Another dismal January February 1, 2009Posted by badblokebob in : Editorials, 2008, progress reports, 2009 , add a comment
It seems like barely a couple of months since I was posting about a dismal January; but, of course, it was a year ago (today!) — and I’ve just had another equally mediocre month.
Stuck with a huge pile of leftover reviews from 2008, I’ve yet to even post a 2009 one — in fact, there’s still a 2008 one to go! I’m not very happy with many of these final ‘08 pieces, mainly because they’re all a bit rushed. I guess that’s part of why I have a blog rather than being published or somesuch…
Plus, having such a backlog to review always puts me off watching anything new, which is why I rush through the reviews, but it still means my total has only reached five — exactly the same as this point last year. Damn it. At least there’s another 47 & a half weeks to turn things around…
Musical review January 24, 2009Posted by badblokebob in : Editorials, Musical, 2008 , add a comment
and 2003’s Best Picture Oscar winner, Chicago.
2008 In Retrospect December 31, 2008Posted by badblokebob in : Editorials, 5 stars, 2008, Specials, year-end summaries , 2 comments
And so 2008 is finally at an end (really this time). It’s always odd, looking back, and seeing just how long ago January was… and yet, at the same time, how close it feels.
The films I’ve watched, numbered as they are, provide an especially concrete example of this. Take this pair: Dark City was just the second film I watched in 2008, but it feels barely months since I first saw it. Atonement, on the other hand, was only the seventh film — barely a month after Dark City — but it feels like years ago. But that’s Time for you: entirely relative.
This is why, as I go through the year watching my new films, I keep a pair of lists. The first, and longest, is the ’short’ list for my Best Films Of 2008 — being the best films I’ve seen (for the first time) in the year past, not the best films released (for the first time) in that year. The second, mercifully shorter, is the short list for my Worst Films Of 2008 — again, ones I’ve seen. These lists are handy in making sure I don’t forget anything… and meaning I don’t have to trawl through all 100 again!
…is quite simple: first up, my five Worst Films, in no particular order; then, my ten Best Films, in a lovely countdown. Each of the latter is accompanied by a further recommendation from this year’s viewing. These aren’t numbers 11 to 20 on my list, but instead films I’ve seen this year that are in some way similar to the one they’re attached to.
With that all over-explained, here goes:
The Baskerville Curse
This was only the second single-star review I’ve doled out in two years and 254 reviews (including the shorts). I maintain it’s an overrated Holmes tale, but it can be adapted well — I like the 1939 version more than my review suggests, and also the BBC’s 2002 effort. This needlessly renamed version wastes its short running time on the story’s less important elements (train journeys! letter writing!), depicted through low-quality animation with no atmosphere. Disappointing.
A slow, predictable plot and ludicrous final message scupper this effort, which is a shame because it’s the sort of allegorical sci-fi tale that’s probably ripe for a good retelling.
Lazy in every respect (so it can make do with this lazy comment).
Last year I picked one film for this list that, as well as being weak in itself, stood for all the year’s disappointments. While there weren’t so many this year, this was undoubtedly one. I haven’t seen Donnie Darko for a few years so I don’t know if I’ve grown out of it (some seem to have), but it was a great experience when I first saw it in the cinema and I’ve eagerly awaited Kelly’s follow-up ever since. That he turned in such a confused mess was truly disappointing. Hopefully his next effort will be better.
Cube²: Hypercube and Cube Zero
A slight cheat, I know, but together they took an excellent, original, stand-alone sci-fi film and tried to turn it into yet another horror franchise. One might live with that if they were decent pieces of work, but both are risible, missing all the points that made the first so great. An exceptionally good example of why wholly unnecessary sequels are wholly bad.
As this year ends Danny Boyle is garnering much praise and Oscar buzz for his new flick, but this SF effort is possibly my favourite of his films to date. Yes, it completely loses it in the final stretch — and it’s that ending that held off a fifth star from me, and I think generally damaged its critical standing too — but to that point it’s an exciting yet believable (enough, anyway) space-faring drama.
See also: The Fountain, a more metaphysical space mission as just one part of a no-doubt-meaningful century-spanning narrative.
There’s never been hype quite like Cloverfield’s, and I was surprised as anyone when it actually paid off. Probably a pain on the big screen, it really suits your TV. It’s not the scariest horror ever (its PG-13 rating surely put paid to that) and it’s a bit slow to get going (especially if you’re any older than the protagonists, it seems), but once it does it holds impressively faithful to its high-concept camcorder style and uses it to good effect on several occasions.
