Aleksey Nikolayevich Tolstoy was Russia’s less internationally known Tolstoy. While the one was writing thousand-page tomes about sad people losing things (pretty sure that’s the plot of most Leo Tolstoy books) that would be forced upon generation after generation, the other Tolstoy was writing slick science fiction adventures like Aelita (1923, adapted into a movie a year later), Engineer Garin (1924), and Count Cagliostro, which American high school students did not get to read, since there was no time left after plodding through Anna Karenina — in which absolutely no one travels to Mars, builds a death ray, or practices alchemy. To be fair to Leo Tolstoy though, it’s been twenty-six years since I read Anna Karenina, and all I really remember is a chapter where two rivals for the love of the title character retire to a nearby barn to try and outdo one another in feats of gymnastic prowess, and I may even be getting that wrong. In fact, I think much of what I remember of Anna Karenina is actually Great Expectations. I am, however, quite certain there was no death ray.
I have a new Frolic Afield up on The Cultural Gutter: The Gentleman Adventurer takes a look at the BBC series Adam Adamant Lives! A swashbuckling Edwardian gentleman, quick with his cane-sword or a witty retort, is frozen in time and revived in swingin’ sixties London, where accompanied by his go-go girl sidekick, he immediately resumes his life of adventure and crime-fighting. Yes, they truly did pull an entire plot right out of my mental wish list.
It’s been said that in an effort to appeal to as massive a population as possible, the average Hindi film tries to cram every film genre into a single movie. Asambhav is the rare entry that maintains a relatively narrow thematic focus — this is an action film, stripped of the romantic comedy and estranged mother that appear in almost every other film, be they action or horror or whatever — but it makes up for its lack of schizophrenic genre-hopping by trying to cram every single editing and camera trick from the last fifteen years into one film, and often into one scene, and occasionally into a single shot. The result is a dizzying nightmare of over-direction that turns an otherwise average action film into a complete wreck that could almost amuse you if it wasn’t so busy inducing seizures.
There are a lot of directors who work with that special someone of an actor forging a partnership that becomes legendary within the cinematic world. Martin Scorsese had Robert DeNiro. ohn Ford had John Wayne. And German director Werner Herzog had Klaus Kinski. If you know anything about Klaus Kinski, this may seem a bit of a raw deal for Herzog. After all, as far as anyone knows, John Wayne never tried to knife Jon Ford to death on the set of a movie, and Robert DeNiro never insisted to Marty that he was the reincarnation of Jesus or the famed violin virtuoso Paganini. On the other hand, it’s equally unlikely that Scorsese has ever returned a knife fight with his own conspiracies to murder his favorite leading man. Although one has to question the authenticity of some of the wilder tales about the working relationship between Herzog and Kinski, there’s no doubt that some of it was indeed true and they had the sort of relationship that could be described, if one wanted to be tactful about it, as “dynamic.” The defining factor in the relationship between Herzog and Kinski was that Kinski was, to use a scientific term, bat-shit crazy while Herzog, in turn, was crazy as a shithouse bat. Yet somehow, you throw the two together, and the result was sheer brilliance etched from utter lunacy.
My introduction to modern Korean cinema was a crash course facilitated by a company whose name escapes me at the moment, but it was a Netflix style rental-by-mail service (with blue envelopes) that concentrated on foreign and non-Region 1 DVD releases. Within the span of a couple of weeks, I rented and burned through probably half a dozen Korean films, including Shiri, Nowhere to Hide, something with a lot of electric guitars and flying swordsmen, and Arahan. I didn’t know much about any of the films and was picking them largely on “that title/cover/plot synopsis sounds OK” with occasional input from some fo the few English-language websites that wrote about Korean cinema. Each of them proved to be very impressive in their own way, and while Shiri emerged as my favorite and Nowhere to Hide was the most visually striking, Arahan also earned a special place in my heart with its blend of urban setting, martial arts action, fantasy elements, and ridiculous comedy.
