Posts Tagged “Russian”


Cinequest 21 San Jose Film Festival
Czech Republic
Czech / Russian
110 Minutes
Drama / Family
Allice Nellis [Little Girl Blue]

MAMAS & PAPAS is about the strange lottery aspect of human fertility. While some couples try all means of medical intervention, other couples seem to be able to become pregnant simply by glancing at each other. One couple has been trying for three years and the wife is desperate. One couple is arguing over whether their relationship is strong enough to include a child or if it should be aborted. A third couple is pregnant with their third child, but money and space is tight, and didn’t she just hear the story of a woman who legally made some money by handing over her newborn to a desperate, wealthy couple? All of these stories are sort of tied together by the fertility specialist, who has her own family sadness.

There are a few things that raise this film above the typical “baby fever” type of movies we’re all used to.

–>It’s in Czech, which instantly makes it more important. Not really, but the universality of the human experience is something we get while reading subtitles.

–>The not being sure if you want a baby that appears to be the answer to prayers is shown well.

–>As I have some experience with this whole “fertility thing”, I was happy to see an agreeable husband finally explode over being treated like a “stud bull”. Once you get deep into fertility science, all the fun of “reproduction” takes a back seat to shots and timing and specimen jars.

–>As I have some experience with the whole “adoption” thing, I was touched by scenes involving all of the tests (mental, psychological, economic) that one couple had to go through. Also, the other side of the equation (the actual birth mother) was shown with care.

The acting was uniformly good. There are some mis-steps involving scuba diving and whales, believe it or not, and the “find yourself” part of the doctor’s story never took hold of me. But the genetic lottery of who gets pregnant when, by whom, and under what circumstances did take hold of me.


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December 19, 2010
Netflix Criterion DVD
Soviet Union
Russian / Italian / Tatar
205 Minutes
Biography / Drama / History / War
Andrey Tarkovskiy

#43 They Shoot Pictures Don’t They Top 1000 Films Of All Time

Imaginary episodes from the life of a 15th-century icon painter.

“A superb recreation of medieval life dramatizes the eternal problem of the artist, whether to take part in the life around him or merely comment on it” — **** — Halliwell’s

“Solo Filmschool” movies are those on the big list of the 1000 best films of all time, which the crew over at TSPDT keeps track of and updates from time to time. The current version is from January 2010. My plan is to work my way down the list, watching all of them on DVD (if available), regardless of how slow-moving, or out of date they might appear at first. If a highly-regarded and serious film class is not available where you live, you could do a lot worse than using this list as a jumping off point.

First things, first. Yes, it’s a butt-numbing 205 minutes. It’s in black and white, has no “normal” narrative, and is mostly in Russian. This is the only DVD in my 10-year Netflix history, that I’ve mailed back unwatched, and then put back on my queue at the top position. The first time the length just seemed too daunting. But, there must be a reason that it’s number 43 on THE LIST. It deserved another chance.

With older, less mainstream films like this one, I sometimes like to read about them before watching. What I learned was not to expect a linear style of storytelling, with plot point A leading to plot point B. I wasn’t to expect the title character, Russian painter Andrei Rublev, to be on screen very often–in fact, there are several long scenes where a character takes the attention of the camera for an extended period of time, never to be seen again. The man on the balloon in the first vignette is a perfect example. Who is he and what are the circumstances of his balloon flight? And what does this have to do with painting or faith or being a monk? We are never told.

I was instructed in these essays to be aware of the movement of the camera, the brutality of the images, and most importantly, the background of each scene. This proved to be the best advice I could get before viewing ANDREI RUBLEV.

The film may, in fact, be about the struggle to find beauty in the harsh Russian winters (and summers for that matter). Or it may be about artistic motivation–how a painter sees the world and his faith and incorporates that into the icons he paints. It could be about the pettiness and jealousy that humans–including the most holy monks–struggle with on a daily basis. I have no idea.

It’s the story of a famous real-life painter with no scenes of painting. It is divided into a half-dozen chapters, some of which have no relationship to each other. Our main character isn’t in every chapter, and even when he is, he is dressed exactly like the other monks, making his identification difficult, if not impossible. “Which guy is that, again?” For the last hour, our hero is wordless, because he is punishing himself for a sin any of us would have likewise committed.

I can’t tell you if the acting is good or not. If the actors are dressed in authentic costumes or speak as they should. But what I can tell you is Tarkovskiy has composed shots, the likes of which I’ll never forget. Everything I marveled at in Kurosawa’s RAN–the horses and flags and the burning temple–are done better in this film. And horses? Oh my goodness, the horses. Every broken horse in the USSR must have had a cameo in this film. Horses are inside churches, falling down steps (in a famous, brutal, and real scene), running into battle, rolling on the ground, frolicking in the water, and eaten as a treat. To simply marshal this number of horses and riders is grounds for celebration.

An early scene has three monks traveling the Russian countryside, through mud and rain. (I was chilly for the entire 3 plus running time–never has a landscape looked less hospitable.) They enter a tavern (or is it just a barn) to take shelter. A jester is performing some sort of anti-governmental song and dance as the drunk patrons laugh along with him. When he’s finished, long after another director would go to some sort of conversation amongst the monks, Tarkovskiy instead does a slow 360 degree spin of the inside of the room. We see every face looking at us–the monks, the peasants, the drunk guys in the corner, some children in the shadows. He does two spins, I think. Most of the film is in wide shot, but on a few occasions we see close-ups of naturalistic Russian faces.

There are what appear to be throw-away scenes of nature–a water snake, a man covered in ants, a dead bird, a cat walking amongst a pile of dead bodies.

The outdoor shots are where the film really shines. The first scene, involving the balloon, has the camera follow the “pilot” as he walks around a church, enters it, climbs some stairs, climbs out a window, and reaches for the ropes which are keeping the balloon from flying away. We have somehow gotten outside with the pilot and in the background, perfectly framed, is a rapidly approaching group of men in canoes paddling towards the church to stop his flight. Both the ropes, the balloon, the man, and the distant background are in focus.

There are countless outdoor scenes involving hundreds of people and horses, where you’ll scratch your head wondering how everyone ended up in the right place at the right time. An attack on a village where the action takes place on four levels, a raiding army whose horses gallop on both sides of a lake, and in a part of the film rightly heralded, an entire village helps to create a huge church bell for the town.

This bell scene involves a boy who claims that his dead father left the secrets to bell-making in his hands only. This boy has not been seen by the audience in the first 2 1/2 hours of the film, but at this point he becomes the protagonist. He has little actual skill at this craft, but he does have some sort of natural bell-making ability. He orders workers around, discovers the right molding clay by literally sliding in it, and does not show the Tsar the respect he usually gets. The digging and melting of metal and pouring of the mold and the fire and sparks is thrilling. In a scene I’ll never forget, the men begin chipping away at the clay to reveal the smooth and huge bell beneath. It takes the whole of the village to lift it out of its hole and as the Prince and other royalty ride up to see it, we all know that if that bell doesn’t ring, the boy will lose his head.

This shot is spectacular. We are up a hill, on top of the bell and in one cut, we pan from the miles away village and its protective wall, follow a line of horses as they cross a river on a bridge, see the ropes that have helped to hoist the bell, pan over to men winching the bell out of the ground, look down on the boy, and finally straight down on the bell itself. Fantastic.

Was ANDREI RUBLEV exciting from start to finish? No. Do I have any idea what it’s about? No. I took a two-hour break in the middle to gather myself and, frankly, to wake myself up a bit. Plot-wise, there’s a lot of talk about the wickedness of man, along with some examples (the raiding Mongol army, the pagans who strip naked to run though the forest, the rapists, the guy who pokes out the eyes of artists so that they can never recreate what they’ve already produced.) But the shots are just superb. There are things happening in the background of every shot. There is choreography of hundreds of extras that left me speechless.

Am I in a hurry to see it again? Not exactly. But I’m glad I did.

8.2 IMDB


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July 22, 2009
Belgium / France / Italy / Germany
French / Albanian / Russian
105 Minutes — July 31, 2009
Jean-Pierre Dardenne & Luc Dardenne [The Child]
Arta Dobroshi plays Lorna

We are immediately dropped into these characters’ lives. We are trusted to catch up on our own. Without someone spelling out every character and every motivation. This fact alone makes the first moments of LORNA’S SILENCE compelling. Lorna is at the bank where she makes a deposit. She is married, though clearly unhappily, to a man named Claudy, whose emaciation tells us that he’s an addict of some sort. Lorna is as cold as can be to this man. What has he done (besides get hooked on smack) to make her treat him this way? We are mostly in hand-held closeups at this point–in fact, this “you are there” quality will make the whole experience of the film much more visceral.

Claudy is clearly in terrible shape. He’s looking for companionship from Lorna, trying to get her to play some cards with him before bed. She then announces, I’m going to bed, adding “are you coming?” Which throws us for a loop as her body language, stoic face, and coldness towards him doesn’t exactly spell marital bliss. Alas, he needs to get his bed roll out of the other room and she sleeps in her bed while he tosses and turns out in the living room while trying to kick heroin–and not for the first time. This sounds like every other junkie-trying-to-clean-up movie that’s ever been made, but this heroin portion of the film really isn’t important. The film is about so much more.

They live in a dismal, drab apartment. She continually pulls out her ID to tell people she cares about that she’s “nearly Belgian.” The story becomes more clear. She has married Claudy in order to get a green card. She’s Albanian. The terms of the arrangement are spelled out: $5,000 Euros for marriage and $10,000 Euros for a divorce. Lorna is in a hurry for this divorce because it will be her turn to get paid when she marries “The Russian”, a crime boss of some stature. And so on, and so on, and so on.

What if you wanted to immigrate to a new country, but couldn’t do it legally? A sham marriage might be just the ticket. But the authorities are used to such capers, so it would really help Lorna’s case for divorce, if her Belgian husband abused her. But he can’t. So desperate and lonely is he, that her occasional tiny displays of caring and compassion mean everything to him. Perhaps she’s been supportive in prior attempts at quitting drugs.

There are harrowing scenes where he demands that she lock him in their apartment while she goes to work as a drycleaner so that he can’t leave to make a buy. Even more hard to watch are the scenes where Lorna pleads with Claudy to beat her, so that she can file a police report and get her divorce quicker. But he won’t. So she’ll have to bruise herself and blame it on him. But she’ll need a witness.

Lorna seems dead inside most of the time, but her eyes come alive with sparkle during the few meetings she has with her boyfriend, Sokol, another immigrant who is always traveling here and there to pick up whatever work he can. They all answer to Fabio who has the connections, the seed money, and the gun to run the whole enterprise. This is a story about the people we don’t notice. It reminded me of DIRTY PRETTY THINGS.

If Lorna claims spousal abuse, she’ll be questioned thoroughly, but if her husband were dead (he is a junkie after all), wouldn’t that make the whole situation a bit easier? Lorna wants to be rid of Claudy, she wants the $20K the Russian has promised, she wants to be out from under control of Fabio, and she wants to open a cafe with her beloved Sokol. But to her horror, she realizes that she has a conscience. If Claudy overdoses by his own devices, she can’t be held morally responsible. But if he really tries to get clean, asking her for help, doesn’t she have to support his decisions? Things aren’t as easy as they first appear.

This film is full of magnificent little moments. Claudy’s treatment ends and he promises to cook Lorna dinner. She receives a letter from a judge telling her that her divorce is final. Claudy, though expecting this to happen eventually, is not okay with it happening so soon, and puts on his jacket in order to go out and meet his connections. She refuses to let him go and he must physically fight her to get out of the apartment to score dope to drown his sorrow at losing his sham wife. This is a wordless scene that lasts about ten minutes. They awkwardly wrestle, she grabs him, she throws his key out the window after locking them both in, and then she reverts to the only urge that can possibly challenge the need for heroin. It is an incredibly touching scene–something I won’t soon forget. She is giving herself to him for comfort, for congratulations, for her own guilt about taking advantage of him, for thousands of other reasons. No dialogue is necessary.

This is actress Arta Dobroshi’s first major role and she is magnificent. Her big eyes are perfect at projecting hope, fear, apathy, and desperation. A scene where she’s questioned by some cops is a superb use of few words going a long way.

The film unfolds as a sort of mystery. Who is The Russian, what is the relationship between the two people who share the apartment, why does Lorna deposit money in the bank? The Dardennes make us do the work in finding out. It is easy to believe that Lorna was living her life in Belgium well before we started following her. There is a feeling of us sort of happening by, the camera picking up her story by accident, though it could be many immigrant’s story.

The last ten minutes play better as metaphor than as plot and I’m not sure they’re successful. But the rest of the film is spectacular.

8.4 Metacritic
7.3 IMDB


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July 13, 2009
Netflix Roku
French / Italian / Russian
90 Minutes
Claire Denis [Chocolat]

Dreamy, beautiful story about the French Foreign Leigion in Djibouti. Mostly wordless, though sometimes with voiceover that doesn’t match what we see on screen. Excessive and oppressive routines for the soldiers who seem to need it for their psyches. Men from the world’s different cultures must learn to co-exist and work together through discipline. Directed by a woman, this might be the gayest straight film I’ve ever seen. The men are almost always photographed shirtless and sweaty, in tight shorts, doing manual labor or Tai Chi or cathesthenics. But how beautiful they are. On a dusty outpost far above the ocean, they seem to be training for a fight they’ll never have. Their leader, who seems to partake in every form of physical exertion his men are forced to, has them doing tasks with dubious military benefit. They break rocks and march through lava-like landscape. The plot is nearly non-existent, save for a superior who asks a grunt his name and background, which gets the leader angry (or is it jealous), which leads to a showdown between soldier and superior. Note to self: don’t talk back to guy in charge of unit.

Worth watching alone for the photography and the final ten minutes which is either symbolic or literal, but is trippy either way. If you are a homosexual man, put this on the top of your Netflix Queue. You won’t be disappointed.


BEAU TRAVAIL is the subject of Cinebanter Podcast Number 75. After you’ve seen the movie, listen to the spoiler-filled review by Tassoula and I by clicking the play button right here:

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Show Description:
• 00:00 Intro
• 00:32 THE HURT LOCKER Discussion
• Break
• 27:52 To Sum It Up
• Break
• 28:30 BEAU TRAVAIL Discussion
• Break
• 36:00 The Last Five®
• Break
• 1:09:43 Listener Feedback
• 1:15:47 Credits


9.1 Metacritic
6.9 IMDB

Beau Travail @ Amazon


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December 24, 2008
English / Dari / Arabic / Russian
102 Minutes — December 21, 2007
Biography / Drama
Screenplay by Aaron Sorkin [A Few Good Men; Malice; The American President; Sports Night; The West Wing; Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip]
Mike Nichols [The Graduate; Catch-22; Silkwood; Biloxi Blues; Working Girl; Postcards From The Edge; Regarding Henry; Wolf; The Birdcage; Primary Colors; Wit; Angels In America; Closer]

Story of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the early 1980s. A trifecta of acting royalty play the main parts. Tom Hanks is Charlie Wilson, a real-life congressman from Texas. Julia Roberts plays a weathly socialite, also from Texas. Phillip Seymour Hoffman plays a CIA guy who lacks a single diplomatic bone in his body. He is barely hanging on to his job. Wilson is in position to pass almost any funding through his several House committees. Because he deals in covert operations, his committee never has to tell the rest of the House what they’re voting on. That means that as the amounts get higher, the votes continue to pass.

Wilson is a playboy, coke user, drunkard Congressman who sees a report by Dan Rather (while in a hot tub with a bevy of naked beauties) on the Soviet invasion. The cold war is in full effect and Wilson is inspired by the goat herders who are providing quite a fight to the mighty Soviet army. He is encouraged by Roberts to visit a refugee camp which causes him to take up the fight on behalf of the Afghanis in ernest.

This all sounds pretty boring and politically wonky, but due to the screenplay, written by uber dialogue king Aaron Sorkin, the story never wavers. I’m sure they’ve made the story a bit more positive than real life, but it sure seemed like fun to covertly kick Russian ass. I’ve done some research and it is pretty true-to-life. Wilson’s office is staffed by a collection of assistants and secretaries who wouldn’t be out of place in a 1970s soft-porn movie. But he is impossible not to like.

He charms Israeli Jews and Egyptian Muslims with equal aplomb, sometimes using the charms of a “non-traditional” belly dancer to encourage the two enemies to join together against the evil communists.

It is impossible to watch this without thinking about modern-day Afghanistan. Much like the US cut-and-run first gulf war where we kicked Iraq out of Kuwait but then didn’t support the Iraqis who wanted to overthrow Saddam, we helped kick the Soviets out of Afghanistan, but then left a power vacuum that a man named Osama bin Laden took advantage of.

The scenes between Hoffman and Hanks rival the best give-and-take conversations that Sports Night or The West Wing had. I was smiling in amazement and recognition of Sorkin’s hand.

If there’s a major problem with the film, it’s that the story is so simplified–it seems so easy for an inspired congressman to change history–that it doesn’t ring particularly true. Like West Wing depicted a Washington DC where people were mostly good, this film shows everyone working together in service to beat the Russians. Which happened, but it must have been messier.

ON: Supporting Actor Philip Seymour Hoffman

6.9 Metacritic
7.4 IMDB

Charlie Wilson’s War @ Amazon


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Written by Michael W. Cummins