Friday, August 23, 2013

Before Sunset: More, please!

Movie Review: Before Sunset

Directors: Richard Linklater

Reviewed: 23 August 2013

jamesintexas rating--****

To find a sequel that captures the spirit and joy of its predecessor is a rare thing. In its own philosophical, meandering way, Before Sunset is the superfluous and utterly delightful follow-up to 1995's Before Sunrise, a complete self-contained story that left things open-ended between French student Celine  (Julie Delpy) and American tourist Jesse (Ethan Hawke). Yet in its creation, director Richard Linklater offers a tantalizing scenario. What if these two smart, engaging people met again after a nine year hiatus? Jesse, now a best selling author in part because of his obsession with the romanticism of that one night encounter in Vienna, finds himself in a Parisian bookstore reading from his latest work. Celine, now an environmental activist, appears at the window as he speaks. They reunite and reconnect in the fading light of the day. The diminishing time until Jesse needs to be at the airport to fly back to the states provides the unseen but very much felt pressure of the importance of this moment and these conversations.

Just as his first film walked the couple through the streets of Vienna, here Linklater's camera tracks them in medium shots down cobblestone streets, in cafes drinking coffee, on a tourist boat in the Seine River, as well as inside the back of a car. Watching this film, I was struck by how much it upends my normal movie-going expectations. No one else the couple meant was going to matter. There does not need to be a certain trajectory. There is no antagonist in the traditional sense. The conversation is the story. The two characters understand the nature of this encounter: it offers up to them a chance to consider how life could have been. Jesse talks at one point about understanding time as "moments within moments" while Celine notes, "Memories are wonderful things, if you don't have to deal with the past." They are both still intrigued by what the other offers.

A film can transport an audience and make us feel the rush and heartbeat of life in the same way that a great book can make it possible to live a different life in a different place. Art represents a natural, endless human fascination with our own relationship to time, and Linklater's film offers two amazing actors, offering two slightly weathered, somewhat older and wiser performances that stand alone and comment upon the 1995 versions of themselves. In a way, Linklater's film chronicles memory and the persistence of hope, making an unabashedly romantic film with a lightness of touch and the elegance of a song well-sung. The ending astonished me, provoking an audible gasp. The two films are quite the achievement, and I think that they are both quiet masterpieces.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Walking the Streets of Vienna with Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise.

Movie Review: Before Sunrise

Director: Richard Linklater

Reviewed: 16 August 2013

jamesintexas rating--****

We infuse ourselves, our memories, our friendships, and our hopes into the places we visit. A visit to my hometown never seems complete without a run on the Prairie Path, a drive down my old street, a glance at my high school track or grade school or library. And in nearly every place, there are benches and sights to see, places that would be fun to walk or wander down, lost in conversation. Our age is an age of instant communication and isolation, an age where earbuds prevent conversation or where a phone substitutes or replaces some human interaction.

Before Sunrise offers a glimpse of a transitory moment in the lives of Jesse (Ethan Hawke), the American abroad, and Celine (Julie Delpy), the French-born Sorbonne student after a chance meeting on a Paris-bound train leads to a single magical, meandering night about town in Vienna. He boldly asks her to consider stepping off of her train and into Vienna with him, for he has only one night until catching his flight back to the United States. Intrigued, she accepts, and a casual friendliness and flirtation develops in a heightened way because of the compressed nature of their time together. Less a travelogue than dialogue (though filled with stunning bridges, architecture, and statues), Linklater seems more concerned with the interior worlds of these characters. What drives them? What do they fear? How do they connect? Linklater captures the dreamlike state of this world, tracking his characters in patient, medium shots as they wander cobblestones streets in the fading light of day. Jesse and Celine do not get into wacky adventures. Instead, the eat a little, drink a little. They interact with a palm reader, a street poet, a harpsichord player, a bartender. Freed from the constraints of their normal lives, they engage each other with disarming honesty and vulnerability. If this moment, this night, is all they have, Jesse and Celine reveal their hopes and fears.

Linklater's film charms without being cloying, delicately explores the parallel lives through shots of train tracks intersecting and separating and rituals of movement that punch open bus and train doors, as well as offers a genuinely romantic story that never condescends or insults our intelligence. I found myself smiling and laughing and just being engaged by their conversation. I could listen to Jesse and Celine talk for hours which is a credit to the fine work being done by both Hawke and Delpy. And a final sequence of shots, a catalogue of what has come before but marked notably by the absence of our main characters, was quietly powerful, even devastating. What are we if not a collection of the places and people that we have been with and carry with us? And what are those places without us in them?

I sometimes consider the arteries that shoot off from the main roads and paths that I travel in life and wonder what it would be like to drive down unfamiliar roads or to walk down unfamiliar streets. And beyond the physical exploration, the act of conversation and getting to the heart of things with another person remains an incandescent experience. My American version of Before Sunrise may include going on a run with Aaron Derry once in college, or a long road conversation with my dad while driving from Chicago to Texas, or a two-hour plus run with Mike Marotta and Ed Mattis in upper Wisconsin. Sometimes a conversation that was not supposed to happen or a pleasant accident or a seemingly normal moment can transform into an immortal one. And any moment one comes across in life can transfix forever. As the poet William Wordsworth states in "Lines Written A Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey," "While here I stand, not only with the sense / Of present pleasure, but with pleasing thoughts / That in this moment there is life and food / For future years."

There is food for future years in this remarkable film.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Atlas of Clouds and Stars: "A New Potential Direction”

Movie Review: Cloud Atlas

Directors: Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski, and Lana Wachowski

Reviewed: 4 August 2013

jamesintexas rating--***1/2

Cloud Atlas, the unique cinematic wonder based on the novel by David Mitchell, soars with ambition and style, telling a breathtaking nesting-doll series of tales that touch on the nature of good and evil, power and slavery, friendship and love, as well as the notion of eternal return. It is rare to see filmmaking this bold and daring. Using special effects to blow up a major American city is not daring. In the modern age, to see a director work with such a sprawling canvas and tell a complex, layered story in an equally challenging way is daring. Darren Aronofsky proved up to the task in The Fountain in 2006, and more recently, Terence Malick engaged the creation of the universe juxtaposed against a 1950's Texas childhood in Tree of Life. Despite its stumbles and obvious inferiority to its source material, in Cloud Atlas, the three directors have crafted a triumphant film, elegant in its construction and profound in its use of a marvelous team of actors. The creators of The Matrix and Run, Lola, Run have united their sensibilities to create a unique vision.

Dividing the film into pieces, giving the Wachoswkis three eras to film and Tykwer three as well.  Assembling Oscar winners Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, and Susan Sarandon and adding them to Hugh Grant, Jim Sturgess, Doona Bae, Ben Whishaw, Jim D'Arcy, Keith David, and the great, great Hugo Weaving. Constructing six different films taking place on a sailing ship on the Pacific, in Scotland at a composer's mansion in the early 20th Century, in San Francisco on a corporate murder-mystery in the 1970's, inside the world of publishing and family in 2012 Scotland, amidst a fabricant-filled future in Neo-Seoul, as well as the pastoral yet violent tribes of The Big Island of Hawaii. Editing six different narratives together in unconventional and surprising ways that focus on theme and image as well as plot. Scoring the film to the Cloud Atlas sextet, a haunting and beautiful piece of music created in one of the stories. It is breathtaking to describe the process of assembling this great film.

"Travel far enough, you meet yourself," states David Mitchell in his novel, and the reoccurring motif is exemplified most through the recasting of actors and actresses, shifting genders, nationalities, and sexualities. Tom Hanks plays both a saavy goat-herder on a Hawaiian Island and a bullish Scottish writer with crazy facial hair, a manager at a boarding house and a scientist with a conscience. Not only is it fun to see the actors stretch from scene to scene (some with more success than others), the Wachowskis and Tykwer also demand the audience to stretch to locate the actor or actress, amidst stunning set and clothing design and unnerving use of make-up. Is it this person or that one? What are the echoes or the ripples from story to story? I thought the performances were fantastic, and it was particularly fun to see Tom Hanks and Halle Berry working with such strong guidance, taking such risks as performers. Broadbent is always joyful to watch, and I want see more of Ben Whishaw. Keith David and Hugh Grant are quite fun too. Hugo Weaving gives a tour-de-force performance, in many ways anchoring the film.

I feel like I am dancing around this film instead of fully engaging it in this review. How do I fully capture a film whose intertextuality touches on Defoe, Melville, Bradbury, Kesey, Lowry, and other great authors? Having read the book this past summer and loved it, I was inevitably let down at moments by this film: clunky narration giving the major themes of the film more than once, some sci-fi chase scenes that seemed lifted from Speed Racer or The Fifth Element, several stories not paying off as well as I had hoped, and some inevitable editing for length excised a story line that I particularly loved. Yet, there is a lightness to the camera in so many moments with crane shots that view the characters from the sky from different perspectives, a beautiful arrangement of color and light in many scenes (the alarming red of a scene set in a stalled elevator; the tumbling of a car off of a bridge with the camera inside of it; the electric blue of nighttime Neo-Seoul), and a warmth to its performances that never feels stilted or stuffy. The film earns its 2 hours and 52 minute running time, though I wonder if a miniseries of 6 or more hours could have been a different, more satisfying avenue to take given the narrative.

The Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer add a frame narrative to the story (much like Baz Luhrmann did to The Great Gatsby) that offers a further layer of hope and possibility. I cannot criticize them and the editor Alexander Berner (whose task was Herculean) for choosing to immerse the audience in the highly fragmented narrative early on, to weave in and out of each story with little consistency instead of keeping it separated into five or six chapters. They adapted a beloved novel with its our sense of geography and parameters and love of wordplay into a film in love with its own construction and performers and symbols. Using the conventions of film, they shifted the story and rightly so.

I go to the movies to be dazzled, to be touched emotionally, to see things that I have never seen before, to experience stories of, as William Faulkner wrote, "the human heart in conflict with itself." Cloud Atlas succeeds in wrestling with titanic themes and ideas, but I think I will always remember the intersection of these individuals, the way one generation reads a previous one or experiences it through film or video, the way chance encounter can lead to a radically different future. Mitchell's book puts it best: "Our lives and our choices, like quantum trajectories, are understood moment to moment. That each point of intersection, each encounter, suggest a new potential direction."

I am grateful for this new potential direction in cinema.