Tuesday
Sep012009

12

This life-drainingly long, overly dramatic, ultimately superfluous Russian remake of Reginald Rose's 12 Angry Men seemed chock full of potential. Who better than the cultural descendents of Dostoyevsky and Solzhenitsyn to give a poignant spin on what has become the most famous jury movie in cinema history? Especially on its 50th anniversary.

Alas, Comrades, it was not to be.

But why should I think that such generalities of cultural purity would hold true for Mother Russia any more so than Teh Great United States. It would be like assuming the contemporary American cinema, its practitioners and audience are heavily inspired by Fitzgerald or Poe instead of having tastes more attune with the idiot man-children out of a Faulkner novel.

It's not that Nikita Mikhalkov has made a bad film here. It's engaging and cleverly paced (for the unholy duration of 159 minutes) and, at times, humanistic on a very gut level.

It's just so... unnecessary.

Why tinker with perfection? Which is what Sidney Lumet's 1957 version remains.

It's like Gus Van Zant's Psycho or Rob Zombie's Halloween or anything Todd Solondz has made or is going to attempt after Happiness.

There's no fucking point.

It's sheer ego.   

Mikhalkov has made some interesting adjustments. The accused boy is Chechen in order to keep the racially charged nuance of the trial. Metaphoric additions include the setting (an old Moscow school under renovations) and a trapped bird within the gymnasium where they deliberate. The director has also added flashbacks to the accused's childhood, shots of him currently in his cell awaiting the verdict and slow-motion footage of war's aftermath all to break away from the perceived monotony of the jury room. But the film still relies on Rose's original teleplay so often that it seems to list like an overloaded tanker whenever it strays.

The ensemble cast (made up of some of Russia's finest) comport themselves well despite having to deliver some very stagy "soliloquies" (not in the original script) and be, essentially, little more than stereotypes.

Are they really good or are they James Earl Jones good?

Certainly Sergei Makovetsky is no Henry Fonda. But he already knew that.

Here's where the wonder comes in.

I used to have a longstanding argument with a fellow cinematic friend/snob who would not cop to the idea that whenever you watched a film from outside your linguistic capabilities the appreciation of performance was somewhat tainted. My argument was that small subtleties of language, the pacing of the delivery, cultural differences, vernaculars, etc. limited the ability to critically judge a performance.

My friend argued (pretentiously and ethnocentrically) that despite a lack of word-for-word understanding of the delivered lines, one could tell immediately if an actor was a ham-fisted hack or divinely sublime.

I offered up a test. I made my friend promise they would be fair in their "thespian assessment". They agreed.

I played two segments of film. The first was from Rambo: First Blood Part II where Sly Stallone is giving his speech at the end about betrayal, loss, friendship, duty, honor, blah, blah, blah.

A lead balloon of acting.

Then, I queued up a scene with Toshiro Mifune in Rashomon (highly treasured and rightfully so by film aesthetes) and let 'er rip.

My friend was crushed. There was barely a difference between the two regarding bluster, physicality or intensity. As a matter of fact, Mifune was more "over the top". Not to be confused with the Sylvester Stallone film Over the Top about an arm wrestler with the "no shit" grab line of: Some fight for money... Some fight for glory... He's fighting for his son's love.

But we knew Sly was a joke. We'd been told differently about old Toshiro.

My friend could not watch certain Kurosawa films for six years. A fitting penance for their smugness and snobbery.

Who the fuck was to know, really?

My point entirely, unless you are the better person of us all and take the time to actually learn a few other languages. My respect is endless for such individuals.

So, honestly, I can't tell you whether the scene-munching performances I saw in 12 were decent or not. They seemed to have hit the right notes. The translated dialogue was surely trite at times, not helping their cause. The modern Russian stereotypes of these men were equivalent to those found in any teevee drama here in the States. Their attitudes and cultural outlooks have now (unfortunately) become my norms and talking points on older, ex-Soviet's behavior.

Quite ridiculous when you think about it.

A lot like the uninformed prejudices that 12 Angry Men exposed.

Gosh, 12 did get me pondering.

The cinema? Thinking? The twain?

Maybe this flick wasn't so useless after all.

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