Mini Film Reviews May 2015

Byzantium (2012) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Byzantium_%28film%29

An average vampire film, very much in the vein of Interview with a Vampire, starring Gemma Arterton and Saoirse Ronan which many will feel is more concerned at character development at the cost of maintaining dramatic momentum. A very good central cast and scenic cinematography raise it above what it otherwise would be. It is enjoyable for a one time watch but there is nothing to bring you back.

Berberian Sound Studio (2012) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Berberian_Sound_Studio

A psychological horror film which experiments with the concept of sound. By being focused more on the audio experience than its visuals you do not get the tired ‘quiet, quiet LOUD!’ experience which has turned many away from the genre of late. Definitely worth experiencing at least once as it is original and suspenseful. Toby Jones as always is an excellent actor. Go watch it!

The Fog (2005) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Fog_%282005_film%29

A modern horror remake. John Carpenter’s original came out after his success with Halloween so it was never going to get the credit it deserved but go watch that rather than this even if a lot of its content may seem dated by now. You will, even all these years later, see Tom Welling and think ‘hey it’s that guy from Smallville’. An okay TV movie but really if they could edit it and show it earlier in the day for kids to watch it would get a better audience than it deserves.

The Holy Mountain (1973) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Holy_Mountain_%281973_film%29

Alejandro Jodorowsky’s masterpiece of surreal fantasy depicting the occult alchemist journey to enlightenment based on Ascent of Mount Carmel by John of the Cross and Mount Analogue by René Daumal, who was a student of George Gurdjieff. . Visually arresting even if it isn’t your kind of film you will still have a story to tell people of the wonders you have seen. I know much of the imagery used and its context so it is not as ‘surreal’ as some may claim although not having this knowledge in no way will make the film less visually engaging. GO WATCH IT!

The Hangover (2009) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Hangover

Good standalone film. Would have been a classic in the style of many late 1970s/early 1980s comedies but unfortunately the modern trend in Hollywood of running concepts into the ground with sequels has diluted its impact. Watch this and don’t both with the sequels unless they are on television and you have nothing else to do.

Elfie Hopkins (2012) film DVD http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elfie_Hopkins

Nancy Drew with swearing and cannibals in a quasi-Welsh town. Some characters have Welsh accents and some don’t. You could argue its set on the border with England but the setting seems too remote. There are some good performances, especially Gwyneth Keyworth, but it ultimately feels like a film that had good potential and not the budget to achieve it. The tone also feels uneven as if it is not sure if it should take itself seriously or not yet wants to emulate the uneasiness David Lynch is famed for using in his works like Blue Velvet or even Twin Peaks. Even worse it leaves a lot of questions unanswered about what happened to some plot points raised as if to suggest they were setting up to make this a series which unfortunately failed with this first effort. The ‘Little Munchkin’ short film, also starring Gwyneth Keyworth, included on the DVD offers a more compact story which I feel the film wanted to recreate but something went wrong along the way sadly.

License To Kill (1989) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Licence_to_Kill

James Bond played by Timothy Dalton. If this film was made today it would fare far better but back in the 80s it was deemed too dark and realistic for a character who was associated with Roger Moore’s dry quips by this point. Not a terrible film, just not as enjoyable as others of the series. The exterior shots of the meditation centre are suitably grandiose and we get a performance from a young Benicio del Toro but otherwise it’s a bit too involved in trying to be serious without any scenes for the audience to take a breather from the events.

Lost In Space (1998) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lost_in_Space_%28film%29

Underacting and every character has at least one jerkass moment. If you want an example why films of the late 1990s are not liked look no further than this sterling example of the era’s faults. The lurid bleeding colour palette. The disrespect to the source material. The story which assumes there would be sequels (Dr Smith is still infected and eventually going to turn into ‘future’ Smith). The chemistry between the actors is appalling. You ultimately don’t care, or even want harm to befall, the characters. Of course at the end of the film Dr Smith is still infected and likely to turn into a ‘future Smith’ but ultimately as it is never resolved here we can just assume he eventually eat all the others. Just remember that if you ever have to watch this.

Neighbour No.13 / Rinjin 13-go (2005) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Neighbor_No._Thirteen

Japanese Horror. A dark psychological film. Begins with good imagery of a man being tortured in a room in the middle of a grey landscape representing the inner turmoil of the central character but then becomes very mundane and overly serious (as seen in the trailer). At the 1 hour 30 minutes mark a character looks down a toilet at a giant piece of faeces. Also there is some black face at one point. It is a classic example of Japanese story telling where they have a great original idea and then give up on it and make something unremarkable. It is one of my biggest issues with the Japanese entertainment industry – they have no fear in producing original ideas but then seem to fear to truly follow through with distinctive narratives from that point onwards in many cases thus leaving you with stories that often feel drawn out. The Japanese are known for having long lingering shots and letting a story breathe, unlike any break neck paced American works, but sometimes it just feels like its padding the length of a story unnecessarily.

Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron (2002) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spirit:_Stallion_of_the_Cimarron

It would be better without Spirit’s inner monologue. I assume it was a studio decision but the animation could have easily carried the narrative. Well-made but being so centred on horses will limit its appeal. It is the sort of story I imagine being made into an animated film in the 1970s. If anything, on a technical side, it reminds me of the computer game industry where they might make games more as a way to experiment with new systems or technology that is available to them – in this case this film is a ‘tech demo’ of how to successfully animate horses with an eye to using the technique in later works.

Sword Of Sherwood Forest (1960) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sword_of_Sherwood_Forest

Fun, light hearted, take on the Robin Hood stories by Hammer films. It probably seems quite dated by today’s standards but was a fun romp. If you like a bit of hamm[er]y acting and cheesy story there is nothing wrong with this twist on the classic tale.

The Princess And The Frog (2009) Disney. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Princess_and_the_Frog

Tiana is a complete blow hard. Being the straight man is one thing but she becomes a buzz killer at every point with her overly repeated moral message ‘you have to work hard to get what you want’ though in true Disney fashion she marries the prince in the end and thus gets what she wants via him immediately. Ironically the character of Charlotte, the spoilt friend who gets whatever she wants immediately and acts childishly, delivers a far more sincere message – though she has the opportunity to kiss the prince and achieve her dreams she puts them aside for Tiana as she values her friendship more than being selfish. Ray, the fire bug, is an awkwardly implemented character as he is often presented as the entertainment and gets killed in quite a sudden, extremely violent for a children’s film, manner. It is to empathise to the audience that things have gotten serious and there is no more time for fun but it seemed the sort of thing censors would have had serious concerns about in any other companies output. This was Disney’s last effort to test the viability of traditional 2D animation against the emergence of 3D and it is a tragedy that the quality seen here is going to be a forgotten bygone for many children growing up now. From a technical stand point even Studio Ghibli cannot match the quality of animation seen here. The songs are more jazz based which is something Disney hasn’t done often before but many of these songs are of great quality and it is a shame they haven’t caught on unlike other soundtracks. Actually there is a bit of hypocrisy I notice now seeing the trailer – Tiana crushes the frog Prince Naveen with a book and it is intentional slapstick comedy while Dr Facilier crushing Ray towards the end is presented as serious drama and a sign of his wickedness. This seems to be the point when Disney suddenly realised they needed to revise their classic storytelling tropes and so in Frozen we got sisterly love and rejection of the prince (albeit very poorly implemented as discussed in one of my prior posts).


Comment, Like, Follow me – All are welcome! I haven’t posted for a while admittedly. Part two will come in a couple of days.

Far From The Madding Crowd (2015)

In Victorian England, the independent and headstrong farm owner Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan) attracts three very different suitors: Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts), a sheep farmer; Frank Troy (Tom Sturridge), a reckless Sergeant; and William Boldwood (Michael Sheen), a prosperous and mature bachelor.

Cast:
Carey Mulligan as Bathsheba Everdene
Matthias Schoenaerts as Gabriel Oak
Michael Sheen as William Boldwood
Tom Sturridge as Sergeant Frank Troy
Juno Temple as Fanny Robin
Rowan Hedley as Maryann Money
Chris Gallarus as Billy Smallbury
Connor Webb as Merchant
Penny-Jane Swift as Mrs. Coggan
Rosie Masson as Soberness Miller
Alex Channon as Temperance Miller
Shaun Ward as Farmer
Roderick Swift as Everdene farmer
Don J Whistance as Constable
Jamie Lee-Hill as Laban Tall

The editing is done at a break neck pace, before you have a chance to absorb one scene you are sharply cut to the next as if you were watching a heavily edited version of a longer film or the ‘____:the movie’ edited version of a television series. There are some scenes towards the end, without giving anything away to a story first published in 1874, I felt were given absolutely no time to breathe and were being rushed in order to bring a close to the film. For example where a character is put in a gaol cell which is very artistically done but it is only put in context during the following scene through expository dialogue. This seemed very lazy as the film prior to this was able to follow Chekov’s maxim that you show ‘show, don’t tell’ when developing a narrative even at its hectic pace. At the very least the last act seems all too quick in tying up all the loose ends to the detriment of the pacing otherwise.

The cinematography of the landscape is exceptional but for the most part you will think of this as a film having been made to the standard of the BBC Drama department in its recent productions. There is not one scene that is not beautifully framed and it reminded me of Joe Wright’s 2005 film adaption of Pride and Prejudice starring Keira Knightley very often as there is a very similar soft focus and predominantly sepia yet vividly coloured palette throughout with the lighting ensuring night time scenes are sufficiently dark without being incomprehensible. However it should be noted as soon as you are aware BBC Films were involved in the production you will inevitably be comparing it to recent television series such as Sherlock, Poldark, etc. It is of the same high production quality level with a slightly more cinematic style in places but you shouldn’t expect anything extraordinarily different from the standard set by the BBC’s various recent television series.

