Thursday, 30 April 2015

Alexey German Jr.: Under electric clouds - Под электрическими облаками (2013)

Под электрическими облаками (2015)

Director / Screenwriter: Alexey German Jr
Cast: Angela Karpova, Viktoriya Nesterenko, Tatiana Murlakova, Anna Sagalovich

Illumination proves frustratingly elusive in Alexey German Jr’s Under Electric Clouds (Pod electricheskimi oblakami), an eight-part vision of near-future Russia which – as usual with this writer-director - places impressive behind-the-scenes craft at the service of a flashy but undernourished screenplay. Arriving in the wake of Andrey Zvagintsev’s controversy-stirring, Putin-baiting Leviathan - both films are partly funded by Russia's Ministry of Culture - it has topicality and ambition on its side but is too bleakly oblique to make much stir beyond the festival circuits.

Под электрическими облаками (2015)

The prologue and seven chapters (varying in length from seven to 35 minutes) are all in some way connected with an unfinished skyscraper whose skeletal form – at once bulbous and ethereal – is frequently visible on the horizon. The oligarch who paid for the edifice has recently died, causing what may well be a permanent halt in its construction. His two twentysomething children, Sasha (Viktoria Korotkova) and Danya (Viktor Bugakov), fly in from abroad; the project’s architect Peter (Louis Franck) ponders the meaning of his work and his existence; a Kyrgyz drifter, Karim (Karim Pakachakov) wanders around clutching a defective boom-box; impoverished intellectual Nikolay (Merab Ninidze) endures humiliating employment as a liveried attendant at a country-mansion museum.

Each of the chapters focuses on a different character or set of characters, but the mode remains the same: resigned, downbeat torpor, with much talk of the planet having lost its way (“something’s wrong all over the world”), how some catastrophic war is probably just around the corner, perhaps prelude for an even greater cataclysm (“I had a dream about the end of the world, and now I’m sad.”)

Под электрическими облаками (2015)

German Jr. sets his film in 2017, exactly 100 years after the Russian Revolution, but the contrast between these folks’ nihilistic inertia and the radical, questioning energy of their forebears could hardly be more stark. A damaged statue of Lenin appears from time to time, supplying a reliable dose of cheap historical irony. Everyone is content to bewail their lot - but no-one seems willing or able to analyze its causes, point fingers of blame (impossible to tell whether this is an alternative, Putin-less reality or not), or start finding a way out of this dismal spiritual-psychological swamp. It's surely no coincidence that hardly anyone here seems to do anything resembling work – not even the squat domestic robot which haltingly wheels itself around Sasha and Danya’s flat.

This amusingly useless droid provides rare flashes of humor in what’s generally a dour slog of a movie – one which, in its final couple of chapters, does at least indulge in a kind of self-mocking self-deconstruction as Peter dismisses his output as “incredibly trendy but utterly meaningless”. “If the artist wants to address the complexity of the world,” we are informed, “he needs some kind of intellectual context.” Such contexts are largely lacking here, in a picture which is content to linger on beautifully composed, sparsely populated tableaux, sprinkled with gnomic, random-sounding verbiage ("I've been promised polyglot penguins!")

German Jr.’s late father Alexey German (1938-2013) - whose magnificent, semi-posthumous final project Hard To Be A God (2013) his son helped complete - long specialized in cacophonously maximalist films that filled the frame with crazed, gabbling characters, depicting worlds gone severely and overwhelmingly out of joint. If the dad was a Brueghel or a Bosch, the son is much more of a Friedrich or de Chirico, stranding his creations in windblown space and punishingly becalmed solitude.

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Under Electric Clouds wins Berlinale award: an interview with director Alexei German Jr

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Nikita Mikhalkov: Sunstroke - Солнечный удар (2013)

Director: Nikita Mikhalkov
Cast: Mārtiņš Kalita, Viktoria Solov’eva, Miloš Biković, Anastasia Imamova, Avangard Leont’ev, Sergei Karpov, Aleksandr Adabash’ian, Kirill Boltaev, Aleksandr Michkov, Aleksei Diakin, Vitalii Kishchenko

Солнечный удар (2014)

The Russian intelligentsia today loves to hate Nikita Mikhalkov. It is understandable: not only does he get the biggest, juiciest, state-sponsored budgets for his films, but he is too much of a power-broker and a media animal, the “mustachioed bumblebee” with his own idiosyncratic, yet thoroughly conservative TV show in which he seeks to impress his views on the audiences through patriotic (i.e., pro-Putin) sermons, some of which consist entirely of him reading long articles and blog posts that all Internet users interested in the subject had read months before. He calls himself a besogon, which he thinks means “exorcist” or “witch-hunter” but in fact is a slang term for “liar” or “blabbermouth.” That he continues to soldier on regardless is entirely up to him, of course. Knowing Mikhalkov’s political views is helpful for the understanding of his personality, but artists should be judged on the merits of their art. That’s why we are interested in them in the first place. In the case of Mikhalkov, however, art and politics are very hard to tell apart, and his new film is no exception. Warning: spoilers galore.

