Donbass @ The Filmhouse

Video right:
Sergei Loznitsa

Directed by Sergei Loznitsa

Produced with Germany France Ukraine Netherlands Romania/

Run time: 110 mins

Thriving amidst the shattered chaos of Eastern Ukraine and Russia, Ukrainian director Sergei Loznitsa’snewest cinematic release continues his obsession into the social breakdown of the violent suppression. Shot as a documentary styled black-comedy, Donbass was selected open the Un Certain Regard of the 2018 Cannes film festival.

The region of Donbass exists in two states of thinking regarding the Russian supported Donetsk People’s Republic. A struggle exists in the complex reverence for the aggressive saviour from fascism during the Second World War, yet at the same time, there is a worry of pro-Russian separatists. Particularly for an audience unfamiliar with the political climate of Eastern Ukraine, Loznitsa manages to compose enough detail while maintaining audience interest in an ongoing, if underreported conflict.

Despite misconceptions as a semi-documentary, Donbass is not entirely set around political commentary. Marketed as a black comedy it leans heavier into the grim than that of levity. Comedy is found more in surrealness in how lies are truth and hatred is everyday life. It is a mesmerizing piece not only on politics or war but on the children of these two; propaganda and post-truth environment. War is a utility for violence but also an excuse for the blanket abuse of the working class. Echoing a post-truth age, we have zero effort in envisioning all but one scene as taken directly from headlines. Depending on the scenario we move from handheld to documentary filmmaking. Oleg Mutu’s cinematography is crafted, not as propaganda, but similar in techniques to highlight the issue and make it digestible for the audience.

Truth is a scarce resource. A notion Loznitsa strikes home in the opening shot, a deliberately assembled handheld shaky cam. We follow the actors through a single shot scene until reaching the news team. Donbass starts not with a crash of violence but with a make-up trailer. Actors preparing for an unknown shoot.  The arrival of armed enforcements confirms the nature of these performers. Hurried to the scene of a bombing, the now grieving neighbours perpetuate the essence of ‘fake news’ as they sell their paid story.

Of the many themes shared across the film, the primary is that of us/them. This leads to the most gut-churning realisation in how accessible the film is. How clear we find it to understand the rot of a nation. A particularly uncomfortable scene is exquisitely performed as a young man attempts to reclaim his stolen car, only for his cries for help to be met with strongarm manipulation to ‘donate’ his vehicle for ‘us,’ failure to do so a sign of his siding with ‘them.’

Loznitsa continues his trait from A Gentle Creature of capturing the microscopic details of anguish in a person’s face, though this ability is lost in one sequence. In a film in which war is a central catalyst, the loudness can overblow the pathos – losing out on quieter moments to allow significance to settle.  Mutu’s cinematography allows perfectly acceptable shots to uncomfortably linger. Nowhere is this more evident than with the exertion of effort to maintain interest during a wedding. It’s the weakest portion of the film, realism stretched outside the confines of belief, something which despite the sensationalism of the movie so far hasn’t been broken.

Shot in an engrossing manner, Donbass is formed with a scatter effect of hard-hitting sequences. Of the various vignettes, only a couple fail to hit their mark. Loznitsa’s depictions of shame beatings, bomb shelters and assassinations stand as dark reminders against exaggerated comedic reality. Uniting the two concepts well, Donbass finds itself as a deeply engrossing film, where fury and despair sit alongside absurdist humour.

Review originally posted for Wee Review:

Dumbo (2019)

Trailer Rights:
The Walt Disney Company

Directed by Tim Burton

Screenplay by Ehren Kruger

Based on the book by Helen Aberson and Harold Pearly

As the ol’ Disney fan favourite Casey Junior trundles across Greater America, so too does the endless train of Live-Action Disney remakes grind to a halt with Dumbo. The original 1941 animated piece saved the Walt Disney company following weak sales from Fantasia. It was short, simplistic but a prime example of exquisite storytelling and poignant tugs at the heartstrings. This remake succeeds with visual splendour but loses out on much of the desperately needed heart.

