A Chernobyl Diary: LFM Reviews Land of Oblivion @ The 2012 San Francisco International Film Festival
By Joe Bendel. On April 25th, 1986, Pripyat was known as a model “Atomic City.” Two days later, it was well on its way to being a radioactive ghost town. The resulting physical and emotional damage done to the local Ukrainian populace is starkly dramatized in Michale Boganim’s Land of Oblivion (trailer here), which screens during the 2012 San Francisco International Film Festival.
It rained on that fateful April 26th, fixing the radiation in the area surrounding the nuclear power plant. That was bad news for Pripyat, the bustling Ukrainian town built accommodate Chernobyl workers – but good for the rest of the world.
Making a bad situation worse, many Ukrainians would needlessly perish because of the Soviets’ reluctance to admit the severity of the crisis. One of them will be Anya’s new husband Pyotr, a fireman pulled away from their wedding reception for lethal duty at Chernobyl. The disaster will also rob young Valery of his father Alexei, a safety engineer expressly forbidden from warning Pripyat residents of the deadly reality he understood only too well. In contradiction of Soviet policy, he sends Valery and his mother away on the first train out of town. Faced with the guilt and futility of the situation, Alexei roams the streets of Pripyat, handing out umbrellas as certain death rains from the sky.
Ten years later, Anya has not moved on with her life. She works as a guide, taking curious French tourists and grieving survivors on tours of the no man’s land that was once her home. One of her groups includes Alexei’s widow and Valery, who has become an angry teenager greatly desiring some closure.
Shot on-location in the forbidden zone, Oblivion looks downright spooky. It clearly suggests the upcoming Oren Peli produced Chernobyl horror movie should be scary as all get-out, even if they do an only a half-way decent job of it. Frankly, watching Anya lead her busloads of gawkers is jarring enough. Obviously this job is profoundly unhealthy for her, but she remains psychologically tethered to the ghost town.
While Oblivion abstains from graphic depictions of radiation sickness, it presents an unambiguous indictment of the Soviet authorities’ rampant CYA-ing and callous indifference to Ukrainian suffering. Like the character of Anya, it somewhat loses its way during the early scenes of the 1996 winter story arc, but when Boganim starts following the wayward Valery through Pripyat’s desolate streets and abandoned buildings, the film achieves an air of surreal high tragedy.
Admirably understated, former Bond-girl Olga Kurylenko’s work as Anya, in her native Ukrainian, is remarkably assured and shrewdly modulated. As Alexei, Polish actor Andrzej Chyra is also quite restrained, yet touching.
In her first dramatic feature, Israeli-born French documentarian Boganim balances the intimate and the ominous fairly dexterously. Oblivion also boasts a distinctive soundtrack from Polish jazz musician Leszek Możdżer. Refraining from his experimentations with “treated” pianos, his themes are surprisingly upbeat and swinging, but they help propel the audience through much of the on-screen grimness. Often visually arresting, Land of Oblivion is a well produced film, definitely recommended, particularly for those fascinated by the Chernobyl disaster and the Soviet era in general, when it screens again this Friday (4/27) and Sunday (4/29) during this year’s San Francisco International Film Festival.
LFM GRADE: B+
Posted on April 27th, 2012 at 1:12am.
By Joe Bendel. A prodigal son plows through a blizzard to make it home for Thanksgiving dinner. However, this will not be the stuff of a Norman Rockwell painting. Instead, his fate will become intertwined with that of two wanted fugitives in Stefan Ruzowitzky’s Deadfall, a chilly thriller from the Academy Award winning director of The Counterfeiters, which screens during the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival.
Having endured a traumatic childhood together, Addison and his sister Liza are now hopelessly codependent. He also has a propensity for violence. They just knocked over a casino, but a freak accident mars their getaway. Splitting up (for reasons driven more by the narrative than by survival considerations) an exhausted Liza is rescued from the frozen roadside by Jay, an ex-con former Olympic boxer, who through a complicated set of circumstances already suspects the law is after his dumb hide. Liza knows the cops are looking for her and Addison, so his parents’ home near the Canadian border sounds like the perfect rendezvous. Much to her surprise though, she quickly develops intense feelings for the dumb palooka, which she can tell are mutual. Liza does not yet know Jay’s father is the former sheriff and his successor’s unappreciated deputy-daughter is a close friend of the family, but she will learn when Jay’s Planes, Trains, and Automobiles story turns into The Desperate Hours.
