Category Archives: movie

The Descendants (Alexander Payne, 2011)

The Descendants is a drama about one Matt King, the sole decision maker in charge of a large piece of property on Hawaiian islands that was inherited by him and his multiple cousins from the local royal family. The property is managed by a trust, and only a few years are left for it to operate due to some legal hiccup, and so Matt must take steps to whether sell it (there’s several possible buyers), or to do something else with it. At the same time, Matt’s wife goes into coma because of a boating accident. Soon it becomes clear that she’s not gonna recover, and so they have to take her off the life support. The weight on Matt’s shoulders becomes this much heavier when the elder of his daughters tells him that shortly before the accident she witnessed her mother having an affair. Tormented between all these things, he has to make sense of the changes in his life.

This is a rather soft drama that comes really close to melodramatic domain, and crosses the fine line in several places. To be fair, it’s not a complete tear-jerker, and does have some semblance of humor in it, but I still wouldn’t call it a good film. The execution, of course, is very much professional, and the acting is what you’d expect from a cast like this, but, like always, it’s mostly about the story, and the story is just to mellow. There’s not enough darkness in it that might’ve fetched out all the good qualities, and so the resulting impression would be: this is not at all Alexander Payne’s best work, even though it might be one of his most successful ones.

All in all, there’s not a single thing here that falls under the must-see category. You can watch it, or you can skip it just as well.

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Egor Bulychov and Others / Yegor Bulychyov i drugiye (Sergei Solovyov, 1972)

Yegor Bulychyov i drugiye is the earliest feature film of Sergey Solovyov, and probably the least interesting. It’s a screen adaptation of Maxim Gorky’s novel of the same name. It tells the story of a russian landlord who got diagnosed with terminal form of cancer in 1916, not long before the revolution commenced, and depicts the life of his manor from his return and until his demise, including relationships between various characters, such as his illegitimate daughter, or his sister the nun.

The problem with this movie is that none of what’s happening in it is of any interest to the director, which conveys to the viewer. Once Sergei Solovyov was asked by his students which of his movies he likes the least, and he named this one. Now I see why. It appears that the director was forced into the project by external circumstances rather than executed his internal desire to work with this material.

To be fair, the acting is quite alright, but that doesn’t save the day – the narrative still feels unnatural and forced. Perhaps, the only part of the film where the actual essence of Solovyov manifests itself is the introductory parts to each of the chapters, where the canned footage of the described epoch is used – and not so much in the reels themselves, as in how long they are and what kind of titles are used to split the pieces.

All in all, it is not really worth watching. Unless you’re a big fan, and want to become a lesser one.

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People of Rome / Gente di Roma (Ettore Scola, 2003)

Gente di Roma is a semi-documentary film that amounts to a collection of unconnected tiny stories about people inhabiting today’s Rome. A reporter conducts a special project to research how do the foreigners live in the city. A dismissed worker comes to the factory in the morning because he couldn’t find it in him to tell his family. Some seniors are being interviewed in order to figure out if they have an onset of dementia. Some homeless people share wine and food sitting under the bridge. An elderly man comes to visit a younger couple, and chats with the wife, while husband has no idea about what’s really going on. A son brings his father to dine at the restaurant after they agreed for him to go a care home. A woman loses her child in the crowd at the meeting. These and many other scenes follow each other and fuse into a single, extremely rich canvas of life in a city that is ancient and modern at the same time.

Some of this little stories are funny, others are quite sad. Most of them are pretty subtle. Combined, they create a picture of the complexity of life in a modern city.

On the one hand, it’s all quite interesting to watch, because every episode of this mixture obviously comes from the heart. On the other – there is no cross-cutting storyline, which is why the attention would invariably drift at some point, and some of the pieces may get lost. All in all it was more fun than not. Sort of a document of the epoch, if you will, that is – a specific kind of cinema, one that you won’t come back to very often. But it’s still important.

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The Artist (Michel Hazanavicius, 2011)

The Artist by Michel Hazanavicius is a beautiful story about the transition from silent to speaking cinema. As the story goes, George Valentin is the superstar of silent movies, extremely popular and successful. Peppy Miller, a young girl, while attending a premiere of yet another one of his hit movies, accidentally bumps into him, and instead of making a fuss about it, he laughs and kisses her. Elated by the incident she goes to an audition and gets casted as an extra, which becomes the beginning of her head-spinning career; at that, she manages to saddle the wave of public’s growing interest to sound in movies. At the same time Valentin suffers through a series of misfortunes and eventually loses everything he has, including his fame. But even during the most dreadful times of his life, Peppy cherishes the memory of the push he gave her in the very beginning, and aspires to help him as best she could.

The characteristic trait of this film is that it not only tells about the era of silent cinema, it is also executed in the silent technique – with certain exceptions which only underline the exquisite nature of the approach. On the one hand, the story has a certain naiveté in it, that is probably the most touching tribute to the ‘lost’ art of silent movies, on the other it is sincere and well-constructed, which makes it interesting through-out, and at times truly fascinating. Every single thing happening in the story is crystal clear notwithstanding the absence of real dialog. The acting is absolutely brilliant. The direction is genius, no other words to describe it.

All in all, this is a wonderful and unique work of art, which is also emotionally charged and has a good humor as one of its qualities. I would highly recommend this movie to everybody.

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The Fighter (David O. Russell, 2010)

The Fighter is the biopic of the boxing champion “Irish” Micky Ward focused on the times before he went professional. It is concentrated mostly on his first steps as a sportsman and on his relationship with his family, specifically – his brother Dicky, who also was a boxer and even knocked-out Sugar Ray, which was the highlight of his career, but later got addicted to crack; and his mother Alice, who was his manager for the longest time. The story takes off with the series of unsuccessful fights, caused mostly by Alice and Dickey making some bad decisions, and Mickey trusting them too much with his career. He meets Charlene, who becomes his girlfriend, and has a falling out with the family, but after Dickey serves some time in prison and gets clean while being there, they all managed to find a common ground.

So, this is a rather typical underdog movie, a mix of competitiveness with internal conflict (and some external, too). The story is constructed in strict correspondence with the genre requirements, without any imbalance anywhere, which is why it works perfectly – it’s interesting, captivating and emotionally rousing. The execution is great on all levels; the acting in particular is wonderful – all the main parts are played flawlessly.

It is a highly enjoyable and quite rewarding spectacle, even though there is nothing surprising about it. A solid, thorough work of cinema, with all the elements being in perfect harmony with each other.

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Serenity (Joss Whedon, 2005)

Serenity is a continuation to the Firefly series and the finale of its saga. As the story goes, the Alliance intensifies its efforts at apprehension of River and Simon Tam, who has been hiding on captain Reynold’s ship Serenity, and tasks a nameless man called Operative with silencing them. He has all the resources of the Alliance at his disposal and he does not hesitate to play dirty, killing civilians and taking innocent people as hostages. In the meantime, River’s condition progresses and her memory gradually recovers, but she still presents a danger to the crew. Trying to save them from herself, she and Simon get off the ship, but circumstances force them to come back. Guided by the River’s newly recovered recollections, the Firefly team attempts a dangerous leap through the part of the space controlled by the reavers, in order to clarify information they got. Afterwards, having to fight both the reavers and the Alliance troops, they make their way to the broadcasting station so that a dark secret of the government can become known to everybody.

This film is way better than the original show. In 3 years that have passed since it was shut down Whedon managed to finally detail its universe of discourse – he came up with a comprehensive and consistent background for all the stories that somewhat contradicts certain implications and events of the series, but only because he never cared to think it through before, allowing it to just evolve on its own, without a masterplan. That recklessness resulted in an amorphous character of the series, but the film have corrected all of that.

It has all the good qualities of the original – wonderful humor, great characters and amazing actors – but it also has a far more significant characteristic, which is a well-written script. It’s dense, full of events and action, it also has deep drama, but most importantly, it is composed and structured in accordance with the laws of dramaturgy, which makes it harmonious and attractive to the audience. Whatever logical lapses and discrepancies there may be, they are irrelevant as they don’t influence the entirety of the plot to any considerable extent, and some of them actually strengthen it.

It’s not only a powerful entertainment, that would keep you in your sit for the whole 2 hours of length, it is a wonderful example of a science fiction movie being a strong work of art. I would highly recommend you to watch it, and the fortunate thing here is that you don’t even need to see the show to enjoy the film.

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About Love / O lyubvi (Sergey Solovyov, 2004)

O lyubvi is a compilation film, in which 3 short stories by Anton Chekhov are fused into one narrative. It’s a retrospective story of a young man’s suicide presented through the prism of his family’s long and unfortunate history. After young Vanya was born almost 20 years ago, his parents couldn’t have been happier, especially with a very close friend they found in a local doctor. Only years later, when the boy fell terribly ill, did the husband found out that he might not be his father at all. The family broke up, and then somewhat reunited only several years later, when the boy’s father found himself a new wife, and Vanya, who was living with his mother in the city, started visiting his father’s estate regularly under the pretense of poor health. The house became full of people, even though there was very little love among them; but there was friendship with a fairly fresh couple, an architect and his young wife. Only one early morning a pistol shot sounded, and a life was over.

So, this is yet another Solovyov’s work in the realm of russian classical literature. Its form is sort of experimental, and the result is ambiguous. On the one hand, the writer really managed to create a consistent story out of not exactly related short novellas, and also to impart a single theme to the whole thing, which is deep and significant. The work is really fascinating in many respects, most of all – the acting (especially Drubich, although her part wasn’t all that big), the artwork, and the camera; the direction is also quite interesting, although it doesn’t seem perfect to me.

On the other hand, the merging didn’t go without leaving a trace: there transitions between the novellas are very much obvious (and not only because they are all titled); and the rhythm varies in different parts notwithstanding all the director’s efforts to level it with scenery and camera movement. Also, the main hero’s monologue is highly artificial – the literary background shines through Abdulov’s acting quite evidently.

There are also some inserts with modern stuff – I’m not sure what to make of those; the director’s purpose here is not clear; but I do know that he ventures this technique in his other works too. In general, it doesn’t seem like they effect the result very much.

All in all, the movie is really interesting, but it’s not Solovyov’s best film. There are some truly impressive things in it, but there are drawbacks as well.

