Box office: ‘Guardians’ wins again, becomes No. 1 movie of year

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Perhaps as a sign this summer couldn’t be over soon enough for Hollywood, the top three positions at the box office for the weekend were exactly the same as last week: “Guardians of the Galaxy” continued its surprising run with an estimated three-day draw of $16.3 million, and with a cumulative total of $274.6 million in the U.S. and Canada through Sunday, the film became the top box-office draw not only of the summer but of the year so far, passing “Captain America: The Winter Solider.”

“Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” continued its surprising showing as well, bringing in an estimated $11.8 million in its fourth weekend for a cumulative total of $162.4 million.

In its second weekend of release, the teen romantic drama “If I Stay” brought in an estimated $9.3 million for a new total of $29.8 million.

The best new opener of the weekend was the low-budget horror thriller “As Above, So Below” in the fourth spot, bringing in an estimated $8.3 million. In its third week, “Let’s Be Cops” came in fifth with an estimated $8.2 million for a new total of $57.3 million.  “The November Man,” an espionage thriller starring Pierce Brosnan, opened in sixth place with an estimated three-day total of $7.7 million.

Rounding out the top 10 were “When the Game Stands Tall,” brining in an estimated $5.6 million for the weekend and raising its total to $16.3 million; “The Giver,” with an estimated $5.2 million for a new total of $39.4 million; and “The Hundred-Foot Journey” with an estimated $4.6 million for a new total of $39.4 million. “The Expendables 3” came in 10th place with $3.5 million for a total of $33.1 million.

More estimates for the Labor Day holiday will be in Monday, but the summer box office looks to come in just above $4 billion, down some 15% from $4.75 billion in the summer of 2013.

“The summer of 2014 was confounding, it was exasperating, and it was a transition between one record summer in 2013 and what everyone believes will be a record summer in 2015,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Rentrak.

However, thanks to a strong spring, the total box office for the year so far stands at $7.2 billion, off only about 5% from last year. And with potential successes such as the latest “Hunger Games” and “Hobbit” films along with Christopher Nolan’s much-anticipated “Interstellar” all still to come, 2014 could still turn itself around.

“This summer was just never predestined to be a record breaker,” Dergarabedian said. “And there were so many unquantifiable things. The World Cup may have had an effect as a distraction. The Fourth of July fell on a Friday, which no one in Hollywood wants.

“But no one is saying, is this the end of going to the movies. Because we all know it’s not.”

Follow Mark Olsen on Twitter: @IndieFocus


Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times

Eva Longoria shows passion for acting, activism and philanthropy

At a notoriously schmoozy West Hollywood lunch spot, former “Desperate Housewife” Eva Longoria pays far more attention to the soft-spoken busboy than any of the nipped and tucked Hollywood types vying for her attention.

“Mi amor!,” she greets the slight Latino man as he approaches her table with a coffee refill. He converses with her in Spanish as if the two have known each other for ages. “How is the family?” she asks. “Your son is going to UCLA now? ¡Felicidades!

After he leaves, Longoria beams. “Wow, his son’s in college,” she says, her deep brown eyes sparkling under expertly applied makeup. “That’s the American dream. That’s why people come here. It’s not to rape and pillage our social systems.”

While most actors might avoid a divisive topic like immigration as if it were a carb-laden dish of pasta, the gregarious Longoria revels in expressing her opinion. The native Texan rattles off facts and figures about migrant workers and education among Latinos like a seasoned pro, demonstrating a passion that’s clearly informed her latest film role.

In Michael Berry’s directorial debut, “Frontera,” the 39-year-old actress-activist-entrepreneur plays Paulina, a poor Mexican farmer who attempts to sneak across the Tex-Mex border in search of her husband. The usually glamorous Longoria — a fashionista and perennial Maxim pinup girl in real life — spends most of the film sweating it out in the desert, dust forming creases around her eyes, dirt caking her tangled hair.

