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Franz Patrick

The Hunt


The Hunt (2020)
★★ / ★★★★

Make no mistake that “The Hunt” is provocative only on the surface: liberal elites kidnap supporters of the right-wing to be hunted and killed for sport. Twenty minutes into its cheeky violence and mayhem, I found myself still looking for good reasons for its existence. Trigger words like “deplorables” and “snowflakes” are thrown about like candy, but its ideas are not explored in meaningful ways. Here is a picture with energy but little substance, daring to take on a political stance but only willing to slap the wrists of both liberals and conservatives instead of hammering a rusty nail into their skulls. Satire-lite almost always never works in the movies.

It is a shame because Betty Gilpin as highly watchable as a hunted southerner whose mission is to kill every single person running the sick game. Her interpretation of Crystal is athletic and efficient in action; she may not be a talker but she is smart and quick-witted; and she is able to offer a few surprises when others attempt to get to know her. Although a formidable heroine, the screenplay by Nick Cuse and Damon Lindelof surrounds Crystal with boring characters—enemies and allies alike—who are meant to be murdered just as swiftly as they’re introduced. (Familiar faces include Emma Roberts, Justin Hartley, Glenn Howerton, and Ike Barinholtz.)

The point, I guess, is that we are supposed to be shocked or horrified by the rather quick deaths, but when every single one is meant to have the same fate, it is inevitable that the approach suffers from diminishing returns. Despite the film’s ninety-minute running time, the middle section lags and drags. The joke surrounding the idiom, “Never judge a book by its cover” is highly repetitive to the point where we can figure out how a scene will work out exactly based on a new face’s overall appearance. How’s that for irony?

The mixture of satire and cartoonish violence does not work in this instance. I think it is due to the fact that nearly every aspect is given a tongue-in-cheek approach. And so we never take the material seriously. The thing is, the most effective satires tend to take the viewer on a wild rollercoaster ride. Slower moments, for example, allow us to stop and consider messages behind the obvious. The best ones inspire us to look within, to recognize and admit our own hypocrisies.

During its anti-climatic climax, when not feeling sorry for someone of Hilary Swank’s caliber simply chewing scenery in this mediocrity, I stopped to consider that perhaps director Craig Zobel shaped the movie with non-stop action precisely because he recognizes that there is nothing much to bite into. We are inundated, distracted by movement and loud noises. Discerning viewers will see through the charade. This is not to suggest, however, that “The Hunt” is without potential. The screenplay is still undercooked and reluctant. With a bit of daring, it could have turned into an entirely different beast worthy of buzz, controversy, and perhaps even censure from all sides of the political spectrum. I would rather have seen that movie.

Friday the 13th


Friday the 13th (2009)
★★ / ★★★★

By around the twenty-minute mark, the final girl (Amanda Righetti) is in the hands of Jason Voorhees (Derek Meers), the deformed son of woman who went on a killing spree at Camp Crystal Lake almost thirty years prior, and the title card finally makes an appearance. By doing so, this remake of “Friday the 13th,” directed by Marcus Nispel, makes a promise that the film will strive to be more efficient, more violent, and more intelligent than the sequels, perhaps including the original, that came before. After all, slasher films have evolved, been dissected, and spoofed over the years. In the end, however, it is just another disappointment.

It is a mistake to relegate the final girl’s brother, Clay (Jared Padalecki), who remains actively looking for her around the camp after her sudden disappearance six weeks ago, as just another one-dimensional character. But unlike the fresh batch of friends (Danielle Panabaker, Travis Van Winkle, Julianna Guill, Aaron Yoo, Ryan Hansen, Arlen Escarpeta) designed to be gutted like cattle during the second half, he is meant to be the obvious good guy with whom we are supposed to root for to make it to the very end. But good guys in horror films, especially when they are not written well, get boring real quickly—as is the case here.

For instance, there is not one convincing scenario in which Clay is confronted with the possibility that his desperate search may be for nothing. And so we never get a chance to see or measure how he might cope in a situation that challenges his expectations. What is a villain like Jason, after all, but a metaphor for a seemingly unstoppable monster living in all of us? Instead, we are given a few confrontational scenes between Clay and the leader of the sheep to be slaughtered because the latter cannot help but to feel threatened when there’s a low-key alpha dog within a one-mile radius. Not only is it preposterous, it’s empty. It does not tell us anything of value about the protagonist or the figures we don’t want to see murdered in brutal fashion.

Or perhaps we do. An argument can be made that one of the points of slasher films is to provide catharsis in the form of violence. While the movie does provide blood and violence by the bucketloads, these are not particularly inspired. I enjoyed the scenes where characters find themselves getting dragged underground or being stuck there and must then find a way out, but a lot more deaths take place out in the open where a rigid formula must be followed prior to the killing blow. It gets old even before the title card is shown.

During my occasional boredom and consistent disappointment, I thought of ways how the screenwriters—Damian Shannon and Mark Swift—might have played upon the formula with minimal effort. Perhaps the most effective way is to tease with suspense. The closest it gets is a scene where a man can be heard begging for help outdoors as his remaining friends cower in fear indoors. This scene could have had a much stronger emotional punch had the material dragged out the man’s misery for one or two minutes. It is human to want to help… but it is also human to choose self-preservation. In other words, the writers have chosen to limit themselves when it comes to changing up the type of horror being tackled at a given time.

Due to the lack of daring and imagination, this remake of “Friday the 13th” is just another forgettable entry. It has the budget for gore, cosmetics, and neat special effects, but it lacks the aforementioned elements that matter most. Forget the bad or non-existent acting. This is a film that has learned next to nothing from previous entries—why one or two of them work and, more importantly, why most of them do not.

Onward


Onward (2020)
★★ / ★★★★

Dan Scanlon’s “Onward” is what it must be like if Pixar shed away the majority of its convincing rollercoaster of human emotions and taken on the more action-oriented Dreamworks mantra wherein the animation’s color and movement take precedence over telling a genuinely compelling story. This tale about two brothers who get a chance to spend one more day with their deceased father should have been far more emotional and worthy of contemplation. Instead, it is busy, loud, constantly on the move. It stops only when it is time to manipulate the audience into feeling something sad. I didn’t buy it at all.

I must admit I enjoyed looking at the animation initially. This marks the first time that Pixar employs fantasy elements—unicorns, trolls, elves, and the like—while mixing the old with modern touches—cars, cell phones, toaster ovens. It is fun to note the disparities between the past and present, especially since the story’s universe was once rooted upon magic. But because technology is more convenient than magic, it completely changed the creatures’ way of life over time. There are numerous amusing visual jokes that do not attract attention; they are simply there to be appreciated should the viewer bother to look a little closer.

But in Pixar films, being beautiful visually is not enough to warrant a recommendation. It must have a strong heart at its center and it must be explored fully. I think the overall appeal is lost on me because I was never convinced that Ian (voiced by Tom Holland) and Barley (Chris Pratt) are actually brothers in conflict. Yes, they are presented as nearly opposites in physicality, personality, and interests, but the screenplay by Dan Scanlon, Jason Headley, and Keith Bunin fails to hone in on the complexities of being siblings who are several years apart.

If it did, it would have underscored that although they are different in many ways, these differences may actually complement one another at times. Or that their similarities are so potent, that these superficial differences may be negligible in the long run. Or both. Instead—observe carefully during the first fifteen minutes or so—we are inundated with dialogue that do not say much, slapstick and action that lead nowhere, and boring, barren busyness. And when the material does slow down eventually, note on how it relies on focusing on sad-looking Ian as he contemplates the father he’s never had. I found the formula to be obvious and mechanical.

Ian and Barley’s journey to restore their father’s body is uninteresting for the most part. Their quest involves learning how to cast and control magic, meeting curious creatures, gathering cryptic clues and making sense of them, and being thrown into moments of peril—but there is nothing particularly compelling about the journey. The reason is because the material fails to provide an answer to the question of why Ian and Barley are best suited to take on this quest. They simply… are. I suppose it is due to Ian having a natural talent for magic and Barley possessing knowledge about how mythic quests work (he’s a big fan of Dungeons & Dragons-style board games). But what else?

“Onward” may be intended for children, but Pixar has proven in the past that a movie can be targeted for kids—even very young kids—and still be savagely smart, emotionally true and complex, and wielding an intoxicating sense of adventure. This is why movies like “WALL-E,” “Toy Story 3,” and “Finding Nemo” (to name only a few) are modern classics. And conversely, movies like “Onward,” “Brave,” and all the “Cars” films feel like mere afterthoughts, existing solely to pass the time. We deserve better.

The Invisible Man


The Invisible Man (2020)
★★★ / ★★★★

I have always considered invisibility to be one of the lamest superpowers, and although Leigh Whannell’s “The Invisible Man” did not change my mind, it is an effective horror film nonetheless because the filmmaker behind it clearly loves the genre and has an understanding of the idea that in order for something visually undetectable to be scary, the suspense must be turned up to eleven. Pair the enthusiasm and understanding from behind the camera with a strong leading performance by Elisabeth Moss, what results is a work that demands attention.

