Film Review: The Avengers: Age of Ultron (dir by Joss Whedon)


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In some ways, I think I may be both the worst and the best possible person to review the latest installment of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, largely because I’ve seen all the films but I don’t know much about the comics on which they are based. As a result, I can judge each film solely by what is on screen but, at the same time, I know that there are a lot of references that go straight over my head. For instance, when we saw Avengers: Age of Ultron earlier tonight, I had to get my boyfriend to explain to me why certain members of the audience got so excited when Iron Man mentioned an African country called Wakanda. But what’s important is that I would have still enjoyed Age of Ultron even if I had never known why Wakanda was important. The MCU has, so far, managed to maintain a balance between keeping the Marvel fans happy while also remaining accessible to viewers like me. The MCU has created its own separate reality, one that even someone like me can feel comfortable exploring and reviewing.

However, before I get around to giving you my feelings on Age of Ultron, let’s be honest about something.

There are a lot of critics out there who have been waiting for a chance to attack the latest installment of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Some of them have disliked the MCU since the very first Iron Man film. They have been lone voices in the wilderness, arguing that the entire franchise is overrated and, in some cases, creatively destructive. Much like the Old Testament prophets, they continue to warn of the future while other filmgoers ignore the pillar of fire forming over the nearest theater. And then there are other critics who have praised previous MCU efforts but have never really been comfortable about it. These are the critics who resent having to write positively about a mere genre film. These are the critics who still haven’t gotten over just how good Guardians of the Galaxy truly was. They have been waiting for an MCU misfire so that they can do their penance for suggesting that Robert Downey, Jr. deserved Oscar consideration for Iron Man 3.

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These critics are going to watch The Avengers: Age of Ultron and they are going to pounce. They are going to point out that Age of Ultron puts too much emphasis on action over nuance and, as impressive as the CGI may be, it’s impossible to deny that Age of Ultron almost robotically follows the classic action movie formula. They’ll point out that none of The Avengers really develop as characters over the course of the film. Depending on how they’ve felt about the MCU up to this point, some of them will point out that Age of Ultron feels a bit like a step backwards. It doesn’t have the political subtext of Iron Man 3 or Captain America: The Winter Soldier. It lacks the satiric edge of Guardians of the Galaxy. And, ultimately, it’s just not as much fun as the first Avengers film.

And they won’t necessarily be wrong. I mean, let’s be honest. I write this as someone who has enjoyed (and, in some cases, loved) the previous MCU films. Avengers: Age of Ultron is not going to be remembered as one of the best of the MCU films. This is a flawed film that never reaches the heights of the original Avengers. All of the criticisms listed above are perfectly valid.

But, with all that in mind, I still enjoyed Avengers: Age of Ultron and I happily recommend it without a bit of hesitation.

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Age of Ultron opens with the Avengers attacking a HYDRA base and we quickly discover that the Avengers are exactly the same as we remembered them. Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.) is cocky, self-destructive, and torn by guilt over his past as a weapons manufacturer. Captain America (Chris Evans) is earnest and idealistic. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is … well, he’s a God. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) is scared of what he becomes when he transforms into the Hulk. Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner) is still shooting arrows and feeling out-of-place. Natasha (Scarlett Johansson) is still flirty, enigmatic, and apparently in love with Bruce Banner.

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One of the reoccurring themes of the MCU is that whenever Iron Man tries to make the world a better place, he instead ends up nearly destroying it. His latest attempt leads him to create Ultron (voiced quite chillingly by James Spader), a robot who has Tony’s personality and who has decided that the only way to bring about “peace in our time” is to destroy all of humanity. Ultron’s motives are as close as this film gets to any sort of thematic subtext. Ultron stands in for every ideology that would take away a person’s individual freedom in the name of the greater good. Age of Ultron doesn’t explore this subtext as much as I would have liked it to but, at the same time, I appreciated that it was at least there. That’s more than you can say for a film like Man of Steel.

Ultron is not the only new character to show up. Andy Serkis has a small role as a character that will undoubtedly be a villain in a future MCU film. After voicing JARVIS in several films, Paul Bettany finally gets to actually appear onscreen. I can’t talk too much about his character without spoiling the film but Bettany makes good use of his limited screen time.

