Real / Not Real. Movies Reviewed: Frank, The Trip to Italy PLUS The Dog

Posted in Brooklyn, comedy, Crime, Cultural Mining, Ireland, Movies, Music, Travel by CulturalMining.com on August 15, 2014

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM, looking at high-brow and low-brow movies, indie, cult, foreign, festival, documentary, genre and mainstream films, helping you see movies with good taste, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference.

Ever heard of “native advertising”? Well, you should. It’s when newspapers or websites – like the Globe and Mail and the New York Times – plant advertisements disguised as journalism right alongside real news articles. So it’s getting harder and harder to distinguish between what’s real and what’s made up. Well, this week, I’m looking at movies that cross the line between fiction and reality. There’s a comedy from the UK about actors on a trip who play themselves, a comedy from Ireland about a musician who hides his face, and a documentary about a bank robber who inspired a movie.

Domhnall Gleeson in FRANK, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.Frank
Dir: Leonard Abrahamson (based on an article by Jon Ronson)

Jon (Domhnall Gleeson) is a ginger-haired nerd in his twenties who still lives with his parents. He lives in a seaside English town and works at a boring desk job. But he imagines himself as a successful singer-songwriter and keyboardist. He spends his free time recording feeble, unfinished verses on his computer… He’s of the Twitter generation and can’t think longer than 140 characters. But one day he witnesses an attempted suicide on a beach by an actual deranged musician – a keyboardist. And just because Jon is in the wrong place at the right time he is asked, spontaneously, to take his Michael Fassbender in FRANK, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.place at a gig.

The show is a disaster. He’s terrible, the band can’t play, and the performance generates an on-stage fight. But Jon is mesmerized by the lead singer, Frank (Michael Fassbender). Frank is a charismatic man, with huge blue eyes, neat black hair and enigmatic features. He has a friendly, enthusiastic style that everyone likes. He’s everything Jon would want to be.

The thing is, his features are enigmatic because they never change. His big blue eyes are entrancing because they are enormous. In fact, Frank wears a gigantic, painted papier-mache globe over his real head. What does his face look like? Nobody knows. He never takes it off and eats his food through a straw.

Maggie Gyllenhaal, Michael Fassbender and Domhnall Gleeson in FRANK, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.John invited to join them in a cabin in the woods to record an album. But he soon discovers this group is a strange bunch. Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal) plays the Theramin ad looks like a smouldering heroin addict, with her pale skin and art-school hair. She’s outright hostile to John. She thinks he’s the Yoko Ono, tearing the group apart. The rest of them include a sneering Frenchman, a burnt-out American, and others, who come and go. Days turns to weeks, then months. They’re broke. Will they ever finish it? But without telling the others, John posts clips on youtube and reports their progress on Twitter. Soon they have a solid fanbase without ever performing beyond the cabin. Newfound success draws them to SXSW in Texas. Will they have a hit? Will the people adore them? And will Frank ever take off his fake head?

Frank is a great movie, strange quirky and funny. It’s a new look at sex and fame and rock and roll. As Frank, Fassbender is a combination Jim Morrison and Mr Dressup, with his music morphing from prog rock to silly electric piano pop. Maggie Gyllenhall is terrific as the brooding musician and love interest and Gleeson is a new Michael Cera. This is a good movie to watch.

Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon 63718-trip to italy_01The Trip to Italy
Dir: Michael Winterbottom

Steve Coogan is an English movie actor, at a slow point in his career. So he sets out with his travel companion, Welsh comedian Rob Brydon, for a drive down the coast of Italy. You see, they’ve been hired to relax at exclusive resorts, putter around on yachts, and enjoy meals at 3-star restaurants. All they have to do is comment on the experience. And along the way they retrace the steps places visited centuries earlier by British poets (and early tourists) Keats, Shelley and Byron. Steve is divorced with a teenaged son and considers himself a bit of a womanizer, while Rob is happily married with two small children, who he talks to by phone each day. But who will pick up the most beautiful women for casual sex? This is a sequel to an almost identical movie set in England a few years back.

This sounds awful and boring as hell, right? No! it’s absolutely hilarious. Basically, the two Rob Brydon, Steve Coogan Trip to Italy 2 63721-_CRX6989actors play exaggerated, fictional version of themselves, while, the rest of the cast – the photographer, tour guide, family members – are all other actors cast in the roles. Aside from views of gorgeous scenery and delicious looking cooking scenes for foodies, what this movie is really about is two guys in a car, singing along to songs from the 90s by Alanis Morisette. And they re-enact entire scenes from The Godfather, Part II (another sequel), reciting every line in the voices of Robert De Niro and Al Pacino. Arguing about who was the best James Bond. Commenting about people at the next table at a restaurant in Rome or amongst the ruins of Pompeii. Not every joke hits the mark – I’m at a loss when it comes to comments about, say, European sportscasters – but there’s a cumulative effect, with all the jokes, comments, plays on words, competitive punning and imitations of Michael Caine, each building on the one before, until it’s just wipe-the-tears-from-your-eyes hilarious. It’s a particular style of improvized, spoken humour. There’s no pratfalls, no racial jokes, no gross-outs, no silly comments on “those crazy foreigners”, no stand-up comedy humour that depends on a punchline… It’s just two guys engaging in caustically funny conversations. It’s just great.

The Dog stacks_image_236And finally, I want to recommend The Dog, a great documentary by Allison Berg and Frank Keraudren. It’s the true story of folk hero / criminal John Wojtowicz. A self-described pervert, John is the guy who robbed a bank and took hostages in Manhattan in the early 1970s to pay for his girlfriend’s sex change. They were soon surrounded by cops but he entranced the crowd – and the news media — by talking to them, to his mom, and to his wife Carmen. It’s one of the earliest TV as-it-happens news stories, with a twist. It inspired Dog Day Afternoon, but his story is even wilder, encompassing his bisexuality and his early role in queer politics. This funny-looking guy is an amazing, absurd character, filled with Brooklyn bravado. And his story is amazing and well-worth seeing.

Frank, The Trip To Italy and The Dog all open today in Toronto: check your local listings for details.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com

Pop Culture Icons. Movies reviewed: Need For Speed, Bettie Page Reveals All, Alan Partridge

Posted in Action, Breasts, Cars, comedy, Cultural Mining, documentary, Pop Culture, Road Movie, Sex, Sex Trade, Uncategorized by CulturalMining.com on March 6, 2014

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM, looking at high-brow and low-brow movies, indie, cult, foreign, festival, documentary, genre and mainstream films, helping you see movies with good taste, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference.

They say as long as there’s a familiar name in a movie title people will go. Is that true? This week I’m looking at three diverse movies all based on pop-culture references. There’s an action movie based on a videogame about car racing, a documentary about a 50s pinup model, and a comedy about a (fictional) TV and radio talk show host.

NeedForSpeed_Downloads_Poster_SmallNeed for Speed

Dir: Scott Waugh

Tobey (Aaron Paul: Breaking Bad) is a car lover in tiny Mt Kisco. He runs a repair garage with his mechanic buds and races his beauties on the street. He rebuilds cars for rich collectors. But then his nemesis Dino (Dominic Cooper) who stole his high school sweetheart, comes to town with a proposition: big bucks if he can beat him in a secret, three-car race. Someone ends up dying, and Tobey takes the fall and goes to jail.

Two years later, he’s free again, with the chance to enter a cross country race to Aaron Paul NeedForSpeed_1024x517_Images_13_LandscapeCalifornia sponsored by an elusive dot-com mogul (Michael Keaton). But he needs help. His old enemy Dino sics the police on him, so he’s racing and being chased. His pals from the garage agree to help him out; they use helicopters, race cars for back-up support, and attempt on-highway tune-ups and gas tank refills. Tobey can’t stop driving, no matter what.

Imogen Poots NeedForSpeed_682x517_CastCrew_ImogenPootsJulia (Imogen Poots), a mythical dream date for race-car-bros,  volunteers to help him win. She’s a blonde and beautiful millionairess , who’s also fast-witted and an expert driver who’s not interested in commitment.

Will Tobey’s honest small town ingenuity beat that bag-of-dicks Dino and his dirty tricks? Can he get vengeance for past crimes? And can he Dominic Cooper NeedForSpeed_1024x517_Images_17_Landscapeavoid all the feds on his tail?

