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:

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LIKE CRAZY

November 5, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. The Sundance Film Festival got it right when it awarded this film its Grand Jury award. This is wonderful independent filmmaking – the kind that draws in our own emotions and makes us feel what the characters feel, while also forcing us to deal with our own memories. If you enjoy fluffy Hollywodd rom-coms, you may not have what it takes to watch this raw “first” love story. I felt tightness in my chest and an aching in my bones … and I am a grumpy old man! 

I have been on the bandwagon for Elizabeth Olsen‘s breakout performance in Martha Marcy May Marlene. Without hesitation, I will say that Felicity Jones deserves the same accolades. It’s her first US film, but she is flat out spectacular in conveying deep emotional swings. I will see this one again just to watch her every blink and nod. She comes across as a fantastical blend of the Mara sisters – some of Kate’s radiance mixed with Rooney’s deep soul. It is always exciting to see such dramatic new talent at the early stages of their career.

 Writer/director Drake Doremus clearly has a bond to this story as the long term relationship and themes of separation, patience and true love are played with a cutting edge reality that we rarely see on screen. Anna (Jones) falls for classmate Jacob (Anton Yelchin) and we experience the clumsiness and hopeful flirtations of their early dates. The kicker is that Anna’s student visa expires at the end of the semester and she makes the foolish decision to stay in bed with Jacob for the summer. This keeps her from re-entering the US when she tries to return to him.

To really connect with this film, you need to put yourself back in the first love moment or more so, at a time when you experienced a long distance relationship. That excruciating feeling that every moment apart would never end. What had me scratching my head a bit was the fact that Jacob never packed up and headed to London to be with Anna for good. He is a furniture designer who works in a loft in Santa Monica. Thanks to the internet and the fact that people all over the world buy furniture, it seems like the perfect business to run from anywhere … say, London with your soul mate! Made me believe that possibly Jacob wasn’t as gaga as Anna.

 Both of them take on close companions. Jacob’s is played wonderfully by Jennifer Lawrence (Winters Bone). She is very sweet and clearly loves Jacob, which raised another question for me. What to think of those who can fall deeply for one who is not “all in” for them? Anna moves in with Charlie Bewley who also misreads the buy-in and makes the biggest mistake a guy can make … don’t ask the question if you don’t know the answer.

There are some terrific scenes with Anna’s parents played by Oliver Muirhead and Alex Kingston, both whom you will recognize. Also, Anna’s publisher is played by Finola Hughes and there are a couple of odd scenes between the two so that we understand just how talented Anna is as a writer. The ending is absolutely perfect and the two future mega stars (Jones and Yelchin) capture the moment with precision and heartfelt doubt and wonderment. It’s not the clean ending we Americans have come to expect, but it’s one that loudly announces the arrival of Felicity Jones, Anton Yelchin and director Drake Doremus.

 I was lucky enough to attend the opening night in Dallas, and Mr. Doremus (pictured, left) was in attendance for a Q&A. Fully expecting a brooding, beret-wearing film school reject, I was shocked when Doremus proved to be charming, energetic, thoughtful and downright appreciative of comments from the audience. He explained that much of the dialogue was improvised between the actors, and that the film was made for $250,000. If you are unfamiliar with filmmaking, $250,000 is roughly what Tom Cruise gets for a breakfast budget on his films. These points just made me more of a fan of the director and the film.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are fan of independent filmmaking OR really talented young actors OR non-traditional love stories OR you understand “smudgeness” as used by Anna in a poem to describe their love

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer your romantic movies to follow the fluffy, feel good formula OR your skepticism for soul mates is beyond hope

watch the trailer: