Archive for the ‘Poland’ Category

1) IDA (DIR. PAWEL PAWLIKOWSKI, POLAND)

Ida, the Polish nun at the heart of Pawlikoski’s WW2 drama, perfectly encapsulates the lightness and darkness of the film, her beetlebug black eyes framed by a saintly, doll-like complexion. Beautifully played by Agata Trzebuchowska, Ida is told she is a Jewish survivor of the holocaust and must meet her aunt before taking her vows. Shot in austere monochrome, the film is a road movie/coming of age tale, with Ida forced to come to terms with her past and decide on her own future. While a black and white holocaust drama might seem heavy going, Pawlikoski has a lightness of touch which elevates it to something greater than simply a sob story.

2) BOYHOOD (DIR. RICHARD LINKLATER, USA)

rsz_boyhood_momentos_de_una_vida_-__ellar_coltrane_mason_finalLinklater’s much heralded drama follows one boy actor from childhood to adolescence, taking in all the growing pains that come with it. While the film often strays into schmaltz and cliche, it is hard not to be affected by the film and project as a whole. Lead actor Ellar Coltrane may have seemed gawky and awkward as the years passed by, but perhaps that is as accurate a reflection of teenager you can get? Estranged parents Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke provide the acting chops and the pathos of adult instability.

3) STRANGER BY THE LAKE (DIR. ALAIN GUIRAUDIE, FRANCE)

StrangerByTheLake_5_Christophe_Paou_Pi.JPGNo-one does voyeurism quite like the French. By a remote lake in rural France Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) cruises the beach for men in order to sate his desires. His attention is piqued by the athletic Michel (Christophe Paou) and soon his lust for him begins to override his moral compass. How dangerous could Michel really be? Guiraudie’s film is a brooding beast, high on intrigue and psychologically complex. It also has a great sense of place; I can’t think of another film that demonstrates the tranquil joy of lake swimming so much.

4) NYMPHOMANIAC PARTS 1 AND 2 (DIR. LARS VON TRIER, DENMARK)

rsz_1rsz_hero_nymphomaniacvol2-2014-1It is a little sad that Von Trier garners more headlines for his antics than his actual films; Nymphomaniac is another interesting addition to his ouevre. Part of his Depression trilogy this epic double header follows Joe, a young girl hurtling through life with a hard-on, unable to satisfy her desire for human flesh. Ably played by Stacy Martin and Charlotte Gainsbourg, Joe’s travails are often bleak and brutal- this is Von Trier in a self destructive mood. The film gains power in its sheer scale and rawness of emotion.

5) WINTER SLEEP (DIR. NURI BILGE CEYLAN, TURKEY)

rsz_1rsz_p02ckcsmIf Once upon a time in Anatolia was the brooding, silent brother in the family, then Winter Sleep is the talkative, narcissistic sibling. Aydin runs a remote hotel in rural Anatolia with his sloth-like sister and bored younger wife, all the while indulging his intellectual delusions with vanity book projects. Ceylan’s latest film is occasionally too verbose and meandering in its 3 hour length, yet it often finds its way to a point of real epiphany. The characters are so complex and fluid that you find yourself dividing your loyalty between each of them from moment to moment.

6) LEVIATHAN (DIR. ANDREY ZVYAGINTSEV, RUSSIA)

rsz_leviathanBased on a true American news story but with great parallels with contemporary Russian society, Leviathan is the tale of a local fisherman forced to give up his land for a pittance when the greedy local mayor comes calling. Zvyagintsev arrived with one of the greatest debuts of the 21st century in The Return, but his latest film sees the director opting for a more literal, moralistic form of storytelling. The characters and themes are set out in a blunt fashion but the sheer conviction of the actors and the anger of the director shines through.

7) ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE (DIR. JIM JARMUSCH, USA)

This is a peculiar one. While watching the film, and just after, I was left with mixed feelings about Jarmusch’s latest offering. His re-imagining of the vampire genre had a typically thin story, a penchant for sixth form level philosophy and a somewhat nerdy obsession with guitars and literary figures. There were probably a lot more ‘powerful’ and prescient films being made this year, but this one has stuck. The moody streets of Detroit and the gothic twang of Josef Van Wissem’s score has left a lingering atmosphere, while the central relationship between the evergreen vampires played by  Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston is oddly moving.

8) THE PAST (DIR. ASGHAR FARHADI, FRANCE/IRAN)

Film still from The Past by Asghar FarhadiFarhadi’s twisty family drama follows a family’s disintegration in Paris. Ahmad, the estranged father figure, travels to France to meet his ex-partner Marie and sign their divorce papers. However, he quickly becomes embroiled in family tensions as her new partner Samir is causing friction with her offspring. The film is a treasure chest of lies and misunderstandings, Farhadi creating a meaty drama out of miscommunication. While the film may become too tricksy and melodramatic at points, the quality of the acting and the dialogue makes it a very satisfying watch.

9) FINDING VIVIAN MAIER (DIR. JOHN MALOOF & CHARLIE SISKEL, USA)

rsz_211-628x425This excellent documentary unearthed the fascinating story of Vivien Maier, a New York nanny with a secret life as a master photographer. In the 60’s and 70’s, Maier would go out onto the streets of New York and take fantastic photos of everyday life; children, old pensioners, the rich, the homeless. Remarkably her talents were unknown to her well-to-do employers, and she lived a life of relative anonymity. This sparky film documents the discovery of her photographs to her eventual reappraisal, all the while demonstrating what a singular and complex individual Maier was.

10) HER (DIR. SPIKE JONZE, USA)

rsz_1rsz_her-screen-shotProbably one of the greatest films to reflect the ever blurring lines between online and real life, Jonze crafts an unusual and heartfelt work out of a challenging concept. Theodore (Joaquin Pheonix) is a lonely urbanite from the future who falls in love with his OS computer (seductively voiced by Scarlett Johannson), a completely intuitive, human-like system. The film has a woozy, wistful glow to it and Pheonix is excellent as the repressed lead. Jonze deserves all the plaudits, however, for concocting such a prescient, emotional film out of a far fetched conceit.

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Polish born, Paris/London based director Paweł Pawlikowski’s (My Summer of Love, Last Resort) new film Ida is the first of his to be shot and set in his native Poland. This seems a crucial decision, for Ida is a film about looking into the past, be it the characters, director or an entire nation. Set in 1962 and filmed in monochromatic, “Academy” ratio (traditionally used for silent movies) we find Poland on the precipice: the haunting ghosts of World War II still linger over the perpetually foggy countryside, a place that no doubt looks the same as it did in the middle ages, with the modernism of Jazz music and technological advances heralded by the Soviets just around the corner.

We join Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska), a young, sheltered, novitiate nun in her convent, who is ordered by her mother superior to visit her one surviving relative before she takes her vows. Said relative is her aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza) who is Anna’s complete opposite; a steely willed, loose talking, heavy drinking former judge of Stalin’s regime, who coolly delivers the news that they are in fact a Jewish family, the rest of which perished during the war and that Anna’s real name is Ida Bernstein. Consequently, Anna/Ida wishes to find out what happened to her family while attempting to retain her Catholic upbringing and while Wanda offers to help, questions “What if you go and find there is no God?”

The film’s narrative is driven by the past, discovering what happened to these people, both real and imagined, in post war Poland as they go hurtling into the future. What’s fairly astonishing about Ida is how it manages to do with this without any particular rhetoric and avoids nostalgia or sentimentalism. Here, the war has thrown these varying peoples and the previous order they knew, be they Jewish or Catholic, into the air and those who have been left behind are scrambling around for answers as they move into a brave new world. This is perhaps the modernist bent a film set 50 years prior provides, but it is refreshing nonetheless to find a film with so much socio-political dressings be entirely human and relatable.

None of Ida would really be so affecting if it wasn’t for the chemistry of it’s terrific cast. Both Trzebuchowska (her debut) and Kulesza are excellent as the central leads. The former brings all the initial restraint and naivety of a girl on the cusp of adulthood, who slowly realises the currency of her religious sisterhood and her beauty coaxed by her world-weary aunt into burgeoning modernity. Wanda’s own deeply traumatised scars begin to show, over time, her maternal opposition with Ida driving much of the narrative. Meanwhile the hitch-hiking jazz musician Lis (Dawid Ogrodnik) sparkles while on screen with Ida; their youthful exuberance daring to break the form of the film, introducing her to Jazz which both contextualises and affects due to the film’s mostly diegetic soundtrack. Between him and Wanda, they show Ida an alternative to her current being, often just through a series of exchanged glances.

While the film has many dark notes, highlighted by it’s use of shade and focus, in what seems like every single beautifully composed frame the cinematographers Lukasz Zal and Ryszard Lenczewski throw at us, there is a lot of light in Ida‘s script too. Co-written by Pawlikowski and Rebecca Lenkiewicz, it allows for much humour and cynicism in a film about holocaust survivors. While there are plenty of emotional moments, especially in the uncovering of barely dug graves, Ida still manages to keep a playful tone where necessary, especially through Kulesza’s firey “Red” Wanda. Therefore, it really is not surprising to learn that Ida has already won the highest accolades at both the Toronto and London Film Festivals. A film this perfectly balanced does not come around very often.

Adam Turner-Heffer

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On the 7th of Febuary (and with more than a hint of excitement) I boarded a flight from London Heathrow to Berlin’s Tegel airport, to attend the Berlin International Film Festival (Berlinale) for the first time. The Berlinale was founded in West Germany in 1951 and is now one of the world’s most important film festivals. The festival hosts numerous world premiers, press conferences and a project market that allows filmmakers to pitch and ultimately fund their films.

The Berlinale also plays host to the Talent Campus, which offers 300 young film professionals the opportunity to develop their understanding of filmmaking from craft, to business, to publicity. As well as Campus categories for production crew the Berlinale also has a group for upcoming film journalists called Talent Press, run by Oliver Baumgarten and Aily Nash. I was selected as one of seven candidates from around the world along with Adrian (Indonesia), Ankur (India), Irena (Romania), Visnja (Croatia), Ariel (Canada) and Juan (Peru.) Meeting each candidate was intriguing, as it allowed us to share in our borderless love of cinema with all our similarities and differences. We were also gifted with the experienced mentors, Dana Linssen, Derek Malcolm, Stephanie Zacharek and Chris Fujiwara.

Each day (and under the tutelage of Dana Linssen) I was responsible for producing a text on a particular film, event or expert for the official Talent Press website (as well its partners FILPRSCI & the Goethe Institute). As such, my experience at the festival was not the conventional one of a Talent Campus participant, or a journalist covering the event. As a participant of the Talent Press I was lucky to see two sides of the festival: the films and the Campus events.

Harmony Lessons (Dir. Emir Baigazin, Kazakhstan)

The festival features in a number of different categories: Competition, Berlinale Shorts, Panorama, Forum, Generation, Perspektive Deutsches Kino, Berlinale Special, Retrospective, Homage, Culinary Cinema. Each one has a slightly different focal point, with the Competition focusing on films competing for the prestigious Golden and Silver Bear awards, Panorama dealing with more controversial themes and Forum dealing in experimental and documentary films.

Encouragingly the festival featured a number of films made by campus alumni, including the impressive competition film Harmony Lessons by Kazakh director Emir Baigazin, which won the Silver Bear for Outstanding Artistic Achievement in cinematography for DOP Aziz Zhambakiyev. Harmony Lessons was my personal favourite of the festival. It impressed me with its elliptical (almost Kitano-esque) take on the gangster genre. The film follows a young boy who is subject to frequent bullying at school and the cyclical problem of violence that arises from his situation. A Talent Press discussion following the film provoked a particularly rich debate on the film’s numerous thematic concerns (including nods to Darwin and Ghandi) and its strengths and weaknesses.

Danis Tanovic’s An Episode In The Life of an Iron Picker was another favourite. It features a dramatic reconstruction of a Bosnian Roma family’s financial dilemma, when the mother of the family experiences a life threatening miscarriage. As I learned from producer Amra Baksic Camo in a talk entitled ‘Small Wallets, Great Films’, the film was made in a matter of months, with the real family acting as themselves. Tanovic makes excellent use of the family dynamic, making the film feel like an intimate family event. The DSLR cinematography by Erol Zubcevic captures the industrial marred Bosnian countryside with a raw cinematic sensibility.

Soderbergh’s Side Effects was an equally intriguing, albeit structurally chaotic, critique of the drugs industry. While somewhat haphazard in its final act, this film is a brilliantly effective thriller with a staunchly pessimistic outlook on the moral implications of stock trading in medical products. The film has a hyper-modern yet Hitchcockian glaze, within which Rooney Mara, Jude Law, Channing Tatum and Catherine Zeta-Jones weave a timely tapestry of sordid deception. [Second Look: 09/03/2013 – On second viewing my negative feelings about Side Effects‘ structure are annulled, the structure is logical, efficient and dramatic; the film is hugely entertaining and a great success, I was the one in need of a second look.]

I also saw a number of films that did not work so well, though this is not to say that they were disinteresting. Polish director Małgośka Szumowska’s In The Name Of was a bizarre story of homosexuality and religion, in which (the otherwise excellent) Andrzej Chyra plays Adam, a Catholic priest who is torn between his faith and his attraction to a young man in his community. The film is overloaded with taboos including the treatment of the mentally handicapped and lacks focus; this also gives way to one bizarre scene where Adam drunkenly dances with a portrait of the pope.

Something In The Way (Dir. Teddy Soeriaatmadja, Indonesia)

Maladies, starring James Franco and directed by the visual artist Carter, was a great misstep. Dealing haphazardly with the subject of mental illness, the film see’s Franco behaving in a confused, erratic and oddly (and inappropriately) amusing manner, while performances by Catherine Keener, Fallon Goodson and David Strathairn revolve inconsequently around him.

Other imperfect films of interest included the enjoyable (and darkly humorous) low budget Indonesian thriller Something In the Way about a deluded young religious man, who drives taxis and masturbates on a chronic basis. No Man’s Land by director Salomé Lamas was an intriguing yet ultimately impenetrable character study of homeless ex-mercenary Paulo who fought in Portuguese colonial wars in Mozambique and Angola, before working as a contract killer. Wasteland: So That No One Becomes Aware of It was also a beautiful, but ultimately limited story about a group of Syrian and Lebanese children living in secluded asylum in Germany.

And yet some of the most interesting moments were not the films. At a dinner for British Talents Ken Loach offered his critique on the nationalistic branding (and therefore limiting) of British culture by advertising experts, for the Creativity Is Great Britain campaign. Loach described his unease with the use of the Union Jack (which he referred to as “the butchers apron”) and the unsubtle (and grammatically erroneous) campaign slogan. At dinner he discussed the pyramid of executives now pressuring film directors in the British film industry and I drew his attention to Soderbergh’s recent Vulture interview concerning the same issue in Hollywood, which he regretfully found unsurprising. On the final day we participants were also joined for breakfast by President of the 2013 International Jury, Wong Kar-wai.

Also published on the Talent Press website are my interviews with Dutch director Paul Verhoeven (Robocop, Total Recall, Basic Instinct, Turkish Delight), as well as producer Paula Vaccaro and director Aaron Brookner, who are currently producing the film Smash The Control Machine. I also wrote about Walter Murch, who spoke about using sound in storytelling. The experience of the Berlinale Talent Campus was truly a rich one, full of interesting people, events and films (regardless of quality.) It was one of an open and accepting culture, where people from almost 100 countries could meet and engage in the art and craft of filmmaking. To any aspiring and upcoming film journalists, I endorse you to apply for the Talent Press; it was an exciting and formative experience that I will certainly cherish.

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With Polish Holocaust film In Darkness director Agnieszka Holland shows she is not afraid to test her audience. With a run time of almost two and a half hours and a cinematic style reminiscent of The Third Man if it were shot with the grungy modernity of Anthony Dod Mantle, this film is a dark, lengthy and unrelentingly unsentimental experience. In spite of its steeliness however In Darkness tells a true tale that is still utterly moving upon conclusion.

In Darkness focuses on Leopold Socha (Robert Wieckiewicz), a sewer worker (and petit thief) in WWII Poland. The film tells of how he risked everything by hiding a group of Jewish people in the sewer network during the Nazi invasion of Lvov. While jaded viewers might feel we have seen enough of the Holocaust on the big screen (with Schindler’s List and The Pianist still reasonably fresh in our minds) Socha’s story resonates with enough moral dilemma and reluctant courage to make the trip worthwhile.

Robert Wieckiewicz as Socha makes for a robust leading man, holding the film with an earthy charisma. His character brushes death numerous times and Wieckiewicz carries his character through the proverbial minefield of Nazi occupation with a directness that gradually makes him endearing. His home life offers something of a relief from the oppressive occupied world, with his wife Wanda (Kinga Preis) and daughter Stefcia (Zofia Pieczynska) offering some stability. Holland stages family scenes inside, lit with Rembrandtesque warmth by cinematographer Jolanta Dylewska.

This warmth is in direct contrast to the milieu inhabited by the Jewish characters. For the majority of the film they live, quite literally, in darkness in the sewers. Somewhat inevitably not all of these characters are given an entirely rounded character treatment. A number of them exist as cyphers to create drama, yet Holland does not allow them all to become victims. The tough Mundek Margulies (played by German actor Benno Fürmann) becomes an important motivator for the cause of the Jews as he forfeits cover, attempting to reunite missing members of their group. This leads to a number of tense scenes where he encounters the singular brutality of the Nazi characters.

Tensions between the Jewish characters however, are where some of the most intense drama originates. Yanek Grossmann (Marcin Bosak) leaves his wife Szona (Etl Szyc) for younger woman Chaja (Julia Kijowska), whom he impregnates in the sewers. The scenes of these events feel sordid, particularly as Szona witnesses them and attempts to prevent her daughter Rachela (Ida Lozinska) from seeing her father’s primal betrayal. While they are strong scenes, a problem emerges. Due to underdevelopment, characters like Yanek and Chaja remain one-dimensional, sucking some of the authenticity from an otherwise realistic scenario.

But at its heart In Darkness is Socha’s story. It is a film about a morally ambiguous man whose instincts ultimately guide him to do something remarkably ethical, in the face of depravity. Holland gives Socha’s story clarity and, with her impassive style, allows us to consider critically how we would react in similar circumstances. Only during the last scene does she step close to the melodramatic. The strongest emotional punch however, comes with the information we are given in text form, when the film has ended. We discover the fate of each character outside the context of war, reminding us of the fragility of life, even in times of peace.

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