Friday, November 28, 2008

Soderbergh Poll

The results of last week’s poll are in. Coming in first was the feeling that Soderbergh has a lot of talent, but there are other directors you would place ahead of him. Interestingly, in second place was the feeling that you like his ambition more than the result of his efforts. Tied for third were the feelings of ‘I don’t love but don’t hate him,’ and ‘ he is one of the greatest directors to ever make movies.’

Saturday, November 22, 2008

In Depth Review: My Rice Noodle Shop

My Rice Noodle Shop (1998, Yang Xie) versus April Story (1998, Shunji Iwa)

The year is 1949 and times are difficult. China is plagued by internal strife between the communists (who as you may know would eventually be lead by Mao Tse-Tung) and the nationalists (KMT). Supporters of the former were many to flee to Taiwan in the hopes that soon their side would overthrow the communists.

Such is the backdrop for Yang Xie’s film about a 40 something noodle shop owner, Rong Rong (Carol ‘Do Do’ Cheng). She grew up in the small but lovely town of Guilin, where her grandfather owned his own rice noodle restaurant. But with the emergence of the communists, she and several other colourful characters from Guilin moved to Taipei. My Rice Noodle Shop functions as a series of episodes, although linked in the narrative sense, about Miss Rong’s trials and tribulations as the rice noodle shop owner. Among the cast of characters who frequent her establishment are an ex state officer, a formerly wealthy real estate business man and a school teacher, Mr. Lu (Kevin Lin).

For the most part, the movie functions as a drama. The reasons for this are evident. All these people had far more respectable and wealthy lives back in Guilin. This is shown through a series of flashbacks which set up each individual nicely. Having left it all behind out of fear of persecution, their current lives meander in poverty. Some of them who come to eat everyday do not even possess sufficient funds to pay for their meals and owe considerable debts to Mrs Rong. The film does make certain brief attempts at comedy, but they are rather painful and consist mostly of cussing, kind of like bad Kevin Smith dialogue (although that may have been more about the quality of the subtitles I found). Drama for realism’s sake is something I very much support. However, I was a tad disappointed so witness the fates the movie reserved for each of the customers. While I shan’t spoil everything, allow me to alert anyone curious about the film that none of the customers comes out all smiles. In fact, each of their individual fates is quite sad, depressing and pathetic. I can understand the logic behind this decision by Xie and the writers given the economic and political conditions of the time, but it was a bit much too handle. When writing this, I have in mind especially the up and coming school teacher, Mr. Lu, who has been saving money for years in order to set up a nice wedding and marriage for his sweet heart who is still living in mainland China. What happens to him is so depressing it almost feels as if the film was being too manipulative.

By I have criticized the film enough. I did, in fact, enjoy it a fair bit. The film’s strength lies in the strength of its central character, Rong Rong. Her flashbacks show a time when she was deemed one of the prettiest girls in Guilin and became the beautiful wife of an army general. She was wealthy and happy, even though there was every now and then the fear that her husband may not return from battle. Today she has lost the beauty that provided her such high esteem, her husband (dead) and much of her wealth. I was pleasantly surprised that the story spends most of its time with her at this stage in her life. In another movie the story would have been about her youth when she was a beauty. In another still she would have possibly been relegated to a supporting role only. None of that here. Instead, this 40 something, less beautiful than before women takes center stage. And she becomes all the more beautiful for it. She’s a business woman first and foremost and needs to keep her shop running with a profit. She grows weary of her regular customers not being able to pay, but she still lets them come and eat out of compassion. She keeps a loving and watchful eye over her niece, who plans to marry a soldier, just as she did back in her youth. Mrs. Rong warns her niece of the possible heart breaking fate that may await her husband. This is done in a loving manner, much in the way a mother would do it towards her daughter. The movie treats Mrs. Rong very fairly and makes her an interesting and complex character. Her flashbacks and reactions to them hint that she longs for her home town of Guilin and for the better days of her past. But she still finds the energy to see through every day. Her sights are never lead entirely astray from the future. It’s her determination and will to succeed that keep the restaurant afloat, and herself out of depression. It is also obvious that she takes great pride in her business and often boasts that her rice noodles are the finest in Taipei. Carol Cheng gives a complete performance, thus making Mrs. Rong a fully realized character with ambitions, fears, and dreams. The end does not say whether or not she will one day find the happiness and security she seeks, but her story ends on a more hopeful note than those of her compatriots. Her story is far more fulfilling and engaging.

I love it when a movie can provide a strong central female character, so My Rice Noodle Shop was still, despite the shortcomings I discovered, a good movie. Compelling stories the feature female actors in leading roles are difficult to find (Kieslowski's Three Colors comes to mind) so I tend to cherish the ones I stumble across. Carol Cheng carries the film with an inspiring performance which at times shows the right amount of energy, and at other times sublime subtlety. For the acting alone this is a worthwhile film. The casting is excellent, even though a few directorial decisions, particularly with regards to the narrative, were questionable.

This is also the second in in a couple of weeks that I discover an impressive Taiwanese movie. Up until then my experience with cinema from the region was close to non-existent, but now my eyes are beginning to open to a whole new pool of movies waiting to be explored. Taiwanese filmmakers have very interesting stories to tell and look forward to watching more.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Poll results

Based on the results of our most recent poll, when you want to go see a non-American film, most of you prefer cinema from the old continent, Europe. The rest of you enjoy movies from East Asia.
Hmm... nobody at all is in the mood for Latin American, Middle Eastern or African cinema?

In Depth Review: Schizopolis

Schizopolis (1996, Steven Soderbergh)

Schizophrenia itself is a psychotic syndrome which prevents a person from interacting with reality in accordance with our everyday notions of normality. It creates a disconnect with reality that exists in that person's mind.

Alright, if you would all be so kind, let me set this up for you. You have seen office job dramas and comedies, correct? Good, that means you are equipped with some knowledge of how they work. You have see some family/marital dramas and comedies, correct? Excellent. That means you have a decent grasp of how those normally play out as well.

Schizopolis is an office job, marital drama comedy that throws everything you know about those genres out the window. To top it off, it has a gay old time doing it.

Fletcher Munson (none other than Soderbergh in the flesh) has an office job at, I'm guessing, some kind of central office for a philosophical religious movement, à la Scientology. When their prime speaker's speech writer suddenly dies of a heart attack, Munson is called upon to take over the all important duty of writing the speeches that will ensure that their books and other products continue to sell. There are worries within the company (ironic no?) that there may be spy in their midst. Or a mole, Or a spy and a mole! To add to the pressure on Muson's mind and heart, his marital life has become about as enthusiastic as watching an apple rot (no offense to those who enjoy that kind of thing).

But this is where simplicity in plot ends and creativity and playfulness in execution begin. Schizopolis, its title seemingly derived from term schizophrenia, is not there to satisfy the norm but to subvert it. Dialogue, cutting, plot elements, all are given a shot of some wild energy in the arm. A case in point is when Munson returns home from the office and is greeted by is wife with words and phrases that literally express the mundane emotions that both are experience at their stage in this marriage. There is no 'How was your day?' or 'What is for dinner?' Rather, Soderbergh has his characters quite literally say things like 'Bored query regarding day.' and 'Fake enthusiastic description of evening's meal.' to get ideas across. I found this scene not only hilarious but highly effective in turning what we have come to expect from such scenes on their heads. These scenes are so often boring in movies. Why not shake them up? With regards to real life, married couples do, some of them at least, reach this hurdle in their lives. There comes a time when a relationship reaches a point of stagnation, when inspiration is lost, when the two lovers are 'going through the motions.' Soderbergh takes this dark and sad moment and serves it on a gold platter. The produced result is therefore twofold and therefore makes the scene all the more poignant. There is another example of this technique (in a way) involving an exterminator and a housewife who become involved with each other, but I don't want to give too much away. Suffice it to say that the dialogue serves to poignantly deconstruct scenes that, in any other drama, may appear as banal and over-used.

Munson's character, for a short period of time, goes through an out of body experience, or should I say, places his mind and soul into the physical body of another man. It just so happens that this other man looks exactly like him. But the man has a nice house and seems fit, so why not give it a try? Well, such a decision comes to bite him in the end in the strangest and funniest of ways. Even when he thinks he may no longer be himself , he still is. Indecicive, cowardly and emotionally weak. Be careful what you wish for...

On a few occasions there are brief television news reports shown that deliver headlines which are preposterous to say the least. I've read that they are unrelated to the overall narrative, but I would argue that as comedy, and more specifically as tools of the absurd, they fit in just fine within the confines of the film. In fact, dare I say they even add to the experience of it all.

The third act switches perspective temporarily as we see a bit of the story through the eyes of Munson's wife (Betsy Brantley). This change of perspective is refreshing in what, up until this point, has been an already refreshing movie experience. She herself is not in the most enthusiastic of moods regarding her marriage. She seeks something different, perhaps a little exotic even. This is when her husband begins to respond to her in Japanese, her lover (a dentist played by...well, I've already said too much) in Italian and another person she meets in French. Whether she has a hyper imagination or whether we are supposed to believe this is all really happening is besides the point I believe. The movie invites the viewer for a wild cinematic ride that disregards typical narrative conventions.

Many of the scenes are connected to each other in a narrative sense, other not at all. The story itself, for those with a minimal attention span, is easy enough to follow, but I'm unconvinced that it is the story which Soderbergh wants the viewer to remember first and foremost. That's not to say that there is nothing to think about or nothing of any intellectual value to found here. On the contrary. Its post-modernist structure and feel only means that the film is working on a another level, one that few directors choose to tackle and when they, often fail. Here, emotions are thrown against the wall for all to see (characters and viewers alike), the dialogue is as witty as it is inventive and certain character relationships border on the absurd. I've always said that as a movie buff, I tend to possess more mainstreams tastes than most. From what I gathered while watching Schizopolis, it's a film that simply needs to be felt first, understood later. I wonder if Soderbergh ever topped himself (mind you, I still have to wait about a month before I can see Che). The film succeeds in juggling honesty, comedy and uniqueness all in one untidy package. All the better for it. By the half mark, I didn't want the package to be get cleaned up, I enjoyed the lovable mess that was Schizopolis.

In the most bizarre turn of events, the best compliment I can give Soderbergh's film is that it is a joyfully schizophrenic experience. I may be beginning to understand the often said 'genius' behind this director's work. Now if only he had stopped making those Ocean movies after the first one, then we'd be talking...

Friday, November 14, 2008

In Depth Review: Jeanne Dielman

Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975, Chantal Akerman)

For the sake of simplicity the film will be referred to as JD for the review.

was written, directed and starred (although ‘starred’ by be stretching the term) Jeanne Dielman. It is a 3 hour and 13 minute long exercise which showcases three days in the life of the title character, Jeanne Dielman, as she works her way through the necessary chores that ensure an efficient, clean, and respectable household. These would include cooking, cleaning, shoe shining, purchasing goods at local shops and so on. Thankfully for our dear Mrs. Dielman, she does provide herself the time to rest a café. The house is not her only raison d’être. She has a son, Sylvain, played by Jan Decorte, who benefits from her devout maid work. There’s food on the plate in the morning and in the evening, the house is always clean as are his clothes. They don’t speak much however. When they do, the conversation come off as awkward, uncomfortable and even trivial. There is one moment during which Sylvain does mention something of interest (how a friend of his explained what sexual intercourse was when they were kids). Jeanne’s reaction is weak, she brushes it off. It seems as though she’s good at serving her son, not so much at just being a mother, emotionally speaking. So be it. She is his mother and he is her son and nothing will change that.

Oh, did I forget to mention that her idea of earning income consists of whoring herself out? Every day in the afternoon while her son is away at school a different middle aged man comes to the apartment to for some poontang, for a price of course.

The filming style, from a visual standpoint, is simple, to say the least. There are cuts (thank god), but the camera never moves during a scene. It is placed in a specific spot for every room in the apartment. Every time a scene returns to a room the viewer has already seen, the camera is back at that same spot. Director Akerman thus gives the viewer a very specific glimpse into each individual room. There are two elements to this. First, the director is dictating what we can and cannot see, like a painting. You can set your eyes in front of a painting and look at its margins, but you won’t see anything beyond the frame. Such is the case here. Secondly, this technique provides, in a strange way, a sense of familiarity for each room. By the second day, the viewer knows exactly where he is with every cut. Another effect of the still camera would be how characters can walk in and out of every frame. Again, this goes back to the director’s desire to show us only what she wants us to see.

A peculiar element that I noticed is that in almost every frame, with some exceptions, there is something or someone sitting or standing perfectly in the middle of the frame. When I say the middle, I am not referring to the horizontal frames, but rather that the character or object is sitting at equidistance from the vertical frames. When Dielman is the focus of the shot, there is often something strangely lonely about it all. Space therefore has a storytelling purpose when one takes this into account. The composition of these shots is manipulative in that sense. It looks like there’s nothing going on, but the viewer can deduce quite a bit. There is an interesting moment during which Jeanne and Sylvain are at the table eating supper. Sylvain gets up and goes to the couch just a few feet away. There is a cut, and the new shot has Jeanne still sitting at the table on the far right side of the frame and Sylvain on the couch on the far left side of the frame. There is a lot of physical space between the two. Could that also be the empty space between them as mother and son?

Things really get crazy on the third day. We’ve seen Jeanne perform her tasks with great efficiency for two days already. She was almost like a robot. She knew exactly what was required of her and executed each task diligently. However, on the third day, there are some slip ups. She forgets to turn on a light, she drops a knife, and drops her shoe shiner brush. At the café, someone is already sitting at her favourite spot (which of course is in the middle of the frame), and this flusters her to a certain extent. She doesn’t touch her coffee. There are a host of other little detailed missteps that happen on this third day. She doesn’t even seem as content with herself today. She looks positively bored. Something is clearly amiss. The movie comes to a close at the end of the third day with an unexpected turn of events. There was something deeply troubling her all along, and she unleashes her frustrations in a…questionable way.

I can hear your questions loud and clear (I’m going to pretend your asking questions even if you aren’t): why on earth would such a project to be made? What interest is there in watching such a film? Why is the title so long? Okay, I don’t care about that last question, but the first two are perfectly valid. What’s the point?

Well, from the perspective of someone who has decidedly more mainstream tastes, I believe that the point is whatever you think it is. It is an exposé about the mundane. It is about a housewife’s constant loneliness. It is about a mother and a son’s inability to find a meaningful connection between each other. It’s about minimalist filmmaking. It’s about shot composition. Etc, etc. Pick one. Pick two, three. Better still, watch the movie and discover something that I may have overlooked. I am of the belief that everyone’s reaction to the film can different. What I discovered may not be what, say, sdedalus may discover, or what faceboy has already discovered. JD can be personal for everyone.

I don’t know what art house cinema is. I’ve never taken a film course in my life and thus am in no position to pretend I know what I’m talking about. But I allow myself to suspect that this is art house cinema. No score, little dialogue, a completely different story telling method (yes, I do think one can argue that there is a story), and a host of other characteristics make this a movie far removed from mainstream tastes. I won’t recommend the film. I think that based on my analysis, as amateurish as it may be, is sufficient for all of you to know decide whether this movies needs to be seen or not. This viewer found pleasure in it, but you have been warned.

Do you like house cleaning?

In Depth Review: Rachel Getting Married

Rachel Getting Married (2008, Jonathan Demme)

Kym (Anne Hathaway, wow), a recovering drug addict, is given a leave of absence for a few days to attend her sister's wedding. Her sister, Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt) is a highly educated professional woman completing her PHD is psychology. The whole family is home for the ceremony, as well as close friends. It will be lavish, beautiful and perfect, just like Rachel wants it to be. There's only one potential problem: Kym, who has a rather strained relationship with almost everyone around her and who tends to spoil the fun wherever she goes with her abrasive attitude. It doesn't help of course that in Kym's past, a terrible tragedy tied to her drug consuming ways occurred which severally scarred the entire family. It could be a long few days at the wedding.

