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Franz Patrick

The Notebook


The Notebook (2013)
★★★ / ★★★★

A pair of twin boys (László Gyémánt and András Gyémánt) are sent to live with their grandmother in the country because it is too dangerous for them to stay in the city during the war. Mother (Gyöngyvér Bognár) hopes to collect them by the time it is over. The boys do not receive a warm welcome. Aside from having demanding chores in the middle of winter, Grandmother refuses to call them by name, only referring to them as “bastards.” She is convinced her daughter does not really have a husband given they have not seen each other in two decades. In the village, Grandmother is infamous for being a witch who lives in seclusion.

“The Notebook,” based on a novel by Agota Kristof, requires a bit of time to set up its tracks but once the foundation is laid out, looking away is almost impossible. The story takes place in a remote Hungarian village during World War II and the focus is on the two boys, once privileged and sheltered, learning how to live without an appropriate adult figure for guidance. What results is a fascinating work, so bizarre and horrifying at times that I became convinced the events shown here actually happened.

The twins do not have a name and they function as one. Having left home and essentially looking out for themselves around the age in which their sense of right and wrong is expected to mature, something goes seriously wrong. The boys eventually develop a fascination with taking lives away—initially toward bugs then the need evolving toward mammals. They read the Bible and know the Ten Commandments by heart, but since it is a time of war, the rules must not apply. They claim they must learn to adapt.

Certainly the picture is worthy of discussion. We wonder if the boys’ actions could be due to abandonment issues. It is also possible that they are born with an inclination to kill. The material does not provide easy answers to our questions—which is a good quality—and so we look closely. From my observations, it does not require them a significant time to feel all right with killing. Maybe it is in them in the first place. However, one can argue that their trauma is so severe, time may be negligible.

Is the culture of the village simply backwards or is there a collective insanity at work? Utilizing violence in order to teach a lesson appears to be the norm. So, the twins believe that they must train their bodies to endure it. They do so by beating each other either with their bare hands or with a belt. Grandmother prefers wet towels. Sometimes she prefers to starve them or leave them outside in the cold.

But the abuse is not solely physical. At times it is sexual. The officer (Ulrich Thomsen) with a neck brace looks at them with lust. People who know him are aware of his amorous advances with other boys and yet they fail to take action. We meet a maid (Diána Kiss), a girl with a cleft palate (Orsolya Tóth), and a shoemaker (János Derzsi). One of these three will make sexual advances toward the twins. We watch in horror because we are convinced that help is not coming.

“A nagy füzet,” based on the screenplay by András Szekér and directed by János Szász, is a war film that does not rely on sentimentality to incite emotions from us. It is confident about the images presented on screen and the difficult circumstances regarding its subjects.

Radius


Radius (2017)
★★★★ / ★★★★

A man wakes up next to an overturned vehicle, head bloody, with no memory of who he is. It is dark, raining, and it appears no one is around given the accident occurred in a rural area. Later he comes to learn his name is Liam (Diego Klattenhoff) and whenever a living creature, human or animal, gets within a certain distance of him, it drops dead. This is the curious premise of “Radius,” written and directed by Caroline Labrèche and Steeve Léonard, a captivating sci-fi mystery-thriller that poses many questions and takes the time to answer every single one of them. Do not miss it.

The story brings to mind Stephen King novels, not because of the genre but its ability to grab those looking in by the throat and never lets go. The curiosity surrounding Liam and his strange unwanted ability is dealt with patience, creativity, urgency, and even a sense of humor. The screenwriters understand that the terrifying situation must have moments of exhalation and so the material is peppered with amusing moments without the tension ever decreasing. Most Hollywood thrillers with big budget, recognizable stars, and experienced writers do not possess this wisdom. Here, it is exercised with confidence, nearly every scene modulated with a clear purpose and feeling.

It bothers to detail specifics such as the maximum distance between Liam and the living in order for the latter to remain alive, what is said in the media when groups of corpses are discovered in a diner, and how the main character attempts to wriggle himself out of tricky situations. Although there is a central mystery that commands high level of intrigue, notice there is constant world building. And so when Liam inevitably comes face-to-face with cops and bystanders, we have a clear understanding of what is at stake for everyone involved. We believe in the reality of the conflict and there is convincing drama in every beat.

The equation is constantly changed and so the viewers are always challenged. There is not a slow or boring moment here. For instance, eventually a woman named Jane (Charlotte Sullivan) and she, too, suffers from amnesia. She claims that she woke up in the scene of Liam’s accident. However, when Liam woke up, we do not see anyone nearby during the opening sequence. It inspires the audience to ask questions and to reevaluate what we see, hear, and process. In order words, it inspires us to become active participants in the story. It is not simply a question of what you may do when a similar situation happens to you. The questions are more specific, layered, painted with moral quandaries. It is so refreshing because too many modern films cater to passive viewers.

“Radius” is one of those rare pictures with high concepts and energetic execution that never runs out of steam. Metaphors—never ostentatious—should inspire conversations. And the ending feels exactly right—it is given to us at right moment. Fans of old school “Twilight Zone” are likely to have a great time with this gem, filled to the brim with surprises big and small.

Never Grow Old


Never Grow Old (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

The thing about westerns is that many are revenge stories in their core. And so it is often a challenge to tell a story in a fresh way when ruffians (Josh Cusack, Sam Louwyck, Camille Pistone) arrive in a frontier town and decide to stay indefinitely. It is apparent about a quarter of the way through that “Never Grow Old,” written and directed by Ivan Kavanagh, lacks both originality and vision; at one point I wondered why the filmmaker felt this particular story needed to be told. Because if the viewer had seen at least five western pictures, it would be easy to determine its ultimate destination. Does it truly require eighty minutes to get there?

An argument can be made that it is not about the destination but the journey. However, the journey is not interesting either. Emile Hirsch plays Patrick Tate, Garlow’s carpenter and undertaker. He lives just outside of town with his pregnant wife (Déborah François) and two young children (Quinn Topper Marcus, Molly McCann). Soon Patrick meets Dutch (Cusack) in the dead of night, the latter having knocked on the former’s door, asking for directions regarding a man with a bounty on his head. It is made clear that Patrick cannot refuse—not only this favor but also future ones. Hirsch plays Patrick with a constant air of desperation. Despite the inconsistent Irish accent, he is able to meet Cusack’s calm intensity.

But the screenplay fails to do anything interesting with these two forces who must clash—morally and physically. It goes on autopilot as bodies pile up when Dutch decides to open a business—a whorehouse that serves alcohol, considered to be a mighty sin by the devout Christians (led by Preacher Pike portrayed by Danny Webb) of Garlow. Violence is paraded on screen—men being shot, a young girl getting raped by an old man, blood mixing with mud, a hanging, among others—and yet there is only minimal drama. The reason is because we do not care about these disposable characters. Most intrigue is generated when Patrick and Dutch are in a room simply exchanging words.

Patrick’s occupation involves building objects and putting corpses in the ground. There is poetry in lending a hand on creation and destruction yet the writer-director does not take advantage of it. Instead, Patrick is consistently shown reacting to situations—merely a tool in a plot so ridden with clichés—until the protagonist is no longer an enigma. Meanwhile, Dutch disappears for long periods in the middle of the film. He appears from time to time to do or say something would-be philosophical. I grew tired of the charade that the material forces upon us.

I enjoyed the look of the picture, particularly when it employs natural light. Scenes shot at night are appropriately dark and menacing. There is a convincing quiet in the darkness, like anything could step out from it. Not even lamps or torches could allay the danger. When the film is not so plot-driven but rather driven by feeling, one cannot help but wonder whether the work might have been better off as a sensory experience: strip away the heavy-handed plot and let the emotions flow, place us directly in a mindset of having to survive in an 1849 frontier town.

Ad Astra


Ad Astra (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

During the first hour of James Gray’s “Ad Astra,” the picture has the makings of a space epic so engaging, it does not need to show a single flying car to inspire the audience to keep paying attention. Advanced technologies are simply there to be used rather than to be gawked at and so we are forced to adapt—quickly—in the story’s universe. By making futuristic images barely visible and putting the protagonist’s inner turmoil front and center, it is without question that the work will be a ruminative sci-fi film instead of action-adventure oriented. However, once the second hour crawls along, the slow, calculated, informative pacing is no longer utilized to build mystery or raise questions—about ourselves, our connections with others, our place on our planet and in the universe—scenes simply drag. The absence of a meaningful payoff is maddening.

We follow Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), son of renowned astronaut Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), when he is assigned to travel to Mars to send a communiqué to his father, once believed to have perished on assignment while leading a project in Neptune. By hearing his own son’s voice perhaps the old man would finally respond to SpaceCom’s messages: for senior McBride to put a stop to electrical surges that plague the rest of the solar system. You see, his ship contains anti-matter that works as a catalyst to these fatal surges.

The irony is that despite Roy and Clifford sharing the same bloodline, the two are not at all close. (Yes, outer space is employed as a symbol of how distant the father and son are emotionally—neither new nor fresh.) Pitt is highly watchable as a man who has not found a way to deal with his father’s brazen abandonment. I looked closely at Roy and recognized a person who built himself to be something that his father would be proud of… but he is not his own person. This lack of self permeates through his personal life, specifically when it comes his relationship with his wife (Liv Tyler—outrageously underused). It is without question that Roy’s father loved his job—finding proof of extraterrestrial life—more than his own son. And so Roy must come to terms with this reality. The story is not about a space mission. It is about finding a way to live and not simply exist based on somebody else’s expectations.

Although this universal message can appeal to most viewers, I’m afraid it will be lost in translation because the second half does not possess enough energy and vitality in order to underline its humanistic themes. Instead, the movie is plagued with prolonged takes of Roy moving from one place to other or Roy sitting at one spot looking hopelessly morose. (On occasion a well-placed and well-timed tear rolls down Roy’d right eye just in case we don’t get the picture of his struggles.) It leaves the viewers cold. Notice that even moments of thrill—shoot-outs on the moon’s surface, confronting a wild animal in an enclosed space—end up with a whimper.

These images can work. But there must be something behind them—consistently—in order for us to feel and appreciate their value. Otherwise these pretty images function merely as decoration; we might as well be staring at a screensaver for two hours.

Written by James Gray and Ethan Gross, “Ad Astra” does not hold a candle against movies from which it is inspired by, whether it be thematically or visually—Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” and Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Solaris” are most obvious. A key difference: “Odyssey” and “Solaris” consistently build—or break down—their worlds and the characters within them up until their curious, perplexing, unforgettable climaxes. Here, there is mostly hollowness and soulful staring into the void.

First Kill


First Kill (2017)
★★ / ★★★★

A father’s (Hayden Christensen) solution to his son (Ty Shelton) getting bullied is to take him hunting, but when the two witness a corrupt cop shooting a bank robber (Gethin Anthony) because the latter refuses to simply hand over the money, Will and Danny find themselves targets of deceitful law enforcements. The occasionally engaging action-thriller “First Kill” offers one prolonged but entertaining chase scene in the woods and one shootout sequence in which those involved never seem to run out of bullets. Everything else around it is busy work that leads up to an expected conclusion. However, there are bits of humor sprinkled about that hint at an edgier screenplay, one longing to be more self-aware of conventions—had screenwriter Nick Gordon been more ambitious—regarding cops, robbers, and the unlucky regular folks who happen to get caught in the middle of the crossfire. It has the potential to turn into a more potent action film with a heart. It proves capable when a boy and a thief make a genuine connection concerning what it takes to stand up against bullies. Directed by Steven C. Miller.

Philomena


Philomena (2013)
★★★ / ★★★★

A recently unemployed BBC News journalist, Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), did not at all want to write a human interest story because he thinks these tend to be about vulnerable, weak-minded, and ignorant people. But after hearing an old Irish woman’s story about having a baby as a teenager and then the nuns giving her child away, Martin takes on the assignment and agrees to aid Philomena (Judi Dench) in locating her son.

When the words “inspired by a true story” graced the black screen during the opening credits, a sinking feeling bore in my stomach. “It’s another one of those,” according to my brain, so tired of being disappointed by so many bad movies that are supposedly inspired by or based on true stories.

But “Philomena,” directed by Stephen Frears, is head and shoulders above many of them. It is told with class and elegance sans sensationalism or relying on sentimentality. If it had been helmed by lesser hands, given its premise, it would likely have turned into a syrupy Lifetime movie where behavior takes precedence over the inner thoughts and feelings of its main players. Dench and Coogan play their characters exactly right: as real people from which the story is inspired by.

What is left to say about the great Judi Dench? Her performance is excellent. I loved and felt privileged for being able to look at her face and feeling every bit of the character’s shame, frustration, fears, and agony. Alongside Frears’ direction, the extra seconds when the camera simply lingers on the master’s wrinkly face allows us time to absorb Philomena’s inner struggle and to try to imagine how it must be like for her to not know what has happened to her son for half a century. Dench is such an ace performer that a well-timed blink or the manner in which she exhales can have so much effect on a shot.

I have always seen Coogan as a comedian more than actor although I know the two need not be mutually exclusive. Perhaps it is because he appears in a lot of comedic pictures. Regardless, I have always found his performances rather one-note, repetitive, and at times unrelentingly dull. Here, although the actor has funny bits, the camera does not fixate on how funny he is. In addition, I believed that Coogan is playing a character here: someone who wishes to restore his name as a journalist and yet someone who hopes to do the right thing. It helps that the screenplay by Coogan and Jeff Pope does not beat us over the head with Sixsmith’s goals, personal and professional, as well as possible ulterior motives.

The picture is beautifully shot. Whether it be inside a small, darkly lit local pub or a very spacious airport (accompanied by a hilarious description of what happens in a romance novel that the title character is just about finished reading—my favorite scene), the movement of the camera is fluid, never drawing attention away from conversations between the reporter and his subject. Human connection is highlighted with consistency and so we are naturally drawn to the conflict that drives the drama.

The Domestics


The Domestics (2018)
★★ / ★★★★

There are far too many suspense-thrillers with rather neat premises but ending up sputtering about halfway through. I think it is because screenwriters get so distracted by the shiny new ideas that they end up neglecting to explore them in meaningful ways. And so when the novelty wears off, the work lacks a reason to exist. A twisted road trip picture, for instance, is reduced to yet another shoot ‘em up. “The Domestics,” written and directed by Mike P. Nelson, is guilty of this significant shortcoming.

The U.S. government’s black poison has killed most of the American population. No reason is provided why this was sanctioned, nor is the material required to do so. The survivors, those resistant to the toxic substance, have been divided into two major factions: those who joined a gang—which is divided further based on their moral codes (or lack thereof)—and the so-called Domestics—people who scrape by every day without group affiliation. Married couple Mark (Tyler Hoechlin) and Nina (Kate Bosworth) belong in the latter category who decide to make their way to Milwaukee after Nina’s parents cease to communicate via radio. As expected, the spouses encounter various gangs who wish to imprison, torture, or… play with them.

The co-leads do a serviceable job in their respective roles, but the screenplay fails to make them equally interesting. Mark is strong, creative, and vigilant—clearly equipped with survival instinct. On the other hand, Nina is in this constant state of sadness. During the majority of the picture, she is nearly useless, a major liability. I found it to be painfully cliché when the character so suddenly becomes a warrior during the final twenty minutes. The pivot is ineffective because neither character is given enough specific details so that any change that may occur later is thoroughly convincing.

Instead, more effort is put into the action sequences—where the gun is pointed, whose brains are being blown out, blood spatters on walls, sharp objects going though flesh. Notice the manic nature of the editing during these scenes. The violence, while cringe-inducing in a good way, is consistently at the forefront yet there is minimal social commentary in whatever is going on. After all, strong post-apocalyptic films tend to be about something else entirely, from the rousing “Mad Max” films, darkly comic “Delicatesen,” insightful “Children of Men,” down to poetic dirges like “The Road.”

There is a hint, I suppose, of friction between the protagonists. Before the toxins were released, Nina and Mark were on the process of getting a divorce. But the details are both superficial and laughable. Listen to this: Nina confesses to a fellow survivor (Jacinte Blankenship) that they used to be so crazy for each other. She especially swooned at the fact that Mark would leave her cute and romantic notes at home or at work. Eventually, however, the gesture stopped. I couldn’t help roll my eyes and stifle a laugh during this would-be vulnerable moment. Did she really expect such flirtation and playfulness to last for the rest of their marriage? Is she really this short-sighted and shallow? Of course passion wanes. What matters is what you do about it as a couple when it does.

“The Domestics” is not without potential to become a solid thriller. I enjoyed that each gang has a specific personality. The leaders may not have memorable faces, but their monstrous behaviors linger in the mind. Had the screenplay undergone further editing by focusing on the overall message they wish to portray, followed by strong, detailed, and surprising characterizations, it would have felt refresher, more urgent, more relevant in our modern times of politically divided America.