September 30, 2014

Dear Frankie -- A Non-Manipulative Heart-Warmer

                                    The sweet life-affirming Scottish movie, “Dear Frankie” (2004) from director Shona Auerbach comes off with a plot that provides immense chances for forced sentimentality and to wring enough tears. But, our worst expectations from such a cutesy storyline don’t come true, as ‘Dear Frankie’ is a soulful portrait of wounded souls, who try to protect one another. If you can overlook the movie’s leisure pace, you would be enamored by this character study and performances that don’t look manufactured.

                                  Single mom, Lizzie (Emily Mortimer) never stays in one place or town for very long. She lives with hearing impaired-son, Frankie Morrison (Jake McElhone) and her chain-smoking mother Nell (Mary Riggins). Lizzie is moving through Glasgow, changing schools and addresses, to stay away from her abusive husband, who seems to be fiercely searching for her. But, Lizzie has told her smart and intuitive son that his father away at sea, aboard a ship named ‘accra’. Lizzie writes elaborate letters to Frankie as if his father is writing to him.

                                    Frankie’s favorite subject is Geography because of his father’s travels and he collects all the stamps his father sends him in the letter. He also writes back, innocently sharing his life’s secrets and joys. Lizzie is keen to put a stop to this fantasy, but she feels that she can hear her son’s voice in those beautifully written letters. One day, Frankie’s bratty classmate shows him the newspaper clipping that the ship 'accra’ is due to arrive on their harbor town soon. The boy makes a bet to Frankie that his father wouldn’t visit him.

                                   Rather than revealing the truth, Lizzie stretches the lie and through the help of her fish shop owner Marie (Sharon Small), she finds a guy to act as Frankie’s father. It is intended as one-day experiment and Lizzie is ready to pay a fee. And, there enters the laconic and handsome guy (Gerard Butler), who not only dutifully responds to his duties as father-for-hire but also remains affectionate towards Lizzie. The fragile family is also chased by Frankie’s real dad, who seems to be dying.

                                   Screenwriter Andrea Gibb and director Auerbach never allows the touching and predictable story to descend into schmaltz. The film’s setting is similar to the many British kitchen-sink dramas, but it is emotionally more tender and imbues subtlety and is powered by well-constructed relationships. When we see a mesmerizing stranger like Gerard Butler play the father-for-hire character, we could easily guess that Lizzie would be pulled in, despite fears and self-righteousness. But, the affection between these two characters doesn’t happen all of a sudden. In one of the movie’s pleasantly inviting moments, Lizzie and the stranger stands on the verge on kissing, but the director doesn’t rush anything here. And, after that moment, the story takes a natural course rather than incorporating the stranger into the family, making a false-note ending.

                                   Apart from the leisurely paced direction, the movie works well because of uniformly superb performances. Jack McElhone is perfect as Frankie. He acts like a child who isn’t artificial. Unable to speak, he makes full use of facial expressions to communicate Frankie's range of feelings from loneliness to joy. Watch out for his wide-eyed, ever-smiling expression when he meets his father (the one hired by his mother). McElhone’s character is also etched very well, as we are never sure how much he intuitively knows about his mother's activities.

                                   Emily Mortimer gives a moving performance as a single mother, who neglects her own fulfillment and desires to shield her son from any troubles. The whole movie is about the lengths one loving mother will go to protect her son from a hard truth. So, the movie’s emotional vibrancy is directly attached to these two characters. Any lesser truths would have easily turned into a melodramatic fest. That said, “Dear Frankie” isn’t entirely free from melodrama or manipulation, but we can forgive those faults because it never loses sight of its characters or provides us a neatly-packaged resolution. Gerard Butler makes less use of his dashing looks and remains as a compassionate and responsive human being, whose character is well grounded in realism. The captivating locations in and around Glasgow also creates the fitful mood for the story.

                                  “Dear Frankie” (105 minutes) explores the challenges of single parenthood and also takes in broader themes such as resilience, loneliness and trust. It is occasionally soppy, but it remains endearing from beginning to end. 


