31 Days to Scare ~ Mute Witness (1995)

1

The Facts:

Synopsis: A mute makeup artist working on a slasher film in Moscow is locked in the studio after hours. Witnessing a brutal murder, she must escape capture before convincing authorities of what she’s seen.

Stars: Marina Zudina, Fay Ripley, Evan Richards, Igor Volkov, Sergei Karlenkov, Alec Guinness, Aleksandr Pyatkov

Director: Anthony Waller

Rated: R

Running Length: 95 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Hanging out at the local Mr. Movies as much as I did during my teen years, before I started working there the manager took pity on me and let me browse through his catalog of films all franchise owners were sent.  This is what studios would use to advertise their films in the pre-internet days when some of the more indie titles would need that extra push to get smaller hubs to order a copy or two of their film.  That’s how I first saw the arresting VHS box art for Mute Witness, which differs greatly from the movie poster featured above.  I’ll include it below, but you can see why it was an eye-catcher and how it practically marketed itself without needing to explain much of the plot.  People would rent the movie based on the visual alone, and I know this to be true because our store ordered one copy (I’d like to think my persistence had something to do with it) that was frequently checked out.

I saw this British funded thriller made in Moscow when it was first released and didn’t remember much about it and when I found a random DVD copy recently, I took it as a sign that Mute Witness came back into my life during October for a reason.  Firing it up again didn’t jog any old memories from the VHS era but the rewatch did create some positive new ones. While writer/director Anthony Waller’s suspenseful potboiler doesn’t set out to reinvent the often-utilized genre trope of a central character that saw something they shouldn’t having to evade grievous bodily harm, it does deliver genuine thrills with over-the-top gusto.

American movie director Andy (Evan Richards, Society) has come to Moscow to film a low budget slasher film, bringing along his girlfriend Karen (Fay Ripley) and her mute sister Billy (Marina Zudina) to work on the crew. Communications are already strained between the Russian-speaking cast and their English-speaking director and the working conditions in the rundown studio in an isolated part of town aren’t that much better.  On this day, an actress is performing a death scene, one she turns into a curtain yanking, desk flipping, dish breaking, three act-play.  Make-up artist Billy barely has time to whip up another batch of fake blood before it’s time to call it a day.  Realizing she forgot something as she’s leaving, Billy returns to the studio alone and winds up locked in by a hard of hearing night watchman.

Up until this point, Waller has presented Mute Witness with some stylistic flourishes and allowed it to rumble slowly to life. The movie within a movie beginning is cheeky fun and while the language barrier is used for laughter at first, it will soon become a hinderance for our unlucky title character.  While trying to find a way out, Billy gets back to the soundstage and sees a horrifically brutal murder…or does she?  At first, we believe she does and the way she gets chased around the abandoned building by two men you certainly don’t think they’re looking for her opinion on their lighting of the scene.  For a time, there’s a big question mark Waller attempts to place over the event, leading the film down the wrong fork in the road that only unnecessarily pads the running time. 

It becomes a long night not just for Billy but for Karen and Andy too as they get involved with the crime and a growing band of criminals and authorities that have a stake in either getting Billy to talk or silencing her for good.  Waller has obviously seen a good deal of Alfred Hitchcock and even more Dario Argento and Brian De Palma films because there are references to all of the above throughout the film. Mute Witness almost plays like a souped-up attempt to recreate De Palma’s feverish filmmaking with Argento’s grand orchestration for scenic composition.  The most effective scenes are the ones that are the most compact, giving the players little room to move around and forcing them to get resourceful in finding their way out of danger.  Elevator shafts, bathrooms, exposed hallways…all are free for Waller to place a person in peril.

The often unevenness in tone spills over into performance.  As Billy, Zudina carries the movie easily, even when she’s going far bigger than she needs to. A trained theater actress, Zudina often plays to the back row of the theater in her reactions and with Waller’s tendency to slow things down it can come across a bit comical instead of terror-filled.  Also, you have to give her credit for making it through one scene where she gets a little too creative with trying to get a person’s attention in an apartment across the street.  All of the Russians feel like they were dubbed later on (maybe by the same person) so there’s a one-note to most of them.  Then there’s Sir Alec Guinness (yes, THAT Sir Alec Guinness from Star Wars and Murder by Death) appearing in a cameo that he filmed TEN YEARS before the movie was made.  You can go here and read all about it but it’s truly a…unique story.

