ASHES IN THE SNOW (2019)

January 10, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Most World War II films focus on the atrocities committed by Hitler’s German forces, but this adaptation of Ruta Sepetys’ novel (“Between Shades of Gray”) reminds us of the evils under Stalin and the Russian seizure of the Baltic States. Director Marius A Markevicius delivers a feature film debut that is both historical drama and tale of human perseverance.

We have long since been educated on just how cruel humans can and have been to other humans, and director Markevicius – with a script from Ben York Jones (LIKE CRAZY, 2011) – doesn’t shy away from the cruelty or atrocities, but he and cinematographer Ramunus Greicius capture the harshness and brutality of the Siberian environment, as well as the brief moments when those being held captive feel sparks of life.

Bel Powley (THE DIARY OF A TEENAGE GIRL, 2015) stars as Lina, a young Lithuanian artist who lives with her family: mother Elena (Lisa Loven Kongsli, FORCE MAJEUR) and brother Jonas (Tom Sweet). The father/husband is played by Sam Hazeldine and we learn of his secret agenda and activism later in the film. When Russian troops forcibly remove mother and the two kids from their home, a long train ride ends with their working the fields in the Altai Labor Camp in Siberia.

Martin Wallstrom is excellent as Kretzky, a conflicted Russian soldier from the Ukraine. He’s kind of persona non-grata on both sides, and as an outsider to the troops and the “devil” to the prisoners, he is somewhat of a sympathetic character. A year later (1942), the family and Officer Kretzky are shipped off to Laptev Sea in the Arctic Circle. This frozen tundra is no place for human beings and death seems preferable to freezing in misery. When giving the relocation order, Kretzky’s commanding officer calls them “one big happy family in frozen hell”. It’s a great line. An acutely descriptive line.

Young Lina’s childhood innocence has been shattered, but she possesses an inner strength that only such miserable circumstances could unveil. She carries on finding brief respites in her art and in fleeting romance with fellow prisoner Andrius (Jonah Hauer-King).

There is a story told, a legend really, about a fishing boat and its survivors – the correlation made late in the film. The devastating circumstances and desolate landscape are accompanied aptly by German composer Volker Bertelmann. But let’s face it, war crimes against the innocent are tough to watch even in movie form, and this film, regardless of how expertly it’s crafted, is relentless in bleakness – though heartfelt and sincere.

watch the trailer:

Advertisements

THE DIARY OF A TEENAGE GIRL (2015)

August 21, 2015

Diary of Teenage Girl Greetings again from the darkness. It takes some talent – acting, writing, directing – to make a watchable movie that centers on a teenage girl sleeping with her mom’s boyfriend.  Ordinarily that would be considered a (nausea-inducing) spoiler; however, it is disclosed in the trailer and is the focus of the best-selling YA novel from Phoebe Gloeckner. The author claims the story is “semi-autobiographical”, but we are all better off not knowing which parts she actually experienced.

The film begins in 1976 San Francisco with 15 year old Minnie (Bel Powley) celebrating her recent sexual escapades. As we hang with Minnie, we see and hear her dictating her diary entries into a microphone and clunky cassette deck. The thing that immediately jumps out as a difference in this film is the authenticity in its portrayal of teenage girls and the thoughts and perspectives of Minnie.  She lets us in on her desire to be desired and her conscious decision to give up her virginity to Monroe. Ahh yes, Monroe. The biggest issue here (and it’s a major issue – not just legally, but morally) is that Monroe (played by Alexander Skarsgard) is the boyfriend of Minnie’s mom (Kristen Wiig).

There are many complex aspects to the story, and you must get past the repeated illegal (no matter how consensual) sexual activity (it’s only a movie) to appreciate the rare insight from a teenage female perspective. Minnie is an artist being raised by what can conservatively be termed a lackluster parent. Her mom Charlotte spends much of her time drinking and drugging, setting a less-than-stellar example for her two daughters. It’s no wonder Minnie works so hard at being noticed and desired … feelings she mistakes for love. Witnessing the teenage brain attempt to transition to adulthood is excruciatingly painful, and a reminder that emotional maturity is a process and not an on/off switch.

Bel Powley is a new screen presence to most of us, and she is shockingly strong in carrying much of the movie. Alexander Skarsgard never once backs off from his thankless role – knowing full well his actions will disgust many viewers. Kristen Wiig brings nuance to her role as crappy parent, while Christopher Meloni, Margarita Levieva and Abby Wait are all strong in support.

Any film that kicks off with Dwight Twilley’s “Looking for the Magic” and later shows a clip of “H.R. Puffenstuff” deserves a shot, and first time director Marielle Heller rarely makes a safe choice in the presentation of Minnie’s journey. It’s a rare film that forgoes “teenage cuteness” for emotional growth. The film states that alienation is good for your art, and Ms. Heller and Mr. Gloeckner risk audience alienation for their courageous storytelling.  It’s no wonder the film has been a favorite on the film festival circuit.

watch the trailer: