Thursday, March 31, 2011

Regarding Reviews: What Makes This Kaijyu Tick?

Waking up this morning, I was suddenly possessed with typing up some kind of explanation as to how some of my tastes function, as well as perhaps elaborate a little on what makes certain movies/shows work for me personally. And to be honest, like anyone else, I couldn't pinpoint such things with any absolute razor thin accuracy. All I can do is perhaps shine a light on what it is that makes me lose myself in a film as opposed to seeing it as just a collaborative project that either functioned, or didn't. And it is by looking back at years of watching movies that I can finally see patterns emerge, which is what I hope to share here over time. If anything, The Wandering Kaijyu works not unlike a means to see where I am, not only as a "fan", but as a "maturing" human.

So with that, let's dive on in...

As I just mentioned via Twitter, one of the larger components of what works for me as a reviewer is if the completed work carries within it some manner of "truth". And when I say this, it isn't that there's some hidden desire for absolute truth of any kind. But rather that the work's established thesis carries with it a certain amount of conviction permeating throughout the entire piece. (without getting lost along the way) And this even includes films with a certain level of naivete. If the piece maintains that spirit, no matter how silly, or goofy, chances are it can pass. But the establishment of these feelings, ideas, concepts must be well established within the first few moments, otherwise tone can be compromised, oftentimes creating something of an uneven mess.

If a film/show establishes a highly logical universe, it is important that the writing and acting maintain this in order to keep more attentive audiences locked into the story. This is where I have to chime in that the moving picture is more an emotional medium than an intellectual one, so the sheer level of logical complexity will almost always never be one hundred percent, but if the story established asks the audience to be wary of minute details, it's important to at least convince us that what is happening really is. The brain can detect falseness very well, and as such, this is part of a very tricky balancing act in order to keep viewers emotionally engaged in matters. So "logical truth" is important, if only to keep the more thematic/emotional material intact. This is something that film often gets wrong since the other part of this equation is in many ways more important, but in that rare occasion, something closer to airtight can also better support the projects' more direct ideas & themes.

Now...on the other hand...

Looking back at everything that tends to secure a fave spot somewhere, there are times when simple logic is often abandoned. I mean, let's get down to it. I'm a grand sucker for tokusatsu films featuring giant monsters, giant robots, spirits, fantastic worlds without standard physics in attendance. I have a raging love for works that often bend conventional rules of reality, until it no longer even resembles a recognizable construct aside from maybe having humans in them. So what about these? And why do some of these still get iffy reviews regardless?

Let's go ahead an illustrate what I mean with a truly mainstream example of this; Spiderman 2 (2004).

Much like the previous Sam Raimi film(and before things really got out of hand), this was a fully realized American comic book world brought to life complete with classic archetypes, derring-do, and special effects. And considering the era of special effects that were attainable at the time, along with some seriously questionable physics, the film in many strange ways, looks strangely quaint in retrospect considering where comic adaptations went in regards to "realism" years following. The action scenes of Spidey 2, while exciting to some degree, feel not only video game-like in execution, but also sadly plastic-y, and sans any real feeling of threat. As Spiderman is battling Doctor Octopus, there are multiple moments of human bodies slamming against concrete, busting brick walls, bending steel, and so-forth without any concern for the all-too mortal Peter Parker underneath the spandex. It gets to a certain point where the back of the mind just gives up, and the suspension is compromised.

So why do I still own this film? Why does it still work in my mind as a successful popcorn experience?

Simple; Raimi and crew stuck to their guns regarding their rendition of Peter Parker and his life. In the end, the action was nowhere near as important as the human element. Whether it be his living situation, his love issues, or even guilt over the past, it is all played beautifully, and does so in a clever way when considering the plight of Dr. Octavius. It is here that the fantasy elements are countered by emotional, and thematic truths that are played well from first frame to last. And even as the credits roll, we understand the sacrifice inherent in living such a life. Even as the world embraces a more heightened reality, the more personal underpinnings of the story are what stay.

Therein lies what I find to be one of the the more challenging parts of the viewing experience, and yet can be summed up with a simple response; when one is dealing with the fantastic, at least for me, there needs to be some kind of emotional, spiritual thesis at work from the beginning of the film, which again brings back the idea of intention. Some films while utterly steeped in the unbelievable are capable of counterbalancing the often tinkered rules of physical/logical reality at hand. It goes all the way back to my love of films like Gojira for example. There is an almost youthful exhuberance in the execution of many of TOHO & DAIEI's early special effects films that comes through quite clearly despite all the fantasy bouncing off the edges like a vengeful Superball.

When faced with envisioning the impossible within film (or anime for that matter), a need for something else to ground matters is vital. And more often than not, this is where effective emotional storytelling comes into play. Without this, it all whittles down to merely spectacle with no real point or purpose, which for me is worse than anything. Especially in a time when anything can be achieved visually, story & theme eventually must take point in whether the project will speak to me or not.

If the spirit of the work is well established from the outset, and the creators find ways to maintain that spirit throughout, there's a good chance for a successful experience for us. Even if certain rules are bent, beats are underplayed, notes are forgotten, or even betrayed with new revelations, they still can help weave a unique tapestry. But more often than not, it all needs to be well-planned and executed. There are exceptions out there for sure. Works that came together on the day, within happenstance, or out of last moment necessity. In fact, some works can work in spite of all of this due to their immediacy, ingenuity, and energy. As long as the central nucleus of thought is consistent and carried through to the credits, chances are it'll work its wonders on me.

At the end, there are no real rules so much as a need for the work to speak truthfully, even if it's through the mind of a child. It is a quest to believe in the possibilities. And this is the spirit of The Wandering Kaijyu.

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