Friday, September 25, 2015

Criticism Concepts: Part 2: Critiquing on the right side of the brain


I made a post a few months back outlining what I see as the basic consideration every would-be critic should give when examining a work’s merit - namely, how it affects one on an emotional level.  While the details of our first impressions can get lost in the fog of our mind’s forgotten moments, the emotional impact they have on our thinking usually transcends plain old awareness, so long as the impression is sufficiently strong (and if it isn’t sufficiently strong, well, there you go).  But you’d be wise to ask what, exactly, you’re supposed to do with this new understanding.  You’ve sculpted your gut reactions into something coherent and, dare I say, intelligible; but how do you know what you’re saying is actually accurate in any way?

This is the second pitfall set up to entrap the would-be critic, and it can be the trickiest to avoid. Recognizing it for what it is requires not just a certain degree of work on your part, but also a different perspective than we’re accustomed to using in everyday life.  Let’s say that you’ve just watched the latest blockbuster this weekend, and after two brutal hours, it’s left you colder than a corpse on ice. So, heeding my advice from before, you decide to expand you’re chilly dislike into a solid critique; the film, you now say, is crippled by poor acting, terrible pacing, and a distinct lack of direction.  

So far, so good.  But what does that even mean?  What was it about the acting that made it so poor?  Was the movie paced too quickly, or too slowly?  And if it “lacked direction,” where, exactly, was it supposed to go?  These are legitimate questions, and any director or screenwriter serious about his or her own growth has a right to ask them.  Unfortunately, the answers, even from professional critics, are often vague and discourteous, leaving a sour taste in the mouths of ambitious creators and doing little to adjust the negative opinion most have of critics in general.

It’s not that critics necessarily mean to be tight on the constructive criticism; while there are a few jerks out there who thrive on negativity for its own sake, most critics, in their minds, are simply cutting the chaff to make room for the wheat.  But critics and creators (as well as consumers) see and interpret a work of art in completely different ways. The critic, more often than not, takes the approach of the analyst; their conclusions stem from a process of textual distillation, which can often read like an accountant’s business report.  By about how many degrees of plausibility does this character deviate from “the norm?”  Was this a “proper” setting for the story, or not?  

There’s nothing innately wrong with this, mind you, but the critic should always remember that doing this effectively splinters the work into discrete, measurable quantities that are then evaluated as if they had no connection to one another.  This is completely at odds with how the creator’s vision usually works.  While the creative process may vary among artists and their mediums, “holism” is the one constant through it all; the characters, setting, and other details all swirl together in a tangle that can be very hard to extricate.  The downsides of this are well know, as attested by anyone who’s tried to tell a writer about a pressing weakness in his story he’s just too close to notice.  However, embracing a work holistically enables you to see and measure each segment and each theme with a view towards the bigger picture.  By foregoing needle-point analysis, you gain clarity on how story elements interconnect and simply experience it in a way that touches something beyond the checklist of “proper” story elements.

This is the reason why critics, while often right in their play-by-play assessments, can also be spectacularly wrong on so many fronts.  Quick question: what do Moby Dick, Where the Wild Things Are, and The Big Lebowski all have in common?  They were all originally panned - or at least ambivalently received - by critics at the time of their creation.  If I may paraphrase the great Anton Ego, critics have a tremendous blind spot when it comes to anything new - in large part because “the new,” however it’s defined, cannot be easily analyzed.  Some things can only be experienced, which often involve time and an openness that borders on vulnerability.  It's hard, and takes practice, but your efforts will pave the way for more accurate - and more comprehending - reviews.

So where does the critic go from here?  Keep your analysis at hand, to be sure; but once you get your initial reactions in check, try to step back and piece them together into what you took away from the film as an experienced whole.  A second or third viewing may be desirable, but not necessary; even a first-time blush can offer a wealth of information and kaleidoscopic impressions.  Granted, the movie may still be an absolute stinker regardless of how you look at it, but in placing your analysis in the context of the intended experience, you now understand, at least, where the creator was coming from - and, more importantly, where they may need to go in order to get on the right track.  At the end of the day, the critic’s mission is to illuminate, not pontificate, and setting tentative creators straight should employ more than scornful smugness and a cold, unengaged analysis.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Indie Review: Wool 100%

Movie: Wool 100%
Directed by: Mai Tominaga.
Starring: Kazuko Yoshiyuki, Kyōko Kishida, Ayu Kitaura

Japanese animator Mai Tominaga’s psychedelic comedy-fantasy debut smacks of the type of incomprehensible “art” film scorned by so many casual moviegoers around the world.  But while the plot is unashamedly experimental and near impenetrable at times, this hidden gem of a modern fairy tale comes equipt with some innovative and beautifully-structured cinematography, as well as a cool soundtrack and a surprising dose of heart that will leave you feeling as warm as a wool sweater by the end.

In depth:
Mention “art film” to any random confection of movie buffs and you’re likely to be blown back by the shear force of every expressed opinion on the extreme "love it or hate it" scale.  As in any creative medium, movies leaning towards the experimental and the obtuse can open floodgates to introspection and existential musings...but are just as apt to illicit no greater thought than “Huh?” from its befuddled audience.  This always bothers me, for despite my personal sympathies towards the dense, the obtuse, and the philosophical, I usually lay the blame for any miscommunication between audience and creator at the feet of the latter.  Art is a forum of personal expression, true, but once exposed in the open, it transforms into a medium of communication, and a filmmaker’s failure to get his or her point across at conception can’t merely be hand waved with a snobbish “they just don’t understand…!”  But Wool 100% avoids this pitfall; as an experimental indie Japanese film, it occupies a convoluted set of nested doll niche markets to the Western viewer, but has a feel and vibrancy that transcends its seemingly avant-garde wrapping.

Summarizing this story is a Herculean task at the beginning, but becomes surprisingly easy once you understand the core message of the film.  Elderly twins Ume (Kishida) and Kame (Yoshiyuki) live alone in their little house surrounded by walls and walls of junk they’ve collected over the years through daily treks of dumpster diving in the local community.  This odd schedule continues on as “normal,” until the moment they discover a basket full of balls of red yarn laying out in the middle of nowhere.  Being the ever-compulsive pack rats, they took it home - unaware that in doing so, they unintentionally throw their front door wide open to the unusual owner of the skeins: a creepy, naked little girl -  played by talented newcomer Ayu Kitaura - who continuously knits the yarn into a lopsided sweater, which she always unravels in the end to start all over.  At first, Ume and Kame treat her as a nuisance who constantly disrupts their daily lives with her mindless knitting, destroys their scavenged property, and keeps them up at night with her random bellowing whenever she needs to knit her sweater again.  Over time, though, the twins get used to her, if nothing else, even naming her Aonamishi (“knit again,” after the despairing, house-quaking cry she emits whenever she “finishes” her project) and treating her more or less like the junk they collect.  Soon, Aonamishi proves to be much more than an unwanted house guest, breaking down the barriers the sisters have erected over the years between themselves, the outside world, and even their past.

If the above reads a lot like a fairy tale, that’s because it is; underneath the artsy exterior is a modern, Grimm-esque rendering of two lives unlived and the catalyst to shake them out of their decades-long stupor.  The brilliance of the film is that, with this singular objective in mind, it winds the entirety of the story around its chosen template.  From the opening narrative, with its misty, almost evanescent  exposition of the sisters’ lives that conceals more than reveals; to the inexplicable Aonamishi, who remains a cipher at the heart of the movie throughout its full run - the flow and direction are all completely airtight and under the control of director Tominaga, whose background as an animator clearly shows in the way she maneuvers the actors and props around the film screen in order to suit her vision.  The movie's fabulous pacing and keen timing of nearly every event is nothing short of laudable, and if nothing else, Wool 100% is a testament to a strongly structured, lock-step plot that doesn’t leave the viewer wanting for much, even as it avoids giving direct answers to it cryptic story.

Besides the dreamy plot and surreal characters, Wool 100% draws strength from a simple but effective soundtrack that enhances the overall experience to a remarkable degree.  Tominaga has appreciable respect for silence and white noise as a storytelling medium - a recognition all too uncommon beyond the arthouse label - and periodically punctuates the lull with a few upbeat, jazzy riffs that never feel out of place.  Aonamishi, for example, has a slick little leitmotif that roars in whenever she’s about to metaphorically kick in the teeth of her long-suffering housemates, and the poignant melody that lifts whenever Ume and Kame recall the shattered fragments in their past reminds you that, behind everything, this “artsy” film has a substantial amount of emotional weight. But Tominaga isn’t just an audio magician; as an animator, she doesn’t shy away from experimenting a bit with media genres as the film progresses - like presenting Ume and Kame’s past with their mother through an eerily upbeat dollhouse show, or using stark, line-heavy, flip book-like animation as Aonamishi wages her personal war on the twins' semi-sentient piles of junk, who protect them from the past just as surely as they guard against present intruders.  These sequences differ from the usual congratulatory self-indulgence of many an art film; they have a directed purpose and relevance to the plot, either to conceal as much information about Ume and Kame’s early lives while still providing exposition, or sparing the audience any overexposure of Aonamishi as she storms through the house fulfilling her private agenda with the sisters.  Future filmmakers would be wise to heed Tominaga’s attention to detail, and the efficient way she brings all elements of storytelling together.

No movie is perfect, of course, and Wool 100%’s one major flaw is ironically tied to its greatest strength: Tominaga’s tight rein on her story’s structure leaves little wiggle room for the characters themselves.  Aonamishi, of course, is fun to view, and the twins have enough quirks and curiosities to keep them mildly interesting; however, all three have little to show in the way of presence, and seem to be going through the motions at points.  This isn’t unique to Wool 100%, since most indie abstract films tend to skimp on the characters in favor of the filmmaker’s arc-wide “vision,” but as I’ve said time and again, characters - even shallow, “stocky” ones - are (or should be) the centerpiece of any narrative.  The three actresses instead feel more like pieces moved across a predefined board, with very little variation at all.  Again, this might tie back to Tominaga’s animation background; when you’re used to working with characters who are literally made for your story, getting a full grasp on how flesh and blood actors interact can be tricky to peg down.  That said, this minor gripe is just that - minor, and in no way really subtracts from the overall movie experience.  The characters are enjoyable enough, and having their personalities on the down beat permits us the full view of the plot’s unfolding charms and mysteries.

The key thing to always keep in mind when watching Wool 100% is that it is, at heart, a fairy tale - a rather dark and obtuse fairy tale, but one with a strong plot, interesting characters, and a surprisingly clear moral that’s told with heart and subtlety.  Despite Tominaga’s hazy and uncertain character direction, her three stars grow quietly closer over the course of the film, and as the climax approaches, the intention behind Aonamishi’s behavior - and what it ultimately means to the sisters - will leave you with a surprising amount of warmth after the end.  For the non-Japanese audience, an understanding of the implied but apparently unexamined cultural idiosyncrasies - like the sentient trash in the house, or the significance of certain colors - may pass over completely, but the dream-like story grants the necessary suspension of disbelief that Wool 100%, thankfully, never enforces among its audience as so many other movies do in need of faking coherence.  As a recommendation. catch it on DVD if at all possible.  It demands multiple viewings - not only to further understand the plot, but because it really is very hard to peg down, even if the movie gods bless you with full comprehension on the first go around.  Finding this little foreign jewel might be tough, but it truly is a diamond in the rough.

Grade: A

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

September Releases

September Releases

Hello, folks!  Sorry for the long absence; I've been working on a story that's commandeered my attention for the last month or so.  But rest assured that the reviews will be back on schedule real soon, but until then, have a look at Fall's early offerings:






See you at the movies!