See also: Russian Ark, for a whole film shot in a real single take.
8) Hellboy II: The Golden Army
I enjoyed the original Hellboy, but here del Toro perfects the formula. It’s no small feat to balance character drama (where two of the main characters are a giant red demon and a fish-man) with humour (genuinely funny humour at that), spellbinding production design, and thrilling action sequences, but del Toro does it with ease. Pan’s Labyrinth may have captured more critics, but personally I’d rather enjoy this one again. Fingers crossed that a third entry can overcome all the odds, so stacked against it, and grace our screens one day.
See also: Transformers, a surprisingly entertaining blockbuster (narrowly missing out on a place here).
Notorious was one of those semi-accidental discoveries for me — “there’s a Hitchcock on I’ve not seen? Let’s give it a go.” Packed with incident, and with an unforgettable crane shot, it was certainly worth it. (Hitchcock fans may want to keep an eye on the blog in 2009 — I’ve acquired almost all his films on DVD recently and may get stuck into them soon.)
See also: Rebecca, another excellent Hitchcock-directed romantic mystery.
A bit of fluff with an incredibly catchy closing number that always turns up on the Royal Variety Performance and the like? Yes — but also so much more. The toe-tapping tunes (there’s a cliche I never thought I’d use) and lovable characters make it an above-average feel-good flick, but it’s the surprising presence and assured handling of A Serious Issue that notch it up to such heights.
See also: Mamma Mia!, if you like your musicals feel-good and familiar.
My first encounter with Akira Kurosawa was undoubtedly belated, but certainly worth the wait. Rashomon is a seminal work, its title now a byword for multiple-perspective narratives, and the reputation this affords it is certainly deserved. Modern films may attempt to trade off this style, but are often nothing of the sort (Vantage Point, I’m looking at you) — Rashomon is the one true version.
See also: Throne of Blood, another brilliant Kurosawa adaptation, this time of my favourite Shakespeare.
Dubbing this “the British Princess Bride” rather undersells it. Stardust is a truly magical film, packed with wit, action, delicious villains, a star-packed cast, a stirring score, genuinely special effects, British locations that look as stunning as anything New Zealand had to offer, and — of course — more. The odd duff note (Ricky Gervais, I’m looking at you) can’t detract from the pure fun on offer.
See also: Enchanted, a beautifully executed riff on a similar fantastical genre.
3) Dark City
It was a close call which film landed third and which second, and on another day it might’ve been the other way round, but Alex Proyas’ dark sci-fi was narrowly pipped at the post. It’s all but forgotten, which is a shame because it does what it does amazingly — including much of what the Matrix sequels had to offer, only five years earlier and in a way that makes sense. To say too much would be to ruin it, and I definitely don’t want to do that. A long-awaited director’s cut was finally released on DVD this year — reportedly now the only decent way to watch the film, it will surely find a place on next year’s list.
See also: Cube Zero, pretty dreadful but with a similar(ish) retro-industrial-SF production design.
David Fincher is a wonderful director, currently adding another string to his bow with the highly praised Curious Case of Benjamin Button (see #10 on this list for a similar situation). For me, Zodiac is possibly his best film yet, a thoroughly atypical serial-killer thriller that sticks to the facts over a lengthy running time, yet manages to hold your attention too. Again, the (only marginally longer) DVD-released director’s cut is likely to find a place on the 2009 list.
See also: L.A. Confidential, more period-set investigation of brutal crimes thick with conspiracy.
1) The Dark Knight
No surprises here. I’m unashamedly one of those who believe The Dark Knight isn’t just one of the best films of 2008, it’s one of the best films ever. There’s little else to say that hasn’t already been said — especially as I’ve already reviewed it twice.
See also: Iron Man, this year’s other billionaire-in-a-suit superhero, with less plot but more laughs.
I can’t end this without mentioning the 16 films that earned themselves 5-star ratings this year. Seven of them made it into the top ten (much better than last year, I think). Those were: Dark City, The Dark Knight, Hairspray, Notorious, Rashomon, Stardust, and Zodiac. Last year I commented that I’d since rethought some of the 5s I’d handed out; not so this year, and most of the following came very close to making the top ten: Atonement, Cathy Come Home, Double Indemnity, The Green Mile, L.A. Confidential, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, Rebecca, and Throne of Blood.
