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BIFF 2019: Silver Lake & Eternal Winter

March 2, 2019

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The Beloit International Film Festival (BIFF) is ending its ten-day run this weekend! The Wisconsin event began February 22nd and promotes a passion for independent film from around the world. In its fourteenth year, the festival continues to offer films of all genres that have been made here in the States, as well as Europe, Asia and Latin America. It’s a place where local film enthusiasts and visitors from all over can be experience films that have not yet been released, but have been making the rounds on the festival circuit with many of the films include filmmakers and actors who participate in discussions after their film screens in venues that range in size from 40 to 400 seats. While I have yet to physically attend (something I really want to get around to one of these years), I have been able to view a couple of the films that will be screening this weekend.

The two films, “Silver Lake” and “Eternal Winter” are quite different from each other, with the sole commonality being a similar color palette of washed out earth tones. “Silver Lake” is a modern-day dramedy that was filmed in the titular Los Angeles neighborhood, whereas “Eternal Winter” is a Hungarian period piece filmed in Budapest that was recently released in Hungary this month. Watching the two features is a prime example of the variety the festival’s programmers are providing at BIFF and certainly finds me curious about the rest of the films in the lineup.

Both films distinctively feel like the kind of films one would typically find at an international film festival. Hopefully, they’re not the kind we appreciate and never hear from again.

 

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SILVER LAKE

written & directed by: Sean McGinly
95 min.

Set in the titular Los Angeles neighborhood that probably only locals know about, writer/director Sean McGinly’s dramedy sets out to give viewers an idea of its various inhabitants. They are likely people we know: pretentious poets, self-doubting (maybe loathing) artists, people who show up at an artist meet-up and possibly no longer no why, and those lonely, arrogant geniuses who teach. Nathan (Martin Starr) is who we’ll follow on this tour, a struggling writer who’s published a couple now-out-of-print novels and is now trying to write another story that takes place in Silver Lake. Kinda meta, right? He’s in a dating relationship with Mary (Deborah Ann Woll), a single mother with two precious young daughters and occasional drama from her hunky ex, Dan (Baily Chase) who may or may not be still dealing with a drug problem.

Nathan and Mary’s relationship is familiar. They have moments of happiness, yet have to deal with life’s uncertainties while their own doubts, insecurities and past rear their heads to throw them for a loop. They have to tolerate, or at least be polite toward, each other’s friends – like Nathan’s writer pal, (Fred Melamed) and possibly only other male friend. What we see the couple go through is something either we have experienced or have witnessed those close to us navigate.

Across the board, “Silver Lake” is populated with a solid cast, all of whom portray these eccentric characters with a natural authenticity. We take walks with them, have dinner with them and laugh as they balance the awkward moments with the sweet moments ones. McGinly’s story is essentially about a man evaluating his life, sometimes internally and other times verbally. Starr, known for his work on “Freaks and Geeks” and “Silicon Valley” and more recently Peter Parker’s high school teacher in the current MCU iteration of “Spider-Man”) is great and enjoyable to follow along, however his character is often a bit too stuck emotionally for my own liking. Starr’s expressions are often placid and empty, which may be appropriate to the role, but it often leaves Nathan with this hangdog bit that’s a challenge to tolerate through much of the film. While Starr is able to convey the undeniable humor and charm that is his strength, there were still times I wish he’d just unload or relax. Starr and Woll have interesting chemistry together – I liked them together, yet at times I imagined that Nathan is the kind of guy who would lie awake at night wondering how this girl is with him. The final shot of Nathan had me puzzled (in a good way) and left me wanted more of what Starr was communicating more than anything previously seen in the film.

I’d be interested to learn more about how McGinly (“The Great Buck Howard”) arrived at this material. These characters could easily represent people he knows or maybe culled from something semi-autobiographical. He certainly has a knack for capturing a distinct environment along with the eccentric people that live there.

RATING: **1/2

 

 

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ETERNAL WINTER

written by: Attila Szász and Norbert Köbli
directed by: Atilla Szász
110 min.

The historical drama “Eternal Winter” may start out in Christmas circa 1944 in Hungary, but it’s far from festive as it tells the true story of how Soviet soldiers dragged young German women from their villages and forced them into a life of hard labor far away from their homes and families. It’s a harrowingly bleak story, one that is told with detail and care by writer/director Attila Szász, who adapted a novel from János Havasi with co-writer Norbert Köbli, and one that is elevated by some fine performances in telling a specific war-torn story that has never been told before.

The film follows a young woman named Irén Walter (Marina Gera, “White God”) who lives with her parents and looks after her young daughter in a Hungarian a modest village. We get the idea that her husband was recruited to fight in the war and remains MIA. Not long after getting introduced to this family, we’re witness to the Soviet army coming in and requesting that women of part-German heritage assist them with a maize harvest. Irén volunteers, promising her daughter that she will return. Of course, if you’re at all familiar with the time period and other films depicting labor camps, you’ll know the kind of slavery that’s in store for Irén.

She is placed in a camp that mostly consists of women who are forced to work in the remote coal mines of Donetsk and it eventually becomes clear to Irén that the goal is to survive no matter what. But initially, we see her silently (and understandably) outraged by her dire surroundings and the cruel treatment of the woman she will inevitably come to know. As a woman of faith (her father was a clergyman), she remains hopeful and attempts to assist others, but such conditions can weigh heavily on one’s heart, mind and spirit.

Fortunately, she is noticed by Raymond Müller (Sándor Csányi), a male prisoner who’s developed his own rules of survival, part of which is supplying the Soviet guards with hand-rolled cigarettes, and he slowly takes Irén under his wing and eventually expresses his love for her. While she appreciates the help, Irén is hesitant to reciprocate those feelings, due to her commitment to her marriage, even though it is more than likely her husband was killed in action. Irén has to figure out the lengths she will go to keep her spirits hopeful, her faith intact and her belief in the fact that one day she will return to her family.

“Eternal Winter” definitely lives up to its title. There is hardly any sun in the film, which is appropriate to the exhausting and horrible atmosphere Szász is after. It’s clear though that the shining light of the film are the two performances from Gera and Csányi, both of whom are terrific on their own, but also have a compelling chemistry. I appreciate the way in which their characters are written since neither of them felt like they were going down a formulaic path. Sure, they’re playing characters we’ve seen before in this war film subgenre, but they are allowed to deliver performances that communicate a needed naturalness and decency that is appreciated more and more as the film unfolds. Both actors look and feel the part, especially Gera, who’s character gets deathly ill during a portion of the story and the actress certainly is visually convincing in these scenes. As Raymond, Csányi has an emotional key scene in the third act, which is truly heartbreaking, conveying a sadness that is powerful.

It’s during that third act where the prisoners are thrown a Communist curveball that could break their spirits even further. It’s the first moment that piqued my curiosity as to what was being presented actually happened, which is probably a good thing since it shows how immersive “Eternal Winter” can be. Ultimately, it is indeed a challenging viewing experience, but we’re helped along the way by a couple great performances and a solid script.

RATING: ***

 

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