Child 44


You've got to admire that old Soviet fashion sense.

You’ve got to admire that old Soviet fashion sense.

(2015) Mystery (Summit) Tom Hardy, Joel Kinnaman, Noomi Rapace, Gary Oldman, Jason Clarke, Paddy Considine, Fares Fares, Vincent Cassel, Agnieszka Grochowska, Mark Lewis Jones, Petr Vanek, Jana Strykova, Ursina Lardi, Michael Nardone, Lottie Steer, Zdenek Barinka, Ned Dennehy, Finbar Lynch, Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Sam Spruell, Tara Fitzgerald, Lorraine Ashbourne. Directed by Daniel Espinosa

I wonder sometimes if the current American regime misses the Soviet Union. After all, they gave us someone to hate and an ideology to deride. Then again, I suppose that ISIS has given that to us as well.

But in the bad old days there was Stalin and the Russians but despite everything they couldn’t have been worse for us than they were for the Russians themselves. The country was rebuilding after suffering horribly during the Second World War but after having Hitler’s troops knocking on their doorstep they had somehow managed to push them all the way back to Berlin. Orphan Leo Demidov (Hardy) had distinguished himself during the war, taking the Reichstag and planting the Soviet flag, becoming a national hero in the process. Boyhood friends Alexei (Fares), a wild but loyal man, and Vasili (Kinnaman), a vicious coward, had been at his side (and in Vasili’s case, slightly behind him).

These days, instead of chasing the German army Leo is chasing Soviet traitors for the MGB along with Alexei and Vasili. Their latest case, a veterinarian named Brodsky (Clarke) had resulted in Vasili shooting a mother and a father who had harbored the fugitive before Leo stopped him and humiliated him in front of the men. This makes Leo Vasili’s sworn enemy, one who will plot and scheme Leo’s downfall.

But things are already in motion. For one, Alexei’s child is found dead by the railroad tracks. It is officially ruled an accident but Alexei knows better – he knows his child was murdered. However since Stalin declared that murder was a Western capitalist affliction, it wasn’t possible for murder to occur in the Soviet Union. “There are no murders in paradise” goes the refrain (and it is repeated more than once, usually ironically). When Alexei questions the official ruling, he runs afoul of the authorities who quickly force him to recant. Leo is in fact the one who warns his friend what is happening.

Leo should be watching his own back. His wife Raisa (Rapace), a schoolteacher, has been getting restless in her marriage to the driven Leo and has been having an affair. However, Vasili makes a case against Raisa for being a traitor because the man she is seeing, a fellow schoolteacher, seems to have non-communist (or at least non-Stalinist) sympathies. When Leo refuses to denounce Raisa, he is punished by being sent to a backwater town under the command of General Nesterov (Oldman), himself in disfavor with the current Soviet regime. Normally Leo would have been executed but being a hero of the Soviet Union has its perks.

But there have been a series of child deaths in the vicinity, all with similar wounds to what Alexei’s son had suffered. Leo realizes that there is a serial killer in their midst. And since murder doesn’t exist in the Soviet Union (much less serial killers), the official position is that these deaths are all accidents. However Leo realizes that in order to protect the children of the district he will have to risk everything – including his own life – to bring the killer to justice. In the meantime, Vasili, who sees the perfect opportunity to take Leo out permanently, is closing in.

I expected this to be not very good, given that it got almost no push from the studio and received pretty miserable reviews but this is one of those times I got to be pleasantly surprised. The setting of the old Soviet Union filmed mostly in the Czech Republic – the Russia of Putin found the movie to be insulting to their history and promptly banned it – is unusual for Hollywood thrillers. The depiction here is of a drab and paranoid world in which the only colors seem to be grey and red and the only way to survive is to assume that everyone is out to get you which it seems is pretty much the case.

Hardy has become one of my favorite actors at the moment. Poised to be Hollywood A-list royalty (and will probably achieve that status with Mad Max: Fury Road later this month) he is on a role in which he seems to be incapable of delivering an uninteresting performance. His Leo is like a pit bull in many ways, but an honorable one – he doesn’t attack indiscriminately but only to those who in his view deserve it, such as traitors to his motherland. He chooses not to question the corruption that is in plain sight all around him, merely accepting it as part of the Way Things Are and when he becomes a victim of it chooses not to complain but simply adapt.

The rest of the supporting cast is for the most part solid; Rapace seems oddly subdued but still remains a very underrated actress, one who underlines how few really well-written roles for women there are out there. She makes the best of a fairly undefined character. Oldman is also another one of those actors who seems to always elevate the part he’s in whether it’s well-written or not.

While based on an actual case, this fictionalized movie comes across as a fairly predictable thriller despite being based on an international best seller which was reportedly anything but (I haven’t read it as of yet). It is the first of a trio of novels and no doubt Summit was hoping for a franchise here initially but given that the movie has been given little push and has been a box office disappointment, the other two are unlikely to be filmed.

