Film Review: The Magic Voyage of Sinbad (1953)

Also known as: Sadko (original Russian title)
Release Date: January 5th, 1953 (Soviet Union)
Directed by: Aleksandr Ptushko
Written by: Konstantin Isayev, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov
Music by: Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Vissarion Shebalin
Cast: Sergei Stolyarov, Alla Larionova, Yelena Myshkova

Mosfilm, 85 Minutes

Review:

In researching this, I’ve seen that some people really like it. However, being that I’ve only seen the poorly dubbed American version as it was riffed on Mystery Science Theater 3000, it’s hard for me to see what’s so great about it.

No, not because it is being made fun of but because there isn’t much here that makes it stand out as the pillar of quality. But if I’m being honest and comparing it to other Soviet films of its time, it certainly looks good for what it is and it looks like they spent some money on it.

That doesn’t excuse the fact that it is dreadfully boring with clunky action and more dialogue than I care to sit through.

I guess it’s imaginative but it doesn’t have anything of note going on for it; no sequence that I can point to and say to myself, “Oh, that’s interesting.”

The sets are a mixed bag, the costumes are pretty basic and the technical stuff is fairly shoddy. It’s competently shot but everything is pedestrian looking and straightforward. Other than the period piece sets and costumes the films feels devoid of any real artistic flourish. Well, that big octopus puppet was kind of cool but it didn’t actually do anything except twitch while people danced beneath it.

It’s hard to say much about the acting, as I’ve only seen the shittily dubbed version. At first glance, it doesn’t appear to be great but without actually hearing and seeing the actors deliver their performances without the hindrance of the dub track, I don’t want to pass judgment.

While this didn’t satisfy any part of me, I can’t necessarily call it a bad movie. It’s just kind of meh. But I hate “meh”. I’d rather it be awful than meh.

Rating: 5/10
Pairs well with: other foreign fantasy films with bad dubbing that made their way onto MST3K.

Film Review: The Day the Earth Froze (1959)

Also known as: Sampo (original title)
Release Date: August 24th, 1959 (Soviet Union)
Directed by: Aleksandr Ptushko, Risto Orko
Written by: Väinö Kaukonen, Viktor Vitkovich, Grigori Yagdfeld
Music by: Igor Morozov
Cast: Urho Somersalmi, Ivan Voronov, Anna Orochko, Andris Ošiņš, Eve Kivi

Suomi-Filmi, Mosfilm, 91 Minutes (original cut), 67 Minutes (US version)

Review:

“[Ilmarinen hammers a viking ship out of molten iron, greatly distressing Louhi’s trolls] What is to become of us?” – Troll

Cold War fears were real. I think that a lot of them were compounded by the terror and weight brought on by this motion picture, which is the Soviet Union’s worst and most widespread form of torture.

While this made it to America and eventually found itself as a victim to the riffing greatness of Joel and the ‘Bots on Mystery Science Theater 3000, it was still a boring, dreadful dud.

Although, that episode became one of the more memorable ones from its season, as it gave us the whole “sampo” gag. I still don’t know what the hell sampo is, by the way.

This is a Soviet fantasy film and the Soviet’s have actually done some good ones. But this is a film I’ve seen a few times now and my brain just can’t stay awake enough to try and follow the plot. I think the real reason is because there isn’t much of a plot. There’s just this witch that steals your loved ones and demands “sampo” for their safe return.

This is an ugly film to look at whether you watch the black and white or colorized version. That could be due to this being a 1950s Soviet film and because of that there aren’t any good prints of the picture left… or any that don’t look like relics that have been pissed on by vodka chugging Bolsheviks.

Unless you are an MST3K completist, you should give this film a hard pass.

Rating: 1.5/10
Pairs well with: other Soviet tortures of the Cold War era.

Film Review: Humanoid Woman (1981)

Also known as: Cherez ternii k zvyozdam (original title), Per Aspera Ad Astra (Soviet title), To the Stars by Hard Ways (Australia), Angels of Space (worldwide English title), Niyya: Artificial Person (alternate worldwide English title), Through the Thorns to the Stars (newest worldwide English title)
Release Date: April, 1981 (Soviet Union)
Directed by: Richard Viktorov, Nikolai Viktorov (restored version)
Written by: Richard Viktorov, Kir Bulychov
Music by: Alexey Rybnikov, Sergei Skripka
Cast: Yelena Metyolkina, Vadim Ledogorov, Uldis Lieldidz

Gorky Film Studio, Goskino (restored version), M-Film (restored version), 148 Minutes (original version), 123 Minutes (restored version), 118 Minutes 

Review:

Humanoid Woman is a Soviet sci-fi film from the early ’80s. Some people seem to like it but the version that exists, at least the version I’ve seen, is excruciating to get through. This certainly isn’t the near masterpiece that the Soviet’s showed they were capable of with 1972’s Solaris. But that was also directed by Andrei Tarkovsky, who many will argue is a true auteur. I’ll say he isn’t, as it is hard for me to give that distinction to a director with only seven films under their belt.

My sentiment doesn’t seem to be just my own, as this film was featured in the first season of Mystery Science Theater 3000 back when it was still on local Minnesota television. Granted, Joel and the ‘Bots never brought this picture to the nationally syndicated show. Maybe it was just too hard to get through the first time.

The film is about an alien woman that is brought to Earth. She has memory loss and doesn’t remember anything before being found on her derelict alien ship. The mission leader brings her to Earth to study her and to try and uncover what’s buried in her mind. A bunch of really boring stuff happens and it is hard to make sense out of a lot of the film. This could be due to the condensed version of this that I saw, however. But to be honest, I doubt that a fully restored version would be enjoyable and would probably just drag out this awful picture much longer than it needs to be.

I could knock the special effects but the truth is, they’re not the fault of the filmmakers. The people behind this did the best they could with what they had available to them. Filmmaking in the Soviet Union was very difficult because they didn’t have the resources Hollywood did and since they weren’t too keen on letting American culture infiltrate their borders during the Cold War, there wasn’t much to try and live up to.

Humanoid Woman is easily one of the worst things I have watched so far this year.

It certainly deserves to be run through the Cinespiria Shitometer. The results read, “Type 7 Stool: Watery, no solid pieces. Entirely Liquid.”

Rating: 2/10
Pairs well with: A meat clever to the head. But don’t do that. Seriously, it’ll hurt and maybe kill you.

Film Review: The Sword and the Dragon (1956)

Also known as: Ilya Muromets (Soviet Union), The Epic Hero and the Beast (UK)
Release Date: September 16th, 1956 (Soviet Union)
Directed by: Aleksandr Ptushko
Written by: Mikhail Kochnev
Based on:  the byliny tales of the bogatyr Ilya Muromets
Music by: Igor Morozov
Cast: Boris Andreyev, Shukur Burkhanov, Andrei Abrikosov, Natalya Medvedeva, Yelena Myshkova

Mosfilm, 87 Minutes

Review:

“Ooh a real sepia tone has come over the crowd.” – Tom Servo, Mystery Science Theater 3000

The Sword and the Dragon is a film I probably wouldn’t have known about if it wasn’t featured on an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000.

This is a Soviet fantasy film and for coming out of a communist country in the mid-1950s, the special effects are surprisingly good.

This isn’t a good movie per se but it does have an interesting visual and aesthetic flair. Some of the puppets used are ahead of their time and go to show that the people behind the film were able to accomplish a lot with what they had to work with. If anything, this film is a technical marvel.

Additionally, the style and art direction are fantastic, showcasing a lot of creativity.

The film is based off of a byliny tale, or poem, about the famous folklore character Ilya Muromets who likes to ride around and go on adventures, fighting mythological beasts. I’m not hugely familiar with the character, so I can’t say whether or not this is an accurate version of him. However, it is still fun and mostly engaging even if the story is a bit messy and disjointed.

The film is bizarre and surreal but anything featuring puppet squirrels beating on mushrooms like bongos is going to fit that bill. While it is far from perfection, The Sword and the Dragon has a charm and an awesomeness to it.

Rating: 6/10

Film Review: Solaris (1972) & Solaris (2002)

*written in 2014 when I did these as a double feature.

I spend every November coming down from my month long horror marathon that is October. How do I come down? By having a month long science fiction marathon.

With that, I wanted to rewatch the original Russian Solaris from 1972. I figured that I’d also watch the 2002 American version, as I had never seen it and am a pretty big fan of the original.

So let me get right into each film.

Solaris (1972):

Release Date: May 13th, 1972 (Cannes)
Directed by: Andrei Tarkovsky
Written by: Fridrikh Gorenshtein, Andrei Tarkovsky
Based on: Solaris by Stanislaw Lem
Music by: Eduard Artemyev
Cast: Donatas Banionis, Natalya Bondarchuk, Jüri Järvet, Vladislav Dvorzhetsky, Nikolai Grinko, Anatoly Solonitsyn

Creative Unit of Writers & Cinema Workers, Mosfilm, Unit Four, 166 Minutes

Review:

“You love that which you can lose, yourself, a woman, a country.” – Kris Kelvin

Solaris follows a man who goes to investigate strange happenings at a space station orbiting the planet Solaris. People have claimed to have been seeing weird things. The main character, Kris Kelvin (played by one-time actor V. Statsinskiy) arrives at the station and pretty quickly starts experiencing strange phenomena. Mainly, his wife, who committed suicide years earlier, appears on the ship with no recollection of what happened to her. More weirdness ensues and I can’t say anything else without spoiling too much of the plot.

This version of the film generally follows the novel it was based on but takes some of liberties and comes off as more of a Russian art house film in a science fiction setting than a straight adaptation. The result of that is that this is one of the greatest Russian films of all-time. In fact, it is the best Russian sci-fi film I have ever seen.

It isn’t as epic and grandiose as Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, which obviously influenced this picture in style, but for its limited budget and coming from a communist country at the height of its power, it is more than interesting and pretty damned impressive.

The acting isn’t what I would call fantastic but it isn’t a distraction. For the time and for employing a one-time actor, there really aren’t any complaints about performance.

This is a beautiful film. It does run a bit slow at times but the story keeps you locked in and the relationship between Kelvin and his resurrected wife gets pretty intense and feels truly authentic.

Rating: 9/10

Solaris (2002):

Release Date: November 29th, 2002
Directed by: Steven Soderbergh
Written by: Steven Soderbergh
Based on: Solaris by Stanislaw Lem
Music by: Cliff Martinez
Cast: George Clooney, Natascha McElhone

Lightstorm Entertainment, 20th Century Fox, 98 Minutes

Review:

“Can you tell me what’s happening here?” – Chris Kelvin

Directed by Steven Soderbergh, a director I am not a big fan of, this version of Solaris is quite different.

This film doesn’t attempt to remake the Russian classic. Instead, it tries to make a more faithful adaptation of the book. I can only compare this to being like the remake of The Shining, which was made at the insistence of Stephen King, who thought Kubrick’s version strayed too far away from his source material. Point being, just because this is a better adaptation of the source material, it doesn’t make it a better film.

I like George Clooney and here he plays Chris Kelvin. The name’s spelling was changed by Soderbergh because apparently Americans can’t understand the cooler looking Russian spelling of the name. Anyway, Clooney, who is pretty much always a pimp, is an emasculated version of himself in this movie, as he mopes around over his dead wife and never really shows off that famous Clooney chutzpah.

The sets in this film were done in a pretty cookie cutter early 2000s sci-fi style. Everything was sterile and nothing was inspiring. This film was far from the visual masterpiece of its Russian predecessor. In fact, there was nothing about this film that seemed unique or displayed any sort of real creativity in the design process.

This was a piss poor attempt by Soderbergh, I was basically bored shitless and I fought really hard not to hit “STOP” on the BluRay remote.

So the real question is: does this deserve to be put through the Cinespiria Shitometer? Why, yes it does! Let’s see here… the results read, “Type 3 Stool: Like a sausage but with cracks on its surface.”

Rating: 2/10

Film Review: Jack Frost (1964)

Also known as: Морозко (translated Morózko) (Russia),  Frosty (UK), The Crystal Star, Father Frost
Release Date: 1964
Directed by: Aleksandr Rou
Written by: Nikolai Erdman, Mikhail Volpin
Based on: a Russian fairy tale
Music by: Nikolai Budashkin
Cast: Alexander Khvylya, Natalya Sedykh, Eduard Izotov, Inna Churikova, Pavel Pavlenko, Vera Altayskaya, Georgy Millyar

Gorky Film Studios, Embassy Pictures, 84 Minutes

Review:

There was an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000 that always stuck out to me because it featured one of the most bizarre movies I had ever experienced. That episode was in season eight and it featured the Soviet film Jack Frost.

For years, I remembered the film but never knew what it was, as I originally caught it mid-episode and didn’t catch the title. The thing is, by comparison to the cinematic drivel that is usually featured on MST3KJack Frost is not a horrible movie. It also isn’t particularly great but I’ll elaborate.

It is based off of a Russian fairy tale and sees two young people have to go through a few magical trials on their path to love. The film is quite strange, as the boy is turned into a bear by a mushroom pixie and nearly baked in an oven by a witch that controls an army of trees. The girl is treated like Cinderella by her wicked stepmother but doesn’t have to deal with as much weird stuff as her future lover.

The picture is beautifully shot for the time and the place where it was created. 1960s Soviet film didn’t have the refinement or the resources of Hollywood but many films were still inventive and captivating, as is the case with Jack Frost.

Sure, it is hokey and perplexing, at times, but it wasn’t made for American audiences and some of its content and message is lost in translation, due both to bad dubbing that simplifies the original Russian dialogue and our unfamiliarity of Russian folk lore. It is an odd experience for those of us living in the Western Hemisphere but odd doesn’t mean bad. Strange things are often lovely things and Jack Frost is an example of that. Motion pictures are a great way to learn about other cultures, their history and their legends. Jack Frost is a window into that rich world.

It is a fun, lighthearted, fantastical adventure and it is cute and amusing. It is whimsical but that’s the point. It isn’t supposed to be taken seriously, it is a family film with playful situations.

Now Jack Frost isn’t perfect, by any means, but it has become a beloved classic in many European countries. I think a lot of that has to do with the heart in the picture and the fact that even though it didn’t have a lot of resources, it maximized those it did have. It resonates with people and if a film can do that, it is truly successful.

While Mystery Science Theater 3000 riffed the film, they were pretty kind to it in comparison to the awful schlock they usually put on display. It fit well with the show because of how strange it is. Visually, it is incredibly unique to American audiences and the producers at MST3K had to see that when going through stacks of films to feature in season eight. Its uniqueness is what drew me to it and I couldn’t shake its effect until I found the film once again, years later, and experienced it once more.