And then there’s Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen. Previously, they played lovers in Godzilla. In Age of Ultron, they play siblings who just seem like lovers. Taylor-Johnson is Pietro, who can move at super speeds. Elizabeth Olsen is Wanda, whose powers are a bit less defined but mostly seem to consist of being able to do whatever the script needs her to do at the time. (As the film explains it, “He’s fast, she’s strange.”) In the past, I’ve had mixed feeling about Taylor-Johnson. I thought he was brilliant in Nowhere Boy and Anna Karenina but, in other films, I found him to be excessively mannered and a little dull. But, in the role of Pietro, Taylor-Johnson really shines, achieving a good balance of arrogance and vulnerability. As for Elizabeth Olsen, she is perfectly cast as the angry but sensitive Wanda. At the very least, Age of Ultron better serves both of them than they were served by Godzilla.

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(Add to that, Wanda and I share similar tastes in fashion, which will make it easy for me to dress up as her for Halloween.)

Director Joss Whedon does a good job with the film’s many battle scenes, especially the final one. And, as someone who hated the mindless destruction of Man of Steel, I appreciated that, as characters, the Avengers spent as much time trying to protect innocent bystanders as they did battling Ultron and his henchrobots. At the same time, it was hard not to feel that the film’s emphasis on action did sacrifice some of the character moments that have made other MCU films so memorable. Early on in the film, there’s a great scene where the Avengers simply hang out at a party. They dance, they dink, they laugh, and eventually, they all take turns attempting to pick up Thor’s hammer. It’s a fun scene because it brings these heroes back down to Earth and, for a few minutes, we get to relate to them in the way that we would relate to our best friends. Age of Ultron could have used more scenes like that.

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That said, the cast of Age of Ultron provides enough old fashioned movie star charisma that they overcome the script’s shallow characterization. In many ways, it’s like one of the old Frank Sinatra rat pack movies, where you forgive a lot because you enjoy hanging out with the cast. They’re just fun to watch. Robert Downey, Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, and Mark Ruffalo; at this point they are so identified with these characters that the actors and their roles might as well be interchangeable.

(And, at this point, if it were revealed the Robert Downey, Jr. owned a suit of armor, would you really be surprised?)

Ultimately, Age of Ultron feels a lot like one of the less acclaimed James Bond films. It’s flawed, it’s imperfect, but fans of the franchise will find a lot to enjoy. Much as you wouldn’t introduce someone to James Bond by showing him Moonraker, you probably wouldn’t want to introduce someone to the MCU by showing him or her Age of Ultron. If, somehow, you’ve managed to exist without ever seeing any other MCU films, then Age of Ultron will leave you confused and wondering what the big deal is. But, if you’re already a fan of the franchise, you’ll find a lot to enjoy here.

And, flaws and all, you’ll walk out of the theater looking forward to the next installment.

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What If Lisa Marie Picked The Oscar Nominees…


With the Oscar nominations due to be announced this week, now is the time that the Shattered Lens indulges in a little something called, “What if Lisa had all the power.” Listed below are my personal Oscar nominations.  Please note that these are not the films that I necessarily think will be nominated.  The fact of the matter is that the many of them will not.  Instead, these are the films that would be nominated if I was solely responsible for deciding the nominees this year.  Winners are listed in bold.

You can check out my picks for 2010 by clicking here.

My picks for 2011 can be found here.

And, finally, here are my picks for 2012.

Best Picture

Best Picture

12 Years A Slave

American Hustle

Before Midnight

Blue Is The Warmest Color

Frances Ha

Fruitvale Station

Her

Inside Llewyn Davis

Spring Breakers

Upstream Color

Shane+Carruth+Upstream+Color+Portraits+2013+DRHrpQS3Qacx

Best Director

Noah Baumbach for Frances Ha

Shane Carruth for Upstream Color

Spike Jonze for Her

Harmony Korine for Spring Breakers

David O. Russell for American Hustle

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Best Actor

Bruce Dern in Nebraska

Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf Of Wall Street

Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club

Joaquin Phoenix in Her

Dennis Quaid in At Any Price

This-one-is-good

Best Actress

Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine

Julie Delpy in Before Midnight

Adèle Exarchopoulos in Blue Is The Warmest Color

Greta Gerwig in Frances Ha

Amy Seimetz in Upstream Color

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Best Supporting Actor

Barkhad Abdi in Captain Phillips

Kyle Chandler in The Spectacular Now

Bradley Cooper in American Hustle

James Franco in Spring Breakers

Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers Club

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Best Supporting Actress

Jennifer Lawrence in American Hustle

Eva Mendes in The Place Beyond The Pines

Lupita Nyong’o in 12 Years A Slave

Léa Seydoux in Blue Is The Warmest Color

Octavia Spencer in Fruitvale Station

Her

Best Original Screenplay

American Hustle

Blue Jasmine

Her

Inside Llewyn Davis

Upstream Color

Before-Midnight

Best Adapted Screenplay

12 Years A Slave

Before Midnight

Blue Is The Warmest Color

The Spectacular Now

The Wolf of Wall Street

November 1st, 2013 @ 20:49:52

Best Animated Feature

The Croods

Despicable Me 2

Ernest and Celestine

Frozen

Monsters University

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Best Documentary Feature

20 Feet From Stardom

The Armstrong Lie

Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer

Stories We Tell

Tim’s Vermeer

Blue-is-the-Warmest-Color

Best Foreign Language Film

(Please note that I do things differently for this category than the Academy.   For this award, I am nominating the best foreign language films to be released in the United States in 2013.)

