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403 reviews in total 
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Clear bill!, 30 January 2015

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

"Clear Skies" is quite a remarkable film; it deals with a lot of uncomfortable realities of the era preceding it in a surprisingly and admirably frank way, while at the same time managing to fit within the state guidelines for expression of its era -- which were relaxed relative to Stalin's but still restrictive enough to force the filmmakers to be creative in obeying them. This makes for an affecting film in more ways that one.

On the side of things, perhaps, on the socialist-realist front, our protagonists are a heroic pilot and a hardworking factory girl. Their early love affair is cute, but direct out of the most choreographed movie-land romances. But when he doesn't come back from Germany, we see, in rather stark contrast, a lot of the hardships that people their place and time faced -- the lines in the cold for bread, the shared and unfurnished living quarters, the crowds standing on train platforms making themselves up and then squinting for the briefest glimpse of their loved ones. And it's all the more believably real since it's in a film that was released to the people who had experienced it not that many years before.

Amid it all, there are some very creative and artistic shots, especially showing Sasha's dreams and distressed psychological state, which are worth appreciating on their own.

When our hero returns, things move from the difficult to the near political -- suspicion falls on him not just from the government, who keeps calling him back, but from his fellow citizens, who don't believe what he did. He can't get a job or join the Communist Party. And we can't help but know these things contribute to his falling into misery and excessive drink. All this is done sensitively and tastefully -- and the point is still made.

Interestingly, as far as I could detect, Stalin is mentioned once and seen once in this film. We see his larger-than-life statue only as Aleksei is being denied party membership out of paranoia that he might have been a traitor. We hear his name only when it is announced that he has died and, with quite literal images of sheets of ice breaking, things begin to thaw.

The ending, with Aleksei getting a surprise medal and returning to flying, is fast and trite on the surface -- but it comes after a long and pointed sequence of Sasha waiting hours for him outside the government office and clearly worried that he might have been sent to prison.

A very daring and touching piece for approaching a political subject in the time it did and with the frankness it did, and a bit more uneven but no less interesting for the mitigating elements it had to include.

Leviathan (2014)
2 out of 10 people found the following review useful:
Found not guilty, 23 January 2015

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

The term "Kafka-esque" gets thrown around a lot, often in situations where is doesn't really apply. In the case of The Leviathan, though, which constantly reminded me of a version of The Trial set on a modern-day farm, I think it's a fair word to use. And like, The Trila, it's a bleak and not necessarily illuminating but very worthwhile experience. One man just wants to keep owning his farm, and can't escape the conspiracy of circumstances that slowly constrict to take it away and destroy his life more and more completely. And to the director's credit, an appropriate sense of complete claustrophobia builds on contract to the gorgeous, wide- open outdoor photography.

I have to say, I liked this far better than the director's previous film Elena. While this is also slow, the pacing is miles better; the impressive length gives it time to build, and events never stop, but instead brood and menace over the characters. It has political subject matter and a strong position, but it never stops being a human piece, and from that it carries its emotional weight. It's strongly anti-corruption and anti-clerical -- and the title's reference to Hobbes is the real key to its being anti-state on the whole.

The storytelling is also commendable, avoiding exposition and holding interest at just the right tension point the whole time. Acting is excellent. Artistically successful, hard to forget, and deserving of the notice it's getting, in my view.

Can you recapture fate?, 21 January 2015

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

The sequel to The Irony of Fate was clearly made with the knowledge that it had very big shoes to fill, as the declared continuation (with a returning original cast) of what by the time the sequel was made was a well-established and beloved cultural icon. It's full of reverent references to its antecedent, but these reminders don't serve it well, because overall it doesn't compare favorably.

The story of The Irony of Fate was elegant in its simple confusion. The sequel has to bend over backwards to recreate an echo of that situation, while at the same time including one one but two generations of versions of the central characters. It just about comes together, but it doesn't have the appealing spontaneity and tidiness of the original. Whereas Zhenya was likable because he was hapless and placed in his baffling situation, the scenario here necessitates that his son go into things scheming, and participating in a scheme. The man he cuckolds has a decent point when he complains about his trickery -- and that makes him a much less appealing hero to watch.

The original film was in two parts and much of the action remained in one apartment. It was a neat trick, but it never became boring for that, and felt like a kind of thrilling, entertaining marathon. The new movie is hampered by the standard running time which makes this impossible. There are some nicely-realized directorial touches in the camera-work and the special effects, but the context just makes them stand out, and seem out of place.

There are some legitimately funny situations, and a few moments that hearken back to The Irony of Fate very nicely and touchingly, but overall it doesn't capture the intangible appeal of the film it's constructed around. And that makes it, in context, easy to see why many disappointed, even though objectively it's a decent enough sweet New Year's piece. It just doesn't add anything original or superior to the piece that is its reason for being.

