Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Before Sunrise & Before Sunset

Continued from the review of P.S.

Last weekend I spent some time trying to figure out just why I had not yet started my review of either of these films. I realized that because I like these movies so darn much, it is hard to place myself at a critical distance. So here we go—me reviewing two movies that I not only like, but kinda love.

Having seen Before Sunrise when it first came out in 1995, I had not seen the film since. As already mentioned, I rented Before Sunset, the sequel, a few weekends ago, but after viewing Sunset, I realized how badly I wanted to revisit the original. I suspect that most video/DVD renters will find it hard to watch one without the other.

Before Sunrise features two incredibly “young” characters: naïve, fearless, and romantic. Delpy’s character Celine, in particular, evidences an effecting, if rather clichéd, romantic sensibility. Her free flowing hair and flowy dress reflect the open and carefree way in which she views the world.

Contrasting her softness is hard-edged Jesse, played by Ethan Hawke. He’s your typical rebel, kind of angry with the world though you suspect he has always lived a rather comfortable middle-class/upper middle class life. What the two share in common is wit, intelligence, education, and a sense of adventure.

The simple plot: after talking on a train traveling across Europe, Jesse convinces Celine to spend the night wandering around Vienna. Jesse, you see, is leaving Europe the following morning. For the rest of the movie, the couple talks about life, love, and their fear of the future as they visit a number of picturesque spots.

Part of the charm of the film stems from the lovely setting, and I don’t only mean that Vienna is lovely. In fact, Jesse and Celine rarely visit famous sites. Rather, they enjoy conversation as they walk past a street performance, as they sit at a table on a boat, or even as they sit together on a crate in an alley. Beautiful cinematography and the simplicity and artistry of each shot heightens the appeal of the film in general.

Watching this film again (and again, actually—I watched each movie twice that weekend), I couldn’t quite get my head wrapped around the through line of the script. Jesse and Celine talk about so many disparate and randomly connected topics that to actually track the narrative in some clear linear way proves difficult. The dialogue shifts as external factors intervene. Sometimes topics of conversation are dropped as circumstances dictate: disappointing during really interesting conversations but certainly true to life.

Yet one can track the progression of the film in the increasing intimacy of Jesse and Celine. As Jesse reveals vulnerability in his admittance that he came to Europe for a girl who promptly dumped him and Celine describes her love for her grandmother, these characters move beyond the young adult clichés of films like Reality Bites and that ilk. There’s something so natural to their conversation: hasn’t everyone at some point surprised themselves by participating in a shockingly honest conversation with a stranger at a coffee house or other typical locale? Though Celine and Jesse are not afraid to challenge each other, their palpable chemistry electrifies the screen.

Before Sunset shares many characteristics of the first film: featuring one romantic and one jaded person in conversation in a foreign city. Yet this time Celine is the jaded character and the city is Paris. Jesse, having written a book about the night he spent with Celine in Vienna in order to find his lost love, achieves his goal when Celine wanders into his book reading at a café.

As a writer and director, Richard Linklater’s artistry grew from the first to the second movie. Filming in real time, Linklater follows Jesse and Celine as they walk for entire scenes without a single cut. He also allows the beauty of Paris to shine but always in the background. Celine and Jesse stand apart from their surroundings in a way that distinguishes this film from the first.

The screenplay, written in collaboration with Hawke and Delpy, offers another “moment in time” look at two people trying to understand their lives, as in the first film. Yet the script for the sequel is much tighter, offering careful relationship development and impressive depth.

The actors deliver incredibly natural performances, delivering each line with an unfaltering sincerity. I’m not surprised that relationship rumors developed around Hawke and Delpy: you like Celine and Jesse so much that you want the actors to find the same happiness themselves.

While the first film sometimes avoided difficult conversations by allowing the external world to distract from the characters, Before Sunset refuses to diverge from Celine and Jesse for a moment. In fact, when Jesse meets one of Celine’s neighbors, the scene stands out because another actor has intruded on what is otherwise an incredibly intimate two-character film. In essence, in the second film Linklater evidences greater confidence in his actors, the script, and his control of the look of the film.

My favorite scene? The two actors walk up a circular staircase to Celine’s apartment. Everything about this scene is perfect: the building, the lighting, the awkwardness of the moment, and the assuredness of the couple (knowing but not acknowledging to what they are entering). No words are spoken, but a conversation takes place between the characters nevertheless. Awesome.

I cannot remember how I reacted after seeing Before Sunrise ten years ago, but I cannot believe the film did not inspire me to travel to Europe, find a random guy to hang with, and simply experience life as a person without responsibility or obligation. I mean, what was wrong with me that I didn’t immediately embrace life? Of course, I continue to be a person without the responsibility of children or the obligation of tremendous debt, so one might think the film could work its same magic upon me today.

