Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Recent Russian: Hard to Be a God & Leviathan

These were two surprisingly crowded screenings, given that the one was for a 170-minute black & white Russian fantasy and the other was 140 minutes and an art house movie that had already played the better part of a month. In short, I've got no idea why some things do well and others don't.

To a certain extent, it's a matter of compacting the screenings - there are just enough people in the Cambridge area who would be interested in some combination of Aleksey German's last film and any black-and-white fantastik film and will come out on Wednesday or Thursday evening. Spread it out over a week, it's not impressive, but two days is apparently just enough.

Leviathan, on the other hand, I'd kept not quite fitting in my schedule until it left Kendall Square, which meant I would have to head to West Newton to see it (not realizing it would open in Arlington a week later). Pain in the neck, as it was raining and takes two buses to get there and the place only takes cash and I just had three bucks in my wallet and there wasn't an ATM for my bank in easy walking distance so that $9 ticket wound up costing $12...

Not a bad crowd, considering it was a pretty niche movie on a Saturday afternoon. I've said it before, but the West Newton Cinema kind of fascinates me just in terms of being really weird outlier as these places go, an art house in a place where you'd think a mainstream place could thrive which in apparently knows its local audience well enough to thrive with its idiosyncratic programming. I kind of love the place, in part because it is the opposite of the carefully designed, highly-polished theaters I often go to. It's got plain white walls with posters taped or tacked to them, screens located at the end of snake-like hallways, and a balcony that overlooks the lobby. The popcorn is good and the place is surprisingly big for the amount of frontage it has on the street. The screen I saw Leviathan on was smallish (seating about 100 people) and the holes at the ends of the armrests, if they are supposed to be cupholders, to not hold a large beverage. Pretty cool until the person who has to sit right next to you knocks your popcorn and soda into your lap.

That'll stop the waxing rhapsodic about old-fashioned movie houses right quick.

Still, it's always neat to go out there, and I'm disappointed that the transit options will be making it all but impossible to see some of the Belmont World Film festival selections that will be playing there with the Belmont Studio currently shut down. It's a neat place that more folks in Boston should check out.

Trudno byt bogom (Hard to Be a God)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 12 March 2015 in the Brattle Theatre (first-run/special engagement, DCP)

Hard to Be a God may deserve your ten bucks just for the sheer level of will and effort it took to get made, with decades of working on the script, six years of filming, and another seven of post-production, during which time filmmaker Aleksey German passed away, leaving his similarly talented wife and son to complete it. Appreciate that, because the film itself is an endurance test - impressive but decidedly not for everybody's taste.

The premise of the film and the novel by Arkadiy & Boris Strugatskiy that it is based upon sounds like an episode of Star Trek - a group of scientists have arrived on a world that is much like Earth, except that it is stuck in the middle ages, never having experienced the Renaissance. A group of thirty scientists have been observing for a while, but are under orders not to interfere with its development. One, Don Rumata (Leonid Yarmolnik), hs been there some time, posing as the bastard offspring of a noble and a local god. He has been given the job of rescuing an intellectual by the name of Budakh (Evgeniy Gerchakov) from warlord Don Reba (Aleksandr Chutko), but getting there is apparently far from a straight line.

Indeed, it's a long, meandering one; the film runs nearly three hours and the story as such doesn't really kick into gear until some time after the two-hour mark. Until then, it's a lot of getting to know the world and Rumata's place in it, and that's a tough, tough slog. German does not shrink from how ugly the equivalent time period was on Earth or Arkanor, with the latter planet apparently being made almost entirely of mud just as a start. That isn't quite grimy enough for German, of course, so he makes sure that it gets mixed with blood, pus, snot, excrement (animal and human), and any other nasty material one can come up with as it sticks to Rumata, and that's just the obvious gross-out material. The people are uncouth and barbaric, cringing as Rumata plays jazz on his flute, burning any writing almost by reflex, and just as really visiting violence and degradation upon each other. There is some discussion of competing factions - "blacks" and "grays" - but who can tell any difference based upon how they act?

Full review on EFC

Leviafan (Leviathan)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 14 March 2015 in West Newton Cinema #6 (first/second-run, DCP)

What is it that makes a movie jump from a solid drama with an interesting premise to borderline-great, the sort of film that doesn't just get chosen as its country's Oscar submission, but makes the final cut? Obviously, if there were an easy universal answer, everyone would do it; for Leviathan, it seems to be tying an exquisite knot: Able to tighten and come undone with the minimum amount of the right kind of pressure.

It starts with Kolya (Aleksey Serebryakov), a handyman and mechanic in the north of Russia whose family home may be humble, but it is located on a very desirable patch of land. Desirable enough that the city has made moves to legally seize it to build a communications center. It's difficult to fight City Hall anywhere, but an old buddy from the Army, Dmitriy "Dima" Seleznyov (Vladimir Vdovichenkov) is a high-powered lawyer from Moscow, and comes to argue his case - or, failing that, apply some leverage to the Vadim (Roman Madyanov), the religious but highly corrupt mayor. It will take some days, during which time Dima can see the tension between Kolya, second wife Lilya (Elena Lyadova), and son Roman (Sergey Pokohdaev).

Director and co-writer Andrey Zvyagintsev begins the film as Kolya's chances at an official remedy are drawing to a close; it's barely ten minutes before the court reads out how Kolya will take what the city says his land is worth because his claims that he deserves more are baseless. It's a numbing declaration - few other languages can truly communicate the system grinding a man into paste like Russian spoken in a monotone - that both establishes an air of fatalism and signals the real plot is about to begin. It's time to start trying to make the rampant corruption work in this family's favor. Everybody, from Vadim down to Roman, is breaking the rules in some way, with the common thread being that seizing advantage also creates leverage that can be used against that person, depending upon how ruthless his or her enemies are.

Full review on EFC

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