Tag Archives: Writer

Frankie

[3 stars]

A rumination on the nature of love, life, and family against the beautiful backdrop of Sintra, Portugal. In many ways, Frankie is After the Wedding’s less overwrought cousin. There are several common themes and dynamics, though the stories are driven by different stakes and pressures.

Isabelle Huppert (Greta) is the lynchpin at the center of a blended family that spans multiple marriages. Her sense of entitlement as well as her own sense of self keeps bumping up against her recognition of the realities of that complexity, but all in very quiet and introspective ways. There are few histrionics despite the tensions between people and the situation in which they are mired. It is all about the reactions and silences, which director and co-writer Ira Sachs (Love is Strange) orchestrates with great confidence.

Along with Huppert, Brendan Gleeson (Assassin’s Creed), Marisa Tomei (Only You), Jérémie Renier (Double Lover), Vinette Robinson (A Christmas Carol), Sennia Nanua (The Girl With All the Gifts), and Greg Kinnear (Same Kind of Different as Me) fill out the other main roles. Their paths are all separate, but also all reflect and intersect on Huppert’s journey and life.

This isn’t a fast movie, but it is gripping in a very quiet way. And, ultimately, it brings together its point and moments in a wonderful bit of visual metaphor that is simply presented for us to absorb and enjoy. Frankie is about life and legacy and the meaning and complications of love. It is certainly bittersweet, but manages to avoid being maudlin or at all self-righteous. It’s simply a view and point of view of a collection of lives bound by blood and circumstance. And, like Sachs other works, emotionally hypnotic through to the end.

 

Frankie

@Suicide Room

[3.5 stars]

Suicide as a subject, even when the best intentions are observed as with 13 Reasons Why, often ends up exploitative. Writer/director Jan Komasa, most recently lauded for his Corpus Christi (including an Oscar nomination), managed to respect its realities and create an engrossing story.

Jakub Gierszal (Dracula Untold) is at the center of this gut-punch of a tale; a teenage boy who starts (over)confidently and then crumbles despite and because of everything around him. His performance is raw and, at times, uncomfortable, but always gripping. Roma Gasiorowska becomes his gadfly and external conscience as he withdraws from the world that is simultaneously pushing him away. She is as magnetic as she is mercurial. In a smaller but pivotal role is Bartosz Gelner (Floating Skyscrapers), providing the catalyst and lighting the fuse for Gierszal’s discovery of his online world and a group of lost individuals.

The story has a lot of interesting devices and tremendous amount of emotionally exposed nerves. It is at once a fable and plain look at broken people. And broken here has many levels for both the kids and the adults. Frankly, the story itself starts strong and then loses its thread and references, but pulls it all together at the end in a way that works, even if it is far off track from where you think it may go from the opening 20 minutes.

Don’t go into this one lightly. It feels light at the top, but that masks the currents in the depths that will eventually reach the surface. However, it is another stepping stone for Komasa’s body of work, which continues to impress me. And it is a peek into Polish culture and family that isn’t often seen.

Suicide Room

Faraway, So Close! (In weiter Ferne, so nah!)

[3 stars]

In 1987 Wim Wenders hit the international consciousness as a writer/director with Wings of Desire… a tale of isolation and revelation with the backdrop of the Berlin Wall as metaphor. And then, in 1989, the wall fell and the world changed. In 1993 Wenders revisited his characters in this new reality with this award-winning, if not as successful, sequel.

Wings was a wonderful film…after the first 20 minutes of philosophical setup. You can argue that the extended prologue was necessary, but it honestly kept the film from taking flight, which it did once we really got to Earth and let the story go. Faraway is structured much the same, but with even more philosophical musing and exposition (45 minutes). This time, however, the discussion is set amongst the world and it sets up a lot of the movie’s ultimate action. Of course, that isn’t clear for a long time and is, perhaps, one of the more surprising aspects of the film. A lot of very disparate threads and seemingly tangential moments all come together for the final sequences in some very unexpected and, in one case, hysterical ways.

