Monday, June 10, 2013
When people (mostly ladies) have asked me over the years if I have favorite rom-com or romantic film, a genre I tend to slink away from in resignation and/or disgust, the only ready answer I ever seem to have is "Before Sunrise." It's the only film about relationships I can recall that had not only a profound effect on me but the intended effect...it made me a little teary-eyed. Granted, I had just gone through my first serious break-up after my first serious college relationship. Granted, I was nursing a heavy crush on Julie Delpy after seeing Killing Zoe and Three Colors: White. Needless to say, I was ripe for the weeping. Still, it hit me where I lived (not Vienna, btw). For once, here was a film both romantic and realistic about love.
French Celine (Delpy) and American Jesse (Ethan Hawke) meet on a Eurorail train, but they don't meet-cute, per se. At first, Celine is just changing seats to avoid a loud arguing German couple (a nice touch for a beginning now that I know how Before Midnight ends). They strike up a conversation, Jesse doing most of the talking, even pitching her an idea for a 24-hour, 365-day-a-year TV show that just follows ordinary people around in their daily lives. Though he sounds like a refugee character from Slacker (or just a mouthpiece for an aborted Linklater reality show), Celine cottons to him quickly, even agrees to hop off the train before her destination, kill some time with him in Vienna before heading back to Paris.
What follows is lots of spirited conversation, lots of strolling past landmarks, and eventually some light to heavy petting-- a format which both of the subsequent two films share to varying degrees. Imagine an OK Cupid date where you're actually excited about the other person, actually interested in hearing what they have to say after two drinks. Now imagine it in a European city you've never been to before. Celine and Jesse both realize this is one of those "magic moments" that don't come along often. But they're also apprehensive about it, realize because they live on different continents, know the way relationships generally tend to go, that it will probably have to be for one night. So they talk and talk and talk some more, make a pact to just enjoy the rest of the night until Jesse's plane leaves in the morning. They fudge on their adult decision at the last minute, make an impromptu agreement to meet again at the same place in six months. As an ending it works...like a cliffhanger but with closure. It was hopeful without being hokey. Hey, at least they didn't hop that plane together, get a quickie Vegas wedding.
Cut to nine years later in Paris, Before Sunset. Jesse's got a crew cut now, a fledgling lit career, a wife and kid back in the States. His best-seller is, of course, about that fateful night with Celine. Celine shows up at the book shop, and they agree to stroll around some more before Jesse has to catch another plane. Turns out Jesse showed up six months later but Celine did not due to a family emergency. Celine is in a relationship, too. They reconnect during the course of their walk, mostly in real time, wondering and fretting what their lives would be like now if they had reunited years before. It's obvious there's still a strong attraction there. But also...prior commitments. Then Celine has to go and invite Jesse up to her flat and play him a song (about him) on her guitar. The movie fades on a question mark. Will they or won't they? Meanwhile, a hired car idles outside.
Nine more years, Before Midnight. SPOILER ALERT: Celine and Jesse have taken the martial plunge. Or, at least, the cohabitation plunge. They're living in Paris now, vacationing in Greece. They have twin blond moppet daughters. Jesse's fretting over his son from his first marriage who he's just put on a plane back to America. Celine's fretting over a new job, the likelihood that Jesse is going to cave on their agreement, ask her to move with him to Chicago to be closer to his son. There's still lots and lots of spirited conversation. But now there's a not so healthy undercurrent of aggression, passive and otherwise. Truth be told, it veers much closer to arguing. Jesse calls Celine the "mayor of Crazytown." Celine informs Jesse he's "no Henry Miller" in the sack or between the pages. Ouch! Look who's become the French-American version of the bickering German couple at the beginning of Sunrise, the one that prompted their relationship in the first place. Oh, the irony! Oh, the misery! Oh, the reality! We love you and we hate you. We're contemplating separation. Or, at least, another sequel in nine or so years...
Call it Before Mid-Afternoon. Maybe Celine and Jesse are retirees on Segways instead of strolling, catching an early bird special in Chicago or the Canary Islands? Would I go see it? I sure as hell would...if I'm still alive, if Hawke and Delpy and Linklater are still going at it. I respect these films. I respect their creators, their approach to modern relationships. And they still hit me where I live. I'm not sure if it's because I'm very close in age to the characters and feel like I've aged with them or because, for a romance trilogy, they admirably tend to get less "romantic" and more realistic over time. I may not have teared-up at Before Midnight. Kinda hard to get misty with all the yelling, all the strained marital compromise. This time, I did something far more scary. I did not cry. I identified.
