Capone's Art-House Round-Up with FRANK, LOVE IS STRANGE, LIFE OF CRIME, BOUND BY FLESH, and TO BE TAKEI!!!
Published at: Aug. 29, 2014, 2:59 p.m. CST by Capone
Hey, folks. Capone in Chicago here, with a few films that are making their way into art houses or coming out in limited release around America this week (maybe even taking up one whole screen at a multiplex near you). Do your part to support these films, or at least the good ones…
FRANK FRANK, from director Lenny Abrahamson (WHAT RICHARD DID), will be many things to many people. It's a wickedly dark comedy that skewers the current music scene but also seems wildly in love with the broader ideas of what music can be. FRANK is also a bleak and melancholy story about mental illness and how it can sometimes spark something wonderful before it spirals into something built of pure pain.
The film is also a collection of some truly great actors doing things you've likely never seen them do before, all anchored by the well-meaning but hopelessly misguided hand of Jon (Domhnall Gleeson, recently seen in ABOUT TIME and CALVARY), a truly horrible songwriter and decent keyboardist who joins Frank's band Soronprfbs (good luck pronouncing that) after its original keyboardist attempts suicide. The overwhelming truth about Soronprfbs is that their on-stage performances and music are weirdly good and catchy and would fit right into the landscape of bands ranging from Joy Division (mostly in Frank's singing style) to LCD Soundsystem (more the music style).
The catch, the gimmick, the kink if you will, to Frank (Michael Fassbender) is that he wears an oversized paper mache head over his own, complete with a plug where a microphone cord can go (presumably to a mic inside the mask. Oh, and the mask never comes off, ever. The head is almost identical to one worn by English musician/comedian Christopher Mark Sievey, who performed with The Freshies and worked under the persona Frank Sidebottom. There's no direct correlation as far as I know between Sievey and Fassbender's Frank, but I'm guessing the implication is that this Frank saw Sievey at some point and adopted the look. It honestly doesn't matter, but people seem to like drawing connections.
Fassbender's Frank is more fragile (think Daniel Johnson), a people pleaser on the surface, but always willing to trample over someone's ideas to get to the better song. The band takes up residence in a country home to record a new album, and Jon takes it upon himself to film their various attempts at creating new sounds and writing songs, and then post them on YouTube, where the band gathers a following they aren't aware of for quite some time.
Writers Jon Ronson (based very loosely on his memoir about Sievey) and Peter Starughan have pieced together a collection of personalities that somehow work together even if they largely can't stand each other. Maggie Gyllenhaal is Clara, an angry person who also assigns herself the task of taking care of Frank; Jon's attempts to work with Frank on writing songs infuriates her. Also on hand are French players Baraque (François Civil and Nana (Carla Azar) who also can't stand Jon, mostly because he's talentless; and then there's Don (Scoot McNairy), the man who brings Jon on board and manages the band to an extent. He seems like the most sane of the bunch, until he doesn't.
The conversations between Frank and Jon are as illuminating as they are confusing. Jon thinks he's breaking through to Frank by asking him directly what no one else seems to feel they can. Why the head? Why not write something catchy? And Fassbender's response and overall performance is a minor miracle, how he makes the expressionless Frank come to life as charming and funny one minute, then off his rocker the next. The other impressive aspect of FRANK is that Abrahamson shows us the band (all the actors played and sang themselves) at its most cohesive, which immediately leads into it being its most fractured. Jon gets lost in his longtime dream of being a professional musician and is willing to corrupt what makes Frank so creative and interesting just to gain a bit more mainstream popularity.
A part of me believes that the story of this band is unique, while another part believes that it's typical of a band just getting started (minus the guy wearing the fake head). The film builds up as if a trip to SXSW will be the climax, but that's far from true, and where it goes from that experience was completely unexpected, tragic, and eventually kind of magical. FRANK is a vast emotional tale told on the smallest of scales, and it speaks to the power of music to bring people together or even start interpersonal wars. I've now seen it a couple of times, and I'm ready to see it again, as it's quickly becoming one of my favorite offerings of the year.
LOVE IS STRANGE As with most films, you can break down the exquisite LOVE IS STRANGE into two things: what happens in it, and what it's about. The first is always easier to spell out. After being a couple for nearly 40 years, painter Ben (John Lithgow) and Catholic school choir director George (Alfred Molina) are finally able to get married in New York City, surrounded by their oldest and closest friends and family. It's a lovely affair, followed by a honeymoon, followed by one unexpected trouble after another.
