Kin-dza-dza! (1986)

Kin-dza-dza! (1986) movie poster

director  Georgiy Daneliya
viewed: 02/04/2018

I can’t recall how Kin-dza-dza! got on my radar, but I’m glad that it did. I’ve been interested in Russian/Soviet genre film, the kind that hasn’t really been exported as World Cinema.

This Soviet Era science fiction comedy is a strange and interesting picture. Absurdist humor abounds throughout Kin-dza-dza!, clearly satirizing aspects of Soviet life, though also transcendentally, society and humanity in general.

The story takes two strangers, Stanislav Lyubshin, a Russian construction foreman, and Levan Gabriadze, a Georgian student, who get accidentally transported off the Moscow streets to a desert planet of Pluke in the Kin-dza-dza galaxy. Here they find a derelict world where water is scarce (and used as fuel), with complicated social structure endowing some people with heightened status who must be paid tribute, where all words can be said as “koo” or sometimes have different words that mean different things, and in which a box of matches is their most enriching possession. People of Pluke are conniving and silly, and can read the thoughts of the Earthmen.

The film is funny and unusual, and right away I wanted to know more about it. It’s apparently very popular and well-known in Russia (an animated re-make was done by director Georgiy Daneliya only a couple years ago).  John A. Riley at Electric Sheep delves into more of the intricacies of the word play and cultural significance.

It’s definitely a little over-long, but otherwise, I really liked it.

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).

Viy (1967)

Viy (1967) movie poster

directors Konstantin Yershov, Georgi Kropachyov
viewed: 03/01/2017

Whether it’s considered horror or just dark fantasy, the 1967 Soviet picture Viy is pretty awesome. Since being turned on to Russian fantastika cinema, I’ve become a still very wet behind the ears devotee.

But up until this point, I’d only seen the films of Aleksandr Rou. One of the other key names that comes up is Aleksandr Ptushko. Ptushko worked on the effects of Viy and the neither of the film’s two directors Konstantin Yershov nor Georgi Kropachyov have many other credits to their names. I’m not attributing anything, just saying what little I can here. Viy is adapted from Ukrainian the folk tales that Nikolai Gogol wrote, for one more key name.

Compared to Rou’s films, it’s quite a bit much more dark, though still very much steeped in the fantasy worlds of Russian storytelling. Other viewers have compared it to Sam Raimi, noting the somewhat comic aspects of the story of a young wastrel of a would-be priest sitting up three nights with the body of a witch that he killed. But oddly I was reminded of aspects of Japanese horror films about the work, a flavor of that, perhaps.

Viy is not nonstop insanity, but it eventually gets there. The visual effects and designs are surprising and strange, building up to a total phantasmagoria at the end, as good as anything I’ve seen. It’s not the kind of horror that will scare you, but Viy is visually wonderful.

I watched this on YouTube, which isn’t something I do often. So worth it, though.

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.

Kingdom of Crooked Mirrors (1964)

Kingdom of Crooked Mirrors (1964) movie poster

director Aleksandr Rou
viewed: 12/05/2016

I only learned about Russian Fantastika films a couple years back from stumbling on Scumbalina’s Atomic Caravan.  So far all of the Fantastika movies I’ve seen have been by Aleksandr Rou, so I don’t know that I have a full perspective yet.  But what I do have is a fantastic love for the stuff.

Kingdom of Crooked Mirrors and The Golden Horns (1972) were my holy grails, probably because they’re the films that Scumbalina discussed in her blog.  So when seeing it available on Amazon Prime along with a handful of others, I was totally thrilled.  I was also jazzed to see that since I last wrote about Aleksandr Rou, someone has added movie posters for his films to Wikipedia.

The information on the Soviet director is pretty sparse, and even on the specific subgenre is also hard to find (at least in English).  I crave to know more.  Overall, though, these are fairy tale films, peppered with ideology I suppose, but really not that different from American or other European fantasy films.  It’s the aesthetics that are quite sublime.  I’m a pushover for matte paintings and some of these are amazing.

As many have noted, stepping through the mirror, little Olya is not unlike a little Soviet era Alice.  Only she’s in the Kingdom of Crooked Mirrors which distort everything.  She finds her mirror double in Aylo (real life sisters Olga and Tatyana Yukina) and they encounter a strange world of backwards names and animal people, and a boy named Dneirf who is whipped and imprisoned for not cooperating with the manufacture of more crooked mirrors.

For my money, I enjoyed it.  I actually liked the nasty attitude of little Olya before she learned her lesson.  There was an interesting point at the opening when she and a lot of other little kids were peeking in on a movie (a drive-in?), the most modern thing I’ve seen in any of Rou’s films.  But also for my money, my favorite film so far was Vasilisa the Beautiful (1939), one of his much earlier films, the only one I’ve seen in black-and-white.

