The 52nd Chicago Int’l Film Festival – Pt. 3

The Chicago International Film Festival is a welcome annual arrival, and I’m delighted once again to provide capsule reviews of as many of the films as I can manage to see. All films are shown at the AMC River East Theaters, 322 E. Illinois St. here in the great city of Chicago, Illinois. Part 1 is here. Part 2.

 

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Ilias Addab and Nora El Koussour in ‘Layla M.’  credit: variety.com

Just when I thought I might have been a little hard on a previous film, along comes another that reaffirms my faith and my crankiness. Layla M. (Netherlands, 2016) is a smart and confident film by Dutch director Mijke de Jong that pays real respect to religious belief systems while fearlessly criticizing how humans, and their institutions, stretch and distort them to more self-serving uses.

Layla (Nora El Koussour) is 18, born and raised in Amsterdam and of Moroccan descent. She’s whip-smart and can be contagiously joyful, but she takes her Muslim faith very seriously. Like many politically smart and sensitive teenagers, she participates in street protests and is active online, denouncing what she views as mistreatment of Muslims abroad and calling out injustices in her own hometown. She also helps her Dad coach youth soccer, and video-chats with her devoutly Muslim boyfriend Abdul (Ilias Addab), who by all evidence genuinely loves her. Her family is loving and supportive, but views her political and religious passions as immoderate. As the ‘trouble’ she gets into makes itself more publicly known, her increasingly shamed family reprimands her, which, of course, just leads to further escalation – she is 18, after all. After confronting one of her best high-school friends with the idea that non-committal Muslims should rightfully be killed, she and Abdel decide to marry and elope to the Middle East, where the real work is done. Now she’ll be happy – now she has control over her own fate…

There’s a pretty big difference between characters we like and characters we respect, and both director de Jong and excellent actor El Koussour understand why the latter serves this story far better than the former. Cinematographer Danny Elsen keeps the visual narrative active and involving without crowding his subjects, quite nicely done with such loaded subject matter. It’s easy to conclude halfway through that Layla is just another cult-addled recruit, just another sheeplike disciple, but we know better because de Jong and El Koussour have so thoroughly and honestly demonstrated that that’s just not true. Don’t get me wrong, this film is going to make many of my fellow Westerners very angry. But It’s not just propaganda or provocation – it’s really good filmed storytelling, well-written, well-shot and well- conceived, and I highly recommend it.

Layla M. will screen on Sunday, October 16th at 2:30 pm, Tuesday the 18th at 8:15 pm and Thursday the 20th at 2:00 pm (an $8.00 matinee).

 

Paolo Virzì is an Italian filmmaker whom I think deserves a little more action than his films generally get. Last year’s (slightly overstuffed) Human Capital was well-received, but didn’t get a lot of next-league distribution. His film previous to that, The First Beautiful Thing, was one of my favorites from that year (2010). And it’s no secret that his 1997 coming-of-age film Hardboiled Egg (Ovosodo) is the absolute favorite Italian comedy of many native Italians. So I’m delighted to see that Like Crazy (La Pazza Gioia, which translates to Mad Joy and is, of course, a much better title) (Italy, 2016) continues to parade his smarts, his great sense of humor, his technical skill and his rapport with his actors.

The Countess Beatrice Morandini Valdirana (a spectacular turn from Valeria Bruni Tedeschi), who may actually have all of those names or, perhaps, none of them, holds court at the Villa Biondi, a women’s mental institution in Tuscany. She’s an inexhaustible jet of aristocratic, egotistical, self-promoting energy, constantly dishing out advice, constantly declaring what she will and won’t have, and generally distancing herself from anyone with whom she might make any kind of healthy connection. That is until the arrival of Donatella Morelli (Micaela Ramazzotti), a skeletal shell of a woman who allegedly tried to kill herself and her baby son eight-or-so years ago, and has been shuttled around psychiatric hospitals ever since. Beatrice prevaricates and browbeats Donatella with her usual subtlety, and Donatella bares her teeth and suggests that she sod right off. But of course, they escape together, and, of course, there’s a wildly eventful road trip, and, of course, they both confront their pasts and find a way to reconcile their present. That all sounds pretty boring, which makes it all the more gratifying when those outline elements are performed with so much genuine commitment, intelligence, good humor and surprise. Virzì clearly gets an assist from his co-screenwriter Francesca Archibugi, but the real bargain here is paying full price admission for the irreproachable performances of Ramazzotti and Bruni Tedeschi. Wow. (And if you can play hookie on a Friday afternoon, you won’t even have to pay that…). Finally, I’d like to propose that Anna Galiena make a cameo appearance in far, far more Italian films. Like Crazy is probably the best comedy I’ll see all year.

Like Crazy will be shown on Sunday, October 16th at 2:45 pm, Monday the 17th at 5:45 pm, and Friday the 21st at 1:00 pm (an $8.00 matinee).

 

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Isabelle Huppert and Edith Scob in ‘Things To Come.’  credit: filmsdulosange.fr

Mia Hansen-Løve is the author and director of very thoughtful semi-autobiographical character studies, and her newest film. Things To Come (L’Avenir) (France, 2016), is extraordinarily well-observed. The caveat here is that, while Hansen-Løve is singularly incisive in presenting these characters within the passage of time in the film, it’s easy to walk out of these films with hardly a thought of what you’ve just seen. Hansen-Løve’s admirable accuracy and empathy, weirdly, rarely create genuinely memorable films.

She’s given herself every chance to make an involving one here by casting the great Isabelle Huppert as Nathalie Chazeaux, a passionately dedicated philosophy professor who has enveloped herself in academia, mentoring, publishing, caring for her aging mother and her marriage. But the dependable rhythms of her life seem to be eroding all at once. Her publisher wants to jazz up the well-regarded philosophy textbook she’s authored and updated, much to her chagrin. Her husband Heinz, of 20 years, is revealed to be carrying on an affair, and, when exposed, he chooses the younger woman. A young protégé of hers, Fabien (Roman Kolinka), seems to be pulled further away from academia by his studies, towards a more France-in-the-sixties non-urban collectivism. Imagine, he really thinks he can just hang out on a farm with two or three friends and publish in perpetuity. Nathalie, of course, encourages her charge, knowing her own younger sympathies towards his leap-of-faith idealism. She’s been there, done that.

Each thing that happens, each obstacle, each small betrayal, is consciously felt and dealt with by the resilient Nathalie. Hansen-Løve doesn’t stint on assessing the toll that the time has taken on Nathalie, but she nonetheless leaves us with a happy and hopeful image – Nathalie caressing her granddaughter, having just fed her children a holiday dinner. One may allege that both Camille in Goodbye, First Love and Paul in Eden overstay what’s interesting about their characters – Hansen-Løve is meticulous about chronicling the passage of time – but the time-palette that Nathalie is working across seems just right. See it for yet another fearsome Isabelle Huppert performance, but also go to watch a good screenwriter get immensely better, and a good director gain even more impressive command of the storytelling medium. This may be Hansen-Løve’s best film.

Things To Come will be shown on Sunday, October 16th at 5:00 pm and Wednesday the 19th at 5:45 pm.

 

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Taraneh Alidoosti and Shahab Hosseni in ‘The Salesman.’ credit:cineuropa.org

Both Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death Of A Salesman, and devoted husband Emad (Shahab Hosseni) in Asghar Farhadi’s newest film The Salesman (Forushande) (Iran, 2016) carry a profound fear of not living up to their own standards, and, in that failure, letting down the people they love most. Like another director who excels at the suspenseful domestic drama, Cristian Mungiu, Farhadi takes ordinary people, shifts their seemingly normal lives into abnormal circumstances, and then examines the true colors that emerge.

Emad and Rama (the always-reliable Taraneh Alidoosti) are a longtime couple. He teaches high-school age students in writing and literature, and they both participate in semi-professional theater in the evening – these days, he’s Willy and she’s Linda in their production of Death Of A Salesman. But those aforementioned abnormal circumstances rear their head in a flurry: the apartment building they’ve been living in is rendered unstable in a random construction accident, and they move to a different place made available to them by a friendly fellow cast member, Babak (Babak Karimi). The previous tenant was made unwelcome by the neighbors due to her side-gigs in the world’s oldest profession. And one fateful day, Rama, expecting Emad, leaves the apartment door open for him, but Emad isn’t who walks through. And after the trauma, Rama, as we met her, may never return.

Understandably, the tone of the film darkens as Emad quizzes his neighbors about the previous tenant and works to discover the identity of Rama’s assailant. There are clues, of course, in fact big ones, but they refuse to go to the police – Emad, with a few of his neighbors agreeing, considers the police to be both ineffective and indiscreet. But his own personal investigations veer less towards justice and more towards revenge, and one questions whether he’s properly attending to Rama’s compromised state of mind.

Farhadi always presents to us how women’s lives are shaped, and often warped, by the predominance of male prerogative and power in urban Middle Eastern society. Rama’s reaction to Emad’s idea of the right-thing-to-do tells us everything we need to know about who he’s been up until now and who he really is, and the identity of the assailant is one of the more profoundly awkward reveals I’ve witnessed in quite a while. Farhadi’s writing is superb and the acting is solid, and the overall quality of each of his films is so consistently high that it seems silly to grouse. (He switches between two reliable cinematographers – for this film it’s Hossein Jafarian.) A Separation and The Past felt, to me, far more successful, far more eventfully cohesive, but The Salesman keeps excellent company.

The Salesman screens on Sunday, October 16th at 5:45 pm and Wednesday the 19th at 6:00 pm.

 

The 52nd Chicago Int’l Film Festival – Pt. 2

The Chicago International Film Festival is a welcome annual arrival, and I’m delighted once again to provide capsule reviews of as many of the films as I can manage to see. All films are shown at the AMC River East Theaters, 322 E. Illinois St. here in the great city of Chicago, Illinois. Part 1 is here.

I suspect that adapting Massimo Gramellini’s bestselling novel proved to be a tough gig for the great Italian director Marco Bellocchio to turn down. His filmed version of Sweet Dreams (Fai Bei Sogni) (Italy / France, 2016) tries to put a more serious-minded, not-so-sentimental edge on the proceedings, but he and his two fellow writers are defeated by the material. A paean to Mommas in tutto il mondo, Sweet Dreams follows Massimo (the impressive Nicolo Cabras), a sensitive but precocious pre-teen boy whose beloved mother dies under mysterious circumstances. Handling that loss as a boy is tough going, and Massimo calls on the assistance of his imaginary guardian demon, Belphégor, to shore himself up. But when we meet Massimo as an adult (now portrayed by Valerio Mastandrea), he’s a distant and somewhat aimless journalist still haunted by loss after all of these years. Perché, Massimo, perché…? Bellocchio’s an irreproachable pro – the film looks great, the story is well-structured, he gets good work from reliable cinematographer Daniele Ciprì and able support from actors Cabras, Mastandrea, Bérénice Bejo and Barbara Ronchi. I just didn’t actually believe any of it.Your results may vary.

Sweet Dreams is showing on Saturday, October 15th at 2:45 pm, Sunday the 16th at 11:45 am and Friday the 21st at 3:45 pm (an $8.00 matinee).

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Stjepan Perić and Ecija Ojdanic in ‘Ministry Of Love.’  credit: CIFF

Pavo Marinković’s smart comedy Ministry Of Love (Ministarstvo Ljubavi) (Croatia / Czech Republic, 2016) is a thoughtful yet effectively-barbed satire on values, work, relationships and institutional misguidedness.

Krešo (Stjepan Perić) is a biologist who’s having trouble finding steady work. His father-in-law Slavko (Milan Štrljić), though, is a government bureaucrat, and the newest bureau under his charge is the ‘Ministry of Love’, a deceptively-named agency that disqualifies war widows from their widows’ pensions if they’re found co-habiting with new partners. No one in the real world begrudges these women those 20-year-old pensions, but austerity is the rule in governments these days, and the ambitious Slavko assembles a small army of investigators to reclaim pension payments from these scofflaw women.

Krešo isn’t thrilled with his new job as a Nosey Parker, but he has a wife (Olga Pakalović) and son (Oleg Tomac) to support (his boss’ daughter, remember…). He and his deadpan partner Šikić (Dražen Kühn) eventually work out some strategic deceptions that bust some of these minor-league charlatans while sending themselves up the bureau’s lucrative ladder. More experienced government agents are used to being discovered as scoundrels, but Krešo is heartbroken when people he’s come to like in the course of his work end up understandably turning on him.

Marinković makes it pretty clear at the beginning that ‘security and trust’ are the first casualties of well-intentioned government money-grubbing, in Croatia or anywhere else. His visuals are sly but straightforward, unobtrusive and technically proficient, just right for the material. The laughs are dryly consistent and nicely character-driven, and, as with most capable non-American comedies, the characters are honest-to-God grown-ups who gave up adolescence an agreeably long time ago. It’s no comedic masterpiece, but Ministry Of Love is a fun and intelligent 103 minutes in good company that you’ll be glad you spent.

Ministry Of Love will be screened on Saturday, October 15th at 6:00 pm, Sunday the 16th at 8:15 pm, and Thursday the 20th at 3:00 pm (an $8.00 matinee).

Director/writer Pavo Marinković is scheduled to attend the October 15th and 16th screenings.

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Adrian Titieni and Maria-Victoria Dragus in ‘Graduation.’ credit: Mobra Films

The director Christian Mungiu introduced a whole new league of Romanian film with his 2007 Cannes winner 4 Months, 3 Weeks And 2 Days, and any new release from him is noteworthy. Graduation (Bacalaureat) (Romania, 2016) is yet another examination of regular folks navigating irregular extremity, and it’s riveting work.

Romeo Aldea (veteran Adrian Titieni) is a hard-working middle-aged doctor in the Romanian city of Cluj. His most fervent hope is that his talented teenaged daughter Eliza (Maria-Victoria Dragus) will qualify for scholarships and have a chance to study psychology in the U.K., away from what he sees as an ever-oppressive fate in Romania. But suspicious, seemingly undeserved things are starting to occur – who threw that big stone through their front window? Who shattered the windshield on their car? And, most horrifically, who tried to sexually attack Eliza in broad morning daylight, a very short distance away from her school’s entrance? Eliza escapes with a fractured wrist, and she’s understandably shaken, but Romeo’s biggest concern is her impending final examinations; with her state-of-mind unfairly compromised, he’ll do whatever he needs to do to ensure that Eliza’s scores are high enough to guarantee her big future.

Chicago audiences will no doubt recognize the roundelay of “I know a guy who helped this other guy who can now help you if you go to see this other guy and have him send you to the guy who will hook you up with the guy…” Or perhaps “That’s what other people do – the favor I need isn’t like that…“ That’s not just Chicago, my friends – that’s human nature, and the perceptive Mr. Mungiu understands, and meticulously chronicles, all of those little steps from favor to debt to corruption, from pride to compromise to nausea, and the slow but corrosive effect it can have on ourselves and even the people we love the most. Like 4 Months, Mungiu’s film works in the rhythms of the suspense thriller, even under these more prosaic circumstances, and the camerawork and editing are quite good. (Tudor Vladimir Panduru is the cinematographer rather than the great Oleg Mutu, but the visuals are crisp and efficient. Nice work.) Mungiu won Cannes’ best director award this year, and he may see more in the future. As for this festival, you can regard this terrific film as a must-see.

Graduation will be shown on Saturday, October 15th at 8:30 pm and Sunday the 16th at 7:45 pm.

Pushy and provocative, yet still somehow unconvincing, Kirill Serebrennikov’s The Student (Russia, 2016) is yet another study of fanatical religious psychosis rearing its ugly head unbidden within a prosaic white middle-class milieu that couldn’t possibly have fostered it. [Its Russian title, (M) uchenik, is a clever meme – Uchenik means student, Muchenik means martyr.] A high-school age young man, Veniamin Yuzhin (Pyotr Skvortsov) wakes up one morning and informs his single-parent Mom (Yuliya Aug) that he won’t be going to swim class / P.E. anymore. He’s a devout Christian now, suddenly, and won’t stand for Girls In Bikinis. He’ll attend other classes, but he won’t stand for pre-marital sex, or any promotion of homosexuality or any discussion of evolution. These kinds of Bible-spouting characters, who for better or (mostly) worse cause their contemporaries to rethink their prosaic priorities, are generally an excuse for writers to show off how effectively they can edit and reassemble quoted biblical passages to make everyone else seem acquiescent and silly, or to make their primary character look misunderstood or fascist. Or both. The world and his wife are speculating on where all of this homicidal fanaticism comes from, and how to express it within a context that the bourgeoisie will find palatable while still feeling the need for a fainting couch – we have shame, after all. I prefer Luis Buñuel, who presents stuff like this as both worthy of respect and silly, or storytellers like Bruno Dumont or Sion Sono, who embrace the more psychological extremes as part and parcel of committed religious fervor, unapologetically. Serebrennikov is adapting a play written by another here, but he’s fully committed to the material. The festival brochure describes the film as a satire, but it’s almost completely humorless. I found the godbothering here to be a weak substitute for some fairly elementary psychology, the introduction of anti-semitism and sex-abuse accusations to be sloppy button-pushing, and that the film has an ending that only Catherine Trammell would love.

The Student plays on Saturday, October 15th at 8:30 pm, Sunday the 16th at 12:15 pm and Monday the 17th at 2:30 pm (an $8.00 matinee).

 

The 52nd Chicago Int’l Film Festival – Pt. 1

The Chicago International Film Festival is a welcome annual arrival, and I’m delighted once again to provide capsule reviews of as many of the films as I can manage to see. All films are shown at the AMC River East Theaters, 322 E. Illinois St. here in the great city of Chicago, Illinois.

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Stefan Denolyubov in ‘Glory.’  credit: elantepenultimomohicano.com

After a fair amount of TV and short films work, the directors Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanov bring us their third feature film, Glory (Slava) (Bulgaria, 2016), very soon after the well-received 2016 release of The Lesson (Urok).

Glory starts out in Capra-esque Meet John Doe mode, as our shaggy-dog protagonist Tsanka (Stefan Denolyubov) discovers a misplaced pile of cash along the railway lines he inspects every day. He, of course, does the right thing and reports it, which, of course, leads him into an ever-darkening ordeal of manipulation and hypocrisy, courtesy of the public relations arm of the Transportation Ministry.  But where Capra allowed Barbara Stanwyck her sharp edges in order to frame and validate the overall populism of that story, Grozeva and Valchanov use the extraordinary Margita Gosheva, as ministry PR barracuda Julia Staykova, to illustrate their view that the shaggy dogs – indeed, any regular citizens – don’t stand a chance against the greedy whims of the system, nor the people within it who use that power for their own aggrandizement. Grozeva and Valchanov’s narrative transitions from comedy to cautionary tale to blackest irony are unerring, Krum Rodriguez’ camerawork is seamlessly superb, and Gosheva is revelatory. There are many very good films here this weekend, but this one should be near the top of your list.

Glory will be shown on Friday, October 14th at 3:45 pm (an $8.00 matinee), Monday the 24th at 6:00 pm, and Tuesday the 25th at 8:45 pm.

 

A modest but assured directing debut, Mohamed Ben Attia’s Hedi (Tunisia, 2016) seems pretty formulaic on its surface. Hedi (Majd Mastoura) is a meek and mousy younger ‘good son,’ living with his conservative, high-maintenance social-butterfly mother in Kairouan, Tunisia, working a thankless job as one-of-many fleet-car sales agents for Peugeot, and preparing for his arranged marriage to the daughter of a wealthy local dignitary. Nonetheless, his bosses insist that he make sales calls in a faraway territory, and he’s sent to the coastal city of Mahdia to drum up some business despite Tunisia’s ongoing post-Jasmine-Revolution economic doldrums. Disheartened with the pointless sales calls and his prosaic life, Hedi happens upon the spirited Rim (Rym Ben Messaoud) – hired by hotels as a free-lance entertainer and activities coordinator, she leads an engaging and extroverted life- and begins a passionate affair with her.

For all of its seeming predictability, these are extraordinarily well-observed, well-performed characters, and Ben Attia’s mise-en-scène is concise and evocative. Cinematographer Frédéric Noirhomme keeps a nice balance between claustrophobic interiors, cold and cavernous hotel lobbies and sunny-yet-sparsely-populated beaches, though he comes perilously close to ‘Shakycam’ overuse. Mastoura and Ben Messaoud are both excellent here, and the ending, after all, isn’t as predictable as might be imagined. There are always four or five small gems like this at the Festival every year, and I have no problem recommending this one to you.

Hedi screens on Friday, October 14th at 5:45 pm, Saturday the 15th at 3:30 pm, and Monday the 17th at 3:00 pm (an $8.00 matinee).

Director/writer Mohamed Ben Attia is scheduled to attend the October 14th and 15th screenings.

 

Art-directed feverishly, performed with real conviction by seasoned pros and rife with high-falutin’ concepts and conceits, Roberto Andò’s The Confessions (Le Confessioni) (Italy, 2016) is a film very stylishly dressed up with nowhere to go.

The institution we’re vicariously observing here is the International Monetary Fund, but most of what follows is, of course, fiction. The IMF director is Daniel Roché (Daniel Auteuil), and he is hosting a crucial financial summit of economic ministers in an undisclosed German resort hotel to determine The Next Big Steps. But Roché has invited along a few others – a famous children’s author, Claire Seth (Connie Nielsen), a popular musician, Michael Wintzl (Johan Heldenbergh, a superb Belgian actor whom I daresay is entirely wasted here), and a monk and writer of philosophy, Roberto Salus (Toni Servillo) who seems to have temporarily dispensed with his Vow of Silence in order to, unbeknownst to the others, hear Roché’s confession the night before the summit. And before you can say, “Wait, why are these people here?!” Roché is discovered dead in his room the following morning.

This scenario frees up Andò, and his fellow writer Angelo Pasquini, to lead us along a trail of seemingly profound and mysterious breadcrumbs concerning governments, finance, secret societies, and spirituality. The action splits between ministerial reactions to the aftermath of Roché’s demise (Which report will affect markets more – murder or suicide?) in present time, and a series of flashbacks to that fateful evening conversation between Roché and Salus. The latter would have been a perfectly fine 15-20 minute film, but this one is longer, much longer, with that time taken up with terrific actors saddled with zingers like “Banks are modern secret societies, and, like the Mafia, they don’t need to answer to anyone,” and the children’s book author persuading the monk to talk to the Canadian minister (Marie-Josée Croze, doing her damndest) about her vote…? It’s a mess, but it’s a respectably-budgeted, good-looking mess, so, y’know, that’s worth your $11 or $15 – or not…

The Confessions screens on Friday, October 14th at 6:00 pm and Monday the 17th at 7:00 pm as well.

Director/writer Roberto Andò is scheduled to attend both screenings.

 

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Qodratollah Qadiri and Sediqa Rasuli in ‘Wolf And Sheep.’  credit: Virginie Surdej

Shahrbanoo Sadat’s Wolf And Sheep (Denmark / Afghanistan, 2016) is one of the reasons people bother putting on international film festivals at all. While it’s a remarkable ethnographic portrayal of isolated shepherd culture and society in deep rural Afghanistan, it’s also a surprising mirror on our own Western ideas about commonwealth, family and the fates of our children.

While the grown-ups are in charge in the small village, the town’s large and indispensable population of sheep is entirely under the management of its children, who bring them out to graze every day and ensure the flock’s safe return in evening. Boys and girls don’t mix – indeed, one small flock is maintained by only one girl, Sediqa (Sediqa Rasuli) – and each group amuses itself at their work in specific ways. The boy-shepherds fashion slings to hurl rocks at interloping wolves, and hurl astonishingly pornographic insults at each other. The girls speculate on married life and potential husbands, and derisively lament Sediqa’s bleak fate as the cursed granddaughter of a blind woman who nursed a demon snake. We also meet Qodrat (Qodratollah Qadiri), the handsome and dutiful son whose father’s funeral starts the film. But Qodrat’s mother is taken as a third wife by a village man who isn’t interested in tending children, and Qodrat, blameless, finds himself shunned and derided as well.

