Ночной Дозор: Ambivalence

Night Watch leaves me conflicted. It’s a film I very much wanted to like, and found promising at points, but also occasionally exceedingly irksome. At it’s best, it’s like live-action Gaiman, perhaps too much so (down to a character called a “vortex” whom an exceedingly powerful being has the duty but not the inclination to kill). The good parts of this include a world of rich depth with we get a small window on — perhaps too small, as critical plot points like the inimical effects of the Gloom seem to come out of nowhere. From a worldbuilding and atmospheric standpoint I have no real complaint. My main problem is with the plot and the cinematography.

The plot’s OK, in its own way, but there are two problems: major events inadequately fleshed out, and an attempt to be an epic-style story which it is not (at least not as presented). There’s the aforementioned miscomprehension of the Gloom, and provisions of the Treaty brought up as convenient. Zavulon’s dialogue at the end suggests that his plot was designed to exact revenge on Anton, but we never see any reason for Zavulon to particularly want vengeance. All in all, it feels like somewhere the script got cut and the gaps never got filled.

As for cinematography: I guess it’s nice that Russia has the effects wizardry, even in their straitened circumstances, to do neato swooshy things, but their timings a bit off. They move stuff around fast, and there’s an art to doing that. All the sudden quick cuts—and there are a lot—are just a bit too quick. At about 3/4 of the speed they were at, the brain would be able to process what’s being flashed. At the rate it’s presented, it might as well be white noise informationally.

It’s a promising effort from a nation I’m accustomed to thinking of as basically third-world nowadays, but apaprently they have more cinematic development than I’d surmised. I’d like to see more Russian cinema, but I don’t think I was drawn in enough to want to bother with Дневной Дозор.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.

Kill Bill, Volume 1: Fantasia in Blood Major

[Screenshot]It’s definitely a tour de force, and it’s saying something, but I don’t know what it’s saying, other than that Quentin Tarantino knows far more about cinema tropes than anyone has a right to. But we already knew that.

What struck me about the film is its firm, intentional divorce from reality. It’s an interesting stance on the function of cinema: verisimillitude is usually sought, and cinematic styling generally serves to shape the realistic purpose of the film. Kill Bill is very much not realistic; nor is it surreal, which is the traditional variety of non-realistic film. It is at the point you get when you take cinematic styling and push it past stylistic. It is stylized. Take this into consideration, and you’ve got an awful lot of stuff converging into a story which is more about mood than plot. It’s over-the-top—ridiculously so—and it’s just a riff on genre conventions: the many-on-one fights, the ponderous and posturing dialogue, the absence of obvious rational behavior (there are, AFAICT, two guns in this film, both of which appear in the first 30 minutes. In packing a piece, Copperhead shows a lot more common sense than O-Ren Ishii does; but O-Ren belongs to the east-Asian genre conventions which never, ever gun down an enemy with whom it’d be more fulfilling to have a dramatic swordfight). I like the heavy styling: it works, against all odds, and steers clear of any real cheeseball factor while still projecting the ostentatious-badass factor into a sort of ridicule. It’s intriguing, but I’m still waiting to get to the delicious creamy center of this stylistic chocolate. This film is really fucking violent: decapitations, guttings, scalpings, ocular bleeding, and amputations galore. And that’s just one scene. It’d be a shame not to see all that trauma serving some sort of purpose other than reliving Tarantino’s nostalgia for stylized east Asian action cinema.

Two comments: first, on blood. There is an absurd quantity of blood here. Severed limbs and heads spray forth what are quite literally fountains of blood, pumping plumes to rival the Trevi. I was going to file this under “unreality”, but it occurred to me that I don’t actually have the foggiest damn idea what the blood-spray pattern from an amputation actually looks like. Maybe it’s ordinary everyday cinema (which usually includes a quick violent spatter, or a weak extended spurt) that’s unrealistic on this point, and that bloody stumps really do spray like a firehose. It just looks farcial from a cinematic perspective by now (cf. amputations in Monty Python and the Holy Grail and UHF, neither of which are meant to be taken seriously). Second comment: y’know when the lights go out in the House of Bleu Leaves and Uma’s fighting all the yakuza in silhouette? I know it makes me a terrible person, but I was mentally editing iPod earbuds onto all of them. Please tell me someone’s actually done this digitally.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.

Darkside Blues: Back to awful Japanese stuff

We always hurt the ones we love.