Elena (2011)
2 out of 5 people found the following review useful:
Glass, not shattering, 18 January 2015

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

I came to this film simply because I am learning Russian and love the music of Philip Glass, knowing nothing more about it. As it happened, the Philip Glass music consisted of a few sparse selections from his Symphony No. 3, and the Russian dialog was sparse and usually hyper-naturalistically mumbled. Of course, neither of these facts are indictments.

The most striking thing about "Elena" to me is how much it revels in its own stillness and slowness. One can tell that the filmmakers very self-consciously decided to spend as much time as they do on long, quiet sequences of characters walking down the road, waking up, using various pieces of gym equipment, et cetera. This does make in interesting contrast with the murder at the center of what is really a very dark story. And in certain sequences (notably the gym) it provides a measure of suspense.

But ultimately I think this pacing decision works against the film. There's not enough evidently going on while the camera lingers to make the events on screen seem worth our attention most of the time. The film could have made an interesting investigation of the philosophical question of whether Elena's murder of Vladimir was justifiable. With one lingering shot of a baby and the hospital conversation between Vladimir and his daughter, it touched on an issue it could have explored more in the question of when human reproduction itself is justifiable. But it is so dedicated, it seems, to a stylistic vision and to presenting only events and nothing that suggests analysis, that much of the potential interest it had drains away.

3 out of 3 people found the following review useful:
Golden, 12 January 2015

The version I watched not long ago of Ilf and Petrov's previous novel of Ostap Bender, "The Twelve Chairs" distinguished itself by unashamedly combining a 1920s setting with a 1970s look and feel. This film goes a very different route with no less success and goes all out for a reconstruction of the film style of the 1920s, complete with authentic-looking title cards to set the scenes. Combined with its sound (and excellent 1920s music) and accommodating running time, it makes for an unusual, pleasant and suitable feel.

This film's greatest advantage is that it is completely in the spirit of Ilf and Petrov's hilarious, adventurous, subversive, and even somewhat humanizing novel. The book builds its effect on may small incidents, and it would have seemed a challenge to choose which to include even in a two-part film adaptation, but this one makes these choices seem perfectly natural.

The biggest asset of them all is Sergey Yurskiy, who for me now embodies the hero Ostap Bender. He's a con man you can feel for (He just wants to go to Rio De Jinero!), and his wry, knowing looks and addresses at the camera are, funny, effective at building sympathy, and at the same time as they are a tribute to the time of such artists as Oliver Hardy and Charley Chase, they also add a postmodern touch.

If this adaptation is not as much fun as is source material, it is only for taking less time to finish!

1 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
The hearing is concluded, 18 December 2014

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Ilf and Petrov's original novel of "The Twelve Chairs" was a fantastically lighthearted, satirical, and witty piece of work that managed to pack a huge amount of comic and observant material densely into one novel that still flies by when read. Any film adaptation could only hope to capture the delightfully larcenous tone, and give a tour of some of the more enjoyable moments of picaresque plot.

This film succeeds at that, and goes beyond it. An adaptation of a famously iconoclastic novel manages to honor the authors while being appropriately innovative itself -- where new sequences are added, they are funny and they fit. The title card announcing how long till the end of the film is formally experimental and funny. The slapstick sequences do everything they should. The cartoon of Bender's chess dream is delightfully wacky (and oddly prescient of the construction of an actual "Chess City" by an eccentric president in one of Russia's federal subjects 27 years later).

The two stars quickly and lastingly convince as the Great Combiner and his mark -- a pair of heroes we can root as strongly for as we can again. Everything has a brisk, breezy, exhilarating pace. A worthy screen version of the brilliant comic novel.

3 out of 3 people found the following review useful:
Don't cancel it!, 3 December 2014

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

I've seen a bunch of the later films of Eldar Ryazanov, and they are often excellent, moving, bittersweet, subtle comedies that manage at the same time to be some measure of social satire as well. This, his first feature, can't quite be that -- it's quite short and bears the responsibility of being a holiday revue as well. Most of the second half actually follows what happens on stage at the New Year show that characters are preparing.

So instead of trying to compact more plot in that would comfortably fit, we center on one humorously over-the-top character -- a new boss who has arrived two days before the spectacle and insists on ordering absurdly inartistic changes to every element of it. This gives us the opportunity to see what is in essence a series of very good gags orchestrated around the efforts to work around him, and the couple of sketched-in love stories that are going on.

The new boss complains several times that the employees are undermining his authority in the name of their fun -- and he's right about that. It's naturally cathartic and funny to watch the defeat of someone so serious and humorless. Ogurtsov acts as an exaggerated-for-effect of the official line. As we delight in watching him humiliated, the Soviet New Yoear is placed in the old stabilizing holiday role as the one time in the year when things may be reasonably topsy-turvy -- and the role of New Year's as the main, secular, state-sponsored holiday is bolstered.

