Frank

Maggie Gyllenhall, Michael Fassbender (possibly) and Domhnall Gleeson in Frank

 

Frank Sidebottom was the stage name of musician Chris Sievey, whose Frank was a cult novelty act that toured students unions etc in the UK in the 1980s and 1990s, singing chaotically shambolic versions of well known tunes (it could be Kylie, it could be the Sex Pistols) in a wheedling high-pitched determinedly uncool accent. Frank wore a gigantic papier maché head and made much of the fact that he was from the equally uncool Timperley in Cheshire. I saw him perform once, in the University of London Union, and the memory is with me still.

Jon Ronson, the journalist who co-wrote the screenplay on which Lenny Abrahamson’s film is based, was the keyboardist in Sidebottom’s band. And though the comic meander in front of us is from the viewpoint of a new keyboardist who joins Frank’s ramshackle band of outsiders after the previous one has flamed out, the story this tells works at the level of fable, not fact. It’s not a biopic. Metaphorically, Frank is a big papier maché head.

The affable, shaggily friendly Domhnall Gleeson is our guide, Jon (name entirely coincidental, of course). And he leads us through the flatlining progress of a band who court obscurity rather than success, who would rather die than be famous. We see the first shaky gig after Jon joins them, which collapses after one number. We eavesdrop as the band write and rehearse a new album in a skanky holiday park in Ireland, burning through Jon’s money while treating him with contempt because he’s trying to write songs – songs! We watch as Jon and avant-garde bitch and Theremin player Clara fight for Frank’s ear. We journey with them to the SXSW festival in Texas, where, thanks to Jon’s tireless tweeting, the band suddenly stands on the verge of something they’re entirely unprepared for.

And all the time Frank wears the head – on stage and off – the totem of his creativity, his apartness. Frank is the story of artistic bohemians for whom obscurity is a badge of honour, those doughty souls who though they’d never admit it are more in hock to the image than the work. Beautiful losers, to misappropriate the title of Leonard Cohen’s novel.

Ronson’s decision to dispense with the specifics of Sievey’s/Sidebottom’s life means there’s a universality to Frank. Even so it’s going to come as a shock to some that it’s Michael Fassbender inside that big boggly head (though you could easily convince me otherwise). And that Maggie Gyllenhaal has been persuaded to play Clara. Or, indeed, that Scoot McNairy, fresh from 12 Years a Slave, didn’t have other things to do.

Maybe Ronson and co-writer Peter Straughan’s oddball-packed screenplay for the George Clooney film The Men Who Stare at Goats persuaded the actors to sign on. Maybe they were all fans of the poetic emptiness of Lenny Abrahamson’s trio of brilliant Irish films – Adam & Paul, Garage and What Richard Did.

But how to evaluate in terms of a star rating a film that sets out to sabotage itself? I remember that evening 20 years ago watching Sidebottom perform. He was bloody hilarious for about 15 minutes, wackily charming for the following two or three numbers, but then the absence (who’s inside the head? why is he doing this?) started to grate slightly, before the lack of real purpose – neither aiming for the transcendent hit of beautiful music or the intellectual high of a new insight – began to grate. As with Sidebottom, so with Frank. Where’s the tune, in other words.

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Monsters

Scoot McNairy and Whitney Able in Monsters

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

1 December

 

 

Military Abolition Day, Costa Rica

On this day every year, the people of Costa Rica celebrate Día de la Abolición del Ejército (Military abolition day), as a reminder of the day in 1948 when President José Figueres Ferrer got rid of the country’s armed forces, in particular the standing army. Unusual in itself, this act was all the more remarkable when it is considered that Ferrer was a general who had just led an army to victory in the 44 day civil war in Costa Rica, which had been precipitated by the parliament refusing to accept that the opposition leader, Otilio Ulate, had won the election. Ferrer’s army toppled the government and president and he installed himself, not Ulate, as president of a military junta. The following year, having abolished the military in the interim, he oversaw the election of a new assembly and the drafting of a new constitution before standing down – at which point he handed power to Ulate. Costa Rica is one of very few countries that has no standing army. It has a small security force – civil guard, border patrol and so on – and spends the money it would have spent on the military on education and culture. In case of war, the United States has pledged to supply troops.

 

 

 

Monsters (2010, dir: Gareth Edwards)

It’s not what it is, it’s the way that writer/director Gareth Edwards does it that makes Monsters so good. It’s your basic travelogue love story… with monsters. The Clark Gable/Claudette Colbert classic It Happened One Night seems to be a reference point – she’s a swell, he’s an oik, a journalist seconded by daddy to get his rich kid daughter out of danger. So off he goes to a foreign land, picks her up, and then off they go, heading for the border, talking as they go, getting closer to each other, then bucking back a bit, encountering danger and getting close again. It’s shot handheld, Cloverfield style, with Edwards wafting in just a touch of CGI here and there to add the monster element. Which is how everything is handled – extremely delicately, nothing overdone. Its worldview is similarly competent – there is no real discussion of who the monsters are or where they’re from or what they do; this is a world in which monsters are a fact and everyone has got used to them. The only thing everyone is discussing is the Wall that is being built. Will it be enough to keep the monsters out of the US? The film is shot in Costa Rica but is supposedly set in Mexico, so it’s tempting to see the Wall as allegorical, and the monsters as the wave of immigrants ready to broach the border. But if that is Edwards’s suggestion, he keeps that on the down-low too. Considering how absurdly overblown most films of this sort can and do get – think where a Michael Bay/Jerry Bruckheimer version would have gone – the low-key nature of Monsters can at times seem almost funny, as if someone’s having a joke. If it is a joke then the actors, Scoot McNairy and Whitney Able, are in on it, delivering performances so dialled down that they threaten to disappear. That was deliberate, right?

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • The film that got Edwards the 2014 Godzilla gig
  • Costa Rica’s lush tropical scenery
  • A textbook example of turning a limited budget to advantage
  • The actors fell in love and got married in real life – big aaah

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

 

Monsters – at Amazon