Well written and well crafted, Sadat’s film (her impressive debut) won the Cannes Director’s Fortnight top prize this year – there’s a reason. I recommend it.

Wolf And Sheep will screen on Friday, October 14th at 8:00 pm, Saturday the 15th at 1:15 pm and Thursday the 20th at 1:45 pm (an $8.00 matinee).

Director/writer Shahrbanoo Sadat is scheduled to attend the October 14th and 15th screenings.

 

Tobias Lindholm and Thomas Vinterberg have been on a bit of a run, with the Lindholm-written-and-directed A Hijacking and his providing the screenplay for the Vinterberg-directed The Hunt (Jagten). They’re seasoned pros whose work is always noteworthy, but their newest collaboration, The Commune (Kollektivet) Denmark, 2016), just doesn’t come together as well as it might.

Vinterberg himself, as a child, lived in a communal household, but he’s more interested in examining the dynamic than reliving particular episodes – he’s stated that while the 70s timeframe is the same, his and Lindholm’s film is fundamentally fiction. Erik (Ulrich Thomson) is a longtime architecture professor who is married to Anna Moller (the superb Trine Dyrholm), a well-known local TV news anchor, and they have a teenaged daughter as well, Freja (Martha Sofie Wallstrøm Hansen).When Erik inherits the huge house of his late family, he’s reluctant to take it on, but the freewheeling Anna convinces him to invite in their friends and give communal living a try. Vinterberg and Lindholm have created a structure where lots of interesting and intertwining things can happen – it’s a varied and somewhat appealing collection of friends and contemporaries – but the group is too broadly brushstroked, too much of a vague but happy blur, to really leave much of a narrative impression. Anna is happy with the arrangement initially, but her tolerance for liberated adventure is tested when Erik starts an affair with one of his young architecture students, Emma (Helene Reingaard Neumann), and wants to incorporate her into the collective household. It’s this conflict, and its distancing effect on the others, that the film focuses on, most notably in chronicling Anna’s disintegration from cheery and gracious housemother to abandoned and embittered nervous wreck.

Vinterberg is smart to keep the period trappings to a minimum, and it’s all handsomely shot by the young Jesper Tøffner. Dyrholm’s Gena-Rowlands-like fireworks are almost worth the admission alone, but her story unfortunately overwhelms everything else that might have been interesting about the rest of the film.  I can’t generally recommend it overall.

The Commune will be shown on Friday, October 14th at 8:30 pm and Saturday the 15th at 1:00 pm.

 

 

 

The Giallo Project – Assorted Sixties Films Part 2

We’ve already established that most giallos are murder mysteries – most commonly serial murder mysteries – but they’re also distinguished by their modern visual (and sonic) style and their dependence on modern ideas about sexual psychology. The late sixties was a treasure-trove of sexual thrillers that played fast and loose with Freudian, Jungian, Nietzschian, and Masters and Johnson-ish ideas about family dynamics, co-dependence, dominance and submission, and aberrant sexual inclinations (often following Alfred Hitchcock’s examples), as well as the positive aspects of sexual liberation, swinging and the re-calibration of traditional ideas about love, sex and intimacy. These films usually turned on man’s inhumanity to man, or woman, or combinations thereof; double-crosses, betrayals, tragic decisions and psychological plot twists. Don’t worry – the fedoras, black leather, butcher knives and spurts of blood will be plentiful later on, but, for now, let’s look at what Italian filmmakers luridly developed underneath all of that.

Elio Petri’s A Quiet Place In The Country (Un Tranquillo Posto Di Campagna) (Italy, 1968) initially presents itself as an angular, confrontational, pleasingly sexy avant-garde study of a tortured artist and his descent into a kind of madness, an extrapolation of some ideas from Fellini (8-1/2) (the artist as the indecisive Hamlet, frittering away his opportunities for expression and/or redemption) or Antonioni (Blow-Up) (our film here is chock-full of people with cameras – the artist as witness and the artist under constant surveillance). But much of what is found here could act as a template for many of the later overt giallo films of the early seventies: a passive protagonist thrust into a dangerous mystery from the past; an undercurrent of dread and/or potential violence (in the artist’s imagination, Leonardo and Flavia take turns killing each other); psychological abstractions, dual personalities and dream logic; the choppy, collage-like, abrupt, sometimes outrightly deceptive editing; entire scenes that only express emotional states rather than moving the plot along; the hair-parting musique concrète soundtrack from Ennio Morricone; it could very easily be mistaken for a Dario Argento film save for the fact that Dario hadn’t started making any of those yet.

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Franco Nero and Vanessa Redgrave in “A Quiet Place In The Country.” credit: cageyfilms.com

Franco Nero plays Leonardo Ferri, a well-known modern painter working in Milan and living with his girlfriend/agent Flavia (Vanessa Redgrave). But, like Guido in 8-1/2, despite all of the indulgences he’s been afforded (or because of them), he’s reached a creative impasse, a block, and decides to repair to the eponymous villa to rekindle the embers in his brain. He’s trying to escape consumer commerce and social contrivance, but always-practical Flavia keeps nibbling away at his solitude with those very things. Leonardo learns the old villa is allegedly still inhabited by the spirit of Wanda, a promiscuous teenaged beauty who, years before, scandalized the small rural village (much like Virna Lisi in Bazzoni’s The Possessed / La Donna Del Lago) and was tragically cut down by a strafing RAF fighter plane – the villa wall is still pockmarked with the bullet fire, and anonymous bouquets of flowers regularly appear in homage to her. On one of his first nights there, his studio space is vandalized; furious at first, Leonardo subsequently manages to incorporate parts of the damage into the work, convinced that Wanda herself was the vandal. But the house’s very structure rebels against Flavia’s presence in House Of Usher fashion (Leonardo is seen reading Poe as well), and she makes herself scarce, increasing Leonardo’s isolation.

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Vanessa Redgrave in “A Quiet Place In The Country.”  credit: theblowupmoment.blogspot.com

The supernatural elements are just distractions, a narrative device – what’s really important is Leonardo’s eroding state of mind, and the decisions he subsequently makes based on that. Addled by steady drinking and soft-core porn, and the lascivious tales told by the provincial townspeople and the estate’s caretaker, Attilio (Georges Géret), Leonardo’s ever-fracturing identity is mimicked by the narrative itself, until we can barely tell whether someone’s truly being murdered or not, whether Leonardo is himself losing his grip or whether the sometimes fearful / sometimes resourceful Flavia is gaslighting him to take control of his work. Petri’s narrative presages Dario Argento’s later pronouncements on ‘non-Cartesian’ storytelling, where what is evoked is as important, if not more, than what is explained or realistically portrayed. The insistently evocative and associative cinematography and visual effects are provided by veterans Luigi Kuveiller and camera operator Ubaldo Terzano. Morricone’s fearless wall-to-wall musical score will put a lot of people off, and the overall look is pretty textbook sixties-style experimental. It doesn’t age particularly well, but Elio Petri was a tremendous director at the time. This is very good, if challenging, but do yourself a favor and also check out his Investigation Of A Citizen Above Suspicion. This is a nice film to seek out – I recently saw it on AT&T On Demand, and it appears infrequently on TCM.

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Vanessa Redgrave and Franco Nero in “A Quiet Place In The Country.”  credit: filmint.nu

 

‘Male sterilization in India’ is a news story dying to be written, and the comely Maria Egstrom (Dagmar Lassander) seems to be just the responsible medical journalist to do it. All she needs is to retrieve the notes from the bureau’s handsome-but-stern director, Dr. Sayer (Philippe Leroy), at his home on a Friday night, and she’ll get right on it. Usually on Fridays, Dr. Sayer entertains submissive call-girls (“They help me to iron the quirks out of my nervous system.”), but tonight he’s decided to drug the unsuspecting Maria and kidnap her for the weekend – none of that pay-for-play stuff tonight, but the real thing, what he really wants to be doing.

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Dagmar Lassander and Philippe Leroy in “Femina Ridens.” credit: hdimagegallery.net

Femina Ridens (alternately known as The Laughing Woman or The Frightened Woman, depending on which title whichever distributor would think would sell the most admissions in which market…) (Laughing is the actual translation) (Italy, 1969) is a likably crude-yet-effective softcore thriller. Dr. Sayer, CEO, übermensch and defiler of weak-willed women, has his fun in the beginning, threatening to run Maria down with his car on his private country road, stringing her up to run a knife teasingly across her body and denying her things like, y’know, food. And sleep. But Maria is surprisingly resilient – submissive at first, as he would have her, she’s nonetheless game to show him how mutually beneficial this sort-of-like-sex-thing can be if only he’d give up on the idea that Women Want To Crush Him, Render Him Obsolete And Rule The World. And she effortlessly, undeniably, takes over the film with an extended white-see-through-gauzy-costume dance scene set to excellent Stelvio Cipriani music that you’ve been hearing over and over again in hipster cocktail lounges ever since.

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Dagmar Lassander in “Femina Ridens.” credit: worldscinema.org

The tables-turning ‘Venus-In-Furs’ scenario then plays out, predictably but not unpleasantly, with Sayer now following Maria’s romantic lead. The two of them discuss Hindu (as opposed to Pythagorean) reincarnation, gambol frivolously in a forest, cruise around in a spiffy amphibious car, and tour an ancient castle, with Cipriani providing faux Burt Bacharach choral chirpiness before Maria delivers the final humbling, indeed lethal, coup-de-grace. The conclusion of the story features Maria’s personal serial-avenger manifesto – delivered to the call-girl who, of course, actually hired her – on alpha-male “tin gods… You should learn to hit back, and destroy them at their own game. In time you’ll find you enjoy it.”  Sorry, Doctor Sayer, but women do want to crush you, render you obsolete and rule the world! Who knew? Dagmar Lassander was one of many prolific Italian B-movie actresses – she’s in Mario Bava’s Hatchet For The Honeymoon (1970), and we’ll encounter her again in many other 70s giallos. Always reliable, she’s especially good here, and she really carries the film. Piero Schivazappa primarily did work for Italian TV, and only made a few feature films, but this one clearly demonstrates his good eye, visual storytelling smarts and technical chops. I wish he had done our next one…

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Philippe Leroy and Dagmar Lassander in “Femina Ridens.” credit: raindogg.tistory.com

 

One of the more overtly salacious but covertly nasty softcore offerings of the time, Ottavio Alessi’s Top Sensation (aka The Seducers) (Italy, 1969) purports to be a sexy cautionary tale of greed and comeuppance. But the majority of the characters here are so loathsome and venal that many will soon lose interest in that payoff being delivered.

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Edwige Fenech in “Top Sensation.” credit: turkcealtyazi.org

The imperious and filthy-rich Mudy (Maud De Belleroche, a well-known French novelist making her only film appearance) arranges a boat trip on her small yacht. She’s invited her reptilian friends Aldo and Paola (Maurizio Bonuglia and Rosalba Neri), who have in turn invited along Ulla (Edwige Fenech). Ulla is an entrepreneur and freelance consultant who normally charges evening rates, and she has been brought along on Mudy’s orders to introduce Mudy’s troubled teenaged son Tony (Ruggero Miti) to Manhood. It seems the taciturn Tony is more interested in brooding in his room and setting small fires. (Can bedwetting and animal torture be far behind? The Macdonald Triad of sociopathy was big news in the sixties, and found its way into many of these films.) Aldo and Paola have been, literally, thick as thieves with Mudy for some time, certainly long enough for Mudy and Paola to have developed some fairly elaborate fem-dom bedroom rituals with each other. While Paola is sharing her ministrations with Mudy, Aldo can’t resist sampling Ulla’s favors; while messing about with her on the bridge, he manages to ground Mudy’s boat next to a small island. Young Tony uses this distraction to hop into one of the lifeboats and, understandably, get the hell away from this Eurotrash. Mudy orders Aldo and Ulla to go after him on the island – they do, in their fashion, but get up to more weirdly amorous fun on the way.

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Maud De Belleroche and Ruggero Miti in “Top Sensation.” credit: coolasscinema.com

With the yacht being immobile, Paola and Ulla had earlier caught a gruff peeper spying on them from the island, and they gave him the usual “take off your bra and oil me up” tease-a-rama. He later turns out to be Andro (Salvatore Puntillo), a goatkeeper, but, unbeknownst to Andro, the willful Paola is a practiced-but-trigger-happy riflewoman who has no compunction about using Andro’s animals as target practice. Andro’s furious, but easily bought off by Mudy, telling us all we need to know about the strength of Andro’s convictions. Meanwhile, Tony has providentially met Andro’s wife, the young and comely shepherdess Beba (Ewa Thulin), and taken a liking to her. Aldo and Ulla, after their own adventures with the goats, catch up to them and immediately work on persuading Beba to join Tony and them on the yacht (fervently hoping that Beba will succeed with Tony where Ulla has failed). Once aboard, Paola and Ulla ply Beba with cocktails, a cosmetic makeover and some bedroom hijinx before Mudy gets them back to business and sends Beba to Tony’s room. Andro boats over as well, delivering fresh fish for dinner and wondering when the remuneration for his goats will appear.

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Edwige Fenech, Ewa Thulin and Rosalba Neri in “Top Sensation.” credit: forum.tntvillage.scambioetico.org

From this point we just sit back and wait for all of the worst things that can happen – and they predictably do. The film looks like it was directed by a writer, and, indeed, it was. Ottavio Alessi had directed one other film, a comedy starring the Italian comedia dell’arte actor Totò, in 1964, and I suspect in both cases he was recruited as a final resort. Alessi’s screenplay is a nice reversal on the Polanski / Skolimowski Knife In The Water template of alpha-males who can’t get out of their own way, but the film, sadly, is shot indifferently. No compositional visual ideas of any sort interfere with the narrative – the film is entirely script / character driven. Lucky for Alessi, his actors are all scenery-chewing troopers. Exploitation cultists worship this film as the only soft-core pairing of Italian B-goddesses Rosalba Neri and Edwige Fenech, but Bonuglia and De Belleroche more than hold their tawdry own while managing to stay clothed. (We encountered Bonuglia as the cuckolded boyfriend in Luigi Bazzoni’s The Fifth Cord.)

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Rosalba Neri in “Top Sensation.” credit: turlcealtyazi.org

Top Sensation isn’t a particularly good movie, but its juxtaposition of resentful class baiting -all rich people are evil, indulgent and corrupting – while still clearly celebrating their dark indulgences would be picked up by other giallo filmmakers and storytellers. We’d seen some of that with Mario Bava (Blood And Black Lace, Hatchet For The Honeymoon) and Sergio Martino (Mrs. Wardh, Scorpion’s Tale, Your Vice…), and we’ll find it underneath many more of these films.

 

Giuliano Biagetti’s Interrabang is another how-the-other-half-lives tale of yacht-going privilege, here involving a rich and snobby fashion photographer (Umberto Orsini), the favorite model he’s made famous (Shoshana Cohen), his business-manager wife Anna (Beba Loncar) and her sullen-yet-precocious younger sister Valeria (Haydée Politoff). They, too, discover themselves to be stranded near an isolated island, but they’re on an exotic location fashion shoot, and they manage to be slightly more agreeable, if still somewhat jaded, company.

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Haydee Politoff and Umberto Orsini in “Interrabang.” credit: atthemansionofmadness.blogspot.com

The photographer, Fabrizio, hitches a ride with another boating party to repair their malfunctioning carburetor, leaving the three other lovelies to fend for themselves – despite news reports of an escaped homicidal convict at large. That old story? Oh, they’ll be fine, right..? The scruffy but handsome Marco does indeed show up (Corrado Pani), but he spouts poetry and philosophy and has a genuinely seductive way about him that each woman eventually gives way to. He’s most likely exactly who we think he is, but our three comely castaways simply don’t seem to care, even when the abandoned body of a police officer is discovered, but not spoken of, by Valeria. Biagetti seems to see self-serving moral ambiguity and apathy as far more disturbing than the actual threat of death, especially when the nicely-executed twists appear. Unfortunately, Biagetti and his writers don’t stop there, and tack on two or three more twists that get more ridiculous as they appear.

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Beba Loncar and Corrado Pani in “Interrabang.” credit: atthemansionofmadness.blogspot.com

The title refers to Valeria’s necklace, a hybrid exclamation point and question mark – “The new symbol of doubt, the uncertainty in all of us, the uncertainty of these times, the uncertainty of the world.” We know one or two of these ladies will meet their demise, but when it does happen they practically surrender themselves to it, more darkly charmed than scared or suicidal. Biagetti’s filmed output rarely made it out of Italy, but for all of the attempts to evoke Antonioni on a low budget from other more well-known filmmakers, this may be one of the most successful. Despite the nonsensical ending, it’s well worth a look if you can find it. (…perhaps on YouTube…)

 

Self-serving amorality is also examined in A Rather Complicated Girl (Una Ragazza Piuttosto Complicata) (Italy, 1969). It’s directed by Damiano Damiani, a prolific Italian writer and director who worked his way through studio work in the forties and fifties, and made his directing debut with Lipstick (Il Rossetto) in 1960. This is his second adaptation of a favorite novelist, Alberto Moravia (The March Back / La Marcia Indietro) (His first was The Empty Canvas / La Noia). The “complicated girl” is Claudia (Catherine Spaak, very good here), who seems to already be juggling two precarious relationships when she meets Alberto (the always-working Jean Sorel). Alberto’s older brother is dying, and he knows he should stay by the family and help tend to him, but when he overhears a sexy and provocative conversation between Claudia and another woman on the village’s not-so-secure phone lines, he makes a point to track her down. Claudia is a painter and free-spirit (it’s 1969, after all…) who takes a liking to Alberto in spite of the pesky presence of another paramour, Pietro (Gigi Proietti). Moreover, the other woman on the phone was Greta (the terrific Florinda Bolkan), the young widowed wife of Claudia’s father; she has been blackmailing stepdaughter Claudia for sexual favors while withholding her rightful inheritance.