I do think Mute Witness is worth your time if you can find a copy.  Largely unavailable on streaming and rarely (if ever) shown on TV, your best bet might be to suck it up and buy a copy on eBay or see if your local library has it.  It’s a showy bit of horror that knows exactly what buttons to push and keeps jabbing at them right up until the end, not willing to let the audience rest a single moment until the credits roll.  Greedy on the part of the filmmakers?  Maybe.  That’s way better than not giving you anything to scream about, though!

Here’s that VHS Cover, as promised!

Movie Review ~ I Carry You With Me

1

The Facts:

Synopsis: Ambition and societal pressure propel an aspiring chef to leave his soulmate in Mexico and make the treacherous journey to New York, where life will never be the same.

Stars: Armando Espitia, Christian Vázquez, Michelle Rodríguez, Ángeles Cruz, Arcelia Ramírez, Michelle González

Director: Heidi Ewing

Rated: R

Running Length: 111 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  I should be used to it by now, but I’m always a little surprised when I see a romance featuring a LGBTQ+ relationship at its center.  I mean, it’s definitely more representative of the world we live in and offers many the opportunity to see depictions of normal, healthy relationships on screens big and small – and that’s awesome.  For so long though, these movies, these stories were often relegated to low budget studios that didn’t have the funds (or frankly, the talent) or access to proven creative energy to give them their proper due.  So it wound up feeling to many that while the effort was appreciated, it also was lacking.

It’s finally starting to feel like we’re moving out of the doldrums of lame, half-hearted attempts at LGBTQ+ romance films and memorable entries like I Carry You With Me are examples to refer back to when showing the forward progression of representation in film.  A unique and surprisingly unpredictable film that starts off going in one direction before unveiling its ultimate truth in finality, director Heidi Ewing’s film has a lot of hot button issues to cover and connect with but manages to do it all with a light touch. 

Based on a true story (have that in the back of your mind…it will come in handy while you watch), the film follows the sweet relationship that develops between Iván (Armando Espitia) and Gerardo (Christian Vázquez) in Mexico. Iván has a son from a previous relationship he wants to keep contact with but fears what his ex and family will do once they find out about Gerardo. Gerardo just wants to keep Iván a part of his life.  A chance at a new opportunity in New York means a decision that offers dangerous consequences for the two men and others they are close to. 

How the film starts to shift is small and almost imperceptible.  At first, you aren’t quite sure what’s happening or how a seemingly disparate narrative is relating to our main storyline but then Ewing and her co-screenwriter Alan Page Arriaga pull a tiny rug out from under you…only to reveal an even larger one underneath they tug away just a few scenes later.  I’ve never seen a movie quite like I Carry You With Me and to reveal what its secret is would be a severe betrayal of the trust the filmmakers and the real people involved have put in audiences (and critics!) that are lucky enough to see it.

Movie Review ~ 12 Mighty Orphans

1

The Facts:

Synopsis: Haunted by his mysterious past, a devoted high school football coach leads a scrawny team of orphans to the state championship during the Great Depression and inspires a broken nation along the way.

Stars: Luke Wilson, Vinessa Shaw, Wayne Knight, Jake Austin Walker, Jacob Lofland, Levi Dylan, Robert Duvall, Martin Sheen

Director: Ty Roberts

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: TBD

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review:  Having seen enough sports movies to be able to at least write a small children’s chapter book on which ball goes with which game, I looked at the upcoming 12 Mighty Orphans and felt like pointing at it and saying, “I know what you are and all the cliché tricks you’re going to play”.  Because, after all, there’s not a lot that’s been left unsaid in the case of these football movies about a rag-tag group of misfits that have to band together to rise above adversity.  Plenty of films before it have gone the distance, scored the field goal, made the touchdown, and knocked it out of the park (oops, wrong sport) and while the entertainment might be passable, it was likely going to be fleeting.

Let me tell you that 118 minutes after I began 12 Mighty Orphans, based on Jim Dent’s ‘Twelve Mighty Orphans: The Inspiring True Story of the Mighty Mites Who Ruled Texas Football’, I was the guy sitting in his living room in the dark watching the credits with tears drying on my face.  Yes, this film got me and got me good, and it was for no other reason than it’s a well-made audience pleaser that steers clear of cheap sentiment in favor of heart on the sleeve compassion.  It’s almost shockingly benign and while I’m not sure this approach would have worked with a more modern story, the period-set drama is the perfect playing field for the real-life events to unfold.

Arriving at the Texas Forth Worth Masonic Home for orphans in 1938 with his family, teacher and coach Rusty Rusell (Luke Wilson, The Goldfinch) has an uphill battle creating a team from scratch and gathering enough interest from the boys who’d rather do anything but play an organized sport.  Forge forth he does, with assistance from a wised teacher nursing a not-so-secret fondness for drink (Martin Sheen, The Dead Zone) and his caring wife (Vinessa Shaw, Hocus Pocus) but with a number of roadblocks from crooked employees and, eventually, a local coach that fears Rusty’s “Mighty Mites”. 

There’s a run-of-the-mill playbook for any kind of biographical sports film and director Ty Roberts follows that fairly close for the majority of 12 Mighty Orphans, but along the way he doesn’t forget to coax generous and gallant performances out of Wilson and Sheen, offering both men wonderful opportunities to shine.  Roberts also handles some of the more saccharine turns with a stronger hand, not letting the film go slack as a result – we all know there’s going to be something that knocks things down before the final build-up, but the screenplay from Roberts, Lane Garrison (who co-stars as the Big Bad coach), and Kevin Meyer, doesn’t make that the true climax of the piece. 

A film like 12 Mighty Orphans is one my dad would have loved to see and I’m sorry he’s not around for me to recommend it to him.  Maybe that’s another reason why I was so sad near the end and also why I appreciated the film’s detailed information on where all of the characters we’ve come to know wound up in their lives.  It’s more than just a “Dad” movie though, it’s one that all would be able to enjoy with equal pleasure.

Movie Review ~ The Father

1


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A man refuses all assistance from his daughter as he ages. As he tries to make sense of his changing circumstances, he begins to doubt his loved ones, his own mind and even the fabric of his reality.

Stars: Anthony Hopkins, Olivia Colman, Mark Gatiss, Olivia Williams, Imogen Poots, Rufus Sewell, Ayesha Dharker

Director: Florian Zeller

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 97 minutes

TMMM Score: (10/10)

Review: Throughout film, there have been movies and performances that have tackled the subject of Alzheimer’s and dementia or shown us the effects of the disease in striking detail.  You can go all the way back to 1981’s On Golden Pond for an example and find titles like The Notebook, Away from Her, Robot & Frank, The Taking of Deborah Logan, Still Alice, and 2020’s Relic in the years since.  Each had it’s own approach to illustrate the impact to the person as an outside observer but none have been able to walk audiences through the actual experience of what it’s like from the inside out. Diving down deep below the surface of a debilitating condition of the mind, The Father aims to show audiences what it’s like to be inside this head of someone suffering from a disease which robs one of their memories.  It’s a cinematic trick achieved with no special effects or CGI assistance, relying instead on masterful writing and the kind of acting that comes along once in a blue moon.

Hard to watch but almost impossible to look away from, director and screenwriter Florian Zeller leads us down a twist-filled path where nothing is what it appears to be.  He adapts his own play (with original translator Christopher Hampton) and while I have yet to see this onstage it sounds like nothing was lost in the transition from stage to screen.  That Zeller and Hampton were able to capture the same magic that earned the theatrical piece rave reviews across the globe is something in and of itself due to the complexities inherent in the storytelling and overall production, but this is a property that lends itself well for a film adaptation.

Anne (Olivia Colman, The Favourite) has arrived at her father’s flat after he’s scared off another caretaker with suspicions of stealing.  He’s misplaced his favorite watch and Anthony (Hopkins, Thor) is convinced the woman Anne hired to keep an eye on him pocketed it when he wasn’t looking.  This isn’t the first time he’s “lost” his watch or leveled accusations of this sort and Anne is worried – she’s set to move to Paris with her new boyfriend and wants to be certain her father is taken care of when she moves a greater distance away.  The issue is left unresolved, at least for that day.

Naturally we assume the man (Paul Gatniss, Christopher Robin) sitting in Anthony’s flat the next morning is Anne’s new boyfriend but no, it’s more complicated than that.  For Anthony and for the audience.  Anthony has woken up in his flat but it’s really Anne’s.  And it’s not the Anne we/he knows, but a different Anne (Olivia Williams, Anna Karenina) who isn’t moving to Paris.  When Anthony gets upset over the new people in “his” flat, Anne offers to go out for groceries, but returns as Colman’s different Anne with a new caretaker (Imogen Poots, Vivarium) and, later, a different boyfriend (Rufus Sewell, Judy).  This rapidly changing cast, not to mention an apartment with walls and furnishings that are rarely in the same position twice, are meant to confuse and disorient the viewer as they do our titular character.

