Netflix Instant Gratification Journal #1

(in which I react to various things available for anyone to "watch instantly" from Netflix via computer, Xbox, psychedelic breakthrough, etc.)

*Who's Camus Anyway? (115 min; 2005): A great place to start my journey of clicking on internet links and watching movies that aren't stolen - I'd known of this one for a while, but I'm not sure how high I'd place it in my dvd queue, and I'm pretty glad that I finally watched it.

The writer/director is Mitsuo Yanagimachi, who's a pretty big deal in the history of contemporary Japanese independant film; he's probably 'known' in English-speaking regions for his debut feature, the 1976 biker documentary Godspeed You! Black Emperor, for reasons apart from the content of the actual film. Who's Camus Anyway? is his most recent feature, the first he'd made in a decade, heavily inspired by time spent in the interim as a university professor.

It's both a dramatic ensemble piece and a loving/terrified homage to the power of the cinema, focusing on a little over one week in the lives of the members of a university film club as they go about making their very own movie, The Bored Murderer; many problems arise, not the least of which is the lead actor suddenly dropping out, mandating a quick raid of the theater club to secure Ikeda, a bright, eccentric kid with a laconic poise but eyes intense enough to carry him through the gory scenes Matsukawa, the student director, has planned. That's another problem - nobody can quite agree on the killer's motivation, prompting assistant director Hisada to hand her star The Stranger, although Ikeda likes being around her for less-than-intellectual reasons, as does seemingly half the club's male membership.

Yes, there's personal problems too! Womanizing Matsukawa has a troubled relationship with Yukari, his nervous, clingy girlfriend - he thinks nothing of sleeping with the project's continuity girl for much-needed production funds, as he is both cruel and devoted to his art. Hisada can't tie down a job, despite the working world looming large in the near-future, and she finds herself flirting with many guys while her boyfriend is out of town. And then there's the club's faculty representative, Professor Nakajo, a once-acclaimed director who's gone into university teaching (hmmm), just in time to fixate on a pretty coed with a thing for hip-hop dancing, and maybe a few secrets of her own.

But know that there's layers within layers here. The film's movie-crazed characters love to draw parallels between the lives of people they know (albeit at an easy arm's length) and their cinema favorites - Prof. Nakajo is the doomed Aschenbach from Visconti's Death in Venice, while Yukari is the obsessed would-be beloved of Truffaut's The Story of Adele H. And, at times, 'reality' seems to accommodate them -- Yanagimachi opens the picture with an excellent, unbroken six-minute swing around the bustling campus, even as characters discuss the wonder of long tracking shots -- though nothing is ever quite as profound as it gets in the classics: Prof. Nakajo is as sweaty and horny as he is enlivened by unattainable beauty, and Yukari is as indecisive as infatuated. As a result, there's always tension between Yanagimachi's low-key, almost anecdotal approach to campus life and the force of movie adoration that runs through his formidable craft and his characters' minds.

Lots of warmth too; there's keen attention paid to both the atmosphere of a buzzing campus and the interactions between polite, not-yet-adult students tossed together by shared interests. A few characters are filled out with quirks, yes, and some of Yanagimachi's homage plays out in odd, maybe-contrived ways, but to me that only bolstered the film's devotion to disconnecting waking life from the primacy of 'realism' - by the final reel, the students' lives and their film have totally merged, with Yanagimachi presenting both behind-the-scenes chatter and bloody on-camera mayhem as completely true, as far as us viewers can see.

But who is Camus anyway? Well, he had a book about a murder adapted to the screen by Visconti, which is surely important, but it's the philosophy that bedevils the film's crew, maybe because nobody is quite capable of looking beyond their (very heartfelt!) desires to grasp the big human picture - Ikeda's bored murder is eventually as 'real' as anything else, maybe rendering everyone's concerns awfully small, maybe embodying and vivifying them like the works of the French and Italian greats. One thing's for sure - absurd reality might drive a man to kill through simple physical stimulus, but there's different types of 'reality' to live in for the devoted; Yanagimachi posits that cinema is a particularly devouring one, and perhaps especially absurd.

*Kakurenbo: Hide & Seek (25 min; 2004): Of course, Netflix also has its hazards. I have a real weakness for original short-form anime, particularly stuff produced without the OVA market in mind; this one played a bunch of festivals, which filled my head with silly dreams of expressive, individualistic animation encouraged by a small staff's shared vision. I also happened to remember seeing Central Park Media's old R1 dvd sitting around back in the day, so I figured if it somehow scored a license without any multimedia support whatsoever it ought to at least be sort of good, if maybe not worth the $19.99 CPM was asking. Who could resist a few simple clicks, right?

Unfortunately, this thing is boring, dreary crap, little more than a tech demo for the latest cel-shaded computer animation techniques circa half a decade ago. And while I've seen Studio 4°C pull off some impressively entertaining show-off shorts along similar lines -- thus preserving some quantum of value after the new tricks have inevitably gotten old -- this CoMix Wave/Dentsu/Yamatoworks/D.A.C. production is the kind of thing that's content to launch right into flooding the screen with a gloomy CGI cityscape (lookit those graphics!) while spelling out its story premise through explanatory off-camera dialogue.

The plot concerns a bunch of kids whom fate as allotted one character trait, if that. Seven of them are supposed to meet in the aforementioned spooky city for a deadly game of tag, allegedly with demons. But shock - eight of them show up! One of whom is a spooky girl who looks kind of like the lead hero kid's lost sister and leads people on mysterious chases! Could she possibly be in with the demons, or is it all a too-Italicobvious red herring? No, actually she is in with the demons - director/co-writer Shuhei Morita (who also drew a tie-in manga) couldn't be peeled away from overseeing chase scenes to manage anything deeper.

I guess this could have gone better if the style had some charm, but... well, it's 2004's cel-shading, which means lots of smooth, 'realistic' movement, and virtually no human idiosyncrasy or discernible expression. That last part's literal too, since the technology apparently wasn't in place to tackle credible faces; the game thus requires everyone to wear unmoving masks at all times, which would have raised a laugh from sheer bravura shamelessness had it not been the most entertainment the short had to offer. Yet it seems interested parties were nonetheless struck by something other than the technical merits - Morita later helmed the 2006-08 Katsuhiro Otomo-designed OVA series Freedom, which I can only presume is as somnolently competent.

*Bonus Theatrical Mini-Review Dept: Man, I'm ok with David Fincher most of the time (if not screenwriter Eric Roth, of Forrest Gump fame), but The Curious Case of Benjamin Button was awful, just chock-full of hollow platitudes, inconsistent salt-of-the-earth 'values' (helpful guide: whenever Brad Pitt leaves everything to fuck around, it's living life to the fullest; when Cate Blanchett does it, she's flying in the face of True Love), nonstop emotional button-pushing (did anyone fucking die in this thing without either saying something profound, leaving a touching lesson or providing a heart-tugging funeral someone else is just in time to attend?) and hamfisted symbolism that's helpfully explained in-dialogue more often than not, in case you might theoretically get confused in a parallel reality somewhere.

Also: there's a scene where Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett are going out on a boat, and they're just in time to see a space shuttle launch, because that was the kind of thing that happened in that time period, you know! Need I get into the head-slapping Hurricane Katrina-as-death's-inevatibility angle? No, I think the space shuttle about covers everything...