David Brent: Life on the Road (2016)

★★★★

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David Brent Life on the Road PosterDirector: Ricky Gervais

Release Date: August 19th, 2016 (UK)

Genre: Comedy; Music

Starring: Ricky Gervais, Ben Bailey Smith

Sometimes you simply cannot help but laugh, and those are the times Ricky Gervais preys upon. If you have ever heard him podcast with fellow humour stirrer Stephen Merchant and their patter pawn Karl Pilkington, or if you happened to catch any of the writer-director’s previous television efforts (I’m thinking Life’s Too Short or, to a lesser extent, Derek) you’ll already be aware of Gervais’ innate desire to prod away at that which ought not to be prodded. His brand of toe-curling hilarity gained notoriety via The Office, a post-millennium docudrama that ran for only two series and a Christmas special. In it he played David Brent, manager unextraordinaire, whose lack of social awareness suffocated his clamour for acceptance. People loved The Office, and still do — it won a Golden Globe in 2003, a first for a British production — which makes Gervais’ decision to bring Brent back some 13 years later a risky one. Revisiting royalty can be a dangerous game.

And yet you forget about the potential pitfalls almost instantly as we learn of Brent’s plan to take his cringe on the road (hence the title). He ain’t getting any younger therefore now is as good a time as any to chase those rock star dreams. This is a positive because it gives the story more scope, removing us from the office environment that still entraps Brent: nowadays he works as a sales subordinate having fallen down the corporate pecking order. More importantly, it affords Brent new surroundings within which to thrive, new locales outwith the world of laptops and staplers, and new scenarios ripe for brutal awkwardness.

Brent decides to relaunch his musical ambitions under the guise of his old band moniker, Forgone Conclusion, only this new incarnation does little but emphasise Brent’s middle-aged reality: his new band mates are a bunch of indie instrumentalists and rapper Dom Johnson (Ben Bailey Smith), whose career Brent has co-opted and unwittingly held back. None of them display any sort of warmth towards Brent, apart from Dom who sort of sympathises with his desperate interior. The others refuse to have a drink with their lead singer after gigs and even fall silent whenever he enters the room. Brent, of course, makes light of the whole scenario, putting this lack of interaction down to his band members giving him, their star man, his own space.

And you laugh. You laugh because it’s Brent. Because he attracts wince-inducing guffaws like a garden light does moths. He sings about anything and everything, lyrics often just words assembled in a somewhat rhythmic manner. Or, better yet, lyrics about respecting those with a disability that fail to follow through when sewn together. In Brent’s mind his tunes are supposed to empower their subjects — following a live rendition of “Please Don’t Make Fun of the Disableds”, the singer appreciatively nods towards a man in a wheelchair — though to the naked ear they are offensive. But only to the naked ear, to those uninitiated in Brent lore. Because those of us familiar with his antics know there is a lack of malice. We are never laughing at the subjects of Brent’s songs because he isn’t harvesting them for humour. They are never the target. Whether he genuinely cares about those whom he sings about or whether it’s just a case of adhering to the social justice mantra of the day is irrelevant.

We know how good Gervais is at playing Brent because we’ve seen him do it before. It helps that the character is entirely his own creation, essentially Gervais turned up to 11, but the actor still has to act. The most important factor is timing and Gervais dictates the pace, both in front of and behind the camera. Early on we hear Brent brag about his love for all kinds of females before hesitating and subsequently neglecting black women (presumably because he is so out of touch and fears any utterance of the word “black” will incur racism accusations). The hesitation is pinpoint; we sort of see it coming and yet Gervais still surprises us. There is also his patented Sigh-Laugh, the perfect vocal representation of a man flapping around in comic quicksand and sinking further after each gag. In some instances you can pick out the streams of improv, those moments where Gervais is clearly rambling on, digging Brent an increasingly deeper hole. His co-stars — especially Jo Hartley and Mandeep Dhillon, playing amiable co-workers — do well to keep straight faces (I suspect the outtakes will be worth seeing).

The cringe isn’t always humorous. Life on the Road taps into serious issues, such as the effect adverse mental health can have on one’s self-worth. Brent, we learn, has struggled in the time between The Office and now, and that struggle still lingers in the form of fame addiction. He pays for everything, literally buying into a false pretence: numerous pensions are cashed in order to fund the tour and socialising with the band comes at a cost, yet Brent persists, aimlessly wasting money in pursuit of adulation.