Saturday, June 01, 2013
As May rolls into June, I'm swapping out one Texas-based filmmaker for another. Malick may haunt Austin, TX every now and again with his secretive skeleton crews, but Richard Linklater is the director who unabashedly put the city on the indie film map back in the early '90s. Despite their shared location, the two directors couldn't be more different. Malick is an image man; he lets his stunning compositions do most of the talking. Linklater's films, on the other hand, are the very definition of verbose. His characters are generally hyper-literate, chatty to the point of exhaustion and/or Asperger's. His compositions, even in his animated films Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly, are often modestly framed medium shots with a talking head in the middle opining on this or that. Put it this way: our first introduction to the director was Linklater talking a cabbie's ear off at the beginning of Slacker (see above) in his own movie. Could you get any less Malick-like than that?
Slacker was a revelation when I first saw it in the summer of '91. I had already enrolled in film school in New York, so I can't claim (like Kevin Smith) that it's the movie that made me want to be a filmmaker. BUT it's the movie that almost made want to drop out of film school before I even started. When I saw what Linklater could put together for 23 grand in the middle of nowhere, it made rethink the point of paying a tuition of almost double that per year. Apparently, I didn't rethink it hard enough-- I stuck it out for the full four years. But there's still a part of me that regrets not cashing in my chips that summer, shooting my own indie wad, instead of further funding the NYU casino.
Since that summer, I've stuck by Linklater pretty faithfully as a viewer, and rarely has he abused that devotion. His formal experiments (Waking Life, Tape) are always interesting even if they're not grand slams. When he toes into the waters of broad Hollywood comedy (School of Rock, Bad News Bears), it somehow doesn't feel like a sell-out. He's still going strong two decades later. Last year's Bernie was an underrated, underseen gem. And I'm definitely looking forward to catching his well-reviewed trilogy capper Before Midnight in the coming weeks.
There are a few of his earlier films I did miss though and a few Linklater classics I'm hungry to revisit. Also, there's that Orson Welles flick which, despite it being Linklater-borne, I had little desire to see (mostly due to Zac Efron). In the interest of completion and minor curiosity, I will even give that one the old college try. College...shit. I really should have cashed in those chips, shouldn't I?
Wednesday, May 29, 2013
Another Malick-related curiosity, another miserable copy. Thanks to Netflix's sudden vanishing of this Alan Arkin trucker comedy from their catalog earlier in the month (possibly to clear their server for the glut of overly-long Arrested Development Season 4 episodes), I was forced to watch Deadhead Miles the old-fashioned way...an edited, commercial-laden A&E Channel airing poorly dubbed to VHS then poorly uploaded to YouTube. Do I sound ungrateful? Maybe just a tad. Considering this one never made it to a theatrical release I guess we're lucky to have any version at all.
At least Malick's full name made it to the credits this time as sole writer, something he may or may not be happy about given the end result. Is Deadhead Miles terrible? No, it's an agreeable road picture, loopy and rambling as road movies tend to be. Basically, Arkin's character Cooper steals a rig from the mob after they kill a guy to grab it in a fake roadside accident. He sets out on the road to pick up some work, picks up long-term hitchhiker Paul Benedict (of The Jeffersons fame) instead. Cooper meets assorted other oddballs and character actors along the way, steals the provisions he needs, dispenses a little trucker wisdom, sings a few country songs. Is it Convoy or Thieves' Highway caliber? No, definitely not. Probably closer to White Line Fever. There's even a song called "White Line Fever" near the end credits.
Once again, the Malick touch is hard to spot here, other than some folksy dialogue. The primary reason to watch Deadhead Miles (and I don't advise it, unless you can find a decent copy) is Arkin. If you're a long-time Arkin fan as I am, it's a pleasure to watch him play wildly against type. A textbook Brooklyn Jewish man as Southern-fried long haul trucker? Sure, I'll buy that. But only if it's Arkin who's doing the driving.
Friday, May 24, 2013
And so we enter the "Etc." portion of Malick month...
The Dion Brothers (aka The Gravy Train aka The Movie Impossible to Find a Decent Copy of on the Interwebs) is one of those flicks I've long been hoping for a retro-house revival of or, failing that, a poorly transferred DVD. Not so much for its linkage to Malick, which is thin (he is one of two writers on it and appears in the credits under the pseudonym "David Whitney"), but more because I've read about it here and there over the years as one of those lost '70s classics frequently name-checked by interesting directors (Tarantino, David Gordon Green and others). The prevailing wisdom: It was a buried treasure, an anarchic crime caper chock-full of great character actors (Stacy Keach, Frederic Forrest, Margot Kidder, Barry Primus). Something along the lines of The Brink's Job or Freebie and the Bean.
That's probably true. I say "probably" because it was hard to tell through chunky, muddy pixels of the YouTube bootleg I finally broke down and viewed, realizing that a revival was not coming my way anytime soon and definitely not within the waning days of Malick month. Needless to say, my enjoyment was compromised. But even the weak stream and miserable Encore Channel copy couldn't keep The Dion Brothers' manic exuberance in check. This is a fun movie, a tried and true "romp."
Keach and Forrest play blue collar West Virginia peckerwood brothers, each of whom has just quit their jobs to pursue a life of crime. Keach works in a canned bean factory, has dreams of opening a seafood restaurant called the Blue Grotto. Forrest is a coal miner, an ace with a stick of dynamite, and mostly along for the ride. The robbery they become embroiled in with a group of Northern petty criminals is nothing special (your basic armored car seizure), but their inane banter and fumbling, misguided attempts to get all their money afterwards is frequently priceless and, I'm guessing, frequently the result of improv. The surprisingly violent end shootout taking place all within a building as it's being demolished is reason alone to give this sucker a decent transfer, even if it's as an add-on in ten film Stacy Keach box set. Whatever. Put it on the B-side of Raw Justice if you have to. We'll takes what we can gets.
As for the Malick contribution? As far as I could tell, it seemed buried pretty deep beneath all that rubble. Other than the Brothers being unconscionable Southern Folk, it felt no way related to the typical Malick m.o. It's closest cousin might be Badlands, but the comedy (not to mention criminal activity) in that one was pretty droll. And even if I had watched a pristine 35mm print of The Dion Brothers, I'm pretty sure its comparatively slapdash cinematography wouldn't hold a candle (or bounce card) to Days of Heaven. According to IMDB, Malick was originally supposed to direct this until the reins were taken away. It probably wouldn't have been as fun of a film had he directed. But I'm sure it would have looked prettier and, considering his current pedigree, been a hell of a lot easier to find.
Sunday, May 19, 2013
Since his late '90s comeback, the cinema of Terrence Malick has progressed to a nearly wordless place. There is dialogue, but it is minimal. There is the ubiquitous voiceover, but even that seems to have become less and less. It's mostly down to beautiful images and haunting scores now. After watching his latest, To the Wonder, I'm hoping he goes whole hog (or whole buffalo) on the next one. I'm hoping he goes 100% wordless. Because with goofy, pseudo-profound lines like "What is this love that loves us?" blipping across the soundtrack every now and again...well, it kinda kills the scenery. And, honestly, how much do we really need to hear from Ben Affleck?
To the Wonder is a meditation on finding and then losing love, losing and finding your religion. It's also the world's longest, most gorgeously shot Calvin Klein ad. Olga Kurylenko is a Parisian woman with a young daughter (and seemingly no gainful employment) who looks radiant in every possible setting, moves to tract housing hell in the States with her new American lover (Affleck), proceeds to dance around in fields a lot and brood over her lover's occasional standoffishness when she's not pirouetting (rarely). Affleck mills about like a good face-man, watching her dance, later having a fling with old flame Rachel McAdams, occasionally doing environmental testing work which is generally irrelevant to the story other than providing stunning backdrops involving soil formations and running water. Meanwhile, Javier Bardem lopes around the poor sections of town in a priest's outfit doing the Lord's work but not really since (according to some vague voiceover) his faith is waning. Also, there are some buffalo. And a quick cameo of the wheat from Days of Heaven.
The net effect of all this dancing and milling around? Hypnotic yet underwhelming. Admittedly, I didn't hit the pause button once (even though I had to pee from the midpoint). There's just something about the way Malick moves the camera (and the Daniel Lanois score) that keeps you riveted, despite having very little investment in the people he's Steadicamming behind. As he gets bigger and bigger name actors for his films, their character roles and inner lives seem to have become increasingly diminished. This is conceptually interesting and practically kind of a waste (at least in terms of Bardem). The actors become props, something to plop in front of a gorgeous sunset or place strategically in the confines of a sparsely furnished split-level. But then you get shots like the one below, and you find it churlish to complain.
Thursday, May 09, 2013
It took me a while to get around to Days of Heaven. So name-checked it was in film school as the crowning example of natural lighting, magic hour shooting, masterful cinematography, etc., etc. that it kind of made me want to put it off as long as possible like a plate of Brussels sprouts or the Complete Unabridged Works of William Shakespeare. I knew when I finally saw the film it would have to be the perfect venue-- 35mm, pristine print, proper projection, all that jazz. Well, I've seen it twice now, neither time in the "perfect" format. The first time it was a letterboxed VHS copy back in, I believe, the late '90s. This time, a brand new Criterion Collection DVD. Forgive me my trespasses, Mr. Almendros, for I have sinned not once but twice.
