Saturday, February 8, 2014

The "Before" Films...

My first encounter with Jesse and Celine occurred in the late nineties in the film "Before Sunrise," one of the many films I discovered during my tenure at Blockbuster. I had been enamored of the Director Richard Linklater's film "Dazed and Confused" and sought out other films by him, which led me to this one. But something about this one clicked, creating a love affair with these two characters that picked up again nine years later with "Before Sunset" and then another nine years later in "Before Midnight." Why such an affinity for a movie couple, you ask? Well, let me start at the beginning...

Before Sunrise

It's 1995 and Jesse,  played by Ethan Hawke, is traveling by train to Vienna to catch a plane to go home. He strikes up a conversation with a woman roughly his same age, Celine, played by Julie Delpy. They seem to click a bit and he asks her to join him in the lounge car for a bite to eat and she agrees. They talk some more and really seem to be hitting it off. However, their conversation seems to come to an early end as the train arrives in Vienna. They part ways, but Jesse has second thoughts and returns to the lounge car and proposes a crazy thought to Celine. She should get off the train with him in Vienna and spend the night with him wandering the city before his flight in the morning (he doesn't have enough money for a hotel). 

Over the course of the night, Jesse and Celine wander around Vienna, talking about various topics and over the course of the night fall in love with each other. The entire movie is these entire two characters talking and the thing is, I started to fall for both of them. I wanted to hang out with them, have conversations with them. These are two young, smart, educated adults whose view of the world was not too different from mine. I found myself really enjoying these two and their time together exploring the city. It's an understated, realistic and honest approach to a romantic film and it works well. 

The film ends on an ambiguous note as Jesse and Celine pledge to meet again in six months back in Vienna, agreeing not to exchange phone numbers or anything and wait until they are reunited. Celine departs on the next train and Jesse departs for the airport, leaving the ending open to the viewer to decide if they reunite or not.

Before Sunset

Nine years later, I found myself greeted with the most unlikely of all sequels, "Before Sunset." Not at all unwelcome, in fact I found the prospect of reuniting with Jesse and Celine to be too good to be true and quite exciting.

The film picks up in Paris, nine years later. Celine shows up at a book signing Jesse is having in a Paris bookstore. He has a plane to catch that he had to leave and meet in an hour and a half. They decide to wander around Paris and catch up until he has to leave for the airport. They pick up where they left off, but there seems to be a cloud of regret hanging over the reunion. Turns out they never reunited in Vienna. Jesse showed, but Celine didn't because her Grandma died during the time they were supposed to reunite and couldn't come.

Both moved on with their lives. Jesse got married and has a kid. He also wrote a book about Celine and their one night together, and admits he did it as an attempt to find her. As the evening wears on, Jesse admits his marriage isn't working out and talks about how he never stopped looking for her. This film has a looming urgency to it as Jesse keeps putting off leaving for the airport, not wanting to let Celine go twice. 

This is a rare sequel that is an equal and perhaps even superior to the original as these two characters make peace with decisions they made when they were younger and try to determine what their future might be for one another. The film ends on a slightly less ambiguous note as the two end up at Celine's apartment. Celine says to Jesse, "Baby, you are going to miss that plane."

Jesse, seated on the couch, smiles and replies, "I know..."

"Before Sunset" is perhaps an even richer film simply because these two characters are older and oh so much wiser, wishing they hadn't been so foolish when they were younger and take greater lengths to remain in touch. It's this feeling of regret that slowly seeps into their limited time together that gives everything a little more meaning, a little more hope that these two will learn from their mistakes and not part this time around. Something the film playfully follows through on. 

Before Midnight

If I thought "Before Sunset" was unlikely, this one came as a complete surprise to me. Once again, a happy surprise, but wholly unexpected. We catch up with Jesse and Celine while on vacation in Greece. They are now married with twins. The film opens with Jesse seeing his son, Hank, off at the airport to return home to his mother in the U.S. This leaves Jesse with a feeling he should be around more for his son and that he's missing important moments in his son's life.  

Celine tries to be supportive but is not keen on the idea of moving to the U.S, in part because she has just been offered an important job with the French government. She suggests trying to get custody of Hank so he can move to Paris and live with them. Jesse is hesitant to do this, not wanting to take his son away from his life in the U.S. 

Jesse and Celine return to the house they are staying at with friends. Jesse was invited to stay as he was a guest lecturer at the local university, something else that is starting to bug Celine who is at a career crossroads while her husband has found success as a writer. Their friends arranged a date night for the two of them at a local hotel while they babysit their kids. As the two set off after dinner to walk to the hotel, they begin another of their epic conversations and it starts to become increasingly clear that not all is right with these two. 

While the first two was about the beginning of a relationship at two different stages in their lives, this one is very much about maintaining it and while it's not always pretty it feels so unbelievably authentic, in no small part due to the performances of Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke. As things continue to escalate between the two, culminating in a really big fight, it's heart wrenching because these two characters over the course of three films have become so genuinely real and three dimensional to the fans of these films. You want them to stay together because despite the things that drive them crazy about one another, they are so good together. 

As I reflect on these films, all three unique and special, I remark at how each one has such an authentic feel to them. There are no big moments, so silliness, it all feels like real life between two people and it has a genuineness to it that has left me enchanted through three films. All three seem to end of deliberately ambiguous notes, leaving the viewer to fill in what happens to these two characters that so many have gotten so attached to. As I left the theater after watching "Before Midnight" I felt really bummed that I was going to have to wait another nine years to hopefully see my friends Jesse and Celine again. Because at this point, that's what they feel like to me. That's crazy, right?

Friday, February 7, 2014

Guilty Pleasures: Beautiful Creatures

There are certain films that I genuinely enjoy, even if I feel a little guilty for enjoying it as much as I do. One film that falls under this category is definitely Beautiful Creatures. I really enjoyed this film and have lost all objectivity to be able to decide if this was actually a good film or not. Maybe in the process of writing this column, I can figure it out.

As the film begins, we are introduced to Ethan Wate, played by Alden Ehrenreich. He admits, through some admittingly witty narration, he's been having recurring dreams about a girl he doesn't know and he can't shake them. Of course, he soon enough meets the girl, Lena Duchannes (played by Alice Englert), who turns out to be the niece of the town shut in and just moved to town. 

Ethan winds up finding Lena stranded on the side of the road later that day and gives her a ride home. Immediately smitten, he continues to get to know her and her uncle, Macon Ravenwood (played by Jeremy Irons). He soon discovers that she, along with the rest of her family, is a witch or as they prefer to be called, Casters (Yeah, I know, I rolled my eyes too). Due to a curse dating back to the civil war, she is due to be claimed for either the dark side or the light side on her birthday unless they can figure out how to break the curse.

Complicating matters is the appearance of Lena's cousin, Ridley (played by Emmy Rossum at her sexy bad girl best). She was claimed for the dark side and brings with her Lena's mother, who is no longer able to take human form but instead possesses Ethan's friend Link's mother, played by Emma Thompson (overacting within an inch of her life and loving every minute of it). They are bound and determined to ensure Lena is claimed for the dark side. 

The film is another in a long line of Teen Supernatural Romance adaptations, but I think this one works a bit better than some other adaptations. It's more colorful and has more flavor to it than some others in the genre. I also was able to get far more invested in the central romance of Ethan and Lena, probably in a large part because they are played far more engagingly by Alden Ehrenreich and Alice Englert than some other of the genre's offerings (I'm looking at you, Twilight). The film also takes place in South Carolina, so it gives the actors a chance to sink their teeth into some admittingly over-wrought Southern accents, but at the same time just adds to the over the top fun of the film. 

Of course, the supporting cast is top notch too with the aforementioned Jeremy Irons, Emma Thompson and Emmy Rossum. But there is also Viola Davis as Amma, who is the curator of the Caster library and was a friend of Ethan's late mother. She may just be my favorite character of the film. Of course, that may just be because I love Viola Davis. But she does have some of the best lines in the film.