“The adding of sunspots from working in the fields, the dirt under my nails. It was adding on to deglamorize,” Longoria of her transformation from pampered to impoverished. The Magnolia Pictures’ film, out Sept. 5, costars Ed Harris as a retired border guard and Michael Peña as Longoria’s husband. “I dyed my hair black. I gained a little weight. I spoke Spanish — I’ve never spoken Spanish in a movie. I was unrecognizable, and I loved that.”

Before you roll your eyes, Longoria isn’t just slumming it here. The woman best known as Wisteria Lane’s narcissistic ex-runway model Gabrielle Solis brings her plain-spoken character Paulina’s aspirations and fears to life in touching and sometimes brutal, hard-to-watch scenes.

Longoria actively pursued this role, because it was “different than most other border films.” Rather than vilifying one side or the other, she says, it illuminates the humanity and fallibility on both sides of the fence. “We’re not trying to solve the immigration debate with this movie,” she says. “We’re just trying to tell a love story, and what people will do for love. That it happens to be set on the border is what makes it topical and eye-opening.”

Director Berry was astonished when Longoria’s camp approached him. “I’ll be honest,” he says. “I never even considered her for the part. But I got a phone call saying she was interested, and I was like ‘Eva Longoria?’ She does that ‘Housewives’ show and goosey glamour stuff. That sounds like a terrible idea.

“But she told me of her passion for the Mexican culture and how fortunate she’d be to be part of this project, which I thought was hilarious, given I’m a first-time director. But I was taken with her passion. Once we were doing this, and especially when we started cutting it, I was like ‘Oh, my God, she’s pulling it off.’”

A busy woman

It’s one of many feats Longoria has pulled off in a decade-plus career that goes well beyond acting into politics, business and philanthropy. Maybe her film career hasn’t gone stratospheric, but this is one busy woman.

Her resume now includes executive producing the Lifetime series “Devious Maids”; serving as a co-chair of President Obama’s re-election campaign — and speaking at the 2012 Democratic convention; promoting her own fragrance, Eva; writing a cookbook; and producing two documentaries about migrant farmworkers. Her latest, “Food Chains,” hits theaters in November.

As for her tabloid appeal? She divorced French-born San Antonio Spurs star Tony Parker in 2011 after four years together and is now dating Mexican media mogul Jose Antonio Baston, so yes, she still makes TMZ and the Daily Mail happy.

But it’s the more serious achievements of Longoria’s, such as her recently earned master’s degree in Chicano studies from Cal State Northridge, that elicit the most surprise. How do you pose for a Maxim “Woman of the Year” spread one minute, then appear before Congress arguing for stricter labor laws the next?

“Why is it so hard for some people to reconcile beauty or sexiness with smart?” she asks, clearly irked by the question. “There’s so many women in the world who are complex, complicated people. I’m not saying I’m one of them, I’m just saying people tend to view through one lens. You’re the sexpot. You’re the smart girl. You’re the comedy actor.”

Her coffee growing cold, she continues. “[During 'Housewives'], I remember people saying, ‘Are you afraid you’re going to get pigeonholed into sexy?,’ and I was like ‘what’s wrong with that?’,” she says, her wavy dark hair tumbling just so over her shoulders. “I’m riding that wave as long as it will take me, because women have an expiration date in this business. It’s unfair, but it’s true. So am I scared I’m gonna be called sexy? No! Thank God. Bring it on.”

Longoria’s looks aren’t what’s bothering detractors such as conservative media personality Glenn Beck, who after hearing the actor weigh in on immigration policy, proclaimed: “Shut up and act!” But Beck is not alone. When Longoria speaks up about her passions outside of entertainment, anonymous commenters claiming to be former fans often react with angry screeds online.

Others offer praise. “She’s made a tremendous contribution, and showed tremendous courage, in using her celebrity to raise awareness of issues that have an effect on the Latino community and the working community,” says Thomas Saenz, president and general council of MALDEF, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. The organization defines itself as the Latino legal voice for civil rights in America, and Longoria is on its board of directors. “She’s demonstrated a true commitment to learning about these issues, deeply, then taking that knowledge and using her access to media and public to raise awareness. She is certainly a very different kind of celebrity.”