The revue aspects are well-realized in music and choreography, and remind one of similarly spotless musical numbers in big Hollywood films of the forties and fifties. Everything is done with a very enjoyable verve and panache, and Ryazanov demonstrates a great sense of timing with comedy and and ability to tell a lot with a little in the romantic subplots that would serve him well in securing him the breadth to make his later films.

Stalker (1979)
Stalk it, 28 November 2014

In Arkadiy and Boris Strugatsky's excellent novel "Roadside Picnic," which was the inspiration for this film, the perilous "Zone" where valuable but incomprehensible alien artifacts can be found becomes in affect a character all its own through the obsessive, ominous, and draining effect it has from afar on characters' lives.

In this film, the Zone is again a character all its own -- but not from afar. It is constantly, oppressively present, and its effect is such that it seems just as frightful and mesmerizing despite the fact that in the film we are never told exactly why it is dangerous and why it is attractive. For the film media, the the Strugatsky brothers essentially created an entirely new work sharing a couple of key concepts with their novel. It's as much as anything a more formless and still very philosophical meditation on themes of their previous work, and one that (perhaps with the influence of its celebrated director) is acutely aware of the different needs that the film medium has as opposed to prose fiction.

There are many people far more qualified than me to speak about just why Andrei Tarkovky's direction and camera work are as effective as they are. But they make this one of the most atmospheric films I havec ever seen. He has a very artful of making our views of things seems artless -- letting his camera remain still and wide for long periods of time so we can't escape the desolation of the landscape or cramped quality of the quarters. Characters move and interact within small spaces on screen, which makes for somehow more intense interaction.

"Intense" intense is also the word to describe the acting, which rises to highs of drama, that, in contrast to the stillness of their surroundings, only highlight the desperation of the situation. The orchestration of this drama against stretches of stillness and silence is really a masterful handling of suspense. And it allows the moving and thoughtful philosophical discussions that its characters have to be charged with tension the whole while.

"Stalker" manages to be that rare combination -- a deeply thoughtful mood piece. And it's done with high artistry in every aspect.

2 out of 3 people found the following review useful:
Miles ahead, 20 November 2014

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

I've read about "The Mile of Fire" as an incipient Soviet version of the United States' Western, heavily under its influence. This influence can be easily noted, but I think there are a few important differences that heavily bear on it. This is a film about the Russian Civil War, which took place only thirty-something years before the making of the film. It was well within the living memory of many of its audience members (and to someone known to all of its audience members), and it took place right at home. This gives it a historical relationship to its audience very different than the one that the much more distant US wild west shared with US audiences in the 1950s.

I think this tends to make the depiction here somehow more full- blooded and (though the film is unsurprisingly wholeheartedly behind the Reds) subtle than that of the US Westerns that were brought to bear. We have horses, a trip in a coach, and a climactic gunfight. But that gunfight is punctuated with the death of a beloved character who is left behind after passing out from fear; our heroine speculates that the whole landscape will soon be desolate if the war continues -- the fighting here is clearly not something purely to be glorified. And while we follow heroes, we don't always know who the heroes are, and until the last frames they are not presented with cartoon-like glory.

The film is very skillfully made; the direction keeps things in constant motion and builds genuine excitement punctuated with good thoughtful and humorous moments. Characters are built very strongly and with powerful, effective strokes; it's a mark of good characterization that we feel we know these people after a few illustrative moments with them. And the Romantic-influenced piano and orchestral soundtrack is fantastic.

Doesn't need to walk the plank, 19 November 2014

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

This film was very successful when it came out, for reasons that also make it difficult to evaluate in a vacuum today. In 1979 action'adventure films with Kung Fu were something new in Soviet cinema, and this example caused a sensation. There's even a sense that the filmmakers new this is all they had to do -- the movie has manifestly no designs on a complicated plot or characters, or on anything other than being a straightforward, fast-moving crime film.

It almost seems to be shooting at being a plain, unadorned, platonic example of a genre film, which makes it suit nicely the needs of an introduction to Soviet action thrillers, but ensures it doesn't seem like anything special in comparison with similar films of other countries and/or future years.

While it presents something new in the realm of contextualized genre for its viewers, it relies on some very old tropes and some rather imperialistic views of island life, and generically-drug-related international criminals. It's also surprisingly open in its violence, with people shown being shot, burned, and tortured quite unflinchingly. This against a rather idyllic-looking spotless blue sea.

On it's own, this movie doesn't seem like much apart from easily- digested but insubstantial light action such as may have been produced anywhere, but the fact of its release and success in context give it some historical interest as well.

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