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).

The Mind’s Eye [US 1990]

Info: I embedded the full movie below.

THE PLOT

The Mind’s Eye is an experimental short film that consists of various commercial computer-generated short segments that have been assembled to thematically tell a rudimentary story. The animated shorts were mostly produced in the late 1980s and feature landscapes, architecture, animals, and surrealistic figures. While most shorts are only 10-20 seconds long – as many were primarily produced for promotional purposes – they are assembled into longer episodes, e.g. about prehistoric animals or about a futuristic city, each running several minutes.

WHAT I LIKE

Although having a pretty long runtime for an experimental short film (Note: this review discusses the 50-minute RadioShack version), the episodes are often fascinating to watch. When the episode structure works, it creates an intriguingly coherent vision, e.g. the thematically matching shorts “Digicom”, “State of Ohio Development Promo”, “California Electric”, and “NHK News Today”. Here, the smaller shorts create a futuristic urban landscape that looks stunning. It’s also interesting to watch so many computer-generated shorts for nostalgic reasons, making the film feel like a time capsule – even if the featured shorts were not always state-of-the-art in 1990.

WHAT I DON’T LIKE

As most shorts were produced during the late 1980s, by 2020 standards, the technical limitations are apparent. Obviously, the computer-generated images are technically outdated, however, some segments have aged worse than others and are cringeworthy (e.g., the figures in “Aloi” or “Previews of Coming Attractions”) and sometimes the assembled scenes feel random and incoherent, especially the “Embryo” and “Lorelei” segments in the latter half. Also, the MIDI soundtrack, very much reminiscent of early 16-bit video games, is borderline tolerable (e.g., “Max Trax”).

WHY IT MATTERS

The short film was the first effort by director Jan Nickman, as he wanted to demonstrate that computer animation can be a form of art. During that time, computer animation and video games were still mostly popular with children and teenagers (e.g., some of the biggest video game releases of 1990 include Super Mario World, Wing Commander, and Sim City) and computer-generated effects were only rarely used in movies (e.g., the blockbuster The Abyss [1989] had the first digital water effects and Terminator 2: Judgment Day [1991] featured the first fully animated character). As the movie was popular on home video, its sequels even featured computer animated scenes of movies, e.g. Johnny Mnemonic [1995] and The Lawnmover Man [1992] – the latter even being influenced by the original The Mind’s Eye. Animation-wise, the assembled shorts mostly weren’t state-of-the-art, especially when considering that Pixar had already produced several shorts, i.e. The Adventures of André & Wally B. [1984], Luxo Jr. [1986], Red’s Dream [1987], the academy award winning Tin Toy [1988], and Knick Knack [1989]. Still, The Mind’s Eye was probably the first attempt to create a completely computer-generated work of art.

THE VERDICT

The Mind’s Eye is an experimental short film featuring several computer-generated episodes, that were mainly produced as promotional or commercial material in the late 1980s. Although some episodes are fascinating to watch and a fun throwback to the rudimentary technical possibilities during those days, the structure is generally not coherent and only rarely elevates the film. In addition, most material used wasn’t even state-of-the-art in 1990 and the range in quality is extremely broad. Still, the short film is a fun reminder of the days in which computer-generated images were still rarely used in movies and not considered a form of art.

Overall 6/10

INTERESTING FACTS

 – The short film was distributed by BMG and by RadioShack. However, the versions differ, as the latter features additional segments and is considered technically superior (e.g., more saturated colors, higher framerate). The BMG home video release only included 46 video segments (+ 8 untitled), whereas the RadioShack extended version featured 70 video segments (+22 untitled), making it about 10 minutes longer.

 – The original short film in a series of art movies that assembled computer generated shorts. The computer animation sequences that appeared in the films were generally not produced specifically for the Mind’s Eye series but rather were work originally created for other purposes, including demo reels, commercials, music videos, and feature films

 – The soundtracks were composed by, among others, Kerry Livgren, guitarist and founding member of the band Kansas.

 – As the movie was popular, it spawned several direct sequels: Beyond the Mind’s Eye [1992], The Gate to the Mind’s Eye [1994], and Odyssey Into The Mind’s Eye [1996]. Additionally, director Nickman created various spin-offs, i.e. Virtual Nature: A Computer Generated Visual Odyssey From the Makers of the Mind’s Eye [1993], The Mind’s Eye Presents Luminous Visions [1998], The Mind’s Eye Presents Ancient Alien [1998], and The Mind’s Eye Presents Little Bytes [2000].

De sidste mænd i Aleppo [DK 2017]

International title: Last Men in Aleppo

Info: I embedded the full movie below.

THE PLOT

De sidste mænd i Aleppo is a documentary about the civil war in Syria and its effect on the people who live in the capital city, Aleppo. The Danish-Syrian co-production, which was nominated for an Academy Award (“Best Documentary Feature”), focuses on a group of civilians, i.e. the Syrian Civil Defense or White Helmets, and their daily struggle to help people after air strikes and car bombs. The documentary follows Khaled, Mahmoud, and Subhi, three young men who live in Aleppo and volunteer to save the local people. However, the consequences of the conflict, i.e. the lack of humanitarian intervention and the reckless criminal regime in Syria, resulting in thousands of war refugees fleeing the country, are also in part discussed.

WHAT I LIKE

The documentary features no typical interviews or expansive voice-overs, however, the political conflict is briefly explained in the beginning. The feature follows the White Helmets on their daily routine, e.g. getting medicine at the pharmacy or recovering people from the rubble of a destroyed building. In dialogues with other people, the extreme situation becomes clear: there is a lack of medical supplies, children are malnourished, equipment is old or broken, and buildings are regularly hit by air strikes. The images of the war-torn city are excruciating and effectively show the dilemma of the people whether to stay or leave the country. Although the viewer frequently sees the aftermath of explosions, the camera never shows gratuitous violence or gore (e.g., injuries and torn limbs) – the main subject of the documentary are always the men who work at the destroyed buildings. Overall, most scenes are heartbreaking and frustrating to watch, like the scenes where the men rely on black humor to cope with the situation, and especially the ending. Considering its topic, the documentary is extremely important, even if it’s no easy watch.

WHAT I DON’T LIKE

Still, there are some technical issues with regard to the footage used. The handheld camera has a poor quality at times, like overexposed highlights or strong artefacts when the surroundings get darker. Also, the documentary doesn’t present a comprehensive account of the White Helmets, as it never explains their organizational structure and only follows a limited amount of people on their daily routines. As there are never any interviews or more information about when the events happened, the viewer is somewhat left in the dark regarding the political debates of the men. This is also because of the editing quality, which sometimes lacks a proper distinction between the different scenes/settings.

THE VERDICT

De sidste mænd i Aleppo (international title: Last Men in Aleppo) is a documentary about the White Helmets, a voluntary nonprofessional organization in Syria that has been helping people after bomb attacks since the civil war started in 2013. The documentary features footage that was shot between 2013 and 2017 and mostly focuses on three young men and their dilemma whether to stay or leave Aleppo. There is few information provided and no additional material was used (like interviews or external media coverage), which is why the documentary feels authentic but also raw. The conflict in Syria is a contemporary geopolitical crisis and, thus, the documentary is topical, important, and although few scenes actually contain graphic violence or gore, the catastrophe feels personal and heart-breaking. Although there are some technical drawbacks (e.g., structure and editing), the subject matter is simply too important to disregard.

Overall 7/10

INTERESTING FACTS

 – Other documentaries about the Syrian civil war from writer/co-director Feras Fayyad are The Cave [2019] about the dangerous mission of female doctors and One Day in Aleppo [2017] about a group of children living in the war-torn city.

 – Khaled Umar Harrah, the main volunteer of the White Helmets in the documentary, died before the film was finished. Fayyad decided to include his funeral in his movie.

 – This film consists of material shot in Aleppo and Idlib between 2013 and 2017. The resulting documentary represents how Fayyed and his cinematography team from Aleppo Media Center experienced the conflict and how people dealt with daily life.

 – In the wake of it being nominated for an Academy Award, the documentary was heavily criticized as US propaganda. Journalists of The Guardian found that this information mostly came from Russian news broadcasts.

 – In an interview, Fayyad listed the ten movies that influenced his documentary the most: City Lights [1931], A Clockwork Orange [1971], Gates of Heaven [1978], Mamma Roma [1962], Nanook of the North [1922], The Passion of Joan of Arc [1928], Rome, Open City [1946], The Sacrifice [1986], Seven Samurai [1954], and Tokyo Story [1953].

The Black Pirate [US 1926]

Info: I embedded the full movie below.

