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.

watch the trailer:


GRETA (2019)

February 28, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. “Don’t touch anything on the subway.” That should be a warning posted in all New York City tourist brochures. Recent NYC transplant Frances didn’t get the memo. She not only picks up a “lost” handbag, but also wants to personally return it to the rightful owner – despite the counseling of her streetwise roommate.  Oscar winning director Neil Jordan (THE CRYING GAME) co-wrote the screenplay with Ray Wright, and they blend in many elements … not the least of which is making friends with someone you shouldn’t.

Chloe Grace Moretz plays Frances as the good-hearted Boston-raised girl who is almost too innocent to believe, given the day and age we are in. When Frances returns the purse, she is greeted warmly and appreciatively by a kindly Greta (Isabelle Huppert). The two bond over their individual loneliness: Greta says her daughter lives abroad, and Frances’ mother passed away about a year ago. It’s easy to see how a friendship forms through a substitute mother-daughter gap-filling.

An accidental discovery by Frances sends her out the door, intent on cutting ties with Greta. What Frances soon learns is that Greta is a crafty psychopath of the highest order. It’s at this point where filmmaker Jordan kicks in the twisted, dark humor and serves us a cheap-thrills ride via a full blown stalker movie. Greta is truly deranged and once Ms. Huppert cuts loose, we see how much fun she’s having. She even plays a piano teacher, which is kind of funny since she was also the piano teacher in THE PIANO TEACHER (2001). She becomes my first and favorite Liszt loving psychopath, who likely isn’t as technologically challenged as she makes out.

There are stylistic and story elements reminiscent of movies like FATAL ATTRACTION and SINGLE WHITE FEMALE, and Jordan’s camera angles and lighting combine with Javier Navarrete’s score to dish up some B-movie type comically dark moments. Maika Monroe (IT FOLLOWS) is terrific as Frances’ roommate. She’s the direct type who tells Frances that “this city will eat you alive”, but is also extremely supportive and protective (and good at yoga).

Stephen Rea and Colm Feore appear in limited roles, but the fun you have here is directly related to how you buy into the Greta vs Frances web. It’s rare to see an onscreen female predator, but neither Mr. Jordan nor Ms. Huppert round off any edges. We are reminded that being nice doesn’t always pay off, but having friends certainly does. There is some creepy evil fun to be had, as well as a key life lesson: never trust a woman with too many purses.

watch the trailer:


HAPPY END (2017)

January 18, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke has blessed us with, what I consider, at least five excellent movies (AMOUR, THE WHITE RIBBON, CACHE, FUNNY GAMES, THE PIANO TEACHER), and though it’s been 5 years since his last, there is always a welcome anticipation for his next project. Unfortunately, this latest is esoteric and disjointed even beyond his usual style. In fact, at face value, it just seems only to be an accusation lobbed at the wealthy, stating that their privilege and cluelessness brings nothing but misery and difficulty to themselves and the rest of society.

We open on an unknown kid’s secretive cell phone video filming of her mother getting ready for bed, followed by the mistreatment of a pet hamster as a lab rat, and finally video of her mother passed out on the sofa – just prior to an ambulance being called. Our attention is then turned to a family estate in Calais, which is inhabited by the octogenarian patriarch Georges (Jean-Louis Trintigant), his doctor son Thomas (Mathieu Kassovitz) and daughter Anne (Isabelle Huppert), Anne’s malcontent son Pierre (Franz Rogowski), Thomas’ wife and infant son, and the Moroccan couple who are household servants. While her mother is being treated for an overdose, 13 year old Eve (Fantine Harduin), moves in to the estate (Thomas is her re-married father). It’s here that we learn the opening scenes were Eve’s video work … clearly establishing her as a damaged soul.

Initially, it seems as though we will see the family through Eve’s eye, but what follows instead is the peeling back of family layers exposing the darkness and menace that haunts each of these characters. Georges appears to be intent on finding a way out of the life that has imprisoned his body and is now slowly taking his mind through dementia. Thomas is carrying on an illicit affair through raunchy email exchanges. Anne is trying to protect the family construction business from the incompetence of her son Pierre, while also looking for love with solicitor Toby Jones. At times, we are empathetic towards Eve’s situation, but as soon as we let down our guard, her true colors emerge. The film is certainly at its best when Ms. Harduin’s Eve is front and center. Her scene with her grandfather Georges uncovers their respective motivators, and is chilling and easily the film’s finest moment.

The film was a Cannes Palme d’Or nominee, but we sense that was in respect to Mr. Haneke’s legacy, and not for this particular film. The disjointed pieces lack the necessary mortar, or even a linking thread necessary for a cohesive tale. What constitutes a happy end … or is one even possible? Perhaps that’s the theme, but the film leaves us with a feeling of incompleteness – or perhaps Haneke just gave up trying to find such an ending, and decided commentary on the “bourgeois bubble” was sufficient.

watch the trailer:


THINGS TO COME (2016, France)

December 3, 2016

things-to-come Greetings again from the darkness. What was once a rarity is now becoming more commonplace … movies made by women about women. This latest from writer/director Mia Hansen-Love (Eden, 2014) features one of the most interesting lead characters from any film this year.

