Volume 3, Number 48
This Week's Reviews: Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust, The Man Who Wasn't There, Focus.
This Week's Omissions: Behind Enemy Lines, Texas Rangers.
Capsule Reviews: Black Knight, The Wash.
|Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust
(Dir: Yoshiaki Kawajiri, Voices include Andrew Philpot, John Rafter Lee, Pamela Segall, Wendee Lee, Michael McShane, Julia DeMita, Matt McKenzie, John Di Maggio, Alex Fernández, Jack Fletcher, John Hostetter, Dwight Schultz, and Mary Elizabeth McGlynn)
BY: DAVID PERRY
For the fans of anime, Vampire Hunter D is like the Holy Grail. If Japanese animation were personified to apostles, Vampire Hunter D would definitely join the likes Princess Mononoke, Ghost in the Shell, Akira, Ninja Scroll, My Neighbor Totoro, and Perfect Blue.
Yeah, I can name of anime films like the best of them, but my appreciation of the medium is definitely muted. Of those I named, I have only seen the first four. And, sadly as this may sound for anime fans, they make up an entire list of the anime I've been exposed to. Not really by choice -- I just have so many other films (like books) that I cannot wait to catch up with.
When the release of Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust began to receive a release in the United States, I finally broke down and borrowed Vampire Hunter D, the original. And, much to my surprise (especially after being coerced into watching the abysmal Ninja Scroll), I thought that it was a quite enjoyable little film. Using the tone of a Sergio Leone film and the violence akin to a Hammer horror film, Vampire Hunter D makes it out of the oblivion of anime films that failed to make a mark on me -- simply put, the original succeeds beyond expectations.
Its sequel comes in the same packaging and gives practically the same jolt. The visuals are a little better and the dubbing artists are a hundred times better (one of the biggest problems found in the orignal Vampire Hunter D is that the people giving an English language track seem completely uninterested in the material) this time around.
Vampire Hunter D refers to the lead character in both films, a dark man called D (voiced by Philpot) who moves from town-to-town helping townspeople kill vampires. He is called a dunpeal, the term created to refer to people born of a human and a vampire. Since he has such lineage, he is torn between two different types of living: the vampire side of him lusts for blood while the human side feels some compassion for humanity. And, to make things even more unbearable in his life, D has a parasite in him that causes a smart-talking face to appear on his left palm (McShane).
When the film opens, Earth has been overrun by vampires -- in modern society, the humans must live during the day and hope their lives will not end come nightfall. D, who is immortal because of his vampire side, is hired by a distraught father hoping D can bring back his daughter. One night, the foppish vampire Meier Link (John Rafter Lee) came into the room of Charlotte (Wendee Lee) and abducted her. As we soon find out, though, her abduction is not completely against her will.
D is not the only person hired to find Charlotte, a madcap group of desperados have also joined the race to find her and kill Link. The ringleaders are the Markus Brothers (McKenzie and Di Maggio), joined by a man with an ability to convey his essence at other places while he drains his own energy, and a tough female to keep the balance. She, of course, serves as a romantic foil for the nearly emotionless D.
The opening of the film alone is enough to give reason for
people to see the movie. Sure the length is a little too much and the violence is at times
incomprehensible. Director Yoshiaki Kawajiri has learned a great deal as a filmmaker since
Ninja Scroll five years ago, but his storytelling techniques fail to come to the
same high skills of, say, Hayao Miyazaki. However many problems, though, Vampire
Hunter D: Bloodlust shows that there is some magic brimming in the anime treasure
|The Man Who Wasn't There
(Dir: Joel Coen, Starring Billy Bob Thornton, Frances McDormand, James Gandolfini, Michael Badalucco, Tony Shalhoub, Jon Polito, Scarlett Johansson, Richard Jenkins, Katherine Borowitz, Christopher Kriesa, Brian Haley, Jack McGee, and Gregg Binkley)
BY: DAVID PERRY
There is a moment at the beginning of Fargo -- in all actuality, it is the beginning of Fargo -- where the camera stares at a barren land of pure, unadulterated white. This stunning visual is soon shattered by the image of dark car driving through the white snow -- as a color scheme, the car is disarming; however, what is more disarming is the criminal ethos brewing inside the vehicle
Whenever anyone asks me what my favorite singe scene is in film, I automatically cite that scene. Why? Perhaps because, to me at least, it shows everything that makes film so remarkable -- it is a melding of visual and aural pleasure (on top of the camerawork by the Coen Brothers and Roger Deakins, there's a remarkable score by Carter Burwell). That scene introduces Fargo, and serves as just one in the film's many breathtaking scenes.
