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by Jay Seaver

"Far from trash, but not quite treasure."
3 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2006 FANTASIA FESTIVAL: There's something great to be said for misleading trailers. A subtitled preview for "Junk" must have played in front of at least ten movies that I saw in the festival's main theater over the first week, highlighting a bunch of characters and their roles - The Reporter, The Editor, The Cop, The Psychologist - implying that they'll have the same relative importance, even if they have different agendas. I got so thoroughly conditioned to expect that sort of movie that the turn it takes about half an hour in caught me completely flat-footed, which is a nice place to be in when watching a suspense film.

After an opening sequence with the incident that caused Pravda crime reporter Marina (Yelena Babenko) to quit the job, her former editor (and lover) Sasha (Anatoli Belyj) asks her to cover one last story - interview a high-school teacher who abused and killed several of his students. The mental hospital's head doctor (Sergei Shakurov) says to come back tomorrow, but when she does, the man has escaped. A Moscow cop by the name of Pavel Petrovich (Vyacheslav Razbegayev) leads the pursuit, with Marina tagging along. The fugitive flees into a dacha village, eighty square kilometers of mostly-abandoned houses on quarter-acre locks, filled with squatters and other dangerous men. Marina and Pavel wind up stranded there when Pavel crashes the car, and capturing the fugitive soon takes a back seat to just getting out.

It's a good basic adventure storyline, and the inevitable intersection of the various folks on the run - the killer from the police and the reporter from the criminal elements is reasonably smooth. Director and co-writer Denis Neimand occasionally gets a little too arty for his own good, though. Take the trailer's money-shot, for instance, with Marina jumping into a lake from an exploding house, with a flaming car landing behind her. Great shot, and then later it runs in reverse, and a pair of thugs we'd seen in the house (Yusup Bakshiyev and Igor Lifanov) show up alive and apparently unscathed to harass Monica. So, what is this - a director trying to have it both ways, a drug-induced hallucination, a comment that we can't know the whole truth from just one side of the story? Maybe all three, and it kind of works that way, but it also kind of confuses. The last act feels a bit sloppy to me, too, and not just because of some dodgy effects work in the final scene. Part of the idea, I know, is that Marina's seldom in control, but she becomes just a little too peripheral to the final action.

For all the other flaws the film may have, it's still got Yelena Babenko, and she's tough to look away from. It's not just that she's attractive, although that is undeniably the case. Marina's work (and her current situation) requires her to exist on the knife's edge of cocky self-confidence and well-justified fear, but it can't be paralyzing fear, because if it was, she'd be dead by now. Babenko makes Marina hardened without being overwrought about it; she can quote poetry and philosophy when it comes up, but she's also well aware of how much practical value that has. She's got a wonderfully expressive face, able to communicate a great deal of emotion with little twitches behind her scraggly hair.

The rest of the cast is solidly enjoyable. Belyj combines a mercenary nature with genuine lingering fondness for Sasha's ex-lover to make a stock character feel like a bit more, while Razbegayev provides Marina with a good banter-mate in Pavel - he's good-looking and radiates the authority needed for his job, with book-smarts to match Marina's and a crazy streak on the road to match tendency toward danger. They're a great deal of fun to watch together. The people Marina and Pavel encounter in the village are well-drawn, too - from the men claiming to be Taliban who initially send things to hell, to a faceless, horse-riding "Terminator", with several interesting people in between - the gangsters (Bakshiyev & Lifanov), a mechanic (Igor Chernevich), a would-be actress (Yelena Rufanova), and a hermit (Mikhail Yefremov).

Neimand knows his way around a camera; he and cinematographer Mikhail Mukasej compose the film beautifully, with several shots that stick in the memory. There's something otherworldly and noble about their shots of the "terminator", and I'm willing to accept shots where the characters appear to be in a wasteland rather than the village Marina described as looking like a circuit board because the composition is beautiful. Similarly, the editing of the a car chase late in the movie often looks too much like it was pieced together from takes done on different days or roads, but it's not cut in a seizure-inducing way like the one in, say, The Bourne Supremacy - you can see that there's some pretty impressive stunt driving going on, with cars zipping between each other in ways that courteous drivers wouldn't even consider. I half suspect that they made Pavel an insanely aggressive driver in the beginning of the movie because using this vehicular action crew for just one sequence would be something of a waste.

The film also makes interesting use of sound. Igor Vodin's score just has a few repeated themes, but their lack of variety is useful. Sound editor/designer Natalya Roginskaya frequently drops the soundtrack altogether, creating an eerie silence that makes the world seem dreamlike, and we come out of that state in two ways - gently, when a familiar sequence of notes reappears, or harshly, as the volume goes from nothing to extremely high. I'm not sure what I think of the choice, to be honest - I tend to think that anything that seems like technical difficulties is probably bad, but it works well enough once or twice to at least be interesting.

The film's website describes "Junk" as a "psychobuster", an unweildy name which indicates what a sometimes muddled blend of psychological/psychedelic thriller and action blockbuster this movie is. The high-quality parts almost fit neatly together. It's got bits that are well worth seeing, but that "almost" might be asking a lot of some audience members.

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originally posted: 08/15/06 00:52:10
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 Fantasia Film Festival For more in the 2006 Fantasia Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 Fantastic Fest For more in the 2006 Fantastic Fest series, click here.

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