Frank

September 4, 2014 by  
Filed under Cody, Reviews

Starring: Michael Fassbender, Domhnall Gleeson, Maggie Gyllenhaal
Directed by: Lenny Abrahamson (“What Richard Did”)
Written by: Jon Ronson (debut) and Peter Straughan (“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”)

After heavy career-defining roles in “Shame” and “12 Years A Slave,” a comedic side is just about the only thing we haven’t seen from Michael Fassbender. With Lenny Abrhamson’s musically-skewed dark comedy “Frank,” Fassbender gets a chance to shine in a completely new fashion.

Aspiring musician Jon (Domhnall Gleeson) doesn’t have much in the way of musical or songwriting talent, but stumbles across an opportunity to play in a band. The band is led by a strange, but kind-hearted man named Frank (Michael Fassbender) who wears a giant fake head at all times, with the reason and true identity not known by anyone. As the band retreats to write and record an album, Jon begins updating on their progress and videos of their retreat on social media. When the band gains notoriety from its videos, they are provided an opportunity they might not be ready for.

With how talented Fassbender is, it is no surprise that he is excellent at comedy. What is truly impressive is how adept he is at physical comedy. Often flailing, getting laughs from well-timed looks, or excitedly describing his facial expression from under the fake head, Fassbender is able to mine an incredible amount of infectious personality and humor despite having his head and face covered. Some of the funnier bits also come from the absurd props that Frank needs to get by with the fake head, like long stretching headphones or super long straws to drink from.

As a musical film, there isn’t much to write home about as the music is intentionally bad and can occasionally become grating. Still, as Jon builds the hype of the band through Twitter and YouTube, the elements of being in a band and going through the song-writing process is interesting to watch even if the music is often atonal noise.

Tone-wise, “Frank” isn’t completely funny, but rather has a hint of sadness present throughout. Overall, however, the film has a certain sweet streak running through its veins and is a frequently interesting look at mental illness and seeking fame in the digital age. It doesn’t work in every aspect. The film’s first half is far better than the second and there are some tonal shifts that are a little jarring as the film goes from dark to silly at the drop of a hat. There is also the major issue of Maggie Gyllenhaal’s character being entirely off-putting, with every one of her scenes coming off as extremely annoying. Still, Fassbender carries “Frank” and gives it a lighthearted touch that makes the film easy enough to digest.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

January 8, 2012 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Tom Hardy
Directed by: Tomas Alfredson (“Let the Right One In”)
Written by: Bridget O’Connor (“Sixty Six”) and Peter Straughan (“The Men Who Stare at Goats”)

Say the words “British spy” and most moviegoers would probably picture any one of the James Bond incarnations over the last 50 years performing death-defying stunts far above the ground. Whether it’s Pierce Brosnan bungee jumping from a dam in “GoldenEye,” Roger Moore skiing off the side of the Alps in “The Spy Who Loved Me,” or Daniel Craig leaping from construction cranes in “Casino Royale,” Brit and secret agents usually go hand in hand with exaggerated entertainment.

As much as an author like Ian Fleming has engrossed fans of the spy genre with feats of flight in his Bond series, author John le Carré has captured the same interest in a more atmospheric approach with his novels centered on British intelligence officer George Smiley. Think of Smiley as the anti-Bond. In fact, the only real similarity between the two is that Smiley is about as dry as the martinis 007 frequently orders. His subtleness is evident in the most recent of le Carré’s adaptations, “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” a complex and sometimes confusing Cold War thriller that might actually require a few viewings to puzzle together all of the narrative’s intricacies.

Still, if you’re familiar with any of le Carré’s work or their cinematic counterparts (search out “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold” now), his slow-boiling and meticulous storytelling is what makes his voice in the genre so distinct. Considered by many as one of the greatest British writers of espionage fiction in the 20th century, le Carré’s novels demand attention and refuse to provide easy avenues to maneuver between aggravating plot points. The sentiment couldn’t be truer than with “Tinker Tailor.” Adapting le Carre’s 1974 book (the first of what is considered “The Karla Trilogy” and one of seven works featuring the character Smiley), screenwriters Bridget O’Connor (“Sixty Six”) and Peter Straughan (“The Men Who Stare at Goats”) attempt to simplify the story without sacrificing the elaborate details that make the mystery so intriguing to solve in the first place. To some extent they’re able to play their version of the spy game (noted here as a kind of metaphorical chess board) without knocking over too many pieces.

The featured rook of this game of high-stakes chess is actor Gary Oldman (“The Dark Knight”) who plays Smiley, a retired agent of the Secret Intelligence Service (also known as “The Circus”) who is asked to covertly return to duty to expose one of his former colleagues as a Russian-planted mole rooting around at the highest levels of the SIS. Possible double agents include Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), Toby Esterhase (David Dencik), and Roy Bland (Ciarán Hinds). Also in the already-crowded mix is Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong), another SIS agent sent to retrieve the identity of the mole by the head of British intelligence (John Hurt), rogue agent and whistleblower Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy), and Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch), Smiley’s inside man delegated to sift through file cabinets when no one’s watching.

Directed by Swedish filmmaker Tomas Alfredson (“Let the Right One In”), “Tinker Tailor” is far from the sprawling BBC miniseries released back in 1979 starring Oscar winner Alec Guinness (“The Bridge on the River Kwai”). Clocked at a very reasonable 127 minutes, Alfredson’s version (his first English-language film) is most satisfying when we witness – through flashbacks – the evolution of a once powerful foreign intelligence agency into the equivalent of a whispery sewing circle. The contrast between old guard and new guard principles is a frightening look at how corruption is able to snake its way into even the most secured venues. The emotional aspects of these events do tend to have an impersonal bitterness to them, but it’s a fine complement to the bleak Cold War-inspired world Alfredson has set his players in. The emphasis on the grim atmosphere is made even more significant through the technical aspects of the film. Credit production designer Maria Djurkovic (“The Hours”) and cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema (“The Fighter”) for turning 1970s London into a place even the sleaziest spies wouldn’t want to wander.

Men Who Stare at Goats

November 9, 2009 by  
Filed under CineStrays

Starring: George Clooney, Ewan McGregor, Jeff Bridges
Directed by: Grant Heslov (“Par 6”)
Written by: Peter Straughan (“How to Lose Friends and Alienate People”)

Everything unravels pretty early on in “Goats,” the dry comedy directed by Oscar-nominated screenwriter/producer Grant Heslov (“Good Night, and Good Luck”). In the film, George Clooney, who has done satirical characters well before, plays Lyn Cassady, a psychic spy for the U.S. military who teams up with a reporter (Ewan McGregor) to go on a quirky adventure through Iraq. Based on an actual secret military program, the story behind “Goats” is one of mystifying science fiction that never gets passed the idea that all these characters are just darn so kitschy. It would have been nice to delve deeper into what makes all of them actually tick, but instead screenwriter Peter Straughan (“How to Lose Friends and Alienate People”) and Heslov decide the funniest thing they could do with “Goats” is get McGregor, who played Obi Wan Kenobi in the most recent “Star Wars” prequels, to overkill Jedi jokes while Clooney caricatures the heck out someone that should have been ten times more fun.