Thoughts on Spectre

On Sunday I went to see Spectre, the most recent James Bond and the fourth starring Daniel Craig.  I didn’t expect much, not after having been rather disappointed with Skyfall, and sure enough I thought it was pretty ordinary.

My main gripe is that the story was too damned complicated (spoilers follow).  The actors lurch from place to place on the flimsiest of pretexts, with each new location serving to raise more questions rather than advancing the plot.  We start off in Mexico, then go to London, then to Rome.  We do all this because after her death M (the Judy Dench version) had left a message for Bond telling him to kill an Italian in Mexico and then attend his funeral in Rome.  Now M died at the end of Skyfall in Bond’s childhood home in Scotland, to which they’d driven together from London.  She didn’t go there to die, so she must have recorded the message before their journey.  Rather than just mentioning it in over breakfast at the Little Chef on the A1 outside Darlington.  In fact, the whole premise of Bond going to Mexico on a rogue mission is completely unnecessary: Bond “going rogue” has been done multiple times already, and twice by Daniel Craig himself, so they’re not doing anything original.  It only serves to ask why M didn’t tell Bond about this startling new threat when she was still alive, and why she didn’t handle it in her official capacity as M.  We’re never told the answer.

But never mind that, we’re already in Rome and Bond is banging the widow of the bloke he offed in Mexico before the funeral music has died away.  Through her he finds out about a secret meeting taking place that very night in Rome between the members of a shadowy cabal which wants to hold the world in its iron grasp, or something.  We’re never quite sure what motivates these people (other than their leader) but it is implied they want to control the world’s information, and presumably make money.  But judging by the fleet of Ferraris parked up outside this meeting, they have plenty of that already.  Once again, Bond villains are motivated to spend tens of millions in order to…make money?  I’ve never been convinced that world domination offers itself up as a better alternative to fatten the wallets of those who are already multi-millionaires than investing in pork belly futures.  Jeez, even the cabal’s hired muscle drives a super-Jag.  What’s he still in it for, the final salary pension?

Anyway, this meeting is taking place because the person dispatched by Bond in Mexico was the cabal’s assassin, and they need to select a new one.  Apparently this requires the entire membership to assemble on the evening of his funeral, leaving standing room only.  Why this must be we don’t find out, because the new assassin selects himself by striding out of a back room and murdering one of his pals.  A democratic selection process there was not.  Oh, and this took place in Rome because the previous assassin just so happened to be Italian.  Either that or it’s purely a coincidence and…oh, look over there, a car chase!

Back in London, Bond finds out that a cryptic name he heard at the meeting refers to a bloke in Austria so grab your passports, we’re off again!  In some lodge in the middle of nowhere Bond catches up with a man who we saw in Casino Royale and then (so I thought) was shot and killed in the early stages of Quantum of Solace.  But I was wrong, and we learn he is alive and well dying of radiation poisoning, dealt out by the leader of this shadowy cabal we saw meeting in Rome, which we learn is SPECTRE.  SPECTRE had this chap – Mr White – poisoned because he went against their leader.  Mr White explains he was fine with the guns and drugs but not with what they were doing with “children”.  We’re never told what this refers to because the rest of the film presents SPECTRE’s main mission as controlling information, and their leader later confirms as much.  But potential plot devices upon which we must concentrate are being thrown out by the shovelful,  leaving us with no time to wonder whether the mysterious leader of SPECTRE is in fact Jimmy Saville.  Mr White has a daughter, who happens to be young, fit, and French.  I tried to figure out why she was French but couldn’t come up with anything more plausible than the actress chosen to play her was French.  Mr White fears for her life and is reluctant to divulge her whereabouts to Bond, but in return for 007 promising to keep her safe he reveals that she is working in a clinic sitting atop a mountain in Austria, and that he should ask her about L’Americain.  At this point the audience is led to believe this refers to a person, but in fact we later find L’Americain is a hotel in Tangiers with a hidden room behind the honeymoon suite set up by Mr White.  So why did Bond need to see the daughter to find this out?  Mr White could have simply told him not only the existence of this hidden room, but also the information therein – the location of SPECTRE’s hideout in the North African desert.  Yet instead, he puts his daughter’s life in considerable danger by using her as a conduit through which to transmit information which he could have passed to Bond directly.  And then he blew his own head off.