At the center of it all in nearly every scene is Hopkins, giving the performance of his career.  Rocketing to worldwide acclaim in middle-age with his Oscar-winning role in The Silence of the Lambs after an already healthy career, Hopkins has spent the last thirty years in a wide variety of roles.  Some of those roles have paid the bills while others have filled his cup for artistic expression, and I can imagine The Father likely filled his cup to overflowing.  The performance put on film here is surely one that will be remembered forever, indelibly linked with the actor and not for reasons that have to do with his recent Oscar win over another actor.  The fact of the matter is that Hopkins presented the best performance by any actor in any movie (male, female, or other) in any film in any language in 2020 so his award was well deserved.

It’s not just Hopkins that gives the Oscar-winning Zeller and Hampton screenplay steadfast support.  I wouldn’t have been at all surprised to see Colman overtake Glenn Close’s work in Hillbilly Elegy for Best Supporting Actress for her compassionate contribution to the film.  While both women lost to the towering work from Yuh-jung Youn in Minari, Colman had a definite shot and the win would have been warranted for the way she balanced the sleight of hand required of the role.  Sharing one of the best scenes of the film (it’s hard to choose just one) with Hopkins, Poots holds her own as the young caretaker charmed by her new charge who lets her guard down when she should be more responsible with her feelings.  While he’s made a nice career out of playing rakish characters, Sewell finds new nasty nooks to explore here and the underrated Williams also is afforded several rich moments alongside Hopkins.  The wealth is spread evenly but the treasure is ultimately held by Hopkins.

An exquisite film in every aspect from the costumes to production design, The Father is a movie that will definitely sneak up on you.  Much more than your standard tearjerker, it’s a brilliant exploration of degeneration that avoids sinking too far into morose sentimentality.  The emotions it does evoke are strong and will hit you like a ton of bricks.  Don’t expect to shake this one easily after seeing it because it will linger in the back of your mind for weeks after, mainly as you recall the enormity of the performance Hopkins has given.

Movie Review ~ French Exit

1


The Facts
:

Synopsis: An aging Manhattan socialite living on what’s barely left of her inheritance moves to a small apartment in Paris with her son and cat.

Stars: Michelle Pfeiffer, Lucas Hedges, Tracy Letts, Valerie Mahaffey, Susan Coyne, Imogen Poots, Danielle Macdonald

Director: Azazel Jacobs

Rated: R

Running Length: 110 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  I’d seen Grease 2 several dozen times before I ever knew there was a Grease.  My counting skills aside, to this day I’ll still go to the mat for the cult-favorite silly sequel to one of the biggest movie musical hits of all time.  Yes, I know that you have thoughts about it and want to defend the legacy of Travolta and Newton-John but from my earliest days all I knew was that the leads of Grease 2 were the most beautiful people in the world, and wouldn’t it be nice if we were all friends?  All these years later I’m still a devoted fan of Michelle Pfeiffer (and Maxwell Caulfield appears to be living his best life too) so will always be excited when a new Pfeiffer pfilm comes our way.  The bonus in 2020 was that her newest was generating the type of early buzz that suggested this could be Pfeiffer’s year to return to the awards circuit.

Writing this nearly a week after the Oscars, I think back to when I originally saw French Exit and held out hope that Michelle Pfeiffer might wind up with her first nomination in nearly thirty years.  While the resulting film may not have fallen into line with the titles Pfeiffer was associated with in the early days of her prestigious career, the performance she gave in it pulsated with just the kind of eccentric vibrancy that usually gets noticed by voters.  Based on the novel by Patrick DeWitt and adapted by the author himself, this film is out there, to put it mildly, and Pfeiffer’s darkly funny and brittle socialite is the nucleus the entire action swirls around.

Rich NYC widow Frances Price (Pfeiffer, mother!) has almost run out of money after not doing much of anything since her grossly affluent husband (Tracy Letts, Lady Bird) died twelve years prior.  Never bothering to work or pass along a sense of wealth management to her son Malcolm (Lucas Hedges, Ben is Back), mother and child find themselves in a bind when told they have a limited amount of funds to work with.  Neither has any particular talent or skill so their options are limited if they want to stay in their tony Manhattan digs.  Deciding its better to leave on top and wanting more time to figure out a plan, Frances sells almost everything they own and cashes out their accounts before anyone can come to collect on the bills that have been piling up.

Traveling by sea with a pile of dough and avoiding unnecessary customs questions in the process, the duo (along with Small Frank, their unique cat) travel to Paris.  On the way over, Malcolm has an intimate encounter with a kooky medium (a very fine Danielle Macdonald, I Am Woman, continuing a trend of being an MVP in a cast of strong supporting players) that can spot death, which tends to get her into trouble on a cruise made up of largely elderly passengers.  After arriving in Paris and ensconcing themselves in the flat of an old friend of Frances, there isn’t much to do but sit and wait for what comes next.  But what comes next?