Beyond the Hills

Blue Is The Warmest Color

No

Renoir

White Elephant

The Great Gatsby1

Best Production Design

12 Years A Slave

Gravity

The Great Gatsby

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Oz: The Great and Powerful

Spring Breakers

Best Cinematography

Frances Ha

Inside Llewyn Davis

Nebraska

Spring Breakers

Upstream Color

American Hustle

Best Costume Design

12 Years A Slave

American Hustle

The Copperhead

The Great Gatsby

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Upstream Color

Best Film Editing

12 Years A Slave

American Hustle

Gravity

Her

Upstream Color

American Hustle 2

Best Makeup and Hairstyling

12 Years A Slave

American Hustle

Dallas Buyers Club

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Warm Bodies

Maniac

Best Original Score

Gravity

Her

Maniac

Trance

Upstream Color

The Great Gatsby2

Best Original Song

“Let it Go” from Frozen

“A Little Party Never Killed Nobody (All We Got)” from The Great Gatsby

“Young and Beautiful” from The Great Gatsby

“The Moon Song” from Her

“I See Fire” from The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

“Atlas” from The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

“Please Mr. Kennedy” from Inside Llewyn Davis

“So You Know What It’s Like” from Short Term 12

“Becomes The Color” from Stoker

“Here It Comes” from Trance

Iron Man 3

Best Sound Editing

All Is Lost

Iron Man 3

Pacific Rim

Rush

Upstream Color

Pacific Rim

Best Sound Mixing

All Is Lost

Iron Man 3

Pacific Rim

Rush

Upstream Color

Gravity

Best Visual Effects

Gravity

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Iron Man 3

Oz: The Great and Powerful

Pacific Rim

List of Films By Number of Nominations:

9 Nominations — Upstream Color

8 Nominations — American Hustle

7 Nominations — 12 Years A Slave, Her

5 Nominations — Blue Is The Warmest Color

4 Nominations — Frances Ha, Gravity, The Great Gatsby, Inside Llewyn Davis, Spring Breakers

3 Nominations — Before Midnight, Dallas Buyers Club, Iron Man 3, Pacific Rim

2 Nominations — All Is Lost, Blue Jasmine, Frozen, Fruitvale Station, Nebraska, Oz The Great and Powerful, Rush, The Spectacular Now, Trance, The Wolf of Wall Street

1 Nominations — 20 Feet From Stardom, The Armstrong Lie, At Any Price, Beyond The Hills, Captain Phillips, The Copperhead, The Counselor, The Croods, Despicable Me 2, Ernest and Celestine, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Maniac, Monsters University, No, The Place Beyond The Pines, Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer, Renoir, Short Term 12, Stoker, Stories We Tell, Tim’s Vermeer, Warm Bodies, White Elephant

List of Films By Number of Oscars Won

3 Oscars — American Hustle, Upstream Color

2 Oscars — The Great Gatsby

1 Oscar — Before Midnight, Blue is The Warmest Color, Frances Ha, Frozen, Gravity, Her, Iron Man 3, Maniac, Pacific Rim, The Spectacular Now, Spring Breakers, Stories We Tell, The Wolf of Wall Street

The Los Angeles Film Critics Honor James Franco!


Earlier today, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association announced the picks for the best of 2013.  There are a few things worth noting:

1) Her is coming on surprisingly strong.

2) James Franco won best supporting actor for Spring Breakers!  Well, technically, Franco tied with Jared Leto for Dallas Buyers Club.  But still, it’s good to see Franco’s audacious performance getting some recognition.

3) My favorite film of 2013 — Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color — came in second for best editing.

