November 11, 2009

Justify My Netflix: Perestroika

(Like many Netflix customers, I too can get quite lax with the timely watching and returning of my movies, which of course defeats the entire purpose of having a flat-rate rental plan in the first place. To combat that, I am now writing standardized mini-reviews of each and every movie I end up watching through Netflix, both instantly and on DVD. Don't forget, all previous 'Justify My Netflix' reviews can be found on CCLaP's main movie page.)


Today's movie: Perestroika, 2008 (Amazon | IMDB | Netflix | Official site)

Why I added it to my queue: Because this 2008 character drama boasts an impressive cast (including F Murray Abraham, Ally Sheedy and Sam Robards), and was written and directed by Slava Tsukerman, creator of '80s punk-science-fiction cult classic Liquid Sky; yet as of the day of this write-up, not a single review of this movie exists at either Netflix or IMDB, the very first time in my years of using those services that I've ever seen such a thing. That alone made me curious enough about this film to justify renting it.

The reality: Astounding. This semi-autobiographical feature turns out to be a lot more complex and intriguing than its press material and trailer make it seem, weaving together the story of a Russian-American lothario intellectual going through a mid-life crisis (think Roy Scheider in All That Jazz but without the dancing), combined with the story of him visiting his beloved hometown of Moscow for the first time in almost twenty years, thanks to the reforms of the Gorbachev 1990s, after being the first of his circle of friends back in the early '70s to get a chance to emigrate, due to a legal loophole at the time that allowed a select amount of Russian Jews to move to Israel, but only through an absurdist comedy's amount of red tape and an official "public shaming" ceremony in which all his colleagues were forced to participate. Needless to say, this makes his first trip back to the new kinder, gentler post-Soviet Russia and his reconnection with these old colleagues more than a touch surrealistic, which is then compounded by him being surrounded during the trip by all the elements that were making his mid-life crisis back in New York such a mess in the first place, including his soon-to-be-divorced wife, his much-younger documentary-filmmaker mistress, the cynical fellow intellectual who was his former lover in Moscow, her teenage daughter of whom he may or may not be the father, his philosophy-quoting mentor who went through the exact opposite emigration process twenty years previous (that is, an American who defected to Russia in the '50s because of his disgust with the US's growing military-industrial complex), and a whole lot more.

All this unto itself would've been fascinating enough; but now combine this with Tsukerman's mesmerizing look at a newly post-Soviet Russia, an ultra-chaotic time in this chaotic country's history when literally everything was up for grabs -- a time when bombed-out historic churches were being turned into production studios for heavy-metal videos, when conservatives were praying for a civil war so that they could take back control of the nation, when millions of state-supported citizens were suddenly expected to work hard for a living and compete within a free-market society, with none of these people knowing exactly how to do so or even what these terms really meant. Tsukerman takes us on a whirlwind tour of all these issues, even while enfolding the personal mid-life-crisis issues of the main character, deftly moving back and forth between the '50s, '70s and '90s in order to force our astrophysicist hero Sasha Greenburg to question the validity of nearly every decision he's ever made in his entire life -- after all, there's a reason that this movie is named Perestroika, which in Russian translates literally into 'The Restructuring' -- in a nuanced and assured way that can only come from a veteran filmmaker absolutely at the top of his form here. Funny, smart, touching, this is one of those hidden little gems so easily overlooked in our direct-to-DVD age, and those who are fans of intelligent character-based dramedies would do themselves a big favor by seeking it out. It comes highly recommended today.

Strangest piece of trivia: Oksana Stashenko, who plays the cynical fellow astrophysicist who Greenburg leaves behind, is currently one of the most well-known actresses in her native Russia, the star of a popular television show there that has run for nearly 300 episodes.

Worth your time? Without a doubt

Filed by Jason Pettus at 11:52 AM, November 11, 2009. Filed under: Movies | Reviews |