The Cranes are Flying (1957) Veronika (Tatyana Samoylova) is in love with Boris (Aleksey Batalov), but their romance is interrupted when he enlists in the army. After her family’s home is bombed by the Germans, she’s forced to move in with Boris’ family, and she’s subsequently railroaded into a loveless marriage with his ne’er do well cousin, Mark (Aleksandr Shvorin). This moving film, anchored by Samoylova’s powerful, emotionally complex performance, starts on an ebullient note following two young lovers whose lives are forever changed by the crushing reality of World War II. It’s a touching portrait of one woman’s resolve in the face of adversity, leading to a conclusion that’s at once heartbreaking and hopeful. Sergey Urusevskiy’s inventive camerawork/composition almost becomes a character in itself, providing an intimate view of Veronika’s sad life, and providing scope and poignance to the story.
Available on Blu-ray and DVD
Moscow – Cassiopea (1973); and Teenagers in the Universe (1974) These two energetic sci-fi adventure films from director Richard Viktorov are squarely aimed at kids, but they’re fun for all ages. The first part chronicles the exploits of seven elite teenage cosmonauts as they train and embark on a 27-year voyage to explore another star system, while the second part concerns their escapades on the planet Alpha Kassiopea. Due to a happy accident, the crew of the spaceship Zarya fall into a wormhole, reaching their destination in only year (While they remain kids, their counterparts on Earth are in their 40s). When they reach their destination, they encounter a planet dominated by androids who force people to be happy.
It’s an inspired mixture of hard science fiction (discussing the perils of relativistic space travel), with a touch of whimsy (Think the original Star Trek series, mixed with Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. No, really!). If not for the time and origin, both movies could have been an underground hit, with their trippy visuals, surreal touches and absurdist predilections (hopefully some enterprising programmer can see their potential for midnight screenings). There’s nothing else quite like it. With all due respect to Tarkovsky’s somber classic Solaris, look no further for a more enjoyable (and mind-bending) space odyssey.
Rating: ***½. Available on DVD and Kanopy
To the Stars by Hard Ways (aka: Through the Thorns to the Stars, or Per Aspera ad Astra) (1980) This is another fascinating science fiction film from director Richard Viktorov (completed by his son Nikolay Viktorov). The crew of a 23rd century deep space mission encounters a derelict spacecraft full of corpses. They find one survivor, Niyya (Yelena Metyolkina), an artificial person who was part of an unknown experiment. She’s brought back to Earth, where she befriends a young cadet (Vadim Ledogorov) and learns more about Earthly customs. One of the film’s most interesting conceits is that the featured starship crew’s mission is to help out planets in crisis (sort of the antithesis of Dark Star) to reverse their ecological damage, making them habitable once again. They face their biggest challenge with Niyya’s home planet Dessa, controlled by a despotic businessman, who profits off of the misfortunes of his fellow citizens. Yelena Metyolkina is effective in her role as the enigmatic, childlike Niyya, who only wants to find her place in the cosmos. Although the film’s reach often exceeds its grasp, it has its heart in the right place, depicting an epic scope on what was obviously a meager budget.
Rating: ***½. Available on Amazon Prime (for rental) and Kanopy
Hipsters (2008) It’s hard not to be swept away by Valeriy Todorovskiy’s infectious musical set in Moscow, circa 1955, depicting counter-culture at the height of the Cold War, when playing a saxophone, wearing colorful clothes, or having big hair made you instantly suspect. Mels (Anton Shagin), an ardent member of the Youth Communist League, meets Polly (Oksana Akinshina) the girl of his dreams. Unfortunately for Mels, she’s from the wrong side of the tracks, ideologically speaking, hanging out with a bunch of freewheeling hipsters. In an attempt to win her over, repressed Mels transforms himself into what he previously hated – discovering in the process that he enjoys the new version of himself. It soon becomes a battle of wills between Mels’ former, purposely square comrades, and his new, uninhibited crowd. Viewers looking for an historically accurate history lesson from Hipsters, should probably search elsewhere. Todorovskiy simply wants us to have a good time, and delivers on that promise.
Rating: ***½. Available on DVD and Kanopy
The Golden Horns (aka: Baba Yaga) (1973) You might question your sanity while watching this charming fantasy film, aimed at kids (and kids at heart), but you certainly won’t be bored. The title refers to a magical buck with golden antlers, who serves as the protector for the weak and downtrodden. He comes to the aid of a mother, looking for her lost twins (who were turned into deer by a mischievous Baba Yaga, played by Georgiy Millyar, a witch who travels in a shack that walks on chicken feet). Viktor Makarov and Aleksandr Rou’s cinematic fairy tale is packed with colorful characters, surreal images and goofy songs galore. If you’re looking for something on the sillier side, this might scratch that itch.
Rating: ***½. Available on DVD and Amazon Prime (for rental)
The Mermaid: Lake of the Dead (2018) Roma and Marina (Efim Petrunin and Viktoriya Agalakova) are about to get married. During his bachelor party at a lake house, he meets a strange young woman, and becomes entranced by her hypnotic effect. She repeatedly appears, asking him, “Do you love me?” while becoming entrenched in his dreams and creating a waking nightmare. Mermaid takes its cues from J-horror with its premise, an unshakable curse, and not unlike many of its American contemporaries, relies on a few too many jump scares. I wouldn’t quite describe the antagonist as a mermaid (more like a vengeful spirit), although it’s close enough. It might not provide a lot of surprises, but there are worse ways to spend an evening.
Rating: ***. Available on Blu-ray and DVD
Nails (2003) A hitman (Alexander Shevchenko), haunted by his terrible deeds, tries to find a way to purge the images from his head. His solution: self-trepanation with nails and a power drill (It goes without saying this isn’t for the squeamish). The hallucinatory black-and-white imagery changes to color after his (ahem) personal alterations. This ultra-low-budget production from writer/director Andrey Iskanov (who also handled the decent makeup effects) took Eraserhead, Tetsuo the Iron Man and Brain Damage, swirled them together, you might get something approximating this. Even if it’s more than a bit derivative, this bewildering, occasionally exhilarating mix succeeds more than it fails.
Rating: ***. Available on DVD and Amazon Prime (for rental)