Leviathan (Leviafan) (2014)


Dem bones, dem bones.

Dem bones, dem bones.

(2014) Drama (Sony Classics) Elena Lyadova, Vladimir Vdovichenkov, Alexi Serebryakov, Roman Madyanov, Anna Ukolova, Sergei Pokhodaev, Alexi Rozin, Kristina Pakarina, Lesya Kudryashova, Valery Grishko, Igor Sergeev, Dimitri Byovski-Romashov, Igor Savochkin, Sergei Borisov, Sergei Bachurski, Natalya Garustovich, Irina Gavra. Directed by Andrei Zvyagintsev

Life can be unrelentingly bleak. When you live in a coastal town in the northwestern fringes of Russia, where corruption is how it’s always been and ever going to be, how does a single man find justice when the entire system is rigged against him?

Kolya (Serebryakov) is a mechanic living in just such a town. He lives with his son Roman (Pokhodaev) from his first marriage, and his second wife Lilya (Lyadova) in a house that has a stunning view of the harbor, and when the sun is shining (a rare occurrence admittedly) the front windows allow a great amount of light into the small but cozy home. There are worse places to be.

Until the corrupt Mayor Vadim (Madyanov) rests his eyes on the land and realizes that it could be a gold mine for him. However, he has to get his hands on it and that won’t be easy or legal – Kolya doesn’t want to sell. His grandfather built the home with his own two hands after all. But Vadim usually gets what he wants and he uses arcane laws to steal the land right from under Kolya.

However, Kolya knows a guy. In this case, it’s the lawyer Dmitri (Vdovichenkov), an old army buddy of Kolya. Dmitri has the goods on Vadim which might be enough to call off the dogs on Kolya. However, when Dmitri is invited by one of Kolya’s best friends for an afternoon of target shooting, events will transpire that will lead to an abrupt reversal of fortune that will leave none of those involved in the story unaffected.

It is incredible to me that this movie, a pointed indictment at corruption not only in the Russian legal system but in the Russian soul, would have been selected by Russia as their nominee for the Foreign Language film Oscar but not only was it submitted, it made the final short list, losing eventually to Ida for the statuette. I can see why critics and Academy voters loved this movie.

It is, however, unrelentingly bleak which is I suppose not to be unexpected from a Russian film – Russian literature and Russian movies are notorious for their grim outlook. This isn’t a happy, uplifting movie that is going to make you feel better about things; this is a movie about the travails of life, how those who have get the upper hand on those who don’t and how they generally wield it like a club against them. It’s not a pretty picture.

However, in this case, it is a well-acted picture, particularly in the case of Lyadova as the long-suffering Lilya. Her expression is mournful, her demeanor is mousy. Kolya is a bit of a hothead, given to smacking his son upside the head when he is rude which, as a teenage boy, is most of the time. Roman saves most of his vitriol for Lilya whom he clearly doesn’t care for much. There is some question as to what happened to the first wife and when – the film doesn’t explain that bit of particular information, but one gets the sense that Roman knew his mom.

In fact, most of the cast is top-notch although they aren’t well known in the U.S. They have that dour Russian mentality of expecting the worst and usually having their expectations met. Other than the hopelessly arrogant and corrupt Vadim, they know their lot in life is to suffer and to get no justice in their suffering, so they drink.

And they drink a lot. They drink to drown their sorrows. They drink to celebrate. They drink when they go out shooting. They drink when they have a meal. They drink because it’s Wednesday. They drink because they’re awake. If ever there was a movie that would serve as a poster child for temperance, it’s this one. Kolya is the biggest drinker of the lot, a raging alcoholic even by Russian standards.

This isn’t a movie for everyone, and I think you have to be in the right frame of mind to truly appreciate it. There are some difficult moments here, some telegraphed and some not. There are also some light-hearted movies, such as when the group goes out on a shooting outing, they pull out pictures of old Soviet leaders like Brezhnev and Stalin to use as targets. My friend Larry, a student of Russian customs and society, found that particularly amusing.

However, the amusements come few and far between here and depict a life in Russia that is cold, miserable and unfair. Which is a lot like life everywhere else for the most part (except for those equatorial nations where it is hot, miserable and unfair).

REASONS TO GO: Searing social commentary. Lyadova is a real find. Well-acted throughout.
REASONS TO STAY: Unrelentingly grim.
FAMILY VALUES: Coarse language, some sexuality and graphic nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While based on actual events both in Russia and in the United States, the screenplay was written as a modern reworking of the Book of Job.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/8/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 99% positive reviews. Metacritic: 92/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Brazil
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Focus

Russian Ark (Russkiy kovcheg)


Ghosts in the Hermitage.

Ghosts in the Hermitage.

(2002) Historical Fantasy (Wellspring) Leonid Mozgovoy, Sergei Dontsov, Mariya Kuznetsova, Mikhail Piotrovsky, David Giorgobiani, Maksim Sergeyev, Natalya Nikulenko, Aleksandr Chaban, Vladimir Baranov, Anna Aleksakhina, Lev Yeliseyev, Oleg Khmelnitsky, Alla Ospienko, Artyom Strelnikov, Tamara Kurenkova, Svetlana Gaytan. Directed by Aleksandr Sokurov

Russian Ark was filmed in the famed Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, which the tsars called home from the time of Peter the Great until the Russian Revolution of 1917. It was also produced in one long shot, a la Hitchcock’s Rope and as viewers travel the corridors among the magnificent artworks of the Hermitage, they meet figures from history who lived and worked there.

The story concerns an unseen narrator (Mozgovoy) who is referred to in the credits as “The Spy.” He wakes up after an accident of some sort and finds himself on the grounds of the Hermitage. He enters the palace with a group of revelers, and discovers that the year is 1814. He turns a corner and comes face to face with Peter the Great (Sergeyev). How can that be?

And so it goes, traveling through the passageways, not in one time or another but phasing out, not unlike Billy Pilgrim of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, although writer/director/producer Sokurov integrates this much more smoothly into his storyline than Vonnegut did.

The Spy is joined by a 19th century French nobleman, the Marquis de Custine (Dontsov) who has sharp opinions on Russia and the Russian court, where he was stationed at length during his career. The womanizing Marquis helps the Spy navigate the hallways, past beautiful paintings (some of which are explored at length), through sumptuous balls and court functions, through intrigue and, occasionally, tragedy. This leads to a revelation as to what they are doing there; keep the title in mind at all times.

It’s an ambitious project, with a cast of more than two thousand actors, with only a small portion of them credited, and three orchestras supplying background music.  Part of the movie’s problem is its subject. The Hermitage is a natural venue for a movie, but it is a curse as well; you want to linger among the vast hallways, galleries and salons, examine the artwork. Of course, if the filmmakers were to do that, you’d have a 100-hour long movie.

Likewise, some of the characters that pass through the movie are fascinating, such as Catherine the Great (Kuznetsova), for whom Sokurov obviously held a great deal of affection. In her prime, she is a natural force, a storm that sweeps the Russian landscape and changes it forever. In the twilight of her life, she is a doughty old woman, trudging like a bulldog through the snow of the grounds, unmindful of obstacle or anything else, her steely gaze straight ahead. It’s truly a charming portrayal.

At what point does a concept become a gimmick? The single shot idea could certainly degenerate into gimmickry; even Hitchcock had trouble with it, but it works here. The overall effect is of walking the halls of the Hermitage yourself, making the camera your ultimate point of view. Although the time changes are sometimes dizzying (you move from an elegant modern-day art gallery to a badly damaged room during the siege of Leningrad during World War II in one sequence) and disorienting, it also creates susceptibility in the viewer, for you literally don’t know what’s coming next or whom – or when – you’ll encounter.

Being of Russian heritage myself (my mother’s family hailed from the Ukraine), I found Russian Ark’s commentary on Russian life not always flattering, but always honest and completely scintillating. There is a Russian stoicism permeating the film; life happens and the filmmaker seems to shrug at tragedy and death with a “what can you do” kind of fatalism.

It was not so long before this was made that these guys were an evil empire, but the Russian people have had to overcome a great deal of hardship during those transitional years in shrugging off the communist government they’d pioneered. I don’t think Russian Ark could have been made in quite the same way under the communist regime, but it is hopeful that Russians are embracing their history – warts and all – instead of sweeping the unfavorable bits under the rug.

Russian Ark is a visually stunning, compelling film that takes us through Russian history and art, two areas largely unknown in this country. Even without the spectacle, it’s worth seeing just for the opportunity to learn a little more about that enigmatic country. You should seek this out – it is one of the best movies of the last decade and remains to this day one of the highest grossing Russian-made films in the United States.

WHY RENT THIS: The magnificent artwork and corridors of the Hermitage. Novel concept. Epic sweep of Russian history.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Confusing in places.

FAMILY MATTERS: A few eerie moments.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The entire film was shot in one continuous shot which was choreographed and pre-planned to the very last detail. What you see is the third take – there were two flubbed attempts that thankfully occurred in the first ten minutes. Oh, and the Marquis de Custine was an actual historical figure.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There is a 48 minute documentary feature on the history of the Hermitage, as well as 43 minute making-of featurette that details all of the issues and preplanning of this massive undertaken, which included three different orchestras, almost 2000 actors and 33 different rooms of the museum all filmed in one continuous shot.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $6.7M on an unknown production budget; despite the epic scope of the film, I believe that it was profitable in the end.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: This is like nothing else that’s come before or since.

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: My Country, My Country

 

12


12

Twelve angry Russian men.

(Sony Classics) Sergei Markovetsky, Nikita Mikhalkov, Sergei Garmash, Alexei Petrenko, Valentin Graft, Yuri Stoyanov, Mikhail Efremov, Sergei Gazarov, Alexander Abadashan, Viktor Verzhbitsky, Alexei Gorbunov, Roman Madianov, Sergei Artsybashov, Apti Magamaev. Directed by Nikita Mikhalkov

A trial of our peers, twelve good and true. Our justice system is based on it, as is the justice systems of other countries as well. We entrust the fate of accused criminals to twelve jurors and expect that they will make their decision impartially and fairly. Of course, any jury is made of twelve human beings and any human being is a slave to their own preconceptions.

In Moscow, the murder trial of a Chechen teen (Magamaev) accused of killing his adopted Russian father has concluded and the jury has been sent off to deliberate. Because of renovations being done at the courthouse, the jury has been sent to a neighboring school to use their gymnasium for that purpose. Nobody expects them to be gone long; after all, the evidence is pretty cut and dried.

With no working phones (this is Russia, after all), the bailiff hands them a homemade walkie talkie in case they need anything (unlikely) or reach a verdict (more likely). After a bit of bantering and electing a foreman, they cast their first vote, expecting a unanimous guilty verdict. When the votes are counted up, they are astonished to find that one of their number has voted “not guilty.”

So begins the odyssey of twelve Russian men, some angry, some not so much. This is a disparate group; one is a Harvard-educated mama’s boy, another a flinty anti-Semite; one is a bit of a clown and another is an intellectual. All are linked by the events they have been only described to them. What it all means and what will happen to a young Chechen boy is up to them.

The movie is ostensibly a remake of the classic courtroom drama Twelve Angry Men but it is more accurate to call it a movie based on the original. The writer of the original movie, Reginald Rose, is given screen credit but little more than the concept remains. While the original was something of an indictment of McCarthyism, this one is far more Russian and carries additional layers. While not as tense as the original movie, it nonetheless has a great deal of power of its own.

The movie is extremely well-acted, although in Russian so we miss a lot of nuances by having to read subtitles constantly. It unfolds like a Russian epic, Dostoyevsky gone Hollywood, and in some ways it feels like “Crime and Punishment” with an edge.

Each of the characters is fleshed out nicely, never coming off as a caricature or a cliché but curiously, none of the characters are given names. They are all identified as juror numbers or as some sort of title and yet they all like real people walking the streets of Moscow. As they are called upon to defend their positions, they reveal something about themselves, which in turn reveals to us something about modern Russia. There is some very powerful stuff here.

Russian attitudes also come into play. There is a palpable hatred of the Chechens by the Muskovites; it permeates their reasoning, particularly when it comes to this particular crime. Does it compare to white American attitudes towards the African-American in the 1950s? Probably not, but its pretty close.

This is the kind of movie that transcends language. Even if you aren’t Russian and don’t understand the Russian mentality, you’ll be moved by what you see here. It shows in clear, distinct detail that we are more alike than unalike, and that the same things that trouble folks in Moscow trouble folks in Montana. Those things need no translation.

WHY RENT THIS: A rare look inside the Russian legal system, as well as insight into the modern Russia and modern Russians. At times this is very powerful and very moving.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: We miss many nuances due to the translation and watching of subtitles. Russians are very fond of irony so we miss facial expressions while reading subtitles that give us further clarity.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some violent scenes, as well as some drug references and sexual references but it’s the tension and overall mature theme of the movie that makes it unsuitable for younger audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Director Mikhalkov, only the third Russian director to win an Oscar, is the son of the man who wrote the lyrics to the national anthem of the Soviet Union.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Titanic