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Posts Tagged ‘Scoot McNairy’

A little-known revelation from the annals of archaeology is the fact that an American tobacco beetle has been discovered buried in volcanic ash on a Bronze Age site in Crete. The implications of this are startling, and for a long time I could only begin to imagine the impact this must have had on professionals and historians – everything they understood about how early civilisation functioned must have been shaken to the core. It must have been shocking and unsettling, almost impossible to believe. Now, though, I can empathise with them much more easily, for I had a similar reaction to the news that they were making a movie about Frank Sidebottom.

Frank Sidebottom? A movie about Frank Sidebottom? Even now I can barely assimilate the words, and this is after having seen Lenny Abrahamson’s Frank, the film in question. For anyone not familiar with Frank Sidebottom – which I suspect is a sizable majority in any sane gathering – he was a cult figure on the music and comedy scenes, primarily in the Greater Manchester area, and mainly in the 1980s and 1990s. He was instantly identifiable, due to making all his public appearances wearing an oversized fibreglass head: one of those people you instantly recognise as either a one-off comedic genius, or as a slightly creepy and annoying pest.

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Given this, you could have probably have cast virtually anyone as Frank in this movie: but they have managed the surprising (not to mention baffling) coup of luring Michael Fassbender into occupying the fake cranium in question. For all that, Fassbender gets the ‘and’ credit in this film; top billing goes to Scoot McNairy, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Domhnall Gleeson (enjoying one last flush of indie credibility now he’s been cast in Star Wars: Episode JJ).

Gleeson plays Jon, an earnest young English singer-songwriter who does not let a little thing like lack of talent impede his pursuit of his dreams. Then, a chance encounter with a touring American band gives him a remarkable opportunity: when their keyboard player is sectioned, he is invited, first to fill in on a gig, and then to assist them in recording their first album. On the team are manager Don (McNairy), psychotically aggressive theremin player Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal), and, at the heart of it all, the charismatic, enigmatic, inspirational figure of Frank himself…

Well, as you can perhaps see, this is not really a biography of Frank Sidebottom (nor indeed the man behind the head, Chris Sievey): all the characters are fictional, there’s no mention of Timperley, the name ‘Sidebottom’ is never used, and Fassbender opts to play Frank with a midwestern drawl rather than a nasal Mancunian whine (on reflection we should perhaps be grateful for this last). So in a sense this is not the movie it first appears to be, for all that Sievey gave his blessing to the project prior to his death in 2010.

This is perhaps a little surprising, as the script has been co-written by Jon Ronson, best known as a journalist and screenwriter these days, but a one-time member of the Frank Sidebottom Oh Blimey Big Band. On the other hand, as I believe I have intimated, the potential audience for an actual Sidebottom movie would be very limited. This is something more accessible and thematic, about wanting to unlock your creativity and really communicate with other people: it just happens to use the idea of a man in a Frank Sidebottom head as its central image.

And for the most part it is very successful. In some ways this slightly resembles This Must Be The Place, being an off-beat globetrotting comedy-drama with a vague musical theme, but the comedy here is broader and the tone less consistent. The story is, let’s be honest, not remotely plausible, but the deadpan absurdity of the whole enterprise is actually rather winning. Gleeson is convincing and likeable as a character who could easily have been slightly annoying, while Fassbender reveals an unexpected talent for physical comedy (as well as for acting inside a big fake head). For the first two acts this is a funny, if somewhat ridiculous deadpan black comedy.

Not sure about the third act, however, in which the band head to the SXSW festival in Texas, only to be confronted by their own frailties and personal problems. The tone here abruptly turns much darker and more serious, and I’m not sure it’s a switch the film successfully achieves. The conclusion is also not entirely satisfying.

But, on the whole, this is not enough to spoil the movie, which is well-made and engaging throughout. It has useful things to say, weirdly enough, about the nature of the creative process and the various coping mechanisms people use to deal with life. It also reminds us that, for some people, madness can be the thing that keeps them sane. In the end it abstracts the idea of Frank Sidebottom and uses him as a metaphor for the figurative masks many people wear when facing the world – also, perhaps, that it is sometimes easier to be an icon than a human being. I’m not sure what dedicated Sidebottom fans will make of Frank – no doubt cries of ‘Heresy!’ will be echoing around Altrincham – but for everyone else this is a likeable and entertaining, if somewhat flawed movie.

 

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It’s common for me to become aware of an actor’s name and talent, only for it to turn out that I’ve actually been watching them for years in films but they never quite registered with me. Not so in the case of Liam Neeson: I distinctly remember the first time I watched the 1984 movie The Bounty, which would have been in the late summer of 1985, and came out of it saying ‘that big Irish guy has really got charisma’ (or words to that effect). This wasn’t his first film, of course – since then I’ve caught up with his earlier performances in Excalibur and Krull from earlier in the 80s.