Sense of duty

Longoria is willing to walk that line between making fans and losing them, be it in impossibly high designer stilettos or off-brand sneakers coated in border dust.

Late-in-life Errol Flynn leers in ‘The Last of Robin Hood’

Aging star with sagging ego, pliable young beauty eager to please, obsessive stage mother willing to facilitate — the tale in “The Last of Robin Hood” is as old as Hollywood itself.

In Errol Flynn’s not-so-grand finale, the spotlight that had dimmed began shining once again at word of his death in the arms of his weeping teenage lover. Ironic that he couldn’t bask in the attention he craved, but the tawdry romantic reveal was certainly worthy of a town more concerned with whitewashing the star’s womanizing reputation than the fate of the very young women he toyed with.

The year was 1959. Flynn (Kevin Kline), the comely young Beverly (Dakota Fanning) and her grasping mother, Florence (Susan Sarandon), make up our unholy trinity. Though Flynn’s fortunes had faded from his heights as Sherwood Forest’s favorite antihero, Robin Hood, the actor’s death sent the tabloids scrambling to splash every scrap of information across their covers.

The film sets the mood with a sea of flashing bulbs and shouted questions as a devastated Beverly makes her way down the steps of the plane that returned her to Hollywood. In the face of the chaos, she faints before saying a word. Unanswered is whether it was the reporters that sent the 17-year-old into a swoon or the sight of her mother amid the journalists, wildly waving and calling her name.

Perhaps that is in part what makes the film such uncomfortable watching, the way it echoes modern-day celebrity train wrecks, from the alcohol and drug abuse to sex with minors. Years pass, names change, the news cycle speeds up with Gawker, BuzzFeed and the online rest disseminating the latest lurid details 24/7. Fame, however, remains as irresistible as ever, the public as insatiable.

That might suggest a more insightful film than writer-director team Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland have given us. Instead of a cautionary tale, they’ve looked at Flynn’s life through rose-colored glasses. The actor is made out to be a cad, to be sure, but in that arrogantly charming forgivable way. Fanning’s hopelessly devoted young Beverly is clever but not conniving. Hollywood is not even cast as a co-conspirator.

The villain is the mother. Sarandon plays the many disappointments of Florence’s life like a winning poker hand — starting with the accident that ended her career as a dancer and left her with a wooden leg and a sour mood. Her own hopes dashed, Florence’s focus became her child, grooming Beverly for stardom from the moment she could walk and talk. The film only alludes to those years, but Fanning is quite good at showing us the finished product; a pity she’s not allowed to show much else.

Just as Flynn is the star in this story, Kline is very much the star of this film. The actor, more often cast as likable and light, makes fairy-tale Flynn maleficent. Kline dances on the knife’s edge of impropriety with such ease that it makes the dissipated legend he portrays more magnetic than creepy, which should be taken as both praise and criticism.

By the time the film catches up with Flynn, he is approaching 60 and casing the studio lot for lovelies. Muted, nearly black-and-white tones from director of photography Michael Simmonds serve as reminders that this is the 1950s, and the way the aging star is shot peeking through his office blinds has a promising “sex, lies, and videotape” quality. But it soon piles up in a forgotten corner alongside the mention of the actor’s statutory rape charges and other random hints that there might actually be something terribly sinister going on.

Crisp, cool and beautiful, Beverly catches his eye. In short order, Flynn wines, dines and deflowers her. Suddenly, he can’t live without Woodsy, as he dubs her not long after they’ve met. She reminds him of a wood nymph, he says, as if their indiscretion would not count if she were some magical creature not bound by earthly rules of decorum, or under-age laws.

The rest of the film essentially argues that theirs was a true romance. That it was love that led Flynn to walk away from “Lolita” when director Stanley Kubrick refused to cast Beverly in the title role. That it was the star’s belief in her talent and pressure from Florence that led him to make the dreadful “Cuban Rebel Girls” starring Beverly. That their age difference wasn’t quite so bad since Flynn thought the girl 18, not 15, when they met, and Florence cops to forging papers so her daughter could get work at the studios.

