The Babushkas of Chernobyl


Girls just wanna have fun.

Girls just wanna have fun.

(2015) Documentary (Chicken and Egg) Valentyna Ivanivna, Vita Polyakova, Maria Shovkota, Hanna Zavoratya, Mary Mycio, Olga Mikolaivna. Directed by Anne Bogart and Holly Morris

Florida Film Festival 2016

There are desirable places to live in the world – California, the Rhone Valley, Hawaii and so on – but there are some places in the world where I think people would choose not to live; the middle of the Gobi Desert, for example. Death Valley would be another. However, I think at the top of that dubious list would be the exclusion zone around Chernobyl.

When Reactor #4 exploded at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in the Ukraine on April 26, 1986 it created an area contaminated by radiation containing roughly 1,000 square miles. Those that lived in the rural villages in the surrounding area along with the plant workers whose homes were in the nearby town of Pripyat were forcibly evacuated, often just with the clothes on their backs.

For some, living away from where they’d lived all their lives was as awful a fate as dying of radiation poisoning. Some of the villagers therefore snuck back into the exclusion zone and resumed their lives. Most of them women and nearly all of them elderly, they continue to live in the zone which although not officially supported by the Ukraine is unofficially tolerated; as one aid worker says, they are far more likely to die of old age before the radiation kills them.

Now at this point I should mention that I’m half-Ukrainian on my mother’s side; one of the most important people in my life as a young boy was my maternal grandmother, whom I called Baba. She is someone I continue to regard fondly even now. These ladies – Hanna, Maria and Valentyna are the three focused on here – remind me very much of her, so do take this review with that in mind.

Bogart and Morris follow these ladies through their daily lives, through visits by government scientists researching the radiation in the soil, the water and in the ladies themselves through visits with one another, to receiving their government pensions – which in typical government fashion are late. I am startled to see how verdant the exclusion zone is; while the forests closest to the plant are barren, life seems to be thriving in the outlying area. The babushkas live on the food they grow and the livestock they raise, supplemented by what they can find in the forest which can include things like nuts, berries and mushrooms. They also occasionally go fishing in the local rivers.

They also get visits from other government officials, including one young woman who reluctantly accepts the offer of food and tries to eat as little as possible; she knows turning the ladies down outright would be insulting to them. They treat her with affection, like a granddaughter.

There are other survivors as well, some who continue to live outside of the exclusion zone, all of whom ruefully miss their old lives in their old village. It is pointed out that statistically, the babushkas living in the exclusion zone are outliving those of a similar age who are living outside of it, which only speaks to the powerful influence of living in comforting surroundings.

The stories that these ladies and the other interviewees are riveting; they have lived hard lives even before the accident. The privations of the Second World War and the German invasion, and even worse under Stalin’s policy of forced starvation are recalled with vivid detail. Many of them had husbands who weren’t exactly prizes; they talk ruefully of alcoholism and even beatings. This was part of life for a young Ukrainian wife back in the day.

We also get to meet a group of videogamers from Kiev who, inspired by the game S.T.A.L.K.E.R. which is set at Chernobyl, illegally trespass into the exclusion zone and try to penetrate as far as possible into the zone, making it all the way to Pripyat. They joke around, but what they are doing is unbelievably dangerous. Kids, don’t try that at home – or anywhere else.

It is the story of the explosion itself and the ensuing aftermath that really makes one pause; it is heartbreaking to hear about the chaos and the tears that occurred as their lives were irrevocably changed. The explosion was loud enough to wake most of them, and while they were far enough away from the plant that they didn’t see the actual disaster itself nor suffer the fatal effects of exposure, their tales are chilling enough.

The movie was filmed around Easter, a very big holiday in the Russian Orthodox Church, and we are allowed to tag along as the ladies are taken by bus to worship at midnight mass. This was one of the most moving moments in the film as you can plainly see that the women are affected by the ceremony which is in itself beautiful in the candlelight.

Clearly, the filmmakers have much affection for the babushkas and there is a wistful air to the whole film. These are old women used to hard work and self-sufficiency. Watching them go about their daily routines makes one realize that we have it easy here. While it is delightful to watch them on their cell phones – reception is as you might imagine rather dicey in the exclusion zone – they represent a way of life that is fast disappearing. That these are amazing ladies goes without question, but they are also in a sense very ordinary. I doubt they see themselves as particularly special; they are just doing what they’ve always done, despite the risks. It’s their very ordinariness that makes them special in my eyes; they are just like my Baba and of course, who doesn’t love their grandmother?

REASONS TO GO: Powerful images and scenes. Compelling subjects. Amazing stories about the explosion and aftermath.
REASONS TO STAY: May not appeal to all filmgoers.
FAMILY VALUES: Some thematic material may be a little intense.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The filmmakers were required to rotate in and out of the hot zone in order to minimize their exposure to the radiation.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/16/16: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Russian Woodpecker
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Norman Lear: Another Version of You

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The Good Heart


If it looks like a duck...

If it looks like a duck…

(2009) Drama (Magnolia) Brian Cox, Paul Dano, Isild Le Besco, Bill Buell, Booi, Susan Blommaert, Alice Olivia Clarke, Kim Songwon Brown, Stephen Henderson, Seth Sharp, David Moss, Dale A. Smith, Michelle Nelson, Henry Yuk Lui, Ed Wheeler, Clark Middleton, Stephanie Szostak, Edmund Lyndeck, Nicolas Bro, Daniel Raymont, Damian Young, Elissa Middleton. Directed by Dagur Kari

There is something inherently noble in a dive bar. It is the refuge of the lost, the lonely and the abandoned. It is a place for those who have given up on life as well as those who life has given up upon. It is a gin-soaked, beer-drenched haven of dignity for those who have none.

Crotchety old Jacques (Cox) owns just such an establishment in the center of New York City. Slovenly, suspicious, mean-spirited and set in his ways, Jacques limits his customers to 13 regulars and frowns on outsiders whom he contemptuously refers to as “walk-ins,” chasing them out with a bottle of vodka with a stream of ketchup in it in response for a request for a Bloody Mary with organic tomato sauce.

After his fifth heart attack, he finds himself sharing a room with homeless young Lucas (Dano) who is as kindly as Jacques is curmudgeonly. Jacques having a brush with mortality knows that his body will not sustain his lifestyle for much longer, and has begun giving thoughts to his legacy. He realizes that one thing he wants to remain after he shuffles off this mortal coil is his bar and determines to take in Lucas, who has nowhere else to go, as the heir apparent to his grandly named but less impressive on the inside House of Oysters.

Lucas, who was in the hospital after attempting suicide, is amiable enough to the idea although much of Jacques’ worldview is puzzling to him. “Never be nice,” he growls after Lucas treats one of the regulars with kindness. The world according to Jacques is a harsh place full of people who will take advantage of every fracture of weakness that your facade displays and to Jacques kindness equals weakness.

Lucas for his part is learning the niceties of bartending as well. “A good bartender always knows what his customer wants before he even knows it,” says the old school Jacques and Lucas very much takes this to heart. For his part, Lucas teaches Jacques that the way to make it through life isn’t necessarily through uncompromising adherence to one’s principles.

Into this mix one rainy night comes April (Le Besco), a stewardess afraid of flying. This is an egregious violation of Jacques’  longstanding “no women allowed” rule for the bar. This is enough to get his erstwhile protégé banished from the bar along with April, a fellow lost soul Lucas has fallen in love with. But what will become of Jacques’ legacy?

Icelandic director Kari, best known for his indie film Noi the Albino is shooting for a grimy look. The movie looks like it was filmed through a lens that hadn’t been cleaned in years. This is meant (I think) to be more of an allegory or a fable than something realistic and true to life despite the gritty feel. For one thing, I can’t imagine any hospital letting a kid who’d just attempted suicide just walk out of a hospital without at least some sort of plan for him to stay in a safe environment, not in a dingy old bar with an old man who just might be psychotic.

Cox is one of those character actors who almost never turns in a bad performance even when handed a turkey of a script. This one has quite a few flaws in it and inhabits the bar with eccentrics right out of the Lovable Movie Drunks for Dummies book. Cox interacts with all of them as if they were written by Shakespeare.

I tend to blow hot and cold with Dano. He has turned in some fantastic performances but also a few groaners as well. Here he is on the good side; his character has clearly been wounded deeply by some unnamed trauma in the past and while he doles out random (and sometimes not-so-random) acts of kindness, he sees himself as unworthy of life. Some of the kindest people I’ve ever known are the hardest on themselves.

There aren’t really any big laughs here and that might well be by design. One of the faults I have with this movie is I don’t think they are set on whether this needs to be a comedy or a drama and so tries for something in between. Not that combining the two can’t be done well, but I think the movie would have been better-served at picking a path and sticking with it.

I can recommend just about any movie with Brian Cox in it and a lot of them with Pau Dano in them. This one I think has just enough depth to it to be worth a look-see for those who haven’t caught it yet but I wouldn’t recommend putting too much effort into it; there isn’t enough here to make it worth digging to find.

WHY RENT THIS: Good performances from Cox and Dano. Gritty where it needs to be.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Ceaselessly drab. Quirky more than funny.

