Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Haunted World Of El Superbeasto

As the record shows I’m a pretty big Rob Zombie Apologist. Still considering I spent even a positive review of his work pretty much bitching that he doesn’t make anything original anymore I figured I’d put my money where my mouth was. By which of course I mean I’d put my money where Rob Zombie’s mouth is by forking over my cold hard cash to pay for a copy of his new DTV animated movie The Haunted World Of El Superbeasto. Assuming that is, he uses my money to buy food.

Whatever the hell you want to say about The Haunted World Of El Superbeasto, and lord knows you can say one hell of a lot about it, not all of it pretty, you can’t say it isn’t in Rob Zombie’s voice.

The problem With Superbeasto is that it’s not a good movie. This problem is sizable but not insurmountable.

Superbeasto takes place in a far off world where John K. is God. Populated only by superheroes, luchadors, carnies, monsters, and the occasional porn star. It follows El Superbeasto, a hot tempered slow witted luchador who has a lot of sex and beats things up, sometimes he even does these things at different times! Tom Papa, who voices El Superbeasto and cowrote the scipt, is very funny his character is not.

Somehow he and his sister Suzi X (Sherri Moon Zombie. Who else?) get caught up in Dr. Satan’s (An amazingly game Paul Giamatti) quest to rule the world. While this seems to be some sort of plot, that’s giving the movie more credit then it earns. Really it’s just about 80 minutes of raging id.

Saying that it’s a one joke movie isn’t really fair, it’s more like five one joke movies that the film keeps cutting between. Oh El Superbeasto’s stupid, violent and likes sex! Oh Sheri Moon Zombie is a superhero and has a Robot Who Wants to fuck her! Dr. Satan is a loser! Rosario Dawson is a ghetto fab ho bag! Through in some bizarrely dated references (A Janeane Garofalo Joke? Really? Man you guys are on the bleeding edge!) Just keep shuffling between these “jokes” and we’ll see what sticks!

The big laughs come from Hard and Phirm (allow your inner eighth grader a moment to smile) whose songs narrate the action, though sadly, not all. Still their anger at Zombie’s homages (Hey he’s just ripping off Carrie) inconsistencies (Why would a Zombie need a scarf?) and tribute to Schoolhouse Rock are always good for a chuckle.

Despite all that I can’t help but give this movie a light and extremely qualm ridden recommendation. El Superbeasto is unabashedly the work of someone who loves horror movies, and there wasn’t so much a frame that didn’t contain a reference that genuinely made me smile. It’s a world where you can watch Christopher Lee’s Dracula hit on Elsa Lanchester, and Tura Santana can finally give Otis Driftwood the kick in the puss he so richly deserves. It opens with a homage to Frankenstein so ultra detailed I literally began to giggle.

Sure normally the fact that it makes for a good game of spot the reference wouldn't be enough to recommend a movie. But there’s so much fetishtic detail that it’s impossible for me to think that a horror afficinodio wouldn’t like this just a little, even if it’s equally tough for me to fathom how anyone could go so far as to love it.

In speaking of people who love horror movies (SEGWAY!!!) It’s October which means it’s time for the second annual 31 DAYS OF HORROR!!! Things are going to be a little different this year, for one thing I’m actually going to do all 31 Days this time. For another… wait no I think that’s the only difference.

Anyway, I’m psyched. I’ve got a lot of good films lined up and I for one, am planning on having a great time! Hope you choose to come by and do the same.

Oh and…

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Unseen #13: Macao!

Why’d I Buy It ?: Came in Robert Mitchum Box Set.

Why Haven’t I Watched It ?: No good reason what so ever.

How Was It?: I’ve had to put this project on hold, thanks to the gignormous Eva revisit. But now that that beast has been slain it’s time for THE UNSEEN to return! Only to be put it on hold again in a couple of days to start another month long project. Still I wanted to put one up to prove that the series isn’t dead. And I picked one hell of a stopover.

There’s a whole lot to like about Macao. It’s old school Hollywood filmmaking at its best. Powered by a great director (actually two great directors Nicholas Ray came into pinch hit for Von Sternberg) lush black and white, sultry exoticism, and two stars who aren’t so much people as they are sentient balls of sex.

Macao is as dirty of a movie as one could make under the production code. It might as well have been subtitled “Everybody Wants To Sleep With Jane Russell!” Given that Jane Russell and the level that everyone wants to sleep with her, is what drives the movie. Oh sure there’s some macguffins about stolen diamonds and a smuggling ring, but really it’s all about Russell and her uh attributes.

And what man could possibly stand up to Russell without seeming like some sort of eunic? Robert Fucking Mitchum that’s who. Mitchum is of course the coolest son of a bitch who has ever walked the planet. A granite slab of lazy eyed unintimitable masculinity. Mitchum owns every scene he’s in, in this movie or in any movie for that matter. Heck I'm fairly certain he owns scenes in movies he's not in.

Mitchum plays a drifter who winds up in the backwater of Macao. He fends off a would be rapist who was giving Russell some trouble and she steals his wallet to say thank you. Mitchum ends up mistaken for an undercover cop by a prominent ganglord who Russell ends up singing for. The gangster targets Mitchum for death, though Mitchum doesn’t seem to worried. Neither does Russell, indeed they seem interested in little aside from what fine specimens they find each other to be.

This is all done with the best of studio system economy. The film barely runs over eighty minutes and crams more entertainment and artistry into it’s scant runtime then most films do at twice the length.

Anyone looking for an old fashioned picture filled with exotic locales, danger round any corner, where men where the men where cool and smoked like chimneys, and the women where dames and wore the phrase like a complement, would do well to visit Macao.

Monday, September 28, 2009

The End Of Evangelion

So here we are at the other end. I hope you’ve enjoyed the trip as much as I have. Yep finally made it through the whole Evangelion series. I’ll tell you it’s crazy to think that; the whole of Evangelion finished.

Aw Crap.

But that’s OK, I’ll be there, I’m looking forward to it. Can’t wait actually. Because Evangelion God bless it continues to intrigue and challenge. Even 20,000 words later.

Here's the whole Shebang:

Episodes 1 & 2
Episodes 3 & 4
Episodes 5 & 6
Episodes 7 & 8
Episodes 9-12
Episodes 13 & 14
Episode 15 & 16
Episodes 17-20
Episodes 21&22
Episodes 23 & 24
Episodes 25 & 26 + The End Of Evangelion

When I started Evangelion I was expecting a genial trip down nostalgia lane, with an occasional laugh at how seriously I took some of this stuff. I was genuinely surprised, yeah there’s a lot of clumsy stuff but once I let my guard down I became genuinely engaged with the series boldness and ambition.

Sure there’s a lot of stuff about Evangelion that simply doesn’t work. You could even go so far as to call the series a failure in a lot of different ways. It fails I think in the final analysis to tell a coherent story. Much of it’s time is spent on subplots, that don’t go anywhere, and it all too often confuses psycho babble and techno babble with actual drama.

And I don’t care. In my first article in the series I wrote how I felt that watching Evangelion opened me up to a lot of different things. At the end of the series I think I’d be forced to go even further. I think Evangelion has served as a template from what I expect from art in general. Messy, ambitious, richly detailed, and above all deeply personal.

What it lacks in coherence it makes up in daring. What it lacks in narrative satisfaction it makes up in emotional satisfaction. Evangelion left it’s mark upon me, that’s how I define great art.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Revisit Evangelion: The End

So we come to the end at last. Evangelion has not one but two of the most controversial endings of all times. The mere mention of both the TV series ending, and The End Of Evangelion are enough to send people sputtering into a rage. One’s an almost completely subjective psychological purge, the other the equivalent of burning down your house when the neighbors complain that you’re playing your music too loud.

For the record I will be reviewing both endings as separate entities. I know that a lot of fans believe that the two are merely different views on the same occurrence. But despite some overlap, I simply cannot reconcile the differences in tone. The TV show is an ending of hope the Movie is an ending of despair.

I have always been something of an apologist for the TV ending. No matter how clumsy it is I find it moving. Yes it’s little more then a stream of conscience rant, a barely coherent couch trip. And no, it doesn’t solve all the mysteries. Hell I’m not even sure what’s happening. But damn it, it’s such an honest unguarded work of art. Someone nakedly saying “This is who I am.” I can’t help but find that brave and fascinating. And if you where just here for the giant robots I can see how this would annoy. But those where always the window dressing. Make no mistake the series does end in a battle royale, it’s just instead of robots fighting monsters, existentialism’s philosophy of self determination fights to the death with the ultimate example of collective will. The real battlefield of Evangelion was always inside the character’s heads and in my opinion the ending that fight get’s here is suitably epic.