THE PLOT

The Black Pirate is a silent adventure movie about how a Duke became part of a pirate crew. After a vicious attack by pirates, he is the sole survivor and is washed up on a deserted island. There, he witnesses the pirate leaders hiding their treasure in a secret cave. Because his father was also murdered by the pirates, he vows to bring them to justice. He pretends to join the crew, defeats the captain in a sword fight, and takes a merchant ship single-handedly. However, as he wants to spare the lives of the people on board, he convinces his fellow men to hold the ship for ransom. Because they decide to make him leader as soon as the ransom ship comes back, his second-in-command plots against him. But the Duke, now known as the “Black Pirate” has plans of his own to save the merchant ship and its crew.

WHAT I LIKE

The movie is well-produced and features large set pieces, e.g. the opening attack scene looks marvelous. In addition, there are many extras and in consequences the attack scenes look thrilling. Considering its age, the movie looks great, as it was shot in two-color Technicolor. This means that a certain range of colors can be reproduced, which works nicely with colors like green, red, or brown and gives the movie a memorable look. The few swords fights are well-choreographed, especially the first fight, and Fairbanks delivers a generally elegant performance, like in e.g., Robin Hood [1922] or The Thief of Bagdad [1924]. And while all side characters don’t come close to him performance-wise, they still do a solid job (e.g., the one-armed pirate).

WHAT I DON’T LIKE

Although it can be compared to other “swashbuckler” movies and action adventure vehicles for Fairbanks, there are some shortcomings regarding the action sequences in this movie. The stunt work is good, however, not as distinguished as in The Thief of Bagdad [1924] and the sword fights are few and far between – especially in the frantic last fight. Also, the plot is rather conventional, featuring classic tropes (i.e., the Damsel in Distress) and a kind of Deus ex Machina ending that could have been resolved less cheesy. Lastly, the score, based on the original 1926 score by Mortimer Wilson, is rather unremarkable and never really intensifies the atmosphere.

THE VERDICT

The Black Pirate is a silent adventure movie about a man who infiltrates a pirate crew to bring justice to the men who killed his father. It features great set pieces and boasts generally high production values, however, apart from the frantic finale, there are only few action sequences. The performances and the stunt work are often great, which is why the movie is very entertaining. Apart from being one of the earliest color movies with a broad release, the movie is still very influential (e.g., the sliding down the sails scene). The plot is rather conventional, and the ending clichéd, but considering its age and impact, The Black Pirate is still very entertaining and fun throughout.

Overall 7/10

INTERESTING FACTS

 – The movie was visually influenced by “Book of Pirates” by Howard Pyle (1853-1911).

 – The script was adapted by Jack Cunningham from a story Fairbanks had written in 1920 or 1921 under the pseudonym “Elton Thomas”.

 – Donald Crisp, in addition to playing the part of MacTavish, was also set to direct the movie – as he had previously directed Don Q Son of Zorro [1925]. However, after a falling out with Fairbanks, he was replaced by Albert Parker after a few days of shooting.

 – The sail sliding scene was replicated in other pirate movies, most notably, Against All Flags [1952], Rage of the Buccaneers [1961], The Goonies [1985], and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest [2006]. However, in the series MythBusters, the stunt was declared implausible

 – The two-tone Technicolor at that time required two strips of film to be fused together to create the full color palette, thus making the movies expensive and problematic for untrained projectionists. Therefore, Fairbanks was forced to also issue a black-and-white version by the studio.

 – Douglas Fairbanks Jr. issued a restoration of The Black Pirate by the British National Film Archive, which was finished in 1972. The 2013 Blu-ray release also used some black-and-white outtakes and test footage that was later found.

 – After The Toll of the Sea [1922] and Ben Hur [1925], this was the third two-tone Technicolor movie. However, Fairbanks also thought the colors in these movies too distracting, which is why The Black Pirate looks less vibrant.

41 [AU 2012]

Info: I embedded the full movie below.

THE PLOT

After an exam, Aidan, a young student of philosophy, meets his doppelganger who tells him, to not go to a certain motel. Naturally, Aidan is curious and investigates the place. There, he encounters his ex-girlfriend Lauren who works part-time to support her art. They decide to have dinner together to catch up, however on their way back, they have a car accident. Aidan survives but Lauren dies, which is why her family wants to press charges. In the hospital, Aidan is again told about the motel and the secret in room 41. As he arrives there, he discovers that if you go down a trap door in the bathroom, you travel back in time exactly 12 hours. Thus, he plans to save Lauren and prevent the accident from happening – however, things start to get complicated after he finds that he was the reason for the accident in the first place.

WHAT I LIKE

There are several independent time travel movies that feature a clever premise and succeed in telling a coherent and entertaining story, e.g. Timecrimes [2007], Primer [2004], or Coherence [2013]. Likewise, 41 also has a clever core concept and the writing is mostly efficient, as the characters discuss the meaning of life and the possibility of multiple universes (e.g., at the university or at the dinner party with the scientists). In addition, there is an entertaining meta-comment about time travel narratives when Aidan visits his professor. Here, one guest criticizes Aidan’s story as being “predictable” and having “weak, overused plot elements”. It becomes clear, that the whole story can be read metaphorically, about him trying to finally deal with the breakup from his ex-girlfriend, which is handled quite successfully. Also, the cinematography is nice and has a few good tracking shots (e.g., when Aidan runs from the police or when he sees his doppelganger), and the score is somber and atmospheric and never really forces itself onto the viewer.

WHAT I DON’T LIKE

With a reported production cost of about $3,000, 41 is considered an independent production. This means that while the actors generally do a decent job, there are some scenes that feature middling or weak performances, notably of side characters (e.g., Aidan’s friends). There are some moments of occasional humor that do not fit the overall atmosphere, e.g. when Aidan breaks out of the police station. Furthermore, some scenes don’t make a lot of sense, e.g. the interrogation scene and the motives of the policemen. Sadly, although the ending works on an emotional level, it only works narratively when the viewer accepts an obvious plot hole, which is why the last act does suffer in comparison to the well-written premise.

THE VERDICT

41 is an independent science fiction movie about a student of philosophy, who discovers a trap door in a motel room that leads to the past. The premise is basic but interesting, and the movie is mostly well executed, with great cinematography and an atmospheric score. The performances are somewhat middling, but the main actor mostly does a decent job. The plot is overall thrilling and clever, however, the ending will throw some viewers off, due to a central plot hole. Still, the movie is efficiently made and demonstrates that science fiction can also deal with very down-to-earth issues.

Overall 7/10

INTERESTING FACTS

 – Alternative title names for the movie were “A motel in time” and “Motel 41”.

 – The budget for 41 was reportedly under $3,000. As the actors worked for free, the money was only spent on the camera gear.

 – The concept of the trap door was only due to financial constraints – the original screenplay featured a mirror that lead to the past.

 – According to writer/director Glenn Triggs, the most influential films for creating 41 were Field of Dreams [1989], Time Machine [1960], Back to the Future [1985], and Being John Malkovich [1999].

Siworae / 시월애 [KR 2000]

International title: Il Mare

THE PLOT

Siworae is a romantic drama with science fiction elements about two young adults, Sung-Hyun and Eun-Joo, who live in different times but are connected through a mysterious letter box by a lake house that transports letters and other objects from 1998 to 2000. Sung-Hyun is an architect and Eun-Joo is a voice actor and both have recently broken up with their partner. However, as they have more and more correspondence through their letters, they fall in love with each other and although both try to physically get together, this proves to be a near impossible task due to the separate timelines.

WHAT I LIKE

Siworae is a beautifully shot movie with many atmospheric sceneries (e.g., the lake house, the apartments, the train station) that are often lit very brightly, which gives most scenes a dreamlike quality. The cinematography is remarkable with lush colors and great scenic views of the coast and/or the lake house. Also, the frame composition and the editing are great in getting composite shots of the couple – although they are technically never together (e.g., at the theme park). The plot is overall well-written and although some moments are rather cheesy (e.g., the cooking sessions), the characters have great chemistry and carry the movie nicely. In addition, the story has some nice little quirks and great attention to detail (e.g., the dog Cola). Together with the somber and beautiful piano music this makes for an atmospheric and entertaining love story.

WHAT I DON’T LIKE

Although the editing is well-made and the characters are generally believable, some scenes feel overly cheesy (e.g., the cooking sessions) and sometimes the acting is too over the top (e.g., when the couple goes to the theme park “together”). The lead duo certainly carries the movie, however, the side characters could have been stronger, both in dialogue and in the actual performance, to make the movie a bit more diverse. Another noticeable drawback is the slow pacing, as one of the movie’s two plot twists is revealed early on, while the other is predictable about halfway in. Here, structuring the last act more efficiently could have resulted in a greater emotional payoff.  

THE VERDICT

Siworae is a romance about a young couple that is connected through a mysterious letter box although they both live in different times. The premise is great, and the time travel aspect does serve the plot nicely. What really sets the movie apart is the outstanding chemistry between the lead performers and the beautiful cinematography. However, due to the at times slow pacing and some cheesy elements, the movie also feels a little longer than it really should – still, it never overstays its welcome.