Hard to Be a God (2013)

Hard to Be a God (2013) movie poster

director Aleksei German
viewed: 07/12/2015

It was Glenn Kinney’s review on RogerEbert.com that turned me on to this film.  And images like these:

Hard to Be a God (2013) still

 

and

Hard to Be a God (2013) still

 

that kept pulling at my curiosity and consciousness.

Frankly, you could pull stills from almost any moment of the film and have striking, amazing images.  It’s been compared to Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Bruegel the Elder, a sprawling, mad, jam-packed vision of hell straight from an alternate universe dark ages.  And that is just exactly what it is.

At nearly three hours, it’s a long day’s sojourn into hellish night, full of phlegm, puke, viscera, excrement, torment, disease, deformity and death.

It’s based on a Russian/Soviet science fiction novel from the 1960’s of the same name by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, the same writers from whom Andrei Tarkovsky drew the remarkable Stalker (1979).  It’s science fiction unlike most science fiction one readily conceives.  It’s set on a parallel Earth, one mired in an endless Dark Age, visited by scientists from modern/future Earth, undercover to study the ways of this bleak, grotesque world.  They are not allowed to interfere with the killing of intellectuals and artists, not allowed to try to propel the world forward toward enlightenment.  They merely observe, bemused, living as somewhat elite roles as noblemen descended from gods.

It’s the difficulty of being a god and not interfering with your creations, watching it all go further down the muck-strewn slope into further degradations of hell.  It is, of course, a critique of society, one that punishes and exterminates the ones who would raise humanity from the muck rather than perpetuate the most sickening of worlds.  Apropos of Russia?  Apropos many places, I would say.

Aleksei German worked on this film for decades, actively so for the last decade.  He didn’t even get to see the film released.  His son and his wife helped shepherd the film through post-production and completion.

Kinney refers to it as a “capital-G Great Film”.  I am not one to quibble that point.  I’ve been sitting with it for several days now, trying to fully get my head around the experience and what I have to offer on this movie.  It’s still percolating within me.  It will likely continue to percolate, bubbling like the primordial muck in the film, for some time.

 

 

The Ascent (1977)

The Ascent (1977) movie poster

director Larisa Shepitko
viewed: 07/02/2015

The Ascent is an amazing film from the Soviet Union, the most famous film by an unfortunately lesser known director Larisa Shepitko.  Shepitko’s film won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival in 1977, but Shepitko would die at the age of 40 in a car accident while scouting sites for her next film, which would eventually be completed by her husband Elem Klimov.

The Ascent is shot in a stark black and white, depicting a brutal winter in the harsh terrains of Belarus during WWII.  Two soldiers are cut off from their unit when they head out in search of food.  After a skirmish with German troops, they attempt to find places to hide out, among the villagers of the region, only to be captured with some of them and then hanged for treason alongside a teenager, a mother of young children, and a doubtful collaborationist.  Though one soldier argues to join the forces of the killers, trying to escape with his life to fight again.  Only his is a way of greater tragedy.

It’s a tough and austere film, remarkable in many ways.  And interestingly it reminded me of another brilliant Soviet/Russian film about WWII and Belarus, 1985’s Come and See, which I hadn’t realized but was directed by Shepitko’s husband, Elem Klimov.  Both are amazing films, fascinating portrayals of a war from a massively alternative vantage point as depicted in the West, particularly American cinema.  Really quite tremendous stuff.

Barbara the Fair with the Silken Hair (1969)

Barbara the Fair with the Silken Hair (1969) movie poster

director Aleksandr Rou
viewed: 06/18/2015

I’m still new to the Russian Fantastika film and the work of Aleksandr Rou, but I’m a readily growing fan of the form and the director.  I’ve seen two other films of his, Vasilissa the Beautiful (1939) and Maria the Wonderful Weaver (1959), but this was the first time I’d ventured a go with one of my kids, even though these are essentially children’s films.  The films are subtitled which could daunt some kids, but Clara took to the film pretty readily herself.

I don’t know if it’s just the random smattering of Rou’s films that I’ve seen or just the consistency of folkloric narratives but the stories all kind of run together in my brain, even after just watching this one it echoes of the others.

In this case, there is a tsar who gets his beard grabbed by a magical being while drinking from a well.  The being, Chudo-Yudo (pictured above) tells the tsar that he must give him anything in his kingdom of which he is unaware (the tsar has spent the beginning of the picture numerating everything in his realm and marking it down).  The tsar agrees only to find out that he didn’t know that he had a brand new baby son.  Conspiring with one of his advisers, the tsar trades out his baby for the baby of a local fisherman (although this goes awry when a soft-hearted conspirator can’t go through with it), so that if Chudo-Yudo comes for the kid, he’ll get the wrong one.

However, it’s years before Chudo-Yudo acts, looking to find a groom for his daughter, Barbara the Fair, who has magical abilities and a poor list of goofy suitors.  To boil down a rather convoluted plot, the strapping young fisherman’s son (the fisherman’s real son as opposed to the tsar’s spoilt heir) eventually saves the day and gets to marry the beauty.

There are lurid colors and wonderful set designs, some impressive make-up and some interesting buildings…and even acting bears (does every one of these films have acting bears?)  This film is made 30 years Vasilissa and 10 years after Maria yet the feeling and sensibilities seem to have changed little if at all.  I consider this in contrast to American fantasy films of the time (I noted a comparison to some of Ray Harryhausen’s films before), but I don’t know what else to say.  I would love to know more about the genre and the films.

Barbara the Fair with the Silken Hair is as good as the others, perhaps better than Maria but I think Vasilissa is still my current favorite.  I still want to tip my hat to Scumbalina, who has posted a nice list of films of the genre that I will consider now a list of films to see.

The Return (2003)

The Return (2003) movie poster

director Andrey Zvyagintsev
viewed: 01/05/2014

Andrey Zvyagintsev’s debut film The Return won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival on its release and Zvyagintsev was getting compared Andrei Tarkovsky.  High praise?  I wonder how many young Russian filmmakers come on the scene hoping to be the next Tarkovsky or are compared to Tarkovsky?  Who knows?

The Return was recommended to me by a friend, in part because she thought it was good but as I started watching it, I remembered that one reason for her recommending it was because she thought I looked like Konstantin Lavronenko, the returnee of The Return.

The return of the title refers to a young father who shows up after twelve years of absence in the lives of his two young boys.  Though the boys speculate about what has kept him away, and for that matter what brought him back, it’s never fully explained.  He just shows up and takes them for a camping/fishing trip into the wilderness and shows himself a harsh and unpredictable figure, who earns his boys’ fears and distrust as well as some respect and admiration.

It’s a pretty metaphorical situation, though very naturalistic as well.  I won’t delve into a half-assed attempt at analysis for the meaning therein and I also won’t detail the happenings that unfold because the unpredictability of the situation is quite critical to its unfolding, too.  Though I will wonder aloud if there are parts of Russia so readily untrafficked by humans that such isolation is easily achieved or not.

A good film, if not a great one, in my estimation, it’s also notable that Zvyagintsev’s lates film, Leviathan (2014) made a lot of “best of” lists from last year.  So, something to keep tabs on.

And I can see the resemblance to Lavronenko.

Come and See (1985)

Come and See (1985) movie poster

director Elem Klimov
viewed: 12/25/2014

“War is hell,” that oft-quoted understatement is attributed originally to William Tecumseh Sherman and is no doubt applicable in many contexts.  I imagine that many a War genre film has portrayed its topic as such and has probably evoked such a response in its viewers.

Elem Klimov’s 1985 film, Come and See, doesn’t depict a battlefield but rather an occupied country by an invading force.  It’s 1943 in Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic and the peasants of the country are rising up in partisan troops to fight off the invading Nazis.

Klimov’s film is a visceral sensoria, a harrowing nightmare whose surrealism is evoked through utter naturalism paired with the subjective psychological effect of bearing witness to terror and atrocity.  The witness of the hellishness of this war is teenage Flyora (an absolutely amazing Aleksei Kravchenko), from cheery pluck and naiveté to shell-shocked horror and trauma.  The film opens on him playing with a younger boy, until he finds a rifle and declares himself fit to go and fight the war.  He is quickly taken in by the partisan troops, but also left behind by them.

Abandoned in the woods he finds a beautiful teenage girl named Glasha, played by Olga Mironova, who has similarly been left behind by the troops.  They share a brief, playful interaction before the bombs start strafing the woods, shattering trees and cascading down in destruction.  It’s an amazing sequence, the first of several.

From there, Flyora’s journey goes from bad to worse: he finds his home abandoned (he doesn’t see what Glasha does, the bodies piled up behind it), a struggle through a mire to an isolated island, a hunt for food that winds up killing all his companions and the cow that they steal from a Nazi conspirator farmer, and ultimately the destruction of a village in which all of the people are corralled into a church which is then set on fire, killing all inside.

Toward the film’s end, photo-journalistic images invade the screen of death camps and marching soldiers and Adolph Hitler himself.  And a title card reads “628 villages in Byelorussia were burnt to the ground with all their inhabitants,” signifying that the horror depicted was not conjured up in fiction nor by any way an isolated occurrence.

The film was made in part to remember to atrocities inflicted upon Belarus (Byelorussia), perhaps not one of the more well-known horrors enacted by the Nazis in their reign of terror in WWII.  It was also, in part, made to recall the victory of the Russians over the Germans in 1945, the 40th anniversary of that event.

It’s an amazing film.  Unbelievable.  Aleksei Kravchenko was a non-professional actor when employed here and bears all the most amazing traits and genuine naturalism that come from the best uses of non-professional actors.  His performance is completely amazing and harrowing and heartbreaking.  This film is much more than his face but this film is also entirely embodied on his face, the stark-staring horror and tragedy and psychological trauma.

Incredible.