Sunday, September 20, 2009

Three Extraordinary Films

I saw three dull movies this weekend -- I Can Be Bad All By Myself (don't ask!), Bright Star, and The Informer -- and felt the need to recede... into a shell, of course, where the good movies are.

The above were full of counterfeit people in counterfeit situations. I couldn't detect an ounce of humanity or reality amongst them. I looked hard, but I came up short.

Then I reflected on three movies I haven't discussed here (wrote about them on imdb under my old pseudonym). All are extraordinary. You float out of them in awe of cinema's ability to move you and embrace quality.

Without further ado --

If Zsuzsa Czinkóczi, the seven-year-old lead of this harrowing Hungarian drama from '76, was competing for an Oscar this year against Mickey Rourke for his mighty performance in "The Wrestler", Miss Czinkoczi would romp it in. Her performance in "Nobody's Daughter" is beyond comprehension.

I was moved to tears by this extraordinary girl's portrayal of an orphan in 1940's Hungary. Back then, the Hungarian government paid families a stipend to take unwanted children into their home. Of course, there was no vetting process to weed out couples totally unsuited to parenting, let alone adoption.

We meet Csore (Czinkoczi), the doomed waif of the story, in a field of corn where she is trying to get a cow to return to its enclosure. When she follows the beast into the corn, she is picked up by a stranger and raped. Directors Laszlo Ranódy and Gyula Mészáros then cut to Csore returning home after the rape where, feeling disoriented, she takes a beating for being late and has her hand deliberately burned with hot coals by her cold, adopted father. As the weeks creep on, Csore is depicted as an abused child with an almost unbelievable resilience to tragedy.

Because she spends the first half of the movie fully naked in dirty, cold, hostile surroundings, the line between the actress and the character appears non-existent. Such is the magic of truly great film-making. Eventually, Csore is abandoned by her adoptive parents and taken to an orphanage where she comes within a hair of being adopted by a caring, loving couple. A complication prevents this fortuitous transaction and Csore is sold once again to another abusive, impoverished, unhappy couple who already have other children. Once again, she is subjected to abuse and given inferior status within the house. When all seems hopeless, the sun shines for the first time on Csore when she befriends a kind, bearded old man who takes her under his wing and treats her with respect and dignity.

The brief scenes of their happy times together are heart-wrenching for the stark contrast they represent. Unfortunately, the old man passes away, and Csore is alone once again.

Climaxing with fury and tragedy, this ultra-realistic look at poverty and abandonment (by the state and the individual) is easily one of the most moving and grotesque portraits of inhumanity to man that I have ever seen. Only the coldest of hearts could not go out to poor Csore, a child whose plight and death felt so real to me and affected me for days. The message this left me with is that bringing children into the world should not be a right, it should be a privilege that one must prove they are worthy of. Unfortunately, reproduction is the easy part.

Klaus Haro's "Elina -- As If I Wasn't There" can proudly stand alongside classics about childhood such as France's "Forbidden Games", The Czech Republic's "The Elementary School", and Japan's "Muddy River".

Set in Northern Sweden, this remarkable movie focuses on the inner agony of Elina (Natalie Minnivek), a smart young girl who has recently lost her father, a Finn, and is recovering from tuberculosis. When she starts a new school, the stubborn child, who is a sharp chip off her father's block, clashes with Tora Holm (Bibi Andersson), the school's most senior teacher. Not only is the clash of these two females a clash of wills, it is a clash of cultures. The rigid Holm forbids Elina and other students from speaking Finnish and enforces a Swedish-only language rule. Elina rebels against her teacher and takes emotional refuge in the bog outside the town where she believes her father still resides. The bog is a mysterious, wild, and beautiful place, retaining memories of the times Elina spent with her beloved father.

The film's simple story is an effective frame on which to hang a number of cleverly explored issues such as the majority's treatment of minorities, poverty, tolerance, and Swedish identity (the Old and the New).

First-time director Haro's grasp of the material is impressive and naturalistic. Not a shot is wasted. Not a single emotion is false. The photography of the rural exteriors and interiors is breathtaking and transporting; this is pure cinema with something to say and an original way to say it.

Tuomas Kantelinen's musical score enhances and enriches the physical beauty and the delicate inner world of characters we come to know and understand. When I watch films like this, I fall in love with cinema all over again.

A well written and exceptionally well performed tale that explores the depths of acceptance.

Kristin Scott Thomas plays Juliette, a woman returning to society after a fifteen year spell in jail. Mostly met with hostility, she is embraced by her sister Lea (Elsa Zylberstein) and treated with caution by her sister's husband and curious daughter (Lise Segur in an amazing performance). The film focuses on emotional details and provides us with a realistic cross-section of humanity. Reaction to Juliette is experienced via a variety of characters.

Director Philipe Claudel makes intelligent choices in terms of what is revealed about Juliette; his style is an unobtrusive one that gives the performers plenty of room to move.

Zylberstein and Thomas are great together, convincing us of their history and their private pain.

The film doesn't wrap anything up for convenience; it reminds us that life is always gray. It is engaging cinema.


  1. In complete agreement. There is nothing good out there. I have tried to understand Tyler Perry, but his stuff seems more like sit com than film. I had high hopes for THE INFORMANT! but the comedy spin fell flat for me. (I think he wanted to give us something previously unseen, a la INGLORIOUS BASTERDS, but it didn't work)

    Thanks for the suggestions. Abandoned kid films are too brutal for me, but I will have a look at Elina. I'VE LOVED YOU.. was excellent.

    More suggestions, please.

  2. Anonymous -- Tyler Perry's stuff is mostly awful. He makes money because his black audience is starved for movies with black casts (so that's understandable). But he's scraping the bottom of the barrel now.

    THE INFORMANT is flat and circular. Soderberg mostly annoys me these days. His CHE was almost unwatchable. There is something very smug about his approach these days, and that smugness creates distance.

    I think you would love ELINA. It's hard to find, but it's worth the effort. You may have to buy it from ebay.

    I'VE LOVED YOU FOR SO LONG (well, yeah).


    ARVACSKA -- try to see it so the little girl's amazing, brave performance was not in vein (I wouldn't try to guilt you, of course).

  3. Lovely stuff, Phantom. Your work just keep getting better and better...

  4. mandingo -- thank you, my friend. I appreciate your words.

  5. Long time reader, first time commenter here. I've only seen Arvacska (via indirect recommendation from your IMDb review) from all of these but it was extremely moving and powerful. If the others are nearly as good I'll have to look into those.

    On an unrelated note, will you ever be posting about My Soul Is Slashed and The Last Frankenstein? Again, I watched these via your indirect IMDb recommendation and absolutely loved them, and would love reading your further thoughts on them.

    May I just say I've read your IMDb comments for years and have really enjoyed this blog too so far. Keep up the excellent work.

    Kind regards,

  6. Pete -- thank you so much for your message. Glad you enjoyed 'Arvacska'; it is an amazing little movie.

    Re: 'My Soul Is Slashed', I did reference it in my recent 'Thirst' piece:

    I haven't written anything separately on 'The Last Frankenstein' (yet).

    I'm happy you enjoyed following my reviews on imdb. I probably won't review on there anymore. I started with a writing partner (who died), and I often had reviews "deleted" by imdb itself following "complaints". Unfortunately, if a single person complains about a review (usually its subject matter-related), imdb will delete it. I got frustrated with that.

    More backstory on that is here:

    I hope I can make your visits here worthwhile.

  7. How could I forget you posted about My Soul Is Slashed already? I've yet to see Thirst, but I shall as soon as it hits DVD.

    I somehow missed that back story. Very interested and touching stuff, it explains a lot. I did suspect the censorship was why you left IMDb. It has driven many of its greatest contributors away. I'm glad you post here now though as it allows for more varied topics, images and less censorship.

    My visits here are always worthwhile. Just keep up what you're doing and you've got a lifetime reader and fan.

    Another thing, is the film Bullet In The Arse available anywhere?

    All the best,

  8. Peter -- the imdb censorship is a total joke. I have never understood why one complaint is afforded so much attention. If 1 million out of 2 million people complain, I can see the merit in investigating. But imdb, which has a corporate parent, kowtows to every nutcase and fantastic because they operate from a position of fear. If they didn't, they'd ignore these stupid gooses. I had complaints about Fukasaku films I reviewed for no reason I could ascertain. I read them over and over to see the problem. After a while, I became convinced it was just some personal vendetta someone had against me. They knew the slightest complaint could get my reviews pulled, so they just went for it.

    Thanks for the lifetime commitment.

    BULLET IN THE ARSE is not available anywhere. The directors are very good friends of mine. If that changes, I'll do a blog about it. Should do one, anyway.

  9. Thanks for this post. The first film sounds particularly heart-wrenching. My stomach churned just reading your emotive description. You also make a poignant statement regarding the responsibility of parenthood. There is nothing more repulsive than abused children.

  10. i have question wjere i can download arvacska movie (1976)? thanks

  11. B-Movie Becky -- thanks. Yes, a heart-wrenching film, but a film about enormous inner strength.


    Anonymous -- I bought the film on ebay. It's a non-subtitled DVD.

    The film was recently posted to the newsgroup alt.binaries.thelostmovies also. It is worth tracking down.