Right from the opening sequence, the project is a nail-biter. Cecilia (Moss) must make her way out of her abuser’s posh home by making as minimal noise as possible despite Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), a highly intelligent and financially successful tech entrepreneur, being drugged asleep. Although not one word is uttered yet, there is a certain level of desperation in the air, that Cecilia’s escape is in fact a life-or-death, one-chance situation. Notice how the sequence is protracted; within this high-risk scene, there is set-up, rising action, climax, and falling action. It is a strong introduction to a story that offers quite a few number of surprises.

Naturally, Cecilia must make it out alive in the opening scene. But what makes her character worth following? Cecilia is written in a way that represents different types of domestic abuse survivors while maintaining an identity of her own. More overt moments of distress or threats are contrasted against silent and still moments in which we languish in gray and pale blue colors. We watch her struggle to walk outside and fetch the mail, deathly scared for her safety.

Moss is more than capable of delivering a spectrum of emotions by employing her highly expressive face and body language. She goes all in. Even supporting characters—literal figures of support like Cecilia’s sister Emily played by Harriet Dyer and Emily’s ex-husband James played by Aldis Hodge—tend to reflect at times what our heroine needs or wants when she herself is unable to express what she needs or wants. This is a story of a deeply traumatized woman in recovery. But she must face her monster and destroy it in order to have a real chance of moving on with her life. The story just so happens to be told through the context of something that looks, sounds, and feels supernatural despite the screenplay offering a scientific explanation regarding the subject of invisibility.

When the invisible figure attacks, is it scary? To me, the answer is no. Still, I couldn’t help but feel impressed in the fact that in this movie a person thrashing about against an unseen force does not come across as silly. The reason is because a strong enough context is provided by the screenplay so that viewers have an appreciation of the literal, physical conflict. In addition, there are three or four neat visual effects meant to amplify the horror (like a floating knife—simple but effective: it is not enough to show the knife hanging in the air… it is actually utilized as a weapon to wring out horror from the audience). We forget we are seeing CGI—the complete opposite of modern horror films in which CGI is supposed to the spectacle.

The Rescuers Down Under


The Rescuers Down Under (1990)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Better than the original is almost every way, Hendel Butoy and and Mike Gabriel’s imaginative “The Rescuers Down Under” does not waste a second to dive head-first in its terrific Australian Outback adventure. How could it spare a moment when its running time is just above an hour and ten minutes? It is a movie aimed for children—but not solely for them—that is filled with rousing energy, good-natured jokes, genuine moments of peril, and a cast of memorable characters each imbued with a specific personality.

In under five minutes, it is established that the picture’s goal is to make the audience smile. A boy named Cody (voiced by Adam Ryen) is friends with the local animals and they inform him that a rare golden eagle has been trapped atop a cliff and in need of rescue. A wonderful flying sequence follows which truly captures the magic of being up in the clouds, wind all around, with a majestic vista of the land below. And in the middle of this magnificent, wonderfully animated sequence, the material takes the time to show how the boy and the eagle, named Marahuté, relate to one another.

A masterstroke: Unlike most of the animals we come to meet, Marahuté does not speak. And so animation and the music are required to be on point when it comes to showing specifically what Cody and Marahuté are thinking or feeling during their tender interactions. The picture is adventure overall and yet it is filled with small moments of creatures simply connecting with one another. It is not afraid of slow, quiet moments. When they do come around, they are highly effective—as if they’re critical moments of inhalation before another comic or chase scene.

The villain comes in the form of a poacher named McLeach and he is voiced with dark humor by the inimitable George C. Scott. He has a pet salamander—a reliable source of humor—named Joanna who is not very smart but loves to eat eggs. I enjoyed that every time McLeach and Joanna are on screen, their presence evokes a certain level of menace—appropriate because the screenplay does not shy away from pointing at the fact that they kill in order to survive. McLeach, in particular, is so despicable, he is not above kidnapping and trying to murder an innocent boy in order to achieve his goals: to get rich and to get rid of witnesses.

Another outstanding decision is the voice casting. Eva Gabor voices Bianca and Bob Newhart voices Bernard, the Hungarian and United States representatives of Rescue Aid Society, respectively. Miss Bianca and Bernard volunteer to rescue Cody once word reaches New York City that a boy had been kidnapped. Gabor enhances the refined elegance of Miss Bianca and Newhart injects an earthy and warm quality to Bernard. Together, they make a cute couple without the screenplay relying on the usual romantic tropes. To get to Australia, they recruit an albatross named Wilbur—voiced none other by the legendary John Candy. Yes, he makes Wilbur, already adorably animated, even more huggable. Naturally, Wilbur gets plenty of one-liners.