That’s where French Exit gets its foot stuck in the door and never manages to wedge itself out.  DeWitt’s novel is a surreal bit of frivolity that involves a surprise twist I won’t reveal here but when it’s uncovered it moves the film from deadpan humor to a new level of cosmic comedy that not everyone is going to be able to roll with.

Perhaps they’ll find some diversion in Valerie Mahaffey’s (Sully) side-splitting turn as a zany widow desperate for friends who lures Frances and Malcom to a Christmas party under false pretenses.  Mahaffrey is a veteran character actress that’s as underrated as they come and it’s a shame the film didn’t heat up for Pfeiffer because I’d expect if it had then Mahaffrey would also have gotten recognized for her scene-stealing work.  Had the film only added Mahaffrey’s character to the mix it may have remained in a comfortably droll zone that reveled in its quirky charm but instead it continues to add multiple characters, few of whom are actually interesting or integral to the central figures of the plot.  Besides Hedges, on his second crazy cruise movie of 2020 after Let Them All Talk, who is unusually uncomfortable looking, the remaining cast (including Green Room’s Imogen Poots) feels like they are always annoyingly elbowing to get at a spot at the table next to the star of the film.

It all comes down to Pfeiffer, though, and director Azazel Jacobs capably brings out a wicked twinkle we haven’t seen in quite some time.  Reveling in reciting DeWitt’s biting dialogue and rolling her eyes whenever Mahaffrey’s character is trying to ingratiate herself to Frances, Pfeiffer has spoken about her affinity for this project, and it shows.  While it didn’t propel her to the finish line for any statuettes when the year was wrapped, it garnered her some of the best notices she’s received in a number of years.  There’s a reason Pfeiffer has had a lasting career in Hollywood and French Exit is a solid reminder of why she continues to surprise us.

Movie Review ~ The Truffle Hunters

1


The Facts
:

Synopsis: In the secret forests of Northern Italy, a dwindling group of joyful old men and their faithful dogs search for the world’s most expensive ingredient, the white Alba truffle. Their stories form a real-life fairy tale that celebrates human passion in a fragile land that seems forgotten in time.

Director: Michael Dweck, Gregory Kershaw

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 84 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: Let me state for the record that the variety of truffles that float my proverbial boat are of the chocolate variety that come displayed in a fancy box.  I should also mention I have a serious aversion to mushrooms and/or edible fungi of every shape and size.  Any way you slice it (literally) I’ve never warmed to the taste or texture of the much sought-after truffle which also can set you back a pretty penny if you want the good stuff.  Even using truffle oil on fries, dusting popcorn with truffle powder, or sneaking it into macaroni and cheese hasn’t changed my stance – I’m just not dancing for joy (or even doing the, ahem, Truffle Shuffle) when I see the option available on a menu.

That’s why I could be forgiven for approaching the new documentary The Truffle Hunters sort of sideways and wincing a bit.  An 84-minute documentary about a bunch of old Italians wandering the forests with their dogs foraging for the rare fungus?  Is that what I wanted to find myself hip deep in and know I had only myself to blame because I knew quite well what I was taking on?  Well, it turns out that fungus may be the focus, but it isn’t the whole story.  Directors Michael Dweck & Gregory Kershaw take a hands-off approach to their narrative, presenting The Truffle Hunters as a series of loosely tied vignettes that weave together the lives of several men that have been taking to the woods for years in their tiny Italian town and making a meager living from their finds.

Of course, we wouldn’t be here discussing the film if it didn’t have some sort of hook to it and it’s because Dweck and Kershaw have curated such a disparate band of eccentrics that makes The Truffle Hunters well worth seeking out.  There’s the tiny man that barely speaks a word who appears almost compelled to continue to search his favorite hot spots in the dead of night when his eyesight is the worst and he’s apt to injure himself.  We understand his unspoken pull to keep moving while at the same time can side with his imposing wife that almost forcibly tries to make him stay indoors with her.  Seeing the slow moving man by day become one that rather nimbly sneaks out of a window at night like a teenager meeting his girlfriend is quite a sight to behold.

More foragers include a man with many dogs that treats them like his children, taking great care and pride in their well-being by personally taking a bath with them and, in one tense scene, using a hair dryer while both are half submerged in the tub.  He also tries to be as proactive as possible in protecting his dogs from dangerous rivals.  Shockingly, while the professional business side of things is chillier in the way it undercuts the men doing the grunt work (black market/under the table suppliers buy truffles for a pittance from rural towns and then turn around and sell them for 300% more than they paid), there are fellow scavengers that stoop so low as to leave poison traps for dogs that assist their owners in finding the truffles.

