Frank is an enigmatic musician who wears a large fake plastic head, which for the fawning members of his band only adds to his genius. Frank is played by Michael Fassbender. This is all you need to know.
**The movie is currently available to rent on demand from Amazon while it's in theaters.
Frank has quite the extended opening sequence. A twenty-something guy walks around a small town in Ireland trying desperately to wring songwriting inspiration from everything, anything, he sees. We hear his inner monologue rattle off mundane, obvious half-formed lyrics as he looks at the ocean, band posters on a streetcorner, and people that walk by (one gem consists of repeating “lady in the blue coat do you know the lady in the red coat”). It's a dryly funny look at creativity and the frustration inherent in trying to force inspiration—it also establishes an undercurrent that runs throughout the entirety of Frank, the struggle against and fear of mediocrity. The young man (Jon Burroughs, played by Domhnall Gleeson) eventually returns home, struck with true inspiration, and gets a few bland lines down at his keyboard before the whole thing falls apart into nonsense. He then tweets that he's been “working hard on songs all day” and “now it's time for dinner.”
Jump to Jon sitting on a park bench by a beach, witnessing a man being pulled flailing from the water by paramedics. He asks a group of people standing nearby (who he correctly identifies as a band playing at a local venue that night) what's going on, and is told calmly “our keyboardist is trying to drown himself.” Jon, as has been established in the opening scene, plays the keyboard, and is soon their replacement for the night. When he arrives later at the venue for practice, every member of the band seems to be playing their own song at once, and the the other keyboardist in the group (played by Maggie Gyllenhaal) electrocutes herself on her equipment as Frank, the lead singer, walks out wearing a gigantic plastic head reminiscent of those old Mr. Bill sketches. Roll titles. All of this takes about 4-5 minutes to play out.
Many of Stan Brakhage's films are available for viewing in multiple venues. You can watch Untitled (For Marilyn) here.
Before I get started - a quick note on the title of today's film. Untitled (For Marilyn) goes by different variations and in some places is simply Untitled while the majority of sources call it For Marilyn. As I'm watching these shorts on the Criterion DVDs that were created with the supervision and blessing of Stan Brakhage and his widow, I will be referring to today's short as the DVD lists it as Untitled (For Marilyn).
After watching Untitled (For Marilyn) I find that is the most appropriate title for it as well. Back when I was the praying sort I wasn't in the habit of titling my nightly musings before the Good Book before going to sleep. Untitled (For Marilyn) is a prayer of the highest order, utilizing both specific church iconography, a scattered and yearning thought process, and a transcendent conclusion.
Brakhage said that this was his favorite film and, while it's not my personal pick, it's easy to see why. Untitled (For Marilyn) is a cinematic response to one of Brakhage's other great films, the despairing Rage Net. Rage Net came some time before Untitled (For Marilyn) and was made when Brakhage was at his lowest as he and his wife were divorcing. Brakhage ripped his style apart in that film, angrily lashing at the frames anytime the images approached harmony.
The saga of John Galt comes to an end in this, the third part of the Atlas Shrugged cinematic series. When last we left Dagny Taggart, she crashed her plane into a shielded compound created by John Galt while her brother James commits more of her families resources to the ongoing government takeover of private industry. Part III is directed by James Manera and stars Laura Regan and Kristoffer Polaha.
From the beginning, the Atlas Shrugged film series has been nothing if sincere. There isn't a single frame among the three parts that is winking at the philosophy of Ayn Rand / John Galt, nor any indication that anyone involved was trying anything but their very best. If all of cinema is a classroom, then the three parts of Atlas Shrugged would get a sad smile from the teacher who recognizes, gosh darn it, they're trying but just aren't very good. So while the Martin Scorsese's and the Kathryn Bigelow's of the world get to play with the camera and building blocks the multiple creative minds behind each part of Atlas Shrugged have to make a game out of beating the chalk dust out of erasers, because that's all they're really good at.
The colon-heavy series finally comes to a conclusion with Atlas Shrugged: Part III: Who Is John Galt? Attentive members of the audience will realize quickly that the cast and crew behind the camera has changed yet again for this third part of the series. Rather than bring new vitality to the flagging franchise each new set of faces just slaps a different genre coat on the story and meanders along toward the conclusion. Part I was steeped in the shadows and moody lighting of detective stories, Part II a crisp and bright style with a hint of science-fiction toward the conclusion, and now Part III is equal parts news broadcast and crime procedural.