The costumes are colourful and very good though I would question their historical accuracy as Bathsheba has a leather riding jacket – it may very well be historically accurate but just not something you associate with the period. You probably will not note this when watching it though.

The casting is excellent with special note to Matthias Schoenaerts whose performance as Oaks is intense yet unthreatening in contrast to Tom Sturridge’s more light footed and flighty portrayal of Troy. Anyone familiar with Terence Stamp’s portrayal of Troy in the 1967 adaption will probably feel Sturridge’s portrayal doesn’t hold up but I feel the film maker is making him appeal to contemporary audiences and of course what is appealing differs between generations but I feel both versions are in keeping with the character although apparently the 1967 ‘sword dance’ scene is more erotically charged and in keeping with the novel (the scene is a seduction of Troy symbolically deflowering Bathsheba by thrusting his phallic sword towards her and cutting her hair at its climax) while the modern adaption is more akin to a schoolboy showing off which ironically is another way the scene could be interpreted so it is just a matter of style choice between the adaptions. Michael Sheen is also good but I find he is better when he has more eccentric characters to portray and a reserved role like this, while performed to a high standard, doesn’t make the best use of his skills. Not at all a weak performance but I feel the other men had more to work with in their scenes. Cary Mulligan is serviceable in the role but I never really supported her as she came across overly stiff and stale. The transition from her living with the aunt, getting the farm and later on doesn’t suggest a transition of time or development in the character yet in the dialogue we are told it has definitely passed and she has a different outlook on life. Due to the down turning of her mouth the beauty mark / mole really irritated me as I kept thinking that it looked like some left over crumb of food – not a fair criticism but nonetheless it did. Far from a bad performance but it felt like a young actress being made to portray an older role as her voice is notably deeper than in her other roles and her mannerisms were very stiffly acted rather than natural which didn’t feel in keeping with this character who is not of the societal set but very salt of the earth putting on the airs of society when it is necessary.

The central characters in brief are:

Bathsheba – the stoic proto-feminist heroine. We see this character archetype time and time again in any number of similar novels with a similar narrative framework i.e. A woman who is challenging the gender assigned roles of society yet still finding herself needing to conform to them through an appropriate marriage.

This character heavily reminded me of being in the same mould as Pride and Prejudice’s Elizabeth Bennett. Both have suitors who initially approach them for marriage and who they turn away as they feel they have no need for them but later warm to and marry. In this film the suitors seem to ask her to marry them within the first 10 minutes of meeting her!

“Hello Bathesheba… oh my… you are… the most beautiful, intelligent, self-sufficient woman i have ever met… will you marry me?”

If this was not based on a Thomas Hardy novel but written today it would be no more respected than Twilight and its ilk due to the ‘Mary Sue’ nature of the central character. The later stories have inherited wholesale the exact narrative structure unchanged since it developed centuries ago! Back then it was a struggle for women to be viewed as people in their own right, not the property of the men they marry, but the copied narrative rings falsely today in a contemporary Western society where many of the key conflicts have been addressed, if not made redundant, by societal change via the Suffragette movement’s achievements and Feminism.

Just as the classic monomyth universally depicts a hero going on an adventure, in a decisive crisis wins a victory and then comes home changed or transformed so this narrative adapts it to a woman’s version within the traditional social structure as she comes from simple, but respectable, origins to a position of respectability and society wherein she now has the option of marrying her choice of potential suitors amongst whom we usually find the trifecta of the following:

  • The morally, but not socially, prefered choice (Oak/ Mr Darcy),
  • The traditional ‘provded for by an older man’ option, in a respectable but unappealing choice (Boldwood/Mr Collins)
  • The dashing, sexually attractive, worldly soldier who is dangerous (Troy/ George Wickham)

Gabriel Oak: A former small farm owner who suffers tragedy when he loses his flock of sheep and ends up working for Bathsheba as her shephard. During his service he offers his opinion on her life and althoguh there is colnflict between them he always puts the farm and others ahead of his own desires.

He offered marriage when he was a farm owner and she was with her aunt on a small neighbouring farm. Later on, i.e. he majority of the film, he works as her shepherd and proves himself a good, unselfish man, who gives her his opinion but never forces her hand. A man who is physically and morally strong. Seems to ha ve been simplified from the book. I kept thinking how he no doubt influenced the character of Mellors in Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

William Boldwood: When Bathsheba inherits her uncles farm he owns the neighbouring one which is far larger and so he is more a landowner who never dirties his hands compared to Oak.

After Bathsheba’s lady persuades her to send him a valentines which has no true intent behind it he offers marriage. She tells him wait. He waits. He later asks again (due to the pacing of the film it doesn’t seem a long time but I am assuming some months or years have passed) and she rebukes him again. A tragic figure ultimately though it would ruin the closing of the story if I told you it. The way Bathsheba treats him does make her morally repugnant and it is never really addressed but instead he is made to seem the ‘bad’ one as he follows societal norms and assumes she would want to marry someone of a similar social standing. There is a scene where Bathsheba and Oak look through his rooms and see he purchased items on the assumption she would agree to his proposial finally as if to suggest he was ‘stakerish’ in nature though it would make sense in the societal norm and in another story being showered which such gifts would be a ‘heartwarming’ scene not a tragic note as it is presented as here.

Sergeant Frank Troy: Young sexy, worldy, experienced soldier who ultimately teaches the female protagonist the ways of the world taking her innocence, yes in both moral and physical ways, but his association with her is restrictive and so he betrays her or uses her in order to fund his worldly ways such as gambling or drinking heavily.

As seen in Pride and Prejudice’s George Wickham and Anna Karenina’s Count Alexei Kirillovich Vronsky (a cavalry officer). She marries him but he still idolises a former lover named Fanny Robin, who through sheer poor luck, did not arrive at the church in time to marry him, so he assumed he had been jilted and thus sought his next lover and was married within 9 months with tragic consequences. The ‘Danish handshake’ was a bit more than earlier adaptions would have had but it seemed fitting due to the scene and character involved.

Review Summary: It is a very cinematic film so definitely go see it there if you can. Although it has a long run time it will pass quickly. I found the shifts from scene to scene far to blunt and so it felt like a collection of scenes rather than a flowing narrative. Go watch the 1967 version for a good film, watch this for a modern adaption but ultimately the book is the best place for the story. Good adaption but far to sharply edited to the point you don’t have time to appreciate scenes or absorb what is gone on before the next event is underway. The music is also very fitting and enjoyable.

TL;DR: Beautiful scenes decorated with something for the ladies in the forms of Matthias Schoenaerts PHWOAR, Tom Sturridge PHWOAR and Michael Sheen PHW- um, well I guess he appeals to ladies of particular tastes…

Child 44 (2015)

During Stalin’s rule of the Soviet Union in the early 1950s, disgraced Ministry of State Security (MGB) Agent Leo Demidov (Tom Hardy) uncovers a strange and brutal series of child murders by a serial killer who everyone claims does not exist because it is Soviet doctrine that capitalism creates serial killers, not communism.

I saw this film because Soviet Russia is not a topic often represented sympathetically in Western made films. They are the default ‘enemy’ in many spy films e.g. James Bond’s S.P.E.C.T.R.E. /SMERSH, movies and books respectively (though the latter did exist in real life briefly), where they are just cannon fodder decrying the evils of Capitalism while their leaders inevitably are corrupt hypocrites accruing as much wealth as they can. If the villain isn’t a Nazi during the early to mid twentieth century it can be assured Russian Communists are somewhere nearby listening through planted bugs. I hoped we would see individuals, flawed but rounded, dealing with events with a range of emotional responses befitting the situation but what we got was the usual ‘Russians feel only anger or nothing’ stereotypes but this time set within the frame work of a very weakly implimented murder mystery which seems to be forgotten about most of the time so it can be reitterated, for the hundredth time, how bad Communism was as if it wasn’t obvious already.

Cast: A selection of good actors with a poorly implemented adaption of the novel’s labyrinthine narrative to portray. Tom Hardy, as Leo Demidov, is very good in the leading role and proves he is a versatile actor but the script doesn’t give him much emotional range beyond anger and remorseful resignation to his situation. Gary Oldman, as General Nesterov, is serviceable but his role is limited during the film with his character going for a vindictive superior to being a steadfast ally with no real middle ground to explain his shift in behaviour. Noomi Rapace, as Raisa Demidov, was miscast. She has a face that I couldn’t get used to throughout the film. Maybe it’s that her eyes and nose looked very small for her face yet I have seen her in other films and had no issue with her appearance but there was something off about her here… if I am honest I have watched quite a few actual Russian films and so I must admit that her face is not at all appropriate and, if I am honest, her character felt very much dependant as being a foil to protray Leo either positively or negatively whenever the story required it thus leading her to come across as very opportunistic. However she was not as badly miscast as Fares Fares as Alexi Andreyey who just seems terribly out of placein his acting ability although it may have been due to his character being quite two dimensional as Leo’s friend, who inevitably is going to die at some point to increase the drama stakes of the narrative, so there was little to work with. They both give good performances with what they have to work with but do not fit the setting although you might argue no one here does.

