Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Movies Seen Recently: Howl's Moving Castle, Insidious, Hop, Simon Birch, Charlie Wilson's War, eXistenZ

Visually stunning. Right from the first frame. One of the best opening sequences ever. Sad that the narrative doesn't match up.

Like some of Miyazaki's earlier works - Kiki's Delivery Service & My neighbour Totoro - this film is also made from the heart, which sounds good, but in reality, means that you never really know where the story is going.

On the other hand, my favourite Miyazaki films, his latter ones - Princess Mononoke & Spirited Away - apart from being near perfect, differ from the rest in that they establish concrete story lines within themselves.

In Princess Mononoke, because of the events in the beginning of the film, you know what the remainder is going to be about - redemption & finding your destiny.

It's the same for Spirited Away. Because of what happens at the start of the film, you know that in spite of all the visually arresting detailing scattered throughout the rest of the film, the real objective of the main character is getting her parents back. That's the back story, the invisible narrative, guiding events along, giving you a reason to keep watching, keeping you engrossed. It's your emotional anchor.

Not so for Howl's Moving Castle. It's by far the best technical film from Miyazaki yet, but at no point was I aware of what was motivating each of the film's characters to do what they did, and so couldn't really see a story.

In other words, anything goes. No matter what the characters do next, you just have to accept it. You're in a ship, Miyazaki is steering, and you have no idea what the destination is.

Which is disappointing, and reminiscent of Neil Gaiman's Sandman series. Till volume 8, it was like he was just making stuff up. Brief Lives (vol. 8) was the best in the series partly because you already had the previous volumes for context, and partly because it provided enough context within itself to stand alone as a complete story, without pulling magic rabbits out of a hat, something I like to call 'The Buffy Effect'.

'The Buffy Effect', something I coined after watching scenes from the Buffy the Vampire Slayer series, refers to a narrative device where the storyteller reveals new rules as the story progresses, inducing emotional detachment from the story and characters.

Example - Imagine that the central character, in a T.V series about the supernatural, dies. You've had to watch 100 crappy episodes to get to this point. You're sad, but you have closure. But in the next episode, someone finds out about an old forgotten rule in a lost obscure magic book, that can bring him/her back to life. And so the story continues. That's the 'Buffy Effect'. Making new stuff up as you go along, to keep the story running. Sooner or later, the viewer loses interest.

Gaiman did it, the makers of 'Buffy...' did it, and so does Miyazaki.

You'd think that establishing a strong motivational base for the main character's actions for the rest of the film, or spending some time at the start of the film in setting up a story, would be important. Even the world's worst movies do this. 

Ridley Scott did this excellently in Gladiator (among the world's best movies) when he spent the first 5 minutes of the film in a bloody vicious beautiful battle scene, and the next 15 minutes in separate paired conversations between each of the films 4 main characters (Maximus-love interest, Maximus-rival, Maximus-father figure, father figure-love interest, father figure-rival, love interest-rival), establishing relationships, conflict & setting up a classic narrative based on the themes of revenge, love & duty, for the next 2 hours.

Another good example would be The Prestige, one of my favourite films, and one of the best films ever made. The themes - revenge and obsession - are brought out clearly through a narrative that establishes motivations for the character's behaviours at the start of the film.

The fact that these themes are reinforced throughout the film is only because the narrative is non-linear to begin with. It's easier to do this in a linear-narrative film like Gladiator, or Howl's Moving Castle.

But Miyazaki's having none of that. That's where his films differ.

So watch this film for the visual element. Don't expect a compact well-packaged story. Just enjoy the ride. And if you're watching the dubbed version by Pixar, pay attention to the voice-overs by an all-star cast.

Insidious (2011)

Horror film with a twist. I don't watch or enjoy many horror films, but if you like the genre, I guess this one is O.K.

Hop (2011)

Fun slick well-edited children's Easter film with very good music, cameos & voice-overs. 

Please note - For Children Only.

Simon Birch (1998)

Beautiful film. Excellent cast, story and narrative. Highly recommended.

Well scripted and edited. A good cast. A political film that's fun to watch. Highly recommended.

eXistenZ (1999)

A multiplayer virtual reality game within a game within a game, all within the players minds.

I wanted to like this film badly. I tried. And I failed. Just too slow and boring for my tastes. It made me feel like watching Inception again.


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