All of the main characters from Wings return: Otto Sander (from a personal favorite: Killer Condom), Bruno Ganz (The House that Jack Built), Peter Falk, and Solveig Dommartin (Until the End of the World) to bridge the stories. However, other than Sander, they are all secondary to the new plot. Part of what makes this film so clever is that it really is a new story, even though we get to see what happened to those who were the focus of the first.

The new people in this tale are rather surprising…Willem Dafoe (Motherless Brooklyn) and Nastassja Kinski (Cat People) join the story, and there are even small roles for Mikhail Gorbachev and Lou Reed. Which brings up the soundtrack…loaded with Reed and other period greats. It doesn’t have the staying power of Until the End of the World’s soundtrack, but there are some interesting surprises in it.

Though Faraway is a direct sequel in many ways, I’m not sure you need have seen Wings of Desire first. I think the relationships and returning characters get explained enough. However, you’ll definitely have a different experience if you see them in the intended order. But Faraway is, ultimately, a better crafted film, if a little overwrought at times. It is a worthy sequel and cleverly crafted. But it is, in every sense, a very European film of its time. It is slow to build momentum, highly intellectual, full of poetry and grand gesture, and not quite reality, though very down to Earth (literally) in its grounding. If you enjoy Wenders’ work or just want to see something with very different pacing and approach than today’s hyper-kinetic fare, this is an excellent, if long, choice.

The Pale Horse

[3 stars]

Sarah Phelps (The ABC Murders) is becoming the preeminent adapter of Agatha Christie. Her skills are best when she sticks close to the original material, as she did for Ordeal By Innocence. But when we she veers from that material, like The ABC Murders, the work is less worthy. It should be noted that she also works outside Christie’s ouvre, with intriguingly built adaptations like Dublin Murders. In other words, the writer/creator has chops.

The Pale Horse is one of those lesser known, rarely (if ever?) produced stand-alone Christies. Previous incarnations of it dragged it inappropriately into the Marple or Poirot worlds, as I recall. It is, as a book, still in the cozy category, with a pair of intrepid lovers discovering and solving a string of murders. Phelps reconceives the tale as something closer to Turning of the Screw crossed with Crime and Punishment, bringing it squarely into the psychological horror arena and putting the lovers at odds with one another. It has a highly stylized presentation, with a lot of creep factor; think Midsommar (the horror film, not the series).

Led by, and generally through the eyes of, Rufus Sewell (Judy), the story begins as a dark mystery of loss and fear and spins out from there. As a horror story it is effective, if not entirely satisfying by the end. Kaya Scodelario (Maze Runner: The Death Cure) gets to stretch her muscles into a role that is more adult than teenager for the first time. Her stressed 60s housewife is both darkly funny and depressing. Sean Pertwee (Gotham), on the other hand, gets somewhat abused as Inspector Lejeune. And Bertie Carvel (Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norell) has some fun in the mix, getting to wear a pair of the ugliest dentures ever seen on TV. But, generally, all of the cast do well filling out the world, victims, and those pulling the strings.

Perhaps part of the delivery gap of this series is down to young director Leonora Lonsdale. This is only her second full-length delivery. While the result, absent context, is fun, she allowed Phelps script to lead her too far astray from the source material. Depending on your relationship with Christie, your opinion and enjoyment of the story will vary. It is definitely not a light tale of murder on the green, but it is a complicated and layered tale of loss and greed, with just a suggestion of the supernatural.

Klaus

[4.5 stars]

Honestly, I wouldn’t have bothered with this if it weren’t for the fact that it won the Annies for best feature this year. I mean, seriously, a Christmas cartoon? As it turns out, I couldn’t have been more wrong and I’m even thinking it has a good shot at the Oscar.

It has been years since anyone has produced a holiday-themed animation that has risen to an annual must-see the way some of the old stop-motion animations of the 60s/70s did. But Klaus may have just changed the tide on that. It isn’t a musical bit of treacle like Santa Claus is Coming to Town. And it is more Hogfather in its sensibility and view of life than you’d expect. But it also tackles the season of retail and human nature in a beautifully honest way and weaves it into the story you expect…in ways that you really wouldn’t have predicted even as you see them becoming inevitable. But for all the intelligence and themes, it remains a children’s tale in the best of ways: it doesn’t talk down to them.

