Doc Reads Mark Urban’s ‘The Skripal Files: The Life and Near Death of a Russian Spy’

40653290This book was published so (relatively) quickly after the entire Skripal poisoning affair and the fallout thereafter that I thought it was surely going to be a slap-dash affair, cobbled together from random sources and reading as though it were put together by an amateur sleuth. We’ve all read rushed-to-publication books at least once in our lives, so I think you can appreciate my concern. But it IS a library book, so nothing ventured, nothing gained.

This book is nothing of the sort. By happy circumstance, Mark Urban had already been working on a book that leaned heavily on his interviews with Skripal over the years, and he had already done a remarkable amount of research on Skripal‘s background which would have made an excellent book by itself. Add to this the Novichok poisoning of Skripal and his daughter in March 2018 (as well as three other named bystanders), and you have in your hands an implausible thriller.

Urban’s writing is first-rate. I’m amazed at how many journalists are able to turn what could just as easily be a set of articles into a true page-turner of a book, all without feeling the need to sensationalize the subject matter – in this case, it sensationalizes itself throughout.

Image result for skripalMy one very minor gripe is that the book was trotted out before any real suspects could be fingered in the affair. Hindsight’s perfection tells me that suspects were identified in August, and while the book itself was published in October, one could argue that getting the book back from the editors and wiping the pre-publication proofs was possible in order to cobble together a postscript containing the information, but naming suspects in a book can be a fairly calamitous affair, from a legal point of view; even stating suspects have been identified, without naming them, could have been an embarrassment if that particular part of the Skripal case fell apart. So mine is a very thin bone to pick – the book’s merits are numerous, and it is an excellent study, from start to near-finish.

Related image

Pull my other leg, boys, and it plays Jingle Bells.

Overall, a riveting tale, and well worth it’s Doctastic rating of A-.  Recommended.


Multiple-Mini-Review: Doc’s Tale of Two Knigi

Image may contain: one or more people and textIt was the best of books, it was the worst of books. Well, that’s not quite fair – the Strugatsky boys are a couple of authors I really enjoy reading, but this time around, all characters and no plot. I got through the halfway point and bailed. I can’t see waiting around for two hundred pages, waiting for something compelling to happen. I’m the opposite when it comes to watching slow movies, not sure why I don’t have the patience when it comes to reading.  As such, Doc’s really unable to offer a grade for this one.

The Scalzi book, on the other hand, hits the ground running. It’s more a novella than a novel, at only 130 pages. It reads quick, and it’s a very entertaining story. The cover art is a bit of a disappointment, I will admit – it gives the overall package a vanity press feel, which doesn’t seem right, since Scalzi is fairly prolific and has done well for himself.  The writing is tight and muscular, and the plot is pretty fantastic.  A quick and dirty “A-” for this effort.

If you’ve read “Monday…” and love it, convince me to give it another shot.

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: “Battle for Sevastopol” (Битва за Севастополь) wish I could put the Ukrainian title of the film in the header – they refer to the Ukrainian-language version of the film as “Indestructible” (Незламна), and I feel that’s a better representation of the movie than the Russian (and American-translated) title.  There was no “Battle for Sevastopol” – there was a series of battles to defend that city which ultimately failed.

I’ll just put this out there right off the bat – there was a lot to enjoy about this film, but ultimately I was pretty disappointed with the final product.  First, some interesting background I picked up during the before-and-after discussions during the symposium.  This is the last joint Russian and Ukrainian enterprise, in terms of cinema, before the Russian invasion of Crimea and hostilities in eastern Ukraine.  The movie was released in cinemas in both countries, in their own languages, shortly before things fell apart sharply between the two.  The movie was very well received in both countries, although we are told that many elements in Ukraine feel it is a little too pro-Russian, whereas many in Russia feel it is far too pro-Ukrainian.  You can’t please everyone.

