Reviews: “A Most Wanted Man” and “Frank”

A Most Wanted Man

There were few actors who knew how to work an obscenity quite like Philip Seymour Hoffman. Whether he was going for pathos or fury, there was always something so desperately genuine about it when he swore. There was a line being crossed.

There’s a moment at the end of “A Most Wanted Man,” the last leading performance we’ll get from one of the greatest screen actors ever, where Hoffman gets to loose one more of his earth-shattering oaths. The scene is one of the neatest summaries of the work of John Le Carré yet put forward: a single, principled man, outflanked by an intangible, unfeeling system, exploding into a vacuum. Those with power can’t hear him, and those that can hear him are powerless. In Le Carré’s grimy world of spycraft and deception, it doesn’t do to invest in idealism.

Currency in this world is measured by information, and Hoffman’s Günther Bachmann seems a relatively rich man. As the head of an off-the-books German intelligence unit, tasked with combating terrorist operations in Hamburg (the unassuming urban locale where the 9/11 attacks were planned), Bachmann appears to have reached a level of relative success through a complex web of bait-and-switch contacts, allowing some low-level targets to roam free in order to get closer to the big fish. His tactics, however, draw the attention and ire of more blunt, results-oriented colleagues, including, perhaps, the CIA (represented here by a slippery Robin Wright, in fine “House of Cards” form).

So, when a young Chechen (Grigoriy Dobrygin) with potential ties to a radical Muslim cell arrives in Hamburg, Bachmann is given only a limited amount of time to execute his plan: first to find the man (spirited into hiding by a sympathetic pro bono immigration lawyer, played with Teutonic strain by Canadian Rachel McAdams), and then unwittingly turn him into a pawn against a charitable doctor fronting for funders of terrorism. As with many of Le Carré’s stories (“A Most Wanted Man” is adapted by Andrew Bovell from Le Carré’s 2008 novel of the same name), much of the fascination of this film lies in seeing how the sausage gets made: the intricacies of modern intelligence work, with hidden cameras, drop-offs and meetings in abandoned parking lots are carefully laid out, even as the dreadful sense of fatalism hanging over everyone’s heads suggests more than a little futility to the whole enterprise.

Much of that feeling comes from the queasy lighting and dank shadows of director Anton Corbijn’s visuals. The photographer-turned-filmmaker showed a precise command of style and tone in his first two features, the Ian Curtis biopic “Control” and the very Le-Carré-ish “The American,” and his penchant for unsettlingly perfect composition is a good match for the machinations of counter-terrorism. The hyper-competent cast (Willem Dafoe, Nina Hoss, Daniel Brühl and Homayoun Ershadi also drop by) play their parts as glorified automatons in this clockwork affair, but only Hoffman really breaks through expected narrative beats, signifying a great nothing with sound and fury.

Verdict: 3 out of 4 stars

Frank

Charisma, quite like musical talent, can’t quite be explained. Logically, it makes no sense that Michael Fassbender should be spellbinding even with his entire face covered by a giant papier-mâché head, just as his character’s creative abilities defy much of the traditional motivations that lie behind most examinations of “great artists.” But, “Frank” suggests with black wit and unexpected tenderness, it’s not really for us to explain; inspiration strikes where and when it will, and chasing can be both the source and solace of madness.

Jon Burroughs (Domnhall Gleeson, son of Brendan, previously seen in a brief role opposite his father in “Calvary” and as an endearing Levin in Joe Wright’s up-and-down “Anna Karenina”) plays the Salieri to Frank’s Mozart in Lenny Abrahamson’s caustic comedy, an aspiring musician thrown by chance into the chaos of the off-kilter, experimental, unpronounceable rock band The Soronprfbs. Jon’s utter lack of talent is made clear in a hysterically funny opening sequence, and much of the film’s tension comes from his character’s gradual, grudging arrival at the same self-evaluation. Piggybacking off the obscure but undeniable ability of The Soronprfbs’ enigmatic leading man, Jon slowly morphs from remora to leech, pushing the band to take a big gig at Texas’ SXSW music festival.

What could be a traditional “band hits the big time” narrative is complicated by the emerging truth that Frank is not merely a charming, zany eccentric, but genuinely mentally ill. For much of the film, Jon seems unable to process this, folding Frank’s sickness into his mythology, just a piece of the boilerplate “trauma” from which all true creativity surely flows. That pits Jon against Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal), Frank’s aloof, stone-faced bandmate, who tries to protect Frank from the public scrutiny she knows will ultimately hurt him. It’s wonderful for art to be shared and embraced, but for the person with the talent, embracing themselves should be the first and foremost priority.

Abrahamson skirts some heavy topics, but with a fresh, funny touch and vigorous pace that keeps “Frank” from ever seeming to revel in its’ characters pain or selfishness. They just sit there, alongside the laughs and lunacy, part of the total package. The unique physical challenge of Frank makes Fassbender’s performance stand out, but Gyllenhaal and Gleeson are also excellent, sparking off each other in Frank’s shadow. It’s also worth mentioning Scoot McNairy as the band’s cagey manager, Don; it’s a curious little role that could have been a throwaway, but McNairy lends him a tragic weight as an eerie, resonant foil to Frank.