While the two stay strong as a couple, the world around them is not necessarily able to do the same. Because of the public nature of their wedding, George is fired from his job, and the two are unable to afford the mortgage on their Chelsea condo, which they must move out of. With not a lot of money saved up and no immediate prospects for George to work (Ben is retired), their search for a new apartment is stalled and they are forced to separate to stay with friends and family with only one bed each.
The separation is easy on no one, including those the men are staying with, and the film chronicles what each man must endure in order to make this work. Ben is forced to stay with his neice (Marisa Tomei) and her family, including a teenage son who Ben must share a room; George is occupying another planet, that of a younger gay friend who enjoys entertaining and staying up late, something that doesn't please George in any way, but he slowly comes around to the idea of being exposed to younger, more energetic people outside his normal circle.
But the underlying elegance of the film is about this forced separation at the exact time when Ben and George should be living together as an elderly married couple. Understand, LOVE IS STRANGE isn't about marriage equality, although that's certainly a key part of the start of this story. It's about a couple forced apart at the exact moment they have cause for true celebration of union. Director and co-writer (along with Mauricio Zacharias) Ira Sachs (MARRIED LIFE, KEEP THE LIGHTS ON) has always had a true gift to understatement and having some of his story's key moments happen off camera, leaving his characters (and audience) to deal with the repercussions and often messy aftermath.
Of course, Sachs is aided in telling his deeply emotional journey by two of the greatest character actors working today, who step into these lead roles effortlessly and deliver such well-crafted performances that you almost don't notice just how strong they are. Lithgow, in particular, who often plays such larger-than-life characters, is so timid and frail at times that watching him get flustered almost makes you cry for him. Countered by Molina's take on George as the soothing force in Ben's life, the sensible one, the one who does his best to make things better. And it's clearly killing him that he can't make these annoying circumstances disappear any faster.
LOVE IS STRANGE is also about the little things in a relationship—a touch in the kitchen just to let the other know you're there. It's about the unspoken moments between two people that carry so much weight and indicate a closeness that words never could. This is another of Sachs' strengths: knowing when not to make his characters speak when a look or a gesture can do the work far better.
But Sachs knows how to make his audience struggle along with his characters. We enjoy the company of this couple so much that it pains us as well that after they move apart, we only see them together occasionally, rarely even. They talk on the phone or get together for a meal or drink, but it's not the same. Even when they're clearly having fun, there's an undercurrent of sadness. LOVE IS STRANGE is a work nearly perfect is every conceivable way, from the acting to the direction to the use of Chopin music (and nothing but) throughout to the way Sachs makes New York see so homey and warm as these fine gentlemen walk its streets. Seek this one out and don't be afraid to let it move you.
LIFE OF CRIME I remember reading much earlier in the year about this film, thought it sounded like a cool story with a great cast, and then I promptly forgot all about it, including the title. So when I sat down recently to watch LIFE OF CRIME, adapted by director Daniel Schechter (SUPPORTING CHARACTERS), I had no idea that several of the characters I was watching were ones I'd seen before played by other actors. You see, LIFE OF CRIME is based on the 1978 novel “The Switch,” by the late, great Elmore Leonard, telling the early crime adventures of Louis Gara and Ordell Robbie, who would later appear in Leonard's 1992 book “Rum Punch,” which was turned in to the film JACKIE BROWN. Played by Robert De Niro and Samuel L. Jackson in that film, Louis and Ordell are shown as younger men portrayed by John Hawkes and Yasiin Bey (better known as the hip-hop artist Mos Def).
Also making an appearance in both films is the character of Melanie, played in LIFE OF CRIME by Isla Fisher (and Bridget Fonda in JACKIE BROWN). Of course, I didn't realize any of this until the end credits started rolling on this new film, which is a testament to how strong a stand-alone work it is, with no nods to Tarantino's 1997 movie. In Schechter's film, Louis and Odell are plotting the kidnapping of Mickey Dawson (Jennifer Aniston), the wife of corrupt real estate developer Frank Dawson (Tim Robbins). While the boys think they've covered all the angles, they're still new at the kidnapping game and they haven't figured on such things as Mr. Dawson's young mistress, Melanie, or the fact that just before they took Mickey, Frank had filed for divorce from her, so he's not exactly in a hurry to hand over the requested $1 million for her speedy return.
LIFE OF CRIME isn't about the kidnapping; it's about the players in it, from the victim to the kidnappers to the husband; hell, it's even about Richard Monk (Mark Boone Junior), the weird dude with the Nazi memorabilia fetish in whose house the kidnappers store Mickey. As with all Leonard's characters, they are richly drawn, fascinating people who wear their flaws and strange proclivities proudly. I loved that the audience ends up being the smartest player in this game since we are the only ones with all of the information about every character.