I should note that there don’t seem to be any Russian actors involved. There is one Polish actress, Agnieszka Grochowska as Nina Adreeva, in a minor role but, aside from Josef Altin playing Alexander, who is of Turkish descent, everyone is a mix of Western European ethnicities especially it seems Swedish which is the ‘go to’ nationality for people playing Russians in Western films e.g. Rocky IV as they most often fit the propagandist image of the New Soviet man Stalin endorsed and Western propaganda, up until the fall of the Soviet Union, used often in films i.e. blonde haired, blue eyed and usually tall and physically imposing though that is not as much the case here. All the supporting actors, especially Joel Kinnaman as ‘evil team mate’ and antagonist Vasili Nikitin, do well in their roles but the main cast seem to be pressured into using the Russian accent which I felt hampered their performances as they had to juggle maintaining it and thus were unable to focus on giving the best performance possible.

Technical aspects: The film is really bogged down by certain style choices such as having everyone (apart from one actor with a single line of dialogue towards the end which is very jarring once you are used to the accent and hear his crystal clear elocution) speaking in very pronounced Russian accents. In contrast we have only Ron Perlman, as a comic relief caricature of Hollywood’s usual depiction of Russian soldiers, doing a hockey ‘Rooshian Akksent’ in 2001’s ‘Enemy At The Gate’ so all the dialogue is otherwise perfectly audible without having to over focus on it.

The colour palate of the film is of course very much geared towards earthy tones with some harsh contrasts in key scenes. The red of the uniform epaulletes, rich browns and greens of Leo’s Moscow apartment, the steely blues of the industrial areas and luscious greens and browns of the forest scenery. Ultimately the film could have been better served by being desaturated as the eye acknowledges the colour scale used and it is not aesthetically pleasing. There is an overt focus on showing the grimness of Soviet life but in doing so they forget to make the scenery interesting to maintain the audience’s attention believing the dry, expositional, dialogue alone will do this for them.

The cinematography is very standard which in a film like this, with so much dialogue and half-hearted efforts towards world building, really fails to maintain the audience’s interest. It is one of the only films where I have been uncomfortably shifting in my seat and looking at my watch within 40 minutes of the start. If they had panning shots of the scenery during conversations or mixed up close and long shots during events it would not be such a tired, dragging, experience. Perhaps this was intentional to further indicate to the audience how life was in the Soviet Union however this could easily have been done through showing the run down scenery, having the actors move with no great sense of urgency when moving – ultimately there are any number of techniques which could have been used to express this rather than sopping all movement of screen dead and have talking heads. Imagine if you went to the theatre and the actors just walked to the front of stage and recited their lines then returned to the side when it was the next persons turn to speak or you read a comic where all the artists depicted was talking heads. This is a technique that you are constantly made aware is exceptionally lazy when learning about these narrative styles yet this film relies on this flawed technique far too much when the dialogue itself is plodding and dull. Contrast the imagery of this film with A Driver For Vera, Водитель для Веры, (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Driver_for_Vera ) set in 1962 and the contrast in the looks of the scenery are immense. One has an agenda for making every single moment of existence a grim, claustrophobically harrowing experience, while the other has an appreciation of the scenery and landscape.

It is worth watching and there are plenty of channels with the full film on them with English subtitles should you go look.

Life in the Soviet Union was brutal, the authorities were corrupt, people in authority abused their position while average citizens lived in fear of being persecuted based on unfounded allegations!

This is the overriding and heavy-handedly delivered message of the film. It is the same message you get in any films set in the Soviet Era when done by non-Russians (though for them it was a given and no doubt the older generations have reiterated their own first hand experiences of the Soviet era to them at every family gathering so it is a given). I would assume it was a given to anyone nowadays but there you go…

Who is this film for? The murder mystery is not the real focus but Leo’s conflict with the corrupt authority figures he encounters and the social ambivalence and apathy he encounters. The depiction of the Stalinist era is generic and has been seen time and time again in other films giving no new insight into people’s daily concerns. Everyone is a character archetype not a fully rounded individual. It seems like the multi-facetted novel has been unflatteringly adapted when the multiple threads would be better suited to a mini-series perhaps or even if they stripped the narrative bear ad only focused on one or two threads and omitted others?

So now onto a few points I noted during my viewing of the film in the cinema i.e. the ranting bit of the review:

Yevgeny Khaldei’s ‘Raising a Flag Over the Reichstag: After a close quarters gun battle Leo Demidov and his friend, Alexei, were the ones to put the flag over the Reichstag building. Alexei had a large number of watches he had taken off the dead and the photographer (is it meant to be Khaldei?) told him to take them off so the photo can be better used for propaganda purposes thus referring to the historical issues people had with the real photo (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Raising_a_flag_over_the_Reichstag ). I don’t know if this is actually meant to suggest it is the real life event or a sort of pseudo-real equivalent of the event. It was like someone making a film set during the Nixon administration of the USA and you got a sequence where the main character was one of the body guards present at JFK’s assassination. It felt a lazy attempt to make the audience feel the character is historically significant though an artificial construct.

The issue of Russia’s views on homosexuality are addressed: At one point, after Leo has left Moscow as he would not denounce his wife; there is a station master who was witness to a murder. It is revealed he is a homosexual and he is then persecuted. He is interrogated by Gary Oldman’s character, General Nesterov, and the names of other homosexuals are taken from him as they are, by default of being homosexuals, considered to be suspects in the murder of the children. These men are then rounded up and the last scene we see of the station master is him walking up to the unbarred train track and throwing himself under the train. Very Anna Karenina… It was a common issue worldwide during this period to assume homosexuals were also by default paedophiles in the tradition of Ancient Greek ‘boy love’. It is one of the more shameful prejudices that doesn’t get mentioned much nowadays, in more enlightened times, so at least the novel, and by extension the film, notes it and shows how arbitrary the assumption is when made and its tragic consequences. Let us not forget that this was well within the living memory of the generation that refused to acknowledge Alan Turing’s achievements due to his homosexuality for which he was convicted of indecency in January 1952. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alan_Turing ). The film unfortunately seems to imply this was an exclusively Russian perception of homosexuality and not a generational one globally.

Russians are misogynistic: The film begins with a dinner party where Leo recounts how he met his wife and she had given him a false name. Once there are exiled from Moscow into a run down, backwaters, industrial town she reveals that not only did she lie about being pregnant, in order to save her own life thus damning them both, but also married him out of fear as he was part of the authorities and would have done something to her had she refused. After this they suddenly become far closer which to me was jarring and especially at the end when they decide to adopt the orphaned farmer’s daughters. There felt no development in their relationship but sudden leaps from one step to the next in order to progress the narrative. The film criticises how she feared him as a man and yet she ultimately becomes just a tool in his investigations by then end so the film seems to want its cake and eat it too. Whenever women appear in this film they are very maginalised, not due to the film’s subject, but the film makers maintaining the status quo for big budget American thrillers where men deal with serious issues while women are window dressing unless they are a vicitm. If you see how they do the ‘I married you out of fear’ scene you will understand how it could have been done far better and lost what was going to be quite a powerful scene where Leo would have to confront his own position in society as one of the MGB who citizens intrinsically feared. Instead we got a scene that made me feel like she was an ungrateful, self centred, coward who damned both of them which was definitely not the intention when originally written.

Communism was corrupt: There is a heavy reiteration that the bureaucracy of Soviet Russia was corrupt and there were repeated efforts to get people to obey government views unquestionly. Early on, after a list of names is given by a, presumably innocent but nonetheless chased and interrogated, man Leo is expected to get a confession from his wife admitting she is a spy for the British government. He refuses to denounce her as there is no evidence and so is sent away from Moscow and demoted to the local militia. His wife tells him on the train it was nothing but an experiment in blind obedience. I think I could sum it up as the wife was very unlikeable and was meant to be the voice of reason but instead seemed to endorse every negative misogynistic stereotype the film seemed to want to challenge but instead seemed to take pleasure in depicting.

Killers are all the same one dimensional creatures: We really learn nothing about him throughout the film until the final monologue he does and even then it really comes across not as the justifications, understandable or not, for his actions but a massive amount of very sudden exposition poorly used to draw a parallel that Demidov could have become like him. Except the killer is a cannibal who was in a Nazi concentration camp and it is suggested it wasn’t that experience which made him become, out of a necessity for personal survival, a cannibal recently but he was one as far back as his childhood in the orphange though I personally took that line of dialogue metaphorically as a rephrasing of ‘its a dog eat dog world’ not literally as some other viewers apparently have. It felt very cliche to the point I can’t hel but feel if this was a better film this would be one of the major moments that would be parodied it seems so arbitrary and ridiculously melodramatic without any real set up e.g. maybe in the background seeing a boy who is very noticeable in the films introduction of Leo, when he was a child escaping the orphange, who it then remmebered in retrospect and is suspiciously similar to the man we later encounter in the film. When the killer is revealed properly he has a distinct limp though before we see his face he walks relatively normal – you can watch the trailer and see there is no overly pronounced limp present. He doesn’t have a limp early on when we see him luring children away from a distance so we must ask: was he meant to have a limp throughout? Was there perhaps a scene in the book but omitted from the film explaining it? This ‘physical fault equals moral fault’ is a very old narrative device which has been used for centurys, perhaps most famously with the fictionalised version of the titular Richard III in William Shakespeare’s play, and it appears here without much context except to visually indicate to the audience immediately who the killer is and to give an easy to see fault with him. Except this is already done as he is dressed distinctly from the rest of the cast in a clean black suit when everyone else is in uniform or mottled earthy tones. therefore, for me, this film more or less ignores the cardinal rule ‘show don’t tell’ by reiterating his impropriety with a few scenes of him acting psychotically while alone which have no real context except to show how he drowns the boys and seems to consider it a sort of slef flagulation when done to himself. ‘he is fucked up’ the film makers seem to want us to think but it left me wondering if he wasn’t some parody of serial killers in better films. There is one scene where he brings a boy back to his home from the train station to his wife and we are shown a panning shot stopping on the framed photo of a boy. Was the boy at the train station his son or just a ‘replacement goldfish’? We only see his wife in this one sequence and she is never involved in the narrative again. The film has an annoying habit of introducing things then abandoning them as if to offer red herrings and keep you the audience guessing. Yes the overriding story here is a murder mystery but that doesn’t mean that the narrative itself needs to be a mystery to us! It doesn’t present itself as that kind of film and shouldn’t have delusions of grandeur about what it is capable of. If you introduce something which is not directly involved in the case, but as part of the world building, then it shouldn’t be presented to the audience this way then dismissed immediately. It was if there were ‘easter eggs’ as seen in other films but, and it is important to note this, these are franchised which have ht a certain level of social osmosis so someone not intimately familiar will still notice a reference e.g. many thing in the Marvel films calling back to the comics though not everyone will get every reference – it helps world build but is never suggested as something you need to know to enjoy the film you are currently watching.

Repeat the tag line because the audience are stupid: ‘There is no murder in paradise’ is a phrase repeated a few times during the film. It got tedious as we are all too aware of the oppositon Demidov is facing in persuing his investigation.

The unrealistic happy ending: I felt the ending was a bit too ‘Hollywood Happy’. There is a rather brutal fight during which the protagonists are later shown to have survived serious stab wounds and serious concussions from having their heads hit against rocks repeatedly. During an early part of the film Leo and his team mates are involved in chasing an escaped suspect to a farm house. At the farm house are a farmer, his wife and their two daughters. In Leo’s absence ‘Evil team mate’, who they earlier mocked as he was incapable of firing his rifle when fighting inside the German embassy, kills the farmer and his wife execution style as they are bound and kneeling in front of him begging for their lives protesting their innocence. Leo rushes over and hits him telling everyone to stop this before the ‘evil team mate’ is about to execute the girls. My problem with this scene is that Leo’s friend and a number of other soldiers are stood around and allow the executions but they are never considered part of the moral issue of the killings here.

So how does this mean the ending is poor? The girls recognise Leo as having been involved in the killing of their parents and yet at the end of the film they choose to be adopted by him. Even if he was not directly involved it is highly unlikely they would choose to go with someone associated with their parent’s killing. Even though the film at the start and end depicts the orphanages as brutal places I still find it unlikely the girls would go with him.

Orphans: Another aspect of the film is the theme of orphans. Leo is introduced as a child in an orphanage which he runs away from before being adopted, and renamed, by a man. The killer, in a poorly implemented monologue, tells Leo he too was an orphan and so ‘they are not so different’… I will be honest you learn more or less everything about the killer during this monologue as the previous scenes of him are him pretending to be affable to draw the boys away to murder them, practising the killing technique he uses or doing ‘movie psychopath’ things we have seen a hundred times before in better films (e.g. Se7en, Silence of the Lambs, et al). So is Leo adopting the girls an act of redemption? Him making amends for the killing of their parents by his ‘evil team mate’ Vasili? Is it suggesting that the next generation will have a better life and by doing this and establishing the Homicide Department of the Russian Authorities, which involves him being compliant and agreeing murder is a bourgeois issue that doesn’t exist in Russia expect due to the evil effects of outside forces (the killer was in Germany for a time and was corrupted by them). So in the end Demidov has won a ‘battle’ to find a single killer but lost his moral ‘war’ in achieving it but the film seems to not want to end on this low note.

Use of actual Russian and the adopting of Russian Accents by the cast: During the opening credits there is a shifting from Cyrillic to the Latin alphabet. I think the Cyrillic is actually in Russian but it moved quicker than I could read it. The thing I found a bit odd was how everyone does Russian accents. While it assists emersion for some audience members I found it quickly became tedious as the quality of the accents was very inconsistent. In comparison ‘Enemy at the Gates’, set in Leningrad during World War 2, where there is no attempt to do this, except Ron Perlman who seems to be in a comedy relief role, and to be honest I would prefer that as it comes across a little awkward with the cast doing it throughout. One actor, who appears only during a very brief scene, doesn’t do the accent and it really takes you out of the film and feels intentionally done. Russian is however spoken in the background throughout the film but obviously not of the time you will not be able to hear it clearly and it is usually generic things such as someone t the train station shouting ‘all clear’ to the train driver.

Anton Chekov once said that you should ‘show not tell’ your narrative. This film ignores that advice and delights in exposition heavy dialogue and reiterating its message that life was brutal during the Stalinist regime. Therefore when you want this film it is more a process in checking off the checklist of Soviet Union tropes, occasionally entertaining the concept of Leo dealing with his seemingly unloving wife and the murder investigation when he can get around to it, rather than a taut thriller. I would have preferred a hatch job adaption where they expanded the murder investigation, especially with the things they kept hinting about without context about the killer and cut out all the other tertiary plots than this half-hearted effort to cover everything with none of it feeling to hold any weight.

