Friday, 28 February 2014

OMAR - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Oases of humanity amidst the Conflict! Oscar-nominated thriller exposes love, loyalty and retribution against Palestinian-Israeli backdrop. There, but by the Grace of God go all of us.

In a crazy world, what do the problems of little people ever really amount to?

Omar (2013) ****
Dir. Hany Abu-Assad
Starring: Adam Bakri, Waleed Zuaiter, Leem Lubany

Review By Greg Klymkiw

In the final moments of his stunning Oscar-nominated thriller Omar, Director Hany Abu-Assad (Paradise Now) slams you with a two-by-four to the face, but good-goddamn, it's satisfying. Knowing this is going to be no spoiler, no surprise, no shock whatsoever since the picture's flesh-curdling slow-burn is punctuated every so often with jolts of breathtaking ferocity.

Violence, however, is always contrasted with sweet and delicate moments of precious humanity which, like oases, lull you under the hot sun of the West Bank - so much so that it's not as if you never expect the conclusion will do anything but knock you on your ass, leaving you both winded and perversely elated. Like the best thrillers, you never see the worst coming. You feel it's an inevitability, to be sure, but even so, it doesn't mean you aren't clutching the arms of your seat, ready for anything at any given moment.

If truth be told, this surely comes as close as we're likely to get on film to what life must be like along the wall that separates the colonized and the colonizers amidst a never-ending conflict that feels omnipresently close to all of us in spite of being worlds away from what one outside of the ongoing deadly dissent is normally used to. Can we ever really know what such a life must be like without actually being there and living it? Of course not, but watching Omar, it's a testament to Abu-Assad's exemplary gifts as a filmmaker that we feel we're as mired in the thick of it as we ever want to be.

Omar (Bakri) is a handsome, sweet-faced young baker who risks being cut down daily by gunfire as he scales the deadly West Bank wall to see Nadia (Lubany), the beautiful woman he so desperately loves. Ah, but if it were only this simple. Life here is anything but. Omar risks life and limb to fight for the emancipation of his people as we find him on the precipice of actively joining the fray of violent political activism. As a burgeoning soldier of the Palestinian revolution, it feels like he has no choice - that he's been born into an eternal struggle against his Israeli oppressors. Joining his best friends on a deadly mission, Omar is caught between a rock and a hard place when he's eventually targeted to turn in his cohorts by Rami (Zuaiter), an Israeli secret agent who offers freedom and protection in exchange for this betrayal. Omar learns quickly that dealing with the devil never ends quickly or easily and in fact, has no end unless he can find a way of playing both sides against the centre to keep himself truly safe. It's cat and mouse all the way, only the odds increase exponentially with every ever-increasing malignancy of a game that feels like a vortex of infinite betrayal.

There's never any doubts as to where our sympathies must lie. The violence, death, deception, terror and torture reside around every paranoid corner and no matter what side of the equation we're on, there can be no doubting that this is no way for any human being to live. It's a movie that feels like there are no false notes and Abu-Assad's artistry and virtuosity as a filmmaker allows for superb performances, complex character study as well as all the edge-of-the-seat suspense any picture can deliver.

The film's greatest triumph, however, is its unwavering humanity in the face of war's utter madness and that for much of the film, we're carried along by both love and commitment to such a degree that Omar is as much a condemnation of this way of life - on both sides - as it is a testament to loyalty in the face of betrayal. It doesn't take much to see that the problems of little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.

But, oh, they do. They most certainly do.

"Omar" is in theatrical release via Mongrel Media.

Thursday, 27 February 2014

SOLO - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Competence rules the day. Low budget Canuck thriller opens theatrically.

Solo (2013) **
Dir. Isaac Cravit
Starring: Annie Clark, Daniel Kash, Richard Clarkin,
Stephen Love, Alyssa Capriotti

Review By Greg Klymkiw

A teen babe with "issues" takes a job as a summer camp counsellor. Part of the required initiation is for new employees to spend two nights alone on a remote island. The island in question was the site of a tragedy many years ago. It is purportedly haunted. Weird shit happens. Those whom you think are psychotic are not. Those whom you think are nice are psychotic. Confrontations occur. Good people die. Some good people are rescued. The evil entity is killed. The teen babe is safe. Movie Finished. 83 precious minutes of your life that you'll never get back.

There you have it. Solo in a nutshell. There's no real reason to see it now.

You see, debut feature films like Solo put me in a really foul mood. Some of these first long form efforts are blessed with an immediate, explosive announcement to the universe that we are dealing with a filmmaker who is endowed with the greatest gift a director can bestow upon the world of cinema - a voice, a distinctive style, an unmistakeable point of view, a sense that this is who the filmmaker really is. Then there's a second category - debut features so awful you might as well have shoved a gun into your mouth and pulled the trigger instead of watching it.

Solo, the debut feature film written and directed by Isaac Cravit is in neither of those categories. It holds a very special place in the pantheon of celluloid dreams - it's bereft of dreams. It has neither an original voice nor one of mind numbing ineptitude. Both have their virtues since both make an audience feel something. Not so for Solo (and so many, many others of its ilk). These are movies which allow you to leave their meagre clasp feeling absolutely nothing. It is the third and perhaps most horrendous category of all debut features. Solo, joins this unenviable pinnacle of competence with all the eagerness of a dog about to get a Milk Bone.

When filmmakers enter the fray with a first feature that actually excites you - not only because of the film itself, but what you sense this director will deliver in the future. Their declarations feel like the following:
The Soska Sisters (Dead Hooker in a Trunk):
"We're going to fuck your ass with a red-hot poker, but you'll enjoy it. We promise."

John Paizs (Crime Wave):
"Laughs derived from silence are golden."

David Lynch (Eraserhead):
"In Heaven, everything is fine..."

John Carpenter (Dark Star):
"I love movies more than life itself - have a fuckin' beer."

Guy Maddin: (Tales From The Gimli Hospital):
"I'm a dreamer, aren't we all?"

Kevin Smith: (Clerks):
All are unique declarations (mediated through my own interpretive imagination, of course) and I could spend a few hundred more words doing the same for a myriad of debut features that declare themselves with complete originality on the part of the filmmaker.

There is, however, one declaration that depresses me even more than whatever the aforementioned incompetents of the second category of debut works might declare via their sheer inability to make movies. It is a declaration I see and hear far too often these days - especially since filmmaking has been embraced by so many marginally talented, though competent, by-the-numbers types as an - ugh! - career choice (as opposed to a genuine calling). Every single one of these filmmakers in the dreaded third category announces the same thing. They never waiver from it. They are presenting to the world their - double ugh! - calling card.