By “we” I mean “I”, and by “the ones I love” I mean “myself” (hey, we’ve all got a little narcissism). Yes, after a brief interlude of one American film having nothing to do with Japan, I’ve plunged headlong back into my world of inexplicable animation. I need to stop watching AZN movies-of-the-week habitually: life is too short to watch crappy anime.

So I guess I’ve let you know right off the tone of the review here. Darkside Blues is, well, kinda unimpressive. Y’know how my reviews of Yu Yu Hakusho and Revolutionary Girl Utena ended up saying something like “this part of the world wasn’t fleshed out, but I suppose they expected me to watch the series”? Darkside Blues was kinda like that, only more so, and without the excuse of a series that I’m supposed to watch. The whole thing seemed kind of thin. Normally I take the world I’m given at face value, but we’re missing critical information. What Persona Century does (they’re some sort of capitalistic monster, sure, but do they produce anything? They apparently have the ability to turn anything into gold, but don’t actually use this technology for anything except torture.), what they use the 90% of the earth they own for, when, where, and why Darkside was banished (I’m willing to accept his peculiar appearance and powers as just “he’s a magical guy”), what Enji’s all about, that sort of thing. It’s exactly the feeling I get from a movie set in a series-established world, except that isn’t the case here.

There are things about this which were… well, if not good, at least acceptable. The art is well-done. The characterization and the tone are, at their best, actually kind of vaguely reminiscent of Cowboy Bebop, which makes it sound like a pale derivative, except this predated CB. The music, on the other hand: let’s just say it’s not up to the Cowboy Bebop standards by a long, long shot. It’s better than Casio noodlings, but just barely.

This one could actually have been pretty good if it’d been fleshed out a bit more. But it’s hard to get into a story when the actual events of the story, and the central players therein, are so ill-defined.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia, Anime News Network, AniDB.

Big Fish: Tall Tales

[Screenshot]Complete irrelevancy: this one’s title always gets my mental soundtrack playing that Moxy Früvous song. You know, the one about Ontario Premier Mike Harris. Moving on, it’s a Tim Burton film, which means it’s something of a flight of fancy. It’s a bit more restrained than he sometimes is, though, and self-consciously fantastic, with the frame story being about the reality or unreality of the events depicted. It occurs to me to compare the narrative device and theme with that of Graham Greene’s splendid Travels With My Aunt. They differ in key details, but share the central theme of a story’s function with respect to the real world, and the central narrative device of plot progression through in-narative stories (not an original concept, as the Canterbury Tales and Thousand-and-One Arabian Nights will attest, among other works). It does lead me to wonder how Burton would handle Greene’s Travels thoguh. Better than the extant film adaptation—he’d understand the plot and characterizations better—but he probably wouldn’t touch it; it’s too mundane.

The film was in all cinematographic respects well-done, and the stories were great, but there was a big hole, for me at least, in the characters. We never, ever really get a feel for Will’s relationship with his father. It’s unusual, since their relationship is really central to the story, that we know little about it. We know Will is honest to a fault and Edward apparently an inveterate liar, but this isn’t a relationship, it’s just a contrast. Edward’s character seems like an inattentive father, and we irst see him stealing his son’s thunder, but none of this really comes up in the relationship between the two. Will’s resentment being solely motivated by his father’s fiction/dissembling seems a bit too focused, in a way. It seems somehow his neuroses should be more complex and abandonment-based than just “I don’t know the real you!”.

It sounds like I’m slagging the story, but, really, I liked it a lot, even if I saw the Twist (as it were) early on. It’s an American fantasy rich in folk archetypes and a sort of 20th-century symbolism. That can get me going even with the surrounding story a bit weak.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.

Lost in Translation: Resident aliens

[Screenshot]Lost in Translation is an interesting flick. I remember it getting rave reviews back when it first came out, but I didn’t get so very fired up— maybe it was just a weak year when it came out. It was pretty good but not fabulous. I didn’t feel much depth from Scarlett Johansson: she’s OK at sulky, but did it so much better in Ghost World. Bill Murray plays the quirky and coyly seductive character he always does. They’re both comfortable in their roles: maybe too comfortable, since the movie’s about deeply uncomfortable people.

What gets me interested is the thematic element. It paints a fairly effective portrait of alienation and takes it to some unusual conclusions. For alienating elements, there’s both the macroscopic environment of the story (there are few places where an American is as out-of-place as Japan), and the microcosm of social-circle alienation (played out in every single group either of the leads end up in). The problem with the thesis though is that alienated people don’t actually connect too well with other alienated people, in my experience. This was given some lip service in that the two pricipals’ paths cross a couple of times before they hit it off, but still, to some extent, their acquaintance seems sort contrived. Their actual relationship works out OK, but the good bit’s the end: they go their own ways, happier but essentially unchanged. Maybe a bit of a downer, but that’s sort of the point, that interpersonal relationships are fleeting and precious. I found the (mercifully downplayed) romantic aspects kind of dismaying, actually, because, yes, it’s about a man meeting a woman but it’s about friendship, not love. For the most part, the actual handling of the relationship was good: it’s the existence of the connection in the first place that struck me as odd.

