European Union Film Festival 2014 Part Two, by Aaron Pinkston
Each March, the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago, Illinois brings a wide variety of new films from around Europe during the European Union Film Festival. This year marks the 17th annual festival, with films from 26 countries and 64 Midwestern premiers. Each week of the festival, I will bring a few select reviews from the schedule’s diverse selections.
The Trip to Italy (United Kingdom, dir. Michael Winterbottom)
A few years back, Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip was among my biggest discoveries at the European Union Film Festival. I had heard the praises of Winterbottom and Steve Coogan’s other collaborations, but they were a blind spot for me. By this year’s festival, the comedy team wasn’t going to be surprising anyone with their sequel, which reunites fictionalized Coogan with frenemy Rob Brydon. This time, they get right into the road trip hijinks after a brief opening scene. Since the last film, Coogan has made the move to Hollywood to star in his generic procedural and Brydon has continued his quiet and moderately successful life with his family. We’ve also learned that Brydon ended up taking over the journal series for the Observer, which now wants the two to come together for a new series — this time, following the footsteps of British scribes Percy Shelley and Lord Byron along the beautiful coasts of Italy.
Fans of the first film will recognize The Trip to Italy’s style and structure. Throughout the film, we peek in on random conversations as the duo wine-and-dine at incredible restaurants, stay in lavish hotels, and soak in the culture. There are also impressions. Many impressions. In terms of pure comedy, I would rate The Trip over its sequel, but there are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments. Perhaps it’s the lack of surprise this time around, but there isn’t the signature setpiece like the dueling Michael Caine’s that will blow up as a viral sensation. Still, we get impressions as disparate as Christian Bale, Dustin Hoffman, Marlon Brando, Diane Keaton, and (of course) Al Pacino. As for non-impression comedic moments, there is a great bit during their stop in Pompeii and repeated gags involving Alanis Morrissette’s Jagged Little Pill.
Though I don’t think The Trip to Italy reaches the levels of laughter, the group puts together more intricate conversational setpieces. Many of the film’s best moments take their dinner discussions into grounds where they become almost entire skits, with each performer doing multiple characters throughout their interaction. The best of these are segments staged around Rob Brydon’s love for The Godfather films and their ultimate stop in Sicily. One particular moment involves a play on Michael Corleone’s return from Sicily only to find that his wife is now Annie Hall.
Like The Trip, however, Winterbottom’s eye from dramatic moments isn’t lost. The Trip to Italy returns to both men’s personal lives, including their careers and families, though spends more time with Brydon. In some ways, the characters’ lives have flipped, with Brydon finding himself in random romantic encounters and an opportunity from Hollywood. Brydon is given more time to showcase himself as a dramatic actor and not just as a sidekick foil. Though Coogan is still credited first during the opening credits, this feels more like Brydon’s film to me, which offers something new to the original film’s fans who want more out of the series than a rehash.
The Trip to Italy gives you everything you would expect from a sequel to The Trip, and that is by and large a good thing. It’s not better than the original, but it will make you laugh consistently. Importantly, though, it proves to be a worthy sequel because it spends appropriate time in developing these characters. It keeps the same light and quick pace and structure, but it stands out as its own film.
We Are the Best!, Sweden, dir. Lukas Moodysson
When I was in high school/college, I was in a band. And by “in a band” I mean I often hung out with friends and we sometimes fooled around with musical instruments I had no idea how to play proficiently. Sure, I never performed in front of a group with this band, but that didn’t really even matter to me. The more important thing was that I was hanging out with people who had similar tastes and interests and had a sense of belonging. That is the major sentiment of Lukas Moodysson’s We Are the Best!, a coming age comedy about three junior high girls who form a punk band.
Best friend outsiders and punk fanatics Bobo and Klara decide to form a band on a whim after signing up for a rehearsal room at the local community center. They write a song about hating sports and recruit Christian good-girl Hedvig, who actually knows how to play music. The film captures the collective spirit of the girls, who are wonderfully fun and strong characters. We’ve never really seen girls this age like this on screen — though they are only 13 and 14 years old, they are politically and socially conscious, with their own style not based on the popular trends. Their punk role models aren’t even the ones you would expect, not the Clash or the Sex Pistols, but unnamed Swedish bands.
