Saturday, February 7, 2015

Andrey Zvyagintsev's new film "Leviathan" at Landmark Theaters Jan 23 - Mar 12 | Mike Leigh's new film "Mr. Turner" at Sundance Cinema: Jan 30 - Mar 5 & SIFF Cinema: Mar 16

February continues to be a quality-dense month for cinema, with two of last year's greats featured prominently on both Sight & Sound and Film Comment's year-end overviews finally seeing distribution. Landmark Theatres bringing around Andrey Zvyagintsev's critically acclaimed "Leviathan" for an extended run after it's Academy Award nomination. I have been personally following Zvyagintsev since his  directorial debut, "The Return" had it's west coast premier at SIFF a decade back, and his "The Banishment" and award-winning "Elena" expanded on the strength of that original impression. Having studied under Tarkovsyk's protege, Alexander Sokurov, the richness of Zvyagintsev's storytelling abilities are on display in this spiritual and political protest against a modern-day life in post-Soviet Russia that is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”. The title not only a reference to the massive carcases seen on the shores of the Barents Sea, but the pervasive forces of bought and paid for government and religious institutional cronyism. Forces against which men such as the film's protagonist can only offer stoic resignation, it watches like a modern-day biblical tale of Job set within the Putin era. The stratification of a Russia literally living within the ruins of the Soviet era is both the film's dramatic and visual theme, one of stark, ruined spaces and corrupted infrastructures, "Andrey Zvyagintsev Navigates a Tricky Terrain". It's a given the current political climate in Russia would make such a film one of, "Applause in Hollywood but Scorn at Home". And much like "Elena" Zvyagintsev's newest rides a balance between polemic and mystery, tackling earth-bound social issues, but hovering around the film's expanses there is the unease of a deeper spiritual faultline running through the worldly drama. 

Currently showing at Sundance Cinema and later next month as part of SIFF Cinema's Recent Raves series, Mike Leigh's first period film in many a year is a biodrama as much about the man and his work as the era which he translated to canvas, "As if the Artist Put His Brush to Each Take: ‘Mr. Turner’ Aims for Visual Accuracy". Leigh's approach to the period setting is to produce a seamless environment of muted light, shrouded horizons, natural expanses and the squalor of early industrial era urban life. His success evident from "Mr. Turner"'s onset, the film opening in the Dutch countryside at last light, Turner in silhouette working on a canvas, the canal and windmill bathed in the light of the waning, incandescent sun. The tone of the scene matched to perfection by regular Leigh collaborator Gary Yershon's minimalist score that forever hovers on the edge of focus, sounding like an echo of Turner's paintings itself, "To Set The Mood In Period Drama, a Composer Paints Around the Emotions". Leigh known for his focus on the quirks and mundane dramas of everyday people, it's a pleasure to see his art translate to this intimate and quietly funny character study. Complimenting the film's attention to period realism, it's pleasures also come from the rare artist biopic that avoids the trap of mythologising its subject. Dispelling with notions that Joseph William Turner's personality, behavior or appearance might embody the picturesque, effervescent, romantic qualities of from his paintings of moonlight seascapes, atmospheric ruins or countryside sunsets, the film gives us a much richer portrait of a man. Instead we get a touching, sad, beautiful tragicomedy and class critique as Mike Leigh's vehicle for "Savouring Mr. Turner".