Ivan’s Childhood (1962, Andrei Tarkovsky)

Entrancing from the start, with striking images and a very mobile camera, almost in the mode of Mikhail Kalatozov’s recent The Cranes Are Flying. It’s always interesting when one of my favorite modes of filmmaking – immaculately composed frames, visual beauty in sharp black-and-white – is the early work of a filmmaker who progresses to more diffuse color photography (see also: Leos Carax, Pedro Costa, Ingmar Bergman). Cowritten with Andrey Konchalovsky, already a director himself, and half the cast would return in Andrei Rublev.

Ivan is a spy kid for the Russian army, trying to stay with his military family as long as possible, though they keep trying to ship him to military school and get him out of active combat. Story is told with flashbacks and sidetracks, and crazy great photography. Obviously, being a Russian war movie, it doesn’t end well.

D. Iordanova:

Nearly every scene in Ivan’s Childhood is handled in a manner out of the ordinary, suggesting heightened consciousness of style, point of view, framing, and fluid camera. … Polish filmmaker Andrzej Wajda’s Ashes and Diamonds seems to have had an artistic impact on the film, with its deep interiors lit by rays of light squeezing through cracks, its moments of veering consciousness, and especially its dislodged religious symbols placed amidst smoking ruins. Buñuel’s Los Olvidados, a critical realist film interweaving dream sequences, is a likely influence as well.

It is in connection with this film that [Tarkovsky] first spoke against the logic of “linear sequentiality” and in favor of heightening feeling through poetic connections, of using “poetic links” to join together film material in an alternative way that “works above all to lay open the logic of a person’s thought” and that is best suited for revealing cinema’s potential “as the most truthful and poetic of art forms.”

I watched this ages ago, taped off TCM with the English title My Name Is Ivan, so now I think of it as My Name Is Ivan’s Childhood. Won the top award at Venice vs. Vivre Sa Vie, The Trial, Lolita and Mamma Roma.

The Loneliest Planet (2011, Julia Loktev)

Enjoyable to watch but with less of a game-changing twist than I expected from the reviews, which I didn’t actually read, because I was warned that they might give away the movie’s game-changing twist. Anyway it sounds like the same twist as Force Majeure, which I’m hoping will be even better.

Engaged American couple is on a mountain trip through eastern Europe. She is Hani Fursternberg (Yossi & Jagger), and has a terrific naked introduction scene, and he is Gael Garcia Bernal (between The Limits of Control and No), without a whole lot to do except for one scene. At least I think this is the big twist: when some motherfucker pulls a gun and Gael’s instinct is to hide, thrusting his girlfriend into the line of fire – then almost immediately realizes what he’s doing and switches their positions. They go from being carefree, lovey hikers before that scene, to trudging unhappily in opposite corners of the frame afterwards.

Also on the trip, their Georgian guide Dato (played by an actual guide), who starts to become more important after the incident, opening up to Hani about his past since she’s barely speaking to Gael anymore.

Language lessons: “I take my biiitch to the beeeach”

J. Kuehner: “Loktev persistently evokes a mysterious feeling that courses through us, at home and abroad, of beauty and dread pulsing in equal measure.”

Won an award at AFI Fest, played Locarno alongside Terri, Another Earth, Goodbye First Love and Policeman. Loktev made the acclaimed Day Night Day Night, which came out among a flurry of other terrorist dramas that I skipped. Cinematographer Inti Briones worked with Ruiz, shot Days in the Country and Night Across The Street. The best parts are between story scenes, massive wide shots of the scenery as our tiny heroes walk along and Richard Skelton’s crazy string music takes over the soundtrack.

Leviathan (2014, Andrey Zvyagintsev)

Third movie called Leviathan I’ve seen, and another has just been announced. First Andrey Z. movie I’ve seen since The Return, and this was less mystical and mysterious than I’d expected from that one. But there’s still room for ambiguity in this generally straightforward story of a family’s obliteration by greedy, corrupt government officials as well as typical relationship drama. Wonderful looking movie, making the fact that it’s relentlessly grim easier to take.

