Avalon (2001)
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DVD
Panorama (Japan). Region 3, NTSC. 1.85:1 (Non-anamorphic). Polish DD 5.1, Polish DTS 6.1, Japanese 2.0. English and Chinese Subtitles. . 106 mins
The Movie
Credits
Director: Mamoru Oshii
Starring: Malgorzata Foremniak, Wladyslaw Kowalski, Jerzy Gudejko, Dariusz Biskupski, Bartek Swiderski, Katarzyna Bargielowska
Screenplay: Neil Gaiman (English screenplay) Kazunori Itô
Ever get that "Emperor's New Clothes" feeling? After watching director Mamoru Oshii's Japanese-Polish hybrid, Avalon, written by Kazunori Ito (co-writer of Ghost in the Shell), on the back of enthusiastic ecommendations, and encountering positively orgiastic response claiming the film is truly a visionary masterpiece, and is not to be missed, I find myself sitting at my keyboard distinctly under whelmed. If anything, my overriding feeling towards this melding of David Cronenberg's eXistenZ, the execrable, equally pointless though far worse Dark City and another overrated picture, The Matrix is one of intellectual apathy, tinged with a certain respect for the visual aspect. Oshii, whose previous films include Patlabor 2, Ghost in the Shell and Angel's Egg has been compared, skill-wise, to John Woo and Tsui Hark, luminaries in the Hong Kong movie world. Avalon is visually inspired butcontextually and academically bereft. It has absolutely nothing on classics such as Ying huang boon sik/A Better Tomorrow and Die xue jie tou/Bullet in the head, whilst to compare this to the best of Hark's work, typified by the nihilist masterpiece Di yi lei xing wei xian/Dangerous Encounters 1st Kind is positively sacrilegious!

Avalon is set in a near-future Poland where large numbers of disillusioned young people eking out a meagre existence in a drab society are becoming increasingly addicted to an illegal, multi-player virtual reality war-gaming experience called Avalon. Oshii's heroine, Ash (Foremniak), a solo player and once part of an elite group who broke up under mysterious circumstances yearns to conquer the game in order to reach Class Real from where there's supposedly no reset button if things go wrong. Yup, it's that old chestnut, the fabled 'Special Whoop-de-doo Level'. or something vaguely similar. After half the film's worth of wandering about her bleak apartment, dressing, looking dissolute and emerging periodically to play the game at a locale which is an amalgamation of clinic and cyber-café that brings to mind Brian O'Blivion's Cathode Ray Mission, she encounters the mysterious Bishop (Biskupski). From him, she learns that Murphy (Gudejko), former leader of Wizard, the elite group hailed in its time as invincible is 'unreturned' -- more to the point, his brain has been fried beyond recognition by the game, and catatonia is his future. Not good you'd think, but no -- being brain-dead and trapped in a catatonic brain-fried experience is apparently good, in contrast to what Katherine Bigelow's Strange Days had us believe. It transpires that Avalon has a secret -- and a secret character, a 'ghost', which opens the doorway to the realm of the 'unreturned'. Soon enough Ash is on the trail of the spectral presence. oh, and her pet dog disappears as well.