Here are the winners:

BEST PICTURE (tie)
“Gravity,” “Her”

BEST DIRECTOR
Alfonso Cuaron, “Gravity”
Runner-up: Spike Jonze, “Her”

BEST ACTOR
Bruce Dern, “Nebraska”
Runner-up: Chiwetel Ejiofor, “12 Years a Slave”

BEST ACTRESS (tie)
Cate Blanchett (“Blue Jasmine”); Adele Exarchopoulos (“Blue is the Warmest Color”)

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR (tie)
James Franco, “Spring Breakers”; Jared Leto, “Dallas Buyers Club”

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Lupita Nyongo, “12 Years a Slave”
Runner-up: June Squibb, “Nebraska”

BEST SCREENPLAY
“Before Midnight,” Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke & Richard Linklater
Runner-up: “Her,” Spike Jonze

BEST EDITING
“Gravity,” Alfonso Cuaron & Mark Sanger
Runner-up: “Upstream Color,” Shane Carruth & David Lowery

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY
“Gravity,” Emmanuel Lubezki
Runner-up: “Inside Llewyn Davis,” Bruno Delbonnel

BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN
“Her,” K.K. Barrett
Runner-up: “Inside Llewyn Davis,” Jess Gonchor

BEST MUSIC/SCORE
“Inside Llewyn Davis,” T Bone Burnett
Runner-up: “Her,” Arcade Fire & Owen Pallett

BEST FOREIGN-LANGUAGE FILM
“Blue is the Warmest Color”
Runner-up: “The Great Beauty”

BEST ANIMATED FEATURE
“Ernest and Celestine”
Runner-up: “The Wind Rises”

BEST DOCUMENTARY/NONFICTION FILM
“Stories We Tell”
Runner-up: “The Act of Killing”

It’s The 2014 Independent Spirit Nominations!


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The nominees for the 2014 Independent Spirit Awards were announced earlier today.  While the Spirit noms aren’t exactly the most accurate of Oscar precursors (and the rules of Indie Spirit Awards are pretty much specifically designed to honor the type of low-budget films that are often ignored by the Academy), more than a few of the Spirit nominees are usually remembered when the Oscar nominations are announced.

The winners will be announced, by Patton Oswalt, on March 1st.

Myself, I’m just happy to see Frances Ha and Upstream Color’s Shane Carruth nominated.

Best Feature:
“12 Years a Slave”
“All Is Lost”
“Frances Ha”
“Inside Llewyn Davis”
“Nebraska”

Best Director:
Shane Carruth, “Upstream Color”
J.C. Chandor, “All is Lost”
Steve McQueen, “12 Years a Slave”
Jeff Nichols, “Mud”
Alexander Payne, “Nebraska”

Best Screenplay:
Woody Allen, “Blue Jasmine”
Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke and Richard Linklater, “Before Midnight”
Nicole Holofcener, “Enough Said”
Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber, “The Spectacular Now”
John Ridley, “12 Years a Slave”

Best Female Lead:
Cate Blanchett, “Blue Jasmine”
Julie Delpy, “Before Midnight”
Gaby Hoffman, “Crystal Fairy”
Brie Larson, “Short Term 12″
Shailene Woodley, “The Spectacular Now”

Best Male Lead:
Bruce Dern, “Nebraska”
Chiwetel Ejiofor, “12 Years a Slave”
Oscar Isaac, “Inside Llewyn Davis”
Michael B. Jordan, “Fruitvale Station”
Matthew McConaughey, “Dallas Buyers Club”
Robert Redford, “All Is Lost”

Best Supporting Female:
Melonie Diaz, “Fruitvale Station”
Sally Hawkins, “Blue Jasmine”
Lupita Nyong’o, “12 Years a Slave”
Yolonda Ross, “Go for Sisters”
June Squibb, “Nebraska”

Best Supporting Male:
Michael Fassbender, “12 Years a Slave”
Will Forte, “Nebraska”
James Gandolfini, “Enough Said”
Jared Leto, “Dallas Buyers Club”
Keith Stanfield, “Short Term 12”

Best First Feature:
“Blue Caprice”
“Concussion”
“Fruitvale Station”
“Una Noche”
“Wadjda”

Best First Screenplay:
“In a World,” Lake Bell
“Don Jon,” Joseph Gordon-Levitt
“Nebraska,” Bob Nelson
“Afternoon Delight,” Jill Soloway
“The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete,” Michael Starrbury

John Cassavetes Award:
“Computer Chess”
“Crystal Fairy”
“Museum Hours”
“Pit Stop”
“This Is Martin Bonner”

Best Cinematography:
Sean Bobbit, “12 Years a Slave”
Benoit Debie, “Spring Breakers”
Bruno Delbonnel, “Inside Llewyn Davis”
Frank G. DeMarco, “All Is Lost”
Matthias Grunsky, “Computer Chess”

Best Editing:
Shane Carruth & David Lowery, “Upstream Color”
Jem Cohen & Marc Vives, “Museum Hours”
Jennifer Lame, “Frances Ha”
Cindy Lee, “Una Noche”
Nat Sanders, “Short Term 12”

