Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Before Midnight (2013/US)

Julien Faddoul

**** (4 stars)

d – Richard Linklater
w – Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke   (Based on the Characters Created by Richard Linklater, Kim Krazan)
ph – Christos Voudouris
ad – Anna Georgiadou
m – Graham Reynolds
ed – Sandra Adair
cos – Vasileia Rozana

p – Christos V. Konstantakopoulos, Richard Linklater, Sara Woodhatch

Cast: Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy, Xenia Kalogeropoulou, Walter Lassally, Ariane Labed, Anna Yiannis Papadopoulos, Athina Rachel Tsangari, Panos Koronis

My favourite sound in the world is the sound of my brother laughing. He doesn’t laugh very often. Admittedly, he only laughs when he feels something is genuinely funny – a rare and beautiful trait. I am not interested in any kind of psychoanalysis as to why I hold the sound so dear. I’m sure there are very simple and obvious reasons, but why do they need to be articulated? I know why I love it and love him (and vice versa), so why would anyone else care? I’m glad and grateful.

In Richard Linklater’s 1995 film Before Sunrise, Jesse (Ethan Hawke), a 23-year-old American man and Celine (Julie Delpy), a 23-year-old French woman, meet on a train passing through Vienna. They talk. In fact, they get off at Vienna and spend the entire night talking. One of their topics of conversation involves a story Jesse tells Celine from his youth about seeing the ghost of his dead grandmother. He didn’t care that no one believed him because he knew what he saw. He was glad and he was grateful. In Richard Linklater’s 2004 film Before Sunset, the two rekindle after 9 years. This time, they have a single, unbroken 80 minute conversation as they wander through Paris. Both films end on ambiguous notes and are clearly influenced by French New Wave films of the 60s and early 70s, particularly the works of Eric Rohmer.

Something else I am uninterested in is how Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy make movies. Their magic is their business. But I imagine the process is like sculpture. A block of beauty is whittled and carved until only what is essential remains. However, the reason why they make these movies is obvious and never has it been more apparent than in the latest edition, 9 years later again. Where most filmmakers are motivated by indulgence, these three are motivated by generosity; generosity toward both the characters and the audience. This is an even rarer and more beautiful trait.

Before Midnight is a perfect movie. It is not the most original or most unique or most dramatic or most hilarious or most joyous. It’s not the most anything, really. But it is perfect because only what is essential is there. The same way Tokyo Story (1953) or Yi Yi (2000) or Sweet Smell of Success (1957) is perfect; not a line or a frame should be added or edited. One feels scenes pass through one’s body, like phrases of music, and nothing diverts one from seeing and hearing and feeling exactly what is intended. It is rich, gorgeous, intense, funny and a breathtaking experience for the mainstream moviegoer to have in 2013. It is a brilliant – brilliant! – film and the best of the trilogy.

The film presents itself in five uncategorized parts. Celine and Jesse have spent the last 9 years since the second film together as a couple. They live in Paris and have born a pair of twin girls. But when we meet them they are on holiday in Crete, Greece. The first section involves Jesse escorting his son (from a previous marriage) at the airport to fly back to America. Section 2 is a long, uninterrupted, Kiarostami-esque take of Jesse and Celine in a car. Section 3 in an indulgent, Socratic dinner with three other Greek couples. One couple is married, one are old friends and one is a pair of young lovers. The fourth section is the most like the previous films: Jesse and Celine walk and talk, this time through Cretan streets. The final section takes place in a hotel that was booked for them as a gift by one of the couples. These five sections are loosely connected with tissue scenes of talk and touring.

Funnily, this time round, the film I was most reminded of was Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt (1963). See them both and you’ll know why. As we weave in and out of these conversations, philosophical queries are explored. Is a couple one entity or two separate existences? Does love mean changing one’s life to suit the other? If one is calm and rational does that make one correct? Is antagonism unsupportive? If you are looking for these questions to be answered, look elsewhere. The splendour of Before Midnight – or any of the three films – is in witnessing the journey not the destination.

Before Midnight goes into deeper, scarier waters than the previous two films, but what is so exquisite about this trilogy is that it coincides with life’s passage. Being in one’s forties is a much deeper ocean to swim in. Mr Hawke and Ms Delpy both give wonderful performances that only overwhelm when trying to dissect how they were pulled off. Mr Linklater has insisted for many years now that all the films were carefully planned and scripted; no improvisation. With this third film, he handles it all like a true master.

