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-.

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Doc Reviews “Meddling Kids” by Edgar Cantero

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I can tell you one thing: You need to read this book.

This was a very good book. “Ready Player One” (for the 70s and 80s vibe) meets HP Lovecraft (for the Lovecraft vibe). It’s NOT, as the cover and title might lead you to believe, got anything to do with Scooby Doo. The plot DOES sound familiar, though.  There are four teens and a dog, who solve a series of “mysteries” that usually end up with the unmasking of some greedy profiteer, sheep rustler, or erstwhile lawyer who had been trying to scare off the locals in an effort to hoodwink the town out of prime development land.  Or something along those lines.  Although I’m not sure I used the word “erstwhile” correctly.  But bear with me.  The action in the book takes place 13 years after the gang solves The Mystery of the Sleepy Lake Monster, where they seem to get their true notoriety as teenage supersleuths.

Fast forward 13 years, and our heroes – Andy (Andrea), Kerri, Peter and Nate – well, most of them – are getting the band back together, so to speak.  Peter, the leader, is there in spirit – he died a few years back, and only Nate is able to see and hear him.  And Tim, the dog – actually the great-grandson of Sean, the weimaraner who helped solve the case back in Blyton Hills so many years ago.  The problem?  The case may not have ever really been solved.  There have been reports of some mysterious – possibly even supernatural – events over the past few years.  On top of that, memories of scenes from that harrowing case involving scenes far too elaborate to have been staged by a money-grubbing yokel, have been nagging at the gang.  The three surviving members of the Blyton Summer Detective Club, sprung forward from their own interesting new backgrounds, are compelled to investigate once again.

The book was brilliantly penned by Edgar Cantaro, who is not only an offensively gifted writer, but also a cartoonist as well.  An example of his work, showcasing his image of the characters: medkids

This was masterfully written with sparklingly cheeky dialogue and humor running the spectrum from comatose-subtle to slap-nuts hilarious. Very few dry spells throughout, not all that many twists or “aha!” moments. Worth picking up if you enjoy reading. And I know you do.

On a scale of 1 to 10, Doc’s gonna throw a bone to this one: A.

Doc Reviews “Career of Evil” by Robert Galbraith

ceIn what must certainly be the literary world’s worst-kept secret, JK Rowling has made a name for herself writing thrilling crime fiction. And that name is Robert Galbraith. The magnificent “Harry Potter” author, under the Galbraith pseudonym, has penned three (and counting) books in the popular “Cormoran Strike” series of novels, and just like the Potter books, they keep getting better with every new release.

Here’s a bit of a primer if you’re new to the series. The protagonist, Cormoran Strike, is a private investigator who relies on common sense, intuition, and his training as a former Special Investigation Branch investigator with the Royal Military Police. To add to the mix, Strike is missing a leg due to an IED explosion in Afghanistan, is the illegitimate son of a famous aging rock-star father, and has set out to collect the horcruxes to finally put Voldemort away for good. Except for that last bit. That’s another series.

The book is told mostly from the point of view of Strike’s secretary-then-partner, a blonde-ginger named Robin Ellacott, who (at the time of the action of this novel) has been in Strike’s employ for one year. Robin’s equal to Strike in intuition and investigative savvy, but she’s also mastered the art of awareness, and appears happy to take a back seat to Strike’s ego.

Flash forward to this novel – Robin has started to receive shocking parcels and threatening letters, sometimes attached to human body parts – as small as a lip, as big as a leg. It’s obvious from the bad guy’s POV chapters that he’s got a grudge against Strike, and is doing his level best to eventually kill Robin, and have the police believe Strike was the culprit. In the meantime, our unidentified baddy roams the seedier streets of London, making every effort to top himself in the gruesome category when it comes to snuffing young ladies. Two things go without saying (but Doc’ll say them anyway) – one, this can make for some grim reading, and two, Ms Rowling’s a bit of a master with the pen; you’ll actually hear machete cutting through bone when you hit some of these passages. Yeesh.

For those who have read the first two books in the series, this volume offers a great deal of backstory on both Strike and Robin. We learn a lot about Strike’s relationship with his mother, a former flat-mate, and his unpleasant father. We also are introduced to rather disturbing information about Robin and her fiancé, Matthew; all of this information serves not just as juicy subplot, but are also excellent devices for moving the story along and offering the motivation for some of what could otherwise be written off as erratic behavior on the part of the characters.

Because Rowling is behind the wheel, we’re treated to a marvelously fleshed-out (sorry) laundry list of likely suspects, each more foul than the previous one. Needless to say, as the story progresses, Strike is accused of interfering in police work and runs the risk of being tossed into a cell. And because the press had a field day with the first of the grisly packages addressed to Robin, his clientele has shrunk, making the bank accounts quite tight. Forced to accept jobs of stalking ne’er-do-wells and cheating spouses, Strike often feels as though he’s letting real opportunities to catch the killer slip through his fingers.

cdRowling is nothing short of a gem. She has once again delivered the goods to a hungry reading public, with a masterful plot and perfectly good and evil characters, along with some iffy ones to boot. She also tackles some incredible issues here, such as rape, pedophilia, partner abuse, and incest, and delivers them unadorned. At one point, Strike is faced with evidence that a young girl may very well be directly exposed to a known child rapist, and appears to be reluctant to act. Robin is faced with the dilemma of going against her boss’s stated instructions to stay out of it, risking being fired, as well as irreparably damaging a police investigation, in order to act on behalf of the young girl. It’s a very touching scene, and (of course) directly impacts the book’s final chapters.

Another special treat for Doc was Rowling’s description of Yorkshire, particularly a visit to Betty’s Tea Room in Harrogate. It’s such a tiny, tiny detail that most readers would glaze over to get to the murdery bits, but since Doc lived in Harrogate a number of years ago, and has actually been to Betty’s, it was like coming across an old friend. Thanks, Jo, that was special.

Let’s not fool around here. On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being a leg sent to your office, and 10 being roses and chocolates, Doc gives this book a solid A. Read the series if you haven’t; if you have, grab hold of this book.

I’m really looking forward to the BBC production of the first two books, but at the end of the day, I still miss Dobby.