Neeson’s career, at first glance, looks not-atypical as that of a certain kind of actor – a few minor parts in high-profile genre movies, then a shift into more mainstream, quality fare, and finally some big lead roles. Let us not forget the critical acclaim and recognition Neeson received for Schindler’s List, Michael Collins, and Kinsey. Of course, the fact that I think it necessary to mention this is of course because there has been a bit of a shadow over the big man’s career of late. I’m not even referring to Star Wars: The Phantom Menace.

I usually steer clear of commenting in too much detail on the personal lives of… well, anyone, but in Liam Neeson’s case I think it is pertinent to his career. Neeson suffered a family bereavement a few years ago and has said in interviews that, since then, working constantly has been a coping mechanism. I am not unsympathetic to Neeson’s situation, but I can’t help thinking that this may have had a bit of a negative impact when it comes to quality control. Never mind his turn as Hannibal in the A Team movie, in 2012 Neeson got two Golden Raspberry nominations in the same year (for Wrath of the Titans and Battleship).

And yet he has had an odd sort of rebirth as an action hero, mainly because of the influence of Luc Besson and the Taken movies. He’s in this mode in Jaume Collet-Serra’s Non-Stop, which is a film unlikely to do much to revive his reputation – but neither will it do it much damage, I suspect.

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Neeson plays Bill Marks, who basically seems rather like all the other action heroes he has given us in recent years. Perhaps on this occasion Neeson is giving us rather more baleful old sod than usual, and it’s difficult not to read too much into Neeson’s portrayal of the character: Marks is a man clearly going through trying personal times, and almost seems to be in the throes of some kind of breakdown. We first meet him in an overcast airport car park, where he is idly stirring whiskey into his coffee, but soon enough he is getting onto his plane.

For, yes, this is another of those airliner-in-peril action thrillers, and the film gets on with introducing the various passengers and flight crew with an admirable lack of messing about. Neeson shows us that beneath the baleful old sod exterior there beats the heart of a softy, by helping a nervous little girl who loses her cuddly toy, while also on board are various ethnically diverse yuppies, blue-collar guys, potential love interests, and so on. With the plane in flight (the airline in question is the rather implausible-sounding British Aqualantica, which tells us that none of the real companies wanted to get involved), things get going properly as Neeson (a cop turned federal air marshal) receives a text from a mysterious source informing him that until $150 million is transferred to a particular bank account, one person on the plane will be murdered every twenty minutes. Looks like Neeson picked the wrong week to stop being a paranoid gun-toting alcoholic!

Without giving too much away, Non-Stop does end up being a little bit bonkers, and I’m not sure the plot is entirely hole-free, but the echoes of Airplane! are not too intrusive. The script does a good job of keeping everything trotting along for most of the film’s duration, and is actually quite inventive – Neeson finds himself implicated in the various crimes occurring on the plane, and thus has to resolve the situation without the assistance of his colleagues on the ground.

One interesting possibility that the film dangles briefly in front of us is that Neeson’s colleagues may actually be in the right, and that everything we’re seeing is just some sort of paranoid delusion being experienced by someone having a booze-fuelled breakdown. For a while it does look like the only person actually causing chaos on the flight is Neeson himself, and the various shots from his point-of-view have a slightly disjointed, queasy quality that definitely implies all is not well.

In the end, though – and I suppose this may constitute a spoiler – everything is pretty much what it seems to be. There really is a terrorist, and of course he isn’t after the money as such, he just wants to make a slightly contrived socio-political point about modern American society. We’re quite a long way post-9/11 for people to still be making as explicitly post-9/11 movies as this one, if you ask me, but this is just a fig-leaf for the action thriller stuff so it didn’t really grate with me too much. It’s also quite liable to date, I suspect, simply because of the plot’s reliance on smartphones and suchlike: Neeson spends a lot of his time barking at the flight crew to switch the plane’s wi fi on and off, for various reasons.

Hey ho. Neeson isn’t quite phoning it in, that famous charisma of his remains undiminished, and it’s perhaps his presence that has led to the appearance in the film of Julianne Moore, a rather classier actress than this sort of script honestly deserves. Also present and doing decent work are people like Scoot McNairy and Michelle Dockery (who I understand is a soap opera actress doing her best to break into films).

Non-Stop is a film which you’ve probably seen before under a different title – the ingredients and serving have all been jiggled around a bit to make them look new, but the actual recipe is one which has been doing the rounds for many years now. It’s still quite a good recipe and Neeson carries the movie reasonably well – this isn’t going to win any awards, and I hope Liam Neeson can find himself a quality project to appear in soon, but as implausible action movies go I’ve seen much worse.

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