Overall 7/10

INTERESTING FACTS

 – As of 2020, there are two remakes of Siworae: an American version The Lake House [2006] and an Indian version Minchagi Nee Baralu [2015].

– The coordinates of the lake house (37° 44′ 16.00″ N, 126° 17′ 21.50″ E) reveal that due to breakwater, the land is underwater all the time – whereas in the movie there was sometimes low tide.

 – In Sung-Hyun’s lake house, there is a poster of the French architect Le Corbusier (1887-1965). He is famous for his minimalist architecture very much resembling Sung Hyun’s drafts.

 – The movie was critically well received but no commercial success in Korea, probably due to the similarly themed Donggam [2000] being released shortly before Siworae. However, over the years the movie has attained cult status in Korea, very much comparable to the American science fiction romance Somewhere in Time [1980].

Dàyú hǎitáng / 大鱼海棠 [CN 2016]

International title: Big Fish and Begonia

Info: This review was originally written 2017/12/06. I embedded the full movie (Japanese dub, English sub) below.

THE STORY

Dàyú hǎitáng is a supernatural animation movie set in a magic world, that lies beneath our oceans and is inhabited by magical spirits (oftentimes looking just like humans). After a human (Kun) is killed by accident, a girl (Chun) offers half of her life to save Kun’s soul. However, the magical creatures soon blame the appearance of Kun for dangerous, supernatural occurrences in their world. Chun journey to bring Kun to his world leads to a dramatic conclusion, nearly destroying her own world.

WHAT I LIKE

First, the animation is simply stunning. Blending classic hand-drawn animation with CGI elements, really works to represents the magical concept of the portrayed world. The backgrounds seem enormous and convey a thrilling sense of scope, which helps to build the magical sphere, in which the spirits live in. Though not as artistic, the character animation is mostly decent with clear-cut mimics and convincing movements. The world seemingly comes alive, which is always an important achievement for an animated movie.

Also, I was fascinated by the classic Chinese elements of the story. Drawn from various myths and legends about connections of the human world and the world of spirits through nature, the organic – and sometimes cryptic – storytelling really delivers in terms of scope and depth. Concerning the enormously rich atmosphere, it is not problematic that some subplots and characters’ motivations are left without resolution, cf. the mid-credit scene. The viewer is presented with a vast intermixture of traditional mythical tales that in their composition create a wonderfully fantastic atmosphere.

WHAT I DON’T LIKE

The animation quality, though stunning at times, is rather inconsistent. Minor details are lacking and therefore drops of quality during some CGI scenes are noticeable, e.g. the dog statue. Though not technically problematic, these relatively small moments do attract the viewer’s attention and are therefore distracting. Also, the pacing of faster movements is only of average quality, lacking a more cohesive editing, e.g. during the last fight.

Another thing that was quite apparent, was the structure of the narrative. While many elements were marvelous, some did not mix well, resulting in a lack of coherence. When hiding from the villagers at the well, the editing or scene composition is all but conclusive and mixes elements of montage sequences and/or foreshadowing later key moments in an unclear manner. Thus, the lack of a more stringent plot is noticeable, especially when measuring in the characters’ motivations and their development. For me, the short amount of time between Chun and Kun (in the human form) lead to a feeling of indifference regarding their fate together, lasting well into the middle of the movie. The motivation was presented before the characters were established (also for Chun’s other love interest (Qiu), which means, the viewer has to figure out which character to root for or in which character to invest. While not being a deal breaker, in connection with the sub-par structure these problems do distract.

WHY IT MATTERS

Early reviewers claimed that Dàyú hǎitáng would be the “dawn of the Chinese animation industry”. Quality-wise the movie is exceptionally well done, with beautiful animation quality, a wonderfully fantastical backstory, and a tight atmosphere. It is relevant, because it presents many classic Chinese folk tales to Western viewers, largely unfamiliar to the source material. Some Chinese reviewers also claimed, that the rich symbolism and the metaphorical language would be an issue for many Western viewers. This may be true, however, as an introduction to the supernatural Taoist stories of ancient China, this movie really motivates the viewers to dig deeper.

Some influences are rather noticeable, especially visually. Thematically, and in certain character designs Dàyú hǎitáng owes much to the series Avatar: The Last Airbender [2005-2008]. Some shots of the ocean also remind the viewer of The Life of Pi [2012], and of course the influence of Studio Ghibli’s masterpiece Spirited Away [2001] can also be noticed – in some smaller designs, e.g. the masked people, or the temple of the soul keeper, or in the inter-connection of the environment with magical beings. Whether these influences may or may not be intended, they bear witness to the quality of all the mentioned media products – including Dàyú hǎitáng.

