Monday, 16 February 2015

Impressive and harrowing, or pleasant and anodyne: that's my choice of from films this weekend

We saw a strange pair of films this weekend. Neither of them particularly uplifting, but one was insightful, the other entertaining. Though to be merely “entertaining” is a sad indictment for one of the great directors of of the seventies and eighties, now long past his best.

First the insightful piece: Leviathan, a 2014 production by Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev. As soon as I say “Russian”, you naturally understand that we’re not talking anything “light-hearted”, let alone “amusing”. “Feel-good”? Forget it.

The film is set in a sadly reduced fishing village on the Barents Sea, where mild weather means that the puddles thaw. So picture spectacular views of wide open spaces, desolate and windswept, great sweeping views of cliffs and a sea that doesn’t begin to tempt you to take a dip, plenty of derelict boats and buildings suggestive of a long-past period, a golden age when people merely suffered from poverty and boredom but didn’t yet have to cope with the enlightened rule of Vladimir Putin.

Yep. Spectacular. And that's about as cheerful as it gets.
Putin's portrait hangs in the official buildings. There’s rather a good scene in which the main character, Nikolai, goes out with his supposed friends from the local police to do some target shooting, and the most senior cop produces a serious of portraits they can fire at: Lenin, Brezhnez, Gorbachev… None of the present regime, though: there isn’t yet sufficient “historical perspective.”

In this setting we’re regaled with a long tale (two hours twenty minutes) of betrayal, infidelity, oppression and corruption, against which there is no effective remedy, but only the temporary anaesthetic of vodka by the tumblerful. It’s a powerful tale, well told, but if you’re looking for a happy ending, look again.

It seems the Russian Minister of Culture didn’t like the film, which he felt gave a view of his country which he didn’t recognise. It seems the Ministry is proposing guidelines that prevent films being made that denigrate the national culture. That rather suggests Zvyagintsev got it about right.

This morning I heard US commentator Joseph Nye on BBC Radio 4 describing Russia as a “nation in decline”. I can imagine Putin’s Culture Ministry wouldn’t be keen on that view, and it’s certainly what comes across from the film: Nicolai declines rather more quickly but one can’t help feeling his country’s not far behind.

The other film? Woody Allen’s Magic in the Moonlight. Normally I’d do everything in my power to avoid using the word “nice”, but this is certainly a “nice film.” Or more precisely a “nice little film.” Fine stereotypical characters, especially well-portrayed by Colin Firth as the hard-boiled rationalist who’s never going to be fooled (or will he be?) by Erica Leerhsen, the spiritualist fraud (or is she a fraud? You won’t find out till the end of the film – that’s how exciting it gets – but if you’re worried about the stress of the suspense, don’t be: believe me, you’ll cope with it.)

As an antidote to harrowing tales from the shores of the Barents Sea, Magic in the Moonlight works perfectly. Even as a pleasant hour and a half on a much warmer sea – it’s set on the Côte d’Azur – when you’re too tired for anything more challenging – or indeed more rewarding. Besides the film’s made by a great lover of jazz and set in the jazz age, so the music’s fun.

Pretty camerawork
And you'll never guess what happens between these two
As a piece worthy of the director of Annie Hall, Manhattan or even Mighty Aphrodite and Play it again, Sam, it leaves you wondering how far the mighty can fall.

Still, there are worse ways of passing the end of the evening. As for Leviathan, well it certainly won’t cheer you up, but it you like your magic realism gritty, it won’t disappoint either.


Awoogamuffin said...

I saw Magic in the Moonlight and have to agree. One thing, though; the female lead is not Erica Leerhsen, but rather Emma Stone. It's confusing because the credits on imdb are in order of appearance, and Erica Leerhsen does bear some resemblance to Emma Stone, I suppose.

David Beeson said...

Whoops. Thanks for the correction