Movie Review ~ Frankie


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Three generations grappling with a life-changing experience during one day of a vacation in Sintra, Portugal, a historic town known for its dense gardens and fairy-tale villas and palaces.

Stars: Isabelle Huppert, Marisa Tomei, Brendan Gleeson, Greg Kinnear, Ariyon Bakare, Vinette Robinson, Pascal Greggory, Jérémie Renier

Director: Ira Sachs

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 98 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review:  Maybe it’s an only child thing.  Movies that revolve around family conflict tend to just zoom on by me with little effect, rarely landing with any kind of weight.  I’ve discussed this with those that come from large families with siblings and been told that it’s because as an only child I haven’t had that experience dealing with the kind of dynamics that exist when there are other personalities to take into account.  In my family, it was just the three of us so there was little room for gambit when you wanted something or were frustrated – everything was always out in the open.  So it’s tough for me to watch “family drama” films whether they’re good (August: Osage County) or bad (This is Where I Leave You) and find a thread to grab onto. That could be why I found it almost impossible to engage with Frankie, even though I’m a fan of the director and the majority of the cast.

At this point, I’m interested in anything Isabelle Huppert (Greta) shows up in, with the actress finding her ways to intriguing roles if not fully satisfying films.  Her Oscar-nomination for Elle was a deserved turning point in recognition of a long career of bold choices and she’s continuing to show up in curious places.  Then there’s Marisa Tomei (Love the Coopers), Brendan Gleeson (Paddington 2), and Greg Kinnear (I Don’t Know How She Does It), three more actors who have amassed an impressive list of credits on IMDb with both mainstream films and indie flicks.  With writer/director Ira Sachs guiding them all, this seemed like a pleasant gathering of talents; however like the titular character it’s a movie that keeps you at arm’s length and rarely allows you to see underneath its hard shell.

Set over the course of one day, Frankie centers around the family and close friends of celebrated actress Françoise “Frankie” Crémont (Huppert) who are gathered in a picturesque town in Portugal.  Even though they are in paradise, emotional baggage is being unpacked as the movie opens.  Frankie’s daughter (Vinette Robinson) is grappling with a marriage that may have run its course and her son (Jérémie Renier) has once again fallen in love with the wrong woman and is despondent.  Her ex-husband (Pascal Greggory) has stayed in the picture, though he hasn’t quite given up wanting to care for his former spouse.  That extra attention doesn’t seem to bother her current husband (Gleeson) because nothing seems to truly turn him askew.  Things get more complicated with the arrival of Frankie’s former make-up artist Ilene (Tomei) who has invited her friend Gary (Kinnear) along which throws a wrench (delicately) into a grand scheme Frankie has been working on.

Frankie is really just a series of conversations between characters, rarely more than two people at a time.  While this allows for some freely interesting insight at first (and blessedly Huppert is allowed to speak in French to those that communicate likewise), by the time the movie is half over you find yourself longing for something of import to happen or be revealed out of these exchanges.  Many of these dialogues are inward musings spoken aloud that another person just happens to be there for, they rarely are as revealing or revelatory as they may have been intended to be and, honestly, it often comes across as shallow whining from the privileged upper class.  That would be fine, if only there was a balance to show the movie understood it was commenting on that position of opportunity.  It becomes obvious early on why Frankie has gathered these people together so there’s not some big awful secret waiting to be revealed, but the slow turning of the wheels feels overly laborious for the usually smooth sailing writing of Sachs and his co-writer Mauricio Zacharias.

As a writer and director, Sachs has shown in his previous work to have a finely tuned ear for how real people speak and, flawed though they may be, has presented them with some wholeness to them.  When I interviewed him in 2014 for the release of his wonderful movie Love is Strange, he spoke of wanting to present characters with a certain humility about them that reflects their class and age and I can see some of that intention present in the outlines of the characters in Frankie.  What I didn’t find was anything more than those outlines underneath it all.  It’s a curious circumstance, to be in this beautiful setting with such an appealing cast but not be able to generate any kind of emotional resonance from anything you’re hearing.  It doesn’t help the actors don’t seem to know quite how to sell it either, with Huppert appearing distant and not in the way I think Sachs intends her to be.  Only Tomei feels like she’s at peace and she brings a noted warmth to all of her scenes.  It’s a mixed bag from everyone else, especially out of sync with everything else are scenes with Frankie’s granddaughter and a local boy that catches her eye.