A legendary truffle hunter is getting up there in age and has people often coming to ask him to pass along his secrets, but he refuses, preferring to converse with his devoted canine friend.  At this point in his life, he worries more about where his beloved animal will go and if the family will use the dog skilled in the truffle trade for good.  It’s this worry about the inherent greed that has grown in people which caused a physical and emotional burnout in another respected forager that spends most of the film sounding off on the state of the line of work today and lamenting loudly and forcefully why he won’t ever dig up another truffle.

I kept thinking the directors were going to wrap their film up with some foregone conclusions but the easy flow from moment to moment continues throughout and it creates a pleasant ambiance.  Fully subtitled, it doesn’t always string together with perfect cohesion and there are times early on when you can’t tell a few of the men apart and even more occasions when you have the feeling you’d want to stick around a particular thread just a hair longer.  It likely misses an opportunity to explore more of the showy side of the industry, often framing the high price selling of the fungus as an exercise solely of excess for the wealthy or refined.  A little more context or big picture view of that side of the equation would have created more of a balance.

No matter, this is sweet little documentary that’s at times only peripherally about food that for once didn’t make me hungry.  The scenery is routinely gorgeous, as is the camerawork in general in the town and around the forest.  There’s even several sequence where the dogs were outfitted with cameras so we see the entire hunt from their perspective.  As expected, the camera is shaky but not as hard to watch as you may think – it’s another way The Truffle Hunters sets itself apart from the other items on your cinematic menu.

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 ~ Where’s My Roy Cohn?


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Roy Cohn personified the dark arts of American politics, turning empty vessels into dangerous demagogues – from Joseph McCarthy to his final project, Donald J. Trump.

Stars: Ken Auletta, Roy M. Cohn, Joseph McCarthy, Roger Stone, Liz Smith

Director: Matt Tyrnauer

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 97 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  After Donald Trump gained enough Electoral College votes to claim victory on election night back in 2016, most of America was left shell-shocked and wondering how this could have happened.  Keep in mind he lost the popular vote by millions.  Entering the final weeks of the campaign with a growing list of concerns over his qualifications to lead the nation, it was almost safely assumed he stood no real shot at winning.  So how did it happen?  Did we all just have too much faith in our democratic system?  Or did we not see that this rise to power was a long time in the making and a fox had been placed in the henhouse right under our noses even before the eggs had hatched?

The answer to the ascent of Trump can be traced back to one man, Roy M. Cohn, and he’s the subject of a new documentary making its way to theaters this weekend after first bowing at January’s Sundance Film Festival.  The first of two documentaries released in 2019 on the flamboyant lawyer who died of AIDS related complications in 1986 at the age of 59, director Matt Tyrnauer’s approach is a fairly straight-forward telling of Cohn’s life through friends and colleagues and archival interviews with the man himself.  Notoriously unlikable and almost proud of it, my only true exposure to Cohn up until this point was Al Pacino’s award-winning performance in the HBO mini-series Angels in America.

Reaching back to 1951 at the beginning of his career when Cohn was an aide to Senator Joseph McCarthy and assisted in the prosecution of the Rosenbergs, Tyrnauer charts how the closeted attorney used his influence to kick off the Army–McCarthy hearings of 1954.  Hoping to protect a fellow McCarthy aide drafted into service, his dogged pursuit of getting the man out of having to serve wound up backfiring and nearly exposing the private lives of Cohn and possibly McCarthy. Once he left McCarthy’s side he made his way back to New York where he became a trusted council for a number of individuals with ties to organized crime, always finding loopholes or working out deals to avoid jail time for his clients.  A feared legal eagle, Cohn wasn’t shy about wielding his power and enjoyed striking fear into his adversaries and even his close companions.

The last third of the documentary focuses in on Cohn’s relationship with Trump as the real estate magnate enters the big leagues in New York.  Retaining Cohn to provide advice for working the system and bartering the best deals with the least amount of loss, hearing the techniques he taught Trump sounds very familiar to the kind of behavior we see on a daily basis now.  Never admit you’re wrong.  Never apologize.  Claim defeat as victories.  All tactics Cohn pioneered that Trump, as his clear protégé, carries on to this day.

While informative, it’s also a fairly sad documentary because Cohn was such a deeply unhappy and hypocritical man.  Denying his sexuality for years in public though in private it was well known who he spent his time with, he still wanted people to believe he was going to marry Barbara Walters (of all people!), his longtime childhood friend.  Worst of all, when Cohn contracted HIV during a time when hundreds of people were dying from it,  Cohn vehemently squashed rumors he had the disease even as he pushed to be included in experimental treatment being conducted by the National Institute of Health.  This when close friend President Reagan hadn’t even said the word AIDS in public but was helping Cohn get into clinical trials behind closed doors.  Unthinkable.  On one hand, I’m sad for Cohn but on the other he was such a wicked person that there’s a part of you that almost feels his end was a sort of karma for his actions during his life.

The next Cohn documentary is set to air on HBO before the year is out and I’ll be interested to see what new angle it would take to tell us more that we didn’t learn here.  While not a comprehensive view of Cohn’s life, much of his childhood is reduced to small anecdotes by Tyrnauer in favor of focusing on the relationships he developed as an adult, it is informative and gives a good picture of why Cohn was such a polarizing individual to much of the country and why he was a golden god to a select few.  Even now, some of the subjects interviewed seem wary of Cohn’s reach from beyond the grave.

Movie Review ~ Aquarela


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Water and ice are shown around the world, in all of their many powerful forms.

Director: Victor Kossakovsky

Rated: PG

Running Length: 89 minutes

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review:  It’s nice to see movies for free.  There, I said it.  I like that, as a one-man band critic I’m afforded the great opportunity to watch films in theaters for free and then get to write about them for everyone to read.  I feel that part of doing this work and committing to it is seeing everything that comes your way, even if it feels outside of your comfort zone.  Those that review only mainstream films or projects that are easy to consume lack a well-roundness that gives their critical eye a sharper focus.  So yes, you should see the Martin Scorsese film, but you should also be getting your butt out of bed early on a Saturday morning to see whatever kids movie is screening at 10am or watching an independent film no one in your peer group has heard of.  That goes double for documentaries, a genre that’s easy to forget about until the end of the year rolls around and you only have to focus on the five nominees vying for the Oscar.

Part of the benefits of reviewing films is that often we have the option of screening the movie at home or watching it in the theater.  I almost always opt for the theatrical experience because I feel that’s what the filmmaker was making it for when they started out.  With evenings getting packed, though, and weekends having more time available I’ve been getting used to watching upcoming releases from the comfort of my own home/sweatpants.  It doesn’t come close to seeing it a theater but at least I’m able to take it in in some form, right?

There was a dilemma facing me when the Aquarela screening was rolling around.   I could have screened it at home but then we were teased that the movie was going to be shown in a high-resolution presentation, allowing for a superior moviegoing experience.  Though my gut was telling me this was one I could get by with seeing when I had 90 minutes to spare, I am, after all, a sucker for all the bells and whistles a reclining seat and state-of-the-art sound system can ring.  Thus, I decided to forego the home viewing and trek out to watch this documentary on the big screen.  I should have trusted my gut.

I honestly don’t know where to even start this review…which is maybe why I’m only beginning to talk about the film four paragraphs in.  Director Victor Kossakovsky has offered up a beautifully shot but gratingly dull doc that is 99% dialogue free and completely lacking in narrative.  Though filmed at a rate of 96 frames per second (fps) when most movies are shot at 24fps, the life-like clarity brought to the images is totally missing in every other aspect of the film.  It’s a movie that’s all establishing shots; impressive to look at for a while but quickly becoming a gigantic bore.  I don’t need a cut and dry narrative in my films, especially in a documentary which is allowed to be a bit more free-form, but I do need to feel there is some point, some direction, some goal, to what I’m watching.

That’s not to say there aren’t occasional spots where the movie comes to life.  There’s a sequence near the beginning following a team of workers trying to retrieve a car that has fallen through the ice.  As they go about their process to pull the sunken vehicle from the icy waters, we see other cars in similar peril racing across a thawing lake hoping not to be swallowed by an expanding fissure.  Kossakovsky doesn’t stay in one place too long, though, and without any fanfare we’re watching icebergs float, crash, bob, or just stay motionless while the camera lingers around their massive widths.  Only when the camera ventures underwater and the view blessedly changes will you snap out of the sleepy trance Kossakovsky has cast over you.

Your eyes will start to look for something, anything, that is happening on screen to focus on.  Any time the perspective changes or the landscape alters there’s the hope of something greater to come but it’s not to be. Sure, I guess you can say Kossakovsky is tracking water from its most solid state at the opening to its airy etherealness as it vanishes while cascading off of Venezuelan waterfall by the end.  The problem with all of this is nothing about these images is moving or inspiring.  The filmmaking (aside from the frame rate) doesn’t seem particularly difficult or boundary pushing and I have no clue how the movie was edited into what it wound up being.  Every image looks like a screensaver to me.

There’s a fear on my part with these heady movies that I’m missing the point or failing to rise to the challenge posed by the filmmaker but with Aquarela I don’t see a line in the sand (or water, as it were) being drawn.  The only challenge Kossakovsky poses to his audience is to stay awake for 90 very long minutes.  The title, Aquarela, is from the Portugese word for watercolor…which is the most interesting tidbit I could offer you. And to think, I could have skipped a shower and slept through this at home instead of “resting my eyes” at the theater.

Movie Review ~ All is True


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A look at the final days in the life of renown playwright William Shakespeare.

Stars: Kenneth Branagh, Judi Dench, Ian McKellen, Kathryn Wilder, Lydia Wilson, Jack Colgrave Hirst

Director: Kenneth Branagh

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 101 minutes

TMMM Score: (5.5/10)

Review: We’ve all seen Shakespeare when he was in love but what about when Shakespeare was in despair? That’s what seems to be on the mind of producer, director, and star Kenneth Branagh and screenwriter Ben Elton when they decided to film All is True without much fanfare. If anything, All is True is a nice reminder that it’s possible to make a movie with three quite respected stars and not have anyone know about it until it’s ready to be released. It wasn’t until 2018 was nearly finished that people were aware this even existed and there was even a very brief discussion that Branagh would be a late addition to the Best Actor Oscar pool. Then people started seeing Branagh’s Bard picture and the buzz cooled considerably…and I can see why.

Look, I’m a Shakespeare fan but not a Shakespeare snob so I’m ok with filmmakers playing a little fast and loose with the Bard. I get a chuckle anytime a play or musical adds him as a character that can poke fun at his persona and I think the man himself would get a huge kick out of the many ways his works have been re-envisioned over the hundreds of years his plays have been in the lexicon. I’m wondering, though, how he’d feel about certain elements of his personal life being examined onscreen and conclusions being drawn from pure conjecture. Would he still be laughing at particular truths being leveled toward him and his family?

Branagh is clearly a fan of the man as well, having starred in and directed countless Shakespeare works over the years. He’s one of the foremost experts on the playwright and based on the performance he gives he’s well suited for playing Shakespeare and for directing the film. Yet there’s something to be said about being too reverential to your subject and getting too close to the work. You run the risk of becoming myopic to what constitutes engaging entertainment and what others would want to see. Before you know it, you’ve produced a chamber piece that has limited appeal – and that’s what winds up happening with the respectable but stodgy All is True.

William Shakespeare (Branagh, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit) has returned to his home in Stratford after his Globe Theatre burns down in 1613. Frequently absent after the death of his only son in 1596, his arrival isn’t exactly met with excitement from his wife Anne Hathaway (Dench, Skyfall) or his daughters Susanna (Lydia Wilson, About Time) and Judith (Kathryn Wilder, Murder on the Orient Express). Still consumed with unresolved grief from the loss of his son, Shakespeare spends his days building a garden in honor of his only boy, stopping only to quote verse, converse with his family, or speak with an array of visitors that seek some form of council.

The film feels like a series of brief one acts involving Shakespeare and his family being involved with events around town. Instead of Elton’s script just focusing on Shakespeare working through his heartache with the help of his family, we get introduced to several Puritan members of the church and townspeople that pass through their lives. One daughter is accused of infidelity, another must overcome her own sense of self-loathing in order to move on in her blossoming relationship with the town lothario, then Shakesapre’s own sexuality comes into question when the Earl of Southampton (Ian McKellen, Beauty and the Beast) comes to visit. The only family member that seems to get the short end of the stick is Anne, though Dench, always true to form, makes the most of every frame she’s in and every line she’s given.

The whole movie plays out with some truly lovely cinematography from Zac Nicholson (Les Misérables) that’s often filmed in one long take or on stationary cameras. People sit and deliver most of their lines with very little movement necessary, creating the effect you’re watching a play instead of a movie. Using candle-light in the evenings and natural light during the day, Nicholson captures the realistic world that Shakespeare would have lived in during that time…and also the mundanity of it as well.  Much like a Sunday matinee, don’t be shocked if you find yourself resisting the urge to nod off on several occasions.

I can’t say All is True is an entertaining picture or even one that I enjoyed when all was said and done. Though admirably performed (Dench, in particular, is grand) there’s just a casual sameness to the film after a while. Much of the running time follows people in highly distressed, unhappy stages of their lives and it’s only when some inkling of happiness is introduced the film finds a lightness and snaps out of its dirge-like funereal march toward the end credits. It’s brief…but it’s welcome.