Uppercase Print


You will write “I will not post graffiti” in Romanian four thousand times on the wall.

(2020) Drama (Big World) Serban Lazarovici, Nicolae Ceausescu, Bogdan Zamfir, Ioana Iacob, Serban Pavlu, Alexandru Porocean, Silvian Vâlcu, Constantin Dogioiu, Doru Catanescu. Directed by Radu Jude

 

These days, the left rails against authoritarianism around the globe and frets that it is coming to the United States. The right often pooh-poohs such notions and, in some cases, embraces authoritarian leaders such as Viktor Orban or Vladimir Putin. But nobody really discusses what life in an authoritarian state looks like, and the consequences of such on individuals who live in them.

Romania in the 1980s under communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu was such a state. In October 1981 in the city of Botosani, chalked statements calling for free trade unions such as the then-nascent Solidarity union that was rising in Poland, and expressing frustration at the scarcity of food and services for the general public began to appear on the walls of the Communist party headquarters and other government buildings around the city.

The Romanian secret police, the Securitate, went to work immediately, mobilizing an army of informants and agents to discover who was behind what they considered terrorist acts. The culprit was caught within a few weeks and turned out to be a 17-year-old high school student named Mugur Calinescu (Lazarovici). The boy was interrogated and eventually released without being jailed, but the consequences against him and his family were appalling.

Jude based the movie on a stage play by Gianina Carbunariu, what she called a “documentary play” (she also co-wrote the screenplay along with Jude). The dialogue was taken directly from the testimony and reports that was recorded by the Securitate around the incident. Actors playing various Securitate agents read their reports against stylized stage-like backgrounds, lit by bright and garish lights, with gigantic television screens, tape recorders and the symbol of the Securitate in the background. Interspersed with the testimony are excerpts from Romanian state television of the period, showing the propaganda that depicted Romania as a happy, prosperous place even though those making the television programs knew it wasn’t so (their fixed smiles betray them) and of course the people watching them knew better as well.

This results in an innovative and interesting narrative, but despite the subject matter, this is not a story of a brave young man standing up so much as it is about how easily those in an authoritarian nation turn on one another. The film continues through the suspicious death of Calinescu just four years later, apparently from leukemia, at the age of 21 (it wasn’t uncommon for the secret police to expose Romanian citizens to lethal radioactive isotopes in order to silence them without appearing to murder them, although it was, of course, the kind of state-sanctioned murder that continues in Putin’s Russia even now). The final act jumps ahead to modern days, where the unrepentant agents of the Securitate insist they worked for the good of the state and that they never harmed anyone.

The film takes an awful long time to get going, although as it continues through the saga the movie gets more and more intense. Jude might have benefitted from a judicious hand in the editing bay, perhaps cutting down on some of the testimony (and accompanying cheesy television clips) and tightened the storytelling just a hair.

What we’re left with is a chilling look at life in an authoritarian state, and the movie does end with a gut punch – monochromatic photos of the real Mugur and the chalk graffiti he left, which look terribly innocent by any standards, but especially given the tragic consequences those chalk writings created.

REASONS TO SEE: A unique method of telling the story. Somewhat surreal, although it may not be quite so much to those who lived in Romania at the time.
REASONS TO AVOID: The pacing is a bit slow for a two-hour movie.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes.
=TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film debuted at the 2020 Berlin Film Festival, one of two films Jude debuted there that year.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 01/23/22: Rotten Tomatoes: 81% positive reviews; Metacritic: 80/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: V for Vendetta
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Laureate

The Man with the Magic Box (Czlowiek z magicznym pudelkiem)


Did you hear the one about the star-crossed lovers?

(2017) Science Fiction (Artsploitation) Piotr Polak, Olga Boladz, Sebastian Staniewicz, Helena Norowicz, Wojciech Zielinski, Bartolemej Firlet, Bartosz Cao, Anna Konieczna, Agata Buzek, Arkadiusz Jakubik, Bogdan Koca, Roma Kox, Bartosz Bielenia, Bartosz Adamczyk, Kamil Tolinski, Modest Rucinski, Marcin Sitek, Piotr Farynski, Kasia Koleczek, Maria Patykiewicz. Directed by Bodo Kox

 

There are movies that spell things out for you and then there are movies that force you to figure things out. I don’t have a problem with the latter kind of cinema but there’s an occupational hazard that the film can lead you down the primrose path without giving you the payoff you deserve for your efforts.

Adam (Polak) wakes up in 2030 with no memory of who he is or what he’s doing in Warsaw. He is given a job as a janitor in a high-tech office building where good-natured Sebastian (Staniewicz) shows him the ropes. It is at work that he encounters Goria (Boladz), a beautiful but somewhat aloof manager – at least she seems to be as she is one of the few who has an “office” of her own – and with whom he falls deeply in love. At first she rebuffs his advances (somewhat caustically, I might add) but during an explosion and fire in a neighboring building causes the panicked workers to flee their own building, the two engage in sweaty, manic sex.

