EUFF 2016 – 1944

I always look forward to the Chicago European Union Film Festival at the Gene Siskel Film Center every year – this one is their 19th annual, and it runs from March 4 – 31.

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Kaspar Velberg in “1944.”  credit: Taska Film

Many EUFF moviegoers are going to check out Tobias Lindholm’s A War, Denmark’s Oscar finalist for Best Foreign Film, as well they should. But I’m happy to alert you to another very impressive war movie at the fest (and another Oscar submission), Elmo Nüganen’s 1944 (Estonia/Finland, 2015). Elmo Nüganen himself is kind of a noteworthy guy, as he’s primarily a theater director, and the artistic director of Estonia’s Tallinn City Theatre. His first feature film, Names Engraved In Marble (Nimed Marmortahvlil) was made in 2002. This is his second, but you’d never know it – his sense of kinetic order in seeming chaos isn’t too far out of the league of guys like Spielberg or Ridley Scott, and the non-combat scenes are handled with equal confidence.

I’m almost inclined to issue a spoiler alert here, but the opening titles lay out the astonishing facts that underlie every subsequent action after; 1939, the USSR signs a non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany. World War II starts one week later. In 1940, the Soviets annexed Estonia, and put 55,000 Estonian capables into the Soviet Red Army. In 1941, Nazi Germany takes and occupies Estonia, and they conscript 72,000 Estonians into the Waffen-SS. Which essentially means there’s a third-parties Civil War in Estonia, and its own population is attacking its own population.

The first half of the film follows Karl Tammik (Kaspar Velberg), a staff sergeant serving with the German forces. A loyal and hard-working leader for his squad, he’s doubly motivated by his parents’ deportation to Siberia by the Soviets. Nonetheless, he’s a disciplined, measured and, under the circumstances, a pretty friendly fellow soldier. The second half of the film follows Juri Jegi (Kristjan Ukskula), who holds the same rank for his squad of the Red Army. The German forces have started their withdrawal by now, but nasty battles are still plentiful. To complicate matters, Jegi must contend with the nasty Captain Kreml (Peeter Tammearu), a hardnosed Soviet lifer who won’t tolerate divided loyalty in the waning days of the war. Kreml wants Jegi to snitch on the alleged slackers behind the back of Jegi’s own squad captain.

The transitional sequence between the Tammik and Jegi stories is noteworthy in itself, and strikes a welcome but melancholic tone that levels out what occurs before and after. But, overall, Leo Kunnas’s screenplay is superb, as is Rein Kotov and Mart Taniel’s photography and Kimmo Taavila and Tambet Tasuja’s masterful editing. There’s a lot to see at the EUFF this weekend, but make a point to squeeze Elmo Nüganen’s terrific film in as well.

“1944” will screen on Saturday, March 26th at 6:00 pm and Tuesday the 29th at 8:00 pm.

 

EUFF 2016 – The Girl King

I always look forward to the Chicago European Union Film Festival at the Gene Siskel Film Center every year – this one is their 19th annual, and it runs from March 4 – 31.

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Sarah Gadon and Malin Buska in “The Girl King.”  credit:moviesovertherainbow.com

There’s a weirdly slapdash flavor to Mika Kaurismäki’s The Girl King (Finland, 2015). It’s modestly but impressively designed, capably shot and generally well-performed. Parts of it have refreshing intellectual and moral weight, healthy doses of palace intrigue and political maneuvering and some genuinely-expressed passion and urgency. But it’s wildly inconsistent – there’s so much of real interest here that it’s a shame Kaurismäki can’t hold it together better.

Six-year-old Kristina was the only legitimate heir to the Swedish throne when her father, King Gustav II Adolph, died in battle during the Thirty Years War (Swedish Protestants vs. the Catholic Holy Roman Empire). Chancellor Axel Oxenstierna (Michael Nyqvist) headed up the ruling Privy Council and oversaw Kristina’s education, which was prodigious – Gustav had arranged early in Kristina’s life for her to have every educational option accorded to any comparable male in the country. Coronated Queen after turning 18, it soon became clear that her education had fiercely liberalized her – Kristina (Malin Buska) was a staunch defender of Luther and Protestantism, but quickly aspired to end the wars against the Catholics and fostered the free exchange of religious and philosophical ideas. She railed against her country of “miners and lumberjacks, peasants and soldiers,” and promoted huge upswings in education and cultural creativity, all while being reviled as a traitor to her God by hardliners in her own court and fending off a series of opportunistic suitors. Much of the film refers us to her correspondence, and later friendship, with René Descartes (Patrick Bauchau), chronicles the progress of her love affair with her lady-in-waiting Countess Ebba Sparre (Sarah Gadon) and features a ferocious turn from Martina Gedeck as Kristina’s unhinged mother, Maria Eleonora. Unfortunately, Kaurismäki just tries to cover too many bases without having an elegant structure to negotiate it all. We always know the contemporary film crew is just inches outside the frame, and that the actor we’re watching now just finished having a smoke two minutes ago. This is a far better movie than Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, which suffered from the same dearth of gravity and commitment, but there’s still an unfortunate sense of people working way too hard to play dress-up.

“The Girl King” will screen on Friday, March 25th at 6:00 pm and Saturday the 26th at 2:00 pm.

 

EUFF 2016 – The Lady In The Car With Glasses And A Gun

I always look forward to the Chicago European Union Film Festival at the Gene Siskel Film Center every year – this one is their 19th annual, and it runs from March 4 – 31.

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Freya Mavor in “The Lady In The Car With Glasses And A Gun.”  credit: unifrance.org

Sébastien Japrisot is a very good late-20th-century French mystery writer whose work has been liberally adapted for film (The Sleeping Car Murders by Costa-Gavras with Yves Montand and Simone Signoret, One Deadly Summer by Jean Becker, with Isabelle Adjani, and  A Very Long Engagement by Jean-Pierre Jeunet with Isabelle Adjani, to cite a few). The latest Japrisot fan to give him a shot is Joann Sfar, the French filmmaker and/or animator who gave us Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life (2010) and The Rabbi’s Cat (2011). His film, The Lady In The Car With Glasses And A Gun (La Dame Dans L’Auto Avec Des Lunettes Et Un Fusil) (France, 2015) is an engaging and stylish piece of professionally-executed eye-candy, but a pretty serious failure as a credible mystery. Dany Doremus (Freya Mavor) is a young and trusted administrative assistant to Michel Caravaille (Benjamin Biolay), who needs a last-minute presentation typed overnight for a trip to Switzerland the next day. Caravaille invites Dany to do the work overnight at his lavish home while he and his wife Anita (Stacy Martin) attend an evening function. In the morning, Dany then takes the couple to the airport – in their vintage early-60s Ford Thunderbird – drops them off and, compulsively, strikes out on a little road trip to the south of France in her boss’ car. But she encounters an odd circumstance – a number of people recognize her from the day before; she, Dany, driving that car. She’s then attacked for no discernible reason, meets a man with whom she seems to have unfinished romantic business, and discovers a body in the trunk that wasn’t there when she left. Japrisot’s novel expertly weaves character eccentricities with Dany’s (and our own) credulity – there’s real narrative sleight-of-hand and skillful deception on the printed page. Sfar’s film, while artfully shot and designed, just doesn’t have that kind of depth to it – your first explanation turns out to be the only explanation. Sfar and the camera-loved Freya Mavor will fare far better in the future, but feel free to pass on this one now.

“The Lady In The Car With Glasses And A Gun” will be shown on Friday, March 25th at 2:00 pm and Thursday the 31st at 8:30 pm.

 

EUFF 2016 – A Blast

I always look forward to the Chicago European Union Film Festival at the Gene Siskel Film Center every year – this one is their 19th annual, and it runs from March 4 – 31.

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Angeliki Papoulia in “A Blast.”  credit: cineuropa.org

Syllas Tzoumerkas’ second feature film, A Blast (I Ekrixi) (Greece/Germany, 2014) attempts to demonstrate the precarious and eroding state of the State (Greece) by demonstrating the precarious and eroding state of a wife and mother, Maria (increasingly reliable Greek actress Angeliki Papoulia). In sound-byte political terms, Maria has Worked Hard And Played By The Rules, But What Does She Have To Show For It? Tzoumerkas has chosen a fairly propulsive narrative and visual style to spiral us within Maria’s hopes, passions and betrayals, but the confident style can’t help but blur much of what would have drawn us further in and earned our empathy overall. Maria put her law school aspirations aside to devote herself to keeping the small family business afloat, and married a merchant seaman husband who is at sea six months and home for three, seemingly in perpetuity. When he’s home, the steamy honeymoon is never over, but that other six months…? Her likable but not-as-bright sister has married a hard-core right-wing lout, her own children don’t like her very much, and she’s just learned that her meek, mild, elderly parents have saddled the business, and the family, with irretrievable debt. Pantelis Mantzanas’ digital photography is very good, but the real heroes seem to be editor Kathrin Dietzel (making as much sense of Tzoumerkas’ scattershot timelines as possible) and the aforementioned Papoulia for a ferocious performance that’s well worth seeing.  Tzoumerkas’ has good arguments to make, and some good ideas about how to make them, but he needs to impose much tighter form and structure if he wants his ‘blast’ to resonate any longer than a few minutes after we’ve walked out of the theater.

