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Paramount Studios presents
House of Fools (2003)

"Do you know that we're alive because someone somewhere loves us?"
- Janna (Julia Vysotsky)

Review By: Jon Danziger   
Published: December 17, 2003

Stars: Julia Vysotsky, Sultan Islamov, Stanislav Varkki, Elena Fomina, Marina Politseimako
Other Stars: Bryan Adams
Director: Andrei Konchalovksy

MPAA Rating: R for language, some violence and nudity
Run Time: 01h:48m:39s
Release Date: October 28, 2003
UPC: 097363423348
Genre: foreign

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
C- DB+B- D-

DVD Review

There's trouble from the jump with this Russian movie, for the opening credit sequence has a title card that reads: "Special Guest: Bryan Adams." Yes, that Bryan Adams, agent in the covert cultural war being waged against us by Canada. This is one of the first indications that this film can't live up to the buoyant pull quotes on its DVD case. (e.g., "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest reimagined by Federico Fellini!" And note the exclamation point!) The setting and circumstance of House of Fools may be new, but there's little else here that you haven't seen before, and haven't seen done better.

It's 1996, and the Chechen war rages in the former Soviet Union. The entire story is set in and around an insane asylum not far from the front, so early on we know just what the intentions are, and they come basically in two tiresome varieties. The first features a tremendous amount of overacting and emoting, because actors love playing crazy, and the director, Andrei Konchalovsky, doesn't seem to have toned down his cast even a little bit. The second are the obvious analogies between the clinically insane and those waging war. I'm not here to wave the flag or anything, but really, the madness of war is so obvious (and has been the subject of art for so long) that placing a sanatorium close by doesn't really tell us anything, other than Konchalovsky is hoping that we haven't seen Cuckoo's Nest, or M*A*S*H, or Marat/Sade, or your war/asylum film of choice. Or read Lysistrata or Catch-22 or—oh, you get the idea.

The central figure in the story is Janna, a patient at the hospital—perhaps it's because only Bryan Adams was available, but it seems more like a poverty of imagination that Janna's insanity manifests itself by imagining that she is Adams' fiancée. Her room is plastered with Bryan Adams posters, and she constantly fantasizes about him showing up, dancing with her, and serenading her with that awful song from Don Juan de Marco. (In many respects, then, Janna seems less like a crazy person, and more like a sad and culturally deprived young adolescent girl from the late 1980s.) There's little more than institutional craziness early on, and you may find yourself thinking: please, let there be a story.

There is, but it's not much of one. The bombs are coming, and the chief psychologist is off to round up a bus to get his patients out of there. So yes, for the bulk of the feature, it's that shopworn cliché of the inmates running the asylum. But they do have guests: soldiers, who humor the crazies for their own amusement. One of them even has some fun at Janna's expense by proposing marriage to her—the poor thing takes him at his word, and accepts. (Won't Bryan be jealous?)

The film doesn't have many ideas to begin with, and it runs through the few that are here after maybe ten minutes. What's more interesting and original is the particular political content—the portrait of Yeltsin on the asylum wall, for instance, or the conversations between opposing soldiers, who had been allied in the Afghan war. There are a couple of striking images, in the story's third act particularly, when the war comes even closer to the hospital—but the narrative has sagged so badly by that point that even a little bit of visual interest can't prop this movie up. Perhaps Konchalovsky's strongly held political beliefs led him to this project; it's hard not to admire his passion and his hatred for war, but given that his film has little new light to shed on its subject matter, there's not much of a reason for us to suffer, too.

Rating for Style: C-
Rating for Substance: D


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: If only the film were of the same high quality as its transfer to DVD. The color palette is especially rich and nuanced, and Konchalovsky's favoring of deep focus shots makes the movie look particularly attractive here.

Image Transfer Grade: B+


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: The sound editors seem to have gone a little overboard, and they do love a good bomb sound effect—you'll hear plenty of them here, on a transfer that seems a little overmixed, and occasionally draws too much attention to itself. The other down side to what you'll hear: lots and lots of Bryan Adams asking if you ever really, really loved a woman.

Audio Transfer Grade: B-


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 12 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extras Review: Nothing but a dozen chapter stops.

Extras Grade: D-


Final Comments

A few dollops of eye candy can't make up for the fact that this is a derivative, stale, and unsurprising piece of work. The Chechen war is a horrible and dark chapter of recent history; it will have to wait still longer for a proper cinematic commemoration.


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