We love Jesse and Celine and every little gesture or unsolicited remark takes our heart through an emotional rollercoaster, even in single shots. The final shot, for instance, is one of these. Due to basic film grammar, we know the shot when it arrives. So, every single piece of movement that occurs penetrates us as if we were actually standing beside the characters. It’s too private. I love these characters, and suddenly not having them in my life anymore, simply because Mr Linklater decides to roll closing credits, devastated me. The only thing I could do was purchase another ticket and have the experience all over again. Which I did.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Only God Forgives (2013/US/France/Thailand/Sweden)

Julien Faddoul

(0 stars)

wd – Nicolas Winding Refn  
ph – Larry Smith
pd – Beth Mickle
m – Cliff Martinez
ed – Matthew Newman
cos – Wasitchaya 'Nampeung' Mochanakul

p – Lene Børglum, Sidonie Dumas, Vincent Maraval

Cast: Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas, Vithaya Pansringarm, Gordon Brown, Yayaying Rhatha Phongam, Tom Burke

When I was quite young, one of the first serious films I saw was Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad (1961). I was far too young to know what to make of it. I have now seen it many times and know exactly what to make of it. I also first encountered David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986), Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura (1960) and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) that same year. In my prepubescent critical mind I disregarded these films as making no intelligible sense therefore lacking in any respectability whatsoever. Give me Billy Wilder instead of all that rubbish. Like most adolescents, I thought I knew everything.

Nevertheless, clearly I had to return to these pictures again, their stature being so high in history, but more than that, something was eliciting me inside. I kept thinking that submitting myself to revisiting of these and others like them would lead me to a point…..until I realised that the revisits were the point. These movies were about something and that’s why they were great. That something may require patience, wisdom and guts, but if it’s there, you will find it.

Only God Forgives is a movie from Mars. Every fibre of my being tells me it is dumber than a bag of hammers, but even that very notion is so apparently titillating that I can’t help but feel that there might be something to this. Upon days of contemplation, I guess there isn’t. One film critic out of fifty has felt there is; the rest, not.

This critical reception of Only God Forgives also falls under the expectation paradox. I, however, do not. The film comes from director Nicolas Winding Refn, whose last film, Drive (2011), was severely overpraised at the time. Both films share the asinine, infantile arty prattle that everyone has found so offensive only this time round. I can’t get behind an argument that implies this is a movie so bad that only very talented people could have made it. A lot of these people are barely competent. The only good film Mr Refn has made was Bronson (2008). So, I guess my coming into the theatre from this different angle may account for my fascination in the garbage on screen.

The film is set in Thailand (for no real reason, other than to homage 80s Asian sub-crime films). Ryan Gosling plays what I can only assume is a Refn surrogate. He’s a drug dealer who owns a boxing gym and loves to keep his lips tight and walk really slowly down neon-lit corridors followed by camera dollies. He is commanded by his mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) to avenge the murder of his brother (Tom Burke) – even though this particular brother raped and killed a 16-year-old girl, but, according to his mother, “He must have had his reasons”.

Moral artistic complexity arrives in the form of a former cop (Vithaya Pansringarm) who always keeps a sword behind his back to hurt people with, though sometimes he likes to use hairpins. The complexity in question refers to the fact that he has a young daughter and therefore has a personal crusade against abuse of young girls. This also compels him to sing a lot of karaoke because, well, why not? Both he and Gosling spend the film in a contest of who can be less expressive.

While all of this is going on we see limbs carved, faces singed, eyeballs pierced, prostitutes masturbating, shots of children staring at things, Kristin Scott Thomas doing her version of Donatella Versace, shots of gushing blood, shots of modern furniture, shots of characters from side-view, front-view, bird’s-eyed view, no-eye view and a great deal of dead air (not counting Cliff Martinez bombastic music).

Only God Forgives is a lot of noises and images, which, believe or not, is not a movie. The problem here is Mr Refn is an excellent decorator who just happens to like photographic symmetry. He’s a like a carpenter; a carpenter who can build a magnificent table. Unfortunately, this is not what a director is. The director is not the carpenter. The director is the architect. One of Mr Refn’s techniques is to shoot chronologically and edit sequences once they’ve been completed. This avows my theory.

So I can’t quite call this Mr Refn’s Zabriskie Point because that would imply he has made a Blow-up. Though if we’re going to bring up other filmmakers, Mr Refn actually dedicates the movie to Alejandro Jodorowsky and Gasper Noe, both of whom have nothing in common with their apparent dedicator. But I can’t deny experiencing giddiness whilst witnessing a filmmaker so foolishly attempt to conceal desperation with supposed capability. And, well, in the end, if God can forgive it, I guess I can too.