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+.

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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)”

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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.

Listen Like Doc: Doc Reviews Neil Gaiman’s Audio Book “The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains”

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This will be a bit of a different tack for me.  I commute many, many miles each week, and find the comfort of a good podcast relaxing enough in my mobile man-cave to keep me from bursting at the seams at the morons that litter our highways.  Never mind that they commit the same transgressions that I do on a routine basis – they’re different, because they aren’t me.  Harumph.  But every now and then, a short audio book comes along that strikes Doc’s fancy, and with that, I’ll dive in to today’s review – the utterly delightful “The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains.”

Image result for neil gaimanLet me start by saying I am a huge Neil Gaiman fan.  He could write out a shopping list and I’d cry like a slapped baby for hours, I’m almost sure of it.  So perhaps the well’s a bit poisoned whenever I open up a new book of his: I take a swig already knowing it will be my Favorite New Thing.  “The Truth…” is no different.

I downloaded the audio from my library’s Overdrive site – please, please, please: if your library offers Overdrive, a free way to download books and audio, you’ve GOT to jump on it!  It’s an amazing world of free stuff, on loan to your device, just like any other library loan.  Go to their website and see if your library is a participant; if not, talk to your library’s management, and see if there’s anything that can change their mind.

Image result for eddie campbell illustratorWhere was I?  Ahh.  I downloaded the audio to find that 1) it’s a swift 82-minute listen, and 2) it apparently comes fully loaded with its own soundtrack – performed nicely by the FourPlay String Quartet.  The book itself, in print form, is apparently a very nice package to thumb through, adroitly illustrated by Eddie Campbell, whose artwork adorns the cover of this particular audio piece.

The story tells the tale of a mysterious small man – a dwarf, by some accounts – who is seeking the assistance of a villager, Callum MacInnes, a man known to have visited the mysterious cave of gold in the Black Mountains.  The dwarf, who is our narrator, seeks to hire him as his guide.  The gold has its own tale to tell; those who have entered the cave and taken its gold find that whatever purpose they find for their purloined treasure, there is no joy or happiness to be gotten from it.  Callum explains this to the dwarf, warning him that nothing good will come of it – he himself used his gold to buy a nice parcel of land, build a lovely house, woo and marry a beautiful woman, and sire a loving son – but he himself is without joy.  He is destined to live the rest of his days this way.

Eventually, Callum agrees to serve as the dwarf’s guide, but on one condition: he himself will not enter the cave.  He will bring the dwarf to the foot of the cave, and allow him to spend as much time as needed within, but the dwarf is to understand that Callum must not enter, and that the dwarf himself can only take out what he himself can carry.  The dwarf readily agrees.

The trek to the island on which the misty Black Mountains rest fills up the first half of the little story.  On the way, we learn a little more about the guide – not much about his history, but about his nature.  We also learn that he has hidden quite a dark secret from everyone, even his own wife, but is coaxed by the dwarf into telling the tale, a tale of a life he took inadvertently, an act that continues to play a role in his own life.  It is when the two arrive at the mouth of the cave, after a few misadventures and questionable actions, that we start to get an understanding of the dwarf’s motivations and how he will choose to spend his time digging through the gold in the cave.  We are greeted with a number of sides of the dwarf throughout the book, and eventually come to understand his actions by the tale’s end, even if we might not agree with them.

The book is peppered throughout with indications of what’s to come.  Still, and even though the ending was no surprise, the whole package left me breathless when it had finished.  Bravo, Neil Gaiman.

Image result for The Truth Is a Cave in the Black Mountains audioThe audio book may pale in comparison with the print version, and getting to enjoy the illustrations provided by Campbell – in fact, listening to it made me vow to seek out the printed version to be able to see how well Campbell did – but those of us who are able to hear the audio version are given the additional treat of the music of the FourPlay String Quartet.  They are as much like the Kronos Quartet as ever I’ve had a chance to experience; this seems to be the perfect book for their performing ability – their strings tickle the listener’s emotions as much as the reader.  And oh, what a reader!

Gaiman doesn’t simply read the story, he performs it.  As its author, he knows the inflections he was after, the cadence of the dialogue, the crests and waves of the flow that pitch us forward and back in our seat as we listen to his telling of the tale.  His voice is a slice of butter-and-honey toast: all smooth and sweet and lovely to taste, but quick to turn into a sharp bit of crust when you least expect it.  God, does he get it right throughout the story.

Doc thoroughly enjoyed this story.  He understands that his man-crush on All Things Gaiman probably is playing its role in the final verdict, but because of the duration, presentation, and story telling, we’ve gotta give this one a solid A.  Highly, highly recommended.  This might be tied with “Meddling Kids” for my favorite book of the year so far.

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

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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 Archive.org; 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!

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.

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.

Watch Like Doc: “Mommy” (2014)

Doc recently had the opportunity to take in the film “Mommy,” a Belgian picture starring a whole bunch of Canadians.  How’s that even happen?

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Mommy‘ is, on the surface, a disarmingly simple study of a family’s mortifying dysfunction, mostly through the 15-year-old son’s ADHD and explosively violent behavior, blanketed with the mother’s efforts to show her brand of love while holding out hope for something better.  Anne Dorval is mostly very good in her portrayal of Diane Després, 40-something widow and mother to Steve, played with menacing-then-charming perfection by Antoine-Olivier Pilon.  The movie begins with Steve’s return home after being deinstitutionalized – after he had set fire to the cafeteria at the facility he was receiving care in (and injuring another patient there), Steve’s mom was given the choice to have him shipped off to the highly restrictive juvenile detention center (“That’s the beginning of the end…”) or bring him home to live with her again.  It is obvious from the start that Diane and Steve together are two highly flammable ingredients to an explosive cocktail, playing off each other’s emotions, each goading the other until the crescendo results in rather disturbing threats or actual acts of violence.  It is after one such outburst that the third main character, the odd next-door neighbor Kyla, played by the brilliant Suzanne Clément, is introduced to the pair, and rounds out the main troika that gallops through the film.

The bizarre chemistry between Kyla and Steve, and between Kyla and Diane, is more than simply captivating – it tends to draw the audience in.  Kyla, herself an audience member, has her own set of quirks – she has a prolonged stammer that entertains the asocial Steve, and is a recent arrival from Quebec where she used to teach high school but, for some unexplained (presumably dark) reason, quit her job and moved away with her husband and daughter.  At one point, we spy a framed photograph of what must be her young son, but who does not live in Kyla’s house.  As the film progresses, Kyla’s stammer becomes far less pronounced, but only when she is with Steve and Diane – and she finds herself with them often, apparently able to relax amidst (and in spite of) the tense atmosphere that the Després household often holds; in addition, since Steve’s home-schooling is beyond Diane’s ken, Kyla is asked to step in and provide her service as his teacher.

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The film demands a great deal from the audience.  The anger that lies beneath Steve’s every step is nearly tangible, to the point that we look for clues as to how he will react to any given stimulus at any particular point in the film.  That’s as much a tip of the hat to Pilon’s acting as to the film’s direction by Xavier Dolan.  Another demand is made right from the start, also by Dolan – the aspect of the film is reported to be at 1:1 – essentially a square or, if you will, a box in which each of the characters simmers or smiles.  The affect can be quite claustrophobic, and when close-ups are shot during scenes of violence, downright unsettling.  Finally, the audience is expected to sit tight and (presumably) try not to judge Diane, who obviously has been doing the best she can, given the hand that she’s been dealt – but almost all of her moves seem to be a display of rather terrible parenting.  She uses the word love in describing her feelings for Steve, but compassion and nurturing appear to be non-existent.  Trying to will a character to do the right thing when you can see things going downhill fast can take its toll on a movie-goer.  Twice or three times in a film?  No problem; it’s hard to have a plot without conflict.  But twenty to thrity?  Good lord.

ccIt can be argued that almost all of Steve’s problems in the story are either directly or indirectly linked to his mother’s actions.  We see it on the screen, when Steve is hectored into accompanying Diane with a male neighbor to a karaoke bar, where Steve is to be on his best behavior while Mommy and the neighbor wolf down drink after drink, discussing a pending lawsuit resulting from the cafeteria fire.  We see him trying, but we know it will end horribly.  The ensuing confrontations that night, as well as over the coming days, are heartbreaking.  We get the feeling that there is an unnecessary membrane of hopelessness covering Diane and Steve – Kyla can clearly see it, and we believe that she recognizes it doesn’t have to be that way.  The last straw comes in the final reel, when Steve is unwittingly brought to the juvenile detention facility by Diane in a display of surrender that she will not acknowledge.  That goes over exactly as we, the audience, felt it would, but by this time we are far too fatigued to shout at the screen.

When the credits begin to roll, we are left with so many questions.  For me, the main questions revolved around Kyla.  What happened to her son?  Why does she stammer?  What happened in school to make her have to quit her job (or was she fired?) and leave Quebec?  What makes her husband seemingly so aloof?  What attracts her to the drama-filled Després family?  Her character was enigmatic, the only character at first blush that seemed pure and unflawed, and yet we somehow know she isn’t.

Ultimately, this is a bleak and cheerless film.  I find that it fits right into Dolan’s film-writing and directing oeuvre.  While his wunderkind reputation was further solidified with the release of ‘Mommy,’ met with a nine-minute standing ovation at Cannes, I confess that I find him pretentious, and that he lives up to his image as an ‘untrustworthy’ story-teller.  Needless to say, he has his fair share of admirers and critics alike.

I suspect Doc simply don’t understand Dolan’s message with this film, and because of that, I cannot fully appreciate what he’s presenting me with.  I appreciated the filmmaking itself, and believe the acting was some of the best I’d seen all year, but because it is ultimately a painful and frustrating film to watch, it is one I would not quickly recommend.

On a scale of 1 to 10, Doc’s gonna give this one a solid C-.  Great acting, miserable story.

Doc Reviews “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” by JK Rowling, John Tiffany, and Jack Thorne

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This review is 98% spoiler-free!
Doc finished reading this snappy read about an hour ago. I haven’t really read any reviews of it, other than some of taglines like “So many twists!” There are no more twists to this story than any other Potter story. Perhaps the cruelest twist, then, is in expecting readers who have never read a play to hope it reaches them as emotionally as the first seven stories did.
Without the narrative and inner voice to accompany what is little more than dialogue and stage direction, the authors are forced into weaving slight contrivances into the dialogue to help shepherd the reader into understanding the motivation behind any given character in any given scene. In the end, it works, but I wonder how many readers get that far without becoming frustrated.
ccThe story centers around Albus Severus Potter – remember reading that name in ‘Deathly Hallows’ and almost being moved to tears at the significance behind it?  It seems that Albus isn’t all that interested in what made mom and dad name him that; in fact, his priority appears to be in coming to grips with being the son of Harry Potter.  Another of the main characters is a kid named Scorpius Malfoy – who also seems to be having issues living up to his own father’s best wishes.  Through a series of encounters, and early on in the story, we learn that Albus and Scorpius, who somehow have found themselves to be kindred spirits, are contriving to step back into the past with a Time Turner to right a wrong and make the world a better place.  It wouldn’t be much of a story if they succeeded in doing just that, so there’s all sorts of misunderstood actions and missteps along the way.  You don’t have to read too many books on time travel to know that sometimes things can really go wrong with the slightest of actions.  A temporal butterfly effect.
In true Rowling fashion, things get off to a bang, and there’s loss of life at stake (on a massive scale) depending on whether or not the Potter and Malfoy progeny can undo what’s been done.  Of course they can’t, not on their own.  And even then…
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There are some minor complaints about the writing – at times, it seems as though this is a story wrapped up in a Trivial Pursuit game; many names from the past are re-introduced, as can be expected in any series that has run this long, but often we are met with obscure names that may have been mentioned once in an early chapter of an even earlier story in the set – and that’s the only mention. Are the authors offering a nod to the true Potter geek? I didn’t consider these moments as roadblocks, but they were certainly distracting and seemed to be shoe-horned into the text in as unwieldy a manner as could be expected.
The story was very good, everything a true Potter fan could have hoped for. Among the best-written parts in the play are the redemption and acknowledgment of past courageous acts for a number of well-known characters; this seemed to also be a nod to true devotees who may have felt certain characters’ sacrifices, both known and assumed, went unappreciated for too long. I don’t want to spoil anything, so I’ll leave that up to your imagination as to whom I’m writing about. Regardless, these passages could have been written in a ridiculously syrupy manner, and perhaps if this were a traditional novel, that would have been the case, but the stage is too swollen with action for characters or audience to dwell too much on them. The authors are, to paraphrase one exchange, planting acorns for the ride home and for the weeks to come.
One thing that stands out to the even mildly observant reader is that trying to stage this play as written would be a courageous endeavour. There are seemingly hundreds of scenes scattered through the acts, and the magic is deeply ingrained throughout – how certain actions could be translated to the stage are beyond me, but that’s happily not my job. It does make me want to see the play in person, however.
What would be even more interesting would be to see how it could be brought to the cinema screen. It would be interesting to see it happen, but it would have to occur with at least one major change in the cast – Alan Rickman’s passing would demand someone that could handle Snape’s lines – not much of a spoiler, since it’s already been revealed that the play involves a good deal of time travel.
So anyway, a good read, almost a must-read for the true Potter fans, with a gentle warning to approach with caution – remember it’s not a novel, there is a good deal of reading between the lines required in order to follow along without getting too frustrated.
On a scale of 1 to 10, Doc’s giving this one a solid A-.  Worth the purchase if you’ve already got the other books.  I hope this puts a nice final ribbon on the series.
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