Tag Archives: 2012

IT CAME FROM THE READER-SUGGESTED QUEUE: WHITE TIGER (2012)

Belyy tigr

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DIRECTED BY: Karen Shakhnazarov

FEATURING: Aleksey Vertkov, Vitaliy Kishchenko, Valeriy Grishko

PLOT: In the closing months of World War II, the Soviet army is confronted by a fearsome opponent in the form of a single, unnaturally deadly tank; the best hope for victory lies with the only man to survive an attack by the armored vehicle, a soldier with retrograde amnesia who survived extensive burns and now possesses an uncanny ability to out-think the machine.

Still from White Tiger (2012)

COMMENTS: They call him “Ivan Ivanovich Naydenov.” The last word literally means “found,” and the name is the Russian equivalent of “John Doe.” He is discovered in the charred remains of a wrecked tank, covered with burns over nearly his entire body. He is nearly given up for dead, but he recovers with astonishing speed. How he could be alive is a terrific mystery, but there’s a war on, with no time for such diversions. He remembers nothing before being found except for the ability to drive a tank, so they call him “Ivan Ivanovich Naydenov” and do the only thing they can do: put him in uniform and throw him back into the battle against the Nazis. 

But World War II is really beside the point, because the real battle is a timeless struggle between two archetypal foes: the soulless killing machine and the pure knight sent to vanquish it. Naydenov and the White Tiger are purposely stripped of identity; the soldier has no past while the tank has no crew. We see the tank wipe out an entire squadron of Soviet vehicles, and it becomes clear why the Russians and Germans alike are terrified of the mechanized death-dealer. Only Naydenov is undeterred; he is able to outwit the tank as no one else can, but they are too perfectly matched for either to triumph.

Presenting the White Tiger as a legitimate threat is a significant task. Other films have tried to depict the malign power of inanimate vehicles, some more successfully than others. The filmmakers use a crafty blend of camera framing, sound design (including a wonderfully unnatural thwoomping sound for the beast’s cannon), and practical effects to give the White Tiger its power. Meanwhile, the character of Naydenov (an evangelically determined Vertkov) has been stripped down to the most basic elements needed to defeat a tank. He has an innate sense of tactics, a prognosticator’s insight into the tank’s next moves, and a zealot’s indefatigable passion for the chase. When Naydenov tells his superior officer that he will pursue his adversary forever, it seems like that’s exactly how long it will take. 

For much of the film’s running time, the movie is taken up with two questions: How will our heroes vanquish this opponent, and what is the mystery behind the two combatants’ hidden identities? Neither of these questions will be addressed in the slightest. Instead, White Tiger takes a truly strange turn in its final act, when it leaves the battlefield to depict Germany’s surrender to the Soviet Union (and the other Allied powers, although they barely figure here). This sets up what appears to be the film’s true thesis statement: that the battle between good and evil cannot be confined to nationalities, and that evil only rises up when the will of the masses summons it. A reasonable sentiment, except that it is delivered by, of all people, Adolf Hitler, who suddenly comes to us from beyond the grave to explain to a faceless companion that the Nazis only waged their campaign of death against the Jews because the rest of Europe secretly wanted it but lacked his fortitude, and that the impulse will surely rise again. Not my fault, he insists. The rest of Europe made me do it.

What does this unsettling scene mean? Unfortunately, this question has a ready and alarming answer, and it lies in the fact that this Hitler’s threat and the implicit defense for warfare sounds strikingly similar to the language Russia used to justify its invasion of Ukraine a decade after the film’s release. This can no doubt be laid at the feet of Shakhnazarov, the movie’s director and an extremely vocal supporter of Vladimir Putin. As noted in a recent discussion of the earlier Shakhnazarov film Zerograd, the filmmaker has publicly warned that is Russia were to lose in its current incursion, “it is the West that will have concentration camps ready, and will send all Russians there without mercy.” It’s an almost-exact recapitulation of the take on history that White Tiger’s Hitler provides, and reveals this otherwise intriguing ghost story to be odious propaganda. The weirdest thing about the movie turns out to be its interpretation of good and evil, and just who sits on which side. 

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a weird, wondrous tale of an eerie white fascist tank that appears, attacks and vanishes, leaving smoldering Russian tanks and cremated corpses in its wake… luckily, Shakhnazarov’s powerful image-making largely subsumes the film’s many peculiarities.”–Ronnie Scheib, Variety (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Mike B. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

White Tiger
  • DVD
  • Multiple Formats, NTSC, Widescreen
  • English (Subtitled), English (Dubbed), Russian (Original Language)
  • 1
  • 90

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: EXCISION (2012)

DIRECTED BY: Richard Bates Jr.

FEATURING: AnnaLynne McCord, Traci Lords, Roger Bart, Ariel Winter, Jeremy Sumpter

PLOT: Bored at school, frustrated by her home life, and tormented by nightmares that transform her dreams of becoming a surgeon into bloody tableaux, 18-year-old Pauline tries to solve her issues by herself, with unexpected consequences.

Still from Excision (2012)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Excision is a character study focusing on one very screwed-up young woman, but the film delicately walks the line between making her behavior fancifully quirky and disturbingly repellent. The distinctive point-of-view, excellent acting by the two leads, and an ending that earns its dropped jaws all make this one to remember.

COMMENTS: By now, the sullen teen girl with no f’s to give has become a trope unto itself. From Daria to Wednesday Addams to nearly every character ever played by Aubrey Plaza, the type combines a steadfast commitment to outsider status with just the hint of potential homicidal intent. There are a lot of reasons to think that Excision‘s Pauline walks down this same familiar road. She’s fearless when it comes to getting in the faces of those she deems inferior. She’s devoid of shame in asking for what she wants, such as when she walks up to a boy and tells him point-blank that she wants to lose her virginity to him. And she’s dripping with snark for nearly everyone. In that respect, it’s easy to want to be on her side, to wish that everyone would just let her be herself.

But then there are the dreams, which feature naked corpses, autopsies, extractions, and no shortage of blood. On their own, they’re baroque, but their influence starts to spill over into the waking world, such as when Pauline takes it upon herself to pierce her own nose, ask a teacher if she can get an STD from copulating with the dead, or perform her own exploratory surgery on a wounded bird. As much as you want to root for the underdog, it’s not hard to see why everyone else in the film is put off by her attitude. She’s definitely creepy.

McCord devours her leading role. With unkempt eyebrows and lingering acne, she’s the girl you expect to be transformed into a beautiful swan in the second act, but she can’t help but be herself. And that self is someone who clearly desires love and appreciation, as much as she bats away the suggestions of everyone who thinks they know who she should be. As good as McCord is, the performance from Traci Lords as her mother is downright spectacular. Despite the potential for her repressed and moralistic character to become simplistic and even parodistic (and in spite of the implied irony in her casting), she is genuinely excellent. Through their committed and entertaining performances, McCord and Lords elevate the mother-daughter relationship away from the starkly drawn lines of Carrie and to something akin to the complexities of Lady Bird.

Writer/director Bates, who expanded his original short film to feature length, has one other card to play, and it’s as interesting as it is irrelevant. He offers up a bevy of cameos, several of which are immediately appealing to a weird sensibility. Moving beyond Marlee Matlin and Matthew Gray Gubler, Excision welcomes such luminaries as Ray Wise as a rather intense principal, Malcolm McDowell as a seen-it-all math teacher, and, most pointedly, John Waters as a plain-minded pastor called upon to double as an amateur therapist. Perhaps what’s most odd about this casting is how utterly normal every one of these cult legends seems. The effect is similar to ’s decision to populate The Informant! with comedians playing it totally straight. If these are the weirdos, we ask ourselves, then what the hell is Pauline?

Excision is a demented character study right up until the very end, when Pauline’s psychic trauma manifests in the real world. It works as a shocking piece of horror, but also makes sense as a logical endpoint for Pauline’s efforts to balance her dangerous impulses with her eagerness to please. They’re not compatible, and the only reasonable result is catastrophe. Many films show you the monster; few go to this effort to show you how it got that way.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an overripe mélange of Cronenbergian ‘body horror’ and alienated Lynchian weirdness. “–Nigel Floyd, Time Out (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Tori, who called it “amazing” and said “you can’t imagine where the plot goes.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)