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Franz Patrick

Men in Black: International


Men in Black: International (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

F. Gary Gray’s “Men in Black: International” is a tolerable but forgettable reboot that does not take enough risks because the studio is afraid to provide a work so different that fans of the franchise may find it unpleasant, off-putting, or unrecognizable. But guess what? The last entry was released seven years ago. The more appropriate move, one may argue, is to overhaul the series completely, turn it toward a different direction, and let it rip. It may or may not have worked. But at least it would have been memorable, a fearless experiment. Instead, however, we are handed this reluctant reboot, too safe to become anything more than a movie to be forgotten about once the end credits appear. A losing strategy was chosen.

We follow Molly (Tessa Thompson), dubbed Agent M by Agent O (Emma Thompson), lead of Men in Black’s New York branch, during her probationary period in London. Smart, observant, and highly enthusiastic to learn more about the secret organization, Agent M recognizes that Agent H (Chris Hemsworth) is one of the top suits within the London branch, and so she finds a way for the two of them to work on a case. The screenwriters, Matt Holloway and Art Marcum, make the correct decision to establish the protagonist before the banters and the effects-heavy action sequences. Because we get a sense of her quick wit, resourcefulness, and determination, we do not question her qualifications. If only the rest of the picture functioned on this level.

Exchanges between H and M are hit-or-miss. While Hemsworth and Thompson share some chemistry, it is never fiery or crackling. Perhaps it is in the way the characters are written when together. They have different personalities but they are not opposites. And because they are not opposites, they rarely clash. And because they rarely clash, drama fails to reach a zenith.

It is apparent the duo are meant to be liked, together and apart. They are played with cool and gusto by the attractive leads, but this approach comes across as boring at times. The humor is like a gentle tap on the shoulder when there are instances where we crave for a playful punch in the gut. Furthermore, it oozes political correctness when it comes to gender and I found it to be both distracting and patronizing. The casting itself is already daring. Why not go all the way?

I enjoyed the curious creatures that populate this universe. There are nudges to previous “Men in Black” films but these are rarely ostentatious. I smiled at the small moments when the camera would linger for an extra second or two to admire an an extraterrestrial’s body shape, skin texture, tentacles, number of heads, humanoid eyes. They need not talk, or grunt, or do anything to have a personality. It gives the impression that the filmmakers are proud of the special and visual effects outside of the action scenes even though these effects do not always blend seamlessly into the environment.

Speaking of action scenes, they are tired and generic. There is nothing special about toy-looking guns shooting colorful lasers. Cue the swooshing sound effects and CGI explosions. To me, these are mere punctuations to the adventures Agents M and H must go through to forge a formidable partnership. After all, the point is to revive a nearly dead franchise. If this core wasn’t strong—and it isn’t about half the time—then the movie would have been an exercise in futility.

Terrifier


Terrifier (2016)
★★ / ★★★★

The high on gore, low on scares slasher flick “Terrifier” may appeal to those who are simply in it for the gratuitous violence, but those looking for a solid story with (even marginally) interesting characters are advised to stay away. It is apparent that writer-director Damien Leone aims to deliver a work that pays homage to 1980s horror pictures. On the surface, an argument can be made that it succeeds. There is a high body count. The plot is straightforward. Even the ending hints a possible sequel. But it is lacking in ways that really count.

The story unfolds during Halloween, but it does not seem to serve much purpose. Sure, it gives the excuse for potential victims, often female, to wear sexy costumes. They scream, trip, and slither their way through confined spaces. They get stabbed, gutted, suffocated, and the like. Standard stuff. I grew tired of it by the third victim. It, too, provides the villain a way to blend into the environment. Art the Clown (David Howard Thornton) wears a black and white clown outfit with a death white mask to complete the ensemble. He carries around a trash bag. He sports a creepy smile. He does not say a word. He does not even scream even when a massive nail is impaled on his foot. There is a cartoonish quality behind the goings-on. But take away the holiday aspect and these killings could have occurred on any given night.

I was not amused by any of it and yet I was not able to look away. I was marginally curious whether either of the two friends, Tara (Jenna Kanell) and Dawn (Catherine Corcoran), on their way home from a Halloween party, would make it through the night. These two are archetypes: the sensible brunette and the dumb blonde. The only difference between these girls and their ‘80s counterparts is that they have a cell phone. Odds are the blonde will not make it halfway through the film. She fails to recognize a threat nearly every single time. Surely, the writer-director will attempt to modernize the tried-and-true formula… right?

And therein lies the problem: A case can be made that taking either route of the blonde or the brunette surviving is a cliché. In the post- post-modern era of slashing and stabbing, nothing feels fresh any longer. When Tara phones her sister, Vicky (Samantha Scaffidi), about twenty minutes into the picture, alarms going off in our heads suggest she is likely to be the final girl. She is the studious type. The girl who stays in during Halloween to prepare for a midterm the next day. We are constantly ahead of its maneuverings and it makes for a passive experience.

What makes Art the Clown terrifying? Is it because he relishes taunting his victims? Is it because he shows no sign of remorse as he mutilates his prey? Is it solely due to the clown mask and costume? He is provided no background information. The thing about the better ‘80s slasher flicks (“A Nightmare on Elm Street,” “Sleepaway Camp,” “Friday the 13th”) is that the antagonist is provided at least a semblance of substance. Although unsettling at times, Art the Clown is neither an effective nor a memorable villain. He is not terrifying. It would have been more appropriate to name the movie “Mutilator.” This clown will not be remembered twenty years from now. Not even five years from now.

The final ten to fifteen minutes shows the screenplay at its weakest. There are plenty of opportunities to slay the killer, but they are not taken. Characters appear to step out of danger just in time and then the very next shot is them dead or dying. The most minute common sense is thrown out the window altogether. Particularly idiotic is when the final girl finally makes it outside and yet… she runs back into the building of horrors where she can once again get trapped by the assailant. At the very least she should be screaming to the top of her lungs while outside so the neighbors could hear and call for help.

Sidewalks of New York


Sidewalks of New York (2001)
★★★ / ★★★★

“Sidewalks of New York,” written and directed by Ed Burns, is the kind of picture for audiences who love to listen to interesting people talking about their lives—specifically, what they think of the idea of love versus what it actually is; how they perceive relationships and how it ought to work; how they define sex and how it relates to their own definition of happiness or contentment. The work does not offer the expected three-act structure which is appropriate given its faux-documentary feel. Rather, it employs a freewheeling approach, warm and always welcoming, daring to draw a smile on those willing to look closely and listen. It is not demanded that we judge, but it asks that we relate.

Credit to the casting by Ali Farrell and Laura Rosenthal for choosing effortlessly charismatic performers who are also capable of delivering a spectrum of emotions especially during closeups when the camera aims to capture every bit of tic and twitching of facial muscles. Every person we meet is a curiosity in some way. Although there is interconnection among them, it is refreshing that they do not all meet by the end, forced into a ludicrous situation by a tired setup. Its restraint in handling how the story is presented is quite admirable. Similar works within the sub-genre has shown it is difficult to balance a laidback attitude while maintaining a consistent forward trajectory. Not once does it lose its way.

Particularly intriguing among the strong batch of actors is David Krumholtz, portraying a Jewish doorman named Ben who is convinced he has found love (Brittany Murphy) after having been divorced (Rosario Dawson). In a way, the character represents young idealism; he goes after what he perceives to be love with great enthusiasm and boundless energy, like a puppy given freedom to play and roam at a park on a holiday weekend. But observe closely and recognize his greatest fear: that his life would constantly be defined by the divorce that permanently destroyed a part of him. An important detail of the character is his penchant for music of the past. What is music but love in melody form?

Burns’ screenplay makes numerous smart choices. I enjoyed that even the most unlikable character, played by Stanley Tucci, is given dimension. Yes, the dentist is a womanizer, cheating on his wife (Heather Graham) with a nineteen-year-old waitress (Murphy) at every opportunity, so brazen and obvious about it that everyone at his workplace knows that his “lunch hour” is really a “quickie” trip to a hotel, but the character is shown under a tragic light, too. It is not necessary that we like him; however, it is crucial that we recognize the sadness not only in his situation, especially that he isn’t getting any younger, but also in his desperation. Clearly, he is not built to be in a monogamous relationship and yet he forces himself to fit within such a box. Griffith, so convinced he is always in control, is a product of his environment more than he realizes or care to admit. While some viewers may detest him for his actions, I felt pity for him.