Yet I found myself connecting so much more to the sequel. Celine’s frustration about dating, her inability to find the same love that she experienced with Jesse, and his description of his marriage touched me profoundly. Writing about this film is difficult because it has become personal. The first film seemed remote while the sequel moved me, as if I can recognize the people in Before Sunrise but I know the people in Before Sunset.

Jesse’s own refusal to forget Celine travels into dangerous fairy tale territory: in ten years, he has not forgotten the girl with whom he spent one evening. Yet when one considers that their relationship connects each character to a time of hope, anticipation, and naïvete, perhaps Jesse’s clinging to the memory of Celine is as much about a desire for youth as it is about a desire for a woman.

In the other three films I watched over this particular weekend (P.S., The Woodsman, and Wimbledon), the narrative favored one partner in the love relationship over the other. The lover served as a tool to develop the character of the beloved. Yet Before Sunrise and Before Sunset remain remarkably egalitarian. Jesse and Celine both lean upon and support the other, and our allegiance resides equally with both members of the couple.

As for feminism, Celine appears to be a self-described feminist. In a quote from the first film, “You know, I have this awful paranoid thought that feminism was mostly invented by men so that they could like, fool around a little more,” she demonstrates her awareness of the social implications of gender. Yet the most remarkable thing about this movie is its handling of gender. Celine and Jesse don’t run into the usual nonsense of gender difference. They are attracted both to those things about the other that are different and those things that match. Is that the trick? Not being afraid of difference?

Perhaps Before Sunrise and Before Sunset are magical simply because they capture the wonder and excitement of the initial stages of love with honesty and conviction. Meeting each other, Celine and Jesse realize the possibilities in life; the audience experiences some of this vicariously as well. I can’t help but wonder what will happen when the couple actually attempt to live through time, boredom, and the routines inherent in life. Perhaps this will be the subject of the third film in the series. I’ll be first in line at the movie theatre.

Friday, June 17, 2005

Batman Begins

A tidbit:
Seeing this movie on opening day, my overall impression is as follows: Batman Begins achieves success on the level of Spider-Man. Not the greatness of Spider-Man 2, nor the complete failure of Hulk and Daredevil. But maybe somewhere in between X-Men and X2, perhaps equal to the latter. Is that enough superhero movie comparisons?

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Mr. and Mrs. Smith

Despite all the press coverage of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, I didn’t find myself real driven to see this movie. My friend Jason, however, convinced me that any film by Doug Liman, the director of Swingers, Go, and The Bourne Identity, deserved my most prompt attention. So now I can say that I contributed to the film’s number one ranking during its opening weekend. Yipee for me for helping the movie make $51 million.

Does it deserve $51 million? Sure—as a summer movie. The film is entertaining, offers two incredibly hot stars, and plenty of action to keep you engaged. What is the movie about? Tougher question.

First the strengths. Obviously there is the aforementioned hotness of the stars—and yes, folks, they do have chemistry. The movie also offers some funny one-liners, especially during the scenes when Jane and John Smith finally start to tell each other the truth about their lives and careers. As for the action, Liman provides explosions, jumps from buildings, and a whole lot of style without resorting to excessive tricky camerawork.

Mr. and Mrs. Smith tells the story of married couple Jane and John Smith. Though working as super-spy-killers by day, they play a normal couple at night, hiding their secret lives even from each other. Liman’s vision of their married life employs some of the more mundane aspects of clichéd suburban married life to show how disconnected our heroes are. Jane constantly wears an apron when at home, cooking food that John lies about enjoying. John makes himself a martini each night and humors Jane’s decorating style.

Jane’s character grows more noticeably throughout the film, for it is her reticence to accept John that drives the action. John is the first to admit his need of his wife, describing his feelings upon first meeting her, “you looked like Christmas morning.” Jane’s harsh reply that he was a beautiful mark illustrates her refusal to show her vulnerability.

John demonstrates vulnerability constantly, whether in his clumsiness or his openness about his feelings. He repeatedly fails to kill Jane when he has the chance: once after crashing into her business headquarters and again when the couple stand with guns pointed at each other after a monster fight. Jane and her partners are less generous, trying to kill John by crashing the elevator in which they suspect he stands. Despite repeated attacks by Jane, John continues to put himself on the line for her.

Jane, however, plays tough for virtually all of the film. A less sophisticated reading would praise this film for its brave gender reversal: the sensitive man coupled with the macho woman. But let me tell you, giving a girl a gun doesn’t make her strong. Why is Jane so reticent about her emotion? Does she not trust John, and if so, why? Rather than deepen her character with any sort of psychological reading or (gasp) dialogue that allows us to enter into Jane’s heart or mind, the film gives her a veneer of attitude without any substance.