In writing this it occurs to me that the only reason Mr White tells Bond to go and see his daughter is because the scriptwriters somehow needed to shoehorn a fit, young French girl into the plot.  Looking at it this way, her actual contribution to the story as it panned out was minimal.  But the script does give us the opportunity to witness a thrilling car chase through the Austrian Alps, and then to visit Tangiers, whereupon Bond and his new bird board a pretty bog-standard African train which nevertheless features a dining car in which people eat their meals wearing tuxedos and ball gowns.  Look, I know Daniel Craig looks good in a suit, and suits look good on him, and the French chick looks good in anything (or, I suspect, nothing) but having the two of them turn up in the dining car dressed like this was preposterous.  Obviously the script called for the two to be dressed up in evening attire somewhere, and somebody thought if the plot doesn’t really allow it then let’s just shove it in anywhere.

During the dinner, SPECTRE’s assassin shows up and wrecks half the train, before inevitably dying at the hands of Bond with a little help from mademoiselle.  Now, bear in mind that when his predecessor died the entire membership of SPECTRE had to assemble in Rome in order that a replacement be picked (or rather observed murdering one of their number).  But this time?  Well, we meet half of SPECTRE the next morning and they don’t even mention it, let alone jet off to whichever city the great brute’s funeral is being held in.

Then we find that SPECTRE exists partly to control all the world’s information and partly to piss off Bond because when he was a kid he was orphaned and another family took care of him and zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz…sorry, where was I?  I nodded off there.  Is the Bond film still on?  Or is this a remake of Party of Five?  I think the latter, because Bond is still pining over Vesper Lynd who died 3 (three!) films ago.  Jesus, either make her death a major plot point driving Bond’s murderous desire for revenge, or have him actually move on after he’s shagged his way through a platoon of seriously fit replacements in the intervening films.  One or t’other, please!

Apparently Spectre employed no less than four scriptwriters, all working at the same time.  And it shows.  What’s that proverb about too many cooks?  That’s a major criticism I have with a lot of modern films: the plots are overly complicated, as if they are trying way too hard.  A good story does not need to be complicated, and some of the best are brutally simple.  A good film doesn’t need half a dozen false leads, red herrings, twists, and potential plot devices blasted at the audience in every other scene.  If you’re going to take up the challenge of a complicated plot, it needs to be as tightly structured as The Usual Suspects or L.A. Confidential to work, otherwise the result looks like a high-school kid trying his hand at writing his first novel.  The plot of Spectre looks as amateurish as hell, with so many plot holes and inconsistencies that I’m wondering whether its complexity was a deliberate attempt to distract the audience from its shortcomings.  But I think I’ll go with my less conspiratorial opinion that the modern plot serves merely as an excuse to flit from one set-piece to another in rapid succession in order to serve up nice cinematography.

By far the best film I’ve seen recently was Mad Max: Fury Road.  It wasn’t just the stuntwork, action, and visuals that pleased me but the conspicuous lack of storyline.  Perhaps knowing his audience well, the director chose a plot with just about enough backstory and exposition to provide an excuse for the convoy to go from one point to another, turn around, and come back the way they came.  If you’re going to rely on the action to carry the film, then it is best to keep the plot as simple as possible.  If you’re going to rely on the plot to carry the film, then you’ll need to start with a decent story, and that probably means taking one that has already been written.  The films adaptations of books sometimes don’t work, but when they do it is often because the screenwriters are working with solid source material.  Spectre didn’t do either of these, and we had entertaining albeit sometimes cartoonish action mashed together in almost three hours of torturous, nonsensical plot.

There was still plenty of life in James Bond when they rebooted the franchise with Casino Royale.  Nine years later, Spectre must surely have killed it off completely.

