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Franz Patrick

Aniara


Aniara (2018)
★★ / ★★★★

Due to severe climate change, Earth has been rendered uninhabitable; it is time to colonize somewhere else. It is supposed to be a routine travel to Mars as a new batch of Earth citizens look forward to their new home on the Red Planet. The trip is supposed to take just over three weeks, but in an attempt to avoid space debris, the spacecraft Aniara is damaged and its fuel tanks ejected into the void of outer space. Off-course and without the means to set itself on the correct track, the captain (Arvin Kananian) informs his passengers it could take years for them to encounter the nearest celestial body so its gravity could be used to alter their current course.

Most admirable about “Aniara,” based on the Swedish poem of the same name by Harry Martinson, is that it offers a future so bleak, one cannot help but feel fascinated with where the story might lead. Right from its opening minutes it is implied that the work will be a study of behavior: a cause (a story development) leading to an effect (passengers’ responses). There is even commentary that although humans can be taken out of their planet, they cannot help but take with them the very characteristics that destroyed their planet in the first place. It offers no apology, no forgiveness. I found its bitter perspective refreshing. The work is not without ambition. However, the film is not for everyone.

Our protagonist is Mimaroben (Emelie Jonsson) but that is not actually her name. It is a title held by person in charge of a hall where a machine, Mima, is capable of showing, or reflecting, a participant’s memories of Earth. It helps with the anxiety of space travel. But notice that although we have a main character and that we follow her throughout the picture, the focus is actually on the collective. This is certain to alienate viewers because we do not get to know Mimaroben in a deeply personal way even though we spend ample time with her.

In fact, notice that her responses to the story’s events do not consistently reflect the majority of the passengers’ fears, depression, and anguish. Early in the film, she confesses to her roommate, an astronomer who is always scribbling on her journal (Anneli Martini), that there is nothing waiting for her on Mars anyway and so floating in space indefinitely does not really bother her. As expected, changes occur in our protagonist but these are subtle. And the script certainly does not follow a typical parabola of character development. In fact, people tend to speak in expository dialogue. I appreciated this approach; it contributes to the impression of an impressive but impersonal future.

Less effective is in how the picture is shot. Almost immediately noticeable is how characters are almost always framed from the waist up. The filmmakers are also fond of extreme close-ups. While it can be effective during the more dramatic moments, especially when characters begin to despair regarding their fates, it is distracting for the most part. The story is unfolding in a massive spacecraft where hundreds, possibly thousands, of passengers can survive for years. Why do we not see more of it? I would have loved a small tour of the place.

By not employing the occasional wide shot, it fails to capture the splendor of the living space… or even to provide contrast between the inside and the outside of the ship. One cannot help but consider that directors Pella Kågerman and Hugo Lilja are ashamed of the set or set decorations—which are not first-rate but at the same time not terrible by any means. There is an irony to the whole charade because the forced framing actually garners attention—negative attention.

Most maddening is the rushed final ten minutes. Instead of offering answers or bringing up even more questions, it dares to throw away everything it has worked toward for the sake of delivering confusion or shock. Without giving anything away, the ending is supposed to be bleak and haunting but it comes across as a sick joke. I found myself chuckling not because the ending is clever but because I felt tricked for having invested my time and mental capacity only to be handed something nearly without value.

Should you choose to see this curious film anyway, proceed with caution.

Love is Strange


Love is Strange (2014)
★★ / ★★★★

Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina) decide to get married after being together for thirty-nine years. But after the bishop learns about the union, George is fired from his job as a music teacher in St. Grace, claiming that he has defied the Christian Wellness Statement—a document he signed when he got the job decades ago. Rent is expensive in New York City and so the couple decide to sell their apartment and seek help from friends who might be willing to house them temporarily.

“Love is Strange” is a movie that is easy to like in concept but one that is difficult to admire in execution. Molina and Lithgow turn in wonderful performances but there are too many distracting and rather pointless subplots that could have been eliminated to make room for more interactions between the two lead characters. Although one might argue that the separation of the couple is the point of the story, their individual situations ought to have been equally interesting or engaging.

