Thursday, December 26, 2013

Things We Learn

I just honestly didn't think it was possible to learn to dislike someone so much so quickly. It's really interesting to pay attention to characters in books and stories, and even people in real life. The actions of the character reveal their true biases and priorities and often in subtler ways than you might imagine. For instance, frequently the actions done in many stories could have been performed by a great many characters, and the character chosen to actually do them is incredibly telling. For instance, the betrayal by the fiance in the movie Frozen. This character actually feels very wedged into the story but their function there is very deliberate and purposeful even if clumsy. It has to be that character that performs that betrayal, because it has to undercut the concept of traditional fairy tale romance to set up the real love story, the love shared by the two sisters. He's there because the writers felt he was necessary for contrast, and that they weren't confident that their story, by itself, would be contrasted against the other stories in their genre so they needed to internalize this conflict, despite having a wealth of other characters and circumstances they could have used to make their point.

So you look at what a character is doing. They may profess great love for someone else, but if every time that love requires any kind of difficulty or sacrifice they hide it or ignore it or let the other character down, then there's nothing there. I could easily depict a scenario like this in a matter of moments as it is so easily caricatured:

Jim and his wife have reached a difficult spot in their relationship, and they agree to separate. THis rough patch is caused by financial difficulty, they can't support each other and they can't achieve their goals realistically, and it begins to look impossible. During their separation both Jim and his wife have affairs with various lovers, but Jim becomes particularly fond of her, tell her he loves her and spends a great deal of time with her in secret. Jim is also unfortunately a borderline alcoholic, which has caused many social ills. Their affair goes on for some years and one day the unthinkable happens, through both great effort, and chance, and the support of both his wife and his mistress Jim gets a new job. Concerned for appearances in the grace period for the new job that leads to everything he wanted in life, Jim ceases all communication with his mistress on the chance that this would risk his job in the eyes of his new employer as he has no idea how the new employer would react to such a relationship, but Jim still sips whiskey under the desk at work. Three sips a day instead of a half a bottle a day, but he doesn't give it and everyone knows about it. It is quite probably more damaging of the two, but it would cause Jim personal pain and discomfort to give up the whiskey.

This is a simple and meaningless example of how you can identify a characters real motivations and genuine internal struggles. People are generally very transparent if you give them enough time and pay close enough attention. Sometimes when you get really involved with a character early on though it's easy to miss things that seems meaningless but unfold in a larger pattern.

Breaking Bad 's Walter White is a brilliant example of this, the portrait of his character over the course of the series draws upon a very beautifully complex series of motivations. Every scenario of conflict draws on the tension of what is more important to Walter, very rarely, if ever can we believe what he is saying. He is clearly portrayed immediately as a character incapable of admitting real truths about motivation or feeling to almost anyone, however his motivations and values are consistent throughout the entire series.

He is a damaged man cheated out of billions first, he is a family man second, he is a brilliant chemist third, he is an moral man fourth, and he is a honest man fifth, and a truthful man last. The conflicts as these are carefully pulled out and highlighted in each of his major decisions is like a character being beautifully painted, but in time and with something richer than colors can ever display.

THere is also a brilliant tension with the audience as we wrestle with our own values, and whether or not we want to see him succeed. We constantly ask ourselves just how much we like Walter White. At what point does he cross the line where we could no longer feel good about seeing him successfully resolve his issues into a happy ending through any amount of cleverness?

I find it amazing how often we ourselves have no idea what our actions communicate to the people around us and how important it is that they communicate what we really feel.

Sunday, December 01, 2013

Double Review Day: Frozen Book Thief

I sit here tonight, eager to play more of Dishonored GOTYE, which I just started yesterday, but reluctant to do so without taking care of some overdue responsibilities. I've seen two movies in the past weeks and I feel that you should know about both of them. You know who you are. And if I don't write these reviews tonight, already at least a day late, who knows when I will ever write them.

Disney's Frozen:

I wish I could say I was surprised by this movie, but I'd managed to totally avoid any trailers for it and I didn't hear anything about it till the buzz exploded that it was just a fantastic film. I'm happy to say that I was not in the least disappointed. I went in expecting a great film and I got one. It's easily the best film in Disney's "Disney Film" repertoire of feature animations since Beauty and the Beast. I mean, sure Wreck it Ralph and the most recent Winnie the Pooh were both just stand out amazing movies from the same studio, but this one FEELS like classic Disney. More importantly, though, it feels like classic Disney that is relevant. It breaks molds, it's not a romance, there's romance in it, but it's not about a girl getting a guy or vice versa, it's about being able to connect with the people you're closest to, which is broader picture type stuff.

This movie is layered. It's filled with metaphors, and it has to be. The story is bigger than it really has time for, and frequently feels rushed. There's more than a few spots where everything feels really cramped together, and in a perfect world and in a perfect movie, it wouldn't feel that way. Story wise, the pacing is probably the thing with the most issues. I don't know a good way that this movie could have fixed this. Maybe it needed to be longer, maybe it needed a few less events. Maybe if it didn't have to have as much comedy as it did, or didn't have to be a children's movie it could have cut some of the "fluff" but the fluff was as much of a reason to watch the movie as anything else. Olaf is adorable, and honestly, he's the type of character who is usually cast with a voice that sounds like nails on a chalkboard to me, but he's not annoying, his voice is whinny to me, it's soft and he just sounds so sweet, which works because he is just such a sweet character. Another weak point for the film is the song writing. Some of the songs just don't work very well for me. They lack a strong structure even though they have some great lines, and they don't hold the scene together well enough.

These are just rough edges though. It's no a perfect movie, though it felt like with some really careful polishing it could have been. The story is beautiful, complex, and loaded with interesting characters and twists. Many of the songs are noteworthy and extremely well done, getting to the core of the characters and the scene and moving the plot along briskly with lots of character development that works. The characters are very well done, though there are a few two dimensional characters that could have had more depth. This movie is a must watch.

The Book Thief:

This movie is just beautiful. It feels like a movie from my childhood that I forgot. The pacing just feels like something from another decade, everything about it feels ancient and it fits very much with the themes and ideas. There's more happening than just the main plot line, all of the characters have something going on. This movie is able to convey a lot of sub-textual story telling because of the well know historical background that allows it to include a great deal of history that would otherwise make it very much impossible to tell the whole story in a meaningful way.

From the cinematography to the music and dialog and characters, this movie is simply an excellent example of film making. I hadn't been impressed by almost anything I had seen at all this year until I saw this movie, and it was like waking up. It was warm and sweet, funny and sad, beautiful and painful and moving. I can recommend this movie without reservation to absolutely anyone, as everything about it is extremely well done. I am honestly having trouble thinking of any really rough patches that kept this movie from being amazing. There are a few weak points in the acting, which shouldn't be taken at face value, because this movie rides so heavily on its child actors it would be astounding if it didn't have those moments, and what few there are barely cause a hitch in the pacing of the scene.

I haven't read the book that this movie is based on. That doesn't necessarily mean much, but it's always weird to me. There are so few book to movie translations I have ever enjoyed, maybe 5 or seven. I do want to read this book very badly now, and see how the movie holds up after reading the book. It would be absolutely fascinating. If you have the chance, though, definitely watch this movie. It's beautiful, heart wrenching, and extremely well crafted.
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