Meeting in the Aisles

Film Review(s): Before Sunset

Posted in Film Reviews by le1gh on December 11, 2009

I found a couple of my reviews on the same film, Richard Linklater’s lovely Before Sunset. One is an 80-word capsule, the other a more involved discussion. Interesting to see which one feels more effective five years on.

And for the record, although I never outright say it and contrary to popular opinion, Before Sunrise, its predecessor, is my favourite. Must be a preference for naive youthful optimism over rueful thirty-something experience…

Ethan Hawke & Julie Delpy in Before Sunset

Before Sunset (2004)

Dir: Richard Linklater  Scr: Linklater, Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy

Stars: Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy.

Capsule Review:

The morning after the night before.
Hopelessly romantic film fan WLTM cute US guy and hot French girl, early 30s, to rekindle decade-old one-night love affair. Remember Vienna ’95? How about Paris ’04? Likes: walking, talking, politics, Nina Simone. Dislikes: guns, Bush, silence, regrets… Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy and director Richard Linklater have somehow recaptured the fragile magic of Before Sunrise in this real-time, beautifully bittersweet follow-up. Sure, it preaches to the converted, but indulge those passions and for once you’ll feel better in the morning.

Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy and Richard Linklater writing Before Sunset

Longer Review:

At the end of 1995’s Before Sunrise it wasn’t just the two nominal leads who felt the joy and pain of a fleeting romance. Since its low-key release, Richard Linklater’s twilight love story between an American backpacker and a Parisian traveler over a magical night in Vienna has become a genuine and growing cult item. Its heartfelt look at two young people tentatively feeling – and incessantly talking – their way through the confusions of life and love was worlds away from traditional Hollywood romantic comedies, with their tedious meet-cute, crack-wise and pair-up routine. The sense of something real and unpredictable lingered at the film’s climax, despite Ethan Hawke’s Jesse and Julie Delpy’s Celine promise to reunite six months later (neglecting to swap contact details didn’t exactly fill you with confidence). Nevertheless, and all box-office evidence to the contrary, this was one story where a new chapter was genuinely desired, even if a sequel seemed to go against everything that Before Sunrise stood for.

Yet here we all are. The adroitly titled Before Sunset picks up with Jesse and Celine nine years down the road. Jesse is in Paris to promote a new novel, based on that night in Vienna, when Celine turns up at the bookshop press conference. Reintroductions are a little awkward, conversation a little stilted and defensive, but gradually, as they wander through a Paris mercifully devoid of iconic tourist sights, Jesse and Celine seem to reconnect. We learn about what happened to the planned Viennese reunion and why; what life has held for each of them in the meantime (Jesse is unhappily married with a young son, Celine is an environmental activist drifting in and out of passionate but short-lived relationships); eventually we even light on the burning question – what will happen now they’ve finally found each other again?

Unfolding in real time before Jesse flies back to the US, Linklater’s deceptively simple shooting style focuses attention on Jesse and Celine even more exclusively than in the first film. Interesting too, how Before Sunrise’s luminous optimism – flashbacks cruelly show how Hawke’s boyish, fleshy features have been stretched taut by the passing years – has inevitably shifted into a more shadowy recognition of the darkness on the edge of every relationship, every uncertain choice made.

Written this time by the leads in collaboration with Linklater, the personal investment in character and storyline almost feels like therapy for the Hawke, Delpy and Linklater. Without doubt a degree of autobiography is invited; Hawke is indeed a published author and his well-documented split with Uma Thurman hardly resists reading between the lines that he wrote himself for his character trapped in a loveless marriage. Likewise Delpy has become known in France as a songwriter as much as an actress and her sweet, self-penned ballads bookend the film.

The enchanting thing about these films is that this voyeuristic element, while admittedly part of the appeal, never overwhelms the narrative. It’s the fictional equivalent to those ‘7Up’ documentaries that revisit the same set of people every seven years and you wonder why more filmmakers don’t explore this idea on film. Francois Truffaut and actor Jean-Pierre Leaud’s four ‘Antoine Doinel’ films (plus a short) from The 400 Blows to Love on the Run were a huge success, though Coppola and Pacino almost spoiled their Godfather legacy with a late, substandard third part. The ambiguous conclusion here leaves further adventures for Jesse and Celine very much open.

Is the film preaching to the converted? Although the flashbacks try to give a quick summing up of the story so far, without a doubt this is a film primarily for longtime fans. That’s not to say no one else is invited but it’s strange to think newcomers will enjoy the same sense of resonance and poignancy as those who’ve been dreaming about Vienna for nearly a decade.

‘What if you had a second chance with the one that got away?’ asks the tagline. Those not already smitten may be bemused by Linklater, Hawke and Delpy’s defiantly unconventional ongoing romance; but anyone who fell for them the first time will find Before Sunset impossible to resist.

Before Sunset Clip:

Film Review – ‘Bad Education’

Posted in Film Reviews by le1gh on November 25, 2009

Bad Education (2004)

Director / Screenplay: Pedro Almodóvar  Cinematography: José Luis Alcaine  Music: Alberto Iglesias

Stars: Gael Garcia Bernal, Fele Martinez, Daniel Gimenez-Cacho

* * * * *

A young film director is enticed by a script written by an old friend and based on their troubled boyhood experiences at a Catholic school. Autobiographically inspired tale from Spanish auteur Pedro Almodóvar.