There’s a shot in Frankie where all the characters trek to look out on the edge of a cliff into the vast openeness of the sea.  With so much to admire, so much to think about, and so much to take in, they barely stay for a moment before turning back and walking back from where they came and where they are comfortable.  That’s a lot like Frankie the film.  A lot of effort is spent getting to a place that should be a thing of beauty, only to turn around and head back without taking time to think about what we’re looking at.

Movie Review ~ Doctor Sleep


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Dan Torrance meets a young girl with similar powers as his and tries to protect her from a cult known as The True Knot who prey on children with powers to remain immortal.

Stars: Ewan McGregor, Rebecca Ferguson, Cliff Curtis, Kyliegh Curran, Zahn McClarnon, Carl Lumbly, Alex Essoe, Bruce Greenwood, Emily Alyn Lind, Jacob Tremblay

Director: Mike Flanagan

Rated: R

Running Length: 151 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review:  It’s time to own up to the dark truth that I’ve seen every Stephen King movie but never read a Stephen King book.  I know, it’s a horrible thing to admit and I don’t offer it up with any amount of pride, only to say that I’ve appreciated that King is a writer with work that has provided so many wonderful adaptations.  Way back in 1980 when The Shining first premiered, it’s well known it wasn’t King’s favorite interpretation of his work.  Legendary director Stanley Kubrick took quite a lot of liberties with the source novel, eliminating characters or changing their make-up all together, to say nothing of the reworked ending.  While a TV adaptation hewed closer to King’s original vision, it paled in comparison to what Kubrick had created.   Over the years, King came to some finality with the movie, for better or for worse, and it was generally accepted by all in thinking of King’s novel and Kubrick’s film as two separate entities that shared similarities.

Re-watching The Shining again (released in a spectacular 4K BluRay) for my 31 Days to Scare, I was struck by how little actually happens (in terms of on-screen action at least) in Kubrick’s film up until the final third.  Over the years I’d always remembered the movie to be this non-stop cabin fever scare-fest that was a journey into madness from the start but that’s what a young imagination falsely remembered will do to you.  Seeing it through a more adult eye with a critical angle, I was taken by how well Kubrick turned up the heat on the Torrance family as they came to the Overlook Hotel in Colorado and the horrible fate that befell them.  Jack Nicholson’s performance is legendary to say nothing of Shelley Duvall’s unfairly maligned and unjustly ignored heroic work as his wife who comes apart at the seams on account of her husband’s own mental breakdown.

Kubrick’s The Shining ended (spoiler-alert) with Jack Torrance frozen to death in the Overlook’s hedge maze and his wife Wendy and son Danny high-tailing it down the mountain to safety.  So when King went to write a sequel to the novel years later, he obviously was writing a sequel to his story that ended with the Overlook destroyed.  King’s follow-up, Doctor Sleep, was a well-received best-seller and soon it was time to consider making that into a movie as well.  Yet, how to merge this book with the previous movie?  Enter Mike Flanagan, riding high off of his success with a series of successful genre films Oculus, Hush, Gerald’s Game, and the series The Haunting of Hill House on Netflix. Hired to adapt and direct Doctor Sleep (he also edited the movie), Flanagan worked with King to adjust the novel to fit with Kubrick’s original film and the result is a seamless continuation that’s supremely satisfying and frequently frightening.

Picking up in 1980 where Kubrick left off, Doctor Sleep starts not with the Torrance family but with Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson, The Greatest Showman) and other members of The True Knot.  Surviving on the essence, or “steam”, of those with special powers like Danny has, they move throughout the country hunting children because that is when their “steam” is at its most potent.  The more they feed, the longer they live and the stronger they become.  At the same time, Danny and his mother (Alex Essoe, Starry Eyes) have relocated to Florida where Danny sees visions of a familiar friend from the Overlook.  Jumping ahead 31 years, Danny (Ewan McGregor, Christopher Robin) has dulled the memories of his past and stifled his “shining” with alcohol and drugs and is barely standing when he meets Billy Freeman (Cliff Curtis, The Meg) in a small New Hampshire town.

Finding a new life and sobriety, Danny spends the next eight years working at a hospice and often using his gifts to help patients transition to the other side with peace.  He’s also been communicating telepathically with Abra (Kyliegh Curran) another child possessing the power of the shining equal to Danny who has caught the attention of The True Knot.  When she begins to see visions of Rose the Hat and The True Knot in action, eventually finding a link into Rose’s consciousness, Abra knows she can’t take them on alone.  Asking for Danny’s help, he has to decide if he can open up the door to let his dark past back in he’s worked so hard to keep boarded up for these many years.  With so many ghosts from the Overlook locked away inside their individual Pandoras boxes, if that portal opens Danny isn’t sure what else might return with them.  But does he have a choice when a hungry cult will stop at nothing to get to Abra and now for the first time has also sensed his power and presence?

