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).

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.