This movie is based on a video game, and it’s filled with overt product placement. There’s a baffling five minute ad in the middle of the movie for Ford Mustangs! And it’s loaded with car porn, the camera caressing glowing fuselages and NeedForSpeed_1024x517_Images_01_Landscapesparkling pistons. The characters toss out lines like “Bro – whoa, look at that red Lambo!” Personally, car brands, street racing, or the video game it was based on, do nothing for me. But I enjoyed it anyway. It’s dumb with a senseless, simplistic plot, but I could still appreciate the excellent race scenes, special effects, blow ups, air-shots and wipeouts, leading to an ultimate finish line.

Bettie_Page_Reveals_All 3 Mark Mori Music Box FilmsBettie Page Reveals All

Dir: Mark Mori

Bettie Page was a 1950s pinup model from Tennessee. An underground star, she was known for her hairstyle — black with bangs — her body, her smiling good looks. Her images shout sex is nothing to be afraid of. She appears in bikinis on Florida beaches, topless in studio, dancing on a stage, holding a whip, in full bondage, and occasionally alongside wild animals. She made 16 mm films with suggestive titles like Teaserama, directed by someone actually named Bettie_Page_Reveals All Mark Mori Music Box Films6.9Irving Klaw! And she always appeared to be having a good time.

Then, suddenly, she quits, never to pose again and completely disappears from the public eye.

Flash forward to the 90s – and she shifts from subculture star to pop culture icon. People begin to dress like her, imitate her, or use her image in comic books, T-shirts and tattoos. She’s virtually ubiquitous, and everyone knows who she is. Porn stars, Roller Derby players, even pop stars — like Katie Perry — dress like her, imitate her, and on Halloween, many women (and some men) attempt to become her.

Bettie_Page_Reveals All 5This documentary reveals all. The filmmakers manage to track down Bettie Page (that’s her real name, by the way). She never appears on the screen but her voice tells about what really happened during and after her brush with fame. She’s born again, loses her marbles, gets married three times. And for much of this period she had no idea she was idolized by millions. Through it all she remains open, unapologetic and fascinated by sex. This is an amazing story of the rise, fall and rise again of a pop icon.

alan-partridge-posterAlan Partridge

Dir: Declan Lowney

Alan Partridge (Steve Coogan) is an obnoxious, small-town radio personality in Norwich, UK. He’s self-centred and aggressive, but also insecure, obtuse and vengeful. He has an unmistakable fake smile that’s as irritating as it is hilarious.

This character has been on British TV and radio for decades now, as a mock sportscaster, DJ and talk show host. And like any celebrity worth his salt he can talk endlessly about nothing in particular, in a way sure to make a guest squirm.

In this, his first movie, he’s back as an awful radio show host. His station gets taken over by corporate raiders who decide they need a “younger” image. He manages to hold onto his show, but his co-host Pat (Colm Steve Coogan and Colm Meaney in ALAN PARTRIDGEMeaney) gets the boot (which is partly Alan Partridge’s fault.) So what happens? Suddenly, the whole station is in lockdown and they’re all Pat’s hostages – except Alan Partridge. The police and special-ops swarm in and they decide, for some reason, that only Alan can negotiate Pat’s surrender. Hilarity ensues.

The plot isn’t really that important – just a format to let Alan Partridge be himself. And that’s all it needs. He is so, so funny. Self-unaware, attention-Steve Coogan in ALAN PARTRIDGEstarved, socially inept and excruciatingly unhip, he has just enough of that radio voice and vapid attitude to make it all seem plausible. You can see his old stuff on youtube, but it’s great to see him featured in a feature length feature. This is a silly, goofy, and really funny movie… especially if you like British TV comedy. Steve Coogan at his best, showing Alan Partridge at his worst.

Betty Page Reveals All and Alan Partridge both open today in Toronto, and Need for Speed opens next Friday; check your local listings. Also on is the great Japanese drama Like Father, Like Son. And the Pier Paolo Pasolini retrospective: The Poet of Contamination plays through March. Go to tiff.net for more info.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com.

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