With Solo, Canadian director Isaac Cravit joins the club of voice-free directors when he declare (by virtue of his debut film):
"Look. I can use a dolly. Look. I can shoot coverage. Look. I am ready to direct series television drama and straight to V.O.D. and home video product for indiscriminating audiences looking to fill their worthless lives with content as opposed to something exceptional."
There's absolutely nothing new, surprising or exciting about this pallid genre effort save for its competence. Solo is blessed with some superb production value, to be sure. The locations are perfect, they're nicely shot by Stephen Chung and the combination of on-location sound and overall mixing and design seems much more exquisite and artful than the movie deserves. The cutting by Adam Locke-Norton, given the dullness of the coverage, manages to keep the proceedings moving at a nice clip. The score by Todor Kobakov is especially superb - rich, dense and one that enhances the film - again - much further beyond the movie's narrow scope. (There's one four note riff in the score that should have been excised by the filmmakers at a very early juncture, but save for that, it's a winner in all respects.)

The small cast is also superb. Thank God they're in the film since they're really one of the few things that do make the otherwise forgettable affair worth seeing.

The camera loves leading lady Annie Clark and she's clearly a fine actress - she makes the most of a hackneyed been-there-done-that babe-in-peril role. Two of Canada's finest character actors - Daniel Kash and Richard Clarkin are always worth looking at. They've got expressive, malleable mugs and like the best of the best, they rise well above the dull competence of the movie.

I especially enjoyed Stephen Love's performance and hope to see more of him - he's got very nice offbeat good looks, a sense of humour, a touch of malevolence and he frankly looks and feels like a young Canuck James Franco.

Is the movie well made? Hell yes! Is it anything special? Will you leave the theatre soaring? Will you even remember it two minutes after you see it? The answer to all those questions is a resounding "No."

Are we all supposed to rejoice and dance a jig just because someone got a movie made?

I'll let you answer that yourself.

"Solo" begins its limited theatrical run February 28 via Indie-Can at the Magic Lantern Carlton Cinema in Toronto. Daily showtimes at 2:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Q&A's with Directer Isaac Cravitt and Cast following the Friday and Sat 7:00 p.m. and Sunday 2:00 p.m. shows.

Here are direct links to purchase books about great Canadian low budget films and then, find a selection of direct links to a bunch of terrific low budget Canadian feature films that you can also purchase directly from this site.

A similar scene to the one experienced by Jim Jarmusch and others in New York during the 70s and 80s and captured in the documentary BLANK CITY as well as many other works in the "Forgotten Winnipeg" series was happening in Winnipeg. A very cool explosion in indie underground cinema that I and many colleagues and friends were involved with was spawned during these halcyon days. This period, coined by film critic Geoff Pevere as Prairie Post-Modernism included the works of John Paizs, Guy Maddin, Greg Hanec and many others.

A great selection of early Guy Maddin, many of which that I produced and were written by George Toles, can be secured directly through the following links:

Another great film from Winnipeg during this period is Greg Hanec's extraordinary DOWNTIME which has the distinction of being a parallel cinematic universe to Jim Jarmusch's "STRANGER THAN PARADISE". Both films were made at the same time in two completely different cities and scenes and both Hanec and Jarmusch premiered their films at the same time at the Berlin Film Festival. One's famous, the other isn't - but now that the "lost" and "found" DOWNTIME has been remastered from original elements to DVD, it can now be purchased directly online.

Order DOWNTIME directly from the film's new website by clicking HERE

Perhaps the greatest Canadian independent underground filmmaker of all-time is Winnipeg's John Paizs. It's virtually impossible to secure copies of his astounding work which, frankly, is responsible for influencing the work of Guy Maddin, David Lynch, Bruce McDonald and an endless number of great indie filmmakers the world over. Paizs' great short film SPRINGTIME IN GREENLAND is available for purchase in a beautiful remastered edition from a fan website, the inimitable Frank Norman. Norman has Paizs' blessing to provide copies of the film, so feel free to directly make your request to Mr. Norman by clicking HERE.

Visit Frank Norman's CRIME WAVE
fan site by clicking HERE

Alas, it's super-impossible to get a copy of Paizs' masterpiece CRIME WAVE (not to be confused with the super-awful Coen Bros/Sam Raimi film of the same name that was released the same year Paizs' film was NOT released properly by its scumbag Canadian distributor Norstar Releasing, which eventually became Alliance Films (where the boneheads sat on the film and turned down several excellent offers from small indie companies to release the film properly on DVD in super-deluxe special editions because they lazily purported to be negotiating a massive package deal on its catalogue titles with some tiny scumbag public domain company that, as far as I can tell, has neither purchased nor released the film). This truly great and highly influential film is, no doubt, languishing in some boneheaded distribution purgatory within the deep anal cavities of the new owner of Alliance Films, a humungous mega-corporation called E-One. Feel free to repeatedly bug their stinking asses and demand a proper release. In the meantime, VHS copies of CRIME WAVE can still be found with the ludicrous title THE BIG CRIME WAVE. Here's a copy available on Amazon:

BLANK CITY and other works in the "Forgotten Winnipeg" Series can be accessed here:

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

THE BLIND SIDE - Review By Greg Klymkiw - On the precipice of Sandra Bullock possibly winning another Oscar for an awful movie, perhaps the time is right to look at the awful movie that started it all.

"Look, a lot of rich White people, but mostly me, have been really, really
kind to you and I think you better start winning some games - not for
us, but for yourself. Well, and for me, too. Mostly for me, okay?
But mostly, TO BETTER YOURSELF!!!"

The Blind Side (2009) *½
dir. John Lee Hancock
Starring: Sandra Bullock, Tim McGraw, Quinton Aaron, Jae Head, Kathy Bates

Review By Greg Klymkiw

Watching people be nice to other people is, for the most part, pretty boring. It's simply and unequivocally not very interesting and as such, makes for poor drama. In fact, it pretty much makes for NO drama at all. As Frank Capra proved on so many occasions, the only time in the movies that seeing people be nice to other people had anything in the way of dramatic impact was when the feel-good cinematic epiphanies were preceded by pain, suffering and/or conflict of the most unbearable kind.

The Blind Side is pretty unbearable, too, but not because the movie drags us through hot coals to get to the nirvana of feel-good, but because it's just so unbearably... feel-good.

Based on the true story of rich White people who helped a poor Black boy become a football player,The Blind Side could have been unbearable on the same kind of political grounds that so many movies have been where rich White people are seen as the real heroes in the salvation of Black people from their "lowly" station. This, however, is the least of the movie's problems.

The picture's biggest failing is that a lot happens, but for most of the film's running time it feels like not much of ANYTHING has happened.

Real-life football legend Michael Oher (surname pronounced like "oar") is fictionally presented to us in his adolescence as a big, quiet, seemingly oafish, physically powerful and possibly retarded Black boy - kind of like Lenny from Of Mice and Men. His Momma is a crack addict, but luckily, a kindly neighbour from the wrong side of the Memphis tracks has not only provided him with a home, but is especially kind to him by taking the lad to a high-toned private Christian school to get an education and possibly a sports scholarship. The Coach at the school also proves to be very kind to Michael and fights the good fight with the school administration to let him be admitted as a student. Some of the teachers are not pleased with his lack of academic prowess, but sooner than you can say, "White people are the saviours of Black people", the Science teacher realizes how smart he is and becomes very kind to him. Soon, all the teachers are kind to him (with the exception of the nasty English teacher who thinks he is an illiterate moron).