Even still, the film lets us know that they are girls, and they behave like girls. They have problems with their parents, at school, and yes, even boy troubles. The film perhaps spends too much time with a love triangle subplot, which clearly isn’t as much fun as when they are being more rebellious, but I don’t see these scenes as a cop out, either. These girls, especially Bobo and Klara, are figuring themselves out as women. The film really understands how kids group together to find their collective and individual identity, and that by the end of it all, they know how important they are in each other’s development. We Are the Best! thankfully doesn’t treat their love for punk as a fad, as we all had our thing when we were kids that doesn’t last forever.
We Are the Best! is a really funny, charming, entertaining film, and it has something to say about being a young girl in society. As our three girls are spending more time playing music, adult mentors, in particular male ones, coddle them along the process. The girls are given an opportunity to play, but it’s always with a “look at how cute they are” tone. The film’s climax leads to their first performance, where they are being sponsored by the community center in some sort of regional showcase. The community organizers are excited to bring Iron Fist, a super cool high school band, but also like the idea of bringing the punk trio as a “girl group.” I won’t spoil the fantastic scene that comes, though I will say that these young women who have been coddled up until now are ridiculed for their looks and views once they perform. But because these girls are awesome, they respond in the most punk way possible. It’s pretty safe to say that the crowd reaction wouldn’t have been anything nearly as hostile if these were boys playing. The scene is an interesting and subtle commentary on women who don’t fit their roles — though they may be championed in theory, they are torn apart in practice.
When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism (Romania, dir. Corneliu Porumboiu)
In the opening sequence of Porumboiu’s When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism, we are introduced to a filmmaker and his leading lady, presumably driving home from a day of shooting. The filmmaker talks about the differences in shooting on film versus digital. He seems to be a bit of a purist, but is intrigued by digital’s possibilities — particularly, the ability for shots to last more than 11 minutes, which he believes would give a filmed story more truth. Given that When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism is presented as a series of long takes (my informal count has this 89 minute film with about 12 total shots), it seems that this is the filmmaker is trying to capture some sort of reality on film. It’s a lofty effort, and not entirely without merit, but this reality simply isn’t all that interesting.
Perhaps the most intriguing thing about When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism (I think I’m going to use the title as often as possible to boost my word count) is what it doesn’t show. This is a film about the making of a film, though we never see the film that is being made. It has few characters, most of the time is spent with the director and the actress, and stays away from the actual shoot. There is a pivotal scene where these two rehearse a scene, meticulously working over the character’s movements after getting out of the shower, but there isn’t any real context to the scene, so we don’t really know how it fits in. Because of its placement in this film, we would expect it to be a major sequence, but there is also indication that it is just any random scene — especially given the simple nature of the filmed actions. At one point late in the film there are scheduled reshoots because the actress has been given too much screentime as if she was the lead of the film. Watching When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism would certainly give that perspective, and so there is an uncanny sense to the story.
At other points, the actress is interrupted by phone calls that, again, lack context. The first time this happens, she ignores the call, letting her phone buzz (as neither character on screen acknowledges the vibrating phone, I thought it was coming somewhere from inside the theater). When she finally relents to answer, she has the filmmaker pull to the side of the road so she can get out of the car for some privacy. This happens a few other times, including the film’s very last scene. The calls all come at inopportune times, though they aren’t really interrupting anything within the narrative — they mostly come just before or just after she is done shooting. I didn’t pick up any indication as to who these calls are coming from; they seem to come from the same source each time, perhaps a lover of the woman, breaking up the relationship of her and the filmmaker. The interesting thing about these calls is that we don’t know their context, as if they exist in a different world than what Porumboiu is showing us. They are as mundane as the rest of the film, but with a peculiar mystery.
As for the main narrative thrust of the film, it is mostly conversations between these two characters that range from film to food to love. The characters are often in opposition, arguing over mundane topics like which country has more “sophisticated” food. When they are working together, they are distant, with the actress having difficulty in pleasing her director. It is a strange romance, one where almost all of the connection is left out. If this were a married couple, it would make some narrative sense, but these two are young in love. They are too casual and at odds to make sense as a couple hooking up — we aren’t privy to the spark that brought them together.
When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism is a difficult film to grab meaning from — even the title is purposefully nonsensical. There are certainly thoughts about the filmmaking process, conversations about love and other stuff, but most of the film’s appeal is how it veils what you don’t see. This leads to an interesting exercise, but not an enjoyable one to watch.