Friday, April 17, 2009


Nikita Mikhalkov, 2007, Russia

Three negative reviews in a row? Sorry. No, actually, this movie is good, just very much less good than I had hoped.

Saw this at the Loft tonight as it was this month's member screening, so we were treated to a few details about the film before it started. One thing that was said was that director Nikita Mikhalkov is touted as the "Russian Steven Spielberg" which can be seen as both compliment and insult. Regardless of how you interpret the comparison, I think it offers as good an analogy as any to frame your expectations.

As was said at the Loft, being a popular, accessible film director does not preclude you from being talented and artistic, and I think that's a fair thing to remember when considering either director, Spielberg or Mikhalkov. However, much like Spielberg, Mikhalkov ultimately hung on to too much sentimentality to the detriment of this film.

The story is a loose reimagining of 12 Angry Men, which means nothing to me because *gasp* I have yet to see the alleged classic. Basically a locked jury argues for many hours over the innocence or guilt of a young man. It's straight drama with emphasis on character. Successful comic relief abounds.

The best parts of this film are the flashbacks detailing the life of the accused murderer, a boy whose life has been torn apart by the Chechnyan-Russian conflict in the Caucasus. The main body of the film - the 12 sometimes-angry men arguing in a school gymnasium - pales in comparison to these segments.

I suppose it is emblematic of Russian story-telling to group 12 strangers together and give each of them a sob story that they trot out one by one. Personally I found the process a bit tiring. At length we are made to stare at the faces of each actor while he relates the tale of his life, and each time this story fits neatly into the jurors' interpretation of the crime. By the end it all feels a little too neat and constructed for my tastes, and after a time it gets boring to just stare at a man's face while he describes events that are far more interesting than the face telling it.

Yes, there is something to be said for the acting talents on display, but if I am to watch a series of dramatic monologues, I would rather share that experience with actors on a live stage. Again, I'm only speaking for myself.

All in all we are left with something that is well-constructed, well-acted and well-shot, but also a little too slow, heavy-handed, and unnaturally over-constructed. A good film, but not a great one. I can still recommend this movie if what I have described here sounds like your cup of tea, but I could take or leave it myself.

UPDATE! (4/19): Local Roller Derby Superstar, Peaches Rodriguez, saw this the same night I did and she hates it. Hates it. So there's another gauge for you.