A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

TrollHunter

December 3, 2011

TrollHunter

We decided a couple weeks ago to watch this movie tonight specifically. Today Amanda and I attended the annual Yuletide Festival presented by the Boston branch of the Swedish Women’s Educational Association. It’s a traditional family outing with her parents and some of our closest friends that we look forward to each year, and it marks the start of the Christmas season for us. It also puts us in a Scandinavian mood, what with all the Swedish culture and traditions. We get meatballs with lingenberries. I have Glögg and Julmust. This year Amanda’s mother bought a big book full of gorgeous pictures of the Swedish countryside. This year we get to follow that up with a movie with a uniquely Scandinavian flare – this strange faux documentary about Norway’s only licensed troll hunter.

In many ways this movie is clearly inspired by The Blair Witch Project in that it is presented as found footage of an ill fated expedition, but this movie has a great tongue in cheek humor to it that makes it a different sort of beast. It follows a trio of college students who are trying to get an interview with a mysterious man who they suspect is a notorious bear poacher. It is explained through news on the radio and interviews with local authorised bear hunters that although there have been killings and mauling of farm animals attributed to bears in the wilds of Norway only these few professionals licensed by the government are allowed to actually kill bears, and the hunters are upset because lately they suspect this individual in a beat up white range rover of killing bears without a license.

The three youths – journalism students and film makers from a local college – track down the poacher at a RV camp where his trailer is abandoned each night as he drives off to do whatever is that he does each night. He doesn’t want anything to do with the kids, but they doggedly follow him into the woods one night where they are attacked by some creature in the darkness that bites one of the trio, at which point the grizzled poacher reluctantly agrees to let them tag along with him and explains just what exactly it is that he does. He hunts trolls.

At first of course the students are skeptical, but very soon they have an encounter with their first giant nocturnal monster and they come to realize that everything the hunter, Hans, has told them is true. He warns them that trolls can smell the blood of a christian, so none of them had best believe in God or Jesus. He gives them troll musk to coat themselves in so as not to frighten their quarry. Trolls can be killed, it turns out, by using UV light because they either ossify, turning to stone, in sunlight or explode. The reason that nobody knows any of this, aside from what they’ve heard in fairy tales as children, is that the Norwegian government covers up all information about trolls. Hans is dogged by an official stuffed shirt who makes sure that nobody ever discovers what it is that he does for a living, planting dead bears at the scenes of troll-related carnage and creating flimsy cover stories. Hans is fed up with the ignominy of his job, the awful hours and the lack of recognition, so he has decided that he might as well let these students collect their footage and make their film to let the world know the truth.

It’s when the trolls start to actually show up that the movie really starts to be fun. It’s not just that the special effects are cool and the design for the trolls themselves are a great combination of big-nosed classic illustrations and gritty realism (though they are.) What really makes this movie special I think is the sense of Norwegian civic pride to it. When the students have their first big encounter with a troll they’re not just terrified and exhilarated by the danger and thrill of their adventure – they’re exuberant to discover that trolls really are real – all their childhood stories had a basis in truth!

There’s a sense that the trolls are not just dangerous wild predators that eat anything they can get their hands on (though they are partial to rocks apparently) but that they are also precious national treasures. They’re mysterious and majestic in their own odd way. Over the course of the movie we get to see a number of different types of troll, and we learn all about them. They can grow to be as much as 1200 years old. They come in all shapes and sizes. Some travel in packs, some wander alone. There are rivalries between the woodland trolls and the mountain ones.

I understand that there is an American re-make of this movie in production now. I have to admit that I don’t think that there’s any way a re-make can capture what it is about this movie that makes it work as well as it does. This movie thrives on the gorgeous Norwegian landscapes, the lore and traditions, the sense that trolls are part of Norwegian culture and national pride. I can’t imagine that the movie would work at all in any other country, much less without the original Norwegian and subtitles. I’m so glad we have this version and that we watched it tonight. Happy yule everyone!

December 3, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | 1 Comment

Movie 586 – The Rules of the Game (1939)

The Rules of the Game – October 7th, 2011

Going into this tonight I admit, I was a little nervous. I’d last seen it in high school for a class and I vividly recall being incredibly taken with it. The problem was I couldn’t for the life of me remember just what about it had interested me. I had vague memories of some of the scenes and I knew most of it took place in a huge hunting lodge in the French countryside. I knew there was a theme of infidelity and that someone died. I knew it was in black and white. I had a mental image of a particular shot of one of the characters. And that was it. That’s all I could remember. So I was nervous that I would watch it for a second time, fifteen years later, and be appalled at my own taste.

Fortunately for me, that wasn’t the case. I’m still not entirely sure what specifically caught that much of my interest, but while I wasn’t as swept away by it this time as I was before, I did enjoy it. And watching it with a more critical eye was kind of fun. I don’t always enjoy watching things critically like this. Sometimes I just want to sit back and let the movie play. But this movie all but invites some critical viewing. It wasn’t made to be an escapist fantasy or an action movie or anything like that. It was made as social commentary. The pity of it is that it’s social commentary on a society and time period I’m not terribly familiar with. So I can make some general comments, but the particulars of the mood of the country at the time aren’t my thing. Some of the finer points of the movie are just sailing right over my head and the best I can say is that I’m aware of it.

