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Archive for October, 2013

As you may have gathered from some of my earlier blog entries, I tend to be favorably disposed towards movies that are difficult to understand. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I enjoyed Mao Mao’s Here, Then (2012), which more than most films feels like the work of a director consciously testing the limits of how much information he can withhold from the viewer without alienating them completely. The story is divided into two parts, each focusing on a separate set of characters with no apparent connection to the other — a group of small town teenagers in the former, several affluent urbanites in the latter — and its meanings are somewhat obscure, which itself might’ve been enough to frustrate some viewers. But what makes the movie especially difficult to understand is the oblique style in which the action is presented and the sparse dialogue that raises as many questions as it answers.

Sometimes in the film what appears to be a straightforward establishing shot conceals as much as it shows — as in an early scene that opens on a dirt path in the countryside. A group of people carrying suitcases appear along the bottom of the screen, and after climbing over an unseen barrier, exit the frame on the right. It’s only when a car zooms by in the foreground that it becomes apparent that the people have just gotten off a bus by the side of the freeway. (In China, there often isn’t any sign to indicate a small village near the main road.) Among the travelers is a boy in a blue jacket, who sits down on the barrier and lights a cigarette as the others continue walking along the path behind him. This scene establishes that the boy has just returned to his hometown, but the manner in which the shot is framed obscures this point by excluding both the bus and the road. On the other hand, the fact that another character suffers from dry, itchy skin is important enough to be mentioned twice in the dialogue, but it’s never explained why. The second time it comes up, the woman’s sugar daddy reproaches her for not drinking enough water, but if the explanation were really that simple I doubt the movie would’ve brought it up in the first place. I’m sure that a second viewing of the film would clarify some things, but I don’t think I’ll ever understand it completely. Not that that’s a bad thing.

Less demanding but still deserving of attention, Zeynel Dogan and Orhan Eskikoy’s Voice of My Father (also 2012) tells the story of an elderly Kurdish woman, Basê (Basê Dogan), who lives by herself in the Turkish city of Elbistan, and her assimilated adult son, Mehmet (Zeynel Dogan), who wants her to come live with him in Diyarbakir. After discovering an old audio tape that Basê recorded when he was a child, Mehmet decides to pay his mother a visit, but when he asks her about the tapes that his father sent home from Germany, Basê — who still keeps her husband’s old things in plastic bags — claims to have lost them. There’s not a lot of action and the film’s style is entirely straightforward with many scenes consisting of nearly static tableaus of the characters sitting in rooms and talking in long shot. What makes the movie compelling is the manner in which it slowly unravels this family’s troubled history.

To an extent, the film resembles a detective story in which Mehmet comes to learn things about his family, and for the most part, the narration is restricted to his range of knowledge. We only see Mehmet’s father, Mustafa, briefly and in extreme long shot in the flashbacks that open and close the movie, and we don’t see his older brother Hassan at all, though we hear their voices on the tapes that the family used to stay in touch while Mustafa was away. That said, our identification with Mehmet is complicated somewhat by the fact that he knows things about his family that we only gradually discover, such as the reason for Hassan’s absence, while on the other hand, the film reveals things to us that Basê is hiding from him. In one scene, Mehmet tells his mother that he remembers Mustafa hitting him when he was a child but Basê angrily denies it and goes to bed. Subsequently, over a shot of Basê standing outside her home at an unspecified time (possibly representing a dream), we hear an audio recording of Mustafa which not only confirms that this really happened but also gives one a sense of his character. I know this is a radical idea, but sometimes all a movie needs to do is tell a good story.

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This blog entry contains spoilers.

Whereas most sequels demonstrate the law of diminishing returns by attempting to duplicate the original (Speed 2: Cruise Control [1997] is only the first example that comes to mind), Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight (2013) tacitly acknowledges that the first two movies in the series belong to a different era as advances in technology have changed the way that people conduct their romantic relationships. In contrast with Before Sunrise (1995), where Céline (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke) parted in Vienna without exchanging phone numbers or addresses, and even Before Sunset (2004) where cell phones figured in the plot only incidentally, here they have dinner with a couple in their early twenties — roughly the same age that Céline and Jesse were in the first film — who mainly communicate with each other over Skype. But perhaps the biggest difference between this movie and its predecessors is that it’s more concentrated dramatically.

As in the two previous films, the characters talk a lot, but this time the dialogue is pressed into the service of more conventional aims — not only providing exposition and advancing the narrative, but also foreshadowing what’s going to happen later in the story. The movie opens at an airport in Greece with Jesse saying goodbye to his teenage son, Hank (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick), who lives in Chicago with Jesse’s estranged wife. Driving back from the airport with Céline and their two daughters, Jesse laments not being able to see Hank more often — an apparently innocent remark which Céline takes as a subtle hint that Jesse wants her to be a more submissive partner to the point of giving up a job opportunity with the French government so that he can be closer to Hank. This dialogue, as well as a dinner table scene in which they and some friends talk generally about men being more self-centered than women, set the stage for what happens later in the film when Céline and Jesse go to a fancy hotel to have a romantic evening alone, and Céline unloads all of her feelings of resentment which have been festering throughout the movie — in particular, her resentment that Jesse has time to write and go on book tours while she takes care of the kids. Where the earlier films were agreeably meandering, this one is as lean and concise as a well crafted short story.

I’m not sure exactly when it happened, but somewhere along the line, Hollywood screenwriters got it into their heads that every protagonist needs to have some traumatic event in their past to make them more sympathetic. As late as Alien (1979), one can still find an action heroine who simply wants to kill the big scary monster without having to deal with any personal traumas in the process, and I’m sure there are other examples, but on the whole, it’s gotten so bad in recent years that the once fresh-faced Leonardo DiCapprio is perpetually being cast as a menacingly stubbled gloomy Gus haunted by the memory of a crazy dead wife or mysophobic mother, and it looks as though Batman’s never gonna dance again (tortured feet have got no rhythm). In keeping with this trend, Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity (also 2013) marries a thrilling external plot line with an internal plot of staggering banality.

As the film opens, a team of American astronauts are repairing a telescope in space when they’re blindsided by bits of debris from an exploded Russian satellite that kill all but two crew members, Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney). Their immediate goal for the first part of the movie is to reach an abandoned space station using Matt’s jet pack, and on the way there, Ryan reveals that she withdrew from personal relationships and buried herself in work following the death of her daughter. Accordingly, the film likens being in space to returning to the womb: Ryan and Matt are joined by an umbilical-like chord that he ultimately severs in order to save her life, and after reaching the station, Ryan curls up into the fetal position. From this conceit, it follows that before Ryan can return to earth, she’ll not only have not clear a number of external obstacles but also put the past behind her, which she’s only able to do after finding religion. Just when things look completely hopeless, Ryan prays for the first time in her life, and subsequently Matt’s ghost appears to her in a dream, providing technical support as well as giving her the will to live by taking the sting out of her daughter’s death. (She knows that Matt’s looking after her in heaven.) As a pure action movie, it’s really neat, but the more the film tries to be deep and meaningful, the dumber it gets.

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