The 2018 Chicago European Union Film Festival – Part 9

The 2018 European Union Film Festival is back at the Gene Siskel Film Center, from March 9th to April 5th.

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Ágnes Máhr, Arghavan Shekari and Cake-Baly Marcelo in “The Citizen.” credit: zff.com

Roland Vranik’s The Citizen (Az Állampolgár) (Hungary, 2016) presents a quite powerful, unsentimental episode in the life of Wilson Ugabe (Cake-Baly Marcelo), a middle-aged West African refugee whose family was destroyed in civil conflict there a few years past. He’s building a new life in Budapest, having learned the language, acquired a decent job (as a greeter and security man at a supermarket) and found a safe place to live. But Wilson has a complication – an old girlfriend of a former roommate arrives on his doorstep pregnant, looking for Dad. Shirin (Arghavan Shekari), a refugee herself (from Iran), has a baby due, nowhere to stay and a warrant out for her deportation. Wilson, familiar with, and supportive of, her predicament, chooses to take them in. Meanwhile, Wilson is having trouble passing his citizenship test, so his employer Éva (Tünde Szalontay) introduces him to her sister, Mari (Ágnes Máhr), who gives private lessons to both kids and adults. Wilson is not only a diligent pupil for Mari, but an ever-closer friend, then lover, and her own dead-end marriage comes to an awkward but deserving end. When Mari arrives to live with Wilson, the additional roommates are an unpleasant but (hopefully) manageable surprise.

I don’t mean to suggest the film is without humor – both Wilson and Mari are smart, friendly people, well-surveyed by these two fine actors, and watching their courtship develop is warm and fun. But the situation darkens, and all three of our characters fall victim to some of their own bad decisions. Vranik’s script, co-written with Iván Szabó, steers away from the fevered melodrama that these stories can sometimes fall into, and presents the characters as straightforward products of their own hard experiences, for better and worse. Imre Juhasz does the film justice visually as well – a regular cinematographer in Hungary, he’s been getting increasing amounts of camera crew and second-unit work here in the U.S., and he’ll work his talented way up quickly.

I liked this movie a lot – it’s no ray of sunshine, but it’s a really good, wordly-wise short-story film that rings rewardingly true.

“The Citizen” will be shown on Friday, March 30th at 8:00 pm and Tuesday, April 3rd at 6:00 pm.

The 2018 Chicago European Union Film Festival – Part 8

The 2018 European Union Film Festival is back at the Gene Siskel Film Center, from March 9th to April 5th.

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Iris Bry and Nathalie Baye in “The Guardians.” credit: Music Box Films

Xavier Beauvois is clearly an extraordinarily talented French director, and I don’t want to steal his thunder – this is a great film, and my favorite of the festival so far. But casting director Karen Hottois did him immeasurable service in discovering the superb Iris Bry, and the visual narrative of his newest film, The Guardians (Les Guardiennes) (France, 2017) is so beautifully wrought that it’s tough not to sing the praises of his veteran cinematographer Caroline Champetier. She’s been a prolific cinematographer since the early eighties, shooting for Jacques Rivette, Chantal Akerman, Leos Carax and, of course, earlier Beauvois films.

I emphasize this because Beauvois’ clear intention is to praise the courage, resourcefulness and resilience of women, specifically those who stayed home while fathers and sons left home to fight World War I. The film follows the Sandrail family, caretakers of Le Pardier farm. All three of the sons of Hortense Sandrail (Nathalie Baye, superb) and her frail husband Henri (Gilbert Bonneau) have gone to war, leaving the work of the farm to herself and her daughter–in–law Solange (Laura Smet). They could use a little help, but the only available laborer turns out to be another woman, the young but hardy Francine (Iris Bry, in a solidly impressive debut). Immensely helpful, diligent and well-mannered, Francine turns out to be a godsend. But the sons get leave from time to time, American soldiers pop in here and there, and co-ed complications, sadly, inevitably,ensue.

Collaborating with Marie-Julie Maille and Frédérique Moreau to adapt Ernest Perochon’s 1924 novel, Beauvois keeps the dialogue sparse and efficient – he knows he can rely on his actors to show us, not tell us, what’s important. Long passages of the film feel like Jean-François Millet paintings come-to-life, but we feel real intimacy with the laboring figures. The performances are great, the film looks sensational, the story is movingly straightforward and there’s even an honest-to-God Michel Legrand musical score. This is a wonderful film.

“The Guardians” will be shown on Sunday, March 25th at 2:30 pm and Thursday the 29th at 6:00 pm.

The 2018 Chicago European Union Film Festival – Part 7

The 2018 European Union Film Festival is back at the Gene Siskel Film Center, from March 9th to April 5th.

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James McAvoy and Alicia Vikander in “Submergence.” credit: facebook.com/pg/submergencefanpage

Everything Wim Wenders does in the service of relating the story of his newest film, Submergence (Germany / USA, 2017), seems like exactly what he should be doing: building relationships minute-by-minute, taking the time to really watch people think, and relate to each other. Taking the specific circumstances of his characters’ lives and expanding their context to more universal ideas and meanings. Expressing love without over-earnestness, and violence without shock or sensationalism. And yet, at less than two hours, it’s a tough film to stick with or stay interested in.

Based on a novel by J.M. Ledgard, we follow two protagonists. James More (James McAvoy) is a European intelligence agent who, undercover, attempts to make contacts in Somalia, but is quickly kidnapped and held in squalid captivity by jihadists. In his imprisoned despair, he thinks longingly of a recent love, Danny (Alicia Vikander), a bio-mathematician who studies deep deep underwater ocean life (don’t call her an oceanographer…!) and is prepping for an important expedition in a high-tech submersible. With their meeting at a small posh Atlantic oceanside resort, Wenders and screenwriter Erin Dignam construct an efficient but credibly heartfelt courtship – James is understandably reticent about career specifics, but the whip-smart Danny clearly gets the gist; when time comes to go their separate ways it’s genuinely moving. The metaphorical landscape here is obvious but not overwrought, and the talented Belgian cinematographer Benoît Debie makes hard but effective visual distinctions between an impressive variety of locations and moods. Scene-by-scene it’s engrossing, and there’s hard creative work being done here, but the two threads need stronger cohesion to each other, and more complementary dynamics of speed and rhythm, both narratively and visually. Maybe it’s an editing thing, maybe the script, maybe just a lack of rigor from Wenders. It’s a shame, though – there’s a lot here otherwise.

“Submergence” screens on Saturday, March 24th at 3:00 pm and Tuesday the 27th at 8:00 pm.

The 2018 Chicago European Union Film Festival – Part 6

The 2018 European Union Film Festival is back at the Gene Siskel Film Center, from March 9th to April 5th.

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Andrea Petrik and Ervin Nagy in “Kincsem – Bet On Revenge.” credit: 8400.info.hu

Hungarian director Gábor Herendi is no stranger to domestic success – his Valami Amerika Hollywood-spoof comedies are on their third sequel, and he does a fair amount of television work as well. At around $12 million (HUF 3 billion), Kincsem – Bet On Revenge (Hungary, 2017) is reportedly the most expensive Hungarian film ever produced; it’s a bit more than Herendi can really chew, but it’s solidly entertaining nonetheless and was wildly successful with his domestic audiences. Kincsem (‘My Treasure’) was the most successful thoroughbred racehorse in history; 54 races, 54 wins, which is a sports story well worth telling. But Herendi (with screenwriter Bálint Hegedûs) has also fashioned a somewhat operatic rags-to-riches adventure yarn about the orphaned son of a Hungarian partisan who grows up to become Kincsem’s trainer, finds fame and fortune and wins the love of the daughter of his arch enemy. The story is pleasantly predictable, but they’ve had some real fun with flamboyant costuming, a nicely anachronistic music score, a few cyberpunk touches and spirited performances. Ervin Nagy is the trainer, Blaskovich, a perenially hard-luck horseman and gambling party-animal who just has a feeling about this sad-looking wild horse. Andrea Petrik is the wealthy daughter of the man who killed Blaskovich’s father, and she works harder than many of her American contemporaries might, elevating an otherwise stereotypical role. And I should mention Tamás Keresztes as Gerlóczy, a young rich nobleman who bankrolls Blaskovich in the good-old-days, but falls out with him when he actually starts succeeding – it’s a more complex performance than it needed to be, to the actor’s credit. The steadily-working Péter Szatmári shot the film, which is great-looking even if some of the computer-enhancement is awkwardly handled.

No masterpiece, Kincsem – Bet On Revenge is still a fun mainstream popcorn movie that simultaneously aspires to, and wants to avoid the mistakes of, big Hollywood entertainment. It’s a pretty ambitious and admirable Saturday matinee, and I recommend it.

“Kincsem – Bet On Revenge” will be shown on Saturday, March 24th at 3:00 pm.

 

The 2018 Chicago European Union Film Festival – Part 5

The 2018 European Union Film Festival is back at the Gene Siskel Film Center, from March 9th to April 5th.

