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From Russia With Obviousness

From Russia With Obviousness (photo)

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Somewhere between the 40- and 60-minute marks of Nikita Mikhalkov’s “12,” a sparrow flies through a window into the school gymnasium that’s serving as an ad hoc jury room for a supposedly routine Moscow homicide case. This is unusual for one or two reasons, the most obvious of which is that it’s the dead of winter. (The window isn’t open, mind you; it’s broken, as is forcefully pointed out by one juror who sees the gym’s sorry shape as emblematic of “40 years of running in place.”) This ups the ante for what’s already shaping up to be an overstuffed socially conscious allegory with its roots in the American, um, classic “12 Angry Men.” “This is it,” this viewer thought, a trifle giddily, remembering an old song by King Missile; “this is mystical shit.”

Because, really, if you’re going to make a self-aggrandizing quasi-allegorical modern epic (160 minutes!) about the state of contemporary Russia, encompassing not just the Chechen problem but the Communist problem, the Jewish problem, the gangster problem, the entrepreneurial problem, the drug problem, the building corruption problem, the culture problem and every other damn problem, why not have a sparrow fly into the proceedings and provide occasional chirpy commentary before setting up an explicitly religious punch line? “12”‘s conceit is, initially, every bit as simple as that of the Reginald Rose/Sidney Lumet drama; after a disorienting montage of what we’ll later learn were scenes from the defendant’s childhood, the director places 12 putatively representative types, all male in this case, into a makeshift jury room in order to deliberate over a seemingly simple crime. An orphaned Chechen adolescent is accused of murdering the Russian Army officer who adopted him and brought him back to Moscow. Of course he did it, the first line of thought goes. These Chechens are all animals, one of the smirkiest of this group of middle-aged guys notes. But wait! A soulful engineer (Sergei Makovetsky) stands up and tells his sad life story, building up to the conclusion that, you know, the quality of mercy is not strained. Then an elderly Jew (Valentin Gaft) takes up that theme. He gets a lot of guff from the smirky guy. And then a surgeon from the Caucasus (Sergei Gazarov) waxes profound, albeit in shaky Russian, on cultural rifts. And so on, and so on. And then they get around to actually considering the evidence. And then all of the jurors but one — no, not the smirky guy, who turns out to be a cab driver with major women issues (Sergey Garmash) — gets to undergo a dark night of the soul. It’s only after all this that the jury foreman — played by director Mikhalkov, very probably as himself, articulates the conundrum that will be the young Chechen’s fate regardless of the verdict.

03042009_12movie2.jpgAnd if that isn’t enough…well, while the Rose/Lumet film stuck to the confines of the jury room — that was part of the whole formal challenge of the piece, to keep within boundaries without seeming stage-bound — Mikhalkov throws in a whole lot of bombastic flashbacks to the war that the Chechen child was caught up in. These are, admittedly, executed with some brio. Of particular distinction is a truly harrowing firefight that breaks out in two seemingly blasted-out, deserted buildings. Then there are the frequent shots of the defendant pacing in his cell, and eventually breaking out in a Chechen dance that made this viewer wish for Russia to reinstate its death penalty, just for this guy. That sounds glib, but you watch it. Mikhalkov also frequently cuts to a flashback shot of a smoky battlefield, homing in on a dog trotting towards the camera, in blurry focus, with a large object in its mouth. The reveal of the large object is saved for the very end — the better to contrast with that sparrow, you see, but it won’t surprise anybody who’s seen “Yojimbo.”

The polish of the filmmaking here collides with a crudity of thought so staggering as to make “12” something of a unique object. If you, like myself, found the Rose/Lumet film schematic, heavy-handed and well-intentioned to a fault, well, Mikhalkov’s take on the material may cause your mind to split open. As ridiculous as this will sound, it’s the truth: this bombastic film is to its inspiration what the “1812 Overture” is to “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun.”

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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