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See also: SHADOWS FILM FESTIVAL | Last update 31.Aug.21

The Champion of Auschwitz   Mistrz
Review by Rich Cline | 3.5/5
The Champion of Auschwitz
dir-scr Maciej Barczewski
prd Leszek Starzynski, Krzysztof Szpetmanski
with Piotr Glowacki, Jan Szydlowski, Grzegorz Malecki, Marcin Bosak, Marcin Czarnik, Marek Kasprzyk, Piotr Witkowski, Marian Dziedziel, Rafal Zawierucha, Kamil Szeptycki, Marianna Pawlisz, Zbigniew Paterak
release Pol 27.Aug.21,
UK 3.Sep.21, US 15.Nov.21
20/Poland 1h31

Is it streaming?

Glowacki and Witkowski
Based on true events as told through firsthand accounts, this is a remarkably unsentimental film that finds humanity in a hopeless place. WWII German prison camp dramas may be overfamiliar, but Polish writer-director Maciej Barczewski's angle makes it feel fresh, adopting an unusually spare approach to an inspiring figure. It's a dark, gritty drama with a flicker of hope under the surface. And the story is astonishing.
Among the first prisoners arriving at Auschwitz, number 77 is Teddy Pietrzykowski (Glowacki), a boxing champ from Warsaw. As these new inmates complete construction on the barracks, the guards discover Teddy's skills at ducking and punching, so they force him to fight in a ring for their entertainment. His winnings are food and medicine for the prisoners, so the morale in camp rises with each victory. This makes Nazi officers worry that they're losing control. Yet even when they crack down with fearsome opponents and hideous punishments, Teddy earns the begrudging respect of his captors.
Made on a modest scale, the film depicts the casual savagery of the Germans much more matter-of-factly than many Holocaust dramas. Combined with the overlit production design, this subtlety actually makes the camp that much more horrific. For contrast, the script cuts to the pampered family life of the camp commander (Malecki) and his family as they face their own tragedy. This provides some complexity, even as the film never elicits sympathy for such a cold-blooded killer. Thankfully, Teddy's heroism is never overstated, as his gritty triumphs remain largely between the lines.

The terse script also leaves much of the character detail in the margins, so only a few people emerge with any clarity. Glowacki makes Teddy an intriguing figure, observant and skilled at both fighting and maintaining equilibrium between guards and prisoners. It's a raw, physical performance that's remarkably committed. Teddy's closest friendship is with teen Janek, played with open emotion by Szydlowski. Opposite them, Malecki and Bosak give hints of nuance to their ruthless officers.

Most effective is the way filmmaker Barczewski maintains a sense of peril, that these Nazis are happy to simply pull out a gun and execute anyone at any time. And mass atrocities taking place around the central story are always present, unnerving in the way they remain in the background. By contrast, there's a lovely note when Teddy comments that he only defines himself based on who he wants to me. This beautifully understated comment about survival and success sharply caps an involving story.

cert 15 themes, language, violence 30.Aug.21

Knocking   Knackningar
Review by Rich Cline | 4/5
dir Frida Kempff
scr Emma Brostrom
prd Erik Andersson
with Cecilia Milocco, Albin Grenholm, Alexander Salzberger, Krister Kern, Ville Virtanen, Charlotta Akerblom, Kristofer Kamiyasu, Naida Ragimova, Karin de Frumerie, Emil Almen, Christina Indrenius-Zalewski, Juan Rodriguez
release US Jan.21 sff,
Swe Feb.21 gff, UK 15.Nov.21
21/Sweden 1h18

fright fest

Is it streaming?

Cleverly shot with a focus on thoughts and feelings, this Swedish thriller has a slow-burn quality that inexorably pulls the audience into its web of unnerving fear. Director Frida Kempff, writer Emma Brostrom and actor Cecilia Milocco take us deep into the mind of an unhinged woman who feels that something around her isn't right. And she seems so convinced about it that she pulls us into the mystery.
After a nervous breakdown, Molly (Milocco) is still feeling fragile as she moves out of the psychiatric hospital. Keeping in touch with her doctor (Kamiyasu), she struggles to sleep with a knocking sound in her new apartment building. Her neighbours have no idea what she's talking about, so she carries on settling in. Then other clues emerge that make her worry that perhaps a woman is being assaulted upstairs. But the police refuse to listen to her, because of her mental history. Not only are they useless, and she begins to suspect they're involved somehow.
Shot tightly through Molly's nervous perspective, each scene is peppered with tiny touches that add to her increasingly nervous state of mind. And there are also some terrifying events that can't possibly be real but feed into her escalating unease. Molly is clearly worried deeply that a woman may be in danger, and there's a very subtle hint that this may be from a sense of personal experience. Kempff uses terrific point-of-view camerawork to bring Molly's intense feelings to the screen, which cranks up the suspense in a powerfully internalised way.

Milocco gives a superb performance, wide-eyed and openly emotive as a woman who simply can't switch off her mind as it spirals around this perplexing situation. Everyone dismisses her as crazy, but there's a lucidity to her thoughts and actions that holds the attention. And the actions she takes have a logical purpose. Meanwhile, characters around her are played with an offhanded earthiness, unnervingly realistic neighbours, cops and doctors who refuse to see any of this through her eyes.

In Molly's dreams, she goes to her safe space, a sunny beach that also begins to develop a menacing tone, hinting that the loss of a lover triggered her breakdown. This is beautifully depicted, understated in a way that allows for added emotional resonance in Molly's painful disorientation. Or maybe she's actually tapping into things that the rest of us are deliberately choosing not to hear. This makes the climactic final sequence both harrowing and deeply moving.

cert 15 themes, language, violence 22.Aug.21

Sweetie, You Won’t Believe It  
Review by Rich Cline | 3.5/5
Sweetie, You Won't Believe It
dir Yernar Nurgaliyev
scr Zhandos Aibassov, Yernar Nurgaliyev, Daniyar Soltanbayev, Il'yas Toleu, Anuar Turizhigitov, Alisher Utev
prd Yernar Nurgaliyev, Zhandos Aybasov, Azamat Dulatov, Timur Shevchenko
with Asel Kalieyva, Danyar Alshinov, Azamat Marklenov, Yerlan Prynbetov, Dulyga Akmolda, Almat Sakatov, Rustem Zhanyamanov, Yerkebulan Dayirov, Beckarys Akhetov, Kadyrgali Kobentai, Gaukhar Sagingaliyeva
release US Aug.21 nyaff,
UK Aug.21 frf
20/Kazakhstan 1h24

fright fest

Is it streaming?

Alshinov, Prynbetov and Marklenov
Loud and abrasive, this jumpy comedy from Kazakhstan has a lot of energy as it mixes Three Stooges-style slapstick with bumbling criminal action and some outrageous grisliness. With six credited writers, the script is a mess, piling random nonsense on top of corny plot points and lots of illogical chaos. But the gleefully gruesome approach and some absurd character touches manage to turn it into an entertaining guilty pleasure.

At the end of his tether, Dastan (Alishinov) is struggling to be patient with his hormonal heavily pregnant wife Zhanna (Kalieyva), as well as ongoing money problems. So he decides to escape on a fishing trip with his childhood friends Arman and Murat (Prynbetov and Marklenov), despite reports of hikers going missing in the area. They're on a collision course with four bickering thugs who are being stalked by an angry scar-faced psycho (Akmolda) because they killed his dog. And with Zhanna screaming down the phone, Dastan finds himself in an even more insane situation.
Even the most intense scenes are shot and played for laughs, using inventively manic filmmaking and high-octane acting. Wacky touches include Arman's plan to launch a sex-shop business in a Muslim country, Murat's fiery temper as an over-confident but lovelorn cop, and Dastan's worries that he might not make it home for his child's birth. The movie's riotously ramshackle style makes it endearing, combined with some terrific directorial touches that ramp up both humour and nastiness.

The three central characters have an engaging hapless naivete, played with a vague sense of realism that allows Alishinov, Prynbetov and Marklenov to add some witty details along the way, even when they absurdly turn on each other. By contrast, the four goons are bloodthirsty idiots who seem incapable of accomplishing anything deliberately. Each has just one personality trait (trigger-happy, squeamish, controlling, panicky), so there's little suspense in watching them get hunted down one-by-one.

While filmmaker Nurgaliyev has a lot of fun deploying throwaway gags and pushing things over the top, the film retains a safe comical approach, never challenging the audience with something that's actually transgressive. But the brisk pace and blackly hilarious tone make it consistently engaging. And there are several elaborately well-staged set-pieces that keep the adrenaline pumping, including perhaps the most ridiculous movie fight scene ever. Indeed, this is the kind of offbeat, utterly bonkers movie that deserves to develop a cult following.

cert 15 themes, language, violence 30.Aug.21

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