Sadko (1952)

Sadko (1952) movie poster

director  Aleksandr Ptushko
viewed: 11/15/2017

Aleksandr Ptushko’s Sadko, a.k.a. the Americanized The Magic Voyage of Sinbad, is the Russian fantasy film gone all Cecil B DeMille. Featuring a huge cast, lush costumes and sets, its production values seem miles higher than some other films of the period and genre. It won the Silver Lion for Best Director at the Venice International Film Festival, so maybe the financing aspired for more.

It rings with song, specifically the music of the Rimsky-Korsakov opera that the story works around. Sadko (Sergei Stolyarov) is the gusli-stroking baritone who returns to Novgorod to find rich merchants hording all the goods and deep levels of poverty. He also encounters a Princess from the sea who falls in love with him and helps him catch some golden fish.

Once he’s trounced the merchants and distributed all the goods, he still finds that poverty abounds, so he sets out on another quest, to capture the bird of happiness, which takes him from northern shores held by villainous Vikings to India, a land of wealth and sneaky duplicitous cheats.

Pthushko is known for his visual effects and there are some gorgeous ones on display. Even rising from the ocean looks extra-special. But the best effect is the phoenix herself, the bird of paradise who is much more like a Siren or a harpy or something.

Sadly the fantasy elements aren’t as prevalent in the running time as would make this film much more than it is. But it is stunning. I even liked the undersea world that others tend to scoff at.  Very much in the spirit (if also utterly Russian) of Raoul Walsh’s The Thief of Bagdad (1924).

Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)

Pan's Labyrinth (2006) movie poster

director Guillermo del Toro
viewed: 11/11/2017

It had been a decade since I saw Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth on its initial release in the theater. Like a lot of people, I’ve considered it his best film, certainly a partner to his 2001 The Devil’s Backbone.

I generally enjoy del Toro’s work, though his more commercial stuff seems thin on substance, if aesthetically pleasing and occasionally pretty fun.  I follow him on social media and even got to go see his collection of stuff at the LACMA Guillermo del Toro: At Home with Monsters.

In 2007, my kids were 6 and 3 so I didn’t take them to see Pan’s Labyrinth at the time. I’ve long thought they might enjoy it, but only just now got around to sharing it with them.

I was surprised that my daughter was sort of nonplussed about it. I’d thought she would dig it more. My son, as is his wont, fell asleep early on but wanted to watch it again.

I think it holds up pretty well. The aesthetics and story are nice, the performers solid. It’s a dark fairy tale about childhood, escapism and fantasy. The CGI doesn’t hold up as well, but it never does if you ask me. Maybe it’s not as deep or rich as it could be, but I’d still call it his most complete film.

Hercules Against the Moon Men (1964)

Hercules Against the Moon Men (1964) movie poster

director Giacomo Gentilomo
viewed: 09/17/2017

“Under the evil influence of Uranus,” Hercules Against the Moon Men is goofy peplum fun. Peplum is a new term to me for “sword and sandal” movies.  I like it.

It totally channels old movie serials (maybe because as a genre it dates back to silent films and old genre tropes. That and more contemporary of television’s Batman.

Totally agree that Alan Steel is a very good Hercules.

The moon men are silly as fuck but awesome. Sadly they get hardly any screen time. This film needs more moon men.

Evil queen, Samara (Jany Clair), looks vaguely like a brunette Nancy Grace but without her harpy voice. She’s somehow worked a deal with the moon men to do evil.

Needs more moon men.

Requiem for a Vampire (1971)

Requiem for a Vampire (1971) movie poster

director Jean Rollin
viewed: 06/04/2017

Jean Rollin was nothing if not a cinematic poet. Since he worked on the cheap and in the horror and porn/sexploitation genres, who knows how close he ever came to fully realizing his visions. But visions they are, even the worst of his films oozes dreamy fantasy over any storyline or plotting.

I’ve now watched enough of his filmic corpus to say that I am indeed a fan. That said, I’m still contemplating his work and have yet to fully develop any well-constructed conclusions.

Requiem for a Vampire follows many of his themes and ideas: vampires, young runaways, lesbian lovers, strange cults, all set against the French countryside, venerable houses or ruins. Requiem begins oddly with a car chase, in media res, with two clown-painted girls and a getaway driver pursued by gunmen. They do indeed get away, but the driver is killed, so the girls torch the car and then wander through a cemetery to ruins haunted by a vampire cult.

Most interestingly, Rollin runs much of Requiem’s opening with the barest amount of dialog. Though this might have been a functional thing (non-sync sound), it also turns the film into a more purely visual one, telling the story through action and imagery and not propelled by dialogue.

In the end, the girls are challenge to become vampires or remain virgins and while this again speaks to Rollin’s themes of women positioned in opposition to patriarchal demands, fleeing a society for which they have no place, the film also features some more brute rape as well.

I don’t know where it falls in my Rollin spectrum, but it’s certainly an undeniable Rollin picture.

Alice in Wonderland (1915)

Alice in Wonderland (1915) movie poster

director  W.W. Young
viewed: 03/22/2017

There are many Alices in Wonderlands. Many. This Alice in Wonderland may be the first feature-length filmed version. By 1915, feature-length was still becoming a thing.

As you will read in most any write-up on this picture, the costuming is the film’s greatest strength. Made in aspects of grotesquerie, they are caricatures in the popular style of Punch illustrations of the time, with some surprising creatures of the menagerie.

Outside of that, it’s fair to say that it’s a bit dull.

Obviously shot in the Southern California outdoors that stand in for both England and Wonderland, it still bears a lot of the theater rather than purely of the cinema.

But much like the silent version of Snow White (1916) that so influenced Walt Disney into his version of that tale, some of the designs seem to have found play in the Alice in Wonderland (1951) as well, or is that just my imagination?

Nukie (1987)

Nukie (1987) movie poster

directors Sias Odendaal, Michael Pakleppa
viewed: 03/07/2017

A couple years ago, I called Mac and Me (1988) “Probably the greatest, most terrible E.T.  knock-off ever made”. I believe I stand corrected.

Nukie at the very least is its equal.

Glibly, you might consider it almost Mac and Me through the prism of The Gods Must Be Crazy. Because like that ludicrous film, Nukie is an Apartheid-era South African film about not just one but two extraterrestrials, Nukie and Miko, landed to Earth, Miko in the U.S., Nukie in S.A.

You might have to pinch yourself to ask if you are dreaming. Or wonder if you are having an acid flashback while watching it. It’s so insanely bad, it’s brutal, absurd, and intensely hilarious.

Much as Mac and MeNukie deserves placement on the list of Worst Films Ever Made. Really and truly. I’ve given some credence to Wikipedia’s list, but more and more it’s a little too easy for most of the films from the last three decades. But as I often note, no list is a perfect lift.

Other than that, I can only fail to do it justice. Nukie is a marvel, one that must be seen.

The Holy Mountain (1973)

The Holy Mountain (1973) movie poster

director Alejandro Jodorowsky
viewed: 02/02/2017

Alejandro Jodorowsky is a cool dude and all, but about a decade ago I finally watched El Topo (1970) and came away seriously appalled. Not shocked by the content but I completely hated the movie. And I like weird movies. It’s taken me 10 years to get around to queuing up another Jodorowsky.

Interestingly, I liked The Holy Mountain almost right off. And eventually all the way through.

The Holy Mountain is a psychedelic, tripped out search for god or some sense of the universal in a chaotic and overwhelming universe. There seems as much sardonic humor as genuine enlightenment, and the pathways are mixed mash-ups of a number of faiths and ideologies. And drugs. Mind-expanding drugs.

The late 1960’s and early 1970’s were almost like a collective cultural point of self-reflection, inward-seeking, of questioning Western culture, experimenting with ideas from the outside, opening up. The individual self-exploration metaphorically expanded to mass culture. And its findings in search for enlightenment and awareness included certain aspects of freedom, but also delusion, dementia, and darkness.

It’s the kind of time and place that allows for a film like The Holy Mountain to be created. It is in some ways almost a necessity of the time.

Jodorowsky’s surrealism here, still very much his own, has a more Buñuelian sensibility, or so it seems. It’s also a kaleidoscopic head-trip of the bizarre and fetishized. So much goes on in moments, it’s impossible to take in in a single viewing.

I still think Jodorowsky’s a cool guy. I still hate El Topo. But I do find The Holy Mountain to be a wholly different ball of wax.

Mystery on Monster Island (1981)

Mystery on Monster Island (1981) movie poster

director  Juan Piquer Simón
viewed: 01/16/2017

This is more of a kiddie matinee adventure film than any kind of real “monster movie”. Not to say that it doesn’t feature some pretty wonderfully awful monsters at times. Too few and far between for sure, but wacky. Mystery on Monster Island is an adaptation of a Jules Verne novel, Godfrey Morgan: A Californian Mystery, though apparently the monsters were added in. And probably a ton of the grimace-inducing comedy bits.

It’s true that Peter Cushing and Terence Stamp appear here, but only in the beginning and end. It’s mostly in the hands of Ian Sera and David Hattan, playing a young adventurer and his persnickety teacher. And a small chimp.

There are some strikingly stereotyped racial characters that could easily get your gall. But the film features a twist ending that calls everything into question. But this is cheap and silly junk, so bad and laughable, why question?

That said, you may need to have an appreciation for bad movies to get much out of this.

Jack Frost (1964)

Jack Frost (1964) title

director  Aleksandr Rou
viewed: 12/24/2016

It’s hard to pinpoint every aspect of weirdness that Aleksandr Rou’s Morozko (Jack Frost) exudes.  The brightly colored Soviet-era fantasy film is gaily produced, all-in with sincerity, telling a version of the Russian fairy tale “Morozko”, or “Father Frost”, about a put-upon step-daughter abandoned to the snow and taken in by the kindly ice king. The ruddy-cheeked Russians who populate the film and its tweak away from more well-known European fairy tales make it slightly off, but familiar.

The version available on Amazon Prime also featured a stutter in the soundtrack, off-synching the voices and subtitles.  Like it needed further oddity.

Like all of Rou’s films, the art direction is very pleasing.  Morozko starts with a young handsome egotist who is taught a lesson by a clever gnome by turning him into a bear-man until he learns his lesson.  But the film really gets good when the young fellow, having been turned back into a fellow, goes to old witch Baba Yaga in her walking cabin (echoes of Howl’s Moving Castle, or maybe Howl’s Moving Castle echoes of it).  She also employs an cadre of tree monsters and a sly black cat and pig sled.

And as often is the case, some acting bears.  Here moving mushrooms around.

I dig this crazy biz.

Fellini Satyricon (1969)

Fellini Satyricon (1969) movie poster

director Federico Fellini
viewed: 12/18/2016

As Fellini Satyricon opens, there is a sense of theatricality and staginess to his adaptation of the Roman classic play by Petronius.  For me, this is usually a warning sign that I’m not going to like a movie.  This potential pet peeve, though, is not only disproven but eventually utterly eradicated.

Satyricon is masterful.

It’s a sprawling work, interweaving so much in its 129 minute running time that I don’t even know where to start.  Episodic, fantastic, far-reaching, at its essence it is about two friends, Encolpius and Ascyltus, having a falling out over a young lover, Gitón.  There is much sexuality in the film, desire, fulfillment, loss, yearning.  And it is somewhat pansexual but also very much about homosexual love and desire.  It feels amazingly progressive, even for 1969.

This rich and complex fantasy is more than I can react to from a single viewing.  It’s surprising and vivid, outrageous, painful, wildly evocative.  From what little I’ve read about Fellini’s approach and interest in the source material, a play only known in fragmentary form, seems really interesting.

I’m really at a loss to say more of it at the moment.  I thought it was amazing.