Oct 062009


So far I’ve watched up through part 5, and so far it’s great–one of the best I’ve seen. I wouldn’t have known how good it is based on the Wikipedia article about it, though:

The film received mixed reviews from critics. The entertainment magazine Variety referred to the film as “more off-putting than enthralling” and noted that while the film has been compared to the Academy Award–winning Burnt by the Sun, it lacked a main character that a viewer could identify with. Variety commented that Viktor’s personal struggles “[seemed] irrelevant” and criticized Petrenko’s “limited emotional repertoire”, as well as the poor acting of the remaining cast of characters.

I went to the Variety review that’s referred to and didn’t get any further enlightenment. I think the reviewer is nuts. The “off-putting” comment comes in this sentence:

For Western auds, however, pic’s oddly disjointed wedding of operatic emotionalism and cool aesthetic distance may prove more off-putting than enthralling.

The reviewer is perceptive in noting the contrast between “cool aesthetic distance” and emotionalism; however, so far I don’t see anything operatic about it. Maybe it gets operatic later. In any case, I happen to be one who finds the contrast enthralling. I’ve already gone back and watched some of the scenes over and over, even though I haven’t finished watching the whole thing yet.

I don’t know why it matters that there is not a main character to identify it, because there are several characters we quickly learn to care about: The General, Viktor, Vera — even Lida and the KGB guys. And there are other minor characters who are interesting, too. That’s what matters.

To mention Burnt by the Sun by way of comparison is goofy. Burnt doesn’t measure up to this one at all. It does have a central character — or should I say a central actor — Nikita Mikhalkov. But in his role as a retired military officer, I got no sense at all of why he would be admired and respected by the men who had fought under him. As usual, Mikhalkov played Mikhalkov. He just couldn’t pull off the character he’s supposed to play.

But here I am, contaminating a note about a good film with talk about an inferior one.

And poor acting? So far I haven’t seen any poor acting in this film. The screenshot above shows some great acting. The bad guy is a clean-cut young KGB officer who smiles easily, but who is doing some dastardly business in his interrogation of the General. Very realistic, IMO. Very seldom, i.e. almost never, do you see a movie that has guts enough to do that. Usually movies have to give the bad guys bad haircuts, bad complexions, and sinister mannerisms so you know they’re bad. But that’s not how the world works. The other KGB officer — the one who plays the General’s adjutant — has a little of the usual, but still it’s very subtly done.

The reviewer almost may have had a point about Igor Petrenko’s “limited emotional repertoire.” However, keep in mind that he’s a very young man. He’s playing the part of a young man very well, and there is more subtle variety to his behavior than you’re likely to get from a young Brad Pitt.

I wish I had the recording of Nature Boy that’s used in part 4 of the film. I wasn’t familiar with the song so had to google for information about it. I like the one on the film better than any version I’ve found on YouTube — even better than the Nat King Cole version I found there, though that one is pretty good. Who is singing in the film? The orchestration sounds like it comes from the late 40s or early 50s.

I see that Pavel Chukhraj, who directed the film, is also the person who made Vor. I’ll have to start paying attention to that name.

Jan 212008

As a public service, I should make a database that categorizes Russian movies in useful and important ways:

Proto-bolshevik revolutionary — In pre-revolutionary Russia, there is the odd character who tinkers with explosives, befriends a youngster, is arrested and beaten by the police, and perhaps has some noble words about truth for the youngster to remember as he is hauled away.

  • The Childhood of Maxim Gorky
  • Siberiade
  • (One movie recently seen on RTR-Planeta that had three of them who conducted some caper on behalf of the motherland and were then hauled away to be executed by the ungrateful czarist government.)
  • Andrei Rublev — The setting is somewhere around 1400. In this case it’s Rolan Bykov as a dangerous jester rather than an explosive maker. He gets beat up by the police, like the others, but his words of wisdom are in his jokes.

Revolutionary man scorns woman — Beautiful young woman tries to seduce/charm a man who ignores her so as not to get distracted from his revolutionary mission.

  • In one movie I saw on RTR-Planeta, the guy politely ignored the advances of the young woman who somehow ended up in the camp of revolutionaries, but took interest when it turned out she was an excellent shot with a handgun.
  • In the RTR-Planeta movie with the three-musketeer types, one of the three resists the advances of a beautiful woman who undresses in his hideaway before realizing he is there, too. She wants to be kissed; his facial expression says no; he goes on to complete his mission.

Indoor chairs used outdoors

  • Moscow does not believe in tears
  • Unfinished piece for player piano
  • Vodka Lemon (not a Russian movie, but some Russian is spoken)

Nikita Mikhalkov in a tanktop – (He seems to favor horizontal stripes)

  • Railway Station for Two
  • Burnt by the Sun
  • Siberiade

Tonight as we were watching Siberiade , Mikhalkov appeared once again in that tanktop with horizontal stripes. That’s what motivated me to finally start compiling this list.

Jan 192008

We’ve been watching the 1979 movie Siberiade, this week. We just started the 2nd DVD of it last night.

Unfortunately, this is one Russian movie that doesn’t have much winter. There is a winter scene at the very beginning, I suppose to set the stage in Siberia, but that’s been all so far. None of the casual, pointless, everyday snow scenes that I’ve enjoyed in so many other Russian movies.

So far I’m irritated by actor Nikita Mikhalkov’s arrival in the 1960s segment. I was really enjoying the movie until now. Mikhalkov is supposed to be this great Russian actor, but all I see is a one-trick pony. He’s playing the same character he did in Vokzal dlya Dvoikh. It was good there, in a minor part. But as the male lead? I expected more. All those same mannerisms don’t make for a fully-developed character. Well, we’ll see how it plays out. We have a ways to go before reaching the end.

He played the same role in the first part of Burnt by the Sun, too. He played Nikita Mikhalkov instead of playing the part of an old-school Russian colonel. He got better toward the end of that one, but there was a bad beginning.

The two young actors who played the young boy who became the adult Alexis did great in Siberiade — anticipating his adult mannerisms somewhat. The youngest of the two did especially well. But it was a letdown to see the adult version finally appear.

I’ve liked Mikhalkov’s work as a director in Oblamov and Unfinished Piece for Player Piano. I’ve liked the documentaries I’ve seen. But seeing him as an actor is getting wearisome. (It doesn’t help that he turned into a Putin supporter, but his biography told us that’s what would happen.)

I was looking forward to seeing Lyudmila Gurchenko again after seeing her role as a female lead in Vokzal dlya Dvoikh. The jury is still out on that one, now that she made her appearance at the same time as Mikhalkov.

Dec 032007

It’s not surprising that Nikita Mikhailkov is a big Putin supporter. He’s long been accused of being a political chameleon. The Arts section of the New York Times reports on what he’s up to:

Mr. Mikhalkov, on the set of his next movie, which is a military base outside Moscow, responded to these predictions with disdain: Listen to whats on television and radio now and tell me, what limitations do you see? He tried not to look exasperated. Artists are perfectly free, he said. My view is simply that the modus operandi of Russia is enlightened conservatism, meaning hierarchical, religion-soaked, tradition-loving.

Artists may be free, but how long is that going to last in a society where reporters and dissidents are shot and poisoned? Mikhalkov points to the freedom artists enjoy now, but the people he’s responding to are talking about what’s going to happen two years from now.

And if Russia is so comfortable with being hierarchical, why is it necessary to shoot dissident reporters? If Mikhalkov is appealing to what Russia is, why not let it be what it is?

And after reading this article, I’m more irritated than ever by that Burnt by the Sun movie Mikhalkov did. Some reviewers liked the symbolism of that sun. But it wasn’t a sun that got people burned. It was people who did it — people who were given too much control over the lives of other people. The movie avoids that issue. And now Mikhalkov is coming down on the side of a man’s ability to have more of that.

Nov 292007

I wish I could watch this on RTR Planeta. But it doesn’t sound like something Putin would like. Excerpt from the article about it:

That leaves Belinsky and Herzen with plenty to do. They have arrived on Russia’s shores just as the history of Russian thought is up for grabs, when a fight is raging for the country’s identity and for its past. Everything Herzen detested is being resurrected: censorship, the autocracy of the Russian state, a macabre union of Orthodoxy, nationalism and authoritarianism. After almost 15 years of a democratic experiment following the collapse of Communism, Russia’s middle class is voluntarily surrendering personal liberties for a notional stability just as the French did in 1848. As one of the audience declared, “I feel that this production is so up to date that it could be shut down.”

It’s from moreintelligentlife.com

I’ve been wondering why the country that produced the likes of Dostoevsky could also produce such shallow understandings of the cause of great events like that seen in Utomlyonnye solntsem. Maybe there are some clues to possible alternate outcomes here.

Nov 252007

We finished watching Burnt by the Sun last night — did it in two sittings. It wasn’t as good as I had expected it to be, given the awards it received and that I’ve seen what Russians filmmakers can do to portray the Stalin showtrial era.

On the one hand it’s good to show the humanity of the NKVD — that they were real people who could have a talented, artistic side and didn’t come out of the womb determined to do evil. And it takes some guts to portray it that way. Whenever anyone attempts to do a film that way about Hitler and the Nazis, there are some people who will object saying it makes light of evil, when in reality it’s just the opposite.

But even though this film is from 1994, it was not at all about the revolution eating its children, or eating its parents. It could have been from 1960s Soviet Russia with its tired old storyline of implicating the white russians in whatever evil there is.

And to show Colonel Kotov at the end, quickly broken down, his face horribly beaten up, in contrast to the idyllic life he and his family had been living until just moments before, is not as horrifying as the thought that people at the show trials could be made to confess to crimes they never committed without that kind of physical brutality being inflicted on them. Maybe I’ve read too many things like Arthur Koestler’s “Darkness at Noon.” But I think we need to learn more about how such things could happen, and this movie doesn’t help.

Once on RTR Planeta I saw a good part of a different movie about the Stalin show trials. Sorry, I don’t know nearly enough Russian to tell you much about it — there were no subtitles and I could pick out only a few words — fewer even then I would be able to now. But it seemed to follow the Maxim Gorky story in some respects, except the end was more like Darkness at Noon. I’ll bet it was the kind of movie that would help me understand the behavior, if I could understand the language. I’ll probably not see it again, because I doubt Putin would allow such a movie to be aired now.

After watching the movie, I went online looking for reviews. Here is one that’s impressively perceptive. It’s titled “No Soul” and is written by Alan A. Stone of Boston Review.