ამბავი სურამის ციხისა / Ambavi Suramis tsikhitsa [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.

Les Maîtres du temps [FR 1982]

Info: I embedded the full movie below (English dub version).

International title: Time Masters

THE PLOT

After an accident on the planet Perdide, the young boy Piel lost his father and is all alone in a hostile environment. Piel only has an egg-shaped transmitter to hold contact with the other crew members. The captain, Jaffar, immediately starts a rescue mission and fetches Silbad, an old friend of his, who is familiar with the environment on Perdide. However, another crew member, Prince Matton, has stolen cargo, which is why he tries to sabotage the mission, to escape police custody. Things really get complicated when Jaffar and Matton are trapped on another hostile planet, Gamma 10, and need to fight their way back to the spaceship.

WHAT I LIKE

Les Maîtres du temps has a remarkably unique art style – the spaceships, the machinery, and the strange planets all share a recognizable and visionary style. For one, the level of detail in some still frames (e.g., the spaceships) is amazing. But the locations also feels organic, e.g. when the crew visits Silbad’s place or the creature design on Gamma 10. This eerie atmosphere is further supported by the wonderful synth score that mostly features electronic and ambient sounds. And although the beginning is a bit rough, the plot is also intriguing, featuring some thrilling scenes (e.g., on Gamma 10), but also some more somber or even funny moments, e.g. Piel’s interaction with the bird-like creature. The twist ending is emotionally touching and still works, even if it makes use of a time travel theme/trope, which in 2020 is probably more well-known than in the early 1980s.

WHAT I DON’T LIKE

Although the general art direction is pretty fascinating, which is why many still frames look amazing, the animation quality is often crude. Emotional dialogues are sometimes not as gripping, as the faces are all too often only fixed images, and character movements are generally choppy, which makes the characters look wooden. Plot-wise, the lack of exposition – or general background information, for that matter – may put some viewers off. Most characters are not properly introduced and the viewer rarely gets more information about the locations. Even though the latter may add to the ominous and strange atmosphere of the universe, the lack of background information and the somewhat rushed ending can also be frustrating. Lastly, although the movie was initially promoted as a children’s movie, due to animation in the 1980s being foremost for younger audiences, many elements of the plot, especially the central twist are probably hard to understand for most children.

THE VERDICT

Les Maîtres du temps (international title: Time Masters) is an animated science fiction movie about a rescue mission of a young boy, lost on a hostile and strange planet. The movie features a wonderfully unique art direction that is used to create a strange but fascinatingly atmospheric universe – even if the animation quality for movements and characters’ facial expressions are of a noticeably lower quality. The ominous 1980s synth score also efficiently brings the hostile locations to life. Plot-wise the movie lacks a thorough exposition and the ending may seem rushed to some viewers – but the central ideas are intriguing and the main plot twist is still believable and emotionally touching. Overall, Les Maîtres du temps is a wonderful example of how an imaginative art direction can create a thrilling science fiction epic.

Overall 8/10

INTERESTING FACTS

Les Maîtres du temps was a collaboration between the French animation director René Laloux (e.g., Fantastic Planet [1973] and Gandahar [1987]) and French animator Jean Giraud, better known as Moebius. It is an adaptation of the novel “L’Orphelin de Perdide” (“The Orphan of Perdide”) by Stefan Wul – who also wrote the novel which Fantastic Planet [1973] was based on. Moebius was famous for his fantastical concept art, having contributed to the unreleased Dune adaptation of Alejandro Jodorowsky (cp. Jodorowsky’s Dune [2013]), as well as Alien [1979], Tron [1982], The Fifth Element [1997], and The Abyss [1989].

 – There are numerous differences between the movie and the original novel: names have been changed (e.g., Piel was also named Claude and Jaffar was called Max); Prince Matton doesn’t die a hero on Gamma 10 protecting Jaffar, but rather while on a flight attempt; Gamma 10 doesn’t have a hive mind, but simply a giant monster; there are no floating homunculi in the novel; and the origin of the time travel was changed.

– While the novel is named “The Orphan of Perdide”, the original movie title was “Traps/Trappings of the Future”.

 – Initial Hungarian reviews criticized the art direction while defending the animation quality – probably because the movie was mostly animated in Hungary. However, director Marcell Jankovics (e.g., Az Ember Trédiája), stated that Pannónia Film Studios were really lacking in expertise on movements and facial expressions at the time.

– The movie, as well as the original novel, elaborate on the twin paradox, as proposed by Paul Langevin in 1911, based on Einstein’s theory of relativity. Whereas in the movie, there are time masters who can manipulate time itself, the travel at light speed was the origin of time dilation in the novel.

Solyaris / Солярис [SU 1968]

Info: I embedded the full two-part television movie below.

International title: Solaris

THE PLOT

Onboard the Prometheus, the scientist Kris Kelvin reaches a space station orbiting the planet Solaris. However, as he arrives, the space station seems deserted. After some time, he finds one of three colleagues he is set to work with, Dr. Snout. Having trouble to recognize Kris, Dr. Snout is strangely cryptic and warns him of strange appearances on the station. Kelvin also learns that the commander, Prof. Gibaryan, was found dead, having injected himself a lethal poison. Kelvin suspects a cover-up and decides to further investigate the case. However, at his cabin, Kelvin sees his wife Hari, who died ten years ago. At first, Kelvin suspects that she is a hallucination, but later he finds out that she and other people who have been appearing at the space station, are phantoms, sent from a sentient lifeform on Solaris. The three scientists decide to stay on the station and study the occurrences and possibly contacting the alien intelligence.

WHAT I LIKE

Visually, the movie may not be impressive, but the black and white cinematography has its moments and feels genuinely atmospheric. There are several scenes that use light and shadow much like film noir, e.g. when Hari appears in Kelvin’s room. The plot follows the original novel relatively closely and focuses on how the scientists try to communicate with the sentient plasma ocean – although there is also some romantic drama between Kelvin and Hari. And while the many philosophic discussions can become quite tedious, there are some interesting thoughts and concepts explored, e.g. in the impressive dialogue between Dr. Snout and Kelvin at the end of the first part about what it means to connect with our dark past. However, the most gripping scenes involve Kelvin and Hari, especially because the two characters share chemistry, and the dramatic moments feel believable (e.g., when Hari finds out, that she can’t be human).

WHAT I DON’T LIKE

It’s a two-part made for television movie, thus, the production values are not quite high (e.g., there is no actual footage from the space shuttle and the space station largely consists of one industrial hallway). Obviously, in comparison to the two cinematic versions, this adaptation is less visually intriguing. Unfortunately, the minimalistic and sparse setting further highlights the slow pacing and the dialogue-driven narrative. Seldom are plot elements shown, most information is simply told by one of the characters. And although generally decent, the performances of Dr. Snout and Sartorius can be middling, with the latter even delivering some cringeworthy moments (e.g., the first encounter). Technically, the camera work is not particularly well done, with awkward zooms in dialogue scenes, especially in later discussions, and sometimes poor framing – even though the dialogue scenes are mostly static.

THE VERDICT

Solyaris is the first adaptation of Stanisław Lem’s novel of the same name. It’s a two-part made for television movie about a scientist who encounters his dead wife on a space station orbiting a sentient planet. The movie heavily focuses on philosophic discussions about morality and stays more closely to the original novel than the other cinematic adaptations by Tarkowski and Soderbergh. Technically, the movie is dated and the generally low production values and the minimalistic setting will turn off some viewers. In addition, the slow pacing of the frequent dialogue scenes and the sometimes middling performances don’t necessarily make the movie entertaining. However, the plot is intriguing and faithful to the source material, some dialogues are clever, and the black and white cinematography also make this science fiction drama atmospheric.

Overall 6/10

INTERESTING FACTS

 – Reportedly, Stanisław Lem, the author of the original novel, hated both cinematic adaptations of Solaris. He famously noted that both Tarkowski’s and Soderbergh’s version rather resembled “Love in Outer Space”, than his original concept. It is not clear, whether Lem actually saw the 1968 made for television version.

– This version follows the plot of the novel quite closely, focusing on how the scientists study Solaris and make contact with the alien lifeform. Both Tarkowski’s and Soderbergh’s version are more loose adaptations, completely omitting Lem’s astrobiology theories and adding backstory to the protagonist.

– Antonina Pilyus, who portrayed the character Hari, only starred in four movies, before retiring from acting in 1976.

Blancanieves [ES 2012]

International title: Snow White

Info: I embedded the full movie below.

THE PLOT

Blancanieves is a loose adaptation of Snow White, the classic fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm, set during the early 20th century in Seville, Spain. The movie imitates the style of silent pictures of the 1920s, featuring black and white cinematography, a 4:3 aspect ratio, and title cards for dialogues. It tells the story of Carmen, a young girl, whose father was a famous matador, but became a paraplegic after an accident and whose mother died in childbirth. The first years, Carmen is raised by her grandmother, however, after her sudden death, she is forced to live with her father and stepmother. While she only scarcely has contact with her father, whom she nevertheless adores, her stepmother treats her badly, forcing her to do menial work and sleep in the staples. After the death of her father, her stepmother even plots to have her murdered. However, she survives and tries to fill her father’s shoes as a matadora.

WHAT I LIKE

The movie is a very effective throwback to the era of silent films and, thus, has a unique style, with beautiful cinematography, sharp contrasts, and wonderful costumes. Although it uses few locations, the scenery is generally great to look at, e.g. the mansion Monte Olvido or the Coliseo. Often, close-up shots are used to capture the characters’ emotions, which works great, especially in the beginning. The first act basically serves as the characters’ dramatic backstory and is very immersive, even if it has little to do with the original fairy tale. Also, a high degree of symbolism is used throughout (e.g., the poisonous apple, or the funeral of Carmen’s father), which works great, as the movie is essentially a fantasy tale, grounded in reality. In addition, the actors mostly deliver strong performances – even if, characters like the evil stepmother or her henchman can sometimes be too over the top, i.e. during their erotic games. Lastly, the central characters all have great chemistry, which makes their scenes flow naturally, e.g. between Carmen and her father.

WHAT I DON’T LIKE

As mentioned, the character of the stepmother is portrayed in a very flamboyant and excessive way, e.g. she is constantly showing off her new dresses and manipulates the people around her in obvious ways, e.g. at her husband’s funeral or when she moves to a new house. Her sexual relationship with her driver is also over the top, which makes some of her scenes more comical than threatening. Lastly, although the editing is generally decent, there are several unnervingly hectic cuts, e.g. when Carmen’s grandmother dies or when Carmen is strangled. These scenes don’t match the overall style, which follows the cinematography of movies of the silent era, especially of German Expressionism, thus, marring the experience for some viewers.

THE VERDICT

Blancanieves is a drama with fantasy elements that is inspired by the fairy tale Snow White by the Brothers Grimm. It’s set in the early 20th century in Seville, Spain, and focuses on a young girl who grows up with her evil stepmother and her paraplegic father. The movie imitates the style of silent films of that era, e.g. with black and white cinematography and title cards for dialogues. In addition, it introduces an elaborate backstory to the characters and the element of bullfighting, which is popular in Spain. Because of its visual style, the coherent plot, and the mostly great acting, the movie is highly memorable. All of this makes for a unique viewing experience and a thrilling retelling of the well-known fairy tale.

Overall 8/10

INTERESTING FACTS

 – The story is a loose adaptation of Snow White by the Brothers Grimm. However, the main characters’ backstory is altered, introducing the popular Spanish bullfighting theme as a central element of the characters’ motivations. The original story can be read here [English version]: https://www.pitt.edu/~dash/grimm053.html

 – Director Pablo Berger developed the project for eight years before being able to shoot it. He shot the film completely in color and desaturated the material to black-and-white in post-production.

 – The movie is infamous for having violated the Animal Protection Law. After a technician confirmed that the bulls on set were frequently hurt with sticks and banderillas (bullfighting spears), the animal protection association managed to get a sanctioning file against the production company, Arcadia Motion Pictures.

 – Blancanieves shares some similarities with El laberinto del fauno [2006]. Both are fantastical stories that are set in early 20th century Spain, featuring a young girl who is treated badly by her stepparent. In addition, both movies star actress Maribel Verdú.

 – Cinematographer Kiko de la Rica previously also worked on Balade triste de trompeta [2010], a horror movie set in a disturbing freak show circus – similar to the ending of Blancanieves.

 – One of three popular adaptations of the Snow White fairy tale that come out in 2012. The others are Mirror Mirror and Snow White and the Huntsman. Also, there were a number of low budget productions that year, like Grimm’s Snow White and Snow White: A Deadly Summer.

 – Set during the early 20th century in Spain, Carmen wouldn’t have been allowed to be a matadora. Up until 1974, the law prohibited women from actively participating in bullfights. The first female matadora was Bertha Trujillo in Colombia (1956), while the first Spanish matadora was Ángela Hernández (1979).

Wax, or the Discovery of Television Among the Bees [US 1991]

Info: I embedded the full movie below.

THE PLOT

Wax, or the Discovery of Television Among the Bees is an independent science fiction movie about a programmer at NASA, Jacob Maker, who – much like his grandfather – studies bees as a hobby. He tells his story in the form of a pseudo-documentary, revealing insights about his grandparents, his wife, and his work, developing training programs for future pilots. After a dream-like experience, in which his beehive transports him to the past, he gets increasingly sensitive to his computer simulations, concluding that only his beekeeper’s suit can protect him from supernatural harm. He believes that the bees have implanted a crystal in his head, which is why he frequently finds himself in the past, having out-of-body experiences, and wandering aimlessly through the desert. As he slowly loses grip on reality, his connection to the rockets, that run on his software, becomes stronger, and he feels that he himself becomes a weapon that needs to kill.

WHAT I LIKE

The plot, or rather the blend of presented concepts, is pretty complex and also convoluted, as many seemingly random ideas are interconnected throughout the movie’s short runtime. These themes and concepts include biblical references to the history of violence in humans, weapons of mass destruction, conspiracy theories (like the Hollow Earth Theory), and the existence of ghosts. Some of these ideas work very well on their own or in connection with other ideas, e.g. when the connection between ghosts and weapons are explained or when the main character criticizes the use of intelligent weapons, something that is even more topical than in the 1990s, with the frequent use of drones in warzones. This makes the plot, although seemingly random paranoid clutter at first, highly imaginative and disturbing.

Visually, the movie might not be state of the art by 1991’s standards, however, the crude, low-resolution animations, the complex editing (e.g., shot repetitions, digital non-linear editing, distorted zooms, and spherically deformed transitions), and the exaggerated zooms fit the paranoid and dreamlike descriptions of the main character. Thus, the simplistic and experimental visual imagery really highlights the nightmarish atmosphere and efficiently represents the experiences of the protagonist, e.g. when he is being hunted by ghosts or when he reaches the Garden of Eden Cave.

WHAT I DON’T LIKE

As interesting and unique the various concepts of the movie are, the narrative is still too convoluted and doesn’t follow through with some aspects of the story – and the unemotional narrator doesn’t help either. Seemingly relevant names and facts are presented in the first half that are only loosely connected to the fate of the protagonist (e.g., the Mesopotamia arch), while other aspects are never explained (e.g., the main character’s connection with his grandfather’s colleague). Also, the backstory of the protagonist’s grandmother and wife are mostly irrelevant. The journey through the desert feels longer than it should, considering the movie’s runtime, and concepts like the Hollow Earth Theory are dropped shortly after being presented. In addition, the visual effects are – even though novel at the time – repetitive, as the same effects are used over and over again (e.g., the wave-like image distortion and shots being repeated with only one additional visual effect). Overloaded scenes like the “Garden of Eden Cave” heading becoming “Vengeance of the Dead”, therefore lose some of their effect.

THE VERDICT

Wax, or the Discovery of Television Among the Bees can probably best be described as a philosophic journey through the paranoid consciousness of the narrator, which is presented in the form of a science fiction pseudo-documentary. Much like documentaries on conspiracy theories, the movie is cluttered with seemingly random information about beehives, ghosts, and weapon’s testing – just to name a few central themes. These concepts are mostly interconnected but overall the narrative still lacks structure and coherence. The visual presentation is perplexing with distorted images and heavy use of computer-generated effects, but the abstract shapes and intercut shots of bees match the dreamlike and hypnotic atmosphere of the movie. Overall, the movie presents some great ideas (e.g., criticism of intelligent weapons), and the presentation is, although being a low-budget production, unique and fascinating to watch – even though some aspects don’t come together all that well.

Overall 6/10

INTERESTING FACTS

 – A spiritual sequel series, The Telepathic Motion Picture of The Lost Tribes, was developed and has been shown in museums as a long-form moving image narrative installation since 2013.

 – The movie was the first film uploaded to the Internet in 1993 (waxweb.org). Additionally, it has been presented in museums worldwide, in a slightly altered version (Wax Web).

 – The main character frequently has out-of-body experiences and thought inspirations (i.e., the bees implanting ideas inside his head). Also, he goes on extensively long walks through the desert in a somnambulant state. Erratic behavior of this kind is also symptomatic for people suffering from paranoid schizophrenia.

 – Stock footage of William S. Burroughs (1914-1997) was used for the character John Hivemaker. Burroughs was a post-modern writer (e.g., Naked Lunch, which was adapted to film by David Cronenberg in 1991) and visual artist (e.g., the “Gunshot Paintings”).

 – The movie was co-produced by the German television channel ZDF. When the main characters watch the space shuttle launch, both the American President, Ronald Regan, as well as the German head of state at the time, Helmut Kohl, are shown.

 – At the beginning, a London-based supernatural society is mentioned. There really was a short-lived “Society for the Study of Supernatural Pictures” (1918-1923); one of the members was writer Arthur Conan Doyle.

Verdens Undergang [DK 1916]

International title: The End of the World

Info: I embedded the full movie below.

THE PLOT

Verdens Undergang is an early science fiction movie about two daughters of a wealthy mine owner, Dina and Edith, and how they experience an imminent collision of a comet with Earth. Previously, Dina had left a small mining town to marry a successful stock broker, whereas Edith stayed in town. After Dina’s husband hears from his cousin, a well-known astronomer, about a comet which is to hit Earth in a matter of days, he uses his knowledge to become rich at the stock exchange. Together with his wife, Frank travels back to her home town, to hold out the catastrophe in the mines. However, the impending disaster also causes riots among the poor workers, threatening Frank and Dina’s plan.

WHAT I LIKE

The movie is obviously dated in presentation, production values, and visual quality. The presentation is slow and how dialogues and character interactions are shot, reminds heavily of stage plays. The image quality is, considering the movie’s age, good and features clear contrasts. Still, there are numerous visual artifacts (e.g., grain and hairlines) present at basically all times, and there are also several jumps, as probably pictures are missing from the raw material. Still, these technical features don’t distract from the movie itself and there are some nice shots, especially in the mining town or when characters are only seen as shadows (e.g., the sailors on the fishing boat), and the choreography is also great (e.g., the dancing scene at the end). Also, the catastrophe at the end is really well depicted, as the rudimentary special effects are largely effective in presenting the complete destruction of the town.

Technical notions aside, I liked the social commentary of the movie. Here, the rich and the poor are contrasted in clever ways, e.g. when the rich party in Frank’s mansion and claim to rebuild the world after the comet strike, whereas the poor are unprotected in the town. In short, the social commentary – which revolved around a society heavily traumatized by the ongoing World War I – is what makes the movie still intriguing for today’s audience.

WHAT I DON’T LIKE

Although the movie can both be interpreted as a religious allegory and social commentary of the time, neither aspect is fully explored. This is partly due to the overly melodramatic first half of the movie, which introduces characters of little importance to the plot and makes heavy use of discussions that the viewer never hears. Together with the stagey presentation, this will turn off some viewers. Also, the plot is seemingly split between the two couples Dina/Frank and Edith/Reymers, however, the latter couple is largely irrelevant for the plot. In addition, some plot aspects also are illogical (e.g., Frank’s scam or the riot of the ship mates) – which could be because of how little the character’s motivations are explained. The uneven narrative focus and illogical elements ultimately culminate in an underwhelming open ending, which is neither satisfying to watch, nor furthers the plot’s allegorical meaning.

THE VERDICT

Verdens Undergang (international title: The End of the World) is one of the earliest preserved science fiction feature films. The plot is about an imminent collision of a comet with Earth, possibly resulting in a catastrophe in North-Western Europe. Due to the social commentary, the comparably well-made special effects, and the allegorical nature of the plot (cp., many have interpreted the social unrest as a result of World War I), the movie is considered a science fiction classic and is still an interesting watch. However, technically there are some drawbacks, not only regarding the visual presentation (e.g., heavy artifacts and muddy shadows), but also regarding the uneven plot and the disappointing character presentation.

Overall 6/10

INTERESTING FACTS

 – At the time, the film was immensely popular. This was attributed to Halley’s Comet in 1910 and the ongoing unrest during World War I.

 – In 2006, Verdens Undergang was digitally restored and republished by the Danish Film Institute.

 – The movie influenced La fin du monde [1931] and Melancholia [2011]. The former – although based on an older novel – also deals with a comet hurling towards Earth and a scientist who is concerned about mass hysteria; the latter deals with how two sisters experience the imminent collision with a celestial body and has the same ending shot.

Russkiy kovcheg / Русский ковчег [RU 2002]

International title: Russian Ark

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

THE PLOT

Russkiy kovcheg is an experimental art movie about a mysterious man without memory who finds himself in St. Petersburg, Russia, during the late 19th century. There, he is guided by a French aristocrat, nicknamed “the European”, who shows him the Winter Palace of the Hermitage. The European has expansive knowledge of Russian history and informs the unknown man about the palace, the art exhibitions, and the people there – while none of the others notice the unknown man.

WHAT I LIKE

The basic concept of Russkiy kovcheg is that of a period drama with a stunning scenery. The movie’s technically remarkable because the whole film was shot in one take. Thus, the movie resembles a guided museum tour that captures the atmosphere of the Hermitage. Also, the use of extras is simply amazing: at times there are several hundred extras on screen who interact with each other. Consequently, some scenes are impressive to watch, especially in the latter half, when the unknown man visits a dance hall with a full-blown orchestra and several dozens of extras dancing. Here, the timing and choreography are marvelous, and the fluid camera movement together with the hauntingly beautiful scenery make for some memorable and dream-like moments.

WHAT I DON’T LIKE

Even though the costumes are well-made, and the Hermitage makes for a wonderful scenery, the camera work also has its flaws. There are numerous transitions and dark passages in which the viewers ultimately see nothing, especially in the beginning. In these scenes, the one-take technique doesn’t add anything to the content or structure of the narrative. In addition, there are weirdly placed dolly zooms, often when the European goes through a corridor, that are noticeable and distracting. Also, it is apparent that in static moments, the camera is constantly being re-adjusted for better framing, especially in scarcely lit environments or when the European goes through doors. Lastly, while no inherent drawback, the movie does require at least basic knowledge of Russian history, otherwise the singular events will not make sense to the viewer, especially the juxtaposition of what happened in the past and the characters’ comments (e.g., about the war or specific aristocrats). Here, the movie does nothing to at least partially explain the context.

THE VERDICT

Russkiy kovcheg (international title: Russian Ark) is a period drama about an unknown man who finds himself roaming the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia, in the late 19th century, while being invisible to others. The movie is an impressive work of art and, as of 2020, still one of the longest movies shot in one continuous take. The scenery of the Hermitage in St. Petersburg is hauntingly beautiful and the well-choreographed moments with hundreds of actors are simply stunning to watch. In its best moments, Russkiy kovcheg is very much like a beautiful dream come to live. However, the movie nearly completely lacks narrative structure and the camera work has its flaws in the more somber moments (e.g., distracting zooms, low lighting). Ultimately, while still being a technical achievement, viewers looking for a plot and without knowledge of Russian history will be left in the dark.

Overall 6/10

INTERESTING FACTS

 – Rumored to have about 2000 actors on set during shooting. However, in interviews, director Aleksandr Sokurov refused to confirm that number or even the final production cost.

 – Shot in a single take in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, on December 23, 2001. The first three attempts failed because of technical issues; the fourth attempt was successful.

 – The movie was heavily digitally altered: there are over 1,500 digital visual effects, e.g., object removals, compositions, picture stabilizations, selective color-corrections, and digitally added focus changes.

 – The digital cameras used an external hard drive disk to save the uncompressed video information. So, the hard drive always had to be carried behind the camera man during shooting.

 – The European is loosely based on the French aristocrat Marquis de Custine, who wrote an extremely unflattering book about life in Russia in 1839 (“La Russie en 1839).