The episode begins with Shinji melting down over his inability to process killing Kaworu. From the moment it starts he’s trapped inside his own head, and as the actual apocalypse begins and the world falls down around him it just gets worse. This is where Evangelion stylistically hits it’s nadir or zenith depending on your point of view.

Showing the end of the world is easy, Anno wants to show the shifting of the entire human consciousness, not so easy. The episode is basically one long free association based montage. The characters swimming in and out of each other’s heads and neurosis, aided by an unusually haunting score. I find the bracingly abstract style, to be quite engaging. It has been known to make people tear out there eyes though so I suppose it is something of a matter of taste (And in all fairness I can see how a title card informing you of the apocalypse can be frustratingly anti climatic).

Even if it’s clumsy, and didatic, and Anno’s philosophizing comes off more as rank solipsism rather then great truth, I always find these episodes to be oddly refreshing in a literal way. I always feel good after I watch them. After the marathon of suffering that was the second half of the series, these two episodes have the feeling of a hard won victory. The oft parodied “Congratulations” truly does feel like the right thing to say. For their ambition, and openness I will always love these two episodes.

But it’s just how hard won that victory is that makes The End Of Evangelion go down so bitter.

The funny thing about EoE is it gives the fans everything they thought want in the worst possible way. That movie is practically Faustian.

You want to see Shinji to sack up and tell Asuka how he feels? Why don't you watch him do it while he wanks off over her catatonic body! Want to see SEELE and NERV throw down? Then watch this utter massacre! You want to see Misato kick alot of ass? Then watch her do it, and then get her head blown off! Want to see Asuka back out of her coma and kicking ass? Watch her get cannibalized afterwards! Want to see Eva-01 in full form? You'll get to. For um about fifteen seconds. Want to see what happens to the world after instrumentality? Well you ain't going to like it.

Honestly did a fanboy wish for this movie using the Monkey's Paw?

It really is understandable why Anno would do this. Imagine if you will that you create your opus. A piece of art that not only sums up your entire world view, philosophy and bears your soul to the world, but autobiographically summarizes your own journey from suicidal depression to self acceptance. And the response from your previously adoring masses is a general “Fuck You.” Frustration is understandable.

But just because it’s understandable doesn’t make it enjoyable. It’s hard to watch End Of Evangelion without the sour feeling that you’re watching a spoiled child break his toys with a hammer so no one else can play with them. It’s an act of cinematic petulance that has never been matched.

It’d just be churlish though to write The End Of Evangelion off. As ugly as it is, there are some true moments of brilliance scattered throughout. SEELE’s elimination of NERV (again the fact that the difference between SEELE and Gendo’s end games is never explained is the one loose end of Evangelion that’s always irked me. I’m not even sure whose ended up happening) is chilling in its brutal efficiency.

Asuka’s doomed last stand is as glorious as it is horrifying. And when Third Impact does occur it doesn’t disappoint depicted with imagery strange, appalling, and beautiful enough to be the actual apocalypse. It’s the end of the world depicted with glorious imagination, and when the world simultaneously into a sea of LCL and burning crosses it’s tough not to feel something approaching real awe.

Despite Shinji coming to more or less the same realization he came to in the TV show, the results are markedly different. Waking up in the dead world alone it just doesn’t feel right. It has moments of glory, and some of the most powerful imagery I’ve ever seen in a movie, but at the End Of Evangelion on that beach, it’s the Sex Pistols epitath that comes to mind “Ever feel like you’ve been cheated?”

The End Of Evangelion paradoxically remains a complete triumph as a work of art. And a complete failure as a work of storytelling.

TV Show Ending: A
End Of Evangelion: B

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Revisit Evangelion 23 & 24

Episode 23 starts with a grim reminder of what’s just happened. With Misato listening to Kaji’s last message over and over again. Just incase the metaphor wasn’t clear enough it then cuts outside of the room where she has barred the door, leaving Shinji and Pen Pen outside. Literally cutting the people she cares about out of her life. Asuka has also shut herself away still crippled by the attack.

Eva’s great theme has always been isolation, the pain it causes and the insane lengths people will go to in order to escape it. While Shinji’s and Rei’s loneliness has always been highlighted, Asuka and Misato where always two of the seemingly most well adjusted people on the show. It’s as if the isolation is spreading like a disease.

Asuka’s camped out a Hikari’s house, numbly pounding away on a video game as the baffled Hikari looks on. The attack from the last episode is an ongoing thing, getting worse with time rather then better. Unable to verbalize what happened to her, much less reach out for help Asuka’s sliding deeper and deeper into her shell, with vast consequences.

Odd though, that for an episode that focuses so centrally on her, we still haven’t seen Rei yet. Rei is after all the central mystery of Evangelion. Is she Gendo’s puppet? Yui’s Ghost? Does she know what she is? Does she have emotions? Free Will? Do We?

An Angel attacks, (Another impressively abstract one a simple halo of light) and in a move that’s fucked up even for him, Gendo launches Asuka in Unit 02 to act as a decoy while the big boys go save the world.

It’s no use the Angel goes straight for Unit one, penetrating it’s AT Field and snapping directly into the body (The imagery here is pretty phallic, two symbolic rapes in a row), beginning to absorb it. The corruption is visualized in ickily Cronenbergian terms. It’s body horror on a grand scale, with the human body mortifying itself from mere contact with the angel. For a series known for it’s horrific imagery, this is certainly no exception.

The nature of the angels attack becomes clear as Rei begins to become absorbed into Angel’s conciseness. The Angel makes contact with her and for the first time we get to hear what the angel has to say for itself.

It doesn’t disappoint, continuing to keep things fundamentally alien. To the angel humanity simply doesn’t make sense.

Then in one of the most stirring segements of the show, the girl accused of not having a will of her own asserts it quite definitely.

As she’s being absorbed into a group conscience she rebels. Shinji has been sent out to save her and The Angel goes for him, Rei stops it the only way she can. I don’t know why I find this sequence so moving. Rei herself might be part of a hive mind. If anyone should slip into the Angel it should be her. But there is something inside her that is herself, that she refuses to give up. Even if the only way she can express it is with her death. It’s about as existential as it gets, and it’s beautiful.

And because Anno’s a sadistic bastard he doesn’t even allow a pyranic victory. Another Rei is brought back, as soon as she’s gained humanity it’s gone. The ultimate backslide in a show full of them. I’ve often thought that Rei’s death was a cheap ploy, so that the character who the fans had affection for wouldn’t be the same one ending the world. But it makes a lot more thematic sense to me now. She’s the show in microcosm one step forward two steps back.

Shinji’s numb after Rei’s death, Misato tries to comfort him, and he shuts her out. Self imposed isolation all over again.

Then the show takes a hard left and we’re in for some naked testifying with Ritsuko and SEELE. To say this scene is bizarre is understatement. I suppose we can only be grateful that the monoliths didn’t want to see Fuyuski’s junk while he was testifying.

Apparently deciding that being probed naked by a bunch of Sapient Monoliths is about one step too far (funny as I was thinking the same thing) Ritsuko’s loyalty to Gendo promptly plummets. She lures Misato and Shinji into the central Dogma to show them the myriad of fucked up stuff that NERV is storying down there. After taking them to the haunting “Eva Graveyard” and forcing Shinji to relive his most painful memory, she takes them to multi Reis and then destroy them in a sequence for which the term disturbing doesn’t quite cover.

Episode 24 is called The Beginning Of The End, which for my money makes it about twenty four episodes late. All of Eva is an ending. That’s what makes it simultaneously intriguing and frustrating.

It get’s up to a cheery start with a flashback to little Asuka discovering her mother’s suicide. Unless it also started with the murder of puppy it’s tough to tell how it could have gotten off to a much worse start. Then it does. Cutting to a comatose naked Askua in a wrecked apartment sitting in a tub of filthy water. If it hasn’t been clear that things will not end well for these characters it should be by now.

Shinji is understandably shaken by his encounter with the pool of dissolving Rei’s, It’s amazing how well he taken it in stride. Nerv is an utterly corrupt agency and now Shinji knows it. Looking over the destroyed Tokyo 3 he’s utterly at a loss. The city and people he’s fought to protect are gone. There’s nothing.

