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Film Review of the Week: Stalingrad

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Stalingrad is the first non-Amer-ican IMAX-3D film. It's brought to you, a la winter Olympics, by the Soviets. And it is a war movie. And it is spectacular to behold. The film recounts a dramatic slice of the battle that bears the city's name, one of WWII's most significant in the European theater and one of the bloodiest and costliest in the history of the world. With news this week that U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has called for a shrinking military, a "nimble" and "adaptable" force, Stalingrad reminds us of a time when military success had much more to do with might and actual force, with how many guys willing to die for their motherland would run through fire to attack the enemy, because of, well, orders.

Russian troops running through fire — literally engulfed in the flames of a tactical tanker explosion, charging on to their certain doom — is the subject of the film's first breathtaking sequence. It's one of the most terrifying and yet magnificent moments I've seen on screen in, I think, ever. Good God. Rendered upon the ginormous IMAX screen at Crocker Park, where Stalingrad will play for an exclusive one-week engagement starting Friday, set to anthemic chords and the constant rat-a-tat of heavy artillery, the film will leave you utterly spellbound and emotionally depleted in its aftermath.

The film centers on five Russian scouts, deployed to the ruined city from the Volga before the initial fire-charge. Isolated in a strategic building with limited ammunition and no reinforcements, they must defend their ground from a ruthless, impatient German army, led by the heartsick Captain Peter Kahn (Thomas Kretschmann, from King Kong and Wanted; the only guy you might recognize). The narrative similarities to 300 aren't the only similarities — certain among the stylized David v. Goliath combat sequences recall Zac Snyder's vision — but Stalingrad aspires to both technical and narrative heights. It feels akin to something like Titanic in that respect. There's a love story, too. A young woman named Katya has remained in Stalingrad, stubbornly, in the very building where the Russian troops are fortified, and all five men manage, in turn, to fall in love with her. A framing device establishes a mini-mystery, adding a layer of suspense to the pre-programmed war drama: Which of the five soldiers fathered the old guy telling the story of his conception's gruesome prelude?

The scale and bravado of the film's visual achievements, coupled with the competent character-building — at times almost propagandistic, but what were we to expect? — and storytelling creativity make this a must-see cinema experience. Hollywood beware: The market is no longer cornered on high-production blockbusters. And the Muscovites, refreshingly, seem to care for their characters a great deal more than their American counterparts do.

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