0351 | Mistress America

image-5143d9e9-e1ba-488d-a9f9-a57c2b349c01[This review is quite plot-heavy. I wouldn’t describe anything below as a ‘spoiler’, but I thought I’d give fair warning if you’re planning to watch this film.]

Noah Baumbach’s currently working at an admirable speed, and he has made another film that gently mocks the can-do enthusiasm of young New Yorkers, though on balance this year’s While We’re Young felt like a more sustained and less sympathetic attack on youthful hipsterdom and entitlement. Mistress America is co-written by Baumbach and Greta Gerwig, their second screenplay collaboration to date, and one that aims to repeat the earlier success they had with the excellent Frances Ha. Gerwig also co-stars as the flaky-but-supremely-confident Brooke, a woman who rips through the city like the Tasmanian Devil, but this isn’t just a case of director and co-writer treading water or making the same film once again: one or two character types may seem vaguely familiar, and there’s no sign of Baumbach’s interest in those approaching turning points in their lives waning, but this is a deftly-executed droll comedy in its own right and there’s a neat switch from screwball to farce after the second act.

The focus is partly on Brooke but mainly on her stepsister-to-be Tracy (Lola Kirke, who you may recognise from Gone Girl, in which coincidentally she played a character named Greta). Tracy is a college freshman and budding writer, intelligent but reserved and struggling to adapt to life in the big city. She seems to meet a kindred spirit in Tony (Matthew Shear), a fellow writer who shares Tracy’s dream of getting accepted into a pompous literary society, members of which look down on everyone else with stony faces (it’s a witty spin on the whole fraternity / sorority pledging thing, and never overplayed). Tony, however, starts dating the understandably suspicious Nicolette (Jasmine Cephas Jones); Tracy feels even lonelier than before, and arranges to meet Brooke for the first time, for company.

Gerwig and Kirke are such fun to watch during the following twenty or thirty minutes. Brooke lives in a cool-looking apartment and does (generally) cool-looking things: she sings with an indie band, sometimes works as an interior designer, teaches a gym class and even provides SAT tuition for kids, despite the fact she doesn’t seem particularly bright (at least not next to Tracy) and briefly mentions that her own scores were so low she couldn’t get into college. She is also intending to open a restaurant that doubles as a hair salon (and, er, community hang-out space), and has even secured financial backing for the mistress-americaventure, though it appears to hinge on the involvement of her boyfriend (who is never seen). Brooke appropriates smart things that Tracy says and breaks them down for Twitter, gets into an argument with a former classmate and gets locked out of her apartment; all the while Tracy is watching, making written and mental notes, with the intention of writing a story featuring a character transparently based on Brooke. Brooke is very interesting for a number of reasons, but with a series of non-careers on-the-go and an enthusiasm for projects that are never seen through (there’s a sub-plot about t-shirts she co-designed that her friend sells to J. Crew behind Brooke’s back) she’s also a car crash waiting to happen; her online profile is carefully-managed and yet there’s a falseness to it all (both women have essentially arrived in the city with the attitude that they can be anything and anyone, but with a twelve year age gap Brooke has had the headstart). Kirke plays Tracy so that she appears both fascinated by her new sister-to-be but also ghoulishly watching, and waiting, with her ulterior motive kept secret. Whether Gerwig and Baumbach are having a laugh at their own expense as writers here is anyone’s guess, but there is more than a whiff of self-depracation around their work together to date.

Nothing ever comes of it, but we occasionally see Tracy steal small objects, in keeping with the theme of her appropriating the lives of others. One of these is from Brooke’s apartment, and the other item comes from the big, suburban house belonging to Dylan (Michael Chernus) and Mamie-Claire (Heather Lind); the former was Brooke’s fiancé, the latter was once her best friend until she stole the t-shirt idea and a pair of cats. The action shifts to this sleek, modernist grand design as Brooke pays a visit to seek further funding for her restaurant. Tracy, Tony and mistress_america_7_0Nicolette are in tow as well, and the whole sequence provides a nice contrast with the city-set material. Also in the house, quite randomly, are pregnant Karen (Cindy Cheung) and grumpy neighbour Harold (musician Dean Wareham, who also provides the soundtrack with bandmate and wife Britta Phillips), and this is where the film detours (quite successfully, I think) into farce. And thus the characters argue, bump into one another on stairs and in corridors and walk in on things they’re not supposed to be walking in on, all carried out at breakneck speed while the plot nears a full stop. The highlight here is probably Brooke’s embarrassing pitch to multi-millionaire Dylan, which even includes a cringeworthy mimed rewind. It’s also a sad scene, as it reveals that she’ll probably never get the restaurant off the ground, as she simply lacks the business acumen and can’t even describe what kind of restaurant she actually wants (interestingly it sounds more like a surrogate home environment than an eatery, smartly linked to Brooke’s own background and the off-screen relationship taking place between her religious father and Tracy’s agnostic mother).