For anyone completely unfamiliar with this movie, it’s a French film from the late 1930s, pre-World War II. The story revolves around a number of relationships between various people. There are married couples and affairs and there’s flirting and arguing. Christine and Robert are a married couple living a life of luxury in Paris. Robert has a mistress (Genevieve) but whether or not Christine is seeing someone else is rather a mystery at first. A famous aviator, Andre, opens the movie by very publicly declaring that the woman he loves has disappointed him and as Christine has been rather close with him, well. Assumptions are made. Andre and Christine’s mutual friend, Octave, shows up and eventually everyone (yes, everyone, including Christine’s niece, who falls for Andre) is headed off to the countryside to Christine and Robert’s chateau.

I remember thinking at the time that I first watched this that there was something very Shakespearean about it all. The big house in the country and the huge group of people of various social roles and strata and the interplay between them all just seemed like it belonged on stage. Of course, at the time that I first saw this I’d been taking a course in Shakespeare for most of the school year, so I was primed to see everything in relation to it. Regardless, it did strike me again watching it now. I’m sure this sort of thing is older than Shakespeare and he wasn’t the only one doing it, but still. The setting feels like a cross between Much Ado About Nothing and Twelfth Night but not played so much for obvious laughs. Then too, while I was told by a college professor that the theory of simultaneous plots for upper and lower class audiences in Shakespearean plays is total bullshit (he was less coarse than that, but his meaning was quite clear), I still maintain that regardless of the intended audiences, plays like Twelfth Night did indeed often have multiple groups of characters playing out their own stories at the same time. And that happens here too. While Christine and Robert and Genevieve and Andre Christine’s niece, Jackie and Octave all dance around each other, Christine’s maid is at the peak of an entirely separate triangle.

Lisette, the maid, is married to the game warden at the chateau. It suits her just fine to live in the city with Christine and Robert where she can carry on her own affairs without worrying about her husband’s reaction. She’s very clear about that when Christine asks her about it. Meanwhile, Genevieve tells Robert that he should just tell Christine about the two of them. When Robert declines, saying Christine wouldn’t understand, Genevieve complains that if Robert had married Parisian woman it would be different. Expected. Christine, on the other hand, is Viennese, and it is assumed that she has entirely different standards. The same could be said of Lisette and her husband. She is a Parisian woman married to a man who’s not from Paris and who therefore has different expectations. And when they’re all put back together in a confined space and forced to be a little more honest about their actions than they were prepared to be, well. That’s where the conflict in the movie comes from.

One of the things I find so interesting about this movie is that gender isn’t really as much of a consideration as one might expect from a movie made in the 1930s. Yes, the men do talk about their rights towards women and how they really should just be allowed to have all the women they want. But on the other side of it, the women are just as interested in having as many men as they want. Neither group comes out looking any more virtuous than the other and neither really comes out looking any worse. The only people who aren’t sleeping around as of the beginning are Christine and Schumacher (the game warden) and Schumacher’s the only one who doesn’t want to sleep around and he ends up shooting up the place. It’s an equal opportunity tangle.

It’s a beautifully made movie with an excellent cast and I did enjoy watching it for a second time. I’m so relieved that it didn’t disappoint me somehow. I do idly wish that I knew more about the time period and society on display because it’s clear that the movie is making points about it all and I’m missing them. But even without the specifics of the social commentary going on, it’s still an interesting and enjoyable movie.

October 7, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Gojira

September 10, 2011

Gojira

I have a long history with the Godzilla films. I’ve been a fan since I first saw the big rubber galoot during the Channel 56 Creature Double Feature. The movies had everything a thirteen year old boy could want in a movie. Aliens. Robots. Giant rubber monsters. Hilarious dubbing. I always wanted, however, to see the movies in a more pure form, un-dubbed and un-cut. I figured when DVD came around that Toho would eventually come out with special editions of the movies with sub-titles for American audiences so we could see the films the way they were meant to be seen. Since the movies are generally considered light-weight pop sci-fi this hasn’t really come to pass unfortunately, but this, the first Godzilla movie is an exception.

This film is not a popcorn sci-fi film for kids – it’s a serious disaster movie and obvious allegory about the dangers of nuclear proliferation. In addition, as the progenitor of the entire Godzilla line, and indeed the beginning of the Japanese giant rubber monster genre, this film has special historical significance. So it was that for the fiftieth anniversary Toho released this deluxe edition DVD set that includes the original Japanese Gojira movie. At last I got to see at least one of the Godzilla movies in its original form.

It’s a good thing, too, because if ever there was a movie that needed to be seen in Japanese with English subtitles to be properly appreciated it is this one. This movie is so quintessentially Japanese. Before the infamous monster ever appears on the screen we spend an awful lot of time being introduced to the little fishing village where he starts his reign of terror. As with many a monstery disaster movie the film starts out as more of a mystery. What has caused a small fleet of fishing boats and the boats sent to rescue them to disappear? There are only a couple survivors and they say that it was a monster that destroyed their boats. A supremely grizzled old man declares that it must be the same monster that used to terrorise the village known as Gojira.

At the heart of this movie are four human characters. There’s the scientifically minded paleontologist Dr Yamane who is the first to piece together just what the monster is. There’s his lovely daughter Emiko. There’s her fiance Ogata, and her childhood friend the one-eyed mad scientist Serizawa. Then of course there’s the two million year old living fossil with radioactive breath from hydrogen bomb tests – Godzilla himself.