The Demise of Jean-Claude Van Damme

Flicking through the film listing on the flight back from Thailand a few weeks ago, I noticed they were showing a film featuring Jean-Claude Van Damme.  Does anyone remember him?  I do.  When I was a teenage boy he was one of the biggest stars around, and we all thought any film with him in was awesome.  I think I’d probably grown out of him around the time of Time Cop in 1994 and had barely heard of him since.

But a while back I did a portable hard-disk swap with a friend which contained all my old favourite Van Damme films from the late ’80s and early ’90s and so I decided to watch a few of them again when I was bored.

Somewhat unsurprisingly I found them to be utter tosh, but they are unintentionally funny.  I mean, they’re so bad that they become almost good.  Maybe that was the secret all along?  These films were rated 18, but did anyone of that age who wasn’t a complete retard actually watch them, let alone enjoy them?  I watched most of them when I was about 15, which shows you how tightly controlled the videos finding their way into a boarding school TV room was.  If the teachers hadn’t been so busy wife swapping…

Anyway, where was I?  That’s right.  Somebody obviously had it in for Van Damme’s career right from the off, somebody in the wardrobe department.  Here’s a scene from Bloodsport (1988).

He’s been decked out in cowboy boots, grey chinos which are too short, a black vest, and a cheap looking short leather jacket with the sleeves rolled up.  Who the hell rolls the sleeves up on a leather jacket?!  Were fashions really this bad in the ’80s?  Of course, the black vest came in handy in a later scene where Van Damme shows off his muscles as he smashes his fist through some bricks.

But couldn’t they have achieved this without our Belgian hero wearing his trousers like Obelix? No wonder he sunk without a trace halfway through the ’90s.

A review of 24: Season 1

Seeing that I am sitting about for 24 hours, and being decidedly grumpy about the whole thing now that the snow has stopped, the sun is shining, and there are still 2 hours to go before I was supposed to take off, I’ve decided to write a bad-tempered post.

Living as I do on Sakhalin Island, the choice of viewing on TV is pretty damned poor.  For a start, unless you fork out for cable and get 30 channels all in Russian, there are only 8 channels available – all in Russian.  Watching Russian shows are not so bad from a language perspective, but the quality of programming is awful.  With a typical evening being dominated by stuff like Dom 2 (a version of Big Brother which holds the dubious distinction of being the longest continually running reality show ever, something like 2 years and counting) and Klub Bivshikh Zhon (Ex-Wives Club: a group of dolled-up women take a recently divorced, depressed woman and make her feel better…for one episode at least) the Russian channels are best avoided.  There are a handful of good western programmes and films on the TV here, but the appalling dubbing whereby a flat-voiced Russian speaks two seconds after the actor has started with the sound all intermixed with the not-quite-intelligible English original makes them unwatchable.  So as in many an oilfield town, the sharing of TV series on DVD is a popular pastime here in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk.  So far we have bought or borrowed all existing seasons and episodes of Lost, Desperate Housewives, and The 4400.  And they’ve been pretty good, although nothing has yet come even close to matching The Shield, which I ploughed through almost non-stop in Dubai, loving every minute.

So having finished watching those three, we got around to borrowing 24 which I had been told was brilliant, and would keep you on the edge of your seat and force you to keep watching.  24 has a rating on IMBD, a reasonably useful indicator of how good a TV series is, of 9.2 out of 10.  After watching the first season in its entirety over the last week, I’m wondering if they’re referring to something else.  I thought it was crap, so boring and predicatable that I found myself stopping to ring people up for idle conversation halfway through an episode.  For me, it failed on so many levels: implausable plot (which I can normally forgive), awful script, terrible acting, and uninteresting or weak characters.  A few examples (beware, huge spoilers follow):

1.  In the first two minutes of the very first episode we have a couple undergoing marriage problems and a moody teenage daughter who doesn’t get on with the mother, blames her for the marriage falling apart, and refuses to speak to her.  How original!  What better way to kick off a series involving thrilling attempts to thwart a terrorist plot than marriage problems and a disfunctional family.  I almost pressed the eject button right there and then.