Alas, Michael becomes homeless when the kindly fellow from the beginning of the movie is unable to extend further kindness since his offscreen wife (like in Diner where we hear, but don't see Steve Guttenberg's wife-to-be) wants this large homeless boy off their couch. Michael sleeps where he can, hand washes his clothes in a laundromat and dries them in dryers left spinning and unattended. Still, this is a minor setback since by this point, so many people have been kind to him, that it's merely a matter of running time before someone will be kind to him again.

In the school yard, for example, when Michael sees some cute little girls on the swings and tries to give them a push, they run away - thinking, perhaps, that he's Chester the Child Molester. Well, sooner than you can say, "White people say wise things to Black people they could never have thought of by themselves," in walks a horrendously cute little White boy (Jae Head) who is quick with the wisecracks and overflowing with precocity. "Try smiling," Whitey says to the hulking, dour Black boy. And Goldurn' all ta' hail, if'n dis' don't work wonders. Michael smiles and soon, this 200 pounds of brawn is happily pushing pubescent girlies on the swings. (Correct me if I'm wrong, but this CAN work for child molesters, mais non?)

At this point in the proceedings, things could be going a lot worse for our hero, but so far, people have been kind to him. Then one night, the rain comes down like cats and dogs. The White boy and his family drive by our drenched hero and the Mom (Sandra Bullock) is shocked that this boy is homeless. Quicker than you can say, "Rich White people are the only ones who can put roofs over the heads of homeless Black people," she lets him sleep in their suburban mini-mansion. At first, he sleeps on the couch, but when his girth threatens to collapse it, Mom kindly buys a bed and gives him his own room.

Mom takes a real shine to this silent oaf and proceeds, for most of the film's interminable running time, to be... you guessed it!... kind to him. Her kindness is overflowing. One scene after another follows where Mom is not only kind to him, but gets others to be kind to him to.

One of Mom's friends remarks, "You're really changing that boy's life." Mom stares off wistfully and says, "No, he's changing mine." How he's changing HER life is a tad beyond me. She's gorgeous, has a gorgeous husband, two gorgeous kids, a gorgeous mansion and a gorgeous wardrobe. Since she's been very kind to him already, one can only suspect that her life changes since she becomes even MORE kind to him. Eventually, everything this Black boy deserves is handed to him on a silver platter - thanks to the kindness of Mom and so many other kind White people.

But wait! Conflict is on the horizon! To get into college to play football, our hero needs a higher Grade Point Average.Well, you might be surprised to hear this, but Mom hires him a private tutor (Kathy Bates). Damn, this tutor is good! And most of all, she is so kind to him. Even more surprising is that his teachers are kind to him and give him the support he needs to get the grades he needs.

But, hark! Do I hear the sound of even more conflict a-rumbling?

You bet! Remember that mean English teacher? Well, he's still pretty mean and it looks like he might not give our boy the grade he needs.

Oops, false alarm! He's kind too. Those pesky English teachers may seem like old sticks in the mud, but deep down, they're very kind - especially when they're White and want to teach some hard academic lessons to Black people that other White people are afraid to teach.

During the last few minutes of the movie, there is one final bit of conflict when a mean Black lady puts some bad ideas into our hero's head about the rich White lady who is so kind to him and he goes back to the Projects where he meets some not-very-nice Black boys and things get a tiny bit too unpleasant for all concerned.

Thankfully, this does not last long. Kindness rules and all is well again.

Written (I use the term loosely here) and directed (so to speak) by John Lee Hancock, The Blind Side is a movie that has very little going for it - no drama, virtually no conflict or tension, a running time that feels at least forty five minutes too long, a vaguely foul odour of racial condescension and globs of un-earned feel-good.

If, however, there is a plus-side to this odious trough of pap, it's oddly displayed in the presence and performance of Sandra Bullock. She is someone I always found incredibly hard to take. Her earnest perkiness, a perpetually stupid grin plastered on that long, horsey face and a yippy-yappy voice that made me long for the incessant barking of a rabid chihuahua always inspired in me a considerable expulsion of bile.

These feelings eventually shifted from nut-sack squeezing to admiration and, I must shyly admit to a regained firmness of a key appendage at the very sight of her. Somewhere around the time of her appearance in Paul Haggis's heavy-handed, overrated glorified TV-movie Crash, Bullock blossomed into something far more palatable and genuinely appealing. Some age, some maturity, some well-placed heft on her frame have all contributed to the enhancement of her ability to woo the lens of the camera. She also invested her peformance in Crash and the flawed, but underrated Alejandro Agresti film The Lake House with the kind of chops I never realized she had. In the latter title, she actually moved me. And no, it wasn't a bowel movement. The girl made me cry. And Christ Almighty! I even found her sexy and funny in "The Proposal".

In The Blind Side, she commands the screen like a pitbull - ravaging the lens with the kind of intensity I wish the movie itself had. Her performance has Oscar-bait written all over it, but within that context, I'd have to say it's entirely deserved.

If her second Oscar win is for Gravity, it will be for an equally intolerable movie, but at least The Blind Side is moronically entertaining instead of the dull, dour and idiotically overrated sudsy space opera. The Blind Side works very hard to be as awful and stupid as it is.

Monday, 24 February 2014

TARAS BULBA (2009) - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Sub-Par Russian Version of classic Ukrainian tale of revolt is little more than a pallid made-for-tv-miniseries-styled slab of propaganda that might stir the loins of Putin-lovers-and-apologists, but it doesn’t come close to mining the stirring potential of Gogol's great story.

Taras Bulba (2009) **
dir. Wolodymyr Bortko
Starring: Bohdan Stupka, Ihor Petrenko, Vladimir Vdovichenkov, Magdalena Mielcarz, Sergei Dryden

Review By By Greg Klymkiw

In light of the recent events in Ukraine, it seems appropriate to turn our attention to one of the more egregious displays of cinematic propaganda I have seen in a long time. The charge of disinformation is, for once, not levelled against Hollywood, but Russia. This is not the Russia of the butcher Joseph Stalin, but that of contemporary Russia, a country rife with the sad, evil remnants of Stalin in the guise of its leader Vladimir Putin who, in his previous career was a nasty little KGB spy who specialized in rooting out those who opposed the supposed glories of Communism and prior to that, when he, as a teacher and academic, disgracefully used his position to carry out surveillance on students.

The film on view is Taras Bulba, a relatively recent and expensive (by Russian standards) screen adaptation of the legendary Ukrainian writer Nikolai Gogol’s great novella of the same name and a film that chooses to use Gogol’s pro-Russian version as its base rather than his original manuscript. Gogol bowed to the will of Czarist Russia and delivered a revised product more in keeping with the country’s own version of Manifest Destiny throughout Eastern Europe.

Propaganda in the cinema is nothing new. In fact, many knee-jerkers will look for any excuse to trash Hollywood for this very thing. Since its very beginnings, a common charge against Uncle Sam’s cinema has been the preponderance of propagandistic elements to extol the virtues of truth, glory and the capitalistic American way in terms of cultural/political superiority and to defend the country’s constant need to engage in warfare. One cannot disagree with this common assertion; however, America ALONE has not propagated the myths of their “superiority” using the most powerful medium of artistic expression – the cinema.

The most common example of this would be the vicious work of Nazi Germany’s Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels, who utilized cinema to spread anti-Semitism with The Eternal Jew, a foul “documentary” that goes so far as to trace and equate the spread of Judaism with that of rats and the spread of the Black Plague. Of course, no mention of Nazi propaganda would be complete without referring to the work of the brilliant Leni Riefenstahl – a truly great artist who delivered one of the most stunning, yet reviled works of the 20th century, her stirring document of the Nuremburg Rallies, The Triumph of the Will.

Strangely, the work of Russian propagandists has not seen the same kind of vitriolic bile heaped upon it and yet, Sergei Eisenstein, (surely as brilliant a filmmaker as Leni Riefenstahl) was happy enough to wear extremely comfortable knee-pads as he knelt before the dictatorial powers of Russia to continually afford him the opportunities to make movies. Eisenstein delivered one film after another that not only propagated the myth of Communism and the notion of Russian superiority, but eventually even extolled the virtues of an even bigger butcher than Hitler, Joseph Stalin. (For more on this, see my review of the Kino DVD release of Battleship Potemkin by visiting HERE.)

This new version of Taras Bulba received a substantial portion of its financing from the Russian Ministry of Culture and while it may bear the trademarks of typical old-Soviet-style propaganda, it is hardly a work that bears the hallmarks of superior filmmaking. At least Eisenstein, Riefenstahl and any number of American directors who generated similar propaganda (Steven Spielberg with Saving Private Ryan is a good example) are great artists who created landmarks of cinema that expanded the boundaries of the medium. The mediocre, though clearly competent television director Wolodymyr Bortko (who prefers the Russian transliteration “Vladimir” in spite of his Ukrainian heritage) serves up some sumptuous production value, elicits some fine performances and seasons his celluloid broth of borscht with all the clichés of epic cinema, but none of the depth one might find in the work of masters of the elephantine genre like David Lean. Bortko’s screenplay adaptation unimaginatively catalogues, almost by rote, the events of Gogol’s Russified version of the novella, but somehow manages to completely miss the spirit of the original writing.

Telling the classical tale of a Cossack Chief, Taras Bulba (majestically portrayed by the great Ukrainian actor Bohdan Stupka) who sends his beloved sons Andriy (Ihor Petrenko) and Ostap (Vladimir Vdovichenkov) to the Polish-ruled university in Ukraine’s capitol city Kyiv to not only get a well rounded education, but to acquaint them with the “enemy”. He eventually takes his sons to the legendary Cossack “Sich” (fortress) of Zaporozhia to train them in the skill of Cossack barbarism.

Bulba’s hatred for Poland flares even more intensely when he learns that his farm has been destroyed and his wife is murdered by the Poles. He manages to get the Cossack nation to march against Poland and soon the Ukrainians are wreaking havoc and decimating their Polish rulers. Things come to a head when Bulba and the Cossacks attack the Ukrainian city of Dubno which is under Polish rule. Unbeknownst to our title character, when Bulba’s most beloved son Andriy was at school in Kyiv, he fell in love with Elzhbeta (the eye-poppingly stunning Magdalena Mielcarz) a member of Polish royalty. As bad luck would have it, her father is now the governor of Dubno and Andriy realizes that he is laying siege to the city of his beloved. Love, it would seem, becomes the ultimate enemy as Andriy betrays his country and father to be with her.

It’s a great story! One of its biggest fans was Ernest Hemingway who proclaimed its genius whenever he could. Too bad, then, that this film version is so by-the-numbers. That said, even a mediocre rendering such as this one is no match for the power of Gogol’s literary prowess and for this we are dealt some tender mercies. Finally though, the movie is a bit of a slog – plodding along its way, but without any of the spark of the original writer. In fact, the tone of the movie is resolutely dour. This is no surprise since screenwriter-director Bortko has chosen to amplify the Russified version of the novella. Without that glorious spark of Gogol’s wonderful sense of boys’ adventure and his delightfully, deliciously and resolutely Ukrainian sense of humour (so beautifully captured in J. Lee Thompson's 1964 Hollywood version), the movie has all the spark of a funeral dirge.

By over-emphasizing the Russification of the original text what we have is a brutal glorification of Russian superiority. This grotesque mockery of a story that, in actuality is a rousing depiction of Ukraine’s never-ending fight for freedom from subjugation leaves us with a very foul taste in our mouths. We are handed one ultra-violent set piece after another – all in the service of boosting Russia’s own notion of might as right. By appropriating this very Ukrainian story by one of its great writers and turning it into grotesque Russian propaganda to try and suggest that the Cossacks and in turn, the Ukrainians, consider themselves little more than barbarians doing the bidding of those who would subjugate, exploit and even perpetrate genocide against them (as Stalin did) is thoroughly reprehensible.

Historically, even the occasional guarded loyalty the Zaporozhian Cossacks paid to the Russian Empire was betrayed by both Czar Peter I and Catherine the Great, the former forcing them to scatter or face death, the latter ordering a full-on genocide of the Zaporozhian Sich. None of this would have been lost on Gogol - especially with his first, but suppressed edition of the novel and even within the Russified version, this healthy distrust of the Empire boils just below the novel's surface.

Bortko’s mediocrity as a director reaches its nadir, however, in his lame handling of the fighting, action and battle scenes which is, in a word, dull. With fabulous locations, thousands of extras and impeccable production and costume design, he cannot direct action. His shooting style is cudgel-like, but it never has the thrilling and freewheeling quality the action needs. Bortko appears to have everything that money can buy – everything that is, except the genuinely distinctive artistic voice that would allow him to rise above his own mediocrity.

I do reiterate, though, that such propagandistic shenanigans would ultimately not be as problematic if this was actually a good movie, but it isn’t. Saddled with a clumsy flashback structure, a lazy use of prose narration from the novel and a dull television-mini-series mise-en-scene, Taras Bulba might stir the loins of Putin-lovers-and-apologists, but it doesn’t come close to mining the stirring potential of the story.

Let’s not forget that Gogol came from Cossack stock and that he was inspired by the very moving Ukrainian nationalist “dumy” (folk ballads) of the Cossacks themselves. Also, one of Hohol/Gogol’s chief literary inspirations was the great Scottish writer Sir Walter Scott and that “Taras Bulba” was conceived as a Ukrainian version of those swashbuckling tales of Scottish Highlanders battling their British oppressors/occupiers (especially notable in "Rob Roy"). A cool historical footnote is that Cossacks themselves might have had some roots in Scotland at a much earlier historical juncture. Another interesting correlation between Scott and Gogol is that both portrayed strong, sympathetic Jewish characters in their respective swashbucklers - Scott created Rebecca in "Ivanhoe" and Gogol gave us Yankel in "Taras Bulba". (The latter character seems to fit the fact that Catherine the Great effected a genocide upon the Ukrainian Cossacks whose administrative power was actually presided over by Ukrainian-Jews - all the record-keeping discovered in archeological digs at the Sich was found to be written in Hebrew.)