And then Kaworu comes. After dissecting Asuka’s mind, and Rei’s body it shows up in what it believes to be human. To make Kaworu work you have to think of him in purely metaphorical terms, Trying to decide why SEELE sent him, or how he could possibly avoid NERV’s detection will merely cause wailing and gnashing of teeth.

Rei certaintly recognizes what he is on an instinctual if not conscience level. And his inferences add yet another wrinkle to question of “Just what the hell is the nature of Rei puzzle”

A slightly homoerotic scene later, and Shinji’s defense are completely gone. He trusts Kaworu completely, and as always when Shinji puts his faith in something it bites him in the ass. Kaworu is an angel of course, but he firmly understands The Hedgehog’s dilemma. He kills with love.

There’s a quick scene at SEELE where they talk about destroying NERV. The thing that has never been answered to my satisfaction, is the difference between SEELE and Gendo’s end game. Both are attempting to cause the same Human Instrumentality to occur. What’s the difference?

Misato in the meanwhile has given Pen Pen to another family. It’s the last symbol of connection, the last attachment sent away. Kaworu and SEELE talk, and even though it seems as though Anno is genuinely trying to tell us what’s going on, it still comes off as indecipherable babble.

Either way it’s clear that Kaworu is done fucking around, and he activates Unit 02 and blasts his way down into the central Dogma. Shinji’s sent to stop him, and the fight is suitably intense for the last one of the series. Shinji is understandably distraught at being used and betrayed again.

Like Rei Kaworu asserts his will through death. His existence will end humanity so he chooses not exist. Shinji makes the choice. In the world of Eva everyone sacrifices what they want the most. Shinji’s paid his price. Now the final test is all that remains.

Episode 23: A
Episode 24: B

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Revisit Evangelion 21 & 22

(Notes: Sorry for the gap between the posts, I recently had to face some time constraints that went from bad to ungodly with very little warning. All I can say is I would have much rather been doing this too.

On another note I’m reviewing the Director’s Cut of the next four episodes.)

We begin Episode 21 at the ill fated NERV station in Antartica. We watch through a security tape as off screen scientists spout techno babble and bitch about the smoking areas, the time stamp on the bottom of the camera tells us it’s doomsday, but they don’t know that yet.

We witness the birth of Adam and the beginning of the end, but it’s nice to remember that the people doing it weren’t monsters or with grand machevellian schemes but regular schmoes who bitched about having to go outside. Frailty caused the end not evil. It’s a fitting reminder because perhaps no other episode of EVA is so centered around human frailty.

The Episode takes place (mostly) as a long form interrogation of Vice Commander Fuyutsuki by SEELE (finally in their menacing Kubrick lite forms) Who are understandably pissed that NERV has allowed Unit 01 to gain omniscience. We flash back through his eyes to the time before the third impact and all that led to it. As I’ve noted before part of EVA’s genius has always been it’s ability to frame things (shots, episodes, characters) just off center from where they’d usually be. This episodes is one of the best examples of that taking a look at the ongoing struggle from the man who looks over the shoulder of the main players.

It starts in 1999 with a young Fuyutsuki, meeting both Ikaris . It’s our first clear look at Yui, who even in this episode is mostly kept in the shadows, lest it become unclear why she’s worth ending the world for. She’s quickly sketched as a warm, intelligent, maternal prescence and then placed offscreen. Our early looks at Gendo are much more interesting.

First shown when Fuyutsuki bails him out of a police station, Gendo’s a different character from what we know. Still as smart and ruthless but cocky about it, enjoying his intelligence and the way he can intimidate others. His first words to Fuyutsuki are “I’m not used to be liked but I am used to being hated.” And just like that, we can finally see him as Shinji’s father, someone who has allowed their wounds to make them cold and bitter, rather then just absorbing them like Shinji.

This sequence is followed by one of my favorite shots in the series, a black and white title card with the word 2001 on it, with the voice over “The first year after second impact is… difficult to talk about." The stark figure and the dark inference behind those words is more effective then any imagery or monologue could ever be.

We come back to Fuyutsuki on an expedition to Antarctica, Gendo’s behind it of course, and the smash cut from Fuyutsuki’s chastising of SEELE and Gendo to the present where he now works diligently for them, is all that needs to be said about the way we compromise ourselves.

We cut to a few years later Fuyutsuiki as a whistleblower, having uncovered the roll of SEELE and Gendo in the second impact he’s about to go public, when Gendo treats him to a personal tour of the Geofront, the Maji, and finally the skeletal prototype of Eva Unit 00. And he just can’t. It’s a great moment, temptation and weakness, the knowledge of the right thing to do, but not the will to use it.

After a brief stopover in the present day we’re onto Ritsuko’s flashback as she reminiscences about the early days of her Misatos’s and Kaji’s friendship. Like all of the material involving these characters it’s well drawn and warm and considering what happens later in the episode, tragic.

We watch as Yui let’s Shinji make the most ill advised field trip ever, and then are introduced to Ritsuko’s mother and Gendo getting it on, and a little girl named Rei who seems wise beyond her years. This is predictably some pretty dark stuff, as we’re dealing with obsession. Some of the creepiest material is between Rei I and Dr. Akagi. It’s obvious that this is a different Rei then the one we know. It takes her all of two seconds to psychologically destroy Dr. Akagi, and she enjoys it. The question the series never answers is how much Rei knows about herself. What she doing here? Is it revenge or reflex action?

But nothing can really prepare you for the sight of the elder Dr. Akagi strangling the first Rei before bashing her brains in against, the computers she created.

The episode ends with the still startling execution of Kaji by Misato. The same mistakes made over and over again. Deep compromises made with our cores that have disastrous consequences. The image of Shinji burying his head while Misato cries in the background is as dark as the show gets.

Episode 22 is also about human frailty though on a micro rather then macro scale. The episode starts with Kaji and Asuka on the air craft carrier on their way to meet with Shinji and Misato. Asuka is her usual self, and it’s a surprising reminder of how fall Asuka has already fallen before her encounter with the Angel in this episodes.

We then flash back and start to explore the really fucked up psychology that makes Asuka tick. It’s as dark and Oedipal (or Elektrical?) as Shinji’s if not more so. Unfortunately it also showcases the heavy handed dorm room philosophy that keeps this episode from being as strong as it can. When Asuka’s step mother solemnly says “Maybe we’re like God’s Dolls man!” it’s tough to stifle a giggle.

We get a bit of Foreshadowing with Misato wondering why so many EVA’s are being rushed into production (oh you’ll find out). We then cut to Misato’s apartment, where the beyond awkward encounter shows once again, how far gone these characters are.

Askua comes dangerously close to opening up, so of course she retreats into so type A bitchier and then has a mini meltdown in the bathroom.

We’re then treated to the infamous elevator scene in which Rei and Asuka stand in silence for a full minute, before Rei starts her passive aggressive needling and Asuka starts her hateful bitchery. It’s worth noting how Rei asserts her free will, as it will be put to the ultimate test next episode. Though ten years of human experience has made it pretty clear that Askua’s behavior stems from deep seated insecurity, it doesn’t make it any more pleasant to sit through.

An angel appears reusing the gimmick of staying above the Earth’s atmosphere. Told to act as backup Asuka launches herself anyway, and we get one of the most disturbing sequences of the series. After failing to take out the angel with a sniper rifle. The angel invades Asuka’s mind. The mind rape that follows is a genuinely disturbing and sickening sequence, despite the cliché’s it employs (Handel’s Messiah used for ironic juxtaposition for the eight billionth time) . Like Shinji’s freakout in the Sea Of Dirac, something about it brings into focus how young these characters are, and their vulnerability is exploited terribly.

The Eva writhing in pain as all of it’s pilots insecurities and weaknesses are exploited by an unknowable intelligence, finding out what it means to be human by dissecting the mind of one, is sickening. We get another stream of consciousness trip, and as it’s an attack the imagery is even more abrasive it’s rough stuff to say the least. Saying it’s a rape is no exaggeration. It says something about the sequences power that the catatonia Asuka lapses into after it seems the only logical response.

The sequence ends with a trip inside central Dogma, the regeneration of Lilith, and the use of the Spear of Longinius. It’s all EVA’s Patented Dream Like Imagery, conveying the fact that something enormous is happening even if we can’t understand just what. But it ends the episode on a suitably apocalyptic note. In many ways this episode is the Nadir of Evangelion, the highest price paid for the littlest of reasons.