THE VERDICT

The art direction and quality of Dàyú hǎitáng really help to present a fantastic view on some classic Chinese folktales. The narrative is amazing, and could provide for so much more plot, however some key moments fall short because of mediocre pacing and/or editing, and sub-par character writing.

Overall 6/10

INTERESTING FACTS

 – Based on the 2004 flash animation short of the same name.

 – Integrates many traditional Chinese myths, like the Taoist classic Zhuangzi (an important collection of anecdotes, allegories, parables, and fables), classic mythic geography tale “Shan Hai Jing” (Classic of Mountains and Seas), and stories from a famous compilation of legends “Soushen Ji” (In Search of the Supernatural).

 – It took the creators Liang Xuan and Zhang Chun 12 years to get their film to the large screen.

Blood Tea and Red String [US 2006]

Info: I embedded the full movie below.

THE PLOT

Blood Tea and Red String is a stop motion animation movie about bird-like animals that live in a tree and, after a group of mice have stolen their self-made doll, embark on a journey to find it. Along their journey, they encounter a labyrinth with poisonous fruit, a frog magician, and a menacing spider. However, the mice also discover something mysterious about the doll. The movie features short live action beginning and ending scenes (in which a masked woman introduces an egg as the central element of the plot), however, the main narrative about the journey of the birds is completely animated. In addition, there is no conventional dialogue, as only squeaking or cooing is heard, which means, that the viewer must interpret the scenes on his/her own.

 

WHAT I LIKE

Generally, this is a well-made animated movie with a great amount of details, e.g. when the birds prepare the doll. The mostly small sets are efficiently crafted (e.g., the treehouse or the woods) and the movie uses the colors red and white in a clever way, e.g. when juxtaposing the mice with the birds or when focusing on the doll. The score is minimalistic, but the few pieces of flute music are simply haunting and help to create a dark and atmospheric environment. Considering the movie was made on a small budget, it can ultimately be regarded as a stunning achievement for writer-director Christiane Cegavske.

WHAT I DON’T LIKE

There are some minor hiccups regarding animation quality and pacing, as sometimes group movements look choppy and the narrative is generally slow. Because sometimes trivial actions are stretched out (e.g., when the birds are rescued from the labyrinth), the otherwise short runtime of about 71 minutes feels much longer. In the context of the movie, these scenes often contribute to the overall fantastical atmosphere but there are certain elements that could have easily been trimmed (e.g., when the birds eat at the frog’s hut). Although the following is no drawback, it still needs to be mentioned that the movie is thematically aimed at a mature audience – whereas animated movies in general are often also for younger audiences. Images like creepy white mice playing cards with a terrifying puppet while drinking blood are rather disturbing (for children), as are the near-omnipresent symbols of death and the encounter with the spider.

THE VERDICT

Blood Tea and Red String is a dark fairy tale realized through stop motion animation and featuring a high degree of symbolism. The latter makes for an interesting and unique viewing and can be compared to surreal films like Eraserhead [1977] or Un chien andalou [1929]. Although the plot is enigmatic and rather superficial at times, the animation is solid, and the many details are wonderful to watch. Considering this was all done by one woman on a low budget, Blood Tea and Red String is a truly remarkable and haunting experience.

Overall 7/10

 

INTERESTING FACTS

– Writer-director, Christiane Cegavske, is one of the few female directors to take sole credit for a full-length stop motion animated movie. As of 2020, the only other women who achieved this are Lotte Reininger (Adventures of Prince Achmed, 1926), Tatia Rosenthal ($9.,99, 2008), and Ideya Garanina (The Cat Who Walked by Herself, 1988).

– The ending credits close with the following quote: “Blood and water round and round beneath my skin and underground”. As with the other symbols and metaphors in the movie, Cegavske has since refused to explain her vision to the audience.

– After having been in production for 13 years, the movie was finally released in 2006. Although it was planned as the first part of a trilogy, no other parts have been announced as of 2020.

