Thursday, October 15, 2009

Night Watch - Film Review

Serendipity arrived in my mailbox last week.  I had given up on Netflix ever sending me Nikolaj Coster-Waldau's Danish film Nightwatch, and ordered it from an Amazon Marketplace vendor.  They sent me the wrong movie - Timur Bekmambetov's Russian horror film, Night Watch (Nochnoy dozor), instead.

Being a big fan of Timur's film Wanted, I had Night Watch on my Netflix queue, but buried deep.  I had heard the buzz about Night Watch.  It was the first Russian blockbuster, and made Timur Bekmambetov's reputation as a director.  Amazon refunded my money for the mix up, but I thought I might as well watch the used DVD before I mailed it back. 

Night Watch is the first of a trilogy about the "Others", forces for light and dark who have formed a truce after an epic medieval battle.  The Night Watch patrols and tries to control the dark others (like vampires and witches).  The Day Watch does the same for the light others.  It's an urban fantasy set in modern day Moscow.  It's visually stunning and inventive, just as Timur's work in Wanted is, but here he had to be even more creative on a more limited budget.  It's not the scariest horror vampire film ever, but it has an interesting world, based on a series of Russian novels.  Anton, the main character, we first meet in 1992, when he seeks out a witch to try to get his wife back.  He makes a bargain with her that could tip the balance in the eternal struggle between the light and dark others.  He discovers that he is an "Other" himself when he suddenly can see the witch struggling with members of the Night Watch (dressed as workers for the Moscow Light Company).

You feel like there's all sorts of back story you're not getting, and as Timur says in the commentary, you're only getting the tip of the iceberg, as this is the set up for the trilogy.  I liked that there was mystery about lots of things.  It was intriguing.  Anton is an agent of the Light Others, but he lives across the hall from a family of vampires, and seems to be friends with them.  It's not explained, and obviously is fodder for the future movies.

What I really loved about the film is its innate Russian-ness.  I rewatched the film with Timur's commentary, and there are lots of things that American audiences wouldn't catch.  There is a huge "Vortex" threatening Moscow, and it's shown by swirling huge flocks of crows.  In Russian, the words for "crow" and "vortex" are nearly the same.  The Night Watch uses big yellow utility trucks which evidently are everywhere in Moscow, and are known for being slow and old fashioned.  In the movie, the trucks are practically turbo charged rockets, and one does a complete flip.  Look at this creepy Russian doll made into a spider creature.  In the commentary, Timur said this was a common doll from his childhood.

Is this the best movie ever?  No, but it has a great visual style, and is quite an entertaining film.  Timur said in the commentary that journalists and film critics hated it because they "didn't know where to put it on the shelf".  It's not just genre (horror).  Timur said with a chuckle that he views it as an art house film.  It's very Russian in the settings, and yet you can see all the American film influences.  I felt like it was a Russia I had never seen before -- not all the Kremlin square Cold War spy movie shots we usually get.  It created a sensation in Russia, and some said it was too American, while others said it was too Russian.  The DVD gives you the option of watching in Russian with subtitles or dubbed in English.  Watch the subtitled version, as the subtitles are some of the most inventive I've ever seen.  When a vampire calls to a little boy, the subtitles turn red and dissolve like blood mist.  When one vampire sharply yells, the word explodes in size on the screen.

Timur Bekmambetov made this film for Russian audiences, and never expected it to be seen outside his country.  It ended up being released in theaters all over the world.  This is one DVD worth seeking out.  I give it three stars and a strong recommendation.  I've already added the sequel, Day Watch, to my Netflix queue.  Watch the trailer, below, to get a taste.

And I'm still on my quest for the Danish Nightwatch!

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