Cinema Box

"A film is - or should be - more like music than like fiction. It should be a progression of moods and feelings. The theme, what's behind the emotion, the meaning, all that comes later." - Stanley Kubrick

The Magic of Miyazaki: Lessons in Life

                                    

Screen Junkies recently released the names of their top six foreign movie directors, with some of the world’s most accomplished talent honored in the list: Akira Kurosawa, Federico Fellini, Ingmar Berman, Alfonso Cuaron, amongst others. Yet, like so many other “lists” out there, one of the most groundbreaking of movie artists is unrecognized amidst the ceremonial fanfare.

I won’t forget the first time I laid my ten year old eyes on a Miyazaki movie; My Neighbor Totoro captivated me from the start with its purity, effortlessness, unabashed creativity, and beauty.  The storyline, the art work, and the concept were pure magic to me. These traits were to characterize all of his films that I eventually perused, traits that I had come to identify with Miyazaki himself.

Though Hayao Miyazaki’s animated movies are critically acclaimed, his effort as a director, especially as a Japanese native, often goes unrecognized when placed alongside an enticing backdrop of big Hollywood blockbusters and action movies. I firmly believe that Miyazaki’s hard work, painstaking attention to detail, and depth for creativity make him one of the most talented yet unappreciated directors and teachers of today.  His movies contain underlying social commentary on only the most progressive of subjects that people of all ages can relate to.

The Western World is not entirely ignorant of Miyazaki. In conversation with famous Western animators (Pixar’s Lassetar, Docter, Disney’s Keane), his name comes up again and again.  However, few outside of Asia have valued the range and phenomenon of his work, only knowing Miyazaki through his nickname, the rather derogatory “Walt Disney of Japan”.  While seeing him through such lenses does provide a quick frame of reference, it happens to be very misleading. Miyazaki has actually commented several times that he dislikes his nickname, saying “I think 2-D animation disappeared from Disney because they made so many uninteresting films. They became very conservative in the way they created them. It’s too bad. I thought 2-D and 3-D could coexist happily.” While Disney movies contain many two dimensional characters with typical happy endings, Miyazaki takes the time to explore his subject material in startling depth – each scene, every character, has some sort of symbolism or secondary meaning in line with his progressive ideas.  As both writer and director, he possesses a skill for enriching and bringing the animation medium to new heights. 

 Author Helen McCarthy, for example, would rather he be known as the “Kurosawa of animation”; his work, she feels, has “the rare combination of epic sweep and human sensitivity that Kurosawa possessed.”  It’s true that Miyazaki’s movies don’t fit into the neat child sized plot points and stereotypes the West tends to subject its animated art form to. In the past, Miyazaki was well known for personally reviewing every frame used in production, a task usually left to the senior animators.  He was almost fanatic in making sure every second of video was created to perfection. Ghibli’s President also once labeled Miyazaki a feminist, citing his preoccupation with strong, self-aware female heroines.

Upon examining his body of work, severalthemes are evident. His movies are not created solely for entertainment purposes; instead, each makes a statement and discusses at length pertinent issues such as environmentalism, Earth’s fragility, love, bravery, culture, generational gaps, and pacifism. Expertly swapping traditional good-bad dichotomies with morally ambiguous characters, his films encompass all sorts of genres: historical fiction, rising action-adventure, fantasy, and even fairy-tale.

 

            


Here, in the hit movie Princess Mononoke, the filmmaker fuses social commentary with environmental concerns, contrasting the splendor of primitive forests and enchanted spirits with the human troubles brought about by technological progress. Many blogs and articles have cited Princess Mononoke as one of the most inspiring, environmentally-conscious movies.  Spirited Away, my personal favorite, won the Academy Award in 2003 for best animated picture.  It’s about a girl who comes of age in a harrowing alternate universe – a shrewder, more amusing Alice in Wonderland.  Miyazaki reveals that “the heroine [Chihiro] is thrown into a place where the good and bad dwell together. She manages not because she has destroyed evil, but because she has learned to survive.” The movie itself is rife with symbolism, of nostalgia for the old days, while berating gluttony and greed in modern Japan. Together, the movies exemplify Miyazaki at his most symbolically ambitious, touching upon the director’s fascination with childhood and empowering his heroines with an unyielding sense of wonder.  All the protagonists, as unsure as they might be at first, achieve resolution through acts of bravery and love.

