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More than a ghost of a chance
15 September 2016
Warning: Spoilers
Considering it's quick, cheap Monogram Pictures pedigree, this film is has a surprising amount to recommend it. Though the lucks of funds allotted to it shows, it uses the limitation to it's advantage, producing a tense, claustrophobic film set almost entirely in one house seemingly cursed by repeated murders.

Bela Lugosi is more genre-cast than type-cast in this film. While it's still a suspense thriller, he is for once given a sympathetic role, he he plays it to the hilt, giving a very sympathetic performance as a man devastated completely after being left by his wife. It's both a strength and a flaw in entertainment terms, though, that the script of this film is utterly strange and bonkers. Lugosi's wife has lost her memory and sanity, and is being fed and hidden away by Kessler's (Lugosi's gardener). She likes to wander around at night in a spectral fashion, whereupon Kessler has a tendency to see her, then go temporarily insane and kill somebody. On this occasion, he kills the crazy ex of his daughter's fiancé Ralph, causing Ralph to take the blame for the murder and be executed. Then Ralph's twin brother shows up from abroad and help investigate the murders.

Yes, it's that odd a plot. Which makes it totally unbelievable, but also loads of fun to watch. I liked that it depended on psychological horror, and that the "Invisible Ghost" of the title was invisible because there wasn't one.

While I'm sure the direction was done under time constraints, there are a number of nice shots, and Joseph H. Lewis conveys a lot of information evocatively and visually in a scenario that requires a lot of information to be transmitted quickly.

All in a all, a good showcase for Lugosi in what's actually rather a tragic and sympathetic role, and some nice creepy film-making around a scenario that's completely ludicrous -- but entertainingly ludicrous!
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The Devil Bat (1940)
Completely batty
9 September 2016
Warning: Spoilers
I just watched The Devil Bat for the first time since I was a child. I remembered Bela Lugosi, the central plot device of murder by means of an aftershave that attracts killer bats, and the fact that everyone in the movie seems to listen to exactly the same radio station at exactly the same time. All those elements are still there, and though the last one only occurs once, it still seems like an amusingly silly way of conveying exposition. But much less prevalent than the cinema cliché of panning, zooming, and spinning newspapers, which appear here constantly. Perhaps that's more appropriate than normal, though, since two of our main characters are reporters.

The Devil Bat has been one of the more enduring of Lugosi's cheap "poverty row" horror/mystery roles, no doubt because it remains highly entertaining and watchable despite, or perhaps because of the fact that everything that happens in in the realm of high silliness with horror trappings. Lugosi is a scientist (which here apparently means both a physician and a perfume chemist) who cashed out early after making a perfume formula for a successful company, and now thinks the company's fortune should be his. So his solution is to murder the family who runs the company in a very convoluted fashion. The concept is, well, batty. And from an acting standpoint, you can't say Lugosi makes this character "believable." Nobody could make someone doing this believable. But is is very entertainingly creepy, which is exactly his job.

Because we know from the start what he is doing, this can't be a traditional mystery. But it's well-paced enough that we still follow the other characters as they inevitably move towards finding the solution we already know. And we don't blame them for not guessing such an unlikely scenario. Reporter Johnny is our hero. He's a little hard to take seriously as he spends most of the film wearing a tie with a huge question-mark pattern on it. Perhaps he is secretly The Doctor.

He gets fired after his photographer "One-Shot" fakes a news photo of the devil bat. But he rather unbelievably wants to keep working on the story despite no longer technically being a reporter since he as no one to report to. When they find out more about the case their boss rather shockingly wants to hire them back, despite the fact that at least one of them provably fabricated his earlier journalism.

But it's all part of the comic relief, which is still fun working alongside the unintentional comic non-relief. And though the film is clearly quite low-budgeted, its hows that more in its flimsy castle set (of course, all doctor-scientist-perfumers live in castles) than in its devil bats.

There's very little objectively "good" about this movie, but it's everything a fun B movie should be.
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The Ape (1940)
Accept no apers
8 September 2016
Warning: Spoilers
This short feature is probably best known as Boris Karloff's only foray into the realm of chap Monogram horror films so often inhabited by Bela Lugosi and George Zucco. That may be technically correct, but it was filmed after he had made a series of Mr Wong films for the same studio, which technically fell into the category of mystery.

Here, disguised by round eyeglasses and a large mustache rather than yellow-face, he gives a very different performance. And though the film was made quickly (I read that it was shot in a week) and cheaply, he puts a lot into the performance. He's a murder who is nonetheless quite a sympathetic figure, trying to film a cure that will allow his handicapped daughter-figure to walk.

The short running time doesn't help in that I wish there had been more time to build character. What exactly is that nature of Dr Adrian's relationship with Frances that he is so dedicated to her case? The film makes the point quite strongly that the townspeople hate him, but doesn't really explain why.

The central premise of extracting (possibly an ape's) spinal fluid to cure human paralysis is delightfully daft. Though I suspect it would have seemed less so in 1940, only fifteen or twenty years after the fad of men using "monkey glands" to cure a loss of virility.

The dialogue is actually quite good at some points, and the writing has a good pedigree. It's an adapted version of a successful play (which I can't evaluate, having never seen a copy) by Kurt Siodmak, a respectable novelist. The end may seem hackneyed to some, but I actually didn't quite guess that it was Adrian in a monkey suit. To me it was just the right level of telegraphed that I felt as though I should have guessed it even though I didn't. And it made much more forgivable the fact that the ape looked like a person in an ape costume.

I like that Frances was finally able to walk and give Adrian a happy death despite the murderous means he used to find the cure. Melodramatic but fitting. The theme overall touches on the fear of science (in the "some things man was not meant to know" vein) that many of these films had, but repudiates by curing polio despite the murders of the scientist.

All in all, a nice little science fiction mystery of the era that manages to be a entertaining and even a bit thoughtful despite its flaws, low budget, and rushed, brief nature.
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Blighted city
2 September 2016
Warning: Spoilers
I wasn't too familiar with the East Side Kids or Bowery Boys going into this cheap, short 1940 feature, and without the context that many other reviews have, it leaves a lot to be desired. The first thing that's wrong is the title, as the "Boys of the City" spend almost the entire film in the country.

The band of broadly-portrayed juvenile delinquents are going to be sent to jail for not very much, but instead accept a deal to spend time at a house in the mountains of upstate New York. Maybe this is a thing that really happened, but it doesn't seem very plausible.

From there it turns into a listless attempt at a spook comedy, the trouble being that there aren't many attempts at comedy. Most of the apparent jokes are broad racial stereotypes of the one black character played for humor. The "joke" being that he is extremely cowardly, and on one occasional that he is delighted to get a slice of watermelon instead of actual dinner. The final "gag" consists of a couple of his friends confusing his hand with a piece of chocolate cake, then shoving the actual cake in his face. Even allowing for different social mores in 1940, this is just mean-spiritedly racist. And even if it weren't be very funny.

There's a large section of the short running time devoted to the "straight" plot, involving a judge who is on the run, afraid he'll be murdered. None of this is very compelling or sensible. The "spooky house" is clearly supposed to be an old mansion, but looks like an undisguised studio set house.

So in all, not much to recommend this modest comedy. There are few gags, and most of the ones that are there are undisguised racism. The mystery plot is dull. The chills aren't very chilling. If it weren't for the vigorous stereotyping, it would be almost pleasant viewing, but without inspiring any real laughs, scares, or attention.
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The Twilight Zone: Nightmare as a Child (1960)
Season 1, Episode 29
No nightmare
26 August 2016
Warning: Spoilers
I watched this episode in Binghamton, New York, sure that the name of the main character, Helen Foley, was familiar. Turns out it's from the Helen Foley Theater at Binghamton High School, where I performed (not as a student) in a staged reading of Rod Serling's play "Patterns," and which was named after a teacher that Serling had at the school. No significance to any of this, other than it gave me a creepy experience while watching that was somewhat similar to the one Helen Foley has in the episode.

This is a very effective and chilling piece of psychological drama, which starts off as very creepy then moves into being very heavy viewing. Great use is made of the few characters in a claustrophobic atmosphere, and a great deal of the eeriness has to be attributed to Terry Burnham, who is unexpectedly and intangibly good as the precocious, serious, superior, spooky Markie.

I guessed ahead of time that Markie was a younger Helen, and that she was all in her head (explained somewhat sententiously by a doctor who appears only to deliver that exposition), but not that Selden was the murderer of her mother. That's an effective twist that adds a lot of drama quickly. And the resolution is effective and satisfying, even if it does leave one wondering a bit why there is no suggestion of charging Hlen with throwing Selden down the stairs.

All in all, a very creepy, memorable psycho-drama that manages to feel supernaturally spooky while keeping all such elements in the main character's head -- and being the more effective for it.
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The Twilight Zone: A Nice Place to Visit (1960)
Season 1, Episode 28
Hell is other people
25 August 2016
Warning: Spoilers
Certainly this is a very well-made episode, with Larry Blyden and Sebastian Cabot both putting in excellent performances, given some clever dialogue, and briefly placed a very impressive-looking "Hall of Records" set.

What lets it down in that it's very heavy-handed with it's message and telegraphs it's twist a mile off. Through the first half it seems to try to make a surprise of the fact that after Valentine has been shot and approached by a mystical man all in white, he is in fact dead. The message, essentially that "heaven isn't getting everything you want," is true, but also such a truism that it was already an old chestnut by the time this episode was filmed. Guessing the final revelation than Valentine is not in Heaven but in "the other place" is not difficult, so when the program gets to confirming it, there's little punch.

There are a couple of sexually suggestive moments, but their impact feels muted in the context of such a moralistic play. On the plus side, there are some somewhat funny lines and concepts illustrating the invulnerability of getting everything you desire, and the pacing, while it doesn't help alleviate the predictability of the proceedings, does keep them moving entertainingly enough.
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Suspense: The Yellow Scarf (1949)
Season 1, Episode 13
Yellow light
25 August 2016
Warning: Spoilers
By 1949, Boris Karloff had had a lot of practice at projecting vague, creepy, menace -- and that's essentially what he's called on to do here. In fact, the whole episode is basically an excuse for him to do that without much reason given.

The half-hour running time of the radio series of "Suspense" worked well, but when the logistics of very early television have to be worked in as well, "The Yellow Scarf" suffers for time to explain why characters are doing what they're doing (though the only noticeable technical problem is one big camera jostle).

There's some suggestion Karloff's character is a science-fictional mad scientist type, but in the end it seems he's just an unpleasant, controlling fellow who happens to live with a hunchback servant and have a laboratory for "clients" right off a poor London street.

There's clumsy suggestion of sexual abuse -- I think -- as he offers Hettie a money and a room as long as she doesn't go out alone, planning to marry her if that plot doesn't work. After a fade-out they are unhappily married with no suggestion of how he got her to agree.

One thinks the suspense will be around explaining this situation and the mystery of the laboratory, but that's left unexplained. So when Hettie takes revenge by poisoning Bronson using the same chemical-infused scarf that he over-elaborately used to kill Tom, one wonders why she hadn't escaped the situation long before. Felicia Montealegre and Douglass Watson, unfortunately, are only alright and give performances that veer into overwrought too often.
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Not dearly beloved but moderately liked
6 November 2015
Warning: Spoilers
As a fan of Sherlock Holmes and his widely varied screen versions, and as a learner of Russian who greatly enjoyed the straight Soviet adaptations of the Holmes stories that starred Vasily Livanov in the 1970s and 1980s, I was quite looking forward to watching this comedy once I found it. The conceit is that Sherlock Holmes is, as in reality, a fictional creation of Arthur Conan Doyle, but that the place where his office would be is maintained by the brilliant detective Shirley Holmes, who both solves crimes and maintains a museum for people who think Sherlock Holmes is real -- accompanied by a phonograph playing music from the Livanov series which had not long ended. She is accompanied, as might be expected, by a woman Watson, and must fight off the affections of both a Scotland Yard inspector an a parody Latin lover from Spain.

It's a fun joke. And the whole film, in fact, is full of fun jokes. We get dancing Scotland Yard policemen singing songs that essentially mock their own incongruity, and chief inspectors setting up offices in dank basements to hide out. The humor is often absurdist, but delivered with a straight face; it's almost reminiscent of Monty Python-style comedy, delivered with a deadpan quality that seems to suit its Victorian English setting. My favorite sequence came when the members of a gentlemen's club were told they would have to go through a "humiliating verification" to see which of them were really will -- which turned out to be a man asking each of them very seriously if they were gentlemen. There's some sexist humor present too, but that almost goes without saying, given the premise.

There's also an attempt to fit in a murder mystery, thought, and to make the love triangle between Holmes, the Latin lover, and the police inspector carry weight. And given the overt silliness of the humor these elements take up screen time without commanding attention. It makes the film seem to drag even when entertaining moments come fairly frequently. I wish the filmmakers, if they were going to commit to all-out silliness, had not felt as obligated to provide a standard-issue plot.
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Andrei Rublev (1966)
Art for art's sake
28 February 2015
This is the second of Tarkovsky's films that I've seen, and on first viewing I can detect deep and very individual stylistic similarities with "Stalker." But "Andrey Rublev" is a still broader and deeper film, and I can also tell on first viewing that I will want to watch it again, and that the opportunity to do so will uncover worlds more.

In fact, this is a difficult comment to write because it seems like any attempt to encapsulate the experience of this film in less that it's slow, still, and sometimes turbulent full length would be in vain. This is ostensibly a film about the medieval Russian painter Andrey Rublev, but Tarkovsky has taken the opportunity to make it a film that is really simultaneously a stunningly full portrait of the both loft and low Russia of his day, and a meditation on the nature of power, art, and religious faith.

It moves at a deliberately very slow pace, but in every long, still shot where life is allowed to play out without the boundaries imposed by quick cuts, something subtly and revealingly fascinating goes on. We follow a half-nonsense peasant dance, for example, for longer than we would ever expect in a film, and that length is at once uncomfortable an very revealing.

It's beautifully photographed, and must have had lavish resources behind its simple-looking recreation of a rural Russia of centuries ago. It's easy to see why the Soviet government was divided and eventually changed its mind on the release of such a beautiful film, honoring a national hero, but showing Christianity favorably in contrast to the invaders and questioning art's subservience to authority.

I know I'll be rewarded again by letting the scope of this film wash over me, and letting the various elements making up the conversations on its thematic elements work against each other in my mind in new ways each time. In that way, it is, though much more laconic, reminiscent as some have observed of Dostoevsky.
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Kommunist (1958)
Gives according to its ability, but that's not much
1 February 2015
Warning: Spoilers
One has to expect going into a Soviet film from 1958 called "The Communist" that one has a pretty good chance of getting a propaganda film. If one does, this movie is no surprise. Unfortunately, it leans more towards demonstrating the artistic dullness often inspired by devotion to the ideal of the socialist-realist "art movement" than its sometimes-amusing excesses. It does, however, contain some interesting historical insights into how tropes were manipulated in service of the political message.

Our hero is a superhumanly devoted Communist and hard-worker, declaring his loyalty without hesitation in rooms full of people full of people clearly hostile to Communism. Laboring more than anyone imagines possible for the party, he chops down a absurdly prodigious number of trees overnight when others will not help him. Lenin (played by a man who does actually look eerily like Lenin) is portrayed as a man dedicated to fixing the smallest details of work projects in every part of the country, while at the same time extremely busy with being the guiding hand of the revolution.

Our hero, near the end, becomes the only person in town killed when it is struck by malicious fire, allowing him to rather artificially become a martyr.

On the other hand it is interesting that that film contains some thematic material around how moral it may be (within the socialist framework) to pursue a woman who is technically still married -- and many fascinated glimpses at recreated 1920s Russian life.

There were a lot of non-propaganda films on non-political subjects produced in the Soviet Union. This isn't one of them, and it doesn't challenge the prevailing norms about how political material should be presented, or do anything out of its way to do anything interesting cinematically. This makes it the cinema equivalent of the much- derided "tractor novel," and it doesn't have much artistic merit outside of its political context.
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Clear Skies (1961)
Clear bill!
30 January 2015
Warning: 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.
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Leviathan (2014)
Found not guilty
23 January 2015
Warning: 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.
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Can you recapture fate?
21 January 2015
Warning: 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.
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Elena (2011)
Glass, not shattering
18 January 2015
Warning: 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.
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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!
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Twelve Chairs (1971)
The hearing is concluded
18 December 2014
Warning: 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.
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Don't cancel it!
3 December 2014
Warning: 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.
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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.
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Miles of Fire (1957)
Miles ahead
20 November 2014
Warning: 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.
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Doesn't need to walk the plank
19 November 2014
Warning: 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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16 November 2014
Warning: Spoilers
"Olympus Inferno" is an unabashedly topical film; it was made to take full advantage of its being a full-length feature with the then- recent war between Russia and Georgia as its subject. It takes the step of being not just topical but political, and strongly advocating for the position that Georgia was the aggressor.

Regardless of how accurate that viewpoint may or may not be, as a film it relies heavily on some propagandistic methods to make this point, at the expense of just about any value as a movie. There's a great deal of emphasis placed on the visual evidence that the hero Michael gathers to prove that George attacked first, which is a strange approach to take in a film that is plainly supposed to convince people and that is also plainly not a documentary. Rather than dwelling on facts and the sequence of events, we dwell on images of Georgians shooting people heartlessly and rolling their tanks through towns. That may have happened, but it's presentation here is transparently political manipulation and not built into any drama.

The token love story of the film is awkwardly shoehorned around the necessary political set pieces and is so broadly written that is bears no interest. The American is unbelievably stupid, inexperienced, and cowardly (he can't drink, faints at the sight of blood, doesn't know how to use his own butterfly-hunting equipment, thinks he should call the embassy every second including while being shot at... the list seems endless) -- and this also makes him incredibly irritating. His Russian love-interest is incredibly brave and sensible (apart from her decision to spend any time with Michael).

This will bear historical interest if you are interested in Russian media depictions of the war with Georgia. As a piece of persuasion, it might work on you if you decide to get your information about the 2008 war from fictional films. But as a piece of art or entertainment, it fails because it doesn't really even try.
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Mishen (2011)
On target
5 October 2014
I found this film because I was interested in the script by also- novelist Vladimir Sorokin, and it wasn't disappointed. It turned out to be an intelligent, subtle, thoughtful screenplay that seems to have been treated with huge respect by the filmmakers. That's important because in terms of several elements including not just the scenario and dialogue but also the pacing and visual images, this is a very daring and ambitious piece of film.

"Targets" is very atypically structured and paced: it's long, and its narrative-- which while basically chronological does indulge in flashback scenes -- is not really straightforward. And I think that helps it in delineating and very original treatment of an age old fountain-of-youth theme.

We focus of several rich Muscovites who discover an area with special properties to stop again. And the central contradiction of their seeking of it is explored powerfully in several ways: these are people for whom life is empty, and they seek to prolong it by extending it. But they are treated very humanly, and so this strong satire on the emptiness of wealth and its centrality to modern life rarely ends up seeming mean-spirited. Instead the lives of the protagonists play out like several individual bleak and touching personal tragedies.

Occasionally, things pill slightly over the top, and often this is in the parodies of sections of TV shows, but become a bit too heavy- handed making the still-good point, but detract little from the whole.

While the pace is slow, the film to me never felt dull, but rather fascinating. Sincere and quietly-intense acting from all parties, interesting, significant camera-work, and sometime-shocking but always well-executed set pieces contribute to this.

Another important theme running parallel to the agonies introduced by eternal you is a pair of glasses that an distinguish good and evil, down to the physical good or evil properties of types of matter. And this invention ends up being of no use, scoffed when introduced to the public. Like eternal youth, the ability to know right from wrong with certainty is a long-sought and implausible goal that when attained reaps no helpful rewards.

An intelligent film whose ambition pays off. I'm sure that repeated viewings will reveal more nuances, which in itself is a sign of a success.
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Generation P (2011)
Come alive to it
25 September 2014
Warning: Spoilers
"Generation P" is one of those books that is fantastic as a prose work and that one never suspects could be adequately filmed for a movie. The makers of the cinematic version clearly knew how ambitious they were being, working with this source, a lot of money and a lot of anticipation. The result is very, very good. But it doesn't capture some areas of where the source shines, while being very closely drawn from it and so inviting comparison.

It looks fantastic, both in terms of the creation of a fantasized nineteen-nineties within the look of physical objects and costumes in the film, and in the realization of excellent visual imagery to represent some of the less literal matter going on.

As a film, it's well timed, well edited, and well scripted such that it moves at a quick pace and is frequently insightful. But one of the strengths of the source novel was its willingness to philosophize at length, and to delve into its hallucinogenic descriptions. The film, in its desire to adapt the whole book, films a lot of events without the accompanying matter than justifies their inclusion. Thus, I think they miss a lot of the most important and worthwhile matter of the novel.

We see Babylen eating hallucinogenic mushrooms and later LSD, but we only skim over the effects of them. We see how he runs into Blo at his new job, but we have no time to be introduced to who Blo is. We see that Yeltsin is being 3-D modeled and get some satiric value from that, but we don't get the full explanation that makes the idea so important and powerful.

Most importantly, we hear the hallucination of Che Guevara speaking, but he gets only a few lines spoken very quickly, and we almost miss the discussion (deeply emphasized in the book) of the three human impulses -- oral, anal, and wow -- and how they relate to commercialism.

Missing the emphasis on that feels like missing the point somehow. They kept (sometimes line for line) the novels satires of commercials, but not of commercialism -- and therefore made the work considerably less potent. I read that several firms were ironically given product placement in order to help finance the film; I hope that didn't affect any editorial decisions to weaken the message.

Overall quite an impressive film, but one that invites comparison with the source, and then fails to capture its spirit or satiric power in several key areas.
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Not poison
24 September 2014
Warning: Spoilers
Absurdism and surrealism come to mind when discussing the tone of this witty and enjoyable film, but they're not of the type that make a film oblique or difficult to follow. Instead we have a kind of deadpan-absurd aesthetic that I found very entertaining and rewarding and that almost reminds one of an out-and-out farce played deadly seriously.

It might be hard to believe that the protagonist's wife would begin an affair with their new neighbor immediately when he comes over and invites her to the bathroom, or that the neighbor's wife had long admired him and that they fall immediately in love, but it's played with a straightforward seriousness that makes it both more interesting and more funny.

It's a less a history of poisoning than a clever story about poisoning, illustrated in inventive ways throughout the film by historical asides and imagined banquets with poisoners that manager never to be intrusive and are instead interesting and funny. On the whole, the frank-but-bizarre tone resembles the director's earlier "City Zero," but this film is far more entertaining, witty, and trippingly-paced.

Oleg Basilashvili has always been great in roles I've seen him in, and this is no exception; he makes the part of the somehow-dignified but poison-obsessed pensioner miraculously come off perfectly naturally. All this plus a very witty script make this a dryly hilarious, macabre film that's very easy to recommend.
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4 (2004)
A number of elements
21 September 2014
Warning: Spoilers
I found this film after I had read and enjoyed a novel by Vladimir Sorokin, the scenarist of "4." What I got was an interesting and certainly memorable sight, if not necessarily easy to process or digest all at once.

It's almost possible to see (or, perhaps, imagine) where part of them film is drawn from the literary milieu of the novelist Sorokin, and where it leaves that real of the power of words and moves into an area where arresting cinematic images are the order of the day.

There is a an excellent basic premise for a film here, and one that could go any number of ways -- three lonely people are a bartender meet late at night in a bar; the patrons order drinks and begin to tell stories about their lives that seem to be completely fabricated. And then they start to doubt each other's stories.

This part of the film is precisely paced and acted, heavily atmospheric, and very tightly and fascinatingly written, with sparking dialog.

After this section, though. The tone shifts dramatically, and we follow the three protagonists home to different lives that are shown in a slow-paced way with many quiet shots that linger on disparate details. Most dramatic seems to be the life of the rough-dealing meat salesman who comes home to a melancholy, overly-meticulous, father petrified of germs.

But we follow the call-girl mostly, and the film dwells on the squalor of her setting as she takes the train to small village to attend the funeral of a girl who led the making of bread-chewed dolls to sell. The following images of massed geriatric and bread=chewing and pig- eating are very striking and maybe deliberately unpleasant. And to be perfectly frank, the digression that the film leaves its opening scenes for is just less interesting.

As it stands, this film contains both strikingly committed surrealism and outré imagery in its later two fourths, and mysterious, deftly written drama around themes like the superficiality of the knowledge we have of the world around us and the need to sensationalize our lives for others in the first quarter. I can't help but feel like I'd had been more satisfied if it had continued in its first vein.
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