Friday, 26 June 2015

Shining still: "A zori zdes tikhie" [2015, Russia]

Renat Davletyarov has faithfully recreated a shortened version of a famous Soviet film by the same name "A zori zdes tikhie" [Eng. Title: The Dawns Here Are Quiet]. The World War II drama is an adaptation of a novel partly based on an actual military engagement in a remote corner of 1942 Soviet Union.

A scene from "A zori zdes tikhie..." [2015, Russia] A scene from "A zori zdes tikhie..." [2015, Russia]
A scene from "A zori zdes tikhie..." [2015, Russia] A scene from "A zori zdes tikhie..." [2015, Russia]
A scene from "A zori zdes tikhie..." [2015, Russia] A scene from "A zori zdes tikhie..." [2015, Russia]

Some of the best World War II films focus on relatively unknown 'minor skirmishes' that happened on the sidelines of main events, often featuring unevenly matched opponents, and this film is one such classic example. It begins with an army commander ordering the transfer of a unit of soldiers manning an anti-aircraft gun in a remote part of the Soviet Union, following complaints of their increasingly frequent and disruptive drunken brawls over local women.

In their place, Vaskov (Pyotr Fyodorov), the Sergeant Major in-charge is resupplied with a group of young trainee female volunteers - they were chosen not only for their unlikely proclivity to either get drunk or fight over local women, but also because the remote area was considered relatively 'safe' since it hadn't seen war so far. The bewildered and old-fashioned Major nevertheless accepts and builds new quarters for them keeping in mind their 'feminine' needs.

One of the new volunteers, returning after a secret rendezvous with her mother and son living in the area, witnesses and reports seeing two German soldiers in the woods. Rightly guessing the likely reason for them being here, Vaskov takes five of the girl soldiers to intercept them using a little known short-cut through marshland. Upon catching up with the intruders, Vaskov realises that there are not just two, but sixteen elite Germans paratroopers in that group, armed to the teeth with machine guns and explosives; certainly too many to handle with his limited resources.

He sends one of the girls back in order to alert the local headquarters, and decides to halt or delay the Germans' progress until reinforcements arrived. But they don't arrive, and Vaskov and the remaining four girls will stage a foolhardy but mightily heroic struggle to stop the highly trained and professional enemy. As they improvise and use unconventional tactics, Vaskov and his crew develop a bond that will strengthen their resolve to prevent the enemy from succeeding, at any cost...

Stanislav Rostotskiy's original 1972 version of this film, at nearly twice its length, is epic not only in its scope where the traditional role of men protecting women is frequently reversed, but also in its gripping human drama - of dreams shattered and families destroyed due to the war, shown using the women's individual flashbacks, and of the high value they attach to pride and honour. The rookie girl-soldiers display extraordinary courage in the face of insurmountable odds, and reflect a Russian mindset that goes beyond what might be construed as communist propaganda.

While the latest version respectfully follows the original, at times to the minutest detail such as casting and dialogue - after all the original had become part of local folklore not just in Russia but in former Soviet nations as well, it updates the same using modern cinema techniques and more experienced actors. The flashbacks and back-story are there in the new version too, but they're relatively brief in order to fit the narrative within a shorter runtime. However, there are elements in the original that I wish were retained, like the grown up children of these women visiting the site of their mothers' heroic struggle years later, as if to remind themselves of the price paid during the great patriotic war for their present (relative) liberty. My favourite will remain the original version, but for what it is, the latest version does a decent job of reinterpreting the original without reinventing the characters and storyline. While the original version is Highly Recommended Viewing, the latest interpretation should at least be Recommended Viewing..!

Original 1972 version: Amazon 2-Disc DVD Link [PAL]


The Nudity:
2015 version: Evgeniya Malakhova, Anastasiya Mikulchina, Sofya Lebedeva, Agniya Kuznetsova, Kristina Asmus, Ekaterina Vilkova, and others
1972 version: Irina Dolganova, Yelena Drapeko, Yekaterina Markova, Olga Ostroumova, Irina Shevchuck, and others

The nude scene in both versions is about a rare bath offered to the girls as reward for successfully shooting down a German reconnaissance plane. There is an additional brief scene under a waterfall in the 2015 version. The best thing about both the scenes is that they feature the film's five main female protagonists in the nude instead of merely relying on extras to fill up the frame, as is often the case these days.