Rachel Getting Married showcases what is, in this viewer's humble opinion, some of the best writing and acting to have graced the silver screen all year. Early on, in the car ride home from the rehab center, Kym let's it be known that she would like to see their mother before the ceremony. Her father (divorced from said mother), played by Bill Irwin, uncomfortably says that he isn't so sure about that. Rachel's reaction is that of disappointment. On paper that sounds pretty normal, but the actors pull off that dialogue sequence with such subtlety, such realism, that it makes for a great scene. Right from the get go, the viewer is given a hint that something isn't right, that emotions have been bruised at some time in the past and that the healing process hasn't fully taken effect yet.

When Kym and Rachel finally meet up back home, the initial reaction, of course, is smiles, giggles and compliments. However, only minutes later does it becomes apparent that Rachel has some reservations about Kym as well. This is compounded by Rachel friend, who makes no attempt at hiding her own dislike for Kym. As the hours go by Kym realizes what her family really thinks of her. Some people, like her father, play the part with more gentleness and subtlety. Others, such Rachel, are a bit more, how should I put it, outspoken about what's wrong with her. And so emotions get complicated on the most important two days of Rachel's life.

The writing is acting, as I mentioned previously, are top notch. None of the discussions ever feel false, or shoe horned in just to make a point or to keep raising the stakes for the sake of it. There are real discussions taking place. It's difficult to find ensemble cast films where everyone is firing on all cylinders like they are here. Anne Hathaway demonstrates that she really can act. Her Kym is in such an emotionally dysfunctional status that even the viewer can be forgiven to side with her family. But there is obviously some good in her. She wants good love, but the words that come out of her mouth always seem to bring resentfulness uopn her. Is she a lost cause, a soul tarnished forever by the devastating lifestyle of the junkie? Perhaps, perhaps not. I like to think it's the latter, for all I know I could be wrong. Rosemarie DeWitt and Bill Irwin, who both have their own manners of showing either their disappointment or frustration with Kym, are both equally brilliant.

Much as been said about the hand held camera style of filmmaking, so I won't spend too much time on it, but suffice it to say that it works wonders here. It really feels as if Demme has obtained exclusive access into the world of the family, on its most important day, and has invited the viewer to tag along while things deteriorate. This is the most documentary-type fictional film I think I ever seen. Because of that genuine quality to the picture, it makes the arguments all the more difficult to bear. And I mean that in the good sense. Solid script and solid cinematography altogether.

As a final note, I'd like to point out that the wedding ceremony itself, which if I'm not mistaken lasts a good 15-20 minutes of running time, is worth the price of admission. Food, laughter, a tent with samba, hip hop, light rock. I wish I had been there on the set!

In conclusion, I would make it clear that from the perspective of script, acting and cinematography, Rachel Getting Married is one of the best films of 2008. Of course having not seen it on home video, I can only suspect (although I'm pretty sure about this) that seeing it in the theater enhances the experience. Sitting in that dark room with all my attention focused on Rachel, Kym and everyone else involved in the wedding was intense, funny, frustrating, sad, thoughtful and in the end, well worth my time and money. I sincerely hope it will be the same case with you.

Monday, November 10, 2008

In Depth Review: Vive L'Amour

Vive L'Amour (1994, Ming-Lang Tsai)

A retail estate agent named May Ling, played with surprising elegance and ease by Muei-Mei Yang, lives day in and day out by performing the same drill with potential buyers. Her life isn’t glamorous in the least, but she gets by nonetheless. Early in the film she encounters a street vendor named Ah-jung (Chao-jung Chen). He may not be getting ahead too much in the world, but he’s making some money, he’s handsome and confident. What’s not to like for a girl? Together they make love in one of the apartments Ling is trying to sell. Ah-jung doesn’t have a home however. After their initial love making session, he steals one of the keys to the apartment and sleeps there at night without her knowledge. All the while this has been happening, a urn seller, Hsiao-kang (Kang-shen Lee), has already stolen one of the keys to the same apartment and sleeps in one of the other rooms. Eventually Hsiao-kang and Ah-jung cross paths one night and even befriend one another, although Ah-jung naver makes mention of Hsiao-kang to May Ling.

