Russian Ark (Russkiy kovcheg)


Ghosts in the Hermitage.

Ghosts in the Hermitage.

(2002) Historical Fantasy (Wellspring) Leonid Mozgovoy, Sergei Dontsov, Mariya Kuznetsova, Mikhail Piotrovsky, David Giorgobiani, Maksim Sergeyev, Natalya Nikulenko, Aleksandr Chaban, Vladimir Baranov, Anna Aleksakhina, Lev Yeliseyev, Oleg Khmelnitsky, Alla Ospienko, Artyom Strelnikov, Tamara Kurenkova, Svetlana Gaytan. Directed by Aleksandr Sokurov

Russian Ark was filmed in the famed Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, which the tsars called home from the time of Peter the Great until the Russian Revolution of 1917. It was also produced in one long shot, a la Hitchcock’s Rope and as viewers travel the corridors among the magnificent artworks of the Hermitage, they meet figures from history who lived and worked there.

The story concerns an unseen narrator (Mozgovoy) who is referred to in the credits as “The Spy.” He wakes up after an accident of some sort and finds himself on the grounds of the Hermitage. He enters the palace with a group of revelers, and discovers that the year is 1814. He turns a corner and comes face to face with Peter the Great (Sergeyev). How can that be?

And so it goes, traveling through the passageways, not in one time or another but phasing out, not unlike Billy Pilgrim of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, although writer/director/producer Sokurov integrates this much more smoothly into his storyline than Vonnegut did.

The Spy is joined by a 19th century French nobleman, the Marquis de Custine (Dontsov) who has sharp opinions on Russia and the Russian court, where he was stationed at length during his career. The womanizing Marquis helps the Spy navigate the hallways, past beautiful paintings (some of which are explored at length), through sumptuous balls and court functions, through intrigue and, occasionally, tragedy. This leads to a revelation as to what they are doing there; keep the title in mind at all times.

It’s an ambitious project, with a cast of more than two thousand actors, with only a small portion of them credited, and three orchestras supplying background music.  Part of the movie’s problem is its subject. The Hermitage is a natural venue for a movie, but it is a curse as well; you want to linger among the vast hallways, galleries and salons, examine the artwork. Of course, if the filmmakers were to do that, you’d have a 100-hour long movie.

Likewise, some of the characters that pass through the movie are fascinating, such as Catherine the Great (Kuznetsova), for whom Sokurov obviously held a great deal of affection. In her prime, she is a natural force, a storm that sweeps the Russian landscape and changes it forever. In the twilight of her life, she is a doughty old woman, trudging like a bulldog through the snow of the grounds, unmindful of obstacle or anything else, her steely gaze straight ahead. It’s truly a charming portrayal.

At what point does a concept become a gimmick? The single shot idea could certainly degenerate into gimmickry; even Hitchcock had trouble with it, but it works here. The overall effect is of walking the halls of the Hermitage yourself, making the camera your ultimate point of view. Although the time changes are sometimes dizzying (you move from an elegant modern-day art gallery to a badly damaged room during the siege of Leningrad during World War II in one sequence) and disorienting, it also creates susceptibility in the viewer, for you literally don’t know what’s coming next or whom – or when – you’ll encounter.

Being of Russian heritage myself (my mother’s family hailed from the Ukraine), I found Russian Ark’s commentary on Russian life not always flattering, but always honest and completely scintillating. There is a Russian stoicism permeating the film; life happens and the filmmaker seems to shrug at tragedy and death with a “what can you do” kind of fatalism.

It was not so long before this was made that these guys were an evil empire, but the Russian people have had to overcome a great deal of hardship during those transitional years in shrugging off the communist government they’d pioneered. I don’t think Russian Ark could have been made in quite the same way under the communist regime, but it is hopeful that Russians are embracing their history – warts and all – instead of sweeping the unfavorable bits under the rug.

Russian Ark is a visually stunning, compelling film that takes us through Russian history and art, two areas largely unknown in this country. Even without the spectacle, it’s worth seeing just for the opportunity to learn a little more about that enigmatic country. You should seek this out – it is one of the best movies of the last decade and remains to this day one of the highest grossing Russian-made films in the United States.

WHY RENT THIS: The magnificent artwork and corridors of the Hermitage. Novel concept. Epic sweep of Russian history.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Confusing in places.

FAMILY MATTERS: A few eerie moments.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The entire film was shot in one continuous shot which was choreographed and pre-planned to the very last detail. What you see is the third take – there were two flubbed attempts that thankfully occurred in the first ten minutes. Oh, and the Marquis de Custine was an actual historical figure.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There is a 48 minute documentary feature on the history of the Hermitage, as well as 43 minute making-of featurette that details all of the issues and preplanning of this massive undertaken, which included three different orchestras, almost 2000 actors and 33 different rooms of the museum all filmed in one continuous shot.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $6.7M on an unknown production budget; despite the epic scope of the film, I believe that it was profitable in the end.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: This is like nothing else that’s come before or since.

