Classic Movie Review: Stalker (1979)


TitleStalker
Release Date: 25 May 1979
Director:  Andrei Tarkovsky
Production Company: Mosfilm
Summary/Review:

As I started watching Stalker, I started having flashbacks.  Filmed in sepia tones with long shots and slow pans, the camera spends a lot of time focused on grimy interiors and muddy landscapes.  As I watched absolutely nothing happen in great detail, I felt like I was reliving Sátántangó.  Granted, Stalker is only a third of the length of Sátántangó, but it’s still a long time to watch the back of three men’s heads as they walk slowly through meadows and tunnels.

Stalker is a science fiction story about the Zone, an area struck by a meteor and possibly even visited by extraterrestrials, where the normal laws of physics don’t apply.  Within the Zone is the Room where anyone who enters is granted their deepest desires. The Zone is encircled by a military cordon, but guides known as “stalkers” will lead people past the military and the presumed hazards of the Zone for a cost. In this film we see a Stalker (Alexander Kaidanovsky) take two clients, the Writer (Anatoly Solonitsyn) and the Professor (Nikolai Grinko), into the Zone.

Much like The Wizard of Oz, once they enter the Zone, the film changes from sepia tones to full (albeit muted) color.  Unlike The Wizard of Oz, the hazards seem to be entirely in the mind of the protagonists and they spend a lot of time debating philosophy and religion.  The Room ends up being a metaphor for belief and futility of existence. Stalker is clearly a well-made film with excellent cinematography, sound design, and set design.  Everyone on Letterboxd raves about it in their reviews.  But watching this movie felt like a slog for me and left me feeling cold.

Rating: ***

Classic Movie Review: Ivan the Terrible (1944)



#AtoZChallenge 2021 April Blogging from A to Z Challenge letter I

Welcome to the Panorama of the Mountains Blogging A to Z Challenge. This year I’m watching and reviewing movies from A-to-Z based on my ongoing Classic Movie Project. Most movies will be featured on one or more of three lists: AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies (USA), The Sight & Sound Greatest Films of All Time (UK), and Cahiers du Cinéma Greatest Films of All Time (France). In some cases, I will be very creative in assigning a Classic Movie to a letter of the alphabet, and in a few cases the movie I watch will not be Classic Movies at all.

Title: Ivan the Terrible
Release Date: December 30, 1944
Director: Sergei Eisenstein
Production Company: Mosfilm
Summary/Review: Ivan the Terrible is an odd duck.  It ranks #39 on the Cahiers du Cinéma list and has appeared on past editions of the Sight and Sound list but it was also included in the book The Fifty Worst Films of All Time (and How They Got That Way). It was directed by the legendary film pioneer Sergei Eisenstein (Battleship Potemkin), but it was made at the behest of the cruel dictator Joseph Stalin.  Roger Ebert gives the film his top 4-star rating but his review is less enthusiastic and full of caveats.

Like Children of Paradise, this film is an epic historical drama made at a time when the nation was fighting the Nazi threat to all of Europe.  It tells the story of Ivan IV (Nikolay Cherkasov) who as Tsar united disparate fiefdoms under Moscow to create the first Russian empire.  The film begins with Ivan’s coronation in 1547 and a speech in which declares his intentions to bring all of Russia under his control, much to the annoyance of the boyars who were kind of oligarchy of aristocrats used to doing things their own way. Thus the palace intrigue begins.  Ivan marries Anastasia (Lyudmila Tselikovskaya) and they produce an heir, which further enrages the boyars.  War, betrayal, and dramatic death bed scenes ensue.

The performances in the film are very stagey, as if this were some kind of pageant rather than a drama. It is also reminds of  The Scarlet Empress, from the large-scale furnishings and overwhelming shadows to the general over-the-top nature of the performances. While The Scarlet Empress was a Hollywood spectacle about the Russian monarchy, it seems strange that Russian filmmakers would depict their own history in such a campy way.  Eisenstein made a second part to Ivan the Terrible that displeased Stalin so it would not be released until 1958.  A third part was abandoned while in production for the same reason.  So it’s an unfinished epic a lot like Napoléon (except that Ivan actually had military success in Russia).

I suppose I’m supposed to watch both Part 1 & Part 2, but as I didn’t enjoy the first part all too much, and I have 27 movies to watch this April, I’m going to give Part 2 a pass.