Episode 21: A
Episode 22: B

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Revist Evangelion: Episode 17-20

Fourth Child is all about dread. A slow sustained build up of things getting worse and worse. Things get off with Misato being interrogated by SEELE, all done in one impressionistic shot (And yes this is an example of EVA’s legendary cheapness but considering the quality of the animation shown later in this four episode arc it’s tough to fault it too much). The last encounter with the Angel has left everyone weary, everyone’s waiting for the other shoe to drop.

It does quite decisively when The Angels wipe Nevada and the American branch of NERV, off the face of the Earth. Done in one long sustained fade to red the effect is as simple as it is eerie. It earns the rest of this arc the benefit of the doubt. Anything can happen.

We finally get to see the “dummy plugs” that everyone has been yammering about for the past few episodes. AI designed to simulate a living pilot inside the EVA. The Eva’s scary enough with a human “controlling” it, when you remove human conscience from it the effect is disastrous.

The “revelation” that Toji is the fourth child, and more intriguingly that everyone at Shinji’s school is a possible candidate, is telegraphed, but effective. The rest of the episode runs through the soap opera paces briskly but effectively. The budding romance between Toji and Hikari is stuff we’ve seen before and is obvious tragedy bait, but it’s done well. After what we’ve seen it’s hard to take them at face value. We’re just waiting for the other shoe to drop.

The episode spins it’s wheels, there’s plenty of dark inferences, technobabble, and skullduggery. Kaji and Shinji have a nice conversation, so we get a rare moment when Kaji isn’t hitting on someone. The rest of the episode spins it’s wheels going over things we already know, but even though it loses it’s momentum slightly, the groundwork has already been set.

Ambivalence begins with the transportation of the new Eva Unit 3 (Really there has to be an easier way to transport a giant robot then hanging it from a giant cross underneath a plane) something goes wrong, and just like that, the bombs underneath the table for the rest of the episode. Shinji remains ignorant that his Toji is the pilot of EVA 3.

Shinji and Kaji get another nice moment. One of Eva’s themes is how people try to and fail to fill roles for each other. In these scenes Kaji appears to be the ideal Father figure for Shinji, the polar opposite of the cold exacting Gendo. He’s doomed to ultimately fail.

The activation of Unit 3 is as a perfect EVA freakout. The sabotaged EVA immediately goes berserk. We’ve scene the Eva’s wreck havoc in stringently controlled situations, the consequences of one going insane out in the open are predictably dire. It’s an unforgiving reminder of just how dangerous the EVA’s are, decimating an entire base of people In seconds (How the hell Misato survives this I still can’t figure out).

The possessed EVA staggering around the Tokyo twilight, silhouetted against the blood red sun, is a one of the most ominous in the show’s run. EVA 03 makes quick work of the other two. The scene where it first infects and then decimates a helpless UNIT 00 is especially traumatic.

The stage is set for the battle between Unit 01 and Unit 03. It’s one of the best and most brutal in the show’s run, as The EVA’s Limbs contort and stretch into sickeningly unnatural angles, You feel every blow. As the tide turns against Shinji and he refuses to kill the other pilot. Gendo, ever the teddy bear, activates the dummy plug.

And then we get to see just how dangerous an EVA without a conscience really is. The battle that follows, with EVA 01 brutalizing EVA 03 with a helpless screaming Shinji trapped inside is one of the series most disturbing sequences. And even though you knew it was coming that final crack as the entry plug shatters remains sickening.

The episode ends with one hell of a cliffhanger, a pissed off Shinji ready to destroy NERV with Unit 01. And though it’s solved a little too patly at the beginning of the next episode. It’s very clear that the game has changed.

After being taken from the EVA, Shinji is arrested, resigns, then tells Gendo to go fuck himself. Shinji and Misato say goodbye Shinji actually shows some backbone and sticks to his guns. And then predictably, an Angel comes and one of the series most intense moments begins.

Whiel the Angel does revert a bit to a more humanoid form, it’s still a creepy and threatening presence, its mournful mask like face a nice disturbing touch. Breaking into the Geofront almost immediately. Another good thing about the Angels was the way they continually learned from their predecessor’s mistakes, not falling for the same tricks and traps twice. This one breaks through NERV’s defenses so rapidly it’s almost embarrassing.

There’s an interesting moment where Unit 01 rejects Rei (once again how exactly does this work?” After brushing aside Askua, in a detailed disturbing attack. The Angel continues to decimate the Geo Front.

Shinji who hasn’t let such a litte thing as an apocalpitic assault change his mind about piloting, finds himself finally suitably unnerved when UNIT 02’s decapitated head flies into his shelter. Stumbling out onto the street we get our first look at the attack from the ground level in awhile.

It’s a nice reminder of the sense of scale these things truly have. Rei attempts a suicide bombing which still doesn’t take the thing out. There’s a real sense of danger to this fight, despite the fact that we know the series will not likely end. One nice thing about EVA we know it can always get worse.

Shinji finally convinces himself to pilot again, and then things get epic. The Angel Breaks into NERV headquarters and is getting ready to fry the supporting cast when EVA 01 burst through the wall, and drags it up to the surface. It’s one of the coolest most intense moments in the series, and it just keeps going,

It takes the EVA back to it’s primal roots, as it bludgeons the angel with a stray piece of metal and then proceeds to pull it’s face off. Just at the worst possible moment The EVA Runs out of power. The Angel starts to take it apart with surgical precision and then, she wakes back up.

And if there’s one thing this series has taught us, it’s that you don’t fuck with Yui Ikari. It’s tough to write about this episode without making it a mere string of superlatives but it’s really impossible to oversell the mix of excitement and dread that it conjures up. The EVA goes berserk, breaks the Angel, and then in one of the series most shocking images, splatters the Angel’s blood against the AT Field, regenerates A HUMAN ARM in place of one it lost earlier in the fight, and howls like a caveman, crawls around on all fours and proceeds to eat the still living angel.

Simply put, it is some freaky shit. A grotesque, primitive, tableu that manages to be truly shocking and disturbing. As the EVA mutates, howling into the articial night, ripping off the bindings we mistook as Armor, it’s very clear that the change promised in the last few episodes where no idle threat. The show just took the last conventions of the Mecha show, and it just ate them raw.

As if to prove it the next Episode is one of the most experimental in the show’s run. A justifiably freaked out SEELE considers killing Ikari, but decide that considering the fact he now has a giant cannibal robot with the power of God to wait a little.

The Shot of the bandaged “undressed” EVA 01 is uniquely, well after writing about the last four episodes I’m running out of similes for disturbing. It’s another example of EVA’s ambiguity working in its favor. Our idea of what’s behind those bandages is infinitely worse then anything Anno could cook up. That one mad staring eye is all we need.

Things go from bad to worse when the crew finally get the camera’s inside Unit 01’s cockpit working again, and find out that Shinji has been absorbed into the Eva (Which has been kind enough to generate his plug suit as well). Some half assed metaphysics later and a plan to recover Shinji is formulated. We then shift for Eva’s most sustained and ambitious Stream of Conscience sequence yet the rest of the episode is spent inside Shinji’s head, and it becomes very clear that as ambitious as the other two sequences where, they where just practice.

The sequence is a daring bracing one, in my opinion it’s the best of it’s type, but once again, you know if these work for you or not, and if they don’t prepared to be quite annoyed.

It’s fitting it should end this way. These four episodes are EVA at it’s best, as well as it’s most Eva-y. When I think of EVA it’s these episodes I think of. A little clumsy perhaps, but with more then enough ambition and daring to make up for it.

Episode 17: B-
Episode 18: B
Episode 19: A
Episode 20: A

Friday, September 18, 2009

Revist Evangelion: Episode 15 & 16

Episode 15 (Why is it always the titles that refer to Misato that are like eight paragraphs long?) starts out with the revelation (confirmation is perhaps more appropriate) that Kaji is a spy. This revelation never leads to much (except you know the obvious) the for whom and why of it are never really delved into, it nicely establishes the fact that in the world of EVA, nobody really knows anybody. This, more so then any of the other episodes is about the relationships the main characters have with one another. The hedgehogs shoving their spines into eachother. Despite their closeness (or lack their of) there can be no true understanding.

The show nicely juxtaposes the average Junior High romantic Hijinks with Kaji and Misato’s mature love story. Both the playful begins of romance and the real emotional wreckage it can lead to further down the line. It all starts out with a wedding of a mutual friend of Kaji’s, Misato’s and Ritsuko. A quick conversation about the weddings they’ve been attending lately nicely underlines the fact, that the people of NERV aren’t really allowed to have normal lives.

From there we launch into the happiest relationship in the Evangelion universe, one in which one spouse is dead and the other trying to end the world with the aid of her reverse engineered clone.

Shinji and Gendo are taking their annual trip to his mother’s grave. On the way there Shinji chats up Rei. Knowing what we know the scene plays out fascinating. Like I’ve said, one of the most interesting questions of the series is how much Rei really knows about herself. She certainly seems to be made uncomfortable by Shinji’s observation that he reminds him of his mother, but is she bothered by it subconsciously or consciously? Is she afraid of what Shinji might find out, or what she might be forced to learn about herself?

Gendo’s pittance of validation in Episode 12 has left Shinji hungry for more. Their relationship also parallels the other’s explored in the episode. Father and Son stare at each other from across a gulf of mutual incomprehension. Though it turns out that both long for some sort of reunion neither has any idea how to create it.

The next sequence showcase’s Eva’s use of the abstract in objectively real space, albietly in a more subtle way. The sequence starts with a mini montage of Misato, Askua, and Shinji heading to their separate encounters, each a piece of the sentence “Well” “See” “You Later” only for the kicker to reveal that they’ve been separately addressing Misato’s pet Penguin. Even though they live together these are three people who can’t communicate even in the most rudimentary way.

We catch the wedding in impressionistic flashes quick glimpses of all the clichés of the ceremony, Kaji, Misato, and Ritsuko start their routine and just as we’re settling in, we smash cut to a long shot of a cemetery with rows upon rows of graves. The engine that has driven Evangelion has always been the fear of death, the ultimate isolation. The message couldn’t be clearer, no matter what we tell ourselves through ceremony, tradition, ritual, and banter, we end up here.

The abstraction continues here, with Gendo towering over Shinji who towers over his mothers grave, all brought together with a long slow pan. Powerful vertical lines all stretched beyond the possible. Gendo and Shinji talk about Yui, and just as they seem to be connecting, just as they begin to put away their years of baggage, NERV transport comes to take Gendo away. Anno clearly sees Gendo as a tragic figure, chasing his white whale to the exclusion of anything else even when what he truly seeks is within his grasp he can’t recognize it.

We go back to Kaji, Ritsuko, and Misato. Kaji brings up the theme of the episode, but luckily he still manages to skirt the didacticism that infects the series at the worse, merely pointing out that both he and Misato where still too self absorbed when they first lived together, only playing house. For a show which is often accused of having characters serve only as symbols or didactic mouth pieces, I really have to highlight how well these three are written. They really do seem to share the easy intimacy of people with a shared past.

The episode ends with two kisses, neither of which will ultimately turn out well. Two clumsy grasps at something resembling emotional intimacy that will do much more harm then good. They’re mistakes but the kind we can’t help but make, when we don’t understand others and ourselves.

Just when we think we’ve seen it all, the episode ends with to back to back revelations both played disturbing as hell. We get our first look at Rei’s true nature, and Gendo’s smile, way more disturbing then his ordinary grimace. And then we get to see the exact secret Kaji’s been trying to find out. The shot of the rotting hulk suspended on the blood red cross, is disturbing dream like imagery. Horrifying in it’s implications even if we can’t grasp them yet. Episode 14 promised that the game had changed. This confirms it.

Things keep getting weirder with The Splitting Of The Breast. The episode starts out with a feint, an almost perversely light note, the kind of low key domestic comedy we haven’t seen in awhile, softening us before the blow of the most fucked up Eva episode to date. This continues into NERV headquarters where we find out that saving the world multiple times has done the impossible and actually slightly raised Shinji’s self esteem.

For this he must pay terribly.

I’ve talked before about my appriciation of the way that EVA has potrayed the Angels as truly being unfathomable. The Angel in Splitting Of The Breast is probably the height of this. Nothing but a sentient black and white ball of negative space. It’s genuinely intimidating, just so odd that there’s no way to wrap your mind around it.

The three pilots are deployed and Shinji, for once feeling confident enough to stand up to Askua’s hateful bitchery actually shows some initiative and takes the point.

And for his troubles he gets sucked into hell.

The Angel devours him, transporting him (and half the city with some admirably surreal imagery) to an alternate dimension where Shinji starts to trip another “Stream Of Consciousness” segment (Note again how Anno gives an objective reason for this to happen).

Askua starts talking smack about Shinji, proving she’s still in the running for the worst person in the world award and Rei, while not quite giving Askua her trademark Gendo slap, gets about as pissed as Rei can ever get, once again raising some intriguing questions. The way the scene is animated, the character’s faces mostly in shadow with only their eyes flaring out of the darkness is a great affect, giving what could have been just a usual scene of bickering a truly ominous flair.

Meanwhile in the Sea Of Dirac, Shinji, after holding on for an impressive 12 hours starts to freak the fuck out. As The Eva starts to shut down for good the reality of the situation starts to sink in for him, and us. Strip away most of the sci fi trappings and what you have at the core is a helpless fifteen year old dying in a small space. It’s a disturbing scene and rightfully so. Thankfully it’s right about here that Shinji starts to lose his sanity, so at least he’s got that going for him.

Ritsuko and Misato come to an blows over Ritsuko’s dispassionate solution to blow up Shinji. Misato somewhat unwisely insinuates to what she learned at the end of the last episode. Their relationship is never the same after this scene, and the breaking of the bond feels truly weighty.

Shinji’s stream of consciousness starts, this segments a bit longer then the one we got in Weaving A Story, but not yet the marathon runs the series would attempt later on. This trip actually ends up being a dry run for the series finale, introducing the theme of each person existing as the idea of what others believe him to be. Once again these are tough to write about, better to experience it for yourself. You’ll either get it, or you’ll want to cut out your eyes.

Shinji comes too just in time to die for sure, only to discover, in what’s perhaps the key scene in the series, the presence of his mother in the machine. This sends the Eva flying into a rage. A Mother’s love is an easy thing to sentimentalize, but it’s really as primal and as fierce a force as any. Nothing less then the instinct to protect the continuation of its genetic code at all cost. The EVA manifests that on the most primal level possible, ripping to shreds the thing that threatens its spawn.

The image of a screaming gore covered Unit 01 clawing it’s way out of the black womb, coating the city below in blood, is like something Dali dreamed up on a bad day. It’s an awe inspiring sequence of stunning primal violence, a scene that works on a gut level. (Once again the metaphysics of this, especially when one brings Rei into the equation is confusing, but as a metaphor it works perfectly). It’s a stunning ending one that casts a pall over the rest of the series, and whose feeling is carried through the next four episodes. Which I’ll be covering in one go. I remember them being my favorite of the run and I can’t wait to revisit them.

Episode 15: A
Episode 16: A

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Revist Evangelion: Episode 13 & 14

Hey look at that, this an Eva column going up on time I’m as shocked as you. Well let’s hop right in. The Lilliputian Hitcher does a whole hell of a lot right. And if it’s firmly in the solid genre show class as opposed to the Episode 12 one, well you can’t really hold that against it.

It basically repeats the trick from The Day Tokyo 3 stood still, with a crippled NERV fighting an Angel attack, but it’s a good trick so I’m not complaining. This time the culprate is an Angel that’s a collection of tiny independent cells that can infect and corrupt tech. Since NERV is home to some giant killing machines as well as the super computers that control Japan, this isn’t good. Once again the episode makes very good use of the fact the angels are truly Alien. Something like this is infinitely more frightening then a giant creature that wants to wrassle with a big robot.

Once again Nerv gets it’s ass handed to it very quickly. The pilots and Eva’s are neutralized during a technological test, and it’s a nice reminder that the Eva’s are once again terrifying. For the past couple of episodes they’ve become too docile, but the care and fear that the NERV staff treats them, even before they become infected and start all manner of anti social behavior reinforces the fact that these are frightening uncontrollable forces of nature.

Seperated from their tech and with the Eva’s neutralized it’s another chance to watch the staff of NERV think their way out of a situation, it’s also a nice opportunity to focus on the show’s supporting staff (the children barely make a cameo in this one). All that plus an intriguing look at some of the ickier details of NERV’s tech, and some intriguing hard scifi behind it, and it all adds up to not being a bad way to spend twenty something minutes.

And it’s a good thing to. Because a sea change is coming.