Nathalie (Isabelle Huppert) is a philosophy professor, writer, longtime wife to Heinz (Andre Marcon), mother of two grown children, and care-taker to a depressed, slightly-dementia-stricken mother (Edith Scob) who is prone to calling for emergency workers when Nathalie doesn’t answer her phone calls. The film offers no murder mystery, alien invasion or other earth-rattling event. Instead it guides us through Nathalie’s process in dealing with life things that occur on a daily basis.

The genius of the film, script and character stems from the fact that Nathalie never creates drama where none exists … a rare personality trait these days. Rather than plead for mercy from the universe, she simply plows forward during what would be three personal-world-crumbling events in a lesser movie: her husband cheats and leaves her, her mother dies, and she is fired (or at least forced to move off her method) from the job she loves.

Ms. Huppert delivers yet another stellar performance (see her in this year’s Elle) as Nathalie. She is an intellectual and thoughtful woman, but not necessarily the warm and cuddly type. Sure she cares for her family and inspires her students, and rather than lash out at her confessing husband, she only shows frustration when he takes a couple of her beloved books in his move out (or stuffing his flowers in the trash can). Disappointment is more obvious when her prized former-pupil Fabien (Roman Kolinka) is unable to competently debate his radical views with her … choosing instead a condescending, brusque approach designed to shut her down.

Nathalie is more shocked by her publisher’s intention to “modernize” her book than by finding “The Unabomber Manifesto” on the shelf at Fabien’s commune for intelligent anarchists. The politics of a particular situation has influence on nearly every scene, and Ms. Hansen-Love’s script emphasizes the importance of seasoning/experience in handling life … and does a remarkable job contrasting those who have it from those who don’t. Few movie soundtracks include both Woody Guthrie and Schubert, but then both fit well when the story avoids a mid-life self-discovery, and instead focuses on the realization of freedom. These are two very different things, and you’d have a difficult time finding a better look than this film offers.

watch the trailer:

 


ELLE (2016, France)

November 17, 2016

elle Greetings again from the darkness. It’s best not to pre-judge what to expect in a new Paul Verhoeven directed film. We haven’t seen or heard much from him in the past decade (the underrated Black Book, 2006), but we know surprises and twists and entertainment will be part of his work given his track record of Robocop, Total Recall, Basic Instinct, and Showgirls. Factor in that he is now working with one of the best actresses on the planet in Isabelle Huppert, and we walk into the theatre with no assumptions but a high level of anticipation.

The phrase ‘tour de force’ is no exaggeration for Ms. Huppert’s performance here. No time is provided for settling into one’s seat as the opening scene stuns us with a brutal sexual attack by a masked intruder. Afterwards, the bloodied victim calmly cleans the house, soaks in a tub and orders takeout. This is our introduction to Michele (Huppert) and begins our two hour mission of trying to figure her out.

Is she the ultimate feminist? She is the co-owner (with her best friend Anna) of a video game company that specializes in highly stylized and violent fantasy games (no subtle irony in that). Is she demented? She fools around with the husbands of her best friend and neighbor. Is she simply off-center? She scolds her mother for wanting to marry a much younger man, and her son for living with his selfish girlfriend who has a new baby via another man. She is not a good friend, business partner, mother, daughter, wife or person. This is no sympathetic character, yet thanks to Ms. Huppert, we simply can’t take our eyes off of her or stop wondering how she will handle the next situation (of which there are many).

Based on the novel “Oh …” by Phillipe Dijan, with a screenplay from David Birke (who has a similar theme in much of his work), the film spares us little from the daily life of Michele. We see her as a confident business person, a sexual being – whether peering through binoculars at a neighbor or trysting with a married man – and a somewhat devious and devilish person intent on revenge. It’s not until later in the film that we learn the family history that has been the driving force behind her rebuilding her life while also being unable to escape the past.

Ms. Huppert is in most if not every scene. It’s a powerful and rare performance that is complemented by some fine supporting actors: Anne Consigny as Anna (Michele’s friend and business partner), Christian Berkel as Robert (Anna’s husband and Michele’s play toy), Charles Berling as Richard (Michele’s ex-husband), Judith Magre as Michele’s mom, Laurent Lafitte as Patrick (the neighbor), and Jonas Bloquet as Vincent (the dim bulb son). Michele has interactions with each of these characters … none better than the Christmas dinner party where all are in attendance.

Verhoeven’s film can be viewed as a slightly sleazy guilty pleasure, or as a profile of a strong, independent woman with a flawed moral compass. It’s a reminder that we never fully escape the shadow cast by our parents, and some pay a greater price than others. It’s rumored that no major American actress would take on the role, which in the end, benefits the film greatly … no other actress could have provided what was needed (except perhaps Barbara Stanwyck, who died more than 25 years ago). Ms. Huppert’s performance allows this to cross many genres, and it is undoubtedly the best of the year in this category: a comically mean rape-revenge psychological thriller centered on consent and desire. Should you doubt this, perhaps Michele’s own words will convince: “Shame isn’t a strong enough emotion to stop us from doing anything at all.” It’s a pleasure to meet you ma’am.

watch the trailer:

 


LOUDER THAN BOMBS (2016)

April 29, 2016

louder than bombs Greetings again from the darkness. Sometimes we just can’t “get over it”. Three years after a war photographer dies in a suspicious car accident, her husband and two sons find themselves in various states of emotional distress. Everyone deals with guilt in their own way, but these three seem to be doing anything and everything to avoid actually dealing with the emotional fallout.

Writer/director Joachim Trier (Oslo, August 31) delivers his first English-speaking film with an assist from co-writer Eskil Vogt and a terrific cast. As we would expect from Mr. Trier, it’s a visually stylish film with some stunning images … and the timeline is anything but simple as we bounce from past to present, and from the perspective of different characters (sometimes with the same scene).

The creativity involved with the story telling and technical aspects have no impact whatsoever on the pacing. To say that the film is meticulously paced would be a kind way of saying many viewers may actually get restless/bored with how slowly things move at times. Trier uses this pacing to help us experience some of the frustration and discomfort that each of the characters feel.

Isabelle Huppert plays the mother/wife in some wonderful flashback and dream-like sequences, while Gabriel Byrne plays her surviving husband. Jesse Eisenberg as Jonah, and Devin Druid as Conrad are the sons, and as brothers they struggle to connect with each other … just as the father struggles to connect with each of them. In fact, it’s a film filled with characters who lie to each other, lie to themselves, and lie to others. It’s no mystery why they are each miserable in their own way. The suppressed emotions are at times overwhelming, and it’s especially difficult to see the youngest son struggle with social aspects of high school … it’s a spellbinding performance from Devin Druid (“Olive Kitteridge”).

Jesse Eisenberg manages to tone down his usual hyper-obnoxious mannerisms, yet still create the most unlikable character in the film … and that’s saying a lot. Mr. Byrne delivers a solid performance as the Dad who is quite flawed, and other supporting work is provided by David Strathairn and Amy Ryan. The shadow cast by this woman is enormous and deep … and for nearly two hours we watch the family she left behind come to grips with her death and each other. It’s a film done well, but only you can decide if it sounds like a good way to spend two hours.

watch the trailer:

 

 


THE DISAPPEARANCE OF ELEANOR RIGBY (2014)

September 21, 2014

eleanor rigby Greetings again from the darkness. It’s tough and probably unfair to write about a film project when key pieces remain unseen. Writer/Director Ned Benson‘s brilliant first take on the story was released at Toronto Film Festival in two perspectives: “Him” and “Her“. A massive re-edit produced “Them“, this version for theatrical release. As you might expect, knowledge that more exists … and in probably a more effective story telling format … renders us a bit frustrated with the blended version. Still, there is plenty here to warrant a look.

This viewer’s frustration stems mostly from the long and winding road we travel understanding something tragic has caused the split between El (the titular Eleanor Rigby) and Conor, but only being teased with details. We are offered a brief glimpse of their happy times, but never get to know them as a happy couple. Instead, Conor is shown trying to re-assemble the pieces, while El tries to move on to a different puzzle altogether.

While the story unfolds in teeth-grinding fashion, it doesn’t offset the powerful emotion and personal intensity brought to the screen by both James McAvoy (Conor) and Jessica Chastain (El). Mr. McAvoy has quietly evolved into one of the more interesting actors working, while Ms. Chastain proves herself to be among the best each time she crawls inside a role and makes it her own. We feel for each of them, before we even really know them at all.

Other superb work comes from a sterling supporting cast that includes screen vets William Hurt, Isabelle Huppert, Viola Davis and Ciaran Hinds; as well as Bill Hader, Jess Weixler and Nina Arianda. That’s seven characters (plus the two leads) of which we yearn to learn more. Ms. Davis is especially effective in her all too brief appearance as a professor cutting El very little slack. And Mr. Hurt delivers a terrific monologue that strikes a chord.

So all of these wonderful pieces make for an spell-binding what-if that possibly gets answered in the dual-perspective version. The coldness and lack of understanding in the first 45 minutes can’t offset the emotion and sadness that each character feels. Rumor has it that “Him” and “Her” will get their release this year, and if so, I’ll be there in an attempt to complete both puzzles.

watch the trailer: