Here’s a quick round-up of films seen recently that were either reviewed in more depth elsewhere, or which I’m unlikely to get round to writing up in full.
A good film from a director who’s made several great ones. The reason for my slight disappointment is twofold. Firstly, no mere film could possibly live up to the colossal weight of expectations engendered by both its subject (the ruthlessly cynical Soviet-perpetrated slaughter of at least 12,000 of Poland’s intellectual and military elite in the early days of World War II) and its all too personal connection to its creator (Wajda’s father was one of the victims). Secondly, Wajda’s understandable urge to be as direct and communicative as possible means that Katyń lacks the ambiguity and subtlety of his greatest work, with the characters rarely developed beyond basic archetypes. But individual set-pieces are often inspired (especially at the beginning and end), it’s clearly impossible to deny its historical, cultural and national importance, and I hope it gets proper distribution in English-speaking countries. (At the time of writing, it lacks UK or US distribution, but it’s getting a big-screen airing at BFI Southbank in London on April 22, in Wajda’s presence). My full review of the Polish DVD can be found at DVD Times. (IMDB)
Another Wajda that I hadn’t seen before, this turned out to be as minor as its reputation, and though it’s initially intriguing seeing John Gielgud as a Wajda protagonist, his performance is badly handicapped by atrocious dubbing whenever his character speaks Polish, and even his English voice (Gielgud’s own) bears little resemblance to what one would expect an expat Pole who’s spent much of his creative career in America to sound like. This constant distraction works against one of Wajda’s key themes, of overwhelming nostalgia trumping international fame, though the other main strand, whereby Gielgud is one point of a triangle involving violinist Krystyna Janda (the daughter of his lost love) and her talentless martinet of a husband (who’s achieved his position through official preferment), is much more effective. I’m happy to confirm that the Polish DVD (Vision, Region 0 PAL) does have English subtitles, even though this doesn’t seem to be acknowledged by any of the Polish online retailers. (IMDB)
Quentin Tarantino has lent his name to a wide range of projects, but a feature-length documentary about Hungarian waterpolo must be one of the more eccentric entries in his filmography. Co-produced by expat Andrew G. Vajna at about the same time that he made Children of Glory (see below), this absorbing 90-minute US-made documentary goes behind the scenes of the notorious “blood in the water” match at the Melbourne Olympics (so famous that it has its own Wikipedia page). There, the Hungarians and the Soviet Union clashed for the first time since the failure of the revolution, with results hinted at by the game’s nickname. Sibling filmmakers Colin K. Gray and Megan Raney also offer a useful overview of the revolution as a whole, and a wide range of interviewees includes most of the surviving players from both teams (who have a touching reunion at the end). The Hungarian DVD includes the original English version of the film, with narration by Mark Spitz. (IMDB)
A mammoth box-office hit in Hungary, where it seems to have been as cathartic as Katyń for some, this was the biggest and flashiest of a group of films made specifically for screening at the time of the 50th anniversary of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. Loosely based on the story told by Freedom’s Fury (see above), it turns the material into a high-concept blockbuster by giving the waterpolo team’s star player a somewhat contrived romance with a fiery female student revolutionary and finds himself trapped in Budapest as the Soviet tanks roll in. These scenes, brilliantly staged by veteran stunt coordinator Vic Armstrong, are by far the film’s high point, though it’s also strangely fascinating seeing a Hungarian-language film made absolutely according to the Hollywood stylebook (the producer was Andrew G. Vajna of Rambo fame/notoriety, and the screenplay was adapted from a story by fellow expat Joe Eszterhas). Likeable performances from actors who previously gelled with director Krisztina Goda in her earlier hit Just Sex and Nothing Else (Csak szex és más semmi, 2005) also keep things ticking over nicely. My Sight & Sound review will be published in the next issue, coverdate April 2008. (IMDB)
Watched as background for Children of Glory, this was also made for the 50th anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution, but takes a very different approach. Strongly reminiscent of the British film Let Him Have It in both tone, content and sense of moral outrage, it’s a dour, sobering study of the reasons whereby teenage misfit Peter Mansfeld (Péter Fancsikai) became the revolution’s youngest martyr, executed shortly after his 18th birthday even though he was under-age at the time he committed his relatively minor and generally botched revolutionary crime. Since the target audience would almost certainly have known about his fate well in advance (Mansfeld seems to have the same level of recognition in Hungary as Jan Palach in the Czech Republic), director Andor Szilágyi wisely prefers to concentrate on the political and judicial machinations behind the scenes. There’s a particularly memorable overhead shot of an appeal court judge eating a meal more or less in real time prior to pronouncing sentence, as if to emphasise his real priorities. (IMDB)
A very pleasant but almost instantly forgettable romantic comedy, I actually had to check my notes to remind me of what happened, even though I only saw it a fortnight or so ago (in a first for a Polish film, it opened simultaneously in Warsaw and London, naturally in the week of Valentine’s Day). In a nutshell, fiercely independent Matylda (Magdalena Różczka) decides to have a child without any male input other than the fundamental one at the start of conception, and places a personal ad accordingly. The man who replies, earnest chef Bartek (Marcin Dorociński), is of course perfect for her, but it takes the rest of the film and numerous only very mildly amusing misunderstandings for the penny to drop. Joanna Żółkowska steals most of the laughs as Bartek’s mother, whose desperation to convince the world that she’s still a teenager at heart makes Absolutely Fabulous’ monstrous Edina seem like a model parent. This should also be reviewed in the next Sight & Sound. (IMDB)