Doc Reviews “The Woman in the Window” by A.J. Finn

Image may contain: textLiterature it ain’t, but if you’re a fan of the psychological suspense/thriller genre, you might enjoy this. Borrowing heavily from Hitchcock (and more or less acknowledging as much through the plot), we have a novel in which Anna, living alone, suffering from agoraphobia, sees her new neighbor and friend Jane stabbed to death in the house across the street. Battling her anxiety disorder and the bottle or so of wine she had drunk that day, Anna tries to make her way to the house to help the neighbor – she awakens in the hospital the next day, having passed out from the alcohol and the anxiety, and being told that her neighbor is alive and well. When Anna insists on her version of events, the neighbor comes in to show herself to be alive and well. But it’s an impostor – – it’s definitely not Jane. What the hell’s going on?

The author, A.J. Finn, leaves a handful of breadcrumbs and very few red herrings; on the way to the finale, I had solved almost all of the subplot mysteries to help me draw my own conclusion of what was going on, but in the end, I think Finn had either left out details or simply obscured them so well that I got a nice surprise. Events were tidily explained, and at the end of the day, we have a satisfying read. Probably just another book in the “The Woman…” titles (“…in Cabin 10,” “…on the Train,” “…Who Wrote Another Book to be Unfairly Yet Unavoidably Compared to ‘Gone Girl'”), but a fun read regardless. On a scale of 1 to 10, Doc would offer a good old “B+” on this one.


Doc Reviews “The Frozen Woman” by Jon Michelet

rfs1Finally finished this one. It’s not a massive book – quite slim, in fact, at 256 pages. In what may be a case of mistaken identity, a woman is murdered and dumped in the garden of a shady lawyer. We’re given a fairly decent bundle of clues as to who did it, but the why remains to be seen.
The book starts off with a bang, but bogs down after the first handful of chapters. Only once the reader is aware that the book may be reaching its climax does the pace pick up again. Another obstacle for me was the introduction of so many key figures throughout the book, and frankly, trying to juggle the two dozen Norwegian names was a task for me. I don’t recall having this issue with other Norwegian thrillers, but for some reason, in this one, I had a hard time keeping the characters straight in my head.
I will also fault the translator in somewhat, because the translator’s job is to do more than translate: there were a few jokes that probably fell flat because the wordplay didn’t bridge the languages. A good editor would have made suggestions to correct this.
Overall, an entertaining read, but at times it felt like a chore. On a scale of 1 to 10, Doc’s going to be kind and throw this one a B-. There’s a reason it’s not gotten any 5-star reviews on Amazon.

Watch like Doc: “Viking” (Викинг)

Related imageThe 2016 Russian production “Viking” was screened today here in Pittsburgh at the Russian Film Symposium.  Much like yesterday’s “Battle for Sevastopol,” it sticks out a bit like a sore thumb, a Russified version of a Hollywood blockbuster among more traditional art-house films.  I’m still not quite certain how it made the grade, so to speak – a two year old movie with a monstrous budget (by Russian film standards) wandering around a field of much newer, much more independent films.

The movie was introduced to the audience as “an absolute mess of a film.”  This was arguably not the most fair description of the film, but considering the speaker’s primary angst revolved around the film’s lack of historical accuracy, the pompous attitude might be understandable.  The attitude was further underscored when the speaker, in all seriousness, stated that the movie’s toying with history was a dangerous move, considering the fact that “literally everyone knows the story of Vladimir the Great and his conversion to Christianity in 988 AD.”  I would suggest that a reconsideration of how we define the words “literally” and “everyone” if this is to be taken seriously.  Let’s have a quick virtual show of hands of all those readers who are familiar with that chunk of Russian history.

Image result for vladimir the greatSo that is what we are presented with.  Vladimir, who would become Vladimir the Great, was one of three sons of Prince Svyatoslav who scattered to relatively remote corners of Kievan Rus for their own rule.  Boys will be boys, and when Vladimir’s brother Yaropolk  murdered his other brother Oleg, Vladimir got the hell out of Dodge…well, out of Rus.  Chilling in Sweden, Vladimir seeks to avenge Oleg (or at least look less like a milquetoast for running away) by amassing a horde of rough fellas to take back Novgorod after doing about two cinematic hours’ worth of pillaging, killing, and raping.  Along the way, hostages are taken, Roman words are misunderstood, and a siege on Helm’s Deep is thwarted.  The movie concentrates on the murdery and rapey bits, along with relationships being explored between – possibly – the same five guys throughout the film.  I only say this because, with all the mud and muck and blood and hair covering the actors, they all start to look pretty much the same.

