La Casa Lobo [CL 2018]

International title: The Wolf House

Info: I embedded the full movie below. Watch it in Spanish/German or download it for English subtitles.

THE PLOT

La Casa Lobo is an animated horror drama set in Chile, where the young woman Maria had fled from her community – the infamous German sect Colonia Dignidad – into the woods. Haunted by a vicious and manipulative wolf, she tries to re-build her life in a deserted house nearby. There, she cares for two little pigs, that soon transform into the human-beings Pedro and Ana. As Maria’s psychological state becomes increasingly troubled and she runs out of supplies, her refuge becomes a terrifying nightmare.

WHAT I LIKE

Visually, the movie is a unique and stunning masterpiece. The directors used stop-motion animation in an innovative way: a sequence of paintings are drawn directly on the walls of furnished rooms. Visual sequences appear and disappear as they are being painted over. In addition, newspapers and masking tape are used for building character models (i.e. papier mâché). Because the character models lack certain human qualities (e.g. facial expressions) and sometimes even parts of their body, while other parts are exaggerated (e.g. only Maria’s head is shown when she sees the bird in her bedroom), the models often look nightmarish. The sequence of drawn images contributes to this unsettling atmosphere. When being painted over, the colors blend and sometimes become blurred, resulting in creepy images (e.g. black paint slowly running over Maria’s face). Overall, many sequences have a dreamlike quality, because the character models and the setting is constantly changing and evolving (e.g. when Maria dissolves in front of her TV), while the camera often shoots from a voyeuristic perspective.

WHAT I DON’T LIKE

Although the art direction is generally impressive, there are a few moments of uneven animation quality. The three-dimensional setting doesn’t always work perfectly, as some room transitions are hard to follow (e.g. when Maria searches the house or the sequence in the kitchen). In addition, there are scenes, where the constantly changing surroundings become distracting, e.g. when Maria cares for her pigs, the straw on the ground is different in every frame. Lastly, there are some moments, where the camera is out of focus or central elements are slightly blurry (e.g. in the kitchen sequence). These moments are seldom but also potentially distracting. Also, it should be noted that there is really only a fragment of a plot and Maria as a character remains cryptic (while Pedro and Ana are hardly individual characters at all).

THE VERDICT

La Casa Lobo is basically an animated dark fairy tale that achieves a wonderfully haunting atmosphere due to the unique and disturbing animation. It’s an art movie in the truest sense of the word and the art direction – namely stop-motion animation with three-dimensional paintings and papier mâché characters – is stunning. While the characters remain mostly vague and the plot cryptic at best, the dreamlike quality and eerie atmosphere really take the crown. All in all, La Casa Lobo feels like you’re watching a slowly evolving nightmare that, although it’s not entirely yours, is still terrifyingly creepy.

Overall 9/10

INTERESTING FACTS

– About halfway into the movie, after Maria’s children were nearly burned alive, Pokémon stickers are visible on the desk in their room (e.g. Jigglypuff and Torchic).

– The Chilean directors Cristóbal León and Joaquín Cociña first experimented with taking photograph sequences on the walls of a room for their short films Lucía [2007] and Luis [2008], a two-part love story that utilizes the fragmented animations to express the troubled nature of the protagonists’ romantic love.

– The movie was completed over the course of 5 years and reportedly cost about US$290000. Most scenes were photographed as live installations in art museums (e.g. in Theater Kampnagel Hamburg, Germany).

– Colonia Dignidad, formally called La Sociedad Benefactora y Educacional, was a real-life German community in the South of Chile. The sect was founded in 1961 by Paul Schäfer and was infamous for its inhumane and brutal living conditions. The directors León and Cociña claimed that the wolf was based on Paul Schäfer (cp. Schäfer means shepherd in German).

Further reading about the aspect of trauma in La Casa Lobo:

https://www.academia.edu/40305726/_I_Dream_Things_Trauma_Work_in_La_casa_Lobo

Nayak [IN 1966]

Info: I embedded the full movie with English subtitles below.

International title: Nayak: The Hero

THE PLOT

The famous movie start Arindam Mukherjee is going to Delhi to receive a national award. On the train from Kolkata, he meets several people with whom he has conversations, like the old man Aghore Chattopadhyay who is an open critic of the Indian movie industry or a family with a teenage daughter who is a great fan of his movies. However, Arindam is the most intrigued by the young and smart Aditi Sengupta who, being the editor of a modern woman’s magazine, starts to interview him. As her questions become increasingly private, Arindam has to deal with his past as a struggling theater actor and his decision to pursue a career in movies.

WHAT I LIKE

Visually, the movie has a great sense of style. The borderline claustrophobic setting on the train makes for some great close up shots (e.g. in serious discussions) and generally the framing is beautiful (e.g. during the flash backs). In addition, the sharp black and white cinematography competently plays with contrasts and shadows, e.g. during the dream sequences. Both dream sequences work great and make for some surreal and memorable scenes. Also, the writing is efficient and touches upon socially relevant topics like the Indian movie industry, stardom, women’s rights, and social injustice. Without ever become too on the nose or excessive, the dialogues are coherent and believable, especially during the intimate talks between Arindam and Aditi. Hereby, also the meta commentary on the film industry, on cheap entertainment, and conceited movie stars never becomes pretentious, because the actors and actresses deliver their lines in a very serene and authentic way.

