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Franz Patrick

Ready or Not

Ready or Not (2019)
★★★ / ★★★★

She picked up the wrong card. Nobody expected it because for years no one has drawn the “Hide and Seek” card from the mysterious box. In Le Domas family, who made their fortune in businesses involving selling sporting goods, board games, and owning sport teams, it is believed that when this particular card is drawn by someone new to the family, he or she is to be hunted like an animal and be sacrificed by sunrise. Failure to do so would cost Le Domas their lives.

Newlywed Grace (Samara Weaving), still wearing her wedding gown, has no idea that the game they are about to play is about to turn deadly. She smiles sheepishly and awkwardly to the family members she so desperately wishes to be liked by. Most of them regard her with bloodlust; a few are more upfront about it than others. Meanwhile, Grace’s husband, Alex (Mark O’Brien), remains quiet about the bear trap that his wife just stepped into.

“Ready or Not” is an entertaining thriller infused with dark comic moments. It moves briskly from one point to another, trusting that the audience would catch up to it rather than feeling the need to explain after every step just so we are comfortable in its universe. It is self-aware of the genre, especially concept-driven thrillers, and so the screenwriters, Guy Busick and R. Christopher Murphy, actively look for opportunities to upend or skewer it. Particularly delicious are moments when characters, frustrated with the way the night is unfolding because everything appears to be going wrong, break their composed facade and go into rabid histrionics. Their suffering is our source of entertainment and yet, still, the material never comes across as mean.

Despite the murders and mayhem there is a joyous aftertaste to the film. Part of it can attributed to Weaving’s vibrant and enthralling performance as a woman who married into money. She is neither a damsel-in-distress nor a hardbodied Amazon; she sounds and feels like an ordinary person, a cool, sarcastic, good-natured chic you’d like to be friends and hang out with. Her face invites the viewer to stare at it because she is so beautiful and yet the performance commands no air of vanity—a strategy she employed, quite successfully, in “The Babysitter.” On the contrary, I relished the fact that the actor is more than willing to get down and dirty, to do whatever is necessary—silly faces and all—so that those watching can have an enjoyable time. She makes Grace easy to root for. I am interested to see Weaving in a comedy.

Part of it, too, is the direction by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett. It could have been just another movie with a cool concept, a high body count, and not much else. Instead of emphasizing the violence, notice how the directors tend to underscore chases, evolving motivations, and creepy dialogue. It takes the time to regard portraits and weapons displayed on walls of the gothic mansion; how a room is lit a particular way; some of the participants’ bored expressions. Notice also it is rare when violence is shown overtly. Clearly, these filmmakers wish to invite us into this particular world, not to be repelled or disgusted by it like so many horror-thrillers do. However, it does not mean the work is low on gore.

“Ready or Not” has something to say about marriage: it is hard work, it can feel like prison at times, and it can be surprising in all the best and worst ways possible. I wished that the material had delved further into the fact that Grace, not hailing from a wealthy background and without a family, is marrying Alex, a man from a family that is not only rich, their name is a brand, a lifestyle, tradition. There are throwaway lines—especially when events get desperate—involving class and economic differences but most, if not all, are played for laughs. An extra dimension to the social commentary it broaches certainly would have elevated the material further. Still, it remains entertaining as is.

Dead Night

Dead Night (2017)
★ / ★★★★

Screenwriter Irving Walker and director Brad Baruh ought to take a Horror 101 class in order to really take a look at classic horror films—especially those with wild ideas—and study why they work. It is astounding that their project manages to get nearly every single element wrong, from mashing together a hodgepodge of ideas that do not complement one another to the truly awful execution in which suspense is nearly absent. Halfway through, it becomes clear that it is all about the splatter—like how an axe cracks the skull, how limbs are torn so easily. Is it supposed to be darkly comic? A throwback to B-movies of the past? It doesn’t matter—it is intolerably boring.

