Lの本当の秘密/Death Note: L Change the WorLd

[Screenshot]Death Note is a hot property, and mostly deservedly so. What I’ve seen of the anime is clever and thrilling; I’m given to understand the manga is on a par with it. The first two live action movies (as reviewed here and here) were authentically enjoyable and mostly lived up to the promise of the preceding works.

This film, on the other hand, is a stupid pizza topped with extra stupid. It involves a competition among the various principals, all of whom are supposed to be fiendishly clever, as to who can behave in the most incongruously ridiculous way. We can start with the primary macguffin, a virus like Ebola, but far more infectious and more rapidly deadly. Incidentally, two things which keep Ebola from being much more dangerous than it is happen to be… its extreme infectiousness and short incubation time. It’s a horrific disease in a small area, but it tends to burn itself before becoming an epidemic.

The dumb things people do when fighting over this virus and its vaccine are mostly not worth mentioning, but two things stand out: first, a very important person ends up changing hands because, AFAICT, one side simply couldn’t be arsed to wonder where she is. Yes, L is supposed to be a bit spacey, but he’s also supposed to be smart. Second, and more damningly, the conclusion of the movie has ecoterrorists hijacking a plane to the US, with the intent of starting an epidemic there. They manage to accidentally infect themselves with the virus before the plane lifts off the ground.

A word of advice to terrorists: if you are infected with a virus which makes you bleed out your eyes and die in less than an hour, you might want to scratch the plan which involves a transcontinental plane flight. Perhaps, instead of flying to the fourth largest metropolitan area in the world, you will settle for the single largest one, which you’re already in?

Of course, one would think L, hearing of this plan, would breathe a sigh of relief as every single virus-carrier perishes in a plane crash, relieved to have foiled the plan at the price only of a single airliner full of innocents (this would arguably be in character). But instead we get a thoroughly uncharacteristic and risky action sequence which manages to save everybody.

This is, needless to say, a disappointing addition to the franchise. L’s mannerisms can’t carry a film, even in conjunction with Near’s equally odd quirks, and I miss the old days when Death Note-related media was intelligent.

(A note on contrasts: this review’s a lot shorter than the last review, also of a Japanese film but a classic. Writing about good film can be hard, because there’s especially if you don’t want to spoil the plot, one can only indulge in so much admiration. Tearing a bad or mediocre film a new one, OTOH, is always fun.)

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.

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Zorba the Greek

[Screenshot]Zorba the Greek seems like one of those films everyone has a vague idea about but nobody has actually seen. I knew it involved Greece and Anthony Quinn dancing the sirtaki to a well-known tune which has since been reused pretty much any time a film director needed a tune to set an appropriately Greek mood. Based on this very limited information, I kind of expected a story with Those Wacky Greeks teaching us all to love life and whatnot, a preconception the Netflix blurb didn’t disabuse me of.

So, with that background information, you might not be surprised (if you actually know the film) to learn that I found actually watching it to be pretty bleak. While the designated Wacky Greek does have the whole loving-life-in-adversity thing running as a theme, an awful lot of the running time is devoted to the drama of horrible island people doing awful things, and my overarching impression was less “oh, those Greeks, how joyously trangressive they are” than “damn, Greek villagers are assholes”. To its credit, it’s actually a quite well-done film, even if it’s not what I expected at all. Anthony Quinn shows a considerable range within his lunatic characterization, when all is told, and Alan Bates likewise shows a reasonable expressiveness, although his character never quite came to life for me. Most of the other actors are incidental: Kedrova is the only other notable speaking part, and doesn’t display much subtlety, but really it stands pretty much entirely on the strength of the two main characters. Other cinematic aspects I’m vaguer on, since the older a film is, the less I’m able to assess its cinematography. Certainly nothing jumped out as problematic, and the sets were appropriately evocative of the right atmosphere (not wholly surprising, since it was shot on location).

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.

Jolene

[Screenshot]I saw a trailer for this at the front of a completely different movie (I completely forget which one), and it seemed like it might be interesting, so I enqueued.

It’s structurally quite competent, laid out in a series of interlocking vignettes, and there’s some pretty decent acting: Chazz Palminteri particularly does a nuanced job, and the comparatively obscure Jessica Chastain held up the lead role respectably. The other actors do a decent job with what are honestly rather cartoonish characters.

It’s hard to know what to make of the story thematically, though. It’s a downer of a story, and wanders into strange, skeevy areas with regard to gender and agency. In several of the early vignettes it’s hard to tell whether Jolene is an innocent victim of the (mostly male, although women not of Jolene’s generation also get to be malicious on several occasions) predators in her life or whether she consciously embraces her own destruction. I found myself constantly troubled by the lack of agency she exhibited, drifting passively into other people’s circles; the only case where she takes an instigatory role is the episode with Coco. But further into the story her lack of control over her fate seems to become a theme: she actively resists entanglement with Brad, and ends up getting horrifically fucked over anyways.

I’m focusing on themes because they were what stood out the most for me. The story itself kind of wanders and never really picks up speed, and the cinematography doesn’t really make it pop except early on when it embraced a late-60s/early-70s aesthetic. Apropos of that, the chronology of the film’s a bit tricky to get a handle on: we have a number of markers firmly mooring the different segments in different times and places, from the early-70s beginning to the end which signals certain “mid-90s” elements, and I’m not sure how well the timeline actually fits. Really, in spite of its many virtues of design, Jolene is a little bit drab and doesn’t really stick firmly in one’s mind. I’m a bit curious about the source novel now, but this is a film very little of which, I fear, is really going to stay with me (and indeed now, months later, finishing this review, very little seems memorable).

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.

ゲド戦記/Tales from Earthsea

[Screenshot]I’ve been mourning the decreasing involvement of the elder Miyazaki in recent Ghibli productions since, well, at least when I reviewed Ponyo. This work is not actually a Hayao Miyazaki film; it’s made by his son Goro. I tried not to let that color my judgment too much, but the fact of the matter is that this movie doesn’t have a lot to set it above the crowd. On a technical level it’s quite good, particularly in backgrounds. The character-designs seem in some ways cruder than the Ghibli standard: maybe greater stylization and simplicity? They’re still quite good, mind. I listened to the Japanese dub enough to determine that it was passable, and then switched over to English, since Disney’s voicework for Ghibli localizations is usually excellent. They got good people doing good work this time too, but I think maybe someone told Timothy Dalton (who I honestly did not realize had done anything else after his stint as James Bond) “sound as much like Ian McKellan doing Gandalf as you can”.

So technically Earthsea is quite good, but realistically I expect nothing less. What brings me back to Miyazaki’s work is creativity and thematic strength, and on those fronts this story feels a little flat. I’ll admit the only book of the source material I’ve read is A Wizard of Earthsea, and except for a few side references to the larger world this story didn’t particularly resemble anything I read there, although I’m given to understand it bears a closer plot similarity to some of the later books in the series. In one particular, of course, it’s conspicuously different: I’m pretty sure Earthsea’s not supposed to have that many white people (where “that many” in this context happens to be “everybody”).

A lot of what I got from AWOE was about personal responsibility and the limits of personal power. Sparrowhawk fucks up horribly and then cleans up his mess, becoming a stronger person and gaining a greater appreciation for his own limitations in the course of his redemption. Power unchecked is somewhat a theme in this film, but without too much of a connection to personal limitations: there’s a great deal of nattering about The Balance of Nature and suchlike which all ends up mostly irrelevant to the actual confrontation and the villain’s plans. I’m not such a purist as to insist that an adaptation needs to be compatible in themes or plot or even characterization with its parent work, but where it cuts the original work out, it needs to put something else in its place, and even considered as a standalone work Tales is problematic. A lot of plot threads end up dropped abruptly: there’s no reason to suspect, for instance, that the blight on the land is connected to Cob’s machinations.

It’s a very pretty film, but left me with little to hang on to. Ponyo at least had charm, but this felt at least as unfocused and without cute fish. Of course, a girl does fly in it. Evidently producing films about flying girls is a genetically heritable trait.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia, Anime News Network, Nausicaa.net.

Red

[Screenshot]I knew, based on the reports on Warren Ellis’s blog, and by a quick look at the trailer, that this film would not be entirely faithful to the themes of the original comic. But I figured I wanted to see it anyways. If Warren Ellis was OK with it, I figured it wasn’t my place to say otherwise, and the reasons why it couldn’t be faithful were fundamentally sound: the original work was, among other things, far too short to actually make a satisfactory feature-length film.

But I’m afraid “Not entirely faithful” is a bit of an understatement. Taken on its own merits, it’s a fun comic action-caper flick, with wisecracking, quirky, supercompetent secret agents sticking it to the man and executing elaborate, complicated plans; which is one of the most extraordinary subversions of themes in the original work I’ve seen since Mankiewicz’s adaptation of The Quiet American. The comic had a fair amount of exposition and philosophizing about monstrosity and loyalty and responsibility which is notably absent, either in dialogue or plot, from the film. In this movie, Moses and Co. are just Big Damn Heroes, going out and doing what is right, for justice. Which is enjoyable in a brainless kind of way, but it wasn’t really what I expected to see at all.

Cinematically, it’s quite excellent. There was something quite naturalistic about the camera style during non-action sequences: long takes, with smooth and organic-feeling pans and dollies that manage not to seem self-indulgent. The action sequences are, by their very nature, self-indulgent, with a lot of flash and occasional slo-mo and suchlike. It manages to stay mostly on the tasteful side of cheap (unlike, say, Transformers, which was full of wholly unnecessary whoosh and bewildering camera-shake). The actors play the parts they’ve been given well: Malkovitch chews the scenery but believably and Mirrin delivers a delightfully prim ruthlessness so well that they actually upstage Bruce Willis, whose character comes across as pretty colorless and dull by comparison.

