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Franz Patrick

Anon


Anon (2018)
★★ / ★★★★

The high concept sci-fi thriller “Anon,” written and directed by Andrew Niccol, possesses a curious idea, but the execution is so dour and so slow that at times experiencing it feels more like a chore than entertainment. In the middle of it, one considers the possibility that the story might have been better off had it been shaped as a tight episode of “Black Mirror” instead of a feature film. At times the pacing is not at all appropriate for the type of technology or future it attempts to criticize.

Niccol presents a future without privacy in which the government has complete access to every single thing that nearly every single person does every second of every day—with the exception of a select few, most of them hackers, who have found rather creative ways to remain anonymous. Should investigators wish, they are able to review records of past events taken from people’s recollections. No warrant is required. Initially, this level of access appears to be highly beneficial because there is a killing spree in New York City.

Detective Sal Frieland (Clive Owen), a man still mourning his young son’s death, is assigned to the case. The prime suspect: an anonymous hacker named only as The Girl (Amanda Seyfried) whose speciality is in removing or altering memories of her clients. The police force aims to capture her, but she is consistently one step ahead. Clearly, it requires more than ingenuity to take her in.

The picture is fond of detours when the story is best told straight: Frieland’s grief and alcoholism, pressure from high-ranking officials to protect the sanctity of a technology currently on the verge of being utilized nationally, a suspect possibly a misunderstood persona. With every left turn, which is meant to become an interesting subplot, notice how the pacing tends to slow down. The reason is because these elements are nothing new or compelling; they are simply plugged into this particular world and unnecessary plotting is written around them. Remove the futuristic world altogether and realize there is nothing worth seeing here. Therein lies the problem.

Owen and Seyfried are fine; they try to do what they can with the material. I am almost certain they have been instructed to speak in a low-key way in order to amplify the mystery of the setting. Normally, these are expressive and emotive performers. It feels like they hold back here. When their characters show more varied expressions, particularly during the final act, it comes across as false because they are quite muffled throughout the picture’s duration. The sudden disparity took me out of the supposed drama.

“Anon” wants to be taken seriously and the photography reflects this yearning. The images are drenched in neutral colors. Primary colors appear to be banned. Voices must be kept under a certain decibel. The sun’s rays are barely seen despite numerous shots of skyscrapers. I suppose this level of control should be applauded, but I wished the same effort was made to create an extremely efficient screenplay. There is more style than substance here.

Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw


Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw (2019)
★ / ★★★★

Intelligent people will most likely get bored of “Hobbs & Shaw” about twenty minutes in because it reveals its hand too early. Instead of consistently finding new or creative ways to entertain, it offers only two tricks: loud and busy action set pieces and rapid-fire banter between the titular characters (Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham, respectively) who despise each other. The strategy suffers from diminishing returns and by the end one cannot be blamed for finding any excuse to get up from his seat without the intention coming back. I stayed all the way through and regretted it. I could have spent one hundred thirty-five minutes enjoying the outdoors.

The bombastic action film is directed by David Leitch and his penchant for complex sequences shows, whether it be a car-motorcycle chase across the busy streets London or hand-to-hand combat in a sanitized Russian underground laboratory. He proves to have an eye for what looks good during wide shots or, by contrast, shots that are up close and personal. However, it is surprising that there are screenwriters at all (Chris Morgan, Drew Pearce). Because for every well-lit and marginally impressive choreography, there is at least three cringe-worthy dialogue to go with them. It feels as though the script is written by people without imagination or at least an inkling of how people actually talk in every day conversations. Action movies must be grounded in some way; not everything must be elevated.

This is most problematic during the occasional dramatic moments, particularly when Luke Hobbs (Johnson), a federal agent, and Hattie (Vanessa Kirby), an M16 agent who also happens to be Deckard Shaw’s (Statham) younger sibling, find similarities in each other. These exchanges are forced and superficial—awkward and uncomfortable at best. The dialogue also fails to work when the subject of family, particularly being estranged, is broached. These would-be personal moments lodged between action sequences are worthy of the biggest eye rolls. To say the quality is television-like would be an insult to good television with well-written dialogue.

Even the action scenes fail to command a high level of excitement despite increasingly elaborate skirmishes. Here we have a villain named Brixton (Idris Elba) who is part-human and part-machine. Despite all the talk surrounding Brixton being a formidable enemy, notice how he and his team loses in every key confrontation. As a result, especially during the second half, he becomes significantly less intimidating. Introducing science-fiction elements in the “Fast & Furious” franchise is not the problem; the issue lies in the lack of more profound or intriguing ideas behind them. Due to this shortcoming, the work comes across as just another lazy cash grab.

“Hobbs & Shaw” fires blanks. Although it is loud, busy, and appears to look expensive on the surface, it offers an empty, nearly joyless experience. It does nothing to push Johnson, Statham, Kirby, and Elba as performers. The work rests on the actors turning on their charisma and nothing else. At least they are getting a paycheck to sleepwalk though a subpar film. We, on the other hand, must pay money and put in the time to sit through it.

Pet Sematary


Pet Sematary (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

The second reimagining of Stephen King’s “Pet Sematary” is better than the first—but not by much. It is composed of the same mistakes that modern horror movies tend to make: a noticeable score designed to tell the audience what to think and how to feel, silly jump scares that can be predicted beat by beat, laughable instead of genuinely horrifying violence, and a rushed final act that offers minimal catharsis. The viewer is likely to walk away feeling cheated because of the generic nature of the experience.

I found the exposition to be safe but tolerable. Hoping to spend more time with their children, Louis (Jason Clarke) and Rachel (Amy Seimetz) decide to uproot their family and start anew in rural Maine, away from the hustle and bustle of Boston. In Ludlow, Louis will work in a clinic instead of a hospital while Rachel will stay home with the kids. But when the family cat, Church, dies in an accident, their friendly neighbor, Jud (John Lithgow), has an idea: to bury the cat in the woods where the land has a reputation of bringing the dead back to life. About a third of the way through, although the pacing is slow, each step is purposeful. There is a sense of foreboding. We even learn about Rachel’s relationship with death, particularly the guilt and trauma that linger in her regarding her sister’s passing.

However, once the typical horror elements begin to take over the plot, especially those normally found in slasher movies, the picture falls apart. One gets the impression that screenwriter Jeff Buhler has failed to find true inspiration and so he decides to utilize shortcuts as a substitute. The dead coming back to life should be a terrifying notion, especially if these beings are able to retain their memories and the ability to communicate. Already they are different from zombies who only wish to bite flesh and eat brains. Instead, there is more attention placed in the running around, the stabbings, and the struggles of getting to a weapon. It all just feels so tired and pointless.

There are watchable performances here by Clarke, Seimetz, and Lithgow. The actors who play husband and wife are believable in that the more recent changes in their lives are not easy for either of them. And yet they try to make it work. The widower, too, is a curious character. When he is finally invited for dinner, we feel his joy of being welcomed by the family, including the cat. However, the enthusiastic yet grounded performances still fail to save a screenplay lacking both strong vision and fresh execution. The entire work must be effective as a horror picture above all.

“Pet Sematary” is directed by Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer in a most pedestrian fashion, especially when it comes to the scares. If anything, precisely because the work is both based on a book and a remake of an overrated would-be classic, every second should be dedicated to surpassing them. Instead, it appears to be content in delivering familiar tropes that lack imagination and tension. It feels like another cash grab.

The Unspoken


The Unspoken (2015)
★★ / ★★★★

For a good while of “The Unspoken,” written and directed by Sheldon Wilson, it is a decent horror picture executed with deliberate pacing despite a familiar template of yet another family moving into house that is believed to haunted. But a twist offered during the final five minutes reveals that the picture could have been so much more intriguing because it actually offers something new to the genre. In this case, it would have been preferred had the surprise been revealed a little less than halfway through and then the rest of the time being devoted to exploring the daring idea it puts forth.

The mystery surrounds a house that sits away from an already isolated town where a family disappeared suddenly seventeen years ago. When the police arrived, it appeared to be a crime scene given the blood stains on windows, walls, and various appliances. And yet—not one body was found in or around the house. As it turned out, their clothes were still in their closets and drawers, the car was parked at its usual spot, even dinner remained on their plates. It were as if they simply vanished out of thin air. The only person who made it out of the house, with the help of a police officer, was the babysitter, clearly traumatized from what she had seen. But what did she see? When a mother and son (Pascale Hutton, Sunny Suljic) move into the Briar house, locals recall horrifying rumors and legends.

Jodelle Ferland plays the recently hired babysitter named Angela. Although not a well-written character, Ferland plays Angela with a certain wholesomeness and so we cannot help but root for her despite a dearth of information about who she is and why she is our heroine. Ferland commands the screen during the strange happenings around the house, but I wished that the writer-director had done more with the character since the performer clearly can do more. There are dramatic scenes thrown around here and there—such as her interactions with her father (Lochlyn Munro), friend (Chanelle Peloso), and three town thugs (Anthony Konechny, Jonathan Whitesell, Jake Croker)—but the exchanges lack gravity and intrigue.

The picture can be quite graphic. At its best, it uses actual masks, rubber, and other tactile elements to create gruesome imagery. At its worst, however, we see CGI flies, flying knives and other weapons, people being thrown across the room by an invisible force. Had the picture been stripped bare of such ostentatious mumbo jumbo, a much more grounded and believable experience might have been created. Modern filmmakers really must learn not to use inappropriate visual effects when attempting to tell a small horror story.

Still, I appreciated certain pieces of the film even though I cannot being myself to recommend it. There are a few scenes that show characters moving so slowly toward a suspicious noise. The camera follows with precise patience. We anticipate what it might be. Also note there is a certain eerie quiet to these sequences. Inferior pictures of the genre are afraid of silence. And while this piece offers a few jump scares, it does not use them as a crutch.

The Favourite


The Favourite (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★

As an admirer of director Yorgos Lanthimos’ palate for the bizarre, I found the period comedy “The Favourite” to be impressive only during the second half, when fortunes have been turned upside down and inside out. It is then we get a chance to observe characters attempt to wriggle themselves out of very sticky situations, to scoff at them, to laugh at them, to consider their unhappy fates to be both ironic and well-deserved. It is clear, as he has shown in his previous pictures, that Lanthimos’ strength lies in looking at human nature through fractured lens and within those tiny crevices is a chance for us to see ourselves and ponder over the world around us.

The first hour is a waiting game as the initial moves of a long chess game are executed. I found them not uninteresting but not superbly inspired either. I liked the casting of Rachel Weisz as Lady Sarah, in charge of governing state matters given that Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) is almost always plagued with illness, and Emma Stone as Abigail, Lady Sarah’s cousin whose family has fallen on hard times and so she asks for employment within the estate. Weisz and Stone navigate the barbs of the warring cousins with a certain grace despite the ugly and delicious schemes. Meanwhile, Colman plays a queen who is so pathetic nearly every time we see her and yet the seasoned performer hits a different and fresh note with vigilance and purpose.

Despite the stellar performances, however, I found the machinations of early plotting to be rather generic. For instance, Lady Sarah’s nature of possessiveness and thirst for maintaining power is established right from the moment we meet her. And so when someone younger than her, certainly more likable, moves into the palace, her response is predictable. The same goes for the smart new resident who yearns to climb the social ladder. The standard writing is alleviated by performers who find ways to wrinkle the vanilla characterization. And take away Lanthimos’ proclivity toward awkward camera angles and habit of lingering at a shot for an extra second or two—sometimes ten—the content, at least during the first hour, is not all that special. The exposition is something I have seen from countless period films. The main difference is that the characters make no qualms about expressing their most inappropriate thoughts.

But when the consequences of Lady Sarah and Abigail’s competition is finally brought out to light, it becomes wonderful entertainment. The audience is not required to feel sorry for any of the players. However, we must understand them in order to have a more robust appreciation of double-edged ironies. With the exception of one figure, everyone else is proven to bite off more than what they are able to chew. They are convinced they are so intelligent and so experienced in navigating their way through labyrinthine gambles, the joy comes from seeing their big plans explode in their faces. Lanthimos, with his penchant for well-timed close-ups, ensures to capture the most minuscule facial expressions, at times in succulent slow motion.

The darkly funny farce “The Favourite” might have befitted from bolder screenplay decisions right from the get-go. One can argue that because the content is already for an acquired taste, it might have been stronger work overall had the writers been kind enough to spare us the usual motions and go straight for the jugular, to splash blood on posh, royal costumes.

Arctic


Arctic (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★

With less than three pages of dialogue, “Arctic” delivers entertainment on the gut level. Many of us have encountered this plot before: a plane crashes on the icy mountains and the protagonist struggles to survive. However, what separates this film from its less impressive contemporaries is a lack of ostentatious display. We are not shown the plane crash that sets the story in motion. No breaking out of unconsciousness and the confusion that results afterwards. There is not even one subtitle that informs the audience how long it has been since the crash. We are simply and quietly encouraged to make assumptions based on the numerous details around the site.

Mads Mikkelsen is perfect in role a like this. He has the gift of being able to take one emotion and change it completely within two to three seconds using only his eyes. Notice the close-up when he sees a helicopter and it appears that those inside have noticed his need for rescue—just as quickly, hope turns into despair. But he excels not only when he looks into the distance. Early scenes involve his character, Overgård, looking, studying, pondering over the objects in his hands, whether it be a fish flopping about, a pile of rocks, a map. We do not need dialogue because his entire being—although silent—communicates clearly and with purpose every step of the way.