Dr. Yamane doesn’t actually want the beast destroyed. He’d rather study the monster to understand it and how its species remained alive on the ocean bottom long after such dinosaurs were thought extinct. This causes some friction with Ogata, who takes a while to gather the nerve to ask the doctor if he can have his daughter’s hand in marriage, but insists that Godzilla is a threat that must be eliminated at all costs. Serizawa, meanwhile, has developed an ultimate weapon called an Oxygen Destructor that could probably destroy the monster, but he doesn’t want it to fall into the hands of politicians who could corrupt it and start a new arms race. He tells only Emiko of his discovery and swears her to secrecy.

A couple things struck me as I watched this again tonight. The first was just how bleak parts of this movie are. After Gojira’s attack on Tokyo there are several scenes in infirmaries and hospitals that drive home that this attack has not just destroyed a bunch of detailed models and set fire to sets – it has had a brutal impact on the people of Japan. There are irradiated children. There is a dead woman and her inconsolable daughter. There are hundreds of bodies on stretchers. It is a powerful scene of emotional devastation which must have been even more intense when the film first came out, less than ten years after Japan became the only nation on the planet ever to be attacked with nuclear weapons.

The other thing that struck me this time was the caliber of the talent brought on board for this movie. Of course the monster itself and the destruction it wreaks are fantastic to watch. The special effects work as well today as they ever did. I also love the actors they have on board. In particular I was amused when I thought I recognised the actor playing Dr. Yamane and checked IMDB to find that he is the ubiquitous Takashi Shimura (who we will also be seeing in The Seven Samurai when we review that for our collection.) Glancing at his resume leads me to believe that he probably starred in every Japanese movie made in the twentieth century. Or close to it.

I still heartily wish that there were a comprehensive Godzilla special edition collection that gave the same kind of attention to even the cheesiest and stupidest of Godzilla movies as is lovingly provided to the original on this DVD, but at least for now I can take comfort in the fact that we have this one movie in our collection. I’ve proposed the idea to Amanda that we should watch the dubbed American version tomorrow as a separate film, since so much was altered to make it more palatable for American audiences. We’ll see how we feel about that tomorrow.

September 10, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Host

September 7, 2011

The Host

Many times in the last year and a half that we’ve been doing this movie-a-day project Amanda has looked at our list of movies to review and asked “What’s The Host?” A couple of times I’ve had to stop and think for a moment. What is The Host? Oh, yeah. It’s that weird Korean monster movie. Now Amanda doesn’t have quite the same fondness for monster movies that I have from my youth, so this hasn’t been high on her list of must-see films. Indeed, as we started watching tonight she wondered aloud just what possessed me to buy this in the first place. The short and easy answer is that I was intrigued by the glowing reviews I read in Entertainment Weekly which hailed this as a new Godzilla. here’s more to it than that though. I’m always on the look out for well regarded foreign films because I like to see viewpoints I’m not familiar with represented in my collection. And let’s face it, I’m a sucker for a cool creepy beast that eats people. This movie delivers well on both those fronts.

This movie is decidedly not American. Indeed the primary villains (aside from the monster I mean) are all Americans. They’re responsible (through their irresponsible pollution) for the creation of the beast. Then they’re the ones who start the entire virus scare that pretty much drives the plot. In point of fact the Americans in this movie are rock stupid and obstinate. Then there’s the strangely comedic elements of the film which seem out of place in a tense horror film. There’s a distinctive sort of tongue in cheek sense of humor that Amanda and I have noticed in all of our Korean action films.

The protagonist of this movie is a bit of a loser. he’s a dim, mouth-breathing, semi narcoleptic screw up named Park Gang-Du. Gang-Du is an embarrassment to his father Hie-bong, who allows him to work in the family refreshment kiosk and to his seventh-grade daughter Hyun-seo. His brother Nam-il is a wastrel and a drunkard. His sister Nam-Joo seems to be the most successful of the whole family as a championship archer, though she has a strange emotional detachment to her.

The other star of the movie is of course the monster itself. It is a kind of giant lumbering fish thing that rises up out of the river near the Park family stand and starts killing people. It moves quite quickly considering its ungainly bulk, dragging itself around on its misshapen fore-limbs and swinging from its prehensile tail. Director Bong Joon-ho does a great job of keeping the creature enigmatic. It’s so malformed and bizarre that even when it has considerable screen time it is difficult to figure out its anatomy. It has a fish like mouth with no teeth but prominant gums like a parrot fish, but with multiple mandible like jaws and fangs surrounding its gullet. It has sort of toe-like protuberances on its flippers and multiple twisted limbs projecting from its sides and back.

When the creature first emerges from the river and starts menacing people it ends its rampage by grabbing Gang-Du’s daughter and carrying her off. At first he and his family think she is dead, and they mourn her rather over dramatically. Then the government starts to quarantine survivors, claiming that the monster is host to a deadly virus. While in quarantine Gang-Du receives a phone call from his daughter who, it turns out, has survived and is being kept by the monster, presumably as a midnight snack. Nobody will listen to or believe his tale though, so he and his misfit family must break out of the hospital to search for her on their own.

This movie has so many familiar elements. The plucky normal people forced to take matters into their own hands when their government lets them down. The strange government cover up and attempts to use the event to dominate people and drop poisonous “agent yellow” on the river banks. The lone survivor of a devastating attack trying to stay alive and escape. All of it has a distinctly foreign air to it though. It just feels slightly off kilter, and I think that’s what I like about it most.

This movie reminds me most of District 9 out of the films in our collection. It has the corrupt powers that be attempting to perform sick experiments on their own people. It has that air of an independent film made with cutting edge special effects which defies Hollywood convention. It’s simultaneously slick and well made and strange and unfamiliar. Some of it is the cultural divide between myself and the probable intended audience, but some of it is that this movie just isn’t trying to be the same as the films I’m used to. It’s a huge blockbuster hit, but it wasn’t made to sell popcorn and carbonated sugar water to bloated Americans. It was made for an altogether different demographic, and that was just the kind of movie I was looking for when I added it to my collection.

September 7, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Pan’s Labyrinth

August 15, 2011

Pan’s Labyrinth

More than a year ago, when Amanda and I first embarked on this movie a day project, we randomly chose a movie from our stacks and that movie was Hellboy 2. (Because we wanted to watch movies in order we instead watched Hellboy first of course.) It was through those two beautiful movies that I first discovered the work of Guillarmo Del Toro, and from the first time I saw Hellboy in the theater I was a dedicated fan of his vision. (I had seen Mimic and Blade II, but I didn’t really begin to pay attention to his name until I saw Hellboy.) This movie is probably the most purely Del Toro one we own – it shows just what kind of film he can create if allowed to do something completely original and completely in his own way. The result is absolutely one of the most beautiful movies we own.

This movie has been pitched as a fairy tale for adults. I have to admit that I’m somewhat resentful that such a film should be so very rare. Yes, it is a beautiful fairy tale with fantasy creatures, a fairy princess who has been re-born as a human, magic and fairy tale tasks. Yes, it also contains scenes of violence, blood, torture and oppression which are wholly inappropriate for children. In my mind however there is no rule which states that a fantasy film has to be appropriate for a young audience. Adults need fantasy too, perhaps even more so than children.

What Del Toro has done here is wrap a young girl’s fantasy adventure up inside a stark tale of war in Spain during World War Two. Young Ofelia has come to the Spanish countryside with her pregnant mother to live with her wicked stepfather. He is a captain in the army tasked with quelling a local communist underground and he is petty, bureaucratic, violent, egotistical and thoroughly evil. Near the mill he is using for a base of operations there is an ancient labyrinth, and one day Ofelia is led by a fairy deep into the maze where she meets a decrepit old faun who greets her as the long lost daughter of the king of the underworld.

The faun tells her that she can re-gain her immortality and join her father in the underworld if she can complete three tasks before the next full moon. These are fairy tale tasks like retrieving a key from the belly of a toad which has polluted the roots of an ancient fig tree or recovering a dagger from the lair of a child-eating pale monster which is simultaneously emaciated and bloated. She also wants to find a way to help her mother, whose pregnancy is not going well and naturally she loathes her wicked step-father.

Meanwhile Captain Vidal has been clamping down on the local populace in an attempt to root out the rebels. There’s a vivid scene where he brutally murders an elderly hunter and his son because he thinks they might be in cahoots. He is becoming paranoid and desperate. Things are made worse by the fact that several of his trusted staff members are working against him, such as the kindly house-keeper who cares for Ofelia while her mother is ill and the local doctor. Vidal is absolutely the worst kind of petty tyrant and his only real concern is that Ofelia’s mother bear him a healthy son to carry on his line. Del Toro has him obsessed with his dead father’s cracked pocket watch and living in the mill surrounded by gears and cogs – he’s very much a man of the mechanical future.

That’s the kind of gorgeous, detailed visual feast that this movie is. Guillermo Del Toro has used the familiar tropes of fairy tales and given them vivid life. It’s like taking a trip into his dreams, or maybe into his nightmares. As with most authentic fairy tales there’s a darkness here. There’s blood and danger, and monsters. You can see Del Toro’s hand in everything here – it’s like his sketchbooks made real and it’s fantastic to behold.

Also fantastic to behold is Doug Jones both as the faun at the heart of the labyrinth and the sinister “pale man.” He’s such an expressive actor, able to communicate so much with an intricate wave of his hands. Even delivering his lines in unfamiliar Spanish he has a fantastic flair, it’s always a delight to see him at work.

After saying all that, however, I have to admit that I am slightly disappointed in this movie. It’s visually stunning, and it does a wonderful job of giving life to fairy tales, but I’m not sure I like the way that the fantasy fits into the real world around it. Only Ofelia ever sees anything fantastic in this movie. Everybody else is trapped in a nightmare world of violence and death. The conclusion of the movie is left very much open for interpretation but I can’t help feeling that the fantasy in the movie is more of an escape for Ofelia and not something that really makes a difference in her life or changes her circumstances. Does she learn anything or gain any strength from her adventures? I like to believe that fantasy and magic are there to improve our lives and act to make us better people, not just to offer a refuge.

That is a small quibble and a mater of interpretation more than anything else, though. This is a powerful, beautiful, magical movie, and an absolute masterpiece. It makes me sad that Guillermo seems to have concentrated more of his energies on producing of late and hasn’t directed a movie since Hellboy II. I love visiting his sad, dark, fantastic worlds and long for another chance to do so.

August 15, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Evangelion: 1.11 You Are (Not) Alone

August 11, 2011

Neon Genesis: 1.11 You Are (Not) Alone

Neon Genesis Evangelion was still relatively new when Amanda and I first watched the series. TLA Video had just about every episode of the series on the shelf (dubbed VHS I believe) when we worked there in the late nineties, and although the series was renowned at the time it was not acclaimed as it is today as one of the greatest and most completely befuddling anime series ever created. Indeed I am pretty sure that we started watching the series before all of it had yet been imported to America, so we had to wait in eager anticipation for the last two tapes to come out here and we got to scratch our heads in wonder when the series reached it’s completely strange climax.