But that doesn’t mean this isn’t worth seeing. Now largely out of first release theaters with the first blockbusters of the summer season taking the lion’s share of screens, you can still catch it in second run theaters and likely soon on VOD. It’s actually a pretty interesting film and a well-made thriller worth taking the time to seek out. It isn’t perfect but I found it to be entertaining enough to overcome its flaws.

REASONS TO GO: Hardy continues to be a reason to go see a movie all by himself. Captures the paranoia and political infighting of Stalinist Soviet Russia.
REASONS TO STAY: A bit too rote in terms of plot.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of violence, a few disturbing images, adult themes, some foul language and a scene involving sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The novel the movie is based on was inspired by the hunt for the real serial killer Andrei Chikatilo which was chronicled in the excellent HBO movie Citizen X.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/8/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 23% positive reviews. Metacritic: 41/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Citizen X
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Misery Loves Comedy

Ida


I say a little prayer for you.

I say a little prayer for you.

(2014) Drama (Music Box) Agata Kulesza, Agata Trzebuchowska, Dawid Ogrodnik, Jerzy Trela, Adam Szyszkowski, Halina Skoczynska, Joanna Kulig, Dorota Kuduk, Natalia Lagiewczyk, Afrodyta Weselek, Mariusz Jakus, Izabela Dabrowska, Artur Janusiak, Anna Grzeszczak, Jan Wociech Poradowski, Konstanty Szwemberg, Pawel Burczyk. Directed by Pawel Pawlikowski

Offshoring

Most of us have a handle on who we are mainly because we know with confidence who we were and where we come from. Not everyone has that luxury however.

Anna (Trzebuchowska) is a teenage novitiate getting ready to take her vows as a Roman Catholic nun in communist Poland in 1962. She knew no other life but the nunnery; she had been orphaned as a baby during World War II and brought there to be raised. Shortly before the ceremony is to take place, the mother superior of her order (Skoczynska) summons her to her office and informs Anna that a relative of hers has been located. She strongly suggests that Anna go and spend some time with her aunt before the ceremony. Anna is reluctant but does so obediently.

Her Aunt Wanda (Kulesza) is different than any other woman Anna has known; a chain smoker and borderline alcoholic, Wanda lives hard and plays hard with a succession of men. However, the most startling revelation is about Anna herself.

Wanda informs her that her birth name wasn’t Anna at all but Ida – Ida Lebenstern. Her parents and siblings were all killed during the Nazi occupation. Anna, or Ida as she’s now known, decides to go with Wanda to the village where she was born and where her family died. She wants to know what happened, so Wanda and her set out in their broken down little Wartburg (an Eastern European vehicle) to the hinterlands of Poland. On the way they meet Lis (Ogrodnik), a saxophone player heading to a gig in the hotel they’ll be staying at.

It is not just her family that Ida will discover the truth about, but as she allows her sexual side to open up, she finds Lis to be very interesting indeed. And her Aunt, once a Stalinist prosecutor for the state whose many death sentences merited the nickname Red Wanda, is not nearly as strong as she seems. How can Ida go back to being Anna the nun when she’s discovered so much?

Pawlikowski, who was born in Poland and emigrated to Western Europe when he was 14, has based his entire career in England. This is his first film in his native Poland and he chose to film it in black and white which turns out to be a brilliant decision and not just because it captures the era so perfectly, but also it sets a mood that is often bleak and colorless.

Trzebuchowska is a real find. She’s not an actress nor does she intend from all reports to pursue that as a career, but she is perfect for this role. Wide, gamine eyes and a pretty triangular face, she is both innocent and worldly. There is almost a saintly quality to her in some ways, the way she clings to her faith in a world which has grown cynical and cold. She has largely been untouched by it but as the movie progresses and she becomes exposed to the world that innocence wavers but something new and extraordinary emerges.

Kulesza is one of Poland’s most decorated actresses and she turns in a fine performance here. On the surface Wanda is strong and self-confident, a pillar of strength and secure in her knowledge that she has been a good servant of the state. Now, she’s not so sure and the more she finds out about the fate of Anna’s family, the more she realizes that she is no different than those who so cruelly orphaned her niece. It’s a subtle but powerful realization that leads to one of the movie’s most shocking scenes.

The movie is gorgeously shot from the wintery countryside, the dingy interior of the farmhouse where Anna was born, the hotel lounge where the band is playing, the convent and Wanda’s elegant apartment. While some might discriminate against the film due to its lack of color, those folks are missing out – it’s beautiful in its spare atmosphere.

This is a haunting film and not just because the nuns look like ghosts from another time, well before when this film is set. You will be caught in Ida’s story and as her journey continues, you won’t be able to help wanting to see where it leads. It doesn’t always go where you might expect it to go, but then again, whose journey does?

REASONS TO GO: Terrific performances by Kulesza and Trzebuchowska. Gorgeous black and white cinematography. Compelling story.

REASONS TO STAY: Overwhelmingly bleak and austere.

FAMILY VALUES: The themes are very adult and there is some sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The original cinematographer had to withdraw from the film after ten days of shooting due to illness. He was replaced by Lukasz Zal who completed the film.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/30/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 81/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Aftermath

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Bears