by Carrie Kahn
Loosely inspired by alt rocker Chris Sievey’s stage creation Frank Sidebottom, Irish director Lenny Abrahamson’s new film is co-written by Peter Straughan and Jon Ronson, whose memoir details his experiences with Sidebottom. But no knowledge of the film’s backstory is necessary to be utterly delighted by this quirky and very funny film, which chronicles Jon’s (Domhnall Gleeson) induction into, and relationship with, an avant-garde band led by the mysterious Frank (Michael Fassbender). The catch is that Frank wears a large papier-mâché mask not only when on stage, but during all parts of his life (even while showering). What is amazing is that although the mask has just one expression – a crudely drawn, unsmiling, wide-eyed stare, its features seem to change simply by virtue of Fassbender’s tone of voice and body language; his performance is truly remarkable. Why Frank chooses to cover himself this way is one of the film’s central questions; themes of identity, artistic integrity, and creativity are explored with nuanced humor and depth. Does creativity have to stem from inner darkness, the film asks, or can normalcy and happiness drive the creative process just as forcefully? If artistic creations become widely popular, is their worth somehow lessened? With hauntingly beautiful cinematography (many scenes were filmed around Austin) and a weird and wonderful soundtrack, Frank delves into these issues with style, charm, and black humor. Plusses: Unique, intelligent story; brilliant performances by Fassbender and relative newcomer Gleeson. Minuses: Maggie Gyllenhall is slightly grating as fellow band-mate Clara; her range here seems to hover only between fiercely angry and completely insane. Final Analysis: A smart, compelling picture about the inner lives of artists that, frankly (yes, pun intended) may well be one of the best films of the year.
Frank opens today at the Landmark Embarcadero theater in San Francisco and the Landmark Shattuck theater in Berkeley.
When the Game Stands Tall
by Carrie Kahn
Director Thomas Carter, who made 2005’s far superior Coach Carter about Richmond’s basketball team, returns to filming Bay Area true-life sports stories with this picture based on Contra Costa Times reporter Neil Hayes’s book of the same about Concord’s De La Salle High School’s football team and its 151-game winning streak, which came to an end in 2003. Carter uses the dramatically interesting stories of the streak’s end and the tragic killing of player Terrance Kelly as the film’s starting points, but then, unfortunately, fills the rest of the picture with tired sports clichés. We get the tough, emotionally distant Coach Lad (Jim Caviezel, dialing it down to zero to play Coach Bob Ladouceur) who stresses brotherhood, humility, and responsibility over bravado. And, naturally, the coach’s son is on the team, so we witness all of that inherent tension. We also get the running back with the domineering father, who only cares that his son break a touchdown record, and the scrappy, small-but-tough kid who just wants a chance to play. Through all this angst, we are treated to a host of inspirational speeches about teamwork, manhood, and, that ultimate favorite of sports movies: heart. Plusses: Some genuine, nail-biting excitement in a few of the “big game” scenes (the game against Long Beach Poly is particularly thrilling); a few snappy one-liners in an otherwise mediocre script. Minuses: Laura Dern, one of the best actresses of her generation, is wasted here in a one-note role as Bev, Coach Lad’s wife, and given nothing more to do than fret about her husband. Final Analysis: East Bay moviegoers will appreciate the fun of the local angle (and enjoy seeing local high school names on the big screen), but die-hard sports movie fans won’t find anything here they haven’t already seen in better pictures.
When the Game Stands Tall opens today at the Metreon and AMC Van Ness in San Francisco and at the United Artists 7-Shattuck theater in Berkeley.
If I Stay
by Carrie Kahn
With its northwest setting and indie music emphasis, If I Stay has a slight Singles vibe (Smashing Pumpkins gets a sing-along in a particularly family-friendly setting), although even Cameron Crowe might draw the line at some of director RJ Cutler’s exceedingly cheesy choices. Based on the popular young adult novel by Gayle Forman, If I Stay features Chloe Grace Moretz (looking much more lovely here with the pig’s blood from Carrie washed away) as high school cello virtuoso Mia, in love with dreamy indie rocker Adam (Jamie Blackley). The best conceit of the film is a novel twist on the parent/teenager dynamic: Mia is a stereotypical good girl, prone to pastel cardigans and Beethoven on her iPod, while her hipster parents are products of Portland’s punk rock scene (Dad played in a band called – I kid you not – the Nasty Bruises, and is now a tattoo-sporting English teacher, and Mom has a pierced nose) who can’t believe their daughter prefers classical music to rock. Mia’s idyllic family situation and growing romance are jeopardized, though, when she’s in a horrific car accident with her family. The film’s premise has her, in a comatose state, viewing scenes from her past and present life and deciding if she should fight to live (i.e., STAY). Plusses: Terrific soundtrack; stunning, architecturally poetic cinematography; some genuine heart-rending emotional moments (Stacy Keach, as Mia’s grandfather, has an especially moving scene with her in the hospital; bring tissues. He also gets my vote for Outstanding Performance in a Middling Teen Movie). Minuses: Eye-rolling corny dialog (Mom tells Mia: “What can I say baby? Love’s a bitch”); a definite Lifetime-Movie-of-the-Week sappiness. Final analysis: If you crave the catharsis of a tearjerker once in a while, or you have a weakness for young adult films, this one’s for you.
If I Stay opens today at the AMC Van Ness, Sundance Kabuki, and Century 9 Theaters in San Francisco, and at the Landmark Shattuck in Berkeley.
Island of the Lemurs: Madagascar
by Chad Liffmann
We’ve learned over the past decade that nature documentaries are the real deal when the backing studio gets Morgan Freeman to narrate. That being said, Mr. Freeman’s rich and soothingly textured voice isn’t the only great thing about the new IMAX nature documentary, Island of Lemurs: Madagascar. The 40 minute film is a wonderful adventure into the heart of the Madagascar rainforest and a fascinating close look at the variety of lemurs that have inhabited the island since prehistoric times. The documentary gives a brief history of how so many species of lemurs came to occupy the island of Madagascar. It then combines a deeper look at their behavior with a focus on the conservation efforts of scientist Dr. Patricia Wright. It’s all a very brisk crash course: “Lemur 101”, if you will, but written and shot in a perfectly appealing way. Island of Lemurs doesn’t ignore the fact that there are many socio-economic and environmental issues presently occurring in Madagascar, nor does it shove politics to the forefront. The movie uses its efficient running time to surface issues and deliver just enough lemur information for audiences to soak up and still be entertained. Island of Lemurs’ IMAX 3D footage is stunning — complete with sweeping images of the landscape and slow motion captures of lemurs leaping great distances between tree branches. I left the theater wanting my own mouse lemur or a dancing lemur (or both), and realized that if that’s how I felt, then the film accomplished its ultimate goal. I fell in love with these amazing furry creatures, and more importantly, I want to keep them around.
Island of the Lemurs: Madagascar 3D opens opens in select IMAX 3D theaters today.