Thursday, March 24, 2016

Movie Review-lette: "Berserk: The Golden Age Arc I - The Egg of the King" by David Pretty

Every once and awhile I'll indulge in an insane game called "Movie Review-lette", inviting social media friends to name a movie they want me to review. Naturally a "be-as-cruel-or-as-kind-as-you-wanna-be" waiver is always attached to this offer. As soon as I have ten suggestions I'll randomly pick one of 'em out of a hat to watch and review.

The last time I did this I ended up watching Big Top Pee-wee (thanks, BTW, to Josh Mullins for that...bastard). This little experiment scarred me so badly that I haven't done it again...until recently.

This time fate was a lot kinder, with Tyler Weir suggesting Berserk: The Golden Age Arc I - The Egg of the King, an anime adaptation of the classic, dark, epic fantasy manga written by Kentaro Miura back in 1988.

Hey, it can't be any worse than a movie Paul Reubens crapped out as an afterthought, right? Riiiight?!?

okay, before I get started, I have a confession to make. I really don't like a lot of anime. And unlike most people I can actually articulate why:
  1. The oblique, heavy-handed, patently-obvious, "lost-in-translation" dialogue often comes across as completely tin-eared to me. 
  2. Characters aren't so much three-dimensional beings as they are ridiculously broad archetypes. Hey, look, it's "brash-hot-headed-but-noble guy!" and here's "strong, silent, highly-competent" guy and *look!* it's my all time-favorite: "goofy, clumsy, sweet-but-awkward" guy! *Yawn*
  3. The over-reliance on cheap animation tricks really pisses me off. For example: showing a character's face frozen in place while the backgrounds streak by in order to convey a charging attack of a giant load of horse shite. 
  4. Many of the plots are so fucking convoluted that I just tune out. Now I know that some of this can be attributed to different story-telling traditions as well as cultural and / or language barriers, but more often than not its abundantly clear that the writer has no falking clue what they're doing
  5. But the thing I despise the most by far are all those stupid, superfluous vocal exclamations that are shamelessly over-used. Sorry, but "Uh!", "Ah!" and "Huh?" ARE NOT LINES OF FUCKING DIALOGUE.
Despite these annoying tropes I've enjoyed some anime in the past, namely the goofy slapstick of Ranma 1/2, the engrossing depth of The Vision of Escaflowne and Record of Lodoss War, the lean and mean Blood as well as the sophistication and beauty of Akira, Ghost in the Shell and Princess Mononoke. So, there, I'm not a hater after all. The big question then becomes, does Berserk: The Golden Age Arc I - The Egg of the King fall into the first category or the second?

Fortunately, the flick gets a good start right out of the gate. We begin with an evocative opening shot with clouds, an Abrams-style lens flare, wheeling crows and what appears to be the odd meteor streaking across the sky. The camera then pans down into the tumult of a siege army charging towards the walls of a castle. As it turns out, the meteors are actually catapult pitch hurtling towards the battlements.

When the invading army finally breaches the castle walls they're temporarily thwarted by an intimidating, axe-wielding mountainoid in full plate armor named Bazuso. Just when it seems as if the invader's morale has been broken, an enigmatic mercenary named Guts (because anime) strides out of the crowd. After securing a seven silver piece bounty for killing the castle's hulking guardian, Guts (Marc Diraison) hurls himself into combat and defeats the giant with a combination of blunt force, wits and rage.

This spectacular feat draws the attention of Griffith (Kevin T. Collins), leader of the Band of Hawks, a powerful mercenary guild. In a move akin to a press-gang, they ambush Guts and subdue him with a Herculean group effort. When he wakes up in the Hawk's camp, the brash merc tries to exact revenge on Griffith but the effete, ultra-zen fighter puts him in the dirt again. Embracing a "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" mentality, Guts decides the join the Hawks and go on campaign with them.

Fast-forward to three years later and the dominant Kingdom of Midland has retained the Hawks to destroy the upstart rival nation of Chuder. Thanks to a ballsy but reckless charge spearheaded by Guts, the Hawks rout the Black Sheep Iron Spears Heavy Knights (because anime) and the day is won. Unfortunately the power brokers in the realm, including the king's petty brother Yurius (Jesse Corti), aren't too keen on the meteoric rise of the Hawks, especially when Griffith draws the eye of the fetching Princess Charlotte (Rachael Lillis).

Things kick into high gear when Guts brashly confronts a demon named Nosferatu Zodd the Immortal (because anime). After the creature (voiced by J. David Brimmer) spies the red egg pendant worn by Griffith, he warns Guts that his mentor will be the death of him. This prophecy starts to ring true after Griffith gives Guts a revenge-fueled order to assassinate a political rival, which ends up going horribly sideways. 

Fortunately there's a lot to like here. Clocking in at a lean-and-mean seventy-seven minutes long, the film's run time could arguably be described as abbreviated but at least it doesn't overstay its welcome. The premise and early stages of the movie comes across as the inaugural session of a junior high school era D&D campaign but mid-way through things finally start to percolate. Even better, there's a genuine "Oh, fuck!" moment that happens right at the end of the movie which evoked shades of the first episode of The Shield for me; a ploy which kept me slavishly devoted to that particular show right up to the very end.

Right from the opening shot you know that the movie will look spectacular at the very least. The character designs, art direction and backgrounds are all lush and beautifully rendered. Except for the character's faces there are very few obvious tells that you're watching an anime here. In fact, a part of me wanted it to look more like a Kurosawa-style, feudal Japanese fantasy setting then yet another generic medieval European milieu.

The character animation is particularly convincing, leading me to believe that motion capture or some modern version of rotoscoping was used. Clearly a large chunk of the animation is computer-assisted and although I still prefer the more organic and immersive hand-drawn animation of an Akira, the results here are so gosh durned purdy that I feel churlish for criticizing it. The confrontation with Nosferatu Zodd is particularly impressive highlight.

As for the characters themselves, they're likable enough. Guts kinda reminds me of the main character in my first novel; he's stubborn, rage-filled, suicidally brave and hard-headed but he also has a sense of duty and is driven to do the right thing. After he's knocked unconscious by the Hawks he experiences a pretty intense fever dream that hints at his origins. I can only hope that this will be expanded upon in the next two parts.

Looking like a cross between Rarity from My Little Pony and Taylor Swift, Griffith comes across as quietly sinister in spite of his delicate appearance. When he nonchalantly tells Guts about how he came across the crimson behelit pendant and the cryptic prophecy of power that goes along with it, warning klaxons immediately started going off in my head. Especially when you consider that the pendant itself is decorated with random human features, including eyeballs that like to play peek-a-boo at unexpected moments.

But by far my favorite character is Casca (Carolyn Keranen), the female fighter who serves as Griffith's second-in-command. Things get off to a shaky start when Griffith orders her to sleep naked next to a comatose Guts in order to "keep him warm with her body heat". Given anime's cheesy penchant for shoe-horning scenes of superfluous female nudity into the proceedings, it's hard not to be cynical about such things. At least it's treated casually, it's non-exploitative and there are zero tentacles present.

I'd be slightly more forgiving if Guts was "full monty" in this scene as well, but as we all know "female nudity GOOD, male nudity BAD". I'd hate to think that animators throw these things in just for the purpose of titillating a bunch of sexually arrested neck-beards. I mean there can't be weirdos out there who have a fetish for fleeting glimpses of anime nudity, are there? What am I saying, of course there are.

Notwithstanding this, Casca is still a fun character. At first she's dead-set against recruiting Guts because she just thinks of him as a rabid dog. Even after Griffith insists on admitting him into the ranks of the Hawks, she constantly rides him for going off half-cocked. I loved the scene where she sucker-punches him for callously chopping down her horse in order to secure a cheap win. I wanted the movie to be longer if only to explore why she's so slavishly devoted to Griffith. Hopefully this will be covered somewhat in Part II.

As for Yurius, he isn't a particularly memorable villain. All he does is scowl and bitch a lot. As far as I can determine, he hates Griffith solely because he gets too much attention from the King for his military victories and too much attention from the princess 'cuz he's so gosh durned purdy. Then again, this is just the first act in a trilogy and it soon becomes abundantly clear that he's nothing more than a minor foil to help catalyze a critical story beat in this particular arc.

Then there's *sigh* Princess Charlotte. Charlotte makes Lynn Minmei from Robotech look like Sarah Connor. She's a mousy, timid, skittish thing who's dialogue primarily consists of those annoying little one-syllable vocal exclamation that I find so fucking annoying. If she isn't tripping over her own feet or getting carried away on a runaway horse she screaming like Chris Tucker in The Fifth Element. Above and beyond the fact that she's cute, I have no clue what Griffith sees in her. And even though I find it vaguely refreshing to see a female character written as something slightly less tough than Ellen Ripley, Charlotte is soft to the point of annoying.

So, yeah, even though Berserk: The Golden Age Arc I - The Egg of the King is under-plotted, the characters are broadly written and the film occasionally succumbs to the annoying anime tropes that give me fits, I'll definitely be watching Part II ASAP. Between the film's superficial beauty, fleeting pace and the plot twist at the end, I'll just go cue it up on Netflix right no....

Hey, Part II not on Netflix yet?!?


     Tilt: up.

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