In Science Veritas

veritas77.jpgThe film Martian, based on the book by Andy Weir, boasts about its accuracy in showing details of a mission to Mars. How believable is the movie Martian from the standpoint of science?


Astrophysicist Alexei Varenikov next to the rover Curiosity

Russian astrophysicist Alexei Varenikov, who participated in the management team of the rover Curiosity, watched the movie and explained what is plausible and what is not, from the point of view of science.

Please note: the text below contains movie spoilers.

Photo from the archives of NASA

Photo from the archives of NASA

Landscape: Martian landscape in the movie looks rather close to reality. However, there are some nuances: for example, in the past few billion earth years to a large degree smoothed the Martian mountains. The film shows a beautiful vertical cliffs and walls of rocks — it is, in fact, a very rare occurrence on the Martian surface.

Verdict: fairly plausible.

Photo from the archives of NASA

Photo from the archives of NASA

Sunset: The sunsets in the movie are reddish-orange in color. However, the sunsets on Mars are depressingly greenish-blue because of the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Verdict: implausibleveritas3

Storms and winds: Storms on Mars are seasonal, frequently occurring and thoroughly studied phenomena. In the movie storm serves to create dramatic plot twist. On Mars, where the atmospheric pressure is very low and the atmosphere is thin (like on top of a 20 km high mountain.) The wind is really strong there, but it does not blow objects away. The only unpleasantness is a small specks of sand that are flying at a speed of 100 meters per second. From this the lenses of rovers often sustain scratches. But Martian winds cannot send rocks flying in the air. Therefore, the antenna could not just come off and fly away blown by the wind. Also, the sky does not darken in a storm — because the atmosphere is rarefied the sky become red rather than dark.

Verdict: implausible.  veritas4Tornadoes: Tornadoes is a fact of Martian climate. The so-called “dust devils” leave marks on the surface of the planet, visible on many images of Mars. In the movie the tornadoes  are not quite as tall as in real life. On Mars, they can reach a height of 30 km. It is a pity that the movie doesn’t show the Martian snow. The snow really falls on Mars, however, it is not made of water but carbon dioxide (CO2). There exist amusing pictures from Vikings of carbonated drifting snow.

Verdict: plausible. veritas6Gravity: Gravity on Mars is slightly lower than on Earth — about 40% of the Earth’s gravity. At the beginning of the movie, to show the difference in gravity, the frames are barely slowed to achieve realistic effect. 

Verdict: plausible.veritas7Radiation: Mars’s surface receives more radiation than the Earth’s but still blocks a considerable amount. Radiation exposure on the surface is 30 µSv per hour during solar minimum; during solar maximum, dosage equivalent of this exposure is reduced by the factor two (2). If the settlers spend on average three hours every three days outside the habitat, their individual exposure adds up to 11 mSv per year. 

Verdict: Largely implausible.veritas8Living Quarters: The base is realistic. It would have been more realistic if the structure  were buried 2-3 meters into the ground to protect from radiation. On the other hand, NASA is constantly developing new high-tech materials (that is why the American “machines” are so expensive).

Verdict: plausible.veritas9Water, oxygen production and potatoes growing: I’m not a biologist, but growing of potatoes as shown in the movie is quite believable. The soil on Mars contains iron oxide, which is rust. In fact, the same sand can be found, for example, in the Death Valley, USA.  Oxygen for breathing was derived by using closed-cycle generator  — they are very effective and are used now quite extensively.

Verdict: plausible.veritas91The total loss of communication with Earth: Usually NASA duplicates channels of communication, and even the failure of the two of them shouldn’t necessarily lead to a complete loss of contact with the mother-planet.  But in reality anything could happen, including damage to the antenna. Should the loss of communication happen, the astronaut might have to act in much the same manner, if he or she knows what to do, which is go straight into the hexadecimal code. The programming at NASA, by the way, done mostly in  assembly language.

Verdict: plausible.veritas92NASA Offices: Very believably depicted. All these brilliant “lunatics” who “calculate  trajectory” etc, actually work in this manner. No matter where or how you live or how you look like, the important thing is what you can do and how you do it. Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) is one of the best places on earth to be a scientist.

Verdict: plausible.veritas95

Richard III. Reload.


Nothing beats a stage performance of a Shakespeare play if the cast is first-rate and the direction insightful. ,will play Richard III in the forthcoming second installment of BBC series The Hollow Crown, based on Shakespeare’s Wars of the Roses plays.

The complex, interesting and dangerous man was Plantagenet king Richard III. Plenty of challenge for the actor who plays him.  Cumberbatch, who flexed his histrionic muscle as Shakespearean  Hamlet in the National Theatre production, has a rival for the best Richard III. Martin Freeman took on his first Shakespearean role in the production at London’s Trafalgar Studios that run from July to the end of September, 2014.

In Shakespeare’s play, Richard III is an ugly hunchback with a withered arm. He is a despicable despot and a veritable sonofabitch — just like in the chronicles of the Tudors. The rivals for the throne, Tudors had every reason to malign King Richard.

Thomas More described Richard’s appearance and character in a very negative way as well. However, when Richard died, Thomas was only 8 years old, thus it was hardly a first-hand recollection. Shakespeare’s play portrays Richard III as a ruthless murderer of his young nephews, Edward V of England and Richard of Shrewsbury, Duke of York, in the fight for the throne. However, there is no direct historical evidence to prove it.   Historians say that the fate of the Princes in the Tower remains an unsolved mystery to this day. Thus the involvement of Richard III in the boys’ demise is just a persistent rumor started with the aim of Tudors to discredit the last Plantagenet King.
richardIII-3Interesting that the early portraits of Richard III do not depict him as being badly disfigured by a hump on his back.  X-rays of the canvas show that the uneven height of his shoulders was added later than the portraits were actually painted. All the later portraits were based upon the altered original.

The entire life story of the last of the Plantagenets might have been  (and, undoubtedly, has been)”adjusted” to suit victorious Tudors.  In the journals of the Major of York, there is an entry where he mourns  Richard’s death and writes that the king ruled justly and graciously. richardIII-4Not so long ago, archaeologists announced that they found the tomb of Richard III in Lester. The skeleton was discovered in the autumn of 2012 under the parking lot, located on the site of the former Franciscan monastery. It is known that many years after the death of King Richard III, Henry VII ordered to install a tombstone over the Richard’s unmarked grave, which cost him ten pounds and one shilling. In the 16th century, the church was destroyed and the traces of Richard’s grave has been lost. richardIII-5DNA analysis revealed that the remains found in Lester, indeed, what left of the last Plantagenet.  Richard wasn’t a hunchback after all. He suffered from scoliosis (a sideways curvature) of the spine.  He might have experienced excruciating pain most of his life, but suffered stoically.  Richard died at the age of 33, still quite a young man.richardIII-6This is how Richard III might have looked like — very un-Shakespearean.

To finish this post on an optimistic note (besides looking forward to  The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses, with Benedict Cumberbatch as Richard III, Judi Dench as Cecily, Duchess of York and Sophie Okonedo as Queen Margaret, promised in 2016) let’s see Lawrence Olivier — one of the most memorable Richards in the history of the theater — performing Richard’s redemptive song from the Horrible Histories.  The lyrics is below for those who wishes to sing along.

I was sure that you’d love me
To that hope, I did cling
‘Cause I’m… Richard the third
And… everybody loves a king!

Thought I did a good job
Why do you disagree?
There’s a lot of people
Spreading nasty rumours ’bout me
Every word is a lie
So I’m singing this song
‘Cause the history books
Have been telling it wrong!

Never had a limp
Always walked my full height
Never had a hunch
And my arm was all right
Never took the crown
With illegal power
Never killed my nephews
The princes in the tower
Tudor propaganda
It’s all absurd
Time to tell the truth
About King Richard the third

My brother Edward, died
His kids too young to rule
So… I took the throne
Why not? I’m nobody’s fool!

Thomas More wrote a history
Said I’d murdered Edward’s boys
Shakespeare said their death
Was an evil ploy
But I say those two
Are historical vandals!
They’ve ruined my image!
I mean, what a scandal!

Never bumped off
Those harmless young heirs
Never buried them
Under the Tower of London stairs
Never poisoned my wife
Bumped off her daddy
This is me, sweet Richard
Do I look like a baddy?
Never was two-faced
Sure you’ll agree
I was misunderstood
King Richard three

Can you imagine it?
I’m the last Plantagenet
Beaten by Henry
In the Wars of the Roses
The Tudor dynasty
Didn’t care that much for me
Now I’m painted as a baddy
That’s why one supposes…

Never forget
When you hear of my crimes
Never drowned my brother
In a massive vat of wine
Never said ‘My horse!
My kingdom for a horse!’
Who made that up?
Why, William Shakespeare, of course!

Now my tale is told
You won’t hear a bad word
About a special ruler
King Richard the third

The Other Mozart

another mozart1Maria Anna Mozart, nicknamed Nannerl, was the older sister of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and his only sibling to survive infancy. In all accounts, she is only an episode in the biography of Mozart, a “fact” from the great composer’s early years.

Leopold Mozart with his children Wolfgang and Nannerl at the piano, the portrait of their deceased mother on the wall. Oil on Canvas by Johann Nepomuk Della Croce, around 1780.

Leopold Mozart with his children Wolfgang and Nannerl at the piano, the portrait of their deceased mother on the wall. Oil on Canvas by Johann Nepomuk Della Croce,
around 1780.

