Don't ask me what my favorite film is. It's like asking a parent which child is the favorite.

Welcome to my film blog. I strive for a synthesis of good/bad and theoretical criticism.

Friday, March 14, 2014


The Russian Inferiority Complex

A Review of Stalingrad

By Daniel Carstens

The Volga river. It is a clear night. The full moon glows over the river and the city of Stalingrad. A light mist floats over the calm river. A line of soldiers walks across the water.

It is revealed shortly after that a bridge had been built just below the surface so as to be invisible to the German soldiers who occupied the city on the other side of the river. But, for a moment, Stalingrad leads the audience to believe that Russian soldiers walk on water. This moment perhaps best symbolizes the film.

Visually, the film is fantastic. Shot in IMAX 3D, the film is clearly highly-influenced by American action and war films. Most of the CGI is top-notch (better than some American films). Massive, sweeping, overhead shots of the city look real. The film is worth viewing solely for the 3D, CGI spectacle. It is clear that director Fedor Bonderchuk and the crew put the highest effort into the film, which is more than can be said of most American action films. It's too bad the plot is weak. Still, it's a surprisingly decent film, and definitely worth a watch.

The Battle of Stalingrad was one of the bloodiest battles in modern human history, in which the entire city of Stalingrad became a battleground. The film focuses on one single building on the river. A young woman, Katya (Mariya Smolnikova), is the only Russian citizen left in the building, choosing to remain in hiding long after everyone else had evacuated or been killed. A small group of Russian soldiers infiltrate the building and kill the German soldiers occupying it. The soldiers meet Katya, and become her protectors.

Like Enemy at the Gates (2001), also about the Battle of Stalingrad, Stalingrad hones in on a few people on each side, providing a personal perspective. Both films show the impact and importance of one person. Enemy at the Gates shows how one man raised the moral of millions of Russians. Stalingrad shows why he and others fought. The soldiers protect Katya. She is the mother of the narrator; clearly a symbol for “Mother Russia.” The small group of soldiers protect their country and its people, and a seemingly insignificant building is vital to the war effort and to the survival of Russia.

Any war film, and practically any film, for that matter, glorifies the “good guys” and exaggerates the “bad guys.” History, of course, shows us how bad the Germans really were, but the exaggeration in Stalingrad is of 1940's proportion. The Germans have a problem with lice, which the Russian soldiers have solved. The Germans struggle with lice throughout the film. Near the end of the film, the dying German colonel says he feels nothing, except the itching of the lice. Not only are the Germans too incompetent to eradicate the lice, but so evil that they have no feelings as they near death.

The main villain is a German officer who has discovered a Russian woman who reminds him of his deceased wife. He not only rapes her, but becomes infatuated with her. The Russians who live with the woman ridicule her for sleeping with the German. This might seem cruel, but she begins to show affection towards the German. Her punishment is execution by a Russian sniper. It is a disturbing fate for a woman who was in constant danger and tried to protect herself, and whose rape undoubtedly caused severe emotional trauma. She should not be punished for her feelings, but as far as the film is concerned, she is no better than the German who rapes and kills Russians.

As horrible as the Germans are depicted, the Russians are equally glorified. Besides walking on water, they perform other superhuman feats. One soldier banks an explosive shell off a tank, sending it around a corner at a group of Germans. Early in the film, the Germans set fire their fuel supply to ward off a Russian attack. A massive, fiery explosion half a mile wide seems to consume everything around. However, burning Russian soldiers emerge from the flames, firing their rifles and throwing their burning bodies at German soldiers.

At first glance, Stalingrad's glorification of Russian soldiers, beyond that of normal war films, seems simply like over-the-top film making. However, it is also evidence of Russia's (and Putin's) inferiority complex. For a century (or more), Russia has desired to be a world power, yet in world wars depended on world powers for survival. The Cold War was a struggle for power. The Soviet Union gained its power through nuclear weapons, yet internal struggles and hardships showed that it would never become like the United States under communist rule. Now, decades after the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia still feels inferior to the U.S. The record-setting cost of the Sochi Olympics was an attempt to showcase Russia as a modern country and as a world power. The current struggle in Ukraine is Russia's attempt to flex its muscles. These all show Russia's (and Putin's) inferiority complex, which it often attempts to combat in rash ways, such as throwing money at an Olympics or invading a sovereign territory.

Stalingrad's depiction of the Germans shows not only Russia's hatred towards Germany during World War II, but its lingering jealousy towards the country. Germany, responsible for two world wars and the death of tens of millions of Russians, is more prosperous than Russia today. The United States supported Germany while squabbling with the Soviet Union during the Cold War, and Russia today resents it.

Stalingrad is an attempt to showcase Russia as a cinematic world power. It was the first non-American film to be shot in IMAX 3D, and indeed looks and feels like an American action/war film. The glorification of Russian soldiers is an attempt to showcase Russia's superiority, or at least put Russia on the same level as the United States. The Russian media is controlled by the government. Undoubtedly, the government heavily influenced Stalingrad and its glorification of Russia. The film releasing right when Russia has been constantly in the news (Olympics and Ukraine) is no coincidence. The film is part of Putin's blitz to assert Russia as a world power.

Though the film was very successful in Russia, Americans ignored the film. It grossed around half a million dollars in the U.S., which is what most American action films make in a few hours in their opening weekend. Stalingrad could have been made by an American production company, with English-speaking actors, and been at least moderately successful. Perhaps the Russian production companies (and perhaps the Russian government) thought that Stalingrad would be a sweeping success in the United States, putting Russia on equal footing cinematically with the U.S. It did not, and it will be interesting to see what the Russian inferiority complex produces next.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

2014 Oscar Predictions

Oscars 2014 Predictions

Original Screenplay

Who should win: This is a tough category. Her, Nebraska, and Dallas Buyers Club are all deserving. I like Her, for the plot if nothing else. Nebraska, Dallas Buyers Club, and also Blue Jasmine, are all driven more by an incredible acting performance, while Her is my favorite film of the category, much due to the screenplay.

Who will win: American Hustle. For my complete thoughts on this, I will defer to my review of the film at

Adapted Screenplay

Who should win: I think this is a more difficult category for me than for the Academy. While 12 Years a Slave is absolutely my favorite film of the year, it was due to the direction, acting, and cinematography more than the screenplay. However, I think it is still deserving of the award, though I strongly consider Philomena.

Who will win: 12 Years a Slave. Wolf of Wall Street has an outside shot.

Visual Effects

Who should win: Easiest category. Gravity.

Who will win: Gravity.

Sound Editing

Who should win: These categories are tough to pick. I don't think most of the Academy really knows why they are picking a film in the sound categories. Personally, I think The Hobbit deserves this award.

Who will win: Probably Gravity, though Captain Phillips is a good possibility, simply because both are action-filled movies nominated for Best Picture.

Sound Mixing

Who should win: Tough. I want to say Gravity, for having so many wonderful moments of silence, but then, a space film should have it. I pick Inside Llewyn Davis, because I love the way the songs are mixed, studio-quality, but sounding live. Also, the film uses silence very creatively.

Who will win: Gravity, though again, Captain Phillips is a possibility.

Production Design

Who should win: Her. I absolutely love the way the future looks in this film. It's 70's influenced, yet futuristic, and very plausible. It is a truly unique design, reminding us that designs of the future are always influenced by the past.

Who will win: Gravity. I think visual effects will cause this film to win production design.

Original Song

Who should win: “The Moon Song,” from Her. It's a beautiful moment in the film.

Who will win: The song they chose to nominate from Frozen. It doesn't matter which one, it would win regardless.

Original Score

Who should win: I didn't see The Book Thief, so I can't judge Mr. Williams' score. I like Her's score, it is not out-there futuristic, but it fits in well with the film. I would not be disappointed if Gravity won this category.

Who will win: Gravity. Though I see Saving Mr. Banks as a real possibility.

Makeup and Hairstyling

Who should win: How there are only three nominees in this category, I don't know. I think The Hobbit should win, but it wasn't nominated. I think Jackass: Bad Grandpa should win among these three, just because they did an awesome job making Johnny Knoxville look like an old man.

Who will win: Dallas Buyers Club, solely for making Jared Leto a transvestite. I don't think the Academy could give an Oscar to Jackass, though they did give one to Eminem.

Film Editing

Who should win: They need to change the name of the category. No one edits actual film. Anyway, Gravity nominated in this category is a joke. Gravity was almost completely previsualized, meaning there was about as much editing done as on an animated film. The Academy is confusing directing with editing? I love 12 Years a Slave's editing, though I feel that what I love about it are as a result of the director choosing long takes. My Oscar could easily go to The World's End. But among the nominees, 12 Years a Slave takes it.

Who will win: Captain Phillips. The Academy will confuse best editing with largest number of edits in a good action film.

Costume Design

Who should win: I didn't see all the films. My pick would go to The Hobbit, were it nominated. However, among the nominees, 12 Years a Slave.

Who will win: In an attempt to spite me as much as possible, the Academy will go with American Hustle, though I think The Great Gatsby is a possibility.


Who should win: Two of the films I have not seen. I think that's a good thing, as the Academy cinematographers seemingly decided to choose their nominations based on cinematography rather than best picture. As obvious as that sounds, it's not the norm. Llewyn Davis was probably nominated for this category largely because of lighting, which is part of cinematography. However, if this was what they did, where is The Secret Life of Walter Mitty? The shots are like a series of great photographs. This film is hands down my favorite cinematography of the year.

Who will win: Gravity.

Animated Feature Film

Who should win: I have only seen one film, Despicable Me 2, so it's not really fair to pick the category.

Who will win: However, I can make a prediction. Frozen, because Disney, decades behind society, has realized that women can be independent of men, and is being highly praised for it, for some stupid reason.


Who should win: One of the easiest categories for me. Steve McQueen (no, not that Steve McQueen) drew incredible performances from each actor, constructed amazing long takes, and knew when to simply let the audience ponder for a moment with Solomon. He made the film as awesome as it is.

Who will win: Alfonso Cuaron. He is almost solely responsible for Gravity being what it is. And I won't be too disappointed when he wins, but I feel that Gravity could have been a bit better film plot-wise.

Supporting Actress

Who should win: This is the absolute easiest category for me. Lupita Nyong'o gave one of the most moving performances ever. I did love June Squibb in Nebraska, but this is no contest.

Who will win: At the Academy screening of American Hustle, the audience went nuts when Jennifer Lawrence's name appeared during the credits. They are infatuated with her, and they will probably ignore the best performance of the year because of it. Again, my review of the film goes into more detail on my thoughts on this matter.

Supporting Actor

Who should win: As odd as it is to say this, Jonah Hill should win an Oscar. His performance was fantastic. He brought the character to life, and was the highlight of The Wolf of Wall Street.

Who will win: Jared Leto, for the wrong reasons. I will defer to my Dallas Buyers Club review for my complete thoughts on this.

Leading Actress

Who should win: Cate Blanchett. Another easy one. She was Blue Jasmine. Fantastic performance.

Who will win: Cate Blanchett. Meryl Streep would be a lock in any other year.

Leading Actor

Who should win: This might be the most difficult category. Mathew McConaughey, Chiewetel Ejiofor, and Bruce Dern are all deserving. As much as I loved 12 Years a Slave, I think McConaughey should win the award.

Who will win: I think it's a bit easier for the Academy, and McConaughey will take home the statue.

Best Picture

Who should win: 12 Years a Slave. It's an incredible film in every way, and important to U.S. and film history. It's the epitome of Best Picture.

Who will win: Apparently this is a toss-up between 12 Years a Slave, American Hustle, and Gravity. I am surprised to see Gravity considered, and slightly appalled. It is a great film, absolutely incredible visually, but to give a film Best Picture because of visuals is completely the opposite of what the Academy usually does. I don't think it will win. I am disgusted by the love for American Hustle, a thoroughly mediocre movie. However, unfortunately, in my cynicism towards Hollywood, I think the Academy will give in to its love affair with David O. Russell and the actors in the film. If they do, I will be done watching the Oscars.