Az Ember Trédiája [HU 2011]

International title: The Tragedy of Man

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

THE PLOT

Az Ember Trédiája (international title: The Tragedy of Man) is an epic, animated adaption of a famous Hungarian play by the same name. It draws on Christian beliefs about the origin of the world and mankind (cp. the biblical books “Genesis” and “Exodus”) and uses historical achievements of Western culture to tell the story of Adam, the first man, and Lucifer, an evil demon and counterpart to the good Creator, as he wonders through different epochs to find a possibility to transcend his own mortality. The featured epochs are among others, Ancient Greece and Rome, Medieval Times during the Crusades, the French Revolution, and Great Britain in the 19th century – all of which have their own unique animation style, influenced by real-life paintings during the respective period.

WHAT I LIKE

While many episodes are not impressively animated, when compared to more recent feature films with a higher budget, the overall art style in most sequences is beautiful and clever. Although sometimes the movie’s budgetary limitations show, some scenes are very creative, e.g. when a pyramid in Ancient Egypt is made of slaves or when Adam and Eve are composed of different historic paintings in the Garden of Eden. There are episodes that are truly remarkable and stunning to watch, like the Renaissance or Ancient Greece, and really achieve to build an atmosphere that draws viewers into the narrative. Also, the sheer amount of different art styles and the symbolic use of certain artefacts (e.g., the wheel of time or the cross) make for an intriguing watch.

WHAT I DON’T LIKE

Due to being produced over a span of about 20 years (cp. section below), some episodes are weak and have a choppy animation style (e.g., the transformation of Adam in space), with a low framerate and movements being cut off (e.g., the futuristic ice land), sometimes even stylistically resembling visual novels (e.g., the Bronze Age). As the broad range of animation quality is noticeable, it can become distracting, which is facilitated by the long runtime of 160 minutes. Lastly, the movie features graphic depictions of naked bodies, sex scenes (e.g., in Ancient Rome), and killings (e.g., during the French Revolution). Therefore, in addition to the historic settings and philosophic questions, the movie is for a mature audience. While this is no inherent drawback, it should still be noted, as many viewers consider animated movies to be family friendly and entertaining, whereas Az Ember Trédiája is neither.

WHY IT MATTERS

Although the story is based on the Christian interpretation of the creation of the world and uses a linear narrative of the Western perspective to depict the fate of mankind throughout the ages, the philosophical and existential questions posed will be intriguing for many people: What is creation? And can humans create something that lasts over time? Most segments deal with these questions and critically show that culture, science, and tradition can sometimes lead to striving for power and dominating others (e.g., Adam’s discussion with Lucifer about the Crusades). The presented ideas and elaborated philosophical concept, are sometimes hard to follow on the fly, which makes the movies’ deeper levels difficult to grasp, but also worthwhile to explore. The original play was written in 1861 by the Hungarian author Imre Madach which was compared to “Goethes Faust” [1802/1832] and Milton’s “Paradise Lost” [1667], both featuring similar themes. However, due to the complex and highly symbolic Hungarian language, most translations have been regarded as lacking. Finally, the director also added newer historic events in a later segment featuring criticism of 20th century fascism, communism, and socialism to make the story’s message timelier. On a personal note, I wholeheartedly recommend the movie to fans of 2001 [1968] or Shinseiki Evangerion [1995-1996] (original ending).

THE VERDICT

Az Ember Tragédiája (international title: The Tragedy of Man) is a Hungarian animation epic about the first man and his search for how to transcend his own existence. The movie draws heavily on Christian mythology (e.g., the Biblical origin story) and Western culture (e.g., Renaissance or Ancient Rome) to present mankind’s everlasting struggle for transcending mortality and fighting against the decay of cultural achievements. Thus, the presented themes are complex and for a mature audience who look for a narrative that poses these questions in a clever and sometimes stunningly animated way. Due to the movie’s troubled production history, the animation quality differs vastly between the various segments, but most are still stunning and/or animated in a clever way.

Overall 8/10

 

INTERESTING FACTS

– The future city features ideas and concepts of Orwell’s “1984” [1948] and Huxley’s “Brave New World” [1932]. This includes, but is not limited to, total surveillance, a restriction of books, and total control over newborns. However, also concepts of other dystopian fiction is incorporated, e.g. processing dead people into food, as in Soylent Green [1973].

– In the original Hungarian play Lucifer is called “The primeval spirit of defiance”.

– As indicated by the credits, the film was made from 1988 to 2011 – the screenplay even dates to 1983. It was released in segments due to lack of funding for the project after an American investor dropped out. In 2011, prior to the film’s release, it had to be completely re-dubbed and most of the voice actors had to be replaced because their voices were deemed too old.