September 25, 2014

The Grand Seduction -- A Charming Small-Town Dramedy

                                           Comedy-dramas set in picturesque small town are a delight to watch. You would have the urban outsider, who initially gawks at the small-town people’s eccentricities and eventually envies their serene life-style. You would have middle-aged men/women yearning for a richer, fast-paced life, and then we would also come across old, wise guys. Bill Foysth’s “Local Hero” (1983, starring Burt Lancaster), and “Waking Ned” are some of the small-town movies that gave us a rich cinematic experience. They follow a routine formula, but nonetheless, an entertaining formula. Don McKellar’s “The Grand Seduction” (2014) possesses all those ingredients necessary for such a remote-town comedy flick. The movie was a remake of French-Canadian production “Le Grande Seduction” (aka “Seducing Dr. Lewis”, 2003). The movie doesn’t have a ground-breaking or original storyline, but it has a winning cast that never fails to deliver the fun.

                                       “The Grand Seduction” was set on a picturesque, small harbor town named ‘Tickle Cove’, in Canada. The village once thrived in the fishing business, as men went in their boats very early to provide for the families. It was a mirthful sight for the young Murray, as he describes that “Life was a thing of beauty”. But, as years passed by the cods have all vanished, the young men settled in other towns, while the old/middle-aged ones resided in the town to collect their welfare checks. Murray French (Brendan Gleeson) feels depressed to live such a life, and is eager to do anything to revive their ‘Tickle Cove’.

                                       Murray’s wife is going to leave the town for a factory work in the city. The befuddled Murray’s only hope is a giant corporation’s plan to build petrochemical processing facility in their town. This could bring jobs and might bring back the young ones back from the city. However, the company insists that it will build its facility only if ‘Tickle Cove’ has a full-time doctor in residence. It’s hard to convince any doctor to live in their bedraggled town. In the night, the mayor of town silently shifts to city for a better job. Murray becomes the mayor and soon discovers a young plastic surgeon, Paul Lewis (Taylor Kitsch), busted by customs for possessing cocaine.

                                      A deal is worked out and Doctor Lewis is forced to perform community service in Tickle Cove, for a month. Now, Murray and his pals -- Simon (Gordon Pinsent) and the local banker Henry (Mark Critch) – has one month to convince the doctor, to make him stay for at least another five years. Lewis is a cricket enthusiast and a player. So, the hockey-loving townsfolk learn cricket, make bat out of paddles, and dresses out of screen clothes. They even replace their favorite hockey player’s picture in the pub, with that of Sachin Tendulkar. Murray asks the indifferent and young post-woman, (Liane Balaban) to flirt with the doctor. And, as the doctor sets foot on ‘Tickle Cove’, he is absolutely amazed and remains naive to the efforts by the townspeople to seduce him.  

                                      The deceptive methods by Murray and Simon provide good, chuckling moments. Although certain scenarios are far-fetched and ridiculous, it is essentially harmless and eventually leaves a feeling of warmth. The tinge of sadness and desperation that is associated with townspeople works in the favor of movie. Like in the Brit-comedy “The Full Monty” (1997), jobless working-class people work out a plan that seems absurd, although their near-economic future seems to depend on this absurd act. The strip-tease act in ‘Full Monty’ is here replace with the ‘doctor-tricking’ act. Both these scenarios only provide a false sense of hope, but these characters are happy to take that than living a hopeless, perplexed life. Murray knows that the oil executives would only bring toxicity to their village, but he is ready to choose that to enjoy the togetherness of the community.  

                                     The script by Ken Scott and Michael Dowse incorporates more schmaltziness as the movie progresses, although the beautiful lensing (by cinematographer Douglas Koch) of the village keeps us warm. Director McKellar must be really lucky to get such a wonderful cast. Brendan Gleeson is born to play such mischievous characters. He is well-assisted by veteran actor Gordon Pinsent ("Away From her”). Their elaborate hoaxes eat away at some of the movie’s flaws. Kitsch is much better in this film than in those big-budgeted Hollywood movies.

                                     “The Grand Seduction” (113 minutes) is an innocuous, formula comedy -- thanks to an excellent cast and breath-taking scenery -- that provides enough entertainment. 


September 23, 2014

Ilo Ilo -- An Empathetic Potrait of a Recession-Struck Family

                                      Singaporean film “Ilo Ilo” (2013) by first-time film-maker Anthony Chen boasts a premise that has repeatedly scrutinized in the recent times: the financial crisis and its impact on a middle-class family. Yet, there is something refreshing about this movie. It is a fairly straight-forward, character-driven drama, but unlike many recession era movies, it has a strong domestic focus. Although it might seem like a dry subject, director Chen has infused subtle humor and heart-breaking realism to keep us attentive.