Image result for людмила павличенкоDoc’s one of those people you can’t please all the time.  This is a biographical depiction of the wartime years of Lyudmila (Lyuda) Pavlichenko, a Ukrainian-born Soviet sniper who, during World War 2, killed over 300 German soldiers.  The movie is actually told from the point of view of Eleanor Roosevelt, who hosted Lyuda during a 1942 effort on the part of the Soviet Union to bring the Americans, still freshly ensconced in their first year of the war, to fight side-by-side with the Soviets instead of simply continuing the Lend-Lease Program.  We see Lyuda shortly before the war, resolute and dedicated, showing the boys that she could compete with them in a shooting match at school.  Her excellent performance (47 points out of a possible 50) is noticed by the local Commissar, and she is sent off to sniper school.  When Nazi Germany attacks the Soviet Union from a number of fronts, Lyuda is fiercely determined to play her role.  She is recognized almost immediately as not only a superb sniper, but also the daughter of a true hero from the Civil War – a military veteran who seems to have no time for the young woman, as he had always wanted a son.  During the film, through flashbacks that are relayed from Mrs Roosevelt, we see Lyuda fighting in the Battle of Odessa and the failed defense of Sevastopol. There’s a lot to be amazed at regarding this young woman.

What didn’t Doc like about the movie?  Plenty, unfortunately.  The fact that a large percentage of the movie takes place in the US (Washington DC and Chicago) provides way too many opportunities for Russians and/or Ukrainians to play speaking parts of Americans, with insufficient money spent on dialogue coaches.  The heavily-accented exchanges are almost, but not completely, covered by the Russian overdubbed for the benefit of Russian audiences.  If you think Clint Eastwood and Sean Connery spoke Russian fluently in Firefox and The Hunt for Red October, then this won’t bother you as much as it did me.

Related imageSomeone at some point of the production made a decision to inject modern music into the film during a battle sequence.  Because up to that point we had been treated to music that was contemporary to that time, the sound of an electric guitar as a backdrop to sung entreaties to fight heroically was jarring and intrusive.  Picture Charlton Heston’s Moses parting the Red Sea to allow the Israelites to flee the Egyptian Army, while Kenny Loggins sings “Out into the danger zone…” in the background.  No.  No no no.

Peppered throughout the film are elements meant to symbolize Lyuda’s home and her first love; rather than adding a level of poignancy through subtlety, the symbolism was heavy-handed and predictable.  We won’t even mention the criminally unnecessary sex scene, thrown in for no obvious reason.  My shoulders ache from all the shrugging.

Finally, there is a question of over-acting.  Actually, it’s not a question at all, but an exclamation.  Sometimes less is so much more.

We’re told that the making of the film was controversial and complicated, both structurally and ideologically – whose memory of the war are we seeing?  A Russian point of view, or Ukrainian?  Again, that problem is solved through the device of using Eleanor Roosevelt as our guide.  It actually worked, though.

There’s plenty to like about this film.  It’s disjointed, but can be entertaining for someone looking for a mindless way to cinematically pass the time.  It’s just not Doc’s cup of tea.  I’ll offer it a C rating, and just say hope your experience goes better than mine.

Watch Like Doc: “Pagans” (Язычники)“Pagans” (Язычники) is one of the most humorously-depicted sad films I’ve seen in a long time.  Not sad overall, certainly not ugly-face cry into your hands sad – it ends on an uplifting note, but … Bah, let me just explain.

In “Pagans,” we are introduced to five main characters – married couple Oleg and Marina, in their mid-40s, their 20-year-old daughter Kristina, the neighbor and sometimes handyman Botsman (a.k.a. Kolya), and Oleg’s estranged mother, Natalya Stepanovna.  Oleg, Marina, and Kristina live together in a small apartment and are, at best, mildly dysfunctional.  At the beginning of the movie, we see Kristina walking gently across a frozen lake and break through the ice – this is interspersed with footage of Natalya plunging into the icy liquid of another body of water to mark the Orthodox Epiphany.  Kristina is rushed home, tended to by Dad, who is trying to revive her – her responses to her parents’ concerned queries lead us to believe that her dip into the ice hole was not unintentional, and that she may also be under the influence of this or that.

Related imageEnter Natalya Stepanovna.  She has returned from an unexplained 15-year absence, walking in the light of God and insistently coaxing the other family members into her spirituality.  She observes how the lazy alcoholic Botsman swears up a storm when trying to “borrow” 50 rubles for cigarettes (that is, vodka); Natalya chides him for swearing, saying his profane tongue is an abomination before the Lord.  Still, despite the others’ protests, she hands Botsman a fistful of change, but warns him against using it for liquor.  Botsman grabs the money and storms out, still swearing up a storm.

