Monday, May 21, 2012

Review: Andrey Zvyagintsev's "Elena"

Elena. 2011. Directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev. Written by Oleg Negin and Andrey Zvyagintsev. Produced by Alexander Rodnyansky and Sergey Melkumov. Cinematography by Mikhail Krichman. Edited by Anna Mass. Music by Philip Glass, from his 1995 Symphony No. 3. Production design by Vasily Gritskov and Valeriy Zhukov. Sound design by Andrey Dergachev and Stas Krechkov.

Cast: Nadezhda Markina (Elena), Andrey Smirnov (Vladimir), Elena Lyadova (Katya), Alexey Rozin (Sergei), Evgenia Konushkina (Tatyana), Igor Ogurtsov (Sasha), Vasiliy Michkiv (Lawyer).

(Note: this review has been cross-posted on Twitch.)

Acclaimed Russian filmmaker Andrey Zvyagintsev (The Return, The Banishment) taps into the rich tradition of film noir, as well as the influence and cultural echoes of such diverse Russian forebears as Dostoevsky, Chekhov and Tarkovsky, in his latest work Elena, a superb slow-burn drama in which the peripheral details have as much impact as the main plotline.  Zvyagintsev offers sharp, caustic social commentary on contemporary Putin-era Russia, where class warfare and the attendant divide between the haves and the have-nots prove to be not only insurmountable, but to have deadly consequences.  Its impeccably composed, stark visuals lending a near-apocalyptic mood that permeates every frame, Elena leaves the viewer with a chill that lingers long after the end credits have rolled.

Beginning and ending with a shot of birds alighting on a branch outside a palatial, upscale Moscow apartment (just one example of how natural landscapes inform the human action throughout the film), Elena is named after its protagonist (played by Nadezhda Markina), a sixtyish woman living in that apartment who is married to Vladimir (Andrey Smirnov), a rich businessman.  They met each other years before when Elena was a nurse and Vladimir was her patient; Elena’s caretaker role has continued into their married life, in which her main job is to attend to her husband’s needs, getting him out of bed and handling all the domestic duties.  Though they outwardly seem to be a loving couple, this is belied by the fact that they sleep in separate beds, which make Elena as much a maidservant as she is a wife.

Elena and Vladimir both have adult children from their previous marriages, each with their separate problems.  Elena’s son Sergei (Alexey Rozin) is a dissolute layabout, living in a rundown tenement in the suburban outskirts of Moscow who depends on the financial largesse Elena manages to wheedle out of a grudgingly tolerant Vladimir.  Sergei constantly bickers with his wife, usually over his equally aimless and undisciplined teenage son Sasha (Igor Ogurtsov); Sergei’s lack of emotional maturity is neatly represented by the beer bottle that is constantly at his mouth, echoing the milk bottle in the mouth of his infant son.  Vladimir is estranged from his daughter Katya (Elena Lyadova), whom her father terms a “hedonist,” similarly to Sergei lacking gainful employment, apparently spending most of her time indulging in one-night stands and alcohol.

The needs of Sergei and his family, whom Elena cares for fiercely and seemingly without judgment, form the catalyst for the main conflict of the film.  Elena is very much concerned about getting her grandson Sasha into college so that he won’t be drafted into the military, and perhaps harboring an unspoken wish to prevent him from ending up like his father.  Elena repeatedly asks Vladimir for money to help him go to school, presumably to help bribe the right people, since Sasha won’t get into a good school with his grades alone. Vladimir, openly resenting having to provide for Elena’s family, puts his foot down, refusing this latest request for assistance.  Later, when a health scare and a belated reconciliation with his daughter causes Vladimir to redraft his will, Elena contemplates taking drastic measures to protect her own future financial stability as well as her son’s family’s.  Without giving too much away, if you’ve seen The Postman Always Rings Twice or such latter-day European re-imaginings as György Fehér’s Hungarian film Passion (1998) or Christian Petzold’s German film Jerichow (2008), you’ll probably guess where this story is headed.

