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Franz Patrick

Summer 1993


Summer 1993 (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★

The experience of watching “Summer 1993” is akin to engaging in a relaxing hobby indoors as children’s screams of joy and laughter can be heard outside. It is full of life but never in an ostentatious or hackneyed way. Rather, the film inspires the viewer to look closely not on the action or plot development but rather within the the inner folds of children’s feelings and thoughts as they adjust to changes in their lives throughout the course of one summer. It is a portrait of childhood that includes the delights and discomforts of growing up just a little even when one is not ready simply because life takes an unfortunate turn.

Writer-director Carla Simón tells her autobiographical story with elegance and class. Just like the main protagonist Frida (Laia Artigas), who is about six or seven years old, the audience is kept among the fog of a mysterious illness that led to the death of the girl’s biological mother. Eventually, we are given enough clues to make an assumption about the nature of the disease… but not once is it named outright—appropriate given the time period in which the story is set, the shame that comes with the sickness, and the perspective of the story. The name of the sickness is not important to the child, only the fact that her mother is no longer around to provide, to care, to love.

An unhurried pacing is the picture’s greatest weapon—and the very element that may likely repel the casual audience. By taking its time, specifically to use time in a way that children process it, the material is able to focus on images that more commercial or mainstream works overlook or ignore on purpose. Notice there are numerous instances where we simply watch Frida and Anna (Paula Robles) engage in play, the latter being the biological daughter of Frida’s adoptive parents, Esteve (David Verdaguer) and Marga (Bruna Cusí), the former Frida’s uncle. They climb trees, play pretend, tag, take on dares. During their play, Frida’s trauma is slowly revealed to us slowly. She challenges people to the point of pushing them away, testing them to see if, like her mother, they would end up leaving, too.

There is a sadness to the material that I found to be deeply profound exactly because not once does the material feel the need to explain anything. Melodrama is avoided. Revelations are treated casually. While it may appear to be telling a children’s story on the outside, I think adults are meant to be the intended audience. It is fascinating how the camera almost avoids showing adults’ faces unless absolutely necessary, particularly during the more emotional moments. By keeping the camera low, there are times when adults look like giants. The words exchanged sound a bit muffled. We experience the story through the children’s eyes.

Those unwisely claim that the picture is boring are flat-out wrong. I think it is brave because it provides the viewer a task of looking deep within to ask why certain life events play out the way they do. Sometimes there are answers. But many more times there are only conjectures. I think this captures the essence of life quite wonderfully. It is organic and challenging in numerous ways that more mainstream dramatic works are not.

Zombieland: Double Tap


Zombieland: Double Tap (2019)
★ / ★★★★

If your idea of entertainment is unadulterated boredom then Ruben Fleischer’s “Zombieland: Double Tap” is a winner: a lazy, low energy, soporific sequel to a predecessor that embodies none of these qualities. It is astounding that although there is a ten-year gap between the original and the follow-up, the ideas served here are tired and maddeningly cliché, rotten, the actors hamming it up to create a semblance of a good movie. I felt embarrassed for their efforts; they are character actors stuck in a third-rate material. It is clear that the picture has no reason to exist other than to make money. To say it is a waste of ninety minutes is an understatement.

The introductory scene shows some promise. Colombus (Jesse Eisenberg), via narration, acknowledges that since we last spent time with them a decade ago, zombies have specialized and a few have evolved. Each type is given a specific name based on the undead’s characteristics, particularly the manner in which it hunts. But this potentially fresh idea is dropped almost immediately and picked up only when convenient—when it is desperate for an action scene. Instead, we are bogged down with lame dialogue—most of them expository—about the importance of sticking together, of family, of home being where your loved ones are. Dave Callaham, Rhett Reese, and Paul Wernick’s screenplay appears to be confused when it comes to their target audience. Did they mean to impress those with IQ lower than 70?

Every time the material attempts to explore family dynamics among Colombus, Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), Wichita (Emma Stone), and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin), it is a challenge to prevent closing one’s eyes because none of the connections ring true. For example, the father-daughter relationship between Tallahassee and Little Rock is forced and awkward on two fronts: there is no chemistry between Harrelson and Breslin—the latter at times coming across like she doesn’t even want to be in the film while the former, almost recognizing the lack of enthusiasm from his co-star, recompenses for their shortcoming as a unit by exaggerating an already hyperbolic character—and the screenplay never provides a warm, touching, or curious moment between the two characters prior to their relationship being challenged.

Another example is Columbus and Wichita’s would-be romantic connection: it is dry and purely circumstantial. Like Harrelson and Breslin, Eisenberg and Stone lack chemistry—this time the romantic variety. I suppose the idea of opposites attract is meant to be humorous, but what they share is consistently one-dimensional. Wichita is always the straight man, Columbus the bumbling bungler. The writing fails to let the audience see—or discover—what Wichita sees in Columbus, vice-versa. It is without question that interpretations of these characters are detached from the previous film. And so the whole thing comes across as a charade.

Even zombie attacks are nothing special: the undead appear and they are shot either in the distance or pointblank. Observe how these sequences are edited like a music video. The reason is because fast cuts and other flashy, in-your-face techniques are meant to establish a veil of energetic razzle-dazzle when, in reality, unfolding before us is just another shoot ‘em up. Substitute zombies with bad guys in suits and nothing is changed on the fundamental level. I felt especially insulted when a character would yell out zombie types (“Homer,” “Hawking,” “Ninja”—introduced during the opening scene) when one is encountered instead of allowing us to discover ourselves which version is in front of us. It zaps away the already minimal tension.

“Zombieland: Double Tap” is not made for smart people. It is made for the undead audience, those who prefer to have everything spoon-fed or explained for them. There is no excitement, no suspense, no thrills, not even one good scare. I did not feel as though the filmmakers felt confident or passionate about their material. If they did, they would have put more effort in elevating the dialogue, making sure that the relationships ring true, ensuring that the action is creative or surprising. If the bar is this low for the series, I hope it stays dead. It is an insult to everyone involved.

Hotel Artemis


Hotel Artemis (2018)
★★ / ★★★★

Take the cool concept of hotel-exclusively-for-criminals from “John Wick”—but turn the posh setting the opposite way: as grubby as possible without losing the foreboding mood—and set it amidst a political backdrop that involves rioters’ violent uprising against the privatization of clean water in Los Angeles 2028. The result is “Hotel Artemis,” written and directed by Drew Pearce, an action-thriller that offers a few neat ideas but quite underwhelming as a whole. In the middle of it, I wondered if it might have been better off as television show.

Part of its lack of cinematic appeal is the standard disparate characters having to converge at one place. Given that the titular hotel is meant to heal criminals, many of them killers, we already expect for them to drop like flies. It is all a matter of when and in what order. Since it takes on this level of predictability, dramatic gravity must be enhanced to such an extent that we overlook the final destination. Its attempt goes as far as to provide flashbacks of the nurse (Jodie Foster) who runs the hotel, how she found her son dead at the beach due to a drug overdose. Since then she has been in a state of grief—it has gotten so bad that she has developed agoraphobia over the years. She blames herself so much that she has made Hotel Artemis her personal prison, to exist to serve till the day she dies.

Meanwhile, we get snippets of snappy banter among a slate of criminals, from bank robbers (Sterling K. Brown), arms dealers (Charlie Day), to hired assassins (Sofia Boutella). All of them are convincing in their respective roles with the exception of Zachary Quinto as the hotel owner’s volatile son. Every time he utters a line, I felt as though the performer was taken from a completely different picture. It is distracting at best, laughable at worst—especially when the character is supposed to be taken seriously as a major threat against everyone in the hotel. The angry son is given no character development.

The picture is shot against a curious political backdrop but the anger swelling outside of the hotel is used merely as a device. News coverage is shown on televisions inside the Artemis, we hear bombs going off in the distance, and rooftop scenes show aircrafts crashing on nearby buildings. These images are meant to amplify the tension from the outside in, perhaps even aiming to paint a picture of a hellish near-future, but the social commentary, while present, is completely lost. Like its underdeveloped characters, its ideas, too, are undercooked. I felt no excitement or enjoyment from these images.

A cursory approach almost always does not work with high-concept action-thrillers. The point of having ambitious ideas is to explore them in a way that is thoroughly entertaining—that if one were to strip away the action altogether, the viewers would still want to know what would happen because the drama is rooted in something real. “Hotel Artemis” fails to invest emotionally and so only a shallow experience is offered. While not necessarily bad or unbearable, nearly everything about it is forgettable. If there were to be a sequel, which the material nudges by mentioning other hotels with a similar purpose, ideas must be explored first and foremost. Otherwise, what would be the point?

The Face of Love


The Face of Love (2013)
★★★ / ★★★★

Since her husband (Ed Harris) has passed five years ago, Nikki (Annette Bening) has been unable to move on from his death. She gives away his clothes. She hides his photographs. She avoids places that hold significance for them.

They frequently visited the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. She finds it to be particularly difficult to be around this place, but one day the widow feels compelled to go inside. She regards the artworks with fascination and solemnity—but it isn’t the same. She turns around and there she spots a perfect replica of her late husband. She later comes to know him as Tom (also played by Harris) and, like the late husband, he is passionate about art.

“The Face of Love,” written by Matthew McDuffie and Arie Posin, is a hard sell. The story involving a person’s double and playing it with a straight face? Isn’t that within the realm science fiction and fantasy? But that is exactly what I admired about it: Instead of executing the plot with tinges of silliness, it is brave enough to dare to suspend us in disbelief nearly throughout. We know that Tom will learn about Nikki’s late husband eventually and that he looks exactly like him. That is not the interesting part. It is in how he responds to the knowledge he is provided that tells us everything about his character.

In movies with similar premise, it is too easy to categorize the protagonist. He or she must either be crippled by grief or the person is likely to be suffering from a mental illness. Not here. Bening makes an excellent decision to embody both categories but she avoids her character from being defined by them. She makes a lot of fresh choices. Notice how Nikki is like when indoors. Compare her body language to when she is out in the open. It is two different performances. The unhurried pacing allows us to appreciate the subtleties in her performance.

We feel the love between both characters. Only understanding what Nikki feels toward her late husband’s double would have been severely erroneous. It would have made the character less compelling. Certainly, an irrational obsession would have been the point as opposed to an imperfect but believable relationship. It just so happens that there is a big elephant in the room and to acknowledge it might just ruin everything.

Robin Williams plays Roger, Nikki’s neighbor and with whom he hopes of eventually sharing a romantic connection. Roger is underwritten, functioning more like annoyance rather than a genuinely sad man who also lost someone who is dear to him. Their commonality is loss, but the screenplay fails to hone in on that trait in meaningful ways. Instead, they are given a few conversations that outwardly refer to their dead spouses. Surely there must have been a less obvious way to explore that angle.

Directed by Arie Posin, “The Face of Love” will likely surprise those who choose to have an open mind. Going into it, I looked forward to Bening and Harris’ performances most. They do deliver and share wonderful chemistry, but I was surprised that their characters’ situation resonated with me. The final scene is superlative.

The Black Stallion


The Black Stallion (1979)
★★★★ / ★★★★

If there were more movies released on a yearly basis which dare to be on the level of ambition, imagination, craft, and execution of “The Black Stallion,” I am convinced there would be more intellectually curious children who would grow up to love and respect animals, the environment, and nature. The work, directed by Carroll Ballard and based on the novel by Walter Farley, without question, is cream of the crop, providing one astonishing visual right after another with seeming ease and endless amount of energy. It invites us to look at every frame and appreciate each choice as one would a most engaging book about adventures, life’s mysteries, and longings.

Right from the opening sequence the camera communicates that it understands children. It involves an American boy named Alec (Kelly Reno) observing men speaking a foreign tongue who are forcing a black desert horse into a tiny stable aboard a ship. Notice the placement of the camera: how it is on the level of the child’s eye coupled with how efficient it is in capturing every emotion from the boy’s freckled and expressive face. He is curious, afraid, excited, and entertained by the level of danger unfolding before him. Despite the foreign language, there is no subtitle. It trusts whoever is watching to be able to read the scene simply by listening closely to the emphases and intonations of words of phrases and by observing that the body movements are filled with purpose. It effectively sets the tone for the rest of the picture.

Eventually, the boy and the horse find themselves stranded on a deserted island. Words are rarely used and this is the point when the film is required to hold the most universal appeal—and it does. The images must speak for themselves. Achingly beautiful are sequences involving the two beings having to learn to trust one another. It is done with suspense, humor, and, yes, even horror. I admired the decision to show that the wild horse is incredibly dangerous: one simply should not run up to one with the intention of petting it, expecting it would be friendly.

Sound effects are utilized in such a way to highlight the dangers: the panicked neighing of the animal, its hooves bashing onto various objects and destroying them, the weight of its humongous body being thrown about. Couple these sounds and accompanying images as the boy slowly approaches Black… it is near impossible not to hold one’s breath. There is no special or visual effects. At times the confused horse and the boy are literally only three feet apart. I found it scary, concerning, and, admittedly, highly entertaining. At one point, I found myself throwing instructions at the screen (“No, don’t do it. Just please walk away!”).

Casting Reno is the correct choice because he has grown up with horses; he gives Alec a certain calm that cannot be edited or constructed or bought. It is amazing how the young performer is able to ride the horse as it runs along the shore without a saddle, strap, or stirrup. He must simply hold onto the mane of the horse as his tiny, fragile human frame bounces about. It must be seen to be believed; I had never seen anything like it.

“The Black Stallion” does not tell the entirety of its story on the island. Most refreshing is that the work does not become about trauma or mourning. It remains to possess a high level of drama, but the emotions behind them are optimistic, full of hope and possibilities. Still, there are unexpected moments when characters get a chance to recognize their losses. Again, words need not be utilized; silence is enough. The camera resting on a face as memories come to the foreground accomplishes more than having to explain how one feels or what one thinks about the preceding action. Here is a movie aimed for children that does not condescend—not even once.

Fractured


Fractured (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

Is there something deeply sinister going on in the country hospital or is the man who claims that his wife and daughter had been kidnapped by the hospital staff simply exhibiting psychosis? Brad Anderson’s “Fractured” offers a familiar premise and is almost immediately elevated by a sympathetic lead performance. But with an ending so uninspired, maddening, and predictable, one is left to wonder whether the journey is worth it by the time end credits appear.

The picture’s strongest quality is its patient build-up. As it lays down the foundation of Ray’s relationship with his wife and young daughter, we empathize with the man who feels that his family is slipping away. He is desperate to keep things together since a prior loss of a loved one continues to haunt him. Ray, played with convincing vulnerability and desperation by Sam Worthington, is a former alcoholic. We meet him having an argument with Joanne (Lily Rabe) in the car while on their way back home from Thanksgiving celebration. Worthington and Rabe share solid chemistry as a married couple on the verge of divorce. Words are used like daggers but the moments of silence, too, are just as sharp. The opening scene, rooted in drama, hints at a better than average thriller.

From the way scenes are shot, especially once the family of three set foot at the questionable hospital, viewers are jolted into paying attention. Notice the fond use of close-ups. Nearly every hospital staff encountered is a source of suspicion, from clerks at the front desk who must deal with patients who are tired of waiting, security personnel who walk down the halls with pride, to doctors who come across little too friendly. The camera is used as a magnifying glass to reveal possible secrets. Are they all in on it? Only a few of them? Is there something going on in the first place? Nearly each face is memorable and so there is a good possibility we will meet them again under a more confrontational context. No one enjoys being accused as a liar.

The work introduces the possibility that Ray might be an unreliable protagonist. This is when the film falters because it falls into the usual trappings of fast cuts, hallucinatory and discombobulated imagery, and irksome sound effects. There is an elegant way to create a character we are supposed to distrust without using cheap and tired tricks from terrible movies.

It requires, for instance, an astute screenplay so in love with dialogue and of the human condition that it becomes a challenge to discern among truth, lies, and half-truths. For a movie in which the lead character is deathly afraid to lose his family, reductive dialogue becomes more prevalent the deeper we get into the story. More interested in delivering immediate sensations, it might have elevated the work had a more cerebral approach been chosen from time to time. In thrillers, tricks must be changed once in a while or else their effects may likely suffer from diminishing returns—as they do here.

The ending did not work for me at all—nor so I think would it work for anybody who possesses more than three brain cells. I got the impression that screenwriter Alan B. McElroy wishes so badly to deliver a twist or haunting ending that it does not matter whether it actually fits the story being told. Due to the nature of the denouement, no catharsis that feels exactly right is provided. The payoff is unsatisfying. We feel cheated of our time.

Joker


Joker (2019)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Todd Phillips’ “Joker” stares directly into the dark well of a man’s misery and asks the viewers to endure a series of highly uncomfortable, humiliating, and desperate situations. Although there are sudden, gruesome violence and plenty of blame to go around—government corruption, systems in place designed to keep the poor longing and powerless while the rich remain thriving and in charge, the way we choose to treat our neighbors—it trusts the audience to find empathy and compassion toward a person whose life is not without laughter but utterly, cripplingly devoid of joy. It is most appropriate that we meet Arthur Fleck, a clown by day and an aspiring standup comedian at night, from behind as he faces a mirror. Because in order to understand him, even appreciate him, we are required to take a look at ourselves.

The titular character may have comic book origins, but the film is a character study first and foremost. Each passing scene is a nudge toward inevitable villainy, but Arthur is never reduced to a cartoon. The work employs a hammer to showcase mental illness but it is necessary, in a way, because the character is larger than life. His life circumstances, however, are grounded in reality: he does not have a rewarding job, he is not respected by his peers (in fact, he is ridiculed or mocked), he has no friends, he is told he is not funny enough to be a comedian, and even strangers have a tendency to pick on him because he appears to be an easy target. People see him but not in ways he would like to be seen. Maybe that is worse than being invisible.

I felt deep sadness toward this character and Joaquin Phoenix does a superlative job in making us identify the person behind the supervillain name and clown make-up. Even when the camera is showing only his back, we can already feel the weight of Arthur’s depression, his frustration from being rejected again and again, and eventually his rage toward a society in which no one really gives a damn—it is in his posture, the movement of his back muscles, the way he breathes.

When the camera focuses on Arthur’s face, it is like reading an engaging novel. Here is a man craving to find meaning, to be regarded by somebody else as important—or relevant at the very least, to be wanted for his ordinariness, to be enough. It is a consummate performance and it is not just because of Phoenix’ skeletal frame or creepy laugh: Experiencing Arthur’s day-to-day existence is like watching a car wreck in slow motion. At one point we must wonder how much more can a person take. It is the kind of performance you don’t want to blink from because doing so might lead to missing a very telling information. Phoenix does not waste a moment.

It is appropriate that co-writer Phillips and Scott Silver take inspiration from Martin Scorsese’s pictures, “Taxi Driver” and “The King of Comedy.” Images like the subject playing with a gun and aspiring to be shown on television are obvious—and I am not interested in that. I am interested, however, in the mixture of tone and feeling of the two classics, the former a psychological drama with thriller elements and the latter a satirical dark comedy. What results in “Joker” is a morbid sense of humor, an anti-joke, and an effective social commentary about personal and societal responsibility. I wager the work will stand the test of time.