“A Blast” will be shown on Saturday, March 19th at 8:15 pm and Monday the 21st at 8:15 pm as well.

EUFF 2016 – Francofonia

I always look forward to the Chicago European Union Film Festival at the Gene Siskel Film Center every year – this one is their 19th annual, and it runs from March 4 – 31.

 

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“Francofonia.”  credit: play4movie.com

Aleksandr Sokurov’s 2002 masterwork Russian Ark is an eccentric, compelling and genuinely profound examination of Art and History, and how national identities and cultures can be beneficially informed and motivated by those two foundations. Russian Ark all takes place within the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia; we follow the narration of the unseen (camera’s-eye) filmmaker, Sokurov, and his walking pursuit of another visitor, a French Marquis from the 1800s, who shares his knowledge of, and fascination with, a series of single-work examinations and re-enactment tableaux presenting the history behind all they, and we, are seeing. The walk through the museum is an unbroken line (the entire film is one single 90-minute Steadicam shot) that culminates in a strikingly beautiful cast-of-thousands finale.

Russian Ark ends with a powerful metaphor – the idea that the preservation of a great civilization’s historical and cultural records, art and artifacts is existentially crucial to the constructive continuation of that civilization. Upon walking out the museum door at the film’s conclusion, our narrator states “the sea is all around. We are destined to sail forever, to live forever.” That museum is Russia’s ark, preserving everything Russia was and is as surely as Noah preserved primate life on the creator’s Earth.

Thirteen years later, Sokurov has released a companion piece – Francofonia (France, 2015), which uses the history of The Louvre in Paris, France as its foundational story, but still carries over the metaphor of museum-as-ark, and the preservation of art and culture as the preservation of civilization. But unlike the previous film, Sokurov focuses far more on the French history surrounding the museum’s life, and somewhat less on the individual works of art contained within. (And also unlike the previous film, he’s thankfully dispensed with the single-shot conceit.) A great deal of the film concerns the occupation of Paris in 1940 by German forces, and the uneasy collaboration between Jacques Jaujard, the then-director of the Louvre (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing), and Count Franziskus Wolff-Metternich, then Curator of the Rhineland (Benjamin Utzerath), who had been appointed to oversee the handling of artworks in Paris. While Hitler and Goering were instructing their troops to take possession of valuable “ownerless” artworks throughout Eastern Europe in the Reich’s name, Wolff-Metternich discovered that the Louvre was essentially emptied of thousands of works of art, and that the treasures were dispersed throughout hundreds of estates, chalets and homes throughout rural France. (There’s a stunning image of the huge Grande Gallery hallway, its walls completely stripped of paintings, their empty frames lying on the floor.) Wolff-Metternich, nonetheless, improbably worked with Jaujard to keep those artworks safe where they were.

But just as Russian Ark contained its fair share of allegories, eccentricities and abstractions, so too does Francofonia. The ark metaphor here is somewhat in reference to how huge Assyrian architectural artifacts were perilously transported by sea from the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea and the Suez Canal into the Mediterranean, to Marseilles, and then to the Louvre. As the film opens, the present-day Sokurov, again our narrator, is in intermittent contact, through sketchy Skype connections, with a cargo ship out on the sea that seems to be in a perpetual state of near-inundation. The Paris-during-occupation sequences are an artful mélange of found historical footage and Sokurov’s own period-perfect re-creations; there are even sequences where the optical audio strip is visible to the left of the frame, and the images’ subtle fluctuations seem lit by an old-fashioned carbon-arc projector. Meanwhile, wandering the galleries (in an unspecified time-frame), between glimpses of La Gioconda and The Raft Of The Medusa, are the twin icons of French history, Napoleon Bonaparte (who is belligerently enthusiastic about reminding you that most of what’s here in the galleries are the spoils of his wars) and Marianne, who is just as insistent about her only lines in the film – “Liberté, égalité, fraternité!” The film is dotted with images and ideas that intermesh in thrilling ways – other times he has a really good idea that doesn’t lead anywhere; he presents it anyway, and then moves on.

As is typical of Sokurov’s work, every frame of the film is richly evocative, with a few instances of simply jawdropping beauty; credit superb cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel for that as much as Sokurov. The film’s only being shown once at the EUFF, which leads me to think a regular theatrical run is in Chicago’s near future. It’d be pretty cool to see the Chicago premiere on the Film Center’s big screen, though, and I genuinely regret not seeing either of these Sokurov films in a real theater. I implore you not to make the same mistake.

“Francofonia” will be shown only once, on Wednesday, March 16th at 6:00 pm.

 

EUFF 2016 – Home Care

I always look forward to the Chicago European Union Film Festival at the Gene Siskel Film Center every year – this one is their 19th annual, and it runs from March 4 – 31.

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Alena Mihulová in “Home Care.” credit: kviff.com

Following the fraught personal journey of a person who has been diagnosed with cancer can make for a rough film to sit through. But if it’s made with the compassionate intelligence and good humor that writer/director Slávek Horák brings to Home Care (Domácí Péče) (Czech Republic, 2015), then it’s a pretty rewarding and cathartic experience.

Vlasta (Alena Mihulová) is a home-care nurse in her small Czech village, travelling from house to house to care for her patients, sometimes at more expense for herself than her pay will compensate for. A ride would be nice, but her stingy and provincial husband won’t spare the gas, so she buses or walks. The one ride she does get one night from a friendly young neighbor results in a seemingly small traffic accident; her minor injuries, however, leads to more dire diagnosis – pancreatic cancer will claim her life in about six months. Many more things then happen than one might think Slávek Horák could keep a sensible narrative handle on, but he surveys Vlasta’s subsequent actions unerringly. Vlasta keeps working steadily and selflessly while now going to dance classes, holistic healers, the pharmacy and the cosmetics counter, and coming to terms with her emotionally reticent husband Lada (Bolek Polívka) and the daughter she rarely sees, all of which she undertakes with a unique mix of skepticism and hope.

I’m delighted to give Slávek Horák the credit that he’s due alone, but I couldn’t help but think that he must also be familiar with the work of Lee Chang-dong (Secret Sunshine, Poetry), another filmmaker whose characters are imbued with the same specific sense of graciousness in the face of despair. Alena Mihulová is a veteran Czech film actress whose work here is worth the price of admission. A few of the dramatic moments overstep into the maudlin, and a few of the jokes fall flat, but for his feature film debut after a long career in commercials, Horák has delivered an excellent film.

“Home Care” will be shown on Saturday, March 12th at 8:15 pm and Tuesday the 15th at 8:00 pm.

 

 

EUFF 2016 – Age Of Cannibals

I always look forward to the Chicago European Union Film Festival at the Gene Siskel Film Center every year – this one is their 19th annual, and it runs from March 4 – 31.

 

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“Age Of Cannibals.”  credit: Studio.TV.Film

Director Johannes Naber spent 12 years or so working for other directors as a gaffer and lighting technician before making his own directorial feature film debut in 2010 with the warmly-received The Albanian. His follow-up, Age Of Cannibals (Zeit Der Kannibalen) (Germany, 2014) is an impressively staged chamber drama full of black humor and an excoriating view of global capitalism. Kai Niederländer (Sebastian Blomberg) and Frank Öllers (Devid Striesow) have been sales consultants for an unnamed ‘Company’ for years – hard-working and good at their jobs, they can practically finish each other’s sentences. They’ve just lost a third member of the team, Hellinger, to (in their view) a wholly undeserved promotion, and they’re subsequently joined by a new associate, Bianca März (Katharina Schüttler), who may be a talented rookie or a mole for their bosses, a great addition or a high-maintenance distraction.

The team jets from India to China to Nigeria and, presumably, a blur of points in-between. But all we see in the film are hotel rooms, hotel hallways, hotel conference rooms, hotel bars; when Bianca suggests a walk outside, Kai recoils: “Do you know how hot it is out there?!” Kai keeps his sanity by taking perceived grievances out on various hotel employees with unsettling vehemence. Frank stays in touch with his family back in Hamburg, but it’s clear that his absence is taking a toll on his wife and small son. The film’s title, of course, cuts both ways – Kai, Frank and Bianca are pulling in a great deal of business from people they’d rather murder in their sleep, but they, too, are being slowly, unknowingly, directed towards their own dire fates.

The highly theatrical nature of Naber’s film (and the superb script written by Stefan Weigl) reminded me of another black comedy of global corporate absurdity, Marcelo Piñeyro’s 2005 The Method (El Método). Each film starts out realistically, but as the proceedings become more character-specific AND more abstracted, our credulousness is tested, agreeably, by the filmmakers’ insistence on making larger points. Naber knew he had a great script, created a smart environment for that stuff to happen in (with great work from cinematographer Pascal Schmit and production designer Tim Pannen) and got out of his actors’ way. I loved this film, and highly recommend it.

“Age Of Cannibals” will be shown on Saturday, March 12th at 6:15 pm and Wednesday the 16th at 6:00 pm.