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Classics of Soviet utopism
"Traktoristy" (Tractor-drivers) is a strange movie from classic Soviet director Ivan Pyriev. On one hand, it is a pure stalinist propaganda of the workers class, and like hundreds of other period movie of that time (the movie was set in 1939), and it sure did mean to prepare people for the upcoming war and raise the fighting spirit of the nation. On the other hand, if one can abstract from the propagandistic nature of the film, it is possible to see the powerful cinematographic side of it. Over-the-edge performances, fast soc-realistic camera work, sincere pathos of the heroes - it has everything for which Eisenstein's films are famous. And it isn't a coincidence, as Pyriev started his career under the wing of the maître. Interestingly, the movie was re-edited during the Khruschev's dethronement of Stalin's cult as it appeared to be too pro-stalinist (which is absolute truth). Only recently there has been re-edition of the original in Russia. Seeing the film, we see the expression of Soviet mythology. In this sense it is a really scary film, because nothing is real. It can be somehow compared to the images of war heroes and usual people painted on ancient vases - it's an idealized image of life. This movie's antonym in cinema history is Waida's "Man of marble", which helps to understand the rise and fall of communist mythology in retrospective. Probably having more interest for cinematography students than for average viewers, Ivan Pyriev's "Traktoristy" still remains forgotten classic of soc-realism.
Moy drug Ivan Lapshin (1985)
Probably one of the best Russian films ever made
Recently top 50 national critics (in Russian edition of Empire magazine) have named the top 100 best films in Russia/USSR history. Not many cinephils have argued about the 1st place, with Alexei German's "My Friend Ivan Lapshin" taking the top spot. Another two of his films also took their place in the rating ("Check-up on the Roads" - arguably the best Russian film about WWII, and "Khrustalyov, My Car!"). Shamefully not so famous outside Russia, Alexei German is certainly one of the brightest (and pretty much hated by soviet ideologists) directors in his homeland, sharing pantheon with the likes of Dziga Vertov, Sergey Eisenstein, Marlen Huciev, Iosif Kheifits, Andrey Tarkovsky and many more wonderful names.
"My friend Ivan Lapshin" is not an easy film to watch. It's dark atmosphere of early Stalin years, one might call it soviet film noir. But in contrast to classical American noirs, "Lapshin" adds much more realistic tones; shot in black and white with hand cameras it sometimes looks like half-documentary, making it closer to french Nouvelle Vogue. Still, New Wave directors had so many poetry in their works, you can hardly find some in German's movies. German shows life as it is, without any adorns. In this sense, maybe Italian neorealism is the closest cinematographic example you can find when looking for comparisons. But still you can't find any exact compares because German creates cinematic structures out of time and any particular school. He doesn't follow any genres' principles and cinematic rules.
"Lapshin" concentrates on a very short period of life of police detective Ivan Lapshin. Plot story takes place in a small Russian provincial town, in the middle of the 1930ies, the beginning of the horrible era of Stalin's political repressions. The story is told by an adult man who was a boy at that time and who remembers Ivan Lapshin in the light of childhood's memories. You won't find any particular political message here, although film has been banned right after the end of shooting and German received many official warnings. It is very hard to distinguish the true meaning of the movie, because every single motive, every idea is hiding in communication between characters. Police investigation is just an external part of the script which softly covers existentialistic relations. Deep emotions are hiding in outwardly bleak and unfriendly world that we see on the screen. These people are just living their usual lives and are very mixed up. They seem to be lost in time and space, and simply don't understand that they are part of emotionless system that eats their souls, system that corrupts people's being - and camera catches this atmosphere without excess words, just like child's memories sometimes can't be described with them. But even so it can't destroy the very essence of a man. People are brave, and not because they act bravely, but because they are protecting human relations, don't let them roll into madness, which is hiding in every corner. It's a strange and beautiful film. Every single actor (even Andrey Mironov who was already on pick of his fame at the moment) played his career's best role.
Just like "Berlin Alexanderplatz" helps to understand the existentialistic being of post-war Germans, "Lapshin" helps to understand the core of the strange Russian soul that suffered so much during the age of horror, of the people who got so many psychological traumas, but who fought for their right to live a normal life.
No Country for Old Men (2007)
Finally, a Coens film beloved by everyone... but is it good? and does it worth it?
First, I must say that I absolutely love Coens' films (those real Coens), but I can't not to admit that No Country for Old Men is very far from their standart of movie-making. It's a good film, well cast, well made, well filmed, actors play good (and Bardem plays very good) but there is something that doesn't make it those Coens I'm used to (or have been used to even). See, once you start making movies for big audience, for big money you will never stop... even if you try. And it doesn't look to me if Coens tried. Their entry to mainstream was painful, Intolerable Cruelty and then Ladykillers were really very disappointing. But at that time Coens already had a reputation of top class filmmakers (who they are in fact!). So that's why came this project - amazing PR campaign, only lazy critic (especially American one, especially in those big shiny movie magazines or some central newspapers) didn't call it an Oscar contender in best picture (means it finally fits all Academy's standarts). Film doesn't have philosophy - it has one simple idea which is chewed by every mind, by every critic (and wannabe critics, who represent much bigger army in today's world of information). And, furthermore, it doesn't have the style. It has a great picture, which is a very different thing. It's absolutely beloved by so many people because finally Coens have a film that suits everyone. It suits critics, it suits Academy, it suits producers and it suits masses who now discuss the genius of Coens and run on IMDb to cast their "10" vote to make it 23d best picture ever made. I feel sad that Coens went the same way that Scorsese.
Kelly's Heroes (1970)
Intended to be a satire, ended like propaganda
It's really pretty scary film. It is about few brave American soldiers, who represent all possible mainstream macho and caper gangsters clichés, but at the same time all are absolutely positive. And the film is positive, too. I don't know, maybe it is true that Eastwood and Hutton weren't let to make the film they wanted, maybe some parts didn't survive under producers (read - censors) heavy scissors, but is very wrong that Kelly's Heroes is seen like a positive movie in the end. Released the same year with Catch-22 and MASH, it looks like a real propaganda. People are living American way of life (cinematic one at least), they don't care whom do they have war with, but at the same time we see people around celebrating. It's a real holiday of happy life, Americans came! And Americans are happy, too, and even this survived nazi is happy. Indeed, who cares about the war, when you have the money. And how about that phrase Big Joe says to German about the stupid war, and that he doesn't know whom and what for are they fighting... says after Kelly's Heroes have killed around 50 Germans themselves. In the end it is a light western mixed with some war action. Doesn't even smell as a satire. And it's not about war for God's sake. I don't know how can this film be named as one of the greatest war movies.
How else to call it if not masterpiece?
I've been thinking about what should be the name of my review's summary but I'm not going to invent bicycle here, because "Matserpiece" is still the most appropriate word to describe Terry Gilliam's "Brazil". Many times in my life I have encountered people who've never been able to understand this film. Actually I almost never argued because it's certainly different kind of movie-making. Different view. And it's not for everyone. I recently purchased the collector's DVD box and was stunned once again by the level of Gilliam's visual aesthetics. I've had pleasure seeing only one of his films in cinema - "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" - and it's a big pity because "Brazil" is certainly worth it, too. But behind the perfect visual picture there's much more. And this is something that can't be seen by those people who don't understand the film, because they aren't able to correlate the exterior look and it's inner contents. Often compared to other geniuses of surrealism like Luis Bunuel, Marco Ferreri, David Lynch and even Federico Fellini, Gilliam continues tradition of brilliant and stunning imagery while also attempting to express the workings of the subconscious. But Gilliam's touch adds new lines to the cinema of sur, extending it with amazing Python-style sense of humour. Actually surrealism, in my opinion, is impossible without the thin humour and it maybe makes Gilliam the last great cinema surrealists of the XXth century. Before purchasing DVD, last time I've seen Brazil was about 5 years ago and thought that I've remembered it very clear. But when I rewatched it, it's been quite different experience. There's something in this film that makes possible reviewing it multiple times and find new details and plot treats. In general, it's a unique dystopian avant-garde that can't be compared to anything else. Unitary sample as they say.
The 'Burbs (1989)
Wonderful 1980ies comedy
I've seen this film several times at different age and I still think it's one of the most hilarious black comedies. Tom Hanks in his comedy period combined with Joe Dante's ability for spectacle movie-making brings great results. Hanks is Ray Peterson who just got few weeks of vacation and instead of leaving his small town, decides to stay at home for timeless relaxation. But his plans are interrupted as strange things start to happen in his neighborhood. The Burbs can be described as suspenseful sitcom, as some thrilling episodes go together with sudden laughs. The overall atmosphere is stylish as it manages to mix the atmosphere of an average American small town with Gothic spooks into one big hilarious shake. Pity they don't make such comedies these days anymore.
Gorky Park (1983)
Solid peace of Cold War film
Screening adaptation of Martin Cruz Smith same name novel is a good example of the 80s Cold War mystery thriller. A film that caused a lot of talks in it's time as it was strictly banned by Soviets (as all of those films actually). Certainly the filming crew never got permission to shoot Gorky Park in Moscow as relations between two countries were on the last peak of confrontation. It has views of real-time Russian capital of course but the main material has been shot in Helskinki. It doesn't spoil the mood of the 80ies Moscow though, because with the help of good montage it succeeds to regain needed atmosphere. First time I had the chance to see it in the 90ies already and wasn't disappointed. What this film really lacks to stand in a line of great spy films is it's not first-grade direction. William Hurt is great as always and the story itself is very much intriguing. It's not a simple spy-movie, it also tries to unfold the nerve of it's time by showing the inner world of characters divided by the Wall. Supporting cast, including Brian Dennehy, Lee Marvin, Joanna Pacula is also very good. In general, despite some directorial flaws, Gorky Park is not silly at all, and including few smart plot twists, it represents the best features of the genre.
Angel Heart (1987)
If to choose things that influenced Parker's masterpiece, there must be "Faust" and noirs of the 40ies-50ies. It's just simple like that but at the same time it isn't. It doesn't mean Parker's picture is a licentious screening of Goethe's tragedy or stylized retro-noir. It is a unique piece of cinema that had never been done before or after. Having received rather controversial reviews buy American critiques, it's been underrated from the very release. It got it's cult meaning only years later, when it has been recomprehended around the world. But even today many people see only movie's external cover not willing to think on it's deep philosophical issues. In my opinion, this this certainly Mickey Rourke's best role and it's a big pity seeing what he did with his career. De Niro makes a very memorable cameo as Mephisto. In fact, the whole casting seems to be just perfect, from cold-eyed Charlotte Rampling to magnifying Lisa Bonet. For those who think that Hollywood of the 80ies was becoming commercialized and too viewer-friendly, Angel Heart is a living evidence that it also gave birth to such transcended pieces of cinema. 10 out of 10.
Le salaire de la peur (1953)
Surreal mix of noir and adventure
Everyone knows that french have invented noir, but they haven't limited it with urbanistic policiers and crime stories. Henri-Georges Clouzot's films are a living proof of this fact. "Salaire de la Peur" is one of his 3 famous masterpieces (other two are "Quai des Orfèvres" and "Les Diaboliques") all of which had an enormous influence on world cinematography. One of Empire's editors Ian Nathan had put "Salair de la Peur" among top 10 greatest actions/adventures of all time. His top 100 list might be controversial, but this is something where I totally agree with him. Clouzot's film became a milestone in many genres, among which are thrillers, actions, adventures and dramas. But even these 4 genres are not enough to describe the depressing and thrilling atmosphere of "Salair de la Peur". If your synonym for adventure is Indiana Jones, then you'll be surprised by the dark philosophy of this film (even though I love Indy myself). Indeed, the best word to describe this movie is noir. Noir at it's best. 10 out of 10.
Altered States (1980)
Ken Russell's inability to find the way out
Russell is an interesting director, in his films he almost always manages to raise philosophical questions and pass them through his cognitive aspirations, mainly linked with labyrinths of human psychology and soul. Some his movies are difficult to understand, but there are some where is no need for even trying. Altered States is one of them and even always-brilliant William Hurt can't save the day. This could've been the anthem for LSD generation... on the other hand, is it really possible to make anthem for such kind of thing? Ken Russell tried it in his own specific way. He obviously wanted to say something. But he loses this something somewhere in the middle of the movie, between the terms of Christianity, darwinism, Indian cults and cosmology. Hard to say whether it is just inability to film such book or Russell couldn't form his own vision but what this movie manages to be is a great illustration of delirious searches for the meaning of life with the help of hard drugs. Scary in a way. And very average from cinematographic point.