It’s not long before the film’s procedural pacing begins to overshadow the emotion. In fact, a good deal of “The Last of Robin Hood” is spent building the case against Florence. She was certainly one of the guilty parties, facilitating her daughter’s relationship, selling Flynn’s story after his death, losing custody of Beverly.

And what of the movie star’s guilt? There is a scene deep in the film that catches one of Florence and Flynn’s late-night conversations. As if to convince herself, she is recounting the actor’s virtues, his concern for Beverly’s career suggests a good man with good intentions. With a weary smile, Flynn allows he is nothing of the sort. That Errol Flynn would have been interesting. But the curtain never lifts, the wizard’s true nature is never revealed, and you can’t help wondering where “The Last of Robin Hood” left its moral compass.

Twitter: @BetsySharkey

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times

‘Frank’ gives you something to wrap your head around

Every so often it’s time for something completely different, and if you’re feeling that way right now, it’s the time for “Frank.” Odd, offbeat, somehow endearing, this bleakly comic film has its own kind of charm as well as some pointed, poignant things to say about the mysterious nature of creativity, where it comes from and where it might go. Directed by Ireland’s Lenny Abrahamson, it stars the protean Michael Fassbender as the charismatic, enigmatic lead singer of an avant-garde rock band, the ultimate unfathomable creative genius whose thoughts and emotions are hard to read because he’s never seen without a huge fiberglass head with a cartoonish face painted on it. Really. In addition to being surprisingly amusing, this film sees how serious these strange musicians are about their art and that there is something quite magical about Frank and his gifts. Playing at the ArcLight in Hollywood, the Landmark in West Los Angeles and the Laemmle’s Playhouse 7 in Pasadena.


Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times

‘November Man’ script undercuts Pierce Brosnan’s performance

It’s no secret that Bond movies aren’t spy movies. They’re good guy/bad guy adventures as unconcerned with ambiguity as fairy tales.

Spies are untrustworthy oddballs by nature, so any espionage movie built on shifting allegiances, moral quandaries and dark trade craft that still wants to be coherent and entertaining has its work cut out for it. The new spy thriller “The November Man,” based on a series of novels by Bill Granger, is this popcorn dilemma writ large and messy.

On the one hand, it’s familiar territory in these days of grizzled veterans pulled back in the game (“Taken,” “Red,” “The Expendables”). Former 007 Pierce Brosnan plays ex-CIA spook Peter Devereaux, drawn out of retirement by an old handler (Bill Smitrovich) to exfiltrate a Russian source and former flame of Devereaux’s who has damaging war-crime information on the next Russian president’s involvement in the Chechen conflict.

When the mission implodes fatally, revealing a separate CIA operation led by an estranged former protégé (Luke Bracey), a suspicious and vengeful Devereaux becomes Bourne again. He turns against his old employer and hunts down a refugee worker in Belgrade (Olga Kurylenko) whose dangerous knowledge about the whole situation requires his protection.

But as the reverses, secrets and bodies pile up, what’s lost is a sense of why Devereaux cares enough to get so involved and whether being violently rogue or ethically honorable is his modus operandi. Brosnan is aging quite nicely as a leading man, but even his residual appeal running around again in agent mode is diluted by the character’s inconsistencies, a hindrance unaided by the screenplay’s silly soup of the gritty and the ridiculous.

As for the thrills, they’re loud but empty. Director Roger Donaldson (“The Bank Job,” “No Way Out”) can be a muscular and kinetic action director when others are mostly chaotic. But this is an intemperate effort, busy and bloody without ever being especially exciting, and in one scene involving a drunk, desperate Devereaux threatening an innocent woman to make a point, needlessly sadistic. It’s called “The November Man,” but it’s really just another forgettable August release.


‘The November Man’

MPAA rating: R for strong violence, language, sexuality, nudity and brief drug use

Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes

Playing: In wide release

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times

‘Sin City: A Dame to Kill For’ bombs: 5 things that went wrong

“Frank Miller’s Sin City: A Dame to Kill For” couldn’t find absolution at the multiplex over the weekend as the neo-noir sequel from Robert Rodriguez and Miller utterly bombed, grossing just $6.5 million in the U.S. and Canada, way down in eighth place.