You might well ask . "what is this movie about?" Shot on location, entirely in Polish in and around Warszawa, with the cooperation of the Polish army, Avalon is a surreal piece incorporating Kafkaesque themes of dream/reality confusion, detachment and isolation - something David Cronenberg has spent a career doing much better with films such as Videodrome and eXistenZ - and drug and counter-culture allegory. The film climaxes with a cringe worthy little piece of soap-opera that has the effect of rendering the carefully constructed, grim future landscape pointless, much in the way that atrocious tacked-on ending scarred the initial run of Scott's Blade Runner. Eschewing narrative and populated by simplistic, shallow characters, Avalon is a difficult film to quantify because, whilst it fails on nearly every point that may be considered within the sphere of a traditional review format -- coherence, plotting, narrative construct, scripting and acting -- it is never less than an interesting watch. The ambience and cadence of the near-future world, created by Mamoru Oshii's hypnotic helming are captivating, and whilst the plot is maddeningly vague, this is agreeably compensated for by the astounding visuals, Avalon's overriding redeeming element and what rescues the film from being a wasted viewing experience. It's the desaturated futureworld - all misty, colour-drained sepia inundated with explosions of unexpected colour that stays in the mind long after the dull characters and insipid dialogue have departed the memory. Avalon looks absolutely amazing, but it just doesn't go anywhere, do anything, have any point, or make any sense. This reviewer doesn't play computer games, finding them tedious and irritating at best, therefore the constant parade of videogame graphics and merged real battle imagery courtesy of Industrial Light and Magic's polishing skills becomes irksome after a while, despite looking visually gorgeous. The bright, sunlight-suffused colour of the climax comes out of nowhere, is incongruous and downright out of place. It's all style over substance and quite simply fails to live up to the hyperbole, yet the stylised world Ash lives in is never less than fascinating. There are clever touches within the film -- signs and posters relating to Avalon proliferate (someone's seen Carpenter's They Live), background figures remain spookily static, books are blank in this strange futureworld, the visually arresting malevolent machines - helicopter gunships, the Citadel - are a chilling portent of man's militaristic bent - particularly relevant in these troubled global times. An ocular feast but psychologically anorexic and leisurely paced, Avalon cries out for a more thoughtful script to have been allied to the tremendous optical and aural experience. Kenji Kawai (Ghost in the Shell, Ring 1, Ring 2) contributes a superb score - unusual locations and standout cinematography. I expect that, by now, it is quite obvious that I have mixed feelings about Avalon. It doesn't even approach being the film many think it is, and yet despite having few redeeming features, those features are quite striking. A curious, curates egg of a film that could've been so much more challenging.
Video
Presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1, though non-anamorphic, this is a nice looking transfer that handles the various colours schemes and computer effects with ease, not the best I've ever had the pleasure of viewing, but not at all bad for an non-enhanced disc. The subdued colour palette is beautifully rendered, giving Director of Photography, Grzegorz Kedzierski's shots a stylised, phantasmagorical quality to them, making the visuals both haunting and engaging, and giving an impressive sense of visual depth. Crucially for such a strikingly desaturated visual scheme, shadow delineation and black level are excellent, whilst detail levels are remarkable. With merely a hint of grain, no signs of edge enhancement, chroma noise, pixelation or artifacting, and only a few minor blemishes visible, the print is in pristine condition. Even without the benefit of anamorphic enhancement Avalon looks quite superb. There is only one real problem; Irritatingly, the subtitles are presented on the matte below the picture, which is slightly elevated. This precludes being able to watch the film in full anamorphic mode, unless of course you can speak Polish and therefore don't require the aid of the subtitles. Why don't companies think!?!
Audio
The Memorial Box Edition comes with dual Dolby Digital 5.1 EX and DTS 6.1 ES soundtracks in the original Polish language, as well as a Japanese dub in Dolby Surround only. However, it's the Polish, not the Japanese release under review and this version comes only with the film's original language option, a Dolby Digital 5.1 Polish track. This mix is aggressive during the game sequences especially, with other scenes offering a subtler presentation. Ambient and low frequency effects are nicely done, and Kenji Kawai's excellent score is nicely engaged throughout the entire soundstage. Dialogue is crisply presented via the centre speaker and background noise adequately integrated. English subtitles are provided, badly placed, but easy to follow with no evident spelling or grammatical errors.
Extra Features
Supplements, you cry. Erm.. What supplements?

The limited 2 disc 'Avalon - Memorial Box' set contains two highly detailed books, entitled 'Avalon - An Inside Look ' and 'Avalon - Pre-Production Book', within which can be found the Treatment and Screenplay by Kazunori Ito, Mamory Oshii's own storyboards, sections dedicated to the Art and Mechanical Designs by Atsushi Takeuchi, as well as a synopsis, production notes and cast biographies. It also presents, in full frame and 2.0 Surround, 'Days of Avalon', a 100-minute making of documentary. The only extras available on the standard Japanese edition are a selection of Avalon trailers, the Theatrical Teaser, plus two full Theatrical, in anamorphic widescreen with a choice of Japanese 2.0 or 5.1 channel audio options, as well as two TV-Spots presented in 4:3, Japanese 2.0 Surround only. That's still an improvement over what is offered here. Whist the Japanese discs at least offered relevant additional material, this disc on the other hand offers next to nothing, certainly nothing of note or relevance. There's a trio of trailers, well not even trailers, just pointless, random clips from a trio of releases Blow, La Femme Nikita and Nowhere to Hide. Hardly breaking the mould as far as DVD supplemental features go!

The Verdict
The Japanese R2 DVD release costs around £40, whilst the limited 2 disc 'Avalon - Memorial Box' set runs £96 and adds a Polish 6.1 DTS and a second disc containing a 110-minute making of documentary, a 57-minute visual effects feature and a 290 page booklet on the creation of Avalon. The second disc, entitled 'Gate to Avalon' is available separately and runs around £35. All that said, this version offers nothing except the film, however at a greatly reduced price tag. I've had the rare experience here of having a film literally grow upon me as I recall it in order to write a review, it's not, conventionally anyway, a particularly good film, but it is a visual feast. Given that I didn't actually purchase the DVD, it doesn't cause me distress to have sat through the film, but if you're contemplating a purchase I'd think carefully if I were you. Even for devotees the Japanese disc is prohibitively expensive, so for those interested in the film and wanting a more fulsome presentation than is offered here, but not interested in handing over upwards of £35, Miramax apparently own the US R1 distribution rights for Avalon.
Movie Score
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