The music itself, meanwhile, is as it should be: alternately odd, transcendent, or some combination of the two. The film’s final track hits a sad but optimistic conclusion, leaving the impression that the best art isn’t trying to be intentionally likable, or deep, or unique; it’s just allowed to be what it is.

Verdict: 3 1/2 out of 4 stars

Trailers of the Week: And the Band Played On

The Oscars are a week gone already, and the film world has settled into that soothing lull between awards circuit madness and the summer blockbuster explosion. Things will ramp up again very soon with “Captain America 2” on its way in early April, but in the meantime here’s a few rhythmically-inclined teasers to remind you that even now in the quieter weeks, the music never stops.

Frank

Lenny Abrahamson’s absurd-looking story of a musician who prefers to hide behind a bizarre fishbowl head had its share of defenders and detractors at Sundance, and indeed it strikes me as a conceit that could either turn out brilliantly or insufferably precocious. But I’m enthusiastic after this first look, which proves that Michael Fassbender is an unearthly charismatic performer even when he’s got nothing but his voice and body language. I’m a fan of all the ensemble, in fact – Maggie Gyllenhaal is at her best in the dry, incisive mode she’s showing off here, Scoot McNairy is the kind of character actor that delivers no matter thankless role he’s given (hello, “Non-Stop”), and Domhnall Gleeson is proving to be a likably offbeat leading man. As long as the black comedy outweighs the self-conscious quirkiness, this could be a winner.

Breathe In

Doremus isn’t really stretching himself in terms of style in his follow-up to 2011 Sundance sleeper “Like Crazy” – the melancholic, hesitant mood and deceptively controlled camerawork here seems much the same as his debut. The melodrama has been ratcheted up a notch, though, moving from the perils of modern long-distance relationships to the turmoil of a music teacher falling for the foreign exchange student he and his wife are hosting. Both Guy Pearce and Felicity Jones look relaxed with Doremus’ improvisational approach to his scripts – Pearce even manages to deliver that clunky, trite “you don’t seem as young as you actually are” line with authenticity. There’s a literary sort of emotional truth that helps “Like Crazy” mostly ring true, even when the plotting tips toward the incredulous – can Doremus bring that same touch to “Breathe In,” with what looks like an even more overdone narrative?

The Broken Circle Breakdown

The Foreign Language Film category at the Oscars is always an opportunity for a few adventurous titles to get their name out to a wider audience that would otherwise never ever hear of them. Titles like “The Great Beauty” and “The Hunt” had at least a little exposure to art-house viewers, but even the most dedicated cinephiles might have been hard-pressed to tell you anything about Belgium’s submission, a bluegrass-infused relationship drama that quietly earned a fair amount of acclaim on the festival circuit last year. Be forewarned, I read that “Broken Circle Breakdown” is far more “Blue Valentine” than “Crazy Heart” – but as a huge fan of the former, I have no problems with that, and this stylish little teaser has certainly piqued my interest.

Do You Hear What I Hear?

And so here we are, on the morning after – well, not quite. It was only earlier (much, much earlier, if you live on the West Coast) today that the Oscar nominations were announced, although the current state of entertainment news and blogging means that by now you’ve probably read at least a minimum of five lists of the biggest “snubs” and two lengthy analyses of why, exactly, the Academy Awards don’t really matter. Or do. Or are racist. A combination of all of the above, most likely.

As someone who generally views awards-watching as an outlet, more akin to a crossword puzzle hobby than a platform for analyzing cultural trends, I find myself increasingly less interested in the latter. The Oscars are what they are, a reflection of the industry rather than the heart of it. Change Hollywood and you’ll change the awards, not the other way around. In the meantime, let’s have some fun scratching our heads over this altogether peculiar group and their choices for the best of the past year in film.

And really, what a maddeningly unpredictable slate when you get right down to it. Chalk it up, perhaps, to the pure number of contenders this time around; while there was very little revealed this morning that was shocking, there were any number of small surprises, both good and bad, depending on your point of view. Despite agonizing for many hours (and making some last-minute changes that I quite regret in hindsight), I couldn’t do much better in my predictions than three or four out of five in each category; Best Adapted Screenplay was the only one I nailed outright, although I’m rather pleased with going eight for nine in Best Picture.

My only mistake in that category was in my choice of which middlebrow piece would find the hearts of (most likely older) voters. While the Academy turned out to want none of the sentimentalized inside baseball of “Saving Mr. Banks” – rejecting not only the film itself but even, surprisingly, Emma Thompson’s acclaimed lead performance as “Mary Poppins” author P.L. Travers – they embraced Stephen Frears’ “Philomena,” giving it not only a Best Picture slot but a Screenplay nod for star Steve Coogan and co-writer Jeff Pope as well. I’m kicking myself, first because I had a hunch about the film for most of the season and only recently wavered, and second because I actually rather enjoyed the movie myself and it’s not the kind of film that usually ends up in my wheelhouse; a sure sign it would definitely register with the eager British bloc, then.

A greater personal disappointment was that my last-minute sinking feeling that “Inside Llewyn Davis,” which got mostly shut out on the guild circuit, wasn’t going to register was indeed borne out, in fairly brutal fashion. I prepared myself for the eventuality that passion votes for “Her” might take away some crucial support for the Coens’ latest in Best Picture, but not even a consolatory screenplay nomination? That hurts, and I think the Oscars will end up on the wrong side of history with that one. The other really stinging snub was of Sarah Polley’s remarkable “Stories We Tell” in Best Documentary Feature; granted, I haven’t seen all of the nominees in that category, but I have a hard time imagining Polley’s devastatingly personal film not beating out any of them. We’ll always have the EMOs, Sarah.

In terms of personal (or is it pyrrhic?) victories, though, there were certainly some. The Best Picture recognition for “Her” is richly deserved, and I had hoped/thought that Spike Jonze could even garner enough support for his unique, subtle work to slide into the Best Director slate. As it happened, that spot went instead to Alexander Payne, whose “Nebraska” I also greatly admired (more thoughts on several of these films coming soon, but I thought Payne’s work here far superior and more coherent than the inconsistent “The Descendants”). Payne also edged out Paul Greengrass, whose work on “Captain Phillips” earned a Director’s Guild nomination, but always seemed more respected than adored this season.

That attitude extended for “Phillips” through the rest of the nominations as well. While newcomer Barkhad Abdi pulled out a Best Supporting Actor nod for his wiry, intense performance as a Somali pirate captain, Tom Hanks unexpectedly missed in the lead category. Considering he at one point seemed destined for a double nomination, a goose egg for Hanks has got to be a disappointing end to the season. The severely over-crowded Best Actor race was always going to be the place to look for surprises, and indeed there were a couple. Late-season-bloomers Leonardo DiCaprio and Christian Bale both crashed the party, pushing vets Hanks and Redford out of the picture. DiCaprio’s all-in performance is assuredly one of my favorites of the year, so his presence was another bright spot for me – in what suddenly seems a wide-open race, he might even have a shot at the win (McConaughey didn’t overly impress with his cut-off Golden Globes speech).

Bale’s nomination, along with Amy Adams pushing out Thompson in Best Actress, meant that the predictably popular “American Hustle” moves on with a nomination in all four acting categories – an astounding feat when you consider that makes two years in a row that David O. Russell has accomplished that for his cast (before “Silver Linings Playbook,” no one had done it for about 40 years). Once a highly unpopular director due to on-set fights with the likes of George Clooney and Lily Tomlin, Russell’s going to have actors beating down his door now.

Riding that love from the actor’s branch, “Hustle” tied for the field lead with “Gravity” at ten total nominations; “12 Years a Slave” right behind with nine. Those are your three contenders for the moment, and it’s really anybody’s game that I can see. Keep an eye out on the guild awards for the next month, and pay attention to the craft category victors early on Oscar night for signs of where we’ll be headed at the big finish.

A few final, random thoughts:

  • The most surprising snub of the day may have Sean Bobbitt’s exquisite cinematography for “12 Years a Slave.” Philippe Le Sourd and Phedon Papamichael both did great work as well on “The Grandmaster” and “Nebraska,” respectively, but that’s a wallop to Fox Searchlight’s campaign for McQueen’s film.
  • The masterful Roger Deakins, meanwhile, will get to lose that category yet again as the sole nominee for Denis Villeneuve”s thriller “Prisoners” (Deakins is 0 for 10 lifetime at the Oscars).
  • Deakins’ peer in futility, composer Thomas Newman (0 for 11 so far), also managed to be his film’s only nominee, for the original score of “Saving Mr. Banks.”
  • Indie animation distributor GKIDS worked its magic again to bring French charmer “Ernest and Celestine” into the fold. Particularly impressive considering it appears to have pushed out Pixar’s rote “Monsters University” (now only the studio’s second film, after “Cars 2,” to miss a nomination in Animated Feature).
  • Sally Hawkins earned her first-ever Oscar nod for her supporting turn in “Blue Jasmine.” Nice try, Academy, but it still doesn’t make up for ignoring her in “Happy-Go-Lucky.”
  • Jonah Hill is now a two-time Oscar nominee, and it’s not even really egregious. Try to figure that one out.
  • The “Jackass” franchise is now Oscar-nominated, and it also kind of makes sense. What is happening?
  • John Williams earned his 49th nomination for Original Score, because John Williams wrote something this year. Did anyone even SEE “The Book Thief?”
  • Speaking of not seeing things, this year’s winner for Best Original Song Nominee That Sends Everyone Scrambling to IMDB to Find a Movie You’re Pretty Sure Chris Hemsworth Just Made Up is “Alone Yet Not Alone” from “Alone Yet Not Alone” (no I still don’t know what it is, don’t ask me).
  • Megan Ellison of Annapurna Pictures became only the fourth producer ever to earn double nod in the same year, for “American Hustle” and “Her.” In the past two years, she’s carried five films to a total of twenty-four total nominations. Watch out, Hollywood.