Thursday, May 26, 2011


This is definitely one of my favorite Russian films (behind Repentance) and the darkest film I have seen in a while.  It was a hit at many Russian festivals when it was released in 2009, winning Best Film, Best Actress and Special Mention awards.  This harrowing film follows the relationship of an alcoholic mother and her displaced daughter told through the eyes of the latter.  The film has a realistic and linear storyline but contains a large quantity of formalistic shots that makes the story and themes universal.

Volchok has two different translations in English that are each expressed in its own light.  The first translation, “wolfy”, refers to a story the mother told her daughter where she was walking through the forest and found a wolf in a bag.  This directly relates to the mother’s despicable relationship with her daughter.  The wolf is left hopelessly screaming in the bag, trapped as the mother walks away.  The other translation, “spinning top”, is used as a symbol for the daughter.  The daughter is always loyal to her mother, spinning and waiting for her maternal attention, yet she receives no response.  At the end of the film the top spins and spins, and with a single misguided grain in the table, the top is flung off of the table into the darkness below.  This directly represents the daughter’s finale as she is ever-so-slightly spun to her death, resulting from the misguided attempts of trying to win over her hopeless mother’s affection.

The cinematography of Volchok looked quite effortless and added greatly to the underlying themes.  The impersonal characterizations of the mother and daughter further show the divisions between the two and were displayed technically by the types of shots used.  For example, the daughter is always shot with a barrier between her and the screen.  Be it something she is holding, a window, or the table she so frequently hides under, her hidden body is symbolic of her great distance from any connection to reality.  The only friend she has is the dead boy she befriends at the cemetery.  Not even her mother seems to care about her.  Every night she waits by the window for her mother to return home.  The window frames her imprisonment as she sits, flashing the lights, feeling like an exile on a faraway island with no rescue in sight.  Yet she waits and vies for her mother’s love until the very end when it is too late to go back and create a happier life.

Volchok brings up many themes throughout the film.  The first is alcoholism which is the cause of the mother’s horrid spells and unfocused attention towards her daughter.  Another theme is a negative attitude towards men.  There are very few male characters in the film, and the only ones shown are the mother’s easily disposable sexual partners.  The pre-adolescent point of view of the film is prevalent here because the daughter references these men as “uncles” yet is unsure why so many visit her house.

Volchok can be rather intense, but overall is a great film that addresses a variety of issues that will plague relationships until the end of time.

Simple Strawberry-Orange Smoothie
3/4 cup orange juice
5/4 cups frozen strawberries (fresh will do- just add more ice)
2 Tbs. honey (or more...)
1/2 cup ice cubes
for creaminess add 1/4 cup nonfat dry milk

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Can You Cannes?

I really do think my heart just fluttered.  At least it did when I first saw that this week was the opening of the Cannes Film Festival!  Film festivals (along with the Oscars) make my knees wobbly and my inspiration for life increase tenfold.  They are magical and entrancing, capturing an audience year after year in newfound excitement with hopes that their film will make it into the higher echelons of film history.  In my opinion, if your film has been accepted by Cannes, that is one HUGE accomplishment already.

CANNES. The most fashionable film festival in the world.  The air and style that surrounds this festival in particular is grace, beauty, luxury. Elegant but not pretentious (unlike most French stereotypes).  It accomplishes this through its Official Selection (list of movie screenings) too.  You'll find that at other festivals there may be 100+ films, however for 2011 Cannes only hosts 74 feature-length films (20 In Competition) and 9 Shorts Films.

Cannes definitely has many layers of prestige and glory.  The red carpet, the actors, directors.  It truly is formalism at its best.  Among the many brilliant actors in attendance are a host of well-known directors: Pedro Almódovar, Lars Von Trier, Terrence Malick, Gus Van Sant, Woody Allen, and Judie Foster with her directorial debut (The Beaver).  And even though I won't go through every film I would love to see, I will share a few:  festival opener Midnight in Paris, Restless, Martha Marcy May Marlene, Sleeping Beauty, The Tree of Life, Melancholia, La piel que habito, and Hearat Shulayim.  It is a shame that most foreign films remain nameless and quite unknown because they always deliver: in tone, style, and quality.  Which is a rare form especially in a time of unsatisfying and heartless moneymakers.

Here is the link to the list of all films being screened at Cannes this year.  Definitely browse other parts of the site to learn about some "Cannes Classics", the 2011 jury, the history of the festival, and other organizations and productions with whom the festival partners.

It is only Day 4 of the festival.  Stay updated until the very last minute on Closing Day: May 22nd, 2011.

What movies do you think will win this year??

Such a classy festival calls for a classy coffee drink.

Mochaccino Shake
  • 1 cup cold milk
  • 1 cup strong black coffee, regular or decaf
  • 1/2 cup chocolate syrup
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 2 pints coffee flavor ice cream
  • Whipped cream in spray canister, garnish
  • Chocolate shavings, garnish

Saturday, May 7, 2011

A Serious, Really Stressed and Overworked Man

Seeing this movie for a second time definitely helped me understand its meaning way more than I had back in 2009.  In my opinion, this movie was one of the most underrepresented and underrated movies of the 2010 Academy Awards, nominated for Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay.  It was greatly outweighed by other flicks that year (losing to Hurt Locker for both categories) and did not stand much of a chance due to its small release and gross of only $9 mil.  To me, a movie should never be based on its budget (hmm, that phrase "Never judge a book by its cover" sounds oddly familiar right now) and should be looked at via many levels: acting, directing, editing, photography, dialogue, etc... You get the picture.  Thankfully, A Serious Man was a success in all of these terms and should be rightly analyzed in order to define and commend its beauty.

A Serious Man centers around a Jewish family living in Midwest-suburbia in the 1960s.  Larry Gopnik, the "serious man" previously alluded to, teaches at a university and is very close to achieving tenure.  His family consists of a: wife who blames him for their issues and cannot wait for their get, or "ritual divorce"; hair-obsessed daughter who is saving up for a nose-job; pot-smoking son who is lackadaisically preparing for his Bar Mitzvah; and a seemingly helpless and cyst-infested brother.  Along with his family he has goy (or non-Jewish) neighbors who are very much a picture of the 'ideal' American family and tend to annoy Larry frequently.  So in short, he has one hell of a life to deal with!  Oh, and the wife not only wants a divorce, she has already arranged for long-time friend Sy Ableman to move into their house and kick Larry out.  

Larry is constantly searching for answers for his problems from local rabbis.  They, like the rest of the people in his life, turn out to be of no help to him whatsoever.  The second rabbi tells Larry this very intriguing story of a dentist who discovers the back of a goy patient's teeth engraved with the Hebrew phrase meaning "Help me, save me."  Seeing this as a sign, we look for conclusion, meaning.  However, the rabbi questions the meaning of the goy in the first place and shrugs the story off with unimportance.  This faux-finality is what makes us, as human beings and spirits, think about options and paths that our lives can take.  This makes us an individual in our own futures and leaves us in charge with who we become.  These ideas are very much portrayed through the characters' actions and faults, leaving the audience to believe that there will always be instances to learn from our inevitable mistakes. 

It is very important to understand the dialogue in this film before trying to examine the complex ideals this movie promotes.  In the very beginning of the film a quote is displayed: "Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you."  This, along with the parable prologue and the entire film promotes a very open way of viewing life.  In other words, keep everything simple and you'll find yourself living a very content life.  Larry has never gotten involved in anything morally wrong, so when a disgruntled student bribes Larry to change his grade, he is awe-struck at such risque behavior.  Since the family denies ever giving him the money, he tries to find ways to give the money back to other people (example: Larry gives the money to his brother, Arthur, before he sets sail across to Canada.  This ends disastrously with Arthur getting shot by Larry's crazy hunting neighbors.  Just another reason why he should not have even touched the money in the first place.)  Another important recurring theme is the song "Somebody to Love" by Jefferson Airplane.  This song comes up a handful of times during the course of the film, opening and closing the film as well.

When the truth is found to be lies
And all the joy within you dies

Don't you want somebody to love
Don't you need somebody to love
Wouldn't you love somebody to love
You better find somebody to love

When the garden's flowers, baby, are dead
Yes, and your mind, your mind is so full of red


Your eyes, I say your eyes may look like his
Yeah but in your head, baby
I'm afraid you don't know where it is


Tears are running, they're all running down your breast
And your friends, baby, they treat you like a guest

The opening lines of the song are also given as advice by Rabbi Marshak to Danny, Larry's son, after his Bar Mitzvah.  Again, subtle humour courtesy of the Coen Bros.  The last lines feel the most resonating because relationships are constantly being challenged.  Especially to Larry who is treated like a guest in his own life.  He has nobody to love and has no inner joy or hope to look forward to.  The 'red' symbolizes all of the hatred he encounters and the unfortunate thoughts he experiences in the process of figuring out his life as a professor, husband, father, and friend.

My favorite scene is when Larry is teaching in a large lecture hall about the 'uncertainty principle.'  A fast motion, close up shot of the chalkboard encapsulates Larry's work as he rushes along to finish before the bell.  A cut to a much longer shot frames the humorously large board with hundreds of square feet of work.  This made me think about more than just the comic relief this cut carried.  By only seeing a small portion of a situation (the equation), you subject yourself to less than the entirety to what surrounds you.  In another perspective, each part that exists (all people, things, creatures, creations, ideas) plays a seemingly small, yet significant role which relates to the grand picture of Life.  
All things are connected to one another; there can be many interpretations to this.  This movie hints at and very shortly suggests that people are joined together by a higher power and order.  Our souls are intimately bonded with one another, and for this reason we are able to relate to others and share our personal lives with others.