There was also a 5 for Leon: Version Integrale. I”ve singled it out because it’s one of my favourite films ever, and I felt this cut was different enough from the original version to number it individually… but not different enough to include in my Top 10. Here’s a whole honourary paragraph instead.
Additionally, two shorts scored full marks for the first time this year: Pixar’s Presto, which preceded WALL-E on the big screen and can now be found on that film’s DVD; and Aardman’s Wallace and Gromit in A Matter of Loaf and Death, a Christmas treat that will be getting its own DVD release. There were also 5-star re-watch reviews for Bond re-boot Casino Royale and inadvertent franchise-starter Cube. And finally, the ubiquitous Dark Knight earned itself a second full set of stars thanks to its stunning IMAX version.
As has been noted, this isn’t a Top 10 of 2008 in the traditional sense (at all), but new films do feature, and with that in mind there were a number of notable releases this year that I’ve yet to see.
So, after the intense interest of doing this last year, here’s an alphabetical list of 50 films listed as 2008 on IMDb that I’ve missed. These have been chosen for a variety of reasons, from box office success to critical acclaim, from fame to infamy. (Most of the alphabet’s covered too, but, frustratingly, not quite all of it.)
The Bank Job
Body of Lies
Burn After Reading
Che Parts One & Two
The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Day the Earth Stood Still
The Edge of Love
High School Musical 3: Senior Year
How to Lose Friends and Alienate People
Journey to the Center of the Earth 3D
Kung Fu Panda
Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa
Man on Wire
The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor
The Other Boleyn Girl
Sex and the City
Star Wars: The Clone Wars
Waltz With Bashir
The X-Files: I Want to Believe
Zack and Miri Make a Porno
I didn’t think I was going to make it to 100 films this year (as I may have mentioned), but it shows what a little determination — in the final stages at least — can do for you. Better luck next year, perhaps.
Maybe I’ll be able to pack in a few more unseen classics too — looking back over this year’s films to choose my top ten, many seemed almost like total-boosting placeholders. That’s not quite the truth of the matter, but it may have skewed the top ten a little (”no WALL-E?” some may ask, for just one oddity).
Still, what’s done is done. Now, to catch up on the reviews left hanging from ‘08 (eleven!), and then it’s on to ‘09…Editorials, 2008, progress reports, statistics, year-end summaries , add a comment
And so the end is here, and here is the end — part one. I’ve flipped the final two entries this year, so my top ten (and bottom five) will be here in a day or two, but before that…
Although there’s now a full list of reviews (with handy links to every one), I’m still posting this list of all I saw in 2008 because, while it may not be as useful as a complete reviews archive, it still shows what I watched this year.
This year hasn’t been quite as successful as last, at least in terms of film viewing. As the year neared its end I didn’t think I’d make it to 100, and was all prepared to settle for 90 around Christmas time, but a final push saw me make it in the nick of time. Hurrah! On the other hand, the move to FilmJournal has had a huge, positive impact on readership. In that vein I’d like to thank everyone who’s commented on the blog, as well as all regular (and irregular) readers who don’t — I know I follow several FilmJournal blogs and never or rarely comment, so I’m sure there must be some doing the same with mine. And while I definitely appreciate all comments (even if I don’t reply, or agree!), special thanks to Livius and Mike for their regular and enjoyable comments on my Rathbone Holmes reviews, even when my articles are neither.
With that said, here’s the list. Scroll to the end for a bunch of irreverent stats about my viewing this year.
