Osenniye Kolokola:The Bells of Autumn (1979)

I’ve been curious about Soviet adaptations of Pushkin’s fairy tales for some time, but I decided to finally break the ice and watch one. As it turns out, I’m glad I did; Russico’s edition of The Bells of Autumn (Osenniye Kolokola) is a treat to watch, and the dvd extras alone made the purchase worthwhile. The film is based on the Pushkin story The Tale of the Dead Princess and the Seven Knights.

The film is beautifully framed with the traditional “once upon a time” and then the film segues into this fairy tale of a Tsar so bored he decides to take a trip around the world. Several scenes depict the Tsar being received as a guest in various courts around the world. The dialogue is minimal and several of the foreign scenes get around dialogue by mime instead.

While the Tsar (Aleksandr Kirillov) is off on his adventures, the Tsarita (Irina Alfyorova) pines for him during his absences. Many times she ventures off out into the snow and gazes off in the distance hoping to see him return. In one of his exotic ports of call, the tsar is given a jeweled looking-glass as a gift and when he gazes in the glass, he sees his wife’s reflection, This sends him back home but it’s not a moment too soon.

The Tsarita dies just as her husband returns and he now has a child to raise. He remarries and the princess is raised by the tsar and the new wife. Eventually, a marriage is arranged for the princess to a prince, but around this time the stepmother, a vain woman, discovers the mirror’s special powers .

If this sounds like Sleeping Beauty, well you’d be right. It’s Sleeping Beauty with a Slavic twist, so instead of dwarves we get knights.

The film is only 63 minutes long, and once I recognised the Sleeping Beauty tale, I didn’t exactly expect any surprises. That said, I can’t dismiss this film as for children only. I loved it, and found it really quite beautiful.

The film comes with quite a few extras and includes an interview with actor G. Martirosyan, filmographies and a photo album. However, by far the most valuable extra was the details regarding the creation of Pushkin’s Bronze Horseman. Pushkin notebooks were displayed–along with the considerable editing of the text and drawings he made in the margins. Clips even included views of Pushkin’s drawings of his wife and also the Decembrists. Pushkin’s original text was shown (in his handwriting) and then the edits appeared on screen. The narrator explained that Pushkin’s work was subject to censorship. For Pushkin aficionados, this DVD extra is above price.

From director Vladimir Gorriker

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Dogs of Berlin (2018)

“A dog’s got no choice. A dog squats to take a shit and thinks it’s made a decision. The question is: the dog owner. Is it that much different for him? Do we really have a choice? Was everything decided at our birth?”

Dogs of Berlin is a dark, gritty ten part German TV series which opens (after a sex scene) with the discovery of a body in the East Berlin Marzahn district.  This is an area of massive apartment buildings originally designed as a model city but now a miserable ugly reminder of East German communism, a region riddled with crime and drugs.

Married Homicide detective Kurt Grimmer (Felix Kramer) happens to be visiting his girlfriend Bine (Anna Marie Lühar) when in a post coital moment, he notices something afoot in this troubled neighbourhood. His cop instincts kick in and he strolls over, carrying one of Bine’s horribly neglected children. He encounters two green cops who say that they’ve discovered a body. Grimmer tells the two patrol cops (including a very eager female cop) to wait there while he investigates. Grimmer identifies the body of a Turkish football player who plays for the German team. Since this is the night before a World Cup match, Grimmer realises that the death of Orkam Erdem, who received death threats, is fraught with potentially violent consequences. Neo Nazis loathe Erdem for playing on the German team, and some Turks feel that Erdem is betraying his own people–especially since he’s scheduled to play against Turkey the next day.

Here’s where the story begins to deepen:

Grimmer, who used to be a Neo Nazi, and still carries the tattoos, is a betting man. It’s an addiction, and he already owes big time. He begins to calculate that, with this knowledge of Erdem’s death, he could win and clear his debts if he can keep the knowledge under raps and bet against the demoralized German team….

What could go wrong?

As this addictive, edge-of-your-seat drama continues, we see a troubled panoramic view of life in this East German borough. Grimmer’s plan sounds good, but there are so many players with various agendas in this tale of ruthless gang violence, that his plan becomes increasingly difficult to carry out.

Add to the mix, Grimmer’s tightly-wound wife Paula (Katharina Schüttler) who runs the Grimmer middle class home, and owns a small shop full of knick-knacks. The shop runs at a loss, and Grimmer’s been picking up the tab with his betting winnings. Paula has no clue that Grimmer visits drug-addled, online sex worker Bine, a woman from his Neo-Nazi past.

Then there’s the fearsome Tarik-Amir clan run by the psychotic Hakim (Sinan Farhangmehr) from his heavily armed apartment compound which sits inside the no-go-zone. Hakim’s younger brother Kareem (Kais Setti) isn’t interested in the drug side of the clan’s operations, he’s into betting and forms an uneasy alliance with Kovac (Misel Maticevic) who runs the bookies and the betting shops.

Then there’s the Neo-Nazi clan Grimmer left: Grimmer’s brother Ulf (Sebastian Zimmler) and mother Eva (Katrin Saβ) are still very much part of the brotherhood. There’s one great scene when the Neo Nazis cheer a black player who scores a goal for the German team, and then they realise that hey this a black player, so they can’t cheer.

Finally, gay Turkish cop Erol Birkham (Fahri Yardim) is asked to team up with Grimmer to solve the murder of the Turkish football player. It’s an uneasy alliance with Grimmer’s prejudices and betting shenanigans spilling over into the case. There’s a large cast of secondary and tertiary characters too, but I won’t go into that for various reasons. And as for the title, dogs are woven brilliantly into this tale.

Dogs of Berlin is fantastic. Its dark portrayal of  a complex world of tangled loyalties, violent crime and racial hatred is riveting. Grimmer makes a fascinating antihero and you can’t help but hope he succeeds even though his behaviour is, at times, appalling. He leads a double life, moving between law enforcement and law breaking. Most comfortable with the dark seedy side of life,  he’s a user, and this is exemplified in his treatment of Bine. Here’s this drug addict who works as an online sex worker from her home; her children have to fend for themselves, and yet Grimmer doesn’t hesitate to take every penny this woman has, and she’s happy to give it–even though this decision has dire consequences. Over the course of the series, we see that Grimmer is a user of people, a black hole, and everyone in his orbit is sucked into his darkness.

Dogs of Berlin: Fantastic cinematography, impeccable acting, a relentlessly dark script in which everything is worse, far more corrupt and twisted than you think. What more can you ask for? The conclusion left the possibility of a second series, so lets hope we see it.

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I, Tonya (2017)

I was skeptical about watching Craig Gillespie’s film I, Tonya mainly because I’m not overly fond of the mockmentary style, but after watching this marvelous, darkly comic  film, I realise that it couldn’t have been made any other way. In case readers don’t remember the scandal, Jeff Gillooly, the ex-husband, of Olympian and US Champion Ice skater Tonya Harding was convicted of organizing an attack on another Olympian Nancy Kerrigan. After the 1994 Olympics concluded, Tonya Harding pled guilty to hindering the prosecution and was subsequently banned for life from the US Figure Skating Association.

The film begins with the statement that it’s based on “irony free, wildly contradictory, totally true interviews with Tonya Harding and Jeff Gillooly” as well as some archival footage. We see Tonya’s bleak childhood in Portland, Oregon, her acid-tongued mother, and the departure of her father. We also see Tonya’s waitress mother LaVona (Allison Janney) taking Tonya to the ice rink to meet coach Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson). Diane doesn’t accept pupils as young as Tonya, who according to her mother is a ‘soft 4,’ but LaVona doesn’t take no for an answer and tells her child to get out there and skate.

By the time Tonya (Margot Robbie) is in her teens, she’s already a phenomenal talent, and it’s at the ice rink that she meets Jeff (Sebastian Stan) and his plump friend Shawn (Paul Walter Hauser). Basically, it’s all downhill from there–with conflicting statements about Jeff and Tonya’s relationship and marriage which ended in divorce in 1993.

This is where the story gets weird and versions deviate when it comes to just who knew what. Anyone who watches this highly entertaining film will have their own opinion.

I’ve read criticisms of the brilliantly created and well-acted film with such statements that we are supposed to feel sorry for Tonya Harding, and of course, we all ask ourselves how much Tonya Harding knew. Underneath that big question, for this viewer, the film is about being poor and disadvantaged in America, but it’s also about talent and what we do with it. This is a particularly fraught situation when you are talking about athletic talent in a sport in which you peak in your early 20s.

I loved the scenes with Tonya skating to rock music. Personally, I think it was a shame she stopped that and conformed to the classical routines. This is from the film:

And here’s the real Tonya Harding skating with pure joy to 99 Luftballoons:

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Bad Banks (German series 2018)

I’m old enough to still have images of the old stodgy banker in my head: the stereotypical banker was a solid, pudgy late-middle-aged man, and yes while he may have had a secret mistress who dressed him in nappies and spanked him, this was a man as boring and as no-nonsense as the sternest headmaster. In other words, the Banker was a respectable, middle class, plodding figure who took no risks with your money.

Fast forward to the 21st century: banks make easy targets when it comes to institutional villainy. This is especially true following the collapse of the housing market and the ‘shocking’ revelations that banks  (and the shadow banking system) engaged in the subprime mortgage fiasco. But with all our disapproval of bank-shenanigans, the wonderfully engaging German TV series Bad Banks reveals unmined territory: the pressure, the dirt, the creative accounting behind the scenes of the Frankfurt based Deutsche Global Invest bank.

Ambitious, yet fragile Jana (Paula Beer) is humiliated and abruptly fired from Crédit International in Luxembourg when she speaks out of ‘place’ while working with arrogant, misogynistic Luc Jacoby (Marc Limpach). But luck seems to drop into Jana’s lap when the older Christelle Leblanc (Désirée Nosbusch) offers to help Jana land a new job with the dynamic Gabriel Fenger (Barry Atsma) the head of Investment banking at the rival bank: Deutsche Global Invest. Jana, talented, yet naive, who leaves her boyfriend and his young daughter behind and subsequently moves to Frankfurt, is thrilled by Leblanc’s female mentoring/apparent act of kindness, yet as the story unfolds it’s clear that Christelle expects to be repaid….

The aggressive, charismatic, intimidating Fenger demands the impossible from his ‘team,’ and consequently, the younger bankers lead stressed out lives even as they compete, manipulate and whore their way to the next lucrative deal. Working with Jana is Thao Hoang (Mai Duong Kieu) a young Asian woman who initially loathes Jana, and Adam (Albrecht Schuch), a seemingly quiet, young family man.

Fenger recognizes that Jana has talent but that talent is only as good as the next deal she lands. There’s also a sexual chemistry between Fenger and Jana, but she’s difficult to read. She’s a cipher–easy to underestimate because she shows weakness. This display, though, can occasionally be played for maximum benefit.

Scenes show just how far these young bankers will go to land a deal, and Jana manages to leapfrog obstacle after obstacle, sometimes with questionable ethics while Thao watches on the sidelines oozing malice. Jana, aware of Thao’s dislike, tries to offer friendship, but Thao initially predictably rejects Jana’s overtures. Jana, taking a page out of Christelle Leblanc’s book,  decides to approach Thao differently:

Women don’t work together or form groups. They also won’t go to brothels together. We’d rather pretend to hate each other, destroying each other.

This is a male-dominated world, men have the power and the money, while prostitutes and strippers are just chess pieces to land deals. That leaves the female bankers with a poor hand of cards unless, like Jana and Christelle, they can be smarter.

Lots of drama here–lots of scenes showing how people are driven by various impulses which, inevitably, veer out of control. This is a dynamic, riveting drama, packed with spectacular photography, and while I didn’t care for the A team feel at the end of episode 6, this paves the way for further malfeasance.

I loved this series for the way it explores our relationship with money:

A simple number is a wonderful thing. It can mean something different for everyone. Wealth. Status. Recognition. Addiction. Adrenaline. Greed. Life. Everyone has their own drive. Their own number that they keep wanting to increase, a number they’re prepared to do anything for. 

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The Adulterer (Series 1: 2011)

Since the action in the Dutch series, The Adulterer is sparked by an extramarital affair, it’s easy to see how the series acquired its name. While the title evokes racy images, adultery is just one aspect of this complex crime series. The alternate, much more appropriate title is Betrayal or Overspel. 

Attractive magazine photographer Iris van Erkel-Hoegaarde (Sylvia Hoeks) is married to public prosecutor Pepijn van Erkel (Ramsey Nasr), and they have a young son together. Although both husband and wife have good careers and a lovely home, we know almost immediately that something is wrong in their marriage. Perhaps it’s Iris’s complete inertia during sex, or perhaps it’s her ability to tune out? Whatever it is, Pepijn, who appears to be a milquetoast, seems blissfully unaware that his mis-matched wife is completely disinterested in him.

At a show of Iris’s photographs, she meets married lawyer Willem Steenhouwer (Fedja van Huêt) the son-in-law of the criminal real estate magnate Huub Couwenberg (Kees Prins), and sparks fly.

Willem is married to Couwenberg’s daughter, Elsie (Rifka Lodeizen). Elsie is so busy running her barely-staying afloat restaurant, that she’s also unaware that her family is falling apart. Not only does Willem begin an affair with Iris, but Elsie and Willem’s twin teenagers Marco (Jeffrey Hamilton) and Marit (Sirid ten Napel) begin dealing with crises of their own when Marco brutally attacks one of Marit’s friends.

The various worlds of the inter-connected characters are fascinating. Huub Couwenberg and his brain-damaged son, Bjorn (Guido Pollemans), live together in mal-adjusted domesticity, and while Bjorn leads a privileged, somewhat sheltered life listening to rock music, playing violent video games and visiting the local brothel, he tries hard to please his father, too hard as the series shows. Huub alternates between explosive anger and affection for the son who frustrates him: a child in a man’s body.

Then there’s Elsie and Willem who lead separate lives with discontented teenagers thrown into the mix. Marit wants to talk about the criminal activities of the family and Marco wants to emulate his grandfather.

But arguably the most chilling aspect of family life is seen in the home of Iris and Pepijn van Erkel. He seems so harmless–with an almost Danny Kaye harmless, buffoonishness to him, but look closely. He’s all over Iris at her exhibition, and then lets her know when he’s waiting, in bed, for sex.

Soon adultery is at the heart of a web of deceit, lies and murder, and the characters who were at one point, divided into the good/bad categories become shades of grey as loyalties clash and various agendas emerge.

There are a few false cliff-hanging moments but certainly not enough to mar this well-acted, addictive series.

In Dutch with subtitles

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Ekaterina: The Rise of Catherine the Great (2014)

For fans of Russian history or for those who love a good biopic, then don’t miss the 10-part Russian miniseries:  Ekaterina: The Rise of Catherine the Great. The series opens with a sixteen-year-old Frederica (Marina Aleksandrova) travelling to Russia along with her mother, Princess Johanna (Isabel Schosnig). Frederica is to marry the heir to the Russian throne Pyotr (Aleksandr Yatsenko), the nephew of Empress Elizabeth. For this impoverished German family, this is a match that must work, and the family’s survival rests upon it. In the eyes of Frederica and her mother, marriage to the heir seems to be a done deal, but scenes with Empress Elizabeth (Yuliya Aug) and her advisers show otherwise. Plus there are those intent on stopping the heir’s marriage to a minor German princess.

XiveTV EkaterinaFrom the beginning of this miniseries, character is emphasized, and while Elizabeth is, undeniably, an incredibly strong-willed woman, she’s met her match in Frederica, whose name is rapidly changed to Ekaterina. Many in the court are only too happy to disrupt the match between Ekaterina and Pyotr, but Ekaterina’s determination to prevail and to adopt Russian culture and religion win the day. Plus, there’s the definite sense that Ekaterina knows this is a waiting game…. and wait she does.

I’ve seen the Marlene Dietrich version of Catherine the Great, which I loved incidentally, but historically it had its flaws. Pyotr in that film was portrayed as a lunatic, but in Ekaterina, Pyotr is seen as damaged, possibly because of his many social constraints and also because he knows that once he’s produced an heir, he may well suffer the same fate as Ivan VI, who is imprisoned and going mad.