Not surprisingly, the best film version of Taras Bulba is the fabulous aforementioned J. Lee Thompson epic from Hollywood in the 1960s. It captures the derring-do, the humour and the stirring, romantic nationalism of the story by adhering the book’s Ukrainian roots as opposed to Bortko’s ill-conceived attempt to please Vladimir Putin. The American treatment of the character of Andriy, the son who betrays father and country is far closer, I think to the spirit of what Gogol intended. Ihor Petrenko’s portrayal of Andriy is so dull and serious. It especially lacks the boyish charm that Tony Curtis with his swarthy Hungarian-Jewish looks and magnificent sense of humour brought to the role.

The other idiotic attempt to Russify this story is how Bortko has commissioned a musical score so lacking in any spirit whatsoever. At least in the Hollywood version, legendary composer Franz Waxman based his entire score on traditional Ukrainian music and delivered a score that was cited by even Bernard Herrman as one of the great scores of all time. (For my full review of the Hollywood version, feel free to visit HERE.)

In fairness to Bortko, however, his screenplay, unlike the Hollywood version restores the odd symbiotic friendship from Gogol’s novella between Bulba and the Jewish money lender Yankel (yielding a stellar performance by Sergei Dryden) and, most importantly, he includes the whole aftermath involving the capture, torture and execution of Ostap at the hands of the Poles and Bulba’s revenge and final noble sacrifice. These are all stirring story beats and while I am grateful for their inclusion, I am less grateful that they are present almost solely to provide Russian propaganda.

This version of Taras Bulba no doubt has poor Gogol spinning in his grave. I’m sure he never would have imagined that so many generations later his work would be bastardized as a piece of propaganda for the country that even now seeks to consume his Motherland whole and tries continually to repress its spirit, culture, language and people.

Worse yet, that it should be a version that reeks of Made-for-TV miniseries mediocrity.


Sunday, 23 February 2014

TARAS BULBA (1962) - Review By Greg Klymkiw - In honour of the Ukrainian opposition and revolutionary forces' recent victory in Ukraine's fight for independence from Yanukovich, Putin and Russia, The Film Corner is proud to present Greg Klymkiw's review of J. Lee Thompson's magnificent 1962 epic film adaptation of Nikolai Gogol's great book "Taras Bulba" starring Yul Brynner and Tony Curtis.

Taras Bulba (1962) *****
dir. J. Lee Thompson
Starring: Yul Brynner, Tony Curtis

Review By Greg Klymkiw
“Do not put your faith in a Pole.
Put your faith in your sword and your sword in the Pole!”

Thus spake Taras Bulba – Cossack Chief!
(As played in 1962 by Yul Brynner, ‘natch!)
These days, there are so few truly momentous events for lovers of fine cinema and, frankly, even fewer such momentous events for those of the Ukrainian persuasion. However, film lovers and Ukrainians both have something to celebrate. Especially Ukrainians.

The recent events in Ukraine involving the revolution against Russia are indicative of the events celebrated in the Fox/MGM DVD release of J. Lee Thompson’s 1962 film adaptation of Nikolai Gogol’s Taras Bulba is (and will be), without question, as momentous an occasion in the lives of Ukrainians the world over as the execution of Saddam Hussein must have been to the entire Bush family of Texas.

As a pig-fat-eating Cossack-lover, I recall my own virgin helping (at the ripe age of four) of Taras Bulba with my family at the late lamented North Main Drive-Inn Theatre in the sleepy winter city of Winnipeg. Being situated in the ‘Peg’s North End (on the decidedly wrong side of the tracks), everyone of the Ukrainian persuasion was crammed into this drive-inn theatre when Taras Bulba unspooled there for the first time.

A veritable zabava-like atmosphere overtook this huge lot of gravel and speaker posts. (A zabava is a party where Ukrainians place a passionate emphasis on drinking, dining and dancing until they all puke.) Men wore their scalp locks proudly whilst women paraded their braided-hair saucily. Children brandished their plastic sabers pretending to butcher marauding Russians, Turks, Mongols and, of course, as per Gogol's great book, Poles.

Those adults of the superior sex wore baggy pants (held up proudly by the brightly coloured pois) and red boots whilst the weaker sex sported ornately patterned dresses and multi-coloured ribbons in their braided hair.

All were smartly adorned in embroidered white shirts.

Enormous chubs of kovbassa and kishka (all prepared with the finest fat, innards and blood of swine) along with Viking-hefty jugs of home-brew were passed around with wild abandon. Hunchbacked old Babas boiled cabbage-filled varenyky (perogies) over open fires and slopped them straight from the vats of scalding hot water into the slavering mouths of those who required a bit of roughage to go with their swine and rotgut. I fondly recall one of my aunties doling out huge loaves of dark rye bread with vats of salo (salted pig-fat and garlic) and studynets (jellied boiled head of pig with garlic) and pickled eggs for those who had already dined at home and required a mere appetizer.

One might say, it was a carnival-like atmosphere, or, if you will, a true Cossack-style chow-down and juice-up.

However, when the lights above the huge silver screen dimmed, the venerable North Main Drive-Inn Theatre transformed reverently into something resembling the hallowed Saint Vladimir and Olga Cathedral during a Stations of the Cross procession or a panachyda (deferential song/dirge/prayers for the dead) at Korban's Funeral Chapel.

Everyone sat quietly in their cars and glued their Ukrainian eyeballs to the screen as Franz Waxman’s exquisitely romantic and alternately boisterous musical score (rooted firmly in the tradition of Ukrainian folk music) thundered over the opening credits which were emblazoned upon a variety of Technicolor tapestries depicting stars Yul Brynner and Tony Curtis in the garb of Ukraine’s mighty warriors of the steppes.

This screening and the overwhelming feelings infused in those who were there could only be described as an epiphany. Like me (and ultimately, my kind), I can only assume there wasn’t a single Ukrainian alive who didn’t then seek each and every opportunity after their respective virgin screenings to partake – again and again and yet again – in the staggering and overwhelming cinematic splendour that is – and can only be – Taras Bulba.

All this having been said, barbaric garlic-sausage-eating Ukrainian heathen are not the only people who can enjoy this movie. Anyone – and I mean ANYONE – who loves a rousing, astoundingly entertaining, old-fashioned and action-packed costume epic will positively delight in this work of magnificence.

The source material for this terrific picture is the short novel Taras Bulba by Nikolai Gogol, a young Ukrainian writer of Cossack stock who is often considered the father of Russian fiction. He was a contemporary of Pushkin and the two of them were both friends and leaders of the Russian literary scene in St. Petersburg over 150 years ago. Prior to writing Taras Bulba, Gogol (this is the popular Russified version of his name which, in the original Ukrainian would actually be Hohol) dabbled in narrative poetry, held some teaching positions and worked in the Russian bureaucracy.

