Movies

An animated discussion

For the sake of my sanity, I avoid being emotionally invested in the Oscars every year, and use it primarily as a checklist of movies that escape my radar every year. Los Angeles also brings it with it an incredible selection of free screenings during Oscar season, most of which are accompanied by interviews with the director or the cast. Of specific note, these past few years, has been the Best Animated Films nominations. The award has, with the exception of last year, been won by a title backed by a powerful studio – usually the predictable, family-friendly crowd pleasers. But the nominations for the category prove to be fertile hunting ground for titles that I wouldn’t have noticed.

In 2016, for example, I saw The Red Turtle. It’s one of the few movies I bought digitally, at full price — and trust me, that’s a big deal for me. A Belgian production that was distributed internationally by Studio Ghibli, the film lost to Zootopia. I don’t think the winning title was all that bad, but placing a work as emotionally hard-hitting as Red Turtle on the same platform as that unsubtle, pun-ridden roller-coaster was a travesty.

Coco won in 2017, beating the visually spectacular Loving Vincent. To be honest, I love Coco, it was one of the few animated movies that made me bawl. It was also Pixar making a two-punch comeback, along with Inside Out, after years of mediocre offerings and half-hearted sequels. But the sheer visual chutzpah of Loving Vincent sets it apart. More than 100 artists painted individual frames in Vincent Van Gogh’s style to animate the story, 43000 paintings in all. The Aero in Santa Monica screened the film with the directors present for a Q&A afterwards, and the passion with they approached their project, which ended up taking 9 years to go from an animated short to a full-fledged feature film, gave me goosebumps.

(Also, looking at the previous award years, Wallace and Gromit beat out Howl’s Moving Castle? Big Hero 6 beat Song of the Sea? Fucking Rango got the nod over Chico and Rita and A Cat in Paris! Frozen beat The Wind Rises. If I was a little more delicate, I would be calling for smelling salts right now)

This year, I saw the passion project that will probably not win, but is a spectacular offering in the category — the French animated film I Lost My Body, with a story adapted from a novel called Happy Hand, by Guillaume Laurant (who wrote the original book on which Amelie was based). It is, on the surface, a surreal journey of a disembodied hand that tries to find its owner across the city, an epic adventure filmed at angles and perspectives one does not encounter in conventional animation. It is the story of Naoufel, a broken young man, and about how he comes to terms with loss, in more ways than one. The film talks about destiny and choice, of connections, to one’s past, to humanity. It also has, surprisingly, a romantic subplot, one that begins with ten minutes of conversation via an apartment security system. Tread carefully, though, because Jeremy Clapin has a tendency to unsettle.

I Lost My Body is that rare film that goes in completely unexpected directions, and as the non-linear narrative comes together, a spiral of flashbacks and foreshadowing that culminates in a fifteen minute climax, you will find yourself holding your breath until the screen fades to black. And then maybe you find your eyes wet, or that could just be me.

Oh, and turns out the mesmerizing soundtrack, with its haunting recorder melody backed with orchestral strings and repeating synth patterns, was composed by Dan Levy. Dan is the ‘D’ in the band The Dø , one of my favorite French outfits and one whose next album I’ve been waiting for 5 years. It was fascinating to hear Jeremy talk about how Dan refused to look at the visuals and ‘audition’ for the role of composer, when asked. He instead composed 20 minutes of music based on the brief story narration Jeremy gave him, to give an idea of the mood he was going for. That worked perfectly with Clapin’s sensibilities, and fit the narrative in a way that traditional scoring wouldn’t, imbuing the story with a pathos and a grandeur that is nothing short of extraordinary. Small wonder then that I have been listening to it on repeat the last two days.

