Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Mar 24, 2006 7:59 am 
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Owl girls and other deliciously shabby foolishness from Russia with love

"This is the sort of vampire flick that Charles Bukowski might have hallucinated in a skid-row blood bank." -- J. Hoberman.

Notchnoi Dozor is the first of a trilogy about a future world where there are vampires and clairvoyants and good and evil creatures war with each other aided by teams of sympathetic “watchers” on day and night shifts. All absolutely silly and incomprehensible but an excuse for some dirty dreamlike imagery that is sometimes quite pleasing. If you don't get stoned any more you may defintely think you're missing a great trip movie.

An unusual production for contemporary Russia (the action takes place in Moscow), this movie was costly and elaborate but somehow looks pleasingly rough and natural, unlike the increasingly plastic CGI-ed Hollywood blockbusters whose patina of artificiality cuts them off from us. This is the value of the film, and perhaps its only value: however derivative in its (incomprehensible, and perhaps improvisotory) structure, it maintains an authentic trippy feel either because the Russians failed to produce a knockoff or maybe because they didn’t want to. Night Watch and its first sequel have met with unprecedented box office success in Russia and with those who follow such things from here this opening panel in the screen has been eagerly awaited for two years. Now it’s arrived on American soil, and this event is both a letdown and a relief. It may be as the wits say that the 2 1/2 –minute trailor version sacrifices nothing of the whole feature, but the full-length version doesn’t seem as long and burdensome as one had feared. If you like the ghetto-of-the-future look of movies like Blade Runner and The Crow, you’ll like the gritty magic irrealism of Notchnoi Dozor. It also has flourishes like an owl that turns into a naked lady and subtitles that beautifully appear and vanish or turn red. It’s high time that an elaborate production’s captions were up to the artistic level of the images, and they’re not overdone or distracting, just visually pleasing, and surprisingly crisp and elegant.

Beyond that, as A. Lane wrote, “any attempt to summarize the plot is likely to result in complete mental collapse.” There is a main character, Anton Gorodetsky (Konstantin Khabensky), who at the outset seeks the help of a colorful gemütlich lady clad in a red dress -- a clairvoyant and witch who like a lot of the characters in this movie manages to be both cozy and threatening -- to destroy the unborn child of his girlfriend, which he claims is not his. Complications follow.

Whether Anton subsequently is revealed to be one of the good ones turned bad or one of the bad ones who has a chance of turning good was never clear to me. It might be on subsequent viewings, and the style of Night Watch is dense and pleasing enough to consider trying them. If it's a “puerile lightshow” that blends Highlander and Matrix (W. Chaw), nowadays what expensive thriller with a futuristic bent isn’t something like that? Chaw is right: there is no serious "value" to this, and its sequels aren’t going to remedy that fact but compound it. Nonetheless one can be foregiven for preferring juvenile SF nonsense in a plumy-sounding Slavic language; it creates the illusion that there might be something going on there worth knowing about, after extensive language training.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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