There’s a lot of verbal back-and-forth during the film, and not all of it succeeds, but when it does Mistress America is quite funny (in the usual Baumbach semi-muttered chuckle kind of way, rather than the kind of material that elicits out-and-out guffaws). The comic performances are excellent across the board, with the love triangle that develops between Tracy, Tony and Nicolette providing an unexpected highlight: I’d like to see more of Shear in particular, who gets the smart-arse student down pat and has excellent timing. At the centre of it all, both Gerwig and Kirke shine, and their scenes together (particularly in the screwball first half of the film) rattle along featuring the kind of repartee you’d usually expect to see from a long-established double act. They have chemistry in this platonic love story, while Gerwig in particular deserves a further mention for imbuing an essentially unlikable character with likability, ensuring that you’re actually rooting for Brooke by the end and wholly forgiving all of the pronounced, screwy behaviour. I could just as easily have watched an entire movie that only featured the two of them in New York, even though Mistress America ultimately falls short of the standard set by Frances Ha. Baumbach and Gerwig end with a scene that can easily be perceived as a dig at Los Angeles (or Hollywood in particular), and maybe (maybe) it betrays a certain smug, east coast loftiness from the newly-crowned King and Queen of Generation Flat White, but I can certainly forgive them while they’re making films about New York millennials as witty and breezy as this one.

And wow. I got to the end without once mentioning Woody A…

Directed by: Noah Baumbach.
Written by: Greta Gerwig, Noah Baumbach.
Starring: Lola Kirke, Greta Gerwig, Heather Lind, Matthew Shear, Jasmine Cephas Jones, Michael Chernus, Cindy Cheung.
Cinematography: Sam Levy.
Editing: Jennifer Lame.
Music: Dean Wareham, Britta Phillips.
Certificate: 15.
Running Time: 84 minutes.
Year: 2015.

0350 | Trudno Byt Bogom (Hard To Be A God)

hard-to-be-a-god-2This is the kind of film – Russian, black and white, just under three hours long, different – that either provokes cries of ‘masterpiece’ from viewers or complaints that the plot is unintelligible and the 180 minutes spent watching have been lost forever. It will divide opinion: several people gave up and left during the screening I attended in London, while comments online seem to reinforce the notion that people either love it or hate it, with few occupying the middle ground. Completed in 2013 and currently showing in a handful of UK cinemas, my advice would be to try and watch this film on the big screen if you can, but only if you are a fan of arthouse or if you simply enjoy unusual experiences. It’s unlikely that you’ll have seen anything like Aleksei German’s Hard To Be A God before.

Based on the 50-year-old Russian science fiction novel of the same name by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, this film is the second attempt at a big screen adaptation, though Peter Fleischmann’s 1989 effort was criticised by the Strugatsky brothers after a falling out with the director. Development of German’s
version actually began shortly thereafter, though filming did not start until 2000 and continued for a whopping six years thereafter; by all accounts the shoot was a hellish experience, and it’s not difficult to understand why when you see the finished product, of which more later. A lengthy phase of editing and post-production followed, complicated by German’s death in 2013, and the film was eventually completed by his son (and fellow director) Aleksei German, Jr. It was shown on the festival circuit in 2014 to near universal acclaim, though even hardened critics have written about the experience as if it were a kind of endurance test.

The story takes place on an alien planet, referred to as the Kingdom of Arkanar, that is similar to Earth. However Arkanar seems to be stuck in its equivalent of our own Middle Ages, unable to make the leap to its own Renaissance, which is being actively suppressed by those in power. 30 Russian scientists have been dispatched from Earth to try and push things forward. In the film it seems as if they cannot interfere with society, though, and have been hard2observing rather than influencing for the best part of 20 years; the chief protagonist, a scientist who has adopted the persona of nobleman Don Rumata (Leonid Yarmolnik), chooses to stand aside and watch while intellectuals are murdered and writing or art is burned, though there is some suggestion that he has tried (and failed) to instill a basic understanding of the value of good hygiene. Mostly, though, the frustrated Don Rumata seems to have gone native, joining the Arkanarians in their squalor, though relative to the peasants on his land he is living comfortably. He has taken a wife, owns slaves, and becomes embroiled in the ongoing civil war that is being fought between factions known as The Greys and The Blacks. Both sides are brutal and unforgiving. (It’s hard to understand the plot while the film plays, and much of the above paragraph has been cribbed from press notes, reviews and other articles.)

German’s film consists of a series of long takes. The scenes are packed with constantly-moving characters and objects, which the director often places in close proximity to the camera lens; the Don’s silver, studded gloves regularly appear in the foreground, as do swaying, hanging corpses of all kinds and various grotesque faces, their owners sometimes peering down the lens at the audience and accentuating the viewer’s feeling of being in the thick of the action. An intense feeling of claustrophobia is created through the use of small, cluttered and over-populated spaces (castellan’s quarters, corridors, prison cells and the like) and it’s quite an oppressive experience outdoors too, with much packed into the frame. It’s made even more unpleasant by the fact that the characters are often torturing or hitting or spitting at one another.

Ah yes, the spitting. Phlegm is just one of many bodily fluids making a regular appearance in Hard To Be A God. This is a film packed with blood, shit, piss, spittle, entrails (human and animal) and more, leading the critic Jonathan Romney to suggest it makes Game Of Thrones ‘look like musical chairs’. It’s deliberately disgusting, and hardtobeagod1German ensures a steady stream of this gak is sent to the floor, where it mixes with the ever-present and unavoidable mud. The weather in Arkanar is consistently terrible, with sudden showers alternating with dense fog and, as we learn at the end, snow. It’s as if the director is trying to create the worst living conditions he (or the Strugatskys) can imagine, and I’ll reiterate that sitting through three hours of it is not a light undertaking. If characters aren’t standing in this quagmire they’re smearing it on their faces or smelling it on the tips of their fingers. The intention is for this society to disgust us, a feat that German has successfully realised. And if the appearance of these medieval settings wasn’t bad enough, the actions of the inhabitants will further any revulsion among the audience. This caked-in-filth film is often bloody, and violent, and unsympathetic towards its many characters (few of which really command our sympathy anyway). I am struggling to think of any work I have seen that is quite as physical as this one, with so much regular contact between characters (both violent and non-violent). Our ‘hero’, if he can be described as such, is cruel toward the peasants under his control, often beating them and throwing objects at their heads, but he shows brief signs of affection to a young prince and the woman he has taken for his wife. This Rumata is feared, having developed a reputation as a fearsome warrior, and claims to have cut off the ears of 192 men in his 20 years on the planet. Talk about going native…

So why would anyone in their right mind recommend a film that is as disgusting, as willfully impenetrable and as downright depressing as this one? The truth is it’s difficult to imagine any director exhibiting as much care and attention to detail as German does here. Despite the tumult depicted every shot is so carefully choreographed, every costume and action and movement and look and interaction so meticulously planned and executed, it’s simply one of the finest examples of director as orchestrator you will ever see, and no surprise at all that there has been a rush to describe it as one of the greatest films of all time. Every scene has the potential to disgust, yes, but it is also a magnificently-lit wonder, and even at its most grim and depraved there is a certain unmistakable beauty in Hard To Be A God. It’s exhausting but there are five, six, seven things of interest on screen at all times, all in the right place, and as such it’s a shame that non-Russian eyes will constantly be drawn to the subtitles; yet although it’s probably needed I wonder whether I’ve got a second viewing in me, even five or ten years from now, in order to take it all in.

Hard To Be A God is undoubtedly a magnificent achievement, a film that defies categorisation and defies comparison with other cinematic works (and I’m not just saying that because my last two reviews here have been for Trainwreck and Wet Hot American Summer). I have to admit it’s not a comfortable viewing experience, but it is one that you will remember. I’d argue it’s entirely possible to consider a film ‘great’ without it ever necessarily appearing on a list of your personal favouritesm, and this is great in many senses of the word: epic, admirable, extreme, long, extravagant and formidable. Yarmolink’s performance in the eye of the hurricane is equally worthy of praise, as is the work of cinematographers Vladimir Ilin and Yuriy Klimenko, Nikolai Astakhov’s sound design, and the efforts of those involved with costume and production design, who are sadly too numerous to list here.

Directed by: Aleksei German.
Written by: Aleksei German, Svetlana Karmalita. Based on Hard To Be A God by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky.
Starring: Leonid Yarmolnik, Evgeniy Gerchakov, Aleksandr Chutko, Valentin Golubenko.
Cinematography: Vladimir Ilin, Yuriy Klimenko.
Editing: Irina Gorokhovskaya.
Music: Viktor Lebedev.
Certificate: 18.
Running Time: 177 minutes.
Year: 2015.

0349 | Trainwreck

Trainwreck-Set-Visit-Amy-Schumer-Featured-970x545It always feels a little strange to be watching a new release that has already received a huge amount of coverage online, particularly when you end up disagreeing with some of that discourse, as is the case for me here. Judd Apatow’s Trainwreck – a mildly-raunchy rom-com written by and starring Amy Schumer – has received many positive reviews and has performed very well at the US box office, to some extent making a mockery of the popular suggestion that audiences in 2015 have lost their appetite for such fayre. I certainly wouldn’t disagree with the general consensus that Schumer is one of the funniest (and most exciting) Americans working in mainstream entertainment at the moment, because I’ve found the various seasons of Inside Amy Schumer to date consistently funny and she is on sparkling form here, but there have been a million and one articles celebrating her talent in the past three or four months and I can’t summon up the energy to make it a million and two. Yet I do wonder why there has been such clambering to laud Trainwreck as some kind of modern-day comic masterpiece; there seems to me to be half a funny film here, and that’s very firmly the first hour, in which Schumer’s character Amy Townsend sleeps around, goes to work on a men’s magazine, wearily dismisses nearly everyone in her life and then meets Bill Hader’s affable doctor Aaron Connors. She is edgy, and clever, and interesting, and witty, and basically encompasses everything you want from the lead character in a comedy.

Of course it’s still rare for a rom-com to lean so heavily on a female protagonist, especially one with a few rough edges who has casual sex, takes drugs and describes the state of their tampon by comparing it to a Tarantino film. It’s rarer still to see a woman like this (or any woman) front-and-centre within a Judd Apatow film, whether we’re talking about the few he has directed or the many that he’s either written or NEbTciZPpnq3ei_1_bproduced (there have been a handful of prominent female characters within his filmography, yes, but always playing second fiddle to your Seth Rogens, Jason Segels and Paul Rudds). And obviously this has happened because it is the first time Apatow has directed a film written by someone else – ye gods, a woman, no less! – even if Amy’s character and story arc resemble those of previous male Apatow creations (Knocked Up‘s Ben Stone springs immediately to mind). So yeah, following decades of male-dominated and male-focused mainstream comedy it’s certainly easy to see why Trainwreck is being celebrated for its part in a general, healthy female-centric resurgence within the genre, the latest in a long list of critical and financial success stories that have gone some way to redressing the earlier imbalance (see also Bridesmaids, Pitch Perfect, Spy, 30 Rock, Parks And Recreation, The Heat, Girls, and so on and so on).

The success here comes from the sharpness of Schumer’s blackly-comic writing, her laconic delivery and excellent timing, as well as a few well-observed supporting turns. I thoroughly enjoyed watching single-ish Amy negotiate her amusing relationship with John Cena’s muscular lover Steven (their scenes together are the funniest in the film) and her work meetings, featuring Tilda Swinton’s larger-than-life editor Dianna and Ezra Miller’s childlike intern. I also enjoyed her awkwardness around Dr. Connors when they first meet, the stiff air between the two punctured by a few sharp asides, while Amy’s complete lack of respect for Tom (Mike Birbiglia) and Allister (Evan Brinkman), the husband and 47550192.cachedstepson of her sister Kim (Brie Larson), also provides a few laughs. Yet sadly these peter out when Trainwreck gets sucked into a kind of convention vortex, one that seems to affect more films within this genre than any other. Somewhat predictably the relationship at the centre of the story goes through a few ups-and-downs, the couple split and then get back together by the end. It really sags during this period, even stooping so low as to include a montage in which Amy and Aaron stare glumly into the middle distance while sitting alone at different cafes. This is the period when the film should be going intro overdrive, and this is the period in which most people will want to see Amy become the trainwreck suggested by the title. It never happens, sadly, and instead there’s an unnecessary reliance on supporting characters who, after 90 minutes, have started to lose a little of their appeal (though on balance I liked LeBron James’ performance, even if I’m sure it’s even funnier if you know a lot about LeBron James’ public persona, or how he is perceived by the general public, rather than a little).

I also dislike the way Trainwreck compensates for some of Amy’s actions. In 2015, just because someone smokes a little weed and sleeps with strangers, we really don’t need to subsequently see them caring for their ill father or being kind to homeless people, as if some great moral wrong or imbalance needs to be made right. Such conservatism within an otherwise-risqué film! That’s one of the concessions to Big Audiences that the film could have done without, and another is the constant shoe-horning in of celebrity cameos, many of which should have been left on the cutting room floor (the scenes involving Daniel Radcliffe, Marisa Tomei, Matthew Broderick, Chris Evert and Marv Albert are as flat as a pancake). And then there’s the cameos of sportsmen (three, I think, but not being a connoisseur of American sports there could well be more), which could arguably be an attempt to make men feel comfortable about watching a female-fronted film. I can’t speak for everyone but if I had not been reminded that professional competition and testosterone exist I think I’d have survived the two-hour experience. The weak, standard rom-com stuff and the cameos sadly diminish the impact of the first hour, which is as funny as anything I’ve seen in 2015 (even if that is, sadly, a seven-out-of-ten kind of level). Trainwreck is 20 or 30 minutes too long, and despite its many attempts to shock it feels like a film that has been watered down and made safe for the multiplexes. That opening sixty minutes, however, is worth the price of admission. Cena, James, Swinton and Hader are fun, while Schumer has presence, charm and more than a little acidity to ensures that she stands out from the pack.

Directed by: Judd Apatow.
Written by: Amy Schumer.
Starring: Amy Schumer, Bill Hader, Brie Larson, Tilda Swinton, LeBron James, Colin Quinn, John Cena, Mike Birbiglia.
Cinematography: Jody Lee Lipes.
Editing: Paul Zucker.
Music: Jon Brion, Various.
Certificate: 15.
Running Time: 124 minutes.
Year: 2015.

0348 | Wet Hot American Summer

screen-shot-2015-01-10-at-12-39-55-pmThe Wet Hot American Summer phenomenon (if it can really be described as a phenomenon) is something that passed me by until the recent fuss over Netflix’s 2015 prequel series, which has been made by the streaming service and which features many returning members of the original cast (as well as a couple of high profile additions). The 15-year-old feature film that started it all, though nearly battered to death by critical brickbats in 2001, became a cult hit when its goofy humour and gentle spoofing of 1980s teen sex comedies found a wider audience through cable showings in the US. It appeared on Netflix in the UK in advance of the new series and received plenty of attention online, so I thought it was time I caught up to see what I’d been missing.

Not all that much, as it turns out. I watched a video library’s worth of films like Meatballs, Porky’s, Spring Break and Screwballs when my dad first bought a VHS player, my younger self usually waiting patiently to see an on-screen nipple or ten, and so I did enjoy the way that Wet Hot American Summer affectionately lampoons these cultural touchstones through its summer camp setting, its plethora of horny teens / horny camp counselors and its plot (it’s the last day of camp, a talent show has been organised, and everyone wants to get laid). It’s also entertaining to see so many actors who were either already well-known at the time of release (the ever-watchable Janeane Garofalo, David Hyde Pierce, Molly Shannon), particularly to viewers of US TV comedy, or who have since found substantial fame (for example Bradley Cooper, Elizabeth Banks, Amy Poehler and Christopher Meloni). The comic talent that was at director David Wain’s disposal is undeniable, but I was left with the feeling that the script, co-written by Wain and star Michael Showalter, doesn’t really get the best out of them. The jokes in Wet Hot American Summer miss the target more often than not, at least for me anyway, even if the film does have its moments.

So yes, there were some things I liked. I’d prefer not to round on any film that includes a spoof on drug addiction as deliriously wacky as the one incorporated here, which is so silly and unnecessary it makes you want to stand up and cheer. The irreverent scenes featuring Meloni’s Vietnam vet-turned-chef Gene and a talking can of vegetables are similarly worthy of mention, and indicative of the offbeat approach of the writers, while Wain and Showalter also manage to mercilessly rip apart every sports film you’ve ever seen in the space of a deliciously-arch two minutes. And Paul Rudd is in particularly fine form as a flouncing, cheating counselor who is still overly-reliant on exaggerated teenage attitood for personality (he gets the film’s best line, delivered to Elizabeth Banks’ Lindsay: ‘You taste like a burger; I don’t like you anymore’). However the laughs induced are sporadic and much of the film flatlines: I don’t know whether it’s because I have no experience of American summer camps or whether it’s because my own sense of humour is out of step with those of Wet Hot American Summer‘s legion of fans, but I was expecting to chuckle a little bit more than three or four times, and its straight-to-video status doesn’t surprise me (while wholly in-keeping with the fate of many of the film’s targets). Still, it’s hard not to be charmed by the enthusiasm of the actors, who understandably look like they’re having a whale of a time; I’ll probably give the TV series a whirl as a result, as their enthusiasm for the material is infectious.

Directed by: David Wain.
Written by: David Wain, Michael Showalter.
Starring: Janeane Garofalo, Michael Showalter, David Hyde Pierce, Paul Rudd, Bradley Cooper, Amy Poehler, Elizabeth Banks, Molly Shannon, Christopher Meloni, Marguerite Moreau, AD Miles, Marisa Ryan.
Cinematography: Ben Weinstein.
Editing: Meg Reticker.
Music: Theodore Shapiro, Craig Wedren.
Certificate: 15.
Running Time: 92 minutes.
Year: 2001.

0347 | Leviafan (Leviathan)

leviathanSet in a fictional coastal town in Russia’s north west, Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Oscar-nominated Leviathan (Leviafan or Левиафан in Russian) is an intelligent, beautifully-shot film that can easily be read as an indictment of the country’s authorities, in particular local government, the justice system and the Orthodox Church, all of which are depicted as corrupt or complicit with corruption. It is also a film that concerns itself with even weightier issues and even stronger manipulative forces: namely the will of God, and the fate that befalls those who act in opposition to it, or who question it. The title references a line, delivered here by a pious priest, from the Book of Job: ‘Canst thou draw out Leviathan with a fish-hook?’ asks the holy man, indicating the greatness of the force at work, and the main protagonist here is forced to endure all kinds of suffering, similar to his biblical counterpart. Zvyagintsev’s film is concerned with a character’s inability to control his own fate, and who has little choice but to succumb to his destiny in the face of mounting problems and life-changing events, much of which he cannot influence in a meaningful way.

The man in question is a hot-headed car mechanic named Kolya (Aleksei Serebryakov), who believes he is in a battle with a single figure – crooked mayor Vadim (Roman Madyanov) – over a compulsory purchase order. In a way, he is, and it turns into a very personal duel between the two, played out in the courts but also face-to-face on one occasion, when a drunken Vadim turns up on Kolya’s leviathan-36780_6doorstep with a couple of burly goons in tow. The Mayor’s publicly-stated intention is to buy and then demolish Kolya’s house – in a prime spot next to a river but standing apart from the rest of the town – in order to build a telecommunications mast that will benefit the community as a whole. However Kolya suspects Vadim has an ulterior motive, and believes the Mayor is going to build a mansion for himself on the plot as soon as possible. Kolya and unhappy wife Lilya (Elena Lyadova) have thus decided to fight the purchase in the regional administrative courts, enlisting the help of Kolya’s old army friend Dima (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), who is now a Moscow-based lawyer.

However there’s more than just the will of a crooked mayor driving the demolition plan forward, and though Kolya’s resistance is symbolic of his own stubbornness and pride, the house purchase becomes one problem among many and his insistence on focusing solely upon it means that he takes his eye off other pressing matters. Locals take advantage of his generosity as a mechanic. He is defeated in the courts, and we later discover that at least one senior judge is influenced by Vadim, who conducts his nefarious business while sitting underneath an unsubtly-placed portrait of Vladimir Putin. When Dima attempts to blackmail the Mayor with some incriminating information he has dug-up in Moscow, the situation escalates into one of intimidation and thuggery. Meanwhile Kolya’s second wife Lilya’s spirits are low, partly because of the way she is treated by Kolya’s rebellious teenage son Roma (Sergey Pokhodyaev), and as the film progresses it seems as if she has no way of escape from her unhappiness; additionally her actions inadvertently heap even more misery on her husband, leading him to drink. In fact a series of decisions by other characters, as well as some made by Kolya himself, hurry along the quadruple whammy of betrayal, defeat, loss and imprisonment, and thus Leviathan gradually reveals itself as a heavy-duty, depressing tale, filmed largely under grey, rain-filled clouds, in which there is little hope for anyone.

It is, however, one of the more striking cinematic works of the past couple of years. The opening few minutes alone serve as a showreel for cinematographer Mikhail Krichman, whose shots of Russia’s remote northern coastline are stunning and leviathanechoed with increasing melancholy at the end of the film. These montages include a number of wrecked boats that resemble, in their ruined state, another object that lies near Kolya’s house: the giant skeleton of a whale (a further biblical link, as well as being an obvious nod to the title and the specific quoted line from Job). Yet despite these sea-going husks this is not a film that is in thrall to the vast body of water that stretches off to the horizon, despite the importance of the sea to the townspeople (Lilya and her best friend both work in a fish factory, for example). It is a film that is far more concerned with land – both as something that can be owned and also in more general terms as the solid mass that smashes boats and finishes off Earth’s largest creatures – and thus we realise that the oft-mentioned leviathan could well be a metaphor for Russia itself.

Given that his film shows hypocritical Orthodox priests in cahoots with the Mayor, who himself dines with local crime bosses (though Leviathan isn’t really concerned with the ‘traditional’ organised crime of gangsters and the like), Zvyagintsev has come under fire from the Church, as well as Russia’s Ministry of Culture, who coughed up 35 per cent of the budget. The Ministry specifically objected to the portrayal of ordinary Russians as swearing, vodka-swilling rabble-rousers, and argued that there isn’t a single (completely) positive character in the film. This isn’t actually true: the priest who utters the film’s crucial line, and who most obviously ties the story to The Bible, is a small-but-crucial part in Leviathan, and it’s telling that one completely sympathetic character is included, even if his words are not welcomed by Kolya: the priest’s single scene ensures we see something approaching a balanced view of the Church, with a simple charitable act representing an acknowledgment by the writer-director that the Church’s work in rural communities such as this can be vital, and good. Metropolitan Simon of Murmansk and Monchegorsk, the diocese where Leviathan was filmed, subsequently issued a statement calling it ‘honest’, and said that the film raised important questions about the state of the country. Unfortunately The Ministry of Culture has not followed the Metropolitan’s lead, and has since proposed guidelines which would ban movies that ‘defile’ the national culture, an unnecessarily draconian step that does not bode well for Russian cinema.