At 151 minutes, Doctor Sleep outpaces The Shining by 5 minutes but offers more movement and thrills at the outset than Kubrick did in his film.  Now, some may see that as a good thing or it could be a sign of Flanagan not totally trusting the audience to wait for two hours to get to the main event – but I don’t agree with that.  This is a movie that has measured out it’s shocks in just the right places, aiming squarely for maximum impact and not just to goose audiences with short attention spans.  No, Flanagan has previously demonstrated in his projects that he knows just when to push the button on the scare machine and here again he proves his timing is spot-on.  He doesn’t even have to push hard, simple things like music cues or familiar images can get those tingles started in your tailbone and send them upwards fairly quickly.

The references to The Shining are both obvious and sneaky and you’ll have to keep your eyes peeled for some fun ways Flanagan and his production team have tipped their hat to Kubrick’s original design.  While some scenes from the original are recreated in part, I was so glad to see it wasn’t with old footage made to look new or digitally altered to appear as if Nicholson and Duvall had come back for reshoots.  Casting new actors in these roles that aren’t exactly lookalikes but aren’t doing a pronounced impression was a wise choice too – you get the general idea of the previous actors but it’s more the character that’s important above all else.  Someone at my screening whined at the end they wished Nicholson had returned…but that would have been a huge distraction.

As is typical, Flanagan has assembled an interesting array of actors and it’s not just those at the top.  While McGregor is in fine form as the tortured Danny and nicely conveys the sense of loss and ongoing struggle he’s going through, he often takes a backseat when someone like Ferguson is onscreen because she’s such a commanding presence.  Stalking around the movie (and other actors), Ferguson’s character is wicked scary and doesn’t oversell why she’s the leader of this bloodthirsty pack.  There’s no campy acting going on with Ferguson.  Rose the Hat has survived for a number of years doing what she does and she has little qualms about taking the lives of the young — it’s a really evil role and Ferguson is impressively menacing in it.  I also quite liked Curran’s Abra, delighting in her burgeoning powers but also realizing the reality of the terrifying visions she’s seeing.  She ably holds her own against more seasoned performers and does so in the face of some disturbing material.

That’s another thing about Doctor Sleep that got under my skin and I couldn’t shake, it’s a very unsettling film.  Horror movies are meant to jostle you a bit and then let you go on your merry way into the night but Flanagan’s film digs in and sticks with you for a while after the movie is over.  While the imagery might not be all that gruesome, there are some suggestions of terrible acts that are hard to brush off and it adds to the growing sense of dread leading to the climax of the film.  While I won’t say how or where the film ends, speaking for myself I left the movie feeling satiated with where Flanagan (and King) led these characters.

Bound to keep a new generation of viewers up at night by pairing this with the original, Doctor Sleep is another win for Mike Flanagan and well as fans of Stephen King.  It’s a handsome production that provides the requisite shivers and shudders but takes it’s time to find an emotional core beneath it all.  Adding in the strong performances from the leads and supporting players and you have a solid effort worthy of sitting on the shelf next to its predecessor.

Movie Review ~ Last Christmas


The Facts
:

Synopsis: When Kate, a cynical Christmas store worker who has been continuously unlucky, keeps running into an overly cheerful man and begins to fall for him, her life takes an unexpected turn.

Stars: Emilia Clarke, Henry Golding, Michelle Yeoh, Emma Thompson, Lydia Leonard, Boris Isakovic, Rebecca Root

Director: Paul Feig

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 102 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: A few months back, the Hallmark Channel announced it had smashed their own record for original seasonal films by offering up a whopping 40 holiday movies that would arrive between October and December.  Now, I’m not above spending a day (or two, or three) in front of the television partaking in their programming while wrapping presents or trimming the tree because they tend to be films that don’t require a ton of commitment.  There’s a specific guidebook to the way these little larks are crafted where you know going in that the woman who moves back to her hometown to (insert save family business or refurbish inherited money pit) and falls for the local (insert widower, handyman, or widowed handyman) will wind up happy and fulfilled.  I got a similar feeling of familiarity while watching Last Christmas but the difference here was that I couldn’t watch this one in my pajamas.

