Sunday, July 5, 2015

On DVD/Blu-ray: HARD TO BE A GOD (2015); LAST KNIGHTS (2015); and WHILE WE'RE YOUNG (2015)

(Russia - 2014; US release 2015)

The final work of Russian auteur Aleksey German (credited here as Alexey Jurievich German), HARD TO BE A GOD was also the maverick filmmaker's career-long obsession. German first conceived the notion of adapting the 1964 sci-fi novel by Arkady and Boris Strugatski shortly after its publication. While other projects came and went, German remained determined to bring Hard to Be a God to the screen, even after a somewhat commercial Germany/USSR co-production directed by Peter Fleischmann and featuring Werner Herzog in a supporting role was released in 1989. He was known for his infamously meticulous nature, drawing obvious comparisons to Stanley Kubrick but probably more akin to Orson Welles with his doggedly stubborn nature and refusal to compromise. German, who only directed six films over his 45-year career, began shooting HARD TO BE A GOD in 2000 and didn't wrap until 2006. He then spent an additional seven years on post-production, endlessly tinkering with the editing and the sound mix until his death from heart failure in February 2013 at the age of 74, leaving his wife and son to finally complete the film. While it's tragic that German didn't live long enough to see his life's work through to its ultimate completion, one can't help but wonder how much longer it would've taken the film to be finished had he lived. Shot in black & white and running three hours, HARD TO BE A GOD is a cinematic endurance test to end all cinematic endurance tests, existing purely on its own terms and made for no one other than Aleksey German.

It opens in mid-story, with a team of scientists having spent an undisclosed amount of time (probably several years) on Arkanar, an Earth-like planet that's about 800 years behind in terms of thought and technological advancement, and still in what's tantamount to the medieval Dark Ages. Don Rumata (Leonid Yarmolnik) is one of several Earth scientists who have infiltrated the Arkanar society and are aghast at what they see, but are expressly forbidden from taking a proactive role in it, lest they influence the course of its future. They're strictly there as observers but smart enough to be considered gods by the unwashed, brutish masses. That's a summary of the Strugatski novel and indicative of things only vaguely hinted at in the finished film. German's HARD TO BE A GOD is adamantly against any kind of narrative drive or momentum whatsoever. The director's primary focus is capturing the medieval look and feel of Arkanar on sets constructed in the Czech Republic, and on that level, the film is an achievement both monumental and monotonous. HARD TO BE A GOD is one of the grossest films ever made, loaded with filthy, slobbering Dark Agers with endlessly streaming snot, shooting boogers out of their nose, vomiting, defecating, and pissing, rolling around in bodily waste, smearing feces everywhere, always looking like they're breaking the fourth wall as they look into German's handheld camera. There's a lot of nonsensical, stream of consciousness babbling by the denizens of Arkanar, almost like German is offering us what might happen if Terrence Malick lost his mind and directed a long-lost Chaucer adaptation written by Pasolini. Drenched in rain, fog, and mud, HARD TO BE A GOD looks like no other film ever made, and to that end, as well as German's endless devotion to the project, it's something that can't be easily dismissed. When someone puts that much into a project, are the accolades for the content of the work or for the obsession that drove it? There's a fine line between genius and insanity and though it may come off as cold, no one wants to say that perhaps German wasted the last 13 years of his life. It's a Stalinist allegory that took so long to complete from German's first inclinations of interest in 1964 to his death in 2013 that it inadvertently became a Putin critique, which may say something along the lines of "meet the new boss, same as the old boss," but it's lost here. There's incredible ambition in the end result, with fleeting moments that recall the likes of Herzog, Andrei Tarkovsky, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Bela Tarr and Terry Gilliam (Rumata even compares himself to Baron Munchausen on one occasion), but what's here is far beyond the bounds of reasonable self-indulgence. The bodily waste never stops flowing and, like the endlessly hanging gobs of snot, HARD TO BE GOD just goes on and on and on, which is part of German's master plan. He set out to make something as anti-entertaining as possible. While going against convention is admirable, you'll just feel numb around the 90-minute point, especially when you realize you're only halfway through this thing. HARD TO BE A GOD took 13 years to complete, and that's about how long it feels watching it. (Unrated, 177 mins, also streaming on Netflix Instant)

(US/South Korea/Japan - 2015)

With the financial backing of three countries and carrying 37 credited producers, it's clear that a lot of money went into the medieval adventure saga LAST KNIGHTS, but that still didn't keep it from spending three years on the shelf before getting an unceremonious VOD release. While the film is formulaic and a little too reliant on cliches, it's nevertheless surprisingly solid, grand in its presentation, and would've looked terrific on a big screen. There's a couple of instances where the CGI scenery gets a little dodgy, but for the most part, it's blended seamlessly and with care and precision, which is more than you can say for most mega-budget movies that get 3000 screen releases. Directed by Kaz I. Kiriya (2004's compromised but visually stunning CASSHERN), LAST KNIGHTS is set in a feudal society in medieval times, with the revered Lord Bartok (Morgan Freeman) outraged by a tax increase imposed on him by Geza Mott (HEADHUNTERS' Aksel Hennie), the sniveling minister to the Emperor (A SEPARATION's Payman Maadi), with the ulterior motive being to take over the Bartok lands for himself. Knowing a shakedown when he sees one, Bartok and his chief army commander Raiden (Clive Owen) venture to Geza Mott's palace for a meeting, where Bartok intentionally insults the greedy minister with a cheap gift in a wooden box ("You can keep the box, too," he snarks). Geza Mott later provokes Bartok into a physical confrontation, and when Bartok draws his sword in self-defense, he's nevertheless ordered by the Emperor to pay for his offense against Geza Mott with his life, and also cruelly orders Raiden to be his executioner. The Bartok lands are claimed by Geza Mott, who casts out Bartok's widow (Shohreh Aghdashloo) and forces his daughter (Si-Yeon Park) into prostitution. The paranoid minister lives in constant fear of Raiden's vengeance, unaware that Raiden has become a hopeless drunkard who sold his cherished sword and is so overcome by grief and guilt over killing his beloved master that he has little will to live. Unknown to Geza Mott, the rest of Raiden's army, led by Cortez (Cliff Curtis) has a spy inside their former stronghold and a plan for revenge is on, eventually joined and taken over by Raiden when he finally rises out of his sulking stupor and decides to take back the Bartok lands and restore his master's good name.

