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Franz Patrick

Under the Silver Lake


Under the Silver Lake (2018)
★ / ★★★★

Beware: “Under the Silver Lake” is a hundred forty minutes of writer-director David Robert Mitchell masturbating on film and then dunking the viewer’s head onto the pretentious bodily fluid. It is polarizing and perplexing… and yet the same time an argument can be made it is a passionate amalgamation of genres tied together by a central mystery. There is a saying that one man’s trash is another’s man’s treasure. To me, this is trash. Let me tell you why.

I found no enjoyment out of it. The question to be solved involves what really happened to a neighbor (Riley Keough) whom Sam (Andrew Garfield) developed a crush on over the course of one meeting. Sam’s initial investigation suggests that she perished in a car explosion along with two other women and a man. The story takes place in Hollywood and so it is insinuated that the neighbor is some sort of call girl. Throughout the picture the viewer is required to read in between the lines. At times we have no choice but to make assumptions based on other media we had consumed. While not a negative quality, the picture is filled to the brim with bizarre coincidences, many of them leading nowhere. One wonders eventually why the story must be told in a protracted manner. There is no reason for it but to punish even the most patient watchers.

Even Garfield’s performance is awkward and strange. Although I found it fresh that he has chosen to play a boyish loser who has five days left to pay his rent before getting evicted instead of yet another hero or some sort of genius, I did not believe his portrayal. There is not one second when I was not reminded that I was watching Garfield acting. The character’s sense of being changes from one scene to the next—so much so that at one point I wondered that perhaps Sam is a manic-depressive. Here is a man so desperate to find the girl that he wills himself to find clues that may or may not be there to discover. Sam is defined mostly through irrational behavior, but it is a critical miscalculation that the screenplay fails to move this figure beyond that.

It is supposed to be a neo-noir mystery-thriller with a sprinkling of comic touches. Way before the halfway point I caught my mind drifting toward Rian Johnson’s excellent “Brick.” In that film, the investigation is tightly paced, every character we come across matters, and the central mystery is so potent, we get the sneaky suspicion that it may not end well—for anyone. Yet it is not without a sense of humor. They talk funny, they act funny, even the pauses in between are funny. Together, these elements make all the difference. In Johnson’s film, the world is a living, breathing microcosm. In this film, on the other hand, nearly everything feels like plastic decoration. If this is the point, then the commentary is shallow. It is important to change gears once in a while.

If I wanted to watch a series of freaky moments that do not add up to anything significant, I’d log on YouTube. Despite the colorful eccentricities of “Under the Silver Lake,” the overarching message is that there is an insanity to Los Angeles (the mystery to be solved) and yet people all over the world (our protagonist) are drawn to its enigma and/or promise of a better life. But this is obvious, nothing new, certainly not fresh. Neither is its approach. It fails to command tension even in the most rudimentary manner. Then what are we left with as intelligent consumers?

Seven Psychopaths


Seven Psychopaths (2012)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Billy (Sam Rockwell) is in the “dog-borrowing” business. He observes from afar, steals the dog, and once a big reward is posted by a desperate owner, Billy’s partner, Hans (Christopher Walken), returns the canine. It is a scam that works… until Billy ends up stealing a Shih Tzu owned by an irascible gangster (Woody Harrelson). Charlie is out for blood and will do absolutely anything to get his dog back. Caught in the middle is Marty (Colin Farrell), a screenwriter with a drinking problem. His most recent project is writing a script titled “Seven Psychopaths.” The problem: he has nothing else written down except the title. But it seems that the events about to unfold is the perfect panacea for his writer’s block.

Written and directed by Martin McDonagh, “Seven Psychopaths” may have borrowed elements from tough guy flicks, stories of unsuspecting writers in need of stimulation suddenly being thrusted into ridiculous adventures, and typical bromances in forgettable comedies, but it puts all of these elements into a blender, loony ingredients are added, and shaken once more to create a rather original material that works for itself despite its occasional distracting self-awareness and criticisms of its own inspirations.

Most enjoyable is the fact that the story is willing to go in many directions. While the main strand involves the kidnapping of the Shih Tzu, what makes the material memorable are the colorful imaginings and retrospectives. Many supporting characters enter and egress but they never feel disposable even though a lot of them are killed. They are consistently given something important to do or funny quip to say so it is thrilling when a new face is introduced. The attention is not in the violence or deaths but in our curiosities of how someone might alter the course of the game.

Its off-beat sense of humor is coupled with good performances. Walken does his usual slithery menace but it works given his character’s history. The scene that tickled me most is one that takes place in a hospital where the gangster and the dognapper finally face each other. It is given appropriate beats to solidify the tension. The reward is small compared to the larger surprises later on but it makes a lasting impact. What is a surprise, however, is Farrell deciding to play Marty straight. As the picture goes on, it is increasingly clear that Marty must almost be a blank canvas, somewhat bland with sporadic quirks, in order for us to be absorbed in the more flamboyant personalities.