It makes you wonder why fame appeals to him so much. Part of it, presumably, is to make up for his own flaws. But Brent also wants out, away from an office environment that he no longer recognises. The business world has changed since Wernham Hogg and is now populated by brash, arrogant macho types (you know the sort). Jokes have become fossilised, unless they are genuinely offensive, and self-interest is the new corporate currency. You quickly realise that it is Brent who has given colour to this dingy landscape, albeit wonkily, and his cohorts realise it to. Dom maintains a sense of frustration over his counterpart’s uselessness but is appreciative of Brent’s drive. Ben Bailey Smith, incidentally, pitches the mediator role with great effect.

Procuring this authentic sympathy for the man is a fine balancing act, and the film doesn’t always uphold that balance. Notably, a radio interview goes pear-shaped for Brent both within and outwith the walls of the narrative: he is supposed to be there to plug his tour and sell tickets but is instead constantly put down by the station’s nasty host. While in real life it may be true that some radio hosts couldn’t care less about the exploits of their guests (Gervais would know given he worked in the field), they at least play the game and feign interest. No such thing happens here, and the anchor’s contemptuous attacks on Brent feel contrived.

But one misstep across 90 minutes is pretty good going. Gervais shows us the difference between using humour as a somewhat misguided path towards acceptance, and using it without underlying compassion — it isn’t funny, for instance, when a band member calls a woman fat, nor is it supposed to be. Fans of The Office will enjoy the awkwardness (I didn’t miss the likes of Martin Freeman and Mackenzie Crook, though others might). There is also a heartfelt message bubbling below the comedic furore, one that encourages us to try as Brent does, but to value ourselves in spite of any subsequent successes or failures. “I like making people laugh. I like making people feel,” says the eponymous giggler. Sometimes you simply cannot help but laugh. And sometimes you simply cannot help but feel, even for David Brent.

David Brent Life on the Road - Gervais

Images credit: IMP AwardsEvening Standard

Images copyright (©): Entertainment One

Begin Again (2014)

★★★★

Begin Again PosterDirector: John Carney

Release Date: July 11th, 2014 (UK & US)

Genre: Drama; Music

Starring: Keira Knightley, Mark Ruffalo

Why do they get nine out of ten of her dollars? Those are the words that spring from the mouth of Keira Knightley’s Gretta, a talented musician with a newfound shrewdness for business economics and life in general. Her question is aimed at record label producer Saul (Yasiin Bey aka Mos Def) who likely knows more about the dials on an Auto-Tune system than he does real musical verve.

But this isn’t a straightforward examination of the successes and failures of the contemporary music landscape. That is an underlying — and at times on the nose — theme, but not the film’s primary prerogative. Begin Again is more tuned into people, and how the relationships between those people unfold within a high intensity city, surrounded by an even higher intensity business.

We begin with an impressive James Corden as best friend Steve, encouraging a reluctant Gretta to get up and play one of her songs in a dingy New York City bar. She’s good, but through the murmurs and glass-smashing nobody takes much notice. Apart from Dan (Mark Ruffalo), who looks a little worse for wear. Dan, as it transpires, is a struggling record producer and former partner of the aforementioned Saul. Differing business models caused the split, a common occurrence in Dan’s life — he is also separated from his wife and bears the brunt of a friction-fuelled relationship with his daughter. Alcohol is his solution, which leads him to a dingy New York City bar.

And then we begin again, only this time our two central characters arrive imbued with backstory. The non-linear storytelling technique used early in the film is one of a few nuances implemented by director John Carney that help to maintain the freshness of what otherwise might be an occasionally dour narrative. When we first meet Gretta and Dan their individual baggage is evident, and because both Knightley and Ruffalo instantly come across empathetically, our affection greatly increases as their bad experiences are unveiled.

Dan is at odds both personally and professionally. He lives alone in a dank apartment that has probably seen more hangovers than clean bed sheets. Much to his ineffectual chagrin, his daughter Violet (Hailee Steinfeld) wears attire unsuitable for school. “Jodie Foster from Taxi Driver,” is Dan’s unsavoury description. It’s a good thing Gretta is around to interject as wardrobe advisor in between bouts of album recording.

Gretta used to be outgoing and inspired until she and ex-boyfriend Dave Kohl (Adam Levine) unceremoniously severed ties. She becomes those things again when in Dan’s company, but their partnership thankfully doesn’t venture down generic romantic channels when you get the feeling it might. Carney, who directed and wrote the screenplay, has form in the genre — he helmed the much lauded indie music-drama Once, and puts the positive expertise gained from that to use here.