It assumes that the audience is intelligent. A great example is when the camera shows a map. We know the location of Overgård’s camp site because it is circled with a black marker. However, everything else around it is in black and white; there are various depictions of height due to hills and mountain ranges. Marked, too, is a path from the crash site to another familiar location. There is a legend with shapes and names next to each one. It is likely that those with a limited understanding of how a seemingly simple map works are likely to be lost or confused.

The writing by Joe Penna and Ryan Morrison, the former directing the film, is patient. It does not wish for the audience’s minds to go on autopilot—so unlike adventure movies these days. The map is shown at least ten times—and yet not once does it comes across as repetitive. The more we look at it, the more understanding we have of it. With every note that Overgård makes on that map, we gain an understanding not only of his path or his plans, we begin to understand how the map works in general. On top of this, we gain an appreciation of how the protagonist thinks and the strength of his fighting spirit. Eventually, the map is opened and we do not only look at the places he is labeling. We become confident of our ability to read this map and so we search for alternate routes should the plan fail to go as as expected. (It is a survival film. Of course it won’t.)

“Arctic” is offers numerous small surprises should one is willing to look closely and carefully. I wished that the score were less prominent at times or had been removed altogether because silence tends to amplify the sense of isolation. Note the instances when Overgård suspects he may not be alone in a place he thought was safe. Silence underscores the sound made not by him. Still, the work offers a riveting experience, one that we want to cling onto until the very last shot.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood


Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
★★★★ / ★★★★

There comes a point in “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood” when more self-aware viewers will notice that it no longer matters where the plot goes because it is so damn entertaining. Whether writer-director Quentin Tarantino is placing a magnifying glass on his characters, the cars they drive, the clothes they wear, the brand of drinks and cigarettes consumed, the soundtrack caressing our eardrums, the curious decorations on walls… the film is an enveloping experience right from the get-go—daring to be as specific as possible to create a thoroughly convincing 1969 Los Angeles. And yet, as shown during the third act, it is not afraid to take on a pint of historical revisionism. At its best I was reminded of Robert Altman’s signature works, how he manages to attain a seemingly effortless synergy between his fascinating characters and the roles they play in the city of angels.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt is a duo I never thought I needed. The former plays Rick Dalton, a fading star who must now rely on taking secondary roles in western television shows. He fears that his career is on the verge of death both due to the changing times and his own alcoholism. The latter plays Cliff Booth, Rick’s best friend and stuntman. However, these days, because of his… certain reputation surrounding his wife, he is currently, for the most part, Rick’s housekeeper, driver, and motivational speaker. Even though these men are flawed in their own ways, DiCaprio and Pitt are correct to play Rick and Cliff as people who are worthy of getting to know. For instance, just because Rick is an alcoholic does not mean that he does not work hard to ensure he is prepared on set. On the contrary, he is quite hard on himself, especially when he forgets lines and appears to look foolish in front of the crew. (There is a hilarious bit of his rage inside a trailer.)

Due to Tarantino’s well-written and keen observed characters, the screenplay works as a comic character study. There are times even when someone is on the verge of tears, we wish to laugh at him. But at the same time we do not dislike or feel repelled by him. It is a comedy that attempts to skewer personalities in Hollywood without having the need to be cruel. In other words, there is a certain joy about the film that is consistently good-hearted while still remaining razor-sharp. There is not enough movies of this type being released today, especially at this caliber. Thus, this makes the sudden shift during third act as potentially divisive: the violence changing from internal to external. The catharsis worked for me, but I imagine it may not for many. There is no doubt it is the more convenient avenue for entertainment.

Aside from Rick and Cliff, we meet other colorful personalities over the course of one February weekend. There is Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) who goes to the movies to see if audiences would be receptive of her role as a klutz in an action-comedy; Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) bragging around the crew in between shoots; Squeaky (Dakota Fanning), a member of the infamous Manson Family, who confronts a stranger at her door; and Randy (Kurt Russell), a stunt coordinator who gives Cliff a chance to work despite the fact that his wife (Zoë Bell), also a stunt coordinator, does not wish for Cliff to remain on set. Each person gets a chance to shine because the writer-director proves to be most patient and not at all tethered to a typical running time of ninety minutes.

The love for filmmaking can be felt in every square inch of “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood.” Despite its running time of over one hundred fifty minutes, I could not get enough of it. Here is a movie that includes an exchange between an eight-year-old method actor (Julia Butters—her character prefers to be called an actor, not an actress) and DiCaprio, he himself known for method acting, just for the laughs. In the hands of less confident filmmakers, or filmmakers granted less freedom, it is highly likely this bit would not have made it past the editing room. But sometimes so-called extraneous material adds more personality to the work. This picture is filled to the brim with memorable personalities.