However, on many accounts, growing up, Nannerl, having been older, was more talented, experienced and, perhaps, even more musically gifted than her brother Wolfgang. Nannerl played harpsichord since she was 7 years old. With her father Leopold she traveled all over Europe, giving performances with her prodigal younger brother. At 11, she played the most difficult sonatas and concertos. Miracle babies, Nannerl and Wolfgang captured and fascinated European capitals, and, more often than not, Nannerl was considered a brighter star than young Wolfgang.

“Imagine an eleven-year-old girl, performing the most difficult sonatas and concertos of the greatest composers, on the harpsichord or fortepiano, with precision, with incredible lightness, with impeccable taste. It was a source of wonder to many.”  Augsburger Intelligenz, May 19, 1763.

another mozart2

However, by the standards of the time, the life of a performer wasn’t “right” for a girl, no matter how gifted. Thus their father Leopold continued to nurture the talents of Wolfgang and tour Europe with him while, after three years of touring, Nannerl was left behind. She had to learn sewing and housekeeping — her future was to find a husband, marry, have children, sew, embroider and keep the house. Kinder, Küche, Kirche — the three Ks of a good German woman. And not only German, no matter how you pronounce the three Ks.

Women were still being thought of as less than, and that they should keep their place in the home taking care of the family. There was even a discussion of whether a woman could create. One critic I read in my research said a woman would not be able to have children if she created art, because she would use up her creativity.

There were very strange thoughts at the time about women and about them creating. It was even argued that women don’t create the child, that it is the men who create the child and the women only carry the child in their belly. I mean, it is astounding. ( Sylvia Milo in the interview about her one-woman play, “The Other Mozart.”

Nannerl married a magistrate Johann Baptist von Sonnenburg, 15 years her senior, twice a widower. The couple moved to the home of her mother in St. Gilgen. Johann Baptist already had five children from his two previous marriages. Nannelr bore him three more.

After her husband’s death, Nannerl returned to Salzburg. She continued to offer piano lessons, enjoying a great esteem and respect among the residents of this city. Her diaries, letters and memoirs remain an invaluable source of information and insight for numerous biographers of her brother, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

“The Other Mozart” by Sylvia Milo is a play inspired by Nannerl’s vast epistolary heritage.

another mozart

Also, in 2010 premiered the French film Mozart’s Sister (French title: Nannerl, la sœur de Mozart) written and directed by René Féretanother mozart3

The Tale of Mr Rêvus

Mr RFor no apparent reason whatsoever, I loved this amazing animated short film, The Tale of Mr Rêvusis. It was produced by Marius Herzog as the graduation (Diploma) project at the Georg-Simon-Ohm Hochschule – University Of Applied Sciences, in Nuremberg, Germany.

The challenge of this movie for Marius was to follow the entire production process of an animated 3D short film from start to finish on his own:  story development, concept design, modelling, rigging, directing, editing, animating, rendering etc.

The score was arranged by Simon Scharf, a student at the Hochschule für Musik also in Nuremberg (HfM), conducted by Guido Johannes Rumstadt and played by the orchestra of the HfM.

Bruegel The Elder, The Mill, The Cross…

Pieter Bruegel

The Procession to Calvary is an oil-on-panel by Flemish renaissance artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder of Christ carrying the Cross set in a large landscape, painted in 1564. It is in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.

Bruegel’s paintings seem to possess this mystic quality — a desire to step into them, walk on their painted landscapes, mixing with a crowd, looking from the inside at how people lived then. The director  Lech Majewski of THE MILL AND THE CROSS did just that.

The Mill and the Cross1

Pieter Bruegel’s The Procession to Calvary recreated by Lech Majewski in “The Mill and the Cross”

THE MILL AND THE CROSS is a “film of great beauty and attention” (Roger Ebert) that stunningly recreates one of the great masterpieces of painting, Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s “The Way to Calvary.”
The Mill and the Cross6

Pieter Bruegel (played by Rutger Hauer) is inside the picture, too,while busy painting it.

The Mill and the Cross

The story of Christ’s passion is far removed from his native place  as well as his historical time.  Many painters thought nothing of transplanting biblical figures in “historically unauthentic surroundings,” dressing them in appropriate clothes from their own epoch, seldom without some underlying agenda.

Christ never appears in the film, but there is Mary (Charlotte Rampling).

The Mill and the Cross2

Mary, played by Charlotte Rampling in a sunning preformance.

It’s not easy to find Jesus staggering beneath the crucifix he carries in the teeming crowds in the landscape; surrounding the procession are hundreds of local characters, most unaware of the world-shaking event about to occur.The Mill, standing on a hill in the film becomes a symbol of the Time, its steady, leisurely, never-ending cycle that grinds it all to dust.