Adam stumbles upon an old-style radio that picks up mysterious broadcasts which might be coming from the year 1952. He also begins to have visions of that era, visions that he struggles to understand. As it turns out, like Billy Pilgrim, he is unstuck in time and whether he will stay in a past ruled by dictatorial communists or in the dystopian future ruled by a KGB-like secret police but which includes Goria, is anybody’s guess.

I’m not 100% sure that this synopsis does the plot justice. Bodo Kox has created a future that looks very lived-in although to be blunt, the technology seems a might more advanced than ten years hence seems likely to produce. Water is severely rationed (which given the situation with climate change seems like a distinct possibility) and privacy is non-existent (which given how little privacy we currently have given that everything we do is recorded). People live in fear of a secret police that are aware of everything they do. It’s not the sort of Brave New World that we signed up for.

The chemistry between Polak and Boladz is a bit complicated; at times there is a genuine bond apparent between them but at others there’s a distance that’s just as tangible. That chemistry is central to the success or failure of this film and I can’t say that it works completely. This is the film’s most glaring flaw; there are also some logical missteps in the story.

I have to give the filmmakers points for trying to deviate from standard time travel and dystopian future formulae. The script could have used another go-round of polish and the leads maybe recast although to be honest I’d keep Boladz; she has star quality. Polak is a bit bland, leading one to wonder what the Polansky she sees in him. Cerebral sci-fi fans should give this one a look.

REASONS TO SEE: The production design depicts a lived-in future.
REASONS TO AVOID: The chemistry between Polak and Boladz is inconsistent.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence, profanity and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was nominated for two Polish Oscars in 2017, for Best Production Design and Best Music Score.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Google Play, Microsoft, Vimeo, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/13/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Brazil
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
The Incredibles 2

Mars Needs Moms


 

Mars Needs Moms

Ki, Gribble and Milo look at the box office bomb descending on their heads.

(2011) Animated Feature (Disney) Seth Green, Dan Fogler, Joan Cusack, Elizabeth Harnois, Mindy Sterling, Kevin Cahoon, Tom Everett Scott, Adam Jennings, Amber Gainey Meade, Julene Renee, Seth Dusky, Jo McGinley, Daniel James O’Connor. Directed by Simon Wells

 

Director Simon Wells has also done The Land Before Time and The Time Machine. This is significant because he’s the great-grandson of the legendary writer H.G. Wells who not only wrote The Time Machine but also War of the Worlds which depicted an attempted invasion of Earth by Martians. Here, they’re only after one specific Earthling.

Milo (Green, voiced by Dusky) is a stubborn, self-centered 11-year-old boy. That is, typical. He hates doing homework, won’t eat broccoli, lies to his mother (Cusack)  and says particularly cruel things to her. Dad (Scott) travels a lot so he’s not around much to help. When Milo voices the wish that his mother would not be around so that his life would be easier, his wish is granted – not by a kooky angel trying to earn his wings but by the Martians.

You see, they have a litter of hatchlings come to term every 25 years. Their mothers are far too busy to take care of the kids so they are entrusted to nanny-bots. Unfortunately the programming needs rebooting every 25 years or so, so an Earthling mom who shows the right stuff (the Martian culture is a rigid disciplinarian one) is kidnapped to download her memories into the nanny-bots. Unfortunately, the process destroys the mother forever.

Milo sees his mom being kidnapped and manages to stow away on the Martian spacecraft. On Mars, he meets Gribble (Fogler) whose mom was also kidnapped 25 years previously. He lets Milo know that he has until sunrise to save his mom or else poof. Unfortunately, Gribble was too late to save his mom, so he had to grow up all by himself without mom, dad or family, hiding out from the Martian police in a trash dump.

Aided by Ki (Harnois), a rebellious Martian girl that Gribble is sweet on, Milo sets out to rescue his mom from the clutches of the Supervisor (Sterling) but that is much easier said than done. He must overcome his somewhat less-than-reliable new friend and the cruelty and ruthlessness of the Martian police if he is going to save his mom – and even then, getting her back home may take even more doing.

This was badly mismarketed as a science fiction spoof rather than as a family adventure as it should have been. There are some truly poignant moments that work far better than the humorous ones, even though the film was based on a graphic novel by Berkeley Breathed, the creator of “Bloom County” and other politically-oriented strips.

Part of the problem is the motion capture technology used to animate the film. While there have been some decent motion capture films, one of the problems is that they never really get facial expressions right, giving the humans a kind of robotic emotion-less look. The same holds true here; there is no sparkle of life in these characters so they look kind of like re-animated dolls. It’s a bit creepy and I’m not alone in thinking that.

Cusack holds her own but Fogler’s comic relief is a bit lame – he doesn’t have the personality to pull off the rather weak dialogue. This became a major bomb for Disney and in a lot of ways has killed the motion capture subgenre altogether (plans to make a motion capture remake of Yellow Submarine were quietly shelved by Disney after Mars Needs Moms tanked) which might be a good thing – I think the technology has to improve before it becomes a viable artform.

Critics were surprisingly easy on the film, given some of the wooden performances both onscreen and vocally. The movie certainly has its champions but I think the public got it right on this one. It really isn’t a very good movie.