Ben gets to stay with his nephew’s family. We are supposed to notice that the family is not very close. The parents (Darren E. Burrows, Marisa Tomei) are so involved in their work that it seems as though every little thing serves only to distract them. They are barely even able to look at one another in bed. The teenage son (Charlie Tahan), meanwhile, becomes increasingly irate because of the new living situation.

The screenplay by Ira Sachs and Mauricio Zacharias fails to turn the family into one that is accessible and warm even for just a few instances. The contrast between the relationship of this family versus what Ben and George have is so heavy that it does not leave us the opportunity to simply absorb who these people are. In other words, they function too much as tools of the plot. Stories like this yearn to be told organically, painting the relationships among people with complex humanity.

The same observation is observed with George’s living situation. Although the material is right to focus on the character feeling out of place rather than judging a younger gay couple’s generation and lifestyle, we barely spend time in that apartment. We learn that the couple George is staying with likes to have people over and that is about it.

Lithgow and Molina play their characters as whole people. I always make a point that I have to be able to imagine a character’s history for me to completely believe that who I am watching is worth learning more about. Here, the two actors need not communicate with words. Take a look at the first scene when Ben gets out of the shower and George simply greets his partner with a smile instead of having to say, “Good morning.”

Not once do they say, “I love you” to one another either. Their feelings for one another are almost instinctual; they need not communicate or explain what they already know exactly because they have known each other for four decades. On this level, the picture is able to go above and beyond my expectations.

“Love is Strange,” directed by Ira Sachs, ends in a genuinely moving way. It is rare to see teenagers cry in movies where we are convinced they are really hurting. We watch from a respectful distance: we do not see his face or his tears. We hear his stifled sobs and notice him struggling to regain his composure before stepping out of the building. We feel that he has learned something of value—one that he can take with him for rest of his life.

Uncut Gems


Uncut Gems (2019)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Here is a portrait of a bleeding man flopping about in the middle of the ocean, no help in sight for miles, as sharks circle around him. Writer-directors Benny and Josh Safdie observe with a careful eye as their subject attempts to wriggle himself out of one high tension, high anxiety situation after another. The man is named Howard Ratner, a jewelry store owner with a gambling addiction, and he owes a lot money from a lot of people all over New York City.

The Safdie brothers possess a knack for placing us in the action. Notice how scenes are rarely silent, if ever. For instance, in Howard’s often crowded jewelry store, people tend to talk over one another. Performers must shout in order to stand out from all the commotion. People are always moving around an enclosed space, whether we are the middle of a family gathering, at a school play, or at a club where The Weeknd is performing. Out in the streets, people walk and talk with urgency; it gives the impression that the directors simply decided to shoot in the middle of city. The impromptu tone and feeling is so apparent, there are instances where extras can be caught looking in the direction of the camera. And yet, miraculously, none of these elements distract us from observing Howard as he struggles to find excuses why he doesn’t have so-and-so’s money.

Howard is played by great vitality by Adam Sandler. The subject is not at all likable. He is neither a good husband nor father. His relatives regard him with disappointment. The people he employs tell him they do not feel respected or appreciated in the workplace. Debt collectors are tired of him. Some of them look as though they wish to kill him.

Sandler plays a drowning man so convincingly. At one point, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for him even though I knew that his own actions have led him to current state of misery. But is he miserable? Or is what we are seeing simply the man going through the usual motions of an addict? He appears to be highly confident he could extricate himself out of tricky, potentially violent situations. Here is an excellent example of a character who is not likable but is endlessly fascinating. Howard needs serious help.

Many have complimented the Safdies for their ability to capture a ‘70s gritty vibe. It is well-deserved. But I take a bit further: the filmmakers have an understanding of films from the ‘70s that are about men with an inclination. Because Howard has gambling problem, notice how the camera is often fixated on his hands and mouth. The hands are always fidgeting, whether it be dialing a telephone, handing off cash or jewelry, or giving a restrained pat on the back or handshake. The mouth, too, is always moving even when it is not saying anything of value. Teeth protrude which gives the illusion of a false smile—when in fact it just makes people uncomfortable. There is an occasional repetitive smacking of the lips.

