Firstborn (Pirmdzimtais)


Even in Latvia, a stroll in the dark could end up costing you dearly.

(2017) Thriller (ArtsploitationKaspars Znotins, Maija Dovelka, Dainis Grube, Kaspars Zale. Directed by Aik Karapetian

What does it mean to be a man? In this era of #MeToo and renewed focus on rape culture and patriarchy, the book is being rewritten on the subject. Once upon a time, men were required to be providers and protectors, to rid the house of any creepy crawly spotted by the wife and to repair anything that requires it in the house. These days, on top of all of that, they are also required to not know where anything is in the house, to never ever ask for directions no matter what the cost and be able to anticipate whatever mood our mate is happening to experience at that particular moment.

All kidding aside, the nature of masculinity is changing and while that is on the surface a very good thing, what does that do to expectations? Francis (Znotins) is not, by any measure, a very masculine man. An architect, he is the very definition of a man who wouldn’t hurt a fly – possibly because he’s terrified the fly might turn around and beat the crap out of him.

As introverted as Francis is, his wife Katrina (Dovelka) is the polar opposite. Pretty much feminine by every standard, she is outgoing – the life of the party – and a beauty in any beholder’s eyes whereas Francis is a skinny and slight man who has a face that can only be described as ordinary. It is hard to figure out what she sees in him and by appearances she’s beginning to wonder too.

The two have been trying to get pregnant for some time without success. They go to a small party with friends who have a pretty amazing kid and Katrina is beginning to feel like her opportunity to have one of her own is rapidly passing her by. She has a little too much to drink and as the couple walk home, a passing motorcyclist (Zale) reaches out and tries to grab her purse unsuccessfully. She yells at him, prompting him to come back. He assaults both Francis (taking him out with a single punch) and Katrina, violating her with a tire iron. Humiliated and traumatized, she gives her assailant the purse.

Her relationship with Francis goes from barely cordial to much worse. It is clear she feels like he didn’t protect her when he was required to and to be honest, he doesn’t disagree. When he sees her getting chummy with the police detective assigned to the case (who happens to be an old flame of Katrina’s) he decides to find the mugger himself, and force him to return the bag and apologize to his girl. You can imagine that this is going to go all sorts of bad and it does but not in the way you’d think.

There is really not a lot of subtlety here; Karapetian makes no bones about what his interest is here. Francis undergoes something of a transformation from a meek, mousy sort to one full of toxic masculinity who begins to take out his insecurities on Katrina, even after he finds out she’s finally pregnant. There follow a lot of twists and turns, some of which any regular viewer of thrillers will be able to suss out in advance.

Karapetian is actually quite brilliant behind the camera particularly in terms of his shot composition and his framing. Whether filming in dimly lit apartments (one has to wonder if Francis and Katrina are paying their electric bill) or in remote snowy landscapes, the look of the film is distinctive. It doesn’t hurt that both Dovelka and Znotins deliver strong, believable performances. During the initial encounter with the motorcycle-riding thug, the danger is palpable and the scene is terrifying in a realistic way that directors of Hollywood thrillers often get wrong. This one feels like it could have happened exactly as depicted.

The film does take its time in getting to its denouement and maybe some American viewers will find this a bit too long for their tastes. There are some scenes in the middle the movie didn’t need to be honest. Still, as thrillers go this one is top notch and it is likely to get thinking audiences doing just that; it certainly will make for some interesting discussion. I’m not sure I agree with Karapetian’s point of view completely but I give him props for having one.

REASONS TO SEE: Beautifully shot and framed.
REASONS TO AVOID: Runs a little too long and moves a little too slow.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence (some of it brutal), sexual situations, profanity, nudity and rape.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Karapetian was born in Armenia but raised in Latvia.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/19/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Straw Dogs
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Captain Black

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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