Lilya (Elena Lyadova of Andrey Z.’s Elena) is Kolya’s second wife, after the death of his first. She and Kolya seem happy, but his sullen teenage son isn’t taking the replacement mom very well, and she is obviously more attracted to Kolya’s visiting military buddy Dmitri (Vladimir Vdovichenkov of Paragraph 78), a lawyer helping try to save the family’s land, home and business from being taken by the city (to “build a town hall” according to court statements, but actually to build a lake house for friends of the mayor (Roman Madyanov of the recent Russian 12 Angry Men remake)). Dmitri’s a good lawyer and investigator, arrives with a folder full of mayor-incriminating documents in order to get a fair price for the property, but then he has a Very Bad Day, getting caught and beaten up by his friend for having sex with his wife while on a picnic trip, then getting kidnapped, beaten again and nearly murdered by the mayor’s thugs. So he straight-up ditches town, returns to the city without telling anyone, and sad Lilya stands atop a rocky cliff, then is washed up dead the following day. Kolya is sent away for murder, mayor has the house demolished and the son is adopted by neighbors. Supposedly Lilya’s murder weapon is discovered by investigators on the property, but the whole justice system has been proven to be corrupt, so we never know if Kolya really killed her (unlikely), if the son did it (he’s shown being extremely bothered by her, but the movie never suggests he’s psycho enough to kill his stepmom), if it was government thugs, or if they’re taking advantage of a conveniently-timed suicide.

Also within: the church collaborates on the corruption deals, and an absolute ton of vodka is consumed. Won best screenplay at Cannes, nominated for a foreign oscar alongside Ida and Timbuktu. In a January interview, Andrey Z says he has four new screenplays and his producer is deciding which to film next. He’s also encouraging piracy of this film within Russia since its profane dialogue has been censored in theaters. On politics: “There is discussion in society, but it’s pointless. I have a feeling of the absolute futility of pretending to the right to have a say in any situation.”

S. Tobias:

Leviathan itself feels like a brave, lonely act of rebellion against the system, deeply pessimistic about the possibility of it ever working in the people’s favor. It advocates for a stiff drink.

Rocks In My Pockets (2014, Signe Baumane)

A good night, with the energetic director in attendance, introducing then discussing her film. It’s an impressive feat too, an animated feature made by a very small team, 2D animation composited onto paper mache backgrounds. Not completely crazy about the movie since it felt like a wearying illustrated audiobook after a while with her relentless narration, but it’s a mostly charming work about her family history of depression and suicide.

Grandma is well educated but runs off with her nationalist entrepeneur boss and bears eight children in a secluded forest, as Latvia is fought over by Russians and nazis and nationalism becomes irrelevant. She raises the kids, tends the animals, carries buckets of water up the hill all day while the entrepeneur works for years on his anti-Russian manifesto, which is burned when discovered by the kids years later. It’s said that grandma would have drowned herself but she kept floating because she didn’t know to put rocks in her pockets. Signe explores her family history while dealing with her own periodic depression, learning about strange and suicidal cousins, before returning to her own feelings and the way she deals with them through art.

Silk Stockings (1957, Rouben Mamoulian)

We lost our little bird, so picked the two dumbest movies we could find to unwind. This is a not-great musical version of Ninotchka with a not-good romance featuring a few sublime dance scenes. Cyd Charisse comes to life in those, is otherwise buttoned up as the humorless Russian sent to collect three bumbling government agents who were sent to collect a defecting music composer who is writing new music for Hollywood producer Fred Astaire who is mangling the serious tunes into upbeat dance numbers and falling for Ninotchka.

Nice Cole Porter songs. Predictably, my favorite was the one about filmmaking with separate verses about color and widescreen processes. I also dug Fred’s attack on the passing fad that was rock & roll music. “Happy” ending has all Russians staying in California, embracing capitalism, decadence and popular music, and Fred making all Cyd’s decisions for her.

Astaire’s last musical for a decade and the final film of Mamoulian (Queen Christina, Love Me Tonight). Cyd and Fred had previously starred together in The Band Wagon. Janis Paige plays the star of Astaire’s film, an Esther Williams caricature whose quirk is whacking her head to get water out of her ears. She got her start in the movies last-billed in Esther Williams’s Bathing Beauty. Naturally no Russians appear in the movie. The composer is Dutch Wim Sonneveld, Hungarian Peter Lorre plays one of the comic-relief agents alongside NYC-born Jules Munshin (Kelly & Sinatra’s co-lead in On The Town) and Lithuanian (close enough!) Joseph Buloff.

Hard to be a God (2013, Aleksei German)

Heard this three-hour Russian movie fourteen years in the making was something incredible, and oh boy is it ever. Loooong roving black-and-white takes (with beyond-Russian Ark choreography), torrential rainfall, everything bleak and ugly but masterfully shot. Sounds like Bela Tarr, but it doesn’t feel like Bela Tarr. Tarr ultimately focuses on individuals, and this one seems more concerned with lovely filth.

There is a story, or a premise at least, but if you miss the first five minutes you’d be forgiven for never figuring that out. Don Rumata is from present-day Earth, one of a team of scientists sent to “another planet, about 800 years behind,” on which the Rennaisance never happened because dumb thugs murdered all the educated and artistic types. The intro is the last time any of this is mentioned – the rest follows Rumata as he wanders the horrors of this place, through filth and hunger and murder. There are other characters, and a bit of a plot – a Wikipedia summary of the source novel reveals that many of its characters and events were adapted in the film, but weren’t explained. I’m not an avid reader of Russian lit so probably won’t pick up the novel, but I’m excited to see there’s a 1990 film version which may be more comprehensible.

Story aside, this is both a slog of a plotless beast and a technical and tactile marvel. It seems postsynched since we only hear certain sounds among all the chaos, but if so it’s done quite well. Also: a hedgehog and much bird tossing (including owls).

C. Marsh:

Hard to Be a God, by design, is not a dynamic film. Its consistency is intended to be exhausting. Over time, like Rumata, we’d rather be anywhere else. .. German seems less interested in the science-fiction dimension of the source material than in the central idea it poses: the Renaissance was a fluke. Cruelty and brutality are the default modes of existence.

I’m happy that Marsh mentions Monty Python and the Holy Grail in his review, since it was on my mind as well.

Intriguing Russian and German titles mentioned in Olaf Möller’s Cinema Scope article:
Khrustalyov, My Car! (1988)
Workers’ Settlement (1965)
My Friend Ivan Lapshin (1982)
Es ist nicht leicht, ein Gott zu sein (1990)
Days of Eclipse (1988)
The Fall of Otrar (1991)
Until the End of the World (1991, the 5-hour version)
The Ugly Swans (2006)
Dead Mountaineer’s Hotel (1979)
Lenin’s Guard (1965)

D’est (1993, Chantal Akerman)

A slideshow of filmed images from Russia and Eastern Europe, decontextualized, no voice-over or dialogue (though people notice the camera and speak to it). Generally quite long shots cut together, though the sound is mixed and faded nicely, not always simply cut with the picture. Camera is often moving, slowly gliding through a scene, and the photography is top-notch.

It’s probably my favorite Akerman film so far, at least the most lively and eventful (from what I remember of From The Other Side). Much of the joy comes from watching people stare back at the camera and crew. Chris Marker would approve. Mostly shot in public places, she also films some women at home, posing for a motion portrait or going about their day. Mostly it gave me a happy sense of peace, with vague anthropological and historical interest – not an intensely moving film, but much more enjoyable than any description of it could sound.

The montage has no discernable purpose, and I saw some complaints about how she almost ends with a long cello performance followed by the musician collecting roses from audience members, but then cuts to one more street scene, perversely denying the movie its obvious finale.