We next see Botsman preparing his meal (pickles, bread, and vodka) ritualistically, but see that he is physically unable to open the bottle,  We later see that whenever he tries to Image result for язычники фильмswear, his tongue feels an incredible jolt, not unlike an electric shock.  Something’s afoot, and it may very well be that Natalya has put the fear of God in Botsman’s every move.  He later tells Oleg that he has actually seen the face of death, and that he feels compelled to turn his life around – every day could be his last, and he has work to do.  No longer a lazy contractor, he completes the work he has been putting off in Marina’s kitchen in a single day, and begins taking care of other projects that he wasn’t asked or paid to do.

Image result for язычники фильм кристинаMeanwhile, Kristina is at times ambivalent, at times hostile to her grandmother’s insistence on foisting her spirituality on the family.  Intruding into Kristina’s room, Natalya begins blessing the room, spraying holy water everywhere.  She sees Kristina’s behavior as driven by demons that possess her – demons that gained entry into her soul through the fact that she’s not been baptized.  It is her plan to lock Kristina in for a week until such time as the local pastor can come in to baptize the girl.  This comes with mom’s blessing, as she is now falling into the spirit cast about by her well-meaning mother-in-law.

Image result for язычники фильмTragedy strikes with another suicide attempt by the troubled Kristina, putting her in a coma.  The last straw for Oleg is seeing his mother and the local pastor baptizing the girl in the hospital; he and his wife cannot be present in the room for the ceremony, as they are deemed to be impure.  Slowly but surely, Oleg feels that for whatever good his mother’s religion has brought to the family, it also has inserted a certain level of upheaval, and certainly has taken away his ability to choose for himself.  He is assisted in separating grandma from Kristina by none other than Botsman, who himself has realized that it was not so much faith, but fear and gullibility on his part, that stayed his hand and tongue from the vices he so prolifically once enjoyed.  He asserts that yes, he probably was outwardly a better man without drink and profanity, but religion brought him fear and despair at every turn, and stripped him of happiness – no way for anyone to live their life.

Image result for язычники фильмThe ending is bittersweet.  Kristina survives, in spite of Natalya’s forewarning that she certainly would die on Easter Sunday, the best day for anyone – believer and sinner alike – to die.  In the film’s climax, we learn of Natalya’s motivations for having submersed herself in her religion – at once heartbreakingly selfless and agonizingly selfish – and we’re not sure if her removal once again from her son’s family is fair treatment, but as Botsman said, if religion fills you with fear, anxiety, and guilt at every turn, perhaps it isn’t the right thing for you.

The film ends with an epilogue, in which Oleg, Marina, and Kristina address the camera and catch us up on how things have been since the events unfolded in the film.  Again, there is a lot of bittersweetness there, but also hope; each in their own way, these three have either found happiness in spite of everything, or have certainly found the road to happiness.  There is a good deal of resolution, but at a true cost of sadness.  One can’t appreciate sweetness without the taste of tartness every now and then.

Some observations about the film from members of the audience:

One viewer suggested that the film (and the play the film was based on) might be making a statement that the Orthodox Church in Russia might be growing too strong; it certainly is a political power, with its steady symbiotic relationship with Vladimir Putin.  Too much of a good thing can quickly turn bad, even with the best of intentions.  We see this warning bell also rung in the excellent but chilling film “The Student” (Ученик), which has plenty of parallels with this movie – albeit with fewer laughs.

Another asked “So who are the pagans in the movie?”  There are allusions to pagans in an African tribe that Botsman ran into while serving in the Navy; it is also clearly alluded to that Oleg and his family are most likely considered pagans by Natalya, at least when she is first brought back into the fold.  But the argument was put forward that Natalya herself, along with the rest of the Church, could be the pagans – certainly, pagans in the truest definition of the word, from the eyes of non-believers – a derogatory term to describe those who don’t have the same faith as, say, you and I.  An interesting perspective.

Finally, someone pointed to all of the events that seemed to happen as a result of (or in spite of, in the case of Kristina’s recovery) Natalya’s efforts and beliefs.  These were often breathlessly referred to by Natalya herself as a miracle.  In fact, the viewer inquired, did any actual miracles take place?  What is finding happiness, in the face of bleakness all around you, if not a miracle?

The movie was very good, and often very funny; in spite of some pretty dark material and a sense of loss when the credits roll, I’d have to say this is my favorite of the symposium thus far.  It’s won a number of awards over the past year that it’s been out and about, all well-deserved in my book.  Doc’s not afraid to offer this film an A.  I heartily recommend it.

Watch Like Doc: Turkish Saddle (Турецкое седло / Sella Turcica)

The second movie in our opening day at the Russian Film Symposium 2018, this was “Turkish Saddle” (Турецкое седло / Sella Turcica), an interesting film from the Uzbek-born director Yusup Razykov.

Image result for фильм турецкое седлоThe film’s protagonist, known only as Ilyich, works as security in an office building; it’s obviously a humdrum job, as he spends his time motionlessly monitoring the secure entry and exit of employees.  This must be mind-numbingly dull, since we learn that Ilyich is a former KGB agent; when not at work having his mind turned to pudding, he wanders the streets of his neighborhood – by foot and by trolley – stalking and shadowing people he feels might be deviants.  There is no ultimate objective, he simply places himself in these hunts in order to keep his senses alert.  When the “deviants” have disappeared from view, the film shifts into black and white while we see what blanks Ilyich’s mind has filled in, to justify his stalking behavior.

Other than his job and his odd hobby, Ilyich has very little with which to fill his life.  Every morning is the same routine – he wakes up at 7:00, letting the wind-up alarm on his alarm clock completely unwind, rises, performs light calisthenics, hard-boils six hen’s eggs for breakfast, eats his breakfast, fastidiously places the empty shells into a glass vase, and then dresses for either his work or his stalker hobbies.  On Sundays, he’s visited by a house cleaner with whom he is able to exercise (or exorcise) any carnal desires he may have stored up during the week.

Related imageWhat can explain Ilyich’s penchant for following strangers?  His physician suggests that his symptoms of “headaches, chills, sweatiness, unsteady walk, and untangled thoughts,” are the result of the empty Sella Turcica (the location of the pituitary gland in the brain), but also adds that “men rarely suffer from this syndrome.”  The doctor is so bold as to question whether or not Ilyich might have undergone gender reassignment surgery, which is not met kindly.  This is not the first time Ilyich’s sexuality is questioned openly – his ex-KGB pals have questioned his masculinity because Ilyich bemoans a number of issues that are troubling him, feelings that come at him and overtake him; he also claims that his subjects “are all like children” and that he has “gotta keep an eye on them.”  As with his doctor, we understand that Ilyich is not pleased with having his masculinity challenged.

Image result for фильм турецкое седлоBefore too long, a pleasant young couple moves in upstairs.  They are a performing couple – we hear the beautiful singing of a feminine voice many times throughout the days and evenings, and sometimes hear piano accompaniment as well.  Eventually, Ilyich seems to become quite fond of the couple, the young woman in particular.  The stalking continues, and he follows her on a number of occasions to where she practices, at a musical school for young artists.  Eventually, a concert performance is lined up, and the two gather friends to head out for celebrations.  However, the couple drunkenly argue in public and the young man and all of the friends head off to the performance, leaving the young woman alone.  Ilyich approaches her and, rather than speaking words of compassion, instructs her to stop crying.  She is surprised to see him there and he reveals that he had been following her; this does not go well – she obviously has no taste for old guys following her around.  She tells him to stay away.Image result for фильм турецкое седло

We eventually approach the film’s climax, in which Ilyich and the young man have a showdown – not, as you would expect, because he felt that the young man was unjustly cruel to his girlfriend, but because he caught the young man in a romantic embrace with one of his male friends.  Ilyich’s homophobic rage is turned against both young men, with an unhappy outcome.  The subsequent finale is one of those “oh WOW” moments of ultimate irony that work in spite of the feeling that it’s more than just a little gimmicky.  Ilyich’s tearful realization of what has taken place not only brings him to face his own homophobia (and the psychological twists that often accompanies it), but also the inevitability of what lies beyond.

