war and peace (sergey bondarchuk, 1966)

There was an episode of Cheers where Sam Malone, worried that he might lose Diane Chambers to a literature professor, decides to read War and Peace so he'll have something to talk about when the group gets together (the book is recommended by self-proclaimed know-it-all Cliff Claven, who says it's the greatest novel ever written). Sam actually manages to get the book read, which impresses Diane. At the episode's end, she suggests they go see the movie version. "THERE'S A MOVIE? Cliff! I'll kill him!"

The movie to which Diane refers is probably the 208-minute, 1956 American production starring Audrey Hepburn, which made enough of an international impression that the Soviets decided they needed to make their own version of the classic Russian novel. With the support of the Soviet government, that War and Peace ended up with a running time of 431 minutes. A recent restoration was just released on Criterion, and while I was aware that this was one of those "see it on the big screen" pictures, my 66-year-old bladder couldn't imagine sitting in a theater for 7 hours straight. So I bought the Blu-ray and sat down to plan my approach.

At which time, I found out that Sergey Bondarchuk's massive film was originally released in four parts over the course of two years.

I felt like Sam Malone, only happy ... "THERE'S FOUR PARTS? I can watch one a day!"

War and Peace is a tremendous spectacle that spends much of its time on the personal relations between the main characters. I feared it would be akin to Doctor Zhivago, another epic film from a novel about historical Russia, and Doctor Zhivago is not one of my favorite films. But I am pleased to note that Bondarchuk's War and Peace is far superior to Zhivago, maintaining interest throughout its long running time, while offering some of the best epic scenes ever.

I assumed that this famous adaptation of the famous novel would have been highly acclaimed, and indeed, it won an Oscar for Best Foreign Film. But you won't find it on many of the lists I cite here so often. You won't find it on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time (it is currently at #1065). And in retrospect, I can see why, at least from my point of view. I've rarely liked big expensive historical epics ... I really did think it would be as poor as Doctor Zhivago. That doesn't explain why it isn't very highly regarded critically (although again, I don't want to overstate that ... #1065 is pretty good).

To be more specific about what works (and doesn't) ... the epic scale is impressive, not just in battle scenes but in more domestic extravagances like balls. Much of the acting is good, and ballerina Lyudmila Savelyeva is exquisite as Natasha. Bondarchuk occasionally uses effectively off-beat visual techniques. On the other hand, Bondarchuk as Pierre is a weak link.

War and Peace should be seen once. I'd say once is enough, though.

i am cuba (mikhail kalatozov, 1964)

This is the latest film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." Week 9 is called "ASC 100 Milestone Films Week":

Here, the American Society of Cinematographers have rounded up the films from the 20th century that stand out in terms of their achievement in the art of visual storytelling. So keep your eyes on the screen and be amazed.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film from the ASC's list of 100 Milestone Films of the 20th Century.

I Am Cuba is a film about the Cuban revolution, sponsored by the Soviet Union with a Soviet director.

Neither Cuba nor the Soviets approved of film, as noted on the IMDB site:

Both the Soviets and the Cubans were disappointed in the film. In Cuba, it is referred to as "I am NOT Cuba". They never felt it was a portrait of themselves - but, rather a depiction of Cuba imposed on them by the Soviet Union. Soviet Union wanted to make a straight-forward propaganda film. They felt the director Mikhail Kalatozov made an 'art' film instead.

Both countries are right. The Cuban people in the movie never rise above stereotypes: the prostitute, the farmer, the student. And while there is plenty of "art" in I Am Cuba, it presents itself as a ironic contrast to what the Soviets probably thought they were paying for. America is consistently shown in a negative manner, but at times the Western style seems pretty darned cool. All of this is important because I Am Cuba got practically no distribution at the time. The Soviets didn't like it, the Cubans didn't like it, and the Americans were in the middle of a Cold War. It wasn't rediscovered (or rather, discovered) until the mid-90s.

I Am Cuba is a terrific example of great cinematography (Sergey Urusevskiy is credited) ... it it certainly a milestone. I only hesitate to include this clip because the quality isn't great, which does a disservice to the cinematography. But at least you get the idea. Here is the opening of the film. Watch the long take that begins a little more than 2 minutes in. And watch until the end, keeping in mind this was the early 1960s.

And if that isn't enough, Raquel Revuelta plays "Cuba" ... it is she who narrates, always returning to "I Am Cuba". #343 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.

come and see (elem klimov, 1985)

Elem Klimov was 52 when Come and See was released. He lived another 18 years. Before Come and See, he had directed more than half-a-dozen features. Given its status among critics (it is #141 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time), you might think Come and See suggested further great movies from the director. Yet he never directed another movie, saying in 2000, "I've lost interest in making films. Everything that was possible I felt I had already done." Watching Come and See, you understand Klimov's position, for it's hard to imagine anything topping what became his final film.