- 24: Redemption (2008)
- The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939)
- After the Sunset (2004)
- Agatha (1979)
- Almost Famous (2000)
- The Aristocrats (2005)
- Atonement (2007)
- The Baskerville Curse (1983)
- Batman: Gotham Knight (2008)
- Be Kind Rewind (2008)
- Becoming Jane (2007)
- Beowulf: Director’s Cut (2007)
- Best in Show (2000)
- The Blues Brothers (1980)
- Brideshead Revisited (2008)
- The Cable Guy (1996)
- Calendar Girls (2003)
- Cathy Come Home (1966)
- Chicago (2002)
- Churchill: The Hollywood Years (2004)
- Clockwise (1986)
- Cloverfield (2008)
- Cube²: Hypercube (2002)
- Cube Zero (2004)
- Dark City (1998)
- The Dark Knight (2008)
- Die Hard 2 (1990)
- The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007)
- Done the Impossible: The Fans’ Tale of Firefly and Serenity (2006)
- Double Indemnity (1944)
- Easy Riders, Raging Bulls (2003)
- Enchanted (2007)
- Field of Dreams (1989)
- Fist of Legend (1994)
- Flushed Away (2006)
- The Fountain (2006)
- Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)
- The Golden Compass (2007)
- Great Expectations (1998)
- The Green Mile (1999)
- Hairspray (2007)
- Hamlet (1996)
- The Happening (2008)
- Hard Boiled (1992)
- Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008)
- Henry V (1944)
- Henry V (1989)
- Hitman: Unrated (2007)
- The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939)
- Hulk (2003)
- I Am Legend (2007)
- The Incredible Hulk (2008)
- Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)
- The Invasion (2007)
- Iron Man (2008)
- The Jane Austen Book Club (2007)
- Jane Eyre (1944)
- L.A. Confidential (1997)
- Leon: Version Integrale (1994/1996)
- Madagascar (2005)
- Mamma Mia! (2008)
- The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977)
- The Mirror Crack’d (1980)
- Notorious (1946)
- Ocean’s Thirteen (2007)
- Quantum of Solace (2008)
- Rashomon (1950)
- Ratatouille (2007)
- Rebecca (1940)
- Road to Singapore (1940)
- A Room With a View (1985)
- Russian Ark (2002)
- Scenes of a Sexual Nature (2006)
- Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1943)
- Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror (1942)
- Shoot ‘Em Up (2007)
- The Simpsons Movie (2007)
- Snakes on a Plane (2006)
- Southland Tales (2006)
- St. Trinian’s (2007)
- Stardust (2007)
- Starwoids (2001)
- Stay (2005)
- Sunset Blvd. (1950)
- Sunshine (2007)
- Superhero Movie (2008)
- Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)
- Swing Time (1936)
- Texas Across the River (1966)
- Throne of Blood (1957)
- Transformers (2007)
- Troy: Director’s Cut (2004/2007)
- Ultimate Avengers (2006)
- Ultimate Avengers II (2006)
- Vantage Point (2008)
- WALL-E (2008)
- Wanted (2008)
- White Christmas (1954)
- The Wizard of Oz (1939)
- Zodiac (2007)
- The Dark Knight: The IMAX Experience (2008)
- I Am Legend: Alternate Theatrical Version (2007/2008)
Before we begin, I’ll just point out that all of these stats include every film on this list, even if I’ve yet to post the review.
In the end, I watched exactly 100 new feature films in 2008. While this is a 22% drop on last year’s total of 129, it’s still my target (obviously).
I watched three features I’d seen before that were extended or altered in some way, two of which I’d only seen for the first time earlier this year. This is three less than in 2007, which, really, is neither here nor there. I also reviewed two films I’d seen before, in each case because I was about to watch their sequel(s). (All 104 are counted in the following statistics, unless otherwise indicated.)
Additionally, I watched four shorts this year (none of which shall be counted in any of the statistics), half of what I saw in 2007. Somewhat surprisingly (to me, anyway), three of these can be found in my DVD collection.
The total running time of new features was 175 hours and 57 minutes. The total running time of all features and shorts was 184 hours and 55 minutes — almost 8 days’ solid viewing, which doesn’t sound much put next to the 366 days available.
I’ve already seen six films from this list again — specifically, The Green Mile, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Mamma Mia!, Stardust, The Dark Knight (on IMAX) and I Am Legend (in its alternate cut).
I made 10 trips to the cinema this year. That’s far beaten by the number of new films I saw on DVD however, which stands at 64 (rising to 67 with those extended/altered/seen ones). It’s downloads that (just) come in a distant second place with 11, while TV equals the cinema with 10. VHS still skulks around with two, and there are three formats new to this blog as well: Blu-ray, also with two, and one each for IMAX and in-flight. A ragtag bunch if ever there was one.
The most popular decade was once agin the 00s by a long way, with 65 films — 62.5%, easily topping last year’s 52%. The nearest was the 90s with a mere 11. A somewhat surprising third was the 40s with eight, closely followed by the 80s with seven. Of the rest, the 30s managed four, the 50s a marginally better five, and the 60s and 70s had two a piece. Nothing before 1936 though.
The average score was 3.6, marginally lower than 2007’s average of 3.7. This year there were 19 five-star films (slightly up from 2007’s 16) and just 1 one-star film (equal to last year). The majority of films — 45 — scored four stars, compared to a huge 72 last year. There were also 24 three-star films (down from 32) and 15 two-star films (practically equal to last year’s 14).
13 films appear on the IMDb Top 250 Films at the time of writing, about two-thirds of 2007’s 21. Their positions ranges from 4th (The Dark Knight, of course) to 199th (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly). Some of the films undoubtedly appear on other ‘Best Films Ever’ and ‘Best of 2008′ lists, but I’m hardly going to research them all.
At the end of 2007, I included a list of 50 notable films I’d missed from that year’s releases. With all of 2008 taken into account, I’ve managed to see 17 of them, more or less a third. They’ll probably continue to pop up in 2009.
A total of 88 solo directors and 8 directing partnerships (or teams in some cases!) appear on the list this year, 15 less than last. Coincidentally, 15 directors had more than one film on the list in 2007 — one managed seven — but only six manage a second appearance this year, and none a third or more. Those with two new films are Kenneth Branagh, Marc Forster, Alfred Hitchcock, Julian Jarrold, Akira Kurosawa, and Billy Wilder. Additionally, Francis Lawrence and Christopher Nolan each put in a second appearance with the same film.
And finally… 56 of the films are currently in my DVD collection, once again nearly identical to 2007’s 57. (The IMAX Dark Knight doesn’t count, incidentally, because the IMAX scenes aren’t integrated on DVD.)
My Top 10, and Bottom 5, and other such things. Nearly over…Action, Fantasy, 2000s, adaptations, 4 stars, Adventure, 2008, superhero films , 1 comment so far
Despite enjoying the first live action Hellboy movie last year, I didn’t make it to the cinema for this sequel. Unfortunately neither did a lot of others, choosing to see The Dark Knight again and again instead. Of course these days the DVD release is almost as important… except Hellboy’s was on the same day as Dark Knight’s. I don’t have sales figures, but I expect it was thoroughly overshadowed again — which is a shame, because Hellboy II is actually a very different beast.
Despite shared roots in the pages of comic books, Hellboy II sits comfortably apart from last Summer’s other two big comic book adaptations, The Dark Knight and Iron Man. While the former was aiming for a real-world crime-epic feel and the latter a more humour-littered sci-fi, they both still dealt with billionaires investing in identity-hiding suits to fight crime of one kind or another. Hellboy exists in a completely different place. Of course there are still wise-cracking heroes (with requisite Issues) and scheming villains, action sequences and a liberal use of CGI (mixed with “we did it for real!” bits, thankfully the ‘in thing’ right now) — but it’s not Sci-Fi, it’s Fantasy.
Del Toro uses this to his advantage, allowing his incredibly fertile imagination to run riot over every frame. There are more creatures than the first Hellboy and Pan’s Labyrinth combined — in the Troll Market sequence, there’s probably more in each shot — and, in the vicious Tooth Fairies, a wonderfully gruesome twist on a familiar concept. Though couple these with certain other inventions, such as a baby-like talking tumor, and one might begin to wonder how this got passed as a 12 / PG-13; and you’d think a giant red demon getting a human girl pregnant might be enough to raise the classification. (I jest, of course — giant red demons are entitled to all the same rights as the rest of us.)
Imagination isn’t limited to creature design either. An attractively animated prologue manages to both bring back the ever-excellent John Hurt and find a way to convey the huge back story without making it tediously dull (it also has a Christmassy feel that was perfect for when I watched it). The action sequences have all the requisite coolness too, especially the closing duel on giant moving cogs. In fact, del Toro’s creation seems to overflow — the laying of plot threads for a further film is even more overt than it was in the first film — which makes it even more unfortunate that the director’s long term commitment to The Hobbit and its sequel, plus about half a dozen projects after that, makes a proposed trilogy-closer seem increasingly unlikely. This isn’t a major problem with the film, however, just an annoyance that we may never get a third entry.
One of the most amusingly idiotic criticisms I’ve encountered of Hellboy II was that it was “comic-book-ish” — not only does that make one think, “well, duh”, but also, “and why not?” When the other big comic book movies are aiming for real-world seriousness, it’s nice to have a more fantastical alternative. Hellboy II is more than up to the task.