Such a reaction is patently ridiculous, though perhaps indicative of the current political climate in the country. One hopes that Andrey Zvyagintsev is able to continue making films in his homeland as, on this evidence, he is a talent and may one day be taking his place in the pantheon of great Russian directors. His latest film has a resigned weariness, much like the residents of the weather-battered town depicted, but it is also exquisitely shot, evenly-paced and well-acted by the ensemble cast. If anyone stands out it is Serebryakov as the put-upon protagonist, delivering a credible descent from (seemingly) happily-married father of one to a man who effectively loses everything and is powerless to stop it from happening. One of Leviathan‘s great tricks is to leave you wondering whether Kolya deserves his fate: not because it has been pre-ordained by a divine force, but because it is a punishment for his actions here towards Lilya, whether those are seen or implied or merely possible. It is a question that will linger in the mind of anyone that watches this film, once the quietly-arresting finale fades from the screen and the portentous strings of Akhnaten by Philip Glass begin.

Directed by: Andrey Zvyagintsev.
Written by: Andrey Zvyagintsev, Oleg Negin.
Starring: Aleksei Serebryakov, Elena Lyadova, Roman Madyanov, Vladimir Vdovichenkov, Sergey Pokhodyaev.
Cinematography: Mikhail Krichman.
Editing: Anna Mass.
Music: Philip Glass.
Certificate: 15.
Running Time: 141 minutes.
Year: 2014.

0346 | The Rocket

The_Rocket_1_PUBSOne of the least widely-reported tragedies of the 20th Century was the heavy American bombing of Laos, which took place between 1964 and 1973 as part of the so-called ‘Secret War’, in which the US supported the Royal Lao Government’s campaign against the Pathet Lao. During that period the US dropped more than 2,000,000 tons of ordnance on Laos in an estimated 580,000 bombing missions – the equivalent of a planeload of bombs every 8 minutes, 24-hours a day, for nine years – which makes Laos the most heavily bombed country per capita in history. Local people, NGOs and charities have worked tirelessly for decades to make Laos safe again, though this process is still ongoing today: unexploded cluster bombs are a particularly dangerous hazard for farmers working the land and children, which is hardly a surprise given the amount that landed in muddy fields.

Bombs and bomb casings are a part of daily life in Laos, the latter resourcefully turned into anything from cutlery to motorbike sidecars to stilts for houses. We see these objects occasionally in Australian director Kim Mordaunt’s film The Rocket, which is set in the karst-filled Laos countryside, while we also witness just how easily unexploded cluster bombs can be mistaken for something else entirely. We even see a family travelling incognito under a pile of unexploded bombs that have been unearthed during the creation of a new town; that they are forced to do so on a bumpy road is simply staggering. Mordaunt’s 2007 documentary Bomb Harvest also examined the day-to-day problems faced by Laotians, detailing the work of the Mines Advisory Group, while explosives and explosions feature heavily throughout this fictional debut: here the writer-director smartly turns them into a force for good.

The Rocket is the story of a small family who are forced to leave their home when the government announces its intention to build a new hydroelectric dam on a nearby river. It begins with Mali (Alice Keohavong) giving birth to a baby named Ahlo (Sitthiphon Disamoe). Ahlo’s twin brother is stillborn, causing Mali’s formidable mother-in-law Taitok (Bunsri Yindi) to state that Ahlo should be killed as he may be cursed; she believes one twin must be cursed while the other is blessed, but Mali The_Rocket_3refuses to go along with her plan, and news of the stillborn twin is kept from father Toma (Sumrit Warin). We fast forward seven years and learn that the family is being forced to move on due to the government’s construction project. Initially they are promised a new kq_the-rocket_wide-620x349house with running water and electricity, which Taitok believes goes against their traditions, but when the family arrives at the new town they discover that it has not even been built and they must live temporarily in a refugee-style tented city. More importantly, a sudden, unexpected disaster dredges up suggestions that Ahlo is a cursed child, and things go from bad to worse for the boy. However he also meets and bonds with a sympathetic girl named Kia (Loungnam Kaosainam), who has lost her parents and looks after her drunken uncle ‘Purple’ (Suthep Po-ngam), a James Brown fanatic who styles himself after his hero. (The film’s heaviest irony is that Purple fought for the Pathet Lao as a child and now completely bases his identity on an American cultural icon.)

It’s a film that is given its distinct melancholic edge by its adult characters: Taitok is generally angry, Purple is drunk and haunted by his past and Toma is struggling with the responsibility he has to find a new home. However we tend to see things from the perspective of the two children, and there are also joyous moments as we follow them around village squares and markets, where they egg each other on and generally get up to mischief. Midway through the narrative begins to build up to an annual village rocket festival, a competition with a prize of 5 million kip (just over $600) for the winner. Desperate for the money so that they can build a new house, Taitok orders Toma to enter, but Ahlo also has designs on the cash and sets about gathering the required material.

Though it has sad, poignant moments, Mordaunt’s film is actually a gentle, feelgood tale, and though it is set a world away it even reminded me at times of Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton’s Little Miss Sunshine: a dysfunctional family on the move throughout, similarities between the characters played by Alan Arkin and Steve Carell in the American film and those played by Po-ngam and Yindi here, and also the importance placed by the end on a child’s performance in a pageant. Of course the lives of the characters are vastly different and the settings could hardly be further apart, but the basic ideas pushing the narrative on are similar at least. The Laos countryside here is captured beautifully by cinematographer Andrew Commis, with cliffs rising and falling for as far as the eye can see. It is a land filled with hidden dangers, though, which Mordaunt deftly draws our attention to without ever allowing his film to veer off into the realm of angry political statement. The performances are good, with the two youngest cast members impressing in particular.

Directed by: Kim Mordaunt.
Written by: Kim Mordaunt.
Starring: Sitthiphon Disamoe, Loungnam Kaosainam, Suthep Po-ngam, Sumrit Warin, Bunsri Yindi, Alice Keohavong.
Cinematography: Andrew Commis.
Editing: Nick Meyers.
Music: Caitlyn Yeo.
Certificate: 12A.
Running Time: 95 minutes.
Year: 2014.

0345 | The Wrecking Crew

tumblr_mi4czhb6JC1qhoo8ro1_1280This entertaining documentary focuses on the titular Californian group of session musicians, who were responsible for some of the greatest rock n’ roll and pop hits of the 1960s, as well as a whole lot more (familiar snippets of TV and film soundtracks pop up regularly here, from Henry Mancini’s Pink Panther theme to the opening bars of Bonanza and M*A*S*H). As with the recent music documentaries Standing In The Shadows Of Motown, 20 Feet From Stardom and Muscle Shoals the idea is to highlight the artistry of people who may not be familiar to the general public, and who arguably have never quite received the credit they deserve, even if they are well-respected within music circles. The Wrecking Crew played on records by Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, The Beach Boys, Elvis Presley, The Mamas And The Papas, David Axelrod, Herb Alpert, Simon And Garfunkel, Glen Campbell, Nancy Sinatra and The Monkees, among others, while they were also the band that provided Phil Spector with his famous Wall Of Sound, yet I imagine relatively few people could actually name a member if asked.

Made by Denny Tedesco, the son of Tommy Tedesco (a guitarist and key figure within the band), it’s an exhaustive (though not exhausting) work that manages to pack a great deal of information into its 100 minutes, with the usual mixing of archive footage with more recent interviews. Most of these are typically-anecdotal one-to-ones, but there’s also a nice round table chat featuring several members who haven’t seen one another for a couple of decades, including Tedesco Sr, Carol Kaye and Hal Blaine (all of whom will be familiar to anyone that watched the recent Brian Wilson biopic Love And Mercy). Trying to remember who’s who is a little tough at times – estimates suggest that there were upwards of 30 main members during the Wrecking Crew’s long career, and many of them feature here – but the filmmaker commendably allows the backing musicians to take centre stage for once and his determination in getting The Wrecking Crew into cinemas is also worthy of praise: Denny Tedesco began work on his film in 1996 and finished it in 2008, but the licensing costs for the (magnificent) soundtrack were understandably high and it took a crowdfunding campaign to gather enough money together for a big screen release. Fans of the acts mentioned above will find much to enjoy, and although the approach of such retro-facing music docs is familiar there’s a nice, warm personal touch running through this one, perhaps best espoused by the use of Dedicated To The One I Love at the end.

Directed by: Denny Tedesco.
Starring: Hal Blaine, Carol Kaye, Tommy Tedesco, Earl Palmer, Lou Adler, Dick Clark, Nancy Sinatra, Cher, Brian Wilson.
Cinematography: Trish Govoni, Rodney Taylor.
Editing: Claire Scanlon.
Music: Various.
Certificate: U.
Running Time: 102 minutes.
Year: 2014.