E. Henderson in Slant:

[Russia] was at a précis between history and future, and many of the individual frames in Akerman’s motion picture slideshow rumble with the juxtaposition of the Old World and the New. What Akerman does not do is offer exposition, commentary, or argument. Essentially, she eschews the tenets of documentary in order to avoid clouding her presentation up with, as she suggests in her explicatory notes, agenda.

As observed by Jonathan Rosenbaum, From the East is one of Akerman’s—and maybe cinema’—most fully realized attempts at existing as place, not setting. Rosenbaum notes that almost each and every human being caught by Akerman’s camera (some candidly, others in deliberately staged tableaux) appears to be waiting interminably for God knows what, standing and looking and breathing as Akerman pans to the right, pans to the left.

Rosenbaum also says (and I, too, was reminded of the Straub-Huillet):

The only other film I know that imparts such a vivid sense of being somewhere is the Egyptian section of Straub-Huillet’s Too Early, Too Late. Everyone goes to movies in search of events, but the extraordinary events in Akerman’s sorrowful, intractable film are the shots themselves–the everyday recorded by a powerful artist with an acute eye and ear.

Grunes calls it “a film populated by ghosts whose substantial reality provides an index of the depth of humanity that, metaphorically, has been lost,” and finds tons of deeper meaning in the shots.

Jon Jost liked it somewhat less (though it’s impossible to like it more than Grunes did):

Again and again the camera passes grim townscapes, and their equally grim occupants… Akerman in a sense gives very little, though what she gives provides enough suggestive power for the viewer’s mind to swarm with thoughts. . . Critics naturally scurry in to fill in the blanks with innumerable speculations, most of which show more about themselves than what is on screen. For those for whom guidance is a requirement a film such as this is doubtless quickly boring and pointless.

Mirror (1975, Andrei Tarkovsky)

An unseen narrator is flashing-back to his childhood in 1935. Since Tarkovsky made his first feature in the early sixties and this one is called Mirror, I’m going to assume it’s partly autobiographical. It’s also his Tree of Life – deeply-felt fragments with no easily-readable storyline. I might have missed some and misinterpreted the rest, but here are the episodes as I saw them:

1. A stutterer is cured under hypnosis. Sepia-toned film, shadows of camera crew visible, and neither character appearing in the rest of the story, because this episode is watched by the young protagonist on television.

2. color, a lost doctor talks to a woman at her house while two shaved-headed boys watch drowsily from a hammock. He leaves, turns back as a great gust of wind blows through the grass. I could watch this segment all day.

3. color, the barn burns down. Long takes bring The Sacrifice to mind.

4. b/w, woman wet hair vamping like The Ring monster, the house crumbles around her like a Low video, older woman appears in mirror reflection.

5. color, Alexei talks to his mom over phone, an Andrei Rublev poster on his wall. “Remember the hay-loft that burned down at the farm?”

6. b/w, woman proofreader thinks she’s made an error, runs through a printing press to check and it turns out okay but then everyone insults her. I think she is called Marousia, or Masha.

7. color, unseen man talking to ex-wife who reminds of his mother (same actress). “When I recall my childhood and my mother, somehow she always has your face.” Their son is Ignat. Wife might be Natalya. b/w news footage interlude.

8. color, Ignat has deja vu, then sees people who might not exist when left alone, talks to dad on phone.

9. color, a boy, maybe Ignat or his dad when young, in army training, notices girls, throws a fake grenade. War footage in b/w.

10. color, bird lands on freckly boy’s head

11. color, the mother/wife works in a ruined room.

12. b/w, Ignat’s unseen father wants Ignat to live with him, but ex-wife and Ignat disagree, dad says Ignat is stupid and recommends the army. Flashbacks and dreams: a bird flies through a windowpane.

13. color, mom comes to visit relative of the doctor – same one from first scene? Tells doc’s wife “a ladies little secret” while boy is alone looking in mirror. Red-haired girl might be Alyosha. They both feel sick. A chicken is killed.

