Frank (2014) – Lenny Abrahamson

1-Frank“Children building castles in the sand in my town…” Jon (Domhnall Gleeson), pale and red-haired, squints at the ocean, pen and paper in hand. We hear his reedy voiceover as he struggles to get lyrical inspiration from his suburban surroundings. (“Lady in the red coat, whatcha doin’ with that bag?”) After a day of failed attempts, he tweets about “working hard at songwriting all day” and goes home to share a casserole with his parents.

This sad, struggling songwriter is our protagonist in Abrahamson’s strange and wonderful black comedy Frank. After their keyboardist tries to drown himself, alternative band Soronprfbs (never confidently pronounced by anyone in the film) has Jon fill in for a gig—and before he knows it, he’s being swept away with them to Vetno, a cloistered cabin in Ireland where they will push themselves to their furthest musical corners and record an album.

The band’s frontman is the enigmatic Frank (Michael Fassbender), who wears an enormous papier-mâché head over his own head at all times—a reference to the real Frank, a creation of British comedian Chris Sievey. The rest of the band consists of their tortured manager, Don (Scoot McNairy); a French, floppy-haired guitarist (François Civil); a taciturn drummer (Carla Azar); and a hostile theremin-player named Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal) who has no problem expressing her displeasure with anyone or anything around her—Jon in particular. (“Someone needs to punch you in the face,” she tells him sweetly.) Nonetheless, Jon is determined to make his mark on the band. Their sound is eclectic, to say the least—Talking Heads meets Pink Floyd meets The Doors with nonsensical lyrics—but Jon feels that they have the potential to make it big, and he plans to make that happen.

Frank is a peculiar and incredible balancing act of dark realism and hilariousness. At first glance, the characters are absurd—Frank shuffling around with his giant head, Clara glowering with tiny white circles painted inexplicably all over her face—but they soon reveal themselves to have real depth and dimension. We grow to see their vulnerabilities and to care about them. But by the same token, just as a scene is becoming intense and powerful, something funny will happen (Frank hits his head on a pole and stumbles backwards, Clara calmly stabs Jon in the leg) and we’re brought back to the realm of the absurd, laughing with surprise. The film is comprised of layers of ridiculousness and realism and ridiculousness again, creating an overall effect that’s bittersweet, funny, and uncomfortable. And it’s perfect, because isn’t that the artistic process? Ridiculous, real, weird, vulnerable. Sad. Full of complex layers. Uncomfortable when you fail, exhilarating when you’re inspired.

Frank_1_zps6a57dab1But how does one get inspired? That’s the question that haunts Jon as he continues his pathetic attempts at songwriting. Meanwhile, Frank finds inspiration in everything, from the eerie shrieks of Clara’s theramin to the scratching of a toothbrush. And that inspiration is clear in his compositions. Soronprfbs’s music, while certainly unusual, is compelling because of that inspired energy. Where does Frank get it? From his stint in a mental hospital? From a dark and tortured childhood? Does he simply have a God-given gift? Jon can’t figure it out, and his experience in the band is colored by his envy and frustration. I was reminded of Salieri’s jealous agony in Milos Forman’s Amadeus (1984) (incredible movie, one of my all-time favorites), especially as Jon’s unhappiness begins to motivate him to manipulate the band and, most importantly, Frank.

Frank is really the centerpiece of the film. Fassbender renders him surprisingly charismatic for someone who spends his life behind a cartoonish mask. He’s friendly and down-to-earth, kindly supportive of Jon and all his mediocre compositions. But Frank is also complicated; for how much confidence he has while songwriting or performing, he’s otherwise fragile and easily influenced. It’s striking from the first moment we see him: after an energetic musical performance, he stands limply on the stage until Clara unplugs his microphone, turns him around, and walks him off the stage with her hands on his shoulders. He’s a mystery, and much of the film consists of the band members fighting for control over him and attention from him, motivated by jealousy and admiration.

Frank’s fragility is important, because ultimately this is a movie about the humanity behind artistic achievement. It’s an examination of what it means to be an artist, to have integrity, to be talented, to be inspired, to have an audience. The film doesn’t offer any explicit answers, but contemplates these topics with creativity and nuance, never taking itself too seriously. Overall its greatest achievement is succeeding in being at once intelligent, thought provoking, and enjoyable to watch—a rare treat in general, but an especially welcome and unexpected one in a film about a man with a papier-mâché head.

The Imitation Game (2014) – Morten Tyldum

THE IMITATION GAME

Something this movie has going for it: we all love games. I’m thinking about Ender’s Game, the Hunger Games trilogy, Michael Haneke’s 2007 thriller Funny Games (which I unexpectedly loved), and the horrific but popular Saw movies. There’s something thrilling about a game with high stakes—a pastime from childhood that’s thrust suddenly into the adult world. The concept has so much intrigue! And Morten Tyldum’s The Imitation Game, while not technically about a game, hits that sweet spot.

London, 1939. “The game was quite a simple one,” mathematician Alan Turing tells us. “Every single German message, every surprise attack, every bombing run, every imminent U-boat assault—they were all floating through the air. Radio signals that any schoolboy with an AM kit could intercept. The trick was that they were encrypted.” The film is based on a true story—the Germans were using a machine called Enigma to encode their messages, and it had so far been impossible to crack. Turing (played here by Benedict Cumberbatch) was hired with a team of cryptographers to do the impossible: to break Enigma and win Britain the war. Alexandre Desplat’s score pulses thrillingly as the cryptographers examine the Enigma machine and wrap their minds around the parameters of their task.

Evoking this sense of exhilaration is perhaps what The Imitation Game has done best. That and casting Cumberbatch, who’s won himself quite the cult following over the years, and not without reason. Cumberbatch, I’m coming to realize, has a Cate Blanchett–like ability to physically transform himself to suit his current role: his voice, his mannerisms, even his appearance change drastically from film to film. Here he is effeminate, stiff. This film is full of pale, slender, intelligent Englishmen, and Turing is the palest, slenderest, and most intelligent of them all, brilliant in his field but stumbling through conversations, and coming off as flustered, hostile, and arrogant in turns. But he’s also lovable in his vulnerability. Cumberbatch is marvelous to watch, earnestly determined in his attempts to build the world’s first computer, breathing life into a somewhat stilted screenplay.

Because, despite having a fantastic premise, writing ends up being this film’s weakest point. As my roommate pointed out when we were watching it together, this is an incredible story. It would be difficult not to make this movie exciting. They had their work cut out for them. Still, the writing falters. The script errs on the side of cheesy and cliché. The running theme—“Sometimes it’s the very people whom no one imagines anything of who do the things no one can imagine”—is cloying, and it only becomes more so each time it’s repeated. And we’ve seen the socially-awkward-genius story done so many times (A Beautiful Mind being a prime example—also Amadeus, and the BBC series Sherlock) that it’s hard not to spot familiar tropes in Turing’s scenes. This is the part where he’s rude and off-putting in his interview, but they’ll hire him anyway because of something he’ll say right before they push him out the door. This is the part where he polarizes his coworkers, but they’ll still unite behind him in the end. These scenes don’t feel fresh; they feel formulaic.

Screen Shot 2015-02-10 at 3.58.54 PMThat being said, it is refreshing to have a mainstream film with a gay main character where his sexuality is prominently featured. My current obsession is the fact that gay characters rarely display physical affection in films (I recently watched Craig Johnston’s 2014 film The Skeleton Twins and was disappointed to see Kristen Wiig having multiple sex scenes with male partners, while her gay brother, played by Bill Hader, wasn’t even given a peck on the lips by his male romantic interest—go on, throw a gay kiss in, we won’t cover our eyes and yell, “Ewww!”), but in this case, Turing’s lack of physical intimacy is actually pretty appropriate. Isolation, particularly Turing’s, is a big theme of the film: isolation in one’s sexuality, social tendencies, top-secret career. And that theme is carried out effectively—indeed, heart-wrenchingly. There are vivid flashbacks between a young Turing (Alex Lawther) and his schoolmate Christopher (Jack Bannon), who becomes the love of his life, although it is never consummated and he could never really share it with anyone. (Turing later goes on to name the machine he’s building Christopher, which, as The New Yorker aptly pointed out, is an invention of the film’s and gives the whole project an unsettling Frankenstein vibe.) Homosexuality was illegal in Britain during Turing’s lifetime, and he was eventually condemned to chemical castration for his homosexual tendencies, leading to his death. Turing contributed to the modern world in an incredible way, but his personal life was riddled with pain and conflict, and the film would not be complete without including that part of his life.

And so we come to the other great flaw of the film, which is a problem in many biopics: how do you sum up an entire life in two hours? Is it possible to do effectively? (Spoiler alert: Yes. Go see A Beautiful Mind.) What I found with The Imitation Game was that the tone was emotionally dissonant, especially at the end. Is the film meaning to celebrate Turing’s incredible achievements, or to reveal the horrific way he was condemned for his sexuality? It’s confusing, messy. And not deliberately messy. It has the messiness of something that’s been shoved into a box that doesn’t quite contain it. While it’s important to include both the high points and the low points of Turing’s life, that story deserves a structure that incorporates both of those things coherently—or doesn’t attempt to incorporate them at all. Instead, they are haphazardly tied together with a perplexingly neat Hollywood bow.

The Imitation Game is a fun watch—at least at first. Then it is a stressful watch. Then it is a heartbreaking watch. Performances from Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley render the script more believable (sadly, the same can’t be said for my true love Matthew Goode, who does little but smolder and drop snide one-liners—although that’s not really his fault, the script doesn’t give him much to work with), and the story is an important one to tell. The overall effect comes up a little bit short, but I’ll give them this—biopics are a tough code to crack.