Sunday, July 28, 2013

Before Midnight

Jesse, Céline and Linklater are a different sort of breed, when they work together. They invented cinematic magic in Before Sunrise, reveled in the afterglow and made it more beautiful in Before Sunset, and have now matured into a great team in Before Midnight. Each of these films have a gap of exactly nine years (1995, 2004 and 2013). So in a practical sense, the characters have aged along with us, in real-time. Never did I expect an already beautiful story to get better than the first two movies combined. Both the first two films ended in brilliant, ambiguous situations that left us with bi-polar answers to a single question. One seemed practical. Another stemmed from within heart. Either way, team Before.. succeeded each time (and have done it yet again) in one of the most accurate and authentic portrayals of love since Michel Gondry gave us Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
Hawke and Delpy in Before Sunset (2004) and Before Sunrise (1995)
The film is an absolute marvel, showcasing the very best dialogue and capturing the sheer essence of acting brilliance from stars Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. Director Richard Linklater has also created the crowning work of his directorial career, showing incredible restraint and focus on two characters that still feel just as new and fresh as the day we met them. The film opens with a near fifteen minute take that gets its hook into you and never lets up. It's a cinematic sensation.
The writing is astounding. Sharp, intelligent, biting, humorous, with staggering subtext, but most importantly, it feels real. If the screenplay doesn't get an Oscar nomination it would be a shame.
Midnight takes place nine years after the events of Sunset. Jesse and Céline are still together and have managed to have twin girls, Nina and Ella, and are living in Europe. The film takes place at the tail end of a six-week vacation in Greece where Jesse has just dropped off his thirteen-year-old son Hank, from his previous marriage, at the airport for his return back to Chicago. Realizing that he's missing the formative years of Hank's teenage life, Jesse and Céline explore the option of possibly making a move to America, leaving opportunities and a life in Europe behind.
The acting is flawless, and so is the writing. The movie could so easily have become nothing more than two privileged white people moaning about their white person problems, but it instead gets right at the heart of what makes simple day-to-day living, even when nothing major is wrong with your life and even when you can admit that to yourself, so difficult. Before Midnight is very sincere in that it openly discusses lots of interesting things and everyday problems. It actually consists of couple major dialogues that clearly expose whole spirit of plot. There is a dining scene where characters discuss their first sexual intercourse or just their sex lives and I was surprised how precise, natural and nice each word was. It did not "scream" as it happens in most of films. Each and every other dialogue was a masterpiece, very quiet, peaceful and calmly emotional. The last scene in the bedroom which actually last half an hour, just runs very quickly because of beautifully written script (which Hawke and Delpy co-wrote), the poster child for screen writing and brilliant storytelling for years to come.
Ethan Hawke is an actor that never quite caught onto the awards circuit for some odd reason. Nominated for his performance alongside Denzel Washington in Training Day, Hawke has shown tremendous range throughout his career including missed opportunities for recognition in Sidney Lumet's Before the Devil Knows You're Dead. As Jesse this time around, Hawke uses every ounce of magnetism, charisma, and acting ability to bring himself to the levels of legendary actors like Daniel Day-Lewis and Marlon Brando. He becomes a man all too familiar to the male viewer and ignites the film into a spectacular frenzy of passion. Hawke isn't afraid to show the inner turmoil of Jesse as the growing cancer of guilt has come to the surface. He works moment after moment in expressing the bewildering beauty of love at the expense of one's own values and sacrifice. He's almost the distant, and utterly toned down, cousin of Freddie Quell from Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master, a man so complex but inserted with terrific character beats and an actor willing to commit entirely to the craft to portray him flawlessly. Hawke surpasses not only his past features but the very being of himself as an actor. It's his finest turn yet.
Julie Delpy is as imaginative and magnetic as ever. She's a wonderful presence, often a very skillful example of acting on the finest level. She executes the pure feelings of uncertainty in conjuncture with the script which is a clear and marvelous character study on love. She's wildly immersed into Céline, accomplishing not only a somewhat free- spirited damaged woman but a sex appeal that triggers any person's romantic desires. She's an effortless existence in the film, which makes Céline not only explicitly real, but tenderly and mysteriously loving for the viewer. It's a performance that defines her abilities as an actress and one that will be remembered fifty years from now as we all think back on the amazement of Julie Delpy.
The film is breathtakingly accurate and precise in capturing the love and relationship of couples, it will and should be studied by film schools and writers for years to come. Linklater bares his soul, frame after frame, showing confidence of his own idiosyncratic vision of this story and being as accessible to even the youngest of people. This is Linklater's most personal tribute to the scope of cinema and will be his defining moment on the silver screen. The film is a must-see and is the first masterpiece that 2013 has to offer. Before Midnight is an instant Oscar-contender and a triumph in filmmaking.


