Judge Russell Engebretson is no Russian, but he was once renowned for his Rushin' Russell Special.
Based on the harrowing true story of the Second World War's deadliest siege…
In the Winter of 1941, Germany's attack on the Russian city of Leningrad is transformed into the equivalent of a Medieval siege. The city is surrounded by German troops who cut off food and fuel supply lines in an attempt to literally starve the population into submission. A group of foreign journalists is flown out of the city during a bombing raid, but one British journalist, Kate Davis (Mira Sorvino, Mimic), is left behind when she is mistakenly reported as a fatality. She is befriended by a Russian officer, Nina Tsvetkova (Olga Sutulova), who finds lodgings for Kate with a mother and her two young children.
While Kate struggles with the vicissitudes of a life now fraught with the possibility of starvation, Nina attempts to hide the journalist from certain Russian military authorities who would rather see her dead than admit to England that she survived the raid. Kate makes the best of her dire situation, and slowly bonds with her new family as the city sinks into chaos and ruin.
Movies based around WWII are legion, but few have been filmed in Russia and told primarily from the point of view of the inhabitants of a besieged city. The size and scope of the 872 day siege of Leningrad by the Nazis (in which over one and a half million died) offers unlimited stories. If the director's ambitious vision had matched his cinematic ability, this could have been an epic film worthy of repeat viewings; instead, Attack on Leningrad is tedious and choppy. It jumps from one plot point to another without returning to resolve the storyline. About half way through, we discover that Kate was raised in England but born in Russia, and her father was a White Russian during the revolution—not a good thing for Kate to be in the midst of the victorious Red Russians now fighting to save their Motherland. Yet, nothing much is made of the revelation; and, indeed, it has little to do with the story arc.
There are a few short scenes in Moscow of Kate's fellow journalist and lover, Phillip Parker (David Byrne, A Simple Twist of Fate), but since he believes she died in the bombing raid and is not actively searching for her, the suspense that might have been generated by a rescue attempt is squandered. In addition to plot lines that go nowhere, or conclusions that arrive too late, there are conflicting character traits that make no sense—except to advance a story thread.
Early scenes of Armin Mueller-Stahl as a high-ranking German officer indicate he is suffering some pangs of conscience over Hitler's merciless plan to starve hundreds of thousands of Russian civilians, but later in the film he contemptuously scolds a pilot for the very same misgivings. In a clumsy dramatic moment, the bomber pilot later commits suicide by crashing his plane into a Russian anti-aircraft gun, and there is not even a reaction cut back to Mueller-Stahl's character. There are too many emotionally flat, poorly constructed moments like this throughout the film, and the whole creaky enterprise finally collapses into a smoking heap. The acting, too, comes across as pedestrian, but I think that is more an outcome of a mediocre script than a failing of the actors, who probably did their best with what they had to work with. As if all Attack on Leningrad's failings were not enough, we are also saddled with an inferior digital presentation.
The 2.35:1/1080p AVC-encoded Blu-ray is well below average, especially for a recent film. In big detailed scenes, the picture is soft almost to the point of standard definition; and panned shots—both distant and medium—shimmer with aliasing. The color palette is mostly in shades of gray and brown, with the ever-present background of dull white snow giving no relief to the visual tedium of the desaturated colors. I'm sure the stark cinematography was deliberate, but the vibrant visuals of the final scene in Leningrad makes one wish the entire movie had been filmed similarly. Overall, it's a disappointing look for such an epic film, and the poor transfer is a big letdown for those expecting a top-notch high definition Blu-ray viewing.
The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio provides satisfying surround action during gun battles, bombing runs, and the like; however, average level dialogue is soft to the point of inaudibility. Without the English subtitles, it is difficult to follow conversations, and turning up the volume results in a teeth-rattling audio assault during the action sequences. Being a fan of high resolution audio and non-dubbed soundtracks, it pains me to say the English dubbed stereo Dolby Digital is the better track. Dialogue is clear and the overall volume well-balanced between quiet and loud passages. There are two English subtitle options: one set of subtitles is for the German and Russian speaking parts, and the other also includes subs for English. The English subs would be a good option for viewing with the DTS-HD track, or for the hard-of-hearing.
The 38 minute featurette is a typical making-of-the-movie piece. It includes commentary by the two female leads, the director, and a few others. It also covers some of the technical aspects of the exterior sets, and the difficulties of shooting on a frozen lake in negative 20 degree weather. The only other extra is a trailer.
There are some spectacular scenes of battle carnage on display, but for all its ambition and noble intent, Attack on Leningrad (Blu-ray) fails to bring this historical siege to the big screen in an emotionally engaging or satisfying manner. A rental would be the wisest choice before laying down your money for a purchase.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: E1 Entertainment
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