Movie Review ~ Frankie


The Facts
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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 ~ Greta

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A young woman befriends a lonely widow who’s harboring a dark and deadly agenda towards her.

Stars: Isabelle Huppert, Chloë Grace Moretz, Maika Monroe, Colm Feore, Stephen Rea

Director: Neil Jordan

Rated: R

Running Length: 98 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  In my mid-teens, I used to love the made-for-TV movies that aired on the USA Television Network.  Remember those?  The modest thrillers featured an array of crazies (mothers, nannies, children, stalkers, stepfathers, etc) preying upon naïve chumps that were easily tricked and overpowered.  They were soapy, syrupy, and an absolute delight to devour on their own or in a weekend marathon where they would all start to blend together by the time Sunday night rolled around.  Watching the entertaining new thriller Greta, I found myself riding a wave of nostalgia because you don’t have to squint too hard to see that for all its handsome production values and A-list leads it’s just a gussied up made for cable movie.

Still grieving the loss of her mother, recent NYC transplant Frances (Chloë Grace Moretz, Suspiria) hopes living in a new city with her college friend Erica (Maika Monroe, The 5th Wave) will help her move on.  Though she’s from Boston, Frances displays some downright Midwestern morals when she finds a purse left behind on the subway and returns it to Greta (Isabelle Huppert, Dead Man Down).  The lonely woman takes a liking to Frances and the two form a friendship that seemingly fills a void present in both of their lives.  Greta’s daughter doesn’t live close and Frances begins to enjoy spending time with the soft-spoken older woman.  That all changes when Frances discovers a secret about Greta that sets into motion a series of events revealing Greta’s true nature.

To say more about the second and third acts of Greta would be to give away some of the twists screenwriter Ray Wright and director Neil Jordan (The Crying Game, In Dreams) have waiting for audiences, most of which are telegraphed well in advance.  The film is exactly what you think it’s going to be and doesn’t stray too far from the path.  Usually, I’d huff and puff about this lack of originality but the way Greta unfolds is so nicely handled by Jordan and his actors that I found myself quite enjoying just going along for the intriguing ride.

The performances are actually the most surprising thing the movie has to offer.  It’s a great benefit that Jordan has Huppert in the title role because she brings her inherent oddity to the forefront and makes it her weapon to keep us on our toes.  We know from moment one there’s something off about her (and it seems like Frances does too) but Huppert’s sad eyes and wan smile nicely hide the rage boiling underneath her porcelain surface.  When she feels rejected by Frances she lashes out in unexpected ways, which creates an air of uncomfortable unpredictability and that’s a space Huppert seems to revel working in.

I often struggle with Moretz as an actress but her turn here feels like one of the most fully formed characters she’s tackled.  Frances has some emotional trauma that hasn’t healed and she can’t totally forgive her father (Colm Feore, The Prodigy) who appears to have moved on with his life.  Moretz wades through some of the heaviness in Wright’s script and brings forth a lonely girl in a big city that feels familiar and relatable.  We understand why she might eschew a night out drinking at a club with her party girl trust fund roommate for a quiet dinner with the widowed Greta.  And we also see why Greta’s betrayal of trust hurts her so much.

The slow boil of the first 45 minutes gives way to an increasingly hard to swallow turn of events that don’t always jibe from scene to scene.  At one point Moretz is kicking down a door with her bare foot and in the next shot she’s unable to break a window.  A character is introduced late in the proceedings for no good reason other than to up the danger ante for Frances and satisfy some unspoken violence quota.  And for a movie set in the modern day it mystifies me that Greta’s place of residence is so hard to find one character goes on what is essentially a needle in a haystack search instead of firing up Google Maps.

Jordan is a curious filmmaker with a resume that covers many genres.  He hasn’t had an outright thriller in a while but he wades into the waters quite well with interesting camera set-ups and pacing that keeps things moving along without accumulating much drag.  There are several suspenseful sequences staged with people in peril from dangers just outside the frame and it creates the desired tension.  For those that like blunt edges, there’s a bit of gore that shocks with glee.

Now that the Oscars have been given out and everyone has patted themselves on the back, it’s time to get back to business.  We made it through a particular rough January (Serenity – yikes!) and a February that saw some modest, but not huge, hits (Alita: Battle Angel, What Men Want) and before you knew it, March is upon us.  With a host of anticipated movies set for release in March, Greta is being released in a narrow window before the blockbusters arrive.  It may be getting a release without much fanfare but it’s a better film than it’s modest roll-out would have you believe. With noted caveats aside, this one is worth catching in theaters.

Movie Review ~ The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them

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The Facts:

Synopsis: One couple’s story as they try to reclaim the life and love they once knew and pick up the pieces of a past that may be too far gone.

Stars: James McAvoy, Jessica Chastain, William Hurt, Bill Hader, Viola Davis, Isabelle Huppert, Jess Weixler, Ciarán Hinds

Director: Ned Benson

Rated: R

Running Length: 122 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:  I’m going to try my hardest to get through this review without working in a quote from The Beatles song featured in the title of this brittle drama. However, I may wind up resorting to cheap references to talking about “all the lonely people” and questioning “where do they all come from?” because aside from two strong performances from the leads, there’s not a whole lot more to discuss.

Originally filmed and intended to be released as two movies told from the male and female perspective of a crumbling marriage, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby feels familiar from the get-go.  There’s a mystery surrounding why our titular character (Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty) has fled her marriage to Conor (James McAvoy, Trance) and returned home to mommy, daddy, and single-mom sis but Ned Benson’s script isn’t malleable enough to allow Chastain and McAvoy to rise above some overly dramatic sequences that feel like scenes out of a training video on grief counseling.

I’m growing less enamored with Chastain as I see more of her work.  After scoring so big in 2011 & 2012 with a slew of memorable roles (like The Help, Lawless, Mama, and The Tree of Life), she’s now seemed to have slipped into that groove of making emotion filled movies as she waits on her next Oscar nomination.  McAvoy. too, doesn’t seem all that challenged by the material, largely letting Benson’s cliché set-ups win out over the actors usually interesting instinct.  It was a brilliant choice to pair Isabelle Huppert (Dead Man Down) and William Hurt (The Host) as Chastain’s parents because I actually believed they produced this character…but Huppert is stuck with a lot of out of the blue observances meant to be revelatory but wind up as mere devices to explain where some of Eleanor’s hurt comes from.  Speaking of hurt, Hurt takes on another soft-spoken sage seemingly capable of one quizzical facial expression that indicates he’s just seen a sockeye salmon driving a dune buggy wearing a Versace dress.  Then there’s Viola Davis (Beautiful Creatures) as a grumpy college professor and colleague of Hurt’s that takes a liking to Chastain after she audits her class.  Davis is as strong an actor as they come, but her performance here is so ice cold that it seems impossible someone like Eleanor could melt her.

Perhaps editing the two movies into one damaged the overall effect Benson was going for in showing there are two sides to every argument and some arguments are more interesting than others.  The whole central conceit of the film was (and this may be a minor spoiler) done better in Rabbit Hole, providing nearly the exact same set-up but arriving at its final destination with its characters in row…rather than leaving them in the dust as Benson’s writing and direction is often wont to do.

Movie Review ~ Dead Man Down

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The Facts:

Synopsis: In New York City, a crime lord’s right-hand man is seduced by a woman seeking retribution.

Stars: Colin Farrell, Noomi Rapace, Dominic Cooper, Terrence Howard, Isabelle Huppert

Director: Niels Arden Oplev

Rated: R

Running Length: 110 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:  Have you ever been sitting in a movie theater and find yourself rooting for a bad movie to be good?  Maybe it’s the inherent “Minnesota Nice” in me or the understanding of all the work that goes into crafting a picture for mass consumption but I try to always hope for the best in even the worst situations.  Dead Man Down isn’t a total failure of epic proportions but its lack of any momentum or true surprise stings more than it should.

First off, you have a solid cast assembled.  Rapace made a name for herself in the US as the original Lisbeth Salander  in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo long before it was remade as a slick thriller by David Fincher.  In that film she worked with Dead Man Down director Oplev and produced a mini-miracle a performance.  It still bums me out she wasn’t nominated for an Oscar for her work. 

In Dead Man Down Rapace and Oplev are both a bit at sea, never finding the right tone or rhythm that this type of crime drama sorely needs.  One moment it’s a gritty examination of revenge and the next it’s a dark romantic comedy.  With neither theme getting the prime focus; it winds up just feeling disjointed and messy. 

That’s too bad because Farrell (Total Recall) knows exactly what kind of film he’s in and works hard to give his character some added nuance and depth.  Working for a villainous NYC crime boss (played too gently by Howard), his character is a brooding dude with a few secrets he’s working to keep hidden.  So it’s natural that he’s intrigued by Rapace’s scarred (emotionally and physically) neighbor who lives with her mother (woefully underused but quite kooky Huppert, Amour)– their exchanges have some nice pop to them but no real chemistry is ever created. 

Unfortunately, the blame falls on Rapace for that – her character often comes off as too child-like and twee.  Even though I liked Rapace in Promethus more than most, US films haven’t quite found the right place for her – something that’s probably as frustrating for her as it is for her fans. 

I kept waiting for the film to divert from its standard plot set-up and surprise me but alas, it wasn’t meant to be.  You could tell there was a little nugget of a fine film waiting to be hatched but it didn’t have enough time to develop.  This may be worth a rental down the line but as a film you need to see in theaters…I’d pass on it.

Movie Review ~ Amour (Love)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Georges and Anne are in their eighties. They are cultivated, retired music teachers. One day, Anne has an attack that will test the couple’s bond of love.

Stars: Jean-Louis Trintignant, Emmanuelle Riva, Isabelle Huppert

Director: Michael Haneke

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 127 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review:  I’m familiar enough with the films of director Haneke to know what kind of experience the director likes to give his audience…that experience being one of cautious discovery and exploration that goes against the typical rhythms of the majority of films released on US soil.  You can attribute that to Haneke hailing from a country (Germany) with its own storied film history that for a time was focused on serious expressionism and detachment. 

In Haneke films like Funny Games (both the original and Haneke’s own scene for scene US remake), The Piano Teacher, Cache, and previous Oscar nominee The White Ribbon the director takes his time and lets his characters unfold before us much like people do in real life.  In long, uninterrupted takes he lets the camera capture true moments of quiet, danger, pain, and love…all which are on display in his latest film Amour.

Though Haneke has explored relationships from numerous angles before, Amour is perhaps his most gentle examination of the bond two people share and the lengths we’ll go to shield someone we love from grief.  Winner of the prestigious Palme D’Or at the Cannes film festival, the movie has been working a slow burn through smaller theaters as more people are discovering its fierce power.

It’s not an easy film to get through, only because it’s a strikingly intense portrait of the downward health spiral of one half of a long-married couple.  Georges (Trintignant) and Anne (Oscar nominee Riva) are enjoying the golden years of their lives, attending concerts, having dinner and still enjoying each other’s company throughout.  Then Anne suffers the first of several strokes and that’s where the relationship changes.  As Anne’s condition deteriorates, Georges can only watch as the woman he’s loved fades away. 

Though the film is peppered with secondary characters (including longtime Haneke favorite Huppert as the needy daughter of Georges and Anne), Amour is squarely a two-hander between Trintignant and Riva.  Though Riva is the one that has been called out for most of the award season accolades, it’s a shame Trintignant isn’t on the list with her. The success of Riva’s performance isn’t entirely dependent on Trintignant but there is a symbiosis that has occurred here in which both feed off of each other marvelously.

At 85, Riva is the oldest Best Actress Academy Award nominee in history and it’s well earned.  It’s a genius performance both physically and emotionally…and entirely agonizing to watch.  Trintignant does have to watch most of it as his character tries with all his might to make things easier for everyone, only to be faced with a decision no one wants to make. 

Haneke’s script is filled with intimate scenes, many of them without dialogue and filmed in very long and wide angles.  What I always enjoy about his films is how they linger longer than they have to just to offset our expectations as to what’s going to happen next.  It’s a slight form of manipulation that he finesses to bring about more honesty in the characters and story.

Though I loved Jennifer Lawrence’s performance in Silver Linings Playbook, work like the kind Riva does in Amour comes along once in a lifetime.  It’s a tough call between the two but ideally the Oscar will go to Riva for a monumental achievement.  Though the film is very bleak and dark, Riva and Trintignant are lights of dignity in Haneke’s superior work.

The Silver Bullet ~ Dead Man Down

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Synopsis: In New York City, a crime lord’s right-hand man is seduced by one of his boss’s victims, a woman seeking retribution.

Release Date:  March 8, 2013

Thoughts: While I was a huge fan of David Fincher’s remake of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, I still felt that the original was overall a more enjoyable feature thanks to smart direction from Niels Arden Oplev and a stunning performance from Noomi Rapace.  Now making his US debut,  Oplev has enlisted old pal Rapace to be the female lead in a crime thriller that looks mighty impressive in its first trailer.  Though I could take or leave main baddie Terrence Howard (mostly leave), I continue to be impressed with the choices that star Colin Farrell is taking.  Dead Man Down has the feel of a film that Martin Scorsese might have made in the 70’s…let’s hope that the final product delivers what the nifty trailer promises.

The Silver Bullet ~ Amour (Love)

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Synopsis: Georges and Anne are in their eighties. They are cultivated, retired music teachers. Their daughter, who is also a musician, lives abroad with her family. One day, Anne has an attack. The couple’s bond of love is severely tested.

Release Date:  December 19, 2012

Thoughts: Winner of the highest honor at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, Amour is the latest film directed by Michael Haneke…a fascinating director that never seems to make the same film twice.  All of his movies have provoked a strong reaction from me (both good and bad) and even though I may not always leave the theater happy I know I’ve seen the work of someone pretty talented.  This love story is also gaining buzz because star Emmanuelle Riva looks poised to become the oldest Best Actress Oscar nominee ever.  She’ll have some stiff competition from Jennifer Lawrence (Silver Linings Playbook), Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty), Marion Cotillard (Rust and Bone) and Quvenzhané Wallis (Beasts of the Southern Wild) but any performance with this kind of buzz makes the movie itself required viewing.