– The segments were produced in the following order: Space (1990), France (1991), Egypt (1992), Phalanstery & Future Ice Age (1993), Prague (1996), Creation & Ice Age (1997), Outside the Garden of Eden (1998), Garden of Eden (1999), Rome (2000), Greece (2003), Constantinople (2006), London (2009).

The Thief of Bagdad [US 1924]

Info: I embedded the full movie below.

THE PLOT

The Thief of Bagdad is a free adaptation of the classic story collection “Arabian Nights” and centers around the titular thief who doesn’t believe in Allah, mocks clergymen, steals food and money, and lives in the streets of Bagdad. One night, he even breaks into the caliphate, trying to steal a treasure. However, as he sees the young princess, he falls in love with her and thus plays the role as the royal Prince Ahmed to get the chance to marry her. One of his competitors, the evil Mongol Prince who tries to rule the city, finds out about Ahmed’s lie and makes the Caliph capture him. Still, the thief slips away and decides to go after a rare treasure to redeem himself, marry the princess, and save the city from the Mongol Prince.

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WHAT I LIKE

The Thief of Bagdad is a wonderful adventure movie that looks stunning: from the large set pieces of the streets of Bagdad (e.g., the city gate or the inner court) to the impressive costumes (e.g., the amazing entrance of the prince suitor), and the performances. Technically, the movie is extraordinary and the practical effects, e.g. the magic carpet or the invasion of the magic army in Bagdad, were groundbreaking at the time. Most performances are great, if often overly theatric as was commonplace during the silent era, and Fairbanks’ charisma and stunning stunt work is magnificent. Lastly, the soundtrack – at least in some versions – is based on the original sheet notes and feels grand, epic, and entertaining, especially the score in the early scenes in Bagdad.

WHAT I DON’T LIKE

As the movie will approach its 100th anniversary in a few years, several aspects have not aged as good as others. Fairbank’s performances are the center pole of the movie and his stunt works is always great to look at, however, some scenes are a bit stagy, e.g. when he argues with his friend about stolen food or when he first sees the princess in the palace. These few moments can feel a little over the top. Also, while technically the movie was groundbreaking, the monster fights have aged poorly, as the viewer sees obvious strings and recognizes the monsters as probs, especially the underwater spider. Finally, due to the long runtime, the pacing is quite slow, which is no problem per se, however, the introduction to the central characters and the explanation of the premise would have been handled differently and more efficiently today.

WHY IT MATTERS

The movie was inspired by “One Thousand and One Nights” or simply “Arabian Nights”, a collection of Middle Eastern folk tales compiled in Arabic during the Islamic Golden Age. Interestingly, hugely popular stories like “Aladdin’s Wonderful Lamp”, “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves”, and “The Seven Voyages of Sinbad the Sailor”, were not part of the original Arabic versions but were added to the collection by European translators at the beginning of the 18th century. Stories from Arabian Nights have been popular subjects for movies – the earliest example being Georges Méliès’ short film Le Palais des Mille et une nuits [1905]. However, The Thief of Bagdad doesn’t follow one exact story and the characters are also freely interpreted. Although being subject to criticism due to white washing of the main characters and an obvious racist depiction of East-Asian characters, the movie is still by many critics believed to be one of the best adaptations of Arabian Nights and a stellar example of an adventure epic from the silent era in general.

THE VERDICT

Based in part on the classic story collection Arabian Nights, The Thief of Bagdad centers around a young thief living in the streets of Bagdad. As the wants to marry the princess, he travels to fantastical places to find a magical box that grants wishes. The movie is a stunning example of an adventure epic from the silent era that mostly still holds up today. Technically groundbreaking at the time, some practical effect may seem mediocre at best, by 2019 standards. However, the stellar performance of Fairbanks, the great stunt work, and the marvelous orchestral soundtrack make the movie impressively entertaining and easy to watch, giving its hefty runtime.

Overall 8/10

 

INTERESTING FACTS

– This version of the Arabian Nights has been remade 5 times – although some versions primarily reference the popular 1940 version.

– The practical effect of the magic carpet was done with a thick sheet of steel rigged to the top of a crane, connected with piano wires.

– The underwater scenes were shot through a curtain of thin gauze and Fairbanks had to move slowly, to achieve the swimming effect. Also, the scenes were tinted blue in post-production.

The Thief of Bagdad was one of the most expensive films of the 1920s, with production’s cost being estimated to about $2.5 million. However, Fairbank’s biographer Jeffery Vance revealed in 2008 that the actual production’s cost was only $1.1 million, which equates to about $17 million dollars in 2019.