Bridge of Spies (2015, Steven Spielberg)

Interesting and (obviously) expertly made and acted drama following U.S. lawyer Donovan hired to defend captured Russian spy Abel in American courts. He gets behind the job more than his bosses expected and is later talked into helping negotiate a trade: his client for an American spy the Russians captured, and possibly also for a student who found himself on the wrong side of the Berlin Wall.

I got mostly a Spielberg/Hanks flavor from it, but Sam Adams caught some good Coen Bros. screenplay moments:

Donovan’s first scene in Bridge of Spies shows him haggling with another lawyer over an insurance settlement – a strangely protracted exchange that bears the mark of the Coens’ habit of falling in love with their own dialogue. But the skirmish between them is linguistic as well as legal: Donovan’s opponent keeps referring to the driver of the car that crashed and injured five men as “your guy”, and Donovan keeps demurring: “We are talking about a guy who’s insured by my client. He’s not my guy.” The issue of whether Abel is or is not “his guy” is later raised in court, and it hangs over the rest of the movie. Is Donovan simply a lawyer doing his appointed duty, or has he actually begun to understand how the world looks from Abel’s point of view?

Now Playing: a Billy Wilder comedy set in West Berlin, the blacklist-busting Spartacus,
British horror with German director, and 1962 West German murder mystery based on British novel:

Appearances by Alan Alda and Amy Ryan. Mark Rylance won an oscar for playing the passive and unflappable captured spy, whose signature line whenever asked why he’s not worrying is “would it help?” Adam Nayman’s Cinema Scope writeup, which I’m too tired to type up here, gets to the bottom of some of my ambivalent feelings about the story and the cold war atmosphere.

Vivan Las Antipodas (2011, Victor Kossakovsky)

Maybe I’m just in a mood, but this seems like one of the greatest documentaries ever. In filming eight locations (four sets of antipodes – places on land directly opposite the globe from each other), much fun is had with lenses and camera orientation. The music and sound design is terrific as well as the cinematography, and the movie’s gimmick and structure aside, he is filming absolute magic and wonder. In fact, the antipode concept is only mentioned in some opening titles, and from there it’s just observation of the chosen locations, left to viewer’s imagination and his excellent visual transitions between locales to draw geographic connections.

Won an award at the 2012 True/False Fest. We hope to attend next year, so we’re catching up on some docs we missed.

Filming locations:

Argentina/Shanghai:

I looked up a little about Kossakovsky. He teaches a documentary class – among the rules he presents to students:

– Don’t film if you can live without filming.

– Don’t film if you want to say something – just say it or write it. Film only if you want to show something, or you want people to see something. This concerns both the film as a whole and every single shot within the film.

– Don’t film something you just hate. Don’t film something you just love. Film when you aren’t sure if you hate it or love it. Doubts are crucial for making art. Film when you hate and love at the same time.

– You need your brain both before and after filming, but don’t use your brain during filming. Just film using your instinct and intuition.

– Story is important for documentary, but perception is even more important. Think, first, what the viewers will feel while seeing your shots. Then, form a dramatic structure of your film using the changes to their feelings.

– Documentary is the only art where every esthetical element almost always has ethical aspects and every ethical aspect can be used esthetically. Try to remain human, especially whilst editing your films. Maybe, nice people should not make documentaries.

Hawaii:

New Zealand/Spain:

Elena (2011, Andrei Zvyagintsev)

Elena is recently married to Vlad (Andrey Smirnov, a writer/director who was working on his own film when this was shooting). He comes from a cold, rich family and she comes from a larger, lazier family. He decides not to give her college money in order to keep her oldest grandson out of the military, so she kills him with a Viagra overdose in his meds cup, burns his in-progress will, and brings cash from his safe to her son. Seems like a straightforward crime/family drama, but with details I didn’t know how to place, like the final scene, where the oldest son joins his buddies outside to beat the shit out of some people.

J. Hoberman:

The movie grows ever more emotionally complex. Beginning with the image of a dead horse that Elena spots from a train and ending with a shot of an unattended infant, the final scenes seem to spring from her guilty conscience. Largely unremarkable in themselves, the revelation of an unexpected pregnancy, the experience of a routine power failure, an instance of casual teenage brutality, and the sight of a family gathering before the TV are cumulatively disturbing.

Won second or third place in Cannes UCR, in competition with Hors Satan and Martha Marcy May Marlene.

Zvyagintsev:

One of the things that I wanted to emphasize is that money changed human nature. It is especially visible in Russia, because we never had that before due to social circumstances. All of us had 120 rubles per month and then all of a sudden 20 years ago we were thrown into the world of capitalism and consumerism, unprepared. That changed us in an unexplainable way… I’m confident that this story isn’t just about Russia, it’s about human nature, it’s universal. But just in the Russian context, it’s more visible and actualized.

Whispering Pages (1993, Aleksandr Sokurov)

My preparatory viewings of various Crime and Punishment adaptations didn’t end up preparing me at all for Whispering Pages, which uses none of the main events from the novel, instead taking minor scenes and mashing them up with other novels, creating a general tone of miserablist 19th century Russian literature without bothering itself with a story.

Extreme Slow Cinema here, but Sokurov keeps it short, under 80 minutes. He seems to love paintings and long takes. Motion shots turn to stills. The color temperature of shots changes. The picture sometimes looks blurred or stretched or warped, but given the stills I’ve seen of Mother and Son, this is probably intentional. Film grain and rolling mist are more main characters than our lead actor A. Cherednik, who speaks with a breathy Peter Lorre voice and seems to have killed someone offscreen.

Overall I wasn’t a fan, but it does have some mesmerising moments. There’s the main dialogue scene with E. Koroleva, in which he tells her that he’s killed someone and they debate him turning himself in and the existence of God, and she reacts like this:

There’s an obscure bureaucracy scene with this weirdo:

And there’s an inexplicable (dream sequence?) where everyone around our hero is leaping in slow-motion into unknown depths. Stills can’t do that shot justice, so instead here is some mist.

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.