The Pitch: Getting inside your head.
The Review: Never having been a great sleeper, at least until I settled down for domestic bliss with Mrs Evangelist, I’ve watched a lot of late night TV over the years, most of which in the Nineties in the UK on a Friday night would have been somewhere between a talk show, an old fashioned revue and a freak show. Saturday morning TV was also a student staple that carried over from childhood, and was generally a lot more wholesome, if often just as irreverent; oddly, there was at least one character who managed to fit in comfortably with both, a relentlessly cheerful man who sang songs, occasionally had a hand puppet and spoke in a broad northern accent. All the while, he dressed in a suit, wearing a giant papier maché head in the style of a Max Fleischer cartoon and calling himself Frank Sidebottom, when he was actually called Chris Sievey. He had a band called the Oh Blimey Big Band and one of its members, now journalist Jon Ronson, has co-written a film using Frank as his inspiration.
Rather than a jovial Mancunian, Frank is now an American trying to make it with his band of eccentrics on the UK music scene. With an unpronounceable band name (The Soronprfbs) and a collection of dysfunctional members, Jon (Domnhall Gleeson) ends up filling in for their drummer when he’s found raving in the water on a local beach. Before he knows it, Jon is holed up with the rest of the band attempting to record an album in an Irish holiday home, with only the sympathetic manager Don (Scoot McNairy) on his side. Desperately unable to channel his own musical input into the band and seemingly only able to antagonise Frank’s right hand woman, highly strung theremin player Clara (Maggie Gyllenall) and can’t even communicate with the others, so his only outlet becomes expressing his frustrations on Twitter and posting videos of the band on YouTube. Unwittingly, that strategy might be the path to fame and fortune that the whole group craves, if they can keep themselves together for long enough.
You have to disassociate the real life Frank from the fictional one here; while Sievey might have kept his head on for an hour or two after performances, Michael Fassbender’s Frank never takes his off, a conceit played out for a number of teasing moments through the course of the film. There’s nothing to really give away that Frank is Fassbender; he disappears into the head convincingly and thoroughly, and he’s a charismatic oddball that offsets the angst and misery of his fellow bandmates. It’s needed because everyone else in the band is resolutely one-note, as much – maybe more so – caricatures than Frank and his giant head are. Gleeson perfected his ginger Hugh Grant, slightly shy English routine in About Time and gets another chance to roll it out here, but he’s no more sympathetic than any of his emotionally frigid colleagues (Frank excepted). The humour derives from a mixture of desperation and pathos, and while there’s a number of stand out moments, the tone is uneven and uncertain, causing the film to occasionally feel like its lurching about blindly. The social media overlay, with Sherlock-style onscreen text for Jon’s Twitter and YouTube postings, somehow feels at odds with the shambolic, gangly and old-fashioned thread of the band’s story, and the two never gel satisfactorily.
Disassociating Fassbender-Frank from Sievey-Frank also serves another purpose: to be able to go along with the basic conceits of the film, that there must be a reason why a man chooses to wear a giant paper head 24/7, rather than “just because”, and that creativity is borne most successfully out of pain and suffering. The resolution of the first thread does at least allow Fassbender to deliver some great work, but feels over-engineered. It also serves only to underpin the idea that creativity is a burden to be exploited by tortured souls, and never feels more than a passing thread, an idea looking for a better script to hang itself on. Frank the film is stranger than both its fictional and real-life counterparts, but has only fleeting pleasures and ultimately rings as hollow as the famous head.
Why see it at the cinema: If you don’t have a home cinema set-up, then the opening minute or so will be something of a cinematic novelty as every speaker gets a workout. There’s a decent enough selection of laughs as well, for which you’ll hopefully have a full cinema to make the most of it.
What about the rating: Really, BBFC, this should come with a [SPOILER ALERT]. But it’s rated 15 for very strong language, strong sex and a suicide scene.
My cinema experience: Saw this as the second part of a double bill with Blue Ruin at the Cambridge Arts Picturehouse. With no gap between the two, I made sure I had my e-ticket on my phone to be scanned in, rather than one of those messy bits of paper. However, I confused the heck out of the person on the door when I walked out of the cinema and presented him with my phone; normally it’s the other way around.
Also, teeny bit of a grumble that the Corridor Of Uncertainty at the Arts seems to be hitting 20 minutes regularly when it used to be a nailed on 15 minutes before the film. Getting dangerously close to multiplex territory.
The Score: 5/10
The Review: Since it came out last year and nabbed a Best Picture nomination, one of the commonest descriptions being attached to upcoming movies is that it will be ‘this year’s District 9’. Low budget but high on street cred and turning a good profit, the Neill Blomkamp sci-fi action thriller seemingly sets a good template for variations on the ‘War of the Worlds’-style alien invasion movie. So it’s my great relief to be able to tell you that the only similarities that Monsters has with it’s South African cousin are unknown actors and alien visitors in a realistic setting. If that sounds, in fact, very similar, let me reassure you that Monsters is a very different beast.
There’s a more traditional separation between man and alien here, the giant creatures kept at bay in an isolation zone, but it’s the fate of two humans that concerns us most. Whitney Able is the daughter of a publisher stuck on the wrong side of the Mexican border, and Scoot McNairy is the put-upon photographer tasked with getting her home safe. When things start to go wrong, he starts to take that mission personally, and becomes determined to get her home safely. Unlike District 9, there is a significant difference in scale between us and them, so the interactions and encounters are less frequent, but are no less effective for that.
It’s difficult to pigeonhole Monsters even as a particular genre. To call it a road movie feels a disservice, while the sense of the epic trek that our pair must undertake cannot capture the full nature of what’s within the narrative. There’s an air of creeping dread and the situation is expertly used to push the two leads together. But while there are some tense scenes, and a palpable sense of peril at times, there are also moments of real beauty and the characters and their back stories come over as wholly authentic. In particular, the final third of the movie manages to combine the nervousness and thrills to most satisfying effect, and the whole movie has a feeling of reality and believability, both in its settings and in its characterisations.
Then you discover how things were done – Able and McNairy are the only two actual actors, the rest being made up of locals as the small crew went on their own road trip across three countries. Edwards had an outline, but allowed his actors the freedom to improvise based on some brief guidance. Then the effects, which are never less than impeccable and put a lot of this summer’s blockbusters to shame, were all done by Edwards using off-the-shelf kit that you could buy yourself for the price of a small car. The first time director has heard this described as both a monster movie for girls and a love story for boys, and seems comfortable with both descriptions. There is no denying that anyone not put off by the concept or the marketing stands a good chance of falling into a demographic that will get something special from this; not only an absorbing and epic journey for our protagonists, but also one of the most technically accomplished debuts in living memory. The thought of what Edwards could do with a big budget is inspiring, but if he can do this much with so little, just maybe he doesn’t need it?
Why see it at the cinema: The stunning landscapes, impeccable VFX work and even the intimate moments between the leads make this an essential cinema experience.
The Score: 9/10