You look like you need photographic proof.  You’ll have to take my word for it.

The saga ends with a thread of religion crawling through the film finally catching up to Vladimir; after a number of questionable signs from above, he succumbs to the belief that Orthodox Christianity is for him.  The rest is history.

The movie is not really bad; it is a decent effort to translate a saga from Russia’s earliest history onto the big screen that would actually be watched (instead of, say, a documentary relying on illustrations of princes being dunked in a baptismal font).  Because it features a good deal of mud, blood, muck, and hair, the actors recognize there is no real need to articulate their words.  There seems to be an unwritten rule that suggests fighters running into a fight scene must roar an incoherent string of vowels like a constipated ox seeking fecal relief.  At one point, I was hoping for at least one of the actors barking out “For Gondor!” because this whole film really carries a Lord of the Rings sort of feel.  In fact, at times, you would swear there are shot-for-shot replications of fight scenes from that series of films.  If George Harrison had filmed this, he would be sued by the Shirelles.  Instead, it’s enough to say it’s merely a nod to a superior director.

Image result for gandalf fightingThat might have been uncalled for.

I could excuse the grunting and bellowing of the fighters (who has time for comic book dialogue when you’re lopping off the legs of an opponent’s horse?), but when we see Vladimir’s efforts to shove a ship down a mountain (honestly, don’t ask) and see it miraculously only take out the evil Pechenegs who are in close combat with Vladimir’s followers, I decided enough was enough.  I had wanted to explore how the film was using history to try to make sense of contemporary political and religious issues, how it was forcing us to determine whether or not it was drawing a favorable or negative comparison to Russian society and the Putin regime, but instead, nah.  I think the director, the very capable Andrey Kravchuk, simply wanted us to sit back, enjoy the sex, enjoy the violence, and walk away with the sense that the Russian Orthodox Church is really keen.

Image result for александра бортич викингWhat did I learn?  That instead of whitewashing history, sometimes a film has to dark-wash it.  And that a man in full stride will run another three steps when his head is lopped off by a handsome iron sword.  And that some women, no matter how filthy everything around them might be, can still have lustrous, bright shiny hair.

Doc was entertained by the film, but mostly for the wrong reasons.  For that reason, I’ll toss this one a B-.

Watch Like Doc: “All Will Soon End” (Скоро все кончится)

Today we enjoy the kick-off of Russian Film Symposium 2018, presented by the University of Pittsburgh.  Doc has the good fortune to be on hand to watch what promises to be a dozen challenging films released in the last few years.  The films are attended by a number of students (studying Russian language and/or cinematography) and a number of guests from around the world – film critics and scholars who, over the coming week, will help us get to know the films as intimately as possible.

The films are presented with a 15-20 minute introduction by one of the guests, providing a bit of background on the film’s cultural, political, and cinematic context, as well as a few biographical notes about the director.  After the screening, there is a round table discussion on what the themes we feel the director was offering, how they were handled, and generally, what we felt about the movie from top to bottom.  I will be offering a review of each movie, and at times I may dip into the notes I take in the discussions prior to and after the film.  If there are parts of the reviews that you really connect with and like, that’s all me.  If there’s something in the review you find distasteful or way off the mark, that’s probably some group of rascals that felt inclined to stuff their words into my head.  Don’t blame me.

Related imageToday’s first film of two was “All Will Soon End” (Скоро все кончится), also translated as “All Will End Soon”.  Doc would have translated it a bit more casually – “It’ll All Be Over With Soon” but what does Doc know?

