Monday, April 28, 2008

My Blueberry Nights

Wong Kar-wai's My Blueberry Nights (2007) is about late night diners where the broken-hearted arrive at closing time to eat the whole blueberry pie that no one ever orders--not necessarily because they like blueberry pie but as a sign of solidarity with it.

It's not unlike Wong's Chungking Express (1994), in which a broken-hearted cop (Takeshi Kaneshiro) eats can after can of expired pineapples, but sadder. Again there's a broken-hearted cop, this time a small town sheriff, but instead of pineapples he hits the sauce. If this isn't a detriment to his job performance, perhaps it's because he's the most dangerous person in the county.

The film opens in New York, where Jeremy (Jude Law), a lad from Manchester, runs a small diner. One night, Elizabeth (Norah Jones) walks through the door and leaves with Jeremy a set of keys belonging to her ex-boyfriend. Jeremy puts them in a jar with other keys that no one will ever claim. He could throw the keys away, but then those doors might never be opened again.

Like the cop in Chungking Express, Elizabeth over-identifies with food. When Jeremy explains that every night at closing time there's always one blueberry pie that no one's touched, she asks defensively, "What's wrong with blueberry pie?" "There's nothing wrong with blueberry pie. People just make other choices."

Many late nights and blueberry pies later, Elizabeth takes it on the road. In Tennessee, she works in a diner by day and a bar by night where she meets Arnie (David Stratharn), the alcoholic sheriff, and his ex-wife, Sue Lynne (Rachel Weisz). In Reno, she gets a job in a casino where she meets Leslie (Natalie Portman), a gambler who's every bit as untrusting as Elizabeth is naive.

Wong's favorite effect is to use a slow shutter speed which results in smeary, impressionistic images. At one point, he even uses it to film an insert of Leslie placing chips on a poker table. When the characters speak, Wong shoots at normal speed because he wants us to listen to what's being said.

The film is very charming. Like Elizabeth, it drifts amiably across the United States with no particular destination in mind. If it's not one of the great Wong Kar-wai films, that's alright by me. I happen to like blueberry pie.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

In the Valley of Elah

Paul Haggis' In the Valley of Elah (2007) is, for most of its length, such a seamless blend of character and action that one forgives the film its flaws. As a statement about the Iraq war, it's grossly inadequate even next to something as flawed as Brian De Palma's Redacted (also 2007), which did a better job of showing why some American soldiers are committing atrocities. On the other hand, Haggis' film works better as storytelling and Charlize Theron turns in the best performance I've seen from her.

The film alternates between crisp 35mm cinematography by Roger Deakins and nearly illegible video, and Haggis builds a dialectic between past- and present-tense, representation and abstraction, observation and identification. In the present-tense scenes, shot on 35mm, Hank (Tommy Lee Jones) recieves a phone call informing him that his son, Michael (Jonathan Tucker), has gone AWOL from a Texas military base, which comes as a shock to Hank who thought his son was still fighting in Iraq. It's not long before Michael's mutilated body is found, and as Hank unravels what happened, Haggis uses the form of a whodunnit to reveal Hank's character, and that of Emily (Theron), a detective who aids him in his investigation.

One indication of this is Haggis' willingness to stay with Hank and Emily in scenes which have little to do with the main plot. At one point, Emily, a single parent, invites Hank to her house for dinner, and afterwards, Hank attempts to read her son a bedtime story, C.S. Lewis' "The Chronicles of Narnia." Hank refuses to read it on the grounds that he can't understand a single word, and instead recounts the story of David and Goliath. Later he insists that the story is a literal truth, adding "It's even in the Qur'an."

In other words, while the present-tense scenes invite us to observe Hank and Emily in various situations, the past-tense scenes, which consist of Michael's video diary in Iraq, invite us to identify with Hank's point of view as he watches them. These scenes are stretched out across the film at regular intervals, and by the time Haggis gets around to revealing the identity of Hank's murderer, the past-tense narrative has completely overwhelmed the present-tense story, with Hank bearing silent witness to the killer's confession (significantly coupled with the film's only flashback in 35mm). And this is where Haggis really gets into trouble.

Haggis wants to show that soldiers can't do unspeakable things one day, and then come home and be normal the next. The first time we see Emily, she's speaking to a woman whose boyfriend, an Iraq war veteran, went crazy and drowned their pet dog. However, Hank served in Vietnam (another war in which some American soldiers committed atrocities) and Michael was in Bosnia, but neither seems to have been traumatized by these experiences. The film implies that this war is esspecially terrible, but shows no insight into what's motivating some American soldiers to commit the kind of atrocities shown in the film, or how they're different from those committed in previous wars.

In the Valley of Elah is still a vast improvement on Million Dollar Baby (2004) and Crash (2005). The gaps in credibility are less noticeable, and Haggis doesn't attempt to inject comic relief into an otherwise somber drama. His limitations are still apparent in spots, but they're less damaging in this context. For instance, Emily's co-workers are all familiar Haggis types--unredeemable sexists who think she got the job by sleeping her away to the lower middle--but their scenes work regardless because they tell us so much about Emily. It feels strange to say, but I'm curious to see what Haggis will do next.

Friday, April 11, 2008

The Tracey Fragments

After three films, I still haven't made up my mind about Ellen Page, and Bruce McDonald's The Tracey Fragments (2007) only clouds the issue further. Page's character, Tracey Berkowitz, is such a bundle of angst that nearly every scene turns into a shouting match. In this context, what does it mean to give a bad performance?

In any event, the film is not boring. McDonald fills the screen with multiple images, often different perspectives of the same event with three or four Traceys on screen at the same time. This doesn't give the viewer any more freedom than a more traditional film would, as the eye is invariably drawn to motion and sound. During dialogue scenes, McDonald even gives us matching eye lines so we understand where the characters are standing in relation to one another.

Adapted from a novel by Maureen Medved (which I haven't read), who also wrote the screenplay, the film unfolds mainly in flashback. It opens with Tracey sitting on a bus, draped in a shower curtain, and then goes back and fourth through time to explain how she got there. An unpopular teen in a small Canadian town, her father (Ari Cohen) is an abusive tyrant (natch), and she's picked on at school (double natch) for not having big breasts. Tracey's in therapy (triple natch) I think over her guilt about losing her younger brother (in one scene, she thinks she glimpses him from a moving bus), but she's so hostile towards her therapist, Dr. Heker (Julian Richings, in drag), that they never discuss it. Dr. Heker's office is an all-white room, reminding one of those Gap ads from the late 90's.

The film has been compared to John Hughes and Peter Greenaway, although it falls short of either filmmaker at their best. Philosophically, Hughes was a humanist in his belief that people are basically decent, and if you put five kids from different cliques in the same room for a few hours, or John Candy and Steve Martin on a cross-country adventure, that they'll grow to understand each other. Tracey, on the other hand, doesn't grow; like Alex (Gabe Nevins), the protagonist of Gus Van Sant's Paranoid Park (also 2007), she can only relive her life on instant replay in an attempt to master the past by narrativizing it.

As for Greenaway, although Tracey goes to Mean Girls High with boys who trip her in the hallway with their hockey sticks (one way to tell it's a Canadian film), it would be overrating the film's coherence to call it anti-humanist. Indeed, the film is so subjective it's hard to know whether Tracey's classmates are really that terrible or whether she just thinks they are.

For a movie about a girl tormented by her past--it's the Lola Montès (1955) of teen angst--The Tracey Fragments is, ironically, rather forgettable. As in Greenaway's Prospero's Books (1991), McDonald's techniques are often striking on a moment-to-moment basis, but the film as a whole feels strangely disconnected. Scenes don't seem to flow inevitably from one to the next; it's a movie that unfolds in chunks. But where Greenaway simply seems uninterested in Shakespeare except as an opportunity to fiddle around with multiple images, McDonald (like Van Sant) invests all his creative powers in yet another story about hard it is to be a white suburban teenager. One can forgive Tracey for her narcissistic tunnel vision, but when a middle-aged man invites us to share in it for an hour and seventeen minutes, the bubble cries out to be popped. I'm not convinced this film is any more mature than Superbad (also 2007).

As for the strange case of Ellen Page, the overrated poster girl of Canadian cinema, if nothing else, her performance here is a lot less manered than her work in Juno (also 2007).

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Paranoid Park

Gus Van Sant's Paranoid Park (2007) is one of the most formally adventurous American films of recent memory, employing a radically subjective sound mix, hypnotic slow motion effects and non-linear editing to tell a story that's actually pretty banal. Van Sant adapted the script from a youth novel by Blake Nelson (which I haven't read), and apart from one extremely graphic image, it feels in some ways more like a movie for teenage boys than one about them.

As in Elephant (2003) and Last Days (2005), the narrative loops obsessively around a central traumatic incident--here, the accidental death of a security guard--but for the first time, this reflects the protagonist's subjectivity rather than the director's. The film begins with Alex (Gabe Nevins) writing down the film's title in his diary, and what follows for the next eighty minutes is his stream of consciousness as he tries to get it all down on paper.

The film's title refers to an illegally built skate park where Alex and his friend, Jared (Jake Miller), sometimes go. One fateful Saturday night, Alex goes by himself and meets an older kid, Scratch (Scott Green), who takes him down to the train yards. When they're spotted by a security guard, Alex hits him with his skateboard, knocking the security guard in the path of an oncoming train.

Alex may be the most angst-ridden movie teenager this side of James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause (1955). Apart from second degree manslaughter, his parents are going through a divorce, and he's dating a bitchy cheerleader, Jennifer (Taylor Momsen), who's eager to lose her virginity. "Eventually she's going to want to do it, and then things will get all serious."

Of course, there's nothing surprising about teenagers who are confused about sex, or who can't talk to their parents about their problems, or about a couple getting a divorce, and Van Sant takes these things as a given rather than interrogating them. We don't even learn why Alex's parents splitting up in the first place. The anonymous treatment of both his parents and a detective (Daniel Liu), who visits his school after the accident, reflects Alex's inability to relate to adults without providing any insight into its cause.

The best thing about the movie is the highly unnaturalistic sound mix by Van Sant's usual collaborator, Leslie Shatz. Following the accident, Alex debates within himself what to do next, with his diagetic monologue occupying the middle field while non-diagetic voices on the right and the left offer competing suggestions. When he takes a shower that night, the noise of the shower head is unnaturally loud (I think mixed with the sound of a train), while the ambient audio consists of unexplained bird calls.

I'm not so sure about all of Van Sant's choices. There are so many slow motion shots and 16mm montages of skateboarders attempting tricks that the film begins to feel needlessly mannered. Although none of the characters are cinephiles--perhaps least of all Alex--Van Sant makes frequent use of Nina Rota's score from Juliet of the Spirits (1965). I suppose it doesn't matter whether or not Alex has seen Fellini's film so long as the music suits the emotion of the scene, but does it?

I'll have to see it again to be sure, but my first impression leads me to believe that Paranoid Park is not one of Gus Van Sant's great films. Despite Van Sant's intelligence behind the camera, it's a story that's surprisingly hermetic. I haven't seen Van Sant's Psycho (1998), but the defense sometimes given in highbrow film circles is that it's an exercise in pure form. Maybe he was attempting something similar here. Beats me.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Summer Palace

There are long stretches during Lou Ye's Summer Palace (2006) when one feels in the presence of greatness. The film follows its characters during the years leading up to, during and following the Tiananmen Square Massacre, and the exhuberant style was clearly influenced by the French New Wave; but by concerning itself primarily with matters of the heart, the film limits its potential.

Jia Zhang-ke's Platform (2000) may be the greatest of all the Sixth Generation films partly because it finds the right balance between the personal and the political.

The story is narrated by the heroine, Yu Hong (Lei Hao), and the effect is like flipping through the pages of her diary: years pass in a matter of minutes, and the key events seem to happen between the scenes. The movie opens in 1987 in Tumen, a city on the border between China and North Korea. Yu Hong recieves a letter informing her she's been accepted to Beijing University, leaving behind her loser boyfriend, Xiao Jun (Lin Cui). Somewhere in between Tumen and Beijing she decides to never let anyone get too close to her.

At the university rumors begin to circulate that she's a lesbiand or had her heart broken until a friend, Li Ti (Ling Hu), sets her up with Zhou Wei (Xiaodong Guo). After an initial idyll, Yu Hong decides at some point they should break up. She sleeps with one of her professors so she can tell Zhou Wei about it, but later realizes she really loves Zhou Wei and tries to win him back.

After the Tiananmen Square Massacre, Yu Hong drops out of school and returns to Tumen for a time before moving to Shenzhen and then Chongqing. Zhou Wei and Li Ti become an item and move to East Germany.

Although all three characters participate in the Tiananmen Square Protests, the issues behind it are never discussed. Yu Hong seems to go along on impulse rather than any kind of political conviction. At most, one might say the film is about sexual liberation, and what that might entail. At the university, Yu Hong teaches another female student how to masturbate, and in Shenzhen she becomes involved with a married man.

The film was banned by the Chinese government, and while Lou claims this is because it didn't meet the technical standards for sound and image, this doesn't explain why he's been banned from filmmaking for five years. Given the film's timid approach to the Tiananmen Square Massacre, and the fact that films as critical as Jia's The World (2004) and Still Life (2006) were approved, I suspect the ban wasn't for the film's politics but its graphic sexuality. The sex is actually the least interesting part of the movie--not because everything else is esspecially wonderful, but simply because the sex scenes themselves are boring. Once you've seen one, you've seen them all.

What's exciting about the movie is its elliptical handling of narrative and woozy camera style which both recall the films of Olivier Assayas (esspecially Fin aoùt, début septembre [1998] and demonlover [2002]). Many scenes are shot handheld, in low lighting conditions with a shallow depth of field. The bursts of classical music are straight out of Krzysztof Kieslowski's Trois couleurs: Bleu (1993).

Finally, Summer Palace is less than meets the eye. One wonders what a silly girl who blows her chances for happiness has to do with the recent history that serves as a backdrop for the main action. For better or for worse, the film suggests a Chinese Jules et Jim (1962).

Friday, April 4, 2008

The Host

Bong Joon-ho's The Host (2006) is about a big, slimy monster. As such, it's the best film of its kind I've seen. On one level, it is a political allegory in the spirit of Joe Dante and George Romero, but it also works on a much less highfalutin' level as a story about characters we come to root for.

The film opens in a morgue in South Korea where an American pathologist instructs his assistant to empty bottle after bottle of formaldehyde down the drain. When the assistant objects that the drain leads directly into the Han River, the pathologist repies, "The Han River is very broad, so let's be broad-minded about this."

Long story short, a big, slimy monster comes out of the river and attacks humanity; but even before that, the Park family has other problems to deal with. Gang-du (Song Kang-ho) works in his father's food stand and can't afford to buy his daughter, Hyun-seo (Ko Ah-seong), a new cell phone. His brother, Nam-il (Park Hae-il), is a university graduate but can't find a job, and his sister, Nam-joo (Bae Doona), is a champion archer who freezes up during a big competition.

Here, as in Bong's previous feature, Memories of Murder (2003), the director seems to be allergic to subtlety. When Hyun-seo is abducted by the monster and presumed dead, the family shouts and wails and rolls on the floor. Behind the camera, Bong has a taste for lots of camera movement and suspenseful slow motion shots, which are better suited to a film like this than a Korean Mystic River (2003).

If, watching Memories of Murder, one wondered whether the parallels between the story and George W. Bush's reign of terror were deliberate (the movie was based on a true story that happened in the mid-1980's), The Host leaves no doubt. The American military quarantines the area around the Han River and anyone who came into direct contact with the monster, believing they've been exposed to a new virus. When no evidence of a virus can be found, the Americans refuse to let facts get in their way. To combat the monster, the U.S. okays the use of a chemical suggestively named "Agent Yellow," which inspires student protests.

The film has been praised by reviewers as an up-to-the-minute allegory about the times we live in, yet there's something about this tactic of using science fiction to talk about the present that makes my Susan Sontag senses tingle. In her essay "Against Interpretation," Sontag takes the position that sometimes a tank in a Bergman film is just a tank. To ignore The Host's political implications would be an act of denial, but once we start talking about the virus as a metaphor for WMDs, the text becomes divorced from its meanings. And that's when critics start praising horrible films, like Romero's Dawn of the Dead (1978), because they agree with the filmmakers' politics.

What I liked best about the movie is its energy. The problem with most Hollywood action movies is that they get bogged down in the special effects, but Bong does a good job of keeping the plot moving.

The Host was a massive hit in South Korea and it's easy to see why: at bottom, this is a superior popular entertainment. It's about characters defined by their strengths and weaknesses who come together in order to pursue a common goal. It's very satisfying.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Away From Her

For a Canadian film, Sarah Polley's Away From Her (2006) is an above average effort--which simply means it didn't make me want to claw my eyes out. If I were a teacher, I'd give it a C+.

It's almost a given that Polley would improve on Alice Munro's short shorty, "The Bear Came Over the Mountain," simply because movies don't have paragraph breaks. Her most significant alteration is to shuffle the chronology so the film begins with Grant (Gordon Pinsent) going to meet Marion (Olympia Dukakis), with their conversation interrupted by flashbacks showing how Grant's wife, Fiona (Julie Christie), decided--against his will--that she should be put in a nursing home when she starts to show symptoms of alzheimers. Grant isn't allowed to visit Fiona during the first 30 days while she's settling in, and when he finally does go to see her, he's shocked to discover she no longer remembers him, having fallen in love with Marion's husband (Michael Murphy), who Fiona believes she knew as a teenager.

Polley expands on the source material in various ways, which results in the story losing some of its focus. As in the original, the other important character is a sympathetic nurse, Kristy (Kristen Thompson), whose husband abandoned her. However, the flashback structure shifts the emphasis of the story so that it's more about memory than absent spouses, making this piece of backstory somewhat gratuitous. When the camera spins around Grant and Fiona in the final sequence, it's impossible not to be reminded of another memory movie, Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958).

Writing about the film in CineAction!, Robin Wood wonders whether the subject of alzheimers disease was Polley's first choice. I'm afraid that it was. Polley's "committment to left-wing politics" creeps into the film as kneejerk anti-Americanism, first as an asside when she has Fiona glibly dismiss American cinema as "garbage." Later, while watching a TV news report on the war in Iraq (which is far more graphic than anything you'd ever see on Canadian television), Fiona says to the camera directly: "How could they forget Vietnam?" Clearly Polley thinks this is a profound insight--an amnesiac commenting on another kind of forgetting--but even if it were true (in Vietnam, the U.S. didn't topple a dictator expecting to be greeted as liberators), it has no relevance to the story because, unlike the allegorical amnesia that afflicts Guy Maddin's characters, Fiona is suffering from a specific medical condition.

As a director, Polley lacks the stylistic finesse that Olivier Assayas' brought to similarly timid material in Clean (2004), a French-British-Canadian co-production shot partly in Hamilton. But where Assayas, a former editor of Cahiers du cinéma, draws inspiration from a wide aray of filmmakers from around the world (his demonlover [2002] was compared to David Cronenberg's Videodrome [1983]), Polley appears to want to close herself off to outside influences entirely. Over the closing credits, she uses a k.d. lang cover of a Neil Young song, and one of her additions to the story which I could've done without is a nursing home patient who used to do the play-by-play for the Winnipeg Jets--that is, back when Winnipeg had a team. However, despite her contempt for American garbage (which presumably includes Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, The Darjeeling Limited, Gone Baby Gone, Hairspray, I'm Not There., and Margot at the Wedding to name only a few of my favorites from the past year), Polley only succeeds half-way in doing something different: the slightly over-exposed cinematography, which floods the nursing home with heavenly light, is a convention of recent Hollywood films, and the low ASL and minimal camera movement make it more noticeable when Polley has her characters standing still during dialogue scenes than it would be in an Intensified Continuity film like Jerry Maguire (1996).

There's nothing really wrong with Away From Her. It's consistantly engaging and the four leads are uniformly good (it seems unfair to single out Christie over Pinsent, Dukakis and Thompson). I just didn't feel very challenged by it. In a sense, it's the anti-Marie Antoinette (also 2006). One wants to like Sarah Polley, who was so good in Exotica (1994) and Go (1999), because we feel she's earned it instead of having everything handed to her. (Incidentally, when Sofia Coppola was asked whether her film was a veiled comment on the Iraq war, she replied in so many words: Don't ask me, I'm just a movie director.) And while Polley took a risk in making a film about people different than herself, even if she occasionally uses them as mouthpieces for her political views, Coppola can only empathize with Marie Antoinette (Kirsten Dunst) insofar as Coppola turns her into an American teenager. So why is it I can't wait to see Marie Antoinette a seventh time, but probably wouldn't give Away From Her a second go around? I don't want to write an essay on the two films, so let's put it this way: Sometimes the prom queen is smarter and more interesting than the drama kids who define themselves in opposition to what's popular.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Still Life

Jia Zhang-ke's Still Life (2006) is about two characters on parallel tracks that never meet; but unlike Martin Scorsese's The Departed (made the same year)--to name a purely random example--which emphasized the similarities between its two protagonists through cross-cutting, Jia allows viewers the room to make connections for themselves. It's a movie that benefits from multiple viewings.

The film is set against the backdrop of the Three Gorges Dam, a massive engineering project that's displaced over one million Chinese. As the movie opens, Han Sanming (Han Sanming) arrives in Fengjie looking for his ex-wife, Missy Ma (Ma Lihzen), who left him 16 years earlier, taking their infant daughter. A cabbie agrees to take Sanming to the address his wife gave him before leaving, knowing full well that the entire neighborhood's underwater. ("I used to live over there.") While he continues his search, Sanming finds work helping to demolish what remains of the city--including, ultimately, the hotel where he's staying.

A coal miner from Jia's home province of Shanxi, Sanming moves through the film with an implaccable determination that belies his sullen demeanor. He befriends a petty criminal, Brother Mark (Zhou Lin), who quickly intuits that Sanming bought Missy on the black market. "Look around! There are more women than men. Lots of women got sold off." What remains a mystery is why he chose now to look for his ex-wife and daughter after so many years.

While the movie associates Sanming with the parts of the city that are disappearing, Shen Hong (Zhao Tao)--a nurse who's also from Shanxi--tends to gravitate towards newly built, gentrified neighborhoods as she searches for her husband, Guo Bing (Li Zhubing), an engineer who stopped coming home two years before.

As in Jia's previous feature, The World (2004), corruption is nearly ubiquitous in contemporary China. Even before he arrives in Fengjie, Sanming is literally dragged to a sleight-of-hand performance in which the magician promises to reveal the secret to getting rich, converting blank paper into Euros and then RMB. After the performance, several men walk through the audience collecting "tuition." It's implied that the Three Gorges Dam is a similar sort of con but on an infinitely larger scale.

Watching the film, one is reminded of the lost city of Atlantis. As one character puts it, a city with two thousand years of history was demolished in two years; and the western-style architecture replacing it is only designed to last twenty years at the most. When Sanming and Hong both see the same flying saucer, the special effects are, I think, deliberately generic.

The juxtaposition of the two stories recalls the two-part structures of Jacques Rivette's Céline et Julie vont en bateau (1974) and Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Tropical Malady (2004), which bring together wildly divergent material, inviting the viewer to make comparisons. Here, some of the connections are obvious (both Sanming and Hong are looking for absent spouses), while others--like a young boy who sings acapella in two scenes--are more mysterious.

Still Life, which won the Golden Lion at the 2006 Venice Film Festival, is not a stand alone work. At the same time Jia was making it, he was also working on a non-fiction feature, Dong (also 2006), that's also about the Three Gorges Dam. (According to some reviews I've read, characters from Still Life can be glimpsed in the documentary.) So as much as I enjoyed Still Life, I can't claim to understand it completely, including the title. That said, while I think seeing Dong would clarify some things, I don't think (and wouldn't want) it to answer everything; even after three viewings, it's a film that still holds plenty of secrets, which only makes me more eager to see it again.