Виктория Соловьёва (II)

It should be stated up front that whether you love or abhor Mikhalkov’s recent films, they are never boring. Even the much-maligned sequels to Burnt by the Sun: Exodus (Predstoianie, 2010) and Citadel (Tsitadel’, 2011) were consistently engaging, with never a dull moment. What seems wrong is the director’s turn from chamber dramas at which he excelled to the epic mode of film narration which he just cannot handle. In early Mikhalkov, a small vignette could be more telling than a long story. There is a scene in Five Evenings (Piat’ vecherov, 1979), probably his best film, that has a naval officer in a 1958 Moscow restaurant just standing up and smoking by the window. Not a word is said, but one senses drama behind this character. That was intriguing, and imparted depth to a simple story. That was what made Mikhalkov great—an ability to ignite the imagination at a single glance, leaving the viewers hungering for more.

Мартиньш Калита

Unfortunately, the latter-day Mikhalkov is exactly the opposite. He still knows how to intrigue the viewer, but he spells out too much, and his films are now bloated where they once were well trimmed and economical. There is no better example than Sunstroke. The eponymous short story by Ivan Bunin, written in emigration in 1925, takes up all of four pages; the film lasts three hours, and an even longer TV serialization is in the works. Bunin’s story is light and poetic, the film plodding and pompous. Mikhalkov was not content to stay within the bounds of Bunin’s summertime romance, which may have made it into a much more compelling (if modest) film. He went further, imagining the hero, an amorous lieutenant in 1907, thirteen years later, caught up in the murderous Red campaign in the Crimea in November 1920. Bunin’s diary, Cursed Days, which Mikhalkov cites as the other source for his film, has little or nothing to do with it; in subject and spirit it is closer to Ivan Shmelev’s Sun of the Dead. The “sun” metaphor seems to never leave Mikhalkov. The entire film is constructed as a series of flashbacks (or flash-forwards, if you wish) between the golden sunset of Russia (1907) and its harshest darkness (1920). Instead of jumping to and from, let us look at these two worlds in sequence.

Солнечный удар (2014)

In 1907, the young lieutenant (Mārtiņš Kalita) sails down the Volga on a new steamship full of bells and whistles—the sequence was filmed in Switzerland because presumably there are no such ships left in Russia—when he is struck by the vision of a beautiful young lady (Viktoriia Solov’eva). He is engaged and she is married, with children, but that doesn’t stop him from wooing her. It’s a sunstroke. The affair falls into several setpieces, including the pursuit of a blue scarf (a reference to a popular pre-revolutionary song and Mikhalkov’s own A Slave of Love [Raba liubvi], 1975), some hocus-pocus with the lieutenant’s broken and replaced watch, his erroneous disembarkation and triumphal return aboard, and, finally, the consummation of love in a small-town hotel room after the two leave the ship together. Their love-making is accompanied by the heated movement of the ship’s pistons and cylinders—any reviewer who has not commented on this Freudian metaphor must be really lazy. In the morning, the Beautiful Stranger—the hero never learns her name—leaves him and the town, with only a brief note and a candy for our hero to remember her by. On a languorous summer day the lieutenant sets out on a quest. This is perhaps the best section of the film, and the closest Nikita Mikhalkov has ever come to magical realism, Russian style. En route, the lieutenant meets and befriends a 12-year-old altar boy who lectures him on the local wonders and asks questions about the mysteries of evolution, while the hero is distracted by his own mystery. After one more improbable adventure including—pay attention!—submersion into water as the boy looks on, he too leaves town, forgetting his new watch. Oh, that watch again. How utterly symbolic is that—historical time is out of joint.

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Thursday, 23 April 2015

Legendary Soviet movie about pioneer camp to be shown at Cannes

The 68th Cannes Film Festival is to show the 1964 Soviet comedy Welcome, or No Trespassing, by Elem Klimov in its Cannes Classic section of historical and restored films, reports The Hollywood Reporter, citing Yelena Romanova, head of the Russia-based Open World Fund, which supports culture and cinematography.

According to Romanova, a number of classic Soviet movies from the 1960s that have never been internationally screened have been chosen to be screened at the request of the festival's directorate. Thierry Fremont, an executive director of Cannes, chose Klimov's comedy.

Welcome, or No Trespassing is an adventure comedy about life in a children’s camp for pioneers in the Soviet Union. The movie was released in 1964 by the personal order of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev after it had been rejected by the arts council responsible for approving new pictures.

“Once the movie was ready, it was accused of being anti-Soviet and anti-Khrushchev,” said Klimov in an interview with the Novaya Gazeta newspaper. "That was the first time I heard this word ‘anti-Soviet.’ As far as Krushchev is concerned, I thought we were being accused because of the corn that was slipped into the movie [in a satirical way – RBTH].”

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