Vive L’Amour is a funny and admittedly odd movie. Is there a real point to this exercise? Perhaps not, but sometimes telling a fun story, which involves a solid script/dialogue and convincing acting is more than sufficient. I never even tried to think about what the overarching themes of the film were because I was having too much fun with the characters to begin with. All three are perfectly individual and fleshed out enough for the viewer to understand them and maybe even relate. All three are going through different stages of their lives and are living in their society in different ways, yet their stories connect and resonate. When put together in this same film, the results are not only satisfying on a psychological level, but on entertaining level as well. The acting is strong across the board. There really isn’t a weak link to be found. Both male leads are engaging are more than competent but if I may, I would give special mention to Muei-Mei Yang as the real estate agent. She shows a range that I think few actresses or actors can pull off with such conviction. She playful with her new boyfriend, tired, engaging but at times apparently bored when given giving her clients a guided tour of the various apartments under her charge. Given that I don’t ever watch any Taiwanese films, I had never heard of her, but she’s on my radar now.

A word of caution however. For those who may be sold on the movie based on what I have written thus far should understand that the story takes its time developing. The pace is deliberately slow. This may be an immediate turn off for some movie watchers, but for those who enjoy movies in which the plot and character relations are allotted the time to grow and mature, regardless of how long it may take, will be rewarded for their time. Nor is this a typical romance comedy. In fact, I'm not even sure if this a romance film or a comedy for that matter, despite their being a relationship between May and Ah-jung and a few scenes that I laughed very, very hard at. One scene in particularly which has May Ling resting on the bed before a client arrives while Hsiao-kang sneaks out from underneath caught me by surprise not only because I didn’t know that he was hiding there, but because I never expected to find such comedic gold in the film. For all intents and purposes, Vive L’Amour cannot be pigeon holed into a specific category of film, and all the better for it. That last time I was similarly hit by a movie was a few months ago when I watched Targets from Peter Bogdanovich. Several film styles are meshed into one single story with the film being quite strong because of it. The lessons I learned? Twofold: a) to look under the bed whenever I get back home after work or when I’m going to have sex b) not to underestimate Taiwanese cinema.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

In Depth Review: Ivan The Terrible

Ivan The Terrible part 1 (1944, Sergei Eisenstein) and Ivan The Terrible part 2: The Boyars Plot (1958, Sergei Eisenstein)

In 1944 Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein released the first chapter of the never completed trilogy which followed the exploits and personal tribulations of Ivan Vasilyevich, more commonly known as Ivan the Terrible. Critics, movie goers and, more crucially, the state enjoyed it tremendously. In 1946 Eisenstein’s followup, The Boyars Plot, was ill received by the state, at that time still under the authoritarian rule of Joseph Stalin, and therefore banned. Ivan’s cinematic portrayal in the sequel was deemed to resemble too closely the Soviet administration at the time, and saw the film as a thinly veiled criticism of Stalin’s regime. It was only in 1958, five years following the leader’s death, that Russians were rewarded for their patience. Director Eisenstein passed away before completing the final episode in the trilogy. To make matters worse, much of what had been filmed was destroyed by the state, although a little bit of footage can be found on the Criterion Edition of the film.

Of interest perhaps: Ivan Grozny (might and power), more properly translated to modern English becomes Ivan the Awesome. How awesome is the movie though?

Before viewing the film I took it upon myself to read on the subject for some personal knowledge so I could familiarize myself with the story going in. This did in fact make the viewing a smooth experience and the reasons are twofold. Firstly, when certain characters, peoples and events were mentioned, I knew what everyone was talking about. Secondly, I understood the focus of the movie. When telling as expansive a tale as Ivan’s, the filmmakers will undoubtedly concentrate on certain events of the man’s life more so than with others. The films that make up Ivan the Terrible are a presentation of the man as a leader stuck in a rut. He himself is a self aggrandizing and evidently paranoid, but it doesn’t help that he become Russia’s first tsar of Moscovy (the name given to the Russian empire at the time. I won’t go into historical details) when the country’s upper class/aristocracy, known as the boyars, were intent on preserving their influence in state decisions. The viewer is of course encouraged to know already what the situation was between Ivan’s father and mother and the boyars before he rose to power. That’s not to say that one can’t understand anything without prior knowledge, but it makes the viewing experience complete and satisfying to a certain extent. At its core, the films are concentrating on Ivan's relations with his friends and foes and less with conquests and political reform, even though the latter two are mentioned and seen on occasion.