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Bringing Up Baby (Howard Hawks, 1938)

Bringing Up Baby is a whimsical comedy about a paleontologist (for some reason he’s called ‘zoologist’ in the movie) who is going to get married the next day. Coincidentally, he is also about to receive a bone that would complete his 4 year-long project of assembling a skeleton of a Brontosaurus. He has to convince now a rich philanthropist to donate 1 million dollars to the museum for scientific studies. During his meeting with the lawyer of the said philanthropist, which takes place on the golf course, he runs into an eccentric woman who messes everything and can’t stop talking. He meets her again that same evening, while trying to repair the damage, and only makes things worse. She then convinces him to help her transport a leopard named Baby to her aunt’s estate, all because she fell in love with him and wants him around as much as possible. Naturally enough, the aunt turns out to be the target philanthropist. A series of adventures follows, during which the very important bone gets lost, as well as the leopard, as well as another, less friendly, leopard; the hero has to hide his name and pretend to be a big game hunter; everybody eventually end up behind bars, if only for a short time; the marriage gets cancelled; the skeleton gets ruined; but the ending is an expectedly happy one.

Two things can be said about this film, and both are true simultaneously: on the one hand, it’s funny and ingenious, on the other – it’s silly and naive. Perhaps, this is the embodiment of the entertaining approach – this film is meant to distract people from the unpleasantness of real life, which is why it has only nominal ties with reality, the substantiation for the story is rather careless, and love is the main driver for the events. The curious thing is that notwithstanding all the silliness, the film is still quite fun to watch – that is, if you don’t care about senseless of it all. It is quite likely to give you an occasional laugh, but it’s probably too outdated to keep you interested the whole time. But the mechanics of the narrative – all those tiny connectors and transitions that maintain the semblance of connectedness – is really smooth, and is probably worth looking into, if internal workings of cinema is your thing.

Katharine Hepburn is insanely beautiful, and acts as good as the part is; Cary Grant is also quite good.

All in all, it was a meaningful experience for me, even though I didn’t like the movie all that much; but that’s only because entertainment in my system of coordinates is a secondary component.

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The Grim Reaper / La commare secca (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1962)

La commare secca is a story about a murder investigation: a prostitute was killed at night in the part, where she worked, and now the police is questioning everybody who was seen nearby. Several different stories are told by their main heroes – a petty thief, a professional criminal, a restless soldier, a couple of young men looking to appease their new girlfriends, a man wearing clogs, and another one who simply likes to wander at night, – each telling how their day went, and among them is the murderer.

This seems to me like a deliberate work, i.e. one that comes from an idea, a concept, rather than from a need to tell a story. Different storylines do not entwine with each other forming a canvas (not unless it’s the canvas of the people’s life of the epoch), but when it comes to the story, the only point, at which these threads join, is the park right before the murder. Otherwise they do not have any crossings, and it is, perhaps, this disunity that makes the film feel so cold and unemotional. The construction of the story does not assume compassion. The fact that this is one of the Bertolucci’s very first works in cinema, i.e. he wasn’t too skilled in the craft or sensitive to the viewer’s experience, has probably played a part as well.

All in all this film is rough and unwelcoming. It’s a decent work from the standpoint of professional execution (except, maybe, for the camera and the general quality of image), but it’s definitely one of the least interesting Bertolucci’s movies.

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Mysterious Skin (Gregg Araki, 2004)

Mysterious Skin is a story of 2 boys, Neill and Brian. Neill, realizing early on in life that he is a homosexual, fell in love with his baseball coach at the age of 8, and actively participated in the subsequet acts of malestation; he went on to hook up for money, and even seemed to enjoy everything about it. Brian grew to believe that he was abducted by aliens and that his black-outs and nose-bleeds is the result of the experiments they performed on him, but when he started to dig deeper, he saw Neill’s face in his dreams.

This is a rather hardcore drama about an extremely sensitive, painful even, subject – paedophelia turned into action, and especially the effect it may have on a person. There are 2 very different personalities under scrutiny here, and, admittedly, the scope of their respective traumas is not nearly the same, but for both of them the consequences were utterly devastating. Araki’s directorial style is pretty specific, and sometimes can be kind of viscous, and though it may influence viewer’s perception to some extent, it doesn’t prevent him from telling a story in a comprehensible and truthful way. The composition of the film works perfectly: even anticipated, the outcome is stupefying thanks to edgy (but not vulgar) representation of sexual encounters and gradual building up of tension. Two primary storylines intertwine and complement each other. The acting is great; the execution in general is quite good.

All in all, it was deeper and more powerful than I expected. A really great movie.

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Tickled (David Farrier, Dylan Reeve, 2016)

Tickled is a documentary film about a journalistic investigation of a funny phenomenon called ‘competitive tickling competition’. David Farrier stumbles upon several video clips by pure accident, which wake his curiosity, but he only becomes interested when the initial research provokes a rather intense reaction. He decides to follow the thread, and does so with the help from Dylan Reeve, and by persistently trying to achieve clarity they uncover a deep and troubling story.

This documentary proved to be surprisingly interesting. What seemed at first like a harmless albeit bizarre notion transformed into something really strange and disturbing; the fact that it is also extremely plausible doesn’t help at all. On the one hand, I enjoyed the film tremendously, because it is constructed with great skill and profound understanding of dramaturgy (and also has extremely fine picture); but on the other – it kinda made me think about how odd the world is out there, how complex it is, and how disquieting and even ominous some of its parts can be. The film digs really deep, and at the end of it you would get a perfectly clear idea of what it is about, and that idea is weird and comprehensible at the same time.

I would recommend it to those people who are not afraid of the seamy side of life. Those who prefer to believe that the world is harmonious and balanced should probably avoid it.

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To Steal from a Thief / Cien años de perdón (Daniel Calparsoro, 2016)

Cien años de perdón is a criminal action about a team of 6 thieves who went on to rob a bank. Only it soon turned out that they are not there for the money, at least their leader isn’t; rather it’s all about the contents of one of the deposit boxes that belonged to a disgraced politician. The story is mostly about the robbers, who took hostages inside the bank and started toying with the police in order to win some time, because it was raining unusually heavy, which interfered with their retreat plan. When the true purpose of the action surfaced, the criminals started quarrelling, and after one of them accidentally ruined the most valuable thing they had it only made things worse; also, some high-ranking police and secret service officers, who were connected to the politician, took damage control measures, which interlaced with the robbers’ actions and further aggravated the situation.

On the one hand, the story is rather primitive – the only not completely obvious storyturn can still be assumed from the very beginning, and after it happens it’s all predictable and, quite frankly, boring. On the other – different parts of the story are sewed together very crudely, sometimes with evident stretches, and the further it goes, the more evident those weak spots are. Probably the worst of them is the moron who destroyed the info; it is said that he’s somebody’s relative, which seems like a good enough reason not to kill him off right away, but I find it hard to believe that among 4 other members of the crew there wasn’t a single one crazy and violent enough to do it nevertheless. The dynamics inside the crew all in all is contrived and downright pathetic; same goes to the behaviour of the hostages. Secret service guys are pretty sloppy for the assumed level of professional skill, not to mention their willingness to go to drastic extremes, which is not improbable in general, but is quite impossible considering the circumstances. The finale is just mellow and soft, but that kinda goes with the overall tune of the movie, so it doesn’t add too much.

So, generally speaking, it’s a poorly constructed story with predictable plot and uninteresting characters. It does look like a professional work of cinema, so I guess the Argentinians learned how to copy the hollywood – bravo! If only they’d choose better examples for it…

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I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore. (Macon Blair, 2017)

I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore is an existential drama with elements of action. It tells a story of Ruth, whose house got broken into, and she felt so violated on account of that, she started her own investigation, especially considering that the police proved unwilling and incapable of helping her. In her quest she commissioned the help of a guy named Tony who was living on the same block; together they managed to retrieve the stolen stuff and then get on the trail of the intruder, but by doing so they got sucked into a much more dangerous and unpredictable situation than they could’ve anticipated.

So, this is a thoughtful, deep story, a little bit greyish (subjective feeling), but quite fascinating. It is a drama for the most part, and rather profound at that; it also contains pretty intense and violent action – melted into a single story, this particular combination produces powerful impression. The plot, as far as I can tell, is well-constructed, doesn’t have stretches, and does have great characters. The execution is nothing too special, but is good enough not to raise questions. The acting is very good.

The story has a very delicate and highly specific tinge to it, that most likely has to do with the directorial style, which is curious and definitely worth taking a closer look at: when Macon Blair would make another movie, I will certainly check it out.

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Loveless / Nelyubov (Andrey Zvyagintsev, 2017)

Nelyubov is a drama about a family in today’s Russia. After many  years of marriage, the husband and wife grew to hate each other so much, they not only live separately, plan to sell the apartment and get a divorce, but they also take their conflict upon their only child – a 12-years old boy named Alyosha. During yet another of their brawls, Alyosha, who was supposed to be sleeping in his room but wasn’t, finds out that neither of his parents want to keep him, and so he’s bound for an orphan asylum. The very next day he disappears.

The film is perfect: as for the story, it’s the embodiment of veracity on many levels; and as for the execution, it’s absolutely beautiful.

The story hits one of the most painful spots of modern Russian society. The thing is, when the choice was made to prefer the communal to the interests of the individual, which happened roughly a hundred years ago, that resulted in unimaginable damage, – people were murdered, imprisoned and tortured, but worse than all of that – the general conception of what is normal, the appreciation of the inter-human relationships of those who remained, their understanding of the importance of empathy, was distorted so much, that generation after generation was raised in the absence of love, without realization how harmful such loveless climate is for a mind that’s only taking its shape. This was an invisible catastrophe of massive scale, – even though there were cases that managed to escape this fate, they were more like exceptions to this sub-global tendency. It still continues today.

The only way out of this that I know of has to do with individual processing of one’s life experience and consequent making of life decisions that derive from the consciously formed understanding of right and wrong rather than from one’s emotional inclinations. But that’s beside the point. The point is: this terrible situation does exist, and Zvyagintsev managed to capture the very essence of it. This is why this work is genius.

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Remember Me (Allen Coulter, 2010)

Remember Me is a story about a guy named Tyler, whose brother killed himself on his 22nd birthday, and who has quite a lot of trouble dealing with it, even though 6 years has passed since then. After yet another anniversary of that sad event he gets into a fight and then attacks a police officer, who roughs him up and arrests him. Later a friend of Tyler finds out that daughter of that officer, Ally, goes to the same college they do, and so Tyler starts dating her – as a means of retaliation at first, but then he really falls in love. While all these goes on, he also deals with his dismantled family, and in particular tries to protect his little sister, who is a genius artist and also is highly sensitive and not very good with other children. Meanwhile Ally goes through a typical teenager’s conflict with her father.

I remember that I decided to include this film into my list of ‘wanna watch’ on account that Allen Coulter, whom I knew as one of the directors constantly appearing in the credits of various shows (most of which were rather good), has a vast directorial experience, and so his own movie must be at least okay. Boy, was I wrong. This movie is not just bad, it’s absolutely terrible, and the worst thing about it – the director did most of the damage.

Okay, it’s not all bad. I mean, there are several things I actually liked, specifically, the girl who played the little sister (Ruby Jerins) was astonishing – seems like she’s a natural, and not even a shitty director can ruin that; also, Emilie de Ravin was quite good; and finally, the story twist in the finale, the one that put the whole thing into perspective, it was alright as well.

Everything else, however, is hideous, starting with the screenplay, which is weak and pretentious. The direction spoils it even further: most of the actors don’t do well, even the good ones – in part because they have to deal with stupid, poorly written characters, and in part because the director has no idea how to improve the situation; some casting decisions were a complete miss, including the primary one – Pattison may have a comely face (it’s definitely not my cup of tea, but all people are different), but he is nothing but a sorry excuse for an actor. And as for everything else, it feels as if Coulter sat in the director’s chair for the first time in his life, and, what is worse, wasn’t interested in the final result at all.

In short, the three main components of the film – the script, the acting, and the direction (that is supposed to be a converging point between the first two but is actually impotent) – are rotten, and so their combination is entirely worthless, and not even those few good points I mentioned earlier could save the day. The funny thing here is that the director, if not on the conscious level, then on subconscious definitely, but he knew that it’s not working, that the structure is too weak, which is why he smeared the work all over with bad music, – as if trying to affix a sort of external armour in the absence of a skeleton.

Even shorter: this film is a melodrama, which is nothing but a poorly executed drama. Everything important here is amiss, there is no quality and no harmony, and therefore there is no point in watching it.

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Brother / Brat (Aleksey Balabanov, 1997)

Brat is a criminal drama, a cult phenomenon of the Russian cinema. It tells a story of a young guy named Danila Bagrov who was recently discharged from army. Searching for his way in life, he goes to Saint-Petersburg, where his brother Victor has already built a reputation for himself as a hitman for various organized crime groups. Immediately after arrival Danila gets involved into his brother’s affairs, – specifically, Victor enlists him to assassinate a certain gang leader. Only the deal is not as straightforward as Victor makes it sound, because in reality Krugliy (who ordered the hit) aims to kill two birds with one stone and murder Victor after the deed. When the killing gets done by Danila instead of his brother, the plans of the big boss get tangled, and Danila’s life is endangered, as well as the lives of people who helped him.

The secret to the popularity of this movie (it’s a really big deal among the Russian speaking people) is that it builds a highly believable archetypal image of the 1990s in Russia, which was a period of great social and political volatility and a golden age of low-level criminal gangs. Another reason lays in the image of the principal character, who combines seemingly conflicting personality traits, and also possesses some kind of charm, which allows me to consider him a hero of our time, – of the 90s that is, – and the primary factor in both success and high level of integrity of the film.

Now, what makes Danila so interesting? On the one hand, we know that he has a great taste in music (the film opens with him learning about Nautilus Pompilius, a legendary Russian rock band, and is basically packed with their music, – its leader was even casted as one of the third-rate characters), that his is not only smart but also a quick learner, and that he has a code of honour that includes at least 3 items: 1) family is above everything; a member of the family cannot be harmed under any circumstances; 2) once a promise is made, it must be kept no matter what; 3) weak people should be protected and assisted whenever possible.

This 3rd item comes from Danila’s black-and-white view of all the people in general: he divides them into those who produce a vibe of weakness and therefore should be helped, and those who produce or, at least, try to produce, an opposite vibe – of power, and also those who associate themselves with such. When it comes to dealing with the second category, Danila will kill and murder without giving it a second thought, which betrays him as a sociopath (in the clinical sense of the word) who is devoid of a vast chunk of normal human emotion. He is also ignorant and racially biased.

Say what you will, but this combination is curious and not at all contradictory. As to how he came to be that way, we know of 4 pieces of information: 1) he comes from a disturbed family; his father was a petty career criminal, who was murdered in prison when Danila was still a little boy; he was raised by his older brother; 2) his brother grew up to become an assassin; 3) his mother is abusive and not smart; 4) he served in the Russian army, which is a special kind of hell, but what’s worse than that – he went through the war in Chechnya, a hell squared. This is undoubtedly a fragmentary picture, but it gives enough context to fill in the blanks – provided, of course, that you are aware of the Russian realities of the era at least to some degree.

And now comes the most important question here: does the Aleksey Balabanov sympathize with his character? An answer to that would define your attitude to the film and to the director’s body of works in a more general sense (because Brat is the most famous of his films and, admittedly, the best). My answer is – no. Balabanov does not share his hero’s set of values, nor does he posses similar personality strains (not that I know, anyway). With this film he merely depicts the reality as he saw it, he creates the chronicle of the epoch, showing the times through the prism of this one character. Yes, the man in the movie is probably the most vile and at the same time charismatic person in the whole of Russian cinema, but so what? Those were the times. The film is constructed to reflect Danila’s view on life: the rest of the characters are either weak (which is synonymic to good), or the same kind of ugly Danila is, only not as successful.

As for the quality of the execution, the deal is this: the construction of the story is very good, as well as the characters (see above), but the dialogs are written very poorly. The acting is great; the camerawork is good enough; the music is very good; and the direction is also very good.

This film had a significant impact on the cinema fans, and played some role in forming worldview of the later generation of Russian filmmakers. This alone is a worthy enough reason to watch it, but it’s also a decent movie – far from perfect, but still pretty good.

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Ice Age: Continental Drift (Steve Martino, Mike Thurmeier, 2012)

Continental Drift is the 4th film in the Ice Age series of full-length animations. As the story goes, the existing mega-continent suddenly splinters into smaller ones, which forces the mammoth family apart: Manny, the head of the family, along with Sid the sloth, Diego the saber, and Sid’s granny, finds himself on an iceberg drifting away from the mainland, while his wife and daughter, as well as lots of other animals remain on the continent in mortal danger of moving land. Manny then tries hard to reunite with his loved ones, but that  proves to be more difficult than he thought, especially when the company of heroes runs into a band of pirates led by vicious captain Grunt. In parallel to the main story arc, the proverbial squirrel still chases the nut.

Well, this was boring. Which is, probably, the worst thing that can be said about an animated film for children, as it should be the embodiment of entertainment. The large story, of course, doesn’t make any sense, but that’s not really important – it never had with Ice Age movies anyway, and it’s actually okay, as long as the small story is internally consistent, interesting and funny. And while the 1st element (consistency) is more or less alright, the rest is not so much. I don’t even care that it’s all about family values, the most tedious subject ever, the fact that there is nothing new, – no fresh angle, no challenging conflict, nothing at all, – is way worse. The characters are merely functional, and some are quire grotesque. None of the jokes are funny – amusing at best. The movie doesn’t have a single acute element, which means it would be erased from a viewer’s memory in a matter of hours after the showing, if not minutes. All in all, this film seems absolutely worthless to me.

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A Happy Event / Un heureux événement (Rémi Bezançon, 2011)

Un heureux événement is a film about a couple within the paradigm of having a baby. The process is described in significant detail, with myths being debunked and confusions being sorted out.

It’s not so much a story as it is a parental guide. The family in the example is more typical than unique. Even though the execution is cinematic and pretty, once you figure out what it is about, it becomes excruciatingly boring to watch, as it is 100% predictable, and also because there is no conflict and no suspense. It is not worth the time for anybody, with 1 exception: this film would be interesting and / or useful to people who are about to step on this path or those who are already walking it. Otherwise it has no value whatsoever.

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Smiley Face (Gregg Araki, 2007)

Smiley Face is a story about a girl named Jane who on top of being high on weed in her usual fashion accidentally ate several loaded cupcakes. The film depicts her journey through the day from that point to a ferris wheel cradle with pages of the original of the Marx’s Communist Party manifest being blown away by the wind.

On the one hand the film is quite entertaining, especially if facepalm situations are your thing as this story basically consists of them. On the other, I have several reservations on account of this movie. First: it tells a story of a very specific state (being hugely overdosed by marijuana), which is not that easy to achieve, – not to mention that no sane person would try to do it consciously, yet it is presented as something ordinary, which in the long run can create a false image of being high on weed. Second: the story belongs to a sub-genre that I call ‘adventures of idiots’, because the real cause of all Jane’s indiscretions was not weed but the fact that she has shit for brains, which admittedly was amplified by the drug, but was still significant even without it. Personally, I find film about morons a little bit degrading.

As for the execution, it is quite good, save for the moment when point of view suddenly shifted from the familiar dual (objective vs. Jane’s subjective) to add subjective of the guy she was in the car with, which happened for no particular reason. Otherwise, the work is fine – the voiceover is quite nice; the cast is pretty interesting and includes a lot of fine actors; the acting is alright; the direction, although smoothed by hollywood stereotyped approach, is still recognizable Araki’s style – not that I like it very much, but still.

All in all, it’s a relatively nice comedy, even though I don’t care very much for films like this.

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Doctor Strange (Scott Derrickson, 2016)

Doctor Strange is a screen adaptation of the Marvell comic book series of the same name. It tells a story of a brilliant neurosurgeon who lost his ability to perform as a result of an accident. In search of a way to restore it, he first spent all his money, and then learned about a place called Kamar-Taj in Nepal, where he supposedly could get some help. He used his last money to buy a one-way ticket there, and when he finally found the place, he discovered a secret organization led by the Ancient One which activity is aimed at protecting this world from all the dangers that may come from outside of it. He learned about the endless number of universes, some of which are dark and dangerous, and he spent quite some time studying the art of magic, which could be used for protection, or as a weapon, or for some other purpose. Soon he also found out about Kaecilius, a former disciple of the Ancient One, who lost his way and was now trying to acquire endless life by means of surrendering the world to Dormammu, one of the most ancient and most vicious of the dark forces out there.

The concept of the story is basically the result of the scientific hypothesis of multiverse being married to the generalized new-age bullshit (like astral bodies and such), which seems to be internally consistent. The main character is the guy who has to reinvent himself, which makes him rather interesting – or, at least, worthy of sympathy. The lesson to be drawn from the story is that lies not only never help anything in the long run, they are often the reason for a problem to appear, and if it’s a noble lie, all the worse, because once uncovered (which is inevitable) it would ruin whatever good things are built upon it. In this particular case, it’s the lies that drove Kaecilius to the wrong decisions he made, and it’s the same lies that drove Mordo to his (as we can see at the very end of the film (after the credits), which is probably a piece of blueprint for the sequel).

The special effects are astounding, even on a small screen; beauty of their execution coupled with fascinating quality of the picture is alone quite a reason to watch it. Of course, the acting and so on is pretty great as well; plus, the humor is really funny, too, – there’s not much of it, but not much required, and whenever it is present, it would not disappoint.

As it is, the movie is wonderful, albeit a little simplistic, which is not uncommon for comic books, I suppose. What concerns me, though, is that its quality serves to reinforce these crappy new age beliefs, because even though no sane person would think “hey, I’ve seen in a movie, so this should be true”, but a significant number of people, who are not certain of their worldview, might see it, subconsciously, as a validation of those ideas. Still, the film is pretty fun, no doubt about that.

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The Colors of the Mountain / Los colores de la montaña (Carlos César Arbeláez, 2010)

Los colores de la montaña is a story about a little boy who has to grow up in the midst of the civil war in (presumably) Colombia. Manuel lives with his family in rural country, and cares most of all about football. His father is stalked by the guerillas for not pleading allegiance to them, while those of his home folks who were less cautious are persecuted by the government forces for the opposite. The children attend school whenever possible, but none of the teachers manage to remain in the village for very long. In their free time (which they don’t have a lot of) the boys play football on a field right outside the village where a helicopter landing area used to be, but everything changes when it turns out that the land around the field is mine-studded, and Manuel’s brand new ball gets stuck there.

I find this film quite mediocre. On the one hand, it tells a story about one of the most terrible things humanity is known for – a civil war, – yet, there is not a single scene of violence, almost as if the director aimed at PG-13 audience. The thinking was, probably, that hints and omissions should capture the essence and convey it to the viewer better than directly showing the actual events, but it doesn’t work like this, – in my experience, as a matter of fact, it never does. If anything, it ruins the credibility of the storyteller. On the other hand, the film is filled with pathos of peaceful life, advocating of learning and non-violent means of resolving problems, but it is quite clear that the director’s point of view is nothing new and often edifying, which is quite normal, I guess, but at the same time makes everything that he has to say boring and even tedious.

The movie basically consists of good intentions and lack of professional experience, which is not a good mix. The acting is okay – there are a lot of children actors, and I know for a fact that it is pretty hard to work with such, and the director obviously is capable of doing that, as I haven’t noticed any falsity in their work, – but in the big picture it doesn’t really matter, because it’s not a thing that would define the final result in any significant way, – but the script and the direction are, and those leave much to be desired.

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Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back (Kevin Smith, 2001)

Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back is a parody film that acquired a sort of cult status. It tells a story about 2 friends who find out that a graphic novel based on them is to be turned into a movie, but that nobody cared to share the profits with them. At the same time they discover the internet and that people there anonymously say shit about the future film and, more importantly, about them. And so they take it upon themselves to go to Hollywood and set things straight. On their way there they learn a lot of things; go through a number of adventures; rescue a orangutang from a laboratory; got blamed for jewelry heist; Jay finds his one true love; introduce some disruption into the sets of the Miramax studio; and so on.

As many other people I was taken by this film when I was a teenager – it seemed fresh, bold, bright and alluringly uncompromising, and to be fair, it does possess all these qualities. (I should also note that at least some of the credit for this kind of perception among the audience should be given to the people who translated the dialogs into Russian, because their work amplified its effect through strengthening said qualities even more)

But now that I’ve looked at it with unblurred eyes, I also see that its quality is dismally poor. While many of the solutions, especially those that have to do with the cinema industry, are still funny, witty, ingenious to this day, others are so crude and weak they can only elicit facepalm response and nothing more. The saddest thing about it is that it didn’t have to be that way. Of course, I understand that the purpose of the project was not to create a work of art, but rather to ridicule Hollywood, create a fuzz and have some fun, but the thing is, – none of that is mutually exclusive. Kevin Smith could have done a better job directing the film, and the fact that he didn’t can only partially be attributed to his scarce filmmaking experience.

As I understand, there is a reboot project on the way, and I can only hope that the years passed since 2001, during which Smith managed to create some truly wonderful pictures, would give the director a big enough edge to make as best of a job as he can.

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Bicycle Thieves / Ladri di biciclette (Vittorio De Sica, 1948)

Ladri di biciclette is a story about a man in post WWII Italy, who was extremely lucky to have found a job. It was a good job, too, – with a governmental agency, to placard movie and concert posters around the city. The only problem – he needed a bicycle to do it. And he had one, only it was in a repair shop for some time now, because he had no money to pay for it. His wife sold a bunch of bed sheets and raised enough money to redeem the bike, and so he got started with the work. He underwent basic training, and was left by himself, and this is when the disaster stroke – his bicycle got stolen right from under his nose. Subsequent part of the film depicts the Sunday, which day he spent trying to recover the bike in time so that he won’t loose the job, – he came pretty close to success several times, but each time the elusive cycle slipped through his fingers, due to either bad luck or weakness of character. His son, whom he has been dragging with him in this search, helped as he could but to little avail, and when the last shred of hope was lost, even their relationship started to crumble.

The film all in all is pretty good – the narrative line is constructed with great precision and honesty, the characters are plausible and interesting (maybe even more so than the director knew), and overall technical side of it is executed on a good professional level, so there is nothing wrong with it, and nothing that would impede the perception of the story.

But the highlight of the film is its finale – is just might be one of the brightest in cinema history; it is absolutely brilliant and puts the story into such a perspective a viewer would never suspect. In every sense of the word, it’s mind-blowing. As such it makes the film not just good, but, dare I say it, – genius.

I knew about this film for a long time (it is considered a classic), but never got myself to watch it, because I thought that movie this old has a little chance of being good, much less so – great. Well, I was utterly wrong. And if you are in any way interested in cinema as an art, you should not miss this one. It’s really worth it.

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Calm at Sea / La mer à l’aube (Volker Schlöndorff, 2011)

La mer à l’aube is a story about a particular episode of WWII that is about a disgraceful routine of punishing innocents for somebody else’s crime. An assassination was carried out by a couple of French communists in Nantes in 1941, as a result of which one officer of the German occupying army was killed. The killers weren’t found in time, and so Berlin ordered an execution of 150 hostages as an act of retaliation and intimidation. After extensive yet prudent negotiations that number was reduced to 50 – at least as a first portion, with 2 more equal portions to follow in case the actual malefactor was not still found. Collaboration administration was tasked with compiling the list of names: it consisted of the prisoners kept in several internment camps across the country, specifically it included members of the communist party, but also some people who just happened to be there. The development of the situation is considered from various points of view: a 17 years old boy who was arrested for distributing flyers, a young male who was supposed to be released the very day of the execution, other political prisoners, French administrative officers, head of the occupying force, a young German soldier who had never shot at a human being before and was now ordered to be a part of the execution brigade, etc.

The injustice of the collision is the factor that contributes the most to the emotional response here; at that, the situation is not exaggerated in any way – as far as I can tell, its depiction is as objective as can be, which is probably the hardest thing to take. The story is simple, and from simplicity comes its power; the ending is entirely predictable, even if you don’t know squat about history, but that doesn’t make the film any less interesting to watch, only really difficult.

The implementation is astounding in a way that only decades of filmmaking experience on top of a vast talent can give. I can assure you that significant age has not effected Schlondorff’s abilities one tiny bit, but rather made his movies (specifically, this one, but not only) ripe and rich with hidden nuances. Needless to say, every technical aspect of it is superb.

La mer à l’aube is a special kind of pleasure – one without joy. Ironically, it took the best qualities human nature can provide to tell a story about the worst. And I would’ve recommended it, if only it wasn’t so terrifying.

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Blockbuster (Natasha Tulpanova, 2017)

Blockbuster is a story about a girl called Natasha, who decided to shortcut her modelling career path by robbing a microlanding joint. It so happened that she did it at the very night Liza, an apiring young TV hostess, had a personality crisis and went roaming around the city. Natasha took Liza hostage, which was the start of their joint adventure, with involvement of the police officer who later became a writer, members of the criminal gang, and a mysterious collector who was almost impossible to kill.

Probably the most interesting thing about this film has nothing to do with its plot. It was originally written and directed by Roman Volobuev, who is a famous Russian cinema critic recently turned director. At the night of the premiere, after watching what was supposed to be his film, he publicly disowned the whole endeavour due to liberties – to put it mildly – the producers of the film took with the editing and post production in general. Maybe in the future we will get to see the director’s cut, but for now all we have is what the producers felt like doing instead. You won’t find Volobuev’s name in the credits – it’s now attributed to the character’s name instead (although not on IMDB).

So what to say about the producers’ version of the movie? It’s not that bad, really, – meaning it’s watchable and relatively consistent. There are indeed some questionable solutions, like the collector guy who is basically a terminator, but whose image is not expanded at all; or the possibility that Natasha might be in fact a whack of sorts, which was hinted at, but never followed through; or the pursuit in the finale, which doesn’t seem very plausible even with all the storylines flirting. But the film can still be enjoyed – as a one-time entertainment that is, because there doesn’t seem to be a reason for anybody to watch it twice. The acting is okay, the story all in all is merely believable, the structure of the film produces an impression of slight imbalance, etc.

In short, it’s good enough for a viewing, but will probably leave you dissatisfied.

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