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: My Country, My Country

 

The Brothers Bloom


The Brothers Bloom

Now that's a fine how-da-ya-do!

(2009) Offbeat Caper Comedy (Summit) Adrian Brody, Rachel Weisz, Mark Ruffalo, Rinko Kikuchi, Robbie Coltrane, Maximillian Schell, Ricky Jay (voice), Zachary Gordon, Max Records, Andy Nyman. Directed by Rian Johnson

When you’re a con man, there is no real life. There is no trust, there is nothing that isn’t scripted down to the finest detail, there isn’t anything really exciting. That’s the way it’s done, at least, by this brother team.

Brothers Stephen (Ruffalo) and Bloom (Brody) are con artists, and they would tell you there is considerable art in what they do. For Stephen, the ultimate con is where everyone gets what they want; for Bloom, he just wants a life that is unscripted, one he can call his own – one that isn’t quite so predictable. Obviously, he hasn’t lived the life the rest of us lead.

We see them as youngsters in foster care, having been thrown out of every reputable foster home in the state of New Jersey – that’s about 38 of them back in the day (Sha-zing!) when young Stephen (Records) organized the first con starring his brother (Gordon) in an effort to get him to socialize. Twenty years later and Stephen is still trying to get his brother to be less socially awkward.

Now they are accompanied by Bang Bang (Kikuchi), a mostly silent Japanese demolitions expert who excels in making things blow up real good. For Bloom, however, the rose has lost its shine. He is tired of the game, tired of the life, tired of not knowing who he is. He wants out. As is de rigueur for con films, this is to be their last job, even though Stephen still delights and revels in the life.

The mark is Penelope Stamp (Weisz), an agoraphobic heiress who is bored bored bored with her life, so much so that she collects hobbies like juggling chainsaws on a unicycle, skateboarding, break dancing and performing unnecessary breast enlargements on alcoholic women. Okay, the last one wasn’t in the movie but she may well have done it. After a carefully orchestrated encounter with Bloom turns into a near-death experience, she gets roped into his world hook line and sinker.

And what a world it is, replete with vaguely threatening sorts (Coltrane as the Curator) and out-and-out threatening sorts (Schell as Diamond Dog, the mentor to the Brothers and now a rival) and, of course, exotic Eastern European locations. The issue becomes that Bloom begins to fall in love with the mark, and how can you con someone when you care about them?

Director Johnson debuted in 2005 with Brick, a kind of film noir hardboiled detective movie set in a modern California high school. Although Da Queen didn’t like it much, I respected it for its cadences, the obvious love of the source material and the imaginative genre-bending that was done. There are some of those elements here as well.

Brody is making a career out of the sad sack romantic, and nobody does it better. He’s not really the sweetest person on earth nor is he the handsomest, but he always seems endearing enough to charm the pants off (literally) nurturing young women. Ruffalo gets to play a very meaty part that doesn’t look like it so much on the surface, but he imbues Stephen with enough quirks and just enough compassion to make him really compelling by film’s end.

Think of Johnson stylistically as a cross between Wes Anderson and David Mamet; I’d say overall the tone of the movie combines Mamet’s House of Games with Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums. Anyone who knows these movies will either be straining at the leash to go see The Brothers Bloom based on that description or will be running for the nearest exit.

I get it; the movie is quirky and offbeat which can be a turn-off for mainstream moviegoers who like their movies pre-packaged with predictable storylines, well-known actors and Hollywood endings. This ain’t for you, folks; this is for those who love to be surprised and pulled every which way at the movies. This doesn’t have the wallop of The Sting but it does keep you guessing throughout the movie until you don’t know which way is up, which way is down or which way to the popcorn stand. If you’re headed that way, pick me up a bag with extra butter. If I’m going to chow down on The Brothers Bloom, I might as well go all the way.

WHY RENT THIS: Johnson is a phenomenal talent behind the camera and the movie may be quirky but it is ultimately endearing.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The tone of the movie is offbeat and American audiences don’t do offbeat.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a touch of foul language, some brief violence and a bit of implied sensuality but overall nothing most kids haven’t already seen before. 

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The various hobbies “collected”  by Penelope in the montage, actress Rachel Weisz learned to do every single one of them.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $5.5M on an unreported production budget; although this is an indie as it gets, chances are it didn’t make any money.

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

TOMORROW: Righteous Kill