March 11th, 2006

Brad @ Burning Man

Night Watch

I saw a lot of people, after the last Academy Awards broadcast, lamenting the low ratings it got and asking what it would take to get the American people to care enough to tune in to them again. About half of us who answered that question said, "We'd have to care about the movies that were nominated," and let me tell, I didn't. I'd barely heard of most of them, thought most of the ones that were nominated that I had heard of were things you couldn't have forced me to sit through at gun-point, and thought that the two films that were nominated for anything that I had seen were only slightly better than mediocre movies. This is a not unimportant issue, you know, if only because of this: movies are one of our only remaining profitable exports. For decades now, the world has bought Japanese cars, Chinese clothing, European manufactured goods, Korean computers, Brazilian soap operas, British music ... and Hollywood movies. We have been the absolute kings of middlebrow cinema for a very long time, the masters of that sweet spot between French think pieces and Bollywood musicals, between German expressionist film and Hong Kong wire-fu. Exciting enough to enjoy the film, thoughtful enough that you aren't embarrassed afterwards to have seen it. And in 2005, we mostly didn't deliver on that promise. Or, for that matter, much in 2004 that I remember.

And in the meantime, back in 2004, with almost no notice in this country, a guy in Russia named Timur Bekmambetov was showing the world how it's really done. I think that Hollywood is in a lot of trouble. From what I've read, the Russian press is comparing this guy to George Lucas back when he was still young and still knew how to make movies. Well, yeah, they'd say that though, wouldn't they? But so have a lot of other people all over Europe. So did most of the few critics in this country who saw his Nochnoi Dozor (Night Watch) when it hit limited release back in February. I was curious, and even more so when certain critics panned it when it opened for slightly wider release in the US this last week. Why? Because their reasons for panning it sounded like good reasons for me to like it. When a critic with a reputation for liking his movies sophomoric and stupid and transparently obvious says he had some trouble following the story, that parts of it made no sense to him, it tells me there might be some substance there. When some horror movie reviewers who liked dull, shallow, slow-moving crap like Dark Water say that it's too frenetic, too much like a rock music video, it tells me that it might not be dull. And I was right on both counts.

Capsule summary of what it's about: Collapse )

Try as I might, I can not find anything to criticize about this film. The acting is uniformly amazing, from start to finish, every character, every scene. The special effects, especially some of the very long tracking shots that tie various bits of action together, or a drunken vampire's-eye view of a human child, or the "psychic surgery" scene where the commanding general in the army of Light (headquartered, in a nice touch of irony, in the Moscow Light Company) patches up our hero after he's almost been killed in a fight -- oh, and how did I forget to mention the animal-to-human, human-to-animal changes, which have never, ever been done better on film? Mind boggling. ILM might as well start packing up and laying people off now. The lighting, the cinematography, the costuming, and the art direction are all spot-on perfect. The editing and pacing are, in fact, as tight as anything you've ever seen; you will be on the edge of your seat the whole time.

And here's the thing that even though I was told it in advance by the critics, I didn't believe it, and you won't believe me either until you see it. Yes, almost the entire film is in Russian with English sub-titles. But that's the good thing. In fact, it's such a good thing that I hope that, for the benefit of the Russian audience, they went back and re-released it in Russian with Russian sub-titles. Why would they do that? Because Night Watch elevates the subtitles from mere text crawl to an actual category of special effect. The sub-titles are so alive, and make such effective use of shimmer and fade and wipe and throb and size changes and color changes that they're as effective a mood-builder as the music track. It's almost as if the sub-titles were, themselves, a character. And by using every trick in the on-screen text composition book, they draw the eye into the characters, and into the action, not away from it ... something I've never seen before.

Night Watch 2 is already out in Russia, to rave reviews. If there are more like him there, Hollywood is doomed to go the way of Detroit.

(By the way? The director has made commercials, and has made rock videos. Which is why, on a lark, he also released the entire movie in two and a half minutes. Even with the back-story synopsis above, you won't be able to follow it, not really. But it might whet your appetite, and after seeing the movie, the movie in two and a half minutes is a hoot.)