It's probably considered treason by now to criticize Danny Boyle. The man is a national hero today after he brought home the Best Picture Oscar after nearly 10 years (I wouldn't count Shakespeare in Love before I crap in my pants) went on to direct the 2012 Olympic Games ceremonies, made the Queen of England paraglide (well, apparently) in front of the whole world before politely declining a knighthood from her Majesty for the love of being a common englishman who simply happens to love his country so much. And for a film director of such caliber, Mr. Boyle, has carved a niche of reputation for himself, right where legends like Quentin Tarantino, Christopher Nolan, David Lynch, Steven Soderbergh and Steven Spielberg are at the top of their games, in their own unique styles. He broke ground with a murder mystery, a trippy rabbit-hole through the muck of Edinburg's drug scene, went ahead to experiment with a wayward retrospection that leads to a hidden Beach, redefined the Zombie genre with an epidemic-survival guide, a fable of innocence, a space-mission adventure, a Bollywood love-story and a critically acclaimed true story about survival in the Utah plains. With Trance, he now takes on a Bank Heist. Through the viewpoint of a hypnotherapist. Who's hypnotized Simon, an art-house auctioneer. Who's in cahoots in an art-house heist. Who has um.. well lost his fucking mind. And to fully understand Trance, you really MUST lose your mind. Here's why.
To continue, the art-house heist goes wrong. The thieves plan the robbery of a multi-million-pound worth paining by Spanish romantic painter Francisco Goya (Witches in the Air), but manage to get away nothing but a bronze frame, thanks to Simon, who's apparently devised a plan of his own, to deceive the gang single-handedly, but not before getting shotgun-walloped on the head by their leader Franck (Vincent Cassel). Simon drifts into a coma, losing his mind and with it, his memory of what he did with the still-missing painting. No amount of torture seems to revive his damned amnesia. Desperate for solution, Franck draws help from Elizabeth Lamb, a seemingly talented hypnotherapist, who immediately senses something is amiss with her patient, and decides to help him out. Things seem so straightforward and simple at first, even during Simon's initial hypnosis. All that had to be done was to reach inside his mind and retrieve the memory. Simple, right?
Actually, no. If you're willing to do some serious retrospection, a LOT of questions would instantly arise. Why would Elizabeth lamb, (seemingly adept at her profession) agree to help a bunch of goons retrieve their loot? Is retrieving a memory from within amnesia really that easy? Did Simon really steal the painting? Or did someone else do it? Slowly you realize there's a lot going on behind the story that you have no clue about. Franck isn't just another petty art thief. Lamb actually knew who Simon was, even before he came to her for professional help. They even seem to share a history. The more that is revealed, the more contrived the plot becomes. Stretched beyond imagination, through loops and knots, only a lengthy explanation seems capable of clearing the fog.
As expected, Trance has all the visual flair you want from a Danny Boyle film, with all the cross cutting between flashbacks and the present time and Boyle does gets to play around with the dreamscape. Trance also serves as a great example of how a music score can amplify the action on the screen, being a fast and pumping when the action picks up to being calm and tranquil for the hypnotist sequences. Boyle does get to audience absorbed into his dream worlds with his use lens flare, camera movement and music.
Trance is similar to other thrillers like Memento and The Machinist, twisting and turning constantly. Boyle starts the film as a heist flick and then slowly turns the genre gears and turns the film into a psychological thriller. Like Christopher Nolan, Boyle and his writers set out to explore themes of memories, relationships, manipulation and trust and it was done to an expect level. Throughout the film, it changes courses constantly, leaving to the audience guessing: but Boyle and the writers do leave some clues about the eventual ending and I am sure there's more to the film, during a second viewing.
The characters themselves are also enigmas, as their motivations change and we get to see more pieces of the puzzle. Simon starts off as a victim but as the film progresses, we see his dark and twisted side and McAvoy effectively brings this out of his character. He was much better fitted for this role, than his recent action anti-hero role in Welcome to the Punch. On a whole, the characters are generally unsympathetic and the film constantly shifts both its focus and who the audience should root for. But added to the film's theme of who we are meant to trust as relationships, the motives in the film that shift along coincide with its themes and makes some sense overall.
Whilst Trance is a fun ride, people might begin to see multiple plot holes and raise questions about how characters know certain actions and reactions were going to happen. But it can be argued that The Dark Knight Rises had plot problems, if you held it to any form of analysis and people still enjoyed that film. The aim of Boyle and the writers was to focus on the themes and how the puzzle fit together once you get more information, even if the foundation itself is a little shaky.
Trance is a highly entertaining and engaging crime and psychological thriller. It is a fun ride as it brinks through its 101 minute running time. Whilst there are some logic and logistical problems in the plot when everything is revealed, it is still a well made film that explores the themes of memory, trust and the framework of the mind. Fans of Boyle's previous work will certainly be pleased. The only reason you'd probably dislike the movie is that you were not able to decipher it.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Upstream Color

