Michelle Pfeiffer in French Exit

We first meet Frances Price (Michelle Pfeiffer) in her huge Upper East Side mansion. The brown wood and the enormous space she lives in indicates immediately how wealthy and insular she is. Her son Malcolm (Lucas Hedges) and his girlfriend (Imogen Poots) announce their engagement to each other but are afraid to tell Frances. Another indication that Frances might not be the easiest person to deal with. And when a few scenes later she calls her lawyer a pig in French to his face, making sure he knows it and she gets away with it, the characterization is complete.

The lawyer was telling Frances that her wealth is no more. She’s forced to accept a friend’s offer of a free apartment in Paris. Across the ocean she and Malcolm go bringing along their cat Little Frank, named after her dead husband. She plans to live in Paris as long as her money lasts which by the way she spends won’t be that much. The filmmakers behind French Exit, screenwriter Patrick DeWitt adapting his novel and director Azazel Jacob, understand  that these insular privileged characters would be odd. They would act idiosyncratically, they would be unknowingly rude, they would not have a concept for how much anything costs. They live in their own world. So when the cat starts talking – in the voice of Tracy Letts – you go with it. Looking at them within any real world framework or rule book is a futile task. You might as well turn off the movie. 

But Azazel also understands how perilous Frances’ situation is. So while the tone of the film is arch allowing the audience to laugh and enjoy how rude and cruel Frances can be. He also knows that he needs an actress to bring out the loneliness of Frances and he hit the jackpot in casting Pfeiffer who follows the film’s tone to a point. As we go along she slowly starts peeling off the affect, to show us the melancholic undertones of Frances and that’s when the performance finds its apex. 

In Paris Frances and Malcolm start collecting a few eccentric friends, building a sorta family. There’s a sad widow (Valerie Mahaffey) who’s very enamored with Frances. A fortune teller (Danielle MacDonald) who sleeps with Malcolm.  A soft spoken private investigator (Isaach De Bankole) who’s tasked with finding Little Frank when he runs away. Each of these characters brings another offbeat comedic note that provides levity but doesn’t add much to this quirky world we are watching besides showing us how isolated Frances increasingly becomes. She can’t make real connections, they have to be strange like her or she has to buy them. 

Hedges plays Malcolm as a sad boi from the beginning. You don’t understand why two women would be attracted to him. We only get faint glimmers of the rich boy’s insouciance that could be what attracted them. But it doesn’t matter, the real showstopper here is Pfeiffer. She’s the reason to watch. She could have played this role like an imperious 1940s Bette Davis character; a Regina Giddens (The Little Foxes) or Fanny Skeffington (Mr. Skeffington). All haughty gestures and clipped tones. Perhaps that would have made it more memorable. It certainly would have made it more gif-able, more fun and catnip to awards bodies. But Pfeiffer is getting at something more interesting than paying homage to a proven screen persona. That would be expected, instead she’s interested in locating a center of sorrow and regret that drives this woman. She even recedes to the background in scenes when many characters appear and lets Mahaffey steal their scenes together. She’s staying true to Frances’ nature, a rich woman used to having lots of space between her and others. A woman who can’t be bothered to react to people except with dismissal until she is forced to face reality. This is most evident in a heartbreaking scene where Frances acknowledges that her life is riddled by cliches.

French Exit is a film to savor and bask in. There are no immediate takeaways or blazing memorable scenes or even a loud performance to start a conversation. These are not characters you fall in love with or want to spend lots of time with. It’s not a film that elicits a definitive opinion right after it ends. However a few days later I keep thinking about it.

French Exit screened as the closing night selection of this year’sNew York Film Festival will be released in February 2021.

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On Cate Blanchett’s Wardrobe in Ocean’s 8

In a snippett from the podcast discussing the costumes worn by Cate Blanchett’s Lou Miller in Ocean’s 8, host Murtada Elfadl and guest Kate Halliwell discuss their favorites and call back to the homoerotic tones in the relationship between the two leads.