The contenders this year, other than I Lost My Body, are Toy Story 4, How To Train Your Dragon: Some Vapid Sub-heading, Klaus, and Missing Link. I would dismiss Dragon and Missing Link outright. Toy Story 4 is running on Pixar goodwill fumes and may be the one to win. Klaus is the interesting one — it is also a Netflix exclusive, like Body, and has been winning awards in the same circuits as the latter. Both won at the Annies, with Body winning the best Indie Animated feature, while Klaus walked away with the overall best animated feature. But on the other hand, Body won the Nespresso Grand Prize at Cannes (the first animated film to ever win this). My gut feeling is that Klaus may win just because it’s the more family-friendly of the two, and that follows the historical trend. We’ll see in a week.

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Books, Movies

A Book, a film

Two things caught me by surprise last week. The first was a book called The Devourers, by a writer named Indra Das. The second was a film called Laal Kaptaan, directed by Navdeep Singh and starring Saif Ali Khan. The two are completely unrelated, but I found them in them examples of the kind of historical fiction I want to read, or at least the kind of treatment that makes me not want to bang my head against a wall.

The Devourers falls squarely in the speculative fiction genre; talking about it is difficult because of the nature of the beast (pun intended). A professor in Kolkata meets a stranger one night, one who claims to be a half-werewolf and consequently, immortal. The stranger piques his interest by telling him a story set in Shahjahanabad, on the banks of the Yamuna, during the time of the reign of the Great Mughals, and then assigns him a responsibility. The story then becomes a retelling of three different individuals’ life stories, and an act of violence that weaves these stories together.

One of the reasons I picked up Devourers was the blurb by Mike Carey, he of Lucifer and Girl With All the Gifts fame. The other is the phenomenal cover by Chris Panatier, the kind of illustration you do not see on an Indian publication. The work is in pen and ink and watercolor, and wraps around the book. It captures both the soul of the writing as well as a very specific mood, reminiscent of both illustrators like James Jean and the imagery of great tattoo inkers.

But it was the writing that stayed with me. Das grounds his characters and the locale exceptionally well, bringing to life the mangroves of the Sunderbans and the marketplaces of Shahjahanabad; the moments of tension and terror are narrated with inevitability and poetry. And he grinds together myths and folklore of different cultures to produce the most vivid imagery one can associate with creatures of the supernatural.

The beast was like no animal I’d ever seen on this earth. Glowing red in the flickering light of rain-swathed fires, with its war paint of blood and tattered flesh, which hung like ragged pennants off its spines and slicked fur, it was rakshasa of the Hindus, it was asura, lord among their demons. It was glowing, infernal ifreet of the djinn, it was Iblis made incarnate, rising from cold wet earth instead of the arid sand of the desert. It was a towering impostor god of Europe resurrected in this empty stretch of Shah Jahan’s empire and worshipped with fire and violence.

Indra Das – The Devourers

How can I describe what came to my senses, in that silence? Even the birds stopped their screaming, the insects their singing. The smell of it was overpowering. It smelled like birth, the birth of god or demon, raw and animal and steaming in the morning air. Sweet and musk, like frankincense and myrrh; heavy and pungent, like the juice of living things, blood and piss, sweat and spit; rancid and fecund, like waste, shit, and earth. It stank of both life and death, both so intoxicating I found myself flushed with my own blood, my heart aching. I could hear it, feel it breathing, the rumbling of a mountain slumbering through centuries slivered to seconds. It walked to me, twigs snapping sharp under its great hands and feet, soil squelching under its enormous, impossible weight. It was on all fours, or so its steps told me, and yet I could feel its boiling breath, a hot and humid wind on my face as it approached. Even crouched, it was as tall as me.

Indra Das – The Devourers

Usually, when reading a book like this, my worry is that it will end with a set-up to a sequel and an inevitable franchise, the bane of every work in this genre. Thankfully, Das does not fall into that trap. The conclusion involves a transformation, an end that reminds me of the best that outre literature has offered.

