Monday, July 17, 2006

Stepping into the Gloom - Night Watch 7/15

This weekend it was 97 degrees outside (some reports, from the guy at the McDonald’s drive through window, claim it was 101), so we decided instead of grilling out we’d cook in for a change. The menu consisted of stroganoff (we were watching a Russian movie, after all), corn on the cob and Black Russian brownies (which Satanica made from scratch using cooking chocolate, pepper and Kaluha). Baygean brought over another delicious ice cream cake, this one with cookie dough ice cream beneath the layer of golden cake. Yummy.

This week’s BMW short film was titled Powder Keg, directed by Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu, the Mexican director who brought us Amores Perros and 21 Grams. Where other directors took the concept of creating a car commercial as an opportunity to film a chase sequence (aside from Won Kar Wai’s leisurely Follow), Inarritu takes a stab at political statement. A war photographer (Stellan Skarsgaard) films a brutal South American government’s execution of a line of prisoners and is wounded during an escape. The Driver (Clive Owen) is called in to transport him safely across the border. Inarritu turns in the most heavily dramatic episode of the series, making comments about the United States’ War on Drugs program along the way. He shoots in a verite, handheld style on grainy, high contrast film – instantly separating his segment from the glossy, widescreen visuals of the previous filmmakers. Is it good? Yeah – but kind of a bummer when lined up against the escapist thrills of the prior series entries.

Our feature presentation of the night was the Russian film Night Watch (Nochnoy Dozor), which came no where near Rockford during its initial theatrical rollout. Lured in by the film’s marketing scheme, I couldn’t wait for a proper video release and turned to the bootleg market to see the film. Fox Searchlight picked up the international distribution rights to the film (and ponied up money for the sequel, Day Watch, with the stipulation that the as yet untitled third film take place partly in America) and made some interesting changes to the film for its domestic release. The most obvious of these is the use of animated subtitles that interact with the on-screen image - bleeding, shouting, becoming computer text, etc as they follow the events on screen.



One thousand years ago the forces of Light and Dark Others (people born with supernatural abilities) went to war. The armies being evenly matched, a truce was called between Gesser, the general of the Light and Zavulon, the leader of the dark, and two security factions were created – Night Watch (to keep tabs on Dark Others) and the Day Watch (to keep track of the Light Others).

In 1992 Moscow, young Anton Gorodetsky (Konstantin Khabensky) visits a witch with the intent of winning back his cheatin’ wife. What he gets is much more than he bargained for, coming to the realization that he is an Other.

Twelve years later, Anton is an officer in the Night Watch, and becomes embroiled in attempting to stop two plots – one, regarding a female vampires who is trying to lure a young boy into her toothy embrace, and another involving the reappearance of The Vortex, which threatens the entire city and could bring about the Final Battle.

The world of Night Watch is populated with endlessly entertaining characters and concepts. On Anton’s team are three shape shifters, Tiger Cub, Bear and Olga (who transforms into an owl); there are numerous psychics, seers and witches; and the Dark Others seem to consist mainly of vampires. Above all is The Gloom, a separate dimension that Others can slip into. Unfortunately, all of this tantalizing information is thrown at the audience with little or no explanations or context. Olga, for instance, transforms from an owl to human unexpectedly, her condition a punishment for crimes she apparently committed in the past. And that’s all the info the film is willing to give. It short changes the characters to leave so much unanswered; hopefully some of these threads will be pursued in the sequel. Also a problem is the hasty wrap-up to the central conflict – let’s just say the resolution leaves much to be desired.

On the whole, Night Watch is an extremely cool piece of fantasy cinema, offering striking images created with the competence of the best Hollywood-caliber CG. It moves fast and crams a lot of exposition into its running time. But, in the final analysis, if it would have taken time to explore some of its intriguing concepts with a bit more depth it would have made for a more satisfying experience.

Fox made some minor changes to the film for its international release, including adding English narration to the prologue, swapping out a Russian program glimpsed on the television for a clip of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and deleting an entire character from the film. In the original version, the Light Others recruited a Night Watch gigolo to track down the Virgin (who channels The Vortex) and bed her to lift the curse. To Fox’s credit, the removal of this particular subplot is completely unnoticeable.

The sequel, Day Watch, has already been released in Russia but has no domestic date attached; it is said to be better on characterization, plot and humor than the first installment.

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