As a side note: is goodbye ever actually goodbye in the real world nowadays? These days everyone is connected and physical noncolocality doesn’t preclude (Platonic) intimacy. But this film doesn’t explore that, nor should it. It’s about a moment in time and space, not to be repeated as the protagonists’ lives diverge. “They dropped each other infrequent and decreasingly intimate e-mails for a year after that” isn’t really a cinematic ending, is it?

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia

Yu Yu Hakusho: Poltergeist Report: Another missable AZN feature

Anime on AZN is kind of hit-or-miss: so far I’ve seen うる星やつら 2: ビューティフル・ドリーマー (Urusei Yatsura 2), オーディーン 光子帆船スターライト (Odin), 風の名はアムネジア (A Wind Named Amnesia), 火垂るの墓 (Grave of the Fireflies), 老人Z (Roujin Z), 少女革命ウテナアドゥレセンス黙示録 (Revolutionary Girl Utena: The Movie), ヴィーナス戦記 (Venus Wars), and ガルフォース (Gall Force: Eternal Story). One obvious win, one pretty good one marred by a shitty dub, a couple of promising premises with disappointing execution, and an bunch of basically forgettable stories. Poltergeist Report falls into the last category. It’s a bunch of guys fighting demons, losing a lot of battles but winning out in the end (oops spoiler). I’m pretty sure I’ve seen that one before.

A couple of points worthy of note, before I shrug my way out of this review: first, this film is based on an episodic series which I’ve never seen (it’s on TV, but not at an hour when I usually watch TV), so I probably missed out on some of the important characterization (the movie tries to define their characters, but I think it assumes we already know them). Second, if there’s one lesson this film teaches, it’s “never get distracted”. The spirit and underworld agents will be fighting over a mystic site or a power sphere or somesuch, and, as is far too common, someone gets injured, or maybe just knocked over, and the spirit tream (i.e. the good guys), given a perfectly good opening to secure the site or whatever, completely forget the objective and rush to their comrades aid while the demons laugh evilly and make off with their ill-gotten gains. See, guys, if you kept some semblance of focus in the first 69,105 battles, you wouldn’t have to pull out all the stops on the 69,106th.

Anyways, this one gets a resounding “meh”. Urusei Yatsura made me want to know a bit more about what was going on in the UY-world, even with the crappy dub. Yu Yu Hakusho has done little to kindle my interest in continuing to follow the story of the spirit detectives.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia, Anime News Network, AniDB.

Maurice: Three-dollar bill

I’ll get this out of the way right off: The novel Maurice, by E. M. Forster, is not actually very good. It’s better than most fiction, simply because even at his least subtle Forster’s a good writer, but given a choice between it and, say, Howard’s End or A Passage to India or A Room With a View, there’d be no contest, unless it was for a reading course on sexuality in fiction or something.

But, anyways, not talking about the book here, although there’s a lot to be gone on about, such as the class-consciousness Forster displays even under a homoerotic context (which, getting back on track, is well-reflected in the film: the class-driven friction between Maurice and Alec is played out prominently). One modification for the movie I actually violently dislike—and will go on about—is the promotion of Risley from a minor character to a Oscar-Wilde-type martyr. Part of the problem is that Oscar Wilde makes a shitty martyr.

That dreadful silence you hear now is the gay-rights movement ostracizing me.

See, this sort of character wasn’t in the original for a reason. The likelihood of conviction for homosexuality was, for a gentleman like Maurice Hall or Clive Durham, quite remote, and even for a laborer like Alec Scudder, fairly unlikely without a voluntary complainant. “What about Oscar Wilde?” I hear you cry. Well, Oscar Wilde was convicted, certainly, but only after making it absolutely impossible for the Crown to do otherwise. By and large the British government was too happy to ignore homosexuality. There were dangers for gay men in early twentieth century Britain, but they were social rather than criminal (which is not to make light of them: intolerance could lose someone not only their social connections but also their job). These aspects are played up too, but the spectre of criminal prosecution, in my opinion, rather weakens what’s otherwise a pretty strong adaptation of an imperfect source-material.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.