Rating: **1/2

Classic Movie Review: Andrei Rublev (1966) #AtoZChallenge


#AtoZChallenge 2021 April Blogging from A to Z Challenge letter A

Welcome to the Panorama of the Mountains Blogging A to Z Challenge. This year I’m watching and reviewing movies from A-to-Z based on my Classic Movie Project. Most movies will be featured on one or more of three lists: AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies (USA), The Sight & Sound Greatest Films of All Time (UK), and Cahiers du Cinéma Greatest Films of All Time (France). In some cases, I will be very creative in assigning a Classic Movie to a letter of the alphabet, and in a few cases the movie I watch will not be Classic Movies at all.

Title: Andrei Rublev
Release Date: December 16, 1966
Director: Andrei Tarkovsky
Production Company: Mosfilm
Summary/Review: This epic film is based on the life of Andrei Rublev (Anatoly Solonitsyn), a monk in Russia in the early 1400s who gained renown for painting icons and other religious art. The film is split into eight parts depicting incidents from different periods of Rublev’s life (as well as a few other incidents that occur during his lifetime). The film is set against the background in-fighting among Russian princes and raids by Tatars. Thus the film depicts the horrors of war, cruelty, and barbarity contrasted with Rublev’s faith and the beauty of art.

The episodes depict Rublev’s transitions from youthful idealism to disillusionment with humanity to ultimately maturing to realize that his art can make a positive contribution to the world. In addition to Rublev’s story, the prologue and final chapter depict two other artistic spirits, a balloon pilot and a bellmaker, each of whom put their lives on the line in faith of their art. I found the movie well-made and well-acted but thought it was far too long and plodding.
Rating: ***

Classic Movie Review: The Scarlet Empress (1934)


Title: The Scarlet Empress
Release Date: September 15, 1934
Director: Josef von Sternberg
Production Company: Paramount Pictures
Summary/Review:

This movie is absolutely bonkers.  The movie is a loose adaptation of the life of Catherine the Great (Marlene Dietrich) from the time she is selected to marry the heir to the Russian throne, the “half-wit” Grand Duke Peter (Sam Jaffe), until she she overthrew Peter and assumed the position of Empress.  John Davis Lodge plays Count Alexei, the handsome aristocrat who falls in love with Catherine and begins to disabuse the naive Catherine’s fairy tale beliefs of the Russian court (his name struck me as very familiar, and it’s because he later became Governor of Connecticut and had a turnpike named after him!).

Having Dietrich play a naive young woman is laughable, but not the most absurd thing about this movie.  That would be the ridiculous set design that includes giant, grotesque statuary lurking just about everywhere.  A considerable bit of the film’s budget also went to the fantastic costuming.  And there is a lot of explicit sexuality and violence in a film from 1934, as if they were trying to sneak in as much as they could before the production code went into effect.  The worst crime of all the excess of this film is that it all overshadows its star.  Having seen Dietrich own the screen in The Blue Angel, this feels like a glaring mistake.

There are some people who can enjoy movies that are “so bad they are good.”  I’m not one of them, but regardless, I can’t see this movie belonging on a greatest of all-time list.

Just as an aside, this movie reminded me I had seen a tv movie back when I was in high school called Young Catherine, starring Julia Ormond, that covered many of the same plot points with less cinematic excess.

Rating: **

Classic Movie Review: Battleship Potemkin (1925)


Title: Battleship Potemkin
Release Date: December 21, 1925
Director: Sergei Eisenstein
Production Company: Mosfilm
Summary/Review:

This classic Soviet propaganda film dramatizes events of the Russian uprising of 1905, which the filmmaker Eisenstein saw as a prelude to the successful October Revolution of 1917.  The film depicts sailors aboard the Potemkin returning after the Russo-Japanese War and the mistreatment they suffer at the hands of the officers.

When some of the sailors refuse to eat maggot-infested meat, the tyrannical captain sentences them to death for insubordination.  But a revolutionary sailor inspires the firing squad to lower their rifles, and the sailors stage a mutiny instead.  Grigory Vakulinchuk, the Bolshevik sailor, dies in the uprising and when his body is brought to Odessa, thousands of civilians pay their respects. The people join in the revolution, but it is quickly repressed by a detachment of Cossacks who massacre them on the city’s giant stairway.  The sailors escape on the Potemkin as Tsarist ships refuse to fire on them.

The movie impresses with its innovative film-making techniques, most notably editing between long and close-up shots, and creating connections among a sequence of shots.  The most famous sequence is when the Cossacks fire upon the people on the Odessa Steps, which depicts brutal violence and cuts between the precision of the soldiers and the faces of their victims on a seemingly endless set of steps.

This is definitely a movie worth watching for its technical brilliance and its role in film history.  That being said, it’s not a particularly enjoyable experience, not just due to the violence but the almost complete lack of characterization of the people depicted.  They are merely cogs in a propaganda machine with no opportunity to empathize with them as individuals.

Rating: ***

End of Summer Soccer


Major League Soccer played their final regular season games the past week spelling the end of summer soccer.  The playoffs have begun but for the first time in a decade the New England Revolution will not be participating in them.  What a year to start following the Revs after all those years of post-season success (albeit without a MLS Cup trophy to show for it).

Summer soccer is one of the idiosyncrasies that set America apart from the major European leagues that play from August to May.   It’s not obstinacy on the part of United States soccer, but the fact that parts of the United States have far more severe winters  than much of Europe.  Teams playing in Massachusetts, Colorado, and New Jersey just could not host home games in the winter, or at least draw a devoted crowd in the midst of a blizzard.

In my ongoing effort to learn more about football worldwide, I decided to see if anyone else plays in the winter.  I figured that Russia is a cold, cold place so they  must play in the summer.  And I was right.  Except not for long because Russia will be switching to an autumn-to-spring calendar in 2012-13.  Good luck to fans of FC Zenit Saint Petersburg in February.  Brrr.  Scandinavian nations also play on a summer schedule and, oddly enough, the League of Ireland switched to a summer schedule in 2003 (I haven’t figured out why).  The Australian A-League also plays a summer schedule although their summer is our winter.

Anyhow, here’s the matches I’ve watched in the past week and a half.

AFC Ajax 2:1 Auxerre (19 Oct 2010) –  This match saw Ajax win their first match of the Champions League this season to go with a loss & a tie.  The first half was all Ajax as the Amsterdammers went up 2-0.  The second goal in particular was a brilliant example of team passing and running setting up the goal for El Hamdaoui.  The second half got a little crazy after André Ooijer’s professional foul earned him a red card and forced Ajax to defend their lead with 10 men.  But then the French side went down to 10 men on a handball attempt on the goal. Then in the waning minutes of the game an Auxerre sub was sent off before he even made it on the field!  Comical, to say the least.  Match report.

FC Barcelona 2:0 FC Copenhagen (20 Oct 2010) – Lionel Messi scored both goals for Barça moving them to the top of Group D in the Champions League.  The Danish side had some moments where they seemed to be in control but never really threatened.  Really, Barcelona should have taken advantage of their offensive superiority and score more.  Match report.

New York Red Bulls 2:0 New England Revolution (21 Oct 2010) – The Revs finished off their 2010 campaign with a road game versus the Eastern Conference champions.  It ended as one would expect as a loss, the first time the Red Bulls have defeated the Revs since 2005 breaking a 16-game undefeated streak.  New England looked the better side in the second half but failed to score and then gave up a stoppage time goal.  Wait ’till next year.  Match report.

Tottenham Hotspur 1:1 Everton FC (23 Oct 2010) – One thing I love about European football is the names and there is no better combination than Tottenham and Hotspur who play at the romantically named White Hart Lane.  There also a Premier League power nipping at the heels of the big three so it was something for Everton to earn a point and extend their unbeaten streak to four games.  Everton scored on a fantastic first half free kick by Leighton Baines.  Alas, a rare error by goalkeeper Tim Howard contributed to the Spurs’ equalizer a few minutes later.  Match report.

West Bromwich Albion 2:1 Fulham FC (23 Oct 2010) – Speaking of great names, here is West Brom and their home grounds The Hawthorns.  Things started well for Fulham with a Zoltan Gera strike (scored as an own goal against West Brom) but in the pouring rain the Baggies (lovely nickname too) were able to equalize and then go ahead before the break.  Match report.

Real Zaragoza 0:2 FC Barcelona (23 Oct 2010) – It was all Messi again as Barça earned another easy victory against the La Liga cellar dwellars.  I confess I didn’t watch the whole game as I went to the yard to play soccer with my son, but I did see both of Messi’s goals.  Match report.

AFC Ajax 3:1 Heerenveen (27 Oct 2010) – El Hamdaoui was the hero again with 2 of the goals  in what was a pretty easy victory for Ajax.  Luis Suarez had several chances that were either just stopped by the keeper or bounced off the cross-bar (including two in a matter of seconds) so the score could have been much higher for Ajax.  Match report.

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