Sergio Pablos (who has spent years in animation and who previously helped write Smallfoot and Despicable Me) chose this as his first project where he was both writing and directing, and I can see why. It is a delicate balance of satire and sweetness that would have been hard to trust to someone other than the person who conceived it. Given that it took the top prize at the Annies this year, and it’s up for an Oscar, I’d say he was spot on.

Jason Schwartzman (Golden Exits) leads the cast with just the right amount of sarcasm and genunie feeling. He’s backed up by Rashida Jones (Spies in Disguise) and JK Simmons (Veronica Mars) with Joan Cusack (Welcome to Me) in a nice bit role. While the story is certainly an overblown fable, they all keep it grounded nicely. Simmons, in particular, has a slow evolution through the art and voice that is great to watch.

Klaus isn’t perfect. It is a bit rushed and hand-wavy in some of the story details. It has some inconsistencies. And, ultimately, it wraps up in a way that is heart-warming but, I felt, a slight cheat given the rest of the story you traverse getting there; but the story is what it is, so I just had to shrug and accept it (though honestly, seeing Klaus as a mildly schizophrenic widower was really fun for a while). Those are the reasons for dinging it just a bit on the rating. However, I can see rewatching this annually (along with Hog Father and Rare Exports, which are more to my holiday sensibilities) because it has a lot of great humor and it reminds you (with a soft hammer) what friends, family, and society can be if we just let them.

Bottom line: If you’ve avoided this because you thought it was just empty kid’s fare and not worth your time…rethink that opinion sometime soon.

Klaus

5 Centimeters Per Second (Byôsoku 5 senchimêtoru)

[3.5 stars]

Like Makoto Shinkai’s Your Name., this much earlier film of his is a simple story of love and growing up that taps into universal emotions. But unlike his later global hit, the structure of this film is a bit more straight-forward. This tale is told in tryptic: three segments from three perspectives…and it sneaks up on you. You don’t even realize how deeply it’s sunk in its hooks till it has you by the chest  and reminds you of your own moments of revelation about the world.

Each episode in the movie focuses on a different aspect of a relationship between two children as they grow into young adults…and grow slowly apart, as the title and opening scene suggest. It’s profoundly beautiful and spare in how it rolls out that tale. At only an hour it’s worth the time for anyone who enjoys solid anime, or who wants to see what came before Shinkai’s explosion on the scene in 2017/2018.

5 Centimeters per Second

 

A Christmas Carol (2019)

[3.5 stars]

Seriously, did we need another Christmas Carol? Well, actually, as it turns out: yes. Steven Knight’s (Serenity) take on Scrooge’s tale is creepy and revelatory, as opposed to rushed and predictable. Guy Pearce (Mary Queen of Scots) embraces the dark and navigates our humbug-spewing character through memories and experiences that finally make it clear why and when he lost his way.

Joe Alwyn (Harriet) provides a solid foil as Crachit, though he is well over-shadowed by his screen-wife Vinette Robinson (Sherlock). Robinson drives the true catalyst of change. But these are the characters we always have known. Part of what Knight does is broaden the tale and provide Marley with a voice in Stephen Graham (The Irishman). Marley was always just an excuse to tell Dicken’s story in previous adaptations. In this one, he truly has something at stake.

Even the other Christmas ghosts have a bit more going on in this telling. Andy Serkis (Black Panther) and Charlotte Riley (Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norell), especially, get their own tales.

If, like me, you have always found the saccharine retelling of redemption just a bit too much to stomach, this will give you new appreciation of the story and the message. The experience is probably a lot closer to how Dicken’s audience received the story as well.

Admittedly, you still have to believe someone can utterly change just by seeing the truth, but Knight doesn’t really let anyone completely off the hook in his resolution. It’s messy, like life, but he allows for the nearest thing to a believable change in this classic tale that I’ve seen.

The Two Popes

[3.5 stars]

So, why is a nice Jewish boy like me watching a movie about the papacy? Well, honestly, I only turn it on because of the buzz around the script and Jonathan Pryce’s (The Man Who Killed Don Quixote) performance. OK, and a bit of curiosity.

