Mother, I Love You (Mammu, es Tevi milu)


A kid running from his troubles.

(2013) Drama (108 Media) Kristofers Konovalovs, Vita Varpina, Matiss Livcans, Indra Brike, Haralds Barzdins. Directed by Janis Nords

 

I’ve said it before and I’m not the first to say it: it’s not easy being a single mom. We’ve seen plenty of movies that back up that very thing. However, it is not often we see the story from the child of a single mom’s viewpoint. What must that be like?

Raimonds (Konovalovs) – whose name is pronounced “Raymond” – lives in the Latvian capital city of Riga. He’s a bright boy who goes to school, plays saxophone in the school orchestra, plays Wii at night when his mother allows and rides his push scooter around town getting from the apartment he shares with his mom to school mostly with occasional side trips to visit his best friend Peteris (Livcans).

Raimonds’ mom (Varpina) is an obstetrician who works brutal hours; often she has late night shifts at the clinic she works at and is from time to time called in for an emergency. Some of these late night shifts though are less work and more play; she has been developing a romantic relationship with a colleague. Raimonds is no fool; he is aware his mother is lying to him.

Peteris’ mom (Brike) is a housecleaner and often the two boys accompany her to one home or another. One that catches the boy’s eye is one that the owner is rarely home at. The man has a motor scooter parked in one of the rooms of his apartment which of course to young 12-year-old boys is absolutely irresistible. Raimonds manages to snatch the key to the apartment so the boys can come back and rev up the scooter.

Raimonds has, like most 12-year-old boys a streak of devilish behavior. When tall girls are mean to him, he is not above fighting back and when he uses a bra that one of his mates has stuffed down his shirt to plug up the horn of a particularly snooty girl, he gets written up. This is a disaster; he is required to tell his mother and get her signature on a form which would undoubtedly get a beating for him. His mother believes in corporal punishment which seems a bit alien to American audiences these days. In any event, he endeavors to conceal his malfeasance from his mom which leads to a spiraling series of events that grow progressively more serious. Extricating himself from the web he has woven for himself may be more than he can handle.

An awful lot of this is going to resonate with those who have grown up with a single parent and those who have been single parents. The very real issues of balancing work and quality time with one’s child as well as keeping control over children when they grow unruly are addressed here without sentimentality. The mom is no saint but she’s no worse than most mothers either. She’s doing the best she can and often she is operating in the dark as to what her child is truly up to. This is the part that parents will nod in sympathy with.

Konovalovs is a very natural actor who never over-emotes; his fear of his mother is very real and very natural. Like most kids, he operates on the philosophy that what his mother doesn’t know won’t hurt her (and won’t get him hurt) and while there is no doubt that Raimonds loves his mother very much and wants her respect and love back, he often plays her for a fool simply because he can.

I think it is more reasonable to say that Raimonds isn’t so much a bad child as he is a bored child. He has so much unsupervised time on his hands that it seems fairly natural that he would find ways to get into trouble. Each bad decision Raimonds makes from his own point of view makes sense and Nords who also wrote the film makes sure the audience is seeing that point of view clearly. At times audiences who may have less experience with child-raising may shake their heads at some of the things Raimonds does but at every turn it feels exactly what an unsupervised 12-year-old boy whose whole philosophy of life is avoiding punishment would do or decide.

Raimonds spends much of his time wandering the streets of Riga at night and it doesn’t feel as if he is unsafe at any time although he sometimes ventures into what appear to be rough neighborhoods. By day Riga looks grey and drab as if in a perpetual overcast; I have never been to Riga although I’m told it is a beautiful city but this film isn’t going to inspire anyone to visit it anytime soon.

Although it is essentially a film about kids this isn’t a kids film. The deeper Raimonds gets into his lies the grimmer things get. There are real-world repercussions for Raimonds and it isn’t pretty. While the ending of the film is a bit ambiguous it is more hopeful than the rest of the movie is so it isn’t completely a downer but it does take a while to get there. I haven’t seen a lot of Latvian films but if this movie is any indication there is some real quality filmmaking going on there.

REASONS TO GO: The cinematographer uses a fairly grim and grey palate. The movie is an accurate portrayal of a troubled boy.
REASONS TO STAY: This is not what you would call the most uplifting of films.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief sensuality but mostly the themes here are adult.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film won a major prize at the 2013 Berlin Film Festival and was the official submission of Latvia for the 2014 Foreign Language category for the Academy Awards.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/18/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Bicycle Thief
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Agnelli

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Der Bunker


Bad haircuts never go out of style.

Bad haircuts never go out of style.

(2015) Something Else (Arsploitation) Pit Bukowski, Daniel Fripan, Oona von Maydell, David Scheller. Directed by Nikias Chryssos

 

We see the world through a lens of normality; we have expectations of what people’s lives should look like and then we figure they’ll conform to them. But that conformity is a lie; it’s not always the case. Sometimes what’s just below the surface is twisted enough to make us grow pale.

A young German student (Bukowski) – and that’s all the name he gets, folks – trudges through the snow in the woods to an underground bunker. There he is greeted by the owner who is known only as Father (Scheller), his comely wife Mother (Maydell) and their somewhat unusual son Klaus (Fripan) who is a 30 year old man with a bowl haircut who acts like an 8-year-old and is sure he’s going to be the President of the United States – even though he’s German.

The boy is being homeschooled but it turns out that he is not the brightest bulb in the chandelier. Father has been handling the teaching duties but he hasn’t made much of an impression despite his rather severe methods, so Student is enlisted to teach the boy. At first he doesn’t make much headway but when he discovers that Klaus seems to respond to pain things begin to get better.

Mother has been putting the moves on Student in the meantime, something he’s not altogether opposed to, but when he discovers that she is breastfeeding Klaus, alarm bells begin to go off. That and Father’s bizarre joke night where he tells jokes dressed as a mime, and then discusses them existentially. Father also seems to be a bit of a tyrant, counting every dumpling eaten and every napkin used and keeping a running tally.

But things really get odd when the Student discovers an open wound on Mother’s leg that has been infested by an alien named Heinrich who apparently is controlling Mother and the entire family. She is loathe to let Klaus grow up and leave; and now, it appears she has designs on keeping the Student around as well. Can he escape from this madhouse?

Chryssos directs and writes this and he’s drawing comparisons to John Waters and David Lynch and from the standpoint that this is a quirky cult film-type, the comparison isn’t wrong. Fans of those two worthies (and others along the same lines) will likely dig the very oddball world that Chryssos delivers here.

He uses color in a very unusual way, shooting through red filters as the story draws to a climax. Everything from Klaus’ bizarre wardrobe and Father’s tacky sweaters seems deliberately chosen for texture and color. Only Mother and Student are dressed rather blandly most of the time (and Mother is undressed quite a bit). The bunker itself is unremarkable although it seems a bit less spartan than the other onscreen bunker homes I’ve seen. Perhaps that is a European thing.

The performances are actually pretty good, and considering there are only four people in the film, there really isn’t anywhere to hide. Von Maydell has a thankless task playing a controlling woman yet making her sympathetic, while Fripan as the man-boy Klaus has the weirdest role of all and pulls it off without making it a caricature.

This is really not a movie for everybody. While some have marked it as a horror film (and several horror websites have given the film some coverage), it is more of a cult film. Yes there are aliens but they are never seen; for all we know they could manifest inside Mother’s head alone. However, the constant barrage of weirdness and the skewed point of view may be off-putting to those who are uncomfortable with the bizarre. For my taste, this is something you might have seen back in the days of the Weimar Republic only with a kind of Russ Meyers edge, along with the filmmakers I’ve already mentioned. This is a strange one, but if you like strange, you’re gonna like this.

WHY RENT THIS: It’s weird but in a good way.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: This might be a little more twisted and out there than mainstream audiences are comfortable with.
FAMILY VALUES: Some sexual situations and plenty of nudity as well as some violence and a fair amount of corporal punishment.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Made it’s debut in 2015 at Austin’s venerated Fantastic Fest.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.
SITES TO SEE: Vimeo
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Borgman
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Wiener-Dog

Farewell, My Concubine (Ba wang bie ji)


The King and I.

The King and I.

