A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 394 – The Magic Voyage of Sinbad

The Magic Voyage of Sinbad – March 29th, 2011

Back when we decided to buy The Day the Earth Froze we found we could get it packaged together with this movie. And since both of them were ones we’d seen on MST3K, we said why not? And indeed, I’m glad we own this in a non-MST3K format (even if I do enjoy the episode too). It’s a Russian production from 1953 that’s been repackaged and titled for American audiences. The names of the cast are changed, as is the director. Even the title was changed from the Russian Sadko, which is apparently an epic tale and an opera and okay, there is a connection to Sinbad in there, but this story isn’t actually about Sinbad. And once you get past that, it’s really not bad.

I really like this whole Aleksandr Ptushko thing where epic stories are made into grand movies with huge casts. If I had to pick one, I’d probably go for The Day the Earth Froze over this one, but they share a lot in terms of tone. There’s the conquering hero, who shows up only to have to leave again. There’s the woman he falls for, whom he only gets to marry at the end of the movie. There’s a quest to a far off and dangerous land and there are episodic encounters along the way. It could be likened to The Odyssey as well, or any other epic quest. Looking over the actual Sinbad stories, I can see how it was an easy name to slap on this movie. Sinbad gets on a ship, encounters a new land full of people whose ways are foreign to him, gets into some sort of trouble and then gets out again. But knowing that this movie is actually based on an entirely separate story – with its own opera, no less – makes me want to know that story better. Because while there are epic quest tropes in many stories, I love knowing the particulars and this movie? Well, it’s a quick dash through them.

Sinbad (for ease – the version we have is the English dub that was retitled and recut for the US) arrives in his home city after a long time away and sees that the people are downtrodden and taken advantage of by the rich merchants who’ve taken over. So, being the sort of guy who can’t abide by that sort of thing, he makes a deal with the merchants that if he can catch a golden fish, they’ll give their riches away. And since one of Neptune’s daughters has taken a shine to him, he does so! Hooray! And here is where I thought “Huh, he just introduced Communism.” Except it ends up not working out, with more people showing up than there are goods for, which seems like a poor argument for Communism, but perhaps I’m reading too much into things. Anyhow, Sinbad just wants his people to be happy, so he gathers a crew and sets off to find a bird that can bring happiness. He and his men encounter fierce warriors and end up playing chess to win the bird and the bird’s a let-down anyhow and then there’s dancing under the sea.

Yes, really. See, the thing here is that much like the other epics I mentioned, it’s episodic. Something happens and the hero deals with it, then something else happens and the hero deals with it. Any epic tale that involves a journey is going to also involve a variety of encounters, and one without a huge evil enemy to face (like in, say, The Lord of the Rings) is going to need to draw its encounters from a variety of places. Would that I were still in school and had an excuse to do a lengthy and involved study of epic quest tales in various cultures, because I find the ones I know of kind of fascinating. It makes me think of something like The Legend of the Eight Samurai, which is based on a serial that ran for thirty years. We’re talking stories that are supposed to hold people’s interest for vast swaths of time. Unfortunately, this movie has taken a story that I’m sure is much longer and compressed it into about 80 minutes. It ends up meaning that a lot of the bits are rushed through.

Oddly, the movie does take the time for three different dancing sequences. And the dancing is all well and good, but I’d have liked to spend a little more time in each place getting to know about it and about the perils the heroes will find there. Still, while it’s rushed it’s still fun to watch and obviously well made. Okay, so the copy we have was put together from a few different masters and the visual quality is faded. Look close and you can see the detailed costumes and sets. The cast is huge, the music is lovely (apparently it was scored with the music from the opera) and there’s some fun puppetry and effects work that I really do respect given the film’s age. It has its hokey moments, it’s rushed and it’s certainly not about Sinbad, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth watching. It’s a good story and well made for its time and I’m definitely going to have to go look up Sadko and see what I can find out.

March 29, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

The Magic Voyage of Sinbad

March 29, 2011

The Magic Voyage of Sinbad

We own a couple of these Russian fantasy films from the fifties which we discovered through MST3K. I’m quite proud that our copy of Morozko is in the original Russian with English subtitles, but the three Aleksandr Ptushko films we own are all severely edited and dubbed into English. Perhaps someday we will get the films the way they were meant to be seen, but for now this is what we have. We already reviewed The Day the Earth Froze, which is based on the Kalevala, but until today I’ve always wondered what this movie was based on, because it is clearly not Sinbad.

A little quick internet research reveals that it is actually the Russian epic of Sadko. It’s a little difficult to figure out what’s going on much of the time while watching the “Sinbad” version of the movie as interpreted by Roger Corman. We know that Sadko finds himself in a vast city full of oppressed masses and that he wants only to liberate them. At first he tries to help the downtrodden masses by tricking the moneyed ruling class into distributing their wealth to the people. (He does this by betting his life that he can catch a golden fish, which miraculous feat he accomplishes with the help of a daughter of Neptune he has befriended using his harp.)

This fails to help all the people though, so Sadko sets out to sea in search of some other way to help his people. He gathers a hearty band of heroes including a young boy, an old sage, and a big slow dumb muscle man. They do battle with trident-bearing savages, match wits with a nasally voiced Indian horse fancier, and defeat a mystical blue harpy that tries to bore them to sleep. Ultimately they do not find whatever it is they’re seeking and turn back for home.

On the way home, however, they are beset by storms because Sadko has failed to pay propper homage to Neptune. In order to save his crew he must sacrifce himself, diving into the depths to confront Neptune himself. After some underwater hijinks he eventually escapes Neptune’s kingdom (with the help once again of one of Neptune’s daughters) and returns to land. He still hasn’t found anything to help the people of his home, but they don’t seem to mind much and everybody’s just so happy to see him again. The end.

I’m betting that most of the reason the movie feels so odd and disjointed is that the translation tries so hard to make it something that it is not. We’re told that Sinbad is seeking the bluebird of happiness, but I strongly suspect that this is an invention of the translators. So I have to admit I simply don’t know what’s going on for most of this movie, and yet I still enjoy it.

I enjoy it because Aleksandr Ptushko makes grand, sweeping, beautiful films. Even when they seem non-sensical as in this case they are still visually stunning. What this movie most reminds me of is the Douglas Fairbanks silent version of The Thief of Bagdad. It has the same scale to it, with it’s huge cast and colossal sets. It even has an interesting dry-for-wet underwater scene as part of its hero’s quest. (Although Neptune’s kingdom in this movie is played mostly for laughs. It’s a fairly goofy place full of puppets and dancing.)

As it stands in the version of this film that we own it is a fairly strange production. The plot makes little sense. The magical fantasy adventure descends at times into the laughably silly. Our hero is so clearly not Sinbad. But visually the movie still intrigues me. I long now to obtain the full-length and unedited Sadko with the original dialog. I’d really love to see this movie the way that Ptushko intended for it to be seen.

March 29, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 291 – Jack Frost (Morozko)

Jack Frost (Morozko) – December 16th, 2010

This movie is one we purchased specifically for this project. We didn’t own it when we started and we weren’t planning on buying it. But when we started this whole thing and started to really consider what it was that we were going to be watching, we added some titles. We’d seen this as an MST3K episode before. It’s one of our favorites. And I’d read a few things online from MST3K fans who also had fond memories of this movie being a childhood favorite in Finland and Russia around Christmas time. It wasn’t really all that hard for us to convince each other that we needed to find a copy of this and add it to our collection for Christmas.

We’ve always rather liked this movie, even with the jokes made at its expense. It’s not that it’s a bad movie. It’s that it’s got a lot of silliness and it’s from the 1960s and has dated special effects. It’s a folktale at its heart, and I can’t fault the story or the acting or the special effects. To be quite honest, I find it all charming in the same way I find any of my own childhood favorites charming and I can totally see why this would captivate a kid.

My biggest criticism, really, is the rhyming. From what we could tell, the original Russian does have a rhyming cadence to a lot of the lines, and that’s fine. For a fairy tale that’s not entirely unheard of and I can see how it would work. Unfortunately, the subtitling tried to follow suit. Now, I have done poetic translation. It’s not easy at all, because you have to decide if you want to sacrifice something. You have to be really good to maintain everything in a poetic translation. The rhyme scheme, if there is one, the meter, the mood. It’s hard to put it all in a translation. Sometimes you have to sacrifice the rhyming to keep the feel and the point. And while we’re not dealing with an award winning piece of literature here there is a certain narrative that has to be maintained. The dubbed version used for MST3K doesn’t seem to try and force the rhymes. I noticed a lot of lines in common, but the rhyming was kept to a minimum. And that’s a good thing, because in the subtitling? It is so labored and so forced and so utterly bizarre in places. There are definitely words used just for the sake of the rhyme, not because they mean anything pertinent. I found it horribly distracting, especially since some of the worst instances don’t even rhyme in American English.

Rhyming issues aside, I do like the story here. It’s got a few convoluted bits, but for the most part it’s a solid story with some very familiar elements. There’s a bit of Cinderella and a bit of Hansel and Gretel, there’s Baba Yaga and there’s some themes of humility and kindness. There are two major players in the story: Nastenka, a girl living with her father, stepmother and stepsister. Of course the stepmother is mean and favors her own daughter, ordering Nastenka around and threatening to chop off her beautiful braid. And then there’s Ivan, a boastful young man who leaves his home to seek his fortune and the girl of his dreams. Ivan runs into Grandfather Mushroom, whom he offends. When he meets Nastenka later and offends her too he ends up turned into a bear by Grandfather Mushroom. Ivan runs off and Nastenka is left to be banished to the woods by her stepmother. But all is not lost! Thanks to her kind nature she befriends Jack Frost, who takes her to his home and promises all will be okay. Ivan, on the other hand, has to break the curse and then find Baba Yaga to help him save Nastenka.

It’s the end where it gets a little convoluted, with Ivan turning into a bear and Nastenka getting taken in by Jack Frost and the whole Baba Yaga encounter that eventually leads to Nastenka and Ivan being attacked by bandits. But when watching the movie it’s not hard to follow. It’s just a lot to explain. That’s not a bad thing, really. It’s kind of nice to see a story that’s not oversimplified but still isn’t confusing. There are some bits that aren’t terribly well fleshed out, and Ivan manages to break the curse not by doing a good deed as he was told to, but by intending to do a good deed, which is an odd lesson to impart. But for the most part it’s simply a fun story. It would be kind of interesting to see it made now, but there’s definitely a charm to it as it is and I’m glad we have it.

December 16, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | 1 Comment

Jack Frost (Morozko)

December 16, 2010

Jack Frost (Morozko)

This is not the Michael Keaton movie with the possessed snowman. Nor is it the cheesy horror movie of the same title. Instead this is the 1964 Russian fairy tale. Amanda and I were delighted when we were able to find this DVD in the original Russian with English subtitles since we had seen the American dub so many times as an episode of MST3K. It makes it into our Christmas collection because Amanda had heard that this was traditional Christmas viewing in Russia and Finland. It kind of makes sense that this magical adventure with its winter theme and lush production values would make great winter solstice viewing, especially in Soviet Russia when anything overtly religious or Christmasy would have been forbidden.

This is the magical tale of two young people who will of course inevitably fall in love. There’s Nastenka, an industrious and beautiful young girl who is cruelly forced to do chores by her domineering step-mother. Then there’s Ivan, the brash handsome youth who cares about nothing beyond himself. Fairy tale things happen to them. Nastenka must accomplish impossible tasks at her step-mother’s request. Ivan must learn humility and discover that there are people besides himself worth caring for.

For the most part this movie is made up of very familiar tales and tropes. Indeed I think the parts that are not instantly familiar to me are probably recognisable to the target audience of Russian children. The story of Nastenka as the much abused step-daughter clearly has its root in whatever folk tale also gave rise to Cinderella. Then there’s Baba Yaga the Russian witch with her chicken-legged house who flies in a mortar. I’m familiar with her mostly due to the writings of Neil Gaiman who uses her a couple times in different works, but I know she’s a traditional Russian fairy tale villain. Morozko himself, the Jack Frost of the title, is a fairly self-explanatory magical figure – the elderly gentleman responsible for coating all the trees in frost as winter begins (by means of his magical scepter.) But then there’s the little magical dwarf with the mushroom hat – I feel sure that if I knew my Russian folk-lore better he’d also be a familiar figure, but I don’t so he’s just a strange little fellow who puts a curse on Ivan to teach him a lesson. There’s a whole plot point where Ivan is given the head of a bear until he can break his egotistical ways which I’m sure is part of another popular Russian folk tale, but which is unique to this movie for me.

There’s a sing-song rhyming quality to a lot of the original Russian dialog in this movie. This was a great discovery for me since I’m so used to the English dub, which doesn’t feature that. This is probably a good thing since the subtitles attempt to do the rhyming thing and end up just seeming goofy – I think this is definitely a case where the original language clearly does something that cannot be replicated with sub-titles or a dub. On the other hand I never would have noticed the constant rhyming in the Russian if I hadn’t been reading the awkward and non-sensical subtitles. Once it became clear to me what the subtitles were trying to replicate I ignored them and listened to the Russian and I could hear the cadence and the rhymes.

I was impressed, however, by how closely the English dub matches the original Russian inflections and voices. I’ve seen this movie MiSTed many, many times and have huge portions of it memorised, and I frankly could probably have turned off the subtitles altogether and still known exactly what the characters were saying. Listening to the Russian I found myself hearing the dub I’m so familiar with, and the two are extremely close to each other.

This is a beautiful, magical movie. It doesn’t have a lot of complex special effects (just some double exposures, backwards film and dissolves) but it has beautiful locations, some quite intricate costumes, and wonderful use of a vibrant color palette. It’s a treat for the eyes. The DVD features a particularly clear print of the movie that has been lovingly restored. It makes it hard to believe that this was produced way back in the sixties. Say whatever you will about those “godless Communists” they sure knew how to manufacture a rich film stock.

The magic, the beauty, and the wonder of this movie makes it appropriate for a Christmas collection even if it actually doesn’t have anything to do with Christmas. I could easily see this becoming traditional viewing in my household at this time of year at any rate.

December 16, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 279 – The Day the Earth Froze

The Day the Earth Froze – December 4th, 2010

Some time back we first saw this movie as an MST3K episode, and it seemed a little odd and poorly dubbed and there was the question of what a Sampo was, but we didn’t think much of it beyond that. Until! We realized that it was actually an adaptation of The Kalevala, the Finnish national epic poem. You know, the poem J.R.R. Tolkien was an expert on and claims to have been inspired by when writing The Silmarillion? And ever since then I’ve enjoyed the MST3K episode, but really paid a lot more attention to the movie itself.

Sadly, the US version is severely truncated. It’s quite short and it’s missing a number of scenes, bringing the running time down to just under 70 minutes. The credits were mucked with and the original cast and crew names replaced with fake ones. It’s very frustrating, but this is the version we could get our hands on in a language we know. We got it as part of a set with two movies on one disc. The other is The Magic Voyage of Sinbad (also done by MST3K) and the two movies don’t have their own running times listed. Instead the back of the box states “Approx. 145 Minuts of Sheer Wonderment”. And really? That is no lie. These are great movies.

Of course, this was made in the late 1950s and was a co-production out of Finland and the Soviet Union, so I guess it’s to be expected that when it showed up in the US in 1962 it would be missing some scenes and the credits would be decidedly Americanized. And the time period it’s from definitely shows in the film quality. There’s a certain feel to the Russian fantasies I’ve seen from the 1950s/1960s, and thanks to MST3K I’ve seen a few. It’s something that might be an acquired taste, but if so, I’ve acquired it. Really, when you look at the movie it’s got fairly high production values. There are elaborate costumes and sets and the special effects are fairly decent. I am fully willing to agree with the box’s claim of sheer wonderment here. Yes, it’s dated and horribly cut down from its original format, but it’s decently made, all things considered, and I do truly enjoy the story.

If you aren’t familiar with the Kalevala, I highly recommend taking a look and reading about it. My personal favorite version is The Canine Kalevala by Mauri and Tarja Kunnas, but I’ve got a soft spot for their style. Being an epic poem, it’s really quite long. This movie (and the book I mentioned above) are very much shortened versions telling only select portions of the story, but when there aren’t a bunch of guys talking over the dialogue it does make sense, I swear.

In the happy land of Kalevala lives a young woman named Annikki. Her brother, a smith named Ilmarinen, has the power to make a magical item called a Sampo. The Sampo can produce salt, flour, gold and many other wonders, but it can only be forged once Annikki falls in love. Unfortunately for the people of Kalevala, as soon as Annikki falls in love with a man named Lemminkainen, the wicked witch of Pohjola, Louhi, kidnaps her in order to force Ilmarinen to make the Sampo for the people of Pohjola. Ilmarinen does so and he and Lemminkainen and Annikki escape, but Lemminkainen returns to Pohjola to destroy the Sampo, since Louhi will only use it for evil. Louhi vows revenge and steals the sun and then there’s a big battle with music that puts the bad guys to sleep.

See? That’s a coherent plot, and there’s a lot that goes on within it. The witch has various winds held prisoner in sacks in a cave and keeps them until she needs them in battle. Ilmarinen makes all sorts of things that aren’t supposed to be forged, like boats and horses. There are tasks to be completed and quests to go on. The people of Kalevala band together to defeat Louhi by means other than force and in the middle of it all there’s Annikki and Lemminkainen’s wedding. I really wish we had an uncut version of this so we could see more of the plot and the lands of Kalevala and Pohjola.

Given that I would never go into this movie expecting slick special effects and all, I don’t really have many complaints. No, the performances of some of the cast aren’t that great but I’m willing to give them a pass as they could be obscured by poor film quality and heavy-handed dubbing. Visual expression is important and all, but without knowing the verbal expression from the original, I refuse to condemn the performances. They’re perfectly decent for a fantasy adventure movie from the 1950s. Everything, for me, is perfectly decent. It’s fun. And maybe I’m biased because I’d already seen this on MST3K and enjoyed it there and knew what to expect, but I don’t care. I like this movie. It’s got a charm to it that I love and it’s telling a story I find really fascinating. It might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s mine.

December 4, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Day the Earth Froze

December 4, 2010

The Day the Earth Froze

Amanda and I own a number of movies that we were first introduced to through Mystery Science Theater 3000. We’ve already reviewed the completely lost and forgotten but actually quite good space western Moon Zero Two. We also own the Italian super thief adventure film Danger: Diabolik, and several of the Russo/Finnish co-productions that were featured on MST3K. Unlike some of the fodder for Joel, Mike and the bots these are not actually bad movies, just odd. They are fantastic tales of myth and wonder with impressive special effects for the time and a rich color presentation. We have The Sword and the Dragon, and The Magic Voyage of Sinbad, and we’re looking forward to reviewing Father Frost (aka Jack Frost) as part of our x-mas marathon of reviews later this month. And there’s this movie.

The Day the Earth Froze was my introduction to the Finnish oral folklore that was compiled by Elias Lonnrot into the Kalevala. It’s a tale of ancient magics that has a lot of moments that are very identifiably folk-tale elements. For example, there’s the scene where Lemminkainen’s mother tries to discover the fate of her son. She consults a birch tree, then she asks the road, then she asks the sun itself. This sort of thing is very much in keeping with the way I have always heard fairy tales and folk tales told – in keeping with the rule of threes and with anthropomorphized forces of nature. I don’t actually know much about the Kalevala aside from the fact that it was a strong inspiration to J.R. R. Tolkien, who said when he wrote the Lord of the Rings series that he wanted to create an English folk history of a kind after he had translated a version of the Kalevala from Finnish.

The plot here involves a struggle between two groups to acquire the legendary “mill of everything” – the Sampo. On the one side we have the rustic and hard working people of Kalevala, represented by the mighty legendary smith Ilmarinen and his lovely sister Annikki. Legend tells that when Annikki is wed this will be the time when it is foretold that Ilmarinen may forge the Sampo. Along comes the charismatic Lemminkainen – a woodsman from deep in the forest who falls in love with Annikki. Sadly, Ilmarinen cannot forge the Sampo at this time because the only fire he can use to do this legendary task has been stolen by the evil witch Louhi, who soon after kidnaps Annikki to force Ilmarinen to forge the Sampo for her.

Ilmarinen and Lemminkainen travel to the land of Pohjola to confront Louhi – but before they can have Annikki back they must undertake some impossible tasks. Lemminkainen must plow a field which is covered by venomous snakes. (Ilmarinen forges a metal horse to accomplish this task.) Then their boat is smashed and so Ilmarinen forges a metal one (this is a theme for him.) Finally they must forge the legendary Sampo and leave it in the hands of Louhi if they want Annikki back.