We see some of the scheming behind the throne and the intrigue rife in the German and and Russian Courts (where walls have ears). Also we see how Ekaterina begins to emerge from her role of submissive wife and subject and seeks love through various affairs. The characters of Elizabeth and Ekaterina bookend this marvellous biopic series as these two women battle it out: one powerful woman in decline and the other ascending.  At the moment, this mini-series is free on Amazon prime.

Ekaterina is a marvellous spectacle, a delight for the eyes. Looking forward to series 2.

 

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Black Widow (Penoza)

Not to be confused with the Swedish series Black Widows, the Dutch export Black Widow (singular) is a look at Amsterdam’s criminal underworld through the life of Carmen van Walraven. When series 1 opens, Carmen (Monic Hendrickx) is married to Frans (Thomas Acda) and they have three children together: Natalie (Sigrid ten Napel), Lucien (Niels Gompert) and Boris (Stijn Taverne). Carmen is one of three siblings with younger brother, Irwan de Rue (Fedja)) and sister Marleen (Maartje Remmers).

Black widow

When the series opens, Frans who is, according to his wife, a dealer in hash, becomes involved with the heavy world of cocaine trafficking when business partner Irwan rips off a shipment belonging to Belgian Schiller (Filip Peeters).

Soon Irwan, Frans and the third partner  of the “shop,” volatile Steven (Marcel Hensema), are up to their eyes in trouble. When things turn ugly, Carmen tells Frans that she wants him to leave the Life or she wants a divorce.

All this comes on top on younger sister Marleen’s wedding–an event which causes no small amount of turmoil in the family. Carmen’s mother, the very sour faced Fiep (Olga Zuiderhock) refuses to attend if father André (Tom Jansen) brings along his latest ditzy mistress. We get the first glimpse of Carmen’s strategic thinking when she manipulates the situation in her favour.

Of course, as we all know, noone leaves the life, or if they do, it’s either through the witness protection programme or in a wooden box. All hell breaks loose when Frans, pressured by Carmen tries to leave his criminal life (along with their fantastic waterside home).

To say too much more about the plot of this fantastic crime series would potentially spoil it for other viewers, so instead I’ll say that the plot shows the thorny path to acceptance of violence, and this is shown so well in the character of Carmen, who finds herself doing things she has no taste for, and yet she shows a great deal of skill in strategic planning, leadership and intimidation.

On one level, Carmen is a mother trying to ‘save’ her children, and yet by ensuring their safety, she creates a moral abyss which surrounds the lives of her children, and we see how each of the three children must find their way through a world of corruption and death. Yes, they are privileged: doors open for them, and yet it all comes with a cost. There’s also danger, as we see as the series progresses in not telling them some of the salient details of what she’s up to, so it’s a dilemma: should she tell them the truth to protect them from potential dangers or does the truth present moral difficulties which she will have to explain?

I can’t finish this post without mentioning the friendships Carmen maintains with two women: Hanneke (Peggy Jane de Schepper) and Sandrina (Medina Schurrman)–a woman who, as the series progresses, shows a history of poor choices in men. These friendships are tested when loyalties shift.

There’s also “Baldy,” or Berry (Loek Peters), a criminal whose role (and loyalties) shift throughout the series, but in spite of the many questionable things he does, there’s still, at the heart of this character, a sort of tarnished chivalry towards woman. It’s this facet of his character which makes him so interesting to follow. There’s also faithful henchman Luther (Raymond Thiry) and finally there’s the dogged, underappreciated policeman Jim Leeflang (Hajo Bruins). The plot plays with his motives at many times. He plants himself outside of Carmen’s house 24-7 but what is he driven by: attraction or at the desire to stick this woman behind bars.? Carmen is seen as a desirable woman who gains the respect of everyone who deals with her (well almost everyone).

As the series continue, you can’t help but get involved with the characters. The plot wobbles a bit at times, but overall, this is great entertainment, and Carmen’s mother Fiep remains one of my favourite characters.  I’ve watched series 1-5 so far and there’s another on the way. In N. America, this is available on Walter Presents. 

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