This would-be horror film is titled “Dead Night,” but it might as well be called “Dead on Arrival,” both because it offers nothing better than bottom-of-the-barrel junk as the family on vacation is terrorized and killed by supernatural forces mere hours after their arrival at the cabin in the woods. Observe how the dialogue is so scripted, no one sounds like an actual person but movie characters designed to be killed should the plot demand it. The awkward beats between lines only amplifies the hollowness of it all; the performers themselves do not look sold on what they’re saying, let alone be bothered to actually feel what their characters are feeling. At least they got paid to be in a bad movie rather than having to watch themselves appear in one.

We are shown fragments being inserted in unsuspecting people’s bodies. Somehow these curious, ancient-looking objects allow the victims to get possessed or to come back to life (it isn’t clear) equipped with rather robotic-sounding demonic voices. But the thing is, they’re not strong or smart or even remotely threatening. They release guttural growls, their bodies undergo involuntary shaking, and their eyes whiten. (Of course, bad CGI must be employed since this is almost a pre-requisite in terrible horror flicks.) These zombie-demons appear to understand orders but they don’t accomplish anything. They are useless, worse than zombies that are barely able to walk, and one must wonder at their function. Are they meant to serve merely as ugly decorations against the pine trees and snow? Are we even supposed to feel creeped out by them?

At least Barbara Crampton, the unconscious woman whom the patriarch (AJ Bowen) finds in the snowy woods, seems to be having a great time. Her approach once her character is resuscitated: overact, turn the enthusiasm knob to eleven, raise her voice at every character who challenges her even just a little. The surge of energy she provides is like a defibrillator to a body that had been dead for a week. While her attempt to revive the material is ultimately useless, at least she tried. That is more than can be said about the filmmakers’ efforts. I got the impression that they wanted to make a movie just to have something on their resume. What results is a work that is lazy and not at all entertaining.

If I were a film professor, I would hold an optional lecture for “Dead Night.” It would be a good lecture to attend because it shows how not to make a film—no matter the genre. And it would be optional because sitting through the picture itself is harsh punishment. I would rather stare at a wall for an hour and fifteen minutes than having to watch this drivel again.

Hotel Mumbai

Hotel Mumbai (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

On November 2008, ten members of an Islamic terrorist organization launched a series of coordinated bombings and shootings across the great city of Mumbai. The senseless killing spree resulted in nearly two hundred deaths. The film focuses on one of the targets, the Taj Hotel, and dramatizes the events.

Although enthralling in parts, “Hotel Mumbai,” directed by Anthony Maras, suffers from a perspective problem. One minute we are seeing the action unfold from the terrorists’ perspective and the next we find ourselves sitting amongst the horrified victims. But that is not all. We, too, observe the happenings from the authorities’ point of view. There is plenty to digest. And at some point, because the picture’s pacing drags around the halfway point, we wonder if perhaps it might have been a wiser choice to focus on only one perspective. It certainly would have forced the writers and filmmakers to tell the story in a more effective and efficient manner.

All of the actors deliver solid performances, from Dev Patel as a hotel staff who was late to his shift, Jason Isaacs as an obnoxious Russian who happens to be a former military personnel, to Armie Hammer as a father who decides to rescue his infant son on the fourth floor after the initial attack. But these figures are defined only by one or two surface personalities. While this is understandable in a movie that attempts to cover so much ground, it becomes a challenge to invest deeply into their fates.

Isn’t the point to get us to care for or learn about both the survivors and the deceased, to honor them in some way? But let’s say this isn’t the point. If so, then why is it that the picture fails to put in the time to honor the hotel staff, particularly those who chose to stay and help the guests? Thus, on this level, due to its contradictory nature, an argument can be made that the work is ineffective as a biographical dramatic thriller.

We have all seen bodies being gunned down in the movies. But what I appreciated here is the lack of gloss in the killings. There is screaming, panic, and chaos. Bodies fall in ugly and awkward ways. Blood is everywhere, but it never comes across as an action or a horror film. It is the correct choice to not create shallow entertainment from the gruesome murders. Despite the pandemonium, however, what I remember most is not the dying or the corpses.

Notice that when the terrorists are on the rampage, their faces are shown from time to time. Observe their expressions carefully. Many of them are blank. Some look bored, like taking a life is simply a chore to be performed. They take no pleasure from their actions. They yell and appear to be angry on the surface, but is what we are seeing simply a reflection of their training/brainwashing? I found this particular aspect most fascinating. The image of the terrorists’ faces—many of them young—made such an impression on me early on that during the slower moments in the second half, I was still haunted by their apathetic countenance.