The genius for me of Neon Genesis was that it started out as such a typical anime show. It’s the story of a fourteen year old boy who is forced by circumstance and by his uncaring father to pilot a giant robot to defend the Earth from giant invading aliens. There were little hints, even in the early episodes and in the opening credits, of some of the grander schemes afoot, but for the first few episodes this series was very familiar territory, with a different monster each week to be defeated by Shinji and his Eva unit. Of course there was much more than that. There was the mystery of what the “angel” attackers were, why they were bent on breaking into Nerv headquarters, what was the mysterious event called “second impact” which had so radically changed the Earth around the time Shinji was born, what role did his father play in things, and just what exactly was the giant machine he was piloting. As the series progressed it became clear that the world was much deeper and more complex than it at first appeared, and I loved that slow reveal. (In much the same way that I love the meticulous construction of the world Alan Moore created for Watchmen.)

Although the story told in the original Neon Genesis series has a very definite end this is in many ways the show that will not die. So great had its success become, and so confusing was its end that it continued to spawn new projects years after it was done. There were two movies based on the series – Death and Rebirth and End of Evangelion. Death and Rebirth is a pretty dense thing to get through because it’s a sort of “greatest hits” of the entire series, compressing 22 or so episodes into a single two hour experience. Then there’s End of Evangelion, which I have heard described as an alternative to the last two episodes in the series that presents more action and answers and less metaphysics and philosophy. There was also a “director’s cut” of the series that was released while I was working at Suncoast which is pretty much the whole series re-mastered and with some newer digital effects.

This movie is something completely different. In 2007 a project was begun to re-make Neon Genesis, preserving the character design, characters and overall plot, but doing it with a much bigger budget and with the benefit of hindsight. This re-make is intended to take the form of (I believe) four feature length theatrical films, although to date only two of them have come out. Knowing full well how confusing the end of the series is the makers of this movie have gone to considerable effort to start layering in the overarching plot much earlier. Shinji’s father is seen talking much more with his bosses in Seele – the conspiracy behind the Human Instrumentality Project, and it’s made much more clear that some kind of apocalyptic endgame is being planned by them.

I absolutely loved this film. We watched it in Blu Ray on my new computer’s hi-def widescreen monitor and it looks absolutely spectacular. I love seeing elements of the plot of the series being introduced much earlier in the new version, and I also loved all the familiar faces and scenes from the original. The lavish big-budget treatment and extensive use of computer effects fits very well with the epic story and lager than life creations in the world of Eva. This movie is a treat for the eyes, particularly near the end when things really begin to get blown up.

I will admit that I found some changes from the series jarring. Since this is in movie form the opening credits, which were one of my favorite parts of the series, are gone. Shinji’s first time piloting the Eva unit is significantly different than how I remembered it in the series – in particular I missed the moment when the Eva’t helmet gets damaged and a giant eye emerges, seeming to look right at Shinji in the reflection in a skyscraper. Also, part of the whole point of that first encounter was that the Eva seemed to come to life after all was lost, and when in theory it should be unable to move because its external power supply was disconnected and its charge was run down. I miss details like that. Oh, and I really miss “Fly Me to the Moon” over the closing credits.

I’m very much looking forward now to watching the second movie in the new series. I haven’t bought it yet, but I will be soon. Then it’s going to be a mighty long wait for the other two films. If they even come out.

I kind of hope that the proposed live action film never gets off the ground. Everything I’ve heard about the dreadful live action Akira makes me dread what might be done to this other anime classic.

August 11, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Hard Boiled

August 8, 2011

Hard Boiled

I’ve seen quite a few of John Woo’s movies over the years. Why, I remember going to see his first American film in the theaters. Of course Hard Target, and indeed most of Woo’s other American movies lack the irascible charm and chaos of his earlier work. I do enjoy the intricate artistry of his later movies and seeing what he can do with a big budget, but when I think John Woo I think insane firefights in spectacular Eighties Chinese action movies. When I think John Woo I think The Killer and A Better Tomorrow and Bullet in the Head. I think Hard Boiled.

This was the pinnacle, the last, the greatest of Woo’s Chinese shoot-em-ups. It’s not big on plot, and it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense most of the time, but what it does have is more awesome and insane shootouts than just about any movie ever made.

The movie follows two characters for the most part. Super-cop “Tequila” Yuen is out to stop a triad gun smuggling operation, come hell or high water. It starts with a sting in a tea house that, predictably, goes horribly awry. Not only does Tequila’s partner die in the resulting shoot-out but a key informant is killed as well. (In point of fact Tequila shoots the informant point blank in the face, spraying his blood all over the place. This kind of pisses off his commanding officer, who spends the entire remainder of the film butting heads with out hero and stupidly not telling him about the other lead character.

Tony is introduced as a cold-blooded killer and loyal henchman of a kindly but old fashioned mob boss, but of course in reality he’s a cop deep, deep undercover who is trying to get close to a crazy young gun runner called Johnny Wong. His problem is that he’s basically a nice guy, even if he’s cool and slick as hell, but in order to make it into Johnny’s gang he has to turn on his benevolent boss Mr. Hoi and all his well-fed henchmen. He has done so many dark things that he doesn’t even see much light in himself any more.

Of course the two lead characters end up with guns pointed at each-other’s heads, and of course they resolve their differences so they can team up to take on Johnny Wong and kill hundreds of his goons. There are several great gunfights in this movie. In fact I’d say sixty percent of the movie is nothing but squibs and guns and explosions and stunts. There’s the initial tea-room shoot-out. Then there are three action scenes compressed into one when Wong’s gang shoots up Mr. Hoi’s shipping facility in a car factory, then the police ambush Wong, then Tequila, Tony and Wong’s right-hand-man Mad Dog have a three way duel with automatic pistols, shotguns and grenades. But it’s the hospital standoff that really defines the movie.

Wong has a giant cache of guns hidden under the morgue of a local hospital. When Tequila and Tony show up at the hospital and tip off the police as to where the guns are hidden all hell breaks loose. All the hospital security guards are Wong’s men, and he has more thugs with guns than you can shake a stick at, so when the police show up he closes off the hospital doors, sets snipers to shoot anybody trying to escape, blows up some ambulances and police cars for good measure, and takes all the patients and doctors (and a maternity ward full of newborns as well) hostage. Except that Tequila and Tony are already inside, and they have what appears to be an unlimited supply of ammunition. (That’s pretty much a given in a John Woo movie – nobody ever runs out of ammo. If there’s ever a break in the shooting it’s only a momentary break for dramatic effect before getting back to the constant gunfire.)

For at least twenty solid minutes this movie is nothing but gunfights as the police swat teams try to get into the hospital, Tony and Tequila try to shoot their way out, and a small handful of police dressed as doctors try to rescue the hostages. Oh, yeah, and there’s Tequila’s ex-girlfriend who spends the whole climax of the film trying to save the babies.

There’s just nothing out there like this movie. It has Chow Yun-Fat at his absolute prime as Tequila, flying through the air with a pistol in each hand and a toothpick clenched in the corner of his mouth. It has Tony Leung as Tony Being completely badass in his shades. It even has a cameo appearance from John Woo himself as Mr. Woo, the bartender. (I enjoy the fact that many of the actors play characters with similar names. It makes the film seem more personal somehow, more a labour of love.)

A couple years ago John Woo made a sequel to this movie. It was a video game called Stanglehold where you played as Tequila and you could slow the action down with “Tequila time” so as to more carefully place your shots and cause the most carnage. I had the demo on my 360 for a while although I never bought the game, and I was impressed by how perfectly it captured the mood of this movie. John Woo’s films feel like video games most of the time anyhow, and watching this again has made me very desperately want to go out and buy Stranglehold so that I can be a baddass like Tequila. Let’s face it. John Woo knows his shit.

August 8, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Immortal (2004)

June 30, 2011

Immortal

Last night Amanda asked me “What’s Immortal?” I had to think a bit to remember the movie she was referring to then I replied, “Oh, yeah, it’s that utterly bizarre French sci-fi film with all the digital people.” Really, how do you even describe this film? You could say that it’s an odd visit to the Uncanny Valley. You could talk about the great art design and outlandish look of the film. Or you could address the somewhat disjointed plot and its disturbing undertones. No matter how you look at it this is one of the strangest movies in our collection (and we do have a lot of strange movies.)

We’re told in the opening monologue of the movie that the Egyptian god Horus has been sentenced to death (though we’re never told what his crime is) and that he has only seven days left before he will be stripped of his immortality. Do you know what? Good. I wanted Horus to die in this movie because he’s a total dick. I think probably that’s the reaction the film maker was going for – Horus doesn’t really see any of the people he interacts with as worth anything except as tools for his own ends. He doesn’t comprehend or care about life or human emotion. He’s just in town to do something to preserve himself.

The town he’s in is New York City in the year 2095. It’s a sort of blend of Blade Runner, Ghost in the Shell and Brazil. In this future New York there are aliens living in a kind of ghetto called Level 3. There is also a strange inter-dimensional Intrusion in the place where Central Park used to be. Practically the entire human population have been modified and enhanced by a company called Eugenics. For no reason that is ever adequately explained this corporation is in the habit of rounding up aliens and mutated humans for experimentation.

At the start of the film they have rounded up a mysterious pale skinned woman named Jill who has tinfoil for a scalp and cries blue tears. A doctor with connections in Eugenics notices Jill when she is being processed and for some reason decides to take her under her wing so to speak. Doctor Turner soon discovers that Jill is not human, and indeed has a physiology unlike any known species. Her cellular structure suggests that she is only three weeks old, her organs are all wrong, and she has no memory (perhaps because she is being heavily medicated with unknown drugs.) So Turner offers Jill legal papers and puts her up in a hotel room if Jill will in exchange perform experiments on herself to help Turner study her.

Meanwhile there is a serial killer in town, or so the local hard-boiled investigator believes. Turns out that all these guys exploded from the inside are just folks that Horus has attempted to merge himself with so that he can have a mortal vessel. He seems to be incompatible with all the humans in town because of their extensive genetic meddling, but he gets a lucky break when a pod breaks off of a passing prison zeppelin releasing a convicted criminal from thirty years of cryogenic stasis. Nikipol, the criminal, is a perfect fit for Horus, who moves right in. By odd coincidence Nikopol is a renowned rebel who once battled the founders of Eugenics. Local digital graffiti is all signed with “spirit of Nikopol” in his memory. So a corrupt senator and Eugenics board member spends most of the movie sending various nasty hit-men out to find and kill Nikopol before he can discredit the company.

Jill, meanwhile, has as little idea what’s happening to her as the audience does. Her only friend in the world, besides Dr. Turner, is a faceless man in black called John who came from the strange Intrusion in Central Park. He’s the one who has been providing her with mysterious narcotics. He has some kind of plans for her it seems. So does Horus (now possessing Nikopol.) This is when Horus turns from just an out-of-touch and uncaring god to an actively evil being as he has Nikopol repeatedly rape Jill. Yeah – the movie goes in some really unpleasant directions about halfway through. Jill, it seems, is almost unique in the universe in that she can pro-create with a god, so Horus is desperate to get her pregnant. The movie takes this really disturbing turn, and it just never comes back. Really – it is nasty and ugly and things don’t ever really have a satisfactory ending.