There are few movies that come out within a span of a year where the audience can feel a filmmaker’s love and passion for his or her work. “Seven Psychopaths” is one of them. It is in the dialogue, the images, and silences that separate a flicker from a full-blown flame. The number of things it wishes to address matches the quantity of its twists and turns. Although there are some problems with its pacing as it reaches the climax, I guess one can consider it a part of its own funky groove.

Climax


Climax (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★

An argument can be made that there is no movie here, let alone a strong story that is worth the emotional journey. But leave it to shock maestro Gaspar Noé to create an unadulterated sensory experience from a near-nothing. I found “Climax” to be hypnotic, brave, and free. We are not meant to care about any of the characters on screen so long as they move their bodies and create amazing shapes and contortions. It cannot be denied that it is exactly the film that the filmmaker wanted to make. And for that, it is certainly worth seeing.

The work is divided into two halves: a relatively tame party after a successful dance rehearsal followed by the aftermath of drinking sangria spiked with LSD. But before the first half begins, we sit through various interview tapes of the dancers who may or may no live through the night in question. We learn about their attitudes about sex, sexuality, sensuality, drugs, country of origin, and America. We get a strong impression of how much they value being able to express themselves through dance. One of the dancers claims that if she could not dance any longer, she would commit suicide. As we see her dance for the first time, we realize she is dead serious.

It is apparent there is a strong partnership between Noé and choreographer Nina McNeely, proven by the first dance sequence seemingly shot in one take. It is amazing how every performer is ready to shuffle in and out of the shot as they execute eyebrow-raising moves. It is a joy and a surprise to watch because, for example, a dancer who comes across a bit stiff thirty seconds prior can suddenly return to the middle of the frame so soft and pliant. It makes the viewer question whether potentially erroneous moments were actually done on purpose in order to subvert expectations. Furthermore, notice that although the dance is focused on limbs and torsos being thrown about, performers always have strong emotions on their faces. This sequence alone requires repeated viewing; it is that impressive.

There are no characters, but there are personalities. A few standouts include a mother (Claude-Emmanuelle Gajan-Maull) of a little boy (Vince Galliot Cumant) who is suspected of having drugged the drinks simply because she was the one who prepared it, the man who would not stop bragging about his sexual conquests (Romain Guillermic) which earns him the title of being a “ticket to an STD,” the siblings who clash (Giselle Palmer, Taylor Kastle) when the subject of personal freedom is broached, and the woman we see during the opening shot (Souheila Yacoub) as she crawls through the snow while drenched in blood. Every one of these subjects is followed by the camera at some point without compromise. Showing people experiencing a high is one thing—so many filmmakers do this. But to show paralyzing repercussions through the lens of realism is another. At times the movie works as a horror film.

Noé is strongest when constructing a claustrophobic chamber piece. While “Climax” is not his strongest work, it is still a cut above generic filmmaking so often constrained by plot and the need to create characters worth rooting for. Not here. What matters is that we have a reaction to it. If you walk away from this film and finding yourself not having an impression or an opinion, you are dead inside. The movie’s purpose, I think, is to provoke. Get on.

Billionaire Boys Club


Billionaire Boys Club (2018)
★★ / ★★★★

James Cox’s misfire “Billionaire Boys Club” attempts to tell the true story of recent college graduates, Joe Hunt (Ansel Elgort) and Dean Karny (Taron Egerton), who create a high-risk investment firm—a Ponzi scheme—in order to establish a perception of success. Because in their world during early 1980s Los Angeles, being rich on paper and cash poor is better than the idea of being perceived as what they actually are—struggling, like mostly everybody else, to become financially successful. Although supposedly based on real life, it is plagued with inaccuracies, like softening the characterization of Hunt so he is more sympathetic. With this in mind, the work must be evaluated based on what it has achieved.

The first half of the picture is stronger than the latter. It is interesting that although it attempts to tell a story from thirty years ago, there is a modern feel in the way the picture is put together. The clothes, the makeup, the cars, the influential figures running around the City of Angels are vintage and yet the feelings it evokes are out of its time. This can be attributed to Amy Collier and Glen Scantlebury’s curious editing: it strives to match the manic energy, even the hedonism, of the young men who wish to prove themselves, hungry for money and public admiration but not self-respect. As the resourceful pair manipulates potential investors, an upbeat feeling is generated; the fast climb atop a mountain pregnant with purpose.

Elgort and Egerton make convincing accomplices. They look good in suits even when under extreme pressure of breathing out one lie after another. It is the screenplay, however, that is not up to the level of their talent—which is why the second half is thoroughly problematic. Because the writing is so sloppy, particularly when repercussions must be painted on the canvas, one gets the impression that the film does not know how to be resolved—strange since the final destination is already written by life. The duo’s downfall feels rushed and messy. It is the writers’ responsibility—James Cox and Captain Mauzner—to make sense of every step so that the viewer can have a complete understanding of the crime.

