Saturday, 29 June 2013

Before Midnight

Richard Linklater’s first two “Before” films (Before Sunrise, 1995, and Before Sunset, 2004) are among my favourite films of all time. They star Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy as Jesse and Celine, two young people who, in Before Sunrise, meet on a train travelling from Budapest to Vienna and decide to spend about fourteen hours together wandering the streets of Vienna before Jesse has to catch his flight back to the U.S. Jesse is an American, Celine is French. There is very little that connects them, but on this magical night, full of conversation about life and love, and fascinating encounters with the locals, they fall in love anyway. 

When I was nineteen, I was also (like Jesse) Eurail-passing my way across Europe and I also met a young French woman on a train (I was travelling from Naples to Barcelona). We travelled together for about six or seven hours and conversed in simple German (our common language) before she (Marie) had to get off. I was also half in love by the time she left, and when I saw Before Sunrise I wondered what had kept me from getting off with her. I never saw Marie again. 

Jesse, on the other hand, meets Celine again nine years later in Paris (Before Sunset). It’s not pure coincidence because Jesse is there for the promotion of a bestselling novel he wrote based on his night with Celine. Celine is waiting for him after the book-signing and they spend the next couple of hours wandering the streets of Paris and catching up on their lives (Jesse is married and has a son; Celine is an environmental activist and has a boyfriend) and on their thoughts about life and love (they are both unhappy). The film ends suddenly and we don’t know whether Jesse made his flight back to the U.S. or what happened to them until Before Midnight, nine years later.

Before Midnight takes place in a Greek village, where we find Jesse and Celine on vacation with their eight-year-old twin daughters (obviously Jesse stayed with Celine in Paris in 2004 and Celine immediately got pregnant with twin girls). But Jesse is missing his son, who had spent the summer with them, and is trying to persuade Celine to move from Paris to the U.S. so he can be closer to his son. Celine, meanwhile, has just been given a new career opportunity in Paris. Once again, Jesse and Celine spend a memorable day in conversation about life and love, though this time the discussion gets heated.

Having loved the first two “Before” films (endless intelligent natural dialogue about life and love delivered by two excellent actors in a gorgeous European city - what’s not to love?), and seeing that the third film was getting rave reviews, my expectations were through the roof. Still I was not disappointed. Before Midnight was, if anything, better than the first two films. It’s one thing to have a romantic encounter when you barely know each other; it’s another to do so after nine years of life together. So the third film is darker but it’s also deeper and wiser and more compelling. I can’t wait to see what happens in 2022. 

Before Midnight gets a very easy **** and is assured a place in my top ten films of 2013 and my top 100 films of all-time. My mug is up!

Thursday, 20 June 2013

Man of Steel

When even the critics complain that a film has too much action, my expectations fall through the floor. But sometimes even the lowest of expectations don’t help. Perhaps you are wondering why I would even watch a film I knew I wouldn’t like. The answer is that Warner Bros. Studios was, according to CNN, “aggressively marketing Man of Steel to Christian pastors,” even providing sermon notes which link Superman to “the greatest hero who ever lived and died and rose again.” ‘Wow!’ I said to myself, ‘this is a new Hollywood low. I see an article for the Canadian Mennonite already half-written in my mind. To write the other half, I’ll have to bite the bullet and watch the film in question.
This post will not address the above-mentioned marketing any further, nor say another word about Jesus, because that’s reserved for my Canadian Mennonite review. Instead I’ll focus on the positive attributes of Man of Steel, the summer’s first blockbuster.
Hmmm. No, if I did that, my review would be finished already, because Man of Steel doesn’t have any positive attributes. I had figured on writing a fairly scathing review before I walked into the theatre, but I had not expected the filmmakers would make it so easy.
Before I begin my rant, let me remind you that I was a DC comics fan in my younger days. Batman and Superman were my favourite superheroes. So that was another reason to watch Man of Steel. I did not consider Richard Donner’s 1978 Superman - the Movie (remember Christopher Reeve?) to be a classic (though it had the right feel and I did enjoy it), but compared to Man of Steel, Superman - the Movie is the greatest film ever made (and Smallville the best TV show). 
Let’s get the interminable and excruciatingly boring action scenes out of the way first (no, I won’t mention the redemptive violence or the patriotic angle - that’s for the article).
Then let’s move on to the dark, grainy, desaturated handheld cinematography. It shouldn’t come as a surprise from director Zack Snyder, who made 300, but it is not only a style for which I have almost no appreciation, it’s entirely wrong for Superman. The style and cinematography felt very pretentious to me, thanks in large part to the inferior writing (i.e. I can forgive the similar style in Battlestar Galactica because it featured superior writing). 
I could not believe Man of Steel was co-written by Christopher Nolan, a man whom I have always considered one of our more intelligent screenwriters. Man of Steel’s dialogue felt like amateur hour. The plot, such as it is, has so many borrowed ideas it makes Oblivion look entirely original. And while the acting wasn’t as bad as the writing, there were no performances which drew my attention, so I won’t bother to link a single actor to this film or my review. Hans Zimmer’s score had its moments, but it is very far from his best.
This is a bare-bones review. I’ll add a link to my Canadian Mennonite review when it appears online. For now, I’ll just warn you to stay far away. Do not add to the record numbers watching Man of Steel, not even if you are a die-hard Superman fan (especially if you are a die-hard Superman fan). This is an awful film and I regret that Zack Snyder ever entered the film industry (though Watchmen was watchable) . In an act of uncommon generosity, I will award Man of Steel *, not because there was anything in the film which deserved it but because the masses seem to think this is a great film and so I can’t be so snobbish as to give it no stars at all. My mug is down.

The promised link to the Canadian Mennonite review:

TV2: Luck and David Milch

Having been overwhelmingly encouraged to write more posts about TV shows, I will begin with the show I watched most recently: a short-lived (2011-12) HBO series called Luck, created and written by David Milch. Milch is second only to Aaron Sorkin on my list of all-time best TV screenwriters. In my review of Dexter, I mentioned Milch’s masterpiece, Deadwood, an HBO western which lasted only three seasons despite being an exceptionally well-made TV show. The dialogue in Deadwood, delivered by actors performing at their peak, was literally Shakespearian, with a wit and wisdom that the Bard himself would have been proud of. The language, however, is as ‘foul’ as one will find anywhere in film and TV, and the sex and violence rival Game of Thrones.
Luck, on the other hand, has relatively little sex and violence. The language is also somewhat tamer, but language has never been an issue for me (sex is also not an issue for me, but it bothers me when sex/nudity feels gratuitous, as it does in many cable TV shows, used primarily to attract a certain demographic to uncensored cable TV). But Luck does have the same brilliant writing, acting, directing and cinematography we find in Deadwood. Indeed, Luck is not only film-calibre TV; it is Academy Award level film-calibre TV. This is as good as TV gets, so of course it was cancelled after only one season (blamed on the deaths of three horses during the filming of season one). 
Luck is very much about horses. More specifically, it is about the daily goings-on at a large racetrack in California. We are introduced to a variety of characters who are part of the daily racetrack scene, from owners, trainers and jockeys to the gamblers who want to get more involved in the inside world of horse racing. Despite the fact that Luck is advertised as a Dustin Hoffman vehicle (Hoffman plays a horse owner just released from prison, where he served three years for a crime he did not commit), Luck does not focus long on any of its characters. Like Deadwood, this is an ensemble show. In Luck, that includes such veteran actors as Michael Gambon, Dennis Farina and John Ortiz, though it is Nick Nolte who steals the show (IMHO) as an owner/trainer struggling with his inner demons which are directly related to the great horse he is training. 
My interest in horse-racing and gambling is only marginally greater than my interest in serial killers, so Luck is not a show that would normally attract my attention. But the name David Milch carries a lot of weight for me. I am not much interested in the surfing world either, but found Milch’s John From Cincinnati (another one-season HBO show), about a strange Christ-like figure in small-town California, almost  endlessly fascinating, with lots of Milch’s rich and thought-provoking dialogue. So I decided to give Luck a chance and I’m certainly glad I did. It won’t be among my very favourite shows of all-time (because of the subject matter and the short run), but it’s a solid **** TV effort.
Tomorrow: The travesty called Man of Steel.

Saturday, 1 June 2013

The Place Beyond the Pines

The Place Beyond the Pines. Even the title evokes feelings of anticipation in me. Which is why I wanted to see it at the theatre in spite of so-so (though generally positive) reviews. I missed the first run, but the Derek Cianfrance film hit Winnipeg’s only cheap theatre last night and I rushed out at the first opportunity. I forgot how uncomfortable old theatre seats can be. Ouch!

I had no idea what kind of film this was, which was good, but I knew it was an independent film starring Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper and that Cianfrance’s last film was Blue Valentine, a raw, dark, honest and original Gosling film with lots of handheld camera work. I was anticipating more of the same, especially with that haunting title. I got it. This is a good thing.

The Place Beyond the Pines is even rawer, darker, moodier, more original and more uncomfortable than Blue Valentine. It sustains a constant level of intensity and David-Lynch-like (or maybe Stephen-King-like) suspense that fits perfectly with its title (at least as I imagined the title). While there is handheld camera work throughout, it is used sporadically and to excellent effect (i.e. it heightens the intensity and discomfort in a very effective way), which is rare indeed.

The Place Beyond the Pines is an epic film about fathers and sons. It’s long, it covers a period of about sixteen years and it tells three distinct stories (involving the same characters). Unfortunately, I can only tell you the first story because to tell you the other two would give away the ending of that first story, which I will not do. In the first story, Gosling plays Luke, a drifter whose greatest skill is motorcycle-riding, which he does for a travelling carnival. When the carnival returns for its annual visit to Schenectady, New York, Luke sees an old girlfriend (Romina, played by Eva Mendes) and discovers he has a baby son. Thinking back to his own fatherless childhood, Luke quits the carnival and stays in town to look after his son. But Romina has another man in her life and doesn’t see a future with Luke ending well. Good call. Luke is persuaded by a friend to start robbing banks to provide for his son and things go downhill from there.

Do not assume from this description that The Place Beyond the Pines is an epic tragedy. It is dark and it is tragic but there is much more here, especially as we get into the story of Avery Cross (Cooper), a Schenectady police officer. But as I said, I will not reveal more of the story at this time and therefore cannot even mention, let alone discuss (from a theological standpoint), some of the film’s most thought-provoking features. I will remind you that this is an indie film and that a number of unexpected things happen in the film (unexpected from a Hollywood perspective). This is always a good thing, regardless of how I feel about the twists and turns of the story. I will also mention that I found the third story to be both the most frustrating (parts of it were poorly conceived) and the most intriguing (I loved parts of it).

I am not a Bradley Cooper fan (at least not yet), so his acting generally fails to impress me, but he does well enough here. Gosling is outstanding as always and the rest of the cast perform admirably. The music and cinematography are a key part of the film’s aura and are excellent. Cianfrance, the writer and director, is a very talented filmmaker. He makes me very uncomfortable (or was that the cheap theatre seat), but that means I am fully engaged, which is what all films should strive for. A solid ***+. My mug is up.