Monday, May 21, 2012

Favorite Films: "Before Sunset"

It's been a few years since I've seen Before Sunset, so I may get some of the details wrong.  I may remember things that didn't actually happen, or not quite the way I remember them.  I might even remember it being much better than it actually is.

Memory is funny that way.  Humans have a fascinating tendency to filter out the bad and ratchet up the good when they remember things.  That trip you took to Hawaii, the one where you fought and argued and cried and screamed with your traveling companion?  You remember the sunset and the beach and how it was to climb the green mountain.  Odd, isn't it?

Before Sunset is a remarkable film that knows exactly that -- and conveys, in a way that you would think is impossible to capture on film, how achingly we long to relive those experiences.  The green mountain, I mean, not the shouting and pouting.

True confession: I never saw Before Sunrise, the movie that came before Before Sunset, when Jesse and Celine first met each other.  They're the characters played by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, who also helped write this film.  I don't really want to see the earlier film, either, in the same way you don't really want to know what your spouse was like before you knew each other; the photos and the stories are fine, but actually being there would strip away some of the mystery.  Even after decades together, you have to have your secrets.

Everything you need to know about Jesse and Celine, Before Sunset shares: They met one night in Vienna, they spent an unforgettable evening together, and they never saw each other again -- despite a promise to meet.  Life happened.  Marriage, career, messiness.

But here's Jesse, an author come to sign his book at Shakespeare & Co. on the Left Bank.  Celine read about the signing, and she wasn't sure she should come, but she did.  They walk through Paris together, and they talk, and then the time comes that Jesse is supposed to leave for the airport to go home.

That's all that happens in the movie, but it's both extraordinarily cinematic and achingly, impossibly romantic and engrossing.  Only on second or third viewing does it sink in: These shots, these long, unbroken shots of walks through Paris streets, are technical masterpieces.  How did they do that?  On that level alone, Before Sunrise demands to be seen -- it's more complex, in its way, than any visual-effects-laden blockbuster, because while the camera and crew are moving, imperceptibly, Hawke and Delpy not only don't break character, they make character.

Contemporary characters are hard to pull off, because there's frankly not a lot of appeal to sitting in the dark watching people who are more like you than not.  Hawke and Delpy are complex, interesting people; you want to spend time with them.

They speak language that has the rhythm and cadence of our own, but cuts to the quick.  "What's it like to be married?" she asks. "It's like I run a day care center with someone I used to date," he answers with hard-won truth.  Talk like this is possible with someone you love and will never see again.

Jesse and Celine are in love, always have been, maybe, but they're smart enough to know they fell in love with the idea of the other person.  Now, the reality is there in front of them.  It is appealing.  It is frustrating.  It is everything they hoped and nothing they wanted.  They flirt because they have no future.  But then, there's that closing line -- two words that may be among the most perfect in movie history.

There's been talk of a third Before movie.  Before Afternoon?  Doesn't have the same ring.  It's why we don't talk about third chances.  Second chances are rare enough.  Movies as compact and affecting as this are even rarer.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

"One Day on Earth"

 4.5 / 5 

Full disclosure: The director of "One Day on Earth" is a former co-worker, who provided me a complimentary DVD copy of the film, and my name is listed in the "Special Thanks" section of the film's end credits.  I've done my best to not let that affect my views, though I find the film easy to recommend.

One Day on Earth began as a concept, an experiment to see if it was even possible to get film and video footage from every country in the world, shot on a single day.  But just ask Gun Van Sant, who wanted to see if it was possible to remake a Hitchcock film shot for shot using the original script -- movies made from experiments often don't turn out well.

So it's a small revelation that One Day on Earth is a stunning film, a movie made with craft and artistry that doesn't have a linear plot, but nevertheless tells a strong and compelling story with flair and style.

Director Kyle Ruddick conceptualized One Day on Earth, and two people, Michael Martinez and Mark Morgan, are credited as editors -- along with hundreds of other contributors, who have worked in concert to pull off a spectacular cinematic feat, culling thousands of submissions into a coherent vision.

By contrast, longtime filmmaker Ridley Scott and noted director Kevin MacDonald devised a similar project called Life in a Day, piecing videos submitted on YouTube.  The result was tedious and obvious, like being subjected to 90 minutes of home movies from people you don't know.  While there were moments of undeniable humanity, Life in a Day took its title far too literally, including a five-minute montage of people brushing their teeth and peeing in the morning, and an interminable six-floor ride up a parking-garage elevator.  There may be beauty in the mundane, but Life in a Day didn't find it.

One Day on Earth soars.  There are mundane things here, like a woman and her little girl on a blanket in a park, but they're brought together in astonishing ways. This film benefits from a clear vision, a desire to prove, as the song says, it's a small world.  Helpfully, NASA contributed footage of the docking of a Soyuz capsule to the International Space Station, offering a view of our quiet, still planet from above.

With 3,000 hours of footage shot in every country (including North Korea and the South Pole), One Day on Earth could have been a visual cacophony, but instead there are many moments of artistry and ambition, and the movie is edited with precision, care and style from that crazy-quilt of submissions, each shot on the same day: Oct. 10, 2010 (or, colloquially, 10/10/10).

The movie takes care to let the viewer always know where a shot took place, a small detail that Life in a Day overlooked but that makes a huge difference.  And, most importantly, One Day on Earth smartly divides itself into thematic segments -- birth, love, war, youth, marriage, animals, etc. -- which means although there is no plot and very little dialogue, the pace rarely flags. If One Day on Earth is a bit long in the end, it's a forgivable excess; there's a lot to tell.

Interspersed throughout are facts that serve as segment dividers but also lend remarkable perspective: How many people were born, how many died, how many married, how much money ($172 billion) was spent, how much was produced -- and how much was wasted -- on that single day.  There's every reason to anticipate boredom in a film "project" like this, so it's an honest surprise that the movie is as good as it is and offers unexpected pleasures, especially a standout sequence about music around the world.

One Day on Earth never preaches, but patiently allows the mind to wander, to make our own connections, relate the images to our own view of the world, our unique, individual experiences.  There is, at times, great sadness and regret on display, but not exploitation.

One Day on Earth is equal parts Animal Planet, Koyaanisqatsi, MTV, Fantasia and even 2001, but for a concept at once so simple and almost academic, it's has a genuine voice. The makers of One Day on Earth have an infectious, endearing affection for this odd little planet we live on.  Immerse yourself in their view of the world, and so will you.

Viewed on DVD -- May 18, 2012

Saturday, May 12, 2012

"The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel"

 4 / 5 

To get the cynical view out of the way first, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is a land-locked British version of "The Love Boat," featuring a bunch of aging actors you probably know in vignettes about love and loss, with young not-quite-stars thrown in to appeal to the kids who may be watching.

Instead of Esther Williams, Red Buttons and Debbie Reynolds, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel has Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson and Maggie Smith, and that makes all the difference.  These are extraordinary actors, who lift material that could be cloying and maudlin into the realm of, if not art, then grand and memorable entertainment.

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel doesn't have a single car chase, super villain or explosion, though there is a fire that plays quite a dramatic role in the proceedings, so it's unclear how the film got made, much less released just as the summer movie season gets underway.  And although the summer releases are just starting, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is already a relief.

It's increasingly rare to see movies that revolve around real adults, much less the senior citizens who come to live at the titular hotel. They don't have very much at all in common, except that they've reached a point in their lives that the people around them are saying they need to slow down, maybe have a little help, possibly live in a house with, you know, railings and panic buttons in case of a fall.

For various reasons, they end up at a hotel in India, lured by a website and brochure that promises exotic splendor for their golden years.  The hotel's owner (Dev Patel, the youngest member of the cast) has a wildly optimistic opinion of his operation.  But, then, he's wildly optimistic about everything, and it's hard to argue with his reasoning: "In India, we have a saying - everything will be all right in the end. If it is not all right, then it is not the end."

So, they stay, at least for a while, and we get to know them.  Some have a greater lust for life than others.  Some believe in India, some don't.  Some embrace their maturity, others are dreadfully scared of it.  Some are intrigued by the future, others trapped by the past.

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is light on plot, but heavy on charm.  As it insists India itself is, the film is warm and ingratiating.  The characters it offers are compelling, well-drawn people with complexities of their own. To me, the most memorable were Tom Wilkinson as a man who has journeyed to India for a very specific reason; Penelope Wilton as a woman who realizes, the moment she sets foot in India, that she has made far too many mistakes; and Maggie Smith, whose character is angry and shockingly racist, and whose pre-ordained change of heart feels authentic because it underscores what a sad, lonely life she has had.

Judi Dench is the real standout -- both frightened and confident, curious and reticent, she is the observer of the group, the very modern blog she keeps provides the film's narration.  She's also an extraordinary actress; watch the scene in which she calls her son back home on a whim -- the way loss, sadness and fear creep over her face, just fleetingly.

Loss and sadness are everywhere in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, because it's a movie about people who have lived full lives.  But they are overwhelmed by change, by the future, and a handful of people who thought their lives were almost over instead discover, in a most unlikely place, that possibility still exists.

Viewed May 11, 2012 - ArcLight Hollywood

Saturday, May 5, 2012


 2.5 / 5 

The most depressing, disturbing moment in Bully comes not when any of the children who are its subjects are taunted and mocked, rather when a clueless assistant school principal tries to talk with one of the kids who's complaining about harassment.  No doubt imagining herself to be instilling the right values in the boy, she proves completely oblivious to the problems he's facing.

Throughout Bully, a documentary about school-age bullying, a problem hardly new to the 21st century, adults prove themselves to be either well-intentioned but admittedly unaware -- or, worse, utterly incapable of recognizing the magnitude of the behavior and the effect it has on the kids who are being tortured at school.

Bully received a lot of media coverage for its "R" rating, and finally bowing to the, well, bullying of the Motion Picture Association of America, the Weinstein Company cut out a few utterances of the f-word, even though they were lobbed at kids by other kids.  That's right, the MPAA felt that kids should not be allowed to watch the behavior of other kids without a parent accompanying them, a ludicrous position if ever there was one.

The attendant publicity served the film well, and more or less obscured the fact that, as a documentary, it's meandering and unfocused.  Its intentions are good; its execution somewhat less so.  Its makers clearly believe school-age bullying has transcended being a rite of passage and become a serious problem that has led to a rash of teen suicides and a rising tide of intolerance.

Bully tells the story of a handful of teenagers whose lives have been forever changed by no mere taunts, but by psychological and physical abuse that is so intolerable it leads two kids to kill themselves and another to bring a gun to school in an effort to put an end to the behavior.  Its primary subject is Alex, a boy who was born three months premature and who suffers physical and (apparently) mental problems because of it -- and whose days in middle school are unspeakably awful.

As a portrait of what life is like for some teen- and pre-teen kids, Bully shows that high school remains depressingly the same as it always was.  As a serious exploration of school-age bullying, it leaves a lot to be desired.  Most urgently, the movie never looks at the other side of the problem, doesn't make an effort even momentarily to get the perspective of the persecutors -- or the teachers and administrators whose impassivity is almost equally at fault.  One set of parents, in particular, seem so ill-equipped to be raising one child (much less four) that certainly they have played a part in the way their child faces the world, but Bully never brings us closer to them.

The kids are fascinating, but there are too many of them to get to know them well.  What does Alex himself think of his situation?  The filmmakers never stop to talk to him or get into his mind.  The little girl who brought the gun to school is seen but never heard from directly -- and it would be good (and vital) to know just what made a bright, achievement-oriented kid snap like that.  There's no such revelation to be had in Bully.

Bully insists there's a problem, almost an epidemic, but explores neither the cause nor the cure, just says the same thing over and over: It has to stop.  It's great as a rallying cry, not so good as a movie.

Friday, May 4, 2012

"The Avengers"

 3 / 5 

The all-star, super-spectacular disaster movies of the 1970s often felt more like exercises in ego management than dramas: Star 1 had to have the same amount of screen time and dialogue and close-ups as Star 2, and co-star A couldn't upstage co-star B.  The Avengers is a little like that, but with super-heroes: All of them are the star, and it's a little exhausting and overwhelming, though you can't say it isn't entertaining and doesn't do the job.

The plot is exceedingly simple and yet takes a good hour or so to fully kick in.  The greatest super-heroes the world has ever known, plus one decidedly angry anti-hero, are brought together to vanquish a threat from the cosmos, one that could destroy the entire planet.  There you go.  Easy as that.  The movie takes nearly 2 1/2 hours to tell the story.

Most of that screen time is, not unexpectedly, taken up by a massive melee in midtown Manhattan, and it's quite possible I'm far too sensitive to certain events that actually took place in September 2001, but watching buildings crash to the ground and thousands of New Yorkers flee for their lives in the name of escapist entertainment kind of rubs me the wrong way.

It's impossible to divorce what happens on screen from reality, even when flying men in tights grace the screen.  We clearly didn't have superheroes when we most needed them, and since superheroes have their comic-book roots in the real world -- as an escapist answer to the harsh realities of the Depression and the atrocities of a World War -- it's rather a glaring omission that The Avengers never mentions the tumult of our actual reality in anything but a glancing, jokey way.

Truly, I was bothered, perhaps more than necessary, by those scenes of mass destruction, of Manhattan being gleefully destroyed by flying enemies, even when The Avengers finally makes a point of showing people posting memorials to the tens of thousands of people who apparently die on screen while the heroes do their thing.

Am I taking it all too seriously?  Perhaps, but that's not to say there isn't some fun to be had in The Avengers, who don't "avenge" much but do wield some pretty potent powers. The fun mostly comes in the form of fully committed performances, especially by Chris Evans as Captain America and Chris Hemsworth as Thor, characters -- and actors -- so serious that even they realize how ridiculous they must sound.

The first hour of The Avengers is unexpectedly and probably unnecessarily complicated, spending a lot of screen time explaining the exact properties of the Tesseract, the object the bad guy wields and the good guys want.  The best parts of The Avengers don't involve the Tesseract, the fighting or the story of ultra-secret agency S.H.I.E.L.D. and its plans for the glowing square cube.

They're the moments when the superheroes -- who are quite aware of their reputation as invincible doers of good and come equipped with nice-sized egos -- try to understand each other.  There's a lot that would make for terrific satire here, as each Avenger wants to prove why he (or she) is better than the others.  There's also a nice moment when Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) shakes his head in disappointment and says he had hoped that these remarkable people would want to work together for a bigger purpose.

They have to be told that; each is more interested in saving the world in his or her own way.  It's a nice reflection on our societal mores and insatiable need for attention and self-aggrandizement.  But that kind of observation is just a bit beyond the vision of The Avengers, a movie unashamedly designed to appeal to people who know these characters already, who have seen the half-dozen movies that came before.  If you haven't, or you've forgotten them, your enjoyment of The Avengers may vary.

Make no doubt, The Avengers is, on many levels, a more-than-satisfactory film, with moments of great humor and heart -- and a terrific post-credit scene that hints at the kind of movie we could have had if the characters of these heroes had been more important than the bad-guy-wants-to-take-over-the-world story.  Of course all of these heroes will live, of course there will be a sequel -- or many of them -- and that knowledge dilutes much of the suspense.

What we're left with is eye-popping visual effects, lots and lots of well-staged action, and welcome moments of levity throughout.  For me, The Avengers had too many oddly unpleasant undertones, reminders of what our real world is like, what happens when you don't have super-heroes to call upon when the day needs saving.  For most, I suspect, The Avengers will be much more than satisfactory.  It's by far the best of the recent spate of superhero films.  It's just, some of them haven't been too good to begin with.

Viewed May 4, 2012 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks