FlixChatter Review: UNCLE FRANK (2020)

I had the privilege of seeing this film at Twin Cities Film Fest last October, one of the three films I saw on the big screen. I had come into it blindly, not having seen a trailer or even read in details what it’s about at all or even seen the trailer. I find that as a rarity in the age of social media where incessant promotional campaign tend to reveal too much about a film. So for this review, I shall try not to spoil too much details about the plot, and when I absolutely have to, I’ll warn you about it and hide the spoiler-y bits.

Sophia Lillis as Beth

Now, even reading its description on IMDb would reveal key details about the plot, so if you want to come into it blindly, I’d refrain from going to its IMDb page. What I can safely tell you is that the film takes place in early 1970s in South Carolina and later New York City. It’s told through the eyes of the title character Frank Bledsoe’s (Paul Bettany) teenage niece Beth (Sophia Lillis) who clearly admires his uncle and claims he’s the only one in the family who sees and appreciates her for who she is.

We first see the Bledsoe’s family at a Christmas family gathering and while everyone seems to treat Frank well, it’s apparent right away that Frank is dismissed by his dad, the family patriarch referred to as Daddy Mac. At first it’s not clear why he isn’t quite welcomed at home and my initial thought is that the family isn’t too keen that he left the South to work as a literature professor at NYU.

Paul Bettany as Uncle Frank

It’s not until 18-year-old Beth ends up going to NYU that Frank’s true identity is revealed. Again I won’t spoil that for you, but it happened at a party at Frank’s apartment where Beth showed up without being invited. The person who shows up at the door is Walid or Wally (Peter Macdissi), Frank’s roommate. He was taken aback by Beth’s presence at first, but immediately warms up to her as if he’s known about her for some time. Now, if you don’t want to know more about the plot, I suggest you stop reading.

The party itself would easily give away just who Frank really is. Spoiler alert (highlight to read) – Beth soon finds out that uncle Frank is gay and he’s been living with his lover Wally for the past 10 years. There are guests of diverse backgrounds mingling, drinking, definitely not the kind of crowds Beth was exposed to in the South. The real journey began when Frank got a call that Daddy Mac has died and he had to take a road trip from Manhattan to Creekville, SC for his funeral. College is naturally a coming-of-age moment for many teens, but this road trip and all the revelations concerning Frank, as well as the reactions stemming from that, ends up being a growing experience for both involved.

This film is a sophomore effort from award-winning writer Alan Ball (American Beauty, Six Feet Under, True Blood). He also penned the script, which apparently is partly based on his own dad’s life. I have to commend Ball’s ability to balance the drama, comedy and even tragedy aspects of the story as the film takes viewers in an emotional roller coaster. I always admire filmmakers who can tackle difficult subject matters and manage to inject humor into it without turning it into an absurd farce.  This one definitely covers tricky topics and sensitive, hot button issues, yet it’s not a downer of a movie despite some harrowing scenes.

Throughout the journey south, there are multiple flashback scenes told in stages as more and more of Frank’s past is revealed. This narrative style could’ve been really clunky and problematic, yet it works quite well here to tell the source of why Frank is so ravaged with guilt and the incident that changed his relationship with his father forever. I think the lack of subtlety is deliberate, though some of the scenes and dialogue are too on-the-nose and forced emotionally. Despite the inherent conflict between Frank and his dad, however, I appreciate the fact that Ball refrains from completely demonizing him despite the intense hurt he’s caused his own son.

The performances are definitely the film’s strong suit. Paul Bettany is quite a revelation as Frank in a committed, genuinely heart-breaking performance. His character is filled with so much sorrow and self-loathing which makes him infuriating and even hard to love, but Bettany tackles the role with a nuanced emotional honesty. Peter Macdissi is simply delightful here in such a warm, lively performance. The stark contrast between the eternal-optimist Wally and the often despondent Frank make for some comic-relief moments that would make you laugh and cry. Sophia Lillis is terrific as Beth and I think the fact that the film is often seen through her perspective makes the story more relatable. The supporting cast are filled with talented character actors such as Margo Martindale, Steve Zahn, Stephen Root, Judy Greer, and Lois Smith. I rarely see Root play such an unsympathetic character but he’s quite believable here as the insensitive patriarch.

I think the biggest issue I have with this film is that at times it feels like an ‘agenda film’ that tries to blatantly push certain values to the audience. Some of the familial scenes and Frank’s alcoholism feel a tad too maudlin and ham-fisted. Overall though, it’s a compelling and emotional drama that would definitely spark interesting conversations with people after you watch it. Definitely a perfect release around Thanksgiving, even if this year people might have to spend family gatherings virtually.

Have you seen UNCLE FRANK? Well, what did you think?

Portrait of A Lady on Fire (2019)

Written & Directed by: Céline Sciamma

Winner of last year’s queer palm at Cannes, Portrait of a Lady of Fire creates something new. By using the form of a period piece, Sciamma was able to create something contemporary. Set in the late 1700’s on a remote island, Marianne (Noèmie Merlant) is commissioned to paint a wedding portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel).

While the age of Enlightenment is taking place, women remain tethered by convention whether in painting, servitude or marriage the women of this film find themselves propelled by outside/social forces. For a time, these women are seemingly protected, isolated from the mainland and patriarchal society before being forced to confront the reason their lives have come together in the first place. The women of this film learn to depend on each other, finding a sense of companionship and balance only to have it abruptly end.

Hailed as a post me-to0, LGBTQ and feminist masterpiece, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a film most concerned with the artist and the idea of the gaze. This theory can be used a bridge between art as a medium and social theory, integrating politics and art history. While a gaze can be used to confer meaning upon a piece, the relationship of the viewer and the viewed are always in negotiation.

As best stated by [French historian and philosopher] Michel Foucault while studying the function of the gaze in the painting Las Meninas the “observer and the observed take part in a ceaseless exchange. No gaze is stable…subject and object, spectator and model reverse their roles into infinity.” This communication is the exploration of director Céline Sciamma. The relationship between the two main characters blurs until it is unclear who is looking at whom. Through the film, the gaze becomes their mode of interaction. Intimacy and attraction grow as they share in this collaborative act and the painting’s completion serves as tribute.

Héloïse’s journey goes from being an object/the muse to someone who observes the subject and thus becomes the Marianne’s collaborator. This is a really amazing technical performance by Adèle Haenel, which destroys the traditional idea of art as a horizontal relationship to a horizontal one of give and take, or as in painting, layers of alternation.

This film also challenges the assumption that we have progressed as a society as well as in art, or at least that progress happens in a linear fashion. Choosing to place the film in the time of the late 18th century, a time known for a huge rise in female artists who were later censored and removed from art history is a very intentional choice. It is the perfect time to place a critique on the backlash female filmmakers are currently facing. This goes back to the idea of the gaze and one’s in ability to control how one is perceived by others, specifically due to culture and society. As Michel Foucault states “insofar as I am the object of values which come to qualify me without my being able to act on this qualification or even to know it, I am enslaved.”

A truly beautiful and cerebral film that will give you an exciting and new perspective on art and love. It’s a hopeful as well as critical film that offers insight into ideas of identity and personhood.

– Review by Jessie Zumeta

Have you seen Portrait of a Lady On Fire? Well, what did you think? 

TCFF19: DAY 2 Recap + Reviews: Well-Groomed doc | Black Hat + Misdirection (short)

It’s another gorgeous Autumn day for the second day of TCFF! It’s an extra special day for me as the short film I helped produced last year, MASTER SERVANT was screened last under under the ALL THE WRONG PLACES short block, which was sold out! In fact, TCFF is adding a second screening of that block on Friday, October 25th, 2:30pm.

It was really wonderful to see some of the people who worked on the film, some I hadn’t seen for months. Big congrats to writer/director Julie Koehnen… and to my fellow producers Steven Elbert and Kelly Lamplear-Dash.

Glad to see some cast members, crew and even some members of the orchestra who were featured in the film. I’m really proud of this historical drama and its journey so far… honored and blessed to have been a part of this amazing ride!

It’s fun juggling multiple hats again as a blogger and filmmaker, like I did back in 2017 when Hearts Want premiered at TCFF. Here are some photos from last night’s screening:

Here’s a video recap, courtesy of TCFF’s awesome media producers Ellie Drews & Kirstie House:

BLACK HAT (short)

Producer, writer and Minnesota native Phillip Guttmann returns to the 2019 Twin Cities Film Fest with his short film Black Hat, which premiered locally as part of the “In All The Wrong Places” shorts block on Thursday, Oct. 17. He serves as Writer/Co-Producer of the Sarah Smith directed short film which is described as being about “A seemingly pious Hasidic man living a secret double life misplaces his black hat one night which will cause his two separate lives to collide in a way he never imagined,” according to its IMDB page.

Guttmann previously attended the 2015 Twin Cities Film Fest, when his short story D.Asian – turned short film by Director/Writer Sarah Smith – was first shown locally. Guttmann also served as a co-producer of the short along with his director. The short film want on to win the top audience award for short film as well as honorable mention for the jury award for best short film at that year’s film fest.

I saw the Los Angeles-shot short film Black Hat at this year’s Twin Cities Jewish Film Festival, It’s part of its shorts block, and to me it stood out because it raised some important modern day issues such as sexual identity within a religious community that man not accept the person for having such desires. The short film stars the lead Adam Silver (a Chicago born and raised actor, known for the Dan Gilroy directed film Velvet Buzzsaw, who currently resides in Los Angeles) as Shmuel, a an ultra-Orthodox Jew in Los Angeles who is hiding a major secret from his family. When his family leaves town for several days, Shmuel leaves all of his religious garments and physical traits (except for a black hat) and sets off to visit the local gay bar. Prior to entering the bar, he takes off his hat and while at the bar, he stashes it away on top of a drawstring bag. He is soon approached by another man to join him in another room. Would Shmuel join him? 

According the short film’s website, “Phillip wrote Black Hat in response to his own experiences being Jewish but also based on his time spent working closely with the New York Haredi community at Footsteps. Phillip saw first-hand the struggle those seeking an outside, secular life face and has become inspired to tell these stories.

I think this is a strong short film that can easily be developed into a feature length film on subject matter alone. The story is very strong and keeps the audience guessing about whether the main character will be found out or outed for his own sexuality and/or sexual desires. And what about his wife and kids after they return from their trip? Will he continue to hide his true identity from them or will he ultimately had to confess and beg for their forgiveness? We may never find out the answers to those questions but, its worth asking them long after the end of the short film.

– Review by Vitali Gueron


College can be a stressful time in anyone’s life, especially on freshman year. Camila is a freshman who’s diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder, and she has a massive crush on her roommate Kara who’s pretty and popular with the boys. Victoria Ortiz is immediately captivating and sympathetic as Camila, and her struggle with Kara is palpable. Even when she to fix her up with someone else, Cam simply couldn’t focus on anyone else. Who hasn’t dealt with unrequited love? That makes the story instantly relatable.

After a particular incident that could’ve ended badly, Cam is told by her therapist to find a distraction, or an escape if you will. Soon she ends up meeting a street magician that leads her to channel her energy into something else.

This film is obviously dealing with LGBTQ issues, but the story can be applied to anyone dealing with a certain kind of obsession that potentially takes over our lives and distract us from living our life. Writer/director Carly Usdin apparently is into magic herself, she’s a member of Academy of Magical Arts in Los Angeles. She’s definitely a talented filmmaker, she’s won the Audience Award for Best First Feature at Outfest 2016 for her first feature Suicide Kale.

The story flows nicely and it’s also beautifully shot, a great example of a simple story told wonderfully in a short amount of time. It helps to have a strong leading actress as well, Victoria Ortiz is an actress to watch for.

Misdirection is part of AFI’s Directing Workshop for Women, class of 2019.

WELL-GROOMED (Documentary)

WELL GROOMED travels a year in the humorous and visually stunning world of competitive creative dog grooming alongside the women transforming their beloved poodles into living sculptures.

Beautifully done. I half expected “Best in Show,” but this was so much more. I had never heard of competitive creative dog grooming prior to this. It was fascinating to watch the journeys of these women that are dedicated to this unique art form. Skillfully captured with excellent cinematography made it a wonder to watch. I really enjoyed this film.

– Review by Kelly Lamplear-Dash

Stay tuned for more TCFF reviews and interviews!