FAMILY VALUES: A fair amount of cursing and a disturbing image.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Kari, born in Paris to Icelandic parents who moved him back to their home country at the age of three, is also a member of the band Slowblow.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: As with most Magnolia home releases, there is an HD-Net making-of special.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $343,818 on an unreported production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Extra Man

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: X-Men

Hop


Hop

When Willy Wonka sees this, he's going to be contacting his attorneys.

(2011) Fantasy (Universal) James Marsden, Russell Brand (voice), Kaley Cuoco, Hugh Laurie (voice), Hank Azaria (voice), Gary Cole, Elizabeth Perkins, David Hasselhoff, Tiffany Espensen, Chelsea Handler, Hugh Hefner (voice), Coleton Ray. Directed by Tim Hill

While Hollywood has produced its share of Christmas movies, Easter movies have not been quite so plentiful. Perhaps because Christmas is all about birth and Easter is all about death; opposite ends of the life cycle. Indeed, Easter time seems to be a time where movies like The Ten Commandments have held sway.

However, here’s one about the Easter Bunny which fills in some of the mythology. The Easter Bunny (Laurie) is the latest of a 4,000 year line (I know, I know – the screenwriters are a little deficient on math) and is eager to pass on his Eternal Egg – a kind of scepter that I the key to the Easter Bunny’s magic – on to his son, E.B. (Brand).

The problem is, E.B. has dreams of his own – he wants to be a rock and roll star, a drummer to be exact (and we all know that nobody thumps like a rabbit). Of course Dad finds this out and gets into a row with his son, forcing E.B to travel by convenient interdimensional transportation tube from Easter Island to Hollywood.

There he runs into (literally) Fred O’Hare (Marsden), the ne’er do well 30ish son of Henry (Cole) and Bonnie (Perkins). Henry is very hard on his son, and the parent in me says with good reason as Fred is directionless, living at home and turning down job after job a “bad fits.” In the meantime his over-achieving sisters, Sam (Cuoco) – the older sister, and Alex (Espensen), the younger – have become the apple of their parent’s eyes, while their son is in danger of becoming a disappointment.

While Fred continues to find himself, E.B. manages to get himself an audition on a talent show hosted by the venerable David Hasselhoff (playing himself) and is finally on the road to fulfilling his dream. Unfortunately, Pink Ninjas – the personal guard of the Easter Bunny (why he would need one is anyone’s guess) – are after E.B. to haul him back home in time for the ceremony in which the mantle is passed from father to son and Fred continues to create a further rift in his family dynamic. In the meantime Carlos (Azaria), an oversized chick and the Easter Bunny’s #2 is plotting a coup. Fred and E.B. ultimately discover that they are good for one another and that destiny can sometimes be a good thing.

This is a mix of live action and CG animation, and of late that has been a very, very bad thing indeed (think Yogi Bear, Alvin and the Chipmunks and Garfield). For whatever reason, studios seem to think that these sorts of movies should be completely dumbed down for kids. Personally, I don’t get it – we give children these sophisticated and clever fully animated movies that both kids and their parents can enjoy but when it comes to live action it becomes an endless, tedious Nickelodeon original episode.

Marsden is horribly miscast here. Not only is he much too old for the role, you get the feeling that he’s taken Botox in order to keep the smile frozen on his face because, left to its own devices, that face would be left in a frown of disdainful disgust. From being Cyclops in the X-Men franchise to this? A very sad fate indeed.

The animated portion, provided by the same people who did Despicable Me is the movie’s highlight. Their Easter Island settings are magical in the same way Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory was decades ago. I could have spent a good long time exploring the candy factory of the Easter Bunny and do some taste testing of my own.

Unfortunately, that’s about it as far as reasons to see this go. The script is most decidedly unfunny, falling flat in nearly every attempt at humor and the story lacks tension. It just seems to meander a bit until coming to a painfully obvious conclusion.

There should be magic in a holiday movie and there just isn’t enough of it here. I think of something along the lines of The Polar Express when it comes to digitally enhanced holiday movies and Hop just doesn’t compare. You may wind up being dragged to a matinee for this movie this weekend. For once it will be the parents kicking and screaming when they are taken someplace they definitely don’t want to be.

REASONS TO GO: Some of the Easter Island backdrops are very nice.

REASONS TO STAY: Desperately unfunny, panders to the lowest common denominator, treats audiences like idiots – need I go on?

FAMILY VALUES: A bit of poo-poo humor here but nothing to get concerned over.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Emily Browning doesn’t have a line of dialogue (despite being the lead character) until nearly twenty minutes into the film.

HOME OR THEATER: Some of the digital imagery should be seen on a big screen and if you have little ones, you’re going to be dragged into the theater to see this anyway so might as well enjoy it.

FINAL RATING: 3/10

TOMORROW: Fanny, Annie and Danny