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by Bill Gibron

2 Dec 2007


In retrospect, it does feel like the beginning of the end. For most of the decade, the fresh perspective offered by a growing set of filmmaking mavericks was reshaping the stogy cinematic ideals. Risks were the creative norm, and this one played like the biggest daredevil stunt ever. In an era still smarting over the ambiguities of the Vietnam War, the leading motion picture provocateur - multiple Oscar winner Francis Ford Coppola - was headed to the Philippines to re-envision the conflict via an analogy to Joseph Conrad’s Hearts of Darkness. A long dormant project of his independent production company Zoetrope, Apocalypse Now would be the director’s ultimate artistic statement. In the end, it became much, much more. 

Perhaps the greatest behind the scenes documentary ever offered on the making of a movie, Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse provides acute aesthetic insight and personal perspective into what, for most of the cast and crew, would be a descent into motion picture madness. Long missing from the DVD format (for reasons that become clear on this new digital presentation from Paramount), it stands as a Holy Grail gratuity for fans and scholars of the Godfather auteur’s troubled career. Indeed, those looking to rationalize Coppola’s eventual fall from grace - it’s a bumpy road from The Conversation to the Robin Williams waste Jack - saw all they need in the maelstrom of megalomania that seemed to surround this troubled shoot. From the replacement of one leading man to the near death of another, Now remains the director’s answerable albatross.

Beginning with the late ‘60s formation of Coppola’s self-started Zoetrope Studios, one of the most amazing things about the original concept for Now remains how ambitious it was. With friend John Milius scripting, and pal George Lucas directing, the production envisioned a bizarre kind of ‘guerilla’ guerilla shooting style. They wanted to insert themselves along with the actual troops, creating the film within the actual war playing out around them. And they actually got Warner Brothers’ interest. Though they eventually balked at the proposed technique, the studio sent a strong message to the brash young guns - this idea had potential. It was a predestination that would drive everyone involved over the near decade it took to realize said vision.

From another perspective, Hearts of Darkness also stands as the ultimate violation of trust. When Now was finally greenlit (back-to-back Academy Awards can change a lot of soured suits), Coppola hired his wife, Eleanor to head up a small documentary team. UA wanted some footage to use in their pre-release promotional campaigns, and being a photographer herself, her husband gave her the job. Who knew that the 12 week shoot would blossom into months, that private conversations between the couple (taped for inclusion in Eleanor’s diary) would become public knowledge, and that during the making of Apocalypse Now, Coppola would turn catastrophe and ego into a modern masterpiece. It set the foundation for all the mythologizing and criticism to come.

In these days of multi-disc DVD presentations, packages that strive to illustrate every minor moving making element with microscopic detail, one forgets how shocking Hearts of Darkness was. Backstage drama was, in 1991, an aspect of the medium usually left to magazine features, tell-all books, and the occasional film festival anecdote. Most productions weren’t proud of the rifts and ridiculousness that went on during a shoot, and it was rare when anything that did happen warranted further reflection. Even with laserdisc illustrating the appetite for this kind of insight, a mechanism for capturing and creating this material wasn’t firmly established. In many ways, Eleanor was ahead of her time. She could see what Now was doing to her man, and wanted to have a record of it…just in case he didn’t come back from the edge. How outsiders George Hickenlooper and Fax Bahr came into possession of this material is a story for another day. How their award winning documentary was hijacked by a legacy sensitive auteur is very much at the center of this recent release.

Over the last few years, as Paramount has prepared various digital incarnations of Apocalypse Now, fans have wondered if Hearts of Darkness would be offered as a supplement. It is, after all, the yin to that bravado spectacle’s yang. Yet even when the supposed ‘final word’ on the film was presented - under the less than truthful title The Complete Dossier - this film was nowhere to be found. Rumors swirled that Coppola, angry about the secret wiretapping by his spouse and the eventual release of all of the material to the media, was purposefully holding off on the rights to Now footage. Without it, Hearts was sunk. To make matters worse, both Hickenlooper and Bahr have claimed strong arm tactics from the filmmaker, pointing to parts of this new, stand-alone disc as evidence of Coppola’s disdain for what they did.

On the surface, this seems to be a lot of meaningless chest-thumping. The wonderfully restored film still has the no budget production standards that Eleanor was forced to deal with, but the rest of the image is cleaned up and appealing. The actual makers of the movie are nowhere to be found however (they were ‘not invited’ to participate), but both Coppolas are present and accounted for. On the commentary track provided, Eleanor decides to wax nostalgic, discussing the time, the skyrocketing celebrity achieved by her spouse, and the numerous behind the scenes anecdotes that make these contextual additions so special. But it’s her husband’s conversation that’s the most telling. For Francis Coppola, it’s time to set the record straight.

You’d think that a man with as many awards as he has, who has significantly challenged film classicism with his demanding, endearing early films, would have a little thicker skin than the defensive dermis he exposes here. While begging for both perspective and circumstance, he makes it very clear that Hearts turns frequent fits of anger, frustration, and black humor into signs of inflated selfishness. Even worse, he feels used by individuals who’ve coattailed his creative genius for a sensationalized story. Still, even when he’s defending the film, you can tell that something about Hearts continues to rattle the director. It’s almost as if he’s attacking the exposure of any movie “magic” - whether it be how certain effects were achieved…or the creative element’s emotional turmoil.

It’s a contradiction that the Coppolas try to re-explore with Eleanor’s “new” documentary (though again she did not direct Hearts - she only provided the material) focusing on her husband’s latest film, the supposed return to form Youth Without Youth. Following her older, mellower spouse around Romania as he kvetches, jokes, swoons, and contemplates, it’s the love letter his wounded spirit supposedly needs. At 68, Coppola remains a larger than life presence on set, carrying most of his undeniable mythos in every action, each remark. Unlike Hearts, there are few flame-ups. Instead, we see the same spark that drove Now to its eventual status as an undeniable masterwork being muted by age, approach, and ambition. In fact, while it’s clearly meant to be a pliant portrait of an aging idol, the oddly named Coda is actually a con. The real Coppola is the manic, idealized dough boy, giggling almost insanely as he describes his movie as not being “about Vietnam. It IS Vietnam.”

Statements like these, some thirty years later, don’t really need the forced reinterpretation that the new Hearts of Darkness DVD demands. When the film was released in 1991, it was an epiphany. It was an “I told you so” moment. Just because fans and film buffs believed Coppola was an out of control madman doesn’t diminish what he accomplished. If anything, such a warts and all approach humanizes someone who, for most of his life, loved to view himself as above the fray. If the one time post-modern giant would simply embrace his flaws and fall in love with his art all over again, returning to the big picture romanticized ranting about the Philippines government, his leading man’s heart condition, or his own fragile sanity, perhaps we’d be celebrating the newest canvas from this cinematic master. Unfortunately, it still feels like the ‘70s celebration of film found its last legitimate entry with Apocalypse Now. Hearts of Darkness explains the reasons for this all too well. 

 

by Bill Gibron

1 Dec 2007


When Fox finally put Futurama out of its constantly pre-empted prime time misery, fans were flush with recognizable disgust. The network had never done right by Matt Groening’s brilliant Simpsons follow-up, and the constant schedule changes had left audiences little room to grasp the intricacies and details of the sublime sci-fi series. Almost instantly, the rumors began. With the DVD season sets selling so well, would the studio salvage the show ala Family Guy, hoping the retail popularity would translate into ratings? Or better yet, would another company come along and take over completely. Oddly enough, neither occurred. Out of production since 2003, Comedy Central recently announced it would bring back the award winning animated sitcom - but on some intriguing new terms. Groening and the gang would produce four direct to DVD “movies”. After their release, the cable network would chop each one up into four individual ‘episodes’, thereby bringing back 16 new installments to impatient devotees everywhere.