With now just three features to his credit, Andrey Zvyagintsev has catapulted himself to the ranks of the finest world directors, and certainly one of the best filmmakers to come out of Russia; Elena is his finest creation yet.  Zvyagintsev and his collaborators, especially his brilliant regular cinematographer Mikhail Krichman, excel in every department; especially impressive is how Elena’s cinematic frame teems with details that complement the main action and provide acerbic and disturbing commentary on modern Russian life.  For example, television – sometimes heard, sometimes seen – is a constant backdrop to many interior scenes in the film.  The inane cooking, dating, and advice shows that blare in the background are the new opium of the people, to borrow from Marx’s famous maxim concerning religion, that prevent citizens from thinking too hard about their circumstances and the societal injustices and socioeconomic inequalities that have placed them there. (Not to mention the conditions that have allowed an authoritarian ex-KGB man have constant rule over Russia for what, with the latest election, will be close to two decades.)

Elements of the natural world, especially animals, exist as portentous symbols of the ominous fates awaiting the human characters; for example, the loud cawing of crows (never a good sign) is heard throughout.  Late in the film, Elena’s train passes by a dead horse on the side of the tracks, an unmistakable metaphor for the evil that Zvyagintsev sees shaping the universe he creates in Elena, as well as the world he sees around him.  In his director’s statement, he says that Elena gave him the chance “to explore the central idea of the early modern period: survival of the fittest, survival at any cost … Ever-increasing disengagement and individualism mean that people start to behave more and more like a bunch of tarantulas in a jar.”

I must mention two more elements that contribute to Elena’s artistic success.  Nadezhda Markina’s central performance is a riveting and complex one that elicits both sympathy and revulsion with equal intensity, as we see what Elena is truly capable of when push comes to shove and the drive for self-preservation becomes an all-encompassing force, subsuming any sense of morality, scruples, or even love.  The starkly understated, yet intense action of the film is propelled by Philip Glass’s propulsive score, taken from his 1995 composition Symphony No. 3.  This piece recurs throughout the film, mostly in scenes with Elena traversing the sharply disparate worlds of wealth and privilege represented by her rich husband’s neighborhood, and the relative poverty of the crumbling high-rise inhabited by her son.  Glass’s music plays during an overhead shot of a newborn baby playing on an oversized bed, which becomes a deeply unsettling symbol of the unending cycle of dog-eat-dog materialism that Zvyagintsev so vividly, and unforgettably, depicts.

Elena is now playing at Film Forum in New York through May 29.  Click here for more information and to purchase tickets.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Tribeca Film Festival 2012 Review: Seung-Jun Yi's "Planet of Snail"

Planet of Snail (Dalpaengi-eui byeol). 2011. Directed by Seung-Jun Yi. Essays and poetry by Jo Young-chan. Produced by Min-Chul Kim and Gary Kam. Edited by Simon El Habre and Seung-Jun Yi. Music by Min Seonki. Sound design and sound editing by Sami Kiiski.

(Note: this review has been cross-posted on Twitch.)

My personal favorite of all the films I viewed at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, Seung-Jun Yi’s mesmerizing and lovely documentary Planet of Snail slowly and patiently reveals to us the dimensions of the love story at its center.  The film explores the daily lives of Young-chan, a deaf and blind man, and his companion Soon-ho, a woman whose growth has been stunted by a spinal disability.  As much as we can celebrate Planet of Snail for its myriad exemplary qualities in terms of filmmaking and its sensitive and deeply respectful portrayal of its subjects, it can also be greatly appreciated for what it is not.  It most emphatically is not a maudlin, earnest social-problem documentary that dwells on the difficulties of their existence and holds them up as sentimental objects of pity.  Instead, with uncommon gifts of close observation and an unhurried, meditative pace, we are taken into their tactile way of perceiving the world, communicating with each other by the Braille they tap out on each other’s hands.  They have full and rich lives of both quotidian daily tasks and art creation and appreciation and, on the evidence of this film, are a good deal more in tune with and attentive to the world they live in than most of us so-called able-bodied folks.

“All deaf-blind people have the heart of an astronaut,” Young-chan at one point says in the voiceover that punctuates the film’s episodes, and reveals himself as a poetic observer of both his own condition and of the universe that surrounds him.  In addition to being a talented writer who regularly enters literary contests and reads stories with a Braille reader he carries around with him, he is also a sculptor, molding clay into animals and human figures.  This latter skill, especially, is indicative of his playful sense of humor; one of the figures he sculpts is a man pissing into a chamber pot.  Young-chan’s reference to himself as an “astronaut” ties into the film’s title; he perceives of himself as a visitor to this world who comes from another world of silence, isolation, and darkness, using his sense of touch to make sense of and revel in the natural world.  His love of nature manifests itself in such activities and putting his hand out to feel the drops of a spring shower, and literally hugging trees in a public park.

Of course, Young-chan is not alone in this quest to interact with the world.  Soon-ho is his nearly inseparable, loving companion each step of the way, assisting him with such daily needs as their meals (tapping out on Braille what and where the food is), as well as other activities as his essay writing and his playwriting (he composes a religious play for his church and is a consultant to another theatre production about deaf-blindness).  Their evident love for each other and mutual dependence on each other is such that it makes their friends envious.  The symbiotic nature of their relationship is revealed in a remarkable scene in which they work together to change a round fluorescent light bulb, an elaborate operation that they achieve with a satisfied sense of accomplishment. Even though Soon-ho at one point says that it would be ideal if they both died at the same time, she comes to recognize the importance of Young-chan’s developing his own self-sufficiency.  Late in the film, Soon-ho nervously watches from a distance as Young-chan attempts to navigate the streets by himself, and later sees him off on a shuttle bus to a facility where others can care for him as well.

Yi shot Planet of Snail over the course of two years, an extended period of time that deepens the intimate feel of the documentary, as well as enhancing the natural beauty of the visuals, which depict the passage of time and the changing of the seasons with a delicacy that is quite affecting.  This is an extraordinary work that is one of the most life-affirming viewing experiences I’ve ever had at the movies, and it’s hard to me to conceive of anyone else who’ll disagree with me after seeing it for themselves.

Planet of Snail opens later this summer at Film Forum, from July 25 through August 7.  Click here for more information at Film Forum’s website.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Tribeca Film Festival 2012 Review: Alex Karpovsky's "Rubberneck"

Rubberneck. 2012. Directed by Alex Karpovsky. Written by Alex Karpovsky and Garth Donovan. Produced by Garth Donovan, Michael Bowes, and Adam Roffman. Cinematography by Beecher Cotton. Edited by Garth Donovan and Alex Karpovsky. Music by James Lavino. Production design by Lindsay Degen. Sound by Charlie Anderson and Will Lautzenheiser.

Cast: Alex Karpovsky (Paul Harris), Jamie Ray Newman (Danielle Jenkins), Amanda Good Hennessey (Linda Harris), Dennis Staroselsky (Chris Burke), Dakota Shepard (Kathy), Sean Sullivan (Detective Timmons), Richard Forbes (Detective Ford), Mariana Basham (Marsha Burke), Gabriel Kuttner (Ken).

(Note: this review has been cross-posted on Twitch.)

Actor and director Alex Karpovsky has been a fixture in the past few years in low-budget American indies, many of which have fallen under the rubric (though I hate the term) of “mumblecore.”  In many of these films, both directed by himself and by others, he is an affable and sardonic presence, who has drawn comparisons in many quarters to Woody Allen.  Often in the characters he plays, a darker undercurrent is revealed that lies underneath the friendly façade presented to the world.  Up until now, at least in what I have seen so far of his work, this all existed more or less solidly in the realm of comedy.  However, Rubberneck, his latest film as director and lead actor, takes him into very different territory; it is a moody and atmospheric piece, full of creeping dread, an emotional reflection of its tortured protagonist.  It is essentially a stalker tale, in the mode of such films as Psycho and Peeping Tom; as a result, the narrative trajectory goes pretty much the way one would expect once the obsessive nature of its main character becomes fully established.  But as the cliché goes, it’s about the journey, not the destination, and Karpovsky delivers a compelling and skillfully rendered trip through his character’s trauma-scarred psyche.

Paul Harris (Karpovsky), Rubberneck’s central character, is a scientist at a research laboratory in suburban Boston, a starkly antiseptic environment that fits the mask of logicality and normalcy that Paul wears, and which gradually slips away as the film progresses.  This unmasking is set into motion in the aftermath of one weekend Paul spends having a sexual tryst with his co-worker Danielle (Jaime Ray Newman).  Danielle considers this a one-time thing, to the dismay of Paul, who eight months later, is still unable to let go, and spends his days in tortured awkwardness at still being in Danielle’s presence daily at work.  Even though he applies for work at other labs, he can’t quite bring himself to leave his job, perhaps in the hope of rekindling, or rather, beginning a relationship with Danielle.  His only solace during his longing is the time he spends with his sister Linda (Amanda Good Hennessey) and her son, as well as satisfying his sexual desires with Kathy (Dakota Shepard), a paid escort he frequents.  Whatever faint hopes Paul harbors of getting anywhere with Danielle are dashed when she begins seeing Chris (Dennis Staroselsky), a new employee at the lab.  This unleashes the desperation, anger, and violent impulses that Paul heretofore has very carefully hidden from others, leading to extreme and irreversible consequences.

Rubberneck, written by Karpovsky and Garth Donovan, impresses less with the explanations behind Paul’s pathologies than it does with the use of its suburban settings and eerily stark interiors that surround the protagonist and immerse the viewers fully in his headspace.  Also impressive is Karpovsky’s performance, rendering with chilly intensity this withdrawn and often opaque character who in many scenes in the film is silently lurking and watching.  Incidentally, this year’s festival offered viewers a chance to get a sense of Karpovsky’s range as an actor, and to compare his work in Rubberneck with his more comedic role in Daniel Schechter's film Supporting Characters (which I also highly recommend).  Both films mark the continuing emergence of a remarkable talent both in front of and behind the camera.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Tribeca Film Festival 2012 Review: Kim Nguyen's "War Witch"

War Witch (Rebelle). 2012. Written and directed by Kim Nguyen. Produced by Pierre Even and Marie-Claude Poulin. Cinematography by Nicolas Bolduc. Edited by Richard Comeau. Production design by Emmanuel Frechette. Costume design by Eric Poirier. Sound by Claude La Haye.

Cast: Rachel Mwanza (Komona), Alain Bastien (Rebel Lieutenant), Serge Kanyinda (Magician), Ralph Prosper (The Butcher), Mizinga Mwinga (Great Tiger), Starlette Mathata (Komona's mother), Alex Herabo (Komona's father).

(Note: this review has been cross-posted on Twitch.)

I am of two minds when it comes to cinematic depictions of the African continent, in both fiction and documentary films.  On the one hand, the sad reality is that civil war, corruption, political instability, and famine are inescapable features of many African countries, due to the legacy of European colonialism and the subsequent failings of indigenous leaders.  On the other hand, focusing on such subjects leads to a narrow and skewed view of a continent with rich history and culture, especially considering the fact that many films about Africa are made by non-Africans.  However sympathetic and respectful these outsiders to the cultures may be, there often remains an inescapable aspect of voyeuristic tourism, aimed more at appealing to Westerners than to African people themselves.

At first blush Canadian filmmaker Kim Nguyen’s fourth feature War Witch would seem to conform to the usual trends.  Shot in the Democratic Republic of the Congo but not the specific setting of the film, which is rendered as an unnamed sub-Saharan African country, War Witch deals with the phenomenon of child soldiers, a subject that has been explored in numerous films and TV reports.  The usual issues of the loss of innocence and war trauma are dealt with here as well, so there is certainly nothing ground-breaking or particularly novel in what Nguyen offers us, at least as far as subject matter goes.  What elevates this film above many others, however, is the fable-like atmosphere that informs both the performances and the visual aesthetic.  Also taking the film to a uniquely memorable place is the stunning standout performance by the young actress Rachel Mwanza, a nonprofessional found by Nguyen on the streets of the Congo capital of Kinshasa, who went on to win the best actress award at this year’s Berlin Film Festival.  Mwanza ably carries War Witch almost entirely on her soldiers, never less than convincing at every turn.

War Witch is built around the conceit of Komona (Mwanza), narrating her story to her unborn child, one product of the war that is waged around her, and of which she has been forced to become an active participant.  Twelve years old as the story begins, Komona is taken away from her village by invading rebel soldiers and drafted into the rebels’ child army, but not before being compelled to do the first killing that will haunt her throughout the rest of the film.  We are taken through the roughly three years following her abduction constituting her war experiences.  Komona’s own parents have been replaced by her rifle; the rebel soldiers tell her and the other children that “this is your mother and father” during their training.  Komona’s sadness and fear begin to be alleviated by Magician (Serge Kanyinda), an albino fellow child soldier who takes it upon himself to befriend and protect her.

During a battle with government soldiers, in which Komona is one of the few survivors, the rebels believe she has magic powers that can predict when they will be attacked and protect them from government bullets, and designate her as a “war witch,” and to eventually become the personal property of the rebel leader Great Tiger (Mizinga Mwinga).  Magician sticks by Komona’s side through all of this, and they eventually make their escape from the rebel army to live with Magician’s uncle the Butcher (Ralph Prosper).  Rachel and Magician are able to lead a somewhat normal existence, which includes a humorous episode in which Rachel sends him on a quest to track down a rare white rooster before she will allow him to marry her.  However, the civil war proves inescapable, and they are both drawn back into its murderous embrace.

War Witch has a dreamy, fairy-tale quality that meshes surprisingly well with the more violent aspects of this tale, and Kim Nguyen ably mixes the fantastical elements of his story with a documentary-like aesthetic to create a richly textured work.  The entire cast, a mix of non-professional Congolese actors and professional Canadian actors offer impressive support to the revelatory central performance by Rachel Mwanza, especially Kanyinda as Magician.

War Witch won the Founders Award for Best Narrative Feature at Tribeca, as the award for Best Actress in a Narrative Feature for Rachel Mwanza.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Tribeca Film Festival 2012 Review: Lynn Shelton's "Your Sister's Sister"

Your Sister's Sister. 2011. Written and directed by Lynn Shelton. Produced by Steven Schardt. Cinematography by Benjamin Kasulke. Edited by Nat Sanders. Original music and sound by Vinny Smith. Production design by John Lavin.

Cast: Mark Duplass (Jack), Emily Blunt (Iris), Rosemarie DeWitt (Hannah), Mike Birbiglia (Al), Mike Harring (Tom, in photos).

(Note: this review has been cross-posted on Twitch.)

There are many pleasures to be had in watching Your Sister’s Sister, the fourth feature by writer/director Lynn Shelton (We Go Way Back, My Effortless Brilliance, Humpday), one of the great highlights of Tribeca 2012.  For example, there is the nuanced and lived-in feel of the performances; the way each scene is meticulously mined for maximum comic/dramatic value; and the burnished cinematography that makes great use of the overcast atmosphere of the Pacific Northwest to envelop everything we see in its moody embrace.  But beyond all this, there is the great pleasure of seeing Shelton so beautifully build and expand on her already impressive achievements, delivering (as always) the laughs that come from her characters being placed in rather uncomfortable situations, but adding an emotional weight that enhances both the comedic and serious moments to brilliant effect.

Shelton’s two previous films My Effortless Brilliance and Humpday focused on male friendship and rivalry, and how this can often descend into a mano-a-mano battle of wills, each side loath to back down from whatever emotional position they choose to assume.  Such a rivalry forms the backbone of Your Sister’s Sister, but there are two significant differences.  First, the relationship is between that of brothers, which serves to intensify this sort of rivalry even further, due to the emotional and familial bond that comes into play.  But most importantly, this relationship has already occurred offscreen before the film begins, and is already at an end.  This is because one of the brothers had been dead for a year as the action commences; we are first introduced to the surviving sibling, Jack (Mark Duplass), brooding in a corner as a death anniversary gathering is happening, where the participants share their memories of Jack’s brother Tom.  After Al (Mike Birbiglia) shares a fond memory of a night at the movies with Tom watching Hotel Rwanda, an inebriated and agitated Jack dumps cold water on the proceedings by giving a toast suggesting that Tom wasn’t quite the saintly figure eulogized by his friends.  As one can imagine, this act effectively ends the celebration, bringing Tom’s friends down to Jack’s own depressed level.

This proves to be one breach of decorum too many for Iris (Emily Blunt), Jack’s best friend and an ex-girlfriend of Tom’s.  She stages an intervention with Jack after the party, prescribing a period of exile at her family’s cabin on an island in the Pacific Northwest.  Iris conceives this isolation for Jack as emotional rehab, to shake him out the aimless, depressive slackerdom he has indulged in during the year following his brother’s death.  With literally nothing else better to do, Jack accedes to Iris’ demands, biking out to the cabin.  However, this planned solitude is not to be, as Jack unexpectedly comes upon Iris’ sister Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt) taking up residence there. (Even a simple set-up such as this plays out in a hilariously awkward and nicely staged scene; Shelton misses few opportunities to humorously reveal character.)  Hannah is also using the cabin as a refuge from her own emotional turmoil, having just ended a seven-year lesbian relationship, drowning her sorrows that night in a bottle of tequila.  That tequila is the catalyst for an ill-advised (and also hilariously awkward) sexual encounter between the two, and a complicated situation that becomes even more so when Iris decides to join Jack at the cabin, unaware that her sister is also there.  This sets into motion a chain of consequences that reveals connections between the three (as well as their links to the deceased Tom), in which hidden motives and desires, long suppressed, rise to the surface.

Shelton’s usual method of making her films involves extensive work with the actors in which they fully collaborate with the director in creating their characters, inventing backstories, and using on-set improvisation to flesh out interactions between them, resulting in often startling and unexpected moments.  One great example is one scene in which Hanna tells an embarrassing “bush story” about Iris. (To clarify, the particular bush involved is not the horticultural kind.)  Iris gets revenge on Hannah for telling this story in front of Jack by rather cruelly causing Hannah to unwittingly breach her vegan diet.  As can be expected, all this results in a lot of talk, and definitely much of this film, similarly to her others, is very dialog-driven.  But that is not all there is to it, although there is great dialog here; Shelton doesn’t neglect dynamic staging, and she clearly has thought much more about composition and showing the relationship between her characters and their setting.  I’ve already mentioned the cinematography, and again I’d like to highlight the great contribution of cameraman Benjamin Kasulke, whom Shelton has worked with on two other films, who provides rich visual texture here.

The performance work by all three principal actors is stellar.  Mark Duplass (no slouch as a director himself, along with his brother Jay) has played similar characters in other films, but here he lends a sense of melancholy that is bubbling just under the surface, which leads to an outpouring of emotion at the end of the film that is quite emotionally moving.  Emily Blunt and Rosemarie DeWitt are never less than convincing as the siblings who form a female counterpart, perhaps, to the brothers who have been separated by death.  Their emotional trajectory eventually takes center stage, pushing the film out of its light comedic territory into something weightier, though never humorless or overly ponderous.