2.  Within the first half hour or so we realise that Jack Bauer, the one having marriage problems and father of the moody teenager, was busy shagging his subordinate in the local Counter Terrorism Unit (CTU) when he was apart from his wife, which leads us to believe already that he and the unit, which he commands, are rather unprofessional.  It also leads us to believe we are about to watch 24 hours of Eastenders, only with guns.

3.  Before the first episode is out, we learn that Nina, the frumpy woman who Jack was shagging in the CTU, has a subordinate called Tony who is a young, handsome, Latino and – you’ve guessed it – has the hots for Nina and is jealous of Jack.   Aside from the fact that Tony would probably be hanging out with rather attractive young Latinos rather than pining after the middle-aged office bike, the viewer is left staring at the DVD jacket making sure this is about terrorist plots and he hasn’t picked up some love-triangle “thriller” starring Julia Roberts.

4.  The topics of conversation between Jack, Tony, Nina, and a few other characters revolve around the fact that one or other was either shagging or wants to shag another, the type of conversations I used to hear amongst the checkout girls on a slow morning when I worked part-time in Toys R Us.

5.  Now we get onto some action.  A black fella, Palmer, is running for president, and some people want him dead.  In order to do this, they want to impersonate a photographer who is due to take his picture the next day, and to this end they have put some poor bloke under plastic surgery to make him look like the photographer.  So far so good.  Problem is, they need the photographer’s security pass and he is in Europe and due to fly to LA where he will meet with Palmer.  Rather than whacking him on the head, pinching his pass, and keeping him tied up in a basement, they decide the best method will be for a girl to sit next to him on the plane, chat him up, and shag him in the toilet, nicking his pass in the process.  This she does, before donning a load of parachute equipment, leaping out of the aircraft and leaving a bomb on board which explodes, killing all on board.  A good spectacle no doubt, but not too convincing a storyline.

6.  CTU hear of the plane crash, and get hold of the passenger list.  They notice an extra person is on the plane who shouldnt be there, presumably the girl who escaped.  They decide to link this incident with a suspected hit on Palmer, but never seem to wonder why a photographer who died in the plane crash turns up to Palmer’s event the next morning as planned.  I guess they were all too busy shagging each other.

7.  Not content with enough relationship problems in Jack Bauer’s family, the producers thought they’d add a load to Palmer’s family as well.  Whereas Palmer comes across as articulate and well-educated, his son Keith comes across as the illegitimate son of a gangsta rapper.  He would be better off portrayed by a cartoon.  He has a chip on his shoulder the size of Kansas, is permanently angry at his father because “jew wasn’t der when ah needed jew”, and looks about as much like his father as I do.  When Palmer later asks his wife about a few secrets in the family’s history, he’d have done better to ask who the hell fathered her son.  Anyway, they also have a daughter whose role in the season consists in its entirety of being raped seven years ago (an event of which we see nothing) and fainting once when the family has an argument at the dinner table.  The audition for that part must have been tricky.  The chap who raped the daughter was thought to have committed suicide, but it turns out that Keith killed him instead.  Accidentally, of course.  Everyone in the family, and it seems Palmer’s entire campaign team, knew the truth years ago – except Palmer himself.  When he finds out, he gets all upset that everyone’s been deceiving him, and Keith gets even angrier saying “jew wasn’t der when ah needed jew”.  Again.  Palmer wants to cover it all up, then he wants to come clean, then he doesn’t know what he wants.  Meanwhile Keith rather improbably wants to go to the police and is ready to do hard time for killing a white boy.  Palmer’s wife is the only line of sense running through the family and she thinks everyone should just shut the fuck up and keep covering it up.  Perhaps she’d make a better president.  Palmer, who changes his mind three times per episode, is kept out of the loop by his managers and personal friends, can’t make a decision, and clearly can’t run a family let alone a country is possibly the most unsuitable presidential candidate ever seen on TV.

8.  Having been kidnapped and rescued, Jack’s wife and kid are moved to a safe house where they are then debriefed.  The one agent charged with debriefing Jack’s wife just so happens to be Nina, the woman who Jack was shagging when he left his wife.  Very suitable, doncha think?  Obviously they were short staffed that day.  Sure enough, Jack’s wife figures out that Nina was shagging her husband and some dialogue is passed which I think was written by a highschool student on their first attempt.  It is woeful.  Snore.