Apparently this film was banned in Russia. It was banned as they are about to celebrate the 70th anniversary over the Nazis and so having such a film decrying the failings of the Stalinist era would seem in ill taste at the moment. Perhaps if they delayed it a few years, as many other films tend to be between filming and distribution, it would find a more favourable view but at the moment to release it and criticise the Government for taking into consideration civilian’s sense of national pride during this anniversary seems to be distorted in Western reports of the ban. To be honest they haven’t missed anything due to the ban and more than likely anyone who wants to see it will do so despite the ban. That is the history of banned cinema with examples like Nosferatu, A Clockwork Orange, Monty Python’s Life of Brian, The Party and the People , etc so it definitely isn’t going to change now in the age of digital distribution. This ban is hardly similar to that of the Czech film The Party and The People which was made during the Soviet era and openly challenged it. This is a 2014 adaption of a novel written by a Western author criticising Stalinism. It was just poor timing and if there was a film released criticising Churchill or Thatcher on a significant anniversary I am certain it would receive criticism and be poorly received though admittedly not banned by the government though such acts are not beyond them.

Further reading:

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/apr/16/russia-child-44-film-ban-victory-nazi-germany

http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/child-44-ban-rolls-soviet-789531

On an aside regarding the act of banning in Britain: I do remember the British government outright banning the Playstation 2 game ‘Rule of Rose’ because of it contained ‘lesbian overtones amongst underage school girls and sequences of intense, brutal, torture’. The lesbian overtones were mostly the innocent infatuation of children with an individual having a one sided obsession towards the protagonist and the torture sequences are always implied to be the embellished, warped, memories of the protagonist having suffered trauma at an unknown point. The overriding indication the player discovers during the game is that the protagonist was remembering her traumatic experiences at the orphanage and what was implied and imagined in childhood is made literal as we are playing through the mindscape of the character remembering her past not a physically real, in context, world where the events of the game are happening as we see them. The game begins after her parents die in an air ship fire after which she is sent to the orphanage. While there a girl, leader of a secret club of girls there who makes them do degrading things and offer her things in order to be members of this special club, becomes obsessed with the protagonist. We learn the stories of each of the girls throughout the game and it is slowly revealed or suggested than some bad things were happening at the orphanage like the head of the school was sexually abusing one girl. A key figure encountered during the game is the grounds keeper who is severely traumatised over the loss of his son. During the game the player is accompanied by a dog who helps you deal with the monsters that attack you but it is revealed towards the end of the game you are playing through the protagonists memories which have, if not become warped due to trauma, are being depicted very literally. The dog at the end of the game is revealed to have just been a soft toy she had been very attached to during her childhood at the orphanage. The tragic ‘final boss’ turns out to be the traumatised, mentally ill, grounds keeper who has dressed up as a dog to please his son having been manipulated by the obsessive girl pretending to be this son. Events take a turn for the tragic as he has already killed all the other girls you have grown to know at the orphanage throughout the game. Upon defeating him the player is given two choices: shoot him or let him commit suicide. There is a short sequence after this where we play the protagonist not as the adult we have known throughout the game but as her age during the real events as she wanders the empty orphanage and comes to terms with what happened. The game ends with her cathartically leaving the orphanage grounds at peace with her past. Why this long explanation of its plot? Because the government had a knee jerk reaction and just took others word for it that it was a game with no redeeming features rather than a darkly psychological game where we literally play through the protagonist’s memories which have become warded over the passage of time where the rumours of childhood and the later emotional maturity make her perception of events warp what we the player see literally portrayed on screen. No as far as the government are concerned it was a game about underage lesbian school girls and torture. Governments either enforce their views or try to stop controversy by ‘protecting’ people even if it is means it has to be based on reactionary, ill informed, information they are provided with instead of a full honest account. Regarding Child 44 I think the Russian Cultural Ministry were doing the latter despite what the media would like to think of them trying to force a state agenda.

If Soviet Russia interests you and you want to see Child 44 wait until you can get it cheap on DVD or can watch it on television while doing something else to ease the dragging nature of the slower scenes. Story telling is about light and dark yet this just keeps drilling down hard on the serious side of the scale and ends up alienating the audience through its insistence on trying to make everything seem so unremittingly dark. If you want Stalinist era films recommended go watch the following:

TL;DR: Child 44 had great potential with such a skilled cast but dropped the ball badly andwas a real bore with its narrative and messages.


I’m sure everyone missed these long winded posts… It is done now. For those of you who read it all here is a small reward: Elena Vaenga and company singing the World War 2 era (or ‘The Patriotic War’ as Russians know it) songs ‘Holy War’ and ‘Katyusha’ 🙂

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