Will I ever see it on film? Maybe. Other than the stunning visuals (and they are truly stunning, the hype is to be believed), there's not much else that would bring me back for thirds. The purposely "rough" Linda Manz voiceover (with flubs and all) didn't bother me as much this time, actually grew on me as the film went along. The centerpiece love triangle between Richard Gere, Brooke Adams and Sam Shepard is muted and somewhat bloodless but a sturdy enough clothesline on which to hang the breathtaking scenery. It's a bit soapy, Harlequin Romance-y. Call it "Panhandle Scandalous" or "Low-Wattage Jealousy Among the Wheat."
And how about that goddamn wheat? Man, it is some gorgeous grain. And those freakin' locusts! Malick gives more tender loving care (and characterization) to the average arthropod than to his people. The wheat and the locusts really should have received-above-the-credits billing here. They must have had bad agents at the time. "Days of Heaven starring Wheat and Locusts. Co-starring Fire, Wind, Sun, Rain. Special Guest Appearance by Richard Gere."
You don't think of Terrence Malick as having a sense of humor. I don't anyway. I challenge you to find more than three chuckles in Tree of Life, The Thin Red Line or The New World combined. The man generally takes his sweeping fields of grass very seriously. But Badlands has a nice little undercurrent of droll comedy that I had forgotten about. There's the scene where Sissy Spacek is thoroughly underwhelmed by the experience of losing her virginity and Martin Sheen chooses a large rock to commemorate their coupling...later replacing it with one that's easier to carry. Or the ending where Sheen hob-knobs with local cops, signs autographs and takes pictures all while in cumbersome prison chains. Or the one where he shoots a football point blank so it's easier to bury. You'd think for a moment you're in a Wes Anderson movie (for me, not usually a good thing).
It's a refreshing counterpoint to all the senseless murder, not to mention those beautiful vast fields of browned grass. Story-wise, Badlands always was and still is a little slight for my tastes. There are plenty of killer couples on the run movies before and since that are much more entertaining. It's the dissonance between Sheen's hammy charisma, his sociopathic ease with offing people and the serene Tak Fujimoto nature photography that's really the achievement here, a discordance which Malick underlines every chance he gets, especially with that maddeningly upbeat Carl Orff score (What is that...a xylophone for fuck's sake?!!)
I'm guessing Charles Starkweather was a real fun guy to hang around with. Until he popped you in the chest. I can forgive him for the football. But for my man Oates...not in a million years.
Wednesday, May 01, 2013
So, I survived Streamageddon by the skin of my teeth, watching my last few April Roeg flicks before they vanished into the online ether. I even managed to cram in a few mediocre Bond flicks and two great Sergio Corbucci westerns before their respective licenses to kill (or be viewed) expired. But it seems that, here on this the first day of May, Netflix still insists on harshing my mellow. Not only has the site I normally go to check for new titles and expiring ones been down most of the day (probably due all the bad press Netflix is getting or, worse, Netflix blocking them from exposing just how many good old movies they just hemorrhaged), but now it seems that one of the films I had planned to feature this month has mysteriously vanished from my queue.
Maybe this sudden disappearance is appropriate to May's director though, a man who, after two classic '70s movies, vanished from the film world for about twenty years. I'm talking about Terry Malick, of course. The Mystery Man of Hollywood Arthouse Cinema (if that's not an oxymoron). He of Ponderous Voiceover. He of the Magic Hour Mastery. He of the Billowing Fields of Grass, the Actors who Ruminate Frequently but Rarely Speak. You know, the guy who doesn't like to do interviews much or have his picture taken. That Terry M.
Now that he's out of hiding (somewhat), he seems to be on quite a late-career tear. To the Wonder just hit screens (sort of). And, apparently, he's got THREE other films in post-production with Ryan Gosling, Christian Bale, Natalie Portman, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. I was a fan (with some reservations) of his last three-- The Thin Red Line, The New World and Tree of Life-- and have seen them all recently. So this month's about going back and revisiting his first two, seeing his latest, then picking up a couple flicks he worked on as a writer. Thus the "Etc." in the title above. With a guy who takes a twenty year hiatus, there's only so much of a directorial filmography from which to choose. Though I guess that's about to change.
As for you, Netflix, you're lucky I'm re-watching all the Arrrested Developments in preparation for May 26th. Otherwise, I'd have cancelled my account today. Yes, you and your promise of "original content" have got me by the streaming balls. Don't get cocky though. I may stream all of AD Season 4 in one weekend, cut you loose in June. You better watch your step, buy the rights to some more decent content fast, stop disappearing all the good old stuff. Consider this is your 30-day warning.