The aforementioned extremes show why the movie works. It does not attempt to write a rulebook on relationships or its trials and tribulations. Rather, the picture is concerned with excavating details from underneath the surface, just like how Burns hopes that the audience comes to appreciate New York not just through its reputation or word-of-mouth but in actually looking at the small details like graffitis on walls, diverse groups of people walking down the street, the noises in the background. It is both a contemporary comedy and a love letter to a place and community that the writer-director clearly loves and respects.

Marriage Story


Marriage Story (2019)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Despite the plot revolving around a messy divorce, it is without question that “Marriage Story” is first and foremost a love story between two people who must go their separate ways. This is because writer-director Noah Baumbach is able to recognize that although events must occur to push the story forward, he puts the most time and effort in ensuring that the script is alive and the lead performances fine-tuned to the highest quality so that the standard plot turns are never bland, gathering tension the more we learn about the circumstances. What results is a work that has something universal to say about love: sometimes loving another person—even loving them deeply—may still not be enough to sustain a marriage.

Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver play the couple, Nicole and Charlie—she a one-time movie star in Los Angeles who decided to move to New York City with him and he a theater director who is so passionate about what he does, he doesn’t seem to mind making pennies despite his prodigious talent. She gets to star in his plays. They have a child eventually. For a while, the usual rhythm and beat of their chosen lifestyle has worked for them. But, just like any other marriage, the small flaws in their relationship soon begin to tilt the balance. They begin to question what they deserve, what they have accomplished, are they truly happy or simply plateaued? Johansson and Driver deliver terrific performances; they are so effective at both comic and dramatic scenes that you never know what to expect when a scene starts to unravel.

For instance, when a situation appears to build up to a massive confrontation, it is instead diffused. The reason is because Charlie and Nicole know each other so well, they know how one another might respond when approached a certain way or when a specific subject is broached. And so they try to get ahead of it. But then there are moments when they really wish to get under each other’s skin—often due to the resulting frustrations of the divorce process—that they drill and drill until the yelling in room is deafening and pointless. We get a genuine impression that this former couple has a long, detailed, and complex history—which is critical in humanistic dramas.

I appreciated that neither parent is portrayed as a monster nor a saint. Charlie, for example, is so busy with making sure that the final product is the best play it can be that it would have been easier to show us a neglectful father. Instead, it is shown that he cares a whole lot for his son and tries to be there when he can—but discerning viewers will quickly recognize that it just isn’t enough. Charlie is both a father who loves his family as well as a workaholic. Nicole, too, is given shades of complexity. On the one hand, she enjoys being a stage actress in NYC. But she misses LA, her home, and being recognized as the star—not just the director’s wife who just so happens to be playing the lead role. For Nicole, it is a matter of being seen and respected.

The picture is also elevated by memorable supporting characters and performances. Some of them appear a few times, others only once or twice. But every person gets a reaction from us, from Laura Dern as a divorced divorce lawyer representing Nicole with such enthusiasm one cannot help but wonder if she is genuine initially; Ray Liotta as a cunning (and expensive) NYC lawyer who is not above a shouting match in court; Alan Alda also another lawyer but a different breed: he seems to genuinely care about the people involved in the divorce, not just who wins or loses—notice how he takes his time to deliver his words and gestures; Martha Kelly aptly credited as “The Evaluator” because her character blends into the background… until she decides to speak up with that muted but creepy voice.

“Marriage Story” is an effective drama with observant comic moments because it bothers with the details: of the divorce, of how a parent interacts with his or her child; of how a child processes difficult situations; of how a lawyer’s strategy changes when provided potentially juicy information; of how feelings and motivations change with time. Clearly, Baumbach understands divorce from a deeply personal experience. The work would not have been this searing, this complicated, this true had it been otherwise.

Operation Finale


Operation Finale (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★

“Operation Finale” is like a car that has stalled—it requires a bit of push in order to get going. But once it is over the hump, the ride is suspenseful, thrilling, and also quite surprising at times. The plot is based on a true story involving a team of Jewish operatives who are tasked to capture Adolf Eichmann (Ben Kingsley), a war criminal considered to be one of the masterminds of the Final Solution—the systematic extermination of six million Jews in Nazi Germany—who is hiding, along with his family, in Buenos Aires. The Mossad agents must get him on a plane bound for Israel so he can be prosecuted for his crimes. We know how it is going to end. But like all true stories that undergo dramatization, what matters most is the details.

The first quarter of the picture is mildly interesting but messy. First, the many pieces that must be juggled are not handled with a high enough level of energy designed to combust and propel the significance of the mission. It goes by the assumption that the viewer already has knowledge of the monstrosities the Nazis had done to the Jews during World War II—a mistake because not everyone is well-versed in history. (Yes, even a mass genocide that each person should know about. You’d be surprised.)

This leads to the second shortcoming: the many faces and personalities introduced are not provided informative or relatable background information. And so when the Mossad agents finally do get together, we know only one or two of their names. There are seven of them—at least. One might argue, however, that this is the point: the operatives are but a part of a mission—expendable should they fail. But I argue that is important that we have understanding of at least half of them.

The reason is because the picture is a drama at its core, not a fictional action-thriller. The film is not about stunts or action sequences but the psychology of the Israeli secret agents, their anger, their hunger for justice. There is sporadic talk of agents having lost loved ones in concentration camps. Thus, it is critical that we have an appreciation of where each agent is coming from, to have a specific perspective of a mission so monumental, that failure could mean injustice for those who perished, perhaps forever.

The material’s strength is most undeniable once Eichmann is in the hands of the Mossad agents. They must stay in the safe house for ten days due to flight delay—without arousing suspicion. Meanwhile, Eichmann’s fellow Nazis, including his son (Joe Alwyn), inch closer toward the safe house. Every minute counts. And every scene is a march toward an inevitable conclusion.

Oscar Isaac plays Peter Malkin, a man still haunted by the death of his sister and her children. Isaac’s interpretation of Malkin is fascinating because the motivation is not anger first and foremost. Malkin, the character, does not seem to be aware of this initially. But we do because we see it in Isaac’s eyes when he is alone, how he moves, how he thinks through an objective, short- and long-term. The opening scene is most telling: Malkin is horrified when he learns his team ended up killing the wrong Nazi. Meanwhile, his fellow agent is blasé because the person they killed is still a Nazi after all.

And then there is Kingsley, accomplishing so much with so little. Notice that although a blindfold is covering half of his face and his head is in profile relative to the camera, while sitting in a dark room, his presence is able to overpower the space and those around him should he choose to do so. Most suspenseful—and worthy of contemplation—are interactions between Kingsley and Isaac exactly because the screenplay by Matthew Oerton is willing to take a look at evil, not to judge it or indulge it but to examine it. It dares us to consider the humanity of Eichmann specifically—not the Nazis as a group—while at the same time tasking us to sift through his lies, manipulations, and possible power play.

The Hustle


The Hustle (2019)
★ / ★★★★

Chris Addison’s “The Hustle,” a gender-swapped remake of Frank Oz’ “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” (which is a remake of Ralph Levy’s “Bedtime Story”), is desert-dry when it comes to creativity in plot, jokes, and characterization. There is no big, genuine laughs to be had here, just sporadic light chuckles—if one were forgiving. About fifteen to twenty minutes in, one realizes that those in charge of the screenplay rested on simply switching genders of the original characters and called it a day. It is a lazy, misfire of a comedy—one with potential to shine had the screenwriters—Stanley Shapiro, Paul Henning, Dale Launer, and Jac Schaeffer—actually tried to deliver a modern caper comedy that had something real to say about sexism.

For a picture with two talented performers—Anne Hathaway as a posh con artist with a European accent to match and Rebel Wilson as an American grifter who sticks out like a sore thumb—it is astounding that nothing is done to either character to establish even a semblance of superficially interesting scenarios. We endure Josephine and Penny’s shenanigans as they swindle men of money and jewels, like a series of cheap comic strips that have been rejected for publication. They are low energy. Jokes don’t land. Dialogue is juvenile. Nearly every element looks and sounds manufactured. There are stacks of cash and gemstones glisten, but there is nothing alluring, or exciting, or fun in the interactions among wolves and sheep. The film is on autopilot.

As the work splashes about in an attempt not to drown, the more hyperbolic it becomes. It is supposed to be funny, for instance, that Wilson is contorting her body in small spaces. The reason is because she is fat and fat people look awkward trying to fit in confined areas. She must trip, fall down a flight of stairs, slide across the floor. She must blend in with the trash.

Fat jokes can work, but must the material employ this approach so consistently nearly every time it is desperate? I found it insulting, insensitive, and ineffective as a comedy. The problem is there’s nothing else behind the one-note “jokes.” I give credit to Wilson for her willingness to make fun of her body; and I have enjoyed moments that poke fun of her size in much better movies. At the same time, however, Wilson has to realize she is better than stupid fat jokes, that there is more to her range than Fat Amy—the sooner, the better. She is a comedian with actual talent for acting. It is time she picks projects that are worth her aptitude.

