Tag Archives: Russian

CAPSULE: COMA (2019)

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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

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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)

313. KIN-DZA-DZA! (1986)

“Koo! Koo!”–Kin-Dza-Dza

DIRECTED BY: Georgiy Daneliya

FEATURING: Stanislav Lyubshin, Levan Gabriadze, Evegeni Leonov, Yuri Yakovlev

PLOT: A construction foreman and a student meet a man on the Moscow streets who claims to be from another planet; humoring him, they use his “traveler” and are transported to the desert planet of Pluk. There, they meet a pair of aliens who only speak the words “koo!” (until they figure out how to translate the human’s language via telepathy). The aliens are amazed by the earthling’s matchsticks, which contain chemicals that are very valuable on Pluk, and barter to return them to Earth in exchange for boxes of matches—but can they be trusted?

Still from Kin Dza Dza (1986)

BACKGROUND:

  • Kin-Dza-Dza was a minor flop when released in Soviet theaters in the winter of 1986, but later became a cult hit when it was split into two parts and shown on television.
  • The movie was virtually unknown outside of the former Soviet Union for many years, only available here in rare dubbed VHS copies until an (almost equally rare) 2005 Russico DVD release.
  • In 2013, original director and co-writer Georgiy Daneliya remade Kin Dza-Dza as an animated children’s movie.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The first appearance of Uef and Be, who arrive on scene in what’s best described as a flying junk bucket. Be emerges in a makeshift cage, squats with his palms facing forward, and says, “koo!” Uef takes two metal globes and places them on the ground flanking his craft. He also says “koo!” Our two Muscovite travelers are nonplussed.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Koo-based linguistics; Patsak nose bells; alien/Russian Sinatra karaoke

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: This absurdist science fiction satire was deliberately odd from its inception. Today, since the vanished Soviet Union is almost as strange a world as the desert planet Pluk, Kin-Dza-Dza has become a movie about one alien culture lost inside another.


Unofficial Hollywood-style trailer for Kin-Dza-Dza

COMMENTS: You can describe the plot of Kin-Dza-Dza in detail Continue reading 313. KIN-DZA-DZA! (1986)

READER RECOMMENDATION: PHILOSOPHY OF A KNIFE (2008)

Reader recommendation by Simon Hyslop

DIRECTED BY: Andrey Iskanov

FEATURING: Tetsuro Sakagami, Yukari Fujimoto, Manoush, Elena Probatova

PLOT: War prisoners are subjected to various horrifying experiments in the Japanese Imperial Army’s infamous Unit 731 facility.

Still from Philosophy of a Knife (2008)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Between the dreamlike cinematography, the unconventional, fractious narrative, and the bizarre attempts to blend a documentary with an arthouse film, this is definitely among the least conventional works of World War II cinema.

COMMENTS: A few short years before the outbreak of World War II, one General Shiro Ishii of the Japanese Imperial Army—a man who possessed a fatal combination of power, patriotism, intelligence and absolutely no regard for human life—oversaw the construction of a military facility in the Chinese province of Manchuria. Officially registered as a water purification plant, this facility—Unit 731, as it would come to be known—housed not only military personnel, but several thousand Chinese and Soviet prisoners, and a team of some of Japan’s top scientists. Over the next few years, these prisoners would be subjected to a series of horrifying, inhumane experiments in the name of helping the Japanese war effort. Prisoners were infected with deadly diseases, exposed to bomb blasts, and amputated and dissected without anesthetic.

And thanks to vested Cold War interests on the part of the USA, most of the perpetrators of these atrocities would walk away unpunished, and go on to enjoy prosperous careers.

This is the story that 2008’s Philosophy of a Knife—from one of modern Russia’s resident oddball directors, Andrey Iskanov—tells. Or, at least, purports to tell.

There’s a lot that needs to be said about Philosophy of a Knife, mostly because there’s so much of it. The film clocks in at over four hours; and while, admittedly, there are instances when it’s acceptable for a film to do that, I’m not convinced that Knife is one of them.

If there’s a key mistake this film makes, it’s in its genre. The film, it seems, is making a bold attempt to blend an art film with a documentary, combining stock footage, interviews and voiceover with heavily stylized reenactments of the experiments conducted at Unit 731. And while this is a debatable issue, I can’t see that blend as other than doomed to failure, since those genres are, in my opinion, irrevocably opposed. After all, any documentary worth its salt is going to try and be objective; while art, in any form—in my opinion— is inherently subjective. At least, until we’ve invented painting robots.

But even a viewer who disagrees with that particular perspective will probably agree that, as a documentary, Philosophy of a Knife‘s efforts are half-hearted at best. The voiceover segments—narrated by what sounds like a castrated Robbie Williams—cover only the most Continue reading READER RECOMMENDATION: PHILOSOPHY OF A KNIFE (2008)

LIST CANDIDATE: HARD TO BE A GOD (2013)

Trudno byt bogom

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Leonid Yarmolnik, Yevgeni Gerchakov, Aleksandr Chutko

PLOT: In Earth’s future, scientists are sent to the planet of Arkanar – a world with a society similar to Earth’s Middle Ages. While their directive is to observe and have only minimal involvement, one scientist wearies of the unremitting squalor and violence and decides to try to change things.

Still from Hard to Be a God (2013)
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Watching Hard to Be a God, the phrase “unremitting nightmare” springs to mind. While this phrase is often both hyperbolic and over-used, here it works nicely as a description. The gray and black images of cramped, filth-strewn hovels and hallways are unceasing, and the accompanying soundtrack of spits, snorts, sniffs, coughs, and groans lead to a very weird and very unpleasant movie.

COMMENTS: With his final movie, Soviet /Russian director Aleksei German grabs the viewer by the throat and shoves him face-first into the putridness of a world that is best left eight centuries in the past. Hard to Be a God follows in the same stylistic vein as his prior film, 1998’s Khrustalyov, My Car! There is no color, just sickly hues of stained white and gray; there is ambient confusion in every scene, as background events play out, sometimes passing right by the camera; and the story is so loosely explained that without the anchoring of the handful of voice-overs, all sense of narrative flow would be lost. This final point is worth noting, as the crippled sense of development in the story neatly conveys the development that occurs (or, doesn’t occur) on this ghastly planet.

A narrator immediately establishes that “this is not earth, but another planet.” He goes on to explain that a Renaissance had nearly happened on this planet, but was nipped in the bud by reactionary thugs of both the royalist and religious persuasion. As a consequence, a handful of scientists (from the planet Earth) are semi-abandoned in this mud and filth-stained pit of humanity. All the scientists are men of stature within the society they are observing—the main character, Don Rumata, is even purported to be a descendant of one of the old pagan gods—but with the burning of the universities and hanging of the men of learning, they are doomed to watch as the civilization stagnates and stagnates.

Before watching this, I had never so enjoyed the “color” of white. The grit and muck that covers everything (faces, hands, clothes, walls, floors… everything) is pervasive. Every time Don Rumata uses his lily-white handkerchief, or drops it on the ground as a gift to a passing peasant, one of the few strands of beauty the movie contained disappears. The world’s rains, described by the narrator as “short and sticky”, are just that. Everything is wet in a dirty, dirty way. Through the haze of dirt and mist, I was reminded of ; I struggle now to understand how he made nature seem at all beautiful. Even the traces of cultural progress in Hard to be a God are obscured by the rampant sludge; we see an occasional artisinal weapon, or perhaps a painting of great beauty, that has been left to absorb humanity’s filth.

By now I’m sure you can guess that I’ve exhausted my thesaurus of terms for “dirty”. The movie suggests the only hope this world has is if the observers becomes more proactive. Toward the end, Don Rumato snaps—quietly, as he does everything—and before an obliquely conveyed rampage, mutters to no one in particular, “God, if you exist, stop me.” What results remains unclear, but perhaps it is hopeful; at the very least it’s as hopeful a conclusion as one could expect on the planet of Arkanar. As Rumato confesses to one of the scientists before they leave him behind, “If you write about me, and you’ll probably have to, write that it’s hard to be a god.”

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It is grotesque and deranged and Hieronymus Bosch-like, and damn if it isn’t a bona fide vision—but of what, exactly?”–Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, Onion A.V. Club (contemporaneous)