Thursday, February 3, 2011

Callow youth, Russian style: Popogrebsky's bleak tale of HOW I ENDED THIS SUMMER

Two men, one young and the other middle-aged, are the only inhabitants of a scientific outpost on a desolate island in the Arctic, where they regularly check radiation levels and send infor-mation back to "headquarters." That they could hardly be more different is a given in movies such as HOW I ENDED THIS SUMMER from Russian writer/director Aleksei Popogrebsky, who back in 2003, gave us the more interesting and less schematic Roads to Koktebel. His new film is visually stunning (that island is something else!) and set so far from civilization and industry that scenery and colors, bleak as they are, read as utterly clear, sharp and true.

The characters of the men are anything but, particularly the younger of the two. Initially, Pavel or Pasha, as he is sometimes called (Grigory Dobrygin, above, left) seems an energetic, youthful, pleasant enough fellow who alternately resents and is a bit in awe of his co-worker Sergei (Sergei Puskepalis, above, right), who is older, maybe smarter, and has certainly has reams more experience here than newcomer Pasha.

Though we spend a good deal of time with the two, mostly individually (one seems to work while the other sleeps) we only learn as much as a smart movie with no unnecessary exposition is inclined to give us. This seems truthful enough, but it also limits our understanding and appreciation of the two men. Consequently, when the "big event" occurs (which is information of concern to Sergei, which is passed from headquarters into the ears of Pasha), our junior fellow so suddenly and completely goes to pieces (fear! paranoia! imminent nuttiness!) that he pretty much loses our understanding and good will.

The film then becomes a kind of not-quite chase film, not-quite thriller, not-quite existential dread movie in which you could actually use Shakespeare's famous stage direction, exeunt, pursued by a bear. This scene, in fact, leads to the one really bad bit of continuity
/editing, in which coincidence, convenience and filmmaker manipula-tion play a much bigger part than does intelligent plotting. In any case, young Pasha's unremitting refusal to do the decent and hono-rable thing finally left this viewer less than interested in the final outcome -- which, when it arrives, seems also a tad too convenient.

As a filmmaker, Popogrebsky, shown above, draws good performances from his leads (the movie, except for a couple of radio-transmitted voices is a two-hander) and has given his cinematographer, Pavel Kostomarov, a free hand to shoot some award-winning sights.

How I Ended This Summer, from Film Movement, opens in New York on Friday, February 4, for a week's run at the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas before moving on Friday, February 11 to the Cinema Village. It will then open at the San Francisco Film Society on February 25.

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