9.  Various Serbs turn up in the series, they being the arch criminals Jack is trying to defeat.  They speak perfect English with an American accent, until they are revealed to be Serbs, at which point they switch to perfect English with a very badly performed Slavic accent.  This would be a bit like me going undercover around Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk speaking perfect Russian to the point that everyone thought I was Russian, then when it is revealed I am in fact a Brit I revert to being completely unable to pronounce my “r”s properly and speaking like a rural Georgian.

10.  An arch criminal, badly played by Dennis Hopper, is being held in a top-secret underground detention facility with no perimiter fence on some waste ground, rather like the kind of place you walk your dog.  So secret is this facility, operated by the Department of Defence, that it doesn’t officially exist, and so secret is Dennis Hopper that he doesn’t exist either.  In fact, he’s supposed to be dead.  Anyway, this top-secret prison is guarded by about four men and a couple of janitors, so it is of little surprise that a gaggle of Serbs who spend most of their time threatening one another with knives before the assault are able to break in and get Dennis Hopper out without too much trouble.  Oddly, when our hero Jack realises an assault is imminent and tells the chap in charge, they agree to call…the Counter Terrorism Unit, who take ages to arrive and allow the terrorists to escape with Dennis Hopper.  Why they never called the Department of Defense, who own and run the facility, to come in with helicopters and tanks and a few platoons of leathernecks is anyone’s guess.  Maybe this was supposed to keep the viewer’s mind occupied, and keep him from asking why it was possible for the gang of Serbs to escape directly from the prison to the outside world via a large sewer pipe.  Somewhat of a design flaw in the prison, that.

11.  The safe house in which Jack’s wife and kid are supposedly being kept safe is compromised.  Despite two of the best CTU agents being in command of the security, a single bloke armed with a pistol is able to silently kill fours agents who are all in constant visual and radio contact with each other. We are never shown how this chap manages to kill one bloke up in the basket of a cherry-picker without the driver noticing, which is a shame because it would have been a feat worth watching.  We’re also not sure why two of the best agents in town don’t notice that the undercover agent mowing the lawn outside has left his mower abandoned in the middle of the garden for the past half an hour, and when one of them finally opens his eyes and the penny drops he gets in touch with his partner by…yelling very loudly.  To no avail.  He’s dead, along with all the other agents.  Later, the CTU realise nobody is answering from the safe house and send another agent along, utterly alone, to check it out.  We see him on his radio telling CTU that he is approaching the perimeter of the house, but after that the chaps on the other end lose interest and go for lunch so when he is killed and dumped in some bushes nobody back at base realises for an hour or so.

12.  When somebody tries to call CTU from outside, they don’t call a switchboard as you would expect.  It just goes through to some random desk where they simply ask the person answering if they can connect them to the person they actually want to speak to.  So you see Jack’s wife ringing CTU asking for Jack, but getting Tony’s phone and he is only too happy to connect her call.  For a counter terrorist unit, security seems awfully lax and phone security non-existent, not to mention the employees awfully gracious about playing telephone receptionist every five minutes.

13.  A top-secret agent is in New Orleans talking on the phone with Jack about a top-secret government mission and working on his laptop with top-secret information.  He does all this in a crowded bar, and winds up dead.  Moral of the story: if you are a top-secret agent wishing to keep your identity secret, work from home or rent an office.  Don’t conduct your business in a bar.

14.  Nina turns out to be a mole working inside CTU for the Serbian villains.  So not only does this counter terrorist unit not see anything wrong with staff shagging each other and discussing it in the middle of an important job, they don’t carry out even cursory background security checks on their employees.

You might think I’m being fussy, and I probably am.  Plot holes I can cope with, but plot holes you can drive a truck through annoy me, especially when supported by an appalling script and even worse characters.  Quite why this series is hyped so much is beyond me.  I’d have scrapped it after the first season.  But all that said, there isn’t much to do on Sakhalin and we are already about to borrow the second season.  Let’s hope it improves as it goes along.

Syriana

Upon winning a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role in Syriana, George Clooney said:

“We are a little bit out-of-touch in Hollywood…I think that’s probably a good thing.”

Syriana is a film largely about the workings of the oil and gas industry, in particular the Middle East oil and gas industry, and as I know a thing or two about this subject, I was interested in watching it.  Having now done so, I think Clooney was understating the fact.

The points of contention are as follows.

1.  The merger between Connex and Killen will use economies of scale, and result in cheaper products for consumers.

I think they’ve whipped this line from the automotive industry or somewhere, where buying raw materials in bulk and mass producing the same item on identical production lines can result in a reduction in cost per unit built, and hence increase the margin per unit.  Unfortunately, the oil and gas industry doesn’t work like this. 

Continue reading

Lord of War

Just before I went off to Korea, I went to see Lord of War at the cinema.

Nicholas Cage stars as Yuri Orlov, a Ukrainian-American from a poor family in New Brighton Brighton Beach who becomes an international arms dealer. The film follows Orlov from the beginning of his career to him becoming the world’s most prolific gun runner busting sanctions wherever they get in his way, and being chased by the authorities in the form of Ethan Hawke along the way. The character of Orlov is a composite of five real arms dealers, one of whom is almost certainly Victor Bout, and the film had several gun runners advising on the set (who were rumoured to be more helpful and efficent that the film crews themselves).

The film itself is highly entertaining, and Cage plays the part well, offering as good an insight as any into the way an international arms dealer would work. There is plenty of humour, albeit mainly of the sort which portrays Ukrainians as drunkards and bandits (I watched it with a Russian, who found it highly amusing), and the camera work is in places very impressive. The story is gripping, and makes some very good points, one of which is also made here:

Since the end of the Second World War, tens of millions of people have been killed by conventional weapons, mostly small arms such as rifles, machine guns and rocket-propelled grenade launchers. Sales of advanced weaponry — fighter jets and high-tech electronics, sophisticated long-range artillery and warships, and “weapons of mass destruction” — tend to receive the most press coverage. But these costly, sophisticated weapons have not proved as deadly as ordinary guns and grenades that are easy to buy, easy to ship and easy to use.

Low-tech, handheld weapons and explosives do the vast majority of the killing today. There are more than 550 million small arms currently in circulation, many of them fueling bloody civil strife in countries from Sri Lanka to Sierra Leone.

Which is a point worth remembering. Next time you see pictures of a massacre in Africa or Asia, take note of what kind of weapons were used to carry out the killings. Any money you like it was small arms and mortars. Which was why I was somewhat dissapointed to see that Lord of War, somewhat contradictorily, makes a further point towards the end of the film that the US sells more arms than anyone else, which in terms of sales figures, it does. And this is the charge that the opponents of the US like to hold up with glee whenever there is talk of arms sales into dodgy regimes. They may have a point that the US should not sell arms of any kind to dodgy regimes, but they might like to look at what sort of arms are being sold by whom, and which ones are doing most of the killings.

The US sales figures are largely made up of the high-tech equipment such as fighter jets mentioned in the excerpt above. You generally don’t see US-made rifles, mortars, and landmines scattered willy-nilly around warring African tribes. What you do see is Russian made rifles, mortars, and landmines scattered amongst anyone anywhere who is willing to have a fight, and right behind them you see the Chinese knock-offs of the same. (It always struck me as odd that the US supposedly armed Saddam Hussein yet his army had not a single American piece of kit and an awful lot of Russian stuff, until I realised that it was not the US that armed Saddam but the Soviet Union).

It is the Russian and Chinese weaponery that is has caused and is still causing the deaths of tens of millions of people the world over, not the US high-tech kit. Yet oddly, Russia and China are seldom vilified by the peace activists and do-gooders in the West for flogging millions of rifles and grenades to anyone who wants them, whilst at the same time protesting voiciforously when the US or Britain sells an air traffic control system to Tanzania or India. Were they to actually take into account which weapons were actually causing the mountain of misery in places like Sudan and Sierra Leone, they’d be surprised to see that it is Russian and Chinese kit doing the killing. But then again, these are the same groups who insist that the US armed Saddam Hussein with Mig aircraft, T-72 tanks, and AK-47 assault rifles so it is little wonder they’ve not got their facts straight, and even less wonder that western governments ignore them.