Gogol’s early fictional works were short satirical stories steeped in the rural roots of his Ukrainian Cossack background. Evenings On A Farm Near The Village of Dykanka (Vechera Na Khutore Blyz Dykanky) was full of magic and folklore in the rustic, yet somewhat mystical world of simple peasants and Cossacks. The material is, even today, refreshing – sardonically funny, yet oddly sentimental. It even made for an excellent cinematic adaptation in Alexander Rou’s early 60s feature made at the famed Gorky Studios and a recent Ukrainian television remake starring the gorgeous pop idol Ani Lorak. Gogol’s vivid characters, sense of humour and attention to realistic detail all added up to supreme suitability for the big screen.

Taras Bulba is no different. The material is made for motion pictures. Alas, several unsatisfying versions pre-dated this 1962 rendering. Luckily, this version is the one that counts thanks to the team of legendary producer Harold Hecht (Marty, The Crimson Pirate and Sweet Smell of Success in addition to being Burt Lancaster’s producing partner), stalwart crime and action director J. Lee Thompson (Cape Fear, The Guns of Navarone) and screenwriters Waldo Salt (who would go on to write Midnight Cowboy, Serpico and Coming Home) and the veteran Karl Tunberg (Ben-Hur, Down Argentine Way, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm and fifty or so other scripts).

This, then, was the dream team who were finally able to put Gogol’s Taras Bulba on the silver screen where it ultimately belongs.

For Gogol, Taras Bulba (in spite of the aforementioned literary qualities attributable to his rural stories) took a decidedly different turn than anything that preceded it or followed it in his career as a writer. Bulba sprang, not only from Gogol’s Cossack roots and familiarity with the dumy (songs and ballads of the Cossacks), but interestingly enough, he was greatly inspired by the great Scottish author Sir Walter Scott, of whom he was a big fan.

This, of course, makes perfect sense since Scott’s swashbuckling adventures often dealt with Scottish pride and history at odds with the ruling powers of England. And so too with Taras Bulba.

The film (while deviating slightly from the book) maintains much of the structure, characters and spirit of Gogol’s work. It tells the story of Cossack chieftain Taras Bulba (Yul Brynner) and his desire to make Ukraine free from the oppression of the ruling nation of Poland. Though the Poles subjugate Ukraine, the Cossacks are willing (for a price and booty) to fight alongside the Poles against Turkish invaders. In addition to the pecuniary rewards, the Cossacks also get to use the Poles to help fight one of their enemies. When it comes to paying allegiance to the Poles, Taras steadfastly refuses to do this and, after committing a violent act against one of the Polish generals, the Cossacks all scatter into the hills to regroup and prepare for a time when they can go to war again – but this time, against the Poles.

Secured in their respective mountain hideaways, the Cossacks bide their time. Taras raises two fine and strapping young sons, Andrei (Tony Curtis) and Ostap (Perry Lopez). He sends his boys to Kyiv (the Russified spelling is “Kiev”) to study at the Polish Academy. The Poles wish to tame the Ukrainians, so they offer to educate them. Taras, on the other hand, orders his sons that they must study in order to learn everything they can about the Poles so that someday they can join him in battle against the Poles. At the Polish Academy, the young men learn that Poles are vicious racists who despise Ukrainians and on numerous occasions, both of them are whipped and beaten mercilessly – especially Andrei (because the Dean of the Academy believes Andrei has the greatest possibility of turning Polish and shedding his “barbaric” Ukrainian ways). A hint of Andrei’s turncoat-potential comes when he falls madly in love with Natalia (Christine Kaufmann) a Polish Nobleman’s daughter. When the Poles find out that Andrei has deflowered Natalia, they attempt to castrate him. Luckily, Andrei and Ostap hightail it back to the mountains in time to avoid this unfortunate extrication.

Even more miraculously, the Cossacks have been asked by the Poles to join them in a Holy War against the infidel in the Middle East. Taras has other plans. He joins all the Cossacks together and they march against the Poles rather than with them. The battle comes to a head when the Cossacks have surrounded the Poles in the walled city of Dubno. Taras gets the evil idea to simply let the Poles starve to death rather than charge the city. Soon, Dubno is wracked with starvation, cannibalism and the plague. Andrei, fearing for his Polish lover Natalia secretly enters the city and is soon faced with a very tragic decision – join the Poles against the Cossacks or go back to his father and let Natalia die.

Thanks to a great script and superb direction, this movie really barrels along head first. The battle sequences are stunningly directed and it’s truly amazing to see fully costumed armies comprised of hundreds and even thousands of extras (rather than today’s CGI armies). The romance is suitably syrupy – accompanied by Vaseline smeared iris shots and the humour as robust and full-bodied as one would expect from a movie about Cossacks. Franz Waxman’s score is absolutely out of this world, especially the “Ride to Dubno” (AKA “Ride of the Cossacks”) theme. The music carries the movie with incredible force and power – so much so that even cinema composing God Bernard Herrmann jealously proclaimed it as “the score of a lifetime”.

The movie’s two central performances are outstanding. Though Jack Palance (an actual Ukrainian from Cossack stock) turned the role down, he was replaced with Yul Brynner who, with his Siberian looks and Slavic-Asian countenance seems now to be the only actor who could have played Taras Bulba. Tony Curtis also makes for a fine figure of a Cossack. This strapping leading man of Hungarian-Jewish stock attacks the role with the kind of boyish vigour that one also cannot imagine anyone else playing Andrei (though at one point, Burt Lancaster had considered taking the role for himself since it was his company through Hecht that developed the property). The supporting roles are played by stalwart character actors like Sam Wanamaker as the one Cossack who gives Bulba some grief about fighting the Poles and George MacCready as the evil Polish rival of the Cossacks. Perry Lopez as Ostap is so obviously Latin that he seems a bit uncomfortable in the role of Ostap and Christine Kaufmann as Natalia is not much of an actress, but she’s so stunningly gorgeous that one can see why Curtis cheated on Janet Leigh and had a torrid open affair with Kaufmann during the shoot.

Taras Bulba is one stirring epic adventure picture. And yes, one wishes it took the darker paths that the original book ventured down, but it still manages to have a dollop of tragedy wending its way through this tale of warring fathers and their disobedient sons. And yes, as a Ukrainian, I do wish all the great Cossack songs had NOT been translated into English – especially since Yul Brynner would have been more than up to singing them in the original language. But these are minor quibbles. It’s a first rate, old-fashioned studio epic – big, sprawling, brawling and beautiful.

It’s definitely the cinematic equivalent of one fine coil of garlic sausage. So rip off a chub or two and slurp back the glory of Ukraine.

Taras Bulba is available on Blu-Ray from Kino Lorber.

