Red Sparrow (2018)

2018 #149
Francis Lawrence | 140 mins | download (UHD) | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Red Sparrow

Jennifer Lawrence stars as Dominika, a Russian ballerina whose career-ending injury leads her down a path to becoming a “sparrow” — a highly-trained undercover operative for the Russian secret service. Used and abused throughout her training, when she’s sent after a CIA agent (Joel Edgerton) in order to find a mole within Russian intelligence, a series of double- and triple-crosses leave everyone in doubt about whose side she’s really on… including, er, us viewers.

Red Sparrow is set today. I think. It’s easy to forget. I had to check on a couple of occasions, including one final double-check before writing this review. The thing is, the politics of it all is very Cold War. Of course, given the current state of geopolitics, a neo-Cold War between Russian and the West is probably at its most believable since the ’80s, it’s just that this film’s handling of it doesn’t feel timely and modern, but like a Cold War story that someone decided should be set today. Partly that’s because a lot of the technology and tradecraft feels like it comes from a previous era too. I mean, one major sequence revolves around floppy disks. Floppy disks! I can’t even remember the last time I saw a floppy disk. Either that bit is based on something real-world (like, there’s a reason why someone stealing secrets would still be using floppies) — and, if it is, the film doesn’t bother to lay out why — or it’s the single most unrealistic thing in a movie that’s about a former ballerina being trained to be a Russian spy skilled in psychological influence and sexual manipulation in just three months — i.e. this is a pretty unrealistic movie all round.

Lady spy in red

Even if we ignore the inconsistencies of its temporal setting, it struggles with what else it has going for it. In its attempts to provide a twisty-turny plot, it’s not as clever as it thinks it is. As it flips and flops around about which side Dominika is supposed to be on really, clearly intending for us to feel wrong-footed every half-hour or so, the gears of how it’s setting up an inevitable final “reveal” begin to show through. Either that or I’m a genius for working it out ahead of time, whichever. One great well-disguised twist is better than endless back-and-forthing, but none of the filmmakers here seem to realise that, or don’t have the confidence to rely solely on that final reveal. Another side effect of this is it becomes hard to root for any particular character. Maybe this is the legacy of it being a US production: it can’t quite bring itself to ask us to fully invest in Dominika, a Russian spy, even as it tries to keep her the heroine. Plus the supposed twists wouldn’t work if we were actually let in on what she was plotting.

And away from the plot, the whole movie is sort of… seedy, but without owning it. It wants to be about sex and to somehow be honest about that, while also trying not to titillate in any way. It wants to be realistically violent, while merely being nasty in just one or two scenes. Conversely, it also wants to be a grown-up, labyrinthine Le Carré-esque thriller, but it’s so busy trying to repeatedly fool you that it forgets to properly engage you. It certainly doesn’t succeed in being plausible, with the elaborate plan Dominika supposedly concocted relying rather too much on crossed-fingers-type logic — or, I’m sure the filmmakers would say, her unparalleled ability to read people.

Sexy spy shenanigans

I’d rather it had picked a side: either go all out schlock — more violence, more tits — or go full intelligent thriller — rein in the seediness, rein in the superhuman foresight. As it is, Red Sparrow is not trashy enough to be titillating, certainly not clever enough to challenge Le Carré as the go-to example of intelligent spy thrills, and not stylish enough to get away with it either. It kind of sits in an awkward middle ground between all those things. I didn’t actually dislike it, but it didn’t thrill me either.

3 out of 5

Red Sparrow is released on DVD, Blu-ray, and UHD Blu-ray in the UK today.

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The Death of Stalin (2017)

2018 #85
Armando Iannucci | 107 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | France, UK & Belgium / English | 15 / R

The Death of Stalin

Armando Iannucci, the writer-director-creator behind political comedies like Veep, The Thick of It, and the latter’s Oscar-nominated movie spin-off, In the Loop, here turns his attention away from fictional present-day politics to real-life historical ones — as the title suggests, the death of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin and the power struggle that followed. Sounds like a laugh riot, don’t it? Dark comedies don’t get much darker than this!

It plays a bit like Horrible Histories for grown-ups, teaching you the facts of an interesting period of history, containing very serious events, while also sending up the objective ludicrousness of what went on. The flip side to that is one has to wonder about its accuracy. It’s officially adapted from some French comic books, rather than, say, an academic work, and various historians have commented on its veracity with regards to historical fact — some have said it’s littered with minor errors that can be excused as cinematic licence, others that it misses the mark entirely. For his part, Iannucci claims he actually “chose to tone down the real-life absurdity” because audience’s wouldn’t’ve found it believable.

