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Franz Patrick

Mirai


Mirai (2018)
★★★★ / ★★★★

“Mirai” proves to be the kind of picture that sneaks up on you. Its plot did not impress or surprise me in any way: A four-year-old (voiced by Jaden Waldman) is unhappy with the fact that his parents (John Cho, Rebecca Hall) must now divide their attention between him and his newborn sister. It is a template from hundreds of movies aimed at or for children; during the first twenty minutes or so, I questioned whether the material would be daring enough to veer off into a different, unexpected, or more interesting direction. Somehow, almost miraculously, it did—not just in one direction but many. The work is written and directed by Mamoru Hosoda with insight, empathy, and perspicuity. Here is an example of a story with a simple plot but the depth of what it is actually about is filled with great emotions and wonder.

The story unfolds in an episodic manner—appropriate because 1) it captures how we, as adults, tend to remember our childhood and 2) how children can relate most to overpowering emotions, even when they do not necessarily comprehend them, particularly when in conflict with siblings or parents. In a way, Kun’s journey toward becoming a more self-aware individual must be executed precisely as such because our lives are composed of fluctuating and colorful impressions. And although the storytelling unfolds this way, there is a distinct rhythm to it, the pacing is constant, tension builds, and the wisdom it imparts are precise but never preachy.

There is magic in the film which comes in the form of an oak tree in the backyard. It has the power to send people into the past, present, and future. It seems to be triggered by intense conflict among family members, particularly the boy’s relationship with his parents and baby sister. Ironically, however, this is the least extraordinary element. More astounding is, for instance, how simply going through a family album demands curiosity despite the medium being animation.

Patience is employed, combined with a relaxed energy, when we must observe characters remembering who they were or loved ones who have died. When someone points at a face on a photograph, we cannot help but wonder about him or her because each picture is vivid with both details and personality. Even when a group photograph is shown, notice how each expression is different even just slightly. It feels like going through an actual photo album. Kun’s family history feels vibrant, alive. There is a moving sequence when Kun meets his great-grandfather as a young man who loves horses and motorcycles.

Perhaps the most enchanting chapters involve the boy realizing that his parents were once young, too. They had lives before he was born, they had dreams, they nurtured hobbies, they grappled with failures and sadness. Kun throws temper tantrums when he does not get his way—but not always. The decision to write the character in an unpredictable fashion forces us to anticipate how he might react given a set of challenges. The sharp screenplay possesses subtle ways of reminding us of his growth—incremental most of the time but with occasional leaps forward. The boy keeps silent about having the chance to peer into his parents’ youth, but we recognize the exact moments when he begins to regard them differently.

Told at a child’s eye level, figuratively and at times literally, “Mirai” inspires us to love our loved ones a little more, to consider why they are the way they are at times. It is a work that can be enjoyed by the entire family. I think children would not only enjoy it, it might inspire them to look through photo albums and ask about each person’s story. The film is a celebration of life.

1917


1917 (2019)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Since phone lines are down, Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay) are tasked to deliver a message to the 2nd Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment, about nine miles away from their current location. Should they fail to accomplish their mission by next morning, 1,6000 men would perish against the Germans who have set a trap for the British soldiers. Executed with a clear and precise vision by director Sam Mendes (who co-writes with Krysty Wilson-Cairs), “1917” reminds viewers that too many war pictures tend to look like glamorous, stroll-in-the park action movies. It dares to look into the jaws of war and wrestle with its horrors without flinching. There is a sadness and quiet to this film that lingers. There is no doubt it is one of the best movies of the year.

The work is filled to the brim with specific moments. Right when we lay our eyes on the two corporals as they rest under a tree, the camera and timing is so alive, we gain an appreciation of their relationship even before they say a word. Every step taken by the duo during the seemingly unbroken shot is informative, pregnant with purpose. We become convinced they have been around one another for quite a while so that they are able to trust each other. Notice, too, that when an over the shoulder perspective is employed, the chemistry between Blake and Schofield continues to crackle. It creates a foreboding feeling that the two may not make it to their final destination. While their partnership proves to be a strength, it can so easily be exploited by the enemy in life-or-death situations.