Hellboy II: The Golden Army placed 8th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2008, which can be read in full here. The brief comment there is probably more eloquent than this review, so please check that out too.Comedy, Sci-fi, 2000s, 4 stars, 2008, films about films , add a comment
The work of Michel Gondry and the comedy of Jack Black are both, shall we say, acquired tastes, and not ones you would necessarily expect to overlap. Yet here they do — at least to an extent — but while Black is again doing his usual schtick as the Ker-Azy Best Mate, it’s the writer-director who is perhaps offering some surprises.
Gondry has exactly the sort of fanbase you’d expect for a French director who started out in music videos for Bjork and The Chemical Brothers before progressing to films like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and The Science of Sleep. It’s not inconceivable those fans may’ve been a bit surprised by this effort, about two video store clerks who begin to remake well-known movies when all the store’s tapes are accidentally wiped, because it seems so thoroughly mainstream; or, to put it a nicer way, accessible. That’s not to say it doesn’t have an oddness about it — early plot points hit unreal levels, before the film becomes more grounded — but for the most part it errs on the side of realism. It’s almost hard to believe Gondry wrote and directed it, considering his previous output.
In fact, so conceivable is so much of the story that one could almost believe it was a fictionalised version of real events. The way the films are remade — using elaborate cardboard props and cunning camera tricks — are all pleasantly innovative, but well within the bounds of believability; and when they gain a previously-meaningless nickname (”sweded”) and explode with cult popularity, it’s heavily reminiscent of so many Internet-based crazes, several of which do revolve around retelling popular films. Indeed, placing the concept of ’sweding’ at the heart of the film taps into the popularity such things tend to garner, and the enjoyability of the idea helps carry the film through some rougher patches.
And Be Kind Rewind is at its best — and, crucially, funniest — during the ’sweding’ of recognisable films. These sequences are packed with the vicarious joy of recreating iconic moments from beloved films with just a video camera, some mates, and a pile of card. It’s here that the lovability of the concept comes to the fore, and it would perhaps benefit from even more of this. On the other hand, an endless stream of re-made movies is no substitute for a proper plot, so Gondry wisely limits how many films we see being ’sweded’.
The problem is, the rest of the story doesn’t always do a great deal to make up for it. There’s a surprising number of stock moments and subplots considering Gondry’s roots, and some threads are underplayed to the point of seeming extraneous. In particular, a romantic subplot is so inconclusive — not even ‘resolved’ in an open-ended manner — that one wonders why it was included at all.
Your enjoyment of Be Kind Rewind is likely to ride on how much you like the idea of ’sweding’. If it sounds like a fun thing to watch or do, the goodwill engendered by the concept may carry you through the film’s weaker moments. If, however, you think it sounds faintly silly, there’s not much else on offer besides a familiar moral message about community, and achieving your goals, and all that jazz.
Russian Ark has received boundless praise from some quarters, and not just for being shot in a recording-smashing single take — to cite one review in particular, “anyone with an eye for beauty, a yearning for the past or a passion for pure cinema is going to be spellbound.”
Apparently some sort of artistic documentary on the history of Russia, told via a fantastical time-travelling-ish tour of a Russian museum, Russian Ark is certainly ‘artistic’. Unfortunately, it doesn’t teach you much and is at no point clear about what it’s covering. Perhaps a more detailed knowledge of Russian history would lend some meaning to the tableaus that are half-glimpsed as the Steadicam drifts by, though it spends as much time meandering down empty corridors in search of something to film as it does actually showing anything. When it does alight on something, the staging is occasionally spectacular, especially considering the self-imposed technical restrictions, but I gained little from this alone
I freely admit this may say more about me than the film itself, but the most interesting parts were when the character whose point-of-view we inhabit and the French historian he encounters begin to discuss something that almost (almost) resembles a plot — how did they get there, how can the Frenchman speak Russian, can others see them, and so on. Sokurov merrily raises all these questions, in the process throwing a sci-fi dimension into his artistic-documentary-fantasy, but are there any answers offered? No, of course not — that’s not the point. Which does rather make you wonder why they’re vocalised at all…
Watching Russian Ark is a little like doing what the nominal lead characters do: wander aimlessly around an unfamiliar museum without any guide to what they see. Undoubtedly impressive, and worth seeing for the audacity of the single take, but I, unlike others, was far from spellbound.
(Originally posted on 30th January 2009.)