FRANKIE (2019)

November 7, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Sintra is a resort town in Portugal, not far from Lisbon. It is breathtakingly beautiful with mountains, beaches, cliffs, colorful gardens and a picturesque town filled with charming churches and majestic castles. Writer-director Ira Sachs’ film probably should have been bank-rolled by Sintra’s tourism committee, because the town is surely to be on the must-see travel list of every person who sees this movie. Unfortunately, what works as a travel tease, offers little else as a cinematic or entertainment vehicle.

Beloved French actress Isabelle Huppert stars as beloved French actress Francois, better known as Frankie. She has organized a vacation gathering for her modern day family consisting of her second and current husband, Scotsman Jimmy (Brendan Gleeson), her first husband, gay man Michel (Pascal Gregory), teenage granddaughter Maya (Sennia Nanua) and Maya’s two quarrelling parents Ian (Ariyon Bakare) and Sylvia (Vinette Robinson), and Frankie’s self-centered and problematic son Paul (Jeremie Renier). Also invited is Ilene (Marisa Tomei), Frankie’s long-time friend and hair stylist, who without telling Frankie, brought along a date, cinematographer Gary (Greg Kinnear). When someone complains about her inviting Ilene, Frankie replies, think of it as “Family Plus One.”

Frankie has arranged this trip under the guise of ‘a final goodbye’. Her cancer has returned, and it’s likely to take her life very soon. Despite that, it really appears Frankie is acting as a matchmaker for her jerky son Paul, by thinking he and the delightful Ilene might be a good fit … you know, since she lives in New York and he’s moving there. This speaks to the blindness of parents towards their own kids, but also the never-ending hope for their happiness. During this trip, we witness one of the most awkward proposals ever, plus a re-telling of a family secret at a most inopportune time. The latter is likely the most interesting segment of the movie.

Ira Sachs and his writing partner Mauricio Zacharias are known for NYC-based stories like LITTLE MEN (2016) and LOVE IS STRANGE (2014), so this idyllic setting is a bit outside their wheelhouse. We listen in on many awkward conversations, and the film involves mostly walking and talking … with a high percentage of it being Frankie hiking on trails while wearing heels. There is an effective cloud of sadness over most every moment, and the overload of melancholy represents the struggles of this group getting through a single day. Somehow even the beautiful final shot doesn’t deliver any more emotional impact than the rest of the film. There just isn’t much here other than what most of us regularly experience in life … well, other than Sintra as a setting.

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LITTLE MEN (2016)

August 25, 2016

USA Film Festival 2016

little men Greetings again from the darkness. There is a lot going on in this latest from writer/director Ira Sachs, and every bit of it provides some commentary on the basic everyday life struggles faced by normal folks. There is also a continuation of the ongoing NYC vs Brooklyn “friendly competition”, as well a reminder of the downside of gentrification.

Mr. Sachs and his frequent collaborator and co-writer Mauricio Zacharias kick off the story with Greg Kinnear’s Brian awkwardly exchanging greetings with Paulina Garcia’ s (so terrific in Gloria, 2013) Leonor while the son’s of these two share an equally awkward meeting. Leonor is the long-time tenant in the dress shop located below the apartment where Brian’s recently deceased father resided.

Jake (Theo Tapitz) is an aspiring artist who doesn’t easily make friends. Tony (Michael Barbieri) is a brash, fast-talking kid who is a bit more street wise and outgoing. The two boys quickly bond … while at the same time, the parents begin a quiet battle. Brian’s sister (played by Talia Balsam) demands her fair share of their father’s estate through higher rent on Leonor’s dress shop. It turns out their dad never raised the rent despite the number of years and the developing neighborhood. Kinnear’s wife Kathy (the underrated Jennifer Ehle) tries to play peace-keeping negotiator so that the boys’ friendship is not affected. As is often the case, the kids handle the situation better than the adults.

The film’s best scenes feature the two young boys … a blossoming childhood friendship that is all too rare on the big screen. If the boys weren’t so severely impacted, the adult interactions could almost be white noise. Themes of money vs love, greed vs emotion, as well as recurring and various instances of rejection, all play a part in this multi-faceted story. Examples of rejection include a girl rejecting a boy, Brian’s rejection as an actor, and the multiple rejections in the negotiations for the shop. Mr. Sachs has a real knack for putting real people in real situations that result in difficult decisions.

All of the acting is top notch, including Alfred Molina in a small role as Leonor’s attorney and advisor. But it’s the boys – Tapitz and especially Barbieri – that elevate the film. Watching the boys grow closer despite the all-too-close conflicts reminds a bit of the friendships in Rob Reiner’s classic Stand By Me. Young Mr. Tapitz already has a few short films under his belt as a director, and Mr. Barbieri is certain to get many more opportunities to flash his on screen talent.

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LOVE IS STRANGE (2014)

September 13, 2014

love is strange Greetings again from the darkness. In a remarkable opening 6 to 8 minutes, we see John Lithgow and Alfred Molina prepare for, execute, and celebrate their official marriage after almost 40 years together. During this sequence, we quickly understand that Ben (Lithgow) is the emotional one, and George (Molina) is the pragmatic, balanced one. The brief ceremony is filled with love, admiration and happiness, and leaves us with no doubt that these two are dedicated to each other.

Director Ira Sachs (Married Life, 2007) also co-wrote the script with Mauricio Zacharias, and the film excels while Lithgow and Molina are on screen together. It comes across as a contemporary version of the 1937 Leo McCarey film Make Way For Tomorrow (with Beulah Bondi) and highlights the obstacles faced by an elderly couple who face financial hardships, New York real estate misery, and the not-so-welcome generosity of friends and family.

The gay component is not played up, rather the story is told in straight-forward manner as the couple is forced to live apart, and deals with loneliness and unease as they each feel out of place living in a party house with friends (Molina) and sharing a bunk bed with a typically awkward teenage boy played by Charlie Tahan. The boy’s parents are Marisa Tomei and Darren Burrows, who face their own marriage and parental issues.

The happiness of the opening wedding ceremony quickly dissipates into real life misery for all characters. The only happy people are the grown men playing a Game of Thrones board game. Literally everyone else is unhappy, or at least disinterested.

Although conflict is ever-present, the Catholic Church is the closest to a real villain. John Curran plays a Priest in the terrific scene in which Molina is fired (because of his wedding) from his Catholic School teaching job. The poor town of Poughkeepsie takes a couple of shots as well, but mostly it’s the pent-up frustrations of Tomei, the passive-aggressive approach of a few other characters, and the crazy teenage mood swings of Tahan’s character that keep Ben, George, and we as viewers quite uncomfortable. Instead, the joy comes from the subtle moments courtesy of the two leads. See this one for the performances of Lithgow and Molina, and for the beautiful Chopin piano throughout.

***NOTE: this makes a fine movie, but it’s easy to imagine it as a much more effective live production on stage

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