As it becomes clear that Frank isn't going to pay, Louis starts to take pity on Mickey (who likely would have welcomed the coming divorce from her overbearing husband) and the three of them begin to concoct a scheme to get back at Frank for all of his poor choices. Despite the occasional bloody moment, Life of Crime has a wonderful breezy, matter-of-fact quality to it that make me take and instant liking to all of the characters.
There's a strange subplot involving a friend of the Dawsons, Marshall (played by Will Forte), who was trying to seduce Mickey right when she got kidnapped and is secretly working (ineffectively) to find out exactly what happened to her. In any other film, I might have wished for this storyline to get cut, but there's something rather endearing about Forte playing amateur sleuth and not able to go to the police for fear word of his attempted affair would ruin his own home life. Everyone in LIFE OF CRIME has a secret, and uncovering each and every one of them is the key to this film being so much fun.
BOUND BY FLESH At best, the Hilton twins (not to be compared to the still-living Hilton sisters of today) are a footnote in showbiz history. But as if to prove the point that there is no such thing as a boring story, just stories waiting to be told by interesting tellers, filmmaker Leslie Zemeckis (BEHIND THE BURLY Q) digs deep into the lives of the conjoined (or Siamese) twins Daisy and Violet, probably best known to cinephiles from their appearance in Tod Browning's FREAKS (1932) or possibly their rather terrible 1952 autobiographical feature film CHAINED FOR LIFE. As chronicled in BOUND BY FLESH, their life was a struggle from birth and not just because they were connected by a bit of tissue at the small of the back.
Born in Britain to an unwed mother who believed the twins' condition was a punishment from God for not being married, Daisy and Violet were put up for display for money before they learned to walk, and were passed from one relative or opportunistic promoter to another. Eventually, to keep the brand fresh, the girls learned to sing, play instruments, dance and be generally personable for the stage, everywhere from sideshows in carnivals to freak shows and eventually landing as part of the vaudeville circuit where they became a top-paid act. They went all over the world, and it didn't hurt that they were attractive.
The research for BOUND BY FLESH is extraordinary, and Zemeckis and her team come up with some of the most obscure newsreel footage, archival photographs, posters, even audio tape of the girls telling their life story. Supplemented by interviews from historians and even a few former promoters who crossed paths with the twins, the film paints a portrait of a painful life lived by two naïve women who rarely had a clue when they were being bamboozled. Yes, I'll admit the discussions about their sex lives are perhaps the highlight of the film, but it's balanced by the sad story of their lives after show business left them behind.
Zemeckis clearly has an affection for the Hilton girls, but behind that is the idea that we should not forget these hidden corners of show business, if only as a cautionary tale about bad management, overstaying your welcome in the limelight, and existing on that fine line between novelty act and freak show performer.
TO BE TAKEI Even for those who have some idea of actor/activist George Takei's life—past and present—I'm guessing that there's something in the great new documentary about him, TO BE TAKEI, that you didn't know. But the access the "Star Trek" actor and his husband, Brad, gave to director Jennifer Kroot (IT CAME FROM KUCHAR) makes even the familiar seem new and infinitely interesting. And if you didn't already want to hug Takei for all that he has accomplished and endured, you will.
From his childhood in a Japanese-American internment camp in Arkansas to becoming one of the first Asian-Americans on primetime television to his gig as Howard Stern's official announcer to being on the frontlines for gay rights (in particular for marriage equality), Takei's story is utterly unique. It's fascinating to see him in his pre- and post-"Star Trek" days still forced to play stereotypical Asian roles, but it's clear that doing so fueled him to create the musical "Allegiance," about an elderly man remembering his days in an internment camp.
It's clear that few things thrilled Takei more professionally than the day Sulu became a starship captain in one of the STAR TREK movies. The relationship he has with various former crew members is examined to a point here (shockingly, William Shatner does not come across well here), but director Kroot spends the bulk of the film taking closer looks at Takei's more political side. Both fans and casual curiosity seekers will have things to get excited about and be entertained by in this movie, in particular Takei irreverent humor that he shares with millions on Facebook.
TO BE TAKEI is a rich and rewarding watch that works both as an examination of why some actors hit the pop culture zeitgeist while others don't, but it also goes well beyond the public persona of Takei to show us what inspires, scares and propels him as a human being. He's great with his fans, and he attempts to be patient with Brad. This is a film that successfully allows us to discover the artist and the man.