The world’s first manned expedition to Mars has vanished, and men in sparsely appointed offices are concerned by swirling newspaper headlines. When the rocket reappears, the world breathes a collective sigh of relief — until it’s discovered that only two of the four members of the crew are alive. On board the returning rocket is unbuttoned shirt aficionado and expedition leader Col. Thomas O’Bannion (a particularly sleazy Gerald Mohr), who has been incapacitated by some horrifying alien growth, and scientist Dr. Iris Ryan (Naura Hayden), known to the crew as Irish and in a state of shock that prevents her from remembering any of the details of the nightmarish fate that befell the crew. A third crew member, Doctor Morbius lookalike Prof. Theodore Gettell (Les Tremayne, War of the Worlds) is aboard the rocket but dead. And requisite blue-collar Joe Brooklyn guy Sam Jacobs (Jack Kruschen) is missing entirely. Making matters worse, all records of what happened to the crew while on Mars have been erased. The only way to save O’Bannion and discern what the heck happened on Mars is to snap poor, semi-catatonic Iris out of her fugue state…
1967 saw the release of You Only Live Twice, a James Bond movie full of ninjas, hollowed-out volcanoes, egg-shaped monorail pods, and Sean Connery as the world’s most convincing Japanese man. The Eurospy trend was still swinging, and even Japan and Hong Kong were getting in on the fun. The result is that, soaked in the psychedelic, pop-art sensibilities of the mid-to-late sixties, the best spy movies ever were being made. Indian cinema, which has always been packed with insane set decoration, candy coloring, and fabulous outfits, would seem tailor-made to pump out more than a few eye-popping entries into the world of psychotronic spyjinks. And they didn’t let us down 1967 also saw the release of Farz, an Indian espionage thriller that did major business at the box office. A year later, and doubtless under the influence of both Farz and You Only Live Twice, writer-director Ramanand Sagar gave us Aankhen, another great Bollywood spy film, but this time with the budget to trot the globe in classic James Bond style. Well, at least in classic Jimmy Bond style.
The final days of the 20th century ushered in many things, and ushered out quite a few as well. After years of dedicated service, the beefed-up action stars of the 80s and 90s were quietly shown the door. This was a horrible turn of events for Olivier Gruner, a man who had made a living throughout the 90s as the direct-to-video version of Jean-Claude Van Damme. Now that Jean-Claude Van Damme was the direct-to-video version of Jean-Claude Van Damme, what was poor Olivier Gruner to do? As for Van Damme, his DTV output would eventually lead the former muscles from Brussels to make JCVD, a self-deprecating (and to a degree, self-flagellating) arthouse hit that afforded Van Damme the chance to skewer and wax poetic about his crumbling career while at the same time actually rebuilding it to some degree. With the exception of Expendables 2, Van Damme wasn’t going to find his way back onto the big screen, but the quality of his direct to video output enjoyed a substantial leap forward in terms of quality.
Studies of Russian cinema tend to be studies of Soviet cinema — classics from the glory days (such as they were) of the communist powerhouse. Russia has moved on, though, both cinematically and culturally (though Vladimir Putin would love if that wan’t the case), and modern Russian cinema is a very different beast than the cinema from which it has grown. And what could be more different from Soviet era cinema than being almost exactly like modern American cinema? Or maybe, if we don’t want to stick with the usual Cold War comparison, let’s say modern South Korean cinema. Oh wait…there’s a Cold War connection there too, isn’t there? Anyway, the point is, modern Russian cinema — at least the big budget version — is highly polished, very slick, slightly soulless, and if you replaced the Russian language with English, you’d be hard-pressed to tell that Apocalypse Code wasn’t a minor Hollywood blockbuster.
Nostalgia. It’s a dangerous thing, especially when applied to something you haven’t encountered for over 30 years. Take, for example, my favourite TV show as a kid; I lived and breathed The Six Million Dollar Man. I had two different Steve Austin action figures (one with a grippy hand, one without), a rocket ship thing that folded out into a bionic surgery table, some sort of evil robot with a claw and interchangeable face masks*, and even a Jamie Sommers action figure (it was not a doll. Shut up. SHUT UP!). I would spend hours during school playtimes attempting to run in slow motion while making the nininininini…. noise. I’m sure I looked like a complete buffoon, but I didn’t care.