Miyazaki is consistently aware of his role as a teacher. Although his movies tend to emit an optimistic tone, Miyazaki, in an interview with The New Yorker, has admitted that he hates modern culture for being “thin, shallow, and fake”.  Through interviews, it is evident that he remains an outspoken critic against capitalism and globalization.  Yet Miyazaki never infuses his movies with a negative light. He agrees that adults cannot “impose their vision of the world on children”.  The director is teaching future generations to obtain an optimistic world view, to value the environment, and to reject simple stereotypes of good and evil.

Given that his body of work has consistently redefined the restrictions of both animation and narrative storytelling, Miyazaki’s influence on international culture has left an impact on those around him. Movies everywhere show traces of inspiration by him. Even Wall-E, the more recent Disney movie with an actual message, has Miyazaki etched all over it, in the use of symbolism and a post-apocalyptic wasteland.  His work, in a sense, has penetrated the worldwide consciousness, to make room for a new way of storytelling.

It’s no exaggeration to say that his films have engaged in a crucial part in elevating animation to a globally recognized art form, both artistically and financially. In traversing the ideals of living and existence without turning away from blatant realities, his art often attains a profoundly universal scope. As echoes of moralistic humanism in a continuously growing world, Hayao Miyazaki’s films are exertions of love, fundamentally ageless. The lessons and legacy he is leaving behind will endure in generations of children (and adults) to come. Hopefully, people will begin to recognize his greatness as a director – especially in the West – and applaud his role as a teacher.

 

 

The Death of the Movie Theater

Along with the advent of internet video streaming came widespread fear amongst theater owners that large corporations would eventually utilize such technology to the fullest extent, thus greedily closing out on downstream profits. In October of 2010, the first of these fears materialized when the Federal Communications Commission began permitting media companies to experiment with new forms of video on demand. A few days ago, DirecTV released a new Video on Demand Program allowing consumers to stream newly released movies from cable boxes for a paltry sum of 30 dollars, only 60 days after theatrical release (the current window is over 132 days).   The response from Hollywood was immediate, and extreme, resulting in three distinct stances.

The first reaction expressed fear that the Video on Demand model was priming itself to eventually phase out the movie theatre industry, given bottoming out box office ticket sales in recent years.   Several Hollywood heavyweights (including James Cameron, Michael Bay, and Peter Jackson) have gone public with an open letter from the National Association of Theatre Owners protesting DirecTV’s move, claiming that the new distribution model possesses the ability to severely cannibalize ticket sales. In fact, Epstein of “The Wrap” believes that Hollywood is “slitting its own throat” by allowing instant video streaming.  The economics of the business seem to support his statement. Epstein points out that even a small drop in the percentage of ticket sales could irrevocably harm the financial model of the film industry, citing a 2000 example, when a 3-5 percent decrease drove half the theaters in the US into filing for bankruptcy. 

The second view, largely promoted by DirecTV spokesmen, alleges that home premieres will give more people a chance to enjoy the movies, and that additional VOD promotional bumps will even benefit theaters.  Home premieres are supposed to positive for the entire industry - a win-win situation for both studio and theaters alike. Money can even be saved on DVD distribution, meaning less cost and more revenue.  Perhaps more scripts could get the green light in today’s troubled economy, thus stimulating an increase in creativity.

A third view claims middle ground, allowing that VOD can bring positive change to a flagging movie industry, in return for significantly lower box office profits. This combination, however, may not be a terrible alternative. While a loss in viewership may force many theaters to face the possibility of bankruptcy, the threat of competition will encourage surviving movie chains to improve, and learn to innovate, in order to offer consumers further incentive to spend money. 

I believe that this last view offers the clearest picture of the situation.  VOD offers many important benefits despite the threat it poses, and most importantly, consumers should always have the ability to choose what best benefits them.  Imagine not having to deal with long lines, expensive amenities, loud texters, and rude employees. With VOD, customers are offered the option of enjoying the movie at home, on their state of the art television sets without annoying trailer previews, with enjoyable company, at only a slight price premium.  VOD eliminates the hassle and cost of heading out to the movies.  No need to hire a babysitter. No need to sit in traffic, or deal with parking.

Despite its benefits, even if VOD were to become successful, it is unlikely that movie theaters would ever completely die out. The cinema experience is one that will never be completely duplicated by average means. The solution then, for theaters, is to concentrate on polishing their unique selling points while turning to more inventive methods.  For example, a theatre I frequent, the Arclight, ensures constant popularity through great customer service, a clean, high tech environment, and most importantly, exclusive services no other chain offers (pre-movie bites, behind the scenes costumes and prop exhibits). In a struggling economy, only the survival of the fittest will turn a profit. But while some theater chains (like the Arclight) understand this concept, many are still struggling behind, making the experience increasingly more inconvenient for moviegoers through budget cuts.

 Marcus Loew, owner of the Loew movie chains, once said that their business was to “sell tickets to theaters, not movies.”  Yet everyone in the industry seems to have forgotten that fact.  It’s bewildering to see that only now are theaters beginning to think about more actively responding to demand through digital distribution systems.  Users can now throw out unpopular movies after a few showings while bringing in independent films for smaller audiences on certain days. Being able to better target markets is a big improvement – but it’s something that theaters should have begun planning for a decade ago, rather than today. No wonder the threat of VOD has become so pressing.

Innovation will be crucial on the part of the theater chains to keep up with the advancement of video streaming technology.  In South Korea, entertainment production companies are experimenting with the idea of “4D” theaters which contain moving audience seats adjusted to a film’s onscreen actions.  Each chair has state of the art built in audio systems, allowing the movie patron to hear sound effects mesh seamlessly with the environment.  Special laser and lighting effects are also synchronized to onscreen action sequences and explosions. Avatar was shown last year to great success in Korean 4D movie theaters, including bonuses such as real sprinkling water, wind, motion activated seats, and smells of explosives. What home entertainment system can contend with that kind of theater exhibition?

The movie industry is currently poised on an ever-changing world where consumer preference trumps all.  It is within people’s economic rights to have more options, and what’s important is that consumers have the right of choice. Caught in the midst of fierce competition driven by technological change, theaters have no choice but to find their unique niche within the film industry. Movie theaters will never become obsolete unless they stop having something of value to offer. They need to innovate, build, and improve. Give people a reason to go; give people a more exciting, enjoyable experience than they can have in their living rooms. Artificial scarcity stopped existing as a feasible production model the day the Internet was publicly released.

Movie Review - Mother

In one of my fewer forays into Asian cinema, I came across the film Mother, the latest work by one of South Korea’s leading contemporary filmmakers.  I am familiar with Joon-Ho Bong’s work; I’ve seen his summer blockbuster, The Host, as well as his first crime thriller Memories of Murder.  Lately, Asian films have been of primary interest to me; a lot of the storytelling is more subtle than traditional Western cinema, a lot of it relying more on the power of the lead characters and its artistic direction than flashy special effects.  The movie provided a great example of suspenseful film-making, with the director Joon-Ho Bong focusing on investigating contrasts within his movie.

Mother begins in a relatively quiet, sleepy rural town.  A hit and run accident introduces the viewers to 27 year old Do-joon (Won Bin), a pretty, but mentally challenged boy who is watched over carefully by his doting mother.  Do-joon often wanders around the town on naïve, clumsy escapades, sometimes getting chastised by local authorities.  His mother, on the other hand, stands out with her fussy austerity and worry over her problematic child.  Bong employs deft strategies to introduce the community, the principal characters – in a naturalistic and oddly comical fashion – generating a cycle of events typical in small townships.

Again, contrasts emerge not just in the characters themselves, but in the surrounding landscapes.  The quaint setting is quickly dissipated in the wake of a brutal, devastating murder.  A young girl’s dead body is found paraded on a rooftop, sending the town into a speculative frenzy.  Based on an incriminating golfball discovered at the scene, detectives detain Do-joon, who, mislead by his faulty mental capabilities, signs a confession in ignorant bliss.  Hye-ja, saddened and enraged by this turn of events, sets the course for the rest of the film, in her frantic search to clear her child’s name and find the real killer.  The film shifts subtly to her perspective; it transforms into a spiraling tale of deception and vanity reminiscent of Hitchcock at his best.

Again relying on contrasts, using both and adherence and rejection of genre conventions imbues the movie with silent, formidable complexity.  This work is reinforced in the movie’s use of looming close-ups and expansive long shots. This all accentuates the vision of a society where good and evil are ultimately accentuated by shades of gray.

  

Movie Review - Justin Bieber Experience

Although I’m sure many people out there dislike Justin Bieber for one reason or the other, I recently watched Never Say Never out of a mix of curiosity and boredom. This movie received a “fresh” score on Rotten Tomatoes, even making over 30 million its opening weekend. Surprisingly, it did not disappoint. An article published by Business Insider titled “What Every Online Marketer Should Learn from Justin Bieber” points out the power of this genre of filmmaking. Never Say Never turned out to be likable, persuasive even; in fact, the movie was geared not only towards his fans, but towards the audience in general. 

Here are some of the star’s stats following the release of the movie:

  • Twitter Followers: 9.5MM = Pop. of Sweden & approx 3% all Twitter traffic
  • Google Results: 315MM - Osama Bin Laden - 67MM & Jesus - 340MM
  • Facebook Fans: 27MM - Coke - 23MM & Starbucks - 20MM
  • MySpace Friends: 1.3MM
  • YouTube JustinBieberVEVO1.6B views
  • YouTube Kidrauhl Channel: 330MM Views & 1MM Subscribers
  • Unlike other teenie bopper movies out there (Hannah Montana, Jonas Brothers) this movie offered a degree of realism and incorporated smart and engaging film techniques during production. It gives an interesting and historical perspective of how a 16 year old nobody in 18 months became one of the world’s foremost superstars.

    A 16 year old boy, in essence, has changed the social media landscape reaching one of the most profitable demographic segments in history. It is impressive, amazing almost to see how such a young kid has utilized social media in building one of the strongest relationships with his fans and followers. This “true, engaging relationship” should prove marketers that there is a better way out there to ignite their target markets. Business Insider thinks that “the Bieber story is a testament to everything that is possible online”. I agree.

    Movie Review - Source Code

    Despite the cheesy trailer, I actually throughly enjoyed this movie. The movie is an action thriller centered on a soldier who wakes up in another’s body, and is given a certain amount of time to dismantle of bomb. He dies - the loop, the cycle restarts again until he can complete his mission. It had an interesting, engaging twist, with a great performance by Jake Gyllenhaal. The movie also enjoyed high ratings from critics, scoring a 90% on Rotten Tomatoes. New Yorker critic Denby complimented, “The movie is a formally disciplined piece of work, a triumph of movie syntax, made with a sense of rhythm and pace, and Gyllenhaal, who is always good at conveying anxiety, gives Stevens’s desperation a comic edge.”

     

    You can also read the synopsis below mild spoilers):

    Synopsis: When decorated soldier Captain Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) wakes up in the body of an unknown man, he discovers he’s part of a mission to find the bomber of a Chicago commuter train. In an assignment unlike any he’s ever known, he learns he’s part of a government experiment called the “Source Code,” a program that enables him to cross over into another man’s identity in the last 8 minutes of his life. With a second, much larger target threatening to kill millions in downtown Chicago, Colter re-lives the incident over and over again, gathering clues each time, until he can solve the mystery of who is behind the bombs and prevent the next attack. Filled with mind-boggling twists and heart-pounding suspense, Source Code is a smart action-thriller directed by Duncan Jones (Moon) also starring Michelle Monaghan (Eagle Eye, Due Date), Vera Farmiga (Up in the Air, The Departed), and Jeffrey Wright (Quantum of Solace, Syriana). — (C) Summit”

     

    Judd Apatow’s Bridesmaids looks absolutely hilarious. I can’t wait to watch this. It’s definitely one of the few female-centric comedy videos. Armed with a charming ensemble, great director, and high reviews, this promises to be worthwhile to watch in theaters!

    Movie Review - Hanna

    The trailer for this movie had looked extremely intense; I was incredibly excited to see it and bought a ticket in theaters this week. The premise of the movie was interesting to me because most of its action relied most on a “child” actress - the talented Saoirse Ronan, who you might have recognized from flicks such as Atonement.  Unfortunately, the movie turned out to lack a strong plot, which in my belief, would have greatly strengthened the flick. On the other hand, it was superbly entertaining, an arthouse flick that was less action but more fairy tale. Saoirse Ronan, as always, delivered a great performance. Had the plot been more thoroughly explored, this could have turned out to be an amazing movie. Nevertheless, it’s still a better selection than a lot of what’s out in movie theaters recently.

    I recently came across this short film directed by a student at Emory University. Here is the synopsis supplied by the director, Ien Chi: “What would you do if you had only five minutes to live? Trace a young man’s few minutes of trying to fulfill his life’s highest potential.”

    This is surprisingly good for an amateur effort, and supplied a lot of food for thought.  The film’s ending message is based on a quote taken from one of Steve Jobs’s speeches:

    Almost everything—all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure—these things just fall away in the face of death.”

    The short is a reminder to live life to the fullest: to realize what’s truly important beneath all the vices humans have come to acquire. 

    Worst Ads of the Year

    This ad, which surprisingly took 2 million dollars to make and broadcast during this year’s Super Bowl, features Timothy Hutton in an utterly tasteless depiction of an ongoing international crisis.  The ad gratuitously uses the political unrest in Tibet as a way to promote cheap deals on Tibetan curry in a racist and uneducated manner. Not surprisingly, it was pulled from screens immediately.

    This ad reenacted the traumatic 9/11 scene, adding even more computer generated airplanes that crashed into the towers.

    This ad is more funny then offensive, but was also banned since it didn’t appeal to the public’s sense of propriety.