Come and See is a war film that will bring to mind other movies, good ones that pale next to Come and See. Apocalypse Now is often mentioned, as is Saving Private Ryan. I was reminded of the great Fires on the Plain, and to a lesser extent, Bernhard Wicki's The Bridge. Both of those movies have an intensity that makes them hard to sit through, which is also true of Come and See. This Russian film makes Apocalypse Now seem almost trivial.

The film begins with young Flyora and a friend looking for abandoned rifles so they can join the Soviet partisans against the Nazis in 1943. I'm tempted to say we see what transpires through the eyes of Flyora, but that is not literally true, because the face of Flyora is increasingly haunting over the course of the movie. Rather than seeing things through his eyes, we read them through his face. I had to look up Aleksei Kravchenko, the teenaged actor who played Flyora, to see if he had suffered trauma from making the film. He's in almost every scene, and the atrocities he sees can't have been easy to handle, even in a fictional form (it's hard for us in the audience to handle, as well). I learned that Klimov wanted to hypnotize his young actor during the most horrible scenes to help Aleksei get through relatively unscathed, but the actor couldn't be hypnotized. Some sources say that the teenager's hair turned gray while making the movies. He didn't appear on screen for 15 years. But apparently Kravchenko survived ... he returned to acting and became a regular on Russian television.

The title of the film warns us of what is to come. "Come and See" is derived from the Book of Revelation: "And when he had opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth beast say, Come and see. And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth."

Klimov manages to include some black humor, although it comes mostly in the first half. There comes a point when you just can't laugh it off.

film fatales #45 and #46: the ascent (larisa shepitko, 1977) and the spy who dumped me (susanna fogel, 2018)

Obviously, these movies have nothing in common except they are directed by women, but I watched them on successive nights, so here they are, from the sublime to the not quite ridiculous.

The Ascent is the last film completed by Larisa Shepitko before her untimely death at 41 in a car crash. It's the first of her movies I've seen, and at first, I had a hard time giving it context. Then I realized that Anatoliy Solonitsyn, who plays a Soviet collaborator with the Nazis, was in three Tarkovsky films I'd seen (Andrei Rublev, The Mirror, and Stalker). I suppose it says something that I never mentioned Solonitsyn's name when writing about those three films ... it's not that he was bad, but I was doing everything I could to simply follow what was happening to notice his work.

I am not conversant enough in Soviet politics to know what specific effect state censorship had on movies in the Brezhnev era. But The Ascent would seem to be "acceptable" because the heroes are the Soviet people who fight the Nazis, and the worst characters are the collaborators. Meanwhile, Shepitko sneaks in a Christian allegory that seems obvious, but which escaped censorship. (Again, I don't know a lot about this, and I'm sure Shepitko had to deal with the State's expectations in various ways. But The Ascent seems like both a paean to Soviet values and a recognition of the power of religious belief.)

This time I won't make the mistake of ignoring the actors. Besides Solonitsyn, there are excellent performances by Vladimir Gostyukhin as a soldier who believes in survival, and Boris Plotnikov as the Christ figure. I don't want to over-emphasize the allegorical aspect ... I just can't pretend it isn't there. The Ascent has a remarkable look, white on white (it takes place in winter, in the snow), and Shepitko relies on near-constant closeups that don't just allow us to count the pores in a face, but seemingly to see into each character's soul. For me, The Ascent is better than any Tarkovsky movie I've seen, and I highly recommend it. #733 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.

And then there's The Spy Who Dumped Me. It works as an entertaining throwaway, with one caveat, that there is a lot of shoot-em-up violence ... a lot of dead people who aren't important as people, which matters. I watch a lot of movies with plenty of nondescript characters getting killed in various ways ... it's not the mindless violence I'm objecting to. But The Spy Who Dumped Me suffers from a serious schizophrenia between those scenes and the comedy that makes the film entertaining. This isn't Bonnie and Clyde, where we laugh right up to the point when a man is shot in the face and we realize it's not a joke. It's just an action comedy with plenty of people dying.

The action scenes aren't bad, but they aren't special. What is special is the interplay between Mila Kunis and Kate McKinnon. It's surprising that this is the first Kate McKinnon movie I've seen, since like much of America I'm a big fan of her work on Saturday Night Live. She doesn't disappoint here, and she and Kunis make a good team. Outlander fans will enjoy Sam Heughan as a spy ... he turns in a nice comedic performance. I want to like this movie, and it's OK ... I wish it were more.

[Letterboxd list of Film Fatales movies]