There are an awful lot of contrivances in Deadfall. Indeed, Jay and Liza fall for each other faster than light-speed. Still, in his case, it might be rather believable, considering he just got out of prison and she is played by Olivia Wilde. In fact, for the most part, Ruzowitzky’s energetic pacing and the conviction of his cast largely overcome the credibility gaps.
Most importantly, Addison and Liza make an excellent villain-femme fatale tandem. Eric Bana compellingly brings out Addison’s avenging angel complex, while Wilde nicely balances Liza’s cunning and vulnerability. Though Charlie Hunnam is not exactly a great thespian, the audience can certainly believe his ex-boxer has taken a number of blows to the head. Not so surprisingly, Sissy Spacek adds a real touch of class to the film, playing Jay’s mother with grace and intelligence.
Despite the ragged edges, Deadfall is an easy man vs. man vs. the elements thriller to get caught up in. Sure to become a family Thanksgiving tradition, it screened yesterday as part of the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival.
LFM GRADE: B
Posted on April 27th, 2012 at 1:12am.
By Joe Bendel. In 1932, the British economy was also rather depressed, but appearances had to be kept up, nonetheless. A well-to-do widowed mother is determined to see her eldest daughter married in proper style, even if it kills the rest of her family in Donald Rice’s Cheerful Weather for the Wedding, which screens during the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival.
Dolly Thatcham became re-acquainted with her rich, twittish fiancé during a grand tour of Albania. She was most definitely on the rebound, following the end of her affair with Joseph Patten, a promising young academic. He was somewhat self-centered, but there was real passion between them, as the audience sees in multiple flashbacks. Her controlling mother could make the rest of the family sufficiently miserable on her own, but when the sullen Patten shows up at the house, it puts everyone further on edge. The fact that the bride has locked herself in her dressing room with a bottle of rum hardly helps matters either.
Based on the novella by Julia Strachey, a member of the Bloomsbury Group whose work has gained popularity in recent years, Cheerful Weather could be considered a lite beer version of Downton Abbey, but Rice and Mary Henley Magill’s adaptation clearly lacks Sir Julian’s delicious wit. Of course, the presence of Elizabeth Montgomery in the rather thankless role of Thatcham’s overbearing mother further invites such comparisons.
Still, Cheerful Weather offers a number of memorable moments, largely courtesy of its snappy supporting cast. Indeed, Mackenzie Crook and Fenella Woolgar steal scene after scene as the bickering Dakins, who largely reconcile through their shared distaste for his family. Julian Wadham also adds a humane touch to the film as the not-as-dumb-as-he-looks bumbling Uncle Bob, while Zoe Tapper brings considerable allure and even a bit of depth to Evelyn Graham, Thatcham’s fortune hunting maid of honor.
Unfortunately, Cheerful Weather’s weak romantically-doomed leads undermine the audience’s investment in the actual wedding. Looking rather dazed, even in the flashbacks, Felicity Jones’ turn as Thatcham is a pale shadow of Michelle Dockery’s Lady Mary Grantham. More baffling is the complete lack of screen presence displayed by Luke Treadaway as the morose Mr. Patten.
Frankly, it is hard to understand why Thatcham or Patten would pine for each other, but it is easy to see how this family would annoy the Dakins. Yet viewers can enjoy elements of the picture once they have shifted their sympathies accordingly. An okay but hardly exceptional period drama, Cheerful Weather seems best suited for PBS’s Masterpiece. For diehard Anglophiles, it screens again this Saturday (4/28) as this year’s Tribeca Film Festival enters its final weekend.
LFM GRADE: C+
Posted on April 27th, 2012 at 12:14am.