Over Stalin's dead body!

The Death of Stalin probably isn’t the best text to cite in a history essay, then, nor a valuable piece of work for anyone interested in a proper understanding of what went on. As a comedy about the ridiculousness of dark times, however, it functions in a similar way to Iannucci’s other work. Functionally it’s very like The Thick of It, in that it’s about a group of semi-confident politicians trying to scheme against each other. Of course, the results of their machinations are a bit more serious and murderous than any of the problems Malcolm Tucker ever faced.

I’m sure some viewers must find the irreverence with which the film treats such matters to be a turn-off. Personally, I think its perspective is more profound: these are silly men playing silly power games, but the end results are often unthinkable and horrific. You only have to look at the recent news headlines — in which the gibbering orange blob who is the supposed “leader of the free world” has enacted a Hitlerian policy of tearing small children away from their parents and locking them up in cages at concentration camps, only to serve his own futile political ends — to see similar situations playing out to this day.

Perhaps, in this climate, The Death of Stalin is a reminder that we need to laugh at the preposterousness of monsters in power. It’s not quite as laugh-out-loud funny as the best of The Thick of It or In the Loop for me, but that point is, unfortunately, as relevant as ever.

4 out of 5

The Death of Stalin is available on Prime Video UK as of yesterday.

Review Roundup

Hello, dear readers! I’ve been away for most of the past week, hence the shortage of posts, but I’m back now, so here’s a random ragtag roundup of reviews to kick things off again.

In today’s roundup:

  • That’s Entertainment! (1974)
  • ’71 (2014)
  • Guardians (2017)


    That’s Entertainment!
    (1974)

    2017 #80
    Jack Haley Jr. | 124 mins | TV | 1.33:1 + 1.78:1 + 2.35:1 + 2.55:1 | USA / English | U / G

    That's Entertainment!

    Greatest hits compilations always seem to be a popular product in the music biz, and that’s essentially what this is, but for movies. An array of famous faces appear on screen to help provide a scattershot history of the MGM musical, but really it’s an excuse to play some fantastic clips from old hits. This may be the kind of programming that TV has taken on and made its own in the decades since, but when the quality of the material is this high, it feels like more than just schedule filler.

    Thanks to many eras being covered it has more aspect ratio changes than a Christopher Nolan movie, though that’s actually quite effective at demarcating the old-school spectacle from the linking chatter. There’s also some “you wouldn’t get that today” commentary, like Frank Sinatra talking about a line of chubby chorus girls (who don’t even look that large!), or various bits and pieces criticising the studio’s history, like how all the films had the same plot.

    It was originally promoted with the tagline “boy, do we need it now”, a reaction to the gritty style of filmmaking that was popular in Hollywood at the time, as well as all the real-life problems of the era (it was released the same year as Nixon resigned because of Watergate). MGM needed it too: the studio was in decline, releasing just five films in 1974. The whole thing carries a somewhat bittersweet air, as ageing stars reflect on past glories from the decrepit environs of MGM’s rundown backlot.

    Nonetheless, it creates a marvellous tribute to a golden era. And I guess it must’ve done alright, because it spawned two sequels, a spin-off, and MGM are still going (more or less) today.

    4 out of 5

    ’71
    (2014)

    2017 #95
    Yann Demange | 99 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK / English | 15 / R

    ’71

    Set in Belfast in (you guessed it) 1971, ’71 is a thriller that sees an Army recruit become separated from his unit during a riot at the height of the Troubles, leaving him trying to survive the night “behind enemy lines”.

    The film’s best stuff is early on: a brewing riot as police perform a door-to-door search; a tense foot chase through the backstreets; a single-take bombing and its aftermath. The immediacy of all this is well-conveyed, suitably tense and exciting, but also plausible. Then the film decides it needs some sort of plot to bring itself to a close, and so it kicks off some IRA infighting and British Army skullduggery. The added complications don’t exactly bring it off the rails — it’s still a fine and tense thriller — but it lacks that extra oomph that the hair-raising sequences of the first half deliver.

