Skip to main content

Everything is everyone’s fault.

Leviathan
(2014)

(SPOILERS) Andrey Zvyagnistev’s tale of misery and despair is the sort of sunny fare one typically expects from Russian cinema. Taking its cues from the Book of Job, the director has fashioned a bleak and persuasive vision where persevering through suffering and loss yields no ultimate reward; indeed, punishment elicits further punishment. The powerful get more powerful, while the impoverished are ground under foot. God has no place in this universe, except as a totem of the religious structures using his iconograpy to support the state.


The picture, partially funded by the Russian Ministry of Culture, was subjected to criticism from its Minister for its cynical view of a country inflicted with an utterly corrupt system and a populace fuelled by vodka. Naturally then, western media has seized this upon this, since Putin’s Russia being held in new lows of regard. One wonders if this wasn’t partially the reason for its Best Picture Oscar nomination; the chance to use a picture from and financed by his own government to dress the President down.


Leviathan isn’t going to change anyone’s preconceptions on Russian fare (“Always full of women staring out of windows, whining about ducks going to Moscow”), although the amount of alcohol consumed here would make even Withnail blanche. This isn’t a picture populate by likeable protagonists; the most sympathetic character is driven to suicide following an affair with her husband’s lawyer. There’s no new dawn to look forward to in this dying coastal town, where handyman Kolya (Aleksei Serebrayakov) is unsuccessfully fighting Mayor Vadim’s (Roman Madyanov) order to possess his land (the only thing they have in common is a proclivity for liquor).


As his former army friend and lawyer Dima (Vladimir Vdovichenkov) tells Kolya, he’s a “hothead”; as much as chain-smoking Kolya is on the receiving end of corrupt deals and persecution, he has only as much clarity as he can see through the gauze of a vodka bottle. His young second wife Lilya (Elena Lyadova) is unhappy, isolated, stuck with a dead-end job gutting fish, prospectively consigned to an apartment that makes most squats look plush and resented by their stepson; it’s little wonder she seeks respite in Dima’s arms, leading to further ructions. When she kills herself, it’s the caustic icing on Kolya’s downfall; whether by Vadim’s direct involvement or not, Kolya is tried for his wife’s murder (“Thank God. That’ll teach him to know his place” Vadim comments on learning of Kolya’s 15 year sentence; he has already seen off Dima by staging a fake-out execution).


In the early part of the picture, Dima’s voice of reason and logic at least appears partially as a guiding light (Kolya is only comparable to Job in as much as his situation is hopeless; he isn’t comforted by any affirmations or abiding belief). Facts are most important to Dima; facts can change things. Truth will out. His bafflement with the townsfolk’s preoccupations (“Why do you all keep asking me about God?”) only becomes thematically clear as the relationship between Vadim and the local bishop in his pocket plays out. The final scenes reveal that Kolya’s house has been knocked down to make way for a new church, not the subtlest illustration of the hypocrisy of the religious edifice and the manner in which it is just another side of the same coin as government. The wiles of a Moscow lawyer have no place where the rules are disregarded and truth won’t out (although the main reason for Dima being chased out of town is presumably that he bluffed Vadim, and there wasn’t actually anyone with any weight behind the dossier he presents to the mayor).


As acutely well performed as Zvyaginstev’s picture is, understatement is not its strongest suit. Not only is Kolya cast as Job, but a priest he converses with also quotes the book as a recipe for stoicism in the face of torment. He just so happens to pick a passage featuring the leviathan of the title, and there just so happens to be an immense whale skeleton decorating the local beach, a symbol of the barebones poverty of the town and the fate of Kolya. It’s also a rebuke to the scripture, which claims that nothing can pull in such a beast – it seems the machinations of the powerful can hook it (although it’s much more evocative to see the biblical leviathan as a sea monster, rather than a common or ocean whale).


The cast deserve universal praise. In particular, Lyadova’s descent into oblivion is devastating in its claustrophobic inevitability. Madyanov is also strong portraying the mayor’s loathsome tyranny. Perhaps a problem here is that, in remaining with Kolya’s essentially unsympathetic character (drunk, ill-tempered and violent), it is difficult to fully engage with the tragedy after Lilya exits. Leviathan ends on a note of resigned inevitability, which may be a reflection of how Zvtaginstev sees his homeland. In one scene, framed pictures of former Russian and Soviet premiers are used for target practice. Kolya asks where the more recent ones are; the current office holder is conspicuously framed in Vadim’s office.


Popular posts from this blog

You were this amazing occidental samurai.

Ricochet (1991) (SPOILERS) You have to wonder at Denzel Washington’s agent at this point in the actor’s career. He’d recently won his first Oscar for Glory , yet followed it with less-than-glorious heart-transplant ghost comedy Heart Condition (Bob Hoskins’ racist cop receives Washington’s dead lawyer’s ticker; a recipe for hijinks!) Not long after, he dipped his tentative toe in the action arena with this Joel Silver production; Denzel has made his share of action fare since, of course, most of it serviceable if unremarkable, but none of it comes near to delivering the schlocky excesses of Ricochet , a movie at once ingenious and risible in its plot permutations, performances and production profligacy.

No one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.

The Matrix  (1999) (SPOILERS) Twenty years on, and the articles are on the defining nature of The Matrix are piling up, most of them touching on how its world has become a reality, or maybe always was one. At the time, its premise was engaging enough, but it was the sum total of the package that cast a spell – the bullet time, the fashions, the soundtrack, the comic book-as-live-action framing and styling – not to mention it being probably the first movie to embrace and reflect the burgeoning Internet ( Hackers doesn’t really count), and subsequently to really ride the crest of the DVD boom wave. And now? Now it’s still really, really good.

People still talk about Pandapocalypse 2002.

Turning Red (2022) (SPOILERS) Those wags at Pixar, eh? Yes, the most – actually, the only – impressive thing about Turning Red is the four-tiered wordplay of its title. Thirteen-year-old Mei (Rosalie Chiang) finds herself turning into a large red panda at emotive moments. She is also, simultaneously, riding the crimson wave for the first time. Further, as a teenager, she characteristically suffers from acute embarrassment (mostly due to the actions of her domineering mother Ming Lee, voiced by Sandra Oh). And finally, of course, Turning Red can be seen diligently spreading communist doctrine left, right and centre. To any political sensibility tuning in to Disney+, basically (so ones with either considerable or zero resistance to woke). Take a guess which of these isn’t getting press in reference to the movie? And by a process of elimination is probably what it it’s really about (you know in the same way most Pixars, as far back as Toy Story and Monsters, Inc . can be given an insi

I can’t be the worst. What about that hotdog one?

Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022) (SPOILERS) It would have been a merciful release, had the title card “ The End ”, flashing on screen a little before the ninety-minute mark, not been a false dawn. True, I would still have been unable to swab the bloody dildoes fight from my mind, but at least Everything Everywhere All at Once would have been short. Indeed, by the actual end I was put in mind of a line spoken by co-star James Wong in one of his most indelible roles: “ Now this really pisses me off to no end ”. Or to put it another way, Everything Everywhere All at Once rubbed me up the wrong which way quite a lot of most of the time.

We’ve got the best ball and chain in the world. Your ass.

Wedlock (1991) (SPOILERS) The futuristic prison movie seemed possessed of a particular cachet around this time, quite possibly sparked by the grisly possibilities of hi-tech disincentives to escape. On that front, HBO TV movie Wedlock more than delivers its FX money shot. Elsewhere, it’s less sure of itself, rather fumbling when it exchanges prison tropes for fugitives-on-the-run ones.

Well, something’s broke on your daddy’s spaceship.

Apollo 13 (1995) (SPOILERS) The NASA propaganda movie to end all NASA propaganda movies. Their original conception of the perilous Apollo 13 mission deserves due credit in itself; what better way to bolster waning interest in slightly naff perambulations around a TV studio than to manufacture a crisis event, one emphasising the absurd fragility of the alleged non-terrestrial excursions and the indomitable force that is “science” in achieving them? Apollo 13 the lunar mission was tailor made for Apollo 13 the movie version – make believe the make-believe – and who could have been better to lead this fantasy ride than Guantanamo Hanks at his all-American popularity peak?

He’ll regret it to his dying day, if ever he lives that long.

The Quiet Man (1952) (SPOILERS) The John Wayne & John Ford film for those who don’t like John Wayne & John Ford films? The Quiet Man takes its cues from Ford’s earlier How Green Was My Valley in terms of, well less Anglophile and Hibernophile and Cambrophile nostalgia respectively for past times, climes and heritage, as Wayne’s pugilist returns to his family seat and stirs up a hot bed of emotions, not least with Maureen O’Hara’s red-headed hothead. The result is a very likeable movie, for all its inculcated Oirishness and studied eccentricity.

He's not in my pyjamas, is he?

Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969) (SPOILERS) By rights, Paul Mazursky’s swinging, post-flower-power-gen partner-swap movie ought to have aged terribly. So much of the era’s scene-specific fare has, particularly so when attempting to reflect its reverberations with any degree of serious intent. Perhaps it’s because Mazursky and co-writer Larry Tucker (also of The Monkees , Alex in Wonderland and I Love You, Alice B. Toklas! ) maintain a wry distance from their characters’ endeavours, much more on the wavelength of Elliott Gould’s Ted than Robert Culp’s Bob; we know any pretensions towards uninhibited expression can’t end well, but we also know Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice have to learn the hard way.

I think World War II was my favourite war.

Small Soldiers (1998) An off-peak Joe Dante movie is still one chock-a-block full of satirical nuggets and comic inspiration, far beyond the facility of most filmmakers. Small Soldiers finds him back after a six-year big screen absence, taking delirious swipes at the veneration of the military, war movies, the toy industry, conglomerates and privatised defence forces. Dante’s take is so gleefully skewed, he even has big business win! The only problem with the picture (aside from an indistinct lead, surprising from a director with a strong track record for casting juveniles) is that this is all very familiar. Dante acknowledged Small Soldiers was basically a riff on Gremlins , and it is. Something innocuous and playful turns mad, bad and dangerous. On one level it has something in common with Gremlins 2: The New Batch , in that the asides carry the picture. But Gremlins 2 was all about the asides, happy to wander off in any direction that suited it oblivious to whet

There is a war raging, and unless you pull your head out of the sand, you and I and about five billion other people are going to go the way of the dinosaur.

The X-Files 5.14: The Red and the Black The most noteworthy aspect of this two parter is that it almost – but not quite – causes me to reassess my previous position that the best arc episodes are those that avoid tackling the greater narrative head-on, attempting to advance the resistant behemoth. It may be less than scintillating as far as concepts go, but the alien resistance plot is set out quite clearly here, as are the responses to it from the main players.