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Sword of Doom

I wanted to see this film for three reasons:


1. It starred Tatsuya Nakadai.





2. As well as Toshiro Mifune.



3. And it was called Sword of Doom

The story centers around a young samurai called Ryunosuke, who in the opening shot kills an old Buddhist pilgrim. After that he more or less moves from bloodshed to bloodshed, and it is safe to say that he is no way a hero. Despite this the film is predominantly seen from his POV - allowing us to struggle with the sadistic and nightmarish world he creates around himself.

Mifune stars as a sword master, and in a sense Ryunosuke's complete opposite. It is also Mifune's character that clearly identifies the cause and the fault of Ryunosuke; A bloody sword equals a bloody mind." In a sense this can be taken as the film's moral - that all the vile deeds Ruynosuke does deprives him more and more. As the violence escalates, so does his madness and in the end it is this self-inflicted madness that stops him rather than the plucky would-be hero.

The backdrop of the film is the troubled ear of the Shinsengummi and the fight surrounding the Shogunate, and the film implies that Ryunosuke's violence can be seen as symbolic of that period. All in all this film reminded me of the typical urban film noir featuring an anti-hero and his demise, and I consider that high praise indeed.

Let the Right One In

A vampire film set in a small town in rural Northern Sweden that offered a fresh and psychological approach to the vampire myth sounds excellent. Which means I'm a bit baffled that I didn't like it.

The film centers around Oskar, a young boy who is bullied at school, and who one night meets a strange girl called Eli. The narrative of the film is omniscient, and so the audience is informed of Eli's vampirical nature rather quickly as well as being introduced to her helper - the old man Haakan. It is he who has the job of killing and draining the victims, and though he is quite well prepared he repeatedly fails at the task. In a scene that ranks as my favourite in the whole film he is about to drain a victim, but is stopped when discovered by a large, white poodle. It is a scene of surreal genius.

Rethinking the film I concluded that it was the dark humour of Haakan's failings that endeared me to him and that made him the only believable character in the film. He is a pathetic sight with comb-over hair and bad skin, and is almost religiously devoted to his young vampire. It's a shame then that he dies rather quickly, and leaves the rest of the film to focus on Oskar and Eli.

Which is were my grievances come in. At first glance there is nothing wrong with Let the Right One In, but there is no depth either. The latter could be forgiven, except the film clearly wants to be considered profound. My problem is that I didn't find the reflection required to sustain this supposed profoundness, instead I found a lot of hipster posing. Because Oskar? The main character? He isn't a character at all - all his mannerism, his clothes, his taste in music, his haircut are just avatars of the Scandinavian mania for late 1970's retro mixed with Scandinavian minimalism. There are hundreds of Oskars in every large Scandinavian city - a couple of them are actually drinking coffee on the cafe right across from where I'm sitting. Not only are they on every cafe and in every bar, but they are in every new Scandinavian film as well. They've appeared in the Swedish films of Ulf Malmros and Lukas Moodyson. They populate every Norwegian film set in the present day and there are a few Danes kicking about as well. I have no idea about the Finnish situation, but judging by films alone Iceland is populated by nothing but retro hipster. The end result is that I cannot relate to Oskar, whether for good or bad, because he is such a stereotype. Since the emotional arc of the film is closely tied to Oskar this central pint of the film falls completely flat to me.



Secondly, while the cinematography is well done it too suffers from the fetishist fascination with the late 1970's. A good example are all the shots from inside Oskar's apartment which present selected 1970's object (like the record player, his collection of vintage model cars, his mothers apron and so forth)in a flat that is otherwise painted white and minimalistic. Instead of presenting the 1970's as the gaudy decade it was - with wallpapers of large flowers and old, worn lamps - the apartment looks more like the hip home of a local designer. One instance of this would be fine, but the whole movie presents this view; If it is 1970's cool then the protagonists will own it or wear it. If it is uncool then its delegated to the minor characters. I think it is a vital, visual point that the group of local drunks are dressed in bad 1980's fashion, and not in Oskar's streamlined retro-cool.

It is a shame really, because there are a lot of interesting and dark aspects in Let the Right One In. It wants to deal with bullying, murder and pedophilia. The latter is constantly bubbling under the surface, and you're never really sure who the abuser is - if it is Haakan who is using Eli - or if it is in fact the 200-year old vampire who seduces and uses the helpers she needs. There are also some fascinating questions raised in regards to gender - but for me all of these aspects were lost under the weight of all that posing.

Angels and Demons

Imagine Tom Hanks running frantically around Rome while talking about Bernini and angels, and you could have any number of scenes from Angels and Demons. Yet somehow I'm fine with that. Unlike Let the Right One In this is a film I didn't expect to like, and where I'm a bit surprised I actually did. It isn't the movie that will change your life, but it does manage to avoid the tediousness that was The Da Vinci Code. In fact it reminded me of the National Treasure films. The plot is improbable, impossible even, and any form of historical correctness is achieved only by accident - yet I was never bored. With these type of films I think that counts for quite a bit.


Robert Langdon having just discovered that there is ART in Rome! Clearly this calls for a symbologist!


I suspect the plot is fairly well known. Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks and his hairpiece) is asked to help the Vatican solve the threat of the Illuminati. Various people oppose this - including Stellan SkarsgÄrd as the head of the Swiss Guard - but these people are usually wrong, and Robert Langdon is usually right. The film has a twist of sorts, but if you've read your Agatha Christie you will see it coming. (or if you've read the book I guess. Which I haven't.)But I'm not going to waste time with the intricacies of the plot, because that was hardly my favourite part of the film.

Instead I'd like to mention the Hans Zimmer score - which is definitely Zimmer'esque and which gives the film a soaring quality that helps establish momentum. While the cinematography isn't stunning, the CGI is fairly good and they include lots of aerial shots of Rome which warms my heart. (an makes me long to visit the city immediately). In some cases the film is also rather clever with its juxtaposition of symbols and shots - for instance the round disk that is the communal wafer dissolving in the next shot to be the buildings of CERN. Since a major theme is the similarities of religion and science these kind of touches serve as clever little symbols to help the plot along.

Where The Da Vinci Code had endless monologues, Angels and Demons rely much more on fast chase sequences, gruesome murders and inane Art Historical babble. They combine this with hand held cameras, fast editing and a Tom Hanks that actually looks like he's having some fun and doesn't take things to seriously. And somehow it all works. Because somehow all the silly pieces fit together and become fun.

(that said, I do find myself longing for a film about the highly trained, yet conservative and religious boys that make up the majority of the Swiss Guard in this film. Lots of repressed Catholics with martial arts training...what?)

----

Films watched in 2009.
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