The paltry opening put “Dame” behind “Guardians of the Galaxy” in its fourth weekend, “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” in its third, newcomers “If I Stay” and “When the Game Stands Tall,” and even last week’s notable flop, “The Expendables 3.” The “Dame” delivered a fraction of its predecessor, “Sin City,” which bowed to $29 million.

What went wrong? Here are five of the film’s sins.

Striking while the iron is cold: The first “Sin City” was a surprise success back in 2005, grossing more than $158 million at the worldwide box office, but it took nearly a decade for a follow-up to capitalize on its popularity.

Erik Lomis, head of distribution for the Weinstein Co., cited the nine-year gap as a reason for “Dame” tanking. He told The Times, “The first thing that your gut says is it took too long to get it on the screen. I think when the first one came out, it was unique, it was different, it was a really cool concept and clearly people didn’t think that about this. It didn’t resonate.”

Worth a second look? As Lomis indicated, the original “Sin City” was a uniquely striking film with its high-contrast black-and-white imagery and gritty action, both ripped from the pages of Miller’s comics. In recent years, however, other films have taken similar aesthetics and pushed them forward.

Movies such as “300,” “Watchmen” and “300: Rise of an Empire” have splashed comic-book panels on the big screen, while blockbusters such as “Avatar” and “Gravity” have put actors into eye-popping digitally created environments. That’s not to mention the countless dark superhero movies that have come to dominate the box office. By the time “A Dame to Kill For” finally showed up, it looked and felt familiar, and not in a good way.

Word on the street: Critics weren’t impressed by “A Dame to Kill For,” panning the film as vapid and violent. Once again, that’s in contrast to the original film, which boasts a “78% fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes, compared with 44% for “Dame.”

And although critical approval isn’t a requirement for box-office prosperity, audiences who did turn out to see “Dame” weren’t enthusiastic about it either, assigning it a lackluster CinemaScore of B-, indicating bad word-of-mouth.

Muddled marketing: The most notable moment in the publicity campaign for “A Dame to Kill For” came in May when the MPAA banned a poster of Eva Green, who plays the titular dame, for being too risque. Other than that headline-grabbing moment, the Weinstein Co.’s marketing failed to capture the public’s attention.

Attempts to highlight the movie’s steely-but-sexy women couldn’t elevate “Dame” over the female-driven drama “If I Stay,” and young male audiences seemed to prefer “Guardians” and “Ninja Turtles.”

The Rodriguez rut: “A Dame to Kill For” continues co-director Rodriguez’s cinematic cold streak. He hasn’t made a movie that crossed the $40-million mark domestically since the original “Sin City,” and his two most recent films were also underwhelming sequels: “Machete Kills” and “Spy Kids: All the Time in the World.” Rodriguez may well get his mojo back, but it won’t be with “A Dame to Kill For.”

Follow @ogettell for movie news

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times

Richard Attenborough dies: Film world remembers ‘Gandhi’ director

As news spread Sunday that Richard Attenborough had died at age 90, the film world responded with remembrances of him as both an “amazing actor” and the Academy Award-winning director behind “Gandhi.”

Though younger generations might know him for his role in “Jurassic Park,” Attenborough also appeared in such films as “Brighton Rock,” “The Great Escape,” “The Sand Pebbles,” “10 Rillington Place,” and “Seance on a Wet Afternoon.”

‘Sin City: A Dame to Kill For’ is a sinful waste of a sequel

The greatest sin of “Frank Miller’s Sin City: A Dame to Kill For” is the way its high style is brought low — visually stunning but emotionally vapid, unrelentingly violent, its splendiferous comic book cast mostly squandered.

It’s the very speed at which something so artful in design, so ironic in idea, turns so tedious that is so nettling. It makes Sin City a town you might consider driving by. If you choose to linger, be prepared for a constant rain of blows, bullets, blackjacks and the slicing, dicing and stabbing of swords, knives, broken glass — you get the idea.