They meet people along the way. Every one of them has his or her own story to tell, from the general who must remain resolute in face of a potential massacre (Colin Firth), the traveling platoon in which the young soldiers appear to look as though they do not possess a thorough understanding of what they are about to get into, to the French woman with a baby in a dresser drawer (Claire Duburcq). And yet the material limits our time with them—they appear on screen no longer than five to six minutes. They may be worthy of exploration, but we are reminded there is a bigger picture at play. We remember each encounter for the impressions they invoke. For instance, Lieutenant Leslie (Andrew Scott) may appear to be a disheveled alcoholic with a wicked sense of humor, but perhaps it due to the possibility that he has grown familiar and numbed by the pointlessness of war. He gives off the impression that it isn’t his first time leading in the trenches.

Like the characters, the environment also receives great attention. A particularly harrowing sequence involves Schofield and Blake entering a seemingly abandoned German bunker. There is heavy dust all around, rickety beds are invaded by rust, and walls wear random scribblings. Although the camera is constantly on the move, our eyes make it a habit to examine every corner. Is there an enemy soldier waiting in the shadows of that particular corner?

When outdoors, it looks as though there is thick mud as far as the eyes could see. We notice flies feasting on corpses, both of man and animal. Rats scurry around from one buffet to another. We can almost taste the stink in the air. Dead bodies floating on water look real. Observe how white and bloated they are. Our protagonists must wade through the dead and climb on top of them in order to get on land. Here is a work that takes its time to get details, both in look and feeling, precisely right.

The most powerful moments of “1917” brings to mind one of the greatest war films ever put on film, Elem Klimov’s unforgettable World War II diary “Come and See,” from its use of animals, how there is horror and danger in every corner, down to the delicate moments when the camera stops the story from moving forward and simply fixates on the protagonist’s face so that viewers are inspired to consider what he may be thinking or feeling. The work proves to be far more interested in how war affects a person rather than just parading epic images of war. This is the difference between an effective anti-war film and nonsense recruitment propaganda.

Underwater


Underwater (2020)
★★ / ★★★★

Following the destruction of a massive underwater drill station, the remaining survivors (Vincent Cassel, Mamoudou Athie, T.J. Miller, John Gallagher Jr., Jessica Henwick) decide that their only hope for survival is to walk across the seafloor for about a mile and reach an abandoned station where escape pods can be employed to transport them to the surface. The goal is clear and the premise is straightforward, so it is no surprise that “Underwater” is able to capture the viewers’ attention right from the get-go. It proves to be another challenge, however, to keep our attention. It is most disappointing that the picture ends up adopting the usual tricks of modern horror movies in order to generate reaction: shaking the camera, obfuscating the action, turning the audio way up. It suffers from diminishing returns.

The funny thing is, an argument can be made that the elements cited above need not be utilized at all. There is already something inherently creepy about living and working in an underwater facility where is no day and night cycle. Hallways tend to look the same. At times the only thing that can be heard are the beeping of machines. When the movie plays it quiet, it is when its star, Kristen Stewart, who plays Norah the mechanical engineer, shines like a candle in the dark. It is without question that she shines in introspective roles. When we meet Norah, the sadness about her is almost palpable—despite an off-putting narration. Stewart’s approach is to play a dramatic character in a disaster movie that just so happens to be a monster flick, too. It could have been a killer amalgamation.

But the screenplay by Brian Duffield and Adam Cozard is only somewhat interested in our heroine’s inner turmoil. And so little connection, if any, is established between Norah and the dismantling of the drilling facility as well as Norah and the ancient, eye-less deep sea monsters with terrifying teeth and mini-talons along their tentacles. As expected in disaster flicks, the survivors perish one by one—dry, formulaic, tiresome. It also embraces a cliché that I find to be most intolerable: attempting to drag a useless, emotionally fragile character to the finish line. Nobody wants to watch a weakling take up space, especially when everyone around this character so desperately wishes to survive the ordeal.

Showing the station falling apart from the outside does not look impressive. Structures falling on top of one another, for example, appears to be made by a cheap computer program. Perhaps it is due to the presence of underwater debris; it is so thick that we are required to squint in order to appreciate finer details. Meanwhile, the monsters are hit-or-miss. There is a marginally effective sequence in which a creature is placed on a table and one of the survivors attempts to examine it. At one point, she actually touches it with her bare hands. But when these creatures are shown underwater, feelings of dread and horror are lessened. Maybe it is because the filmmakers decide to show them far too often to the point where mystery is no longer present.

There is a simplicity and a directness to the film that can be appreciated. But the longer one observes and peels through the layers, it becomes glaringly obvious there isn’t much there. Even its awkward attempts at humor is wan; there is not one memorable line. When the clownish character, who we are supposed to like, faces mortal danger, we feel nothing toward the threat; we simply accept the idea that characters must drop like flies before the third act. While tolerable overall, the movie fails to offer a consistently captivating experience.

Hustlers


Hustlers (2019)
★ / ★★★★

Inspired by a true story of strippers who became so desperate to lead financially comfortable lives that they decided eventually it would be an excellent idea to drug their clients unconscious and cash in, it is astounding that “Hustlers,” written and directed by Lorene Scafaria, is not a more savagely effective film. The reason is because elements are there to make compelling statements about the current economic state of America; how women are still considered to be the lesser gender—certainly one to be objectified; and how true upward mobility remains to be a dream for most working class Americans. It is like an essay with some good ideas sprinkled about, but these points are not tied together to make a strong thesis.

The work is not approached like a true crime story. On the contrary, the majority of the picture is composed of the strippers-turned-criminals celebrating their disgusting misdeeds: popping yet another bottle of champaign, going on shopping sprees, moving into another NYC apartment that is fancier than the last. It is necessary to show these peaks so that viewers may have an appreciation of how far these characters have fallen later on, but the intention from behind the camera must be clear as day—that the subjects’ actions are wrong and therefore must pay for risking others’ lives. Instead, during these celebratory scenes, we get the impression we are supposed to party right alongside the subjects. I felt sickened by it.

And so I wondered if this was the writer-director’s intention. I was not at all convinced; I think that because our current culture demands that we celebrate women, especially solidarity among women, Scafaria lost focus on the type of story that is begging to be told. Instead of exploring the nature of the crime, perhaps even the complexity of it, the screenplay spends so much time on Destiny (Constance Wu), a new stripper in 2007 just before the financial crisis hit, wishing to be close friends—sisters, even—with veteran stripper Ramona Vega (Jennifer Lopez). Notice how the role of cops and detectives who have discovered the scam is so conveniently brushed under the rug. As a result, there is a lack of tension during the final act. Resolutions are cobbled together in a most awkward fashion. For instance, the scene of a former stripper being held at gunpoint provides no catharsis whatsoever.

Despite watchable performances by Wu and Lopez, the more compelling angle of the drama remains just underneath the topsoil, rarely touched upon. I grew tired of the constant fashion show and slow motion. Clearly, Scafaria knows how to capture her stars’ faces and make them look breathtakingly beautiful. But we are not simply looking at pages of a magazine. This is supposed to be a rough and ugly story of people who are so tired of scraping by, so tired of feeling cheated by the current system, that one day they decide to come together and bet their morals and their freedom to reap big rewards. In a way, an argument can be made that the correct way to approach the story is through the perspective of a compulsive gambler. Perhaps then it would have embodied a certain intoxicating, self-destructive energy.

There is a compelling story in “Hustlers,” perhaps even an insightful one, but it is buried so deep precisely because the writer-director has failed to show her subjects under a critical lens. There is a constant disconnect between the movie and the viewer. We get the impression that she wishes to protect these women, or some vague feminist idea, that she ends up preaching to the choir instead of telling a specific story without all the flowery half-measures. Halfway through, I wished another filmmaker—one who is seasoned at seeing through the fog—helmed the project.

Aniara


Aniara (2018)
★★ / ★★★★

Due to severe climate change, Earth has been rendered uninhabitable; it is time to colonize somewhere else. It is supposed to be a routine travel to Mars as a new batch of Earth citizens look forward to their new home on the Red Planet. The trip is supposed to take just over three weeks, but in an attempt to avoid space debris, the spacecraft Aniara is damaged and its fuel tanks ejected into the void of outer space. Off-course and without the means to set itself on the correct track, the captain (Arvin Kananian) informs his passengers it could take years for them to encounter the nearest celestial body so its gravity could be used to alter their current course.

Most admirable about “Aniara,” based on the Swedish poem of the same name by Harry Martinson, is that it offers a future so bleak, one cannot help but feel fascinated with where the story might lead. Right from its opening minutes it is implied that the work will be a study of behavior: a cause (a story development) leading to an effect (passengers’ responses). There is even commentary that although humans can be taken out of their planet, they cannot help but take with them the very characteristics that destroyed their planet in the first place. It offers no apology, no forgiveness. I found its bitter perspective refreshing. The work is not without ambition. However, the film is not for everyone.

Our protagonist is Mimaroben (Emelie Jonsson) but that is not actually her name. It is a title held by person in charge of a hall where a machine, Mima, is capable of showing, or reflecting, a participant’s memories of Earth. It helps with the anxiety of space travel. But notice that although we have a main character and that we follow her throughout the picture, the focus is actually on the collective. This is certain to alienate viewers because we do not get to know Mimaroben in a deeply personal way even though we spend ample time with her.

In fact, notice that her responses to the story’s events do not consistently reflect the majority of the passengers’ fears, depression, and anguish. Early in the film, she confesses to her roommate, an astronomer who is always scribbling on her journal (Anneli Martini), that there is nothing waiting for her on Mars anyway and so floating in space indefinitely does not really bother her. As expected, changes occur in our protagonist but these are subtle. And the script certainly does not follow a typical parabola of character development. In fact, people tend to speak in expository dialogue. I appreciated this approach; it contributes to the impression of an impressive but impersonal future.

Less effective is in how the picture is shot. Almost immediately noticeable is how characters are almost always framed from the waist up. The filmmakers are also fond of extreme close-ups. While it can be effective during the more dramatic moments, especially when characters begin to despair regarding their fates, it is distracting for the most part. The story is unfolding in a massive spacecraft where hundreds, possibly thousands, of passengers can survive for years. Why do we not see more of it? I would have loved a small tour of the place.

By not employing the occasional wide shot, it fails to capture the splendor of the living space… or even to provide contrast between the inside and the outside of the ship. One cannot help but consider that directors Pella Kågerman and Hugo Lilja are ashamed of the set or set decorations—which are not first-rate but at the same time not terrible by any means. There is an irony to the whole charade because the forced framing actually garners attention—negative attention.

Most maddening is the rushed final ten minutes. Instead of offering answers or bringing up even more questions, it dares to throw away everything it has worked toward for the sake of delivering confusion or shock. Without giving anything away, the ending is supposed to be bleak and haunting but it comes across as a sick joke. I found myself chuckling not because the ending is clever but because I felt tricked for having invested my time and mental capacity only to be handed something nearly without value.

Should you choose to see this curious film anyway, proceed with caution.

Love is Strange


Love is Strange (2014)
★★ / ★★★★

Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina) decide to get married after being together for thirty-nine years. But after the bishop learns about the union, George is fired from his job as a music teacher in St. Grace, claiming that he has defied the Christian Wellness Statement—a document he signed when he got the job decades ago. Rent is expensive in New York City and so the couple decide to sell their apartment and seek help from friends who might be willing to house them temporarily.

“Love is Strange” is a movie that is easy to like in concept but one that is difficult to admire in execution. Molina and Lithgow turn in wonderful performances but there are too many distracting and rather pointless subplots that could have been eliminated to make room for more interactions between the two lead characters. Although one might argue that the separation of the couple is the point of the story, their individual situations ought to have been equally interesting or engaging.

Ben gets to stay with his nephew’s family. We are supposed to notice that the family is not very close. The parents (Darren E. Burrows, Marisa Tomei) are so involved in their work that it seems as though every little thing serves only to distract them. They are barely even able to look at one another in bed. The teenage son (Charlie Tahan), meanwhile, becomes increasingly irate because of the new living situation.

The screenplay by Ira Sachs and Mauricio Zacharias fails to turn the family into one that is accessible and warm even for just a few instances. The contrast between the relationship of this family versus what Ben and George have is so heavy that it does not leave us the opportunity to simply absorb who these people are. In other words, they function too much as tools of the plot. Stories like this yearn to be told organically, painting the relationships among people with complex humanity.

The same observation is observed with George’s living situation. Although the material is right to focus on the character feeling out of place rather than judging a younger gay couple’s generation and lifestyle, we barely spend time in that apartment. We learn that the couple George is staying with likes to have people over and that is about it.

Lithgow and Molina play their characters as whole people. I always make a point that I have to be able to imagine a character’s history for me to completely believe that who I am watching is worth learning more about. Here, the two actors need not communicate with words. Take a look at the first scene when Ben gets out of the shower and George simply greets his partner with a smile instead of having to say, “Good morning.”

Not once do they say, “I love you” to one another either. Their feelings for one another are almost instinctual; they need not communicate or explain what they already know exactly because they have known each other for four decades. On this level, the picture is able to go above and beyond my expectations.

“Love is Strange,” directed by Ira Sachs, ends in a genuinely moving way. It is rare to see teenagers cry in movies where we are convinced they are really hurting. We watch from a respectful distance: we do not see his face or his tears. We hear his stifled sobs and notice him struggling to regain his composure before stepping out of the building. We feel that he has learned something of value—one that he can take with him for rest of his life.

Uncut Gems


Uncut Gems (2019)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Here is a portrait of a bleeding man flopping about in the middle of the ocean, no help in sight for miles, as sharks circle around him. Writer-directors Benny and Josh Safdie observe with a careful eye as their subject attempts to wriggle himself out of one high tension, high anxiety situation after another. The man is named Howard Ratner, a jewelry store owner with a gambling addiction, and he owes a lot money from a lot of people all over New York City.

The Safdie brothers possess a knack for placing us in the action. Notice how scenes are rarely silent, if ever. For instance, in Howard’s often crowded jewelry store, people tend to talk over one another. Performers must shout in order to stand out from all the commotion. People are always moving around an enclosed space, whether we are the middle of a family gathering, at a school play, or at a club where The Weeknd is performing. Out in the streets, people walk and talk with urgency; it gives the impression that the directors simply decided to shoot in the middle of city. The impromptu tone and feeling is so apparent, there are instances where extras can be caught looking in the direction of the camera. And yet, miraculously, none of these elements distract us from observing Howard as he struggles to find excuses why he doesn’t have so-and-so’s money.

Howard is played by great vitality by Adam Sandler. The subject is not at all likable. He is neither a good husband nor father. His relatives regard him with disappointment. The people he employs tell him they do not feel respected or appreciated in the workplace. Debt collectors are tired of him. Some of them look as though they wish to kill him.

Sandler plays a drowning man so convincingly. At one point, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for him even though I knew that his own actions have led him to current state of misery. But is he miserable? Or is what we are seeing simply the man going through the usual motions of an addict? He appears to be highly confident he could extricate himself out of tricky, potentially violent situations. Here is an excellent example of a character who is not likable but is endlessly fascinating. Howard needs serious help.

Many have complimented the Safdies for their ability to capture a ‘70s gritty vibe. It is well-deserved. But I take a bit further: the filmmakers have an understanding of films from the ‘70s that are about men with an inclination. Because Howard has gambling problem, notice how the camera is often fixated on his hands and mouth. The hands are always fidgeting, whether it be dialing a telephone, handing off cash or jewelry, or giving a restrained pat on the back or handshake. The mouth, too, is always moving even when it is not saying anything of value. Teeth protrude which gives the illusion of a false smile—when in fact it just makes people uncomfortable. There is an occasional repetitive smacking of the lips.

“Uncut Gems” is for viewers with a penchant for character study. There is action unfolding all around, but its core is a sad look at a man who is lost. The more we spend time with him, the more we are convinced he is beyond help. There is an exchange between Howard and his wife (Idina Menzel) during Passover in which the former begs the latter that maybe they ought to reconsider giving their marriage another shot. He appears earnest, but she just laughs at him anyway. In fact, she humiliates him. At the same time, Dinah cannot be blamed for acting this way. I think she is angry not just because of how he treats her but also in how he is like around their children. The teenage daughter barely looks at him. When she does, she looks at him as though he is trash. Maybe he is. And maybe he knows that, too.