Jane’s eventual admittance that she would choose to be with John over all other places she could be on earth, quickly followed by a brush off comment to deflect the emotion of the moment, climaxes the film. Once they admit their need for each other, they are able to defeat a dozen nameless foes, functioning almost with one body. In one particularly metaphoric moment, Jane bends over and John uses the gun strapped to her back to take down a few bad guys.

If one assumes that the central question of the film is “will these two crazy kids work things out?” then Jane’s admittance that she wants to be with her husband answers the question. The movie is, in essence, over. The killing scene therefore seems anticlimactic—it doesn’t help them understand each other better, it doesn’t forward the action, and it seems rather redundant.

Ebert and Roeper despaired that Mr. and Mrs. Smith does not truly embrace its dark heart, and I know the exact moment to which they referred. Jane and John take out a dozen bad guys to whom we have no connection whatsoever: they are nameless, faceless entities dressed in black, like ants stepped on at a picnic. What would have happened if Jane and John in fact had to kill each other, or if they died for each other? This sort of ending would have taken guts, something this movie lacks from start to finish. Style stands in for substance.

Screenwriter Simon Kinberg apparently wrote this script for his master’s thesis at Columbia. I wonder how many changes were made from the project he submitted for graduation to the final script we see on screen. I have described this film to friends as having no script, but what I mean is that it has no meat. Kinberg sets up the potential for great conflict on a number of levels, but the film only touches up on each and drops entire story arcs.

Who do Jane and John work for? I could insert a spoiler alert here, but that would indicate that the film offers any surprises, which it doesn’t. Why do their bosses decide to set them up to kill each other rather than just take them out? Is it likely that their mysterious bosses would team up this way? Who is the black man whose face we sort of see during two moments in the film? And why exactly do they kill people for a living?

More importantly, once Jane and John kill a bunch of nameless, faceless bad guys, are their lives still in danger? Don’t they know too much to be allowed to live (and together, at that)? How are they able to return to their home when we can only assume they must be running for their lives? Do they form their own super spy company?

As usual, I’m thinking too much. I’m aware that this is a summer action movie—it is my mistake if I want to impose too much questioning on a structure with a faulty base. But in essence that is what this movie is: a house of cards built on an unstable surface. Poke at the ground too much and the whole structure falls apart.

Consider the fight/love scene shortly after Jane and John discover that the other is a killer, too. Unsure of how to interact now that the other knows his/her secret, Jane and John try to kill each other. The fight is intense, tearing apart their lovely Connecticut home. At one point, Pitt’s character kicks Jolie’s repeatedly in the stomach (or so we assume—the camera does not show us Jolie, obscuring her behind the couch). She then kicks him in the groin and stands up—guess what? No blood oozes from her mouth as an indication of internal bleeding, and she exhibits no obvious signs of pain. I guess John must kick like a girl.

The film is conscious of gender, using it to exploit Jolie’s incredibly beauty to its fullest and to provide humor (Jane at one point asks John why he gets the big gun). But it provides little insight into the true challenges sparked by gender difference. Jane is lovely, but she is as tough as John, even more so. She has killed more people than he has. And as she admits, she certainly doesn’t cook.

In some ways, she has merely adopted so-called “masculine” characteristics while maintaining her sensuality. Is she a strong woman or a woman acting like a man? Is it fair for me to draw this gender binary? Perhaps not, but the film certainly embraces the binary in its use of gender reversal. To what end, though? We learn so little about who these people actually are that their sexuality matters purely for coitus. This movie tells the story of a sexual awakening between two people, but little more.

During the scene in which Jane and John hold each other at gun point, John, as always, is the first to blink. He drops his gun, much to the dismay of Jane, who orders him not to give in. In fact, this moment struck me most because Jolie acted rather than merely posed. She evidenced an actual emotion, and I bought it.

Unfortunately, this moment of honesty is an anomaly. Mr. and Mrs. Smith lacks sincerity and heart. The sex scene that follows, though hot, is brief, indicating that the couple expresses themselves more fully in their fighting than in their lovemaking. In fact, the sex merely caps off the fight, like the cherry on a sundae. They couple for a few quick shots, and then the camera cuts to the post-coital bliss. Honestly, I felt a bit cheated. After all that buildup, I expected a more satisfying finish.

That makes a nice statement about the film in general—it offers a lot of buildup with an unsatisfying resolution. The script offers the potential for an engaging story but Liman opts for a general gloss instead. But his actors sure are pretty.