    Still, it’s a promising big screen debut for director Yann Demange, who was reportedly among the frontrunners to helm Bond 25 before that got diverted into Danny Boyle and John Hodge’s idea. His second feature, another period movie, this time a crime drama, White Boy Rick, is out later this year.

    4 out of 5

    Guardians
    (2017)

    aka Zashchitniki

    2017 #122
    Sarik Andreasyan | 89 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | Russia / Russian | 12

    Guardians

    You may remember this film from when its trailer went viral a couple of years ago: it’s the “Russian answer to The Avengers” that featured a machine-gun-wielding bear. Naturally, that kind of attention assured it got an international release eventually (I paid to rent it, then it later popped up on Prime Video. You never know how these things are going to go, do you?)

    It’s about a bunch of old Soviet superheroes being reactivated to stop a villain. If that sounds vague, well, I can’t remember the details. Frankly, they don’t matter — Guardians is the kind of film a 6-year-old would write after a diet of Saturday morning cartoons, with the same attention to character development and plot structure you’d expect from such an endeavour. The story is semi-nonsensical: the villain’s plan is never clear (beyond “rule the world”); it flits about between subplots; characters appear and disappear from locations… There’s a litany of “things that don’t quite make sense” — too many to remember without making obsessive notes while rewatching, which I have no intention of doing.

    But if you can ignore all that — or, even better, laugh at it — then it’s fairly watchable, in a brain-off entirely-undemanding so-bad-it’s-good kind of way. There’s some decent CGI (given its budget), some half-decent action, and it’s mercifully brief at under 90 minutes.

    2 out of 5

  • Ivan Vasilievich: Back to the Future (1973)

    aka Иван Васильевич меняет профессию / Ivan Vasilievich Changes Profession

    2016 #112
    Leonid Gaidai | 92 mins | streaming (HD) | 4:3 | Soviet Union / Russian

    Ivan Vasilievich: Back to the Future

    I know: having seen the title of this film, you’re probably thinking some variation of, “so what’s that then?” Well, it’s only a better sci-fi film than Aliens, 2001, Metropolis, Blade Runner, or Solaris! It’s only a better comedy than Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Sherlock Jr., Some Like It Hot, It Happened One Night, or The Kid! Only a better adventure movie than North by Northwest, Lawrence of Arabia, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, or The Bridge on the River Kwai! Only the best musical ever made that isn’t The Lion King, and the 8th greatest film of one of cinema’s defining decades, the ’70s — that’s what!

    Well, “that’s what” according to IMDb voters, anyway, who’ve placed it in the upper echelons of all those best-of lists. In fact, it’s a Russian sci-fi comedy, adapted from a play by Mikhail Bulgakov (most famous to Western audiences now for the TV series A Young Doctor’s Notebook starring Daniel “Harry Potter” Radcliffe and Jon “Mad Men” Hamm). Apparently it’s a huge popular classic in Russia, hence why it’s scored so well on an international movie website and shot up those lists; and, because of that, it’s a moderately (in)famous film on movie-list-checking website iCheckMovies (at least, it is in the parts of it I frequent), because it’s a film you have to see if you want to complete any of the aforementioned lists.

    And so I have seen it — courtesy of Mosfilm’s YouTube channel, where it’s available for free, in HD, with English subtitles — just in case this review makes you want to watch it too. Which, you never know, it might, because it’s actually kinda fun. In the end.

    Terrible meal

    The plot concerns scientist Shurik (Alexsandr Demyanenko), who is trying to perfect a time machine in his apartment (as you do) but is getting grief from his busybody building supervisor Ivan Vasilievich (Yuri Yakovlev). Meanwhile, George (Leonid Kuavlev) is trying to rob a neighbouring apartment. To cut a lot of faffing short, the three of them end up transported to the past, where it turns out Ivan Vasilievich is the spitting image of Ivan the Terrible (also Yuri Yakovlev) and — to cut some more farce equally short — Ivan Vasilievich and George end up stuck in the past, pretending to be Mr Terrible and his chum, while Shurik and the real Mr Terrible are returned to the present day. More hijinks ensue!

    So, you can see why its original title is the wittily understated statement Ivan Vasilievich Changes Profession, and how its English title can just about get away with being such a blatant attempt to cash-in on a popular movie.

    As for the film itself, it starts off not so hot, somewhat overacted and a little hard to get a grip on what’s happening — it’s also a sequel or sorts, so perhaps launches with the idea you’ve seen the previous adventures of Shurik and so know what kind of thing to expect. But as it continues… well, maybe it’s a kind of Stockholm syndrome, but I ended up rather enjoying it. It’s not genius, but it’s a fairly amusing farce once it gets going. Very of its time as an early-’70s mainstream-style silly comedy, but what’s wrong with being of your time? It also sounds like it’s fairly faithful to Bulgakov’s original play, which is a little surprising, but there you go.

    Terrible face

    Unsurprisingly, Ivan Vasilievich is not a better film than all those ones I listed at the start. If it got wider exposure and more IMDb votes, I’m sure it would drop down lickety-split. At the same time, I’m actually quite glad I watched it: after I eventually warmed to it, it was kinda fun.

    3 out of 5

    Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014)

    2016 #69
    Kenneth Branagh | 106 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & Russia / English & Russian | 12 / PG-13

    Jack Ryan: Shadow RecruitKenneth Branagh, who once used to direct films based on Shakespeare and opera and that kind of thing, seems to have carved himself a place as a jobbing blockbuster director so far this decade: it started with a spot in Marvel’s then-burgeoning universe, adapting Thor; saw arguably its greatest success with the live-action remake of Disney’s Cinderella; and he’s now working on an adaptation of young adult action-adventure Artemis Fowl — all released by Walt Disney Pictures, incidentally.

    In amongst those, he helmed this: a second attempt (after 2002’s The Sum of All Fears) to relaunch (after a sortoftrilogy in the early ’90s) Tom Clancy’s CIA analyst-cum-spy (the titular Mr Ryan, obviously) as a Bond/Bourne-rivaling action-thriller franchise. It didn’t work. (Next try: make it a TV series for Amazon.) While I can’t pretend to be shedding any tears over the wasted opportunity of not getting another spy franchise, that’s not for lack of enjoyment: demonstrating perhaps even more versatility than with his comic book adaptation (which was kinda Shakespearean, really) or his Disney fairytale (which was a grandiose period drama, really), here Branagh managed to craft a very creditable action-thriller — with emphasis on the latter, an uncommon choice these days. Perhaps that’s why it didn’t catch on.

    Rather than going back to Clancy’s novels, Shadow Recruit chooses to relocate Ryan to the present day, and takes its inspiration from a 2007 Black List screenplay called Dubai. Dubai is, of course, a notoriously pricey Middle Eastern city, and therefore we naturally assume rich in oil. Shadow Recruit’s plot begins with the US refusing to veto a pipeline that will damage Russian oil interests — somehow, I suspect there wasn’t too much re-writing required here. Anyway, following this decision, Afghanistan veteran turned undercover CIA financial analyst Jack Ryan (Chris Pine) uncovers a plot to crash the value of the dollar, which will lead to a new Great Depression. Dispatched to Moscow to investigate, Badass Branaghhe comes up against oligarch Viktor Cherevin (Kenneth Branagh), the architect of the plan, which will be instigated by a massive terrorist attack on US soil. Unless Ryan can stop him, of course — with the help of his handler (Kevin Costner), and his fiancée Cathy (Keira Knightley), who’s followed him to Russia because she thinks he’s having an affair. I mean, he was sneaking around a lot…

    As I said, the film wasn’t a success, either critically or commercially — despite casting a young, theoretically popular lead in Chris Pine, it didn’t attract the young audience needed to produce blockbuster numbers these days. I guess playing the “thriller” rather than “action” card didn’t pay off, so maybe a TV series is a smarter move after all? I guess we’ll see. Anyway, I think the reaction has been unduly harsh, because Shadow Recruit is very effective at what it sets out to do, and is, in my view, easily the most entertaining Jack Ryan movie since at least the first, The Hunt for Red October. Perhaps that’s damning with faint praise: I was disappointed by both Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger when I finally watched them in 2014, and I described Sum of All Fears as “an adequately entertaining two hours. Otherwise, it’s nothing special.”

    Shadow Recruit probably isn’t anything special either, mind. Branagh manages to mount a few excellent sequences, including a very tense dinner / infiltration combo in the middle of the film, where Cathy has to keep Cherevin occupied while Ryan nips over the road and breaks into the oligarch’s office, which develops into a solid car chase. The dynamic is also Just going for a runa little different to the action-thriller norm. Ryan has skills leftover from his military days, but he’s not a one-man army like Bond or Bourne — he needs help both on the ground and from tech guys behind the scenes, who play a vital role in… well, I was going to say “the climax”, but it’s “the bit just before the climax”. The climax is a chase around New York, because of course you have to end with a chase.

    This was meant to be a defence of Shadow Recruit and I feel like I’m doing a poor job. Thing is, it’s not up to the quality of the much-mentioned Two Bs when they’re at their best, but its relatively plot-and-character-orientated style distinguishes it from those franchises’ regular MOs. Plus Branagh brings a greater cinematic quality than you’ll find in, say, that Spooks movie, meaning Shadow Recruit straddles the divide between TV-level spying and big-screen action in a way that TV spin-off wanted to but couldn’t really manage. Perhaps the character really will work better in a big-budget TV series, then?

    4 out of 5

    Hamlet (1964)

    aka Гамлет / Gamlet

    2016 #96
    Grigori Kozintsev | 142 mins | TV (HD) | 2.35:1 | Soviet Union / Russian | U

    A black-and-white, two-and-a-half hour Shakespeare adaptation in subtitled Russian? No, wait, come back! Actually, don’t bother, because if you’re turned off by any or all of that description then, yeah, this isn’t for you. If you don’t object, however, then you’ll find a film that the likes of Sir Laurence Olivier, Sir John Gielgud, and Sir Kenneth Branagh have hailed as the greatest film adaptation of arguably the Bard’s most revered play.

    I shan’t bother to summarise the plot, because if you don’t know the story already this isn’t a film for you. Even for those who have no problem with black-and-white, or Shakespeare, or subtitles, the latter occasionally race by at a rate of knots, making them hard to keep up with. Unless you fancy regularly pausing and/or rewinding, you’ll have to accept that you’re going to miss a line here or there. (If you do keep up with them throughout, well done, you’re better at quickly parsing Shakespearean dialogue than I am.)

    For those in a position to appreciate it, however, this is a great version of the play. Based on Boris Pasternak’s translation, it moves through the narrative with reasonable speed, but without losing anything fundamental (as far as I was aware). Director Grigori Kozintsev expressed a particular interest in the political themes, in contrast to their de-emphasis in Olivier’s 1948 film (which I’ve not seen). He particularly highlights Elsinore’s role as a prison, framing characters through bars, constraining Ophelia in a metal corset, and staging Hamlet’s dismissal to England on a courtroom-like set. I felt like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern had bigger roles here than in other versions I’ve seen, with Hamlet’s plot to have them dispatched also given focus. Ophelia’s storyline is more present than normal too, whereas the roles of Gertrude and Horatio felt consequently reduced. This is partly down to which sections of the text are used, but Kozintsev also features dialogue-free realisations of elements of the story, which build up these parts further.

    In the famously complex lead role, Innokenty Smoktunovsky gives a Hamlet who you really feel is more intelligent than everyone else around him — like a student fresh home from his studies, who has surpassed his parents and old acquaintances in sheer learning and attentiveness to philosophical topics, but doesn’t yet have a firm handle on his swirling thoughts. It’s possible he’s going genuinely mad with it, too, rather than the playfulness some choose to interpret in the part. Anastasiya Vertinskaya embodies sweet innocence as Ophelia, who Hamlet seems to genuinely care for, but has a poor way of showing it. Conversely, Mikhail Nazvanov makes for a somewhat neutered Claudius — he’s almost bumbling, outwitted by Hamlet but with enough innate power (he’s King, after all) to mask it. I suppose that emphasises the “student who’s outstripped his parents” point, but it doesn’t exactly make for a powerful villain. Still, different interpretations are always interesting.

    As a film it looks incredible, with Jonas Gritsius’ cinematography bestowing grandiosity on the striking castle set (built on location over six months), without losing sight of the characters who inhabit these spacious environments. Nighttime scenes are a visual standout — it’s a time of day that’s always set to look good in black-and-white, with light cutting out details from the pervading darkness, and Gritsius doesn’t waste the opportunity. The outdoor staging of the play-within-a-play, and the events around it, is a particularly memorable sequence. Whereas Branagh would use editing to guide us around the various observers in his film, Kozintsev more often achieves it with well-chosen pans and tilts. The visitation of Hamlet’s father’s ghost is another tour de force moment, the kind of visual impact that benefits not a jot from being described in text.

    I don’t normally comment on my method of viewing when reviewing a film, but the UK R0 DVD of Hamlet has at least one aspect worthy of note: in an era when widescreen TVs are the norm, someone at Mr. Bongo had the bright idea to release this 2.35:1 film in fullscreen, and to let the subtitles fill the black bar underneath the picture to boot. Practically, this means you have to watch the film in a small box in the centre of your TV — and, at 2.35:1, that’s a very small box. It’s not as if Mr. Bongo do it with all their releases, so goodness knows what made them think it was a bright idea in 2011 to release a fullscreen DVD of a widescreen film. However, I was fortunate enough to catch BBC Four’s screening, in HD, as part of the current BBC Shakespeare Festival. If you missed it, it’s unfortunately not available in HD on iPlayer, but I’d wager the BBC’s SD version is at least the equal of the DVD in terms of resolution, and it doesn’t have the problem of stupidly-placed subtitles.

    In many respects this is a 5-star adaptation — it brings vitality to the text, there are several strong performances, the staging is highly cinematic — but the language is something of a barrier to entry. This is most certainly not a neophyte’s Hamlet. But then, why should it need to be? That’s not a fault of the film, just a factor in deciding when to watch it. Even with the subtitle issue feeling like an obstacle to engagement, this was perhaps the most enjoyable Hamlet film I’ve seen. Maybe that’s because it has an advantage in that I’m now more familiar with the play (something which hindered Branagh’s version, as that was the first time I’d seen it), but it speaks to the film’s overall quality that it has more to offer than just Shakespeare’s words.

    5 out of 5

    Hamlet is available on BBC iPlayer for another seven days.

    The Hound of the Baskervilles (1981)

    aka
    Приключения Шерлока Холмса и доктора Ватсона: Собака Баскервилей
    Priklyucheniya Sherloka Kholmsa i doktora Vatsona: Sobaka Baskerviley
    The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson: The Hound of the Baskervilles

    2015 #14
    Igor Maslennikov | 146 mins | DVD | 4:3 | Soviet Union / Russian | PG

    The Hound of the BaskervillesSherlock Holmes has appeared in more films than any other fictional character (yep, even those Marvel ones that are everywhere), which also means that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Great Detective has been portrayed by a staggering number of actors. “Who’s the best?” debates usually settle around Basil Rathbone, Jeremy Brett and, these days, Benedict Cumberbatch, though there are ardent fans of Douglas Wilmer, Peter Cushing, Robert Downey Jr… I could go on. In certain rarified circles, however, the “Sherlockian’s Sherlock” is, believe it or not, a Russian: Vasily Livanov, who starred in five popular (in their homeland) Russian miniseries/TV movies between 1979 and 1986 that some regard as definitive adaptations. We even gave him an MBE for them in 2006, so I guess he’s state-recognised.

    The most famous Holmes adventure of them all, The Hound of the Baskervilles, was the subject of the third series, a two-part feature-length adaptation. (So yes, technically it’s not a film, but it’s the length of a film and it’s ever-so filmicly made, so I’m counting it.) The story, if you don’t know it, sees Devon gent Sir Charles Baskerville dying and his Canadian heir, Henry Baskerville (Nikita Mikhalkov), coming to England to inherit the estate. However, Sir Charles’ physician, Dr Mortimer (Evgeny Steblov), fears the old chap was murdered, and that it’s somehow connected to an ancient legend of a dog-like beast that roams the moors and torments the Baskerville family. Who better to investigate such phenomenon, and the potential threat to the new Sir Baskerville’s life, than famed detective Sherlock Holmes and his trusty sidekick, Dr Watson.

    Mr Sherlock HolmesAs many a Holmes fan will know, Baskervilles is not the best choice to get a handle on an actor’s interpretation of Holmes. Written by Doyle in the period after he’d killed Holmes off because he was tired of writing him, but before he later brought him back to life (as it were), presumably the author was still a bit bored with his creation, because Holmes disappears for a good chunk of the tale — in this adaptation, cited by many as the most faithful yet made, he’s in roughly the first and last half-hours, leaving a 72-minute stretch in the middle where he doesn’t appear at all. From what we do see of him, Livanov portrays a nicely understated Holmes. Clearly fiercely intelligent, but without the terseness of Cumberbatch’s version or the somewhat-jolly-hockey-sticks take of Rathbone. I’m compelled to get hold of the rest of the series to see what else he had to offer. (Sadly, only Baskervilles has reached UK DVD, but English-friendly imports are available. It’s also been released on Blu-ray, but I believe without English subtitles.)

    The weight of the tale falls on Dr Watson, played here by Vitaly Solomin, who starred alongside Livanov in all his adventures. His is an excellent version of the character. Hopefully the Nigel Bruce-inspired image of Watson as a bumbling, useless sidekick has faded now, thanks to a couple of decades of strong interpretations from the likes of Edward Hardwicke, Ian Hart and Martin Freeman, but when this was produced it was presumably still de rigueur. Faithful to the original stories, however, Solomin’s Watson is highly competent; not expert at applying Holmes’ incredible deductive methodology, but nonetheless capable of maintaining an investigation in Holmes’ absence. Whatever Livanov’s merits, I’d happily watch the rest of the adaptations for Solomin’s Watson.

    Dr Watson and Sir HenrySeveral other cast members manage to be both faithful to the novel and different to how their characters are usually depicted on screen. For instance, Dr Mortimer is usually played as an older gent, but is quite young in the novel — this is a rare (the only?) instance of that being followed. It’s the first time I’ve seen him played as being a bit shifty and suspicious, too. It benefits the storytelling here, because there really aren’t many suspects — it’s abundantly clear whodunnit, even if you don’t know, because there are no other options! Perhaps most memorable from the supporting cast is “internationally acclaimed actor/director” Nikita Mikhalkov as Henry Baskerville. The role is usually played as young, handsome, keen and brave (in the Rathbone version, Richard Greene even gets top billing in the role, and his incarnation is at the centre of a played-up romantic subplot). Here, Henry is a little older, prone to drinking, readily amused in a larger-than-life fashion, frequently baffled by events, somewhat cowardly, and most often used for comic relief.

    There’s certainly a stronger strand of humour than I recall from either the book or any previous adaptation (though I’ve not seen the Peter Cook/Dudley Moore comedy version, which one would hope is funnier), but it’s all texture with Sir Henry rather than a narrative driving force. It also plays down the supernatural or Gothic side of things, which other versions tend to ramp up — the Rathbone film and the 2002 BBC TV movie both insert a seance sequence, even, which works so well that I’d forgotten it wasn’t actually in the novel. It’s a good addition partly for the atmosphere, but also for playing up the sense of community amongst the small band of characters. Here, everyone feels very isolated and rarely seen — there are even scenes where they’re surprised to actually run into one another. Holmes solves the caseThere’s more of an emphasis on people spying on each other suspiciously, which at least is rather appropriate to a murder mystery.

    Indeed, I suppose this adaptation plays the story mostly as a detective mystery, if that’s not too obvious a thing to observe. Hound is far from the strongest mystery in the canon, mind, especially as presented here, with the the list of suspects seriously depleted by that absence of community. On the bright side, it makes up for it by having the ultimate revelation seem like proper detective work by Holmes. Normally the reveal hinges on him happening to spot a telling painting, an explanation that is implausible enough even without the element of happenstance. Here, the painting merely suggests a motive and a new line of enquiry to prove that theory. Nonetheless, the final summary contains a goodly number of “I don’t know, Watson”-type answers to dangling motivations/practicalities/etc. Anyone after a solid murder mystery, rather than a detective-led adventure, should look elsewhere.

    The film itself is very well made. There’s some gorgeous cinematography by Dmitri Dolinin and Vladimir Ilyin; in particular, the cold morning on which Dr Mortimer examines Sir Charles’ body, mists drifting around some of the village houses, and anything on the moor in evening light, like when Watson finally finds Holmes. Also, just generally, it’s often very filmically shot — a shallow depth of field can pay dividends. The Russian city used as a double for Baker Street and its surroundings doesn’t look the least bit like Victorian London, though in fairness they’ve done their best to hide that, Yep, that's totally Britainincluding scattering iconic red VR post boxes around willynilly. The Russian countryside probably doesn’t look very much like Dartmoor either, but its qualities work for the story: very desolate, barren, bare trees, waterlogged dirt tracks for roads, rubble strewn around, the buildings rundown… All very atmospheric for a Gothic horror-tinged mystery, and far superior to the picture-postcard look of some adaptations.

    Sonically, Vladimir Dashkevich’s score is succinctly described as quirky, with a main theme that’s very pompously British (apparently based on a familiar piece from the BBC World Service, which the Russian audience would therefore immediately identify with Britishness), but graduating to some quite contemporary riff-y guitar stuff later on.