“Uncut Gems” is for viewers with a penchant for character study. There is action unfolding all around, but its core is a sad look at a man who is lost. The more we spend time with him, the more we are convinced he is beyond help. There is an exchange between Howard and his wife (Idina Menzel) during Passover in which the former begs the latter that maybe they ought to reconsider giving their marriage another shot. He appears earnest, but she just laughs at him anyway. In fact, she humiliates him. At the same time, Dinah cannot be blamed for acting this way. I think she is angry not just because of how he treats her but also in how he is like around their children. The teenage daughter barely looks at him. When she does, she looks at him as though he is trash. Maybe he is. And maybe he knows that, too.

Parasite


Parasite (2019)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Joon-ho Bong’s black coffee comedy “Parasite” is an effective social commentary on two fronts: the great lengths we are willing to go for money and how a few of us—no—how many of us would not even think twice to step on our fellow man just to be able to climb a little higher. But the film is first and foremost riotously, endlessly entertaining. It is savagely funny parts—particularly in how it portrays the privilege of the rich and the desperation of the poor right alongside one another—occasionally suspenseful in terms of deception piling on top of one another that we know something has got to give eventually, and at times quite sad in its accurate portrayal of indigence. Perhaps the system is designed so that in order for the rich to exist and flourish, others must live and die in poverty.

Right when we lay eyes on the Kim family, we learn that they are survivors precisely because they are opportunists. And so when Ki-woo (Woo-shik Choi) is presented the chance to make good money by tutoring a high school girl (Ji-so Jeong) who comes from a well-to-do family, he seizes the role with alacrity and, because he is street-smart, eventually finds a way to get the rest of his family (Kang-ho Song, Hye-jin Jang, So-dam Park) to work for the Parks (Sun-kyun Lee, Yeo-jeong Cho). The screenplay by the director and Jin-won Han is so meticulous and efficient, seeing the Kims insinuate themselves into the Park household is like watching a complex equation being reduced into its most basic form over time: elegant, logical, and mesmerizing. And then just when we think we know precisely where the plot is heading, it takes a sudden right turn.

The film’s best attribute then is two-fold: its ability to surprise and then making us follow that new direction in a way that feels comfortable or natural. I think it works because the story is not merely composed of nifty plot contortions. We are actually made to understand why the Kim family choose to take the actions that they do. When the more overt life-or-death situations face them—which they are no stranger to since they live in poverty: every day is life or death when there’s no food to put on the table—they respond how some of us might when presented with similar circumstances. We sympathize and empathize with the main characters not through dialogue—since not every member of the family is articulate—but in spending time in their sub-basement home, by looking at their oversized and tattered clothing, how they carry themselves when they are reminded of their lack of stature.

During the final stretch of the picture, notice that images which portray the animosity of the haves toward the have-nots become more prevalent and obtrusive. Extreme closeups are employed in order to highlight boiling points. And so eruption of violence is not at all unexpected. What is surprising, however, is the poetry behind the violence. Instead of action-driven—which Western pictures tend to employ regardless of whether or not the approach is appropriate—the violence here is often ugly, messy, ironic, and possessing a comic strip quality to them. They are meant to be off-kilter so that we feel uncomfortable by the horrific happenings. There is an absence of a typical catharsis. And so we must ponder why that is.

“Parasite” is not about crime or murder. It is a human story told with an observant eye for humor, irony, and tragedy. And we cannot help to watch unblinkingly because we recognize nuggets of truth in what is being portrayed. What is art but a reflection of our times?

Signs


Signs (2002)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Here is a film with aliens in it, but they prove secondary to the story being told. Remove overt images of these extraterrestrials and notice how the drama remains highly potent. This is because M. Night Shyamalan’s masterful sci-fi horror-thriller “Signs” is actually about something. This is not the kind of movie in which otherworldly creatures visit our planet and humanity must wage war against them. Not one military tank or jet is shown, we hear not one rousing speech, not even a bullet is shot. The goal is to tell a personal story of a reverend who lost his faith six months ago following his wife’s death due to a tragic, senseless accident.