After the three of them leave Pohjola Lemminkainen sneaks back and breaks the Sampo, angering Louhi. As a result the witch in retaliation steals the sun from the sky during Lemminkainen’s wedding to Annikki, plunging the land of Kalevala into darkness. So the movie is more than three quarters over before it gets to the actual day the Earth froze. After this the people of Kalevala invade Pohjola in an assault using harps and music which I think must have partially been the inspiration for the Yellow Submarine movie. Music overcomes all evil and love reigns supreme.

That’s a lot of high-fantasy stuff to cram into a movie which is, in the American dubbed version we own, just over an hour long. I very much wish we had the Russian version of the film, which is almost a half hour longer according to IMDB. As it is, there’s a whole lot of magic and myth in this movie. So much that it’s almost overwhelming. I do love a great fantasy film, however, and this is certainly that if nothing else. The acting is pretty wooden throughout, the only really great performance being that of Anna Orochko as the witch Louhi. She glares and grimaces and looms over all of her minions, as well as having most of the best parts of the movie.

I wonder how different my experience of this movie would be if I hadn’t first seen it, many many times, on MST3K. It’s a fascinating fantasy film with a strong story and a lot of magic and adventure. In my head, however, I can’t help hearing Joel and the bots making fun of it. A couple of times as we watched it tonight Amanda and I found ourselves quoting the MST3K riffs, because they’re simply part of the movie in our minds. It’s like trying to see the Rocky Horror Picture Show for itself without the audience participation and floor show. They’re simply inextricable after a few dozen viewings. I can recognize that it’s a great film, but I don’t think I will ever know it the way it would be for somebody who saw it by itself.

December 4, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 248 – Day Watch

Day Watch – November 3rd, 2010

Being a curious sort of person, after watching tonight’s movie I went to wikipedia and poked around the entry for the novel this movie is based on. Contrary to what one might assume, given that it shares a title with the second book, this movie is actually based on a combination of the latter two sections of the first book. Having not finished the book, I hadn’t realized that, but then I did think the first movie was somewhat short for such a long novel, even given the adjustments that have to be made between page and screen. So it makes sense, with two plots merged here, that this movie is longer, and a little more complicated.

I’m not entirely sure how I feel about the combination of plots. I can say that I do like some of the other changes made (at least according to wikipedia, so take this with a slab of salt) to make certain characters more central to the plot. But taking a plot about a murder mystery, with Anton being framed for the murders of Dark Others in order to draw out the more powerful people around him, and combining it with a plot about a hunt for a legendary piece of chalk that can change destiny? It wasn’t done poorly, but it makes for a lot of plot threads to follow. And there’s at least one point where it felt slapped together. But I’m not sure either single plot would really have sufficed as a cinematic follow-up to the events set out in the first movie. Given the father and son stuff set up there, as well as the big climactic end of the world deal, the second movie really needed a big plot.

See, I like the father and son stuff. Anton’s son from the first movie, Yegor, is now in deep with the Dark Others. He’s made his choice to stand with them and Zevulon, the leader of the Dark, has taken him in as a surrogate son. Anton’s been bending the rules and in some cases outright breaking them in order to try and get his son back. Anton’s bumbling is really the center of a lot of plots here, and in the first movie, and they really do a good job doubling back to wrap a lot of that up in the end. Also coming to the forefront are Anton’s vampire neighbors, a father who turned his son to save him from double pneumonia. And so we have more father and son stuff. I can’t tell from the wiki summaries if that’s at all in the book. It doesn’t appear to be. At least not enough to get a mention, so I’m going with it not being a thing at all. But I liked it. It managed to tie together some disparate pieces of plot and pull them into a cohesive story.

Without the father and son stuff, I think the chalk plot and the murder plot could have been too far apart. But through it all there’s a thread of choices made and how they affect your own life and the lives of those you care for. One of the key points in the story is how you can’t change another person’s destiny. But it seems to me that you can, if you change your own. And it’s all tied to Anton and Yegor and Zevulon and the vampires, along with Anton’s girlfriend, Sveta (also from the first movie) and Zevulon’s lover, Alicia. The one thing that struck me as poorly incorporated into the whole plot was Anton and Olga heading to Samarkand and then deciding not to. Which kind of pisses me off. The movie is otherwise paced rather well, with the more serious discussions and exposition interspersed with action and displays of magic and the world the Others live in. And then smack in the middle is this diverted trip out of Moscow that ends up not happening. Sure, the chalk plot involves Samarkand, and a lot is done to set it up, but with the moving coming in at two and a half hours, the bit on the plane could have been dropped and the conversation between Olga and Anton moved elsewhere – the airport even – and it would have worked fine.

I really did enjoy this movie. It gave me a lot more Olga, whom I adore and was thrilled to see get a lot more screen time (and kudos to Galina Kyunina for doing a spot-on Anton impression in the beginning – I think I love her and must find more of her work). It also had some interesting stuff with Alicia and more of the world the movie takes place in. It does a lot of telling, yes, but it also does a crapload of showing, which is fantastic. I think my only real complaint about the movie as a whole is the ending, and even there I understand it. I get why it was done the way it was done and I get what had to happen given the events leading up to the climax. But it feels a little tired, which is a pity. I hope they find a way to bring the action back in again if they look into making another movie, but if they don’t? Then I think the world the movie ends in is a perfectly good one.

