Tuesday, November 30, 2021

The Films of Aleksey Balabanov

Earlier this year, mubi featured a spotlight on the films of Aleksey Balabanov. I first encountered a film by Aleksey Balabanov back in 2009 with the release of Cargo 200. I saw the film without knowing anything about the topic let alone the meaning of the title but the film proved to be a jolting experience. 

Cargo 200

The title Cargo 200 refers to the coffins in which dead Soviet soldiers from Afghanistan were sent. Cargo 200 stayed with me because it was the first film that I had seen that showed the death toll from the Soviet perspective. Until that time, I had only seen American films about Afghanistan and what was missing from the cinematic landscape was the perspective of the Soviet soldiers and their families. Balabanov’s film filled a missing gap but I didn’t get to see any of his other films until this recent mubi spotlight.

Brother (1997, Russia)

Brother emits a similar raw gritty energy to that of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Pusher trilogy while making terrific usage of location. Interestingly, the first Pusher film came out in 1996 just one year before Brother. That comparison to N.W. Refn is only on the surface because as it turns out, Brother’s shooting technique has rules which share some intentions with that of Dogme 95:

Balabanov was one of 13 signatories of a 1996 statement proposing a set of rules for filmmakers who were intent on making small-budget films without state assistance (hardly forthcoming in those years in any case): a shooting schedule limited to two or three weeks; filming exclusively on streets, in courtyards and in the apartments of friends and relatives; crews working gratis, with payment contingent upon any profit the film might make. — John Mackay, Senses of Cinema

In Brother, Danila (Sergey Bodrov) is a newly discharged ex-soldier who is back from the first Chechen war and immediately finds trouble in his village. With no clear job perspective, Danila heads off to St. Petersburg to look for his brother Viktor (Viktor Sukhorukov). As it turns out, Viktor is seeped deep in crime and that works nicely for Danila who is able to put his cold blooded killing to good use. And whatever money Danila gets, he spends on music cassettes (yes, those good old walkman tapes).

After slaying all the dragons in St. Petersburg, it is only natural for Danila to move to a bigger city for a larger crime net. That opportunity comes courtesy of Brother 2 in 2000 when the brothers find themselves in Moscow. In the sequel, Danila also makes his way to Chicago.

The two Brother films nicely establish Aleksey Balabanov’s raw style and show that he isn’t afraid to depict sensitive topics like racism and ethnic conflict. Also, the scenes of the local market in Brother are refreshing and show the importance of using location in film. There are some market shots that made me think of Sergei Loznitsa’s cinema.

Considering that Sergey Bodrov’s character Danila returned from the first Chechen war, it isn’t surprising that Balabanov’s follow-up to Brother 2 is War (2002) set against the backdrop of Chechnya. These films are part of Balabanov's crime/violent movies but early in his career, he tackled Kafka with 1994’s Zamok, based on Kakfa’s The Castle.

In recent years, I have associated Russian cinema set in Caucasus with that of Kantemir Balagov (Closeness) but Aleksey Balabanov was there first.

Saturday, November 27, 2021

Kiro Russo’s Bolivian Cinema

One of the most lovely cinematic debuts I came across in 2016 was that of Kiro Russo’s Viejo calavera (Dark Skull).

Dark Skull (2016)

The film shed a new light and perspective on the lives of Bolivian miners. While there are a handful of documentaries about Bolivian mines, there is a shortage of fictional films about the hard working people who work themselves into the ground in these dark places. Russo’s Dark Skull goes a long way in addressing that imbalance.

Dark Skull is a work of immense creativity that uses the darkened settings of the mines to play with light/darkness. The story follows Elder (Julio César Ticona) who starts working in the mines after the death of his father. Elder isn’t really interested in working in the mine and would rather hunt for his next alcoholic high. However, his father’s death changes the trajectory of his life leaving him with no choice but to work.

Kiro Russo’s film shows us the routines, rituals of the miners and how they try to make the best of their situation.

Dark Skull plays with the technique and impressively uses a Sergei Eisenstein montage to emphasize the machinery used in the mines. There is also a surprising presence of pulsating music which elevates the film.

After such an impressive debut, I looked forward to Russo’s next film and thankfully, it arrived few months ago at the Venice Film Festival.

El Gran Movimiento (The Great Movement) can be considered the next chapter in the life of Elder (played again by Julio Cezar Ticona) after he leaves the dark mines of Dark Skull for the city life of La Paz. The visual contrast between the two films is impressive. Dark Skull shows us the dimly light underground mines while El Gran Movimiento takes us to the dizzying high altitudes of La Paz. Instead of the rhythms of the mines, Russo now shows us the rituals and rhythms of the local market where Elder finds a job. 

The sights and noises of the market are astutely captured and overload the senses in a remarkable sequence near the end of the film, a montage like segment which now appears to be Russo’s cinematic signature. Another Russo signature looks to be the usage of pulsating music including an eye catching dance number that unexpectedly drops in the film. El Gran Movimiento takes on a very relevant contemporary urgency when Elder starts coughing near the end of the film. His disease is unknown as is the cure. While Elder is at the local clinic, we hear the news recounting case counts in other Bolivian cities. That is when we realize what Elder has. Immediately following that sequence, we see crowded streets and markets. An invisible clock hovers over the frame with the audience knowing that it is only a matter of time before everything will shut down. We don’t to get see the fate of the market but instead we get to see what happens with Elder when a faith healer is brought in to cure him.

Elder in El Gran Movimiento (2021)

It was a 5 year gap between Russo’s two films. I hope the wait for the next movie isn’t that long as he is clearly a creative director with a unique voice.

Thursday, November 18, 2021

Best Latin American Films of all time

Wonders in the Dark is doing a Best Latin American Cinema list. Of all the Best of Cinema lists, this one is the toughest for me as Latin American Cinema is dear to my heart. Had I done this list 10 years ago, it would have been quite different. But I am going with emotion, to keep some Latin sentiment beating, in making this list.

Best 25 Latin American Films of all Time

1. Zama (2017, Argentina co-production, Lucrecia Martel)

2. Black God, White Devil (1964, Brazil, Glauber Rocha)
3. Los Olvidados (1950, Mexico, Luis Buñuel)
4. The Official Story (1985, Argentina, Luis Puenzo)
5. The Battle of Chile (1975, Venezuela/France/Cuba, Patricio Guzmán)
6. Memories of Underdevelopment (1968, Cuba, Tomás Gutiérrez Alea)
7. Extraordinary Stories (2008, Argentina, Mariano Llinás)
8. Pixote (1980, Brazil, Hector Babenco)
9. El Topo (1970, Mexico, Alejandro Jodorowsky)
10. Barren Lives (1963, Brazil, Nelson Pereira dos Santos)

11. Invasion (1969, Argentina, Hugo Santiago)
12. The Exterminating Angel (1962, Mexico, Luis Buñuel)
13. The Pearl Button (2015, Chile co-production, Patricio Guzmán)
14. The Motorcycle Diaries (2004, Argentina/Brazil co-production, Walter Salles)
15. Amores Perros (2000, Mexico, Alejandro G. Iñárritu)
16. City of God (2002, Brazil co-production, Fernando Meirelles/Kátia Lund)
17. Liverpool (2008, Argentina co-production, Lisandro Alonso)
18. Neigboring Sounds (2012, Brazil, Kleber Mendonça Filho)
19. Pan’s Labyrinth (2006, Mexico/Spain, Guillermo del Toro)
20. Y tu mamá también (2001, Mexico,  Alfonso Cuarón)

21. Nostalgia for the Light (2010, Chile co-production, Patricio Guzmán)
22. Cocote (2017, Dominican Republic co-production, Nelson Carlo de Los Santos Arias)
23. Jauja (2014, Argentina, Lisandro Alonso)
24. Bolivia (1999, Argentina/Holland, Israel Adrián Caetano)
25. Japón (2002, Mexico, Carlos Reygadas)

Top 10 by Country:

Argentina: 3
Brazil: 3
Mexico: 2
Cuba: 1
Chile: 1

I have assigned The Battle of Chile to Chile even though no Chilean funding was used due to obvious dictatorship related issues.

Top 20 by Country:
Co-productions made this difficult which is why both Argentina and Brazil are tied at 5.5 because I couldn’t allocate The Motorcycle Diaries exclusively to one of these two nations. Hence, Mexico wins this round by increasing its total to 6.

Mexico: 6
Argentina: 5.5
Brazil: 5.5
Chile: 2
Cuba: 1

Top 25 by Country: 

Argentina narrowly wins the Copa courtesy of Liverpool (Alonso's version not Klopp's)  and Bolivia.

Argentina: 7.5
Mexico: 7
Brazil: 5.5
Chile: 3
Cuba: 1
Dominican Republic: 1

Thursday, November 04, 2021

Best Canadian Films of All Time

Wonders in the Dark is running a Best Canadian film poll where each participant is required to submit their top 15 Canadian films.

My Top 15 Canadian Films of All time

1. One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk (2019, Zacharias Kunuk)

The film documents a historical encounter in 1961 Baffin Island between a Canadian government agent and the Inuit leader Noah Piugattuk. The agent wants Piugattuk to send kids from the Inuit communities to schools in a city/town. The film shows a conversation with no violence but it is clear that the next encounter will involve force. Given the recent discovery of children’s remains buried around residential schools in Canada, it is clear that the implications of a ‘friendly conversation’ in Kunuk’s film extended beyond the confines of Baffin island and tragically impacted all parts of Canada.