This three hour film depicts the constant and shifting rivalries that threaten Ivan’s throne. The rivalry with boyars is a constant one. But other relationships, that at one time were healthy, such as with the Prince Kurbsky who eventually defects to Poland once Ivan has begun his expansionist mission to the West (although a certain tension came into being once Ivan married the beautiful Anastasia, whom Kurbsky adored from afar), turn sour. This is where my reading becomes a double edged sword however. Certain events as shown in the film appear as rather accurate. Most notable is the Russian conquering of Kazan (one of Ivan’s first expansionist missions). Another is when Ivan, now terribly ill and fearing death, commands the boyars to pledge themselves to Ivan Ivanovich, his infant son. They of course refuse, which, along with the death and presumed murder of his wife, prompts Ivan the Terrible to associate himself more closely with the commoners in the creation of a paramilitary force named the Oprichnina, who went on to terrorize the land more than anything else. In other instances, I was disappointed with certain omissions. There wasn’t a whole lot about the Oprichnina in the film. The film shows a scene in which thousands of commoners pledge themselves to Ivan (the scene is very well shot by the way), but little is heard or seen about the this paramilitary force afterwards. In fact, at one point a character pleads to Ivan that the Oprichnini must be disbanded, but if I’m not mistaken that’s actually the fist time in the film the name of the force is mentioned. A viewer would therefore be forgiven for asking what exactly the characters are talking about.

Another stranger decision, was to take the historical figure of Feodor 1, Ivan’s seemingly retarded son, and make him his cousin for the film. It’s not that the decision doesn’t work for the film, only that I couldn’t figure out why (perhaps the fear that the public would not want to see one of their historical leaders with a handicapped son? I don’t know…). Despite my research, I couldn’t find anything on a Efrosinia Staritska, who is Ivan’s evil aunt in the film and plots to have him overthrown. She has the retarded son in the story, not Ivan. I suppose certain decision were made given the political climate in Russia at the time which heavily dictated censorship, but for some historical buffs these may be annoyances. Then again, they may find the changes all the more interesting. I’ll leave the verdict to them.

The acting style is, theatrical to say the least. I don’t want to use the term ‘cartoonish’ since I’ve always considered it, for one reason or another, to be a bit insulting, but there is a particular energy to the acting on display that may be offsetting for some. A lot of characters use the old bulging eyes trick to mark anger, shock, fear, sadness, etc. I can take that every once on a while, but it seemed like everyone’s ‘go to’ trick here. I also found it rather amusing that in Ivan's coronation scene, he has a booming voice that Orsen Wells would have been jealous of, despite that fact that Ivan was only 16 at the time.

Having said that, I thought that Nikolai Cherkasov as Ivan was quite convincing. A dictator needs to have something rather grandiose about him after all and Ckerkasov pulls it off nicely. Serafima Birman as Ivan’s nefarious aunt was given a juicy role and certainly injected some ghoulish delight to say the least. The music is terrific. It sets the tone very well and is quite catchy as a matter of fact. I was recognizing certain themes as they returned throughout the film and always welcomed them back.

Arguably what struck me the most was the cinematography and the composition of various shots. My knowledge of historic Russian cinema is limited (apart from Andrei Rublev which I saw recently) and therefore I did not know what to expect visually. I was very much surprised to discover a lavish, Hollywood-esque type production. This movie is big, with plenty of costumes, massive sets and even a bloody battle sequence. There were a few shots that truly showcased expert filming at its best. I guess it doesn’t matter where you are in the world, people love big epics.

It’s with mixed feelings that I write this review, but let that not denote that I feel I’ve wasted my time watching Ivan the Terrible. Any opportunity to see cinema from another region of the globe, particularly historical cinema from another region, is one a relish very much. There is a lot to like about the film, and I would invite anyone who enjoys foreign cinema (based on North American tastes) to give this a try. It looks lavish (in a 1944 kind of way) has a great soundtrack and features one of history’s most controversial figures as its central character. Just don’t expect a history lesson.