Loosely inspired by the legend of the 47 Ronin, and much better than the recent botched Hollywood take on the subject, LAST KNIGHTS could easily be written off as a GAME OF THRONES knockoff, but it's miles ahead of a lot of recent films of this type (HAMMER OF THE GODS, OUTCAST, SWORD OF VENGEANCE, and the terrible IRONCLAD sequel). though with its rousing battle scenes and committed performances, it's more akin to the original IRONCLAD and like that film, should have a long life on Netflix streaming and cable. There's one great shot of a guy getting his head sliced off and taking several more steps before stumbling into a pool, and one very well-choreographed, OLDBOY-inspired scene where Raiden works his way down a hallway, slicing and dicing about 20 of Geza Mott's soldiers without Kiriya employing a single cut. No, LAST KNIGHTS doesn't break any new ground (it opens with--spoiler alert--narration by Freeman), its momentum depends on the villains stupidly underestimating Raiden, and you just know that the most eager and ambitious young soldier in Raiden's army will be the first one to die ("Did I do well?" he gasps in his dying breath, tears welling up in the eyes of the weathered, seen-it-all dogs of war comforting him in his final moments), but it's an almost defiantly old-fashioned adventure nicely blended with the violent and downbeat nature of a GAME OF THRONES or a VIKINGS. Freeman, sporting some interesting facial hair, exits about 30 minutes in but does what he's required to do (basically, be Morgan Freeman). While Owen stars in the acclaimed period drama THE KNICK, Cinemax's "We're not just Skinemax, so put the Kleenex away, fellas!" bid at respectability, Hollywood has seemingly lost all faith in his ability to open a movie. Owen glowers and grimaces and is excellent as the battle-hardened, heartbroken Raiden, exhibiting the kind of dour, steel-edged gravitas that will come in handy in about eight years or so when his career gets a second wind after it inevitably enters its "Liam Neeson Geriatric Asskicker" phase. Very well-made and epic in scope, with every dollar up on the screen, LAST KNIGHTS was abandoned by its distributors--when's the last time you saw a Clive Owen movie in a theater?--and reviled by the few critics who saw it. It's not to be mistaken for a great movie, but it's a fine adventure and didn't deserve the shitty reception it got. (R, 115 mins)

(US - 2015)

Ben Stiller has always seemed like he was born ready for midlife crisis roles and now that he's nearly 50, he's got a prime one in WHILE WE'RE YOUNG, which reunites him with his GREENBERG writer/director Noah Baumbach. Baumbach, an occasional Wes Anderson collaborator (he co-wrote THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU and FANTASTIC MR. FOX), a voice of Gen-X malaise with his 1995 debut KICKING AND SCREAMING, and a master of cinematic discomfort with THE SQUID AND THE WHALE (2005) and the brilliant and underrated MARGOT AT THE WEDDING (2007), seems to be mellowing with age. WHILE WE'RE YOUNG isn't as caustic as some of his mid '00s work, and gives Stiller a chance to basically use his "Ben Stiller" persona as Josh, a 44-year-old documentary filmmaker who's gone full Aleksey German and has been working on the same project for nearly a decade, a coma-inducing series of interviews with left-wing theorist Ira Mandelstram (Peter Yarrow) that comprise so many hours that he's actually lost track of what the film is even about (when asked, he's quick to desperately blurt "It's about America, really"). His wife Cornelia (Naomi Watts), a producer for her legendary documentary filmmaker father (Charles Grodin), is constantly being hounded by her friends about why she and Josh are still childless. They seem happy and content with their careers and each other, but something's missing. That void is temporarily filled by Jamie (Adam Driver--and can someone explain the whole "Adam Driver is hot" thing to me?) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried), a pair of mid-20s, newlywed bohemian hipsters who make their own furniture, churn their own ice cream, watch old movies on VHS, and embrace CITIZEN KANE and Survivor's "Eye of the Tiger" with equal passion. Soon, Cornelia is joining Darby for hip-hop dance classes, Josh is wearing a porkpie hat, and they're drifting away from friends their own age. Tensions rise when Josh and Jamie collaborate on a documentary about a high-school classmate of Jamie's (Brady Corbet), which leads to a Jamie side project that starts getting him everything evading Josh: money from investors, critical acclaim, and the approval of his father-in-law.

Many pointed out that WHILE WE'RE YOUNG seems like an art-house version of the Seth Rogen/Zac Efron comedy NEIGHBORS. It's very low-key and never really cuts loose, instead focusing on character, where a more mainstream film would have Josh embarrassing himself beyond going out in a public in a porkpie hat. The film's one attempt at overt slapstick is also its weakest sequence--a tedious and overlong visit to a drug-tripping ayahuasca ceremony where everyone vomits into a bucket. As the film goes on and Jamie's and Darby's intentions and true nature come into question, Baumbach never paints them as villains and still treats everyone with sympathy, whether it's Josh and Cornelia trying to find themselves at a crossroads in their life together, and forgiving Jamie and Darby's trespasses because of their youth and inexperience at life.  "They're not evil," Josh realizes. "They're just young." (R, 97 mins)

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