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Review: Garrett Bradley’s Time

Once in a while a film comes along where the filmmaker has made every right choice. As I was watching Garrett Bradley’s Time I kept nodding my head. Of course black and white was the right choice to tell the story merging archival footage with new footage. Of course you plunge the audience into the story without talking heads or time markations. And most of all of course that’s how you end to achieve catharsis.

Let’s back up a little, I’m getting ahead of myself. A chronicle of the life of Fox Rich, an activist and mother of six boys, Time tells the story of a family and the grave injustice of a broken system. Rich’s husband Rob is serving a 60 year sentence for a robbery they both committed in the 1990s. She got out after serving more than 3 years and for the last 20 year has been trying to get him out while raising their family. At the same time she’s been documenting her life and her kids’ for Rob. 

Bradley seamlessly integrates Rich’s video diaries with what she shot of her 19 years after the robbery. We are never sure when the diaries end and the newly shot footage starts. Just like time, an endless loop of memories filled with both heartache and joy. The black and white photography makes Time more mesmerizing and adds poignancy and heft to the story. 

This is a story ostensibly about Black suffering. The sentence that Rob gets does not equal the crime he committed in a moment of desperation. Rich knows this is a system continuing the enslavement of Black people and rightfully declares herself an abolitionist. What’s on screen though is not the suffering of this family. But rather the resilience, the fight and the hope. That’s what makes Time sublime. It gets to the bone of its message without hammering it through. It’s a gentle poke of a movie achieving catharsis with the cumulative emotions it elicits by the end.  We get there because Bradley deftly uses all her arsenal as a filmmaker to show the cost and the toll it takes for this family to have a moment of peace. 

Time will be available on Amazon Prime on October 16th.

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Frances McDormand in Nomadland

I recently saw Nomadand at the New Yorl Film Festival from the comfort of my couch.

“You know you are not watching just any old prestige drama when a film throws in a shot of its lead character – played by a 2-time Oscar winner – defecating a mere three minutes into its running time. Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland is a film concerned with the concrete realities of life. Things that might seem mundane or unmentionable but take up a big part of everyday life. How a woman carves a small place on earth to sleep, eat, work and yes defecate.”

Read the rest of my review at The Film Experience.

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A Misbehaving Blackbird

Gugu Mbatha-Raw in Misbehavior

September, even in this pandemic year, represents an interesting dichotomy in the film year. As news and breathless soundbites about new and exciting movies come from film festivals in Venice, Toronto and New York – the new movies becoming available are mostly mediocre. These are films stuffed with good intentions, socially relevant stories and celebrated actors. Yet something went amiss during the conception and/or production. So with little expectation I hit play on Misbehavior and Blackbird.

As usual my entry into these movies were the actresses. Susan Sarandon, Kate Winslet and Mia Wasikowska are in Blackbird. I knew it was a family drama about euthanasia so I thought at the very least I’d get these three actresses dealling with dramatic material and maybe there will be fireworks. There weren’t any but the film delivered on the rest.

Sarandon and Winslet in Blackbird

The story takes place over the last weekend in the life of a matriarch (Sarandon) suffering from a terminal illness. Along with her doctor husband (Sam Neil), she has decided to end her life so she gathered her daughters (Winslet and Wasikowska, their spouses (Rainn Wilson and Bex Taylor- Klaus respectively) her grandson (Anson Boon) and best friend (Lindsay Duncan). Confrontations ensue, secrets are revealed and the deep ties that bind family are supposed to get us to an emotional end.

Alas, because the script never goes anywhere unexpected and director Roger Michell shoots with minimal flair it was left to the actors to provide both the pathos and entertainment. Sarandon is commanding and understated playing this woman with a permanent look of resignation and wisdom. Winslet goes into the other direction deciding to give us a CHARACTER. Her imperious and never relaxed older sibling is a mixture of tics and rigid movements. The performance works in fits and starts and she fares better in the many showdowns between the sisters. That’s because Wasikowska is given a sketch of a character. All the cliches of the younger sister; she’s rebellious, lost, deals with substance abuse but all that doesn’t cohere into a recognizable human being stranding Wasikowska in the process. 

Winslet and Wasikowska in Blackbird

For a film dealing with such a weighty subject Blackbird is too slight to leave a mark. The script – credited to Christian Torpe – never tries to make any bold statements relying on a quiet slice of life familial narrative. That might be commendable though it also leads to a rather forgettable film.

Misbehavior is grander and more ambitious in its storytelling and thus more affecting. Set at the !970 Miss World competition in London, the film presents its story through the eyes of four real life characters. 

Knightley and Buckley at the center

First we have two contrasting views from white women fighting for women’s liberation. Sally Alexander (Keira Knightley)  who wants to make change by joining places of male power like academia. Then Jo Robinson (Jessie Buckley) who’s more radical and looking to dismantle all institutions. The contrast is built rather simply as these two women meet and join forces within the same activist group despite opposing tactics. Rebecca Frayn and Gaby Chiappe’s screenplay does not invent the wheel and the scenes where we get to know these two are familiar but also rather engaging. 

The third and perhaps most interesting point of view is introduced later in the film. Gugu Mbatha Raw plays Miss Grenada Jennifer Hosten who becomes the first Black winner of Miss World. The tension comes from Alexander and Robinson leading a disruption during the ceremony to protest how it objectifies women. Hosten and the first ever Black contestant from South Africa Pearl Janssen (Loreece Harrison) are trying to use the competition as a springboard to more opportunities and to inspire young Black girls everywhere. The best scenes are when the women talk to each other; Janssen and Hosten, Robinson and Alexander and finally Hosten and Alexander. It’s all earnest and heartfelt but the actresses bring a sensitivity and understanding that make these scenes touching. The film tries to balance their views and critique both the exploitation of beauty pageants and the sometimes bird view of white feminism. 

Knightley and Mbatha-Raw in Misbehavior

Under prosthetics Gregg Kinnear plays the host Bob Hope presenting the fourth and last point of view. While the filmmakers might have been trying to present the waning world of male entitlement and misogyny with this portrayal it doesn’t add anything insightful to the story. All it does is strand Lesley Manvile in a thankless as his nagging wife, Dolores Hope. I guess they needed to insert a real life famous figure. A more interesting perspective is that of Julia Morley (Keeley Hawes) the wife of the competition’s organizer who recognizes that they must change with the time or become obsolete. I wish the filmmakers beefed up that part instead.

Similar to other small slices of a well known life British movies like last year’s Judy – also with Buckley – Misbehavior is watchable thanks to the charming performances by its leading ladies. Like Blackbird it will be forgotten by next week.

Blackbird is available now in VOD and in select theaters. Misbehavior will be released on September 25.

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Steve McQueen’s Lovers Rock

A new Steve McQueen film is always reason for celebration and especially this one, his sexy and intoxicating swerve into joie de vivre. Lovers Rock which debuted as the opening night film of the New York Film Festival, is part of Steve McQueen’s Small Axe anthology. The series comprises five original films set among London’s West Indian community in the 1970s and 1980s and inspired by stories remembered by McQueen and his family.

Distinctly a McQueen film with its long intense takes and shots that dissolve into one another. Though somewhat of a swerve for him into joie de vivre as these extended dance sequences show the euphoria and camaraderie of life, of people coming together.

Head over to Cup of Soul Show to read my full review…

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Introducing Murtada’s Corner

Let me introduce Murtada’s Corner which will be the new section where you can read about other topics. The podcast will remain all about Cate Blanchett but here I will branch into other writing – old and new – about other topics. Mostly cinema related.

Muligan in Never Let Me Go

I’m starting with another actress I admire, Carey Mulligan and a collection of articles I’ve written about her through the years. Happy Reading!

