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PIFF 2018: Take 1

The Death of Stalin (United Kingdom, 2017) dir. Armando Iannucci (106 mins) Trailer

The opening night film came with some buzz what with the director being the creator of Veep. Alas, 'twas a letdown. My thought as I watched was that this comes straight from the Mel Brooks hammer-you-on-the-head school of comedy. The next day two PIFF-goers characterized it as British humor. Be that as it may, I can enjoy this brand of comedy in small doses only. It soon grows tedious.

The festival calendar notes give a decent description of the collection of boobs and clowns who after the death of Stalin plot, maneuver, and jockey for position while trying to keep their heads down, careful to be part of every "unanimous" vote of the Central Committee, so as not to be next up for execution:

dweeby Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), the wily Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), and the sadistic secret police chief Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale...

Precious little wit or cleverness is to be found in dialogue with f-bombs galore and crude references to sex with women who have no say in the matter. The Death of Stalin is not exactly bad. I laughed from time to time. The film is not overly long and it moves along well.

I heard that many people liked the film. On the other hand, four PIFF pals who commented the next day were no more taken with it than I was. You might enjoy The Death of Stalin if its style of humor is to your taste. The trailer provides a fair sense of the film. What you see there is pretty much what you get.

A Ciambra (Italy/Germany/France/US, 2017) dir. Jonas Carpignano (117 mins) Trailer

Pio is fourteen years old, a member of a chaotic family of petty thieves in a Romani community in southern Italy. "Let's make some money," he says to a pal, by which he means, let's steal something. Theft is all he knows. Little boys and girls smoke cigarettes and ride motorinos and everyone drinks beer and wine. This is an unsparing, at times painful drama, grim and intense throughout, but it failed to draw me in with the exception of a segment near the end where Pio is called on betray his one friend, a young migrant from Africa who is the one decent adult on the scene. I overheard a moviegoer remark that this was the longest two-hour movie she ever watched. It may not be the longest for me, but it's up there. To be fair, I also heard a woman at the opening night film recommend A Chiambra as one of her festival favorites.

Under the Tree (Iceland/France, 2017) dir. Hafstein Gunnar Sigurösson (89 mins) Trailer

A dark and disturbing comedy for the most part before throwing any pretense at comedy, even of a dark flavor, overboard at the close. A feud between neighbors that gets way out of hand plays out with a subplot about a man trying to get his estranged wife to take him back or at least spend time with his daughter. The wife has reason for taking a dim view of her husband's wishes.

Under the Tree opens with a couple, Atli and Agnes, in bed, their eyes and backs to one another. It is evident that neither is happy. A few moments pass before a jump to a couple engaged in some energetic sex. First thought is that Agnes and Atli seem to have worked out their issues pretty quickly. The camera pulls back to show Atli at his desk watching a video on his laptop. Agnes walks in, does a double-take, asks, "Are you watching porn?" Atli replies, "No," and slams the laptop shut, forgetting that the scene is still playing on a larger monitor on his desk. Agnes takes a closer look and asks, "Is that you?" "No." "Is that Rakel?" "No. Well, yes." She tells him to get out.

Atli moves back in with his parents, Inga and Baldvin, who are feuding with their neighbors, Konrad and Eybjorg, because their tree casts an unwelcome shadow on the porch where Eybjorg likes to sunbathe. The two husbands could probably reach a compromise, trim some limbs or something, but Inga is a crazy-mean old bat who won't give an inch and Eybjorg is just as stubborn.

Eybjorg is Konrad's second wife and notably younger than the one he divorced. This seems to tick off Inga, who refers to Eybjorg as "that cycling bitch." To be fair, Inga seems to be easily ticked off by all manner of things.

Meantime, Atli is a something of a hapless doofus, prone to anger but not altogether unlikable. He genuinely loves his daughter. Maybe he even loves his wife. Agnes also comes off as likable, but brighter and more together than Atli. It is hard to see what in the world brought them together in the first place until that comes to light near the end.

Atli's brother Uggi disappeared at some time in the past, presumably a suicide, his body never recovered. Whether this has something to do with Inga's crankiness and dour take on life, or whether Inga's darkness played a part in Uggi's presumed suicide, is not gotten into. It is just kind of there, hovering in the background.

The feud comes to a head when Inga's cat disappears. She blames Konrad and Eybjorg and exacts a horrible and demented vengeance for which their innocent German shepherd Askur is the means.

I was okay with this one and would have given it a qualified recommendation until the bloody denouement in Konrad's workroom where he and Baldvin put what I think must be a staple gun, a wrench, a box cutter, a pitchfork, and other handyperson tools to uses for which they were never intended. The dark conclusion could have been conveyed with real emotional impact. Instead we got a gratuitous, sensationalistic failure of vision that ruined what could have been a passable film.

I don't think I give too much away when I reveal that in the end the damn cat shows up from its wanderings no worse for the wear.

On Body and Soul (Hungary, 2017) dir. Ildikó Enyedi (116 mins) Trailer

This unusual love story set in a slaughterhouse is beguiling, almost enchanting.

Maria is the new quality control inspector, a stickler for rules and regulations with a freakish memory and a blank slate when it comes to social and interpersonal relations. Her therapist, whom she seems to have been seeing since childhood, suggests that her issues at this stage are beyond his scope of expertise and suggests she might want to consult an adult therapist. She sticks with him. I suppose she could be diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder or similar disability. I tend to think of her simply as her own variety of human being, unusual and vulnerable, just who she is.

Endre, who heads up the finance department, is struck by Maria from the first time he sets eyes on her. He is older and awkward, as he puts it, "out of the game" for some time after having been with a number of women in his life, maybe too many.

We get the classic scenario where two people are attracted to one another with neither having a clue how to proceed. The twist comes when their interviews with a psychologist called in to conduct "mental hygiene" assessments by a police officer investigating the theft of mating powder from the slaughterhouse pharmacy reveals they have the same bizarre dream each night. They are two deer, a stag and doe, foraging for food and water in a snow-covered forest.

Maria's attempts at research, watching porn, which her therapist advises is not likely to be helpful, and listening to love songs, are amusing, touching, and painful, as are Endre's tentative and gentle approaches to this strange woman.

What appeared to be the set-up for a cliché ending is nicely turned on its head. On Body and Soul is a bit longer than it needs to be. As a friend once observed, not many movies are too short. Maybe not for everyone. I liked it.

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