But back to the film, it is well worth seeing, for a number of reasons which I have listed above. And it is hard to get away from the political message in the film, which contrary to most films containing political messages is in all likelihood true: that the proliferation of small arms around the world is causing misery of biblical proportions. The film ends by pointing out that the world’s largest suppliers of arms: US, UK, France, Russia, and China are also the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, hinting at the irony that those in charge of ensuring peace in the world are the same as those who sell the tools which fuel the conflicts. I think the film missed the main point, and there is no irony in the statement. The truth is, those five nations are the permanent members of the UN Security Council precisely because they have a near monopoly on the arms trade, not despite it. There’s a lesson in there somewhere.

Ирония судьбы, или С лёгким паром!

Despite the approach of October both heat and humidity are not improving in the UAE, so watching DVDs is still a valid way to spend a few hours.

Last weekend a friend lent me a Russian film from 1975 called Ironiya sudby, ili S lyogkim parom!, which translates to Irony of Fate, or Enjoy Your Bath! Absolutely everybody from the former Soviet Union knows this film by heart, especially since TV stations have taken to showing it every new year without fail over the past decade. Directed by Eldar Ryazanov, one of Russia’s best known directors, this film is a whopping 192 minutes long. It is mildly critical of the Soviet way of doing things, specifically their “economy” architecture, but managed to slide through the censors to become one of Russians’ favourite films.

The story begins with the leading male Zhenya agreeing to spend that evening, New Year’s Eve, with his new fiancee in the apartment in Moscow which he shares with his mother. However, he and his friends have a tradition of going to a public bath house on New Year’s Eve and – surprisingly for a group of Russian men – drinking. Unfortunately they overdo it, so when they set off from the bath house to the airport to see off one of the group, Pavel, who is catching a flight to Leningrad they are all extremely drunk. The drinking continues at the airport, and Zhenya and Pavel fall asleep. The other two are sober enough to realise that one of their group must board the aircraft, but cannot remember which one. So by a comical process of elimination they decide Zhenya is going to Leningrad and bundle him on the plane.

When the plane lands, Zhenya is still not sober and does not realise where he is. So, thinking he is still in Moscow, he jumps in a taxi and asks to be taken to his home address, something like Building 25, 3rd Constructors’ St., or similar. “No problem,” says the taxi driver and off they go. Earlier in the film the point was made that every Russian city has some of the same buildings, street names, and street layouts such that a man arriving in a strange Russian city feels right at home. When the taxi reaches its destination, Zhenya gets out to see a familiar building, and takes the lift up to “his” apartment. The building is identical to his own in Moscow. When he reaches the front door, he finds his key fits (“uniform locks in uniform doors”), he stumbles in, gets partially undressed, and collapses on the bed. Even the furniture is the same as in his own apartment, right down to the bedspread.

Shortly after he has fallen asleep, the leading lady of the film Nadya comes home and is rather surprised to find a druken man in her bed. The scene which follows is rather amusing, with both the man and woman ordering each other out of the apartment. Zhenya is still drunk, and staggering around in his spotty underpants. The actor Andrei Myagkov is so convincing as a man on the journey between inebriation and serious hangover that he had me reaching for the box of paracetamol. Once the argument has been raging for several minutes, the doorbell goes and Nadya’s boyfriend Ippolit is at the door, ready to spend a romantic evening with his soon-to-be fiancee. Understandably, he is less than impressed to discover a semi-naked Zhenya, who has crawled back to her Nadya’s bed to sleep off his hangover.