November 3, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Day Watch (Dnevnoy Dozor)

November 3, 2010

Day Watch (Dnevnoy Dozor)

Wow. I hadn’t seen this movie before, but after watching Night Watch again the other day I was extremely curious to see how this movie worked. Night Watch leaves a lot of loose ends and unanswered questions and ends on a bit of a downer, so where would this movie take the concept? I have to say that I was completely blown away. This is one of those amazing and rare sequels that surpasses the original in just about every way while staying faithful to the world and characters created by the first one.

The story continues to follow Anton Gorodetsky and the ongoing uneasy truce between the forces of dark and light. At first I was reminded of nothing so much as Hellboy 2 – the opening of the movie introduces a major plot device that has the power to literally re-write fate and you know that it’s going to be heavily involved in the plot of the movie. But once we got back on the streets with Anton it became clear that there was a whole lot going on here, and that it blended very well with the first movie. Anton is meant to be training a new recruit to the light named Svetlana – a woman who not only has vastly superior powers to Anton, but has deep feelings for him as well. Right away the two of them have a confrontation with the Great Dark One – the young boy Yegor whose fateful choice at the end of the first movie was manipulated by the head of the Day Watch, the powerful and influential Zavulon. It seems that Svetlana has power equal to the boy – which means that a major confrontation between Good and Evil is brewing.

One of the things I most enjoyed about this movie was the sense that Yegor, Svetlana and most of all Anton are all pawns in a long game being played by Zavulon and Geser. The machinations of the two warring sides as they attempt to manipulate people into the positions they want them in are intricate and fun to watch. This movie adds a lot more than that into the mix though. It develops the world a little more clearly than the first movie did – particularly demonstrating the nature of the Gloom and how it is used by experienced Others as opposed to the inexpert fumbling of Anton in the first movie. It provides the missing back story for Olga and integrates it into the plot of this movie. Every character from the first movie appears here and most of them in expanded roles. Olga is extensively involved in her attempts to protect Anton and Svetlana. There’s a whole parallel plot involving Anton’s vampire neighbor Kostya and his father, which turns out to be linked to the overall themes of the movie. We get to see a lot more smarmy scheming from Zavulon as he works to end the Truce and, so it seems, the world.

Another thing this movie cleverly adds to the mix is a lot of humor. The first movie was a very bleak, dark, hopeless affair. This movie, on the other hand, is almost lighthearted at times. It has a lot of good laughs mixed in, which actually acts to make you care more for the characters and their world. There’s even romance here – something the first movie didn’t even touch on.

There’s a lot of big action scenes her and cool special effects. The apocalyptic battle at the end of the film results in a bunch of dramatic big-budget destruction of modern Moscow landmarks. It would feel like a Hollywood film if it didn’t have a quirky self-aware quality and a deeper message woven into the movie. If the first film is a contemplation on the nature of free will and how choices are made for us then this movie is about regret and the desire to change choices already in the past.

So there you have it. A big-budget effects laden movie that involves humor, romance, deeper issues, cool plot twists and even a murder mystery of sorts. With a spectacular climactic battle and apocalyptic destruction. That manages to tie up all the loose ends from the first film and lest us see more of all the characters and the world we enjoyed from the first movie. As I said: I was blown away.

November 3, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 246 – Night Watch

Night Watch – November 1st, 2010

A few years ago when we went to visit family in California I bought the book this movie is based on. I’d brought several books with me for the flight there and back, but as I might have mentioned I am usually a very fast reader and I whipped through the books I’d brought. And no, they weren’t children’s novels. They were fairly heavy books, actually, but by the time we landed in San Francisco I’d finished all but one, and that one only had a few chapters left. So we hit a book store before we headed home two weeks later and I bought this book because it was thick and Russian and dense and I figured it would last me. Boy was I right. It lasted me so well it’s still unfinished. I found it far too dense for an airplane flight and ended up writing or sleeping for much of the flight instead. I feel somewhat ashamed of this. Having seen this now, perhaps I will go back and pick up the book and finish it.

The thing is, it really is a dense story. I only got through a couple of chapters of the book and it was a few years ago now, but I remember it okay. Not perfectly, but well enough to have the impression that while the movie does set up the world and story fairly well the book went into a hell of a lot more detail. I’m not really comparing the book to Tolkien, but when looking at the transition from book to movie there had to be a similar truncation of the world building. It had to be done in a visual manner that would condense all of the pages and pages of details in the book into a few minutes of scenes on a screen. That’s tricky. It ends up meaning that the background between the Light and the Dark is explained in an expository prologue and the whole major plot with a woman who’s been cursed, bringing down a vortex – not to mention the meaning of the vortex itself – is also explained through some expository dialogue and kind of glossed over. Vortex = bad. Got it. But it’s expressed much more eloquently in the book if I recall correctly. I definitely found myself thinking back to what I could recall of the book to fill in my understanding of the scale of the danger here.

It’s not that the movie does any of this stuff poorly. It’s that there’s just so very much to pack into one movie and some bits are going to get lost. As I’ve said, things that work on a page don’t necessarily work on a screen. And really, I was pleased by the world-building work done in this movie. Anton, the main character, gets some background and we’re really introduced with the modern Night Watch and his personal conflicts and troubles through a job he goes on. He’s got a drinking problem, both with alcohol and blood. He’s working for the Light side of things, but he’s friendly with a few vampires and seems to be a little too close to them for comfort. He gets himself into trouble while dealing with two vampires who’ve used their powers to lure an innocent boy to them to feed on and while looking for them he encountered a woman with a vortex forming above her. And a vortex is a bad thing indeed, dooming all of those around her. So we’ve got the vampires and we’ve got the vortex and there’s definitely something deeper going on in the world that the movie has built. The whole world is put together in such a way that you know that the Truce between Light and Dark is a fragile thing indeed, with both sides pushing and testing and using loopholes. It’s implied that the Dark is chafing against the rules imposed by the Light and the Light may perhaps be a little hypocritical at times. Nothing is clear cut.

The whole Light and Dark thing isn’t a new concept. One of my favorite series of books when I was a child (and still to this day) are Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising books. In those books the Light is clearly very good. It’s a simple thing. The Light is good and does good things and the Dark is bad and does bad things. Sometimes people in the Light make mistakes, but they’re rare and for the most part it’s all very easy to tell one from the other. The world of this movie has much fuzzier lines. Yes, there is one team and there is another, and they have different general directions they’re pointing in. But it’s harder to draw clean lines between them at times. It’s a lot dirtier and grittier, as befits a more realistic world. I don’t find it at all difficult to imagine why someone would choose to go with the Dark in this world. After all, the Light isn’t necessarily so appealing all the time.

The specific plot of the movie is kind of complex. It’s not that it’s this intricate spiderweb of a story, but it relies heavily on the world it takes place in and on things that I’d have to make asides to explain. Suffice it to say, there’s a big climactic battle between the Light and the Dark coming, and Anton is closely connected to a key figure in that battle. But Anton himself is a flawed figure, and so his actions can have devastating consequences. And the movie handles him in a wonderfully close way. He’s far from perfect. His apartment is filthy, he’s a mess much of the time, he sort of seems to have fallen into the job he has. There’s the blood issue. The vortex plot and the vampire plot run together for much of the movie, back and forth. But in the end it’s a good vs. evil plot. I know I heard this in a creative writing class – that there are two stories: good vs. evil and a stranger comes to town – but who said it? I have no idea. Still, it holds true here. Good vs. evil. But here it’s a messy battle with a messy hero and a messy visual presentation.

I mean that in a good way. The visuals are frantic in places, with awkward camera angles and quick pans and zooms and things frozen in time. The world Anton and his fellows (the Others, both Light and Dark) inhabit is one where the rules that apply to the rest of us don’t always exist. So the visual style seems to seek to capture that, and in my opinion it works. It’s disorienting and scattered, but it fits both the world and Anton himself. The one thing I’d criticize visually is the whole medieval knight theme that gets pulled out from the opening prologue and superimposed over the big battle at the end. It felt a little forced to me in a movie where the odd visuals didn’t otherwise feel out of place.

Other than that and the frustrating glossing over of Olga, I really felt the movie did a good job with the world of the story and then placing the story into it. It’s not an easy thing to take a dense and well-built background and put it on film in a concise manner that still feels rich, but this movie does it. I’m looking forward to the sequel now, and I’m definitely going to go finish the book.

Addendum: After watching Day Watch and finishing the books I was already in the middle of I went and found my copy of Night Watch and finished reading it. I was a little surprised at how quickly it went, given my recollections of it being somewhat dense and slow before. But once I got past the initial chapters it sucked me right in. It was fascinating to read through the book and see exactly what had been altered for the movies. Of course one of the major changes is that the second and third stories from the book were combined for the second movie, but also some characters were brought forward, given bigger roles. Others were pushed back. And for all that the movie is very much set in Russia and has a wonderful sense of place, I truly felt like the book set the stage better. Watching the movie, I enjoyed it and that was that. Reading the book I wanted to know more about Russian history and all of the events referenced as things a reader should just know. The movies, to be honest, are plotted more tightly at the end. But the book is more expansive. And it has more Olga, and that’s just plain awesome.

November 1, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Night Watch (Nochnoi Dozor)

November 1, 2010

Night Watch (Nochnoi Dozor)

Our good friend over at The Boston Bibliophile has decided that for the month of November she will be reviewing Russian books, so in a show of solidarity we decided to watch a Russian movie today. We have relatively few Russian films to choose from and this is a movie I’ve been looking forward to re-watching and reviewing for the blog for a while.

Before we put this in Amanda commented that she was surprised that it was not really that long of a movie. She’s right – it comes in at under two hours. Which is odd because in my memory it was at least four hours long. I think that must be because it is so dense. There’s a lot of world-building going on there – a whole mythos that needs to be established with its own rules and prophesies. I’m not altogether sure that it works for me, even on the second viewing, but that could be the result of the translation or some cultural divide as much as anything else.

There are some deep themes being explored here. Ideas about what is good and what is evil and what is the nature of choice. Do we chose our own destinies or are they chosen for us even when we are supposedly free? These are questions I enjoy being asked, but although they are central to the plot of this movie I feel as though they are somewhat glossed over. This movie is a jet-powered steamroller that rumbles inevitably over everything in its path, and by the end I’m feeling flattened and drained.