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Emmanuelle Devos and Richard Berry in “Number One.” credit: tiff.net

In a country of reliably artful film actresses, France’s Emmanuelle Devos holds a place of prominence, both in her own innate talent and in her discerning choice of projects. In Tonie Marshall’s most recent film, Number One (Numéro Une) (France, 2017), she plays Emmanuelle Blachey, an executive vice-president for a state-of-the-art wind turbine manufacturer who manages their Chinese operations as well. Prodigiously talented and internationally respected, she’s hand-picked by a prestigious women’s political coalition to vie for the corporate presidency of one of France’s national water utilities, Althéa – she’d be the first female CEO of a CAC 40 corporation. But there’s another contender for the position, and he – of course, he – has access to a resourceful and well-connected network subculture of venture capitalists, P.R. consultants, lobbyists, charity-ball regulars and board members who will dutifully make Ms. Blachey’s life whatever level of hell suits their self-interested purposes.

Tonie Marshall has done feature films, documentaries and some TV work – her technical storytelling skills are excellent. Her screenplay (written with Marion Doussot and Raphaëlle Bacqué) reflects a level of ubiquitous corruption and amorality that certainly exists, but is condensed and exaggerated here to (arguably) righteous ends. She spends the first part of the movie convincing us to admire, respect and cheer on Emmanuelle Blachey, but then spends the later sequences having things happen to Ms. Blachey rather than having Ms. Blachey herself make things happen. The list of what-she-has-to-deal-with is daunting, and credible, but I wish they had made more with less. But these are quibbles; if there’s an equally serious-minded examination of aspiring executive women in big-league corporate culture (besides TV-show subplots) made by an American filmmaker, I’d sure like to hear about it. Here’s another very good film that deserves wider distribution.

“Number One” will be shown Monday, March 19th at 6:00 pm.

 

The 2018 Chicago European Union Film Festival – Part 4

The 2018 European Union Film Festival is back at the Gene Siskel Film Center, from March 9th to April 5th.

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Josef Hader, Pia Hierzegger and Crina Semciuc in “Wilde Maus.” credit: filmpressplus.com

The terrific Austrian actor/writer/director Josef Hader absolutely nails a prickly and complex role in Wilde Maus (Wild Mouse) (Austria, 2017). Georg (Hader) is the longtime classical music critic for a daily newspaper in Vienna who is abruptly let go for younger, cheaper writing talent. Insulted and indignant, Georg pretends to continue working, keeping his psychoanalyst wife Johanna (Pia Hierzegger) in the dark while he spends his days distracting himself at the Prater fairground amusement park. Johanna, meanwhile, in her early forties, has decided she’d like a baby, and obviously needs a great deal of support from Georg right now. When he inevitably fails to provide it, she assesses an entirely new set of options. The various first-world rabbit-holes our players veer into start out as pretty typical black-comedy scenarios, but Hader, a seasoned veteran actor and cabaret performer, builds his narrative with patience, a real affection and affinity with his performers and a clean, smart sense of visual storytelling (he employs two cinematographers here, Xiaosu Han and Andreas Thalhammer, shooting in widescreen Cinemascope format). The dark coincidences approach contrivance after a while, and the ending’s a bit capricious, but overall the film is both involving and rewarding. I hope it’s picked up for further distribution here – Hader is deservedly famous in Austria and Germany, and he was great in 2016’s Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe. More, please.

“Wilde Maus” will screen on Monday, March 19th at 8:15 pm.

 

 

The 2018 Chicago European Union Film Festival – Part 3

The 2018 European Union Film Festival is back at the Gene Siskel Film Center, from March 9th to April 5th.

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Frederick Lau in “Gutland.” credit: filmfund.lu

Gutland (Good Land) is the southern – central region of Luxembourg, and Govinda Van Maele has located his first feature film, Gutland (Luxembourg, 2017) there in a tiny rural farmland village called Schandelsmillen, surprisingly adjacent to Flannery O’Connor, Jim Thompson and Shirley Jackson territory. A drifting stranger, Jens (Frederick Lau), arrives looking for farmhand work – it’s pretty late in the season, and he’s rebuffed on first arrival. But one of the village girls, Lucy (a nice contrasting turn from Vicky Krieps) takes a quick liking to him, and the friendly easygoing mayor (Marco Lorenzini) finds a farming family who can use some help. The small, insular town and lifestyle require some adjustment, but Jens settles in fairly nicely. But what’s in that gym bag he buried in the woods? Why are the fathers so hard on their kids, while their wives seem to be cultivating a little swingers’ underground?

Writer / director Van Maele has created a technically well-executed short-story narrative film that never really falls into full-blown cinematic territory. The storytelling pacing is deliberate and unchanging, and there’s not a lot of tonal variety in Narayan Van Maele’s photography, although the film overall looks terrific. As a first feature that will now land him investments in his second and third, Van Maele’s film is admirably well-done. But not much will stick with you upon leaving the theater.

“Gutland” will be shown on Sunday, March 11th at 5:15 pm and Tuesday the 13th at 7:45 pm.