What’s surprising about Last Christmas is just how many talented individuals are involved with what is a fairly standard-fare offering from a major studio.  Inspired by and taking its name from the 1984 song from Wham! written by George Michael (when was the last time you saw a movie credited to a song?), the film was developed by Emma Thompson and her husband Greg Wise, with Thompson going on to write the screenplay with performance artist Bryony Kimmings. While it’s exactly the type of mid-budget romantic comedy I’ve often bemoaned the lack of in theaters, it’s often decidedly slight but makes up for that with strong, quirky performances that commit fully to the material that doesn’t always rise to meet them in the middle.  Thompson and Kimmings have a knack with introducing a few out of left field characters and ideas but just as soon as they’re established they drop them for something different.

Working as an elf at a Christmas store in London’s Covent Garden selling tacky ornaments, Kate (Emilia Clarke, Terminator Genisys) couch hops amongst her friends instead of living at home with her immigrant parents (Thompson, Late Night and Boris Isakovic).  Wearing out her welcome quickly because she tends to act like a human wrecking ball, she has dreams of becoming a musical theater performer but only half-heartedly purses it.  She’s more into late nights and a free wheeling attitude, though this being a PG-13 film the worst we see Kate is with tousled hair and streaked eyeliner.  After a health scare a year ago, her family and boss (Michelle Yeoh, Crazy Rich Asians) urge her to be kinder to herself but it doesn’t deter Kate from continuing with an unhealthy lifestyle.

That all changes when she spots Tom (Henry Golding, A Simple Favor) outside the shop and strikes up a conversation with him.  A man almost too happy-go-lucky but with an air of mystery about him, Kate’s intrigued by Tom but can’t quite put her finger on why.  As they get to know each other better, he inspires her in small ways to treat herself with a little more consideration, which leads to Kate finding new passions she can focus on.  Several subplots emerge, though none are truly fleshed out by director Paul Feig (Spy) and that’s a disappointment because it feels there are ample opportunities to give a few of the minor characters more of a boost.  In the past, Feig has excelled with making stars of of supporting players and while the cast is an appealing mix of different looks, they aren’t fully tapped to step into the spotlight.  Instead, too many machinations are put into place in order for Thompson and Kimmings to get to a pivotal turning point in the movie that some will see coming from a mile away.  I get why that wrinkle is there but it’s such a minor point you can almost see where the filmmakers tried to parse it down and switch the attention elsewhere after the movie was shot — maybe I’m off base but it sure seems like they did.

Though popular from her time on Game of Thrones, I’m still not quite on the Clarke train yet, but Last Christmas helped get me closer to buying a ticket.  She’s a bit more grounded here than her last romantic outing (Me Before You) and you can see the change her character goes through from the start of the movie to the end.  Plus, she shows off a sweet singing voice chirping through a few George Michael tunes (the singer’s music is used almost exclusively throughout) and acquitting herself nicely doing so.  Golding continues to charm, even if his character is a bit of an enigma most of the time.  Thompson gave herself a nice role as Kate’s Yugoslavian mother still worried the KGB is looking for her and Yeoh is a lot of fun as Kate’s spiky boss.  Her strangely funny romance with a German man is so odd and inconsequential to the movie as a whole, I was surprised it made the final cut even if it was fairly amusing.

This is making it sound like Last Christmas is a tough movie to sit through and it’s not – it’s more enjoyable than I’m making it out to be.  While watching the movie, I was quite taken by it’s brisk pace and ability to bounce forward without getting too tangled in plot developments that would drag other similar movies down.  The script eliminates the usual entanglements often present in romantic comedies and clears the way for Kate to be center stage.  It helps that Clarke is at her most likable and that she’s not such a disaster we don’t want to see her pick herself up and succeed.  It’s a very timely movie as well, with newsworthy discussions of Brexit of all things coming into play (albeit briefly) and using that as another way for Kate to connect not just with her family but with other people in her city.  It’s a bit shoehorned in and a rather obvious statement moment, but it’s valuable nonetheless.  The only thing that truly bothered me is that Feig didn’t know how the end the movie.  There’s at least one scene too many at the end, maybe two depending on how tidy you like your edges when a movie wraps up.

Like those schmaltzy Hallmark movies, Last Christmas is arriving well ahead of the Christmas rush in order to beat the crowded boon of films vying for your attention as we head into a busy December.  It’s a smart move because there’s not a whole lot else like it out there right now.  At times it gets to feel like it’s moving through a checklist of people and situations required to be in these movies but somehow I went along with it without much fuss.  I recognize the movie can often be like one of those gaudy ornaments Kate is selling (and of which I own a few of).  You know it’s not the greatest, the prettiest, or the most expensive but you still like to look at it for what it means to you.  You’ll definitely put it on your tree…but maybe it will go closer to the bottom or toward the back.  I don’t think it’s destined to be a new Christmas classic but neither are any of those Hallmark movies that come out every year.