WHY RENT THIS: At times very moving, a treatise on the importance of family.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Motion capture still doesn’t quite capture facial expressions.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some minor sci-fi action and peril, nothing that’s too rough for most kids except for the very youngest.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Disney’s worst box office loss ever and the fifth biggest bomb of all time (unadjusted for inflation).

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $39.0M on a $150M production budget; the movie was a major financial bomb.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW:Hannibal

The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen)


The Lives of Others

Careful what you say - you never know who may be listening.

(Sony Classics) Ulrich Muhe, Sebastian Koch, Martina Gedeck, Ulrich Tukur, Thomas Thieme, Volkmar Kleinert. Directed by Florian Henckel von Dommersmarck

Knowledge is power. In a repressive state, the more knowledge that the state has of its people, the more power it has over them.

In the communist government of East Germany in 1991, the secret police – known as the Stasi – have absolute control over the people of East Berlin. With an army of informants and strategically placed listening devices, the hallmark is that the knowledge of the lives of others protects the state and makes it stronger. Captain Gerd Wiesler (Muhe), one of the most skilled interrogators of the Stasi, believes this implicitly.

While attending a play with his ambitious superior Grubitz (Tukur), they run into Minister Hempf (Thieme). He remarks that the playwright, Georg Dreyman (Koch) may not be as loyal to the GDR as was first assumed and that a full-scale surveillance operation might not be frowned upon. Grubitz pounces on the opportunity and assigns the operation to the personal control of Wiesler, one of his most trusted men.

Dreyman lives with the celebrated actress Christa-Marie Sieland (Gedeck) and as such are something of the Brad and Angelina of East Germany. They have never fallen under the scrutiny of the state before and at first, it is apparent why. While most of their peers are critical of the GDR, Dreyman is not. Even when he assumes that he is in the privacy of his own home, he utters not a word against the government. However, Dreyman’s loyalty wavers when he discovers that his girlfriend has been pressured into a sexual relationship with Minister Hempf. It is further eroded when Dreyman’s friend and mentor, Albert Jerska (Kleinert) commits suicide after having been effectively blacklisted by the GDR for seven years.

No longer content to be silent against the GDR’s repressive policies, Dreyman is determined to inform the outside world about the high rate of suicide in the GDR which its government has covered up. He authors an article in Der Spiegel, the West German magazine, about the subject. Published anonymously, the article creates an uproar in the corridors of power. The Stasi becomes determined to find out who published the offending article.

Wiesler has been observing all this. He alone knows who authored the article, and that information could be advantageous to his own career advancement, as well as that of Grubitz. However, Wiesler himself has doubts. Having seen first-hand the corruption of the government and its effect on the people, he wonders if he is working on the right side. Enchanted by the freedom – however repressed it may be – of the artistic couple, he is drawn into events that will change not only his life, but the lives of those he has been charged to spy on.

Director von Dommersmarck has created an amazing movie, all the more so because of its miniscule budget (roughly $2 million American, which on most Hollywood productions would barely cover the catering). He manages to create a great deal of tension, and in many ways this reminds me of the classic Francis Ford Coppola film The Conversation. There, as in here, the act of surveillance changes those who are doing the listening.

Most of the actors lived in East Germany during the era portrayed here (although von Dommersmarck claimed that was unintentional) and so they bring a certain amount of personal experience into the movie. This has all the elements of a great thriller, one that would do Hitchcock proud, but it isn’t a thriller precisely. There are equal amounts of drama and character study as well.

Muhe does a magnificent job of playing the quiet, emotionless Wiesler. His face registers nothing, no anger nor joy; he is a faceless bureaucrat doing a job. And yet there is sadness in his eyes, almost as if deep down he realizes what he is doing is wrong. This contradiction is at the crux of The Lives of Others and is one of two things that make it so compelling.

The other thing is a little more esoteric and a bit more political. The question that this movie raises is not just about the communist dictatorship of the GDR, but about our own system. Given the advancements in computer tracking and listening devices, our own privacy has been severely compromised. How much of our lives does our own government keep tabs on – and is the security that it supposedly affords worth the potential for abuse? Do we have an expectation of privacy anymore? Does big business have the ethics to keep our information private? Certainly this movie provides an answer to these very important questions, although on the last one you may have to draw your own conclusions.

While the movie runs a bit on the long side, I was never bored. Because the thriller elements keep the tension level high, the viewer is left on the edge of their seat for much of the movie. This won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar back in 2008, and could easily have been the Best Picture overall. This is one of the best movies of the decade and you should see it if you have a chance.

WHY RENT THIS: This affords a look at life in the kind of environment that Americans may not have a good deal of experience with, even if we are rapidly becoming a similar environment.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: At two hours and 17 minutes, the movie runs a bit long.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some nudity and a good deal of sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This movie received more Lola nominations (the German equivalent of the Oscars) than any in history.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: While most DVD and Blu-Ray releases contain some sort of commentary track, this one is noteworthy in that it is all director von Dommersmarck and it is one of the most extensive and informative tracks I’ve ever heard.

FINAL RATING: 10/10

TOMORROW: Day Night Day Night