New To DVD/VOD And Streaming Platforms: Review – “White God” 9.12.15

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This particular Hungarian film had been on my radar for a while now, and was one that I waited much longer to see than most films I anticipate seeing. I first heard about it the same way in which I hear about a lot films – in doing my research in each of the year’s most prestigious international film festivals, and taking note of which films were well received by critics. “White God” (English translation of the film’s original title – “Feher isten”) created quite a bit of buzz when it first premiered at the Godfather of film festivals – Cannes – in 2014 (and like with most foreign films it took over a year before it found a distributor and was released stateside). It quickly caught my attention when I saw that it had won the Un Certain Regard award. An award that’s usually reserved for international films that tend to be a bit edgier which would in turn have a harder time finding a distributor without its nomination (or winning such as was the case with this film). Past Un Certain Regard award winners include Yorgos Lanthimos’ “Dogtooth” (Greece – 2009) (one of my top 10 favorite foreign films post 2000), Cristi Puiu’s brilliant “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu” (Russia – 2005), and Marco Giordana’s 4+ hour epic – “The Best of Youth” (Italy – 2003)…to name a few. That’s not even scratching the surface of the films that haven’t won but have been nominated (it’s a rather impressive list I’ll just say that). So when a film takes home the award it’s pretty much stamped with a guarantee that I will flag it and I find a way to see it whenever it gets released here in the States. As was the case with this film, which just under a month ago became available on many (including Netflix’s) streaming platforms. Knowing little to next to nothing about it other than the information I’ve just shared with you, I was pretty excited when I finally got the opportunity tonight to sit down and watch it.

“White God” begins with the story of Lili, a young teenage girl riding her bike down the urban area cross-streets of a metropolitan area somewhere within Hungary followed closely by her dog subservient dog Hagen. Lili is the daughter of two parents who have gone through a recent divorce (this notion of “separation” is a constant motif throughout the film), and when her mom needs to travel out of the country for a few months, she rather begrudgingly agrees to go stay with her father. Her father works for the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) and is responsible for distinguishing between good and poor quality meat. He also happens to hate animals (not surprisingly given the grisly requirements of his job) so when Lili shows up with her beloved dog Hagen, he is reluctant to let him stay. That and in this particular part of the world, there’s a certain “tax” on dogs that are unwarranted, or rather “non-pure bred”. So when the inhabitants of Lili’s dad’s apartment complex begin to complain, Lili is left with no other option than to leave a home and after getting kicked out of the music program at a junior conservatory she’s involved in for bringing her dog with her, she flees with her dog and runs away from everything. This doesn’t last for long, as Lili is picked up by her father while searching for her, and he leaves the dog by the side of the highway alone and destitute. From this point on in the film, the story revolves around two story archs which jumps back and forth between both Lili and her dog Hagen’s separate journeys that follow.

This film wound up working for me on a number of different levels. It also wound up being one of those films that felt almost “meta” in that it reminded me of several other different works from pictures that I deeply admire. There’s the clear, obvious influence that is Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu’s “Amores Perros” (2000) in its depiction and metaphor for canines as a somewhat “lesser than” being, and how they’re terribly mistreated once taken away from their domesticated environments and thrown into a more oppressed section of society. Which to me seemed to metaphorically represent slavery, segregation, homelessness, and refugee people. Then there’s the story of Lili, who goes on her own personal journey through the dark rungs of society and urban living, as she is exposed to a number of different things that we wouldn’t wish any adult to see, never mind a young teenage girl. Equally as harrowing of a journey is the quest of her dog Hagen, who gets captured and is sold and trained into the ugly criminal underworld that is dog fighting (these scenes are definitely not for the squeamish). Or, if you’re a devout lover of dogs, you may not be able to endure the harsh and unforeseen circumstances in which her canine is forced into (imagine Pascal Laugier’s 2008’s “Martyrs” but replacing humans with canines). Then there’s what I call the grand finale or climax, which takes up the last quarter of the film and had me envisioning both Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Magnolia” (1999) (replace “rain of frogs” with “rain of dogs”) and Danny Boyle’s “28 Days Later” (2002) which presents us with something that resembles an end-of-the-world apocalypse as taken over by dogs. Does it sound strange to you yet? I’m not sure I would label it “strange”. But it surely was something both entirely unique and original to almost anything I’ve maybe ever seen. And depending on the viewer, this could be the film’s strong point or its downfall. I for one happened to fall into the former category, as even despite of its many influences it, at least for me, wound up being incredibly interesting and at the same time hard to look away from. The film’s director does a fantastic job in what must have been quite a difficult task in telling its two separate characters’ story archs and bringing you into their worlds. Never does it even in the remotest sense feel jarring as the story shifts with a confident sense of editing from dog to dog owner. It also contains a great musical store (Lili is a trumpet player and music is “key” to the story) that combines both classical with more contemporary, urban, club-like music. Lastly, were its two stellar performances by both the young Lili and her dog Hagen (I read somewhere that if there was ever the case to give an awards nomination to a dog than it was this film – and I couldn’t have said it better myself). This was yet another great example of foreign cinema worthy of its Un Certain Regard win at Cannes. “White God” should please those like myself of cinema that falls into the more wanting to be challenged mindset, but for a lot of other people, its the kind of material they just might have a hard time getting into.

