While Ukrainian writer/director Valentin Vasyanovych has been making films for a number of years, his breakthrough didn’t come until 2019’s Atlantis, which garnered awards at several festivals and became his first film to receive some kind of wider distribution. Atlantis detailed a hypothetical, near-future Ukraine that had been devastated following the conclusion of the (very real, and still ongoing) Russian-Ukrainian conflict. His new film, Reflection, takes place in 2014 and looks back to the beginning of the armed struggle. The two films form a fascinating diptych, each informing and expanding upon the other. In lieu of Atlantis’ post-apocalyptic landscapes and broken-down industrial monuments, Reflection begins with life still maintaining a semblance of normalcy. Surgeon Serhiy (Roman Lutskyi) is attending his daughter Polina’s (Nika Myslyska, Vasyanovych‘s real-life daughter) birthday party alongside his ex-wife, Olha (Nadia Levchenko), and her boyfriend Andriy (Andriy Rymaruk, the star of Atlantis). Andriy is aggressively macho, detailing life on the frontlines while downing shots; Serhiy is more meek, but the next scene sees him trying and failing to save a wounded soldier. Learning that the soldier was transported for 6 hours from the frontlines to the hospital, and that he might have lived had doctors gotten to him sooner, Serhiy decides he must do something more proactive. But while traveling to volunteer medical services at the front, he’s attacked and captured by Russian partisans. What follows is a long stretch where Serhiy is forced to both endure and witness brutal torture, then inspect fellow Ukrainians and declare them alive or dead, resuscitating them when able to do so. It’s harrowing in the extreme, and when he is eventually released through a prisoner exchange, Serhiy is a shell of his former self. In his absence, Andriy has gone MIA, and both Polina and Olha are wracked with the despair of not knowing whether he’s dead or alive. As Serhiy tries to reconnect with his daughter, he also begins to use his contacts to confirm Andriy’s death and give his ex-wife much-needed closure.
Of course, finding and identifying the remains of fallen comrades made up the bulk of Atlantis’ narrative, but here that same preoccupation with honoring the dead takes on a more immediate, personal dimension. While Reflection lacks the same monumental tableaux as Atlantis, with huge industrial machinery and scarred, ruptured landscapes that frequently dwarf the characters, its compositions are more human-scaled. Working as his own editor and cinematographer, Vasyanovych utilizes almost exclusively locked-down master shots that allow scenes to play out in real-time. Occasionally the camera will slowly hone in on a character, and there are several uninterrupted long shots that are startlingly complex, but otherwise it’s static, emphasizing the composition of architecture, windows, and mirrors to create frames within frames. Like a brutalist Wes Anderson, or Roy Andersson for that matter, Vasyanovych meticulously constructs his own little universe in which to observe the horrors of war, forcing his audience to endure them as well. It’s a difficult film, although not a hopeless one. When everything has gone to hell, there are still the acts of grace and humanity that give suffering meaning.
Writer: Daniel Gorman
On the Job: The Missing 8
To make an effective political film, one frequently turns to documentary as the best medium for truth; it’s hard to deny in exemplars of the genre that empirical rigor and emotional realism often prevail over shoddier, more selective depictions of subject matter. But documentary hardly exerts a monopoly over rigor and realism, for the buzz of late has been in perfectly decent but perfunctorily engaging works surfacing for their ninety minutes of lukewarm fame before sinking back into the shadows of oblivion. And so, while a film like Lauren Greenfield’s The Kingmaker did make headlines for its excoriating portrait of the Philippines’ former First Lady Imelda Marcos, it remains a stand-out for good reason. Less celebrated (although this trend is, hopefully, on a cautious reversal) are films whose formal sensibilities don’t quite gel with the highbrow expectations of antiquated cinéastes: Lav Diaz’s searing four-hour epic, The Halt, achieved limited recognition among its more conventionally aligned ilk at Cannes, but even then it still saw the light of the projection screen around the globe. Less is likely to be said about films that border on television’s realm — now christened under the sacrilegious banner of “episodic cinema” — unless you’re David Lynch, Nicholas Winding Refn, or, for a select group of Francophiles, Bruno Dumont.
Which is a pity, then, because the Venice Film Festival’s latest coup, after awarding the Golden Lion to Joker in 2019 and programming Michel Franco’s New Order for 2020, has been to premiere in competition a mini-series due for release on HBO the very same month; a coup predicated less on courting controversy than on recognizing, rightly, the artistic merits too commonly sidelined by virtue of association with “cheaper” entertainment. The mini-series in question is Erik Matti’s On the Job: The Missing 8, a sequel to 2013’s On the Job. Clocking in at 208 minutes, still comfortably within polite society’s durational tolerance, the film doubles down on its exposé of political corruption and patronage in the Philippines, and does so, crucially, with both thematic acuity and thrilling elan. Picking up where On the Job left off, in the aftermath of a losing battle with the country’s sheltered elite, The Missing 8 continues the good fight doggedly, chronicling a corrupt journalist’s pursuit of justice against the very institutional rot that served his personal interests up to the murder and disappearance of his colleagues. Sisoy Salas (John Arcilla), the once-idealistic co-founder of a now-struggling newspaper committed to reporting the truth, has left this tough and thankless profession for the easy task of shilling for the government; a beloved radio host in the municipality of La Paz, he stoutly defends the equally beloved mayor Pedring Eusebio (Dante Rivero) on matters of both policy and personality, peddling unabashed and blatant falsehoods about the latter’s superficially anti-crime record.
Eusebio, however, is anything but anti-crime, having amassed great political heft through the multiple crime syndicate networks he shrewdly employs under the radar, chief among which is an extrajudicial arrangement for incarcerated prisoners to perform contract killings of the regime’s unsavoury opponents (the rationale being that such prisoners are mostly anonymous and run little risk of spilling the beans). His latest target happens to be Sisoy’s newspaper, helmed by the journalist’s longtime friend Arnel Pangan (Christopher De Leon) and now publishing incendiary articles which threaten his mayoral run. When Eusebio orders Arnel’s assassination, seven others including Arnel’s young son are caught in the crossfire; they are unceremoniously buried, their deaths covered up by law enforcement as disappearances, likely to stay covered up forever if not for Sisoy’s painful moral awakening, as well as that of Roman Rubio (Dennis Trillo), one of the prisoners involved.
Where the first On the Job explored with bite and gusto the systemic impossibility of political reform in the Philippines, it did so with relative tautness, pitting informants, hired hands, and the top dogs against one another in a high-octane showdown condensed into just under two hours. The Missing 8, retaining its predecessor’s giddily thrilling direction, indulges in a sprawling and more contemplative moral tapestry whose central conflict (within Sisoy himself) informs the rest of the film’s action sets and attractions. Initially a cloying advocate for self-interest packaged as candid pragmatism, Sisoy inevitably wrestles with this comfortable allegiance to and abetment of such discomfiting principles, his falsely cheerful persona quickly replaced with a brooding countenance, filled with both skepticism towards individual moral agency and determination, nonetheless, to assert and articulate such agency. Likewise, Roman’s broken-nosed and cowardly appearance soon gives way to heroic bloodlust upon witnessing the countlessly quotidian acts of impunity that corruption buys. While pursuant, to separate degrees, of separate goals, both journalist and prisoner eventually cross paths in a somber but no less satisfying indictment of national apathy.
For the most part, the satisfaction in Matti’s renewed examination of his country’s characteristic cultural trait of utang na loob (roughly translated as a “debt of gratitude”, signifying the personal quid pro quos underlining most Filipino political relations) stems from its contemporary currency — having been adapted from real-life examples such as 2009’s Ampatuan massacre — and the engineered stylistic flourishes that prove by-and-large endearing in The Missing 8. Tonally indebted to the operatic gangster flicks of Scorsese and utilising a host of needle-drops (including one peculiarly impassioned rendition of “Bella ciao”) in powering the film’s momentum, Matti’s direction should be interpreted less as fledgling insecurity or populist pandering, but construed for its succinct and successful amalgamation of spectacle with social criticism; instead of the comparatively pessimistic original, The Missing 8 charts a landscape paradoxically more open to democratic ideas just as authoritarian ones assert themselves, owing considerably to the democratization of access an Internet-savvy populace enjoys. For most viewers who will seek it out on HBO, the mini-series (comprising both On the Job and The Missing 8, in a slightly edited format) will prove revealing of the patterns of change and continuity that continue to inspire activists, journalists, and ordinary voters towards change. In this light, Matti is no less a political filmmaker than his more austere compatriots; similarly, The Missing 8 is no less than one of the most engaging and invested films of the year.
