THE PAINTED BIRD (2020)

July 16, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Polish-American writer Jerzy Kosinski’s 1965 novel “The Painted Bird” has one of the strangest and most controversial histories of any book. Initially celebrated as an extraordinary piece on the Holocaust era, the novel was banned in Poland, and author Kosinski was accused of falsifying claims of it being an autobiographical work. Later he was accused of plagiarism for this book and his 1970 book “Being There” (adapted into a 1979 movie starring Peter Sellers). This story of a young Jewish boy, abandoned by his parents and traveling the Eastern Europe countryside during WWII, is now accepted as a blend of fiction and his friend (director) Roman Polanski’s experiences. Czech filmmaker Vaclav Marhoul has turned the book into a stunning viewing experience.

First time actor Petr Kotlar is extraordinary as the unnamed (until the end) Jewish boy on a journey that might be entitled Dante’s Circle of Abuse or Homer’s Odyssey of Misery. This is a young boy in need of kindness from strangers, but unable to find much. The film opens with the boy running through the woods carrying what appears to be his pet ferret. He’s being chased by a group of sadistic Anti-Semite bullies. It’s a chase that doesn’t end well. We learn the boy is living with his “Auntie” Marta (Nina Sunevic) on her rundown farm, and we intuit that his parents thought he would be safer here than with them. When the woman dies suddenly and unexpectedly, the boy accidentally burns the house down, kicking off his walk across the countryside. Almost inexplicably, this is the most upbeat segment of the film.

Director Marhoul divides the film into 9 chapters, each named after the person the boy meets and lives with temporarily. I’ll recap the following eight chapters with a focus on not giving away too much … just know that this film is unrelenting in its brutality and bleakness. After Marta’s death, the boy stumbles into a village where he is considered cursed and labeled a vampire. The witch doctor Olga (Ala Sakalova) enslaves him until he escapes down river, where he is rescued by a mill worker. The head miller (Udo Kier) is a frightening man who takes exception with his worker (not the boy) gazing lustfully at his wife. Kier’s eyes manage to burn right through the black and white film, and soon he turns exceedingly violent towards his wife and the worker, leaving us with an unforgettable visual.

The boy then finds himself at the home of Lekhi (Lech Dyblik) who captures wild birds and regularly hooks up with Ludmila (Jitka Cvancorova), a wild woman who lives in the forest. The boy witnesses two horrific deaths, but not before the sequence which gives the film its title and ensures we understand what happens to outcasts – those who are different. At about the one hour mark, the boy finds an injured horse and walks it into the local village. It’s at this point where we hear him speak (kind of) for the first time. A violent Russian invasion of the village results in the Cossacks offering the bound and gagged Jewish boy to the German soldiers as a “gift”. Stellan Skarsgard is the veteran soldier who draws the assignment of taking the boy into the woods to shoot him.

When the soldier sends him on his way, a sickly Catholic Priest (Harvey Keitel) takes the boy under his wing and trains him to be an altar boy. All is fine until a parishioner (Julian Sands) with despicable intentions agrees to take the boy in and provide for him. This segment has what may be the most cringe-inducing death scene in the film, after which we find the boy trudging through snow and falling through ice, and crawling towards a cabin where Labrina (Julia Valentova) and a sickly old man live. The boy faces more abuse as he’s incapable of pleasing Labrina, which leads to situations he’s much too young to understand. Traumatized, the boy’s personality takes a turn.

In his next village, an attack by Germans puts the boy in contact with Russian sniper Mitka (Barry Pepper), who leaves him with the real life advice of, “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.” Having only recently lost his innocence, the advice hits home for the boy. He ends up in an orphanage where a surprise occurs that causes the boy to lash out in anger … at least until he observes something that makes him understand the world has been cruel to others, not just him.

Normally, I wouldn’t recap or outline the segments of a movie in this manner, but it’s crucial to understand what you are about to watch. It’s a nearly 3 hour epic of human cruelty and survival instinct. Young Petr Kotlar spends much of the movie taking and witnessing abuse while his face is near emotionless (save for a couple of extremes). Joy is elusive, if not non-existent. The film shows us not all Holocaust horrors occurred in death camps. The atrocities of war and the cruelty of humans result in a film that is beyond bleak at times, but also makes a clear point about how differently people treat those not “like” us, regardless who the “us” is. This point is as evident today as it was during WWII.

Director Marhoul excels in showing, rather than telling … there is almost no ‘telling’ throughout the film. Cinematographer Vladimir Smutney makes expert use of the 35mm black & white film to provide images that are stark and brutal like the world the boy sees. The Production Design from Jan Vlasak puts us right in the muck, while the Sound from Jakub Cech is crucial to every scene.

The film is a joint project of Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Ukraine, as Poland refused to participate. It had quite the festival run last year, including some high profile walk-outs during the Venice Film Festival. It’s one of the rare movies that every cinephile is thankful to have seen, yet as human beings, we would likely never want to watch again. Murder, abuse, suicide, torture, bestiality, rape, violence, cruelty, slaughter, pedophilia, incest, war atrocities … these aren’t topics we typically seek out, and they thankfully aren’t topics that all show up in a single movie very often! There are a few moments of compassion if you watch closely, but mostly it’s a reminder of the cruelty of humans when the structure of society collapses, and hope is hard to come by. As Edwin Starr sang in his number one hit in 1970, “War, good God. What is it good for? Absolutely nothing.”

Available on VOD from IFC Films on July 17, 2020

watch the trailer:


THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO (2011)

December 21, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. The character of Lisbeth Salander absolutely fascinates me. That’s true whether we are discussing Stieg Larsson‘s Millennium trilogy novels, the Swedish film versions, or this latest film version from director David Fincher (The Social Network) and a screenplay from Steve Zaillian. It’s also true whether Lisbeth is played on screen by Noomi Rapace (Swedish films) or Rooney Mara. She is a brilliant character hiding in plain sight from a world that has fiercely mistreated her, and now misjudges and underestimates her. She is the oddest heroine I can recall … and I can’t get enough of her.

 Let’s start with the source material. Stieg Larsson’s books are far from perfect, but addictive just the same. The first book (on which this film is based) is, at its core, a traditional who-dunnit presented in a manner that is claustrophobic, paranoid and eerie. Moving on to this particular film, we find the director and screenplay holding the basic tone of the book and original films, while making a few changes … some minor, others more substantial. These changes may irk those fervent fans who are quite loyal to the books, but Fincher surely wanted to offer more than a simple re-telling of the story.

 Daniel Craig plays Mikael Blomkvist, the journalist hired to solve the 40 year old mystery of the disappearance/murder of Harriet Vanger, niece to Swedish millionaire Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer). To research, Blomkvist must dig into the Vanger’s rotten family tree of Nazis, anti-Semites, sexual predators, anti-social fanatics, and a few just plain loony birds. You can imagine how excited this rich and once powerful family is to have someone uncovering long buried secrets. Circumstances allow for Lisbeth to assist Blomkvist in researching this.

 Unlike many mysteries where assembling the clues is the most fun, the real heart of this story is the odd, somewhat uncomfortable developing relationship between Blomkvist and Lisbeth. This latest version allows this to develop relatively smoothly, but it nonetheless rattles our senses. We see the subtle changes in Lisbeth as she slowly opens up to the idea of a real friendship based on trust. Fear not mystery fans, the Vanger clan still provides more than enough juice to keep any film sleuth happy.

COMPARISON: It’s truly impossible to avoid comparisons between the two movie versions and the respective casts. It’s quite obvious Mr. Fincher was working with a substantially greater budget than Niels Arden Opler had for the first Swedish film. While they are both enthralling, I actually lean a bit towards the rawer original. That takes nothing away from this latest version. Same with Noomi Rapace vs. Rooney Mara. Ms. Mara is excellent in her performance and I was fully satisfied, though Ms. Rapace brought a rougher edge to the role … one that made it even tougher to crack that shell. The biggest difference in the casts is Daniel Craig against Michael Nyqvist. Mr. Craig is just a bit too cool for the role, while Nyqvist captured the insecurity and vulnerability that Larsson wrote about. To have two such strong film versions of the same story released so close together speaks to the strength of Fincher and Larsson.

 All of that is nit-picking. Both film versions are thrilling and sterling entertainment, and clearly the Fincher version will bring the story to a much wider audience. He even brought back Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross to deliver another note-perfect score. I would encourage those that are interested to check out the Swedish version, as well as the Larsson books. Maybe you will join me in my fascination with this creature known as Lisbeth Salander.

note: this is an extremely harsh, dark film.  It includes brutal sex crimes, Nazism, animal cruelty and quite a few unlikeable, unsavory folks.  Heck, even the Swedish winter is jarring!

note 2: get there in time for the opening scene and credits. Reznor and Karen O (from the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s) deliver a searing remake of Led Zeppelin’s classic “The Immigrant Song” … over some mesmerizing visuals.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a fan of the Larsson books and/or the original Swedish films OR you want to see one of the most original characters on film OR you are just looking for another reason to hate rich people

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF:  you are looking for upbeat, light-hearted holiday entertainment OR you avoid movies featuring any, much less all, of the subjects in my note above

watch the trailer: