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Franz Patrick

Sidewalks of New York


Sidewalks of New York (2001)
★★★ / ★★★★

“Sidewalks of New York,” written and directed by Ed Burns, is the kind of picture for audiences who love to listen to interesting people talking about their lives—specifically, what they think of the idea of love versus what it actually is; how they perceive relationships and how it ought to work; how they define sex and how it relates to their own definition of happiness or contentment. The work does not offer the expected three-act structure which is appropriate given its faux-documentary feel. Rather, it employs a freewheeling approach, warm and always welcoming, daring to draw a smile on those willing to look closely and listen. It is not demanded that we judge, but it asks that we relate.

Credit to the casting by Ali Farrell and Laura Rosenthal for choosing effortlessly charismatic performers who are also capable of delivering a spectrum of emotions especially during closeups when the camera aims to capture every bit of tic and twitching of facial muscles. Every person we meet is a curiosity in some way. Although there is interconnection among them, it is refreshing that they do not all meet by the end, forced into a ludicrous situation by a tired setup. Its restraint in handling how the story is presented is quite admirable. Similar works within the sub-genre has shown it is difficult to balance a laidback attitude while maintaining a consistent forward trajectory. Not once does it lose its way.

Particularly intriguing among the strong batch of actors is David Krumholtz, portraying a Jewish doorman named Ben who is convinced he has found love (Brittany Murphy) after having been divorced (Rosario Dawson). In a way, the character represents young idealism; he goes after what he perceives to be love with great enthusiasm and boundless energy, like a puppy given freedom to play and roam at a park on a holiday weekend. But observe closely and recognize his greatest fear: that his life would constantly be defined by the divorce that permanently destroyed a part of him. An important detail of the character is his penchant for music of the past. What is music but love in melody form?

Burns’ screenplay makes numerous smart choices. I enjoyed that even the most unlikable character, played by Stanley Tucci, is given dimension. Yes, the dentist is a womanizer, cheating on his wife (Heather Graham) with a nineteen-year-old waitress (Murphy) at every opportunity, so brazen and obvious about it that everyone at his workplace knows that his “lunch hour” is really a “quickie” trip to a hotel, but the character is shown under a tragic light, too. It is not necessary that we like him; however, it is crucial that we recognize the sadness not only in his situation, especially that he isn’t getting any younger, but also in his desperation. Clearly, he is not built to be in a monogamous relationship and yet he forces himself to fit within such a box. Griffith, so convinced he is always in control, is a product of his environment more than he realizes or care to admit. While some viewers may detest him for his actions, I felt pity for him.

The aforementioned extremes show why the movie works. It does not attempt to write a rulebook on relationships or its trials and tribulations. Rather, the picture is concerned with excavating details from underneath the surface, just like how Burns hopes that the audience comes to appreciate New York not just through its reputation or word-of-mouth but in actually looking at the small details like graffitis on walls, diverse groups of people walking down the street, the noises in the background. It is both a contemporary comedy and a love letter to a place and community that the writer-director clearly loves and respects.

Marriage Story


Marriage Story (2019)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Despite the plot revolving around a messy divorce, it is without question that “Marriage Story” is first and foremost a love story between two people who must go their separate ways. This is because writer-director Noah Baumbach is able to recognize that although events must occur to push the story forward, he puts the most time and effort in ensuring that the script is alive and the lead performances fine-tuned to the highest quality so that the standard plot turns are never bland, gathering tension the more we learn about the circumstances. What results is a work that has something universal to say about love: sometimes loving another person—even loving them deeply—may still not be enough to sustain a marriage.

Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver play the couple, Nicole and Charlie—she a one-time movie star in Los Angeles who decided to move to New York City with him and he a theater director who is so passionate about what he does, he doesn’t seem to mind making pennies despite his prodigious talent. She gets to star in his plays. They have a child eventually. For a while, the usual rhythm and beat of their chosen lifestyle has worked for them. But, just like any other marriage, the small flaws in their relationship soon begin to tilt the balance. They begin to question what they deserve, what they have accomplished, are they truly happy or simply plateaued? Johansson and Driver deliver terrific performances; they are so effective at both comic and dramatic scenes that you never know what to expect when a scene starts to unravel.

For instance, when a situation appears to build up to a massive confrontation, it is instead diffused. The reason is because Charlie and Nicole know each other so well, they know how one another might respond when approached a certain way or when a specific subject is broached. And so they try to get ahead of it. But then there are moments when they really wish to get under each other’s skin—often due to the resulting frustrations of the divorce process—that they drill and drill until the yelling in room is deafening and pointless. We get a genuine impression that this former couple has a long, detailed, and complex history—which is critical in humanistic dramas.

I appreciated that neither parent is portrayed as a monster nor a saint. Charlie, for example, is so busy with making sure that the final product is the best play it can be that it would have been easier to show us a neglectful father. Instead, it is shown that he cares a whole lot for his son and tries to be there when he can—but discerning viewers will quickly recognize that it just isn’t enough. Charlie is both a father who loves his family as well as a workaholic. Nicole, too, is given shades of complexity. On the one hand, she enjoys being a stage actress in NYC. But she misses LA, her home, and being recognized as the star—not just the director’s wife who just so happens to be playing the lead role. For Nicole, it is a matter of being seen and respected.

The picture is also elevated by memorable supporting characters and performances. Some of them appear a few times, others only once or twice. But every person gets a reaction from us, from Laura Dern as a divorced divorce lawyer representing Nicole with such enthusiasm one cannot help but wonder if she is genuine initially; Ray Liotta as a cunning (and expensive) NYC lawyer who is not above a shouting match in court; Alan Alda also another lawyer but a different breed: he seems to genuinely care about the people involved in the divorce, not just who wins or loses—notice how he takes his time to deliver his words and gestures; Martha Kelly aptly credited as “The Evaluator” because her character blends into the background… until she decides to speak up with that muted but creepy voice.

“Marriage Story” is an effective drama with observant comic moments because it bothers with the details: of the divorce, of how a parent interacts with his or her child; of how a child processes difficult situations; of how a lawyer’s strategy changes when provided potentially juicy information; of how feelings and motivations change with time. Clearly, Baumbach understands divorce from a deeply personal experience. The work would not have been this searing, this complicated, this true had it been otherwise.

Operation Finale


Operation Finale (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★

“Operation Finale” is like a car that has stalled—it requires a bit of push in order to get going. But once it is over the hump, the ride is suspenseful, thrilling, and also quite surprising at times. The plot is based on a true story involving a team of Jewish operatives who are tasked to capture Adolf Eichmann (Ben Kingsley), a war criminal considered to be one of the masterminds of the Final Solution—the systematic extermination of six million Jews in Nazi Germany—who is hiding, along with his family, in Buenos Aires. The Mossad agents must get him on a plane bound for Israel so he can be prosecuted for his crimes. We know how it is going to end. But like all true stories that undergo dramatization, what matters most is the details.

The first quarter of the picture is mildly interesting but messy. First, the many pieces that must be juggled are not handled with a high enough level of energy designed to combust and propel the significance of the mission. It goes by the assumption that the viewer already has knowledge of the monstrosities the Nazis had done to the Jews during World War II—a mistake because not everyone is well-versed in history. (Yes, even a mass genocide that each person should know about. You’d be surprised.)

This leads to the second shortcoming: the many faces and personalities introduced are not provided informative or relatable background information. And so when the Mossad agents finally do get together, we know only one or two of their names. There are seven of them—at least. One might argue, however, that this is the point: the operatives are but a part of a mission—expendable should they fail. But I argue that is important that we have understanding of at least half of them.

The reason is because the picture is a drama at its core, not a fictional action-thriller. The film is not about stunts or action sequences but the psychology of the Israeli secret agents, their anger, their hunger for justice. There is sporadic talk of agents having lost loved ones in concentration camps. Thus, it is critical that we have an appreciation of where each agent is coming from, to have a specific perspective of a mission so monumental, that failure could mean injustice for those who perished, perhaps forever.

The material’s strength is most undeniable once Eichmann is in the hands of the Mossad agents. They must stay in the safe house for ten days due to flight delay—without arousing suspicion. Meanwhile, Eichmann’s fellow Nazis, including his son (Joe Alwyn), inch closer toward the safe house. Every minute counts. And every scene is a march toward an inevitable conclusion.

Oscar Isaac plays Peter Malkin, a man still haunted by the death of his sister and her children. Isaac’s interpretation of Malkin is fascinating because the motivation is not anger first and foremost. Malkin, the character, does not seem to be aware of this initially. But we do because we see it in Isaac’s eyes when he is alone, how he moves, how he thinks through an objective, short- and long-term. The opening scene is most telling: Malkin is horrified when he learns his team ended up killing the wrong Nazi. Meanwhile, his fellow agent is blasé because the person they killed is still a Nazi after all.

And then there is Kingsley, accomplishing so much with so little. Notice that although a blindfold is covering half of his face and his head is in profile relative to the camera, while sitting in a dark room, his presence is able to overpower the space and those around him should he choose to do so. Most suspenseful—and worthy of contemplation—are interactions between Kingsley and Isaac exactly because the screenplay by Matthew Oerton is willing to take a look at evil, not to judge it or indulge it but to examine it. It dares us to consider the humanity of Eichmann specifically—not the Nazis as a group—while at the same time tasking us to sift through his lies, manipulations, and possible power play.

The Hustle


The Hustle (2019)
★ / ★★★★

Chris Addison’s “The Hustle,” a gender-swapped remake of Frank Oz’ “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” (which is a remake of Ralph Levy’s “Bedtime Story”), is desert-dry when it comes to creativity in plot, jokes, and characterization. There is no big, genuine laughs to be had here, just sporadic light chuckles—if one were forgiving. About fifteen to twenty minutes in, one realizes that those in charge of the screenplay rested on simply switching genders of the original characters and called it a day. It is a lazy, misfire of a comedy—one with potential to shine had the screenwriters—Stanley Shapiro, Paul Henning, Dale Launer, and Jac Schaeffer—actually tried to deliver a modern caper comedy that had something real to say about sexism.

For a picture with two talented performers—Anne Hathaway as a posh con artist with a European accent to match and Rebel Wilson as an American grifter who sticks out like a sore thumb—it is astounding that nothing is done to either character to establish even a semblance of superficially interesting scenarios. We endure Josephine and Penny’s shenanigans as they swindle men of money and jewels, like a series of cheap comic strips that have been rejected for publication. They are low energy. Jokes don’t land. Dialogue is juvenile. Nearly every element looks and sounds manufactured. There are stacks of cash and gemstones glisten, but there is nothing alluring, or exciting, or fun in the interactions among wolves and sheep. The film is on autopilot.

As the work splashes about in an attempt not to drown, the more hyperbolic it becomes. It is supposed to be funny, for instance, that Wilson is contorting her body in small spaces. The reason is because she is fat and fat people look awkward trying to fit in confined areas. She must trip, fall down a flight of stairs, slide across the floor. She must blend in with the trash.

Fat jokes can work, but must the material employ this approach so consistently nearly every time it is desperate? I found it insulting, insensitive, and ineffective as a comedy. The problem is there’s nothing else behind the one-note “jokes.” I give credit to Wilson for her willingness to make fun of her body; and I have enjoyed moments that poke fun of her size in much better movies. At the same time, however, Wilson has to realize she is better than stupid fat jokes, that there is more to her range than Fat Amy—the sooner, the better. She is a comedian with actual talent for acting. It is time she picks projects that are worth her aptitude.

The drama is not believable at all. The premise of two opposite con artists is present on paper, but the relationship is never explored in meaningful ways. Penny and Josephine try to one-up each other, but we do not believe the friendship born out of this clash. Do they like one another? Do they admire each other? The compelling answer is not found in one-word answers, but in the details that follow them. The work must answer questions starting with “How” (“How did Penny and Josephine realize that they were actually more similar than they initially thought?,” “How did Penny and Josephine earn one another’s respect?,” “How does Josephine need Penny, vice-versa?,” “How is their partnership viable?”), but it actually requires effort to be able to answer them. This movie is only interested in parading images, not convincing thoughts and emotions.

It goes to show that just because a movie is female-centric (or male-centric, or whatever-centric) does not automatically mean the story is worth telling. The screenplay must provide enough wrinkles in the expected that justify telling a similar sort of story. Otherwise, the work is reduced to an exercise of pointlessness.

Knives Out


Knives Out (2019)
★★★★ / ★★★★

The funny thing is, for a whodunit picture, it is not difficult to figure out the person, or persons, responsible, directly or indirectly, for killing Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), a renowned mystery novelist who has so much wealth, his grown children cannot help but to act like vultures even before his barely cold body is in the ground. Needless to say, it is also not at all a challenge to determine the motive for the murder. The joy, however, is embedded in the question of how. The answers are so specific and executed with so much vitality that when they are revealed eventually, they kind of just take your breath away. This is the writer-director Rian Johnson that I know, the mind behind inspired works like “Brick” and “Looper.” He is in top form here.

Funnier still is that the more I tried to answer the questions using only my brain, substantive solutions prove to become more elusive. Therein lies its source of enjoyment: Because Johnson is aware that we will approach the puzzle in this manner, he must create enough kinks in the screenplay that upends our expectations. It seems we are dealing with an ordinary mystery—and in plenty of ways it is—but it is far more self-aware than it purports itself to be. Even those most experienced with mystery stories are likely to have a ball with this.

We are introduced to a slew of colorful characters with abrasive personalities—every one of them suspicious. There is, of course, Harlan’s children: eldest Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis) who found success in the real estate business and youngest Walt (Michael Shannon) who functions as the acting CEO of his father’s publishing company. The middle child, Neil, passed away years prior, but his spouse Joni (Toni Collette), a lifestyle guru, remains highly connected to the family. The expertly paced initial interview shows us three facts: 1) their relationship with the deceased is strained but complex, 2) they are capable of lying—even though they may not be very good at it, and 3) they are hardwired to protect the family legacy. Putting on a successful front is an absolute must; when it is threatened, they react as though it is a national calamity. Clearly, these people, including their offsprings (Chris Evans, Katherine Langford, Jaeden Martell), are born and bred in privilege. It is the only lifestyle they know.

The investigation is led by Detective Elliot (Lakeith Stanfield) and he is supported by private detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig). I wished the former had more of the central role in the case despite the latter’s sterling reputation as an investigator. I did not get a definitive impression of how Elliot thinks, specifically his style of deduction. It would have been preferred to show the duo working together, even clashing on occasion. Blanc, on the other hand, is full of personality. He is attentive, quick-witted, and amusing in the way he underplays his dry sense of humor. When he speaks, it is often to make a point. And when he is silent, well, he remains a presence. He is the type of person with whom you wish to know his take. Craig plays Blanc with gusto, charm, and urgency. It is one of his more memorable roles in a while.

Another crucial piece of the mystery involves Harlan’s nurse named Marta (Ana de Armas). From a Latin immigrant family, she is our conduit to the Thrombey’s posh bubble. The script is peppered with timely social commentary in regards to how white folks of privilege tend to look down on ethnic minority groups by way of kind words and actions. “You’re almost like a part of this family.” We are meant to cringe and feel uncomfortable. And laugh, too, at its honesty.

The intelligently written and thoroughly entertaining “Knives Out” never betrays the audience despite numerous high-stake left turns. It invites the viewers to look closely, to recognize possible red herrings, to understand how characters think and predict how they might respond. We hang onto every line because a clue may be lodged in there.

The Farewell


The Farewell (2019)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Amusing, bittersweet, and insightful in the most surprising ways, “The Farewell” shows rather than tells how a specific Chinese family chooses to take on the challenge of preventing their matriarch from finding out that she is dying of lung cancer and has only a few months to live. Take any one scene from this beautifully layered story and one can tell immediately that it is based upon writer-director Lulu Wang’s personal experiences because there is almost always at least one detail on screen that is honest, painful, funny, and real—often all at once. The storytelling is such a joyous experience because it feels as though the work is free from the shackles of the usual plot contrivances. We simply wish to know these characters as people.

Here is a film that takes on the subject of mortality and defines it through the scope of Chinese culture. It is not necessary that we agree with or support the aforementioned course of action. In fact, it acknowledges that in America, or the West, it is illegal to lie to a person when it comes to his or her medical condition. Required, however, is that we walk away from the story with an understanding, or at the very least an appreciation, of why in China, or in the East, it is, for the most part, an acceptable practice. To reveal this reason would be a disservice to the film, but Wang’s astute screenplay cuts so deeply into one of the main differences between Eastern and Western cultures.

Awkwafina plays Billi Wang, the granddaughter of the matriarch being kept in the shadows regarding her stage four cancer. Having grown up in America, Billi does not think like a traditional Chinese individual—she is capable of it, but she is an American first. Her relatives in China see her as such. It is in her accent when she speaks Mandarin, how she carries herself, her clothes. Perhaps more interestingly, even her own mother and father (Diana Lin, Tzi Ma) consider her to be an American in spirit, not Chinese. It is why they decided that Billi should not come to China for her cousin’s wedding—a ploy for a family gathering so everyone can have a chance to say goodbye to Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen)—in addition to her inability to hide her emotions. Naturally, American Billi chooses to disobey her parents to spend time with her grandmother.

It is a role that requires complex navigation. It isn’t enough to look sad. Awkwafina is seen as a rapper-comedian with a low tone of voice who acts crazy or kooky. She is a delightful surprise here because she embodies a real person who feels torn between her values and her family’s. In nearly every frame she’s in there is conflict behind those eyes and that is what makes the performance thoroughly convincing. In movies like “Ocean’s 8” and “Crazy Rich Asians,” you look at her and you want to laugh. But in here, you look at her and you don’t know whether to give her a smile in the hope that it might uplift her a bit, to cry with her, to urge her to scream and let out her frustrations, or to give her a big hug. It is an inward, committed performance.

The work is interested in Billi’s relationships with those she loves. There are numerous memorable interactions with Nai Nai. She is kind, cute, energetic, generous, and capable of being tough when necessary. Zhao plays Nai Nai with effortless zest. She invites the viewer to look closely at the character and consider this person’s light being taken away by disease.

Another standout involves an exchange between Billi and her mother, how failure to show exaggerated emotions when a loved one dies is frowned upon in Chinese culture. Mrs. Wang despises this expectation because she would rather be honest about what she is feeling or going through. Unlike Billi, Mrs. Wang is not an outwardly emotional person. This exchange is important precisely because it reveals that the mother cares about how others perceive her. In this story, people can be strong and weak at the same time—just like how people are in life.

“The Farewell” is both a story of familial love and a story about the immigrant experience. It is told with elegance and searing honesty and so nearly every moment is earned. By the end, I wished to know more about the characters, particularly Billi and her situation as a young American struggling to make ends meet in NYC. It shows, quite simply, that life goes on.

Zodiac


Zodiac (2007)
★★★★ / ★★★★

A deliberate sidestepping of overt action is the strategy director David Fincher employs in “Zodiac,” a true crime thriller surrounding the hunt for the Zodiac killer who terrorized the San Francisco Bay Area from 1969 to 1971. Highly intelligent, meticulous, and efficient, at times the picture embodies the texture of a documentary in the way it dares to break away from the expected plot and dramatic parabola. What matters is information, how it is presented, and what conclusions, if any, can be drawn from them. What results is a film for a select audience: those who are tickled by the act of looking through a microscope and noting the beautiful, horrifying, surprising details of a specimen. It is not for viewers who wish to be entertained by ostentatious shootouts and car crashes where the bad guy drops dead in the final act. In fact, the climax consists simply of two people looking at each other in the eye, denoting common understanding.

Observe its use of violence. It is rapid, matter-of-fact, making a point to show how excruciating it is to get stabbed and shot. Notice how slow motion is used. Attention is not at the point of contact between weapon and flesh—as horror films tend to do—but on facial expressions of the victims. There is no score playing in the background when a person is being assaulted or murdered which makes the whimpering, the crying, the begging for help all the more deafening. Take note, too, how the victims’ desperation can be felt even after killing ends. The violence is meant to be ugly, traumatizing, and sad. Our sympathy is always with the injured or dying person, never the killer. These are designed precisely so that we wish for the Zodiac to get caught—even though we already know he never was.

The picture is an excellent procedural that brings to mind Alan J. Pakula’s “All the President’s Men.” We follow three men who dare to stare into the eyes of evil: San Francisco Chronicle crime reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.), political cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), and SF police inspector David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo). We experience their day-to-day interactions with colleagues; following—sometimes overstepping—rules and regulations; wrestling with bureaucracy. There is excitement in the rhythm of their workspaces. Downey Jr., Gyllenhaal, and Ruffalo deliver terrific, naturalistic performances. They have a habit of inviting us to question what it is they are thinking at any given moment.

Evil stares right back at these figures, however, and we watch their lives unravel throughout the course of twenty-two years: erosion of one’s physical and mental health, deteriorating relationships with family, coming to terms with one’s limitations as an investigator. There is a sense of surrender during the last third in particular. So many years have passed, people who were most enthusiastic to catch the killer then now just want to move on. Even the person who chooses to carry on the torch is forced to wonder at times whether his actions are still worth it. These are characters worth following not only because they are good at their jobs, getting to the truth is who they are.

Despite numerous details surrounding each murder (especially intriguing are scenes that allow us to walk a crime scene), handwritten letters that the Zodiac sent to newspapers, a dozen witness accounts, and endless paper trails, the labyrinthine mystery is told with urgency and clarity. For example, the screenplay by James Vanderbilt does not simply tell us that a partial set of fingerprints from an otherwise extremely cautious murderer is important. It shows how it is important and why. When a piece of evidence is presented, the astute and patience writing makes a point of relating the information to the bigger picture and so we always have an appreciation of the investigation. Does a seemingly reliable evidence make sense? How so? The film wishes to engage rather than spoon-feed us.

The picture is not without a sense of humor. In between gruesome deaths and barrage of possible case-breaking information are moments of exhalation: a date gone wrong (or gone right—depending on how one looks at it), police stations not having fax machines yet and so urgent files must be sent via snail mail, a character’s obsession with animal crackers, among many others. These did not need to be in the movie—and yet they are. Fincher wishes for us to be so invested into this world that he is able to find humor amidst terrifying events. Nearly every single change in tone is pulled off beautifully.