After thinking it over as I wrote this article, I can say without a doubt I did genuinely enjoy this film. Yeah, it has it's faults. It's not perfect, but it is a lot of fun, with colorful characters, witty dialogue and is one of better additions to the ever growing teen paranormal romance genre. 

Saturday, February 1, 2014

The Ballad of Thelma & Louise

Thelma and Louise blew into cinemas in the summer of 1991 with a wave of controversy that to this day remains, at least to some extent. Most of the complaints were overblown, made by straight, white male critics thoroughly unprepared to watch women break free and be the outlaws for once. They even went so far as to call the film anti-male, conveniently overlooking the fact that the film was indeed directed by a man, Ridley Scott. 

To properly analyze the film, first let me give you the plot of the film. The film focuses on two suburban Arkansas women. Thelma, played by Geena Davis, is a housewife to an emotionally abusive schmuck Darryl (played by Christopher McDonald). Louise, played by Susan Sarandon, is a waitress who is at a crossroads in her life and with her boyfriend, Jimmy. The two are leaving town, to spend the weekend at Louise's boss's cabin. 

On the way there, they decide to stop off at a roadhouse to have a couple drinks and unwind. Thelma meets a man, Harlan, who she is having fun flirting with. Things take a bad turn when he takes her out to the parking lot to get some air and then proceeds to attempt to rape her. Louise shows up in time and pulls a gun on him to get him to back off. As they're leaving, Harlan taunts the two girls and Louise turns back to him and shoots him in cold blood. Panicking, they flee the scene. 

Knowing there was no way she is going to get off, Louise decides to make a run for the border. Having nothing to go back to, Thelma decides to stand by her best friend. This turns out to be easier said than done as complications mount, especially with the arrival of thieving hitchhiker J.D, played by Brad Pitt at his sexiest, who quickly becomes the object of Thelma's love starved lusting.

At the heart of the film is the two dynamite performances by Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis. Each one plays their role to absolute perfection and you can't help but love and side with the characters all the way through the film. They stand by one another, help each other when the other is in the throes of despair, trading off taking charge of the situation including, among other things, Thelma robbing a convenience store after they get robbed. 

Meanwhile, a police detective played by Harvey Keitel, Hal Slocumb, is trying to track down the two women and when they finally make contact tries everything he can to get them to come in peacefully. Of course, Louise doesn't believe him and continues to try and leave the country. 

Callie Khouri wrote the script and weaves a tightly plotted story, spiced with humor, drama and adventure about two women who over the course of a couple days see their lives spin wildly out of control and try their best to adapt to it. Over the course of their journey, both women reflect on their lives in comparison to their present state, slowly shedding their baggage both figuratively and literally. This is wonderfully illustrated in a scene late in the film when Louise takes off all her jewelry, trading it with an old man for his cowboy hat. She no longer needed it and had not use for it. Thelma has a similar scene where she expresses that she finally feels awake, really awake and that going back to her old life was no longer a possibility. She was all in, no matter what. 

The film itself is wonderfully directed by Ridley Scott. In addition to telling a moving story, the film is absolutely beautiful to look at with stunning cinematography by Adrian Biddle. The film captures the wonderful vistas of the American Southwest, typified in a nighttime scene when Thelma and Louise drive through the deserts of New Mexico (although it was actually filmed in Moab, Utah). It ends with Louise pulling over to the side of the road and having a quiet moment to herself to reflect for a bit while Thelma sleeps in the car. It's quiet moments like this that make the film so memorable for me.

In the end, I'd like to think that this film has stood the test of time for being a good film with strong characters, hoping that most of the controversy has dissipated as time has gone by. While some would no doubt still take issue with the content of the film, it is significantly less violent than critics would suggest making it sound like Thelma and Louise go on a killing spree when in fact only one person is killed, a rapist no less. I would urge critics of the film to examine exactly why they have issue with the film. I, for one, found it an intensely moving and well made film that I still enjoy revisiting periodically.