FlixChatter Review: FRENCH EXIT (2020)

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I saw this movie a while ago but I just kept getting distracted by other films to finally got a chance to review it. The story is based on Patrick deWitt’s elite-society satire novel of the same name, with the author himself also penning the screenplay. Now, not having read the book, I can’t compare the two, though on paper I could see how the premise could potentially work as a movie. Whether the book translates well onto screen is another matter entirely however,  but one thing for sure, Michelle Pfeiffer is perfectly cast as the protagonist. Frances Price is an elegant and eccentric Manhattan widow who after a mere dozen years after her husband’s death has ran out of her inheritance. She manages to convert whatever left off her assets into cash before she jets off to Paris to stay in her fellow socialite girlfriend’s apartment, taking her sullen son Malcolm (Lucas Hedges) and her black cat in tow. The oddly named cat Small Frank proves to be a significant plot point that takes an even bizarre turn later in the movie.

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Frances is the kind of woman who doesn’t seem to let anything ruffles her… she didn’t break down or cry even when her accountant informs her that all the money’s gone. The role seems to be made for Le Pfeiffer who’s effortlessly charming and can beguile you with simply a look or a subtle gesture. She also looks amazing in her opulent attire, I especially love her fringed black dress and fur-lined camel coat. There’s always an air of mystery about her and I have to admit that’s what helps keeps me engaged in this movie. Hardly anything happens and some of the bizarre things that do happen, such as when they encounter a clairvoyant (Danielle Macdonald) on the ship, it’s done in such a nonchalant way that one can’t help but just shrugs it off.

The mother/son pairing of Pfeiffer and Hedges seems interesting at first, given how defiantly passive he is. He seems devoid of emotion as he casually dumps his fiancée Susan (an underutilized Imogen Poots) to accompany his mother. After a time, Malcolm grows more baffling and deeply unaffecting, and I wish there’s a better chemistry between the two. Now, Malcolm’s dullness is more of the fault of the script than Hedges’ acting. In fact, I think all the actors did their best to elevate the material and its skeleton thin plot. Director Azazel Jacobs peppers the film with lovely Parisian scenery, but it can only distract me for so long before I long for something meaningful in this movie. In the third act, suddenly the small apartment is crowded with people Frances meets along the way. Valerie Mahaffey as Frances’ quirky French neighbor Madame Reynard, Isaach De Bankolé as the private investigator have some memorable moments. Even Susan suddenly turns up with her boyfriend (Daniel di Tomasso) and things gets pretty chaotic.

There are some supernatural elements in the final act that makes the film even more surreal. Frances asks Madeline to channel Frances’ dead husband, in the apartment bathroom of all places! It’s also here that we learn why Small Frank behaves the way it behaves and why he’s given such a bizarre name. This revelation is seemingly random, instead of something that’s been an organic progress from the beginning. The few moments between Frances and her caring best friend Joan (Susan Coyne) is quite amusing as Frances is self-aware that ‘her life is riddled with clichés.’ There’s also a rather poignant scene of her reaching out to a homeless person outside her apartment, perhaps her last desperate attempts to find meaning in her hollow existence. It all feels a little too late however, thus it doesn’t really carry any emotional resonance.

Overall, despite Pfeiffer’s delightful performance, this movie doesn’t really stick in my mind long after its closing credits. It’s as if the writer is only interested in making the characters bizarre for its own sake instead of people we can connect or relate to in a meaningful way. I do like seeing Pfeiffer in a more comedic role, and she’s truly the reason this movie is worth a watch.


Have you seen FRENCH EXIT? Well, what did you think?

FlixChatter Review: HONEY BOY (2019)

Director: Alma Har’el
Writer: Shia LaBeouf

Honey Boy surprised me. I expected it to be intense, but the film exceeded those expectations. Young Otis Lort (played by Noah Jupe, who, among other victories, perfectly nails his American accent) has started to make it in Hollywood. His father, James (Shia LaBeouf), shuttles him between their motel and set on his motorcycle every day, fathering him as well as he can, but inhibited by his personal demons. Honey Boy cuts this story with one of young adult Otis (Lucas Hedges), who is spinning out of control. A drunken encounter with the police lands him in rehab where he must confront the demons he inherited from his father. Honey Boy is an emotional whirlwind sprinkled with magical realism: a beautiful film that is finely coated with a layer of grime.

Noah Jupe with Shia LaBeouf

Alma Har’el’s direction of Honey Boy is exceptional. The emotional intensity of the movie is at a constant high, but Har’el skillfully controls the tone, keeping the audience so invested that it is only once the ending credits begin to roll that we realize exactly how emotionally taxing watching the film is. Har’el safely and elegantly navigates her actors (especially Jupe) through fraught emotional terrain while maintaining a beautiful visual aesthetic. She also notably lets the script’s snark about rehab shine through without minimizing rehab’s positive impact on Otis.

Lucas Hedges

All that said, I am so curious what the on-set relationship between LaBeouf and Har’el looked like. Although LaBeouf is only officially credited as writer and actor, it seems inevitable that LaBeouf would have had some directorial insights for such a personal project.  (As I’m sure you’ve already heard, writing this screenplay, based on his life, was part of LaBeouf’s recovery process). This curiosity especially comes into play in scenes like the one where LaBeouf plays James Lort at an AA meeting. Tears quivering in his eyes, James describes his love for his son, his deep pain, and how that pain often inhibits the expression of his love. How much of this moment was pure LaBeouf? How much was Har’el? I. am. so. curious.

Noah Jupe and FKA Twigs

LaBeouf’s inherent empathy for and understanding of his father (and Har’el’s ability to portray their fraught, but undeniably close relationship) is exactly why this movie works so well. In a therapy session, the young adult iteration of Otis Lort insists that his father is not the cause of his problems: James Lort is the reason that Otis has been successful. Despite all the pain, all the arguments, all the questionable parenting choices, Otis understands that at his father’s core it was all love. The fact that his father’s love was frequently overshadowed by his demons is as irrelevant as it was painful.

There are no weak actors in this film. You will love FKA Twigs despite yourself: she will make your skin crawl. Lucas Hedges is the eye of a hurricane: a ball of angry energy waiting for any excuse to snap. Byron Bowers is funny and subtle. Noah Jupe, surrounded by strong performers, still somehow carries the film on his tiny, twelve-year old shoulders. He perfectly captures a double-sided coin of innocence and premature adulthood. I dare you not to cry when his parents use him as a literal conduit for one of their arguments. And, of course, Shia LaBeouf will rip your damn heart out.

There are so many smart, artistic choices to unpack in Honey Boy. For one, I think it’s safe to assume that LaBeouf’s choice to rename himself Otis is in reference to Odysseus’ renaming himself “Outis” [ie “nobody”] when he encountered Polyphemus. And there is so much to discuss about that choice. For another, the magical realism that is otherwise a delightfully glowing subtext to the story, peaks toward the end of the film when young adult Otis and his father share a moment that is almost guaranteed to make your head spin. Visually majestic, contextually complex, and full of award-worthy performances, Honey Boy is not a film to miss.

I can only hope that LaBeouf continues to write. He is a gifted storyteller and we’re lucky to have him.


Have you seen HONEY BOY? What did you think?

Guest Review: MANCHESTER BY THE SEA (2016)

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Directed/Written By: Kenneth Lonergan
Cast: Casey Affleck, Lucas Hedges, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler
Runtime: 2 hrs 17 minutes

Cinema portrayals of angry people are not usually enjoyable entertainment yet we are fascinated by films that dwell entirely on simmering angst. Manchester by the Sea (2016) is such a film. Perplexing, unsettling, yet engaging, it is a story without joy that is made bearable by outstanding performances and superb cinematography.

The plotline has a simple core narrative framed by frequent and abrupt flashbacks that gradually piece together a jigsaw-like story. We meet Lee (Casey Affleck) as a handyman and depressive loner whose temper blows over at little provocation. Through a series of flashbacks, we learn that he lives in self-exile because of a horrible family tragedy he caused. He has become emotionally hollowed out and unable to relate to people. Suddenly his brother has a fatal heart attack and his will names Lee as executor and guardian of 16 year-old son Patrick (Lucas Hedges). But to accept this responsibility, Lee must move back to the idyllic seaside town of Manchester by the Sea which is full of traumatic memories, including of his attempted suicide, his divorced wife, and people who are wary of him. He stays for the funeral, drinks heavily, lashes out physically, argues with his teenage nephew, and wants to cut and run. Gradually, he becomes emotionally re-connected with family and place through the experience of caring for the typically full-of-himself nephew. Lee’s traumatic past makes way for new beginnings, new relationships, and the hope of redemption.

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If you look for originality in storytelling, there is little of it here. Painful battles with inner demons is a cliché, and fighting several at once is simply a compound cliché not something new. Half of this film is spent on assembling the narrative jigsaw so we can understand what makes Lee the way he is, and the other half is spent on standard melodrama tropes about re-connecting by caring for someone else. However, it is the casting, characterisation, and cinematography that save this film from being just another story of angry people destabilised by tragedy. Casey Affleck does trauma and ambivalence very effectively. His bemused tolerance of his nephew’s demands and sexual exploits becomes the emotional scaffold that guides his calming from pot-boiling anger to resigned acceptance that life must go on. Lucas Hedges is the perfect foil for Casey Affleck, and both are helped by a strong support ensemble.

Brilliant acting by Affleck does not hide the film’s melodramatic predictability. But this slow essay on anger would be more unsettling were it not for its joyful filming. Trauma is calmed and un-likable characters forgiven when all are nestled against beautiful images of bobbing fishing vessels lapping the shores of charming Manchester by the Sea. The camerawork visually warms the film and helps bind its elements into an engaging story of loss and redemption.

cinemuseRichard Alaba, PhD
CineMuse Films
Member, Australian Film Critics Association
Sydney, Australia


Have you seen ‘Manchester By The Sea’? Well, what did you think?