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Review: 4





Exhilarating, infuriating, mesmerizing, baffling, and out-and-out crazy, 4 certainly doesn’t lack for ambition and outrageousness. Having caused quite a stir in its native Russia—where local censors objected to its bleak vision of the country as a cesspool of moral, spiritual, and physical decay (as well as, no doubt, its discussion of Mr. and Mrs. Putin’s imbibing habits)—Ilya Khrjanovsky’s debut is gonzo in the truest, wildest sense of the word, an assaultive allegorical dissection of Russia’s political and social disorder that vacillates so rowdily, and yet so fluidly, between dissonant tones, genres, and stylistic tactics that it achieves the considerable feat of keeping one both intensely enraptured and wholly off balance.

Written by controversial postmodern scribe Vladimir Sorokin with one foot planted in grungy reality and the other in fleshy, putrefying surreality, the film descends into a phantasmagoric netherworld of cloning, mind-altering air ionizers, rotting meat, and roaming dogs with only a passing interest in traditional narrative, its sly subtextual commentary and numerology-tinged signifiers crowding Khrjanovsky’s frame like scattered pieces of an elaborate, partially completed puzzle. With a brazen obtuseness that allows room for myriad far-fetched interpretations, it’s a near-masterpiece of the beguilingly bizarre, a trenchant critique of post-communism corrosion brewed together with ingredients both eccentric and horrifying. Queasiness guaranteed.

4 begins with a bang, its first shot of four dogs lying serenely on a city street—a yellow traffic light in the background blinking on and off like a portentous caution—rudely interrupted by jackhammering metal drills and roaring street plows that viciously tear apart the peaceful night. A magnificently nerve-wracking opening salvo, it’s a stunning depiction of the disharmonious relationship between organic and mechanical beasts that, as confirmed by the later recurring audio-visual emblems that litter the director’s mise-en-scène, serves as the template for Khrjanovsky’s oblique, nightmarish film. Soon afterward, three people walk into a bar and, while consuming copious drinks and cigarettes, regale each other with stories about their professions: Oleg (Konstantin Murzenko) says he’s a bureaucrat charged with providing the Kremlin with mineral water (the Prez’s preferred brand coming straight from the Volga); Marina (Mariia Vovchenko) claims she works in advertising for a Japanese company; and Vladimir (Yuri Laguta) asserts that he toils on a top-secret human cloning project that began in the late 1940s and has now resulted, thanks to a process involving four chromosomes, in thousands of “doubles” who reside either amid normal society (if they’re healthy) or in slums (if they’re sick). Marina is intrigued by Vladimir’s yarn. Oleg remains skeptical, remarking that such Franken-science is against international law. “You forget what country we live in,” replies Vladimir.

All three, it turns out, are liars—Oleg is a meat seller, Marina a whore, Vladimir a piano tuner—but their attempt at (transitory) self-reinvention speaks to 4‘s preoccupation with myth-making, as the film is, in part, Khrjanovsky’s own attempt at crafting a horrific parable about Russia’s increasingly absurd, disgusting metamorphosis. Beginning (and ending) his chatty pub scene with a sustained, largely static master shot, the director soon segues into alternating close-ups that cannily visualize the shifting dynamics of the trio’s conversation and create a momentary sense of circuitous interconnectedness. Such carefully choreographed balance, however, is quickly jettisoned in favor of anarchic fantasticality, as the ensuing tale largely ignores Oleg and Vladimir to focus its attention on Marina as she returns to her countryside home to attend the funeral of sibling Zoya. Marina, it seems, is one of four sisters (the other living two looking like twin Anna Kournikovas), and her village is a gutter in which cackling, drunken hags use chewed-up bread called “chewies” to make Jan Svankmajer-style dolls. Marina used to mold the old ladies’ chewies by hand, giving each doll (according to her morose boyfriend Marat) a “special,” distinct individuality, and her death—by choking while chewing some bread—has now cast this creepy mini-community’s one-dimensional economic system into peril.

Is Marina’s town one of the genetically engineered clone slums facetiously spoken of by Vladimir? And what of the apparently unnatural “round piglets” that meat-man Oleg learns about when dining at a restaurant? Reality mirrors myth, the extraordinary becomes symbiotically knotted with the mundane, and Khrjanovsky piles on oddity after oddity while refusing to throw his increasingly befuddled audience a bone that might explicitly explain the ongoing madness. Fully, breathtakingly, in command of his film’s discombobulating fluctuations in atmosphere and rhythm, the director habitually returns to specific motifs—dogs, meat, alcohol, cigarettes, pigs, breasts—until underlying themes begin to peek out from underneath the superficial nastiness. Man’s corruption by means of technological progress, modern Russians’ inherent bestiality (“We’re all like dogs” crows one old lady, shot—like her unattractive compatriots—in extreme close-up), and the devolution of morality in the face of socio-political breakdowns all form bits and pieces of 4‘s filthy, putrid topography, with Khrjanovsky’s inspired juxtapositions and stylistic affectations (such as the repetition of a train car scene in which men and women hungrily devour huge slabs of meat in squishy, sloppy, stomach-churning bites) creating subtle links between his primary Marina-focused plot thread and his many strange digressions.

Connecting everything in 4 is the number four, which is so abundantly manifest—four naked bodies lying in a bed, four dolls laid out on a haystack, four girls in a moldy childhood photograph, or (most amusingly) three pigs joined by the decapitated head of a fourth—that the digit soon takes on totemic qualities. “It was never sacred in any culture’s history…Four! The number the world rests on,” exclaims Vladimir during his genetics-related tall tale, though Khrjanovsky—despite casting the number as his film’s binding lynchpin—leaves the exact reason behind his imagistic quadrupling tantalizingly mysterious. As with the distorted sight of Marina and her two sisters in a cracked mirror, what the first-time director most readily seeks is an immersive mood of disorientation, of through-the-looking-glass madness, an effect he achieves via a combination of the starkly beautiful (Béla Tarr-inspired panoramas of Marina traversing the factory-peppered landscape; a conscripted Vladimir marching off to war) and nauseatingly grotesque (take your pick). And while his confrontational belligerence can occasionally seem a tad too immature, Khrjanovsky—such as when the elderly hags torment Marat with their anatomically correct dolls, an encapsulation of the film’s vision of male impotence—predominantly imbues his titillating/nauseating material with a healthy measure of metaphorical bulk.

Because Khrjanovsky wears his influences on his sleeves, much of 4 feels like a mélange of borrowed elements from prior, illustrious sources: Marina’s journey into the damp, misty Russian forest recalls Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker; compositions composed of intertwined nude limbs feel indebted to Aleksandr Sokurov’s Father and Son; and the clanging, buzzing, grinding aural design—which approximates what it might sound like inside a broken-down radiator—seems modeled after David Lynch’s ominously cacophonous Eraserhead. Still, by obsessively indulging in symbolic overload while off-handedly shuttling storylines, the film finds unique terra firma on which to stand, its quotient of unusual, idiosyncratic, and decadent details finally coalescing into a mesmerizing portrait of modern-day Russia as a wasteland divided between a messy, mystical (rural) past and crumbling, industrial (urban) future.

Khrjanovsky eventually ends his epic on a somewhat hopeful note, but it’s a small gesture incapable of overshadowing the preceding, stunningly foul third-act showpiece, in which a vodka-soaked bacchanalia culminates with two of the doll-making crones pulling, fondling, and pouring liquor on their naked bosoms. A depiction of a lost society’s degeneration into unsalvageable debauchery? Or simply one last provocation perpetrated by a director intent on condemning his birthplace with full-throttled bad taste? Either way, it’s a jaw-dropping moment that, like 4 itself, truly has to be seen to be believed.

Cast: Mariia Vovchenko, Konstantin Murzenko, Yuri Laguta, Shavkat Abdusalamov, Alexei Khvostenko, Anatoli Adoskin, Irina Vovchenko, Svetlana Vovchenko Director: Ilya Khrjanovsky Screenwriter: Vladimir Sorokin Distributor: Leisure Time Features Running Time: 126 min Rating: NR Year: 2005 Buy: Video



Review: A Land Imagined Is a Noir-Tinged Rumination on Identity

Writer-director Yeo Siew Hua suggests that becoming another person is as easy as dreaming it.




A Land Imagined
Photo: MM2 Entertainment

Yeo Siew Hua’s A Land Imagined begins with an extended montage of looming buildings and structures, as well as work sites of Singapore’s vast land-reclamation projects. This simple visual motif effectively captures not only the sense of insignificance that comes with living in an urban center teeming with people (workers appear like dots within the wide shots), but also lays the groundwork for the film’s sudden shift in perspective.

Yeo’s Golden Leopard-winning film opens in dreamy noir-like fashion before blooming into a sobering social drama concerning the lives of Singapore’s ignored and exploited immigrant and working-class communities. After a police detective, Lok (Peter Yu), spends the first third of A Land Imagined searching for a missing construction worker, Wang (Liu Xiaoyi), Lok’s partner rhetorically asks why looking for a lowly laborer is worth the time and taxpayer money. Yeo makes an empathetic rebuttal to that thought by subsequently launching into a depiction of Wang and his downtrodden existence immediately before his disappearance.

Wang, though injured, can’t afford to miss work, so he continues to drive a shuttle for other workers. Through the depiction of Wang’s grinding daily routine and search for a side hustle, Yeo shows how the man is at the mercy of his employers. In keeping with the strain of noir from Lok’s storyline, the company Wang works for and whom the dredged land is ultimately for is an eerily nebulous entity, like something out of a Fritz Lang production. Wang appears as an unwitting pawn in a larger scheme, though, paradoxically, the moments of relative escape spent with a fellow worker, Ajit (Ishtiaque Zico), and the mysterious Mindy (Luna Kwok), the manager of a cybercafé Wang frequents, prove that he leads a life of his own.

The presence of the Bangladeshi Ajit in A Land Imagined and the fact that the undocumented Wang hails from mainland China are just two factors that point to Yeo’s grasp of Singapore as a globalized state with shifting notions of identity—an understanding that’s complemented by the film’s narrative structure, which shifts perspective between Lok and Wang throughout. Each character operates on the fringes of Singaporean society and deals with similar feelings of estrangement. At one point, Wang tells Mindy after a late-night swim at a local beach that the sand comes from various different countries around Singapore. And this idea of the island nation as not having a set identity is one that’s cannily rhymed to the film’s structure.

The shift back and forth between the narrative’s central characters, and how one of those characters is affected by the life of an itinerant worker, brings to mind João Dumans and Affonso Uchoa’s Araby, but A Land Imagined doesn’t contain itself completely to the realist tradition of that film. Yeo adopts a more ethereal approach, even implying early on that Lok’s storyline is a projection of dreams that Wang once had. The elliptical narrative, coupled with the explicitly noir passages—marked by stylized and shadowy cinematography—that follow Lok and Wang around a hazy and languid cityscape, give the impression that A Land Imagined exists in a kind of dream state. The film may be coy about definitively stating if Lok is Wang’s dream-self, but this question is ultimately irrelevant. In a diverse land where identity is inherently foggy, Yeo suggests that becoming another person is as easy as dreaming it.

Cast: Peter Yu, Liu Xiaoyi, Luna Kwok, Ishtiaque Zico, Jack Tan, Kelvin Ho Director: Yeo Siew Hua Screenwriter: Yeo Siew Hua Running Time: 95 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: Out of Blue Plays Out Like a New-Age Law & Order

Carol Morley’s film wants to blow our minds, but it succeeds only at rousing our boredom.




Out of Blue
Photo: IFC Films

Carol Morley’s Out of Blue begins with images of a supernova as an ostensibly brilliant astrophysicist, Jennifer Rockwell (Mamie Gummer), wonderingly intones that we’re all made of stardust. This meaningless observation, cribbed from Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock,” is an appropriate opening to a film that proves to be every bit as trite, over-reaching, and goofy as its opening lines. With its endless references to black holes, the multiverse, and Schrödinger’s cat—the last of which is outlined in detail not once but twice—Morley’s film wants to blow our minds, but it succeeds only at rousing boredom.

Loosely based on the novel Night Train by Martin Amis, Out of Blue attempts to combine the heady philosophizing of True Detective with the metaphorical surrealism of Twin Peaks, but Morley’s writing is so ham-handed and her directing so nondescript that the film ends up feeling more like a protracted new-age spin on Law & Order. It doesn’t speak well of Out of Blue that the film is at its most compelling when it’s just straight-up ripping off David Lynch’s stylistic idiosyncrasies, such as in a dream sequence where Jennifer lip-synchs to an old-timey country song on a bandstand that looks nearly identical to the Roadhouse stage.

The film’s plot is also suspiciously reminiscent of that of Twin Peaks: An enigmatic detective, Mike Hoolihan (Patricia Clarkson), investigates the brutal murder of a pretty young blonde (Gummer), which brings her into contact with an assortment of local oddballs. Out of Blue, though, lacks the regional specificity of Lynch’s series—Morley’s film is set in New Orleans but you wouldn’t know that from what’s on screen—and its eccentrics, some of them played by fascinating character actors like Toby Jones, Jacki Weaver, and James Caan, are vaguely drawn. But the biggest misstep is Mike herself, a cipher who spends much of Out of Blue muttering clues under her breath and staring into the middle distance.

Of course, Mike has a dark past herself, one which is intertwined with the mystery she’s trying to solve. Clarkson does her best to imbue the role with a certain offbeat gravitas, but Mike is too confusedly conceived to generate any real interest in her backstory, much less to carry the narrative. Morley hangs a lot of eccentricities on the character—she drives a vintage car, listens to the Eels, and, in one particularly baffling scene, climbs on stage at a strip club and starts writhing on the dancers—but none of these cohere into a comprehensible whole. All the way to the end of Out of Blue, Mike’s quirks exude a grab-bag-like feeling, ensuring that she remains an enigma amid the comings and goings of so many wacky side characters and all the pseudo-metaphysical blather of Morley’s muddled script.

Cast: Mamie Gummer, Patricia Clarkson, James Caan, Jacki Weaver, Toby Jones, Aaron Tveit, Jonathan Majors, Alyshia Ochse, Gary Grubbs, Yolonda Ross, Lucy Faust, Brad Mann, Thomas Francis Murphy, Carol Sutton, Lawrence Turner Director: Carol Morley Screenwriter: Carol Morley Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 109 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: Genesis Lyrically Captures the Heartache of Sentimental Education

Philippe Lesage’s film understands that we submit ourselves to the perils of affection because of its outweighing graces.




Photo: Productions l'Unite Centrale

Writer-director Philippe Lesage follows up The Demons with another coming-of-age saga that fixates on the relatable, if grim, blues of self-awakening. Primarily following the teenaged Guillaume (Théodore Pellerin) and his college-aged sister, Charlotte (Noée Abita), Genesis charts how both are shaped by their experiences with sexual desire, subtly observing their behavior and, occasionally, the darker side of affection.

Guillaume commands much of the film’s attention. From the first shot, in which he stands on a desk in his all-boys boarding school and leads his mates in a barroom shanty, it’s obvious that Guillaume is a charismatic class clown who knows how to force all eyes onto himself. Yet the teen can also be withdrawn and introverted, and his relationships with his friends and teachers are constantly in flux. His puckish behavior is often celebrated by classmates and even some teachers, like the sardonic Perrier (Paul Ahmarani), who in one class invites Guillaume to do his impersonation of him, which the teen performs with hilarious specificity and to the initial delight and then discomfort of the professor.

Wounded by the boy’s exposure of his flaws, Perrier subsequently singles out Guillaume for harassment, berating him without cause and even screaming at the kid over the slightest perceived transgression. Guillaume’s peers are less extreme, but the same kids who applaud his classroom antics are also quick to ignore him inside their shared dorms or in social situations, content to simply use him for amusement during class time.

Guillaume’s awkward relationship to others at the boarding school is exacerbated by his closeted sexuality, which isolates him from the heteronormative activities of his friends. In one scene, Lesage films the boy in slow motion as he wanders through a house party surrounded by boys and girls kissing, trying to fit in by cautiously snaking his arm around a girl, who casually shrugs him off as he keeps walking. Like much of Genesis, the moment is at once thematically obvious and beautifully moving, with the sudden swell of morose pop transforming the scene into a lyrically intense expression of the boy’s sentimental education. The impeccable blocking places the other kids in every square inch of the room save for a pocket of dead space around Guillaume, poignantly emphasizing his loneliness.

Charlotte, by contrast, seems to have an easier time of things. More carefree and confident than her brother, she’s at first hampered only by her inane boyfriend, Maxime (Pier-Luc Funk), who broaches the subject of an open relationship with a forced sense of casual suggestion, only to later sobbingly backtrack after she kicks him to the curb. Charlotte ends up with the older Theo (Maxime Dumontier), whose charming demeanor and respectfulness suggests actual maturity. When Lesage films Charlotte in a club using the same slow-mo style that he did for Guillaume’s glum traipse through the house party, the tone is considerably brighter, with the young woman free and ebullient about her contentment.

Soon, however, Charlotte must also contend with the fallout of various sexual stresses. Lesage grapples with matters that are all too common to darker coming-of-age stories, and he captures the film’s most harrowing scenes in single takes. Yet if the filmmaker doesn’t shy away from plainly depicting such horrors as sexual violation, he avoids wallowing in the misery he piles onto his characters. Guillaume and especially Charlotte suffer, but Lesage pulls focus onto the aftershocks of trauma rather than the traumatic events themselves. Sometimes Genesis even ducks reinforcing the bleakest of expectations, as in a scene of Guillaume baring his soul to his classmates that ends in a surprisingly warm fashion.

Indeed, the bright colors and sedate direction of Genesis isn’t an ironic contrast for the difficult content within but a cue for the perseverance of hope in trying times. That optimism is borne out in the final act, which shifts focus to Felix (Édouard Tremblay-Grenier), the protagonist of The Demons, now a cheery teen attending what appears to be a bible camp. As he plays guitar with counselors and plays around in camp, he gravitates toward Beatrice (Émilie Bierre), a young girl who’s clearly as interested in him as he is in her. Compared to the more vicious heartbreak facing Charlotte and Guillaume, Felix and Beatrice’s budding feelings are presented innocently and sweetly. Their first flirtations end the film on a hopeful note that suggests that not all stories of young self-discovery need be solemn, and that we submit ourselves to the perils of affection because of its outweighing graces.

Cast: Théodore Pellerin, Noée Abita, Édouard Tremblay-Grenier, Maxime Dumontier, Jules Roy Scicotte, Pier-Luc Funk, Paul Ahmarani, Antoine Marchand-Gagnon, Émilie Bierre Director: Philippe Lesage Screenwriter: Philippe Lesage Running Time: 130 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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