My Week of Cleaning Out the Netflix Queue: Dororo (2007)

A friend of mine has been insisting that I watch this for well over a year, and now that I have, I can say one thing for sure: this was definitely a movie that I watched.

Dororo is…well, a summary would take around four thousand words to hit all of the cardinal points so forgive me if I gloss over many of them in the interest of time. (Something I wish the film-makers did as well, but we’ll get to that shortly.)

In the distant future of feudal Japan, Lord Daigo finds his land and his people besieged by unstoppable enemies. On the verge of finding his world and heritage wiped out, he makes a dark pact with 48 demons: if they give him the power to fight back and conquer them, he will give them his unborn son, which they can divide into 48 pieces as they please.

Unfortunately this moment of weakness for Daigo evolves quickly into a lust for power, and he uses his dark blessing not just to defeat his enemies, but to enslave humanity.

Okay, that’s the background information. The actual plot is still more complicated: Daigo’s son is born, but he’s nothing but a barely-formed lump of flesh. He has a torso, a waist, a neck and a head, and that’s it. No eyes, no ears, no limbs, because the demons took all that shit…it’s creepy, okay? Daigo wants to kill the abomination but Mrs. Daigo puts him in a basket and sends him down the river, where a brilliant inventor finds him and builds him, piece by piece, a new body, in the hopes that he will someday be a real boy. So the origin story reveals that our hero is basically Moses, Edward Scissorhands and Pinocchio rolled into one. He’s also a samurai with a blade for an arm and he’s blind and deaf but can see and hear with his heart…even though he doesn’t have one of those either.

Actually, that’s still the background information.

So, the plot: he must seek out each of the 48 demons and destroy them with his special demon-killing samurai arm so that he can replace the parts of his fake body with the actual parts from his real body that the demons were just kind of chilling with, and a female thief who unconvincingly impersonates a man because her parents told her never to be weak like a woman unless she wanted to die with the rest of the villagers joins up with Pinocchioses Scissorhands, because she wants the blade when he’s done with it, and they eventually find out that Lord Daigo was both our hero’s father and the guy who killed the thief’s parents, and…

…fuck. That’s still background information.

This movie’s complicated, okay? It’s also really long. Clocking in at two and a half hours, I really do feel that something should have been cut.

…and yet I’d be loathe to identify which scenes should go, because taken in isolation everything is pretty damned beautiful. The demon fight sequences are a little ropey, but they’re made up for afterward when our hero falls to the ground coughing up some fake version of one of his organs so that he can regenerate his real one. It’s wondrously disgusting.

The adventures of the demon slayer and the thief are fairly episodic, broken into long sequences that see them encountering some bizarre situation and needing to fight their way out of it…only to have it never brought up again. This is true to Dororo‘s origin as a manga series, where an issue-by-issue stop/start abruptness is inherent to the format. Here it might sound frustrating, but it works well enough. The quest is neatly broken into 48 pieces anyway — though by the end of this film we still have 24 body parts to go — so it’s not so strange that each situation would seem to exist independently of the others.

It’s not a bad movie at all, but it is overbearingly Japanese. You’ll need to get around a few things that seem pretty bizarre in order to enjoy the movie — see the gigantic naked baby in the picture above, and then ask yourself how likely you are to get around that — but if you can, it’s a good deal of fun and not without moments of admirable consideration and depth.

After all, once our hero is told by a dying demon that he should really be angry at his father instead of them, there’s a genuinely emotional turning-point. Dororo is about adventure and bloodshed, without a doubt, but there’s a current of humanity and self-discovery that runs beneath. I can’t promise you that it’s worth seeking out, but if you do watch it, it might be a more rewarding experience than you expected.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to kill this fire-breathing potato bug to get my ankle back.

Next up: a film in which plot and character feature heavily. Fuck, I spoiled it didn’t I?

My Week of Cleaning Out the Netflix Queue: Submarine (2010)

Richard Ayoade has been involved in some great stuff. The IT Crowd, AD/BC: A Rock Opera, and my probable candidate for funniest television show of all time, Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace. I was surprised to see that he directed a film, though, and would have been a bit apprehensive if the reviews didn’t all seem to conspire with one another to convince me that this was exactly the sort of movie I’d fall madly in love with.

And this was exactly the sort of movie I’d fall madly in love with.

Submarine plays games with cinematic grammar, with unreliable narration, and with basic plot and character development, but that’s not what’s impressive. What’s impressive is that it does all of these things in service of a sincerely affecting and bittersweet experience. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from reading endless volumes of modern and postmodern literature, it’s that absolutely anybody can subvert expectations. It’s a trick pulled so often that it’s no longer surprising. Not everybody, however, can utilize that game in the necessary service of a vaster emotional statement.

Submarine does this. And I don’t think I’ll be forgetting it soon.

The film is about Oliver, a teenage boy living in Wales, who finds himself drawn to the crude, nasty beauty of a female classmate as his parents’ marriage disintegrates in the background. But it’s not the plot that holds the film together…it’s the sensibility. It’s the appropriately confused nature of the film, which glorifies the enormity of youth while never losing sight of its fleeting, graceless unimportance. Oliver is prone to flights of internal fancy that border on outright hallucinations, muddling so often the line between imagination and reality that one of the film’s biggest shocks comes after a scene in which he reads aloud his suicide note to the class…only for us to learn in the following scene that, for once, this was not imaginary.

It’s a bitter film, but it’s an affectionate bitterness. It’s the affectionate bitterness that comes with looking a good friend in the face and telling him to fuck off, and meaning it, while still understanding him to be the best friend you’ll ever have.

The object of Oliver’s affections is Jordana, a dangerous and equally disturbed young woman who torments her peers and delights in setting fire to things. She brings out the worst in Oliver by mere virtue of existing, and an early, gorgeously-presented moment in the film finds Oliver bullying an unfortunate girl in order to impress Jordana and another friend of his. But then his friends leave and there’s just Oliver, his victim, and silence. Without changing a thing, the entire perspective of Submarine shifts, and it’s a perfect film-defining moment that haunts Oliver in ways he can’t ever understand.

As Submarine progresses Jordana finds her own life injected suddenly with a malign tragedy, and we see at times from that point forward an outward reflection of her own humanity. As we plumb the depths of Oliver’s problems and erase, letter by letter, our perception of his innocense, we find Jordana assembled, piece by piece, to something like a sympathetic human being. Both Oliver and Jordana are rich, challenging characters, but we start at the opposite end of each’s spectrum, and work backward toward the middle, where, with luck, they might finally meet, and be for the other what they each most need.

Submarine is an unquestionable delight. Beautifully flawed, and devastatingly frank. There are no good people, apart from Noah Taylor as Oliver’s milquetoast father…but he gets steamrolled by everything life puts in his path.

Adolescence is about learning to fight, because that’s the only way to move forward. And it’s also about learning to hurt. And learning to be hurt. And learning to heal. And learning to help others to heal. In short, it’s about learning why you’re never going to be up to the task of guiding your own life, and it’s about that last sunset at summer’s end, that sees you knee-deep in water and facing an uncertain horizon. At your back are all the mistakes you’ve made, and in front of you are those you’re doomed to make all over again.

It’s funny. It’s sad. It’s heart-breaking. And I loved it.

Next up: The one with that character who needs to accomplish something.

My Week of Cleaning Out the Netflix Queue: The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai (1984)

I have no idea what I just watched.

I do know that its full title is The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension but that was too long for WordPress.

That’s all I know about what I just watched, because I have no idea what I just watched.

It’s about some brain surgeon who performs experimental surgery, but that doesn’t tie into the rest of the movie at all. The movie focuses more on this same man’s career as a rock musician / physicist / comic book hero / cosmic adventurer / crash test dummy / sex symbol, but that doesn’t tie into it really, either. I have no idea what I just watched.

This is a movie I’ve been meaning to get around to for some time. Mainly because it immortalized in film Yoyodyne, the shady corporation known to literary geeks like myself from The Crying of Lot 49. That means that this film is one of very, very few that could possibly be said to take place within the same universe as any of Pynchon’s works, and that’s worth a recommendation in itself. As an added bonus, one of the characters employed there in Lot 49 was first introduced in Gravity’s Rainbow, which itself featured a character whose ancestors we meet in Mason & Dixon, a-and…I’ll stop myself there, suffice it to say that this indirectly ties the film not just into one of Thomas Pynchon’s books, but — by virtue of intratextual connectivity — the entire Thomas Pynchon oeuvre.

Of course, none of that factors into the plot here, which finds Buckaroo Banzai driving through a solid mountain, only when he comes out there’s a sort of alien fetus attached to the underside of his car, but that can’t be very important because it never comes up again. So the President of the United States calls him up to congratulate him on finding the alien fetus or something but it’s not really the President…it’s an alien from a race that wants to destroy Earth (and doesn’t live inside of mountains so I guess it’s a different alien species to the alien species that includes the alien fetus Buckaroo found on the underside of his car, which makes sense because if you destroy Earth you destroy those mountains AND THEN WHAT). But these aliens that prank called him don’t actually want to destroy Earth, they’re exceptions to the rest of their species, so they electrocute Buckaroo through the phone line and make him write equations on his hand. I have no idea what I just watched.

There’s also, of course, the Wes Anderson connection, and as Steve Zissou Saturdays kick off next weekend, I thought it would be worth seeing the film from which Anderson borrowed the end credits sequence for The Life Aquatic.

He also, I can see now, borrowed the electrical kiss from this film for Moonrise Kingdom. I’m glad he borrowed these things, because I can understand them in their reappropriated contexts. Here, I have no idea what I just watched.

Buckaroo and his band / fellow spies / sex people have to stop the aliens before they destroy Earth, which all started because a long time ago John Lithgow got flung through a wall by a go-kart, obviously. Christopher Lloyd is one of the aliens and that’s about the only thing that makes any kind of sense to me.

I have no idea what I just watched.

And while Buckaroo is at a club playing that rock and roll that the kids love so much, he hears Ellen Barkin crying so he says ELLEN BARKIN WHY ARE YOU CRYING and she tries to shoot herself while he plays a sad song so she goes to jail and he lets her out, because I guess he has that authority as some guy from the 80s who plays Zeppelin covers at a club, and it turns out she’s the identical twin of his ex-wife, who died in some way that nobody cares enough about to explain. So he hangs out with her for a while and puts her in mortal danger, because the aliens can spit spiders and Ellen Barkin is wearing a dress.

Seriously, what the fuck did I just watch? Jeff Goldblum is in it, too, eerily foreshadowing his future roles in the film of anybody who thinks to ask him. He doesn’t do much apart from dress like a cowboy and say to Buckaroo something to the effect of I’M SORRY I DID EVERYTHING I COULD DO TO SAVE HER and then Buckaroo is sad and almost accidentally orders war with Russia, but it turns out she’s just fine so Jeff Goldblum was trolling him I guess. I have no idea, no idea, no fucking idea what I just watched.

If you have any idea what I just watched, please let me know in the comments.

Because I have no. Idea. What I just watched.

Five stars.

Next up: something I understand. Please.

My Week of Cleaning Out the Netflix Queue: Duck Soup (1933)

I’ve never seen any of the Marx Bros. films. That makes me, I’m aware, a really fucking awful human being…and an even worse fan of both film and comedy. I’ve seen them in other things, and in the most famous clips that end up embedded in documentaries and retrospectives, but I’ve never sat down and watched one of their films wall-to-wall.

For that reason, I can’t provide much context about Duck Soup, nor can I really say that it is or isn’t representative of the Marx Bros. canon. What I can say, though, is that I was sincerely taken aback by just how modern this film felt.

It’s a political satire, at least ostensibly (more on this in a moment), but structurally it’s just a series of disconnected moments and set pieces. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s interesting how much lazy comedy this sort of approach has given birth (and berth) to since.

When it comes to screwball comic nonsense, films justified by the laughter each scene or moment brings as opposed to any grand statements or emotional journeys they might otherwise provide, we’re currently in the glut of dreck like Scary Movie XXIV or Meet the Spartans, and for a long time I felt that their lame pedigree was unwittingly set into motion by things like Airplane! and Kentucky Fried Movie…but no. In 1933, the Marx Bros. were doing it already.

Duck Soup is full of bizarre cinematic collisions, with a hilariously unlikable Groucho Marx as man who, for whatever reason, holds an entire country in sway with his charm, so much so that they feel compelled to literally sing his praises while he gloats about how many minor things he’d have them shot for doing. He speeds his country to war for the sake of an insult he can’t remember, and brings at least one entire nation to utter ruin. During the course of these things there are several musical interludes, lots of irrelevant wordplay, silent physical comedy, and a dispute between peanut vendors and lemonade vendors.

Not one thing follows logically from the last, and the conclusion of the film blindingly assaults cinematic flow at its core by cutting bluntly many times from one scene to an identical scene in which the characters are now in different costumes, or the insertion of stock footage from other films suggesting that soldiers, natives and animals are all rushing to the front lines to assist in Groucho’s war. It’s meta before we had a word for it. It’s the Tristram Shandy of screwball comedy. We can thank this movie for The Naked Gun. We can also blame it for Family Guy.

Which, actually, kind of disappoints me. Of course, it’s disappointing me in a very effective way, but I think I expected more from an important group like the Marx bros. I expected…I don’t know. A certain quiet dignity behind the proceedings — especially in a work of satire — or a sense of cultural weight. Instead it spins its wheels in an effort to squeeze every possible pun and reedle (to borrow Joyce’s term) from a scene. Plot points are hurried past or brushed over, so that we can watch Harpo wrestle with an uncooperatively loud radio, or Groucho have a showdown with someone pretending to be his reflection.

It’s strange for the sake of being strange, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But I do wonder if this actually qualifies as satire. While the unwillingness to admit weakness leads directly to war (as it does in later, clearer satires such as Dr. Strangelove or In the Loop), I think people consider this to be satirical simply because it mentions politics…rather than because it really makes any statement about them.

After all, it’s just a series of things that happen. The mirror scene is great (though I actually first encountered its recreation in I Love Lucy) and there’s a masterful rhythm to the wordplay…but satire? I honestly don’t see it. If a film were marketed as, say, a satire about office life, people would be disappointed if the film — however funny it might be — didn’t actually say anything about office life.

When it comes to politics, though, I guess it’s easier to just assume everything fits. The lemonade vendor flips over the peanut cart? Sure, we can just assume that makes some kind of political statement. Three people dressed as Groucho run around a mansion in the middle of the night? Yeah, I guess politicians do impersonate those we’d most like them to be…

Remove the political context and you’re just left with a series of jokes that don’t work any less well without it. I enjoyed the film, certainly, but it doesn’t feel satirical to me. It feels like some very talented people coming together to have a laugh. Do we really need to assign a political motive to that?

Next up: another movie.