Not since then has the Coen Brothers created something near as demanding or, for that matter, rewarding as Fargo. Their latest effort, The Man Who Wasn't There gets to be the closest they have come. The new film is not near as good as their 1996 masterpiece, but it is something of note -- not merely because it is a good Coen film, but because it delivers something not normally seen in films these days.
The film noir genre, where this film gets most of its basis, has rooted its way into so many other genres that it has become almost cliché to say a film is noir-inspired. In these decades since the 1940's and the heyday of hardboiled noir detective stories, so many films have come from film noir that movies are now sometimes based on films themselves from noir. Pulp Fiction has some noir aspects, but there's probably more of it from the regulation noir found in Quentin Tarantino's favorite 1970's films than from Mike Hammer movies.
And yet, with all the roaming of noir references, The Man Who Wasn't There appears to be one of the few films to come out in the last 40 years that could have been written by James M. Cain. The film seems destined to have a noir auteur at the helm, creating the billowing smoke, the cagey settings, the tinged dialogue, and the stark shadows. To see names like Joel and Ethan Coen in the credits feels awkward at first, but memories of the exquisite detail to genre pieces the brothers have made in the past only soothe the audience into a slight pacification.
So, you may ask, what does this actually have to do with The Man Who Wasn't There? Well -- in a fashion suitable for the movie's fast-talking, nonsensical lawyer Freddy Riedenschneider (Shalhoub) -- I have somewhat succinctly formulated a thesis as to that essence that seethes from the film. Anyone watching the film might notice the congruency of film noir to the style, but the inherent traits that make the film so much more than an homage allow the film to transcend the easy idea of tribute and veer into the territory of self-conscious nouveau noir.
Crime has always been a major part of the Coen oeuvre, but this is the first film since Blood Simple in 1984 where the brothers use the devices of deception and red herrings to convey their art. They are directors known almost universally for their style, but on occasion have shown that they are just as talented with the substance as well.
The film's protagonist, the completely ordinary Ed Crane (Thornton, leading a knockout cast), seems destined to drearily go through life waiting for the next preordained moment in his fate to hit. He's married and has a job as a barber, seemingly because they were the choices sitting directly in front of him. Watching Ed listlessly smoke his cigarette while unconsciously doing his job, the audience gets the impression that he has never made a tough choice in his life.
He does make a stand in the first act of the film, but it is that choice that throws everything in his life off. Perhaps letting life deal the cards was a good idea -- little would be ever expect that his action might lead to deceit and death.
Joel Coen shared the director's prize this year at the
Cannes Film Festival with David Lynch for Mulholland Dr. Comparing the two works
almost seems impossible -- where Lynch excels at the absurd, Coen instead works with the
maddeningly domestic. The Man Who Wasn't There never comes to terms with its
minor problems (there is a pacing issue and the occasional movements into Coen quirkiness
feel a little obligatory) and yet exceeds them in the end. Few films have as perfectly
come to a close, good or bad. And, as Carter Burwell's score swells to an end and Roger
Deakin's cinematography fades to black, the audience becomes enamored with a visual
playland occupied by the Coen's, James M. Cain, and the femme fatales of yesteryear. It is
a playland unlike any other, and the audience can only appreciate this chance to look in.
(Dir: Neal Slavin, Starring William H. Macy, Laura Dern, Meat Loaf Aday, David Paymer, Kay Hawtrey, Michael Copeman, Kenneth Welsh, Joseph Ziegler, Arlene Meadows, Peter Oldring, Robert McCarrol, Shaun Austin-Olsen, Kevin Jubinville, and B.J. McQueen)
BY: DAVID PERRY
George Santayana famously wrote "Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it." Unlike so many philosophies ranging from Nietzsche's übermensch to Social Darwinism that have fallen to history's unfavorable scrap heap of mistaken attributions of the world, Santayana's statement has been proven true through centuries of history.
In history, there is a constant fight against a race, creed, or culture. The Poles and the Japanese, the Protestants and the Muslims, the nobility and the third-world -- naming off a list of people persecuted in just the last 100 years would be a daunting (and possibly impossible) task. Arthur Miller was privy to all the persecution in the air during World War II. His novel Focus imagined an America where the passionate hatred of 1945 seeped into the veins of suburbia.
There's no questioning that his nightmare story is rather close to what could have happened. In the 1930's, Father Charles Coughlin, a religious leader who would make Pat Buchanan and Jerry Falwell look like Willy Brandt and Michael Foot, became a staple in opinionated journalism. With his radio addresses and magazine Social Justice, Coughlin strove to produce an intense hatred towards Jews within the United States. His often eloquent but commanding speeches rallied some together in an anti-Semitic ideological regime. The only reason he disappeared from the world editorial front was that he made the mistake of voicing some pro-Nazi feelings directly before America entered the war against Nazi-led Germany.
Focus looks at the "what if?" behind that story. What if Coughlin had not been rushed off the air? What if his organization, the National Union for Social Justice, had become a major force in politics? Would America become a breeding ground of social hatred? Could a regime of anti-humanity extremists take over the US like Hitler did with Germany?
Neil Slavin's film adaptation of Miller's novel attempts to create the same fear and dread of this social upheaval. Stephen Holden has referred to the film as a social-minded episode of The Twilight Zone. Perhaps that is a fare assessment -- though, in the case of this tale, the story does not fear so close to unquestionable fiction.
Lawrence Newman (Macy) is a mild-mannered personnel manager at a New York firm in 1944. His job is to make sure every girl hired for secretarial positions can type, has good people-qualities, and, above all, is not Jewish. Helped by the fanatical work of a radio personality named Father Crighton (Welsh), a hatred towards Jews has become an important part of the wartime mindset. Posters are plastered on the walls of subway trains blaming the Jews for the war; seemingly Jewish last names mean a ticket to unemployment; and, in a small Brooklyn settlement of homes, a flicker of violence is waiting to light the bomb of racial and ethnic intolerance.
Newman is almost blind to all this in his life at the beginning of the film (bear with me, I have not read Miller's novel and therefore cannot make complete comparisons). This is articulated by the failing vision that plagues his day-to-day life. When his employer complains that he somehow let a Jewish girl get a job because he could not see her stereotypical Jewish qualities, Newman breaks down and gets glasses.
Ah, but there's the rub: the new glasses have frames that seem to give Newman a Jewish look. The first day of wearing them, his mother makes a Jewish reference and his employer asks him to move to an office where potential customers will not readily see him. He, like a Protestant girl (Dern) he accuses of being Jewish when his employer was looking, finds himself without a job and having to take the constant badgering that comes with being of a maligned minority.
There is some silver lining in the that he turns out falling in love with the girl, but, of course, that only accentuates the local feeling that he may be Jewish. His fighting to prove his WASP ancestry (he likes to point out that he came from the pilgrims) is not just in the job field, but also in his home. His neighbor Fred (Aday) and some other local extremists are part of Father Crighton's so-called Union Crusaders -- they begin using their fear tactics on the neighborhood grocer, inopportunely named Finkelstein (Paymer), and soon move to pushing Newman out of the area.
There's an intriguing congruency found in this film -- not merely because it exacts the prejudice that was in the patterns of the past, but also in its relevancy to the modern problems. The Serbs and the Muslims are still feeling the plight of racial indignancy, as are the Israelis, the Palestinians, and the Americans, as shown on September 11.
Focus is hampered by a sloppy direction and a
horrible pacing, and yet its political intensity remains true. Yes, it is extremely
disturbing to see that the intolerance of the past is still part of the presence, but some
small form of reassurance in Focus. No, its not in the actual film, but in the
credits: Focus was executive produced by Michael Bloomberg, the new mayor of New
York City. He has helped bring this movie to the screen with a thesis of ending racial
intolerance -- a far cry from the anti-Semite propaganda films Adolf Hitler helped pay for.
Capsule Reviews: Since things are backlogged and there happens to be two spots in this week's lineup, I have decided to use capsule reviews for Black Knight and The Wash (plus, they were not viewed in a theatre). Though, as I said in the last capsule review column, these would be better suited if they were called "Flippant Remarks."
(Dir: Gil Junger, Starring Martin Lawrence, Marsha Thomason, Tom Wilkinson, Vincent Regan, Daryl Mitchell, Michael Burgess, and Isabell Monk)
BY: DAVID PERRY
This variation on Back to the Future feels like nothing
more than a last thump in the career of Martin Lawrence. Bill and Ted's Excellent
Adventure was just as dumb, but far more enjoyable. At least, though, it's better than the
switched Just Visiting.
(Dir: D.J. Pooh, Starring Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, George Wallace, Angell Conwell, Tommy Lister, Jr., Bruce Bruce, and Shawn Fonteno)
BY: DAVID PERRY
Snoop Dogg began the year with a good film (Baby Boy) and
has succeeded it with increasingly worse films (Training Day, Bones). I thought his work
in Bones was bad, but The Wash makes it look like Olivier. Oh, and the movies just as
horrible as his performance is.
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