Now, the first one is here and it was well worth the wait. Subtitled Bender’s Big Score, and featuring the return of all the original characters (including some you thought the show was through with), this revamped version of the Futurama premise remains true to its tenets. For those unfamiliar with the show, a lonely 21st century pizza boy named Philip J. Fry accidentally winds up cryogenically frozen. A thousand years go by before he’s revived. Looking up his only living relative - Professor Hubert Farnsworth, a senile old scientist who’s his distant nephew, 30 times removed - Fry gets a job with the scientist’s interstellar delivery service. He works with Turanga Leila, the one-eyed ship captain, who along with Bender Rodriguez, an automated bending unit, spoiled rich intern Amy Wong, stumbling staff doctor John D. Zoidberg, and resident bureaucrat Hermes Conrad try to keep the company afloat. Living in New New York, Fry has a hard time adjusting. Luckily, his friends are around to keep his spirits up.

After leaving viewers hanging at the end of Season 4, this unusual update is a classic reminder of the show’s cartoon chaos theory. When intergalactic Internet scammers managed to undermine the entire economy of Earth - including the recently revived Planet Express crew - lovable robot Bender becomes a time traveling agent of theft for the aliens. By using an encrypted code found on Fry’s butt, the automaton can open up continuum voids and walk right into them. From there, it’s just a matter of heading into the past and grabbing as much loot as possible. Of course, this creates a paradox - two identical beings cannot occupy the same time and space as each other. We soon learn that the duplicate is doomed. As everyone on the planet is rendered penniless, comely Cyclops Leila falls for Head Museum worker Lars. He seems like the perfect guy for her, much to Fry’s chagrin.

While purists may balk at another time travel tale (the creators have often commented on how the obsessives typically whine about the various physical and metaphysical contradictions involved) the use of such a setup, in conjunction with the masterful explanation of the staff’s return, lead to one of the best Futurama outings ever. The initial jabs at the mindless “Box Company” that ‘cancelled’ Planet Express’s contract is priceless, and the effortless manner in which the series reintroduces and reincorporates characters back into the mix is amazing. Even quite cult faves like Scruffy the Janitor, Hermes’ wife LaBarbara, and the all powerful Hypnotoad find their way into the narrative. While it seems rather odd that this seamless cinematic presentation will eventually be divvied up into four self-contained episodes (Groening has promised to preserve the overall arcs as well), the fact remains that, as with previous works by these animated anarchists, when this show sizzles, it burns hotter than a distant sun.

The ability to juggle several stories has often been a Futurama trademark, and the main ones here are all wonderfully realized. There is real emotion in Leila finally finding love, and the resolution is both heart-rending and lifting. Similarly, Bender’s transformation into a totally compliant time thief results in some stellar moments of satire (he brings the Mona Lisa back half finished, claiming that Da Vinci might not make it to “The Last Supper”). Hermes’ accident gives this often forgotten paper pusher a wonderful dilemma to overcome. Toss in the aliens, the last act space battle, the constant references to other sci-fi signposts, and the solid voice acting (Billy West, John DiMaggio, and Katie Segal remain a masterful comic trio) and you’ve got a flawless stand alone package that perfectly preserves everything that made the series a woefully unappreciated gem.

Bringing the series back via DVD is also a genius move, since it allows for all the context and concerns voiced by Groening over the years to finally be addressed. The full length audio commentary is a delicious dirt dishing overview of the entire Fox debacle as well as the production problems the renewed episodes had to overcome. Several of the cast members are on hand, and they lend a level of geniality and wit to what is already a very funny discussion. The various featurettes and bonus elements also add to our enjoyment. We get more Al Gore (always a welcome reference riff), an actual scholarly lecture on the numerous math based in-jokes and ideas used in the series, a collection of character designs and sketch galleries, some delightful deleted scenes (including a visit from the Robot Mafia), and an actual episode of the wildly successful 31st Century sitcom, Everyone Loves Hypnotoad. After viewing it, you’ll see why it’s so popular.