Shyamalan’s talent as a filmmaker and confidence as a storyteller is on full display here. He is fully aware that most viewers would likely be invested in the plot—at least initially—precisely because it involves extraterrestrials and so the work is equipped with curious scenes involving crop circles, baby monitors picking up bizarre trilling, and news broadcasts of what’s going on out in the world. But to tell an effective story, and for the viewers to be invested throughout, Shyamalan is also aware that it must be grounded in reality. Despite the fact that former reverend Graham Hess (Mel Gibson) was a man of religion, the material takes the time to discern between religion and faith often in subtle ways. And so by rooting the story in one man’s faith, or lack thereof, the subject commands universal appeal. Ultimately, it is a human story, specifically a story of loss, not an alien story or a religious story.

It terrorizes the viewers not with cheap jump scares but with increasing unease. When tension is no longer tolerable and something is finally is shown, it is precisely what we expect. A few examples: Graham and his brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix) chasing off intruders around their farmhouse in the middle of the night, Graham going off on his own amongst the corn field with nothing but a flashlight, and Graham’s day time close encounter in front of a pantry door. Confirming our fears is itself the horror. It does not aim to blindside us, or trick us, or confuse us. It simply shows what we already suspect or know. Filmmakers who possess thorough understanding of what makes suspense-thrillers work employ this technique with confidence, like Alfred Hitchcock and Wes Craven. Get a beat even slightly wrong and the work is reduced to a sham. Pay attention to the excellent sound design—how it is used… and not used.

Even flashbacks are executed ever so carefully. It is the night when Father Graham was summoned to the scene of the accident so he could have a chance to speak to his wife (Patricia Kalember) for the last time. Although the flashback is broken into three segments, it is also a source of dramatic suspense. We already know that the wife would die given the central plot. But we do not know the following: the exact circumstances of Colleen’s death, who was responsible, and the final words between man and wife. Put these three segments together and the total length is a mere three to five minutes. However, there is such a wealth of information, one can argue it is actually necessary to divide this scene so viewers are given time to process. The pieces are provided during the right points in the story—one of them, daringly, shows up during the climax.

The movie is also terrifically funny at times. The approach is to allow a breath of humor amidst the mysterious goings-on so that we grow comfortable with the Hess family (Gibson, Phoenix, Rory Culkin, Abigail Breslin). Through their sarcasm, dry wit, and self-deprecation, we come to understand how they think, how they perceive the world around them, how they solve problems. Conversely, we come to understand what hurts them most. And so when the observant and precise screenplay sets up confrontations among them, we feel the hurt they feel.

The Lion King


The Lion King (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

Jon Favreau’s photorealistic CGI orgy “The Lion King” exists solely to underscore the superiority of Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff’s 1994 classic family film. On every level—from the animation, the dialogue, the timing between words and actions, down to the majestic score and toe-tapping songs—it is without question that the latter is better, stronger, more emotionally intelligent and involving. And so one is forced to wonder, “What’s the point of retelling the same story, one that is occasionally a shot-after-shot replica of the original?” The movie does not provide a good enough answer. If one were naive, one might believe it is out of curiosity and nostalgia. The reality, however, is that the film is meant to be another cash grab.

There is only one sequence in which this modern interpretation does something exactly right. At one point in the story, it is assumed that Simba (voiced by Donald Glover), future king of Pride Rock, perished in a stampede along with his father, Mufasa (the inimitable James Earl Jones). The knowledge of Simba’s survival, now an adult lion who lives in a faraway land, must make it to Pride Rock. Instead of copying a simplistic, straight-to-the-point sequence from the animated film, we a follow a clump of Simba’s mane going through a journey. It is executed with a sense of wonder, humor, patience, and magic. Had the rest of the work functioned on this level, the film could have served as a natural extension of the source material.

The voice acting leaves a lot to be desired. Jones as Mufasa is perfect and there is energy behind JD McCrary’s work as Young Simba. However, John Oliver’s interpretation of the motormouth Zazu, majordomo to the king, is awkward and forced. At times I found it to be irritating and unpleasant. Beyoncé’s Nala, Simba’s best friend and eventual romantic interest, is extremely distracting. Every time Nala speaks, it reeks of Beyoncé rather than the personality of the character. Meanwhile, Seth Rogen’s comic relief Pumbaa and Chiwetel Ejiofor’s villainous Scar, are tolerable but nothing special or memorable. The voice work is such a mixed bag that one cannot help but wonder if these people were cast simply because of their names, not because their voices actually fit the characters.

