Frank (2014)

Frank Sidebottom was a musical alter ego of the late Chris Sievey, who gained some localised renown in England from the 1980s onwards with his massive papier-mâché head and cheerfully nasal song delivery. However, this film, which is co-written by Jon Ronson and based on accounts of his time in Sidebottom’s band, is not about Frank Sidebottom. It just takes the idea and image of that character and grafts it on to a far more thoroughgoing American story, one that trades on the legacy of outsider musicians like Captain Beefheart (the legend of him imprisoning his band to record the seminal Trout Mask Replica album), Roky Erickson and Daniel Johnston (whose mental health issues have been well documented) and perhaps a bit of Jandek (with his laconic public appearances). One needn’t necessarily know the music or stories of any of these artists, but Frank has its own catchy tunes, in amongst the rather more abstract noise, of the in-film (and unpronounceable) band Soronwfbs, led by the eponymous Frank (Michael Fassbender). Ronson’s own alter ego is the lead character Jon (Domhnall Gleason), an entirely annoying, self-interested twerp whose youthful naïveté also allows him to take on the challenge of joining Frank’s band, and whose self-absorption never seems to waver over much of the film’s running time. And yet, Fassbender’s largely masked performance has enough pathos that even when the film has transitioned from being an awkward comedy of Jon’s English manners to something altogether darker and more mysterious as the band slowly come together only to quickly fall apart, the audience is still on board.

Frank film posterCREDITS
Director Lenny Abrahamson; Writers Jon Ronson and Peter Straughan; Cinematographer James Mather; Starring Domhnall Gleeson, Michael Fassbender, Maggie Gyllenhaal; Length 95 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Sunday 11 May 2014.

White House Down (2013)

As is Hollywood’s wont, there were two films last year which had terrorists take over the White House, hold the President hostage, and then have their plans ruined by John McClane I mean, an undervalued everyman character (where “everyman” is a white male, obviously). I went to see Olympus Has Fallen in the cinema, and that, I realise now, was the wrong choice. White House Down is no less silly, it should be emphasised, and it rips off Die Hard (1988) every bit as comprehensively. However, in every respect (except maybe in the acting chops of its authority figures: Melissa Leo > whoever the hell the VP is here), it proves itself the better of the two films.

It’s difficult even to pinpoint exactly what makes it so much better. Perhaps it helps that here the threat is a loose alliance of ex-military right-wing gun nuts and racists, rather than a generic East Asian terrorist collective (nominally North Korean, but apparently Chinese in the original conception), which immediately disarms the racist connotations of our white heroes’ triumph. Here the racial diversity is instead on the side of the Americans, with a post-Obama Presidential turn by Jamie Foxx, who does his best to capture the requisite gravitas. If he doesn’t always succeed, his looser performance still allows for some lovely moments with our hero Channing Tatum’s politically-savvy teenage daughter Emily (Joey King), not to mention a bit of knockabout humour involving a rocket launcher.

The daughter’s there for a bit of human interest, and the set-up follows a standard generic pattern: as John Cale, Tatum has been a bit of an unreliable dad and now must prove his worth to his daughter, which he does by trying to get a Secret Service job (he doesn’t pass his interview, but not before we’ve had a hint at some backstory with Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Carol). When the terrorists attack, father and daughter are separated, giving his resistance to the terrorists a bit of personal motivation (when he overhears the evil mastermind threatening to kill the President, he means to push on with finding his daughter, and has to kick himself to go back and help). His daughter is not totally helpless, it turns out (shades of Jason Statham movies like Safe and Homefront there), but she’s still too young not to need his help. Then again, you only really need to accept these familiar tropes; the fun is in how efficiently they are mobilised, and there’s a relative minimum of sentimental mawkishness.

As you’ll have guessed, there’s nothing startling or new here. If you liked Die Hard and you are fond of this kind of action thriller, then you should really enjoy White House Down. It’s a solid bit of big Hollywood summer entertainment.

White House Down film posterCREDITS
Director Roland Emmerich; Writer James Vanderbilt; Cinematographer Anna Foerster; Starring Channing Tatum, Jamie Foxx, James Woods, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jason Clarke; Length 131 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Saturday 7 June 2014.