Thursday, May 24, 2007

Movies that I don't understand

Recent viewing:

Masked and Anonymous
2003, directed by Larry Charles

So, anybody up for a symbolic post-apocalyptic movie with religious and political overtones starring Bob Dylan? Because that's what this is. It seems to take place in the near future, and while I call it post-apocalyptic, that might not be the right word, since the "apocalypse" is merely the non-stop war created by the fall of the (presumably) United States government. I think. The plot has to do with a benefit concert staged by TV networks with the backing of the government (which is ruled by The President, a mustachioed Saddam Hussein general type who has his picture plastered Mao-style all over the place but spends the whole movie in bed dying). I'm not sure who the benefit is supposed to be for, but the only performer they can get is Bob Dylan, basically playing himself, although his character is actually called Jack Fate. He is summoned to a stage of sorts by John Goodman, playing a religious figure (I think) called Uncle Sweetheart who needs the concert to take place to pay off some debts. There is a lot of philosophizing by various characters, including Luke Wilson as Dylan's sidekick, and Jeff Bridges as a reporter covering the concert. Other main characters include Jessica Lange as a TV executive and Penelope Cruz as Bridges's religious girlfriend (she seems to practice a variety of religions, praying to a Buddha statue while crossing herself Catholic-style. Plus, there's a hint that this all takes place after the rapture due to a tattoo on her hand that says "333").

Anyway, lots of complications ensue, and I think it's all supposed to be symbolically about war and stuff. I also think there's some Christian symbols, with [spoiler, I guess] Jack Fate revealed as the son of the President, creating some God/Jesus imagery [end spoiler]. It's all pretty obtuse and hard to follow, but I enjoyed just watching all the characters interact with each other. Jeff Bridges gets to interview Bob Dylan, but all his questions are about various rock stars like Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, and they're not really questions, just accusatory rants. John Goodman keeps getting notes about songs the network/government wants Dylan to play, and they're weirdly subversive (in that they may have originally had a populist message but are being used as propaganda here), like the Beatles' "Revolution" or "Jailhouse Rock". Goodman and Bridges get in fights with each other, evoking memories of The Big Lebowski. And then there are all the cameos, including Cheech Marin, Mickey Rourke, Angela Bassett, Giovanni Ribisi, Chris Penn and Christian Slater (as a couple of philosophizing electricians), Fred Ward, Val Kilmer (another philosopher-type, obsessed with animals), and probably most memorably, Ed Harris as a blackface-wearing ghost.

But even if this sounds like an incomprehensible mishmash, it's definitely worth watching if you're a Dylan fan, because he performs several of his songs in the movie (and a couple of others, like "Dixie"), and it's incredible to watch. As old and rugged as he looks, he's still an amazing musical artist, and these scenes are entrancing. Hell, if you wanted to, you could rent the DVD and just skip to the chapters where he sings, and it would be worth it.

So it's probably worth watching if you like Bob Dylan (or any of the other actors I mentioned, especially Jeff Bridges and John Goodman), symbolic imagery, or indulgent weirdness. Luckily, that makes right up my alley.

Japan, 2004, directed by Kazuaki Kariya

This one's a bit weirder, and I'm not sure what exactly happened during its running time. It's a Japanese movie based on an anime TV series from the 70's. It's in the future, and the world has been at war for 50 years or so. We've got several characters, including Dr. Azuma, a scientist developing "neo-cells" (which sound a lot like stem cells) which can be used to heal any disease; his son Tetsuya, who joined the army and went to war; and various other relations. Dr. Azuma's experiments are a failure, but then he's working on a tank full of his neo-cell liquid, and a giant mechanical lightning bolt (?!) comes down from heaven and brings all the body parts within to life. A bunch of people/mutants rise up from the liquid and wander out into the streets, but the army comes out and guns them all down, because nobody likes zombie mutants, I guess. Oh yeah, and Dr. Azuma's son was killed in the war, and they were having a funeral for him when all this happened. So out of grief, he grabbed his son's body and submerged it in the neo-cell tank, bringing it back to life. A colleague of his was also working on some sort of armor, so they bring Tetsuya to the other lab and put him in the armor, saying it will keep him from exploding, which I guess is a side effect of the neo-cells. Meanwhile, a bunch of the mutants managed to escape, and they also kidnapped Dr. Azuma's wife. They wander out of the city and into the mountains, trudging through the snow until they stumble upon a castle/fortress, which also seems to house a large robot-manufacturing facility (?!). They decide that they've been brought to life as a new species, neo-sapiens, and they're going to use their robots to wipe out humanity. So they send out their robots, but manage to awaken Tetsuya, whose armor has turned him into some sort of superhero. So there's a lot of fighting and philosophizing about the nature of man, and it all turns into some sort of huge battle between robots, armies, tanks, and planes. There's a subplot about the son of the general who is in charge of Japan(?) staging a coup d'etat, but it seems tacked on (it probably made more sense in the original anime, which would have had more time to flesh these plots out). And there's a big revelation about the nature of the neo-sapiens and Tetsuya's part in their history, along with some ethnic cleansing by the army and some religious hokum (Tetsuya takes the name Casshern, after the god of the people being ethnically cleansed).

But, I kind of liked it, even though my plot summary doesn't make any sense. And the big reason for that is the visuals. It looks really incredible, with amazingly lighted scenes that blend computer effects with the actors. And the effects are pretty damn epic, with giant marching armies of robots (sometimes simply in black and red, evoking the feel of a Soviet propaganda poster or something), waves of planes that have faces on the front of them flying over thousands of soldiers and tanks, and crazy fight scenes where Tetsuya flies through rows of robots or catches tank shells in midair. It's really wild. There's also a recurring visual bit where arcane symbols (pyramids inside circles and that sort of thing, kind of like on this comic book cover) flash on the screen around characters or objects (like that crazy lightning bolt), in what I think is supposed to symbolize the gods screwing around with human events or something. I dunno, it's really weird and strange and doesn't make a lot of sense, but I found it worth viewing just to gape at the amazing stuff that showed up on screen. Definitely not to everyone's taste, but I found it enjoyable.

I was sick yesterday, so I didn't get to any of the comics reviews I had planned (I didn't even make it to the shop to pick up new comics). Maybe I'll get to them tonight.


  1. Oh, I must have missed your review of Casshern, a movie I liked a lot. I think I'm more generous to the plot, since while I'm not sure the anime would've explained more (a lot of them don't seem to to me) and recognize the somewhat clunky nature of the story that you mention, I thought of it old scifi, of the particular brand with some moralizing and ran with it. Like a fable.

    I had been thinking of the cg constructed movies at the time, and I think of it as one most successful (along with Enki Bilal's Immortal) since it went whole hog to create a world, as opposed to feeling like it wanted to recreate some exact feeling (like poorly, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow and better 300).

  2. Yeah, it's from a few years ago, so it's probably pretty comparable with Sky Captain in the "all-CGI backgrounds" style of movie. It certainly looks really nice. And the story is definitely like a fable, with long screeds about messing with nature and the evils of ethnic cleansing. But it's pretty fun; I liked it.