Gratefully, the blood is only occasionally red — for dramatic effect. It mostly puddles white in contrast to the people who fade to black, both disappearing into the virtual reality of comic book pages. The first few times the technique is intriguing, almost mesmerizing, but before long the thrill is gone.

The freshness factor is always the burden of a sequel, particularly when its predecessor was so provocatively arresting. In the nine years since “Sin City” hit, Miller’s style has become a widely copied touchstone — that mash-up of grainy black-and-white hyper-reality and splashes of intense color able to set the mood in an instant. But it means “A Dame to Kill For” has not one but countless tough acts to follow.

Still that doesn’t mean we weren’t hoping Miller and co-director Robert Rodriguez would find a way to up the creative ante. In some ways they have, in many more they haven’t. It is why it’s easy to get impatient with the failings of the return trip to Sin City, where the hoods are over-dressed, the dames are barely dressed, and in Eva Green’s case, usually undressed.

The melodrama is florid beyond belief — and without relief — marked by a sort of noir-drenched jingoistic lingo that has you laughing at how far this bad apple has fallen from the Mickey Spillane and Raymond Chandler tree. Rather than another groundbreaker, “A Dame to Kill For” is one more poser trying to be performance art.

The film hangs its hat on several story lines — two old, two new — inspired by Miller’s crime comic book series. Mickey Rourke’s Marv, “Sin City’s” version of a guardian angel from hell, kicks things off in “Just Another Saturday Night.” He’s confused and contemplating just how he got there as some hapless dupe is being doused and set afire. First Marv deals with the gang, then he deals with the dupe.

Next up is Johnny’s story. In “The Long, Bad Night,” Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays the cocky young gambling man out to take down the most dastardly villain to be found, Senator Roark (Powers Boothe). Winning comes with a price that includes pliers and excessive sound effects.

It’s all just a tease for the main attraction. The dame to kill for is Ava Ford (Green), and the guy she wants to kill for her is Dwight McCarthy (Josh Brolin). You know in an instant that she’s the one to watch: She gets the best dress, a shimmery blue ’40s-era number, and has the perfect pout perfectly accentuated by blood red lipstick.

Those luxurious long black waves are perfectly coiffed. Her voice is perfectly seductive. Even her fingernails are perfectly shaped, as is the body underneath all the artifice. The filmmakers take great care to expose it in one scene after another — on bed, in bath, in pool, on chair, just about anywhere.

Green makes the most of it, stealing all the thunder, not easy to do especially from Brolin’s dark and demon-driven dude. This fine actor does what he can with what he’s been given, as do so many others in “Sin City.” But whatever skills he has, cheesy dialogue delivered at a dreary pace and in dreary tones undermine it.

Jessica Alba’s emotionally tortured stripper, a regular at Kadie’s Club Pecos, wraps things up in “Nancy’s Last Dance.” Like the other babes in boyland, she may be armed and dangerous and all about asserting herself, but it’s hard to take the female empowerment bit too seriously with all the bad bondage wear.

About half the cast is new, the other half we met in 2005′s “Sin City,” like Bruce Willis’ Jack Hartigan, still dead but back and looking out for Nancy. Like so much litter, there are excellent actors everywhere that I’m not going to get around to mentioning, but you know who you are.

As to which “Sin City” is the better one, the first will likely be remembered longer. But in the sequel Rodriguez has opened up Miller’s stylized look in dramatic ways: There are doors for the actors to move though, but no walls. It keeps the action and the interactions in a constant state of suspension — one of the director’s better choices.

The characters carry the wages of Sin City on their faces; the makeup budget must have been horrific. The sins of the filmmakers run deeper. There is an interesting kernel of a story about beauty, betrayal and brutality inside each of the film’s scenarios and a cast that could handle anything thrown at it. But the kernel never pops, and all we’re really left with is a whole lot of neo-noir corn.

Twitter: @BetsySharkey


‘Sin City: A Dame to Kill For’

MPAA rating: R for strong, brutal, stylized violence throughout, sexual content, nudity and brief drug use

Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes

Playing: In general release

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times

Michael Fassbender’s big head in ‘Frank,’ a counterpoint in TMZ era

Modern movie stardom is dependent on many things, but perhaps none more so than well-known, good-looking faces appearing in new films.

So what would make a high-profile actor decide to spend most of a movie wearing a cartoon face that renders him unrecognizable? And apart from a sense of masochistic mischief, what would prompt someone to make a movie with just that conceit?

It’s a question that will be running through your head with Magnolia Films’ release Friday of a new indie dramedy “Frank,” directed by the Irish filmmaker Lenny Abrahamson and starring Michael Fassbender.

“Head” is a key word, since Fassbender — of course famous as Magneto in the “X-Men” series and in rigorous dramas such as “12 Years a Slave” — spends most of the film in a giant one, a fully concealing apparatus that looks like a cross between a Lego mini figure and one of those inflatable replicas of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream.”

If you see the movie, you may find yourself furtively checking your phone halfway through wondering if you misread Fassbender’s billing — or, perhaps, calming a zealous spouse who wants to rush back to the ticket window asking for a refund. But it’s indeed Fassbender under there, speaking in an American accent, as a character inspired by Frank Sidebottom, a real-life musician who, in the tradition of the Residents and Daft Punk, was almost never seen performing without the disguise.

“Frank” actually takes this character one step further, since the Daft Punk duo presumably takes its masks off in private. Fassbender’s Frank keeps it on all the time–even, as another of his bandmates matter of factly notes, when showering and brushing his teeth.

Oh, and technically he’s not Frank Sidebottom but a character named Frank who’s inspired by him. In fact, Frank Sidebottom wasn’t even Frank Sidebottom — he was a character played on-stage by the musician Chris Sievey in late-1980s England.(Sievey died in 2010.) The journalist Jon Ronson, at the time an aspiring rock keyboardist, was recruited rather spontaneously into Sievey’s band, and he co-wrote this script in part based on that experience.

There are, then, layers of irony. Figuratively. But also literally.

As it follows the journey of the eccentric-but-vulnerable masked man via Jon (Domhnall Gleeson), “Frank” is a kind of indie-music Pilgrim’s Progress that’s also a sideways comment on modern celebrity. When it screened at the Sundance Film Festival this year the movie garnered hard-core fans taken by its abject weirdness and occasional self-consciousness, as well as plenty of skeptics put off by, well, its abject weirdness and occasional self-consciousness.

“I remember reading the script and thinking, ‘What the … is this?’” Fassbender said as he nursed a smoothie at a downtown hotel. “It’s just bizarre and original and I thought, ‘I gotta do this.’”

Abrahamson said he had in mind a commentary on the increasingly entangled world of creativity and celebrity, and the promotional realm where the two meet.

“Modern entertainment can encourage the public’s fetishization of the personality over the work,” Abrahamson said. “And that leads to a split between the person who makes the work and the showman who has to go out there and sell it. It’s a real fracture, and Frank is basically saying, ‘What happens if you don’t let that take place?’”

In other words, in an age of social-media oversharing, “Frank” questions the whole machine, the one that both builds up and tears down stars, The film asks if we’ve fully contemplated a world where an appetite for celebrity has overwhelmed our sense of mystery. It wonders if in this TMZ era, ambiguity and secrecy may be the most watchable spectacle of all.

And it does so by casting Fassbender — who, as Abrahamson notes, “is not just a famous actor, but someone whose face is talked about more than other famous actors.”

Of course, the irony is that getting a movie like this funded (its $2 million budget was bankrolled largely by the U.K.’s Film4 and British Film Institute) relies precisely on the star power the film partly debunks. Abrahamson said that financiers were aware from the outset that they would be covering up their best-known asset and made their peace with it early on.

Though he couldn’t really see out of the mask, Fassbender said acting in the film wasn’t a challenge. In fact, he noted, “It was quite liberating. It’s like you put on fancy dress or a Halloween costume and you feel a little invincible.” Plus, he quipped, “If I didn’t want to go to work, I just sent in the double.”

Still, there’s a creative hurdle to clear when filmgoers can’t register any facial expression. At one point Frank narrates his reactions (“Underneath I’m giving you a welcoming smile” or “Lips pursed together, as if to say enough frivolity”), prompting a bandmate played by Maggie Gyllenhaal to ask him to knock it off.

