Tuesday, April 29, 2008

IFFB 2008: Vexille

It's bad enough that Vexille isn't really a good movie - the worst part isn't just that if I'd given it a miss, I wouldn't have found myself walking back home at 1am (I could have sworn the T ran a little later. Still, it's not so bad if you break it down to "Davis Square isn't far from Porter Square, Porter Square isn't far from Harvard Square, Harvard Square isn't far from home"). Throughout the movie, I couldn't help but rearrange the night that had led up to it and what I could have been seeing for a better festival experience. I think my plan was to shove Jetsam to Sunday night - this would have bumped The Tracy Fragments, but Chlotrudis Society membership does not actually require one to care about Canadian independent films starring Ellen Page, and I didn't get to see that anyway - and then either go for Phoebe in Wonderland or Intimidad before Big Man Japan in Somerville (dropping Sex Positive), or sticking around the Brattle after Sex Positive for Dreams with Sharp Teeth and Flashpoint.

Ah well. Time to get to the closing night film.


* * (out of four)
Seen 25 April 2008 Somerville Theater #5 (Independent Film Festival of Boston After Dark)

Vexille has taught me not to complain about Hollywood productions that spend "too much" on visual effects or expensive animation. As much as Vexille might have still been a mediocre action movie if an American-sized budget had been thrown at it, that's better than the uneven-looking feature it winds up being.

The title character is part of SWORD, an elite unit in the American military that makes use of mechanical exoskeletons and robot troops to hunt down violators of international law. That mainly means Japan, which withdrew from world affairs ten years ago after the United Nations outlawed android research, going so far as to build a perimiter around the nation that not only prevents ships and aircraft from getting near, but scrambles aerial and satellite surveillance. Upon discovering that Japan's Daiwa Industries has produced an android that can pass as human (and may be using them to infiltrate the U.S.), Vexille and her unit are dispatched to infiltrate Tokyo. Things are worse there than they could possibly have imagined, and she must join forces with Maria, a resistance fighter, to take down Daiwa once and for all.

Vexille bills itself as coming from the makers of Appleseed, which is a comparison it really shouldn't be inviting. Appleseed had the look of a cohesive future world whose manga-styled characters, machines, and environments all appeared to belong. That's not really the case here; the robots look overlaid on the background rather than a part of it, while the human characters suffer from the same problem and seem to be less detailed and lit differently on top of that. They often don't move very well, especially compared to American performance-capture features like Beowulf or other animated works.

Director Fumihiko Sori does handle the action fairly well. There are a few big action sequences, and they're fast-moving enough with enough things flying through the air that the different elements not always seeming to occupy the same space becomes less of a factor. There's the occasional bit that feels like a video game, but it's a video game that looks like fun. I won't deny that the mechanical monsters that play a large role in the movie's second half are some of the more egregious examples of effects that don't quite fit with the rest of the film's world, but they are nifty enough on their own that I'm glad I saw them.

The story is serviceable enough - you've got your basic axis of evil (androids enforcer and corporate mastermind), a basically good military force, and scrappy resistance types. There's hints that both Vexille and Maria have a thing for Vexille's commanding officer Leon, although it never becomes too overwrought. The writers do a good job of throwing out technical and future-historical details that sound legitimate without making the audience feel the need for more information than the movie can give.

That lack of complexity might be Vexille's downfall, though. As much as they're willing to deal out epic levels of destruction, Sori and co-writer Haruka Handa don't display the same curiosity at our posthuman future as Mausume Shirow (who gave us the original Ghost in the Shell and Appleseed manga), Mamoru Oshii (who made the GITS movies), and Katsuhiro Otomo (Akira and the screenplay to Metropolis). It is perhaps unfair to use those films as measuring sticks, but Vexille is covering the same basic territory, but in a generic, lightweight manner, and the late attempt to give the film some thematic heft doesn't do enough.

It's the sort of movie that makes me wonder why Vexille merits being a title character; she's not terribly interesting in and of herself other than the basic hypercompetence we expect from sci-fi leads. None of the characters are helped by their rather inexpressive CGI models. The original Japanese soundtrack may mitigate that somewhat, but unfortunately there's apparently only one subtitled print in the U.S. and it was at another festival, leaving Boston with an unmemorable dub (also not memorable for being terrible).

An independent film festival is an odd place to develop a new appreciation for American mega-blockbusters, but there you have it - as often as working with fewer resources sometimes spurs creativity, that's not always the case.

Also on EFC.

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