The Mill and the Cross4

In “Calvary” he shifted the Crucifixion to his own age; it isn’t Roman soldiers marching Jesus to Golgotha, it is red-jacketed Spanish militiamen, then occupying the Low Countries and waging a brutal repression of the Protestant Reformation.
The Mill and the Cross3

The opinions of the viewing public differed greatly from:

“this film, unique, fascinating, disturbing, beautiful…challenging and beguiling especially for any art and history lover,” and:

“Absolutely mesmerizing. You hate to leave the theater, to break the spell that has so beautifully created a world you’ve entered into. More, more, more like this” to:  

Why is everybody so enthusiastic? Yes, the thing is visually interesting – but for 10, 20 minutes at most. Then one starts wondering why one should be inflicted cruel scenes, kids senselessly running around as though mentally disturbed, mixed up random everyday scenes, and all without a shred of dialogue, save some pompous exchanges between Bruegel and his protector.” 

Indeed, watching this film is no escape, but nearly physical participation in the birth of great art. One can watch the film in its entirety free on or right here.

Hello, My Name Is Ashchf Lshtshfum

This post is a promised continuation of  the  Crime Scene Investigation. Russian Mafia. The focus, however, will be shifted from movie reviews to nit-picking.

It’s a tedious task, primarily because is has to do with laughably ridiculous Russian inscriptions in American films. It’s not easy to explain just how ridiculous and why it’s so laughable. Russians, naturally, need no explanation. A few dozen of these “pearls” have been posted on various sites, such as this one Русские надписи в американских фильмах.

Burne Identity

The Bourne Identity (2002) stars Matt Damon as Jason Bourne, suffering from extreme memory loss, attempting to discover his true identity amidst a clandestine conspiracy within the CIA. 

This is the Russian passport of Jason Bourne, otherwise baffled by his identity. He doesn’t have to be baffled anymore. His name is Ashchf Lshtshfum. Seriously. If he looks only at the right side of his “Russian” passport, he might introduce himself as FOMA KINIAEV.   FOMA KINIAEV, a rather unlikely name very likely to raise a few bushy Russian eyebrows. Still, it’s kind’a sort’a sounds remotely Russian or at least  pseudo-Russian.  Written in Russian,  FOMA KINIAEV should look like ФОМА КИНИАЕВ — a rather simple transliteration, letter for letter.

What do we see on the Russian side of his document? Practically unpronounceable  ЛШТШФУМ AЩЬФ, which, in transliteration, is equally unpronounceable  ASHCHF LSHTSHFUM.  Well, hello, sweet prince! With the name like this, any CIA super-agent is simply asking for a failed mission.  Unless, of course, he has been trained in Hollywood. 

terminalIn the Terminal (2004), an eastern traveler from fictional Krakozhia, Viktor Navorski (Tom Hanks), arrives at New York’s  JFK airport… only to find that his passport is suddenly no longer valid. In the movie, the reason for this misfortune is the outbreak of a civil war in his homeland. As a result, the United States no longer recognizes Krakozhia as a sovereign nation. Poor guy is not permitted to either enter the country or return home.

However, let’s take a look at Mr. Navorski’s travel documents. In all appearances, it’s a Belorussian driver license of a female person Гульнара Гулина, that should’ve been transliterated as Gulnara Gulina, NOT Victor Navorski. No wonder there is no country for the guy!


Hitman (2007) was shot, among other locations, in Sofia, Bulgaria.hitman

That is, Bulgaria stands for Russia in this movie. And it shows. Народен Театър Иван Вазов is a real place, but nowhere near Russia. It’s an Ivan Vazov National Theatre in Sofia. 

From Russia with Love (1969) is the second James Bond film made by Eon Productions and the second to star Sean Connery.


Here, fictional MI6 agent James Bond happen to visit a no less fictional Russia. In the huge letters on the doors of the embassy, in fictional Russian, there are two words. If my imagination doesn’t deceive me, these words meant to mean PUSH and PULL for the weak-eyed MI6 agents.

ДЕРГАТ and ДИХАТ is what is actually written. The misspelled first word, given the corrected spelling, could mean JERK. The second word is made up of 5 letters. Put together, they have no discernible meaning. Bond — James Bond was a real clever chap. He pushed when it came to shove. But, honestly, if he were fluent in Russian, he wouldn’t know what to do with that bloody door. Well, that’s  from Russia with Love for you.

Russians have several explanation, often contradictory, of why Hollywood does what it does.

  • Filmmakers cut corners and didn’t want to hire Russian-speaking consultants: Hollywood knows how to make money and how to count it.  If corners can be cut without much damage to the product, corners will be cut. Not hiring Russian actor to play Russian character, and forfeit the services of Russian editors… Most of it could be explained by the fact that these films weren’t intended for distribution in Russia.
  • Americans have no respect to other cultures and disregard feelings of non-Americans;
  • The hired Russian consultants did it on purpose because they hate Russia and Russians.
  • Filmmakers did it on purpose, out of spite and disregard for Russians;
  • Spelling mistakes and stylistic fuckups, rather than being a  profound  manifestation of the lack of professionalism is, quite to the contrary, an elaborate strategy of psychological warfare: Russia means so little to us, we are too lazy to spend money on correct translation.

However, nowadays, rare movie, particularly mega-blockbusters, escapes being shown in Russia. Much to the chagrin of the Russian moviegoers, blunders and bungling happen even in hundred million dollar Hollywood blockbusters.

Whatever… And lastly,

Fantastic Four 


The upper line says — no misspellings here — “Head of the finger of the foot”, or, perhaps, Tip of the Toe. That would sound more “poetic”, particularly for the transport barge LATVERIA (a completely meaningless word as well).


Crime Scene Investigation. Russian Mafia

Russians are bad… again. Definitely bad. Just like when they were Soviets — clear and present danger.

Soviets were dirty, smelly, wore fur hats made of endangered species, drank vodka by the buckets, slept with bears. Just look at ’em. And look at the  Americans lads, playing in the sandbox — what a children of light!

Russian Theme1
Then Soviets stopped being  Soviets and become “Russians”. Some of ’em happen to be so cool that they were allowed to play in the same sandbox. Just look at ’em. As non-threatening as can be. Although it’s been said that of all the benefits of civilization they favor feminine pads “Always”, and routinely use them instead of insoles in their sandals.


Pic. by Vladimir Lubarov

Vladimir Lubarov

Pic. by Vladimir Lubarov

Now the pendulum seem to be swinging back. Russians no longer look cuddly, and scented maxi-pads in their sandals no longer smell of rose petals.

However, a notable difference between then and now is that a staggering number of Soviets and post-Soviets became Russian-Americans. Not Putin but Obama “rules”. Thus the rest of the Something-Or-Another-Americans don’t have to strain their collective imagination to check the insoles of “Russian” sandals for unorthodox use of “Always”. They can simply look and sniff.

Since it became thus, Hollywood took notice and discovered that Russian organized crime, operating outside Russia, although looked and smelled different from Sicilian mafia, Irish gangs, Middle-Eastern jihaddists and whatnot, was… well… quite serviceably cinematic.  Russians had become villains du jour yet again, now on a silver screen.

The trend started mid-90th with  James Gray‘s Little Odessa. Before Gray switched to more universal melodramas, he was the main “supplier” of epics about the adventures of Russian criminals in new-found lands. Little Odessa was his first such film. Generally speaking,  Gray turned out a kind of  Scorsese’s Mean Streets where everyone speaks with Russian rather than Italian accent.

Little Odessa (1994)

Cortesy Fine Line Features

Cortesy Fine Line Features

In the opening moments of Little Odessa, a hit man, Joshua Shapira,  played by Tim Roth, walks quickly across a street toward a man on a park bench, and shoots him dead. Next, he phones in his report about the job having been done.

Much to his dismay, he learns that his next job will take him to the Brighton Beach neighborhood of Brooklyn. Not there, he panics. He can’t go back there. But he does. Because he has to… He is a hired killer for the Russian Mafia. Native son returns to his old neighborhood, and the whole slew of troubles begin.

This is a film about atonement with a noticeable influence of Dostoevsky. A rather unsympathetic lead, skilfully played by Tim Roth, is Dostoevsky’s “serial” Raskolnikov of sorts, god bless his lost little heart.

Lord of War (2005)

Cortesy of Lions Gate Films

Written, produced and directed by Andrew Niccol and co-produced by and starring Nicolas Cage, playing  an illegal arms dealer with similarities to a real-life post-Soviet arms dealer Viktor Bout.

Once, Yuri Orlov (played by Cage with his courageous eyes of a tortured doe) witnessed a scene of a gang violence. Melodious sounds of falling shells, the poetry of flying bullets and harmonious disembowelment of human bodies caused Yuri to experience sort of personal epiphany — a pure aesthetic pleasure. He knew immediately what his vocation must  be. It had to do with weapons. He’d put his hands on them and sell them. All kinds of them, from Kalashnikovs to combat helicopters.

He is a true professional. He doesn’t care what kind of folks his customers happen to be. Only money talk in his business. Yuri’s business blossoms, thanks to global destabilization. In a world with more guns than teachers for every 12 people and bullets changing governments far surer than votes, Orlov sees transactions where others see travesty.

Eventually, Yuri’s secrecy and tyrannical control unravel as his business collides with his trophy wife (Bridget Moynahan), cocaine-addicted brother (Jared Leto) and a dogged ATF agent (Ethan Hawke, in a rare less-is-more moment). Neither Yuri nor the film arrives at any conventional clarity. (BY )

This is a carefully choreographed devil’s dance in which Cage (doe eyes and all) is playing a man who knows evil can’t exist without good, but that evil generally prevails.

Lord of war

In one of the most memorable scenes Jared Leto (playing ne’er brother of the protagonist) draws a map of Ukraine with cocaine line, then snorts it whole.

 We Own the Night (2007)

Cortesy  Columbia Pictures

Cortesy Columbia Pictures

Another James Gray’s Russian-themed crime drama, starring Joaquin PhoenixMark WahlbergEva Mendes and Robert Duvall. This one has an old-fashioned narrative and a compelling premise: two brothers operating on either side of the law, pitting the immigrant pursuit of the American Dream against the fatal determinism of a Greek tragedy.

Cliches clashed. Credulity stretched: In the small world of Brooklyn cops and robbers, wouldn’t a lot of people who grew up with them know Bobby was related to Joseph and Burt? Can you just change your name and lose your identity?

Powerful drug dealers may be evil, but I doubt they’re as stupid and oblivious as depicted in We Own the Night. And, although Bobby suffers from anxiety over his life-changing decision, any rational man going on the dangerous mission he undertakes would surely be more careful about the items he carries along with him. (Rotten Tomatoes)

Eastern Promises (2007)Eastern_Promises_10

Eastern Promises is a 2007 British crime thriller directed by David Cronenberg, from a screenplay written by Steven Knight. The film stars Viggo MortensenNaomi Watts and Vincent Cassel, and tells a story of a British midwife’s dramatic interactions with the Russian crime family in London.  The film has been noted for its violence and realistic depiction of Russian career criminals, its plot twist and exploring the subject of sex trafficking.

A teenage girl hemorrhages profusely — her throat has been slashed. She dies in a hospital soon thereafter, but not before giving birth to a baby. Anna Khitrova (Naomi Watts) is a midwife, a second generation Russian Londoner, is determined to protect the infant. Her Russian-born mother and uncle (Sinead Cusack and Jerzy Skolimowski) help her to translate the dead girl’s diary…

a1The gears of the story shift into place when the diary of a murdered girl, the midwife who saved her newborn baby and the notorious crime family become interlocked.

This is by far the first non-Russian film about Russian mafia where almost everyone speaks Russian with remarkable fluency, including German actor Armin Mueller-Stahl, Frenchman Vincent Cassel, Danish-American Viggo Mortensen and a Polish actor Jerzy Skolimowski.  

In preparation  to his role, Mortensen  traveled to Russia and lived there for two months, visiting Moscow, St. Petersburg, Ekaterinburg and the Urals, studying the language and meeting various unsavory elements with connections to criminal world to seek authenticity. A remarkable fit of dedication.

 Siberian Education (2013)

Ascot Elite Entertainment Group

Ascot Elite Entertainment Group

This movie is an astounding piece of Russian exotica by Oscar-winning Italian director Gabriele Salvatores   (Mediterraneo).

a2John Malkovich is a colorful Russian godfather from the steppes, growing up as part of a violent clan in a multi-ethnic, dirt-poor town populated mostly by criminal outcasts. But even assassins have a childhood, laying the moral groundwork for the future man.

Their non-materialistic tradition emphasizes loyalty and respect for women and children, the elderly, disabled and all living creatures — excluding their police and army antagonists, who are always fair game.

The film is mainly an engrossing duet between the young hero and his guru-grandfather.  John Malkovich, plays with clipped precision and power-laden ice.

The movie is based on a much-translated memoir by Nicolai Lilin, a Russian-born author who writes in Italian.

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014)


The plot  takes Ryan to Moscow. Viktor Cherevin, played by the film’s director Kenneth Branagh, is a sadistic mad oligarch and  an alcoholic  with an agenda — what else? — to bring America to its knees by means of cataclysmic attack, economic collapse and such. He is holed up in an opulent skyscraper, giving the boot to his underlings (literally) and speaking in a Russian accent as thick as a bucket of borscht.

Ryan is mostly a gung-ho, all-American spy guy who gets into situations where he has to save the world from massive calamities. Yet you get the feeling that if you waved a hand in front of his eyes he wouldn’t blink. It’s hard to find anybody in there.

What he discovers is a Russian bad guy (Kenneth Branagh, also directing) on the verge of both a financial and terrorist attack on the United States (as if we’re not capable of engineering our own financial disasters). And thus begin all the Bond-Mission:Impossible-Bourne hijinks, including time-ticking sticky situations, assorted car chases, fisticuffs and — good news, locals! — a terrorist plot hatched in Dearborn. Tom Long, The Detroit News.

Mikhail Baryshnikov makes an appearance.  A big part of action takes place in, well, some sort of  Moscow. Moscow looks, feels and sounds rather odd. There is very little Russian exotic here: luxury hotel, fancy restaurant, ultra-modern office, everyone speaks nothing but English and from every window any which direction it faces, one can see the same view of Red Square.  Just as easily it could’ve been Dubai with the Burj Khalifa in place of Red Square. Rumor has it, the original version of the script indeed called for Dubai.

… to be continued…

Dead People Frozen In Unlikely Poses

Fair warning: Most people on the pictures of this post are dead, and not because these are rather old pictures.


This is a photo of a photographer, fussing with his equipment while taking a picture of a young man or, rather, a corpse of a young man, made up to look alive and even lively. Lovely, isn’t it?

Mid-XIX century, after the invention of first daguerreotypy and then photography, Europeans rushed to make use of the fascinating new media. Soon enough, some entrepreneurial photo-artist  came up with a brilliant idea. “Have no portrait of your dearly departed? No worries! We’ll help you create an eternal memory…” It’s OK if your dearly departed is a stiff… as long as the adorable corpse still holds its shape.

The business took off. In no time, many funeral homes started offering services of photo-artists. Morticians dressed up and made up their breathless “subjects” to look alive — eyes opened and moistened to liven up “stares of death”, lips stretched into smiles, postures held upright with various mechanical devises.

This morbid necrophilia was superimposed on yet another Victorian-era fashion: everything associated with death was considered romantic and poetic. Coffins became more elegant, funerals — scenic, crypts — elaborate. Cemeteries turned into favorite spots for picnics, melancholy promenades, places for lovers’ clandestine meetings. Books for children often featured untimely deaths of either the evilest or the most angelic kid in the story.

In the collection below, the authenticity of only one picture — that of a young woman-vamp — is disputed. It is believed to be a fake. Nowadays, Victorian “postmortem” photographs became highly desirable collector items for fans of the macabre.

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The Spanish  movie Snow White (2012) by Pablo Berger has the scene where Snow White’s father has died (mind you, he was a toreador — a very “Spanish” occupation), and the mourning family immortalized their grief  in a group photo with his corpse.

Snow White ) Pablo Berger, Spain, 2012)
Snow White. Pablo Berger, Spain, 2012 

The “dead people posing for pretty pictures” trend persisted for quite a long time and faded sometime in the second decade of the twentieth century. Has grief become more civilized?  Perhaps, but most likely the fashion came to an end because photography became more common and widely available — more people left some pre-mortem pictures of themselves behind. Death, too, largely lost its romantic appeal…

V. I. Lenin

V. I. Lenin

XIX century Russians seem to have never caught up with the Victorian-era European fascination with dressing up their dead and snapping pictures of them. Pictures of coffins — well, yes, but cadavers propped up to look undead — no. In 1924, however, Russians made a tremendous leap toward closing this cultural gap and in doing so outdid them all, creating the “living dead” of their own. This relic, however, harks back much farther than the Victorian necrophilia, to the times truly immemorial…  The embalmed corpse of Vladimir Lenin was transformed into a permanent installation and put to rest in the  Lenin’s Mausoleum, in Moscow.

I won’t go into a lengthy discourse about ritualistic adoration of human remains, or V. I. Lenin, or the factoids about the Mausoleum. I’ll just briefly mention that “un-interred” Vladimir Lenin was the first “live” corpse I’ve seen in my life.  I was a child then, my age being somewhere in the high single digit.  Earlier the same year, to protect me from emotional trauma, my parents disallowed me to get anywhere near my grandmother’s coffin. “Stuffed” Lenin, on the other hand, was — and remains to this day — a tourist attraction.

I remember the long, slow-crawling line along the Kremlin’s walls, hundreds of appropriately somber people… Lenin’s head looked like a non-too-brightly illuminated ball, his hands, too, were illuminated. Granted, there were no pictures of the body available anywhere to prepare first-time visitors for the effect. Eerie but fascinating sight it was, really, given the wait and the anticipation… The candid camera snapshot of people, waiting in line to “visit with Lenin” below, is neither mine nor of me but taken round about the same time I described, give and take a few years. Except for the season — it was summer then…

Red Square

Phil. Phil… Something-Or-Another

“In this 50th year of the James Bond series, with the dismal “Quantum of Solace” (2008) still in our minds, “Skyfall” triumphantly reinvents 007 in one of the best Bonds ever. This is a full-blooded, joyous, intelligent celebration of a beloved cultural icon, with Daniel Craig taking full possession of a role he earlier played well in “Casino Royale,” said Roger Ebert, a film critic, in his mostly glowing review of Skyfall.

The other day, quite by accident, I read a review of the same movie by Alex Exler, one of my favorite Russian bloggers. What follows is not a strict, literal translation of his take on Bond, but rater a re-telling. I avoided allusions to everything overtly Russian, while trying to preserve his unique sensibilities, insight and humor. 


Inorganic Intelligence And His Girl Kimberly

Taking inventory of my posts, I noticed that, as of late, an inordinate number of them references one or another organic matter. And I mean “organic” literally. Skull-centric, too, due to the proximity of the royal skull-and-bones of my last post to the Memento Mori  header image.

Indeed,  the ode to King Richard III old bones was preceded by a discourse on  shit-rolling, stargazing dung-beetles and a serenade to the cute Neanderthals, happily impregnating our 30,000 year old female antecedents…

The latter, however, might’ve not happen at all, according to the recent updates from Oxford. Neanderthals and Homo Sapiens never crossed paths, in spite of the undeniable fact that traces of Neanderthal DNA were found in people living today, especially Europeans.  Now it is claimed that Neanderthals and modern humans are distantly related sub-species of Ancient Human. Remember him? Yep, from Africa…

All right then. Let’s shift our inquiring eye away from skulls, flesh, shit and organic matter, even if it once belonged to royals. Short of, say, painstakingly reconstructed genitals of the lost and found Richard III Plantagenet, what else is there to hope for?

Hence, I felt highly enthused having found a topic of interest that has to do with highly inorganic world, that of digitized data, pixels and artificial intelligence.

Not such a huge leap after all, because the two worlds meet often and, sometimes, even collaborate to an unexpected effect.

Chris R. Wilson, a filmmaker of wholly organic composition, found a collaborator who happened to be just as wholly inorganic as Mr. Wilson is organic.  As Bianca Bosker, Executive Tech Editor of The Huffington Post and the author of the article A Machine Reviews a Film Made by a Machine reports,

“Mr. Wilson’s  latest screenwriting collaborator has a sharp tongue, quick mind for pop culture references and, perhaps best of all for Mr. Wilson, doesn’t need to be paid. The screenwriter is no ordinary human, but an artificially intelligent chatbot called Cleverbot, capable of holding text-based conversations online.”

The glorious brainchild of this collaboration of organic and inorganic intelligence was the short film Do You Love Me.

Before the film’s first frame, to make our mouths fall open in anticipation, perhaps, the following words appear on the screen: has been touted as one of the most advanced artificial intelligences ever.

I wouldn’t be surprised if that smart-ass has manufactured this self-congratulatory laudation as well.

The reaction of the article-reading and/or movie-viewing audience to both the movie and the HuffPost article varied from a rather unsophisticated “HAHHAHAHA” and “Just F#@ing brilliant” to the more refined “Bleh. Enjoy and cherish your precious human life in a flesh and blood body.”

Frankly, I wasn’t overly impressed with either the movie or the article. One HuffPost commenter writes,

“Contrary to what the author states, creativity remains thoroughly mysterious and untamed in AI (artificial intelligence), as does intelligence in general.”

I side with this assessment unequivocally (see Konstantine for more.) Indeed, where AI is concerned, the triumphal march of technology sounds more like a disjointed cacophony of unfulfilled prophecies.

…The organic process in my brain that creates odd associations where none exists, suddenly threw me some 20 years back, down the memory lane. In those dark ages, Neanderthals looked pretty much like they look today, give and take a few sartorial oddities, and most of the computer games they played were stored on CDs.

Raise your hands if you remember those times. Do I see show of hands? I thought so.

One such game, an interactive program, combining chat and animation, was designed specifically for heterosexual males, presumably adult. In its virtual world, heterosexual-presumably-adult-male could meet and develop virtual relationship (through dialogue, nothing kinky here) with his virtual dream girl. The “girl” was capable of holding text-based conversations, just like intelligent chatbot Cleverbot.  Virtual is a key here. The world was still young…

Several animated “types” of girls were on offer: voluptuous frilly blonde, exotic vamp, freckled red-head etc. The most risqué type was a vaguely S&M leather-clad creature brandishing non-threateningly looking whips and chains.

My then coworker, Sam (not his real name, his real name was Mike), introduced me to his girl Kimberly, a pixilated animation of a garishly painted brunette with beehive hairdo. Nothing exotic, just dumb. However, this was my opinion, freely expressed now but wisely held to myself then.

Sam, mind you, was a highly skilled programmer and, to my mind, should’ve been the last person to fall for a “dreamboat” on CD! Of all people, he knew exactly why and how his girl Kimberly was capable of carrying endless intelligent conversations in which her gentle and caring disposition shined through. According to Sam, Kimberly was also an expert at psychedelic whimsy. Hell-lo! The organic matter within his skull must’ve gone solid.

“Why, Sam? Why?” I appealed to his temporarily absent common sense.

“Susie,” he said. (Susie isn’t my real name, you know what is.) “Susie, what do you know about –”

“About AI?”

“About loneliness…”

…I seem to have missed my train of thought somewhere between then and now. So much for the superiority of organic intelligence. Ah, well…