Crosscutting at the end of the film shows both Larry's side and Danny's side of the story.  A tornado warning is in effect at Danny's school so all of the students are to be moved to a nearby synagogue basement.  While they wait in a parking lot, the tornado gets really close to where the students are standing.  As Jefferson Airplane's "Somebody to Love" fades in, the tornado approaches and we see Danny's perplexed emotions right before the film cuts to black. It seems like I cannot ruin the ending for those of you who have not seen this movie yet because there is NO ending!  However, lets retract to the prologue of the film.  A couple is visited by a supposed dybbuk, defined as a "malicious or benevolent possessing spirit believed to be the dislocated soul of a dead person" (Wikipedia).  The wife knows the visitor to have died years ago and assumes that he is an evil soul coming back to possess their family.  In the end, the wife stabs the visitor and he leaves the warm house to suffer in the blustery winter storm.  Could the man have actually placed a curse over the family?  In that case, this parable opening resembles a sort of "Adam and Eve" story where the rest of mankind has to deal with the sin of Eve eating the poisoned fruit.  The Jewish population has been incurred with the sin and curse of the nomadic couple, all except for a kind few.  This is where Larry comes in.  He is morally right in all he does: he never cheats or blames anyone else, he has a stable career, and lives a faithful life. Until Clive enters his life.  This student causes so much stress on Larry that, in means of trying to save Clive's humiliation within his family, he does away with his own moral righteousness and realizes the curse that has slowly infiltrated his mind.  Hope as we know it has been erased from existence.  This point is immediately validated by a phone call from Larry's doctor, asking him to come in to discuss an X-ray.

There is some point where everybody will have the opportunity to cave in and become something less than what we were made to do on Earth.  Everything will pile up as if your lungs can hold no more air and you feel your feet and legs starting to crack underneath you.  This point defines us as human beings, and this movie shows that only a rare few (if any) will actually abhor possession by this evil spirit.  Life can be unfair and unless you are in control, you may lose everything.

Courtesy of Ina Garten, Food Network:

Sunrise Smoothie


Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Tsar, dir. Pavel Lungin, Russia, 2009

To many of you this movie may sound unfamiliar as it did even to me.  I heard about it in my Russian film class in school and was excited to see this historic film following the reign of Ivan the Terrible in the mid-to-late 1500's.  The trailer looked action packed and intense, yet to my surprise the movie failed to follow through.  No I'm not a big history person so I would not do well in ANY history trivia game.  Except in cinema.  But definitely not 16th century or Russian history for that matter!  That being said, I had no conceptions going into this film.  When I came out, I was completely disoriented and did not feel that I had learned anything about Ivan's reign except that he slaughtered and corrupted a great many citizens.  I finally realized halfway through that he was supposed to be portrayed as a completely insane dictator.

I was greatly disappointed with many levels of this movie, but mostly the cinematography.  I cannot even remember one sensible edit or transition from the film.  For example, the most erratic and unsatisfying cut was from a brutal war to the Tsar being carried in a field of white blossoming trees.  In some very demonic symbolism, Ivan enjoys his peace and freedom as ruler at any cost, even at the expense of soldiers' lives.  The petals fall into the hands of the ever-present wind which painfully controls the life and beauty that calls for so little attention.

A reason why the film seemed so uninterpretable at times is because it did not take any strong or specific stance toward any character or action.  I felt lost because it failed to blatantly show me the horror of Ivan's rule via easy techniques, such as: low angle shots that signify Ivan's intimidation and great power and maximize his movement as an immovable ruler, oblique angles that disorient the audience in relation to Ivan's unnatural thinking process, or wide angle shots that minimize his actions to acts of terrorism in light of what is right in the world.  Obviously the violence and brutality is blunt enough to convey a strong message, but a film should be much more symbolic and complementing with techniques that make cinema such a highly acclaimed form of art.  Maybe I am just being too critical...

Tsar focuses on the interactions between Ivan and Philip and Ivan's fight for dominance at any cost.  He unleashes such fury and violence over the state that at times it is hard to imagine such torture occurring so frequently.  It is ironic that Ivan is so religious and pleads "God, give me a sign you still love me" when he goes against all of the core foundations of religion and engages in murder, betrayal, and falsehood.  Not to leave out that he embraces Satan as his right hand man for more than half of the film.  He also converts "Leonardo, the Italian's" creative works into tormenting, death machines.  For example, the water mill was converted into a rotating ring of swords that demolished any body that got in its way.  In his wrath, he destroys the one source of hope that the state has left: Philip.  In a very symbolic end, Philip has a godly epiphany realizing he will die in three days.  The religious undertones relating to Jesus can be blunt and overwhelming, but they definitely serve their purpose both to juxtapose and further the missions of Ivan and Philip, respectively.

On a final note, I do admit that the acting in the film was phenomenal.  All of the characters were extremely focused on creating a realistic portrait of the horrific lifestyle under the reign of Ivan the Terrible.  And boy did they make that come true!

In order to better analyze this film, I better watch Eisenstein's two-part Ivan the Terrible which also catalogues his intense reign.  If anyone has other (more uplifting) thoughts, feel free to comment!


Peach Mango Banana
1 cup each fresh or frozen peaches and mangoes
1 cup yogurt
1 cup ice
1/2 banana
honey (to sweeten the deal!)
milk or juice, at your discretion
Add in order of listing, and enjoy!!