Monday, 19 September 2016

Andrei Konchalovsky: Paradise - Рай (2016)

Director: Andrei Konchalovsky
Cast: Julia Vysotskaya, Christian Clauß, Philippe Duquesne, Vera Voronkova, Jakob Diehl, Peter Kurth, Victor Sukhorukov, Pyotr Mikhalkov,

Paradise Rai Venice

Rarely has the word “Paradise” been superimposed across a gloomier image than in the opening credits of Andrei Konchalovsky’s new film, as the screams of a Russian woman recently arrested by Nazis echo through a dim, dank prison corridor — shot in soberest monochrome. Konchalovsky’s robust, absorbing Holocaust drama is built on such unlikely junctures of grace and despair. Centered principally on the sometimes tense, sometimes tender relationship between an aristocratic concentration camp inmate and the SS officer with whom she shares a fleeting romantic history, the film’s tone and outlook is changeable throughout — down to a striking, only semi-successful framing device of docu-style testimonies that hover deliberately between worlds. An uneasy sit cushioned by lustrous, period-evoking B&W lensing and the outstanding performances of Julia Vysotskaya and Christian Clauß, “Paradise’s” enduringly resonant historical focus should secure it the international distribution that largely eluded its veteran helmer’s previous, Venice-garlanded feature “The Postman’s White Nights.”

After “Son of Saul’s” immersive first-person camera gave viewers a visceral new point of view on the horrors of Nazi concentration camps, the bar for innovation in depicting what is already a comprehensively filmed passage of history was further raised. With its self-consciously classical aesthetic — down to the imposition of artificial wear and tear on the image, creating the impression of a long-buried print — “Paradise” looks emphatically back rather than forward, but its perspective is an unusual one, alternating even-handedly between the raddled, subjective accounts of Nazi oppressor and victim, until they meet ambiguously somewhere in the middle. Among other, less earthly implications, the “paradise” of the title refers to the Aryan idyll that the former repeatedly cites as a motivating dream. Yet the longer he talks — in the bare studio environment, without clear location or era, that Konchalovsky has devised for the film’s “interview” sequences — the less clear it becomes whether or not he believes his own rhetoric.

The film opens in 1942, as refined Russian immigrant Olga (Vysotskaya), a Vogue fashion editor also serving the French Resistance in Paris, is arrested by the Gestapo for harboring two Jewish children in her apartment. Her case is assigned to French-Nazi collaborating officer Jules (Philippe Duquesne), a lecherous family man who seems willing to cut Olga a deal in return for sexual favors. When he abruptly drops out of proceedings, however, she is shipped off to an unspecified, maximum-brutality concentration camp, where she is reunited with her two young wards, but otherwise given every reason to fear the worst.

Philippe is one of only three talking heads in the film’s parallel stream of direct-to-camera statements, and his unexpectedly curtailed arc — after a generous, deliberate window into his home and work lives — initially seems a curious red herring in a film that, at 131 minutes, is confidently unhurried in reaching its narrative heart. It proves the critical key, however, to unlock the relevance and resonance of those enigmatic, after-the-fact interviews, which thereafter alternate the views of a shorn-headed Olga and Helmut (Clauß), the handsome, high-ranking SS golden boy who is assigned by Heinrich Himmler himself (Victor Sukhorukov, in an eccentric caricature) to a senior commanding position in Olga’s camp.

Olga and Helmut immediately recognize each other from a playful, several-summers-ago flirtation — itself detailed in recurring, gleamingly sunlit holiday-film footage that is excerpted in the most nostalgically bittersweet of the film’s rotating registers. As their rekindled but still anxious relationship comes to the fore in the film’s second half, “Paradise” faces an array of potentially redemptive denouements befitting its 1940s wartime-melodrama styling. None of those are exactly promised by the characters’ more detached, rueful interviews — on which the film leans perhaps a little too heavily for emotional clarity in its latter stages. Helmut’s remembrances ricochet between cynical, even critical appraisals of the Nazi ideals and deluded pride in them (“I don’t have to justify my actions; I’ve become an Übermensch”), while Olga dispassionately describes her own suffering while growing more agitated on his behalf: “He knows and appreciates Brahms and Tolstoy. Who did this to him?”

Both actors — blessed with endlessly gaze-worthy faces, in which cinematographer Alexander Simonov’s meticulous lighting keeps finding new expressive accents — are remarkable, their performances entirely complementary in their silences and guarded surges of emotion. There’s a livewire supporting turn, too, from Jakob Diehl as Helmut’s more nakedly skeptical friend and fellow officer Dietrich, restless with self-disgust and homoerotic feeling. Other performances can err on the side of shrill, while matters are not helped by the film’s distracting, frankly clumsy dubbing of actors at certain points — a retrograde detail that is unwelcome in the film’s otherwise careful evocation of golden-age cinema. 

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Thursday, 25 August 2016

Kirill Serebrennikov's new movie nominated for 2016 European Film Awards

Image result for kirill serebrennikov the student
The European Film Academy has announced the longlist of nominees for the prestigious European Film Awards. The only Russian film in the list was film and theater director Kirill Serebrennikov's The Student, which made its debut in Cannes Film Festival's Un Certain Regard section.

The film, which takes place in a modern-day Russian city, revolves around the coming-of-age problems experienced by teenager Veniamin (played by Pyotr Skvortsov) and his relationship with teachers, peers and his single mother as he falls into Christian fundamentalism.

The picture is essentially a film version of the eponymous production at the Moscow Gogol Center (Serebrennikov is its artistic director), which premiered in early 2015. The play and the film are based on a play by German playwright Marius von Mayenburg.

"I met Marius long before the premiere performance of the play The Student in Berlin's Schaubühne Theater in 2012," Serebrennikov told RBTH. "Later, we met and I invited him to make a Russian version, moving the action and types to Russia. He kindly agreed."

According to the director, the success of the stage production inspired him to make a film version. "The topic is of concern to all – the presence of obscurantism, some bigotry and religious fanaticism in our lives that change it every day," he said.

Filming took place in Kaliningrad (about 800 miles west of Moscow) in August 2015. "It was an absolutely happy time! Everyone worked in a concerted effort," recalled Serebrennikov.

The film stars Yulia Aug and Viktoriya Isakova as well as actors from the Gogol Center Theater.

Serebrennikov's rivals at the European Film Awards 2016 include Paul Verhoeven's Elle, Stephen Frears' Florence Foster Jenkins, Pedro Almodovar's Julieta and Thomas Vinterberg's The Commune.

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Friday, 10 June 2016

Andrei Zaitsev: 14+ - Четырнадцать плюс (2015)

14+ (2015)

Director: Andrei Zaitsev
Screenplay: Andrei Zaitsev
Cast: Gleb Kaliuzhnyi, Ul’iana Vaskovich, Ol’ga Ozollapinia

Глеб Калюжный

Andrei Zaitsev’s feature film, 14+, opens boldly with a phantasmagoric montage of multicolored khrushchevkas, congested city streets and local trains. Aleksei Sulima’s rendition of Adriano Celentano’s classic, “Ciao Ragazzi,” blares over these images, making Moscow’s urban outskirts seem not at all depressing, but cheerful and full of hidden potential. This opening effectively establishes the film’s tone, which is nostalgic and idealistic, with hints of self-conscious irony. 14+ represents Zaitsev’s second attempt at a coming-of-age story. His previous feature, The Layabouts (Bezdel’niki, 2011), was loosely based on the life of Kino frontman Viktor Tsoi and focused on young rock stars’ experiences with love. 14+ tells the story of first love between two ordinary teens, Alesha and Vika, who come together despite belonging to rivaling schools. In this film, Zaitsev is interested in not only retelling the age-old tale of mismatched young lovers, but also commenting on how teens experience romantic love in the age of social networks. In addition, the film is about adolescent friendship and interactions between single mothers and their sons in contemporary Russia. Compared to such recent films as Emir Baigazin’s Harmony Lessons (Uroki garmonii, 2013) and Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy’s The Tribe (Plemya, 2014), 14+ presents a relatively wholesome and optimistic view of youth, putting forward a new “positive hero.” Unfortunately, in constructing this hero, Zaitsev leans too heavily on Western adolescent-comedy tropes, producing a film that rehashes the male fantasy of a nerdy boy who gets the beautiful girl.

