Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Russian Fantastik Cinema, mainly

REMINDER: The Brattle Movie-Watch-a-Thon is in progress. Drop me a line if you would like to sponsor me, go here to make a donation, and check back on a near-daily basis to see how well I'm doing. With these films, I'm at 14 Brattle films seen and 16 elsewhere, which means 44 "points" total (or 22, depending on whether Brattle films count for two or other films count for ½)

Hollywood is not making the movie watch-a-thon thing easy. Seriously, would it kill them to release something that looks vaguely appealing? Smokin' Aces and The Messengers really never looked like much, but they at least had people I liked behind the cameras. This weekend looked positively barren aside from the Brattle's enjoyably off-beat Classic Romances program.

It's like Hollywood is making a deliberate effort to make the time period between Christmas and the Oscars suck as much as possible. Why, guys? Why must there be sucking?

The Messengers

* * (out of four)
Seen 3 February 2007 at AMC Fenway #14 (First-Run) (Movie Watch-a-Thon)

The Messengers is the kind of movie that makes me wonder if I've become too jaded. I don't really consider two stars a "bad" rating - it's below average, but there's something of merit to be found within - but for the most part, The Messengers just sort of sat there, inert, occasionally throwing something a bit creepy on screen, but I never seemed to feel even a fraction of what the boisterous crowd around me felt. Are they just easily scared people, doing something interactive (as in, there were points where I could see jumping if someone poked me at that moment, but not from what was going on on-screen), or is it me having analyzed so many of the movies I've watched that I can't connect on a purely emotional level?

I don't think it's the latter; I have seen movies that can genuinely creep me out recently. But this one's just so by-the-numbers with its vaguely-in-trouble teenage girl, actors who not long ago seemed bound for better things (Penelope Ann Miller, Dylan McDermot, John Corbett), and obviously-reshot ending.

In fact, that ending makes me sad. It's pretty well-known that someone other than Danny and Oxide Pang directed the studio-mandated reshoots, which is always unfortunate, but it's even worse when a favorite who has had his own studio-fighting experiences like Sam Raimi is listed as a producer. Nobody likes seeing one of the good guys go over to the dark side.

Planet of Storms (Planeta Bur)

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 4 February 2007 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Remis Auditorium (Russian Fantastik Cinema) (Movie Watch-a-Thon)

B-movies are B-movies no matter where they come from. This Russian example of the genre isn't bad as cold-war era sci-fi goes - it's certainly at least got all the trappings that those who love fifties/sixties cheese go for: Lizard men, a man in a robot suit, a woman fretting about her boyfriend down on the planet. It's an itch-scratcher, at the very least.

It does have a fairly cool visual effect for the cloudy surface of Venus as seen from orbit, even if the planet itself does seem like the Russian equivalent of Bryce Canyon. It's even got a sense of humor about the tendency of Soviet films to dip into propagandizing - the robot starts annoying the human crew with its talk about how it is a citizen, too, because all thinking beings are treated equally. But, overall, it sort of falls into the "we came, we did some dumb things and almost got killed, we left" trap.

To the Stars by Hard Ways (Cherez Ternii k Zvyozdam)

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 4 February 2007 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Remis Auditorium (Russian Fantastik Cinema) (Movie Watch-a-Thon)

Like Star Wars, To the Stars by Hard Ways is a product of the late seventies/early eighties that was given a fresh new coat of paint twenty years later, to once again be devoured by nostalgic boomers. Like a lot of ambitious science fiction films made on either side of the iron curtain, To the Stars is a bit too long for its own good and hammers at its audience with a message, but it's playful enough to be worth watching a few times.

It seems to take forever to get going, as the first half is overly preoccupied with showing Niya (Yelena Metyolkina), a bald, telepathic girl found on a derelict space station, what it means to be human and social and stuff, before eventually rocketing back to her home planet, where pollution has driven the residents underground and they're doomed without Earth's water-purification technology. But, of course, the powers that be don't want any outsiders involved and blah blah blah...

Pretty standard stuff, but there are some parts that are worth notice. For instance, an actual effort was made to simulate zero-gravity by filming space station scenes underwater, and it looks pretty cool. Still, it's kind of amazing to me that the version the museum showed actually cuts twenty-five minutes - it seems to be the wrong twenty-five, at least, as the first half seems endless and the second sort of lurches about.

First on the Moon (Pervye Na Lune)

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 4 February 2007 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Remis Auditorium (Russian Fantastik Cinema) (Movie Watch-a-Thon)

First on the Moon isn't the first "documentary fantasy" I've seen to postulate a Soviet space program that achieved even greater things than the real thing, and I'm reasonably certain that there's another out there I haven't yet seen. I also suspect that there's more to come: Shooting documentary-style isn't terribly expensive for an independent filmmaker, and the Soviet space program did enough remarkable things that speculating on what they could have accomplished if things went just a little better is fertile ground.

Not that First on the Moon limits itself to "just a little better" - it purports to tell us the true story of Ivan Kharlamov (Boris Vlasov), who landed on the moon in 1938. It's an audacious premise, but one which director Aleksey Fedorchenko and writers Aleksandr Gonorovskiy and Ramil Yamaleyev frequently prove themselves equal to. After all, they've got documentary proof - the NKVD (the predecessor of the more famous KGB) was filming the Soviet people clandestinely, especially in highly sensitive areas like the secret space program, and though the archives are a mess, there's plenty of film to be found by dedicated searchers.

So we learn about Kharlamov, Khanif Fattakov (Aleksei Slavnin), pretty athlete Nadezhda Svetlaya (Viktoriya Ilyinskaya), and circus midget Mikail Roschin (Viktor Kotov). Some of it is via archive footage, with the narrator noting that few records of Kharlamov's early life exist. There are also interviews, with the uncooperative camera operator assigned to Kharlamov, various circus performers who know of Roschin via their community's oral history, and with an elderly Fattakhov (Anatoli Otradnov). The present-day Kharif Fattakhov would have to be around ninety if the "present day" segments are meant to be 2005, and while he does look like the sort of rugged, fit individual that could be vital into his tenth decade, he's charming in a gruff way, talking about the crush he had on Nadezhda or the way the government hushed up the program's existence without undue wistfulness or rancor. He's a guy who's seen a lot in his time and survived long enough to know there's no good in wishing for things to have turned out differently.

Full review at HBS.

The Painted Veil

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 5 February 2007 at Landmark Embassy #3 (First-run) (Movie Watch-a-Thon)

The plot of this movie is quite off-putting, almost to the point where I couldn't enjoy what it was setting out to accomplish: A man spitefully drags his unfaithful wife into the middle of a cholera epidemic, and through the experience they find true love? I can't say that hit me quite right. I get that the story arc, about people who married in haste for the wrong reasons finding love afterward, is a fine one, but bringing someone into a hot zone is not behavior I would be able to forgive. Of course, my reaction would likely be "pride and propriety be damned".

It is a beautifully filmed period piece, and Naomi Watts is something close to excellent. Edward Norton is good, too, although I didn't quite buy his English accent. It's always a pleasure to see Diana Rigg turn up in a good part, and she makes a fine Mother Superior at the convent where Norton's character has set up shop to treat the epidemic.

Apropos of nothing, considering the setting and time period, I kept expecting to see Jet Li appear and put the hurt on westerners trying to exploit his homeland.


* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 6 February 2007 at the Brattle Theater (Special Engagements) (Movie Watch-a-Thon)

The difference between the trailer for Disappearances that played in front of every movie the Brattle played for the past month and the one that appears on the film's website is instructive - the trailer on the website is far more representative of the actual film, but the newer one that shows up in theaters sells the movie better: It cuts out most of the mystical elements, focusing tightly on the action-movie elements and playing up Kris Kristofferson's performance. It's a shame Vermont filmmaker Jay Craven didn't realize this during the actual making of the film.

The story, like many of Craven's other films, is taken from a Howard Frank Mosher novel about the people of Kingdom County, Vermont. The central focus is on "Wild Bill" Bonhomme (Charlie McDermott), the 16-year-old son of "Quebec Bill" Bonhomme, a retired bootlegger who is drawn back into the business when his barn (and the alfalfa in it) burns down during a Prohibition winter, necessitating some quick money. His mother (Heather Rae) objects, especially when Quebec Bill suggests their son accompany him on this "scouting mission", but Quebec Bill's sister Cordelia (Genevieve Bujold) convinces her that it's in the Bonhomme bloodline and young Bill should at least see it. So father and son head north in a boat, where they'll meet up with Quebec Bill's brother-in-law Henry (Gary Farmer) and Rat Kinneson (William Sanderson), an escaped con who works at their farm. The job looks bad on the face of it, and when the Bonhommes encounter the man they intend to steal the whiskey from - a demonic-looking amnesiac calling himself Carcajou (Lothaire Bluteau) - things quickly go straight to hell.

There's the makings of a strong "northeastern western" there, but that description omits a few things. Mainly, what it leaves out is the mystical elements tied up in Bujold's Cordelia - she makes predictions about the future, talks about how the men in their family tend to disappear, appears to Wild Bill to deliver cryptic messages, and just generally acts weird. Ms. Bujold does a generally very good job with the part: Cordelia is meant to be spooky and eccentric, and the trouble is never that we don't believe in her; it's that she's just a crazy old woman who initially seems to be serving no purpose other than to distract from what could be some good, pulpy crime. When the mystical stuff does start to have some relevance, it doesn't add a whole lot to the story (indeed, the first "disappearance" we see feels like a gigantic rip-off).

Full review at HBS.

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