A question that is likely to plague many that have the pleasure of viewing Upstream Color is regarding what defines "a film," or, more specifically, a worthwhile film. In my view (and many will and are free to disagree), one of the most exciting and interesting characteristics of film is the ability to take an abstract concept or complex social force we all encounter and manifest it into a narrative via a character or concrete mechanism for the protagonist to interact with or confront. Furthermore, film, as an audiovisual medium, can be best used to express ideas or develops through carefully considered combinations of images and sounds. Expositional dialogue is present in so many movies that it is refreshing to come across that rare filmmaker who dares to take a more symbolic or lyrical approach. Should aforementioned images and sounds be beautifully captured, as they are here, all for the better.
I actually view Upstream Color to be both substantially superior to and less confusing than Primer, his debut. So what is Shane Carruth going on about? Primarily, our conception of identity and forces that perhaps we are unable to perceive - much less understand - that mold this identity. It is obvious to even the most casual observer that our lives are overwhelmingly influenced things outside of our control. The plot we see, then, might be viewed as simply an innovative way to introduce these ideas into a film. Kris (Amy Seimetz) is accosted by a man who forces her to ingest a parasitic maggot that allows him to easily hypnotize and control her, with the ultimate goal being to steal everything she has. Once he's achieved this goal, he exits abruptly, leaving behind a ruined life. At this point, a mysterious figure surgically transfers the parasites from Kris to a pig, for motives more complex. No longer physically infected but still influenced by forces she doesn't understand, Kris encounters Jeff, a man similarly broken, and together they struggle to reassemble their lives and make some sense of what has happened to them.
In many ways, Henry David Thoreau's "Walden" may be the key. First, the Thief has Kris copy Thoreau's work as he prepares to wrench away all her material possession, an act which, despite its obvious malevolence, allows Kris to have a spiritual journey of sorts, to build her life up from the ground floor and truly seize life, as Thoreau sought to do in "Walden". As we see Kris reciting lines from "Walden" while retrieving stones from the bottom of a pool, she is expressing not only that she is beginning to remember some of what happened to her, but also that she is becoming aware that her life is not her own and that she must take action to secure her agency, which one could argue is the core thesis of Thoreau's novel. Finally, referencing "Walden" as an analogous narrative demonstrates that the Thief, Sampler and Orchid gatherers as a cycle represent Carruth taking advantage of that most elegant possibility offered by film to heighten and personify all of the inexplicable things that shape our lives. To make any of these figures entirely comprehensible (i.e. scientifically) would defeat the point, and ultimately make for a less intriguing narrative.
The title, then, is quite fitting. Most structurally, it refers to the blue chemical that flows downstream to affect the development of the orchids. Yet, in a metaphysical sense, it refers to the indistinguishable waves vastly divergent from actions taken far outside our perception, their ripples influencing the trajectory of our lives. As suggested by the trailer of the film, we may be able to force the shape of our story, but the color, the details that may define its richness are decided long before we have any say. Likewise, the oblivious and likely mostly benevolent florists, the morally grey or sometimes compromised Sampler and the explicitly exploitative and unethical Thief exist in a cycle, entirely dependent on each other with varying degrees of awareness, true of the power structures that we interact with ubiquitously.
Of course, it would be a mistake to trivialize the importance of romance in this film. In fact, much of the romantic development serves for a crucial springboard into the more ontological issues, and vice versa. What Kris gets from her time with Jeff beyond just companionship in an otherwise bleak existence, is some sense of self-worth, some understanding that fractured she may even be able to be loved to an extent previously unknown. Along the way, we see refreshing glimpses of the insecurities and questions of trust associated with opening your life up to another person. Carruth's framework for the issues that plague these characters allow the realization of such tender truths that the endurance of the film in the hearts of the willing viewer is practically ensured.
Despite the centrality of the romance, this is Kris' story and Seimetz's expression of the character's emotional trajectory is riveting. Carruth is great as the essential but reserved supporting character of Jeff, and succeeds in that his presence never detracts from the immersion. In a leading role, blemishes may have appeared, but there are none here. The score, sometimes reminiscent of Cliff Martinez's score for Soderbergh's Solaris, is universally captivating and worth listening to independently. The soundscape and visual cues serve to demonstrate how the characters most directly perceive a world controlled informed by powers they have no way of rationalizing or verbally expressing, and are always hypnotically rendered. The editing (done in collaboration with David Lowery, himself burgeoning with talent) facilitates a powerful emotional relevance and further aids in suggestion of thematic connections.
Destined to be lauded as a masterpiece by some and condemned as pretentious by others, Upstream Color is at the very least an ambitious sophomore effort from writer/ director/ producer/ editor/ actor/ composer/ distributor/ cinematographer Shane Carruth. I hope to unravel more of its carefully constructed mysteries in much-anticipated future viewings.

Suggested Reads (Heavy Spoilers):
ANGRYROBOT.CA's interpretation of Upstream Color (very plausible explanations) 
Everything you were afraid to ask about Upstream Color 
Upstream Color, Room 237, and why some movie mysteries don’t need to be solved 
FSR interview with Shane Carruth
i09 interview with Shane Carruth