The ending works, I think, because of the brilliant approach that the director presents the movie to us.  Ilyich maintains a healthy distance from the other characters, for the most part, and they confuse him – possibly because of his “Turkish saddle”? – and the actions of others only make sense to us, the viewers, when they make sense to Ilyich.  And because of this, we slowly become part of who he is – he seems like a lonely but peaceful person, so WE feel happy when HE feels happy, hearing the beautiful singing from upstairs.  We’re genuinely interested in how he approaches everything he does.  And when Ilyich explodes at the beginning of the final act, we certainly feel betrayed, but we also may actually feel complicit to a small degree.  That’s fairly masterful stuff.

The movie is very deliberate in its pace.  Most times you read that, you think “Hell, he means it’s slower than molasses.”  That’s not really the case; I picture Tarkovsky as the king of long shots, but they are far from frivolous.  In this case, we have a Lynch-like determination to leave the camera on the subject maybe two beats longer than necessary – making it feel like an intrusion; in fact, these long shots serve a nefarious purpose – to build up just a touch of anxiety as you try to sort out the behaviors of those being stalked, as well as the stalker himself.  We’re staring at someone so long we’re certain they’re going to catch us doing so.  It’s not edge-of-your seat anxiety, but certainly enough discomfort to make you notice.

This was a very satisfying film to watch.  I would appreciate watching it again because I know there are nuances from the actors that I missed.  Doc gives 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.

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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 Looks Ahead at the Coming Week AND (for a limited time) A FREE BOOK!

rfs1Doc’s got a handful of irons in the fire for the coming week.  As you are no doubt aware, he’s going to be tucking into a smorgasbord of cinematic delicacies at the 2018 Russian Film Symposium in Pittsburgh.  Between reporting on the collection of motion picture greatness, there’s three books in particular that Doc wants to tell you about: Reservoir 13, Mister Monkey, and Hard to be a God.  All three of these are (spoiler alert) awesome in their own right, and I can’t wait to tell you about them.  Watch this space!

Image result for An Unusual Occupation: Part One of The Journals of Bob DrifterIn the meantime, M.L.S. Weech is hawking a free book through our good friends at Amazon in celebration of the upcoming release of the second book in his Journals of Bob Drifter series.  The free book (An Unusual Occupation) is actually the first in the series, and remains free until 30 April.  Matt’s second book, to be released any dang minute, is heavily discounted (99 cents, guys!) until 15 May.  Head on over to his blog to check out the details.  I’ve downloaded my copy of this intriguing book, and can’t wait to read it and review it!  Thanks, Matt!


Watch Like Doc: Doc Reviews “Zigzag of Success (Зигзаг Удачи)”


In my run-up to Russian Film Symposium 2018, I thought I would prep myself by watching as many Russian films as I can squeeze in until my brain turns to something like cottage cheese.  My idea is simple: Grab one of the Russian movies I have never seen from my embarrassingly large collection (DVDs for a buck each are hard to pass up – more on that later), then review not only the movie, but also the quality of the DVD itself – picture, audio, extras, etc.  Hope you enjoy the respite.

The first movie I picked was “Zigzag of Success (Зигзаг Удачи),” which features one of my absolute favorite Soviet-era actors, Yevgeniy Leonov.  He’s been in more than a handful of Soviet films, and is beloved across the former Soviet Union for his voice-over work as Winnie-the-Pooh (Винни-Пух) in the Soviet animated version of that classic series of books.  I originally bought the DVD because I had never seen it before, and because (more importantly) of Leonov being featured as the star.  With no more fanfare than announcing to my Facebook friends to leave me alone for the next 82 minutes, I dove right in.

Image result for евгений леонов зигзаг удачиLeonov plays the character of Vladimir Oreshnikov, one of a group of photographers at the fashionable “Sovremennik” photography studio in what I assumed to be Moscow, but described in Wikipedia as a provincial town.  He is joined by Alevtina, the homely and seemingly aloof receptionist; Lidiya, another photographer, who is only too well aware of her good looks and charm compared to the other women in the studio; Pyotr, the photo touch-up artist; Kirill, the studio’s manager; and a host of others.  It’s the end of the year, and not a lot of patrons are visiting the studio, so money’s thin – very few of the workers appear to be able to support the mandatory worker’s aid fund.  In fact, the only money in the tin comes from Oreshnikov’s pocket.  It’s soon decided that, in order to keep busy and to avoid going stir crazy, the photographer team will photograph each other, and their family members and/or loved ones.

In the meantime, Oleshnikov decides that his money would be better spent on the lottery than in the worker’s fund.  He steals into the studio at night and takes the money back, but not without leaving a receipt.  He purchases a ticket from his girlfriend, the well-out-of-his-league Olya, a bank cashier.  Their banter is endearing – she seems to really love him in spite of his being fat and sloppy.  The pickings must be slim in that town; regardless of how lovable a shlub Oleshnikov is, at the end of the day, he’s still a shlub, whereas Olya is at least ten years younger and, even removed from Soviet film standards, is more than a little easy on the eyes.

hBefore you know it, the time for the lottery drawing arrives.  A public affair in which the anxious players breathlessly await their numbers to be called in the town hall – runners up can get as many as 40 rubles, whereas the grand prize is 10,000 rubles – Oleshnikov finds a seat and can’t believe his ears when he discovers that he’s won the whole borscht enchilada.  We learn immediately afterward that Oleshnikov simply can’t keep quiet about the winning, and soon his co-workers are aware of the prize, and the manner in which he arrived at it – through his ransacking of the worker’s aid fund.  It doesn’t take long for greed to overwhelm the group, who demand that Oleshnikov fork over the money so it can be divided evenly, more or less, among the workers.  What will Oleshnikov do?  Does the money rightly belong to him?  Or is he only liable to pay the amount he took and signed for?

There are a number of side plots to the story.  Alevtina, still living with her parents in spite of her rising age, is set up by mom and dad for a blind date, as she has absolutely no prospects in sight.  Her erstwhile suitor, Ivan, at first balks at the idea of courting this aging future spinster – their banter is classic.  The two are preparing to leave for their date, and the balding, abrupt Ivan asks her if she likes him.  She says “Well, you’re not exactly pleasant.” Without batting a lash, he replies, “You’re no gift yourself, you know.”  She says “Well, why are you looking to get married at your age?  Looking for a cleaning lady?” His retort: “You’re hardly fit for anything else.”  A match made in heaven.  Soon afterwards, however, Ivan learns of Alevtina’s co-workers good fortune and the plans to split the prize, and seems to have a change of heart towards Alevtina, who by now has become a sympathetic character, needless to say.

Oleshnikov, meanwhile, has promised Olya to buy her anything she needs – he’s rich, after all.  He tells her to try on a beautiful sable coat, which she falls in love with.  Oleshnikov learns, however, that the 4200 ruble cost will significantly cut into his winnings – he tries to talk her into something more affordable until he finds a price that doesn’t scare him away.  By the time he finds a coat that suits his fancy – one that looks more or less what she’s already wearing – Olya has had enough, and leaves him.

The ending is something that we should expect from a Soviet comedy in which the good-natured shlub is either brought to see the error of his ways or, more likely, is sick of the whole affair and just wants to be back to his old life.  Either way, there are still a few hard feelings but everything works out in the end, because Soviet Russia!  A fun movie, but not without its flaws – but mostly from the DVD itself.

hThe DVD comes to us by Close-Up International, which appears to have bought sole distribution rights to a large number of Russian language films to be sold in the US and Canada.  I have purchased dozens upon dozens of their DVDs and have never had an issue with any of them.  The films are cleaned up – presumably by Mosfilm, the film studio that originally produced the movies I’m enjoying – some are even remastered, and brought to a really nice and sharp picture and sound.  The problem with this DVD is that it appears to have been made from a less-than-perfect print, with no effort to clean or remaster it; there are scratches and blemishes throughout, and at one point, we miss out on a good chunk of a scene: Olya and Oleshnikov are talking about their future, and a very rough splice brings us into a whole new scene.

The film was made in 1968, which itself was a bit of a revelation, considering how poorly made it appears.  Furthermore, it was directed by Eldar Ryazanov, himself no slouch in the world of Soviet film-making.  By this time, he was quite well established, as were his actors.  The performances were well above par – there was chemistry among many of the players, and some absolutely shining acting jobs all around.  Why this film appears to be so slipshod is beyond me – it’s even in black and white, and poorly exposed, at that.  At first I thought it surely had to be a 1958 release, not 1968.  Nope.

While the DVD fails in terms of completeness and cleanness of movie, and the visuals are grossly lacking, the audio is clear – at times, annoyingly so, because you can tell where the voices are dubbed in post-production – the difference is so stark that it almost becomes laughable.  Ambient noises disappear as the actors sit in a sound stage to re-read their lines.  The music is typical for the era’s Soviet comedies – it must have been popular at one time in the USSR, but I can’t picture it getting many rave reviews on this side of the Iron Curtain.

Another surprise on this release is the lack of extra material.  While Close-Up International doesn’t appear to go out of its way to provide a massive amount of additional material (it’s usually down to stills from the movie of choice, along with a list of credits associated with the key players and director), this has absolutely nothing.  I should also add that this version also has no subtitles, neither Russian nor English.  Listening through my headphones, I still had trouble at times picking up the dialogue – it was clear, but it was oddly fast-paced at times.  Having said that, a second viewing of select scenes provided me with the second listen my ears needed, so not much in the way of dialogue was lost on me.

If you’re a Leonov fan like I am, you’ll want to add this to your collection, in spite of its many technical flaws.  Again, a fun film, but the package leaves a great deal to be desired.  If you are interested in just finding something fun to watch that’s not painful on the eyes, maybe skip this one and select another DVD – again, more on that in the next paragraph.  For the overall package, on a scale of 1 to 10, Doc offers what he feels is a pretty gracious C.

DVDs for a buck?  New?  In Russian?  Really?  Yup.  They have no idea I’m going to footstomp them, but there’s a really nice store in Brighton Beach called St Petersburg that has a website that sells a lot of high-quality DVDs (as well as this one) for very low prices.  Most of them these days come in envelopes rather than DVD holders, which might be a deal-breaker for some – the online catalog will tell you which come in an envelope, and which come in a nice hard plastic holder.  I’ve begun simply using a large binder for my Russian DVDs because I just can’t pass up the price.  Check them out; good folks, and an honest company.  I’ve shopped with them at least seven times, and have never been disappointed.  Keep in mind, the more products you buy, the better the shipping deal is – last time I checked, shipping was free for orders over $50.

That’s all I got for now.  I’ll be checking in again soon.

The Countdown Begins!

A Spectre is Haunting Russia ::                                                                                                                    History and Cinema

Doc’s been away for a stretch, and is ready as ever to get back into his pointless reviews.  He’s excited to announce that he will be attending the upcoming Russian Film Symposium 2018.  The symposium, hosted by the University of Pittsburgh,  will kick off on 30 April 2018 and over the course of six days, will present twelve Russian films, each bookended by an introduction and a post-screening discussion by film scholars from Russia, the UK, and the US, and two roundtables for the participants to continue debating the issues raised during the discussions at the film panels and to examine the overall topic for the symposium.

During the week and immediately afterward, Doc will be providing reviews of each film and some of the thoughts captured from the audience and panel members voiced in the discussions.  It might be fun.  Doc’s really looking forward to it.

As a bit of a tease, here’s the list of films being screened; clicking the English title will bring you to the trailer for that particular film (in Russian, without subtitles).  Clicking the Russian title will bring you to the IMDB page, where available.

I’m most excited to see Matilda, which was threatened with banning and reportedly triggered a number of arson attacks in Moscow, St Petersburg, and Yekaterinburg from August to September 2017.  I’m equally psyched to see Loveless, directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev (director of the remarkable Leviathan); this dark film took the Jury Prize in Cannes in 2017, and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2018 Academy Awards.  Hell, who am I kidding?  I can’t wait to sink my teeth into all twelve.  See you around that time!  In the meantime, I’ll be posting a scattered review here and there of what’s been on Doc’s bookshelf.