                                       The movie is set in the late 90’s, when Southeast Asia faced one of big financial crisis. The unemployment and suicide rates went rising. The Singapore, we see in this film, isn’t the tourist’s paradise. Instead the hand-held camera that moves through tight spots immediately makes us feel for those families that reside within this concrete jungle. When the film starts, the ten year old Jiale (Koh Jia Ler) pulls up a prank at this teacher, and immediately ends up in the principal’s office. His pregnant mother Hwee Leng (Yeo Yann Yann), who works as a secretary, is called to the school.

                                    The mother’s reaction tells us that this isn’t first time she is getting a call from school regarding her son’s behavior. She is also worried about the fact that her firm is laying off workers at a faster rate. At school, she is made clear that Jiale would face expulsion if doesn’t clear up his act. Father Teck (Chen Tian Wen) also faces heavy challenge in his salesman job. Jiale’s obnoxious behavior has increased ever since the demise of his beloved grandfather. He’s doing all sorts of things to get his parents’ attention. To restore some peace in their household, the parents decide to hire a live-in maid. The new maid Teresa (Angeli Bayani) is from Philippines (from the ‘Ilo Ilo’ province), and has left her toddler son, back at home.

                                 She shares the room with Jiale, and the unruly child immediately begins to bully and defy her. Around this time, the father Teck is fired from his job, and loses everything in the stock market. He starts to work as a security guy in some warehouse. Hwee Leng starts to attend self-improvement lectures, held by a tricky entrepreneur.  However, Teresa brings some resilience to this vicious family atmosphere. He earns affection and respect from Jiale, and becomes ‘Auntie Terry’.   

                                 Director Chen hasn’t built his plot points through sentimentality. He takes us through the family’s everyday life – like showering, eating, doing laundry, working, picking the boy at school etc – and gradually vents out the secrets and lies that lies beneath the calm facade. All the little details and character interactions isn’t just realists; it is relatable. The characters we see in the movie are like us – far from perfection. They lie; they make bad decisions, and spoil themselves with a little dose of vanity. But, at the same time they find a way through their problems without breaking down. The director doesn’t make his characters to reiterate the word, ‘life is hard’, because we can easily sense it from their every-day life.

                                  If there is one character, we feel some kind of aggravation, and then it might be the mother’s (Hwee Leng). She demands Terry’s passport as soon as she enters the house, and talks to her in a voice to remind Terry that she occupies a lower rung in the social status. She never admonishes her son, when he reacts in an appalling manner against Terry. She wages a cold war with Terry when Jiale shows more affection towards the maid. She even disapproves the fact that her maid is a catholic. In another movie, the mother character would have been easily demonized by construing more bad behavior. But, Chen keeps us from passing a judgment on Hwee Leng, as in the end we begin to sympathize with her (especially after falling for the pitch of ‘get-rich quickly’ lectures). All the remaining three characters were also wonderfully realized. Terry’s isn’t portrayed as the messianic figure, who helps a family at troubled times.  

The Real 'Auntie Terry' with Director Anthony Chen (Left) and Christopher Chen (Right)

                               The movie is said to be based on Chen’s own childhood, who grew up with a Filipina maid. The mother’s pregnancy was included in the plot, when the actress, Yann fell pregnant before the shoot, persuading the director to rewrite her character. Director Chen perfectly captures the bitter-sweet nature that runs through middle-class life. Chen’s directorial style reminded me of the Taiwanese master Edward Yang’s movies. He not only showcases the division between poor and rich, in a globalized world, but also ponders over the arrogance and lordly attitude of the privileged. The scene where Jiale is flogged in the school auditorium, in front of students, might represent one of the horror tales we might have heard regarding Singapore’s law enforcement system.

                             “Ilo Ilo” (98 minutes) is a relatable family drama, told with empathy and resilience. It is a subtle and touching understatement on the tragedy of human condition. 


September 18, 2014

Frank -- What's Going On Inside 'That' Head?

                                        Late comedian and pop star Chris Sievey, one day popped up a giant papier mache mask on his head, became ‘Frank Sidebottom’, and tried to sing songs that were totally odd and eccentric from the regular ones. His music was said to be bit annoying and has only enjoyed an outsider status till his death. British film-maker Lenny Abrahamson’s “Frank” (2014) – the title character – wears such a giant head mask and is the leader of an unutterable avant-rock band called ‘Soronprfbs’. ‘Frank’ isn’t a biopic of Sievey, although the script (written by Jon Ronson) was loosely based on the writer’s brief stint as touring keyboard player with Sievey’s ‘Oh Blimey Big Band’. A-list Star Micheal Fassbender plays ‘Frank’, hiding himself behind that giant head mask, and the movie is an entirely different kind of beast; one that is bizarre, audacious and unpredictable.

                                       The film starts in the most amusing manner, as the aspiring musician Jon (Domnhall Gleeson) tries to come up with a song, while staring at different things in his dilapidated coastal town. He sings different deplorable, uninspired verses to himself, throughout the day (“Ladies have babies, that how it works….”; “Lady in the redcoat, what you doing with that bag…..”). Jon leads an uneventful life. He lives with his parents and has a boring desk job. However, his dream to become a musician comes true, when he meets the avant-garde rock band called ‘Soronprfbs’, whose keyboard player tries to drown himself in the beach. The band’s manager, Don (Scoot McNairy) immediately asks Jon to participate in the gig, that same night.

                                     The crowd is minimal, but the Jon is enamored by the band’s mysterious leader Frank. The songs consist of random words, sung without any harmonic intent. Frank wears a pumpkin-sized fake head, and never takes it off. He sips only liquid meals, and even his band mates haven’t seen him without the mask. The band members are also as odd as Frank: theremin player, Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who is prone to sudden outbursts; a distant French bass player Baraque (Francois Civil); and the stark percussionist Nana (Carla Azar). Don, the band’s manager, has been a resident of psychiatric hospital, where he has met Frank. Don also has a thing for ‘mannequins’.

                                     Jon immediately jumps on board, when the band decides to camp at Ireland to write and record an album. Frank’s obsession to attain a new musical scale, wrings out many days. When money runs out, Jon contributes his ‘nest egg’. Jon is convinced about Frank’s musical talents. He believes Frank’s talents have come from mental illness and miserable childhood (“Miserable childhood, mental illness … How do I find that sort of inspiration?”). After 11 months, without composing a single song, Jon is devastated, but belief that this is the miserable childhood he never had, and that this might lead him to write and compose excellent songs.

                                   On the surface, “Frank”, might look like a light comedy, but at times it veers into the dark territory, where artist’s obsession leads to insanity. It is also a fine exploration of an artist’s grand vision that conflicts with his mediocre talents. The move takes on the myths surrounding pop singers. Jon believes that only mental illness or hard-won experience could give great talents that Frank boasts (conventional wisdom says: “great art is often created by troubled individuals”). He could never accept the fact Frank might be naturally good in writing songs. The movie is also about fame and the paradox it carries with itself. Jon blogs, and posts videos on ‘Youtube’, showcasing the band members’ eccentric antics. Slowly the fame, he envied reaches him through social media. He and his band is recognized, but only later it dawns on him that the fame haven’t made them out to be the  innovative musicians, but just as a band of freaks. 

                                 Fame is what changes Frank too, making him drastic. He wants people to like his songs and his band, but he isn’t able to handle the fame. This is where the movie asks that enigmatic question – what’s better for an eccentric, talented artist: to safely and satisfyingly work within a confined realm? Or tweak it a bit, giving the ‘likeable’ treatment, and in the process attain money and fame. The third act – the trip to America – seemed a bit conventional. It lacked unpredictability and the compelling nature of previous acts, but the ending was moving. It is also important to note that all the spiky songs (including the final one) were all performed live by the cast.

                                 The performances are all uniquely excellent. There is an irony in seeing an A-list star hiding behind a mask for most of the film’s running time. However, Fassbender works wonders with his sheer physical presence. His perfect body language showcases Frank as an unbridled energy source as well as a puppet, waiting to be moved by its master. Gyllenhaal gives an excellent performance as Clara that is both passive and dynamic. She is the only character, who seems to understand Frank and that he can’t survive in the mainstream world.

                                 “Frank” (95 minutes) isn’t a movie that caters to all tastes. It goes beyond being an eccentric comedy, as it profoundly examines the outsider or misunderstood art. 


Poster Credit -- The Sunday Dog Parade