The Devourers is a work about change and acceptance; Laal Kaptaan, on the other hand is a story of revenge, pursuit, and ultimately, destiny. It is a film by a creator whose work I have followed with interest over the years. Navdeep Singh sauntered onto the Indian alternative film scene in 2007 with a local remake of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, set in rural Rajasthan and starring Abhay Deol (remember Abhay Deol? The guy was the poster-child of great Indian cinema in the 2000s, until he crashed and burned his way out of the industry). His sophomore effort NH10, a slow-burn socially conscious thriller, released eight years later in 2015, to considerable more acclaim and box office success. Laal Kaptaan, which released in 2019, alas, failed to find its audience. Possibly because the historical thriller comes at a time when Indian cinema is rewriting history to the tune of Hindutva. The past is sexy only when there is opulence and patriotic fervor kneaded into clear them/us narratives that spoon-feed how great everything was in the past.

Singh obviously does not take this route. Set in the late 1700s (1789, to be precise, if we look at the Battle of Buxar as the narrative lynch-pin), the film follows a Naga ascetic (Saif Ali Khan) on a hunt for a man named Rehmat (played by Manav Vij, who I last saw in Andhadhun last year), with whom he has — to quote Beatrix Kiddo — “unfinished business”. The story takes us through some incredible sequences set in the arid landscapes of the Chambal valley, a place already seared in our collective consciousness as a hell-scape where terrible things happen to everyone, good or bad. Saif Ali’s character is named Gossain, which I understand is just short-hand for “holy man”, so until the end of the movie, he is truly a man with no name. Over the course of his journey, he encounters a mishmash of characters, including a cheroot-smoking bounty hunter accompanied by two hounds, who can literally smell his prey; a veiled prostitute who attempts to hire the protagonist to exact her own revenge, but on finding him unwilling to take up her cause for money, shows him her mutilated face to sway him to her cause; a vertically-challenged Maratha chieftain leading some wayward Pindari warriors, a pack of undisciplined riffraff that refuse to follow orders and pounce like scavengers on corpses lying by the roadside; and Afghan warriors who track the gossain because — I kid you not — “you killed my master, prepare to die”.

In case you haven’t figured it out already, the movie is a genre-lover’s wet dream. It also helps that Singh and co-writer Deepak Venkateshan get their historical details just right. Everything — from weapons to costumes, language to customs — feels authentic and grounded in both era and locale. The characters are splendid — Khan and Vij make for excellent, balanced antagonists when they share the screen; the supporting characters shine regardless of screen time, the lonely widow played by Zoya Hussain, Deepak Dobriyal channeling a bit of Toshiro Mifune, Madan Deodhar as the hapless Maratha captain trying to bring his no-good men under control. My favorite moments are the ones that bring the nonsensical theatrics of neo-historical potboilers into sharp contrast, like the short dance performance in the Maratha tent, or the pragmatic outlook of the characters regarding the British. Or even the grounded notion that this land, in the eighteenth-century, was a complicated place where soldiers bickered and back-stabbed each other, with no grandiose thread of nationalism weaving through it all.

However, much like Dibakar Bannerjee’s 2015 Byomkesh Bakshi, all the attention to style and historical detail cannot take away the fact that Laal Kaptaan suffers dreadfully from Sergio Leone syndrome. One wishes the story being told was a little tighter, the pace a little more balanced than the steady canter it sinks into, even in its moments of action. We find our attention divided by too many perspectives; the reveals, including a betrayal in the middle of the story, do not bear the impact that they should. Overall, the film takes too long to weave all its threads together, and it suffers for all that.

The year’s best-of lists in Indian film have gone on record saying that 2019 was not as fertile for Indian cinema. I had high hopes about this particular film, based on the trailer, and my overall optimism regarding Singh’s storytelling skills. It does feels gratifying that something like Laal Kaptaan gets a theatrical release and at least a degree of star-power behind it. It is the kind of film that I like to recommend to friends, the ones that fall under the radar and can still evoke discussion. Hopefully, a filmmaker like Singh continues to push genre boundaries with his works. Hmm, maybe someone should point him to this werewolf story that is set in Mughal times, by this writer named Indra Das…

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Comics, Movies

Thoughts on Batman

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Batman vs Superman is out this week, and here are a couple of disorganized thoughts on the State of the Superhero.

I dislike Batman. It’s funny that I should say that about a fictional character, especially one that has brought me such joy while growing up. You guys are well aware of how much I have been into the character, and there is this element of hypocrisy that looms large over a statement like this one. But I have problems with the character, and more specifically, what has become of the the storytelling engine behind Batman.

History Lesson

This lineage of Batman “troubled man who dresses up to exorcise his demons” obviously begins with Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns and Year One in the mid-1980s. But these books were one of a kind — DKR was an interpretation, not a definition of who Batman was — and it took a long time before Miller’s rage-and-angst-fueled ingredients seeped into the character’s engines. You had the pure joy of Mike Barr and Alan Davis’s short run, which ran in tandem with Year One, funnily enough; Alan Grant and Norm Breyfogle’s vulnerable yet foreboding Batman; Doug Moench and Kelly Jones’ surreal Goth-meets-art deco incarnation; even the group-think endeavors like Knightfall and Prodigal and No Man’s Land, the messy products of their time that they were: all of these retained some amount of humanity that made you like the character likable, even relate to him, maybe, because Batman always did the right thing. But yes, elements of Miller’s work were creeping in slowly — Jason Todd, Robin #2 died at the Joker’s hands, something that Dark Knight Returns had alluded to. Making that book prescient almost made it seem like that dark future was in store for Batman, but we weren’t there yet.

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It was Grant Morrison who is to blame, when you think about it. Morrison, fresh from a  career of revamping DC’s fringe characters such as Animal Man and Doom Patrol, found himself in charge of the Justice League of America in the late 90s. The JLA had their share of troubled history in that decade – editorial diktats mandated the use of second-tier characters in the team because the Big Guys were involved in soap operas of their own 1. Morrison insisted on using the main characters, and among the changes he made to the JLA status quo, the major one was this:

Batman, despite having no superpowers, was the most dangerous man alive.

Batman has it all covered.

He can take down anybody. He is the embodiment of human perfection. He has a contingency plan for everything — seriously, everything. If the universe was about to be destroyed, Batman could pull a universe-undestroying glove from his utility belt and punch the universe into being whole again.

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This particular concept found much favor among fans, myself included. Unfortunately, when combined with the climactic scene of Miller’s seminal work, people — writers, fans, the ecosystem at large — began to extrapolate the facts in a very strange way. What was a one-off sequence involving careful planning and execution suddenly became a trope in itself. Batman can beat Superman anytime, they said. There was a proliferation of stories where indeed, Batman was not only rescuing the JLA from problems that stymied all of them, he was also beating Superman almost on a yearly basis. Miller’s 2001 sequel, The Dark Knight Strikes Again, begins with a showdown where Batman, now even older, drops a pile of rocks on an angry Kal-El, punches him with a pair of special gloves and says “Get out of my cave”. In Jeph Loeb and Jim Lee’s Hush, in Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s newest incarnation of the Batman, in tales of alternate realities and stray one-shots, the message remains the same: Batman can take Superman. Any time.

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And all of that brings us to Batfleck taking on hairline-receding Superman on the screen.

End History Lesson

At the heart of it all, along with his seeming ability to go toe-to-toe against super-humans, Batman is still Bruce Wayne, a middle-aged rich guy who uses his money to dress up and go out and punch criminals. He says “My City” without a trace of irony. He is always right. He is rude and insensitive to people around him, and over the years, this assholish behavior has been amped up to stupendous levels. He will be part of a team, but everything and everybody has to play by his rules. He has an extended family, recruiting a bunch of boys and girls, men and women as part of his war on crime, but he also insists on being a loner, incapable of having a normal human relationship with anyone around him. His intensity has been stretched to such an incredulous length that Batman the character has become a self-parody. Batman is a scary reminder of what happens when Big Money meets Mental Illness meets Misguided Intentions meets Non-scalable Implementation.Somehow, “Batman does not kill” has become an excuse to make the character as unlikable and smarmy as possible. 2

But wait, you say, isn’t punching criminals the focal point of every superhero story?

Yes, you are right. At the end of the day, superhero stories are still about grown men — and women — punching each other into submission. But hey, it has been 75 years since we have had a man putting on a suit and heading out late at night to deal with the trauma of his parents being killed in front of his eyes. You could say that problem with Batman is emblematic of my problems with superhero stories in general. To be more precise, the mainstream superhero scene, these characters that have plodded through decades of reinvention, retelling and occasional resurgence. With a character like Batman, there can only be an attempt to retell the story with a fresh angle, to rearrange the familiar pieces and give them weight depending on which pieces we are focused on. Every now and then, someone figures it’s a great idea to add another piece 3 but all it does is add chaos to an already teetering structure. Add to it the fact that DC/Marvel comics, since the 80s, have been stuck in this confusing identity crisis (pun intended) where they are unsure about whether they are a children’s medium or aimed at adults. You point out flaws in the machine, and they want you to take a deep breath and lighten up, because superheroes are for kids. At the same time, the themes they handle try to be mature, the Comics Code Authority was thrown out the door a long time ago, and any attempt at wholesomeness stopped when anal rape became a plot point 10 years ago. 4

There are of course attempts to upend the structure every now and then: by what is referred to as a reboot. Scott Snyder, who I mentioned above, is the writer working on the new Batman. It is the first time in years that the origin story has attempted to break free of the long shadow cast by Year One. Snyder calls his version Year Zero, and rather than the shadows and grime that Miller brought into his version, Year Zero has psychedelic colors and an out-there, sci-fi vibe to it that I dug quite a bit. But the 75-year old legacy cannot help but creep into the pieces that a creator adds to this new structure, and it takes very little time for the building to collapse yet again. By the time the Joker is added to the mix, in a story called ‘Death of the Family’, we have — deep breath — the Joker in Arkham Asylum with a villain called the Dollmaker “who surgically removes Joker’s face at his request and then pins it to Joker’s cell wall as a sign of his rebirth”. By the time the Joker shows up again, in “Endgame”, he has become a scientist who has come up with a new chemical isotope (called, er, ‘Ha’), and the story also “implies that he is immortal, having existed for centuries, and has developed a means to regenerate from mortal injuries…(the story also) restores the Joker’s face, and also reveals that he knows Batman’s secret identity”. Umm, okay.

Add to it the fact that Batman’s story never does have an ending. 5 He has gone from being a lone vigilante killing people as he sees fit, to a good guy working with the law, to someone who is an urban legend. Look at the origin story: Where once it was Joe Chill and Lew Moxon, one retelling made Ra’s Al Ghul serve as a catalyst; in another, it was a person named Jack Napier; yet another has the Court of Owls. What I am getting at is that: the entire enterprise of keeping a superhero’s motivations and methods relevant in our world seems to be an effort that sucks in writers and makes them spew out fan-fiction that grates against my expectations and knowledge as a rational reader. More so in terms of Batman, because writers tend to latch onto their inner anger, that part of them that wishes that they could respond to the world around them by dressing up at night and getting out to break a couple of jaws and kneecaps. 6And the worst part of it all? Nothing changes. Bruce Wayne will always go out at night and beat criminals up. Maybe he will disappear for a while, maybe there will be a new costume, maybe an unknown adversary of the past will suddenly come back in his life and upend Everything That You have Ever Known. The common storytelling engine to all superhero tales seems to be a treadmill: a tiresome, frustrating journey that goes nowhere and yet tires you out.

It therefore becomes easy for me to say that Batman — or superheroes, in general — are not for me any more. Which is a valid point, but goes against my innate approach to popular culture, which is that New is always good, and that creators in any field are getting better at what they do because they learn from the past, and can pick and choose elements that work wonderfully, and discard the things that do not make sense. But it is a problem when the past weighs so heavily on your appreciation of any future work; when in order to explain who a character is, you have to go read Wikipedia. It’s a shame when to explain or make sense of what is going on, you have to suspend your reading to understand that what you are reading may or may not be a part of the story; and that there was a story and it’s not valid any more, and what you are reading can be replaced by a completely different story.

If you are not convinced, and are framing your apologist fanboy arguments about why Batman is awesome, here’s a question for you: how many Robins have there been? What happened to them? Let me get my popcorn while you scramble for the answer.

Notes:

  1. Superman died, and came back again. Batman had his spine broken, and then it was healed. Wonder Woman was replaced, and then she came back. Green Lantern went crazy, and another Green Lantern took his place.
  2. Donald Drumpf however sounds more like a Marvel alias, right?
  3. The character of Hush is an attempt, as is the Court of Owls.
  4. For those who do not know, Identity Crisis.
  5. Frank Miller wrote The Dark Knight Returns as the last Batman story, and that went on to get its sequel 15 years later, and there is a third part out now. Neil Gaiman wrote a story called ‘Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader’, which was Gaiman interpreting every supporting character in Batman as erudite people that knew exactly the right thing to say, just like bad fan-fiction.
  6. Not to kill anyone, of course, because Batman does not kill. But it’s perfectly fine to break a wrist and maybe an elbow too, if a guy just pointed a gun at you, or flashed a knife, or maybe a crowbar. Hmm, maybe if he even looked wrong at you, or cut you in line, or honked at your car when you were merging into his lane.
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Movies, Toons

An obnoxious reason for walking out of a movie

Have you ever walked out of a movie theater? I have. I walked out of Supari, once upon a decade ago, and I walked out after 30 minutes of that Vishal Bharadwaj film with Pankaj Kapur and Imran Khan whose name I cannot recall, it was that bad. Oh yes, Matru Ki Bijli. A screening of Profundo Rosso that was part of a double-feature, and it was so late in the night that my brain had turned to mush. I am fairly sure this number would have been higher had I not been with other people in the theater. Rajkumar Hirani’s PK, for example, and even the first Hobbit movie. In all these cases, I walked out because the films did not engage me in any way; there was some amount of revulsion involved, and the thought that if I did not allow more of my time to be wasted in that darkened theater, it would imply redemption of some sort.

Yesterday, I walked out of a theater for another reason altogether. It’s possible that in doing so, I startled the rest of the audience. I had been the first person to arrive at the theater, half an hour before showtime, and was able to pick the best seat in that sea of red faux-leather, that perfectly centered spot that brings the rectangular screen, uh, square in the center of your vision. There I sat, indulging myself in butter-covered food of the gods, acknowledging the matinee crowd that traipsed in slowly, film buffs, couples out on dates, parents with young children in tow, or the other way round. We laughed as the ads played, and the sounds of my chewing found sympathetic patterns in the mastication of other film-goers. The film trailers got over; the passive-aggressive switch-off-cellphone ads got some of us to double-check our devices, and we clapped as the theater darkened for the main feature. And once the movie began, it took me about 20 horrific seconds to realize what I was in for. To decide I did not want to see it anymore.

The movie was Mamoru Hosoda’s Boy and the Beast, and you see, the version playing on that particular screening was the one dubbed into English.

No. No no no no.

In my head, there is a clear breach of expectation that happens when I go to watch a film in one language and get another. It does not have to be Japanese anime; I have found myself cringing when listening to Pixar movies dubbed in Spanish, or even a Cantonese film in Mandarin. For anime, it hits me in the worst kind of way; the closest analogy I can give is when you go to a restaurant and order a plate of samosas. When the waiter brings the plate in, you smell the delicious samosa-smell and your mouth begins to water. The waiter has even remembered to bring chutney, and it’s the right kind of chutney, the syrupy, tangy tamarind recipe that goes perfectly with samosas. Eagerly, you pick up one of them. It is the perfect temperature too; freshly fried and kept aside for just the perfect amount of time that you know there will be no waiting for the filling to cool down, and that your tongue is safe. You dip the samosa in the tamarind chutney and bite into it. How would you feel if that samosa, for some reason, is sweet, instead of salty?

When the opening narration in the movie began in English, in my head, I was sure that there was A Problem, and only Swift Decisive Action could solve it. I remembered that I had double-checked to see if the matinee show had the original language or not, and the website said that only the 4 PM show would be dubbed. 1 I could be that hero the rest of the audience needed. I ran outside, and the girl selling tickets was gone, and so was the manager, who had been lounging around reading a newspaper. There was only the guy selling popcorn, and he agreed with me, that the movie playing should be a subbed version. The manager came into view, finally, and he pointed out that Saturdays they only have two shows, and the 7 PM screening is when I would see the subbed version, if I wanted to come back. Unsure about my plans for the rest of the day, I got a refund. At 7 PM, however, I had come back. This time I did not buy the popcorn, and I made sure to ask about which language would play, before getting my ticket.

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The movie? It was okay. Visually stunning, like Mamoru Hosoda films are. Hosoda and Makoto Shinkai are two anime film-makers who have distinct visual styles of storytelling. More importantly, their films contain stories with an emotional depth that other, more lackadaisical animation film-makers either glaze over or dumb down. This however has the fortunate (or unfortunate, depending on your point of view) of appending any discussion of the two film-makers’ work with a comparison to Hayao Miyazaki’s ouevre. I am guilty of making the same analogy when it comes to selling any of their work to my friends, to be honest. But here’s an admission — I think Hosoda and Shinkai, the latter in particular, bring in more emotional honesty and vulnerability into their work than Miyazaki ever did. Miyazaki protagonists are idealized archetypes, asexual and wide-eyed. These latter-day filmmakers make their characters more fragile and human, and that makes their work much more appealing to me.

On the surface, Hosoda’s style is much more aligned with the aesthetics of Studio Ghibli — a little-known fact is that he was tapped to direct Howl’s Moving Castle, but Miyazaki took over due to creative differences. Much like the veteran film-maker, Hosoda’s work is rooted in Japanese tradition. Scenes from Wolf Children play out like extended homages to My Neighbor Totoro, and both Wolf and Summer Wars are as much about family ties and bonds with nature as any Ghibli movie you can think of. In Boy and The Beast, there are striking similarities to Spirited Away, especially with the concept of a parallel world that exists just beyond our world, and one human child that makes his way to the other side. There, Chihiro became Sen, with a flick of the characters in her name; here Ren becomes Kyuta because he is aged nine. There, our heroine was trapped in the land of the Others, who are unfamiliar and mostly horrific and unkind to trespassers; here, Kyuta willingly crosses over into a world of beasts who, though suspicious of the motives of the runaway human, mostly accept him in time. The theme of finding your family — blood or surrogate — loom large throughout the movie’s storyline, as does the idea of belonging.

My main issue is that most parts of the film feel rushed. It opens with a narrator explaining the situation, skimming through the world-building, telling us more than we can see. We never really understand certain characters’ motivations. There are too many montages — one where the characters go on a journey of self-discovery, for example, and meet a variety of powerful beasts in that world —no payoff to those scenes follow. Things get interesting when Kyuta begins his training under Kumatetsu, and the central theme of the film, that of these two unlike creatures finding themselves through each other, is cemented in this all-too-brief sequence. The third act falls apart almost completely, especially as grown-up Kyuta begins going back to the real world. Subplot brimming with threats and conflicts come out of nowhere, as do the resolutions; the romantic angle is all Jungle Book meets anime cliche, Ren’s meeting with his biological father is angst and adolescent fury, and the final boss-fight involves a character who is woefully under-explained. The only place, therefore, where Boy and The Beast really succeeds is in making us root for the titular characters right off the bat.

All in all, the movie suffers just because Hosoda’s previous work has been so good. Of course it’s a wonderful movie, full of wit and charm and moments, but it manages to not live up to expectations. But hey, this is from the guy that hated Howl’s Moving Castle the first time he saw it, and changed his mind later. If you get a chance to watch it, please do — and if you haven’t seen any of Hosoda’s previous work, check them out after this one.

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Notes:

  1. This had happened once before, you see, with a screening of a Ghibli movie, where but for an epiphany just before clicking the buy-button, I would have been sobbing through a dubbed movie after having taken a bus across town.
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Movies, Music

On watching and listening to Under The Skin

Pal William handed me a DVD of Under The Skin last week, a movie that we had talked about before and which he recommended with such enthusiasm that I bumped it up my queue. Took me a while to finally pop the disc in, but glad I did. The movie is bizarre and unsettling and wonderful, and Scarlett Johansson’s character makes me afraid and aroused at the same time. In the beginning, it is a strange mix of what feels like candid, unscripted moments of Ms Johansson driving around a strange land and picking up strangers. Scenes of seduction that make you hold your breath while waiting for the pay-off. When it ended, two-odd hours later, I found myself tingling with excitement, the kind  that comes from consuming something that is beyond what you expected. 1

Nowadays, I prefer to go into movies without the burden of expectations that the publicity machine brings along. Oh, I am not talking about the big-budget franchises. That’s an infinite hype train subway where the exit doors lead to yet another platform and yet another ride. But it’s films like this, that come sans trailing numbers or colon-separated sub-phrase in the title, that bring me the most joy. Not just the way they play with the monotony of the three-act structure, but the way they give an actor like Johansson a role beyond the mundane.

But therein lies the problem – not boarding the hype train also makes it hard to pick a journey, and sometimes the ones you pick prove unworthy of your time. My criteria for this is simple – if I pause or get distracted while watching a 2-hour movie, I rethink whether it’s really worth my time. One of the ways to get around that is to watch movies only in someone else’s company, but that brings down the opportunity to watch a film at home by a large degree. I realized, after having finished Under the Skin in one non-stop sitting, how rare it had become for me to switch on my TV after I get home.

What also got me about that movie was the judicious use of music throughout the nearly-wordless sequences. Violins that play like cancerous lungs gasping for breath; creepy pitch-bends that make me feel as if there are glitches in my audio-spatial perception; the steady thump of a muted drum. This is music that truly lives up to the idea of the movie, the musical accompaniment to an anomalous entity exploring herself (itself?). The composer is a British lady named Mica Levi, stage name Micachu, and this is the first time she has worked on a soundtrack, can you believe that?

Parts of the music reminds me of both classic horror scores – mostly Bernard Hermann’s flamboyant use of the violin and Morricone’s intense giallo works. But the album that I had to go revisit, after the movie, was Wojkiech Kilar’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula; at first glance, there isn’t much of a similarity between Skin and Dracula, but my brain somehow established a connection between Levi’s keening violin scrapes and Kilar’s old-school orchestral maneuvers. In case you are wondering, there isn’t much of a resemblance. It was probably a resonance of the feeling in my gut when I watched Dracula for the first time as a kid.

 

Notes:

  1. I have yet to watch Her and Lucy – two very unlike films, I know, but part of ScaJo’s recent filmography that convinces me that this lady is one of the finest actors in the business today both in terms of skills and the choices she makes. I loved the short appearance in Chef, for example, and her New York Jewish girl in Don Jon
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