Ruffalo and Knightley excel individually and collectively. Ruffalo is particularly full of off-kilter charm as the scruffy music lover trying to maintain originality in an increasingly banal industry. When the actor is in his element — quirky, unfiltered and eccentric — he is really great, and he’s in his element for the duration. In a tough role to get right, Knightley manages to be genuinely likeable. It is a characterisation that can have thankless, mopey elements, however Knightley carries Gretta with realistic ambition — her talent is never really in question, just her own personal desire to work on an album — therefore we don’t have to sit through endless hurdles of self-doubt.

That being said, from a broad perspective the film does exist in a picture perfect world. Even though Dan is no longer with his wife, terrifically portrayed by Catherine Keener, the duo still have a budding relationship (in other words, they get along more than they argue). Gretta, on the day before she is set return to England, somehow finds herself playing her own song in front of the only guy willing to take a punt on her. Despite a quip about possible rainfall, the sun also always seems to be shining. However, any potential misgivings regarding circumstance play second fiddle to engaging performances and otherwise unsentimental storytelling.

Bubbling underneath all the character drama (you could say it is the film’s bassist) is a plot about the commercialisation of the music industry. Dan is the victim of this shift away from ingenuity, a notion captured in a funny yet somewhat overtly glaring scene that sees the song scout try unsuccessfully to remove wall “art” from his record label premises. “We need vision, not gimmicks,” he bemoans having just endured an endless stream of overproduced pop demos.

As an A&R man, there is also a compelling dynamic between Dan and Gretta. In an electric conversation over drinks, we can literally see Dan squirm around on his stool as he talks about compromising in order to, “Get people in [the door] before the music can do its work.” In a way Gretta is more of a purist than he, though that might be expected given she is the artist.

The proverbial ‘bad’ side of modern music is embodied by a bizarre record exec who flaunts that cocky Bradley Cooper vibe from American Hustle. Carney does afford some leeway to the idea that music and money are worst enemies by including the horrendously named Troublegum (CeeLo Green), one of Dan’s prized discoveries who still has his back. This allows for a hilarious impromptu rap scene that probably accurately reflects how CeeLo converses in real life.

The New York setting serenades the film with helping of authenticity — while doing press for the movie, Knightley spoke of how the crew adopted a guerrilla filmmaking style when shooting in back alleys and on rooftops. The songs themselves are woody and energetic, and certainly mirror Dan’s desperation to save the spirit of music. The soundtrack isn’t as earthy as something like Inside Llewyn Davis, or even Crazy Heart, but like in those films, the songs do play a part in ensuring proceedings don’t begin to flounder.

Begin Again balances carefully developed characters and musical intermissions with a somewhat stinging appraisal of how music is produced today. Gretta simply wants to write songs and release them for anyone’s consumption. She would charge as little as a dollar for her album. By the way, you can purchase Begin Again’s year-old soundtrack for £5.99 on iTunes. Huh. At least the film itself sticks to its admirable laurels.

Begin Again - Knightley & Levine

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): The Weinstein Company

Whiplash (2015)

★★★★

Whiplash PosterDirector: Damien Chazelle

Release Date: October 10th, 2014 (US limited); January 16th, 2015 (UK)

Genre: Drama; Music

Starring: Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons

Towards the beginning of Whiplash, Andrew, the film’s central character, chats away to his father as they crunch on popcorn whilst taking in a film at the cinema. Astonishingly, despite this double-misdemeanour Andrew isn’t the worst human being we see throughout the one hundred minutes. He doesn’t even come close, in truth. That honour goes to the talented drummer’s insane music instructor. Terence Fletcher is the teacher whose class we all sat in tight-lipped for fear of scolding. This guy puts Matilda’s Trunchbull to shame. The problem for Andrew is that he wants to become “one of the greats”, and gaining Fletcher’s approval might just send him along that path.

A first year student at one of New York’s most prestigious music academies, it is apt that we first meet Andrew as he’s drumming away. This is also when we encounter Fletcher for the first time, who happens upon Andrew mid-session and then leaves seemingly unimpressed. The same scene more or less plays out with varying intensity across the remainder of Whiplash — a brooding Fletcher brashly critiquing Andrew’s skill — and yet the film never loses steam. This is testament to a fierce screenplay, dazzling editing and slick direction, but most significantly to the performances of both J.K. Simmons and Miles Teller.

Simmons imbues his monstrous autocrat with unflinching poise — Fletcher is like an experienced hunter aware of everything going on around him. The actor’s timing chimes with absolute precision, his sweeping hand signals in rhythm with every “not my tempo” jibe. There is real menace behind Simmons’ eyes as he acts, an authentic rage that places his character beyond the usual eccentric teacher type. Fletcher invites Andrew to join his elite studio band (the student’s previous practice band comes across as a soft, bubbly playground in comparison) and is civil towards him at first. It’s obvious the niceties aren’t going to remain a permanent factor in their relationship, but it’s still a shock when Fletcher hurls a chair at his new recruit before slicing him apart with piercing insults.

Writer-director Damien Chazelle manages all of this fury by including the occasional moment of hilarity, and these often come by way of Fletcher’s razor sharp put-downs. You could play a game of ‘most degrading insult’ bingo and never run out of source material (my favourite is “weepy willow shit sack”). Andrew is usually on the receiving end of the worst of these and Miles Teller reflects the toll the taunts take via scrunched-up facial expressions and reciprocatory anger. As the film progresses he grows paler, his hair more bedraggled and dark bags forming under tired eyes. Fletcher never breaks sweat, of course. It appears to be quite the physically demanding performance too; as Teller relentlessly hammers out sequence after sequence of drum beats, all you can think about is the searing lactic acid building up in his arms.

We are on Andrew’s side from the get-go and remain there even as he develops the dickish attitude that first spawns on screen when he severs romantic ties with directionless student Nicole, played with charm by Melissa Benoist. The abrupt conclusion to their relationship is a shame as, on the off chance we do get a spot between Benoist and Teller, their interaction is a pleasurable change of pace. Tom Cross’ impactful editing comes to the fore during a flurry of super sweet date scenes and super intense practice scenes invariably relayed in juxtaposition.

The nuances fuelling both men’s desires reverberate with uneven success. On the one hand, a surprisingly emotive speech has us questioning whether Fletcher in is it to develop world class musicians or world class music. The moment adds another, more humanistic layer to the otherwise wholly maniacal instructor. Though the matter is eventually resolved, Fletcher’s ferocity flares through and it is right that it does so. Andrew’s back-story is a tad more conventional — he’s the odd family member out — and as such the character is a bit more generic.

No matter, the two actors share an awkward-yet-sizzling chemistry that suits the personas they are playing. Fletcher costs his young counterpart a lot: relationships, family life, a social life, even blood. And still we completely believe the attraction felt by Andrew in regards to impressing his fiendish teacher. A duel between the pair towards the end of the film is utterly mesmerising, exemplifying Whiplash’s technical proficiencies as well as its superb acting in one glorious finale.

At only his second attempt Damien Chazelle has constructed a really exciting film, one that is unsurprisingly propped up by a soundtrack incorporating pulpy beats and bluesy flows. It is engrossing, focused and quite the positive mark on a promising young filmmaker’s portfolio. Hey, Damien and co? Good job.

Whiplash - Teller and Simmons

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Sony Pictures Classics

Frank (2014)

★★★

Frank PosterDirector: Lenny Abrahamson

Release Date: May 9th, 2014 (UK); August 22nd, 2014 (US)

Genre: Comedy; Drama; Mystery

Starring: Michael Fassbender, Domhnall Gleeson, Maggie Gyllenhaal

As wannabe musician Jon strings together lines so monotonously hilarious in an attempt to spur lyrical inspiration, you get the sense that Frank is about to deliver (just ask the lady in the red coat). And it does deliver to a point. When it strikes a comical chord, the reverberating guffaws tend to be high in pitch and volume. Not to mention the outing’s headline act: a stupendous bodily performance from Michael Fassbender. But there’s something not quite right, a node of irony that occasionally jars indulgently. When wackiness overrules narrative, a handful of disengaging characters remain. Utterly bizarre beyond its frames, Lenny Abrahamson’s outing is as much Talk to Frank as it is Frank Sidebottom.

A keyboard player languishing in his own pit of disenfranchisement, Jon (Domhnall Gleeson) finds himself taking the faux-piano reigns as part of an eclectic band. Frank (Michael Fassbender) is the lead singer, his psychedelic sound usurped only by the group’s psychedelic demeanour and his own terminal cartoon-head. At first, Jon is perplexed by just about everything the band has to offer. However, as he is dragged further into their unorthodox make-up by manikin-loving manager Don (Scoot McNairy), the keyboardist remembers his toils as a struggling musician and engages in a game of manipulation and admiration.

Though the antics are told from Jon’s point of view, the titular Frank is wholeheartedly the film’s star and this is in no small part down to Michael Fassbender. Stripped of any ability to facially exhibit emotion (an element quickly acknowledged in a humorous manner) Fassbender suitably readjusts in a display of manoeuvres that are as admirable as they are chucklingly peculiar. Like bees to honey, the band whiz to Frank’s side in a constant plea for attention, particularly Jon and Maggie Gyllenhaal’s stern Clara. Frank is the cream of the crop to them, both of whom aspire to gain his level of musical insight and, in the same vein, we look to him as the central figure of goings-on.

Fassbender’s vocal expression is intentionally difficult to pinpoint, an element that bolsters the mystery surrounding Frank — it also adds verve to his singing which sees one scene towards the end particularly stand out. It’s not necessarily Fassbender’s face that garners any amount of intrigue — we already know what the Irishman looks like — rather, it’s his character’s motivations. (“What goes on inside that head, inside that head?”) Even then, the reason behind the lead singer’s mask-wearing becomes irrelevant as Fassbender’s actions whilst wearing the head gear become increasingly engaging and unpredictable. A man without a face, but not without allure. Face hidden by a large head, if we didn’t already know it was Michael Fassbender we’d be absolutely certain it was an actor of extraordinary talent anyway.

Despite being too whimsical in dramatic delivery, Jon Ronson and Peter Straughan’s screenplay is often very funny. From shoddy song creation, to blunt feedback, to hurling objects at one another, there is undoubtedly a plethora of laughs to be had. Though, whilst striving for humour the outing progressively trundles through a sea of perplex. In itself, a film without conventional boundaries is not necessarily a bad film — conversely, though innately different, Valhalla Rising is surreal and still very good — but Frank suffers as it dips in and out of madness, resultantly losing tonal focus. Unless it can be found obscured underneath a papier mâché head, there’s no real on display plot here, not one of intuitive significance anyway. This is the story of a band locked away in a cabin writing an album. The attachment must therefore lie with those on screen and, out-with Frank himself, there aren’t many hooks.

Jon is our mediator of mania; he’s the ‘normal one’ in an abnormal setting. Despite Domhnall Gleeson’s best efforts, the character isn’t all that interesting; an inevitable outcome given those in Jon’s immediate vicinity — a fake head wearer, a wrathful theremin player, a manikin admirer — but the keyboardist is just a tad too plain and subsequently sticks out like a sore thumb. Even when he does generate a semblance of interest, it’s at the expense of likeability: as Twitter followers increase, affinity decreases. Clara presents an even greater problem. She’s dismissive and abrasive and this isolates Maggie Gyllenhaal’s persona. Rather than becoming part of the crazy prerogative, Clara exists disparagingly on the outside. Between plods of hysteria, the film puts all of its eggs into Frank’s basket, a lot for a faceless anomaly to take on. When inadvertently the most amiable presence is one wearing a mask, something ain’t quite right.

On another problematic note, Frank attempts to juggle the trials and tribulations of modernity and music, before incorporating issues of mental health towards the conclusion. We often hear of musicians hiding away in isolation as they congregate ideas for the next album in an attempt to avoid the hyper-connected external world, and this is exactly the case here. Frank and company occupy the confines of a wilderness cabin for months on end, though ironically they’re concealing their music from a non-existent expectancy — nobody knows who they are. Heck, nobody knows how to pronounce the band’s name (Soronprfbs, if you want to have a go) highlighting their incessant need to stand out in an overpopulated industry. The lead singer adopting a giant fake head is probably enough regardless. Jon invariably narrates proceedings via Twitter, a nuance that sears as an unneeded attempt by the filmmakers to make Frank more current. Perhaps those like myself without much musical inclination, other than downloading the latest hit from The Killers or Katy Perry, will struggle to relate to Frank’s attempt at industry irony. Abrahamson’s late bid to relate Frank’s concealment and musical idiosyncrasy with mental instability, though well-meaning, is pillaged by a lack of cohesion.

In response to Jon’s apparent anguish, a bystander confesses, “I thought it was supposed to be funny”. This retortion reflects Frank, a film that is inherently humorous yet unsuccessfully aims for melancholic satire. Are we meant to laugh or cry? I’m not entirely sure. The song plays boldly and certainly hits an occasional high note, but unfortunately suffers from a muddled beat in the long run.

Frank - Frank

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Images copyright (©): Magnolia Pictures