It is without question that there is a tragedy worth telling through a dramatic lens here. But “Hotel Mumbai” is about thirty minutes too long, plagued with numerous repetitive elements such as having to tiptoe around the main hall toward an area of escape or people disagreeing when it comes to what to do next. Instead of focusing a few human stories, the broad strokes result in covering up the story’s more compelling angles.

The Last Days of Disco

The Last Days of Disco (1998)
★★★ / ★★★★

Alice (Chloë Sevigny) and Charlotte (Kate Beckinsale) are recent Hampshire College graduates who work in the same publishing house in Manhattan. At night, they often go to an exclusive disco club with hopes of meeting bachelors who might provide them romance. Although Alice and Charlotte are constantly around one another, one might argue they are not exactly good friends. You see, when men enter the equation, the foundation of their tenuous relationship is almost always stretched and bent near the breaking point. And yet somehow they think they need each other so their fights do not last for long.

Written and directed by Whit Stillman, the great contrast that “The Last Days of Disco” offers is between the vibrant music that is disco—so full of energy, life, and rhythm—and the young New Yorkers who are very intelligent but whose lives have flatlined. Although one can claim that the characters, or the archetypes they represent, are being satirized, one might also argue that the writer-director loves his subjects on some level because there is always a level of complexity to each of them. They are never treated solely as punchlines of a joke or a situation gone bad.

It does not mean any of them have to be likable. In fact, there is only one I found myself being able to sympathize with. The central characters, Charlotte and Alice, are snobs on different levels even if their personalities are almost polar opposites. Sevigny does a good job in making a quiet girl seductive. I enjoyed the scenes where Sevigny allows Alice to slink across the room to get a man’s attention, accompanied by her sultry bedroom eyes, but at the same time it is almost like the character is trying too hard in order to hide the fact that she is not very confident. Beckinsale, on the other hand, plays an aggressive character. Charlotte is the more confident half. She represents that girl who is so popular but the more one spends time with her, one wonders if she really has any true friends.

Most fascinating is the character named Josh (Matt Keeslar) whom Des (Chris Eigeman) often labels as a loon for having had a mental breakdown when the two were in college. Their relationship is interesting because just about every time Des says something even remotely derogatory, whether it be a name or an implication that Josh does not deserve to have the jobs he often gets, there is an undercurrent of envy. One of the most hysterical lines in the film is Des claiming that perhaps the reason why he is so happy is because he is not envious of anyone. It is a funny scene because we know better: We have grown to know him better than himself.

The romance between Josh and Alice is downplayed—but I was not entirely convinced such is the most appropriate avenue. Arguably, they are the two characters who are the best fit for one another. Perhaps a bit of genuine sweetness to penetrate the otherwise sour and sardonic tone might have made the movie feel more alive. But then the film is less about romance and more about how a certain era is romanticized.

“The Last Days of Disco” entertains through dry humor and private thoughts often being expressed in one’s attempt to become the center of attention. I did not like most of the characters, but I found myself always anticipating what they might say next. The group discussion about the underlying meanings embedded in the film “Lady and the Tramp” is most hypnotic. They talk about big ideas but they remain sitting on the couch, just waiting for time to pass.


Hellboy (2019)
★ / ★★★★

There is no doubt about it: Neil Marshall’s “Hellboy” is an exercise in futility. It has no reason to exist other than to make money. The most important difference between this reboot and Guillermo del Toro’s 2004 picture of the same name is that the latter possesses a sense of wonder. It is inviting; we wish to know more about its world not just because of the handful of strange characters on screen but because the material promises that it would provide constant surprises. Here, it is pedestrian right from the opening sequence that unfolds during the Dark Ages all way through an exhausted finale. Closing your eyes for two hours while wide awake is less punishing than having to sit through this rubbish.

The CGI is cheap and ugly. The main villain, a sorceress named Vivian Nimue (Milla Jovovich), has the power to unleash a plague across the world. Look at the unconvincing boils, how the flesh melts right off victims’ faces. They look so fake that it is impossible to feel horrified or disgusted. A combination of masks and cosmetics would have been preferred, but that would have taken longer, you see. Observe the monsters that await her return to power. They all look similar: golem-like, gray, scaly, nearly all a certain height. It is maddening that the film had a budget of fifteen million dollars and yet it does not even bother to make the monsters appear to look different from one another. The stench of the filmmakers’ laziness reeks. The work is in dire need of inspiration.

The title character is played by David Harbour and he has fun with the role. I enjoyed the character’s sarcasm, but there is no depth to him. There is a would-be drama between Hellboy and his father, Professor Bruttenholm (Ian McShane), particularly the former’s discovery that his father was sent to kill him, a demon baby, instead of taking him in to be raised as one of the good guys in the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense (B.P.R.D.), but the conflict does not work because there is no convincing foundation in the relationship between father and son. The two feel more like colleagues than family—if that. In addition, while the two actors are good on their own, I felt no chemistry between Harbour and McShane when their characters are required to connect in a meaningful way.

More interesting are supporting characters Ben and Alice (Daniel Dae Kim, Sasha Lane), a secretive member of the B.P.R.D. with military background and a spirit medium, respectively. Like Hellboy and his father, they are not given in-depth background information but the actors have memorable personalities; one can feel them attempting to elevate a material that is dead on arrival. Ben and Alice’s respective abilities, however, are diluted by yet even more visual effects. Every time CGI moves toward the center of the action, it were as if the movie is on a mission to put the audience to sleep. Eventually, gun shootings, skull bashing, and broken limbs go on autopilot.

Notice I have not touched upon the plot. It is because it doesn’t matter. Despite the flashbacks to several hundreds of years ago and heavy narration, the plot is as lifeless as a wooden plank. For instance, in order for the immortal Nimue to reclaim her original power, her severed body parts were locked in boxes and dispersed around the country by King Arthur and his knights. But these boxes are gathered so quickly, tension or suspense is not given a chance to build. Yes, it is inevitable that Nimue will rise again, but the material is still required to try to entertain.

More attention is put on showing people getting cut in half, or impaled, or their brains bashed in. There is blood by the bucketloads, as if it were a horror film. I found it pathetic in its attempt to come across shocking or cool. Its brazen approach to remain subpar is nauseating.

Ice Age: Continental Drift

Ice Age: Continental Drift (2012)
★★★ / ★★★★

In his never-ending quest to secure the perfect acorn, Scrat (voiced by Chris Wedge in the cutest grunts and various expressions of surprise) manages to fall into the Earth’s core and accidentally triggers extremely fast tectonic shifts that eventually leads to the formation of the seven continents. The sudden movement of land masses separates Manny (Ray Romano) from his family, Ellie (Queen Latifah) and Peaches (Keke Palmer), and the only way for them to reunite is to catch a specific current. However, the mission is made more difficult when Captain Gutt (Peter Dinklage), a power-hungry ape, and his motley crew seize Manny and his friends to try to force them to join piracy.

Based on the screenplay by Michael Berg and Jason Fuchs, credit must be given to “Ice Age: Continental Drift” for still trying to be creative with its images and dialogue despite being the fourth film of the series. It provides a fun, harmless adventure for children and kids-at-heart who like to watch extinct animals interact and get into all sorts of trouble.

The picture balances slapstick humor with lines of dialogue propelled by great delivery. Although the characters we are more familiar with do not break any new ground, so to speak, the new ones are welcome additions because each has a distinct personality coupled with jokes specific to their species and why they did not survive over time such as anatomical structures that simply do not match the changing environment. The voices behind the animation are present and excited even if they are playing a villain. There is often a danger of being one-note from wanting to be taken seriously. Instead, there is an equal mix of menace and joy so it is enjoyable to hear all of the characters speak.

The images grab our attention especially during its action sequences. As an alternative from showing us a pirate vessel that we come to expect, Captain Gutt’s ship is a huge chunk of ice. It looks sturdier than a typical ship with rotting insides, masts, and sails. Meanwhile, the battle scenes between the good guys and bad guys are allowed to unfold with feverish energy. I highly enjoyed looking at the weapons utilized by the pirates. For example, since they are pirates, most of us expect them to use arrows and swords. They do not. When the weapons make contact with wood or ice, the camera lingers for a second at what has just been thrown or swung and we are reminded of how much our brains rely on archetypes.

What works less effectively is Peaches’ struggle to be accepted by a crew of mammoths, one of which is her crush. The lesson about friendship and staying true to oneself are not only preachy, they lack any special dramatic gravity because such scenes are inconveniently inserted between Manny and the pirates. When it comes to the pirates, Shira (Jennifer Lopez), a sabertooth, is predictably played as the eventual romantic interest of Diego (Denis Leary). Their subplot traverses similar elements from the first film about belonging to a pack versus a herd. Whenever Peaches and Shira are front and center, the story feels slow and the immediacy of the action is lessened, respectively.

It is easy to feel cynical toward “Ice Age: Continental Drift,” directed by Steve Martino and Mike Thurmeier, because one might think a fourth entry is tantamount to cashing in. On the contrary, the images are more alive than ever even though select aspects of its story could have been sharpened or given more originality.

The Standoff at Sparrow Creek

The Standoff at Sparrow Creek (2019)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Hypnotic, tense, and with numerous tricks up its sleeve, “The Standoff at Sparrow Creek” tells the story of six members of a militia who gather at a warehouse following a gunman who opened fire at a police funeral. They realize that the perpetrator is among them given the fact that one of the automatic weapons in their stock is missing in addition to some grenades, bullets, and bulletproof vests. Going to the police as a group is not an option—it is certain that every one of them would get the blame. So it is up to Gannon (James Badge Dale), a former cop who specializes in extracting confessions, to determine which of his peers is the gunman (Chris Mulkey, Happy Anderson, Brian Geraghty, Robert Aramayo, Patrick Fischler). Put your seatbelts on.

It is proud to be a film for cinéphiles. Right from its excellent opening scene in which we observe Gannon hunting an animal but instead the quiet, meditative moment is interrupted by a muffled but terrifying assault rifle going off in the distance, followed by well-paced opening minutes in which the curious faraway event feels as though it is encroaching toward Gannon’s isolated existence, writer-director Henry Dunham proves to be in complete control of all the gears and machinations of his material. For instance, he is fully aware that men gathering in an enclosed space and pointing fingers is not fresh, and so he is quick to unearth character details—to show from the get-go why his subjects, and therefore his story, are special. This is Dunham’s first feature film. And I suspect, should he continue to deliver high caliber work, it will be one of many.

Gannon is neither the toughest nor the smartest man in the room. But we get the feeling he is most principled, the one who is likely to do what is right. Dale plays the protagonist with quiet but commanding charisma; he evinces a certain goodness, trustworthiness. As our kind-of moral compass, we bond with Gannon as he interviews those who may have done the crime. By asking questions, and the manner in which he asks them at times, not only do we learn about the suspects, we also learn about the interviewer. It is most fascinating when he—inevitably—loses control of the interview process. There is not one dumb person in the group, but some are certainly smarter than others. A few are quite cunning, particularly the one who treats J.D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye” as his bible. He does not speak.

The dialogue-heavy script is fun to listen to, to drill into, and to look back on and connect the dots. On this level, the script is worthy of being in the same sentence as Quentin Tarantino for it inspires those who love words and conversations to lean closer and listen a little more heavily, to determine whether something is being said in the unsaid. Each character has a specific voice, a perspective we may not agree with but nonetheless fascinating. Furthermore, those who are well-versed in good mysteries are certain to catch red herrings. The challenge, however, is determining how each “misplaced element” fits into the plot. There is not one wasted image here. Each one has its place. Even quick flashbacks usually treated as throwaways in lesser hands. I admired that.

I found “The Standoff at Sparrow Creek” to be riveting from start to finish. Even when I knew, for example, that a certain thing simply could not happen because doing so would betray the material’s themes, I caught myself feeling anxious anyway because what if turning certain themes inside out could end up more revealing than what is already in front of us? And therein lies Henry Dunham’s ability to play the audience like a piano. On the surface, the film is Tarantinoesque. But I’ll take it a step further and claim that, on the inside, it is Hitchcockian.