As the old saying goes - you go to war with the army you have, and not the army you wish you had. So John Aglialoro, the producer who spent decades trying to bring Atlas Shrugged to cinemas, has had to assemble a crew that delivers a tonally inconsistent product that loses what little weight it can carry from one installment to the next. It's clear he never had a strong idea of what he wanted these films to communicate, nor a visual sense of how to go about it. This becomes obvious only a few minutes into Part III when we find that the backroom dealing and media shenanigans of the first two films have devolved into a pristine drama with very rich people indirectly telling the audience how much danger they're in despite living in safe opulence.
Alike is struggling to find out who she is. At night, she goes out to clubs that let her embrace her homosexuality but struggles to communicate how she feels. During the day, her mother grows more hostile and suspicious about Alike's lifestyle, and pushes Alike to a lifestyle she doesn't want. Pariah is written and directed by Dee Rees, and stars Adepero Oduye.
Kyle and I weren't able to get to Spike Lee's Girl 6 in time for today, so that got my mind to thinking about what else to write about. One of the things that we haven't mentioned much in our write-ups about his films is the opportunities Spike has tried to provide people since he got his career running. Because of Spike film unions got more diverse, he provided many students with opportunities to intern on his films, and he tries to find new and interesting filmmakers to support.
So I'm using this break to write about Dee Rees' Pariah, a film that Spike served as Executive Producer on, and in no way can we see his fingerprints on the final product. Rees worked on Pariah for years, initially telling the story as a short film in 2007 and then expanding on the core into a stunning feature-length project four years later. It's so stunning that I am still shocked it did not embed itself into public discourse, especially considering the national conversation that ramped up about gay rights in 2011.
The pure confidence of Pariah is almost overwhelming and has a gripping, emotionally confident opening scene. We meet Alike (Adepero Oduye) at a dark, colorful club and as the skeletal beat of Khia's "My Neck, My Back (Lick It)" kicks in and a greenish-gold stripper descends into the thick color like a beacon. Oduye's performance is immediately impressive, wearing an expression equal parts confusion, delight, and a bit of fear as she's pushed forward to tip the stripper. Uncomfortable by her friend's urging she retreats to a corner of the club where she sits alone and we see her think through what she wants to do next.
Mickey's glory days as top dog are behind him. If he's not getting drunk at the bar, he's disappointing his wife, or failing at his latest scheme. When his stepson is killed in a suspicious construction accident the bit of power he has left is put to the test against reporters, police, and the local mob. God's Pocket is directed by John Slattery (Mad Men's Roger Sterling) and stars Philip Seymour Hoffman.
Times have been so tough the last few years that even the criminal elite have descended to the income levels of your common street tough. God's Pocket takes place after Tony Scarpato (Philip Seymour Hoffman in one of his last performances) had his fall from the big time and is reduced to desperately peddling truckloads of meat for whatever price he can fetch. With the legit businesses sticking together there hasn't been as much room for a gangster of his stripes, so he's left sulking every day in bars and having depressing sex with his bored wife. Sounds like a rollicking good time, 'eh?
If not rollicking, then possibly humorous, as God's Pocket is billed as a black comedy. Hoffman is no stranger to the darker side of humor, but his tremendous acting ability tends to pull the features he is in more toward the drama than the laughs. 2002's tragicomedy Love Liza should have been ample proof of this, as the jokes were akin to half-hearted sighs of protest against slipping into total misery than anything worth a chuckle at. Love Liza worked mostly because it stayed firmly in Hoffman's state of emotion and went down into the depraved gas huffing abyss with him. God's Pocket is not as brave, nor is it working with material nearly as strong for Hoffman and the rest of the formidable past, and John Slattery's time on Mad Men shows that he knows the rough outline of slick portraits of existential frustration but not the skill to pull it off.
Flat is the word that came to mind throughout God's Pocket's many dramatic confrontations. Everything is cleanly put together but there isn't a single sequence in the film that takes any kind of chance with the characters or images. So while everyone is descending into their own personal hell the camera just sits patiently and waits for their emotional tantrum to be over before proceeding along to the next emotionally or physically violent breakdown. Emotional distance is part of the point, as one of the story threads involves Richard Jenkins as a writer who made a living off of the pain of the neighborhood of God's Pocket and never got involved with the residence. But that perspective only works for his character, and the same flat tone is present with Christina Hendricks as her gangster-wife character cries herself to oblivion.