It’s a recurring feature of my life, and maybe yours too – you become part of a group of reasonably cool (to you, anyway) people, and you all hang out together and it’s awesome and you feel you belong. And yet you look around and realize sometimes, hey, how come I don’t always hear about what they’re doing? And how come when people in this group hang out together in lesser numbers, it’s never with me? And is it just me, or does everyone in this group have a cool distinguishing characteristic while I’m kind of a generic, boring person?
You may be reassured in time. But then, despite claims that you’ll stay together, and that whoever becomes successful first will help everybody else out, eventually everyone goes their separate ways. Some of the group stay in touch, but very rarely with you. You may occasionally reunite and it’ll be fun, but it won’t recapture the best of times. Two movies I saw this week speak to the feeling – in very different ways. That neither one seems entirely sure what it’s saying is fitting, because maybe there isn’t much to say when all you can do is depict.
In Frank, future possible Jedi Domhnall Gleeson is Jon, the audience surrogate – a regular dude trying to write songs, a process which involves him trying to sing about stuff he happens to see nearby (“Children building castles in the sand…in my town!”; “Lady in the red coat, what you carrying in that bag”). He Tweets and shares on social media constantly, but has few followers and little to say.
Then one of those weird coincidences happens. Walking along the beach, he sees what appears to be a crazy person trying to drown himself. It turns out that guy’s a keyboardist, and as his band manager Don (Scoot McNairy) looks on and explains the situation to Jon, Jon volunteers that he’s a keyboardist. Don walks away immediately, but then relents, telling Jon to come to their show that night.
The band’s name is unpronounceable, and the frontman, Frank (Fassbender), has a giant fake head that he never takes off. Jon has to improvise on keyboards, and the show seems to come to a screeching halt when theremin player Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal) throws a temper tantrum…but the next day Jon gets a call at work that Frank likes him and wants him in the band. Adventure has beckoned, and before long Jon is pouring his nest-egg into rent money for the cabin where the first album will be recorded…if perfectionist Frank will ever approve a single tune.
Frank is supposedly based on British performance artist/comedian Frank Sidebottom, who wore a similar head – I didn’t know this going in, and from what I understand anybody hoping for the movie to be anything like the real guy’s life will be disappointed. But it doesn’t play like a biopic, even if it was intended to be one at one point (the end credits say it’s based on a newspaper article). This is Jon’s story, and you expect it to be the tale of the one guy who helped the band rise to stardom. That doesn’t happen.
No, thematically the movie is more on the side of knowing your role than trying to be a star. In wanting to be both an integral part of the group and pushing his own ambitions rather than listening to his bandmates, Jon messes up their eccentric-yet-functional dynamic. He was never really a part of the group, and when all is said and done, he won’t be any more. Is anybody better for it? It’s hard to say, beyond the fact that they’ll all have great stories to tell someday. Am I projecting because of my own life experiences? Who knows. I’m not sure director Lenny Abramson or screenwriters Jon Ronson and Peter Straughan know either; they’re just throwing it out there. What they’ve managed is a fair portrayal of group dynamics among weird, artsy types; that it doesn’t venture onward to any further points is mitigated by the fact that it feels real, if not profound.
A very different sort of group is at the center of Jossy’s – a Power Ranger-style female fivesome with color-coded outfits, all chosen for the team simply because their surnames had colors in them (that one is blue and another navy is cause for some friction). Whenever danger calls on their bulky, plastic watches that appear from nowhere, they must duck out of their jobs and social lives to head for the gravel pit, where invariably a new “phantom” (“Kaijin”) awaits with a posse of masked ninja henchmen, and the girls must do turn-based, RPG-style battle against them before they menace Tokyo (something that never, ever happens).
Yes, this is a comedy – team members fail to show up for battles because of eyelash appointments, or presentations at work, or hair appointments. The girls never asked to be recruited by their annoying mentor with the cat hand-puppet on his shoulder, and they don’t really have any super powers aside from a tornado they can summon when all five hold hands…but ONLY in the gravel pit of battle, which, conveniently, is the only place the bad guys show up.
The model here could be Craig Mazin’s The Specials, in which we got to see a superhero team on the days they weren’t saving the world, but rather arguing amongst each other. What if the Power Rangers behaved like real teenage girls, asks Jossy’s (the name is never explained, except that everyone thinks it’s stupid), and were bratty and self-centered and materialistic? And then if they also had to hold down jobs?
In some ways it’s quite potentially offensive – it is not-so-subtly implied that women just don’t take things seriously because chicks, amirite? But then you look at the men in the movie, and they’re all awkward morons, so it’s kinda fair.
However – if the battles never seem to have any real stakes, then what is the point of the team? Asking for logic here is silly, but a deconstruction of this kind of thing demands a bit more meta-commentary. What is Charles’ deal? Is he a total perv who just likes girls in colorful outfits? When the slightly similar Big Man Japan skewered kaiju movies with a “realistic” look at the characters, it gave us an antisocial hero who hates growing large, as well as his senile ancestor who still has monster powers. They felt emotionally real and dangerous (even though the CG looked fake). Jossy’s gives us whiny girls and makes us understand why they whine, but not why they should use their great powers for great responsibility. It’s still amusing, but it’d be more fun at 45 minutes long if it’s not planning to explore its own world a bit more.