Best Documentary:
“20 Feet From Stardom”
“After Tiller”
“Gideon’s Army”
“The Act of Killing”
“The Square”

Best International Film:
“A Touch of Sin”
“Blue Is the Warmest Color”
“Gloria”
“The Great Beauty”
“The Hunt”

Robert Altman Award (given to a film’s director, casting director and ensemble cast)
“Mud”

Piaget Producers Award:
Toby Halbrooks & James M. Johnston
Jacob Jaffke
Andrea Roa
Frederick Thornton

Someone to Watch Award:
“My Sister’s Quinceanera,” Aaron Douglas Johnston
“Newlyweeds,” Shake King
“The Foxy Merkins,” Madeline Olnek

Truer Than Fiction Award:
“A River Changes Course,” Kalvanee Mam
“Let the Fire Burn,” Jason Osder
“Manakamana,” Stephanie Spray & Pacho Velez

Before You See Anything Else — “Before Midnight”


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So, this is it. You can keep your Man Of Steels, your Iron Man 3s, your Star Trek : Into Darknesses, and your Pacific Rims — fun popcorn fare some of those may be, but for me summer 2013 at the movies is all about the third installment in Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke, and Julie Delpy’s long-running cinematic romance, Before Midnight. I won’t rehash the details of how and why this unlikeliest of indie “franchises” has meant so much to this armchair critic on a personal level over the years — hell, over the decades now! — as my reviews of Before Sunrise and Before Sunset last week covered that ground pretty damn thoroughly already, suffice to say that the chance to see Jesse and Celine living happily ever after is, at the risk of sounding hopelessly corny, a little bit of a celluloid dream come true for yours truly. And so here it is — and here they are, doing just that.

Or are they? Okay, sure, they’re together — and have been, apparently, since the conclusion of Before Sunset nine years ago. They’ve got twin daughters, successful careers (Jesse as a novelist and English professor, Celine as an environmental activist) in Paris, and are just winding up spending a magical summer at a writer’s retreat in the Greek Islands. Sounds ideal, right?

But all is not, of course, well in paradise — Jesse’s torn about the son he left behind in the US and wants to be a more active part of his life, Celine feels stifled by the apparently-tranquil domesticity of her situation and has no desire to move back to America for Jesse to be near his kid, and both are struggling with the the ever-narrowing possibilities life offers up as we age and our thousands of dreams get whittled down to a more concrete set of responsibilities. The passing years have seen “must do”s replace “want to”s in their lives, and one of the running themes of all of these Before pictures is that of  somehow finding a way for love and passion and the sheer wonder of being with another person who understands and accepts us for who we are to survive amidst all that.

They seem to be doing their best. Their sex life is still refreshingly healthy for a cinematic couple on the cusp of middle age, they still walk and talk like the two young lovebirds who met on the train to Vienna, and they still show a genuine affection for one another that can give all of us some small measure of hope. But half the film is consumed by a fairly heated and wide-ranging argument in a hotel room that lays bare the many fault lines underpinning in their relationship. The only question, it seems, is whether they’ll continue to navigate those together or choose to go their separate ways.

Linklater, Delpy, and Hawke, who collaborated on the screenplay together once again (though it’s still nice to see them share character-creation credits with Linklater’s friend, the late Kim Krizan), strike a very delicate balance here between presenting the “heaviest” material we’ve yet to see in this series with the most lighthearted, comedic  sequences to date, as well, and the end result is a film that’s not just a joy to watch, but to absorb, from its first frame to its last.

My long-standing group of friends I’ve seen all these films with waited until we could all see it together, and over the customary after-movie drinks last night we all agreed on two things — we loved it to pieces, even though it was, in many instances, the most difficult of  the bunch to take in; and we couldn’t wait to see it again. It’s just a bit too early to figure out where we’d rank this is the entire — uhhmmmm — “pantheon,” I guess, after only one viewing, ya see.

Now, if you’ll indulge me, I’d like to unceremoniously transition into a personal plea here — rumors are swirling that this might be the final Before of the bunch, and if that’s the case, I think it’s well past time for Oscar to show it a little respect. Yes, this series enjoys a deeply passionate and committed following, but it sure would be nice if Hollywood’s establishment paid some attention to this evolving little piece of wonderment that’s been happening under their noses for nearly two decades. Hawke and Delpy have both affected subtle body-language shifts over the years to delineate their characters’ evolving personalities (he walks with more swagger than ever, for instance, while she exudes an air of peace-that’s-looking-for-any-excuse-to-erupt resignation) that perfectly complement their maturation on paper and each is deserving of a Best Actor/Actress in a Leading Role nomination, and if the three collaborators aren’t recognized with a nod for Best Original Screenplay, there seriously ought to be an investigation. Hell, unless something else comes along that completely knocks our collective socks off, there ought to be an investigation if they don’t win it. Let’s get the email, blog, forum, etc. pressure campaign started right here — who’s with me on this?

Before Midnight is the most authentically human picture to come down the pipeline in ages, and traverses a rocky yet rewarding emotional terrain with grace, warmth, and yes, even charm. It shows how love endures when initial , lustful ehuberance ages into a kind of occasionally- resplendent ardor, and how it finds its level and holds us aloft even when we get everything we’ve ever wanted only to find out it’s still not exactly what we were yearning for (humans, we’re so picky). It’s the “happily ever after” we’ve always wanted for Jesse and Celine — and for ourselves — warts and all. And I’m so completely in love with the cinema, and even with life,  again it damn near hurts. If this is, indeed, the end — and I sincerely hope it’s not, I want to grow old with these characters — it couldn’t be more perfectly imperfect, more gloriously flawed, more tragically comedic, more uneasily blissful.

 

Before The New One Comes Out — “Before Sunset”


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When I got back to the US after spending 18 or so months abroad in 2005, Before Sunset had already come and gone from theaters the previous year, and to be honest, my first reaction to it was to be a bit perplexed by the whole idea. “Never saw that one coming,” I thought to myself — but I knew I had to see it. Yeah, as I said last time, I couldn’t really picture any other ending for Jesse and Celine apart from one where they absolutely had to have met up again six months later and lived, as the saying goes, “happily ever after,” but here we were, nine years down the road, with the real (well, okay, not “real” — it is a movie, after all — but you know what I mean) story of what came next. Fortunately for me, my very good (to this day) friend with whom I had seen Before Sunrise had missed this one in the cinemas, as well, so just a few days after getting settled back into my house, with almost no furniture in place, and my TV and DVD player only having been hooked up a matter of hours earlier, we kicked back and did a little marathon viewing session of both films back-to-back.

The first thing I was taken aback by was how much of an emaciated meth-head Ethan Hawke looked like this time around, and Julie Delpy looked to be bordering on “unhealthy thin” status as well, but no matter — for the next hour-and-a-half or so we were back in their lives, and they were back in ours, and even if everything wasn’t gonna be perfect, it was all gonna be good enough.

Which isn’t too bad a summation of Before Sunset as a whole, with one added caveat — “good enough” can be pretty damn beautiful in its own way. Jesse’s an author know, touring Europe to promote his new book, an obviously-autobiographical account of two strangers who meet on a train, spend an evening in Vienna, and fall deeply, passionately, and completely in love. Then never meet again. Or maybe they do. The novel’s ending is deliberately ambiguous.

Sound familiar? Anyway, on the last night of his tour he happens to be giving a reading/signing in Paris, and Celine shows up. They have just enough time, it seems, to grab a cup of coffee before he’s on a plane back home, and the motif of “stolen time” that they should never have had in the first place that runs through the first film is definitely pressed even further this time around, as events unfold very nearly in real time and every minute our two long-separated lovers spend together is one that pushes the envelope of their “real lives” even further out of shape.

I have to be honest — on first viewing this ultra-compressed time frame gave things a very rushed feel that I wasn’t terribly “in to,” but  I’ve subsequently grown to appreciate its utility as a story-telling device more and more. Jesse’s got a wife and son back home, but it’s a sham marriage where they’re both just going through the motions, while Celine, who now does some sort of unspecified work for an environmental organization,  has a boyfriend who works as a photojournalist and is basically gone all the time. She couldn’t make it back to Vienna to meet him all those years ago because her grandmother had just died, while Jesse showed up and couldn’t find her, even going so far as to post missing persons flyers around town in hopes of tracking her down. And that “missed meeting” has informed and shaped the course of their lives every bit as much as the time they actually did meet.

Once again,  Richard Linklater’s superbly subtle eye ensures than the camera is in exactly the right place for maximum dramatic impact with every shot, but giving the proceedings an even more naturalistic flow here is the fact that there’s no Linklater/Karen Krizan script to be read — rather Hawke and Delpy were allowed to “get in character” and create their own dialogue for these people they knew so well. It works like a charm, and the whole thing feels like nothing so much as an expertly-filmed conversation between two old lovers that unfolds as they hurriedly stroll through the streets of Paris. Every second counts. Every word counts. Ever movement and expression counts. Everything counts. Even if it’s delivered with the more practiced nonchalance that most of us acquire as settle into what life is rather than dream about what it could be.

With both characters now in the early 30s, those possibilities of which I speak have narrowed considerably compared to last time around, but I think that’s the whole unfolding theme of this entire series — learning to find a place for dreams, and for love, in a world that whittles away the chances at achieving both as the years go on. A search for beauty and truth and meaning by projecting our hopes and ideals into visions of a world that we wished existed inexorably giving way to a life where we can still, hopefully, search for — and maybe even find — beauty and truth and meaning in a world that already exists.  It’s painfully obvious that both Jesse and Celine have never really “moved on” from their one magical night together, and that they’ve both dreamed of an existence where they were able to meet again ever since. Jesse’s stumbled into a responsible “family man” life simply because he saw it as all that was on offer anymore, and Celine’s carefully walled herself off from real emotional connection with others simply because it all hurts too much when they inevitably leave. Both are hopelessly infatuated with a memory, yet torn apart by it at the same time,  and are  now presented with a very rare opportunity in life — the chance to rekindle that memory, actively, in the present day, and maybe — just maybe — build on it. They both share the unbreakable bond of one moment in time that’s authored every moment since. And now, finally meeting again after all these years, wouldn’t ya know it — they’re in a hurry.

Imperfect circumstances for two people leading imperfect lives that have largely been a series of imperfect reactions to one perfect evening. Celine’s completely neurotic, Jesse’s completely resigned to his fate, and yet — the spark is still there. Their time together here is often painful, argumentative, and decidedly uncomfortable, but it all feels so almost unbearably authentic that you can’t help but become just as swept up in it as you were by that night in Vienna.

All of which leads to an ending you can’t help but love, despite the enormous complications you know it will present to both of these characters’ lives. Linklater is obviously trading in reversals with Before Sunset from the outset — showing us still-frame shots of where our couple will go at the beginning rather than showing us where they’ve been  at the end, and swapping out talk of what they want their lives to be with a litany of regrets over what their lives have become, but whereas their first meeting was a luminous evening capped off with a separation, their second is a rocky, tenuous, long-delayed and frankly even a bit faded afterglow that Jesse purposely blows off his flight home to stay in. This is no longer an idealized memory, or a painful reminder of what might have been — this is here. This is now. This is real life with all its flaws and foibles and tragedies and responsibilities. And these two are in in together.

As with all things as we get older, moments of revelation and life-altering decisions become more subtle and unpronounced in their execution, but their impact is every bit as real. When Celine tells Jesse “you’re going to miss that flight,” and he replies “I know,” it’s not tinged with the momentous import of every new character revelation we enjoyed in their first outing, but it sure does resonate at least as much as any of them, if not moreso. These people are grown-ups now. Their actions matter. And our reactions to them are consequently more complex and nuanced. “Dude, you’re fucking your life up big-time here” is answered by “but you’ll be fucking it up even more if you leave.” I was, and still am, elated by his choice, despite its implications, and am eagerly awaiting the next chapter in this story with a burning interest I haven’t felt for any other film in years. Before Sunrise left me in love with an idealized vision; a dream. Before Sunset left me in love with the real world and all the possibilities that still exist within it.

Before The New One Comes Out — “Before Sunrise”


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Folks who only “know” me from my online and (occasional — in fact, too occasional for my tastes, but that’s another matter for another time) print writing are probably going to be surprised by what I’m about to admit : the summer movie I’m most looking forward to here in 2013 isn’t Man Of Steel or Star Trek Into Darkness or Iron Man 3 or The Lone Ranger or any of that. Nope, friends, the one I absolutely can’t wait for — hell, pathetic as it sounds, the one I feel, at this point, that I’m flat-out living for is Before Midnight, the third collaboration between Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, and Ethan Hawke that marks their next — and hopefully not last — look into the lives of my personal favorite couple in cinematic history, Jesse and Celine.

How much do I love these flicks? So much that I’m setting myself an arbitrary 1,000-word limit on my reviews of the first two so that I literally have to force myself not to spend all night writing about them. Say what you will for the likes of Pulp FictionReservoir Dogs, or Linklater’s own Slacker or Dazed And Confused, but for me the first two Before films are the celluloid touchstone for so-called “Generation X”-types like myself, and are probably, I would imagine,  pretty damn engrossing for other audiences — both older and younger — as well.

Once you’ve seen the second, it’s fairly well impossible to look at the first through anything but the prism of what comes after, so pretending like I can take Before Sunrise on its own merits is an exercise in futility. Let’s not even go there, then. And let’s avoid the whole question of which is the “better” of the two, as well, since they’re inextricably linked and those of us who know ’em and love ’em wouldn’t have it any other way. Let’s just agree right here and know that we’re looking at them one at a time only because they came out one at a time, and let that be the end of it.

And while we’re at it, I might as well state for the record that I can’t look back at Before Sunrise without some kind of warm nostalgic glow that, I’m certain, warps my overall view of the film itself and colors everything about it with a far more rosy tint than it’s earned.

Or wait. Maybe it has earned it. In fact,  maybe the reason 1995 stands out as a great fucking year in my life is precisely because that’s when this movie came out. It would make sense. It’s not like there are a tremendous number of overly specific memories that flood my mind when you say “1995.”  I was living in an apartment I shared with a buddy of mine since high school, I worked a couple of dead-end gigs, I had a girlfriend that I had a semi-rocky but mostly just dull and listless relationship with — the usual stuff. But I did party a lot and have a ton of fun and found myself tenuously taking the first steps into what would eventually become — yawn! — “responsible adulthood” along with a good group of friends who were going through the same shit at the same time, some of whom I’m fortunate enough to still be “tight” with to this day.

Damn, we could talk about anything. And one thing we talked a lot about was Before Sunrise. How Ethan Hawke was so much more human than he’d seemed in anything else. How Julie Delpy was just fucking luminous in every frame. How the dialogue was so real and immediate and free-form and authentic.

Truth? I think these were people we wanted to be having a night we all wanted to have. Most of us probably didn’t catch the numerous Ulysses references dropped as Jesse and Celine made their way through the streets of Vienna, most of us didn’t know enough about film yet to really appreciate the spot-on choices Linklater made with his camera at every turn, and most of us couldn’t yet directly relate to the intense and abiding love these two developed over the course of one (goddamnit, I’ll say it) magical evening — we just knew this was what we wanted life, and love, to be like.

And I think we all still do. We’ve probably all been lucky enough to feel that same sense of unfolding wonderment at the discovery of another person in our lives — I know I have and I was smart enough to marry the girl — but it didn’t happen in Vienna, on a compressed time frame, and we were all probably a lot more clumsy about it. So hey — here’s to movie magic.

It’s kinda hard to believe that just a couple years prior to this, Hawke was starring in a flick called Reality Bites, because Before Sunrise is, at the end of the day, a story about how reality doesn’t “bite” at all, but about how amazing, wonderful, and almost unbearably perfect life can be, even if it’s only for all-too-brief moments here and there. Linklater and co-writer Kim Krizan delivered a crackerjack script, to be sure, but the best and most important line they gave us — even if it’s a cliche — is when Delpy’s Celine informs us of her belief that “if there’s a God, it’s not in you, or me, but right here — in the space between us,” because for all it’s amazing dialogue, naturalist acting, and pitch-perfect characterization, it’s in observing that space between our two young lovers that the real enchantment in this work lies.

When the two finally part company at the end, it really does rip your heart out — especially knowing what’s in store for them nine years down the road — but I have to admit, before I ever even heard that the first sequel was in the offing, my reaction to the way this one wrapped up was always the same — “Jesse, you schmuck, don’t get on that train, drop everything and tell this girl you want to love her for the rest of your life starting right now and let the chips fall where they may!” I spent the following years imagining that they must have met again in Vienna six months down the road precisely as they’d planned because, frankly, I just couldn’t bear to picture any other possible outcome — if any couple ever deserved to live “happily ever after,” it was this one.

Nearly 20 years (!) and God-knows-how-many viewings later, I still believe that. Even before knowing what happened next (but not yet knowing what happens after that one — folks in New York, LA, and Austin who have already gotten to see Before Midnight, know that I am well and truly envious) this simple, uncomplicated story, where nothing happens but everything happens — a story laced with a kind of, for lack of a better term, “active nostalgia,” that takes you right back to where you were in life when you first saw it but reveals new things each time that can only come from being certainly older and hopefully wiser — was enough to make me fall in love with love in a richer and more rewarding way than I had ever considered previously and to want the spontaneous joy of getting to know another person and what makes them tick that these two shared to never, ever, in a million billion years, end. Not for them, not for me, not for any of us.

Now I’m getting sappy. Or maybe I started out sappy right from the get-go here and have gotten progressively worse about it to the point where I just can’t ignore it any more.  And that 1,000 word limit? Guess I fucked that up. But ya know, I don’t care — I’m just happy right now. Happy to live in a world where stories like this are even possible. Happy to have a front-row seat to perhaps the greatest intermittent two-person character drama anybody’s ever come up with. And happy to share my thoughts on a movie that’s meant so much to me with you good people reading this. If you ain’t got a love like this, friends, I wish you nothing but the very best in finding it. And if you’ve got it, never take it for granted and never let it go. This. Is. What. Life’s. All. About.