Tag Archives: Russian

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: IRON MASK (2019)

Тайна печати дракона; AKA Viy 2

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DIRECTED BY: Oleg Stepchenko

FEATURING: Xingtong Yao, , , Jason Flemyng, Yuri Kolokolnikov

PLOT: “Master” has been chained in the Tower of London under the watchful eye of warden James Hook; meanwhile, in the Far East, the Great Dragon—whose eyelashes are the roots of the healing tea—is imprisoned by the evil Witch; meanwhile, accompanying the British cartographer, Jonathan Green, is the recently released Cheng Lan, Master’s daughter, who with the help of Peter the Great, Tsar of all the Russias, plots to save the Great Dragon from the Witch’s evil clutches.

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: If the plot description doesn’t convince you, Iron Mask benefits from additional anomalies that make it “weird by a thousand cuts”. It’s a Russian-Chinese co-production for which it seems the Shaw Brothers have been resurrected to put together the most swashbuckling, uncannily-imperfect adventure possible for subtly propagandistic global distribution.

COMMENTS: Let me be clear from the outset that I did not go into Iron Mask with the intention of ever really talking about it, but what unfolded felt simultaneously familiar, bizarre, original, and derivative. Being something of a “Cold Warrior” growing up, I raised one eyebrow when I saw just how many Chinese production companies had a hand in this. The other followed suit when I then saw how many Russian production companies were involved as well. I shouldn’t have been surprised by how this big-budget, brightly-colored nonsense unspooled (seeing as I knew this was a Lions Gate production), but the experience of watching two hours of stylistic gears not quite clicking, dubbed vocals not quite making sense, and the joy the filmmakers obviously had for their dwarf overwhelmed me.

The plot. Oh, the plot. The plot write-up is one of my favorite sections. I know it’s a redundancy, and takes up valuable analysis time, but I like to relate a movie’s story in my words. This one, I don’t think I can—a sentiment I doubt I could change even if I’d seen the movie to which this is, apparently, a sequel. I described it over the telephone to a friend and the number of “What?”s building into “What!?“s was both satisfying and reassuring. This collision of narrative thefts would require at least a dozen designations from the Aarne–Thompson–Uther Index. Suffice to say Chinese citizens are poor and oppressed, British citizens are foppish and eccentric, Russians are drunk and Cossack-y (redundant?), and a story isn’t helped when the English dub of the heroine is outsourced to the most Karen-y sounding actress I’ve had the mispleasure of hearing.

Iron Mask hits all the notes of a 1970s PG-rated Disney feature, but five decades late. The English title makes almost no sense, although there is a character in an iron mask: our hapless Peter I, imprisoned for some unclear reason. But worry not, he proves his identity to the sailors on a Russian ship by saving them during a thunder storm. (“I’ve never seen such seamanship! Only Peter the Great could have saved us,” remarks the first mate.) The Russian Imperialist nostalgia and the heroicism-with-Chinese-characteristics flood this uncanny valley. Even the credits join in on this off-kilter trip, with the band “Ecosystem of a Down” mentioned in the soundtrack.

The great Arnold Schwarzenegger is having fun, at least, relishing his opportunity to be neither the Terminator nor the governor of California (showing off his weapon collection, he proudly states, “Here is the sword of King Arthur! Think about that!“). Appearing early on, his Tower of London warden flicked the first switch in my “This isn’t right…” control panel. One by one, the whole array lit up. From the mad pacing I’ve only seen in Russian action films, to the spiritual tea-dragon ballad from the peasants, to the dwarf ship’s captain included for comic relief, to the truly out-of-the-blue Taxi Driver reference, all the way through to the scuba-Cossack sneak attack on the electro-mechanical proxy dragon, Iron Mask is an intense ratcheting of incongruity.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Nothing makes sense in this world, where narrative logic is a fictional concept and the only thing weirder than the story is the preposterously terrible dubbing.”–Tom Beasley, Vulture Hound (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: SLEEPLESS BEAUTY (2020)

Ya ne splyu

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DIRECTED BY: Pavel Khvaleev

FEATURING: Polina Davydova

PLOT: Two orderly researchers trap unsuspecting Russian, enacting potent operational reprogramming, neurologically.

Still from Sleepless Beauty (2020)

COMMENTS: In case my subliminal message didn’t sink in, here’s an illustrative rhyme to clarify:

T” is for “trying“, the squeamish beware;
O” is for “overt“, showing all it dares.
R” is for “retching“, a result that’s sought;
T” is for “tension“, one’s throat in a knot.
U” is for “ugly“, most violent of crimes,
R” is for “razor“, it’s used oftentimes.
E” is for “endless“, may blood never cease,
P” is for “prodding“, in places liked least.
O” is for “offal“, of the human kind,
R” is for “rotting“, of body and mind.
N” is for “nasty“, how it has to be–
It spells “Torture Porn”, unsettling with glee.

Like most porn, “torture porn” is an “I know it when I see it” kind of thing. In Pavel Khvaleev’s latest film, Sleepless Beauty, I saw plenty of it. Khvaleev takes cues from the Saw franchise (woman locked in room facing various “challenges”), the Dark Web franchise (a chatroom transcript springs up at intervals throughout), and the Hieronymous Bosch franchise—illustrated by an extended animation sequence that can only be described as “Boschian”. (And yes, technically there isn’t a film franchise under that Dutchman’s auspices, but hope springs eternal.)

For the most part, Sleepless Beauty is spot-on. The introduction gives the viewer enough grounding to follow what’s happening to “Mila” (a very much put-upon Polina Davydova), even if we don’t necessarily know what all this sturm und drang is storming and driving at. Joining us in our confusion is a peanut gallery of chatroom personalities who have opted to watch the web broadcast of the ordeal (on some server even TOR-ier than TOR) in pursuit of lurid thrills. Two chat-room “Admin” voices have a conversation during the feed that increasingly hints at what is actually going on.

To the extent torture porn can work, Sleepless Beauty works well. The chatroom vignettes provide some great black comedy moments. And the seemingly-unrelated framing story about a Russian ambassador nicely wraps everything together. However, whoever cast the English-dub actors should be fired from show business. This is a dark Russian movie, and one should be able to watch it and listen and hear the kind of casual fatalism that can only come from Russian actors whose Russian can be heard. The low-rent Californian-English “coming” from Mila’s somber-looking parents effectively ruins the movie every time they appear—and the less said about the C-grade vocalizations for the world-weary Russian detective, the better. I have a hunch I could give this movie “Recommended” status if I had been able to view the original language cut.

But I didn’t. If you find yourself curious at this point, seek out the subtitled version and I can all but guarantee that, if you are a fan of this genre, you will enjoy yourself tremendously, as horrible things are enacted on the protagonist-cum-test subject.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…the online viewers constantly asking for ‘more action’… brings a strange edge, together with the bizarre virtual reality clips, which are stop-motion animations looking like a mix of Terry Gilliam, the Quay Brothers, Jan Svankmajer, with some Giger and general biology thrown in for good measure. A good thing that is too, as the film needs that edge, because… there is not that much to look at beside a woman being tortured.” -Ard Vijn, Screen Anarchy (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: COMA (2019)

Recommended

Koma

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DIRECTED BY: Nikita Argunov

FEATURING: Rinal Mukhametov, Lyubov Aksyonova,

PLOT: Viktor awakens in his apartment to find the walls decaying in reverse and a strange cavalcade of architectural wonders dotting the skyline at improbable angles; then, he finds himself on the run from giant monsters.

COMMENTS: The title gives away the gimmick, and I knew it did—but I didn’t care. Even before we see our protagonist try and fail to obtain his bearings when he awakens in his apartment, we’re smacked with a beautiful show of some top-notch, wonderfully creative CGI buildings making up a future city whose center is graced with what looks like a modern reimagining of the Monument to the Third International. St. Basil‘s architectural motifs round out the metropolis. What is Coma? It’s a Dark City/Inception knock-off, sure, but a vodka-drenched one. And it’s all the more entertaining for it.

Viktor (Rinal Mukhametov), we eventually learn, was in a car crash while fleeing out-of-focus assailants. In Coma-land, Viktor immediately has to flee all-too-menacingly in-focus monsters: tall, thin-limbed beasts made of an ever-flowing inky substance catch sight of him as he exits his apartment. Just in the nick of time, a grizzled gang of survivors spots him and hoofs him out of trouble. There’s Phantom, the cynical soldier; there’s Fly, the female healer. Back at the survivor’s camp—reached via a multiplanar, but very stationary, bus wreck—there’s Yal, the older leader guy and… many more. Why did Yal send out his crack squad to get this ungainly beardo? We learn through exposition, montage, and a Moment of Trial.

The dismissiveness you may have detected here is meant as no more than gentle ribbing. Coma does a number of things incredibly well, not the least of which was keep my rapt attention throughout. Disregarding the (fairly) serviceable story and the (not too terribly) cardboard characters, we are left with a ceaselessly interesting vista of interconnected, odd-angled planes: different memories, we are told, of different inhabitants of Coma-land. They’re connected by wisps of ground; or not, as Viktor learns when he has to run straight down a pier to jump up into a piazza looming above. Firefights in this realm give “death from above” new meaning. And when our hero—an architect—learns how to use his special gift, things get even cooler.

The explanation provided for all this fantasy undermines the narrative while building its intellectual merits. I shan’t reveal the reveal, but suffice it to say, (movie) science has an explanation for all the goings-on, and it seems we may be bearing witness to one man’s pursuit of immortality. This being a Russian film, I cannot help veering into some sociopolitical observation. Viktor, in his waking life, seems to have been an idiot savant, an architect ahead of his time who was led to believe he could go on to create great, new things. As Yal makes very clear: in modern day Russia, change is only possible in your dreams.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Surreal, engaging, and philosophical, Coma’s creativity designs action around any possibility while debating life’s reality.”–Matt Paprocki, Do-Blu.com (Blu-ray)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: WHY DON’T YOU JUST DIE! (2018)

Papa, Sdokhni

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Kirill Sokolov

FEATURING: Aleksandr Kuznetsov, Vitaliy Khaev, Evgeniya Kregzhde, Michael Gor, Elena Shevchenko

PLOT: Matvey intends on doing in Olya’s father with a hammer, but complications—and Matvey’s uncanny indisposition to dying from his wounds—derail his straightforward plan.

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: At a certain point I figured this was merely an extreme case of Guy Ritchie violence and mayhem. By the third act, though, I discovered that the movie still had a bloody mile to go.

COMMENTS: To paraphrase one of my peers who attended the screening, this movie has “Chekhov’s shotgun, Chekhov’s hammer, Chekhov’s power drill, Chekhov’s handgun…” I managed to slip in, “also Chekhov’s ceiling light.” Considering the crowd, I’m not sure if you’d not be surprised to hear it also had the most consistent laughs of any Fantasia “comedy” so far. Perhaps all of us are just terrible people, but I lay the blame squarely on directing neophyte Kirill Sokolov (who also wrote the film) for creating such a side-splitting violence chamber play.

During his brief introduction, Matvey (Aleksandr Kuznetsov) seems like a regular fellow, albeit a regular fellow furtively hiding a hammer behind his back as he rings an apartment doorbell. He intones “One, two, three, evil can’t touch me” as he buzzes and is greeted by Andrey (Vitaliy Khaev), an intimidating, hefty man in his fifties, who reluctantly invites him in. Andrey’s wife Tasha (Elena Shevchenko) offers the boy something to drink. When Matvey and Andrey sit down, so begins a very awkward conversation after Matvey’s hammer slips out of his pants and clammers to the ground. “Is that your hammer?” “Yes. A friend wanted to borrow it.” And soon a room-busting melee between the father and Matvey ensues.

This battle of violence and wills continues throughout the run-time of the movie, interrupted on only three occasions by vignettes that explain the pertinent back stories. All very “Guy Ritchie,” as I mention above, but much like Come To Daddy, there is a point at which the whole affair careens over an edge and becomes ludicrous. No more hemming-and-hawing in the theater seat for me, but a quick flash of realization that this movie had just entered the world of crazy-go-nuts. Within its tiny setting (I’d say over 80% of the action takes place in a three room apartment), nearly everything becomes saturated with someone’s blood as TVs bludgeon, shotguns blast, drill bits spin, and kitchen knives cleave.

Near the end, when all the facts are on display and poor Matvey is sitting in a sorry state on the tattered couch (middle finger still flipped up in defiance), Andrey muses aloud to his daughter, “How is this guy still alive?” What, indeed, is this bloodshed for? Part of me suspects it’s allegorical: Matvey, the Russian everyman, enduring and outlasting every abuse from a government system that’s against him. A slightly larger part of me suspects that that would be thinking too much. This red-spewing fountain of black comedy needn’t be approached with any lens, political or otherwise. Just make sure you can stomach ninety straight minutes of top gore .

WHAT THE CRITICS ARE SAYING:

“Building a crazed Looney Tunes mood with cartoon-bright colors, kinetic camera moves and zippy fast cuts, Sokolov keeps ramping up the savagery to absurdly excessive levels, his protagonists somehow struggling on despite skull-cracking, stomach-bursting injuries. Gore levels are high, but the overall effect is more sicko comedy than torture porn.”–Stephen Dalton, Hollywood Reporter (festival screening)

LIST CANDIDATE: NAILS (2003)

Gvodzi

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Alexander Shevchenko, Irina Nikinitina, Andrey iskanov, Svyatoslav Iliyasov

PLOT: In order to cope with increasingly painful migraines, a young hitman explores the boundaries of self-trepanation… with nails.

Still from Nails (2003)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Even putting aside its bizarre subject matter, Nails‘ visual and audio design makes this a weird little movie. At times feeling like Metropolis with its hazy building shots and at other times feeling like a Flash animation upgrade of Begotten, Iskanov’s debut feature alternates between unsettling visual grandeur and disorienting close-up uncertainty.

COMMENTS: With under two-dozen slots to go, any sell for Certification is going to be a hard one. An hour-long head-trip (full of nails), Andrey Iskanov’s freshman entry strikes all the right notes for straight-up weird, and, on all counts for consideration, nails it. It’s disorienting to watch, alternating between art-house gore and art-house poetry. It’s strange to listen to, the soundtrack veering between Tetsuo: the Iron Man dissonance and New Age resonance. And it’s jam-packed with novice special effects that run the gamut between inspired and bizarre. There’s even some political commentary for those looking for a meaning deeper than its simple plot suggests.

Along with Dillinger is Dead, Nails falls into the “man puttering around his apartment” narrative family. An unnamed hitman suffers from crippling migraines that prescription medication and hard drinking can’t seem to fix. During a particularly nasty attack, our protagonist passes out on a magazine article about a healthy-seeming man whose autopsy revealed “over 500 grams of rusty metal” in his brain. Seizing an opportunity for deliverance, the hitman runs with the idea and delicately hammers a long nail into his skull. He has a nice long nap and upon awakening finds himself alive, free of pain, and acutely aware of reality in a way he had not been beforehand.

Nails begins with a brutal black and white palette and, like The Wizard of Oz, bursts into over-exposed color the moment the nail’s tip makes contact with brain. His apartment strangely brightens and everything inside gains a vivacious and sometimes sinister sharpness. Sitting to eat his first “enlightened” meal, he finds that his tins of food all contain different kinds of jellied-awful: fingers-in-green in one, creepy-shellfish-in-purple in another, and so on. Still, he revels in his new perception, poring over a book of Magic Eye-style patterns as he soaks in his saturated ambiance. But, as is their wont, things start to go badly. Another migraine attack requires further, more intensive treatment. Now with a head full of nails, his life goes literally out of focus; with the arrival of his girlfriend, the soundtrack ticks it up a notch and a climactic build-up further discombobulates with an alarming Spirograph-vision interlude.

The oddest flourish I found, however, was what seemed an indictment of contemporary Russian bourgeois society. The hitman’s apartment is stuffed to the gills with middle-class trappings: twee wallpaper, a hi-fi system, a grandfather wall clock, and so on. Only by damaging his established perceptions does the hitman come to see its shallowness and pointlessness. More tellingly, the movie opens with dialogue from one of his victims, who quips that the only thing that frightens him would be the death of the president—followed by a burst of chuckles before being shot. Putin had been president for three years by the time this movie was made, and already Iskanov could see that the wool was being pulled over the eyes of the Russian citizenry: trading self agency for cheap comfort. A vibrant, violent, trippy, industrial trepanation movie with socio-political overtones? Sounds… weird.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s a fairly vague and amorphous little movie, but Iskanov deserves commendation for his comment to, well, weirdness.”–Scott Weiberg, DVD Talk (DVD)