Thus, the film, as a whole, is rendered ineffective. I have no problem in how Hunt and Karny are written or portrayed. The people within biographical crime dramas are stretched or embellished most of the time. But the crime itself—how the subjects get there and the accompanying fallout that sometimes follows—this is something that must be captured with feverish accuracy. What is the point of telling this particular story otherwise? Superior films within the genre even take the material further by connecting the critiques of the past to something similar that is occurring today. This film is uninterested in striving for much.

“Billionaire Boys Club” can be criticized for being shallow—and I do not disagree. On the one hand, that is, I think, part of the point: the young men’s dream of becoming financially secure for life and gaining positive social recognition is indeed quite shallow. On the other hand, the dream of striking it rich fast and being socially respected transcends time and culture. After all, in many people’s eyes, money goes hand in hand with respect. The screenplay ought to have been ironed out in order for this story to command undeniable cultural relevance in modern times. Examples can be found everywhere, from the cars we drive, the brand of shoes we wear, down to the color of our credit cards. I was disappointed by its unwillingness to overachieve.

Crawl


Crawl (2019)
★★★ / ★★★★

Like strong creature features of the 1980s, “Crawl,” based on the screenplay by Michael and Shawn Rasmussen, strips away the fat and dares to focus on the survival aspect of the story. But in order to increase the ante, there is no creature that had undergone genetic mutation or a bizarre alien being that crash landed on our planet. Instead, it takes a realistic approach: a father and his daughter find themselves trapped in their Florida home during a Category 5 hurricane—alligators just so happen to be on the hunt for food. In a way, the alligators are simply trying to survive, too. The movie is fun, full of energy, and as it moves forward, I caught myself pulling my limbs toward my torso. Cue the alligator’s jaws snapping shut around a character’s arm.

It is exciting visually. While the storm does not look particularly impressive or expensive, the increasingly terrifying flood does. There are numerous before-and-after shots. For instance, in the beginning of the film, we get a chance to observe the water levels around town as our heroine makes her way through evacuated roads to check up on her father. Then we spend the majority of the picture under a house as our characters evade the hungry reptiles.

Later, when we lay eyes on the outside again, it is shocking how trees are now bent a certain way, cars are floating about, the wind at least twice as strong, and the water can be seen as far as the eye can see. Because there is attention to detail, we believe that there really is a hurricane ripping through the state. Just as quickly, our minds drift toward Haley (Kaya Scodelario) and Dave (Barry Pepper) who are increasingly tired, injured, and bloody. Alligators prove to be most patient hunters.

There is human drama in the middle of this survival feature, but it is the correct decision to minimize it. Flashbacks are utilized to show how close Haley was to her father when she was a child. He was her coach and mentor. Haley is angry at her father but we do not know why initially. We do know, however, that Haley is unhappy right from the opening sequence during swim practice. She is the kind of person who has been trained to hide or mask her emotions. Did Dave push her too hard? Was there a traumatizing event? Is it something else entirely? The story can be seen then from the perspective of a familial anger that must exorcised through great violence in order for the relationship to move forward. Credit to the Rasmussen brothers for their efficiency.

The true stars of the picture are the alligators. Director Alexandre Aja has a knack for showing how beautiful these creatures are… then perverting that beauty into terrifying encounters. Underwater shots clearly serving to admire their sheer size and majesty are examples of the former. Latter examples are the gator attacks on land: how fast, smart, and powerful they are even when they are not in water. Most enjoyable is the fact that the filmmakers are willing to show how an alligator attempts to overwhelm its prey: how it uses its tail, its jaws, its own body weight, even its own surroundings. Each confrontation is different and that makes it exciting.

“Crawl” will tickle those who like their creature features short and sweet… but also dirty and bloody. Whether a chase sequence unfolds indoors or outdoors, it has a wonderful habit of placing the viewers close to the center of action for maximum impact. Every splashing of the water counts. Even tiny bubbles can be detected by these ferocious gators. It inspires us to clean closer yet remain guarded just in case there is a jump scare. In the middle of it, I wished more modern survival horror-thrillers were as lean and efficient as this experience.

All the Devil’s Men


All the Devil’s Men (2018)
★ / ★★★★

Those who don’t mind an action picture with minimal charm are likely able to endure “All the Devil’s Men,” a work filled to the brim with clichés and funny blunders, like a man capable of getting up within seconds of being tasered and a smashed window somehow magically unbroken the very next shot. While not completely terrible as a shoot-‘em-up, ambition and creativity in terms of its characters who are capable of double- and triple-crosses certainly would have taken the material to the next level. It lacks intrigue.

The mission is to capture a disavowed CIA operative (Elliot Cowan) who is currently at the top of the U.S. president’s kill list and extract him from London. Soon he plans to meet with the Russians and purchase a warhead. Naturally, he must be stopped at all cost. Two mercenaries (William Fichtner, Gbenga Akinnagbe) and a former Navy SEAL named Collins (Milo Gibson) are hired to complete the task by CIA handler Leigh (Sylvia Hoeks), daughter of a man beheaded on camera by the man of interest. Although the performers are game for their respective roles, it is written all over their faces that they are not challenged by the material.

Numerous line deliveries are flat on paper and downright uninspired when it comes to delivery. I felt uncomfortable as rehearsal-sounding dialogue actually made it to the final product. (At one point I wondered about the length of the shooting schedule. It could not have possibly been more than a month based on the number of scenes that needed to be reshot.) Thus, would-be emotional moments when characters look into the distance and describe what is at stake for them personally are neither dramatic nor resonant. These come across as scenes that had to be inserted between action sequences rather than a natural development when the conflict gets increasingly personal as corpses begin to pile up.

Gibson has the physique of a potential action star (notice how the camera admires his body during the opening shot), but it is difficult to determine whether he has range based solely on this project. As shown by the striking first sequence in Marrakesh, Collins is someone who prefers to work alone—he does not say much but he is highly efficient. Had a keener eye been behind the camera, coupled with a more intelligent script actually interested in men numbed by death and murder, perhaps it have worked as a character study of some sort. Collins is not uninteresting, but the script consistently puts him in situations that are uninteresting. There is a difference.

Shootouts are standard but occasionally exciting. These suffer from diminishing returns, however, because each confrontation is pretty much the same but occurring at a different location. I found it curious that the central villain is not actually the most interesting antagonist. More menacing is a high-ranking henchman (Joseph Millson) who is easily persuaded by money. Deighton is Collins’ friend and also a former Navy SEAL. He is the more effective adversary because he appears to be just as strong, as smart, and as cunning as our protagonist. He seems to enjoy his profession. When the two finally duel, the writer-director, Matthew Hope, proves not to have the wisdom to draw it out a little more. Deighton is such a detestable, weaselly figure. He wish for him to suffer, preferably slowly.

Hale County This Morning, This Evening


Hale County This Morning, This Evening (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★

“Hale County This Morning, This Evening” will likely challenge most people’s idea of what a documentary can be. Instead of tackling its subject head-on, it employs a lyrical and ponderous approach—certain to test the patience of those possessing a strict definition of “documentary,” so much so that one might claim that the film is simply a collection of random images that could have been captured with a camera phone.

So then what is a documentary, at least in my eyes? To me, it is an act of capturing reality from a specific perspective. In this case, the picture’s goal is to provide a portrait of how a number of black people live in Hale County, Alabama, specifically those who reside in impoverished neighborhoods, from the perspective of an insider, RaMell Ross, who wrote, produced, and directed the film. An open and seemingly desultory approach is most appropriate because to provide only one portrait of a poor neighborhood could be considered a lie—and an act of further marginalizing an already marginalized community. It is clear that Ross is interested in showing the entire canvas instead of focusing only on a particular cloth of that canvas.

It subverts expectations from a storytelling point of view. The opening minutes show two young men, Quincy and Daniel, who dream of reaching their goals through school and sports. By the end of the film, an argument can be made that only one of them is closer to his goal. The other’s focus turns on his growing family. There is no wrong choice because it is their choice to make.

Notice that every time the two subjects are front and center, the images are shot in a matter-of-fact way. No shots of starry skies, no time lapse photography of highways, not one extended look of an open field. Victories, failures, life, death, and moments in-between are raw and unflinching. I found it fresh that the passage of time is not shown using subtitles or title cards. Instead, we are asked to look at the children and observe how much they’ve grown from one scenario to the next. The documentary spans five years.

Constantly we are reminded, however, that this is not just Quincy and Daniel’s stories. It is about a community: how it celebrates, how it fights, how it mourns, how it copes, how it moves on. We watch children play, tease, laugh, and scream. We see grandmothers get challenged by teenagers—and how these elders snap back. We listen to an old man playing the blues on his guitar. Teenage girls sing despite not knowing a song’s lyrics entirely. A father and son waiting for rain. Blink and miss an insect landing on a fingertip. Churchgoers singing, cheering, yelling, crying. A boy at a barbershop. An infant being buried in a cemetery.

These are impressions—which some may find moving while others are left cold. It all depends on life experiences, I think. I belong in the former group because I grew up in a time and place where neighbors are like second family. People talked to each other, gossiped with one another, and sometimes fought against each other. Neighbors were more than strangers you felt obligated to greet when you cross paths. The documentary is, in a way, about the collective African-American family living in the Deep South.