2. The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open (2019, Kathleen Hepburn/Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers)

3. A Married Couple (1969, Allan King)

4. Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner (2001, Zacharias Kunuk)

5. Les Orders (1974, Michel Brault)
6. The Barbarian Invasions (2003, Denys Arcand)
7. The Sweet Hereafter (1997, Atom Egoyan)
8. Montreal Main (1972, Frank Vitale)
9. Incendies (2010, Denis Villeneuve)
10. Fire (1996, Deepa Mehta)
11. The Red Violin (1998, François Girard)
12. Vic + Flo Saw a Bear (2013, Denis Côté)
13. Videodrome (1983, David Cronenberg)
14. Mon Oncle Antoine (1971, Claude Jutra)
15. The Forbidden Room (2015, Guy Maddin)

Honourable Mentions:

Bollywood Bound (2002, Nisha Pahuja)
I Killed My Mother (2009, Xavier Dolan)
My Winnipeg (2007, Guy Maddin)
The World Before Her (2012, Nisha Pahuja)
Waydowntown (2000, Gary Burns)

Monday, November 01, 2021

Female Assassin Movies

One of the most enduring action sub-genres has been that of an assassin movie. Each year, there are many examples of both male and female assassin movies that continue to be made no matter what the state of world is. There have been many female assassin movies made in different parts of the world so people could have started at a different place depending on their specific cinematic journey. One early starting point is Japanese cinema with Toshiya Fujita’s Lady Snowblood (1973).

Lady Snowblood

For others, the starting point could be female assassins that exist in wuxia films. Wong Kar-wai explored this world in Ashes of Time (1994) while Hou Hsiao-Hsien covered this in his beautiful film The Assassin (2015).

The Assassin

The more famous of these wuxia films in North America is Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000).

At the turn of the century, for some the starting point may have been Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill (2003-04), which in turn was inspired by Lady Snowblood among its many inspirations.

Kill Bill
However, for me the starting point for female assassin movies was France with Luc Besson’s Nikita / Le Femme Nikita (1990) starring Anne Parillaud. 
Of course, Besson also went on to direct one of the most brilliant male assassin movies a few years later with Léon: The Professional (1994) starring Jean Reno and a very young Natalie Portman making her acting debut. But Besson has returned to the world of female assassins more frequently and directed Lucy (2014, starring Scarlett Johansson) 

and the recent Anna (2019, starring Sasha Luss). 

He also co-wrote the script for Colombiana (2011) staring Zoe Saldana as a ruthless assassin going by the name of Cataleya.
Woman with one name or a nickname

Tarantino’s Kill Bill and Olivier Megaton’s Colombiana stand apart from other films in this sub-genre because the film’s title is not the woman’s name or her descriptor. Instead, Tarantino’s film title is the target of the killer. If the film had been called The Bride, it would have fit with other such films in this category such as Lady Snowblood (1973), Atomic Blonde (2017), The Villainess (2017), Red Sparrow (2018), Black Widow (2021).

Colombiana is a title pointing towards the killer’s origin location. If the film had been called Cataleya, then it would have been right at home with other one name titles such as Nikita (1990), Hanna (2011, directed by Joe Wright), Lucy (2014), Anna (2019), Ava (2020, directed by Tate Taylor), the recent Kate (2021, directed by Cedric Nicolas-Troyan).

Common Framework

Back in the day, the story mattered when it came to these films. Now, the story isn’t relevant. The framework of these films is the same and the backstory is quickly dispensed with or told in flashbacks such as that in Kate.

The story often involves a young girl trained to be a killing machine because her parents were killed and she is orphaned and wants revenge. In these films, the girl turned killer woman is ruthless, cold-blooded, has an incredible ability to survive bullets, fights and can leap from buildings without ever getting a scratch. She is essentially a video game character come alive. On top of that, the female assassin can easily cross borders like a ghost, change her identity at the drop of a hat and never be caught unless the script demands it. Since these movies are all aware of other such films in the sub-genre, the goal of each subsequent movie is to increase the action, the gore and body count. At times, scenes from these movies are hard to distinguish. Segments from Anna, Kate and Red Sparrow could have been spliced together and one wouldn’t have noticed.

Like horror films, these assassin movies are churned out and follow a specific template. The only variation is the body count continues to increase as is the gruesome manner of killing. In the male assassin cinematic world, John Wick and its copycats will continue to be made while the same is true of the female assassin world. The recent news that a female spin-off of John Wick will be made called Ballerina isn’t a surprise. In a way, these assassin movies run in a parallel universe to the comic book hero movies yet are all part of the same studio roller coaster.