14. b/w, a woman levitates

15. color, shaved-head kid talking to mom at farm, but mom is the old woman from reflections in #4.

16. color, doctor looking at sick guy, we see his hand holding a little bird

17. color, young woman lays on some guy in field, while two kids walk with older woman.

RW Knight for Reverse Shot:

Each event-that is, each cut, each encounter, each memory flashed back or forward-in the film’s networked composite is skewed by the film’s narrator. This narrator is the camera, and the film. His face is never seen. We are denied an identifying reverse shot. We are simply presented with his point of view: the identification is our instantaneous assimilation. His disembodied voice, weathered and granular, presides over the whole body of the work. His body is the work: the film and the guiding frame of the film. Occasionally when reading poetry the voice-over registers differently than when heard talking to other characters from outside the frame, but it still sounds like the same man. In fact, there are two voices: the poet-narrator is voiced by Arseni Tarkovsky, the director’s father, while the strictly first-person-narrator/character is voiced by Innokenti Smoktunovsky, the “first international Russian film star” (according to imdb.com), one of many point of view refractions. As identities merge in the film (father becomes son while mother becomes (ex-) wife and the son becomes his father in youth) they overlap in reality as well: the real father becomes the film star, and vice versa, incorporating their identities in the film, and its maker.

TCM summarizes:

The Mirror forgoes a conventional narrative structure, instead weaving together loosely autobiographical reminiscences, dreams and newsreel footage to suggest how the past is reflected in the present, both on a personal and on a larger historical level. … As a further personal touch, his real-life mother Maria appears as the mother in old age, his wife Larissa appears as the doctor’s wife to whom the mother sells an earring, and his stepdaughter appears as the red-headed girl with whom the narrator falls in love as a young boy.

Some good wind, and fire. Slow motion. Objects move by themselves, sometimes mysteriously just before an edit. This is the closest Tarkovsky came to making The Shining.

Begun in 1968 then interrupted to make Solaris. Appears in the Sight & Sound directors poll top-ten (and critics poll top-twenty). Probably not my favorite Tarkovsky movie, but neither would I mind watching it again right this minute.

Target (2011, Alexander Zeldovich)

“There’s nothing in the world that can’t be quantified.”

Hyped as a mindblowing modern Russian sci-fi story, but I found it overall disappointing – sleek and mildly weird, but not terribly interesting.

Boring mega-rich Viktor and youth-obsessed wife Zoya (Justine Waddell, lead nurse in The Fall) team up with her brother, totally awful TV announcer Mitya (or Dmitri?), and a jockey for some reason, flying to a tiny town around an abandoned science experiment in the middle of nowhere, where Dmitri falls for fellow tourist Anna. The five spend the night inside a giant cosmic-ray accumulator, and supposedly now they will never age.

“In nature there are no ethically neutral substances.” Viktor is obsessed with these blue-glowy glasses that can detect the amount of good and evil in anything. His wife Zoya runs off and has an affair with the jockey, who has killed some guys at work and needs to escape. Dmitri/Mitya starts making an on-air mockery of his job. A girl named Taya has come back with them from the Target, is going to meet her boyfriend in front of the ballet. Their affair had become too intense so they agreed to separate for 30 years. Same thing is happening to Dmitri and Anna, so they make the same agreement.

Dmitri and Anna:

Zoya and youth-mask:

At the end, Viktor is killed, then Zoya commits suicide as the jockey leaves town in hiding. It’s a pretty tightly paced movie for being three hours long, but the eternal youth aspect, the good/evil thing and the relationship weirdness never come together, so I didn’t see its point. I don’t mean to be obvious and compare every Russian movie to Tarkovsky, but you’ve got a movie about a few travelers who visit a mysterious, underpopulated area and are exposed to radiation that changes their physiology and behavior, which sounds like Stalker meets Solaris – just much less subtle and mysterious.