As far as I could remember from watching the early Criterion disc in 1999, this was a short-ish movie about bell casting, so imagine my surprise discovering that it’s a long-ish episodic movie about a painter with an extended bell-casting sequence at the end. Not my favorite Tarkovsky – too Catholic, and I think we’re supposed to know something about 1400’s Russian art history going in, because otherwise there’s not much drama following around this painter who never paints anything.

Turns out I also remembered the intro – a man flying away on ropes and balloons – a soviet myth according to the commentary, of the first flight of man – followed by a shot of a horse rolling over. Andrei and fellow painter/monks Kiril and Danil take shelter in their travels and witness a profane jester being brutalized by the cops.

Danil, Andrei, Kiril:

Some years later, an elder painter named Theo invites Andrei to work with him, invoking jealousy from the other monks, particularly whiny bitch Kiril, who beats his dog in anger (the movie is not kind to animals in general). Andrei takes along his slacker assistant, gets into an escapade with some naked pagans, some people get blinded, then there’s a long section of war and torture because a prince and his brother are feuding, and I didn’t know the motivation for most of this until reading a plot summary later – I thought the point was “the 1400s were terrible, yet Andrei still managed to paint beautiful things”. At the end of this though, Andrei has quit painting, or even speaking. Funny to watch this movie about a painter not painting, the day after Devotion, which features writers not writing.

Theo and Andrei:

Painters, not painting, as usual:

The movie jumps forward a decade to the part I remember – a young bellmaker’s son is approached to cast a new bell for a church, by order of the prince, who will throw a party if they succeed and kill them all if they don’t. Young Boriska claims that his recently deceased father passed on the secrets of bellmaking, but actually the kid is making it up as he goes, publicly barking orders and commanding a hundred men, but privately sick with worry. Andrei and Kirill are hanging around while all this is happening, doing nothing helpful, and it ends with the triumphant ringing of the new bell, then a color slideshow of period icons.

Boriska:

The opening abduction scene will make more sense eventually, and even then, it wasn’t until I started playing the commentary that I could say with any confidence what’s happening in the open. The household scene that follows quickly reminded that we’re in the hands of the Hard to be a God director – full of movement and talking, bustling activity in every corner of long roving camera takes.

Yuri is a military doctor in 1953, bald with a mustache, an important man who will be brought low by forces that we twenty-first-century non-Soviets can hardly fathom without audio explanation. It’s sure entertaining though, and practically as foul and brutish as God. Sound effects are good – dubbing is bad, but I’m constantly checking subtitles since the movie never shuts up for a second, so we’ll call it even.

Birdie!

Learned from the commentary: the movie is in two parts since they could get double budget if it was submitted as two films. One character with a cane umbrella would be seen as a hilarious foreigner by Russian audiences since he wears galoshes. There are major literature and poetry references throughout (I caught Viy and Sadko). German didn’t look through the camera viewfinder or select lenses, considered cinematographer Vladimir Ilin a co-author of the film, “the lighting cameraman has to be an artist too.”

The doctor gets home, but his son in voiceover says he never saw his father again… there was a double in the film, being trained what to say in case he was captured, and other doubles and siblings, so maybe I got some characters confused, and I only played the first hour of the commentary. It involves antisemitism, the death of Stalin, and a scandal called The Doctor’s Plot, which refuses to make sense no matter how much I read about it. To be clear though, the movie’s power comes through fine even not knowing what’s happening – in fact, I wonder if it’s the whole point not to know. “Poetry floats up in my memory like sailboats in the fog, along with salami.” The doctor ends up on a train, tormenting the abducted man from the opening scene, and looking intense:

German:

Another part of the population was starving in the gulag, but we ignored that reality; we only knew ours, and I can assure you that from that point of view, living in a totalitarian regime isn’t all bad. People who don’t want to know lead an adorable life. That’s why even today a lot of people in our country yearn for totalitarianism.

Released from church school on vacation, all the students immediately steal from the market, assault women, and generally terrorize the town. Three dim individuals get lost in the country and find a barn to bed down. In the night, a crone hits on Philosopher Khoma Brutus, and flies away with him when he refuses her, but he knocks her down and beats her senseless with her own broom – crisis averted. I mean, the old witch transforms into a beautiful young girl, but that’s probably nothing to worry about.

But back home, the Michael Shannon-looking rector sends Brutus to give last rites to a landowner’s lovely daughter, who was beaten nearly to death by unknown assailants in the night. Brutus is terrified, tries to escape the whole way back to the farmhouse and… stuff like this starts happening:

Also, cranes!

The now-dead girl’s very unhappy father locks Brutus in the chapel for three nights to pray for her soul. Night one goes okay – she rises from her coffin, but the magic chalk circle he draws around himself keeps her away. “A cossack fears nothing,” he swears drunkenly to the guards… survives an all-night assult by her floating coffin the next night, but the stress turns his hair white, and he tries again to escape.

He’ll get a thousand gold pieces if he survives night three, goes into the chapel drunk as hell, then the movie pulls out all the stops. The effects are just great, like Goofball Cocteau. Shadows and projections and disembodied arms and skeletons, dwarves and wall-crawling demons and many-eyeballed goblins, attack from all sides, but he’s safe in his chalk circle. Then everyone steps the fuck back when she summons Viy, a golden-eyed giant, and when the foolish cossack locks eyes with the beast, his soul is lost and the monsters descend on him.

Russia’s first(?) horror movie, supposedly based on the same Gogol story as Black Sunday. Lead actor Leonid Kuravlyov came up with Tarkovsky, but only appeared in his student film, and is better known for starring in the sci-fi comedy Ivan Vasilievich: Back to the Future. One of our codirectors died in 1984 – the other, Kropachyov, did production design for Hard to Be a God. Art and effects by Russian animation legend Aleksandr Ptushko, whose 1935 stop-motion feature The New Gulliver sounds cool.

Not trying to brag or nothin’, but I kept telling myself this movie felt like Atomic Blonde, only to find out later that it was secretly codirected by that movie’s David Leitch, so I guess I know my Russian secret-agent hit-man action thriller directors. I skipped this Keanu Reeves revenge flick when it came out, but I keep hearing good things about it and the sequel, so finally checked it out in between viewings of American Made.

The late Michael Nyqvist with Dennis Duffy:

Keanu is sad after his girl’s death from illness, left only with the dog she left him, an awesome car, a weapons arsenal, and intense murder skills, so when the local crime lord’s son kills the dog and steals the car, Keanu will not be persuaded to stop killing people (this one is more revenge-driven than the previous movie I watched, which was simply called Revenge).

Fun movie, with some interesting comic-booky elements (a hitman society with a safe-zone hotel headquarters), with appearances by Willem Dafoe, John Leguizamo, Jerry Horne, Lester Freamon and Cedric Daniels.

“I’m exhausted, I can’t remember who’s alive and who isn’t.”

Following The Road Movie, here’s another Russian dark comedy with segments that went over my head (because I didn’t try very hard to keep track who was who). The first thing I noticed is that this is a real movie, with a proper script and professional-looking camerawork and editing. I point this out because In The Loop felt like a big-screen version of a Thick of It (or Parks & Rec, etc.) episode, loose mobile cameras, cutting only for laughs and covering (sometimes badly) for dubbed lines and alt takes. Now that we get what I’ve been craving, an Iannucci movie with proper lighting and fancy sets, I guess I’ll take the In The Loop version after all. Great performances in both, but if that fake-documentary style is what’s needed to keep the comedy sharp and constant, then so be it.

This still might end up being the funniest movie of the year, with ringers Michael Palin, Steve Buscemi and Jeffrey Tambor as members of Stalin’s inner circle who start jockeying for position the moment their feared leader has fallen, having choked while laughing at hate mail sent by musician Olga Kurylenko (To The Wonder). The ringers are joined by Paul Whitehouse of The Fast Show, army leader Zhokov (Jason Isaacs of the first Resident Evil), Simon Beale (Rachel Weisz’s older husband in The Deep Blue Sea) and some others, and eventually Stalin’s idiot son Rupert Friend (Homeland) and daughter Andrea Riseborough (who also costarred with Olga K. in Oblivion).

Stalin’s children:

I’m not gonna recount every humiliation and double-cross (though Beale does end up dead and on fire) because that’ll take some of the fun out of watching this again in a few years. The blatant criminal behavior by weak-minded, disloyal men in high government offices didn’t remind me of anything in particular, no sir, just a bit of fun.

Woof, this was bad, but I should’ve guessed from the trailer I saw in NYC with all the “you won’t BELIEVE what happens NEXT”-style quotes in huge print across the screen. A seemingly endless (but only 70 minutes!) string of car crashes and weird happenings captured by Russian dash-cams and ripped off youtube.

“Danger in 200 meters” says one car’s navigation system just before encountering a truck driving slowly in reverse, wiping out all the cars in its path. I rewound a couple times the exploding light poles leading to a blackout after a truck tumbles over. “Fucking asshole,” deadpans the driver witnessing this – there are a couple heroes, but mostly the drivers act annoyed but unsurprised by the damage on display.

Typical/hilarious subtitle:

Quick montages of smashes and explosions are used as buffer material between longer single-take segments. With every new edit, you brace yourself anew for something terrible to happen. Along with Caniba, the other True/False movie Katy wisely avoided, the movie gives us nothing and lets us draw our own conclusions – and at least one person probably died in the making of each. I don’t typically click around youtube looking for the best car-crash videos, so I appreciate that someone has spent the time to curate them for us (and some are incredible) but that’s all this is.

“Your life was hard at times, but hard is not always bad.”

Dark and bleary, twisted and smeary, gives the sense of walking through paintings without the greenscreen feel of The Mill and the Cross.

The Son is home to visit his dying Mother. She can’t go for a walk, so he carries her. They decide that mom should live, then she promptly dies. He goes out and cries next to a shadowy tree, while a song plays beneath the breeze. A relentlessly slow movie that dares you to stay awake – certainly innovative and artistic, but maybe I’m not as excited as everyone who ranked it as a great film of the 1990’s. Probably watching it in a cinema would help, instead of DVD, which was the best I could find.

Nick Cave “wept and wept, from start to finish”:

The son leaves the house and moves into the exquisite landscape that surrounds it. It is in these long, lingering, nearly motionless scenes that the film rises to heights of the most breathtaking beauty. Sokurov’s landscapes are not burdened by any desire for realism. His scenes are transformed into cinematic canvases, far closer to painting than to film, awash with artificial, opalescent light. These dream-born vistas recall the work of the German Romantic painters of the early 19th century: in particular those of Caspar David Friedrich, in which everything is softened by a milky lustre. The vastness and mystery of this heightened nature creates a spirituality not dependent on any formula of traditional Christianity. And the care Sokurov applies to these fastidiously crafted scenes echoes the care with which his characters treat each other – the devotion to detail, the unhurried tenderness, the love.

Adam Cook on Letterboxd:

The son takes over the motherly duties. He carries her like a newborn child and shows her the world which has become new and foreign to her as her memory begins to fade. It is a very touching and tender portrait of their relationship but nothing is explained and no backstory is forthcoming. The son had clearly done something that shamed him in his past but what this act was is never revealed.

This was made right between Whispering Pages and Russian Ark, both of which I kinda loved, though I gotta admit Sokurov is usually a tough watch (the recent Francofonia was surprisingly/relatively easygoing). Played Berlin in the international showcase “Panorama” section (along with Chasing Amy – that’d be a jarring double-feature).

Thirty years later, Zvyagintsev refutes Sting’s claim that the Russians love their children too. Boris (Aleksey Rozin of Leviathan and Elena) and Zhenya may or may not have ever loved each other, or their son, are just trying to sell their apartment so they can move on with their lives. Boris is now with pregnant Masha, mom dating a balding dude with a grown daughter who looks a bit like mom. After the parents argue over who gets their 12-year-old son (neither wants him, so mom suggests boarding school then the army), he runs away and is never seen again. The police suggest that runaways almost always return to their warm homes, but the police don’t know what this kid overheard.

Set mostly in fall 2012 before cutting to the more recent past, for symbolic and political reasons that I’m not keen on looking into. Creeping, controlled camera moves and an overall sense that all hope is lost, that nothing will ever be good again. I suppose I liked this even better than Leviathan. Premiered at Cannes, now the eighth competition title I’ve seen from last year – that’s out of nineteen, but some (Redoubtable, Rodin, Jupiter’s Moon) I’m not trying to catch up with.

What verve, what style! Super-paranoid triple-agent action spy thriller starring all the best people, every scene awesome. Sure, a couple of dialogue clunkers and an overall feeling that, despite the constant life-or-death struggle, nothing really consequential is happening, but this movie is good, and I watched it at a good theater, sitting right up close.

Huge centerpiece showing in a single take how Charlize got beat to hell protecting Eddie Marsan. Poor Marsan – when you see him in a movie you just know things won’t turn out alright for him. John Goodman is CIA, Toby Jones is MI6, so who really was James McAvoy? Not a double agent, just a spy who got caught up in his own power? As Charlize runs into a movie theater playing Tarkovsky’s Stalker to hide from assassins, I lost track of the double-dealings and reveled in the self-conscious coolness.

The director is the Wachowskis’ stunt coordinator and did second-unit stuff on Jurassic World and the Ninja Turtles movies. It’s not the most promising looking resume, but damn. More evidence to check out John Wick, which Leitch codirected.

As many pop songs as Baby Driver, but used for different purposes, slinky mood music to fit the visual tone. The songs are vintage but their performances might not be – that wasn’t Ministry playing Stigmata, and some sounded like updated remixes.