I have to admit, Anthony McCarten’s (Bohemian Rhapsody) script is an unexpected delight, which Fernando Meirelles (Constant Gardner) brought to life with both gravitas and a sense of humor. The result is a 2-person play with Anthony Hopkins (Lear) that unwinds as a personal and philosophical debate on the purpose of the Church in life. Except, it isn’t as dry as all that.

However, as much I enjoyed the give and take, and the story, I did have to wonder at the purpose of the piece overall. It comes off as both an apologia and advertisement for both Popes. I can’t say I was entirely comfortable with that effect on either side. Perhaps I am observing it a little more clinically, given my perspective, but art is always lensed through the observer so what can I say?

Well, I can say that I laughed out loud…a lot. And I learned about both men as well as got a sense of appreciation for their positions. It is certainly an entertaining and interesting couple hours, and likely not at all what you expect before turning it on.

You’ll be hearing a lot of about this film during this awards season, so take the gamble and start it up; you can always bail out if it doesn’t grab you. But I have to warn you, it had me at the first scene and I suspect it will have you too.

Little Women (2019)

[3 stars]

I have to be honest here, I only went to this film because of Greta Gerwig (Isle of Dogs). The reality is that I am not a fan of the original material, even after playing Laurie myself in a production. But I do like Gerwig’s light touch, sense of humor, and her refreshing perspective on the world and was intrigued to see what she could produce.

And Gerwig did draw out some great and award-worthy performances, particularly from Saoirse Ronan (Mary Queen of Scots), Florence Pugh (Fighting With My Family), and Timothée Chalamet (Beautiful Boy). Each of these characters had nicely crafted arcs and at least one scene that is truly great. Unfortunately, most of these have been shown over and over during interviews and trailers which sucked a bit of the power out of them when finally seen on screen.

There is also the amusing addition of Tracy Letts (Ford v Ferrari) and Larua Dern (Marriage Story) to the cast. Each are notable for their other performances this season, but they are playing quite different characters in this movie for some interesting dissonance as you burn through the awards nominated fims this year.

However, despite being inventive and engaging, Little Women is an uneven whole. There are some great scenes, but they are knitted together by far more lesser ones. The anachronistic is mixed with the period in dialogue, but without a lot of purpose. And in this epic, the young protagonists themselves don’t believably appear as girls so they can grow up. In addition, the time frames aren’t crisp as we bounce back and forth in the narrative.

In other words, it felt just a bit beyond the scope of Gerwig to control. I almost wish Gerwig and co-directed and co-written this with Sofia Coppola, who tackled a lot of these same problems with her Marie Antoinette rather more successfully and bravely.

What I will grant Gerwig and this production is that her love of the characters is clear. Her rework of the ending, inspired. And her ability to make many of the muddier choices of the book more believable, well done. It is an enjoyable movie, if not brilliant. And it didn’t make me feel ashamed to be without ovaries while sitting in the audience, nor to be male at the end. Clearly, however, the more you are enamored of the book, the more you will enjoy her offering.

Marriage Story

[4 stars]

Noah Baumbach’s (While We’re Young) latest film is a wonderful example of what a unique eye can bring to a common situation in order to defy expectations, and how framing is everything.

Adam Driver (The Dead Don’t Die) and Scarlett Johansson (Jojo Rabbit) are riding high as actors this year with multiple roles receiving multiple awards nods. This effort is no disappointment. Together they create a wonderful and subtle story of a family weathering divorce while trying to remember how they got there, who they are, and what they really want.

This sounds depressing as hell, doesn’t it? And I won’t lie, it has its moments, especially thanks to Laura Dern’s (Wilson) and Ray Liotta’s (Pawn) portrayl of evil-incarnate divorce attorneys who assume all divorces must be blood baths. However, this isn’t Kramer v Kramer...because of how Baumbach framed the film. The overall effect he creates, and even much of the journey, is one of relief and hope rather than depression and anger.

Marriage Story is an homage to the institution and to love, while recognizing that it doesn’t always work out. But, as the story tells, that doesn’t mean it has to be a permanent disaster nor unending strife. Life goes on and, especially when kids are involved, a bond remains as a reminder of what was, even if the deepest emotions that created that life no longer apply.