his mother, played by Patricia Arquette. Her role must be one of the most thankless female roles in recent years. All she seems to do is sit at a table and pay bills. Plus Arquette’s acting is mediocre at best. She’s cold, detached, humourless and unemotive. In one scene she encourages a Mexican laborer to go back to school. When years later they encounter one another and he tells her that her words inspired him, you’d think that she was listening to the weather forecast. It kind of takes the piss that Ethan Hawke gets a much better role as the kids’ father. Separated from their mother, he just gets to sweep in every now and again and hang out with them. He can be the ‘cool’ one. He can have fun with them and take them bowling, to baseball games and go camping. Meanwhile I don’t recall one, single scene where the mother has any fun with her kids. Almost all of her scenes are completely joyless. I understand that she has the day-to-day hard work and drudgery to deal with, while the father can just saunter in, but the mother is a tiresome presence. She’s a grouch, a nag and, in the end, hysterical. When Mason finally goes to college, and Mason’s mother is confronted with an empty nest, she has a kind of meltdown. She complains about time going so fast and having nothing to show for herself. She also says that in another forty years she’ll be dead. It’s a hysterical reaction but it feels authentic enough. It’s a big thing when your kids move away. It’s normal to go through a crisis. But again I kind of feel like the film is doing mothers a disservice. The movie falls into the cliches of women being hysterical and unreasonable, and of them being victims. Seeing as Mason’s mother is cast as a victim here, she gets to marry not one but two alcoholics. The first one provides some of the only drama in the movie. At first he seems like a decent guy, but then he begins to indulge in some secret drinking and all of a sudden we have a monster on our hands. Again, because we’re in such a rush to get through the years, it seems like he turns into an alcoholic overnight. It also doesn’t help that the stepfather’s acting is ridiculously broad. He’s a leering, gurning, obnoxious buffoon. But at least, when he’s on the screen, something happens. There’s one scene where the stepfather forces Mason to have his long locks shorn off. It’s pretty brutal in its assholery. But how does Mason’s mother react to this hair rape of her young son? She just kind of says...sorry. Oh, and for a couple of years when Mason’s stepfather is being a gigantic dickhead, she’s sitting at the table, paying bills. She seems to spend years at a time in a coma. Mason’s mother eventually leaves this tosser when he begins beating her and we have the excitement of her rescuing her children from his clutches, but this story arc ends up leaving you with more questions than answers. The stepfather had kids of his own. What happened to Mason’s step brother and step sister? Does he keep in any sort of contact? Does he ever see them again? The second asshole alcoholic stepfather is far more rudimentary. Mason’s mother marries some soldier. In his very first scene I thought that something was wrong with him. He’s been in the Iraq war and he seems to be hiding some kind of deep trauma. But Mason’s mother marries him and before you know it, he’s questioning Mason’s sexuality and he’s supping from cans of beer. But then as quickly as he appears, he’s gone. Why exactly did Mason’s mother leave him? He was turning into a bit of a morose prick, but he hadn’t done anything like the first stepfather. But once again he’s neatly swept under the rug. Of course the talk now is of Boyhood vying for Oscars. If it did, it wouldn’t be a crime on the scale of Crash and Forrest Gump, but it’s most certainly not a worthy movie. Having the balls to film a movie over the span of twelve years is not enough to warrant critical acclaim. A great concept is nothing without great execution. The idea here is superb but the delivery is sorely lacking. No drama, no emotion, no insight, poor acting and ordinary writing are a recipe for a mediocre movie, which, sadly, this is.