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Franz Patrick

The Terminator


The Terminator (1984)
★★★★ / ★★★★

James Cameron’s “The Terminator” is known for its muscular action sequences and the pitch-perfect casting of Arnold Schwarzenegger as a cyborg sent from post-apocalyptic 2029 to 1984 to kill Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), mother of John Connor, the man who will lead the resistance against the machines, but let us not overlook that the screenplay is so precise and efficient, it makes modern sci-fi action pictures look saggy, lackadaisical, weak. Here is a movie that offers an experience: it can be entertaining, funny, pulse-pounding, and horrifying at a drop of a hat. It is miraculous that despite the disparate elements that must be juggled, the story’s forward momentum continues to build until the climax. It works from top to bottom.

Right from the opening minutes it is without question that plenty of thought is put into the images on screen. The arrival of two figures from the future—a machine and a human—run in parallel. The former is sinewy, tall, without an identifying emotion his face. The latter, on the other hand, is built but scrawny by comparison, his face plagued by confusion, uncertainty, agitation, perhaps even fear. Similarity lies in their nakedness. But a difference: the machine must blend into its new environment while the man, too, must do the same… on top of avoiding shame for having to go on without them. Another similarity: their mission is find Sarah Connor. The difference: the machine is programmed to kill her, but the man feels the need to protect her. There is minimal dialogue, but our eyes are transfixed on the screen.

The lack of words or critical dialogue goes on for minutes as the director racks up the tension. Even when we meet Sarah, as words are exchanged among colleagues and friends, there is nothing important to be said or expressed. These are played for chuckles or laughs. Instead, we pay attention to what is being reported on television. Because the work shows that the background elements can be important in this story, we are trained to pay attention to every small detail. In other words, the work tasks us to participate. And because we are engaged, it must be established early on that the heroine be intelligent. It is a mistake for this character to be dumb when we meet her only to get smarter later on. Screenwriters James Cameron and Gale Anne Hurd anticipate this pitfall and so they find ways to be two steps ahead of expectations.

There is excellence in easily overlooked moments. For instance, when our protagonist gets on her bike and looks both ways before driving off, there is great tension to be felt. The funny thing is that she is not aware she is being hunted… yet. But we already have this knowledge. To Sarah, to look both ways is the sensible, ordinary thing to do. But to us, it is a life or death situation: a figure approaching from a distance in either direction could mean that the cyborg programmed to kill has found her and she could be dead in seconds. These moments of pause, of inhalation, elevate the action film toward a more visceral territory. It cannot be denied there are horror elements in the work outside of the relentless, highly physical, seemingly unstoppable villain.

Here we are at the end of the review and I have not even detailed the high caliber action scenes. And I don’t feel the need to because they must be experienced to be appreciated fully. But notice the sound design: immediate, forceful, sharp; they tend to jolt the viewers into paying attention that much more. Yet at times the approach is minimalistic: the pulsating score is enough to hasten our heartbeats.

There is certainly a few dated special and visual effects (the CGI cyborg in its rawest, metallic form running from the background toward the foreground quickly comes to mind) and obvious cosmetics (Schwarzenegger donning a most unconvincing, chuckle-worthy mask since technology that allowed seamless blending of two faces—man and machine—was not yet available). But I consider these to be negligible technical shortcomings because the rest of the work functions on a high level. There are two or three lines of mawkish dialogue, but this is overcome by daring to turn the story’s core into a love story.

Rattlesnake


Rattlesnake (2019)
★ / ★★★★

With a premise that brings Stephen King stories to mind, it is a disappointment that “Rattlesnake,” written and directed by Zak Hilditch, fails to take off after the first act. Instead, we are subjected to repetitive sequences of a character running about all over a Texan town with one goal in mind but few inspired ideas on how to reach it. Because we find ourselves smarter than the protagonist, following her is a chore and a bore. The picture might have benefited from a major rewrite—not of its premise but of the details that make up the story.

A flat tire on a desert highway forces Katrina (Carmen Ejogo) to pull over and deal with the matter. Her daughter, Clara (Apollonia Pratt), explores from a few feet away but eventually finds herself bitten by a rattlesnake. Panic-stricken and desperate to save her daughter’s life, Katrina spots a nearby trailer, sprints toward it with Clara in tow, and enters. A woman (Debrianna Mansini)—preternaturally calm—agrees to help. She claims that payment for her service will be discussed at a later time, but for now Katrina must fix the flat tire so when her daughter regains consciousness, she could be taken immediately to the nearest hospital.

While at the hospital, the girl in recovery, the mother gets a visitor. The man in the suit (Bruce Davis) claims that for the soul that was saved, Katrina must offer the same in return: She must murder another person. She has seven hours—until sunset—to pay the debt in full. Should she fail, Clara’s soul would be reclaimed.

The first twenty minutes command a high level of urgency. It buries the audience neck-deep with all sorts of information, questions, and assumptions. Most interesting is the magical element in the picture; it is unsettling that the faces we come to meet—those who are aware of what Katrina must do—are those who have passed on. We see their faces on missing persons ads and on online articles citing violent deaths. On the surface, Ejogo looks convincing as a desperate mother who is willing to do whatever it takes to save her daughter. It is in her eyes.

Less impressive, however, is how the character is written. Ejogo could deliver the most layered acting, but if the screenplay remains flat, the performer’s effort would amount to nothing. In the attempt to show Katrina as a good person, there are far too many moments that depict her hesitancy and guilt. They drag on and on—to the point by which the momentum of the movie is significantly impaired. In the middle of it, I wondered why the writer-director is so desperate for viewers to like the character, to see her as good. It isn’t necessary. What matters is that we understand the plight of the character, what she must do to save her daughter. I would rather have an interesting protagonist who is willing to partake in questionable things than a likable, boring one. Katrina is example of the latter and there is no excuse for it.

For a race against time story, there is an astonishing lack of urgency. Notice instances of Katrina measuring up her potential victims. She considers older folks, children, women who come across physically weak by comparison to her. This comes across rather… amusing instead of chilling. The reason is because, at this point, we do not know how she thinks. Because she is written to be so safe and so nice, it is difficult to imagine the extent of her dark thoughts—or if she is even capable of having such ideations. And so what we see during these moments is simply behavior. There is no tension, no believability to the whole charade.

“Rattlesnake” bites but it lacks potent venom. Not enough is done with the black magic angle of the story whether it be a constant, forceful, mysterious element never to be explained nor as a possible facet of the plot that must be explored thoroughly. Instead, it is used merely as a tool to propel the plot forward and brought up whenever convenient. I was annoyed by the screenplay’s fondness for easy solutions and so the work is never fascinating, just barely good enough to pass the time. I hold a higher standard than that.

The Lighthouse


The Lighthouse (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

Psychological horror picture “The Lighthouse” is a step back for director Robert Eggers. In “The Witch,” he is able to take a period story, set in 1630s New England, and construct a deeply unsettling tale around that time and place. It peers unblinkingly into a dark folklore and we buy every second of it. It is told with clarity, relentless energy, and with a period dialogue so uncompromising at times that it risks frustrating most viewers. In his follow-up, however, co-writing with Max Eggers, although the story takes place on an island in 1890s New England, photography in black-and-white, it feels just like any other modern twisty tale of a man’s madness unspooling in an isolated, lonely location. I received little enjoyment from it.

It cannot be denied that Willem Dafoe’s performance is entertaining. As Wake, the ill-tempered supervisor of Winslow (Robert Pattinson) who is prone to believing superstitions of the sea, he is extremely watchable when the camera places him front and center, recalling experiences he claims to have had and how he manages to tie them—no matter how tenuous—to the current predicaments that he and Winslow find themselves in. Although Pattinson attempts to match the veteran’s effortless magnetism—and there are a few moments when Pattinson is effective—he pales by comparison.

Histrionics, particularly toward the end when secrets have been spilled and blood has been spattered, are unconvincing and forced; I felt awkward during instances when the performer would go off-script because he is so into the moment. Particularly challenging when it comes to period films is that every second must feel and sound believable. I felt certain reactions to dire situations needed to be edited, cut short, or reshot altogether. Modern acting in period movies, unless this concept is meant to be the point, is most distracting. When it comes to Pattinson, who has been terrific in risk-taking roles prior to this (“The Rover,” “Good Time,” “High Life”), I felt I was watching an actor acting rather than being.

The relationship between the two men of vastly different ages and even bigger differences when it comes to how to approach the job they are tasked is meant to be rocky, a constant source of conflict. There are a handful of amusing moments when Wake would unfairly remind Winslow of his lower rank just because the old man can, but especially when Winslow broaches the subject of never getting to see the lamp of the lighthouse. Wake appears to be obsessed of being alone with that lamp. Why? Dafoe’s wicked performance suggests there might be a sexual component to it. One night, due to nagging curiosity, Winslow walks to the top of the lighthouse and sees his partner, lying naked, in the same room as giant, octopus-like tentacles. The movie gets more bizarre from there.

One of the Wake’s odd superstitions is it is bad luck to kill a seagull since each bird contains a soul of a sailor who had died. This idea ties nicely to the final shot of the film, but it commands little power or irony because the storytelling, for the most part, is muddled, composed solely of one peculiar happening after another: a mermaid encounter by the rocks, getting dead drunk and experiencing nightmares, hallucinations born out of guilt, and the like. The formula gets repetitive and exhausting after a while.

Although some thought is put behind these images, I was reminded too often of other generic psychological horror pictures in which an untrustworthy protagonist grows even more unhinged as the story moves forward. Remove the black-and-white photography in addition to the silent film aspect ratio of 1.9 to 1 and there is nothing special about “The Lighthouse.” Not once did I feel scared, or surprised, or thrilled by any of the plot developments. I found shots of ocean water crashing against the rocks during a storm to be far more hypnotic than the wild goings-on.

Missing Link


Missing Link (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

Laika’s latest outing “Missing Link” has nearly all the elements to make a wonderful adventure film for the whole family. Technically, it is a marvel. As a whole, however, the picture is a disappointment because it fails to grab the viewers on an emotional, gut level. It is strange because the story’s theme is belongingness. We follow two outcasts—an explorer and a mythical beast who are strangers initially—who travel across the globe with the goal of finding a place or group of likeminded individuals who will accept them for who they are. The story’s trajectory is familiar and so the details that compose of that path must be special in order for the work to stand out from its contemporaries—animated film or otherwise.

I enjoyed the film for its seemingly insignificant details. Notice when a character is recalling either a painful or cherished memory, the listener, human or non-human, reacts—a small smile, for instance, that forms suddenly from a neutral expression or how one’s head tilts at a precise moment of surprise or concern which confirms that he or she is indeed interested in what is being shared. These animated figures are made to embody the body language of actual people and so it does not at all require effort to relate to the characters’ personalities, motivations, purpose, or hopes for the future.

More generic animated movies are more concerned about delivering kaleidoscopic colors and busy action. While the film, written and directed by Chris Butler, delivers on those fronts—perhaps most impressive a scene where our protagonists are being hunted by a bounty hunter aboard a ship that undergoes various acrobatics due to a storm—colors and action almost always have clear context behind them. Sure, there are silly pun-filled jokes, but remove such one-liners altogether and meat remains on screen. In other words, the filmmakers are not simply interested in providing sensory, shallow entertainment. It enjoys getting us to think or consider once a while and that is invaluable.

The voice work by Hugh Jackman, as the British explorer Sir Lionel Frost who specializes in providing proof of mythical creatures’ existence, and Zach Galifianakis, as a Sasquatch capable of speaking English despite living in isolation out in the wilderness, is top-notch. In the middle of the movie, I became convinced that the two must have provided their lines in the same room, facing each other. Emotions behind the words command force, jokes land more often than not—which requires precise delivery especially when the point is to underline culture clash, and a convincing sense of camaraderie gets stronger as the work moves forward. If the voice actors actually recorded at different times, I would be even more impressed.

But the work did not move me emotionally—at least not on the level the screenwriter intended to move the viewer. I think it is due to a character I found to be completely unnecessary. Ms. Fortnight (Zoe Saldana), Sir Frost’s romantic interest, appears to be around only to deliver sassy comments and explain or highlight the life lessons that Sir Frost and Mr. Link (the Sasquatch) are supposed to be learning about themselves. By vocalizing the insights that should naturally come about throughout the duo’s journey, it cheapens the material. On this level, it assumes that viewers—especially children—are lacking self-awareness, a critical miscalculation that leaves a sour lasting impression.

The Unknown Girl


The Unknown Girl (2017)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne craft yet another beautiful portrait of ordinary people who just happen to find themselves in a moral quandary and then must deal with the aftermath of their action or inaction. A deeply humanistic picture that does not ask for anyone’s judgment or sympathy, “The Unknown Girl” urges attentive and intelligent viewers to question what we would have or might have done had we been thrusted in a similar situation. It only asks that we be honest with ourselves. Therein lies its quiet power.

This time around, the focus is on a young physician (Adèle Haenel) who chooses not to answer the door because she and her intern (Olivier Bonnaud) have been in the clinic an hour past closing time. The next day brings tragic news of a dead girl whose body is found at a construction site right across the street. The clinic’s video recording reveals that the doorbell was actually a cry for a help. Clearly distraught and desperate, it appears the girl without a name was being chased.

The material is interested in exploring who Jenny is as a doctor, on and off the clock. It is interesting that Haenel plays the character with a rather stolid surface most of the time, even telling her trainee that in order for him to become a good physician he must always keep his emotions in check. But behavior says paragraphs about a person and the Dardenne brothers observe without appraisal, not even a hint of a score or soundtrack. We hear every footstep, each uncomfortable shuffling, the deafening silence in a room when a person struggles to keep a secret.

Notice the way Jenny looks at her patients, how she injects needles into her patients’ skins, how she touches and moves their limbs as she attempts to examine what might be going wrong in their bodies. Then notice how her patients regard her when they are being cared for, as Jenny supports them up and down the stairs after a consultation, how they say goodbye to one another at the entrance. Unemotional on the surface, observant viewers will detect that Jenny is a physician who cares deeply for the lives around her. Calls from patients are always urgent. Laboratory results are relayed right away.

A movie like this will hardly appeal to the masses, especially those hoping to be entertained by stunning visual effects and loud, busy action. However, works like “La fille inconnue” have a better chance of standing the test of time because just as choices and emotions are raw, repercussions are dire and unflinching. Great dramas build suspense out of reality and we watch spellbound as the protagonist interacts with people who may know a lot more than they let on initially. The material is unafraid to show complex people just as they are, how ugly and beautiful we can be to one another; it allows us to consider being more aware, more present, of our surroundings and how we interact with it.

Paradise: Faith


Paradise: Faith (2012)
★★ / ★★★★

A woman enters a room and opens the lock of one of the drawers. She takes out a flogging whip, takes off her shirt and bra, kneels in front of the crucifix hanging on the wall, and beats herself with it. As the whip hits her flesh repeatedly, she prays for the others’ sins, mainly their obsession for the flesh. Her name is Anna Maria (Maria Hofstätter) and it is her mission to bring back Austria to Catholicism.

It is likely that many people will approach this film and criticize it for its subject matter rather than what it is attempting to show—a grossly incorrect approach. “Paradise: Faith,” based on the screenplay by Ulrich Seidl and Veronika Franz, is about a woman who is so devout that we are supposed to wonder if she has acquired an unhealthy obsession. What is considered to be an “unhealthy obsession”? It is up to us to decide.

Hofstätter plays Anna Maria with grace and pride. It is not a role for a movie star nor for a performer with a memorable or strong presence.The actor’s face and body are, appropriately, ordinary but because the intensity of her performance does not waver, every time she is front and center—often alone in a confined space—she is extremely watchable. It is interesting that her behavior tells us more about herself than when she speaks. That is because when she talks, it is often either a prayer or an attempt to convince another person to believe in God.

Anna Maria knocks on random people’s doors and claims that the Virgin Mary statue she carries around is visiting them. I enjoyed that Ulrich Seidl, the director, takes some time to have the lead character enter a home and show how people respond to her. One of the best, perhaps because it is so alive and amusing, is when she tries to convince an older couple that what they share is a sin in the eyes of God. The older gentleman’s wife had passed away while the older lady is divorced. To Anna Maria, because the Bible tells her so, the couple in front of her are sinners and therefore must repent.

One would think that Anna Maria would be unlikable. I admired the writers for making her sympathetic rather than treating her as a joke or a punchline. Over time, we are made to see how important her faith is to her. Her mindset is this: Because she believes that becoming a Catholic has changed her life for the better, it is therefore her duty to pass it on—even if the various people she encounters do not want what she has to offer. To Anna Maria, what is right for her must be right for others, too.

But the movie did not work for me as a whole. There is one supporting character (Nabil Saleh) that is introduced less than halfway through the picture who takes away a lot of the film’s focus. That is, Anna Maria’s blind ambition to turn everybody into a Catholic. This character, a paraplegic, is supposed to introduce a comedic tone but it rubbed me the wrong way because the approach is so obvious. He does not agree with Anna Maria’s religious beliefs and so he goes around the house taking down crucifixes, photos of Christ, and the like. It gets old real quick and he is in front of the camera a lot of the time.

“Paradies: Glaube” needs more uncomfortable scenes. One that quickly comes to mind is Anna Maria meeting an alcoholic. Their interaction verges on violence eventually. I felt afraid for our protagonist’s safety. Scenes as such force us to question why she would put herself in that situation. Does she choose to stay because she is devout—that God will protect her no matter what or is it because the danger of the situation does not click fully in her mind? Maybe it is a bit of both.

The film is for patient and thoughtful viewers. Though it does not bring up the most complex questions about what faith is or what having faith means to someone, it does dig up some interesting questions specific to the character. It has a dramatic protective membrane and a darkly humorous nucleus. Prepare to engage and penetrate to get there.

Eli


Eli (2019)
★ / ★★★★

Ciarán Foy’s “Eli” is yet another substandard horror film with little on its mind other than to deliver a big twist during the final fifteen minutes. The journey toward the destination is slow, interminable, and peppered with scares that rarely land on target. For a story that unfolds in an estate in the middle of the country—perfect for a haunted house movie—there is no intrigue, just clichés that pile on top of one another until the viewer is compelled to no longer care.

It begins with a curious medical case about a boy named Eli (Charlie Shotwell) who began to exhibit signs of an unnamed autoimmune disorder four years prior. When exposed to the environment, red spots appear on his skin aggressively and so he is forced to live in a bubble. His parents (Kelly Reilly, Max Martini) found a new hope: Dr. Horn (Lili Taylor), an immunologist who plans to employ viral gene therapy to repair the boy’s defective genes.

Although a mysterious premise, the science aspect of the picture is almost immediately thrown out the window from the moment the desperate family steps inside the palatial home. It does not help that the immunologist and her nurses are written as villains in the most obvious way possible: stern-faced, cold, impersonal, robotic. It does not provide the audience a chance to decide for themselves whether or not to trust the poker-faced trio. You see, the reason is because every decision must serve the rug to be pulled from right underneath our feet. If the screenplay by David Chirchirillo, Ian Goldberg, and Richard Naing really cared about engaging the audience, it would have been willing to entertain possibilities.

The middle portion drags to the point of futility. Every time day turns into night, you can bet that Eli would have a nightmare, get up from the bed, and explore the creepy facility. Sometimes he encounters ghostly figures that breathe on windowpanes, a few of them whisper clues, and one or two reveal themselves, CGI and all. It is formulaic, exhausting, and not at all scary. There is a lack of patience during the buildup and so the would-be payoffs are not at all impactful. Shotwell is quite convincing at looking terrified, but we do not believe the emotions on his face because there is nothing special about the craft propelling such encounters.

As for the drama between a desperate mother and seemingly cold father, I found it to be recycled fluff. There is a scene early in the picture which shows the family’s financial struggle due to the boy’s rising medical costs. However, this fact—this reality—is never brought up again. I think the movie could have used more searing honesty. It is common knowledge that family members tend to fight among one another when money is tight. People get desperate not knowing how to pay for rent or how to pay for the next meal. Pretty much everybody can relate or empathize with this. However, the movie would rather focus on parents fighting because one has lied, or has kept a secret, or some vanilla reason. Be direct. Deliver raw drama.

Admittedly, the twist is quite smart. I did not see it coming. But a good twist—even a great one—is not worth a recommendation when everything else around it is uninspired, from the unsubtle dialogue, forgettable set decor, down to a resolution that hints at a possible sequel should the movie become a success. It is pessimistic filmmaking.