All of this is not so much an affect, we learn, but Frank’s way of dealing with crippling self-doubt. (Fassbender said he chose to make the film in part because he was fascinated by a character “who has this anxiety about playing in public but the music seized him anyway.”) In fact, when the mask does eventually come off, the legend built up around Frank quickly crumbles.

The director sees this as a kind of “Wizard of Oz” moment, only with modern celebrity as the great facade to be unmasked. “At the end you don’t find the little guy behind the curtain but the A-list actor,” Abrahamson said.

Of course, as a viewer you’ll have known it was Michael Fassbender all along. In this age of celebrity press, there’s no keeping that kind of secret.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times

Don’t say anything about ‘The One I Love’

Be aware: There is a twist. And maybe also a twist on the twist, depending on interpretation. But “The One I Love” is not intended as some trick film or gimmick movie. Rather, it is a seriocomic look at the struggle to make relationships work while maintaining a sense of personal identity. It’s like a rom-com served with a side of sci-fi.

Directed by Charlie McDowell and written by Justin Lader, the film opens in theaters Friday and is already available via on-demand platforms. Elisabeth Moss and Mark Duplass star as a married couple who are pretty much on the brink of splitting up. As a last-ditch effort to work out their problems, their therapist sends them to an idyllic, remote retreat. Then things get weird, and maybe a little magical.

The surprisingly respectful attitude toward not spoiling the surprises of the storytelling began with the first reviews after the film’s Sundance premiere. Variety called it “a pleasure to watch but a challenge to discuss.” Duplass, an executive producer on the film along with his brother Jay Duplass, noted that after the film was acquired by distributor Radius-TWC, test screenings were done with one audience knowing the surprises and the other not knowing. The level of enthusiasm was much higher from audiences who didn’t know what they were walking into.

“I can’t believe it,” McDowell said of the care people have taken to not give away the film’s secrets. “I feel like at a certain point it got to where if you did do it, you’re the jerk. We thought we’d get to Sundance and the only true experience of the movie would be the premiere. Then it became this thing of ‘I can’t tell you, so just see it.’”

McDowell, 31, attended Crossroads school in Santa Monica, then Chapman University in Orange and the American Film Institute in L.A. He had been working as a for-hire screenwriter in Hollywood while trying to get a project of his own off the ground with writing partner Lader. Along the way he also started a popular Twitter feed, “Dear Girls Above Me,” chronicling his annoying neighbors, which then became a book.

McDowell’s parents are Malcolm McDowell and Mary Steenburgen, and his stepfather is Ted Danson, who appears in the film as the therapist. (McDowell’s girlfriend is actress Rooney Mara.) He said his background can be “both a blessing and a curse” in that many people assume it helps him more than it does.

“You’re being associated with someone else,” he said, but his natural inclination is: “I want to be different. I want this to be my own thing.

“So the idea of making a movie that you couldn’t put in a neat little box, that was the most challenging thing. It’s not like my version of something else. You’re trying to get all these people on board with something that doesn’t really have a definition.”

The story of the film came about after McDowell met Duplass and the two hit it off, looking for a way to collaborate. Duplass sent McDowell an email with just a few lines, a bare sketch of an idea. Lader wondered if the message had been cut off. McDowell and Lader then came back with a fuller idea based largely around shooting at a location available to them in Ojai. Duplass told them they were greenlit; he would fund the movie himself.

“I viewed it as a zero risk proposition,” Duplass said. “I’m not financing it to get rich off of it. I’m financing it to guarantee the creative freedom of the movie.”

The film was shooting in April of last year just a few months after Duplass sent McDowell those first lines. Shot in just 15 days, the production moved quickly, with people working on the film also staying at the house that was the main location.

“The speed is important,” added Duplass. “It’s making the movie while you’re still in the launching phase of the movie. If you can make it during that time, the positive energy and the pump that’s there, as opposed to five years later when you don’t even like the script anymore and you aren’t the same person who wrote it, that’s crucial.”