With three more films on the way, and the entire company back for however long the haul remains, it’s a safe bet that Futurama will finally find the notoriety (and niche) it deserved before Fox buried it for more and more football. Reruns on Adult Swim/Cartoon Network have done fabulously well, and when that contract expires, Comedy Central can be counted on to amplify the show’s already impressive profile. It’s just a shame that we had to wait four long years before Fry and his fellow futurists could make a return. It’s clear that creativity was not a significant factor in the final determination to end the show. When someone doesn’t appreciate your efforts, why waste time trying to impress them. The fans wanted more Futurama, and the DVD movie Bender’s Big Score delivers exactly that. And as Professor Farnsworth would say, that’s “good news” indeed.

 

by Bill Gibron

29 Nov 2007


For the weekend beginning 30 November, here are the films in focus:

The Orphanage [rating: 8]

Bolstered by cinematic atmosphere so ripe you can practically pick it and eat it, The Orphanage is a deliriously delicious creep out.


It’s safe to say that, before Guillermo Del Toro, Spanish horror (and its Mexican counterpart) were reserved for the famed Paul Naschy and his old school ilk. It was all religious symbolism and mannered moralizing. But thanks to the bigger picture boos presented by this cinematic NeoWave (which includes Alfonso Cuarón and Alejandro González Iñárritu), a whole new world of artistic innovation has opened. It’s been a real entertainment epiphany. Del Toro has even moved into the role of mentor, guiding the work of others into the movie mainstream. Thanks to his vision and approach, we now have the magnificent movie The Orphanage. Combining classic haunted house motifs with a real sense of sentiment, filmmaker Juan Antonio Bayona has delivered a stunning work of wonder. It signals the continued influence of the Hispanic aesthetic on the frequently failing fright flick.  read full review…

Midnight Eagle [rating: 6]

Like a series of subplot ships slowly meandering downstream to a final narrative focal point, Midnight Eagle has to be one of the most languid political thrillers ever conceived.


It’s curious to note the continuing influence of Western filmmaking on the usually idiosyncratic foreign cinema. Instead of incorporating or exploiting Hollywood’s hackneyed entertainment principles, some countries simply embrace them without exception. Japan has maintained a wonderfully oblivious take on American moviemaking over the last few decades. They still enjoy the power of giant monsters and an amplified level of acting. Over the last 20 years, thanks to the advances in technology, more cross culture cooperation has, sadly, led to more and more Eastern films feeling like warmed over Tinsel Town junk. Take Midnight Eagle. This two hour plus work of international intrigue wants to emulate the overproduced popcorn product that clogs up the summer Cineplex. Luckily, it’s much better than most of the malarkey considered marketable by our own studio suits. Sadly, it also suffers from some unusual aesthetic choices.  read full review…

Redacted [rating: 4]

So obvious in its intentions that it screams ‘teenager scamming for the car keys’, Redacted fails to fully embrace the proposed genius of its premise.


Yes, we’re still at war. No, the apparently addled Congress, given a midterm mandate to end the military presence in Iraq as soon as possible, has been so far unable to make a single significant stride in that direction. Democracy both here and abroad is failing, lost in a fog of formless opinion, uninspired protest, and a collection of calculated talking points (like ‘fighting them there so we don’t have to here’). And what is Hollywood’s answer to all this acknowledged atrophy? Why, they come up with one lame ‘war is unnecessary Hell’ workout after another. The latest to line up and take its critical lumps is Brian DePalma’s wildly mediocre Redacted. Instead of returning the also-ran auteur to his glory days, this mean-spirited mess is destined to further his already substantial fall from cinematic grace. read full review…

by Bill Gibron

29 Nov 2007


REDACTED (dir. Brian DePalma)

Yes, we’re still at war. No, the apparently addled Congress, given a midterm mandate to end the military presence in Iraq as soon as possible, has been so far unable to make a single significant stride in that direction. Democracy both here and abroad is failing, lost in a fog of formless opinion, uninspired protest, and a collection of calculated talking points (like ‘fighting them there so we don’t have to here’). And what is Hollywood’s answer to all this acknowledged atrophy? Why, they come up with one lame ‘war is unnecessary Hell’ workout after another. The latest to line up and take its critical lumps is Brian De Palma’s wildly mediocre Redacted. Instead of returning the also-ran auteur to his glory days, this mean-spirited mess is destined to further his already substantial fall from cinematic grace. 

The supposedly based on a true story saga focuses on four soldiers serving at a typical Iraqi checkpoint. Their day is divided up between talking about sex, serving their country, and continued conversations about carnality. One day, a tragic event befalls the troops. On top of it, a standard stop and search goes horribly wrong. Hoping to let off some steam, the frustrated men decide to head over to a previous raid site and rape the 15 year old girl who lives there—kind of payback for all the crap they’ve had to sling through recently. The crime goes haywire, and a massacre results. Threats are made. Dime is dropped. Investigations begin. All the while, we witness this pathetic display of power gone poisonous through the viewfinder of an artistically minded Private, various on site cameras, and the media reaction both local and abroad. Naturally, some if not all of the information is ‘redacted’—censored as a matter of US national security. 

So obvious in its intentions that it screams ‘teenager scamming for the car keys’, Redacted fails to fully embrace the proposed genius of its premise. Trying to be the War on Terror version of The Blair Witch Project, this media savvy screed has platoons full of potential. Like dozens of Iraq documentaries that use the new tech wired perspective of the average grunt, De Palma wants to replace polish with passion. This is one of the most ordinary movies the man has ever made—scads better than the mournful Black Dahlia, but far from the accomplished work that made him one of the ‘70s favored sons. Using his absolute hatred of the Bush policies, and marrying it to the new purview of soldiers as accidental psychos, the results barely reach their target. Instead, the simplistic cause and effect narrative is muddled by pointless sequences of non-erotic male bonding and actor overindulgence. The no-name cast is supposed to reflect the average Joe dynamic of the modern armed forces, every man in it for his own non-altruistic needs. Such an apparent eye-opener is just the first volley in what ends up being one of the more motivationally misguided anti-combat efforts in the rather limited subgenre.

Part of the problem with Redacted, and the myriad of equally ineffectual Iraq War movies released in 2007, is the decision to turn the troops into moustache twirling villains. Whether it’s In the Valley of Elah‘s involuntary serial killers, or this film’s sex and violence minded rapists, it’s rare to see the real bad guy—the Administration—taken to task. Instead, they are excused as bumbling bureaucrats (as in Rendition) or jaded, jingoistic salesman shilling for their own political gain (i.e. Lions for Lambs). But making the military the fall guy for all the incredibly incompetent decisions by this government is like blaming bullets for killing people. Someone is holding the gun—and more importantly, someone authorized the use of that weapon in a now pointless endeavor.

What these lackluster diatribes need is a clearly defined focus away from the men and women in uniform. An All the President’s Men like roasting on the lead up to 9/11 and the decision to milk fear for the fiscal security of future fossil fuels is the real horror still playing out today. That a private goes bonkers and blows up a civilian is causational collateral damage—never excusable, but more readily explainable than the whole UN/WMD presentation.

Still, we have to work with what De Palma gives us, and even then, it can’t match the fire and commitment of his similarly themed Vietnam vitriol, Casualties of War. Lacking real dramatic coherence, the sloppy sequences where future filmmaker Izzy Diaz gets his compatriots to ‘open up’ on camera are so stilted as to be taken from a community college stage play. No one seems normal—instead, they are central casting conceits of the kind of lowered induction standards joked about in the dialogue. Even worse, once we move outside the bonds of the POV material, the faux French documentary (which is stuck doing all the anti-America heavy lifting) and the Al-Jazeera approach are like Bible-thumpers in the back row. Their point is pedantic, unambiguous, and without a lick of legitimizing context. Indeed, another fallacy running through this and other films of its ilk is the lack of applicable perspective. Granted, there is no excuse for this pointless war, but to turn it into the Westernized version of the Al-Qaeda camps (that is, training grounds for prospective mindless murderers) seems to demonize an inappropriate target.

Besides, you never win an argument via extremes. Want to show the toll such mindless military meandering takes on the troops? Give us a post-tour treatise on the myriad of injuries and mental complaints registered in the last six years. Need to confirm that Iraq is destroying the moral of our soldiers? Follow one unit for an entire year, making sure to capture all the highs and lows, the deaths and the diversions that turn modern battle into the sovereignty version of a film shoot (meaning ‘hurry up and wait’). Redacted does have moments that bare this idea out. When we watch the day-to-day struggle to control the populace, maintain checkpoint readiness, prepare for possible IEDs, and basically survive the Middle Eastern environment, this film has purpose. De Palma lets his goaded guard down long enough to allow some authenticity to seep in. But once the boys decide that raping a local gal equals the ultimate test of their mired manhood, the drama dies. Instead, what we wind up with is sensationalized atrocities that never once come across as authentic or real.

In fact, the main sticking point for many will be the flippant way these jackasses extol their crimes. They threaten those in the know in full view of every surveillance camera in the camp, and when they go about their abomination, they leave enough clues behind to instantly warrant investigation (let alone foreign media outrage). Sure, De Palma tries to reshuffle the already stacked deck by showing a terrorist website that exploits children in the course of its insurgent bombing campaign, and our unapologetic fiends seem to get caught and crucified near the end. But then the film folds and asks for a new deal, showing us craven images of actual Iraqi dead that the narrative itself couldn’t be bothered to embrace. The “see, told you so” angle at the end may have some minor power (actual death on camera is cruel and soul sickening), but Redacted hasn’t earned this horror. It’s merely capitalizing on its existence to make a far more self-interested point.

Instead of heading over to the hot sands of Jordan and retrofitting their neighborhoods into simulated Iraq settings, De Palma should have spent his limited budget on a direct documentary on student apathy. Absent a draft—the great equalizer and instigator of any conflict—the ennui expressed by those who’ll wind up paying for this failed policy is staggering. It’s far more shocking than a single image in Redacted.

Redacted - Trailer

by Bill Gibron

29 Nov 2007


MIDNIGHT EAGLE (dir. Izuru Narushima)

It’s curious to note the continuing influence of Western filmmaking on the usually idiosyncratic foreign cinema. Instead of incorporating or exploiting Hollywood’s hackneyed entertainment principles, some countries simply embrace them without exception. Japan has maintained a wonderfully oblivious take on American moviemaking over the last few decades. They still enjoy the power of giant monsters and an amplified level of acting. Over the last 20 years, thanks to the advances in technology, more cross culture cooperation has, sadly, led to more and more Eastern films feeling like warmed over Tinsel Town junk. Take Midnight Eagle. This two hour plus work of international intrigue wants to emulate the overproduced popcorn product that clogs up the summer Cineplex. Luckily, it’s much better than most of the malarkey considered marketable by our own studio suits. Sadly, it also suffers from some unusual aesthetic choices.

Troubled war photographer Yuji Nishizaki has seen enough. Escaping to the mountains of the Japanese Alps, he hopes to erase from his mind the tragic memories of what he’s seen. Unfortunately, further heartbreak occurs when his wife dies, leaving him alone with a young son named Yu. Sister-in-law and magazine reporter Keiko is angry at the absentee father and takes the boy to live with her in Tokyo. Without an emotional or familial anchor, Yuji is left suffering and desperate. While on one of his lonesome retreats, he witnesses a bright flash in the sky, a crash on the side of a far off peak, and an accompanying Air Force survey. Wanting to avoid anything awful, he slinks back to his sheltered life. But when best friend Oaichi hires Yuji to shoot photos of the investigation, the jaded journalist suddenly finds himself back in harm’s way. Seems an American Stealth bomber, loaded with a rogue nuke, is lying in ruins, and if the Japanese don’t reach it in time, the atomic device is destined to wind up in the hands of the advancing enemy force.

Like a series of subplot ships slowly meandering downstream to a final narrative focal point, Midnight Eagle has to be one of the most languid political thrillers ever conceived. Deliberately paced to emphasize every melodramatic moment and frequently substituting martyrdom for suspense, this intriguing if ultimately cold genre effort argues for Japan’s increasing reliance on archetypal tricks to support its spectacle. Set mostly in the frozen climes of the nation’s noted mountains, director Izuru Narushima maximizes his location, pushing the boundaries of believability in the process. Our heroes - friends Yuji and Oaichi - spend days in the bitter cold, even getting involved in firefights and battle-instigated avalanches. Yet they never once seem to suffer from frostbite or hypothermia. While we get an explanation later indicating that both men have frequented these snow-covered ranges for years, such tolerances are telling. Midnight Eagle is not out to be the realistic geopolitical potboiler it promises. Instead, it will offer a passive pro-peace platform, using an unnamed enemy (North Korean is inferred) and a reckless ally (the USA has apparently reneged on a “no nuke” flyover policy) to show why Japan must lead the cause for international harmony.

It’s a solid statement, and one that works for the most part. Because he looks so world weary and haggard, actor Takao Osawa is a decent movie messenger. He’s lost so much - courage, wife, son, sanity - that his last act transformation into active participant seems totally logical. Similarly, the diminutive Yuko Takeuchi is excellent as the driven Keiko. Her scenes opposite Osawa are excellent, especially when she is deriding his lack of familial concern. In fact, Midnight Eagle works much better as an interpersonal drama than a showboating F/X actioner. We really feel the connection between the characters, and experience the emotional issues right along side them. Unfortunately, the narrative keeps interfering to bring us more War Room bravado and implied chest puffing. There are a couple of governmental insights that work, almost all involving Tatsuya Fuji’s Prime Minister. There is an especially telling scene where an aid finds the leader crumbled on a rooftop, crying. Once he’s seen, the attempt to regain his composure is memorable.

So why, exactly, is Midnight Eagle so underwhelming? It could be that we never really comprehend the hazard. Of course, nuclear annihilation has its impact - it’s a post-modern given. But there is never any real danger except from the camouflaged troop’s bullets. Typically, a Hollywood thriller would have a preemptive problem that shows us the scope and the scale of the threat at hand. Here, everything is implied. No tragic test runs on an outer island. No visualized example of the devastation predicted. Not even a clear idea of how much damage the bomb can cause (a presentation on the impending tragedy is all charts and graphs). What we need here is a figurative explosion - something to shock us into understanding the consequences at stake. It is obvious that Narushima wants to build the dread little by little, making every moment away from the problem count. Yet the sad situations with the characters occasionally sidetrack the supposed suspense by making the family more important than the fate of a nation.

Midnight Eagle is also a very claustrophobic film, the mountainside locales reduced to snowbound medium shots with very little scope. It’s a telling artistic choice, since the very rare instances where the camera does pull back take our breath away with their visual insinuation. Additionally, sequences of supposed cat and mouse play out in steps, not showcases, and we never really fear for Keiko or Yu’s well being. Instead, we recognize their role as catalyst for the last act tearjerking. This is indeed an attempted four hanky weeper, characters committing acts of noble altruism that are meant to get the waterworks flowing. Oddly, we’re left unmoved by all this exploitation. Perhaps it’s because we see through the ruse Midnight Eagle is fostering. We understand that Yuji and Oaichi must suffer, and their newfound friend in the military is programmed to die for his country. Since a certain level of predictability exists, we don’t get as caught up in the finale’s machinations as we should.

All of this leaves Midnight Eagle as a perfectly serviceable entertainment. It does reach the ditzy dizzying heights of a Michael Bay blockbuster, and rarely rates concern as a work of nail biting thrills. Still, the winter setting does provide some erroneous shivers, and the storyline is measured in such a way as to constantly keep our attention. When Hong Kong took the crime genre to heart, imbuing the dying film style with all manner of artistic and ancient tradition, it reinvented and revitalized the format. While it would be interesting so see how Japan handles the post-Godzilla disaster epic, Midnight Eagle is not out to be so grand. Instead, it’s a veiled call for calm in a world burdened by dozens of unnecessary conflicts. While the meaning is righteous, the manner of its delivery may be too sluggish for Western ADD adrenaline addicts. It’s acceptable, not epic.

Midnight Eagle - Trailer
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