Writer: Morris Yang
El Gran Movimiento
Bolivian filmmaker Kiro Russo made his feature debut with the intriguing, loosely structured Dark Skull in 2016, which centered on the inhabitants of the rural town of Huanuni (including Elder (Julio César Ticona), a young ne’er-do-well who begins working in the local mine and struggles with the harsh work and his alcoholism) and was conceived as something of a hybrid film, taking place mostly in the dark depths of the countryside and mine. His new film, El Gran Movimiento, begins almost literally where his previous one left off: the miners, after rumblings in the prior film of displacement, have undertaken a seven-day voyage on foot to La Baz, the de facto Bolivian government, in order to agitate for their jobs. After a startling moment in which César Ticona appears to give an interview as himself, including a reference onscreen to him being the lead actor of Dark Skull, he assumes the role of Elder once more. As the film unfolds, he and two other companions end up staying in the city and attempt to find work there, while he grows more and more ill from some mysterious combination of heat, elevation, exhaustion, and other ambiguous, potentially historical or mythological sources.
Such a description provides a good baseline for El Gran Movimiento, but it feels woefully inadequate to capture the currents that swirl through the film. While Dark Skull was limited in some way by the scale necessitated by its small-town setting and adopted a spare approach to structure and narrative aside from the miners and their relatives, El Gran Movimiento finds Russo consciously expanding his focus to encompass the inhabitants of practically the entire capitol. Alongside Elder’s tale of misfortune, Russo also includes a thread that eventually becomes practically just as consequential to the film’s purposes: of an older local man named Max (Max Bautista Uchasara), a shambolic figure who appears to live in the caves and hills around La Paz but who frequently ventures into the city, having established an easy rapport with the women running the open-air market stands. He also may or may not have healing powers, possibly connected to the motif of a white dog, a symbol that appears with increasing frequency in the second half of the film as Elder’s situation worsens.
Russo implicitly draws these parallels between young and old, outsider and local, in order to structure his wider gaze, which at first manifests itself in brief little interactions that stretch outside of the world previously established in his last film — a large group watching a professional wrestling match on an outdoor screen, a group of market women laughing at Elder’s ineptitude, and, most significantly, an old woman who takes in Elder as her godson even though they never appear to have met. All this is conveyed under the same watchful camera eye that typified his previous film, though while Dark Skull preferred the fascination of gliding camera movements, somewhat uncommon in the arthouse vein that Russo is mining, El Gran Movimiento’s camera very slowly zooms forward in the bulk of its shots, first established in a lengthy pre-title card sequence that gazes at different buildings and elements within La Paz.
Gradually, as the film proceeds down its trajectory of bodily decay, the ruptures in the carefully drawn aesthetic become ever more frequent and unexpected, culminating in a furiously and rhythmically edited sequence that appears to mix footage from both films, along with a flurry of faces and streets. It is in this moment that the great movement is revealed: this is a thoroughly idiosyncratic and elliptical approach to the city symphony, one rooted in character and in which the spirit of the city — and, thanks to the presence of Elder and his compatriots, the country — is vividly evoked through the highs and lows of living.
Writer: Ryan Swen
Writer-director Potsy Ponciroli’s Old Henry dares to go where nearly every Western in the history of the film medium has gone before. The titular Henry (Tim Blake Nelson) leads a life of solitude in the Oklahoma Territory of 1906, farming the harsh terrain with his teenage son, Wyatt (Gavin Lewis). Having lost his wife to tuberculosis ten years prior, Henry has devoted himself to raising his boy, ensuring he has a better life than the mysterious past from which he himself has judiciously sought to escape. Yet the sudden appearance of an injured lawman (Scott Haze) carrying an obscene amount of cash causes Henry to face old demons, as he fights to protect his son and homestead from a trio of merciless criminals who will stop at nothing to get back what has been wrongfully taken from them. So goes another tale of Old West guilt and redemption, this one featuring a twist so inane that it almost makes the proceedings worth a watch.
Ponciroli takes inspiration not from the masters of the genre, i.e. Ford, Leone, Eastwood, but instead the Coen brothers, which sounds more intriguing on paper than it actually is. Henry is nothing, if not a glum version of Buster Scruggs — and played by the very same actor, for good measure. The film as a whole has been color-graded to death, its primaries bleached of all vibrancy and its secondary colors taking on a surrealistic glow straight out of the O Brother, Where Art Thou? handbook. A shootout near the film’s mid-section is eerily reminiscent of the late-night ambush in the Coens’ remake of True Grit, minus the comical use of a clogged chimney. There is no levity to be found anywhere within Old Henry, making the film a joyless slog and proving that Ponciroli took all of the wrong cues from his muses. Nelson is given absolutely nothing to do except recite hoary lines of dialogue along with various passages of scripture when things look especially rough. Stephen Dorff pops up as the lead mercenary, and while his performance is less than revelatory, let it be said the man has a face tailor-made for the Western baddie, so weathered and sun-beaten it resembles a 50-year-old leather poncho, and this is meant as a compliment. As with every 21st century Western, the violence is realistic to the point of overkill, every stray bullet leaving an oozing, bloody gash that is lovingly framed by the camera for maximum impact. A hatchet is used multiple times, and yes, its destruction is nauseating, but what does one expect from a film where a corpse is disposed of through carnivorous pigs, because why not enter Hannibal territory for a bit? Not a single original moment is to be found in Old Henry, nor one of any inspiration. Henry isn’t the only thing around here that is old.
Writer: Steven Warner
At first glance, there may be nothing necessarily wrong with Antoine Barraud’s third feature film, Madeleine Collins; on the contrary, it quickly evokes a certain appeal through its bizarre, mystery-induced opening. From the immense suave atmosphere to Gordon Spooner’s gorgeously sleek cinematography, and indeed, the presence of the Belgian diva-actress, Virginie Efira as the main character, the film has enough to pique one’s curiosity all the way throughout. Madeleine Collins follows a bourgeois woman, Judith Fauvet, who whether out of midlife boredom, lustful cacoethes, a mix of both, or any other indescribable reason, adopts multiple identities, as a wife and a mistress, a mother, and a successful translator, and so on. In a constant oscillation between two countries (France and Switzerland), two men — her respectable, orchestra conductor husband, Melvil (Bruno Salomone) and a young, widowed lover, Abdel (Quim Gutiérrez) — and two different homes, Judith seems to be lost in the translation between these two worlds; metaphorically speaking, she struggles to find the most suitable equivalent for herself in either. Her search for individuality and a sense of belonging, through repetitively faking and dissimulating her identity (going by various masks and names: Judith, Margot, or Madeleine), leads to a point where she ends up, as she confesses to Abdel’s young daughter, Ninon (Loïse Benguerel), as a “monster.”
The idea of “monstrosity” has fueled Barraud’s work, most evidently in his previous film Portrait of the Artist (Le dos rouge) where a filmmaker (played by Bertrand Bonello) happens to be excessively obsessed with the idea of seeking a painting that can simultaneously crystallize both the power and beauty of monsters. Efira’s strong presence as Judith, similarly, perfectly embodies a monster whose essence borders on an eccentric power, inner fragility, and evident pulchritude. But despite all the film’s interesting concepts, its stylishly chic visuals, and Efira’s irrefutably captivating performance, Madeleine Collins for the most part lacks the intellectual intensity and emotional oomph it truly needs. Part of this scarcity is due to Barraud’s insufficient directorial strategy, wherein he deliberately handles everything in a monotonously tonal, typically vapid, and overly taut fashion (or more accurately, dry and sterile formality.) Even when the film seems to be playing out some sort of subtle, absurdist dark comedy, its overall execution dumbs down this aspect by a gross margin. It’s as if that in this half-psychological drama, half-enigmatic existential thriller, the aftermath of its shockingly ambiguous opening is heavily left for the narrative to fumble over, whose series of twists and discoveries merely puzzles, without absorbing greater depth or dimension in terms of Judith’s dilemmatic situations, emotions, and her relationships with other characters. In other words, the complexity that one usually admires in the oeuvres of masters like Alfred Hitchcock, Luis Buñuel, or Claude Chabrol — who ostensibly are among Barraud’s and possibly, his scriptwriting collaborator Héléna Klotz’s main source of inspiration (at least, the name of Vertigo’s Judy/Madeleine character boldly resonates here) — remains starkly absent; the denouement of Madeleine Collins more or less condenses much of its complicated, embryonic ambitions into a middlebrow soap opera, full of Desperate Housewives-y tenor and flavor.
Writer: Ayeen Forootan
There’s nothing particularly novel about Oleg Sentsov‘s Rhino, a rise-and-fall gangster narrative about a Ukrainian tough guy who carves a bloody swath through his enemies for the better part of two decades before making a tentative stab at redemption. But in Sentsov’s hands this well-trod material feels fresh and revitalized, thanks in no small part to a remarkable performance by newcomer Serhii Filimonov. Beginning with an energetic prologue that traces the cruel existence of a poor family through what appears to be 10 years or so, little Vova watches his father come home from prison, only to be sent right back after abusing Vova’s mother, while his older brother prepares to ship off to Afghanistan to fight on Russia’s behalf. The brother is killed and the house becomes a waystation for aunts and young women with babies all grieving the loss of a generation of young men. Sentsov and cinematographer Bogumil Godfreow relay the passage of time with whip pans, hidden edits, and subtle changes in color grading, all so that the past flows like one single, hazy, long take enveloping everyone around it. Now a young man himself, Vova goes to dances with his girlfriend, Maryna (Alina Zevakova), and gets wasted with his buddies. It’s a dead-end existence, until the bull-headed adolescent picks a fight with gangsters at a local gym. After he’s beaten, the men demand a thousand dollars in restitution, or they’ll burn down Vova’s house with him and his mother still in it. Realizing he’ll never be able to get his hands on that much money, Vova instead offers his services to a rival group of gangsters, who will protect him from retribution as long as he is in their employ. It’s these men who bestow the nickname Rhino on Vova, and from that point on he is their human wrecking ball.
Sentsov speeds through the typical gangster film’s highlights with an eye for careful ellipsis. Months and years transpire between single edits, and soon after the Berlin Wall falls and the USSR collapses, Vova is leading his own gang. He and Maryna are married now, and eventually have a baby girl. But Rhino is troubled; for all his success, and despite his brute strength, he’s just self-aware enough to realize that he’s a bad person who has done terrible things. Smartly, Sentsov doesn’t overplay his hand here; even as Rhino speaks of redemption and changing his violent ways, he still carries a gun and threatens people on behalf of loan sharks. He’s stumbling in the dark, grasping at profundity, and coming up short. Eventually, his past catches up with him, and when tragedy strikes, Rhino goes off the deep end. He refuses to believe that simple accidents can happen, that it must be his enemies finally coming for revenge. And so he responds in the only way he knows how: with violence. Like its namesake, Rhino is a brutal, angry film, a sad paean to a country destroyed by greed and corruption. At one point Rhino waxes poetic about the good old days, only to stop and remind himself that all of his old friends are either dead or in prison, and that the smart criminals have become cops and politicians. Like one of Paul Schrader’s God’s Angry Men characters, Rhino is trapped in an existential crisis of his own making, and in the end all he can do is try to accept his fate with dignity. Sentsov wrote the film back in 2011, before spending five years in a Russian prison for protesting the country’s annexation of Crimea. There’s certainly a lot of angst crammed into Rhino’s runtime, and an ambivalence about whether it’s truly possible for things to get better. Like a gritty mix of Don Siegel and Robert Bresson, Sentsov searches for transcendence but seems resigned to a more ignoble reality.
Writer: Daniel Gorman