On balance, I enjoyed the time I spent watching Red pretty well, although I might feel disappointed if I’d gone to see it in a theater. Mostly my lack of enthusiasm derives from it being pretty far afield of what I expected. A writer with a characteristic style can make a good story, but take away all those signature flourishes and thematic elements and you have, as it were, a tale told by an idiot.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.

巌窟王/Gankutsuou: The Count of Monte Cristo, full series

[Screenshot]A lot of basic information about this series was written up in my review of the first four episodes and then my review of the next four episodes. I’m stepping back from partial-series reviews these days because they leave me with less and less to say by the end. Certainly this series is no exception. The visual style continues to be fantastic and somewhat unnerving: it really is a love-it-or-hate-it effect for the most part. The use of textures is getting steadily less restrained near the end of the series, with more garish and violent combinations of texture and color. That may (or may not) be intentional. I was mildly disappointed by the increasing role of CG effects in the later parts of the series, though: as background decoration they’re brilliant, but as foreground elements they clash badly with the texture-wackiness. Also, the CG gives them an excuse (or perhaps an obligation) to do mecha battles, which I at least could have done without.

The Japanese dub is quite good; the American dub is passable modulo some peculiar design decisions: there is one character who always speaks in French in the original dub, and his dialogue is translated to English the same as everyone else’s in the American dub. While the original decision was a bit peculiar (having exactly one character speak in French, uncommented on by everyone else, in a story set in a futuristic France in which everyone else speaks Japanese is more than a little peculiar).

So, I’ve gone over the technical aspects, but I’m not sure what to say about the plot. It’s deeply divergent from the original story, which is not necessarily a problem: it’s a pastiche built over the characters and motivations of the original work, changing things liberally to fit the story desired (Franz is a much larger character than in the novel; most of the Morrels are absent completely and the few who remain have a considerably diminished role). Peppo, who I adored in the first four episodes, remains lamentably underused, but reamis a ray of sunshine occasionally brought out to play. The final showdown between Morcerf and Dantes felt weak and a bit problematic, but much that led up to it was in fact excellent.

I’d cautiously recommend this one — up to episode 17 it is absolutely fantastic, and from there on it depends a bit much on flashy CGI and lets the plot grind down, but even up to the 22nd episode it remains riveting and interesting. The last two episodes are a bit of a mess, but not in, say, Neon Genesis Evangelion territory. If you liked Dumas’s novel but not so much that you see a disordered recapitulation of its themes and characters as a travesty, then you might well like this series as I did.

However, the easiest test is just to watch the first episode. If the art style puts you off, no amount of intrigue and drama will really counter that. If you find the art fascinating or alluring, it’s probably worth your time at least for the first half.

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

Brighton Rock

[Screenshot]Interesting news: there’s a new adaptation of Brighton Rock coming out this year. I basically had no idea, and watched this 40s classic without any particular intent of being relevant. It’s one of a great many lesser-known Greene adaptations, but arguably in the top tier of those (with, say, The Ministry of Fear, This Gun for Hire, and, if we’re feeling particularly charitable, the unfortunate 1958 version of The Quiet American). Atmospherically, this film definitely works: there is the darkness of noir and the bright cheeriness of the seaside town coexisting in the same film harmoniously, and reflecting the Brighton of a bygone day. Even as an adaptation it’s quite good: Greene was involved in the production, so it’s faithful to his vision and mostly to his words — no Mankiewicz butchery here! Where it falls down, in my estimation, is in casting: this work basically succeeds or fails entirely on the ability of Pinky to convincingly emote his character, and rising star Richard Attenborough, despite his later brilliance, would not quite fit the bill here. He was a mite too old even at the time for the youthful gangster, and his costuming and manner didn’t actually help matters. While the sadistic element came through in full force, it seems vital to the character and themes that Pinky be elementally innocent and derive his cruelty from that well, and Attenborough isn’t even trying to be innocent, just vicious.

That having been said, the supporting actors fit their roles comfortably. Where Attenborough fails, Carol Marsh succeeds, with an innocence that makes you want to slap her silly combined with an unguarded craftiness; likewise Hermione Baddeley comes across nicely as a character with a strong sense of justice but not anyone you’d actually enjoy spending time with.

Oddly, many of the Catholic themes seemed to get lost in the shuffle; both of the Catholic characters are terrified of sex in the original work, and this motivates much of their relationship. But sex is notably absent from the film; yes, it may have been the 40s, but surely there was a way to slip those themes in edgewise, as prominent as they were in the original work. It’s not even particularly clear in this adaptation that Pinky’s Catholic. Rose’s Catholicism comes across loud and clear, and of course they include that fantastic, conflicted line about the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God, but all the same, Catholicism seems to loom much less large than it seems like it ought to, in spite of the extent to which it’s hammered in the last five minutes.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.