Ульяна Васькович

One of the interesting features of 14+ is its relationship to the earlier Russian film about a fresh-faced and awkward youth, Aleksei Balabanov’s Brother (Brat 1997). Zaitsev creates this connection in the opening credits, placing the movie poster of Brother in the background of the shot. The poster belongs to Alesha, who loves the now classic film and looks up to its anti-hero, Danila Bagrov. Like Alesha, who idolizes Danila without imitating him, Zaitsev pays homage to Balabanov’s film without appropriating its detached tone and graphic violence. Similarly to Brother, 14+ features amateur actors who turn in naturalistic performances. While Balabanov took advantage of Sergei Bodrov Jr.’s appeal as an unseasoned actor, Zaitsev went as far as to find his leading actors (Gleb Kaliuzhnyi and Ul’iana Vaskovich) through the social networking site Vkontakte. Danila and Alesha are products of similar socio-economic circumstances, despite growing up in different eras. Both are young men who lack positive father figures, but who respond to this absence in strikingly different ways. Danila, a former soldier, is a socially awkward but frighteningly competent killer with a consistent but unconventional moral framework. Alesha acts out in much more typical, non-violent ways. He is non-threatening and capable of maintaining stable friendships, as well as making new friends, despite lacking social graces. While Danila doesn’t hesitate to use force against his enemies or to approach romantic interests, Alesha obsessively ponders his choices, avoiding confrontations with bullies and with the object of his crush. The question of whether Alesha will one day become “a Danila” hangs over the film, and Zaitsev raises it in playful ways, particularly at the end of the film. However, for the most part, 14+ makes clear that Brother is the gangster fantasy of this ordinary hero and not a blueprint for his behavior.

14+ (2015)

While it is refreshing to see an incorruptible young hero in a Russian film, it is also a shame that, as a character, Alesha lacks Danila’s enigma and unpredictability. Zaitsev’s hero and story follow too many of the conventions of coming-of-age dramas and adolescent comedies. In addition to having an absent father, Alesha is also unlucky enough to grow up with an overbearing but ineffectual mother. School fails to engage him, but that is only because his teachers are out of touch, abusive or even drunk on the job. The bullies from Vika’s school threaten his safety but he earns their respect with cleverness instead of violence. Alesha even manages to bring together the nerds and the “Queen Bees,” thus proving that cool girls would rather hang out with geeks than neighborhood bullies. Those who are familiar with such American films as Can't Buy Me Love (1987, dir. Steve Rash), Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982, dir. Amy Heckerling) or Superbad (2007, dir. Greg Mottola), will have no trouble predicting the plot of 14+. Zaitsev incorporates the tropes made famous by these American classics into a stylish and earnest film, but does not go so far as too subvert them.

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Thursday, 9 June 2016

Oksana Karas: Good boy - Хороший мальчик (2016)

Good Boy (2016)

Director: Oksana Karas
Writers: Roman Kantor, Oksana Karas
 Stars: Konstantin Khabenskiy, Ieva Andrejevaite, Mikhail Efremov

"Good Boy" tells about six days from the life of the widely-read and – for his age quite self-confident – sixth-former Kolya Smirnov. The week begins with a kaleidoscope of events. First, Kolya falls in love with his teacher. Second, someone sets fire to the school's extension that houses the new computers. Third, the headmaster's daughter Ksiusha, who is in the year above Kolya, falls in love with him, having decided that it was Kolya who burnt down the school. Well, and to top it all, Kolya's dad declares the family's transition to 12/36 regime, which does not allow our protagonist to sleep and focus his mind. There are only a few days left until the Saturday school party, where all the characters of this comedy of human foibles and illusions will come together: the boy must sort out his love life, investigate arson, and figure out how to get along with his parents. Suddenly, the headmaster makes him an unexpected offer...

Friday, 3 June 2016

Ivan Tverdovsky: Zoologiya - Зоология (2016)

Director: Ivan I. Tverdovskiy
Writer: Ivan I. Tverdovskiy
Stars: Aleksandr Gorchilin, Masha Tokareva, Irina Chipizhenko

Middle-aged Zoo worker Natasha still lives with her mother in a small coastal town. She is stuck and it seems that life has no surprises for her until one day… she grows a tail and turns her life around.

Ivan Tverdovsky was awarded at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival for his feature debut Corrections Class, a daringly confrontational portrayal of alienation and institutionalised neglect in which a disabled girl’s efforts to integrate into Russian society meet with brutal obstacles. The film, which blended a documentary style with a flash of the magical, flagged up the director as a talent to watch. The 27-year-old is now working on new feature Zoology, which he aims to complete by the end of February and which is set to be in a similarly melded style. Tverdovsky told The Calvert Journal that the film is about a “not-so-young woman” who “finds a long tail on her body one day, and her life goes to hell”. The unexpected discovery plunges the woman, an administrator at a local zoo, into an identity crisis that also brings her up against the wounds of modern society. “It’s funny and appears to be a joke, but after the first few minutes of the film you can dip into a real drama,” the director promises. “It will be realism with a little element of fantasy.” Russia has a fine tradition of such absurdist satire, with Mikhail Bulgakov’s Heart of a Dog about an animal-human hybrid one of the last century’s great classics. If Zoology is even a fraction as sharp, we’re in for a treat.

Tuesday, 24 May 2016

Andrey Kravchuk: Viking - Викинг (2016)

Viking (2016)

Director: Andrey Kravchuk
Writers: Andrey Kravchuk, Andrey Rubanov
Stars: Anton Adasinsky, Aleksandr Armer, Vilen Babichev

Alexander Bortich

Kievan Rus, late 10th century. After the death of his father, the young Viking prince Vladimir of Novgorod is forced into exile across the frozen sea.

Friday, 20 May 2016

Olga Stolpovskaya and Dmitry Troitsky: You I Love -Я люблю тебя (2004)

Directors: Olga Stolpovskaya and Dmitry Troitsky
Stars: Damir Badmaev, Lyubov Tolkalina, Evgeniy Koryakovskiy

Olga Stolpovskaya and Dmitry Troitsky are both independent artists and film makers whose films have enriched the parallel cinema with new themes. Their latest film takes place in contemporary Moscow, in the world of young and hip people working in the media. Vera, a prototype of modern times, a beauty working as a TV news presenter, meets advertising executive Tim and begins a relationship with him. They lead quite an ordinary life, until the day that Tim hits the handsome and wild Uloomji with his car and takes him home for some first aid. Before long, a strange, bisexual love triangle begins, and on the day of their first anniversary, Vera finds Tim in bed with Uloomji. The roots and traditions of the Kalmyk Uloomji (Kalmykia is an autonomous Russian Republic and the only European Buddhist nation) are reasons for additional troubles. His peasant family cannot accept the fact that he is gay and things seem to spin out of control for all of them. Though made in the traditions of the parallel cinema, the film stays a pleasant romantic comedy with a happy end. The style is young, slick and cool, the film language attractive and recognisable for a young audience.

You I Love is the official English title of this film, which in Russian is called simply I Love You. It is not clear what the authors meant to express with the transformation of the simple declarative statement of the Russian to the convoluted and ambiguous English version. This strange combination of simplicity and complexity is emblematic for the film as a whole. It has been billed as Russia’s first real example of gay cinema, but the sexual orientation per se of the characters receives relatively little attention or analysis in the course of the action. It is almost lost within a mixture of the most various themes, ideas, images, jokes, and textual and visual references that threaten to disrupt any artistic or ideological unity in the film. This is a film that ultimately doesn’t seem to know what or for whom its message really is.

The three main characters are introduced at the beginning of the film, two of them first as disembodied and anonymous voices. As the young Uloomji, an undocumented resident from the periphery of the former Soviet empire, seeks work in Moscow, we hear Timofei―the creator of television advertising campaigns―doing market research by telephone and Vera―a well-known television news caster―reporting on the growing problem of undocumented workers in the capital. While Uloomji tries to find his place in a city that does not welcome him, the viewer has an equally difficult time placing the mechanically mediated voices speaking from beyond the screen. This introduction sets up the configuration not only of the cast of characters, but also to a large extent of the larger social environment that will structure the drama to come.

Vera and Timofei soon meet and begin a relationship. One of the most striking aspects of the film is the way it aesthetically captures the lifestyle of the young cosmopolitan generation of yuppie-like denizens of a no longer post-Soviet Moscow. The glossy surface and the empty content of modern life is communicated in a relatively small set of dramatic sequences. Vera and Timofei live in a world that is completely constructed by the mass media, which they themselves produce and in which they work. This is underscored not only through a recurring series of ads marketing a western-style soft drink as the fulfillment of all human aspiration, but also in the self-conscious way film itself repeatedly frames its characters as if they are speaking lines in one of Timofei’s video clips.

In this way, You I Love is one of the most striking examples of a film that actually grapples with the new reality of 21st century urban Russia, at least with its cash-drenched new elite. Yet the film is frustratingly coy in its evaluation of this new reality. Technology and urban life give individual identity a kind of amorphous character that has never before been conceivable in Russia’s history. This fluidity of identity is neither celebrated nor mourned, but rather put on display in a way that is half play and half manipulation. Timofei’s supposed discovery of his bisexuality and his developing relationship with both Vera and Uloomji are perceived, on the one hand, as a kind of personal liberation to be sure, but he repeatedly shows himself incapable, on the other hand, of stepping out of the prison house of media images that condition the role-play through which he experiences real life. Vera, too, is at once both a true celebrity in her role as TV newscaster and a prisoner of a system that turns her physical body into a battlefield in the war for ratings.

The film’s narrative voice is likewise diffuse and indeterminate. At several points in the film, Vera’s off-screen voice weaves itself into the action to describe her feelings and small epiphanies. At times we seem to be hearing the story of Vera’s path to a kind of Buddhist enlightenment, a developing ability to see beyond the limitations of the material and social world in which humanity tries to exist. But this narrative voice is not sustained, nor is Vera the focal point for the larger storyline. For much of the action, Vera is pushed far to the sidelines and left to observe the developing relationship of the two men. But on an extradiagetic level, Vera’s subject position continues to organize the film’s point of view, even when her voice does not narrate. As she struggles to understand what is happening with the man she loves, she seems to join the viewers at a place where the inner content of Timofei’s psyche remains completely inaccessible. While we see brief manifestations of strong emotional trauma, Timofei remains very much a cipher, a person with no defined history who keeps his authentic personality tightly locked so deep in the closet that it has become inaccessible even to him. He remains a mystery to us even more: just how novel were his feelings of attraction for Uloomji? to what extent is his bisexuality a new discovery? how long was he in the West and what traces of that experience remain with him after his return to Moscow? what kind of unspoken signals pass between him and his boss in their workplace interactions? The viewer is shut out in the same way that Vera feels herself shut out as she asks helplessly “What is going on here?” Neither she nor we ever get a final answer to this question.

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