In the betwixt and between is Ehren Kruger’s (of Transformers fame…) screen adaptation which takes the simplistic appeal of Dumbo and instead fuels it with overcomplications and hollow visuals. Tim Burton stated he considers Dumbo to be ‘a simple story’, which it is. It sits alongside Disney’s Alice in Wonderland (1951) as an adventure where the character encounters rather than creates the traditional Barthes’ linear narrative. In the original, Dumbo has no real adversary, no goal and is instead driven by other characters prompts. Kruger’s injection of drama to stretch out a narrative which seems to cross a multitude of other films.

Still subject to the travelling Circus, Jumbo Jnr is subject to the bullying, frustrations and removal from his mother after being branded the freakish ‘Dumbo’. From here the plot dives headfirst into the Disneyland reject pile as he is made the new star of V.A. Vandevere’s Dreamland.

In truth, no performance is outstanding and even the most accomplished performers are on auto-pilot. Though, as always Danny DeVito manages to garner laughs by exuding his presence. An almost twisted take on Walt himself, Micheal Keaton’s Vandevere is a man whose emphasis on imagination is enjoyable but perplexing. It’s a drastic headscratcher for a Disney production to place an imaginer in the helm of an antagonist.

We’re unsure who the primary focus should be with. Naturally, we would assume Dumbo but the film angles us towards children Milly and Joe Farrier (Nico Parker and Finley Hobbins). By the introduction of Dumbo, we seem to have our protagonist, until a romance is shoe-horned in. Their father Holt returns from the first world war – his left arm lost in an undiscussed event.  Focus shifts to Holt and the acrobat Colette Marchmont (Eva Green). The direction is all over the place, snapping our necks in an attempt to identify where we should cast attention.

Burton’s trademark stamp is rampant throughout the film, not only visually but in its construction. Containing the deep richness of his colour palette, this is evident in the costume design. Even more so is the lighting aesthetic Burton utilises, sharp strikes of bold yellow light against darker – neutral tones. Then, of course, there are the eyes. His signature cinematography lends itself to Dumbo’s large, empathetic eyes. There are just a few too many shots which relies on this too much, diluting the effect quite quickly.

Sadly, this makes Dumbo more of a Buton piece than a Disney one. Whilst there is nothign wrong with a Burtonesque incarnation, far from it, the intention pushes it into the hands of one creator over another.

As for Jumbo Jnr himself, the visual effects team have endeavoured to maintain the engaging demeanour of the large-ear elephant. They succeed, the CGI model is adorable in some close-up shots, but from a distance has no weight. When a near 80-year-old 2D model connects greater with the audience than your modern-day creation, there is an issue. Nowhere is this more evident than what should be the pathos-driven separation of Dumbo and his mother. There is little pain, rushed and allowing for no sense of urgency as the ‘mad elephant’ is whisked away. Instead of focusing on the sorrow of Dumbo, we are pushed into following the Farrier children’s plans.

There are though, short flights of fancy which, with expansion would have lifted Dumbo. The second half, for as far as the plot may reach contains pathos, humour and snippets of tension. It only extends so far, but there are intakes of breath at Dumbo’s first flight. With a climax that is much grander than expected, here pacing is also drastically improved, though the editing is sloppy on occasion with poor cuts and failed continuity. The particular highlight as is Burton’s take on the infamous Pink Elephants. Dumbo is no longer intoxicated for the encounter, but his gentle fascination with the bubbles galloping along to Danny Elfman’s take on the original score by Frank Churchill and Oliver Wallace is delightful.

If only the first two-thirds had an ounce of heart that the closing had, perhaps Dumbo would sit in the upper tier of the Disney remakes. Comparisons to the original are inevitable, and whilst Tim Burton’s signature auteur style is abundant across the piece, it lacks the warmth, ingenuity or creativity from the 1941 masterpiece. It certainly isn’t the weakest of the dredged up fantasy epics from Disney, but far from the pinnacle – so wake me up when we have A Whole New World to revisit with Aladdin.