The background for the movie is established Lord of the Rings style with an epic battle between forces of good and evil sometime in the dark ages. Only in this movie neither side is victorious – instead there is a perfect stalemate and so the two sides establish an uneasy Truce that has lasted up to the present day. For the most part the action of this movie follows a hapless average Joe named Anton Gorodetsky. As the movie starts we are in a flash back to twelve years ago. Anton visits a woman in an attempt to win back his wife, who has left him. This woman, a witch, tells him that he can bring back his wife, but to do so he must consent in the casting of a spell to kill the unborn child that his wife is bearing. He consents to the spell, but has second thoughts, at which point all hell breaks loose. A trio of mysterious people appear out of thin air and restrain the witch, arresting her for attempting black magic in violation of the Truce. She accuses them of entrapment in their use of Anton to draw her out. And all of them are surprised that Anton himself can see them – an indication that he is not really Human, but is Other – like they are. He is a seer – with the ability to see the future in some way. This means that Anton must choose a side – he must freely choose if he is to be a part of the Night Watch or the Day Watch. The Night Watch monitor the activities of the forces of darkness, just as the Day Watch keep an eye on the forces of light.

Flash forward to present day Moscow. Anton has chosen to join the Night Watch, so he’s sent by his superiors to find a boy who is being summoned by a vampire. The vampire girl is using the Call and Anton should be able to tune in on that call and hopefully catch her before she feeds. The problem is that Anton is clearly unsuited to this work from the very beginning. He’s a bleary-eyed blunderer drunk on pig’s blood who can barely stand, much less act any kind of hero. The way that the movie is put together does a wonderful job of making you feel Anton’s disorientation. We are thrown into this situation along with him and I get the sense that were are meant to understand that his transition into a larger and darker world has not been a smooth one.

As he tracks the boy who’s being Called he encounters a mysterious woman caught ins a metaphysical vortex. It transpires that this vortex is more than just an incorporeal phenomenon – this woman is some kind of indicator of the start of an apocalypse. She is an innocent under a curse that presages the coming of the Great Other and the end of the Truce that has bound all supernatural beings for centuries.

Although this movie borrows a whole lot from other vampire films and such it really is building a whole new universe here. There are witches and vampires and seers and shape-shifters and all kinds of strange people among the Others. It’s a grimy, sad kind of underground existence for both sides of the truce. The Night Watch are operated using a power company for a front, tooling around in souped up company trucks. The Day Watch rule from the streets, from the alley ways and from the shadows. There are some fun tweaks on the vampire standards (such as a great action scene where Anton is doing battle with a vampire who is in the Gloom, and therefor invisible and can ONLY be seen in mirrors.) The Gloom is a great concept too – it’s a sort of dark dimension that the Others can go into that allows them to travel invisibly or through looking glasses. It’s a dangerous place to venture into and can destroy somebody who is ill prepared or untrained.

Where the movie begins to lose me though is in its depiction of good and evil. I think it’s intentionally ambiguous on this point. Part of the whole point of the movie (and what I’m imagining would really resonate in the Russian psyche) is that the forces of light are bureaucratic, unforgiving and officious. Yes, the forces of dark are constantly trying to break the rules, which means killing innocents and such, but it’s pretty much stated that it’s only really evil because the Night Watch have decreed it to be so. The vampires blame their sins on the oppressive regime of the Night Watch. This is kind of where I lose track of things. I can sympathise with a downtrodden group kept in check by an iron-fisted regime but at the same time the vampires that Anton does battle with are pretty clearly not nice people. He has some neighbours who are basically good folk – law abiding vampires who obey the truce and are his friends, and they’re the most sympathetic people in the movie.

I suppose that it’s kind of part of the morally ambiguous nature of the movie that nobody is really right or wrong. I can go with that. But if that’s the kind of world you’re trying to depict then perhaps you shouldn’t use terms like Good and Evil. In my mind absolutes like that don’t really apply. Are the forces of light meant to be corrupt and evil? Are the some of the forces of darkness basically good people? I think that’s what is supposed to be going on here but it’s all very muddy and confusing. As I said, it could be to do with the translation.

The visual presentation of the movie is bewildering as well, but in a good way. Director Timur Bekmambetov has a flare for edgy effects laden action and this was the film that really brought him onto the international stage. There are recurring motifs throughout the movie (the branching of blood vessels for example are echoed in the tines of lightning.) There’s a lengthy special effects shot depicting the travels of a screw torn loose from a disabled passenger jet that reminded me very much of City of Lost Children. The disorienting feel of the Gloom is marvelously captured through a variety of digital effects and camera trickery. I would hazard a guess that this movie is one of those crazy accomplishments where there is not a single shot in the whole production that doesn’t have some form of visual effect or other. No wonder this movie was hailed as Russia’s response to The Matrix.

I also appreciate the effort taken to make this adaptation special for non-Russian audiences. This movie does something with the subtitles which I have never seen before. They are integrated right into the film. The voice of the Call is blood red and dissolves into the screen like blood in water. The text on the screen often wipes behind characters in the foreground or fades at different rates so that key words linger just a little longer. It drops down off the bottom of the screen as the camera pans up. It’s as though an effort has been made to make the subtitles almost part of the movie. I’m used to subtitles being a passive thing added in post, more an obstruction than anything else, so it took some time for me to get used to this new concept. In the end however I felt like it added to the whole viewing experience.

Watching this again tonight I am tempted to try reading the book (though if the movie is dense and confusing I’m sure the book is even more so.) I’m also really looking forward now to re-visiting this world and trying to understand it better when we review Day Watch on Wednesday.

November 1, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment