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.

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THE CHILDHOOD OF A LEADER (2015)

July 21, 2016

childhood of a leader Greetings again from the darkness. Brady Corbet has established a pretty nice career as an actor (Melancholia, Funny Games), and along comes his feature film debut as a writer/director (co-written with Mona Fastvold). In this day of remakes and reboots, this one is anything but. The “Overture” sets the mood with video clips of the WWI aftermath and the explosive score from Scott Walker quickly establishes itself as a character unto itself.

Subsequent title cards are broken into three “Tantrums”, as we witness the ever-escalating inappropriate behavior from young Prescott (Tom Sweet). In what on the surface could be classified as a nature vs nurture expose’, the film leaves little doubt that Prescott is rebelling against the monotony of his environment and the disengaged parents to which he is tethered. However, it also seems evident that young Prescott is inherently “off”. He seems to be cold and emotionally removed as he engages in battles of will with his parents … his father (Liam Cunningham) a US diplomat knee-deep in negotiations that will lead to the Treaty of Versailles, and his mother (Berenice Bejo), a self-described “citizen of the world”.

Two obvious film comparisons would be The Omen (1976) and We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011). The ominous music and settings leave little doubt that we are headed somewhere very dark here, though it’s not in the religious sense of The Omen and it’s more global than the intimacy of ‘Kevin’. Thinking of this as evil in the making would be a just description, though a different title might have held the ending a bit longer.

Support work is provided by Stacy Martin as the French teacher and Yolanda Moreau as the housekeeper who has moments of connection with the challenging Prescott, but Robert Pattinson fans will be surprised at how little screen time he has – especially for dual roles.

Young Tom Sweet is fascinating to watch in a very tough role for a child actor, and director Corbet proves he is a filmmaker we should follow closely. His visual acumen is something special, and offsets a script that could have used a bit of polishing. The movie will probably prove divisive – either you will find it mesmerizing and creepy, or you simply won’t connect at all. That’s often the case with a creative and bold project.

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