WHAT I DON’T LIKE

The dramatic plot of Nayak unfolds only slowly, which generally makes sense given the characters and the setting. Still, the pacing in the first third of the movie feels off, with Arindam’s lengthy discussion about his public bar fight. Overall, the beginning doesn’t really introduce the viewer well to the characters and loses focus on a few occasions. For instance, the subplot about the two business men, Pritish Sarkar and Haren Bose, is supposed to mirror the aspect of the main plot that you can lose your integrity when striving only for monetary gains. Still, the scenes don’t blend together nicely with the main plot. Lastly, it should be noted that the main themes of Nayak center around cinema, movies, and acting – which means that viewers not interested in these topics, will probably be less involved in the plot and characters.

THE VERDICT

Nayak is an Indian Bengali-language drama about a famous actor traveling to Delhi to receive an important award. At the height of his career, he is confronted with his past as a struggling theater actor, when an educated young woman interviews him. The movie is a thoughtful drama, that pays great attention to its characters, who behave in an authentic and believable way. Without becoming pretentious, the movie addresses several important social issues – while not shying away from also criticizing how the movie industry often only produces cheap entertainment. In addition to the mostly efficient writing and the strong and down to Earth performances, the cinematography is marvelous and makes for some memorable scenes.

Overall 8/10

INTERESTING FACTS

– The old man Aghore Chattopadhyay says, How Green Was My Valley [1941] was the last movie he saw, openly criticizing the poor acting in many movies. That film won an academy award for best actor in a supporting role (Donald Crisp) and was nominated by best actress in a supporting role (Sara Allgood).

Nayak was director Satyajit Ray’s second original screenplay. He confessed that the role of Arindam Mukherjee was always written with actor Uttam Kumar in mind – Ray even composed the main score (Arindam Theme) for Kumar. If Kumar had refused to participate in the movie, Ray would have abandoned the whole project.

– The Indian movie Autograph [2010] is considered a loose remake.

– While Nayak was released in 1966 in India and won a few important awards, it only saw a scattered theatrical release in some Western states, e.g. Germany in 1966 (where it won the main critic award), the US in 1974, France in 1994, and Portugal in 2014 (digitally restored version).

La Caza [ES 1966]

International title: The Hunt

THE PLOT

Three old friends reunite for a hunting trip on the countryside. Paco is a successful business owner who also brings his teenage son Enrique. Jose had been wealthy in the past, but after a costly divorce from his wife, he has been stuck in a midlife crisis. Luis is financially dependent on Jose, but is more interested in reading science fiction stories and drinking alcohol, than actual hunting. The men stay at Jose’s ranch, where they fight over their many conflicting views and in the summer heat and desert-like surroundings, their behavior becomes increasingly erratic – until a tragedy happens.

WHAT I LIKE

The cinematography is raw, gritty, and gives the movie a claustrophobic atmosphere. For many hectic shots, e.g. during the hunt or when the men prepare their weapons, a handheld camera is used for close-ups. Seeing the men shouting, shooting, and sweating up close, makes their performances authentic and thrilling. From a cinematic perspective, the two hunt sequences are genuinely impressive in setting a dramatic tone for the rest of the movie. The framing is wonderful, especially in the large fields and at the camp site and through great scene blocking, the viewers always have a clear idea of what goes on. A bold move that really pays off are the central shots, when the characters directly talk into the camera, e.g. when Jose begs Paco for money or when the men discuss hunting animals. These moments feel intense and the down-to-earth performances make them exciting to watch, as they pull the viewers into the scene.

Also, how the characters’ background is introduced is unconventional: The respective characters comment other people’s behavior or ramble about past mistakes through voice-overs. This way, critical aspects of the characters’ past (e.g., Jose’s divorce or the men’s connection to Arturo) are only introduced bit by bit. In the context of the dramatic escalation, this works great in keeping the viewers engaged in the characters. Lastly, the soundtrack is great with fantastic classic Spanish rock songs at the campsite and a creeping simplistic piano score during the hunt sequences.

WHAT I DON’T LIKE

In its most infamous scenes, namely the rabbit hunt, the movie overtly depicts violence against animals. Multiple times rabbits are shot in front of the camera, hunted by a dog or otherwise hurt (e.g., skinned or mutilated). These scenes clearly depict animal abuse and although one could argue that the crassness of these sequences portrays the characters’ brutality and ruthlessness, many shots are gratuitous and might be disturbing for some. In addition the conflict between the three men could have been explored more thoroughly: Jose’s breakdown and Luis’ sudden hostility towards him at the end come a bit surprising. Here, the writing could have focused even more on Jose’s motivations, and Luis’ character traits, especially because the latter remains rather colorless compared to his friends.

THE VERDICT

La Caza is a drama about three aging friends reuniting for hunting rabbits. The heat and talking about past mistakes make the men increasingly aggressive, until a catastrophe happens. The characters’ backstories are told in an unconventional way and because of the wonderful cinematography the movie succeeds in presenting believable characters on the edge of a nervous breakdown. Although the hunt sequences overtly depict violence against animals and could have easily been toned down, the dramatic escalation is well-written, and the conflict between the men feels authentic.

Overall 8/10

INTERESTING FACTS

– In the latter half of the movie, Luis quotes Ernest Hemingway: “What is moral is what you feel good after and what is immoral is what you feel bad after” – although he quotes the German translation. It’s from Hemingway’s 1932 non-fiction book “Death in the Afternoon”, in which he discusses bullfighting in Spanish-speaking countries.

– The director, Carlos Sauro, came up with the idea for La Caza after searching a place to shoot Cordoba (Llanto por un bandido) [1964]. The desert-like environment gave him the idea of a rabbit hunt. Shooting took place in August 1964 during a period of 4 weeks near the Spanish cities Seseña, Esquivias, and Aranjuez.

– Sauro is considered one of the main examples of the New Spanish Cinema, a movement during the 1960s and 1970s primarily influenced by politically left artists who openly criticized the Franco regime.

Zvenigora / Звенигора [SU 1928]

Info: I embedded the full movie with English subtitles below.

International title: The Enchanted Place

THE PLOT

Zvenigora is an epic with fantastical elements set in the Ukraine and spanning about 1000 years of the country’s history. The movie follows an old man and his two grandsons during various phases in the history of the country, trying to find a legendary treasure buried in the mountain Zvenigora. The episodes include, among others, an ancient war with the Rus’ people in the 11th century, the Polish occupation in the 18th century, and the October Revolution in 1917.

WHAT I LIKE

Even though the cinematography is a bit uneven, many scenes are nicely photographed and the framing is often decent. Not all artistic choices feel necessary, e.g. the slow motion at the beginning or in the war of the Vikings, but there are several great examples of montage editing in the latter half of the movie that support the hectic plot elements. Some moments look truly stunning, e.g. when hundreds of soldiers ride on top of a train or when the Ukrainian prince delivers an emotional speech during the end. Thanks to the cinematography, these moments have an eerie atmosphere to them. The movie is not only visually impressive but also technically competent, especially regarding its age. There are some fine visual effects, like using multiple exposures for image superimposition, e.g. in the whole Viking scene. Although the black and white contrasts are not really sharp, these effects still look pretty convincing and add to the surreal quality of some episodes.

WHAT I DON’T LIKE

Zvenigora is an epic that covers many historical events specific for the Ukraine in its short runtime. Thus, the plot and central characters aren’t well explained and remain largely opaque, especially for people unfamiliar with Ukrainian or Soviet history. Although in the first act, the movie introduces the central plot device thoroughly (i.e., the treasure symbolizing the country itself), the dialogues are lacking in substance and are often symbolic. This results in the different historic episodes feeling disjointed. In addition, it doesn’t help that the characterization is generally lacking. Most characters symbolize ideas rather than clearly individualized persons, making their motivations unclear and some actions cryptic, e.g. why Pavlo is sometimes depicted as a villain. Lastly, the score is of an uneven quality throughout the movie. The most common version is the 1973 restored film, which used the original music sheets. In several moments, the score feels too somber or even uplifting, giving the more serious moments a borderline comical quality, e.g. during the fight against the Poles at the beginning or in the entire Viking scene.

THE VERDICT

Zvenigora is a Soviet silent black and white drama about a mysterious old man who spends centuries to find a legendary treasure buried in the middle of the Ukraine. The movie is essentially an epic fictionalized retelling of the country’s history. Using recurring characters, who should be seen as symbols or embodied ideologies, several historical struggles are retold (e.g., the invasion of the Poles in the 18th century or the October Revolution in 1917). However, as there is no real plot to tie the several episodes together, the movie all too often feels fragmented and disjointed. Together with the symbolic dialogues and that at least some basic knowledge of Ukrainian and/or Soviet history is needed to understand certain scenes, the overall movie alienates many viewers. And while the production values and the cinematography are often impressive and the mix of historical events and surreal elements is ambitious, Zvenigora falls short in presenting a coherent journey.

Overall 6/10

INTERESTING FACTS

 – The script was originally written by Maike Johansen and Yuri Tiutiunnyk, but the director Alexander Dovzhenko heavily rewrote the original draft and removed the names of the original authors. It would be the last time, Dovzhenko adapted another screenplay.

– Together with Earth (Земля) [1930] and Arsenal (Арсенал) [1929], Zvenigora marks Dovzhenko’s Ukraine Trilogy. He wanted to become a member of the Soviet party and saw this movie as his entry card. However, in the Soviet Union, the movie was at the time criticized for its unusual visual aesthetics, while in other parts of the world the movie was seen as Soviet propaganda. This lead to the movie being removed from distribution in 1928, shortly after its release. In more recent years, the movie has been praised by critics for its wildly ambitious plot and use of surreal elements.

 – In his autobiography, Dovzhenko regarded Zvenigora his best and most creative movie, although even he admitted that the plot was “complicated in structure”, “eclectic in form”, and that the characters were more embodiments of ideas, rather than actual individuals.

 – Although today most commonly known by its original name, Zvenigora, some translations of the title hint at the fantastical aspects of the plot, e.g. the seldom used English title “The Enchanted Place” or the Italian (“La montagna incantata”) and German translations (“Der verzauberte Wald”).

Further reading about Zvenigora, Dovzhento, and his relation to the Expressionist/Dada movement: http://rayuzwyshyn.net/dovzhenko/Zvenyhora.htm

Wir [DE 1982]

Info: I embedded the full movie with automatically translated English subtitles below. The English subtitles may not work for some apps.

International title: We

THE PLOT

In a dystopian society called One State, everything is controlled by efficient algorithms, as well as by an all-powerful dictator called Benefactor. The unitary society lives in a large glass city that is protected from the outside by the Green Wall. The plot of Wir focuses on the mathematician and committed supporter of the system, D503, who works on a space shuttle that’s bound to explore – and possibly colonize – foreign planets. D503 writes daily reports about what makes One State so efficient, and why rationality is a greater good than freedom for the collective. One day, on a mandated leisure time walk, he meets I330, a woman, who is opposed to the system. He is fascinated by her ideas of personal freedom and hedonism, and learns, that she is part of a revolutionary underground group called MEPHI. As he slowly falls in love with her, he increasingly starts to lose faith in the perfect system of One State and uses his connections to sabotage the space shuttle.

WHAT I LIKE

Given that most modern dystopian movies focus on visual spectacle, Wir almost feels stale. It’s an independent low-budget production with limited set pieces, few actors/actresses, and practically no computer-generated effects (cp. the crowd replication effects during leisure time activities). Thus, it generally feels like a filmed version of a stage play – however, the simplicity is mostly effective. The set pieces look simple but atmospheric, e.g. the office space, or the room of the Benefactor. The glass walls make for some interesting shots and convey a sense of constant surveillance. Also, the dialogues are well-written and mainly explore the political and philosophical concept of freedom, e.g. one central notion is the perceived contradiction of freedom and security. The dialogues also further the plot, which makes the narrative well-structured but slow in certain moments (e.g. the romantic triangle of D503, his assigned woman, and his childhood friend). Still, the narrative world building is great: how people talk about the Benefactor, the 60-minutes War, the Integral, or the Guardians feels natural, which makes the world authentic and the plot believable.

WHAT I DON’T LIKE

The production values are obviously low, which results in some technical flaws. For example, the camera work, while decent to great in static shots, is poor in handheld scenes. When the camera tracks the main characters, e.g. in the old mansion, the viewer frequently sees the cameraman’s shadow, which can be distracting. In addition, because of the few actors and actresses, One State feels like a small community – as opposed to the massive scope of the society in the novel. Also, conceptually, some aspects of the movie feel outdated. The glass city works great and effectively depicts the working and living condition of the citizens of the futuristic society. But the use of automatic typewriters or how the doctors operate is strangely outdated. This becomes apparent, when the individuals, allegedly being guided by technology and reason, discuss concepts like fantasy or the soul, especially how the doctors behave during the operations. There are even some unintentionally funny moments that are borderline awkward, e.g. when people in the cafeteria discuss how they should chew their food. Overall, these problems are aggravated by the mediocre performances. Side characters deliver their lines often poorly and both lead actor and actress tend to overact in emotionally taxing moments. Their arguments often feel staged, which results in the viewer questioning D503’s transformation from a law-abiding citizen to a terrorist.

VERDICT

Wir (international title: We) is a dystopian science fiction drama set in One State, a totalitarian regime strictly regulating how people live, work, and think. The plot mainly focuses on D503, a loyal mathematician working on a space shuttle, set to explore other worlds and potentially impose their system on the people there. However, when he meets the rebellious I330, he empathizes with an underground group of revolutionaries. Based on the 1920 Russian dystopian novel “We” by Jewgeni Samjatin, the movie mostly stays true to the source material, but it also struggles to capture the scope of the novel and the acting performances are generally not impressive. Due to the low budget, the visual presentation is rudimentary, however, the few different set pieces look great and really convey the novel’s concept of mass surveillance (i.e., like a giant panopticon city). Still, because of the mostly decent cinematography, the well-written dialogues, and the interesting world building, the movie can overcome some of its more technical flaws.

Overall 6/10

INTERESTING FACTS

– Among horror fans, actor Dieter Laser would later become famous for his role as Dr. Heiter in The Human Centipede [2009].

– The movie is based on the 1920 novel “Мы” (“We”) by Jewgeni Samjatin. The novel is generally considered to be one of the first dystopian novels, alongside Jack London’s 1908 novel “The Iron Heel” and H. G. Wells’ 1910 novel “The Sleeper Wakes”. “We” was an immense influence on George Orwell when he wrote “1984” and there are obvious parallels with Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World”- even if Huxley claimed he didn’t know the novel at the time.

– Recently, the novel has been adapted by French director Alain Bourret as the short film The Glass Fortress [2016]. The experimental film is shot in black-and-white and is influenced by La Jetée [1962] (cp. the freeze frame technique), THX 1138 [1971], and Brazil [1985]. It can be viewed for free on YouTube.

– Both the movie and the novel largely consist of diary entries of the protagonist. However, the movie mostly omits the open revolution of MEPHI during the last act, O90 being pregnant with D503’s child, and the troubled state of the city during the end (cp. the Green Wall is destroyed and One State’s survival is in doubt). Apart from these aspects, the movie stays true to the source material.

Atunci i-am condamnat pe toţi la moarte [RO 1972]

International title: Then I Sentenced Them All to Death

Info: I embedded the full movie below.

THE PLOT

The story of Atunci i-am condamnat pe toţi la moarte takes place in Romania during the last days of World War II. Then, the country was occupied by German military. The story is mainly told through the perspective of a young boy who, after being raised in an orphanage, is taken in bis his sister and her husband, the priest Ioan. They live in a small village with many German soldiers present. One day, a German soldier is found dead and the officer gives the people an ultimatum to present the murderer. The leaders of the village, i.e. the mayor, the priest, the doctor and the notary, decide to talk the local idiot, Todor, into confessing to the murder – even though he is innocent. However, as Todor is the closest friend of the young boy, things don’t go exactely as planned.

WHAT I LIKE

The movie has a very straightforward premise and the plot is clearly structured: the viewer only sees, what the boy actually witnesses. The somewhat innocent or naïve perspective makes for some heartfelt moments, i.e. when serious moments are combined with child’s play. This happens mainly in the scenes when Todor and the boy spend time together, especially when they engage in a play gunfight. Because both actors deliver authentic and strong performances, their relationship seems real, making the story believable and the ending plausible. Visually, the movie looks great, with beautiful and spot-on framing that highlights the characters emotions in close-ups (e.g., during the dinner sequence), as well as in the more frantic moments (e.g., when the German soldier rides his horse in the field). Due to the many close-up shots focusing on the characters’ faces and hands, the movie has a claustrophobic quality that works great (e.g., when Ioan and the boy talk in the church), considering the plot is about a village occupied by enemy forces.

WHAT I DON’T LIKE

Because the plot is completely told from the perspective of a young boy, the central themes remain vague well into a third of the movie. This mainly concerns the main characters’ motives and the central conflict, which could have been established at an earlier time point – conflict hereby meaning the troubled relationship between Todor and the village leaders and not the murder, which is only meant to jump-start the plot. Even though most actors do a great job in portraying their characters, it’s never quite clear, why Todor is supposed to be the village idiot or in what way the problematic relationship between Ioan and his wife contributes to the plot. These aspects – alongside the unsolved murder – are logical, when considering that the story is told from the perspective of a young boy who remains largely passive throughout the movie; but the lack of background information is still somewhat bothersome.

THE VERDICT

Atunci i-am condamnat pe toţi la moarte (international title: Then I Sentenced Them All to Death) is a drama set in the last days of World War II in a small Romanian village. The mysterious death of a German soldier kicks off events that lead to the village leaders trying to convince the local idiot to take the blame for the murder. Apart from the strong and obvious social commentary about the exploitative behavior of people in higher social classes, the movie simply looks stunning with a great sense of framing that makes several moments feel chillingly claustrophobic. In addition, most actors portray their characters authentically, which makes the dramatic elements, as well as the more light-hearted moments believable.

Overall 8/10

INTERESTING FACTS

 – The director, Sergiu Nicolaescu, was one of the most influential directors in Romanian cinema. Being a self-taught technician, he started making movies in the 1960s and quickly gained popularity in Eastern Europe, especially with his Iron Guard series. He directed 50 movies during his lifetime and often also played parts in them (cp., in Atunci i-am condamnat pe toţi la moarte he played the role of Commander von Eck because he could speak German). Because of his immense public standing, he was even voted member of the Romanian Parliament after the revolution in the early 1990s.

 – The movie, as well as its remake A Farewell to Fools [2013], are based on the 1970 short story “Moartea lui Ipu” (“The Death of Ipu”) by Titus Popovici, who also wrote the screenplay. Interestingly, Nicolaescu claimed that the story is based on his idea, which he discussed with Popovici in the late 1960s. Allegedly, there was also a copy of the story with both Nicolaescu and Popovici listed as co-authors but it was never publically available.

Ambavi Suramis tsikhitsa / ამბავი სურამის ციხისა [GE 1985]

Info: I embedded the full movie below.

International title: The Legend of Suram Fortress

THE PLOT

Ambavi Suramis tsikhitsa is a fictionalized version of a Georgian folk tale about the building of the fortress in Surami, a small village in central Georgia. The main plot is about the farmer Durmish-Khan, who wants to free his future wife Vardo from serfdom. However, as he travels through the country, he joins the party of the rich businessman Osman-Agha and eventually marries another young woman in his entourage. Upon learning that they already have a son, Zurab, Vardo becomes a bitter fortune teller. Years later, the Czar wants to rebuild the fortress of Surami, fearing the invasion of a foreign enemy. As former attempts at building the foundation wall have always failed, he sends Zurab to Vardo to inquire how the fortress will remain structurally robust – however, Vardo claims that only human sacrifice will make the fortress stand against its enemies.

WHAT I LIKE

The movie is an art film in probably its truest sense, as it’s basically a long sequence of tableaux scenes, i.e. more or less static scenes with little camera movements. Heavy emphasis is laid on framing (e.g., Vardo’s first dance or the several scenes where people try to build the ground wall of the fortress), there is a lack of close-up shots, vibrant colors are used prominently (e.g., the colorful dresses), and the choreography is marvelous (e.g., the many dance scenes). Because of the minimal dialogue, cryptic gestures (e.g., the death of the old fortune teller), and heavy use of symbolic scenes that are used for example to collapse time (e.g., Vardo’s search for Durmish-Khan) or depict people’s motivations (e.g., how Durmish-Khan meets his wife), the plot is not told in a conventional way. However, the pacing never feels off and even the more random moments (e.g., the shots of horses and birds) never overstay their welcome and still contribute to the overall atmosphere – which is oftentimes breathtaking.

WHAT I DON’T LIKE

As there are many predominantly symbolic scenes, the depicted world feels oneiric. Given that the source material is based on an ancient Georgian tale, which is not widely known outside of its home country, many plot elements feel enigmatic, e.g. the many dance ceremonies or how certain characters behave. Intermittent shots of eating horses, carefully arranged clothes, and broken vases are somewhat decipherable in the larger context but can sometimes feel gratuitous. One example for this extreme focus on visual aesthetics is a questionable montage of the trading post; the singular shots looks marvelous but overall the sequence doesn’t really contribute anything to the plot – except for maybe the overall atmosphere. In addition, the predominant use of wide shots means that for some scenes it’s hard to keep track of what the central characters are doing.

WHY IT MATTERS

The director, Sergei Parajanov made only four movies in his lifetime. During the 1970s and 1980s he was imprisoned in a Russian Gulag for several years for his political views. Ambavi Suramis tsikhitsa was his first movie after that period, however, he had to share the directing credit with actor Dodo Abashidze (Osman-Agha). It’s quite fitting that Parajanov chose to direct this movie, as it is based on Daniel Chonkadze’s novella “Suramis tsikhe” (Surami Fortress). The novella is really a criticism of serfdom, political oppression and had to be given a medieval setting due to censorship. However, the story is often interpreted as an allegory of the socio-political system of Soviet Georgia, with the ruling class literally sacrificing a human life to build a crumbling fortress. In addition, the story also touches on religious struggles between Christian and Muslim worldviews that were linked with patriotism during that time (cp. how Osman-Agha and Durmish-Khan convert due to the political circumstances).

THE VERDICT

Ambavi Suramis tsikhitsa (international title: The Legend of Suram Fortress) is the fictionalized retelling of an ancient Georgian tale about a fortress that could only be built with a human sacrifice. Visually, the movie looks wonderful with vibrant colors, perfectly arranged set pieces, and a striking choreography. And while the plot remains mostly simple and central aspects and characters even seem obscure, the heavy use of symbols give the movie a dreamlike quality. Certain scenes – although aesthetically pleasing – seem to lack a clear connection to the plot, which is why the overall allegory about political oppression will remain vague for some viewers.

Overall 7/10

INTERESTING FACTS

 – The German black metal band Voidcraeft edited the movie into the music video of their song “The Vertical Mammal”.

 – Some of the original soundtrack was destroyed in a fire at the Georgian film archive in Tbilisi.

 – In one dance sequence an actors holds up a big mirror. When looking closely, one can see the camera man’s reflection.

 – Historically, Surami became a heavily fortified town in the 12th century because of the constant clashes between the Ottoman and Safavid empires. Even though the exact date when the fortress was built remains obscure, the earliest structures possibly date to that period. Still, the fortress had to be reconstructed several times, e.g. after the Russo-Turkish War (1768–1774).

 – The first cinematic adaptation of the novel was the 1922 Soviet silent movie Сурамская крепость / Suramis tsikhe.

Adventures of Captain Marvel [US 1941]

Info: This review was originally written and published on 02/09/2018. I embedded the fan edit of the movie serial below. This trims down the runtime heavily but you can’t really see the cliffhangers.

THE PLOT

A scientist expedition discovers the tomb of an archaic emperor. The group of researchers steal various artifacts, among them the statue of a scorpion that can transform any material to gold. However, a young man of seemingly pure heart was given the opportunity to transform into a hero with supernatural powers, granted by the spirit called Shazam. Back in the US, the men encounter a villain named the Scorpion, who sends out his henchmen to retrieve his sacred item. What follows next fits the overall story arch of the serialized form: the Scorpion seeks to retrieve the remaining parts of his artifact and hunts down the members of the scientific research group individually. As the Scorpion is always on step ahead, it becomes clear that he must be a member of the original expedition group.

WHAT I LIKE

The overall plot and pacing is entertaining. The action is well presented and although some stunts or the fight choreography seem partly cringeworthy by today’s standards, it is fun to watch the main characters struggle over the pieces of the artifact. The many chase sequences add tension and the mystery about the Scorpion’s identity keeps the viewers thrilled. This is emphasized by the structure of the series: the viewer is taken by the hand and knows what to expect, when cliffhangers are used, and when the next big fight scene will happen – which is by no means a bad thing, given the serial’s other qualities.

WHAT I DON’T LIKE

Over the course of the movie, the structure becomes repetitive, as its serialized nature becomes obvious. Many situations (e.g., traps, fight scenes, dialogues) are alike: central plot devices are constantly repeated, as several key characters are often trapped in a certain location, with Billy transforming to Captain Marvel and fighting his way out, always following the Scorpion. Generally, the movie lacks in choreography, acting of side characters and many scenes have a feeling of staginess to them. Of course, one should keep in mind the production values of movies produced in the 1940s, however, there are flaws in editing (e.g., unintentional jump cuts) and even the score is gratuitously used. Considering its serialized nature, these repetitions make for a very familiar feeling – however, when expecting a coherent movie experience, the atmosphere becomes tedious. It does not help, that some fight scenes and dialogues detract from the viewing experience, making the viewer aware of the many shortcomings of the production.

SIDENOTES

At a time, where streaming services have rejuvenated the interest for serialized content, with e.g. Netflix focusing on superhero content, it is worthwhile to check out the beginnings of that genre. From today’s perspective the technical aspects of the movie are mostly flawed, yet the basic premise is well-written, featuring comedic moments, decently paced actions sequences, and interesting settings. Overall, it is fascinating that such a fantastic and adventurous story could be realized in a serialized adaptation at that time. The structure curiously even resembles today’s viewing habits featuring a large story arch without focusing too much on the events of single episodes. In comparison to newer efforts, it seems clear, that the expectations we have towards the genre have changed in quality and quantity. As movies and tv shows provide darker more mature tones and complex shared universes, this serial boasts a more naively entertaining plot, building up tension very neatly and making one care for the characters and follow their misadventures with great interest.

THE VERDICT

The Adventures of Captain Marvel is an entertaining adventure movie with a fun and thrilling main story arch. Evaluating this superhero adventure partly depends on the expectations the viewer holds: as a series of short movies the plot is a blast – if dated in execution; as a single movie, it has a repetitive structure and several tedious moments, as well as bland, almost interchangeable characters. However, as this serial sports a more ingenuous superhero plot than most of today’s offerings, it does have its charm.

Overall 6/10

INTERESTING FACTS

– Remade for TV as Shazam! [1974-1977] and as Shazam! [2019].

– Frank Coghlan Jr., who played Billy Batson, had a cameo in the TV show Shazam! [1974].

– This was the first depiction of a comic book superhero on film, and the failed attempt at licensing National Periodical Publications’ (today: DC Comics) Superman character.

Adventures of Captain Marvel was the 21st of 66 film serials produced by Republic and their first comic book character adaptation (not counting comic strips).

– The effect of Captain Marvel flying was achieved by filming an over-sized dummy that was slid along a fine wire.

The Spider’s Web [US 1938]

Info: I embedded a fan edit below. It’s basically the full story without the introduction and preview parts for each episode. This trims down the runtime heavily but you can’t really see the cliffhangers.

THE PLOT

The Spider’s Web is an action movie serial about Richard Wentworth, a wealthy, middle-aged amateur criminologist, who is also The Spider, a masked vigilante character who fights crime. A mysterious villain named The Octopus is responsible for sabotaging train line and bridges, causing dozens of people getting killed. With his network of underground criminals, he plans to take over the country’s major industries. After a nearly fatal plane accident, Wentworth, who planned to retired the character of The Spider to marry his fiancée, is forced to investigate the recent criminal activities. As Richard Wentworth he uses his connection to the police to gather information about the ongoing cases, as Blinky McQuade – another persona he adopted in the past – he investigates undercover, and as The Spider he fights The Octopus’ henchmen. The Octopus predominantly tackles the transportation systems and the local power plant to spread chaos and heighten his chances of taking over these businesses. However, Wentworth soon discovers a pattern behind the attacks and realizes that only someone in the inner circle of the police or of his business acquaintances can be The Octopus.

WHAT I LIKE

This movie is really a cheaply produced series of episodes in the style of 1930s detective/vigilante stories. The plot is reasonably entertaining, although some repeating elements are redundant (e.g., the various kidnappings). The episodes always end on a cliffhanger that show The Spider in great peril – however, only some of the cliffhangers work well (e.g., in the power plant), while others feels constructed and/or simply rehash the same idea (e.g., The Spider jumps out of the car before it explodes). Because of the episode structure the movie really feels like a series with an overarching main plot. The basic premise and some concepts are still intriguing: a criminal organization that tackles transportation systems to spread chaos. However, the structure also results in a sometimes incoherent narrative and a jumbled plot (e.g., the whole bank episode feels forced). And while from a production quality standpoint the action sequences are outdated, the car chases are still enjoyable – especially because of the thrilling soundtrack.

WHAT I DON’T LIKE

The production values of The Spider’s Web were, even at the time, very modest. This obviously results in several drawback regarding continuity (e.g., when and where Wentworth is able to stash his costume), technical errors (e.g., squeaking tires on dirt roads), stunt work and fight choreography, and character performances (e.g., some side actors, like the gas station manager, are mediocre at best). Apart from these more technical aspects, the plot is not well-constructed. The backstory of Wentworth is never revealed, although it is frequently hinted at, many moments are rather clichéd (e.g., some cars instantly explode when going off the road), inconsistent pacing that jumps back and forth between different sceneries without proper explanation (e.g., the frantic ride around town in episode 7), and many redundant moments (e.g., the tricks of The Octopus, like electrically charged doors and deadly gas bombs). All in all, the series doesn’t manage to use its structure well enough, to create a coherent story with intriguing characters.

SIDENOTE

In the 1930s movie serials were a huge success and companies like Republic, Universal, and Columbia were quickly producing as much as possible. Movie serials were basically series created for local cinemas. The serials were released weekly and often featured a short introduction of the main characters, information about the previous episodes, and cliffhangers at the end of each episode. Inspirations were drawn from popular material, like pulp fiction (e.g., The Spider’s Web, Deadwood Dick [1940]), comic books (e.g., Superman [1948], Adventures of Captain Marvel [1941], The Phantom [1943]), radio shows (e.g., The Shadow [1940]), and earlier movies (e.g., White Eagle [1941], The Green Archer [1940]), which is why Columbia was very successful. All in all, 57 movie serials were produced by Columbia between 1937 (Jungle Menace) and 1956 (Blazing the Overland Trial). Much like other movies from that era (e.g., the anti-Japan sentiment in Batman and Robin [1943]), there are racial stereotypes to be found (e.g., Wentworth’s joke about Chinese airport workers or that the Indian sidekick is actually played by a Canadian with make-up). Also, Wentworth’s fiancée is poorly written and the character is mostly there for telling Wentworth that his missions are dangerous or for being rescued from kidnappers – only in the later episodes is she slightly more proactive. These stereotypes should at least be addressed, when discussing this serial.

THE VERDICT

The Spider’s Web is an action movie serial about Richard Wentworth, a rich criminologist, who fights crime as the masked vigilante The Spider. In 15 episodes, Wentworth’s fight against the criminal mastermind The Octopus is shown, who plans attacks on the country’s transportation systems to gain control over the most important industries. While the basic premise is intriguing and some action sequences are still enjoyable, the movie’s entertainment value is largely due to nostalgic reasons. By modern standards, there are many drawbacks, like the jumbled narrative, the redundant cliffhangers, and the poor performances of side characters. Considering its runtime of about 5 hours, the movie serial never quite accomplishes to tell a coherent story with genuinely interesting characters – although some episodes are fun to watch.

Overall 4/10

INTERESTING FACTS

 – The chronological order of the episodes are: Night of Terror, Death Below, High Voltage, Surrender or Die, Shoot to Kill, Sealed Lips, Shadows of the Night, While the City Sleeps, Doomed, Flaming Danger, The Road to Peril, The Spider Falls, The Man Hunt, The Double Cross, The Octopus Unmasked.

 – The serial was one of the first serials to be released by Columbia and extremely successful in 1938. Its success spawned the 1941 sequel (although only Warren Hull and Kenne Duncan reprised their roles) and reissues of the series in 1947.

– The character was a main inspiration for Stan Lee in creating Spider Man, alongside with Steve Ditko. Like Spider Man years later, The Spider often uses his web line to escape danger and has a spider web-pattern costume – which was specifically created for the movie serial. Coincidentally, Spider Man also has an opponent named Octopus.

 – When compared to the pulp stories, the serial was heavily toned down in violence to meet the production codes. The original stories were often extremely violent, with villains slaughtering thousands of innocent people in their killings sprees. The Spider also generally killed his enemies, putting a spider stamp on their corpses.

Mirageman [CL 2007]

Info: I embedded the full movie with automatically translated English subtitles below.

THE PLOT

Maco Gutiérrez, a bouncer in a shady strip club in Santiago de Chile, is an ordinary guy with a dark past – his parents were murdered during a robbery and his brother has been in a psychiatry ever since. Maco is obsessed with martial arts and fitness, counting calories, taking pills, and frequently working out. During one of his runs, he prevents a robbery and saving a young woman, Carol Valdivieso, from being raped. It turns out that Carol is a journalist and his actions receive broad coverage. When also his brother is inspired by his braveness, Maco decides to adopt the persona of a vigilante. As Mirageman he sets up a mail account and starts out helping the locals. However, when he goes against a pedophile ring, he nearly getskilled, which makes him realize that he overestimated his capabilities. Still, when Carol gets kidnapped again, he brings Mirageman out of retirement.

WHAT I LIKE

Although Mirageman is a low-budget superhero movie, there are some great action scenes to be found. Marko Zaror who portrays Mirageman is also a popular stuntman, which really shows in the quality of the fight scenes. His stunts, but also the frequent workout scenes are energetic and generally feel convincing, with long takes on the action and impressive choreography. But the movie also feels somewhat realistic, as some stunts look awkward, as they should in real life, e.g. when Mirageman stumbles after jumping from a parking deck, or when he cleans his mask in-between fights. In addition, the movie never takes itself too seriously, without becoming a straight-out comedy. There are some funny bits, e.g. when Maco puts on his costume for the first time, showing how impractical it is, or how his assignments are called missions, like in video games or superhero comic books (e.g., when he is joined by his sidekick Pseudo-Robin). Lastly, the morality of vigilante action is at least briefly discussed, which shows that the movie also partly operates on a deeper level.

WHAT I DON’T LIKE

Some drawbacks hold the mentioned qualities back. For one, the cinematography is only mediocre: The handheld camera gives the movie a realistic look, but many indoor scenes are too dark and muddy, which makes the usually well-choreographed fights hard to see. During the outdoor fights, the camera movement is decent, but never really highlights the impressive stunt work. Also, while some fights are really well-done and feel dynamic (e.g., the fight against the handbag thieves), some are not as entertaining and make heavy use of the action movie trope, that the hero only ever fights against one individual at a time, when encountering a large group of people (e.g., in the fight against the teenage bullies). Lastly, while the comedic tones mostly work great, there are some moments that feel corny, i.e. the super-cut of his first missions. This results in Maco being a bland character, who rarely speaks, is easily outsmarted (e.g., the kidnapping of Carol), and whose real motivation is only hinted at in the last act (i.e., his second attempt at fighting the pedophile ring).

THE VERDICT

Mirageman is a low-budget action movie that focuses on a more or less realistic story of a bouncer turned vigilante. The independent production lacks in cinematography and the plot and the comedic undertones may not always work as effectively as they should. However, this doesn’t mean that Mirageman is simply a cheap copy of similarly themed movies like Kick-Ass [2010] with a considerably higher budget and well-known actors. The stunt work and choreography are impressive and the gritty performances make the movie feel realistic and compelling. The movie also never takes itself too seriously, which makes for some light-hearted and funny bits – that are also accompanied by some more serious discussions about the morality of vigilante actions in general. In total, Mirageman is a convincing and entertaining action movie package.

Overall 6/10

INTERESTING FACTS

 – In Chile, director Ernesto Díaz Espinoza is popular for his independent action movies, e.g. Kiltro [2006], Mirageman, or Redeemer [2014]. All three movie are also collaborations between Espinoza and Zaror.

 – There are numerous nods to superhero movies: the spinning paper trope (e.g., Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman), a kissing scene that resembles the one in Spider-Man [2002], a romantic relationship towards a journalist as in Superman, Mirageman’s first costume and how he poses on rooftops resembles Spider-Man in the 1977 TV show, and a meeting with an undercover police officer as in Batman.

– In Germany, the movie was marketed as a Kick-Ass [2010] knock-off, titled Mirageman Kicks Ass, with a cover that straight out copies the former title.

– During a press conference at Fantastic Fest 2009, Zaror announced an American remake titled ”Defender 3D”. Zaror was to reprise his role and Andy Cheng was set to direct the movie. However, after funding issues both Zaror and Cheng have pursued different projects, meaning that the remake has effectively been shelved.