Last Resort

Making films is a collaborative process, involving many creative people under the helm of the director. The bigger and more complex the production, the bigger the creative team, all too often resulting in a loss of the personal, human touch. It’s a question of financing, too; when big Hollywood producers have huge investments in major films, they tend to homogenize the product to their idea of what will sell to the broadest possible audience. The result is a stream of bland, forgettable, gutless films.

Fortunately, the medium continues to draw new talent–independent filmmakers, usually on small budgets, whose art and passion and creativity translate more directly to the screen. The quirky, individual viewpoint survives, but, due to a distribution system that is geared towards the mass market, independent films are often unable to find wide distribution or, sometimes, any distribution at all.

Last year the Shooting Gallery Film Series addressed this problem with an innovative program. Six films–films that otherwise might have slipped away into oblivion–are booked together as a package and exhibited for one-week runs in cities across the country. Notable successes in the first series included Judy Berlin and Croupier.

Kicking off a new season from Shooting Gallery is Last Resort, a perfect example of a praiseworthy small film that many will enjoy, but which might never have reached an audience in standard distribution channels.

Tanya (Dina Korzun), a writer and illustrator of children’s books, travels from her home in Moscow accompanied byher ten-year-old son, Artiom (Artiom Strelnikov), to meet her fiance in London. The "fiance" doesn’t show up and it is never clear what promises were made or broken; Tanya has a history of failed romances. When she refuses to accept that she has been stood up, Artiom pipes in, "Mark’s not coming! He’s changed his mind. He’s neurotic!"

Unwilling to be forced to return to Moscow without making contact with Mark, Tanya spontaneously asks for political asylum. She and Artiom are shipped off to a seedy seaside resort town where they are impounded while the immigration authorities consider their case.

Provided with a temporary flat in a highrise slum and some vouchers for food, Tanya cannot find work because she has no permit. She and her precocious, street-wise boy discover that they are virtually imprisoned in the town which is under surveillance by television cameras and whose borders are patrolled by police with dogs. It is a setting in which petty crime flourishes amongst idle kids and societal leeches prey on adults.

Enter Alfie (Paddy Considine), a local arcade manager by day and bingo caller by night, a one-time boxer drifting at the margins in this most marginal place. Alfie reaches out in kindness; Artiom responds enthusiatically while Tanya is wary–but needy. Without once slipping into cliche, writer-director Pawel Pawlikowski, with an observant eye for detail and a talented cast, brings an appealing freshness to his story. Filmed from an outline and with elements of improvisation, he keeps the story character-driven and the outcome unpredictable. The detention camp town is a damning view of the immigration bureaucracy, but while the circumstances are somewhat grim, the film isn’t, because the three principals are warm, likable, and caught up in a predicament that probes their vulnerabilities and tests their strengths.

Korzun, an established star in Russia, plays to Tanya’s circumstances and the people around her with an emotional transparency that is both credible and beguiling. Young Strelnikov has star power as well, and Considine offers a low-keyed charm, coming off here as sort of a working class Hugh Grant. But it is Pawlikowski’s direction that molds the look and feel of the film. Using occasionally hand-held camera for energy when appropriate, Pawlikowski allows his camera to drift to the occasional face in the crowd; he has a knack for choosing ordinary faces that suggest their own complex life-histories. And his eye is fresh, too: in one scene Tanya and Alfie sit on a bench under a light, talking, placed in the extreme lower left corner of the screen, while a deserted boardwalk (or perhaps a pier) stretches out into the distance over the middle of the frame, bathed in twilight blues. It’s an original way to compose the scene and it works, both as a handsome visual and an enhancement to the content.

Without getting mawkish or stretching for "big" themes, Pawlikowski doesn’t need masses of strings swelling the soundtrack for unearned emotional impact. Without for a moment letting the dilemma of his characters slip into sociological tract or Bergmanesque angst, he allows them to live and breathe and be themselves. Last Resort is a glimpse into passing lives that achieves warmth and significance through artful and unpretentious understatement.

Arthur Lazere

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San Francisco, CA
Mr. Lazere founded culturevulture.net in 1998 and worked tirelessly to promote its potential as a means for communicating a distinctly personal yet wide-ranging selection of arts reviews. Under his leadership, the site grew in esteem as well as in “circulation", and is well-regarded nationally and internationally as a source for up-to-date, well-written criticism. Arthur passed away on September 30, 2006.