    (Unfortunately, the UK DVD is a little messy. For all the lovely film-ness of much of the PQ, there’s occasionally some nasty video/digital artifacting. Similarly, the subtitles are mostly fine but with sporadic lapses. A few lines are missed, and homophonic substitutions abound: “here” for “hear” (several times), “stake” for “steak”, “to” for “too”, and the second vowel in “Sheldon” changes a few times to boot. Shame.)

    Russian Hound of the Baskervilles UK DVD from Mr BongoThe Hound of the Baskervilles has been filmed far too many times (a quick search of IMDb throws up a couple of dozen versions, for starters), which makes it tricky for any version to stand out from the crowd. This one picks up bonus points for reportedly being the most faithful of them all, backing that up with some strong performances, atmospheric locations and classy direction by the series’ regular helmsman, Igor Maslennikov. It’s not perfect, but then I can’t think of an adaptation of Baskervilles I’ve seen that is. Is it the best Baskervilles? It depends what exactly you want in the mix, but I think you’d have to say it’s a contender.

    4 out of 5

    This review is part of the Russia in Classic Film Blogathon. Be sure to check out the many other fantastic contributions collated by host Movies Silently.

    Solaris (1972)

    aka Solyaris

    2010 #113
    Andrei Tarkovsky | 159 mins | TV | PG / PG

    I don’t know if you’re aware of a website, dear reader, called iCheckMovies.com? It’s one of those (many, I believe) sites where you can tick off which movies you’ve seen — in this case, not just any movie (though that’s changing ‘soon’), but movies from certain well-known lists. Well, it used to be just well-known(-ish) lists, but it’s constantly broadening its horizons and… Anyway. My point is this: some movies only crop up on one list (lots of the Shorts, for instance), while others manage two or three or four, but (as you’d no doubt expect) some crop up on loads. It’s a handy way to see that, too.

    Solaris, for instance, is on IMDb’s list of the best sci-fi films (#39) and films from the ’70s (#43); it’s on They Shoot Pictures…’s 1,000 Greatest Films (#227), Empire’s 500 Greatest Movies (#285), 10th on Total Sci-Fi’s 100 Greatest Sci-Fi Movies, 53rd on Arts and Faith’s 100 Spiritually Significant Films, and included in Roger Ebert’s Great Movies; not to mention half a dozen other general greatest/must-see lists featured on iCheckMovies.

    What does all that matter? Not a great deal, I suppose — film appreciation is subjective ‘n’ all — but it does leave it with a weight of expectation. The fact that it’s the better part of three hours long, in Russian, and notoriously slow-paced, adds a different kind of weight. It’s quite easy to see how Soderbergh felt able to remake it into just 90 minutes (and he still made a slow-paced film).

    And it’s true, parts are like an endurance test — Berton’s seemingly endless drive through a future cityscape (actually just ’70s Tokyo), for instance — but, though still glacially paced, most of the film has some discernibly relevant content. Provided you’re not expecting Star Wars, that is, but who in their right mind would be? Talking of things being discernibly relevant, the film occasionally switches into black & white for no reason I can readily discern. Explanations welcome in the comments.

    Though ostensibly science fiction — it’s set on a space station orbiting a possibly sentient planet that’s doing Funny Things to the crew — Solaris isn’t concerned with the scientific implications of any of its concepts. While I’m going to come up short on providing detailed analysis, it seems to me Tarkovsky’s adaptation is more concerned with memory, loss, grief and what it means to be human/alive. The planet, which somehow creates tangible people — not mere shared hallucinations — from the memories of the crew, is used as a way in to these things Tarkovsky clearly wishes to consider. The sentient(?) planet is not an end in itself; the film spends no time considering what this different kind of consciousness (if it is a consciousness) means, how it might work, or any other scientifically-bent notions that other films or filmmakers might choose to focus on. It also doesn’t centre on the romantic side of events, the route Soderbergh chose to pursue; or, if it does, it does so coldly and clinically and doesn’t feel romantic in the slightest. Alternatively, that could be the point.

    Solaris is one of those films I think we can safely say is Not For Everyone. There’s much to ponder for the so inclined, not least the intriguing ending. I feel certain I, much like the scientists in the film itself, have barely scratched the surface.

    4 out of 5

    Read my considerably more thoughtful (if I do say so myself) review of Steven Soderbergh’s remake here.