Every song is done better in the original; they had more life, were more transportive, and certainly more emotional. Perhaps it is because in this film, there is an attempt to modernize the songs. Listen to “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” and notice there is a lack of verve behind brilliant one-liners that just so happen to be sung in a song. Emphasis is placed on the beat, for instance, rather than the clash between the cub who would be king and the annoying red-billed hornbill assigned to protect him. Do not get me started on “Be Prepared”—which is supposed to underline Scar’s thirst for power; he so wishes to be king that he is willing to forge a partnership with the hyenas to murder his own brother. This song is completely butchered here. “Hakuna Matata” is supposed to be fun, but the meta-jokes in terms of visuals overwhelm the meaning of the song. Meanwhile, “Spirit,” an original piece, does not hold a candle against any of the songs, new or old. In fact, it feels tacked on, a bizarre appendage.

Spiritualism oozes out of the original’s every pore. It is expressed through kaleidoscopic colors, voice talent that feels exactly right, humanistic dialogue (which is ironic since the characters are not human), down to the highly textured and detailed animation. At times the animation style may even undergo hyperbole in order to make a point. It goes to show that photorealism comes with an important cost: a story that is supposed to be larger-than-life is reduced to something ordinary. For a story that unfolds in the wild, it lacks joy and freedom.

Sweetheart


Sweetheart (2019)
★★★ / ★★★★

A creature-feature with enough expected elements to scratch the itch of those invested in the sub-genre, “Sweetheart” tells the story of a young woman named Jennifer (Kiersey Clemons) who finds herself washed ashore on a small deserted island. Not only must she contend with hunger and exposure, it seems there is a monster living in a hole just off the island. It tends to come out only during the night. Co-writers J.D. Dillard (who also directs), Alex Hyner, and Alex Theurer possess an understanding of the genre. They keep it short and sweet with just the right amount of tension, violence, and gore. It’s a good flick to watch during a rainy day.

Clemons does plenty with what she is provided. It is a role not reliant on words or dialogue and so she is required to communicate thoroughly using her eyes and body language. Right when we meet Jenn as she regains consciousness on the beach, Clemons plays the character with a level of alertness, intelligence, and grit. Because she portrays Jenn with a high level of urgency from the get-go, even though we already have an idea regarding the initial elements she must come up against, we become interested in how the character might fare on this island. I enjoyed moments of humor, particularly when our heroine is learning how to open coconuts, how to fish, to trap larger prey. Desperation can be played for suspense and thrills. But it can also be played for humor.

The monster living in the ocean is terrifying precisely because not much of it is shown. We learn a number of things about the creature (Andrew Crawford), like how it sounds, how it prefers to hunt, how it moves on land versus water, how sensitive it is to sound and smell, what it prefers to eat, if any. It is a formidable enemy not just because of its incredible speed, strength, and body size; Dillard drenches the monster in mystery. It is the correct decision not to explain the creature’s origins or whether it has a special weakness. The only thing we know for certain is that it must die in order for Jenn to live or possibly even escape the island.

The picture’s weakness involves additional human characters introduced about two-thirds of the way through (Emory Cohen, Hanna Mangan Lawrence). I will not reveal who they are, but I found them to be of great annoyance. I was particularly surprised by how generic Cohen portrays his character since he is a character actor. I felt no inspiration from him this time around. Clemons completely overpowers her co-stars nearly every second they share the screen. And when Clemons is not in the frame, I caught myself wondering where Jenn is and what she is doing.

However, the Cohen and Lawrence cardboard cutouts introduce an idea: that Jenn is a person with whom others find difficult to believe. Is it because she has a history of lying and getting caught? A simple case of being a poor storyteller? Is there something in her life back home that contributes to a potential attention-seeking behavior? The screenplay fails to delve into this curious topic—which I think is a big mistake. But putting these planks of wood into the mix long enough to broach the subject allows the creature to function as a metaphor for the story.