From here the film becomes a superb interaction and dialogue between Zhenya, Nadya, and as Zhenya realises he is in the wrong city but has no money to return home, where his fiancee is waiting for him. Appearances by other characters such as Nadya’s interfering middle-aged friends add to the colour as the situation in the apartment changes by the minute. As the film progresses it becomes less of a comedy and more of a romance, a transition which the director manages to carry out without the viewer losing interest. Despite being over 3 hours long, this film never gets boring.

I watched this film with English subtitles, only able to understand 10-20% of what was being said in Russian. It was well translated and the dialogue came through very well, although I’m sure something would have been lost along the way. It is the dialogue and the superb acting from the leads which makes this film what it is, and it provides a useful glimpse into Russian culture in ways both subtle and overt.

Empire of the Wolves & The Descent

Yesterday, having little better to do, I killed half a day by going to the cinema to watch back-to-back films.

The first was L’ Empire des loups, or by its English title, Empire of the Wolves. It was not rated highly in any of the reviews, but it was often said that if you liked Brotherhood of the Wolf then you would enjoy this other French, wolf-based film. I really liked Brotherhood of the Wolf, and think it is deserving of its 7.1/10 ranking on IMDB. I thought the film combined atmosphere, a gripping story, and martial arts action superbly and so I was looking forward to Empire of the Wolves serving up much of the same.

I was disappointed. The film starts well, but seems to lose its direction pretty quickly. It starts to wander, as if it cannot decide what kind of film it wants to be: sci-fi, thriller, political drama. Some of the camerawork and atmosphere is very good, as is to be expected from a French film. The scenes filmed in the Paris slums as the rain teems down are very good indeed, but sadly not good enough to rescue the film from leaving the viewer rather irritated by the constant meandering of the plot.

The second film I saw was The Descent which scored 7.6/10 on the IMDB ratings, and was described as being made in the same mold as Dog Soldiers (they share the same writer, director, and producer). The Descent is about a group of girls, a mixture of Brits, Irish, and Yanks, who go potholing in a cave in – you’ve guessed it – the Appalachian Mountains. I’m not sure what the residents of this part of the US think about how films depict their region, but its stereotype has been cemented firmly in place ever since the release of Deliverance.

The first thing that impressed me about this film is how well it captured the experience of potholing and transferred this to the viewer. I did some potholing when I was an army cadet some 10 or 12 years ago, and so was able to judge with some degree of accuracy. The camera follows the girls through some extremely tight spaces, some with water in, and the microphones capture the sound superbly: the grunting, the amplified breathing, the scrape of the plastic helmet on rock, the srabbling of fingers in loose stone.

One tunnel I crawled through was called the Smartie Tube, and was aptly named: it was so narrow you could not lift your head up to see in front of you without your helmet hitting the roof, so all you could do was roll your eyes upwards to see the soles of your mate’s boots a few inches in front. Your nose was a couple of inches from the floor, and you simply couldn’t lift it any higher. All you could do was crawl forward, for the entire 20m length of the tunnel. The sounds of the girls in the film moving through the tunnels were exactly the sounds I experienced in the Smartie Tube, and the feeling of overwhelming claustrophobia was transferred from screen to the audience very well. They also show a good scene where one of the girls gets stuck early on, and she starts to panic. Her friend tells her to calm down and control her breathing, as it is the only way she’s going to become unstuck. I received similar advice when I got stuck for the first time. Claustrophobia is only controlled by breathing, and if you can regulate your breathing when in a tiny space then you have won the battle. If you get stuck, you have to remain very calm and think your way out of it. Wriggling around like they do in rugby league makes you bigger and even more stuck. That said, remaining calm and controlling your breathing in the Smartie Tube when somebody in front has panicked and is refusing to go forward is a test in self control I would not like to repeat.

So, for accuracy in depicting the experience of potholing, the film scores highly. As for the rest of the film, I don’t want to give too much away, but it gets away with what happens because – like Dog Soldiers – it never takes itself too seriously, and causes a wry grin here and there amongst the audience. The acting was pretty good, especially in some of the climbing and caving sequences (obviously the less realistic scenes were harder to pull off), and I came out suitably impressed. In summary, I’ll repeat what the reviewers say: if you liked Dog Soldiers, you’ll like this.