Paradise: Faith

Paradise: Faith (2012)
★★ / ★★★★

A woman enters a room and opens the lock of one of the drawers. She takes out a flogging whip, takes off her shirt and bra, kneels in front of the crucifix hanging on the wall, and beats herself with it. As the whip hits her flesh repeatedly, she prays for the others’ sins, mainly their obsession for the flesh. Her name is Anna Maria (Maria Hofstätter) and it is her mission to bring back Austria to Catholicism.

It is likely that many people will approach this film and criticize it for its subject matter rather than what it is attempting to show—a grossly incorrect approach. “Paradise: Faith,” based on the screenplay by Ulrich Seidl and Veronika Franz, is about a woman who is so devout that we are supposed to wonder if she has acquired an unhealthy obsession. What is considered to be an “unhealthy obsession”? It is up to us to decide.

Hofstätter plays Anna Maria with grace and pride. It is not a role for a movie star nor for a performer with a memorable or strong presence.The actor’s face and body are, appropriately, ordinary but because the intensity of her performance does not waver, every time she is front and center—often alone in a confined space—she is extremely watchable. It is interesting that her behavior tells us more about herself than when she speaks. That is because when she talks, it is often either a prayer or an attempt to convince another person to believe in God.

Anna Maria knocks on random people’s doors and claims that the Virgin Mary statue she carries around is visiting them. I enjoyed that Ulrich Seidl, the director, takes some time to have the lead character enter a home and show how people respond to her. One of the best, perhaps because it is so alive and amusing, is when she tries to convince an older couple that what they share is a sin in the eyes of God. The older gentleman’s wife had passed away while the older lady is divorced. To Anna Maria, because the Bible tells her so, the couple in front of her are sinners and therefore must repent.

One would think that Anna Maria would be unlikable. I admired the writers for making her sympathetic rather than treating her as a joke or a punchline. Over time, we are made to see how important her faith is to her. Her mindset is this: Because she believes that becoming a Catholic has changed her life for the better, it is therefore her duty to pass it on—even if the various people she encounters do not want what she has to offer. To Anna Maria, what is right for her must be right for others, too.

But the movie did not work for me as a whole. There is one supporting character (Nabil Saleh) that is introduced less than halfway through the picture who takes away a lot of the film’s focus. That is, Anna Maria’s blind ambition to turn everybody into a Catholic. This character, a paraplegic, is supposed to introduce a comedic tone but it rubbed me the wrong way because the approach is so obvious. He does not agree with Anna Maria’s religious beliefs and so he goes around the house taking down crucifixes, photos of Christ, and the like. It gets old real quick and he is in front of the camera a lot of the time.

“Paradies: Glaube” needs more uncomfortable scenes. One that quickly comes to mind is Anna Maria meeting an alcoholic. Their interaction verges on violence eventually. I felt afraid for our protagonist’s safety. Scenes as such force us to question why she would put herself in that situation. Does she choose to stay because she is devout—that God will protect her no matter what or is it because the danger of the situation does not click fully in her mind? Maybe it is a bit of both.

The film is for patient and thoughtful viewers. Though it does not bring up the most complex questions about what faith is or what having faith means to someone, it does dig up some interesting questions specific to the character. It has a dramatic protective membrane and a darkly humorous nucleus. Prepare to engage and penetrate to get there.


Eli (2019)
★ / ★★★★

Ciarán Foy’s “Eli” is yet another substandard horror film with little on its mind other than to deliver a big twist during the final fifteen minutes. The journey toward the destination is slow, interminable, and peppered with scares that rarely land on target. For a story that unfolds in an estate in the middle of the country—perfect for a haunted house movie—there is no intrigue, just clichés that pile on top of one another until the viewer is compelled to no longer care.

It begins with a curious medical case about a boy named Eli (Charlie Shotwell) who began to exhibit signs of an unnamed autoimmune disorder four years prior. When exposed to the environment, red spots appear on his skin aggressively and so he is forced to live in a bubble. His parents (Kelly Reilly, Max Martini) found a new hope: Dr. Horn (Lili Taylor), an immunologist who plans to employ viral gene therapy to repair the boy’s defective genes.

Although a mysterious premise, the science aspect of the picture is almost immediately thrown out the window from the moment the desperate family steps inside the palatial home. It does not help that the immunologist and her nurses are written as villains in the most obvious way possible: stern-faced, cold, impersonal, robotic. It does not provide the audience a chance to decide for themselves whether or not to trust the poker-faced trio. You see, the reason is because every decision must serve the rug to be pulled from right underneath our feet. If the screenplay by David Chirchirillo, Ian Goldberg, and Richard Naing really cared about engaging the audience, it would have been willing to entertain possibilities.

The middle portion drags to the point of futility. Every time day turns into night, you can bet that Eli would have a nightmare, get up from the bed, and explore the creepy facility. Sometimes he encounters ghostly figures that breathe on windowpanes, a few of them whisper clues, and one or two reveal themselves, CGI and all. It is formulaic, exhausting, and not at all scary. There is a lack of patience during the buildup and so the would-be payoffs are not at all impactful. Shotwell is quite convincing at looking terrified, but we do not believe the emotions on his face because there is nothing special about the craft propelling such encounters.

As for the drama between a desperate mother and seemingly cold father, I found it to be recycled fluff. There is a scene early in the picture which shows the family’s financial struggle due to the boy’s rising medical costs. However, this fact—this reality—is never brought up again. I think the movie could have used more searing honesty. It is common knowledge that family members tend to fight among one another when money is tight. People get desperate not knowing how to pay for rent or how to pay for the next meal. Pretty much everybody can relate or empathize with this. However, the movie would rather focus on parents fighting because one has lied, or has kept a secret, or some vanilla reason. Be direct. Deliver raw drama.

Admittedly, the twist is quite smart. I did not see it coming. But a good twist—even a great one—is not worth a recommendation when everything else around it is uninspired, from the unsubtle dialogue, forgettable set decor, down to a resolution that hints at a possible sequel should the movie become a success. It is pessimistic filmmaking.

Summer 1993

Summer 1993 (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★

The experience of watching “Summer 1993” is akin to engaging in a relaxing hobby indoors as children’s screams of joy and laughter can be heard outside. It is full of life but never in an ostentatious or hackneyed way. Rather, the film inspires the viewer to look closely not on the action or plot development but rather within the the inner folds of children’s feelings and thoughts as they adjust to changes in their lives throughout the course of one summer. It is a portrait of childhood that includes the delights and discomforts of growing up just a little even when one is not ready simply because life takes an unfortunate turn.

Writer-director Carla Simón tells her autobiographical story with elegance and class. Just like the main protagonist Frida (Laia Artigas), who is about six or seven years old, the audience is kept among the fog of a mysterious illness that led to the death of the girl’s biological mother. Eventually, we are given enough clues to make an assumption about the nature of the disease… but not once is it named outright—appropriate given the time period in which the story is set, the shame that comes with the sickness, and the perspective of the story. The name of the sickness is not important to the child, only the fact that her mother is no longer around to provide, to care, to love.

An unhurried pacing is the picture’s greatest weapon—and the very element that may likely repel the casual audience. By taking its time, specifically to use time in a way that children process it, the material is able to focus on images that more commercial or mainstream works overlook or ignore on purpose. Notice there are numerous instances where we simply watch Frida and Anna (Paula Robles) engage in play, the latter being the biological daughter of Frida’s adoptive parents, Esteve (David Verdaguer) and Marga (Bruna Cusí), the former Frida’s uncle. They climb trees, play pretend, tag, take on dares. During their play, Frida’s trauma is slowly revealed to us slowly. She challenges people to the point of pushing them away, testing them to see if, like her mother, they would end up leaving, too.

There is a sadness to the material that I found to be deeply profound exactly because not once does the material feel the need to explain anything. Melodrama is avoided. Revelations are treated casually. While it may appear to be telling a children’s story on the outside, I think adults are meant to be the intended audience. It is fascinating how the camera almost avoids showing adults’ faces unless absolutely necessary, particularly during the more emotional moments. By keeping the camera low, there are times when adults look like giants. The words exchanged sound a bit muffled. We experience the story through the children’s eyes.

Those unwisely claim that the picture is boring are flat-out wrong. I think it is brave because it provides the viewer a task of looking deep within to ask why certain life events play out the way they do. Sometimes there are answers. But many more times there are only conjectures. I think this captures the essence of life quite wonderfully. It is organic and challenging in numerous ways that more mainstream dramatic works are not.

Zombieland: Double Tap

Zombieland: Double Tap (2019)
★ / ★★★★

If your idea of entertainment is unadulterated boredom then Ruben Fleischer’s “Zombieland: Double Tap” is a winner: a lazy, low energy, soporific sequel to a predecessor that embodies none of these qualities. It is astounding that although there is a ten-year gap between the original and the follow-up, the ideas served here are tired and maddeningly cliché, rotten, the actors hamming it up to create a semblance of a good movie. I felt embarrassed for their efforts; they are character actors stuck in a third-rate material. It is clear that the picture has no reason to exist other than to make money. To say it is a waste of ninety minutes is an understatement.

The introductory scene shows some promise. Colombus (Jesse Eisenberg), via narration, acknowledges that since we last spent time with them a decade ago, zombies have specialized and a few have evolved. Each type is given a specific name based on the undead’s characteristics, particularly the manner in which it hunts. But this potentially fresh idea is dropped almost immediately and picked up only when convenient—when it is desperate for an action scene. Instead, we are bogged down with lame dialogue—most of them expository—about the importance of sticking together, of family, of home being where your loved ones are. Dave Callaham, Rhett Reese, and Paul Wernick’s screenplay appears to be confused when it comes to their target audience. Did they mean to impress those with IQ lower than 70?

Every time the material attempts to explore family dynamics among Colombus, Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), Wichita (Emma Stone), and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin), it is a challenge to prevent closing one’s eyes because none of the connections ring true. For example, the father-daughter relationship between Tallahassee and Little Rock is forced and awkward on two fronts: there is no chemistry between Harrelson and Breslin—the latter at times coming across like she doesn’t even want to be in the film while the former, almost recognizing the lack of enthusiasm from his co-star, recompenses for their shortcoming as a unit by exaggerating an already hyperbolic character—and the screenplay never provides a warm, touching, or curious moment between the two characters prior to their relationship being challenged.

Another example is Columbus and Wichita’s would-be romantic connection: it is dry and purely circumstantial. Like Harrelson and Breslin, Eisenberg and Stone lack chemistry—this time the romantic variety. I suppose the idea of opposites attract is meant to be humorous, but what they share is consistently one-dimensional. Wichita is always the straight man, Columbus the bumbling bungler. The writing fails to let the audience see—or discover—what Wichita sees in Columbus, vice-versa. It is without question that interpretations of these characters are detached from the previous film. And so the whole thing comes across as a charade.

Even zombie attacks are nothing special: the undead appear and they are shot either in the distance or pointblank. Observe how these sequences are edited like a music video. The reason is because fast cuts and other flashy, in-your-face techniques are meant to establish a veil of energetic razzle-dazzle when, in reality, unfolding before us is just another shoot ‘em up. Substitute zombies with bad guys in suits and nothing is changed on the fundamental level. I felt especially insulted when a character would yell out zombie types (“Homer,” “Hawking,” “Ninja”—introduced during the opening scene) when one is encountered instead of allowing us to discover ourselves which version is in front of us. It zaps away the already minimal tension.

“Zombieland: Double Tap” is not made for smart people. It is made for the undead audience, those who prefer to have everything spoon-fed or explained for them. There is no excitement, no suspense, no thrills, not even one good scare. I did not feel as though the filmmakers felt confident or passionate about their material. If they did, they would have put more effort in elevating the dialogue, making sure that the relationships ring true, ensuring that the action is creative or surprising. If the bar is this low for the series, I hope it stays dead. It is an insult to everyone involved.

Hotel Artemis

Hotel Artemis (2018)
★★ / ★★★★

Take the cool concept of hotel-exclusively-for-criminals from “John Wick”—but turn the posh setting the opposite way: as grubby as possible without losing the foreboding mood—and set it amidst a political backdrop that involves rioters’ violent uprising against the privatization of clean water in Los Angeles 2028. The result is “Hotel Artemis,” written and directed by Drew Pearce, an action-thriller that offers a few neat ideas but quite underwhelming as a whole. In the middle of it, I wondered if it might have been better off as television show.

Part of its lack of cinematic appeal is the standard disparate characters having to converge at one place. Given that the titular hotel is meant to heal criminals, many of them killers, we already expect for them to drop like flies. It is all a matter of when and in what order. Since it takes on this level of predictability, dramatic gravity must be enhanced to such an extent that we overlook the final destination. Its attempt goes as far as to provide flashbacks of the nurse (Jodie Foster) who runs the hotel, how she found her son dead at the beach due to a drug overdose. Since then she has been in a state of grief—it has gotten so bad that she has developed agoraphobia over the years. She blames herself so much that she has made Hotel Artemis her personal prison, to exist to serve till the day she dies.

Meanwhile, we get snippets of snappy banter among a slate of criminals, from bank robbers (Sterling K. Brown), arms dealers (Charlie Day), to hired assassins (Sofia Boutella). All of them are convincing in their respective roles with the exception of Zachary Quinto as the hotel owner’s volatile son. Every time he utters a line, I felt as though the performer was taken from a completely different picture. It is distracting at best, laughable at worst—especially when the character is supposed to be taken seriously as a major threat against everyone in the hotel. The angry son is given no character development.

The picture is shot against a curious political backdrop but the anger swelling outside of the hotel is used merely as a device. News coverage is shown on televisions inside the Artemis, we hear bombs going off in the distance, and rooftop scenes show aircrafts crashing on nearby buildings. These images are meant to amplify the tension from the outside in, perhaps even aiming to paint a picture of a hellish near-future, but the social commentary, while present, is completely lost. Like its underdeveloped characters, its ideas, too, are undercooked. I felt no excitement or enjoyment from these images.

A cursory approach almost always does not work with high-concept action-thrillers. The point of having ambitious ideas is to explore them in a way that is thoroughly entertaining—that if one were to strip away the action altogether, the viewers would still want to know what would happen because the drama is rooted in something real. “Hotel Artemis” fails to invest emotionally and so only a shallow experience is offered. While not necessarily bad or unbearable, nearly everything about it is forgettable. If there were to be a sequel, which the material nudges by mentioning other hotels with a similar purpose, ideas must be explored first and foremost. Otherwise, what would be the point?

The Face of Love

The Face of Love (2013)
★★★ / ★★★★

Since her husband (Ed Harris) has passed five years ago, Nikki (Annette Bening) has been unable to move on from his death. She gives away his clothes. She hides his photographs. She avoids places that hold significance for them.

They frequently visited the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. She finds it to be particularly difficult to be around this place, but one day the widow feels compelled to go inside. She regards the artworks with fascination and solemnity—but it isn’t the same. She turns around and there she spots a perfect replica of her late husband. She later comes to know him as Tom (also played by Harris) and, like the late husband, he is passionate about art.

“The Face of Love,” written by Matthew McDuffie and Arie Posin, is a hard sell. The story involving a person’s double and playing it with a straight face? Isn’t that within the realm science fiction and fantasy? But that is exactly what I admired about it: Instead of executing the plot with tinges of silliness, it is brave enough to dare to suspend us in disbelief nearly throughout. We know that Tom will learn about Nikki’s late husband eventually and that he looks exactly like him. That is not the interesting part. It is in how he responds to the knowledge he is provided that tells us everything about his character.

In movies with similar premise, it is too easy to categorize the protagonist. He or she must either be crippled by grief or the person is likely to be suffering from a mental illness. Not here. Bening makes an excellent decision to embody both categories but she avoids her character from being defined by them. She makes a lot of fresh choices. Notice how Nikki is like when indoors. Compare her body language to when she is out in the open. It is two different performances. The unhurried pacing allows us to appreciate the subtleties in her performance.

We feel the love between both characters. Only understanding what Nikki feels toward her late husband’s double would have been severely erroneous. It would have made the character less compelling. Certainly, an irrational obsession would have been the point as opposed to an imperfect but believable relationship. It just so happens that there is a big elephant in the room and to acknowledge it might just ruin everything.

Robin Williams plays Roger, Nikki’s neighbor and with whom he hopes of eventually sharing a romantic connection. Roger is underwritten, functioning more like annoyance rather than a genuinely sad man who also lost someone who is dear to him. Their commonality is loss, but the screenplay fails to hone in on that trait in meaningful ways. Instead, they are given a few conversations that outwardly refer to their dead spouses. Surely there must have been a less obvious way to explore that angle.

Directed by Arie Posin, “The Face of Love” will likely surprise those who choose to have an open mind. Going into it, I looked forward to Bening and Harris’ performances most. They do deliver and share wonderful chemistry, but I was surprised that their characters’ situation resonated with me. The final scene is superlative.

Godzilla: King of the Monsters

Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

Michael Dougherty’s “Godzilla: King of the Monsters” appears to be confused between spectacle and sense of wonder—something Gareth Edwards’ superior “Godzilla” understands without question. In this limp, barely written sequel we follow a group composed of scientists and military personnel whose mission is to stop a three-headed dragon from bringing about the apocalypse. But for a story involving a global emergency, the picture is tonally flat, the characters reduced to stereotypes, and the supposedly impressive visuals suffer from diminishing returns. By the third confrontation among titans that inevitably demolish entire villages and cities within minutes, it is apparent that the work has gone on autopilot. While we are able to see more of the monsters in this installment, there is a lower level of intrigue to them which matches that of generic action sequences that almost always end up with a massive explosion and characters escaping death in the very last second somehow. We never shake the feeling that the actors are acting in front of a green or blue screen because the circumstances are never compelling. The work strives to deliver entertainment but all it manages to provide is exhaustion.