“The Rescuers Down Under” does not only provide energy, it proves proficient in shaping it depending on the specific mood of scene. There is a sequence here in which we spend time with caged animals desperate to escape their prison. Notice the difference in energy when we first meet them and how it changes once their personalities are revealed. The film is not simply a parade of cute animation; it is firing on all cylinders in order to provide wonderful entertainment with all the high and low points of a memorable story that has something important to say about animal rights and our duty to care for our environment, our planet, our home.

The Wind


The Wind (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★

Western horror picture “The Wind” tells the story of a woman (Caitlin Gerard) who claims there is something sinister on the remote land that she and her husband (Ashley Zuckerman) have moved onto, but he does not believe her, consistently dismissing her concerns as mere superstitions. When another couple, Emma (Julia Goldani Telles) and Gideon (Dylan McTee), move into a cabin about a mile away, the supernatural presence appears to intensify, especially when Emma becomes pregnant.

Told with elegance, class, and patience, the film, directed by Emma Tammi and written by Teresa Sutherland, reveals its secrets like an engaging horror novel. It tasks the viewers to juggle details of two timelines: before and after Emma’s death, while pregnant, due to a gunshot wound to the head. The former is utilized to lay out the foundations of the four characters’ relationships and the latter is used to question and challenge the validity of Lizzy’s claims. Is there a psychological explanation to the increasingly bizarre occurrences or is there truly a supernatural presence that haunts Lizzy’s every waking hour?

The picture commands the most power when it relies on sounds or images to bring about goosebumps. Particularly creepy is how the isolation of these characters’ lifestyles are conveyed. At night, Lizzy and Isaac are able to see Emma and Gideon’s cabin only when there is fire inside their home. In between the two cabins is near-total darkness. Appropriately, the contrast between light and dark is employed to create eerie shadows: moving through a window, slithering on the ceiling, remaining still right next to a person’s bed while she sleeps. I admired its old-school approach to create heart-pounding situations. I believed that I was experiencing a specific story set in nineteenth-century American frontier because of the simplicity of its approach.

Less intriguing is how the new couple is portrayed. Hailing from the city, it is expected they do not know a lot about planting crops or maintaining a cabin in preparation for winter. There is supposed to be a sort of friendship that has developed between the couples during the flashbacks, but this is not convincing. When two characters converse, particularly the women, it is difficult to buy into their connection—a real friendship, a neighborly courtesy, or a test of tolerance. As for the two men, it is noticeable that they barely say twenty words to one another throughout the film. Perhaps words is not the point since it is not the picture’s strength, but at the very least Lizzy and Emma’s interactions must command believability and heft.

Another weakness is the final three to five minutes. I think these closing sequences, particularly the final shot, is meant to be open to interpretation, but—to me—the answers are clear enough to warrant a solid conclusion of what really happened. Shots of our heroine looking distant, disheveled, and drained of energy do not fit the central idea that Lizzy is a character worth following and rooting for since she is strong, resourceful, and knows how to think for herself. There are undeniable feminist ideas coursing through its veins. And so it comes across as a cheap way to end an otherwise terrific, slow-burn entertainment.

The Mountain


The Mountain (2018)
★ / ★★★★

The defiantly obtuse “The Mountain” could have been a humanistic story centering a young man (Tye Sheridan) who is recently hired by a doctor (Jeff Goldblum) to take pictures of lobotomy procedures and patients as they travel across the country. Instead, this simple plot is shoved into an experimental route: a minefield of characters staring into space as the irksome score wriggles like a worm in the eardrums; clichéd illusions, daydreams, fantasies; and blinding chalk-white interiors that look and feel like a movie set. Not one element is convincing—the acting, how people actually spoke in the 1950s, the clinically sanitized atmosphere—and especially the ill-paced and ill-placed histrionics of a French-speaking drunkard (Denis Lavant) who wishes for his daughter to be lobotomized. When he is front and center, one could feel the remaining curiosity of the picture shriveling into itself. Who is the movie for? Just as it is reluctant to look deeply into what makes its characters interesting and thus worth following, it, too, is afraid to stare at lobotomy in the face, particularly the long-term side effects that patients experience: incontinence, seizures, apathy. The work fails to take on a specific perspective and so a potentially worthy subject is reduced to an opaque exercise designed to test the patience. Directed by Rick Alverson—giving the impression he was half-asleep while helming the film.