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Jean Sorel and Catherine Spaak in “A Rather Complicated Girl.” credit: film.ru

Alberto and Claudia are clearly attracted to each other, but their easy intimacy keeps being thwarted by other considerations: Alberto is understandably thinking about mortality, and discovers that Claudia owns a gun. He’s somewhat put off that she still sees Pietro, even though she professes her amorous interest in Alberto as well. Each feels conflicted, each feels put-upon, yet each uses each for their own indulgence. Claudia is acting on some real resentment, but Alberto seems to accompany her strictly for vicarious thrill.  This starts getting uncomfortable when, together, they play a humiliating prank on one of the town’s schoolgirls. Each episode thereafter turns on levels of control and manipulation – there’s an extraordinary amount of dark psychology going on here, which ultimately leads to Claudia bringing Alberto along to meet the by-now-legendary Greta. We suspect that Claudia is setting up Alberto to use the gun to kill Greta. But Alberto has a few curve balls of his own to throw into the mix.

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Florinda Bolkan in “A Rather Complicated Girl.” credit: cineforum-clasico.org

Most of these films tend to expose sexual liberation, and the loosening of conventional ideas about partnership, intimacy, commitment, fidelity and social propriety, as being far less liberating than our protagonists generally believe it’ll be. That’s not a failure of the idea, but rather the particular shortcomings of those particular characters. Quiet Place’s Flavia and Femina Ridens’ Maria turn out to be extraordinarily self-aware people, and, likeable or not, are nonetheless admirable in their way.  Quiet Place’s Leonardo, and just about everyone in Top Sensation and Interrabang will be profoundly undone by their excesses. Alberto follows his instincts, and Claudia’s persuasion, to a weirdly awkward, almost Camus-like set of deliberately amoral actions. He’s committed a pretty horrible crime, yet he’s ardently proud of the doing of it. The film seems to be about Claudia’s manipulations, but the real subject becomes how much further Alberto is willing to abandon himself on what he thinks is her behalf. His reward is betrayal by Claudia, a nasty beatdown from Pietro, and the pitying gaze of his brother-in-law as he stumbles, cackling, away from any last vestiges of sanity.

 

I did my damndest to like our last film – Metti, Una Sera A Cena (Suppose, One Night At Dinner…, but more well-known here by its American release titles Love Circles or One Night At Dinner) –  an examination of the permutations of love, sex, fidelity, loyalty and indulgence between five intertwined characters. It began its life as a stage production written by Giuseppe Patroni Griffi, who had done a fair amount of screenwriting previously. But he decided to adapt this work to the screen, as its director, and hired Dario Argento to help him with the adaptation. They then managed to put together a very talented international cast – Jean-Louis Trintignant, Tony Musante (pre-Bird With The Crystal Plumage), an early-but-impressive turn from Florinda Bolkan, Annie Girardot, and the Italian actor Lino Capolicchio. Add artful cinematography from Tonino Delli Colli and a rich and sophisticated music score from Ennio Morricone and you can’t go wrong, right…?

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Jean-Louis Trintignant, Florinda Bolkan and Tony Musante in “Metti, Una Sera A Cena.” credit: rapportoconfidenziale.org

Trintignant plays Michele, a successful writer and playwright starting his first film script. He runs an idea past his longtime best friend, the actor Max (Musante), an idea he finds both bourgeois-cliché and genuinely disturbing. What if a man’s wife had been having an affair with the man’s best friend for a very long time? How would that have begun? What would compel them? How much risk or abandon would be involved in something like that? Max, leaning towards the more comically cynical side of things, recommends that Michele start the play deep in the midst of the triangle, rather than approaching it so analytically, so chronologically. Of course, outside of Michele’s fictional theorizing, Max and Michele’s wife Nina (Bolkan) have indeed been having a longtime affair, for almost twenty years. Is he on to us? What triggered the idea? Does his knowing or not knowing really change anything? Complicating matters is another Nina dalliance – a bohemian hustler named Ric, whom Max had been indulging with before Max got the idea of he and Nina having a threesome with him. Max is infuriated, though, when Nina continues to see Ric without him. Michele maintains a fair amount of cloistered solitude, repairing to his rooftop writing table everyday with his typewriter and coffee cup of editing pencils. But he’s also befriended a neighbor, Giovanna (Girardot), an older single woman, and he invites her along to share the dinners he frequently hosts with Nina and Max.

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Tony Musante in “Metti, Una Sera A Cena.” credit: filmscoop.org

Those dinners become a focal point – the place where ideas about love and loyalty and life are thrown around amongst themselves without judgement or self-consciousness. But there’s a fair amount of calculated subterfuge as well, until Michele invites a surprising new guest.

All of the ingredients for a genuinely involving adult melodrama are here – except a good script. Argento does what he can to cinematize the talkiness – I suspect some of the flashback-y chronological scrambling is his idea, as well as some of Max and Ric’s more eccentric flourishes. But ultimately it’s a narrative where, from beginning to end, no one changes. Some things happen – a few of them are even a little surprising – but ultimately there’s no there here. You like these people or you don’t, you can relate or not. But the film is just these people becoming more themselves over a period of time, and Griffi isn’t director enough to pull our empathy or interest into the characters as they are. We observe, we assess, but we’re never subjectively engaged. Florinda Bolkan comes the closest, but for all of its sixties counterculture trappings, the film is ultimately just a good looking earnestly-performed loaf of white bread.

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Florinda Bolkan in “Metti, Una Sera A Cena.” credit: enniomorricone.kv

Next time we’ll do an overview of the gialli of Luciano Ercoli, and then plunge into the 1970s.

 

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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.