Saturday, 22 February 2014

JULES AND JIM - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Truffaut travels to the sexy, sad, magical and melancholy world of the ménage à trois on Criterion Blu-Ray

Jules and Jim (1962) *****
Dir. Francois Truffaut
Starring: Jeanne Moreau, Oskar Werner, Henri Serre

Review By Greg Klymkiw

Though there are many iconic images and sequences one equates with Francois Truffaut's legendary film adaptation of the novel by Henri-Pierre Roché, its centrepiece for me, its heart, if you will, is a stunning montage of actual footage from World War I which, occurs in the middle portion of the film.

This evocative encapsulation of the Great War literally and figuratively separates the boys from the men, especially after experiencing a fun, funny, romantic and joyously freewheeling romp through turn of the century Paris with two best friends and the woman they both love.

Then, however, to be faced with the stark, grim realities of savagery among men is not only profoundly moving in and of itself, but reveals a terrible truth that faces the film's central characters and I suspect, as Truffaut hoped, faces all of us.

We witness and indeed experience the disintegration of that which was carefree and celebratory as it transforms into a world of war and death, then further gives way to the reality of post-war aimlessness, restlessness and complacency - perhaps to numb the horrors of war, but to also delineate a void that always existed, but could never be fully recognized until the sense of security youth brings is torn to shreds by facing the grim reality of how cruel life can be and most of all, how we can be little more than pawns on some much larger chessboard manipulated by forces well beyond our control.

Jules and Jim IS a lot of fun, though. We get to experience the "bro-mance" of the good pals (Oskar Werner as the German expat and Henri Serre as a de souche Parisian) whilst they discuss literature, indulge in gentlemanly arts like fencing and, of course, whiling away endless hours and days in outdoor bistros, sipping wine and/or coffee as the hustle and bustle of the world passes them by. And then, there is the ravishing Catherine (Jeanne Moreau) who steps into their lives and the love and friendship, rather than becoming complicated, explodes into pure joy. It's true that Jules and Catherine are lovers and that Jim carries a torch for her, but it's all very civilized as the trio simply enjoy each others' company and spend their days constantly having fun.

Buoyed along by Raoul Coutard's stunning black and white photography and the lush styling of composer Georges Delerue's sumptuously romantic musical score, Truffaut treats us to a 25-year-history of these three people with one dazzling set piece after another including the famous race-across-the-bridge scene which is as pure a cinematic rendering of love and friendship as the movies have given us.

Perhaps a jealousy factor would have eventually crept in, but the idyll of friendship is kept pristine and any conflicts of the heart are cut short by a much greater conflict when France and Germany and, eventually, the whole world goes to war.

The second half of the tale is where we delve into the maturation of the characters, but also experience the lingering effects of separation and war. Truffaut knows enough to keep the romantic fires burning, but he also infuses the tale with a melancholy that is finally what gives the film its heft. His use of the war montage is especially brilliant. He cherry picks actual news and stock footage of the conflict and rather than including any shots of Jules and Jim at all, he wisely and bravely continues with a very literary narration that explains that the characters are on opposing sides of the conflict.

In fact, throughout the film, Truffaut is not afraid to make use of what appears to be third-person descriptive passages as voice-over from Roché's book and he goes further by constantly dropping in establishing shots of both setting and time that are comprised of grainy stock footage. This not only roots the film in a time and place clearly mediated through both memory and cinema, but in so doing, takes the film into the kind of territory that expands its boundaries in all the ways that make the medium so special.

Anchoring a romantic tale by using news footage and narration places the narrative into the context of a kind of Pathé-like newsreel depicting a history of friendship and love against the much larger backdrop of Europe and the eventual conflict that tears it apart. And once again, this is an example of how simplicity is what yields the complexity needed to render a work universal. Truffaut achieves this both stylistically, but also by the passion and commitment he brings to the reality of how great friendships are often founded on common ground and that oftentimes are manifested in the same people being romantically and spiritually attracted to each other in a world where society allows one love and one love only. Truffaut tells a tale so ahead of its time that even now, the world is not quite in a place for the love as depicted here is acceptable to the normally accepted mores of romance.

Thank God, the movies let it happen.

This, of course, is what cinema should be and we can be grateful when artists like Truffaut deliver work that is both entertainment and art of the highest level - work that lives well beyond the ephemeral needs of the marketplace and continues to delight, tantalize and influence. The film is now over 50 years old and yet it feels like it was made just yesterday. Jules and Jim will live for many more decades beyond that which it's already existed.

We owe Truffaut a debt of gratitude for that.

"Jules and Jim" is available on a lovely dual format Criterion Collection package of both DVD and Blu-Ray. Included are such bond bons de added value features as a new, restored 2K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack, two - COUNT ' EM - TWO commentary tracks: one featuring coscreenwriter Jean Gruault, longtime Truffaut collaborator Suzanne Schiffman, editor Claudine Bouché, and film scholar Annette Insdorf; the other featuring actor Jeanne Moreau and Truffaut biographer Serge Toubiana, excerpts from The Key to “Jules and Jim” (1985), a documentary about author Henri-Pierre Roché and the real-life relationships that inspired the novel and film, interviews with Gruault and cinematographer Raoul Coutard, a conversation between film scholars Robert Stam and Dudley Andrew, an excerpt from a 1965 episode of the French TV program Cinéastes de notre temps dedicated to Truffaut, a segment from a 1969 episode of the French TV show L’invité du dimanche featuring Truffaut, Moreau, and filmmaker Jean Renoir, excerpts from Truffaut’s first appearance on American television, a 1977 interview with New York Film Festival director Richard Roud, excerpts from a 1979 American Film Institute seminar given by Truffaut, a 1980 audio interview with Truffaut, the trailer and a first-rate booklet that includes an excellent essay by John Powers, a 1981 piece by Truffaut on Roché and script notes from Truffaut to co-screenwriter Gruault. This Criterion Collection collector's edition is an ABSOLUTE MUST-OWN item for anyone who genuinely loves cinema.

Thursday, 20 February 2014

MONEY FOR NOTHING: INSIDE THE FEDERAL RESERVE - Review By Greg Klymkiw - What does the Fed do, again?

The guy to the left is Alan Greenspan.
I've heard of him, but have no idea who he is
or what he does. I still don't, but he's in this
movie quite a bit, so he must be important.
He appears to know a lot about money which,
I know nothing about and as such, was hoping
I'd learn more about by watching this movie.
Oh, and I have absolutely no fucking idea
who that fat lady on the right is.
Money For Nothing: Inside The Federal Reserve (2013) **½
Dir. Jim Bruce

Review By Greg Klymkiw

I love watching movies about high finance, banks, the stock market and other money-related issues because, frankly, I really don't know anything about them beyond the fact that they all exist and in one way or another affect me. My favourite documentaries, like Chasing Madoff, Inside Job and Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room somehow manage to make most of the messy maze clear to me because they basically place an accent on the more disreputable and downright criminal activities and finally, prove all I really need to know which is this: anyone who really gets this stuff has got to be a scumbag since they're really the only ones who gain from this knowledge. Then, there's Michael Moore's Capitalism: A Love Story or Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott's The Corporation which not only provide basic understanding of financing and corporate scumbaggery, but do so in especially delightful and entertainingly inflammatory ways.

