Friday, December 23, 2016

BEFORE MIDNIGHT - #859

I intend to review the full Before Trilogy when the release comes out this February, but in the meantime, here is my original review of Before Midnight written for DVDTalk.com for the movie's theatrical release in 2013.


It hit me with a heavy thud early on in Before Midnight when Ethan Hawke's Jesse expresses his disbelief that he is now 41 years old: I have been the exact same age as the characters in this series whenever each movie has come out. The initial meeting between Jesse and Celine (Julie Delpy) happened when we were all 22 (Before Sunrise), and then ten years later in Before Sunset, at the onset of our 30s (so far the best decade in terms of growing up and growing old), and now we rejoin the narrative as we are settling into middle age.

I'll be curious to hear what my younger friends take away from Before Midnight. The ongoing relationship and occasional romance that the characters have with one another, and which they also have with us, the audience, is not getting any easier, even as it grows more comfortable. Despite a decade together and all the ups and downs that come with it, the relationship between these two (dare we say?) soulmates is just as deeply furrowed as it's always been. They can joke together and they can appreciate the wonders of the world, but they also disagree and fail to communicate and have to push hard to keep the love standing between them.

[Note: Other reviewers have treated some of the plot details about Before Midnight as spoilers; I don't think much of this hand-wringing is warranted. What I detail below is discovered within the first several minutes of the movie, but should you be concerned, don't read between the next two photographs. Then again, if you're that invested, why are you reading this instead of getting in line for a ticket?]


This third go-around, directed in the same au-naturale style by Richard Linklater, who has also shared co-writing credit with his stars since 2004's original sequel, finds Celine and Jesse in Europe at the tail-end of a vacation. Jesse has just put his son back on a plane to Chicago to be with his mother, and the farewell was tough. The boy is about to start high school, and Jesse realizes he has lived away from the child most of the kid's life. He and Celine have their own children, whom they live with in Paris, and Celine has a fulfilling job, all of which makes even the thought of moving the family to America problematic.

That's the essential situation that gets Before Midnight underway, providing the complications that will cause the extended conversation that forms the bulk of the film. There is one pitstop before the ball really gets rolling. Jesse and Celine are staying at the Greek villa of an older man who admires Jesse's writing. With them are two other couples: a funny, loving duo who are a generation ahead of Jesse and Celine, and a newer pair of lovers that are the same age that Jesse and Celine were in Before Sunrise. In a spirited dinner table conversation, Linklater and crew give us a full representation of the stages of life as they exist now, and how age and origin informs each romance. Alongside the older host (veteran cinematographer Walter Lassally) is a widow (Xenia Kalogeropoulou), who gives the film's most emotional monologue when remembering her late husband. It's this moment that sets up one of the film's main themes: the preciousness of time and how our memorializing of the same distorts it. It's a beautiful segment, and the first of many times I teared up during Before Midnight.


It's after this meal that Jesse and Celine depart on their own, heading down from the villa to spend a night alone in a hotel. Unfortunately, without saying much more about specifics, the tension that has been brewing between them reaches full steam, and the romantic night turns into a difficult argument. Both participants are equal part aggressor and victim. They are alternately cruel, unfair, and selfish. They are also vulnerable and protective of what they have, both as individuals and together. You will find your sympathies shifting back and forth. Jesse can't calm the situation without saying something stupid, whereas every time Celine gives an inch, she takes it back with sharp-tongued fury. Exposition is smartly folded into the back-and-forth, catching us up on what got them from Before Sunset to here, and the more we learn, the more we realize that they don't always know each other--or even themselves.

Which is the real heavy-duty truth that Before Midnight reveals about not just long-term relationships, but also what it's like to be in middle age. From what I am discovering, one's 40s are a period of self-assessment and self-doubt. Both Jesse and Celine are asking where the time has gone, reevaluating their decisions, and wondering how much time they have left to get it right. Listen to what they say, all of those things are in there. Likewise, they are questioning why their bodies are changing, why they are often not in control of their own impulses, and why despite four decades of wisdom, they can't change their worst traits (if they even need to). Being in your 40s feels like being a teenager again, you're suddenly not in control of your physical form or your mental and emotional state. For the past twelve months, I've personally been living in the I Heart Huckabees "How am I not myself?" rubber ball scene on perpetual loop, and so it struck me deeply to hear both Jesse and Celine ask the same basic question of each other: "How am I not the person you fell in love with?"


That Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy manage to balance so many things, to make their characters three-dimensional and flawed while also keeping them likable, and make Before Midnight as uplifting and cathartic as it is emotionally distressing, is really the secret to why this series has managed to sustain its quality and appeal. The level of talent on display here, the depth and nuance of the performances and of the writing, is incredible. I'd also posit that it's a chemistry that is impossible to replicate. Delpy has starred in and directed two very similar movies, 2 Days in Paris [review] and 2 Days in New York [review], both of which fail to conjure the same magic. She can't do it without Linklater or Hawke any more than they could do it without her and each other. It's like the Beatles as a unit vs. the Beatles apart. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

And so we are left again at an impasse, a momentary truce that may hold. Like the devastating ebbs and flows of the union in Ingmar Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage, we will never be sure from one entry to the next where our subjects will land. Somewhere on the internet, I am sure a Before... franchise fan has already started a doomsday clock counting down the next ten years, marking the time until we all meet again. The point, though, is not to count the minutes or the years, but to live them. Only then will the next reunion's lessons make sense, or even this one's be justified.