rfs1The film centers around a St Petersburg factory lathe operator, Misha Nosov (Mikhail Sivorin), a Chelyabinsk transplant whose sole purpose in life is to work, drink, and be absorbed by the news of the increasing hostilities between Russia and Ukraine in the Donetsk and Donbass regions.  He also apparently has taken to visiting the local brothel, where he hires the services of a woman who calls herself Diana (Ksenia Skakun).  What initially becomes nothing more than a push towards relieving his primal urges with a real live human being slowly evolves into what might be a growing affection on Misha’s part.  Not satisfied with an hour’s romp in Diana’s black-light-lit room, he begins to “rent” her for overnight stays at his apartment, then graduating for an entire week at a time – however, these trysts are no longer strictly about sex, but about seeing her as a human being instead of a plaything or sex toy.  Still, while he’s out at work, he expects Diana to perfImage result for Ksenia Skakunorm other roles, that of housewife and girlfriend – do the shopping, make lunch and dinner, go to a concert – you get the feeling that he is trying to mold her into something beyond a hooker, but is it for her sake or for his?  Neither option is really anything Diana is interested in.  She knows that he sees her as a commodity, and little else, regardless of what she is to do for him – at the end of the day, she sees herself as little more than his plaything.  Throw into the mix a seemingly disinterested pimp (Ivan Batarev) who seems to be a menacing presence in this couple’s erstwhile affair, and there’s plenty of angst to keep you on the edge of your seat.

In addition to that chunk of plot, we also see two more generations of workers at the factory – Lebedev, Misha’s pal and “older brother” who is just as able a worker as Misha but can’t muster up the interest in actually performing the work, and Pavel, the foreman, who appreciates the level of work Misha is capable of doing, and offers Misha a nice piece of the action on an important order.  Misha is the only bachelor of the three, and seems to enjoy hearing the woes of married life that the others grouse on about.  Lebedev and Pavel have a slightly abrasive relationship – Lebedev lobs criticisms at Pavel’s apparent desire to return to Soviet-type tactics in working the factory, and when offense is taken, Lebedev laughs them off as merely good-natured jokes, that Pavel should lighten up.

Meanwhile, almost on a 24-hour cycle, the news of Russian and Ukrainian hostilities play out on Misha’s TV and computer – the rooms are almost constantly being shown through the blue light of electronic screens, while the dialogue is on a near-loop – we hear the same statistics, or similar ones, thrown about casually, along with the same blather about how to live through the pending sanctions.  The war in eastern Ukraine is often a topic between the three factory men as well; Lebedev hails from Ukraine and sympathizes with the inhabitants of that country, whereas Pavel is very much old-school pro-Russian – although his son has taken to speaking out against the Russian Federation government and its actions in the invasion of Donbass and Donetsk.  Misha simply absorbs the information, delivered seemingly non-stop.  When challenged by Pavel that he surely must be pro-Russian, he replies: “I’m from Chelyabinsk.  The Urals isn’t Russia.”

The news feed eventually becomes a flash point between Misha and Diana, resulting in a scene of uncharacteristic savagery that is, in my opinion, the film’s biggest weak point.  No spoilers, but the scene in question, and how it eventually evolved, was utterly unrealistic and an insult to the audience, not to mention the characters themselves, excellently portrayed up to that point.

Ultimately, we have a film about fraternity – братство.  While more screen time is given to Diana’s character than to the other men in the film, the actual focus of Misha’s motivations are the result of how he explores and navigates the social bonds, even caustic bonds, with the other males. Even when Diana has an inadvertent revelation toward the end of the film, Misha feels nothing on how it impacts his relationship with her, but he does reach out and offer a nod to a new-found brother.

The film’s writer and director, Aleksey Rybin (his directorial debut), once said that the film is a reflection of the ongoing political situation between Russia and Ukraine.  I would argue that the brotherhood explored between the men in the film could serve as a mirror for that of the two sides fighting.  It’s a nod to both sides, whether right or wrong, through the haze of war; at the end of the day, we are all brothers.  We can only hope it’ll all be over with soon.

Image result for скоро всё кончится

Doc offers this Rybin directorial debut a pretty solid B-.  Lots to enjoy here, but more than a few missteps that really left a bit of a bad taste in my mouth.  If nothing else, it will keep me thinking for some time, something most filmmakers hope to achieve.

Doc Reviews Manly Wade Wellman’s “The Dark Destroyers”

Image result for dark destroyer manly wade

Let’s get this out of the way right now.  Two things, really.  First, is Manly Wade Wellman the best name for a pulp science fiction author you’ve ever heard in your life?  I’ll save you the trouble of actually having to think:  Yes, it is.  Good lord, if you say it quickly enough, you bark out “manly-made well man!” and people stare at you for what seems like hours.

Second: Is this the most ridiculous cover of a pulp science fiction book you’ve ever seen?  Again, yes, yes it is.  Look closely.  What must be the protagonist appears to be under attack by a giant cartoon hen with steel-cable tentacles spraying out where the beak should be.  It’s nothing short of brilliant.  Who’s NOT going to want to grab this thing?

Image result for manly wade wellmanWith “The Dark Destroyers,” Manly Wade Wellman does everything he appears to set out to do.  Entertain the reader.  The story starts out with an explanation that the appropriately-nicknamed “Cold People” (they can only live in the extreme cold) invaded Earth some 50 years before the action in this novel.  No one seems to know why they came – no efforts were made to communicate with the inhabitants of the blue planet they set down on – but they appear hell-bent on exterminating all of humanity.  It was soon understood that these invaders could not withstand the temperatures of Earth’s hottest areas; soon, bands of survivors made their way closer to the equator in order to establish a semblance of rule, and try to determine a way to kill the Cold People and claim the Earth for Earthlings once again.

The “present day” of this novel begins with five chiefs of their own tribes around a council fire near the Orinoco river, investigating the possibility of creating an alliance from the other rogue tribes in hopes of consolidating smarts and weapons to crush the Cold People once and for all.  Sitting not far from the council fire is upstart Mark Darragh, who does his best to talk sense into the men before him.  Mark convinces the others that if they just give him enough time to study the creatures, he can gain an understanding of their weaknesses beyond the climate, and determine a way to intelligently defeat the enemy, rather than once again throwing manpower and steel at them, only to have all takers killed.

The book pushes ahead from there, finding Mark among the Cold People, eventually learning (through ridiculous happenstance) how they fly their aircraft.  Cocky Mark finds himself in peril after peril, eventually finding himself a prisoner of these creatures.  Rather than killing him, though, the aliens drop him among what appears to be a habitation of regular Earthlings who live in a type of zoo for the creatures to study.  Tending to his wounds is Brenda Thompson, the love interest of the story; the banter between these two is some of the corniest dialogue this side of a 1940s B-western.

Before Mark’s had a chance to fully heal from the wounds he’s suffered from his capture, he’s spotted the perfect Deus ex Machina in the village that will aid in not only his own escape, but give liberation to the others in this makeshift zoo.  The leader of the community, however, is Orrin Lyle, who’s had his own eye on Brenda for some time.  He argues that the community isn’t ready to act, that they have spent 50 years studying the aliens, and need more time before taking action.  Mark’s plan is foolproof, and time’s a-wasting.  Orrin’s just not having it; Mark’s facing a tough decision – override Orrin and run the risk of having untold numbers of community members try to take him down, or try to convince the entire community, Orrin be damned, that there is little time left to act.

The book is a ripping read; for all its weaknesses (there aren’t many), it is solidly written by the prolific Wellman, who has a nice turn of phrase for the era in which he wrote.  There are some eye-rolling moments, not least of which is the awkward scene in which Mark forces himself on Brenda in a manner that would get him arrested today, and perseveres in spite of her violent protests, only to find the tide turned almost immediately, because Brenda can’t say no to those boyish charms.  Still, knowing that we’ve seen the same sort of stuff in old black and white films and recent presidential campaigns, we can move on without giving it too much thought.

I found the ending to be about what I’d expect it to be, the sort that you can more or less figure out from about a mile away.  But that doesn’t make the book less satisfying.  A solid effort, breezy and quick, something to cleanse the palate between something a bit meatier.  On a scale of 1 to 10, Doc’s got to give this one a B-minus.

Project Gutenberg currently offers two of Wellman’s stories for free, and there’s a few handsome ones through; however, “The Dark Destroyers” doesn’t seem to be available for free legally, so no links, but keep your eyes peeled.  It’s worth grabbinga  library copy, but I’m not sure I’d pay a lot of money for it.

Image result for russian film symposiumDon’t forget – Doc’s Cavalcade of Russian Film Reviews kicks off on May 1st as he attends the Russian Film Symposium.  He’ll be reviewing each of the four hundred or so films being screened that week in lovely Pittsburgh, PA.  Not quite four hundred films, but I’m padding now in order to allow the logo off to the right not look so lonesome by surrounding it with playful text.  But seriously – each movie will be reviewed.  Mark your calendars!  Watch this space!