Metropolis (2001) movie poster

(2001) dir. Tarô Rin
viewed: 05/27/02

Tarô Rin’s Metropolis is a Japanese animated science fiction film that envisions the future with distinct elements of the past. Tipping its hat to the classic silent sci-fi film from which it took its name and some of its ideas and owing its story and character design to an artist of a much different era, it is quite unlike run-of-the-mill anime.

I should have read up on this film a little bit more to confirm what I think are some of the aspects of its creation, but I will preface this entry by saying that I don’t know 100% if all of the “facts” that I am offering here are true.

I am not sure of the whole script-to-screen process for this film, but I vaguely recall reading about it when it hit the theaters here that it was adapted from an old Japanese manga by Osamu Tezuka, the “Walt Disney of Japan,” creator of Astroboy and Kimba the White Lion.

Tezuka’s characters are of an older cartoon style (his best known work was from the 1960’s & 1970’s). In fact, they echo back even further to the style of American newspaper cartoons from the 1920’s and 1930’s, though some of them also have a look of the period from which they were originally created. It’s a stark contrast to the ruling style of chracter design in most contemporary Asian animation.

The film poses these retro-style characters against the epynomous city’s digital created three-dimensionality. I am not an expert on animation production, enough to fully distinguish all digital shots from traditional cel animation, but I would hazard a guess that the bulk of the character animation was cel drawings and the backgrounds and settings were largely, if not entirely, digital. The flatness of the characters against the complex machinery of the sprawling mega-city seems entirely intentional.

Metropolis also reckons of the 1927 Fritz Lang Expressionist classic of the same name. The central figure in both is a female robot who will either save or destroy the Metropolis for which she was created. It has been some years since I have seen the Lang film, and so I am hard-pressed to draw any conclusions regarding the connection here. A re-envisioning of that film perhaps? Or merely just “inspired by”?

While the film’s visual background is digital and modern, its musical backdrop is yet another echo of the past. During much of the film, a Dixieland-style jazz music plays in a tinned, almost piped-in muzak sort of way.

It is possible that the very nature of adapting an “old-fashioned” story about a supposedly still-distant future brought the creators of Metropolis to this multitude of “retro” angles on the presentation.

The Deep End

The Deep End (2001) movie poster

(2001) dir. Scott McGehee, David Siegel
viewed: 05/08/02

The Deep End is modern noir from local writing, directing, and producing team, Scott McGehee and David Siegel, whose earlier film, Suture (1993), was always one of those films that I meant to get around to seeing, but never did.

The Deep End had a lot of solid buzz, and in some ways it lives up to it. Tilda Swinton is quite strong as the blackmailed “soccer mom”. And the Lake Tahoe setting proves both beautiful and interesting.

The film is based on Elizabeth Holding’s novel The Blank Wall originally published in the 1940’s, transposing the narrative onto contemporary times. It’s an curious effect. This films plumbs the depths of both noir and melodrama, genres whose heydeys coincided with the period in which the book was originially written. Both genres often operate as subversive discourses on traditional middle-American values, and so in transposing such themes onto contemporary times offers an interesting contrast between societal values of each period.

I suppose that this is one of the problems for modern noir. Since classic noir is such a product of its time and since its discourse centers on a criticism of its period, modern noir seems to need a unifying focus for its social criticism. But more often than not, modern noir is far more focussed on the surface of the narratives and not as much in social criticism.

Interestingly, I think that The Deep End seems to work that angle a little more than the typical modern noir. But the happy nuclear family has been largely de-mythologized in recent times. The predicament of isolation that is suffered by Swinton’s character in this film would have been more powerful in the context of WWII, possibly (maybe it could be argued that the housewife of the American 1940’s was more isolated in general — but maybe that is missing the point of this character). But maybe it is just the handling of the material and not inherent to the transposition.

The son’s secret homosexuality is another interpretive adaptation. As is his gender and age, for that matter. I guess that it does add a potential level of repression to the tale. Ultimately it is the mother’s tale, though, and maybe looking at it through the melodrama lens rather than the noir lens might offer a different interpretation.

Fulltime Killer

Fulltime Killer (2001) movie poster

(2001) dir. Johnny To, Ka-Fai Wai
viewed: 04/28/02 at AMC Kabuki Theater, SF

Fulltime Killer, which I saw as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival, was one of the first new Hong Kong action films that I had seen in some time.

I had been quite the aficianado of HK films through much of the 90’s (like, apparantly, most people), but I had dropped off my viewing of HK films right about the point when Hong Kong was handed back to mainland China. Jackie Chan, John Woo, Ringo Lam, Chow Yun-Fat, and Tsui Hark all started producing work in Hollywood to varying extents, so a significant portion of the talent pool had been drained, and quite a lot of buzz said that the heyday of HK film had come and gone.

So, I don’t know exactly why I hadn’t been out to see a HK film in such a long time. Ironically, the last one that I had seen had been really good (Beyond Hypothermia (1996)), so I don’t have a better explanation.

The film was pretty slick and entertaining, featuring Andy Lau, Takashi Sorimachi, and Kelly Lin. Interestingly, or maybe oppositely so, one of the screenwriters was an American, Joey O’Bryan, who helped adapt the script from a popular novel or something. I am supposing that he is the perpetrator of the Quentin Tarantino-esque, heavy- handed filmic reference-dropping that gave the film its rather clumsy psuedo self-referential side. It seems like a particularly American thing.

Ironically, dropping cultural references into films in such blatant fashion seems to finally have gone out of fashion. The film handles it in particularly gauche style, inserting it into dialogues by the flamboyant villain. After stabbing a guy in the hand with a knife at the bar, he tells him to go check out this Alain Delon film, from which he got the idea.

Oddly enough, one of the funniest parts of the film arises out of this very sequence, when later that guy who got stabbed comes back yelling at him that he looked all over town for the film and he couldn’t find his stupid movie.

I thought the film made some pretty good use of location filming, shot in numerous places in Asia from what the titles said.

I found the film lacking in some respects, like lacking much real meaning. Outside of the heavy-handed, rather self-conscious attempts at clever self-reference, I don’t know what else to say.

While it was indeed a fairly entertaining film, it is a far cry from the heyday of HK film-making, Or maybe it is simply a less talented team that produced this film. I note that Johnny To also helmed the directoral chair for The Heroic Trio (1992) & Executioners (1993), two pretty fun action/fantasy flicks which did come from the HK film heyday. So who knows?

With a Friend Like Harry…

With a Friend Like Harry… (2000) movie poster

(2000) dir. Dominik Moll
viewed: 05/23/02

This was a good, entertaining, mildly disturbing comedy/thriller.

Harry, an old forgotten classmate of the protagonist shows up suddenly in a French roadside bathroom and reinserts himself into his former classmate’s life, joining him and his young family at their dilapidated farmhouse in the country for a few days. Quickly it turns out that Harry is an ardent fan of the lost teenage writings of Michel, the protagonist, and is motivated at whatever cost to see Michel complete his unfinished novel (about monkey’s with propellers on their heads). It is absurd and beautiful.

Harry is an evil muse. He reawakens Michel’s long-forgotten yen to write, but begins to see that all of the members of Michel’s family are impediments to his creative process, killing them off and clearing the way for Michel to complete his opus. It’s a discourse on the creative process and a rather cynical one at that, though always it retains a rather smiling cynicism.

The film is clever and funny. Eleanor and I both enjoyed it.