Dog lovers beware.

[B]

A Trip To The Movies – Review: “Leviathan” 2.8.15

It only seems fitting that my follow-up to my “Spotlight On” feature segment on Russian director Andrey Zvyaginstev should be his latest film. A film as I mentioned in the previous article, that garnered some of Zvyaginstev’s best reviews to date worldwide. Taking home a plethora of different awards at many of this past year’s festivals. Including 1 win (Best Screenplay) and 1 Palme d’Or nomination at Cannes, as well as being a Golden Globe winner here stateside and nomination at this year’s Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language film. I spent most of the weekend revisiting some of Zvyaginstev’s previous work – 2007’s lofty and ambitious “The Banishment” as well as 2011’s “Elena” so I could hopefully gain a clearer understanding of what exactly this director is trying to achieve. What I came up with is that he seems to be Russia’s counterpart or distant cousin to the films of Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu’s work pre-“Birdman”. Zvyaginstev’s films all seem to have a common thread that he likes to explore which I interpret to be how we deal with life’s many challenges and adversities, creating bleak dramas with an underlying element of social realism to them. However he, just as much as any other director I can think of at the moment, makes tepidly paced films which take their time to unravel that place much more of an emphasis on establishing setting and the characters that are contained within them than any other elements. His films are always weighty and dense, and are more in tune with what you make of them than what he wants you to make of them. This was maybe the director’s most ambitious film to date, and surprisingly his most accessible one, tying in themes of family, society, fate, power, and corruption that have become almost trademark in pretty much all his films so far to date.

The film opens with a series of gorgeous shots on the Russian coastal countryside that to me looked like what I imagine a country like Iceland to look like. Sparse, dreary, cold, and isolated, but also very beautiful. The story revolves around its protagonist, Kolya, and the unfortunate situation in which he finds himself in as the town mayor, Vadim, is going through the legal process of taking over Kolya’s property and abuses of his position of power to unfairly take it out from under him to build one of those new strip malls. But Kolya refuses to put a price tag on his beautiful coastal property, as both he and his family, as well as the families of both his father and grandfather have lived in it for generations it having being built more than half a century ago. His situation is further complicated by his increasingly distant and seemingly unhappy wife, Lilia, and troublesome teenage boy Roma. Kolya is a strong man though with high moral values and seems to juggle both his family situation and the process of his house being repossessed rather well. And even enlists the help of an old military friend of his now turned lawyer, Dmitri, who’s a prominent lawyer from Moscow. Kolya starts to build a case against the lecherous slime ball mayor Vadim citing violations of civil liberties and direct violations of the law. Though once a secret is revealed involving both his lawyer friend Dmitri and his estranged wife Lilia, things start to crumble and take a turn for the worse for Kolya’s situation, and he is confronted with challenges and moral dilemmas involving his family that he so desperately tries to hold onto as well as his property at whatever cost and whatever means necessary which, as the film ensues, his efforts begin to grow more and more increasingly dire and hopeless. Culminating into a tale of almost Greek tragedy-like proportions.

Like many of Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu’s previous work before “Birdman” like “21 Grams”, “Babel”, and “Biutiful”, Zvyaginstev spins us another bleak, tragic family tale that mostly works on a lot of levels and not so much on others. Since I did “like” the film but can’t say I necessarily found it “enjoyable” (similar to my feelings after having watched “Foxcatcher”). I found myself marveling more in its technical achievements than I think I did most anything else. The film is exquisitely shot with much credit due to its cinematographer Mikhail Krichman, who has worked on every single Zvyaginstev film to date and captures some amazing back drops and portraits of rich symbolism. The acting felt real and authentic, despite many of the characters not feeling all that particularly likeable (to say Zvyaginstev has a pessimistic world view would be the understatement of the year). All of the characters are flawed in some shape or form. Alcoholism being an ongoing motif within the film with almost every character trying to hide their pain and sadness behind a vodka bottle. The story and narrative arch was also engaging and well crafted. With fully developed written characters and believable situations in which they find themselves in. My very few minor complaints of the film is that like the aforementioned “Foxcatcher”, it felt like a bit of an endurance test at a somewhat tedious 2 hour and 20 minute runtime. I thought some of it could have been trimmed down slightly and it would have still have had the same desired effect. Also, despite the very strong performances from each of its actors, I found the material to be a bit too cold and I had some degree of difficulty getting emotionally involved with any of its characters. The sole exception for that of maybe the central character Kolya, who you almost have to sympathize with as his world gets turned upside down and his situation is so tragic that as a human being you only can have empathy for him. But even despite those few criticisms of the piece, this was yet another lofty, rather ambitious, and fine example of the types of social dramas that seem to be coming out of this part of the world right now. Zvyaginstev gives us yet another rich story of people on the verge of desperation. I have a feeling this is going to be too bleak and too depressing for most, but it contains a deeply rich, personal, and moving story, that I for one am really glad I saw and will continue to see any Zvyaginstev film that he does from this point forward for the rest of his career. My only hope is that next time he will present us with something that is a little more hopeful and not as engulfed in sadness and tragedy.

[B]