As for dramas, I'm pretty happy to cite The Wolf of Wall Street and just leave it at that.

I was really looking forward to seeing Money For Nothing: Inside The Federal Reserve because, though I've heard about the Federal Reserve or, "The Fed" as it's commonly referred to, I will admit to having no fucking idea what it really was until I saw this movie.

For its first half, the movie is purty durn' tootin' innerestin' since it clearly explains what the Federal Reserve actually is (and by extension and osmosis, it explained a bit closer to home what the Bank of Canada is - again, I keep hearing about it, but never bothered to figure out what it was). The Fed is the entity that prints America's money, ties it to precious metals and provides the gold standard, as it were, for the rest of the world to value its currency upon.

Good. Now I know.

The movie also delivers some reasonably helpful information about the actual history of contemporary currency and the Fed's place in all that. This too, I found extremely interesting and engaging.

Unfortunately, as the movie progresses and starts to chart more recent historical events and delves into the minutiae of economics, I must confess I started to get completely lost and this, sadly, is where the movie kind of falls flat on its face. The pacing begins to lag considerably and I felt that I was just trudging through the last half of the film - not really getting much of anything. Basically, I really had no idea what in the hell was going on and the movie did nothing to clear that up for this fella.

If the goal was to eventually take something that, to a complete and utter financial know-nothing seemed very clear and simple, and to then boggle me with so many details and permutations that virtually nothing made sense, then director Jim Bruce did a crackerjack job.

That, I don't think was the intent, though and what we're finally left with is a simple, solid and engaging 40-or-so minutes and then a thoroughly confusing and, frankly, rather dull final 40-minutes-or-so.

About the best I was able to take away from the whole affair was something I already knew: anyone who really understands this stuff has surely got to be amongst the biggest scumbags on the face of the earth.

"Money For Nothing: Inside the Federal Reserve" is in limited theatrical release via Kinosmith and begins its life at Toronto's Bloor Hot Docs Cinema.

Saturday, 15 February 2014

PUSSY RIOT: A PUNK PRAYER - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Important Documentary details protests against Russia and Vladimir Putin's blending of patriarchal Eastern Rite religious Dogma with the heinous strategies of Joseph Stalin.

The Threat to Putin
Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer (2013) ****
Dir: Mike Lerner, Maxim Pozdorovkin
Nadezhda (Nadia) Tolokonnikova
Yekaterina (Katia) Samutsevich
Maria (Masha) Alyokhina

Review By Greg Klymkiw

On the day Vladimir Putin, the most vile Russian totalitarian leader since Joseph Stalin was allowed to control the country by "appointment", not election, a clutch of intelligent young women immediately formed the Pussy Riot protest movement.

Not unlike the Stalinist show trials of 1937, Nadezhda (Nadia) Tolokonnikova, Yekaterina (Katia) Samutsevich and Maria (Masha) Alyokhina, three members of the Pussy Riot collective were charged with the criminal act of hooliganism, forced to endure months of incarceration between public legal proceedings, tried in what amounted to little more than a kangaroo court and sentenced to hard labour in Siberia. As the world is well aware, their "crime" involved storming the historic Christ the Saviour Cathedral, taking to the altar (where women are not allowed to go, apparently on God's orders) and singing a few bars of their anti-Putin song for about 30 seconds before being dragged away by burly security goons into the shackles of the Moscow police.

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Modern Russia!

Unlike Stalin's show trials, Putin's war against women and free speech, completely backfired. Like all sexist, misogynistic Russian patriarchs, Putin and his thugs assumed these young ladies would fold under pressure and display simpering, submissive remorse for their "crimes" and beg for the court's mercy. Instead, the members of Pussy Riot remained defiant, committed and intelligent beyond their years and certainly far more progressive than their brain-dead captors.

Mike Lerner and Maxim Pozdorovkin's fine documentary feature film Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer wastes no time in presenting a stirring portrait of the trial that captured the world's imagination. The picture lays out the political context, the act of defiance itself and the ludicrous legal proceedings wherein the three young women so passionately and intelligently condemn the Totalitarian regime that, in the name of God (and Putin), seeks to keep its populace under the thumb of subjugation by blending the Czarist-style coalition between Church and State with the Terror Tactics of Joseph Stalin's Communist Dictatorship. Utilizing actual trial footage, news reports, archival materials and new interviews, the filmmakers give us a stirring and expertly edited portrait of these women as individuals and though their journey is harrowing, it equally inspirational in spite of the film ending with their final conviction and sentencing.

Though Putin attempted to save face in December by releasing the women from prison, it was clearly a cynical move meant to deflect attention away from his horrendous new laws that seek to discriminate and criminalize homosexuality - this on the eve of the Sochi Olympics. The frustration one feels watching the film is palpable. Putin and his lawmakers are clearly condemning the Stalinist destruction of religion, yet equating the attempts at free speech employed by Pussy Riot with the heinous actions of a Totalitarian Butcher. Anyone familiar with Orthodox Eastern Rite traditions (which - full disclosure - I was brought up with) realizes how backwards and patriarchal the religion actually is. The very nature of organized religions is to subjugate and the Slavic Orthodox traditions are there as a control mechanism. That Putin, a former Communist KGB thug is all of a sudden so concerned with religious freedoms he once repressed seems just so obvious and disingenuous.

To vilify and criminalize the actions of these young women is appalling and there's no doubt the film, though slanted in their favour, is choosing the proper high ground in this controversy. That Putin is using religion to further the subjugation of the Slavic people - not only in Russia, but in Ukraine and other countries - makes perfect sense, but it doesn't make it right. The film might well be detailing the plight of artists and free-thinkers in Russia under this dictatorship, but the film stands as an important testament to how this tactic is being employed right across the board - not just in the East, but the West as well.

The women of Pussy Riot are, frankly, heroes. My own daughter - NOT in Russia, but in a publicly funded school in Canada - was subjected to the most horrendous patriarchal abuse at the hands of Eastern Rite religion. Singled out by a teacher as a sinner, this sweet, bright (then ten-year-old) girl who "dared" to ask questions in an educational institution was ordered to kneel in the centre of the classroom while the rest of the students encircled her and prayed for her soul - to keep her from going to Hell.

(Note: Another example of this idiocy perpetrated against her in a Toronto school is detailed in Alan Zweig's brilliant documentary 15 Reasons To Live, released by Kinosmith.)

What's happening in Russia can and does happen everywhere. Religion is an opiate, but it's becoming, more and more, a weapon. Pussy Riot is a symbol of all women - and men - who refuse to kowtow to the Status Quo, especially in the spurious name of God. Pozdorovkin and Lerner's film is just the sort of weapon free-thinkers will need to battle the scourge attempting to drown all of us.

Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer should be required viewing in ALL schools for all young people - as both inspiration and a springboard for greater dialogue as to fighting the forces that want us all to be cogs in a machine - slaves to the power brokers who seek ever more wealth and power.

"Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer" is currently in theatrical release via Kinosmith. It's begun its run at the Bloor Hot Docs Theatre in Toronto and will roll out across the rest of Canada.