So personal is the material that forms the basis for his latest sumptuous melodrama that Pedro Almodóvar apparently worked on the script for Bad Education on and off for over a decade. It shows. Every scene, every line, every frame seems highly polished, beautifully wrought, artistic inspiration coupled with the perspiration of dedicated craft. In the middle of a golden period following All About My Mother and the Oscar-winning Talk to Her, Almodóvar’s filmmaking appears effortless; it’s somewhat reassuring to discover that he actually has to put in the hours to make it seem so.

Not that everyone will find something to love in this updated, technicolour film noir. Almodóvar still weaves intricate soap operatics within his defiantly provocative milieu – what would ‘una pelicula de Almodóvar’ be without at least one unrequited gay relationship and the odd fragile transvestite or two? In fact, Bad Education is practically a primer to the director’s work, here filtered through the twin churches of Catholicism and cinema – repression and expression – subjects he’s always keenly studied.

If arrogant young filmmaking prodigy Enrique Caded (Martinez) is a veiled self-portrait by Almodovar, it’s not a flattering one. Enrique barely tolerates the sudden appearance of childhood schoolmate and wannabe actor, Ignacio (Bernal) until he reads Ignacio’s script ‘The Visit’. It reads as a memoir of their mutual schoolboy crush, quashed by the passions of their teacher Father Manolo (Gimenez-Cacho), himself consumed with desire for the young Ignacio. Here the script projects a future fantasy where transvestite performer Zahara (Bernal again), picks up and seduces a man who turns out to be his friend Enrique and returns to blackmail the ageing priest for sexually abusing the young Ignacio.

Intrigued, Enrique agrees to make the film, but refuses to cast Ignacio (who demands to be called ‘Angel’) as Zahara. Their spat leads to a series of revelations, past identity switches and crimes of passion, which reverberate into the present.

Almodóvar controls the film-within-a-film, flashbacks and escalating melodrama almost nonchalantly, spinning playful pastiche into genuine emotional depths. Jose Luis Alcaine’s lustrous images and Alberto Iglesias’ foreboding score complement the story admirably. There are superb performance too, notably a piquant cameo from Talk to Her lead Javier Camara as a flighty transvestite, Daniel Gimenez-Cacho’s tortured priest and the fearless Bernal, somehow playing both femme fatale and enfant terrible at the same time. Lack of obviously sympathetic characters may make the film harder to love than Almodóvar’s other recent efforts but the results are no less thought provoking.

Almodóvar’s superb run of form continues. He may have swotted up on the tropes and traits of film noir but Bad Education passes his own personal tests and high standards with flying colours.

Film Review – ‘Volver’

Posted in Film Reviews by le1gh on November 25, 2009

Volver (2007)

Director / Screenplay: Pedro Almodóvar  Cinematography: José Luis Alcaine  Music: Alberto Iglesias

Stars: Penelope Cruz, Carmen Maura, Lola Dueñas

* * * * 1/2

Three generations of women feel the pull of the ghosts of the past – quite literally with the return of their supposedly long-deceased mother. Fantasy drama from Pedro Almodóvar starring Penelope Cruz.

“Volver” means “to return” or “coming back” in Spanish and, fittingly, director Pedro Almodóvar’s sixteenth feature revisits many of the themes and ideas that fans of his rich melodramas have come to love. As with many of his films, women, whether on the verge of a nervous breakdown or not, dominate. Volver is all about Almodóvar’s mothers, sisters and daughters, his overwhelming respect for their defiance of life’s travails and feckless men.

The film also marks the return of former muse Carmen Maura, making her first appearance for Almodóvar in some seventeen years. What this expert blend of surreal fantasy, buoyant comedy and poignant drama clearly isn’t, though, is a return to form. Almodóvar’s been at the top of his game for around a decade now, effortlessly reeling off work of the highest quality. In that sense, Volver is more continuation than revival.

Raimunda (Cruz) is a feisty, working-class Madrid wife and mother, supporting her unemployed husband and adolescent daughter Paula (Cobo), while clashing with her older sister, hairdresser Sole (Dueñas), and still finding the time to care for elderly ailing aunt Paula (Lampreave) still resident in the family’s small Manchegan home village. The eastern wind that blows through town is said to cause the region’s high rate of insanity and also fanned the flames that took Raimunda and Sole’s parents lives in a house fire years earlier.

In rapid progression, Raimunda’s world is shaken. Aunt Paula dies, though the village women seem nonchalantly convinced that Raimunda’s dead mother Irene had been helping Paula through her final days. Closer to home, Raimunda discovers that her daughter Paula has been regularly abused by her father and stabbed him to death in self-defence. Now Raimunda has to deal with the disposal of one dead body and the possible resurrection of another.

Such summarizing does little justice to the dense, detailed expertise of Almodóvar’s story and its nuanced handling. Genre-blending – and bending – is nothing new for the maker of Bad Education or Kika – but the way he makes the supernatural part and parcel of the everyday here is elegant simplicity itself. The hold that the dead have over the living is neatly established from the film’s opening shot of women diligently scrubbing and tending to tombstones in a wind-swept cemetery. At the same time, the baroque flourishes of earlier Almodóvar “women’s pictures” are largely absent (only one prostitute and no transsexuals?!), the focus on a more quietly impassioned, perhaps even more moving rendering of the joys – and pain – of family.

In a star turn directly descended from the golden age of Joan Crawford, Bette Davis and Anna Magnani, Cruz delivers an uncompromising, dominant performance worlds away from her Hollywood eye-candy turns – not that José Luis Alcaine’s glowing cinematography isn’t permanently seduced by her voluptuous sexuality. But to Cruz’s – and Almodóvar’s – credit, Raimunda fits neatly into an ensemble of stellar female performances. Maura is magnetic on her return in a key role and Blanco Portillo’s Agustina, a cancer-ridden family friend, also deserves special mention. And to show some semblance of gender equality, regular collaborator Alberto Iglesias contributes another fine, sprightly score.

Thought-provoking, heart-rending, life-affirming – essential Almodóvar.

Film Review – ‘Broken Embraces’

Posted in Film Reviews by le1gh on November 25, 2009

Broken Embraces (2009)

Director / Screenplay: Pedro Almodóvar  Cinematography: Rodrigo Prieto  Music: Alberto Iglesias

Stars: Penelope Cruz, Lluis Homar, Blanca Portillo

Rating:            * * * *

Illicit love, dark secrets, self-reflexive cinephilia and a drop-dead gorgeous Penelope Cruz – it could only be Pedro Almodóvar.

The latest homage by Spain’s greatest-living auteur to his favourite latter-day leading lady, the movies and, well, himself, starts with through-the-viewfinder, grainy shots of Cruz and co-star Lluis Homar on a film set preparing for a scene. In the press notes, Almodóvar reveals that this is genuine rehearsal footage, with neither actor aware they were being filmed. If you find this a creepy violation of the artistic process, then Broken Embraces is not for you. But if you get a secret thrill from a director mining his own relationships and work in pursuit of another immaculately upholstered melodrama, then brace yourself for another of the maestro’s vice-like, taffeta-soft clinches.

The web of relationships this time out, straddling two timelines – the mid-1990s and late noughties – involves, in no particular order: writer-director Mateo (Homar), in earlier times a high-flying, libidinous filmmaker, then latterly a blind recluse who takes the name Harry Caine; his agent Judit (Portillo) an acid-tongued single mother (warning!) and her son / Harry’s assistant Diego (Novas); millionaire tycoon Ernesto Martel (Gomez); and his PA-turned-mistress Lena (Cruz), who yearns to be an actress and gets a role in Mateo’s latest comedy, bankrolled by her lover. Martel also insists that his semi-estranged, closeted son Ernesto Jr (Ochandiano) hang out on the film set, documenting everything for an ultra-personal ‘Making Of.’ Naturally he captures the growing attraction between Mateo and Lena, unleashing passion, violence and ultimately tragedy.

This doesn’t begin to encompass even half of the twists and turns in Almodóvar’s labyrinthine story, which seems to plough into major emotional signposts – Betrayal! Grief! Revenge! – like a drunk driver nailing traffic cones. It’s meaty, heady stuff, which, constantly probing the duality of filmmaking and behind-the-scenes shooting, turns into less a hall of mirrors than one giant mirrorball, dazzling, reflecting and fragmenting Almodóvar’s usual flamboyant predilections.

Broken Embraces is effectively a melodrama / film noir hybrid, as if he spliced the negatives of Talk to Her and Bad Education on one giant art deco moviola editing machine. Add in the habitual movie references – Sirk, Rosellini and co – to Mateo’s film-within-a-film, Girls and Suitcases, which, when finally revealed, is clearly a revamping of a certain Almodóvar candy-coloured 80s comedy and it’s not just cineastes who might be on the verge of a nervous breakdown trying to keep up with all the references.

So yes, it’s a hermetically contained meta-movie; a deftly homemade, origami-like envelope, sealed with Almodóvar’s own lipstick kiss and mailed to himself. And yes, the danger of navel-gazing is probably more pronounced than ever (though Almodóvar’s always had one eye on his crotch). At times, it can all get a little too cute: when Cruz lip-syncs her own onscreen confession, or when Ernesto Jr turns up in the 2008 storyline, announcing himself as ‘Ray X’ (X-Ray, geddit?), the balance tips from smart to clever-clever.

But, what ultimately overrides these over-elaborate flourishes are Almodóvar’s abiding passion for, and belief in, cinema and how it impacts on real people and genuine emotions. He may dress up Cruz as Audrey Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe, but he breaks her like her own fully rounded, complex woman. We can re-edit our own lives, he suggests, and if Almodóvar’s leading by example, his own concoctions are simply too fun, too moving and too inventive (Diego and Mateo casually toss off a high-concept vampire plot that Hollywood would bite their arm off to have thought of) to deny.

Almodóvar through the looking glass: smart, sexy, solipsistic and yet still effortlessly enjoyable.