Saturday, February 11, 2017

LA LA LAND



Director: Damien Chazelle

Cast: Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone

Screenplay: Damien Chazelle

Music: Justin Hurwitz

Run Time: 128 min.

(2016)


A splendid revival of old-school musicals.

It takes all of 30 seconds for La La Land to establish its identity: an unabashed musical from an era almost forgotten.  It proudly embraces the escape from reality as it promptly breaks into song-and-dance routines that punctuate an age old story.

The movie begins with our two leads Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone) stuck in traffic on the LA freeway in summer.  The crowds stuck in traffic break out into a song and dance but our leads are not a part of it.  This sets the tone for the rest of the film where we will witness flights of fantasy which aid the main story.  

Sebastian is a jazz musician, a purist who  dreams of opening his own club and doesn’t want to sell out.  Emma is an aspiring actress who is tired of waiting for audition calls which are few and call-backs which are fewer still.  She works as a waitress in a coffee shop on the Warner Brothers studio lot while he plays popular tunes at a night club secretly trying to weave in his own compositions.  They are both passionate artists chasing a dream that is within sight but out of reach.

It is not love at first sight but rather a couple of misses before it clicks.  And once it does, the two lovers inspire each other to pursue their dreams.  Mia starts writing her own play and Sebastian takes up a gig with a friend’s band.  But this is where the rubber meets the road: success demands commitment that can take a toll on romance. 

Chazelle uses seasons as markers for different chapters or segments in the film.  We begin with Winter and cycle through seasons throughout.  Since this is set in LA where the change is seasons is not very dramatic, Chazelle uses an innovative way of depicting this by his use of colors.  Characters wear certain colors to add a little emphasis to the storytelling.  (For example,  Mia and her actress friends donning primary colors complementing each other.)  Chazelle’s use of darkening the screen to focus on a character and transitioning to another sequence works beautifully.
 
The story is not ground-breaking by any stretch of the imagination.  We’ve seen this type of tale before: He meets her, they fall in love, love hits a snag and so on.  However it’s in telling the tale that Chazelle excels.  He clearly loves the classic musicals and it is reflected in the style, the approach, camerawork and even color choices.  Except for the current setting, this would fit in quite well with the available options about 4-5 decades ago.
 
The storytelling is more visual than one comes across these days.  The two leads communicate through dance moves and nuances more than the words in the script which makes it so enjoyable.  Clearly this demands solid performances from the two leads.  This is where Chazelle struck gold.  Gosling is excellent as usual, adding to a string of memorable performances.  To that, add a remarkable turn by Emma Stone.  Her Mia starts out as a light frothy character but goes on to display depth and layers.  What is more important, at least for this movie, is that these two come across as movie stars, all charismatic and magnetic.  A big musical like this needs star power more than a tour de force performance.   These are not the best singers or dancers out there but they own the screen when they appear.  I think that is what adds to the feel of classic Hollywood musicals. 

This brings us to the topic of music.  The background score by Justin Hurwitz gives the film its identity and provides some memorable tunes.  The partnership (Chazelle and Hurwitz) from Whiplash continues to scale new heights and offers a promising future.   Unlike a Broadway show brought to the screen such as Les Miserables, this is an original musical in the tradition of some of the movies (Singing in the Rain) it evokes without explicitly mimicking them.  Also, it pays tribute to my all time favorite, Casablanca, both with a direct reference as well as subtle nod in its storytelling.
 
While the whole movie is above par, there are few outstanding scenes.  The first is when Mia and Sebastian are on a hill over the canyon with a view of Los Angeles as the sun is setting and they break into a song number, A Lovely Night.  This is truly a throwback to Rogers and Astaire.   The second one is following their outing to see Rebel Without a Cause when the pair ends up at Griffith Observatory.  It is a fantasy sequence where they dance in the gallery, end up in the planetarium and float up to the dome and among the stars.  This is beautifully choreographed and filmed.  Another scene of note is towards the end where an alternate ending is presented in a long interpretive dance as an epilogue.  It is masterfully done and is perhaps the centerpiece of the film.

With a record number of Oscar nominations, the film is certainly not going unnoticed but I would be remiss in not recommending this on the big screen.  Filmed in CinemaScope with an aspect ratio of 2.55:1, it is intended to be viewed on a majestic widescreen it deserves.  This is certainly worthy of being called the picture of the year.

Here's to the ones who dream
Foolish, as they may seem
Here's to the hearts that ache
Here's to the mess we make
- Mia (audition)

Sunday, November 27, 2016

MANCHESTER BY THE SEA

 
Director: KENNETH LONERGAN

Cast: Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Kyle CHANDLER, LUCAS HEDGES

Screenplay: KENNETH LONERGAN

Music: LESLEY BARBER

Run Time: 137 min.

(2016)


About grief and loss… yet funny.
 
Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is a solitary, reserved and withdrawn janitor who is forced take care of his teenage nephew following the death of his brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler).  Lee works in the Boston suburbs and is mostly silent but something bubbles just below the surface as he lets his fists do the talking at the local bar.  It is evident that he is punishing himself for a past transgression.
 
Upon his brother’s untimely death, Lee is shocked to find out that he has been named the sole custodian of his teenage nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges).  He takes leave from his job and reluctantly returns to Manchester-by-the-Sea to deal with Patrick’s care and in doing so is confronted with his past that he has tried to escape from.  Patrick is a spirited young man whose interests are no different from any of his counterparts: obsessed with hockey, his rock band and the carnal pursuit of his two girlfriends.  However, Patrick is far from a caricature.  He is troubled with the loss of his father but it has not fully registered yet.
 
For a man who hardly expresses himself verbally, Lee is portrayed by Affleck in a manner that makes it abundantly clear how much pain and hurt he is harboring.  Affleck has almost specialized in playing characters that are tormented or troubled from within and express themselves non-verbally.  His work has not gone unnoticed in his prior films: Gone Baby Gone, Interstellar and most notably The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.  In this outing, quite simply, he is superb.  Lee is a hollow man destroyed by a tragedy he holds himself responsible for.  His way of dealing with his grief is seeking punishment while almost everyone around him wants to forgive him.  The movie uses flashbacks to show his earlier personality during happier times where he is a happy and loving family man.  It draws an interesting contrast as the current time is set in winter with its harsh elements at display while the flashbacks are almost entirely set in bright, sunny New England summers. 
 
Ken Lonergan is a remarkable director who captured grief, sibling bond and a troubled father-figure very well in his first outing, You Can Count on Me.  He is very much in command of his material and steers clear of cinematic pitfalls and presents a relatable portrait of everyday life and grief.  He uses a background of New England where one can sense the salt in the air and the language (scripted by Lonergan) is equally salty.  He draws a solid performance from the supporting cast with Kyle Chandler as Lee’s deceased brother and particularly Michelle Williams as Lee’s ex-wife who draws a stark contrast between her current and flashback scenes.  Her scene with Affleck towards the end of the movie is a powerful one displaying the prowess of the two performers.
 
For a topic that could be very depressing on screen, Lonergan manages to infuse a good bit of humor especially in the interactions between Lee and the teenage Patrick.  Lonergan wisely avoids a typical Hollywood ending even though the story could be concluded with a stereotypical catharsis and closing the package with a nice bow on top.  He chooses instead to opt for a more practical and relatable ending which, in my opinion, does more justice to the characters he has built over the duration.
 
This will certainly be on the Oscar watch for 2016 with Casey Affleck as the lead contender for Best Actor and possibly other nominations as well.  Affleck’s performance is deserving of the Academy’s attention and accolades.  Manchester by the Sea is one of the best films of the year and well worth your time.  Hopefully we won’t have to wait this long again for Lonergan’s next outing.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

WHIPLASH


Director: DAMIEN CHAZELLE

Cast: MILES TELLER, J. K. SIMMONS, Paul Reiser

Screenplay: DAMIEN CHAZELLE

Music: JUSTIN HURWITZ

Run Time: 107 min.