Sunday, December 18, 2016

BLU-REDO: THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL - #459


A few years on since Criterion’s 2012 release of The Exterminating Angel (and my lengthy review), this new Blu-ray upgrade of Luis Buñuel’s 1962 social satire couldn’t have come at a more appropriate time. As political climates change and divides deepen across the world, this surreal masterpiece turns the tables on the social classes. Though wealth and standing were not part of Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson’s infamous horror movie rules in Scream, a deeper examination of the genre, particularly the sort of isolating event they were sending up in their movie, I am sure would reveal that most often, things go bad for the poor, not the rich. Or, when they do, someone from the underclass is there to save the day. The outsider that tagged along with her moneyed classmates for the weekend being the only one to emerge from a slasher plot alive.

Not that The Exterminating Angel is at all like a slasher film, but it is very much a horror film. Dark forces are in the air right from the get-go, when the servants of a Mexican dignitary start exiting his home just before a big dinner party. There is a suggestion that they are not colluding, that they are not aware of what compels them to go. Did they enact a curse on their snobby boss and his guests, or are they simply falling under the same spell? While this strange happening forces them to leave, it requires the others to stay.


What exactly happened is never explained, nor does it need to be. The closest we get to maybe being able to surmise the motivation of whatever force is holding sway is The Exterminating Angel’s closing scenes. We’ve switched from the wealthy to the pious. Buñuel is targeting social institutions and ideologies, isolating them so as to expose and ridicule. His main scenario, borrowing a little from Sartre’s No Exit, is that following their meal, the partygoers discover they cannot leave. There is no visible obstacle keeping them in the room, yet they can’t find the ability to simply walk out. Food disappears, as do other pleasures; the group splinters, factions form. Stripped of the trappings of status, these people are left to be themselves--and who they are is not necessarily very likable.


In a society where the gap between the rich and the poor, as well as many moral and political divides, is becoming more pronounced than ever, there is much we can glean from The Exterminating Angel. The film makes the division real, blocking the rich from the rest of the world, but in doing so, takes everything away, turning them into the people they might otherwise judge, forcing them to go without. In added prescience, Buñuel’s turning the whole thing into a media spectacle is not unlike reality television being a platform for celebrity, wealth, and now leadership. Though, the gawkers outside the mansion seem positively quaint in the age of 24-7 surveillance, paparazzi, and, of course, oversharing.

The critique is sharp, but Buñuel’s approach is often playful. He watches his characters with the mirth of a prankster. Which, of course, he is. It’s the director who locked these people in this mansion, and only he can let them out once he’s seen all he wants to see. They can be craven and petty, but their desperation is also horribly human. As with the best horror, the awful things that happen prove to remind us we are alive, and that we are all in this together. The rich are no better than anyone else, no more capable--but when they finally do get out, it’s because they push together.


The high-definition transfer on this disc is very nice, bringing The Exterminating Angel into its Blu period. I don’t believe this is any different than the transfer used for the previous DVD edition, but the image is crisp and the uncompressed soundtrack sounds fantastic. All the extras from the original disc, including a 2008 documentary tribute to Luis Buñuel, are carried over to this re-release.


The images used in this review are from the standard-definition DVD and not the Blu-ray under examination. 

This disc provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

HEART OF A DOG - #846


Laurie Anderson’s Heart of a Dog is an unconventional documentary. Known primarily for her performance art and avant-garde music (Criterion fans might know the score she wrote with John Cale for Something Wild [review]), Anderson’s feature-length directorial effort translates much of what she has been about into a fresh venue. Aesthetically satisfying while also thought provoking, Heart of a Dog is more than a meditation on the passing of the artist’s beloved pet, a rat terrier named Lolabelle, but a general exploration of how we deal with death and also the way a terrible event like September 11th changes us.


These might seem like quite disparate narrative pursuits, but Anderson weaves them together with little effort, and is arguably more successful at doing so by avoiding creating any clear connectors. Sure, Lolabelle’s examination of the sky on an outing might remind Anderson how her fellow New Yorkers also now look to the heavens for potential danger, but it’s more free association than causal metaphor. Heart of a Dog examines how our views of the afterlife might also affect our sense of security in the world (our paths, as tracked by CCTV and surveillance devices, create a kind of ghost image of who we are). Likewise, language determines how we communicate with one another, how we establish connections. When you consider these things together, a dog does seem to be the perfect vehicle for such concerns. We look to our canine friends for both security and companionship, and perhaps this simple relationship could serve as the seed to how we engage with the world at large.