The drama is not believable at all. The premise of two opposite con artists is present on paper, but the relationship is never explored in meaningful ways. Penny and Josephine try to one-up each other, but we do not believe the friendship born out of this clash. Do they like one another? Do they admire each other? The compelling answer is not found in one-word answers, but in the details that follow them. The work must answer questions starting with “How” (“How did Penny and Josephine realize that they were actually more similar than they initially thought?,” “How did Penny and Josephine earn one another’s respect?,” “How does Josephine need Penny, vice-versa?,” “How is their partnership viable?”), but it actually requires effort to be able to answer them. This movie is only interested in parading images, not convincing thoughts and emotions.

It goes to show that just because a movie is female-centric (or male-centric, or whatever-centric) does not automatically mean the story is worth telling. The screenplay must provide enough wrinkles in the expected that justify telling a similar sort of story. Otherwise, the work is reduced to an exercise of pointlessness.

Knives Out


Knives Out (2019)
★★★★ / ★★★★

The funny thing is, for a whodunit picture, it is not difficult to figure out the person, or persons, responsible, directly or indirectly, for killing Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), a renowned mystery novelist who has so much wealth, his grown children cannot help but to act like vultures even before his barely cold body is in the ground. Needless to say, it is also not at all a challenge to determine the motive for the murder. The joy, however, is embedded in the question of how. The answers are so specific and executed with so much vitality that when they are revealed eventually, they kind of just take your breath away. This is the writer-director Rian Johnson that I know, the mind behind inspired works like “Brick” and “Looper.” He is in top form here.

Funnier still is that the more I tried to answer the questions using only my brain, substantive solutions prove to become more elusive. Therein lies its source of enjoyment: Because Johnson is aware that we will approach the puzzle in this manner, he must create enough kinks in the screenplay that upends our expectations. It seems we are dealing with an ordinary mystery—and in plenty of ways it is—but it is far more self-aware than it purports itself to be. Even those most experienced with mystery stories are likely to have a ball with this.

We are introduced to a slew of colorful characters with abrasive personalities—every one of them suspicious. There is, of course, Harlan’s children: eldest Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis) who found success in the real estate business and youngest Walt (Michael Shannon) who functions as the acting CEO of his father’s publishing company. The middle child, Neil, passed away years prior, but his spouse Joni (Toni Collette), a lifestyle guru, remains highly connected to the family. The expertly paced initial interview shows us three facts: 1) their relationship with the deceased is strained but complex, 2) they are capable of lying—even though they may not be very good at it, and 3) they are hardwired to protect the family legacy. Putting on a successful front is an absolute must; when it is threatened, they react as though it is a national calamity. Clearly, these people, including their offsprings (Chris Evans, Katherine Langford, Jaeden Martell), are born and bred in privilege. It is the only lifestyle they know.

The investigation is led by Detective Elliot (Lakeith Stanfield) and he is supported by private detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig). I wished the former had more of the central role in the case despite the latter’s sterling reputation as an investigator. I did not get a definitive impression of how Elliot thinks, specifically his style of deduction. It would have been preferred to show the duo working together, even clashing on occasion. Blanc, on the other hand, is full of personality. He is attentive, quick-witted, and amusing in the way he underplays his dry sense of humor. When he speaks, it is often to make a point. And when he is silent, well, he remains a presence. He is the type of person with whom you wish to know his take. Craig plays Blanc with gusto, charm, and urgency. It is one of his more memorable roles in a while.

Another crucial piece of the mystery involves Harlan’s nurse named Marta (Ana de Armas). From a Latin immigrant family, she is our conduit to the Thrombey’s posh bubble. The script is peppered with timely social commentary in regards to how white folks of privilege tend to look down on ethnic minority groups by way of kind words and actions. “You’re almost like a part of this family.” We are meant to cringe and feel uncomfortable. And laugh, too, at its honesty.

The intelligently written and thoroughly entertaining “Knives Out” never betrays the audience despite numerous high-stake left turns. It invites the viewers to look closely, to recognize possible red herrings, to understand how characters think and predict how they might respond. We hang onto every line because a clue may be lodged in there.