(1993) Drama (Miramax) Gong Li, Leslie Cheung, Fengyi Zhang, Qi Lu, Da Ying, You Ge, Chun Li, Han Lei, Di Tong, Mingwei Ma, Yang Fei, Zhi Yin, Hailong Zhao, Dan Li, Wenli Jiang, Yitong Zhi, David Wu, Qing Xu. Directed by Kaige Chen

Life imitates art, it is said, much more than art imitates life. Art can only capture an instant, a moment at best but life is long term. It is rich and full of the twists and turns that are not entirely all of our own making. We are relentlessly buffeted by the tides of history, even if we aren’t aware of it.

In the mid 1920s a prostitute brings her son to a prestigious school where the various disciplines of the Peking Opera are taught. However, he is rejected because he was born with a sixth finger. Undeterred, she takes her son home and hacks off the extra digit with a carving knife, then brings the boy back to the school where he is at last accepted. There, he meets a friend who will be an integral part of his life both professionally and personally.

The discipline at the school is brutal and absolute. The smallest of infractions, the most trivial of mistakes would lead to extravagant punishments painful, bloody and over-enthusiastic by the somewhat sadistic Master Guan (Lu). Eventually the boy and his friend grows up, becoming Cheng Dieyi (Cheung) who performs female roles as a male and Duan Xioulou (Zhang) who takes the masculine roles.

Their most famous roles come from the classic opera Farewell, My Concubine in which Dieyi plays the concubine, a most loyal servant of a King (played by Xioulou) who takes her own life after a military defeat of her master even though she has the opportunity to leave safely. The two become the toast of China and Dieyi, trained from boyhood to be effeminate, develops an attraction to Xioulou who doesn’t feel the same. When Xioulou meets and marries a former courtesan of the infamous House of Blossoms, the headstrong Juxian (Gong Li), a rift develops between the two friends that lead to the dissolution of the company on the very night that the Japanese invade.

The two men and the woman who has become unwittingly the third part of a triangle endure the tribulations of the Japanese occupation, the Kuomintang administration, the Communist revolution and eventually the Cultural Revolution. They have to endure the betrayal of Xiao Si (Lei) whom Dieyi rescued as a foundling and who becomes an opportunist, jealous of Dieyi’s status within the troupe. Eventually they have to endure the consequences of their decisions over the years.

Epics of this scale have become exceedingly rare over the years, due in large part to the prohibitive cost of making them but also because of the shift in moviegoers’ tastes over the intervening years. For American audiences the subject matter, the turmoil of 20th century China, is largely new territory. Most of us are taught little of events in that country in school and those of us who lived during some of the events either didn’t pay much attention to them or dismissed them altogether. Kaige Chen brings those events to life, giving audiences who didn’t live in that place at that time a sense of the horrors that took place. I can only imagine what those who lived through them thought of the film.

The Dickensian opera school would make Oliver Twist sympathetic to the plight of the boys while the lavish productions of the Opera are stunningly rendered by one of the last three-strip Technicolor labs left. While Cheung is exceptional as Dieyi and portrays his inner torment (and outer bitchiness) with a great depth of emotion, it is Gong Li whose performance will remain with you for a long time after you see this movie. Hers is a tormented soul, suffering through love for a man who isn’t entirely hers. It is as exquisite a performance as you’ll ever witness and reason alone to laud her as China’s finest actress (although I’m still partial to Michelle Yeoh myself).

The Chinese government had some issues with the movie – not the least being the depictions of the hardships during and after the Cultural Revolution and not a little because of the underlying homosexual relationships – and has banned it and un-banned it repeatedly. It shows China with all her warts and scars, but also her spirit and perseverance. It is a marvelous portrait of 20th century China, a nation in upheaval that rose to becoming the dominant world power that it is now. Even though the movie might be overly long for some, it is nonetheless more of an education than it is an entertainment, although there is plenty of the latter to be had as well.

WHY RENT THIS: A beautifully shot lyric poem. Gong Li is breathtaking.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Drags on a little bit.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is a bit of rough language not to mention some pretty heavy thematic material that may be inappropriate for the very young.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the first film from the People’s Republic of China to win the prestigious Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: While complete box office figures aren’t available, it is worth noting that the movie pulled in $5.1M at the American box office, an unusually high figure for Chinese films until Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon came along nearly a decade later.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Scent of Green Papaya

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: 27 Dresses