Evgeniya Malakhova, Anastasiya Mikulchina, Sofya Lebedeva, Agniya Kuznetsova, Kristina Asmus, and Ekaterina Vilkova nude in "A zori zdes tikhie..." aka "The Dawns Here Are Quiet".


Sunday, 21 June 2015

A film review: "Stella cadente" [2014, Spain]

Among the things that first drew me to Spanish cinema was its unconventional, imaginative, and almost irreverent approach to film-narrative. Directors from Arrabal to Almodóvar, and Buñuel to Luna, especially during their 'underground' years, have extended frontiers so successfully that many of their ground-breaking and often shocking narratives have even gained mainstream acceptance over the years. Lluís Miñarro is a reassuring reminder that there are still uninhibited film-makers around in today's commercialised film scene, amidst all the spending cuts in the arts.

Àlex Brendemühl in Stella cadente (2014) A scene from "Stella cadente" aka "Falling Star" [2014]
Àlex Brendemühl in "Falling Star" (Stella cadente, 2914, Spain) Àlex Brendemühl, Lorenzo Balducci, and Bárbara Lennie in "Stella cadente" aka "Falling Star"

His recent film, "Stella cadente" [Eng. Title: Falling Star] is a stylised account of the short reign of Amadeus I (from Italy's House of Savoy), as King of late nineteenth century Spain, against the backdrop of a rising tide of republicanism within the country.


The film begins with Amadeo (Àlex Brendemühl) arriving in Spain to take over the throne abdicated by his predecessor. His high-minded hopes of reforming and developing Spain are dashed in the very first meeting he has with his counsel, and he'll soon discover that he could only stay king by remaining a puppet in the hands of the establishment.

When Queen Maria Victòria (Bárbara Lennie) joins him later, she's dismayed and disappointed at Amadeo's descent into disillusionment and boredom, occasionally manifesting in delusions, due to his inability to exercise regal mandate in a fractious country on the verge of revolution. The focus of the film will eventually switch to sexual shenanigans among Amadeo's staff in the palace, and his rather peculiar relationship with them.

To say the film isn't a straightforward biopic is understatement; Miñarro's absurdist film is tinged with bizarre fantasies and deadpan humour, with scenes ranging from the sublimely surreal to the cheekily profane. Here a bejewelled tortoise and peacock stroll through palace grounds where the king's assistant also masturbates with a watermelon and a female cook enjoys being watched while having sex; a king's intellectual musings can apparently go hand-in-hand with his sexual anxieties.

Miñarro is obviously having a ball with this mischievous film by mixing up exquisite production design, thoughtful camera work, and fine performances with misplaced locations and anachronistic pop music. After all, here was a king, out of place, and lost in time, and the narrative aptly conveys the displacement. The film has a heart, but doesn't open itself too readily. It is also a style of film-making that won't appeal to impatient audiences - you really have to watch the film on the director's own terms. If you're up for it, it will be rewarding for sure. Recommended Viewing..!

Amazon DVD Link [PAL]


The Nudity: Lola Dueñas, Lorenzo Balducci, and Àlex Batllori
In the role of the king's cook, Lola Dueñas appears nude in three scenes; the first is simply for Amadeo's viewing pleasure, the second while making love to him, and later while falteringly reading questions from a book wearing nothing but the king's jacket. Oh, and watch out for her neat little trick with a party popper - even if it happens outside the main film. Lorenzo Balducci appears nude while performing sex in explicit detail with a watermelon, and in a later scene is shown alongside Àlex Batllori in what can only be assumed as prelude to sex.

Lola Dueñas, Lorenzo Balducci, and Àlex Batllori nude in Stella cadente aka Falling Star


Thursday, 18 June 2015

A film review: "El amor no es lo que era" [2013, Spain]

Gabriel Ochoa's début feature, "El amor no es lo que era" [Eng. Title: Love Is Not What It Used to Be] attempts to make a mathematical interpretation of modern romantic relationships using three couples of various ages as case studies; the thread connecting these otherwise unrelated couples is the fact that all three men are medical professionals working in the same hospital.

Blanca Romero from "El amor no es lo que era" (2013) A scene from "El amor no es lo que era" (2013)
Aida Folch from "El amor no es lo que era" Blanca Romero and Alberto San Juan in "El amor no es lo que era" [2013, Spain]

Albert (Carlos Álvarez-Nóvoa), a recently retired Ophthalmologist meets old flame Irene (Petra Martínez) at a mutual friend's funeral. Albert has yet to come to terms with retired life and lies to Paz that he's still employed. Irene is similarly economical with the truth by hiding a recent medical diagnosis and upcoming surgery. Both obviously like to rekindle their past love, and set about courting each other in their own way.

A cycling-while-on-the-phone student Lucía (Aida Folch) 'bumps' into Álex (Nicolás Coronado), a newly qualified surgeon, and a tentative romance blossoms following a few 'casual' one-night stands. A feisty Lucía will soon have to come to terms with the fact that Álex would be leaving to France soon to intern at a prestigious institution.

Ophthalmic surgeon Jorge (Alberto San Juan) and school teacher Paz (Blanca Romero) are a thirty-something couple living apart due to their strained relationship. Paz returns home briefly to recuperate from an injury following an accident. They're still on friendly terms, but while they still care about each other, it will require a lot more to give them a reason to get back together as before.

The film makes mathematical comparisons for the varying degree of success within each relationship, but one couldn't help wondering if these ideas are of any relevance to real life relationships, which if anything, are more likely to be associated with Chaos theory rather than parabolas. Besides, most of the film's characters could've been fleshed out further than what we get to see. As a gentle drama with several known faces and decent production values, the film is entertaining, but sadly not so memorable.

Amazon DVD Link [PAL]


The Nudity: Aida Folch and Blanca Romero
As Lucía, Aida Folch appears briefly nude in a couple of post-coital scenes. In a scene, Blanca Romero's Paz enters the bathroom in the nude to surprise (and hopefully interest) a self-absorbed Jorge, but fails. There's more success later however when Jorge attends to Paz's healing wound.

Blanca Romero and Aido Folch in "El amor no es lo que era" aka "Love Is Not What It Used to Be" [2013, Spain]


Tuesday, 9 June 2015

A film review: "Ponte Aérea" [2015, Brazil]

Julia Rezende's romantic drama "Ponte Aérea" [Eng. Title: Air Bridge] is about a modern-day long-distance relationship that develops between a young couple living in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo respectively.

Letícia Colin and Caio Blat in "Ponte Aérea" (2015, Brazil) Letícia Colin and Caio Blat in "Ponte Aérea" (2015, Brazil)
Letícia Colin in "Ponte Aérea" (2015, Brazil) Letícia Colin and Caio Blat in "Ponte Aérea" (2015, Brazil)

Amanda (Letícia Colin) and Bruno (Caio Blat) meet by chance when their flight to São Paulo gets diverted to a different airport due to bad weather. Coming from vastly different backgrounds, they were otherwise quite unlikely to have crossed paths; while she's an ambitious executive in a major ad agency steadily climbing up the corporate ladder in São Paulo, he's the laid-back creative-type still figuring out what to do with life in down town Rio.

A one-night stand in the hotel they're accommodated in will lead to further 'chance' encounters between the two in both São Paulo and Rio, and as Amanda gets to know Bruno better, a tentative romance blossoms. Bruno, visiting São Paulo to reconnect with his estranged but now bedridden father will learn that he also has a half brother young enough to be his son, and before he could come to terms with it, the little boy will become his responsibility.

All this is big change for Bruno, and when Amanda declares her interest in helping him build a career, it becomes too much for him to take, as he feels burdened by others' expectations. He disappears for a while, and refuses to answer Amanda's calls and frantic messages.

After holding a successful show of his own artworks, Bruno meets Amanda again at an airport lounge, just as they had met for the very first time - by chance, and just as they rued missed opportunities in nurturing what they had going, they also leave a door open for reconciliation and a possible reunion. I'm sorry if I've thrown away an explicit spoiler while describing the storyline, but I could see this coming from miles away and wasn't at all surprised when it ended the way it did. It is a typical mainstream film with a mainstream ending. But I have no doubt that some would love the film to bits - after all, it has some rather likeable faces, featured in interesting locales, and boasts some pretty decent production values.

DVD Purchase Link [NTSC]


The Nudity: Letícia Colin and Caio Blat
There is brief nudity from the couple during and after some sex scenes.

Letícia Colin and Caio Blat nude in "Ponte Aérea" (2015, Brazil)


Friday, 5 June 2015

A film review: "Onirica" [2014 Poland, Italy, Sweden]

Perhaps, one could've introduced director Lech Majewski here through one of his better known works, but his latest film, "Onirica" [Eng. Title: Field of Dogs] is nevertheless every bit as sumptuous as his renowned works, showcasing all the traits that make him an art film circle favourite, and should therefore be as good an introduction as any.

A scene from "Onirica" (2014, Poland) A scene from the film,
Surreal scenes in "Onirica" (2014, Poland) The deluge - from Onirica (2014, Poland)

Majewski has clearly been influenced by past Italian masters such as Antonioni and Pasolini, and also his other contemporaries such as Greenaway and Angelopoulos. His films often delve into the esoteric and mystical, and some of his visuals can be unapologetically self-indulgent, drawing liberally from the high point of Renaissance and the Enlightenment. Like many of the names mentioned above, Majewski is a full-fledged filmmaker who can not only direct, but also write his own material, compose music, and handle cinematography.

Majewski considers his "Onirica" to be an inspired interpretation of Dante's "The Divine Comedy". Set against the backdrop of a series of unfortunate events that befell Poland in 2010, including the tragic plane crash that killed the country's President along with most of its political and defence elite, and the spate of natural disasters it had to endure that year, we observe Adam (Michal Tatarek) - a young poet, trying to deal with his own personal loss and ensuing psychological trauma following a car crash that killed the two people closest to him - his girlfriend and his best friend.

Adam had survived the crash, but carries permanent scars that are both physical and within. After giving up his career job as an academic, he had started working as a supermarket attendant. Often listening to an audio book of Dante's Divine Comedy, Adam experiences a series of surreal visions and hallucinations concerning religion and spirituality, that will bring disparate characters to life from his past and present.

Like his long dead father who appears at his supermarket and sets to plough the 'fallow' earth underneath its floor tiles, and the bikini-clad hostess from a TV game show who steps out of the box to offer him some 'hope'. His (living) philosopher-aunt (Elzbieta Okupska) comes the closest to consoling and forcefully explaining to Adam the relative nature of life and death within our own lives, by borrowing quotes of thinkers from Classical Rome.

As with most of his work, Majewski presents some strikingly memorable images as he takes us through Adam's soul-searching exercise, much like Dante's own journey through Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise - and Adam's deceased girlfriend, like Dante's Beatrice,  is similarly resurrected to accompany him in the later part of his 'journey', eventually ending up in a cathedral altar that becomes flooded by a sudden deluge. Spectacular stuff indeed, and if you're in a contemplative mood, you might even enjoy the ride that Majewski gives us. Recommended Viewing..! DVD Link [PAL]


The Nudity: Ewa Matula and Anna Mielczarek
As part of one of his visions, we see Adam dream about a young mother (Ewa Matula) feeding a baby in a river island. Anna Mielczarek plays Adam's deceased girlfriend, brought back to life through a kiss while an angel watches, and they levitate while making love. A dove fluttering across the room to perch on a window as this happens completes this rather surreal scene, me thinks..!

Ewa Matula and Anna Mielczarek nude in "Onirica" aka "Field of Dogs" [2014, Poland]