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This a great time capsule documentary, providing insight into the post WW II Soviet Union cult of supremacy as manifested in its hockey program. The Soviet military actually ran the tryouts at the Red Army school, winnowing out of the weak and fusing sport with propaganda. The result was a juggernaut that came of age right at the moment it ran into the American team in 1980 at Lake Placid. After that ignominy (the Russians had just beaten the Americans in an exhibition 10-3), the team did not lose a game for the two years prior to Sarajevo, where they won gold, and again, in 1988.

However, the toll on the players was brutal. They spent their time in hockey camps 11 months of the year, and the coach, Viktor Tikhonov, would not even allow a player see his dying father. Perestroika loosened some of the restrictions, but still, Tikhonov, would not permit his best defenseman, Slava Fedisov, to go to the NHL.   Fedisov quit over the prohibition, made his displeasure public, and was ostracized for his impunity.  On the light side, he was denied training facilities. On the harsher, the police in Kiev picked him up, beat him, and then called Tikhonov to pick him up. Eventually, the Soviets allowed the players to play in the NHL, but they took half their salaries (Fetisov said no and was the first Soviet hockey player to get his full check) .

The footage – especially of the fluidity of the Soviet team – is dazzling, and the interviews of any number of direct but impatient Russians are sharp and revealing. The documentarian, Gabe Polsky, is to be commended for including footage of his broad questions, where he stretches to get a response on larger geopolitical issues, only to get a “stupid question” from the “suffer no fools” Fedisov. In fact, it was a stupid question, but we learn more in Fedisov’s curt comment than had he answered the stupid question.

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First time film director Yann Demange’s cat-and-mouse historical thriller is taut and assured, blending wrenching action sequences with emotional and historical authenticity.  A Brit soldier (Jack O’Connell) detailed to Belfast in 1971 is stranded after a riot in the Catholic section, and he must negotiate an internal power struggle amongst IRA strongmen, retribution from Protestant terrorists, army incompetence, and double-dealings amongst the intelligence personnel that have rank over his unit, to get out alive.

Belfast is portrayed as nothing less than the white man’s Mogadishu, and while there are some intelligent exchanges in first-time screenwriter Gregory Burke’s script, thankfully, there is no time for an examination of the various political agendas and hypocrisies at play.  Instead, the dismal backdrop of Belfast does most of the political talking, taking a backseat to the heart-pounding chase of O’Connell (who played the lead in Unbroken, so he’s created a niche for characters who have been put through the wringer).  It’s realistic, engrossing and heart-pounding.

In an interview, Demange gives a sense of his perspective on balancing the historical and the dramatic:

At first you can say, “It’s ‘Apocalypto’ in Belfast!” And yes it is, but you can’t just exploit a recent and painful period in people’s lives to make a fucking genre picture. And we all knew that. So we knew it had the shape of a genre picture, that’s how we’ll get a 20-year-old to watch it. But it had to have an honesty, a humanity, a soul.

What was hardest was bringing in shades of grey. Because I’m not like a Greengrass, you know? I’m not that bright, I didn’t go to good schools, I’m not a historian. I’m not interested in lessons. I just wanted to connect in a human way.

And I really struggled, when I began, to understand the Loyalist point of view. It was all white noise when I grew up. I was born in Paris, and plonked into Streatham in the late ’70s, ending up in West London, and this thing was just on the news constantly. But no one in my house understood it, it was just, “there’s been another bomb” “Who is it?” “The IRA” “Oh right.” It was like hearing Brits trying to talk about the Algerian conflict: Algeria? Where’s that? Eastern Europe?

We were so parochial, you know? I was amazed how ignorant I was, once I started meeting people and talking about it. I had no idea the level of sectarian division. I had no idea, and why they don’t put it on the curriculum?

Demange does owes a bit to Paul Greengrass’s Bloody Sunday and some more to the Red Riding trilogy, but his vision is unique.  His camerawork alternates between shaky documentarian and lyrical, giving you a breather while amping up the suspense.

As with those films, I recommend use of the subtitles.  I couldn’t understand a damn thing most folks were saying.

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Writer director Alex Garland has written several very distinct dystopian films (28 Days Later, Dredd) and his directorial debut is assured and not unexpectedly, unique. Oscar Isaac is Nathan, a Steve Jobs-esque reclusive titan who invites Caleb (Domnhall Gleeson), a coder at his web service monolith, to his retreat deep in the mountains to conduct the testing of an artificial intelligence being (Alicia Vikander) he has created. While Nathan and Caleb start off in an awkward forced friendship hampered by their employer-employee dynamic, and the fact that the reason for Caleb’s selection seems flimsy, they soon become adversarial – with Nathan chastising Caleb for his unscientific approach and Caleb increasingly distrustful of Nathan’s methods. It then becomes unclear exactly who is being tested, Eva, Caleb or Nathan, as the three negotiate their roles while strategizing to achieve their aims.

Expertly paced and beautifully photographed, there is a little bit of Her and Spielberg’s A.I. in here, but ultimately, the film that best captures the ethos of this picture is Mousetrap. This is an intelligent, absorbing and imaginative sci-fi thriller which rejects shocks for a slow dance and smartly realized  dawning at the end.

imageAfter the gruesome This is 40, it’s good to see Judd Apatow back.  He owes it to Amy Schumer’s crackling script and impressive breadth, as well as an unexpected Bill Hader as a rom-com lead and fantastic support, especially cameos by non-actors LeBron James and John Cena.  Schumer is a loose narcissist who shuns intimacy when she is given the assignment to write a magazine piece on Hader, surgeon to sports stars.  They click and he weans her off her casual cruelty, but, of course, she relapses and then . . .

Schumer is very funny, as evidenced by her Comedy Central sketch show, where she melds winning and loathsome, no small feat (Lena Dunham has mastered the same trick).  Schumer digs a little deeper here, showing some real depth in a few scenes of despair, so you’re rooting for her, a critical element for a rom-com.  As noted, she’s well-supported, and James is particularly memorable as himself, although I don’t know if he is notoriously cheap, into Downton Abbey, or so relentlessly competitive that he wouldn’t let up on the likes of Hader in a game of one-on-one.

There are some problems.  The film is too damn long at two hours, and the scenes that could be cut (an unfunny intervention, a scene where Schumer condescends to two stock, unhip suburbanites who don’t stand a chance, an overlong wacky seduction, one scene too many of an otherwise hilarious and barely recognizable Tilda Swinton as Schumer’s boss) are obvious.

Still, what’s funny is very funny and the picture sticks the landing.