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Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Summer Views

Ah, summer.  The time when I can settle in to many many movies.  I've watched a lot, so I'll keep my thoughts to 2013 releases.  I've been impressed by the many quality movies I've seen in the first half of the year, which is typically something of a wasteland of film.

Before Midnight

The story of Jesse and Celine, which began in Before Sunrise (1995), continued in Before Sunset (2004), and finds its third act in Before Midnight (2013), is a stunning achievement in modern independent cinema.  Director Richard Linklater and stars Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy have taken viewers through almost two decades in the relationship of a couple who first met on a European train.  I saw Before Sunrise a few years after it was released, and have religiously kept up with the couple since then.  In my own age I'm about a decade behind them, but I feel like I know them so well.

Here's where I put in the inevitable spoiler alert, since I myself tried to avoid hearing anything about this movie.  If you haven't seen the first two, see them now!  The first two films were real-time exercises in the central pair talking to one another, with almost no significant intrusions from the outside world.  Before Midnight twists the formula a bit.  It actually begins with a scene of Jesse and his teenage son and includes a long scene where the couple talks to other guests at a vacation home.  Eventually, though, the couple are alone again, and we are in for a lot of one-on-one talking.

And yet it's not exactly like the couple of old, not for long anyway.  The younger Jesse and Celine had philosophical  conversations about anything and everything, but now they mostly talk about their relationship.  The pleasures, joys, and regrets.  Eventually it becomes mostly about anger, and here is where the actors shine. Delpy, in particular, goes deeper and rawer than she ever has in the past movies.  As you watch the two argue, many will take sides, while others will seen the truth and hurt in both.

This is a somewhat painful film to watch, and yet I was happy the whole time simply for the opportunity to spend time with Jesse and Celine again. I did miss their freewheeling conversations of past films, but I think what the director and stars put together is a more real representation of what people who have spent lots of time together would actually talk about.  While I perhaps love the other two films more, this is a very worthy addition to the series, and I certainly hope they reunite in 2022.

Grade: A-

56 Up

Is the Up series the nonfiction equivalent of the Before Sunrise movies?  Director Michael Apted started his project when he interviewed a group of 7-year-olds in 1964.  They came from all social classes in Britain.  For every 7 years since, he has returned to these same characters, and all of them are still alive.  Just as I am excited to see Jesse and Celine in the Before movies, I'm happy to return to these friends every 7 years.

Overall, 56 seems to be a solid and happy time for many of the subjects.  Many have gotten divorced, but they've found new happiness with new partners, children, and sometimes grandchildren.  The rich have stayed rich, while the middle- and lower-classes have, on the whole, shown a variety of stasis and mobility.  Watching this movie, I wondered how it would look in an American context.

The Up series are some of my favorite documentaries, and I was happy to follow Apted again.  I do wish he had been a bit more probing in some of his interviews, but again I can't wait for another 7 years to see what the 60s have in store for each charcter.

Grade: B+


After his low-key (albeit powerful) debut, Shotgun Stories, director Jeff Nichols made quite a splash on the indie- ilm scene with 2011's Take Shelter, a quiet tour-de-force with remarkable performances by Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain.  In his latest, Mud, Nichols makes what is perhaps a more conventional film, but loses nothing of his substantial gifts in the process.

Mud is the story the boy Ellis (Tye Sheridan), who discovers an abandoned boat on an island near his Arkansas home, as well as a fugitive named Mud, played by Matthew McConaughey.  The story is concerned with his relationship with Mud, but also with his own parents, his first crush, and the changing Arkansas town around him.

Director Nichols brings many mythic American images to this movie, and to me it especially evoked Mark Twain, with Ellis a sort of Huck Finn taking a peek at adult emotions around him and growing up in the process.  It's old-fashioned in the best sense, taking its time to tell a story. Is it perfect? Of course not.  It takes a genre turn at the end I could have done without.  Nevertheless, it's one of the best coming-of-age movies I've seen in a very long time.

Grade: A-

Much Ado About Nothing

I am a bit of a Shakespeare nerd, so I'm an easy target for any Shakespeare film.  Much Ado About Nothing is directed by Joss Whedon (Buffy, The Avengers).  He filmed the whole thing over 12 days at his Santa Monica mansion, using many of his regular actors.  On the whole, this provides a breezy, fun take on Shakespeare, enhanced by the black and white cinematography.

I was unfamiliar with the cast members, but was extremely impressed by a couple of them, especially Nathan Fillon as the blundering constable Dogberry and Amy Acker as Beatrice, one the prickliest of fascinating of Shakespeare's heroines. Acker was so good, in fact, that at at times I felt she outshone Alexis Denisof as Benedict, her partner in sparring.

Watching Much Ado About Nothing I was constantly entertained and smiling, but I also fondly remembered scene's from Kenneth Branagh's 1993 version, which I remember liking a bit more than this version.   A fun movie that, in my book, doesn't go into the all-time great Shakespeare adaptations.

Grade: B

20 Feet From Stardom

Here is the probably the most smiles I had at any movie this year thus far.  It's a terrific documentary about backup singers, starting with those from the 60s who sang with such artists as Ray Charles, The Rolling Stones, David Bowie, and Ike and Tina Turner.

The movie is great because the women are charismatic and fascinating.  There are about five women the movie follows closely, and each one has an incredible story, historic performances, and great charisma in front of the camera.

The movie certainly touches on issues of gender and race, as these black women lent their considerable talent to male artists.  Some felt exploited, while it seems like others are happy to be partners.  It's a really fun movie and a few moments will give you some major musical chills.  A crowd pleaser in the best sense of the word.

Grade: A-

Side Effects

Side Effects is, purportedly, accomplished director Steven Soderbergh's last movie he will release.  I think Soderbergh is a highly interesting director, able to bounce easily between the populist (Ocean's 11, Erin Brockovich, Magic Mike), the Oscar film (Traffic), and the truly indies (sex, lies, and videotape, Bubble).  If this is truly his last film, it's an highly entertaining one, lying on the populist end of his output.

Much of the pleasure is in the twists and turns, so I'll just say the movie is about a depressed young woman (Rooney Mara) who gets medicine from a new psychiatrist (Jude Law).  Soderbergh plays with storytelling and perspective throughout the movie, and the stars are up to the challenge.  After her amazing cameo in The Social Network, her Lisbeth in Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and now this performance, Mara has what it takes to be a major star.

This movie isn't one where you'll love the characters, but more of a chilly genre picture, like something Hitchcock might have made.  I thought it was a whole lot of fun, and well worth checking out.

Grade: B+/B