(2014)


Does not rush, does not drag.
 
Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) is a young aspiring jazz drummer who is enrolled in the prestigious (fictional) Shaffer Conservatory of Music in New York.  He is talented, driven and single-mindedly aims for greatness in his craft.  His idea of success is not scoring record sales but scoring a musical legacy that will endure long past his lifetime.  In his quest, he is willing to sacrifice creature comforts, relationships and more.  His position on this is captured aptly in a conversation with his family.
 
Andrew: I'd rather die drunk, broke at 34 and have people at a dinner table talk about me than live to be rich and sober at 90 and nobody remembered who I was.
Uncle Frank: Ah, but your friends will remember you, that's the point.
Andrew: None of us were friends with Charlie Parker. *That's* the point.

Whiplash_falling

Terence Fletcher (J. K. Simmons) is a conductor/teacher at the school and is legendary for his teaching talents as much as his terrifying instruction methods.  Fletcher is a complex man whose obsession with excellence is paired with dubious motivations.  His justification for his approach is captured in one of his lines:

Terence Fletcher: I was there to push people beyond what's expected of them. I believe that's an absolute necessity.
 
Whiplash_keg

The premise is an age old standby: a young talent is pushed to achieve its full potential by a teacher.  There is nothing novel in that aspect of the narrative but mind you, this is not Dead Poets’ Society or To Sir With Love.  In fact, the closest thing to Fletcher in cinema history is the drill sergeant from Full Metal Jacket.  The story is not focused on finding a common ground for the two leads and establishing a lifelong bond.  The script is far more uncompromising than any of its predecessors in this storyline.  The writer and director, Damien Chazelle, is not the least bit interested in getting his audience to cheer and applaud at a cinematic outcome.This is about two individuals obsessed with their pursuit of excellence and Chazelle offers a film that makes you pause and think about it long after you’ve left the theater.  Is it an acceptable approach to tutor someone to excellence if it means withholding all praise and only offering criticism in the harshest form?

Fletcher comes across Andrew one night as he is practicing in the school.  He berates Andrew somewhat but the next day Andrew finds himself on Fletcher’s band as one of two competing for the core drummer spot.  As the band practices to win a jazz competition looming on the horizon, Andrew gets a taste of Fletchers brutish and abusive teaching style.  The movie plays out like a thriller, keeping you at the edge of your seat, largely due to the tightly-paced directing style adopted by Chazelle. 

There is an unhealthy relationship that develops between the two.  While Fletcher is unforgiving in his demands out of Andrew’s performance, Andrew’s drive to create his legacy is equally unforgiving on himself.  The question is whether this combination will spiral into descent or intensify into greatness.  In most films, the competition would be the culmination point but Chazelle sees it as a mere road stop in a broader story.

The whole story is told from Andrew’s point of view and Chazelle develops the character quite well by adding perspectives from his father (played subtly by Paul Reiser), extended family and his girlfriend.  Chazelle makes it a point to emphasize that Andrew, while likeable, is not perfect.  It balances out what could have been a one-dimensional character.

The film relies solely on the two lead performances and boy, do they deliver!  These are two landmark turns by Simmons and Teller.   Miles Teller portrays Andrew in a raw and visceral manner, completely immersing himself in a character desperately seeking to achieve greatness.  J. K. Simmons’ performance is more nuanced and complex as he presents a character that has layers of excellence, malice and charm among others.  It is a credit to his portrayal that the character is elevated from being a stereotypical antagonist to a complex yet flawed one. (Simmons went on to receive the Oscar for this role.)

Jazz references to music and music greats are scattered all over the movie.  The music is the backdrop of the story and is ever present.  The title track “Whiplash” and “Caravan” get top billing and several drum solos in practice and performances get the spotlight as well.  Teller has been playing the drums since he was 15 and it certainly helps in bringing some authenticity to the role.

The ending could have been more traditional in seeking closure but Chazelle chooses to leave it open to interpretation.  I think it works better because it leads to discussions that a good film should aim for.  In this case, it raises a debate about the price of greatness: How far is too far?  How much is too much?  Is it worth it?  The answer is perhaps less important than the discussion and awareness.


Sunday, December 28, 2014

THE SPECTACULAR NOW

The_Spectacular_Now


Director: JAMES PONSOLDT

Cast: MILES TELLER, SHAILENE WOODLEY

Screenplay: SCOTT NEUSTADER & MICHAEL H. WEBER; TIM THARP (novel)

Music: ROB SIMONSEN

Run Time: 95 min.

(2013)


Not your average teenage rom-com.

Sometimes a film is rises above by not being something: not being pretentious, not being manipulative and not being dishonest or stereotypical.  The Spectacular Now treats its lead characters, who happen to be teenagers, exactly as what they are: young adults.  Sutter Keely, played superbly by Miles Teller, is an 18-year old high school senior.  He is young, confident, intelligent and above all, charming.  He is effortlessly the life of any party.  Oh by the way, he is also an alcoholic. 

We meet Sutter as he is filling out his college application form and reflecting on his life.  His girlfriend has recently broken up wiith him and he is out drinking.  He ends up passed out on a front lawn and is found by Amy Finecky who is out on a paper route.  Amy is his classmate but Sutter has not been aware of her existence so far.  As he accompanies Aimee on the rest of her route, an interesting relationship begins. 

Aimee is a bright and ambitious wallflower who is beyond happy to be noticed by someone like Sutter.  Sutter sees Aimee as a platonic “project” at first but cannot help himself being romantically drawn to her.  There is a spontaneous and unexpected compatibility in their relationship.  They challenge each other to achieve greater heights not because they are blinded by love but because each sees the spark and potential in the other.  They both come from broken incomplete homes but approach life differently.  Aimee is hopeful about the future and is willing to work hard to get to a better place.  Sutter lives in the moment, the now, not willing to let a good time pass him by.

Sutter’s relationship with his mother is tense and he looks up to his perception of his father who has been absent for most of his life.  After meeting Aimee, Sutter happens to find out his father’s whereabouts and they set out on a road trip to visit him.  The encounter marks a significant turn not only in Sutter’s coming of age but also in his relationship with Aimee.  The script does a terrific job of depicting the growth of both characters in a real, believable manner.  It allows for their flaws without affecting the likeability of the two leads.  Neustader and Weber prove that (500) Days of Summer was not a fluke.

The two leads are perfectly cast.  Miles Teller shines as Sutter, making a character with serious flaws extremely likeable.  This is crucial to the success of the film as it is narrated from Sutter’s perspective.  Teller reminds me a little bit of John Cusack from Say Anything.  Shailene Woodley is very credible as the girl-next-door who blossoms into a beautiful and assertive young lady.  This is not the case of your typical rom-com makeovers where the ugly duckling turns into a beautiful swan.  The physical changes are subtle but transformation is more in her demeanor as she discovers her confidence and strength.

Director James Ponsoldt does a fine job of keeping the focus on his two leads and not letting the film meander.  The secondary characters in the script are portrayed with enough care to make them believable as well as add color to the lead character's personality.  Sutter’s ex-girlfriend, her new beau, Sutter’s family (sister and parents) as well as his boss who owns the shop where he works: all these characters are well, if not fully, drawn and don’t fit the stereotypical mold of this genre.  His ex-girfriend's character would be made into a caricature in most other rom-coms but here she provides another perspective on Sutter which is reasonable.  The following example of an exchange between Sutter and his boss, Dan, reveals a lot about both in a just couple of lines:

Dan:   If I was your father, this is where i might give you a lecture or something, you know, about what you're doing to yourself.
Sutter:   You know what Dan, if you were my Dad, you wouldn't have to.
 

The final half hour or so of the film clearly moves away from a lighter mood to a definitely darker tone.  But that is remaining honest to the evolution of the lead characters' lives rather than sugar coating it.  Some might say that the ending is perhaps a little "Hollywood" but it provides hope for the characters that we have become fond of.  Also it might be the end of a chapter rather than the whole story so I don't consider it a cop-out.  This is clearly one of the better young-adult films out there and well worth your time. 

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

PET PEEVES






stick·ler
/ˈstik(ə)lər/
noun
a person who insists on a certain quality or type of behavior.  "a stickler for accuracy"

I suppose I belong to a thinning, if not dying, breed.  For some reason, I have always been drawn to grammatical inaccuracies and can't shake off this urge to reach out and fix these errors.  Be it a small yet misplaced apostrophe in a supermarket sign (viz. Potato's) or a glaring mistake on a huge billboard (viz. Got milk?), it tends to pop out of the background and stare at me.  I have even found a misuse in a printed book with over a million copies sold.  As a means of catharsis, I have decided to list some of the major ones that have scarred my inner self and continue to lash out in this digital age as grammar loses even more ground with the next generation.

Lay vs. Lie

A few years ago, a friend of mine had made the following announcement on a social media site which, as a stickler, made me chuckle.
"Enjoying Easter Sunday laying on the beach in Avalon. This is a perfect moment!"

The improper use of lay was even more pronounced in the context of Easter as it makes one think of eggs.   I am sure that my friend had a great time "lying" on the beach but laying (which implies working) would perhaps not be that deserving of a proclamation.

This misuse of lay is widely prevalent and to some extent is understandable.  The trouble lies (pun intended) with the two meanings of lie, one being repose or resting flat while the other meaning of not telling the truth.  The second meaning has obvious negative connotations and causes people to avoid using it in a context where they are not being untruthful.  This is further complicated because "lying" as an adjective implies not telling the truth e.g. "that lying criminal", but as a verb it can mean resting flat as well as not telling the truth.  This double meaning has confused people and as a result, driven the misuse of "lay" in its place.  I cannot tell you how many times I have cringed as my mother in law repeatedly instructed her dog to "lay down".  (A helpful rule of thumb to remember is that "lay" is the past tense of "lie".  This helps with the correct usage.)

It hasn't helped that some of the misuses have crept into popular culture via songs such as Bob Dylan's "Lay Lady Lay" (a personal favorite; damn you, Dylan!) and Eric Clapton's "Lay Down Sally".  I wonder how they would have worked with "Lie Lady Lie" and "Lie Down Sally".

Couldn't care less

This is one of the more common misused phrases out there.  You will hear the following quite often: "I could care less if ... ".  I have heard this from colleagues, friends, people in cafes, radio hosts, etc.  The intent here is to express a total lack of interest in someone or something.  But when one says "I could care less", it raises the obvious question: why don't you care less?  By saying "I couldn't care less" one is implying that the topic is at the bottom of one's priority list and then the phrase carries some weight.

Unfortunately in today's fast-paced world, people do not pause to think through the words they have uttered and this misuse continues to be thrown around loosely.  In the digital age of texting, the correct usage is made even more difficult because you have to use the dreaded apostrophe (which is not always on the virtual keyboard screen).  Hopefully there will always be some sticklers out there who will preserve the correct usage.

Momentarily

Here is an example of a misused word being accepted as an alternative in the dictionary.  Almost every flight I have taken has had an announcement stating, "...we will be landing momentarily..." to let us know that we will be landing in a few minutes.  The original meaning of the word is "for a moment or brief period" but over the years, the wide use of the same word to imply "in a moment" has led to the inclusion of this second meaning in the dictionary.  In American English, the word is used more often to imply "in a moment".  However, in British English, it is predominantly used to imply "for a moment".  Obviously, this has led to many Brits panicking when they hear the landing announcement on a US flight!

I prefer to use the dual meaning to my advantage and often respond to requests with a sly response, "I will address it momentarily."

Your vs. you're

A while back, I received from someone I reported to an email which read as follows:
"Your going to love this!"
This predates email availability on mobile devices so I knew that it was typed on a conventional keyboard with no auto-correction feature included.  It was also not the first time I had seen such usage from that person.  Unfortunately I had to choose between laziness and ignorance on the person's part, neither of which was encouraging.

In this day and age, this misuse is so rampant that it is at risk of being accepted as the norm.  I understand that there is extra effort required in finding the apostrophe key on the virtual keyboard but one can always skip the contraction and just use "you are".  Are we really getting so lazy that we cannot be bothered with typing in an extra keystroke?  In my mind it is pretty simple: if one is trying to say "you are" then it can be contracted to "you're" but otherwise there is no need to use it elsewhere.

Its vs. it's

This is another one that causes confusion for some people but is very similar to the logic applied above.  If one is trying to say "it is" or "it has" then this can be contracted to "it's" but otherwise leave "its" be.
"It's been a very rough winter in Philadelphia, most snowy in its history."

The dreaded apostrophe s

How often have you come across something similar to the examples below?

Signs for sale such as "Potato's 80 cents/lb" or "DVD's for sale"
Memos addressed as "To: VP's and GM's"
Signs in public spaces such as "Taxi's & Buses"

The use of an apostrophe to denote a plural sense has been so widespread that it is generally accepted as appropriate.  Partly this is more prevalent due to some older style books that recommended using an apostrophe to pluralize abbreviations.  However this is no longer the case and style books over the past 50 years or so have clarified this.  The use of an apostrophe is to indicate possession (e.g. John's car) or a contraction (e.g. You're correct.) but not to indicate a plural sense.  There is a link to some funny but useful grammar posters at the end of this post which has a pretty concise one for apostrophes.

And if you are feeling a little protective about the much abused apostrophe, here is a forum for you: Apostrophe Protection Society.

Between you and I 

This is perhaps one of the most common infractions in today's communication.  Somehow it has become a sign of sophistication to include "I" instead of "me" in one's sentences, regardless of the usage being incorrect.  I am sure that it stems from a recognition of the early misuse of "me" in place of "I" such as the response to "Who is it?" generally being "It's me."  Once grammar teachers started chiding students for the misuse and correcting them with the proper response of "It is I," people have started to consider all usages of "me" as incorrect and have adopted the usage of "I" as a permanent replacement.  What's unique about this violation is that it is more prevalent amongst the upper ranks of today's workforce.  You will find this misuse more in the management level and amongst the C-suite (CEO, CFO, etc.) inhabitants. 

It is helpful to remember that "I" is a subject while "me" is an object. This means that  when one uses a preposition (like with or from or between) it must be followed by an object pronoun like me or him. 

Another way to check is by taking a sentence and deconstructing it (meaning breaking it into multiple simple sentences) to see if it makes sense.  Consider these two examples:

Sentence: "He and I went to the park."
Deconstruction: "He went to the park." and "I went to the park."
Sentence: "John went to the market with Jane and me."
Deconstruction: "John went to the market with Jane." and "John went to the market with me."

Try the second sentence with "Jane and I" and you will see how it doesn't make sense.  At the end of the day, just let go of the fear of using "me" and include it in your language as you see fit.

Why pay attention to these?  

One is quite aware of the old adage about substance over style in one's message.  However, it is important to keep in mind that form enhances function and sometimes improper form can lead to misinterpretation of the message.  The focus of style is to keep the sentence elegant and free of ambiguity.

Much as I accept that the spoken language is a constantly evolving element, I would like to preserve the original intent behind some of the language.  It is said that 15 to 20 years of an incorrect usage can lead to inclusion in common parlance and dictionaries.  While it is our responsibility to enhance and develop the tools of communication, I believe we also carry some obligation to maintain and preserve the original language.

[While we are on this topic, there are several other misuses that come to mind but I am not aiming at creating an exhaustive list.  I have also noticed confusion on the following ones:

Further vs. farther (farther is used to indicate physical distance)
affect vs. effect (verb vs. noun)
advice vs. advise (verb vs. noun)
principle vs principal (principal is main, think school principal)
bad vs. badly (especially when used with "feel")

You will have your own pet peeves that may or may not include the ones that bug me.]

Some Resources:
eLearnEnglishLanguage.com
Grammar Girl
Grammar pack posters - http://shop.theoatmeal.com/collections/frontpage/products/grammar-pack

Friday, February 21, 2014

BEFORE MIDNIGHT

Before_Midnight

Director: RICHARD LINKLATER

Cast: ETHAN HAWKE, JULIE DELPY

Screenplay: RICHARD LINKLATER, ETHAN HAWKE & JULIE DELPY

Music: GRAHAM REYNOLDS

Run Time: 109 min.

(2013)



Boy met girl.  (Eighteen years ago)

What started out as an experimental stand-alone film has now turned into a trilogy (and hopefully more).  We first met Celine and Jesse on their promising first date in Vienna (Before Sunrise) and then revisited the duo nine years later in Paris (Before Sunset).  It has since been another nine years.  But this time, unlike the past interval, they have spent the last nine years together instead of apart.  The couple now lives in Paris,  has twin daughters and is on a Greek island vacationing at a friend's place.  Jesse is an established writer who has been invited by an older author to visit the southern Peloponnese island.  Celine continues to work as an activist but is considering a new position.

The film begins with Jesse and Celine taking Jesse’s 14 –year old son, Hank, to the airport as he returns to the US where he lives with his mother.  Jesse is worried about not being an active presence in Hank’s life and might regret missing out on moments that can never be recreated.  Hank comes across as a smart and well-balanced teenage who is well-adjusted to his circumstances.  They function as a single, unified family unit which is manifested by Celine’s comment about Hank’s departure: “It’s like we are sending him across enemy lines.”  Jesse begins to question whether he should try to be closer to Chicago to spend more time with Hank. 

The second act offers a first for the series: Jesse and Celine interacting with other characters in a meaningful manner.  There are other interesting personalities that have been invited to the island and we are privy to a dinner setting with this endearing group.  The dinner sequence and conversation is a rich piece of cinema.  It isn't that the conversation is profound but it is so lively, engaging and warm that one wants to be a part of it. This segment offers a delightful confluence of some very interesting ideas as the authors discuss story premises and their experiences.  In all honesty, this segment does little to further the narrative but provides the lead characters a broader canvas to express themselves.

The third and final chapter is more reminiscent of the previous two films albeit much darker and heavier in tone.  Jesse and Celine have been gifted a night's stay in one of the hotels on the island.  They take a walk to the hotel through the town and begin a conversation about their relationship.  This is not a newly-wed couple or early-in-the-relationship lovers being flirtatious or tender with each other.  This is a seasoned couple comfortable with pulling no punches and being emotionally honest.  The discussion continues once they check in and get to their room.  The scene in the room is the cornerstone of the film as their conversation takes a turn for the worse and turns into a fight. The beauty of this scene is that the way the argument begins and turns into a fight (and ends) is so natural and realistic that we can identify with it completely.  Most married (or long-term) partners have lived through this fight and will admit that it is very difficult to pinpoint when the fight started.

The two leads have established their chemistry in the previous films and have grown into their roles, with clear input on the script which was developed in a workshop style.  Delpy has aged a little since the last outing but retains her radiance.  Hawke on the other hand appears to be showing the passage of time on his face a little bit more obviously.  However Hawke's Jesse seems have a better grasp on his convictions and perspective after 18 years.  Linklater provides insights into the characters via casual introspection.  For example, Jesse muses about the time when he called his dad upon his grandmother’s death and blurted out: “Hey Dad, you’re an orphan now!”.  He admits that it was not what he meant to say at the time but it reveals a bit about his personality and mindset.

The third installment does not mark the beginning of the end but is more of a testament to the maturity of the relationship.  This comes with a tinge of bitterness along with all the good that accompanies it.  The first film was about romantic beginnings and the sequel was about second chances.  This one is about reality, both good and not-so-good.  We happen to catch Jesse and Celine on a night when they have a fight but that does not define their relationship just as their previous encounters did not guarantee a fairytale lifetime.  One of Jesse's comments sums it up nicely: "But if you want true love, then this is it. This is real life. It's not perfect, but it's real."

It would have been easy to create a romanticized coda and tie the trilogy in a nice bow.  But Linklater is not one to cheat either himself, the characters or the audience.  He is bold enough to present "happily ever after" for what it is in life: a fantasy.  Which is why we hope that he and his collaborators will endeavor to provide at least one more glimpse into Jesse and Celine's life a few years down the road.



Monday, January 6, 2014

BEFORE SUNSET







Director: RICHARD LINKLATER

Cast: ETHAN HAWKE, JULIE DELPY

Screenplay: RICHARD LINKLATER, ETHAN HAWKE & JULIE DELPY

Music: FRED FRITH

Run Time: 80 min.

(2004)


Boy meets girl, again.  Nine years later.

It is not often that one gets a chance to revisit likeable characters from a film which is not an obvious candidate for a sequel.  Before Sunrise presented us with Celine and Jesse, a pair of smart twenty-somethings that made an impression on the audiences.  The movie was a moderate success on the big screen but not enough to motivate a sequel for monetary gains.  The former was almost an experiment trying to break from the conventional mold of romantic films.  It follows an American boy and a French girl through the streets of Vienna on the night they first meet.  They part ways at the end with a promise to meet after 6 months in the same place.

Before Sunset places us about nine years into the future from that point; this time in Paris.  On a summer afternoon, Jesse is promoting a book he has written about the fateful night in Vienna.  As he is discussing the book and taking questions at a famous literary landmark (Shakespeare and Company) in Paris, he notices a familiar face in the back.  It is Celine who read about his appearance and came by to meet him.  He has a flight to catch in a couple of hours and the movie slips into real time as the two try to catch up on the past decade of their lives. 

Jesse is in a failing marriage and has a young son to whom he wants to provide a role model.  Celine is an idealistic activist working for a cause she believes in but appears to be a bit jaded.  The conversation begins with a bit of expected awkwardness but they quickly settle into a smooth flow, quietly reiterating the compatibility they share.  There are the obvious questions that need to be answered: what happened in Vienna 6 months after they parted?  Did one of them not show up?  And why?  All of these are addressed rather promptly so that the narrative can move forward rather than pursue a conventional climax.

It is evident that the meeting in Vienna never took place but that night certainly left a mark on both of them.  In his case, Jesse has written a novel about it which makes it obvious.  In her case, the impact is revealed in a song she has written and chooses to play for him later.  The conversation, while engaging, is not the key focus as in the earlier film.  Here, Linklater achieves something more refined.  He captures the way they converse more intimately than before.  It is a delight to observe the two characters (and actors) playing with what they choose to reveal to (and conceal from) each other.  The audience gets to notice gestures by one character when the other is looking away.  Being in one of the best cities in the world to walk about and have a coffee, certainly adds to the atmosphere of the film on a lovely summer afternoon.

The script flows quite smoothly and Linklater has involved Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy in writing the script.  It is a nod to the ownership that these actors have shown towards these characters.  Some of the lines must have been ad libbed and the conversations certainly reflect their personal experiences as they emote on screen.  In fact, the concept is laid out in the opening scene as Jesse explains his writing process.  Clearly the film succeeds on the strength of its two leads.  Jesse offers one of my favorite lines as he describes his failing marriage: “I feel like I'm running a small nursery with someone I used to date.”  It is quite a telling line.  Not to be left behind, Celine offers a gem at a later point: “Memory is a wonderful thing if you don't have to deal with the past.”

Linklater builds up the meeting to a fitting cliffhanger of a climax which leaves one wanting to hang out with these two for just a little bit longer.  Linklater’s experiment certainly pays off.

Download this: “Just in Time” by Nina Simone