The next episode is, depending on your opinion, is either where things get interesting or in the words of The Big Lebowski “The God Damn Airplane Crashes Into The Mountain!” It’s the first of the stream of conscience episodes that Eva would become (in)famous for. And whether you love them or hate them (and trust me it’s one or the other) you have to admit that some of the most interesting stuff in the series occurs during them.

As I’ve noted before, upon revisiting the series I’ve found these “stream of conscience segments to be remarkably in step with the show. Which has had some sequences that have been startlingly abstract. But there’s no denying that the change of tone the series takes after this episode is massive. And to say it’s an acquired taste is something of an understatement.

Let’s just for a moment appreciate how carefully this was all set up. The first segment is shortened, playing only for about three minutes rather then the full episode marathons the series would try later. And it’s very carefully played after a clip show, in the form of SEELE (Still the council of five snide guys at this point) receiving a report from Gendo about what’s happened so far in the series. One of the surprising developments of revisiting the show is how much more I like Gendo. Sure he’s a self obsessed monster willing to end humanity for some small sliver of personal satisfaction, but he’s OUR self obsessed monster dedicated to ending humanity for some small sliver of personal satisfaction. It’s simply FUN to watch him work, especially when coolly handling the giant pool of anti charisma that is the council of five snide guys.

The clip show format makes sense if you think about it. It’s almost like Anno, never exactly one to pander, is carefully leading the audience to his expiriment. Like, “Hey remember all that stuff? You liked it didn’t you? Think I know what I’m doing? OK then take a leap with me here.” Of course whether he did or not is a question that every Eva fan ultimately must answer for themselves. But you have to give him credit for the art of breaking us in gently.

But let’s take a step back, the episode is, for the most part a clip show, and clip shows are for the most part pretty dull. There’s by definition nothing new here (though it works pretty well as a greatest hits track). As far as new information goes, there’s nothing here. Though it should be noted that it is interesting, how the clip show itself (a series of unrelated images) trains the viewer how to watch the following segment.

After Gendo delivers his final address, we cut directly into Rei’s vision, and if you don’t have some tolerance for the strange, the next three minutes (and really the rest of the series) is about to be a bumpy ride.

I personally have always liked these segements. They’re tough to write about, as they are by their very nature sensual experiences, more about the rhythms of the editing, the haunting imagery and beautiful of the music, rather then moving the plot forward. That is of course if it works for you. If it doesn't then it just comes off as someone doing Slam poetry over barely animated segments which, I think we can all agree is less then pleasant.

But what DOES the sequence tell us? Unlike a lot of these sequences which where often guilty of wheels spinning it does reveal quite a lot about the nature of the show, characters, themes and even a few cursory hints about what’s coming next. It’s a look inside Rei’s fractured mind, and even if it’s not quite clear what’s happening there (yet) it’s a fascinating glimpse. Rei's status as an object of fanboy lust (You'd be surprised how long it took for me to find a picture to use at the top of the post that didn't make me feel deeply sad) has cheapened her status as an interesting character, it's nice to have something to reorient that every once and again.

As the sequence ends and we discover that it’s all been a diagnosics test with Rei inside Unit One, The background shifts and changes as she unplugs. This unlike the visions we’ve just experienced, is supposed to be objectively real. But how is it any more “normal” then what we’ve just seen? It’s Anno announcing what he’s been insinuating at all along, from here on out the rules no longer apply.

We get another sequence to underline this, once again the way Anno lays the groundwork is pretty great. Giving the vision an object reason to happen, after a lengthy breather in the real world. (He also starts in with the show’s rampant Oephidalism that would run rampant over for the remainder. It was always present but Askua comes right out and underlines the metaphor).

After the vision Unit 00 does one of it’s patented freak outs, and it’s as well done as ever, once again showcasing the Evangelions as a truly frightening and awful (in the traditional sense of the word) force. Watching the Eva attempt to kill everyone in the room while simultaneously beating it’s brains in is genuinely disturbing.

The episode ends with a series highly abstract (but objectively real) sequences that are color dominated in a dreamlike Argento way that gives everything a fate sense of unease. The episode concludes with a shot that’s mysterious and beautiful as it is tantalizing. The fact that this particular image is haunting, rather then extremely silly gives credit to the shows artistry. It confirms once again, the rules have changed. Any resemblance Eva might have once had to an ordinary mech show has vanished. From now on we’re on unknown ground.

Episode 13: B
Episode 14: A

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

One Year Anniversary: Evangelion "Remove The Stone Of Shame And Attach The Stone Of Triumph!"

So it’s been a year of blogging off and on, hopefully more on then off. And if you’ve been reading (and according to that little counter on the bottom at least someone has) thank you, seriously thank you, for sticking with this. It means a lot.

So I’m in celebration I’m going to remove this fucking albatross from around my neck. Almost a year ago I started my Eva revisit. Which ended up dying along the way. Here’s the gist of it if you want to catch up. Well I’m going to finish it, I’m in the middle of one series, I’m going to do 31 Days Of Horror Again, and I’ve got another that I’m planning, so I’m going to go ahead and finish this thing off, so the rest of that isn’t laughable. So for the rest of the week there’s going to be nothing but Eva here.

A lot’s changed since I last wrote about the series, for one thing I actually update the blog consistently now, for another ADV the company that originally brought Eva to America has folded. So let’s take a moment to pour one on the curb for ADV. You used to charge 25 dollars (Clinton Era Dollars at that) for a two episode dubbed VHS. Yet through the powers of nostalgia you will somehow be missed.

This series is going down. And while I know I’ve said this before, I like Upgraydde will start out with a double dose of pimping. That’s right four episodes to slog through… er…. Heartily enjoy!

So we left off on two of the weakest episodes in the series. Both "A Human Work" and "Asuka Strikes" act as virtual showcases for all the worst aspects of the show. The unearned melodrama, indecipherable techno babble, indecipherable psycho babble, “wacky” supporting cast, poorly choreographed action scenes, and hard earned progress that’s forgotten about by the time the next episode has begun. It’s not exactly a coincidence that it’s taken me almost six months to return to writing about the series.

In short I needed a reminder, not just of why I liked the series, but why I thought it was worth revisiting at all. Things didn’t start off promisingly with the show opening with a montage of fan servicy photos of the big ball of shrill that is the new pilot Askua Langly Sorru. Luckily, things quickly turn around. I wrote that the last two episodes where like the worst case scenario if Eva was just your average “Teens N’ Giant Robots” show. "Dance Like The Both Of You Want To Win", and to a lesser extent "Magma Diver" both play like the best case version of that scenario. While it doesn’t have a lot of what would make Eva so special, it does have a firm grip on it’s characters and universe and plays off of them in intriguing ways.

Evangelion at the end of the day was always about the characters, that was really the genius of it using them to anchor the abstraction. And it never quite gets enough credit for how well it did it. Playing off the three separate but intricately connected generations to create the feeling of an epic story that’s been going on for decades, similar to Lost now that I think about it. We’re only coming in for the curtain call. Kaji, Ritsuko, and Misato all act like old friends, the moment you put them in the same room together that sense of history does half the work for you.

Same with the show’s main trio, Shinji, Rei, and Askua. Though it would still be awhile until the character’s really break through their stereotypical shells and really got to the meat inside, their Kirk, Spock, Scotty like interplay is firmly in place. An early scene, the first in which all three are present, in which Rei coolly brushes off an overly friendly Asuka while Shinji watches on shows a clear command of just who these three different damaged people are.

The episode’s plot is basically centered around Shinji and Askua trying to learn to live together both on the battlefield and at home. There’s not much in terms of plot, it’s definitely one of Eva’s lightest episodes, but as I said, the character work is excellent, the angel genuinely creative, some of the comedy is genuinely funny (a welcome change from the usually painful “comic relief”) and the climatic battle is one of the best animated and choreographed in the series history. Nothing wrong there.

"Magma Diver" is more or less the same but less so. It’s another episode of little consequence, and even the seemingly interesting opportunity to learn something new about the angels ends up as kind of a red herring. Askua and Shinji are prevented from going on a class trip, their personalities clash, wackiness ensues, and a latent Angel is found slumbering in a volcano. The predictable happens. While it’s not much to write home about the episode does manage to make it through without actively embarrassing itself, and the episode takes the lackadaisical pace as an opportunity to flesh out the supporting cast. The council of Five Snide Guys, Eva’s least intriguing unsolved mystery put in an appearance. And the threat’s to learn more about the Angels and Second Impact never materialize, though Eva’s legendarily bad comic relief does. In it’s closing moments the episode hints at the vulnerabilities and cracks that would end up making it’s characters so fascinating. But for the moment hints are all we’ll get.

Things get off to an intriguing start with "The Day That Tokyo 3 Stood Still". Taking us out of NERV headquarters with the supporting cast, to showcase the world building that is another one of Eva’s underrated traits. The world of Eva is one that is actively ending, and the people who populate it are the ones who have to deal with it everyday. Seeing society deal with this on both a micro and macro level is intriguing. Even though it’s only a small portion of the episode, it’s a welcome reminder of what makes it work.

The episode itself is pretty standard, if clever stuff. NERV experiences a Blackout that corresponds with an Angel attack and must battle despite its paralysis. The good character work of the past couple episodes continue, as the children and others are put in situations where they have no choice but to interact with each other. Like Dance Like You Want To Win, it does an excellent job showcasing the Shinji, Askua, Rei dynamic, forcing the characters to rely on themselves. As often as these characters have their destinies planned out for them, it’s interesting to see what they do on their own volition. The episode also takes the time to dig into the supporting cast, and makes the most out of the opportunity to showcase it’s characters out of their element. It’s nice to see Ikari as a cool and cunning leader as opposed to a sociopath.

The lack of technology is put to good use, giving the characters chances to showcase their ingenuity and intelligence. It also a rather chilling precursor to the grim finale, in how easy it is for NERV to be taken out of play. At then end of the day, despite the power they wield, they are not a military organization, and can be neutralized swiftly, and terribly.

The episode, also begins to dig into the series themes of mankind’s nature and relationship with God, albeit somewhat didactically. The show’s theology has always been more window dressing then anything else, but it’s nice to see someone at least acknowledge that if these ARE angels then humanity is rebelling against God. Which has something of a history of not turning out well. It’s clumsy but also symbolic of where the series is going, the last couple of episodes have been filler, by the time the next one starts forward momentum has been firmly established again.

Episode 12 starts out with a bang, to say the least. A barren wasteland is the first thing we see. It’s a frozen tundra, where there’s some sort of base. It’s in ruins, two bleeding figures stumble through its remains, one of which is revealed to be a young Misato. She wakes up calls out “Father”, as she’s loaded into an escape pod and then… Well what happens is never quite clear, but the result is. The world as we know it ends. It’s visually striking stuff, genuinely awe inspiring and iconic, the kind of imagery Eva does best. Striking sparks in the imagination, giving you a fascinating taste, without ever quite satisfying.

Episode 12 is Eva at it’s strongest. It feels as deep as the last five episodes have felt inconsequential, For the first time since Rei I we’re really getting into the heart of who these people are, what this world is and what’s at stake. The relationship between Misato and Shinji, the heart of the series which is often accused of not having one, is at full front here. The intimacy feels earned, and we realize just how much these two depend on eachother.

We cut shortly to Gendo as he tours what remains of Antarctica after the incident we saw at the beginning of the episode. Like the opening scene, it’s genuinely unsettling, iconic frightening imagery.

Even when the plot mechanics kick in with an Angel attacking from the atmosphere by crashing random bits of itself down into the earth it’s all done superbly. The last few Angels have all been too humanoid too understandable. The great thing about the Angels from here on (mostly) is just how truly Alien they are. Actual unfathomable beings. It even throws in a true rarity, an Eva joke (a reoccurring gag about a fabled steak dinner) that’s actually funny.

It's Eva at it's best, and as a reminder why I thought the show was worth revisiting, it was more then ample.

Episode 9: B+
Episode 10: C
Episode 11: B
Episode 12: A

Seeya tomorrow, promise.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Welcome To Dollhouse (Post 100 Bitches)

Dollhouse starts off painfully mediocre. Hampered by a flimsy presence, a lead actress whose a little less then charismatic, and network tampering which is about as subtle as a boot to the face, the first five or so episodes are kind of sort of terrible. And then all of a sudden it becomes something close to a masterpiece.

I’m a Joss Whedon fan. That’s it. Not a raving fanboy brown coat who worships the ground on which he walks, but someone who thinks he creates a quality product, with a strong voice I respond to, and is an engaging an intelligent speaker to boot. He has a Tarantino like preternatural understanding of genre and also the ways that genre can be subverted without breaking what people love about it in the first place. As well as an innate understanding about the engines that drive it. He’s created, four distinct worlds, think about that for a moment and despite Job like setbacks he’s never gotten lazy or self satisfied (well maybe a little self satisfied). He’s a writer of uniquely clear voice and vision.

Which is what’s so startling about the beginning of Dollhouse is how hazy that vision seems. For those unfamiliar with the show, it follows Echo a young woman who works for The Dollhouse. A shadowy organization, led by the insanely great Olivia Williams, that makes custom people for whoever is rich enough to afford them.

It’s like Whedon came up with this concept and had no idea what to do with it. He runs through all the old tricks, mentally disturbed female protagonist (Firefly), slightly sinister British mentor (Buffy), shadowy organizations in the control of young women (Buffy and Firefly), questions of free will, fate (Etc.), the aw shucks nice girl pining for the guy. It all comes out of the playbook. Stuff that Whedon can do in his sleep, and for along time that seems to be exactly what he’s doing.

And then the bombs start to fall. No one can bring the hammer down like Whedon. He’s the master of the exquisitely timed, hinted at just enough to not be a cheat revelation that, that’s just crushing. He does it a couple of times in Dollhouse and each time the affect is simply remarkable.

I hesitate to hype the series sixth episode man on the street anymore then it already has been. But it really is that good. Not just for the way it finally makes the dolls make sense, thanks to a soulful performance by Patton Oswalt, but for the way that it finally brings into focus what the series is about.

Joss Whedon has been writing about the end of the world for along time. That’s kind of his thing. Hell he brought all of existence to the breaking point about seven or eight times on his first show. But this time he’s really writing about the Apocalypse (even before the chilling finale Epitaph 1). Dollhouse is about the day we finally get too clever for our own good, the day our reach exceeds our grasp for the last time and our whole species goes down in flames not even realizing it before it’s too late. It might not be the technology Whedon’s talking about here, but it’ll be something equally impossible. With a writer as smart as Whedon behind this stuff, scary doesn’t really begin to cover it.

Simply put Dollhouse is a great show, and if you’re a sci fi fan and you’re missing it, you’re only cheating yourself. This is Sci Fi of ideas that I’d put on the level of Phillip K. Dick and William Gibson, real solid stuff that your mind can chew on.

Dollhouse might not be as entertaining as Firefly. And it’ll probably never become the phenomenon that Buffy and Angel did. But all the same it just might be Whedon’s masterpiece.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

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Saturday, September 12, 2009

The Black Dahlia And The Problem With Perfection

When it was announced that Brian De Palma would be directing an adaptation of James Ellroy’s The Black Dahlia, one word came to mind, “Perfect.” That should have been my first warning sign. Because for those of you who have not read it, allow me to assure you that there really was no better director to bring James Ellroy’s gonzo gothic noir travesty to the screen with all its messy pulpy life intact.

Ellroy paints a world in which power is used to indulge decadence at it’s end point, a place where the violence is explicit, the sex is kinky, film is a mysterious and almost elemental force, the women are man eaters, and voyeurism is a weapon. In short, he wrote a De Palma movie.

It’s worth noting that when the Black Dahlia came out I was at the height of both my De Palma and Ellroy fandom. I had just ripped through the LA Quartet, and the De Palma canon (as if there can ever be such a thing, if there’s a filmmaker whose classics are less agreed on by their fans I’ve never come across them) and by the time the Black Dahlia came out I was actively hungry for something new. I was inspired; I cut this for the love of God.

Even the understated poster was perfect, classy gothic and lurid all at once. As a result few films have been as Teflon to prior criticism as this one has. No number of bad reviews could dull the feeling I had as I sat in the theater, convinced that I was about to see a masterpiece.

Of course I was crushed. I’ve returned to the film at least a half a dozen times over the three years it’s been out. Each time with adjusted expectations, each time feeling a remnant of my former optimism. Each time having to face the fact that for at least three quarters of it’s runtime The Black Dahlia is one of the most inert lifeless films I’ve ever seen.

In the interest of truth in criticism there are quite a few moments that you could put on any reel of DePalma’s greatest hits, KD Lang’s grand cameo and musical number as the Joel Grey like MC of an underground lesbian night club, William Finley’s decayed killer, Elizabeth Short’s haunting screen test, the first person freak show that is our introduction to the Liscott’s, and the giddy (though utterly baffling but more on that later) centerpiece hotel chase, with it’s infinite stairs, stunning slow motion, and a punch line worthy of Argento in his prime. There are scenes, moments, and grace notes to be savored here. And they’re surrounded by a movie that stubbornly refuses to work.

There are of course those who believe that De Palma is merely a director of great scenes rather then great movies and thus (oddly enough it’s his champions rather then his detractors who I usually hear go this route) I shouldn’t worry about it. Bull, the best DePalma films work almost like puzzle boxes with scenes folding out of and mirroring each other in surprising and gratifying ways (the dual screams in Blow Out, the blood at both ends of Carrie) ignoring the whole in favor of the parts does De Palma a disservice.

And what of that whole? It’s almost impossible to know where to begin. The leaden lead performances by Hartnett, Eckhart, Swank, and Johansson? Now that’s hardly what you’d call a dream team but all have done capable work elsewhere and few have been worse then in this film (Johannson comes off particularly bad, despite the fact that she’s done credible period work elsewhere, she ends up looking like a bored party girl in every scene she’s in). What about the leaden pacing? Or the terrible voice over? Or the cheap chintzy look the film has.

All of these would be fodder in an ordinary review, but since we’re talking DePalma here. Let’s narrow our focus to two factors; A) How could a director know for being less a human being then a robot created and fed the data to create the tensest genre movies of all time create a movie that seems to understand the rules of the genre so very poorly? And B) How did a filmmaker who has made their reputation as being one of the trashiest, filthiest filmmakers this side of John Waters make a film that seems so quaint? Particularly from material as lurid and pulpy as The Black Dahlia.

Let’s start the with the film’s centerpiece The Hotel Chase (A scene it’s worth noting that has no counterpart in the book). Which is a classic De Palma sequence: from its use of slow motion, the operatic score, the sadistic violence, the helpless protagonist, even a ghoulish William Finley to take everything back home. It takes the elements of a suspense scene and damn near turns it into performance art. Hartnet runs up flight after seemingly never ending flight of stairs while his friend is being murdered at their top. It ends with a darkly funny and satisfyingly graceless punch line, that shows De Palma at his blackly humorous best (perhaps De Palma’s most underrated attribute is that of a comedian). It’s a great scene, and it ruins the rest of the movie.

(Internet courtesy demands a spoiler warning)

It’s a sequence ends with the killer dead, and what’s more with the audience KNOWING the killer is dead. As the last third of the movie follows Hartnett around as he pokes around places where the killer may or may not be, which is somewhat less then suspenseful as we, once again, know the killer has joined the choir invisible.

Had De Palma really not noticed he had a fallacy on his hands? Could a director that meticulous really be so sloppy? As a result we have nothing to carry us through the rest of the movie aside from a mystery that has for the most part already been solved and Mr. Hartnett’s less then magnetic screen presence.

The films pacing is harmed further by De Palma’s removal of Ellroy’s Grand Guignol climax in which the detective battles the killer in the rotting heart of Hollywood which served as the murder site for The Dahlia. The fight ends with a touch so deliciously sick, that I couldn’t wait for De Palma to pull it off (I won’t reveal it for those who haven’t read the book, DePalma didn’t so there’s no need for me to). Being that the killer was killed twenty minutes prior, this sequence became somewhat difficult to stage. Instead the film climaxes with the Joss Hartnett wandering around an empty house. Which as you might have surmised is considerably less exciting.

This brings us to the other bizarre short coming of the movie. De Palma was given source material that was as smutty and violent as it gets, filled with the forbidden, and he came back with a movie that was inoffensive and boring. Two words you never want to use (or believe you will have to) in A DePalma film. Ellroy’s book is feels genuinely sick and given the state that the author was in at the time, that’s hardly surprising (but let’s keep it to one auteur at a time here).

We’re talking just to clarify here, about Brian De Palma, the man who opened who directed the delirious sexualized openings of Femme Fatale, Carrie, (Genuinely erotic despite being utterly hilarious) and Dressed To Kill, the man who did a musical number on a Porno shoot set to Frankie Goes To Hollywood (Though his critics note that DePalma’s sexuality hasn’t progressed beyond that of an eighth grade boy giggling his way through a Playboy, I’ve always found that kind of endearing, at least De Palma seems to still believe that sex should be *gasp* fun). The man who created Be Black Baby. The man who blew up Cassevettes at the end of The Fury, killed a senior class in Carrie, and filled Al Pacino with approximately fifty thousand machine gun rounds at the climax of Scarface. If there was anyone who would really rip into this material it would be DePalma.

Instead you come out with a movie that’s about as soft as an R rating can be. There’s no logic I can find behind the decision. If it where any other director I’d argue that they where simply trying to create a pastiche of old forties movies, and where attempting to keep it as classy as they could. The only trouble being that making pastiches of old movies and filling them with sex and violence is kind of what De Palma does.

Still since I am obviously a fan of De Palma, all sorts of questions about The Subjective gaze, rise up to trouble me. Am I just being overzealous? (The films Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes Scores would suggest otherwise but for the sake of argument lets leave the peanut gallery alone for the moment) Is the problem not De Palma’s film, but my expectations for it? Not that De Palma and Ellroy where made for one another and failed, but the fact that the no movie could live up to the one’s my anticipation had built for me?

In any case we’ve now drifted into how many angels can dance on the head of a pin category. But the fact is that I keep returning to a movie I hate. Is it the movies power, or the power of my own hopes for it? Does it really matter? Either way it keeps playing like that short closed loop of a screen test that the film returns to over and over again. Never different no matter how much we might like it to be.

This is my unofficial entry for Cinema Viewfinder's DePalma Blog-o-thon whether they use it or not you should yet on over as they've had alot of great writing thus far, and it proving to be more fun then several barrels of monkeys who are also overly literate film nerds.

The Hunter

There are few things I love more then Crime Fiction. There are few things in that genre that I love more then the great Don Westlake’s Parker novels. Written under the pseudonym Richard Stark and spanning twenty four novels, the series follows professional thief Parker from job to job.

The books themselves vary little, most follow a pretty set formula Where in, A) Parker takes a job. B) Some poor fool crosses him. C) We follow said poor fool as we watch him try to escape from Parker’s wrath. D) The Poor Son Of Bitch Thinks he’s escaped Parker’s wrath. E) He finds out he hasn’t. F) We double back in time with Parker to find out just how he found the poor fool and how he’s going to make the poor fool wish he’d never been born.

What makes The Parker books unique, is their utter lack of sentimentality. Parker is not a thief with a heart of gold, not even remotely. He’s a cold, mean and often times pure nasty son of a bitch, who extracts vengeance like someone pulling out teeth with a claw hammer.

Parker at the core of his character is simply someone who doesn’t give a fuck. He’s like Tom Ripley without delusions of grandeur. He will straight up murder you and your family. Not because he hates you, not because you made him mad, not because he’s crazy but because he’s a professional thief with no delusions about what he does, and if you need to die so he can do what he does, well that’s a price he’s more then willing to pay.

How cold is he? Upon finding his wife’s dead body he expresses his grief by carving up her face so the police can’t put her picture in the paper and then dumping her body in the park. Just so his quarry won’t know he’s coming.

Based on the first novel in the series, Darwyn Cooke’s The Hunter, his retelling of the first Parker story, ends up being as perfect of an adaptation as Parker is ever going to have. Cooke’s retro style and clean line drawn artwork ends up being the perfect conduit for Stark’s efficient, clean, hard prose, and dark pitiless storytelling. There are sequences here, like Parker's wordless entry into New York, that are done so perfectly they almost hurt.

The first book starts with Parker gunning for revenge. Betrayed and left for dead by his partner and spouse, Parker decides to get some good ole fashioned vengeance, even if he has to kill half of the gangsters in New York to get it.

As he did in his seminal New Frontier, Cooke art perfectly captures the time period. It’s not just set in the early sixties, it looks like it was made then. With it’s overripe dames, hard cut men, and purty purty style The Hunter manages to look like something that escaped from Mad Men’s raging id. The warmth of the retro style is perfectly off set by Starks cold merciless story which Cooke perserve’s perfectly. The last thing you see in the book is Parker’s cold unforgiving eyes staring out from the back of the book, announcing the next chapter is coming out in a year. I can hardly wait.

An old favorite is all well and good, something that lets you look at an old favorite as though it’s the first time is something to be truly cherished.