Carey Mulligan is an actress of immense range. Since her breakout at the 2009 edition of Sundance with An Education, she’s given us many tremendous performances. All of them heartbreaking and deeply felt in different ways, whether she’s a replicant trying to make human connections (Never Let Me Go), F Scott Fitzgerald’s famous Daisy (The Great Gatsby), a broken sister singing her heart out as a last cry for help (Shame) or a wife and mother facing the dissolution of her marriage and the paucity of choices after (Wildlife). And once again she gives an exceptional performance in Promising Young Woman

On her performance in Wildlife:

This is her shining moment. It’s her Blanche Dubois moment. Her Jeanette, a Montana housewife dealing with the repercussions of a crumbling marriage, is untethered yet Mulligan is in complete control. She holds the performance in her voice, as it trembles with emotion – hurt, confusion, anger, uncertainty  – all is clear to the audience through the timber of her voice.”

Click to read more…

and stream on Netflix

Mulligan’s performance is an emotional marvel and delivered with technical mastery. Her working class English accent is impeccable, her weariness and defeat is visible in her hunched back and heavy walk, her defiance rises to crescendo and is delivered with skillful control of her voice. This is why there are awards for acting.

Click to read more on Suffragette, also available to stream on Netflix.

And at this year’s Sundance Mulligan impressed me once more in Promising Young Woman.

Mulligan is engaging and ferocious throughout and the reason to immediately buy a ticket.

Click to read more….

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An Ode to La Divina Cate’s Couture in Venezia

The legend of St. Mark, and the lion that represents him, is one of the defining traits of the city of Venice. The winged beast watches over the township from the famous square named after the saint, and St. Mark’s effigy can be found all over the churches, homes, and tourist shops of the Italian city.

The legend states that the evangelist once found himself caught in the midst of a storm in the Venice lagoon, and upon landing in a small island an angel appeared to him and announced he would find rest there.

For film fans, hungry for the couture and red carpets the pandemic stole from them, Venice Film Festival Jury President, Cate Blanchett arrived in very much St. Mark- style to let them know “be at ease children, your patron saint of fashion is here.”

To claim her throne, Blanchett appeared in nautical Armani, wide slacks, a navy jacket and of course a mask. The Blanchett does not toy around with Covid.

The effortless ensemble recalls one of Cate’s most iconic characters, her take on Kate the Great in Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator.

“Do your worst, Ms. Blanchett!

Like most decent people, Cate doesn’t understand what’s the big deal with wearing a mask. If she can sport one while looking unfazed in the striped Armani jumpsuit she wore to the jury photocall, how can you complain about putting one on to wear to the grocery store, where you won’t be photographed by all of Europe’s paparazzi?

Before arriving in Venice, Cate promised she would make this a “green” red carpet by wearing some of her most beloved looks from premieres past.

Allow me for a second to fantasize and get lost in the dream of visiting Cate’s closet. It must look like the one from the first Sex and the City movie, where Big proposes to Carrie, right? Yes, I will marry thee, canary yellow Valentino from the 2004 Oscars. I shall love thee forever, pink Balenciaga from 2013! Yes, I take you as my beloved husband, Galliano gown from the 1998 awards.

Yes, you too hummingbird!

Never one to disappoint, Cate’s first recycled look came from 2015, for the opening night film at Venice, she wore the same caped Esteban Cortázar she donned to the BFI Festival premiere of Carol. Notice how the mask with the winged sleeves makes her look positively superehero-esque.

Speaking of Carol, look at this pair:

I demand a Freaky Friday or a Persona where the two trade places or merge as one supreme being of fashion and rule over our humdrum lives.

Cate’s couture reconfiguration continued with Alexander McQueen. In 2016 she wore this exquisite beaded McQueen top to the BAFTAS with a feathered skirt that would’ve made the late Lee swoon. For Venice 2020, a pair of pants and a 1940s style up-do got the job done.

Venetians have a reputation for being tall-tale-tellers, some accuse them of being liars! But what they know how to do is tease and reveal just about enough to leave one wanting more. The 16th century Venetian scholar and historian Paolo Sarpi once exclaimed “I never, never tell a lie, but the truth not to everyone,” and so fashioning herself a Venetian, not by birth but by spirit, Cate didn’t stick to couture compost, and debuted two new Armani suits.

After all, a girl has to fulfill her spokeswoman contract duties.

With the festival wrapping up this weekend, we wrap up this ode to la divina Blanchett, with some lines from Emma Lazarus’ appropriately titled “A Masque of Venice,”

We shall mark
All the pageant from this ivory porch of ours,
Masques and jesters, mimes and minstrels, while we hark
To their music as they fare.
Scent their flowers
Flung from boat to boat in rainbow radiant showers
Through the laughter-ringing air.

Addio, for now.

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Fashion Moments We Hope to See at Venice

Cate Blanchett will start her jury president duties at the Venice International Film Festival this Wednesday September 2. The festival will be the first major international film event since the Covid-19 pandemic cancelled all events around the world. Fashion lovers  are cautiously excited since there will be some sort of red carpet.

Blanchett has indicated in an interview with WWD magazine that she plans to exclusively re-wear looks from her closet throughout the festival. Yes, no new couture for Cate this year. It fits a socially distant event to be more responsible and promote sustainability. So we applaud the decision and suggest six looks we hope to see on Cate in the next 10 days.

Arriving at this list was arbitrary. Balnchett has wowed so many times that it’s futile to try to come with any rhyme or reason for my choices. It’s just a few that I love. There is one I did not choose whilst being my favorite because I’d like it to remain exclusive to that moment, the Carol premiere at Cannes. 

Where / When : The Oscars, February 2011

Designer: Givenchy 

Divisive at the time but now universally acknowledged as one of Cate’s most audacious red carpet moments. Everything about it is unusual. The pale lavender color spiked with yellow, the intricate embroidery, the pleats and the architectural breast piece. So avant garde, so Cate!

Where / When: SK-II event in Shanghai, September 2010

Designer: Christian Lacroix 

This is more obscure yet remains one of my faves ever. A glowing burgundy gown embellished with shimmering gold sequins. We have previously waxed poetic about it on the pod.

Where / When: The Oscars, February 2007

Designer: Armani

She wore this column Armani couture silver sheath the year she was nominated for Notes on Scandal. That was also the year she witnessed a moment we love from the telecast. You can see her front row clapping and whooping when The Aviator director, Martin Scorsese won his first Oscar after many nominations and decades of a wonderful career. 

Where / When: Cannes Opening Night and premiere of Robin Hood, May 2011

Designer: Alexander McQueen 

What a way to pay tribute to the recently deceased McQueen at the time. Cate wore this gorgeous black and white gown with the striking eagle print just 3 months after McQueen had passed.

Where / When: The Good German, LA premiere, December 2006

Designer: Versace 

This cream and gold peekaboo dress is singular but rarely mentioned in any fashion retrospectives about Cate. Bring it back, let the people enjoy.

Where / When : The Oscars, February 2005

Designer : Valentino 

Go big and re-wear something from one of your biggest career moments. That would be the bespoke Valentino that was specially designed for her to collect her first Academy Award. Cate and Valentino wanted to create a unique fashion moment, so he dressed no one else that year at the Oscars. This Yellow taffeta with the mauve sash was certainly a big wow and my favorite Oscar fashion from Cate. 

I haven’t chosen anything from last year’s Venice or from her stint as jury president in Cannes 2018 because I wanted to go further back in time. However let us know in the comments what you want to see repeated from those festivals?

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2019 Redux

While the podcast is on hiatus for the next few weeks, revisit some of our more popular episodes from last year.

OC82

Ocean’s 8 and the peak of Cate Blanchett’s celebrity post Carol (2015).

notact

Her spot on interpretation of Katharine Hepburn in The Aviator.

the-talented-mr-ripley-cate-blanchett

An early career highlight in The Talented Mr. Ripley.

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