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PU-239

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****

I studied Russian for six years. So when a bunch of non-Russians affect Russian accents, I tend to find that distracting. This only was an issue for the trio of Shiv, Vlad, and Yegor. Oscar Isaac’s accent as Shiv was quite good. Jason Flemyng’s accent as Vlad was okay and Jordan Long’s accent as Yegor was pretty laughable, but so was his character, so that actually fit nicely. This was 1995 and the three of them are what was known as Novy Russkis or New Russians. The most common occupation of a Novy Russki was a biznesm’en (бизнесмен), which is not the same as what we call a businessman.1 I already knew this, but watching this movie helped really paint an accurate picture of the wild west nature of late 1990s Moscow. When I arrived in the Winter of 2003 that culture was dying, but it had certainly left a mark on the people who had just lived through it.

Vlad, Yegor & Shiv (Flemyng, Long & Isaac), © 2006 HBO.

Vlad, Shiv & Yegor (Flemyng, Isaac & Long), © 2006 HBO.

The other locale for this film is Skotoprigonyevsk-16, a fictitious closed city in Russia.2  There an accident happens in the nuclear reactor, and technician Timofey—Paddy Considine, Hot Fuzz—saves the day. Timofey has a caring, former technician Marina—Radha Mitchell, Phonebooth—for his wife and the mother of his son. Both Considine and Mitchell were excellent in their roles. The original name for this HBO film was “The Half Life of Timofey Berezin”. Because, yes, despite the lies the administration tells Timofey, he received a lethal dose of radiation. They suspend him, say it may have been his fault, and offer him essentially nothing, despite the obvious nature of the accident and their culpability. This is necessary because it forces Timofey’s hand into doing something desperate.

In the opening scene of the film Timofey stands in a market with a sign that says Pu-239, which references an isotope of plutonium. This particular isotope is especially sought after as it has two uses: firstly it can be combined with uranium to power a nuclear reactor, and secondly it is the most common isotope for nuclear weapons. So Shiv approaches him and then it cuts to two days earlier. If this all sounds like a horribly depressing premise, well it certainly is. Even scenes that take place in a sunny field have little joy about them. But I cared for Timofey and his family, just as I began to care for the idiot Shiv, who, together with his friends, needs to find $6,000 so their boss will not kill them in two days. The film gets so dark that the Moscow ending might actually be meant as a joke, but I could not tell as my body had gone from aching to laugh to being physically unable to do so.

The hands on the clock are waving goodbye. It was my grandfather’s watch. The dial was painted by hand in America during Word War I. The brides of soldiers seated at long tables dutifully making luminous little sixes and eights to help keep the world free. The eights were particularly hard to make; so the women sucked on the tips of the paintbrushes to bring them to a fine point. One by one, their mouths began to fill with cancer. The radium-based paint they had swallowed bombarded their brains and bones with alpha and beta particles. The women who painted the watch faces sued the US Radium Corporation of West Orange, New Jersey. Had the trial been at night, the breath they used to say goodbye to the world would have glowed like moonlit fog. They were given ten thousand dollars for their lives.

1 Biznesm’en engaged in biznes (бизнес), which is like a whiter version of hustling or being in the game in urban America.
2 A “closed city” was a place in the Soviet Union where permission was required to enter. Unlike Americans with driver’s licenses and state ID card, Soviet citizens had internal passports. So if you did not have a reason to be in a closed city, you would be in hot water. I have been to a former closed city, Nizhny Novgorod, which was known as Gorky in the USSR. In 1989 it had a population of over 1.4 million. Imagine a city that size, with its own football/soccer team that you could not visit. Approximately one in four residents lived there by order of the state and under surveillance. Skotoprigonyevsk-16 is not like Nizhny Novgorod, it is meant to be like Chelyabinsk-70, a closed city for a nuclear reactor.

Hocus Pocus

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hocuspocus

The witches of Hocus Pocus, Mary, Winifred and Sarah Sanderson (Kathy Najimy, Bette Midler & Sarah Jessica Parker), © 1993 Walt Disney.

Oh Hocus Pocus. What shall I do with you? Focus on your highlights? Destroy you in a way I usually reserve for movies that Garry Marshall directs (and not ones he makes cameos in1)? Try to bring a fresh analysis to it? Turn this into a list?

**

Pull over! Let me see your driver’s permit!

Surprise! I am going to do all of the above!

A. The Highlights:

  1. The film had excellent special effects. Considering the year, 1993, and the target audience, kids, the flying and the explosions were surprisingly good.
  2. The actors attacked their roles with gusto. Sarah Jessica Parker and Vinessa Shaw deserve special credit for doing so. Bette Midler also fully committed to her character.
  3. Doug Jones played Billy Butcherson and a different actor, Karyn Malchus got credited as Headless Billy Butcherson.

B. Criticism: This film had so, so many plots holes. I am not even adept at spotting plot holes, but these popped up all over the place. For one, there waas a high school with a functional room sized kiln that could easily be used to lock people inside to incinerate. How did that wind up in a Massachusetts public school?!? Or if you prefer an oral plot hole, the quote I pulled about the driver’s license appalled me as Bette Midler said it. Her character, an ancient witch brought back to life for one night because a black candle was lit by a virgin on Halloween, did not know what a bus was, or how it worked. A few hours later she was flying up to a car and cracking wise about a driver’s permit. This leads to my next criticism, that almost every scene had contrived, awful dialogue. Most scenes were just setups for unfunny quips from Midler, whom I do not blame, since she did not write them.2  Midler also attacked her sisters constantly for being dumb or slutty. That transitions into my third, and final, criticism, that none of the relationships in the film make sense. Midler was a jerk and her sisters, Parker and Najimy took it all with a smile on their faces or with a grimace of momentary confusion. They were related by blood at least, whereas Omri Katz and Vinessa Shaw seemed like a male fantasy matchup. She was beautiful, kind, intelligent, patient, tall, and able to stay out all night without getting into trouble with her parents. On the other hand Katz is a horny idiot who almost gets dozens of children murdered because he is a horny idiot. The only positives that came out of his actions were attempts to unscrew things up. The sole benefit from the whole story was that an undead boy stuck in a cat’s body for 300 years gets to die to rejoin his sister in heaven. It is difficult to express how soul-crushing typing that sentence was.

Look how poorly lit this shot is. Jeez.

Thora Birch, Vinessa Shaw & Omri Katz as Dani, Allison and Max in Hocus Pocus.

C. Something New: Identifying the genre of this film is actually quite difficult. IMDb has 155 plot keywords listed for it. None of those words include kidnapping. This undermines my confidence in what people have focused on when watching this movie, because kidnapping children is kind of a major focus of the film, and this leads to unwanted touching of teenage boys by adult female witches. From here I found the actual genre—unnecessarily sexual nostalgic kids movie. I never watched this movie as a kid, but I know from fbook that the people who did seem to still love it. The quality of the film does not support this feeling, which is where the complicated emotion nostalgia comes into play. Like Stand By Me before it, this film clearly attempts to tap into this emotion in adults, but more strongly embeds within its children viewers that seed of future nostalgia. Had that been the only driving force behind the film its plot and genre would be easier to address, but oh hell no. Instead Vinessa Shaw, while not dressed provocatively, is certainly a woman presented as a teenage girl. Had horny idiot been a man, this would be more equal, but he looked and seemed like a horny idiot teen—listen for the use of the word “yabbos” regarding Ms. Shaw. And then there is Sarah Jessica Parker. I have always found her attractive, but I never would have described her as buxom. This film goes out of its way to corset her into showing so much cleavage that I remembered that ‘buxom’ is an English word. But visually that is not enough. She basically tries to have sex with the bus driver upon meeting him. For no reason. And this is the bus driver who is 100% on board with finding children for these women and their “forbidden desires.” Shuddering yet? Anyways, in the end she, the slut, dies, while horny idiot, the virgin, lives. How traditional for a horror movie. Well, at least they are both idiots, so there is that level of equality in the movie.

There you have it. If I could go back and unwatch this movie so that I would not have these opinions I probably would. Still, it made me think, and usually that is a good thing.

1 He plays the devil and he is married to a regular woman played by his real life sister Penny Marshall. Fortunately they are portrayed non-sexually. Still Penny’s role was not entertaining.
2 That honor goes to screenwriters Mick Garris and Neil Cuthbert. Cuthbert’s last script was The Adventures of Pluto Nash, which is allegedly Eddie Murphy’s worst film—that is an amazing feat, if true.