I think maybe that this is the point. This isn’t a “love conquers all” kind of feel good movie. It’s a movie about the capricious and uncaring nature of the universe and how powerless we mere humans are. It’s about how little real control we have over our lives. It’s about futility and ugliness and it seems to suggest that perhaps we should accept the little victories life offers us in consolation. It’s pretty bleak, I have to say.

I stress, however, that this is only my own interpretation of the movie. It doesn’t really try to hard to provide answers. Indeed it doesn’t much concern itself with being lucid or coherent. Much of the plot summary I just wrote is just my interpretation of events displayed on the screen, because by and large the movie doesn’t make many attempts to connect the various disparate things that keep happening.

I think this movie is more about creating a mood and showing a bunch of pretty pictures than about telling a story. It has a very strange aesthetic to it, with a largely computer generated cast and only a very few human actors. There’s Charlotte Rampling as Dr. Turner, Thomas Kretschmann as Nikopol and Linda Hardy as Jill, but aside from a few extras virtually every other character is all digital. In some cases the digital aliens and people look fairly real (and in a couple cases I’m still not sure if they were actors in extensive make-up or computer generated) but in most cases there is a cartoonish look to the people that makes them seem odd in comparison to the high-fidelity world around them. All the futuristic flying cars and VTOL hovering machines in the movie are digital of course, as are most of the sets and locations. It’s all very pretty and intricately designed.

In the end though a lot of pretty pictures strung together don’t necessarily make a movie. This film comes off as more of an experimental tech demo than a feature film. Its general incoherence, combined with the very disturbing plot about the non-consensual impregnation of an innocent and drug addled alien, make it kind of hard to watch. Which is too bad, because it’s so very strange and cool looking. I like the look of it – I just wish it was a different sort of movie.

June 30, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Ninja Scroll

June 25, 2011

Ninja Scroll

This review is going to make me feel old. I can sense it. It’s a “you kids today” review. You kids today with your handheld video games and your internets and your smart phones – you don’t know how lucky you are. When I was growing up in the days before VHS and cable television there was almost no anime available to sate my desire for strange, non-American animation that was not necessarily intended for children. Of course I obsessed over the few tantalising glimpses I was able to find on UHF TV hidden between the mind-numbing Saturday morning fare. Like the intriguing Battle of the Planets (severely edited for American audiences from Gatchaman) or Force Five (which was actually five different shows, a different one for each day of the week) or Robotech, which made no sense to me because I kept missing episodes – and because it was adapted from four different anime shows and re-dubbed into a single non-sensicle time line – or the awesome space soap opera that was Star Blazers. I remember how disappointed I’d be when I tuned in to Force Five and it wasn’t a Grandiser episode, for example.

Anyhow, my point is that I spent my youth intrigued and fascinated by these awesome cartoons which were so completely unlike anything else on TV. Only when I was in college in the early nineties did I start to find original anime in Japanese so I could enjoy it in its unadulterated form. At that time the big sensation of course was Akira, which had only come out a couple years prior and was far from as ubiquitous as it is today. Naturally I saw other classics like Vampire Hunter D and Dirty Pair. This movie, however, had not even come out yet. Years later when I was working at TLA and Amanda was in college in Pennsylvania anime was beginning to gain a more significant foothold in America. People who didn’t live entirely in dark rooms lit by computer screens had heard of it. It was at this time that Ninja Scroll became required viewing for anybody new to the genre. The reason why is clear as we watch this again tonight: this movie exemplifies everything awesome about Japanese animation that isn’t present in the pap created for American audiences.

What this movie is is a classic Japanese samurai movie but more magical and extreme. It takes place in feudal Japan, but includes unearthly magical powers. Three unlikely companions, each for reasons of their own, do battle with an upstart clan that is trying to oust the Tokugawa warlord that currently rules the country. Opposing them are the shadow clan, who have retained the help of eight legendary ninjas – the Devils of Kimon. Each of the eight Devils has his or her own deadly power. One can turn his skin to impervious stone and hurl a devastating spinning boomerang sword, one can fill corpses with explosives and re-animate them under her own control, one commands hordes of snakes, another hordes of wasps and so on. Leading the devils is the immortal warrior Gemma whom our hero Jubei had thought dead after they fought years ago while in the service of a different master.

The basic plot, of Jubei the wandering ronin teaming up with the last survivor of a ninja strike team sent by a local leader to investigate the doings of the Devils and a wise old manipulative government spy, doesn’t hold many surprises. It’s pretty much the story of the three of them reluctantly uniting and one by one defeating the unimaginably powerful foes they face, leading up to a climactic confrontation between Gemma and Jubei in a burning boat full of stolen gold bars. Kagero, the ninja woman whose kiss brings death because of her years as a poison taster for her clan, is bitter and cold. Jubei is your classic lone wolf, who has no interest in political conflicts like this but is manipulated by the government spy Dakuan. Even together they have no hope of defeating their supernatural foes, but they do battle with them nonetheless.

That’s not really the point of the movie though, at least not to my eyes. The point of the movie is to have a never-ending series of brutal action scenes that are the absolute pinnacle of extreme Japanese animation. This movie is absolutely packed with nudity, sex, severed limbs and geysers of blood. Right from the beginning when Kagero’s ninja team are destroyed by the giant stone-skinned Tessai, raining blood and body parts from the trees to the ground below you know exactly what this movie is all about. It’s a thrilling action adventure with a pulsing soundtrack and awesome fight scene after awesome fight scene. It also manages to encompass many of the tropes of the entire anime genre.

In the late nineties if you wanted to introduce somebody to anime as a genre there were three films they were required to watch: Akira, Ghost in the Shell, and Ninja Scroll. All three, for an American audience raised on Disney films, were shocking, awesome and left an indelible impression. Animation as a whole is not limited to childrens’ films about talking animals – it can be dark, violent, bloody, and sexy. It can be a whole lot more as well (as evidenced by the works of Hayao Miyazaki) but this movie is part of an important revelation for American audiences. I love it for that. And for being unbelievably cool too.

June 25, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Escaflowne – The Movie

June 2, 2011

Escaflowne – The Movie

It has been many years since I last watched this movie, and even longer since I saw the anime series that preceded it. I do remember having some issues with the movie though. There are a couple anime movies I can think of off the top of my head that attempt to encompass larger series within the time restrains of a feature film. On the more successful end there’s the Macross Plus movie, which is actually better than the series it is derived from (we’ve reviewed that for the movie a day project already if you’re curious.) On the other end of the spectrum what leaps to mind for me is X (1999) which was a movie that attempted to cram so much back-story into such a short amount of space that it ended up simply not working at all. This movie is closer to X than to Macross Plus. It takes a twenty six episode series and tries to fit roughly the same plot into an hour and a half movie. The result doesn’t quite work.

My recollection (an again, it has been a long time since I watched the series) is that the movie version here is not simply an edited version of the entire series (which I think would be impossible) but is an entirely separate entity created from scratch but with many of the same characters and some of the same story beats.

As a series and as a movie Escaflowne is amusing in that it seems to encompass just about every anime trope in a single glorious hodgepodge. There’s a Japanese schoolgirl (complete with sailor uniform) transported to a magical world where she is welcomed as the “Wing Goddess”, a figure foretold in legend to be instrumental in an epic confrontation. There’s a savage young prince, last of the line of Dragon Kings who is fighting to re-gain his kingdom. There’s the angst-ridden brother of the prince who has userped his power and now heads the Black Dragon army which is laying waste to the previously peaceful world of Gaea. There’s a rag-tag band of unlikely rebels including a bishoujo swordsman, a sexed up princess of some sort, a cat girl, a buck-toothed red nosed monk, a cocky knife wielding rogue… you get the picture.

At the heart of the conflict between the dragon brothers is an ancient bio/steampunk mecha armor suit called Escaflowne that is destined to destroy the world. or maybe not. The gaunt and oh-so-emo Folken wants to use Escaflowne to end all suffering on Gaea by ending all life. To this end he summons a suicidally depressed schoolgirl named Hitomi from Earth so that she can awaken the armor. She ends up with the exiled prince Van instead though, an angry young man who the movie takes great pains to assure us is lonely and isolated. Van is travelling with a whole crew of dispossessed rebels who are trying to find a way to stop the Black Dragon armies. They think Hitomi is the key to their ambitions too.

The biggest problem this movie has is that its subject matter is so grand in scope and so melodramatic, with so many factions and characters involved, that it simply doesn’t work in the time frame available in a movie. Most of the characters in this movie have only a brief few lines to explain everything about themselves and then they’re swiftly forgotten in the headlong rush to get to the final confrontation. Particularly the rebel band that Van travels with – they each have only a couple seconds of screen time, then they’re gone. One of Folken’s generals has a trio of loyal compatriots who seems like nice enough folks except that only one of them ever speaks and he only has two lines. The movie is full of characters who have no purpose and simply muddy the storyline like that. I have to assume this is because they’re folks from the series who had entire plot arcs to themselves and are wedged into the movie as cameo appearances, but they do make the film feel crowded with non-essential characters.

The other problem the movie has, which is related to all the undeveloped minor characters, is that it ends up feeling rushed. There’s so much plot to cram in here that by the time we get to that epic confrontation with the entire world hanging in the balance, well, it simply lacks impact. You don’t know anybody well enough to be invested in any way with the world that is at risk. Sure you know who’s good and who’s evil, and there’s this fantastic stirring music, but I simply didn’t feel myself caring at all. Then another of those minor characters from earlier in the movie shows up and does something heroic and abruptly the movie is over. I know how it’s supposed to work, but the movie was in such a hurry to get to this point that it didn’t provide enough background to give it any impact.

The music, however, is great. In fact it’s the entire reason I bought this movie in the first place. I think I might have downloaded some of the soundtrack before I saw the movie even and bought the film to see what the music was intended to evoke. It’s because this score is by Yoko Kanno. This is the most large-scale and orchestral music I’ve heard from her to date, and I wanted to know what this grand music was attached to.

Sadly, a fantastic score is not enough to make a great movie. In general I’d say that virtually anything Yoko Kanno touches turns to gold, and I’ve not often been disappointed by anything that has her name attached to it, but this movie is the exception that proves that rule. I do enjoy the plot, filled with cliches though it may be, and I like the world and the epic struggle too. I think though that for any future return visits to Gaea I will stick to the full series. It might not have as much blood, the animation might not be as impressive, and it might not have Yoko Kanno doing the score, but it feels more epic and grand nonetheless.

June 2, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , | Leave a comment