Thursday, August 28, 2014

Music from the fringe

Michael Fassbender spends nearly all of Frank -- an oddball movie about an avant-garde rock musician -- wearing a giant head made of papier-mâché.

The head seems like the kind of amusing stunt David Byrne might have attempted back in the halcyon Talking Heads days, except for one thing: Frank never removes the beach-ball sized orb, even during what seem like normal conversations with his bandmates.

The look of the head is interesting for its near parodic ordinariness. The artificial head boasts a modest haircut, large blue eyes that look as if they might have been appropriated from one of those annoyingly wide-eyed Margaret Keane paintings and a perpetually open mouth.

Director Lenny Abrahamson and Fassbender use the disguise without undue flourish, a wise choice because it's weird enough without being italicized.

The band, by the way, is called Soronprfbs, an unpronounceable name that suggests that this group of musicians couldn't care less about how their music is received.

The story focuses on Jon, a keyboardist played by Domhnall Gleeson. Jon joins the band by accident after the group's keyboardist attempts suicide.

Jon soon finds himself spending almost a year with the group in a secluded hideout where Frank inches his way toward Soronprfbs' first album.

The rest of the group is far from hospitable. Maggie Gyllenhaal appears as Clara, a woman who plays theremin and who makes no attempt to conceal her contempt for Jon, whose often cheery voice-over narration creates an ironic counterpoint to reality.

The group also includes the band's manager (Scoot McNairy), a drummer (Carla Azar) and a French-speaking bass player (Francois Civil) who also loathes Jon and regards him as a smiling no-talent.

The movie breaks its isolation when Jon arranges for the band to perform at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, a spawning ground for cutting edge bands.

Not surprisingly, Frank is ill-equipped for a coming-out party, and Gyllenhaal's Clara seems to view the entire idea of "entertaining" as a sell-out.

I've read that the movie is a riff on the real-life experiences of co-writer Jon Ronson, who wrote the screenplay with Peter Straughan. Ronson evidently worked with Chris Sievey, a British musician and comic who died in 2010. Sievey created a character named Frank Sidebottom, who wore a head very much like the one donned by Fassbender in the movie.

You don't have to know anything about that backstory to appreciate Abrahamson's movie, which deals with the fragility of genius in a way that can be quietly funny.

Jon attempts -- rather foolishly it seems -- to bring Frank's talents to a wider audience, something that takes its toll on Frank and leads to a finale that's mildly redemptive and touching in a bittersweet way.

Two Brits, lots of great scenery

The spot-on impressions done by Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon in The Trip to Italy tilt toward mockery.

Consider: When a smart mimic captures a well-known personality, the impression tends to underline the ways in which a distinctive talent may have veered toward shtick.

Coogan and Brydon -- who qualify as very smart mimics -- previously teamed in 2010's The Trip, which was directed by Michael Winterbottom who again takes the helm.

This time, Winterbottom creates space for Coogan and Brydon to do their bits as they travel through Italy's splendid Amalfi Coast -- hardly a job that seems like hardship duty for anyone involved.

There isn't much to the story, but low-key professional jealousy between the two comics spices the proceedings.

If you saw Coogan and Brydon's respective Michael Caine impressions and Brydon's Al Pacino in the previous movie, you may fault this one for not breaking sufficient new ground, but I didn't mind.

A bit of personal drama intrudes: Brydon has an affair with one of the crew members (Rosie Fellner) of a sail boat the two board. He's evidently having marital problems.

At one point, Coogan's teen-age son joins the food tour, which purportedly is being sponsored by a British newspaper.

Despite hints at real-life problems, neither Coogan nor Brydon seems particularly angst ridden. That makes The Trip to Italy a pleasantly witty journey through Italian cuisine as hosted by two men who admit that they don't qualify as food experts.

If there's a competition between the two men, I'd give the advantage to Brydon, who never misses a beat when it comes to turning any situation into an amusing riff.

Viewing requires tolerance for two guys who always seem to keep their comedy meters running. And, yes, that can be a trifle overbearing, like a bright light that never shuts off.

A look at a marriage -- with a twist

A therapist (Ted Danson) suggests that Sophie and Ethan, a troubled California couple played by Mark Duplass and Elisabeth Moss spend a relaxing weekend at an isolated rural retreat in The One I Love, a mind-stretching look at a marriage. The therapist believes a short time away from routine will help get the couple's relationship back on track. Figuring they don't have much to lose, Sophie and Ethan embark on a weekend that's destined to change their lives. Working from a script by Justin Lader, McDowell takes the movie in an unexpected direction, pushing the story into territory that's best discovered in a theater, not in a review. With help from Duplass and Moss, McDowell mostly sustains a guessing game in which marital issues are explored along with questions of identity. The movie revolves around an intriguing enough gimmick, but McDowell can't quite make the story gel. Still, Moss -- staking out new territory after her long run on Mad Men -- brings a sense of playful independence to her work, and McDowell earns credit for almost getting a novel movie across the finish line.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

It's spy vs. spy in 'November Man'

Pierce Brosnan returns to espionage in a low-grade thriller.
Pierce Brosnan is beginning to look a bit long in the tooth for action-oriented spy antics. After all, it's been 12 years since Die Another Day, Brosnan's last run as the fabled 007.

Undeterred by passing time, Brosnan dives into a pit full of Eastern Europen mayhem to play CIA agent Peter Devereaux in The November Man, a loose adaptation of a 1986 novel by Bill Granger.

After a short prologue set in Montenegro in 2008, the movie leaps forward to a time when a retired Devereaux is called back into service by a tough-talking CIA boss (Bill Smitrovich), a guy who prides himself on his grasp of the world's brutal realities.

Devereaux's assignment: To travel to Moscow to help with the escape of a Russian woman (Mediha Musliovic) who supposedly has the goods on a Putin-like Russian (Lazar Ristovski') who's about to take over the country.

In the process, Devereaux gets crosswise with the agency, and finds himself burdened by a far-fetched plot and overly busy plot.

During the next 108 minutes, Devereaux must battle treachery within the CIA, take down an aspiring Russian baddie, save the life of a younger woman (Olga Kurylenko) and remind his former protege (Luke Bracey) that the old man still has it.

That's a big agenda, and director Roger Donaldson (The World's Fastest Indian (2005), Dante's Peak (1997) and No Way Out (1987) shuffles through it without making us care about much of the resultant intrigues.

Donaldson whips up tension here and there, but doesn't have much going for him other than the icy gravitas and sudden angry outbursts Brosnan brings to a role that strands him somewhere between hard-core action and worldly savvy -- with a trace of sadism thrown in for seasoning.

We've seen so many of these kinds of movies that just about everything in Novembmer Man feels second-hand.

The movie does accomplish one thing, though: It makes us long for the end of summer, and the start of a new movie season.

Repeat after me: We're almost there. We're almost there.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

A return trip to 'Sin City'

It's lurid and creative, but what's the point?
It's rare that one's expectations are entirely met by a movie -- and it's not always a good thing when it happens.

Case in point: Sin City: A Dame to Kill For. Prior to the movie's preview screening, I imagined that this follow-up to Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez's 2005 Sin City would be another stylish immersion in a fantasy world composed of pulp impulses, noir gestures, brutal violence and fan-boy prurience.

Miller is a graphic novelist and sometime moviemaker. Rodriguez is a director of variable achievement. Together, they again serve up a movie that feels as if one is leafing through the pages of a graphic novel, entering a purportedly forbidden world where politicians are murderous, women are dressed for sex and half the male characters look as if they're mutants from an another planet.

And, yes, the movie is precisely what you expect.

Rodriguez and Miller create a world of uber-shlock that seems to derive from an exaggerated reading of noir ingredients and second-rate pulp fiction.

Noir, of course, had a socially critical dimension that completely eludes this second helping of Sin City. Besides, in combining several of Miller's stories, the movie challenges one's ability to sustain interest.

This helping of Sin City -- in which occasional splashes of color intrude on the heightened black-and-white imagery -- features a scorecard cast of names, some recognizable on screen, some not.

Among those who stand out are Josh Brolin, who takes over the role that Clive Owen played in the original; Eva Green, who plays the movie's sexy, deadly femme fatale; and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who stars in what ultimately feels like a satellite story about a young man who's lucky in cards and not so lucky at everything else.

Powers Boothe portrays the brutally smooth Senator Roark, a politician for whom the word "corrupt" would be a euphemism. Mickey Rourke returns as Marv, the freakish looking, motor-cycle riding avenger.

Some of the actors have extended roles, some (Ray Liotta as a lecherous businessman who's caught with his pants down) have cameos.

In the movie's best story, Brolin's character is irresistibly drawn to the duplicitous Ava. No matter what his brain tells him, he can't resist her siren call.

Miller and Rodriguez can't seamlessly blend the movie's several stories, and when the primary tale -- the one involving Green's Ava ends -- the movie essentially is over.

The rest feels like a death rattle, an obligatory advancement of loose ends that march zombie-like through what remains of the movie's 102-minute running time.

Devotees of Miller's work probably will be won over by the snide humor and outre violence. At one point, one of the character's eyes is plucked out.

But Sin City: A Dame to Kill For seems like a lot of work devoted to building a fantasy edifice that may tell us more about the sensibilities of those who dreamed up the fantasy than about the world it purports to describe.

To get back to where I started: Sin City: A Dame to Kill For is exactly what I thought it would be: creative, lurid, immature, and, perhaps, a bit pointless.

Life, death and a teen-age cellist

Another young adult novel finds its way to the screen.
If I Stay, a big-screen adaptation of a 2009 young-adult novel by Gayle Forman, proves something you may already know. The talented Chloe Grace Moretz can carry a movie, hardly a surprise after Moretz scored a big-screen breakthrough playing Hit-Girl in 2010's Kick-Ass . Moretz also held her own in 2010's Let Me In, and occupied the center of an unfortunate 2013 Carrie remake.

Moretz, who's a mere 17, doesn't look as if she's quite grown into adulthood yet, but you can see her beginning to blossom.

There's no faulting Moretz's performance in If I Stay, but the movie qualifies as a near-perfect example of a drama that provokes neither scorn nor admiration, a true middle-of-the-road effort.

Moretz plays Mia, an Oregon teen-ager and budding cellist who falls for Adam, a slightly older rock musician (Jamie Blackley).

If you've seen the movie's trailer you already know the story's gist. A terrible automobile accident involving Mia and her family sets the story in motion and determines its structure.

While languishing in a coma after an extensive surgery, Mia has an out-of-body experience. Her non-corporeal self wanders around the hospital checking in on her father (Joshua Leonard) and her younger brother (Jakob Davies), as well as on relatives and friends who've gathered to keep watch.

Generating more predictability than excitement, flashbacks arrive, most focusing on Mia's developing relationship with Blackley's Adam. We also get a couple of scenes with Mia's mother (Mireille Enos); she encourages Mia to pursue her relationship with Adam.

At first blush, Mia and Adam seem mismatched. She's demure and devoted to classical music. He's a rocker and chick magnet.

Unfortunately, the unfolding romance seems too serious for a girl who has yet to graduate from high school, undermining its power as a central story element for anyone past the age of 30.

Two questions develop: Will Mia pursue her cello dreams at Juilliard or will she hang back to maintain her relationship with Adam? The second question, of course, centers on whether Mia will pull out of her coma, whether -- in the movie's argot -- she'll choose life?

If I Stay seems intended by director R.J. Cutler as a tearjerker with serious overtones, a story designed to allow young adults to think about death while swooning over a romance.

Fair enough, but the movie comes off as too predictable to feel truly weighty and too weighty totally to dismiss. In all, this late-summer movie manages to cauterize highly dramatic events and, in the process, drain them of some of their much-needed emotion.

More men who've yet to grow up

If Matthew Weiner, creator of the landmark TV series Mad Men, accomplishes nothing else in his life, he will have earned a place in showbusiness history. Unfortunately, Weiner's first foray into big-screen entertainment isn't nearly as daring as his TV work. The major revelation offered by Are You Here are end-of-picture scenes in which Zach Galifianakis appears beardless. Other than that, you'll find only traces of Weiner's brilliance in a story about Ben and Steve, two friends (Galifianakis and Owen Wilson) who are going through separate crises. Things come to a head when Ben's father dies, and leaves him a ton of money, much to the dismay of Ben's more responsible sister, played by Amy Poehler). As it turns out, recently departed dad was living with a younger woman (Laura Ramsey), who attracts Steve's eye and who's stuck in full earth mother mode throughout proceedings. Questions arise: Will bipolar Ben finally start taking his meds? Will Steve, who works at an Annapolis TV station as a weatherman, ever set aside his glib, irresponsible ways? Neither Ben nor Steve is exceptionally interesting, which means the only reliable pleasure in Are You Here stems from some of Weiner's clever dialogue. It seems clear that Weiner wanted to do something that would be both funny and meaningful. I hope, in his next effort, he's more successful. This bromance takes few unexpected turns.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

A director tackles high school football

De La Salle High School in Concord, Ca., holds a record that likely never will be broken. Between 1992 and 2003, the team won 151 straight games, gaining a national reputation among those who follow high school football and helping to train a variety of players (see list below) who eventually made it into the professional ranks in the NFL.

The new movie -- When the Game Stands Tall -- stars Jim Caviezel as Bob Ladouceur, the legendary coach of the De La Salle Spartans. Ladouceur, who retired in 2013, also taught religion at the northern California school. He was famous not only for his on-field success, but for instilling character and discipline in his many charges.

I recently spoke with Thomas Carter, who directed When the Game Stands Tall. Carter also directed the 2005 high school basketball movie Coach Carter, and played a high school basketball player on The White Shadow, a TV program that ran from 1978 to 1981. He has directed extensively in television, and also has directed 11 features, beginning with 1993's Swing Kids.

Q. Should I feel like a sports ignoramous for not knowing about De La Salle's astonishing record before I heard about your film?
Carter: I'm a sports fan, as well, and, honestly, I’d never heard of De La Salle until this story came my way. People who follow high school sports in a big way knew about it, as well as a lot of sports writers.
One of the things I learned in reading about De La Salle is that we had no way to track national high school championship competitions until 10 or so years ago. We didn’t really have the platform to know what was going on elsewhere.

I'm sure if you if you live in Colorado, you probably read about the high school state championship whether you followed it or not. You probably saw something about it.

Q. ESPN now covers some high school football, as do a few other sports-oriented networks.
Carter: This movie actually covers the game that was considered the first of the high school championship games that was televised. Now there’s a little more awareness about it.

Q. Did you see De La Salle play before you began shooting?
Carter: Yes, in the year right before I made the movie. The first game I saw was between the northern and the southern sections of the state, which is how it’s broken up. De La Salle was playing the high school on which my nephew was a lineman. I had a little bit of a confused rooting interest, but I sat on the De La Salle side.

Q. I wasn't watching the movie with a stop watch, but it seemed to me that there was more football than in most similiar movies.
Carter: I don’t know if we had more football but we do have one of the longer sequences of a football game, the one between Long Beach Polytechnic and De La Salle. That big sequence hopefully makes you feel as if you’re watching a football game. It’s not as long as a football game, of course, but it’s very long for a movie. (Perhaps 20 minutes.)

More than that, it’s the visceral experience of watching those games that makes it feel real.

Q. How did you go about getting that visceral experience on film?
Carter: It was a quick shoot, but we had a lot of time for certain sequences. (The movie was shot in Louisiana because of state rebates.) The second unit probably had three or four days to shoot on that sequence, and then I came with the first unit, and we shot close to another three or four days. ....

We used a motorcycle camera. We mounted a camera on the back of an electric motorcycle. We moved with the players as they moved through the line. It gave a different kind of dynamism to the sequence. The motorcycle is actually tracking with the player in the middle of the play. ....

We were also up close and personal with the linemen so you feel the hits. A lot of the work was in the sound design, a very specific sound for each hit.

Q. That's something I wanted to ask you about. With all the talk about concussions these days were you concerned about how you displayed the physicality of football, particularly in a movie about high school football?
Carter: I'm concerned about that. The producer and I had conversations about it. Football is a physical game. It’s a combative game. I have hits in this movie that young boys will enjoy. Yet, there are times where parents may feel very cautioned. We tried to take out any helmet-to-helmet hits. We were very conscious about that. It's a full and aggressive football experience, but nobody — including me as a filmmaker — wants to do anything that leads to any kid getting hurt.

Q. One of the interesting things about the movie is that Ladouceur isn't a rah-rah type of guy. He's quiet and sometimes, it looks more like his assistant (Michael Chiklis) is coaching the team.
Carter: That's something I experienced going to a real team meeting. Bob sits in a corner. Other people talk. The players talk. More toward the end, Bob would get up and say some things. He’s always compelling in what he says because he's simple and direct. It's not overly theatrical, but it’s so honest and piercing.

Even though Bob is a man of relatively few words, he’s compelling and authentic when he speaks. Trying to tackle that with an actor is difficult. Jim had to try to find that within himself.

Q. So you were impressed by Ladouceur and his approach?
I don’t think any of us who've made a movie has had an experience that’s quite as dynamic, as deep and as rich as what these guys have been through, the kind of day-to-day commitment, what happens in a team meeting or a chapel service or in a game.

Q. During the story, a young man dies. He's shot while picking up his cousin at a party he didn't even attend. He was a good kid en route to a college scholarship at Oregon. It wasn't a police shooting, but it actually happened, and it made me think about Michael Brown, the young man who was just killed in Missouri.
Carter: It’s heartbreaking any time you lose a child for any reason, but when you lose a child in an unexpected and apparently avoidable way, in a way that makes no sense, it’s incredibly painful. .... I wanted to justice to the parents of the real kid. They suffered a tragedy. That was a big issue for me.

What's horrible is to look at the country and what’s happening in Missouri. Whatever happens specifically in this case, there’s a level of racism in certain pockets of the country that I would have thought would be gone by now, things that kids walking down the street would not have to deal with. I never imagined in 2014, that we’d be dealing with these issues.

It’s a reminder that we all have to keep a constant vigil, not just black people but white people, Latinos, Asians, all of us as Americans, a constant vigil against any kind of real bigotry and the perils of inequality of income and opportunity.

Q. Maybe it's pushing the point, but your movie seems to be calling young people to a higher ground.
Carter: That’s why a movie like this is important. It calls us into the service of our higher ideals -- not in a corny way, I hope, but in a way that’s true. Bob has been doing this for years. It’s not a made up story. Young men have responded to this call, have grown and hopefully have become young adults who have a more inclusive philosophy of brotherhood and camaraderie, of selflessness, of putting somebody before themselves, of playing for the other guy. That's real for them.

Bob will tell you winning is a result of other things that you do. He likes to win, but that’s not the first agenda.

Some De La Salle athletes who have gone on to pro football:
T.J. Ward, safety for the Denver Broncos
Maurice Jones-Drew, halfback for Oakland Raiders.
Kevin Simon, linebacker for Washington Redskins
Matt Gutierrez, former quarterback in the National Football League
D. J. Williams, outside linebacker for the Chicago Bears
Doug Brien, kicker with San Francisco 49ers
David Loverne, guard with New York Jets
Derek Landri, defensive tackle with Philadelphia Eagles

Thursday, August 14, 2014

A familiar helping of sci-fi

Another adaptation of a popular young adult novel.
When a society seems perfect, it's probably time to start worrying.

That's part of the warning delivered by The Giver, an artful if slightly bland adaptation of a 1993 young adult novel by Lois Lowry.

Carefully assembled by director Phillip Noyce and boasting strong adult participation from Jeff Bridges, Meryl Streep, Alexander Skarsgard, and Katie Holmes, The Giver serves as a well-made -- if too familiar -- cautionary tale about the perils of an over-controlled society that has tried to eliminate all knowledge of the past.

You needn't have read the book to know that someone -- in this case a young character named Jonas (Brenton Thwaites) -- eventually will challenge the prevailing order.

The story begins when young Jonas is selected as the Receiver of Memory, the one person who'll learn the real history of humanity prior to its imprisonment in this apparently idyllic world.

Jonas is introduced to memory -- and the pain it brings -- by The Giver (Bridges), a grizzled fellow who's allowed to know all of human history.

Because he possesses such knowledge, The Giver occasionally is called upon to advise the ruling elders about potential dangers that need immediate redress -- or something like that.

The Giver also has the power to transmit images from the past simply by grabbing Jason's arms and establishing a mind link, thereby saving his charge the trouble of having to read any of the many books in The Giver's vast library.

The movie opens at a ceremony in which Jason graduates into his adult role. His two best friends: Fiona (Odeya Rush) and Asher (Cameron Monaghan) are assigned their tasks, as well.

Jason's parents (Skarsgard and Holmes) watch the proceedings along with the rest of the parents, who aren't biological parents but adults selected for parenting roles.

Streep plays the Chief Elder, a woman with a school principal's smile and a hair style that looks as if it were borrowed from Cher. The chief elder keeps order by eliminating most of what we regard as human impulse.

Noyce shoots segments in the movie's sterile, smiley-faced utopia in black and white, introducing vivid color as Jason begins to see a more flavorful but dangerous world under The Giver's tutelage.

Of course, the colorless world in which all homes are the same and in which daily injections suppress both positive and negative emotions harbors hidden dangers. Babies judged "inferior" are killed, as are some of the elderly.

Looking like The Dude after a weird makeover, Bridges -- also one of the movie's producers -- adds gravitas, and Streep avoids Cruella de Vil cliches in a role that isn't likely to be pressed into her book of memories.

The young actors give serviceable enough performances. Skarsgard and Holmes are short-changed by the fact that they're playing characters with minimal personalities.

The movie unravels a bit during an ending that underscores the story's implausibilities, and the tale's main issues hardly qualify as startlingly original.

The Giver comes off as a well-intended helping of sci-fi built around a moral lesson: The problem with eliminating all of our worst tendencies is that it also does away with the best. That, of course, proves little aside from demonstrating that The Giver has a firm grasp of the obvious.