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Franz Patrick

How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World


How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World (2019)
★★★ / ★★★★

Despite all the dragons, the Vikings, massive ships, and stealth rescue missions gone wrong, “How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World,” written and directed by Dean DeBlois, excels during wordless moments when entertainment is created only through stunning animation and carefully crafted music. These instances, like a dragon courting another or longtime friends coming to terms with the inevitable, are beautiful and moving, appealing to both children and adults who appreciate storytelling more than empty and busy action. Although a third installment in a trilogy, the film is not bereft of introducing ways to dazzle.

This time, the central conflict revolves around Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel) learning to become an effective leader of a community of Vikings who have grown reliant on dragons—so reliant that their island has gotten overcrowded. Due to the minute details of animation, we recognize that something has got to give from the moment we lay eyes on their island home of Berk. It is admirable that the answer to the main question is not simply moving to bigger, newer lands offering fresh resources. The screenplay offers long-term solutions both in terms of the needs of humans and dragons. As a result, there is finality to the story and it feels right.

Moving on with life is a recurring theme and it is executed with wonderful perspicuity. I think most important is the fact that the material assumes children are smart. For instance, when Toothless, Hiccup’s dragon companion, comes across a female dragon of the same species, their connection is not reduced to a silly love story or romance. Sure, there are cute moments which involve Toothless’ many attempts to impress the white dragon (with whom Astrid, Hiccup’s betrothed, voiced by America Ferrera, refers to as “Light Fury”), but the point is to generate laughter and to communicate a creature’s sheer joy for having discovered he is not the only one in the world of his kind, rather than to simply introduce a limp romance that merely functions as padding to the story.

Observe closely during these sequences. It is stunning how much range of emotions is communicated through the dragons’ eyes, their body language, how fast or slowly they move, how their nostrils flare at moments of surprise or curiosity, how their limbs relax when they hover the air. One could watch Toothless and Light Fury on mute and yet not much would be taken out of the experience. It is that effective in delivering precise thoughts and emotions. It is here that it becomes readily apparent the film is superior than most animated movies, especially those that rely too much on noise and color to create junk entertainment.

The villain is formidable. Grimmel (F. Murray Abraham) is a dragon hunter who takes pride in killing dragons, especially Night Furies. He does not hate these creatures, but he enjoys playing games with them before going for the kill. On more than one occasion, the character is shown to be intelligent, always one step ahead, and experienced in the art of the hunt. However, the final confrontation with Grimmel lacks a certain level of catharsis. For such a detestable character, it would have been preferred if Grimmel had gotten his comeuppance. At the same time, however, an argument can be made that taking on a more expected approach surrounding heroes and villains might have lessened the point that the story is trying to make. It is not about good versus evil.

Demon


Demon (2015)
★ / ★★★★

The late Marcin Wrona’s debut picture “Demon” tells a story of a man from London named Piotr (Itay Tiran) who goes to a rural area of Poland to marry Zaneta (Agnieszka Zulewska) a woman he met online. The day before their wedding, while digging in the yard, the visitor comes across what appears to be human skeleton. Although alarmed by what he has seen, he decides to keep his discovery a secret out of fear that it might derail the wedding. Late that night, due to heavy rain and mud, Piotr manages to fall into the pit. He wakes up the next day in his car with no memory of what happened after he was swallowed whole.

Although it is obvious that Wrona wishes to make a respectable and low-key horror film about the Polish’ relationship with the Jews before and after World War II, the work is far from cinematic. It is a bore for the most part because the exposition is so drawn out—there are images on screen but none of them are particularly unique or interesting. We learn about the wedding and we are introduced to some colorful personalities, but we never get to know any of them, particularly Piotr, in a deep or meaningful way. And so when the usual razzle-dazzle regarding demonic possessions move toward the forefront, it comes across like another inert horror movie meant to be forgotten even before the end credits roll.

It is especially frustrating to sit through because the director proves to have an eye for capturing images so stark that at times it feels like looking at old forgotten photographs. Notice shots of the outdoors. For instance, we see miles of grass… but there is no cattle grazing on meadows. There aren’t even birds making their way across the sky. There is construction in the middle of walls of sand and rocks… but there is minimal human activity, if at all. A similar observation can be made indoors. The house Piotr is staying in looks extremely run down. It gives the impression that the place is being renovated… but there are actually pictures hung on walls and decorations sitting on various corners. This Polish town is a depressing place. I would go as far as to claim it is meant to be a dead place, where people go to die. If only the screenplay by Pawel Maslona and Marcin Wrona functioned on the same level as the latter’s observant photography.

Events happen during and around the wedding, but not one is particularly compelling. There is a lack of balance in tone. Right after the wedding ceremony, Piotr begins to experience visual hallucinations. Eventually, he starts to lose control of his own body. These are meant to be terrifying. Sandwiched in between Piotr’s suffering is Zaneta’s father (Andrzej Grabowski) and brother (Tomasz Schuchardt) trying to cover up Piotr’s “embarrassing mishaps,” like his seizure, which is supposed to be darkly comic. There are also tablespoons of absurdist humor in how wedding guests behave after having seen apparent medical emergencies.

However, there is no synergy established between horror and dark comedy. Usually, in order for the two to work together effectively, we must understand the characters thoroughly. In black comedies, for example, we laugh not at the events necessarily but at the people whom we know so well that we are tickled by their desperation. Within that desperation we recognize a part of ourselves. And so we laugh because perhaps we feel uncomfortable precisely because of that recognition. Here, the dark comedy is purely circumstantial. It becomes highly repetitive.

The spirit that possesses our protagonist is categorized eventually. I will not reveal it, but I can say that it has been introduced and explored in other, better horror movies. I enjoyed that the spirit is not the kind that inspires jump scares. In fact, it is treated as a rather sad entity. This is another avenue from which Wrona could have separated his work from other horror films. I’m afraid that by the time viewers get to this point—which is in the last twenty minutes of the picture—either they would be sleeping due boredom or given up completely that they’d have decided to walk out of it. And I wouldn’t blame them for doing either.

Mirai


Mirai (2018)
★★★★ / ★★★★

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

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

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

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

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

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

1917


1917 (2019)
★★★★ / ★★★★

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

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

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

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

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

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

Underwater


Underwater (2020)
★★ / ★★★★

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

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

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

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

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

The Prince


The Prince (2014)
★★ / ★★★★

Brian A. Miller’s “The Prince” is yet another action-thriller in which a desperate father must rescue his daughter from bad guys, but what makes it a tolerable experience is its insistence in providing background information so that viewers have an appreciation of why violence must occur—to a fault. The screenplay by Andre Fabrizio and Jeremy Passmore is so heavy on expository and repetitive dialogue, the first half is a soporific bore, particularly when a character named Angela (Jessica Lowndes), the party-loving best friend of the missing college student, is placed alongside our central protagonist, Paul (Jason Patric), the mechanic with a mysterious past. The majority of their dialogue simply serves to explain the plot—unnecessary given the story’s familiar premise. More interesting is the lo-fi approach to shootouts. It makes the point that violence is ugly and painful, not beautiful or well-choreographed as often shown in polished and expensive action flicks. There is a hint of a superior story, however, when Paul crosses paths with old friend (John Cusack). The two reminisce days gone when they were young killers. There is a calm to their aged faces and bodies which helps to convince us of their once savage natures now suppressed. I would have preferred to experience that movie.

Hustlers


Hustlers (2019)
★ / ★★★★

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

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

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

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

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