In terms of style, Anderson composes Heart of a Dog with a variety of tools, ranging from animation to re-enactment, home videos to random security footage. This allows her to shift as necessary, to keep the essay flowing. Anderson narrates the whole thing with a calm tone, matched by the ambient score she also composed (some of which was performed with the Kronos Quartet; interestingly, you can also watch the film with the music turned off). There is a feeling with this movie, particularly in terms of this release, that Heart of a Dog is more than a film, but also a packaged experience, an object, with the extra booklet included in the Blu-ray creating a mini paper version of the movie’s look and feel. Once you remove the plastic wrap from the case, there is no element here that was not strongly considered to contribute to the whole.


Amidst all this heady construction, however, the most effective moments, at least for me, come when Anderson pauses to share an anecdote about Lolabelle, or even to show us a small piece of video starring the dog. Lolabelle was not just integral to Laurie Anderson’s creative process, joining her for long days in the studio, but also, adorably, a collaborator, learning to play music herself. As someone who lost his own pet earlier this year, a cat whom I had lived with for seventeen years, including a full decade of working at home every day, this has a particular emotional resonance with me. Such pets become essential to our day-to-day routine, a confidante, a constant presence. In making Heart of a Dog, Anderson is able to apply Buddhist philosophy to her grief: the Tibetan Book of the Dead instructs those left behind not to cry, as tears will only confuse the departing spirit. Thus, what the filmmaker shares are not mawkish remembrances, but joyous ones.

It’s hard not to wonder how much of the feeling here, though, is not just for Lolabelle, but for Lou Reed, Laurie Anderson’s long-term partner and husband, who passed away in 2013. Reed appears briefly in the background, and one of his songs graces the closing credits. Heart of a Dog is also dedicated to him. It seems impossible that much of what Lolabelle inspires in tribute here wouldn’t also be connected to the other loss. If so, then once again, this furry creature provides a smaller outlet to look toward something bigger.


This disc was provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.


Saturday, December 10, 2016

BUENA VISTA SOCIAL CLUB - FILMSTRUCK/CRITERION CHANNEL

This film, though not part of the physical Criterion collection, is available via the Criterion Channel on Filmstruck. The review below was originally written for DVDTalk.com in 2010.


Buena Vista Social Club was quite the phenomenon back in the late 1990s. It started as a Grammy Award-winning album put together by Ry Cooder, and then it was followed by an Oscar-nominated documentary by German director Wim Wenders. The endeavor began with Cooder traveling to Cuba in search of the origins of some music he had heard on a tape some time prior. In trying to bring together different people, he discovered a large group of nearly forgotten musicians and singers, all of them well into old age, who represented the country's lost musical past. The film was made to spotlight the personalities behind the music, as well as to document a gathering of the participating musicians for a concert at Carnegie Hall. The resulting public embracing of this particular type of music is something I think only comparable to the similar celebration of T-Bone Burnett's archival soundtrack for O Brother, Where Art Thou?.


Wenders, shooting on video, put together Buena Vista Social Club using interlocking footage from a variety of parallel tracks. He followed Cooder around Cuba, peeking into the recording studio and breaking off to interview some of the musicians. He tours their neighborhoods, capturing on-the-street glimpses of modern Cuban life, laying the artists' stories on top of the images. Each of the interviewees talks about how they got into music, establishing a common history: just about every one of them picked up an instrument as youngsters, usually as part of some family tradition. This led them to embrace well-known songs, as well as collaborative efforts to create new ones. Wenders cuts together impromptu performances and a cappella versions with bits from the studio and full-band efforts on stage. Most of the performers also talk about their instruments and how some of them are specific to Cuba.


For me, hearing the old stories is more fascinating than the music itself. I liked the songs, but actually wish they had either been put more front and center or they were more constant. Songs softly mixed in with the interviews would have created a real rhythm for the entire movie. That's a small complaint, though. There are some great tales about the fighting techniques of blind piano players, busking on the street, or the men bragging about their virility and the number of children they have (at 90, Compay Segundo has five kids and claims to be working on his sixth). One of my favorite sequences was seeing Rubén González play piano for a bunch of young ballerinas. The joy of music really came clear watching the little girls break form and just move according to how the sounds made them feel. It's also neat seeing these old guys go to New York for the first time. They have a sense of wonder that is rare these days.

Sadly, many of the musicians in this film have died in the decade-plus since Buena Vista Social Club was released. Segundo, González, Pio Leyva, Manuel "Puntillita" Licea, Anga Diaz, Orlando "Cachaito" López, and Ibrahim Ferrer have all passed on. Buena Vista Social Club was the right document at the right time, a chance for these talented individuals to take one more shot at sharing their gift with others. The movie could take on a melancholy air as a result of this. There is even one shot where González is looking for the Statue of Liberty, and he nonchalantly points past the World Trade Center. So much has changed since that night at Carnegie Hall, it would be easy to get wistful. Yet, the fire of the music remains, and as Ibrahim's final song in the movie suggests, it can't be extinguished.