Saturday, July 18, 2015

When "based on a true story" spells the difference

A scene from the 2012 movie "Argo"

I only recently watched the movie "Argo" and though I had known the plot, I had forgotten how the story ends. (In case you're unfamiliar with the movie, a synopsis and some quick facts are here, and this sheds some light on the accuracy of the story on which the 2012 film is based.)

It was not the first time that I viewed a movie with no knowledge of how the story ends, but I don't recall any other movie-watching experience that had me feeling prolonged tension as much as "Argo" did (except for "The Passion of the Christ," but that is a different matter altogether). Why? Probably because while I watched, I knew that the events -- at least the general scenario -- happened in real life, and that spells the difference. Take, for instance, "World War Z," which I happened to come across on HBO one night right before the movie started. I knew nothing about it; I only recalled hearing the title somewhere. I watched with interest... oh, Brad Pitt is here. And then bizarre things started happening.... and then grotesque creatures started appearing. Zombies? This is a zombie movie? I said to myself, amused.

But I continued watching, and watched with interest till the end. Curiosity, I think, kept me glued -- I wanted to know how the story would end, and starting the viewing with a blank slate made a significant difference.

It was nearly with zero knowledge that I started watching "Vantage Point" years ago. After seeing a trailer on TV, my interest was piqued enough to want to see the whole thing. The trailer also afforded me a glimpse of the film without it being coherent enough to let me put the pieces together and predict outcomes of important scenes. Thanks to the flashback-type of narrative, the actual sequence of events came out jumbled up, thereby keeping me from making any sense of the scenes before getting to watch the film.

And then there's "Escape Plan," another movie that I just happened to come across while channel-flipping one night. I missed the opening credits so if the big stars' names rolled, I didn't see them. Which is why after watching Sylvester Stallone do his usual tough-guy-nonchalantly-executing-his-moves-quietly scenes, I was flabbergasted when Arnold Schwarzenegger appeared about halfway through the film. Pleasantly flabbergasted in a superficial way, but still enjoying the experience and looking forward to seeing how the rest of the movie would unfold.

Now that I think about it, watching a movie -- and probably reading a book -- brings with it some level of thrill when you go into it blindly or almost blindly. (Of course for movie buffs, viewing with the added sensory experience of dialogue, music and other sound effects for the whole auditory dimension, makes for more excitement.) But "Argo" was an extremely different experience for me, primarily because it depicted real events. "World War Z" had zombies; "Vantage Point" was fiction and had well-known actors in it --and I think its strength lies in the awesome storytelling method and skillful editing. "Escape Plan" was an entertaining Hollywood flick. "Argo," besides depicting true-to-life events, was devoid of over-the-top action and special effects. It seemed real. And that's why I was so tense when the suspense really started building up. Oh my, what's going to happen to them? Oh gosh, no.... I caught myself thinking repeatedly during the last half hour or so of the movie.

When the movie ended, I took a quick break and decided I would watch "The Matrix" next  (I had obtained copies of several movies from my niece, thereby enabling me to go on a viewing marathon of sorts). And you know what? About 20 minutes into it, I lost interest and started nodding off. Too flashy, too Hollywood-ish probably. After watching "Argo," my system just seemed unprepared for leather-clad characters jumping and kicking in slow motion and identical-looking men in shades and suits who looked too "synthetic" for comfort. It just wasn't a good time for out-of-this-world fiction with all-out special effects. That will be for another day. 

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