4/15/04:

Today was a work day with only two films in the evening, but I was busy the whole night anyway. I got to my first movie (a sci fi flick called Utopia) at the Ritz East good and early and had a nice little chat with a fellow all-accesser while standing in line. I'd seen him at a couple of screenings and even talked to him once before. It turned out he and I had seen a number of the same films at the festival, and we generally had the same opinion of them, except for Acacia; he liked it a lot more than I did. He also liked Texas Chainsaw Massacre a lot more than I did, which came up when we were talking about The Toolbox Murders. He'd seen Massacre when it screened at the festival; I'd seen it some years ago on video and had felt no desire to see it again on the big screen. I've been thinking recently that maybe I should give it another try, though...

Anyway, soon enough it was time to file into the theater. Although most of the screenings I've been to so far have been pretty crowded, this one was pretty empty. Which is too bad, because it turned out to be a pretty excellent movie.

Utopia is the only film I've seen at the festival that was preceded by a trailer, maybe because it's not a very long film, and there were no short films readily available to play in front of it. The trailer was an ad for a foreign film called Spy Bound which didn't look particularly good to me.

Films I saw today: Utopia and Azumi

Utopia

Maybe this is an unfair generalization, but it seems to me that most sci fi films and television shows (with the exception of Star Trek) are pretty pessimistic about the future. The phrase "post-apocalyptic future" has become a common one when speaking about the genre--we seem to take it for granted that our future will include an apocalypse or two. Admittedly, some films offer us hope that we'll be able to pull things together and make a better world after the apocalypse, but we still have that Armageddon hurdle to get over first.

Utopia, on the other hand, offers us a sliver of hope that we may come through okay and make a better world for ourselves after all, without having to blow ourselves up first. Utopia is a Spanish film from director María Ripoll, whose few other films include Tortilla Soup, an American remake of the great Taiwanese film Eat Drink Man Woman. Utopia stars Leonardo Sbaraglia as Adrián, an unhappy young man who has visions of the future, and Najwa Nimri as Ángela, a young woman who appears in his visions, and is important to the future of the world. These actors have been in a number of Spanish films, but as I haven't seen that many Spanish films, they were unfamiliar to me. I did recognize Tchéky Karyo, however, as Hervé, the blind police detective who ends up chasing Adrián and Ángela, mainly out of a misguided desire for revenge. His name may sound as unfamiliar and strange to you as Nimri's and Sbaraglia's, but if you saw him, you'd probably recognize him--he's been in over 70 films since 1982, a good number of them mainstream Hollywood films (although he speaks only French and Spanish in this film, he is also fluent in English). I won't go off on a long tangent about Karyo, as I already did that last year in my review of The Good Thief; suffice it to say that he's an excellent actor and I was excited to find him in the film.

When the film opens, Adrián is in Hervé's office trying to convince him to do something about a bombing that he knows is soon to take place. Noticing a picture on Hervé's desk, he realizes that the victims of the suicide bombing that he's seen in his visions are Hervé's family. And he's too late--in the parking lot across the street the bomber is already preparing to detonate. Hervé sees his family walking toward the police station through the parking lot, realizes what is going to happen, and tries to call out to them, but in vain. The explosion breaks the window he's looking out of, killing his family and blinding him.

Doesn't sound too hopeful or optimistic yet, I know. But give it some time.

We jump ahead 6 years into the future. Adrián is now working late nights at a gas station--he likes the privacy. It quickly becomes clear that he has given up, and removed himself from the world. But the world intrudes on him again in the form of an old friend. This friend arrives to let Adrián know that his foster father, Samuel, has had a heart attack, and Adrián must come to see him before it's too late. And now we learn a bit of Adrián's backstory--he was an orphan, and has always had visions. Samuel found him and took him in. It turns out Samuel is part of a secret organization called Utopia, a society into which he recruited Adrián. Their purpose is to find people who will be important to the world and look after them. People with visions of the future are essential to this work--the visions help them pinpoint the people the group needs to protect, as well as the dangers that those people need to be protected from.

But Adrián has become hopeless and disenchanted with Utopia and has left them. He felt that his visions of the future did no good--that nothing the group could do, nothing he himself could do, would change the terrible events he foresaw. His final attempt to change things was the bombing--a bombing committed by Daniel, another seer and member of Utopia. The visions had driven Daniel insane--he'd begun committing the violence that he foresaw.

Hervé has since learned a little bit about Utopia, but he wants to find out more--he wants to find Adrián again. He doesn't understand what was really going on and blames Adrián for the death of his family. Hervé now helps to find and save people who have been kidnapped by sects. And he's good at it, too. He's wily and witty, has influential friends, and is an expert at reading and manipulating people. His current case is Ángela, the same woman Adrián has begun having visions about. Ángela has joined a revolutionary group called the Jaguar sect. Their ultimate agenda isn't clear, but they've been smuggling and using drugs like ayahuasca, which is used by shamans and is supposed to cause visions.

At first, Adrián resists his visions (which causes him to get nosebleeds and headaches). But Samuel and other members of Utopia tell him it's important, and he begins to become fascinated by Ángela--even attracted to her. He tracks her down and tries to warn her about the danger. At first, she is naturally extremely suspicious of him. But he knows things he shouldn't, and he begins to make her doubt the true purposes of the Jaguar sect. She protects Adrián as best she can from her fellow guerillas and soon discovers that they are combining human sacrifices with the use of the drug ayahuasca in an attempt to see the future.

Meanwhile, Hervé has found out that Adrián is involved in his case. Soon Adrián and Ángela are on the run from both Hervé and the guerillas. As the film races towards its conclusion, we wait tensely to see if Adrián will fulfill his mission, if Ángela will survive, if the sympathetic but misguided Hervé will ruin everything.

Utopia is not just an exciting film with a layered and twisting plot, full of intrigue and action. It's also well written, with interesting characters, beautiful cinematography, and some rather wonderful and hopeful things to say about people and the world. It's not afraid to take some chances and do some different and unexpected things. The familiar scenario of a male main character setting out on a quest to save a beautiful woman with whom he falls in love is turned on its head by the fact that the man is actually a very weak, passive person, and the woman is very strong. Adrián spends the movie running from the action, inevitably getting caught, imprisoned, beaten up, shot, and tortured. In fact his most courageous and important act in the entire movie is a rather passive one that results in his near death. Meanwhile, the woman Adrián is supposed to be protecting is easily the strongest character in the film. Not only is she a very active character, who takes it upon herself to join a revolutionary guerilla organization, she's also very strong-willed and sure of herself. Most of the time, she ends up protecting Adrián--saving him from her guerilla comrades, cleaning him up and bandaging his wounds. Also, while another film might have ended with Ángela happily walking off into the sunset with Adrián, Utopia has her leaving him to follow her principles and to do important work in the world, while Adrián stays at home tending a bookstore and hoping that she will return.

Of course, his hope is probably not a vain one, but that's another thing this movie has that a lot of other movies in this genre lack--hope for the future. And not a blind faith that things will go right, but a realistic belief that, although it will be hard, we can change things for the better if we take a stand and act.

Another intriguingly different element of the film is its ambiguity. Take, for instance, the moral ambiguity of the blind cop Hervé. He's one of the most likeable and fascinating characters in the film, and yet he's out to torture and possibly kill the main character. His dealings with officials aren't always on the up and up, either--many of his actions are shady and morally questionable.

Another important and welcome area of vagueness in the film is the exact nature of Ángela's importance to the future. We never see a detailed vision depicting just what it is Ángela is going to do that's going to be so wonderful. Which is fine. Anything they'd have shown probably would have just taken away from the film. It's far better to allow us to imagine what she might do, or to see her as merely part of a larger movement that will slowly change the world. She's only one of the many people that Utopia must protect, after all.

As I said, another great thing about the movie is the well-written dialogue--and if it's good even when translated into subtitles, than it must be pretty damn good. In one exchange, a man rebukes a priest: "It isn't right for a priest to lie." But the priest tells him, "You're wrong. It's the most important part of our job." Another line I really like comes from Ángela when she learns what her group, the Jaguar sect, has really been up to. She asks the man who recruited her into the sect, a man she once respected, "What difference is there between you and all that I hate?"

But one of my favorite parts of the film comes near the end, when Adrián is discussing the meaning of the word "utopia" with Ángela. Adrián tells Ángela it means "no place," which is true--and I always read that in a very pessimistic way: perfect places don't exist. But Adrián sees things differently. To him, this just means that utopia doesn't have a place yet. It's something that's happening in the mind so it can happen in the world. We have to make a place for it here, and then it can be.

My Poll Rating: Very Good

Intermission

Almost every Thursday for three or four years now, a few friends of mine and I have gotten together for game night. Not surprisingly, on game night we play games--board games, card games, etc. We usually meet at my friend Erik's house in west Philly, but in the next month or so Erik will be moving out of the Philadelphia area, and the future of game night is uncertain--so it's even more important to me now than usual to make it to game night. Even so, movies are important to me as well, and I'd assumed that during the festival I wouldn't be able to make it to game night. But earlier today, as I was looking at my schedule, I realized that I had a pretty big gap of time between my first and second movie. So I contacted my friends and asked if they were willing to get together after all. They agreed, so after Utopia I hurried over to Erik's house. After a game or two, time was getting short, and my friend Dave, who normally gives me a ride home from Erik's, was nice enough to drive me the couple of blocks over to the Bridge and drop me off for my next film.

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Azumi

Ryuhei Kitamura is one of the premier members of a new wave of fresh, exciting directors arising in Japan today. His violent fantasy action film, Versus, which I saw at the festival two years ago, was compared to Raimi's cult classic Evil Dead series. I found it entertaining, but slightly flawed. Next year, he and another of those popular new Japanese filmmakers (Yukihiko Tsutsumi) had a cinematic duel to see who could make the best film in a short amount of time about a fight to the death. Kitamura's entry was another entertaining but slightly flawed fantasy action film called Aragami. This year, Kitamura's festival film is his first big budget, major studio effort. Of course, when I read that Kitamura had another film on the schedule and it had something to do with sword fighting, it went on my list immediately. I was excited to see what this director could do with plenty of money and resources. My hope was that he could deliver on the promise of his earlier films, and leave the errors of his past behind him.

Thankfully, I did not hope in vain. Azumi (based on the manga of the same name by Yu Koyama) is exactly what I was wishing for--a flawless action fantasy extravaganza, filled with fantastic characters, hilarious villains, incredible camera effects and stunt work, beautiful visuals, and exciting action. It is crammed to bursting with spectacular sword fighting, but also has interesting things to say about the morality of violence and the ethics of inaction in the face of violence. And, perhaps most importantly, Azumi has a strong, steady pace and tone, and none of the sudden turns into ridiculous unbelievability with which Kitamura's other films were plagued. Yes, it takes place in a fantastic version of feudal Japan populated by outrageous characters capable of superhuman feats, but this fact is established early on, and is kind of standard for the genre, so it was easy for me to accept.

As the film opens, we meet the title character, the woman Azumi, when she is still a little girl. She is in the desert, sitting next to the body of a woman who is presumably her mother. We never learn how or why this woman was killed. Most fighting films would have made this the central story--Azumi's quest for revenge for the death of her mother. But this movie never mentions this moment again, and never follows up on this plot line (there's not even, as I was expecting throughout most of the film, some kind of corny last minute revelation that the big bad guy is the one that killed her mom). A man and three boys are passing through the desert and they take Azumi away, leaving the body behind.

Soon (after a neat morphing effect that transforms Azumi into her young adult self, played by the beautiful Aya Ueto) we jump forward into the future and find Azumi frolicking in the woods with nine boys, practicing sword fighting and generally having a fun old time. Azumi and the nine boys were taken in by an old warrior, brought up to an isolated spot in the mountains, and trained since childhood to be great sword fighters. They haven't seen the outside world since they were very young, and even though they have grown now to adulthood, they are strangely childish and naive. They are also, despite the martial bent of their lives, fun-loving and rather goofy. Azumi is the quietest and most thoughtful of the group. She is also, even among this group of well-trained, highly skilled fighting experts, one of the strongest. She looks tiny and fragile, but her strength, as one of her fellow fighters points out, lies mainly in her speed.

Their master tells the group that tomorrow they will leave the mountain, go out into the world, and carry out their mission. The group is excited, but they don't yet know what their mission will be. Kitamura, who likes to plot out his stories precisely and make the next step of the film very clear to the viewer, wastes no time in showing us a flashback that explains everything. We see the master on a battlefield with a priest. The field is strewn with the bodies of the dead--there are thousands of them. Included among them is the warrior's own son. The warrior and the priest agree that bloody conflicts like this one must end, and a peaceful nation must be built. But how? The answer is, eradicate all ambitious warlords. To do this, a group of master assassins must be trained. The warrior pledges to do just this, and the priest promises his assistance. Thus our group of young killers.

Back to the present. The warrior reminds his prodigies that the way of the assassin is to have a mind of steel and to be inhuman. To him, nothing else matters but the mission. It is the ultimate good, and everything else can be sacrificed to achieve it; any violence or evil done in pursuit of it is acceptable. His devotion to the mission is hard and unwavering. But the more thoughtful of his innocent assassins--especially Azumi--have their doubts. Do the ends justify the means?

I won't describe the first test of their devotion, because I want it to be as shocking to you as it was to me. Instead I'll skip to the second test: soon after the group comes down off the mountain (burning the house they've lived in and leaving nothing behind of their former life), they come upon a village being raided. The villagers are being killed. The assassins move to help, but their master holds them back. He doesn't want to endanger them or waste their abilities in a petty squabble like this one--they must save themselves for the mission. "Killing one hundred bandits will not change this nation."

The assassins will face this kind of test again and again throughout the film. Some will waver, and some will even try to leave the mission behind altogether. It's a hard moral choice, between fighting the evil we see close at hand, or ignoring that evil in favor of fighting a larger, more amorphous evil. It's also hard to kill a man you've never met, and who seems like a nice guy, just because you've been told he's an evil warlord who might cause terrible violence in the future. But the assassins are asked to do this over and over.

Although they often find it hard to stick to the mission, actually executing it is not difficult, at least at first (unfortunately for them, their enemies will soon send opponents against them who are just as superhuman as they are). Our group of assassins are very good at what they do. It isn't long before we're treated to a really serious, impressive sword fight, and from then on it's a rare moment in the film that doesn't involve fighting of some kind. This is an action-packed movie, and the action is fantastic. Most of it is traditional Japanese sword fighting, but when wires or other special effects are involved, it's either subtle enough or impressive enough to be totally acceptable.

Our assassins are assisted in their mission by a ninja named Nagato. He's a messenger and helper sent by the priest from the flashback, whose name is Tenkai. He brings the assassins their missions and warns them of danger. But Nagato is only one friend in a world full of enemies. Soon after the first mission is complete, the other warlords become aware of the assassins and send assassins of their own after them. Our heroes easily dispatch of various enemy ninja, but then they come up against an odd, wily, monkey-like character named Saru. Saru works for one of the warlords. Even though Saru looks and moves like a monkey (which is the source of much humor in the film), he barks and whines like a dog. He hires three brothers to kill the killers. In the brothers' introduction scene, we see two of them arm wrestling over knives. When one of them inevitably gets stabbed, all he has to say about it is, "It made a hole. That's cool." So, not too clever, but tough and extremely violent. They're also very funny--the film's humor comes mainly from its outrageous villains.

Meanwhile, our sheltered heroes are experiencing the outside world for the first time. They meet a group of travelling performers and are as excited as children by their acrobatics. One of the assassins falls for a female performer named Yae. For him, as for Azumi, the performers represent a different life that he has never considered before--one without a mission, and devoid of violence. This other life is a real temptation to them. But can they truly escape violence? Or is it now an unavoidable part of their lives? And if they don't fight the warlords and the other evil people in the world, who will?

This an interesting conflict in many films of this type. Obviously the audience of a fighting film is there to see the fighting--to revel in violence. And yet many fighting films, while depicting this incredible violence with obvious glee, decry that very violence, and present us with main characters who hate the killing they are forced to do. It's a way that we can have our cake and eat it too--we can enjoy the violence and hate it at the same time. Pretty cool, huh? I look at it this way--it's totally okay to enjoy fake violence, as long as you realize it's fake, and that real violence is not at all entertaining or funny.

Anyway, the three crazy brothers can't quite finish the job, so this time Saru is sent out for the big guns. He releases an even more insane killer, and an even funnier and more outrageous character, from a strange underground prison. This is Bijomaru Mogami, an incredibly skilled swordsman who dresses all in white and always carries a rose with him. He's extremely proud of, and confident in, his own skill with the sword. He loves a good fight (which is hard for him to come by, as almost no one is anywhere near his skill level) and he revels in violence, torture, pain, and death. He's also strangely effeminate and likes to laugh. He's so psychotic and sadistic that occasionally even Saru is disgusted by him and has to rein him in. "Your bad taste creeps me out," Saru tells him at one point.

Having revealed its ultimate villain, the film now rockets towards its conclusion: a huge, climactic battle, involving the remaining assassins, Bijomaru, and an army of villains, including a squad of samurai with rifles and an entire town of thieves, killers, and reprobates. (I say "remaining assassins," because by this point a good number of them have died. In fact, I started thinking the film was a little like a reality show contest--which assassin will be the final survivor?) Kitamura pulls out all the stops here, filling the screen with action and violence, and making use of all kinds of imaginative effects and camera techniques. In one scene, he films a fight from below, so we only hear what's going on, and then see the blood drip down through the floorboards. But the most spectacular, breathtaking, and seemingly impossible camera effect is used when Bijomaru and Azumi finally face off--the camera spins in dizzying vertical circles around them, from below their feet to above their heads and back again, over and over.

I described this film as flawless, but to be perfectly honest, the very end seems kind of tacked on. We follow a character to another location far away from the scene of the climactic battle, then the character escapes this new scene rather inexplicably and returns to the battlefield to discover a survivor of the battle, almost as if the trip and the intervening sequence of events has taken no time whatsoever. It feels as if Kitamura filmed two different endings and decided to edit them both into the final film, even though they don't really go together. But whatever. The movie is such a lot of fun, and both endings work so well, I was willing to accept a little finagling.

As is customary with him, Kitamura leaves us with the feeling that the film's story will continue, and that the conflict will go on. Do I smell the familiar stink of a sequel? Probably not--I think Kitamura just likes his stories to have that neverending quality. But Azumi is so excellent, I wouldn't even mind a sequel. And I can't think of a better compliment than that.

My Poll Rating: Excellent

Epilogue

After another totally entertaining film, it was time for another late night cab ride home from West Philly. This was pretty entertaining in itself, since on Thursday nights the streets of University City are full of roving gangs of drunk college kids. Anyway, soon enough, I was home and in bed and enjoying a well-deserved rest after a hard day of movie-watching and game-playing.

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Jim Genzano





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